Warning: This is long – 2,700 words. Ruminate on my past.
Young-adult D.C. shuts down on Thanksgiving weekend. By young-adult, I mean over-twenty-one-but-not-yet-married-and-raising-families. As opposed to the literary genre that attracts readers aged eleven to seventeen. DC’s young professionals, the yuppies, they all clear out. They go back to wherever they came from. They spend a long weekend of quality time with their parents, their siblings, and their high school friends.
Charlie and I grew up in a DC suburb. We saw our father frequently. Many of our high school friends still lived nearby. We hung out with some, and we saw others on opposing men’s-league soccer teams. To us, Thanksgiving was just a lonely weekend of post-apocalyptic urban emptiness. A chance to catch up on procrastinated tasks, to see a movie, read a book.
One year, rather that lurking about our boring and desolate city, we decided to go spend the long weekend creating our own quality time. We planned to spend the weekend with our other brother, Dan.
After college, Charlie and I each began our professional careers. Charlie in banking as a loan officer, a cookie cutter role with an implied dress code and demeanor. And I settled into a massive government contracting firm as a tiny cog in a very large wheel. A job reviewing financial reports printed from a mainframe computer in California. Reports with clever names like “JSRs” “PCAs” or “IDDMs”. These jobs let us focus our energies on partying and hobbies. Charlie spent years in the DC punk scene playing in an unmemorable rock band called the Stallones. I took up running and cycling and alcohol—I pursued each as if I was training for Olympic competition. We both played soccer two or three times a week.
Dan chose a different path. His college education was paid for by the Navy, part of Cornell’s ROTC program. When college was complete, he spent five years paying the government back as an officer on Naval ships. This was during that rare peace-time decade of the Eighties. He completed his commitment, got married and started a family in a rural Rhode Island. He even had a couple of babies. His visits to DC became less and less frequent. Charlie and I thought it would be nice if someone made an effort to visit Dan for a change.
So while it seems like I’m writing about a trip to visit my brother, I’m not. Since there were babies involved, I assume it was awkward and slow-paced. Charlie and I were each decade away from that sort of lifestyle. But in truth, I can’t remember a single detail about our time at Dan’s house.
I clearly remember the night Charlie and I spent in New York City on our way back to DC. I even remember the car ride from Rhode Island into New York – but only because it was terrifying. But the biggest memory from the weekend was our drive from DC to Rhode Island. This is when I decided to quit my job and bicycle across the United States.
When I left my apartment on Friday morning for the ride to Dan’s house, the idea didn’t exist at all. By the time I returned on Monday night, the trip was fully planned. At least the structure, if not the details. I would quit my job in May and bike through the warm summer months. Charlie thought he might join me for part of the trip, and Jean, a friend’s older sister, a woman I had crushed on for my entire adult life said she was “in” for the whole thing.
Seeing the country was on my mind. My friend Rebecca was gearing up to move to Juneau the following summer. She was a few years older than me, and after a few brief, drunken hookups that were clearly going nowhere, she started acting like the mother I lost a decade earlier. She made it her task to help me improve my life. Browsing estate sales together, she recommended furniture purchases to round out my retro, second-hand decor. She suggested hip wardrobe changes as we bopped around Georgetown boutiques. She tried to fix me up with quality women.
I can’t remember why she was going moving to Juneau. But she was in no rush to get there. The trip across the country was as important to her as the move. She planned on a three to four-week journey, hitting national parks, cities and sights along the way. I asked if I could tag along. Ten years out of college and I had never taken a vacation longer than a week. I traveled to many of the major urban areas in our country, I visited beaches up and down the east coast, but I had never been west of Ohio in a car. I knew nothing about America except that all big cities had a Cheesecake Factory.
By early November, Rebecca’s trip was fully planned, a done deal. She picked the route, she researched the stopping points, she was supplying the car. My part of the planning? I would beg for extended time off work at some point over the next few months. Our planning had been going on since September. And while it seems like I had very little invested in trip, it was becoming a major life event. My life was a routine, boring. Every week the same. I wanted a new home. I wanted to meet new people and start over. Like Rebecca, I wasn’t planning to return to DC. Except to pick up my stuff.
