E09: Siblings with Benefits

DAY 98. 1,085 MI. TO GO

14 min read

It takes a little more than half an hour to walk across Arcata, California, the college town just north of Eureka. Say you begin from the bird sanctuary on the banks of the Humboldt Bay. You might linger there a while, watching avocets, curlews, marbled godwits and willets prowl on the edge of the biggest inland waterbody north of the Golden Gate. Your imagination might conjure steamships packed with redwood timber or Indian longhouses or other long-forgotten memories. That’s what imaginations do.

You might skip a rock or two and wonder what you’re still doing in Arcata—and whether or not you should be somewhere else.

You are capital-S stuck. Throw in a couple parentheses:

( ( S T U C K ) )

It’s been more than a week and you’re still in Arcata. And you can’t quite imagine why.

On cue, your phone buzzes in your pocket. You don’t even need to check to know who it is.

An overgrown lane leads north, past a scrapyard, crossing a busier road to reach the gridded streets that make up the town. A block north—at the corner of 5th Street and J Street—is the unique Café Mokka. This coffee shop is outfitted with wooden shutters and black and white photos of European intellectuals next to the fire. Outside, denuded trees shelter the verdant grasses next to the algae-filled pond. This is the access to Finnish Country Sauna & Tubs—you can rent a private, cedar-barrel hot tub for ten bucks a person for the half-hour. (Towels are an extra dollar; eucalyptus oil is seventy-five cents.)

You think back to the first time you were here. November 24th—a lifetime ago, with bad memories of the Motel 6 still at the front of your mind. It was 1:30 pm. As always, you had no idea where you were going to sleep that night. You put your faith in fate—or foolishness. You could hardly tell the difference. On that day, fate won out.

At the next table over was a girl named Sarah, studying a textbook and finishing a bowl of soup. You started a conversation—friendly, vaguely hopeful—that resulted in an invitation to stay on Sarah’s couch.

That was a huge boon. Stress momentarily lifted. You splurged on another cup of tea, though you don’t opt for a half-hour in the hot tub. Not alone. Maybe with a lover?

Sarah didn’t seem interested.

That was okay, you told yourself. There were 18,000 people in Arcata, and a full third of them were college students. Surely, you’d get another chance.

Your phone buzzes again. You snap out of daydreams and walk on.

Inside the Cafe Mokka in Arcata.

Continuing up J Street, past redwood clapboard houses, it’s three blocks to the North Coast Co-op at the corner of 8th. You linger out front. Is it worth going inside to search for that fit yoga teacher-cum-produce clerk that flirted with you in front of the organic avocados, a few days ago?

You try to remember her name. Megan? Michelle? Monica? You’ve met so many people over your week in Arcata—college students, bookshop owners, frisbee players, pot trimmers—though your mind has been fixated on girls, girls, girls.

On Day 3 in Arcata, you met a French backpacker who recently arrived in town. She was here in the fall right after Burning Man, and you let her talk your ear off for a while, marveling about her stories of this strange, drug-fuelled festival in the desert. (You make a mental note to check the dates for the upcoming year; maybe you could walk to Burning Man?) By evening, you and the Frenchwoman—Sophie? Cecile?—are doing the funky chicken on the floor in the living room that belongs to the Hawaiian surfer-cum-college student who is the latest stranger who has invited you to stay. The girl—Sonia!—is on a self-described “journey of sexual exploration,” and you were grateful to play your part. Anything to get your mind off your phone’s incessant buzzing.

Two days later, you fucked in a private hot tub at the Finnish Country Sauna & Tubs. You were the third man that Sonia fucked that day.

Sonia hoops, the Hawaiian surfer spins light-up poi, one stoned night in Arcata.

Not that you should be one to judge. It’s her body, she can use it however she wants. Still shaken by the memory of that night at the Motel 6—what came over me, why did I treat Jolene like that, why was I such a misogynistic Prick?—you decided instead to focus on Sonia’s pleasure. Getting stoned first helped.

You touch your pocket instinctively, exhaling when you touch the half-smoked joint you started back at the bird sanctuary. You’ll smoke the rest a little later.

