It’s January and I am visiting California’s Central Coast because my husband is leaving me. Has left me. I have never been this sad before. I am forty years old and my marriage is, was, the center of my life. My husband and I have been together almost twelve years, married eight, and separated less than six months. I am not over it. I am not OK. And I do not really see a path through, though therapists and friends assure me that time will help. I know this type of loss is common enough, but I am in no way prepared. At least in California there will be sun, I’d thought. But right now, it’s raining.
I came to the elephant seal beach just south of Piedras Blancas six years ago with my (now soon to be ex) husband. We stood on a boardwalk overlooking the beach, watching the elephant seals yawn and bark and shift their huge bodies and I felt at ease for the first time in weeks. If you’ve never seen elephant seals, it may be hard to picture the beauty of their movement, the way their bodies undulate across packed sand. Their size is enough to impress: up to 6,000 pounds each, as long as eighteen feet, slick silver fur, round brown eyes full of a seemingly human intelligence. They sprawl in the sun, birthing in January, breeding in February, weaning and departing in March. Males return throughout the summer to molt and grow and joust, claiming space and preparing for next year’s pups.
I first saw them in summer. My (now soon to be ex) husband and I had recently decided not to have children and I was mourning that loss, adjusting to a future with just the two of us. I had been wrestling fears about overpopulation and sustainability and had decided over time that my (now soon to be ex) husband was all the family I would ever need, that us two were enough. Abandoning the dream of motherhood had left me depressed – jittery and following dark thoughts, but I laughed to see the elephant seals lurch along and rear up at one another, guarding territory or coercing mates. It was their size, the way the flesh spilled out around them, and their joy, sleeping all day in the sun, scooping up flippers full of sand to throw across soft bellies.
After some period, maybe ten minutes, maybe an hour, it was time to go. We were supposed to meet my cousins up the coast that afternoon, but I wasn’t ready to leave.
‘They smell,’ he said. It was summer and they were molting, but I don’t remember a smell. I remember only the purity of their movement, the way the males clashed with each other or scooted after an interloper. We stayed for a bit, and then he said we had to go.
This is something I only thought to resent after he left me. Separation has me looking back for incidents like this, mining my memory for times where I wasn’t as happy as I thought. Here was one of those times: I hadn’t had enough. I didn’t want to leave. I’d found a thing that brought me joy and he took it away.
A good friend assures me that this was cruel of him, that I should have been allowed to watch the elephant seals for as long as I wanted, and that when we go see them this time, she’ll let me stay until I get my fill.
We are here in California with her family – her two-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter and her parents who have lived in this area for fifteen years now. Her mother is turning seventy this weekend and I’m tagging along to escape January in New England and take a break from my sadness. On our first day, we drive up to Pismo Beach to watch the sun set. They’ve just reopened the pier. Dolphins arc out of the water and surfers bob on the waves. We are giddy after a day of travel. It’s supposed to rain the entire time we’re here, but tonight the sky is rose-colored and open and we walk the beach at low tide while whimbrels dip their curved beaks in the sand.
I visited Pismo Beach on a family RV trip in 1988. My dad retold the story at Thanksgiving when he heard I was going there.
‘Do you remember the clams?’ he asked, expecting that I wouldn’t. I was nine years old, almost ten that year, and I remembered. The water was painfully cold even in summer, but the tide was on its way out. The clams poked through the sand, burping bubbles, about to bury deeper. We could see them shining as the surf receded and we dug up as many as we could. It was like a treasure hunt – their jewel-like shells, pink, purple and gold. Between Dad, my brother and I, we found enough to fill a pail. Forty, maybe fifty clams. I remember because of the sign we later saw telling us that taking clams was illegal, that they were endangered, and that the small ones should be left there to grow and mature.
‘We had no idea!’ Dad said. ‘We were driving out of town and there was that sign.’
