It was too cold to go to Washington, D.C. this year to visit my great aunt. We’ve gone the past two winters, in January, but this year the visit was scheduled for late in February, when Washington, D.C. was basically shut down from the snow. So we stayed home, and huddled indoors with the dogs because each time we went outside I felt like someone was carving my ears off with a spoon.
I missed getting to see my great aunt, and her daughter, and her granddog Zoe, but Butterfly, at least, was grateful to miss the long car ride, and Cricket sniffed every inch of the snow to make up for not getting to sniff Zoe. And in my mind, I did end up travelling to D.C., remembering my first visit to the city, way back before my great aunt moved there to dote on her grandson and granddog.
I was barely seventeen and my cousin Sarah wanted to go to D.C. the day before Thanksgiving, to take pictures of the white house at night. I had just dropped out of college two weeks earlier, and Sarah thought I needed an escape.
We stopped at a candy store before the trip, and loaded up on gummy worms and jelly beans to balance out the bag of potato chips and the diet soda, and then we drove down to D.C., singing along to Bonnie Raitt and the Black Crows. I don’t know what my cousin and I talked about for five hours in the car, but we had a great time. She is ten years older than me, and was therefore a font of worldly wisdom. She was one of the only people who took my dropping out of college in stride. She never blamed me, or made light of it. She just cared about me and wanted me to feel better.
As soon as we arrived at the hotel, we dropped off our bags and went out to the movies. We saw Bette Midler in For the Boys on a huge curved screen with a red velvet curtain in front of it. It was the kind of theatre that felt magical, instead of like a box with seats in it.
It was dark out when the movie ended but we were too keyed up to go back to the hotel. We joined the crowds walking around Georgetown, window shopping and people watching. When I saw a sign that said “Dylan’s Café” I stopped. For background, you need to know that Beverly Hills, 90210 had just come on TV the summer before, and I was in love with it in a way I cannot explain, or even understand, today. And the cool guy character on the show was named, of course, Dylan.
My cousin said we had to go in. The café was up a set of stairs and when we found out there was live music – two guys with guitars – we had to stay. And, according to my cousin, I had to have a drink. I don’t even remember what kind of music they played; whatever it was originally, it was played on two acoustic guitars so it didn’t end up sounding like heavy metal.
There weren’t many people at the tables, so Sarah went over to chat with the lead singer and his sister between sets, and requested a James Taylor song for me. The guitar guys sang Fire and Rain, which, with lines like, “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,” felt like it had been chosen just for me.
Important lessons learned at Dylan’s cafe: wine coolers make for the worst headaches; and a cute guy with a guitar trumps even the worst headache.
That trip brought me back to life. For one long day and night in D.C., I didn’t have to argue with anyone; I didn’t have to be lonely, or work at things that seemed meaningless; and I didn’t have to give in to authority figures who had none of my best interests at heart. I thought, maybe, life could be fun and interesting, and filled with music and cute boys. Maybe I could transfer to Georgetown and study Political science. Maybe I could learn to play guitar and sing in a band. Anything seemed possible.
We almost missed Thanksgiving dinner, because we wanted to do some sight-seeing on Thursday morning. Sarah hadn’t gone to sleep at all, because of the late night taking-pictures-of-the-white-house thing, so we turned the music up and kept the windows open to keep her awake as she drove across chilly New Jersey in the dark. We made it home before all of the food was gone, and Dina, my black lab mix, gave me a greeting as if I’d been gone for years instead of just a day.
I might have forgotten my night in D.C. once I got home and back into the reality of my life, but Sarah made a photo album of the trip for me, to remind me that I could be happy, and that wonderful things could happen at any moment. And I realized that, even if I was not going to have the smooth path forward in life that I’d expected, the bumpy road might hold a few good surprises along the way.