Amid the pine tree windbreaks and foamy Pacific shore, Sea Ranch, California, is a wonderful place to be dumped. The wild lilac and ill-tempered sea lionsthey'll distract your attention for at least a few minutes after the woman of your dreams leaves you at the altar. That, and a h ell of a lot of booze.
My younger brother, Kurt, and I arrived early at the only dive bar in town, a place where the bartender would wince if he heard the words "mojito" or "caipirinha." We gave the bearded keep twenty dollars in advance to keep the drinks flowing. He put a few more beers in the cooler and promised to take special care of the group that would soon gather for the evening. It was going to be a long and interesting night.
The century-old Gualala Hotel greets visitors with white pillars and an Old West porch. Close your eves and imagine the thirsty cowboy tying his horse to the front rail. Open them and see tourists sitting around picnic tables in the dining room devouring family-size bowls of minestrone soup. The hotel's bar, with its knotty pine and boar-head decor, sits off the main entrance. It had one of those electric beer signs on the wall that morphed scenery from mountain to beach.
Kurt bought me a Budweiser and asked how I was doing. I didn't open up. I looked at his newly gray hair and thin face and realized I "couldn't" talk to him.
Growing up, the teenager's code of conduct prohibited me from associating with a brother two grade levels my junior. To impress my friends, I did everything I could to avoid him. He was happy to do the same. Since then, we saw each other only a handful of days a year. Usually around Christmas. Details of our lives were relayed through our mom. Neither of us took the initiative to do more.
I wanted to talk to Kurt. I needed to talk to Kurt, but I didn't know how. I felt an awkward paralysis, like a child who can't relate to his parents. I couldn't pull out the words. I remembered the days in the backseat of the light blue Ford station wagon. We could talk about anything back thensecret hiding places (always behind the built-in shelves in my room), optimal ways to torture our younger sister, Lisa (pin her down and pretend to spit), or that baseball card game I always seemed to lose; lay Tito Fuentes against the wall and try to knock him over from ten feet away with a Wilbur Wood or a Dusty Baker. Despite the distance between us, Kurt was still the first person I called after I learned, five days prior, my wedding was off.
I'd reached him on my cell phone as I sped up the 405 Freeway from my house in Newport Beach to my fiancee Annie's small, rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica with the industrial-strength carpet and refrigerator in need of a cleaning. I couldn't remember the last time I phoned him. Probably to relay some bad news, like the death of our grandfather. We'd grown apart during the last decade. Kurt sold real estate in Seattle while I pursued a political career in Washington, D.C., and California. He sounded surprised to hear my voice. I sensed he knew something must be wrong. I needed him like I'd never needed a brother before.
"What's up?" he said.
"Not much. Weather's nice. Played golf the other day. My wedding's off. Did I mention the weather?"
"Serious. I'm on my way up to Annie's to get dumped right now. Her brother Gerald just called me to tell me she's not going to be able to go through with it."
"Man, I'm sorry," he said in a hushed tone. "What the hell happened?"
"Long story. I'll tell you later."
"What are you going to do?"
"I have no idea. Everything's paid for. People have rented cabins for the weekend. Some folks from overseas are already en route. Nightmare."
"I haven't even been dumped yet and the only thing I can think about are those hundred phone calls I'll need to make tomorrow."
"That, um, sucks."
"I hate to ask you this, but is there any way you could fly down here to give me a hand? I'll pay for your ticket."
"No problem." he said without hesitation. "And you don't need to pay for anything. I'll leave you a message on your answering machine with my flight info."
I talked to my mom briefly after that, telling her the wedding was about to crash. I'd spared her from the rapidly rising list of problems in the previous weeks, though I knew she sensed them. Delays on invitations and unworn wedding rings are red flags to moms.
"You have no choice," she tried to console me. "She's doing you a huge favor by telling you now as opposed to after the wedding. Franz, it's a blessing. You'll see that. It might be a while, but eventually you'll see that."
I knew my parents would be hugely supportive. They always were. At times, maddeningly so. That didn't stop me from feeling I'd failed. I knew I couldn't talk to my father yet without breaking down. I just kept thinking about the photo display shelves in their living room, the ones packed with shots of their wedding in Yuba City four decades before, sister Lisa and Doug's the previous year, dogs present and past, favorite babysitters, the photo of my great-grandfather during his years in China. There'd be no Sea Ranch shots. And I wondered how long it would take until my mom removed the ones with Annie.
Copyright 2005 by Franz Wisner