Meghan and I ate dinner at my apartment on that evening – bowtie pasta with Italian bread, beer and coolers on the side. I had moved back into the same one-bedroom I’d been living in the previous off-season, accommodations which represented a significant step up for me, pre-furnished as they came with matching beds and pull-out sofa. There was a full-range oven in the kitchen, a brand-new shower in the bathroom. There was an entertainment center in the living room and cut-pile carpets in the bedroom. And yet, there were some downsides, to be sure – a minor gas leak in the kitchen, a front-door latch that never caught. An ample wind could knock that door wide open, an ample gale could shush the pilot.
Regardless, at an all-inclusive cost of $240 a month, there was no doubt whatsoever East Magnolia felt like home.
My mother had given me a four-foot plastic Christmas tree which I assembled in the living room, twinkling chasers racing garland round the whole. My ground-floor apartment ran blush warm despite no access to the thermostat, and the atmosphere was such that weekend nights meant Meghan and I nestling close beneath a blanket, soaking in the $2 chasers as we vegged out
on the sofa.
That evening in particular Meghan and I were off to West Cape May, scheduled to watch Meg’s sister Julie beat a drum in the parade. We headed out just after dinner, Frank Sinatra crooning “The Christmas Waltz” as we zigzagged west toward the bay. At one point it occurred to me that – given the occasional beach house, brightly lit up for the holidays – an aerial view of Five Mile Island might appear much like a mirror, collapsing inward on itself until black ocean met night sky.
“My God,” I said to Meghan, as we merged onto Park Boulevard, “it is absolutely beautiful out here tonight.”
“Mmmmmmm,” Meghan responded. She was blowing fits of smoke out through a thin crack in the window.
“So listen,” I insisted, “I’ve been giving it a lot of thought and I’ve decided I might like to stay here throughout the winter.”
“Throughout the … like the entire winter?” Meghan asked me.
“That’s right,” I assured her. “Like straight on through until next season.”
“What about school?” Meghan persisted.
“What about school?” I countered. “My grades are shit, my interest level is nil, and re-enrolling might mean me moving back into my parents’ house.”
“But that’s your …”
“Not to mention re-enrollment would necessitate me cutting off my benefits,” I objected. “And for what? A two-hour commute both ways? One that begins and ends with a one-mile walk during the dead of winter?”
“I understand there are certain sacrifices that need to be considered,” Meghan said. “But things are different now. You’ve got your license, Bob. Maybe you can get a part-time job once you get up there, put a down payment on a nice little used car or something.”
“Oh, right,” I said, shuffling right to face the window. “So now you’ve got me moving back into my parents’ house, taking on a full-time course load, working 20-25 hours a week, and giving up my unemployment. All in the hopes that at some point, somehow, I might be able to afford some old jalopy.”
“Jesus,” Meghan whispered. She flicked her dying cigarette out the window.
“Let’s not forget about the additional cost of insurance, and gas, and expenses, and wear and tear,” I kept at it. “And then, of course, there comes the fact that that semester – a semester I have absolutely no interest in attending, god mind you – lasts approximately four months. Four months! You expect me to knock all this other shit out over the course of four stinkin’ months?”
“Well, no, not necessarily,” Meghan said, “but…”
“And when exactly would I find the time to come down here and visit you?” I wondered. “I mean, those same four months last winter nearly killed us – three buses and two train rides every weekend, sleeping rent-free in your mother’s guest bedroom? Is it really such a sin I’d rather spend those same four months with you?”
“Of course not,” Meghan conceded. “But it’s also important that your rationale for doing so is wholly focused on what makes good sense for you, not me … or even us, for that matter.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I glowered. Meghan’s Fiero was idling at a red light.
“It just means that if things between you and I are meant work out, they will,” Meghan contended. “The more you try to force them by sacrificing things that are actually important in the long run, the more you risk a certain level of resentment later on.”
“Funny,” I said. “I was always taught that self-sacrifice and compromise represented the very cornerstones of any long-standing relationship.”
