Everything counts in small amounts

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Transitions: A Novel in Three Parts

Below is a portion of Transitions: A Novel in Three Parts. This first part, And, We Were Moving The Whole Time, is a semi-fictional account of a 39-hour coast to coast road trip my sister and I took from Washington, DC to Los Angles after I graduated high school. The trip began with great optimism, but slowly deteriorated into self-doubt, lethargy, and depression. I was left to confront my inability to achieve my dreams.

Transitions: A Novel in Three Parts

Part I: And, We Were Moving The Whole Time

I have seen my father cry four times. The last time was when my sister and I left the last house our family shared.

He hugged us both tight, first my sister and then me. We must have exchanged some pleasantries, but I cannot remember what. I am sure I said I loved him. Then, Justine and I stepped into the car and closed the door, first her and then me, with a sold, definitive thump. My father stood watching, silently.

My mother was not there. She was already in Florida, outside Miami, working for Habitat for Humanity. My father had returned to Virginia to tie up loose ends: sell our house, close his business, complete the punch-out list on the Shuler’s place. Then he would return to Florida and start helping Habitat rebuild after hurricane Andrew. "One thousand homes in three years," that was their mantra.

Justine and I were heading for California, Colton, what is today part of the Inland Empire. It was the culmination of a year and a half of planning for me, my next move after high school. For Justine it was a quick choice. She had to pick a direction as our family scattered and she chose mine.

As I turned to back out of the driveway, I caught a glimpse of the front yard. The grass was brownish green and the limbs were bare. But, in early spring the plants would wake. The grass would untangle from its matted brown winter mess and resolve into upright green blades. The rows of azalea bushes, crisscrossed brown stalks in the winter, would grow fat. Wet buds would form on the tips and along their branches. Weeks after that the buds would sprout into rows of pink, yellow, and red flowers. The sky would be blue and supple baby maple leaves would dangle from the branches on the huge oak tree in the middle of the yard.

Our house looked upright and handsome. The reddish brown and gray slate walkway ran from the driveway to a matching set of wide slate steps and our front stoop. The tall glass window at the center of our trademark Kerson door — my father installed one on every house we owned — was covered with cloth folding blinders, which matched those covering our living room window. Ivy crawled over the red bricks and framed the glass block window that lit my father’s office.

When I looked back one last time before making the turn onto Spring Valley Drive and California, my father was standing at the head of the driveway, his hands hanging at his sides. His face was scrunched up in a recognizable expression. He was fighting tears. But, they ran down his face. Narrow shinning streaks. I threw a short, chopped wave. He waved back and I turned onto the street. Justine and I were silent.

We began by taking Spring Valley Drive to Cherokee Lane. Cherokee Lane to Edsall Road, then entering onto 395 South. This part of the trip was familiar. We traveled the route daily. We drove by the Crown station where I bought gas and we rose up the entrance ramp. The red and yellow roof of the neighborhood Denny’s hovered on the horizon between Ames and Motel 6.

My elementary school friend, Andy and I had sat in that Denny’s on one of his return visits to Northern Virginia. Likely, that Denny’s was where I first told Andy about my plans to move to California after high school.

I cannot exactly remember where or when the actual conversation occurred. The plan was a long time in coming. My father planted the seed. For as long as I can remember, he told me I should take a year off before college. He said I should get out, look around, try something different. I would be better prepared, more focused when I returned to school. Travel was an equivalent education to school. You learned different things, but you learned. That was the important thing. You learned.

He told me stories of his trip through the United States and Canada in ’69 after leaving the Navy. He hitchhiked from Florida to Maine to San Francisco. His favorite story was about traveling up the cost of Newfoundland. He was walking down the road along a bluff overlooking the Atlantic. I imagined a black winding road split by two bright yellow lines and buffeted by steep, wet green mountains and gray craggily cliffs, which lead down to the dull gray, flat, sand beach.

My father describes coming to a turn where the beach, the mountains, and the overcast sky were visible for miles. Off in the distance, maybe a mile ahead, sat a jumble of cars and people. The tide was out and the sea was not visible even from the high cliff. Only a long wet stretch of sand running out to where the ocean should be.

As my father walked down the road toward the beach below, he wondered what the people were doing. Men stood next to their open car doors, leaning on the frames talking to friends. Some women sat cross-legged on the trunks of the cars, looking out to the absent sea. Others sat in the passenger seats, apparently napping.
My father watched this aimless group for thirty to forty minutes as he walked.

Finally, when he was about three hundred yards away from the closest point the asphalt came to the shoreline, where a warn dirt track ran down to the beach, he heard someone yell, "It’s coming." He looked out to see a nearly imperceptible light gray foam shadow moving across the horizon. The crowd of loiterers jumped in their cars with a clatter of yelps and thumping car doors and they began racing toward the safty of the bluff. The tide ran in across the hard packed, level beach with alarming speed. But, distance was hard to judge and it was never clear how close the water came to the motorist.

Two or three minutes after the mad dash had begun, the column of cars roared up the dirt road and skidded onto the asphalt. They headed north, away from my father, without stopping. A few cars honked their horns and someone yelled out his lowered window. Soon after the last car had made it onto the road, a four-foot wave crashed against the bluff and rolled back out to sea. The gray foam crashing and buzzing.

Hearing stories like this growing up, I knew taking a year off after high school was not a problem. My mother never commented when listening to my father’s stories. But, when I raised the issue with her, she agreed with the idea in the abstract.

Going into the summer of my senior year of high school there was no more appealing idea than taking a year off. I was fed up with school. Tired of bitter teachers with no sense of perspective...

Click to download the complete version of And, We Were Moving The Whole Time. (The story is saved as a pdf file. You can download an Adobe Acrobat Reader here.)

This piece is the first part of an anticipated novel chronicling three important personal turning points. The second section will recount my move to South Korea after college graduation. The third and final piece will detail the disassembly of my life in Korea and my return to the United States.


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