‘So, How Was Montana?’

 

This piece originally appeared in Reisikirju, a collection of travel stories published in Estonian in 2014.

***

“So, How Was Montana?”

That’s what a lot of people asked me on that summery first day of the eighth grade. The place was called Setauket, which is a hamlet in the State of New York, on the East Coast of North America. Setauket is even smaller than a village or a town, though as you drive east from New York City on Long Island, which is still pronounced in the Dutch fashion of Lange Eylandt, the city runs into towns and into villages, with hamlets strewn about like confetti, and there is never really an end to human development until you get a good hour east of Setauket, and then there are pumpkin and Christmas tree farms, wineries and fishing ports where men really fish.

“But how was Montana?”

Most of my good friends growing up would leave the island in the summer for a spell, to go to Europe or the West Coast, some place exciting, although it was never so easy. To leave the island takes dedication, initiative, money. There are a few ferries, a number of bridges, and several airports. Surrounded by sea on three sides, and on the west, that treacherous East River, Long Island is both a sanctuary and a prison of the mind. The softness of the sands, the repetitive movement of the water against the coast, it lulls one to sleep, until he never would even dream of leaving. And yet in this sonorous stupor of insular contentedness, a young man can find himself dreaming of other faraway places, where more exciting things might happen.

“Petrone! Great to see you, man. Did you have a good time in Montana?”

In June, when the school lets out, the students of our leafy school district trade boasts about coming summer adventures. And this past June, the one that ended a tumultuous seventh grade, the one that saw me grow about a foot, sprout whiskers on unusual portions of my face, smell awful almost all of the time, get ugly metal braces, and lose most of my elementary school friends, I thought I had something to boast about. My father had come home one day with a brochure from the travel agent for different excursions in Montana. Montana, so named by wandering 16th century Spaniards because of its remote and rocky mountains. There were pictures of grassy plateaus and green streams, snow capped peaks, vast blue skies, and cozy log cabin hotels with wagon wheels built into the architecture – a table made from a wagon wheel, a chandelier made from a wagon wheel – as well the heads of slain furry animals on the walls. “Are you really up for it son?” My father was exuberant. “Are you up for a big trip to Montana!”

“Justin, it’s so good to have you back in class. Did you enjoy Montana?”

I told every person in every class about our impending adventure in Montana. And how cool I did feel. “Did you hear?” people began to whisper. “Justin Petrone is going to Montana.” “No way. Really?” Nobody had been to Montana. Even Michelle, a pretty blonde-haired girl in Latin class who would wear a t-shirt to school that said GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK on it, had only been to Wyoming. But Montana? It was the fourth largest US state! Only Alaska, Texas, and California were larger than Montana. I imagined how we would sit around a campfire in the mountains of Montana somewhere and remembered the story about how my older brother’s father Jack had gotten into a fight with some Native Americans who had “attacked” their campsite in Wyoming at night, pulling one off of his horse. Later, they found out that the Indians were just actors who were paid to “attack” the tourists for fun and there were some mumbled apologies and no hard feelings. God, isn’t my brother’s dad crazy or what?

“Justin! What’s up man? How was Montana?!”

As that summer began, I started to wonder when we would go to Montana. How would we get there? Montana was so far away, we would probably have to fly. Or would we drive? I knew of some families that had driven across the country. It took them a week to do it! I asked my father a few times about Montana, but he shrugged and said, “I have to call Denise at the travel agency and check on how that is going,” and “Oh, I forgot to take care of that this week, let’s see, next week I’ll probably have time to look into it.” June turned into July, July into August, and soon school would start again. And so the thing is … we never went to Montana. I spent the summer at the beach, staring at the water, reading books and watching my IQ points evaporate. And the only one who knows this is Brett Chase. Brett Chase lives down the street from me and he knows I didn’t go anywhere this summer. He knows that Montana was just one of my father’s ‘could have happened’ stories. Later, he’ll come up with an excuse for why Montana never came to be. It might have to do with a misunderstanding at the travel agency or something. There must be some kind of reason.

“Mr. Petrone! Back from Montana!”

Brett Chase. I love him like a brother and I hate him like a brother. And yet we could never really be brothers because he’s so perfect and that’s why I detest him even more than is brotherly possible. Everything about the man irritates me. Even if someone drops his name in conversation, something rubs me raw on the insides as if I had swallowed a spoonful of sand.

Brett Chase. A perfectly square head on a perfectly rectangular body. The sinewy muscles of a basketball star. Everything about the guy is handsome and symmetrical. Bright blue eyes, ash blonde hair, a toothpaste commercial smile. And he’s always so tan. Unusually tan. Bizarrely tan. There are various theories in school about the origins of Brett Chase’s brownness. One is that Brett is part Cherokee Indian and he has inherited some kind of recessive swarthy gene. Another is that he spends so much time in the Caribbean that he doesn’t have time to lose his magnificent bronze color. The moment it starts to fade, Mom and Dad have him on a plane to Antigua or Barbados someplace sunny like that. I prefer the Cherokee Indian theory myself.

