Here we are, living in Paradise,
living in luxury.
Oh, the thrill is here, but it won’t last long,
better have your fun before it moves along.
July 18-19, 1980
The L-1011 took off behind schedule, as all planes do. After what seemed an interminable wait on the runway, we finally lifted off, the massive jet engines thrusting that huge metal tube outward and upward over Boston harbor. The runway began to drop out below us, to be replaced by the cold Atlantic. As the plane banked and I felt myself pushed back into my seat by the force of our acceleration, I looked out the small window beside me. The horizon dipped, and that strange tingling sense of vertigo rushed through me, as if I was on a mammoth roller coaster, climbing and waiting for the big drop. It never came. We swung around and I briefly glimpsed the North Shore before the view was obscured by a cloud bank.
My voyage had begun.
Once in the air, I had the odd sense of suspension, like all reality dissolved with the exception of the plane’s interior. I wasn’t on the West Coast yet, that reality hadn’t materialized. My life on the East Coast seemed suddenly distant, like a dream. It was as if I was traveling between dimensions, and Massachusetts and California existed in different universes.
There was an older woman in the seat next to me and we talked for much of the flight, although I think I was the one doing most of the talking. I periodically recalled those scenes in Airplane, where Robert Hays would drive his fellow passengers to suicide by telling his endless stories of woe. Having just seen the film, the image of the gasoline sodden Indian holding a lighted match came to mind with startling clarity. I made sure to shut up at appropriate intervals.
We rerouted at one point to circumvent some large thunderheads. As we passed, I could see them from my window. Huge black mountains of atmospheric power, flashing here and there with lightning of various colors. Blue, green, bright yellow-orange where it touched ground. I remembered, several weeks back, when a storm front came across New England. The lightning had the most unusual colors. One night, I was sitting outside our front door, just watching the storm. I looked up to see a bolt of lightning cut across the sky like a ripsaw. It was as red as neon, red as Darth Vader’s lightsabre. I had never seen it that color before. It was amazing.
I didn’t sleep, as I knew I wouldn’t. Redeye flights just give me some kind of buzz that defy energy depletion. I felt charged. I felt myself gearing up, internally, for a whole new existence.
The flight seemed short although I was markedly anxious to arrive. Soon enough, I felt the giant flaps on the wings adjusting, slowing us down for our final approach. Outside, the lights of Los Angeles stretched out to the horizon like a glittering diamond field. There is nothing quite like flying into LAX at night. A suspended grid of sodium orange dots, lined up as far as you can see, the yellow glow of headlights, the red glow of taillights, moving, pulsing, rythmically through these electronic arteries like the life blood of the city. It is a beautiful sight.
We touched down. The captain came on the loudspeaker and welcomed us to Los Angeles, and thanked us for flying TWA, gave us the local time, and outside temperature. It was about midnight, Pacific Standard Time, although my biological clock was still telling me it was three hours later.
Then came the interminable wait to disembark. Everyone on the plane was jammed into the aisles, carry-ons in hand, and the plane had not even come to a stop yet. Outside I could see the tarmac, still rolling by, but soon we slowed, turned, and I caught a glimpse of the terminal building. With a barely discernible jerk, the plane stopped. The passenger catwalk was connected to the door, like the throat of a great hungry vacuum cleaner, and into that welcome maw we were released.
I walked through the tunnel with the anxious tension that can only come from years of anticipation. Here I am, I thought. I’m actually here. The catwalk seemed too long. I quickened my pace, and the interior of the terminal came into view past the heads and shoulders of my fellow passengers. Immediately I began scanning the crowd. They were out there, somewhere. I crossed the threshold into the terminal and came into the open. I continued to look to my left, my right. Surely, they were here? I stood still for a moment.
“Hey, Chris!” I heard. I wasn’t even sure if I recognized the voice. I turned.
Three smiling faces were staring at me. Two of them I knew. There was Mom, I recognized her immediately. Next to her was Frank, who I had met the previous summer. I recognized the shock of silver gray hair that sat over his broad face, like a beret, his friendly blue eyes, wide and strangely intense in a way that I couldn’t verbalize. These two I knew, but they weren’t the ones that called me. There was someone standing in front of them who I didn’t recognize until I saw his sweat jacket. It was deep green and monogrammed. The letters on it were “E.D.,” giving him the nickname of “Ed” among some of my friends. It was Eric. But not the Eric I remembered. It was as if someone had taken him hooked him up to an air compressor, and expanded his features several steps towards adulthood. His jaw and cheekbones and shoulders had all filled out as if stepping forth to proclaim individuality. Even his shoulder length hair seemed to have become more self assertive.
