His feet never fit comfortably into his shoes. Once he had a pair of sneakers that made them look like the feet of a fat man squirming into a pair of dress spats several sizes too small, but mostly his feet looked like dead fish crammed into cases of canvas and leather. His right trout tickled the accelerator, teasing the station wagon to just under the pull-him-over threshold. He and two friends were burning out of Georgia after a ten-hour spring break detour to Atlanta ended in total defeat.
They were desperate to get to the beach, somewhere warm enough to sit out and see the ocean. The week was already half-over, and the post-vacation afterlife was hurtling into range far too fast. It was fine to look into the void and laugh when he wasn’t yet slipping over the edge, but thinking about the weight of the world had gotten a whole lot less pressing when he suddenly started to stagger under the weight of himself.
People always used to tell him, “You lead a charmed life.” It took him a long time to figure out that what they really meant was, “You dumb, happy young man, you lucky, hapless kid, you have no idea what is happening in your life or why. Where is your self-knowledge?” He only knew how to be sexy in a sleepy, half-stoned, collegiate kind of way, and how to slide by on a quiet smile and a firm handshake, and it still surprised him that he’d only realized it so recently. People used to tell him the world was his oyster, but he had a hard time figuring out how to afford its pearls. It was impossible to pinpoint the moment he realized it’s sometimes harder to have someone believe in you than not, or that the law of inertia works better than you think. The trout got heavier with the rest of him, turning to lead inside its case, and its pressure ramped up with the car. He sank deeper into the driver’s seat, embedded like ore. Neither of the others noticed, but that wasn’t their fault. No, the worst thing, he’d realized, was that the weight was nobody’s fault but his own.
Jacksonville seemed as good a place as any. They stopped at the Florida Welcome Center to sip courtesy juice and look at a better map. Beyond the pawn shops and 24-hour bowling alleys of local route 90 they would look for Neptune Beach. The name was its only selling point, but there weren’t any other criteria.
It’s all there is to go on at this point, he thought. It’s driving anywhere to avoid, for just a little longer, going back home to turning the shower knob and waiting 20 minutes for the water to come, listening to the nozzle’s nasal drip while you brush your teeth. It’s the toothpaste cap someone dropped in the drain that’s lodged like cartilage in its craw, so you can’t shave without the flow backing up your suds and bristles.
It’s looking up at a lifetime of trying to bring home the bacon, only to watch it burst out of the shopping bag (you should have chosen paper), watch it slide across the bus floor and skid beneath some stranger’s feet with your ground beef and chili powder. It’s watching the way light bends around the corner of your nose as you lie half-awake on your stomach with your face jammed into her sister’s pillow the morning before you drive all night through the Blue Ridge Mountains to end the week-long fact-finding mission into your best friendships. It’s when you realize that you can bounce your destination through southern states from Atlanta to all points east, just trying to hit that water, but it will never take you off the map.