Oceans of Fun
Kari knew she wasn’t getting a diamond for her tenth wedding anniversary but that was all right. Money was tight and, to tell the truth the last year had been a rocky one.
No, a family trip would be fine. Maybe Disneyland or at the shore. What she didn’t see coming, was Michael’s insistence that they spend it in Iowa.
Six months earlier, she had begun stashing away money into a secret savings account and put in for time off from work. Even after seven years as an assistant in a physician’s office, she only got two weeks per year. She figured when Michael announced where they were going she’d surprise him with her time off and some ‘mad money.’ They’d forget their problems, maybe try to get the magic back in their marriage.
She knew that their issues were partly her fault. Michael hated Colorado Springs and the pre-planned suburban tract where there had been exactly four model homes to choose from. He missed his parents—he was an only child--and despised his tech job. He talked about buying acreage in the Midwest where they could be closer to his family. They could grow crops or open up an internet business.
Kari understood, at least partly. But she thought that after Sebastian was born Michael would become more at peace and things would be better. But, if anything, the last year had been worse. He complained that at thirty-five, life was passing him by, and he wanted to make changes. They argued at least once or twice a week about it.
Once Kari got the time off, she wondered if Michael would want to go anywhere. If he didn’t, what would she have? Just eight days staring into their tiny backyard.
But Keokuk? Even in her dreams, she never imagined that.
They were at the dining room table when he sprang the news, making sure that Sebastian was upstairs. “You’re kidding, right?” she said. “You really want to trek halfway across the United States to Iowa? What is there to do there in July?”
“Oceans of Fun,” he said.
“Oceans of Fun? Michael, there are no oceans. The only thing near Iowa is more Iowa.”
“I know that,” he said. “You forget that I grew up in Wisconsin. Oceans of Fun is an amusement park.”
He unfolded a multi-colored brochure. “It has water slides, a salt-water wave pool, beaches, even an aquarium. It’s the most popular theme park in the five state area.”
“That’s because it’s the only theme park in the five state area.” She looked into his eyes.
“What’s really going on? Why Oceans of Fun? Why now?”
He pressed down the edges of the brochure. “My parents are going to meet us there.”
Kari looked at him in disbelief. “Your parents. So, that’s what all of this is about We’re spending our tenth anniversary with your parents. You want us to go to wild and crazy Iowa to meet up with your parents.”
Michael brushed his fingers through his long, black hair, something he did whenever he was nervous. “I…we haven’t seen them in three years. The last time they saw their grandson was when he was two.”
“There’s a reason for that,” she said.”
“Your mother. She makes my life a living hell. Everything I do is wrong. When Sebastian was a baby she actually told me that a mother that didn’t breastfeed had a 60% chance of having the child turn out gay. Then she asked me why I was using formula.
“And that’s just the stuff she gets from the talk shows,” It’s the other things she says that hurt the most. How I brainwashed you, made you abandon your parents, keeping them from seeing their only grandchild. It’s as if I went to Wisconsin and stole you away in the middle of the night rather than meeting you at Colorado State.”
“I realize she can be a little tough.”
“No, Michael, getting a family Christmas card saying ‘give your wife our best’ is a little tough. Telling me that Sebastian seems slow and asking if mental retardation runs in my family is over the top.”
“I know,” he said. “And I wouldn’t ask you. But Mom said that Dad’s slipping. He’s been to the emergency room twice in the last six months, and his doctor thinks that
he’s been having mini –strokes. He keeps asking about us and she doesn’t know what to tell him.”
She took his hand. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t see them and we will. I’m willing to bite the the bullet with your mother. But does it have to be now? It’s our anniversary, number ten.”
“If something happened to Dad,” he said “and I wasn’t there, I’d never forgive myself.”
He rubbed her hand with his thumb, something he knew she loved. “Please, don’t make this hard.”
He got up from the table. “I’m going to see how Sebastian is doing.”
When he was gone, Kari stared at the brochure. It looked like they were taking a road trip to Keokuk.
