When the flight landed, I gathered my things and followed the rest of the passengers down the plane steps and into the salty Arcata air. It was hard for me to believe that just eight hours ago I was leaving behind the smog-ridden and paper strewn streets of Detroit. I walked into the airport baggage claim area, which coincidentally was located in the same room as ticketing, security, and the departure and arrival gates. I grabbed my black luggage from the turnstile and made my way to the front doors. Just then I heard someone yell my name.
"Erin! Erin, is that you?" Startled, I turned around to find an airport employee. "You've taken the wrong luggage dear. I'm sorry, here's yours". A bit embarrassed but mostly bewildered, I passed the black luggage over to her in trade of mine.
"Wow. This certainly is a small airport", I think to myself.
As I walked back towards the double glass doors I see the glimmer of a silver car pull up front. It parks and a man walks out in a dark blue uniform, shiny black military boots and a baseball cap. I was suddenly filled with complete excitement. I dropped everything I was carrying and ran towards him, arms out and we embraced. He tried to keep a smile on his face but something was amiss. Was he nervous? Doubtful? Regretful? As it turns out - he had food poisoning and needed to go home, immediately. I guess it wasn't the egg salad sandwich I thought would do me in, but rather a bad batch of Hamm's beer he'd had the night before.
We drove to his home in Ferndale, through the hills and perfectly asphalted streets. There was a beautiful green field with a big red barn right before we made the turn into his military housing subdivision. Wordless, he led me to the door and turned the key, we went upstairs to his room and I put my luggage in the corner. I looked into his eyes and I saw him in a way I've never seen him before. He was very ill and all I wanted to do was to take care of him. I made him a little bowl of applesauce and then we laid down into bed together, pulled the sheets up over our eyes and fell asleep, his arms wrapped gently around me.
In the morning, the California sun poured through the thin linen drapes. I slowly opened my eyes and remembered were I was. He still hadn't woken up yet so I kissed his face and traced the scar on his cheek, smiling to myself. I tip-toed out of bed and made myself a glass of orange juice. The apartment was large and bright. Tiled floors remind me of Florida vacation condos, so feeling their cool, hard surface under my toes reassured me that I was far away from home.
Unfortunately for us, having a guest in town did not excuse him from his military duty. He ambled down the stairs, in the same starched blue uniform I've grown so accustomed to seeing on him. He touched me tenderly around the waist and introduced me to his roommate, Ryan.
"This is my ex girlfriend, Erin" He said. The statement hit me like the sting of cold bath water. Feeling a bit numbed, I managed to turn my lips upward into a forced smile and introduced myself. With that he turned around aptly and headed out the door for work. I heard his car start and the sound fade as he pulled away. Ryan hung his head for a second and then lifted it up with a smile on his face.
"So you're the girl huh?"
"I'm sorry...yes I suppose so." I responded.
"He hasn't stopped talking about you since he got here. He's always talking about this girl he left in Detroit. He's in love with you, you know. Don't let him fool you."
My stomach was starting to make its way into a knot and I laughed out of nervousness. Before I could make another comment, Ryan interjected and said "Come on, let's go - He told me to take care of you today and that's what I'm going to do. Let's go shopping."
Shopping. If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, then the way to mine is through the door of Macy's. I liked Ryan immediately.
He took me to the Bayshore Mall, just outside Arcata in another small California town whimsically named, Eureka. When I walked into the mall, I used the ATM to pull out some cash for shopping. The first store we walked into was Anchor Blue. I immediately found several pairs of jeans, earrings and an ivory sweater shrug. As I stood in the checkout line I began searching for my debit card. I couldn't find it. I started to panic - Did I drop it? Leave it somewhere? Then, it dawned on me. Oh my God, I left it in the ATM. The ATM ate my card, I'm 2,500 miles from home and I have no money. I asked the store clerks to put my clothes on hold (I may not have any money, but when I find a good pair of jeans, I'm not letting them go!)and I raced to the ATM. My debit card was obviously no longer there and the ATM glared at me with that smug, self-righteous look. What if someone saw me walk away from the ATM without taking my card? What if they took it and were now quickly depleting my checking account buying Roombas for their extended family at the Sharper Image? Suddenly, Ryan snapped me out my self-destructive though pattern and suggested that I check with mall security. "Maybe someone turned it in," He suggested.