The shock of Eric’s new appearance quickly faded though, as we exchanged greetings and embraces. We left the gate, and headed for baggage claim, catching each other up on recent events.
Leaving the airport was something of a blur, which is just as well, since getting out of LAX is usually a nightmare. We rode south, on the 405, towards Orange County, in the familiar, well worn comfort of my mother’s old blue Datsun 510.
My mind, heart and senses raced as we rode. I took in the familiar sights and smells with the same hungry intensity that I did every time I came here. Year after year, the experience was the same. After the summer, I would go back home to Weston, and immediately begin the countdown to going back the next year. Ten months of anticipation always seemed to give my first hours back in the west an almost dreamlike quality. Like I couldn’t really believe it was real, and I had to drink as much of it in as I could because I was only here for two months. But, on this night, as I breathed in the ozone scent of LA smog, reinforcing my new reality, and watching the familiar landmarks go by (the oil refineries, the Goodyear blimp, the billboards for Worthington Ford…go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal!) that led the way into O.C., I reminded myself that this was for good. I felt charged, ready. For what, I did not know, but I was ready for it.
My brother and I sat in the back seat, and Eric did a lot of talking. He told me about the job he just started at Taco Bell, a Mexican fast food chain that had yet to spread its fingers of franchise across the country. He talked about the work he was doing in the theater department at the high school. He spoke of his theater work with somewhat of a bittersweet expression, due to a recent tragedy that I was already aware of. His theater teacher, a man who apparently commanded a great deal of respect not only from Eric but all his students had just died of cancer. I think Eric missed him intensely. We also talked about some of the new music he had discovered in the last year, among them, that British guy who was starting to interest me, Elvis Costello.
We passed through Carson and Long Beach, then finally crossed behind the Orange Curtain; the Big OC. Mom swung Nellie, which the 510 was always known as, off the freeway onto Seal Beach Boulevard. The late night traffic was light, giving the wide road an even greater feeling of openness. As we drove past the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station and Wildlife Preserve, I felt liberated. I watched the surroundings as we turned onto Pacific Coast Highway towards Main Street, Seal. Looking around, I thought: here’s where my new life will unfold. Here’s where I will reinvent myself. Here I will begin again.
We parked on Seventh Street, my new address. When Mom had first moved to Seal, her first apartment was on Seventh. Now that she was living with Frank, Eric, and Frank’s son Paul, they took a larger apartment just half a block up. Seventh Street was a side road that cut inland from Ocean Avenue, which paralleled the beach, and ended at Electric Avenue, which paralleled PCH, and was bisected by Central Avenue. This crescent shaped stack of numbered blocks between PCH and the pier was, I later learned, referred to as Old Town Seal Beach and was home to, as I also later learned, the more desirable Seal Beach real estate. Our new apartment was right next to a puzzlingly vacant lot on the intersection of Seventh and Central.
I got out of the car and looked at the place. It was a narrow, Spanish style two-story, with an almost identical counterpart next door, and a walkway between, running the length of both buildings. The two large windows on the outward facing side seemed to look down on me, like eyes. It was a little odd. This I put to having gone several days without sleep as I pulled my suitcase from the trunk and followed the others inside.
As I walked up between the buildings, I realized that the building was longer than it appeared, going three or four apartments deep. Ours was the first door on the right. A wooden door with a window paned with opaque diamond-shaped glass of varying colors. With a kind of numb anticipation, I walked into my new home.
Looking around, it was not the kind of place I envisioned by seeing the exterior. The living room walls were paneled in dark, rough, authentic wood, giving the place a very rustic feel. The furniture was familiar enough: it was all Mom’s. The battered daybeds, the big wooden cable spool that served as a corner table, the old stereo, the wicker chair, adorned the new place like a welcoming committee of old friends. To my right was a fairly standard kitchen/dining room combination. On the walls were a few framed prints, some of which my mother bought so long ago I couldn’t remember them not being around. In the far corner to my left, the stairway to the second floor disappeared behind the dark wood wall.
I dropped my stuff on the floor. Any net effect from the juxtaposition of the strange against the familiar was lost through a quickly forming glaze of fatigue. I felt quite comfortable though, and I seemed to slip into the idea that this was now my home with almost no realization of the shift.
