I snuggled close to Tophs on my bed, adoring the cheeks that hung like sandbags from his face. Eliot had fallen asleep in her toddler bed across the hall, clutching her CamelBak bottle like a teddy bear. For a full minute, I let myself melt. This. Is. Motherhood. It’s the kind of lie that gets you pregnant without sperm.
I snapped back to reality when I heard a facilities guy outside our door. From the sound of things, he was either sweeping the dorm’s staircase or welding elves together from scrap metal. Either way, he sang passionately along to a Chris Brown song:
Girl I just wanna see you strip, right now cause it’s late, babe
Girl I just wanna see you strip, girl take your time with it
The chorus was his favorite. That’s where he really dug his vocal nails in.
After two verses, Eliot appeared, clawing at the cattle gate on her door. She gave a half-hearted whine, meaning she wasn’t terrified, just disturbed.
Weren’t we all?
In that moment, I knew: We needed a break from the rhythms of dorm life. I’d noticed a change in the way I viewed the most gorgeous campus in America. Birds feasting on twitching cicadas were demonic crows deserving of death by stroller tire. Chubby lizards slipping in and out of sidewalk cracks were one Twinkie away from getting trapped by their own obesity. And an entertaining university employee was a nap bandit who didn’t have the decency to slip some singles under my door after singing about a stripper.
Paul and I talked. We prayed. We ate pork dumplings until it became clear. Only one destination fit perfectly into the space carved out by our dreams and budget—Best Western Plus of Virginia Beach.
It’s the kind of thing I could hear my dad telling one of his buddies at General Motors over ham sandwiches and Mountain Dew: “No, man. I didn’t stay at the Best Western. You hard of hearing? I stayed at the Best Western PLUS!”
I knew we were in the right place when, on the first night, we saw three people approach some Amish folks on the strip. “We watch the show!” they screamed. Paul dragged me away before I could offer to take a group photo.
This. Is. Vacation.
It’s the kind of thought that will over-relax you, cause you to leave your possessions unguarded. Every housekeeper I’ve ever imagined is waiting for the chance to get his hands on a bottle of whole milk and pack of swim diapers. Eliot must have sensed this because she immediately loaded her pink leather sandals into the room’s safe. She also hid my sparkly flats in a dresser drawer, along with a cup of Cinnamon Life cereal.
I credit the LeapFrog DVDs she watches every day in the minivan with her craftiness. In Numberland, which features an Australian monkey named Max, the characters are always helping each other out of “a spot of bother.” Did your school bus break down in the jungle? Why, I know a yellow sedan with headlights for eyes that can tow you to town. Not only has she learned that counting by twos can solve any problem, she can also say “great jorb” with the best of Outback Steakhouse waiters.
We went on vacation because we wanted a change, but the similarities between dorm life and vacation ran deeper than the constant soundtrack of Max’s eerie monkey giggles. Take the bedroom. If we wanted to spice things up, we couldn’t order the honeymoon suite with heart-shaped waterbed, because someone has to sleep with Tophs or he’ll roll onto the floor. So we were back to sexile, each parent bunking with one kid in a double bed, because everyone knows hotel cribs carry rabies and dysentery.
Okay, maybe the kids will at least sleep longer, I thought. They’ll be lulled by the crashing waves or comforted by our body heat. But at 5:30 the next morning, Tophs popped his paci out and began a rhythmic babbling. He always does this: takes the paci, holds it out like an Olympic torch, pretends he’s created the first fire, and then laughs. Elie Mae joined in with a repetitive stream of questions. Want shoo-shoo? Want shoo-shoo? (Shoo-shoo is cereal.) Want milk? Want chicken?
I rolled over, looked at a blurry clock, remembered I’m almost legally blind, and hoped the Gideons had left a large-print Bible in the nightstand because I needed a word from God.
“Starrrrrrbuuuuucks,” I sputtered.
“Why do you need Starbucks?” Paul asked. Paul’s tragic flaw is that he doesn’t drink coffee. It makes his stomach gurgle, which heightens the threat level of dutch ovens at bedtime to orange.
