By Karen Brode
“Don’t let her go back in your house,” said Mary, who was sitting at the steering wheel of my car. “We’ll never get her out again!”
Unfortunately there wasn’t much I could do. I was lying in the backseat with a terrible backache. I had bent over to dry my hair that morning and my back had seized up.
As I lied there, I couldn’t help wondering if my pain was psychosomatic. I really didn’t want to go anywhere with these people, never mind three hours on the road from Palm Springs to San Diego with them. Why couldn’t we have just gone out to lunch, or gone shopping for an afternoon? But no, that wasn’t enough. Ida and Mary wanted all of us to go visit Pam. Mary said it would be good for us, for our friendship. She had even talked about going swimming in the ocean. Wouldn’t that be something? Ida couldn’t seem to find her way out of my house. How did Mary think she’d be capable of swimming in the ocean? If you asked me, the entire trip seemed overly ambitious.
After my back seized up, I had considered calling an ambulance to come get me and take me to the hospital. They could just go without me. And yet I knew even an ambulance couldn’t rescue me. They’d wait. They’d reschedule. I was destined to go on this trip, even if it killed me.
Originally, Ida told us she would be at my house by 9 AM at the latest. Mary had bet it would be noon before she got there, and now it was after noon. I was already tired and we hadn’t even left my driveway. My back hurt, but I told myself I would feel better if we were at least moving in a direction toward our goal. Instead, we were in my hot car in my garage waiting for Ida.
After what seemed like hours, she came out of my house with her sack of fruit. How she had managed to lose it in the first place was beyond me, but then it took her another ten minutes to find it after she ran back into the house in a panic.
Mary was in charge of driving. This made the most sense given Ida’s penchant for indecision and my back pain. But Mary drove with cruise control. I knew it was irrational of me to worry that it would get stuck, but I worried. I never used it. I wondered what we would do if it got stuck. Would we go hurtling past San Diego and into the ocean?
The two ladies chattered away in the front seat while I fought to put the thought of drowning in the Pacific Ocean out of my mind. It seemed to me that, with all that talking, Mary couldn’t be too aware of whether the cruise had gotten stuck, so from time to time, I raised up a little to monitor the car gauges. I was glad I didn’t have to actively participate in the conversation. This allowed me to focus on the pain in my back as well as keep an eye on things from the back seat.
The desert hills and small towns melted into each other as we drove down the highway. The original plan was to drive about halfway to Pam’s house before we stopped for a meal. An hour and a half went by and we had neither spun out of control, nor killed each other yet. When we finally reached an exit that promised restaurant options, Mary took it.
“What about Pamir Kabob House?” Mary asked, looking towards a little yellow storefront with a striped awning over the door. “I’ve never had—what kind of food is that?”
“No, no, no. I want regular food,” Ida said, much to my relief. It’s not that I didn’t like trying new things, but the idea of trying a new kind of food with “Ida-n’t-know” was a level of torture I was not prepared for.
A few days before the trip, the three of us had gone shopping at the local mall. I had wanted to go and I had really wanted to enjoy it. These were friends I didn’t get to see often and it should have been enjoyable. Instead, it came to be a reminder as to why I don’t see these friends very often.
I had stood in the shoe store with Ida for I don’t know how long as she compared thread count and brand names and thicknesses of socks. She carefully studied each pair, she scrutinized the labels, and she asked the saleslady what brand might last longer. The saleslady stared for a moment with a look that seemed to suggest she didn’t get paid enough to deal with people like Ida. Then she composed herself and said she didn’t know for certain because she had only been working there for a few months.
Finally, when Ida picked up the first pair of socks to compare them with the last pair, I walked out of the store leaving Mary alone to assist in the purchase.
I felt tired as I walked to a bench in the middle of the mall to wait for my friends. What surprised me, though, was how I started crying as soon as I sat down. I couldn’t have told anyone why I was crying. I didn’t understand it myself. Yet, there I was, a grown woman, worn threadbare after an hour of waiting for Ida to choose a pair of socks.
Another half an hour passed and finally Ida and Mary came out of the store. I wiped my eyes and tried to look as if I hadn’t been crying. Later, I apologized to Mary about it. Even then I couldn’t put a finger on why I had cried.
