It’s a good thing the crew came by yesterday and removed the mound of materials that had been gathering in my side yard--the framing posts, the extra drywall, the puffy piles of pink insulation--because this morning, at precisely 5:15, heralded only by the sudden growling of Humphrey, it began to rain.
I picked up my phone from the nightstand and saw that three friends had beat me to it with their Facebook posts.
I love the smell of rain in the air.
Omg, it’s officially Fall.
This means we at the DeBoard house have survived Summer Part 3, those endless 90 degree days where the eighteen-year-old A/C still kicks on weirdly late in the night. We have arrived at open-window Fall. We have made it through the last of the Central Valley dust that settles in the middle of July and then hangs around, sweeping into nooks and crannies, lodging in corners, coating our air filters. We have arrived at sweater and legging season, at random afternoon hot chocolate, at roasted vegetables and pumpkin-flavored things.
Well--at least in five weeks, I should be able to roast some vegetables.
Yesterday our kitchen started to look like a kitchen again. The plastic is down; the subfloor is in; the drywall is nearly there.
Is it weird (yes, I know it’s weird) that I started crying the second I walked in the door?
There’s all this space. And sure, it’ll be filled with appliances and cabinets and the table I haven’t yet purchased, so the space will be much less space, but still. This was how this kitchen was supposed to look, I just know it. The wall was a mistake, one of those things that seems like a good idea on paper. I can imagine the original construction crew, all fresh from beating the Germans in the war shaking their heads and saying, “All right, if that’s what the boss wants.”
It’s a small thing--I shared it with my family on our group text and got two measly “likes”--but I can see all the way from my office at the back of the house down the (still narrow, sure) hallway and all the way to the window at the front of the kitchen.
A friend commented on Facebook, after my initial before-video tour, that she was generally not in favor of removing walls, and in fact, had wanted to add a wall in her new kitchen. Still, she agreed that my wall had to go.
Back in one of my previous lives, where I wrote about real estate for the now-defunct weekly edition of my town’s newspaper, I toured new home developments, the kind where the house was almost as big as the lot, and the houses themselves had giant, boxy footprints. Six or seven bedrooms, three or four baths, an open concept main floor. It was the open concept that got me every time. In its empty, undefined state, it was simply too much space. What the hell, I’d wonder, did someone do with a thousand square feet of beige carpet?
But then, I’ve always lived in small places. And even when they weren’t technically small--I think the house I grew up in was around 1800 square feet, which doesn’t feel small to me, if you included the space from the converted porch--I shared it with a lot of people at once. My three sisters and I shared one bathroom and only broke into raging fights once a week or so. We had an entire room that was only used for company, and even then, only on holidays.
Come to think of it, that kitchen was probably too small. I never cooked in it myself--as third daughter, I split every-other-night clean-up duties--but now I can see the space would only be improved by knocking out a wall.
We have new developments: two of the kitchen can lights are operable. The motion sensor light on the back porch is working once again, and the refrigerator--still outside on the patio--is now plugged into its own outlet, rather than relying on a twelve-foot extension cord.
It’s not magic, but close.
Some of us are handling this remodel better than others.
Thursday, making the hour-long drive from campus, my thoughts were racing. I couldn’t grab one and hold on to it--they were there and gone, each a nonsensical burst of syllables. An idea for my class. How to revise the first scene in my new book. What if something goes wrong with the electrical. What if this project never ends. I pulled over at the halfway point, realizing what was wrong. I’d had nothing to eat in the last eighteen hours, but I had consumed three giant cups of coffee. And while I usually try to balance coffee and water consumption, my water bottle was still filled to the brim.
I glanced at my phone and see that my dad had responded to my early-morning text, sent after I realized that Humphrey hadn’t eaten any of his morning food.
Humphrey may be sick since he threw up after getting here.
Humans and animals alike are being affected by this remodel.
On Friday night, I go to a friend’s birthday-month kick-off: four women, good wine, a charcuterie board and some burrata sprinkled in sea salt that makes me want to close my eyes and die happy. The conversation is wild and interesting, and I love that I’m the least accomplished one at the table, the one with the most to learn. But a part of my mind is with my dogs, hoping they stay on the non-demoed part of the plastic, wondering if they’re sitting in the dark hating me for leaving them alone.
