Mark De Cristo
On the peninsula there is a wild forest that has been allowed to stay as it is without new development. There are cypress trees that grow and crawl and expand out over the small hills that empty into the ocean. They lead right down into it. The trees look confused, mangled, and definitely not ordinary. I really appreciate them. I had driven a small black car through the windy roads in and out of their shadows. I thought some day I’d like to own a small plot of land by the ocean somewhere and plant a lot cypress trees. Is it true you have to be rich to buy land near the ocean? I don’t think so. I am a dreamer, so I am allowed to believe it.
I am a very devout, religious person. I won’t tell you what religion I belong to, because I learned early that such details just make things more difficult. It’s not that I don’t truly believe, but unfortunately, sharing this belief does not always inspire others. I go every morning or afternoon to my place of worship and pray for miracles. Some of them happen and others don’t. I tell no one about either because they would think I was crazy, either for believing what happened was in fact a miracle and not just a coincidence, or that praying would make a difference. I find it a very touchy subject. I thought such faith would lead to a life full of happiness, but instead it makes other people dislike me, and I feel more alone because of it. The big miracle is going to happen, I know it, but now I’m doing a lot of praying and introspection. My mother says I do it too much, that I should be more like other people my age and go out and have fun. I’m twenty-four right now. I’m not sure if I’m old or young. I can’t go out with the high school kids anymore, but there is a pretty large variety of people my own age. Some of them are working real hard and climbing a ladder that leads them somewhere. Others are sleeping in and unsure of what the meaning of the sunrise is. I’m pretty sure I know where I fall, but because my pride is too big I won’t admit it.
I live with my mother. She is divorced from my Dad. He left her because he wanted a younger woman. He is now living with a girl a few years older than me. My Mom has a Spanish boyfriend who is also divorced. Sometimes she is in Spain, and I have our whole mansion to myself. Sometimes she is here, and I feel as though I’m attached to a ball and chain. I cannot leave for more than forty-five minutes without receiving a phone call asking me “Where are you?” or “When are you coming home?” or “Can you pick up some milk on your way back?” I am annoyed at these intrusions into my independence, but at the same time, I know I shouldn’t be. Why do I have those feelings? I wish I wasn’t that way. I ought to return at least a bit of the charity she has shown me my whole life. Between the ages of six and ten I had periodic bouts of pneumonia, and my mother was always by my side in the hospital. I sat in a tent bed with some kind of mucus-killing spray clouding my view of visitors, but she was there, with toys, books, or a meal she had cooked at home. She tells me now this time was very hard on her. A son who is six cannot understand what his mother is going through when he becomes sick. I am only now beginning to understand. She tells me to wait until I have my own children.
Right now, I’m sitting in our backyard. It sits atop a hill overlooking my hometown. I won’t say the name of the town because it doesn’t make any difference; I’ll only say it’s in the Southwestern United States near the ocean in a very wealthy and Republican area. We have a small, oddly shaped pool back here, with a Jacuzzi adjacent. They share water through little ridges in the walls that divide them. When I was young I used to really enjoy sticking my arm into the cold pool while I sat in the infernally hot Jacuzzi. This never ceased to fascinate me, that these two bodies of water that were so close and feeding water to each other could be so radically different in temperature, and I could feel both within my body at the exact same time.
The rest of our backyard is a very pretty, strictly maintained little garden. My mother is German and leaves nothing untouched or unclean. We have roses and many other flowers, but I don’t know the names of them. I’ve never been someone who knows the names of flowers. I would like to be, but they just don’t stick in my head. I must make a note of that. I think girls like men who know the names of flowers. That could be useful down the line. I do know, though, that when I walk out the back door and onto the patio, I am overwhelmed at the mix of colors and scents that come in with the ocean breeze. I cannot even explain where exactly this feeling comes from—I just know it flows through me with a sudden joy that is invisible and somehow made visible in this garden.
I’m sitting here on this lounge chair, struggling to get tan. I have Italian heritage from my Dad, and a very hairy chest, and I figure I might as well be tan as well, but unfortunately I’m not one of those sexy dark southerners. I get burnt very often out here. I end up looking Norwegian instead of Italian because I’m red everywhere. I should really start using suntan lotion, but the flab on my belly keeps me from doing so. When I rub it, the blubber kind of wobbles and that’s embarrassing. Not that I’m fat. I’m not at all. It’s just that my body fat percentage is too high. That’s something we measure a lot around here. In New York I never had a second thought about my body fat percentage, but here we talk about it all the time. It’s very important for health reasons, as well as for looking good on the beach, and who doesn’t want to look good on the beach? Even New Yorkers want to look good on the beach.
