One day you wake up, and you’re a little old man. You think it’s worse than waking up a cockroach because it’s ordinary. It means you’re ordinary.
You didn’t believe it would happen, and you aren’t ready for it. Demoralized by your decrepitude, you decide to go on a road trip with your best friend Ed. You want a freeway cleanse, an interstate detox.
Ed lives in Portland, Oregon. He’s driving to Portland, Maine and back again. 7000 miles in five weeks. 1400 miles per week. Portland to Portland to Portland.
Ed loves the road, deciding where to take it and where to let it take him. He stocks his car with kettle chips and Toby’s Tofu Pate. He’s suspicious of technology, so he crams paper maps for backup into his glove compartment.
Ed did this route last year, right after he retired. You offered to join him and then begged off. You said you wanted to write. At least you didn’t claim you “needed” to write. You didn’t want to give him a reason to laugh in your face.
Ed tells you he’s going coast-to-coast again this year. In a moment of un-sober weakness, you offer to ride along. Split the driving, split the cost, double the fun.
Later, you privately waffle. You consider bailing on the trip. You make the mistake of telling your spouse. You whine it’s too much work, too much time living out of a suitcase, too much time charming hosts whose homes you plan to occupy.
Your spouse reproaches you. “You’re his friend,” she says. “You can’t back out again.”
She shames you out of your spinelessness. You don’t tell Ed you almost bailed again until tonight, in this room, in this paragraph.
You pack ten pairs of underwear and three chargers. You’ll conduct electronic business and pleasure anywhere. You’re ready for anything.
Your destinations have names. You recite them for an audience: Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, New Hampshire, Maine. New England in the early fall – the colors, ah, the colors. You plan to visit family and friends. You oscillate between excitement and apprehension.
You tell yourself this will be good for you, because it takes you out of your comfort zone. It stretches you. You promise yourself you’ll write a story about it. You plan to call it “Traveling with Ed.”
But you want to know this trip will all go well before you hit the road. You can’t know that, because the road is unpredictable.
You don’t like unpredictability. You’re addicted to scenarios. You spec out everything, every major decision, even when there isn’t one. You build a spread-sheet and fill it with values. You manipulate the variables. You hit “Undo” and start over.
Manipulate. Undo. Repeat. This is your mantra for the 20-teens.
You fill Ed’s silver Prius with suitcase, backpack, books, and bass guitar. You rack your bike to the back of the car.
Most of the trip you’ll stay with old friends. “Old” as in “enduring” and “old” as in “aging.” All of you are aging.
One part of the route bears a big red X and “Caution!” sign: you plan to see your younger son in New York City. You’re apprehensive about this meeting.
He was always the low-maintenance son, the diplomat, the empath, the son who flew below the radar. His mother overheard him tell his older brother, “Just tell them what they want to hear. Then go off and do what you want.”
He hit puberty his senior year in high school, growing 10 inches in eight months. His college years were his adolescence.
You fought with and against him for control of his life in his college years. He blames you for his lack of self-esteem, his short fuse.
In his temporary adolescence, in your permanent adolescence, you lost the ability to talk with each other. You no longer laugh when you’re together.
You tell yourself you’ll get it right this time with him. You tell yourself you’ve learned from your mistakes, that life is on-the-job-training. You smile briefly, reassured, but the small voice whispers, “Training for what? For what?”
You strive to answer your question, but at the end of the day you’re stuck. At the end of the day, you don’t know how the next day ends. You know your limits. You know how often you get it all wrong. You’re proud of your humility.
You arrive in Washington after dark. You spend a weekend with friends in Brookland, a Northeast neighborhood bleaching out its black-middle-class home-owners. You realize the forty-eight hours you spend with your host, a man you’ve known for forty-eight years, is the longest continuous time you’ve ever spent with him.
From there, you drive to Philadelphia for a night with friends of Ed. You stay in yet another home that’s nicer than your own.
