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Walking Late at Night

Picking up her pace and averting her eyes as she approached, she hugged the far side of the walkway and skirted quickly past to avoid my hulking figure.
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Walking Late at Night

The usual cold evening fog wrapped the beach in a fuzzy blanket, casting haloes around the streetlamps posted like sentinels at measured intervals along the strand, the line of eerie, glowing lights trailing off far into the distance. Barely visible off to the left, lights dimly flickered from the fueling station a half mile offshore where big oil tankers picked up their loads pumped out from the El Segundo refinery. A bell rang softly.

Three or four evenings a week in the months since Frida ended our marriage, I would walk like this, starting from the far south end of Hermosa Beach long after the volleyball players, sun worshippers, and surfers had cleared out, striding steadily to the top of Manhattan Beach nearly five miles north, then coming back again to where I had parked my van—a three-hour roundtrip hike.

The fog, the muffled rustle of the waves against the sand, the even pace of my steps on the concrete walkway would calm the thoughts racing in my head—the real point of these treks. Sure, I enjoyed the exercise, but the point, the need was to wear myself out so I could get something approaching a full night’s sleep.

In passing moments during the couple of hours I spent walking I would find a treasured peace.

I had the beach mostly to myself this deep into the evening, especially in the long, dimly lit residential stretches, away from the several bar-lined streets running perpendicular to the beach in the twin South Bay towns. That particular night, one roller skater swooped past, his path lit by the swaying spotlight on his helmet, the two of us maintaining a respectful radio silence as we passed each other.

Then a woman, a small blonde woman wrapped tightly in a long shawl, emerged from the darkness toward me, walking her small dog—some kind of terrier, I guessed. Probably purebred, given the neighborhood. Picking up her pace and averting her eyes as she approached, she hugged the far side of the walkway and skirted quickly past to avoid my hulking figure. Just guessing. In my bulky bomber jacket, with my natural rolling gait and black stocking cap pulled down over my ears, perhaps I looked foreboding in the dim light.

Out of the blue some years later, my daughter told me that I looked like a thug. A thug, of all things! Emilie meant it admiringly, a compliment, expecting my approving nod. But it surprised me, nonetheless. In my mind, I was as peaceable a guy as you could meet. True, my usually unsmiling face with its stubbly beard was a bit worse for wear, sitting atop my Dad's family’s broad shoulders and the muscles I built up doing farm work and heavy lift jobs as a kid.

But I could count on one hand the times I'd been in a fight, even during that year I had been off-night bartender at that Irish bar on Capitol Hill—almost always pulled in by someone else I felt some need to protect. And, because I had been a wrestler in high school and college, I almost always turned my part of those ruckuses into wrestling matches, my advantage reducing the damage we did to each other.

Yes, there was that part of a year I spent as a grunt in Vietnam, but that needs to stay in its own box, with its own explanations. And even during my twenties as I drank Vietnam out of my system, I didn't get in but a fight or two. Mostly, I was a happy drunk then, happy to be drunk, damned happy to be drunk, which changed only when I went off by myself, morose and regretful, thinking of suicide.

But as the saying goes, I found that if I didn't go looking for trouble, trouble didn't often come looking for me.

That night, the thoughts roiling my peace were about the small stack of divorce papers sitting on the corner of my desk at what passed for my home.

Frida and I had paid—well, I paid for both of us—a storefront legal aid office a few hundred dollars to prepare our divorce documents, much less than had we used regular attorneys. As was her way, Frida hadn't thought through the finances when she gave me the heave-ho just as we were supposed to move into the new home.

To get the house—a three-bedroom Spanish number down the street from the top-floor condo that had served us so well for a decade in downtown Old Torrance—we had to tap nearly all our resources. Yes, since the transaction had wiped out our thousands of dollars of credit card debt and because the new mortgage would be less than the old combined mortgage and monthly homeowners fee, we would be better off down the road.

But at the moment, with our savings accounts tapped out and retirement accounts drawn down—even though I had gotten the big, hoped-for promotion at work and presumably, at some point, Frida would start using the real estate license she had taken so long to earn—in the sudden transition of our separation, we had to squeeze every single penny and squeeze it hard.

"She gets the house," I said. "I get the retirement account, what's left of it."

Before going to the legal aid office, I had run the agreement by Andy Spitzer, the attorney who had served for a decade with Frida and me on the board of the halfway house run by my old racquetball partner, Bobby Johnson.

"I'm a criminal defense attorney, right?" Andy said, as I cornered him in the café where I now got breakfast several days a week. "Did I mention that? You know, robbery, murder, rape, fraud—not much for divorce."

"Right, and I pay her $900 for child support and the same for alimony," I said. "Until Emilie turns 18."

"And I charge for my services, you know,” he said, tending to his breakfast burrito. “Should go without saying."

"Emilie's with me every Thursday evening and every other weekend." I said. “And, of course, paying for her college after she’s 18 will fall to me, too.”

