Season of Love by Brian McCullough

Jack always packed those small but annoyingly important things first; phone chargers, any relevant tickets, gifts, etc.  Luckily for Jack, of those, he only had to pack his charger.  After so many adventures, Jack had packing down to a science.  This didn’t mean that he didn’t still forget things- just that he’d know pretty early on what he had forgotten.  In packing his cologne, he felt this was so cliché- how many other guys packed this exact same travel bag and carried his exact same cologne (Burberry Brit, to be exact) for Season?  Every time he got ready for another Season, he felt like he’d been bested by ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ once again.

He debated packing his laptop.  He really didn’t want to bring it.  Jack had misgivings about constantly being connected and looked forward to any opportunity to unplug, but if he didn’t bring his laptop, then he’d probably just be bugging Mike to use his the whole time and really didn’t want to navigate through Mike’s strange porn collection just to check-in at work (which he shouldn’t be doing anyway).  He passed up the Season before last because he had just started a new job in the city and wanted to make a good impression and felt that was worth at least two stress-free (at least where work is concerned) Seasons.  But… if he brought his laptop, he could at least get some work done in case he didn’t meet anyone this time.  If he came back single again, his supervisors are going to think he’s just going away for Season to fuck around.  Maybe he should- fuck around- that is.  What business is it to his supervisors what he does during Season? Besides… he could really use it.  Nope, Jack reminded himself, the world doesn’t owe him sex.  That’s a dangerous road to go down (but seductive nonetheless).

Jack placed his bag on his passenger-side seat (he had snacks and his ever-present water bottle in there), and threw his basketball and sneakers in the back.  He didn’t know how long he intended on staying down the shore this time, but based on his last couple of Seasons, he knew he wouldn’t be meeting girls the whole time.  A lot of guys make that mistake.  After one last check of the empty apartment (two of his roommates had already left for Season out on Long Island and the third was away with her fiancé celebrating their anniversary), Jack locked the door behind him.

Jack put the key in the ignition and his Aztek hummed to life.  Although he was usually the designated driver, he hoped he didn’t have to drive the Aztek too much down there.  It’s not the sexiest car in the world- in fact- it’s closer to being the least sexy car in the world.  ‘Why yes- this IS the car both Walter White from Breaking Bad drove and the car the first winner of Survivor bought with his prize money before he went to jail… care for a spin?’

Astoria’s a pretty low-key neighborhood to begin with, but on ‘Red Friday,’ it felt deserted.  In fact, the whole city felt that way today.  Jack chuckled to himself; the only things that can shut down New York City are freak hurricanes and the prospect of getting laid.  But the exodus began about mid-week this year.  The Season is starting earlier and earlier the last couple of years.  Jack didn’t understand the rush; it’s always the last three weeks of June, it’s not going anywhere.  And leaving earlier just means the traffic starts earlier anyway.  The traffic was always bad on that first Friday, though.  Jack thought that maybe if he’d leave after work, he’d miss the worst of the traffic.  It didn’t take much to convince Jack to squeeze in one more full day of work.

And the ‘Season before the Season’ keeps starting earlier and earlier, too.  You start seeing ads for it right after Easter now.  Ads for the various destinations; Lake George, Miami, Ocean City, Puerto Villarta, Savannah, and so on.  The destinations for the wealthy you never see commercials for- Jackson Hole, the Hamptons, Newport, Hawaii, Fiji, etc.  Maybe those aren’t as wealthy as Jack thought.  If a working stiff like him knew about them, how exclusive could they really be?  Jack couldn’t even fathom what it must be like going to one of those really upscale destinations during the Season.  He was barely sure if he was ready for Atlantic City.

Then there were the interminable ads for the gyms, cars and clothing sales, fragrances and ‘conversation seminars.’  The common sentiment in all these ads seems to be ‘if you don’t wear this shirt or use this cough syrup or buy these shoes, you will die alone!’  It all seemed a bit cynical to Jack, even when he was young.  People had been meeting during Season long before all these commercials were around to tell us what we need in order to meet people.

This corporatization of the Season also seemed to build unreasonable expectations of love.  After all, a lot of relationships ultimately fail, and a lot of people simply pair up for the benefits (shorter hours, vacation, consideration for promotion, etc).

