E13: Binaries

There were barely a hundred people who lived in Leggett, California, so it was easy to assume that the one that was waiting for me was the Mexican woman standing in front of the post office, smiling to herself as she watched a belligerent argument between the two men standing on the road out front. […]

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Leggett, California is the beginning of California’s iconic Highway 1.

There were barely a hundred people who lived in Leggett, California, so it was easy to assume that the one that was waiting for me was the Mexican woman standing in front of the post office, smiling to herself as she watched a belligerent argument between the two men standing on the road out front. One of the men, it quickly became clear, was her son, Gabriel—strong, heavily tattooed, and his mid-thirties. The other man—Bill—was a white guy in his fifties who was already wasted by three in the afternoon on New Year’s Eve. The argument was over whether Bill was going to be able to drive himself home in his minivan. Bill was fighting valiantly, even though he knew that he was inevitably losing.

Rose, the Mexican woman, was my host for the evening—we’d been connected by the couple that I stayed with, the previous night, in Piercy—and I could tell immediately by her smile that this argument was good-natured. Gabriel and Bill were ostensibly friends. But still, the argument lingered for nearly twenty minutes before Bill finally acquiesced, and forfeited his keys. I would have preferred to stay with Rose, but I was a man, so it was insinuated that I would join the other two men on their adventure.

As I hopped into the rear seat of the minivan, I got a text message. Ashley? No. It was Jolene’s younger sister, Stella.

In the space of just forty-eight hours, my personal melodrama had gone from bad to worse. To recap it is to sketch out the plot of a poorly written telenovela, so hold your nose while you read the overview—or, if you prefer, simply skip to the next couple paragraphs.

The Story began when I caught a ride back into Garberville to escape the downpour. I had sent Ashley a text message, asking if she would give me a place to stay. It seemed idioitic to try to sleep in my tent during that rainstorm, though even I knew I was lying to myself and looking for another chance with Ashley. When I arrived in town, I immediately bumped into a Canadian family I had met a few days earlier. They were spending the New Year in a vacation home at Shelter Cove, on the Lost Coast, and they invited me to stay with them and wait out the storm. A miracle, right? I told them I had to think about it, because my heart was still set on Ashley. In the end, I made the silly choice, and I regretted it for the rest of the morning, as I sat in a café with my phone in my hand, waiting for a text message from Ashley that never arrived. By the middle of the afternoon, I was beside myself with an emotion that I could readily identify as rage. When that café closed, I crossed Redwood Avenue and went to a second café, where I composed a thousand-word screed in an email to Paul, verbosely articulating all the reasons that I knew that I should have known different. Paul didn’t reply immediately—I think he was on a date—so in my fury, I crossed the street again and found myself in the parking lot of the now-closed public library, where the day-long deluge had finally slowed to a mist. I put my pack to the side, and for an hour, I paced through the puddles, crossing the same twenty-yard stretch of wet pavement over and over again as I tried to negotiate with the outlandishness of my emotions. What a daze I had been in! How long had I been spiraling? Weeks? Months? After an hour, I started to feel better, and when some semblance of my rationality returned, I reasoned that the wisest option was to spend another night in a Garberville motel and hit the road the next morning. I crossed Redwood Avenue again, paid forty bucks for a motel room, and spent the evening watching porn and jerking off to the point of exhaustion. When I woke up late the next morning, I was glad to see that there was sun bursting through the clouds, and a dusting of icing sugar snow decorating the summits of the surrounding hills. It was a sign—time to leave Garberville (again). I packed up my stuff and prepared to leave town, but before I did, I decided to go for a coffee, not really admitting to myself the reason why I was stalling. I was back in yet another Redwood Avenue café when I spotted a familiar minivan driving past the window. My stomach sank. Sure enough, a beat later, there was Jolene strolling through the front door. Her eyes fell on me. I swore she licked her lips as she approached my table, her five-year-old son still in his Spiderman pajamas in tow. I thought I recognized the look in her eye, and I assumed that she thought that I had come back to town in order to pursue some romance with her. But I was so raw and still furious from being played by Ashley that when Jolene asked why I was back in Garberville, I couldn’t help blurting out “I’m in love with a woman who doesn’t want me.” Her eyes went wide, and then she said, “Okaaaay. Let me get a coffee and let’s talk about it.” Five minutes later, I found myself spilling every detail about what had happened with Ashley—The Alphabet and all—to Jolene. And I had to admit that, not only did saying the whole saga out loud make me feel better, Jolene also turned out to be a very attentive and caring listener, and by the time the whole Story was out, I had started to change my opinion of her. It suddenly occurred to me that I should address the conflict that had been smoldering between us since that night at the Motel 6 in Arcata. “I was really upset that you decided to walk with me the next day,” I blurted out. “I just wanted it to be a one-night stand. I didn’t want anything more than that with you. I thought it was presumptuous that you invited yourself along without asking if that was what I wanted.” Jolene made a face. “So why didn’t you just tell me that you didn’t want me to walk with you?” My mind went blank. I had honestly never considered that question. I thought about it for a moment, and then I replied, “I guess I didn’t want to hurt you.” Jolene laughed so loud that it attracted the attention of nearly everyone else in the café. “Hurt me? I just spent an hour telling you everything that I had gone through. Why did you think that you telling me that it was only going to be a one-night stand was going to hurt me?” I replied that it did sound very stupid and childish now that I was saying it out loud. “I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you the truth,” I said. Jolene replied, “I’m sorry that I didn’t ask you whether it was okay if I walked with you.” It was like the weight of an entire redwood tree was off my chest.

