I 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.


I 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.


I 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.


Because 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.)


Mission 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.


As 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.


I 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.


It 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.


I 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.


You'll 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


Summer 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.


We 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.


Then 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.


What's the matter? I asked.


I feel as though I'm being taken as a sacrifice to something, she said, frowning. Is that what you do?


What 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?'


I 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.

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