Two teenagers showed me the way, a boy and a girl, not siblings but also not in love, or if they were, trying to hide it from one another. I was walking along the sidewalk toward downtown Berkeley, a few blocks past the long-abandoned ice skating rink, thinking how nice it would be to be the sort of person who bicycles along with a loaf of fresh bread sticking up jauntily from the bike’s basket, instead of the kind of person walking to the drugstore to buy club soda because things haven’t gotten quite bad enough for me to drink cheap Scotch straight yet. That’s when I saw them: dripping wet in swimsuits, each with a towel draped damply over a shoulder, laughing as they turned a corner in one of the residential neighborhoods between downtown and the Bay.
I paused because I couldn’t think where they’d be walking from; miles from the Bay, which was way too cold to brave without a wetsuit anyway, and there were no public pools over there, and while there might have been a pool in someone’s backyard, those weren’t common—houses in this part of town tend to be squeezed onto lots barely larger than themselves; the houses with yards of any size are precious commodities, never mind swimming pools.
Besides: They had sand on their bare legs, and stuck to their arms, and though I’m the kind of person who uses the self-checkout line at grocery stores just to avoid the necessity of small conversation with a human cashier, I blurted out, “Hey, where were you guys swimming?” as they reached the corner where I lingered.
They exchanged a glance of raised eyebrows and quirked lips, both inhabitants of a world of nonverbal communication for which I had neither map nor codebook, and she said, “The beach,” and giggled, the laugh of someone who thinks disappointment is something that happens to other people far away, like earthquakes in China or tsunamis in the South Pacific. They both walked on past me up the street, moving a little faster than before, sparing their exit line from any follow-up questions from the balding thirty-something guy wearing too much black for such a warm day.
I forgot about my trip to the CVS and the all-important club soda, even though that first tall glass—filled with ice and two shots of Trader Joe’s Blended Scotch Whisky (9.99 a bottle) and a crackling popping measure of soda to fill it up—had become the closest thing in my life to a sacrament or a vocation. Instead I turned down the sidewalk the way the teenagers had come, and yes, I say they showed me the way: because they’d left wet shoeprints on the sidewalk and the occasional spatter of dripping water, like a blood trail on a forensic crime show, making a trail even a city dweller like me could follow like a great wilderness tracker.
I followed their dripping trail past flaking Victorian houses and brightly painted adobe bungalows, yards full of oversized flowers or drought-resistant succulents, until after a block and a half or so their trail ended next to an empty lot enclosed by a chain-link fence so overgrown with vines that it could have passed for the entry to a jungle ruin. Was there some renegade swimming hole in there, a guerilla community art project of hauled-in sand and a concrete-lined pit, like the pocket parks that sprang up sometimes when enterprising hippies or hipsters decided to reclaim waste ground or precious parking spots with a few cubic feet of potting soil, a plastic bench, and an ornamental fountain? Seemed like an ill-advised project, ultimately just a mosquito breeding program, but what else could it be?
I pushed through the overgrown shrubs, barely making out a trail, and reached the fence, where I found the chain-link had been cut apart and then re-closed with fuzzy pipe cleaners, green and red and blue. (Does anyone use pipe cleaners to clean their pipes anymore, or are they produced exclusively as arts and craft supplies for children?) I carefully untwisted them and squeezed through the gap, snagging my sagging belly-flesh on a sharp end of wire and sucking in a hiss of air through my teeth.
Once I was through, I stood up, under a sky that was noticeably bluer and more cloudless than the one on the other side of the fence, and stared at the closest thing on Earth to infinity:
The ocean. Or, at least, an ocean.
Now, understand. Berkeley, California doesn’t abut the ocean. Berkeley does touch San Francisco Bay, a few miles to the west, and it’s a pretty enough sight when the weather’s right, the gray city beyond the bay rising up from the water. But this was ocean, blue-green, wide as wide can be, view so clear you could see the curve of the horizon, and a beach of sand the color of bread crumbs toasted golden. The sound of the surf was the world’s own rhythm section, a percussive susurration that had been utterly inaudible beyond the fence, and now filled the world.
