On the Road to Long Island

by Shiv Dutta

It is a gray Sunday morning. I am perched on my favorite sofa in the living room with a cup of coffee in my hand and my phone by my side.  Once upon a time, this house used to be filled with laughter and voices, but not anymore. It is deafeningly quiet now, and I am all alone. I have drawn the drapes on the windows, and the lilacs and chrysanthemums in the backyard garden are in full view from where I am sitting. The leaves in the willows are dancing in the gentle westerly wind.  The gathering clouds are slowly extinguishing the last remnant of daylight. It looks like it’s going to rain, but I don’t care. I don’t need to go out today. As I hear the pitter-patter of the first raindrops on the roof of the pergola, memories transport me back to the lands and times from long ago. I see faces and hear voices that have been fading as the years go by. There was a time when I could distinctly hear the footfalls in the corridors of memory, but now I marvel at how most of those footfalls are becoming diffused one by one. However, out of the haze of the past, the fateful Long Island trip of eons ago keeps popping up like a clear autumn morning.

We were about three hours away from Toronto where our trip began when I first heard the faint rhythmic clacking sound. It seemed to come from the rear of the car. I guessed the wet roads in concert with the pelting rains must have something to do with it.  It did not interfere with my driving except as a minor annoyance, but I was curious about its origin.  So, when I took the exit for Interstate 81, I asked the woman at the toll booth if I could park on the side for a quick inspection of my car.

“Sure,” she said.

I gave the car a quick once-over, but did not find anything amiss. Relieved, I got back in the car and snailed away.  Just as I was negotiating the ramp to the highway, I heard what sounded like a drawn out “whoosh.” We were too far from the toll booth for a reverse drive on the one-way ramp, so I parked the car on the grassy patch next to it and got out to take a look.  Sure enough, we had a flat.  The annoying clacking of the past hour suddenly began to make sense.

It was close to midnight, and the highway was dark and eerily quiet. The rains, accompanied by blustery winds, were coming down hard and furious.

“Oh, not now!” I sighed.

I wasn’t sure if I remembered how to replace the flat. Worst of all, we didn’t have a flashlight with us.  Occasionally a car whizzed by with sizzling speed.  The thought of getting hit by a wayward car skidding aimlessly on the slippery road sent chills down my spine.

“Ok, time to step out of the car,” I told Chhoton, my wife, handing her the only umbrella we had. “And stay away from the road.”

She looked pale and unsteady, and did not seem to have the strength to stand on her feet.

I got the spare and the tools out of the trunk, unscrewed the five bolts that were holding the flat in place, and jacked up the car. Setting the bolts on the adjoining gravel, I gingerly removed the flat.  Babla, my thirteen year old daughter, got into the act of helping me.  Her presence gave me an uncanny psychic strength that kept me going with the kind of confidence I did not think I would have under those circumstances.  Where did that confidence come from? Was it because of another pair of hands, or was it some inscrutable bond that went beyond our genetic linkage?  I wondered.

It was still pouring fiercely, and the visibility was near zero.  Babla and I continued to get drenched while Chhoton shielded herself under the umbrella as much as she could.  I was just about ready to mount the spare and was excited at the prospect of being almost done when I stumbled on the bolts and scattered them on the wet gravel.

“Shit!”

In the ambient darkness, I did not see where the bolts went. I ran my hands over the gravel and found four of the five in no time. I swept my hands again and again over the wet gravel from one end of the car to the other and underneath it, but to no avail.  Babla did the same, but had no luck either. I was fatigued and frustrated and ready to make do with four.  I gave the gravel one last desperate sweep.  Lo and behold! Before I knew it, the missing bolt was in my hand.

I mounted the spare and tightened the bolts, and with the rains still coming down with unbridled rage, gave high fives to Babla and Chhoton, screaming an exultant “Yes!” that must have reverberated in the stillness of the night for miles beyond the distant hills.