I remember it differently. We may have been driving, but we were still in the beach parking lot, certainly close enough to turn around and return our illegal haul. Instead, Dad looked both ways and stepped on the gas. I was terrified. I imagined getting pulled over, our RV searched. I did not know what kind of punishment we’d receive, but my guilt was heavy. The populations of Pismo clams were declining, these little ones were babies, key to keeping the species alive. I’d never liked clams, their soft bellies like globs of snot, and the pot steaming in our RV stove made my stomach turn. Dad ate with gusto, mooning about how fresh they were, how the smallest ones were always sweetest.
I’ve been thinking about my upbringing a lot lately, trying to figure out how I became who I am right now: resentful and accommodating, unable to stop loving a man who no longer loves me.
When we get back from Pismo, my friend’s parents have dinner on the table. Lemon chicken. We eat together and then watch Jeopardy! as a family. Everyone is so kind. The next big celebration after this birthday will be their fiftieth wedding anniversary. I want to cry.
In the morning, we pile into the car to go see the elephant seals. After an hour of driving, we stop at the Hearst Castle Visitor Center to use their bathroom. I worry that this trip is too long, that my friend’s family is going out of their way. They reassure me that they love the seals too and that they make this trip regularly. Clouds obscure the top of the hill so we can’t see the castle. Tour buses wind their way up into the mist.
‘Alex Trebek did the voice recording they play on the buses,’ my friend says. I like that.
There’s a small museum at the visitors’ center with a selection of sculptures and pictures of the castle during Hearst’s time. When the nine-year-old asks, ‘Why did he build a castle?’ both her grandfather and I answer, ‘Because he wanted a castle.’ It strikes me how decadent that is, how selfish. That in America, then and now, the driving forces are money and desire.
In pictures, merry groups gather on different verandas or near the Neptune Pool.
‘Mom got to swim in there,’ my friend tells me. The pool is sky blue and surrounded by marble water nymphs and cherubim riding swans. ‘At a volunteer event,’ her mother says. ‘It was freezing, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. You’re not allowed to touch the sides or get too close to the marble, so I just swam in circles as long as I could.’ Next to the pool, a statue of King Neptune sits atop a structure modeled after the Acropolis.
There are other pictures of the Hearst family and their guests. I am drawn to one of his wife and his mother, and I imagine what it would have been like to marry into a family like this one. The caption says that Hearst and his wife married in 1903 and had five sons. My knowledge of William Randolph Hearst is markedly limited – composed of loose memories from Citizen Kane – large fireplaces, his newspaper monopoly and a vague sense of how power and wealth can never quite allay deep personal sadness. I do not know that Hearst’s wife spent little time here after moving to New York in 1926, that his mistress was the primary hostess and his companion through his later years.
Maybe this is where I should say what happened to my marriage. It is not a story I know how to tell. I am still confused. I know much more about my feelings than I do about his. And I worry a lot about blame.
In plain terms, he met someone else.
That is too simple. It seems important to say that, before he strayed, I told him I would not be hurt if he made out with other people while he was away. He was heading out to finish hiking the Appalachian Trail. We’d done over 450 miles of it together that spring. I planned to stay home, work on my novel, teach some classes and take care of the rental properties we owned together. Looking back, it’s hard to know what I wanted when I made that offer. I can’t imagine it was this. I felt confident at the time that our love was singular and important, that our marriage was unassailable, that nothing and no one could hurt what I thought we had. I believed that when he said, ‘Who would I possibly meet up here?’ he meant, ‘It would be impossible to replace you.’
I have never required monogamy in an intimate relationship. My (now soon to be ex) husband had always had high standards for honor and morality, the social contract, and in our almost twelve years together, we’d never tested my claims of openness. I’d come to trust his careful ways, even while I urged him to loosen up and take risks, even while his rigidity wore me down. When he told me about this other woman, he was scared to hurt me, but more than that, he was proud of himself. In it, he saw real growth. His strict adherence to societal rules was rooted in fear, and I had often encouraged him to question both that fear and those rules. My love for him was neither fear nor rule-based, so I hadn’t realized how those rules protected me.
