The overriding tone of my relationship with McNeal was normality – which isn’t such a bad thing to shoot for. We spent our office time suppressing displays of affection, then on weekends blew the self-control out of our systems with lots of sex and highly typical yuppie excursions: trips to the wine country, kayaking in Monterey, hiking in Yosemite, boogie-boarding at Stinson Beach.
We worked very hard – the norm for a start-up – but, much to our benefit, not always together. I was off creating product identities and marketing strategies, while McNeal handled product development. The separation was distinct enough to keep things fresh between us. I planted some “hers” toiletries at the House of Three Bachelors, and often woke up to a Saturday sun poking through the window above McNeal’s desk, or the insistent kitty-biscuit pawing of Balzac, a gray long-hair McNeal had rescued from the adjacent canyon.
I suppose the normality was so entrenched that it was bound to be knocked awry by small, subtle changes. There were two of them, and they arrived in early July, our third month together.
The first was professional. The marketing person can only get so far ahead of the actual product before she ends up, essentially, marketing air. So, as the tech team continued to grind away at the physical world search engine, I was left to tread water. Although I found myself feeling guilty about not “doing my part,” I realized that my time for martyrdom – specifically, the product release campaign – would come soon enough. With this in mind, as well as the desirability of keeping my slothful self out of view, I returned to the world of seminars, venturing to La Jolla, Las Vegas and Fresno to feed at the troughs of various marketing gurus. I also used these as opportunities to mentor Shanili, who was cranking out her MBA at a professional night school (plus, come on, how can you go to Vegas without a girlfriend?).
McNeal, meanwhile, had his nose so hard to the grindstone that he would soon be, well… noseless. He would come home exhausted and grumpy, and not especially pleased by the sight of his well-rested girlfriend. He knew the reasons for the disparity, but nevertheless fell prey to fits of snippiness. The worst was the night after Shanili and I had gone to a photo exhibit in San Rafael. I’ll admit that the connection between Panosys and desert-landscape nudes was sketchy, but it was McNeal’s project, after all, that had sparked my interest in the medium. We traded curt little pseudo-barbs all evening until I just up and left. We made up two mornings later when he showed up at my door with lox and bagels, but the damage was done.
The second change was medical. Just after the Fourth of July, I began to develop strange red splotches on my right calf. At first, I thought it was poison oak– from a backwoods hike at a picnic near Salinas. But then my calf began to ache as well as itch. Turns out I had phlebitis, an inflammation of the veins. It’s a pretty mild ailment, but you have to be careful, because the causational blood clot can travel up to the heart or lungs and wreak all sorts of havoc. The doc gave me some anticoagulants, and also suggested I stop taking birth control pills. He added that “for a woman of my age” (now there’s a term you could learn to hate), getting off The Pill was a good idea, anyway, as it could cause hormone problems in the years to come.
He also told me to avoid strenuous exercise until the splotches disappeared. That was when I realized how many of our weekends depended on just that -- physicality. McNeal seemed wholly disinterested in any activity that didn’t offer some sort of competitive challenge, some test of stamina. Faced with a girlfriend who needed to stay home and keep her legs elevated, McNeal would take off with the boys for long days of rock-climbing, mountain-biking or the ever-popular tennis match.
I found this level of inflexibility completely unattractive. Would you enjoy driving a car with only one gear? During my long afternoons of forced leisure, I came across a story about the “workification” of daily life in Silicon Valley, and found it distressingly to the point. On wine-tasting trips, McNeal would always bring his Palm Pilot and take notes on bulk pricing, growing seasons and alcohol content, as if he intended to start a chain of liquor stores. On hiking trips, he would spend his first half-hour scanning the trail map for the toughest route, then attack it like an Olympian, arms pumping, not seeming to care whether his girlfriend was ten feet behind or three miles back with a pulled hamstring. (He dismissed beach walks entirely, pronouncing them flat, dull, and unchallenging.)
