Oakland, CA

Run. That’s the first rule.

“If you see Security, just run,” he tells me while his friend hops over the rod-iron gate to welcome us into the cemetery.

We’re all a little buzzed, a little cold, and a little restless. It’s nearly midnight and there are no responsibilities the next day for these thirty-somethings.

The three of us start on the path up the cemetery’s hillside. A view of a sparkling San Francisco from the top, our prize. Slowly, we veer from the pavement and fan out into the dark, leaving behind the incriminating glow of the path lights and weaving our way around the headstones and trees. We don’t speak. That’s the second rule. And it’s not long before we can’t see each other, the canopy of tree branches blocking out the stars and moon. We’re walking blind over graves and only the squeak of our sneakers occasionally slipping on the dewed grass notifies us that we’re all still here.

I stop and look down towards my feet but can’t make them out. Then, there are no more squeaky sneakers. No sounds of cars in the distance. No breathing but my own.

I wait.

I hear nothing but can sense that I’m not alone.

I clear my throat.

The two fellas whisper from yards away and I find them at the top of the hill, sitting in front of a large tombstone on a concrete bench. One fella removes a tallboy from the inside of his jacket. The other lights his pipe and blows smoke into my mouth.  We watch the lights of San Francisco wink at us from across the bay, and we sit there, smoking and drinking and watching until the night dampens our clothes and the frozen cement stings our skin. Then we pack up our trash, say goodbye to Mr. Tombstone, and stroll down the hill, out the gate and along the Avenue. We were never here. Not at all.

September 2013

 

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White Water, CA

For my birthday, I head to the desert— a present to myself before moving to the Northeast. I visit John, who has left sister Jenn and the Lou for a dusty piece of property not from Joshua Tree. No more hoosiers, he tells me. Just roadrunners and scorpions. 

He shows me the frozen Sarah Lee that he got me for my birthday then we celebrate with his special punch and some Amy Winehouse. I wake hours later, alone in the dark of his living room, looking at through the sliding glass door for any roadrunners and listening for the hiss of a scorpion.

July 2013

Humboldt, CA

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I came from San Francisco, up the 101, by way of Cloverdale, Hopland, Ukiah, Laughlin and other cities with names that I vaguely recognized from my childhood. I came by  way of vineyards framed by power lines and telephone poles. By way of towns with pit-stop diners and shops that sold wind chimes, tie-dyes, and tree trunks carved into bears. Through towns with only two traffic lights and towns that looked like abandoned movie sets with nothing but vacant land behind their main street. I came by way of the deer-crossing signs that emerged after the eucalyptus trees, oak trees, and luxury cars faded out and were replaced by a landscape thickened with redwood and pine.  I came in with the trucks and the SUVs and the dirt-coated vehicles that had earned their spot on the highway, all weighted down by the equipment strapped to their roofs and pressed against their back windows. And I drove until the towns were gone, and it seemed even the gas stations too; till the roadside attractions and campgrounds were all that were left of civilization, and I was in the Avenue of the Giants.

August 2013

Repost: South Lake Tahoe, CA

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My last stop is South Lake Tahoe, and it’s the day before my twenty-ninth birthday.

I’ve always been a birthday/anniversary/holiday/celebration type of person, but I’ve been looking forward to this birthday in particular. Not necessarily for the small list of accomplishments that I’m happy to have already completed in my twenty-nine years, but for the simply ridiculous reason that on this day, and only this day, I will be able to truthfully say, “Yes. It is my twenty-ninth birthday.” Any other birthday that I say, “I’m twenty-nine,”  will be a joke, a lie, a fantasy. But on this day, I am officially twenty-nine, and that seems like something to celebrate.

Against financial responsibility, I decide to honor my birthday by crossing the state line into Nevada and book a night at Harvey’s Hotel & Casino. I’ll track sand across the marble floor when I check in, and I’ll throw away my oatmeal, warm carrots, leaky honey jar, and moist bread, and I’ll order room service right before midnight—an ice cream sundae. I’ll think it’s the best eleven dollars spent on the entire trip.

