Thea and I were still bleary-eyed when the sun began to rise behind Mount Tamalpais. The day’s first light was small and self-contained, centered between the sloping humps of the mountain’s peaks.
“This is my favorite part,” Thea said, and I nodded, our sleeping bag rustling beneath my chin.
We’d been lying side by side on the hood of her mom’s Cadillac since 3:30 that morning, parked on the edge of a hillside that overlooked a ravine. Summers on the dusty outer limits of Marin County were hot and shadeless, but the nights remained cold and shrouded with fog. Only our heads and a tiny flashlight peaked out of our sleeping bag, my hand holding it unsteadily over The Book of Fairies. It was a collection of old fables that we read only on this car, only on these Sundays, which had become a ritual for us, that summer of 1993. This was our third pass through it, and it had started to feel like the stories belonged to us, like, through reading the book, we had a tiny part in its creation, its significance—that was true of almost anything we did together in those days.
This is where I spent most of my Sunday mornings the summer I was 9—perched on this beast of a car at the top of a hillside, a long line of sleeping cars ahead of us that led to the area’s flea market grounds, a place that was covered in dust and rocks, rotten spring rolls and half-eaten chicken wings. If sellers wanted a chance at a stall, they had to rise at this painful hour and wait until the grounds opened at daybreak.
Britta, Thea’s mother, sat reclined in the front seat, listening to talk radio, her cigarette smoke wafting towards us, making us nauseous. She was from New York, and her voice and demeanor were hard-edged, different than the other mothers in Marin County, one of the richest places in California. As far as I can remember, she never had a real job—she was always moving from one half-baked project to the next, and at this time, she was buying plaster angels in bulk, painting them, and selling them at flea markets around Marin. Boxes of them filled their garage, and they seemed to turn up everywhere around their little duplex—under Thea’s bed, among the cleaning products under the bathroom sink, in the drawers of her mother’s nightstand.
In retrospect, I have no idea who bought these things, or how Britta supported the two of them with this income. But, even though I couldn’t name it, I could sense that measure of risk in their lives, could sense it in the very atmosphere of the flea market—these buyers and sellers were seedy creatures who lived out of vans, scruffy mutts tied to their display tables with course rope, their clothes disheveled and worn. They moved from one market to the next around the hot oven of summer in central California, casting their lots on the margins of society. But it’s these mornings on the car I remember most vividly, the moments when we still occupied the safe worlds of our imaginations, before the sun had fully risen, before we were thrown, headlong, into the actualities of the adult world.