This tendency also turned up in our sex life. McNeal is one of those “desensitized” guys – a common trait among our circumcised American boys – and once I was off The Pill he had a hard time adjusting to condoms. You would think a woman would like nothing more than a man who takes a while to ejaculate, but at times our lovemaking resembled a torturous aerobic workout. I would offer to release McNeal Junior from his latex confines and bring him off in other ways, but McNeal Senior possessed an inordinate alpha-male fondness for “finishing the job.” And that’s how my body became one more battlefield for McNeal Conowith, wrestler of dark angels. I made an appointment to get an IUD.
My final grievance was McNeal’s obsession with his physical world search engine. That sounds funny coming from me, the grown woman who would cruise his photo-worlds into the wee small hours of the morning. But McNeal was constantly mulling over the finer points of the project with me, and I began to cherish those moments when I could get him off the subject. His ideas were intriguing the first time around – say, his decision to establish franchises to maintain certain geographical regions of the system – but he’d repeat them constantly, more interested in polishing his concepts than in being an entertaining companion for (ahem!) yours truly.
Believe it or not, I would still consider these complaints to be trivial, were it not for the unsettling events of the Thursday after Labor Day. That was when I ran into George during a bagel-run to Lincoln Avenue. You can hardly run into an old friend without arranging a session of catch-up, which is how I found myself at La Sangria Restaurant, having the living frijoles bored out of me.
I once believed that, if you ever had the red-hots for someone, you would still feel that buzz in your stomach, that over-awareness of your breathing, even if you saw them many years down the line. Half an hour later, you would recall what a schmuck he was, and that terrible thing he did to your cat, and thank God that you’d managed to escape. But still, at first, you would feel the buzz.
From George, I felt an immense quantity of nothing. George was the same, his life was the same. I won’t recount the details - because I, unlike some people on this planet, have a little signal that goes off in my brain when I realize that I’m boring the living shit out of somebody. I spent the rest of the day sitting in my office, staring into the parking lot, wondering if I would continue to pick male companions for their external niceties, ignoring the murky, enigmatic chemicals that cause real, saline affinities.
I met McNeal that night and made him a shrimp casserole. He spent two hours talking about the franchising plan.
The next day, I needed a nice, slow walk down a beach. They certainly didn’t need me at the office, so I called Shanili, asked her to come up with an appropriate fib, then climbed into my Mitsubishi and headed for the ocean.
My sister’s beach would have been too tame, so I hopped on 84 through the rolling coastal farmlands of the Peninsula to San Gregorio. The beach’s southern stretch was narrow and isolated, dead-ending at a rocky point buried by waves. In order to get there, I had to remove my socks and shoes and splash through a shallow creek.
The waves on the exposed San Mateo coastline are nothing you’d want to mess with, rolling in three or four to a pack with a constant, invigorating thunder. They also leave piles of driftwood, plenty of raw material for sculptures, lean-tos, benches and forts.
I came upon one of the latter just across the creek, a rickety refuge near the base of the cliffs. The entrance was cordoned off by evenly spaced poles, dug into the sand and beribboned with yellow caution tape. I entered to find a throne at its north end, carefully constructed from four tree stumps. Perching there like a queen, I saw a long hall to the south, formed by poles leaning against a central beam. I ducked its low ceiling and continued to a curved exit dodging off toward the cliffs. Just outside, I discovered an ornamental garden, comprising a replanted palm branch, one-half of an old surfboard, and a large stalk of Saguaro cactus. Looking back to the grand hall I found a sign reading, “FOR KIDS ONLY!!! This Palace Built by Cameron, Jackie and Chimp.”
For kids only. Those three magic words brought to mind the night before, when, just after again recounting his franchising plan, McNeal said “The one thing I truly regret about how things came apart for myself and Rochelle is that I was really looking forward to having children.”
Egad! I thought. How big of a diamond would you like, darling? Paris for dinner? Let me give you a neck-rub. But what narrowness of vision, what vanilla life, in exchange for that package of re-created DNA, that wonderfresh baby smell?
I left the works of children behind me and continued south, the cliffs growing taller as the waves grew closer. Collie-size wads of seafoam scudded by me like earthbound clouds, and I noticed a lone seagull, oldish and gray, dragging his wings in the sand. Were they broken? Was he fated to make do as a landwalker? How endlessly sad. This was not the kind of vision I had hoped for.
