“I’ve got a plan,” I told my fine companions, “Let’s all take a trip together!”
Well, first, there was the weekend away we’d scheduled last July to the New Jersey Pine Barrens, aka the Pines. It’s one of the largest and last remaining Atlantic coastal pine barren ecosystems. The term “pine barrens” connotes an area with acidic, sandy, nutrient-deficient soil. Residents refer to their soil as sugar sand. It was also said to be the home of the fabled Jersey Devil, who back in the day was allegedly born the 13th child of Mrs. Leeds, a local woman. The JD was cursed because of his unlucky birth number’s placement within the timeline of life and is rumored to still be walking those sandy grounds to this very day. Other supernatural denizens said to dwell there are the ghosts of Captain Kidd, the pirate, and the Black Dog, a regular little local hellhound.
It was my girls’ idea to go there together for our first getaway weekend. Thus, you may wonder if their interest was in a bit of ghost hunting or devil spotting. It wasn’t. They’d heard it was an infamous location for the Mafia to dispose of bodies not only because of the seclusion it offered but the year-round soft, sandy soil. Neither of them had been born in this country and had a healthy and romanticized curiosity about all things that were gangland related or connected to the mob in America. Their game plan was to lie on the forest floor pretending to be victims of a hit and then have me snap pix of them to send to the folks back home. They were even plotting to take the farce as far so as to use their cosmetic make-up products on one another and appear, in Y’s words, “deader.”
Yet, we never took that journey. The plan was to get there via V’s vehicle. But the night before leaving, a severe summer storm had blown through the region, and she’d parked it on the street with windows ajar and ever so slightly open. So much rain had flooded into the interior I had to help her remove the seats to dry out in the sun for a few days before reinstalling them again. They had plans – but God giggled, I guess.
Then there was the trip to Jamaica that never got off the ground. After the second try at a weekend away in The Pines fell flat on its face last October due to a snafu in my work schedule, and had me feeling a little guilty, I suggested we head to the Caribbean over the Thanksgiving holiday. The better two-thirds of our throuple took care of booking flights and lodgings, so I had little more to do than keep that week free, pack my bag, and remember to bring my passport. And that’s when it occurred to me that I hadn’t traveled overseas in a few decades so I’d need to do some deep digging to find the said passport.
A few days before departure, when I finally fished out the government-issued document, the first thing I did was check if it was still valid. Nope, it’d expired back in 1989. Should be no problem renewing it, right? Wrong! Not only were the holidays a busy time to travel but since the world was reawakening after the Covid-19 lockdown the passport office was backed up unlike ever before. Even if I were to pay the additional expediting fee it’d still be between 6-8 weeks before I’d have my new traveling papers. Thus, the week before we were to leave, and after one of our wonderful post-midnight suppers, I broke the bad news to Y and V; and they didn’t take it well.
“Shit, G, you haven’t been outside the country since the 90s and you didn’t think to check if your passport had expired?” an exasperated Y wanted to know.
“It just didn’t cross my mind at first, and then I figured if it was, I’d be able to get it renewed on time for our vacation, I guess I blew it...”
“Jesus, Gee-sus,” V chided, “for a pretty smart guy you do some really dumb things sometimes!”
“Guilty, guilty, guilty… guilty as charged,” I confessed.
My girls weren’t so much angry with me as they were disappointed. I felt terrible I’d let the two of them down. All I’d been tasked with throughout this entire enterprise was packing, getting to the airport on time with a valid passport in hand, and then traveling. One thing and one thing only and I’d managed to mess up that one simple thing that would ruin everyone’s vacation.
“Listen, I want you both to go anyway. I’ll cover the cost of everything and you should just go without me this time. Okay?”
“This time was supposed to be a Thanksgiving holiday trip, do you know what else it was, G?” V continued to cross-examine. “It was supposed to be super special.”
“Sure, and I mucked it up. I want you to go have a great time and I’ll be here when you get back. I know, it sucks, and it’s my bad.”
“No,” finalized Y, “I think whatever we do this first Thanksgiving we’re going to do it together. If you don’t go then we don’t go. We’d rather be up here in the cold and snow with you than down in Jamaica without you. Right, V?”
