The Suburbs of Babylon Chapter 5 Part 1

Another Friday, another week trapped in the US. At least this time, I’ve left the confines of Los Angeles to do some wine tasting in the Central Coast. This took me through Santa Barbara, where the following excerpt from my mediocre manuscript “The Suburbs of Babylon” takes place. I hope it distracts you even momentarily from your Coronavirus situation…

“Chapter Five

Three days and two nights away from my friends.  Amen to anything

that brings a quick return to my friends.—Sparks


            I am on a train, of all things, on my way to visit an old flame in Santa Barbara.  Don’t ask me why, but I’m actually a little nervous.  I’ve never been on a train before, and the romance is almost palpable.  On boarding, I followed a guy who looked learned in this kind of travel, trusting he would lead me to a good spot.  Sure enough, he plopped down across the aisle from a delightful young brunette, I’d say in her early 20’s, who in the first thirty seconds has confirmed all my expectations about the experience.  I sat behind her, and am at this very moment trying to conquer my cowardice and make some sort of contact.  But so far, no dice.  I’m beginning to sense the first ticklings of regret, now so familiar it’s like an old scent.

We are nestled within the Santa Susanna Mountains, where most of the early TV Westerns were filmed.  That may also offer an explanation for the natives’ tendency to believe they live in a fictional world—every inch of this city and its surrounding suburbs has been on film at one time or another.  The abandoned hospital next door to the Guest Home has been infested by a film crew for the past week.  I’m pretty sure they’re working on a Perry Mason episode, judging by the prop signs.  Even the orphanage was in a movie in the 70’s.  It’s no wonder everyone moves through a constant fantasy here.  Someone should explore the psyche of this society, where the people feel obligated to maintain the false image the rest of the world is used to seeing, as if life imitates movies.

The tracks lie in the middle of a mountain that has been cut just enough to fit the train through.  The rock face passes by in a blur a few feet from my nose.  Then the landscape spreads wide again, revealing distant brown hills, some scarred black from fire.  A hawk seems to hover alongside us for a moment before soaring upward.  A mobile home park, green oasis within the brown, sleeps in the afternoon sun.  We slow at our next stop.  In a flash on the platform is a beautiful girl in a yellow sundress with a green sleeping bag.  Seeing her is like breathing fresh air.  She has glided into my car, has seated herself up too far for me to see.  The guy I followed onto the train is slowly moving closer to the brunette in front of me.  He can’t stop himself stealing looks at her.  Clearly there will be a battle for her attention, should I ever work up the nerve to speak to her.

The brunette is leaning against the window.  I can see her bare shoulder, a black bra strap—her hair as it falls around the arm of the chair.  It would be so easy to reach forward, let my fingers lightly stroke her skin.  I can see her back muscle tighten as she adjusts her position, the movement of bone beneath it.  A natural thing.  Commonplace.

Ah, an elbow.  She has propped her chin in her hand, giving me a profile.  Soft white hairs on her arm.  A freckle.  A stern face, brow furrowed, eyes distant (blue).  Ordinary.  Everyday.  The guy, my competitor, can see her wholly.  He ogles her breasts, scrutinizes her thigh.  Gorges his male thoughts on a silent picture.  From that he conjures visions of sex.  I have an elbow, a shoulder, blue eye.  It strikes me that this is a girl who has felt sadness, disappointments, joy.  She could someday find happiness in the sound of my voice, or heartbeat.  She doesn’t see me watching her eat M&M’s in the reflection of the window, back-dropped by strawberry fields tended by oppressed migrant workers.  They say tasting a mouthful of chocolate causes the same chemical reaction in the brain as a kiss.  I imagine that her lips taste like chocolate. . .

She has put a yellow M&M in her mouth, flipping it with her tongue.  Her pink lips are open, pouting.  Now she gets out an apple; she crunches softly.  I am formulating a plan, as my knees weaken. . .

OK, call it a short-lived victory.  I offered her a piece of gum.  I tapped her elbow (smooth, dry skin like silk) and held it out to her, not saying a word, and she quickly accepted it with a firm “Thanks.”  I smiled, she turned back around, my competitor shot me a simmering, sideways look, and it was over.  Several significant things have resulted, though.  First, I have established myself as a threat to my competitor, who has now taken out and begun cleaning his camera lens.  This could either be an attempt to get her attention or a sign he has given up.  Second, I have accomplished something in that I broke down my fear of rejection enough to make contact, which has me almost giddy.  And third, I had the pleasure of laying my fingers softly against her skin, however briefly.

We are now running along the Pacific coast, and I am momentarily distracted by the shimmering sight of sunlight dancing on the ocean.  As I strain to look, I spot a totally previously unseen young beauty across from and behind me.  She is in a white tank-top and Levi’s.  I take her in for a moment, ogling her supple breasts, inspecting the curve of her thigh. . .

The waves are breaking well, and I can glimpse surfers scattered along the shoreline.  This reminds me of the peninsula, and of how long it’s been since I’ve surfed, or talked to Ben.  We have gone from desert and eucalyptus trees to ocean and pine, from gliding hawks to erratic seagulls.  Everyone’s gaze is trained either on the ocean or the lush green mountains as Santa Barbara enfolds us.

