It’s raining in West Florida, a warm, soft but insistent rain that seems to lack awareness of its own mortality. I sit in my son’s truck in the parking lot before his apartment in the darkness with the heater on, the windshield fogged, watching the raindrops form their mosaic, the larger ones gaining mass, starting to move, swallowing their neighbors up whole before racing to the bottom of the glass where they disappear out of sight, anonymous, ephemeral.
Ensigns step outside in the darkness, on their way to classes or canceled flights, their smooth, unlined faces pinched against this inclement weather. They bustle towards their futures in khakis and flight suits, unaware how many doors lie open in every direction to them. Not yet hearing the soft thump as doors close behind them with each small effort, each academic test, each graded flight, each quirk of seemingly random fate. I look back at them through a long and narrow corridor unlit now by side exits and cannot help but envy them as they move bewildered in their grand amphitheater, a vast and echoing space whose contours and constraints they can only dimly sense.
My own ensign lies sleeping yet, I was up early, restless. A cup of coffee at the local McDonald’s, my vocal rhythms and cadences as I order subtly adjusting themselves to the local brogue – I have always had an ear for the languages and accents of the country, and having traveled much have always had a yearning to be home, somewhere. Lacking a place of my own, I have discovered how to blend in.
My young man is lying on a bed pad I bought yesterday at the local exchange, having spent an awkward night previously sleeping on the floor in blankets. His household goods shipment, such as it is, has not yet arrived and will not for a week or so. It’s hard to remember how unencumbered we are with material things at the beginning of our adventure. How very little we own, apart from the clothes on our backs. How few the things are that can plausibly lay a claim upon us.
We played golf yesterday, before going shopping at the local Navy Exchange for furniture. I talked the ensigns out of a regrettable leather and suede couch and love seat combination in chocolate and tan that would speak to future female guests of the daunting weight of inconsiderate bachelorhood in favor of something more comfortable and tastefully enduring. From there we went to the electronics section, and now the apartment is graced with not one, but three LCD HD television sets of various sizes and a wireless router for their internet connections. The furniture, for the next few days at least, consists of the packing crates these devices came in. These then are the necessities of today’s existence, necessities that had not yet been created when I lay on the floor of an apartment in Pensacola with my bride 26 years ago.
It was a punishing drive across country, a flogging pace that recognized for the most part only the need to refuel his heavily burdened vehicle and certain biological imperatives. I am but an indifferent passenger, and subtly fought for the wheel whenever I could. We chatted at length for times, fell into long, comfortable silences at others as the West Coast receded behind us and the way ahead unspooled before us. Saying the things that had to be said took less time than courage, and even then they served only as confirmations rather than revelations.
Arizona passed as a long series of dry plains like desert battlefields parted by the highway. On each side opposed battalions of tall cacti stood formation in endless ranks. Third world thin, backed by mountains in the distance. New Mexico at dawn an inexpressibly beautiful, alien landscape, with soaring escarpments casting the stern, implacable shadows of alien gods. We spoke of the courage those people had shown crossing this country from east to west on their horses and covered wagons little more than a hundred years or so ago, the unremitting waves of hostilities they had stolidly faced, sentient and otherwise. We didn’t speak aloud to wonder where it had gone, the kind of hardiness that had made this land. What was left of it, I sensed, sat beside me.
Las Cruces to Houston was a hard pull, 800 miles and 12 hours of driving time. A microcosm of the country itself, the arid west grudgingly giving way to hill country, greening by the mile until we reached the eastern flat lands well after dark, exhausted. Rested then, and once again on our way, a salt tang in the air, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama giving us back some sense of forward movement after a day hurling ourselves repeatedly against Texas.
Florida, finally, and McGuire’s Irish Pub. For dinner. The moose my wife had kissed to the cheers of the crowd all those years ago. But you can never step in the same river twice, the waters move on and those times are far behind us, like the raindrops that gathered mass and then raced down the foggy windshield of my son’s car in the parking lot.
Time to go soon, and we’ll say awkward good-byes, promise to keep in touch, see you over the holidays. I’ll blame the rain for my fogged spectacles if that becomes necessary, as it most certainly will if I allow the moment to linger.
He to his work, I to mine.