That’s a reason to get on the road: every home you visit is nicer than your own. Bigger, cleaner, older, with more character and history.
As you drive, Ed reminds you of people, places, and events in which you had a role. Or so he says. You don’t remember some of them. They are gone. Lost to you.
Your memory is overburdened, top-heavy, a seawall eaten away at the base by tidal erosion, the magnetism of the moon. Memories slip away, like guests at a party retrieving their coats from the host’s bed and walking out into a winter night, breath clouding the air.
In the second week on the road, you ride a train to New York City for a night. You see your younger son.
You promise yourself you won’t explore embargoed subjects. You order yourself to keep it light. You don’t want to anger him. You don’t want to scare him away.
Except it doesn’t go that way: the road takes an unexpected turn.
He tells you to meet him at the gallery where he works, just before closing. He specifies 5:50 p.m.
You get downtown early. You don’t want to arrive early and anger him, so you stop in a bar and fortify yourself with a glass of vodka. You don’t know what angers him anymore. Maybe you never did.
The gallery is in lower Manhattan, the neighborhood where you hung out in high school. Fifty years ago, wandering these same streets, you didn’t imagine a meeting like this. You didn’t expect to be a father. You didn’t expect to meet your adult son in a neighborhood where you couldn’t get a date for all your years in high school.
You arrive precisely at 5:50. Every inch of the walls and ceiling of the gallery is covered with brightly colored photos of frontally nude teens and young adults.
You stand at reception for two minutes until the woman sitting there deigns to acknowledge you. You say you’re there to meet him. You say, “I’m – “ and she finishes the sentence for you: “…his father.” She smiles and calls down to him. He emerges from the basement.
He introduces you to all his colleagues and to the photographer whose work is on display.
Your son chooses the restaurant for dinner. As you eat and drink, you keep it light. You respect his boundaries, even though you don’t know where they are or what they are. You might as well wear a sandwich board that says “I respect your boundaries.”
After dinner, he takes you to his favorite bar, a dark basement on MacDougal you think was a head shop forty-five years ago. You share a round of beers.
Then you walk through lower Manhattan. Young men and women eye him covetously, speculatively. He’s 5’11”, with short blond hair, high forehead and cheekbones, full lips, his mother’s pale blue eyes. He doesn’t seem to notice. He’s focused on what he’s saying to you.
He says he likes his job; he learns something useful every day. He likes his coworkers. His boss has complimented him recently for his work and his art. He received a small bonus.
He tells you the names of artists he admires. Jeff Koons and Michel Majerus. You memorize their names. You want to know you paid attention to what he said.
You dare to ask him if he’s dating anyone. He says he isn’t; he’s concentrating on his art. He seems comfortable with that. He seems comfortable with everything. He seems comfortable with you.
He still might be telling you what he thinks you want to hear, but you no longer care. You’re filled with love for him. You say you’re proud of him, proud of all he’s done, proud of who he is. You say this in a clumsy artless way he nevertheless seems to hear.
You end up sitting on the steps of your old high school on 15th Street. You tell him that was the first place you met anyone smarter than you. You want him to know you don’t have all the answers; you are not the smartest guy in the room.
When you part at the subway, at 14th Street and 1st Avenue, you find it hard to say goodbye. To your surprise, he also seems to find it hard to part.
You hug and you kiss. Then you cycle through that public act of intimacy two more times before you separate.
You feel the stubble on his chin against your cheek. It’s the best sensation you’ve felt in years.
Surrounded by strangers in the middle of Manhattan, you’re a little old man finding what you thought you’d lost forever.
On the road, thanks to Ed, you find a way back to your son.
Alan Neff was a lawyer for the City for over twenty years. He was a performance poet for a while, and has previously emerged victorious at the Green Mill’s Uptown Poetry Slam.
While practicing law, he wrote and sold a novel to a small commercial publisher that published it in 2005 and sent him approximately $102 dollars in royalties before it went out of business (not his fault, the publisher insisted).