Getting off the train, the sea breeze is cooling for a moment before the humidity starts me sweating.  The brunette is being embraced by three slim blonde girls who were waiting at the station.  I pass, hoping for a look from her, but she is engrossed in conversation, a girl on each arm.  Perhaps they are her lovers. . .

*    *    *

                It is Saturday afternoon and I’m heading out of Santa Barbara.  I’ll get to last night’s events later, but for now my present dilemma is occupying my attention.  I’m trying to make my train, which leaves in half an hour.  The bus I’m on will drop me off ten blocks from the station in twenty minutes if it is on time.  At every stop, though, the bus driver languidly checks in new passengers, lethargically tears transfer passes, lazily stops off to dispense various trash, leisurely takes a bite of his bologna sandwich before leaving again.  At this rate, he’ll finish his lunch and drop me off about the time my train is leaving, and I’ll be stranded downtown.

Clarence, the bus driver, is relaxing in his seat, sipping water from his water bottle, gossiping over the radio to the driver of the bus behind us.  Clarence is an easy-going man.  He’s got no place to be just now, and it’s such a beautiful day.  Ah—we’re getting on the freeway.  No more bologna breaks for a while.  Clarence is an interesting character.  His red hair, eyebrows, and mustache fading to a white beard wind around high cheekbones and pink skin lined nobly with strong wrinkles.  His crow’s feet are immaculate.  This Scotsman seems almost out of place.  I picture him more easily in a boat on Lock Ness, sporting a kilt and a set of bagpipes rather than the blue polyester of the transit uniform.  But then life is never as romantic as we would like, nor are people where they should normally be.  I wonder if this man is happy driving this bus. . .

. . .Well the man Clarence, whom I never doubted for a second, pulled in five minutes early, and after a fairly suspenseful run through downtown, I lumbered into the station to find the train still there, having been delayed by a group of slow-boarding children.  So I am on my way, though admittedly a bit reluctantly now, since the thought of strolling around this quiet town with a Cohiba, letting have at me whatever fate brought my way seems quite satisfying.  Especially since there are no pretty women on this train and I have only my alcohol-tainted sweaty stench to keep me company.  But it must be fate that the train was held up.  I must think that there is something waiting to happen back home that I must be there for.

Suddenly I am having my foreboding feeling—the race to make the train, the subtle tugging thought to stay behind, the chattering children driving me forward into the next car, next to an emergency fold-out window, the first sight out of which is a cemetery.  As if a hand gently guided me to this seat.  Or else my mind has simply made real a fiction, a melodrama as contrived as a cheesy movie of the week.

We are running the coast again.  Past blue beach houses, parks with family picnics, a sight which leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.  I don’t know why but anything that reminds me of parents and children—playgrounds, birthday balloons, even the suburbs—makes me sick.  I suppose an analyst would say it’s on account of being an orphan, and the psychological implications of detachment and abandonment.  But understanding it doesn’t make it easier to swallow.  I want to eject the thought of family from my head before my imagination can recognize it and do something horrible with it.  The only thought that counteracts it is the picture of myself relentlessly traveling, of me in some jungle, hacking away at the brush with a machete, pushing endlessly onward to an unseen distant corner, somewhere that is out of reach.  Somewhere where convention and culture are forgotten and families are of no particular consequence. . .

I glance at the hills behind Santa Barbara with a momentary thought of the wine country beyond. . .

Because even in our modern time of revised gender roles and the disintegration of the nuclear family, I still feel an instinctual pressure to get married and have children.  The only problem is, I loathe children.  From conception to adulthood they’re a nightmare.  When the woman is pregnant, she’s swollen, ornery, and demanding.  When the child is born, it screams and excretes and sucks the freedom and enjoyment out of the parents’ lives.  Then it learns to talk and break things, and peace is lost forever.  Then it becomes an adolescent and thinks it’s suddenly smarter than its parents, while at the same time saying and doing the stupidest things it ever will in life, all the while taking your money, filling you with disappointment, and worrying you sick that its out getting pregnant or committing murder or getting murdered.  Where is the fun in that?

We pass along a cliff above the ocean, old rigs like dinosaurs in the misty distance, surrounded by the glossy sunlight.  I look down at the beach in time to see three fat naked men strolling along together, raising their arms to wave at us.  The sea is utterly calm.  Those waves would be soft as pillows.  That comforting water would accept me into it.  The darkness and the silence—no more need for thought or conscience.

What is it about a train that makes people want to wave at it as it passes?  What is appealing about the brief, meaningless contact offered by such a gesture? Children wave, grinning.  Naked men, surfers, parents, geriatrics.  Why?  And why are they so happy?  Maybe they imagine what it would be like to be on the train, going to some new place where they are not—to break out of where they are or what they’ve been handed.  Like their job or their family.  Or maybe they’re happy where they are, and if they weren’t they would be on the train, and they are glad for us because they think we are going where our dreams are taking us.  This idea makes my heart swell, though whether with exultation or sorrow I cannot say for sure.”

The recollection of this small bit of traveling was one of the first inklings of a future addiction to trekking over the planet—a preoccupation that took me to Europe, Central America, and eventually Asia, where the greatest country on Earth—Thailand—is located.