I had a crush on a boy in high school. For the purpose of this story, let’s call him Boy.
Boy was cute. He had dark hair and dark eyes and he wore jeans and plaid shirts. He slouched a little, in that I’m A Boy And I’m Totally Cool way that makes a girl’s heart swoon.
I had a crush on him because he was so cute, and so cool. I was friends with Boy, too. Not Hang Out And Play Kickball friends, but Nod Sort Of Indifferently At Each Other At School friends. And we had mutual friends, which meant we sometimes ended up in the same person’s living room or participating in the same conversation.
Boy was really cute.
Boy also seemed way far out of my league because one thing I was not in high school, was cool. I was dorky with big hair and I liked English class and I sucked at kickball, which is kind of hard to suck at since all it really involves is kicking a ball, and nobody wanted me on their team.
Boy and I were not in the same English class. He was cute, and cool, but not precisely scholarly. And that made him even cooler.
So you can imagine my shock and delight when Boy asked me out on a date. A date, as in, do I want to go see a movie with him?
I probably said something like, “Okay,” because you have to seem cool, not like your brain is jumping up and down doing cartwheels because cute Boy just asked you on a date.
I don’t remember the movie we saw. I do remember he picked me up in his car, which, in retrospect means he couldn’t have been that cool, if my parents thought he was responsible enough to drive their 15- or 16-year-old daughter to a movie theater.
He picked me up in his old, beat up, very cool car, and we went to the movies and then we went out for a snack or maybe dinner but who really remembers, because he was so cute, and so cool, and he asked me on a date and there I was, on a date, with him!
I remember almost nothing about the date, except that we saw a movie, and he paid for everything, which made it a real date, not like we had just ended up at the same movie theater and happened to watch it at the same time.
I also remember the conversation we had at the end of the date, as he drove me back home in his very cool car.
My head was spinning with how cool everything was and how I was totally in love with Boy, and how his hair was just hanging over his eyes in that very cool I’m A Boy way and I wanted him to kiss me. I thought about how he would have to kiss me in the car when he dropped me off because we couldn’t risk my father seeing us kissing on the porch, good god.
We had somehow gotten on the topic of What We Wanted To Be When We Grew Up. And though I don’t recall the particulars, I do recall that he told me he had no greater ambition than to be able to wake up early on a weekend, when the morning was just mist on the grass, and go out fishing. He told me he wanted to work his nine-to-five, whatever that might have been, and then spend the weekends, right there in our country home town on the lake in a fishing boat. Outdoors, under the morning stars and the sun, basking in the breeze and catching fish. That was his dream.
If that sounds idyllic and utterly genuine, I suppose it is. But to my 15- or 16-year-old brain it sounded like this:
“I don’t want to do anything with my life except live in this shit backwards town and leave my wife home with the kids while I go out fishing like a hick.”
That’s about how I felt about his dream.
I had a love-hate-mostly-hate relationship with my shit backwards country home town, and the idea that this very cute Boy who was so cool would love nothing more than to live there and spend his idle time in a fishing boat, well, that did not sound very cute or cool to me at all.
That sounded very not cool.
So not cool that our date ended like this:
I said thank you. I handed him five bucks for gas. And I leapt out of the car.
There was no kiss.
I probably apologized. I was not actually a mean person, and he was still pretty cute, especially with that hanging hair, and I had no intention of hurting his feelings. I found his dream terrible and stifling but still sweet and charming in a way that I totally hated. So I’m sure I thanked him profusely and said that I appreciated everything and had a great time but hey, we’re both kids here, and I really want to contribute to this amazing date so you don’t have to take all the responsibility, thank you so much, this was great, really great, thank you. Thank you.
I’m sure, knowing myself, that I stumbled and fell all over whatever stupid thing came out of my mouth.
But it came from a place of complete horror at the thought that I was in love with a Boy who wanted to live in that town and fish for the rest of his life.
Absolute hand-a-guy-five-bucks-and-thank-him-for-the-date horror.
He was probably confused as hell. We never went on another date. And after that we rarely ended up in the same living room or in the same hallway, and definitely not in the same English class.
