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.
Paula Treick DeBoard