~This story originally appeared in The Farallon Review (2010).
The time had come I guess. We were in Monterey for the weekend, the standard family get-away. We’d been going there since I was a little girl, I’ve got the pictures to prove it. There was nothing special about this one weekend, no occasion, a simple respite from our day-to-day, the enveloping ease that always came with stepping out of the car into the salted air. I’d always loved Monterey, and the course of our time there--Borg’s Motel, the aquarium, a big Abolonetti meal on the wharf. I had no notion when we arrived that I’d be leaving them.
This was March, all rainy and wet still, gray pan-lid skies cracked now and then into steep banks of sky and canyon deep clouds. A beautiful time in Monterey, the storms pushing in from over the ocean, the ocean itself crisp and quiet, cross-hatched gray and blue. The hills all around as green as they would ever be. Perfect time, our favorite, we always agreed. Everyone was relaxed that weekend, we had always traveled well together, me and Mom and Dad. Very close.
Borg’s, our one motel there, in Pacific Grove, a couple miles south of the aquarium and right on the ocean, otters and pelicans yards away, Borg’s was as it always was. Fifties-style cinder block, small rooms, pastel marine paintings, no amenities other than cable, but the view from our regular room, sea-side and upstairs, oh, the view was inescapable. I remember unpacking that Saturday afternoon, in scant rain, how comfortable it felt. I’d always loved the motel, it felt like home. The family story was that I’d loved it so much my first time there, when I was two, that when we checked out I had gone around the rooms--there was always a separate bedroom for me--and said goodbye to the television, the phones, the desks, the plastic ice bucket. And when my father started the car, all of us all packed up to go, I broke out in sobs and was inconsolable for miles and miles. I always felt that undoing tug when we left Borg’s, from when I was a kid and all the way up through the year before when I was still fifteen. I remember arriving the last Saturday and thinking I would be sad to leave this place again. So much like home.
I saw her first at the aquarium late in the afternoon. We were at the Outer Bay, that one huge tank of bright, quiet sunset blue meant to duplicate the open ocean just off Monterey, stark, clean stretches of deep water above the fathomless canyon. The biggest fish were kept there, the swiftest, the most predatory, tuna and barracuda and shark and flat-wheeled, glittering sunfish, and three or four enormous sea turtles gliding pacific and ignorant. When you stood in front of that tank, oh, I have no idea how big it was, hundreds of feet from corner to corner to corner, you could look up and down and side to side and see nothing but blue water and feel without trying too hard that you were out there in it all, and safely so, the dangerous fish--barracuda and shark and tuna-- sated with chum, and there you were in the middle of the ocean, quite lovely.
The aquarium’s other exhibits naturally showed off the abundance and crowd of the local coast, the gnarled and swaying kelp forest, otter and cod, starfish and anemone and mussel and whelk, plankton and krill, the soup of food, and some of those tanks were enormous, too, three stories high and wide, but you lost the vista in the crowd, and while I loved the smaller shore-hugged tanks, I always ended up in front of the Outer Bay last, the interminable ease of it.
So there I was and that’s where I saw her. She was with her family, her parents, her older parents, but parents obviously, and they were all three in front of the Outer Bay, but I saw her because she wasn’t looking at the blue ocean, she was turned away from there looking at all of us, watching us, and so her flat plate face struck me. For the first time all weekend I wanted to weep. I suppose it was sentimental, no, not that, that’s the easy answer, just because she was obviously Mongoloid, retarded, so you could say, oh how sad, but no, no, it wasn’t that at all, farthest thing from it. What then?
She was about my age, I guessed, and because of who she was looked thirteen instead of sixteen, but had to be older than that, you had to figure. Sloped shoulders, thick glasses, dressed like all the quiet girls at school, plain and comfortable, unbelted. Her hands hung open in front of her, her mouth hung open just a little. So what did I see there that made me want to weep?
She and her parents formed a still pod in the flow of the traffic, her parents reaching back to her, pointing for her, drawing her in, her parents loved her very much that much was clear, and she loved being there and her parents, too, and she loved everything they saw. And what I saw there when I saw her was me.
