The fire has died. A breeze still reaches in through the narrow opening of the glass door, but the waves sound more subdued. The tide must be out by now. By the faint light of coals and stars, Mina casts about for her clothes. She reeks, as they all do, as the whole apartment does, the telltale salty odors piled so high, branded so deep, the sea wind makes no dent in them—and why should it, when it can’t distinguish between them and itself? It can’t be helped; she won’t risk a shower, now, any more than she’ll risk taking the time (or making the noise) to pee, which she desperately needs. She will not be here to see them in daylight—or ever again, if that were possible.
She finds her bra, her panties. Socks, jeans, the striped shirt. She sits by the hearth and ties her shoes; retrieves her purse beside the counter where it still lies. She has no jacket, which also can’t be helped. It can’t be long until dawn, though. Without the fire, the cold does assert itself with every gust. Glancing back one last time, she spots, rumpled dark against the lighter shade of the couch, Cris’ Clash t-shirt. She tiptoes back, snatches it up, and pulls it on over her head. Of course it’s vastly big on her, but it’s another layer. You had your innuendo (and a shitload more); I have the shirt.
Her heart pounds through the inevitable clack of the lock, try though she might to subdue it, even though she first took the precaution of stealthily pulling the bedroom door to. She freezes; waits, breathless. She pulls the door open, slips out, and delicately secures it once more behind her. Then she’s running on tiptoes to the stairs, down, out through the gate. She keeps jogging till she’s gone a little way up the highway, past a few more buildings.
There she pauses, catching her breath. She will start getting more exercise. She aches all over, though, is so tender in so many places from one end to the other. She will not think of that, of any of that, right now.
She looks up and down dark PCH. Passing vehicles are still scarce at this hour. Hitchhiking is out of the question: a) this is not the 60s any more, let alone that b) it’s still too dark for anyone to see her in time. She hardly knows this area at all. Once, late at night, she and Charley drove, speeding, up the coast until they ran over a cat apparently already injured and lying in the road. They turned around as soon as they could, and searched in the dark for it. Mina got out, weeping, shaking with horror, but it was already dead. She slid it gingerly to the shoulder. Maybe it had even been dead when they ran over it.
She looks up and down. Sunset was a long way back, too far to walk unless she absolutely has no choice. What else? She looks to her left, the direction she’s been running (which has helped to counteract the chill, if nothing else). The pier is that way; surely there’s a pay phone somewhere, maybe a bus stop? North it is—west, whatever; who ever knows with the coastline bending the way it does.
She sets out striding briskly along the edge of the highway. It does indeed prove to be a short hike to the parking lot next to the pier. Everything is closed and dark, of course, leaving just the few vestigial public lights. And yet the parking lot, the pier itself, look suddenly so exposed a place to be. There’s no point in a pay phone; there’s no one she’s going to wake at this ungodly hour to rescue her from her own mess.
Right in the midst of the wave of hangover about to break over her head, the other aftereffects making her hands shake—or is that the appalled and incredulous emotions? (won’t; mustn’t think now; keep moving)—is also the piercing awareness of her extraordinary luck, that these two strangers were only decadent and horny. Not psychos. Not violent, not—whatever; axe murderers. The slavers, pimps, she’s read about. The snuff film makers. That all the drugs were open and aboveboard, not slipped into her drinks.
Or even, just—what if she hadn’t consented? What would have happened? She knows nothing about these people with their clothes on. They could be no different from the guy who attacked Judy after work a few weeks ago. If Raoul hadn’t seen him follow her out of the club and gone after them— “She’d been teasing him, leading him on,” that’s what guys at the Whisky said: the sound guy, the lighting guy. So, what? He decided it was coming to him? He was owed a rape?
No, she will not request any assistance to extricate her from her own foolhardiness. Maybe it’s time for some self-preservation instincts to kick in, for her to manually kick them out of their latency.
So she passes the entrance to the pier after all, double-time. It still seems to take far too many pounding heartbeats, with that unpleasant prickling sense of being visible, which amounts to vulnerable. She’s pretty sure it’s knee-jerk paranoia, filed sharp by her own strung-out, fried-aftermath nerves; still, she twitches this way and that, looking around and over her shoulders. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. (The things that come flying back to you, no matter how long or thoroughly buried.) Amen.