He was not trying to leave me, he said, but I was too panicked to believe him. His reaction to my panic was to draw back in a way that made me even more insecure. He no longer expressed himself openly. He avoided calling or texting as often. I waited at home and wrote long emotional letters trying to prove my love by explaining what I valued about him and about us. I blamed myself. I did not know how to share him. I did not trust him to continue loving me. I felt only that I was losing him. And I had never felt heartbreak or loss on this scale.
When he ended things a couple of weeks later, my (now soon to be ex) husband said that he was not leaving me for her, that she was merely a catalyst who helped him realize how broken our marriage had been. That same ‘catalyst’ had shown me the opposite – that the thing I treasured most, could easily be taken by the person I’d trusted most. While it is more likely that his retreat caused my fear, at the time we both blamed my fear for causing his retreat. From his point of view, my sadness demanded too much of him. In expressing my hurt, I was asking him to give up a relationship that made him happy. I had offered him something I was not able to give. I was asking to return to a partnered state he no longer wanted.
I will not try to speak for him any more than that. His story is his to tell. My issue now is not one of blame, but of loss. Here I am, alone, sorting through memory and expectation and desire, left wanting a thing I can no longer have.
We pile back in the car and drive the last few miles up to the elephant seal beach, arriving just in time for the rain. I am happy to find myself just as joyous as I was the first time I came here. One of my fears after my husband left was that I wouldn’t enjoy what I had before, that my happiness was grounded in our partnership and not in me. But the elephant seals are as big and beautiful as ever. And this time the beach is full of babies only days and weeks old. They look like muppets, throwing open their pink mouths and squawking at their mothers for milk. I laugh out loud. My friend’s nine-year-old does too. She slips her hand into mine as I point out one pup trying to nurse on the wrong side. The mother is turned completely away. He diligently noses her back in search of a nipple, then shouts with frustration.
I have wondered at times about how I was weened as an infant. My brother is fifteen months younger than I am and so I must have stopped nursing sometime in my first year, when Mom was pregnant again. It is a distant unknowable that I’ve looked to in order to explain my relationship with food – a feeling of insatiability that has followed me for longer than I can remember. In preschool, I would steal the lunch off other children’s plates.
Starting in college, I was actively bulimic for about eight years and then intermittently for five or six years after that. I found emotional comfort and internal quiet in eating to excess. I was so hungry that it seemed like no amount of food would be enough, that nothing would ever fill me. And then I’d be so painfully and uncomfortably full that I’d have to purge. After that came a pause, and quickly, more hunger. My disorder was mostly dormant during my marriage, flaring up a couple of times in the early years for a few months each time and then, later, resurfacing for an active day or two during holidays or times of stress. For the most part though, I kept down the food I ate and tried to fully inhabit the body I had. I gained about seventy pounds over the twelve years I spent with my husband, most of it when we first fell in love. Partnered, I finally felt comfortable with myself. I felt seen and valued. He told me I was beautiful, and I felt loved. I stopped exercising as hard and hated myself a little less. It seems, in hindsight, like romantic thinking, but with my (now soon to be ex) husband, I felt for the first time that I had someone to love who loved only me. In him I found a partner, a family, a one and only. I felt seen.
I was able to give up on the dream of becoming a mother myself because I had a relationship deep enough and wide enough to sustain me.
If I’m honest though, I never loved that bigger body, not the way I wanted to. I suspected that he didn’t either. I dieted still, trying to get back to a smaller self, but, as is inevitable, I always regained weight after restricting, adding more and more over the years.
When my husband left me, it was my body that I blamed first. The woman he met has a smaller body than mine. How could I be surprised that he no longer loved what I’d always known was fundamentally unlovable? I was too big, too much. And that body was a clear metaphor for everything else that was wrong with me: I was insatiable. I needed and wanted and desired. I was an empty hole that could never be filled.
When I say things like this aloud, my friend warns me not to ignore the ways that my (now soon to be ex) husband also wanted to excess – how he was also unsatisfied, desiring more than our marriage could sustain.
