I was sitting shotgun in his Silverado. The second manicure I’d ever had was fresh, as was the ID in my wallet. Every twenty minutes I anxiously consulted my Map Quest print out, trying to match mile marker to its appropriate step of my plan. We only brought the most important items we owned, some still new in their boxes dotted with bits of scotch tape that held the wrappings of congratulations!, giving away the newness of our life together. One of those items was a rather large Mr. Coffee. I didn’t understand how this made the cut, I didn’t drink coffee, nor did I understand its dear importance. But he said it was important, so there it sat behind us, a silent bystander of a 1200-mile drive that started in Orlando.
The first stop we made was Savannah. When we walked into the lobby of the Hampton Inn on East Bay Street, I thought wow, a girl could get used to this. I remember a glistening chandelier, iced water, and the cleanest whitest linens I had ever experienced. We didn’t see much of the hotel, we found ourselves giddy with the delight of exploring a new city, especially one that seemed to hold such beauty and possibility.
That night we sat on the deck of the Chart House, a dark and sophisticated restaurant, but with a marlin on the wall. I had never been to such a place. We started into the business of ordering every possible sea creature and a wonderful bottle of Chardonnay something. I have no idea what our conversation was, but I remember the feeling of possibility. I remember the feeling of wondering, can I be here? Is this okay? I remember trusting the man behind those brown/hazel/golden eyes and not really realizing what saying YES had meant. I remember boats and shipping vessels and a quiet sunset on the magnificent Savannah River.
The biggest mistake I made that night was getting a TO GO box. Seafood anything should never be taken TO GO when you don’t have a house with a real refrigerator to go (back) to. We had a cooler and ice from the hotel vending area. But we were new, and I’m pretty sure he was being polite by not telling me this was the worst idea ever. He put my TO GO box in his cooler and I closed it up, promising to eat it for lunch the next day when we stopped. Well I didn’t eat it for lunch the next day. I didn’t eat it the day after that. In fact, no one opened the cooler until three days later. Three sunny days later we would open that little cooler. I know that I opened it first and almost threw up. I also know that I closed the lid real quick and pretended like I didn’t just do that while waving my hands frantically to get that smell out of the air. I also know that I tried not to look when he went to open it up. I saw him gag, but he didn’t say a thing. He just picked up the whole thing, left the room and came back without it. Five long minutes later all he said was, “Hey babe. Let’s not save any more seafood from restaurants, okay?” Weird. I definitely would have expected more of an upset from that. I remember thinking marriage was easy.
The day after we left Savannah I found myself at an Orioles game with my husband and his cousin. I kept reminding myself that this trip, was in fact, not our honeymoon, and that being at a baseball game with his cousin was OK, because this was not our honeymoon. I repeated that a lot that day. But because his cousin was there, I have a really neat picture together with my husband that shows just how happy I was to be so newly married. J also looks really happy, but I won’t ever be certain if it was because we were newly married or because we were at Camden Yards, my money is on Camden Yards. It was also a night game, which is the only reason I agreed to go in the first place. If I’m going to do something like watch baseball, I don’t want to have to pretend to watch baseball while being hot. That’s just madness. I don’t remember much else from that night. I have no idea who the O’s were playing or if the O’s won. I remember taking that one picture, eating a hot dog, and trying on a crab hat in the gift shop.
After Baltimore, the last leg of our trip was to drive to Groton. I remember the bridge over the Thames River and driving into town thinking this place was really exciting. A huge red GROTON INN sign greeted us at the exit. I would later use this sign to help me navigate around a town I felt was much larger than it actually was. I remember seeing a Taco Bell and the Chinese Kitchen and thinking, what other food could one possibly need? I remember using my new ID for the first time, handing it over like it was a newborn child to the guy at the Pass & ID office. That was the first time I heard J tell someone he was my sponsor. It sparked in me a tiny irritation, that I should need sponsoring. I remember driving around the submarine base. Every building looked to be the same only with a different number or letter. I remember thinking I would never feel comfort in this place nor could this ever feel like home, being grateful our stay was only for three short months, and yet so happy just to be anywhere with this man.
The Groton Chalet sat up on a hill, and reminded me not of a hotel, but of a place where you could perhaps build your own Frankenstein or stay in a real life haunted mansion. The inside seemed tidy, not clean. I remember looking at a picture of our room three years later and wondering how did I not cry? But I didn’t cry, not at first. It had a full size bed with a brownish comforter. One long-ish dresser. One chair. There must have been a mini-fridge, but I can’t say for certain. I remember happily arranging (not necessarily unpacking) all our worldly possessions, setting up Mr. Coffee, and shoving suitcases in the space between the wall and the bed, leaving it impossible to actually roll out of bed on that side.
The next morning, at 6 am, reveille burst through a speaker right outside our window, followed by the national anthem, and I almost peed on myself. Laughing hysterically was my husband. He was fully dressed, drinking coffee and watching Fox News. I was so confused. He kissed my head and told me he’d be back for me at lunchtime. As soon as he left I tried vainly to go back to sleep, which was impossible now that the smell of coffee had permeated the room. I quickly switched the channel from Fox News to Good Morning America. I think I watched the entirety of GMA, Live! With Regis & Kathy Lee, and it wasn’t until halfway through the Price is Right that I realized it was almost time for lunch and I hadn’t even showered.
