Choo-kah, choo-kah, choo-kah.
“Great,” my dad, a captain losing his crew, mutters into his lap.
I take an urgent slug of Genesee, like a diver coming up for air. I puff out my cheeks and let the liquid go warm in my mouth, weightless bubbles somersaulting everywhere. As the amber liquid dissolves the knot in my stomach, I note the beer’s message. A truth so universal it’s credited to King Solomon, Abraham Lincoln, and the poet Edward FitzGerald: This too shall pass. Life isn’t so bad, I tell myself. You’re in a car going nowhere with your favorite people on earth. The blinking blue dot, my fungal haircut, the starry night sky, a can of cheddar-flavored Pringles my brother just cracked open, the cold beacon of hope condensing in my hand. It’s all more than enough.
The first road soda takes the edge off. My senses grow dull, the tactile world around looks soft and hazy. Like cheese and crackers when you’re starving; a good start. My dad, who hasn’t downed anything but water and Advil, finally rights our path, demotes my brother from first man, and starts the engine.
Beer two gives me life. I have soooo much energy! What is this song? Can you turn it up? “Just relax, take it slowly,” croons Cat Stevens. “Take your next left,” says the Maps man. I’m at ease, resting a head on Mum’s shoulder. Laughing at nothing. I’m bringing the can to my lips and then lowering it again. I’m light. Vaporous. Nobody is emailing and I don’t have a job but I set a cheeky out-of-office auto response anyway. Did you need something? Oh, sorry, Ali’s not here.
“If you could invite anyone to dinner, dead or alive, who would it be?” my brother’s girlfriend surveys the car.
“Hmmm, probably Nelson Mandela,” says Dad. Then, after a pause: “Or Shania Twain.”
“Shania?!” I squawk.
“Wow,” my brother says, grabbing for the phone glowing on the dash.
Mum starts saying something but she’s drowned out by a husky voice sing-whispering: “Let’s go girls.” And at that point, we all start belting out the first verse.
Here’s the thing I’ve learned about family trips: That fantasy of a picture-perfect reunion (everyone is having fun; no problems here!) overshadows so much of the actual experience of traveling (life is complicated and we’re going through stuff) that it can be hard to feel truly present for each other. Which is the entire reason we fly around the world to hangout in the first place. Getting lost and waylaid, being hangry enough to eat a seatbelt, and spiraling about our issues outside the car is all part of the journey—and dismissing those imperfect realities is what pushes us further apart.
As I sip, I am fully in the here and now. There’s my family, brave and resilient and hurting with the constant pang of distance. Each of us grasping to keep the unit intact like sweaty-palmed trapeze artists. Before my eyes they appear as far-off moons—radiant, preposterous, and perfect. In their glow I am less interested in the fantasy. Give me their highs, their lows. Give me this weird-ass vacation. (To be clear: I’m not advocating for breaking any laws against passengers drinking in cars; if you’re not in an area where passenger drinking is legal, meditation is another option.)
After beer two, it ends. Drinking road sodas is never about excess. And anyway, we arrive. The porch lights of our Airbnb twinkle away as my dad coaxes our Corolla into the driveway. We were lost and now we are found. Cracking beers in the backseat is an arguably juvenile thing to do. And yet striving to really see the people you love—no matter how far away they are—is, inarguably, wise.