Moments after dropping Sam and Leo off with Erin’s parents, as we pulled out of the neighborhood and considered that we would now have the next twenty-eight hours without kids, Ben turned to Erin and said, “To quote Dr. Leo Marvin in What About Bob?: Free.”
LEG 1: CINCINNATI TO YELLOW SPRINGS (VIA KETTERING)
“So how do you pronounce his name?” Erin asked, holding Ben’s copy of Between the World and Me.
“It’s Tah-Nuh-HA-see Coates. The ‘Hi’ sounds like a ‘Ha,'” Ben said. “Wait, are you going to read my book before I do?”
“Sure. You’re driving.”
“But I get to read it tonight when we get to the hotel.”
“No. Because I’ll be reading it.”
“But it’s my book. I just bought it.”
“And I’m reading it.”
“This is the, what — fourth book you’ve stolen from me?”
“Oh, that’s not true. Name them.”
“Meghan Daum’s book.”
“OK, that’s one.”
“The Dark Path.”
“Oh, The Lifeboat, last summer.”
“No, you stole that from me.”
We passed the newly reconstructed “Touchdown Jesus” off I-75. It was not looking so touchdowny anymore.
“I can’t remember the last visitation I went to,” Erin said.
“I think mine was my Uncle Bud,” Ben said. “I still remember how he looked in the coffin. It was him, but it wasn’t, you know?”
“Where did our summer go? And why did we each bring four books? By the time we get to the hotel it’ll be at least ten o’clock.”
“And there’ll be HGTV.”
“Right. Who were we kidding?”
There was construction outside Dayton and we missed our exit. When we arrived at the funeral home, our friend Scott was there to greet us. Meghan, his wife, was feeding their five-month-old. Life goes on even in tragedy.
More of our friends arrived, and each new arrival made Meghan smile and then cry. We stood around in a circle, witnesses to a passing.
“We’re going to get in late, aren’t we?” Erin said back in the car. “Also, I’m so hungry I’m going to start gnawing on the upholstery.”
“It’s all right,” Ben said. “It’s a road trip. We’ll get there before ‘Property Brothers.'”
“But where are we going to eat?”
“Anywhere. You pick.”
“Have you ever been to Yellow Springs?”
“No. Let’s do it. Tell me where to go.”
“Take this exit. It’s twelve miles on Dayton-Yellow Springs Road.”
As we drove, Erin mentioned that her last meal in Yellow Springs had been with an old boyfriend, but that it was a very nice meal.
“So you’re saying I need to prove myself tonight?” Ben responded. “On our anniversary dinner?”
“I’m saying this is a chance for me to redeem my Yellow Springs experience.”
The main drag in Yellow Springs is Xenia Avenue, and assorted hipsters and hippies occupied the streets as we drove through. It seemed as though everyone was walking a dog.
We parked and walked around before stopping in the Winds Cafe. We looked at a sample menu while the maître d’ waited. “Plenty of tables tonight,” he said.
“I get worried when they don’t list the prices,” Erin whispered.
“Oh, let me get you a real menu!” the maÎtre d’ said.
We considered. It was getting late, and a meal there would taken at least an hour, putting us in Mansfield at close to eleven.
“Let’s do it,” Erin finally said.
“Oh good!” The maÎtre d’ snapped to action, getting us two more menus before realizing we already had two. He sat us by the window.
“Are you going to be Whole30 tonight?” Erin asked as we looked over the menu.
Ben hemmed and hawed. It was day twenty-one of a very loose Whole30.
“Maybe. Probably. Maybe.”
“C’mon,” Erin said. “Live a little.” She reminded him of the numerous lapses he had already suffered over the past three weeks. “But if you tempt me when I do mine,” she added, drawing a line across her throat.
The waiter arrived. We ordered the Provençal Whole Branzini. Ben ordered a Rhinegeist on tap.
“Good for you,” Erin said. “Let’s document this.”
She took a picture and, before uploading it to Instagram, pondered a good hashtag before settling on “#Neurohiogetaway.”
