Posted by: patti | August 31, 2010

RoadTrip Eve

My parents did not want me to make this move, and they are still struggling to understand why I am now so far away.  When I first told them I was considering it, my father and I had one conversation that consisted only of him saying: “Don’t go. Don’t go? Don’t go… Don’t go! Don’t go.”

But as soon as I told them my mind was set, that I was going, “Don’t go” turned into “How can we help?”

When I told them how I was moving, shipping most of my things and driving cross-country on my own, they, to put it mildly, freaked.  Every time I talked to Mom, she added a new bad thing to the list of very bad things that could happen to a single woman on her own on the road.   Every time I talked to Dad, he added another landmark to the list of things I absolutely could not miss on my trip.  I should not have been surprised when, about a month before I was set to leave, they took me out to dinner and sprang their idea on me:  They would do the cross-country drive with me.

This was before I had finalized the Ocho purchase, so one of their major concerns was the stunning lack of reliability displayed by Ladybug.  They had been lobbying hard for me to fly to California and buy a new car once I got here, even going so far as offering to help me pay for this option, but I wouldn’t budge on needing to do the drive.

So they had it all figured out.  The week I was planning to leave, my mother had to work, so Dad and I would leave together, take the route I’d mapped out, and Mom would fly to meet us in California.  They’d help me get settled, and then they’d turn around and drive back to New York, on the route Dad had mapped out.  Or I could postpone my departure a week, and we could all of us drive together.

I almost dropped my fork.  I thought it best to order another glass of wine before Tourettesing my gut reaction: over my dead body.

I tried to explain how important it was for me to do the drive by myself.  I needed that time alone, just me and the empty road, to rebuild and repair my sense of self.  I needed the time to think, to plan, to grow, to build my confidence that I would be just fine on my own.  How could I do this with my mommy and daddy in the car with me?

I also tried, gently, to explain that there was no way the three of us would make it to California.  We would kill each other before we hit the Mississippi, possibly before we got out of New York State.  My mother and I are terrible passengers.   You can be the safest, most reliable driver in the world; maybe you’ve won awards for what an awesome driver you are.  It really doesn’t matter:  if you’ve got either of us in the car, just let us drive.  It will be less stressful for everyone involved.  It’s a control thing.  I’m sorry.

And our traveling styles are completely different.  My mother likes to go and go and go and only stop when she gets to her destination.  She will stop midroute only if the gas light is on or if someone’s bladder is threatening the upholstery.  A friend of the Little Brother once announced from the backseat that she was feeling really nauseous, and my mother moved into the right lane and whirred down the backseat windows.  (She did slow down when Clare began yawking out the window.)  This is how my mom was raised, though:  as a kid, there was no stopping on family car trips.  “I hafta go to the bathroom” was answered with “Look at the birds.”  The thing is, if my father doesn’t eat every three hours, he gets cranky, so mom has a system to keep him happy — she always has snacks in the car for long trips, and she always knows exactly how far they are from one of their preferred road trip break spots.

Maybe it was because we all had plenty of wine, but this dinner did not devolve into a shouting match.   It was a fun conversation, actually, teasing each other about our driving habits and remembering car trips we’ve taken together.   But they did have every angle covered:  Fine, they said, you drive your car and we’ll follow behind you in our car.

I was firm.  I was going to stop whenever and wherever I wanted, and see what I wanted to see.  I was not going to count pigeons to distract me if I wanted to take a pee break.  There was no way I was going to do the Cracker Barrel tour of North America.  And they were not driving with me.  They could follow along if they wanted, but I was going by myself and following my own agenda.

In the following weeks, they kept trying to change my mind about the drive.  I got Ocho, which settled part of the argument because I now had a reliable car, but it gave them a new angle: I was going to be too much of a target in such a visible, recognizable car.

My father sat me down and explained why they were so worried about me.  “There are a lot of crazy people out there, and you are just so naïve,” he said.  “They will take advantage of you.”

This made me laugh.  I’ve traveled all over Europe, mostly on my own.  I’ve lived in Dublin, in Washington, DC.  And I lived in Manhattan for almost seven years, ok, not on my own, and on the Upper East Side, but that should still count for something. And I grew up in Queens, for crying out loud.  How much crazier can people in the rest of this country be?  I know I’ll always be his little girl, but come on, how naïve does he really think I am?

My father often teases me that I am a “bleeding heart liberal.”  We don’t discuss politics or religion — we’re never going to change the other’s mind, and we agree enough on the important things in life to not have to wrangle over details.  But his jokes about my supposed bleeding heart stem from what he knows about how I interact with people.  I do have a tendency to help strangers, to open my door and my wallet readily for people who seem to need that help; and yes, I have been taken advantage of.  Remembering some of these encounters, and realizing that he only knows about half of them, I stopped laughing.