Back on the road, we couldn’t seem to decide on a place to eat. We passed a pizza place and a Mexican place, both of which looked nice, but either the parking lot was too full for Ida’s liking or she didn’t like the way the windows were shaded.
“Is your back any better?” Mary asked as she turned the car around to drive back through the shopping area.
“No,” I whined. “I don’t even know if I can walk!” My arm was draped dramatically over my eyes, but I could see enough to notice how Ida and Mary looked at each other and rolled their eyes.
“Take a look in my purse,” said Mary. “There should be some Advil in there. If you take it now, you should feel a lot better by the time we get to Pam’s house.”
I looked in her purse, and I found the Advil. It was a giant pill that I knew I would never be able to swallow. What was she thinking? I started to remind her of my inability to swallow pills, but then I decided it was best to let it go. I slid the pill back in the bottle and thanked her.
She circled the car back around one last time when Ida said, “There’s Macaroni Grill. Let’s eat there!”
I slowly and carefully got out of the car and followed them into the restaurant. I lagged behind in my infirmity. My back did seem a little better. Maybe the thought of taking an Advil had made me feel better.
Once inside and seated, we sat in silence while figuring out what we wanted to eat. Mary and I closed our menus within a couple of minutes, having made a decision. Ida, on the other hand, studied her menu as if she were preparing for a final exam in Italian cuisine.
“I wonder if this alfredo sauce has real cream or if they make the sauce at the restaurant. I would be afraid of what might be in it if they make it here.”
When the waitress arrived to take our order, Mary ordered a pizza and I ordered the fettuccine alfredo.
“Does the alfredo sauce have real cream?” Ida asked.
The waitress, who had probably graduated from high school the summer before, told Ida she wasn’t sure, but she would go check. When she came back, she confirmed that there was real cream in the sauce. She looked at her notepad expectantly and waited while Ida studied the menu a little more.
“I don’t mean to be difficult,” Ida said, “But I have to be careful not to eat anything with additives or dyes.”
The waitress nodded as Ida continued. “If I accidentally ate something with dye in it, my heart would speed up and my arms would no longer work.” She waved her arms around as if to illustrate which part of her body would no longer work.
The waitress looked around the restaurant, apparently looking for reinforcements, but they must have all seen Ida coming and ran. There wasn’t another waitress nearby. Ida continued to examine the menu and the waitress’s eyes glazed over waiting.
Finally, Ida wanted to know if the bolognese sauce was made with real tomatoes, “Because if it has any red dye in it, there’s no telling what would happen.”
The waitress tried to make eye contact with Mary and me, but we had simultaneously started rooting around in our purses wishing that we could somehow disappear.
“Do you think I can get a salad with no dressing on it?” Ida asked. The waitress rallied for a moment obviously thinking a decision was at hand and the ordeal would soon be over. She told Ida she could definitely get the salad without dressing and, as she said it, she wrote it down on her notepad.
“No, honey,” said Ida. “Don’t write that down yet. I was just asking if the salad was an option. I’m not sure if I really want one.”
At that, Mary took the menu from Ida’s hands and told the waitress to bring the lasagna bolognese and a salad with dressing on the side. The waitress seemed so grateful to Mary that I thought she might hug her. Ida, however, sat across the table and regarded Mary as one might regard a poisonous snake.
As soon as the waitress left, Ida said, “I think I should have gotten to order my own food! I hadn’t made up my mind yet.”
“Well, you wanted the lasagna,” said Mary. “Just accept that and move on! Besides, we don’t have all day. Poor Pam, she probably thinks we’ll be driving up any minute now!”
The thought of Pam peering out of her window blinds wondering where we were sent me to a new level of panic. I didn’t think any of this was my fault, but Pam might.
When we left the restaurant I turned the car keys over to Mary because my back still hurt.
“Huh,” said Mary. “That Advil should be making you feel better by now.”
“I know,” I said, trying to sound positive.
Even if I hadn’t hurt my back, it was probably for the best that I didn’t have to put my feet in the floorboards because Ida had filled them with sacks of no telling what. I wouldn’t have had a place to put my feet even if I could’ve sat up.
We were about half an hour away from Pam’s house when Ida began rummaging into the back looking for something. I picked up different sacks and handed them to her.
“No, not that one,” she’d say. I handed one after the other to her, but none of them had what she was looking for. After she examined the contents of each sack, she stared straight ahead and said, “Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!”
