Fall is here, which means a lot of us are hitting the trail to teach, speak, meet, and conduct all manner of business that keeps money and professional mobility flowing in our households. My slate is full this year and while I’m excited to be on the road – all those Bliss Spa beauty products and random talks with cab drivers in Midwestern towns – I dread not only saying goodbye to my four-year old, but saying hello. From my Blackberry at the airport, the phone in my hotel room, Skype on the screen of my MacBook, no matter the medium, I’d rather eat my arm than talk to my kid while I’m out of town.
You know how it is fellow sojourners: you long for your children the moment you see the airport sign on the highway. Suddenly nostalgic for the twang of the 5:45 alarm and epic daily corralling through teeth-brushing, face-washing, yogurt- and apple-eating, lunch-bagging and surreptitious eyelash-curling, you have inexplicably romantic thoughts about waiting for the bus or catching the subway with five million other people. You forget holding your breath when the man next to you sneezes five times in a row, and how often you wonder if you can get swine flu more than once. Or if you live outside of the city, you forget the pang of guilt you feel (the ozone, the future of the planet!) every time you turn on the air conditioner for the seemingly endless drive to school on nauseatingly curvy roads.
But these moments of waxing rhapsodic are fleeting, are they not? Mere hours later, comfortably ensconced in a room with a Heavenly Bed and a willing room-service delivery person, things change. There are movies on demand, movies you want to watch! The Wifi is perfect and you can work when you want to, at three a.m. say, without worrying about passing out the next day after morning drop-off. Did I mention you can pick up a phone, tell someone what you want to eat and then they . . . bring it to your door? A door you can answer in a long shirt and tights?
Yes, my friends. Things are good. Until the hideous red LED clock on the dark wood veneer nightstand creeps closer to what you have calculated to be bedtime at home. First you have an hour. Then twenty minutes. Five. Three. One. You pick up the phone with a heavy hand. Your mate answers, you brace yourself, and then you’re off to the races.
You say this first word cheerfully, with great excitement, because you know the first rule of calling home is sounding as if you have been waiting to talk to your spouse and children since the moment you kissed them goodbye at the airport when the truth is you haven’t thought of them for hours.
“How am I?”
You say this with a little more than a soupcon of aggravation because rule number two dictates you sound as if being away is positively awful, the worse thing EVER. Sounding like you’re having fun could cause jealousy and possibly even long-lasting feelings of betrayal. And so, even though you have largely recovered from the atrocities of air travel, you share only the truly dreadful details.
“Uch, the trip was terrible. Bad food. My seat was in the back of the plane, and the flight attendant treated me like I had leprosy. They tried to give me a room ten miles from the elevator. When I told the person at the desk, he moved me to a non-smoking room that smelled like an ashtray. You know how it is.”
Instead of pity, you are treated to a recounting of all of the extra work done in your absence. Adhering to rule three, you sympathize and share, from the bottom of your heart, how much you wish you were home to help. Which is more or less true, but the movie you’re watching on-demand has clicked back on after its three-minute pause, and you have to rush to silence it lest your partner think you’re luxuriating while he or she scrapes the burnt oatmeal out of the pot you left on the stove this morning.
Because you now feel guilty about the movie and yet understandably inspired by your twelve hours of solitude, you throw an offer out, forgetting the last time you did this it landed poorly.
“I’m so sorry, honey. I know it’s hard when I’m away. I’ll be back soon. When I get home, let’s pitch a tent in the backyard and have sex all night under the stars.”
Which, as it did the last time you tried it, wins a sarcastic retort. Something like, “Well at the moment, all I can think about is how I’m going to empty the diaper genie before the natural gases cause a explosion and feed Claire something other than packets of almond butter and honey.”
You roll your eyes but say nothing (rule number four). And then to get things back on track, you utter the words you’ve been dreading for the last few hours.
“Can I talk to the baby?”
And then it begins, the brutal exchange of barely intelligible grunts, awkward silences, and incoherent trains of thought masquerading as sentences. Ten minutes that sound more or less like this:
And then it begins, the brutal exchange of barely intelligible grunts, awkward silences, and incoherent trains of thought masquerading as sentences. You: “Hi honey! How are you? Mommy misses you so much!”
Honey: “What Mommy?”
You: “I miss you!”
Honey: “What Mommy?”
You: “I miss you!”
Honey: “Daddy didn’t use the right toothpaste when he brushed my teeth this morning.”
You: “Uh-huh. Well did you tell him it was the wrong toothpaste and show him where the other toothpaste is?”
You: “Honey? Did you tell Daddy to use the other one?”
Honey: “No. I’m hungry Mama. Are you still on the airplane? Is there food on the airplane?”
You: “No I’m not on the airplane anymore. I’m in the hotel.”
Honey: “You’re at the hotel? Where’s that? Is that on the airplane? I lost my red bouncy ball today and Daddy couldn’t find it. Are you still on the airplane?”
You: “No honey, I’m not on the airplane. Remember when we went to Los Angeles and we went to the hotel and the man brought you the chocolate milkshake? Remember the hotel? I’m in a hotel.”
Honey: “You’re in the hotel where we got the milkshake? Is that in the plane? Can I have a milkshake now or will the chocolate mess up my poopy?”
You feel as if you’d rather slit your wrists than continue this mother-child communication charade, but you must go on as everyone knows maintaining connection is the only way to keep your child from being irrevocably scarred in your absence (rule number five). You fight the urge to scream.
You, calmly: “Okay honey, give the phone back to Daddy.”
Honey: “But mommy? When are you coming home from the airplane? Are you coming home tomorrow?”
You: “No, honey. I’m coming home in four days.”
Honey: “Is that the day after tomorrow?”
You feel like pulling your fingernails out, but know you must not express one iota of frustration (rule number six).
“Give the phone back to Daddy.” You: “No, honey, but soon. Now let me speak to Daddy, okay? Mommy misses you. Sleep well. Love you.”
You: “Honey? Give the phone back to Daddy.”
Honey: “But I don’t want to give the phone back to Daddy.”
You: “Give the phone back to Daddy.”
Honey: “Mommy, when are you coming home?”
At which point if you’re lucky, your frustrated but still adoring spouse takes the phone and saves you from throwing it to the floor and stomping all over it.
Spouse (again, if you’re lucky): “We miss you babe. I’ll find the toothpaste. I love you. We’ll be here when you call tomorrow.”
Tears of gratitude well up in your eyes at this exquisite show of compassion.
“I love you too. Get some rest, okay? Don’t let them wear you out. Kiss.”
You hang up and lay flat on your bed, staring at the ceiling. You reach for the remote with your right hand and thank God you’ve got twenty-four more hours before you have to do it again.