By Don Millard
I was ready to get out of Florida just as fast as my car would take me–which wasn’t all that fast–even though it was a 1986 Toyota MR2. I say this
My version of Munch's The Kiss
because my vehicle was only slightly more roadworthy than the one John Candy was driving near the end of ‘Planes, Trains & Automobiles.’ The hood was held down by a coat hanger, and the windshield was smashed, but hey, the radio worked great. It was just the kind of a vehicle you’d want for a 1300 mile journey.
Only a few months before I’d let the comic Frankie Bastille (who I knew didn’t have a driver’s license) drive my car to get some cigarettes. On the way back, the hood had flown up into the windshield. Luckily, Frankie was almost back to the comedy condo and managed to drive the rest of the way back by sticking his head out the window as he drove. The only insurance I had on the car at the time was collision, but that didn’t cover a collision of my hood to my own windshield. It’s always something.
I was a smoker now and trip was fueled by Marlboro Mediums and a deep desire to put Florida in my rear view mirror, even if that meant risking my hood flying back up into the windshield again and killing me.
I stayed in the right hand lane on the highway, of course. Still, every time a big truck passed me, I’d get even further toward the side of the road to escape the wind draft of the rigs that caused my hood to flop up and down even more than usual. Even so, I made pretty good time and my mood improved with every miles that brought me closer to my hometown.
I remember that it was when I hit Virginia that I really started to smile. This is because Virginia was the first state that looked like home, what with its real trees of maple and oak. Those trees were just about the most beautiful things I ever saw and I wondered why I or anyone would leave this gorgeous sprawl for palm and pine trees, not to mention Palmetto bugs, (turbo sized roaches) and fire ants. Oh yeah, WINTER. Even so, Florida is basically just a swamp with buildings. Ugh.
I drove straight through, stopping only for gas or going to the bathroom, and had a sandwich in Virginia. I left my father’s driveway in Cape Coral, Florida around 6:00 pm and pulled into Pete’s driveway in Clinton, Connecticut around 9:00 pm the next night. I was HOME.
Pete had just made some barbecue chicken and I dug in, eating my first real meal in 27 hours.This isn’t going to be so bad, I thought. I got a roof over my head and food to eat… This chicken dinner, however, would be about the last decent meal we had until Thanksgiving. Pete was making pretty good money as a lab manager for Lenscrafters, but his funds had taken a serious hit due to his recent legal bills and talking over the monthly household bills now that his parents and brother had moved to Cape Coral.
Still, it was great to touch the green, green grass of home. Despite my health nightmare, there was a comfort in just being home. I was in a better frame of mind and it was great to see some of my old friends again; some of whom had no idea what had really happened to me in Florida. I’d also forgotten just how beautiful Connecticut is in the summer.
Now that I was home, there was one person in particular that I wanted to see. But in order to visit her, I had to go to St. Mary’s Cemetery. I couldn’t help but cry as I stood at my mother’s grave and told her how much I missed her. I told her all about what happened to me and how I wished I was in the ground, too, rather than having to live with some horrible mystery disease.
There was one person in particular who wanted to see me now that I was back home, and that was my old girlfriend whom I’d left to move to Florida. Her name was Jennifer, and she was already a very talented artist. We’d met just a few months before it was time to go to Florida. We had kept in touch sporadically in the last two years and she knew I was coming back to Connecticut for a bit. I called her when I got in to let her know I was back in town. She wanted to see me and it was only a few days later that she was at my door.
Jennifer was a very pretty girl who kind of looked like a young Diane Canon. The last time I talked with her, however, she’d told me she had not only gotten her nose pierced, but she’d also got a nose ring. All I could think of was National Geographic. I hadn’t told her anything about what had physically happened to me, and I wondered if she would notice. As we exchanged greetings and I let her in the door, the first thing she said to me was: “Your face looks different.”
Guess she was in a delusion, too, huh?
