Erik Quinn: The Heart of a Family: Absence Makes the Heart Grow

Monday, March 24, 2008

Absence Makes the Heart Grow

Erik is in a different state today. We loaded up the car yesterday morning for an Easter road trip. Brian's brother and his family simultaneously drove towards us from their home in Idaho to meet us in a small farming community hours across the desert. The drive was quiet and uneventful except for a large chicken crossing the highway as we left town, which Brian avoided turning into roadkill. Erik enjoyed the collection of snacks I packed and movies on his portable DVD player. He glanced up to admire tractors and cows as we passed, but there wasn't a lot to look at. He soon tired of traveling and asked to go outside. I shed my tennis shoes in order to go back and forth between my seat and the back of the vehicle to join Erik, a feat that is much easier for me this year after getting in shape. I held Erik in my arms on the drive and attempted to snort every last molecule of the scent of his hair I could before we had to say goodbye for a portion of spring break.

We finally arrived in a small community with more dealerships for tractors than for cars and saw Brad's gigantic, gleaming Ford truck parked in front of a greasy spoon with a large, yellow sign announcing the place served home cooking. Amazingly, the establishment was open on a holiday afternoon. My sister-in-law looked up from where she sat in the truck, and her face lit up as she spotted me. We grinned and exchanged our usual dorky waves.

Once we were parked, we greeted Brad, Dawnita, and our two rapidly growing nephews and made our way into the restaurant, where we were welcomed by a slim waitress attempting to fill out a pair of Wranglers and a crisp, striped button-down shirt. She was pleasant, but it was quite apparent she ate very little from the menu and seemed less than enthusiastic about food in general. Dawnita and I made our way to the pitiful little salad bar, where I said a prayer requesting that I not contract salmonella and dished up a plate of vegetables drenched in wine vinegar. Why they insist on putting the pale, miniature corn cobs that taste like dirt on every salad bar in America is beyond me. I ended up enjoying my meal and watched Erik eat crispy french fries and half of a buttery toasted sandwich oozing bright orange cheese. Amazingly, he also drank most of a giant glass of cold milk. A handful of locals dressed in their Sunday best silently smiled at our nephrews' antics. Erik smiled, too.

Our pleasant lunch was soon over, and we headed out to our vehicles. I changed Erik's diaper one last time in the back seat and tugged his suitcase out of the back of our Jeep so it could be be loaded into the back of the big truck. Brad and Dawnita buckled Erik in a car seat between his two cousins in the back of the crew cab. He smiled at me, unsure of what was going on, and we said goodbye.

Brian and I then started our car and headed back the way we came across the desert. The emptiness of Erik's seat in the back was painfully palpable to me, but I knew I would feel better as soon as we got home and stopped traveling. I chased a chalky anti-anxiety tablet I keep for road trips with a swallow of cold and gritty leftover coffee and turned on the stereo. Brian spotted a simple brown sign showing the outline of a glass of water and pulled over. There was a natural spring by the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere. It was a place we had wanted to stop before but had not chosen to do so with a small, impatient boy in the car. A pair of thin metal pipes jutted out of the rock cliff and came down to our level. Cool water spurted out of the end of another pipe set in a small, crude pedestal made of lava rock held together with old concrete. Graffiti in a kaleidoscope of colors, some of it relatively ancient, was sprayed over the rocks that surrounded us. There were neon-colored markings left by best friends, lovers, and graduating teenagers from years past. I finally dared to bend down and take a drink from the water that magically spurted out of the desert rock. It tasted wonderfully sweet on my tongue. Fuzzy childhood memories flooded back to me, sparked by the taste. We walked back to our vehicle and continued our drive. Soon we reached the only town with any significance whatsoever on the trip. Brian took a right at one of the only stoplights there and headed up a deserted street, past a small grocery store to a building shaped like a giant, taupe-colored circus tent. An impressive tangle of poorly hidden, chunky duct work on the side of the building hinted at how hot the place became inside during the summer. He identified the place as the casino he and his friends went to on their way fishing in the mountains last year. There were signs indicating where we should park if the place was full, but we found a spot in front in a nearly deserted gravel lot. I put on a coat of lipstick, and we made our way to the building.