I drifted unconsciously toward the cliffs, where I thought I saw a smattering of rocks. I realized my old glass-hunting instincts were taking over. Wasn’t much there, though: chips of driftwood, chunks of styrofoam, flakes of blue plastic. I found a couple of browns, but they were pretty thin and unimpressive.
Five days before, late afternoon, McNeal bounced into my office with a CD and a sneaky grin.
“What are you so smiley-faced about?”
“Oregon,” he said.
“It’s a nice... state,” I said, expecting more.
“It’s on this CD,” he said. “Oregon, that is.”
“No! The pilot! I didn’t even know which state it was.”
“I didn’t tell you. I wanted to keep it a surprise.”
I gave him a congratulatory kiss, and suggested we ramble through the great Northwest together.
“No-no,” he said. “Absolutely must have dinner with the Smittersen folks tonight. Our first franchisee! But I did want to drop this off for you.”
I must admit, that CD scared me. Considering all the hours I had spent on lil’ ol’ Palo Alto, what would a whole state do to me? I paced myself by starting with the obvious: the Willamette River near Eugene, the main drag in Medford, the Shakespeare complex in Ashland. I even managed to track down the Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse in Portland, where a bedraggled blond fellow paced the front porch with a flute case.
Even with these careful first steps, the utter cyber-acreage was overwhelming; at three o’clock in the morning, I was still at it. I was clicking my way down the coast, completely wired, when I found myself in Hirshfield, following Third Street toward the Bel Canto. Before I knew it, I was perched on the Knickerbocker Beach parking lot, middle of the afternoon, scanning north for Gerrymander Lighthouse when I found a bunch of Latino kids digging a moat around a lumpy-looking sand castle. I grabbed the magnifier to get a closer look (the tech team had really worked wonders with the image quality). Just past the ten-year-old with the blue shovel, I spotted a figure off in the distance. He stood to the left of Whalespout Rock, holding a small object to the overcast.
It was him.
There’s a color of paint called Midnight Oil – just a tablespoon of nightsky blue mixed into a straight-down pitch black. When I saw that small grouping of pixels, I felt that color working its way into my veins. Months of chocolate-covered denial had turned Frosty into a pleasant ghost and yet there he was, working the beach while the Sanchez kids reconstructed Macchu Pichu. I sat there, staring, for another half-hour, then dragged my bones off to bed. I pulled myself into a tight little ball, fearful that the pixel god, an ogre made up of colored blocks, would invade my dreams.
But my sleep was dreamless. In the morning I switched off the computer before its screensaver could blip away and reveal the incriminating evidence.
By the time I reached the end of San Gregorio, my right leg began to cramp up. I was not fully recovered from the phlebitis, and had probably walked too far for my own good. I rested on a coffin-shaped ledge of sandstone, dangling my feet as I watched the breakers hammer across a curving wall of rock. The overcast seemed to drop closer to Earth, shrouding the way back in silvered mist, and I noticed that no one had ventured this way but me. You could walk the entire two miles back to the car and not meet a soul.
A large wave rolled in just then and caught me off-guard, striking a rock ten feet to my left and covering me with a thick, cold spray. I laughed with surprise, slapping the water from my hair and face. As I watched the bubbling backwash, I spotted a curious green-blue orb tumbling back down the sand. I jumped from my perch and ran after it, stopping its progress with the instep of my shoe. Once I was sure it wasn’t some kind of jellyfish, I took it into my hands, smooth, wet and cold to the touch. It was a Japanese net float, perfectly round, little bubbles frozen into its walls like fossilized soda pop.
That was the last message I needed. I went back to my ledge and folded my damp clothes into a neat package inside my sweatshirt. I knotted the sleeves into a handle, and began a spirited naked stroll down the beach, the tingle of breezeworks playing piano against all of my parts. I held the net float to one eye, turning the world aquamarine and circular, and vowed to re-clothe myself only when the image of some wide-eyed beachcomber fell within the arc of its fizzy walls.
As I curled my Mitsubishi around that first southward hill, I was entering a new kind of fog. I remember very little about my drive – a jarring set of railroad tracks outside Davenport, the old Ferrell’s Doughnut Shop on the west side of Santa Cruz, and the long offramp to my sister’s street. All the rest was drowned out by the hum of pregnant brain cells. The thoughts weren’t coming in one at a time anymore, it was like a river of many-colored paints, interweaving but not mixing, so vivid I could taste them.
