I didn’t remember much about the night before. There had been dancing, champagne, a white dress with a grass-stained hem, 32 bobby pins in a row on the bedspread, and a mosquito.
“Do you remember the mosquito?” I turned to my new husband in the driver’s seat. His eyes—like mine—were bleary and red, and happy.
“It landed on your forehead during the vows.”
On the three-hour drive from Connecticut to Vermont, we were comparing notes on our wedding day, which neither of us remembered in its entirety.
“I don’t think anyone else noticed. But when you said ‘I do,’ the mosquito was drinking out of your forehead.” I laughed and, once laughing, couldn’t stop. My eyes filled with tears again and I blotted them away. My eyelids were raw and gritty. Everything we said made us cry.
“I don’t remember that part.” Doug smiled, dangerously close to the brink himself. “All I really remember was putting the ring on your finger.” He choked on the words and I handed him a tissue from the box wedged between us.
The casual observer might think us pathetic. But we were exhausted and we already missed the family and friends who had gathered together for one too-brief evening before waving us down my parents’ driveway in my little sister’s yellow Jeep Wrangler.
The drive we were making now was one my family had made every winter weekend for twelve years. On Fridays my parents would pick Brenna and me up from school and we would head to Mount Snow where we had a little condo and took ski lessons. Sunday night after ski class, we drove three hours home again. If you add up twelve years of three-hour drives, we spent 1,512 hours on the road. That’s 63 whole days, or nine weeks of straight driving. No matter how you measure it, that’s one damn long car ride.
I grew up on Interstate 91. We drove from Mystic through Hartford, up through Massachusetts to the base of the Green Mountains, where we left the highway for the rural Route 9. At the Dutton Orchard, we met a stream that ran beside the car like a puppy all the way to the Adams’ Farm. We would pause at Candlelight Video (now gone) to rent the weekend’s movies, then stop at Grampy’s (later Christy’s, now 7-Eleven) where Dad would get gas while Mom bought cheese and crackers and toilet paper.
Ten minutes from our weekend home, we drove straight up the hill beside the ski mountain, turned right through the gate to Greenspring Developments, and wound through a labyrinth of little streets to our driveway, where our condo was illuminated by a streetlight that rose out of a giant heap of snow.
As we turned the corner, Brenna and I would take bets on the height of the snow heap, which we would later riddle with a network of tunnels using wooden kitchen spoons.
Vermont was my other home and I spent half of my childhood growing up in that house. I couldn’t wait to introduce Doug to my childhood. I would show him the pictures of Brenna and me skiing at ages six, seven, eight, eighteen; the grandfather clock that Dad wound up every Friday night; the back porch that was always hidden under six feet of snow.
I would take Doug to the Silo restaurant, where we ate dinner on Saturdays. I would take him up the ski lift and then we’d walk all the way down the leaf-covered ski trails, looking for bears, as my family had done every October since I could remember.
When Doug and I hit Hartford, I began to point out the familiar sights from the car window.
“There’s the bridge with the red balloons.”
“I think those are suspension weights,” said my husband, the architect.
“Whatever. I always thought they looked like balloons.”
“OK.” He took my hand. “Then they’re balloons.”
“And there’s the Basketball Hall of Fame,” I pointed out the long, concrete stadium adorned with basketball players in bas relief.
“Did you ever go there?” he asked.
“No. We never stopped in Hartford.”
We never stopped, period. My father drove as if there was a finish line. We tail-gated and dodged in and out of traffic, but Brenna and I always felt safe in nests of blankets and pillows in the back seat.
We were pulled over only once—ironically on one of the rare occasions when Dad wasn’t driving all that fast. On a deserted country road, fifteen minutes from the condo, the inside of the car was suddenly flooded with arcs of red and blue light. Mom put down her knitting needles and Dad pulled over.
“Is there a problem, officer?” he asked, in his dangerously calm voice. The vein in his temple bulged in the red light from the police car.
“Do you know how fast you were going?”
“Yes,” he rumbled. “Exactly 42 miles-per-hour.”
“That’s right,” the officer said, “and the speed limit is 35.” He handed Dad a ticket.
Our pace did not allow for sight-seeing or sit-down dinners. We only ate at restaurants we could drive through, never coming to a full stop as Dad exchanged dollar bills for Happy Meals and kept right on rolling past the window.
And God help us if we had to pee. There were no bathroom breaks.
It got to be a phobia. Mom and I, alike in our OCD tendencies, would visit the bathroom three times each before climbing into the car. My sister never learned.
“Here’s a coke can.” Dad would say, and without taking his eyes from the road, he would wrap his arm behind the seat and hand her the can. She would throw a tantrum—and because she and Dad were so much alike—Dad would yell back.
Brenna never actually used the can. But she did have to trudge up to the tree line and squat in the bushes off the highway. And once, in the middle of Hartford where the road has no shoulder, or trees, or bushes, Dad pulled onto the highway median and Brenna peed while cars zipped past on either side. She never got over that.
