The Slippery Year
By Melanie Gideon
Hardcover, 224 pages
List price: $24.95
Whenever my husband casually says, "Hey, hon, come take a look at this Web site," I know it's going to cost me. All of our largest purchases have been preceded by my being summoned to his computer in this manner. So when he says this a few weeks before his birthday, I knew it's really going to cost me, and I don't mean just financially.
"Check this out," he says, pointing. "Isn't it cool?"
I glance at the Ford E-350 on his screen. It looks like the sort of vehicle that shuttles retirees to the local mall. "Kind of," I reply.
He frowns and says, "It's not just any old van. It's a camper. It would be perfect for us. You said you wanted to see the West."
I do want to see the West, in theory anyway. In fact, seeing the West was one of the reasons we moved with our nine-year-old son, Ben, to California. But travel takes so much planning, and as I've gotten older I'm increasingly less willing to tolerate discomfort: the crowds, the traffic, everybody trying to reach the same place at the same time.
His fingers pound at the keyboard. "It's got captain's seats."
"What's a captain's seat?"
"That means it's very, very comfortable."
"Nice," I say, getting back to my book.
Ten minutes later, he says, "I'm going to get one for us."
"Us?" I say.
"Yes, us—you know, you and me?"
The subtext being: Aren't you lucky you married a man who wants to buy a family van as his midlife-crisis vehicle instead of a Porsche Carrera GT?
The good news is he finds a used van. The bad news is it's in South Dakota. So he pays somebody to fly to South Dakota, pick up the van and drive it back. "It's an amazing deal," he says. "It only has fifteen thousand miles on it, and the woman is a motivated seller." Once the van is on its way, my husband tells me the truth. The woman was not the original owner; her son was, or had been. He bought the van to go kayaking in the most untouched places. Then one day he went out in his boat and never returned. This van delivered him to his death. And now his heartbroken mother had sold it to us.
"You have to give it back," I tell him. "He died in it."
"He didn't die in it. He died in his kayak."
"Well, he might as well have died in the van," I say. "He was in the van right before he died."
My husband sighs.
I want him to be happy, us to be happy. It seems every day we hear that another couple has decided to call it quits. More often than not in our circle, the wife leaves the husband. When talking divorce with these women—mothers, like me, of school-age children—we speak in a shorthand that ricochets around in my head like the rhymes of Dr. Seuss.
They say: Feeling dead. Dead in bed. Too much snore. There's got to be more.
I say: Turn his head. His head in bed. You'll have no more. No more snore.
Now, there are plenty of good reasons to end a marriage, but each time I hear of another impending divorce I can't help but reevaluate my own marriage. Do I want more? Does he? And how do I know if what I have is enough?
When the van finally arrives, I realize it is not the same as the one in that first picture I saw on the Web site. This is no ordinary van for transporting the elderly. It's a 4x4 Rock Crawler version, with tinted windows, a roof rack and a camper extension that explodes out the top. Built to climb rock gorges and traverse rivers, our van also features on its front bumper a cattle-guard contraption that must have been handy when plowing through herds of wildebeests in the Serengeti but is presumably unnecessary in the suburbs.
As I circle the van, trying to hide my shock, our neighbors drive by in their Taurus. The man sticks his head out the window, pumps his fist at my husband and gives a yodeling hoot of solidarity. The woman shrugs her shoulders at me, her face scrunched up, as if she's thinking, "How will this affect our property value?"
The hulking black behemoth is so big it spills out of our driveway and into the street.
"It's more of a truck than a van," my husband concedes.
"Yes," I say. "Yes, it is."
"Just give it a chance," he says.
I feel turned inside out, but it's his insides that I'm wearing on my outsides. Every time I walk out the door, it's there: 10,000 pounds of metal, gears and after-market hydraulics, announcing to the entire neighborhood that someone in this house is having a midlife crisis.
He attempts to woo me with the van's charms —the things he thinks will appeal to me: the shower, the portable toilet, the diesel engine.
