My great-grandfather told my grandfather that when he turned eighteen he'd be on his own. This was by the Pacific coastline, somewhere in California. My grandfather grew up swimming in the waves and believing in observing a solid hour of digestion to avoid cramping. When he turned eighteen he left home. He married a beautiful woman. He had a son and a daughter (my mother) and another son. Together the five of them left the ocean for an orchard in Colorado. He gave up the waves for land. He cared for fruit trees in rows.
My grandfather told my mother and my two uncles the story of leaving home at eighteen. When Uncle Danny graduated high school he moved to New York City. When my mother graduated she joined him. They left the rows of trees for rows of buildings.
“I moved as far east as I could go without crossing an ocean,” my mom says.
In her Far East of America, mom met a young man with a wide smile and dark skin. They walked through the rows of buildings together. The man was from the Dominican Republic—a half island in the ocean.
My mother always says, “I don't know how old your father really was when I met him. He had good intentions, but problems with the truth.”
My father had other problems too. Problems with women—as in, too many too often. Problems with property and space perception—as in, an overabundance of stolen stereos in the living room of their apartment after the '77 blackout. He was too virile for his own good—as in, the birth of me in '78, the birth of my sister a year later.
My parents were married in a small church. My mother wore a blue dress, my father a suit. They seem happy in the picture.
Less than a year later my pregnant mother and I flew back to Colorado to put half a continent, and orchards of trees, between us and her husband.
My sister was born.
My grandmother was sick for years.
My grandmother died.
My grandfather said her spirit went to heaven, while shielding his eyes.
My sister kept looking for Grandma under the bed. She kept asking why Grandma was hiding.
I'm trying to find the rhythm between the downbeats and the upstrokes here. To see what jigsaw fragments fit into our family's folklore. We're horrible archivists. There is no overarching opus to point to and say, “See that? That's where we come from.” Nothing to say, “Because of that, this is where you're going.” We have dwindling numbers. We have a lack of traditions.
We say, “Time ran away with us.”
We say, “I must have let that slip through the cracks.”
I have a vague recollection of the way things happened.
My mother and sister and I moved from my grandfather's orchard to the next closest town: Grand Junction. Lu and I started elementary school, and followed a giant irrigation ditch into the wilderness with a friend, and from time to time tried jumping our bikes down half staircases, and somehow didn't die in the process.
Mom got a good job with the city and started meeting less-than-desirable boyfriends.
Eventually we moved from Colorado with one of these boyfriends and his giant dog, Puppy, to Grayland—a town in Washington that doesn't really exist until you've been there, and even then becomes hazy when you leave again.
We stayed in a small single-story apartment by a clump of woods, covered in the mist banking off the ocean, for eighteen months. I can only vaguely remember the town. It's fractured into three landmarks: the gas station, the Lamplighter Restaurant, and the sheriff's house (whose daughters all appeared to be Amazons).
The ocean was a separate place only ten blocks from our front door.
I can remember floating with my sister on a giant piece of foam we found—four feet by four feet by one foot thick—out into the waves, trying to make it over the cresting white peaks and into the stillness of the ocean.
“What were you thinking?” Mom said.
We weren't thinking. Not about our grandfather swimming in the Pacific. Not about our father crossing a portion of the Atlantic. Not about how it's all the same ocean that somebody schismed into different names to try to make sense of. As kids we were just on a piece of foam, hand-paddling toward the horizon.
I can still remember the way my skin itched like crazy under the warm shower water after being so cold for so long, after never successfully pushing past the high tide, after being beached again and again.
One day Mom's boyfriend and Puppy decided to leave and not come back. Mom decided we'd move, in case he ever did. We packed a U-Haul and drove to Olympia.
One of my new Olympian friends flicked a match that started a fire inside my mattress. I tried to hide it, but it wouldn't stop smoking.
Mom came home and we put the burning bed outside.
This isn't a metaphor.
I slept on the floor of my bedroom that night, missing the ocean of Grayland, while my mom and sister shared their bed in the room next to mine. The next morning my mattress was a skeleton of scorched springs in the dumpster. The Australian band
Midnight Oil had a popular song on the radio at the time. One of us would start singing the lyrics,
How can we dance when our earth is turning? and then we'd all join in,
How do we sleep while our beds are burning? and then we'd laugh.
But inside I'd feel a little pang of shame.
I'd think of our giant piece of foam in Grayland. That no matter how many times we were beached we still had that tangible, dirty, porous flotation device on which to try to reach the horizon. It felt familiar. It felt safe, even though it wasn't. It knew the ocean the way we did: as something giant and limitless, something to be feared and conquered, something to be moved by.
