“I get the aqua marine one,” I said, walking into the room that faced the street. It was filled with summer light and the walls had been painted a startling turquoise color, the moldings a bright orange. I was 21, well past the age when a loud color scheme like this should have appealed to me, but the brightness and sunlight made the room feel hopeful.
“It’s all yours,” my dad said with a slight bow, a new habit he’d picked up during his year away in Indonesia.
He left to unpack the car and I flung my duffel down on the bed, a twin without a frame that sat in the middle of the room. There, I laid out the small number of possessions I’d accrued since I’d arrived in California four months prior, sick with a chronic pain illness. There was the anthology of poetry by Rimbaud; the stack of Henry Miller books; the notebooks that contained the reams of terrible poetry I’d been writing since I left New York; and a small heap of clothes. I had thrown out most of my belongings when I left the city. There wasn’t much: In my four and a half years in New York, I’d lived in eight apartments, sleeping on a succession of subletted furniture in subletted rooms, never once having my own proper bed, desk, or dresser. I’d been on my own since I was 17 and now I was back where I’d started, in the Bay Area of my childhood, broke and unsure how to navigate my life and the world.
My father reappeared in the doorway behind me and looked around the room, smiling. It was the first time I’d seen him look light and buoyant since he’d returned to California from Indonesia that spring, called back from his year of wandering when his mother died of congestive heart failure.
“We scored, huh?” he said.
I laughed. “I wouldn’t exactly say we scored,” I said. But it did feel good in the airy, open room, the sunlight so expansive and strong it warmed my chest through the glass. It felt like one of those moments whose sounds and colors would stick with me for a long time, like the beginning of an era I wouldn’t forget.
My father and I were refugees from our own individual catastrophes – I from my illness and a near empty bank account, and he from his unraveling adult life, the one he’d tried to escape when he moved out of his small cottage in West Marin, quit teaching, and bought a one-way ticket to Indonesia, where he’d had his romantic notion of the archipelago severely tested but not leveled entirely. We had both needed geographical distance from California, and we had both, at different points, made our escapes. Mine had been launched at 17, but it had been a silent plan for years. In retrospect, his probably was too. But there were built in U-turns in our escape routes, places in the road laid out ahead of us that we couldn’t see that would force us to double-back, to return to the source of things. At the ages of 52 and 21, my father and I had become roommates. And it was the first thing that had felt right in a very long time.
The next morning, Berkeley was warm and cloudless, the streets lively with flea market browsers and summer students. It was already blindingly bright in my new room, and the forecast said that Point Reyes National Seashore – the magical, fog-blanketed landscape of my youth – would be sunny, the winds calm. It was a rare prediction, so we decided to pack up the car and take a ride out to the beach.
I filled a small daypack and threw it into the trunk of my dad’s busted, sputtering Geo, which my brother had driven in his absence, returning it to him with one of the back windows gone, a black trash bag duct-taped over the empty space. It appeared that my dad was still preparing for life the way one prepares for earthquakes. He came lumbering out of the apartment with his arms full of provisions: three plastic milk gallons filled with water; a stack of frayed Mexican blankets older than I was; a flashlight; a first aid kit; a paper sack containing bread, tomatoes, and hunks of cheddar; a tarp; a walking stick; a cheap rain poncho; extra socks (layers, always layers). He placed it all gingerly inside the trunk, then slammed it shut, the little Geo shaking for a moment.
“The forecast says it’s supposed to be 75,” he said, shielding his eyes from the sun as he looked up skeptically. That was a high temp for Point Reyes, even in the middle of the summer.
“But you never know.” He went back into the apartment and returned with a heap of old sweatshirts.
