After Clare’s posts this week, I decided to jump the short story bandwagon. I took a nonfiction narratives class last semester at the University of Maryland, and wrote a short story that is loosely based on the first time that I visited my hometown after moving across the country. Which I guess makes it fiction instead of nonfiction… Oops. Please don’t tell my professor.
I smell salt in the air as I step off the plane. It is something that I hadn’t even realized I had missed until now. I glance over my shoulder, and off in the distance there is Goleta Beach and the sea glimmering in the California sunshine. I can almost feel the saltwater lapping around my ankles and I experience the siren’s call of the Pacific Ocean for the first time since my family moved three years ago. I turn towards the airport and see homes with red tiled roofs nestled in the foothills of the Santa Ynez mountains and smile. Is this how Odysseus felt, setting foot on Ithacan soil after many years away? Some people call this place paradise, some call it Santa Barbara. I used to call it home.
The Santa Barbara Airport is small and slow. It takes almost half an hour for the bags to get to baggage claim from the plane and I can see it makes some tourists impatient as they wait. They’d better get used to waiting during their trip, though, as time means something different here. People have permission to relax in Santa Barbara—they don’t have to rush, and usually they don’t. Eventually I get my bag and run over to where my best friend Kate is waiting in the parking lot. Kate and I have been friends since freshman year of high school, though it seems longer than that. Since the move we’ve kept up through texting, phone calls, and email. We’ve even watched movies over the phone together. We’ve grown closer, even with 2,371 miles between us. I hug her tightly and we jump up and down for a moment, excited to see each other after such a long time apart.
“I see Marlon Brando is still running,” I say and lovingly pat the hood of her car.
“Only through prayer and encouragement.” Kate gets in the car. “He’s a difficult creature, we named him well.”
I laugh. “I missed you.”
She smiles and I know she’s missed me too.
The Pacific wind messes with our hair as we drive down the highway with the windows down. It is July, but the Mediterranean climate feels cool in comparison to the blistering heat and strength-sapping humidity of the East Coast. We drive to the mecca of all California ex-pats—In-N-Out Burger—and sit outside while we talk, laugh, and catch up, our bare legs and shoulders soaking in the sunshine. We should put on sunscreen, but the sun feels so nice that it seems a shame to move and spoil it all.
I can’t help but gape as I look around at the palm trees, bougainvillea bushes, and the mountains in the distance. These used to be everyday sights, but now the beauty and colors overwhelm me. I think about the swimming holes and campgrounds hidden in the chaparral up in the mountains and I can’t wait to drive up the winding San Marcos Pass to explore them again. “We’ll go on Wednesday,” Kate promises, and I have to be content with that. I want to do anything and everything right now, and I’m being pulled in a million different directions, though one place lurks in the back of my mind during our entire meal.
Once we’re done eating I casually suggest, “My old house is pretty close. Let’s go.”
“If you want,” she says, “though a lot has changed.”
“Let’s go,” I tell her, before I can change my mind. We get back into her car and drive to Pintura Drive. Pintura means “paint” or “painting” in Spanish, and while the street is anything but picturesque, it was home for twelve years. No one, unless he or she is a movie star, can afford a big house in Santa Barbara. Forbes ranks Santa Barbara as the second hottest metropolitan housing market for a reason—before the stock market crashed, an average home in Santa Barbara was selling for $1,667,500. That doesn’t mean that everyone lives in mansions, though. Houses are small and crammed together. Yards are nonexistent. This would be problematic in other places, but people don’t spend much time inside here. They come for the land, not where they lay their heads at night. It is sunny and sixty degrees almost year round. The beach is three miles away. The mountains are two miles away. While the houses are dingy and depressing on Pintura Drive, all anyone needs to do is look outside and it doesn’t matter anymore.