In stories, people usually assume they’ve gone crazy when things like this happen. It occurred to me that this all might be a dream, but I never notice smells in my dreams, and this was a world of salt tang and crisp air. I sank to my knees in the warm sand and stared at the grand expanse of tumbling waves, and thought if this was a coma or some profound electrochemical misfiring in my brain, then so be it: It was the most beautiful way to go I could imagine.
There’s a place in Maui, where I went on my honeymoon, that most people just call Big Beach, considered one of the most pleasant stretches of shoreline in the inhabited world. And there’s a place near Santa Cruz, on Highway 1, where you pass beneath a natural bridge and discover a strand of narrow sand bordered on one side by sea cliffs and on the other by the cold lovely Pacific. Both are glorious places, homes of my heart, from a time when my life was an opening-out instead of a closing-in. I betrayed both instantly. This beach, this twist in the usual flow of time and space, was my new favorite place in the world or out of it.
I turned back to the fence. It was still there, but shockingly small, the width of a garage door, pinned between towering cliff walls that gave me vertigo to contemplate, and extended as far as I could see in either direction. Those cliffs weren’t California sandstone, but more like white chalk—like something from the shores of England, but bordering a tropical sea. I went to the gate and refastened the gap with those flimsy pipe cleaners, wishing for chains and padlocks and razor wire … but then, this wasn’t mine to claim. I was an interloper, wasn’t I? Those kids hadn’t walked me to the door, but they hadn’t locked up the gate, either, and this place was surely big enough for more than me.
I left my shoes by the fence and set out walking barefoot in the sand. Going west, based on my own sense of direction, but going north, judging by the sun, which I realized wasn’t the same sun—a trifle more orange, maybe, perhaps a bit larger and lower in the sky. How could I even be sure the sun was setting, or that it set in the west, or that this place even had a west?
After years of being sure of everything and pleased with nothing, being utterly uncertain filled my head with the thrillful fizz of just enough champagne.
The sand was glorious under my feet, not too hot, and I walked down to the water, proof enough this was no California coast: The water was pleasantly warm, like a hot bath after forty minutes of soaking, and there were no ugly masses of dead kelp in the sand. No birds, either, or crabs, but lots of seashells. I rolled up my pant legs to my knees and waded into the foaming surf, bending to pick up impossibly smooth stones and bits of shell in colors I’d never encountered before.
I filled my pockets with shells and kept walking, and for a long time I didn’t even realize it was a person up there along the beach: It was just a speck that moved. Distances were hard to judge with just skyscraper-high cliffs and infinite ocean for scale, but I’d say I walked only a mile or so before it was a clear: a man, and something low and long and yellow, and rocks. He raised a hand in distant greeting, and I waved back, annoyed. Ridiculous, I know, but I’d found a magical world, gone through the back of the wardrobe, down the rabbit hole, through the bottom of the grandfather clock, onto Platform 9 ¾, through the looking glass. The idea that teenagers swam here and men made bonfires—yes, that was a ring of stones for a fire circle—infuriated me. Late again, late as always. This had all been happening, this had all been here, without me.
“My friend!” the man called once I got closer, though he was a stranger to me: pale, beaming, wiry, perhaps in his forties, dressed in khakis and a striped shirt that made him look like a caricature of a French waiter, with a floppy brown, wide-brimmed hat secured by a string under his chin.
I nodded at him, and looked at his—camp?—on a little spit of land that stuck farther out into the water than the rest of the beach hereabouts. The yellow thing was a boat, the inflatable kind, with a small motor, and it was half-filled with something covered by a blue tarp. A couple of oars rested inside as well. The thing hardly looked like an oceangoing vessel—but it looked like the kind of boat you could get through the gap in the fence when it was deflated, which was probably more important.
The stranger clapped me on the shoulder, barely able to contain his delight at seeing me, not a reaction I’d seen from anyone in longer than I could remember. “Do you have the key?” he said.
“Mister,” I said, “I have no earthly idea what you’re talking about.”
He frowned and took a step back, looked me up and down, and said, “No, you’re definitely him—you’re here, and that’s proof enough, even if I didn’t recognize you. You never dreamed about me?”
“I don’t remember my dreams,” I said, a mostly-truth. I don’t anymore. One of the effects—one of the best effects—of my antianxiety medication is that it spares me from my dreams.
