The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Catalina

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Think back to crossing Santa Monica Bay with your husband, unaware that you are pregnant. You’ll suspect it later, when one night all you want for dinner is pie, the next only sparkling water and toast. Weeks after that there will be cramps—the feeling of it passing. This will change you.

In pictures of you then you will see someone familiar but a stranger. You will recognize her freckles dark from spending the day in the sun. You will see her posing on the pebbly beach in a bathing suit, and think only of the small life swimming in her belly—that at six weeks it has a heartbeat, and you will think how does she not know there are two hearts within her?

But do not think of that now. Think instead of when you and your husband were on that boat, salty wind hitting you in the face. You cross Santa Monica Bay filled with that excitement that comes with being on an adventure.

You head 22 miles off the California coast, to Santa Catalina Island, to Two Harbors, the small village near Isthmus Cove. There is only one bar and restaurant, one school, one convenience store with attached grill. The campground empty because a storm is coming. You set up your tent in heavy winds, using stones to drive the stakes into the dry red earth. You unpack the sleeping bags and pads; make sure the wine has survived the trip. There is a bundle of wood left by past campers, your husband says, What luck.

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On the way back from the convenience store, lugging large jugs of water and sharing sour gummy candies, you see ravens the size of rugby balls attacking your camp. Your husband goes running, you laugh and watch him try to chase them away. He’s laughing too—head thrown back, a big gulping laugh. How wonderful he looks then—in that moment, untouchable.

It’s no use though; they’ve eaten most of the food. Torn open the freeze-dried scrambled eggs with bacon, the beef stroganoff, the fire-roasted vegetables. Bits of dried food are scattered down the hillside, bright blue wrappers in the short scrubby brush. One of the park rangers tells you the ravens have learned how to open containers, how to unzip bags.

And the chicken breasts—or was it some vegetarian version of chicken?—safe from the ravens, having been stored in the cooler. You marinated them in balsamic vinegar, ground pepper and garlic, chopped onions and a bit of crushed rosemary. It is to be your birthday dinner. You eat them with pre-prepared quinoa. You open the bottle of Rioja, which is good and rich and makes you both a little drunk. The storm does not blow in. You build a fire and watch the sun set on the city across the bay. Those city lights look curious from this angle, almost foreign. Is that where you live? Infinite sparkling lights like some starry sky squashed on the horizon. You feel like you are looking back on your life. Imagine some other version of yourselves exist there still.

Silly girl, you will think later. Silly young girl. You will look at that picture of her with Los Angeles somewhere far off in the distance, across the bay, beneath a streak of brown, and wonder if it would have been a boy or a girl.

In the morning there are dainty fox prints on your camping gear. The Catalina Island fox is smaller than other foxes, not much bigger than a housecat. You examine the tracks during breakfast—cream of wheat with raisins and strong coffee. The park ranger tells you the Catalina Island fox is skittish, and that if you see one not to get too close. He says, Mothers are protective this time of year.

You explore the beach, which is rock-strewn, the water cold. Your husband chuckles when you try to snorkel. He wraps you in a towel, says, Goofball. Your teeth are chattering. In the café he buys you a beer and you share a garden burger, which is too dry but you don’t mind because the view is spectacular. The beach is empty, flanked by high shadowed cliffs. Kayaks stacked on top of one another blow a bit in the wind. Palm trees bend their shaggy heads, your beer bottle glints emerald in the sun. Clouds come up from the west, from behind you—pillowy foam-like clouds that race out to the blue, blue sea. You walk to the second harbor, known as Catalina Harbor, which is really a lagoon. It reminds you both of Peter Pan—it is that kind of turquoise. Technicolor.

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Everything comes back in lush detail like that. It is important to picture it perfectly.

The locals describe the hills on either side of Two Harbors as rolling. They are covered in long waving grass and very steep. You would call them mountains. On the stretch of land between them is a grove of eucalyptus. Someone has tied a rope swing to the tallest one. You take turns pushing each other. Your husband lifts you high enough to make out the mountain peaks. Is that possible? Let’s pretend that’s right—you are high enough to see the jagged peaks. You whoop every time the swing comes down. You feel like you’re flying.

