We hadn’t been in Santa Barbara for nine years when we arrived there last Wednesday. When we did the math and counted out how long it had been, we were both surprised. It has lived big in both of our memories all this time, and when we exited the highway and found ourselves cruising up Cabrillo Boulevard towards Hotel Oceana where we’d be staying, it felt to me like no time had passed at all. Maybe a few months.
In 2005 when we were still just friends, Z, who’d been in Zimbabwe for a year, returned to the U.S. to teach as a visiting professor at a college near Santa Barbara. Other than a deep affection for my Malibu Barbie collection in the 1970s, I’ve never been California-inclined. I had this notion of it as a place that was too thin, tan, sunny, and plastic to ever make me happy. So when Z invited me to spend my spring break with him all those years ago, let us be clear: I was going to see him, not to soak up the sun on some shell-strewn beach. I would arrive in Santa Barbara ready to assess the situation and see if he’d budged an inch since the year before when I’d told him I was in love with him. I even bought myself a new orange bra because I felt with such a thing beneath my clothes, I would subconsciously become more alluring and magnetic than I really am. It was huge and day-glo and I had to be careful what shirts I wore with it because it was not a bra to be trifled with. Even so, Z remained impervious to the super powers of my undergarments, despite the fact that at one point when we were on a trolley in San Francisco, my blouse came unbuttoned of its own volition and I accidentally treated about 30 strangers to my bright orange satin-encased breasts.
Z stared out the window, oblivious.
The trip nine years ago involved a mixture of emotions that started and ended with longing and confusion on my part. We were both happy, I think, to be back in each other’s company, exploring a new location, investigating the old mission, driving up Highway 1, sifting through bargain bins at what may have been the world’s most affluent Goodwill ever, and walking the beaches. Oh, the beaches! But then somewhere in my head I’d hear Kate Bush singing, “The thrill and the hurting/ This will never be mine,” and the aching would start. I’d wonder how much longer I could sustain our friendship in the face of it. Then he’d say something funny and we’d start laughing and I’d forget the hairline fracture in my heart.
I don’t understand time travel, but the first day of this 2014 trip, I felt as if time wasn’t linear after all. It seemed reasonable to me that we might bump into our younger selves, that maybe I’d see us on East Beach and I’d be able to take 2005 Beth aside and say something encouraging like, “Just hang in there—he’s worth the wait and right now he’s just moving on African time.” Or better yet, I had this notion that somehow I might be able to turn back time and reclaim those days that were lost to us. That there would be a puff of smoke and we’d get sucked backwards, and get our party started sooner rather than later. (It should be noted that in my memory, we are way younger than we were nine years ago, and I was much thinner and looked more like Malibu Barbie than I do in now or then. Also, we’re wearing really attractive swimwear and we’re much better coiffed than we are in real life.) It’s just so lovely and magical there on the beach in Santa Barbara that it seemed entirely possible that either of these things might happen.
Poor Z! That first day, I think he was wondering if he’d made a mistake, bringing me back to Santa Barbara because I was acting like we’d returned to the scene of some crime. I was given to sudden storm clouds of regret that would form behind my eyes, and worse, torturing him with jabs about what he’d been missing out on back then (for instance, I no longer have that orange bra and he never got to see it). He was good natured about my ribbing. At some point on Wednesday night, I realized I was ruining now with my incessant reflection on then and what could have been. I mean, honestly, can you imagine having to listen to Elizabeth Bennett complain about how Mr. Darcy didn’t love her quickly enough, as she sits on the veranda at Pemberley? Please. Even I was getting tired of me. Frankly, I’m getting tired of me recounting the story here.
Eventually, I shut my mouth and directed my line of sight on the present. Hotel Oceana was delightful. It was right across from the beach and we splurged on a room with a view. Aside from the view, I was smitten with the Spanish style courtyard that the rooms opened up on. A fountain tinkled. Humming birds flitted around the stralizia. Even the opossum that was creeping up a tree right at eye level and scared me half to death seemed quaint. When it isn’t a 100 degree humid summer day in Indiana, I’m always struck by the magic of how you can live your indoor life outdoors in climates like this one.
We speculated on the lives of the people in the neighboring room who left their door open, and when we peered in all we could see was a sea of plastic bags—we still can’t decide if they were some sort of bag people/hoarders or if they just did a lot of shopping and weren’t very tidy or safety conscious. We walked on the beach, laughed at the Californians who were bundled up like it was winter as we shuffled around in shorts and flip flops, and said hello to a host of dogs. We drove out to Z’s old campus and poked around to see how things have changed since he was in residence. Then we investigated his old neighborhood to see what houses survived the fires a few years ago. Finally, we went to his old Von’s grocery store and lamented the fact that Jonathan Winters is dead now so there was no chance of running into him the way Z used to. We had apps with his former boss in an Irish pub and caught up on nearly a decade’s worth of events. Our last night there, we walked on the beach under a full moon, the way you do when there is a beach and a full moon available to you.
Maybe all the time travel I need in this life is the realization that when we are together, we have fun, just like we always do, always have done. Even before we were us.
(P.S. Should they make a movie of my life posthumously, would one of you please try to secure the rights to that Kate Bush song? I think it would work really well in the “longing for Z” sections of the film.)
Lovely description of how the past sometimes gets in the way of our present, even when our present is so very good. I wonder sometimes if there’s especially something about traveling that does this.
You might be right, Robyn. When I’m home, I’m thinking less existential thoughts like, “What am I going to eat for lunch?” and “Why am I the only person in this building who cleans out the lint trap in the dryer?” On the road, I think harder about myself and my place in the world for some reason.
Great essay! I, too, am prone to letting memory occupy more space than present experience. (Why is it that men don’t seem as nostalgic? I’ve never quite understood…)
A good question, Sharon. I’m sure some are, but it doesn’t seem to plague them at the same level!