Shorelines and Valleys
I had to drive her home, but I didn’t want to. I wanted her to lie beside me and watch dumb cartoons forever, but I had work in the morning and she had a family to go home to. She wasn’t pushy about me taking her home, but the longer she sat there, the more I’d want her to stay.
“Okay, let’s get you home,” I said.
“Oh yeah, that’s right, it’s 7:30, almost your bedtime, huh, Cinderella?”
“Shut the fuck up.”
We had been casually hooking up for roughly two months. This was the first time she allowed me to take her home. She always drove to me. I viewed her allowing me to drive her home as a sign that she considered me potential relationship material. She took her time putting on her boots. I stared at her as she tied her laces. She was short, had pale skin, dark hair and large expressive eyes. Her eyes held a unique brilliance. She rarely verbalized her feelings. Her eyes conveyed emotions in ways words couldn’t capture. It was the thing I found most beautiful about her.
As we walked to the car there was silence. I was anxious. Whenever I liked somebody I felt the need to transform into a jester. I wanted to make her laugh. I wanted to see her dimples deepen as she smiled. I felt good when she smiled. It made me feel as if there was something of value inside of me. I couldn’t think of any jokes so I remained silent. The house where I was renting a room sat on a hill overlooking Vallejo, California. It was a nice neighborhood in a city made famous by bad ones. I started my car and fumbled with my phone. I asked for her address. She gave me an address in Moraga. Moraga is part of a larger sub-region in the East Bay known locally as “Lamorinda.” It was an exclusive grouping of extraordinarily wealthy suburbs where the fearful beneficiaries of the Reagan era hid their money and prayed that the melanin rich and cash poor of the nearby inner city never grew curious of what existed on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel.
I started the car and attempted to make small talk as we drove, but my anxiety robbed me of my ability to communicate. It was so easy to talk to her before I had concrete feelings. I turned on the radio and drove recklessly to mask my anxiety. Katy Perry and static did little to relieve my nerves. I wasn’t quite sure what I was nervous about. We had sexual chemistry, and when I wasn’t overthinking, great social chemistry. It was the class difference. For whatever reason, the women that have found me desirable have always come from wealthy families. This wasn’t something I derived pride from. It made me feel small. I felt like an impostor in their presence. I spoke well, so maybe they mistook me as an equal, but I was far from it. I did everything I could to obscure my background from people, at least until they got to know me. This was especially true when it came to my interactions with the opposite sex.
The true irony was I hated the wealthy. I would often fantasize about an American equivalent to the French Revolution. I had dreams of cities burning and the bodies of oligarchs strung from trees. The capacity of my hatred for them startled me. They were people too. I understood that. Why couldn’t they understand that the poor also were people?
We crossed the Carquinez Bridge and I stared at the C&H factory. I thought about the days that our grandparents had talked about. The days where you could get a blue collar labor job and buy a home for your family and save what was left over to send your children to college. You’d have two kids — presumably a boy and a girl. The boy would be a C student, and skate by. The girl would really apply herself. She would become a doctor or lawyer or something. She would achieve whatever she set her mind to. You would become a prideful parent. Maybe you didn’t have the brainpower and the patience it took to read all the books she read or write all the papers she wrote, but your sweat and wherewithal bought the books she needed to read and kept the lights on so she could read them. The problem was I wasn’t my grandparents and those days have long since passed.
I could’ve gone over the Benicia Bridge through the Diablo Valley, but I wanted to spend more time with her so I took the long way back. San Pablo Dam Road connected Lamorinda to Richmond. She was playing on her phone, but it felt nice to have her next to me. I didn’t quite understand if this was my brain responding to a flood of oxytocin or if I was in love. Either way I felt fucking stupid. I had little to say to her and my jokes fell flat and reeked of nervousness. Still, I wanted her next to me.
San Pablo Dam Road was poorly lit. I was averaging around 70 MPH. The speed at which I hit the turns made her nervous. It made me nervous, too, but I wanted to seem unfazed by it. I wanted to spend more time with her so I took the long route, but I also wanted her to get the fuck out of my car so I could have the full on mental breakdown that was bubbling under the surface as a result of the strong feelings I had for her so I sped. I loved her. Fuck. Why was this even a thing? Why does love have to ruin orgasms? Why can’t we just physically feel good and go on with our miserable fucking lives without looking back to wonder how it could be improved by someone who will inevitably spend one third of the day sleeping, the other third at some job and hopefully, a sliver of the leftover third beside you. Maybe conversing, maybe laughing, maybe saying nothing at all. Why were those little moments so important and why does everything in us long for them when in actuality our endless pursuit of those small treasures often made us feel worse? But yet, we can’t stop. And even if we could, we never do.
After fifteen minutes of speeding in the dark, San Pablo Dam Road transformed into Camino Pablo. We made it to Orinda. The smoke stacks and refinery fumes of West Contra Costa felt a world away despite only being separated by a small stretch of backroads and rolling hills. You immediately could feel the difference — the affluence radiating from the homes. The smaller, more modest suburban tract houses were so well taken care of they appeared to have been just built and the larger homes bordered on palatial. Many of the properties had extravagant winding driveways and small pillars situated on both sides of wide framed doors that looked modeled after the White House. Some were gated and others were built on such a vast amount of acreage the paths that lead to them had street signs designating them as private roads. I began to feel sick.