The diesel engine! Diesels can go a million miles, he claims, and in a pinch they can run on corn and potatoes. The downside to diesel is that we can barely hear one another above the roar of the engine, and communication with Ben, who seems to be about eight feet behind us in the backseat, is impossible.
So we develop a primitive sign language consisting of exaggerated gestures. Imaginary spoon to mouth: Are you hungry? Finger pointed at crotch: Need to go to the bathroom? Mother's head cupped in hands: Why didn't I look at that Web site more carefully?
My husband tries to bring me on board by asking for my input: "Let's talk about where to go on our first camping trip."
"What about Oregon?" Ben suggests.
"Baja?" says my husband.
"San Francisco?" I volunteer, which is ten miles away.
My husband orders maps from AAA. He sketches out routes. He talks weather and strategies for trading off on driving. He doesn't yet realize I have no intention of going anywhere in that thing. It smells of mold, plus my husband confesses that you have to empty the toilet by hand.
"What's the point of a Porta Potti if you have to clean it out every time you use it?" I ask, trying not to gag.
"It's for emergencies. Like if we're stuck on the highway in a blizzard." "Why would we be stuck on the highway in a blizzard?"
"That's the whole point. That we could be stuck in a blizzard. Wouldn't that be fun? We'd be the only ones on the highway all cozy and warm."
Because everybody else, he fails to add, would have listened to the weather forecast and stayed home.
Eventually I have to tell him: "I'm not coming on the camping trip." "You want us to go without you? Seriously?"
"Yes." What I really mean is: No, I don't want you to go without me, but I don't want to go where you're going.
My husband and son continue the trip discussions without me. They decide their inaugural camping trip will consist of a Saturday night in Point Reyes, about fifty miles from our house. One last invitation is extended, and I politely decline. Finally I am off the hook.
The morning of their expedition I climb into the van to load it with their requested dinner supplies: hot dogs, Gummi Worms and chocolate soy milk. Reaching into the cabinet, I discover something wedged into the very back. It's a map of the Big Sioux River in South Dakota, left behind by the young man who died.
I feel strangely dislocated as I trace the blue tributaries with my finger. I imagine him looking at the map on his final day and asking himself, Where do I go next? He couldn't have known that "next," for him, was not going to be a very good place. But what choice did he have? Stay home?
His zest for life (or more to the point, my lack of zest) is startling to me. Is it possible I am the one having the midlife crisis?
I used to be less afraid. In the early years of our marriage, my husband and I climbed mountains, ran Class 3 rapids in a rickety canoe and camped along the way. On rainy nights we slept in a tent, and on starry nights we slept outside. We were in our twenties; our needs were simple.
We lived dangerously, which is to say we were up for anything. We didn't think about what things cost. We thought only about the cost of not doing things. Which is exactly why—I suddenly understand—my husband has bought the van for us.
And then, just as suddenly, news of Ben's rescheduled soccer tournament ends the excursion—for the moment, at least. But there is no stopping my boys; they decide to simply camp in the driveway.
From the window, I watch them depart. Ben is beside himself with excitement, clutching his pillow, his Nintendo DS pressed to his chest like a Bible. He looks as if he is going to the moon. They wave to me as they climb aboard. Soon I hear the whoomp-whoomp of a bass and shrieks of laughter —they are having a dance party.
I've hardly had a night to myself since my son was born. Back in the house I pour myself a glass of wine and eat my Burmese takeout. Later, stretched out in bed, surrounded by stacks of books and magazines, I revel in my creature comforts. But as the hours pass, a vague unease settles over me, an odd kind of claustrophobia that isn't about the physical space I'm in, but the sheltered life I'm living.
Sometime after midnight, I finally push aside the covers, grab my pillow and drag myself from my warm bed. Outside, the chilly air smells of eucalyptus and toasted marshmallows. In the distance an owl hoots. I know the mattress will be stiff, the headroom cramped, and I won't sleep. But I open the van door and climb in anyway. The two people I love most in the world are out here, along with the promise of a richer, more adventurous life.
Once we leave the driveway, that is.
Excerpted from The Slippery Year by Melanie Gideon. Copyright 2009 by Melanie Gideon. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.