It's been two weeks since they declared the epidemic over. People are out again, driving around, taking tango lessons at the YMCA behind the Target. Afterwards, they have large ice-blended matcha green tea lattes at Peet's Coffee and compliment each other's babies, and say, "Geez, where did you get that stroller? Ikea?" And then someone says something witty that makes everyone laugh, even the barista.
Everyone has turned on their TVs again. At night, driving through Rancho Rinconada, Champagne Fountain — neighborhoods slumbering in the poplar trees — the glow is now visible through the curtains and open windows – now blue, now white, behind the silhouettes of heads on couches. "Well, what do you know, Zach!" says one news anchor to the other during a feature on a Sunshine Biscuits factory. "I guess that's just how the cookie crumbles!"
In celebration, the city of Cupertino, California has planned a series of festivals at Memorial Park. On top of the regular Shakespeare in the Park, there are food festivals, music festivals and festivals that don't seem to have any designation except that people drink beer out of clear plastic cups while their children have strawberries painted on their faces, glitter included. Meanwhile, people swear to each other that the trees look greener than ever, while their dogs sniff each other.
At Trader Joe's, everyone is buying groceries with gusto, throwing them into their carts without even looking at the ingredients. We're all winking at each other. Get that! Total strangers, winking. I am buying six packages of microwaveable chicken tikka masala because I don't even have a list this time. We are shopping with glorious abandon.
Later, I'm at South Seas with some of my friends from high school who are back for winter break, too. It appears that none of us have forgotten the drinking song we used to sing at someone's house after finals, except that it now seems to have taken on a different meaning:
Fuck ‘em all, fuck ‘em all,
The long and the short and the tall.
Fuck all the teachers and the TAs too,
Fuck the principals and the whole God-damn crew.
So we're saying goodbye to them all,
As back to our dive bars we crawl.
We'll start a commotion this side of the ocean,
So cheer up, my lads, fuck ‘em all.
It's an unusually sunny and arid day for December. A windows-down, blast-anything-that-sounds-good type of day. I'm driving under the speed limit, appreciating the two-story houses, the lawns and the manicured shrubbery, the sprinklers, the collared dogs. Outside on the sidewalk there is a little boy in a matching SpongeBob outfit, trying to tie his shoes.
I pull into the driveway of Amos' house and honk. Nothing happens and I honk some more. Finally the heavy wooden door swings open and I see his scruffy head poke out.
"Amos, you motherfucker," I yell, grinning. "Get in the car."
He comes down the steps in that slumpy way of his, then slides into the seat next to me with a huge backpack.
"Well?" I ask. I slap him on the shoulder and look at him incredulously when he doesn't say anything. "How the hell are you?"
"Good," he answers. "I'm good, man."
"What's that?" I ask, nodding toward the backpack he is trying to shove into the floor space beneath the dashboard. "A picnic?"
"Just sunscreen and stuff."
I check my mirrors, turn my head and back out of the driveway. "Well, I'm glad you're good. I am, anyway. God, it's great that all that shit is over."
"Yeah, about that— "
"Jesus!" A blur of red nearly misses the back of the car. "Fucking Camaros. What freeway am I getting on, by the way? I can't remember the directions – it's been a long time."
"280 North," Amos says.
"280 North," I repeat, turning onto Finch Avenue, "named the World's Most Beautiful Freeway."
"Is that right?"
We pass a kite fair on the football field of our old high school. In ten minutes the city has disappeared and we've joined a fixed flow of cars evenly spread over the wide 280 North, bounded only by yellow hills, black-green trees and that temple up there on the hill.
"Cows," I say, pointing to some black and brown ones under a tree.
Amos nods and changes the radio station.
"Geologists blame among other things a warming climate, altering the landscape and perhaps the availability of water to high-elevation ecosystems," says a woman on BBC. "Collier is shrinking faster than most of the 35 glaciers in the state. ‘Now everything is just in a chaotic shrink,' Bishop says."
"Hey," I say, changing it back. "You can be in charge of the radio when it's your car."
