The neighborhood where I lived during my teenage years had a community swimming pool. It was small but clean: an aqua rectangle surrounded by pebbled cement, with a cob-webbed bathroom and a splintered picnic table, a rise of trees on one side of the wrought iron fence and a slope of grass on the other.
In the summer my friends and I went swimming there nearly every day. We played a game called Watermelon. It was easy to play: all you had to do was curl up into a ball at the edge of the deep end—knees pulled up under your chin, arms wrapped tightly around your shins, eyes closed—and fall forward into the water. Despite my lack of swimming prowess (and the fact that I had to pinch my nose shut), I liked Watermelon. Tumbling weightlessly in the dark, my ears full of muted rush. My body, the whole world, moving impossibly slowly, my mind silenced by the dizzying sensation.
You were supposed to keep your eyes closed the entire time you were underwater, the delight of the exercise being that you wouldn’t know what direction you’d be facing, or how far you’d drifted, until you surfaced. No matter how hard you tried to focus when you rolled in, to picture your surroundings spinning with you, you came up gasping for air and staring at the trees or the bathroom hut or the picnic table or your friend’s feet, like you’d never seen them before. It always took a second or two to figure out which direction you were facing. To match the picture you’d imagined, expected, with the one that actually appeared.
It is a two-hour drive from downtown Sonoma to Sonoma Coast State Beach. There is no direct route. With back roads, state highways, and a short stretch of interstate, the map I find on the Internet looks like a measured heartbeat: jagged peaks and valleys, a north-south zigzag through vineyards, strip malls, and [End Page 62] hills. I can’t print the map out—I am two thousand miles away from Chicago, from home, in a printer-less one-bedroom apartment over someone’s garage—so I handwrite the directions. I like directions better anyway. A step-by-step list of what to do, where to go. For the first time in a long time, I’m not afraid of getting lost, hurt, or stranded. What I am afraid of, a little, is being alone.
I tear the directions out of my notebook, throw a sandwich and an apple in my bag, and head down to my rental car. I toss my bag onto the passenger seat, slide in behind the steering wheel, adjust the mirrors, put on my sunglasses, draw and release a deep breath. I fi re up the engine. I pull away from the curb.
1. Turn left on CA 12-E/Broadway, 1.3 miles
There are actually five steps before this one, a maze through and out of the tucked-away neighborhood where the garage apartment is. But I’ve been in Sonoma for four days already, and I’m pretty sure I remember how to get back the way I came.
I told everyone I was coming here to work on my book because I didn’t get into the artists’ colony I’d applied to this fall, and I really wanted to finish my second draft before the holidays. Just a week by myself in wine country, I said. Part of me was convinced that this was true.
Most of me knew it wasn’t. I came to California because I needed to get gone. Adios, recently rocky marriage and early midlife crisis. Hello, sunshine.
More importantly: Hello, space to breathe. Room to think. Silence for the chips to fall and settle.
About nine months earlier, in the grayest, most soul-crushing stretch of Chicago’s “spring,” I had started feeling restless, agitated, anxious. Like maybe I needed to squeeze my head into a vice and pop it like a balloon. I believed, at first, that the feeling was grief. I was fast approaching...