“Where would you go?”
This exchange happened in October Sky, a movie that debuted almost two decades ago and starred a young Jake Gyllenhaal.
If it wasn’t for this movie, I’d likely have no idea where Myrtle Beach is. I’d probably go as far as guessing that it was an exotic locale somewhere in Cambodia.
Myrtle Beach took on a whole new meaning when my good friend Rick moved there last year. Suddenly I had an excuse to go visit this tourist-filled wonderland.
Rick and I met last year down in Florida, the land of Trump burgers and freedom fries.
We spent our weeknights rock climbing in St. Pete and our weekends chasing women at local dive bars with names like Tommy Knockers and the G Spot.
These places weren’t exactly my scene, but then again, nothing in Florida was my scene.
After a few months of dealing with sunburn and developing new muscles in my feet, Rick and I parted ways.
Our odyssey in Florida was coming to an end, courtesy of the crazed and importunate individual we both had the unfortunate experience of working under.
“I’ll see you later,” I told Rick during my last night in Florida.
Rick was sitting on a couch as I uttered these words, looking as peaceful as ever, like no matter what life threw at him he would be just fine.
Meanwhile, due to my own stupidity, I was a nervous wreck, anxious to get out of Florida and return to a state that had a better appreciation for my quirky personality.
“Someday, we’re going to have a drink and laugh about our time here,” Rick said, giving me a brief hug before I walked out the door of his bungalow and into the unknown.
“Hopefully soon,” I told Rick, but I was wrong.
Rick soon moved out of Florida and up to Myrtle Beach. I ran away to different states and different continents before finally finding a long weekend where I could book a flight to go see him.
Finally, I thought. It’s been too long.
“Now boarding flight 372 from MSP to Myrtle Beach,” announced a pleasant woman over the speakers at the airport.
I walked up to the line and patiently waited to board the plane.
“Do you have a mask?” an airline employee asked me after scanning my ticket.
“I have this,” I replied, holding up a loose-fitting long sleeve shirt.
The woman sighed. “Just make sure it covers your face throughout the whole flight,” she told me.
I walked a few more paces and then was tapped on the shoulder.
“Hey, you want a mask?” asked an old man closer to the end of life than the beginning.
“That’d be awesome,” I told him, and he handed me one of the seven loose masks sitting in his backpack.
With COVID in full swing, it was hard to believe this man was freely moving about the country.
“Why are you going to Myrtle Beach?” I asked.
“To see an old friend. It’s been too long,” he told me. “What about you?”
“Same,” I answered. “It’s definitely been too long.”
This being only a two-hour flight, I neglected to upgrade my seat, and was thus given a middle seat.
As I moved up the narrow aisle and found seat 24B, it was then that I decided if I hadn’t already contracted COVID, now was my time.
Seated in the aisle and window seats were two large women, so big that already their flabby forearms were congregating on the back of my chair.
Fortunately, they were talking to each other.
“You guys together?” I asked.
“Yes,” said the one in the aisle seat.
“I’m in the middle, but I was thinking you guys could sit next to each other, if you want,” I offered.
The two looked at each other and nodded in approval.
The woman in the aisle seat slid over one, and this left me with the coveted leg room I so desired.
Just when I thought I was in the clear, the woman from the aisle seat repositioned, and soon half her thigh was rubbing against my leg.
“Small seats,” I laughed, trying to be polite.
“Too small if you ask me,” the woman with more chins than personality responded.
A few minutes passed and already my leg was tightening up from trying to avoid her thigh rubbing against me.
I don’t get how these airlines do it.
These seats could barely comfortably fit a teenager, let alone a lanky Midwesterner like myself and two horizontally protruding women.
“Excuse me,” a flight attendant then said, touching my arm as if she were an angel who had fallen from the sky.
“Me?” I asked.
“Yes. I’m going to see if I can get you a different seat.”
This was my lucky day. A few minutes later, the flight attendant motioned for me to join her in the exit row, and right there I imagined this was the start of the best weekend of my life.
“Thank you so much!” I said as soon as I got into the modern-day equivalent of first-class.
“You’re very welcome,” she kindly replied, her smile undetectable behind her blue mask.
Two hours later, the plane landed in Myrtle Beach, and soon Rick arrived toting two kayaks on the top of his SUV.
“Hey, hey! What’s up, man?” I said while hopping in the car.
We bumped fists and then took off toward a Mexican restaurant for lunch.
“Is your Spanish pretty good now?” Rick asked, in reference to the three months I spent in Colombia earlier this year.
“It’s okay,” I told him. “I can communicate pretty well, but I still have a long way to go.”
Each time the server came to our table I wanted to bust out a clever sentiment in her mother tongue, but each time she refilled my water I clammed up and opted to stick to English.
The fear of judgement still lingers because the only person I speak Spanish with these days constantly reminds me my accent and grammar are horrible.
“Anyway, life’s good?” Rick asked, but then my phone buzzed.
Work was calling.
“You must be staying busy up there is Minne-so-ta,” Rick said as I finished a text and put my phone back in my pocket.
“Trying to,” I told him.
After lunch, we headed over to Myrtle Beach and jumped in the ocean. It had been awhile since I’d gotten saltwater stuck in my throat, but it felt good to crash into waves that weren’t bone-rattling cold.
Over the course of the day, it became difficult to shake the guilt that came with being there. By boarding a plane, I’d subjected myself to criticism from loved ones who felt I was endangering society. And with work having already called, it became apparent that me coming here messed up the emotional tranquility I worked hard to create the last few months.
