“La Jolla Babylon (Part One)” by Aaron Hartman
We thought we thought big.
Our goal was to be able to leave any party and have more fun.
We liked to steal flags. We discriminated between cotton and polyester, and would not take one if there was no chance of at least getting chased. Spring break of 10th grade, Dan and I stole the same flag off the same pole every night for a week. We would walk to La Jolla Shores, scrutinize the security situation and down it would go.
In honor of our developing life’s philosophy, if you’re going to get in trouble, you might as well get in a lot of trouble, we would steal the flag and raise a full trashcan in its place.
We talked about stopping our foolish, mean spirited behavior, but we were like clandestine lovers meeting at midnight to break things off – always knowing the night would end tragically. “This is so stupid, I can’t believe we’re still doing this,” was something we’d say to each other as we breathlessly ran away from a burning dumpster.
We couldn’t stop.
Jim Davidson’s house became the center of activities that summer. His parents had planned to be gone for two straight months.
The Davidsons were wealthy and maintained a well-stocked liquor cabinet.
Jim and I had known each other since first grade. Now we were both lanky starting to get hairy. As his competitive side was awakened by his growing libido, he began rolling up his sleeves to his shoulders. He had great biceps and we tended to like the same girls.
Dan and I would sometimes talk all night – trying to make sense of Jim and the rest of our normal friends and their extreme typical-ness. We felt the division between ourselves and these short-sighted, narrow-minded peers.
We felt superior because we were sober. We felt sorry for them. They thought they were having fun while they got drunk and messed around, but they didn’t know what it was to enjoy life. They were being dulled by alcohol. Dan and I were really living.
We devised plans to infuse our weekends with danger and excitement. Nothing too grand, but weird enough to rub in the faces of our hung-over friends the next day.
One weekend there were eight or nine of us all swimming in Jim’s peanut-shaped pool. Vodka was everywhere. At some point, around two or three in the morning, people started heading to the bathroom in pairs. There were loud jokes about skiing. Dan and I left quietly.
We walked to La Jolla Shores. The flag pole we terrorized for so long now had a lock on its base. It was sadly satisfying to see a direct result of our menacing.
We walked North and asked each other about drugs. I knew his father had been a dealer, but I was still surprised that Dan had tried almost everything I could think of: meth, pot, cocaine, acid and once a little bit of heroin.
We were walking on the beach, past where the boardwalk ended. On the soft sand, our ankles were getting tickled by jumping fleas, so we stayed close to the water, where the sand was harder.
Dan would sometimes run ahead and kick over sandcastles. I raced him at first, but even with a head start, I could always be overtaken. He’d run past me, turn his head and smile. Sometimes he’d leap into the air and fart on me.
We saw a giant sandcastle in the distance. It was close to the lapping shoreline. Weirdly close. It should have been washed away already.
We ran hard, excited by the thought of kicking the shit out of this sturdy feat of tourism gone wrong. As we gained on the mound, the shadowy form seemed to grow disproportionately. There was no moon, and the tide was low. We could smell the rotting kelp as we leapt over piles and piles of it.
What we both assumed to be a flagged turret, was now clearly a bird. It flew away as we came upon it.
This was no sandcastle.
We stopped running. The bird was flying over us, hovering. Something smelled bad.
We tucked our faces into our shirts and walked a loose circle around the shadowless form. It was too dark to make anything out.
“Go see what it is. I’ll give you a dollar.”
Something was wrong. We edged closer.
The smell became a stench.
We inched forward.
“It’s a seal!”
“It’s a fucking goat!”
We circled it until we were satisfied. There was really a dead goat rotting on the beach where children play and surfers swim.
Its coat was gone and its eye sockets were empty.
It smelled too awful for us to do much more diagnostics. I am grateful there were no sticks nearby.
We ran back to the desolate boardwalk and found ourselves at the payphone outside the giant lifeguard tower.
“Is this a 911 thing? Should I call 911? Is this an emergency? It is.”
Dan picked up the phone and began pacing in very short half-circles. “Hello? Hi. My name is Jim Davidson, and I was on the beach in La Jolla, and I was kicking over sandcastles and I saw this one. It was dark, so I ran real fast and it smelled. And it was a dead goat.” Then he hung up.
Dan called dead animal pick-up, the lifeguard, and the non-emergency police line; but every time he was supposed to give the story, Dan included every detail of our night. He never got the chance to tell anybody where the goat actually was.
We walked back to Jim’s house and slept on lawn chairs in the back yard.
We awoke early. The sun had not yet broken through the morning gloom.
We were damp with dew and stiff from our macho attempt to seem impervious to the elements. We slept for maybe three hours.
Jim’s house was filthy.
He had made an effort to consolidate the physical indications of drugs and alcohol, but the circumstantial evidence was abundant in the kitchen, bathroom and carpets.
All of the bedrooms were locked and no one responded when we tried to wake them. We gave up, made a couple sandwiches and took off.
The streets were busier than I expected. Dog walkers, stroller pushers, and the odd metal detective cluttered the vista.
We walked past the deli as it opened its doors, we watched old men reading newspapers at a café we’d never noticed before. I got a large black coffee to go. Dan got himself two cokes.
The day had a feeling of newness. Half asleep and sore, life was good.
We leapt over the boardwalk, and headed North on the soft, cold sand. The tide had risen quite a bit. We were excited, but did not run this time; and there we stood, blinking at an empty beach.
“Oh god, where is it?”
“Maybe dead animal pickup picked it up.”
We sat on the sand and watched the distant surfers for a while. Weekend dawn patrol. Goat patrol.
“It makes me nauseous thinking about it.”
“How many times do you think you’ve touched something equally gross without knowing it?”
We sat, drinking our morning brews, eating more of Jim’s food.
The sun broke out from behind the haze, as it always does in San Diego. Dan’s mohawk was bent sideways from sleeping outside. He tried to adjust it, using his long shadow as a mirror.
“What do you do in this situation? Make a sign? Tell every single person who comes to the beach: there’s a skinless, eyeless goat floating just under the surface of the water? Fuck them. What have any of these jerks ever done for anybody but themselves?”
A family of striking blondes walked in front of us and parked with their blankets, coolers and implements of sport. They were blocking our view.
“Look at them – totally German. His shorts are way too short to be American. The fucking Germans. Welcome to San Diego. Come on in, the water’s disgusting.”
The family of mauve and turquoise-suited Europeans lined up at the water’s edge and tested the temperature. They stood shoulder to shoulder, facing west. A happy family about to jump into the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
Dan and I stood up.
We watched them frolic in the ankle-deep tide. Just before they made their first bodily splash, we turned around and went back to Jim’s house to sleep some more.