3 August 1999

death on the beach

Death on the beach--isn't that a cocktail? If it isn't it should be. It would contain sea water and smell like this rotting sea lion to my left.

I first notice that Death is here as I scramble down the last few feet of steep slippery path to North Baker. It is the aromatic calling card of my marine mammal friend, who is on his way out but taking his time in leaving. Whew! Nothing like that particular concentration of sweetness. Just standing here you could get diabetes.

As I walk away from the giant, ragged, bloodshot corpse and the smell becomes fainter I realize it is a distillate of the sea's smell, which means (and forgive me if this is a banal observation) that the sea smells like death, is this great roiling soup of rotting meat. Think about it: most sea lions, fish, clams, and plankton can't afford a plot in Montefior, and are buried at sea along with the sailors and the wiseguys in concrete shoes.

My step-mother died a few beaches south of Baker so I am not permitted to make fun of this morbid spectacle around me. But I have no other response to it today. The tide is lower than I have ever seen it here and the sand is strewn with stranded jellyfish drowning in the air. Eight hundred million years on Earth and they haven't figured out to stay in the water where they belong. What a bunch of brainless animals.

Also, Joan Crawford, by about forty years, beat my step-mother to the beach for her death scene in Humoresque, with the air bubbles of her dying gasps jauntily percolating up from the depths in front of the camera with the seaweed swaying to the music, so, you know, how can you not laugh?

The tide is low; even the sand level is low. Brick walls and chimneys, exquisitely molded by ninety-three years of seaside living, are jutting out of the sand where I have never noticed them before. After the earthquake, this is where they deposited downtown. I have a picture taken from captive airship at Howard and Fifth Streets a month after the earthquake, and it's just a maze of foundations. There is no rubble there; it's here. They dumped some of it around the corner and built the Marina District on top of it, which explains why earthquakes have such an affinity for that part of town.

The tide is low and for the first time I am able to walk around the last rocky section to the Golden Gate Bridge. There's Fort Point, where Kim Novak leapt to her non-death. But I've got news for commuters: the Golden Gate Bridge is not long for this world. Time has ripped out a big rusty bouquet of iron reinforcements from the concrete support that appears to be holding up everything south of the south tower. They keep slopping coats of International Orange on the span, plus a little drop on the hood of my Mom's car, but don't be deceived. The bridge is sixty-two, and underneath all the make-up is looking like death warmed over.

At low tides I remember the Chinese brother who held the sea in his mouth, leaving this vast soggy desert littered with gasping fish. If the ocean represents the subconscious, what does it mean to take it into your mouth? And what happens if you swallow?

Death on the Beach: here comes a boy on whom I had a crush in high school. Except he's a man now, all grown up with a big name for himself in the arts and with AIDS too. He had no idea who I was in high school--I crushed from afar--but in recent months I have run into him a few times and thrown myself at him, overcome by the rekindling of that clean, distant high school fantasy and by the added allure of his minor stardom and artistry. He was standoffish; but now he is walking a diagonal path along this lengthened stretch of sand directly toward me. Fifteen years is a long time to wait for someone but I realize, as he closes the distance between us, I am patient. I will forgive his lateness, his being thirty, his being not quite so spectacularly good-looking as he was then, even his being HIV positive. But I will be very, very scared.

I look up from my notebook and he is gone. He has recognized me as that groupie. He has overheard my patience, my unasked-for forgiveness, my fear. He has smelled, perhaps, that death is not yet on me, that I'm slumming here. I leave wounded, but immensely relieved. And that's no joke.