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.