I figured the more ridiculous I looked as we headed down to the free continental breakfast, the more likely Paul would be to drive me to Starbucks. I’m wearing a lace thong outside my pajama pants? My right breast is sitting three inches higher than my left in this bra? Sorry, I haven’t had my morning latte.
Paul’s breasts always sit evenly, but he empathizes like a spinster with lopsided hooters. So after he and the kids feasted on lukewarm eggs and limp French toast sticks, we hit up Starbucks. No, that’s wrong. First, Paul delighted in cheese grits—the single hot item in the buffet at the Shoreline Grill—and then we left. Wait, no. Before we exited, we took Elie to the fish tank, where a sign read: “Don’t put your finger in tank. Fish bite.” Which, of course, filled me with a juvenile sense of bravado—I’ll do it, babe. I’ll do it. Think they’ll really bite?
The black fish with a mouth that resembled my cervix stared straight ahead and ate a beige turd. I had seen enough. Finally, we could leave the ironic oceanic murals and seashell-encrusted dining tables behind. On the way out, I looked at the lunch specials and tried not to imagine where Best Western had found the soft-shelled crab for its $11.95 sandwich.
And then it hit me like a golf club to the groin: I was classist. Bougie. Snooty.
I was on vacation in Virginia Beach, and I could barely breathe until I found a Starbucks. Not only because I bleed espresso, but because Starbucks reminds me of Duck’s Cottage coffee shop in the Outer Banks, and OBX is the yacht of affordable family vacations. It’s where the cool kids go after they buy TOMS and donate a pair to hungry, identical twins.
I knew the truth—that as much as I rail against college kids driving Range Rovers and dressing for the country club, I feel a certain level of comfort around them. When I point at them and roll my eyes, I secure my position as a self-righteous outsider. I didn’t exactly need a break from UVA. I needed UVA on a beach.
So we drove from Starbucks to Sandbridge Beach, the place they call the “Outer Banks of Virginia.” I totally get that because I’m always saying Columbus is the Pittsburgh of Ohio. And White Castle is the Five Guys of people with small hands.
As soon as I spotted those sparkly dolphin sculptures from the road and the place where people rent kayaks, I practically crapped my postpartum pants. This. Is. Paradise. Where people rent 12-bedroom houses on stilts and shop at gourmet markets for marbled steaks that cost $3.99 at Food Lion.
We spent two hours that afternoon on the beach under our neon green tent. It’s the same tent we set up in our yard when we want people to think our kids are learning. Tophs played with his usual toys: ear buds, an iPhone charger, and keys. Eliot scooped up a sand Frappuccino in my old Starbucks cup and tried to drink it through a straw. Paul read a book on his phone, and I snapped pictures of Tophs and Elie Mae before falling asleep on a towel.
We didn’t do much on that beach that we haven’t done at home, except pay better attention to each other. Paul and I browsed the Internet less, and Eliot began listening and responding to her little brother. When he cried during the trip, even if they were both strapped into car seats, she called out, “I comin’. I comin’, Tophs! Relax.” Paul and I thanked each other more often for changing diapers or dressing the kids or buying dinner or pouring a bottle. Tophs spent less time being toted around and more time learning to crawl.
I wish I could say we brought the beach back to the dorm. That we all woke up riding baby unicorns with tattoos of bacon on their hooves. But by 7:17 the morning after vacation ended, my life was already Shambles Town. I couldn’t remember how to simultaneously mother two children, and it showed. Naked, Eliot climbed onto her table, stuck her finger up her nose, and shouted, “I got boogers? I got boogers?” as Tophs screamed and kicked on his play mat.
Throughout the morning, Eliot experienced chronic tantrums for several reasons, including but not limited to the following:
- She couldn’t eat raw oats.
- She wanted to stand up.
- She wanted one sock off.
- She wanted both socks on.
- Mommy pooped.
And then, as if one of those shiny dolphin sculptures from the Outer Banks or Sandbridge hopped all the way to Charlottesville and knocked on our door, I saw a glimmer of vacation break through the shower curtain. As I washed my hair, Eliot stood in the bathroom and broke up pieces of her tortilla strips for Tophs, feeding him in his Exersaucer. “Here. Here, Tophs. You like it? Want more?”
In that moment, I knew I had one person to thank for my toddler’s growth in character. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for Chris Brown.