By 2 a.m. I was officially starting to see things. “Even Santa Wears a Seatbelt!” flashed the sign on the road between Maryland and Tennessee as we drove 80 miles an hour in our rented silver sedan on I-78 South. Instead, what I saw before blinking twice was “Dead Santa Wears a Seatbelt.”
I pulled my passenger’s side seat upright with a jolt and unlocked my seat belt. “Dude, we need to find a hotel now,” I told my husband as he scanned the highway, six hours on our way from New York into the heart of Virginia. When I started getting cranky earlier, he told me to drift off and that he’d plow through the remaining two states (something he had done many times as a road comic traveling the country). Here I was acting like a lightweight.
“I thought we were going to go all night,” he said. “I’m fine. You rest.”
My hair was wrapped up in a careless ponytail, my makeup was smeared, and I was covered head to toe in T-shirts and dresses I yanked out of my suitcase in lieu of a proper blanket. (So much for being the Über-prepared traveler.) In protest to his suggestion, I threw them off and started whining.
“I can’t sleep in the car,” I pleaded. “I thought I could. But I need a bed. A real bed with pillows and blankets and a comforter. Right now.”
My husband looked at me, alarmed, touched my cheek, and we pulled off at the first exit we could find. There, we came upon a stucco-covered two-and-a-half-star dive motel with free cookies and a plastic Christmas tree in the lobby. I bounced impatiently next to him as he checked in and grabbed the plastic keycard before he even had a chance to give our rental car’s license-plate number. I had been working nonstop before we took this trip, and I was extremely sleep-deprived. What had started as a fun whim to bypass the airport holiday mania was quickly turning into a bad acid trip with four wheels.
Inside our dreary beige motel room, I was asleep before my husband could even kiss me goodnight. I slept long and hard and dreamt about a flying car (wishful thinking?). I woke up, feeling slightly more human and looked at my husband sitting at the desk in our room, in what seemed like a mansion compared to our tiny studio apartment back home.
“Where are we?” I croaked.
“I honestly have no idea,” he said. “But I want to leave immediately.”
I pulled on an orange plaid dress over ripped black pants with long striped blue and green sports socks inside out.
“I’m ready,” I said.
He laughed. “You know, that’s one thing I really love about you. Other women wouldn’t dare leave the house looking like that — but not you.”
We checked out of our little hovel, and I took the wheel and quickly put on driver’s choice: Joe Eszterhas’s Hollywood Animal on audiobook.
“I have a crazy idea,” my husband said. “What if we tried talking?”
I laughed. “Yeah, we could do that.”
What proceeded became the defining moment of why this car trip was actually the greatest ill-conceived idea ever. Perhaps it was our side-by-side proximity and the fact that there was no escape, but we somehow, without really trying, broke through a wall we had been trying to communicate through for months. Maybe for our whole relationship. We weren’t talking about all new subjects, per se, but we were listening to each other in a different way.
“I want to be closer to you,” I said quietly. “I go off into my own head. I dissociate, and I know that’s keeping me from having the kind of sex that would bring us closer.”
This was no “airline peanuts and a complimentary issue of SkyMall”-level small talk. This was a truly intimate and painful revelation that I hadn’t even ventured into during our time in marriage counseling. And yet, here we were, with four more hours on our drive to go. Maybe this car trip was the best gift we could give each other. Our only choice was to talk it out.
“How can I help with that?” he asked.
“Make sure I’m in the moment,” I said. “Too often I escape into fantasy, and it makes me feel lonely and isolated. I do it to myself. Just talk to me when you see that I’m going somewhere else.”
“I can do that,” he said, and put his hand on my leg.
The remaining hours passed — along with two hours of closely confined bonding — and we had arrived in Tennessee. The car looked like an explosion of candy wrappers, soda bottles, and clothing.
If the dive motel in Virginia was a mansion compared to our apartment, this four-star hotel in Tennessee was like a small desert island we could rule without mercy. I spread out socks on the hotel safe and put my contact lenses on the coffeemaker.
It wasn’t long before we were on the road again to visit my husband’s father, which was an incredibly gratifying visit. We pored through old photo albums and knick knacks, shared stories and I learned about my father-in-law’s childhood in Tennessee, which involved waking up at daybreak to milk cows.
On Christmas Eve, we traveled to a family farm outside of Atlanta, where I got to actually pet and feed a cow (damn, that tongue is scratchy!) and meet tons of relatives I never had before, including my husband’s adorable little nieces, who fell asleep in my arms.
Before conversations and food-passing began, my husband addressed the room. “Hey, everybody. If you haven’t met my wife yet, this is Mandy,” he said. “And I promise, this is the last one.” Everyone laughed, and we ate.
My husband was booked to do shows back in New York on Christmas Day, so we hit the road super early the following morning, armed with hotel coffee and stale bagels. “Why don’t we talk some more?” he said, turning down the volume on the radio. We had ten hours ahead of us.
“Okay,” I replied. “Why don’t you tell me about some of the other road trips you’ve taken?”
“How much time you got?” he said.
“Honestly,” I said. “Forever.”
We drove on into the sunrise.