Turning away from the Co-op and… Melissa!… you continue down 8th Street to the center of town—the wide-open plaza bounded by G Street and H. This grassy lawn occupies a city block. It’s scattered with a couple lonely conifers and, strangely, a pair of tall palm trees that look out of place against the backdrop of the clouds hanging low over the forested hills in the background. At the center of the square is the notorious statue of William McKinley, the ex-President who was assassinated in 1901.

A nearby info sign tells you the Only in Northern California story. In 1905, a local octogenarian commissioned a San Francisco foundry to complete the work; the local man had met McKinley once and wanted to do something to honor the great man. The just-completed statue was standing in the foundry on April 18, 1906, when the Great Earthquake struck the City. By good fortune, a large plaster model braced its fall. With the foundry in flames, an employee of a nearby machine shop stewarded some passerby to haul McKinley onto a truck—then off the truck again just in time before the vehicle succumbed to flames. When the miraculous statue finally reached Arcata, more than two thousand people—more than the town had ever received—came for the unveiling. For a time, the McKinley statue was among Arcata’s most beloved icons; the farming community just north of town was named McKinleyville. Then, in the 70s, the once-Great Man was reconceived as an imperialist, and the statue became the victim of numerous attacks ranging from paint spills to the time when college students stuffed McKinley’s ears and nose with cheese. Finally, after a ritualized defacing on a wet February evening in 2019, McKinley was officially cancelled. Today, the statue stands in Canton, Ohio.

You linger on a park bench for a while, making eye contact with the other tramps, with their dogs and their backpacks. Their eyes are glazed over and tinged with red. You nod in recognition. They leave you be.

You are not the first drifter to get lost in Arcata, nor will you be the last.

Your phone buzzes again.

Rising to your feet, you wander slowly toward the bars and shops that fringe the Plaza’s perimeter. Arcata is staunchly anti-corporate; multiple locals have told you that Arcata is the largest town in America without a Starbucks. (Though a quick Google proves them wrong, you decide not to argue.) You can see, however, that the character around the Plaza has been preferred—for better or worse. There are worn sports bars, a head shop, a bead shop, an apothecary, a yoga studio.

The whole place feels like an isolated hippie paradise.

Turning up the road, passing Solutions (hemp, recycled, organic clothing), Fabric Temptations (sewing and quilting supplies‚ and the handsome, three-story brick Hotel Arcata, G Street climbs steadily past the art deco Arcata Theatre and the First Presbyterian Church—founded in 1860 to serve the gold miners working in the nearby mountains. (This was before redwood lumber usurped gold as the region’s primary economic driver.) Beyond the Mexican restaurant at the top of the hill, G Street flattens out long enough to catch your breath. Then, it’s down the hill to the student section of town—burritos, tattoos, disc golf. You can turn right here and use the footbridge to cross over the freeway.

Midway across the bridge, your phone buzzes again, and this time you can’t find the inner strength to ignore it. Stopping directly above Highway 101—here, divided; two lanes in either direction—you can’t help wondering to yourself just why Jolene keeps messaging you.

Doesn’t she get that I’m trying to ignore her?

Apparently, she doesn’t. Jolene’s text messages—and phone calls—and emails—and Facebook comments—have been inundating your consciousness almost since the moment she took off swearing that she never wanted to speak to you again. You’re as baffled by the volume of her response as you are by the emotional diversity of these messages. In one, she’s joyous and playful. In the next, she’s in tears. The one following that, she’s swearing that she’s going to hunt you down and chop off your dick.

You can’t shake the niggling feeling that, maybe, you might have taken advantage of her.

But how? We were consenting adults. It should have been obvious that I didn’t want anything more than a one-night stand.

Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

You decide that this footbridge is the perfect place to smoke the rest of your joint.

Afterward, you float over the freeway and onto the red-roofed campus of Humboldt State University—tucked into the redwoods.

Once again—as always—you wonder where the hell you’re going to sleep.