My dad had grown up in the Sierras and spent a lot of his life in the wilderness, where things can turn quickly and easily. And I suppose the world our unstable family occupied was a wilderness of its own, an unmapped backcountry that the supposed leaders of the expedition – my mother and father – never quite figured out how navigate. My parents lived paycheck to paycheck and consistently failed to gather enough money to buy a decent car, so they lived vehicle to vehicle, too: the brown Toyota that lasted us six months, until we sold it, barely functioning, for $100; the little white Honda that lived the longest life, but eventually gave out too; and the big yellow station wagon christened “the Zonk” by its previous owner that I, a ten-year-old girl trying desperately to fit in, hated. I remember the purchase and sale of these cars, transactions of few words done quickly in empty parking lots at night like shady drug deals. On one of our maiden voyages, we discovered that the Zonk was to be treated gently: it could not be pushed past 40 or the clutch would begin to shake and the car would give out. We discovered this, of course, on the freeway.
Breakdowns were frequent and expected in my childhood, so the gallons of water came in handy when we ended up stranded, my father and I marching together down the freeway in the hot sun, him keeping me close at his side as we hugged the wall, making our way to the nearest exit to find a gas station with a payphone to call my mother. I knew that this among many other small but consistent crises in our lives was a sign of instability, the kind of thing I didn’t discuss with friends; but in secret, I loved it. I loved my hair whipping around my face as the cars flew past us, the whoosh of the air, the thrill of the speed. My father, in his intensity – sometimes loquacious and funny, other times full of rage – often lent a heightened quality to life, especially when it was all falling apart. He thrived on struggle; it lit him up, made him alive. It was a trait—or maybe an addiction—I’d inherited from him, which might explain the chaos of my life in New York. Like him, I knew how to live inside of a catastrophe. I knew how to survive. But living was another thing entirely.
The ride out to Point Reyes is winding and long, and it had always made me sick as a kid in the backseat. But the front seat I occupied now as we made our way west was dramatically different, fresh air moving across my face, bits of sunlight coming into the narrow dark road that was canopied by tall redwoods and Eucalyptus, their peeled bark hanging down like old rope.
As we reached the top of a particularly steep hill, I stuck my head out of the window and smelled the touch of salt in the air. Below the wildflower-dotted meadows that surrounded us, the ocean sparkled in the cloudless weather. This piece of land was the only place I’d missed since I’d left for New York, the only part that tugged at me on certain days when it felt like the city was closing in, the streets congested and cramped.
When we got to the parking lot, there were only a few cars despite the gorgeous weather. Most Marin County families would be at Stinson Beach today. When we were little and my beautiful, blond, optimistic mother still entertained hopes of saving her unhappy marriage, we’d plead to go to Stinson on a sunny August day, because that was the fun beach, the one with ice cream cones and French fries and kids splashing on boogie boards in the waves. There was no reason, as we saw it, to go to Limantour, where the riptide was fierce and the wind was strong. You couldn’t swim; you couldn’t snack; you couldn’t, most of the time, even get warm. But my father spurned the beer-swilling mediocrity of Stinson, the swarms of people who, merely in existing, were an obstacle between him and his experience of beauty.
Wind-swept Limantour was a haunting and howling place, empty and remote. All of this—along with the fact that the parking lot was a half-mile of soft, collapsing sand from the beach—promised that there would always, no matter what, be just a few brave souls there. Limantour had always seemed to me the very definition of the way in which my family was different, stood apart. And the way we were at Limantour – my father walking miles down the beach alone, my mother stewing on a Mexican blanket, my brother next to her scowling and complaining that he wanted to go home, and me, standing at the shore, tracing pictures and words into the wet sand with my toe, bundled up in a huge, oversized sweatshirt of my father’s and dreaming myself to another place—was the layout of my family, a frozen image of the way we all stood apart not just from the rest of the world but from each other.
My father and I gathered the food, Mexican blankets, water, and a couple books from the trunk, and schlepped it all out to shore. On the walk, I got so warm I had to take off my sweatshirt and pull my hair up in a loose bun. My father took out his characteristic handkerchief, a ragged accessory I’d never seen him without, and wiped away the sweat that was slick across his forehead.
“Indonesians don’t sweat,” he said. “Seriously, a pregnant woman with three kids would be sitting in a small, windowless room without air conditioning or a fan and I’m getting soaked and there’s not so much as a bead of sweat on any of their foreheads. They thought it was hilarious.”