I wonder if he remembers the insane girl he took to a movie once, who suddenly threw five dollars for gas money across the dashboard at him and ran out of the car for no apparent reason.
Or maybe he’s just enjoying his life, living his dream on a fishing boat.
I hope so.
As for me, it seems that I reacted to something that day that it would take me another thirty-plus years to figure out. It would seem, as I write these words, that I’ve quite literally just figured out why I acted like an insane person that day.
But to explain that, first I’d have to tell you about the moon in Olema.
Olema was sort of an accident. Ralph and I planned an 8-week cross-country road trip with a dozen stops in a dozen places, and none of them were Olema. I didn’t even know it existed.
Then one day I was online researching Random Stuff To Do and I stumbled across a website for rental cottages located next to a farm on the northern coast of California.
The website said they had chickens, and that was what sold me. I wanted to see the chickens. More significantly, I wanted to stay in a cottage where chickens wandered around on my front lawn and horses hung out in the back and cats were known to randomly walk into your living room and plunk down by the fire. We were warned not to let them. We only cheated once.
We planned a three-night stopover in Olema, so I could stay with the chickens.
Turns out, the chickens were dead. They didn’t mention that on the website, but when there were no chickens to be found, we learned that the local wildlife had eaten the chickens and so the chickens were no more.
It was an eyebrow-furrowing disappointment, but then there was the moon.
The night we arrived in Olema, the moon was full. Or as close to full as a moon can be so at the very least you think it’s full.
It took us forever to get there, mostly because we had spent the day in San Francisco, then started the 20-mile trek north at dusk. Dusk is not a time you want to be driving along the cliffs in northern California, at least not when you’ve spent most of your life driving no further than the New Jersey Turnpike.
It was dark.
The roads were hairpin-winding.
Even had it been light, even had we known where we were going, even had we not ignored the Road Closed sign and driven up a steep cliff to find out that the road was, in actual fact, closed, so that we had to do a 497-point U-turn on the edge of a dark and narrow cliff and head back down the way we came, it would still have taken us an hour to make that drive.
As it was, by the time we arrived in Olema, to find the gate shut with a sign telling us it was shut to keep out the local wildlife, Ralph was a frazzled disaster of a human. Three hours with your hands in a death-grip on the steering wheel and your teeth clenched and your shoulders tensed against some inevitable plunge to your death will do that to a person.
We were not in a good mood.
I disliked Olema and wanted to go home and I literally hadn’t even seen it yet. It was too dark to see anything.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped out of the car was not the moon. The first thing I noticed was the smell. It was fresh, and sweet, the kind of smell that makes you stop and breathe. The kind of smell that, for the rest of my life, will conjure memories of stepping out of the car that night.
Later, I would decide it was the hay. I smelled something similar at a barn we went to in town, and the barn was full of hay. It was, most likely, a combination of hay and whatever flowers and grass were growing there, but it was one of the most wonderful, stop-and-inhale-in-a-total-stupor things I have ever smelled in my life.
I wanted to step out of the car over and over again, just to get that hit of olfactory endorphins. A mini-high, on hay and nighttime.
I also wanted to continue disliking Olema, because sometimes when you get in a mood you’re committed to it, but I couldn’t. I could only breathe.
After we shut the gate behind us, after we found our parking spot on the gravel driveway, after we trekked our 900-pound luggage up the gravel driveway to our dark cottage and learned that 900-pound luggage on plastic wheels does not roll up gravel on a hill, after we walked into the cottage and dropped our bags, I noticed the moon.
The cottage was hot. The whole summer was unusually hot, and there was no air conditioning. Since we arrived late at night, the cottage had been closed up all day so the heat was just hovering like a blanket in the air. Not a fan in sight.
I wanted to keep disliking Olema, but I wasn’t as committed to my mood by then, and the cottage was so hot that I stepped out onto the front porch to cool off, which is when I noticed the moon.
It was right in front of me, right there hanging in the sky, big and white and round. The clouds lay over it, filigreed layers of clouds, not really moving, but not still either. You could see the moon, then see part of it, then not see it. But mostly it was there, the dark blue-black of the sky all around it, looking like no moon I had ever seen over the New Jersey Turnpike.
Had I ever seen a moon before? Had I really?
