by Nathan Leslie
Blotches of rain slopping the windshield. Wipers smear them silly. The satellite radio is out. Forgot to pay the bill. Should’ve gone automatic billing. Have to pull the vehicle over. Needs more oil. Something is wrong, that’s for sure. Gracie is unamused, or I think she is. It could be sarcasm. Irony? She’s younger than me, so sometimes I misread her. Sometimes I’m not as astute as I could be in the all-important street smarts category.
“It’s fine, Gil,” she says. “Don’t worry.”
And she seems earnest. She’s smiling true. It’s my smile. It’s the one that says relax. But how can I? It’s the one that says you’re being ridici. But am I? Do I distrust too easily? The worst usually does happen, eventually.
I’m under the hood, capping the engine. I’m watching oil drip from underneath. Like a mechanical udder.
I wish I knew how to fix one damn thing in life. I’d be a better person than I am.
Sweat sops my shirt.
“Screw it,” I say and let the hood drop. “Let’s go to Middleton.”
We’re only eleven point six miles away.
Once a month we do these little getaways. We drive an hour. We drive two. It’s Coupletime! It’s time to bond, to coalesce. It’s important for our relationship. We’ve made agreements. We’ve made compromises. We stay away from big cities. We stay away from corporate America. It has to be small towny or rural. Quaint. We’re striving for authenticity. We’re trying to purchase realness. We’re trying to fund our true selves in quilted America.
Problem is only so many rural enclaves and small towns within a few hours. We’ve hit most of them. If we wanted to be obnoxious and self-aware we could blog. We could pitch a book to some boutique press.
So we are on repeats now. Unavoidable. We have a rotation.
Gracie likes this, says it brings back the warm memories. She says each experience is its own thing. Different seasons. Different people. Different aspirations. Moods.
I don’t like the second time around. It’s almost, without exception, disappointing. This goes for movies, restaurants, lovers. The novelty of discovery is the pleasure.
Gracie calls me neurotic.
“No,” I say. “Just smart.”
But I’m right about the second time through.
To wit: we arrive at the Red Fox Inn, a B&B just off Main Street Middleton. Last time we stayed at the Horse and Stable, which was small and truly charming and perfect. This time we thought the Red Fox would/could be a bit of an upgrade. It’s not an upgrade.
The “innkeeper” wearing a red and gold uniform, which smacks of hotelery cliché (Gracie disagrees), takes us to our room, which is new and comes equipped with a flat screen and an HVAC and a rug featuring little macaroni patterns in “tasteful” maroon and burnt orange on a field of Kelly green.
This does not strike me as authentic or quaint. It strikes me as overly calculated.
I’m immediately considering cancellation.
We can’t without paying for the room.
“Can you remove the television?”
“Is there a problem with the television?”
“I’m sure it’s a fine television. We just would like to read.”
“Yes, sir. I see. However, perhaps you may want to watch television at some point during your stay? It does also play music.”
“No. We don’t watch television.”
“Is it a problem to keep the television and simply leave it off?”
“Yes, it is,” I say. “It’s distracting.”
So then we have to go through this entire rigmarole about the television in which I become defensive and she becomes—what?—insistent or bristling?
Gracie interrupts and says we’ll just take the room as is.
“Let it go,” she says. “We can ignore the television.”
“You can,” I say. “I cannot.”
“Then I will ignore the television. You can practice working on that area of your personality.”
Which is true.
See, the last B&B in which we stayed was perfecto in every way. Pineapple wallpaper. Quilts on the bed. Quilts on the walls. Little framed quilts on the doors. Little carved wooden men on little carved wooden shelves. Victorian gables and peaks and creaky wooden stairs and floors. Lace and silk and whatnot.
We had perfecto candlelit dinners with wine from the local wineries. Artesian everything. Pork chops with little dollops of mango chutney and cilantro and chives sprinkled just so. Sweet potato mash. Fried organic tomatoes. Blueberry/blackberry pie a la mode.
We scoured the local wineries, which were (I have to admit) perfecto. The weather was dry and cool. The air was filled with beneficent tidings. Birds chirped playfully from the bush, but failed to dive-bomb us or shit in our hair. I noticed the absence of conflict.
