By Micah Perks
A family vacation is pulsing with a potent, unspoken wish to bond. This dream of fusion is especially intense for a blended family. We had taken up the great Latin American-American Jewish blending challenge twelve years before: one Jewish girl and boy from me, one Latin-American girl and boy from him. My husband is a soccer player, a joke-teller, a card player, and I’m a former camp counselor, so it was natural for us to use play as a catalyst for blending: we rode six bikes in a ragged line, we played six person soccer, made six gingerbread houses for Christmas; on Hanukah we lit six menorahs then danced around the house singing. We played a Latin American card game called Dudo, we played foosball, and every summer we went on vacation, all together. We had fought and played our way through New York and Portland, pushed each other off rafts in the Adirondacks and New England.
As they grew older, the boys left for college, the girls began to hold up in their rooms, and it became harder to find time to play together.
And so, triumphant that we’d wrestled a week out of everyone’s schedules, with great blending hopes, nine hours after we began, we pulled up to our Oregon rental cabin. The lake, dark, because surrounded by a solid wall of dark evergreen trees. The youngest called from the far back pop-up seat where we’d wedged her in beside the kayak paddles and six suitcases, “I think I’m getting sick.”
As we carried our things inside it began to rain.
The unheated cabin we’d found on the internet was low-ceilinged, with small windows, sagging, mismatched furniture, a bookshelf crowded with old paperback mysteries. We had imagined the cabin just a launching pad for our swims, hikes, and paddles.
It rained steadily the whole week.
There was no heat.
There was no Internet.
And the kids came down with the flu, one by one, until they were all sick, together.
The four of them spent their days not playing with us as best they could. The youngest staked out the floral couch and lay there, blowing her nose and mournfully slogging through her ninth grade required summer reading: Life of Pi, about a boy and a tiger stuck together on a small boat, and Nurture Shock, about how everything parents think about parenting is wrong.
Our sixteen-year-old daughter sat on the facing couch, playing Sims on the laptop. You design a character, her personality, her house, her profession, and then you direct the character through her day, waking, eating, working, etc.… It’s a soothing game, like playing house under the table or re-arranging a dollhouse.
One twenty-year-old son read and tried to get in on the Sims game when he could.
The other worked desultorily on his summer job, transcribing a nineteenth century Spanish text for a professor. He used a magnifying glass to decipher the microfiche. It was slow work.
At one point the reading son looked up from his page, remarked, “Maybe the apocalypse would be a little like this,” then went into a coughing fit.
Although the kids refused to play Dudo, after dinner they played a card game called Magic: The Gathering late into the night, fevered, slugging cough syrup, coughing. They played peacefully for a few days, but slowly the boys’ old rivalries emerged. You could see it starting—the eye rolls, the huffing, the slamming down of cards. After a loss, the reading boy stormed out of the cabin, then stood outside the window and screamed at the magnifying glass boy, “F*** Youuuuu.”
The invalids perpetually complained about the cold, so I made myself the official fire starter. I ran out in the rain, brought wet logs and kindling and bark into the house, worked on the fires, watched them blaze, stared into them.
My husband, who is not afraid of cold water and wind and rain, swam in the lake every day. Some days I reluctantly followed, easing myself into the dark lake for a quick splash about or during a break in the rain reading on the dock in a sweatshirt and long pants, wrapped in my towel. On a day that the sun struggled to come out, the reading son came down in his psychedelic bathing suit and sunglasses. He laid his towel out. The wind whipped it into the lake. He got up and left. The other three never came down at all.
One night the magnifying glass boy said to the youngest, “Let’s talk about our relationship.”
She didn’t look up from her book, “There’s nothing to talk about. You just annoy me.”
One morning late in the week, despite the steady rain, my husband and I stood in the middle of the room and tried to generate some enthusiasm, “Let’s all go to Crater lake—just a few hours north. We can eat lunch there!” The kids barely looked up. So we abandoned them, determined to vacate. We drove north on a back road into a lightening storm. At one point, lightening hit a tree in a field a few hundred yards away. The tree caught fire. We drove on, finally up and up a switchback road. When we got to Crater Lake, the power was out from the storm, the restaurant closed.
We walked over to the lake—stared at its eerie expanse. “Lets hike around it!” my husband said. It began to snow. This was the middle of August, and we were both in shorts and t-shirts. I ran for the car.
On our return, reading boy said he needed to go to the doctor. So we got back in the car and drove to the nearest emergency room an hour away. He was diagnosed with bronchitis.
That night, while magnifying boy deciphered his microfiche, the three others gathered around the laptop and created our family on Sims. Personality traits, hairstyles, body types, outfits, six little re-creations. They argued, they refined. And then there we were, our best selves, spruced up and a little thinner or buffer or better dressed than the originals. We were all charmed by ourselves, except magnifying boy—he strenuously objected to the hairstyle they’d given him. That’s a mullet, he kept saying, but they wouldn’t change it. After the excitement, the Sims daughter went back to playing with the Sims character she’d originally created, a vampire rock star with purple hair.
I could end by telling you about how we left a day early, lashing the kayaks we didn’t use back onto the car in the rain, how on our way back we took a detour to see a cave we’d read about on one of the kids’ phones. Two hours south and there was no rain, it was deserted, in fact, desert-like and broiling. We parked in the parking lot, the only car. On the sign in front of the cave it said 50,000 year-old grizzly bear bones had been found in the cave. This cave used to be part of a resort in the twenties, and tourists had ice-skated deep inside. Reading boy with bronchitis and the youngest on her reading deadline stayed in the car, reading. The rest of us climbed down three flights of slippery metal stairs, the kids using their phones as flashlights, the air cooler and cooler, until we reached a cavernous room where bears had lived and died, where flappers partied, probably drinking moonshine and laughing, teetering on their rustic skates. It was dark and cold and strange in there. It was a little sliver of vacation.
Or I could end by confessing to you that since that epically lousy trip we haven’t been on a vacation together. Last summer the three oldest were away working, and this summer everyone’s away, the girls on internships, the boys graduated, with girlfriends and jobs. Will we ever vacation all together again? Do we want to? What happens to the great dream of fusion when children become adults? Perhaps like many families with adult children, love diffuses, becomes more often about absence than presence. We still bond, but in looser configurations. They all text and snap chat each other, and email and Skype with us. In fact, reading boy who swore at his brother sent him a text recently from London: I love you, it read. One of the boys picked up his sister at her college and took her out to a concert and dinner. Two of the kids play a furious quiz game on their phones every time they see each other. Recently, at a rare dinner with the six of us, my husband tried to start a game to decide which grown kid would get their dessert first. “Who knows the capital of Venezuela?” he asked. They groaned, but playfully, and all together.
But where I really want to leave you is on our last night of our last vacation. My Sims daughter called me over to the laptop. “Check this out. My vampire rock star walked into a bar and look who she ran into.” It was us, our whole Sims family. We were lined up at the bar on stools, slumped, depressed, and over-weight. “What’s wrong with us?” I asked.
“They get like that when no one plays with them,” she answered.
Micah Perks is the author of a novel, We Are Gathered Here, and a memoir, Pagan Time. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Tin House, The Toast and The Rumpus, among others. She has won an NEA, four Pushcart Prize nominations, and the New Guard Machigonne 2014 Fiction Prize. She received her BA and MFA from Cornell University and now lives with her family in Santa Cruz where she co-directs the creative writing program at UCSC. Find her at micahperks.com
Artwork by Esther Willa