California, an Essay (an Assay)

To attempt to capture it. How quickly we arrive, as if we awoke and those golden hills were right there before us. Poached eggs and decaf coffee. A wander through campus where, like at other campuses, I imagine a life I never quite got to live. Graduates students holding coffee mugs stroll in deep conversation. Above Berkeley we walk a fire road that twists higher. Rusty gates and reservoirs and the shimmering moment I realize to sit on a bench with the man I love and stare across an unbroken vista is really all I could ever want.

In Napa, there are chicken wings—Daddy’s recipe—at the picnic table and a white, then a red, then a white to keep us going. So much to talk about. And downtown on a picnic blanket I wonder at a baby named Cecily, at a grandmother with a tattoo on her ankle, at a place just small enough to be able to have enough people to say hello to. And then Carly, so fully herself, we barely recognize her. It’s not just the long braid that is gone.

In California it isn’t just what happens. It’s what we discover we want. To step out of the house and smell grapes in the morning. To climb each day higher and higher until we pause to see the mountains in the distance. To have friends stop by. To sit on a Friday evening while the air cools and talk to family. To walk down for a latte and a glazed donut. Peaches at the farmer’s market that have more flavor than words can say. We only get to live once, and why shouldn’t we live it in a place we find beautiful? And yet don’t we already? What is it about California that makes us forget?

There is a notebook open to a fresh page. A cellphone gathering data over the airwaves. A book picked up from a box in a driveway and started and discarded. There is a fish named for a man I’ve never heard of that sits in a delicate broth I sip with a spoon. There is Ben and Jerry’s passed across the table while we draw cards and laugh. There is another walk up the hillside, another vista. And then a drive through single lane roads while the phone carries its sad stories and I watch the landscape to settle my stomach. Waves crash. Rocks rise from the tide in striking shapes. Children scurry toward the water and back again. The sun pinks my nose.

California and its imagined lives. That we will sit by Tomales Bay sipping white wine and slurping oysters. That we will laugh until we hold our stomachs even more, even more, shake our hands in the air to say, “Stop.” That those neat lines of grape vines will be part of our view. A small house with a yard dotted with plumbago. A Christmas Eve of seven fishes, a summer evening with a sweater on. We plot and scheme, we wait. Then we drive to the airport, ten pounds of artisan beans in our bags, ready to book again for next year, and the next.

September 7, 2015

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