The car ride was everything Kari thought it would be. Google Maps said it was a thirteen hour drive but the computer folks hadn’t traveled with a five-year-old. She knew there were going to be problems when only thirty miles outside Colorado Springs, Sebastian asked if they were there yet and how much longer it would be. Michael was gung-ho to make the trip in one day, but eleven hours and three rest stops later they were still west of Kansas City. Kari insisted they find a room in one of the motels along the Interstate.
At least when they hit the Iowa line there were billboards for Oceans of Fun. Each contained a rhyme which she read to Sebastian to keep him amused. Finally, they pulled into the park around four and Michael went to register while Sebastian and Kari stayed in the car.
He returned with a worried look. “Please don’t tell me there’s a problem with the reservations,” she said.
“No problem with the room. But Mom and Dad haven’t arrived yet. It’s only a six hour drive for them. They should have been here by now.”
“Maybe they got a late start.”
Michael shook his head. “Fat chance of that. If Dad had his way, they left at five this morning.”
He took out his cell phone and punched in their number. “It went right to voice mail. Now I’m really worried.”
They parked in front of the window of their room. Kari hated this kind of motel. Somebody was forever slamming the car door or starting the engine. Worst of all was when they shined the headlights into your bedroom at three in the morning.
The room itself was terrible. The first thing that hit her was the stale air from the window air conditioner that was trying to keep up with the Iowa humidity. The place looked like it had been last refurbished during the Kennedy Administration: faded pine paneling, two double beds with slumps in the middle of the mattresses, a worn chair and a rickety desk. She was sure in the bathroom she’d find a strip across the toilet seat saying Sanitized for Your Protection.
Outside wasn’t much better. What should have been grass was reduced to weeds and somebody, either to keep up with the ocean theme or because it needed no maintenance, had dumped sand. There were tacky signs calling guests Mariners and pointing toward attractions labeled Gilligan’s Island, Aloha Pool, and Shiver-Me-Timbers Concessions.
Sebastian wanted to swim, but Michael wanted to wait for his parents. Kari wanted to stay and wait but Michael insisted that she and head for the pool.
She gave him a brief kiss, felt the stubble of his two-day beard. “Come get us if there’s a problem.”
When they got back an hour later, Michael’s parents still hadn’t arrived. He was about to call the State Police when their fifteen-year-old Cutlass pulled into the parking lot.
Loraine was behind the wheel which Kari thought odd. Henry insisted on driving everywhere with Loraine in the passenger seat offering criticism. It was a running joke for as long as Kari had known them.
“Don’t ask,” Loraine said, as they got out. “I was asleep and your father got turned around, going east instead of westbound on I-70. I woke up and noticed that we were twenty miles from the Indiana State line.”
Kari was pretty sure that she heard Loraine mutter, “Damn fool.” It reinforced why she didn’t like the woman.
Kari was shocked by how much Henry had aged in three years: deep bags under his eyes which seemed clouded and confused, shoulders slumped and fingers gnarled by arthritis.
Michael must have seen the same things. For a long moment he stared at his father. Finally, as if awakening, he rushed to him.
“Jesus, Dad, we were ready to call the hospitals between here and Green Bay. He gave him a long hug “Why did your cell phone go straight to voice mail?”
Henry took the cell phone out of his pocket and stared as if he had never seen it before.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
Kari hugged Henry. “It’s okay, Dad. You’re here. That’s all that counts.”
She took Sebastian’s hand and nudged him forward. “Sebastian, say hello to Grandpa and Grandma. Then she moved toward her mother-in-law.
“Hello, Loraine, it’s been a long time.”
When the two women embraced, Kari felt the space between them so wide that Michael might see clear through the parking lot to the highway.
Before they left Colorado, Kari promised herself that she wouldn’t let Loraine’s digs get to her. She came upon the plan of writing them down to read later. This way, she told herself, she would actually look forward to them.
The plan wasn’t successful. Loraine simply had a way of getting under her skin. Within twenty-four hours, she had asked if Kari wasn’t worried about Sebastian growing up using pot since they lived in a state where it was legal, why she prevented Michael from attending church, and why Kari wasn’t homeschooling her son since the public schools were overrun with pedophiles.
