It was a Saturday – the first Saturday in June to be exact. And the sun was beating down, despite a sudden break in the humidity. Meghan was working by herself that afternoon, much the same way she had been for the past three weekends running. Bored and listless, she took to reading neath the canopy, coastal breezes shooting through at every angle.
June was traditionally the most trying time of year for local teens. Island schools were still in session, after all. And yet, the full machinery of summer was simultaneously kicking into place. This represented a significant dilemma, to be sure, in that refusing to work back-to-back doubles every weekend might also mean sacrificing face and rank to summer help. The very same mantra that allowed for hibernation half the winter also dictated that once gainful employment was, in fact, available, one worked hard and one worked right, lest one should not ever seek to work again at all.
Meghan knew this awkward mantra well, having multi-generational ties to The City of North Wildwood – a place where her father was currently employed as a full-time fireman, and her uncle, the lone-sitting judge. Meghan’s relatives were sprinkled all up and down the county line, the majority of them holding year-round positions as public stewards or small-business proprietors. Most of her uncles had come up working summers on the beach patrol; most of her aunts, the restaurant circuit. Meghan’s father still requested two weeks off throughout the height of August – a bustling period during which he’d sell frozen ice cream on the beach (Such contracts were initially offered to local veterans first, in much the same way local shipping contracts had been before them).
Meghan’s father was a bohemian at heart. And yet, he worked his ailing fingers to the bone in constant service of his daughters. As a result, Meghan came to equate stalwart work ethic with mobility. More to the point, stalwart work ethic was the primary reason Meghan had originally agreed to work the picture stand that afternoon. Only now she found herself distraught, sweeping caked-on layers of sweat out from her brow.
Something was wrong. Something was very wrong, in fact. And whatever that vague something was, it had been advancing on Meghan’s system throughout the afternoon – surging forward, pulling back; setting fire to adipose reserves along the way.
Meghan’s heartbeat ran off-tempo now, and her carotid pulse set to pounding like a drum. She stepped out from underneath the canopy, hoping to find someone who might be willing watch the stand. She felt the need to take a comfort break and splash some water on her face.
There were a pair of tiny kiosks located directly across the way, but neither one of those was open now. There was a troll wheel spinning madly just a few feet to the left, and a twirling skyride named The Condor an equal distance to the right. And at some point, somewhere, not-so-far-off in the distance, Meghan could hear the muffled stylings of the Spiral Staircase, waxing eloquent about how they loved her more to-day than yes-ter-day (but not as much as to-mor-row).
Unable to flag down momentary assistance, Meghan tucked her money apron inside a folder ‘neath the counter. Then she pinballed her way across a hidden alley – the rush and whirl of dueling gears on every side. Her equilibrium was slipping now; every step fell slow and heavy. And just before the big TILT hit, Meghan’s body came to crashing through a wooden gate along the north side of the pier.
There was a tight and tiny audience surrounding her – dripping beach bums, ripe with sand.
They were bunched into a crescent arc, blocking the entrance to First-Aid.
The winter months had not been kind to my beloved girlfriend and I.
First came the unexpected loss of Meghan’s sister back in December. Next, my last-minute decision to re-enroll at university. And then, finally – as if to add insult to injury – my leaving Wildwood entirely to attend Penn State throughout the Spring.
In certain respects, time spent apart had drawn both Meghan and I much closer. The two of us were still young, after all, and – as such – we both remained idealistic enough to believe that true love was actually a matter of fate, as opposed to geographic desirability. Regardless, the considerable distance did not make for easy living. To her credit, Meghan just kept right-on evolving in my absence, at one point even traveling to Paris, by way of Madrid. I, on the other hand, had taken to regressing at an even faster pace – falling victim to old habits, drinking Laser by the 40.
When at last the spring semester ended, I made the three-bus trek directly back to sunny Wildwood, optimistic that the two of us could put the very worst of it behind us. And yet, despite the immediate proximity, I simply could not seem to shake the awkward feeling that one or both of us was drifting – coasting by on sweat and fumes until the jet stream came along.
