“Let’s follow the sun,” she said.
“Why?” I asked. She was always making ambiguous and bold statements like these and would never follow up on them unless I asked her to.
“Because it’s almost Winter, and why would we want to be in the cold?”
“I like the cold.”
“Being cold is so uncomfortable.”
“Well, I happen to hate being hot. It makes me feel claustrophobic.”
“No, the cold makes me feel claustrophobic. You have to wear so many layers of clothing to stay warm, then, once you step inside a heated room, you’re too hot and bundled up so tight it takes forever to just get your jacket off.”
“Fine. Where do you want to go?”
I thought about what she said for a few days. The truth was, I didn’t really want to go to South America, but in the end I said yes. Because what kind of asshole doesn’t want to go to South America? And I had this girl who wanted to go with me, a loner type with ambitions too high and not enough stamina to push himself to get there. I’m a hermit, to put it plainly, and Kate, well, she’s nearly the opposite of that. She’s never set foot on the ground since she was allowed to leave home.
When we met, I was in New York City at a writer’s convention and she was “hanging out with friends”. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but I didn’t question her. She amazed me. She looked as if she never cut her hair in her life and let it drop down over her face if it wanted to; it never bothered her enough to push it away. I can’t say why she was attracted to me. I can’t really say why anyone ever was. But Kate was that night, and still is, and I can’t believe it. So if she wants to go to South America for the Winter, I need to say yes. I did, though, put up one condition.
I had two friends, a couple, living in the Northern parts of California that I had been meaning to visit for years. I knew Mark and Dorothy since Arizona where we all went to college, and when I lived alone and they lived next door, which meant they felt bad for me and always invited me over. Eventually, it didn’t feel like they felt bad for me and we all truly wanted to be around each other, a lot as I remember. They moved up near Ukiah two years ago and had been telling me to come and stay with them since. They said I’d love it up there “as a writer”. That statement irked me, but I appreciated the consideration.
“It’s going to be raining the whole time. Why don’t we just go see them when we get back?” she asked after I proposed my idea.
“Because who knows when we’ll be back and I’ve been putting this off for too long.”
“I hate staying with other couples. It always becomes this polite competition of who is a more loving and compatible twosome.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing. Okay. Let’s do it then.” She shrugged and got off the couch to go to the kitchen, which was no more than three steps away. We were renting a studio at the time in San Diego close to the beach, which Kate loved. I’m not the biggest fan of sand.
“Thanks.” She shrugged again, avoiding looking at me, which could only mean she really wasn’t into the idea. I had some balls, though, and didn’t back down on this.
“I was really close to Mark. I mean, I was close to both of them, but Mark and I would stay up until dawn a lot, drinking scotch just to feel like men.” I was explaining my relationship with Mark and Dorothy to Kate on our drive up to Ukiah. She had her feet in two pairs of oversized socks resting on the dashboard and going through my CD case. Her bare skinny legs stretched out, forcing me to keep looking at them. She had the best legs.
“That sounds cool,” she replied. She wasn’t listening.
“You’ll like Dorothy. She’s a really good cook and loves to garden.”
“And we will only be there for a few days.”
“Okay.” I looked over at her. She had stopped browsing the CDs and was leaning her head back against the seat, staring out the window. I had failed her.
“Put a CD on, will you?” I asked irritably. She looked over to me quickly and made a face as if I didn’t have any right to be snarky. She slipped in Led Zepplin and we both shut up.
It was mid November. It wasn’t freezing, this was California, but it was chilly and the further we climbed North, the gloomier it became. I loved it. It even started to rain. I turned on the heat for the first time in a year. I liked the feeling of the warm air melting my numb toes. Dorothy had a face on of near disgust. I wanted to shout at her, “It’s just rain!”, but I knew it wasn’t just the rain.
We drove up the 101 through Hopland, passing hills, pastures, and small homes with big porches. Kate perked up a little and started to show some interest in the beautiful landscape we passed. It was hard not to notice. California is the kind of place you feel extra special to be from. I was from Ventura, lovely nonetheless, but there was something about up North, closer to the redwoods and the mountains, that made me long to be an old man, completely satisfied with all my surroundings and prepared for death.
