A Reason to Believe

Courtesy of Getty Images

I’m about to get on my flight from Philadelphia to Prague. Besides the fact that I’m leaving my family, everything is grand. I have had two beers which totaled $23. But the bartender was a nice guy and I got to watch football before being shipped back to a place where football is played by a bunch of guys kicking a ball and falling down in tears at a nearby gnat.

I’m used to being annoyed at the airport. People seem to leave a great deal of their IQ points in the car that dropped them off. But today, everything is smooth. The lines are curiously short, nobody has tried to cut in front of me in said lines, and everyone has been very nice. Hm.

As they begin boarding, I decide I would like to see if a change to my seat is possible. I am a middle seat and boy am I ticked about that. I am the only person in line. I approach the woman. I smile. The two beers I’ve had were made exponentially stronger by their price.  

“Any chance I can be moved to an aisle?”

She looks.

While she looks I explain that I don’t really mind if they can’t move me, it’s not a big deal. I am lying.

“Well sir, they’re going to charge you to change seats…”

“Ah.” I am already shrugging and raising my eyebrows to show her how cool I am with that news.

“But,” she says, casting a glance hither and yon, “it’s not a full flight. The aisle seat next to you is empty, so just sit there.”

“Oh, thank you.”

One can see instantly that the plane will not be full. The groups are tiny. The man boarding the flight has to double up groups 3 and 4. He looks a little embarrassed, as if he’s having a party nobody has shown up to. The guy in front of me is roughly sixteen feet tall. He turns to me.

“Man, am I missing something? Nobody’s here.”

“I know.”

We are on the plane in a matter of minutes. I am so relaxed I forget to do my flying ritual wherein I kiss the plane and say a little poem to her. I take one step backwards off the plane and do that. But it’s a bit forced.

The sixteen foot tall guy is sitting directly in front of the aisle seat in which I’d like to switch. He’s already got his seat leaned as far back as it can go. If I sit in the seat behind him I’ll be able to braid his hair on the way to Prague. Aha! Something to be annoyed about! The flight attendant sees this conundrum and stops.

“Oh…” she scans a tablet. “Sir, why don’t you go up to seat 12C. It’s an aisle and it’s free.”

“Thank you.”

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The Boardwalk

courtesy of Tripsavvy.com

In the mornings, Burke and I ride our bikes down the boardwalk. It’s early, after she’s done teaching (online) and I decide to abandon work for the brisk salty air and the feel.

It’s going to be hot later, really hot, and so I want to enjoy the boardwalk in the cool morning. The sun will have come up an hour or two before, so the air is warming up when we hop our bikes. A lady in a hoodie and a pair of shorts is walking a grumpy dog, and we pedal up the road.

People drive slowly at the Jersey shore. This is probably because of bikes and kids and people crossing the street. It’s also due to the feel at the shore, which forces you whether you like it or not, to slow down, enjoy, and be passively nice to those around you.

When stand up to pedal our way up the ramp to the boardwalk and once that minor exertion is done, we are on the flat boards. Everything else is gravy. The bikes people rent or buy down the shore, and the bikes by far most often seen are called ‘cruisers.’ No gears, no handbrakes. Many of them have a basket. Some of them have a Ken doll attached to the back as a passenger.

There’s nothing like the Jersey boardwalk in the morning. The heat and cold are sautéing a mist off the ocean. The beach is vast and cool and quiet. The boards rock under our bikes. There are people doing the same no matter if we go at 6 or 7 or 8 am. We pass all of the places that will be packed later. Morey’s Pier, Hot Spot, Ed’s, dozens of shops, water parks, amusement parks, stands for every junk food one can imagine, Hot Spot #4 (haven’t seen 2 or 3). The only places doing business are the Dunkin’ Donuts and the diners. Otherwise, the gates are down, the places recouping and recharging.

We make it to the end of the boardwalk and our bikes hit the pavement. Grassy hills and dunes keep the ocean out of sight now. We lock the bikes up and walk up a light hill. We hit the ocean fast and the dolphins are out in droves. Some kids are torturing a dead horseshoe crab.

