Finalist : Terrain.org 9th Annual Contest in Nonfiction
Now I am above the mountains. In the air. California is a glimmer point, distant in the west. California is the shutting of an eyelid. I drove 3,000 miles criss-crossing that state and saw the things I needed to see. I poured myself back into that soil. A land is composed of its people and I saw the people I loved. Sometimes you need the tangible image in your hand: a photo of me in Los Osos with the boxer, Hans, in my arms. I’ve grown to love the animals in my life. Love is that big concept word. Both noun and verb. Love is like the day being birthed. Like the sky getting familiar with itself. Deep reddening over gray waters. Sun rising over eastern slopes, Oates Peak and Valencia Peak. The tiny shadows of the tiny pebbles strewn across the path. I was there this morning when I saw the world emerging from itself. Montaña De Oro. These words inscribed like a dark scar on my heart. The love-organ. There was surf and spume and big waves crashing on the rocks. Everything was still and gray. I know the earth emerged from the sea and then the first gray amphibians took their gasping steps. Maybe we kept walking. Maybe I never stopped. There were other places I walked to. The south end of Big Sur. Highway One cutting like a thin ribbon through the hills. Big waves took hold of that too, yanked it down into the sea. The road was closed just north of Ragged Point. I went there also, to see the sun rise on the water. The sun’s dramatic triumph against night. Each day a little play for us to see. I followed a steep path to the beach there. It was pebbles, not sand. And the pebbles felt cool, and because I had woken up early, I lay down. There was some spray and some salt. And it felt good, like a heavy blanket. So I rested a little. When I woke up, a couple of tourists were staring at me from up the hill. We all love to take in the sights. Each one of us is a different kind of tourist. I love to tour the land. Map the geography with my toes. I started hopping on the rocks, skipping from one to the next. I used to do this always as a child. Move from one little cove to the next. The tourists on the hill shrunk back to nothingness. I was already nothing and the sea was already next to me. I was far enough away on that beach. The clearest eye couldn’t discern a pale creature slip into the waves. I took off all my clothes. It was just me and the ocean. When I went in, the water rushed into me. I dunked my head under. The cold brine staining my irises a deeper blue. It was the truest feeling I ever felt. The love-organ was pumping again. The shock of life in the dull old cavity. And there was only wetness. There wasn’t me. I slipped into liquid. I became a fluid state. Nothing else mattered. And I knew then ever since we lost our gills we’ve been trying to get them back. That’s how it always goes. You leave the thing that keeps you alive. You move past it, haughty and confident in those first few wet steps. And then drying on land you begin to shiver. But the ocean will not receive you. You left her and that’s all there is to it.
I left my mother behind a motel room door. This time it was marked Number 12. Each time it’s the same hollow feeling. The same hollow knock and the same anxious looking around. What did I see? The same mottled pigeons jockeying each other over crumbs. The toothless denizens. A shopping cart with a bad wheel and the bad air of Bakersfield burning into an orange rust. Evening descending like a tilted pigeon wing. I didn’t want to be there. I never did. And digging my heels into the concrete, I wondered what kept me there. What spinning force of gravity kept me pinned to Bakersfield, to the Plaza Motel, to the flat face of my broken mother, her eyes cast yellow in the spreading light of the door jamb? The mini-fridge was overstuffed. Something in the bathroom was leaking. She had her clothes dangling from the shower rod. We marvel at the ingenuity of the destitute. Situation spurring invention. I saw plastic bags gathered up in balls. I saw a Pringles can stuffed with flowers like a vase. I didn’t know what to do or what to say. The ritual of unnoticed awkwardness was not rehearsed. What do you say to someone who knows you and doesn’t know you? To someone you left behind, to someone who left you. There were stories locked in her gray eyes. Glimmer of facts within the fabrications. But there was also oblivion. The not-knowing. Ignorance became a void with forgotten memories cast about like floating particles in the expanse. And in their wake the joy of not-knowing came gurgling up like a gray spring with wet newts clambering about it. In her mind, she could make anything real. There was no truth. There was no past or present or future. The minutes were just minutes that ticked by, that evaporated into thin dust collecting on the window sill. She gave me a coffee mug. I gave her money, I didn’t want any of it. She’d see me again in a year, we’d both be older. And that’s it. She hugged me goodbye and as I drove away, I couldn’t shake the feeling of it.
Driving is what keeps me going. Driving is a way of communicating with the road. The wheels screeching by. The accelerator and the brake. I drove to my little sister. Her eyes were the same as my mother’s. But they held more truth. They made no fiction out of pain. They know the facts of the foster home, of the street pillows and alleyways. When they first brought her into the group home, they had to leave the lights on because she was afraid of mice. Afraid of the mice that used to nibble her ankles. What is it like to sleep on a cardboard box? What is it like to have your mother’s broken mind be your only connection to the world? Her eyes told me everything and stayed silent. And silence is the vision that speaks in the voids. Silence is the tar that fills the wounds.
Way out in Eureka, a town founded for what wasn’t found there, in the redwoods you can listen to the silence and find something. Thick trunks soft and splintering. The trees remain silent. A thousand years of growth without a sound. They regard you as a speck. A noisy disturbance in their meditation. Is it wrong to remain there, to let the thick wash of rain drip past you and cling in dewy threads to your pulpy mass of hair? Each drop a little reminder of the breath still in your lungs. When I walked the trail to Fern Canyon, the water slogged to my ankles. The mud filled my socks. I didn’t care about being wet anymore because there are few things a terrestrial beast could ever hope for and the one thing we all know is that we will never stay dry.
Header photo by Worawit.So, courtesy Shutterstock.