This little routine went on for a week. The next Monday, J asked me if I could make his coffee, since the reveille woke me up anyways. I had never made coffee. How does one make coffee? How does a filter work? Where does it go? How much coffee stuff do I put in there anyways? I feel like I’m doing this wrong, this is too much pressure. I am doing this wrong. He assured me, I was in fact capable of figuring it out. I told him he didn’t really need coffee. That was our first fight.
Our second fight was when he told me to stop switching the news to GMA when he was in the shower. I told him I wasn’t giving up my news show for him. He told me GMA is not, never has, never will be, the news. I told him I would change the channel as soon as he left. He said, I’m leaving now.
That’s not true, well not in the: I’M LEAVING! sort of way. He did leave, but in the, I’m going to be late for work if I don’t leave now, sort of way.
I did watch GMA as soon as he left, but when the segment that came on was, “Which Winter Coat Best Fits Your Body Shape?” I started to think he might have a point.
The next morning I asked J a big favor. I wanted to borrow his truck. To drive it. To a place that wasn’t the Groton Chalet. I hadn’t been anywhere without him since we had been married, and I wanted to GO somewhere. But I was scared. I didn’t know how to drive his truck. It definitely still felt like his truck, not ours, and I was scared of ruining it. I also didn’t know how to drive on a navy base, there seemed to be additional rules, which were of course not posted, but required. I didn’t have Map Quest directions. I was scared.
So I drove his truck. I took the road just outside base and only made one right turn. I drove until it felt like I shouldn’t be driving any more (which in reality was only about five miles). I found the post office, a Dunkin Donuts, and a temp agency. I didn’t go inside any of these places; that would have required trying to park, but it felt so good to be outside.
That afternoon I had J drive me back to the temp agency. An hour later I had a job:
Groton Parks & Recreation, Secretary.
The job was perfect. It got me out of the Groton Chalet. I could stop pretending to understand the Spanish channel that I watched with the maid service when they cleaned our room. I learned to park J’s truck. We had a little extra spending money. This was the most exciting part.
There was no kitchen in our room. There was no real kitchen in the Groton Chalet. The only thing I could cook with was one of those little pots you could plug into the wall and talk to, begging it to boil your water. We ate packets of noodle meals and Banquet frozen dinners for a month before I found my sweet gig at the Parks & Recs Dept. Every night we would walk from the Groton Chalet, to the commissary, pick out our frozen meals, walk back to the Chalet, heat them up, and talk about our plans for our lives. I was in heaven, minus the banquet meals. I can’t even walk down the frozen food aisle any more, that’s the kind of damage eating Banquet meals for a month can do.
After I started working we felt more comfortable going out into the world. I remember being invited (well J being invited) to a nearby casino. I didn’t want to go, but by this time I would go anywhere that wasn’t the Chalet. So I did what any newly wed would do, I went to be polite. I have negative interest in gambling. But the casino was a haven for people watching. Once I got tired with that, I would find a comfy chair to read while J watched his friends gamble. Only once did I bring my LSAT study/prep books. Only once. Although J might argue it was more. I also only once brought them to a bar while he watched football, well maybe twice.
After three months of Groton I was tired. I was tired of the reveille speaker directly outside our window. I was tired of reading books at the casino. I was tired of walking to the commissary for banquet meals. I was tired of burning noodles in my plug-in pot. I was tired of trying to sleep in a full bed. I was tired of being the only wife that decided to go to Groton with her husband. I was tired of the tiny room that made me wonder about this military life and where it would lead us. I was tired of wondering where we would end up next, hoping with all my might it was better than this. I was tired of keeping all this to myself, my tiny pity party that celebrated disappointment.
The day J finished his training we had to be out of the room by 10 am. J of course had things to do all over base and couldn’t help me. Not a problem, other than the blizzard that had just started outside. An actual blizzard, the type with swirling snow that hurt your eyeballs. I managed to pack our truck, then sat myself in the lobby of the Chalet watched the weather channel and cried. All I wanted to do was leave.
At noon my husband found me and promised me we would leave. And we did. We drove off base, forging our way while the blizzard blew all around, never having driven in snow much less a blizzard, and we went half a mile outside base to a gas station. We sat there for two hours until the storm passed. It didn’t matter. We were one step closer to leaving Groton. We didn’t have anything to get the snow off the windows, so we used a credit card until someone told us to go inside and buy a scraper. J came back with a scraper and gummy worms. As I opened the gummy worms, the storm seemed to break. The sun greeted us, welcoming us away from Groton, down I-95, and onwards to the first day of the rest of our lives.