But before that, I head down to the Pope Beach.  It’s noon and the middle of the week, but I’ve yet to let it sink into my head that it’s summer, so those two former facts don’t matter—there’s still a lot of people on the beach. There’s only a few, however, in the lake. The water averages about fifty degrees, unless you go out farther to where the boats are, where the water is deeper, and the temperature there is about thirty-nine. Tahoe is the only place I’ve been where I can be extremely hot and extremely cold at the same time. Whether I’m in the water or on the beach, the sun and sand are scorching, and the wind and lake are freezing.

I plant myself in the yellow sand that’s pierced with pine needles, and I sit back. A man and a woman, both in black bathing suits, wade into the lake holding hands. They spend five minutes ankle-deep, looking down and waiting for their toes to adjust to the water. Then they take a few more steps, the man’s shoulders tense and the woman’s arm becomes straight and rigid. They’re up to their calves.

There’s a tan little boy walking on a log that’s rolled down to the shoreline. The waves are folding into the piece of pine, soaking it, and I’m grinding my teeth waiting for this kid to slip. A few feet away there’s a toddler. A little girl weighted down in the wet sand by her diaper. She’s with her mother, or sister, or cousin, or female watcher. The woman hands the toddler an apple. The toddler sticks it in the cerulean water to wash it. The woman snatches the fruit and tells the toddler, No. “Don’t do that. Gross.” She thinks the water is dirty.

Everyone else is camped out on the beach away from the lake’s tiny waves. Groups of teens with magazines and BBQ flavored chips. Families with coconut sunblock and umbrellas. Couples with sunglasses and white paper cups. Once in a while someone will go to water, either curious or on a dare, and stick his or her toe in and run away. A dad holds his son’s hand as the boy bends down to touch the water. “I can see your lips turning blue,” the dad says to his son.

It’s hot on the beach and I haven’t swum since Florida, and even there I didn’t swim for that long. I take my keys out of my bag and bury them in the sand under my towel, then I stand up and walk down the burning beach into the lake. I have Goosebumps on every part of me, but I keep walking—there’s people possibly watching me and I’m using them as my peer pressure. I don’t stop walking until the water is at my shoulders when I’m about to go under and realize then that I still have my sunglasses on. The cold is setting into my legs. I’m adjusting to the water, and I don’t want to get out just to toss my glasses onto my towel. I don’t really care if they are Ray Bans. I look down. My legs are whiter. There are specks of gold reflecting on the lake’s floor. There are pieces of pinecone, a bubble gum wrapper, and my shadow. I bury my toes in the sand, which is warmer than I expected, and I keep walking, shuffling my feet along, kicking up clouds of sediment.

With each step I feel my skin ripple on top of my muscles. The water is to my chin. I turn around and glance at my stuff on the beach—my towel and tote bag/purse. No one is near it. I lift off, swim a few strokes, and dunk under the water with my eyes open and my sunglasses on my head.

I pop up, satisfied with being completely soaked. A man in a wet suit a couple hundred feet to my left surfaces too. He’s combing the lake for litter, and I kind of want to tell him about the bubble gum wrapper. I keep swimming, dunking under and up. A couple of years ago, I had ear-tubes in my ears and couldn’t go under water. When I finally got them removed, I was already living in Boston, and good places to swim were hard to come by. (I’m often jealous of people who like to run because it’s easier to find place to run than places to swim.) I love swimming.

I swim out past the buoy and stop. The water is dark and I can only make out a hint of my shadow below me. I turn around and face the beach. There’s a young guy– seventeen, eighteen –swimming towards the buoy. The couple in the black bathing suits is up to their waists and bobbing in the water. The tan little boy is still on his log. The toddler and woman caregiver have moved back from the shoreline. And there’s a man standing a few feet away from my bag. He’s eating from a small bag of chips, as if he was standing in a kitchen, and he’s looking out at the lake.

