Wen and Big Sur

I spent three weeks once living in an old silver Airstream trailer, near a beach in Big Sur, with a woman named Wen. I was nineteen and newly single, after my near-marriage to Christian came crashing down like a thirty-ton block of ice from the face of a glacier, and so I did what only made the best sense to me at the time, which was to run away and hide.

I am very good at hiding when the need arises.

We’d been classmates, Wen and I. She was older than me, thirty, returning to school to study photography after a disastrous attempt at a marriage herself. When she heard of the implosion of my relationship, she offered to do for me what someone had once done for her, which was to take me away and let me drop out of life for a while.

The Airstream was her home during her time in college. She paid rent to a graduate student who was living off campus in a house, and he let her keep the trailer and her car in his driveway. She said she liked living alone in a tin box much better than living in a four bedroom house with a man she had grown to loathe. Perhaps his new wife enjoyed the place more than Wen had.

“I thought about burning it to the ground,” she said to me. “Sometimes irrational thoughts are healthy things to have.”

I didn’t really know what she meant back then, but with age comes wisdom, as they say.

I have a photo of me at the start of those three weeks, a photo which Wen took. I am hollow-eyed and the exhaustion hangs on me like a mask. I am sitting on the bed at the front of the trailer, leaning against the metal by the window. I am holding on to the strap of the one bag that I brought with me as though afraid that it will vanish if I let go of it. I look much younger than nineteen, not in my features, but in the way I am holding myself.

I thought carefully before packing my bag, standing in my apartment and spinning slowly in a circle to see everything it contained, to decide what should come with me and what should stay behind. In the end, it wasn’t much: a few pieces of clothing, a book of Wallace Stevens poetry, a photo of my parents and two notebooks, which I intended to fill with all the overwrought emotions that were pouring out of me.

I didn’t write a word, in the end.

It took us a day of driving to get from Portland to Big Sur. Wen insisted on driving through the night, and we arrived just as dawn was breaking. Wen pulled off of Highway 1 and onto a private road which ran between the highway and the ocean.

“It’s okay,” Wen said. “I know a guy. He lets me park behind his place when I come down here.”

The house she pulled behind was big and obviously expensive, given that it was situated on a piece of land that was only about four hundred feet from the ocean in one of the most beautiful landscapes I’d ever seen.

“Who is this guy?” I asked.

“Just a guy,” she said, and that was the last she spoke of him. In all our time there, I never saw the lights in the house come on, and nobody ever came out to greet us, so I still have no idea who owned it. Maybe no one did.

We shared the one bed in the trailer, and that first night I was certain that I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Wen’s body felt different against my back than had Christian’s, and she was like a map of a different country there in bed with me, valleys and hills that were unfamiliar in their geography. I was so sure that I wouldn’t be able to sleep that I surprised myself when I woke hours later, sobbing myself awake. Wen woke herself shortly after that, and put her arms around me and held me until I had cried myself empty. She was still holding me when I woke again in the morning.

“Do you know what you do?” Wen asked me, way back then. “When the grief comes up and wants to suck the life out of you?”

I shook my head.

“What you do,” she said, “is to go to the beach and find a black stone. You take this stone, and you hold it up to your lips, and you focus on your sadness, push it, concentrate on it. Then you open your mouth and you whisper the reason for your sadness onto the stone. Then you bring it back to the trailer and you put it into a jar.”

“Can’t I just throw it into the ocean?” I asked.

“No, you can’t do that,” she said. “It might wash up, and someone else might find it, and then they’d inherit your sadness. Very unfair. You put it in the jar, so you know where it is, but you have to leave the lid off. Sadness has to breathe, otherwise it never has a chance to dissipate.”

“That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard,” I said, but I picked up a stone a few hours later. I closed my eyes, thought of Christian, and blew a soft breath out onto the rock. Then I brought it home and dropped it into an empty pickle jar.

Forty-two more times, I did the same thing. After that, I didn’t need to pick up any more stones and breathe Christian’s name out onto them.

Today, beside this jar on the table in my house, there is a second lidless jar. In this jar are seventy-five small black stones.

Someday, I might tell you what I have been whispering onto them.

Maybe someday.

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  1. I’m so glad you kept the Wallace Stevens.

    • Kameko

       /  February 6, 2012

      Wallace Stevens was brilliant, just brilliant.

      Words are wonderful.

  2. Kameko, whispering sadness into stones is something I’d never think to do. I pick up shells sometimes to mark specific moments. They say (whoever they are) that stones record sound, if only we could somehow unlock how to play it. In my mind, stone always whispers to me.

    Whispering Sadness into Stones is also a great book title. 🙂

    • Kameko

       /  February 7, 2012

      Everything speaks if you listen for it, doesn’t it?

      And I am simply terrible with titles, so maybe from here on out I should let you come up with them for me! I would love to not have that sort of pressure on me, for sure.

  3. I lived in a VW microbus once. It was in southern CA, and I was 19 at the time. Instead of stones, I had worry dolls. You know, those impossibly tiny dolls that come in a little yellow box?

    This story brought back so many good memories of what was a mostly shitty time. Thank you for writing it. 🙂


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