I saw her again at the old wharf that night, the retail wharf, souvenir and candy shops--bones of coral, felt pennants, peanut brittle, salt water taffy--restaurants that struggled to be elegant, an aged pier surrounded by fishing boats you couldn’t tell were working or not, strings of colored fiesta lights. Across the harbor, across the small fleet of anchored pleasure craft, the nearly dark commercial wharf where real working boats, bigger, ships almost, were done for the day, done skeining the ocean of what it had to offer. Seal barks echoed from one wharf to the other.
We had come for dinner, wandering families everywhere. The rain had let up, the clouds broken, a moon’s aching light. Abolonetti’s on the wharf, as usual, we were headed there, but strolled the shops we’d always strolled and where we’d bought nothing in years. I had the urge, the same urge I always had, go figure, to buy a piece of coral spray painted neon chartreuse, and my other whim, always there, to purchase one of the wrapped packets in the grabbag barrel, a buck a throw. I spent a lot of time looking at an otter-shaped keychain.
Then there she was. She and her family, in front of another restaurant, a restaurant that had changed names so many times I could no longer read what it was now, a restaurant that looked exactly the same as I first saw it, a restaurant I’d always wanted to go to but we never did, always Abolonetti’s, and her parents were reading the black lighted specials menu with intensity. She, though, she was staring into the lobster tank, staring down from above, her gaze as thick as that afternoon in the aquarium.
She looked up at me, I was standing in front of the ice cream parlor watching the taffy curve and fold into itself, and she smiled. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone more delighted. Truly so. And I smiled at her and waved from my hip, and she waved and laughed, and I had to go off just then, up to the end of the wharf, where we were headed, and I ducked into an alley between the old-timey theater and a fish market, and broke down and wept, which I’d been wanting to do since the afternoon. That’s the moment I knew I would leave, right then, I mean I knew then.
Up past the diving bell, my parents already at the restaurant podium and figuring the time for a window table, I turned back and saw her, she was far away now, that small, but I could still see her and her parents, their shapely pod. They turned and headed our way. Oh, how I wanted to eat with her, fried clams and sand dabs, maybe swordfish or ling cod, the catch of the day, whatever that might be. I wanted to invite them to join us, she and I could have a long talk, but no, our table, a four top for the three of us, was ready by then and waiting.
Lighthouse is a very long street, one that starts in Pacific Grove, winds past the Aquarium, then past the wharf and downtown old Monterey, then straightens out and heads east, right for the freeway. I took that, easy to do, right at the wharf parking lot. Why wait to get back to the room, I was headed in the other direction. We were in the last shop, I said wait just a minute, I said something, and then I was gone, something about a souvenir, breezed out, then I walked to the end of the wharf, walked past the organ grinder and his crazed little monkey and walked through the lot of parked cars to Lighthouse. The moon had given up, the clouds were back, but no rain, and so the night was hazy and close.
I knew where I was going. I knew what would happen. Walking along by a last little bit of beach, headed eastward now, I was determined I should continue this way, on sidewalks. And they would lead me where I needed. At the far end of Lighthouse, just where it enters a grove of eucalyptus, a few blocks from the freeway, there’s an Applebee’s restaurant. You do know it, don’t you. You do, you should. I wasn’t going there, no, I had to go much farther than that, but it was a good enough sign, all lit up yellow and crowded, smoke pouring into the sky. I was headed well beyond this, eastward for a bit, but never too far from the ocean, always within reach of the ocean I wanted to stay, at least close enough to find fog shroud in the mornings, some place like that, that’s where I was headed. Looking for towns near the beach, that was the deal.
No freeways, no, the freeways were far too dangerous, and certainly too fast for me. I was on foot, remember, and would need the sidewalks to take me to whatever town near the beach it would be. And I had no idea of what town that would be, only a clear view of what it would be once I was in the middle of it. That’s what had struck me, there in Monterey, the perfect picture of where I was headed, and I have no idea what this picture had to do with the girl in the aquarium and on the wharf, the girl who made me finally weep that weekend.
What I saw, and where I knew I was headed, had more to do with architecture than destination. It went like this.
