The Bad Beginning

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.

From The Bad Beginning, by Lemony Snicket

Day 1: Saturday

“Isn’t anyone going to get me some veggie sticks?” June asked in a petulant tone at 9:15 a.m. We were pulling out of the driveway but she sounded as if we’d been on the road for hours. Maybe she knew something we didn’t. The drive to the Outer Banks we were hoping to make in eight hours would end up taking eleven and a half. It was the longest it’s ever taken us to get there, longer than when the kids were nurslings, longer than the time pre-kids when I was traveling with Mom and Jim and we decided to detour to see the Great Dismal Swamp and got hopelessly lost. (We never did see the swamp.)

This time it was just traffic. Over and over again on road after road, we slowed to a crawl. And then to add to the misery shortly before noon, June threw up. We pulled into a Starbucks, got her cleaned up and changed into new clothes in the parking lot and got some lunch, including a fruit cup we would later refer to as the Fruit Cup of Doom. It was purchased for Noah but he didn’t want anything to do with it. He said it tasted funny. Now half the food Noah tries tastes funny to him so I didn’t think anything of it. I ate the kiwi, which seemed fine to me, and June chowed down on the grapes.

Traffic continued to be excruciatingly slow and every now and then June would start to moan and look pale, sweaty and anguished, but she didn’t throw up again during the rest of the ride. The last time she looked really close was just before we stopped at a Taco Bell in Kill Devil Hills at seven.

All through the long drive the kids were patient and well behaved. June did cry when I told her I’d forgotten to pack her Cinderella blanket, but by that point she had been sorely tested. Noah sang the theme from Cars: “Life is a highway./I wanna ride it all night long” and then commented cheerfully that we might be riding all night long. But we found ways to pass the time. We listened to twenty Frog and Toad stories we’d downloaded for the trip and a mixed CD of kids’ music Noah made a while back. But the best entertainment was the audio version of The Bad Beginning, the first book in the Series of Unfortunate Events books Noah and I read last summer and fall. Tim Curry is utterly brilliant as the narrator. You must all download this book and listen to it at once. It’s that good. As soon as it was over I wished we had all thirteen.

Another small bonus: On the whole drive I saw only three Confederate flags (two car decals and one actual flag). Twenty-five years ago, when my family first started coming to the Outer Banks, it would have been a lot more. A bigger bonus: Because we were so late, we were driving along the loveliest stretch of dunes during the sunset.

We pulled up to our rental house at 8:45, having met my mother and stepfather in the parking lot of the realty. Despite living two and a half hours to our north and having left an hour later and having been lost for forty-five minutes (misled by their new GPS), they beat us to Avon and had been driving around, trying to find the house.

As I was trying to hustle the kids into bed, June asked for a snack. I gave her a strawberry from the fruit cup. Remember the fruit cup? Well, at 11:30 and again at midnight, June woke up vomiting. We don’t know for sure if it was the strawberry but it was too long after we got out of the car for car-sickness and she seemed perfectly healthy the next day so that’s our best guess. We threw the rest of the fruit cup away.

Unfortunately, June’s favorite doll Violet was in exactly the wrong part of the bed when June got sick. I wiped her off as best I could and hung her up in the bathroom. In the morning she looked clean, though some of her elaborate up-do had come undone and she smelled horrible. (“So you forgot her best blanket and her best doll is ruined?” Noah clarified, causing June to cry all over.) We didn’t think Violet would survive the washing machine so we hung her up on the clothesline on the deck and the sea air proved remarkably restorative. Within twenty-four hours she was nearly as good as new.

Day 2: Sunday

In the morning we explored the house. It had an airy, open floor plan on the top floor with bedrooms below. There were several decks, screened and unscreened and ocean and sound views from almost every room in the house. There was an alcove with built-in bookcases stocked with books for kids and adults that Noah called “the detective nook” for reasons no one fully understood. Our bedroom was partially in a turret and had an interesting shape. And did I mention the ocean and sound views in almost every room? I love this house.

I’d brought some work with me, revisions on an article on Coenzyme Q10 due Monday evening. It was difficult to stay in the house working so early in the trip, so I had Beth put the computer facing a window with an ocean view and I split the work into two chunks, one for Sunday afternoon and one for Monday afternoon.