I have already lost much of the weight I gained during our time together. Mine is not a ‘revenge body’ though; it is a sadness body, a stress body. I could hardly eat after he left. I calmed myself with long walks. I made sure to get enough calories, to not starve myself or create any patterns I’d have to undo later. I walked too much probably, hours and hours some days. Another kind of binge. I strained my hip and then my knee.
As I watch the elephant seals, I wonder how it is that I find so much joy in their fat and so much shame in my own. I wonder too, as they wrestle and shout and feed their young, how to survive loving something as much as I love this moment right now. My friend has folded me into her family with ease. The child beside me is not my child, but she has my heart. My husband does not want to be my husband anymore, and so he is not. I wonder why I am always the last to let go. I wonder if there is any amount that will ever be enough.
Eventually, my friend and her parents return to the car. It is raining and there is a two-year-old. I feel as torn as I did the first time, completely unready to leave. I tell my nine-year-old companion that we should probably go.
‘But I don’t want to!’ she says. We are getting soaked.
‘I don’t either,’ I tell her. ‘But I think we have to.’
We pass Hearst Castle again on our way back down the coast. It is still hidden in fog. My friend tells us to look for zebras on the hillside.
‘They graze with the cows,’ she says. They’re descended from the original zebras Hearst had in his zoo. He had impala and kangaroos and bison as well. We don’t see any zebras that day, but the two-year-old seems content pointing and making moo sounds.
The next day we visit the monarch grove. We arrive at the height of their migration, but the populations are down 86 percent since last year. A few flit overhead among the huge eucalyptus trees. We look through a well-aimed telescope and I am relieved to see four monarchs on a branch, warming their wings with sun. There are a few on the ground as well, enough to make it feel special.
‘Usually they cluster,’ my friend says. ‘Like hundreds, dripping from the trees.’
‘I hope it’s just this year,’ says her mother. ‘Maybe they’ll come back.’ This is just a rest stop on their 3,000-mile migration between Mexico and Canada. An article in National Geographic points to several potential causes for the decline. It may be pesticides or loss of habitats. Rising temperatures are affecting the acidity of milkweed, the monarch’s only food source. The journey has grown longer and harder with the change in climate. Whatever the cause, the damage is clearly man-made.
Two crows float past. A fat coyote, the size of a dog, trots through the grove and across a small river to a trailer park next door. It feels like a moment of grace, an indication that not all of the animals here are in danger. Then we see a sign on a dumpster with detailed instructions about leaving the coyotes alone. It ends with a simple and direct instruction: don’t ever feed coyotes. This robust creature is out of place. He too is our fault.
Maybe I’ve come searching for these types of moments, ones that highlight our relationship to the land, our human impact. Our needs, as a species, seem bottomless. We want and want and are never satisfied. Maybe I’m seeking metaphors, looking for loss on a global scale. Or maybe it’s just what resonates for me right now.
There is a lemon grove behind my friend’s parents’ house.
‘If you hear something at night that sounds like jet engines, don’t worry,’ her mother says. ‘It’s just the fans.’ They come on if it gets too cold and warm lemons so they won’t freeze overnight.
Of course, I think. This is how we grow lemons in winter. This is how we give everyone the small luxuries they’ve come to want. It seems excessive, but I want lemons too, and almonds pollinated by endangered bees, and flights to warm places in winter. Who wouldn’t?
I ask about the water, which was in short supply on my last visit to California. The rain this week has been good. The hills around us are green.
‘The farmers are happy, but after a drought, it can cause mudslides.’ My cousins up the coast were stuck for months when the highway washed out a couple years back. They could get out to the south, but not to the north.
‘The Honda dealership sank,’ my friend tells me. ‘Out on Los Osos Valley Road. We’ve got our own aquifer, which is good. It’s in better shape than the big basin, but it’s been drained enough so that the earth is sinking in some spots. I guess all those cars made it too heavy. They just sank into the ground.’
