San Bernardino County is sort of the Twilight Zone of Southern California. It feels much more like the desert that it is, rather than the heavily developed Orange County and the sprawling urban Los Angeles cityscape. Its reputation is composed primarily of stifling heat and meth production. Rebecca now lives in Redlands, a small college city hidden in the dusty mountains. I packed my things into my very old Mercedes and my project began. Two hours away from our hometown, I found Rebecca’s apartment just after the sun had set and we made a trip to the run down Stater Bros. four blocks away, bringing home industrial sized bottles of red wine. That night, she and I sat together on the couch with our knees folded up against our chests and nursed glasses of Cabernet. Outside, the flat California homes built to resist earthquakes sprawled like sad fixtures in the impossible desert. Too dry to cultivate healthy grass lawns, many of the homes opted instead for pebbles and cacti.
Redlands is nowhere as affluent as the Orange County norm and Becks laughs, calling it “ghetto but charming.” The community is closed and wary of visitors but, she claimed, there was a sense of unity. It reminded me of the town in To Kill a Mockingbird and, when I told her so, she nodded thoughtfully.
“Yeah, something like that. And there are things that the 909-ers actively avoid addressing. Things like how girls who are stupid enough to walk home alone at night and cut through the orange groves that are all over the place get raped on the regular. The city and the university keep saying they’re going to do something about it but they never do.”
Rebecca’s couch becomes my bed, her living room my new bedroom, and we spend happy thoughtless days together. She is studying speech pathology at the university and, when she is in class, I stay home and write bad articles. It is similar to the time we’d spent in Paris together, years ago. Sometimes, I drive the poorly planned streets of Redlands and get acquainted with the quaint downtown area. The glamor people usually associate with Southern California had dissipated in the desert sun. Bleached and flaking paint announced the liquor stores nestled between non-descript fast-food joints. Cigarette butts littered the suburban sidewalks, baking in the afternoons. Our favorite restaurant is an unfortunately located Thai place that looks deceptively suspect from the outside. The food, however, was unapologetic with its spicy and we happily shared drunken dinners, noses running and eyes watering as we labored over our noodles.
Redlands’s claim to fame is a small brewery called Hangar 24, located in one of the hangars of the tiny Redlands Municipal Airport. On a sunny weekend, we ride our bikes to the brewery. The airport is hidden behind groves of oranges and empty fields of golden, crackling long grass fenced by barbed wire. Daylight made the orange groves, despite their reputation, seem cheerful and iconic. The roads progress gradually towards dusty gravel and we park in a lot where little tornados whip up the dry California topsoil. The brewery itself is small and great copper vats are naked and exposed. There is a patio with a long picnic table and we bring our beer sampler to the bench. The skies are a glorious, almost terrifying sort of blue. The type of blue that is so deeply concentrated it makes the sky look like a sea. Against it, the San Bernardino Mountains rose, bearing their own hue of baked bronze; their outlines cutting clear, definitive lines across the horizon. The sun is relentless and we squint behind our sunglasses, the corners of our smiles pushing the skin up in little crinkles by our eyes. With the light casting down in long, glittering shafts against her profile, Rebecca looks so fucking studly. California was her backdrop and she downed her IPA with practiced gusto. Single-flyer planes in bright reds and yellows zipped up into the air all around us, like mechanical toys you’d see at county fairs.
On All Hallows’ Eve, the two of us donned carefully crafted costumes and she took me to a house party reminiscent of my own college years. Pretty, long-legged girls with face-paint scooped hunch punch from an open cooler with red cups. I stared down into said cooler and saw a couple of stray leaves and a drowning fly struggling to stay afloat.
“I need a cigarette,” I tried to tell my friend over the din of the music but she was wrist-deep in punch and I made my way alone into the backyard. In the shadows, I could make out the forms of drunken boys urinating. I looked around at the clusters of friends, talking loudly and not hearing each other. There was a boy in a brown wool suit, a suit like the ones dead writers would wear, smoking alone on the mound under the only tree in the backyard and I joined him. As I approached, he grinned at me in a crooked sort of way that made me grin myself and I was taken aback by the way his face was composed. Dark hair and light eyes that were deep-set and slightly too close together, his defining feature was the familiar way he smiled, like his natural state of being was suspended in a haze of joy.
“Hi!” he said brightly, offering a light that I took graciously, my fingers lingering on his hand while he held the flame to my cigarette.
“What are you dressed as?” I asked as an invitation to conversation and he started laughing in that easy way, bending over slightly and rubbing one hand against the prickles on his cheek.
“I have no idea!” he admitted with giddy enthusiasm. “I just like this old jacket so much, don’t you? My name is Jack!”
People talk about chemistry like it’s no big deal but it always seemed like a funny concept to me. I don’t usually believe that two people, when they initially meet, can taste chemistry like strawberries or a good steak. Standing in the backyard with the music from the party polluting the nighttime, however, I fell into an effortless banter with my stranger and, for the first time since my return to California, began to imagine going to bed with a man. It had been a long time since the last time I’d been with someone. For the most part, it wasn’t something I thought about. The eerily quiet offices and cubicles that had occupied my life left little room for me to feel attractive and my desires had dried up like a drought. He tucked my hair back behind my ears. I touched his arm when he made me laugh. He started on some poorly advised rant about Harry Potter and my legs parted ju-uuuust a little bit.
