Kage Baker and I lived in Pismo Beach for 16 years. Oh, we’d vacationed there for years beforehand, and collected shells on the beach years before we could order drinks. It was a familiar, beloved place. So when our lives more or less collapsed a couple of decades ago, we looked around and thought a bit and said: Let’s go hide out at Pismo.
And so we did. And it was wonderful. Kage began to write with an actual eye to getting published; within the year, she had sold the first of her Company series. I followed the Faires with increasing determination and success. We became aunts and godmothers repeatedly; people were married in our garden, children learned to walk on our lawns. We lived in sight and sound of the Pacific Ocean all those years – in a town only a mile wide, it’s hard to get out of reach of the sea on one edge. We grew roses and apples and tulips and plums. It was an idyll. We were mutating happily into entwives, comfortably settled in a semi-rural town where fishing boats went out every dawn and sunset, and cattle grazed on the hillsides above Highway 101.
Those hills are called the Irish Hills, because Pismo was apparently first settled by Europeans in the winter, in the wet season. Between November and March, the hills turn an exquisite emerald green – new hay, wild mustard, oats, native bunchgrass all grow thickly. For contrast, lupine and poppies form pools of blue and orange on the slopes. Oaks and sycamores bud out to roof the canyons with leaves. The topsoil is no more than a thin shell of fertility over the decomposing granite of the hills, but for those months they are clothed in glory reminiscent of the Isles of the Blest.
That’s how they looked when I left there, last year. I drove away on a bright booming day with the wind off the sea chasing ripples in the grass on the green, green hills, and I hoped that I would never see them again.
Pismo Beach is now haunted ground for me. That’s something I never expected, and the strength of the revulsion is startling. But the whole Central Coast is now overlain by a cold vacuum that is the absence of Kage, and it sucks the life out of me when I go through it.
While Kage often talked about retiring to Catalina Island, the odds were high we would never have left Pismo again. We intended to grow old there, really old, walker and white hair old; be a couple of old biddies tottering along the boardwalk, watching the surfers with harmless appreciation. Most of all, though, we saw ourselves together through this all: somehow, it never occurred to either of us that we would not kick the old jam jar within, say, 24 hours of one another.
So we didn’t lay any plans for that. I have no scenario, no outline, no plotline on how to live without Kage. Oh, I have duties and contracts and promises and obligations – but those do not make a life. And if I had tried to stay in this haunted little town where every doorway holds a shadow where Kage is not, the weight of all those would have borne me down into darkness by now. Leaving Pismo Beach for our native Los Angeles was the best thing I could do. Also the only thing I could think of doing – and when your mind cuts out like that, as mine did for a lot of last year, you just cling desperately to whatever ideas you summon.
It’s been a good choice. Being with my family is healing. Sometimes I am even happy.
I look at Pismo every day, through the webcams on the Pier. It hurts, but it’s a discipline. When I drove through there Monday and Tuesday, the accumulated scar tissue of that daily pain protected me. It cut at me – a real pain, like something sharp moving in my chest – and I cried all the rest of the way into San Luis Obispo. But I made it. I went to the Courthouse and completed my business successfully – despite the fact that it was flanked on one side with the neon-decked 1930’s movie palace Kage loved to distraction, and on another by the library where she first found her agent’s name. Despite the fact that it was three blocks away from SLO’s one-building Chinatown, which had fascinated her. Despite the memories of walking every damned step of the fancy paving with her, back when we were safe and happy there.
When I was done and drove away, heading south to the shelter of Los Angeles, I turned on the radio in the car. And what was playing? Down By The Water, by The Decemberists:
The season rubs me wrong
The summer swells anon
So knock me down, tear me up
But I would bare it all broken just to fill my cup
Down by the water and down by the old main drag
Man, what emo deity is choosing my soundtrack these days? I changed to CD, put in a Steeleye Span album, and drove back to L.A. crying and singing about a spotted cow. And Kage sang harmony in my head.