Early in the morning, high on a panoramic bluff in Malibu, I’m doing what I almost always do at this time of the day, alternately typing and thinking and looking out the nearest window. The marine layer is still in evidence; the gradually lightening gray-blue clouds meet the gradually lightening blue-gray ocean almost imperceptibly at the distant horizon. My window in the aft-cabin dinette is cracked open a few inches. I have my hoodie on my head. I can hear the waves break, the rush of the work-bound traffic below on the Pacific Coast Highway. A mockingbird sings in the lone gnarly sycamore tree that lives beside the campsite.
I’ve always wanted to come to this place. It’s called the Malibu Beach RV Park. It’s roughly 150 miles from where I live in San Diego. I’ve driven past it a zillion times en route from one work assignment or another—most of them celebrity interviews or photo shoots set in this shimmering enclave of wealth and fame, a kinetic postcard for the Southern California lifestyle, which has come to stand over the years for a truly American lifestyle, a land of Beach Boys, bikinis and multimillion dollar seaside homes, the dream sequence where prosperity frolics barefoot. Every time I’ve seen the modest retro sign on the bluff, I’ve thought the same thing:
Wouldn’t it be amazing to stay up there for a few days?
Over the past two decades, I suppose I’ve driven past (and scurried away from) a good many fetching opportunities for personal or professional adventure. Some of it had to do with intestinal fortitude or consideration of personal safety. Some of it had to do with being married, though I kind of think of a wife or a grown-up girlfriend as someone who can take care of herself for a few days while you’re away—reviewing my romantic life down the years, that may well have been a miscalculation. Most of it had to do with a lifelong commitment I was handed—fatherhood.
For the record, I never wanted to be a father. At first, I was even kind of hostile to the idea: l had a lot of living to do; I thought a kid would only get in the way. Up to that point, I’d never even had a pet. The one spindly potted palm in my bay window was left to survive by its own devices during my weeks away in the field. Central to this philosophy: I didn’t want responsibility for something that couldn’t take care of itself.
Of course, when you’re a young man, you don’t really understand your place yet in the larger scheme of things. You want to be in love. You want someone beautiful to gaze upon and to make your muse. You want to get it in. You think a long-term relationship is about playing house and steady sex and managing to stay monogamous. But women have other ideas that far supersede their desire for orgasms—or even their peculiar need for superfluous household accessories like dust ruffles, fabric softener, Kleenex caddies, salad spinners and napkins (in addition to paper towels). All of a sudden, I was 36 years old, holding in my hand the sonogram of a fetus whose DNA was half mine.
“I see labia,” proclaimed the new partner at the ob-gyn practice, so proud of himself, the immodest assuredness of a guy just hired for his first real job. I was so relieved. I wanted a girl. I figured it wouldn’t take as much effort on my part. Let the wife play Barbie doll dress up. My life already had meaning. I had a mark to make, great work to produce and leave behind. The way I saw it, I had my own name, my byline. I didn’t so much need anyone to carry it on for me. And I didn’t need all that pressure on my shoulders, either. It’s hard enough to support yourself as an artist. Let alone a mother and child.
My son’s first act upon his deliverance from the womb—besides surprising the shit out of all of us—was to pee on my arm. In the moments just after his birth, I went to the bassinet as new fathers do and he smiled up at me with dark eyes just like mine and let loose a healthy stream, a warning shot across my bow.
Or you could say he was marking his territory.
One day six months ago, I was cleaning out my e-mail when I came across a solicitation to learn about “The Ultimate Road Trip with GoRVing.com.” I’ve been a professional journalist for more than 35 years—unlike fatherhood, I started young. All over the world, journalists every day hear from businesses that want publicity. Usually, in my line of reportage, I plumb people’s souls for the deeper truths beneath the culture and the news. I go to living rooms, rural outposts, scenes of crimes, ghettos—not resorts and spas. My last expense account included four business meals at various Denny’s restaurants, in a radius around South Central Los Angeles, with a former drug kingpin who became a vegan while serving two decades in prison. (Turns out Denny’s has a pretty good garden burger.) Junkets to posh locations? Swag? Not exactly my turf.
But it turns out some marketeers don’t discriminate when casting their wide and desperate nets. I spotted the opportunity of a lifetime and I went for it. Some people have lots of money to make their dreams come true. Some of us have to rely on our wits.
And so it is, six months and a lot of typing later, that I am here, high on a bluff at the Malibu Beach RV Park in a 31-foot motor home (a Fleetwood Tioga Ranger, complements of El Monte RV.com), checking off a rather expensive little item on a very short personal bucket list (health and longevity being my numbers one and two).