I laughed. “I guess getting shorn was a necessity then,” I said. Tall and large and heavily bearded, my father had always had the look of a mountain man, but he’d returned from the tropics with short hair and a shaved face, looking professorial in round glasses, his once black hair almost completely grey. His hair had been so wild his math and music students used to call him Jerry after Jerry Garcia. This new short cut made him look stern and severe.
“Oh man, the beard was gone in a week,” he said, stroking his chin as though the course mane I had loved to comb my fingers through as a kid were still there.
He smelled different, too, like clove cigarettes and the scent of another country, something like cinnamon and sweat and musk mixed together. And he’d changed in more fundamental ways: He was not as vibrant and intense as I remembered him being, but he was also not as brooding, holing himself up for days, talking to no one. He had always been a man of extremes, and he’d seemed to level out a bit, still quick to temper, but less so. He’d lost a significant amount of weight, and it made him look reduced, as though he’d been pricked with a pin and deflated. But his face still had the same heaviness about it, that sagging look of disappointment that he’d developed somewhere around my parents’ divorce when I was 13, as though he’d grown old overnight.
We reached the dunes that lined the edge of the beach and stopped, looking out towards the water for a moment. In the past, this was where we’d often set up camp, because the dunes offered minor protection from the wind. But there was no need today. The winds were still.
“Before I left for Indonesia, I came out here and hiked up to one of the cliffs overlooking the ocean,” my dad said. “I remember thinking the view was just okay, nothing special. I remember trying to force myself to feel something, anything at all.” He hitched up his pack and started moving again, scrambling down the dune, kicking up sand against my bare legs as I followed behind him.
I had felt that same sensation not long before I’d left New York that winter. I loved autumn in the city, and I’d take the subway furthest from the concert venue where I worked just so I could walk through it for a little bit longer. But one day, the dry leaves crunching underfoot, the crisp air around me that had once felt full of promise, felt, instead, like a disappointment, a forgone conclusion that this year would be no different than the rest: bleeding me dry, leaving me spent, a husk. The city had once been beautiful to me because I had always felt a part of it, because nothing in it seemed to refuse me, even on its most brutal days. But as we headed into winter that fall, I’d felt, as I had often felt in my childhood in California, held at a distance, denied entrance.
We laid out our blanket not far from shore and got out the food, already starved for lunch. When I reached adolescence and began to understand the ways in which natural beauty trumped snacks and boogie boards, I started accompanying my dad on his walks down the shore. My family had broken up, so it was always just the two of us. We’d often walk three miles out to the estuary where the sea lions gathered and have a kind of impromptu picnic as we watched them, my father hiding the cheese and tomatoes in his coat so that the sand wouldn’t get to it them as he cut slices with his Swiss Army knife. What had felt haunting and scary when I was a child felt comforting in its power and permanence – so little was reliable in my young life, but I could always come back to this peninsula, this bit of land that an insistent U.S. congressman had managed to save from the California sprawl of condominiums.
Biting into a hunk of cheddar cheese and looking out at the ocean, I could see now that the seed had been planted in me early on, long before those walks to the estuary. Sometimes, when I was little, on hot days despite the cold water and riptide, my father would strip down to swim trunks and walk into the icy water with me on his shoulders until the water just reached his chin. From there, I could see the sea lions sunning on the big rocks at the foot of jagged cliffs, could feel my toes go numb as they touched the cold water, could see all the way out to the boats at the edge of the ocean. In those moments, I didn’t long for Stinson; in those moments, I knew I was a very lucky kid.
“You want to go out to see the sea lions?” I asked my dad, shielding my face from the intense sun. The two of us were lying side by side on the blanket, our heads on our backpacks. My mind still felt a little hazy, like I had never quite woken up. I had started taking a new pain-blocking medication for my condition a week before and had been sleeping eleven hours a night due to the drowsiness it induced.
“Go on without me,” he said. “This sun is a bit much for your old man.”
