Deep breath. Next step. Big jump. Exhilaration. California.
Why Stanford? Damned if we can remember, but sometime in 1962 the Northwestern faculty floated the idea, and that summer we took an impulsive road trip west to check it out. Margaret came with us, and although the campus was beautiful, what impressed her most were the clean, affordable motels along the way. I still grin remembering her doing her best to give us some marital privacy. There’s no such thing as a Doctorate in Comparative Motels, but that beautiful and prestigious university looked very good. Conrad applied, they offered a fellowship, and off we went.
The movers came to our dank little apartment, took the major furniture (all four pieces of it), and crammed our other possessions into cartons. We cleaned up the dirt, exorcized the demons, and headed west. It was the sweet giddiness of going off together to somewhere new, starting a new story, meeting people who knew absolutely nothing about us— that classic American itch to pull up roots, chase the sun and start a new life with a clean slate. God knows we both had roots we wanted to rip up, but there was more than that. We were young, in love, heading into the unknown: free.
Well, almost. We still had the damned green vinyl couch and the snack dish that looked like a white ceramic bra and other groaners from the wedding gifts. The West invited a naked migration, but we weren’t quite ready for that. Later on, we would get better at turning a journey into a cleansing.
As it was, our journey resembled not so much a triumphal entry as an audition for the Donner Party. Our VW broke down in the Nevada desert, with a 50-mile towing fee and heavy gouging on the repairs. We found a cracker-box apartment in Mountain View for $90 a month, slept on the floor and waited for the moving van. None of our college courses had informed us that movers’ estimates were snares for the naïve. Finally, we got the call: the truck was about to arrive, the bill was 50% above the estimate, and they required immediate cash or everything would go into storage. We took Conrad’s tuition money, persuaded the registrar to wait, swore, wept, unpacked. Then it hit us: this is home.
Something happened to me. I put my bare feet down on the warm concrete of our apartment’s sad parking lot and felt the earth humming beneath it. I stripped to my skivvies and sunbathed in October. I watched the grand parade of color that began with the flaming pyrocanthus berries in November, segued through the delicate yellow mist of January acacia and the heavy purple of February’s wisteria to the riotous pinks of the fruit trees blossoming in March. I felt the air on my skin. I broke into uncontrollable giggles in the Stanford cafeteria seeing a table sign: Please wear at least shirt and shoes.
It wasn’t just the novelty or the climate or being two thousand miles away from my mother, free from the lacerations. I didn’t know until our return to California, thirty-three years after leaving, how primal that first bonding was, the voice deep in the earth that made me feel that for me this was heartland. Walking across the vast, sunbaked campus, smelling the eucalyptus, so fragrant, so foreign. Breathing the tangy salt air. Feeling the fog. Drinking in the colors. Going barefoot. Giving thanks.
California was a confusion. For me, there was a foreignness to it, the architecture, the plant life, the people. Things were spread out, and I found myself often walking aimlessly about the campus, restless, searching for a place to be. It seemed a perfect place to live but not to make art. I didn’t know where that place was, but it seemed to be someplace darker, dirtier, more cramped, more populous, more raucous. Maybe we should have gone East.
And yet it was different, and I’d always wanted something radically counter to my Midwestern temperament. Elizabeth had told me she had hated beer until she had a dream of drinking it, and in the dream it was delicious, and thereafter she loved it. I was in California, perhaps waiting to dream it . . .