I try to read out here, under the sun, but I find it difficult. There’s a road right below, and cars are constantly driving by, and it disrupts my concentration. I read better indoors, but of course there is no sun tanning me there, so I must sit outside. I have two cordless phones next to me, one a cell phone, the other the house phone.
My phone is ringing. I look at the caller ID but it’s a private call. I hate when that happens. I should answer it though, because I’ve been applying for jobs.
“Hey.” It’s my friend Adam. He works at a sex shop.
“Hey, what’s happenin’.” We talk to each other only in slang.
“What’s goin’ on dude.”
“Nothing much, what about you?”
“Just at work, that’s all.”
There is a blank moment on the phone. It’s odd speaking on a house cordless phone outdoors. It just doesn’t feel right, like I’m on a foreign planet or something, like Venus, and I’m radioing in to Houston to describe all these wonderful living beings I’m seeing.
“What’s going on tonight?”
“I don’t know. I get off at ten.”
“Yeah, so just give me a call around then, or I’ll give you a call.”
“All right. Sounds good.”
“OK, talk to you later.”
Quite a conversation. I very often blame it on my friends for not talking enough or not being interesting enough, but it’s really just as much my fault. I don’t know what happened. So many things used to be funny, but now they’ve lost their humor. It’s as though underneath every word and breath there is something else that should be said and felt.
It is getting very hot out here. I can’t look at the sun, it’s so bright. When I look away I see orange spots everywhere. Maybe I should fall asleep and take a little nap. But then I won’t sleep tonight. I am trying to get on a normal sleeping schedule. I suffer from insomnia until about four in the morning, at which point I go into a deep, lengthy, and uninterruptible sleep. I decide to lightly close my eyes. I have forgotten to put sun tan lotion on.
* * *
I am walking up a hill. This time I will say where I am. The hill is in Northern California, in a famous area called Napa Valley. Very expensive and exquisite wines are made here.
Recently, a family member purchased one hundred and fifteen acres of undeveloped property for a future estate house. I’ve always thought it would be exciting to have a family estate house. There will even be vineyards planted and wine made. I’ve always dreamed of walking hand in hand with a beautiful love through the narrow alleyways of a vineyard and picking a secluded area where we would drink a bottle of wine made from those grapes, and then we would kiss and it would all be very romantic. I don’t have those dreams very often anymore because I think they’re childish, but I wish I did. The more dreams you have the more you hope for. When you lose those, you become discontented even with what you already have.
Although this land is now in the family, nothing has been built on it and it’s definitely not an estate yet. Deer and wild turkey roam across it. There are huge piles of dung everywhere. Rattlesnake holes signal a hidden danger that I never fully believe in. I see these holes everywhere, but I’ve never actually seen a snake.
I escape. I get into my small black car and drive north from my anonymous town in Southern California. My mother doesn’t even know where I am. She gets worried, so she’s probably called the police by now. She’s very nice and has sacrificed many pleasures for me. But I am an ungrateful son and I’ve run away because it’s too much for me.
I come up on the Interstate 5 freeway that goes right through the Central Valley, which stretches for hundreds of miles. There’s nothing there, just a long sweep of never-ending agricultural fields that are sprayed by little planes with anti-insect chemicals. I forget their proper name. I also drive by a slaughterhouse, and see all the cows by the road, laying around in their dirt and dung and muck. I’m a huge beef eater, but I admit I’m sickened. I don’t even want to imagine what goes on inside that slaughterhouse, or the kind of people that work there. My friend Adam, the one who works in a porno shop, he read a little pamphlet about what goes on in there, and instantly became a vegetarian. So I don’t even want to know, lest I ruin my hungry life and disrupt that little happy spot of blubber around my waist.
This property in Napa has a few cypress trees as well. I am going to camp out tonight under one of them. What if there were monkeys living in it, swinging off their low-hanging branches? And vipers and koala bears and polar bears? It seems our wildlife here is so boring. Why is it so much more exciting in other countries? Why can’t we have wild and dangerous animals roaming everywhere like they do in Africa and Australia? It’s so disappointing.
