The final leg of our drive was easy enough. We stuck to the coast and went south. Mission Beach begins as California’s coastline narrows into a scraggly peninsular strip, awkwardly wedged between the Pacific Ocean and Mission Bay, a butterfly-shaped coastal cleft of saltwater arteries and rocky outgrowths. Before long we were seeing billboards imploring us to ‘visit’ SeaWorld.
“Friends?” Boris inquired in an overblown British accent, holding his chin like a thinker. “Might there be any interest in visiting the alter for and expression of our peculiar mammalian pride, wrought as it has been in the great fiery quest to overcome marine life and tame it for our amusement?” he asked in a single gasping breath as his lanky legs jittered epileptically, pounding the car’s floor mat like a ritualistic drum beat.
“Nah, fuck that,” said Justin.
We got off the highway and started down Mission Ave, the thoroughfare and spine of Mission Beach. A couple blocks east was the great Pacific, separated from civilization by a broad two-lane sidewalk for runners, cyclists, and idlers, “the boardwalk,” against which our duplex’s porch was situated, offering glorious views of the sea. Arnold deftly maneuvered his green stallion through narrow alleyways, slowing down as we approached the rear of our new home.
“The destination is on your right,” droned Google Maps in her melodic robot voice.
Shelly was waiting for us in the alleyway outside our garage. She was wearing a little bikini and welcoming us with a big smile. She was a tall girl with cute little dimples and a theatrical flourish in her step. She was the type of girl you talked with about girl problems, even if a part of you always hoped she’d confess her love for you one day.
We rolled down our windows and Shelly directed us to the garage of the neighboring house, whose owner rented out parking spaces for $20 a night. We stashed the stallion and grabbed our bags, eager to get inside and lock down some beds.
“Now boys, listen up,” said Shelly, wagging her finger, “as you may know, this is a duplex. We have both sides rented out, so the whole house is free reign. Yep, that’s right, go anywhere you please.”
“No… fucking… way,” mumbled Boris, licking his lips and rubbing his belly in a way that reminded me of Dean Moriarty. His green-gray slits gleamed with anticipatory glee. “Hold up,” he then said, his body going entirely still and his smile vanishing suddenly. “Are there any beds left?”
“Yes!” cried Shelly, bouncing on her tip-toes, as if scared that Boris would kill her had she answered any other way. “There’s one room left and it has two beds, but it’s on the other side of the house. I’ll take you there.”
Shelly led us through the garage on the building’s right-hand side. We entered into a little vestibule and then inside; an ascending stairway on our left, a bathroom straight ahead, and a narrow kitchen on our right, which fed into a living room with a big television and a few couches. Then, sliding glass doors opened onto a big wooden porch with tacky furniture and glass tables where our friends were absorbed in a contest of flip-cup. We went outside and greeted our peers, marveling at the boardwalk and sea, relishing those moments of realization: Our long drive was over; the party was only beginning.
We went back inside through a second set of sliding glass doors into the duplex’s other half, which looked identical to the first. We went up a half-flight of stairs and Shelly opened a door that abutted the stairway. Our room consisted of two queen beds, an armchair, and a closet. It was an uninspiring chamber that reminded me of a forgotten 1950s motel room, yet it would prove to be a Godsend, a respite from the worst temptations, a sanctuary from the madness of our own freedom.
“Wow, this is all just…woooow! Shelly…just… wow, this is just… amazing!” managed Arnold. He was ecstatically dawdling around in circles and feeling the bed with his palms, peeking into the closet with a blissful expression, the sort of face that can only be described as childish in its innocent air of wonder and delight. Shelly was radiant with pride and clapped her hands together as she watched Arnold dawdle with the bearing of a proud mother.
“You guys want a little tour?” she asked.
