1.

Another Ten Percenter

The heinous taste is what got me moving again, thick goop like old tapioca cut with two jiggers of bad booze. Someone had pasted my tongue to the roof of my mouth. What I’d wanted to do was chill in bed with my headache. Nurse it awhile. But the bad taste inspired an idea that soon took over. I ran to my tiny sink with the fear that I’d contracted some tropical disease. I stuck my head under the faucet, drinking like a hot animal. And then, after I’d slurped at the tap for ten minutes, I looked around my rented room. It seemed smaller, half the size as the night before. The walls I saw closing-in pushed me out so I hit the street on shaky legs. A salted breeze rolling up from the bluff helped to clear my head. I wondered if I’d find all the things I’d lost.

     Morning fog hovered above empty streets in that cool hour before traffic.  In another ninety minutes the tourists would rush into town and sit on PCH in their idling cars, waiting for a chance to roll forward twenty feet and then stop. They’d resume old fights over parking spaces and bistro tables and then leave the same way they’d entered, twenty feet at a time. But for now, the city lay quiet, shrouded by the deep shadow of the late-arriving sun. As I walked down Highway 1 through town, I thanked my feet for the cooperation, nothing like the erratic shuffle they’d insisted on last night. I went by all the downtown landmarks, the Hare Krishna temple, the dilapidated Hotel Laguna, the lifeguard tower that was once a gas station.

     At Main Beach swimsuited women played volleyball in the sand. Their ponytails wagged. Behind them the low waves crashed with a slow rhythm, stalling offshore, and reluctantly breaking on the empty beach. I climbed the winding steps I must’ve tread a thousand times in my life. Reaching the top I’d begun to labor and sweat, my cotton shirt wanting to cling like Saran Wrap. It didn’t seem so cool anymore and it was time I’d caught my breath. I rested on the crumbly ledge of a sandstone bluff. Ahead stood a wooden gazebo, and behind me was the twisting boardwalk at Main Beach. Up and down the boardwalk tourists took vacation photos they’d post as #lagunabeach and #canistay. A transient shouted her argument at an imagined adversary. Profanities echoed up to my quiet path. Seagulls stood on a swath of sand and watched the tumbling surf. It looked like low tide.

     I continued up to the gazebo. I knew it like a family member, like a favorite old uncle, if I’d had a favorite old uncle. The wooden octagon dated back to the Depression, constructed around the same time as the curving restaurant beside it. I knew all the lore from stories handed down, reminiscent tales of days gone by. But old age had set in. The dilapidating gazebo had to be demolished and rebuilt. The whitewashed restaurant showed the cracks of its age. As I passed the patio where happy hour crowds had celebrated fourteen thousand sunsets, the restaurant looked empty. Birds stood on a white capped outcrop. Waves lapped at the rock.

     I’d come to this vista by a worn path. I could have completed the journey blind but the handicap I carried with me was more than the hangover I’d lugged up the cliff. Last night was fun. I’d gone out for drinks with some old friends, one of them my defense attorney. But I wasn’t back in town on any warrant or anything. I’d just wanted to have a good time on my birthday and that we did. As hangovers go, this one seemed almost amiable—far from the dyspeptic cycle of nausea, catatonia, and regret that might move in with me for a week.

     I never told anyone why I’d come back and they never asked. I guess they must’ve figured  it was just for the hell of it. It’s Laguna Beach! Everyone wants to wake up Laguna Beach. I breathed in. I breathed out. Looking out at the Pacific, I searched for the line that separates sea from sky and forgot my headache in the muted hues of the missing horizon. The old gazebo stood empty. And so did I. Drained. I’d turned 43, and my life’s biggest achievement was that I hadn’t put a bullet in my head.

- - -

For most people who visit of live there, Laguna Beach is Paradise on Earth, a sanctuary. For a century, generations of artists flocked to the area and discovered their fountain of inspiration. If I’m totally fair, there were many times when its warm sands and wild hillsides provided those feelings of encouragement and renewal for me, too. But over time Laguna became something else. It’d become a dizzying source of volatile emotion, my geyser of instability. The seaside depicted in a million paintings was a boiling spring.

     Shards of memories pierced my thoughts until even the gazebo itself turned grotesque. Living in Laguna Beach had made me sick. It was here I’d consumed the sulfur that defines me. Let’s not tell, she said. I wandered back the way I’d come, down the bluff, the old numbness creeping over me again. The sun was fully out now, casting light without obstruction.

