I walk towards the spot where the ferry departs from Coronado, going downtown. I overhear a group of two older couples talking about ants. I don’t catch the whole story, but the concluding thought is this: “From that point on, we have always carried a can of Raid.” I pass two lesbians making out in the gas station where the price of gas has gone up from $4.39 to $4.45 in the twelve hours since I filled up there. And that’s if you pay in cash, it’s ten cents more if you pay with a card. One of the lesbians is in military attire. Lesbians in the military, that’s progress. Rising gas prices, not so much.
Everybody’s desperate trying to make end meet
Work all day still can’t pay
The price of gasoline and meat
Alas, their lives are incomplete
At Albertsons, I pick up a pound of oranges, apples, bananas, and a loaf of bread. I can’t afford gas and meat, but I can afford to walk and eat fruit. Instead of taking the ferry across, I get on the bus and head to the Sante Fe Depot downtown, then on another bus to Mission Beach. The beach is filled with college-aged students who are probably on spring break, most in groups of at least seven or eight. I do not see any others who are alone.
The beach is a strange place to be alone. I do it most of the time, but I don’t always like it. I lived alone one summer at Bethany Beach, in Delaware, and unless some friend was visiting I went down to the beach alone. There were some good times. There was time to read, people watch. But the beach is best for a romance, some summer love. Most beaches are so full of people that unless you an expert at finding solitude in the midst of the crowd, it is hard to be there alone and enjoy yourself. But that is if you are lying on the beach. When you are surfing, you are never alone. Or you are always alone. Either way, it’s preferable to reading on the beach surrounded by beautiful groups of San Diego women who you will not approach because they are in groups. So I rent a wetsuit and spend most of my time bodysurfing. The rides are long, I usually have to take a breath before the ride is done.
After four hours of bodysurfing, I go and return the wetsuit. I pass a bar where the bouncer, clad in the San Diego attire of shirt and swimsuit, is chewing out a bearded and disheveled looking wino, clad in the universal hobo attire of dirtied hoodie and ragged pants, who I guess had been standing outside the rails of the outdoor bar, talking with people inside. The outsiders and the insiders, the excluded and the included. I get the impression that this man has been barred from this bar before, perhaps for life. The interaction between the bouncer and the wino, though not at all friendly, is familiar, like it has all been said before.
The bouncer: “Take your cough somewhere else! Stop drinking on my fucking rails! Holy Fuck! You’re worse than my fucking four year old!”
I watch the wino, head cowed, as he turns to go.
People watching time on the boardwalk. A girl rides by on her bike, holed up jeans rolled up to her calf, an ankle tattoo. I want to find where there are more people like her, where there is something of a counterculture in this land of open-toed sandals and open-faced smiles, if such countercultures still exist. I think they do. The day before while roaming the streets I came upon what looked like an abandoned house. Written on its walls were a mix of quotes from political and literary heroes and rebels and thinkers: Abbey, Thoreau, Lao-Tzu, MLK Jr., Lincoln, Jefferson. The house only appeared abandoned; inside I saw a few people sitting cross-legged on the ground in the lotus position. There was glare from the sun and I didn’t want to seem intrusive, so I only peeked in for a second.
On the beach, I watch the sun making its descent, hanging on the horizon.
I feel the wind as it picks up, hear the people talk about where they are going tonight, when the happy hours are. This is something of a happy hour for me, though I cannot quite ignore the separation I feel from the spring break partiers. It is not necessarily a negative separation, but it is present. What they are searching for I do not know, but I do not think it is what I am looking for. This is their vacation, this is my life. I’ll always be an observer, on the outside of the rails looking in. Surfing the waves like the rest, walking on the sand. Doing the same things but with different intentions. Not living to seek satisfaction, but to understand sorrow; Not living in avoidance of pain; instead, actively seeking pain, to see if it reveals anything that pleasure cannot. Fine words to write, more difficult to practice.
I take the buses and trains back to Coronado. On the train back downtown I talk to a Mexican-American woman a few years younger than me. Her father is a train driver, perhaps the loneliest of all professions, though not at all the worst for that reason. I don’t get her whole story, just a few of her thoughts, but it is a meaningful connection, for a bus ride in the city. Her name is Sofia. She dropped out of high school a few years back. She knows she is interested in something, but she isn’t sure what. She knows that there is something in this world for her to do and enjoy, but she hasn’t found it yet. She tells me that she is worried she may never find it, that she feels she has lost some of the joy in life that she remembers she once had. Life seems more like a burden than a gift; more like an obligation than an adventure. I tell her that if she knows she has lost some of the joy, she must still have some joy left yet; if life was once an adventure it can be so again. I ask her if the obligations are self-imposed or something forced on her from the outside
“A little of both,” she says.
“Who is imposing on you?”
“My mother is not a part of my life. I have to take care of my little brother and sister.”
“That sounds like you are imposing on yourself.”
“Maybe. I could go back to school, or I could travel, or get a job I like. I don’t do any of these things because I feel obligated to look after my siblings.”
“How do you think they would do on their own?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it, I’ve never considered it as an option.”
“If I left them to cope for themselves, what if they didn’t make it? What if they ended up on the streets or in jail? I’d blame myself.”
“Even though it wouldn’t be your fault.”
“What do you mean? You don’t know that. It might be my fault. They are a part of me. If something bad happens to them, it happens to me too.”
“Your loyalty is strong, that’s a intense feeling. I can understand it, to a certain extent, although the loyalty I feel to others is not nearly as passionate as yours is. Perhaps that is because I grew up in relative comfort, in security. The harshness of the world did not influence my family as a unit the way it influenced yours. I have always perceived the harshness, but my reaction to it has usually been to seek independence for myself rather than becoming more dependent on others. So we react in different ways to mainly the same things. I don’t think either is necessarily better. One way might be better for you, the opposite might be better for me.”
“You’re full of shit,” she says, laughing. “I can tell you think your way is better. You’re one of those ‘my way or the highway’ people.”
“Sometimes,” I respond.
The train pulls into the Sante Fe Depot. We shake hands and go our separate ways. She is heading south, towards Tijuana. I get on the bus to Coronado. The next morning when I wake up my dad’s old friend George has already gone to work. He’s an early riser like myself. I head out of town, in the dark, making my way east on a desolate desert highway.
As the sun rises and the desert floods with light, I am halfway to Arizona, hands on the wheel and gas in the tank, hugging that white line.