I was stationed in front of my computer on a dull Sunday evening decades after my ex-husband and I divorced when up pops a status update announcing that he and the woman he's in a relationship with have visited Deetjens Big Sur Inn. Months ago he posted a photo of their two hands wearing commitment rings—identical thin bands with a star shaped stone in the center. My mouth twisted into a grimace. He took me to Deetjens Inn when I was nineteen. Built on the edge of the redwood forest in the 1930s when Highway 1 was being completed, Deetjens is the most romantic place I have ever been. I left the marriage and have never begrudged Bruce the slightest bit of happiness. Why do I feel the pang now, all these years later? It's not the news that he's in a relationship—after all, many women have come and gone from his life since we've divorced. No, it's about his returning to Deetjens Inn with another woman that doesn't sit well even though I suspect he has taken many women to Deetjens, I just didn't know about them.
Even though our marriage ended, I've held on to Big Sur, held on to Deetjens as ours. Bruce knew Deetjens before I entered his life and I should have known that for Bruce I was just one of many women he would show and share Deetjens with. Whereas I only knew Deetjens with him—there was no before and there was no after. I've driven past it, slowed down and thought for a moment about stopping, but in the end have kept on going.
The summer we stayed at Deetjens I was visiting California for the first time, and Bruce was my guide. I had never been farther west than Chicago. He was born and raised in California and it was part of the way we fit together that I was in need of new experiences and he was in need of giving them to me. Through Bruce I tasted my first artichoke, peeling back leaf by leaf into its buried heart, drank my first champagne, watched my first silent film, descended into the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caves, sailed in the Pacific Ocean to Catalina Island. And the best part of that summer was hugging the curves of the hair turns of Highway 1 from Los Angeles, and spending two days at Big Sur. I've never been able to disentangle Big Sur from Bruce and that first visit. From the parking lot we had to hike through the redwoods and a towering silence I had never heard before to reach the little cabin set a few yards from a running creek. We had dinner and breakfast in the Inn, with fresh meadow flowers on the tables, windows that swung open onto gardens, a redwood bar, home grown food like nothing I had ever tasted back in staid provincial Pennsylvania. Those days were heady, among the most sensuous of my young life, and there it is—that's it, that's the cause of my grimace, the cause of my pang. Say it—those days were among the most sensuous of my whole life.
Early on in the relationship there was no friction between us—I was happy to be his student, to let him teach me and guide me, happy to let him place a morsel of honey on my tongue, to show me how to swirl the wine in my glass, to follow him up into the hills and stand under the waterfall, to lie down with him in our bed and be one. I did not strain against his instruction, I did not crave to have something of my own, I did not chafe in my dependency. Just the opposite—I couldn't believe my good fortune in finding someone who could open the world for me, who took me away from my unforgiving family, and drove me to what seemed like the other side of the world. At Big Sur I was perched at the farthest reach from my family and from my past, and even their long reach could not find me. And I owed my freedom to Bruce.
I hardened myself in order to leave him—that's what it took, steeling myself against thinking about or feeling what I was losing, for make no mistake even when there are sound reasons for a marriage to end, there is unfathomable loss. I had been so young when I met him and though he wasn't very old himself he was sufficiently older and established and above all experienced that neither of us had calculated what I might feel a few years down the road. In the beginning I was shapeable, so willing to be the clay he would mold. How could I know that feeling would turn? Instead of being open to his advice, his introductions and instructions and invitations, I felt oppressed and desperate to return to those of my own age, or as I came to think of them —of my own kind. And then I stripped myself of nearly everything he had given me, and left our house with almost nothing, to stand on my own, whatever that would mean. I didn't know the half of what that would mean past the nice sounding phrase.
Of course I came back one night after I had spent some weeks on my own, came back to the house we had bought just a year before. I wanted Bruce to take me back. And he wouldn't. I cried and cried, my whole body convulsing with the realization of the finality of what I had done. I had broken us apart, once and for all. Bruce had moved into the next phase of his life, a life without me—he had put the house on the market, gotten rid of what I had left behind, taken up with a new woman. He sat in the leather chair we had bought for the house in a blue silk paisley print bathrobe and I kneeled down on the hideous avocado green shag carpeting, begging him to take me back even though I knew it wasn't the right thing to do. We weren't right together. Even if he had taken me back, sooner or later, I would be no happier than I had been. But I was afraid to be on my own, afraid that I couldn't make my way after all, afraid to lose so much of what I had loved, and I faltered. Bruce did not. He was finished with me. I left the house and walked the miles in the dark back to the little hut where I rented a room and by the time I had reached it I had grown hard.
I published a book that touched upon my first marriage. I hadn't wanted to include anything about it—had preferred to skip over it entirely and I didn't know why just that I did. My editor insisted I needed something about this phase and so I wrote about it in what now strikes me as a very brittle style. Even then I couldn't allow myself to remember the good between us. When Bruce read the book, I thought he might be angry, quibble with the account. His reaction surprised me. He wasn't angry so much as saddened that he saw no love in what I had written and for him there had been so much love. Yes, mistakes and poor judgment, but also love. At the time I could only make weak excuses. I still couldn't admit that love. I had armed myself by focusing on how much damage we had done to each other. How misguided we were, what havoc we did to each other's lives. I had built an edifice of wrong and damage and its walls were mighty, mighty enough to keep me from ever feeling what I had once felt so powerfully, powerfully enough to drop out of college and run away with him.
And now decades later reading this status update on Facebook, of all places, Deetjens Inn comes flooding back and the happiness, however brief, I felt there with him and I finally can admit the love.
Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. In 2010 she was the recipient of the Distinguished Professor of The Year Award for the state of Michigan. Companion to An Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on Haze, a narrative of marriage and divorce during her college years.