The neighborhood where I lived during my teenage years had a community swimming pool. It was small but clean: an aqua rectangle surrounded by pebbled cement, with a cobwebbed bathroom and a splintered picnic table, a rise of trees on one side of the wrought iron fence and a slope of grass on the other.
In the summer my friends and I went swimming there nearly every day. We played a game called Watermelon. It was easy to play: all you had to do was curl up into a ball at the edge of the deep end—knees pulled up under your chin, arms wrapped tightly around your shins, eyes closed—and fall forward into the water. Despite my lack of swimming prowess (and the fact that I had to pinch my nose shut), I liked Watermelon. Tumbling weightlessly in the dark, my ears full of muted rush. My body, the whole world, moving impossibly slowly, my mind silenced by the dizzying sensation.
You were supposed to keep your eyes closed the entire time you were underwater, the delight of the exercise being that you wouldn’t know what direction you’d be facing, or how far you’d drifted, until you surfaced. No matter how hard you tried to focus when you rolled in, to picture your surroundings spinning with you, you came up gasping for air and staring at the trees or the bathroom hut or the picnic table or your friend’s feet, like you’d never seen them before. It always took a second or two to figure out which direction you were facing. To match the picture you’d imagined, expected, with the one that actually appeared.
It is a two-hour drive from downtown Sonoma to Sonoma Coast State Beach. There is no direct route. With back roads, state highways, and a short stretch of interstate, the map I find on the Internet looks like a measured heartbeat: jagged peaks and valleys, a north-south zigzag through vineyards, strip malls, and hills. I can’t print the map out—I am two thousand miles away from Chicago, from home, in a printer-less one-bedroom apartment over someone’s garage—so I handwrite the directions. I like directions better anyway. A step-by-step list of what to do, where to go. For the first time in a long time, I’m not afraid of getting lost, hurt, or stranded. What I am afraid of, a little, is being alone.
I tear the directions out of my notebook, throw a sandwich and an apple in my bag, and head down to my rental car. I toss my bag onto the passenger seat, slide in behind the steering wheel, adjust the mirrors, put on my sunglasses, draw and release a deep breath. I fire up the engine. I pull away from the curb.
1. Turn left on CA 12-E/Broadway, 1.3 miles
There are actually five steps before this one, a maze through and out of the tucked-away neighborhood where the garage apartment is. But I’ve been in Sonoma for four days already, and I’m pretty sure I remember how to get back the way I came.
I told everyone I was coming here to work on my book because I didn’t get into the artists’ colony I’d applied to this fall, and I really wanted to finish my second draft before the holidays. Just a week by myself in wine country, I said. Part of me was convinced that this was true.
Most of me knew it wasn’t. I came to California because I needed to get gone. Adios, recently rocky marriage and early midlife crisis. Hello, sunshine.
More importantly: Hello, space to breathe. Room to think. Silence for the chips to fall and settle.
About nine months earlier, in the grayest, most soul-crushing stretch of Chicago’s “spring,” I had started feeling restless, agitated, anxious. Like maybe I needed to squeeze my head into a vice and pop it like a balloon. I believed, at first, that the feeling was grief. I was fast approaching the fifth anniversary of my brother’s death—his suicide. He’d hanged himself in his studio apartment the last day of April 2004, two weeks before his college graduation, after a long battle with bipolar illness.
He’d died in April, but he’d written his suicide note in January (I know this is the right decision . . . I realize that this hurts a lot of people . . . I’ve tried, know that I’ve tried . . . ). Every year after that, January through April unraveled me. That cold, colorless stretch of time seeped into my center, and the end of winter—the melting snow, the breaking ice, the hopeful purple heads of crocuses—was my brother, whom I loved, whom I would have done anything for, fighting and failing all over again.
But last January, the fourth January after his death, I felt . . . good. Better than good. I felt happy. By February I was downright chipper. My husband and I spent a week in Costa Rica, and I came home tan, relaxed, completely in love with the Pacific, and ready to face the rest of the winter. I was cautiously optimistic. Is this is it? I thought. Is it finally happening? Am I finally okay?