Moraga was close to Orinda, but lacked a freeway. Orinda and Lafayette straddled Highway 24 and had fully operational Bart Stations that connected them to a large portion of the East Bay and San Francisco. Moraga did not. You had to drive through winding foliage dense roads to access it. Moraga was the most hidden of the three which lent it an added layer of exclusivity.
“I can see why you were into punk rock, looks oppressive around here,” I muttered sarcastically.
“Shut up,” she quickly replied with a chuckle. “My name’s Ryan and half my personality is I live in big scary Vallejo,” she quipped.
I laughed. I was beginning to feel a bit better. Since I was in a rich area I decided to blast DMX and roll my windows down just to be a prick. The air felt nice. I began to speed again. Her large eyes widened. I wasn’t nervous about the speed anymore. The idea of making some rich people momentarily nervous excited me.
“Moraga cops are bored and have nothing to do,” she continued “speeding is a big deal to them.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot, most cities have police departments. I’ve been spoiled by Vallejo.” She smiled and rolled her eyes. I marginally slowed the car down, adjusted the decibels on DMX’s barking and rolled up the back windows.
Moraga was undeniably beautiful. Even at night the roads looked peaceful and retained a rural character. The branches of large mature trees intertwined with sparse streetlights gave a sense of what the world could be if the march of civilization and nature came to some sort of compromise. Quite an accomplishment for a city that sat beside the bustle and bullshit that was Oakland.
She lived in a subdivision on a hill called “The Hills” complete with its own sign notifying you that you were entering “The Hills,” which I found to be redundant considering the entirety of Lamorinda sat several rolling hills, but they had to name it something. I parked the car down the block from her house so her family wouldn’t see me. She was an Arab and despite her being 29, she came from a conservative Muslim household that would likely disown her if they found out she was spending her free time with a broke infidel on the other side of a bridge that her father likely helped design. She kissed me goodbye, got out of the car and began walking toward her house. I stared at her until her body disappeared into the darkness. I sat in my car. I felt sadness begin to build in my chest. My hands tightened around the steering wheel and I let out a sigh. I sat there in my car for a few minutes on an idyllic street in the dark. I felt everything and nothing simultaneously. I remember her telling me in passing that her ex made a six figure salary. My grip on the steering wheel tightened to the point of physical pain. At least I was taller than him.
I started to drive again. I had to turn the car around to head back to Vallejo. I passed her house and saw a large group of people walking around the home through the window. I saw who I assumed to be her mom wearing a hijab. I felt like I was intruding on their peaceful lives. I almost wanted to knock on the door and apologize.
I drove to Lafayette and parked my car. I began writing a long winded text message explaining that we needed to break things off and that I would only complicate her life. I explained that the silly persona I had cultivated was a ruse to mask the dysfunction and depression that ate at me on a daily basis. I explained that I wasn’t a likable person and that there was enough treachery, hatred, violence and absurdity in me to supply any given army on any given day. I started to cry. I couldn’t send the message. I forgot what life was like without her. I didn’t want to remember.
I got on the freeway and began to leave Lamorinda. The mid-rise office buildings of Walnut Creek glowed in the distance. My brain kept playing back her telling me about her ex’s income. It felt like I got hit by a bus. I screamed “fuck” at the top of my lungs. I didn’t hate the rich. I only hated myself.
I had work in the morning. It was already late so I decided that was a justification to go 100 mph. I flew out of Walnut Creek into Concord, Concord quickly turned into Martinez and the nostalgic smell of processed gasoline entered my nostrils. The odor that was produced by not one, not two, but three refineries situated in a sort of triangle around the Benicia Bridge was horrid, but strangely comforting. I stared at the lights of the oil tankers that flickered on the waters of the Carquinez Strait as the bridge led me into Solano County. Benicia flashed by and turned into Vallejo.
I was finally home. I decided to go to a fast food drive thru on Tennessee Street just a few blocks from my house. I was sad so I wanted to fill my body with trash. I promised myself that after this last binge I would start taking my diet more seriously. Deep down I knew I was full of shit. The line was long, almost too long. I clearly wasn’t the only person who hated themselves in Vallejo. That’s what I loved about Vallejo. It was a rustbelt fast-food almost midwestern American dystopia with a Filipino flair that had the awkward luck of touching the same bay that surrounded San Francisco. This did nothing for Vallejo except for further its own embarrassment. There were also rappers in Vallejo. Surprisingly, many of them rapped well. So there was that.
After what felt like an eternity I finally made it to the drive thru window and was handed a greasy bag of dogshit that had so much weight to it that I immediately began to realize I really didn’t need to spend $30 on Jack In The Box. Despite the lack of necessity, I was going to consume it — all of it, in one sitting. In my bedroom. Alone.
I pulled up to my house and considered eating in the car. The last thing I wanted my landlady to see was me walk into the house with what resembled a brown paper full-size grocery bag of Jack In The Box. I looked behind me and found an actual grocery bag that had an actual grocery store’s logo on it and put the Jack In The Box in the grocery bag. As I walked up the driveway I started laughing at my own stupidity.
After eating my mountain of heart disease, I looked at my phone and deleted the message saying we should call it off. I told her I made it home safely and sent a heart emoji.
I lied in bed and thought about the day. I came to three solid conclusions: I loved her. I was terrified of love… And I ate way too much Jack In The Box.
IN THIS SHORT STORY I PARTIALLY QUOTE A POEM BY CHARLES BUKOWSKI CALLED “THE GENIUS OF THE CROWD”
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