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.
Will and I (and a somewhat nervous LG) got away for a few days.
Here’s how it happened:
First there was a global pandemic and all our huge and carefully constructed travel plans for 2020 disintegrated into nothing. Then, I kept myself very busy doing everything I could think to do around our house—a complete overhaul of the front yard, replanting in the back yard, updating the linens for our bedroom, repainting the interior and exterior house trim. The other day, with 30 minutes between my class Zooms, I took everything out of the refrigerator, wiped down the shelves, and put everything back in more or less exactly the same place. While I am a slightly anxious person under the best of circumstances, these are not the best of circumstances.
It’s possible I’m going crazy, I told Will that night, after the refrigerator incident.
And so we started looking for Air BnBs near the coast.
The drive to the horse farm was windy and at times one-lane, and although the Google Maps app was mostly a champ, there were times when it was clearly playing catch-up, and “turn right in a quarter mile” became a second later the sputtered command to turn right NOW. The sun was just setting when we passed the entrance to the horse farm and made our way up a remote path until we could turn around. We only had a glimpse of the place by the time we hauled our bags inside and the sun set entirely—vineyards on either side of the driveway, horse stables and a long row of white fencing nearer the road.
The darkness, when it came, seemed absolute.
Will and I tried to order dinner from a Mexican restaurant in the nearest town, but the website wasn’t working, and so he set off into the dark. LG and I settled in like doomed characters in a horror film. It was bright and cheerful enough inside the little house—bedroom, bath, a functional kitchen, a small living area that had been carefully shot in online photos to seem like a much larger living area. The problem was that it was bright inside and dark outside, and there were no curtains to pull over the many windows. I tried the blinds, which seemed to be circa 1980, although a decorator could pinpoint that more accurately, and succeeded in moving one half of one blind six inches before abandoning the quest. The uneven blind drooping in the window drove me crazy, but I didn’t dare trying to even it out for fear the whole thing would come crashing down.
Please send me updates, I texted Will, who was probably just past the gate.
And then I sat back and waited to die.
Well, not really. But I did clutch LG and think, what the hell am I doing? I could be in my own little house where everything is where I want it to be—no fruitless search for a trash can, for example—surrounded by the comfort of my things—a warm blanket, fifteen different streaming services, the rows and rows of my books. (There is a cabinet with books here, and although my inner snobbishness instantly raised its head, they are decent books: Elizabeth Strout, Amy Tan, Larry Watson, some full-color art books, Lean-In by Sheryl Sandberg.) I picked up my phone and scrolled through it—Amy Coney Barrett had just been confirmed by the Senate—and set my phone down. I came to escape all of that.
I came to escape myself.
In the morning, I’m up before the sun—but not much before. I send an email. I work on a flier. I think about opening my manuscript—the last time I worked on it, Sunday morning, I made a major change that scares me a bit—but don’t.
I boil a pot of water and unpack my French press—I’m not reckless enough to leave coffee to chance—and sit down at the kitchen table.
There is a small, fattish spider crawling up the wall three feet from me, and I have not yet crushed it. Have I become a different person, living (for 12 hours now) on a horse farm? There is evidence of other critters, besides the horses—two dogs, one (heartbreakingly and too, too soon) a beagle mix, at least one cat that has driven LG to craziness, something that was potentially under the bed, where LG was very curious to sniff, and some ants that seem to emanate from a bowl of fruit on the table.
(For some reason, every time I have typed “horse” it has come out “hourse”—hours? House? What’s happening here?)
It’s getting lighter, and I can see a horse in the paddock (I have no idea if this is an accurate word) outside the kitchen window. It’s time for a muffin and another cup of coffee and the beginning of this day.
Also the spider has disappeared, which means it could be anywhere.
We’re (I’m?) repainting our bedroom.
My husband may be wondering if we didn’t just do this; we did, but it wasn’t just. Time only seems that way sometimes. It was five years ago, and that’s about my limit for things looking and feeling the same.
Also everything else in life has changed in five years, so why shouldn’t the décor?
Back at the beginning of the pandemic, after the initial mad grocery-store panic and when we had entered the hopeful, honeymoon phase—long walks with friends, adventures in cooking, binge-watching—Will and I wondered how this experience might change us. Would we become better versions of ourselves—healthier, thinner, more centered? Would the fact that the world had come to a screeching halt remind us of what was important in life? I remember seeing a picture of blue skies over a major metropolitan area (maybe it was Los Angeles) and thinking this was what our world needed: a reset.
Let the smog dissipate.
Let the animals roam.
I don’t have a name for this phase, months later, but the honeymoon has long been over.
This morning when my alarm went off, I grabbed my phone and scrolled with blurry eyes through social media posts (the president has Covid, or doesn’t but says he does, depending on whose post I was reading), then set the phone down and tried to remember what day it was, what I needed to do. Writing, dog walk, meeting at 9, look at my lesson plans for next week, send an email about such-and-such, read for book club tonight, paint the bedroom ceiling.
Yesterday I did the harder part, standing on a stepladder and inching my way around the room, cutting in with the ceiling paint. It’s the same color I painted the ceiling in my living room two years ago, which in my tendency to hyperbole I nicknamed The Brightest White in the World. While I worked, I listened to an episode of The Murder Squad from earlier in the year (remember life before the pandemic?) and heard the guest, a woman, describe how she had entered her DNA into GED Match and that helped nab a killer who happened to be a distant relative.
I stabbed the brush into a corner, smearing it with paint, and realized I was jealous. Why couldn’t I have a grand purpose? Why was I so bored (stuck? depressed?) that the best way to handle it was to repaint over a perfectly decent paint color?
But this morning, even in the almost complete darkness of five-thirty, I looked up at the ceiling. I could see where I’d cut around a light fixture—it will take an electrician to remove this thing, and to replace it with the ceiling fan I want—where I’d taped off the smoke detector, the gaping hole where I’d removed the vent cover. The new paint was that same brilliant white I’d fallen in love with two years ago. Next to it the old paint looked off-white, the color of a dirty bath towel.
It’s not a grand purpose or anything, but in less than twelve hours, I will have the white ceiling of my dreams.
Tomorrow I’ll wake up and that part of the project will be done (or done-ish, because there’s still the matter of the ceiling fan I haven’t ordered yet), and I’ll be happy.
Earlier this week, a student showed up to my Zoom office hours, ten minutes late for his fifteen-minute appointment. He was quiet when I asked where he was with his essay.
“When I made the appointment, I thought I would be further along,” he admitted. “I thought I would have something to show you.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “Why don’t we just talk about it?”
I could hear the relief in his sigh. It’s a small blessing to understand that we don’t have to be perfect, that we don’t have to live up to our own expectations.
It’s one step at a time, it’s bird by bird, it’s one brush stroke after another.
One way or another, we’re going to get through it.
Paula Treick DeBoard