But the worst of it was Michael. Either he had suddenly acquired an audiological impairment or he pretended not to hear. Plus, he seemed obsessed with his father; talking to him constantly, making sure he was comfortable, getting him a beer or refilling his dish with pretzels. When Loraine complained how this wasn’t on the diet that the doctor proscribed, Michael countered that his father was on vacation and should have what he wanted.
The good news was that Sebastian quickly bonded with his grandfather. Henry pushed him on the swings, bought him pizza and overloaded him with prizes from the video arcade.
Loraine, on the other hand, kept up her negativity Everything Kari did was wrong from the choice of Sebastian’s diet to the clothes that he wore.
“I can’t take this anymore,” Kari said to Michael in their room while Sebastian was taking a nap. “I know you’re worried about your Dad but your mother treats me worse than ever. Either I have to go home or I have to kill her. You choose.”
“Michael, look at me. I’m not smiling. This is getting beyond control. And it might be nice if you stuck up for me once in a while.”
“That’s not fair.”
“No, Michael, not fair is hanging me out to dry with your mother. Not fair is my using up vacation time at Oceans of Fun in God-forsaken Iowa. Not fair is treating our anniversary as if it wasn’t important.”
“Dad’s going downhill,” he said. “I can’t believe how far he’s slipped.”
“Have you heard a word I’ve said?”
“I’ve heard.” He paused as if wanting to add something.
“And to be brutally honest, this isn’t about you and me. It’s about my father. I should have been a better son. I need to make it up to him on this vacation.
“That’s three more days. I’m not sure I can stay sane that long.”
“Try,” he said. “For me. For them.”
He reached down and she responded, pulling close and kissing him. “I’ll do my best, she said.
The next day, Loraine let up on her nastiness. Kari didn’t know if Michael had said something or if it was just fatigue, but she appreciated the change. Mostly, Loraine contented herself with not-so-subtle hints on how difficult it was for Henry to care for the farm and how they didn’t have the money to hire help. When Kari suggested that perhaps they might downsize to a retirement community Loraine gave her an icy stare that could have cured global warming.
Michael split his time between taking Sebastian to the various attractions and hovering over his father. Henry mostly sat listless in a lounge chair saying little. Whenever anyone would try to engage him, he would stare like he hadn’t heard or answer in monosyllables. Kari wondered whether he was depressed or if it was the side-effects of the medications.
They were sitting at a picnic table eating hotdogs and cotton candy. It was late afternoon and Kari complained that the junk food would ruin Sebastian’s appetite, but she was outvoted. She decided not to make an issue of it.
Sebastian finished before anyone else. “Can I go to the wave pool?”
Michael shook his head. “Maybe later. I’m pretty tired out. Your Dad needs a break.”
Sebastian thought for a second. “What about Grandpa? He could take me.”
Henry perked up. “Sure sport, I’d love it.”
Kari gave a quick shake of her head and mouthed “no” but Michael either didn’t see or chose to ignore her. “Okay, but stay with Grandpa and do what he says. He’s the boss.”
“Michael,” Kari said, “do you really think that’s a good idea?”
“My word, Kari,” Loraine broke in, “let them go. Henry used to take Michael swimming before you were even a gleam in your parent’s eyes.”
Kari wanted to simultaneously tell her that that was exactly what she was worried about and brain her with a beer glass, but she refrained from both and let Sebastian go.
A half hour passed. Michael and Loraine continued to chat but Kari processed little of what was said. Her anxiety about Sebastian increased exponentially with each five-minute interval. By the forty-five minute mark, she resolved to search for them.
Just then, Henry walked toward them holding a beach towel in one hand and a sno-cone in the other. He was alone.
“Dad,” Michael said. “Where’s Sebastian?”
His father looked at him blankly.
“Sebastian. Your grandson. You took him to the wave pool. Where is he?”
“I… I must have left him there.”