After the weekend and the birthday, my friend and her children fly home. I am staying for another couple of days before heading down to Los Angeles. I don’t have to teach for a few more weeks, and here seemed as good as anywhere. I’m not sure if this was the right decision. I’ve been feeling both sadder and more nervous lately and I don’t know what I’m going to do with another week and a half away from home and my routines. It’s raining and I haven’t been able to walk as much as I’m used to.
I lie in bed for most of the day and pretend to be working so that my friends’ parents won’t worry. To avoid another dinner together, I borrow their car and drive out to Dune Preserve State Park to watch the sunset. The beach is windy and rough, but when the sun dips below the clouds, it lights up the sky. The wind pushes away obsessive thoughts and the walking calms me. I head south and take pictures, stopping to sit and watch the sun go all the way under.
It’s still bright out when I realize that I don’t know what time the park closes. My (now soon to be ex) husband would have known. He was meticulous about this kind of thing and always a little on edge. He certainly would have checked the sign on the way in and kept us on schedule. He would have been annoyed with me for wanting to stay, would have made us leave early to be sure we were out on time. I take pictures of the light on the water and continue south, away from the car, maybe in defiance of him, or maybe just because it’s beautiful and I’m here.
I am almost at the end of the beach when it really starts getting dark. I realize I can look up the park hours online and I find out that I was supposed to leave before sunset. It is a couple miles back to the car now and I feel both panicked and free. What’s done is already done. I am here. The sun has set.
I decide to walk the last few hundred feet of sand just to get to the end. It feels completely worth it. I round a low cliff and there is an archway through the rock that leads to another little stretch of beach. I have to leap across a couple pools as the tide draws in. A sliver of a moon appears, and the last pictures I take are grainy and purple. By the time I turn around and head back, it is night.
The walk back feels less ecstatic as my defiance fades to exhaustion. I realize that I don’t know what I’m walking towards. I will be happy to pay a fine if that’s the consequence. I hope I haven’t inconvenienced the park rangers or whoever’s in charge of closing up. I hope I can find my car in the dark. It was foolish to stay for so long, irresponsible not to have checked the hours. I’ve walked more miles than I realized.
There is a photocopied note, no ticket, stuck to my windshield. It gives the number for the sheriff’s office. They’ve locked me in and I have to call someone to open the gate. The dispatcher seems unperturbed and hangs up before I can apologize. I wait in the car for forty-five minutes, wondering if I will be ticketed or lectured or banned, remembering the kind of stress that this type of mistake would have caused my (now soon to be ex) husband, and how guilty I would have felt for putting him through this. I am relieved he’s not here.
There is no fine, no ticket. The sheriff walks off as I tell her I’m sorry for wasting her time. This is a non-event outside what I made of it. I feel relieved and tired, neither triumphant nor defeated.
On my last day, I decide to go back to see the elephant seals by myself and stay as long as I want. I want to know if there is actually an amount of time that will be enough. I have a notion of seeing a birth, though I’m told it happens quickly and that you’re far more likely to spot the aftermath, when seagulls swarm to eat the placenta.
I plan to visit Hearst Castle and take a tour (like I did on that road trip with my family back in 1988). I think a tour of the castle may solidify my theory of decadence and insatiability: that we all want too much, that it is the American condition.
Or at least it will help me wear myself out before I go see the elephant seals, so that I might actually reach a point of satisfaction.
I choose the Great Rooms tour and board a bus up the hill. There is no Alex Trebek like I’d hoped, and I wonder if the driver has turned it off because he’s sick of the spiel. We wind up among hills made lush by the recent rains and view the castle from several spots. On the way up, on the side of the road stand half a dozen Barbary sheep with slit eyes aimed at the horizon. Their thick hair and curled horns make them seem like creatures from a fairytale.
