My wife left me.
At the airport.
“I can’t stay,” Dana said.
She took our daughter by the hand and disappeared into the shuffling labyrinth of security.
I wanted to shout, “You never noticed either!”
But what good would it do, other than to get me probed? Who needs to be left behind and then swabbed or wanded or … worse?
“Sorry for your trouble, sir. Now please follow us.”
The quiet click of a door, the application of blue rubber gloves … no thank you.
An airport, I realized, is the perfect place to part.
I stumbled out of the terminal, found a cab and gazed at the crystal spires of downtown from the backseat, wondering how long I would be stuck there, wondering if this was my new life.
Jesus, I thought, how did this happen?
We’d been planning a long Caribbean vacation for months, wanting to give Dana a big break after her long, victorious march to partnerhood at her firm. When she found out about a work conference in Miami, we decided to combine the business trip with some serious beach time beforehand in Turks and Caicos. We found a house off a pearly strand dubbed “the children’s pool” for its 1- to 2-foot depth of turquoise water stretching out for what seemed like forever.
It would be perfect. The best vacation ever.
On the morning of our flight, before we left for the airport, we double checked to make sure we had everything.
“I can’t believe they let you two have me.”
When Dana presented our passports to the security officer in San Francisco, the woman suddenly brightened and examined my face a shade too closely.
“This expired,” she said.
“I know,” I told her, “Just in time, right? This is our last trip before I have to get a new one.”
Earlier, Dana and I had laughed to realize that my passport was set to expire at the end of the month, giving us just enough time to squeeze in this trip.
“No,” the officer said, “It expired. As in past tense.”
It’s probably not a good idea to grab things from airport security officers, but I was trying to be helpful, and frankly, the sudden call for “backup” seemed a little much.
“No, look,” I pointed, “It says the end of May.”
The woman nodded.
“Uh huh. May … of last year.”
Our jaws hit our toes.
“Will they still … let me travel?”
“Without a passport?”
It’s probably a small perk for TSA officials to pull aside harried assholes from time to time, making them go through extra security checks just for the fun of the delay. The douche-y businessman who can’t bother to even say, “Hello.” The catty businesswoman who rolls her eyes and speaks in questions. These people would be fun to mess with. But I had a feeling this moment was just as fulfilling.
The woman handed us our passports and smiled.
“You can go as far as Miami,” she said, “But after that … good luck.”
On the long flight to Miami, Dana and I wondered if we should just fake ignorance and try to board the next flight to the island.
“They might let me in,” I began, “But … what if they don’t let me back out? Or back into the United States?”
Dana nodded solemnly.
“Then let’s try it!”
We arrived in Miami and debated what to do until finally confessing our dilemma at the check-in counter, where another person laughed at us in what seemed to be the perfect union of unhelpfulness and joy.
“Honey,” the agent said to Dana, “You two have fun without him.”
Emme and Dana beamed. They were apparently planning on it.
Dana grabbed Emme’s hand and together they headed toward the security line.
“Not one tear?” I asked, “Not even a sad look?”
“We’ll send you pictures,” Dana began, setting up the line for Emme.
“Of us eating lobsters!”
The high five was uncalled for and seemed, I thought, a little cruel.
It’s moments like these that enter the family lore. You could sit on the beach for three weeks straight or bask in the majesty of the natural world — the Grand Canyon, say, or a giant roadside ball of yarn — and yet the thing that sticks, the thing that jumps in your bag and follows you home forever is a clerical error, a simple mistake. It’s not: Remember the time we buried each other in sugar sand every day? It’s: I can’t believe dad tried to travel on an expired passport.
The littlest things somehow cling.
When I was a boy and we went to Hawaii, we toured as much of the islands as we could and I have a vague appreciation for how wonderful and Brady Bunch-esque it all was, and yet the thing that stands out is the 2-second window when my mom suddenly stopped my brother from trying to hurdle a parapet, a parapet that he didn’t realize led to a massive cliff. Every innocent-looking, random wall I see now, I check. Or the time my mom and I drifted slowly toward Monterey, stopping at every Denny’s to enjoy the perk of free meals on birthdays. I barely remember making it to Monterey, but I remember the slams of seven butter-coated varieties.
Whenever Dana and I are lost, we yell at each other, “You have the map!” even if our laps or our hands are empty. This followed an ill-fated driving experiment on a trip with her parents in which we washed our hair in a 50-foot waterfall with foraged awapuhi, ate mangoes fresh from the trees and swam in a rocky pool the ocean carved into the cliffs. But what do we remember at least once a week?
“You have the map!”
Vacations are great for escape, but it seems you can never, in turn, escape them.
Dana and Emme entered the security line. I found a taxi and later checked into a hotel overlooking the passport office. The next day, it was beaches and coconuts for them, and two hours of waiting in a parking garage basement for me … followed by two hours of waiting in what looked like a cleaner DMV office but with armed guards. A little more waiting later and I had a quick and easy new passport — thank you, Hillary Clinton.
By the time I landed on the island late that night, Emme was full of tales from her first day of vacation.
“We ate conch — it’s my new favorite food — and I got to swim in the pool and the beach, and we have a Jeep that has a roof but also … doesn’t. I don’t even know. I blew a conch shell, built a sandcastle, had this yummy drink punch at dinner. It is so great!”
“Oh … yeah. Um, welcome?”
Over the next week, we built a million sandcastles, swam in the beach until our arms grew weary. We ate conch, an island specialty, and grilled our own lobster. We parasailed, went horse riding in the water and watched as Emme cantered on the white beaches.
On a hike one morning, Emme and Dana found a cardboard box of puppies. Someone must have abandoned them just 10 minutes prior, because most of them were still in the box, baking in the heat. We put them in a laundry basket and marveled at the size of the fleas and ticks, plump with blood. We found a rescue shelter and determined that yes, we would be adding one of them to our family. Emme wants to name him Zorro.
At dinner on our last night, we went to our favorite beach and had conch again. The winds suddenly kicked up so wildly that we took shelter behind a wall and shivered as we tried to quickly finish. Between the wind and the waves and the rustling of palm trees, it became almost impossible to hear.
The waiter approached and thanked us for coming amid the howling din.
“Have a good night!” he called.
Dana responded, “No thanks, we have a car.”
It was, of course, the perfect moment for the wind to suddenly stop, leaving in the void the echo of her non-sequitur.
For the rest of the trip, the poor woman, she suffered.
“Emme, would you like milk with dinner?”
“No thanks, we have a car.”
“Would you like to play on the beach or swim in the pool?”
“No thanks, we have a car.”
By the time we arrived back in Miami for her conference, Dana was glad to be rid of us for the days. She took shelter in the downtown hotel rooms, while Emme and I paraded around Miami, exploring the beaches and the suck hole strips of tumbledown motels and overbearing heat. If anyone asked us anything, we responded in unison, “No thanks, we have a car,” and then held our bellies for all the pain.
A clerical oversight, a misheard question, puppies in a box, a Jeep that leaked water just after we changed for a nice dinner, we packed them up and took them home, keeping them as a form of souvenirs — souvenirs that become more than the usual forgotten, shelf-bound totems to some distant trip. By the time we got home, we were already calling it the best vacation yet.
“I want to go back already,” Dana sighed.
When Emme and I responded, she almost did.