Nobody was home at Meg’s, so I found the electronic frog under the pink ground cover and retrieved the key from his mouth; he let out a manly “Braaaapp!” as I triggered his radar. I went immediately to the garage, and looked under a pyramid of boxes marked “Tanner, third year,” “Maisey, sixth year,” to find my treasure. It was a white five-gallon bucket, my name scrawled across its lid in Meg’s neat block lettering. I grabbed the handle and hobbled my way up the stairs to the balcony. A ragged-looking American flag meandered back and forth from the railing (probably left there from Labor Day).
I gripped the base of the bucket between my tennies and loosened the three-inch pie slices of its notched lid. After the last of these, I left the lid to sit there, stretching my fingers and asking myself if I really knew what I was doing.
“Of course not,” I said out loud, and lifted the lid anyway, revealing a tossed salad of glass. I tunneled my hand into the center, feeling each little nose nubbing my skin, then lifted a handful and let them cascade in a chorus of clacks and scrapes.
I tried to recall how this Glass Beach booty had come to be here. I suppose I had planned to bestow them on Maisey and Tanner. More likely I was just hiding it from myself, preparing for my dive into self-distraction. How did I get so good at lying to myself?
The tricolor flash brought back images that floated pleasantly in my memory. As I skulled around for interesting geometries and markings, I swear I could feel the ridgelines of Frosty’s fingertips. I found the piece of milk bottle from Glass Beach – the one with the sunny country farm – and buried it deep in the bucket, lest it drill a hole through me. I took out some of the other pieces and set them on a little glasstop table next to my chair. About twenty minutes later, I looked up from my diggings and noticed what a pleasing effect these made, how the light filtered up through the table and turned the pieces into a stained glass window. It was then that I felt my second self taking over.
My second self was apparently six years old and rude. I was soon back in the garage, digging like a badger through Meg’s things, scattering hammers, boxes of woodscrews, bags of plant food. I didn’t know precisely what I was looking for, until I opened a little yellow toolbox to discover a tube of silicone adhesive. I added a cloth rag, a couple of old newspapers and a diet cola, and I was set for the afternoon.
I thought I should maintain the luxury of randomness, so I made no firm decisions regarding color. Since I had such a wealth of raw materials, I chose pieces on the basis of flatness and consistent thickness, hoping to optimize surface contact while maintaining the functionality of the table. This would also guarantee the readiest passage of light through the pieces. I also wanted to accentuate the flaws and rough textures – like a photographer seeking out the lined faces of cowboys and farmers.
Precision was not a must, but I did envision a spacing of about a quarter-inch between pieces. This made it something like assembling your own jigsaw puzzle, which lengthened the process, but also lent an invigorating challenge. I decided to work from the center out, leaving the tougher three-side matches to the more accessible outside edges.
The silicone adhesive was perfectly clear, which hid the edges of my dabs, and also took two hours to fix into place, allowing me to “cheat” my way through difficult matches by nudging pieces this way and that. I was working a final dozen pieces around the edge when I heard footsteps and found my sister peering through the balcony door.
“Sandy! It is you! What the heck are you doing here on a...” She stopped at the sight of the table. “Wow! What’s this?”
I was too lost in my creative buzz to assemble an answer, so I simply tipped the table in her direction. She knelt next to me and gave it a fascinated study.
“Damn, sister! That is gorgeous! Whatever gave you the idea?”
I thought of all the things I couldn’t tell her – public nudity, Japanese net floats, boyfriends with insensitive dicks – and then recalled the several permissions I should have asked for.
“Oh, Meg. I’m so sorry! Your table – I...”
“Eh! I haven’t got a piece of furniture in the whole house that couldn’t use a makeover.”
I gave an admiring, maternal look at my creation – then thought of something else. “When do the kids get home?”
“Not for another three hours. Mister Schmuck picked them up for karate practice. I think he’s training them to kick my ass.”