And the wines tasted of chinaberry and cantaloupe and hints of chocolate or Craisins or barbecue flavored Fritos or whatnot. And the ladies who dispensed the wine were pretty and sweet and played with the tendrils of their hair just enough to seem flirtatious, but not enough to measure as any kind of threat to Gracie (at least not stated). The result was buzzy lovemaking with just a hint of possessiveness—as instigated by the casual flirtations. Yes, the quilts took something away from the sensuality of the moment for me. No, I wouldn’t have objected to the presence of one or more of the wine scags in the room—either watching or joining in. However, all in all, the previous trip was a certain A.
Second time around. B&B corporate. Gracie and I at odds over how much to confront them or just let it be.
“Let’s relax, okay?”
I tell her I can’t relax if the place has bad Qi, or whatnot.
“Wasn’t expecting televisions and all,” I say. “This is to get a break from that.”
I want to confront her about her lack of validation for my perfectionistic nitpicking.
“I’m tired,” she says. Curls away from me. There was no curling away from me last time.
I try to renegotiate. Change the mood before I sour it completely. Let it go, as advised.
“Your hair looks very nice,” I say. I feel absurd kowtowing.
She nods, head away from me.
Then we don’t say anything for a while.
“Where would you like to go for dinner? What are you feeling like?”
She shrugs. Wherever.
“A burger or something is fine,” she says.
She never wants a burger. Worse, a burger means giving up on romantic/sexual aspirations. It means a restaurant which plays “More Than a Feeling” as background music.
This is one of those fucking relationship stories.
So we eat burgers at a mid-tier place, one half-step up from bar food. Really glorified bar food, in actuality.
I eat fries and a Caesar salad along with my “chipotle burger.” This is how quickly the weekend has gone south. We talk about her friend, Carmen, who is involved with a man twice her age. I protest.
“Kinda gross, isn’t it?”
“Why are you so judgey all of a sudden?”
“We’re just talking.”
“You’re older than me, in case you forgot.”
“No, I haven’t. You won’t let me.”
“You are older than me.”
“But not that much older.”
“So what’s the difference really?”
I eat my (non-artisanal) French fries.
A low point.
The second time around is never as good as the first.
We skip dessert.
Lest I forget—it rains the entire weekend. During the tv debate, during dinner, during post-dinner walk around time, during the winery fiascos—raining blobby disgusting, oily splotches of rain all over us. The entire time. On this coupledom Mecca—or so it has been touted—raining. Pissing rain.
We quickly walk down Main Street from the burger place down past the dressage stores, past the country squire shops, past the bookstores featuring leather bound tomes, past the antiquey knick-knack shops.
One of these stores has an autumn harvest display. Scarecrow and pumpkins and gourds and the like. Fancified. As we walk past, a mouse crawls out of the scarecrow eyehole and skitters across the fancy pants store. It’s perfect. The best moment of the weekend.
That night we watch some kind of antique roadshow on television. Gracie doesn’t feel like much else, she says. We don’t drink wine or champagne or cuddle or read or listen to music. We watch the screen. We don’t screw. It’s as if we never left home.
In the morning we eat frozen bagels and prune juice. They are out of coffee so we drink weak tea. Yum. They are out of orange juice so we drink water. I ask if they have cream cheese, but all they have is margarine.
We shower and dress and drive to the winery number one—or try to, but the car is completely out of oil so we have to call Triple A to come out. Two hours later they finally do, only to tell us what we already fucking know, which is that our car has a leaky oil tank.
“You should get that looked at,” the guy says.
“Thanks a million,” I say. I try to not make it sound sarcastic.
We take the Cork Shuttle instead. The Cork Shuttle is filled with (already) drunken ex-sorority types with tans and ankle bracelets and those stupid plastic wrist things. They drink wine from plastic glasses or straight from the bottle and gnaw on little wedges of organic smoked gouda and water crackers.
Gracie and I sit in the back.
“Hey, don’t you two wanna have some fun?” One of the sorority types chortles before we even get to the first winery.