When we got to Ukiah, I pulled out the directions from underneath me to Mark and Dorothy’s house. They said they would meet us on a main road and take us to their house. They said GPS was useless. I saw the brewery they told me to park in front of and called them on my cell. Kate still hadn’t said anything, but her silence only made me care less about what she wanted. Mark answered and we arranged to meet him in twenty minutes, the time it took to get to us, and adding minutes on to Kate’s silence.
“Are you waiting for me to say something?” I asked, finally.
“No. Are you?”
“Yes, Kate. Yes I am. Because we have been on the road all day and you have not said more than a few sentences to me. Is it really this hard to come up here and meet my friends?” She said nothing. “You do realize how much of a brat you are, right?”
“It’s incredibly unattractive how you cannot appreciate any of this.”
“I appreciate it. I love being dragged places I don’t want to go!”
“I don’t want to go to South America, but at least I’m open to the experience! I’ll go to South America because I know there are places I’ve never been, and who knows what it will be like when I get there. You won’t even drive upstate with me because it isn’t your idea. You want to only do what you want to do.”
She opened her mouth to yell at me, but Mark’s hand knocked on her window and she jumped up instead. She rolled down her window and smiled at him.
“Hi, youre Kate! I’m Mark.”
“Nice to meet you,” she said and shook his hand through the window. I got out of the car and walked around to him.
“Hey!” he said and gave me a hug. I was so glad to see him.
“Too long, man. Too long.”
“Yeah, you finally got up here! I can’t wait for you to see the place. We’ve put a lot of work into it. You won’t want to leave.”
“Perfect,” I said and walked back to my car door. “I’ll follow you.”
We had to drive up a long dirt road that my car could barely tolerate for about fifteen minutes, past thick brush and trees and a stream until we reached a small opening to park our cars. I couldn’t see their house and was worried we would have to hike to it. I didn’t think Kate would do it.
“We just need to walk up the path a bit, and the house is right there.”
“This is really beautiful,” said Kate. I looked at her with surprise, which I could tell she hated.
“Thanks. We love being out here. It can be a pain to have to drive twelve miles to get to town, but we also have learned to source most of our things from right here.” We followed him up the path. It was scattered with brown, red, and yellow leaves that sounded really nice when we all walked on them, like the better sound of me crumpling up my mistakes on paper. It made me think about the sun, about what Kate said about wanting to follow it. It was here, though, and was doing exactly what it wanted to do: dry these leaves up, make them turn, make them die, make them fall. Kate was afraid of all of that. She was happier with bright, easy images in front of her to remind her of youth. She wanted to see the children playing on the beach, she wanted an endless summer, she wanted to call beers cervesas everywhere she went, which really bothered me about her. It was all clear now, from the sound of these leaves, that I was okay with being in the cold, with plants dying, with myself aging, because it meant the world was working. Kate couldn’t bear the thought of it. I suddenly felt bad about making her come up here. Maybe it was better I came alone, but Kate actually seemed to be doing fine at this point. She was walking next to Mark and talking to him, with actual interest. I caught up to them just as I saw his house. I slowed to let it sink in.
Smoke was churning out of the brick chimney that emerged from their wood shingled house. It was small and sweet. Ivy and Morning Glories grew up one of the sides where the other opened up to a large garden where Dorothy was. She stood up and waved at us. She was beautiful.
“Greg!” she shouted and ran over to me. I laughed and reached out to hug her. “I’m so happy you are finally here.”
“I am too. I can’t believe you live here! It’s breaking my heart that this isn’t mine.”
“But it is yours,” she said and smiled. “And you’re Kate! Come inside. Let’s open a bottle.” This was a perfect suggestion.
“Yes,” said Kate assuredly. I could have smacked her for being so obvious. My sympathy for her was gone. It was warm inside with a fire going in the corner, and the rest was mostly open space with wood paneling and old paintings on the walls. The main living room opened up to the kitchen that had a wagon wheel light fixture hanging from the ceiling.
“I love it in here,” said Kate. “Did the house come like this?”
“Yeah, it’s really old. It was built in the thirties by a man who lived here his whole life. It now belongs to a guy who owns most of the property around here with a couple houses on it, this is just one of them. We fixed it up quite a bit when we moved in.”
“It was a dump,” said Mark.