Then March came, and with it the restlessness. A full-body thrum that made the fillings in my molars ache.
Not quite the heavy, hopeless sinking I’d experienced in years past, but by then I’d stopped asking questions. Grief was a greased, rabid animal that could twist itself into any shape, sink its teeth into any part of you. So I settled in, held on, and thanked the Good Lord for the shorter stretch.
2. Turn right at West Watmaugh Rd, 2.2 miles
Barely two miles from the garage apartment and there is little trace of the town. The intersection is essentially empty: open field, vineyard, open field, vineyard. Crisscrossing telephone wires running off into eternity. There’s no traffic light here, just a two-lane street—tree lined on one side, grapevine lined on the other. The sky is bright blue through the breaks in the fog, though there aren’t many. The air here is thick and low, drooping lazily down by the horizon. But it’s been like this every morning, and I know that by the time I reach the ocean in the early afternoon, there will be sun.
Fog or not, it’s warm here. It’s green. More importantly, it’s quiet. When I wake up in the morning, I hear birds and nothing else. Nothing but birds. I love the sound of them so much my heart hurts.
In Chicago I often wake to the sound of beer bottles smashing against each other, as the man who owns the bar next door chucks the previous night’s empties into the dumpster. If it isn’t bottles, it’s the downstairs neighbor stomping up and down the hallway, chasing her toddler (who stomps double-time). The hardwood floors in our living room rumble along with passing trucks. Car alarms, ambulance sirens, commuter trains—after a couple of years, you get used to it, you forget about quiet. You don’t even know it’s missing until you stumble upon it somewhere else. It’s one of the small deaths that come with city living, like no longer being able to see the stars.
Chicago was the problem, I thought, when the fifth anniversary of my brother’s death passed and the restlessness stayed. The nerve-grating sounds of it, the bloated river-sewage smell, the orange nighttime glow and chewed-up gum spit on the sidewalk. Shouting drunks pouring out of the bars every night, piles of dried dog shit and empty cellophane snack bags in the grass, nannies pushing double-wide strollers side by side in a game of urban chicken I always seemed to lose.
That May, a month after the fifth anniversary, my husband and I spent a weekend in Vancouver. We went hiking and biking. I sat on a small beach at the tip of Stanley Park for an hour with my eyes closed, the sun on my face, no sound but the waves hissing against the sand. It was nothing like the beach back home along Lake Michigan—crawling with crying seagulls, screaming children, shrieking teenagers, and bellowing adults, ’80s music blaring through a quarter mile of mounted speakers. I wondered if maybe the restlessness was my body, my soul, screaming out for sanctuary. Silence.
Or maybe my geographic dissatisfaction was time sensitive. I’d never lived anywhere longer than nine years. My earliest days were spent in crappy apartments and cheap houses in Detroit. My formative years—where I’d set the nine-year record—were spent on the outskirts of Detroit, just far enough beyond the city limits to be called suburban but close enough to be dominated by blacktop. The summer before my sophomore year in high school, my father took a new job and we moved to the heart of Alabama. Haystacks, pastures, plenty far enough away from everything to be called far away. Six years later, diploma in hand and wedding band on finger, my husband (also a transplanted Yankee) and I traded the damp and sizzling South for the temperature extremes and four distinct seasons of our native Midwest. In the process I quickly discovered I had a hard time taking root. We moved three times during our first three years in Chicago, then bought an apartment, sold it three years later, and bought the apartment we were currently living in. Had been living in for three years. Maybe my tight neck muscles, clenched teeth, and churning stomach were just the three-year/nine-year itch.
After leaving the beach in Stanley Park, my husband and I headed to Vancouver’s historic Gaslight District. On the outdoor patio of a bar—mountains in the background turning purple in the sunset, water dotted by bright white yachts and cruise ships—I told my husband it was definitely time to start seriously thinking about moving.
