Sunday, May 11, 2008

32 ~ Santa Cruz

Photo by
Brendon Stuart

After the radical mastectomy and after the first frightening chemo and after my hair started coming away from my head in handfuls but before my skin turned gray and before Lawrence buzzed me bald and before the hideous cold sore on my lip which flowered tenaciously for more than a week making me feel like a (perversely appealing) gargoyle, Rose suggested spending a day together.

“Let’s do something, Mom,” she said sweetly in October, her voice wafting over the ether and out of my cell phone to make its way into my cochlea. The sound was delightful. We set a date. We made a plan.

“You know what I’d really like to do?” I responded with some enthusiasm (the new, lower-quality enthusiasm I’d been generating since events began). “I’d like to drive to Santa Cruz and go to the Sock Shop. I’m thinking of buying lots of pairs of cool socks, one for each chemo treatment they have scheduled. Then I’ll wrap them up and after each treatment I’ll pick one out for a reward—just like when you were a kid and went to the doctor’s office. I could also buy a pair of cool tights for you and we could spend some time hanging out at the beach.”

Rose approved the plan, arriving by BART from Berkeley the day before our date and spending the night. As fate would have it, Eddy was home too, so we invited him to come with us. Lawrence and Henry were at work and school.

I can’t remember why Eddy was home. After being released from the hospital the second time and finishing the partial hospitalization program, he’d found a place to live in Berkeley and enrolled in school, two feats we considered evidence of improvement. But we weren’t sure how well he was doing there. He was secretive, distant, sometimes belligerent. He wasn’t usually interested in spending time with his family. But he was in Sunnybrae that day, wearing a mysterious black cowboy hat, and so he came along with me and Rose to Santa Cruz. First, though, some ground rules needed to be established.

“You’ll have to sit in the back seat Eddy,” I informed him preemptively. The Nissan had only two doors, and the back windows didn’t roll down. The seat was unpleasant, but he still wanted to come.

“And you’ll have to do whatever I decide. This is supposed to be my day, my treat from Rose, so it’s no fair trying to talk me out of or into something. You just have to go along with what I choose.”

“Okay,” he agreed dispassionately, adjusting the hat. I was protecting myself from an argumentative child that didn't seem to exist.

When we took off, Rose was in the driver’s seat. I sat in the passenger seat with a scarf over my head to keep my hair from falling out, and Eddy squeezed in back. We headed toward the Pacific Coast right away. As soon as we got to Highway 92—the two-lane route over the mountains that winds up to the summit and then down to the coast through fields of pumpkins and Christmas trees, past fruit and flower stands—we came into traffic, a long line of cars creeping behind a big truck which couldn’t accelerate uphill. We settled in for a lengthy ride.

“How are you doing, Mom?” Rose asked.

“I’m okay, I guess.”

“Is the chemo hard?”

“Yes, it is.”

“What’s it like?”

“I already told you, Rose.” I was annoyed. “The chemicals they’re putting into me stink, and they’re scary. One is bright red, like Kool-aid—I get two huge cylinders that must hold a quart full of that. The nurse couldn’t get the needle into my vein the first time. She jabbed and jabbed at the back of my hand. Your father cried.” I looked out of the window, tapping my knuckle on the glass.

That week at the infusion center we’d met an emaciated woman with lung cancer who had been given only a short time to live. She’d already exceeded expectations. “My doctor calls me the Energizer bunny, because I just keep ticking,” she said. I gave her an anemic smile.

We were in one of the three private rooms, preferring that to the big community room with six or seven infusion chairs, a television, a nurses’ station, and a constant flurry of activity. The private rooms had two beds each, and two chairs, for visitors. Sometimes, we were lucky and no one shared the room with us. But that day the woman with lung cancer had arrived in a wheelchair and received help getting up on her bed. Her toes, I noticed, were twisted. Her toenails were painted pink. After introductions—when we shared information about diagnoses and medications—she spent most of the four hours it took to infuse me napping. But after waking suddenly one time she turned her head on the pillow to fix me with a stare. “I can’t sleep at night,” she told me in a near whisper. “I leave the television on to keep me company. There doesn’t even have to be a show on. Just the sound of static is comforting.” Her husband, seated at the foot of her bed in the visitor’s chair, nodded his head with vigor. His head was covered with bright brown hair. Hers was covered with a gray turban.

