At dusk, six of us walked the long stretch of sand at Cannon Beach, Oregon: three lesbians in butch haircuts and jean jackets, two gay men, and me. I had befriended them in college, but now that I had graduated and met a woman who loved me back, they were my people. I was thrilled that they were grown enough to rent a vacation cabin without parents and thrilled and scared as C and J held hands and kissed as we passed straight people who may or may not have been glaring at us.
Back in Olympia, where I was packing to move to the east coast with my new girlfriend, the band Beat Happening would soon be writing “Indian Summer,” a song Rebecca Brown talks about in her new book of essays about the seasons, You Tell the Stories You Need to Believe. Reading her book now, in a hotel room in Cannon Beach, I look up the video of the song and there are Heather, Calvin, and Bret in grainy footage, walking around the Olympia of my college years: Yard Birds and Sylvester Park and the Capitol Building.
(Since I will never otherwise have a reason to do this, I am posting here this photo. I was managing editor of the college paper when we sponsored a Valentine’s Day contest: Why are you Mr. or Ms. Right? Calvin won with “Because I’m Calvin Johnson and I own this town.” I got to kiss the prize winner.)
In her book, Rebecca (I know her, so I’ll do what my students are always doing with writers they know or don’t know: use her first name) writes about Beat Happening but also Blake and Levertov and Schubert and other artists. She tells stories about growing up feeling out of sorts and falling in and out of love and losing parents and friends. As I sat reading the book, the essays pressed on that tender spot in my chest that is home to nostalgia and loss.
My wife Arline and I took my parents to Cannon Beach for a few days at the beginning of September in the first year of Covid. We had all been masking and isolating since March, and I hoped that making our own meals and gathering on the hotel terrace would keep us safe. When the sun was too warm on the terrace and we moved into one of the rooms for the evening, I itched with fear that one of us had brought in the virus. But we had not.
Arline and I walked the beach one afternoon and caught up with my father, who was walking alone. From behind, he looked more fragile than I remembered: stooped, jeans sagging, his walk slow and labored. We accompanied him back to the hotel. He said, startling us, “This is the last time I’ll be here.” No, no, we said; you’ll be back; we can all come again next year. We didn’t think to ask him why he said it.
On the last day of November this year, the second year of Covid, Arline and drove into Cannon Beach for a few days respite. The little town of beachwear and ice cream shops twinkled with Christmas lights, but when we walked our dog down Hemlock Street in the early evening, no one was out. Under the dark, cloudy sky, the streets were silent. The lights blinked for no one.
The next day, I read Rebecca’s book. My writing self was struck by the way she sometimes slips into second person. Writing about adolescence, she says: “Something has started inside of you, inside your skin, and you want to do things you don’t want but then you do.” The second person point of view — you — seems to give the narrator space to distance herself from feelings that are so powerful they are almost too dangerous to examine while at the same time inviting readers to remember their own experiences.
My father never came back to this beach. He died in May of a massive stroke. You sit in the chair where he drank a last glass of wine and watched the last sun set on the last horizon. Every time you walk the beach, you remember how he shuffled across the sand. You wonder how he knew.
Recently, when talking about Cannon Beach, my mother said, “We used to go there when you were a baby. We couldn’t afford a fancy place, but your father loved the beach.” I am learning what not to say to someone with Alzheimer’s. For example, that there are facts and that one of them is that I did not go to Cannon Beach until after college. I spent my childhood vacations at my grandparents’ lake cabin north of Spokane.
Full disclosure: I have known Rebecca for a long time, over twenty-five years. She is the most generous of writers; when I returned to Seattle in the mid-nineties, she invited me to read at a festival and introduced me to other writers. Her work when I was coming out was fiercely important to me, and not only because it emerged at a time when literature by out lesbians could fit on a semester syllabus (not that my MFA program included any lesbians on any syllabus). Every sentence Rebecca wrote — sentences about lesbians! — was carefully crafted, and every story and essay Rebecca wrote — with such carefully crafted sentences! — was deeply queer. Those queer sentences helped me survive.
In the book’s afterward, Rebecca talks about the challenge of staying hopeful in these dark times. She talks about needing to “remember the seasons change….to remember the dark abates, the light and life return.” I write these words at Cannon Beach as our nine-month-old black lab puppy, Laika, sits at the window and stares longingly at the beach. We will take her out again later. She will want to run and run, although every time she does, she gobbles up something briny and rotten just beyond our reach. She will mature, we say. She will learn to come when called, to leave slimy things alone. We are imagining future visits already. This will not be our last time at the beach.