As I write this, late in the summer of 2020, Santa Cruz is on fire. The UC Santa Cruz campus was evacuated earlier this week, and photos showed the Boardwalk glittering against a backdrop of ominous orange, with a setting sun of otherworldly magenta.
Santa Cruz was a major character in the first half of my life, and has been an occasional correspondent since. Watching it suffer feels like visiting the hospital bed of an old but no longer dear friend.
Frank and I met when he was a sophomore and I was a freshman at UCSC: I saw a card posted on the dining hall bulletin board, from three people looking for a fourth for bridge. Given that I’d spent most of the year vacillating from depression to terror and back (the serial killer Edmund Kemper was picking off girls my age and leaving them strewn in pieces around the campus’s many forests, crevasses and ridges), the idea of an occasional bridge game was compelling. But I had no idea what a big part of my life the game, and the three of them, would become – we wound up playing cards more nights than not, often piling into a VW Beetle to go downtown at 2am and eat fresh donuts from Ferrell’s, a local haven. Sometimes we came back and played more cards after that.
Scott, our informal leader (and the owner of the Beetle), was tall and slim, with wavy sunbleached hair and an engagingly crooked smile. When you asked Scott what his goals were, he said “getting rich”; last I looked, he was the Chief Technical Officer of a huge national media empire. Maureen, dark-haired and easygoing, was one of the campus’s very few female math students. Scott’s roommate Frank was taciturn and wry, and was majoring in chemistry.
I made a move on Scott, who gallantly pretended not to know what I was trying to do. (He knew.) So it was Frank who wound up in my bed – his first time, my eighth or ninth. And when I realized that another year in the dorms would be hazardous to my mental health, it was Frank who I invited to share a large off-campus room with me, near a campus bus route.
We lived together for a pleasant, if very stoned and sloppy, year. Then he changed his major to Civil Engineering and transferred to UC Davis, back in his hometown. I stuck it out in Santa Cruz for a year, working as an “usherette” in a movie theater and going to classes when I felt like it, which was seldom. Then I dropped out and moved to Davis, where we found an apartment together.
But Santa Cruz wasn’t through with me yet. Frank’s family owned a huge old beach house on the west side of town, overlooking the vast stretch of the Pacific. So for all Frank’s and my decade and a half together, we spent nearly all our vacations – first with my big crazy standard poodle Mac, then with Mac and Miles, then with Miles and Ben – in that house, along with a shifting cast of a dozen or more grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. (Those vacations spurred my earliest impulses toward extended family: there was no question that both the kids and the grownups were calmer and saner with a lot of loving company to blunt the harsh edges of any particular relationship.)
It was also in Santa Cruz that Frank and I decided to end things. We left the sleeping kids with his folks, drove far enough out of town that we were unlikely to be seen by anyone who cared that we were sitting over coffee with tears running down our faces, and together sketched out our separate futures.
I was no longer welcome at the Santa Cruz house after that, but the kids were still spending lots of long weekends there with Frank and his family. Today, they both adore Santa Cruz in the way that any kid loves the site of repeated fun and affection: Miles had hoped to have his wedding to his wife Destiny there, although the logistics proved impossible – they ended up marrying in Long Beach, Southern California’s closest analog to Santa Cruz.
I tried, once, to vacation in Santa Cruz myself, building a few days’ break around a speaking gig at a downtown sex shop. But the topography of the town had shifted after the Loma Prieta quake in 1989, so many of my haunts and landmarks were gone; those that remained all carried a ponderous weight of memory. I drove home in an odd, sad, might-have-been mood, wondering if what I’d gained was worth what I’d given up.
Les Dudes continued to report back to me about the doings in Santa Cruz. Their great-grandmother was there and then she wasn’t, and then their grandmother, and then their grandfather. Cousins I remember as infants came, played, went to the Boardwalk and for walks on the beach, left for college and other towns, and their kids came back to Santa Cruz.
Over Labor Day weekend of 2006, Ben heard a noise from Frank’s room. When he went to investigate, he found Frank on the floor in the throes of what turned out to be a major stroke. But a few months later, he drove Frank back to Santa Cruz, where the deaths of the family elders had left the wheelchair-accessible bedroom available. The family, its topography changed by the earthquakes of life, still gathers at the house several times a year.
I’ve had one more visit to Santa Cruz. When Edward and I got married, we spent as little as possible on what was at our ages a fairly unexceptional rite of passage (the County Clerk’s office, then later a modest gathering in a church meeting room, with some cheeseboards and some champagne and a cake). With the money we had left, we took a “honey-asteroid” at a place in downtown Santa Cruz that billed itself as a “bed, bud and breakfast,” run by a pair of dyke cannabis activists who turned out to know Edward already from the queer and activist communities.
Santa Cruz, on that trip, was the end of another story: the site of the last full-on kink scene I ever did, and also of the last time I had genital sex (making the place a Bed, Bud, Breakfast, Bondage and Blowjob). Another landmark, I guess.
By the time I get back to that part of the world, it will have shifted yet again: the fires are still uncontained, and whatever remains of the town and the campus will be irrevocably changed. But you can’t change the past, and Santa Cruz is a permanent part of my brain and my heart.
 Contemporary college students might not recognize how startling a statement that was in 1972, particularly at “Uncle Charlie’s Summer Camp.” For comparison, imagine asking a fellow student in the 2020s what they want to do after college, and having them say “I dunno, man, just hang out, smoke a bit, figure out who I am, you know?”
 Still does.
 Too small to be a honeymoon.