“You lie awake and wonder,” she said.

When we reached Half Moon Bay, we stopped at Caffino, a little drive-through coffee stand. I had a chai latte. Rose had hot chocolate with whipped cream. Eddy said he wasn’t thirsty. He was quiet and subdued, lacking his usual animation. I felt worried about him, as I had been nearly constantly for the past five months, but also determined to enjoy the day out with my daughter. On the counter in the window was a tip jar with the label, “Instant Karma.”

“I’ll take some instant karma, too,” I told Rose, handing her an extra dollar to pay the server. “I think we could all use some of that.”

After we got our hot drinks we turned left on Highway 1 and headed out of town. We were quickly back in farm country, surrounded by fields of baled hay and bright pumpkins and tall shivering corn backlit by the mighty Pacific Ocean. The sky was enormous, gray and overcast—-the ocean roiling. The coastline between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz is the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen, and I’ve driven down it every summer for more than 20 years. The scenery is so magnificent it inspires artistic endeavor. Last summer, I took photographs of Rose in a white satin wedding dress that I’d bought at a thrift store standing in a field of cabbages beneath the Pigeon Point Lighthouse. I’d brought the wedding dress along with us today, and my excellent old single lens reflex Leica, in case inspiration hit again.

The experience of being a passenger on this stretch of road was new to me. Normally, I drove, and had to divide my attention between the scenery and the traffic. But that day, I luxuriated in the fact that I could devote all my attention to the water. “The ocean is my mother,” I told Rose playfully. She nodded and smiled.

It wasn’t until we were about five miles out of Half Moon Bay that Rose revealed her secret plan. “I’m taking a class on female sexuality, and I have a project due on body image,” she began.

“Umhumm.” I was distracted.

“I brought my movie camera.”

“Yes?” This brought my attention around.

“And I want you to film me walking naked down the side of Highway 1.”


She laughed mischievously. “You heard me.”

“Rose, you can’t do that,” I admonished her. “We’ll all get arrested.”

“Oh, come on, Mom. It’ll be fun! There aren’t any policemen out here.”

“No, Rose,” I used my authoritarian voice. “I really don’t like this idea, at all. Something bad is bound to happen. Someone might pull over and attack you. Or they’ll get into an accident. They’ll be so distracted by the sight of you walking naked that they’ll drive off the road.”

“Mom, be serious. That’s not going to happen. There aren’t even very many cars out here.”

“Rose, NO! It’s crazy.”

“Mom…” Her tone was disdainful.

“Hold on a minute. Let’s think about this. There’s got to be something else you can do for the assignment that will work. What was your whole idea?”

“Well, first I thought I’d take some videos of me walking naked along Highway 1,” she paused to give me a big, teasing smile. “Then I’d do a voice over about how I feel about my body. Then I want to interview you about what you said to me about sex when I was becoming a teenager, how my body was my own and you wouldn’t try to control my virginity, because that was so cool, Mom, and that had such a big influence on me-—on how I feel about myself and how I turned out as a woman.”

Was she buttering me up? I wasn’t sure if it was deliberate, but it was working. I felt a warm waft of pride suffusing my body.

“Rose, I’m very glad to hear that, really I am, and I’d love to help you with this project. I’d be honored to be interviewed on your film. But I just don’t want to do anything too crazy or illegal right now. I’m feeling too vulnerable. If something bad happened, I don’t think I could handle it.” I thought for a moment, considered sacrificing my wayward son. “Maybe Eddy could film you while I hid in the car.”