Moonlight and snow sheathed Groton from our harsh judgments as we drove into town again five years later. Morning, however, was quick and happy to reveal the city in its truth. The large red GROTON INN sign remained unchanged in its perpetual state of weatheredness, as was the Taco Bell and Chinese Kitchen. The distance I had hesitated to travel here as a newlywed seemed short and un-confusing. The sub base remained a rhinoceros: large, grey, obtrusive, ornery. I still didn’t like driving on it, but I did. The air carried a collective sadness, and pushed it out to the river, allowing in its place just newer sorrows. The city seemed to change only through its transient inhabitants, the rest remaining in a purgatory of service to those unending patrons.
This time, we spent no time at the Groton Chalet. We drove slowly past and remembered the good and the bad, making jokes about it being marriage boot camp. We visited the commissary with a budget that enabled us to thankfully skip the Banquet frozen meal section. Our stay here would be a little longer, six months. But we had navy housing just outside base, complete with a full sized refrigerator. We also had a little boy, not yet a year old. We had that renewed excitement, anticipation, hope even, for what was in store, not for our time in this place, but again for our time beyond.
We finally decided to explore our forced home. We found cider and home made ice cream. We found a restaurant snuggled away behind unassuming industrial buildings that sold the best lobster bisque we had ever tasted. We found a pasta shop to which all future Italian meals would be measured. Six months passed thankfully quickly and we found ourselves once again packing up Mr. Coffee, our dreams, and heading out. There were tears this time, but of the bittersweet variety, mostly due to leaving the home where our son took his first steps and saying goodbye to those military friends that make this life bearable, exciting even.
I now have a small sentiment for all things Groton-esque, for the local spots we uncovered that allow me fond memories of a place that forces our return. But the city itself makes me nervous because of its stillness. It seems to approve of its unkempt state, its edges in an eternal upturn like a library book borrowed, carried around, but not read. So much had happened in our time away from here, so much in the in-betweens. But each and every time I am here, I hope to be, not here. Deciding instead to navigate in a space of what’s to come and opportunities unknown. And yet Groton pulls me back, intent on teaching me a lesson I’ve ignored, the city continually mocking me through its stagnation.
I feel captive by this place, its function keeps my mind in a constant holding pattern of hoping for more, for better, for anything that isn’t this. I struggle to see the grace of the continued transitions, the churn they cause throughout, disrupting my need to know, understand, and approve of what might be next.
It had been two years since we had lived in Groton, and my irritation with our necessary return was tempered only by knowing it would be our final visit. This time, the weeks were full of impatience and unrest, my mind full of the familiar anticipation of something else, something better just out of reach.
We waited for our J, to collect him from Groton, out of its grasp, as though he was a prisoner being released after time served. When his paperwork was final he joined us in the car. We looked to each other, and then together out the window to the submarine at its pier as our son declared, “When I grow up, I want to work on a submarine too.” His statement made me pause and question this drastic choice/change that had just been finalized. As we glanced in the rearview mirror, this time seeing not one but, two little boys in the back seat, both with bright eyes and enormous smiles, I felt a much needed peace about our choice and the two main reasons for it.
J drove us alongside the Thames, over its bridge, and we left the submarine capital of the world in the distance, and our duty to it. I felt what could only be a wrinkle in time, and we were starting just as we had left almost ten years earlier. That all of THAT, that first time in Groton and all the in betweens, those times, were just to get us to this time, and this was really our beginning. I felt that newlywed giddiness all over again. I felt that wonderment of, can I really be here? Is this really ok? We are driving away from everything we have ever known and we have no idea where we are going.
A year later I found myself willingly headed back. Our boys now both walking talking beings with preferences and words to express them. We joined our J on a work trip, to have a little northeast adventure, and to visit friends who were still tethered to this place. But this time for us, no Groton Chalet, no navy housing, just a Hampton Inn on the outskirts of town. This Hampton Inn had no chandelier or ice water waiting. The sheets were white, but not crisp. It didn’t matter. This trip was not about the hotel, but the city, a city my boys had never experienced, and I had mostly ignored. It took eleven years, but we were finally here for Groton and nothing more.
We took ourselves to Avery Point. We walked its singular path. We saw fishermen on the rocks and ladies power walking. We saw couples picnicking with nothing more than a beloved bottle of wine. We saw a college kid giving his parents the tour, pretending to know everything about everything. We disturbed a woman lost in a good book.
Looking west we saw the gorgeous architecture of what my four year old insisted was a castle. He instinctively grabbed his brother’s hand and took advantage of its expansive lawn and just ran. His father instinctively took pictures. I instinctively turned to the coast. And instead of lingering within the horizon and absorbing its beauty, I closed my eyes to enjoy the stillness.
I took in a wonderfully fresh breath of what could have easily been mine for years and years. I gave the universe my apology as I exhaled. The moment only made sweeter by the laughter of two brothers, sons, and the feeling of my husband’s arms around my shoulders.
I opened my eyes and of course saw my ocean, inviting me so quickly to fill it with my dreams and expectations. But my eyes fixed instead on a lighthouse that dotted the coast, a home not yet in the horizon and yet still out of reach. I wondered how long it had lived in that space, in the
in-betweens, and who had made it, and why did it look like a home, when it was still so far from its shore. But there it remained, unwavering and intentional, consenting to its purpose so that others could continue on to find theirs.