In the middle of the night, two months after moving to Olympia, my sister woke to see a flicker of light on the bedroom wall. She called my name and the light receded back down the hall, disappearing into the living room and slipping out the front door.
We discovered that the flickering light had left wax shapes on the carpet of our living room that could have been bad pentagrams or the erratic shakiness of an unsteady hand. It left wax drippings on mom's ID card, but didn't take any money. It left us wondering if some past boyfriend had found us somehow.
While we were out the next day, somebody hammered in the dead bolt on our apartment door. Mom winced at the divots denting the wood. She covered the hole where the locking mechanism once was with her hand.
We left the dishes in the sink.
We left no forwarding address.
We boarded a bus.
Two days later we were on the doorstep of the women's shelter in Portland, Oregon, with a backpack apiece, smelling of Greyhound people and bus and station. In addition to my backpack I had a faux leather zip-up briefcase in one hand—with every birthday card I'd ever received inside it—and a sack of plastic soccer trophies in the other.
At the shelter we met a woman named Jude who was born without eyes. It's called anophthalmia. Where Jude's eyes should have been there were two concave, smooth-skinned divots. She was always smiling. I liked watching how Jude listened.
Before long, the four of us moved into an apartment between Portland and Gresham. It was right on the MAX line, and right on the city line. A green sign that read “Welcome to Portland” was a half block to the west of us, a sign that read “Welcome to Gresham” a half block to the east. I wasn't old enough to legally watch my sister. Jude watched us.
The apartment had only two bedrooms, but Jude insisted that the walk-in closet was the perfect space for her. She said it was easier for her to know where everything was in a smaller environment. She said she'd rather be in a pond than an ocean.
One day Jude brought her new boyfriend home and he said, “They put you in the closet?”
“She likes it in there,” Mom said.
Jude's boyfriend shook his head at the floor and said, “White people.”
I remember thinking that was a strange thing to say since Jude, his girlfriend, was white. I wondered if she even knew what “white” meant. How do you describe color to a blind person?
Red is the rage in your gut.
White is the entrapment of the disabled?
One day Jude moved out with her boyfriend and her room became a closet again.
We saw her a little, and then not at all.
Eventually I gave my soccer trophies to Goodwill, the plastic, gold figurines eternally almost-kicking their little gold balls. I got rid of my faux leather briefcase but kept the birthday cards and pictures that were inside it.
Then, one year, I spring-cleaned the birthday cards away.
My wife and I began archiving our new family, and my briefcase pictures got mixed in with the rest of them. Our sons grew. I became an uncle. My grandfather remarried and went crazy. My mother still has the same smile she had when I was young.
Right now I'm typing this in the place where I always write. My laptop is in front of me, a bunch of CDs towering on either side, a couple of guitars hanging on the wall, a record player, a thesaurus, an Oxford dictionary.
There is a copy of a “Feelings Circle” tacked to my left. It's supposed to help you develop realistic characters. At the middle of the circle are the words Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sad, Happy, and Surprise, each isolated in its own piece of the pie, each word splintering off into how it is ultimately played out.
If you follow the word Surprise diagonally, toward eight o'clock, it leads directly to Confused, and from there to either Perplexed or Disillusioned. The end points of Anger fan up and out, leading to sixteen possibilities you could probably guess at. If you put your finger on Happy and ride the line down to six o'clock, between Accepted and Powerful, you end up on the line that separates Fulfilled and Courageous.
All of this is printed on a sheet of paper that's four hundred millimeters long by four hundred millimeters wide and one millimeter thick. The entire array of human experience is displayed on what at first appears to be a cheap imitation of the Mayan calendar.
In about five years, when our youngest son is finished with school, my wife and I plan to move to the coast—north of where my grandfather swam and south of the spot where my sister and I found our piece of foam.
When we move, it will be the first time my wife has ever lived outside of Portland. It's been a long time since I've lived anywhere else.
“Think of all the things that had to happen for us to have even met,” she says one night while we're lying in bed.
And I do.
I close my eyes. I squeeze my arm tighter around her. I picture everything that had to happen. I listen to our breath.
In my mind I put one finger on the word Happy at the center of the circle. I make a diagonal line, through the Mayan Calendar of Emotions, to five thirty. My finger passes through Peaceful. It lands on the line separating Hopeful and Loving.
And then the line disappears.
And all that's left is the air we're inhaling and exhaling, our lungs rising and falling together.
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