“You good? You seem distracted?” Rick asked me later that night as I sipped on a Grey Goose.
“Yeah. Just thinking,” I told him, then taking another sip out of a drink I didn’t want but nonetheless imbibed in because to do otherwise would subject me to a question I didn’t want to answer.
Alcohol has been the instigator for some of the worst nights of my life, yet whenever I get around the few friends I have, I can’t seem to avoid funneling it down my throat.
The irrational fear my mind immediately bolts to is that if I don’t drink, my friends won’t want to hang out with me, the irony being anyone who condemns my sobriety wouldn’t be a friend worth having.
So as the night aged and the police pulled over a slew of drivers along a busy road, the more I ordered plastic cups filled with Grey Goose.
We headed home around midnight, and already my buzz was gone. By this point in the night, I’m usually in the REM cycle and eagerly anticipating waking up and making each day better.
But right then, I knew that I was going to be lethargic the next morning, that it would take me until at least 10 A.M. to feel right, and then another day to completely feel like alcohol was no longer coursing through my veins.
The next day, Rick and I got in the car and drove to a nearby town.
“Have you kayaked recently?” he asked.
“No, but I kayaked a lot growing up,” I replied, which was true, but the most kayaking I’d done over the last few years took place on a travel app.
As soon as we got on the water, I began falling behind Rick as he sped ahead. Occasionally he would cock his head to make sure I wasn’t being pinched by a crab or bitten by a tiger shark, but mostly he was taking in the view of the ocean.
This was different than kayaking in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, where the biggest waves are created by gray pontoons, not gusty winds crashing against the water.
As we pulled off on a beach for lunch, I applied a third layer of sunscreen to my sensitive skin and finished the second half of a cold-cut combo from Subway.
“You look a little burnt,” Rick informed, pointing at the exposed parts of my skin that hadn’t been shielded from the sun by a life jacket.
“I better not be burnt. I absolutely hate sunburn, Rick.”
Later that night, disaster had seemingly been avoided until my upper thighs and the top of my feet began to itch.
“Jesus Christ,” I wailed. “I even put extra sunscreen on.”
“Oh, boy,” Rick chuckled. “You’re definitely going to need some aloe.”
I spent the next twenty minutes lathering copious amounts of aloe to my thighs and the tops of my feet, then Rick told me it was time to cook dinner.
We walked outside to the grill. It was there that I was forced to confront the hypocrisy of my eating habits.
Earlier that day, Rick had laid a trap filled with odorous turkey necks intended to lure in unsuspecting crabs from the bottom of the ocean.
His plan worked. We nabbed one crab and put it in a cooler. Now we had to kill the poor animal in order to indulge in a delectable appetizer.
“Pick up these tongs and throw it on the grill,” Rick instructed.
“I can’t do that,” I told him.
“Come on, man. You have to cook what you catch.”
“Bro, call me a hypocrite, pansy, or whatever, but I can’t cook that thing. Look at its eyes. It’s like he’s looking right at me.”
A few minutes of unsuccessful pleas later, the tongs were in my hand and I was jabbing them at the helpless animal.
“This is too much,” I turned and said to Rick. “This is almost inhumane.”
“No, it’s not. The little guy is practically comatose right now because he’s been in a cooler the last few hours.”
Begrudgingly, I then went back into the cooler, clasping each end of the tongs onto the crustacean.
“I got him!” I wailed.
“Good, now bring him over here.”
I managed to almost lift the crab out of the cooler, but just as he was almost out, one of his snappers brushed against the top of the bag.
Now in fight or flight mode, I flew.
The crab began slipping out of the tongs and then he was loose, falling from the air and landing on the pavement, his shell cracking against the pavement. Now the crab was helplessly lying on his back, his snappers dangling in the air and my heart ready to explode.
“Give me the tongs!” Rick shouted.
I handed the weapon-like tongs over to Rick and he picked up the crab, tossed him on the grill, and then we both waited in silence for the next few moments while I imagined the daunting heat sucking the life out of the helpless sea animal.
“Do I have to become a vegetarian now?” I half-jokingly asked Rick.
True to form, the next morning my feet were the same color as the crab, and part of my thighs were equally seared.
The entire day I spent taking off my socks and massaging the damaged skin, all the while chugging as much water as possible to rehydrate and replace all the fluids that had been lost throughout the scorching weekend.
This discomfort detracted from our day trip to Charleston, another coastal city in South Carolina whose economy thrives off the tourist dollars it brings in each year.
By the end of the day, I was ready for bed. It had been a long three days down south.
Tomorrow I would be heading back to Minnesota, back to a life that suddenly seemed very comfortable.
The last few years I’ve spent gallivanting around the world. Those experiences will always have a special place in my memories, but there is also a newfound joy to remaining domestic that I forever feared I would dread.
I’m lucky to have a job during these uncertain times, but I’m even more lucky to work at a place I actually enjoy. For some reason I’ve generally lucked out with employment the last few years, being able to work at places I’m actually excited to go to.
That’s not to suggest that every day is the greatest thing ever, but the beauty about what I do is I’m able to have an impact at the places I work. I’m not a disposable piece of a machine.
“Thank you for everything,” I told Rick as he dropped me off at the airport, and then we went our separate ways.
I then walked to Sun Country’s counter and handed over my passport.
“Good morning,” I said to the flight attendant, eager to get out of the overly humid and dry state of South Carolina.
“Good morning, sir. How are you?” she asked.
“Amazing. Say, by chance, do you have any exit row seats available?”
“Yes, I do.”
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