Growing up in another valley so far away as to be a different country—growing taller and growing leaner but somehow never wiser—between mountains the mining outfit was slowly carving up, slowly carting away, I can still see him: Daddy, coming home blue with stone dust each day, his wife hosing him off in the yard fully clothed, a slushy blue river unribboning from his hair, from his clothes, off his boots, and finally through the short brown grass where it at last could disappear underground. His wife would rinse and strip him down and only then was Daddy allowed inside. Showering with a beer parked on the sink’s edge, the thorny earthworks of his hand parting the vinyl curtains, collapsing around the bottle, drawing it inside the steam. The same calloused hands folded in grace at the table, enveloped faintly in the steam from mashed potatoes and steak. The same hands covering his mouth while his body wracked, trying to drag breath deeply up from the bottom of a phlegmy smoker’s cough. Only Daddy didn’t smoke. Stone dust worked in unmineable blue veins through the rough crags of his hands. I can still see Daddy coughing and Daddy in the yard beneath the cold rain of his wife’s garden hose, framed by dissembling mountains that I hated to see dissembled—a constant reminder of everything wrong with people, with the world, with home—and all of sixteen and certain, so certain, I told my father he was pathetic.
Do not forget this.
Do not forget this, and don’t forget too to hold this memory side by side with that time looking out over the ocean—not my first time but my first time after moving into Rebecca’s spare room in her house of redwood and glass lighthousing above those mutable blues, those fog-gauzed islands, those distant freighting lights—standing beside Rebecca on high blue cliffs plunging straight down because there were no beaches, this wasn’t that kind of coast, and I acknowledged the impulse to say the waves were infinite though of course, they’re finite, at any given moment there is an exact whole number of waves, a fleeting integer we can never count, and so excited yet inarticulate, I told Rebecca how beautiful it was, how mighty and majestic, our ocean was a cosmos. And Rebecca laughed at me, barking hard and mean, and told me, “This ocean isn’t ours.”
Taller and leaner yet still no wiser. Still mad at Daddy for tearing apart mountains as if he had any choice, as if the mountains were his to tear down or not. Yet far away and feeling righteous, convinced the ocean was mine. Hold them side by side.
Those mountains are gone but there are other mountains. I can see them. Daddy couldn’t get them all. Walking my orchards north of Fresno—my orchards, do you believe it, my apricots and plums—I can see mountains no one’s carted away. And though the ocean is a hundred and fifty miles to the west, some mornings—this morning—I swear I can smell ocean. Though maybe it’s the canal, misting with sunup and grown salty from runoff escaping this alkaline hardpan. But still: I smell ocean. I smell ocean and see mountains and I am in between among fruiting trees I have the audacity to claim as my own, two times an orphan and still some weird nun, remembering Daddy’s voice and remembering Rebecca’s voice, each trying to teach me the same thing, teaching what I accused them so certain of not knowing.
This is not your ocean.
This is not your land.