Juncture in the past

August 23, 2008

Four weeks from tonight, I’ll attend my forty-year high-school reunion in Winter Park, Florida. We were invited to write about a memory. I chose not the end-of-school campout of about twenty-five guys. It only lasted a few hours because a Seminole County sheriff’s deputy busted us just as the drunken revelry was cranking up. A few classmates barely made it out of jail in time to attend graduation. Instead, I chose the lesser-known prequel to that story:

Far from anything, we lurched along two sandy ruts winding through pine and scrub oak north of Red Bug Road. I was driving my mother’s faded station wagon, nicknamed the Blue Boat. Perched cross-legged atop the roof, Danny and Charlie looked more like maharajas on safari than seniors about to graduate. Stripped to the waist and wearing their shirts swami-style around their heads, they scanned the woods.

I turned up the radio, drowning out the clatter of barbed wire that had wrapped around the drive shaft a few miles back. We’d come too far to turn around. Not that we knew where we were. That was part of the plan, getting lost to see what we could find. And we were doing more than searching for a camp site; we were clutching what little was left of our years together in a grip that couldn’t hold.

As the car bounced along, Danny and Charlie cursed my driving and banged on the roof. As if on cue, they segued into a duet of “Wipeout.” I knew they were grinning that confident smirk we all wore, the smirk that said we don’t give a damn about anything, we’re just living in the moment and everything else is bullshit. In truth the smirk was a mask, a way of hiding self-doubts, doubts we almost never expressed to each other, including the future looming just ahead.

Brush scraped the Blue Boat. The ruts narrowed to a path. I worried we might not make it out before dark. Not showing up at home for dinner posed big trouble for each of us. I slowed at a curve, and the car bogged down in a drift of loose sand. We were stuck.

Some details are fuzzy all these years later. Danny or Charlie stripped down to underwear. We began to dig on our hands and knees like dogs. When we could dig no more, I gunned the engine and they pushed. The tires spun, and rooster tails of sand pelted them. The car sank deeper.

Screw the Blue Boat, we finally said, and wandered over a low rise. Emerging from the trees, we saw the evening sky glimmering on the surface of a lake. No houses anywhere. The perfect spot.

It was nearly dark when we started walking out, marking our way with sticks as landmarks for our return.

When we finally reached Red Bug, we got lucky. A pickup truck stopped. The driver, a coot as old as we are today and cradling a beer in his crotch, laughed as we explained our predicament. He drove to 17-92 and turned left, saying he was taking us to a pay phone. Ahead was the jai-lai fronton where we would graduate in a few days. But the guy abruptly pulled into a parking lot of a place we recognized but had never visited.

A neon sign above the squat building blinked two words. Inside, we said those words on the phone to our parents when they asked where in the hell we were, hours after we should have been home. Two words blossoming into a vivid picture.

The shock and anger didn’t matter. We had arrived, not just at the infamous topless joint Club Juana, but at a juncture: the world was waiting to carry us away, on different paths we couldn’t see.