Even though Brian told me about visiting this casino before, I could never quite picture the place in my mind. Now I know I will never forget it. We entered through wood and glass double doors that shut with a loud bang. I kept my PTSD in check and managed to not hit the floor. It was very dark inside with little decoration compared to the gorgeous Native American casinos consisting of the beautiful timber, glass, and neon I was familiar with. It seemed that the very smell of the decomposing tent was instantly offensive, as if someone had stepped in something foul and had only managed to scrape a portion of it off. A friendly security guard at a front desk greeted us, and we made our way to the center of the giant structure. We saw rows and rows of dying slot machines. The ones that did not have an "out of order" sign on them looked as if they had electronic cataracts over them, making it difficult to see the display. I found a vacant seat at one, which wasn't very difficult, and put $20 in. I pushed the "spin reels" button. A feeble gurgle of chimes announced I had won $2.50, and I cashed out, feeling creeped out. A very attractive young man offered to bring me coffee or soda and called me "ma'am." I smiled back, amused at the formality in this setting, and declined. By now, the smell was beginning to get to me. Through a set of metal doors, I could see that it looked as if the bingo room had been cleared of all of its former furniture, and it was almost completely dark inside. I spotted Brian, who had made his way over to a bank of brand new machines with fancy double displays. He was drinking a Styrofoam cup of Sierra Mist over ice. I sat down next to him, and we spent the next hour or so giggling and gambling. We lost everything we fed into our machines, but we had a great time. We got up and walked out holding hands. The dimly-lit lunch counter in another part of the tent emitted the very faint, welcoming smell of something fried, but it quickly lost the battle against the general odor of the building and was lost. Brian offered to buy me something to eat, but I declined, even though my stomach was growling like an angry bear. As we made our way to the exit, I glanced into a video arcade, apparently for children, and saw it was empty. Half of the games inside were unplugged with signs crudely taped on them. The bored-looking security guard thanked us for coming in, and we found ourselves back in the parking lot, which was lit by the setting sun. I felt as if I stepped out of a Stephen King novel and realized the scent of the place had sunk into every one of my pores. We hit the Subway sandwich shop on the way out of town, where Brian purchased a foot-long Veggie Delite with honey mustard for me, and I scarfed it down as if I had not eaten in days.

On the last leg of our drive home, the remnants of snowbanks sagged in the spring temperatures, and we occasionally pointed out the white rumps of antelope herds. I spotted the glowing eyes of a deer glancing at our car as we whizzed past. It was making its way down an ancient, jagged lava flow, trying to disappear into the sagebrush. I watched a portion of a movie on the tiny screen of my iPod as Brian drove, cursing myself for forgetting to bring my Will and Grace box set to watch on Erik's DVD player to keep my mind off of how much I missed my boy.

Now that we are home, we are free to do as we please, but my heartstrings are pulled tight. The initial reports we have received indicate that Erik is doing just fine, although he had a bit of a crying spell early this morning. He has asked for us both, something that is still fairly new. We will spend a few days apart for the second time since he was born. I remember the days when he didn't notice my presence or absence at all and how it broke my heart into a billion pieces.

My, how times have changed.

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Blogger Katie said...

I felt as though i was right there at that casino with you. Your ususal beautiful writing Nancy, warms me on a cold day.
Im glad for you that Eric misses you, and im glad he is also having fun. Enjoy this time for yourself.

4:53 PM  
Blogger camille said...

Wow, what a trip. Just thinking about leaving Connor pulls my heartstrings too. We haven't ever left him over night yet, but might do that this summer if we both end up going to a wedding in Canada.
I hope Erik has a wonderful time with his cousins and that you and your hubby enjoy a few quiet days together.

5:06 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

I know you will miss him, but try to enjoy this time by yourself.

8:01 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

What a trip!
Try to enjoy your time.

3:16 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

"We got up and walked out holding hands." Love it! Enjoy your time, get naked, have fun, Erik will be home soon.

9:42 AM  
Blogger Every minute counts.... said...

Enjoy your time together. I have been thinking that, Chris and I may need some time to ourselves soon too.


11:43 AM  
Blogger kathi said...

I'm extremely proud of you.

8:47 PM  

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