I’m on my way to the Florida Panhandle. In the 1950s, my father, who never made more than $14,000 a year, somehow managed to take our family to the Gulf for two weeks every June. As soon as we got to our rental cabin, he would change into swim trunks, run to the beach, and dive headlong into the surf.
My mother would go swimming in the morning before the rest of us woke up. She liked to do the sidestroke at dawn, when the water was calm. After breakfast, all of us would swim, and after lunch, the adults and older children would play Rook. My oldest brother got married when I was five. My other brother joined the Army when I was seven. The vacation I remember best is the one when I was nine, and my sister, whom I dearly loved, was 17. One afternoon we were drinking Dr. Peppers on the balcony of a sandwich shop called The Seahorse when we saw lifeguards pull a drowned man from the surf.
Forty years later, I was writing a book about my inheritance, two and a half acres of scrubland in central Florida that were being stolen by violent hog hunters. My editor flew down from New York to check on me and the book. Afterward, I said I wanted him to see the real Florida, the beach where my family had vacationed so many years before. It took us six hours to drive there, and I didn’t mention my real reason for the trip.
I had fallen in love with a beautiful young woman. We were married to other people, but she was visiting the beach with friends. This would be one of our few opportunities to see one another alone, so after my editor had fallen asleep that night, she knocked softly at the door and I joined her outside.
We bought coffee and doughnuts to take to the beach, where we talked under the stars and watched the sun rise. She found a piece of coral that had washed up on the sand and gave it to me. I left it in the bed of my truck, through the snows of an Idaho winter, the heat of the desert sun, and returned it to her a year later, whitened and brittle, with a note taped around it: “Love never fails.”
It’s been 20 years since that night. My mother, father, sister, and brothers are dead. My girlfriend’s marriage ended in divorce. So did mine, eventually, but by that time, my girlfriend was engaged to someone else. They’ve been married now for 12 of those years.
The past is not perfect. But there is such a thing as the past perfect tense. The past perfect tense simply indicates that an action in the past was completed before something else happened. After all these years, I’m on my way to Florida again. The something else is happening now.
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