I think about what’s in my bag—my small digital camera, my phone, a couple of credit cards, twenty dollars, a book, a pen, a bunch of Post-its with notes written about the people on the beach, and my shorts. (My ID and the rest of my cash are in the car.) I imagine someone walking by and gathering up my towel and my bag, pretending that it’s theirs. I wonder if I would holler at the thief from the water. Swim back really fast? Probably not. I’m too far out and wouldn’t get there fast enough. I contemplate for a second if I should swim in, at least be closer to shore, and then I think, what does it matter? I wouldn’t drive home just because my bag is gone because the worst thing that would happen is I’m stuck in Tahoe without a cell phone. And I don’t need my cell phone. I don’t need to talk to anyone. I don’t need to do anything. I don’t need to be anywhere. In fact, I’m quite content with where I am.

Still facing the beach, I lean my head back in the water, stretch out, and bring my toes to the surface. I see off to the side the teenage guy who had been swimming towards the buoy. He’s almost as far out as I am. I bring my head back up and my feet back down, then turn away from the beach and swim a few more strokes.

It’s my birthday. I want to be ahead.

Originally written 7/19/11 and posted here  9/21/11

Picture taken separately 8/2010.

Bodie, CA

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“It’s a globe,” I tell the little girl, holding her up to the window. And I tell her that the sun faded its picture away because it stayed in front of the window too long.

“We should move it,” she says.

But I tell her I don’t think that we’re allowed to because that’s what people like about Bodie– they like that it hasn’t moved.

July 2011

See also: Bodie, CA (posted 8/22/11) 

Salton Sea, CA

“…got out of my car only to find myself standing on the bones of some dead animal…”

“Slow. Children at play.”

The city had been so carefully planned. There were  green palm trees and  mailboxes framing the empty lots with the blue Salton Sea peaking in the distance like a mirage. There were streets that were named after popular beaches like Redondo, Manhattan, and Daytona. There were shore-themed streets that sounded like they should sparkle– Shore Isle Ave, Shore King Ave, Shore Jewel Ave., and Shore Life. And there were the generic coastal names like Rainbow Drive, Palm Ave, Sea View Avenue, and Desert Beach. It should have been beautiful.

June 2011

See also: “Salton Sea, CA” (posted 6/7/11) 

South Lake Tahoe, CA

My last stop is in South Lake Tahoe, and it’s the day before my twenty-ninth birthday.

I’ve always been a birthday/anniversary/holiday/celebration type of person, but I’ve been looking forward to this birthday in particular. Not necessarily for the small list of accomplishments that I’m happy to have already completed in my twenty-nine years, but for the simply ridiculous reason that on this day, and only this day, I will be able to truthfully say, “Yes. It is my twenty-ninth birthday.” Any other birthday that I say, “I’m twenty-nine,”  will be a joke, a lie, a fantasy. But on this day, I am officially twenty-nine, and that seems like something to celebrate.

Against financial responsibility, I decide to honor my birthday by crossing the state line into Nevada and book a night at Harvey’s Hotel & Casino. I’ll track sand across the marble floor when I check in, and I’ll throw away my oatmeal, warm carrots, leaky honey jar, and moist bread, and I’ll order room service right before midnight—an ice cream sundae. I’ll think it’s the best eleven dollars spent on the entire trip.

But before that, I head down to the Pope Beach.  It’s noon and the middle of the week, but I’ve yet to let it sink into my head that it’s summer, so those two former facts don’t matter—there’s still a lot of people on the beach. There’s only a few, however, in the lake. The water averages about fifty degrees, unless you go out farther to where the boats are, where the water is deeper, and the temperature there is about thirty-nine. Tahoe is the only place I’ve been where I can be extremely hot and extremely cold at the same time. Whether I’m in the water or on the beach, the sun and sand are scorching, and the wind and lake are freezing.

I plant myself in the yellow sand that’s pierced with pine needles, and I sit back. A man and a woman, both in black bathing suits, wade into the lake holding hands. They spend five minutes ankle-deep, looking down and waiting for their toes to adjust to the water. Then they take a few more steps, the man’s shoulders tense and the woman’s arm becomes straight and rigid. They’re up to their calves.

