by Tom Ipri
Ordering breakfast that morning was the first time Leslie heard his wife’s voice, for which he was grateful; she simply could have pointed to the menu to make her selections. They had not even discussed where to have breakfast but habitually migrated to the patio restaurant of the hotel where they were staying. Every day of their vacation had started this way, so there was no reason to do otherwise their last day. The waitress took their menus and Leslie again apologized for the rotten week.
“You don’t need to keep apologizing,” Dana said. They sat under a bright yellow umbrella protecting them from the desert sun.
“I know, but I had such good intentions.” Which was another thing he had said over and over. He wanted that to be worth something.
“I know, but I had such good intentions.” Which was another thing he had said over and over. He wanted that to be worth something. For years, Dana bugged him about going to Vegas. She had never been and had always wanted to visit. Early in their marriage, she had an opportunity to go with some co-workers but turned them down because she didn’t want to go without Leslie. This was an enthusiasm she held when they were newlyweds. But Dana and Leslie became parents and all their friends became parents and any trips they took were usually to the beach or mountains or some family friendly place with awful food and water rides. Certainly, if such an opportunity had come along in the past ten years or so, she would have not thought twice about going, and Leslie would have to admit that he wouldn’t have minded in the least.
Dana didn’t say anything but just fussed with the napkin on her lap.
“Well, I’m sorry for apologizing again,” Leslie said as a kind of feeble joke.
“I’m sorry too.” Likewise, Dana had apologized more than once during the week, often for her general mood and not for anything specific. There was a time when their fights turned physical on a fairly regular basis. She would come at him in all her beautiful youth. She would take a swing at him and he would grab her and hold her tight trying to calm her down. She would struggle to get free and, when they wrestled, they would often soon find themselves making aggressive love anywhere in their house other than the bed, the origins of the marks on each other’s bodies indistinguishable between love and hate. Perhaps, in fact, he provoked a few fights back in the day just to get the wrestling started. Perhaps, in fact, she was a willing conspirator. Perhaps there was too thin a line between playful fights that started with tickling or mischievous sarcasm, and an actual fight, either of which was rewarded with sex and was often the only way sex was initiated. As they grew older, the fights became all scathing words and any opportunity for sex diminished.
“I really wanted this to be special for you. I know I wasn’t very supportive of coming here before, but, honestly, once I made the plans and started thinking about it, I was actually looking forward to this trip.”
“That’s mighty noble of you.” She leaned back in her chair, enough so that her face was out from under the shade of the umbrella. She dug in her handbag for her sunglasses, put them on and folded her arms. Dana faced the flower decorated wall that separated this casino from the parking garage of the one next door attempting to create within the restaurant the illusion of pacific solitude.
Leslie sighed and rolled his eyes. “That’s not what I’m getting at and you know it. I’ve gotten crabby before if we’ve gone someplace I didn’t want to go, but I really don’t think I’ve been like that this time.” Leslie faced out toward the restaurant. The patio was surrounded by palm trees, bushes and flowers, masking their proximity to the busyness of The Strip. They should be sitting in opposite seats as he was easily distracted by any activity. He didn’t want to give the impression of disinterest on such a serious morning.
“You’ve been fine, OK. You’re off the hook. You’ve been a real trooper.”
Leslie wasn’t sure how things went so wrong so quickly. After 27 years of marriage, Leslie knew that a fight about A was really a fight about B, so all this arguing about what to do while in Vegas and bad behavior at a wedding must have really been about something else. And, after 27 years, he knew that sitting around trying to figure it out wouldn’t get him anywhere. But his prior attempt that morning at asking what her mood truly had been about only resulted in tears, silence, and a high-heel shoe thrown in his direction and connecting with his shoulder.
Their waitress brought his coffee and Dana’s Mimosa. Every morning had started, for her, with a Mimosa or a Bloody Mary.
“I’m not looking to be made out like some kind of hero about this. I just feel guilty that you haven’t enjoyed the trip and I don’t want to feel guilty about it because I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong.” He hesitated to be so forthright about how he felt but since she hadn’t been forthcoming about what was really at stake, he thought he had a right to be so blunt. He was not sure the point this close to the end of their trip, but he was no less tired of the moodiness and fits of silence.
Nearby, wait staff pulled a few tables together to make one long table.
“I have enjoyed parts of the trip.” Dana leaned forward and sipped her Mimosa.
Her response wasn’t exactly what he had hoped, but it was far more civil than he had come to expect. “I’m glad. I just wish it showed more.” Without a doubt, Vegas had been much more a draw for her than for him, and he would have had to admit that any time she suggested going, he would summon all his creativity to come up with an appealing alternative.
“Well, I have enjoyed parts of it whether it showed or not.” She forced a weak smile.
