in the time of the naked ladies

I get nostalgic every August, the anniversary of my move to California. August is when I packed up my Volvo, Foxy, and left the lovely lakeside town of Burlington, Vermont, where I’d lived for 6 years. I was 24 (such a kid!) and in an abysmal relationship that was looking like it would kill me more than make me stronger. We’d been going back and forth for two years, since the fall after I graduated from college, and even though he’d put his fist through my living room window, I could not break free from this guy. Intellectually I knew what to do—follow the nice cop to the station to get a restraining order—but I kept succumbing to my strung-out id brain (stopping by his apartment on my way to the station to warn him about the restraining order).

So I did the only thing I could think of: I applied to grad school across the country, found  a room to rent, and told my almost-ex that no, he couldn’t come with me. He fetched a piece of broken glass from my recycle bin and threatened to slice his wrists, but I did not give in.

My drive out here was one of the loneliest, most boring treks ever. I ate Subway sandwiches and drank bottled water and found a cheap hotel every evening before total darkness descended. I had no weed to smoke and was not a drinker. No one I knew had a cell phone yet. Every night I watched Friends or Frasier before drifting off into fitful sleep. I couldn’t remember being sadder.

I knew that my awful not-yet-ex boyfriend was also on his way out West, driving the same flat highway, tortured in his own pathetic way. He couldn’t bear to stay in Vermont without me, he’d said, so he’d decided to move to Eugene. I was both terrified and comforted by the fact that we would be sharing a coast.

Every morning I woke up early and rode my bike for exercise. Didn’t matter where. In Wyoming it happened to be a lovely windy frontage road. In Nebraska it was industrial and ugly. I was looking for freedom, for a release, before climbing back into Foxy and hitting the 80 for another sweaty day of driving.

Thanks to a couple of dear friends (Minnah!), I had some mixed tapes to keep me company. Beck and I sang about what a lost cause my relationship was. Lucinda Williams and I implored him not to tell anybody the secrets I’d told him. Gillian Welch took me on a soul journey. I sang and cried and sipped my water and held my pee until Foxy needed a fill-up.

After five days of driving I made it to Sonoma County. I was disappointed at first. Where was my lake? Where was my lively cobblestone downtown crammed with cute college boys? Of course I couldn’t stop thinking about him. But I also couldn’t stop inhaling the high-summer air. I’d never smelled such spicy sweetness. And those radiant pink flowers! Bobbing in clusters along the roadsides, their long, elegant stems defiantly leafless…

And so it goes. Another August, another season of the naked ladies, still just as pink and leafless and stunning to me as they were fourteen years ago.  The blackberries are ripening, the river is cool but no longer cold, and there is another man terrorizing not just me, but the nation, the world. My ex was mean because he was deeply unhappy. Is this true of our president and his nightmarish ilk? Do they lash out because it’s psychically easier than facing their own self-hatred? At some point it’s too tedious to care about why people commit the evils they do. It’s enough to know they must be stopped. If only it were as easy as packing up the trunk and hitting the pedal.

Six months after landing in California, I finally ended all contact with the man I thought I would never escape.

I’m so grateful I made it out here. I’m so grateful for my liberal bubble, where I feel safe and comfortable amidst like-minded folks. When I fled that awful relationship, I knew the danger and misery I was leaving behind. How could I have known the beauty and warmth and love that awaited me? How can any of us know?

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