Other people were also expressing concerns about my taking this trip by myself.  I was told how lonely the roads in the West could be.  I was warned how easy it was to run out of gas, especially when crossing the desert.  I was reminded over and over of the dangers facing a woman traveling alone.  I’m not stupid, and I know what to do when I am tired or distracted, and I’m not careless, and I had no plans to broadcast that I was a woman traveling alone.  But as much as I wanted that lonely road all to myself (“I do it!”), I started to wonder how smart it was to go it alone.

My route, and the entire RoadTrip schedule, was built around three days I needed to be in Chicago to finish a project.  The Pilot’s current job is also in Chicago, and it looked like his schedule could be made to overlap with mine.  He offered to do some of the drive with me from Chicago to California; how much would depend on his schedule and my tolerance for a coPilot.  I wasn’t sure about this decision – I am not good at wait-and-see plans and I really wasn’t sure I wanted anyone at all with me on the trip.  But my family and friends breathed a collective sigh of relief when I announced that I’d have someone with me for at least part of the way.

The days before the RoadTrip were positively awful.  I was still weak from being sick and the antibiotics made me terribly nauseous.  My apartment was approximately the same temperature as the surface of the sun.  I somehow, miraculously, finished my work for the Puzzle Factory, but I couldn’t relax:  I had four days to say goodbye to everyone and to pack up my entire apartment.

And then Mom and I had a bad fight the Sunday before I was due to leave.  It was a communications breakdown, a misunderstanding that was launched to epic proportions because it happened so close to my departure date.  As a very wise friend said to me, “It’s easier to be angry than sad.”

The movers were due on Thursday; it had been my plan to start the RoadTrip as soon as the truck was gone.  I changed my plan, though, because I could not bear to leave with Mom so upset, with things so unsettled.  With the new plan, I’d spend Thursday night with my parents and hit the road Friday morning. This turned out to be a smart idea for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that the first sleep I got that week was Thursday night.

The movers were due between 8 and 9 am; I did not have a lot of stuff and I assumed they’d be done by noon, the latest.  This was reasonable, but incorrect, as assumptions go.  They arrived at 10:30.  They left at 2:15.  They were, as I have said, the worst movers in the history of movers.

The foreman reminded me of Alex from Everything Is Illuminated.  Not only was he unequivocally tall, he was, he informed me, “Best foreman in business.”  The second guy was big and thick: Nikolai from Six Feet Under.  Remember Larry Darryl and Darryl?  Mover number three was My Other Brother Darryl.

Alex informed me that the estimate the moving company had given me was way off (“This number, miss, this number needs to be argumented by four”) based on what he could see.  Math and I are not friends, but it quickly became apparent that he was right.  The cost-per-square-foot was very low, but the square feet had been calculated incorrectly.  And Alex kept finding things to charge me extra for (“Miss, this glass bookcase, she is old, we wrap very well, we charge you miss, not too much, but we charge for wrapping”), so he and I bickered nonstop while Nikolai and Darryl pitched my things in the truck.  Nikolai tried to make peace at one point:  “He is best foreman in business,” he advised me, to which Alex replied, “Yes, yes, I already tell her this.”

While they were busy destroying my things, I had to clean the apartment in order to get my full security deposit back.  And so I was scrubbing the stove when I heard a very loud craaaaack.  Darryl had been taping a blanket around the coffee table legs, and he had leaned too hard, and it snapped under the pressure.  Our eyes met, and we shared a “Shit, that broke, didn’t it?” moment.  Alex, though, was not alarmed at all.  “Why you wrap table?  Is only Ikea table.  Take apart, put in boxes, like this, easier, see?”

Darryl and I were both like, no, dude, that’s broken, but Alex kept putting pieces of table in boxes.  “Miss, no, miss, is no broken.  Better in boxes, safer, miss, see?  All fine, easier, miss.” And then he added two boxes to the growing list of itemized charges.  Oh, hi, Insult! Have you met Injury?

Because I was too busy cleaning the apartment, I missed some of the details of what they did, things I only discovered when my stuff finally arrived in California.  I have three very tall, very well made, very expensive bookcases; they yanked the fixed shelves out of them and boxed them all up.  And yes, of course, he charged me for the packing and the boxes.  All three bookcases were damaged in transit because the fixed shelves are fixed to give them stability and structure.