The flat tire was not the only mishap that threatened to end our trip that day. Unaware at the time of an emotional journey with striking similarity in which we would again be caught years into the future, we were getting ready to leave Toronto for a few days of sun, surf and sand in Long Island, New York. The plan was to leave around 4:00 p.m. and, after a night’s layover in Binghamton, head out for Long Island the next morning. But, as it so happened, a series of unexpected episodes had their own plans.  First, Chhoton came down with flu in the morning (fighter that she was, she refused to let that disrupt our plans).  As if that was not enough, right before our planned departure time, I realized I had forgotten to fetch Babla’s passport from the bank where we usually kept it. Without it, we wouldn’t be allowed entry across the border. It was a 30-minutes drive to the bank from where we lived; I wasn’t sure we could get to it before it closed down for the weekend.   About a mile from the bank after we managed to retrieve the passport, we found that the road that was to take us out of the city had been closed due to repairs. By the time we finally wiggled out of the traffic jam on the detour and got on to the highway, we were already two hours behind our schedule.

“Do you think you can reach Binghamton by 10:00?” Babla asked, referring to our original plan.

“No way,” I replied.

“Whatever you do, don’t drive recklessly,” Chhoton cautioned.

We were oblivious of the murky clouds that had, in the meantime, invaded the clear blue sky. Soon after we crossed the Canada-US border, it started raining. After a while, the rains became exasperating, frequently alternating between drizzles and downpour.  Sometimes it came down so hard I could hardly see anything in front of the car even with the wipers slinging back and forth at full throttle.  The visibility was less than ten feet despite the glare of the headlightsIt was already pitch-black, and the wet roads had become dangerously slick and slippery. By now, all hopes of reaching Binghamton anytime soon had completely evaporated.

There was a pall of nervous tension inside the car. I felt sorry for Chhoton.  The chaos of the last few hours must have worn her out, but true to her nature, she was smarting without any whining.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“I’m okay, just a little tired,” she said, careful not to sound depressed.

I admired her attitude.  She was like those trees that survive hurricane winds; she would rather bend, not break.

With the rains still coming down furiously, I contemplated spending the night at the first motel we would chance upon, but before I could make up my mind, the enticing signs for Interstate 81, the road to Binghamton, loomed into full view.  I fell for the seduction and was lured to stick it out.

Fast forward fifteen years, and we are on another tumultuous journey.  Cancer had struck Chhoton without any warning, much like the flu she got afflicted with on the morning of our fateful Long Island trip. I was distressed, but not daunted. Did I ever lose a battle I was goaded to fight? I would win again, I convinced myself. Babla and I rose to the challenge one more time and set about wrestling our new adversary. With the best medical help by our side, we joined Chhoton and began to fight our new battle. Sluggish chemo drips commenced their invasive journey into Chhoton’s body to hunt and decimate the lurking enemy, intense search for the latest among the arsenals of new medicines kept Babla and me turning massive number of web pages, and the nutritionist’s recommended regimen kept replenishing Chhoton’s dwindling energy. I assured Chhoton no adversary was powerful enough to vanquish her indefatigable husband. Chhoton smiled and said, “I know.”

Chhoton put up a silent but valiant fight one more time, and Babla and I intensified our efforts to be equal to the increasing challenge and provided her with all the physical and emotional care we could summon. Several times we came to the precipice of utter despair, threatening an abrupt end to our common dreams and aspirations, but we managed to overcome them all.

Back on the road to Binghamton, it was well past midnight.  The clump of elms and pines alongside the highway blended almost seamlessly with the inky blackness of the night. The rains had stopped, and the car cruised along smoothly as I said silent prayers for relief against further mishaps.

“Are you guys hungry?” Chhoton asked.

We had not had anything to eat since we left Toronto except for some munchies hours ago. She passed along some sandwiches.

“Can you turn the radio on?” I said to Babla.

“What do you want to hear?”

“Can you get anything on the local weather?” I said.

Nearly a couple of hours later we drove into Binghamton.  But where was our motel?  This was our first time in this town, and thanks to the last minute bedlam in Toronto, we were without a map.  Hazy outlines of shops and malls, barely visible in dim lights, kept passing by, but there was no sign of our motel. Chhoton and Babla sat taut and hushed. I myself started to get the willies as I drove deeper into the town and came close to leaving it. Just as ominous thoughts were starting to swirl in my mind, Babla pointed to the purple and orange neon signs, filling and draining in monotonous rhythms, a couple of blocks down the road on our left.