Part of the problem is the whole leaving the house thing. It never felt like a big deal before, back in pre-March 2020 life. But then the whole world was asked to stay at home unless otherwise necessary, and it turned out that much of my life wasn’t necessary. It turned out I could write and teach from home, and order groceries from my home, and Zoom with anyone from home, and go to church in my pajamas from my couch, and the truth is maybe that wasn’t a weird diversion from life but was my actual life.
Maybe I liked staying at home.
Maybe I liked a pared-down version of life, where I didn’t wake up already feeling exhausted, where I had a fairly good idea of what the day held and how to tackle it.
And then, we went back to almost-normal life--vaxxed and masked, but I’m back in the classroom, back on campus, back to Friday nights with friends. And then coming home, it’s not to my safe little space, but to a wall of plastic sheeting, and wide-eyed dogs who are terrified anew every time the A/C kicks in and the plastic rustles, and a lot of uncertainty despite the carefully laid-out schedule.
The truth is, I never appreciated my little home properly until it was my only space, when I was forced out from all the other spaces that had been part of my life--the classroom, my office, the Starbucks where I wrote two novels back to back.
And now, here we are.
Every day, coming home from grandparent camp, the dogs want to sniff every nook and cranny--which is a reminder, if I needed it, that other humans have been here, in our space. Also, if I want, I can see them on the security system, which lets me know when a door or window has been opened and sends me short video clips of people getting into and out of trucks at the curb.
On Tuesdays, I stop by after work to change clothes, and I find the men sitting on the back step eating sandwiches or listening to music on the patio. It’s their lunch time, and I tiptoe around. My instinct is not to disturb them, although that seems silly. Don’t mind me! I’m sorry if I’m in your way!
Later, there are obvious signs that people have been in our house--the drywall down, the gas line moved, new tubes and wires--and more subtle ones, too. A box of nails sits next to the French doors. A Doctor Pepper can, crumpled, in my recycling bin.
But mostly, these men are like ghosts, flitting in and out of my peripheral vision. It’s strange to think that by now, they know more about me than I do about them.
Today is marked “Rough Electrical,” the second of three days with the same designation on the schedule taped to our front door. My dad, probably annoyed by my daily appearance in his home, wonders out loud what’s taking so long. I remind him that it’s a ten-week project, and we’re only in the second week.
“You should be there keeping an eye on them,” he tells me, and it’s hard to tell if this is out of concern that I’m being ripped off, or whether he would rather not have my dogs vying for cuddle position on his lap. How exactly would I keep an eye on them? Stand in the corner with a hard hat, pretending I know what the heck is going on?
I remind him that I’m in daily contact with the project manager, that we have a schedule, that things seem to be moving right along, but he seems unimpressed.
I tell my husband about this conversation later, expecting him to be as exasperated as I am, but instead he’s sympathetic. “Your dad probably wishes he could be there, working,” he says. “Those days are behind him.”
This is confusing, because in the eighteen years I’ve lived with this horrible kitchen, no one in my life has ever offered to do practical things like knock down walls or rewire electrical for me, and while my dad is decidedly handy, I’ve never known him to do things like this in his own home, either.
“It’s not about the exact work,” my husband insists, when I raise these finer points. “It’s about being able to work.”
Yesterday, I stand in the doorway and realize that all the furniture--the sofa table, the modular sectional, the trunk that holds DVDs I have no idea why we own--seems askew, as if it has all been shifted a few inches to the right. It’s only at that point that I look up and see that six holes for can lights have been cut into the ceiling, that they’re wired for action. I imagine the electricians heaving the bulky pieces of the sectional out of the way, stepping around throw pillows and the basket of dog toys, wondering (as I often do) why someone needs three remotes, and then putting everything back, more or less the same, at the end.
It’s not a huge leap of metaphor to say that all of life feels like this for me right now--similar but different, slanted, off-kilter.
And dusty. So effing dusty.
I was asleep by nine last night, after two hours of audible yawns. It turns out that remodeling a kitchen, even when my only physical labor has been to peel back the painter’s tape and take a look, is exhausting. Or at least, living life around it is exhausting.