He flipped the radio on as he wound his way through his neighborhood towards the RFK Bridge.  NPR was giving an update on Portland, Oregon’s recent initiative abolishing the Season altogether within city limits.

“…but since first-quarter economic figures are up nationwide, it’s difficult to decipher whether or not the city’s slightly positive figures can be attributed to the initiative…”

Click.  No more AM.  Jack sighed.  Typical.  Give it to liberals to try to sell Free Love (or, Open Season- depending on the audience) on the basis of dry economics.  This is the prison reform argument all over again.  What if it becomes less economically beneficial in the future?  They’re handing conservatives a perfect reason to roll it back.  It should be about fairness, and equality Jack thought- not dollars and cents.

In Janurary, a city-wide initiative passed banning all municipal ‘Off-Season Promiscuity’ laws in Portland. The mayor also promised to suspend enforcement of any state or federal OSP laws as well. Since this was the first Season since Portland’s ‘Free Love’ initiative passed in January (modelled after Sweden), the internet has been saturated this week with think-pieces about the initiative’s perceived success and/or failure.   Liberals called Portland ‘Love City.’  Conservatives called it ‘New Sin City’ or ‘New Sweden’ (God forbid!).  It was obviously of interest to Jack, but at this point, he already felt tired of the Season and any discussion of Season.  Each political party was using the Portland initiative to score points even though it hasn’t been proven to help or hurt anything- and maybe it never will.

And the Democrats had been driving Jack crazy on the campaign trail.  In an election year, Free Love was becoming a hot campaign issue and they were all blowing it, from Hilary on down.  Every time it’s brought up, it seems like she just tries to make noises with her mouth until she can change the subject.  The polls show that younger voters are lukewarm on Seasons at this point, but young voters traditionally aren’t very reliable.  And if she comes out against Season, she’ll alienate all of the heartland.  So Clinton (and her proxies) need to thread the needle by resorting to survey-tested liberal buzzwords and then immediately counteracting it with something fraudulently folksy about American magnificence (or something).

They are made to look that much weaker by the Tea Party jihadis and Constitutional fetishists on the Right.  They’ll soften you up with sepia-toned yarns about how they met their beaus at a hometown jamboree in their first season and how some mom-and-pop business relies on revenue from Season to get by.  Then they’ll drop the hammer- Hilary wants to send Aunt Opa’s Breakfast Nook out of business!  Those communists want to turn America into the hedonistic hellscape that is Sweden (SWEDEN!)!  Know who was also an advocate of Free Love?  HITLER!  Jack might’ve said they had it down to a science, if Republicans actually believed in science.

Jack didn’t understand why Hilary’s army of high-priced campaign wizards thought they could fight hometown jamborees, bankruptcy at the Breakfast Nook, the Swedish Agenda and Hitler with demographic survey data and economic white papers.  As usual, the Democrats are on the right side of an issue but are still losing the argument.  Bernie had come out strong for Free Love and it clearly resonated with a large swath of the public, but it also lost him any support from Big Business he might’ve had a chance at stealing from Hilary.  Big Business interests clearly lie in maintaining the status quo and the predictability that comes with Seasons.

The name and idea ‘Free Love’ was taken from a short story of speculative fiction, published back in the late 60s.  It was nestled in a collection of radical political essays and other short stories by Gore Vidal, Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg, and other counter-culture luminaries.  It was as ubiquitous in college dorms as the King James Bible is in hotel rooms- even in the states where it was banned.  The story of a Season-less America was turned into a well-received movie and later a terrible TV mini-series.

Jack debated bringing his dog-eared copy, pilfered from his father’s library- but ultimate decided he didn’t want to be ‘that guy.’  He may be a critic of the Season, but if he’s going, he might as well not spend the whole time complaining about it.

He approached the George Washington Bridge, girding himself for heavy traffic- but to his pleasant surprise- he had the bridge almost all to himself.  Jack glanced at his GPS; 2 hours and 10 minutes to the beach house.  How quick did GPS’s become obsolete?  Jack wondered if the Garmins and TomToms saw the ascendancy of smart phones coming, and if they just flamed out or if they adapted and make something else now.