“Yes!” we all cried, and threw our bags in the room and followed her up another half-flight of stairs where a hallway led to a bathroom and a large room with a tiny balcony that overlooked the hubbub of the porch. Up another flight of stairs were two more bedrooms, also abutting the stairway. The final ascent fed into a little attic-like chamber with wooden floors, white bunk-beds, and opaque windows embedded in the ceiling. Then, a creaky wooden staircase led onto a roof-deck shared by both halves of the duplex, offering panoramic views of Mission Beach. The rickety old wooden roller coaster was visible a few blocks south; to the north, a luminous strip of sand lined by beachfront housing stretched into the ocean, rounding out the bay.
We returned downstairs and grabbed beers before dispersing into the party. I was in the living room chatting with Shelly when Ojas came in from the porch. Ojas was a stocky guy from Mumbai with a round face and thick black hair. He was the most candid conversationalist in all of southern California. (A region known for its superficiality and subterfuge, mind you.) With his laughably clichéd Indian accent that always reminded me of Apu in The Simpsons, Ojas verbalized everything that came to mind, whether praiseworthy or repugnant, perverse or inspirational. He had zero tolerance for political correctness but boundless respect for human dignity. He was a funny guy. In a way, you almost had to respect him, even if you wanted to tell him to shut the fuck up for just a Goddamn second half the time you were with him. On this occasion he was somber, practically on the verge of tears.
“What’s wrong, man?” I asked.
“Broooooooo,” he croaked, grabbing my shoulders and looking into my eyes portentously. “It’s so good to have you here but listen to me, alright? Whatever you do, DO NOT take any fucking alcohol onto that fucking boardwalk – no red cups, no beer cans, nothing. Do you hear me? I don’t care if you have a flask that you can shove up your ass. DO. NOT. DO IT,” he finished, shaking my shoulders dramatically. Ojas was as drunk as I wanted to be.
“Jesus, man, what happened?” asked Shelly goadingly, trying to suppress her giggles. She knew what Ojas was about to say. He’d been telling the same story to anyone who would listen.
“Look, I don’t want to go around telling everyone, but here it goes, okay. One of my friends just got arrested a few hours ago…Yeah, that’s right, look fucking shocked, you fucking should be! John, you remember Amir, the tall Indian dude I went to secondary school with in Mumbai, the one who goes to USC and was in our Coachella group a few years back? Yes yes that guy, I see you remember. Good old Amir – love Amir, love him! – now he’s in fucking jail for Christ’s sake! His parents are going to fucking flip man if they hear about this shit, and you should see his fucking dad, this real traditional hardass Indian dude, but I’m sure the police take credit cards for bail – they do, right? – so he’ll probably be fine. But seriously, can you fucking believe it, man, Jesus Christ all mighty.”
Ojas’s wild gesticulations almost knocked Shelly’s drink out of her hands. I tried to get a word in to the effect of “Wow!” but he just steamrolled onward.
“Oh mannnnn dude,” he continued, “you should have heard poor old Amir, his voice was quavering and soft and full of regret and all that. He and his friends are on Senior Week, too, they’re staying only a few blocks away. And he was just here in the duplex no less – when was it… no less than an hour ago! Then he left and soon after I got a call from an unidentified number… and sure enough it was him on the other line, saying he was being held at the police station, that they had taken his phone away, that they were locking him up overnight – everything. Oh man. Well, anyways, whatever you do man just keep that shit on the porch,” concluded Ojas sadly with a knowing nod at the Coors Light in my hand, which I had finished unconsciously while listening to his distressed soliloquy.
“Damn, so sorry to hear all of this,” I sputtered with a sincere tone, though in fact I could give two shits about Amir. I remember at Coachella he was constantly complaining about how much his precious fucking feet hurt.
“It’s okay man, he’s a fucking idiot anyhow … but oh no! I’m so sorry, man! You just got here and now here I am, unloading all of this shit onto you. Go go go, onto the porch, get out there go, please please go before I have a stroke of guilt! The sun is calling to you Johnny, and I think Carl was looking for you, too. Shelly, can I interest you in a smoke up on the roof?”
