The taxi took the curves of the unmarked army road over the mountain, muffler rattling. Hayes rolled down her window. The air was heavy with fragrance, something like wild dill, yellow and blooming by the road, bright against the scrub and dry brush. She looked down at an expanse of clouds that she knew was hiding a deep blue stretch of ocean.
The clouds gave way to a clear view of the sea, a view which made her breath catch, though she’d seen it several times as a child when her family visited her grandmother, who lived in a small but extraordinary glass house on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. The army road flowed over the last of the mountain and into Highway 1. She’d been waiting for this moment for months: this smell, this light, this sense of freedom.
Surely her grandmother, Paulina, had felt the same way. She left everything in the seventies—including Hayes’s mother, Louise—for the coast of California. Louise was college-aged at the time, and, as far as Hayes could tell, had held a grudge ever since. To Hayes, everything about Paulina’s existence was a victory: the woman had exchanged church suppers for chardonnay at Nepenthe, pearls for mala beads, hymnals for Henry Miller. She did yoga, drank spinach smoothies, and on one visit urged Louise to “loosen up and get a colonic already.”
Now the cab came to a familiar curve in the road: the rusted limousine still parked in front of the local library, the sun streaming in bands through the tall redwoods, tourists pedaling rented bicycles in the middle of the highway. Private homes and ranches were scattered from the mountainside to the cliff.
“Could you pull over?” Hayes asked, eager to get out before it was clear which house was her destination. She wanted to keep her presence unknown in case she decided to heed her father’s warning and forgo her claim on the property.
“It’s an albatross,” he’d said. “You can’t afford the taxes.”
She paid the driver and stepped out with her backpack and suitcase. The driver lingered, but she waved him off, not wanting him to see her dragging her luggage down the dusty side of the road.
The roadside smelled familiar—dry pine, chaparral, salt air. She hadn’t been here in years; a wooden privacy fence had gone up between the road and the property. She tried the first of two keys, and the lock to the gate gave way. She checked to see if anyone was watching, then closed the gate behind her.
The house, a low-slung rectangle with a central chimney and floor-to-ceiling windows, seemed perilously close to the cliff, the drop-off more severe than she remembered. As she got closer to the house, she let go of her bags for a moment and braced herself: the sight of the ocean below made her dizzy. Dry grass snaked up around the paving stones. Wind had overturned the trash cans. She righted them, then took the second key out of her purse and opened the door.
The light was extraordinary, so extraordinary that it had bleached the upholstery and art on the white living-room walls. The home had sleek gray couches and chairs, Pendleton blankets, a meditation cushion. She walked to the far wall and began opening windows, letting air rush through the house.
Moving inside of her grandmother’s old life, she had the sensation of existing in an old home movie, walking across someone else’s television screen in muted color. There was wine in the refrigerator and an unopened jar of cocktail olives that seemed too old to eat. Nothing, she thought, would be less sexy than dying of botulism while attempting to find yourself.
She poured herself a glass of chardonnay and walked out to the wooden lounge chairs on the patio. The wine tasted earthy and old but she drank it anyway. The cushions were leaf-stained and slightly damp. Exhausted, she sank into them, watching the waves crash into the rocks, amber clumps of giant kelp swirling in the distance.
During the childhood visits, Hayes’s parents would retire to a motel and leave the kids with Paulina. She wrapped them in scratchy wool blankets and guided them to the porch to watch the sunset.
“Look for the green flash, just as the sun disappears,” Paulina would say, pointing to the glow on the horizon. Hayes watched tirelessly, but never saw the burst. It felt like a personal failing, reminding her that she did not belong to this windswept place the same way Paulina did.
Perhaps that would change. Hayes had never been close to her grandmother. They did not share secrets, affection, or heirloom silver. But she liked to think they shared an unspoken understanding that they were wired the same way—tempestuous, artistic, bookish—and that was why Paulina had willed her the house.
Now that she’d arrived, Hayes had the urge to call Michael, to tell him where she was. She’d escaped the condominium they purchased together, her monotonous nonprofit job fighting food waste, and her parents’ disapproval. She didn’t miss his company as much as she missed the feeling of belonging to someone, a feeling she’d taken for granted when they were married, as if she’d made it across an imaginary finish line her parents had been coaxing her toward her entire life. Michael, she thought, had been a wall holding off the dread that seemed to wash over her more each year, a dread she couldn’t name.
Had Paulina ever felt the same, perhaps the night after her second husband, a Brazilian director, died? Had she woken up alone and reached out for the warmth of a phantom body? Maybe she’d sat here with a glass of wine and felt, like Hayes, impossibly small against the expanse of the Pacific. Exhausted by what it would take to live a beautiful life, one you could be proud to call your own.