And how do I describe it without resorting to cliché?
To say it “hung” is to resort to cliché.
Was it pasted there?
Was it nestled in the velvet of the sky?
Was it a bright silver disc illuminating the night?
Actually, it was just a moon. Big, and white, and round.
But it was not a moon I had ever seen.
First, I gaped at it. Then, I ran back inside to get my cell phone so I could take pictures of it. Then I gave up, because words and pictures are inadequate almost to pointlessness, and gaped some more.
I loved Olema.
I never wanted to leave.
We stayed for three weeks.
After our initial three-day reservation was up, I emailed the owner and asked her to extend it. Just a few more days. After those days were up, I asked her to extend it again. I did that, for three weeks.
The only reason we left is because, in addition to turning our eight-week trip into ten, someone else had reserved our cottage after us. Our cottage.
We talk about it like that, the place we went to by accident then wanted to leave then never wanted to leave.
I loved it because of the smell and because of the moon. And because of the horses outside my window and the owl that cooed me to sleep every night. One night, he had a friend, and the two of them chatted all night long, maybe reminiscing about the delicious chicken dinner they had shared only a few weeks ago.
I loved it because of the stars. If you think you’ve seen stars, you haven’t, not if the only place you’ve ever seen them is above the New Jersey Turnpike.
I loved it because of the tiny ants that streamed across my counter if I forgot to put away the orange slices and because my I Love New York Born And Die Here husband found his inner country hick and made us blazing fires in the wood burning stove every night, even though there was no air conditioning, even though it was the hottest summer anyone could remember.
Which brings me back to Boy, and why I, thirty-plus years later, finally understand why I threw five dollars at him and ran away when he told me about fishing.
I love Olema. And I’m going back, and I’m booking an entire month and I’m going to breathe every day and listen to owls every night.
But more significantly, I love that there are places like Olema, somewhere, and I only have to stumble upon them, whether I want to or not, whether I’m in a mood when I get there or not.
I love that there are places that are waiting to surprise and delight, places with smells or moons or things not yet imagined.
I love that there’s a possibility of finding those places, anywhere, any time, in any manifestation. I just have to make sure I don’t get stuck in a fishing boat.
It seems strange to say that a teenager’s blissful fantasy of spending weekends fishing translated into my idea of a lifetime of captivity, but maybe not as strange as admitting that a moon, 30-plus years later, triggered that memory.
And it’s true.
I realized, with that memory, that I’ve always had a wanderlust inside, one that’s been thwarted and ignored for most of my life, whether a result of habit or fear or inertia. But it’s been there, and it knew what it wanted even at 15-or-16, even if the rest of me didn’t catch up for a very long time.
Maybe that’s why I always liked English class, not just because of a penchant for writing many, many words but because I love the escape of a story. I love the worlds and ideas and possibilities behind every book cover.
Now, I’m free to write my own, each day, as I live it.
Olema wasn’t the most beautiful place we saw. There were also the towering Ponderosa Pines of Oregon and the flattop mesas of New Mexico. But it was the first place I noticed the moon. And the first one that, after a night in Amarillo, Texas in a $39 roadside motel where Ralph and I slept clinging to each other in a double bed and wondering if our car would still be there in the morning, felt like the reason we had gotten into the car and driven 10,000 miles in the first place.
Olema impressed on me the realization that knowing something in your head isn’t the same as being there in the moment. And that it doesn’t matter what you think or expect, because the only way to understand a thing is to experience it. Not imagine it, not read a story about it, not even remember it in many, many words.
You have to be right there.
I want to be there. I don’t want to know what to expect. I don’t want to think I know. I just want to go, and see, and smell, and be. The joy is in the possible. The joy, for me, is in the not knowing and the finding out.
That, it seems, is what my 15-or-16-year-old brain wanted to express, and what it took me 30-plus years and a moon to figure out.
Unless I get a flat tire, I won’t be stopping in Amarillo, Texas again. But I’m going back to Olema. And then I’m going somewhere else. There are a lot of miles, and you never know when one of them might have chickens.
Maybe one of those places will even have a fishing boat and I’ll get to experience what it really feels like to sit there as the morning mist rests on my skin. You never know.