had been seeing a German woman, an anthropology student, off and on
for a few years. One time, as I was preparing to leave Germany, she
asked me if I would mind returning to California so she could visit
me there. She had always wanted to see California, she said.
She said she
knew it didn't make much difference to me where I went and
she was right; I might have flipped a coin, but having so to speak a
mission made the choice more interesting.
think I must have made the trip on a Greyhound bus from Port
Authority in NYC- there were several such crossings and they tended
to blur, always the same view out the window in memory, the endless
flat plains of the Midwest.
don't remember why I chose Laguna Beach for a destination, although I
had visited there on my first trip because it had the name of an
artist's colony. Unlike the previous hamlet where I'd stayed, all sun
drenched beaches and expensive sailboats, Laguna was composed of
winding roads among low hills and individually designed modern houses
with timber frames and large panes of glass. Laguna was also the
setting for the infamous Charles Manson 'Family' , although at first
I didn't make the connection.
I was on a mission, the first order of business was to find a
suitable place to live.This
proved to be a small apartment with a palm shaded courtyard, which I
intended to furnish as soon as I had a job. Being now somewhat short
of funds I took the first thing that came up, which was
working the six to twelve shift at an all night Deli a few
blocks from the apartment. The Supervisor who interviewed me took one
look at my Resume' and chortled, 'I want the 'Nice Jewish Boy' .
(moral- if you are going to take a lot of part time jobs, pick firms
with memorable titles, pour
epater les bourgeoisie.)
accomplished. I got in a load of used furniture which I would later
sell back to the same charity shop in LA , and settled down to wait
till my German girlfriend had her summer holidays. It was around
Christmas time; I know that because of a neon lit Santa, life size,
in a bathing suit and riding a surf board that I used to pass every
evening on the way to work. I remember New Years', because I pulled a
double shift that night and so was on duty when all the bars closed
and everyone flocked to the Deli for party supplies. Indelible but
not one of my favorite memories.
the weather began to warm up I went to the beach. I'd swum in the
ocean at Rockaway when I worked in NYC, but this was the
Pacific, colder and rougher- surfing was a favorite pastime and
hardly anyone swam just to be swimming. I got out from
shore a ways and felt a strong undertow from the retreating waves,
and suddenly I was about fifty feet from the beach and fighting just
to stay in one place. I remember seeing the colorful bathing suits
and kids playing on the sand and wondering if this was it, there was
nothing behind me but a lot of dark ocean. It didn't seem real- there
was no life guard, and no one took the least notice- of course I knew
no one, but the feeling I had was that I had suddenly become
invisible. Still, I managed to struggle to where I could touch bottom
and so out.
took to hiking back into the hills above the coast. Once you passed
the thin margin of habitation the hills became higher and the
vegetation drier, something like the maquis of Corsica, dense thorny
undergrowth with the only paths those made by wild goats. I followed
a few of these, thinking they must lead somewhere, but in the end was
always left at the edge of a precipice as the track petered out to
nothing. I remember standing at the rim of one such, trying to see
the way down, when a large buzzard appeared hovering nearby, so
intent on what he was hunting below that he did not notice me
standing about four meters distant. It was so quiet that I could
clearly hear the whistling beat of his wings.
was strange, desolate country, totally unlike the usual picture
conjured up by 'Southern California' , and 'Surfin' USA'. I
remembered I had read somewhere that although California had been
home to a higher concentration of Native tribes than anywhere else in
America, the Indians had avoided living on the coast, believing it to
be the home of Spirits.
could understand if this was true- there was a feeling of presence on
these isolated hill tops, something that was not so much inimical as
wild and unused to human presence. I had seen feral animals, dogs and
cats even in cities who had been abandoned and had forgotten how to
relate to people; this was something like that, only magnified a
thousand times. It was frightening and at the same time strangely
attractive, quite the reverse of what one feels in church or
cathedral, where the impulse that permeates the structure is an
invocation, a drawing down of the divine. Here, it was just the
opposite; a feeling of being drawn out, a kind of liberation from
oneself by an uncaring Other.
remember I'm sure, the iconic transformation of Jekyll into Hyde, and
you may remember the evil queen in Disney's 'Snow White' when she
took the potion that changed her into a hideous crone. I used to
wonder, in both instances, why the first thing the transformed monster does is
laugh. I can only say that it was there, on a barren hill top in
California, that I first began to understand
came, and with it my German girlfriend. She looked quite out of
place, pale skinned and solemn with her round framed spectacles and
her brown hair pulled back in braids. She took many photos of the
rock formations on the beach, the arty architecture, and once I
rented a van and we drove all the way to LA and followed Hollywood
Boulevard from Sunset strip to the homes of the rich and famous. I
remember how struck she was by the Latino girls we saw, dark skinned
and flamboyantly attired in neon hues, and she began to try to paint
them in the watercolors she had brought.
had many conversations that would probably have seemed bizarre had
any of the residents been privy to them. What was it about the light,
we speculated, that seemed so inhuman, as though it passed right
through things and cast no shadows? We were roundly ignored, neither
of us obvious sun worshipers, a couple of Morlocks among the Eloi.
one day I proposed a hike up into the hills. I was excited to be
sharing this private place, or so I told myself, although as we
climbed the path that led to one particular hill I noticed my
girlfriend giving me odd looks. Finally she stopped walking
altogether and refused to go further.
the matter? I asked.
feel as though I'm being taken as a sacrifice to something, she said,
frowning. Is that what you do?
to you mean, I said, the bottom dropping out of my stomach.
She looked at me quite seriously. 'Do
you have relationships just so that you will have someone to throw to
the monsters when they come?'
suppose if this were fiction I would be writing that this view of
myself transformed my life and I that I vowed to go and sin no more,
but I find that, on the contrary, the way most people deal with a
fundamental truth is by turning their backs on it and pretending it
doesn't exist. I was no exception. My girlfriend's vacation ended and
she flew back to Germany and University. Our relationship went on for
a few more years and then ended in the usual way, and I never went
back to California. It was not until many more years had passed that
I learned to recognize the truth of what she'd said on the path to
that hilltop, but by then it was, sadly, far too late.