The landscape is opening up. How can I describe it – the dry grass and the foothills that turn into blue mountains, and how all of it looks so perfectly big and self-justified. It seems unchanged from the first time I went on this drive as a kid in the backseat, small and trusting. Even the birds seem frozen in the sky.
"Where were you last night, man?" I ask. "I didn't see you at South Seas."
"Busy doing nothing."
"What an Amos answer," I say. "You missed out on an excellent rendition of our old song."
"What song is that?"
"Fuck ‘em all, fuck ‘em all…" I begin to sing, but Amos looks annoyed, so I stop. Ever since I met him when we were seven, he was the sullen guy. You know, that guy, the token melancholy one that people like to have around anyway because he's smart and funny in a dry sort of way, and sometimes if you can get him drunk, he loosens up a little. He hasn't changed since he's been at Princeton; if anything, he's become even more like he already was.
Now he's changed the radio back to BBC. "Fish and plants in this 6,000 square mile ‘Dead Zone' have been devastated, leaving the waters incapable of sustaining many types of aquatic life," says a different woman.
"Dude," I say. I shoot him a look and change it back.
"Take this exit," he says, pointing to Sand Hill Road. We're heading straight for the mountains now.
"Horses," I say, pointing again. "Who do you think rides them?"
"Rich kids," he says without hesitation. "Turn right up here."
The road narrows and begins to work up the side of the mountain in a series of hairpin turns with 15 mph speed limit signs.
"Come onnn, little Corolla," I say, shifting into second. My windshield is dusty and every time we emerge from a patch of redwood cover, the sunlight makes it hard to see. "How are your parents?" I ask, squinting forward. "How'd they do with the whole mess?"
"Yeah. Both of them."
"Yeah. I don't think I even know anyone who isn't on that shit," I say. "Jesus, what a condition. I remember I couldn't even use paper towels in the bathroom without thinking about where they were going, and what about the trees. Speaking of trees, check out this one." A huge Douglas Fir comes into view as we round another sharp turn. "Anyway, I thought, alright, no more paper towels. And then every time I washed my dishes, I thought about the water I was using. So I stopped washing my dishes. Then I stopped wanting to take showers. Then, get this, there was like a 4.2 earthquake and they predicted aftershocks, and I kept having nightmares. It was sort of exponential. I just couldn't stop thinking about everything in shambles, you know? And global warming, and hurricanes, and you know how they say the honeybees are all dying and they won't be able to pollinate the crops—"
Amos cuts me off. "I know, man."
"You know. Right." I laugh and realize my knees are shaking a little bit. I remember the bottle of Ativan in the glove compartment. "Not like I hadn't felt like that before. But this was totally ridiculous. I couldn't function. Couldn't go to class. Couldn't hang out. I was scared shitless of everything that happened. The tiniest things, I kept reading things as signs of something bad. I couldn't even get drunk, man, no matter how hard I tried. I'd have shots and shots of tequila" – I looked at him – "You know me and tequila. Anyway, no dice. Just made it worse."
"Then you saw the thing on TV?" Amos says, but he isn't looking at me. He is looking out the window with a certain impatience.
"What, you in a hurry?" I ask.
We've reached a clearing at the summit. "No," he says finally. "I just get carsick. The sooner I get out and walk around, the better."
"Alright, alright." Back into the trees, downhill. "Anyway, you know the rest of the story. Public health announcement. National paranoia epidemic." I laugh again. "Crazy shit! But what a relief, man. To have someone tell you you're not nuts. Or at least you have a good reason for it, isn't that the truth? I was so caught up with myself I didn't even notice it was happening to everyone else. I was holed up in my room eating bananas and energy bars, would you believe it?"
"I believe it," he says.
"And free Ativan. How about that," I say, tapping the door to the glove compartment. "I still can't believe how bad it got, though. Like some kind of horrible paralysis; mental, physical…," I say, realizing I don't want to talk about this anymore. "That's a barn if I ever saw one," I say, pointing.
"Listen, Thomas," says Amos, and it sounds like he's about to say something important, and then maybe he changes his mind because it's back to the same old Amos tone. "You ought to slow down around these curves."
