In this installment of “Love, Recorded,” Matt and Cathreen take their one and only vacation away from the baby. And still Matt can’t get away from the fears of fatherhood. Though it’s his own fault, really.
If I am late with this column, it is because nothing is happening. I have no stories these days. We feed Grace, change her diapers, try to stop her crying, never sleep enough. I suppose there is a narrative in there somewhere, but I’m too tired to find the thread. All of these responsibilities are wound together like a ball of yarn. There’s no room, anymore, to pull anything loose.
(Though if you really want them, here are the updates: Grace is pooping now only once a day; her insides are strong enough for her to spit up in an arc; she cries more, is more sensitive to everything; she stares at light; she can flip onto her side but can’t hold up her neck; my mother-in-law keeps massaging her legs to make her taller; my wife keeps putting ribbons on her head and sending me photos at work that make me half-smile and picture a future of lace.)
We have gone nowhere all summer. We have not been out of Boston. We have barely been out of the house.
My mother-in-law and sister-in-law and nephew, who have flown from Korea to help with the baby, must be bored as hell. I know we all feel cooped-up, as chicken-like as that phrase suggests, pecking at each other with sharp, shut beaks.
We have to get free of our roles, or the roles our roles are devolving into, at least for a day. We ask my parents to take care of the baby and rent a car to drive out to the Cape.
A baby is not a good way to feel rich. Recently, we bought a crib, 20% off, over the tax-free weekend. We felt this was a ridiculously good deal. And still it will break the bank. As I pick up the Zipcar, I reset the trip meter. We have 180 miles before we are charged an overage fee. I know that we will be cutting it close.
In the morning, we shuffle out of bed, give my parents a few last notes, and kiss the baby goodbye. An hour into the drive, everyone but Cathreen’s mother and me are asleep. I have been left to plan this trip, this being “my” country. An excuse I had used (guilty) to ask my wife to plan in Korea.
I want to drive up to the tip of the Cape and then work our way back. We have about eight hours. Google (as I look it up now, writing this) says it takes 121 miles and two hours, 16 minutes to get to Provincetown.
I have hit traffic twice and the odometer says 50-something. I am thinking, 90 each way. The GPS says another 54 miles until something, arrival 11:40, who knows what comes after that. My mother-in-law mutters under her breath, I’m not sure to whom, either to me or to herself. She is squished into the corner, her shoulder holding up the pillow my nephew’s head rests on. It’s hard to be a halmeoni.
We pass Hyannis, which is where Cathreen and I went last summer, on a bus tour. She has this memory of amazing ice cream. The odometer hates me. I am looking at the GPS and considering a change of plans, calculating how much this trip is worth. Finally, I pull over at an information booth/rest stop. Everyone but Cathreen wakes and goes to the bathroom. Cathreen is babied out. I eavesdrop on the information woman, who recommends Chatham, where she says the seals will be visible, and the National Park beaches, which I had on the itinerary after Provincetown.
Back in the car, I announce a change of plans, mostly to myself. Everyone goes back to sleep.
We pass the 90 mile mark and are miles from nowhere. I am looking at the map from the information booth and trying to recall clips of stolen advice. We go around a round-about onto a two-lane road the GPS calls a “state highway.” And hit instant traffic. The arrival time on the GPS climbs, though we’re not going all the way to the tip anymore. I look for a sign for beaches.
Then: so-and-so beach, full; so-and-so beach, full; so-and-so beach, full.
“Full,” my mother-in-law says. Even she can read disappointment, in English.
When we hit 110 miles, and are bumper-to-bumper, and everyone is awake, I at last pull a U-turn. I will try one of the town-run beaches. We will still have fun. I say this aloud a few times. My wife is listening.
I take the exit for Nauset Beach and follow the small-town road past the traditional unpainted houses toward the ocean. But just before the beach, we see another sign, “full,” and a few meters from there, a man with an official-looking shirt stops and diverts us back.
Chatham must save us, save our trip. I tell my wife about the seals. I drive along, spinning our wheels of hope, that this will be a good day and worth the time away from our daughter.
We pass a number of tiny harbor beaches, but Cathreen says her family doesn’t think they look nice enough. I would swim anywhere, but I want to impress. I feel responsible for the shitty beaches. We see a sign for a lighthouse and I take the turn on a whim. My sister-in-law says it’s up to me where I want to take them.
As we drive along the beach, Cathreen says: one day, when we’re rich, we and her sister and her other sister can all buy summer homes here. These are her expectations.
When we get there, I feel the day close on me like a door. That little suck of air and then the click of the lock. The lighthouse is about a 20-foot-high “that’s it?” and though I know this trip isn’t the economy crashing, it feels like our own little disaster, and I’m its president.
But then Cathreen’s sister says, “The chips,” and Cathreen pulls out a bag of potato chips, and low, the lighthouse is identical. Somehow, this seems enough.
There is a beach opposite the lighthouse, and we walk down the stairs toward the water with 30 minutes of parking to enjoy ourselves. Bryan, the nephew, runs and falls, runs and falls. I take his hand and pull him down to the waves. From the lighthouse, it looked like no one was going in, but once we get down there, we see children standing at the edge, a few adults up to their waist. A Coast Guard boat patrols the outer limit.
Bryan screams happily each time the surf comes up and touches us. “One, two, three,” I say. He steps forward, then pulls back. “Ready?” I say. “One, two, three.”
We run in and I flop into the water, trying to get my head wet. For a second, though, I’ve let go and Bryan is in the shallows. When I come up, he’s dog-paddling toward me.
Cathreen comes running. “What are you doing?” she shouts.
“Imo-bu,” Bryan is saying—that’s the word for uncle. “Museoweo”—that’s the word for scared.
“You’re going to scar him for life,” Cathreen says. “He’ll never want to go to water again.”
He’s 2 years old. He turns 3 this week.
As I carry him in, I’m thinking three things: one that she is right and maybe I really have scarred him, two that she and her family must be thinking of my future fathering potential, and three that I probably am already a bad father, having thought nothing would be wrong with letting go.
In my defense, he is in the 97th percentile in height and weight and talks fluent Korean constantly and seems like he is 4 or 5. But I know it is easy to condemn me.
We shop for an hour in Chatham and Cathreen wants a salt and pepper combo in the shape of two kissing dogs, except she has left her wallet at home and I have left mine in the car. For the nephew is a dinosaur raincoat and a book-themed backpack and even a little candy.
I am still worried over Bryan’s mental health when we stop in Hyannis on the way back. I am still watching the odometer climb over 120, 130. I am still hoping the day can be better than it is, as if there is a way to measure its clarity and weight like a diamond.
We have to return to the ice cream shop, that is clear. Though surely it will not stand up to memory.
Halfway down Main Street, we spot a carousel and after an emptying of bladders are ready for the spin. Cathreen rides a horse and I hold our nephew on my knee, on a bench. Each time around, we wave to his mother. The carousel operator sprays us with water and Bryan screams, “Waterfall, waterfall,” laughing. And this seems the right metaphor to end on, now, not the waterfall, but the revolution. Later, over ice cream, Bryan will say he dove into the sea like a dolphin, mixing up the happy memory of the carousel with the fearful memory of the ocean. He will create a story of his own, for himself to believe. A better, more hopeful version.
—photo Flickr/Dominic’s pics