This is Also 40
It begins, as things do, with mom. “I’m moving,” she says. We’re on the phone, talking about baby food. I have just used the word “barley” in casual conversation. I’m feeling good. But now there’s this. “It’s because of the pit bulls, isn’t it?” I’m worried about the pit bulls in my mom’s neighborhood. “Those aren’t pit bulls,” she says, “They’re just little dogs.” I move on. “Well, okay, you’re moving. You move every year. This isn’t really news.” There’s a pause on the phone. She’s going to admit those little dogs are pit bulls. This is good. I’m feeling good again. “You need to get the books,” she says.
Now we have news. The books. “The books” are hundreds of used books I collected in my late teens. I have not read these books and will never read these books. I don’t know why I collected them – and, in fact, “collect” makes it sound more deliberate and curatorial than it actually was. It was random and desperate and obsessive and the point is, I’m not reading them. Not ever. I know this.
“Those books are really important to me,” I say. Which is weirdly true.
“All of them.”
“That’s like choosing between your kids. You can’t.”
“I think I could do that.”
“Why do I need to get them?”
“Because I don’t want to keep moving your books.”
“So stop moving.”
“You’re 40, Paul.”
“You’re 72, mom. Also, I’m not 40. ”
“Come get them by Sunday or I’m throwing them out.”
She would. She will. She has. Not these books, but other books. Other things. Blankets, stuffed animals, toys, men. Purged. She’s compulsive this way. I don’t know how these books survived, but they’ll soon be gone. I know this, too. And I would let them go now, I really would, but, as it happens, a childhood friend, Todd, is turning 40 this weekend and he invited me to his party – which is near my mom’s house, in Santa Barbara, where I grew up.
“So, you’re going?”
Asks my wife, Helen. Does she want me to go? I can’t tell. Do you want me to go? “Whatever you want to do,” she says. “Do you want to go?” I ask. “I can go or not go. I’m happy either way,” she says. Obviously, she wants to go. Do I want to go? I wasn’t planning on going, and I don’t really want to sort through the books, but sometimes when there are two things you don’t really want to do, you end up doing both, even though you would say no to just the one. This is how most people end up getting married and having kids. I say this out loud.
“You remember the woman you married is pregnant again, right?”
The point is, maybe I should go. Also, I’m pretty sure I stashed a lot of pornography in those boxes of books at some point. So, yes, I’m going. “I’ll go alone,” I say, in the timbre of martyrdom. “Good,” she says. “I super don’t want to go.”
I stop at In ‘n Out in Ventura on the drive up from LA. This is a tradition. I order a grilled cheese and fries – also a tradition – but hold on the vanilla shake as I am currently listening to a disturbing story on NPR about how research in animals shows belly fat contributes to dementia. I think it’s NPR. Anyway, definitely not getting a shake. I order to go, then eat everything in the car, in the parking lot, like a savage little animal with no belly fat and a sharp mind. I loosen the seat belt and drive out along the beach. I spot the pier where they filmed one of the last scenes of Little Miss Sunshine. I remember something about Proust in this scene. They were talking about Proust on the pier, I think. I can’t remember. I can’t remember things past. I make a left and end up in a mobile home park underneath the 101, then get on the highway to Ojai. I get off the highway to Ojai, make two more lefts, then a right, spot the pier where they filmed one of the last scenes of Little Miss Sunshine, swerve to avoid hitting a homeless man not in the movie, make another right, and find myself in the drive thru of In 'n Out, where I order a vanilla shake.
I’m at my mom’s an hour later. She takes me out to a shed that looks like the warehouse from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The books. I start sorting through boxes. I am strong. I am ruthless. New Americanized Encyclopedia Britannica from 1904? Donate. 7 volume History of the Peoples of America from 1897? Donate. History of NASA Launch Pad Design Through the Gemini Project? Keep to read to new baby. I break for a mid-morning snack. In the house my mom hands me a plastic bag. "These are sheets from when you were a little boy." She also hands me a picture of me holding a very big fish, a unicycle, a leather satchel from a trip I took to Nicaragua in 1985, and a zither. I insist that the zither belongs to my sister, Erin. She says no, it's mine. I hold it up and show her the word "Erin" etched on the back. "Fine," she says, "I'll see if Erin wants it. I think those are Erin's sheets, too." She takes the sheets back.
