I’m an experienced camper, if by “camper” you mean “cheap-hotel-sleep-inner.” Every summer, we’d all climb into a car and hit the open road, bonding at national parks and monuments within two or three days’ drive of our strategically located home. (That’s one thing about the Midwest you can’t make fun of! It’s right where it says it is!) After a few summers of flailing at tent stakes and loudly exclaiming that there’s no soap anywhere!!!, my dad realized my brother and I are pussies and gave up on the sleeping outdoors part of camping.
If you’ve never seen America from its fuckhouses, you’ve never really seen it. Sometimes the places were nice: in Estes Park, Colorado, we stayed at a cute little b&b where one of the breakfast guests was a high school teacher from Little Rock who really didn’t want to talk about his job. We stayed close enough to the strip of Gatlinburg, Tennessee (think Branson without entertainment) to walk to its Ripley’s museum and infinity fudge shops. For the most part, though, we stayed at places that put $45 coupons in truck stop magazines under ads usually containing the words RV PARKING, FREE CBS, and NO CHECKS.
Whatever you may think of hooker graveyards, it was worth it. They’re barely more expensive than campgrounds, easy to set up and take down, and always close to one of this great land’s many middle-of-nowhere diners. Anyone who tells you they prefer campfire beans to weird buffalo-meat sandwiches named after drunken regulars is a lying poser who should be strung up by his Timberland bootlaces. (Though the diners aren’t always great: there’s a place somewhere in South Dakota that sells five cent cups of Skoal dissolved in engine degreaser and calls it “coffee.” The waitresses are pretty cute, but be advised that all their dates end in watching men drown.)
I recall our mom being there at least once, but in general, these were boys-only affairs. At first I didn’t care one way or another. She said she didn’t like camping and that was that. As I approached my tween years I kind of relished it. Sure, I didn’t get why she’d say no when Dad clearly said there’d be no camping, but this was our thing now. Once a year we’d have the chance to eat junk food in the car and go to a palace made of corn and scream at canyons like men, like overweight, effeminate men.
It wasn’t until I was thirteen and she finally took us on a vacation that I got it. Our vacation was her vacation.
I don’t know what she did when we were gone, if anything, but I’m sure it helped her keep her sanity a couple extra years. About a year previous, she’d coincidentally started getting scheduled for every Sunday shift the public library system could give. Around the same time, she started taking online courses that ate up what little free time she had. Most days, she’d come home and head straight to her room to get to work again. Probably half of the conversations I remember with her from this time happened on opposite sides of a closed door.
Notice how I didn’t mention a story about my mom in the non-confrontational section last time? It’s because it’s impossible to pick one. Let’s review: She 1. slept in her own room, 2. never bothered to update her vacation excuse, and 3. wouldn’t come to church despite the threat of eternal damnation! Yeesh. Despite my motel experience, I’d be a shitty concierge. I can’t tell when someone checks out.
One spring, my mom announced that she was taking us to Cedar Point in Ohio. If you don’t know what that is, you had a joyless childhood, because it’s the best amusement park in the world. Go demand an apology from your parents, then eat some candy. It tastes like something now, doesn’t it? Anyway, don’t worry about anything, because she’s worked out the expenses and she’s paying for it all. Here are the dates, chosen in advance not to conflict with anything; here are the tickets and hotel reservations. You kids like rollercoasters, right? Great, because the three of us are going to go to a place full of them!
Even then, I was too in denial to see what was happening. I mean, shit, dude, rollercoasters. The best ones. No mosquito bites or forced visits to churches with leery inbred kids who ask what cities are like on what’s supposed to be our Sunday off or finding out that Mount Rushmore is kind of bullshit.
Up to that point I only barely registered the oddness of spending all my parent bonding time with one or the other. This time it was real, like a trial divorce before the divorce trial. You know how hacky sitcoms show kids when mom’s gone for a few days? First they breathe free air, bucking her dictatorial restrictions, then they descend into anarchy because she’s not there to tell them to eat vegetables and only shit in the toilet. It was a weird inversion of that.
On one hand, we got to play our Tenacious D CDs and talk about our school crushes without getting a sex lecture, even say a fuckword or two, but on the other we were coming to the realization that the dad usually gets in that episode. He learns that his kids only know him as the void where mom isn’t, there to impose his will on big things every now and then and take everyone out for ice cream once a month. Then he pledges that gosh dangit, he’s going to be a more active parent, starting now. Jimmy, get that thing out of your mouth!
I barely knew my mother. And I just figured it out then, while spending a few days living in her world and seeing how different it was. How’s that for a rollercoaster?
My dad comes off as a clueless jackass in the last entry, and my mom like a distant robot in this one. That’s not really my aim. I just want to show you how far apart they were. This blog, after all, is about me, not them. A big part of my weirdness comes from being raised by two people who didn’t have enough in common to have kids, but did anyway, only clearing up the mixed messages when they got around to raising us they way they should’ve from the start: in two different houses.
Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion, where I try to bring comedy to the darkest moments of my life and fly up my own ass with messages!