A few days before Thanksgiving, Rebecca shocked me by suddenly pushing her move date forward by three months – turning her journey into a late winter trip. And she altered her travel plans to get to Juneau as quickly as possible. Because I can’t remember why she was going there, I can’t remember what caused this urgency. Regardless, my summer adventure was cancelled.
For our trip to Rhode Island, Charlie and I took my car. Charlie bought a used Nissan Sentra a couple of years earlier. It was a solid car, but it didn’t have a radio and it smelled awful, like used gym towel in the bottom of a locker. When he bought the car, he naturally assumed that the guy selling it to him had a body odor problem. But after writing the check and driving away, the smell lingered. It was the car and not the seller with the problem. And that odor never changed for the entire five years Charlie owned his vehicle.
For a guy who never drove more than the three hours it took to get to the Delaware beaches, DC to Rhode Island is a very long trip. I got sick of driving. I got sick of sitting as a passenger. At some point during the trip I grabbed a road atlas as a distraction, and I started to study the United States. Lots of small roads going through tiny towns. Roads similar to the Western Maryland routes I used for my bicycling day-trips out of DC. Page after page, these roads all came together. I began connecting the dots of my western dream towns. Places I read about but never visited. Durango, Telluride, Taos, Santa Fe, Jackson Hole, Kalispell, Seattle. All the places I thought I might want to live.
Charlie and I left Rhode Island on Sunday morning. I’d call it a rainy day, but that wouldn’t do it justice. Some sort of tropical remnant hung off of the New England coast dumping inches of rain on one of the busiest travel days of the year. Dan’s dirt and gravel driveway turned into a mud-pit. All of the roads had standing water, even the highway. As the driver, I white-knuckled my way down the coast towards New York City, watching car after car hydroplane off the road.
Many urbanites are inexperienced drivers. Just not enough practice. They walk, take cabs, ride public transportation. This wasn’t me. I commuted to jobs deep into the DC suburbs for ten years. My daily city to highway and highway to city transitions made me a versatile and confident driver. Or so I thought.
New Yorkers pridefully hold a reputation as aggressive drivers. Susan, the least aggressive person I know in any situation, grew up on the New York and Pennsylvania border – a good two hour drive away from the city. And even she has the propensity to tailgate. I wasn’t prepared to drive into New York City on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in a mini-flood. Traffic was heavy but it never slowed. Each car bumper inches from the next. The slightest flash of brake lights resulted in a symphony of horns and mass lane-changes. I quickly wore out. I employed the tried and true driving technique of camping out in the right lane and driving the speed limit.
Even this was unacceptable. As the gap between my car and the car I was trailing opened up, it was immediately filled with another car. After this happened a few times, the driver behind me leaned on his horn, cursing so forcefully I believe I could hear him.
We were in the city to visit my friend Sue. A friend from my college. A woman I hung out with in DC as we started our professional lives. A friend I lost touch with over the years. But as email use became prevalent, we reconnected and planned this get together. She was married now, living in Manhattan, and she didn’t work. Her husband did something “financial” which to me simply meant they were rich. Sue spent her days drinking coffee, shopping thrift stores and taking art classes.
We were invited to sleep on their floor – if we could find enough room to stretch out. I’d never experienced such a small living space. In DC, I had friends with studio apartments. One room setups that included a bed, a sitting area, some counter space that served as a kitchen. In these apartments, there was room to move around. My friends hosted parties with dancing. If someone needed to spend the night, no big deal. These small apartments could offer overnight accommodations to a family of four with reasonable comfort.
In contrast, Sue’s one bedroom apartment had room for the basic furniture they owned, and nothing more. To compound the crowded effect of the space, Sue was undertaking a project of restoring an antique carousel-horse. Walking into her apartment felt like walking into a storage unit. Every inch of floor space was filled, and anything that resembled a bookshelf rose most of the way up to the ceiling to accommodate books, knickknacks and even living essentials. Sue’s apartment challenging my impression of what “wealthy” lives looked like.
