“I wanted pancakes,” my seven-year-old grumps, staring at his sandwich oozing melted yellow cheese onto its wax paper wrapping.
(Next week The Bike Ride Part 2: The Case for Planning Ahead)
Murphy’s older brother stares at his own limp sandwich, shrugs and say, “It’s OK.”
It isn’t OK with him really. But Spencer is the pacifier, the reasonable one, and I worry about this. I can see him two decades from now, walking down the aisle to marry a woman he doesn’t love just because she presented a logical argument for why he should.
I narrow my eyes at Murphy and say with more force than I intended, “Just eat the sandwich. They don’t’ serve breakfast here. The man who told us that there would be breakfast here was wrong. It happens. People get things wrong. Eat the sandwich.”
Murphy’s lower lip juts out further as he grabs half of his sandwich. He bites off a chunk that’s too large and has to stuff half of it into his mouth with his fingers. His cheeks bulge and he chews slowly with effort and resentment. Spencer picks up his grilled cheese and takes a tentative bite. I lift my chicken salad sandwich, a big glop of which breaks off and drops to its wrapping. I exhale and stare through the window which needs a vigorous wipe, not merely the absent-minded daubing I saw the teenage counter girl give the tabletops.
The walk to the restaurant was longer than I expected. It’s already ninety degrees outside the diner. I try not to imagine my parents and my brother’s family on the sailboat that they rented. Besides the usual resort fare of wearable art and whimsical lawn ornaments, Fish Creek, Wisconsin offers every kind of lake activity a vacationing Midwestern family can imagine. Wisely, the rest of my family opted a calm glide across glistening lake water, a soft spray cooling their faces. I could have gone with them. They offered to pay for the boys and me. But I am tired of taking their money. Tired of giving thanks and nothing else in return. Tired of being the family beggar.
Instead of accepting the boat invitation, I smiled and said that the boys and I would take a walk into the national park. The woods, I remembered from a previous visit, are cool and admission is free. The last time we were here, my husband was with us all. Today Pat is in Los Angeles, working small jobs while looking for a bigger one. I remember that earlier family trip to Fish Creek clearly. Pat and I were flush with money. He bought a raincoat and I got a pair of brown suede clogs.
“I don’t want to eat the rest of it,” Murphy says, sliding the sandwich away from him. His voice is edged with recalcitrance. I decide not to invite full-on rebellion.
“Fine,” I say. “Don’t crab to me if you get hungry. We might be walking for quite awhile.”
Spencer continues to take small bites, evidently determined to finish and receive a grateful nod from me. For my part, I can’t finish my soggy sandwich. I ball it into its wrapper and throw it out. Murphy and I wordlessly watch Spencer chew.
It will be fine when we get to the park, I tell myself. We’ll be in the shade. The boys love spotting birds and squirrels. Our prickly moods will slip away and we’ll talk about their buddies back in Los Angeles and what books they want to get out of the library next. In the woods, I will find myself again. Because I almost always do when I hike. If I train my thoughts on my children, if I breathe and move my body, if I take a moment to be grateful, I will be able to transcend the punishing worry about our finances for a few hours.
Spencer dutifully swallows his last bite.
“Let’s go,” I say too soon and too cheerfully. The boys look at me as if I’ve been replaced by a fake look-alike. I adjust. If nothing else, I can give them the truth. “Look, we’re all cranky. But I think we’ll feel better when we get to the park.”
The wall of heat that slams into us as soon as we step outside is not promising. It makes me long to retrieve the half sandwich I threw in the trash, if only for the twenty more minutes of air conditioning it would grant me. Fortunately, I can see the entrance to the park, half a block away. The boys and I resolutely step into the heat and pick up our pace. We stride down along the edge of the road, traffic whizzing past as I bark orders, “Keep left”, “Eyes up”, “Single file”.
As we reach the entrance, I am tempted to tear into the woods without picking up a map. But visions of lifeless bodies of campers mauled to death in Yosemite guide my steps to the office, trailing my single file of sons behind me. The office is a good choice because it has great air conditioning and books about animals for sale. The boys start thumbing the books happily, while I stand in line at the information desk.
Behind the counter I spot a sign for bike rentals. During that earlier family trip here, I remember my youngest brother and his wife renting bicycles and taking my young sons for a spin in a chariot that they pulled behind them. We still have the pictures. The boys peeking out of the chariot, Murphy clutching his bottle.
The line in front of the desk inches closer and I envision myself biking through the woods with my boys. Now that’s as good as a sailboat, I think. That’s a true adventure. Especially because we don’t normally bike. The boys have only recently mastered their two-wheelers at home. I dance on my feet a little. What harm would it do to just ask the rental prices? If it’s too expensive, question answered and we hike on.
By the time I get to the head of the line, my heart is fluttering. And it strikes me that my face might look a little too eager as I ask the man his prices.
“Seven bucks for a child’s bike,” he says.
“Only seven bucks? Really?” I say, a little breathless. “OK. Good. That’s very good. Seven bucks. I can do that. How about…Wait…”An image floats into my head of me on a tandem with Murphy the sullen grilled-cheese eater. I would save the day completely. I’d be super-cool mommy sailing through the mysterious woods on a tandem bike. The wind would whip through our hair as we laughed and bonded over the awesomeness of us being together on a completely spontaneous adventure. An adventuring mom with her sons. All for the low, low price of…
“How much for the tandem?” I ask, afraid of the answer.
“Fourteen for an hour.”
“Fourteen? Wow, that’s great.” I breathe out relief. “I thought it would be like a fifty or something crazy like that.”
The man gives me an unreadable smile.
Murphy appears at my elbow, “Mom, I get this 3-D tiger bookmark?”
I look down at him, “Not right now, honey. Because, we’re going on a totally awesome bike ride!”
(Next week The Bike Ride Part 2: The Case for Planning Ahead)