“Good,” I said. “Oh, I don’t mean…”
“Honey, believe me, I wouldn’t try to assemble a paper airplane with those two around.”
I ran a hand over the tabletop, relishing the percussion of the bald little pates against my fingertips. “Meg?” I said. “Is there a hardware store around here?”
Meg knew an opportunity for sibling bonding when she saw one, so she drove me to one of those cavernous home improvement clubs on 41st Street in Capitola. I’m afraid I wasn’t much of a participant in the conversation, being so fixed on the task at hand. But she seemed happy just to have my ear.
Once at the store, I hurried to the wall-repair aisle and found a box of tile grout, flecked with just enough beach-like beige to suit my vision. Back at home, Meg fetched me a plastic tarp, which we slipped beneath the table. My next bit of selfishness was the toughest yet.
“Would you mind, um… leaving? For some reason, this seems to take every bit of my concentration, and I…”
“Well fine then,” she said, laughing. “Break into my house, vandalize my furniture, and then…” She waved it off. “Just kidding. I need to round up some dinner for the little monsters, anyway.”
Fortunately, I had taken part in some actual tile work two years before when George had redone his bathroom. I poured the grouting mix into a milk carton, laced it with some water, and stirred it to the texture of thick pancake batter. Then I scooped it up in my fingers and squeezed it into the gaps between the pieces of glass, not minding how much I splatted on their little faces. After letting it set for a few minutes, I doused a large sponge in the water and drew it across the top, pulling away the excess grout and revealing the colors underneath in their damp intensity – just how they had looked on the beach in Ft. Bragg. The grout left a residue, so I had to clean the sponge and repeat the process a few times, simultaneously using the water’s sedimentary draw to smooth out the grout between the pieces. The edges worked out beautifully; the table’s hunter-green frame made a perfect match with the height of the frosted glass, leaving an even quarter-inch rim of grout all the way around.
Following the instructions on the back of the box, I waited a half-hour as the grout hardened and left a powder-like film over the surface. Then I fetched some paper towels and worked my mosaic one nugget at a time, patiently wiping off the powder and buffing the glass to a matte-like sheen.
Once I was sure that I had hunted down each stray molecule, I gave my work a final appraisal, then re-entered the house to find my nieces perched before bowls of macaroni and cheese in their white karate uniforms. They watched me cautiously, not entirely certain that this grout-stained, bedraggled figure was, in fact, their Aunt Sandy (little arch-conservatives, these kidlings – no capacity for change whatsoever).
Being the praise-monger I am, I interrupted their meals to take them outside and show off my handiwork, answering all and sundry questions about its creation. Meg positioned a flashlight beneath the table, turning their faces to speckled amphibian skin and causing great laughter and finger-pointing.
After a pudding dessert, Meg ushered the tikes off to bed, but not before Aunt Sandy agreed to tell them a story. A half-hour later, the adults were bivouacked on the balcony, equipped with the now-traditional Bushmill’s and coffee. Our positions, however, were reversed. Meg sat at the table, unable to remove her gaze from its technicolor surface. I, having completely worn out my vision, sought my reprieve next to the American flag, collecting stars of my own in the night sky. I ignored the obvious form of the Big Dipper for the more satisfying Ursa Major, its big snout extending from the front of the Dipper’s cup. Sit, big bear, sit.
“I can’t quite get over this, hermana,” said Meg, grinning foolishly over her coffee mug. “I’ve never pictured you as an artist. So… enraptured, so raggedly focused. You should have seen what you looked like when I got home, like some half-crazed female Van Gogh. And that bedtime story – geez! – did you just make that up? It was so sad and beautiful, the way she threw herself over the cliff like that. Women with glass skins – I just can’t get over that. It’s so…”
I would’ve liked to answer her, but Ursa Major had fuzzed out to a big, blurry polar bear, and my eyes were leaking water like home-repaired plumbing. I wasn’t sobbing, though – at least not until Meg came and pulled my face to her shoulder.
“There, there, little one,” she whispered in her Mama-voice. “You forgot something in Oregon, didn’t you?”
I nodded my head against Meg’s blouse. Later, when the words had come back to me, I told her that I was sorry, but I was going to have to take her table with me.
Photo by MJV