The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

California: Year One

 Kalliope Panagiotakos

 At first sight, it erases your agenda, arrests you and brings you back to a prehistoric beauty. You are a part of it and it is within you at the same time. Waves of recognition hit as your eyes turn to glass and your heart water.  Your physicality becomes untethered. You release liquids from the eyes, from the mouth. Your stomach drops low and your legs numb. When confronted with the mountain’s command, its possession is total. It stands alone, like a distant sister, but it was not meant for company here. It acts large and marries the instinct of both day and night with a duality like God, rising high and remaining heavy in the everyday heart. 

In the summer after my nineteenth birthday, I drove up to Northern California from San Diego with my then boyfriend, Daniel.  We were headed for his hometown near Mt. Shasta, about an hour south of the Oregon border. We stopped in several towns along the coast and each place was new.  It was easy, deliberate and smooth. No arguments. Not even the knowledge of contempt. My anticipation for the new north grew feverish in the last leg of the road trip but I was subdued by the setting sun on my limbs. After San Francisco, Highway 5 was low and bright and straight. I drove for a few hours this way, the sun burning my left cheek and thighs while Daniel was sunk in sleep in the deep shade of the passenger side. At some point, I stopped fighting the discomfort of heat and my mind grew quiet, music off and him asleep. I forgot everything, forgot what I was doing at that very moment, as the sound of Mack trucks gargled by and the afternoon light shone endlessly as my skin cells turned a pale pink. This was a version of a goodbye, our last trip together before I moved back to the east coast.

Your surface is two things. Notoriously smooth. And chalklike. As my fingers ramble over your form with a slight pressure, tiny pieces of you are rubbed away like a gymnast’s chalk and in even smaller form you crush into my prints. Maybe you’re lucky that way. Shedding. Particles lost. Maybe the rivers made you soft, the indefinite years of water. I can’t imagine you bigger or smaller. I’m resolute and probably won’t grow bigger or smaller.

We arrived in Siskiyou County on a late afternoon in July. Daniel and I had switched places and he drove into the wide country as the sun crept low and the shade began to cool the car’s heat. Mt. Shasta came into view very early, a small white peak rising above the gold horizon and gradually building up as the car drove on. He knew this road well. He knew its sharp bends and the shifting landscape: here is Black Butte and here is Shasta Lake and here the mountain is a little bigger now. The broad black presence of Black Butte was to our left, it arched as we wrapped around its base. It was a shadow looming high, its peak a sharp black, obstructed the blue-grey sky. It stood close and upright like a giant on guard.  I began to understand more about Daniel. This was his home, his every day vision, a feature of his memory. However he would grow as a man, Black Butte will mean the same thing — I am not far from home. 

 Daniel and I met on my campus in San Diego in November of 2004. My friends had invited me to join them at a party by the beach but I decided to stay on campus and vote for the first time. San Diego State was a major polling place and the wait was extraordinary that night. The line stretched long and I walked to the end and joined haplessly all the while thinking about two things: the slate blue sunset and how my friends were enjoying the party. I remember a foreign woman standing in front of me, perplexed by the line, and in front of her a tall, skinny young man with a wide, inquisitive glance and stoic limbs. The lady decided to give up and leave the line after about twenty minutes. Daniel and I inched closer with the same confirming nod, solidarity both in conviction and naïve apathy. We began a conversation, slowly. Three hours of self-conscious, energetic chit chat went by. At the very last moment, right after I walked out from casting my vote, he pulled me aside and asked for my number. A wave of relief came over as my nerves contracted and relaxed. I remember a few days later he called. Kerry lost the election but I didn’t care. He called.

Grinded down over millennia, maybe you’ve traveled the continents, I do not know. Compact energetics, the deep chilled pulse felt when pressing your surfaces between my palms, it wakes me. When I think I’ve held you too long and transferred over my heat, I put you down. I wonder about your origin story, what mass of water, what weight of nature offered this signature shape. Not obsidian but an ordinary matte disc, the perfect skipping stone for a person unlike me.

Carol, his mother, was tall and fit with full bodied grey hair and affectionate blue eyes. I remember her furtive nature the day we met up north, striding in bare feet like a silver mare, ready to meet her son at the driveway with appropriate joy. Her home was a wholesome and clean ranch house with a clear view of Mt. Shasta from the front yard and the sprawling lowland and distant mountain range from the backyard. Carol was a thrill junky, along with the rest of the family, living in anticipation of the next adventure. She used to put two ice cubes in her hot tea to cool it down enough for her to drink it all right away.

On that trip we went wake boarding in Shasta Lake as it was early enough in the season before the lake became too hot and the water quality too low. I had never been and met the challenge with apprehension and an internal, timid cry of “what am I getting myself into?” Wake boarding requires a strong sense of balance and coordination which I had not been blessed with naturally and have continually fought to maintain a fundamental version of for the sake of joining in activities and sports.  Daniel’s entire family loaded into the boat and we set off for the day with the mystical peaks on the horizon. Everyone went once or twice, standing up with a grace I imagined to be inherent in their physiology.

It was my turn. I jumped in the water, held tightly onto the rope and waited as the boat drove away and I knew backing out was not an option, my body awkwardly bobbing in a still clean lake. He drove faster and the tug of rope jerked my upper body forward but my legs didn’t catch. I let go. The binary resistance was new to me and I thought I’d be split in two. After several attempts, my body relaxed and I could anticipate the action of the rope, the board, the water. I stood low, knees bent and rose slowly from the water’s surface with a crowd of Californians looking back, cheering and clapping and snapping photographs. Relief and pride were one and the same. It was an unexpected afternoon of triumph.

There was a Jacuzzi out back that Daniel and I used later that night. The stars were abundant, blanketing the northern sky, piercing the blackness visible. They echoed a rapture of place as our eyes beamed upwards from the high heat of the water. Skin cells opened and closed, each time pushing toxins from the center of the body to the surface, then letting them go in a refined cellular dance. 

This kind of leisure was new and old. I used to look up to the same sky at beaches on Long Island that presented a littering of starlight. On a clear night, my friends and I would bring blankets and with our backs flat and our ears to the Long Island Sound we would scan the broad black and white, the flash of motion and the steady shift of place. In California though, the star heat seemed a little closer, a little brighter.

On the day I left Mt. Shasta alone, the sky was a blue gray, the air quiet and wind low. I sat in my car with Daniel, unsure of when or how I’d see him again. He got out of the car and stood, hunched by the driver side window for a while.  As I was about to turn on the engine and head south, Carol opened the front door and came running barefoot down the driveway with her white hair loose in the generous mountain air. She offered a final departing gift: a black river stone. She gave it to me in a rushed, wild way. A pending last thought, Mt. Shasta soaring up behind her, the evening darkening, Black Butte blending slowly with the sky. I drove away and back down Highway 5, holding the river stone and trying to remember the state, to remember to return. 

Kalliope Panagiotakos is a student at Pasadena City College in California.