We were on a long, family road trip and one of my kids told me he had to use the bathroom.
I smiled and kept driving. We’d just passed a rest stop and its little sign that said the next rest stop would be forty-seven miles down the road. I knew what was up. When a rest stop wasn’t available and a call of nature beckoned, then you’re forced to run the convenience store gauntlet for a bathroom break. For me, the convenience store is a financial deathtrap. That’s because after using the facilities my little kleptomaniacs will usually grab anything that isn’t nailed down, then I’ve got the choice of paying for those items or testing the response time of the local police department.
See, I know that despite their constant begging when we’re on road trips, most of the time my kids don’t really have to go to the bathroom. They might be whining like their bladders are about to explode, but they’re really just bored, or hungry, and they know I’m not stopping for anything short of a national emergency, so they wait until a rest area is out of reach, then lie about having to go to the bathroom so they can rape and pillage the candy aisle in some 7/11.
With four kids pulling this stunt, it can greatly add to the time, and expense, of a road trip. And time on the road, not unlike time spent in prison, has a way of wearing on you. You know the kind of trip I’m talking about. By the end of one of these drives my prostate looks like Rocky Balboa’s nose. Every vertebra feels like it is made of glass. Every noise from the backseat. Every bump in the highway. Every stupid driver around me. They all make me grit my teeth that much harder and swear that I will find some way to get back home, and when I do, I’ll never go anywhere with these people ever again. I long for home as bad as Dorothy in Wizard of Oz, only I’ve got sensible travelling shoes and a bad hankering for bourbon.
Urinating appeared to be contagious. One kid said something about going to the bathroom first. Now all four of them were complaining.
The wife patted my arm. “Charles, you have to stop.”
I pointed at the wide open road. “But we’re making good time.”
“This is a vacation, dear, not a race. Your children need to use the bathroom.”
“They went to the bathroom in Colorado.”
“And where are we now?”
My wife took a deep breath, then folded down the page of her celebrity magazine. “Please find some decent bathrooms and stop the car.”
The kids were thanking their mom and whispering to each other about stealing some Peanut M&M’s and that’s when I hit them with the shocker. There would be no convenience store ambush. We were doing a roadside pit stop.
A chorus of groans erupted from the backseat as I pulled to the shoulder of the interstate. The kids knew the drill. The back, passenger side door stayed open to provide a little cover, then the kids could stand in front of the open door, their backs to the passenger side window, and do their business.
“This is so low class,” my wife mumbled.
My daughter always waits out the surprise roadside stops. Usually, my oldest son will, too. This time only the two youngest boys, the twins, climbed out, bitching the whole time. But they wouldn’t actually start peeing until their mother also got out and placed her body in front of the car. (I had this slow rolling pee/pit stop thing going for a while. The kids weren’t too crazy about it.) So my wife stood in front of the car, her arms crossed as she watched me through the windshield with this superior stare, and I’m thinking, “Like this bitch ain’t got reverse?”
Instead of taking her on, I rolled down the passenger side window, eager to find out if I was right about their fakery, or if the kids really had to go.
“Where’s that full stream of urine, little buddies?”
“I’m going,” one of the twins said. “Look!”
“That little mosquito sprinkle of pee?”
“What do you want?” my wife yelled from in front of the car. “You’re making them go to the bathroom with people watching.”
“They’re straining to make water because they know they’re busted. This one’s squeezing his little butt cheeks together so tight he couldn’t fart a dime.”
“You’re going to make them have a nervous bladder,” my wife yelled.
“Nervous bladder? The only reason they said anything about peeing was because they wanted Peanut M&M’s.”
We glared at each other through the windshield. Then my wife turned away, tapping her foot as she watched the passing traffic.
I’ll be the first to admit that the family road trip can make a man painfully bored. And nothing is more boring than waiting to resume a road trip. Jeez, how long did it take to pretend like they had to pee? Were they going to stand there until M&M’s started falling from the sky?
That gave me an idea.
I turned on the windshield washer. Not because the windshield was dirty, but because I decided to spray the washer fluid on the little peeing kids and see if they could figure out where it was coming from.
The first squirt arced through the air and landed on their heads. Both looked up. There was some conversation about it. Then they went back to concentrating on producing urine.
I checked the wife. She was still studying the passing traffic. I gave the twins a second squirt, longer this time.
“What the heck?” one of them said.
This one turned his hips a little, gazing up at the clear blue sky while he wondered where the rain was coming from, and in the process he peed on his brother’s leg.
The second brother looked down, saw his pee soaked sock, and then retaliated. Before I could say anything, each little penis has become a lightsaber and a full blown battle was going on.
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe they really had to go to the bathroom after all.
My wife heard the commotion and turned. She saw her two youngest children hosing each other down and tried to rip out her hair as she screamed, “What is wrong with this family? We can’t even pee on the side of the road like normal people!”