We’d been un-seriously thinking about moving ever since the first time we went to California together. Whenever the frigid Chicago wind howled sharply enough to cut through the brick of our building, we spun Shangri-la tales of the West Coast. We fantasized about a big sprawling mountaintop ranch overlooking the ocean. We siphoned money into a savings account we called the California Fund.
But we stayed where we were.
3. Turn right at CA 116-W/Stage Gulch Rd, 2.6 miles
The sky is so low in some spots that it kisses the tops of the gently sloping hills, so low in others it devours them. It looks like there is no horizon, like the falling sky will swallow the earth completely.
The hills here are blankets of grass draped over large, sleeping animals. The first time I saw them was through the windows of a rental car, but I was in the backseat with my husband. My parents were up front, Dad driving. It was March 2005, one month before the first anniversary of my brother’s suicide.
“Jesus,” I said. I was the only one in the car who had never been to California before, and I’d never seen anything like those hills. “Did you know it was this beautiful?” I asked my husband. He nodded.
“I didn’t know it would be this beautiful,” I said.
Why did we go to California? Why did we go then? I remember nothing about how we got there and everything about who we were there.
California, like the pictures we took to remember it, was a moment in time independent of the past, a dimension separate from our uncertain future. California was a vacuum, a set of life parentheses. California was a vacation.
Back home, that first year after my brother’s death, my parents and I didn’t talk about him much. We couldn’t. Or I couldn’t. His suicide was still too near, too large, too impossible to comprehend. Still, he haunted every conversation. His passion for politics echoed in my father’s enthusiasm for the new Obama administration. The pauses my mother once would have filled with anecdotes about his latest girlfriend remained empty. Every time my parents and I were together, the weight of his absence crushed all the air from my lungs, his absence a larger presence than his life had ever been. I felt it even when I was alone, trailing me like a shadow.
But California was high noon all day long, not a shadow in sight. For one week my parents, husband, and I slept late, gorged on pancakes, frittatas, and pastries at the bed and breakfast, and drank. We packed gourmet picnic lunches, went sightseeing, and drank. We took naps, ate multicourse dinners drenched in butter and goat cheese, and drank. We stumbled back to the b&b, smoked cigars on the porches of our rooms, soaked in the hot tub, and drank.
For one week we were strangers in a strange land, and because no one knew us, knew what we were escaping from, we were ourselves again. The past became a story that had happened to someone else, a movie we weren’t sure we’d seen, a dream fading, forgotten. I would have stayed there forever. I wanted to stay there forever.
We went home.
4. Turn left to stay on CA 116-W/Stage Gulch Rd (signs for State Hwy 116 W/Petaluma) 2.3 miles
The road seems to be taking me exactly where I need to go, ending in a T, forcing me to make turns. Yet I can’t seem to let go, to trust that the signs will help guide me, that if I miss a turn, if I do somehow get lost, I’ll be able to find my way back to the road I’m supposed to be on.
I hate driving. It feels like I’ve always hated driving, but I know that isn’t true. As a teenager I loved to drive. I’d roll down the windows of my used Mazda 323 hatchback and blast down the Alabama state highway, letting the wind whip my hair dry on the way to school. In college my husband and I (just dating at the time) would pack up his parents’ old Chevy Suburban and drive five hours’ worth of poorly marked, backwoods roads to the Gulf of Mexico. We played the same cassette tape over and over again, stuck our elbows out the open windows, breathed in the rhythm of the road. Back before Google Maps, before cell phones even, we didn’t worry about getting lost or getting into a wreck. We didn’t even worry about getting a ticket. Everywhere we went was a frontier because there was next to nothing behind us. No matter what direction we headed, we were moving toward the future—a future we were sure existed for us and everyone we knew. And we were sure it was a road that turned in any direction, one where you could drive as fast as you wanted because there were so many miles left. So very many miles.
