Different Music in the Same Car
Mike and I were in the car again. Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons sang through the speakers as we drove through town for the first time since the season had changed. It was October. Months had passed since we were last on the island. We moved through the changing landscape—the color palette was now red, orange, and green—and I thought about how much time had passed in which I felt the same. I didn’t reflect fall’s favorite metaphor: the shedding of old leaves to make way for new ones. The endurance of my apathy was impressive. But somehow, I felt okay when we were listening to music and looking out the window like last summer, when my version of we consisted of Kevin, Mike, and me.
Mike and I came to Martha’s Vineyard for the weekend under the guise of picking up his car, the trusty Volvo S40 he’s had since high school. He left it parked in my mom’s garage back on Labor Day, when we opted to take the ferry back to New York instead of the drive. We wanted an excuse to return to the island, and apparently my brother Kevin did, too. I had smiled when I heard him through the phone, saying that he and his best friend Aiden would come along for the weekend to hang out with us. We said: Let’s go to the beach in sweatshirts and drink whiskey in a booth at 20 by 9. It was the bar we discovered on Kevin’s last night on the island in August, before he left for school. We had to get back there. From the couch in my apartment in the city and the mattress on the floor of his dorm room in Vermont, we were planning a daydream.
Mike and I arrived on Friday afternoon, and we picked the boys up from the ferry in Vineyard Haven that night. I was still depressed, but I was happy to be with my brother. The few weekends I spent with him in the fall were nothing compared to the time we spent together during the summer just months prior, the one that ended before it began in May, with my dad’s funeral. We had passed through the sunny season at our respective jobs by day, going on drives and watching movies and walking into the house with brown bags clinking with summer ales and hefeweizens at night. We were always greeted by my grandparents’ glares. Got enough beer there? they asked more times than I’m sure they would remember. There can never be enough beer, I responded only once.
It was mid-fall, so Kevin was back to undergrad at Bennington and I was back to grad at Columbia. Neither of us felt settled. We tended to have low points in common in our lives even when we were physically apart. He was talking more about dropping out of school, retelling the stories of filmmakers that made it without the backbone of credibility that institutions seem to provide: Paul Thomas Anderson’s two-day stint at NYU, Harmony Korine’s statement that film school is “eating the soul of cinema.” I think he had other reasons for wanting to leave Bennington, but disbelief in art school makes for better conversation when your daydream is realized and you’re on the way to be drunk with your best friends in a booth at 20 by 9.
“I had quite the night out last week,” Kevin said, sly smile decorated by his wiry beard.
“Oh, yeah?” Mike said.
We were in Oak Bluffs on the road I’ve walked down dozens of times to go to Giordano’s, my dad’s favorite pizza by the slice. The cold seeped through my leather jacket.
“My friend was having a bad night, so we went to the pub up in North Bennington.”
“Kevin’s Pub?” I asked.
I remembered seeing the sign for the pub when Katie, Mom and I visited Kevin for parents’ weekend in September, right before he turned 21. He showed us the town and had us walk down the train tracks Stand By Me style to the pretty pond. We shared a Lambic cherry beer, avoiding crumbs from the cork that we pushed into the bottle, and when we left, an old fisherman laughed at me for looking scared as I premeditated my footing on the rickety bridge. North Bennington was: Kevin’s Pub, a sandwich place, a small library with a sign that read, “Fall in Love with a Book!”, a fountain, and a multicolored ceramic statue of a moose. There wasn’t much to remember. I could live there, I thought, and I pictured what my life might look like if I moved it there.
“Yeah, Kevin’s Pub” he said. “So, we were in the bar and I saw this big guy at a table throwing money around. I’m thinking I gotta get in on that.”
He was doing a Boston accent now to reflect the story’s vibe, in his soft-spoken way. His stories were never about himself, but the situations he found himself in.
“So I sat down with them and he’s with this younger girl, probably in her 30s and he’s like 60. By the way, his name’s Johnny B. Johnny B. tells me, ‘her pussy is like saloon doors.’”
We all laughed and I said something like that’s shocking and Aiden turned around with his hands in his jean jacket pockets and said, “How were we together on a bus and a ferry and that doesn’t come up?”