Kari jumped to her feet. “Oh my God!” She put on her flip-flops. “We need to find him.”
“I’m sorry,” Henry said, almost whispering.
“I just want my son,” Kari said. “Michael, I told you something like this might happen.”
“Why do you always blame Michael for everything,” Loraine said. “After all, you’re his mother. You let him go.”
“Go fuck yourself,” Kari said, not waiting for them to catch up.
For Kari, the next half-hour was a blur. They reached the pool just as the announcement came over the loudspeaker that a lost boy was waiting for his parents at the concession stand. Sebastian was eating a pretzel while being supervised by a park employee.
Kari was torn between hugging her son and scolding him for wandering off. Henry alternated from sobbing to apologizing while Loraine, perhaps smarting from the physical impossibility of the act that her daughter-in-law had suggested she perform on herself, kept silent.
Kari got Sebastian bathed and bedded for the night while Michael attended to his father. While the boy slept, she alternated between sobbing and staring at a movie on the fifteen-inch TV without having the slightest idea what the film was about. She had come within a breath of losing her son. She wondered if her husband was lost to her too.
Michael came in after nine. “Mom finally got Dad calmed down. She gave him one of her sedatives.”
Kari’s headache felt like it was splitting her brain in half and a poker was being stuck in her right eye. “I’m glad,” Kari said, still looking at the screen. “Go back and ask her if she can spare four for me.”
“Dad feels terrible. He’s afraid you hate him.”
“Tell him I don’t. I know he didn’t mean it.”
“It really wasn’t anyone’s fault,” Michael said.
“Try telling that to your mother. She’s spared no verbal expense this trip telling me what a lousy mother I am.”
“That’s just Mom being Mom. Let it roll off your back.”
She looked at him. “I can’t. Not anymore.”
“Can’t you try? It’s just another two days. Then we head home.”
She swung her legs off the bed. “You don’t get it, do you? It’s not just this. Not just Oceans of Fun. I mean us.”
“Yes, us. You, me, our marriage. You torn between me and perpetual guilt about not being a good son.”
“They need me.”
“So do I. So does Sebastian. I can’t live with this divided loyalty, you using our anniversary, so that I can spend time with your judgmental mother. I’m not asking her for the moon and the stars, just for her to give me a little respect.”
There was a long silence. “Mom’s begging me to go back to Wisconsin for awhile. She says she can’t manage Dad alone.”
Kari looked away from the screen. “Great. Okay, here’s the deal. I… we, have a life back in Colorado. It’s where we need to be. If you go to Wisconsin you’ll have to go there alone.
“That’s not fair,” he said.
“I know it’s not but it’s the best I can do.”
Michael walked to the door. “I promised Dad I’d stay with him until he fell asleep. I won’t give Mom an answer. We can talk about it when I get back to the room.” “I’ve been trying to talk to you about it for years,” she said.
He shook his head and left.
Kari felt miserable. And hungry. But the concession stands were closed. She thought about ordering out for a pizza. Did motel rooms still keep phone books? She figured a place as outdated as Oceans of Fun might.
She opened the drawer of the nightstand. Sure enough, the Yellow Pages was there. Then the thought hit her. She looked under ‘Airports.’ There was one in Burlington a half-hour away.
She would throw some things in a suitcase, wake up Sebastian and move him to the car. Where there were airports there were airlines, and where there were airlines, there were flights to California.
She walked over to the desk and took out a pad that cheap motels leave instead of stationary, found a pen and scribbled Michael a note. Loraine could make herself useful for once and drive him to pick up the car at the airport.
If you counted the weekend, she had five days of vacation left and she didn’t plan on using them in Iowa or on the boring Interstate back to Colorado.
It wouldn’t be forever. She wasn’t willing to give up on her marriage that easily. But she and Sebastian were breaking out of Oceans of Fun.
They were going to Disneyland.
About the author:
Richard's stories have appeared in numerous magazines including, Bloodroot, Front Porch Review, Silkscreen Literary Review, and Pulse literary Magazine