He nodded briskly, as if this were a small technical problem he could easily overcome. He had an air of easy competence I found profoundly dispiriting. “Well, let me ask—do you have a key? One you’ve carried around for years, and you don’t know why?”
I frowned. My wife, when I had a wife, had called it my lucky charm, though it had never brought me any luck that I’d noticed: an old-fashioned key I’d found as a child in the weeds behind my house and somehow kept ever since, black iron with a barrel as long as my pinky finger and three notched teeth, with an ornate loop of curved metal at the other end. I used it as a fob, hooked to the ring that held my actual keys. My wife had said it might open the door to my dream house, if I ever found it, but I’d always thought it looked more like something to seal up a dungeon—like it had been used to lock-up something terrible, and then thrown away.
I crossed my arms. “Look, do you mind telling me what’s going on? What is this place?” I hated the sound of my own voice: nasally and peevish, the voice of a whiner and regretter, talking to a man who was clearly a doer of acts.
“Of course, forgive me.” He sat on the sand, cross-legged, and I lowered myself to face him. “I began dreaming of this beach a year ago to the day,” he said. “Every night. At first I ignored it, but one day I just followed my feet to the fence—well, you know, you did the same thing, even if you’ve forgotten the dreams that showed you the way. After I found the beach, the dreams began to tell me what to do, about the voyage I’d take, the perils I’d face, and, of course, the ones who would help me. The woman who brought me a canteen that, in this place, turns salt water sweet. A boy and a girl who brought me a toy compass that shows the way across the sea, and a toy spyglass that sees for miles. They still come here to swim, sometimes, and I think the water may keep them young for a very long time. The old man who brought me the net that summons delicious fish to the surface. And now, you, with the key: the last thing I need.”
“Who brought you the boat?” I asked, reaching out and thumping my fist against the inflated side.
He laughed, the laugh of a man who always finds whatever he needs near to hand and thinks that’s perfectly natural. “Some things I had to provide myself. I set sail at sunset. Well, not sail, but you get the idea. I just need the key.”
“Huh. What if I don’t have it?”
His smile didn’t exactly falter, but he looked puzzled. “You’re here. That means you’re meant to be here. I tried to show the beach to my friends, when I first found it, but none of them could even see this place. Most people, if they crawl through that fence, they just find a lot full of weeds and garbage. But not you. You must be him. You belong.”
I looked at the boat. The ocean. The lowering sun. “Am I, ah, supposed to go with you?” There was a note in my voice that even I would have been hard-pressed to identify.
Now his smile did disappear, slowly, like a pot of water boiling dry on the stove. “No,” he said. “No, it’s not like that.”
Story of my life: I was nothing but part of the story of someone else’s life.
“I’ll just get you the key,” I said, standing up.
“Thank you.” He stood up when I did. “I’ve waited for so long.”
I’d never punched anyone before, and it hurt my hand far worse than I can imagine it hurt his face. His nose didn’t even bleed, but he fell down, sitting back on the sand, and stared up at me, bewildered, even when I picked up the oar and swung in a way I hadn’t swung anything since little league when I was seven years old. I didn’t mean to hit him so hard; I’d figured I could just tie him up—he had to have some rope under that tarp somewhere—but he didn’t move again, and some blood ran from his ear into the sand, so I just left him alone after I took the compass and the little plastic spyglass from his pocket; the net and canteen were already in the boat.
I am sorry. I am. But I learned long ago that saying “I’m sorry” isn’t the same as saying “I wouldn’t do it again.”
He had a notebook and one of those space pens that writes underwater wrapped up in a waterproof pouch. The book has the words “Ship’s Log” and a picture of an anchor on the cover embossed in gold. I’ve been writing in it while I wait for the sun to go down, and by now it’s almost too dark to see the black words on the white page. That’s fine. It’s almost time to push into the waves anyway.
I don’t have my medication with me, so maybe tonight I’ll dream. But if I don’t, that’s fine too. Water to drink, sweeter than Scotch and soda, I’m sure. I’ll catch fish to eat.
Compass to guide me; glass to see. And a key. My key, whatever another man’s dreams might have to say.
My key. And whatever it opens, whatever that brings: mine too.
Mine at last.