Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.
I am unusually motivated for an early Sunday morning. When I pulled Ana’s covers close to my chin last night, I had envisioned waking to birds chirping at the rosy hints of dawn. Instead, it’s eerily silent. At 6 am in Pacific Grove, the clammy mist trapped ashore, even birds forget to wake.
After a hot shower, I stand wrapped in a towel, shifting my weight back and forth on the wooden floorboards of a stranger’s home. Ana, a nutritionist and yoga instructor, is renting me her apartment while she is away for the weekend. My suitcase has sprawled its guts onto her bedroom floor, pant legs and sleeves lolling over the edges like a car crash of invisible women.
I can’t believe that she hasn’t locked up her valuables. Other hosts I’ve stayed with through airbnb have installed locks on closets or rooms that guests cannot enter. Ana, on the other hand, has left her computer, jewelry and clothes free for the taking. I peer into her open closet where she has made space for my things, tempted to see if she has anything cute and warm that will fit.
Instead, I don my own jeans and a tank top, grabbing my canvas coat as I leave. I pull the door closed behind me heavily –the only way that it shuts– and secure the white picket gate, wondering if the entire coast is socked in. I glance into the review mirror as I rumble down Laurel in my red Mustang; the clouds have already closed in behind me.
No one is on the road before 8 am. A lonely neon sign blinks silently from a dusty cafe window, and I feel like the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust. The gas station marts are dim and closed up tight. I keep waiting for a hooded man to appear at the side of the road, a harbinger of doom.
As the road becomes Highway 68, I turn onto a series of switchbacks through the forest. I’m pushing forward blind, my hands gripping the steering wheel greedily through the turns. I round a tight figure C, my mid-section toned taut against the g-force of the arc when a loud spatter of condensation splats across my windshield, abrupt as hail. I jump in my bucket seat with a laugh.
Ten minutes later, I hit Highway 1, passing Carmel Valley Road, and emerge into a brilliant flood of sunlight that seemed impossible moments before. My destination is an outlook restaurant in Big Sur called Nepenthe, named for the mystical atmosphere of swirling fog and breathtaking views that alternate with the whim of the weather.
As the road grows closer to the ocean, the switchbacks become more acute. I realize that the turns I just traversed were nothing in comparison to those that form the highway ahead. My acrophobia returns as I spin the steering wheel this way and that, braking and accelerating back and forth down the coast with only the quick pace of my heart and the 80s satellite music channel as companions.
In ancient times, nepenthe was a drug of forgetfulness, an anti-depressant tonic. After forty minutes of stomach-flipping cliffside switchbacks, the high stone deck works a similar magic: cool breezes punctuate warm draughts of sun, soothing my anxieties. My driver’s adrenaline fading, I peel off my coat and cardigan down to my tank top, letting the rays hit my white arms.
Mists rise and tumble in the valley beneath Nepenthe’s retaining walls, as if campfires of memory smolder on the forest floor. As I watch them, I ponder the power to forget, which I’ve always struggled with. Though it doesn’t create happiness, it is a route to healing. I wonder if this isn’t why inner peace is an elusive commodity for me. I notice –and remember– too much.
Sometimes, my memory a gift — the ability to discern and hold onto remarkable moments of beauty or generosity that others pass over. There are also moments of offense that I should not be so keenly attuned to, if I desire inner tranquility. Tremors of injustice –an unkind word, a confidence breached– are enough to damn people into my perpetual mistrust. No matter how civilized our exchange might be, I’ll never let them in once I discover the chink in their armor.
As my high school English teacher, Jeannie Sabrack, said: If they’ve done it to one, they’ll do it to you.
With overt sinners, whose damage is too dire to be forgotten, I play damning performances again and again like black mantras over months and years. I pore over injurious details in obsessive repetition as if to protect myself from the lethal power of forgetfulness, vowing never to be lulled into false comfort and carelessness.
Watching the trees disappear and reappear in the fog, I think, This is what it is to feel vulnerable.
Like prayers of protection, I’ve spent my life documenting the memories of my existence –journals, sketches, memoirs– but even these records are susceptible to destruction.
A few memories remain indelibly printed in hidden places where only my mind can tap them, scratching over grooves of the past like an old record player in the basement. Even so, a few of their tracks smooth out over time. That’s why I don’t remember exactly what my father and I argued about when he punched the wall next to my head when I was seventeen, though it was likely about his girlfriend.
My father began dating her four months after my mom died. One night, he asked me how I felt about Sandy, how I really felt about her, and I snapped. From the start, she had approached me with disdain and dismissiveness, seeing me not as a potential step-daughter but as competition. Intellectually dull yet crafty, she quickly discovered the rift between my father and me, doing what she could to exploit it to her favor. He soon began spending most nights with Sandy and her son, Howard.
“If you really want to know,” I sneered, “I think she’s a bitch.”
I wasn’t prepared for the sting of his calloused hand against my cheek, though the fight that lead to it wasn’t atypical. We were in the middle of making dinner when things escalated, as they often did. I backed against the kitchen counter, dumbfounded.
“I can’t believe you hit me…” I said hollowly. I touched my hand to my cheek. It was hot. Honestly, I think he surprised himself by following through on the angry punches that he usually pulled.
Given the preceding years, neither of us should have been shocked. When I was younger, he swatted me mercilessly as a means of discipline, embarrassing me by suggesting to teachers at Parent/Teacher Night that they should feel free to use corporal punishment on me if I acted up. Even our occasional rough-housing was more a means for him to pin me down as I struggled, dragging my bare skin across the carpet or using my own hands against me to slap my face.
There was no mistaking the joy he derived from striking me; we both knew it. Part of it was a then-socially acceptable unleashing of anger; another part, a cultivation of shame. Really, we had been building to this moment since the beginning. My mother’s death simply the prolonging of our collision.