On cue, Jack’s phone hummed to life.  His pulse quickened, but it was just a text from Mike-

MIKE- Dude you almost here??

 Jack didn’t understand why Mike got so excited for Season anyway.  Mike got so much off-season action, you’d think all the ‘Off-Season Promiscuity’ laws were written with Mike in mind.

JACK- Just crossing GWB now.  About 2 hours away.  Try not to dishonor ALL the girls in AC before I get there.

MIKE- Better hurry up then

Jack thought about the irony of the Season being based on an obscure passage from the Bible and so many people like Mike are using it as license to have as much pre-marital relations as they can.  As a Catholic, the Season’s biblical origins made him uncomfortable more than anything else.  Under any amount of scrutiny, the connection between this huge, ubiquitous social institution and the passage is dubious at best.  And Jack felt that if you’re going to lend religious legitimacy to the Season, then you also have to lend religious legitimacy to the snake-handlers and the people who speak in tongues.  Plus, if you’re going to force non-believers to live by your own religious beliefs, it might as well be something with a somewhat stronger foundation and somewhat broader appeal.  The ‘Golden Rule’ comes to mind.  That ‘easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven’ one would really be a hoot as well.

Jack didn’t think the ‘natural law’ argument held up either.  There are a lot of animal species that don’t have mating seasons- but that’s a tricky argument, too.  Why should we hold ourselves to the standards of the animal kingdom?  Jack thought we were supposed to be superior, at least that’s what conservatives are always saying.  Or is it just American humans?  Either way, Jack did believe that humans have souls, which makes them different from animals.  He felt that the deep stirring you feel when you gaze over the Grand Canyon at sunrise or when you listen to Beethoven or when you hug your mother is evidence enough of that.  For Jack, the soul is also what compels people to do crazy, glorious, beautiful, irrational, genius things like create art and music, or move cross-country on a whim or pursue off-beat careers- why shouldn’t the soul be the thing that governs how and when we choose a life-partner as well?

Another text came in.  Again, Jack’s Pavlovian conditioning kicked in and he felt that same momentary levity-

AUNT CANDACE- Hello dear, it’s your favorite aunt.  We have a good feeling about this year and we’re all pulling for you!  All the best.  Love, Aunt Candace

She ‘had a good feeling’ last year, too. And who exactly is ‘we?’ Jack had a one of those large, Irish extended families- lots of aunts, uncles and cousins.  He was one of the oldest cousins, but also one of the last single ones.  It all seemed to happen over the course of about two years.  Now he was the focal point of his many aunts’ idle speculations.  It was hard for Jack not to mess with them- something he wishes he had when he was facing the same barrage of questions about college (I’ve decided to join the French Foreign Legion instead- I get to choose a fake name and they let you grow a beard!).  Maybe he should bring one of those Japanese body pillows with a face to Thanksgiving this year.

Like many in Jack’s generation, he chose to focus on school, work, or sports (usually all three) the first couple years he was old enough to go away for Season.  For his generation, finding a life-partner simply wasn’t as high a priority, either.  Looking back, Jack couldn’t imagine his life had he found someone right away.  The economic downturn likely played a role; not many young people could afford to take the time off.

Even with his generation moving away from this long-standing tradition, Gatherings have become increasingly hyper-specialized.  Sure, general-interest gatherings are still out there, but with the help of social media, every year there are more and more themed Gatherings; LGBT, eco-friendly, 2nd Amendment, feminist, Hogwarts, fat, (the infamous) Fashion-meets-Finance, even the Gathering of the Juggalos.  Perhaps the most telling theme Gatherings are the ones for divorcees.  The fact that the divorce rate continues to be so high despite all the ways to find people with common interests and lifestyles says a lot about the institution as a whole.

Now the hastag #SeasonOne popped up on social media this week, spread by first-timers.  The assumption there is that now first-timers have no illusions that this’ll be their only Season.  There’s also been a rise in ‘casual Gatherings,’ or, as they are also known- ‘fuck festivals.’  Jack understood the arguments claiming there’d be chaos, the breakdown of the ‘traditional family’ (whatever the hell that was), and the loss of productivity, but if the Season is going to have more sentimental value than actual social utility, then maybe we could use a little ‘competition of ideas.’  Hell, America is supposed to be a nation built on new, subversive ideas anyway, right?