Sunday morning June and I went down to the beach. She was ambivalent about the waves, sometimes wanting me to carry her in deep, sometimes seeming scared, so I had to work to find her comfort zone. In practice this meant a lot of going back and forth, down to the water, up to the sand and back again. We built castles, collected shells and took a long walk up the beach, or maybe I should say I took a walk and she took a run. The beach was sparsely populated so I felt comfortable letting her get far ahead of me and she, always one to seize whatever freedom she’s given, took off. I watched her run across the empty expanse of sand, a little figure in a turquoise and white bathing surfer-style bathing suit, tearing down the beach. Every now and then she would pause and look for me over her shoulder, but not very often.

Sunday afternoon Beth took the kids on some errands and I worked, until I got sidelined by computer problems so then I helped Mom make dinner until Beth came back and was able to get me back on track. It was Father’s day so my Dad was on my mind. I proposed we go to Dairy Queen after dinner. Ever since he died I’ve found myself taking comfort in foods I associate with him, especially ice cream. I got a chocolate malted, a favorite of his, and gave a silent toast to him while I drank it.

Day 3: Monday

Monday was the Equinox. I took both kids to the beach in the morning and we welcomed summer by splashing in the waves, making dribble castles, digging holes and observing how they changed shape as they filled with water, finding and liberating sand crabs and otherwise enjoying ourselves. Noah kept saying that maybe there would be a freak wave or a tsunami and he sounded kind of hopeful about it. Every night he reads to us from his 100 Most Dangerous Things on the Planet book (http://www.amazon.com/100-Most-Dangerous-Things-Planet/dp/0545069270). When he does so he assumes the persona of Dane Dangerfighter, a character of his own invention, who lectures and quizzes us on how to survive various dangers. Perhaps Noah wanted an opportunity to put Dane’s advice to use. Then he said I like the ocean so much I should be called TsuMommy.

I took my first beach swim of the year in the afternoon (cold water, decent waves) and collected some golden-colored shells for June, who had requested I bring back some treasure. Then I headed back up to the house and finished my article and we had a lovely first night of summer dinner (veggie dogs, corn on the cob and roasted new potatoes, with angel food cake and strawberries for dessert). After dinner, I washed the dishes while everyone else watched Cars. Noah was eager to share his favorite movie with Grandmom and Pop. It took them most of the week to finish it because we never had much time between dinner and bedtime.

Day 4: Tuesday

Having finished my work, I felt ready for an outing on Tuesday. There are a lot of possible day trips on the Outer Banks, but we wanted to stay close to the house so we could spend more time on the activity than in the car and still get back in time for June’s nap so we settled on the hiking trails in Buxton Woods (http://www.nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/northcarolina/preserves/art5593.html). Beth promised Noah it would be an adventure and it was.

Beth and I have been to Buxton Woods but not for a long time, possibly not since before Noah was born. Still the turnoff didn’t look like what either of us remembered. There was a trail map and then a long, sandy road leading through the woods to the various trailheads. In places the road had been covered with wood chips for better traction.

Beth said later there was a little voice in her head telling her to go back, that we were going to get stuck, but there was no good place to turn the car around so she drove on. And then we got stuck. We all got out of the car and looked at the wheels. The right front wheel was sunk in the deepest. We had no shovels or planks. Beth had just removed Noah’s long-handled shovel from the car that morning, but it probably would not have been up to the job. Beth got out her phone and found she had no signal, so we all headed down the road in the direction we’d come looking for a place where Beth could place a call.

“Why didn’t Dane Dangerfighter tell us what to do?” Beth asked Noah as we walked.

“Because it’s not one of the one hundred most dangerous things in the world!” he answered, somewhat exasperated. “Now if it was quicksand…”

The road was lined with ferns and pine trees. There were grasshoppers leaping along beside us and dragonflies zooming past and butterflies fluttering around us. June kept stopping to collect pine needles and to sift the dark, silty sand through her hands. Soon she was filthy. She probably thought this was the promised hike and we didn’t tell her otherwise.

We didn’t need to walk far until Beth got a signal, though it was a patchy one. It took several calls to find out her auto service would need to send someone from Nag’s Head (an hour away) and to decide to engage someone more local instead. The tow truck arrived within ten minutes of the last call. Noah got to see it in action, which for him was probably more fun than a nature hike anyway.

