In the summer of 2012, I helped a close friend (who was also named Sam) move from Pasadena, California to Atlanta, Georgia. Instead of taking a normal route along Interstate 10, Sam, drawn in by the search for a rare German pastry called baumkuchen, insisted on taking a circuitous route that ultimately sprawled across the Great Basin and the Midwest and down the Appalachians and Atlantic Coast. My recollections from the time, lightly edited, are hereby offered for your entertainment.
Note: this was written in 2012 and does not necessarily reflect my present views.
Nobody knew where I was going. I wanted to have a secret for once in my life.
It was before dawn when Sam took me to the terminal. The bacon at Atlanta International Airport tasted like cigarette butts, and the news on the TV was dreadful: in Wisconsin, a white supremacist had stormed a Sikh Temple, killing six. Days before Sam and I left California, there had been another massacre in Colorado, and we spent a lot of out trip wondering when the flags would stop being flown at half-mast. Now it seemed like never.
I flew first class for the only time in my life thanks to Sam’s parents, though I did have to change in Miami, 600 miles out of the way. That’s American Airlines for you, I thought as I spent 90 minutes in a Caribbean-themed restaurant by the gate, my first ever taste of the tropics.
Everybody I have ever known loves Boston; I’m just indifferent. My mother thinks of stately homes on leafy streets, inhabited by professorial types like John Kerry. British people think of a version of America that they find more palatable. I’ve never understood the love. In the winter, it was the coldest place I’d ever been. Now in the summer, it didn’t seem all that different from other cities: hot and crowded, if still more orderly than most places.
Growing up in the American West, I never got used to short distances or reliable transportation. On a journey to England, I reserved an entire day just to get from London to Bournemouth, a three-hour train trip that ran seven times a day. Now I was unprepared for the possibility that I could ever get from Boston’s airport to North Station and thence on a train to Maine in a single afternoon. Instead, I spent the night at a little brownstone hotel just outside city limits, and loitered in North Station all next morning, awestruck at the number of redheads.
The 5:00 Downeaster pushed through ancient mill towns and impenetrable woods as rain began to fall. This wasn’t like the rain in Atlanta; it was mild and pleasant, and here to stay. But I still didn’t have an umbrella. I’d booked a hotel in Kittery, eager to add Maine to the list of states I’ve visited, but that required finding a cab in Exeter, New Hampshire, just over the river that formed the border. I marched through the slop to the center of town and a restaurant called The Loaf and Ladle, where an enthusiastic waiter and highly experimental chef prepared for me a salami sandwich, a fish chowder, and a slice of peanut butter-and-jelly cheesecake. I was stuffed for the first time since Reno.
From the restaurant I called a cab to take me the remaining 20 miles. It was a golden 1990s sedan driven by a woman with the thickest New Hampshire accent I’d ever heard, though she did know a lot about my home region.
“Yeea, my dotta’s living in Azusa,” she said, with the clenched jaw that seemed to typify New Hampshirese. “Y’eva go oat theh?”
“Not often,” I said sheepishly as we crossed the Piscataqua. I paid her and went fast as I could into my room to sleep like I’d never slept before.
I awoke uneasily, faced with the gravity that comes with knowing you’re in Maine, to see the American and Canadian flags flying side by side under the sun. Dafna had come with friends to give me the full New England experience, and naturally our first stop was a lighthouse on York Beach, an old submarine and a brewery in Portsmouth, the usual stuff.
“Mm,” I replied, unsure of how to respond.
She turned to me. “I would’ve had you come sooner, but I wanted to wait until my parents were out of town.” The conversation broke when Coldplay came on the radio.
“Oh, God,” I moaned reflexively.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Coldplay,” I said.
One of her friends chirped up. “Coldplay is extremely popular. They sell out concerts in England.”
“Have you ever been to England!?” I asked. But this was a non-starter, so I offered up some of my own music by a new band, the Allah-Las. They didn’t get it.
As day turned to night, the rain started to fall again, and our merry company were preparing to meet some other people at a Mexican restaurant in Durham. It has been said that there are no good Mexican restaurants east of the Hudson River, and this dinner did not disprove the theory. I did did get to meet a genuine Downeaster. He said “ayuh” instead of yes, turning our later game of Apples to Apples into a very boring version of Pet Sematary. It was here that my weird connection to Dafna was put into a new light.
Dafna and I had met a year earlier in Israel. We would’ve taken each other’s virginities if she (along with most of the other tourists) hadn’t become violently ill from lack of adjustment to the dry-summer climate. So when I decided to go to New England, I didn’t want anyone to know.
“How do you feel?” I now asked her.
“I only got sicker after Israel,” she said. “I was in the hospital in New York for a couple days, and it never went away. I still have it. They don’t know what it is.”
I wondered silently if her unknown disease could have been sexually transmittable as she alerted me that her parents had just fallen ill and were coming home later that night. I stayed in the basement, quite content– honest. Without windows, the night seemed to have no end.
I was awoken by Dafna. She had come to make sure I was awake, as she shockingly told me it was noon. She rushed me to the train to Boston and we said our goodbyes. I’d avoided the issue in Atlanta, but now the trip really was ending. I still had a night to spend in Boston, in a posh but mysteriously affordable hotel a couple of blocks from Fenway Park. Like every night before a flight, there was no sleep to be had.
It was cool and sunny as I ate breakfast at a combination restaurant/bookstore. This I liked, although I couldn’t find a copy of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy to save my life. I was really ready to read it after re-watching Michael Winterbottom’s movie earlier in the trip, and my Oxford history of Spain wasn’t getting any more readable. Fall was still two months away in Pasadena, but here the crisp breeze had already arrived. I wasn’t ready to leave it behind. As I dragged my pack and suitcase to the subway station, I listened to the new Best Coast:
And when I go out I don’t feel anything,
I just keep on spending my money.
Some day it will be gone,
And then I’ll have to write another song.
What a year this day has been.
What a day this year has been.
“You don’t have to tell me,” I said out loud.
Through some miracle I found my way back to the airport in time for lunch. The only people eating were myself and a fellow weary traveller with his eleven-ish daughter recounting her recent visit to Gettysburg. “The level of gore was uncalled for,” she said. I smiled. If I ever have a daughter, I thought, I hope she says things like that.
I arrived home at 10:30, washed all my clothes, showered, and went to bed. I had work to do the next day.