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On the road to Gualala, we stop at Goat Rock, one of my favorite spots. The rock is a huge bullish thing, not much on style, but the adjoining beach offers a number of endearing quirks. The shoreline cuts to the water in a sudden drop, creating “sneaker” waves that will reach up and grab you if you’re not on your best behavior. The beach dead-ends at the crusty ridges that frame the Rock, and the pocket accumulates a gazillion tiny, smooth rocks. The walking is arduous, but the feel of the pebbles against your bare soles is vastly therapeutic. It is here, as Molly and Yaz fall behind, that I finally have a moment alone with Sass.
“So how does one tell one’s foster daughter what one does when one is a prostitute?”
Sass chuckles. “How long do you intend to talk like that?”
“One may well wonder.”
She shifts her eyes landward, where a fog bank is dive-bombing the road.
“It begins vaguely. ‘Men get very lonely,’ I said. ‘They would like to do physical, affectionate things, things that they would normally do with a wife, or a girlfriend. But wives and girlfriends are not always easy to find. So instead they hire me to do these things with them, and for a while they feel less lonely.’”
“That’s good,” I say. “I assume she waited maybe five seconds before demanding specifics.”
“Yes. And that’s when we found out how much Jasmina knew about sex, courtesy of Uncle Laszlo.”
“We’ve been very unfair to Uncle Laszlo.”
Sass looks behind us to check on distance. “Will she ever know the whole truth about her childhood?”
“I’m amazed we’ve gotten her back to you. Her brain seems to possess a remarkable plasticity, an ability to remake itself and adapt to sudden changes. But Molly’s still feeling pretty cautious. We don’t want to re-ignite the self-injury thing.”
We walk twenty slow feet in silence. Molly and Jasmina’s conversation gathers energy behind us; they sound like a pair of seagulls.
“I’m not sure I get you,” says Sass. “You’re so into atheism that you start your own store, and yet, from all reports, you’re the one who helped Jasmina get over my Jesus stuff.”
“‘Jesus stuff.’ That’s…”
“What side are you on?”
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t prepared for this. Born-agains have a morbid fascination with atheists, much as carnival-goers have a fascination for side-show freaks.
“At heart I’m a scientist, and a logician. I had an awful, awful experience with religion, and it took me years to train myself not to spend the rest of my life reacting against that. The way that I judge people is pretty simple: I watch what they do. By that standard, the character of a Sass Hunter, be she Christian, agnostic or Druid priestess, is pretty spotless.”
“Well thank you. But what do you have against Jesus?”
“Actually, I’m rather fond of the guy.”
“Just not as your savior.”
“Don’t need saving. Tell me, as a Christian, do you feel obligated to go around proclaiming your opposition to Allah and Buddha, and Quetzlcoatl?”
“Oh. Well… no. It’s not rejecting others. It’s accepting Jesus Christ.”
I snap a finger. “That’s what I’m trying to teach Jasmina. If she is an atheist – and it’s not up to me to make that determination – she needs to get to the point where she’s not rejecting the religion she was born into, but accepting the ever-evolving intellectual rigors of operating without divinities.”
Sass laughs and puts a hand to her temple, the gesture of an impending headache. She grabs my head and kisses me on the cheek.
“Thanks for bringing her back to me.”
“Yo bitch!” This is Yaz, thirty feet behind us. “Keep your hands off my boyfriend.”
Sass gives her a sassy look and slaps me on the butt. Yegads. I’m surrounded.
Weirdly enough, given her recent bouts of jealousy, Jasmina sends me off to the bedroom with Molly. She and Sass claim the foldout that once was the kitchen table (RVs are magical, shape-shifting kingdoms). The psychologist and I drowse off in separate beds as she explains the camper, purchased for a post-divorce cruise to the Rockies. Now it serves as her getaway machine, whenever the neurotic patients of Marin County get too much for her. The campground in Gualala is a favorite destination, a cozy riverside site under a canopy of willow and maple. We spent our first evening around a boisterous fire, passing a jug of rosé as Lady Sass told us tales from her saucy past.
I awake sometime in the freakyearly to the call of my bladder. Sadly, Molly has declared her tiny bathroom non-functional, and the camp restrooms are a good ways off. I bundle up and tip-toe away, stopping to hover over Sass and Yaz, who are spooning like a pair of parentheses. There, I think, is your future mother-in-law.
It’s a clear, cold night, and moonlight filters through the gaps in the trees. The lower branches have twisted themselves into Celtic knots, giving the path a spookshow aura, and feathers of smoke rise from last night’s fires. Near the men’s room, I catch a raccoon inspecting a coon-proof garbage can. He gives me a look of annoyance and grumbles away. I check into the facilities, conduct my business and exit to find a kinky-haired waif holding a towel and a bottle of shampoo.
