When I was seventeen, my parents drove me from Philadelphia to Florida. America’s big toe. We stopped to get gas and Rolos every six or seven hours, and argued about how to kill or not kill terrorists as we drove toward pictures of the sun. This was 2004. We traced our progress down the east coast: this is South Carolina, where everything smells like flowers; this is Georgia, where the people don’t look you in the eye as much.
I’ve always hated the word vacation. I don’t want to vacate anything, don’t want to be vacuous, and, when I took biology, vacuoles were the things I hated the most. I hated the way my mother and father would lie down all day, just like the vacuoles inside them, developing a better idea of what it feels like to be dead.
We were at this lodge with a view of a city called Pompano Beach, named for a flat grey fish. A few miles above Miami. Two weeks in mid-December. I’m an only child, so I had my own room – a little efficiency with a kitchen and a pink loveseat that unfolded into a bed.
Mornings began with our faces at the window to put the weather together. My mother would walk around in circles thinking about the possibility of rain/quarrels. My father would tug himself out of bed and walk naked like a porpoise. Then we’d rub each others’ backs with Coppertone Water Babies and exit the air conditioning.
The thing about beaches is they’re nothing except everything that ever existed, pulverized until you can’t tell the difference between any of the things themselves. Maybe this is why we use them for our vacations – it’s good to know that, when we die, we’ll eventually end up tiny and shiny and durable, not caring if we’re different from one another. Just pieces of quartz, content in their conformity. And maybe this is why everyone reads/says nonsense on the beach. They know that none of it – not how many metaphors/colors they can conjure for the ocean, or how existential they can feel – will really matter in the end, anyway.
As the sun vaulted across Florida, I read The Dead by James Joyce and my parents turned themselves into sun dials on a blue blanket. We made pillows out of the khaki sand. I didn’t eat any of the pompanos or overripe melons which were given to us each night by people who were paid to feed us.
You start to wonder, when you think about vacation, if this really is a way to draw some dotted lines between life and death. If it’s a way to still yourself enough – not talking, becoming more animal, focused mostly on food and sleep – to realize that you’re just another mammal.
On Christmas Eve, surrounded by tiny vinyl evergreens and red bunting, I got into my parents’ Toyota without telling and drove up I-95. I passed a place called Jupiter and another called Blowing Rocks Preserve. The sky was purple and glowing and scratched with all kinds of strung out stratus clouds. At Port St. Lucie, a city about 80 miles from our lodge in Pompano, I parked the car by a Shell gas station and saw the station attendant coughing behind a pile of Rolos.
His face was copper, but you got the sense it wasn’t from the sun. And I wondered what he thought of the word vacation. And what he’d say if I offered him some cantaloupe.
I asked him where I was. He told me where I was. Not sure why I did this, because I already knew where I was. Then his cell phone rang, and he began arguing in a more angular language. There was a crèche on the counter next to the cigarettes. I looked around, staring at the candy wrappers and the magnets with small paintings of rainbow umbrellas or pink seashells or pompanos. Standing under the fluorescent lights made the contrasting colors in all those pieces of plastic so much clearer.
I remember standing there listening to this man stretch his vocal cords about something that did not in any way involve a vacation and thinking: God, take me to Pompano Beach when my body turns into a flaccid bag of bones/blood/ideas/personal mantras. When I start watching TED talks on repeat. When I start cutting out quotes to tape to the refrigerator. When I start keeping receipts. When all I want is someone to walk up to me and give me a ripe melon.
I drove back down to Pompano as people were just beginning to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.