Essay: Strawberry, California
I tried to drive back home to Lake Tahoe from the San Francisco Airport through a blizzard. I sat in a line of cars and trucks, snow blowing a white net across the windshield, the brake lights in front of me appearing and disappearing with the wind gusts. Highway 50 was closed for avalanche blasting, blowing snow, and poor visibility—that meant I could delay returning home one more day. I could put off telling my husband he had to move out.
At the Houston airport, my new lover and I parted. He told me that I needed to learn how to be alone, so we shouldn’t talk for a while, not until I had gotten things figured out with my living situation. I knew he was right, and what other choice did I have? He lived 3,000 miles away. My picture of being alone, but not really alone, would need revision. I would have to learn to live without a safety net.
The innkeeper at the lodge on Echo Summit told me I could have room without a bathroom for thirty dollars and handed me a flashlight. A fallen lodgepole had smashed the power lines—no lights, no heat, no phones. The innkeeper looked like Norman Bates dressed as his mother. She told me, “We have no electricity and no food, but the bar is open.”
I read Gabriel García Márquez with a flashlight, ate pretzels, and drank Zinfandel in the bar. The men who wear yellow plastic suits, put tire chains on and off, were in the bar—with the road closed, the visibility zero, the cars stranded on the highway, no one needed their chains put on, so they were without work. The man sitting at the bar next to me looked my age, maybe younger. He wore his long brown hair in dreadlocks. Even though I’ve never liked the appropriation of dreadlocks by white people, I found myself wanting to touch the tangled columns of hair.
I ordered another glass of wine, went back to Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza’s unlikely romance. And I eavesdropped, taking notes in my journal. The dreadlocks man turned to me, asked, “What are you writing?” I lied, said I was writing about my recent trip to Nicaragua. I couldn’t tell him I was writing about him. Or could I?
He asked, “What are people there like?”
“They are the same as here,” I said, “but better.”
He smiled wide, showed black rectangles of missing teeth at the back of his mouth. A gold ring circled each hazel iris of his eyes. Grease gathered underneath the fingernails. Motorists—colleagues from the college where I teach—would call him Chain Monkey.
From my eavesdropping, I had learned that he lived across the highway in a camper, would have steak that the inn had given him for supper. I did not learn his name. I could smell the body under the yellow snowsuit. We had nothing more to say to one another.
I went back to my journal, wrote about how I could follow him across the road, drifts of snow collapsing under each step. Then the yellow vinyl peeling from skin, him fucking me as snow pelted the metal shell of the camper—that story. That transgression. That loneliness.
An affair to erase an affair. No one would ever find out.
But I was finished with that, and I didn’t really want to be with him; I just needed to try on the idea, that old way of being. The usual distraction. But it no longer fit. What I really wanted was to sit at the dark bar with my glass of wine and my book. What I wanted was to walk up the creaky stairs to a room with a narrow bed and watch giant flakes of snow through a window. I didn’t need to hear birdsong or frogs or the music of a foreign tongue. I wanted to see my lover again, but I realized that I finally felt okay on my own.
The man in the yellow suit finished his beer, waved to me, pulled his yellow hood over his head, and left the bar.
The storm blew out overnight, leaving a crystalized blue day. I drove past the snow-coated trees, their graceful white branches like the arms of dancing brides. The first sight of Lake Tahoe from the top of Echo Summit snagged at my breath, the way it does for so many tourists who see the lake for the first time. The way it does for me every time I catch my first glimpse of home after a trip. And even though I was about to do the difficult thing of finally leaving my husband, I found myself chanting: home, home, home as I drove down the white ribbon of road, through the constellation of white-sequined trees and under the vaulted blue sky.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four collections of poetry. Her work has been published in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, River Teeth, and National Geographic Traveler, among others. She teaches for the MFA program in Creative Writing at SNC-Tahoe. For more information, please visit her website at www.suzanneroberts.net