Swimming in the Pacific

Glendale in California was a great place to be from as suburbs of Los Angeles go, but I lived in a world entirely of my own making, only occasionally checking in on the banal happenings of an otherwise happy childhood.  Even though I was on a swim team, I assiduously avoided anything that involved competition, such as throwing a ball, or catching one.  I sought shelter from the ordeal of growing up by exercising a vivid imagination.  My idea of fun?  An afternoon organizing the kitchen utensils, saucepans, and casserole dishes, or alphabetizing the spice rack.  Where did I find the time?  Usually between the tarragon and the turmeric.  I was fascinated by cars and the idea of driving; most of my childhood was spent imagining the kind of car I would drive, down to the last detail (like the sound the doors made when they closed), and pretending to steer, accelerate, and brake while sat in the back seat of my parents’ car en route.

At Camp Fox on Catalina Island, 29 miles off the coast of California in the Pacific Ocean, I missed home so much that one night while everyone was sitting around the campfire putting various and sundry food items on sticks, like these revolting meat tubes or something called a marshmallow that evoked the gastronomical delight of liquid chalk, burning them, and then eating them without the benefit of cutlery, I snuck-off, stripped naked, and jumped off the pier into the Pacific, intending to swim to the mainland.  Now I was a good swimmer, though not a complete moron.  I knew I didn’t stand much chance of making it in those water temperatures; plus sharks!

The sea between Catalina and the Port of Los Angeles located at San Pedro is a major shipping lane, so I calculated that I only had to swim about half the distance to the mainland (+/- 14 miles) before I’d be picked up by a passing cargo ship.  I even timed my plunge into the Pacific, waiting until I saw a ship on the horizon.  But, unbeknownst to me, a camp counselor had been watching me on the pier through binoculars the entire time, and no sooner had I begun my watery trek eastward than a little rubber dingy pulled alongside me and scooped my shivering body up and returned me to dry land.  To say I was humiliated facing my fellow campers who had finished devouring their hot dogs when I turned up on the beach, naked but for a blanket, should go without saying.  What was the point of this place?  So much for camp.

I have tried since, in fits and starts, to swim ashore and find “home” many times.  Unlike a fixed point on the horizon, I found it, in the intervening years, to be a mirage.  Its contours change.  Within my grasp, as quick as I felt I’d arrived I'd suddenly find it further afar — more miles to cover.  I remember an 18 year-old boy in the summer of 1984, only this time there was no counselor, no binoculars, no dingy, no last minute rescue.  I am driving my 1978 Volkswagen Rabbit east on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood toward Silverlake.  It is about 4 in the afternoon, the time of day when the setting sun squeezing through the Los Angeles smog makes the city feel dirty and orange.  It’s hot, so all my windows are rolled down and my sunroof is open.  My back is wet from sweating pressed up against the seat.  Corey Hart’s Sunglasses At Night is playing on the radio.  I usually drove home to Glendale by way of Hyperion Avenue in Silverlake, the way I was headed, because lots of gays lived there and I liked seeing if I could spot them on the street.  That summer, I began discovering and exploring a whole new world — you had to be let in by someone who knew and when you were you felt as if you belonged to something big, a thriving secret underground that had been waiting to welcome you. There was an air of secrecy about it, and just a little touch of naughty that made it feel oddly louche.  From there I plunged into life, swimming to find my place in it, sometimes carried with the current, more often than not struggling against it, until I finally came to settle in California’s low desert — the Coachella Valley.  It’s a dry heat!

My first car was that Volkswagen Rabbit.  My last was a Nissan Maxima; in between there was a Mustang, a Mazda, and even a Chrysler, none of which were ever parked in my make-believe driveway.  For all that pretending to drive during childhood, I no longer do.  I never bought a car I thought I would, but then again I never imagined I’d be driving my words — steering, accelerating, braking — down an information superhighway… actual mileage may vary.

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