We pull up to the castle and I feel immediately contradicted. Wide steps lead past orange trees and flowering jasmine, still damp with dew. I am tempted to pick an orange, but I only take a picture. There is incredible beauty here – mature palm trees, shaded walks, art integrated into architecture, and flowers all around. The lampposts bear busts of women or trios of swans. The Neptune Pool is even grander than in the photograph. Venus stands in her half-shell, combing her hair as marble mermaids gather round. There are some statues of men, but most are women, lithe and young, sitting with a bird, riding a ram or a fish, feeding a goat, pouring water into a fountain – everywhere, beautiful bodies and their animal companions.
Instead of feeling disdain for the money wasted during the Depression years, I am drawn to the statues, to the grounds, to the size and beauty of the space. Hearst’s father made his fortune in silver during the gold rush and bought 250,000 acres around San Simeon so that he would ‘own the view’. It is a beautiful view. I came here wanting to judge Hearst for building his castle on the hill, for buying whole churches’ worth of paneling to line his dining hall, to ceiling his study, but as I’m led through each extravagant room, I imagine myself his guest. I would have loved to swim in the pools and eat in the grand hall, play tennis with Charlie Chaplin, do jigsaw puzzles after dinner. Hearst provided swimwear to his guests, or costumes, depending on the party. He was known to give dogs as gifts to those who admired them. He would cook late-night snacks for visitors and eat with them in the kitchen. Marion Davies, his companion, was an expert at Monopoly.
As soon as I picture it though, I know that I would not have been invited here. The statues outside are the type of women Hearst had to his home – small and perfect and pert, like walking works of art. The excess he admired in women was an excess of beauty, not of flesh, or years, or emotion, or desire. These are the mistresses, not the mothers (though I am neither).
I am one of the masses, coming to the castle eighty years too late, paying my fee to see what this place once was. There are more people who want this life than can have it. I am one of many. We want lemons in winter and fairytale marriages and perfect sunsets and Pismo clams. I think of my Dad’s story and see why he tells it. That was a day when he got something rare, something exclusive, something not everyone gets to have. Eating those clams, he was special, a man in his castle, and each one tasted so sweet.
After the tour, I wander the gardens, admiring the plantings and fountains, taking a few last pictures. I board the bus back down and consider how different my impression is than what I’d expected. I cannot argue with wanting – not now, when I want so much. And how can I judge others for having? This is a beautiful place, even if it’s not mine.
‘On your left,’ says our driver, as the bus circles down around the buildings, ‘is the polar bear enclosure.’
By the time I get to the elephant seal beach, I am tired but not exhausted. I stopped for lunch and ate a hamburger made from Hearst Ranch beef. I walked the beach at San Simeon to try and wear myself out. There were two male elephant seals laying in the middle of the sand with no guard rail or boardwalk between us. I was more afraid than delighted and, though I gave them a wide berth, one trumpeted its huge snout and galumphed after me with worrying speed and what seemed like aggression. I picked up my pace and skipped over an estuarial stream before looking back. Both males were moving and one chased the other all the way to the ocean. The territorial dispute was not with me.
Though that encounter was closer up, I am happier here on the familiar boardwalk with the rest of the tourists looking down at the babies and their mothers. They are doing the same thing they were doing two days before, nursing and nudging and calling out to one another along the shore. The little ones shriek, while the mothers shout, and the fathers bark and grunt and growl. When they fight each other, I appreciate the distance between us. I walk slowly and pause where I want to. I check distended bellies to see if I will be lucky enough to witness a birth. It is an unrealistic dream. I am content to watch the newborns nuzzle and nurse. I take too many pictures. I look where strangers are pointing and share their moments of wonder. I inhale deeply to see if the elephant seals stink, to check if I was wrong to want to stay so long that first time. I cannot smell anything but the sea.
The sun lowers. I search myself but cannot find the desire to leave. Maybe satisfaction is not an end of wanting, but an acquiescence, an ability to live with want. Or maybe, sometimes, there is no satisfaction to be had. Nothing has changed for me. I will never be done. But Jeopardy! is on at 7.00, and eventually, I just have to go.
Photograph © louloulepage