A Bit of Sea and Sand Cupped in Your Hands


It was a Saturday morning, two days after Christmas when Tara called to see if I wanted to drive down to Laguna Beach with her. I said sure. There was nothing to stop me. My mother was at the mall with my sister. My father was off working in his plumbing business and I was just hanging around the house feeling lost.

Tara said something about visiting these two older guys she knew and rang off. Nothing else in the way of a plan had come up but I figured it involved at the very least smoking a few joints and exploring the rocky coastline later on. I settled back in with my book, comforted by the prospect of my old lover’s companionship on an otherwise directionless day.

When I heard Tara honk, I slapped the book shut and rushed out the door. She was driving her mother’s old Mercedes. There were hellos and laughs and kisses as I climbed in and off we motored.

The way down to Laguna led first through miles of orange groves and then vast bean fields and eventually through rolling hills on a two-lane backcountry road. White clouds drifted across the blue sky and the land around us was green with fresh grass. We saw cattle grazing up along the hills and small lakes that had gathered from the winter rains. Winding deeper and deeper into a canyon, fanciful houses cropped up along the oak shrouded road.

Arriving at Coast Highway, Tara turned south and drove for a mile or so before turning down a narrow, wooded lane towards the coast. Several hundred yards further on, she parked in front of a shingled cottage shrouded by eucalyptus trees. A brick path led up to a set of the wooden stairs.

At the top of the stairs, Tara tapped on the door. The trees whispered around us. The door opened and a bohemian looking fellow said “Hey!” at seeing Tara. They hugged and the man encouraged me through the door.

Inside, another man was brewing tea.

“This is Bruce and David,” Tara said. “This is Michael.”

“Oh, so nice to meet you,” Bruce said.

He was making the tea. Freshly baked muffins sat steaming on the countertop next to him. The pale, winter sun poured through a skylight. The walls were cedar. The place smelled of tea and baking, incense and old wood.

I went around and sat on a barstool while Tara chatted and laughed with her friends. She had buttered a muffin and handed it to me. I nibbled at it and stared out to sea through the open windows. The eucalyptus trees swayed and whispered above the conversation and laughter.

David told Tara to roll a joint so she came around with a small, wooden box and sat next to me. From inside the box, she produced a bag of grass. I watched as she opened the bag, placed a bit of the grass on a plate and worked at sifting the seeds. The pungent scent of the grass mixed with all the other scents in the house.

Tara lit the resulting joint, took a puff and handed it to me. I had a good toke and passed it to Bruce. David was busy in the living room putting a new album by Love on the record player. Soon, all of us were flopped out on various chairs and sofas, talking and laughing at every silly notion that came into our heads. The day passed away in this manner, without any real purpose and haste in the dry winter day.

Tara and I went for a walk later on along the coast. We came to a rocky cove and then a point and another rocky cove and another point. When we saw this medieval looking stone turret against the bluffs we both went to stand inside of it. There were stairs leading up to the top of the cliff but the first fifteen feet or so had been torn away by the tide. Someone had welded wire bars in place to keep people from trying to climb up.

After wandering along the beach for hours, Tara and I headed back to her place. Tara’s parents were both college professors and had built an airy, two-story home in the woods above town. It was all cedar and tinted glass. It had gotten on into late afternoon as we came up the long driveway.

Tara’s mother said hello and asked about our day and then reminded Tara to feed her horse. I helped with the task and afterwards the two of us hiked up the hill to a grove of oaks. Tara rolled another joint and the last light of day was filtering through the darkening limbs above us as we smoked it.

“Laguna’s cool, isn’t it?” she said.

“Yeah, it’s far out. I could spend a whole day just walking the coast and exploring all the trippy places.”

“Let’s go back soon, okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you want to spend the night?”

“Sure.”

Since the day Tara and I first fell in love at fourteen, her parents had allowed me stay over whenever I wanted. I hated leaving the place. It was filled with books and learning. Her parents usually flopped out with us in the living room at the end of the day and talked away the world. The trees grew dark outside their towering glass windows and the wonderful discussions swept you off around the world. Going back to my place was like going home to the Kramdens, without the humor.