But she looked different, too. She had cut her beautiful, long curly hair shockingly short and was now sporting the very nose ring she’d told me about more than a year ago. It was like she’d negated her whole femininity. But who was I to talk? I had shrunk to death. During her visit, it was all I could do not to look at her nose ring. It was like that Cheech & Chong movie where Chong says to Tom Skerrit, “No, man, I wasn’t looking at your neck.”
Pretty soon after this, Pete officially lost his driver’s license and I took over the driving full time, which included taking to and from work nearly every day. The commute was outrageous, as the Lenscrafters he now worked at was nearly an hour away. My poor, smashed up car was on the road and highway all the time. How we never got pulled over was truly a miracle. One day Pete told me that as I was dropping him off for work, his supervisor saw my car and said, “It looks like somebody died in that car.” I’m sure he had no idea of just how apt that description was.
One day, I was dropping Pete off to work, I ventured inside the mall and into a bookstore. While I was browsing, I noticed a book on Vincent Van Gogh in the bargain bin. The book was large, but rather thin, but it had a nice selection of color plates of many of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings. I’d always admired Vincent’s paintings and of course knew about his tortured life. I had stood transfixed at the Yale University Art Gallery a few years before when I first saw his incredible painting ‘The Night Cafe.’ This still is the greatest painting I’ve ever seen in person and it even towers above all the other amazing paintings in that gallery. I had similar feelings when I first saw Vincent’s painting of his chair at the National Gallery in London in 1985. It looked like he’d used actual straw in the painting because of the thickness of the paint on canvas. I never imagined a simple chair could be so mesmerizing! Pure genius. And now, perhaps because of what had happened to me, these paintings spoke to me even more.
I bought the book, never imagining it would change my life.
I’d done artwork off and on since I was a child, mind you, but I hadn’t drawn or painted since my health nightmare struck. It was the last thing in the world I felt like doing and didn’t even know if I still could, anyway. In a way, I was afraid to find out. But being home, being around some of my old friends again seemed to make life a little less mean and brutish. Then one evening as I was by myself, I decided to try and do a quick pencil sketch of a Van Gogh self-portrait. I remember I just had an ordinary pencil and didn’t have an eraser, so whatever marks I made I’d be stuck with. To my surprise and joy, the
First Van Gogh drawing: Self-Portrait
drawing turned out pretty well. I now knew that this evil disease hadn’t also taken my artistic talent from me! I can’t express what a victory that was to me. Also, and just as important, the act of drawing had freed me from my body for a few glorious hours and I felt like I was me again. Thank you, Vincent.
Before I knew it, I was buying some real drawing pencils, erasers and a sketch pad. I suddenly found myself doing my own versions of my favorite Van Gogh paintings and now using colored pencils to try and duplicate Vincent’s amazing use of color. For the first time since September of 1989, it felt like a little bit of color had come back into my life.
I threw myself into my art as late summer turned to fall. By the end of the year, I would complete about 8 colored pencil drawings of Van Gogh paintings. I also picked up a few hours at the local supermarket I’d worked at years before. I would work a few hours at the store in between picking Pete up from work or on days he was off.
But there certainly wasn’t much color in our life in the shoebox trailer. We were nearly always broke and almost always hungry. Our refrigerator mainly consisted of mustard and the light bulb. I remember one day especially. I’d just gotten back from taking Pete to work and was starving. I looked in the cupboard and the only thing in there was a can of beets that had probably been out of date since before the ‘Challenger’ blew up. I also seem to remember one evening Pete and I shared a meal of bread and vodka. Everything was breaking, too. At one point even the kitchen sink clogged and we started putting our dirty pots and pans in the bathtub.
Despite these trails and tribulations, this was still a million times better than being sick and all alone in my roomy apartment in Florida. I remember writing “Cape Coral Sucks” on my refrigerator in red body paint that some girl I’d met at the club had brought over one evening and tried to paint me with. My realtor loved that one.
Somehow, Pete and I survived it all and still got along. As bad as it got, we could always laugh. I guess that’s why we’ve been best friends since 4th grade.