Rose nodded thoughtfully. “That would work.” I glanced mischievously at the back seat, but Eddy wasn’t playing along. He sat staring passively out the window.

“No. Wait a minute. I changed my mind. That wouldn’t work, because the policeman would bring you back to your vehicle. Then he’d find me and hold me responsible.”

“Do you really think he would, Mom, even though we’re adults? It wouldn’t have anything to do with you.”

“That doesn’t matter. If I’m here, I’m responsible.”

Just then a sign advertising a corn maze appeared on the side of the road. It was the third sign I’d noticed for the attraction, but the first time I’d paid any attention. “Corn maze…” I muttered, trying to rein in an elusive idea. “Rose, that’s it! We could do it in the corn maze. That would look great on film, and it would be private. No one would see you.”

“You think so?” The entrance was rapidly approaching.

“Of course! It’ll be perfect. Turn left at this driveway. Turn left! Turn left!”

The corn maze turned out to be enormous—-two square miles—-and cost $5 a person to get in. I didn’t mind paying in the least, felt I’d escaped disaster by pulling Rose’s project off the road. Rose was excited by the prospect of filming. Eddy followed along mutely, in a dreamy state. I felt another flush of worry about him. He was so quiet, so distant, so unlike himself. At the same time, I was relieved that he wasn’t running amok and causing trouble.

First, we gathered our stuff out of the car: two cameras, a water bottle, a warm scarf for me, the white satin dress in case a good photo opportunity presented, my wallet and keys. The proprietor was a small, grizzled man wearing a greasy cowboy hat and smoking an unfiltered cigarette. I located the entrance sign and, a ways off to the right, the exit sign. “Can we just go in a little ways and then come back out the entrance?” I asked him a bit nervously. “We just want to take some pictures. We don’t want to go all the way through.”

“What are the pictures for?” he asked suspiciously.

“Nothing special. Just family. Just mementos.”

“As far as I’m concerned you can do whatever you want to, as long as you pay me. Just mind you don’t get lost in there.” He gave a malicious stare.

“We won't.”

Outside the maze some bales of hay were piled up to make a play area for small children. An oversized scarecrow surveyed the scene. There was a family on the bales—-a mother and father with a toddler and a baby in a stroller—-and a few random children darting in and out of the exit. Two other families were picking through the adjacent pumpkin patch, looking for the perfect spheres to make their jack o’ lanterns for Halloween. The maze didn’t seem to have any customers at the moment. That suited us perfectly. We went inside eagerly. After turning one corner, I took up the camera. Rose ran ahead to the end of the path, took off her jacket, tossed it capriciously on the ground, and disappeared around the corner like a wood nymph. “Perfect. That was perfect, Rose, but could you do it again? I’m not sure I got it framed right.”

As we moved through the maze, we developed a rhythm. Rose was the actress, I the filmmaker, and Eddy a kind of prop boy, carrying all the dropped clothing and acting as a lookout in case any strangers approached. At the end of the next row, Rose kicked off each of her shoes seductively. Next came her socks, pants, shirt, tank top…We followed her deeper and deeper into the corn maze, lured as if by magic, fascinated as she discarded another item at every turn. After her lacy bra, she finally took off her last stitch of clothing—her underpants—and gave a little leap of joy before disappearing around another corner of the maze. I saw myself restored in her leap, in her healthy young body. She had two breasts, of course, small ones like mine had been, and smooth wide hips, bright red hair, luscious blue eyes. Her nude female form was a panoply of possibility.

Eddy and I hurried after Rose with urgency, as if we were trying to capture her. Just then we heard a group of noisy teenagers approaching quickly from behind. Rose scurried to pull on her clothes again, barely getting her shirt over her head before they rounded the bend in a tangle of laughter and stumbled upon us.

