The breeze in Mission Beach blows brine, bong water, seaweed, salt, stranded sand crabs, kelp, skunk weed, sulphur, suntan oil, caviar, dead fish – dank and fresh the day you move to San Diego in the spring of ’78 when you are 18.
It hurts to walk, heading north on Mission Blvd. with your just 19 beer belching now dead lover, since a week ago you had surgery to remove an ovarian cyst the size of a grapefruit. Nurse shaved your pubic hair and doctor cut through you – took out your mucinous cyst adenoma and one of your egg sacks, leaving you today, 35 years after moving to San Diego, with a stump of an ovary and a numb scar.
Holding his hand with one of your hands and your burgundy rayon wrap-around skirt with the other, to keep it from blowing open in the wind, you get a whiff of his pheromones. You’re not the only one who loves sticking your nose in his armpit – cats and dogs and parakeets love it too. Brain zaps, bacon and eggs, garlic and jalapeno, dope and beer, Chargers and Padres, darts and punches, hoots and whistles.
You find a “For Rent 1 Bedroom $200” sign in the window of a dump on the boulevard, at the north end of Mission Beach, near Windemere Court. Your trust fund, set up for educational purposes, but without the restrictions of today’s 529 college plans, helps you and your high school dropout love move in immediately. The apartment comes furnished with an olive green fridge covered with rust spots and mushroom stickers and here’s the beauty part: a bed. Perfect, though stinking of mildew, the box spring mattress is ripped open (you’ll find the parakeet your guy buys you for your 19th birthday perched inside on a rusty coil). Your man spreads duct tape from Food Basket over the holes in the mattress where wires pop out, and you cover the mattress and the duct tape with sheets from the Goodwill on Garnet which, since they smell of laundry detergent, must not need to be washed before you two crash. You enroll at UCSD.
You unpack your leopard-print French-cut swimsuit, your Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil, and your 6’2” man leaves for Palm Liquor by the Catamaran Hotel for Coors beer – he doesn’t have a fake ID but you can get a bum to buy your alcohol. You have your bathing suit on by the time he gets back with a case of Coors, which he dumps into an ice chest with wheels and covers with a bag of ice.
You grab your towel, your oil, your diet Pepsi, Colleen McCullough’s The Thornbirds, his hand, and you and he are out the door and off to the beach, a block away up Windemere Court.
Slathering yourself in the dark tanning oil, you lay back on the towel you’ve had since you were 10 when your parents bought it for you while on vacation in Sitges, Spain. The scent of the banana coconut oil doesn’t mask the reek of the joint he lights up. He cracks open his first can of beer, swigs, takes a hit off the joint, leans over to kiss you and blows the smoke into your mouth.
When you visit your ex-husband in Truckee in Tahoe Forest Hospital 34 years later, you can no longer smell the alcohol on him. It’s been a long time since you’ve smelled alcohol on anyone, not just because you now avoid befriending alcoholics, but also because your nose doesn’t work as well as it used to. Unconscious, with a breathing tube down his throat, he’s swollen from head to toe. You stroke his fat foot, rub his head through his dirty-blond curls, apologize for not talking to him or visiting him in years. Your daughter, who hasn’t seen him or talked to him in two years, holds his hand and weeps. Your son, who hasn’t seen him or talked to him in a year and a half, snaps a photo of him in what turns out to be his deathbed pose, cirrhosis of the liver taking him down a week later. Somewhere in your iPhone texts from your son rests this last photo ever taken of your ex-husband, the father of your children, whose cremated remains his brother pours in a mound on the sands of Windansea Beach. A wave flattens the mound that’s him. Ash-coated sides of a ripped plastic bag in a Truckee Mortuary plastic box in the trunk of your car are all you have left of him along with the sweet mountain smelling camouflage sweats he wears to the hospital the day he can’t stop vomiting coffee grounds, and the sweet mountain smelling dog bed, belonging to the dog you lose in your divorce and inherit after the death of your one and only lover.
Death, in particular the goal of catching and killing fish, brings you to San Diego in 1978. You don’t love fishing, never have, but to make two of the most important men in your life happy you have found yourself more than once fishing – sometimes from the bank of a river with your dad, sometimes from a boat off the Coronado Islands with your ex – casting your rod, tangling in some angry guy’s line, hooking seaweed or a squawking fishy-smelled pelican.
Your father likes to fish, unlike anyone else in your family, and you – ever a martyr and realizing no one else in the family has any desire to accompany him on his sorties up and down forks of the San Gabriel River – you step up, someone has to, and you volunteer to fish with him.
Vomiting is what you feel like doing when he wakes your young self at 4:30 a.m., whispering. Get up, get dressed, meet me in the kitchen. We’ll pack lunch. Piled on the kitchen counter there’s whole wheat bread and tomatoes and canned tuna for you and Dad and Velveeta cheese and mealworms in their Styrofoam container for the fish. Dad opens the can of tuna, drains the water, cuts up an onion, mixes it into the tuna, while you weep on account of the onion. Dad hands you the bowl of tuna mixed with onions and you fork some out on the wheat bread, slap another piece on top. Dad cuts up apples, fills his camouflage canteen with tap water, pops the Velveeta cheese, the mealworms, the sandwiches wrapped in recycled aluminum foil into the fishing bag with the ruler used to measure fish on the flap. No Fritos, no Tab, no 3 Musketeer candy bars, no Oreos. Just tuna, apples, and metallic-tinny scented water.
You’re off in the car, the Plymouth station wagon with the fake wood side panels. You get to sit in front and play rock and roll – the Doors Riders on the Storm – instead of listening to the opera Dad likes to listen to in your parents’ Oriental-rugged out living room. You’re not looking forward to the hike, to keeping up with quick-moving Dad, with whom, until the day he dies of lung disease though he didn’t smoke, you could hardly keep up. You look forward to sitting in the shade by the side of the river, nibbling on Velveeta cheese, sliding meal worms onto hooks as their insides ooze out, smearing Velveeta cheese on the writhing worms, hooking and reeling in rainbow trout, smacking them on the head with the handle of a knife. You look forward to the stop on the way home when at a restaurant on the side of the road you get lemon meringue pie and hot chocolate.
On account of your father and a fishing and camping trip just you and he take in Sequoia National Park when you are 17, he doesn’t rue the day a year later when after you graduate from high school, you move to Sequoia, become a maid for the summer, get trained by a 6’2” houseman how to fold hospital corners on a bed, use a biffy brush to scrub a toilet, hike Giant Forest, hunt for bears, inhale woodsy mountain air, quit the job to go to college at UCSB, pine over the supervisor on whom you’ve imprinted, eat dried pineapple, write 34 love letters in place of sociology papers, rant about love in your sociology final bluebook, drop out of UCSB at the end of the first quarter, and move to San Diego to live with your love interest. Your father, who now resides in a bag in a small cardboard box in his closet, considers disowning you due to your not following his roadmap: first college then marriage to an educated man.
A whiff of the sea, of coconut oil, of dead fish or tuna, of a beer belch or lemon meringue pie transports you to the good times you’ve had with the dead you’ve known and loved.
- E Friedlander