In the five years between those road trips to the beach and my brother’s death, I got married, moved from Alabama to Chicago, finished graduate school, and started working. I skied (with zero experience) down the Austrian Alps and flew to London by myself on a week’s notice. I planned to have three kids before I turned thirty. Spiders were pretty much the only thing that scared me.
After my brother died, everything scared me. Living scared me. Love scared me. To live, to love, was to set yourself up to suffer. That was hard to articulate at the time. Fear of death was easier to identify and equally present. I became obsessed with dying, imagined every possible scenario, but most often my fear of death was tied to motion. The fluttering that once occupied my throat when a plane took off or landed turned into a head- and heart-pounding noose. I pictured the airplanes crashing, going down in a thunder of shuddering steel, flames, screams—far, far too much time to contemplate the impact. Back in Chicago I rode sideways on the L trains so I could see out the window. See the ground rushing up to meet me in case the train tipped over the tracks.
I started going to a therapist. His office was downtown, on the twenty-second floor of an art deco skyscraper. The elevators looked like they hadn’t been refurbished since they were built in the 1920s, and I held my breath every time they lurched into their ascent. The cable was going to snap. I was sure of it.
But what I hated more than anything in those first few years after my brother’s death was driving—especially long distances, at night, on unfamiliar roads. I couldn’t stop picturing myself losing control, spinning into oncoming traffic. I saw the accidents in slow motion: steel folding toward me; glass cracking into webs and breaking loose into free-floating daggers; my body crumpling, bending, breaking, skin split to reveal white shards of bone. I grew so paranoid that I would change the radio station if the song playing seemed overly dramatic, the kind of tune overlaying a single car accident on a deserted road in a bad movie.
And so I gripped the armrest tightly when the plane took off the second time I went to California. It was February 2006, almost the second anniversary of my brother’s death. My husband was in San Francisco for work, and I was going to meet him for a long weekend. For weeks leading up to my departure, my therapist and I talked about how I could manage my fear.
“Try setting aside a specific time of day to worry,” he said. “Maybe give yourself thirty minutes every morning to stress about your trip, and then let it go for the rest of the day. Write affirmations down on Post-it notes, like Air travel is extremely safe, and stick them to places where you’ll see them often, like the bathroom mirror or the microwave.”
“I’ll try,” I said. And I did. It didn’t really help. I gritted my teeth as we lunged into the sky, my eyes squeezed shut so I wouldn’t have to see the stranger next to me notice the tears running down my cheeks.
But as we started our descent four hours later, the sight of the ocean, blue and vast and glittering, filled me with a sense of calm. Back east, Chicago was coated in black slush. Some days the clouds were so thick it seemed the sun never rose at all. That weekend in San Francisco it was sixty degrees and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. My husband and I rented bicycles and rode through the city toward the Golden Gate, bright red and miniature in the distance, incomprehensible as a postcard.
Before arriving in San Francisco, I was sure I would feel nervous riding across the bridge—I wasn’t crazy about heights even before my brother died, and up close the bridge is overwhelming, the stretch of water it covers deep, dark, and rough. But the pedestrian and bike paths were far removed from traffic, the cement beneath my wheels felt as steady as the sidewalk, and the water over the sides was far enough away to seem picturesque. We stopped at the halfway point to take pictures: the sun on my face and a grin as big as the hills of Marin County. Once on the other side, we dismounted in Sausalito for a beer—Anchor Steam on tap, a table right on the water.
Memories of our trip the previous year with my parents flooded me, and a voice whispered in the back of my mind. This, it said, this right here is the only place on the planet you have been happy in the past two years. Why would you ever want to leave?
I took a sip of my beer, breathed in the salty air, and couldn’t think of a single answer.
5. Turn right at CA 116-W/Lakeville Hwy, 4.2 miles
Another forced turn. The land has flattened out here, and the hills in the distance are completely shrouded in fog. The sides of the road are home to fenced-in cattle and waving stems of overgrown grass. If not for the occasional vineyard, I could be anywhere. I could be in Illinois.