Perhaps it is a small self-kindness –a draught of nepenthe— that I am able to forget our conversation the night he hit the wall. At that time, we lived in a ranch-style tract house shadowed by a 20-foot saguaro cactus. Our home was part of a master planned golf course community, though neither of my parents golfed. It had belonged to a retired couple before we moved in at the start of summer in 1980. I doubt that the mirrored closet doors ever reflected such a show-down during their residency.
My father and I faced each other in the dining room, arms twitching at our sides like cowboys in the Old West, his skin flushed with its characteristic red. Hearing us argue, my beagle, Sheba, whined and scratched from the other side of the closed kitchen door where she was perpetually locked. My father never let her in the carpeted side of the house because of the fine-pointed coat she shed.
It had nothing to do with words, really; it was the fact that I wasn’t backing down. Instead of crying or running away, I stared defiantly into his eyes (“shit brown,” he always described them) and it drove him mad. The man who reduced me to tears during routine math lessons wasn’t able to break me that night. Still, I was transfixed by his growl and his dead-set predator stare. Which of us was going to draw first?
I thought I knew his game. After what happened a few weeks before, I expected him to slap me again — and I was ready to take it. In fact, I wanted it. He hollered and I hollered back, watching him coil like a rattlesnake. He curled his fist and swung at my head as I dodged right, his knuckles crumbling the drywall inches from my left temple, leaving a hole.
To this day, I don’t know if he meant to miss –perhaps he only hoped to terrify me back into place– or if I ducked just in time. Wide-eyed, I fled to my room and slammed the hollow-core door, feeling thankful when the lock clicked into place just as he hit it, raining a torrent of threats from the other side. I wondered if he might come through it with one of the heavy tools from the garage.
I cowered inside my room for hours until a soft knocking came around midnight. I was still wide awake. I tip-toed near, pausing to listen for a moment. Had he been waiting me out? Was he there to apologize? Our lifetime of hateful words and short-lived apologies was a familiar, broke-down habit. I couldn’t be sure what he would do.
After another round of soft knocks, he called my name. Opening that door was an impossible dilemma, but he was my father. Even as I fought it, I felt compelled by obligation, so I cracked it open.
His hand was wrapped in a towel. All of the ruddy splotches had drained from his face and neck. I realized that this was not a nightmare; my father had thrown a punch at me and he had hurt himself.
“I need you to take me to the hospital,” he mumbled. He had taken pain killers, which slurred his speech and rendered him unable to drive a car, but didn’t dull the ache. “I think I might have broken my hand.”
I wanted to scream, Maybe you shouldn’t have tried to hit me! but I just nodded and followed him with my car keys.
Like Pacific Grove this morning, the streets were deserted as I drove my father to Thunderbird Samaritan Hospital. We rode in silence with the radio turned off. “If they ask what happened, you can’t tell them the truth. If you do, they’ll try to take you away from me.” For once, he wasn’t giving me an order; it was almost a plea.
I turned to deliver a steely glance from the rifle-barrels of my eyes. He couldn’t even admit what he had done, the coward. He just wanted to cover it up. If I had been bent on revenge, or had more guts, it was the perfect set-up.
But, he was my father. No matter how much I despised him, his influence was strong. Plus, which was worse: staying with him for a few more months or having the courts separate us? Would they put me in foster care?
We didn’t need directions when we entered the hospital. When we left last December, an hour after my mother’s death, I had hoped to never see nor smell its hallways again. It wasn’t just the sterile-sick stink of hospital; it was the orange-yellow memory of my mother’s cancer tinged at edges with camphor and unquenchable sadness.
I don’t know what my father told the physicians, but they never asked me what had happened. No one found out and we never discussed it again, but I couldn’t forget. More aptly, I was afraid to forget — or allow myself to believe that my home was a safe place, even in times of apparent peace. There was no such thing as safe.
In Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption, a beaten and battered Andy Dufresne dreams about escaping prison to live the rest of his life in Zihuatanejo, Mexico:
“You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific? They say it has no memory. That’s where I want to live the rest of my life. A warm place with no memory.”
Like Andy’s planned escape, I abandoned my childhood home two days after I turned 18. My grandmother helped me orchestrate the move while my father was out, thinking that I was home packing in order to join him, Sandy and Howard in a split-level home they purchased in Peoria. He didn’t discover my absence until he returned home from work that evening and found my note. We heard the roar of his outrage five miles away at my grandmother’s house in Sun City.
I closed our front door behind me for the last time that day, entering a vast desert of isolation. Starved and sun-bleached, I remained lost for years, recanting mantras of my father’s cruelty around campfires. It was a means of punishing him from a safe distance; I didn’t see at the time that inflicting these karmic jabs on his spirit was also a slow poisoning of my own.
It has been a long road out of that exile.
As I step to the deck’s edge at Nepenthe, closing my eyes and letting the sun’s heat fall on my outstretched arms with a smile, I feel a little like Andy Dufresne emerging from a sewer pipe into the free world. When I open them, the fog rolls away and I glimpse the Pacific — a warm place with no memory. That’s when I realize that I haven’t recited my mantras in some time. Their grip has loosened and I can choose to let them go.
I lean over to release my heavy anchor into the sea, knowing that the ocean’s warm currents will stay with me, erasing and refining the deep grooves of my memory with polishings of water and sand. As the sharpness fades, a smooth surface will emerge: a tabula rasa upon which I can build a real home for the first time in my life.
It won’t happen overnight, of course, but for now, it’s enough that I can see through the fog to what is real: that I am worthy and loved and safe. Not because someone has rescued me, but because I’ve rescued myself.
These are lessons that I’ll never forget.