The Pilot was able to rebuild the table and the bookcases, and I have filed a claim.  But those two missing boxes are still missing, and the broken things are still broken, and I still get very worked up just thinking about it.

It was a scorching hot, chaotic day, and I made sure they had plenty of water.  And in spite of everything, I tipped them more than I should have, probably, but they did work hard, even if they didn’t work well.  Dad might be right about me, I’m afraid.

The night before, to minimize confusion during the move, I had packed Ocho with my RoadTrip stuff and the things I really couldn’t afford to lose (my writing and my laptops).  So, once the movers were gone and the apartment was clean enough, there was nothing left to do but hand in the apartment keys and drive away.  I took a moment to consider the empty space.  It was the only home I’ve ever had all to myself.  I expected to feel something:  affection, sadness, regret, nostalgia, peace, pride, I don’t know.   Something.  But I was too worn out to feel anything at all.  I had not slept in days.  I had been overcharged and outwitted by three very dumb movers and I might not ever get back the books and things that had made this apartment a home.  I was homeless and unemployed.   And I did not know if my mother was going to speak to me when I saw her.

Now, I knew when I left New Haven that I was running low on gas.  But I wasn’t worried, because Ocho has a diesel engine, which means it gets fantastic gas mileage, plus I knew I had plenty of options for refueling on 95.  (Being a diesel also means Ocho is still not registered by the State of California, and trust me when I tell you this is another essay in the making.)  By fantastic gas mileage, I mean the neighborhood of 55-60 miles per gallon, which is pretty nice neighborhood.  But I was distracted or tired or just plain careless, apparently, because I was on the Whitestone Bridge when the fuel buzzer started going off.  Volkswagens have a lot of really neat safety features, and they have a lot of really annoying safety features.   Really neat:  it is impossible to lock your keys in a Volkswagen.  Really annoying: the air-raid siren that sounds when you are low on fuel.  The Pilot tells me that if it were a plane, this kind of alarm would be called a “Bitching Betty,” which makes it sound more charming than it actually is.

I didn’t know Ocho well enough yet to know how much gas I had left.  I was on the Hutch, on the approach to the Whitestone Bridge, when Bitching Betty started bitching.  If Ocho was like Ladybug, then I had two gallons left, which meant over a hundred miles and I had nothing to worry about.  Unless, of course, I hit traffic, which, of course, I promptly did.  It took me a very stressful forty-five minutes to cross the Whitestone and get to the first exit to find a gas station, approximately three miles from when the alarm sounded.

And of course, because I was desperate, I had to take the first station that had diesel, which was a BP gas station, and their diesel was $3.59 a gallon.  These two details had me tied in knots.  For starters, diesel is the easiest and cheapest fuel to produce and should be a lot cheaper than regular gas, not 40-50 cents MORE a gallon.  And I’ve been staying away from BP stations for obvious Gulf-related reasons.  I told myself that the franchisee needed the business, and his crime was the price he was charging, not the death of eleven men and an ecosystem.  And then, because I was distracted or tired or just plain careless, I did something wrong when pumping the gas and managed to cover myself with overpriced diesel fuel.

And Ocho sucked down 13.9 gallons into his 14.5-gallon tank.  Yes.  My big RoadTrip, my big “I do it!” adventure.  It almost began with me running out of gas on the Whitestone freaking Bridge.

I got to my parents’ place almost three hours later than I had planned.  I was waiting at the traffic light to make the left turn into their complex when I saw my mom heading toward me in her car, arriving home from work.  I meeped, she waved, and I pulled in behind her.  I helped her carry some bags into the condo.  We were a little uncertain with each other, but what we were sharing was that hesitant awkwardness that said, Look, we were both wrong and I’m really sorry for my part in it and talking about will probably start the fight all over again, so let’s pretend it never ever happened.  And that’s what we did.  We made brownies, talked about the trip, about work, about her friends, everything but what we’d done and said to hurt each other.

She went to a dinner party that night, and Dad took me out to a really nice Italian place.  The restaurant was only a few blocks from my grandparents, so I called them and asked if I could stop in to say goodbye.  It was late for them, after nine, but Gramma answered and said I could come in for a quick hug, but she was already in her pajamas, so Dad had to stay in the car.  Which was so cute, and so her, that I was laughing and crying even before I went in.  My goodbye with them was short and so, so sweet.  They told me they are proud of me.  And Gramma repeated something she’d said to me when I first told them I was going: “You’ve got two strong legs under you.  You’ll be fine.”

I’ve been quite tired and impossibly distracted and just plain careless, but my Gramma is not wrong.  Some days, her words alone keep me up on these legs, but that’s enough.

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