There is something rugged and fragile about Michael Burdick, or perhaps my own fragile resilience seeks out glimmers of itself in others. People like us, whose childhoods were topsy-turvy, identify each other by a gang sign of preternatural alertness behind our seemingly relaxed eyes.
We are darting lizards, willing to lose a tail or a foot if it means escaping the predator’s maw.
Even as an adult, I subconsciously identify escape routes from the trappings of life — homes, cars, jobs, even relationships. I hold on loosely, as any of them can be jettisoned to create a clear path in the event of calamity. Experience has taught me that I can stand to lose them if I have to; they are comforts rather than necessities. Their value is always less than that of freedom, no matter the pleasure they bring.
When I met Michael over a decade ago, I couldn’t place the expression of understanding that I see in his eyes today. I was just learning to recognize it in myself and I certainly didn’t expect it from a surfer. Take away his career in the aviation industry and what remains is an alternately laid-back/frenetic caffeine-and-chai-fueled wave-hound who speeds to the end of the street on his bike for periodic surf checks. Mountains and oceans are paramount.
I met him during my first trip to the Central Coast of California during the holidays; Santa Cruz has been synonymous with Michael B. for me ever since. Back then, he was married to Kirstin, my ex-husband’s sister, and I was the serious girlfriend brought home for the family sniff test. The more I got to know all of them, the more I wanted to join their family.
We arrived in Santa Cruz at dusk after a harrowing journey from San Francisco Airport down the 280-South to the 85-South and 17-South — the same road that I drove yesterday in my rented red Mustang. I’ll never forget Kirstin pointing out the black wipe-out streaks on the highway divider, regaling us with stories of daily crashes on that stretch.
None of her dramatic yarns awaited me in Santa Cruz this time. When a dumpy white Honda nearly ran me off the road as it merged onto the highway yesterday, I felt sad that she wouldn’t be around to hear my tale of narrow escape.
Though Kirstin and I stay in touch, Michael B. and I hadn’t spoken in seven years – they divorced before my ex and I did. Since pulling the rip cords of our marriages, Michael and I quickly became strangers again. I wondered if we would have anything to talk about other than our ex-spouses.
In spite of that, it was hard to turn into the driveway off of 26th Avenue and not think of it as Kirstin and Michael’s house. I sat for a moment, looking over at Michael’s silver Honda, recalling the old beat-up truck he used to drive, now long gone. I remembered trips with Kirstin to Florabunda to buy live garland, decorating the Christmas ficus that they lit instead of a tree, and the first dinner she and Michael served: artichokes with roasted garlic and brie, cracked crab, creme brulee. I had never known people who cooked that way.
At 23, it was the first time that I had ever eaten artichokes. It was the first holiday that I spent away from my family. Kirstin’s mom, Sue, had embroidered stockings for everyone — including their cat, Scrappy, and me.
Like walking up the bridge in Civita again, opening the tall gate felt familiar, like I had been there last month. I pushed the dark metal handle, which made a thick clunk as it unclasped, and swung open the wooden door, calling to Michael. He emerged as I stepped into the back yard, pulling a T-shirt on over his board shorts, barefoot as usual. He hugged me just as warmly as in the days when our former in-laws were our lingua franca.
I kept waiting to hear Kirstin’s sweet sing-song hello, but it was just me and Michael B., whom his friends call Birdie or Bird, a shortening of his last name. He led me to a bench seat, commenting on my speedy car and marveling at how much I had changed. “Wait, how old are you now?!” he exclaimed. When I told him, he sat back and said, “God, I feel old.”
Despite his ongoing complaints of degeneration, he hadn’t aged much to me. He had more gray in his hair and it was cropped shorter than I remember it, but that was it. After all, a mid-50s man who calls surf bums “maggots” and lets fly phrases like, “Don’t get bent,” is Dick Clark for the modern age. I could go on about his lineage –his father the author, who died young of a heart attack, or his family’s ties to Hollywood– but they are only worth noting in the sense that he both defies and surpasses his heritage. The endless wrangling of his personality is a desire to escape all that; the struggle both weathers him and keeps him vital.
We toured his house, altered here and there over the years, and the back cottage where my ex and I had stayed in the 90s. I laughed on sight of the shower: just a pane of glass on two sides, as any proper converted garage beach house should be. We froze our asses off that winter, which was one of the coldest on record. I remember being more prudishly concerned about my future in-laws seeing me naked while strolling the back yard than I was about the gooseflesh-raising 17-degree showers.
Today, the garden was lush and overgrown and full of color and hummingbirds. As the light sea breeze caught my hair, I realized that I had never been to Santa Cruz in the summer.