Arcata, California

Time and a meandering phone call with my mentor, Paul, helped bring me back to Earth. Paul was right: there was nothing to worry about, I needed to cut myself a break, I was allowed to linger in Arcata as long as I wanted. There were plenty of excuses: the cold, the rain, the threat of walking right into Jolene’s lair fifty miles down the 101. Don’t worry about running out of money; there’d be more to come. Have fun. Enjoy yourself.

As for the girls, the sex? Paul’s advice was simple: be kind, be loving, and leave them better than you found them. Otherwise, there was nothing wrong with sleeping as many girls as I wanted—”as long as you do it with integrity.”

On cue, a text message from Jolene.

My integrity was under threat. No, my integrity had been out of whack for months, for years now. I banished these thoughts, thanked Paul for his advice, and set out into the campus, telling myself that I was on the hunt for yet another love story.

(Remember my goal to Tell A Story About The Universal Similarities Between People. Clinging to that vision was the only way I could continue steadying the rudder.)

In the cafeteria, I made conversation with another student named Sarah, who spent a half-hour gushing about her boyfriend on tape. Wisely, I decided to act with integrity. When the recording ended, the conversation turned to me: what I was doing, why I was walking, why I was still in Arcata ten days after I arrived, and what I was looking for.

“Can I tell you the truth?” I blurted out, in yet another unedited moment of indiscretion. “I just need a vacation. I just need a few days when I can stop worrying about where I’m going to sleep when I can just be a normal person instead of a storyteller or a prophet or whatever it is I think I am today.” I couldn’t stop myself from picking up steam. “What I really want is to meet some beautiful woman who wants to have a live-in, no-strings-attached loving relationship that will last no more than a week before we wish each other well and I can walk away.”

This second Sarah gave me a knowing smile. “I know just the person. I can introduce you to her tonight.”

It felt like a miracle when I was introduced to Jen.


After Jolene, after Sonia, Sophie, Michelle, Melissa, Sarah, Sarah, and the hundred other girls I had chatted with in Arcata—most of all, after my ex-girlfriend, Sally—when I met Jen, I was ecstatic that I had found another lay.

We met that evening at a potluck dinner at a student house on campus. I assumed that Sarah had primed Jen for what I was looking for, but I didn’t dare ask her. Under the pretenses of offering me a place to stay, Jen took me home; she lived a ten-minute drive south of Arcata, in Eureka.

The whole drive, I was thinking about Paul and “integrity.”

On the drive, we had good rapport and made easy conversation. I learned that Jen was a Northern California girl who was in her sophomore year at Humboldt State. She was majoring in women’s studies and minoring in dance. She loved music, and she had the habit of speckling her thoughts with song lyrics—she loved Dave Matthews and Michael Franti.

I had just turned thirty. Jen was still a teenager. She was going to turn twenty that year.

It was late when we arrived and, as always, it was raining. Jen’s apartment was a loft inside a converted garage, out behind one of the many Victorian-style redwood mansions that make the Old Town of Eureka a National Historic Site. We parked on the darkened street. Christmas lights glimmered on the wet asphalt. Jen led me past her bedroom and up the stairs to the open-concept room on the second floor.

Worn hardwood floors. IKEA furniture to the left. A TV and a DVD collection. Posters of John Lennon, Jerry Garcia, a map of the world. The kitchen was in the back of the house. The bumper stickers on the side of the fridge read SOW THE SEEDS OF PEACE AND JUSTICE and BE YOUR OWN GODDESS.

I settled on the futon. Jen grabbed some weed and started loading the bong.

The rain was tapping on the slanted roof over our heads. Eyeing Jen’s figure, I began to anticipate where things were heading—I was about to have sex with my third strange woman in the space of a little more than a week. My phone buzzed; I ignored it, but it was the motivation I needed to do things right.

“Ohmygod,” said Jen. She grabbed both sides of her head, making an Edvard Munch-inspired expression of shock. “No one has ever asked me for sex so directly before. Yes! Yes, I would love to have a week of beautiful, kind, no strings attached sex with you. That sounds… fucking awesome!”

As I kissed her for the first time, I thought about Paul.

Integrity for the win.