“You speak for yourself!” was the unexpected response from V, and said with a loving laugh, “I say we leave his sorry old ass up here to get frostbitten while we lay topless on a beach in the sun and forget about this forgetful freak.” She then leaned toward me to kiss my forehead. “Oh, alright, we’re staying here with our bungling boyfriend instead of hitting the waves.”
So, stay they did. For our Thanksgiving dinner, I’d ordered a whole Peking duck, various vegetable dishes, hot and sour seafood soup, and of course, brown rice. This was washed down with two bottles of Moet Chandon Rose Imperial. The duck went over better than the time I’d introduced them to sushi; although I was a tiny bit perturbed when my girlfriends referred to the fowl wrapped in rice pancakes as “duck burritos.” Yet, when I suggested we should revisit the Peking duck for our Christmas meal I was told they’d really rather not. Their reason, you ask? They’d decided since ducks looked so damn cute, at least in their opinion, they didn’t want to eat any more of them. Still, we were happy to be together on our first Thanksgiving and we were thankful to be blessed with that gift.
As our first Christmas together neared, the dance troupe V and Y were a part of had been invited to compete in a dance competition being held in Atlanta. The contest would last for nearly a week, and the better your troupe did, the longer they’d stay in the competition. My girls’ team, who was doing quite well, was the last of three still in the running. Each night they called with updates they were super excited and conveyed their exuberance about potentially walking away with whatever prize was being awarded to the victor.
On the night before the last day their group would be battling any others, Y complained of being bothered by a bad headache, mild sore throat, and body aches, which she attributed to the strain of the past six days. The last three crews in the tournament would meet for a penultimate dance-off bout tomorrow morning. If my fine companions were eliminated they’d be on a plane and back by early evening. If they persevered in the morning then they take a crack at defeating the remaining troupe and fly back the next day.
Being that the judges preferred those moves of the dancers they had gone up against in the AM, they called before noon with news they’d land at Newark Airport and then be at my place around 8 PM this evening. Both my girlfriends were exhausted and crestfallen. Y blamed herself for the loss. She also had developed a cough since the night before. I told them I’d have dinner waiting when they got here and to hurry home to me.
Prior to 7 PM, there was another call from them. Their plane was still in the air. The cabin crew had said there’d be more unforeseen delays and that everyone aboard should remain in their seats and stay buckled up. Twice more they phoned. During that third call, they said a few passengers on their flight had begun getting quite sick. Those infirmed were exhibiting flu-like symptoms. There was even an unconfirmed rumor circulating aboard the aircraft that one traveler had coughed up blood.
The next communication came after 8 PM. The plane had finally been cleared for landing and was on the ground. But no one was allowed to disembark. When the jet’s doors eventually opened, the craft was boarded by more than a half-dozen men in hazmat suits, one of whom reiterated the command for all to stay seated. One by one each of the ticketed fliers’ temperature was taken and a sample was swabbed from the nostril of that flier’s choice. Y was among more than a dozen on the flight who tested positive for the Covid virus.
While V and I were both fully vaccinated, Y had chosen not to get jabbed. Claiming that her youth, healthy physical condition, and diet were sufficient in providing all the immunity necessary, she assumed she’d be okay, I guess. Well, guess again. V was the one who called to update me on this latest news. She was still feeling fine and told me they’d decided it’d be best if they went straight to her apartment in Jersey City instead of coming to my place as planned. They didn’t want to take a chance of infecting me with the illness, especially considering my advanced age.
So, for the next ten days, V nursed Y. Her patient only displayed milder symptoms of the sickness, so that’s something to be thankful for. Another reason to feel grateful was neither V nor I caught the virus. During the time they were gone, I’d decided to surprise them when they returned by booking our trio a trip to Jamaica for the upcoming holidays. If you recall, it was totally my fault our Thanksgiving Jamaican plans had fallen through. Well, I now had a valid, renewed passport, as well as a will to travel. I had planned – and again God giggled like a hyena after a huge hit of laughing gas.
Our vacation curse had yet to be broken. One more trip not traveled. A few more flights we never flew. And another sandy road not walked. Little did any of us realize that outside of my neighborhood, or their hoods in JC or BK, the three of us would never be together with one another anywhere else in the world. I imagine it was neither in our stars nor in the hand of cards we’d been dealt.