..........As we drove across the countryside, there was much to talk about, but at least one thing had come with age. My life might not feel complete, but I was wise. I felt deep thoughts come about me, and I rested my head against the window.
..........Where was my life heading? Without death to put my life into perspective, what ultimate purpose could I serve? For so long I had spent my time helping the world, being a soldier for greater causes, so that I became more of a force of nature, in which case there was no point to my self-awareness. I often wondered, because it seemed that my purpose was very material, if it was possible for me to reach a point where the meaning to my existence was to stop and just be a person.
..........What did I want out of this road trip anyway?
..........“Why not Minot?” crowed Joe. The trip had been long, and the North Dakota landscape was flat and dreary with nothing to look at. It was so bad that Mary Sue got excited to see a windmill. At the sound of a relatively large town, my head perked up. It was about time that we got somewhere. “The Magic City and enemy of skateboarders everywhere.”
..........“What about skateboards?” asked Mary Sue.
..........“Skateboarding is illegal here,” said Joe. “Except for at the skating park, but if you really want parks I’d suggest the Roosevelt Park and Zoo. Hey, there’s some real history to this town. I’ve been around since before it was founded in 1886. What kind of person would I be if I didn’t know a thing or two about this place?”
..........“I can’t wait to get around and stretch my legs. The last place we’ve been was Williston and that was two and a half hours ago,” said Mary Sue.
..........Joe took a turn on Western Ave SW. We weren’t fully in town and there was nothing but trees and hills to our right. The view was still pretty expansive for being in an urban area. A lane to the right soon caught Joe’s eye. There was a sign by the offshoot labeling the place the Minot Park District. It led into a parking lot, and when I looked back at the large rectangular building it led to it had the large name Maysa Arena along its northern face.
.......... He parked the SUV and leaned back in his seat. I think we all sighed.
..... .....“Well , I’m getting out,” he said. It took a full minute for Marry and me to follow suit.
..........“So John,” said Mary Sue. “What are you wearing a tux for, anyway?”
..........I looked down at my silky and slim attire. I had little idea. It just seemed very significant to me in that moment to dress up. Back in the old days we did it all the time. I just shrugged.
..........“No, I mean, wouldn’t you want to wear something else here?” she said.
..........“Maybe I want to impress people,” I replied. “I’m not totally sure, but I think I have an idea of just talking with someone new and sharing my thoughts or something.”
..........“Just keep in mind that in this building is an ice skating rink,” said Joe.
..........“I know,” I said. “In hindsight, my Civil War uniform would have looked pretty cool on ice, but since it’s the Christmas season I was under the impression that church attire looked nice and celebrative. Speaking of which, what are we going to do on the big day? We’re going to all be together. We’re going to be out in the world, and chances are we’ll be somewhere we’ve never stayed before.”
..........“I honestly don’t know,” said Joe. “I stopped celebrating the holidays when the Great Depression hit.”
..........I shook my head. “Really? I do all the time.”
..........“So do I,” said Mary Sue. “Joe, you should really celebrate Christmas with us!”
..........Joe blushed, put his hands in his pockets, and kicked the ground. “Awww, okay.”
..........With that it was a matter of letting loose and checking the place out. Maysa Arena had two ice rinks and a warm area in-between them, and one of the rinks had a hockey team practicing. We got our skates and went out on the other rink.
..........Now this was actually a very familiar experience, I know. Out at the French Retreat, skiing and hiking was available to everyone. Back there, our entire lives were dedicated to the art of pastime, so skating in a rink wasn’t a major thematic shift. In the end, I was still doing nothing.
..........I stopped skating and Mary Sue almost bumped into me.
..........“I feel like acting out,” I said. “I have the energy.”
..........“What’s wrong, fellow traveler?” she asked.
..........“What are we doing, anyway?” I asked. “We’re still on our extended vacation, only this time it’s on the move. It’s the same old stuff, though.”
We sat down on the ice and let nearby skaters pass us by. They didn’t seem to mind. Some girl looked at us looking as if she interpreted it as something really romantic. For her sake, I would recommend it. If Mary Sue and I were an item, I would find this romantic to, but it wasn’t anything of the sort. At the heart of it all, I was just really, really sad.