“I have too. Surprisingly so.” He never really thought about what a trip here would involve until he started planning it. He had always been rather dismissive about Vegas because of his barely registered interest in gambling. But all the food they had eaten and the two shows they had seen had been wonderful, and he was so impressed with Red Rock Canyon. He never knew there was such natural beauty so close to Vegas and even Dana could not maintain any significantly miserable attitude in such a beautiful place. If things had gone differently—if they had come here under different circumstances—this could have been, he liked to think, one of their best vacations. He would love to say this but he knew that it would seem to her an expression of regret and therefore bitterness and only make things worse.
After their daughter, Tara, announced her engagement to a man she met while away at college in Utah and informed her parents that they were going to get married in Salt Lake City, Leslie came up with the idea of surprising Dana with a trip to Vegas afterward since they would be relatively close and travel deals there were extraordinarily inexpensive given the economic downturn made Vegas desperate for tourists. When fewer people had disposable income, the hedonism of Vegas became far less appealing, to a certain point. In some situations, desperation set in and hope of striking it rich might have seemed the only way out. Leslie had witnessed families hugging in tears on The Strip, presumably because the last of their savings had just vanished into the desert wind. This trip strained their own tenuous finances, but Leslie wanted to do this for Dana.
Even when Tara became old enough for them to take vacations on their own they never traveled far from their home in the Philadelphia suburbs. They enjoyed those places that were more easily within their reach: theater and museum trips to New York City, a few autumn trips to New England, a summer on Cape Cod, the occasional train ride to D.C., a couple of jaunts to Nags Head, and even a cruise along the coast to Maine.
“All I have to say is that it would have been nice to have some input about this trip.” Dana leaned back into the sun, one arm stretched out to hold onto her Mimosa.
“What do you mean?”
“You surprise someone with flowers or jewelry. You don’t surprise someone with a trip.”
Leslie sat up a little straighter. “Is that what this is all about? But you’ve been wanting to come here for so long. I thought you’d be happy.” Sometimes the cause of fight A wasn’t B but sometimes C. Nonetheless, he had trouble believing the fact this trip was a surprise would lead her to spite herself out of whatever fun was possible.
“It’s exactly because I’ve wanted to come here for so long that it was incredibly important for me to have some say. I can’t believe you have no clue why this is so troubling. Didn’t I complain enough every time I suggested a place for dinner but, no, we had to go somewhere else because you had some kind of coupon or deal?”
“I certainly can’t accuse you of not complaining enough. But I thought you would understand. If we didn’t do this on the cheap, we wouldn’t have been able to do it at all. We just paid for our daughter’s wedding for Christ’s sake.”
“Don’t take the lord’s name in vain,” Dana said with the first real smile he had seen in a week.
“I’m sorry about that too. I didn’t mean to correct you in front of strangers, but I didn’t know how sensitive Ethan’s family is about that kind of thing.”
The entire wedding day had been awkward. Tara always had a religious streak that neither Leslie nor Dana could explain the origins of or could feel guilty for encouraging. Nonetheless, neither of them ever expected they would find themselves in a Mormon chapel giving their daughter over to someone whose religion neither of them—having been raised to be good provincial Philadelphia Catholics—could begin to comprehend. Not that either of them made much of an effort to. They knew this world to be far removed from the one that they both rejected and found a common bond in mocking. The groom’s family was kind enough to them but somewhat resentful that their son was marrying someone outside the faith, that compromises had to be made regarding their ceremony. Likewise, Tara kept her distance—emotionally if not physically—from her heathen parents, a sign of good will, one would presume, toward the new in-laws.
“And I’m sorry I threw a dinner roll at your head.” Dana failed to restrain her smile.
“They weren’t that good anyway.”
“First, I can’t be myself in front of my new son-in-law without getting corrected and then you have to tell me where we can eat because of your god damn coupon book. Do you see a pattern here? I’m a little too old to be told what to do.”
“It’s not a matter of being told what to do—”
Dana interrupted. “Right. It’s a matter of being told what not to do.”
“Damn it. It’s not a matter of that either. I’m just trying to watch our budget. The world is going down the drain. Nothing is certain.”
“You just don’t get it, do you? I would rather have not gone anywhere than have a vacation like this. What fun is a vacation when you have one arm tied behind your back? I would rather have stayed only two days and been able to do whatever we damn well pleased than stay a week and be so, so regimented.”
“There’s no need to yell. It was just such a great deal. We stayed a week for as much as it would have for just a weekend. Isn’t it great just to get away from everything for a week even if it has conditions? Isn’t just being away the whole point?”
“I swear to God, I could pull my hair out talking to you. If we weren’t in a public place, I’d throw another shoe at you. We’ve never had a problem like this on vacation before. Why this time? Why for my vacation?”
