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Man of the House by Chris Erskine

She can run, but she can't hide

A surprise visit to the daughter in college requires a Cold War strategy, on and off the freeway.

October 02, 2003|Chris Erskine

We're off to college, her mother and I, to verify the living accommodations and to make sure our lovely and patient older daughter has made a wise decision, apartment-wise. Trust but verify, that's our motto. It's what won the Cold War.

"Mom won the Cold War?" the boy asks as we pack up the car.

"Not alone," I say.

"But I was there," she says.

"Way to go, Mom."

With that victory behind her, we are now invading San Diego, a sleepy little border town with a big spirit. There are seven ways to get from L.A. to San Diego, none of them good. Seven bottlenecks. Pick your poison.

"Should I take the 5?" asks my wife, who's driving.

"The 5's good," I say.

"Don't you think the 15 would be better?"

Just like her to suggest something, then when I agree, to question the decision. She's like Harry Truman polling his Cabinet. Whatever I say, Harry does the opposite.

"I think we'll take the 15," she says.

"You won't regret it," I say.

I'm nothing if not supportive. She drives through Pasadena as if fleeing a bank heist. It makes me want to question her past, except that her past is now my past. We've been together longer than Scotch and water. If she were a bank robber in an earlier life, I was probably one too.

"What's that truck doing?" she asks.

"Which truck?"

"Right there," she says. "What's a truck doing in a carpool lane?"

"The breaststroke?"

"Go to sleep," she says.

I snooze a little, or as well as you can when your spouse is driving. It's an interesting dynamic, having your spouse drive. I trust her more than anyone in the world, yet I can't relax when she is at the wheel. For there are indications lately, usually in the mornings, that she is either menopausal or murderously sleep-deprived. If Caltrans were really on the ball, it would build her her own separate lane. We would all be safer.

"Look at that truck," she says, grunting. "What an idiot."

And then there's this baby sleeping in the car seat, like a well-diapered time bomb. At any moment, the baby could go off, hollering all the way to Mission Bay. The longest trip since Da Gama took off looking for India.

"Maybe we should take the 605," she says.

"The 605 would be good," I say.

"No, I think I'm staying with the 210," she decides.

At the end of this rainbow awaits our lovely and patient older daughter, a college junior now. Beer on her breath, probably. Frantically sweeping her new kitchen in anticipation of our arrival.

She left us weeks ago, packed up the little car and fled one morning the way she always does this time of year, just as the grass has completely baked through, like bread, and the first hint of fall graces our oven air. Off she goes in her little Civic. How many times will she leave us like this? How many ways can you break the same guy's heart?

"Call when you get there," her mother ordered.

"Don't forget to write," I said.

As if she would ever write. In the two years she's been in college, I have a sum total of zero letters. There have been a few e-mails and 4,000-some cellphone calls. A couple of mail bombs and 300 sacks of dirty laundry on weekends and holidays. Not one letter. Probably, she's still working on it. Getting the ending just right. Ironing out those verb tenses.

So, eager yet uninvited, we are off to check out her new apartment, the one we're financing, sight unseen. College kids, sometimes they'll live almost anywhere.

"When I was in college, there was no IKEA," I tell the kids as we roar past Temecula.

"There wasn't?" the little girl gasps.

"All we had were cinder blocks," I say.

"You did?"

"And you know what? We were grateful for those cinder blocks," I say.

"Take another nap," my wife urges, then leans forward toward the wheel, as if driving a dog sled.

And in a few hours, we arrive in San Diego, the Big Snapple, perhaps America's healthiest city. Land of the perpetual tan and 65-year-olds who look barely 50. Where people still name their kids Sandy or Summer. Biff or Bob.

As always, the nation's worst drivers are out to greet us. In San Diego, the civic seal ought to feature a Ford Escort going 50 in the center lane.

"Thank God, we made it," my wife says.

"You know, this looks a lot like Albuquerque," I say.

"You've never been to Albuquerque," my wife says.

"We're in Albuquerque?" the little girl asks.

"Aaaaahhhhhhh!" screams the baby.

"Aaaaahhhhhhh!" screams my wife.

College Avenue, here we come.


Chris Erskine can be reached at

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