Essay

Gray October

One morning in October, after two months visiting family in Washington, I prepare to drive back to California.

Against a slate sky the trees are an ombré of golds and reds that no longer fully hide their branches. They will stand bare once the first heavy rain arrives, but by then I will be gone.

On this morning my car becomes a well-played game of Tetris. A suitcase, two duffle bags and the final boxes from storage are packed in tightly. Numerous childhood items fit where big items can’t, including a considerable amount of stuffed animals – so many that I’ve placed them on the front seat with a blanket over them, a makeshift bed for my canine travel partner.

There is a wooden footstool, a small child’s chair hand-painted with white and blue flowers at each leg, and a rather large toy barn that would not be here if it didn’t fold down flat. I’ve tried to make myself donate it but can’t seem to let go.

I am no monk; my vehicle attests to this. Fitting anything more into the car would be akin to a phrase my Kentucky grandmother used: “like trying to stretch a gnat’s ass over a barrel.”

The footstool in my backseat once belonged to her but has been mine for many years. She died when I was barely seven, one of four grandparents who I did not know. My insular family lived thousands of miles from other relatives and, in retrospect, often seemed to avoid a good chunk of our extended family. Perhaps we lived far away from everyone else for the same reason I now live far away from my Seattle home; maybe it’s in my blood to run.

My other mémère, from Quebec, is said to have held me in her arms when I was a baby but of course I have no memory of that. Two decades after she died someone found a trunk in her attic with lavish beaded gowns and a photo of her as a young woman standing naked in the Caribbean. Because of this and the ease with which we place unfamiliar people on pedestals she is my favorite grandparent.

The time nears 9 a.m. on this mid-October morning. I’ve put the dog in the front seat atop the stuffed animals, checked our snacks, checked our water supply and we are ready to go.

When leaving a place there is a moment—subtle, but significant–in which a person standing outside a car pauses to look around one last time, then gets in and shuts the door. I am deftly aware that this moment is a transition from one world into another. I will never understand those who do not pause.

And here I am in the midst of that moment, standing beside my driver’s door in the fall air and taking a look around. My breath visibly surrounds me before fading away like finger-streaks on our wintry kitchen window when I was a child. I think of breath as a piece of us that stays after we are gone. Maybe mine will settle into the soil or find itself on the wind, carried up to swirl in front of my mother’s window where she is lying in bed.

I get into the car and close the door.

The first time I made this journey was eleven years ago, twentysomething and with a new college degree. I’ve driven this route from Seattle to San Diego several times since, each time further removed from the past and aware that one day it will barely be there at all, which will likely leave me half relieved and half empty. With the last of my things in the car, I wonder what I would like to keep and what I would like to leave in the mirror that I wipe clear with the sleeve of my jacket.

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Essay

Crescent City

Eleven years later, I still think about the girl on the beach.

January 2011: I am two days into my move from Washington to California. The drive is gray, dreary. I reach Crescent City and it is raining heavily. Northern winter rain. Something you only understand if you have been out in it or at the least watched it through a window. Perhaps one time you rolled down the car window and stuck out your hand in it, palm against pummeling water, and after that you might never again have felt right about calling precipitation. Such a gentle word that is.

I leave the highway and cut through town toward the ocean. At the top of the path to the beach is a child’s bicycle, streamers blowing sideways in the wind, which begs the question of who else is ridiculous enough to come here in this winter storm. Yet there she was, skinny driftwood in her hand, tracing a dragon into the sand.

She speaks to me as though we are peers, although I am then twenty-four and she must barely be in middle school. “I come here every day and I draw either a horse or a dragon,” she says as if I have asked her this question (which I have not) and then informs me on how Chinese and Japanese dragons differ from one another.

Both of us are drenched. Rain persists. She signs her name above her finished dragon, then traces a large circle around it, all the while running, exuberantly chatting on.

I tell her I used to draw horses, too.

And then, there on the first day of my new life in California I take a photo of her beside her dragon. She poses with childlike, unabashed pride. A moment later I am back in the car, back on the highway. I will not see her again.

Eleven years later I am deeply rooted into adulthood, a career, budgets and bills, an aging parent. But every now and then I think of her.

I want to go back to that day and tell her to be an artist. That anything else is a lie.

I want to tell her to take her dragons and her horses and stable them where they cannot run away.

I want to say this to anyone who will listen.

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