I grabbed another Coors from the fridge and went onto the porch to fraternize and drink and soak in the sun because school was finished and there was nothing to do – not a damn thing! That much I was sure of. As I stepped into the daylight, a switch was turned in my circuitry and a creepy science-fiction robot voice echoed in the back of my head: Vacation mode has been activated.
But at the same time, a creeping sensation hovered in the midst of my glee… the monumentality of the paradigm shift… the great void stretching in front of me… but there – right there, in front of my face! – it was the everlasting Pacific, the vast glittering canvas, the greatest body of water in the whole galaxy hanging before me like an all-encompassing mirage, or perhaps it was a palpable blueprint for Senior Week and beyond. In any case, I was ready to rumble.
“If that ain’t the one and only, Johnnnnyyyy boooooy!” cried a booming drawl from the other side of the porch. I craned my neck and descried a hulking figure on the other side of the porch. It was Carl Junior the fifth. He was a big guy from New Orleans who saw himself as the next Bill Clinton, only without the lying, cheating and what not. Carl was tall and built like a Humvee: Carl the Spartan we all called him, and you can bet your gluteus maximus that Carl never skipped leg day. With his big square jaw, fastidiously kept crew-cut, and slightly gap-toothed ‘ole southern smile, Carl was quite the character.
“C’mon Johnny boy, getchur ass over here and take one of these American Spirits,” bellowed Carl. “Lord knows Eddy and I can’t smoke em all, not even if we tried.”
Eddy’s face emerged from behind Carl’s massive torso, waving at me awkwardly. His real name was Édouard but everyone called him Eddy. He was a slim academic sort with dark, angular features. He hailed from Paris and saw himself as the next Foucault, only without the fallacious logic, syntactic overreach and what not. Eddy was always outside the library pacing back and forth and puffing on his tobacco pipe, brooding over the essence of being. He was like Boris in that regard: intellectually intense, constantly wrapped up in big ideas. But whereas Boris was ill-mannered and impetuous, Eddy was reserved and respectful in his quintessential Parisian way. He and Carl were Freshmen roommates and perennial best friends, another of Mother Nature’s hilarious accidents.
I scooched through the crowd and sidled up next to them, leaning over the handrail. They were watching the boardwalk, which overflowed with all walks of life. Carl handed over a cigarette and lit it for me.
“So, Jaw-nee,” said Eddy with his fantastic French accent. “Perhaps you can help us. Carl and I were just discussing our subleeminal reactions to ze spatial positions in which we find ourselves.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. Carl opened his mouth to speak but Eddy gave him a look, as if to say, “Zees is my territory.” Eddy loved explaining stuff.
“I mean to say that where our feet rest is at least two meters above thee heads of those walking on thee pathway. Thus, at the sight of thee swarming objects below, thee elevated subject – in this case, Carl, myself, and you – experiences an… how do you say… impliceet sensation of power, whose form is particular to thee individual. If we outline thee form of power particular to ourselves, great discoveries could await,” he continued happily, rubbing his palms together mysteriously in a slightly unnerving manner, like some sort of evil scientist intent on acquiring all the knowledge in the world and keeping it to himself.
“How do you know this sensation of power exists?” I asked.
“Well,” continued Eddy, “I expect this sensation to be involuntary and unavoidable, in thee same way that thee taller man and thee shorter man never lose cognizance of their height difference.”
“Interesting. So what did you two come up with for yourselves?”
Carl opened his mouth to speak but stopped himself and glanced at Eddy.
“Please, after you,” murmured the Frenchman, giving his friend a solemn nod. Carl dragged on his Spirit meaningfully, then spoke.