A little disappointed but trying not to show it, I got up and started out toward the estuary, my feet bare. The dry sand was blazing, so I sprinted to the shoreline, where my feet sunk into the cold, wet sand. The coast seemed silent and empty without my dad, but I also felt free in the silence, released of the burden of being me, free from my brokeness and confusion and struggle with a chronic pain illness that had no cure, according to the specialists I’d seen. That must have been where my dad had gone on his own lonely walks down the beach when I was a kid: into a space where his roles—and his failures—as a father, a provider, a husband ceased to exist.
When we’d go on walks together, my father would give me morsels of himself in the form of story: The Jimi Hendrix concert he hitchhiked all the way to Utah to see; the guy who picked him up on the side of the road in Reno, beating him up and robbing him of his father’s watch; the acid trips, the journeys on peyote, the heroin – “it feels like heaven, so never do it;” the radio he listened to alone in his bedroom, teaching himself chord progressions and complicated riffs over and over until he could play almost any song by ear after hearing it once; the Lake Tahoe resort where he’d grown up, which his parents were forced to sell when they went bankrupt; the tourists he checked in when he was just a boy, bringing coffee and newspapers to their doors in the early hours of the morning while his mother was in bed, depressed and high on a cocktail of narcotics. He told me about the time his buddy had stolen a Budweiser truck – filled to the brim – and proceeded to throw a two-week party in the woods. Some Hells Angels showed up to start a brawl, and my father crawled back afterward to his best friend Tom’s house, covering his sheets with blood, Tom’s mother horrified in the morning. In those days, when my dad’s mother was sick and his father was away for weeks in Reno working the Black Jack tables, he more or less lived with Tom. The responsibility of taking care of his mother fell to his sister, and he, too sad and enraged to deal with any of it, left as often as he could. These stories stirred something in me: I wanted to get out. I wanted to leave too.
Don’t you feel abandoned by him? People asked me after he left for Indonesia, and I shook my head. Sure, in the quietest part of me I felt something. Not so much anger—which had always seemed a useless emotion to me—but sadness, fear, a drafty feeling of disappointment. I missed being able to call him. I missed being able to picture him up in his little cottage. His absence was one less anchor I had to the world. But he had to go.
In the sense that all of our choices have a domino effect, his sudden departure for faraway lands was a choice. But I knew that it was equally true that it wasn’t. Maybe he’d pushed away friends and family; lost a succession of teaching jobs at private schools because of his temper and outspoken nature; cut ties with his mother and sister. But it was too late to place blame. He was boxed into a corner when he left. I knew what that felt like. I knew how your entire life can suddenly come at you and the only option is to run.
As I continued out toward the estuary, I was beginning to regret my decision not to bring a hat. The sun was so strong it felt like a physical force bearing down on my head. And why, too, had I neglected to bring water? The further I walked, the hotter the sand became, and the more disoriented I felt. I should probably turn back, I thought vaguely, my face feeling flushed. But I hadn’t been walking that long; it felt silly to end it so quickly. So I kept on, keeping my eyes trained in the direction of the estuary I couldn’t yet see.
After a few more minutes passed, the sand beneath my feet began to feel unbearably hot, like I was walking across a lit stove. I looked down and realized I had strayed into the hot, dry sand—pretty far, actually. I sprinted back to the shoreline, my feet on fire, and sunk them into the wet, cold sand. It was a relief but a relief that pointed out that my arms and legs were on fire too. I crouched down in the tide and sunk my limbs into the water. It felt like the sun was boiling my skin.
I got up and turned to looked at my father, who was smaller and further away than I had imagined. Had I been walking longer than I thought? I felt unable to gauge distance, unsure, even, of where my body ended and where the oven of a world around me began. My mind was dim and warped and my body felt like it might turn to dust and disperse into the atmosphere.
I looked out toward the estuary again, but I still couldn’t make it out in the distance. It suddenly felt impossibly far away, so I decided to turn back, fighting the urge to just curl up in the wet sand and go to sleep. I knew I had to get back to my dad as soon as possible, aware that something was very wrong but not at all understanding what it was.