This past summer, about a month after my husband and I went to Vancouver, after I decided that Chicago was the root of my restlessness, I spent two weeks in the northern suburbs at a writers’ residency program. The foundation was on fifty-five acres of open prairie, covered with trees, flowers, and tall, dry grass that spun and whispered in the wind. Deer picked through the foliage, red-winged blackbirds swooped across the sky, and all day long the only sound I heard was the clicking of my laptop keys. I worked hard, I made progress, I finished what I had come to do: a first draft of my book. A book about my brother. I’d been working on it full-time for three years, since the spring after San Francisco started talking to me. It was what I had to do, I told myself, to remember him, to honor him, to finish grieving. And for those three years it was practically all I’d done; his life and death had consumed me.
My book was the opposite of California—full immersion in the past—and yet, like California, it was a place apart from the world. An escape. California erased the pain of my past, but writing erased the restlessness of my present. I took a sideways step out of life while friends and family members got married, had children, moved away. Moved on. I didn’t really notice at the time. I was busy.
Two weeks after finishing the draft of my book, on my thirtieth birthday, I noticed. No children. No job. A very slim possibility of success with the book I’d poured every ounce of my soul into over the last three years. The restlessness morphed into a meltdown.
I left the writers’ residency convinced I was living the wrong life, that I’d been living the wrong life for years—even back before my brother’s death. I’d gone to the wrong schools, moved to the wrong city, made the wrong friends. Somewhere, in a parallel universe, the life I was supposed to have was waiting. The person I was supposed to be existed, and she was all the roads I hadn’t taken: she’d studied abroad in college and spoke Spanish fluently, had just finished her PhD and published her second book. She lived in a small, sunny house in California, with a long-haired, tattooed poet who read the same books she read and loved the same music she loved. She wasn’t married.
I’d married the wrong man.
I’d fallen out of love.
The thought made me sick to my stomach. How was it even possible? For years my husband had been the most stable, comforting element in my life. Sure, we were opposites. He was the Wall Street Journal to my New York Times; the khakis to my holey jeans; the steady, insurance-having corporate job to my unemployed chasing-the-dream. He was the calm to my neurotic, the saving-for-retirement to my keeping-cash-in-a-shoe-box. Together, we’d always liked to joke, we made a complete person. Someone who could enjoy the hell out of life, appreciate all the beauty and terror, without ending up homeless or addicted to heroin. And, of course, there were things we had in common: sports, haute cuisine, the Jane Seymour version of The Scarlet Pimpernel. We liked to dance, had inappropriate senses of humor, and weren’t afraid to make fools of ourselves in front of others. And we were deeply, madly, heart bustingly in love.
Something had changed. Everything had changed. Nothing I had was enough. I wasn’t enough.
“This makes sense,” my therapist said. “You got married at a very early age.” (Two weeks after finishing my undergraduate degree.) “You didn’t get that chance to go out into the world on your own, to establish an independent identity. Almost as soon as you entered the working world, your brother’s death took you out of it. Writing this book has been a great way to cope with your grief, but it’s left you completely dependent on your husband financially and emotionally. You’ve isolated yourself.”
My therapist went on to talk about my options. I could go back to work, even just part-time. I could take a more active role in the financial management of our daily lives. I could develop stronger relationships outside the marriage, spend more time with friends.
I didn’t want to do any of those things. I wanted to wipe the slate clean, start over, be free. Because I couldn’t turn back the clock, couldn’t relive the last thirty years (or even the last five), I wanted to break into a life sprint to make up for all the time I’d lost.
“I need to leave,” I told my husband.
He took a deep breath, bit his lip. “Do you need to leave me?”
“I don’t think so. Maybe. I don’t know.”
He ran his hand through his hair, clutched at the back of his neck. “Just, just do whatever it is that you need to do.”