Her husband was an asshole. Maybe five years older than Charlie, he immediately assessed us as immature and unworthy of his time. He made no polite small talk; he ignored us completely. Being around Sue and her husband as we guzzled down a couple of mandatory beers to shake off the stress of the drive, we could tell that anything Sue took seriously was a source of disdain from her husband. Her art classes, her funky clothing, her carousel horse. There seemed to be no reason for the two of them to be married. They seemed more like ill-paired roommates, or a father with a daughter who simply wouldn’t move out.
I met Sue early in my sophomore year of college. She hooked-up with my friend Kelly on one of the first nights of the school year. After fooling around that one night, they became friends and nothing more. Sue became a groupie of my dormitory. Small and vulnerable and pretty, everyone took a shot at attracting her interest. She was the girl I craved, but never attained, for the next three years… until I met her sister, Jean.
When I met Sue, she had a boyfriend at home. Michael, the guy she dated while she was in high school. To me, to others I knew at school, he was simply a photo and an ideal—he never visited, and she didn’t seem to visit him either. He sported the Jersey-shore look of the early eighties. A long, shag hair style, open shirt, gold medallion, and a shoulder tattoo. The look John Bon Jovi would sell to America a few years later.
Sue thought of Michael as deep, complex, and misunderstood. A poor high school student, a dropout, misdemeanor arrests. But his life was turning around—he was studying to get a captain’s license to run his own fishing boat. Good looking, unconventional and entrepreneurial, Sue was completely sold on him. To my disgust, after her mild-stray with Kelly, she never looked at another guy at school. She was my chaste friend; lots of flirting, but never any action. And after Michael died in a drunken car crash the following year, Sue was untouchable. She was faithful to his memory for the next six years.
When Charlie and I finished our post-drive beers, we set-out to see New York City’s night-life. A rainy evening on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, things were dead. Sue and her sister Jean took us out on the town. And Sue’s husband stayed home. He had better things to do than hang out with the kids. We went out for dinner, which I’m sure was good, but I don’t remember where we went or what we ate. As soon as dinner was done, Sue bailed out on the evening. She went home to hang with her boring husband and undoubtedly gossip about us.
Charlie, Jean and I went out to her favorite bar. It was large and empty. Jukebox, pool table and a long oak bar that seems mandatory in every New York drinking establishment. It wasn’t a nice bar, and not a dive, just a place to get drunk and shout to your friends over amplified music—maybe hook up with someone as the night got old. But since there were less than ten of us in the place, it was quiet and low key. A nice place to drink and talk and shoot pool.
Jean’s life had stalled. Her sister was her best friend, and now her sister was a “kept woman—at the beck and call of her stuffy, judgmental husband.” She listened with excitement at my hastily planned bike trip. It sounded like the perfect break from her routine, urban life. Before the night got too far along, before we were slurring along to the songs on the jukebox, before the bartender locked the door and pulled out a couple of joints for the bar-patrons to share, before bullshit drunken boasting dominated the night’s conversation, Jean committed to joining me on the whole trip.
I met Jean the summer I graduated college. She was living in D.C. in a group house with four guys. And after our first meeting, I was no longer infatuated with Sue. Where Sue was small and compact, Jean was lean and lanky. Instead of a vulnerable girl who needed to be protected, Jean was in charge. She ruled her house like the alpha-male, like the mother hen. She had a quick sarcastic wit, and she took shit from no one. She had the Jersey-shore attitude that Sue never attained. Jean became my ideal woman. I was terrified of her.
My night in New York ended predictably. A 2:00 AM gorging at an all-night food bar., A cramped, uncomfortable sleep on Sue’s hardwood floor. A slightly hungover drive back to DC. I restarted my weekly routine with the secret knowledge that everything in my life now had an expiration date. My job, my rented apartment, my relationship. I was about to shake up the whole mess. My stalled trip with Rebecca was replaced with an adventure of my own making. And best of all, I planned to do it with Sue’s sister, Jean.
An outtake I didn’t get to use:
Before the launch of the World Wide Web (that phrase makes my kids laugh… “No one calls it that dad!” “When was that, 1952?” “Had you bought your Walkman yet?”). Before the World Wide Web, research took effort…