On the way back after our breakfast burritos, the boardwalk is a little more awake. The gates are halfway up, there are more people. Kids are pointing at the water rides, their parents are looking at the coffee shop. We enjoy the relative quiet. In the afternoon we go to the beach and drink our Orange Julius just like everyone else. In the late afternoon, we sleep.   

In the evening we head back to meet my mom, my sister, and her kids. This time we walk.

I read a haiku once that I have never been able to find again. It’s about a boardwalk at the Jersey shore (or maybe it was Coney island) in April. While I don’t remember the exact words, I do remember that the haiku perfectly conveyed the lonely, empty, beautiful feeling the boardwalk has in the office season. A place where there are no people, but where there are thousands of people on another day. Like a baseball park in It blew me away. I wish I had had it tattooed backwards on my ass, the body’s Moleskine.  

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Cape May Journal

Saturday, August 10, 10:18

(in the car)

Fred (nephew, 9 years old) enjoying an audience of three that has no escape for the next 93 minutes, begins one of his peculiar queries.

“Raise your hand if…”

It trails off. Not sure if this is because he jumps off without a place to land or because his eyeballs are glued to an iPad. Everything is secondary to the screen. Always. Still, he is curious and adventurous, our future archaeologist. He meanders through a valley of mismatched clauses. “…have you ever, what do you think is the…my favorite, do you know how which dinosaur has blue legs?”

Mom puts in a valiant attempt, but she is told that she is wrong.

He explains. “Pokémon has two legs because…”

I put in earphones and, like many men, seek solace with a Joe Rogan podcast. Chuck Palahniuk.

Saturday, August 10, 13:29

Cape May is nearly perfect.

Quiet, coolish in the shade, hottish in the sun.

Aunt’s house is in a neighborhood off the main drag and is a perfect beach house. Homey, a well-used porch with pockets of sand here and there, a creaky screen door, wide open windows in lieu of air conditioning. Kitchen is a bit tight, cozy with food. Baseball is always on.

Mom, aunt, sister, niece, and nephew embroiled in discussion concerning the events surrounding a dropped birthday cake two years previous. I have heard four versions of the event and not one of them fully corroborates another. Fascinating.  

Decide to walk to the beach rather than hear 4 different climaxes of the same story. It’s like living in a Faulkner novel.

Personal opinion: it was Mom’s fault.

Saturday, August 10, 14:50

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Country Life

Not Chauncy the Great Black Wasp, but a Cousin of Chauncy the Great Black Wasp

This morning I am busy, like all of my mornings home in the small town where my parents live. I wake up early, spend a half hour on the porch drinking coffee and enjoying the prehumid time of the day. I then write for two hours in the kitchen.

A huge wasp has spent every day at the screen window of the kitchen trying to get to me. After day 4 I looked it up online to find that it’s a Great Black Wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus) and that it’s mostly disinterested in people. But this doesn’t mesh with the fact that Chauncy (his name) is interested enough in me to try to get to me every day. I read that the Great Black Wasp’s sting can ruin your day, so I say hello to him in the morning, but I do not let him in. The basement is filled with spiders. I don’t go there.  

After writing I eat on the porch in a rocking chair and watch cars go by. And in the afternoon, I proofread academic journals and research articles. By 2 or so, I am free to read and lounge and exercise. I am eating a mostly carbohydrates and sugar diet, so I don’t skip exercise. I have slowly tricked my sister’s cat into loving me. Well, not me as much as the addictive probably slightly narcotic treats I am using to entice her out from under various furniture. She has weird legs that are a completely different color from the rest of her, but I don’t mention it as I don’t want to hurt her feelings. She’s also really long, sort of like a ferret. Her meow is like a lady’s scream in a 1940s movie, but from really far away.    

Today my mom has enlisted me for a task. I am to go to the store and buy (a notably specific) five cases of water. It’s been specified more than once.