..........Mary Sue held out her hands. “Well, what is it that you haven’t yet done in life? I mean, just think about it. It’s not as if you’ve been very creative in your various outlets of productivity. Let’s see, there’s been fighting as a soldier, fighting as a soldier, fighting as a soldier…” Each time she said “fighting as a soldier” she ticked off a finger on her left hand in a continuous tally. “And…Oh yes – fighting as a soldier!”
..........“I wasn’t Joe. I haven’t been a soldier in maritime, just for the big wars.”
..........“Think about it, John,” said Mary Sue. “What else is out there that most people live for?”
..........“Marriage, family, children,” I said. “And friends. Yeah, I get it.”
..........“I’m just going to go out there and say that the reason you went ballistic yesterday was because John Smith gave up on you as a friend. I mean, you had each other to live for, but when one of you stopped living…” she held out her hand as if to guide the meaning of the statement into the air.
..........“See, what’s different now is that we may not be doing much, but what we are doing we’re doing together,” she continued. “I mean, the whole reason I stayed sane at the French Retreat was because I could at least talk with you friends about the possibility of getting out. Now we’re actually trying. That has to count for something, right?”
..........I considered her words. It still made me unhappy that what we were partaking in was still essentially an activity for teenagers who had yet to discover their way. Then again, that was something I was behind on, so it was just as well.
..........“Come on,” she said, returning to her own two feet. “Get up.” She held out her gloved hand. When I was slow to respond, she jiggled her hand. “Get up!” she repeated with a smile. I reached up and accepted her gentle tug.
..........The girl from earlier looked at us as she returned from a lap around the ice and smiled. That prompted me to look at the center of the rink. Joe Schmoe was, as they said these days, “hanging out”. To be specific, it was with a woman. To be even more specific, he was flirting with her, and she was flirting back.
..........“I wonder if we should interrupt,” I said.
......... .Mary Sue followed my gaze and got the picture. “Let’s.”
..........“Nah, I want to see where this goes. No need to be impatient.”
..........“What was the point in asking, then?” asked Mary Sue.
..........“I made up my mind in-between asking and your answer,” I said.
..........“So we just skate around?” she said.
..........“Or you could teach me how to dance,” I suggested.
..........“You how to dance?” she guffawed. “What makes you even think that I can do that?”
..........“I don’t know,” I admitted. “You just seem to be perfect at everything.”
..........“Don’t stereotype me,” she said. “My main talent is getting people to think I’m perfect at everything. I just so happen to not know how to figure skate.”
..........“We have an eternity to live,” I said. “We could always start now.”
..........Mary Sue smiled and nodded. We then proceeded to give it a try. I put my hand around her waist and held her left hand up with my spare. We made a few movements, but fumbled at first. I realized that this was actually very difficult because Mary Sue was a very tall woman, in fact just an inch taller than the average man. The proportions weren’t quite right for us to get a true sense of elegance into the picture.
..........“Sorry,” I said.
..........“Cherish those little mistakes,” said Mary Sue.
..........Then we tried a move that failed on all levels and we found ourselves on our backs with no sense of balance.
..........“You’re going to ruin that suit if we keep this up!” she said. She used my silver tie to pull herself up. I wasn’t bothered whatsoever by the tightening around my neck, although I was aware that this looked weird.
..........“This suit has been through a lot,” I said. “Besides, it’s just frozen water.”
..........Joe beckoned us over. The blond woman he was with waved with him, smiling at us. He must have said flattering things on our behalf.
..........“Hey Joe, it looks like you’re having a good time,” I said. Wink wink. Nudge nudge.
..........He laughed. “Shut up! I’d like you to meet Valerie. Val – yes, we can all call her Val – these are my friends John and Mary. I’ve known them, I kid you not, since before you were born.”
..........“You’re not that old,” said Valerie.
..........“I’m older than you. How old are you anyway?”
..........Valerie opened her mouth wide. “Oooooh…I cannot believe you just asked me that!”
..........“Um, but I did, and I don’t really care about age,” he said. “Come on, it’s not like I told you that your dress makes you look fat, which, by the way, reminds me of Victorian-era dresses, which were actually pretty cool, and since I find you’re great-great grandmother’s fashion zingy that means I’m a pretty charming guy, so you’re just going to forgive me for a minor slip of the tongue because it will be worth it.”