By now it was nearly Christmas and time for Pete and I to drive my car all the way back to Florida again to spend the holidays with our families. For Pete that meant his parents and older brother; for me that meant my Dad and his horrible new wife whom everyone hated.
It took us nearly a day and a half to maneuver the MR2 back to Florida. At least my hood was a little more secure this time around. A few months before, we had just gotten on the highway when suddenly that heroic little coat hanger gave out, and the hood flew up into the windshield again, obscuring our visibility just a tad. Luckily, we were right near the highway McDonalds, so we were able to pull off the highway. Once in the parking lot, we found a guy who had some sturdy moving rope and he tied the hood down with that. From then on, we were good to go. Believe it or not, about 4 years later, Pete would own an MR2 and his hood would fly into his windshield. There’s a defect in the hood latch, and this has happened to others who had this car as well.
It was good to be back in Florida this time because I was visiting, not going back to live there. The past 6 months in the trailer had been a rough, crazy adventure, but I felt like I had something to show for it all. I was an artist again and even brought some of the Van Gogh drawings with me to show my Dad. The balmy, warm weather we were now enjoying was kind of like a reward for surviving it all. It was good to take a break from the first New England winter I’d been exposed to since 1988.
Hell, this Christmas was already light years better than the previous one. That year my Dad spent the holidays up in Tampa with his new wife and her son’s family. I spent that Christmas alone in my father’s house watching Christmas movies and crying. I wasn’t crying because I was alone on Christmas Eve; I was crying because I knew the reason I was all alone was because I was sick. Ho Ho Ho. If there’s a deeper hurt than that, I don’t know of it. That night, I cried out to my Mother and begged her to have a with that Jesus of hers and tell him to please him to please release me from this Judas body.
The only Christmas miracle for me that year was that I didn’t drank DRANO. Maybe an angel gets its wings every time I don’t ingest cleaning fluid.
But this Christmas time I was sitting at a bar with my best friend and his brother, listening to rock ‘n roll, drinking beer, and staring out at the Gulf of Mexico. We were all enjoying the beer and the sun, as we laughed about the last time we’d tried to go jogging in Connecticut.
Before I’d moved to Florida, Pete and I had become pretty serious joggers for a summer or two. We got to where we could jog for miles without getting winded. As we were now cramped in the trailer with zero cash, we decided to try to get back into jogging, if we could. We even had fantasies about entering the New York City Marathon that year. We had gone out a few times and were trying to get back into shape, or at least approach that state in some fashion. On this particular fateful night, we decided to try out a new area. It was in the fall, so it got dark early and we headed to a secluded road a good ways away from home, but still in town. As we parked and got out of the car, I crushed out my cigarette, and we began to do some stretching exercises before starting our run. As we were doing this, Pete winced in pain and starting getting hit with terrible gas pains. He figured it would pass, so were standing around when Pete suddenly groaned again. The next thing I knew, he was running over behind a tree in some guy’s front yard and I soon heard something hitting the ground with great force. He reappeared a few minutes later, saying, “Let’s get out of here, Don!” We jumped back into the car and got out of there. On the way back home, Pete told me he had taken a shit on the somebodies front lawn and then wiped his ass with the guy’s Sunday paper. Shit happens.
As we were laughing about our crazy adventures, Pete got up and approached two girls who were sitting nearby. He gave them his camera and asked them if they would take our picture. After snapping off a few pictures of us in the usual obnoxious beer drinking poses, we invited the two girls to join us. They did so. The two girls, Darla & Helena, it turns out, were from Canada. We had a good time with them, making the kind of goofy small talk you make when you’re in a pack. We told them maybe we’d all run into each other again. We did run into them again a day or two later on the beach and then agreed to meet a club later that evening.
At the club I noticed that Helena, the blond, was kind of cute. Darla, the one with black hair, on the other hand, was kind of annoying, I’m sure the fact that Darla was chunky and not that attractive had absolutely NOTHING to do with why we thought she was annoying.