“Can you get five cases of water today?” she asked me yesterday.

For the last sixteen years, a stack of water cases has stood as high as an elf in the mudroom. It has been depleted, and my mom is worried and muttering about dehydration and zombie apocalypses.

“Can you get five cases of water tomorrow?” she asked last night.  

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The Go Between

Neato Picture of Messenger courtesy of Sheila Terry

I walk into the kitchen. It’s 6:35 am, my mother has been awake for an hour and a half. I groggily begin my day, fumbling with the Keurig until it sounds like liquid is coming out.

“Do you know when Dad finishes today?”

“I don’t know.”

“Does he have to go to the bank?”

“I don’t…know.”

“OK. Is he up and in the shower?”

I’m not arrogant enough to think that everyone should know my comings and goings, but since my mother has just awoken me from my blow up bed in the living room and since I walked into the kitchen seconds later and since my dad sleeps upstairs, I sort of thought she’d be able to piece it together that I don’t have any of the answers to any of the questions that she’s asking me.

I respond with a slight grump: “Mom. I do not know,” I respond with a slight grump, only really allowable before 6:50 am and after you’ve been mildly injured in a game of pick up sports.

“Geez, fine.”

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Break Thy Fast

The morning after I arrived in the U.S., my sister arrived for our yearly hang out day. This day involves massages, a heavy intake of beverages with mind altering qualities, and Broadway singalongs. I love it, she loves it, the bartenders love it, her husband tolerates it. We sing loudly in the drunken avatars of Jesus and Judas Iscariot and Aaron (A-A Ron) Burr and Jean Valjean. It. Is. Awesome.

The morning after, not so much.

This year the combination of a 10 hour flight and twenty shots of Jägermeister have rendered me a ball of lightly weeping flesh on the bed in her guestroom. And my sister looks in, sadly, holding her head and holding out two Advil. I groan. She groans. And there’s nothing she can say that’ll budge me. Nothing. I am lying here until I can muster the strength to ooze onto her couch and pry open my right eye to watch a lighthearted comedy that makes me forget the beating I have put my liver through. There’s nothing she can say.  

“Want to go to my diner for breakfast?”

Except that.

We’re in the car for about 4 minutes, which is about 3 minutes longer than either of us can stand. And when we arrive, we are the only people in the diner. It’s 6 am and the waitress seats us with a chipper attitude that might literally kill us.

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The Hill God Does Lisbon

Praça do Comércio on the Tagus River

Our first morning in Lisbon I go out for coffee and the famous Portuguese pastries pastéis de nata, which is a custard tart wet dream. The Rua Augusta, silent when we arrived the night before, is bustling this morning. The broad pedestrian way has several outdoor restaurants where tourists eat and locals serve them. Everyone else sets up shop for the day: pharmacies, souvenir shops, markets, gelaterias, restaurants. Workers wash off their patch of cobbles with hoses and buckets of water. It’s warm in the sun and cool in the shade. A breeze comes from the direction of the Praça do Comércio which is the square a couple of hundred yards off that sits on the Tagus. Perfect.

There are a number of pastry cafes and I dip into one and order two coffees, two pastéis de nata, and a large donut coated in sugar and filled with custard and which I have to eat over a trashcan because of the amount of sugar that drops off with each bite.

Oh fish cakes, where hath ye been all my life?
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Cat Man

Cat Man in Box

Pet owners who go on holiday always pay a collateral price for their trip. A friend of mine has to put all of her shoes in cabinets or her German Shepherd will destroy them for being left alone. Another will come across little secret stockpiles of cat poop in shoes, closets, Tupperware in retribution for his little jaunt. A lot of animals don’t like to be left home alone, and they show it in different ways.