My computer is humming away on utility power. There is (hot) running water even if you can’t drink it. The Wifi is perfect. I’ve finished my fruit and yogurt; there’s original Dunkin’ Donuts coffee dripping through the coffeemaker. Looking out the window at the distant and uncluttered horizon, my thoughts have far to travel. The word count on my document keeps growing . . .
What could be better?
I’ll tell you.
Fifteen feet or so away from my seat on the banquette at the aft dinette table (the whole arrangement converts into a set of bunk beds); just beyond the shower/bathroom, the refrigerator/freezer and the kitchenette—where yesterday for lunch I whipped up an incredibly delicious pair of hotdog, bacon and cheese sandwiches—my 18-year-old son, Miles, is asleep in a loft bed above the driving cab.
At the moment the privacy curtain is drawn—the rich maroon color lends the regal feel of a chambre royal. There’s a flat-screen TV on a swing arm, lots of buttons and knobs, even his own skylight; at night we watch movies together up there on the memory-foam mattress, plenty of room for the both of us—with ample space left over for bags of Oreos and Chex Mix and other wonderful junk I’ve laid into the ample storage cabinetry. Now and then as the morning proceeds, as my fingers ply the keyboard, the crown prince will roll over and readjust (the way people do on vacation), causing our land yacht to gently sway. Over these past four mornings I’ve come to relish this odd and slightly vertiginous sensation, a physical reminder that my son is here with me, luxuriant and safe, cossetted within the warm synthetic fabric of the bedding and towel package one of the several PR ladies involved was kind enough to order for us, and in a larger sense, within this ingenious and ungainly home on wheels that shelters and enables our wonderful time together. When Miles moves, I guess you could say, my world rocks. That’s pretty much how it’s been since he entered the world so unexpectedly and pissed on my arm and changed everything.
A few hours from now, the motorhome will jolt slightly, as if hit by a sudden small rogue gust, and the royal curtain will pull back, and my son will appear, hairy legs first. I’ll get him some juice and fruit and coffee cake, and his allergy pill and a vitamin, just like I always do at home, and he’ll take up his position at the larger dinette in the kitchen (which also becomes a bed). Looking out his own window, he’ll fire up his computer and the extra speaker he brought along and turn on Pandora. Then he’ll proceed to download from his camera some more of the footage he’s taken for the documentary we’re here to make. In the fall, he’s going away to college to study film. When I mentioned the trip, it was the first thing out of his mouth. Like me, he seems happiest when engaged in a project; this is ours together.
I don’t know yet what he’s going to call his piece—it’s to be about a boy and his dad on a little road trip before college. Last night, after I’d grilled us a couple of rib-eye steaks—the salad mixed and dressed in a one-gallon Ziploc baggie—we were sitting at the picnic table under the stars, staring out quietly into the dark and limitless sky, watching all the helicopters and small planes flying by, hurrying important people to important places. The crash of the waves down below seemed louder and very close; the mighty river of rushing cars had slowed at last to a trickle.
We both had spoons; we were eating from a container of ice cream I’d left out for a while to make mushy—the way we both like it. I remember when I was small, and my father used to come home late from work, I used to ask him to mush my ice cream for me, and he would do so with the spoon inside the little glass cup. Later, as a teen, I’d come home from partying and I’d always find him in the kitchen, having a modest scoop. I can see him even now, gathering together a little ice cream with a little Hershey’s syrup and some nuts and offering his long-haired and glassy-eyed son a spoonful of the delicious goo. He’s gone now, Marvin Miles Sager. I miss him every day.
Miles handed me the carton of ice cream. Inside was a perfect concoction of coffee and chocolate and Heath bar. When Miles was young, he had to have ice cream every night. I used the microwave to make his mush. Sometimes I added syrup on top. Now, as the cool melted stuff puddled on my tongue, I thought about how lucky it felt to be here—doing a thing I’d always wanted to do in the company of the person I cherish more than anyone else in the world. I was thinking: Maybe if you’re really fortunate, you get to help produce someone who you kind of understand and who kind of understands you. I’m not saying we’re all the way there. He’s still young; you can’t lean on a kid or they grow up crooked. But I know how he thinks, and how he thinks of me. We’ve been through some tough years together since his mother and I got divorced. Our synergy is evident. Hopefully it will continue to grow, even when we’re apart.
Taking back the carton, Miles helped himself to another spoonful. “From now on,” he said reflectively, “I’ll only be coming home on vacations.”
If this is how it goes, I think I’ll be okay.