Later, I had second thoughts about part of the agreement, thinking I should have fought for full joint custody. But at the time, given no time for even short-term planning, I was living in a dark, dank converted garage that had a tiny bedroom for me and a big, well-worn leather couch for Emilie for when she would stay overnight, which wasn’t often. With that, plus the long commute to work and no partner yet, nor anywhere on the horizon—what kind of care could I provide?

"Yeah, sounds about right. Given what you make."

"You're a champ,” I said, clapping him on the shoulder and heading toward the cashier.

"But don't quote me," he said.

Coming back, at the divide between the snootier town north and the funkier one to the south, I sat on the steps to rest. My right leg where I got wounded in Vietnam was a little sore three-quarters into my walk and I was a little tired seven miles in.

But that wasn’t really it. I wasn’t really tired. I wasn’t sore enough to stop. It’s just that I didn’t want the evening to end.

What was waiting for me back at my dismal little abode? Watch something stupid on television? Listen to sad country songs on the new speakers I had gotten for my computer? Eat something I didn’t need that late? Listen to the neighbors arguing—again? Lay in bed watching the shadows dancing on the ceiling?

Sheesh! From bad to worse to worst.

Almost exactly twenty years earlier, I had taken a similar set of evening-long walks, then in Venice Beach, ten miles north, where I lived for a couple years when I first got sober. I had been amazed that, right from the beginning, the crazy need to get drunk had been lifted out of me, without any thought or work on my behalf. I had been stunned, though not yet trusting my good fortune.

But the pain of the decade or more of my life that I had wasted—the people I had hurt, the commitments I had dropped, the utter ass I had been, at least at times—weighed heavily on me. I was working “the program” as hard as I could, as hard as I could for someone who, on his very best day, was an agnostic, someone who didn’t really believe that any God was “doing for him what he couldn’t do for himself.”

Hard program work or not, the heavy depression that weighed me down took five long years to lift, I was to learn. And, to my surprise, the crippling shyness I thought I had left behind in high school—and those first two years of college before I volunteered for the draft—had returned. In spades.

Some years later, I found a description of a condition called social phobia that seemed to fit both those younger years and the several years of early sobriety. But walking on Venice Beach back then, I still thought it was some kind of weakness, some kind of personal failure, just like I always had.

As with the divorce-healing or divorce-ignoring walks, I took the Venice walks long after the much rowdier beach denizens there had retired for the evening. This was before the homeless crowded into the beach in recent years, staying the night. Unlike now, then the boardwalk would be deserted in the evening all the way up to Santa Monica.

Jerry Lafferty, the house painter who shared the duplex a couple blocks off the beach with me and my girlfriend, was amazed that I would venture out that late at night.

“Man, you’re crazy?” he said, catching me just coming back from a two-hour walk. “You could get killed down there.”

“What? Killed?” I said, surprised that he had got in my face so hard, pulling me out of the peaceful revelry I had managed to establish for myself.

Jerry and I—and my girlfriend, Xochitl, and sometimes whatever newcomer Jerry was dating at the moment—attended the Sunday morning “Wrist Slashers” meeting up Venice Boulevard at Beyond Baroque, a public civic center of sorts. Afterwards, the three or four of us, and maybe a couple others from the meeting, would head down to the beach for bagels, coffee, and an exchange of war stories from our battles with drugs and alcohol.

“Dangerous down there,” Jerry said, unlocking the door to his apartment so he could bring in his painting supplies from his pickup truck. “People get robbed, raped, even killed. You hear about it all the time.”

I unlocked my door next to Jerry’s and hollered up to Xo, who had the television playing softly. Jerry must be pulling my leg, I thought. I didn’t hear about anything like that at all.

“You’re not from around here, right?” he said, bringing in two big five-gallon paint drums inside for safekeeping.

“Whatya think?” I said, still pissed that my good mood had been interrupted. “You saw us move in.”

“Yeah, but before, he said, also getting irritated. “Not my fucking job to know where you lived before.”

Xo, an utterly gorgeous half-Comanche Latina I had met at a sober dance in Santa Monica, stood at the top of the stairs, hands on hips, wondering why I hadn’t come in.

“Sorry, Jerry,” I said. “Not my day.”

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It never seemed to my day then. As the glow of early sobriety wore off, I was getting a good look at how much damage I had caused—to myself and to everyone I knew.

“Let go, let God,” he said.

“Oh, please!”

“You’re a big dude. Maybe you’re safe on the beach at night,” he said. “But I’ve got a gun if you need it. Big .45. Like you carried in Nam, right?”

“For chrissakes!” I said. “A gun?”

“It’s a dangerous world.”

“What happened to ‘let go, let God?’”

Jerry grabbed a bucket of clean paint brushes and locked up the beat-up old Ford truck.

“Sometimes even God needs a little help,” he said, entering his apartment, nodding, and closing the door.

Xo was waiting for me at the top of the steps and gave me a perfunctory peck on the cheek as I attempted to wrap my arms around her.

She and I were about done. We both knew it. Received wisdom in the program said you shouldn’t get in a relationship for your first year of recovery. Always a quick study, I figured three months was plenty long enough—especially for someone as drop-dead gorgeous as her. And so, apparently, did she.