My cat has a pattern when it comes to doling out neglect-inspired revenge. When I return from holiday she meows me into the flat with the gusto and volume of a failed expeditionary general. She then pulls little passive aggressive moves like tripping me up and shouting at me about it, Whoa, dude, watch where you’re going! But when I turn on the bathroom tap for her and rub her head as she drinks, the meows slowly dissipate. She is back in her comfort zone, relief and gratitude take over the anger. While she drinks I pour a packet of top shelf kitty grub in her bowl and lure her to dinner. By the time she eats, her purrs could motor a boat across the English Channel.

It’s the period after this that worries me. See, she seems lovably grateful and happy that Dad has returned, but she will always get me once. With one bite, that is. My cat has the revenge memory, the plotting abilities, and the hand accessories of Freddy Krueger. She lays in wait, bides her time, and then she gets me with one good bite. When this will come, I genuinely don’t know. It could be in a day or a month or as I leave for Christmas holiday. I just have to be on my toes.

Making matters more difficult is the fact that she spends roughly eight hours a day sitting on me. My cat expresses neediness by sitting on me: my neck, my back, my stomach between me and my book, my hip, and by sitting on my feet when I am making coffee. This might be seen as charming by an ignorant observer. After all, she’s fluffy and sleepy-eyed, relaxed and reclined. But I know that at the drop of a hat this sleepy-eyed furball can turn into a lawnmower. And one that’s pissed off to boot. Sometimes there’s a warning, a growl, a mohawked ridge of fur, splayed claws. Sometimes there’s not.

Today there’s not. The cat moseys to the back of the couch on which I am lying and reading a book. My phone buzzes and like a good little mindless follower, I reach out for it. And that’s when it happens. The cat goes from 0 to 100 in a split second, literally pouncing on my arm. She grips my arm and plunges those vampire fangs deep into my wrist. I yelp in the manner of a truly surprised person (like a small child) and wrest the cat off by her scruff.

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Motivational Speech

Why thank you hair brush, I am amazing!

When I travel, I use the excuse to completely detox my body of fruits and vegetables. I revel in fried foods, eat every single piece of bread that I can find, and become one with the candy aisle of any store I walk into. I drink beer and wine and make merry. If I am offered something that looks like it’ll take a month or so off my life – fried, fatty, in oil – I accept it with an eagerness that suggests it’s an antidote to whatever poison I have just had.

It’s holiday, I reason, this is no time to worry about one’s waistline. I do this via a series of burps and angry stomach growls. I might be bummed that my holiday only lasts a week, but my body definitely isn’t.   

And so my week in Portugal is no different. There was not a fried ball of shrimp or cod persuasion that I turned down. Seafood! Nor did I balk at any pork sandwich, glass of port, shot of cherry liqueur, beer, barnacle, olive platter, bread, roll, candy bar, or pastry oozing custard. There is a solid possibility that in the last week I have eaten more sweets that I have in the last three years combined.

It’s been awesome. It’s also why I am persona non grata in our little area of the departure waiting lounge at the Lisbon Airport. It seems that a week of consumption as I have had produces a peculiar constitution within my body’s ecosystem that renders me impossible to be near.

Read: my gas could drop a Kodiak bear in full sprint.

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Reformed Travel Slut

Guess which one I chose.

My first trip to Europe was exactly (almost to the day) twenty years ago. I was 24 years old, had just graduated college with one of the more spectacularly forgettable academic careers ever witnessed in Pittsburgh. It was my first trip alone and it was to be a learning experience. I carried a massive, teetering backpack filled with things I would barely touch over the next month and a lot of things I would discard. Hiking boots would be purposefully left in a youth hostel in Amsterdam, an umbrella would be dropped in Edinburgh, one of two sweaters would be left in Doolin, Ireland. I had a printed ticket which had a carbon copy and a huge book called Europe on a Shoestring.

I was so excited. It occurred to me in London that I had no idea how to get from the airport to the city itself. I finally found a train and handed over an exorbitant amount of money with a worrying lump in my throat. Money. Oh yeah. I met my friend Tara at Paddington Station, the train wheezed and decompressed and people bustled around me wielding British accents that I wanted to bottle and listen to at home in the bathtub. I was delirious with excitement and novelty.

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