It seemed a little odd for an Ark to have 3000 tons of concrete as part of its construction materials, but this ark was not meant to float. In fact, it was meant as a building, which would ultimately house a sanctuary, and classrooms. It was meant as a sign from Pastor Richard Greene and his wife Lottie to the world that God loved them all, but also as a warning that Jesus was returning soon. Mark was amazed that so many people and so much money and time would be devoted to a boat which wouldn't float. He was also jealous that those people, as foolish as they seemed, had a purpose to their lives that he lacked.
He didn't see Laura for a long time after that. She lived about 600 miles away, up north. The next year, she couldn't make the Nashville party because her deceased husband's father had also died. He watched EvilDrLaura and DoctorM run through a succession of relationships, while he himself went through a bankruptcy, business failure, and job change. He and Laura maintained a warm but unromantic friendship on-line, until one day in July of 1999.
It was a rambling conversation typical of #mcreadys, about travel to distant lands. Laura was on, decompressing from her nightly waitress job, and Mark was at work for the government contractor. He spent a lot of time in the virtual bar while on the contractor's nickel.
They were simpatico, differing only slightly in their choices of exotic lands and attractions. At one point, Laura mentioned that if they were traveling together, they would have to pretend to be a married couple, to comfort the sometimes straitlaced natives. Mark got a warm feeling from the idea that she'd even consider that.
Then in a private message, Laura asked "Am I the only one here feeling some interest?" Mark was at a loss at first, not understanding the question. Then it hit him, and the warm feeling spread from his chest to his toes, and his heart started beating much faster. "No, you're not alone" he typed, and gulped.
"Good!" she replied, "Now what?"
They began a torrid sequence of private message conversations, ranging from dreams and hopes to kvetches and a great deal of erotic interplay. At the same time, whenever they could spare some attention, they carried on a much more mundane conversation on the #mcreadys channel.
One Thursday evening, Mark had an idea. It was crazy, probably wouldn't work. But, if it didn't he'd have the whole weekend to drown his sorrows. He packed a duffle bag, threw it in the back of his Mazda, and went to work.
When they were well established in their private chat, he asked "What would you say if I showed up on your doorstep, would you send me away?"
She replied, "No, of course not! I'd welcome you in with a big wet kiss, and we'd go from there."
"What if it were... tonight?"
And sure enough, about 3:30 he left his workplace, and drove 600 miles to her house up north. She was asleep when he finally got there, but woke to his kiss. They had a golden weekend, and he returned home late Sunday evening.
They were now a couple, officially, in flesh as well as cyberspace. They couldn't wait to get back together, and planned a return "Engagement" three weeks after the first. Since the drive was so long, they decided to meet half way, and Mark picked Morgantown, West Virginia.
Mark reached Frostburg, a town so small if you sneezed you'd miss it. He stopped at a convenience store on the side of the mountain, and bought gas and ice cream. Behind the store was a small graveyard, containing many headstones commemorating the Frost family, who had founded the town. Getting back on the highway, he saw a sign to the Thrasher Carriage Museum, and against the sky he saw a skeleton of girders, belonging to the new Noah's Ark construction project.
US 40 had a new name, the Historical National Pike, in this stretch. And it was at this point it stopped paralleling I-68, and turned to the northwest toward Uniontown, in Pennsylvania. He could choose instead to keep westward, get on I-68, and head to Morgantown. He had a lot of fond memories of that place.
Morgantown, WV, is the home of West Virginia University, the school at which, among other things, was conducted the WVU Band Camp. It was at band camp (Mark flashed on mental image of Alyson Hannigan declaiming "one time... at band camp...") that he stayed in his first dorm room, had his first kiss, his first pitcher of beer, his first toke on a joint, and started a Long Distance Relationship for the first time. For him, it was a place charged with sex and passage.
Laura and Mark had decided that Morgantown was as good a half-way point as any, and planned to meet there the third weekend in August. He could scarcely concentrate on work, and even his bureaucracy-saturated coworkers noticed a change in his behavior. They could tell he was in love.
Friday dawned and Mark was up early. He loaded up the car, not just with the few clothes he needed for the weekend, but with his guitar, and a dorm-sized fridge. At the last moment, he threw in a leather jacket that he loved but was too small for him. It was also a present from his ex, Rhiannon, and somehow it seemed appropriate that he mark the change in his life by passing it on.