A feature of my back-on-campus life is that I have to leave early--before six a.m. early--to make the drive to Merced and greet my bleary-eyed 7:30 students. Since the dogs can’t be there during the remodel (other dogs, better behaved dogs, maybe your dogs could, but mine can’t), this means an in-the-dark doggie transfer two mornings a week. My mom, in the running for sainthood for sure, has been showing up at my house at 5:45, her little white Fit ghostly at the curb, and I meet her there with two leashed-up, sleepy-eyed terriers.
At the end of my work day, after checking in with the contractor at my house, I make the twenty-minute drive across town, where the pups are waiting for the trip in reverse, and then it’s back to the rustling painter’s plastic and the strange left-behind scents of workers who have eaten lunch on the patio.
And then, for an hour at least, the three of us do nothing but sit on the couch, dazed. Sometimes we do this while eating cheese.
My best feature, which is also probably my worst, is that I’m a very structured individual. I make lists with a type of devotion that can best be called religious (and worst, anal). I have not just a rough outline of what needs to be done, but I often write down time markers (7:15-start load of towels; 8:30-post office) and so my day unfolds. I AM PRECISELY THIS KIND OF FUN, BUT I CAN’T HELP IT. This kind of rigid scheduling for the boring-but-necessary bits allows the rest of my life to happen--the midweek birthday party for my husband, the tickets to a play on the weekend. I don’t like to scramble. I don’t like to dig through a pile of laundry at the last minute to find the pants I want to wear.
These habits, cultivated in childhood, mostly shelved in college, attended to haphazardly early in my teaching career, have become solidified during the pandemic, when I lived the same day, day after day, differentiated only by a few markers. Street sweeper on Tuesday. Trash pickup on Thursday. Groceries on Saturday.
I’ve tried, y’all. But I’m 45 now, and we may as well all acknowledge that I’m this person.
And so yesterday, after some gentle (?) urging, the contractor gave me a schedule that covers the work for the next eight weeks. Rough plumbing… rough electrical… inspection… and so on. I appreciate this schedule. I have it taped to the inside of the front door where it will not only be handy but also, hopefully, serve as a kind of talisman.
“Well, it won’t look like this for the entire eight weeks,” my husband said last night, a rare glum note creeping into his voice. We were looking at the temporary framing, the bare floor boards, the painter’s plastic rustling in the breeze from the air conditioner. (It’s September 24 but still 95 degrees, and with a hole cut in the ceiling, there’s not much to stop the hot air from seeping down.)
No, I thought. It won’t.
Because we have a schedule.
It’s 6 a.m., and I’m in my writing spot, a cup of coffee by my side, my terrier mix circling next to me, trying to find just the right position to settle into for the long haul. My laptop is on my lap, but I haven’t opened the file still called “idea" although it's hovering at 50,000 words, as I’ve done every morning for months.
Instead, I’ve opened this one. A blank slate. And I’m typing this, whatever it is.
I both hate that my mind does this—insists on a divergent path from the one she and I have agreed upon—and have learned to respect it. This is my mind saying, Nope! There's something else you have to do first.
The trouble is that at this early moment, I don’t know what it is.
Or rather, it’s so many things, they’re warring inside me, like a classroom of insistent hands raised high: pick me!
Yesterday, after years of planning and some financial scrambling over the summer to make it happen, the kitchen remodel began. Approximately six feet from where I’m sitting, a wall of painter’s plastic is taped, floor to ceiling. Beyond it, where for eighteen years has been a beige and blue linoleum with a square repeating pattern, are bare boards, laid on the diagonal. Under that--my rat terrier and I both peered into the largest of the knotholes, inspecting--is the crawlspace beneath my house. It's an area that my twin fears (of the dark, and of tight spaces) keep me from thinking too much about.
There are other changes, too--the wall separating the kitchen from the dining room is down to studs, nothing but a spindly wooden skeleton from which dangles electrical cords and a disembodied light switch. Yesterday, picking my way carefully across the bare boards to the laundry in our garage, I was surprised to find the switch hanging there, even though that was where I’d flicked it on every morning for eighteen years. Things look different when the context changes. I can already hear myself saying, this was where the gas line used to be. There was a wall here, can you believe it? And the tile: lime green with a red stripe!