Jolene’s sister Stella arrived in the café a few minutes later, and she looked shocked to see the two of us sitting around a table kibbitzing like best friends. Stella joined us at the table, and as I began to tell the Ashley Story from the beginning, Jolene excused herself; she had to pick up her other children from the babysitter. She hugged me goodbye. “Call me if you need a place to stay or anything.” Now, I was alone with Stella, and as I got into the Story again, I started to notice the telltale signature of chemistry between us. As I did, I also noticed that Stella was more conventionally attractive than her older sister—an eight, I thought—and I also noticed—I hated to say it—but it did look like Stella also had the much more attractive figure. When my Story was done, I listened intently as Stella described the fallout of her recent divorce; it was clear she was still grieving, her descriptions of her ex-husband were bitter, and she had nowhere near the perspective that Jolene had had. I tried to emit empathy and compassion, even as I realized that we were flirting, and all kinds of adolescent fantasies flittered through my head. By the time our conversation ended, it was already early afternoon, and it dawned on me that I probably wasn’t actually leaving Garberville that day. Stella said goodbye with a hug, and she wrote her phone number on a napkin in case I needed a place to stay. “Are you sure Jolene won’t mind?” I asked, already jumping to the conclusion that we were going to go to bed together. “No,” Stella assured me, “she won’t mind.” Stella was only just walking away when my phone buzzed. Ashley! Heading into town to run some errands. Want me to pick you up? I thought about it for about five seconds before I replied that I did, and I went to the public library to wait for Ashley. I was feeling good—Why hadn’t I just told Jolene the truth!?!—and I decided that I would tell the truth to Ashley. There seemed like some important lesson that I was on the verge of learning. I felt like I was leveling up.