After the filming, which energized both me and Rose but seemed to have no impact on Eddy, we continued south on Highway 1, arriving in Santa Cruz around lunch time. We found the Sock Shop on the Pacific Garden Mall and spent half an hour picking out 16 pairs with crazy colors and patterns. We decided to have lunch at the Bagelry and were sitting outside in their little fern-covered patio eating garlic bagels with hummus and alfalfa sprouts when I suddenly realized that I’d been wanting to come to Santa Cruz during the month of October for years—-but had always been too busy working—-in order to visit the site where thousands of monarch butterflies stop on their migration to Mexico. So we drove to Natural Bridges State Park next, at the end of West Cliff Drive, which hugs the cliffs along the beachfront north of the Boardwalk. The park attendant who took our money said not many butterflies had yet arrived, and even suggested it might not be worth the price of admission to enter, but I was glad to pay. Hopefully, by the time next October rolled around, I would be healthy again, back at work, and too busy to come.

After we parked the car, we walked along a wood-plank path marked with butterfly symbols, and when I noticed one or two flutter past, I thought we had seen all the park had to offer. But then a breeze picked up, and the trees bloomed orange. That’s when we realized that hundreds of butterflies were hanging in vertical strands all around us. We had mistaken them for leaves, since they were clustered so closely together, and the undersides of their wings were a dull, mottled brown. Rose cried out in excitement at the first recognition, and ran off down one of the paths, gazing upwards. Eddy and I stumbled mutely after. Seeing his broad back hulking before me on the path, and feeling my own stiff legs beneath me, I was reminded of the Frankenstein monster, or Grendel, dread night monarch astir in his cave. But each of those misfits suffered most from isolation. “At least we have company in our monstrosity,” I thought. “There are two of us.”

After the butterflies, we drove back along West Cliff Drive to the statue of a surfer with a long, old-fashioned board, and pulled over to watch his living counterparts riding the waves. Rose and I stood near a rail which overlooked an iceplant-covered cliff to the ocean. Behind us was a grassy meadow where a wedding was being staged.

Eddy was laying on the grass with his arms behind his head when a gust of wind took his black cowboy hat, lifting it off his head and depositing it on the iceplant on the other side of the railing. Eddy quickly stood up and attempted a youthful leap over the rail, holding the top with both hands and swinging his legs over the side. It was the kind of jump I had seen him make a hundred times—the kind of jump he could have easily completed just a few months before. But today his foot caught, and he went sprawling on the slippery iceplant, coming dangerously close to the edge of the cliff which dropped off to sharp rocks jutting out of the surf 30 feet below.

“No, God. Please!” I cried out without thinking, instinctively clutching the necklace that Greta had made me with both hands.

“Come back Eddy,” Rose coaxed gently, while her hands tightly gripped the rail. “Just forget it.”

The two of us waited anxiously, not wanting to say more, afraid of provoking an unexpected reaction. The hat remained on the edge of the cliff for a moment, as if taunting him, and he was turning slowly toward it when it lifted up abruptly and then dashed down to the sea.

Eddy came back to us then. I tried to grab his hand as he climbed over the railing, but he wouldn’t let me (“Mom! It’s okay. I’m coming”). I felt relieved when we were all buckled back in the car. This time I took the wheel.

The sun was setting magnificently as we retraced our route, splashing the sky with yellow and orange and purple hues. We drove north on Highway 1, with the ocean stretching out endlessly on our left, deep blue and fathomless for mile after mile, the wide expanse bordered with a frothy white fringe. The air outside was crisp and cold, with a tang of salt. Inside the car it was warm and quiet. Rose had chosen to sit in the back seat with Eddy, and the two of them leaned together and napped, reminding me of their childhood, while I crooned the prayer song I had written on this route years earlier, changing the words to give thanks that we were safe and alive. When we got to Half Moon Bay, we found Highway 92 so clogged with traffic that the cars were standing still.

“Let’s not go that way,” Rose suggested sleepily. “Let’s go up through Pacifica and around.” So I drove much farther north than I was used to, past Mavericks, past Miramar, past Devil’s Slide, traveling far afield in the dark and feeling lost and flustered, taking strange and arduous pathways till we found our way home.


Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home