Year of the Great Voyage

By the summer of 1980 my father was nearing the end of a grand plateau in his life: he was still married to his second wife, and after years of complaining about his lot at the Buenaventura Clinic, he had finally left and founded his own practice, the East Ventura Medical Practice, Inc. At forty-nine he could no longer be considered young, although his face was boyish. And that summer he owned, new, what would be the favorite car of his life, a 1979 Mazda RX-7, in Brilliant Black. His marriage, though, was circling the drain. His wife, Diane, a decade younger than my mother, was a nurse with peroxide-blonde hair whom he’d rescued from the slums of Oxnard with her four teenaged children—Denise, Johnny, Joanie, and Richie. Johnny, the oldest, was nice, a little slow, with a fuzzy mustache and a wistful way of looking at girls. Joanie, with her Farrah Fawcett hair, was hysterical, self-involved, but harmless. Denise was a bitch, fully in cahoots with her mother, and Richie was bound for the criminal life. My father was having trouble establishing his practice in part because Diane and Denise, both his employees, would leave the afternoon blocked off to patients so they could go shopping together. Every time I showed up at their house it was chaotic, my father outnumbered, shouting up the staircase at one of the kids. Once alone, he would offer me a Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine and ask me to watch TV with him. By then he had taken to sleeping in his La-Z-Boy in the study. She says I snore, he told me, but I had no sympathy. I was a sometimes uncharming sixteen, imbued with the righteous fury of never having made a mistake in my life. I knew, as we all did, that he never should have married her.

As a way of spending time together, he had bought me a well-used Hobie 16 catamaran, and on Thursday afternoons he set aside time for sailing. He would leave his office around four o’clock, pick me up at the bus stop, and then we’d drive down to Ventura Harbor. The sun at this time would move toward a dramatic perch high above the Pacific, although it would not set for hours. The summers there felt like fall, with long afternoons of failing yellow light. The air was cool, the sky the palest of blues. The harbor was southwest of the city, accessed by a sinuous drive through old lemon orchards and straight rows of strawberry and artichoke, lined with windbreak eucalyptus trees, which caught the afternoon light and glowed blue-green. Farther southwest was the naval base and Mugu Rock, from which every few years somebody would end it all by throwing themselves into the sea.

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