Back at camp you see bison hoof prints. They are in heat this time of year, the park ranger tells you, and very aggressive. You make hot chocolate and watch the storm, this time it’s really coming. Was it windy enough to chap your cheeks and lips? Or just to pick up both bath towels and send them scattering into the chaparral? You will want to remember the slate grey color of the sky, how the earth turned a lovely deep carmine—and the sound against your tent, how when the rain started you stayed up to listen.

Little Harbor is a few hours hike from camp and to get there you take the backbone trail over those “hills.” The views promise to be sweeping and at Little Harbor there is a sandy beach. You set off with your husband puffing behind you. There are patches of cloud left over from the storm; they travel very fast—sunlight, clouds—sunlight again. This is when you first see the wild open ocean, from atop of one of those peaks. It is the Pacific with a capital ‘P’ not the pleasant Santa Monica Bay with which you are familiar, or even past Malibu—the colder, grittier Ventura beaches.

There are not many pictures of this part, and later, after you’ve passed that sad life—heard its soft plop in the toilet—it will become imperative that you remember. Only you won’t be able to make out the angry swells in the photos. Nor the competing winds that race over the wave tops, nor the big waves that roll over one another. You’ll be able to recall the sensation it gave you, how it left you a little breathless, like being weightless all at once. That you felt like crying. It’s nutrient rich, the park ranger says. Full of life. But 20 miles out, just past San Nicholas Island, it drops off, nothing but barren ocean floor for miles and miles.

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The next morning you pack up camp, check in at the only hotel this side of the island: Banning House Lodge, which was built in 1910, now a stately Craftsman-style bed and breakfast. This is to be the luxurious part of the trip. Camp two nights and your reward is splurging on a hotel. You take your first hot shower in days. Your husband jumps on the fluffy white bed then joins you in the shower—your bodies seem so slippery and filled with vigor. Two eager explorers. This will change too—because later, you will not want to be touched. You will worry how long this will last—wonder, will you ever want to be touched again?

In the communal room you build a fire. A bison and large deer heads decorate the walls. You drink tea and cuddle on the couch. Other guests congregate here too. A woman tells you about sailing the open ocean. It’s magnificent, she says. But you must respect its mystery.

Beside her is a young couple from Mexico with their small son. He has very blonde curls, this little man—perfect tiny ringlets, and he goes about the room pointing at his crayon, saying, Rojo, Rojo, until you say it back. Rojo, my husband says, smiling. When the child sees the bison head he says, Buenas noches bufalos and waves.

And don’t forget, just before the Catalina Express arrives to take you back to San Pedro Harbor you see a Catalina Island fox. She’s hunched down beneath a scrub oak, blinking serenely at you. Did you wonder where were her cubs? In the picture, she looks like a blur, a tiny beige shadow. But her tail had been short, her ears big, a sweet little triangular face. She does not come when you beckon, only tilts her whiskered face and trots off.

I want to remember all of this exactly right. It is important to see yourself clearly, because later, after the bleeding has stopped, you will not be able to shake the emptiness. It will become a part of you, so much so that you would miss it if it were gone. Maybe you’ve aged, which is really just a bad way of saying you’ve changed, something has shifted. This is when that other you—the you in your memory—becomes a stranger, something precious to look back on.

So back, back, I must go back. To when that little fox looked at you—its black doll eyes winking. Or when your husband said Rojo, Rojo and smiled. Remember this: those wind patterns on the wild ocean; that just west of Catalina is a raging sea, nutrient rich… until it’s not. And your beer bottle, sun glinting through it as if it were some gem—the sound of your whoop on the swing—the feeling of being light enough to fly.

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Photos by gcmenezes via Flickr/Creative Commons license. Photo editing by Kristin Basta.


Liska Jacobs has been nominated for the Kirkwood Literary Prize in Fiction twice, selected for the New Short Fiction series, and a recipient of a Squaw Valley scholarship. She has been published in LARB Quarterly, The Millions, Hairpin, Enaegon Magazine and others. She is currently pursuing an MFA through the University of California Riverside. Find more of her work at liskab.tumblr.com. More from this author →