I knew I’d have to make my way under the freeway, just past the post-doc school, past the skating rink I’d never once seen open and the fresh produce stands, then under the freeway again, freeways this time, a choked confluence of freeways going north and south and east, but skirting under them, beyond, would it still be Lighthouse or had the street’s name changed, anyway, it didn’t matter, I remembered what was out there, small shops with broken signs, motels we’d have never stayed in, without pools, bars that never closed. And on into Sand City, the long sidewalks of Sand City, we’d driven past many times, past the flat shopping tops, the parking lots, white fluorescent trying to beat out the night, no one, no one ever on the sidewalks here, and so no one to harm me, sway me, only the crush and limn of the sodium lights, and on through Sand City, and I knew that I would look back one day and this short stretch would seem, or be, the longest stretch of all, that simple moment of leaving. Then on past the old army base, the battered wood shuttered, trace the army base on its cracked back roads, then, stopping, north or south.
I lived north, grew up north, so south, and going south, on more cracked road until finally the sidewalks returned, the sodium lights returned, and I knew, would know, eventually did know, it was all sidewalks from here, here headed south to cities that hugged but did not kiss the shore, and into one small city, one small town after another, then dead night sidewalks, then bright sun shrill sidewalks, the cities and towns all lit up under it all, south and south, until. Until I found it. And there, the small city I’d need, need for being away. How many towns or cities, it didn’t matter, only south until I found it, found it south where I’d stay.
I’d find my way among used to be modern buildings, formed concrete and painted redwood beams, deep overhanging eaves over empty wide walkways. Like a community college somewhere, or most medical offices. There would be trees, too, but tall and clumped, walls against the sky. Oh, Barbara and Donald, can you picture it.
I’d go to some school in such a place. Shuttle from class to class on the broad walkways, narrow borders of white rocks leading from class to class, and I’d sit in plastic chairs under heatless banks of lights and follow along with the lessons, and shuttle from this class to the next. Gray dripping mornings--eucalyptus in the morning--and cold inward evenings. I knew I’d take a lot of evening classes.
I’d live, too, in an apartment like this, oh, more wood, dark painted unfinished redwood, a big two-story complex, pods of doorways gathered together, burnished metal mailboxes for everybody. Deep carpet, aluminum windows, tinge of paint in the air. Only electric heaters. And work, too, in a place like this, again the formed concrete, almost polished it’s so smooth, the white office lights quivering in the fog light. A big parking lot.
There’s a quaint downtown here, oh yes, but it’s over there, with its porches and warmer lights and cozy family rooms glowing into the fog. That’s where everyone else lives.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
This was a story that utterly surprised me. I had been writing novels for a couple of years, finishing one and in the midst of writing another, when this story showed up in my head and refused to go away. I was out walking in Golden Gate Park, near my house, one Sunday, when I saw an older couple near a waterfall with their teenaged Down Syndrome daughter. My heart choked to tears, for some reason, and suddenly I saw this family through the eyes of some teenage version of my then 11-year-old daughter. And I saw, through her eyes, that something about this scene would make her instantly abandon her own family, that is, my wife and I. Odd, yes, but inescapable, and I set out to write the story, if only to see what I might learn.
And when written, the story was a complete departure from my earlier stories. The language was all broken, inexplicably--the grammar was off, the syntax was confused, and the diction was plainer than plain, with little spikes of texture and detail. However, I had no choice but to follow. And from that story, others soon arrived, almost always prompted by seeing some woman or girl I only passed by; words and images, and all that broken language, rose in me. So, assaulted by these stories, I've written them if only to quiet them, and am nearly done with a book-length manuscript, Languish. They are all less than ten pages, all first-person female narrators--from young girls to old women--and the language, it just gets broker and broker as I proceed. I know I'm not in charge of these stories; I submit to them.
ABOUT LEWIS BUZBEE
Lewis Buzbee is the author of Fliegelman's Desire, After the Gold Rush, First to Leave Before the Sun, and The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. Steinbeck's Ghost, his first novel for younger readers, was selected for the California Library Association's John and Patricia Beatty Award, and was a Smithsonian Notable Book. His second middle grade novel, The Haunting of Charles Dickens, won the Northern California Book Award and was nominated for an Edgar Award. A new novel, Bridge of Time has just been published, and a new nonfiction book, Blackboard, will be published in the fall of 2013. A bookseller and publisher for over 20 years, he has taught creative writing for 20 years, and is on the faculty of the MFA program at University of San Francisco.