“No,” I say. “Not particularly.”
They take me seriously, but the upside is: there is more us from that point forward. A good thing.
The wine tastes vinegary at the first one and there’s an odd fecal smell wafting from the vineyard.
“Do vineyards use cow manure?” I ask Gracie.
She bobs her head and says she doesn’t smell anything.
“It’s all natural. Relax.”
I am told to relax often.
The second one has a wide assortment of fruity sweet dessert wines—which all taste like liquefied jam to me, in essence.
The sorority ladies are toasted.
In the Cork Shuttle one moley woman vomits on my pants, then smears it around with some tissue paper.
“That’s okay,” I say. “I’ll keep the memory safe.”
The third winery won’t let me in as a result of my funkified pants. They let the puker in, however, no sweat.
“If you have a paper apron on or something,” I say, “I can change into that.”
“We’re not a hospital ward,” she says. “Hospital” makes the point, I think.
“I mean, I’m sure you’ve had this happen before,” I say. “Accidents do happen.”
“It’s a first, actually,” the woman says. “I have to say.”
She’s one of those overly dimply Jennifer Garner types—perky and annoying more than hot (though she thinks she’s Victoria’s Secret material). And affixed with too much cheap, hippie-dippie jewelry for my taste.
“I don’t have much to look at anyway,” I say.
Gracie is already inside slurping her wine with the sorority whores.
I find a prime spot and take a crap in the vineyard for any and all to witness.
Gracie has to bail me out of the county clink that afternoon. Using a cab.
The second go round is always a stale imitation of the first. I try to recapture the glory of the discovery and fail miserably. I try to place why I fell in love with experience X initially, but like an amnesiac, I can’t remember the trigger or can’t pull the trigger, or can’t find the worm hole.
Day two we left for horse-back riding and mountain climbing. The mountain is a mere foothill, but it was something we didn’t have a chance to explore last time. I spent the morning—after a breakfast of stale powdered donuts, tea, and a brown banana—at the gas station getting my oil tank or whatnot, patched. Nine hundred and eighty seven dollars and three plus hours later, I have my car back.
So we drive out to the hill. It really is a hill, not a mountain, and if I had a chance to verbalize the difference to the promoters of Middleton proper, I would do so. Hills roll, mountains climb. This rolled. But, whatever. I was hoping to one day have sex with my wife again. The romantic getaway was hurting, not helping. We climbed the hill and I smiled and I didn’t complain and I tried to think positive thoughts. The rain stopped, which helped, though the mud was bad enough to turn most of the bottom third of my pants brown. Gracie’s also.
Onto the horsies.
What we couldn’t predict was the fact that the horse farm we found on the web was only for purchasing bred horses, not for taking a horse out on a spin. It was a horse dealership of sorts. This was to Gracie’s great dismay.
“So is there a place where we can, you know, ride horses? There are horses everywhere in Middleton.”
“That is very true, but not that I know of. There used to be one, but I think it went out of business a decade ago.”
“So that’s a no.”
Fuck me, I think. I’m still smiling to appease the mood. Horses everywhere, but none to ride. This place is a horsey dick tease.
“It’s okay,” Gracie says. “These things do happen.”
This is generous on her part.
I have an insecure fixation with playing the host on these kinds of trips, as if any blemish is entirely my fault. Not only do I want everything to be perfect, but I want everything to proceed according to my vision of it and I want any experiential blemish or boil to be subsumed by my ability to orchestrate the event or weekend just so.
Then a release: Gracie turns to me and says, “Why don’t we just get out of here?”
It’s almost as if the rain stops, the waters part, and the sun comes out as she says it.
“Okay,” I say. Simple. After checking out we drive home into the sunlight. I wear my sunglasses. We smile without restraint.
We listen to music we love—the Beach Boys, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello.
When we pull into our neighborhood the oil light comes on. But I don’t even care. I’ll buy a new car or fix the old one again. As long as I don’t have to go back to Middleton for a third time.
We bring our stuff in. We check the mail. We make love in the dark of our own bedroom. I never want to leave home again.