Hey buddy, how’s life? Have you got today off, like me? Being a farang working in Thailand has a million perks. The holiday calendar is just one of ‘em. If not, here’s a bit of momentary distraction from your work day, and if you’re home on the couch like I am, here’s something to tide you over till lunch. It’s the last half of chapter 16 of my oft-maligned (by me) self-published quasi-autobiographical novel, “The Suburbs of Babylon.” If you didn’t read the first half (posted last Friday), you can find it by scrolling down my homepage. Now on with the blah…
“I was on the road early, heading up PCH toward Half-moon Bay. The day was perfect—not a cloud in the sky. If you’ve never taken the drive, it’s hard to describe it in words and do it justice. The whole way up, Highway 1 winds along the rocky coastline, usually on the edge of a cliff with the dark blue Pacific on the left and a variety of landscapes, ranging from rolling green hills to fields of flowers to deep green forests on the right. The scenery is constantly changing, constantly breath-taking.
Just south of Santa Cruz I crossed a bridge over a small, secluded beach between the cliffs. I was making good time, so I decided to stop and check it out. It turned out to be a campground, with a few families in RVs and one lone park ranger in a little brown shack. I strolled down to the beach, which was quite rocky, and sat down near the water’s edge. There was a large group of sea otters just offshore, busily engaged in a number of activities, from cleaning themselves to eating shellfish to playing to lounging on their backs amid the floating kelp. I watched them tirelessly for about an hour. I wondered morbidly if any sharks or killer whales were close by. It didn’t fit with my understanding of the world that these creatures should live such a charmed existence, so free from worry or strife. I tried to remember a time like that in my own life, but no such fairytale came to mind. I decided to leave then, and push on to Frisco. Even though I had no idea what I’d do when I got there.
* * *
I hit the city just as the sun was setting. As I navigated the wild tangle of streets trying to decide on a destination, I was suddenly reminded of an old flame from college who moved here a year ago. Her name was Katrina. She had dark red hair and blue eyes, with a smile that shone like the sun. We’d had a few wild nights our senior year, and parted on good terms. I leafed through my phone book, came up with a number, and dialed it, thinking she wouldn’t be home or had no interest in seeing me.
She picked up on the first ring, knew it was me before I could tell her, was thrilled to hear I was in town, and gave me directions to her and her boyfriend’s place on the other side of the Bay. I was fine with the boyfriend, since I had no intention of putting the moves on Kat. I was just happy to have a destination. Her boyfriend was a cordial host, and insisted I take Kat out for a drink. So after a shower we headed back over the bridge to a little blues joint down the hill from the Presidio. The music was loud, sad, and perfect. We talked about college, her new job as a graphic designer, the sad state of the world, and how happy she was to be out of L.A. She urged me to do the same—to go anywhere as long as it was somewhere new. My back stiffened at the thought. She pointed out that there was no reason to stay. That there was nothing and no one to keep me there. She was right. I’m the epitome of aloneness. No friends (except Alvin and Norman, and they don’t really count), no family, no loved ones. But what she didn’t understand and what I was only beginning to grasp, was that in place of significant people in my life I’d adhered to the geography. I’ve never in twenty-six years on the planet strayed more than a few hundred miles from the orphanage. I don’t think it’s anything as clinical as a subconscious hope that my parents will return for me, or that Jane might come back. I just can’t seem to shake loose of the city. In many respects it’s my only tie to a semblance of who I am. I think I fear that, if I left—really left—I would lose myself. Cease to exist.
The night wore on. She asked where I was staying. I told her I didn’t know. She insisted I use the guest room at her place. I accepted gratefully. We left the blues club and ended up in Chinatown, eating egg rolls and drinking bad wine in a crowded, brightly lit restaurant that reminded me a little of what I thought hell must be like. Then we strolled together up and down the streets, stopping to rest on the steps of a church. She seemed to sense my angst, my feelings of despair, of being lost. She didn’t pry, but tried to convey her support with reassuring touches, long worried looks, and contemplative sighs. Under the arches of the church we sat in silence, until I signaled to her that is was alright to go. We drove quietly over the Bay, taking in the glow of the city lights reflected on the dark, placid water.