“You didn’t go to Montana, did you, you big goof.”

This is what Brett Chase says to me on that first day of eighth grade.

I cannot respond and only look around and hope that nobody can hear him. Then I nod yes.

“Ha! Petrone told everybody he was going to Montana and then he didn’t go to Montana.”

Brett Chase has on a yellow t-shirt that has an image of a beach, palm trees, and a sun sinking into the water behind them. Underneath it, you can read the text: “Everything is Better in the Bahamas.” I wonder what my t-shirt from Montana might have looked like. Maybe it would have had an image of a dead animal’s head on it. Or a wagon wheel. Or an Indian. Maybe all three. I still can’t say anything, but Brett just stands there with his perfect smile, each one of his teeth perfectly shaped and white and square, all in a row. That guy will never need braces.

He passes me in the hallway, the bell rings and it’s time to go to class. First day of eight grade.

Another dreary year.

***

I still keep in touch with Brett Chase, believe it or not. It’s a friendship that’s mostly long distance and virtual these days. But that doesn’t mean that Brett Chase is out of my life. Far from it. Brett Chase is in fact closer to me than ever before. Like a lot of people, we keep in contact via the world’s most successful networking website. And through it old childhood friends like me are kept up to date on the adventures of the world’s most perfect man.

Brett Chase has been busy. The past few days he’s been back in New York City, selling multi-million dollar apartments to other rich people and sipping whisky at trendy bistros with his entourage of equally perfect people — wine importers, Internet entrepreneurs and the like. But Brett won’t stay in Manhattan for long. No way. Captain Tan is getting restless. Soon he’ll be back at John F. Kennedy International Airport, boarding another jet for a jet-setting adventure.

The New Year began for Brett Chase in the French Alps, where he and his wife, a half-Swiss, half-Chinese pixie named Cassandra showed off their high-end ski gear and good looks, sipping champagne on a mountain top in Chamonix. After a few weeks selling Manhattan apartments, February brought this perfect pair to a quick weekend getaway to Costa Rica, where they surfed every day and dined on trays of delicious local foods and gallivanted with rock lizards, while making sure to photograph their well-toned, tanned bodies so that no one with whom they were remotely connected could be unaware of how perfect and completely awesome it was to be them. And they are awesome. I’ve met Cassandra. She’s wonderful. They are both so wonderful.

Over Easter, Brett and Cassandra surprised us with a visit to Memphis and Mississippi where they ate fried catfish in old blues joints and visited Al Green’s church for a little hot buttered soul and fashionable digital photography. In one of the photos, Brett Chase is wearing a designer blue shirt open at the collar and black boots, with his square handsome face looking directly at camera. Cassandra is beside him, like garnish on a gourmet dish, a tight dress with an ethno pattern restraining her figure, lustrous black hair is tossed back in the southern air.

When I saw the photo on the social networking site later that day, I was consumed with jealousy. Sickened is one of the right words. Spasms of nausea convulsed through my abdomen. It hurt to even look at it, so I had to look at it three or four times, like a child picking at a wound to check if it’s stopped bleeding, I looked at the image of wonderful Brett and Cassandra in Memphis.

In the span of three months, they had done the French Alps, Costa Rica, and the Mississippi Delta. And what had I done? It seemed as if I hadn’t left our apartment in Estonia in ages! All I did was write. I hadn’t left home since March, and then only for a swing through Cambridge in the UK while my wife was away at an ashram in India and the kids were with a babysitter in Viljandi. But still! He had done three places in the same amount of time! That bastard.

When I saw the Easter in Mississippi photo set, I remembered how Brett Chase used to invite me over to his house when we were teenagers so that he could try out his basketball moves on me. I would stand there below the net, and he would charge up, twisting his torso through the air on the way to a slam dunk. To see all of those images of his global life, well, it was like being slam dunked on again. He was up there, leaping into the air, blocking out the sun, palms up like Michael Jordan, sweat dripping down on me, ready to shatter all of my self-confidence again, and then land beside me, asking, nonchalantly, “So, Petrone, do you want some lemonade?”

This time though the stakes were higher. Because instead of a measly orange basketball, it felt like Brett Chase held the whole world in the palm of his hands.

Wikipedia tells me that envy can derive from a “sense of low self-esteem that results from an upward social comparison threatening a person’s self-image.” Moreover, “if the other person is perceived to be similar to the envier, the aroused envy will be particularly intense, because it signals to the envier that it just as well could have been he or she who had the desired object.”

In the case of my old friend Brett Chase and me, going back to our painful Montana dialogue, the desired object has always been the world. As soon as I saw the most recent images of his globe-hopping travels, I started scouting local travel bureaus for interesting deals. And soon enough, a number of exotic offers were at my finger tips. The Canary Islands, Singapore, Egypt. There would be images of me lazing in the dunes of Maspalomas, diving into hotel rooftop swimming pools in Singapore, riding camels in the Sinai! At long last, I would have my revenge.

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