I finished reading Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking" on Thanksgiving Day, as M drove us down the 5 to Los Angeles and the sun burned my western cheekbone. This is one of those books that I started and just had to finish, as quickly as possible, because Didion's shiny honest prose goes down so smooth and nourishes me full.
She wrote this book during the last two months of the year following the (sudden) death of her husband John Dunne. He died while their daughter was in a coma. Didion explores the buoyancy and the heavy weight of memory, the way grief pries open a vortex of memory. I loved following her sharp sequences, gardenias being sucked into a pool vacuum brings her back to him, her husband, who sat down to dinner one evening and stopped beating.
Joan and John lived a glamorous bohemian lifestyle in 1970s LA, co-writing screenplays together and hosting parties at their Malibu home; they were together constantly, for forty years. M and I were in LA to visit his sister and her three kids, my new nieces and nephew. Diana (who is 20) and Clara (12) called me Auntie Jess and kissed me on the cheek to say good-night. I watched Jason (a giant boy-man of 14) wrestle and pin his laughing mother to the carpet. For the first time, I was exposed to the video game sensation wii; I tried to keep up with the dance moves on screen, but was no match for Clara.
Our weekend was full of friendlies--the guy who sold us a set of 1950s drinking glasses and gold-plated ice bucket, the woman who liked M's piano playing in American Thrift, just about everyone hiking in Griffith Park, cheered by the opening of blossoms in November.
On Saturday evening, in line at a crowded cathedraled cafe, a woman with blond curls bounced up to me. "I'm not trying to weird you out or anything, but can I just tell you? I have those exact boots and that exact blazer and I was going to wear them out tonight!" "Frye and Gap?" I pointed down and up, feeling exposed. "Yep." Then she went in for a high-five---"Nice style, girl"---and I blushed as we smacked palms. LA seemed so effortless, like happening upon a pair of hardly-worn purple Kangaroo sneakers with zippers, in my size.
That night M and I went out to Spaceland, the venue that launched Beck. We played two games of pool and watched a few bands from the comfort of white leather seats. One guy sang biting lyrics about how annoying teenagers are, and I found myself laughing savagely (must be time for Christmas vacation). Just before we went inside, we sat trapped in the rain-battered car, sipping coke and whiskey. I was eating raspberry candy and listening to the sound of the water rushing down the slope of asphalt and thinking of how I was witnessing the making of a vortex of memory.
It took eleven hours to drive home on Sunday. Everyone crawled home on Sunday, over the 5 and the 101, stricken by their misfortune. We down-shifted into despair, the hours passing and getting nowhere. We stopped at Taco Bell and devoured bean burritos. I wanted to order more, but the line had swelled. It was 5:30, darkness hitting hard, we'd been driving about six hours, and we were only halfway home. Another vortex, this one glum. A rotten cap to our little getaway.
But there was one bright spot. We stopped in San Juan Batista to stretch the traffic out of our legs. The stars lit the field next to the mission church, where Joan Didion wept behind sunglasses all through her wedding ceremony to John Dunne in January of 1964. I, too, have cried in San Juan Bastista, for a different man heading too quickly to death. And I, too, felt the love of my husband inside that mission church.