“You were right, Beth. That was an adventure,” Noah said as we drove home. Overall, though, it was a manageable adventure, not so long that June missed her nap, no so dangerous that we needed Dane. Beth’s service will even reimburse her for part of the towing charge.

Beth took the kids to play miniature golf that afternoon. Noah got two holes in one and on one of the two holes she bothered to finish, June beat both Noah and Beth. Meanwhile, Mom and Jim and I went to the beach. A tidal pool had formed and I saw something I’d never seen before. I’ve noticed bubbles rising from crab holes when the water covers them, but these holes were forming geysers, two to three inches tall. They were fascinating. We sat on the beach and watched a parasailor and admired the pelicans gliding over the water and thought sadly about their Gulf Coast cousins. I made a silent wish that the oil would not make it this far north, not to the Outer Banks, not to the Chesapeake Bay, and please, please, not to Rehoboth Beach, my very favorite beach of all.

After dinner and more Cars, we had root beer floats and put the kids to bed, and then I took a walk on the beach. It had been a clear day, but the sky was partially clouded over, though I could still make out the Big Dipper. There was a three-quarters moon and the sea was dark with glints of silver. Several bonfires burned and the air smelled of wood smoke. I looked for the little phosphorescent creatures I often see in the water in North Carolina, but there were none. Possibly it was too early in the season, the water too cool. There was the usual assortment of night beach-goers–people fishing, teens running around with glow sticks wrapped around their wrists and necks, kids with flashlights and nets chasing ghost crabs, and the occasional solitary walker such as myself. It was hard to leave and I got back to the house later than I intended.

Day 5: Wednesday

Wednesday morning I took Noah out to breakfast at the Froggy Dog (http://www.froggydog.com/) while Beth took June to Uglie Mugs (http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=ugly+mugs+coffee+and+tea+avon+NC&btnG=Search&aq=f&aqi=&aql=f&oq=&gs_rfai=) for some one-on-one mother and child time. When we split up, we usually do it the other way around so it was nice to have some alone time with Noah.

I thought about having a meaningful conversation with him about how he was feeling about the end of the school year and changing schools but I decided to go for something lighter. I asked him what his favorite part of the trip had been so far. Golfing and getting the holes in one he answered right away and then he recounted how his ball’s exact course as it bounced off an obstacle and rolled up a hill and back down again before going in the hole. Then he added that he kind of liked the long drive. What about it, I asked, surprised. Listening to The Bad Beginning, he said and then he laughed anew at some of the amusing parts.

Next he tested the theory that when you block out one sense the others are heightened. He listened to the music playing with his eyes shut, looked at the art on the wall with his hands over his ears and tasted his juice with his nose pinched shut. Then our food came and we were absorbed in pancakes (him) and fried eggs, biscuit and grits (me). It was a fun meal.

We walked home along the beach. Noah sat in a chair someone had dug out of the sand and splashed in the surf. He wanted to get the almost healed scrapes on his knees wet. He wiped out on his scooter on the first day of summer break and Beth had told him seawater has healing powers. Of course he got his shorts all wet, but I said it was okay. Then he ran ahead of me on the beach and I found myself walking behind another one of my kids, watching, wondering how far he’d go. It’s what we so often do as parents.

Back at the house, I chatted with my mom and then left her and Noah to a game of Sorry while I went back to the beach for a morning swim. Conditions were not ideal, though. I’d had a good swim on Monday afternoon but every time I’d tried to go in since then the waves had been breaking too close to the shore, making it more likely that instead of bobbing along in shallow water between waves that I would be thrown to the gritty sand. The older I get the more cautious I get about ocean swimming. Beth says this is a good thing. I’m not sure. In either case, I hadn’t been staying in the water very long and I didn’t this time either. Even so, I hurt the big toe on my right foot when I came down on it still tucked under my foot. It hurt a lot but probably not as much as it would have if it hadn’t been immersed in cold water so I stayed in until the throbbing subsided and then I hobbled back to my towel somewhat dispirited. My younger self would have stayed in, but I’m not the fearless swimmer at forty-three that I was at thirteen. Later that day the whole foot swelled up and over the course of the next few days a reddish-purple bruise formed along the base of my first four toes and along the big toe itself.