It wasn’t long after our trip down to Laguna that Tara fell in love with this guy in college studying to be an architect. After all we had been through and our many childhood adventures, our strange, lingering romance had finally ended.

Alone and feeling lost one Saturday morning that spring, I took a bag of grass, stuck my thumb out and headed down towards Laguna on my own. I had been standing on a back road out by the old dirigible hangars for some time when a young man in a convertible Impala stopped to pick me up. He was also headed to Laguna and we talked quite a bit along the way. At one point he invited me to join him at a friend’s house and I said okay.

We pulled onto a typical, tree-shrouded street and parked in front of an old clapboard house. A moment later, a man appeared at the front door and waved hello. He had a large mixing bowl in one hand and a spatula in the other. With the apron on, I suddenly realized these guys were gay and freaked.

“I think I’ll just head back to Coast Highway,” I said.

The guy who had given me a ride apologized as I headed up the road.

I wandered restlessly down the shore that day, haunted by questions of who I was and what I would do to survive in the world when I grew up. I explored secluded coves all day and smoked joints and tried to keep my mind from facing its many fears.

Heading back towards downtown that afternoon, I wandered in and out of the many shops along Coast Highway. All of them were pressed up against the sidewalk and frequently cobbled together around brick courtyards. It seemed to me as if someone had transported a village from the Bavarian Alps.

I came upon a cubbyhole record store closer to downtown and slipped inside the darkened interior. The air was filled with the scent of incense. Posters covered the walls. The first Cream album was playing on the turntable.

I’m so glad, I’m so glad. I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m glad.

I spent half an hour looking through albums and talking with the owner about music before heading back along the sidewalk towards the canyon road.

I arrived back to my hometown after dark that night and wanted to tell someone about my adventures so I searched a pizza parlor and the usual places but none of my friends was around. When I tried to slip into my room unnoticed later on, my mother came out of her bedroom and asked where I had been all day and what I had been doing?

“Out,” I said in response to the first question, and “nothing” in response to the second. It was something I had read in a book one time. For reasons I can no longer explain, young people always come to that point growing up, where they no longer want their parents to know about their lives.

The next year, I had saved up enough money to buy my own car and drove down to Laguna every chance I could. Usually a few of my friends would come along and wander the town with me on a Friday or Saturday night. Sometimes we would go down on Sunday and stopped at the Hare Krishna temple for a free meal at dusk. Whatever it was, I never wanted the trip to be over and to head back home.

One Friday night, we were tripping on some Owsley vials and decided to drive down to Laguna one more time. I was in the back of my friend Tim’s car with my girlfriend Robin. There was another couple in back with us and Tim’s girlfriend up in front.

I had run across Robin a year earlier in my history class and thought she was this totally straight brunette. Then I asked her out to a concert at the Shrine Exposition Hall one Friday night and she came dressed like a gypsy. She had a deck of Tarot cards and did a reading for me on our way up to LA.

Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix were headlining the concert. The light show was great. Incense and marijuana smoke billowed up everywhere among the ornate stairs and balconies. Robin and I tripped and got lost for hours. With Robin, everything was like a magic carpet ride. Getting back to her mother’s place in Silverado Canyon late that night, we made love in the back room with incense and candles burning.

Winding down Laguna Canyon Road that winter night, Tim had the latest Doors tape playing on his eight-track stereo. A joint was going around the car. We were grooving to Moonlight Drive.

“Look, the full moon,” Robin said as we turned south on Coast Highway.

“The full moon,” everyone said. The moon was just then coming up over the hills in the frosty, winter sky.

“The cow jumped over the moon,” Tim said.

Everyone started to sing the song and laugh. Then Tim pretended to be flustered about the silly song and we laughed over his antics.

Somehow Tim got to telling us a story about how he had accidentally driven his new motorcycle through the back wall of his neighbor’s garage the previous week.

