Malibu in early August. We are five girls. We drive to the state park, only to find that it is booked. Our car is full of gear – two tents, sleeping bags, a camp stove, a gas lantern, an ice chest full of food, wine, our laughter. We find an RV campground that also has tent camping. Maybe it is a KOA; I don’t know.
C. is nervous about camping in an RV park. This is her first time camping, and maybe she thinks that RV Parks are where serial killers hide out and possibly find new victims. She is an actress. She’s seen a lot of movies and read a lot of plays. We’re in Malibu, I remind her. I love to camp, and I feel agitated that anyone would feel afraid.
I guess I have forgotten that, years earlier, the first time I went camping in a state park in Louisiana, the girls I was with (including E. who is on this trip) and I, had a moment out of Deliverence. An old man appeared from nowhere while four twenty-year-olds set up our tent. He hovered around, trying to talk to us, asking things like, “Ya’ll from around here?” so that in the middle of the night, woods creaking, we each woke at different times afraid that we’d heard a rapist’s footsteps.
But this is not rural Louisiana. It is Malibu, home of celebrities and record producers. If the other girls are nervous about the RV campground, they don’t tell me. Maybe they tell C. on the side. I have car camped at places like this. It’s usually old retired couples and young families. Across the highway, the Pacific Ocean is waiting for us. It is so close that when we finally sleep that night, we can hear it moan.
C. does not remember being nervous about the RV Park. It’s been four or five years since Malibu. Maybe my memory is playing tricks.
We’ve arrived late, so we are setting up camp in the dark, flashlights zooming around, our giddy giggles traveling to other sites – the ones with families who have already had supper for the night and just want to sit out in the dark and watch the stars and listen to the ocean. They don’t know that the five of us have not seen one another in a year or two, or that we are silly with wine, or that we go back to high school, most of us, so even though we’re nearing thirty, when we’re together if just feels like more like middle school. The way we act and feel.
When the tents are finally up, and the burner is up, I am about to announce the surprise I’ve been telling the girls about over email for the months leading up to this trip. They are my brides’ maids. Or, they were my bride’s maids when I got married a few years earlier. I had taken them to brunch at La Madeleine’s and we ate tomato basil soup. It’s a chain, I know, but my god, that soup. All five of us agree. I’ve purchased the soup in a big glass jar. I’m at the picnic table. I’m about to pull it out of a bag, and E. exclaims: “TOMATO BASIL SOUP FROM LA MADELEINE!” before I can unveil it. “ELISE!” I shout. C. says she remembers the look on my face when E. said what the surprise was. I could laugh, go along with it, congratulate her for figuring it out. But I get mad. Which only makes the other girls want giggle more. I guess it’s funny when I am mad. Then we get shushed by nearby campers. It’s like 8pm. Not THAT late. Late for campers.
I try to stop being mad. But there are so many of us, and it’s all been such a production to get to Malibu and then to find a place to camp, convincing everyone we won’t die at the RV site, and then to set up – two of us experienced campers, and the others convinced that getting the tent up is a challenge. I swear it’s not. But yeah, it’s too dark, really, to be doing all this. I know that too. And I know that in spite of my agitation, on some level I’m having fun. Almost too much.
The soup goes into a pot and the pot goes onto the burner. The burner, like the tents, was a pain to set up in the dark. We’re around the table drinking our wine. Cool night on our skin, stars out like it’s show time. We are here – from Chicago (C.) and Baton Rouge (me) and Denver (Ak.) and Virginia (E.) visiting our one LA friend (A.), who has brought us out to Malibu. Home of Barbie and Ken. We keep getting shushed, but nothing quiets us. Our whispering is loud whispers, our soft laughter breaks into noisy outbursts.
One clumsy move, and E. has knocked the pot off of the burner, spilled half of the soup. Did I spill the soup, E. asks. I don’t remember spilling the soup? We are scurrying in the dark trying to clean up. I get so irritated, and this makes the girls want to burst out laughing at the entire situation. We are cleaning, cleaning cleaning, getting up all the mess. There are ants, and then the camp director comes and tells us to keep it down because we’re bothering other campers. Somehow it makes us laugh more. C. tells E., No you didn’t spill the soup. It just spilled. I think the little burner it was on just collapsed. But now I can’t be sure. The tension, the red-orange soup poured over sand-colored dirt, wine inside of us. We’re in Malibu, and tension cannot hold.