The physical changes are the most obvious, because remodeling a kitchen while you (and your husband, and two confused terriers) are living in the house means that everything else has moved too--the refrigerator is outside, plugged in via a long and janky extension cord. The microwave and a temporary pantry have been set up in what no longer looks like a music room but an odd assemblage of furniture--dining table, chairs, ironing board, printer, crockpot, electric kettle. In a Facebook post the other day, I called it sub-glamping, although maybe “camping inside our own house” is still a better, if less elegant, descriptor.
The remodel is no doubt why I haven’t slept well in a week, worried about what they would find in the walls, under that scraped-up linoleum. (Just a few weeks ago, our neighbor, probably intending to be helpful, told us about the expensive and time-consuming process of her asbestos removal.)
But as sometimes happens, I feel all the areas of my life converging at once. (I was, years and years ago, an English major, and seeing symbolism everywhere is how we roll.) The kitchen remodel--tear it down, build it back up--feels like a symbol of other things, ones I’m not even able to name right now. I’ve been cycling between an anxiety that wakes me with a pounding heart and a bone-deep exhaustion that settles in after things that shouldn’t be that exhausting--two back-to-back classes, a long wait in line at the grocery store.
Maybe tearing down the walls isn’t the best thing for you right now, Paula.
But then again, maybe it is.
This is my kitchen, before.
I've lived in this house for 18 years and never once deliberately turned on the light in this room. When friends have come over, I've shooed them out of the way. Don't go in there, it's scary. They laugh. People always think I'm joking when I'm being my most serious.
The problem isn't just one thing, it's all the things. It was built before disposals and automatic dishwashers, before cooks had need for more than one outlet, when refrigerators were (apparently) the size of two stacked mini-fridges. It was built when lime green tile with a red stripe was a good design choice. Should we put in more countertops or cabinets? I can imagine a worker asking, and some tight-ass budget manager puffing on a cigar, saying, Hell no. They can figure that out themselves.
You might notice it's cluttered and crowded. You might notice the owners long ago stopped scouring that sink (because what, really, was the point?). I once had a faculty mentor who had written her dissertation on Henry James tell me, "Don't worry, you cannot think worse things about Henry James than I have thought." And likewise--you can't say something horrible about my kitchen that I have not said myself a thousand times. I simply cannot be offended on this score.
And so I give you: my old kitchen.
A year in reading (since it wasn’t a year for much else)
1. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway (For my fiction writing class. One of the best books on craft around.)
2. The Best American Short Stories 2019 ed. Anthony Doerr
3. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie (Brilliant, horrifying, heart-breaking. There’s a scene in here that will stay with me forever.)
4. The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer
5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (A re-read. I was planning to start the Hulu series, and I wanted to remember what I’d read so long ago.)
6. Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy (For my freshman comp class. It was amazing the research questions they came up with based on this text.)
7. Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey
8. The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray
9. Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny (Who doesn’t love Chief Inspector Armand Gamache?)
10. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (I didn’t love this as much as Eileen, but it was in the same weirdly brilliant way.)
11. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (One of my faves. The premise is brilliant, and these people broke my heart.)
12. Followers by Megan Angelo
13. The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict
14. Landline by Rainbow Rowell (Audiobook. Charming, lovely, kitschy in the best way.)
15. The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
16. The Other Mrs. By Mary Kubica (My second favorite in Kubica’s line-up.)
17. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (A quiet book that stuck with me in a lot of ways. It looks at the aftermath of war, and asks what we do with our wartime misdeeds and everyday criminals, especially when those people are ourselves.)
18. The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
19. Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier (Audiobook. A dark thriller.)
20. Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
21. Husbands and Other Sharp Objects by Marilyn Simon Rothstein
22. A Friend of the Family by Lisa Jewell
23. A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne (I officially have a crush on John Boyne.)
24. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (Ann Patchett can make me interested in things I didn’t know I was interested in. Just damn good story-telling.)
25. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
26. He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly
27. Wilder Girls by Rory Power (I read this for the social-distance-this! book club. This was back when the pandemic was going to last for just a month or so.)
28. A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd
29. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
30. The Warehouse by Rob Hart
31. Pretty Things by Janelle Brown
32. Marlena by Julie Buntin
33. Recursion by Blake Crouch
34. Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson
35. Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee
36. An Impartial Witness by Charles Todd
37. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (another read for the social-distance-this! book club. Dark indeed. I admire how the author let the main character stick to her guns, even though as a reader/woman I wanted to scream for most of the book.)