Another clear benefit of being away for Season is that with less time at his computer, Jack wouldn’t be at the mercy of the bifurcated tyranny of that first week of Season as presented on social media.  Every post on Facebook is either some shrill political statement, the gushy sentiments of newfound love, or the snarky cynicisms of the unattached.  It could be a bit much.  Cynical of this whole enterprise as Jack may be, he didn’t treat his singlehood as a referendum on the entire institution of love as many of his single colleagues do around this time every year.  Jack truly felt that love is a powerful force and should be celebrated where ever it’s found.

Jack approached the toll as he entered the New Jersey Parkway.  He said a silent prayer of gratitude for the invention of E-Z Pass.  Life is so much easier with it!  That’s probably where the name comes from…  Jack was only afforded a moment of levity before the reality of the invention invaded his consciousness, as it always did.  New Jersey’s highway system was only supposed to have tolls for the first ten years of their lifetime in order to pay for them.  Unfortunately, very enterprising New Jersey politicians figured out pretty quickly what a great money maker tolls were and made them permanent.  E-Z Pass is essentially a solution to a problem that shouldn’t exist.

Jack made a note to himself that he should probably keep discussion of bonds, no-bid contracts and pension double-dipping to himself during Season- not a great ice-breaker.  On second thought though, why? Jack mused.  This was who he was, and these are the things he was passionate about.  And (despite how Mike approached it) besides, this isn’t supposed to be a popularity contest- you only need to get it right once.  Nah, Jack decided, let’s get weird.  Let’s see who’s still standing once I let my flag fly.  Sex, religion, politics, social justice, space adventures, cats- it’s all on the table this Season.

On his way through Union County, Jack passed a sign for the hometown of one of his musical idols.  Not Asbury Park, hometown of Bruce Springstein- musical idol of a lot of his buddies, but Plainfield; hometown of George Clinton, the Godfather of Funk.  The fetishism of ‘the Boss’ by upper-middleclass white guys always made Jack uneasy.  It’s almost as if Bruce’s message of the virtues and struggles of blue-collar life are a stand-in for actual life experiences- fake street cred.

When Jack’s classmates were rocking out to Matchbox-20 and Dave Matthews Band, Jack could be found getting down to Snoop Dogg, Rick James, and of course, George Clinton.  George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic is at the same time a wholly singular talent and immeasurably influential.  The sound he pioneered can still be heard in hip-hop, pop and dance music to this day.  Clinton’s message through songs like ‘Atomic Dog,’ ‘Flashight,’ ‘Bop Gun’ and many others spoke to our shared humanity, how the dancefloor can be a space of unity, and a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously.  His live performances are these outlandish productions with spaceships and huge accompaniments comprised of men in diapers and wedding dresses.

Aside from his timeless, infectious music, Jack respected Clinton for doing things his way and following his vision.  For Jack, you can’t really leave a lasting impact if you’re always following someone else’s playbook and not being true to yourself.  In that respect, George Clinton stood as more of a free-spirited, troublemaking kindred spirit and role model to Jack than simply a favorite musical artist.  WWGCD?

He came up on the exit for Sandy Hook- the site of the first ever Gathering he attended.  He and his buddies were still two years away from being old enough to attend, but they had just gotten their drivers’ licenses and needed to howl at the moon.  They weren’t even particularly interested in girls yet, but it was something that they weren’t allowed to do and they had already grown tired of breaking laws in their hometown.

Last season was the first one in which Jack actually felt prepared to meet someone seriously.  He had a good job, but it was more than the traditional notion of ‘stability.’  For years, he was either travelling, or in school, or just starting a new phase of life.  True, many times he’d find himself at a Gathering along his travels and would ‘do as the Romans do,’ but settling down was never a part of the equation.  The same could be said for all of his off-season dalliances.  Somewhere along the line, Jack became the guy girls would get their ‘groove back’ with.  He relished all of his romantic and sexual adventures.  They were always positive experiences and kept in contact with many former connections.  But now, Jack felt he knew himself (largely due to these experiences), what he wanted, and what he had to offer well enough to feel comfortable looking for something longer-term.  He also had all the ‘young guy merit badges,’ so he felt confident he wouldn’t wake up as a 40-something full of regrets and resentment, like many of his co-workers.

