You arrive finally on the California coast, and even though this is northern California, you’re expecting tan, leggy blondes and barrel-chested surfers. You’re expecting red swimsuits and lifeguard stations and blinding white sand. You’ve brought your own red swimsuit and you’re expecting California to deliver.
Here’s what you get instead: jagged cliffs covered in seagull shit. You get wet wind. You get big-armed bearded men who ride Harley’s, and tie-dyed, wrinkled women who smell like lavender. You get a runny nose and damp feet and an icy ocean that couldn’t care less about red swimsuits. It says fuck you red swimsuit, I am busy tearing at land. I will tear until I reach the Atlantic.
This is the news after 1,062 quiet miles—after one divorce, two yard sales, four months of double shifts, and a spate of Coors Light hangovers. With no idea how many hours’ drive it is to palm trees, you stop at the roadhouse and get a room upstairs, #7, with a lighthouse quilt. You get shared bathrooms at the end of the hall with a basket of toiletries from previous guests. This is better than standing in a Wal-Mart in Montana choosing a brand of hairspray. Which is least likely to catch fire? You are happy not to have to decide. You are happy for leftover Aqua-net.
As a girl you stood in that Wal-Mart in Montana pulling at your mother’s skirt. You watched as she set a box of Life back on the shelf, shut her eyes and breathed out, “California.” You let go and tried to catch the word in your hands, tried to hold it between you like it was something you could share.
Downstairs at the bar you find a book of matches with “Mike” and a phone number penciled inside the flap. You head outside and use one of the matches to light a cigarette, a Virginia Slim, which you feel you deserve for having come a long way. You dial Mike and when he answers you say, “Convertibles.”
He says, “Hello? Who’s this?”
You say, “I see cars but no convertibles. I see a chapel and a feed store and a community center and three teenagers walking to the cliffs, and not a one of them is rollerblading.”
He says, “You’re still at the bar. Stay there, I’m coming.”
He arrives and he is handsome. Blue eyes, black hair. He is a big-armed, bearded man, and he is looking for someone else. You show him the matches and ask if you’ll do.
“Let’s walk,” he says, and the two of you head out through a field to the edge of the ocean. You tell him you are not trying to find your mother, and he shrugs like it’s not for him to say. He says, “What I know is this: the bartender, from Nebraska, will let you smoke inside during the Tuesday night pool tournaments. The cook, from Kentucky, will make grits on cold days even though they’re not on the menu. The taxi driver, from South Dakota, drives drunk after 7:00 pm. And I,” he says, “don’t know dick about surfboards, but I can mix you a margarita. I can shine your shoulders with oil.”
“Nebraska?” you say. “Kentucky? South Dakota?” You say, “I’m trying to find California.”
He scratches his beard. “Which is what?” he says. “Hollywood? David Hasselhoff? How about you ask him where he’s from.”
The non-rollerblading teenagers begin setting off fireworks, and you try to remember if today is a holiday. Mike’s face turns orange, purple, white as he watches. You tell yourself you’ll kiss him when the number of explosions reaches 101, the highway you’re to take south in the morning. You’re counting 84, 85, 86, and you’re smoking faster and laughing harder and he’s daring you to strip down and wade in. “Go all the way,” you say, and you unbutton and unzip, push down and pull off. Mike whistles as you tramp over sand that might as well be snow, your body illuminating under the bursts. You push into that angry ocean, the cold whipping your thighs, cementing your lungs, your mouth sucking the night for air. An oncoming wave readies to bury your head, and your arms butterfly forward, your feet kick free of land.