We went back to his house together, one of those one-story homes with a gravel lawn and a stately, phallic cactus standing guard in front of his small porch. Quiet, to not wake his housemates, we entered through the creaking wooden door. The house was dark and he switched on a small lamp that cast a quiet golden glow. The dining room had a handsome but obviously weathered table, its surface littered with newspaper clippings and old books. On the wall hung a map of the world, unfolded and re-folded, push pins indicating cities — visited, perhaps? I wondered about this map and the people who had left the pins there, all of their lives contained in San Bernardino, California, but aching to explode from the confines of the mountains that surrounded them. As I studied the map, he stood behind me and put his hands gingerly around my waist. I leaned slightly back into him and he wrapped himself around me with more confidence.
“Come on, I have something to show you. It’s creepy though.” This is not a promising thing to hear from a man you do not know when visiting his home for the first time but I shrugged and obliged, following him into the still-dark living room.
“Turn on the light, pull that string over there.” I tugged at the string to ignite the ceiling light and revealed a living room plastered in pictures of bulldogs. A bulldog statue stood, its expression gruff and commanding, on the ample mantle. There were bulldogs with moustaches, bulldogs in costumes, bulldogs in baby cradles. Each picture was framed meticulously and displayed on the shelves on either side of the fireplace. Speechless, I turned to look at Jack whose face was contorted into such a conflicted expression of pained embarrassment and amusement that it looked a bit like he was eating himself from the inside out.
“It’s creepy, I know.”
“I mean, it’s not. It could be cute. It’s sort of cute.”
“No it’s not. It’s not cute in the least. It’s creepy.”
“I mean, okay, yes. It’s a little creepy. Why do you have all of these?”
“My landlord just decorates this house like this and told us when we moved in that we’re not allowed to redecorate. I can’t bring anyone over here because it’s so damn creepy but I figured it’d be better if I showed you rather than have you, like, stumble on it in the middle of the night or something.” He was beet red and kept putting his open hands over his face, rubbing at it as though trying to wash the shame away. I took one of his hands away from his face and he peered through the fingers of his other as I tiptoed up and kissed him.
Jack’s house was charmingly old-fashioned, his tiny bathroom home to a beautiful porcelain tub that stood on tarnished silver feet. The walls of the kitchen were painted blue and the cabinets white. His old wood floors reminded me of the homes I’d visited when I’d lived in Atlanta, the architecture aspiring to be like the generously pretty Southern homes in Little Five Points or Cabbagetown. Not luxurious but certainly beautiful, a rustic sort of charm. His bedroom was large but strewn with clothes and weed paraphernalia. There was an old-fashioned, glass-paned window that was broken from, according to him, when he’d accidentally closed it too hard one morning. With essentially what was a gaping hole in his bedroom wall, the night invaded Jake’s bedroom and made it very, very cold. We huddled, sitting cross-legged on his bed beside each other and leaned against the wall, smoking from a pretty orange bubbler that he called the “Tangerine Machine.” Both of us, stoned, were very quiet.
“Let’s have sex,” I said quietly. It was still very cold.
“I mean we don’t have to!” he responded quickly, his breath like a little explosion of fog in front of his face. “We could just talk, we could just talk.” He said it twice, looking at me the second time. I smiled and put my cold fingers against his cold cheek.
“You know, I’m not from here. I’m leaving tomorrow morning and I may not be back for a long time. If this is the only night we get, I would like to have sex with you.”
He considered my proposition for a second, looking first disappointed and then perplexed. Finally, that grin of his returned and he pulled me to lie down with him, yanking the covers over our heads. He kissed me endlessly.
The sex was not memorable, him timid and me confused, and both of us very cold. It was nothing like the random men I’d had during college. It wasn’t rushed and dirty and frantic. There was something very fragile about the way he moved on top of me and I finished him with my mouth. He pulled me by my arms towards his face immediately afterwards, all our limbs tangling together, and held me like he thought I was going to run away.
Eventually, when he hopped out of bed and scurried from the cold room to use the bathroom, I got on his computer and looked up “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Gladys had just begun to sing her first verse when he came back in and found me dancing, naked in the moonlight filtering in from his broken window.
He’s leaving (leaving)
I found my underwear under his bed and scampered into them.
On that midnight train to Georgia, yeah
Doing a little spin with my arms above my wild hair and my chin tucked to my chest, I picked up my skirt with my toes.
Leaving on the midnight train
Said he’s going back
Going back to find
To a simpler place and time, oh yes he is
“Why are you getting dressed? Stay the night,” he implored, both of us already knowing what my answer would be.
I’ll be with him
(I know you will)
On that midnight train to Georgia
I finished dressing and crawled into his bed next to him. He took two cigarettes from a pack of Camels, lighting them both at the same time and handing me one. We smoked in silence, our hands like big, fleshy spiders, one on top of the other. The song ended; he walked with me out of his house and down the steps of his porch, across the pebbly front yard, and then watched me drive away.
My world, his world, our world, his girl
I got to go
I spent one last night on Rebecca’s couch and, in the morning, I took a shower while she made us omelets.
“Where to now?” she asks