By the time I returned to the house, Beth and June had returned from their morning adventures. After breakfast they went to the realty-owned pool. I can’t say I approve of swimming pools at the beach, but they had fun.

That afternoon Beth took June back to the pool and I took Noah to the beach. I was sorry my usual beach buddy didn’t want to come, but I was glad of some more alone time with Noah. We were able to go deeper into the water than we could with June. Noah was already in the surf as I was arranging the towel. “Mommy!” he yelled to me. “This totally rocks!” As we played by the water’s edge, he speculated about wave physics and made names for different kinds of waves. Big ones were “kings.” Little ones with surprising force were “vipers.” When he wasn’t chattering he was running and shrieking. “This is a lot of fun, but it’s also scary,” he confided. Every now and then he checked his knees to see if there had been any visible healing. He thought there had been. (In fact, later in the trip he would try to avoid getting his knees wet because he said he wanted to observe the healing process at its natural pace.) After he’d stepped on my bad foot twice, I asked him to stay to my left and he was better about remembering to keep us arranged that way than I was. Once when he was up on shore, I waded out deeper to dive under a wave and suddenly heard him talking behind me. I was pleased he was confident enough to go out that far, but also alarmed because although he’s made great strides in swimming lessons this year, he’s still an inexperienced ocean swimmer and I need to know where he is when he’s in the water. Our beach visit was cut short by a bathroom emergency, but I was glad he’d come with me.

That evening Mom and Jim went to Manteo to see the purple martins that migrate there every summer (http://www.purplemartinroost.com/). We stayed at the house and watched a little of Sleeping Beauty. June was determined to make it through the whole movie this time. (She’s scared of Malicifent.) For the portion they watched, she managed it.

Day 6: Thursday

In the morning I looked at my foot, trying to decide if the swelling had gone down. I thought maybe it had. “Your foot looks worse,” Beth said immediately upon seeing it and when I put on my Tevas, I had to admit she was right. The pain was not too bad but it felt very stiff. Undeterred, I headed down to the beach. (Beth and the kids were headed to the pool for the third time in two days.)

I ended up having my longest and best swim of the trip, but it didn’t start out that way. I was standing in the surf for the longest time dithering about whether or not to try to get past the breakers. It looked like there were some good waves out there—big, slow and gentle—but I’d have to get through a short, rough stretch to get there and I was afraid of landing on my foot wrong again. After maybe a half hour of wading in and then backing some or all of the way back and changing my mind about whether I was even trying to get in and debating whether caution is a good thing or a bad one, I saw my opportunity, a long expanse of placid sea, like a sign from the heavens. I strode in and soon I was in the sweet spot, riding up the sides of big, glossy-smooth waves and sliding back down, just as the tips of the white crests were starting to form. There was plenty of time for considered landings and mostly I landed on just my good foot. I drifted north and eventually found myself in a place, which while still quite close to the shore, was past the breakers all together, so I wasn’t so much bobbing between waves as between little swells. At this point I turned my mind to the question of how to get out. Sometimes getting out of the ocean can be as hard as getting in and sometimes a big wave just sweeps you right back to the shore, which is what happened this time.

In the late afternoon I lured the kids to the beach with the promise of the tidal pool I’d seen the last two days around that time. I wasn’t sure exactly when it would form because I didn’t have tide chart, but I was hoping for something in between 4:30 and 5:00. However, when June and I joined Mom and Jim at the water’s edge at 4:30, I could see the dry, rippled sand where it had been, far up the shore. It didn’t seem likely that the tide would progress fast enough to get there before we had to leave for dinner. So Mom played with June and I swam and Noah came down about twenty minutes later and we all played together and watched dolphins (we all saw them except Noah) until the blowing sand started to bother June and we left around 5:40. There was a trickle of water reaching the trough-like depression in the sand with each of the bigger waves by now but I didn’t mention it to anyone.

As we trudged up through the dunes, June was annoyed by the hot sand on her bare feet and then at the way the sand sifted through the holes in her crocs when she put them on. “I’m telling you,” she said, “I’m never coming to the water again, only the pool.” A few minutes later she added, “Why do they have a beach with no boardwalk and no Candy Kitchen?” Rehoboth Beach is her gold standard for beaches. She finds the Outer Banks somewhat lacking, superior natural beauty and all. I understand, the Outer Banks are more stunning but Rehoboth is more homey, more ours.

