Tyler Dunning

Goin’ Coastal by Daniel Ciochina

When California Calls

I wonder what I’d say if California called, and if I’d even answer or let it go to voicemail. Or how I’d react if happening upon her in public, at Trader Joe’s perhaps, buying those predictable items of truffle oil and kumquat. Or maybe at an uninhibited outdoor festival, Coachella, the kind she’s drawn to, with the tent camping, gypsy dancing, marijuana plumes. We never smoked together, she and I, well once, but that was long after the breakup. After I fled to Europe. After I got high in Amsterdam for the first time. And then a second. Blacked out on the third.

If California calls will I recognize her voice? Her laugh? Will her number still be in my phone? I’ve deleted it before, then reentered, then deleted. Yet sometimes, when drunk, I look at maps, longing—could she be as memorable as my nostalgia is fooling me to believe? Because when I think about her, it’s not the curvy coastline or the supple Sierras that torment me. It’s not the almond trees in bloom or the night sky of Death Valley. Not Joshua trees. Not redwoods. Not Salvation Mountain or Slab City. Not San Diego or San Francisco. Not the vibrant life of her once flooded tide pools. It’s the missed opportunities, the missed honesty, the crashing of waves on a consciousness. What a thing to love and lose, the Golden State—

Our first break up broke me. Became a drunk. Lost weight. Couldn’t sleep. Got on pills. Pills and then inhalants. She and I first smoking together after kissing was no longer allowed, when kissing was all I craved. Then American Spirits became our thing, after she started calling stoned from the bars. After I came back to her, for the second time or the third—

I left California, over and over. A fear of commitment, maybe. An inability to move forward, certainly. Arrested development. It’s just, forever can feel like a prison—with one person, one place. Six months even. Who could really love with those limitations? But California gets it, the despondency of youth. The indifference. She took me back, over and over, no questions asked.

After the first time it was just fooling around, because Europe had worked, my distance inducing desire. She knew I was gone. That it was real. So she called. We got high. No kissing allowed. But we kissed. Plus more. She missed the way I’d hiked her trails, explored her national parks. Said the other boys didn’t do it the same. I, too, hadn’t found another state I enjoyed more. Felt good having something to fuck again.

But it soon became work the way I loved her, traffic jams and smog. Seasons unchanging. The crime. I started spinning the globe and letting my finger fall in random places: Israel, New Zealand, Samoa. Other states: Florida, Colorado, Missouri. Sometimes weekend flings to Arizona or Nevada. She didn’t flinch. Not with our history.

We met in high school, when things were easier, when love was a feeling, not a routine in keeping together. Then we became real humans with real interests. She spoke of resumes; I, of social justice. We bored each other. And to salvage the wreckage, we moved in together. A desperation attempt. Yet, communication suffered, never speaking of kids or careers, only the present: How was school? Have you found a job yet? That was right about when she stopped coming home, started staying out with “friends,” drank too much. I started gambling, smelling of sick ciggies and defeat, looking for worth in electronically generated keno, always playing our birthday numbers. She crawled into bed one morning, crying, and I already knew what Delaware would later tell me: she’d been kissing other boys at the bars. But I didn’t leave her. Not that time. That’s when she left me—

God I miss that state of mind. Her laugh. The fertile farmland of her Central Valley, her droughts, her doubts if I would ever get my shit together, become an adult, settle. But in my head, as it plays out, when California calls she won’t want me back, not this time; she won’t want to know what’s new or what other states I’ve been driving through. She won’t beg for another shared sunset, hands held in our sacred loneliness. No—

No kissing. No smoking. No road trips to Mexico. She won’t want to share a burrito (hold the cilantro), or finally take up surfing as we claimed we would. When California calls she’ll only want an answer. To know why. In a somber, uneasy voice, she’ll only ask why.

And if she ever does, I won’t know what to say, despite all my foresight and restless nights, all my contemplation. It’s been a decade since our last bad breakup and I haven’t loved another since. Sometimes others talk about her, saying they’ve seen her around, and I respond: Yeah, that place is beautiful. And I mean it: she’s beautiful. But I don’t take care of love. I long for it. Yet reject it. Want acceptance. Yet keep people at bay. When it becomes real I flee, claiming I need to return to Montana to see family, to clear my head. Or I take another temporary job in another temporary place. At thirty-three, it’s no longer cute. And she got tired of waiting through it all, moved on and married now, some British guy she met in Australia, a real specimen. Definitive abs, according to Facebook photos. She looks happy. Deserves to be happy. Has a dog. Probably pregnant soon. Hasn’t called in years.

I haven’t told her that I’m heading east soon and then, after, maybe Utah or Washington. And why would I? We’re no longer bound, though my driver’s license still bears her name. And yet, I wait, lying awake, because California will call. She will. And when she does, when California calls, she won’t want me back.

Table of Contents