That day passed slower than all the previous days since their last meeting put together. Finally he was able to leave work. He set out on I-64 with the cruise control set up all the way, humming to himself and trying to keep his mind on the road.
The problem with their separation was not only distance, but the You Can't Get There From Here nature of the mountain areas in between. To stay on the interstates, he either had to go north and then west and then north, or west and then north and et cetera. He decided to take a short cut.
From Winchester, VA (appropriate since he had gone to a band competition there in high school), he set out on the smaller highways of north western Virginia and of West Virginia. He remembered his mother driving them through the Allegheny National Forest on the way to Morgantown. There appeared to be a nice diagonal way to cut the corner off his route. He didn't count on the winding unfamiliar roads, the unexpected side trips, and the failure of some of the computer-generated map routes to actually connect in reality.
In fact, the first time he could swear he knew where he was, he was in Cumberland, Maryland, and could take a straight shot down I-68 to Morgantown. He lost at least an hour with his "shortcut."
When he got to the motel, she hadn't arrived. He waited, tapping his fingers nervously on the window sill. The weather report had mentioned a lot of rain to the north and west of Morgantown, and he was sure she had been caught in a downpour, and had an accident. There was nothing he could do but wait, no cell phone, and she had no idea what room he was in.
Finally he decided to take a shower and relax in his bathrobe. He stayed under the water much longer than usual, trying to soothe his nerves. He got out, put on his robe, and opened the door. There she was, flopped down on the bed, exhausted.
She was hot, and tired, and grubby, and beautiful. He leaned over the bed to kiss her, and she pulled him down, off his feet. They kissed hungrily, as if to fuse into a single blob of quivering excited flesh.
Well, suffice it to say, they didn't leave the motel at all that night, except to buy some beer and champagne and strawberries. And whipped cream and peanut butter. And of course there was no sleeping that night, nor the next morning. They did escape for a short tour around downtown Morgantown, which was just as Mark remembered, before returning to their room for another prolonged session.
The next day, it was time to head back to their homes. After they checked out, they didn't want to separate. They walked around a park, and joked and kissed and took pictures until they couldn't put it off any longer. They had to separate again, for another three weeks.
Finally, they ate one last meal together in the McDonald's just down the road from their motel. She had a Filet-O-Fish sandwich, which she barely touched, and he had a pair of cheeseburgers which he wolfed down unthinkingly. As the finality of the moment sank in, she made a decision. She pulled a ring from her finger, and placed it in his hand. "Please wear this as a sign of our love. It would mean so much to me." He was struck dumb for the moment, but placed it on his finger, after asking her which finger on what hand would be appropriate.
Mark drove off from the McDonald's parking lot with tears in his eyes, and she saw he couldn't bear to leave her any more than she wished it to happen. She got in her car, and left in the opposite direction.
He remembered, as he followed US 40 to the north, past a sign advertising Laurel Caverns and its underground golf course, that Reddi-Wip once had a photo contest, where they solicited photos of their customers "real or fun experiences while using Reddi-Wip." He wondered if they got any pictures like his memories of Morgantown. He had a few, hidden away for years, but there was no telling where they were now. Hopefully not on-line somewhere, though he found the idea a little pleasing nonetheless.
When he drove through Uniontown, he waved solemnly to the Muffler Man in front of Fayette Tire. And as he went through Tridelphia, West Virginia, the sight of the Giant Beer Bottle triggered that old familiar thirst.
This time, though he fought. He wrestled, and he struggled, and he strangled that need. It had been a long day, and he was very tired. The dots on the road started blurring together, and he'd jerk himself awake after drifting over the shoulder.
Finally, when he almost lost control of the car after overcorrecting a slip into the ditch, he decided to give in to the inevitable. He stopped at the very next motel he saw, yawning almost uncontrollably as he presented his American Express card.
"Room 6" said the clerk, and turned back to her television. It was a decrepit old black and white, its tuning knob missing and aluminum foil on the antenna. An aluminum insert, that he recognized as the filler used to play 45 RPM records on an LP turntable, lay next to the set. The screen showed a seemingly never ending series of infomercials.
"Where's that?" asked Mark
"Honey, this hotel only has twelve rooms," she said, without even turning around. "Outside, to the left." She used the aluminum insert to change channels.
He found the room, opened the door, and collapsed onto the bed, without undressing or unpacking or even turning on the television. He sank into a deep, cool blackness, a void without form or substance, a dreamless sleep.
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