01: A Month By the Sea

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I’d done this drive in 1998 in reverse, the Verrazano Bridge looming over my yellow Hertz cube truck. My best friend and I were 24, cheering and lighting smokes as Brooklyn (and Manhattan in the distance!) faded in from the background like a videogame showing you where to go next, a new level full of new adventure.

But this time it was reversed, with Lilli and I in a red rental minivan containing all of our worldly possessions. It was the day before Halloween. We rode up and over and past the Bridge cackling like criminals as Brooklyn fell away behind us, all tensions and stresses and letdowns left there for someone else like a fart in an elevator. The sky opened around us as the minivan crossed high over the Hudson, blue and clear: this was freedom, this was escape, this was where our fucking movie starts. Outside the van, a whole nation stretched down the eastern seaboard from chilly dank Brooklyn all the way to sunny Florida, to orange juice and boat shoes and confused (even concerned) Jewish parents.

This was Lil’s first time passing through “regular America,” so with our old cat bookended between ass cheek on the bucket seat between us, we watched this land reveal herself to us. Industrial Newark became the beautiful Garden State which became just open road. Architecture got older the further we went, towns opened into forests and rivers. We listened mostly to AM radio, feeling the cultural subspace changing with the trees as we drove through it, a slow morph from urban to pop to Christian. There were places we wanted to stop and linger (like Baltimore or Savannah) but we had a schedule to keep and miles to go yet... and a plan which I’ve not explained to you yet.

In preparation for the departure, we got rid of 85% of what we owned, gifted away loved things and sold all my antique wood furniture, all in order to leave the United States. Step one was us leaving New York City in that red minivan, driving down to Florida to take a month to decompress by the sea and say goodbye to my family at our Thanksgiving reunion, then we’d fly down to São Paulo, Brazil where Lil’s family waited to receive us with anticipation approaching pee-pee pants. The plan was to do what we do in São Paulo that we did in Brooklyn for three to six months while applying for our permanent residence in Canada; according to friends, applications filed from Brazil take half the time they take if filed from the States. So, a few months of working on my comics from any goddamn desk in Brazil is the same as any other goddamn desk in New York or Barcelona or Hong Kong. I’d been to Brazil twice before and it seemed like a brilliant palate-cleanse before whatever came Next.

Via Craiglist, I’d booked us an oasis waiting at the other side of I-95 South: a kitschy little seaside motel unironically called The Sunshine Inn. Built in the fifties, it sat half a block from the ocean in the locals-only neighborhood of Dania Beach, a hidden gem of seven one-block streets flanked on either side by nature preserves, the ocean to the east and intracoastal canal and tiki bars behind. Five minutes off the expressway, ten minutes from my mom or dad, it was the perfect slice of sandy silence to decompress in, get ourselves right for the approaching Grand Gesture.

Stopping midway to crash at my cousin’s house in Norfolk, Virginia for the night, we were greeted everywhere by pink-skinned, fat-faced workers. My adorably-racist wife said people here looked like they were made of ham. We hit the road again in at dawn, determined to blow straight through to Miami. We stopped for a hour in Savannah, Georgia only to get lost looking for a proper restaurant to eat in, but by then it was Halloween and everything was full or closed. Juicing up on Red Bull, we drove through the night down I-95, arriving at my mother’s apartment in Fort Lauderdale just after 2am and flopping down on her orange couch in a puddle for a few hours before check-in at the Sunshine.

A few hours later, the minivan pulled up in front of The Sunshine Inn; there was a fountain out with a cement dolphin squirting water, ringed by conch shells. The proprietor was an uncomfortable old gal who could not for the life of her figure out how her credit card machine functioned while we stood sweating in her sweltering apartment, her old veteran of a husband glaring at my wife’s Asian face from his couch like he recognized her from the Pacific theater. On either side of him, his hands stroked twin white poodles with brown stains under their leaky eyes. Eventually, her computer made that modem sound I’d not heard in years and then the credit card machine beeped happily and the keys were handed to me on a giant plastic keychain with our unit number writ large.

Our new home-for-a-month was tiny and kitschy, smelled a little of mildew, and had a gorgeous veteran’s-hospital-green tiled bathroom that was clearly original.  The door had a single lock on it that separated everything I owned in this world (including my essential laptop & Cintiq, without which the Big Move was dead in the water) from the wild animals of South Florida’s underbelly. We put our stuff down and walked over to Jimbo’s tiki bar where most of the leathery seniors dancing on the back porch to a classic rock cover band had arrived by boat. Ordering fresh-off-Davey’s-boat mahi-mahi sandwiches and plastic cups of cold Bud Light, we idled there, lullabied by hungry seagulls until the sun sank behind the mangrove forest on the far side of the intracoastal. I was back in Florida all right, for better or for worse. We went back to the room, cranked the A/C, and curled up into a two-and-a-cat ball on the bed. Sleep fell on us like a hammer.

Waking with the dawn, we sat on the empty beach listening to nothing but the waves, watching flocks of tiny sandpipers speeding into and out of the surf as they picked at seashells for bits for food. By lunchtime, we’d put groceries in the fridge, a bowl of fruit on the counters and my drawing station was set up at the kitchen table. And just like that, the Sunshine was Home.

From the here and now, I remember which pages I drew there, but I shot very few photos or videos. That month on Dania Beach wasn’t about capturing those moments... it was about letting go of everything else.

As the departure date got closer, there were errands to be done: final purchases, travel certifications from the veterinarian, multiple visits to the Brazilian embassy for my visa. Every day started at sunrise on that beach... and most ending there too.

Eventually my whole family rolled into Florida from all points continental for Thanksgiving; we do it every year and this year my dad had rented a big house for the out-of-towners to crash at. None of my aunts or cousins even knew we were leaving the States until we told them; they were flabbergasted and excited and maybe a little envious. Once we’d explained the reasons, the dissatisfactions, the desire for something simpler and healthier, the room tone mellowed... but it was my parents who kept asking what our “long-term plan” was.

There wasn’t one. Maybe Canada, maybe not. We wanted the change, the break.

That made the goodbyes abstract and uncomfortable, when everyone else went back to their lives... and us destroying ours to create a totally new one.

Our last night at the Sunshine involved some takeout containers eaten on our (yes, our) beach, late at night with still more packing yet to go and a Super Shuttle coming to collect us at 3:45am. There were no streetlights on Dania Beach, and everything we could see was lit by a massive orange moon hanging  low over us like a giant piece of citrus, so close we could touch it. Having never seen anything like it, Lil asked me if it was a harvest moon, but I shook my head.

It’s a farewell moon, I told her.

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