“I guess we did stop in Hartford once, then.” I told Doug.
There was one gas station where we were allowed to stop. It was in a cul-de-sac right on the line between Massachusetts and Vermont. As we approached the station, Brenna and I knew to put our shoes back on and shrug into our coats so we would be ready to jump from the car before the engine died. We’d be back just as Dad finished pumping the gas, and then we’d be off again, on our way up into the mountains, where Dad assured us there were no more bathrooms.
Besides being the last rest stop in Vermont, the gas station marked our ascent up the mountain. One more hour and we were home. This was my favorite part of the drive because the highway gave way to country roads. It was Brenna’s favorite part of the drive because of Dusty.
Brenna had always wanted a horse. When she was six, she was convinced Santa Claus would leave her a pony under the Christmas tree. I tried to prepare her for disappointment, but she had faith in Santa. Christmas morning, when she burst into the living room to find merely a stuffed pony under the branches, she threw a tantrum.
Then she adopted Dusty, a gray horse who lived on a farm just inside the Vermont border. Of course, we never stopped to meet him. But as we drove past, Dad would compromise by slowing down just a little so Brenna could wave. When she was six, he was a pony. He was young and glossy—and shy, even then. He grazed in the shadows under the eaves of the barn.
The barn was our signal to change the music. We had two tapes: The Clancy Brothers live in Concert with Tommy Makem and The Christmas Revels. We listened to The Clancy Brothers during the first part of the drive, and The Christmas Revels during the second.
We had other tapes at home, but the soundtrack to this drive was composed solely of Irish Folk and Christmas carols. Variation ended in disaster. In 1997 Brenna implored us to listen to Hanson’s debut album Middle of Nowhere, featuring the hit song “MMMBop.” In a badly miscalculated attempt at humor, I noted that all of the songs sounded the same. Brenna was sensitive about her music—and her adoration of the youngest Hanson brother. She screamed at me. Dad screamed at Brenna. Mom screamed at Dad. And we never strayed from our tapes again. We knew every word of every song on both albums, and the four of us sang along, like the Partridge Family, only off-key.
I stopped singing along when I was a teenager. Instead, I sat in the far back seat and wrote in my journal, frustrated and restless to be riding in the car with my parents and little sister when I’d rather stay home for the school dance.
I labored over increasingly difficult homework assignments in the dim passenger light that aimed a filtered halo onto my US History book. Sighing in misery, I stared out the window with my Physics book spread across my lap, open to an impenetrable chapter on torque. Later still, I plodded through SAT practice tests and drafted countless college application essays.
And every winter, Dusty’s head dipped a little closer to the ground, his legs curved into a curtsy, his fine, straight back bowed, his coat dulled. We started holding our breath as we approached the barn, afraid to find the farmyard empty.
We’d crane our necks, catch sight of the vacant plot of grass behind the fence, and begin to cry out—only to spot him finally in his old place near the wall, his coat now as weathered as the wood, as though he had become part of the barn.
The trips to Vermont ended when I went to college. My sister decided she wanted to be an actress, so weekends began to fill with auditions and plays. When Brenna went away to college, my parents put the house up for sale.
A couple put in a bid a week before the wedding. Dad agreed to sell, on the condition that Doug and I could spend our honeymoon in the house before the new owners moved in. As we packed the yellow Jeep, my parents told me to take a look around and take anything I might want, before the house—and everything in it—belonged to someone else. I knew this was my last drive.
“Slow down,” I implored as we approached the barn on the side of the empty road.
“What is it?” Doug gave me a puzzled look, but eased off the gas. As we rolled very quietly, very slowly past the barn, I looked for Dusty.
“There he is!” I shouted, startling Doug, who followed my finger to the dark corner of the farmyard where the old gray horse leaned against the gray wood.
“Want to pull over and go meet him?” Doug asked, edging toward the side of the road.
“No! Oh no, we can’t stop,” I said, almost panicked at the thought. “We never stop.”
“Just this once,” he said, and put the car in park.
Compared to 1,512 hours or 63 days or nine weeks on the road, this final car trip passed very quickly. Just three hours—a fraction of a lifetime spent en route.
As we crossed the road, I thought about all the times my family had driven past this barn. The last ten years, like the stripes on the highway, like my wedding day, went by in a blur. It’s funny what stands out.
An old gray horse next to an old shed. The Gypsy Rover. A flash of police car lights behind us on a dark country road. The ache of a full bladder. The click of knitting needles from the front seat. A mosquito on the forehead of the man who was about to become my husband.
Doug and I leaned together on the rickety fence and Dusty swished the flies away from his gray rump with his gray tail.
“Hi Dusty.” I held out my hand, palm up. He sighed a great gust that quivered his nostrils and raised his big, liquid eyes. He didn’t come over, but Doug and I stood at the fence for a few more minutes, keeping him company. Then we climbed into the car and headed back out on the road.