We pull up in front of house number 543, and I almost don’t recognize my childhood home. The structure is the same, all 1,000 square feet of it, but it is yellow instead of white, and the ivy that used to frame the window to my bedroom is gone. So is the split rail fence that my father built by hand, my brother’s favorite climbing tree, our fruit trees. The garden my mother grew and tended is ripped out. A stranger’s car sits in the driveway, a slick, back thing with its belly low to the ground. I realize that while the house is still here, my childhood home is gone forever. As I stand there, I wonder if they’ve painted over the little markings on the inside of the closet door that traced the growth of my brother Jonathan and me throughout the years. I wonder if my room is still a pale blue, if our kitchen is still a cheery yellow. Before I can help it, I feel my throat closing, tears pricking my eyes.
“Kate, I need to get out for a minute,” I say, though I’m already halfway out of the car.
“Sure… You okay?” she asks, and I can see that she’s worried.
I shake my head. “There’s something I need to see. I’ll be back.” I start walking up the street towards a path lined with bougainvillea, and I hear her car door slam behind me. But I don’t want to wait. After what I’ve just seen, I need to see this alone.
There is a place near Pintura called Blueberry Hill, little more than a concrete path that leads to the top of a hill. One night when I was in third grade, I snuck out of my window and met my friends on the hill. Under the shelter of our favorite tree we crouched with pilfered candles and Jennifer Waldman whispered that the old brick walls that circled around the hill in intervals were foundations to an old house. “A man was building the house for his future bride, but she died before the house was finished and they could be married,” she told us, the light from the candles casting odd shadows on her face. “In grief, the man gave up his plans and gave the hill to the city officials, who made it into a park. The ghost of the woman still haunts the hill at night, since it was the last place she saw her love before she died.” She blew out her candle and we all laughed nervously. The goose bumps on our skin as we snuck back to our beds were not from the cold.
I played on Blueberry Hill every day after school until the day that I started junior high. It is a hill with steep sides covered in weeds that grow tall and golden, where green grass grows soft and lush at the very top. There are two places on the hill where trees grow thick and close together, and sandstone boulders lie scattered here and there. Growing up these places easily became plains, fields, forests, and mountains, and the hill itself took the shape of Narnia and Middle Earth, of Camelot and Neverland, as well as worlds of my own creation. Blueberry Hill was my world, my domain, and the safest place I have ever known.
As I walk up to the top on that July afternoon, I see the large willow tree where friends and I built a rope swing one summer. “There’s that one moment when you jump off the branch and onto the seat,” Marvae Williams told me one night as we sat at the top of the hill, “where I feel like I’m flying, like I can do anything.” Next I see the steep part of the hill where we all rolled down in garbage cans in our own perverse version of the Olympics during the Athens games and George Burck broke his arm. I squeeze a blue berry from a bush between my fingers, and remember the time we discovered that a bright red juice came out of the berries that looked a lot like blood. We ruined so many white shirts that summer.
The concrete path eventually gives way to a dusty track that the feet of countless children have made over the years, and then I am finally at the top. I look out from the top of the hill, seeing red tile roofs and the tops of palm trees. I stand there for a while. The hill is smaller than I remembered, and crammed with memories of people I once knew and loved. My heart begins to hurt, as if it isn’t able to hold all of my jumbled emotions. The sunlight takes on a golden hue. This is my favorite time on the hill, where time seems to slow and adventures always seem more possible. Kate finds me there, but she doesn’t say anything. She knows me well, and knows that I need to sort through this tangle of emotion before I am ready to talk.
“I just need to see one more thing,” I tell her. She nods and follows me down the hill into a stand of trees. I breathe out a sigh of relief when I see that my tree is still there. It is the best tree on the hill, and I fought tooth and nail for it while growing up. The bark is a pale brown and smooth to the touch, and the oval leaves are a dark green. The tree’s branches grow wild. Some hang down to create a canopy, some are weaved together into seats. The light that streams through the canopy takes on a greenish hue, and the air is cooler here in the shade. This has always been my favorite place on the hill. I wrote my first story while enveloped in the branches of this tree. Whenever we played, my house was always up in its branches. I used to sit here for hours and do homework, listen to music, and think. As I got older, I would come here and talk to friends about life and school, but mostly books and stories.
I press my forehead against the cool bark, greeting my old friend, and then climb up into my tree and take my usual seat. I feel better immediately. I am safe and comforted, at peace.
Kate climbs up and sits next to me. “I’m sorry they changed everything at your house.”