The Road Trip
by Ellen Leary
We are packing for our road trip up the California coastline. This is old hat to us. We have been on the road before. We were actors: we did tours of plays and lived out of suitcases for months at a time. But this is different. I take the pills from their bottles and put them in a more portable, weekly compartment. Two pillows that we cannot sleep without go into a shopping bag. I make a mental note not forget to take the heating pad for my husband’s frequent middle-of-the-night leg cramps. It is the kind of pad that you press and chemicals combine to make the liquid hot. Once you use it, you have to boil it in a pot on the stove to get it back to its liquid state. Where am I going to find a pot or a stove in the motel where we are staying, I wonder? “Did you pack the Ibuprofen?” my husband asks. “Yes.” “And the Alka Seltzer?” “You’re not supposed to take both of those on the same day,” I remind him. “Just pack it.” “OK.” We are not as portable as we once were.
We put the pills and pillows, the heating pad and the hearing aids into the car. We are off! “You OK?” I ask my husband. “Yes,” he answers. We pass quickly through urban territory and head out to the ocean. It is beautiful! There are trees along the highway that I have never seen before. They are small and low to the ground and all in a straight row. Their spindly branches are twisted backward and to the side. They look like dancers bending as far back as they can go, with their arms stretching to the right. Years of the strong, ocean winds have obviously blown them in this position where they stay.
We shift into a lower gear to climb a hill. The view from the top is breathtaking. The turquoise water: the white foam! We decide to stop for lunch at a seaside restaurant with a view of the ocean. We are seated at a booth and after we order I glance around at the other patrons. Across from us, at a table, is an elderly couple. They are eating their lunch in silence. It is chilly near the ocean and she pulls her sweater closer around her shoulders. Her hand trembles as she brings the fork to her mouth. Her eyes are focused at a distant point past him. She is not seeing: she is thinking. He has milky blue eyes that shine from under the rimless glasses on his creased, suntanned face. He is looking down, concentrating on cutting the meat in his chef salad. They chew their food, avoiding each other’s gaze.
I sit across from my husband in the booth and wonder how he sees me. I am pretty sure he sees the woman he fell in love with all those years ago and that informs his vision. He is still attractive and only getting more so as the years go by. I cannot say the same for me, although he will argue the point. He is aging, of course. But his silver hair makes him look distinguished. My red hair comes at a great expense to me, every four weeks. His creases make him look craggy and wise. My jowls look like Bell’s palsy. He has a sexy moustache. I am only a few lazer treatments away from Frida Kahlo.
A young couple walks in. She is wearing a flesh-colored, skin-tight stretch dress that barely covers her panties. I can only hope that she is wearing panties. You can practically see her ovaries. She makes heads turn as she slides into her seat. He slides in next to her. I am still attractive, I think, but I no longer make heads turn. If they turn now, it is usually followed by an offer of a seat on the Madison Avenue bus.
Are they on their first date? Or have they been together for some time? We speculate. I vote for the first date. “I wonder what he said when he walked in the door and saw her in that outfit,” I whisper to my husband? “Probably, ‘I’ll just wait while you get dressed,’” he answers. She is flirtatious. She rests her head on his shoulder. She reaches across him plucking a piece of bread daintily from the breadbasket. There are rings on her thumbs, but not on her fourth finger. She would like a ring on her fourth finger. She is talking in a high voice that I have talked in. She has raised her eyebrows and is using her eyes to flirt: they look down to the table and up again, then sideways to meet his eyes. She smiles. My eyes are relaxed and the lids are wrinkled, but I know all about those flirtatious eyes.
We are no longer conscious of our appearances when we are together, my husband and I. When I struggle out of bed in the morning, my only thoughts are of the coffee maker. I don’t even smooth my hair. When he first moved into my apartment, I was so conscious of his being there that I could not read the newspaper. I would stare at the words, unheeding. The fights we used to have when we were first married have also disappeared. We do not fight now. Instead we ask the question: “Is it possible to turn the sound down a bit?” “Do you mind if I raise the heat?” “Shall I wait for you, or shall I go on ahead?”