The deeper darkness after, finally, where in her jeans and the dark t-shirt she can blend and hide, comes as such a relief she has to get stern with herself, admonishing that she’s not really invisible, any more than a toddler covering her eyes, and so not to let her guard down. A stretch of open beach assails her once again with a vertigo-inducing awareness of the stark edgeness, the looming black bulk of land yielding to the water, the extreme end of one thing and beginning of another. Her mind is telling her, for a moment, that she’s walking a fault line, or a tightrope over a chasm, but she doesn’t yield to the illusion. She begins passing a series of walls, high fences, and garage doors, some of them with lights.
At the clip she’s walking along the highway, it’s not very much longer before it curves away from the beach and crosses a bridge. She pauses; she has no clear memory of this place. Past the bridge, though, beyond the dark mass of one more hill, in the distance she can make out a faint, concentrated glow, like where there might be streetlights. Her heart leaps with something more than exertion, with relief, a little match-girl flare of hope. A hazy memory materializes, of there being something over there, official Malibu: a civic center, a shopping district, something. Surely—but she won’t get too excited yet (surely, if it is, there will be a bus stop?).
Before setting foot on the bridge (where she’s going to be really exposed again), Mina ducks down away from the road into the darker dark. Behind thin shrubbery, under palm trees, she jerks down her jeans and underwear and squats, butt now goose-bumped from the cold and, as always, from that prickly sense of the proximity of scratchy grass, unknown bugs, dirt, to its own nakedness. Still: what bliss, to empty a desperate bladder. Kevin always said so—sang so, to the Roto-Rooter jingle (“and away go troubles down the drain”), or when he got raunchier, with Alka-Seltzer’s “Down, down, down, the stomach through,” to end with “relief is just a swallow away”—expressly to tease and embarrass her, because he knew he could, until finally she was immune and just stuck out her tongue, rolled her eyes. She wonders, now, why she never got to the point of turning it back on him.
She thinks she has some tissues in her purse—but then what is she going to do? She’s not going to drop them here, even now, and she’s not going to carry them till she finds a trashcan. She’s already an oozing swamp on two legs; what’s another drop or three?
Drained, reclothed, zipped, Mina clambers back to the road, takes a deep breath, and enters the bridge. She speed-walks, so quickly she’s almost running. It’s not a short bridge. She meets a car, then a van, that hurtle on south. East. As she reaches the mid-point, she can tell she’s out over some arm of ocean, some—estuary, lagoon. The muted waves break on a spit of sand off in the darkness to her left; to the right and beneath her is water, the bridge clutched in its sharp salty chill. Her face and hands are cold, still, but the rest of her is radiant from her relentless driving of her legs, heart obliged at her command to keep them going.
She chances a look back at a highway sign she passed under on entering the bridge. Yes, there it is, officially: Malibu Lagoon and State Beach. Okay; that puts a name to it, if she ever needs to know. She realizes there must have been one for the other lanes, facing the other direction, but she was too intent on lookout—ironically—and walking to have noticed. You see only what’s relevant to your criteria, then. Maybe it’s true after all—you can’t always get what you want; but at any given time, what you need. Even, maybe, if you don’t realize what it is you need. Especially then.
All the while she hasn’t broken stride. All the while, second by second, so slowly Mina doesn’t realize it until the end of the bridge, until she steps off the narrow sidewalk again to catch her breath, the black is leaching out of the darkness, seeping away to wherever it goes. She’s surprised to see that objects now present outlines, distinct from the residual night even where artificial lights don’t shine. It’s not day, yet—sunrise is surely still half an hour or so away, and the hills completely block whatever might be happening on the eastern horizon, what she could see over downtown L.A., around the bend from the tiny house where B.P. is curled sleeping—but a morning twilight is taking hold, inch by inch.
Traffic is gradually picking up, in the same increments as the light. Mina stands for a moment getting her bearings. After an old, greenish pickup truck in need of a muffler thunders by to the right, she darts across the highway. Compared to how far she’s come, it’s nothing, the distance to the first intersection, the gas station on the corner. Also closed. Turning into Cross Creek Road, she grasps, in a flash like snapping a photograph, the rationale for putting the civic center here: nowhere since Sunset has she seen such a broad, flat expanse, the hills so retiring, not challenging the ocean, which in turn has conceded a small plain of dry land.