Jack shied away from the term ‘settling down,’ but not for the same reasons many commitment-phobic guys did; he had no intention of settling down.  He was looking for someone to keep up with him, to challenge him, a Bonnie to his Clyde.  Jack had grown accustomed to doing things on his own, but at this point, he felt like his life is so great and full that it’d be a shame not to share.

Jack also knew what he didn’t want.  He didn’t want to be an old dad.  He didn’t want to be one of those swingin’ 30-something bachelors who looked forward to Season every year like a Never-Neverland frat boy.

He thought he had found it last Season.  Jack signed up for a Gathering held out in rural central Massachusetts.  It was hosted by an old hippie couple Jack met at an event at the Catholic Worker House on the Lower East Side.  They formed an intentional community based on the teachings of Saint Francis- environmentalism, pacifism, and social justice.  Jack could hardly believe such a Gathering even existed.

That’s where he met Hope.  Their first encounter was like being struck by a bolt of lightning.  Jack and Hope were inseperable for the next two-and-a-half weeks.  Jack always knew he’d know it when he felt it, and he certainly did.  Her curiosity, her openness, her wit- Hope had a gravitational pull in which Jack was helplessly caught.  They had the same values and world view, similar life goals and senses of justice and mischief.

Then, all of a sudden, Hope had doubts.  It was nothing having to do with the connection or chemistry- she just said she didn’t feel ready.  She was still in grad school and wasn’t sure where she’d be living in a couple months.  It was hard for Jack to understand.  Why was she there at all if she wasn’t ready?  He knew what was in his heart though, and did his best to allay her misgivings.  Ultimately, no amount of hours spent meandering in the wilderness, early mornings tending the community garden, or frenzied, acrobatic lovemaking could sway her.  Jack knew the real issue was that Hope’s insecurities lay deep down, out of his reach.  He simply couldn’t convince Hope to love herself, let alone accept his love.  One day he woke up and she was just gone- no good-bye, no message.  Even after attempting to reach out to her, Jack never heard from Hope again.  That stung.

Maybe finally being ready is the just the beginning- not the end.

At this point, so many months later, the only lingering emotion Jack still felt was anger.  For Jack, if there were Kubler-Ross stages of loss for relationships, anger would be the final one.  It was Jack’s nature to be supportive and empathetic and give others the benefit of the doubt.  He could very easily convince himself that the person’s wellbeing was more important than the relationship. For Jack, anger signified a finality.  It meant he had released any hope or expectations and had returned the focus to himself and his well-being.

Jack was flying past Toms River when the text he had been waiting for came in.

JENNY- Hey you.  We are just finishing up dinner now.  We’ll probably check out the boardwalk before the Cotillion.  Lemme know when youre heading out so we can meet up!

Jenny.  The ‘Cotillion’ reference was an inside joke between Jack and Jenny about how classy Season down the shore would be.  It would only take a very compelling reason to get Jack to come to Atlantic City and Jenny was precisely that compelling.  Jenny is a California sunset in the body of a blonde competitive swimmer.  Now a teacher in Philly, once upon a time Jenny and Jack were college friends.  There was always something there, but she always came back from Season with suitors.  She recently even bought a house with one.  But Jack definitely noticed when this suitor disappeared from Jenny’s Facebook presence a couple months back.

Not long after that, Jenny reached out to Jack.  She wanted to know what Jack’s plans for this Season were.  Jack was smart enough to read the subtext in that question.  Of course he was still interested- but why him?  Jenny was never short of suitors.

Jack had often thought about just driving out to Jenny’s place with flowers and cooking her dinner.  He wondered what his parents would think if he brought home a girl during the off-season.  Well, they raised him.  They’re the ones that stressed critical thinking and being his own man- he felt pretty confident they’d be supportive.  Hell- they’ve been supportive of all of his other strange life decisions.  But that’s the thing with choosing someone to share your life with; there are more constituencies to consider.  Jack knew Jenny’s family was much more traditional that his.  That’s not even taking into account all of the questions that would inevitably arise from everyone else if they went public.  No need to rush (much easier said than done, however).