"You're right," I say. "Sorry. Sometimes this road is so fun to drive it's like a video game or something."
"It's not a video game," he says with a touch of vehemence.
"Look, is there something you need to get off your chest?" I say, glancing between him and the road. "You a little late on one of your doses?"
He doesn't answer.
The road flattens into its last stretches, with the occasional hand-painted sign for pumpkins and strawberries, but there is no one outside. I strain my eyes to see if there is fog at the end of the road or not.
"How long have we known each other, Thomas?" Amos asks. I don't know what's made him so talkative all a sudden. "I don't know, man. Forever. Let's see… 15 years."
He seems uneasy, so I ask him if he wants to stop and get some strawberries. "They're so good out here," I say. "Like something totally different from whatever it is they're selling at Safeway. Probably the way strawberries are supposed to taste, whatever that means."
We stop and buy a cardboard box of strawberries – one that holds three of those little green plastic things that strawberries come in. Then we get back on the road and eat them all without saying anything. There is something about the sight of Amos out of the corner of my eye, getting older I think – his jaw sharper, his eyes steelier? – staring toward the end of Highway 84, eating these strawberries, one two three, in a slow deliberate fashion, that is both hilarious and tragic. But what kind of thought is that? I realize that I need to take some Ativan when we get to the parking lot.
Then the ocean comes into view, white from the afternoon sun. There are no speed limits here, only fields of strawberries and the yellowest flowers I've ever seen, and a couple of forests where the bleached trunks of the bordering trees are laid bare, maybe by the wind. I nearly drive off the road looking at it, and Amos reaches out a few times to steady the wheel. Otherwise he looks out his window, not bored, but his brow is furrowed.
Then he says, "The Ativan didn't work on me."
I stop chewing for a moment. He is looking at the clock again.
"What?" I finally say.
He sighs. "It didn't work. I have some kind of…" He gestures vaguely, then fixes his gaze forward again. "It didn't work."
We cross Highway 1 and turn into the empty parking lot. Nobody goes to the beach in December, not in Northern California. If they do, it's probably not this one.
I turn the car off and sit back heavily against my carseat. "So does that mean you're still…"
"Let's get out," he says.
He shoulders his backpack and we walk across the parking lot, past the empty wooden kiosk with the slots for brochures about currents and tides and please don't step on the wildlife. The wind is picking up and pushing my hair into my eyes. We take off our shoes and put our hands against the smooth sandy stone for balance as we step carefully over pools and rocks. A stream cuts through the sand and curves around the stone slope.
"Is there any way around it?" I ask.
"No," Amos calls over his shoulder. "You have to walk across."
The temperature of the water makes me inhale sharply. "No wonder there's no god damn fish."
We get out onto the beach and I shield my eyes. The water, I remember, looks gold at this time of day in December, though the fog is beginning to come in. The sand is flat, cold, and packed.
It was always our custom to walk to the right when we got the beach, but Amos has turned left. Not that there's any difference. I have to walk a little faster to catch up with him, and I realize that I am looking at him sideways, wondering. In the midst of the epidemic, I couldn't even stomach the idea of going outside. Now here he is.
"Hey," I begin to ask.
"We're getting there," he says.
Getting where? Right as I begin to wonder if the reason the Ativan didn't work for Amos wasn't that he is just crazy, I narrowly miss stepping on a half-dead yellow jacket. They are scattered over the sand, close to the water. I've never seen them here before.
Amos stops abruptly and turns around to face me.
"Listen, Thomas," he says, and I realize I've forgotten to take my Ativan. "I wanted to come here because you're my friend. And because," he pauses and nudges a shell out of the sand with his toes, "I thought maybe the Ativan didn't work for you either."
"What?" I say. The fog is rolling in at an unnerving speed now.
