Monday, March 2, 2009


In the fall of that year Maki Yamada and I took a small house on Lakeview Drive, less than a minute's walk from the beach. At night the fog rolled in and you could smell the sea and the eucalyptus trees through the window. It was a tiny converted garage with a smelly carpet and leftover flea population from the previous tenant, but we cleaned it with love and made it a safe place to live at a time when Ronald Reagan was President and Mark David Chapman had shot John Lennon.

In the morning, I walked past the sprawling gardens where our dirt road turned to asphault, where chickens ran free across the path and an old mare grazed silently at the fencepost. We had no money, but the university included a bus pass and there was a stop at 26th Avenue for the 56 line that ran right up to Porter College and my morning class. The return bus dropped me off in front of Kong's Market, where I bought our egg rolls for dinner. It was the happiest time of my life.

I was a good decade older than the students in Paul Skenazy's modern novel course, and I had no idea how to read critically or talk about writing. I'd listen for an hour while students bantered about the structure of Gravity's Rainbow or Absalom, Absalom!--difficult novels for a first-year student who was just stepping into the river. And so I'd weep on the bus ride home for fear of failure and my inability to wrap my mind around the muscular narratives.

Maki had a car, a VW that seemed to blow out a part every month, sending me scrambling for the idiot book and the box of metric wrenches. I had never even changed the oil before in my various Buicks, Dodges, or Datsuns and now had to crawl under the back hood and see what I could do to keep the bug from separating into disparate parts under its labored idle.

We had no money.

But Maki waitressed at night at a Japanese restaurant on the west side, and she'd come home with a plastic bag of sashimi and California rolls, and we ate like high members of the shogunate. On weekends we splurged and went over to Chef Tongs for a chicken stir-fry of charred peppers, vegetables, and peanuts. While she was away, I sat in the chair by the window and read novels, marking up the margins with arrows and multiple question marks that underscored my utter failure in understanding the arc of the plot, let alone the subtle literary allusions and call outs to Shakespeare. In the late afternoons, when the wind picked up, I'd pull on a hoodie and jog along the beach.

If we had a little extra cash, I'd ride my bike up Portola to the fruit and vegetable stand and buy dried apricots and dates, or eggplants and onions for our own stir-fries. Some nights, when Maki wasn't working, we took our books and rode down to Capitola Beach and had coffee at Mr. Toots, overlooking the harbor where pelicans curved down from the cliffs in tight formation, screeching down where the anchovies rolled in on the tide as easy prey.

I loved looking at our shadows fall before us when Maki and I walked in the sun. I was over six feet tall and she barely reached five, and we looked like a parent and child. Years later it occurred to me that she had relied upon me to teach her English, the odd customs of the Santa Cruz hippie lifestyle, and even how to drive the VW. And once the parent/student relationship had outgrown its utility, what would come to take its place?

Some nights the stray cats used the fat planters of rubber trees at Toots for a litter box and you had to run out of there squeezing your nose. Teen-aged tourists and gee-gawkers from the crowded peninsula drove out at dusk in their souped-up cars and drove the Capitola loop in search of sex or a proximate encounter in conversation.

But we'd end the evening together, cuddled under the comforter in our little house, listening to the waves out the window and feeling very happy.

Skenazy saved my life in mid-semester after flunking me over a poor paper. I had no idea how to write a paper; I'd been trained as a journalist, and while my powers of observation were sharp, you didn't pen a critical essay in the inverted pyramid format of a news story. I was nearly washed out. I sat ashen in his office at Cowell College as he explained that I had to learn the literary form and aeriodite lingo of the trade.

The door to his office was open and you could hear the great American classicist Norman O. Brown chewing out an undergrad: "You don't have the courage to drop out of school!"

Well, neither had I. Nor did I have a source of income save my scant student loans and scholarship. But I was willing to follow Skenazy's directions and spent long hours in the undergraduate library trying to make sense of my suffering. One afternoon I was nearly laughed out of the seminar room by my utterance of a wicked malapropism: "architypical".

Across town, Maki was making quick work of building a wide network of Japanese students who had enrolled at the nearby community college where she was taking undergraduate classes of her own. Unlike me, she had a social life, and I was insanely jealous. The platters of late night sushi went away. And so had she.

I'd come home to our empty house by the beach and mope. I'd try to chase her down by telephone, ringing up her friends to see if she were there, stammering in Japanese when I couldn't find her. I had enrolled in a Japanese language class, prospering wonderfully, learning the hiragana and katagana and speaking with uncanny mastery--like a woman! I had picked up Maki's inflections and feminine nuances with sufficient acumen that my professor bristled. "You talk like a girl," she said.

And in the spring semester, Maki was spending more and more time away from the beach-house while I brooded in the library over biblical references in Faulkner. We had two languages between us now and so little to say. And Maki had begun to drop references to a man in her pottery class.

One night I sat alone in the dark, listening to the waves, and phoned her at the number she had for the classmate in her address book. Yes, she admitted when he put her on the line, she was there. And she wasn't coming home.

In the morning I had my valise packed, waiting outside the door to the beach-house. I wanted to be anywhere but inside my own crawling flesh. But she had been unfaithful, so why was I to leave? We agreed to find separate homes and when I left the solitude of Lakeview Drive, I moved into a bustling, dysfunctional community on East Cliff Drive, a house and cabins on a giant lot where 14 people lived and ate together. (Today, Lakeview is paved and the little house has made way for a choked row of overpriced condos.)

In the summer of that year, Maki flew home to Japan and I sat in my basement room of the noisy coed house speaking to the twenty books of my oral exam list where they were stacked on my desk, reciting to each literary character what I knew about them, how their world was structured, from which biblical or literary work did their titles spring anew, and how the landscape suited the thematic considerations of the form.

And out the window the afternoon light faded and the gulls screeched as the fog swept in.


Char said...

hauntingly beautiful

Yoli said...

Where have you been all my life? Just kidding. I am glad I came here and discovered you. What became of the girl? What became of the passionate scared student? How did you learn to write like this? Was it all along inside of you and your teachers refined it? Just curious. Sorry about the barrage of questions, just another nosey Sagittarius.

Gabby said...

What kind things to say, Char, Yoli. As for answering Yoli's questions, in order:

1. Maki married a German medical student, moved to Australia with him, where they raised two sons. She is well and happy.

2. The student prospered. You can read about the oral exam here:

3. I always wanted to write from a very young age. I studied a long time, benefited from an MFA program where I could share my work with accomplished writers and other students, and have worked to listen to the voice in my head that speaks the language I put on the page. It's something akin to voice training in music, I think. It is about refining. But it's also about reading a lot and listening to the rhythms of writers you admire. I love fellow sages; we suffer grandly! And I love your having HH on your page. I am going to see him in April.