The Age of a Beach – by Laurie Dainer

It was April 1972. The boy sitting across from me at the Italian restaurant was probably nineteen with a draft number high enough to avoid being sent to Vietnam. Thick brown hair with a loose lock falling across his forehead, nervously fidgeting in his chair. He was someone I would have considered going out with in another time. He had placed two quarters in the jukebox to play “Tiny Dancer” and “Rocket Man” to provide a reason for talking to me. I didn’t know Elton John, had never heard his music, and I would realize decades later that the boy liked me enough to make this effort despite the fact I was six months pregnant.

We were not alone. We sat with our classmates and two instructors at a long table as heaping platters of fried chicken gizzards were served. We had spent the day collecting geological samples, a field trip assignment for our Marine Environment class at American River Junior College in Sacramento.

The girl seated next to me named Jeanie had an abortion when her fiancé impregnated her before their wedding, which was currently in a holding pattern. She did not know when they would get married, but she was obsessed with my pregnant belly and constantly asked to place her hand on my stomach to feel the baby kick. The request felt invasive. Avoiding her touch during class became almost a game, timing the right second to sit down in a student chair with the square patch of desk hovering above my belly preventing contact, or turning to another classmate, leaving Jeanie’s pale fingers fluttering mid-air. Sometimes I felt mean denying Jeanie the opportunity to feel what she had lost, but I had my own grief about my pregnancy.

We started our field trip that Saturday morning, boarding a bus at six, in the dark. We headed for the Sierra Nevada foothills to sample an ancient fossil beach moved 20 million years ago by a tectonic plate subduction. The Farallon plate had dove beneath the Northern American plate resulting in ocean sediment uplift. I remember being amazed by the geological forces involved, how this shearing carried a beach from the ocean to the spot we stood in the foothills.  We collected a sample of fine white sand mixed with ancient seashells shards located between two granite boulders and a Ponderosa pine.

Back on the bus, we left the foothills for beaches along the Northern California coast above San Francisco, beaches raw and rough with quarter-sized pebbles and gritty gray sand. Savage waves crashed against rocky outcrops jutting up like fortresses while we stayed vigilant, keeping our distance from the sudden tidal surges with powerful undercurrents that could capture and drag a person out to sea. After collecting the final beach sample, the bus drove us to the Bodega Bay Marine Laboratory.

In the lab, we quantified each sample by sifting through an elaborate set of sieves, each a different mesh gradient.  The sieves were large about twelve inches in diameter, resembling a springform pan for baking cheesecakes. Stacked, they presented a formable column that was placed on a shaker. The shaker vibrated the sieves and the beach samples shifted out pebbles and sand in descending granular sizes. The resulting amounts in each sieve would reveal the percentages of course and fine sand, allowing us to determine the age of each beach.

It was dark when we left the lab and headed to a restaurant in Occidental, a small community known for a century old feud between two Italian families. Each family owned a restaurant, and each attended a different mass on Sundays, one at nine o’clock, the other at eleven. We ate at one restaurant, an unassuming place with a low, dark ceiling, tables dressed in red-checkered tablecloths and flickering candles stuck in wine bottles. This would be our final stop before returning to Sacramento.

We left Occidental sometime after eight. It had been a grueling day traveling on the bus for hours, zigzagging from Sacramento to the foothills and then to the coast and now back home. I was about to nod off when one of the instructors walked down the bus aisle and sat across from me.

“Are you planning to deliver a baby on the next field trip in May?’ he asked with his eyes locking onto me.

 “I’m not due until July,” I replied keeping my eyes steady in response. At the time, I wasn’t showing, and most people thought I was barely pregnant as if such a thing existed.

One day, a month later after class, one of the Marine Environment students drove me home to the new apartment that I moved into with the baby’s father who I would marry in two months, two weeks before I had a baby girl.  A short asphalt lot for residential parking faced our square apartment complex sitting on a busy corner next to a twenty-four hour Seven-Eleven. The girl who brought me home asked to use my bathroom. We climbed the metal staircase up to a narrow concrete landing in front of four apartment units on the second level. It was a small complex of perhaps eight units total. We only lived there for two brief months without speaking to any of the other tenants.

I hesitated to open the door for her. We had no couch or coffee table or stuffed chair, no bookcases, nor television, or a bedframe lifting our mattress off the floor; no dresser for our clothes, and no place to offer to sit and talk with the girl who drove me home. The girl quickly glanced around at my apartment: a folding card table with two metal chairs, scattered boxes with clothes spilling over, loose papers and textbooks littering the living room floor.

“Cool place,” she said, the words clumsy.

“Thanks for the ride,” I replied. I felt embarrassed by her embarrassment.

Two weeks later, there was a surprise baby shower organized by the girl Jeanie who wanted to feel the baby kick. The girls in my Marine Environment class had collected money from all the students and two instructors to buy baby clothes and blankets they packed into a diaper pail tied with a yellow bow. Seated on patio furniture while a late spring rainfall pounded the Florida room’s roof – an addition composed mostly of windows, tacked on to the house’s exterior and placed over a concrete patio – five girls watched me open gifts and eat cake. It was cold and unlighted because the room was not wired for electricity.

Occasionally, Jeannie’s mother popped her head in to check on us, and a gush of light and warmth from the kitchen flooded in from behind her.  I was overwhelmed by the generosity, embarrassed by everyone’s thoughtfulness. The girl who gave me the ride home probably told them about my apartment. No male students from our class attended, but I wondered about the brown-haired boy and how much he placed into the collection pot.

The fossil beach we visited, marooned in the foothills was not the last California beach; newer beaches emerged. The Pacific waters lapped against shores birthed by repeated volcanic eruption, breaking down hardened slabs of lava into rocks, then sand, while the fossil beach basked under an Alpine sun, dreaming of ocean waves it would never feel again.

Laurie Dainer resides in Northern California on a ranch and is currently working on a memoir about her life in the Canadian Northwest Territories during the mid 1970s. She is a student at Saint Mary’s MFA creative non-fiction program, and the author of work published in Ursa Minor, UC Berkeley Extension’s Art & Literature Review.