"You know what it's like," he says. "Or you did, anyway. How everything was still so beautiful but you couldn't enjoy it anymore, because it felt like it was slipping out of your hands, faster and faster. It didn't matter if it was an earthquake, or a bomb, or maybe it was just people running out of something, money or water or life, gradually. A sand castle, remember, you used to tell me? I guess you probably don't want to hear this," he says, and it's true that my jaw is set and I'm casting about for something to look at, settling on a far off cloud that looks like a ship. "I guess it's pretty nice to be cured, to have all of that – the news that hasn't happened yet – so far from you now, but it's still here for me," he says, pointing at the ground. "It's in things. It's already happening. Like every time you look at things, you can already see them gone—"
"Stop," I say. I have the same impulse to listen and to cover my ears. "Would you listen to yourself? We live in Cupertino. The beige of beige. Everything's okay."
"Everything's not okay, man. I thought you knew that."
The dry mouth and sweaty palms I hated so much are starting to return, and I think of the Ativan in the car with its promise of no more questions. My heart is beating fast enough for me to remember how much I hated having to be aware of it, every hour of every day, until I took the Ativan and I could forget about it.
But Amos is right of course, and now, completely against my will, I'm remembering a dinner at a family friend's house in the Saratoga Hills when I was 17. We were having cheese fondue for dinner and chocolate fondue for dessert, and I remember that the strawberries were a little overripe and I got some chocolate on my slacks. The table, I remember too, was so beautifully laid out. The plates were gold-edged and there were these red glass cups for the tea candles and this lacy tablecloth, and food everywhere, taking up every square inch of the table with the grapes hanging right over the edge. I saw my reflection distorted in little silver bowls. And in the middle was this frosted glass vase with some calla lilies and one bird of paradise towering over the rest.
I was supposed to be making a good impression on someone, probably one of my parents' friends, or business partners. But for a moment, I couldn't concentrate. There were too many plates and too much food. There was an uneasiness that suffused everything I looked at, and I wondered where it was from, and how it had come to this table, and why we in particular were eating it, and about the garbage disposal in the kitchen at the end of the hall with the dove-shaped light fixtures, and how the leftover fruit would rot. I barely talked at all, because – how can I explain this – I couldn't get the tragedy out of the grapes, or the anxiety out of the cheese.
I'm not sure when and how it had passed; someone made a particularly good joke about how fat someone's mom was, or I was otherwise diverted. But as Amos looks at me, I think he knows this is what I'm thinking of, because I've told him the story many times.
"Around that corner," he says, and he gestures toward the part of a cliff jutting out, just touching the water, "is a boat that I sometimes use."
"A boat?" I say. I haven't been this nervous in weeks. "Since when do you have a boat? You're not planning on going out there, are you?"
"No, I'm not," he says, and looks suddenly embarrassed. There is a dirty-looking seagull looking at us, unmoving except for its feathers. "I'm going to get in, paddle out there" – he points — "and then I'm just going to sit."
"Amos, I think you've lost it," I say, laughing even though I don't want to, maybe because I've known Amos since we were little and we all used to play games except for him because, he said, he was bad at pretending.
"I know it probably seems weird to you," he continues as if he hasn't heard me, "but I don't have a pill to make things alright. All I have, now and then, is this beach, and that boat. I row out there and sit, and pretend – or try to pretend – that there's somewhere to go."
"Somewhere to go?" But something keeps the ridicule out of my voice. "Like where?"
"It doesn't matter," he says. "And anyway after a while I paddle back in and go home."
We stand there for a while and I combat my own uneasiness. I think about the glove compartment in my car, about comfort and white picket fences, that kid trying to tie his shoes, groceries, my mother laughing into the rearview mirror. Warm functionality. Amos is standing only a few feet from me, but he looks stranded and blasted by the wind.
"Well alright," I finally say. "I'll come with you."
We round the slope of the cliff and sure enough, there it is, a beat up old wooden boat just about big enough for two people to sit in. The back of my heel digs into the sand as we push it out into the water and clamber over the sides, grabbing the paddles. Then, just when we've gotten far enough that it might look, from the beach, like we're really going somewhere, we stop. The fog is eating up the beach, but Amos looks better now. And I don't know if I'm just seeing what I want to see, or what he wants to see, but there is a cloud or a light patch of fog or something over there, right behind his head, that looks just like an island, or a ship, in the approaching dark.