Eric helped me carry my stuff upstairs. The second floor was more the standard California pre-fab that I’d come to expect from apartment complexes. Bare, white walls, cheap, stucco ceiling. A short hall lead to the bathroom, and the three bedrooms. I walked through the door of what I immediately recognized to be Eric’s room. It was fairly roomy, more narrow and deep than wide. But large enough to accommodate the mattress on the floor that would be my interim bed. The walls were lined with movie posters; one of the weaknesses my brother and I had in common. Nicholson and Jake and Elwood, Malcolm McDowell and Frank N. Furter stared down at me from all sides. We parked my stuff in the room as we discussed integrating my things with his. It was bizarre. In this strange new place, I felt like I had come home.
“I’ve got something you’ve got to hear,” Eric declared.
He eagerly lead me back to the living room and sat me down in front of the stereo. A glance a my watch told me it was well past 2 A.M., local time. By my internal clock, I had been awake for close to forty-eight hours. I rubbed my eyes and stifled a yawn as my brother slid a record out of its cover. He put it on the turntable and turned on some fast paced, energetic rock and roll, perhaps a bit louder than I would have, considering the hour. The synth-driven arrangement was sparse, the rhythm infectious and the lyrics biting. The voice rung an immediate bell. I looked at the album cover. A black-clad rail of a man, with spiky black hair stared out a me through large horn-rimmed glasses, over the top of a Hasselblad camera on a tripod. The name on the cover was Elvis Costello. The album, This Year’s Model. The song was “This Year’s Girl.”
You see her picture in a thousand places
‘cause she’s this year’s girl.
You think you all own little pieces
of this year’s girl.
Forget your fancy letters,
forget your English grammar,
‘cause you don’t really give a damn
about this year’s girl.
Time’s running out
She’s not happy with the cost,
there’d be no doubt,
only she’s forgotten much more than she’s lost.
I listened with as much interest as I could muster, for I was quite impressed. I was also quite exhausted. But as the song faded and the next one came on, my sleepiness vanished almost immediately. It was that song! The one I had been hearing lately that I liked so much. Picking up the album cover I looked at the playlist. “The Beat.” Well, all right. I had some new music to investigate already.
Mom and Frank came out of the kitchen as we were sitting there, and Mom asked me what my plans were, now that I was here. I felt so thrashed that I don’t think I could have intelligently answered the question if my life depended on it. But I think I said something like wanting to take it easy for a couple of weeks, hang out on the beach et cetera, then I would need to get a job somewhere. Someone may have mentioned something about the possibility of starting college–but I did not hear it.
Something at my feet caught her eye. She looked down, raising her eyebrows.
“How much more punishment do you think those can take?” she asked.
I followed her gaze down to the ratty old pair of Adidas sneakers on my feet. It took years to get them to the right degree of comfort, but recently they had developed some rather gaping holes. My right big toe peeked out the front, like the head of an apprehensive turtle. Mom and Frank decided they needed replacing, and I felt for a moment like they were condemning old friends. But I did need a new pair. It was decided that we would go shoe shopping the next day.
It was sometime around then that time caught up with me and I somehow managed to get myself into my new bed, such as it was…
I slept very late. I still felt a bit groggy, as my system was still adjusting to west coast time. I was alone in the bedroom and I heard the sounds of activity downstairs. I threw off the covers and climbed up on Eric’s bed, which was by one of the windows facing Seventh Street, and looked outside. The window was open and the pleasant ocean breeze blew across my face. The sky was a deep, utterly perfect blue. I leaned my head out and peered down the street. Half a block down, just on the other side of Ocean Avenue, I could see the Pacific, calm and welcoming. I rested my elbows on the sill, and savored what was probably the first calm moment of my last few waking days. I was here. I had made it. As I sat there, a couple of beach-bound girls rode by on beach cruisers, laughing, their sun bleached hair dancing in their wakes. Lean, deeply tanned, bikini-clad, built to weaken male knees and shatter male will. I watched them go. I smiled. I sighed. Oh yes, I was happy to be here. I made a mental note to get to the beach very soon.
After hitting the bathroom and getting dressed, I went downstairs for a late breakfast. Eric was already at work at Taco Bell, just up the street on PCH and Main. Frank’s 14 year old son, Paul, was also not to be seen, and presumably out surfing. I had met Paul last summer, and I was dubious about having him as a housemate. But I was in no position to complain about it. I was sure he couldn’t be as all bad as he seemed. I had never really given him a chance.
During breakfast Mom pulled an envelope out of a pile of recent mail.
“See, Chris,” she said with her distinctive dry humor. “You’re getting fan mail already.”
