I know him as ”John”. He knows me as Dr. Archer. He is 60. I haven’t seen him in about 6 years and the time has worn him poorly. He sits, slouched, unshaven, plastic sandals and nails uncut. He can’t reach them. He has a hernia, needs a colonoscopy for bleeding from his bottom. Mostly though he says he doesn’t know if its worth it because he doesn’t want to live. I ask if he wants to die. No. And he doesn’t want to live. He isn’t living. Everyday is the same monotony for him and his wife and the cat. They live at the Holiday Motel.
I reel back to 1971 when my family took the trip to California and the dream of the west was born in me. We traveled in the Ford station wagon from Corpus Christi to San Francisco. My brother and I sat facing each other in the back of the wagon, the jump seats the station wagons had back then. He was 11. I was 7. My sisters, ten years older and a year a part from each other in the middle seat. My brother sang ”I don’t want a pickle, I just want to ride my motorsickle” endlessly. He sang more when I begged him to stop. He and I watched to the black blotches of rubber lobbing off behind the car in Arizona, asphalt griddle, wondering what those black things were…and then the tire blew. Basically melted off the steel belted radials.
Every night we pulled in to a travel lodge of some sort, mostly like the Holiday Motel. Had to have a pool so that my mom could pour our pent adrenaline into the absorbing, diluting water. Otherwise it would be chaos. Plus it was a million tire-melting degrees. These hotels were clean, full of families on vacations. The rooms were crisp sheets, fake wood paneled, and a working ice machine. My sister taught me to swim on that trip and, like all my siblings, I took to the water well after the initial terror of having my head under water.
We made our way along the California coast. My brother drank in the waves. He became a surfer on that trip even though he did not touch a board. There is a picture of him and me looking at the rip tide going out at sunset at Surfside, CA near Huntington Beach. I remember it. We were out there alone, seeing the sun fall in to western water for the first time and he looked at me and said: I am coming back. I will live here. And he did.
We made it to San Francisco and China Town. We discovered Chinese plums, which my brother and I ate literal quart bags of. They were incredibly sour and yummy. We each got little wooden boxes with secret panels to slide to reveal a wooden lever to open the box. Had that until I lost it in college. I was afraid my mom really was going to trade me in for a nice Chinese boy like she had been saying for years. I was able to tell her I was afraid of that and she told me she never would do that and that she loved me more than anything. I felt better again right away. It was a great, crazy, classic American road trip.
I looked up and John was tearing up. We had sat in silence for a minute or so. Coming to see me was a really big deal for him that day. Just getting out of there, away from the microwave and the pop tarts and the single burner and the ridiculous maid service that keeps the room filthy. He said it felt good just to move a little. I made sure to schedule all his tests one at a time, and made sure he had more appointments. I teared up too. I put my hand on his arm and told him I was glad he came back for a visit and I looked forward to seeing him next week.
Bend, OR, 2010. Nikon D700, natural light