“The motorcycle was half into their kitchen,” he said. “Like, I could see this couple at their breakfast table through the hole in the wall.”

Tim had a Buster Keaton touch of mock seriousness to go with his humor. He would seem tragically beleaguered, yet smiling.

“So, what did you say to them?” someone asked.

“Hi there, kids. What’s for breakfast?”

Tim nearly swerved off the road as everyone laughed.

When we came to our destination in South Laguna, Tim parked on the ocean side of the highway. There was a long flight of stone steps that led down to a secluded cove among some low hanging trees.

“Hey, I know,” Tim said. “Let’s take my stereo along with us.”

Everyone laughed.

“No, really,” Tim said.

“And what, plug it into a rock?”

Everyone laughed again.

“No. We’ll take my battery with us.”

Now, everyone was falling over in laughter and Tim pretended to be even more flustered.

“Hey, I’ve got a better idea,” I said. “Let’s build a house.”

Again, everyone laughed. When you were tripping, any activity that had a purpose to it no longer made sense. Still, Tim insisted and we watched with amazement as he removed the battery and stereo from the car.

“I’m not carrying the battery,” I told him when he tried to hand it to me.

“All right, all right” he said, laughing, “someone take the eight-track.”

Down the long, winding stone steps we went, having a wonderful time with Tim’s ambitious plan.

On the beach, we all looked on with more amazement as Tim actually got things hooked up. When the music came on, it was like a miracle.

Robin and I wandered down the shore with the melody of Strange Days echoing softly amidst the roar of the breakers. To us, the rock formations jutting out of the sand had become the remnants of ancient castles. Robin was a princess and I was her prince, and we acted out the parts of our epic tale. She leapt ahead gracefully from stone to stone and I pursued, until at last I knelt at her feet. At the edge of the sea, in the full moonlight, I kissed of her hand and spoke my words of devotion.

Much later, when everyone’s trip had started to mellow out, we huddled together on the shore, passing a joint and a bottle of red wine around. Everyone felt warm and happy and snug in spirit.

On our way out of town that night, we stopped at the Taco Bell for something to eat. There were picnic tables along the sidewalk and we sat amusing ourselves with all the dealers marching back and forth in front as we ate. Any kind of drug you wanted, it was there at the drop of a hat.

“Speed, acid, grass,” a guy would say.

One of them actually opened his overcoat to show his wares.

The following spring, I dropped out of high school and drove down to Laguna alone. I had no direction in life. All I wanted to do was trip and be happy.

Instead, when I got down to Laguna, I felt lost and haunted by memories. I missed Tara, but she was gone. I missed Robin.

It happened to be one of those dry, restless Santana days in Southern California when you could see forever but everything in the world felt like it was a million miles beyond your reach.

I stopped at Mystic Arts first thing and wandered from book to book, looking for the answers to life. And it seemed as if I had found them when I opened the Maranantha Script. It spoke with great authority about God’s plan, and how the angels and agents of his divine mission were working among us right now and how all human beings were involved together in this cosmic drama. I wanted to believe it. I wanted to believe everything in life made sense like that. I hated to think that life was simply a series of random events without any meaning or purpose.

When the day began to warm, I headed down the coast and stopped in the little cubbyhole record store, still lost and feeling terribly alone and looking for a friend. The record storeowner welcomed me with a smile when I went in. He played the first Cream album at my request.

I’m so glad, I’m so glad. I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m glad.

But I didn’t feel that way at all. I was coming on to the Owsley vial I had taken earlier and said goodbye to the owner.

The day had grown warmer and drier. The sea was flat and rippled by a soft wind. I wandered far, far down the shore, away from everyone and everything I knew. I sat down alone, overwhelmed by unspoken emotions.

Earlier, the owner of the record store had told me. “You know. They say if you hold a bit of seawater in your hands, you can see the whole universe.”

I took a bit of seawater in my hands, as he had suggested and stared. There were fine, fine grains of sand glistening like gold against my skin. The wind blew in my ears. I sat there, a child of the universe, trying to feel anything but lost in my heart.