Never, ever, get off the New Jersey Turnpike leading into Newark Liberty International Airport. Ever. Do you hear me?
Thing 1 and I, headed north last Saturday after saying good-bye to Martita and her Things on the Jersey Shore, to meet up with Mr. Understanding and Things 2 and 3 at the ticket counter of Continental Airlines. A week earlier, at the last minute, Mr. Understanding and I decided that we would gamble: I alone would take Thing 1 to her medical appointments in Baltimore and Mr. Understanding would wait in San Francisco for the visas. We were gambling that the consulate officials would not capriciously ask all five of us to return to the Spanish consulate to pick up the visas which were promised within 72 hours, a full 2 weeks earlier than anticipated. Worse case scenario: Thing 1 and I would fly back to the West Coast to join the family before heading east again to Spain. It seemed sane at the time.
The cell phone had 2 bars when I left Martita’s house, tears running down my face. Minutes before Martita and her Things had climbed into a stretch limo to take them to the airport for their return to Mexico City, her extended family lining the street, waving white Kleenex per their family tradition to wish them godspeed. I try to never cry at good-byes until I get on the airplane when I can bawl over a glass of cheap champagne but I violated one of my own rules of expatriatedom. Hugging her Thing 2, who I first met as a one year old and who was now a bewildering combination of man/child, I was acutely aware of the passage of time; he is still the same person but his legs are hairier and he shaves his upper lip. How did that happen? How did we move from whacking pinatas at birthday parties and scrambling for candy in Mexico to muscles? And why was I not there?
I continued to cry at the breakfast joint Depoe Market over pancakes (one needs fortification for driving in Jersey). The nicest waiter in the world gently ignored my tears and filled my coffee cup. Crying now because I realized it is not just the immediacy of leaving my friends, the reality was that in a few hours I was really and truly leaving my family and country. Again. Soon it would be my nephews with the mustaches and I would have missed it.
Pulled together, Thing 1 and I contemplated buying an additional suitcase to fill with marshmallows and other forbidden fruit, due to our soon-to-be increased luggage allowance, until we realized another suitcase won’t fit it in our tiny rental car (heroically, I did not complain when Hertz gave away my reserved-a-month-in-advance minivan at the start of our voyage in Baltimore to a mother traveling alone with her four small sons at midnight; the woman looked like she was on the edge of a deep precipice, one I have seen before). Instead we opted for a mani/pedi. We had lots of time to kill before meeting up at the ticket counter.
Nails dry, we eased onto the Garden State Parkway which travels through truly beautiful country, flat marshland and grasses, underneath a blue, blue sky, which extend out to the Atlantic ocean. Who knew? The New Jersey I hear of is ugly and industrial and full of important exits to unimportant places. The traffic going south to the shore was backed up on the other side of the highway for at least one hundred miles. Underneath the posted speed limit is the phrase “conditions permitting”, a phrase I have seen nowhere else in America, a phrase urging drivers to use their heads and pay attention to the road before them.
And then suddenly we were on the New Jersey Turnpike and the landscape shifted terribly. Gone was the green and in were transponder towers and gray, gray, gray. People were driving twenty miles an hour faster. Ahead was the exit to the airport but we still had time on our hands. I ignored the GPS and went off the beaten track. Maybe, I thought, we can park ourselves at a Starbucks for an hour? There has to be a Starbucks, right? Starbucks are American, Starbucks are ubiquitous, right?
Wrong. This is the thing about the GPS navigational system. It does not tell you where not to get off. It doesn’t say, “Entering scary part of New Jersey, abort, abort!” It doesn’t say, “Girl, there is no Starbucks for fifty miles.” We fill up the rental car with gas at a nearby station and some tattooed Harley riding couples asked us – us with the Arizona plates! – for directions. They have no navigational system, obviously. Sorry! I said. Back on the main road, the GPS chick told me to go right on Laura, which a block or two later is evident was Flora. We go right on Anna and end up in a neighborhood, only a block in from the land of used car lots, the cars the kind people pay cash for in which to commit crimes and later abandon, and I am instantly reminded of the opening scenes of Tom Wolfe’s book “Bonfire of the Vanities”.
“It’s broad day light, Mom! Don’t worry so much! What are they going to do, come get us in our car?” Thing 1 said.
What you don’t know …
Lips clamped, I said nothing but realized then how sheltered I have permitted my Things to become – have they never heard of carjackings? And how dumb am I? Has someone kidnapped my brain? For really, Newark, New Jersey is no different than Sao Paulo, or Mexico City, or Baltimore where Baltimore Sue says only 50% of highschoolers graduate. This is not a good thing; I should know this kind of information. Having escaped violent crime in each of these cities, I consider myself and my family blessed a bazillion times over. Shanghai, for all its’ pollution, does not share the same specter, as if it is waiting for time to catch up to it. My cell phone only has one bar. I go right on red.
Poof! The GPS miraculously led us back to the airport. I dropped off Thing 1 and the luggage with the surly skycap and returned the rental car to the nice Hertz attendant, each cosmically balancing each other out, a little ying and yang. We sat on the luggage and waited patiently for Mr. Understanding’s plane to land, a woman and her luggage cart monopolizing the row of four chairs until an Arabic speaking man sat down next to her, when she moved to another area. Whatever.
Suddenly, Thing 3 appeared at the top of an escalator, running towards me with arms outstretched, just like in the movies, and I am hugging my other Things and their father, the gamble having paid off: conditions permitted. Visas in hand, reunited, we get on the Boeing 757 and bank north over Newark. Far below, at the north end of the runway I spotted a Toys-R-Us. Could the Starbucks have only been one exit further up? How off is my compass??? I wondered as I craned my neck across the aisle in the hopes of glimpsing the Statue of Liberty aglow in the night sky.
During our visit to the Jersey shore, waiting for our visas, Martita’s father-in-law, an 87 year old former Presbyterian missionary and man of wisdom, told me about an African philosophy of just stopping work when it gets to be too much so that “the soul can catch up to itself”. Between his words and the speed limit sign, there is a certain symmetry. Before school starts, before the furniture arrives and Mr. Understanding returns to his real job, we are going to put the visa madness behind us (another story for another day), and be thankful we are all together, that Thing 1’s heart is stable, that the sky in Madrid is a precious, unpolluted cerulean azul. The swimming pool in the back yard is a happy, deep rectangle of clear water. For now, it is time to stop, reboot our internal navigational systems, and let our souls catch up to us.