Michael asked me if I remembered when he had his own heart attack and I rolled my eyes. “You mean the time you had a heart attack and decided to go ‘run it off’? Yeah, I do. Jesus, you’re such a guy-guy!” He smiled sheepishly, as if to admit it was a foolish idea in retrospect, but shied away from actually saying so.
We grabbed sandwiches and drove out to E. Cliff Drive to have lunch on one of the park benches, catching up on the last seven years. He talked about life since his heart attack and his embrace of Buddhism; I shared what I had recently learned of the Bahai Faith. We talked about growing up in our tumultuous families and the very similar lives that we lead today. Both of our exes have been in long-term relationships whereas the two of us have remained uncommitted for much of the time since our divorces. I wondered if the former wasn’t a strong influence on the latter.
Michael caught me mid-sentence, tapping me on the shoulder and pointing out to sea. A flock of pelicans, their wings spread wide, soared fifty feet away in the sunshine. They hung aloft on air currents, gently lowering themselves to the beach. “I don’t think I’ve seen pelicans in the wild before,” I murmured.
I turned back and saw a faraway expression in his eyes.
From pelicans, he turned to the flora and fauna of New Zealand, where he owns property, wishing aloud for the first of many times during our visit that he could relocate there permanently. The wistful way he talked about the natural beauty and the sense of harmony he feels there, reminded me of the way I talk about Civita and my hopeful struggle for an eventual relocation to Europe. As these echoed desires left my lips, I realized what similar creatures we are: we rail against the grounded practicality that we take on, half-hoping that it will slip through our fingers and we’ll be free to escape from the prisons of our own making.
After lunch, Michael drove us from the coast to the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, which features species from Australia, Africa and New Zealand rather than local plantings. From sea grasses and palm trees, we soon found ourselves walking through eucalyptus groves and dozens of bromeliads, hearty bushes and berries hardened into what look like concrete. Michael reached out to touch the plants with tenderness, noting their beauty with those faraway eyes again each time he pointed something out to me.
We paused at a shady bench to escape the climbing heat, downshifting into talking about relationships. He smiled conspiratorially and said, “One of my favorite questions these days is to ask people what love is.”
“It’s a fascinating question,” I admitted. “Everyone’s definition is different.”
“Some people can’t even tell you what it is. They say something like, I just know it when I feel it. If you can’t define what you think love is, how can you expect to find it — or give it?”
Michael sat back against the wooden bench as I peered out into a sea of tiny green leaves and gnarled branches, imagining that we were in the wilds of New Zealand. I knew that I only had a few seconds to gather my thoughts.
He watched me smooth my hair behind my ear, cocking his head. His light blue eyes wrinkled a little at the corners. Finally, he said, “So….?”
“…What do I think love is?”
“You knew I was going to ask you,” he laughed. “So, come on. I’m interested.”
I sniffed. In my teens and 20s, I equated love with solace and being saved. In my early 30s, I thought that love was passion and chemistry. I might have been one of those who said that they could only identify love when they felt it, an amorphous wave-swept emotion that carried a person away. A lot has happened since then.
“I think love is in the little things,” I said quietly. “Those things that we do for other people because we know that it makes their lives better. It’s the thought behind the act. Thinking of someone else and changing the world to make their experience of it richer. Maybe we give up something of our own to do it, like time or convenience.” I paused, as he nodded approvingly. “I guess my definition of love is service. It’s putting someone else’s needs first to make them happy.”
“Look at you, little bodhisattva!” he laughed. “Very wise. You’re a Buddhist and you don’t even know it.” He paused. “Of course, you have to start with yourself. You’re the foundation. You’ve gotta get that right, otherwise it’s hard to be much good to anyone else.”
I pulled my sunglasses back behind my ears so that we could look at each other. “That’s what I get out of yoga, actually. The way your body moves–or doesn’t, but you keep trying to be more flexible and expansive from a solid foundation– it’s a metaphor for life…and love, I guess.” A bird squawked in the distance. “Honestly, I’m still working on that whole foundation thing, maybe I always will… but I refuse to give up, you know?”
An infinitesimal blink crossed his expression. I had explained his rigorous dharma practice and solitary search for the same without him having to say so. We both felt the weight of it.
Rested but thoughtful, we rose from the bench. I followed him into the sun again from New Zealand into Africa, walking through a dark brown gate into a foreign habitat of gnarled trees and succulents. It was hotter now, probably in the mid-80s; I pulled on my cardigan to protect my shoulders, which still held heat from our seaside lunch.
As Michael closed the gate behind us, I realized that, while I talk about relationships with my friends almost daily, I hadn’t thought about love in quite some time.