A couple of years ago, Pixar released Finding Dory. We saw it with Squish, and she loved it, of course. Unexpectedly, however, the movie gave me a little jolt: the small, seaside town of Morro Bay, California, factors heavily into the storyline.
I miss the hell out of Morro Bay sometimes.
Morro Bay is a short drive away from San Luis Obispo, which itself is centered between Los Angeles and San Francisco; a three-hour drive north or south will land you in one or the other. I haven't been back to Morro Bay since Felicia and I left California six years ago. But I remember it fondly: a quiet little beach town, with sidewalks that rolled up at sunset. Eucalyptus trees everywhere. Big birds that strolled down the neighborhood streets, monopolizing the lanes—they were either turkeys or peacocks, and the fact that I can't remember which should only underscore how weird the presence of either would be in a beach town. The embarcadero, with its taffy shops and seafood restaurants and steady flow of tourists.
It's possible that I miss the town less for what it was than for what it represented to me. I moved there in 2004, at the ripe old age of twenty-five. By that point, I'd dropped out of college not once but three times; I'd married and divorced; I'd abandoned the church community I was raised in; I'd spent a year recovering from one or all of those things at my folks' place in Washington. My family had clustered in two general areas in the country: Texas, where the majority of them still live; and the Pacific Northwest, where my folks raised my sister and me in Alaska, and then settled in Washington as empty-nesters. California wasn't really on the family radar, and perhaps that was part of the appeal. It was a place I could claim for myself, and I did.
I rented a studio apartment in Morro Bay, the bottom floor of a house. The backyard fence permitted a sliver of a view of the ocean. The town had tsunami sirens that were tested now and then; I remember hearing them the first time and staring at that sliver of ocean, blinking, trying to figure out if it was getting taller, or if my eyes were playing tricks on me. (Tricks, obviously.)
I lived in that same place for four years. For a couple of those years, I worked as a freelance designer and developer; my only company was Oscar, my dear, departed cat. A relationship had brought me to California; it ended after I'd been there a couple years, and not long after, I met Felicia, the cheeriest barista at a Starbucks near the agency I'd started working at. Eventually, she moved in with me, and we both stared at that little sliver of ocean, wondering.
Morro Bay was a different place with Felicia. We went out into the world a little more, trying all the restaurants and wandering on the beaches and playing catch in the park. (Felicia has a hell of an arm, let me just add.) She'd remind me to put the Jeep's top up when it was going to rain; she was always paying attention to the weather, and I wasn't, which resulted in a soaked vehicle more than a dozen times.
We left in 2009, and moved into a condo in Arroyo Grande. A year after that, that's where we were married, on the patio of a friend's wine bar. A year after that, Squish was born, and less than a year after that, we'd packed our little family off to Oregon, and that's where we saw Finding Dory, which triggered all sorts of nostalgia for the place we lived, once.
When I lived in Morro Bay, I was: a struggling designer; an unpublished author who was only just beginning to realize Eleanor might be a fool's errand; an insomniac who shifted his circadian rhythms, and worked all night and slept all day; on the verge of becoming a hermit. (Some of those changed when Felicia entered my life, of course.) And these days, I have a satisfying career in design; Eleanor is finished and published, and there are more books coming; I sleep just fine every night; I'm still a bit reclusive, but my family balances all of that out. Hill House is the nicest home that Felicia and I have lived in, and the view from our property really is stupidly perfect. We're suddenly grownups, property owners, responsible contributors to society. But I can't help missing the days before any of those things were true. I suppose most people have similar experiences, don't they?
I suppose that's why Awake in the World takes place in California, in a fictional town just a little north of Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo. If I can't exactly move back, and I can't exactly resurrect a bygone time of my life, then perhaps writing a novel that conjures all the things I remember about California might scratch the itch.
Anyway. I miss Morro Bay.