By Mary Birnbaum
THIS was a long time ago, almost twenty years, and it seems like just a little thing, but I’m going to tell you now because maybe it accounts for a lot. Or more than it should, I guess. Early on in our dating, I moved in with Will in Humboldt County, California, where he attended the state university. I’d finished college a couple years earlier, so I was mainly idle there. It was a weigh-station time; I was not serious about this boyfriend, but I also had no trajectory. I spent days dreaming only for myself, trying to imagine my next big jump, even though Will was handsome and loyal and funny and gentle, and he had a way of looking at me that was unsettling but flattering, too. Like he wanted to make me bacon in the morning and rub my feet, if I would let him. Like, maybe forever. We rented half a duplex with a spindly peach tree in the front yard and I never would say if I meant to stay or go. I waited for inspiration. All day and all night, through our single pane windows you could hear highway 101 roaring like a big frothy river where one might put in a launch and travel away, away.
I found an easy job at a bagel shop and I got into serious drinking, to the extent that one night, soggy in beers, I stumbled out of a bar in Eureka and into our old car and drove only one block before I was pulled over for DUI. Drunk as I was, (when I blew into their little kazoo, my blood alcohol was more than three times the limit) I remember the arrest clearly. So many drunk nights are lost to me, maybe months of my life, disappeared in inky mystery. But when the cops pulled behind me that night, my little car was full of light and, though I knew I should be terrified, I marveled on the reds and blues roving over the dashboard. It was like being trapped inside a prism. When they hauled me out of the car I was docile and leaked tears. So much booze does that to a body. A gaggle gathered on the sidewalk, waiting to enter the bar, watching my spectacle. The police handcuffed me and folded me into the back seat of a cruiser and shut the heavy door. From that back seat, I saw Will arrive. I could not hear him—I could not hear a single thing—but I saw him plead for my reprieve. None was granted, and I spent the night in the local jail in my bar clothes, in black boots with tall heels that challenged my balance, even when I was sober. At dawn I was released and, phoneless, still plenty drunk, I teetered a couple miles home on the uneven streets.
Several weeks later, the public defender (rumpled suit, excruciating kindness) advised me, correctly, to plead guilty to DUI. The judge ordered me to pay a blindingly large sum of money and complete ten days of community service. I would have no driver’s license for two years. I would attend group counseling for a year. I would attend a dozen AA meetings. I shook inside a rumpled blouse. I opened and shut my dry mouth. I think I thanked the judge. I thanked the public defender. I walked out of the courthouse into the light to find Will waiting curbside. I lay down across the back seat of his Buick station wagon and tried to become dust.
AT my college graduation I’d worn a jaunty mortar board, like everyone else. Madeline Albright gave the commencement speech. The day was bright and I was bright and very high on praise. They’d given me highest honors for my thesis plus an essay award. I had a spot in a PhD program. There I was in my flat square hat nestled among all the flat square hats but I thought I was not a part of anything; I was singular, anomalous, Very Interesting. I couldn’t conceive of how disappointment might feel. I felt only my own power, like an invisible rocket booster. Maybe I hovered one inch over the ground. That was sort of the sense I had.
In Humboldt, a cop passed me a glowing orange vest and I climbed into a van packed with other criminals. The vest was plastic and one-size, so that if I hunched my shoulders, which I did, I could almost disappear down inside it. We headed to the edge of Redwood State Park. I spent ten Saturdays smelling earth and gas and cut grass, weed-whacking the edge of county roads. It was the kind of country that commands reverent attention under most circumstances, but I was sullen and so young—so young even for my age—so tuned to myself. I devoted a lot of energy to trying not to cry in front of everyone and trying not to weed whack my shins. I felt sorry for myself and thought about how separate I was from other criminals and—though I despised myself while I hoped it—how, surely, I did not belong among them. I didn’t notice the astonishing Redwoods at all and I’m writing about them now because I know that, objectively, they were there to be seen but were invisible to me.
Those Saturdays, the Sheriff’s van passed through McKinleyville, a small logging town in Humboldt County. The population of McKinleyville was dwindling. Logging had been a booming business there, but production had slowed or halted in recent decades. They had a Main Street against which several businesses huddled: a fishing supply store, a feed store, a liquor store. One Saturday at lunch time, as we drove through, Main Street was closed to traffic for a parade. City residents unfolded lawn chairs and blankets along the road. The coordinator driving our van, a gentle, soft-spoken woman called Dee, who was not a Sheriff but a Park Ranger, did something unpredictable. She parked and said we could sit on the sidewalk in our Day-Glo vests and watch the parade while we ate lunch.
Will packed me a sack lunch every day I had community service. He made a robust sandwich of some kind, with feathering lettuce and usually some avocado (an extravagance on student loans and the court fine-repayment schedule) and some deli meat. He folded the sandwich into a wax-paper parcel, the corners tucked under and taped. He put fruit in the bag and usually some kind of chips or crackers and a cold water bottle wrapped in paper towels, to prevent it from soggying the rest of the lunch. When he dropped me off at the sheriff’s work site he would kiss me and twist a wistful smile and say, “I’ll be here at five,” which was true.