When the fish arrived, it was the whole Branzini — head and eyes and all.
“We have to eat the cheek meat,” Erin said. “You know the Amy Tan essay, right? ‘Fish Cheeks’?”
“I do not.”
“The best meat is in the cheeks. Let’s save it for last.”
A man walked by the window and saw our meal. He stopped, pointed at the fish, then at us, grinning like an idiot. We smiled and waved. He kept pointing and grinning.
“Yes, it’s a fish,” Ben said.
He nodded and finally kept walking.
While we celebrated our anniversary meal (a week early), the ladies two tables over were sharing their divorce stories. We were the only ones in the room, so their conversation filtered over to us easily. We talked so we wouldn’t feel like eavesdroppers.
“Does this cleanse the ex palate?” Ben asked. “Have we redeemed Yellow Springs for you?”
“Actually, I think this was the same restaurant,” Erin said. “But it was a different name then.”
“Well, we made the right choice then.”
It was nine when we finished. The Branzini was all spindly bone and head (minus the cheeks) when the waiter took it. We ordered decafs to go. The waiter returned with two decafs in mugs. “We didn’t have any travel cups left, but I figured you still wanted these,” he said.
The coffee was tepid. “We give our kids warmer baths than this,” Erin said.
The waiter returned and offered to brew us a new pot. We declined, and he took it off the check.
We left the restaurant as dusk was settling. “That was the kind of meal that’s really good but still leaves you hungry,” Ben said. We had Whole30-friendly banana chips and cashews in the car; most would be gone over the next two hours. “Mansfield or bust,” Erin said, and we were off.
LEG 2: YELLOW SPRINGS TO MANSFIELD
We arrived at the hotel at 11:37. A man came out of his room as we tried to get our key to work. “You brought a box fan to a hotel!” he said. “Who brings a box fan to a hotel?”
“Apparently we do,” Erin said. We exchanged looks. Drunk? Serial killer?
He was approaching us as if our arrival was exactly what he’d been waiting for. “Apparently! I can’t get over that. What do you need a fan for?” He was closing on us.
“We like the white noise,” Erin said. The key was still not working. The moment was slowly turning into that movie scene when the good guy fumbles with the car keys as a deranged killer pursues.
“There’s an app for that!” he said. He was ten feet away.
The door opened. We were in. “Oh, really?” Erin said, sliding in and beginning to shut the door.
“Yeah!” he said, finally at our door. It was still open, and he was standing right in front of it. “Like three of them!”
“Well, we’ll have to check that out,” Erin said.
“You do that! Nice rooms, huh?”
“Very nice!” Erin said. “Good night!” She closed the door.
“Mansfield’s … friendly,” she said, recovering herself.
“But not lethal!” Ben said.
We found HGTV. Jonathan was giving Shannon and Darl the bad news that there was asbestos in the walls of their fixer-upper. Soon he would tell them they needed to get rid of a beloved clawfoot bathtub as well. Also that the HVAC needed to be replaced. Neither Shannon nor Darl was thrilled to get this news.
“What’s his name?” Erin asked. “Darr?”
“I think it’s ‘Darl,'” Ben said. “Like in Faulkner.”
“Darl,” Erin said. “That’s unfortunate.”
“They’re so weird-looking.”
“Shannon and Darl?”
“Jonathan and Drew.”
“Yes, they are.”
After the show, Erin took out A Farewell To Arms.
“You’re going to start your summer reading now, at midnight, in Mansfield, Ohio?” Ben asked.
“Yeah, who am I kidding,” Erin said, throwing the book on the floor.
“Show the kids the clip where Bradley Cooper throws the book out the window,” Ben said. “That’ll be their favorite part of class discussion.”
“Noted,” Erin said. She turned off the lights. We slept terribly.
LEG 3: MANSFIELD TO CLEVELAND
Erin punched in the address for the Cleveland Clinic as soon as we get in our car. Siri chirped back, “Starting route to Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis,” as we pulled back onto I-71 North.