It was postmarked several days prior, from Orleans, MA. The name on the return address said Howard. Lea Howard. One of my art room buddies back in Weston. I opened it. It was essentially a good-bye letter that she didn’t get around to getting to me before I left. After school had gotten out in June, she had moved down to the Cape and I hadn’t seen her since. Lea was a freshman during my senior year. She was outspoken, spunky, offbeat. Also one of the subjects of my many subdued crushes. But freshman/senior relations were something of a taboo back in Weston. I sometimes kicked myself for giving in to those kind of unspoken social rules. Of course, there were the spoken rules too. Lea was only fourteen and jailbait. But hell, I had been jailbait too. I harbored my regrets. But as I read the letter, it seemed as if any interest that I had in her had already faded into the background of my thoughts. She belonged to a part of my life that was now over, dissolving into memory. I made a promise to myself, however, that I would return the letter. I owed her that. The letter made me think of Fred, Sarah and the Group. It had been less than two days since I last saw them. Already, it felt like weeks.
Later, Mom and I went out to get shoes. It was, in a way, a bit symbolic, tossing away those battered old Adidases. It was kind of like saying “I’ve come this far. Now time for a fresh beginning.” Those over-ventilated sneaks had served me well, and I felt good replacing them with another pair of Adidas shoes. We bought more than just shoes, also. I came home with two new pairs of Levi’s, a few Op shirts, a new belt –practically a new wardrobe, by my reckoning. It was a small thing, but, like the shoes, went a long way towards making me feel a sense of renewal. Like a snake shedding its skin. From these little things I could feel–in an almost palpable way–my new life taking shape.
When we returned, Eric was home, still in his Taco Hell uniform; tacky brown polyester. He smelled of refried beans and onions. The outfit looked strange on him. I had a hard time picturing him behind the counter of that divey little fast food place. I would have to go up there sometime when he was working, I decided.
Frank had the grill going outside, cooking up a pile of chicken. Later, as the bloated orange sun sank towards the Pacific, we had an excellent dinner. Paul came home but didn’t join us. He was with his scantily clad girlfriend, a shapely young surf-ingenue named Karen. He came and went with a kind of sullen freneticism that seemed to be his trademark, Karen trailing behind with the carefree air of the brain dead. As we ate, Mom, Frank and Eric spun some amusing tales about Paul’s encounters with the local law enforcement. It seemed that Paul had a thriving business, selling pot to the neighborhood schoolkids from his bedroom. Once Frank caught wind of it, he tried to stop him but young Paul just went right on doing it until Frank was forced to call the cops on several occasions. Upon the police’s arrival, hijinks often ensued. I would have been more amused by the stories if it did not involve someone I was now living with. But, fortunately, it seemed that no strange teenagers have come looking for Paul in some time.
Later, I left to take a walk. I wondered why the idea of Paul selling weed, although no surprise, seemed to bother me. I had no moral objection to smoking the stuff; I had experimented with it over the last year and I’d had some the most festive evenings of my senior year under its influence. The last time had been the night after graduation, with Steve, who had been by “stoner bud” most of the previous year, his brother Doug, and Gretchen. Being stoned in her presence was an unsettling experience. It was truly a crazy night although I hadn’t felt the urge to indulge again in the interfering weeks since. I hadn’t made any conscious decision not to, I just hadn’t felt like it. Marijuana, I felt, when handled intelligently, was by no means the evil, corrupting substance that the establishment made it out to be. Statistically speaking, automobiles were deadlier. So why did it bug me? I didn’t know. Maybe it was the fact that he was dealing to schoolkids, customers too young to know how to deal with an altered consciousness. Despite the fact that until a few short weeks ago I had been a schoolkid myself, I told myself that Paul was in the wrong.
I had yet to learn how to recognize my own double standards.
The last remnants of sunset were shredding into darkness over the water, but the warmth of the day lingered, only mildly challenged by the off-shore breeze. I crossed Ocean at the corner of Seventh and went down the walkway that cut between two of the houses that overlooked the beach. I had intentionally left my shoes back at the apartment so I could feel the fine Seal Beach sand under my bare feet. The sand was cool, soft and welcoming. I stood there for a moment, savoring the sensation, digging my feet in and letting the sand envelope my toes. The effect was at once soothing and invigorating.
