The first time I ever saw the ocean, U2’s The Joshua Tree was blasting from the speakers of Cole’s ’66 coffee-and-cream Mercedes. I was squatting in the passenger seat, perched on my toes so I could see better, singing along at the top of my lungs as we rounded a corner, and there it was – huge and surprisingly blue against the Oregon sky.
I’d met Cole two days earlier, on Memorial Day, at Cafe Paradiso in downtown Eugene. I’d come out West because my on again/off again boyfriend Tom was convinced he was meant to move to Eugene, and therefore I was convinced that I was meant to move there, too. After seeing ‘signs’ for the past several months as I drove around the grey snow-covered streets of Kalamazoo – a few Oregon licence plates, mostly – I’d bought a plane ticket so I could check the place out and in short order found myself sitting in that cafe, writing bad situational poetry in my decorative journal, watching people as they walked in or out.
I had no idea what I was doing there. Then, Cole walked in.
He was dark, beautifully built, wearing a tight white t-shirt. I didn’t know that he would become my husband. I didn’t know that in two days he’d take me to see the ocean. I did know that I had my eye on him, and in those days that meant I would find a way to meet him. In those days, I got what I wanted.
Cole took me to the house where he lived. We’d walked around Eugene all day, visiting places he felt were noteworthy for someone intending to move there. He’d bought me a massive book full of feather-weight pages by his favorite poet, Keats, from which I read aloud while he made dinner. We’d had wine but hadn’t eaten all day, so as he prepared our meal he handed me some sliced cantaloupe to snack on. Between stanzas I inhaled the sweet fruit far too quickly, making my stomach turn and my head tingle with nausea. I didn’t know how to say “I feel sick” to a man – to do so would be a combination of my two least favorite things: admitting weakness and asking for help – and so I casually finished reading, then excused myself to use the bathroom where I quietly vomited melon and wine into the toilet. When I returned to the kitchen, lightheaded and queasy and acting as though nothing had happened, I asked which poem he’d like to hear next; he had them all memorized. I continued reading; we ate; the night wore on.
After dinner, we went to the hot tub. Before he could present a solution to the lack of appropriate hot tub attire I’d lifted off my fitted floor-length dress and then stood there, naked, testing the water with my fingers. In those days I rarely wore a bra or underwear, so pulling off a dress had perhaps a more dramatic effect than it would today. I allowed him the pleasure of admiring me for a second or two before lowering myself into the tub with a grateful sigh. We spent the evening drinking wine, touching toes, discussing the world at large. There was a time in my life when I had a sweet spot with wine – it unlocked my self-consciousness and I was able to speak freely and intelligently about larger topics which I wouldn’t approach under normal circumstances. My old vocabulary came back and I both used and understood bigger words.
This worked with Cole. He asked me if I’d like to accompany him on a drive to the coast. I said that I would very much enjoy that.
On the way to the ocean, Cole and I drank red wine straight from the bottle as I inched higher and higher up in the seat. He took curves as if his old car was a racer and I took the swirling in my stomach at the onrushing trees as adventure. When the ocean finally came into view, I gasped, mid-note, then wept as I continued to sing, “…but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Cole, who didn’t know me at all, looked over, laughing and tipping back the bottle, and when we got to the beach my shoes were already off, jeans already rolled, and I ran for my life to the shore, pulled by the smell of salt and sand and rotting seaweed.
We stayed there all day; there was nowhere else to be.
I was so physically confident then. I trusted my body and my strength; I took off my shirt and climbed a cliff without a second thought – there was no what must my body look like or I don’t think I should be climbing a sheer cliff over a body of water so powerful it moves worlds and souls. There was just me, and the ocean, and Cole – the stranger who’d brought me here.
I will never, as long as I live, forget that day.
The next time I saw the ocean would be in Monterey, California. After more than a year of correspondence Cole had suggested at just the right time that we marry, so that I could escape my depressed wintry life in Michigan, and he could escape his new closed-in barracks life as a linguist in the Army. It would be a marriage of convenience.
And oh, how it was.
I was so young then, so stupid. Wine made me intelligent and smoky and sexy, but in reality I was so very young, with no idea how to behave like an adult, to have a real discussion about feelings, bills, household responsibilities, expectations.
I quickly adopted his drink, a 7&7, so at the commissary I would stock up on Seagram’s as well as frozen meals, which I would cook up and present in a bowl to him as if I’d cooked them myself. “Oh yes, I just julienne the carrots, you know, and add a little heavy cream…it’s no big deal.” Then we would sit and watch Frasier or The Godfather or old films adapted from Steinbeck novels.
I could tell that he was disappointed in me. I pretended to be aloof although I was scrambling to figure out how to correctly do what we were doing. I never brought up my confusion. Instead, I spent hours laying on the hardwood floor of the living room while he blasted Mahler and I cried, moved, from the music and from the deeply settling feeling that I was failing at something, drowning, trying to be that well-versed, confident young woman I’d been in Oregon but knowing that hadn’t actually been me.
We spent most of our time together not talking. We would most often sit quietly, sipping our 7&7s, listening to Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Nick Cave, the odd evening of the Army Marching Band and often, Nina Simone.
“Like a leaf clings to a tree, oh my darling cling to me, for we are creatures of the wind, and wild is the wind….”
Cole and I, as happens, grew apart. Unarmed with the capabilities of communication we were unable to make a barely functional relationship work, and we scrabbled along as roommates and blamed each other for all of our misadventures in love with others. We forgot that simple soft affection from Oregon, the feeling of salt licked from between toes, the heated, respectful, exasperated debates about which playwright was most amusing, which poet described it best. Those few moments were left in Oregon.
After a year, the Army stationed Cole elsewhere. Soon after, with nowhere to call home, I moved to Australia.
When I returned, it was as if I’d never known him.