Where I’m going to pitch my tent is the spot of the future house that will be built sometime in the next ten years. The family member who owns the property is going to tear down the cypress trees because they block the view of the lake below. I tried to convince him not to, but he will do as he pleases. What’s the use of such a nice property if you can’t enjoy the view? That’s why it was so expensive in the first place.
I get the tent out of my bag. It’s an old blue two-man, with a see-through top so you can look at the stars at night. I take it out of the bag and start fiddling with the metal rods and putting them together. It’s quite simple to do, and within about fifteen minutes I’ve got the whole thing set up. It’s late afternoon, and the sun is lowering itself a bit below the hill, down by the lake. There is a soft, cool breeze. I pull a lukewarm beer out of the bag, sit down on a little bump in the ground, and look out into the lake valley. In the distance I can see a small two-lane highway and the cars rolling up and down it. It’s so far you can’t hear a thing. In the lake there’s a little canoe. I can’t see if there’s anybody in it, but it’s long so I know it’s a canoe. Maybe they’re fishing? I ought to do that sometime. The breeze rattles through the trees. The leaves shake lightly and fall to the ground. Down to my left, further down the steep incline, is a Manzanilla bush. The branches are bright red. I’d never even heard of it until the last time I came up here. It looks like the devil’s tree, it’s so red and jerky, and it grows in the oddest directions. But I admire it. Sometimes beauty is found in the oddest places, and things are not as they look. You get out here, away from your life, and for a brief moment you think how beautiful and good everything is. Except for myself, but once you get out there, even your own self begins to feel good, just like God made you, before you blew it.
The breeze gets stronger all of a sudden, surprisingly, and my light little tent gets blown a bit off its base because I haven’t hammered it down. And then I hear it. A loud rhythmic cha-cha that starts and stops and starts and stops. I look over at the tent and there she is, a big bright diamondback rattlesnake, wiggling her tail like a happy dog, but she sure doesn’t seem too happy. She had to leap out from under my tent. Imagine that! I might have been sleeping in there, right next to a life-threatening wild reptile! But she isn’t going anywhere. Her lower body curls up, her tail sticks up and rattles, her head erect and tongue popping in and out. Her cold eyes stare right into mine, cold like a great white. I don’t want any trouble. But she sure is angry. What can I do? The fear creeps into me. I feel a little sorry for the animal. But how can I sit here next to a poisonous snake? I’m far away from the nearest town, up in the hills away from St. Helena. If that sucker bites me, I’m a goner.
I throw a little stick at her, and she lunges at it, fast as a boomerang, immediately bouncing back to her combat position.
“Get out of here.” Does she understand me?
I throw a little pebble, and another one, and another little stick, but she won’t move and she’s still attacking those lifeless objects.
She won’t stop her rattling, and her small evil eyes fed by her cold blood have chosen me as an enemy and a target. I look her in the eye, she at me, the rattle going into overdrive. Something in her look pierces my soul, and then I feel sorry for her again. Clearly she does not want to eat me for dinner. So why is she rattling at me? What have I done? I step back and look around me. My tent does not look right. This is neither a campsite nor a truly wild forest, even though I want it to be. The ground has been cleared for eventual construction. A pipe sticks out from the ground that goes down in the ground to a well. A path of gravel leads down to where the car is parked. Then down on the road below a big rig sounds its horn as it rounds the small lake.
* * *
A week later, it is my mother’s birthday. Shopping for a gift has always struck me as superficial, almost like taking the trash out?your heart is not really in it. This year, I have decided to make her a collage of photos. My Dad even helped out and offered me some older pictures from when I was a baby. I figured a mother likes to see photos of her children when they were little. We are sitting in our living room. I have made a little booklet with pictures on each page, and she is going through and smiling and wondering where I’ve found the old photos.
When she turns to the next page, there is a picture of me at age six in my tent bed at the hospital. The tubes are connected to my bubble, ventilating the air inside with anti-asthma and pneumonia medicine. My eyes are looking out from inside the plastic, but I have a smile on my face. I am holding a small toy motorcycle in my hand. My sister, who is only a few years older, took the photo. I’ve written under it, “Thanks for always being there for me.”
My mom stands up and gives me a big hug after going through the whole booklet of pictures. On the wall behind her I notice a present I received from a middle-aged woman in Italy. She was my landlady and had no children, and treated me at times like her own son. It’s small crucifix carved from African cypress. You have to kind of look twice to know what it is. The truth is, I hadn’t seen it in a while, even though I walk by it every day. I unhook it and bring it into my room. I figure it might make a better view than staring at an empty white ceiling.