     I shuffled past an avenue that had casual restaurants where plasticized people took their meals al fresco. I saw the Tuscan yellow of a shop selling overpriced Italian pottery, its giant windows a carnival of majolica. In all my years, I’d never seen anyone inside. Beautiful people clogged the sidewalks with skinny decaf lattes in their hands and wardrobes exactly on trend, athleisure wear in luxe fabrics. They looked as if glamour and youth could endure forever. Maybe for them, they could. I fought off feeling like a human blister among the cosmetically perfected and spiritually cleansed. Incoming cars were starting to choke traffic. I continued alone on Highway 1, another familiar feeling blooming inside of me: the not fitting in. I guess I’d come back because I was kind of okay with that now. No. I came back to celebrate the fact.

     When I bailed out of town after high school, I left with my childlike desire for fairytale success. I promised myself that I’d stay underground, accumulating wealth and status until my time for parading home was ripe. I’d return to town when I could advertise my triumph in the true California fashion, rolling down PCH in an overpriced convertible and these signals of extravagance, the gold Bulgari, the hottie girlfriend, squandering like I was keeping pace with Gatsby. Then, as word spread about my thriftless abandon and the town stood in awe, I’d vanish.

     It was a great fantasy and it kept me warm on many a cold night, this revenge through envy idea. After all, living well is supposed to be the best revenge. But the prerequisites I’d need to fulfill this plan remain forever out of reach. I’ve never developed the abrasive self-confidence of the truly sheltered. I’ve never caught that supernatural proclivity for failing upward. Severe depression and thoughts of suicide were as much a part of me as curling hair and fair, freckled skin.

     Now I stood at the epicenter of my psychic hot spring, enjoying the perfect weather. Jags and Beemers and Benzes rolled past, twenty feet at a time, while seabirds arced overhead. The hot blue sky blazed like electrified neon. And like the swirling gulls that circled to land, my churning thoughts now came to rest on a new realization. My triumph would come when the denials had ended. Yes, it happened. Yes, in Laguna. It’s true that I’m damaged and yes, I can heal. But that damage remains in me, always a part of me.

           

     And I’m okay with that…. Right?

- - -

When it happened, people used the pre-sanitized word “molestation.” They had the cold, clinical language that separated the healthy from the afflicted and my victimization was treated as a contagion. Adults around me reacted like I’d brought a tide of cholera. I was quarantined in silence. No would mention this shameful thing I’d contracted, my sexual molestation. No one would discuss the nature of my disease. The alienation, the isolation, the shame, the spiral of depression that leads young boy to believe he’s better off dead. It reflected poorly on our family and especially on the town. These things didn’t happen in Laguna Beach. No one’s unhappy in Paradise. In place of treatment I received labels. Mother told me I had “low self-esteem.” My father said I had to take “responsibility” for myself. My teachers reported I was a “lackluster student.”   

      

     Adults tended to ignore the root issue,the sexual assault of a child. Even the police have done nothing to apprehend the repeat offender who stalked children like me in Laguna Beach. I’ve never seen a lineup, never been to trial. As far as I know, he’s still at large. Sensational cases of abuse emerge in the media and the standard public outrage follows. Perps get vilified but little is said about the true impact of childhood sexual abuse. That stays hidden. The leading authority on the matter, the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, has identified why. The problem stems from the fact the vast majority of sexual abuse is never reported by the child. And in the rare case where abuse is reported, little or nothing gets done about it. When these abuses become evident, children are sequestered and silenced. It’s a pattern adults repeat out of cowardice that transcends athletic teams and cultural institutions. The denials occur everywhere, even in sleepy beach towns.

 

     We have estimates: studies say one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused. The Centers for Disease Control and the US Justice Department track this data. If extrapolated, these statistics suggest that today over 40 million Americans are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Crazy, right? Perhaps not totally unrelated is the fact that 40 million Americans also suffer from depression and anxiety, the most common mental illness in the US.

     A practiced child molester assaulted me in the town where I grew up and I am not alone. I will not be silenced. I will not be shamed. I’m throwing open the gates and marauding through town! This is my triumphant return.

2.

