Back to the Future
March 28, 2012 2 Comments
I think it was some time Monday afternoon, adrift on the Intercoastal Waterway, listening to the waves lap up against the boat as we sat there with our fishing poles in the water not catching a damn thing, that I finally fully realized I was going to be okay. But that’s the end of the story. Although not an entirely inappropriate place to start this one.
A few months ago, my friend Jen told me she was coming down this past weekend for our reunion at Rollins College and to spend a few days in Vero Beach with her parents, that I was going with her, and that I had very little choice in the matter. Jen and I met during my junior year, and through some bizarre and improbable alignment of stars, she somehow found me interesting enough to date for a good long time. We eventually broke up, yet through another equally bizarre and improbable alignment of stars, have managed to stay pretty close over the intervening years. Through all of that time, I eventually learned that dissuading her from something once she’s set her mind to it is akin to standing on the beach yelling at the waves to go back out. And since it had been a good five or six years since I’d seen her, it wasn’t a difficult decision to say yes. Which was the only answer she’d have taken anyway.
Now I’m the living definition of a bad alumni. I live maybe twenty minutes from Rollins, and you could probably count the number of times I’ve been back on campus without taking your shoes off. I haven’t sent them so much as a dime, on the premise that my parents, the U.S. government and I made considerable contributions over a four-year period while I was going there. And about the only things I have that would tell you I ever went there is the degree hanging on my wall and a sticker on my car. Not that I don’t cherish the time I spent there, but it was less about a collection of buildings and more about the people I knew and the experiences I had while living in those buildings. So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I headed back to campus, to an event whose very existence depended on exactly what I didn’t have.
Well, maybe it was being there with someone with whom I shared some of those experiences — and maybe it was the frequent and plentiful provision of open bars — but I was feeling it this time around. I walked past Orlando Hall, home of the English department, where I spent most of my junior and senior years finishing up my major, and I could almost feel the old gnarled wooden conference tables where I’d sat discussing Shakespeare and Chaucer and Melville. They’d been gouged by innumerable pens and pencils over the years, but rather than make them look old and decrepit, it gave them character, the aged lines of beloved old aunts and uncles. We went into the Olin Library, brand spanking new when I was a student, and I felt a slight pang as I saw what had been rows and rows of books had been replaced by a seemingly endless string of computer labs. But on the second floor, my nostrils were welcomed with the delightfully musty smell of old books, just as I remembered them, tenaciously hanging on against the digital assault from downstairs. Jen and I stood on the stage at the Annie Russell Theatre, on which we’d both trod numerous times, which we even shared on one brief, memorable occasion (that allowed me to grope her in front of her mother, but that’s a different story); and on the much smaller stage at the Fred Stone Theatre, where I’d menaced Puritan Massachusetts as Deputy Governor Danforth in The Crucible and actually got booed during one curtain call by two sweet old ladies who thought I was just the meanest man ever.
Then there was Pinehurst Cottage. The oldest building on the campus, Pinehurst was in the last stages of a massive restoration project my freshman year, and I was lucky enough to live there for the rest of my time at Rollins. Pinehurst was home to a spirited bunch of free thinkers who didn’t always agree with each other, and who really didn’t care that they didn’t. The important thing was that ideas were discussed, and that they were given the respect of being heard before being disagreed with. We also had co-ed bathrooms, which at the time may have been a stronger point in Pinehurst’s favor. But it was a place where it was okay to be smart and different, and I’m glad I had a chance to be part of it. So one night, Jen and I stormed the building, and let me tell you, the students there now couldn’t have been nicer to a couple of nostalgic old farts who’d had a little too much to drink. They all seemed genuinely excited to meet people who had lived in the house before them, and honestly surprised that we were every bit as wild as they were. We may have even inspired some wildness they hadn’t previously thought of, so our time there was well spent. Although I couldn’t help but wince at the, “Look how young you were!” when we stumbled across a picture of me. The clock wasn’t always turned back.
And, perhaps for the best, the clock didn’t stay turned back. I didn’t leave Rollins pining for past glories, wishing I could recapture younger days. I left grateful that I’d had those glory days, that I still had those memories, and that the place where I’d made them was still there, even if it looked a little bit different, and felt a little bit smaller. And I made a promise to myself not to let it be so long until the next time I visited, not so I could dwell on the past, but so I could see what new things Rollins has in store.
Then it was time to hop in the car and head to Vero Beach. We were meeting Jen’s parents at her grandmother’s house, and the plan included a lot of fishing, a lot of eating, and a lot of damn little else. My grandfather spent many years in Vero Beach before he died, and loved to go fishing, so there couldn’t help but be a surge of emotion at the idea of doing the same thing in the same place. I like to think he would have approved, and probably would have fared a lot better than we did.
Not that we didn’t catch anything. No, it was more like we caught everything. As in, “everything but what we were looking for.” Pathetic little catfish that wouldn’t net you a Filet O’Fish. Puffer fish that lived up to their name the second you got them out of the water. Two dumb rays — or one really dumb ray. And this doesn’t include the dozens of fish who got a free shrimp lunch off of us by snatching the bait right off our hooks. The closest we came to actual productive fishing was a grouper Jen’s dad caught that came up two inches short of being a keeper. Personally, I think it was slouching to save its ass, but rules is rules, so back it went. We were more successful in attracting things we couldn’t catch, like the manatee who decided he wanted to be friends with our motor, and the dolphins and pelicans who seemed to be mocking us dumb humans with how easily they could catch fish. Yeah, give us a few million years of adaptation and we’ll be right there with you, you show-offs.
And now we finally come back to the beginning, with me sitting in that boat, fishing line catching nothing but futility, me gathering nothing but thoughts. So much of 2012 for me had been about the past, about examining it, about rehashing it, about regretting it. The future seemed like this impossibly distant place, and even the first tentative step felt too daunting to take. But as my mind drifted along with our boat, I thought back on a weekend filled to the brim with a less painful past. And the more immediate one hurt a little less. I felt less defined by it; sure, it was a part of me, but it didn’t have to be all of me. At least not the painful parts. I could hold on to the good times and let the bad ones wash around me like the waves on which we floated. And in so doing, the future would be as bright as the sun that sparkled on the water like hundreds of little daytime stars. I was going to be all right. And it was okay to feel all right.
Tuesday afternoon, Vero Beach slowly disappeared in my rear view mirror. And so did a lot of the cloud that’s been hanging over me for far too long. I may have been driving west into the sunset, but it felt more like a new day was beginning.