“So hot,” was all I was able to say when I finally got to my dad, collapsing on the blanket next to him. I must have looked like I felt because he sprung up, water bottle in hand, and thrust it towards me. I took it, looked at it, confused, and then placed it back on the blanket.
“Simone, you need to drink this,” he said, shoving it back into my hands. “Now.” His face and voice were full of worry. I picked up the bottle and took a big gulp, hoping this would calm him a bit. It made me feel like throwing up.
“I feel like I’m on fire,” I said.
“Let’s get you in the car,” he said. He helped me pull on my shoes without remarking on the fact that I needed the help at all, sliding my wet, sandy feet into the sneakers without socks. He put his straw hat over my head, securing the leather cord around my neck.
“You think you can make it out to the car?”
I nodded, confident that I was capable but unclear on what the walk would require of me. We trudged through the sand and I pulled the hat further down on my head as we walked, holding the brim down to cover most of my face, hiding from the brutal and unforgiving sun, whose very existence felt like an assault, a personal vendetta waged against me.
When we finally reached the Geo and our death march was over, my dad opened the passenger door for me and reclined the seat. I laid down on it, feeling like I was being devoured by fire.
“It’s too hot,” I said, squirming in my seat. “I’m burning.” I felt like my entire body was suffering from a second-degree burn that continued to eat its way deeper into my skin every second I didn’t have it plunged in ice water. My dad got in the car and handed me a jug of water, which I poured over my arms and legs the way one pours water over a grill. They cooled for a moment, but the heat came back with a quick fierceness.
My dad looked at me. “Drink,” he said with greater insistence. I took a bigger gulp this time.
“We need to get you out of here,” he said as he started the engine.” I continued to drink in little sips, mostly to make him happy.
“I think you’ve got sunstroke,” he said.
“But I wasn’t even walking very long,” I said.
“Long enough,” he said.
By the time we got home an hour later, I was shivering with cold. I lay down on the ratty old couch the college girls had left in the room my father inhabited, and he put a comforter over me.
“You need to drink,” my dad said yet again. I looked up at him. He was holding out a fresh glass of water.
“You hear me? Drink.” I took a sip and put the glass down on the carpet, staring at the blank wall, glassy-eyed. The burning had dissipated but my whole body was tingling and I felt listless and uncaring, deep in a narcotic haze. I could vaguely sense that my father was scared, and there was something reassuring about my father’s fear, the knowledge that he was here to take care of me, to care when I didn’t. When I was a kid, it had always been my father against the world. And on occasion, it had been the two of us against the world, father and daughter, two people who understood each other in the deepest, most fundamental way. That’s when I felt safest, armored by his guts or his rage. But, with his manic moods, the sense of safety came and went, and I had long stopped counting on him to be there. It was arresting to look up and see that he was.
“Earth to Simone,” he said, crouching down beside me, water in hand yet again. “You’re scaring me, you’re totally non-responsive.”
I looked at him and through a haze I felt something pull inside of me, a quiet tear through the center of me. “Don’t leave,” I said, taking his wrist.
He got comfortable on the floor next to me, and pulled the blanket up to my chin. “I’m not leaving,” he said. I didn’t know it then, but in mere months he would. And so would I.
Later that evening, I’d open the new prescription I’d started taking that week, and notice for the first time the orange label on the side of the bottle: Avoid exposure to direct sunlight when taking this medication. And a month after that I’d learn that there was a woman waiting for my father in Indonesia. In September I’d make a misguided return to New York, better but not cured. My father would return to Indonesia, marry the woman, move into an apartment with her, and get a full-time teaching job. Three years later, I’d visit my father and then lose him all over again when I left, crying in the back seat of a hired car on my way to the airport in the early morning dark. And the aqua marine room would be a memory, a still point in an otherwise chaotic landscape. But tonight my dad sat beside me on the floor, forced me to drink my body weight in water, and didn’t move an inch from me.