Scraping the Bottom by Nancy J. Brandwein

most-memorable-august ribbonThis music undoes me. As soon as we clamber into the hot rental car for the long drive back to Miami from the Everglades, my son barks out, “Oldies Weekend!” We have dubbed him “radio dictator” for his insistence on having the radio permanently tuned to the local Oldies station. Yet, the music, which should provide a bouncy soundtrack for our family vacation, pushes me into treacherous territory—the gap between what I once thought my romantic life would be and what it has become.

“There’s a kind of hush, all over the world, tonight. All over the world you can hear the sound of lovers in love. You know what I mean?” When I first heard that song I imagined a dramatic night cityscape in which the silhouettes of “lovers in love” formed in each lit window. I couldn’t wait to be in that city of lovers. I was only eleven, my son’s age—a boy crazy girl hopping to the beat on the hot cement at our community pool. To me, the brawny, high school lifeguards were the Olympian Gods perched on high. They cranked the top 40 hits over the loudspeakers. They made-out in chlorine soaked cabanas and flexed their muscles by the poolside. Beneath their gaze, I swarmed among the other kids in the aquamarine water—a school of tadpoles, all heart and tail.  I played Marco Polo, my eyes closed, arms reaching, hoping to graze the skin of the boys I loved.

Head out on the highway. Lookin’ for adventure. And whatever comes our way…Born to be Wild! Beside me my husband, Richard, is swearing at the sluggish traffic on the Florida turnpike. Behind me, our two children bicker in an endless tape loop about the procedural details of unlocking a jinx. I look across at Richard to see if he will intervene but his face looks closed, eyes on the road—a road that is clearly the wrong road. “We’ve missed the turn off,” he growls, shoving maps from the dashboard into my lap.

I turn an unwieldy map every which way, unable to decipher the tangle of causeways. Impatient, Richard rips the map from my hands, and swings the car onto the shoulder. Relentlessly the Oldies songs keep coming—I feel dizzy my head is spinning. Like a whirlpool, it never ends. Boys careen off the edge of the pool, splashing me with their showy cannonball jumps.  Back then irritation was a precursor to romance. Now irritation, is, well, irritation. It flares up at predictable moments after 14 years of marriage: missed turns, children’s squabbles, and conflicting agendas. As Richard fusses with his maps, I carp about the waning beach time hours. The children, with that special tension-seeking radar, have stopped bickering and become allies again as their parents have a go at each other.

“Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight—that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin,” George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch. Now the eager girl who had played Marco Polo with hands outstretched, is a middle-aged woman scraping the bottom of that basin. And she is looking at her husband’s profile with seething resentment even as he expertly pinpoints the exact route we need.

We had counted 49 alligators on the Anhinga trail before Richard insisted we drive out of our way to get to another Everglades outpost. From the Pah-hay-okee viewing platform there was nothing to view but a bleak terrain of sawgrass with no surprises in store—no alligators nor turtles nor egrets—just a sign saying “Life is abundant, but not obvious.” “Hmph,” I’d said, while my husband waxed on about the Everglades ecosystem.

Yet our fight is less about one day gone suddenly awry than our ingrained differences. Richard is a walker; I am a swimmer. He is a rational scientist; I am an irrational writer. He wants to do; I want to hang. He looks outward and ahead; I look inward and back, which I did earlier that day as we tried out the fossilized furniture in the Coral Castle. This kitschy roadside attraction, featured in the radio dictator’s Weird U.S. book, is an entire complex built from over 1,100 tons of fossilized coral by a frail Latvian immigrant, all because he’d been spurned in love at the age of 16. As I lay on the stone chaise watching Richard predictably recite from the brochure as the kids ran helter-skelter, I couldn’t help seeing the petrified bedroom and living room furniture as metaphor for marriage in midlife. Doors that weigh a ton, but which, miraculously, still swing open.

So take a good look at my face. You’ll see my smile is out of place. Richard is perky because we are no longer lost. He hums with the radio, steering us ahead while I am tugged backwards by Smokey Robinson’s velvet voice. My chest heaves with sadness and “the tracks of my tears” are making little stinging runnels on my sun-screened face, which I keep pressed against the window. The last leg of our trip becomes a struggle to keep from sobbing, which is hard to manage when The Shirelles are singing Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? Richard wrote out the lyrics for me when we first lived together, his way of saying that yearning uncertainty was now behind us. Thinking of the numbing certainty of our life together, I blurt, “I can’t bear it!” “Oh, you’ll still get your swim!” says Richard, totally oblivious to my emotional sea changes. “It’s the music,” I say, but with a certain protective urge, I tell a half-truth. “It just makes me feel so old!” Even as his face registers exasperation, he turns the radio off. The radio dictator makes loud protests, but my husband is firm. “This music just makes Mom too sad.”