I started looking for jobs teaching English as a second language. Japan, Spain, Africa. Most programs were two years. That was too long. Could we make it if I left for a year? How about six months? What would happen if I left for six months? Three months. I could go for three months.
But where could I go for three months? And could I really go somewhere for three months alone? I shifted my fantasy to a week-long wilderness excursion, a hike through the Rocky Mountains with nothing but a sleeping bag, a couple of jars of peanut butter, and some granola. Then I thought about spiders; bears; long, cold nights on hard, cold ground. For a while after that I dreamed about Paris. Cafés, museums, a beautiful language that I didn’t speak, jetlag, a dearth of vegetarian food.
Besides, would running away solve anything? Or would the restlessness follow me? What would I do then? I was standing at the edge of something, dangerously close to falling in. I was losing my mind, and I was fairly sure that if I didn’t figure out what this feeling was, this desperate inside-out scramble, I’d end up just like my brother.
“Tell me what you need,” my husband kept saying. “Whatever you want, we’ll make it happen. Just tell me.”
I didn’t have a fucking clue.
6. Turn right to merge onto US-101 N toward Eureka, 6.9 miles
Suddenly everything is chaos and strip malls. A Chinese restaurant, a skate park, something called “Mr. Pickle’s.” I still don’t like merging into interstate traffic, but I no longer picture myself broken and bleeding on the side of the road when I do. I’m not sure when this changed. Maybe as recently as Monday, the evening I arrived in San Francisco, picked up my rental car, and cruised across the Golden Gate Bridge in the dark. The incline jerked up steep as a mountain, and my heart leapt into my throat. I was doing it. I was driving across the Golden Gate and nothing was happening. I rolled my windows down, and the night air whipped my hair into my face just like it had in high school. I pounded my palms against the steering wheel and screamed, WOOOOOOOHOOOOOOO! at the top of my lungs, and the wind, or the joy, made my eyes water.
It was a small victory, but one I treasured. Before this week I’d never gone anywhere completely on my own—the handful of times I’d traveled by myself, someone was always expecting me. I’d never rented a car before, preferring to take trains or taxis in unfamiliar cities so as to avoid unnecessary stress. And I’d sure as hell never driven an hour and a half across earthquake country alone in the dark. I was proving something to myself and it felt fantastic, even though I wasn’t quite sure what it was yet.
My therapist had frequently used the word independence. It was one of the reasons he suggested I take a trip. Back when the summer was wilting into fall, when the future of my marriage was a giant question mark and every day I scoured the Internet for volunteer opportunities out of state, out of country, out of continent, I had said to him:
“I need to go somewhere. I need to do something—by myself.”
“I agree,” he said. “I’m just not convinced you need a stint at a Peruvian orphanage or a graduate program in Portugal.”
I squirmed, unsure whether it was because I agreed or disagreed.
“And I’m not sure that your marriage would survive a prolonged separation at this point,” he added. I agreed with that but still hadn’t decided if I cared.
It didn’t matter where I went, my therapist continued. The important part of the trip was to gain some independence. To do something on my own.
“What’s an ideal location for you?” he asked. “What don’t you have here that you want?”
It was November in Chicago. Bare branches, cloudy skies, morning frost.
“Sunshine,” I said. “Warmer weather, definitely.”
I remembered the last time I’d been happy—that February, with my husband, in Costa Rica. Despite our previous trips to California, it was the first time I’d ever been in the Pacific Ocean. Cold and strong, the waves crashing with thuds loud enough to hear from blocks away. We’d taken a surfing lesson together, and the first time I got up on the board I bit it, big time—heels over head, dragged under by the current, no clue as to which way was up. It was pure fear, a feeling without words. But after I stood, found my balance, recovered my sense of direction, I realized that I was fine. I got back on my board, paddled out, and rode a wave all the way in, the rush of the ocean beneath me smooth, fast, and fierce—but conquerable. The next time I fell I let everything go, all sounds muted under the water, my eyes closed, my body spinning, my head empty until I broke the surface. I imagined later that night that those moments underwater—the world far away, no need for thoughts or language, still myself though consumed by something greater—might be what it’s like to be dead. Or waiting to be born.