I was unwrapping my sandwich when the parade began. It started with a single a girl in a crushed velvet leotard, tossing a baton. Then came two women with a banner between them that read McKinleyville Chamber of Commerce Pony Express Days. The Pony Express Days, whatever they were, being the reason for the parade. Then, in a sputtering Model T Ford, came the president of the Agricultural Society, his big hand paddling the air. After him there was a dog walking club of about ten people, maybe octogenarians, each holding a fist full of leashes tethered to scrambling, excited dogs. They smiled and waved as they came, and the dogs, darting, crossed and uncrossed on their leashes, light and happy. Their tongues bounced and their tails spun. Next were a half dozen kids on scooters, honking handlebar horns. They’d decorated the scooters with streamers and tinsel weaved through the spokes, making the wheels’ spin gleaming, dizzying. After the kids came a girl in the back of a pickup truck trailing crepe paper, the doors taped over with poster board reading “Congratulations Mickayla!” and “Miss Redwoods Queen 2004.” Balloons flew from the truck’s cab windows and the Sean Kingston R&B song Beautiful Girls wafted out of a boom box in the cab. People around me clapped and chattered. Mickayla was known to them.
The truck float was followed by a group of teenagers tossing Frisbees to one another. Two of them held a banner between them that said “McKinleyville Ultimate Frisbee. Come toss with us!” The kids were doing deft behind-the-back maneuvers. One guy caught a disc between his legs. Then came the Mad River Rotary Club on a dozen Harley Davidson motorcycles. The engines growled down the road and rumbled in my chest.
Looking down Main Street at the parade-goers, it seemed half the town had arrived to watch the other half walk by, which was funny to me and I smiled to myself sort of smugly at what I perceived as the quaintness of this pageant, the smallness or unsophisticatedness. I finished my sandwich and pulled out a little apple. I wasn’t hungry now, so I held the apple in my hands and sat, warming it like a pitcher warms a ball.
A marching band was tapping towards us. I heard the drum at first, a weak buzz, but soon, like a train does, the din swallowed us. They were a middle school band of about two dozen kids, their music faintly discordant. Their uniforms were white t-shirts with school initials ironed on, and jeans and sneakers. They walked in a great flock, in step, faces stern with concentration, pursing hard on clarinets and oboes and saxes, their tongues flicking up against the reeds. Flutes and trumpets and trombones glinted by. A lanky, serious-faced boy wore a voluptuous big tuba, and when he pressed his lips to the mouthpiece his cheeks puffed rosy. Sweat pearled on his forehead. They were playing Michael Jackson’s Beat it.
I began to cry. I have never been part of any band. I play no music at all. But I couldn’t stop my face from crumpling at the keening sound of it, the way the musicians’ legs all folded and straightened again, how the music started as a moan and escalated to a battering, how any sweet tune could become a kind of battle cry. The solemnity made my heart dart, my throat shut. In a rush I felt myself fill with love, or something that strong and heavy, for the little resolute town, the kids in their motley flock. I loved the stern faces and the cheery, rapt faces of people on the sidewalk around me. I felt suddenly that I wanted never to leave that place. I wanted to stay forever crouched there, witnessing this vital scroll. Being nobody. I held my hot apple, the lunch-gift of my sweet boyfriend and, except for the crying, I was rooted and still, praying the world would not see me and make me return to myself.
IN my senior year of college, in my dorm, I had cut my hair short over a trash can. I dyed it bright, traffic signal red. I thought it was pretty, but more importantly it would demonstrate my rareness and my fearlessness. At the time I graduated, the strong red lingered. Then eventually it was rosy, fading to pink and then muddled brown. After college, but before I met Will, my parents divorced, which caused a protracted emotional stumble for me, and I dropped out of the PhD program. So I was jilted and dazed, someone crawling away from a crash, when I found Will. He drove that old station wagon and worked loading trucks at FedEx. He lived an hour away but if I told him I was lonely he’d get in that car and gun it to my house in forty-five minutes. Willie. I agreed to move to Humboldt with him while he finished college. But, I told him, I might leave at any time, which felt true. I was sadder, and I had learned what drinking could do to give you the feeling of hovering over some kind of fire, ready for flight.
But what’s also true is that the morning after our first ever night together, while I still slept, Will went to my kitchen and made me a cup of coffee. He brought it to me, steaming, cream curling, and set it on my nightstand. I woke to that smell, and then his face, lit with the glow of fervent hope. The rest went by so fast. The duplex; our spindly tree; the trees—the hundreds of big trees that I know were there; the courthouse; the crying; the dying town, and I don’t know. I have flown precisely nowhere, or nowhere I imagined I would. Twenty years on, in a different city, we have two middle school-aged daughters, and every morning Will makes them breakfast. When he cuts their apples, he puts a single toothpick in each slice, so they’re easier to grab. Even though the kids are going to be teenagers. Even I, who often can’t see a tree for what it is, know what that means. And still, maybe it’s dumb and graceless to say but, God, some days I am motionless on the curb, holding my apple, and the parade is thrumming by.