When my wife overreacts like this I always tell her that normal people are so overrated. Just look at some other words you could substitute for the word normal: regular, predictable, plain, boring.
Besides, no one is really normal.
I know I’m not normal. I can’t be. I have children. And while I love explore new places with them, something about a road trip does not play to my strengths. Perhaps it is about control. With a destination in mind, I can make General George S Patton look like he was a world class lollygagger. It isn’t so much about speed as it is getting my chaotic family moving in one direction and trying to keep that movement from coming off the tracks. Maybe I’m this way because at home, I know where all the dangers are and I can relax a little. Once we get wherever we’re traveling, it is the same deal. But as we go from point A to point B, there is no control. We are living life in the fast lane, albeit in an SUV that can seat about twenty and gets negative miles to the gallon. Everything is unscripted. It is scary, and frustrating.
That’s why the great American road trip can literally wipe me out.
Movies like “American Graffiti” have detailed Americans’ love affairs with their automobiles. I do not love my car. Of course, that movie was more about the time and actions of people before they had children. The fun stuff. The naughty stuff.
What about after kids enter the equation? Talk about a great concept for a movie, American Graffiti Two, where the gang has kids, then grandkids and they’ve joined the AARP and sold their roadsters for sensible, fuel efficient hybrids that take them to and from soccer games and piano recitals, while the kids shriek in the backseat like someone is being burned with cigarettes. All right, so maybe that doesn’t sound like such a great movie. Hell, it sounds like really crappy reality TV. But we are always on the move. We are always in our cars. We practically live in them.
Unfortunately, I know the way I act and the things I do while on the road will be remembered by my kids. I also know what they remember about that time will say a lot about me as a parent.
Buildings closed in on each side of the road, blocking out the sun like we were entering a deep canyon. I got on my knees and pointed at the line of automobiles pointed our way.
“Wait Dad, this is a one way road!”
My father smiled. “That’s OK, we’re only going one way.”
I loved it when my dad did this. We were lost in some city. He would not ask for directions, and he wasn’t real keen on following a map either. So, when he saw where he wanted to be, and a little thing like a one way street prevented him from getting there, it was nothing for my dad to flaunt the law.
It felt so dangerous. But it also felt like he was in command. Our twenty foot long Ford Mercury was a spaceship and Dad was our Captain Kirk. We weren’t a perfect crew, of course. There was a mutiny or two and Dad wasn’t adverse to reaching over the seat and swatting our legs, either. He had long arms and could pretty much get you anywhere in the backseat. And he could do this while he was not wearing a seatbelt and the car was traveling seventy miles per hour. Even this spoke of his total authority in and outside of the car. An authority I cannot match with my own kids today.
Traveling with my mother was a different deal altogether. She was a rule follower of the first order. She also had this thing about not being able to see at night. Like, once the sun went down, she was legally blind. Last time I checked, seeing where you were going was an important aspect of driving. With Mom at the wheel, we were always running over stuff. It would be dark and there would be this huge bump and our little butts would bounce off the seats, then there would be this grinding noise as the car struggled to mount some large object. It felt like our round wheels were suddenly square. Sometimes there would be sparks from under the car. Other times black smoke. But it would always end with my mother pushing her glasses up on her nose and yelling over the seat at her screaming children, “I told your father I do not see well at night!”
With my mother we’d also frequently find ourselves driving against oncoming traffic. This didn’t feel the same as it did with Dad, because the driver wasn’t confidently thumbing her nose at the law, but instead screaming “Who put a goddamned median full of trees in the middle of a perfectly good road?”
Trips with my mother at night were rarely healthy for the car either. We’d plow over something and drag those random things at random times for random distances, then all three of us would prop ourselves in the back window, trying to see if some part of the car was being left behind, or an animal carcass, or a dead human.
Then maybe we’d think we saw something on the dark road and spend miles wondering what it might have been.
“What if it was someone’s dog?” my little sister asked.
“More like a cow,” I said.
“It clanged when we hit it,” my older sister whispered. “Cows don’t clang.”
“Unless it was wearing a bell,” my little sister said.
“That was definitely part of the car,” I said.
“What if that’s the brakes?” my big sister said. “We won’t be able to stop.”
“Be a while before we notice,” I said. “Mom barely uses them.”
So families do spend too much time in the car with each other and that time helps formulate the relationships they have and the memories they share.
I know I will always remember days of sitting proudly beside my father, seatbelt free, marveling at his confidence and his control of that awesome vehicle. I will also remember that I was blissfully unaware that his total ownership of the road really had little to do with steering one’s way through life.
I will also remember looking backward, at roads in my past, face pressed against the cool glass as I tried to discern what the latest impediment in our path happened to be.
And I will never forget the kids who are plotting even now, whispering between themselves and the widely spaced rest stops, trying to scam their way into another bag of Peanut M&M’s.