“Well, the way I see it, lotsa these folks are runnin round like chickens with their damn heads cut off. I look at them and think, where in God’s bleeped name are they going? And even if they know where they’re going, can they explain to me why in the hell they’re going where they’re going? I mean, hell, just look at this family passing by. Look how tanned and sunburned those kids are. Now why in the hell are Momma and Poppa bringin their kids to the beach every other day? I don’t see any good reason for it. I see far better reasons for those parents to keep them kiddies inside and make em read some damn books. So, I suppose you’d say my impression to the folks below, or my reaction to them – or, my relationship to them – is one of showing. You know, like showing em where the hell they should go, telling em what the hell they should do, and giving em some damn good reasons that they can count on and believe in. If folks have nowhere to go and nothing to do… or heck, maybe even worse is when folks have something to do but don’t have a damn good reason for it. Hell, that seems like the definition of Nyealin – what’s it you were talking bout the other day, Eddy?”
“Nihilism, that’s right. Folks without good reasons to do what they do, well that seems like the definition of Nihilism to me. I wanna give em reasons, give em purpose, lead em to something better, you know? I wanna be a guy who helps make life really worth it.” Carl took a deep drag on his Spirit and looked out on the ocean.
“My dear roommate,” started the Parisian, “your drawl eez that of a bumpkin, but your words are those of a leader.” We all laughed. There was real affection in Eddy’s voice. I noticed we were out of alcohol, so I ran inside and grabbed a Coors for each of us.
“Ahh, another sheety American beer, just what I like,” said Eddy. He was a wry, cheerful drunk. Carl lit me another Spirit.
“Go on now, Eddy, give Johnny-boy your spiel,” encouraged Carl.
“Well…” the Frenchman paused to look at the boardwalk and reevaluate his response. He rubbed his chin and furrowed his eyebrows, sipping on American beer and puffing on American tobacco. Finally, he offered a tentative reply.
“Okay, I hope thees makes sense. It’s clear in my brain, but excuse me if I sound crazy. So, from this elevated vantage point, I have a broad view of thee boardwalk, yes? In thee span of only a second or two, I can look left and look right and apprehend more information than those walking on thee boardwalk.”
“How do you mean?” asked Carl, his broad southern face paying close attention.
“Okay, for example. Do you see thee old people in thee rather garish clothing?”
He pointed to our right, where thirty yards away, an elderly couple in matching neon jumpsuits were walking toward us.
“Yes, we see them,” I said.
“Good. Now do you see thee young people with thee dog?” He pointed to our left, where thirty yards away, an attractive young couple with a rambunctious black Labrador were walking toward us, and towards the old couple.
“Yes, yes,” said Carl, hanging on his friend’s every word.
“Okay good. So, you see them that from my vantage point, I am aware that thee old couple and thee young couple will cross paths; that some form of interaction will occur between them, even if this only consists in momentary visible recognition. I am happy to posit this with extreme confidence, yet the two couples have absolutely no idea. Let us wait and see.”
We smoked and drank in silence, our eyes darting from left to right in anticipation of the prophesied collision. My legs trembled with excitement. Then, right in front of our house – as if God had given us front row tickets to the big show – the rambunctious Labrador deviated from course by veering into the other walking-lane to sniff the neon pants of the elderly woman, who smiled warmly and stroked the dog’s neck; the dog then jumped onto its hind legs, resting its front paws on the woman’s midriff, hopping on its legs and attempting to lick the happy woman’s face.
“Charcoal! Down!” bellowed the young man as he savagely jerked on the leash. The dog twisted in midair, flailing like a fish out of water – for a moment, appearing as if it would land on its back – but ultimately landing on all fours, disoriented and repentant.
“We’re so sorry,” exclaimed the young woman. The old woman smiled and blushed. She said it was no problem. The old man bent over to scratch the dog’s head. Just like that, Eddy’s four humans were huddled around the dog.
“C’mon Charcoal, keep moving,” said the young man, jerking on the leash with another savage tug. The dog scurried off, its master close behind. The young woman followed dutifully, jogging to keep pace. The elderly woman watched them go. Her smile was beautiful.