“Thanks, Siri,” Erin said. She mimicked Siri’s voice. “Starting route to Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis, an auto-immune disease which occasionally causes you to go blind in your left eye.”
Ben chimed in. “Starting route to Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis, which you still have and can only get worse by the time you arrive.”
“Starting route to Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis,” Erin said, “which just all around really sucks for you.”
We arrived at the Cleveland Clinic an hour before our appointment. The waiting room had a clean, sleek, professional appearance, its inhabitants the usual snapshot of humanity caught in medical limbo. Two boys who did not appear to have parents were sitting side-by-side playing on iPads. The only magazines available for browsing were Fortune and Bloomberg Businessweek, two of the least browsable magazines ever printed.
They ran a tight ship at the Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis. A nurse, Georgia, ran vitals on Erin and logged her medications, then asked her to complete a timed test that involved moving pegs in and out of a square wood block. She then took us back to the waiting room, but it was less than five minutes before Dr. Cohen himself came out to greet us. He was polite, efficient, calm and reassuring. He agreed with the diagnosis, and talked about the growing number of MS medications. “Overall, I think you’re doing incredibly well given everything I’ve seen today,” he said — which was worth the drive itself, just to hear those words.
In the waiting room, we scheduled our follow-up appointment for February. Because of concerns for privacy, each scheduler is separated by a partition, and the next in line must wait outside behind a glass door. Nevertheless, we could still hear the woman on the other side of the partition very clearly when she said, upon being asked how her day was going, “Fine, except for the open sore on my butt.”
LEG 4: CLEVELAND TO MANSFIELD
We stopped for lunch at the Chipotle in Middleburg Heights. The line was out the door. We watched as two parents tried desperately to corral their kids into finishing their meals. Eventually the father simply picked up the younger boy, who looked to be Leo’s age, and carried him out like a sack of mulch, if the sack was also squirming and screaming bloody murder.
Despite this scene, we both commented that we really missed our boys.
Back on I-71, Ben asked, “Have you ever been to the Ohio State Reformatory before?”
“Are you asking if I’ve done prison time?” Erin responded.
“It’s where they shot Shawshank Redemption. Should we stop?”
“Sure. It’s a road trip.”
We pulled up to the now-defunct prison, the music from that famous tracking shot playing in our heads. “Will they have a bathroom?” Erin asked. “Oh, I think those are still in operation,” Ben replied. Inside we took the Shawshank tour. Red was our tour guide.
LEG 5: MANSFIELD TO CINCINNATI
“Funny how you can drive seven hours to Missouri but you need a break from Cleveland to Cincinnati,” Erin said. We had traded places after gassing up outside Grove City.
“What are you implying, exactly?”
“That you don’t want me to finish my book,” Erin said, gesturing toward Between the World and Me.
“My book, thank you,” Ben replied.
“This has been a strange trip,” Erin said. “We bookended an anniversary getaway with a visitation and a neurology appointment.”
“Then went to a prison,” Ben added.
It was raining when we made it back to Cincinnati. Everyone — Sam, Leo, Nana, Papa — were sitting peacefully on the couch when we arrived to pick them up. Either the scene had been staged for us to suggest the last twenty-eight hours had been an idyllic time on the homefront, or it was just another instance of grandparenting magic. “They were great,” Erin’s parents said. We found that hard to believe, but we were grateful.
The trip marked the end of summer for us. The beginning of the school year is like reaching the peak of a roller coaster, right before it makes its first stomach-twisting drop. Once the ride starts, there’s no getting off until June. In six months, we’ll make the trek back up I-71, by which point, hopefully, Erin will be stabilized on Copaxone, with no additional relapses; both of us will be settled into new teaching gigs at new schools; Sam will be, in small but significant ways, on his way to being more mature and ready for kindergarten next fall; and Leo will be doing what Leo does, which is generally regarding everything around him with the two-year-old amazement of seeing it all for the first time. Until then, we await the start of another school year with both excitement and unease, anticipation and anxiety. And, of course, the hope none of us come down with open sores on our butt.