We were all smiling with folded arms because it was cold. I missed Kevin’s brand of humor as a part of my every day, the quiet and absurd. In the summer, we had been each other’s coping mechanisms when I didn’t know how to talk to anyone else. Kevin, Mike, and I created our own little world of details—of movies, jokes, and beer—and it was the only world I cared to live in. I never expected to yearn for a time that was closer to my dad’s death than the present. But I should have known that since he died, I am no longer able to expect.
Our we walked three in a row on the sidewalk, and Aiden was up in front of us, the white lines on his track pants glowing in the dark.
Inside 20 by 9, a hostess seated us at a booth without a wait since not many people were there. Mike reminded me that we were at the same table as last time we came in, after a day in August at Moshup Beach when we were underdressed and smelled of sunscreen and probably body odor. This time, we were wearing jackets and most other people in the bar were wearing flannels because it was fall. The waiter came by and it was three old fashioneds for them and a Two Roads beer called Roadsmary’s Other Baby for me. It was brewed in a rum barrel, he said, and he brought me the brown beer in a short glass.
We talked about Kevin and Aiden’s semesters at Bennington and Emerson and my seeing Tame Impala at Terminal 5—I was disappointed that Kevin Parker didn’t play the personal shit, “Yes, I’m Changing” or “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”—and what movie we would watch tonight and what beach we would go to tomorrow. We decided on “The Place Beyond the Pines” for the many-th time or “Chinatown,” and we would go to Lucy Vincent Beach tomorrow because it was off-season, which meant that it was open to the public. We had only been there once before, two springs ago, with my dad. It was our last up-island drive with him. He used to bike up there all the time.
We ordered lobster fritters and French onion soup and sausages on pretzel rolls. They switched to beer and I got an Allagash White because they were tapped when it came to the Allagash Tripel. We drove home at 10 p.m. with the sunroof open so we could see the stars, which I hadn’t seen since Vermont. We listened to The Weeknd because Mike wanted to play the boys a song produced by Kanye West, who was supposed to have a new album out last summer, but it didn’t come out and now it was fall.
I’m telling you the details because they’re important. When you escape and you make it to the island—isolated from all you cannot control—the details are yours to manipulate, to make everything feel like it did before, even when the season is telling you it should be different.
It was Saturday afternoon now.
We were locked in our positions for the drive: Mike and I in the front, Kevin and Aiden in the back. Kevin’s jazz playlist shuffled between Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, interrupted by moments of static courtesy of the tape deck MP3 player I bought a couple years ago for Mike at CVS. The jazz complemented the colors of the drive too perfectly.
The scenery on Airport Road shifted as we looked out the window, passing through the bustling intersection at the edge of Edgartown, past the fall fair at Morning Glory Farm, past the dirt roads leading to backwoods houses, past the empty lot that would become the Agricultural Fair at the end of every summer—the one Dad used to take us to when up-island felt much further away, where once my overalls unhooked and my flip flops flew off on the Sizzler, and where we had laughed at the carnie wearing jean cut-offs and dancing to country music besides the chair swing that I always thought looked unsafe.
Kevin and Aiden snapped in unison to “The In Crowd” by Ramsey Lewis Trio, the song played at every transition in Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man”, which Mike and I saw at Edgartown Cinemas in August and I watched again On Demand with Katie, Mom, and Kevin at the hotel in Vermont. “That’s a nice, little movie,” Kevin had said. We talked about it again in the car, and we kept talking throughout the drive, more than usual—probably because Aiden was with us and our collective mood was high. We had made it back to this place. We were on the same drive, playing different music and talking over it when one of us had a story to tell. I didn’t want to think about tomorrow, when we would leave with no plans to come back. I put it out of my mind.
Going up-island in the car was an event in itself. A beach was usually the end goal—Moshup Beach in Gay Head or Lobsterville Town Beach—but these trips were much more about the drive. If all we wanted had been sand and sea, we had that in Edgartown. Once last summer a friend of mine asked, “Why would you do that?” when I said we were going up island to go to the beach. “That’s so far away just to go swimming.” Mike and I felt each other smiling without even having to look. That’s just what the drives were for: getting far away. I wanted to escape my reality. I wanted nothing to do with anything that happened in the past or could happen in the future. On these drives, I felt suspended in time.