“C’mon, honey,” said the old man. She took his hand and they went their way. We stood still atop our perch, transfixed by whatever it was we’d just seen.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Carl finally managed. We glanced at each other and laughed for no reason. Eddy’s face glowed with triumph.
“Eddy, if you wouldn’t mind, how did that pertain to the initial question?” I asked.
“Sweet God almighty do you not see? Thee analogy is better than I could have possibly imagined!”
Carl and I burst out laughing. Eddy’s accent automatically rendered a funny remark ten times funnier.
“My friends, please, let me explain. Okay, what I meant to say is that, obviously, my panoramic view of thee boardwalk represents my comprehension of history’s structural trajectories, okay? All thee people below meanwhile are history’s unconscious agents. Their limited sight reflects their own temporal ignorance while thee boardwalk’s north-south binary reflects history’s dialectical processes from which they cannot extricate themselves, you see don’t you?” he spiited out with such rapidity and excitement that it was difficult to discern where one word ended and the next began. “You see, don’t you?” he pressed. Carl and I nodded confusedly.
“Good, okay, now listen closely” he continued with professorial authority. “Now, thee old couple and thee young couple are separate historical entities. For clarity’s sake, let’s say they are two nation-states and that their collision represents warfare. With our… how do you say… retrospective vantage point, we perceived that some form of collision – some type of conflict, was inevitable. And yet, no one in a billion years could foresee thee exact nature of thee conflict! No one but God could have predicted thee dog stopping to sniff and jumping on thee woman in thee garish uniform! Don’t you see? Thee dog is history’s indeterminate x-factor! It is thee illusive variable that prevents us from fully understanding thee past or accurately predicting thee future! It is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in thee social arena, thee omnipresent but invisible force that at once caused Hitler to invade Russia and you, Carl, to light a cigarette in this precise moment!”
Eddy had grown frantic as his thesis reached its denouement. He shouted the final sentences while banging his fists on the balustrade. Carl, amused and bewildered, puffed on his umpteenth Spirit while watching his perennial best friend.
“Okay, sorry, I get a little crazy here and there, but you see thee implications, yes?”
We nodded confusedly.
“Alright, your turn, Johnny Boy,” said Carl.
I was unprepared to answer. I wasn’t sure I even understood the proposition.
“Um, give me a minute to think,” I finally stammered.
“Yes, okay then,” said Eddy, “Come Carl, more sheety American beers for us – Johnny, study thee people and tell us your thoughts soon.”
I stayed put, leaning against the balustrade. “Fuck studying,” I thought, scrutinizing the stillness where sky met ocean. But the commotion of the boardwalk soon recaptured my attention. Every variety of the human species was out and about: locals and visitors, lovers and families, young and old, all of them slowing down to get a look at our madhouse. Some looked on disapprovingly, others were impressed. I stared right back, making eye-contact with anyone and everyone. I envisioned myself as our ambassador to the outside world. I was communicating important messages with my manic gaze, like, “Whatchu looking at?” and “Do you even drink, bro?” and “Shield your child’s eyes” and, “So it goes,” because time had frozen and I was a Tralfamadorian inspecting squirmy earthlings for my own wandering amusement.
I swiveled around to observe my fellow lunatics and landed on the idea that if I were not well-acquainted with the values and ways of Homo sapiens, then this rowdy storm of activity might seem like a noble collective enterprise in which noisemaking, dawdling and consuming were essential responsibilities to be shouldered equally, but as I slurped down the last drops of my American beer and returned to the world I knew, the duplex appeared as it was: an overrun asylum whose unchained inmates didn’t know what to do with their newfound liberty. Or maybe it was a queenless bee colony characterized by nonsensical buzzing and shameless unproductiveness, an ignominious stain on the wider bee population. Or, as Eddy might observe, it was an Anarchistic commune because everyone shared the rental costs and could go anywhere and do anything as long as they didn’t disrupt the collective ethos of good-vibes-partying – and besides, who in their right mind would ever impinge on this glorious triumph of youth?