“Water,” I said to my therapist. “I want to be near the ocean.”
And once I said that, I knew. It seemed so obvious that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. I would go to California.
7. Take the Railroad Ave exit, 0.2 miles; turn left at W Railroad Ave., 0.4 miles
The exit is small, almost a driveway. My car is the only one to pull off the interstate, and as soon as I round the bend, it’s like dropping onto another planet. No more strip malls, no more restaurants, not even any traffic lights. The road is empty, lined with farmland. The fog has burned off completely, the sun warming the skin of my forearm.
For the past hour or so I’ve been driving with the directions pinned to the steering wheel beneath my thumbs, but now I lay them on the passenger seat. There are only a few steps left, and I’ll remember them. Even if I don’t, even if I make a few wrong turns, I’ll find my way. Eventually.
8. Turn right at Stony Point Rd, 1.7 miles
There is nothing here, absolutely nothing. Grass, sky, a handful of trees. Exactly what I thought I wanted when I left Chicago. Who would I be, I wondered, without the chaos of the city all around me? How would I be? Would I finally relax? Would I find what hours of meditation had failed to yield: some peace?
Around the same time I started having doubts about my marriage, I started wondering if the restlessness was a symptom of some spiritual crisis. Even if it wasn’t, maybe some soul-searching could help me regain my balance—or at least give me some insight into how I’d become so disoriented in the first place. There was a Buddhist temple near my house in Chicago. That summer, not long after I returned from the writers’ residency program, I started attending a Zen meditation class.
Week after week, a dozen of us sat in a semicircle of cushions on the temple floor. The temple was on the same street as my apartment, and while I focused my eyes on the carpet in front of me, while I counted my breaths and tried my best to “become a mountain,” thoughts passing over me as ineffectually as clouds, motorcycles roared by. People shouted at one another. Cars honked, trains clattered, trees beat their branches together in the wind.
“How do we tune out the distractions?” I asked the instructor one day at the end of class.
“You don’t,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Those sounds, like your breathing, like the feel of the floor beneath your body, keep you grounded in the present. Like your thoughts, they pass through you. You hear them and let them go.”
It was the opposite of what I’d been doing since my brother’s death—holding everything in. Shutting everyone out.
Still, I left for California in December planning to isolate myself completely. I wouldn’t check my e-mail, wouldn’t talk to anyone on the phone—not my parents, not my husband. I thought maybe part of the problem, or at least part of why I couldn’t identify the problem, was that I couldn’t close myself up tight enough at home. Too much had gotten through, gotten in. I needed to regroup, to seal up the cracks.
But when I got to the garage apartment, I was lonely. I called my husband that night, pressed the phone to my ear, and pulled the blankets over my head.
9. Turn left at Roblar Rd, 6.5 miles
The scent of eucalyptus, something between freshly mown grass and crushed mint, is strong enough to permeate my rolled-up windows. I breathe it in deeply, watch the flaky tree trunks lining the side of the road tick by, and imagine the rustle of dry, dusty leaves.
What would it be like to smell eucalyptus every day? What does it mean to the people who live here, the ones with the pickup trucks and rusty aluminum rowboats overturned in their yards? The people who own the sheep grazing in the shade of palm trees, who drink beer at the Washoe House because it’s the only spot in town.
The first two days I was in Sonoma, I couldn’t stop gushing. It was amazing! Everything was beautiful! There were olives on the sidewalk—olives! On the sidewalk! There were still lemons and oranges on the trees! In December!
The hills, the birds, the eucalyptus, the food, the wine, the weather. Walking back to the garage apartment from the town square after dinner, in the dark, slightly drunk, I called my husband and told him again and again: “We have to move here.”