“Isn’t that our motel?” she said.

“Sure is,” I said with a huge sigh of relief.

Chhoton sat up as I pulled in.

We left our luggage in the car and limped into the motel empty-handed. Babla and I were wet and mucky, our hair tousled.  While she and Chhoton plopped down on a sofa in the middle of the lounge, I approached the front desk to register.

“We’ve a reservation for the night,” I told the girl at the front desk and gave her my name. She looked at me as if she was seeing a ghost.

“Sorry, we’ve no vacancy tonight,” she said.

“But I made the reservation through AAA,” I said, showing her a copy of the paperwork I had received from the auto club. “It’s supposed to be guaranteed for late arrival.”

She riffled through her records.

“Sorry, we don’t have any reservation in your name,” she said.

We argued back and forth.  I went over our long ordeal and told her I was in no mood to be brushed off.  It took her sometime before she realized we were not going anywhere until she found us a place to spend the night.

“There’s a Sheraton nearby,” she said.  “Would you like to stay there?”

“Can you call to see if they’ve any vacancy?”

She did.

“Yes, they do,” she said.

She jotted down the directions to the hotel on a piece of paper and handed it to me.

Of course, we couldn’t have foreseen our trip would turn into one long nightmare, or Chhoton would be stricken with a dreadful disease. Were these adversities bound to occur no matter what? Could we have postponed our trip by a day and avoided the mishaps that tailed us? Could Chhoton have done something different to avoid her premature end? I often wonder if what we go through life is part of our destiny, or it is a consequence of something we would never know?

I remember arriving at Sheraton at 3:30 in the morning, filthy and ragged. We were bushed, but elated that our collective efforts to overcome the string of troubles that day had paid off. I was particularly happy that we arrived intact. We were famished, but nothing was available in the hotel at that time, and we were in no mood to venture out.  Instead, we chose to sleep off our hunger.  Chhoton had already sneaked on to her bed, and Babla was getting ready to roll into hers. I was the last one to call it a day. In the ambient silence of early morning, I could hear Chhoton’s heavy breathing. She must have been thoroughly drained. I lay still, careful not to wake her up. I turned my head to look at her face. In the dim light that spilled into the room through the sheer curtains on the windows, she looked serene and peaceful. She was in deep sleep. I knew she would be okay in the morning after a good rest and be ready for the beach. I could already picture her splashing and thrashing and flailing in the wild waves off the Long Island shores.

When I reflect upon our two journeys, I am struck by their remarkable similarities: the suddenness with which both were disrupted, how both were threatened with premature end, and how both times the family came together and fought to survive the common threats it faced. Though, one of the journeys came to a tragic end, both, like all journeys in life, had their moments of joy, relief and excitement.

With Chhoton gone, and Babla dispersed to another edge of the country, absorbed in the affairs of her own family, the thrills of family trips have ceased for me forever. I am no longer in a rush to reach a destination. I am in no need to scramble for scattered bolts on rain-drenched shoulders off some lonesome highway at night. There are no more IV drops for me to watch and wonder what lies at the end of those tantalizing drips. And, though we have our own separate battles to wrestle with, Babla and I no longer have common battles to fight and come together. The family whose voices and laughter once filled the house is now disintegrated, leaving me with plenty of silence and solitude. I guess this is how all families begin and end their journeys.

In my quiet contemplative moments, I see images of Chhoton down with flu but ever so vivacious, I hear Babla’s agitated voice asking me for the passport, I picture my mad dash to the bank through the madding Friday afternoon traffic, I hear the rains pelting the desolate highways under a purple sky, I see Babla and me huddled together scrambling to put our journey back on track. I picture our drive into an unfamiliar town, our struggle for shelter to spend the night together, and our ultimate triumph. That was the last trip we took together as a family, and though it was far from being amusing at the time, it remains for me as one of my happier times.