I’m back in the shed. Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. Keep. 1974 CIA Factbook on Sub-Saharan Africa. Donate. March 1989 Penthouse. Short break, then donate. I decide to hold onto a 16-volume set called Library of Valuable Knowledge, and a novel by Zane Grey, who sounds like someone noteworthy and probably someone I would have been able to tell you about before drinking that vanilla shake. I load up everything else into the car to take to the library to donate. Mom says we'll caravan into town. I say cool, pull away from the curb and nearly run over a pit bull. Then another. Then another. I follow mom onto the freeway and wave at her from the car behind as we get on the on ramp. She waves back. My phone rings. It's mom. "Wanted to give you a traffic report. It's pretty backed up." I'm so close to her at this point it looks like she's towing me. "Meet you at the library," she says.
A few hours later, I have donated 11 boxes of books to the library, an act of deep charity that rivals the four scratched albums I angrily tossed in a “Free” box on top of a trash can on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley after Amoeba Records refused to buy them. I say goodbye to mom and drive to the Santa Barbara Mission, where I'm supposed to meet friends to get on a shuttle to go to Santa Ynez for Todd’s birthday party. As it turns out, the party is not in Santa Barbara, it’s in Santa Ynez. And it’s not really a party. It’s a dinner. That we make. At a winery. In Santa Ynez. Lesson in Valuable Knowledge: read the invitation to your friend’s 40th.
I see the shuttle in front of the Mission and step inside. It's empty except for a man slouched over in the second row. He looks unwell.
"Is this the shuttle for Todd's birthday?" I ask.
"I don't know."
"Are you going to the winery?"
“Sure, I’ll go to a winery. I’ve got to get back for Todd’s birthday, though. Do you know Todd?”
I start to leave, then notice a picture of this man above the steering wheel. This is the driver. I turn back around and start talking to him. Try to sober him up. I ask him about Santa Barbara. He tells me he grew up here. "Me too," I say. "Did you go to Santa Barbara High School?" "Lincoln," he mumbles, "You're probably too young to remember that." "Lincoln High School?" I've never heard of Lincoln High School. Probably I'm too young. This feels good. Being too young. "Lincoln Elementary," he burps. He gazes off. I follow his gaze to a point on the horizon that seems drunk. "Went there, then McKinley, then Santa Barbara High School. You? Where the fuck did you go?"
I step outside. Friends start arriving. People tell me I look like a "little guy from LA," and I look cute in my "little jacket." I’m feeling small. Except in my belly. I start to see faces I didn't expect to see. Maybe Helen made the right choice to stay in LA. Every third person is a dentist with very white teeth. I’m self-conscious about my snaggle teeth. Some guy introduces himself and says his sister went to high school with me. I look at guy and ask about his sister, although I think I mispronounce this as “zither." He looks at me, curious, then smiles. Flashes his teeth. Dentist. I tuck my lips up around my snaggle teeth and walk away. I bump into Don, who is, in fact, not Don. I realize I've got the wrong guy about 3 minutes in and start rewinding the conversation in my mind to see if at any point I actually said "Don." I don’t think I did. I didn’t. I’m sure of this. “You did,” says not-Don. “You called me ‘Don.’” Is not-Don really saying this? I look at the driver, who raises his eyebrows and smiles. Seems like you might be on the drink, too, pal. Not-Don says he plays tennis, which sounds familiar. He introduces his wife, who has an English accent. I don't have anything to say to them, so I start talking about Helen, who is also from England. At some point I actually say the word “crumpet.” Not-Don looks like he's replaying the Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon final in his head just to make it through this conversation.
A few minutes later, Todd arrives. I strategically hand him an incredibly expensive bottle of 40 year-old port just as we're getting on the shuttle. This means he opens it at dinner and I get to drink some. I’ve done this kind of thing before. It works. Todd jumps off the shuttle and walks the bottle back to his car, about a mile away. "No way I'm drinking that now." The driver looks sad.
Somehow, after all this, I'm now the last one on the bus. I start flashing back to looking for a seat on the bus in high school. I am sweating profusely. Some girl calls out from the back, "There's a little seat right here, Sam." She’s calling me Sam. Sam I not am. I quickly tuck into another little seat next to Eric. This is a relief. I’ve known Eric since the 5th grade. I like Eric. I tell Eric the story of the books. My mom. The pit bulls. All of it. I realize I’m pretty wound up. He listens, patiently, like a friend. Doesn’t say anything. Then: “March 1989? That’s Sunny Woods.” He wants the Penthouse.