The next morning I got up before my hosts, scribbled a brief thank-you note, and hurried out the door. For some reason, I didn’t want to face Kat again. And besides, I had big plans for the day. There were several wineries I wanted to visit up in Napa, and I didn’t want to waste any time.
In the hours between breakfast and lunch I managed to taste at Franciscan, Cakebread, Mer Soleil, and Niebaum-Coppola, so by the time I was on the 5 Freeway headed back to L.A. I was ready for a nap. I opted for the 5 because it would take half as long as PCH. The only problem was, the scenery isn’t as appealing. Lonely brown hills and cows. That about sums it up. My eyelids were so heavy from the wine I thought I’d pass out and veer off into a herd of bovines. I determined the only safe thing to do would be to stop somewhere and have another drink. Luckily there are plenty of wineries around San Luis Obispo. I took the 41 to the 46 westward to the coast, skipping old favorites like Tobin James, and Peachy Canyon, and settled for Wild Horse because it was close to the freeway and because their wine is exquisite.
The winery was tucked away off a winding two-lane highway. The driveway was long and lined with grapevines, and at the end of each row were red and white rosebushes. It made me think of Alice in Wonderland. The tasting room was warm and welcoming, and the wine list was extensive. I skipped the whites, diving right into their special blends—concoctions that made the winemaker seem more like a mad scientist, but which proved to be luminous with flavor and complexity. The lady behind the counter—a gruff, olive-skinned woman with steely hair—asked which one I liked best. I told her my favorite always had been and always would be the Valentina. She told me that men who like the Valentina are romantics at heart, good lovers, good husbands and wildly creative. I told her she was preaching to the choir.
As the afternoon waned into evening, I headed south again toward Los Angeles, sad that my excursion was over and yet somehow wishing I’d never left. It was just another meaningless jaunt—a quick-search of someplace foreign, as if I’m trying to divorce one town for another, or a child struggling to leave the parent. My mind wandered to Kylie. I knew that meeting up with her had impacted my life and hers, and at that moment, under a sunset sky on a lonely highway, I had the briefest flicker of something. Something that said moments like the ones spent with Kylie and women like her, moments of worth, affect a lasting change, something Earth-shattering, something that could fill my heart and keep it filled. Someday I might find someone to have a lifetime of moments with. And in the meantime, there was Kylie, and the girls at the Cat, and the kids in the classes I subbed for. This flicker, it was something. More importantly, it was more than I had before, which was nothing.
I pushed through the enclosing darkness thinking that maybe all the suffering is worth something. Maybe the truth of life is the antithesis of my idea about my worthlessness. Maybe God doesn’t really have it in for me. The thought was like a tiny glimmer of light at the end of a long, black-blind hallway.
An hour later the 5 became a broken white line surrounded by darkness. As Loretta’s headlights lit up the road, the line seemed to stretch out to nowhere—off into nothingness. Frightening and exhilarating simultaneously. The fear of leaving the safety of the mundane perfectly balancing the compulsion to hurl madly into change, leaving me perilously inactive, struggling to get free yet cleaved to the San Fernando Valley. Being trapped in that maze of houses and memories. Like being lost in the suburbs of Babylon.
At some point I crested the top of the Grapevine and headed down into Santa Clarita, and just like that the trip was over.”
Years later, I would hear the song “Bixby Canyon Bridge” by Death Cab for Cutie, and make the connection that the bridge where I stopped on my little road trip was the same said locale. Now, when I listen to the song, I’m unable to separate myself from the story the singer tells, and in my mind the person he’s singing to is Jane. I forgot what they call that—it has a name…..Fuzzy Trace Theory. Anyway, these days when I hear it, I’m usually in a gogo bar with my headphones blasting, and the mixing of settings, emotions, metaphors, and stimuli makes it all quite fuzzy indeed. Here’s to painting every memory with a Thai brush, ay? Cheers, everyone.