Although Pete had drove down to Florida with me, he would be driving his brother’s car back to Connecticut the day after New Year’s. Pete’s folks and older brother, after only one year, had come to the conclusion that Cape Coral sucked, too. I don’t think they wrote it on their refrigerator, but they had had enough and were selling their beautiful new home with a pool and situated on a lake to move back into the shoebox trailer. That’s how much THEY hated Florida now. Thus my days of having a place to live in my hometown were numbered. They planned to be back by the end of January.
After New Year’s Day, it so happened that Helena and I would be the only ones still in Florida on vacation. We had exchanged numbers and planned to get together sometime before we both headed North. Just for something to do.
This was my frame of mind when I met Helena again at the little outside bar by the sea where we’d all first run into each other. As we drank and ate, we began to talk and talk and talk. It was like a revelation. I realized that before me was an interesting, funny, and intelligent creature who bore no resemblance to my first impression of her. Now, instead of being cute, I noticed that she was pretty and that it wasn’t the beer. Her slight British accent didn’t hurt, either. Although she was from Canada, Helena was actually Dutch. Compared to most American girls, she was a breast of fresh air.
As we parted that afternoon, I invited her out to the movies the next evening. I picked her up the next evening at the trailer court she was staying at near the beach. She was visiting her parents, who spent the winters there. Her folks were a charming old world couple and her Dad made his own wine, which he had me sample before we left. I’m not a big wine drinker, but it was quite good.
Since Helena was from another country, I thought I’d expose her to a specifically American film, so naturally I took her to see Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK.’ After all, what’s more American than a good ol’ conspiracy theory?
Though I knew much of the film was conjecture presented as history, it was still very compelling and brilliantly put together. As we sat there watching, I could relate to Kevin Costner’s character’s epic, lonely battle to get people to believe him. About halfway through the movie I reached for and held Helena’s hand. I didn’t know how she’d react, but I did it, anyway. She squeezed my hand and now we were holding hands. Can I pick the perfect date movie or what? Eat your heart out, George Clooney.
We held hands for the rest of the movie, and as you know if you’ve ever seen ‘JFK’, it’s a LONG movie.
When the movie was over, we went back to my little car and talked about the film and how we felt about it.
After about twenty minutes of deep conversation, the voice in my head said, “Kiss her, you fool.” So I did. And she kissed back. You could have smoked an entire cigarette before we broke our first kiss. Soon we were in a very passionate embrace. I started the car and soon pulled into a small parking lot behind the one millionth strip mall in Florida and we picked up where we’d left off… If you’re going to have sex in a car, let’s just say a Toyota MR2 is not the ideal choice. Still, we were doing our best under the circumstances and were just about to become one when a search light from a police car passed over us and the back parking lot.
“Oh, shit!” Helena exclaimed, pulling up her pants while I tried to crawl back into the driver’s seat. I started the car again and we get out of there. We both couldn’t help but laugh about it as I drove her back to her parents’ trailer court. We kissed goodnight, and as I was driving home, I cursed the size of my car.
I picked Helena up the next day brought her over to my Dad’s house for lunch and a swim. I showed her some of the Van Gogh drawings I’d done and she liked them very much. After getting out of the pool, I put a towel and my arms around Helena.
“I have somebody back home…” she said, her voice trailing off.
“I know,” I said.
Neither one of us said another word as I took her by the hand, led her back into the house, and into my old bedroom. Since we weren’t in an MR2 this time, we soon became one over and over again. When we both finished, I didn’t feel empty inside this time. This had meant something and that made all the difference.
We spent our remaining days together, seeing the sights and making love when we could. The night before she was to leave for Canada, we held hands and took a long walk. Even though she lived in Canada, she lived near Toronto, and that wasn’t a million miles away from Connecticut. She told me she had a lot of thinking to do when she got back home and would write soon. I may have been a hopeless romantic, but I knew something very real and very special had happened between us. I was determined to follow my heart and not let my medical issues dictate my choices. I was trying to accept my illness and still live my life, anyway. I was trying to learn to live in the moment again.
My heart told me I’d see Helena again.