The NYC-based radio stations were beginning to fade out and get invaded by Philly stations.  That always seemed to happen right in the middle of a great song.  CBS FM was on a fantastic stretch of old-school funk.  ‘Let’s Groove Tonight’ by Earth, Wind and Fire slowly morphed into vaguely country-sounding static.

“Let’s groove tonight.”  Jack suggested to himself aloud, almost like a mantra for his trip.

Jack never got nervous when it came to the opposite sex, but this was different- and maybe that’s good.  Maybe a little uncharacteristic nervousness is a sign that this is something more; even if there wasn’t much outward evidence of it yet.  For weeks he’s been exhaustively reviewing her social media presence.  The real trick is going to be acting like he doesn’t know everything she’s been up to for the past several years.  ‘Oh you went to Europe in April?  How was Prague- I mean…  So where did you visit?’

It had been a struggle to manage his expectations.  Jack reminded himself that his feelings were based on things in his head at this point.  There could be no chemistry, and Jack had to at least be prepared for that.  There will be plenty of other girls around– he told himself- and at the very least, him and Mike could shoot some hoops and watch the Yankees.

As he had a couple more exits, Jack worked on his talking points; read anything good lately?  What’s the best cheese?  Who have you kept in touch with from college?  Are you all caught up with Game of Thrones?  What historical figure would you most want to sleep with?  He even had enough time to play out several scenarios in his head.  That’s when it occurred to him; oh shit- what if it actually goes well?  What comes next??  He had been so focused on the initial meet-up, it never even occurred to him to think about what, you know, happens after that.  You never hear about that in the R&B songs on the radio- it’s always about the pursuit.  The panic was momentary, though.  He knew he was a catch, and besides- look at all the shit-for-brains out there who make it work.

The night had almost chased all the light out of the sky and the lights of Atlantic City’s garish downtown strip lay before him.  With a jolt, he remembered he hadn’t responded to Jenny.  He quickly punched in a text.

JACK- Be there soon.  Let’s meet underneath the ferris wheel at 10.  I’ll be wearing my finest gown.  Looking forward to seeing ya

JENNY- K!

Smooth.  Keeping her waiting builds the anticipation (and gives Jack some leeway in case he gets lost).  Directive- women love a man with a plan.  Casual excitement sets a tone of positivity but not desperation.  And the ferris wheel meetup spot has the potential of a great scene- like in a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan movie.  Jack was pretty pleased with himself.

Wait– Jack paused- Atlantic City’s boardwalk has a ferris wheel, right?  He hadn’t been there since he was a kid.  Could he have been thinking of a different boardwalk?  Or was it destroyed by Hurricane Sandy?  Well, if he was wrong, Jenny didn’t give any indications.

This was becoming very real now for Jack.  Idle musings in Jack’s head were soon going to be played out in the real world and have very real, long-standing ramifications.

Jack was participating in a tradition he found as goofy and arcane as Major League Baseball managers still wearing baseball uniforms (in every other league it would be a preposterous notion!).  He was taking off work to travel to a city he hated.  He was going to meet up with a girl who lives in a different state that he hadn’t talked to in years.  It all seemed like kind of a long-shot.

But long-shots make for the best stories, though.  At heart, Jack was a hopeless romantic and a story-teller.  And this has the makings of the first chapter of a Great Love Story.  No one has more or better reasons to remain cynical, but Jack decided he’s going to be open to every fantastic possibility.  Jenny reached out to him.  Mike somehow managed to rent a beach house during peak Season.  He didn’t hit any traffic at all.  It was a beautiful night. Jack rolled down the windows as he curled around the cloverleaf leaving the highway and let the warm, salty air fill his car.  As he pathologically hit the SCAN button, he came across the perfect song to start his Season.

“…Rip it up

Cool it down

Rip it up

And get the feeling not the word

Everybody have fun tonight (Everybody have fun tonight)”

Life will break your heart every chance it gets.  But sometimes, it can be goofy.  And every once-in-a-while, life can be beautiful if you let it.  Jack saw the beauty in the night unfolding ahead of him, and he wasn’t going to let it go to waste.  Everybody will indeed Wang Chung tonight Jack thought to himself with a grin.

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