Spring Break (Part 2) | Spontaneous Road Trip | Can't Believe My Husband Actually Did This
A Spontaneous Road Trip With My Husband Changed My Life
On a gray morning one spring a text message from my husband, Joe, bloomed on my smartphone: Hey, could you call me when you have a minute? A moment later: Don't worry.
Don't worry: Has a phrase ever defeated its purpose so neatly? Neither of us is fond of chatting on the phone, a device Joe and I reserve for life-changing news and requests of dire urgency. I promptly assumed the worst (and weirdest).
When I got him on the line, he assured me he wasn't dying, leaving me, or calling from a holding cell in a foreign prison. He was, however, pretty sure that he needed to quit his job, and that we needed to tap into our retirement savings and go on a cross-country vision quest. "We've just got to hit the road," he said, his voice uneven with excitement, the way it had sounded when we’d decided to get engaged on the spur of the moment in college.
That had been 16 years earlier, mind you, when being together was as simple as stealing the cushions from his roommates' dingy sofa so we could both sleep on his mattress on the floor. Now we had careers, commitments, and, you know, cats. What about our cats? "Can you trust me on this?" he asked. I took a deep breath. "Okay."
Joe's announcement wasn't nearly as spontaneous as it seemed. He'd been making a grim commute — an hour and a half each way, if he was lucky — for a year, and the stress of his work was taking a visible toll. No matter the season, he came home each night like a man blown in from a storm, bent and exhausted. I, by contrast, had recently made the exhilarating leap from an unexceptional corporate job to full-time writing —the work I'd dreamed of doing when I was a little girl. Now he wanted to catch his breath and figure out what that sort of fulfillment looked like for him.
As he put it, "I'm not going to have more than a week at a time to do what I like until I'm an old man." Hearing that broke my heart. I wanted to support his transformation as enthusiastically as he'd supported mine. "Excelsior!" he'd say when I started, ever so slightly, to succeed. "Ever upward," New York's state motto, was his for me: "Excelsior!"
Given how many people are unwillingly unemployed, one could argue that Joe's self-imposed sabbatical was an extravagance, or just plain stupid. Our household income hadn't recovered from my farewell to the corporate world, and we both depended on Joe for health insurance. What if something terrible happened before he found another job? What if he didn't find another job at all?
For the rest of the spring, we plotted a course that satisfied both Joe's interest in a grand gesture and my interest in finding places for us to sleep. After he gave notice at work and spent a few weeks tying up loose ends, we'd fly from New York City to Arizona and collect a car from his parents. My father-in-law, once a used-car dealer, had been keeping an ancient BMW under a tarp beneath his deck for two decades; if we were willing to pay for its resurrection at a mechanic's, he said, we were welcome to it.
We'd drive west to see my side of the family in Los Angeles, then spend a month making our way back east via a series of Airbnbs, friends' homes, and eccentric rentals (I was particularly excited about the night we'd be spending in a former moonshiner's shack in Mississippi). As for our two cats, I made a long-term reservation with our pet sitter and bought a cheaply refurbished baby monitor that I pointed at the kibble; each time the fur-children came out to eat, we'd get a push notification on our phones as proof that they were still alive.
Neither of us knew how well we handled sudden crises until a faulty sensor began to stall the car.
What one needs to cross the country depends a great deal on who's doing the packing. When my in-laws turned the car over to us, the trunk had a "whacker" in it — a self-defense tool they'd made for us with a leather-wrapped tire iron and a section of steel pipe, in case we were attacked in the middle of nowhere. (I imagined them imaginingMad Max–esque bandits and was touched by their ferocity.)
Joe bought a gemlike little Wi-Fi speaker to supplement our radio, and I stuffed the glove compartment with paperback novels. None of those things were necessary, of course. No one accosted us, though strangers loved to talk about the car.
Joe swiftly abandoned his digital playlists, finding that he preferred to slip in and out of the local public radio broadcasts we picked up all over the country; we let the music come to us. I began to spend my late-night reading hour lighting the armfuls of reworks I'd bought from a shady emporium just over the Arizona-New Mexico border; I developed a fondness for controlled explosions.
A car that's been collecting dust and spiders under one's in-laws' porch for 20 years doesn't reveal its character all at once; like a human partner, one might say, it blossoms over time.
Joe didn't know about the calamitous crack between the windshield and the hood until a seam in the sky split open in the Cuyamaca Mountains between San Diego and Yuma and sheets of rainwater gushed into the car and soaked our feet. I didn't know I could push past my fear of hydroplaning in a thunderstorm — I'd been in a terrible accident as a teenager, and driving in the rain had petrified me ever since — until I white-knuckled us through that squall without a word.
Neither of us knew how well we handled sudden crises until a faulty sensor began to stall the car with no warning. I'd feel the engine go dead beneath the pedals as we hurtled down the fast lane, and after the first few times it happened, I got used to alerting Joe in an even voice; he'd act as navigator and talk me across the highway to a shoulder where we could wait for the car to come back to life. We learned how to break down together, calmly, and turn the key again.
Improv also served us well when we reached Chicago, where my college roommate Jen and her husband, Ben, welcomed us to a home that was very nearly ready for their son; they put us up in the soon-to-be nursery. The morning after we arrived, I found Ben sipping coffee in the kitchen with a philosophical expression on his face. "Here's an exciting thing," he said. "Jen's water broke."
They skipped the baby shower we'd coaxed our stalling car across the Midwest to attend and headed for the hospital, and we spent the afternoon painting the changing table they hadn't had time to finish. Jen and Ben's little boy was born the next day, five weeks early. "A person came out of your wife!" I whispered at Ben in the waiting room."I know, it's crazy!" he whispered back, giddy with exhaustion. After serendipity carried us into our friends' adventure, we were ready to declare our road trip an unqualified success.
If we make it to our 80s, I suspect we'll be glad we trusted each other in our 30s.
Returning home proved it wasn't, of course. Months ground by before Joe started a new job, bills accumulated that fall and winter like dirty snow, and trying to work from our one-bedroom apartment while he paced around waiting to work made me want to fling myself into the East River.
We couldn't cover our mortgage and health-insurance payments without tapping into our long-term savings, just as I'd feared when Joe had first proposed our summer on the road. After reconsidering the years between now and the so-called "golden" ones, we're building the path to them all over again.
To my great surprise, forfeiting some of our security left me with an overwhelming sense of ... balance. How meaningful is stability if it inhibits everything else? It was my turn to urge my partner upward that summer, and that felt like the privilege it was. If we have the good fortune to make it to our 80s, I suspect we'll still be glad we trusted each other in our 30s.
I realized I wanted to grow old with Joe back in college — not because he made me feel comfortable, but because he made me feel that anything was possible. On our wildly impractical trip, we revisited that undergraduate clarity; while I can't know what either of us will become, I know I'll always be willing to throw a few cushions on the floor and curl up next to him. That certainty is the only kind that's ever really mattered.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue ofRedbook.
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