38. A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd
39. Father of the Rain by Lily King (I’d read Euphoria and was fascinated by it. This is a much more familiar story, but the characters are well drawn.)
40. The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson
41. The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn (I felt like this could have been trimmed 150 pages or so, but it was a pretty exhaustive look at the cult.)
42. Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover and Me by Adrienne Brodeur
43. Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney
44. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson (Unexpected surprise for me. Smart and edgy.)
45. An Unmarked Grave by Charles Todd
46. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (Long overdue read. Should be required reading for high schools.)
47. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (for social-distance-this! book club)
48. A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny
49. Dominicana by Angie Cruz (I found this on a “what to read instead of American Dirt” booklist, and it was a compelling immigrant coming of age story.)
50. Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo (I’m in love with Nigerian fiction, and this was a fantastic read that truly felt universal.)
51. Conviction by Denise Mina
52. This is How I Lied by Heather Gudenkauf
53. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (Recommended reading.)
54. There There by Tommy Orange (Excellent.)
55. The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall
56. Sister Dear by Hannah Mary McKinnon
57. The Arrangement by Robyn Harding
58. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (Timely and convicting. A read for social-distance-this! book club.)
59. Writers & Lovers by Lily King (Audiobook. So damn good. Read Lily King!)
60. The Subway Girls by Susie Orman Schnall
61. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
62. Darktown by Thomas Mullen
63. Stranger in the Lake by Kimberly Belle
64. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo (A read for the Friday-night-anti-racism book club. Required reading for white people, like me.)
65. Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas (reading for freshman comp. My students loved this.)
66. One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul
67. The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See (read for the social-distance-this! book club. Had no idea this world existed.)
68. American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures by America Ferrera (Lots of great essays here, very teachable.)
69. Passing by Nella Larsen
70. Godshot by Chelsea Bieker
71. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (I read this with the Penguin-Read-Along. Pretty fascinating, lots of stuff not included in the musical.)
72. How to be an Antiracist by Ibran X. Kendi (Read for the Friday-night-anti-racist book club. Required reading.)
73. Blank Klansman: Race, Hate and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime by Ron Stallworth
74. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (This didn’t quite do it for me, but it brought me to 75. Tell Me How it Ends, which was great.)
76. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Darkly comic, delves into cultural and familial expectations. What wouldn’t you do for your sister?)
77. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
78. The Night Swim by Mean Goldin
79. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou (Fascinating. Good companion to the Netflix documentary Inventor: Out for Blood.)
80. The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James (True crime fans, unite!)
81. The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman (I loved this so much, I shot a five a.m. book review video.)
82. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
83. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (In the top ten for 2020, for sure.)
84. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb (Read for a Writing for Psych class—part memoir, part-therapy. Recommended.)
85. The Last Flight by Julie Clark
86. Long Bright River by Liz Moore (Gritty, dark police drama.)
87. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
88. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Wild and inventive, a great gothic read.)
89. Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions by Valeria Luiselli (Highly recommended.)
90. Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land (Read this instead of Hillbilly Elegy.)
91. The Witch Elm by Tana French
92. These Women by Ivy Pochada
93. One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets by Bliss Broyard (read for Friday-night-anti-racist book club)
94. American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer (Undercover look at private prisons. Completely horrifying.)
95. A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
96. The Whisper Man by Alex North
97. The River by Peter Heler
98. The Bright Lands by John Fram
99. Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane (Heart-breaker. Just a good story.)
100. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Togarczuk
Because I’m telling you this story, I can start and end it wherever I want. I can focus in on something that happened in the middle or leave out the middle entirely. I can skip the boring parts (like the hours I spent responding to emails or grading student responses). I can decide that this is a story that doesn’t need an ending and essentially leave you, the reader, hanging.
Also: I could lie. I could tell you fantastic things that make my life much more exciting than it is in reality. In the vein of true crime, I could invent a villain and have him (her?) arrive in the dark of a very early morning, standing just over my shoulder. (There was no villain.) I could make myself the hero of this story, in the classic sense of the word. I came! I saw! I conquered! I could suggest my own benevolence, all the ways my mere presence made the horse farm a better place to be.
And just like that you would feel sorry for me (a villain!), proud of me (a conquering hero!), delighted by me (a wonderful human).
This is the power that comes with being a writer.