Mary pulled off the highway and stopped the car. We waited in suspense.
“I left my insulin at that restaurant,” she said. She was Type 1 diabetic. I knew that insulin meant life or death.
I lied there, biting my tongue. I had expected something like this to happen. I began to wonder if we would ever get to Pam’s house.
Ida told Mary to keep driving toward San Diego and we could stop at a place called Charlie’s Nook. She could call Macaroni Grill from there. To sweeten the idea for us, she said she had once seen Willie Nelson there. In my case, it made the idea much less appealing because I didn’t want to see Willie Nelson. I was pretty sure Mary didn’t want to see him either but we were trying to be nice in light of Ida’s dire situation.
As soon as Mary pulled into the parking lot, Ida was out the door and running toward the building. It was a large place—larger than a nook. The parking lot alone seemed as big as a couple of football fields. As soon as we entered the building Ida yelled to us from a bank of pay phones.
“What town was that where we ate?” she asked.
Mary and I looked at each other perplexed.
“It was halfway between here and Palm Springs,” I said, trying to remember the name of the town. That was the best I could do. Ida turned back to the phone and looked through the phone book. She started calling every Macaroni Grill between San Diego and Palm Springs, not really knowing even if the restaurant she called was along our route.
“They hung up!” she screamed after a few calls. She looked at me as if it was somehow my fault that they had hung up on her.
As she continued to call all the Macaroni Grills in Southern California, Mary and I went to find a restroom. We had just entered a wide hallway when a woman hurried past us wearing nothing but a towel. Not long after that, another woman in a towel hurried past us.
“Jane, I think Ida brought us to a brothel,” said Mary, giggling.
“I was thinking the same thing.” I said. “We could call Pam and tell her we’re in a brothel and can’t get out!”
Then I said, “Now listen Mary, if it was just you and me, we would have been at Pam’s house hours ago. Now, now, we are in a brothel.”
I looked around, panic rising to my chest. “We could go out that other door and we could get in the car and just go to Pam’s house. Ida’s resourceful. She would find some way to get to San Diego.” My mind raced imagining Ida alone in the brothel. “Maybe she could hitchhike,” I said. “Besides, my nerves are too far gone to spend another minute with her. It would be best for everyone if we just left her here!”
Ida’s voice carried across the entire warehouse of the place. She was loud and sounded as panicked as I was. She had called six Macaroni Grills and no one knew anything about her insulin.
When she had exhausted every restaurant in the book, she said in her loudest, most annoying voice, “So rude! Not one person could help me.”
“That’s terrible,” I said, secretly wishing the day would be over.
Mary asked for a San Diego map and I began to wander up and down the store aisles realizing that I would probably not get to Pam’s house today or any other day. I stood out of sight and hoped with all my heart that we would not have to turn around and go back for the insulin, but I also tried to convince myself that if we had to, we had to.
Mary asked me to call Pam and tell her where we were. I went to the bank of phones where Ida had just spent the last twenty minutes. Mary attempted to locate the town where we had eaten.
Ida should have been the one to call Pam and tell her why we were late, but it was up to me. I didn’t want to incur Pam’s wrath alone. If we had all arrived at her house at the same time, I might not be singled out for verbal abuse. But we were all in this together, I told myself. There was no going back.
I took a deep breath as the phone began to ring. Before I could even say more than “hello,” Pam started yelling and screaming.
“Where are you?” Her voice was so loud I had to hold the phone away from my ear. “I have been terrified about you. Were you in a wreck? Did you have a flat tire? Are you okay?” She barely took a breath between each question.
I paused before answering, trying to figure out how to sum up what all we’d been through. “”We didn’t have a flat and we didn’t have a wreck,” I said. “We had Ida!”
“Oh no! What did she do now?” she asked calming down.
That’s when I began to sob. “I don’t know if I can make it all the way to your house. All of this has just been too much.”
In a gentle voice she said, “Jane, just hang on for a little while longer and when you get to my house, I will take over and you can rest or do whatever you want. Just concentrate on how much better you’ll feel when you get here.”
I looked over at my friends who were trying to make heads or tails over the map and watched as yet another woman walked by in a towel. Before I hung up, I sighed and promised Pam I would try.
Karen Brode grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.