After perusing the wine list with a knitted brow, the young man orders an unpronounceable wine for both of them. He is showing off. He says something and she laughs too loud. She is bolstering his ego. I’ve been there. I have pleased his folks too much. I have laughed at his jokes too much. We were in love. We still are, but we are no longer young. Recently, we were looking at a photograph taken on our wedding day, in which my hair was long and dark brown (its natural color) and he had hair. “Who are those people?” my husband mused. “They went into the witness protection program!” I answer.
While shopping in Los Angeles the other day, a salesman asked if I needed parking validation? “Oh, Yes,” I said, having forgotten. I began to rummage through my purse to find my parking ticket. It was not there. After a while, the salesman offered me a seat on the side, while he took care of the next person in line. I searched in my purse for a few minutes, and finally dumped most of the contents out on to my lap, feeling anxious and embarrassed. Used Kleenex, candy wrappers and a strip of Mylanta tablets sealed in plastic fell out, followed by my glasses, a broken emery board, a lipstick and a silver pill box held together by a rubber band. It was an old person’s purse.
I sorted through the stack of cards: AARP, Medicare, a Screen Actor’s Guild Pension and Welfare card. People waiting on the line glanced over with sympathetic smiles. My heartbeat quickened. Suddenly I found it! There it was, right where I had put it, in the little zippered pocket with the hand sanitizer. I had forgotten. Like I forget so many things these days. I held it up and the salesman nodded and let me cut the line. He is kind to old ladies.
The old couple has finished their lunch. They do not signal for the bill, but wait patiently, their hands in their laps, for the waitress to notice them. They are still not looking at each other. When the check comes, the man puts some bills on the table. They get up with difficulty and leave silently. Will we be doing the same in ten years, I wonder? In five? Will today bring another phone call/email/check of the obits to punch us in the gut and remind us of our own mortality? It is a minefield out there. “Wear your good clothes,” a friend tells me.
My husband routinely presses the wrong button on the remote and deletes the show we have been watching on television. Last week he left the lights on in the car. When I tell this to my son, he tries to mollify me: “I do the same thing, Mom,” he says. But I know it is different. I watch as my husband struggles to get out of his chair. His brilliant mind has slowed. He can still do the Times crossword puzzle incredibly quickly, even the Saturday one, but two or three minutes after he leaves the house he comes back, for his keys…his phone…his sunglasses. He looks at his hands and tells me he has his grandfather’s hands: the hands that he used to study as a child, in church. I don’t want to contemplate a life without him. Who will laugh with me until we can no longer stand up? Who will kill the spiders? Who will need me? What will I do with all that leftover love?
When I was young, I suffered a profound loss of identity. It was a blow that threw me against the wall. I am older now. I know something of the vicissitudes of life. I have accomplishments under my belt. Reviews. Scholarships. Children. I cannot be reduced to nothingness anymore. Or can I?
We finish our lunch and pay the bill. We get up, leaving the young couple behind.
They are holding hands under the table and looking deeply into each other’s eyes. But as we pass them, I look back and see that she is watching us. What is she thinking, I wonder? I smile, but she looks away.
We get in the car, fasten our seat belts and pull out of the parking lot and onto the highway. I turn on the GPS. We have a ways to go before we reach our motel and we want to travel while the light is still good. “You OK?” I ask my husband. “Yes,” he answers. We have shifted into a lower gear. We are bent backwards by the wind.
About the Author
Ellen Tovatt Leary spent twenty years acting on the professional stage. She performed in theaters from the Ahmanson in Los Angeles to the State Theatre in Lincoln Center, including four Broadway, many off-Broadway and regional theaters. She worked with Hal Prince, Maureen Stapleton and James Hammerstein among others. She graduated from Antioch College and was a Fulbright scholar at LAMDA. Her first book, a memoir, Mother Once Removed, details her childhood growing up on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in the 1940s with an eccentric, divorced mother. She was on the writing staff of the Carnegie Hill News in New York for fourteen years. She has published short stories as well as poems, is a native New Yorker who currently resides, with her husband, in LA. Her debut novel, The Understudy, will be published around December.