We drove across the country jammed into our little Ford Fiesta. I did all the driving, while Cathy navigated. The two girls were snuggled into the back seat along with as many toys and games as we thought would keep them from screaming. I don't know what we thought would keep us sane.
I was 33 years old that winter and generally unhappy with my life. Nothing was as exciting or meaningful as I had imagined it would be. I felt, somehow, cheated. Though who was doing the cheating, I couldn't have told you.
I convinced my then-wife Cathy that we should move back east. I said that I wanted my children to grow up around family, to know their grandparents, which was true, but not accurate. My family was never very warm or welcoming to us—especially since Cathy was adamantly non-Jewish. She even tried once to convert my mother. That did not go well.
No, the real reason we were halfway through Kansas right now was that I felt lost, and I was dragging my family along on my quest to be found. That night we stayed in the cheapest motel we could find. The next morning the girls woke up scratching their scalps. A quick inspection confirmed the diagnosis: head lice. "Maybe we should shave their heads," I suggested. "Noooo, Daddy," Jessie, the older one, wailed. "Don't cut my hair."
Gabrielle, five years younger, started to cry.
"OK, OK," I said. "Just get in the car." I thought about what my mother would say when we showed up at their immaculate house, complete with vermin.
"This whole thing is one big mistake," Cathy said then.
"Thanks for the support," I muttered.
We arrived in New Jersey, exhausted, irritable and itchy, at the same time that a major snowstorm hit the east coast. It felt symbolic, though I didn't know of what.
I had arranged with my parents to use their summer cottage at the Jersey Shore. They had agreed, with some reluctance. When we had unpacked, and I had crawled under the house to turn on the water, I lit a fire in the fireplace and we all huddled around the meager warmth. We sat the girls in front of us on kitchen chairs and went to work picking the nits out of their hair. There were hundreds of them.
Later, I called my parents to tell them we'd arrived. Dad picked up the phone, which was unusual. He usually let Mom do all the talking. "Well, we're back home," I said. "The girls are anxious to see you." "So, you couldn't make it out there, could you?" Dad said. "Another dead end."
I felt my heart sink into my gut, "I wasn't thinking of it that way," I told him. "I thought you'd be pleased."
"So what will you do for work?"
"I haven't decided."
"You haven't decided? You're a grown man with a family to support."
"I know who I am, Dad."
"Do you? Sometimes I wonder, Butch."
"Can I speak to Mom now?"
"Don't forget to turn off the porch lights when you go to sleep." I pictured him handing the phone to my mother, a downturned scowl on his face, an expression I was all too familiar with.
"So, you made it," Mom said, by way of greeting.
"Yep, we made it. Just barely."
"What does that mean?"
"Well, the girls have a bit of a problem."
"Oh my god, what?" Mom said. "They're not sick, are they?"
"Not really? What are you talking about, Butchie?"
"Lice," I said.
"Lice! In their hair?"
"That's where they usually are."
"Don't get smart with me. I know what lice are. And I don't want them in my house."
"You don't want your granddaughters in your house?" My disappointment in my parent's lack of enthusiasm for our return was quickly morphing into something stronger and older. "Should we pack up and leave then?"
"Don't you put words in my mouth. I just didn't expect this."
"Neither did we," I could hear my father muttering in the background.
"Your father says that the lice will get into all the beds."
"And the furniture too," I heard Dad tell her.
"Look, we've spent the last three hours getting rid of them. I think they're all clean now."
"You think? That's not good enough, Butch."
"Well, the girls are asleep now. I can wake them up if you like and tell them we have to leave." Two could play at the guilt game. And I had been trained by the best. "Oh, and thanks for being so concerned about the girls. Yes, they were quite upset about the whole experience."
There was a pause then. I could hear the storm blowing outside and the slight crackle from the dying embers of the fire. Despite the current conversation, I remembered how much I loved this cottage and this place. It was weird, I thought, how I could hold both these worlds at once.
"OK, look I'm sorry, honey. I overreacted," Mom said. "Of course I'm concerned. Those poor girls."
"Yeah, It's been hard."
"I know. And I know you did your best."
"We stayed in a crummy motel. That's where they must have gotten them."
"Those places are not clean. I've always said that."
"We'll wash all the bedding tomorrow."
"And you'll call and tell us what's going on?"
"OK, then, your Dad says goodnight."
"I know he didn't, but that's OK. He probably wanted to."
I hung up then and went to the window to look out on the snow-covered street. Tomorrow we'd trudge through the drifts up to the beach. The girls would like that. Later I would have to explain to them and to Cathy that it was time to leave again.