Of course, when Ashley arrived, I was immediately dumbfounded. There was a moment of awkwardness as I got into her vehicle—she was borrowing Jimmy’s pickup truck because her Jetta was in the shop—but she didn’t say anything about what had happened betweeen us, and neither did I. Instead, we made small talk as we drove to Redway, Garberville’s sister town, just down river, where she needed to pay a visit to the mechanics. The mechancics were on lunch; we sat in the coffee shop next door, and unprompted Ashley began to reveal more about herself, her upbringing, her family. She told me that, when she was sixteen, one of her best friend’s mother had made out well in a divorce settlement and treated herself to liposuction, a new pair of tits, and a house with a pool in Los Angeles. The mother was bringing the best friend to California, and somehow Ashley arranged to go with them. I could sense the bitterness in Ashely’s voice when she talked about her family, and I listened compassionately, inching my hands to her side of the table. Finally! I thought. We’re getting deep! Ashley spoke uninterrupted for nearly an hour until the mechanics were back next door. We went into the shop, had a perfunctory conversation, and then she invited me to come back to her cabin. As we crossed the bridge leading out of town, I felt like I was on my way to a coronation: intimacy achieved, I was sure the next step was taking her to bed. Now that it was my turn to talk, I waxed poetically about all the important realizations that I had been making ever since I reached the redwoods. I thought about Jenn and JLo and Jolene and Stella and Sally, and I mused out loud that I thought it was high time that something shifted in the way that I related with women. Ashley told me that she thought this was a good idea, and as we rumbled down the gravel road leading into Jimmy’s property, I was already mentally cancelling my plans for the rest of the winter; now that I had made peace with Jolene, I had no fear about spending the rest of the winter living with Ashley in the redwoods. I could continue my walk to Mexico in the spring. I followed Ashley into her cabin, expecting that we would go straight up the small ladder leading to her loft bed. She made some tea, then she immediately sat me down and told me that something had happened since I last saw her on the 27th. “I’ve met someone.” My jaw dropped. “Another guy. He’s more…” She paused, seeming to delight at leaving me hanging in the balance and never finished her sentence. “I felt a spark with him that I didn’t feel with you. I no longer want to be physically intimate with you.”

I nodded and told Ashley I totally understood as a spliff dangled from my lips.

By now, it was past sunset, and I needed a place to stay. I couldn’t stay at Ashley’s because she was “going to see a friend”, she told me, in a tone of voice that made it clear that it was this other bastard. She began to try on a series of outfits for what I realized was her date. Each of them was progressively sexier and more inappropriate for a first date with a guy she had just met at a supermarket in the redwoods. Still, I enabled her—unzipping this and helping to clasp that, lavishing her with compliments about how good her butt looked in those tight leather pants. In an instant, it seemed, I had been relegated from potential love interest to platonic bestie, and I was too stoned and numb to assess how that felt. The facts were clear, though, that I needed to find a place to spend the night. Naturally, I considered the pair of sisters, ultimately deciding that of the two, Stella gave me a better chance of drowning my sorrows in meaningless sex. But when I called Stella, she sounded weary and depressed, and she told me immediately that she was already over at Jolene’s place. We made arrangements for Ashley to drop me there.

Ashley finally settled on a simple outfit of jeans and a sweater that didn’t require any zippers and clasps. When we arrived in front of Jolene’s house, she got out to hug me goodbye—full body again, groin-to-groin, and kissed me goodbye in the ambiguous place between my cheek and the edge of my lip. “Text me tomorrow with your plan,” she said, and that phrase echoed inside of me as I stumbled up to Jolene’s front door. Inside, the house was the complete opposite from Ashley’s stoner-chic artist studio; Jolene’s house was mayhem, with her four children plus Stella’s daughter buzzing about, and toys and other things scattered everywhere. Jolene didn’t seem the least bit miffed that I had reached out to Stella and not her; if anything, she seemed satisfied, and she cooked me a quesadilla as Stella whisked the kids off to bed. Once everyone was asleep, the two sisters joined me in the sitting room, which was frenetically decorated with mismatched art, including many pieces that Jolene had made herself. The sisters asked me why I was walking to Mexico, and I went way, way back to the very beginning with the day that I met Sally, and they lapped it up, laughing at every opportune moment, and I played into the performance. I had told the story of my breakup a hundred times or more on my way down the coast, and this was the first time that it felt like it was something that had happened to someone else. In its way the experience was tremendously healing.

But then it was getting late, and I couldn’t tear my eyes from one piece of art hung next to the fireplace. It was a painting of a topless woman with the head of a deer; the quality of the work was amateruish, but the shape of the breasts were stupendous. Jolene noticed my glance and remarked casually that her sister Stella had been the model. That got my mind spinning again. Stella went to collect her daughter, I hugged JHolene goodbye, and as we drove the short distance to Stella’s home, I could feel what I imagined to be the sexual chemistry but could just as easily have been the lingering effects of the weed starting to increase. It went without saying that I would have loved to sleep with a pair of sisters. But I was sober enough to realize that Stella was full of repressed emotions that she rook out on her daughter and their dog, which Stella kept referring to as “Shithead.” When we got to Stella’s home—a strange structure that was half-Airstream trailer—and after she put her daughter to bed, we sat on the couch next to the fire unti late in the night, and it seemed clear to me, I thought, that if I leaned over to kiss her, Stella probably would acquiesce. By then, though, I was emotionally exhausted, and fortunately I finally made the wise choice. I slept on the couch alone, and, the next afternoon, Stella drove me back to the roadside attraction, The Legend of Bigfoot, so I could once again try to leave Garberville.

