California Redux


There are times, and there are people, that we desire to erase even while we don't recognize why we want to erase them; so it is with a trip I embarked on some years ago, to the California coast.


by kevincole via Flickr (common license)The trip was supposed to be the sealing deal in a relationship that had quivered on the lip of "commitment"—that ethereal concept—for two years, embroidered with camping trips, lots of laughter, a stringent lack of money, and the absence of those family members or friends who might have demurred at the sight of a nice middle-aged East coast women of liberal persuasion and a carrot-haired, Boston speaking, child of old-ward Democratic politics who was making a living, such as it was, selling orange juice to restaurants out of his beat-up car. But so it was. And the trip, which he had proposed and which I had accepted with the lurking sense that something was to be decided, did decide something: that we couldn't go on. And so we didn't. Not, it seems to me now, out of a fundamental problem, but because I couldn't really see the coastline we were passing because of my preoccupation with the failures, as I saw them, of the relationship.
Now, fifteen years have passed in the breezy way that great swaths of time pass at this time in my life, and I'm returning, with one of my sons, his wife, and their four year old boy to the same coastline, the itinerary, designed by my beloved daughter-in-law, covering the same ground, stopping at the same places: first, the Madonna Inn, that hideous erection to the imagined desires of all of us, acres of artificial roses lighted by acres of fairy lights, great hideous baronial fireplaces no baron would ever have countenanced, beds as big as kingdoms, chandeliers that hit the room's occupant in the head but are useful for hanging intimate garments to dry.
Here, the four year old seemed vaguely discontented; meals took a long time and by the time the food arrived, he was not interested in it, and his vitality was only restored when his mother and I spend all morning crouching on tiny stools in the local Children's Museum, designed to torment adults to the same degree that it enchants children. (No coffee, no place to sit, no water, no snacks...)
Of the Madonna Inn itself, I remembered only the great ornate white wooden staircase that led to a room--what was its name? Spring Garden? Crystal?--where whatever happened fifteen years ago was no match for the virulent colors of the brocades or the overwhelming velour of the carpets; and so I saw nothing, way back then, except my disappointment--and forgot the place entirely till I saw that Jacob's Ladder of a stair.
Our next stop was at Morro Bay where the four-year-old entertained himself by inventing a birthday party for the boats; none were to be excluded, echoing, perhaps, some hard lesson he'd learned at pre-kindergarten. Even the dismal little gray tugboat was to be invited along with he big white ferries and the cheerful sailboats. And I, standing there looking out on the water, remembered a lunch at one of the wharf cafes where again disappointment blinded me to the water, the rock itself, the birds, the boats, and the idea of a birthday party for them would never have occurred to me. 
Next, we stopped at Lucia cottages and this was a sharper reminder, because in one of those tiny, clam-like 1930's era shacks clinging to the edge of a cliff over the Pacific, I knew the relationship was done, not because it had died of natural causes but because I was, finally, prepared to kill it. Which of course I did.
Now, on this gray evening with the four-year-old finally tucked up in bed and his parents sighing with fatigue and relief, I realize that I am able to see what I could not see that first time. There are no disappointments in my life large enough to block out the Pacific. If this is maturity, long delayed and not always welcomed in advance, I welcome it now. An ocean is worth a lot to me--more than anything else I can think of, except for the round brown eyes of a restless four year old.


Sallie Binghamis a short story writer, novelist and playwright whose most recent book, a collection of short stories called "Red Car", was published in 2008 by Sarabande Books. Founder of the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Sallie Bingham Archive for Women's Papers and History at Duke University, she is an avid skier, horseback rider and ballroom dancer; she lives in Santa Fe with the Roommate, her eldest son, his wife and their two daughters and travels only when absolutely necessary.

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