But I may as well say that on the second morning, I took about two steps off the deck and without warning, without my brain kicking into slow motion to process what was happening, my left leg shot out in front of me and then somehow I was on the ground with that leg twisted underneath me, small bits of gravel digging into my skin.
Will, to his credit, waited until it was clear nothing was broken to laugh. (And it was funny—or it would have been if the fall didn’t cause an ankle-to-knee bruise by that evening.) I’m 44, not 80, so there was no fractured hip, and we were alone except for a few horses, so the embarrassment was helpfully contained.
I picked myself up, brushed off my pants, and we resumed walking.
“How did that happen?” I kept asking, and Will kept logically replying that the flagstones were slick, that I’d hit some stray gravel and lost my footing, but this answer was deeply unsatisfying. What I meant was, how could something like that—so potentially harmful, with the power to derail our whole mini-vacation—happen to me right at this moment when everything was supposed to be lovely and pristine, when the entire day was stretched out before us like a new life we could sample and decide to keep?
We drove into Monterey with LG sitting on my lap, the throbbing on the left side of my body dulled by a generous dose of ibuprofen. It was a weekday during a pandemic, and so there were only a few masked people walking on Cannery Row, plenty of parking on the streets. In Pacific Grove, we pulled right up to our old favorite park on the peninsula and wandered between yogis and dog walkers and tide poolers. I took a picture of Borgs Motel on Ocean View Boulevard—a bit of a family inside joke—and sent it to my Treick group chat. We decided it had been a long time since we’d been on 17 Mile Drive, and so we paid $10.50 and drove past towering homes hiding behind their gated entries and cypress trees and Bird Rock, which was covered with hundreds of gleaming, squirming seal bodies, their cries echoing back to shore. There was nowhere to be and no time at which to be there, so we stopped at the mile markers that looked interesting, with LG straining on her leash to sniff out the inhabitants of every hole in the ground.
I kept getting hit by realizations—that feeling, again, that life had gone on without us, the surreal idea that maybe the pandemic had only been in our minds or had only, somehow, happened to us. When we met another person on a walking trail, I searched their faces—the inch or so of visible skin between sunglasses and the top of their mask—for signs of how their lives had been disrupted, for clues as to how they kept going.
The next day, we drove in the other direction, north to Santa Cruz. We hadn’t been in years, maybe because Santa Cruz was a vivid part of our pasts and its memories belonged there. Will used to bomb over to the coast in his ’93 Plymouth Sunbird convertible whenever he had a chance; I spent a summer working in the Santa Cruz mountains when I was 19. (Our lives overlapped for one single morning during that time, when I went along with a friend to meet Will for breakfast. A year or so later, when I was back in Iowa, he reached out via email, and that was the beginning of this life.)
The Boardwalk was more weathered than I remembered it, although it was always just this side of seedy. The parking lots were empty, weeds sprouting from cracks in the asphalt. We stopped at a beach on the north side, in a neighborhood that was too upscale to have been part of my teenage memories and walked down the steps to the water. (One night I remember vividly from that old time: being at a party in someone’s upstairs apartment, the beer flowing, and a guy I’d never met me interrogating me about how I could possibly live in the Valley. What do you even do there? he wanted to know. How do you even live?)
On the beach, we had the feeling of being small in the face of something immense: waves crashing, birds feeding, a seal bobbing in the surf, rocks being worn away bit by miniscule bit. Business could fail and our health care system could be stretched to its limits and all the other structures we thought we could depend on could turn out to have serious cracks in the foundation, but the ocean was still here.
The ocean was telling us we were idiots.
We had dinner outdoors at an Italian place on Seabright, with LG in her mesh backpack on a chair next to us being perfectly quiet and well-behaved until she let out a tremendous, high-pitched yip that momentarily stopped all conversation.
And then we went to Marianne’s, the incomparable ice cream shop on Ocean Street, although we were already stuffed on meatballs on gnocci. I used to go Marianne’s every week with a few scraped-together dollars and call it dinner; the last time I was here, one of the guys I was with had an altercation with a stranger and punched him in the nose, drawing blood. I remember throwing away my ice cream cone unfinished and standing outside while police sirens approached, promising myself that this didn’t have to be my life. I didn’t have to always choose the jerks.
