Vacation pictures are neat. They give you a chance to see yourself as a historian would: unconnected to any other part of your life, you’re just one more person staring into a lens that you can’t quite see. Sometimes smiling, sometimes not.
You can see yourself in the third person for just the tiniest moment.
Chris has been driving his car for five hours when he emerges from a tunnel and has no idea where he is. The road is pure light brown concrete, the water beneath it perfect dark blue. Everything about the world is perfect and shiny but he doesn’t even know what state he’s in.
“Are we going the right way?” he asks.
He’s in a supermarket checkout at sunset. They’re buying a loaf of rye bread, four postcards, and a six-pack of Bass Ale.
The light freezes for a moment, and the three workers he is looking at — two cashiers, one bagger — are frozen too. Their faces half-interested in the world, one-quarter bemused by everything, one-quarter just wanting it to be over.
“This music is weird,” his sister says.
“It would be good for driving underwater,” her friend adds from the backseat.
It’s eerie here in the dark and wind.
He lies in the hammock of the house with a blanket wrapped around his legs and watches the sky change from stormy to clear. There’s nothing to hear, nothing to see — but everything to feel.
We’re glad you’re here, all the signs here say, even the ones inside the house they’re renting.
They’re driving down a road called Route 12 now, looking for the house they’ve rented. He sees no police stations, no post offices, no grocery stores. Just enormous houses rising out of the sand like the ruins of a long-dead empire.
The miles keep growing and he wonders: Where are we?
“I thought you would never come back,” his mother says as he wraps a towel around himself. With only a day left of swimming, you have to make the most of what you’ve got.
One afternoon, his mind wanders onto a girl who has occupied a strange position in his thoughts for some time. He has wanted to kiss at points in the past, perhaps, but not to the point where he would actually do anything about it beyond a few microactions that could be forgotten easily by everyone who saw them happen — even himself.
(There are some doors you can’t come back from.)
He wonders whether she’s ever been told that she’s beautiful. Not just because she is — he subscribes to the notion that everyone is beautiful in their own particular, quirky way — but that she would probably benefit from knowing this. Every step he sees her take seems to be unsure.
Or maybe it’s just he just wishes that someone would say something like that to him.
He enters a store called “Bacchus’ Wine and Cheese.” The clerk’s eyes are on him. She knows he isn’t going to buy anything, and therefore is not to be trusted.
Around eight or so, his parents head out on to the balcony to watch the fireworks being set off by their intrepid neighbors. He joins them after a little.
“Can’t see too many stars here,” he says.
Later, his father says, When everyone’s turned off their lights, you’ll be able to see more.
At midnight, Chris tests his father’s theory and leaves behind the David Letterman show for a moment. Stars everywhere. He doesn’t know any of their names except Polaris, but seeing them makes him realize that he isn’t alone. Not in the aliens-in-flying-saucer way.
Just not alone, period.
Damn, it’s cold in here. Even after he set the thermostat to 76.
He catches “Cowboy Bebop” on Adult Swim. It’s the episode where Faye sees the tape of herself before she got into the accident, lost her memory, was frozen for a long time, and woke up in a strange animé future.
“Good morning, me,” she watches her younger self say. “Did you sleep well? And did you wake up well? Does the light, the wind, the air and the smell all feel brand new?”
Young Faye speaks directly, honestly, emotionally — everything present-day Faye hides from. Though she doesn’t remember ever being like this, you can tell she wishes she could be herself again: the real herself, the herself that loved the world unconditionally. The herself that never knew what outer space was like.
He doesn’t ever want to feel old. He doesn’t want to uncover videotapes he can’t remember making. He doesn’t want to give up.
He’s walking home from flying a kite on the beach when he runs into a girl roundabout his age instructing the rest of her family in how to play a game where they pass the basketball around. She sees them coming and tells her family, “Hold on just a second,” and lets them pass with a gentle, knowing smile.
Kindness. Kindness and beauty.