Enter my cynical Midwest skepticism. Coming from a town where people will steal the wheels off your car while you're sitting at a red light, I did not give this option much hope. However, given my vulnerability, I decided it was at least worth a try. We found the security office and I asked the round, sloppy guard if anyone happened to turn in a debit card. To much of my surprise, he opened the black metal drawer to his left and pulled out a glimmering gold card with his chubby hand. "Is this it?" He asked.
"Well, you're certainly not in Detroit anymore, Dorothy" I thought to myself.
The next day, I spent the morning jogging into downtown Ferndale. With the mountain views and crisp California air, I was in a state of absolute content. Downtown Ferndale is the type of town that renovates it's historic buildings instead of tearing them down in favor of efficient and bland modern amenities. In fact, the entire town is considered a historical landmark. Films such as Jim Carrey's The Majestic and Dustin Hoffman's Outbreak have been filmed here. While jogging downtown, I had three people wave to me. At first, it startled me. I thought perhaps they were waving to someone else, but then I realized that this is what happens in quaint towns like this. You don't have to know someone to give them a friendly little wave.
Later that night, when he returned home from work, we decided to go out for a few drinks in downtown Eureka. Arriving at Lost Coast Brewery, we were escorted to our long wooden table to meet with several of his friends. Lost Coast is just like any other hometown brewery; with an eclectic mix of garage-sale decor, frosty micro-brewed beers and colorful clientele. You are immediately greeted by a giant styrofoam black widow spider, dangly precariously over the front entrance. As we sat down with the rest of his friends, he cordially introduced me to everyone, "Hi everyone, this is my ex girlfriend, Erin."
Trying to prevent the wave of bursting capillaries now covering my body in an unavoidable crimson hue, I again forced a smile while clenching my jaw in bemusement. We finished our meal of deep-fried vegetables and downed the remaining drops of Great White lager. On our way down the 101 towards home, he pulled over on the highway and turned the car off. "Come on, get out," He said.
"What are you talking about?"
We walked down the rickety set of wooden stairs, blades of grass poking out between the planks. It reminded me of Detroit, with it's untended lawns and forgotten architecture. Just then, we reached the end of the boardwalk and the sky suddenly lit up like someone switched a bare lightbulb on in a room full of mirrors. The moon was full and the ambient light reflected onto the ocean's water in a million glittering facets. The water rushed onto the sand, only to be drawn back into the sparkling tide and the low rush of the sea softened my mind into a trance. The Pacific Ocean, warm and peaceful was so different from the sharp and unforgiving waters of the Atlantic I had visited before. We stood there, arms wrapped around one another and stared into the horizon, the offshore buoys rocking gently and I thought to myself, "This is it. I made the right choice coming here. He is the one."
The next few days were filled with elation; my heart bursting with champagne bubbles of lust, love and the assurance of a man who loved me. We decided to have dinner together in downtown Ferndale at a little Italian restaurant called the Ferndale Pizza Company. A small and simple diner, the restaurant had an outdoor patio space and tiny indoor dining area complete with red checkered table cloths. We sat down in the empty restaurant, hands clasped together loosely across the table. Our server walked up, introduced herself and took our drink order. She suggested we try the pizza here, "It's famous to the area". she quipped. Being the only pizza joint in the one square mile radius of tiny Ferndale, it better be a big hit with the locals. We chatted for several minutes until the server returned carrying a large silver platter with a hot, melty cheese pizza on top.
"Are you guys visiting the area?" She asked.
"Well, I live here," He said, "But she's just visiting."
"Awww, you guys make such a cute couple."
"Actually, this is my ex girlfriend."
That was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. For the last time, I pursed my lips and bit my tongue until I could taste the salty warmth of my own blood. I put my palms face down on the table and pushed myself backwards in my chair.
"I want to go home." I said poignantly.
"Alright, we can get this food packaged up and we'll go."
"No, I mean I want to go home. To Detroit. You're doing nothing but wasting my time here. I don't even know why I came."
Finally, all my feelings of rejection and humiliation came rushing out all at once. I was defiant and very serious. I wanted to be on the next flight out of this God-forsaken Land of Oz. I wanted to be back in the nitty-gritty city. I didn't want people to wave at me in the street, I wanted people to mug me. At least in Detroit, I felt safer emotionally than in this town, in this restaurant, with him.
"I want to go home." I said again. And this time, I truly meant it.
To be continued...