I started towards the water, looking around. About a hundred yards to my left was the Seal Beach Pier, its wooden supports marching out a good quarter mile out over the water. The pier was kind of a centerpiece in town: situated at the terminus of Main Street, it was almost an extension of the main drag. It was lined all the way down with streetlamps, had an enclosed lifeguard station about halfway down its length and had a little greasy spoon snack shack and bait shop at the very end. A small slip near the end serviced the boat that shuttled the men who worked the off-shore oil rigs to and from their jobs. The pier attracted fishermen, sightseers, strollers and the occasional contraband skateboard. There were quite a few people out on the pier tonight. The beach itself was less crowded. There were a few people around, as well as the last remaining surfers, getting in those last few waves before calling it a day. They were spread out enough, though, so that I could walk in relative solitude. I went down to the wet sand at the edge of the surf, and let the water splash over my feet, getting a few inches of wet leg in the process. The water was cold for the month, but refreshing just the same.
I walked along the surf’s foamy edges, not toward the pier, but in the other direction, toward the landmark I knew waited at the north end of the beach. It was the rock jetty that lined the mouth of the river that separated Seal Beach from Long Beach, and it was one of my favorite spots during my last summer here. A great place to sit and do some thinking or just to sit.
After about a quarter mile, the jetty became visible: a low, rocky echo of the pier, protruding maybe a hundred yards into the water. Upon reaching it, I climbed onto its crest and made my barefoot way towards the end. As I went out farther, I had to move carefully, as the rocks became slippery. My feet, however, seemed to remember the path.
I sat down on a convenient rock at the end, surrounded on three sides by water. The wind had picked up. The swells washed up against the rocks below me, but the waves were small and I stayed dry.
Looking out at the ocean, I flashed back momentarily on that strange experience on the Nantucket beach. Mentally, I grasped the memory, trying to reproduce it, but no such thing happened. I let it go and refocused on my surroundings.
Three oil rigs were visible against the night sky, lit up like spaceships, maybe a few miles out. Beyond them, the outline of Catalina Island was still just barely discernible. To my right was the river mouth, reported to have some of the best surfing in the area, and also the sight of Seal Beach’s only recorded shark attacks. Another jetty on the Long Beach side extended farther than mine, reaching out to join the breakwaters just north. Past the northern jetty the tops of sails could be seen, moving into the Long Beach Marina. Past them, a few miles upshore, the lights of the Queen Mary were visible, and inland from there, the lights of Signal Hill. Of all the things I had given up in exchanging my old life for a new one, I was glad that proximity to the ocean was not one of them.
As I sat there, my thoughts wandered. I thought about the Group, and the girls in it. I thought about girls in general and the two on bikes I saw that morning in particular. I thought about a girl I had met the previous summer, while visiting friends up near San Jose. Her name was Susie: a short, spunky, blonde sixteen-year-old with a smattering of freckles and big pale blue eyes. She was a friend of a friend and had invited me to a game of Backgammon while visiting our hosts. After that she joined our larger, rowdy crowd hanging out at the playground by the public pool up the road. As the afternoon stretched, our attention became more exclusively focused upon each other. And as the evening crept in we hardly noticed when the others dispersed for dinner. Susie was the first girl I ever french-kissed. She had removed her retainer to facilitate things. We sat in the shadows of that playground and made out for what were several of the most profoundly pleasurable hours of my life. We were untimely interrupted, unfortunately, and she had to leave. I didn’t see her again. I wondered what happened to her. I never even knew her last name.
I remained in a kind of bemused disbelief about actually being in California. I supposed that, since I had been in my new home for less than twenty-four hours, a period of adjustment would surely follow. My immediate future seemed as unknown and mysterious as the black, roiling waters around me: anybody’s guess. But there I was–living in paradise. How many people would have given their left arm to live half a block from the water in a Southern California beach town? And how many years had I waited for this day, yearning to get out of my dreary little town and my dreary little existence? I still couldn’t quite believe that I had made it. I remembered the morning of the day I met Susie. I was fishing with Eric and our friends Todd and Kenny Wilcox. It was shortly after the completion of the Training and I was thinking strange thoughts. I looked out across the water, washing over the rocky bed that we fished and was suddenly overtaken by a sense of wonder and of possibility that was almost palpable. In the streaks of sunlight coming off the dancing water, I seemed to sense an opening to any number of outcomes to my present moment. I thought: Anything could happen today. Anything. A few short hours later, when we went to the general store in town for bottles of Martinelli’s sparkling cider, Susie was sitting next to the door, as if she were waiting for me there in the dusty sunlight. On the end of that jetty I felt a similar opening. I was very aware of the possibilities made available by a single transcontinental flight. I knew I had it good.