She passes sleeping shops, a cinema, more shops, all spread out in familiar flat, rather rural fashion. The truce between water and stone opens breathing space to better judge the advance of the day, as well. There’s actually sky in more than one direction. Daylight Savings Time or not, it’s still August, and the glow above a sort of saddle in the hills, out past the clusters of buildings, is of kindling catching.
Then, there it is! up ahead, a couple of blocks in: a bus stop. Mina’s relief-surge paradoxically lays bare every atom of her fatigue, as it relaxes her clenched hold over it, on the reins of her driven, wary flight. It’s still too soon to let go, though.
Okay—so, the one for the other direction, the direction she needs to go, will be—she crosses the empty, cold light of the street. Farther in, near a curve to the left toward more governmental-looking buildings (though still a low-slung, casual version), she spots the other sign. She has to beat down tears. Trembling all over, she sinks to the bench. She’s the only one there. After a minute of breathing, for once staring at only nothing, she jumps up to look at the schedule. Checks her watch. Looks back. The very first bus of the day is due at 6:18, from Trancas Canyon.
Which leaves Mina some fifteen minutes to watch the night slip away, the fire rise behind the mountains, the stain of the night just past retreat beyond the ocean. In the cold dawn, seagulls begin to wake and settle into parking lots, huddled as if still trying to keep warm, or shake off sleep; she supposes waiting till there’s light enough to spot food. And it is another cold daybreak on the edge of the improbable “island on the land,” where but for human meddling, parched chaparral would run scrubby right down to the sea. Does, still, for long stretches, or drought-browned grasses waiting for a spark.
So. She’s done that, now.
She shivers in her two shirts, the flush of both the adrenaline and the exercise gone. The bus appears around the curve and pulls up to the stop, a gaudy bright house trundling through the half-light. The driver opens the door. Mina has her money ready. She tells him she wants to transfer at Sunset. He closes the door. She takes the third seat on the side opposite him. They pull away from the curb.
There are only three other people on the bus so far—a young sun-bleached surfer with his board; a full-on lost hippie girl: long listless hair, long skirt, dirty crocheted poncho; a middle-aged, deeply tanned man staring out his window, like a fast-forward of the surfer in twenty years, hairline receding—isolated in their own thoughts or morning grogginess. Mina’s dimly glad no one is close enough to smell her, though she thinks maybe the chill has put her in some sort of stasis, preserving her recollections, images, even aroma, to be thawed later. But each of them has, every one of them, a full complement of memories and plans and worries. She’s just some haggard, disheveled woman boarding a coastal bus, nothing to them. I’m a stranger here myself. Here, everywhere. People are strange.
Once out on Pacific Coast Highway the bus speeds along through the empty morning. Even away from the little civic glen, where dark hills again crowd the shore (those she walked by so laboriously, past in minutes), light sifts determinedly into the gloom, wearing it away. The apartment complex of the night before flashes by, the black Sprite still snug behind the Mustang (Mina represses a hysterical laugh at the thought of their two drivers waking up together: there, admittedly, is a photo she might like to see—or not). The ocean, quiescent and gray under the paling sky, looks diminished, used up.
Even the bus takes twenty minutes to make it to Sunset; thank God she didn’t start off in this direction earlier. Traffic builds with every passing minute, every mile closer to the Palisades and Santa Monica, to the start of the workday.
At Sunset only Mina gets off, as two women about her age, office-dressed, get on. “Nice shirt,” the surfer startles her by saying as she passes.
“Thanks,” she manages, her first, hoarse word of the day, before trotting down the steps. It’s only then, of course, down on the pavement, she thinks her response should have been, “That’s exactly what I said.”
The bus heaves itself away. Mina deduces she needs to get across actually to Sunset to catch her next one. She waits for the green light, gray ocean breathing softly behind her, beyond the beach parking lot.
This bus stop is past the Union 76 station, past the supermarket, under a tree. By the time Mina’s walked to it, she has barely ten minutes to wait. It’s almost seven, now. The full sleepy, pale light of morning has washed down over the hills, the traffic risen on its spate, both on the highway off to her left, and on the wide street constantly emptying into it and being refilled.
After a few twists and turns, climbing, the bus sweeps into a certain curve with a last high, unobstructed view back over the Pacific, before the way veers once again to the left, and foliage and buildings obscure the coast for good.
(Excerpted from the novel Spitting on Hegel. “Best in Show: Literary” winner in the Shreveport Regional Arts Council’s Critical Mass 7 competition)