There was no indoor seating at Marianne’s now, of course, so from the sidewalk we watched the employees joke and move around behind the windows, and then we got back into the Mini, drove across the street, and parked facing the road, ice cream dripping down our chins as we ate.
Twenty years ago, this was my life.
Now it felt like I was getting a rare glimpse of something extraordinary, inching apart a closed curtain to see what was there.
I used to be a person who was adventurous.
It’s hard to remember that sometimes.
When we arrived at the horse farm, I became the Paula-equivalent of a roly-poly bug curling into itself: I put on warm clothes, plugged my phone into an outlet near reach, and sat on the couch with my knees pulled to my chest.
It was the farthest I’d been from home in more than seven months. Since March, I’ve only filled up my gas tank three times, although that used to be a twice-a-week routine. The most recent time, I pulled into my regular gas station only to realize it had changed brand, the pumps new and shiny, the numbers on the digital display all visible. It was like an episode of the Twilight Zone. The world went on without me, but all the time I was right here!
A few months ago, back in the early stages of the Year of Our Pandemic 2020, my friends and I wondered how this experience would change us as people. Let me admit: I wasn’t sad to think that handshakes with strangers, let alone hugs from strangers would be gone—those were never my things. If people always stood at least six feet from me in the grocery store, I could probably die happy.
But it didn’t occur to me that I’d be scared to merge onto the freeway. Or that I’d have a (mini) panic attack on a perfectly safe little horse farm just because I wasn’t tucked away in my own home.
Things at the horse farm looked better in daylight—the horror movie sheen had worn off, and all the creepy shadows and sounds became daily life on a working farm. From the kitchen window where I stood sipping coffee, I could see a woman in the paddock in knee-high boots, shoveling horse patties into a wheelbarrow. The dogs—three of them, one possibly an Australian shepherd charged with keeping horses, humans and other animals in line with energetic barking—dashed past the window. Two of them got into a play fight and tumbled over and over each other on the lawn, nipping and howling in faux-protest.
I leashed up LG, and we walked the perimeter of the property, past the stables and the round pen, past the guest house where we were staying and the main house with its Porsches and Audis lined up neatly in the driveway, around the track for show jumping with its brightly colored obstacles, past a pond with some ducks that quacked at our approach, near the chicken coop (with LG tucked into my shirt, so as to prevent her from getting any ideas), through rows of grape vines covered in netting to protect them from birds before the harvest, and finally back to the paddock, where a horse watched us silently from the fence.
Things were looking up.
I could get used to this, I thought.
We drove to Moss Landing and walked onto a state beach that was deserted except for a few surfers, paddled far out into the blue. (LG is okay with sand but wants nothing to do with the sound of crashing waves.) We kept the windows down and let the salt air sting our noses.
At night, we had pizza and beer on the deck with my nephew, who drove up from Monterey. We talked about Covid and cults (highly recommend The Vow, y’all) and various trips we had taken, and at one point the whole sky to the east lit up with fireworks: the Dodgers had won the World Series. Later, we heard coyotes howling—first one from somewhere off beyond the gated entrance, then another answering from the farm next door, where earlier I’d seen a worker gathering what looked like the end of the summer squash from a field.
A mosquito found my neck and perplexingly, the back of my knee encased in my pandemic-tight jeans, and it was time to call it a night.
There was a clunk in the middle of my dream, a sound that seemed close and therefore relevant enough to drag myself back to consciousness. It’s a farm, I reminded myself. There are noises that happen on a farm. And thankfully, it’s not your farm, so none of those noises concern you.
I thought about the things that used to scare me at my grandparents’ farm—the loose floorboards in the hayloft, the squeals of a cow whose head was stuck between bars, the pitchforks and other potential weapons hanging from their pegs on the walls. Nothing there had killed me either.
In the morning, I went into the bathroom and found that the shower door had come off its tracks and was dangling precariously over the chasm of the tub.
Another time, probably but not definitely before the shower door slid off its hinges, Will whispered into the dark: “Do you hear that?”
I hadn’t been hearing anything except my own brain—for once, mercifully quiet—and so I blinked myself awake, concentrating. It was the same howling we heard on the deck the night before, but louder now, as if the coyotes—wolves? is the difference important?—were circling the house.
And still, somehow, I fell back asleep.
Paula Treick DeBoard