The Decline of Western Civilization, Part I

I was a fat baby. A nurse inked my feet and stamped my birth certificate while my mother lay dying in the next room. The obstetrician struggled to gain control, but she kept bleeding. Lots and lots of bleeding and the doctor fell into a panic because my mother’s bleeding wouldn’t stop. Other doctors rushed into the room and saved her life, but not before Dr. Stoney had destroyed her ovaries. My mother could never bear another child again, a crushing turn of events for the woman who’d dreamt of having a big family since she was a girl.

     I was born on a Tuesday in November and my mother came home with me that Thursday, which was Thanksgiving Day. My father had disappeared by Christmas. Howard’s name was hardly ever mentioned after that but the faded family photo album betrays the story. It holds Instamatic wedding photos, replete with bad hairdos and white layer cake. My baby photos rest a few cellophaned pages beyond. Somewhere in between is a single print from 1972 showing the three of us together. It’s the only photo I’ve ever seen with all three of us.

           

     I’m a swaddled newborn and my grandmother is commemorating my first day home with a photo outside her house. My mother and father stand side-by-side in a joyless pose. It’s American Gothic for the disco era. My mother wears double-knit maroon and grey herring bone pants. She’s looking down, cradling me in one hand and fussing at my blanket with the other. The tendon on her neck pops. There is no sparkle, no gleam in her eye, just a tight-lipped frown. The only glint is the loop of a gold zipper on her knit top. My father, with his rakish swoosh of strawberry hair, looks straight into the camera. Instead of a pitchfork he holds an unlit cigar. The rounded tips of three others peek from a breast pocket. His short-sleeve shirt is the color of a faded yellow butterfly. He leans toward Mother but offers no embrace. Her leather purse hangs between them big as a barricade. He’s squinting into the lens and his eyes scream, take the damn shot!

     His nose is now my nose. His height is now my height. His annoyed look of impatience is also my annoyed look of impatience. And this is where the photographic evidence of my father ends. There are no Christmas photos. Or any others.

3.

The Final Frontier

Right after I was born, in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, NASA sent its very last rocket to the moon. No one knew Apollo 17 would be the last moon landing. Then again, no one even cared. By 1972 the Apollo program was already passé. Perhaps the only ones still tuning in were engineering geeks on student deferment from the war in Vietnam, pasty-faced twenty-somethings in front of television sets with rabbit ears, eating Jiffy Pop.

     People remember the disasters. They’ll tune in to watch any failure in progress: a white Ford Bronco, an armed standoff, a riot erupting. An exploding oxygen tank on Apollo 13 blew the rocket apart, leaving three men dangling in space. Houston, we’ve had a problem here. Astronaut John Swigert said that in April, 1970 and the whole world settled in to watch what unfolded. But two and a half years later, that same public was as interested in Apollo 17 as season one reruns of the Brady Bunch.

     By then, America’s concerns had shifted to Nixon and Vietnam. During my first Christmas Richard Nixon authorized the largest bombing campaign of the Vietnam War, a ten day assault that dropped 20,000 tons of explosives on the north. The 1972 Christmas bombing was supposed to win the war and bring the North Vietnamese to their knees. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger even said so. “The communists are on their knees,” he said. A month later the US declared victory and began pulling out. But it was clear who’d really won when we saw the footage of Americans on a rooftop. They looked desperate, scrambling toward the spinning blades of the last Marine helicopter lifting off from Saigon.

     And that’s the 1970s for you. Moon landings and Christmas bombing. Thomas Eagleton and Tricky Dick. The ERA and DDT. Balding old men shout at me, we could’ve won that war! It’s an old trap that I don’t fall into so I change the subject to NASA and Apollo 17. Nobody cared, the old men say, moon missions weren’t new anymore. Yet based on the volume of samples, the surface miles logged, the sheer quantity of data, it was the most successful lunar landing ever. Maybe its because we only remember a catastrophe: Richard Nixon in ’72, don’t change Dicks in mid screw.

     When I look at my own history, it’s like the jumbled contents in a woven basket and the walls that contain my past are the intertwining mistakes of the 1970s. Vietnam and smiley faces. Shag carpet and oil embargoes. I’m forever sifting through things in that basket, so much sifting I might write a book. I’m a worrier, a puzzler, a compulsive rehearser of moments gone by. Hypotheticals plague me. What if my jumbled past had been dumped into basket woven from a different decade’s mistakes? Would I’ve been better off? Am stronger for it? 

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