“Self-sacrifice and compromise represent the very cornerstones of any marriage,” Meghan admonished. “For now, the two of us need to focus on achieving all the little things that’ll help us get to where we might want to be someday. I mean, let’s say – just for the sake of argument – you decided that going back to school wasn’t really the ideal thing for you. What exactly do you think you might want to do with yourself instead?”
We were entering the Middle Thorofare, a bleak and barren stretch of Ocean Drive where the road began to open.
“Did you just ask me what it was I thought I was doing with my life?” I said.
“I just asked you how you plan on making a decent living,” Meghan said. “Believe it or not, Bob, certain people do tend to inquire about such things from time to time.”
“Since when do I need to convince anyone of what it is I think I’m doing with my life?” I said.
“It provides people with an ongoing sense of security,” Meghan responded. “It, like, lets people know there isn’t any risk of you falling victim to revolving debt.”
“Oh, OK,” I nodded. “I see. So now we’re working under the assumption that the best way to avoid revolving debt is by taking on several thousand dollars worth of student loans?”
“It’s a means to an …”
“What people?” I interjected.
“Huh?” Meghan said.
“A second ago you said it provides people with an ongoing sense of security,” I said. “Who exactly are we talking about here?”
“I don’t know, Bob,” Meghan exploded. “People. Goddamn fucking peop …”
“It sounds to me like you do know,” I kept jabbing.
“Oh it does?” Meghan responded. She was smirking at the windshield, performing cartwheels with her brow.
“Yes, it does,” I shot back. I was doing my utmost to keep pace.
“OK,” Meghan conceded. “How about my father, for starters?”
“Your father?” I said.
“That’s right,” Meghan asserted. “Every now and again my father just so happens to ask.”
“This is your dad we’re talking about?” I said. “The same guy who spent his early 20s eating out of garbage cans while he hitchhiked his way across Europe?”
“My father served in a fucking war before he took his first trip to Europe,” Meghan bristled. “You don’t think he has a right to ensure his daughter avoids making a lot of the same mistakes that he made?”
“Oh, that’s rich,” I nodded. “So now I’m a mistake.”
“That’s not what I said,” Meghan told me.
“So what exactly is it that your father needs to know?”
“I suppose he just wants to know whether you have some real sense of ambition,” Meghan said, “y’know, that not you’re one of these guys who spends his whole life marking time. I can tell he really likes you, Bob. He sees certain aspects of himself in you. But he also takes a vested interest in ensuring I’m well-cared for.”
“Has there ever been a moment when I haven’t taken care of you?” I said.
“There’s never been a moment when I’ve needed you to!” Meghan unloaded. “For Christ’s sake, Bob, you’re barely in any position to take accountability for yourself. I mean, no offense or anything, but you’re 21 years old, you’ve got no job, no car, no health insurance, no assets, and no discernible interest in pursuing any of the above. And while that may be well and good for now, have you ever considered I might want something more out of my life than that? That I might want something more than simply scraping to get by, living month-to-month inside some ghetto apartment less than a half-mile from my home?”
We were approaching the Middle Thorofare toll plaza, and Meghan eased her foot down on the brake. She dug her claws into an ashtray, ferreted out a handful of quarters. She was still struggling with the window when a nearby collector tapped on the glass. He was wearing a dark hoodie over night vapors, and the sudden breeze reminded me that one could always smell the salt air coming and going, but never when slow-wading in the deep.
Meghan turned the radio up. I turned the radio down. We made a right onto Route 109.
“I do have some money set aside, y’know,” I said.
“Uh-huh,” Meghan responded.
“Not, like, a lot, but enough that I’m not really living paycheck to paycheck anymore.”
“That’s good,” Meghan said.
“I figure I’ll need to start putting away a little bit month after month. That way I’ll have a pretty decent amount saved up when it comes time for our trip.”
“What?” I added.
“I didn’t say anything,” Meghan told me.
We swung wide around a jughandle, veering left onto Old Seashore Road. We were overshooting Cape May Proper at this point, avoiding an ongoing string of traffic. But we were also missing out on Cape May’s ambiance, on farmer lots and B&Bs, on boughs of holly strung from poles, on velvet sashes and red bows, on tree-fresh pine and tiny hamlets, storefront windows damp with fog.