..........“You know I wasn’t that offended, right?” she asked.
..........“You weren’t? Okay, I knew that, but let’s say I didn’t. I didn’t want to know your age anyway, because the moment you start revealing that sort of information it means that you’re a bit too comfortable with me, and the thing is that I’m a complete stranger and I live in another skate - I mean state - and there’s no way to make a long-term relationship work, although I’d love for you to hang out with us for a little while longer and call it a date just for the sake of our mutual enjoyment.”
..........“That went over my head.”
..........“Yeah, you were kind of intimidating there,” said Mary Sue. “I’m just giving you some advice as a woman.”
..........“Sorry, I’m just guestimating that you’re thirty-five and have the maturity to match it, based on the conversation we just had, but it looks like I forgot about the incredible diversity and complexity of personal tastes. But really, I’m just hoping to enjoy each other, eh?” Joe shrugged and gave a crooked smile. “Hey, we have a great time thought out.”
..........“We do?” I asked.
..........“You just had to not play along with that bluff, didn’t you?” joked Joe.
..........“No, it’s okay,” said Valerie. “You’re pathetically trying to charm me and it’s working because the thought counts. You must really want this.”
..........“Well…” began Joe. “No. Yes. No. Yes! I don’t know.”
..........“I think it’s just been forever since he enjoyed the company of women friends,” I said, just to keep him afloat. “Dude, it’s cool. She’s fine with coming along.”
..........“It’s just that we’re on vacation and something’s missing,” said Joe.
..........“I completely understand,” I said.
..........“See, I was totally up for visiting the Roosevelt Park and Zoo later on because it’s a beautiful place at all times of the year, but you guys seemed uninterested so I wanted to make sure I had company who was. Seriously, I’ve known you guys for so long that, frankly, you’re just too predictable. I believe it.”
..........“I believe it,” I said, overlapping him.
..........Joe raised his eyebrows. “See what I mean? And Mary? When I say ‘There’s too much snow out’ you say ‘Snow is a sacred and beautiful thing.’’’
..........“Snow is a sacred and beauti – hey!”
..........“Anyway, as we were saying,” he gestured to Valerie, “you guys were pretty cool figure skaters. I appreciated your lack of talent whatsoever. It’s far more entertaining. Go on.” He gestured to Valerie again.
..........“Well, I just think it’s great to goof up every once and a while. I like it when people accept that they’re not perfect. That’s not to call the Olympics stupid or anything, but what if I don’t care about getting something big done and just enjoy life?”
..........Mary and I looked at each other. This would be an interesting perspective, perhaps just the right one to perform a catalyst for bigger ideas relevant to our discussion.
..........“Well, it seems you guys like the idea of company,” said Joe with a knowing wink. “By the way, when I told you that I’m in the Air Force and that my major was engineering, I forgot to mention that my minor was criminal justice, and personally in case anything happens it’s just in your best interests to just call family and let them know where you’re going and so forth. Like, here’s some information on me, which you should probably text to someone else.” He took out his wallet. I knew some of the information was faked, including the last name. What was it this time? Joe Little? Then I also knew that he had over the course of his years majored in a couple of other things.
..........“Dude, it’s okay. You’re not psycho. We’re adults,” said Valerie.
..........“I know, but I’m very safety conscious and no matter how screwball I can get I’m sincere about following proper procedures,” said Joe.
..........“Oh, fine,” said Valerie. She made a few calls, relayed Joe’s information to a few friends, gave them a physical description, and hooked her arm in Joe’s.
..........We spent some more time hanging out. I was still a bit surprised as Joe’s luck with making quick friends. In every regard he seemed to be a happy soldier. If they were physically capable of having a long-term relationship, Valerie would have been a lucky woman indeed. We had hot chocolate together when Mary Sue pulled me aside, putting some distance between us and Joe’s new business.
..........“It’s their date,” she said.
..........“It is, yes,” I acknowledged.
..........“So let’s do this for Joe.”
..........I didn’t answer. Something was creeping at me. I knew Joe. No, not just a passing knowledge, but I knew him. Our friendship went back for several generations. Parents didn’t even understand their children the way I could with Joe, and my gut gurgled as I thought about the future.
..........I feared for him.