Sadness sets in. The temperature is only going to get up around 84 for the rest of the week — warm enough to make swimming tenable on a conceptual basis, but cold enough that it’ll be shivery and creepy in the wind afterward. There is no hope for another day like Monday.
He watches David Letterman all the way through to the end, which he never does anymore, to try to find some comfort.
He sits with this father in the sand. Above them flies a nylon diamond — a neo-box kite, his father called it this afternoon in the kite shop. It’s pretty and sort of geometrical.
His dad takes off his cap, ruffles his hair a little, and replaces the cap. The habits that everyone but you notices.
No wind tonight.
One morning, they wake up to find that the plastic chairs on the balcony have all been pushed together in kind of a weird arrangement. Some of them at right angles to each other, some facing each other.
It must have been the wind, he tells his mother. He could hear it gusting the night before.
“Maybe we should put them back,” he says. “See what happens tonight.”
“I don’t think so,” she replies. “I think that’s the way they were meant to be arranged.”
He’s walking through the surf to get past the breakers. The water’s about waist-deep where he is, but only 10 yards ahead of him is a woman shorter than him and it’s barely up to her knees.
The world can be so surreal sometimes.
He brings a pile of books, postcards, and calendars to the bookstore counter. Taken together, his family’s reading habits resemble insanity.
The clerk is a stereotypical bookstore chick. Thin arms; shoulder-length brown hair that’s neatly parted down the middle but somehow says that, with the right words, you could find her to be wild in an Emerson kind of way; slim, intellectual-yet-chic glasses; dressed in a plain, unwrinkled t-shirt and probably jeans.
She just looks at him.
He says hello, starts to compose a quirky-yet-warm speech on how he would like to exchange money for these goods, but screws it up around word four, because he always manages to act dumb in these kind of situations.
So he just hands over the stuff, and she murmurs a “how are you” and starts ringing it up.
Afterward, he wonders why she was staring at him so. Maybe she was thunderstruck by his good looks.
Ha ha ha. Yeah, right.
(What would she write if she were writing this passage? What stereotype might he fall under?)
Swimming. No words.
On Letterman tonight, the Counting Crows are playing. Chris has a complicated history with the band; they were the first band he really was into, and listened to them nonstop in high school. Then toward graduation, the whininess of the music, its perpetual longingness and never-findingness, got old. It is probably an old trope, the search for the perfect girl who understands you and is magical in herself.
By the time he showed up at college, he had disavowed the band entirely. In turn, he eventually gave up writing about girls — girls who he thought sometimes could be the kind of girls who could understand him, all the way through, and could be magical, if you looked at them in enough darkness.
It just got old. He wanted to grow past horribly dramatic crushes and idolatry and nasty breakups and every word being weighed down by meaning. And the stories felt like they had a life of about two days — someday, he knew, he’d read them and feel just as embarrassed as he does about the notes he scribbled in middle school.
The funny thing is that he was wrong. When he does read the old stuff now, he doesn’t feel embarrassed. Just — well —
He wishes he could write things about girls now. But he has nothing to say right now. Perhaps at a later time. Perhaps when the right twist of fate occurs. Perhaps when he falls in love again.
It may be a while. He hopes you can bear with him on this point.
Adam seems to have put on a few pounds, but his voice still has that same beautiful pleading tone. The song is nice, too, so in the end, Chris counts himself a fan again.
Unearthly pool lights a little ways down the block. If only he could pick one voice from another, he would know everyone’s secrets.
On the way to the beach on the last night, a passing woman says, almost accusingly, “Go fly a kite.”
He looks down at the kite he’s holding — what did his father call it? — smiles at the woman, and replies, “Right back atcha.”
They come up the stairs over the dunes and the sunset is a masterpiece. A thin slice of moon set off by intense red clouds. The sun almost gone, like an aunt waving as she leaves for home after a nice visit. It’s the kind of sight usually confined to postcards and dreams.
It’s a happy kind of ending.
He looks in the mirror. Smiles.
He can still see the boy in him peering out at the world through his eyes.