C. and E. have set the record straight, and this is how I know my memory plays tricks. Now I remember the burner collapsing after Ak and I had maneuvered setting it up with a tiny flashlight guiding our moves.
Finally, we eat. There is bread and cheese and what little of the soup we saved. It is enough in the end. There is more wine. There is probably chocolate. And maybe mangoes. Now we should go to bed, because almost the entire campground is sleeping. And if we’re going to go to the beach tonight, it means walking from the highest bluff, where our site is, down the other levels of the camp ground and then we’ve got to cross the Pacific Coast Highway.
As we trek down, A. tells the rest of us about all the people who’ve committed suicide on the Pacific Coast, and the people who’ve accidentally died while trying to cross. And I want the ghost stories and urban legends (and the references to things A.’s read in the LA Times) to stop so we can have fun. I don’t realize yet that this is part of the fun that I’ll remember later.
C. is terrified to cross the highway. I think everyone is, but I refuse to let it be known if I am. The beach at night is my favorite, and damned if we do not get to see the Pacific under this dark sky, under these California stars. We are waiting for both sides to be clear, but at any moment, headlights could appear, a car could whiz by at 100 miles per hour and take us down like pieces in a pinball machine. We run, and we probably scream aloud while we run, crossing the highway, the five of us.
C. says, I Still hate crossing busy streets until I know it is safe. I think this is how I will die.
Then we’ve got to climb down the bluff and the other girls, minus Ak, are afraid they’ll break their legs or arms. There is no trail to mark the way. There I am, in the full glory of my irritation, like some kind of outdoorsman champion. I am not. But we’re in Malibu, and we need to get to the ocean at night, and there’s nothing scary about RV Parks or Porsches or sand dunes. This is what I’m telling myself, broken record in my head.
C. starts talking about all the stories of celebrities suing people for being on the beach stretches in front of their Malibu homes, and she doesn’t want to walk down the beach because we can see houses, and we might get sued. This is irrational to me, regardless of the accuracy of the lawsuits. We are five girls from all over, I say. I’ll play stupid Southerner if anyone says anything. C. is not convinced. A. confirms C.’s concerns. She has read about this too, living in LA.
A. reminds me, I had just read an article a week or so before about the rich people who lived in Malibu on the beach trying to keep the public "off their lawn." And the public's like, "this should be everyone's lawn." And, the evil richers were like, "No, it's just mine because I'm rich." And because I've always had a profound fear of the rich, I just assumed they'd have henchmen sharpshooters laying in wait to tag commoners who trespassed on their property.
There I am mad again. Now Ak is at my side, walking with me. She thinks this is all hilarious. She thinks it’s all hilarious and fun. She’s laughing about it all, and this makes me laugh about it all, reminds me that it is fun, every last bit. I think A and C. and E. are staying back away from the houses. Maybe they are sitting in the sand watching the way the moon lights the ocean, reflects into it like it’s a moving mirror. But Ak and I walk the sand. She is laughing, and I get to laughing, and I love these girls.
Ak says, Oh my god, I only have such funny, happy memories from that night! I remember everyone was totally cracking me up!
I don’t want anything to be safe or cautious, and some of the girls want caution and safety. It can feel like there is nothing to be controlled in this situation – wide-open ocean before us, rich powerful houses lining the beach, deadly highway behind us, the RV site for murderers built into a cliff. How can we begin to be careful against all these odds?
What have we got to loose by accepting whole-heartedly for a moment that our existence is tiny and invisible against these elements?
I can only see these girls, I can only feel what it feels like to be together in a moment that has been orchestrated for so long now. I know it will have to pass eventually, in a few days, our long weekend together acting like middle schoolers. For now, it’s the only thing worth immersing my thoughts into.
E. says I have a flare for drama,
The next day, we will lie on blankets and read multiple copies of US Magazine, comment on the celebrities whose front yard we're hanging out in. E. will fall asleep and get too sunburned in a way that hurts while the rest of us are playing in the cold Pacific. We'll see men surfing and parasailing. I will wish I knew how to surf and think it's completely beautiful to watch.
A. says, I wish we could all go camping there again.
This is the truth, laughter and memory tricks and all.
SONG: In California, Neko Case