The trips would take around 40 minutes or an hour if we stopped to pick up sandwiches. It was enough time to play a full album, and the changing view made for the ideal music-listening experience. Woods lined Airport Road, and in the gaps between trees made by dirt roads or ponds we would catch glimpses of farm after farm, fields, bays decorated with vacant sailboats, outdoor galleries, and occasional peeks of the ocean which seemed distant from the road. On our way, we would pass through the towns of Edgartown, Vineyard Haven (often via the ocean-side road through Oak Bluffs), West Tisbury, Chilmark, and finally Gay Head or Lobsterville or Menemsha—whatever destination we chose to sandwich in between the drives.
The up-island towns on Martha’s Vineyard are surprisingly different from the rest. Downtown Edgartown is affluent and traditional, with Greek Revival style houses lining the residential streets, bushels of hydrangeas framed by white fences, and American flags twisted around poles by the harbor’s wind. Mike’s uncle who works in advertising came to visit once and said Edgartown looked like the work of an art director. The up-island town of Chilmark, on the other hand, is relatively remote and lacks a commercial center apart from a few community gathering locales: the Chilmark General Store, the Chilmark Free Public Library, and the Chilmark Town Hall in which the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival screens films and sells brown bags of over salted popcorn. Chilmark isn’t pedestrian friendly like Edgartown; its businesses and facilities are sprinkled along the main road.
Aside from our annual trips to the Agricultural Fair when I was little, wearing my sideways Yankees hat, my family rarely spent time together up-island. It used to be Dad’s place of escape. The towns of Gay Head, Chilmark, Menemsha—they were the turnaround midpoints for his 50-mile bike-rides, the subjects of his blurry iPhone photos that he would excitedly scroll through to show me when he got home. He would come in through the garage, clicking in his bike shoes down the stairs while Chelsea barked excessively to announce his arrival. He would hobble to the couch and sometimes groan in pain, but he was always happy with his experience on a level higher than just endorphin-induced pleasure, except for at the end. His last bike ride was 20.5 miles according to his Strava account—he didn’t make it up-island—but it was his first bike ride since he fell on the stairs in January, since the knee surgery. It was what he had been waiting for. I think I’m gonna throw up, I remember him saying, and I thought maybe it was the blueberry smoothie I bought him in town, maybe it was too soon for him to have gone on a bike ride. But it was something else. He was sick, it was wrong, he didn’t make it up-island, he couldn’t escape.
We spent Saturday afternoon in beach chairs by the eroding orange cliffs on Lucy Vincent Beach, like we’d planned to, wearing sweatshirts and eating sandwiches out of brown bags and drinking beers on the beach. The sun was hot and when the wind didn’t blow for moments at a time it felt like summer again on my face and hands. As for the details, the sandwiches were from the Chilmark General Store—the boys got the “Liz Lemons” stuffed with pastrami and turkey and Russian dressing and potato chips, I got the turkey BLT—and the beers were Ballast Point cream ales and Weihenstephaners that I had been wanting to try. On the path off the beach, Kevin helped me break off the ends of some of the dried dunes to bring back to New York to keep in my apartment because I liked their color in the fall. We listened to some more jazz and Amy Winehouse on the drive home and talked and sang along, but less so than before because now the sun was down and quiet is cued by the dark. We read our respective books on the couch that you can’t help but sink into. We ate pasta with red sauce and crab cakes at the pub in town and walked home fast because it was colder than it was before. We played Dad’s “Led Zeppelin IV” record in the living room and put on a fire. I smoked half a joint alone on the porch using the safety lighter from the kitchen drawer, shifting my weight between my feet to keep warm. We played Dad’s old set of Dominoes, jokingly slamming each piece onto the table harder with every player’s turn. We watched “Chinatown,” like we’d planned to, and half-asleep walked to our rooms after the movie ended to no resolve. We slept in our daydream fulfilled, until it was over.
And we pretended:
That Sunday would never come. That nothing would change. That we would have these details forever. That the happiness you attach to certain details can be peeled off and stuck to others. That our stories would never end. That we could take this state of being okay, induced by a cocktail of familiar things, back to New York and Vermont and to Boston.
But it wasn’t ours to keep, so we left it on the island.
Meghan Gilligan is a writer living in New York City. She received her MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University in 2016. She writes about film for ScreenPrism, and her work has been featured on WKCR’s literary program Studio A.