I feel a tap on my shoulder. "Are you going to pick on me, like you did when we were growing up?" I turn around. It’s Billy Kaster. He looks serious. I can't remember picking on Billy Kaster, but maybe that's because of the belly fat. "I'm sorry," I say. Billy locks on me and takes a long drink from a jug of Patron Tequila, then passes me the bottle without saying anything. Am I supposed to drink this? The woman sitting next to Billy extends her hand. "Jessica. Have we met? I think we've met. I've met all of Billy's friends. You're from LA, right? I've heard about you. Wait, we’ve definitely met. Did you hit on me? I think you hit on me. Drink the FAWKING Patron already, Sam.” She laughs. Billy leans over and takes the Patron before I can drink it. She continues: “You're a lawyer, right? We just hired the best Special Education lawyer in the country to help us with our suit against Oxnard. He's from Seal Beach. This guy is the best. The fucking best. Do you know him? Special Education law is a good thing to get into. I thought about going to law school. I have a Masters. The school district can't fuck with us. Both of our sons are autistic and they're trying to fuck with us. This guy is from fucking Seal Beach. I just want to fucking kick ass. I have a Masters in kicking ass. Here, try on these sunglasses." She removes the sunglasses from my face and replaces them with a pair of greasy aviator glasses. "These ones fit your little face better."
I switch seats and am now sitting next to Todd, who takes the bottle of Patron from Billy, slugs it, and passes it up to the driver. I ask Todd how it feels to be turning 40. Todd asks me how it feels to fuck Jessica Kaster. I move to the back of the bus and take a seat next to the girl who called me Sam. She moves to the seat next to Todd.
A few minutes later, we arrive at the winery. I walk over to look at the vineyards. It's about 6 pm, the sun is low in the sky, it's clear, and warm, and the soft hills behind the winery are studded with oak trees. I love California. I decide I’m going to use the charitable tax credit from the donated books to buy a ranch in Santa Ynez.
We head inside, through the main dining room, into the kitchen. I'm again the last one to arrive and I take the last lonely seat, next to a man named Rob. Dr. Rob. He's a dentist. He tells me he has homes in Santa Ynez and Santa Barbara. Comes out here every couple of weeks. He's looking at my teeth. I can feel him looking at my teeth. Dr. Rob says he grew up in Missouri, then went to LA, and just "went crazy. Fucking crazy shit." He raises his wine glass to toast fucking crazy shit. I toast. "Lived in Moorea, Santa Barbara, Seoul. Right? Fucking right!" Another toast. The chef is a French woman who has given us instructions on how to make muffins. We’ll all be making muffins, except for Todd, who has been tasked with preparing a large crème brulee. I look over at Todd. He’s still clutching the jug of Patron and is now manically itching his neck. I overhear him use the word “anus” twice. I make a mental note to avoid the crème brulee.
I get up to go say hi to Frank, but get stopped en route. "Paul?" It's Daniel Crath, although at first I think it’s Don. Did I call him Don? Daniel tells me he's still living in Santa Barbara, still "doing music," just trying "to balance." He's got a girl, 4 years old, named Adrianna. We talk about our kids. We are joined by Don, who is actually Don. Don is wearing a bright orange plaid shirt, an oversized Los Angeles Lakers belt buckle, and knickers. He says he owns a winery. He's not a dentist, so I respond to every bizarre thing he says with a big horse-tooth grin, just trying to stretch my lips for the rest of dinner. I make it over to Frank, and sit down next to his wife Emily. She looks tired. She tells me her son is having trouble sleeping. She sleeps in the crib with him. I am trying to picture this.
We retreat to the main dining room. I'm across from Eric. Eric asks me about the Penthouse. Do I have it? “What? No, We’ve been on the bus,” I say. “How would I have it?” Eric looks disappointed, possibly angry. Someone named “Lipher” sits down next to me. Maybe it’s “Biffer?” I can't hear him. Lipher is a dentist, from "down south." LA? Mexico? Peru? He doesn't say. He bobs and weaves when he talks, and his voice is really strangely modulated, and I just keep picking up disconnected phrases and words: "Gaslamp...sister (zither?) in tech...root canal...Baja...Audi...last fucking time I talked to her..." I'm nodding and laughing, hoping it corresponds to something he's saying. He stands up and then sits down again. Dr. Rob comes over and they hug and talk about fucking crazy shit. I turn to my right. It's Sylvia. She's married to Peter, Todd’s little brother. Peter is a dentist. She's a dentist too. She talks about putting her kids in private school. "I like to shop and Peter likes to play golf, so we need a lot of money." Emily is sitting across from us, and she mentions sleeping in the crib. Sylvia: "You have to teach them how to sleep. Get rid of the crib and teach them to sleep in their beds. They have to sleep in their beds. I say to them – we have three kids – you have to sleep in your beds. All night. The youngest one is two and we just went through this. Here's what you do. Go in the room with them, put them in bed and say, 'You have to stay in your bed. Mommy and Daddy stay in their bed. Birds stay in their nests. All night.' Then leave. And lock the door from the outside. Make sure to put some blankets and towels down on the inside of the door because they will get up and start pounding on the door and crying. Sometimes they cry so hard they vomit, but that's why you have the towels there. If they sound like they're vomiting a lot, open the door quickly, wipe the vomit off their face and then shut the door again. They will cry very hard at first, and they will lay down in the blankets by the door, but they will learn." She takes a sip of wine. "That how you do it." Emily starts crying so hard she looks like she's going to vomit.
