The Road Taken: Road to Paradise

The road to Paradise, on Mt. Rainier, is paved with bumps, narrow inclines, sharp turns, and some potholes. But if you look closely, you’ll also see, strewn across the road, my frazzled nerves and spit.

View of Mt. Rainier, circa 1979.

I started the camping trip with the good intentions, determined to put on my best, happiest face, engaging in an activity I would have given anything to avoid.  I was trying to psych myself into believing that we were on our way to a luxurious resort, somewhere along the ocean, where every need would be taken care of by somebody else and there would be no need to assemble a tent.  Just me and G.  Oh, and Joanie, too.

Joanie, who sat in the front seat to avoid nausea. Who got lightheaded if G drove too fast, or switched lanes too quickly. Who refused to read the map in the car and help us get back on track, when G missed the exit, as reading in the car made her queasy.  I sat in the back seat, fuming in silence, and unable to hear most of the conversation in the front, on account that G had brought a tape mix of songs by the Rolling Stones, Jethro Tull and The Who, and the bass was resonating in my ears.

Every once in a while, I could hear Joanie coquettishly say things like, “You’re so funny!” and “I never knew that!”  As the mindless chatter wore on, I calculated how many hours left to the end of the weekend.

Can we stop?” I asked, piercing their conversation dead in its tracks.

“We should be there in about an hour,” G replied, as he glanced my way.

“Yeah, but I need to stop now.”  The air in the car was feeling closed in. I needed to step out and breathe. I wanted to feel the cold morning air burst into my lungs. I wanted to feel alive, and not the way I was feeling now, as if I choking on the fumes of my last breath.

G pulled into a gas station, just past Puyallup. I jumped out of the car and walked a short distance. The air felt good inside me. Right about now, I would have given anything to be anywhere else but here. How did I let it reach this point?

Another view from 1979.

Joanie, pre-RV, was fun Joanie. Good Joanie. Kick in the pants Joanie. I loved hanging out with pre-RV Joanie. Why did the RV now feel like a cinderblock on my chest? I hated what this was doing to our friendship and wanted to make it stop. But first I wanted to slap her. Just once. Instead, I spit on the ground, disgusted with the acidic  taste in my mouth.

“You’re mad, aren’t you?”

I jumped. I hadn’t heard Joanie approach and wasn’t sure whether I should deny how I was feeling or tell her the truth. My mother had instilled in me the Latina woman’s honor code: Don’t say anything that will hurt anyone’s feelings. Be nice, Mónica.

“Joanie, why did you come? Spock wasn’t feeling well, so why didn’t you just stay home with him?”

She turned away from me, staring at a bicyclist who appeared to be having some trouble with his brakes across the street.  “I thought this would be exciting. All of us together.”

“I thought so, too! But we’re not all here, are we?”

I glanced back at our car and saw G leaning against it, reading the map. He must have felt my eyes on him for he looked up and winked at me.  I cherished his winks that made me feel so special.  Just a simple wink that conveyed his love and an assurance that he’d always look out for me. “You and me against the world, Moon Pie,” he’d often say.

“You used to be fun,” Joanie remarked dryly.

I felt a burst of rage come over me. ‘Cálmate, hija,’ I could hear my mother telling me. So I retreated to my corner. Besides, in that moment, Joanie looked so sad and pathetic, reminding me of a rag doll I’d once loved. I’d carry that doll wherever I went, up and down the stairs of our brownstone home in Queens. One day, I was playing with her in our backyard, while my mother planted daffodils. It started to pour and we darted inside.  It rained all night and it wasn’t until morning that I remembered I’d left the doll outside.  The rain had pummeled her, leaving her beaten and defeated. Her face was streaked with mud and she smelled like earth worms and wet grass.  I sobbed for my lost doll.

“Listen, Joanie. I don’t care anymore about the cross country trip. It’s ok. You don’t even have to finish paying me back. Let’s just go camping. There’s no reason why we can’t have fun on this trip.”

As we walked back to the car, I stopped, and looked at her squarely in the eye. “But from here on, you’re getting in the back. If you start feeling sick, just let us know. I’ll make sure we pull over.”

The next 24 hours were uneventful. I tried not to wonder why Joanie kept flirting with G, and why he didn’t seem to mind when she did. I tried not to feel the discomfort of sleeping on the hard surface of the ground. Instead, I concentrated on the light at the end of the tunnel.  ‘This too shall pass,’ my mother’s voice whispered to me.

Some time later, G prepared a romantic dinner for two.  We dined on scallops wrapped in bacon, angel hair pasta and asparagus. We talked about plans for the future. G had been accepted into grad school for the fall and was beaming. I was happy for him and enjoyed our celebratory meal. He even made dessert, chocolate mousse, creamy and rich.  Then, just as I was about to clear the dishes, he dropped on one knee and, with tears in his eyes, he proposed. Right there in the living room of our tree house. I nearly fell over in shock.

I couldn’t wait to tell Joanie and Spock so, the next day, I invited them over, assuming Joanie would be happy for me and give me some guidance on planning a wedding. I expected felicitations and well wishes from them both. Spock grinned and slapped G on the back. Joanie was another story. She became aloof and withdrawn, which left me baffled. That night, I asked G if he knew of any reason why Joanie acted that way, but G just shrugged. He couldn’t figure it out, either and, of course, I had no reason to question it further.

That was the last time Joanie ever spoke to me.  Years later, in the fallout of our divorce, I would remember the camping trip and wonder, what exactly did happen on that trip that I didn’t know about? Maybe nothing. Maybe.

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