Jen

From the very next day, Jen and I were inseparable. We fell into an easy routine: sex, breakfast, more sex… Then, we drove in her Pathfinder back to Arcata. She dropped me off at the Plaza so I could spend the day collecting stories, while she was on campus, attending class. Then, in the evening, back to Eureka for dinner, a joint, sex, a movie, sex…

I felt like I had stumbled into paradise.

Sure, I was highly aware of our age gap; I was breaking the cardinal rule of “half your age plus seven.” But Jen assured me that this wasn’t a problem. She was a consenting adult, and she was eagerly consenting.

Her attitude was intensely foreign to me. At that point in my life, I still sadly believed that there were just two options for taking a girl to bed: you either told them you loved them or you made sure that you were both inebriated enough that you couldn’t tell the difference. I didn’t yet know just what it meant to approach sex with integrity. Nineteen-year-old Jen was a surprising guide.

Dinner, a joint, sex, a movie, more sex…

I felt like an acolyte. I was finally getting the education in pleasure that I had never received.

Jolene had demanded that I “fuck her like a MAN,” and I had responded in a way that I thought would give her what she wanted. But Jen inspired me to reconfigure the sentence. I was a man. How did I want to fuck?

In a woman’s studies class, perhaps this wouldn’t have been a taboo conversation. For me, it was entirely unprecedented. Between our bouts in bed, lying naked beneath the steady tapping of the ever-present rain, Jen listened as I unpacked a life’s education in sexuality—how I was “supposed” to seduce, how I was “supposed” to perform, how many orgasms I was “supposed” to give to my partner, how big I was “supposed” to be.

Right now, I’m not going to linger too long in penis envy territory. But before Jen, this Freudian punchline lay under a subconscious rock, entirely unobserved. Jen helped me deconstruct my anxiety, assuring me that how I was was good enough.

I was convinced that this relationship with a teenager was the most honest, most loving romantic relationship I’d had in my life. Today, the term I’d use to describe our relationship is “healing”. But Jen was the more poetic one.

She came up with the name “Siblings with Benefits.”

We became closer with each passing day. Soon, we had confessed everything. I told Jen all about Sally, all about Jolene, all about the strange and secretive thing that had happened to me in the redwoods. She was accepting, understanding, supportive, and even loving. In return, I listened intently as she weepingly confessed her own secrets.

I was eerily reminded of falling in love with Sally, of those days in India when we were diligently and perhaps violently baring our souls. With Jen, though, something felt different. (Was it “integrity?”) I felt like I had some perspective on how much I’d grown since I started walking

At the same time, I found it easier to justify ignoring Jolene.

One afternoon stood out as particularly meaningful. We were hanging out around the breakfast table—Jen didn’t have classes that day—and we were returning to a familiar topic that I had been thinking about throughout my entire time in Arcata: how the hell was I “supposed” to treat women?

“Didn’t we have this conversation last night?” Jen said, rolling her eyes.

I explained that I was looking for an answer that was more nuanced. I liked her. Cared for her. I didn’t want to say I “loved” her—it felt too soon, she was too young—but I certainly felt intense affection for her. So how was I supposed to do sexy things to her without… you know…

“Objectifying me?”

“I like you,” I said. “I don’t want to diminish you by, like, looking at your tits.”

“But you told me you liked looking at my tits last night.”

“That was last night. We were in bed. It was different.”

Jen said she wanted to show me, rather than telling me. A few nights earlier, I had brought my camera to the bedroom, and I had taken some raunchy photos like the one above. This time, she suggested, we could do a different photo shoot that she was going to lead. She stripped naked. I grabbed my camera. It was the middle of the morning, and there was bright light shining through the windows. I took some photos of her sitting by the windowsill, daylight caressing her cheek. When I look at them today, they seem remarkable: tender, generous, safe.

Jen was beautiful, optimistic, and playful. You could see it shining out of her.

From today’s perspective, I can also see how I saw then. How I adjusted the composition of the photograph to avoid the parts of her that I thought other people would find unattractive: her little belly, the bits of cellulite on the underside of her thighs. I can see myself evaluating, trying to defend myself by trying to convince others that she was more conventionally beautiful.