At the other end of the table, Daniel stands up and starts singing to Todd. Doing music. Balancing. Todd is looking at him affectionately, and I'm now guessing that Todd thinks Daniel is a bottle of Patron. In the middle of the song, Sylvia's husband, Peter, leans over three people and starts telling me, and everyone, how I was a “little genius” in elementary school. Sylvia and Emily look surprised and sad. Sylvia strokes my arm gently, sympathetically, like you might do with a baby in a coma. “What happened?” I put on the aviator glasses to try and hide. Jessica leans across the table and says they do wonders for my "little face." “I totally would have fucked you, but now I’m with Billy.” Billy locks on me, slugs the Patron. Lipher is in my ear: “…Tanzania…flute ….hey, but that’s horse racing, right?…prostate like a watermelon…sure, get the penthouse…” Eric, inhaling his steak, looks confused, glares. “Lipher is getting the Penthouse?” The song ends and Billy stands up to make a toast. He ends up talking mostly about the lawyer from Seal Beach and a skateboard ramp that he says Todd built in 1980. Todd's realtor then stands up and toasts getting him "into Bella." I notice I am eating the creme brulee, and run out of the room. Someone yells: "Look at the little guy run!” Then: “Go, Sam, go!” I run outside, trip over the driver, and get into the bus. First one in. Two minutes later, Lipher comes in and sits next to me: "Santa Cruz...woke up hard as a rock...that's $150,000 of real fucking money...organ transplant, it's laughing gas..." I nod. I laugh.
An hour later we get dropped off at the Mission. I drive back to my mom’s and get into a small bed she has made up with Erin's sheets. In the morning, I go for a quick unicycle ride, then visit my mom's new house, which looks like where they filmed Friday the 13th. I help mom's boyfriend move a couch into the living room. I find my mom in her bedroom, putting up the same framed photos I have seen in countless bedrooms over many decades. I have to ask.
“Why do you keep moving?”
“Why did you come to get the books?”
Mainly, it was the porn, but I think I understand the point. I gather stuff. Organize it. Obsess about it. Care about it even when I don’t care about it. She moves. I suspect the two are not unrelated. Growing up, I had very few things and what there was was often thrown away, usually wantonly. I felt an unrelenting unease. Things disappeared. Blankets, stuffed animals, toys, books, homes, parents. When I was seven, I had a little yellow sleeping bag with little leopards on it. It was my bed and blanket – we slept on the floor – and it was soft and on many nights it alone made me feel safe. One night it was gone. Tossed. Lesson in Valuable Knowledge. Gather enough stuff so that it can’t all be taken away.
“Why are you moving this time?”
“Well, the pit bulls, for one thing,” she says. “And the house was too small. We needed more storage. And I want to move, Paul. I want to try something different.” This was so much of it. So simple. So understandable. So unyielding. “I saved the books,” she says.
The thing that saved me, if I was saved, were my friends, most of whom I met in the 5th grade, some of whom are now dentists. They say fucking crazy shit, but they’ve never gone away. They couldn’t be taken away. I say goodbye to mom, and meet Frank for brunch. Frank looks like he slept in a crib all night. Todd arrives, holding the bottle of 40-year-old port. I eat a platter of vanilla waffles and then hit the road. At some point, I see signs for Goleta and realize I got on the freeway going the wrong way. I am now regretting the vanilla waffles. I stop in Oxnard for gas and peanut butter cups. Think this will now be a tradition. I’m home by 2. My daughter Daphne is at the door, holding a book, The Best Nest. Do birds stay in their nests all night? Does it matter? Birds eat worms and shit on your head. My mom never stayed in her bed. She was always moving. All night. I’m this way, too. We read The Best Nest. Then one more time. Daphne lies down for a nap. I leave, close the door, don’t lock it. Do not lock the door. Birds don’t. My mom didn’t. Kids grow up, some to 40, some beyond. They will forget a lot, but no matter how big they get – in the head, around the belly, elsewhere – they will remember things past, some things, and they will remember this.