What relief to pull into the parking lot of our hotel. I race up to our suite and burst into the shallow bedroom closet, setting the wire hangers jangling and attracting everyone’s attention. I lay down on the musty carpet and start crying, loud and babyish.  Richard suddenly looks alarmed and shoos the children away. “What is it?? What is it??” he begs. I try to explain: the daily brush of lips for a kiss, nights with our faces lit by the glow of separate LCD computer screens, the cliché of weekend sex—all the habits of our years together.  Richard begins telling me all the things I “know”—how lucky we are, how good our lives are, that the habits of weekly sex, a mutual pursuit of great food, and interesting conversation should not be belittled. It’s not what he says that gets me off the closet floor, but the tenderness and concern in his voice. Besides, there is the pull of family life. I am the only one who knows where the flip-flops are.

By the time we get outside, the beach is bathed in lavender light, and I fling myself into the chill green ocean. Remembering George Eliot’s line about the “enclosed basin,” the words “scraping the bottom” come to mind. When I swoop and dive this phrase comforts me; there is something freeing about confronting the disappointments and limitations of our marriage. Also, at those “scraping the bottom” moments I inevitably brush up against our strengths, too. The flip side of Richard’s obliviousness to my inner oscillation is his steadfastness.

When I come up for air, I see my family bobbing around me like buoys within the vastness of the ocean. There is my nearsighted husband who cannot swim, blinking and awkward but with his feet planted firmly in the sand.

That night we look on the main drag for an Italian restaurant that got raves in our guidebook, but the line snakes around the block. We end up in a smaller, lesser Argentinean restaurant, but the food satisfies and our banter is lively. Once home in New York City, I will recount the event on the phone to my women friends. “My existential crisis,” I will say, lightly, tamping down the sob that still catches in my chest, squeezing the sorrow, like a wet hanky, into a tiny ball.

nancy j brandweinNancy J. Brandwein is a freelance writer who has published essays in The New York Times, Brain, Child, and West Side Spirit, for which she has written a weekly food column called “Snack Attack” for over three years. As an essayist, she tries to follow the words, perhaps misquoted, of former teacher and essayist Philip Lopate, who said, “If you track your personal tastes to their lair, you will find the disasters of your personality.” She hopes that readers will also find their own disasters, foibles, and hard-won triumphs reflected in her work. You can find more personal essays and samples of Nancy’s professional work at

  22 comments for “Scraping the Bottom by Nancy J. Brandwein

  1. Thanks so much for all the lovely comments. This was a hard essay to put out there, and it’s gratifying that many identify with the issues in it.

  2. Life if filled with highs and lows, part of the adventure.  Thanks for recognizing that we women do not always need to be the perfect wife and mother, we are human beings!

  3. Ah, “to speak of woe that is in marriage”–that’s one for the “Oldies Weekend” show!  (But best not to frighten the Radio Dictator.)  Love the humor and tenderness in this excellent piece. 

  4. What sparkle, pathos (bathos?), humor – Nancy! all of life in the guise of a family vacation.  I flash on the radio dictator at age 4 (?) telling us about his entire trip to date, as we all vacation at Fort Warden on Puget Sound, enjoying a delicious cioppino of Richard’s creation; or the two main characters honking like seals on a Holiday Inn (?) bed in San Francisco. 

    Or the vacation when I was steaming about something as we were driving back from Oregon – and just decided to miss the next family trip, again to Oregon.  Or the time I cried because it was the end of our 5-day trip, again to Oregon, and the now young adults “had to get back to …..”  Or the sheer joy Tom and I feel just this morning upon learning that our now 25 year daughter will be able to accompany us on a little family trip, this time not to Oregon. 

    Thank you, Nancy!

  5. A well written article that reminds me of those days when I tried car vacations with my two boys. (Thank God they are grown and gone. Finally, the answer to “Are we there yet?” is “Yes!”) It really took me back. Thank you, Nancy for your excellent visualization of part of all of our past lives. – Michael T.

  6. I love this essay. What a blend of emotion, character, and culture (of a society, a marriage, a family). Just the act of combining George Eliot and The Shirelles is worthy of admiration, but there’s a wealth of “gem” sentences to boot. My favorite is “I am the only one who knows where the flip-flops are.” Isn’t that true — and the reason we do get off the closet floor. Fabulous writing. Thanks.

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