“You given any thought to how much money you might want to bring along?” I asked.
“Not really, no,” Meghan said.
“I’m just trying to get a gauge, y’know,” I sniffled. “Just trying to make sure the two of us are on the same page as far as that’s concerned.”
“Right,” Meghan said. Her eyes were steady-fixed upon the road, overwhelmingly oblivious to an entire row of patchwork houses drifting by on either side.
“So how much do you think?” I said.
“How much what?” Meghan said.
“How much money do you think we’ll need?”
“I really don’t want to get into this right now,” Meghan pouted.
“Get into what?” I said.
“This,” Meghan said.
“I thought this trip was something the two of us were looking forward to,” I said.
“It is. It’s just …”
“Just what?” I said.
“I just don’t know if it’s really all that feasible,” Meghan said. “That’s all.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. “What it are you referring to?”
“The trip,” Meghan said. “I’ve just been talking it over with my dad the past few weeks, and he kind of thinks it might be best for you and I to put the thing on hold.”
“Put the thing on hold?” I said. “Put the thing on hold? Put the thing on hold till when?”
“I don’t know,” Meghan said. “Until a point when it actually makes good sense for us to go.”
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” I muttered. “Weren’t you the one who originally had to talk me into this? Weren’t you the one who said – and I quote – ‘Believe me when I tell you we might never have this chance again’?”
“I suppose I just got caught up in the moment,” Meghan said.
“Are you telling me this thing is officially off?” I said.
“Well, no, not completely,” Meghan said. “I mean, we can still take a road trip down to Florida if you like.”
“Florida?” I said.
“Absolutely,” Meghan said. “You know you’re always talking about how you’ve never been to Universal.”
“I’ve never been to Okinawa, either. But that doesn’t mean that we should ditch our plans and set a course for South Japan.”
“This wasn’t by design,” Meghan said.
“Oh, no, of course not,” I shot back. “I mean, when it comes to me, everybody needs to know what the fuck it is I’m up to 40 goddamn years in advance. But when it comes to you, you can simply shift gears on the fly.”
“That’s not the way it happe …”
“Y’know, it must be nice,” I said, “being able to sit around the table with your father, deciding what makes good sense for you and I.”
The tiny blocks were moving fast now, thinning out just short of Cape May Point. Meghan tucked her Fiero behind a hydrant, eased the gearshift into park. We were surrounded by the sound of sweeping sand across the bonnet, the far-off drone of frozen trumpets from town hall.
“Look, I just need you to understand,” Meghan explained, “things are a little intense for me right now. I think it’s finally sinking in just how expensive living on my own is going to be.”
“You’re going to college on a scholarship,” I grumbled. An empty challenge, stillborn words.
“So what, Bob?” Meghan said. “There’s still room and board and food and books, not to mention day to day. I don’t mean to sound rude, I swear to god I don’t, but you live at home when you’re attending classes. For all the shit you give your parents, you’re basically bilking off of them four months out of the year.”
“Not this year,” I assured her. I unbuckled my seat belt, let it slip through trembling fingers.
Meghan leaned forward, settled back. She fixed her hands at 10 and 2.
“It wasn’t always gonna be this way,” she whispered. “I wasn’t always gonna be that little girl who you met working on the boardwalk.”
Silence. The click and ping of cooling spark plugs.
“It’s not so bad,” I said, “the two of us maintaining some small aspect of those people.”
Meghan got out of the car. I followed her along East Perry, where she spotted her father and sister, both of them waving from across the way.
“I think I’m gonna go grab a soda,” I told Meghan. “You want anything?”
“Just hurry up,” Meghan told me. “It sounds like this whole thing’s about to start.”
I shuffled west along the sidewalk, the clap and dash of dying leaves beneath my feet. I ducked into a deli, grabbed two cans of Dr. Pepper. There was a motorcade turning slow onto East Perry – candy-red convertibles, fire engines bathed in gold. There were mummers and then strummers, a king and then a queen. There was Santa and then Rudolph, high school bands with green batons. There was everything except my girlfriend. She had found her way across the block.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)