is the thought that went through my head, like a mantra, as the mile markers flew past and the silence in the minivan grew heavier and more oppressive.
“Don’t panic, don’t speak, just sit and be patient”, I told myself over and over again, as I listened to early 90’s rock through the headphones of my Walkman CD player and tried to ignore the other four people crammed like sardines into the tiny space left by pieces of luggage and stacks of sheets, towels and dirty laundry piled high in the minivan around us.
The vacation had started out wonderfully, and I had loved seeing the New Jersey coast for the first time, walking on the boardwalk, splashing in the waves, and wearing the first ever bikini that I’d dared buy, after losing so much weight that spring. My dad thought I was too skinny, but I was loving the cute clothes that I had bought and proudly wore all during the week we were gone.
This trip had also brought several firsts – my first visit to New York City, my first time gambling (at a casino during the evening we spent at Atlantic City), and the first time that I’d ever vacationed with my dad and stepmother, in the 7 years that they’d been together. This also turned out to be the only time that I would do any of these things.
I had come on this vacation at a whim, at the last minute, and was grateful for the chance to tag along. I really didn’t even feel much like a fifth wheel, even though I was – between my dad and stepmom and my younger stepbrother and his girlfriend. But I didn’t care.
My week had been spent reading on the beach, wandering through the touristy gift shops and other attractions along the boardwalk, and spending some of my hard-earned money on souvenirs and snacks. I was alone, having left a confusing and ending relationship back home, but the escape from normality was exciting and a welcome relief from the usual stresses left behind.
The trip had only turned sour right at the end, when a fight ensued between my stepmother and her teenaged son. They fought often, but this trip had brought a temporary truce – or at least it had up until that point. The nasty argument made up for lost time and we left the shore on a tense and sour note, that just grew worse through the day. Although a stop to see the sights in Philadelphia brought temporary relief in the form of an unspoken truce, it was short-lived after we got back on the road.
My dad had been sick throughout the trip and was obviously not in good shape as he drove. In fact, he would have heart surgery just days after returning home. Not being in charge (very. definitely. not, as I’d come to realize during the trip), I couldn’t complain that he was putting all of us at risk by driving through treacherous mountain curves and at highway speeds in his condition. Either because of that, or in addition to it, my stepmother had become increasingly difficult to be around – culminating in a pointless fight over pancakes, of all things. It was at this point that I started contemplating rental of a vehicle to drive myself the rest of the way home.
Instead, I sat silently walled off by my headphones, as the miles ticked away with every turn of the wheels below me, and I counted down the hours, the minutes, the seconds until we would reach our destination and I could escape into my own car for my extra 2-hour drive home.
Eventually we arrived – safely. But my relationship with my stepmother would never really recover during the next 5 years that she and my dad were still married. I look back now and can’t really remember the particulars or who was really at fault (we all probably were to some degree). I just remember how desperate I felt wanting to be out of that van and as far away from those people as I could get.
I think it was on this trip where I learned a level of patience that has served me well since. No matter what happens – every turn of the wheels, every second that passes gets you closer to home or brings a resolution closer. And most of the time you just have to breathe slowly in and out and count the mile markers until you get there.