In the seventies, I made the same weekend trip about 300 times, up and down a dreary strip of highway known as the Sunshine State Parkway. Divorce had made Willy Lomans of us all – I, my two older brothers, and our parents, who shared ferrying duties Saturday and Sunday. Mom would drive us up to West Palm Beach to see our father, who would take us back, about 30 hours later, to Miami.
How you respond to repetitive travel probably depends a lot on the scenery. The 70 miles between West Palm Beach and Miami is one long stretch of chain-link fences, algae-ridden canals, and concrete walls. It is a landscape of utter desperation that the CIA might actually consider using as a means of torture, like the bad rock music U.S. troops played to try to roust General Noriega out of his refuge.
I used to sit in what we called “the way-back” of a series of cream-colored station wagons, as I was the littlest and the one most likely to be tortured by my older brothers – large and restless boys who liked to pass the time by telling me lies: that the principal of our former school, a George Pillisy, was my “real” father; that the sunflower seeds I was eating would cause plants to grow from my behind. I can remember my stepfather’s arm swinging around, in the universal parenting sign for helpless fury while driving, and the car swerving across lanes, and my mother pleading, “Kids! We’re all friends!”
There weren’t any Walkmans, Game Boys, laptops, cell phones then to distract us from one another. I retreated with stuffed animals, Barbies, Mad Libs, and finally novels – everything from To Kill a Mockingbird to a trashy romance I picked up I don’t know where entitled When the Lion Feeds. It was set on a plantation in Africa and had a sex scene where, to my great amazement, a woman becomes so passion-crazed she roared “like a lioness.”
I used to count Porsches. On these trips, it was anything to relieve the boredom, as well as the dread of thinking about the meaning of our travel: We had broken up. What was even more perplexing was, we had never really been together. My father was a driven guy who worked so much he’d been known around the neighborhood as “the Milkman,” for his tendency to rise before dawn and disappear into the city in a white Mustang.
My father had, however, an overcompensating genius for gift-giving, and when my brother David turned 16 he handed him the keys to one of the prettiest things I’d ever laid eyes on: It was a white 1966 Corvette convertible with chrome exhaust pipes that made it look capable of taking off in flight. For us, the car was a magic carpet. We had wheels, and now the road was ours. No longer would we be spending our weekends imprisoned with our family in a long, bloated road boat that looked like it belonged to the Brady Bunch – which we knew we were definitely not. This vehicle seemed to suit our “true” selves – something more along the lines of The Getaway, a Sam Peckinpah film our father had taken us to right before our mother had divorced him.
It was now just the two of us, David and I (our brother Danny had gone to college); I was 13, and though I would never admit this to him, even now, I thought David was possibly the coolest guy that had ever lived. I remember we started wearing sunglasses. He had a girlfriend who was a track star; he used to sneak out of the house at night and successfully lie his way back in when he got caught; one time our septic tank backed up and, to my mother’s complete horror, the whole backyard was awash in condoms.
We rode, of course, with the top down, sunglasses on, listening to the radio as loud as it would go. We felt cool; it felt righteous that, if we couldn’t spend Saturday hanging out with our friends (going to the movies, getting into trouble, or just sleeping the day away, as teenagers like to do), we were at least getting appreciative honks from other drivers and kudos on our CB radio: “Ten-four on that ride, good buddy.”
But the loveliness of the car alone couldn’t stop us from fighting – I wanted to hear the disco station while David preferred rock and roll.
“Disco sucks,” he said. “Only losers listen to disco.”
I had snuck in with a friend to see Saturday Night Fever and dreamed that I, too, would one day be a disco dancer.
“Uhn-uhn!” I said.
But even as we fought, I felt something different was happening: My brother and I were becoming close. If this was the only good thing to come out of our parents’ divorce and all this driving on this monstrous highway, well, that was pretty good.
Then, the next year, something happened that changed everything: My brother got cancer. A black mole on his chest that always glistened like a spot of tar when he was outside playing basketball in the sun turned out to be melanoma. We were told he could die.
But he lived. I remember once when he was playing basketball at a city court, some kids asked him, “Hey, how’d you get that scar, boy?” It went from his neck to his hipbone.
“Somebody took a blade to me,” David said, then shrugged.
There was only one thing in our lives that seemed it would never, ever change: the trip. Every Saturday and Sunday, Miami to West Palm Beach and back again, and then again the next weekend – now with the top up. It was only a few more years until we’d be grown up and wouldn’t be travelling together anymore.
It was easy to lose it on that road. “I hate Florida! I hate this highway!” I remember once screaming out the window.
“Yeah, but you love your big brother, right?” David said, turning the radio over to the disco station.