There’s a whole series of pictures with Jen up on a stool, holding a guitar in front of her nude body like Jenny from Forrest Gump. She’s got a big smile, everything seems remarkably wholesome. Her legs are crossed primly. She’s posing coyly. The sun breaks through and casts a golden glow on the side of her breast.

Then, we change position. She leans in toward the camera. There’s a new light in her eyes, a new flush to her face. She bites her lower lip. The tip of her tongue slips through her front teeth. The energy shifts obviously. Sibling is moving toward Benefits.

She puts her hands behind her head, arching her spine, extending her fabulous breasts. She no longer seems like a teenager. Now, she seems like something different, but I can hear myself scrambling to articulate the word.

Jen lays face down on the hardwood floor, peering over her arms back at the camera. Her upraised feet are swinging from side to side, though she’s trying to stay still. There’s that tongue again, those teeth on her lower lips, that vampy look in her eyes. Years later, I’m still starting to get horny, and I still can’t escape the shame that this arousal is being beckoned by a nineteen-year-old. It still feels mysterious and magical.

There’s a moment in the photos where there’s no doubt what Jen is wanting. I knew it at the time also, could see where it was heading, and I felt totally different than I had when we first went to bed. Jen invited downstairs. I snapped a few photos of her laying in her laundry.

There’s a few moments of awkwardness, knees swinging back and forth, an easy moment for things to end. I didn’t stop. Neither did she.

She placed both hands on her soft belly. Her left traced up her rib cage, grabbed her breast, squeezed, drifted down her belly, up again, then back down. Her thighs swing from side to side. Then, her knees swing to my camera. There’s a hint of pubic hair. They swing away again. Her left hand reaches again for her breast. Her face reddens as she reaches for her clitoris.

Another pause—is this really going to happen? I didn’t say anything, neither did she. Her thighs swing open and there she is, as I’ve already seen her, as I had never seen her before.

We have crossed the point of no return.

“You know, I totally get you,” Jen said afterward, as we lay in bed. “You’re just a curbside prophet with your hand in your pocket, waiting for your rocket to come.”

“Is that a euphemism?”

“No. It’s a Jason Mraz song.”

“Who’s Jason Mraz?”

“You don’t know Jason Mraz?” I shook my head. “What the fuck is wrong with you? He’s like my top five favorite band of all time.”

I asked her who number one was. “That’s easy. Michael Franti.”

“Who’s Michael Franti?”

She looked like she’d seen a ghost. “You don’t know who Michael Franti is?” I shook my head. “All the freaky people make the beauty of the world?

“Nope.”

“We can bomb the world to pieces, but we can’t bomb it into peace.”

“Uh-uh”

She grabbed both sides of her head Edvard Munch-style again. “I can’t believe I just fucking had sex with someone who doesn’t know Michael Franti.”

I poked her in the ribs. She hit me with a pillow. Back to Siblings again.

“I think you’re going to figure it out,” she said.

“I still don’t know what it is I’m trying to figure out,” I replied honestly.

I started wondering if I should stay in Arcata for the rest of the winter.



Days turned into weeks. One day, I opened my eyes like I was coming out of a drug-fuelled stupor. (I was.) It was ten days until Christmas. I hadn’t moved in nearly a month, and I was living with—and falling in love with—a college student.

I was happier than I had been in months, but I was sure that the feeling couldn’t last. What was I going to do? Tell my mother I was dating a teenager?

I knew it was time to go. I had scared myself into staying, and now I was scaring myself into leaving town.

It was hard to say goodbye to Jen. I told myself that I had to put the feeling behind me. There were bigger threats ahead.

The road south of Eureka led right into the most notorious part of Northern California. It led right into the marijuana farms. Right into the redwoods. The road south led right past Jolene’s front door.

Somehow, I was certain that I wouldn’t be able to avoid her.

Poetic Jen had the last word: “It’s just like Jerry Garcia says. Once in a while, you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”

Next stop: the redwoods of Southern Humboldt County.


Feeling blissed out after my treasured relationship with Jen. (I may also have been stoned when I took this selfie.)