I got a surprise text yesterday morning.
"Meet me at Dino World."
Dino World is a place I had mentioned that I thought I should go with a camera and make some photographs hoping it would be one of those old, dilapidated attractions that won't be around much longer. It is visible from the interstate that cuts the state in half running east and west. I've passed it on my way to the west coast forever. I've become a Covid shut-in for years, however, and the idea of just taking off one sunny morning at a moments notice was fairly shocking to my newish and seemingly delicate system. I was ready to make excuses. The drive was long. The day was short. I hadn't even finished my coffee let alone had gone to the gym. But you know, not wanting to seem like the dying animal I am, I shot back a text.
We'd meet at noon. I jumped up and donned on my gym apparel. I'd have approximately half an hour to workout.
When I walked into the gym, the biggest of the Chatties was hanging out on his usual cable machine that gave him a view of the gym floor. He pretends to work out, but he is not there for that. His eye popped open when he saw me.
"No time to talk," I said. "I have thirty minutes to do my workout."
Fortunately, the gym was fairly empty, and I decided I could superset without trouble. Twenty-five minutes later, I had finished eighteen sets of chest and back.
"That's the record," I said to Chatty as I bolted for the door.
A quick shower and then. . . I loaded ten or so camera into the car. It is one of my severe flaws. I knew I would not use them, but what if I needed them? I had every kind of camera, from small, cropped format to full frame digitals to two 35mm film cameras to three brands of medium format film cameras (four in total) to my big ass Liberator with all the film holders I possessed. I already had a Holga camera in the car.
I am ridiculous. Seriously, this is a psychological problem.
Since I had some stomach virus the past few days, I grabbed a can of Ensure (a staple in nursing homes for the aged) and a water. The gas tank was full. I was off.
I hadn't driven this stretch of interstate for years, not since the start of Covid at least and probably quite awhile before that. It was a shock. While I was gone, they built a billion more things, giant malls and monstrous, unimaginable warehouses and gargantuan apartment complexes five and six stories tall that stretched for miles. While I was sleeping, it seems, everyone has moved here, especially those who cannot afford it and must live on what once was the outskirts of everything in hideous, cheaply built, expensive apartment complexes surrounded by bare parking lots, Walmarts, a few chain restaurants, and new roads that take them to work at the giant resorts. The interstate was packed with morons. I don't know how many, but how many does it take to fuck up the flow of traffic? There were that many.
But I am not who I was a few years ago, an aggressive driver with a horrid temper and a heavy foot, so I stuck to my lane and went with the idiot flow watching the jerky boys in ridiculously modified cars with barrel exhaust and neon rims cut in and out of traffic getting nowhere. It was impossible to get anywhere. I was frustrated, but I felt myself sublime.
Fortune smiled on me, and I pulled into the lot exactly at noon, and crazily enough, my BFF pulled in at exactly the same time having come a similar distance from the opposite direction. I stepped out of my Xterra on my gimpy knee and tried to undo the stiffness and pain before I walked to her car. No matter. I was limping like Chester from the original "Gunsmoke."
Everything she does disarms me. I don't know if it is an innate quality or something she learned, but for Christ's sake, I am always altered in her presence, reduced to an awkward, unseemly adolescent boy, arms stupidly akimbo, terrified. She looked me over. I was wearing the ubiquitous cargo shorts, a t-shirt, and flip-flops. There I was, a cracker Florida Man, or so I seemed.
Across the parking lot there was a giant metal silo reflecting the low, midday sun. I grabbed my Black Cat Liberator and some film holders.
"I'm here to see you, but. . . "
I was feeling more geeky by the second, but, I thought. . . I mean. . . I had come so far .. . .
I fumbled around metering the shot and then futzing with the ancient beast. Then I asked her to step in. Knowing from past experience there was at best a 50/50 chance that my photos would turn out O.K., I shot a second photo with her.