Tectonic plates were shifting, exposing fault lines neath the surface. What’s more, I’d grown entirely indifferent to the notion Meghan was still only 16 – a high school junior, doing her utmost to contend with all the crazy, grown-up bullshit now surrounding her.
I was insensitive, at best, at a time when fortunes dictated the polar opposite.
I was standing on the Dime Pitch counter, hanging stuffed animals by the row, when I got a call from the EMT to let me know Meghan had fainted. By the time I reached First-Aid, Meghan was sitting upright on the slab – rushing liquids between aspirin, holding a compress to her head.
She walked out upon her own volition, led me down and off the ramp at 25th Street, where her father’s Pathfinder was idling in wait to drive her off to Doctor Haflin’s. I eased Meghan up into the front seat, wished her well, then waved goodbye. I stood there static in the rearview until her father turned the corner. Then I hightailed it straight back up to Morey’s Pier. I did this because I was young, and stupid, and I feared losing my job the very moment Bill Salerno discovered that not one, but two of his full-time employees had simultaneously abandoned their posts.
Either way, it was a bitter pill to swallow, seeing Meghan torn asunder like that. And yet, there was this incredibly narcissistic side of me that had already taken to internalizing the whole thing: What if I had somehow gotten Meghan pregnant? What if she had contracted some awkward form of STD? What if those two condoms we’d been using really hadn’t been enough? What if the entire incident could eventually trace its way straight back to me?
I mean, from the time I’d been 15, I stood convinced that there was something very seriously the matter with me. So stringent was I in this belief that I would stay home sick from high school on every day the nurse’s office administered junior physicals. Midway through my senior year, I forged all of my medical records for admittance to Penn State. It wasn’t so much that I abhorred the constant probing as it was I had this rumbling fear inside of me … an acute phobia, perhaps, of how my father might react assuming it turned out there was something found wrong with me. For better or for worse, that man had put the fear of God into me. And by the time I entered college, he had already made it abundantly clear that he considered the overwhelming lot of my behavior an ongoing pox on the whole family. Given the high-pressure climate, I dared not raise his ire by way of more unnecessary baggage.
To that end, by the summer of 1994, I was no longer carrying any valid form of medical insurance. I mean, I had issues, sure. I had daddy issues, and doctor issues, and commitment issues spinning clear out the wazoo. But I had long since committed to handling just about everything on my own, regardless of how altogether illogical or counterproductive my intentions might seem.
It was the early onset of an unfortunate cycle that would come to haunt me throughout my twenties.
It was the beginning of my eventual descent from decent catch to damaged goods.
According to preliminary tests, Meghan had suffered little more than a sodium deficiency – upon the order that causes all of one’s internal circuits to fizzle and spin. The diagnosis provided an immediate sense of relief, albeit counterbalanced by the knowledge Meghan’s older sister had succumbed to an undiagnosed electrolyte deficiency only seven short months prior.
I called Meghan at the beginning of my dinner break, hoping I might run down very quickly to see her. But Meghan’s younger sister explained that she had just recently fallen asleep in the back room. And so I spent the remainder of that evening slowly channeling all of my initial anxiety into guilt. When I called back again somewhere around 11, Meghan was wide awake, and she asked if I might walk her bike back down to her a few minutes after closing.
I arrived at Meghan’s father’s house shortly after 1 am; found her sitting all alone along the porch – wrapped up snug inside an afghan with a Marlboro 100 in her hand.
I remember her warm blush against my cheek; the smell of glistening apples in her hair. I remember the sudden rush of relief that flooded over me upon seeing all the color drawn back to her face. I mean, in a sense, the two of us were right back where we had started now – sitting side-by-side along that half-pint porch in the midnight glow of East 19th, a pair of huddled voices against the rising glow of Citronella.
It was refreshing, and nostalgic, and it made me feel like things might be OK.
What’s more, it was the first time since November that I could feel the ebb tide turning.
“I think that we should take a trip,” Meghan insisted, somewhere just after 3 am. “Like a really, really long trip, y’know? Like a road trip, across the country or something.”
“Oh, right,” I said, my back pressing up against soft tar and gravel. “Using what? A magic carpet?”