But by the third day, walking around the town square yet again, all shops of interest sufficiently poked around in, the two best restaurants eaten at, the movie theater showing a single film that I didn’t happen to be interested in seeing, I realized that the stuff I complained about at home was also the stuff I loved: twenty Thai restaurants within a mile of my house, a twenty-four-hour grocery across the street, a twenty-four-hour drug store down the block. I could walk to the gym, the loft where my writers’ workshop met, the dance studio where I did a weekly freestyle jam. And whenever I got sick of hanging out in my neighborhood, all I had to do was walk half a mile in any direction for countless other options.
Thousands of miles away from Chicago, from clinking beer bottles, traffic jams, and gray slush, from my husband and my parents and the ghost of my brother, Sonoma was warm, slow, quiet, and calm. Everything I’d wanted. I was completely alone, and yet the cracks seemed even larger. I felt even further away from discovering the reason for my restlessness.
10. Turn right at Valley Ford Rd, 5.5 miles
Though I’m getting close to the ocean I can’t really believe it. Every other shoreline I’ve visited has leveled off well in advance, the road sloping down to meet the sea. But here the pavement rises like gathered ribbon, up and down over grass hills dotted with sheep and cows. At the crest of every swell, I expect the road to drop straight into the water. But it doesn’t. Maybe this is just how it goes sometimes. The closer you get to your destination, the harder it is to see.
Finally, though, the road cuts through a hill, the earth so close I could reach out the window and touch it, and I see dry stalks of marsh grass. The road curves north, begins to twist and turn erratically, but I know now which direction I’m traveling. And there it is, finally, a glimpse of blue in the distance, saltwater taffy stands and trailers selling bait and tackle. The road swings to follow the shoreline, and a hundred feet below the biggest waves I have ever seen crash. The spray is so strong, and so frequent, that a mist hovers over the surface of the water.
I drive for a while before deciding to pull over. All the beaches are accessible only by staircases or steep, sandy embankments. I pick my way down to the water and take off my shoes.
There are other people around, but they are far away. The waves are so loud, the wind so strong, that I can’t even hear their voices, though I see their mouths moving. Parents laugh and point cameras; children shout and chase seagulls. I let the very edge of the spent waves wash up over my toes. The water is freezing. I walk back up to the warm, dry hills of sand, lie back, and close my eyes. Boom hiss go the waves, thump thump goes my heart. The sun burns the backs of my eyelids orange. I listen, I breathe. I think about the water.
I think about those waves in Costa Rica, the ones I fell into off my surfboard, that made me think of birth and death. The long pause surrounding this living. I think about being underwater, of spinning weightless, feeling lost, playing Watermelon with my friends in our neighborhood pool.
Grief was like being underwater: everything slow, dark, muted. Grief was like Watermelon. For four and a half years, I spun and sank. I lost all sense of direction.
I pick up a rock, worn smooth and warm, and everything is clear: the restlessness has been rooted in grief all along, rooted in its absence. I spun, sank, and rose. And when I broke the surface, I was miles away from shore. From the life I recognized, the one I expected. The restlessness has been my heart trying to beat hard enough to break down years of walls, my head struggling to recognize my life stripped of the familiar lens of loss. The restlessness has been me searching for my bearings. California—for years a fantasy, the state of my escape—has become my compass.
I walk back up to the car, knock the sand out of my sneakers. For miles I drive parallel to the coast, windows down, hair blowing, sun sinking to the horizon, waves big enough to break a body to bits generating a steady cloud of spray a dozen feet above the water. There is so much beauty in this violence. From a distance.
My brother never saw this ocean. Never saw California. Not so long ago, that thought would have pierced a deep pocket of pain in me. But now, somehow, I feel like he is everywhere. Like he is with me. Like I am a piece of him that gets to keep on living.
When I get back to the garage apartment, I will call my husband and tell him about the ocean, the warmth of the sun, the power of the waves. The next morning I will go hiking. I will sit on a bench at the top of one of those grass-covered hills and soak up some silence—to take home.