We didn’t manage to get dinner on the table until seven so the kids resumed watching Sleeping Beauty until it was ready. June cracked and ran out of the room at least twice during the scary parts. She just can’t take that witch. The kids went to bed soon after dinner and Beth and I took her laptop to the screened porch to work on the last of the several questionnaires we need to fill out for our Aspergers parent interview next month.

Day 7: Friday

Friday morning I folded the load of laundry I’d done the day before and decided to pack most of it since we were leaving the next day. I asked June to pick out two outfits, one for today and one for tomorrow. She caught on right away. “We’re leaving tomorrow? We only have one more day to go to the pool?”

It was true. Beth, who had yet to set foot on the beach, made her fourth trip to the pool that morning. I went to the beach alone and a little sad that June didn’t want to come. Still, it meant I could swim. My foot felt much better (and fit into its sandal perfectly) so I decided to start with a walk on the beach. I headed south and got into the water along the way drifted back to my towel. There wasn’t much going on beyond the breakers so I floated on the surface of the water, trying to feel the Earth’s gravity wrapping the water and me tightly to itself.

I came back up to the house for lunch. Mom, Jim and the kids had just finished watching Cars and Jim was making a fire on the grill under the house for toasting marshmallows. Mom and Jim both claimed to have the most perfectly toasted marshmallow. Mine caught fire both times and the kids’ got coated in ashes, but everyone proclaimed the sticky treats delicious.

After June’s nap, I joined Mom and Jim at the beach while Beth and the kids went out for ice cream and ran some errands. They were supposed to join us to launch the rocket Beth and Noah had constructed from a kit the day before, but the sky was growing dark and we weren’t sure if they’d beat the rain. They did, showing up at 4:30 just as Mom and Jim were about to call it quits and go back to the house. The first and third launch attempts were duds but they got in one good flight in between before running out of fuel (baking soda and vinegar). Then Beth went down to the ocean to rinse off the sand and so she could say she’d been in the water. June and I lingered on the beach after everyone else went up. June found a gull’s feather and immediately made plans to glue it to a picture frame, thus combining two of her main interests, nature and arts and crafts. As we walked up the path through the dunes back to the house, it started to drizzle.

At the house, June colored, Beth and Noah played Battleship, and we ate pizza, packed and cleaned. Our beach week was all but over.

Day 8: Saturday

We woke and packed and cleaned some more. It had stormed during the night and at 7:00 a.m., we could still see streaks of lightning in the sky. By 9:00, the rain had let up and Noah and I went down to the beach to say our goodbyes. We let the waves rush over our bare feet (fourteen times was the number he thought right). This is an old ritual of ours, but he added a new part. We each picked up a shell and said, “Goodbye, ocean!” into it and threw it into the dark blue-green waves.

Then we came back to the house, finished packing and cleaning and drove home. Admittedly, our trip got off to a bad beginning and no beach trip that does not end in someone telling me I’ve won my very own beach house can be said to have a truly happy ending, but despite the tow-truck incident and my injured foot (which is still bothering me after two days at home), I’d have to say there were more than a few happy things in the middle.

  • I will listed to anything Tim Curry says – thanks for the tip, TsuMommy!

  • Allen Gabriel K

    Good luck with foot !!   Glad you took the James Brown advice on the good foot!  Sweet narrative-  thanks

  • M

    No matter how bad our drive is on Saturday, I will be comparing it (favorably, I hope) to yours…

    Noah reminds me of when I was little and had my mom check out “Tornado!” from the local library 10 times in a row. A few years later, on a vacation in Hawaii, I bought and read and reread a similar book, “Tsunami.”

  • Kristin

    When I was a kid, I wanted a raft for the ocean in the worst way – of course these were the days before boogie boards.  My father finally agreed and took me to the beach junk store to pick one out.  I chose one with the Confederate flag, having absolutely NO idea what it meant.  I loved that raft and spent many a summer floating on it, oblivious to my political/racist statement.  Perhaps when you pass all those flags on your next trip to the beach, you can picture me floating on it, and you’ll feel better???