“It looks great,” said Kate. Dorothy handed her a glass of wine.
“I’m having a stronger drink,” said Mark as he grabbed the scotch from the top of the refrigerator.
“I’ll have one,” I said. He poured two in short glasses and we all said cheers and smiled and took a big sip.
“You’ll have to take some home with you,” said Dorothy, referring to the massive amount of preserves, pickles, vinegars, and olive oil she had in the pantry. We sat around the table, nearly drunk, and eating a simple meal of roasted chicken and potatoes and rocket, all from their backyard. I was feeling overwhelmed with all the things I didn’t do with my time.
“I almost don’t believe you made all of that,” I said
“It’s not as hard as it looks, and it’s better to do that than to watch all your harvest go off. We can’t eat it all, unfortunately.”
“Do you plan on living here for a long time?” I asked. I looked over at Kate and Mark, who were engulfed in conversation about their past travels. I couldn’t engage-I think I was beginning to hate her.
“I mean, it just really opens your mind, you know?” she said to him.
“Yes, and I miss it. I remember my last trip to Budapest-”
“Greg?” Dorothy said.
“You asked me if I planned on living here for long.”
“Yes. I’d love to. I have everything I need.” She meant what she said, and it was a simple statement, one of perfect sense. I looked at her pretty face. She had fair skin and her lips were always beet red, naturally. She was so content in every way. I was envious of her. I looked at Mark and Kate again, whose need for envy from others was blatant.
“Want another drink?” Dorothy asked me. She could tell I was distracted and I really didn’t want her to think I was not interested in what she had to say. It was just that this moment felt like I was in the middle of breaking up with Kate, except this breakup only involved me.
“Sure.” She got up and walked back to the kitchen and I suddenly realized I would be alone with Mark and Kate, who would then feel like they had to include me in their conversation. I scooted my chair out from the table and hurried to the kitchen.
“Hi,” I said as Dorothy poured my drink and some more wine for herself.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“No, nothing is really wrong, it’s just this visit hasn’t really turned out the way I thought it would.”
“What did you expect?” I didn’t expect to start to hate Kate on the way here, or for Mark to want to get into her pants, or for me to feel sorry for you and want to leave.
“Nothing.” I smiled and took my drink. “It’s good to see you.” We walked back to the kitchen and sat down with our lovers. Kate was wrong: there was no polite competition going on here at all.
I woke up in the middle of the night alone and confused. When did I pass out? Did I really drink that much? I sat up and looked around for a clock. It was 4am. Where was Kate?
The moment I asked the question I knew the answer. I walked outside the bedroom to a quiet, dark house. The fireplace had red timbers blazing and a few candles were still burning on the table. I could see two feet hanging off the edge of the couch, but I knew they weren’t Kate’s. Dorothy must have drunk the whole bottle too. I looked at her, asleep, and it was in her unconscious state that she seemed discontent. I replayed the evening in my head and remembered us in the kitchen together, probably my last memory of the night. Why couldn’t she talk to me in there? It was as if it was too hard for her to say to me, “Yes, I know what you mean. It kind of sucks that our lovers are not bothering to hide their attraction to each other, but let’s get drunk.” I, instead, got drunk because she didn’t say this. And there I was, staring at her sleeping and wondering where Mark and Kate were.
I walked to the bathroom and took a leak and a big breath. I knew I was supposed to either go back to sleep and play the “everything is normal game” with Dorothy tomorrow, or find them right now and get it over with in the worst way.
I went back to the bedroom.
I made the bed, put on my shoes, grabbed my bag, and went to the couch. I bent down to face Dorothy, and I kissed her. I hoped that she would have this place to herself one day, or with someone else who could appreciate it with her. I hoped that she wouldn’t be alone, or feel alone, ever. I didn’t want to leave her, but I knew I wasn’t the right person to help her either. I stood up and tip toed to the door and quietly walked outside. I looked around to make sure Kate and Mark were not in sight, then walked to my car. It’s possible that I was still slightly intoxicated to make the decision I did to leave Kate there, but she was in good hands, and I really wanted to run.
I watched the sun rise as I drove down to the San Francisco Airport that morning. I couldn’t believe how good I felt to just drive away: I decided that maybe it was best to follow the sun this year.