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. We find an RV campground that also has tent camping. Maybe it is a KOA; I don’t know.
C. is scared to death of camping where there are RVs. This is her first time camping, and she thinks that RV Parks are where serial killers hide out and possibly find new victims. She is an actress, so she’s seen a lot of movies and read a lot of plays. We’re in Malibu! I remind her. Because I love to camp, 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, me and the girls I was with had a moment out of Deliverence. An old man appeared from nowhere while we 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, 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, afraid I’ll bite their heads off. I’m sure they tell C. on the side. I have car camped at places like this. It’s usually old retired couples and young families. Besides, 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 groan.
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 high school again. We just act like high school again. That is what I mean.
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 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. I could laugh, go along with it, congratulate her for figuring it out. But I get mad. Which only makes the other girls want to giggle more, because I guess it’s funny when I am mad. Then we are getting shushed by nearby campers. It’s like 8pm. Not THAT late. Late for campers.
I am trying 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 – only 2 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.
The soup goes into a pot and the pot goes onto the burner, and 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 and Baton Rouge and Denver and Virginia and Louisiana visiting our one LA friend, 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 laughing breaks into noisy outbursts. None of us is 70, and none of us has children with us, except ourselves.
One clumsy move, and E. has knocked the pot off of the burner, spilled half of the soup. And we are scurrying in the dark trying to clean it up. I get so pissed off, and this makes the girls want to burst out laughing at the entire situation. We are cleaning, cleaning cleaning, getting it all up, and 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. The tension, the red-orange soup poured over pale brown dirt, wine inside of us. We’re in Malibu, and tension cannot hold.
Finally, we eat. There is bread and cheese and what little of the soup we could save. 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 to the other levels of the camp ground and then we’ve got to cross the Pacific Coast Highway at night to get to the beach.
As we trek down, A. and C. start telling 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 just 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, but I don’t realize that this is all part of the fun.
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 midnight sky, under these stars lit for us alone. We are waiting for both sides to seem clear, but at any moment, 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.
And then we’ve got to climb down the bluff and the girls 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 I am 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 Porches or sand dunes. This is what I’m telling myself, broken record in my head.
Then 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. And 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.
There I am mad again, and now A-2 is at my side, walking with me. She thinks this is all hilarious. She is the other girl who has camped. She thinks it’s all hilarious and insanely fun. And she’s laughing about it all, and this makes me laugh about it all. Meanwhile, I think A. (who lives in LA), and C. and E. are staying back away from the houses. Maybe they are just sitting in the sand watching the way the moon lights the ocean, reflects into it like it’s a mirror. But A-2 and I walk the sand, and the night is cool against our skin. She is laughing, and I get to laughing, and I love these girls.
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 cliff. How can we not be careful?
But I feel like, how can we be careful? What have we got to loose by just 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. For now, it’s the only thing worth immersing my thoughts into.