Like many married women, I had high hopes for our annual, extended-family vacation—with my siblings. We would roast marshmallows and take candid pictures of the kids kayaking, and sliding at Splish Splash. The cousins would get along. We would get along. And most hopefully, my husband would not be a curmudgeon.
He resisted the vacation from the get-go, unconvinced of its hedonistic potential. That we would be vacationing on the eastern end of Long island, a mere drive from our own suburb didn’t bother him; he agreed that it was silly to fly in summer when we lived near excellent beaches; and as they came, this particular blue and white shack in Wading River was perfect, in close proximity to the wineries and farm stands. It was not even, truth be told, that he was generally a curmudgeon (though he had exhibited curmudgeonly tendencies on our extended vacation last year in the Northfork).
His main gripe was that I change around my siblings—leaning, as it were, toward their viewpoints — and away from his—which irked him in a new way.
It is true that I am easily swayed. In the bell curve of life, I am in the middle on most things, but around them, I am easily pulled left. On my own, I will sign online petitions to save Orcas from captivity, but around them, I can be persuaded to march into protest on the spot. While grocery shopping by myself, I will predominantly throw organic items into my cart, but around them, I will soon agree that even thick skinned watermelon has its evils. (The roots of my ameobic personality — absorbing as she goes—is clearly found amidst my many middle child issues).
Though I assured him that I would stay centered (aka, not ignore him), two glasses of organic wine later, and I found myself captivated by my brother and sister on the their updates regarding alternative medicine, as well non-GMO, gluten-free, dairy- free, humanely-raised foods, not to mention the “Law of Attraction.” This, while my engineer, carnivore, Cheetos-eating, husband (who, by the way, can eat anything with zero consequences, unlike me who needs to take a nap after eating preservatives) not only began to morph into a grouch, but a combative one at that.
Really? Were we really planning on writing ourselves checks for $1,000,000 and putting them on vision boards? Really? Was Monsanto truly trying to poison the world, or were they just trying to make money, like any other capitalistic corporation?
Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was the unobstructed view of the sound—in the way that staring into the wide abyss of sea can offer a larger perspective– but now it was my turn to be annoyed in a new way. Was it really so terrible to question how modern wheat was processed? Get over it.
We went to bed sourly, feeling like the beginning of some kind of end had started. Years of cumulative nothings breaking like waves.
When we woke, a plague of black flies had swarmed in, making the vacation seem cursed, in the way these things happen. No sooner did we tilt our beach chairs back when Sting! Sting! Sting! they stabbed us with their little black swords. (As I sprayed my daughter’s bites down with vinegar, I couldn’t help but wonder if our off-kilter energy had invited them. Were they not the physical manifestations of our digs toward each other?)
Then my brother lost his wedding ring. We feigned nonchalance, but felt its symbolic punch. Soon he and his wife were quarreling over certain tones each took with the other while my sister and her husband argued over diaper changes. The cousins picked up on it—bickering over skipped turns in Candyland, or doll sharing. That was the worst of it—feeling that the children, like the landscape, had absorbed our negativity and become extensions of our arguments.
Determined to recover, we took the kids to the Riverhead Aquarium and then to La Plage, an upscale restaurant, for dinner. By dessert, I noticed that everyone seemed to have overcome their petty issues. Except for me and Jon.
Neither of us yielding.
A relationship expert had once told me that it was not the fighting that could undo a marriage so much as the inability for either spouse to make a successful “repair attempt.” He left in the morning. And I let him.
We’d had our differences before. But this felt different. Our marriage was only eight years young; if bickering felt big to me, him leaving in the middle of a vacation felt like the end of something huge.
I continued to stare into the sound, feeling alone at sea. Had I chosen poorly? Would I have been better off with, say, an organic farmer? Or just an easier, breezier person? Our opposing personalities that had been fun in those early phases of marriage (in what I imagined as our own version of “The Missing Piece Meets The Big O”)– I was artistic, he was scientific, I was impulsive, he was methodical, I was airy, he was grounded—seemed suddenly, in the blinding heat of that summer, like deal breakers.
I walked to the front yard with my six-year-old, Julia. A row of pastel bicycles sat neatly slotted in their rack. A bike ride would be fun. No sooner had that though appeared, did another. Bad idea. There was no child seat, but there was a magazine rack…and I had ridden on handlebars as a child…and we would go slowly. Still bad, said that second voice. It was Jon’s worry wart voice inside my head, I realized. And I resented it.
She rested her pink Crocs on the metal nuts at the center of the spokes and held my hips, as instructed. We glided slowly. “This is fun, Mom!”
And then came the piercing, “Mom!!!!!!!” no parent wants to hear. I stopped.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I told her, undoing her Croc gently from the spokes and pulling her off the rack. But it wasn’t OK. There was chewed pink rubber and there was blood, and what looked like a hole in her ankle. I scooped her up and ran…
My siblings moved slowly. “Take it easy,” Greg said. “Take a breath,” my sister said. But it wasn’t time for meditation. “I need your keys,” I said. “I need to go!”
Lauren jumped behind the wheel and drove to Peconic Medical Bay, an enormous building of glass. We followed signs toward emergency (which read “bad mother” to me). Jon listened through the phone receiver and heard “magazine rack” and “kind of like a foot rest” and cut through all the things he could have said with, “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” As the orthopedic surgeon explained that they needed to sedate her to clean the wound, Jon arrived, neither chastising nor comforting. But he was there– an anchor in the rough– and it was suddenly enough.
“I’m sorry I let you leave,” I told him as we sat in the cool sterility waiting for the sedation to wear off.
“I’m sorry I left,” he said. It was a given that this hospital trip would have been avoided had he stayed. But wasn’t it also a given that he might never make vacation plans if it weren’t for me—or that he ate healthier because of me, or that his life, in general was richer and fuller because of me? Our opposition rounded each other out—when we embraced it.
“I admit I eat healthier,” he said. “Though I don’t know why flax crackers are necessary. Can’t we have any normal food in our pantry?…
…“Shhh,” I said. “Let’s focus on Julia now.” Another thing I was learning: some arguments I would never win, so it was better to shut them down. That, and maybe a “fun family vacation” was not really possible with such an eccentric group—or at least not within the confines of 1500 square feet. I made a mental note to get separate hotel rooms the following summer.
A week later, as I readied Julia for camp in her bedazzled orthotic shoe, she told me she had something to confess, though she worried I’d be “really mad.” “No matter what it is, I can never be that mad,” I said.“You can tell me anything.”
“Well, I kind of put my foot in the wheel to see what it would feel like,” she said, scrunching her nose.
Anything except that.
“Well, it was my fault too,” I said, seizing the opportunity to exemplify owning responsibility for one’s actions.
“Oh, I know it was,” she said, half Jon’s daughter.
I laughed, suddenly grateful for the whole glitch– and grateful that I could recognize a glitch when I saw one. Because as my 9th wedding anniversary approached, something told me this was not the beginning of an end but the beginning of a beginning….