Travels, continued: Long Beach (aka Unnecessarily Deep!, part 2)

I wonder if this is what it’s like for people who remain in their hometown, the way the past and present collide in one moment after another. My brain stumbles, grasps for something to hold as memories pop out of the shadows without warning. I seek for significance, but really, what’s notable isn’t so much what I remember as the emotions triggered — and how unusual such vivid recollection is for me.

I’m driving through Los Angeles, heading south on the 5, a trek I made a zillion times before moving to Humboldt in 1998. Suddenly the rental car vanishes and I’m in my light blue ’73 SuperBeetle, Concrete Blonde’s “Free” blasting from the tape player. I shake my head, clench the steering wheel in hopes of, literally, getting a grip. But in the same way a dream you abruptly wake from lingers, the past fails to completely dissolve.

For Mother’s Day, Chelsea and I have breakfast at Potholder. I open the menu and see “Super Spuds,” the same dish I used to order 20 years ago, when Chelsea and I likely sat in this very same booth. She was two, then, and the waitresses would scoop her up and take her in the kitchen, pour raisins into her outstretched hands. The Potholder was always loud, an easy place to have a toddler. I was such a new mother then. I thought I’d made all my mistakes. I had no idea how much harder life would get.

The next day, we rent bikes, pedal down the beach path. I used to bike that path with her secured in a baby seat on the back. I’d be tired when we arrived at the Children’s Museum, the Farmers’ Market, the free concert on the Promenade, whatever our destination was for the day. She’d be anxious to get out of her seat, to run. She always sought out the action. I had to keep up.

Rounding the block, I wince. I think it was this very neighborhood where Chelsea wandered off one afternoon. We’d been at a friend’s barbeque all day, decided to wrap up, go home. I went into the bedroom to grab our things. I came out and she was gone. A dozen people and no one had noticed her toddle away. We split into search parties, combed the neighborhood. I walked, choking back sobs, sure I had lost my child forever. When we found her, a long five, maybe 10 minutes later, the guy who’d been keeping her safe yelled at me for being such a bad mother. I fell apart as I collected Chelsea into my arms, sure he was right. Bobby came running, saw me bawling, almost punched the guy.

We walk by an empty storefront. The building lacks not only a tenant, but also any sort of care. Peering through dirty windows, I see the abandoned bar, the old counters torn out. No hint of Mama Tina’s Cucina remained. I wonder what ever happened to Mama Tina, to Vito, to the waitress with the twins. The other place I worked, a music-venue-slash-dive-bar was razed shortly after we moved away. “It’s like I never existed,” I say.

I drive down 4th Street and light up to see Portfolio’s still there. I remember when the coffeehouse opened, a mere two blocks from our apartment. They had crayons and paper-covered tables, ideal for plopping my artistic daughter in front of while I ordered a cappuccino. Sometimes the other patrons would roll their eyes, annoyed, I suppose, at their serious works of art rendered obsolete by my daughter’s innocent genius.

The salon next door boasted a banner, “Celebrating 25 years in business!” My bridesmaids and I spent the day getting our hair done before the wedding. I’m not sure I could find the park where the ceremony took place, but I remember the store in front of which we picked out my ring — a guy we knew who imported jewelry from Thailand met us on the sidewalk. Next week, Bobby and I mark 20 years of marriage.

That salon was also the place I had my tarot cards read for the first time. A lark to kill time while waiting for my highlights to develop. I hadn’t told anyone but Bobby I was pregnant again. I hadn’t told anyone how scared I was, how unsure. “You have so much love inside you,” the woman said, looking at the cards I’d pulled. “You’ll have all the love you need.” Insight or luck, I didn’t know. It didn’t matter. Those were exactly the words I needed to hear. That tiny moment tweaked my world, colored it with hope that hadn’t existed seconds before. I would have all the love I needed.

She was right.

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