So I’ve got all this neglected content from the journey, you know. And I’m weaving it into the book, seen from the rear view mirror now, and some of this material will make the cut and some of it, well, we’ll see.
I’ve been juggling a freelance job, a part-time job, plus nights and weekends at the Webster University library. A lovely, elderly Chinese man and I occupy the same two tables on the fourth floor where the rituals from the road have now been replaced by the rituals of writing about the road. Night after night it goes like this: stop for coffee, park a block away, lug the backpack up four flights of stairs, (the only exercise I’m getting these days) turn on the table lamp, unpack my laptop, my journal, my favorite blue ink pen, my mother’s white bandana, my snack, sit down and fall asleep. It happens more often than I care to admit.
Sometimes, when I just can’t fight it, I’ll curl up in the corner in one of the winged-back chairs where the other kids sleep and I’ll catnap for fifteen minutes or so, then slam down the coffee that is now stone cold and frequently, actually get some writing done. The library is open until midnight and the grey-haired Asian man, with his stacks of books and spiral notebooks, and sometimes three empty packages of Famous Amos cookies from the vending machine by the end of the night, he and I always smile and nod at each other, international code for “you here again?” But we do not speak.
I’m dying to know what he’s working on because whatever it is, he is hand writing it! But we don’t talk to one another because I don’t speak Chinese, and from what I’ve heard in whispered pleasantries between him and folks he apparently knows, he doesn’t speak very much English. Besides that, it’s the library.
But from my writer’s perch on the 4th floor where, among other things, I spend too much time staring at other people, I’ve had this issue nagging me – my hosts. My poor abandoned, unrecognized, hospitable, lovely hosts, whom I felt like I had walked away from like a big horse and had failed to properly acknowledge. I will attempt to make up for that now.
Over the course of eight weeks on the road, I traveled through twenty-one states, thirty nine major cities, drove 8,600 miles, spent 14 days in 100-degree-plus weather, hit only four rain showers, zero deer, zero flat tires, zero engine stalls, zero moving traffic violations (we’re not gonna talk about parking tickets and toll booths) and zero health issues! My worst medical problem was three mosquito bites, I believe I got in Texas, which, to quote a great line from the In Laws, “They were so big, they could carry off small children,” except Peter Falk was talking about tsetse flies and not mosquitoes.
Well, anyway, the bites got infected, with big, welts, like pink marshmallows on the back of my leg. I stayed overnight in fourteen different houses, plus fifteen different hotels. The hotels, if you can really call Motel 6 a “hotel,” were good because I could write uninterrupted, (until the maid came and banged on the door for the third time) Libby could sleep on the bed and I could throw my shit in the floor and not worry about it. Some of my favorite accommodations included motor courts, like this, straight out of a 1950’s accordion-fold souvenir book.
The houses were good because I got to eat food from a plate instead of a box, with flatware instead of plastic ware. I was free to enjoy all the luxuries a home provides; real coffee, milk in the fridge, and a clothes dryer that doesn’t require quarters. And instead of the cold, metal clank of the dead bolt in the slot, the last sound I’d hear at night was the reassuringly normal hum of the dishwasher. It sounded like home.
Do you remember what it felt like, when you were a child, and no matter what kind of chaos might have been going on in your house, (or perhaps not, I guess not everybody had a duck-and-cover childhood like mine) do you remember how good it felt to go to sleep knowing there were other grown-ups there?
It felt safe. It was comforting to know there was another layer between you and disaster. There was somebody else to turn off the lights, set the timer on the coffee pot, get the dog in, call the fire department if the drapes caught on fire or the pipes burst. There was somebody else on duty to walk the floors waiting for headlights to splash in the driveway, somebody else to plunge the toilet, take out the trash, or scoop up the dead possum off the grass before the dog rolled in it.
You can tell I know too much about this and I’m sure a shrink could have a field day with my apparent residual psychosis of being a single parent for the last 5,110 days and nights. I’m just saying. It was a luxury, a throwback to my quasi-protected youth, falling asleep with somebody else manning the guard shack.
It was also a privilege, something I have not talked about nearly enough in this discourse to date. It was an absolute privilege to be invited back stage to the daily rhythm and flow of so many wonderful families. In case I failed to express my gratitude when I was there, thank you. Thank you, again, my wonderful hosts.
These locational vignettes I was so fortunate to observe were sweet and inspiring. From the couple whose kids have flown the coop and so did they, selling a huge family home in St. Louis, trading it in for a sleek new condo in the heart of Chicago; to my journalist friends in Philadelphia who are in the thick of parenting two elementary school aged kids; to my cousins in Texas whose kids are grown and they’re enjoying the country life with the dogs and the donkeys; to my brother-in-law who retired from the Navy and is raising race horses on eighty acres in Northern Virginia, I was an eager pupil in a sociology field trip, taking copious notes on the enriching and intimate segments of real life I was granted permission to observe.
And chief among my findings: the institution of marriage is alive and well in this country, at least the households in which I lodged for the night. Okay, never mind that in half these households the couples were on their second or third go-around of holy matrimony, matters not, I saw wedded bliss.
It was so good to see people who really love each other, the ease and familiarity they enjoy which comes from knowing they belong to somebody. So many little kindnesses — making the other a sandwich, finding their car keys, laughing at their stories, bringing them a glass of water up to bed. The routine, the plans, somebody to hold in the middle of the night. I stayed with newlyweds, (my son and his wife) to long-time weds (my friends Bob and Pam) to beat-the-odds weds (my niece and her husband who married very young) to multi-weds, (no need to go there) to wish-they-could weds, my friends Sonja and Roberta.
I even spent the night at my first ex-husband’s house in Phoenix, with him and the wife who worked out better than I did. They are the nicest people! And they have great kids, both grown, a lovely home with a brand-new remodeled kitchen and a stupendous saltwater pool in the back.
Which leads me, of course, to ponder, “what’s wrong with me?”
I tried not to let it make me feel strange. I tried not to acknowledge that the guy down the hall, sleeping with his wife, was the same guy I’d married at nineteen. I tried not to dwell on being out on my own, not for a few weeks, but fourteen years. “What is wrong with me ?” the voice whispered in the middle of the night to the woman with her dog in the guest room.
Time goes by so quickly. I’d always thought I’d find the time to fall in love, after the kids were out of school, once I lost twenty pounds, once I sold a book, when I wasn’t poor anymore.
I am nothing if not an optimist, my darlings.
So, where is mine?
You think about these things on the road. As your eyes are bathed in watercolor brushstrokes of terracotta, gold, browns, blues and whites, dazzling bright, piled skyscraper high atop the desert floor, you think about one voice that can make your heart race. You think about a tender touch, which can soothe you, then set you on fire. You think about how vast the world is and how two hearts can occupy one void. You think about these things, with grateful eyes over endless skies, the loving, lingering light of summer.
You think of these things, on brittle, bright November morns.