I began walking toward Leggett, knowing that it was two days from the end of the year—and that my father was going to arrive on the morning of New Year’s Day.

All of that in forty-eight hours.

From the Leggett Post Office, it was a short distance to get to Bill’s small acreage. Bill—the drunk white guy—had cracked open another beer and was becoming progressively more belligerent. Gabriel—the younger Mexican—was behind the wheel. By the time we arrived, I had learned two things about the men: number one, they were friends, with an affectionate banter that was like a modern-day version of Abbott and Costello; number two, Gabriel had just been released from prison the previous week.

It turned out that Rose—the woman from the post office and my host for the night—was Gabriel’s mom. It turned out that Rose had four sons: a teenager and three boys in their thirties who, until last week, were all in prison. It turned out that at least two of them had done some bad shit.

Gabriel had grown up in East LA, he explained, but his mom had moved up to the redwoods presumably to get a fresh start. “I’m up here only for a few weeks,” he assured me. “Just to pick up some supplies so I can go back to LA and make some scratch.” He gave me a leading look as if I didn’t understand that he was talking about marijuana; after six weeks in the Emerald Triangle, I’d grown wise.

“I’ll give you some fuckin’ scratch if you don’t get me another beer,” Bill slurred as we pulled onto his driveway.

The property was something like a well-organized junkyard. There were satellite dishes stacked over here and trays of rocks and minerals over there and a quaint-ish looking house with a wraparound porch that Bill insisted that we stay far away from, because his wife—”that cunt”—would not be pleased to discover that he was already three sheets in the middle of the afternoon on New Year’s Day. Instead, we parked by another structure a hundred yards down the drive: Bill’s two-story workshop.

I followed the two men through the front door. The ground fluttered was cluttered with Bill’s distinctive artistic creations: homemade wind chimes that he’d constructed out of abalone shells and agates and discarded cutlery. Dramatically bent forks and knives and spoons clinked against one another metallically. They reminded me of a Dali painting brought to life.

Upstairs was Bill’s chillout area. We sat on wooden dining chairs surrounded by shelving crammed with junk. Bill lit a cigarette, then found a hash pipe that he’d made out of a deer antler. He loaded it with weed and passed it around. Of course I indulged—I was still thinking about Stella’s text message:

I was thinking I could use a vacation. Could I walk with you for a few days?

I was cursing myself for immediately replying with an invitation.

Bill’s acreage

The weed made me feel better, or at the very least it helped me forget. The two men were bantering the way men do, making a point about not talking about anything at all and somehow revealing everything in the process. Bill bitched about his wife. He told us that he planned to celebrate New Year’s passed out on a chair on the porch. Gabriel kept bragging about all the money he was going to make by transporting weed down to Southern California, and pointing out the menacing gang tattoo that was stenciled on his neck. Neither one of them knew what to do about me, with my strange story and my probing questions and my fervent desire to photograph everything that the three of us were experiencing. We lost an hour or two like that as Bill crushed three more cans of Busch Light, until finally his eyelids became heavy, and soon Gabriel and I were struggling to hold a conversation while Bill was snoring. It was time to leave him there and go back to Gabriel’s mom’s.

The problem was that the only car we had was Bill’s minivan, and the bigger problem was that Gabriel was also considerably drunk.

Gabriel decided that we would “borrow” the minivan, saying the word in a way that blurred the lines. He got behind the wheel, and as we rolled out of Bill’s compound, I suddenly felt butterflies. We began to repeat the same fight that I’d observed earlier between him and Bill. I declared that he was too drunk to drive; Gabriel thought I was exaggerating. I kept up the battle. Then, suddenly, he slammed on the brakes and leered at me with an expression that seemed practiced in the jailhouse.