Eight young women, all wearing colorful spring dresses, followed the hostess to the long table Leslie watched them set up a few minutes ago. One woman looked older than the others, maybe in her forties, but still held her own, looks-wise, among the younger women who all appeared to be in their mid-twenties.
Dana was once very attractive. Leslie hated to admit that over the years, he had lost the ability to still find her so. She was never attractive in the same way these women were. They seemed the type who routinely got manicures and pedicures and professionally done make-up and went to hair stylists and day long spas. Dana worked hard all her life, had a child and always had a weakness for food and drink. She did her own make-up and never went to any fancy stylist. Over the years, her natural beauty became a fight for beauty until about the time she turned fifty, and ever since then she had, as they say, “let herself go.” There was no more fight left. Had she been afforded the pampering these woman so easily received, Dana’s pride in her looks may never have waned.
Leslie felt bad even thinking such things, not having done a phenomenal job himself of staying handsome, but he had been consistent. Always a little bit heavy. Always waiting a week too long for a haircut. Always letting his clothes get a little ratty before buying new ones. He always wanted to be more attentive to his looks, but he had always been too busy or too lazy or too broke. But here he was, a couple of months away from fifty himself and couldn’t help but worry that some switch would get flipped like it did for Dana and he’d likewise be unable to resist letting himself go.
Does one get old in an instant? Had he lost all opportunity to improve himself, to improve their life? At times, he had felt successful in his career, but they still basically lived month-to-month, dreams of comfort never really in reach. Idealistically, he put his contentment with his career above their financial well-being. Dana always worked but Leslie felt the burden to be a provider. If Tara had not gotten a scholarship, sending her to college would have been a crushing burden, if not to them, then to Tara who would have graduated with student loans. Not falling too behind became his financial goal. At what point would he accept the truth, that the rest of their lives would be the same? That their savings had now vanished with an unexpected wedding in a faraway place? Even before that, their trips always had been full of compromises. Sometimes a difficult life only seemed so in hindsight.
Leslie looked back at Dana, just as the waitress brought their breakfast. They ate in silence for several minutes before he spoke again. “It’s different this time, not because it is your vacation but because of Tara’s wedding.”
“No, it’s different this time because you wanted to surprise me.”
“Yes, as a gift. I just wanted to give the mother of the bride something special.”
“Oh God, don’t call me that.”
“Jesus. I meant it to be nice. I don’t know what I can say to you. Everything I think is nice just ends up pissing you off.”
“It’s so…I don’t know…bourgeois or something to have this package deal.”
“Bourgeois? Where the hell did that come from? And who’s to say we’re not bourgeois?”
An attractive young couple entered the patio. The man’s thick, collar length black hair contrasted his beige linen suit. White shirt, no tie. His mirrored sunglasses shot sunlight right at Leslie. The thin yet shapely woman by his side wore a dress with a subtle flower pattern. Her blonde hair twisted down her breasts. Leslie could not help but stare. How did people get to live such lives when his had been mired in a suffocating mediocrity?
The hostess smiled ear-to-ear and led them onto the patio. One of the young women at the long table squealed and jumped up. The woman of the couple shrieked as they ran to hug each other. They looked like they could be sisters. The other women at the table stood, all smiling, but held their ground, giving the sisters their special moment. After a beat, the older woman joined them and wrapped her arms around them. The young man looked on smugly, one hand in his pocket, the other adjusting his sunglasses.
“What the hell is going on?” Dana turned toward the source of the sudden noise.
“Some bourgeois ritual, it seems.” Leslie looked at the young man, who, as he removed his sunglasses, caught and briefly held Leslie’s gaze.
What did he see, Leslie wondered? His own married future or just the weariness of Leslie’s own failures? They both looked back toward the women. The hugging ceased and the two women walked hand-in-hand to the table where the other women gathered for more hugging. The young man took that as his cue to follow and joined the group. His girlfriend lauded him on his ability to arrange the gathering and keep it secret.
“See,” Dana said. “An appropriate and appreciated surprise.”
“If you say so.”
Dana turned back and looked at Leslie, looked at him straight in the eyes in a way she had abstained from since leaving for this trip. He hadn’t realized she had been avoiding eye contact until this moment. “Do you think she will convert?”
Leslie felt like a fool for not sensing this earlier. His own presumptions about what could have possibly been bothering Dana never accounted for the true source of her sorrow, never escaped the selfish gravity that he must have been the cause, never exhibited due confidence in a mother’s devotion. “Love makes people do crazy things.”
“That’s not what I wanted to hear.”
He wished he had taken a moment to think before speaking, to hesitate before possibly saying something that could worsen the situation, to seek the words to make things better and not cause Dana to put her face in her hands to disguise whether or not she was crying.
Read The Story Behind “The Vacation Fight” on our blog.