In which I change my mind

Guatemala policeLast night, at 3:30am, I woke up with my first full-blown panic about our plan.  Of course it won’t work.  We will be miserable and lonely. None of us will speak Spanish well enough to make friends.  We will be stuck with the weirdo ex-pats that washed ashore in Central America. Retta will turn 12 and stop speaking to us and start sneaking out and doing drugs with the surfers down at the beach.  Jack will get beat up everyday by thuggish elementary kids who taunt him for his lack of soccer skills until his world view crumbles around him.  Clearly we will be robbed of our computers — maybe right when we arrive, in the bus station in Managua, or maybe our landlord will break into our house which will be bare and uncomfortable and likely have bedbugs — so it won’t matter that there’s no reliable internet connection in the whole country, or that the electricity goes out in Nicaragua for four to eight hours every day.  There will be nothing to do — no home-schooling, no books on the Kindle, no writing (except in painful long-hand which I will of course lose in some freak accident or fire) and we will drive ourselves nuts within three weeks.

And the bad things that could happen, all far from the systems I can navigate!  Jack getting stung and we realize too late that he’s now allergic.  No smoke alarms or carbon monoxide alarms so we die in our beds.  Car accidents.  Scuba disaster.  Kidnapping.  My beautiful, vulnerable little 12-year-old daughter catches someone’s eye.  At 4am, I could picture the scene — me in panicky, pidgin Spanish, trying to communicate with the Guatemalan police that my son didn’t come home from Spanish lessons, and their dismissive shrug.  Me, on the pay phone, trying to reach the embassy, and them sending out some low-level foreign service bureaucrat to talk in circles for hours while Jack disappears.  And then deciding which of my friends or family I could call in a tragic situation to come and help me.  Who speaks enough Spanish to be useful, has traveled enough to understand third-world systems, and is close enough to me to ask such a huge favor as helping me transport the remains of my family back to the US?

And then, even if we dodge all these enormous dangers, what do we come home to? The kids will miss an entire semester of school and come back left out socially and behind in academics (not that I worry that Jack’s lack of knowledge of the happenings at Sutter’s Mill really matters, but math and science and practicing expository writing and…).  Jack won’t even have soccer because he will miss the tryouts and the coaches will shake their heads and talk about the team dynamic and that he is welcome to try out next year but…  They’ll leave the word hanging, because we’ve proven that we’re not serious about the sport.  Retta will have outgrown her theater program and will act out to get attention and decide to transfer to the other middle school and fall in with the wrong crowd and be suspended for smoking pot in the bathroom, all because we dragged her to Honduras or somewhere for the year.

I will quit the best job I’ve ever had and will never find co-workers I like as much or as flexible a schedule.  In fact, I won’t find anything to do because I’m over-qualified and under-skilled to do anything except exactly what I’m doing right now.  And the work Eric has done to build his portfolio of speaking gigs and clients will dry up.  He will end up back at the beginning, and his confidence will dip and he won’t be able to re-generate the momentum and we will both have to do things we hate in order to pay our mortgage.

But my biggest fear — besides kidnapping and death — is what this trip will do to our relationships.  I’m not particularly worried about Jack.  His relationships with us are still simple and straightforward.  “Mommy, I love you sooooooooo much!” and “Mommy, that’s not fair!” illustrate the entire range.  But Retta is different.  I halfway wish we had hatched this idea sooner, so we could go this year, while she still thinks I’m smart and beautiful and my opinion matters.  But in a year, when she’s 12, where will we be?  Will this trip hold us together longer, because we cling to each other for safety and security?  Or will all this time together speed up the transition to the time when every sentence ends with an unspoken, “you idiot”?  And what do you do with a disdainful, eye-rolling twelve-year-old in El Salvador?

And what about my marriage?  Our past travels drew us together.  In a world where everything was scary and foreign and vaguely (or explicitly) threatening, we clung together.  We were an amazing team.  We would take turns losing our shit, and whoever got that look in their eye first had first dibs.  The other would suck it up and find food, and shelter, and when the bus left for Hoi Anh.  But it was just the two of us then, and the gap between our views of safety weren’t as wide as they will be traveling with our children, and we didn’t have 20 years of built-up baggage about who freaks out unnecessarily, and who is too cavalier with belongings and people, and who is vaguely irresponsible, and who can’t relax and enjoy.  I suspect that the entire reason Eric proposed this trip is a secret desire to recapture our old rhythm of respectful interdependence and closeness.  But what if the opposite is true?  What if the full-time, no-intermediaries-to-soften-the-edges exposure exacerbates the little cracks that develop over time?


In the chill grey light of a foggy June morning, I am trying to exorcise these fears by making them caricatures of themselves, but it hasn’t worked yet.  Maybe it’s the lack of sleep, or the end-of-school blues, or the emotional hangover from telling some friends last night who so clearly think we are crazy.  Whatever it is, today, I don’t want to go.

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