When the road trip began I thought we would be tucked into the comfort of home by dark. But in the beginning I thought all kinds of crazy things. That small towns can remain charming even after you’ve driven through 50. And that theme songs for children’s cartoons can be cute. Catchy, even. They are soundtracks for the end of sanity. End of story.
With 45 minutes to go, I did a quick check on my passengers. Our Rhodesian Ridgeback, a dog bred for chasing lions in African pastures, was obviously wondering how life had led her to the backseat of this Toyota 4Runner. She looked like a pretzel that had soaked in saliva for a few hours and then got spit out.
My son was taking a breather between his regularly executed cries of, “Home! Now!” to stare wide-eyed at the DVD player. Part of me wanted him to snap out of it, and the other part of me … well, didn’t. His left hand was clutching one of the dog’s ears. Friendship? Torture? The instant I had for examination was not enough to reach a sound conclusion. I put my eyes back on the road and steeled myself.
I was playing single mom for the weekend, and back in December, it had seemed like a fine idea. Sure, go hunt with the guys, have a ball. But after three days of unrelenting motherhood with no one to pass the buck to, I was starting to plot revenge. I hear Tahiti is nice this time of year.
To be fair, the drive across Texas to visit my grandmother was the problem, and that was my idea. On a good day, her house is three and a half hours away. And this had been a very bad day. Roads narrowed to one lane for construction. Pilot cars manned by drivers who took cigarette breaks before leading vehicles to two lanes of freedom. Funeral processions. And one large dog with a small bladder.
I drive so much that I can maneuver the final highways home on autopilot. What I can’t do is physically carry my car to the front gate, which meant I would have to get gas in Valley Mills. Another stop was yet another delay. But on the bright side, we could buy snacks. I announced to the passengers in the car that we were stopping for ice cream. My son immediately shifted his chant to, “Strawberry! Now!”
The dog had lost faith in anything I said about a hundred miles back, when I mumbled something about not having much further to go. I noted she now put her head under her paw whenever I spoke.
The familiar glow of the Cefco station was like a siren call to our usual gas pump. I had stopped at enough strange gas stations on the trip to appreciate this place I knew well. It’s sort of like “Cheers,” where everybody knows your name. Except Norm wears a cowboy hat and drinks coffee. And the whole place smells like fry grease, not bar nuts.
I got the gas going and walked around the car to retrieve my son from the backseat. But when I opened his door, the excitement of finally being in my own zip code disappeared: He was wearing pajamas.
In an instant, it all came back to me — his request to put on pajamas for the drive, my resistance followed by ultimate agreement because I figured we’d never get out of the car anyway. He saw my delay and fearing his strawberry ice cream dreams were melting, he started his low guttural rumbling that registers on the Richter scale as a predictor of major trouble to come.
This was a moment when personal neurosis threatened to sabotage the group because, you see, I have this rule. The rule is that we don’t walk around in public wearing pajamas. You’re thinking, Isn’t that how the world works — no pajamas in public? Do we need rules to enforce this sort of thing? And the answer is yes, yes, we do.
Back when I moved out of the city, I had a set of preconceptions about country folk. Specifically, about people who might be classified as hicks. And so, I established a set of rules that would keep me on the country folk side of the fence, far from hay chewing and Jerry Springer’s couch.
By now, most of these preconceptions have been debunked; I was thrown from my high horse by men and women much more sophisticated than I, who — due to a dislike of people or an affinity for fresh air or both — simply decided city life was not for them.
But the rules have remained. And toward the top of the list, right underneath never drinking Boone’s Farm and keeping spare tires out of the front yard, is not wearing pajamas in public.
I stood there at my beloved gas station (fully aware that feeling affection for a gas station reflected a change I never would have predicted for myself) and debated whether these rules still mattered.
Why did I make them anyway? To keep up a pretense of a certain life for other people? People I couldn’t even pick out of a crowd, who swirled in the anonymous sea of “what everybody would think”? At that moment “everybody” was my son, who had his heart set on going to sleep that night with a light crust of dried strawberry dairy product on his pajamas.
Some rules are made to be broken, I decided, and I hoisted him out of his seat. We glided into the store, sure of our mission, and no one gave us a second look.
It was easy — almost too easy — in the end. All the hours spent worrying about what everybody thinks about us country folk joined the pilot car drivers and small town speed limits in the rearview mirror. All of them nothing but detours to overcome in the larger journey.