There’s a tan little boy walking on a log that’s rolled down to the shoreline. The waves are folding into the piece of pine, soaking it, and I’m grinding my teeth waiting for this kid to slip. A few feet away there’s a toddler. A little girl weighted down in the wet sand by her diaper. She’s with her mother, or sister, or cousin, or female watcher. The woman hands the toddler an apple. The toddler sticks it in the cerulean water to wash it. The woman snatches the fruit and tells the toddler, No. “Don’t do that. Gross.” She thinks the water is dirty.

Everyone else is camped out on the beach away from the lake’s tiny waves. Groups of teens with magazines and BBQ flavored chips. Families with coconut sunblock and umbrellas. Couples with sunglasses and white paper cups. Once in a while someone will go to water, either curious or on a dare, and stick his or her toe in and run away. A dad holds his son’s hand as the boy bends down to touch the water. “I can see your lips turning blue,” the dad says to his son.

It’s hot on the beach and I haven’t swum since Florida, and even there I didn’t swim for that long. I take my keys out of my bag and bury them in the sand under my towel, then I stand up and walk down the burning beach into the lake. I have Goosebumps on every part of me, but I keep walking—there’s people possibly watching me and I’m using them as my peer pressure. I don’t stop walking until the water is at my shoulders when I’m about to go under and realize then that I still have my sunglasses on. The cold is setting into my legs. I’m adjusting to the water, and I don’t want to get out just to toss my glasses onto my towel. I don’t really care if they are Ray Bans. I look down. My legs are whiter. There are specks of gold reflecting on the lake’s floor. There are pieces of pinecone, a bubble gum wrapper, and my shadow. I bury my toes in the sand, which is warmer than I expected, and I keep walking, shuffling my feet along, kicking up clouds of sediment.

With each step I feel my skin ripple on top of my muscles. The water is to my chin. I turn around and glance at my stuff on the beach—my towel and tote bag/purse. No one is near it. I lift off, swim a few strokes, and dunk under the water with my eyes open and my sunglasses on my head.

I pop up, satisfied with being completely soaked. A man in a wet suit a couple hundred feet to my left surfaces too. He’s combing the lake for litter, and I kind of want to tell him about the bubble gum wrapper. I keep swimming, dunking under and up. A couple of years ago, I had ear-tubes in my ears and couldn’t go under water. When I finally got them removed, I was already living in Boston, and good places to swim were hard to come by. (I’m often jealous of people who like to run because it’s easier to find place to run than places to swim.) I love swimming.

I swim out past the buoy and stop. The water is dark and I can only make out a hint of my shadow below me. I turn around and face the beach. There’s a young guy– seventeen, eighteen –swimming towards the buoy. The couple in the black bathing suits is up to their waists and bobbing in the water. The tan little boy is still on his log. The toddler and woman caregiver have moved back from the shoreline. And there’s a man standing a few feet away from my bag. He’s eating from a small bag of chips, as if he was standing in a kitchen, and he’s looking out at the lake.

I think about what’s in my bag—my small digital camera, my phone, a couple of credit cards, twenty dollars, a book, a pen, a bunch of Post-its with notes written about the people on the beach, and my shorts. (My ID and the rest of my cash are in the car.) I imagine someone walking by and gathering up my towel and my bag, pretending that it’s theirs. I wonder if I would holler at the thief from the water. Swim back really fast? Probably not. I’m too far out and wouldn’t get there fast enough. I contemplate for a second if I should swim in, at least be closer to shore, and then I think, what does it matter? I wouldn’t drive home just because my bag is gone because the worst thing that would happen is I’m stuck in Tahoe without a cell phone. And I don’t need my cell phone. I don’t need to talk to anyone. I don’t need to do anything. I don’t need to be anywhere. In fact, I’m quite content with where I am.

Still facing the beach, I lean my head back in the water, stretch out, and bring my toes to the surface. I see off to the side the teenage guy who had been swimming towards the buoy. He’s almost as far out as I am. I bring my head back up and my feet back down, then turn away from the beach and swim a few more strokes.

It’s my birthday. I want to be ahead.