“Have you considered what two people could do at this time of night in a campground shower?”
“Have you considered the fact that these showers are coin-operated?”
She smiles and holds up a roll of quarters.
A half-hour of naughty bathing goes a long way toward banishing an utter lack of sleep, so we set out on a hike to the ocean, following a meandering trail that skirts the river. The water gets wider and wider till it’s choked off by a man-made channel beneath a bridge. The trail rises to said bridge, which turns out to be Highway One. We traverse a field of coastal scrub and descend to a wide beach.
The Pacific has lifted a huge log to the brink of its breakers. We use it for a backrest and sit on the dry, buff-colored sand, watching the waves peak and crash in the growing light. I sneak a sidelong look, finding her eyes intent on the horizon, her hair in damp ringlets, her face scrubbed and relaxed. If you could chart such things on a graph, my adoration has reached its apex.
“Are you terribly, terribly happy?”
She sings “Ye-e-es” on a long, even note, and takes my hand without shifting her gaze. “She fills a hole in my life that I didn’t know I had. Thanks for finding her.”
“How did you manage that waitress schtick?”
“This information is somewhat classified, but our first waitress is one of Molly’s patients.”
“Fear of seafood? Bad tipper issues?”
“If I told you, they would have to kill us.”
The sun peeks over the ridge and extends a tendril of orange light to spark the water. A sea lion periscopes a wave. Jasmina sighs.
“I had the UPS dream last night.”
“My package was no longer a package.”
“It was a baby.”
Paul and I wake at noon in the bedroom. The rain is beating a march on the top of the camper. I start up my phone and get a text from Molly.
Yo niteowls! Meet us at the Gualala Coffeehouse – to the left on the main drag. Call us if U R going to stay there and screw.
Charming. Not that I wouldn’t consider the latter option. But it feels like time to rejoin society, so we dress ourselves and hie away to the coffeehouse, which offers delightful homemade cookies to go with the espresso.
“Gualala,” says Molly. “Gwa-la-la. I want to move here just so I can say, ‘I am from Gwa-la-la.’”
Sass gives Paul a funny look. “So what does one do in Gualala when one is being rained upon?”
Our barista, a teen with the obligatory colored hair and pierced nose, pops up from the counter. “You should see the Opus Giovanni. It’s like a half-mile north of here. Just look for the cobalt bottle archway.”
“But what is the Opus Giovanni?” asks Paul.
“No!” I say. “Don’t tell us. You had me at cobalt bottle archway.”
We squeeze into Molly’s Audi and pull into a lot bordered by split-rail fences. The arch is almost a tunnel, ten feet long, trelliswork with openings just the right size to hold upside-down cobalt wine bottles. As we pass underneath, our faces turn blue.
The Opus Giovanni looks like a barn, but the interior looks like an art gallery, with clean white walls. The left side offers large black-and-white photos, the right a long table scattered with jewelry. I stop before a frame, five feet high, featuring a mountaintop, equal parts rock and snow. A thin woman in yellow-framed spectacles sidles next to me.
“Hi. Let me know if you have any questions.”
“Is this Mount Shasta? The Tetons?”
She smiles. “The Matterhorn.”
“Oh! Yeah. It’s an amazing photo. I imagine getting there was half the work.”
“Yes it was.”
“Oh! It’s yours?”
“The light was amazing that day. I get a little obsessed with light. My partner says I’m nothing but rods and cones.”
Is there any word more perilous than partner?
“Anyways, we also have smaller matted versions and picture-cards if you’d rather not have this monstrosity in your living room.”
“Oh! Good. Thanks.”
Sass waves me over to the table, where she’s sorting through silver chains with chunky-looking pendants.
“Look at these, hon. They’re crystals and semi-precious stones, left in their natural state.”
I look at the two she’s holding. “Rose quartz and… amethyst.”
She checks the tags. “Very good! I didn’t know you were a rock hound. But then, I only knew you in the city.” She looks around. “I fear I could spend the Foundation’s entire treasury here.”
“I kinda think that might be illegal.”
“Well duh!” she says, and cracks up. “Sorry. I always wanted to say that to you. You used to tell me that thirty times a day.”
“Oh God. Was I a punk?”
“You were a teenage girl.”
“Same thing. Let me buy you one of these.”
“Time I start making up for being a punk.”
Sass gives me a sneaky smile. “I did have my eye on the jade.”
“You got it, Mom.”
She gives me a surprised look.
“Sorry. Just… slipped out.”
“No, no,” she says. “I like it.”
Photo by MJV