“No,” Meghan said, pointing off toward the street. “We’ll take the Fiero. I’ll have my license by the end of next November. And Daddy already told me I could use it. I asked him earlier tonight. The only thing we’d need is for you to get your license and we’d be completely set.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” I wondered.
“Yes, money,” I said, staring straight up into the panels.
“I’ve got that handled,” Meghan responded. “Or at least I’ve got my half of it handled. I started working out a plan in the living room tonight. Daddy agreed that if I put enough money aside between now and next June, he’d give me a slight cushion to put us over the top. On top of which, I’ll have all of my graduation money to draw from by then.”
“So you want to drive clear across the country during the height of the summer season, and your dad is 100% OK with all of this?” I said.
“Oh, please,” Meghan scoffed. “My dad hitchhiked his way across Europe way back when in his mid-20s. He ate out of trash cans in Venice. He slept on wooden park benches in France.”
“Yeah, well, that doesn’t necessarily mean he wants his daughter to be eating out of trash cans as well,” I said.
“No, no … of course not,” Meghan countered. “That’s why we’d need to start planning for all of this right now. Otherwise, we might as well just not consider doing it at all.”
“What about me?” I wondered.
“What about you?” Meghan said.
“I don’t have that kind of money, Meg,” I said, rolling over to confront her. “I mean, I’m living paycheck to paycheck right now. In fact, I’m actually living one or two paychecks behind where I’m supposed to be. And we both know it’s next to impossible to save anything down here during the winter.”
“OK, so you sacrifice a little bit,” Meghan offered, as she lit a cigarette off of the candle. “You cut down on all the excess beer you’ve been buying, you cut back on all the junk food you’ve been eating, and you stop lending money to all those broke-ass boardwalk sponges who have absolutely no intention of ever paying you back. Those three adjustments alone’ll put you an extra grand ahead of the game by the end of Labor Day Weekend. From that point, all you need to do is either find another full-time job over the winter or put some cash aside from unemployment and we’re there.”
“You think it’s that simple, huh?” I said.
“Well, no. I don’t think it’s that simple,” Meghan responded, sarcastically. “But who cares? The point is, we can do this. You. Me. Us. We. We can do this … together. More importantly, it’s something neither one of us is ever going to forget. I mean, don’t you even want to try?”
“Look, don’t get me wrong,” I said, as I lit my cigarette off of the bright end of Meghan’s. “Driving across the country has always been a personal fantasy of mine …”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Meghan interjected. “Think about all of the times you’ve mentioned the possibility of just taking off one morning, driving clear across the Dust Bowl, getting lost on some old highway in the middle of the night. I mean, this is it, Bob. This is IT. Our chance … right now. Seriously, think about it – you’re going to be 21 next November, and I’m going to be 17. I’ll be off to college a year after that and you’ll be looking into some kind of full-time career. And, meanwhile, there’s absolutely nothing stopping us from doing this right now. Only it has to be now. Believe me when I tell you we might never get this chance again, at least not with each other.”
“You really think that we can do this?” I said.
“I really think we’re going to do this,” Meghan said, grinning wide beneath that afghan.
“No bullshit,” I said.
“No bullshit,” Meghan said.
With that, Meghan tossed the afghan aside, ran inside to grab an Atlas.
We spent the next few hours mapping out a list of destinations – tiny blips along the way. We’d visit Tombstone, Arizona, and Area 51 in South Nevada. We’d hit the Vegas Strip, then Sunset Boulevard … maybe even Highway 61. We’d set out north, stopping for a night inside of Cambridge. Then we’d cut hard left, spend the afternoon along Walden Pond. After that, we’d dip down low into the Heartland, settling deep for the long haul. We had a plan now, or at least the seeds of one. And that plan was more than enough to keep us working through the night. We were wrapped up snug beneath that afghan, easing back against the railing. And at some point, somewhere, not-so-far-off in the distance, we could hear the lonesome call of waking seagulls. We could see the early mist begin to rise.
It was morning now. The sky was turning. We had found our way straight back to dawn.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)