Interlude, l’istesso tempo
My vow of solitude held water for another three weeks, until the softball team gathered for its only wintertime affair, the Super Bowl party. I really didn’t want to see Stacy, but neither did I want her presence to dictate my social schedule. I was going to be on the softball team, so I’d better just start dealing with it.
And so I found myself on the west side of Santa Cruz, searching for a parking space along the dirt shoulders of funky beach houses, skirting coves and high cliffs over the Pacific. I pulled in under a shaggy cypress and reached into the backseat for a six-pack and two ribeye steaks.
A week before our breakup, I had bet Stacy a steak dinner on whoever might face her beloved Giants. I wound up with the Broncos, the ultimate choke artists, but at least I had a chance. The day was unusually sunny. I walked around the house to find her with Kenny, sunbathing on the back deck. I had never noticed how much they looked like siblings. Stacy acted friendly and distant at the same time.
“Hi Michael. Didja bring some beer?”
“Yeah!” (She would not catch me in a down mood, dammit.) “Same shit we drank all summer.”
Kenny smiled, for a second, and that would be the high point of his day. He spent the rest of it glowering, as if an invisible anvil sat squarely upon his head. What did he want? He was out of his cast, slowly gaining back his leg, and it was a beautiful day with all his friends. I just wanted to leave, but I couldn’t, I had to see it through. I popped open a beer.
Sure enough, the Broncos succeeded in what they did best, and Stacy’s Giants won the game. For me, it was a double loss, since the steak dinner settlement involved yet another meeting. I had to make sure I wasn’t drifting into old, masochistic habits. The early indications were not good. I showed up at her condo the next Sunday with twin T-bones, only to find her gone. I sat on the bench outside her door for a while, watching a storm front crawl in over the coast. I was about to call it quits when Sharise, one of her tenants, showed up.
“Well, she didn’t say anything about any plans,” she said. “But you might check the Nite Owl on Seabright. She goes there a lot.”
If I was really smart I would have headed home, but I felt like I had to at least check. When I walked in, she gave me a kiss and a pseudo-apology. She was drunk.
“I’m finally getting through to her!” she whispered. Stacy motioned to her opponent, a woman twenty years her senior, ratty gray hair, dirty yellow blouse, lining up a bank shot with a cigarette dangling from her lips. “Working for me for a year, and I’m finally getting through to her.”
“Getting through to her or just getting her blitzed?” I didn’t say.
“Go to hell,” I didn’t say.
The whole situation made me see what our relationship had been all along. I was the inflatable punching clown, she the kid knocking me into a wobble every time I managed to straighten myself up. I drank three beers I didn’t want and walked out, found a pay phone and called a friend.
“Michael, I want you to go home right now. Get some sleep and wait for her to call you. Better yet, don’t wait at all.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I said for the fiftieth time. “I will. Thanks.”
I sat in my car across the street, waiting for the strength to leave, staring at the numbers on my odometer. Then she tapped on my window. I could have timed it, the way she reeled me back three movements before an escape. The clown straightened up, ready for another shot.
I slept in till eleven and had a huge breakfast in the hotel restaurant, my first-ever eggs Benedict. I picked my clothing out of the dryer in the hotel laundry room, threw everything into my back seat and headed for the interstate. I headed north toward Whidbey Island, 525 northwest to Mukilteo, and boarded a ferry for the crossing. Being waterborne heightened the excitement of going to a place I once called home.
My father was a Navy pilot, and when I was just entering second grade his orders took us to Oak Harbor, a naval station at the midpoint of Whidbey. The memories come in ten-second flashes. One is a deep spread of pine trees up the hill from our house, where my brother and sisters would spend the afternoons playing. Another is a trip to the air base on the Fourth of July, my first recollection of fireworks, lying on a comforter with my mom as the sky exploded in colors and dropped sparks into the Sound.
The ultimate memory was my affection for snakes, and how Whidbey had them all: garter snakes, corn snakes, milk snakes. Sadly, although I caught many of them, I could never keep them alive in captivity, mostly because I had no idea what I was doing.
The walk home from the classic brick schoolhouse of Oak Harbor Elementary took me across a dozen vacant lots and cedar groves, and I made it my daily routine to check beneath hollow logs and pieces of scrap metal . These were the hiding places; you had to be quick or they would scatter, and you had little time to consider whether or not they were poisonous.
One fine Tuesday I hit my personal notion of a jackpot when I lifted a piece of plywood and discovered a nest of eight baby snakes, black with red stripes – what we called red racers. I swept up the whole lot and deposited them in my Beatles’ Yellow Submarine lunch box. Arriving home, I completely forgot the contents of my lunchbox and left it on the kitchen counter. When my mother came by to clean it out, she got quite a surprise. Any other mom would have screamed bloody murder, but not mine. Just another day at the zoo.
We arrived at the ferry dock and I was soon driving up the island: pasture land, idyllic farms, fields of strawberries and deep mossy forests. I drove into Oak Harbor and, following signals, took a right turn, uphill. The impulse becomes clear when I spot my old school.
Oak Harbor Elementary is an impressively New Englandish block of brick, bordered by lush green lawns and a line of maples along the sidewalk. I park at the curb and wander onto the grounds, and once I arrive at the adjacent field I am struck by another flash: a sunny-day recess, buttercups all around, and, in every direction, white-capped mountains, the Olympics, the Cascades, our distant uncles.
Back around the building I find the swing sets, and another scene unfolds. I was entertaining myself next to the swings by trying to hit a pole with a rock, the usual childhood target practice that would lead to the seventh game of the World Series. The playground monitor asked me not to throw rocks. Instead of dropping my remaining handful, I threw them to the ground. For this I was collared and taken to the principal’s office, where I was bent bare-assed over a desk and whacked with a ping-pong paddle.
I stand there in the same spot, looking at the boarded-up window which once was the principal’s office, and my next step is obvious. I reach down to grab a handful of pebbles and thrust them into the spilling gray sky. Take that, you assholes! After three or four throws, I am spent. I take a last handful and slip them into the zippered pocket of my jacket.
I followed Highway 20 all the way up the island, stopping at Deception Pass to watch the jade waters of the channel swirl in fantail currents. The road flattened out, and I found a series of luminous silver-colored factories, winking their lights at me as I entered Anacortes. I headed across town to the ferry station, where I discovered that I would have to wait till the next morning to catch a ship to Victoria.
Photo by MJV