“I can be your best friend or your worst enemy,” he said.

The way he delivered the line felt like a high school student’s attempt at Shakespeare.

“I don’t want to be either your best friend or your worst enemy,” I replied. “I just want us both to get home safe.”

Gabriel glared at me for a beat. Then he broke into a smile. We switched seats, and I piloted the minivan to his mother’s.

Gabriel points to a tattoo of his favorite porn star in the throes of performed pleasure.

Gabriel’s mother—Rose—was driving into Garberville to get groceries so we could have a feast for New Year’s Eve dinner. As it turned out, her car broke down on the way home and she didn’t end up returning to Leggett until the wee hours of the New Year. That meant that I spent the early evening with Gabriel and his fourteen-year-old younger brother, who exuded a near-angelic innocence and sweetness, as if Rose had been saving all of the love for her last.

I didn’t dare ask Gabriel specific questions about his incarceration—by the leading way he talked about it and by the comparative length of his sentence, it sounded as if his older brothers had done much worse. The most I learned was that it was hard to grow up in East LA. From my privileged persepctive, Gabriel seemed like a character out of a movie, his stories closer to Training Day or a Snoop Dogg album instead of real life. When I asked him if he would tell me a love story, Gabriel ended up speaking on tape for more than half-an-hour, describing a dramatic love triangle that just as easily could have been lifted from a telenovela. It was hard to follow. In his words, he was “fucking this bitch then that bitch got pregnant, but the bitch I really wanted to fuck was fucking this other homey” and on and on and on.

I listened with a lump in my throat, thinking about Ashley and Jolene and Stella, and noticing as the younger brother sat quietly to the side, taking it all in.

After the story, Gabriel put on Men in Black. The teenaged brother and I watched Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones destroy some aliens as Gabriel floated in and out of the room. Eventually, he returned to tell me he was going to see a friend, and then made a crude gesture with his fingers that insinuated he was chasing after some pussy. I gave hi a fist bump and wished him luck.

The fourteen-year-old’s eyes were glued to the screen. As the aliens fought back, I started to think about upbringing and culture and family and how much of someone’s destiny is sketched out before they are old enough to talk. I thought about my desperate choices over the previous few days. What the fuck was I doing? And I thought about the imminent arrival of my father.

I was dreading seeing my Dad; I’d never been pleased with our relationship, I always wished that he was deeper and more mature, like Paul. I’d hated him when I was younger, when my mother’s side of the family had got into the habit of calling him The Prick after my parents divorced when I was around eleven. But things had started to change last year, after his heart attack, and I could begrudgingly admit that he was putting effort into making himself a better person. I wondered how our visit would go. Would it be somehow cathartic? How did it relate to all this other shit with all these other women?

The pot was making me dreary, and I dozed off on the couch. I barely registered when Rose came home after midnight, and I never saw Gabriel again.

Near Rose’s house

The next morning was the first day of the first month of 2011, and I was on my way to meet my father at the junction between two highways: Highway 101, which I’d been following for months, and the California’s famous Highway 1, which sets off on its long journey down the Pacific Coast from the northernmost junction in Leggett.

1/1/11. 101 and 1. That’s a lot of ones and zeros. Perhaps it’s no wonder that I was thinking about binaries.

Rose offered to walk me part of the way.

Based on everything I’d learned about her children, I was fascinated to spend time with her. I had imagined that an unsettled home life was part of what sent her eldest sons on the path towards prison. But Rose turned out to be just as angelic and sweet as her youngest. She was wise and lighthearted. It was hard to believe that so much suffering had been birthed from her.

On the way, we stopped at bridge over a deep chasm. It was hundreds of feet to the river far below. Rose marveled about the beauty of the redwoods—the lush green, the enduring mystery, the way the clouds settled in the folds of the hills. I was touched by the way she had found stillness amongst all the chaos. Strangely, despite everything, she seemed happy, and I found that both touching and confusing.

Standing on the bridge, Rose offered to recite her favorite poem. I got it on tape:


We embraced, and she wished me luck. I headed towards the junction between the 1 and the 101, ready to face my Dad.