But, sure enough, beyond the physical attraction and the recovery meetings we shared but didn’t particularly enjoy, we found we had little in common. And, older than me by five years, she had raised a daughter, now supporting herself singing in a rock and roll band in beach bars and attending classes part time at Santa Monica community college. Xo was all done with that part of her life.

Me, I hadn’t had any kids and had always thought I would.

So, after a year and change together, I wasn’t amazed a little later—when I came home from work one night—to find all her things packed up and gone and a consoling note on the kitchen table. Stunned, not surprised, it was the first of several such relationships in early sobriety that fell apart of its own weight.

That week and the next, I went for my long walks on Venice Beach every night. Screw anybody who might want to hurt me. I was ready.

Through her daughter, I managed to return a few things Xo had left behind and might still want—a molcajete, or Mexican mortar and pestle, I believe she had said was passed down from her Native American grandmother, a rather expensive watch I gave her for her sober birthday, and—what the hell—a framed picture of the two of us leaning against the shiny black Camaro I had at the time.

Back in my beatup family van after the three-hour walk, I tuned into KKJZ, maybe still then KLON—the public jazz and blues station out of Cal State Long Beach. Sarah Vaughan sang “Misty” as I figured out what was next.

Not really much to figure out. It would be close to midnight by the time I got back up from the beach and out into the flatlands where I lived.

There was almost no food at home. Maybe some days-old chicken salad from the deli around the corner from work. Some apples and avocadoes that had seen their better days on the counter. Juice, of course—I always bought jugs of juice and forgot to drink them until they went bad. Some eggs and bacon I wouldn’t want to cook that late.

As Sassy’s song ended, I started the van and headed in the general direction of home. I was hungry, but not hungry enough to sit in some diner alone, feeling like life’s biggest all-time loser.

I didn’t know whether to be hurt by the brutal rejection that Frida had delivered, and how it was delivered, or glad to be rid of all the stress that weighed down my marriage for longer than I cared to remember.

The music continued softly, but my mind was elsewhere. It occurred to me to sit on the divorce papers for a while, to make sure that it really was the right step. After ten months of separation, Frida’s anger toward me seemed to have lost its edge, its bite. Maybe we could still make a go of it.

That thought whistled right out of my head again as I recalled the nasty way she tossed me out, her pal Gitte burning holes in me with her beady blue eyes. No, something broke in me that day, and while getting back together might somehow be good for our daughter, for her continuity, it wouldn’t last.

I just hated to be alone like this. Save for the couple of years I had spent in the army, I had never lived without a woman for this long. Not always happily together, trust me, but together.

Aside from a couple dinners with Stephanie, my top assistant editor at work—meals that, for her, at least, were clearly much more editorial meetings than any kind of date—I spent my time off of work almost entirely alone, my only recreation, if that’s what it was, being the lunchtime weightlifting sessions I spent with the warehouse manager at the magazine and the occasional 12 Step meeting I would catch.

Instead of going straight home, I took a turn to drive past the house where Frida and Emilie lived, the house that my years of hard work and the GI loan I had earned in that stupid war had bought.

On my computer at work, I had gotten offers for free months of online dating. Ridiculous. Clearly meant for someone else, some other kind of person, some really desperate dude who dreamed of bringing home a bride from the Philippines or Russia or someplace equally as exotic.

But rather than trash them, I had put them in a junk folder for things I might someday need to access. Who knew?

Approaching Frida’s house, I slowed in the narrow street, saw that the drapes were drawn as they always were this late and that lights glowed in one upstairs bedroom. I let the van roll past, then picked up speed and went back around toward my own house.

A few days earlier, as I was dropping off Emilie from one of my Thursday evenings with her, Frida confronted me—it felt like a confrontation to me, at least.

“Why the hell are you driving past the house?” she asked, passing the cigarillo we shared when we got together like this. “You trying to scare me? Send some kind of message?”

We had both quit smoking years earlier, years before Emilie was born, but sharing these cigarillos when I dropped off our daughter gave us a reason to sit there and be civil with each other. In time, that task became easier, though at first we had to suck down the smoke pretty quickly.

“No, no, no,” I said, sucking in a lung-full. “Nothing like that.”

“What, then?”

“Just want to make sure you’re both safe.”

“You can tell that from the street, going 30 miles per hour?”

“It’s usually slower,” I said.

I really didn’t know why I did it, those little late-night drive-bys at the house I would never live in. Clearly, it wasn’t good for me, as whatever peace of mind I had found in the long walks on the beach evaporated driving by the closed-up house, lining me up for another night of fitful sleep.

“I guess it reassures me to see that you’re home safe,” I said.

“And not dating someone?” Frida said, giving me the impish smile that, long ago, I had loved so much, when I still loved her.

“No, not my business. Not my business at all.”

“Well, cut it out,” she said. “Creeps me out, I can tell you that.”

“Okay, I’ll stop,” I said and passed back the cigarillo.

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And, yet, here I was again, with nothing better to do.

“And try not to run over the neighbor’s dog,” Frida said, rising and disappearing into the house, leaving me with the blunt end of the little cigar.

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