I put the Liberator back into the car and I grabbed my Canon digital with the zoom lens that made it look like a bazooka. I began to sweat with embarrassment. She works with famous fashion photographers who shoot models for magazines for a living. I looked, I was certain, like a wannabe wedding photographer without clients. Still. . . as we limped toward the gift shop, I stopped to take very dumb photos of plastic dinosaurs that flanked the entrance. If there had been a pile of dog poop, I'm sure I would have stepped in it.
Dino World turned out not to be an Old Florida attraction. Not at all. There were manicured walkways strewn with plastic dinos, some that made dino sounds, some that were animated. We walked through a museum that explained to children where, why, and when there were dinosaurs roaming the earth. There were fossil claws and teeth and toe bones. Further on, there was a sluice where one might have dug for bones if it had been open. We walked and talked and sat on benches.
"Do you want to get something to eat?"
"Whatever you want to do."
She is quick with a phone. I can't do it. But she seemed to have everything on speed dial. She found a couple nearby restaurants. She was especially intrigued that there was a Maryland Fried Chicken. She seemed anxious to see it. They had meals for $3.75, I think. We were in a cowtown, all farms and country.
"It has five stars," she said with an impish grin.
"It's a shame you aren't drinking. There are a couple wineries nearby."
"We can go to wineries. It won't bother me if you drink."
"Oh, don't worry. . . I'm not bothered."
She suggested a nearby winery that served "farm to table" meals.
"They don't open until three, it says. You need to make reservations but they don't have any available."
Again, I am stupefied by how quick she is with her phone.
"Call them and see if we can get in."
Of course we could. We got into my car and left Dino World behind. A few turns down country roads and we pulled into the parking lot.
"Cracker Barrel," she laughed.
The place was huge. I imagine they get a big date night dinner crowd, but the place was fairly empty. We took a table under a giant canopied deck and ordered bruschetta and a charcuterie. She got some sort of strawberry wine. I wasn't feeling so bad about not drinking.
We talked and nibbled for a couple hours. I had a million questions about the intervening years, about the magazine business, about journalism and fashion and life in NYC. She told me stories that I couldn't match. I could, but I couldn't. I am not enamored of "that" world, but I am of accomplishment, and I am head over heels for her and hers. And so, by and large, it was largely a "call and response" afternoon.
"Are you having fun? Are you happy?"
"You are a difficult read," she said. "Maybe I'd like you 1% better if you were drinking."
Had sobriety retarded my joi de vivre? Oh, probably. Sobriety makes people practical and dull, I find. I was probably not nearly as animated or clever. But that, I knew, was not it. Desire and intimidation had paralyzed me, I was certain.
When we looked up, the sky was dark.
"I've lost my light?" I said.
I think she took this as a comment on my essence. But when we looked at the time, the day was almost gone. We'd wiled away the hours in nonstop conversation, first at Dino World, then at Boone's Farm.
Before it got dark, I wanted to make a drive through the countryside. Oh. . . it was something. Everywhere I looked, I saw a picture. Now I was animated.
"Look at that. Jesus. . . this is an old part of the state. Oh, shit. . . look. . . ."
Long, oak covered mossy roads, old fences, pastures and fields and ramshackle barns. Old farm machines and marvelously empty places.
"I've got to come back," I said. I need to come make pictures.
She held me with a skeptical eye. I'm used to it, though. As I say, she has a particular talent of unnerving me. Soon enough, sadly, I needed to turn around and drive her back to her car.
I had taken very few pictures all day. I wanted to make another of her with the Liberator. She stood and I hoped. And then it was time. The crazy day was over and I began to feel the sadness.
"What's wrong, boo?"
"Nothing. You know."
Whenever we part, I always feel it will be for the last time. I can't imagine she can sustain interest in me. There were so many years. . . just a hollowness and a gulf.
All that was left was the long drive home in traffic on a clogged highway that wouldn't move. The sun was setting. It wasn't Barcelona. It wasn't Budapest. It wasn't Paris. But we would always have those Strawberry Fields. A strange day that could not be forgotten.