When I was 28, and a man much too old for me had again broken my heart, I spent most of my free time in the car, as if I could outrun my sadness. Many weekends, I found myself exiting I-5 for the Coronado Bay Bridge, even though driving over that long, narrow arch used to terrify me. It was like driving right into the sky or plunging in to the open sea, and felt too much like my own abyss of despair, which formed a wide chasm under my heart.
But unlike my own sorrow, my road trips ended safely on Coronado, which at that time seemed like a snapshot from a Norman Rockwell painting, an endless Fourth of July, and a trip to a rich friend's summer-house all at once. I spent hours in the cool and haughty interior of Bay Books and consoled my broken heart with the sound of the surf and the soft, hot sand in front of the Hotel Del. Sometimes, on my way to the beach, I would walk through the lobby and pretend that I was staying, in that magnificent old ship of a hotel. I would adjust my sunglasses on my head, toss my hair, and pretend, for just a moment, that I wasn't lonely and broke and ten pounds overweight.
In a way, Coronado saved me. During my afternoons there, I became someone different. I imagined I was as glamorous as the island itself, and those afternoons pretending I was okay opened up the possibility for change. They lifted me out of my funk of sadness and self-pity. Eventually, I picked up the pieces of my heart and remembered who I was. Two years later, I moved to the Bay Area, where I found good friends, an exciting job, and hardwood floors. I was content being single and I liked my peaceful existence, the way my future was unfurling in a graceful spool. I thought that I would spend the rest of my life up there near the redwoods, and if I found someone to share all this with, well, that would be okay too. I hoped I would find someone intelligent and handsome. I really just wanted someone who was kind and funny and who loved books as much as I do.
Because I am lucky, I got all of these things. I found this great, gorgeous, brilliant man who loves me. The kicker is, he also wears combat boots. As someone who once marched with a sign reading "No Blood for Oil," I never imagined I would marry an officer in the military. Just as I never thought I would move back to Coronado.
But it has been six years since I walked through the Hotel Del holding a beach towel and the tattered ends of my heart, and now I have done both.
Almost every morning after my husband leaves for work on the Naval Amphibious Base, I strap my two-year-old son into the baby jogger with a half a bagel in his sticky fist, and we run down Orange Avenue toward the Strand. We pass the old coffee shops, the new Panera, and of course the Hotel Del. Each time we run by, I silently thank it for being so unchanging, so regal, despite the chaos in the world.
And yet, on these runs, I see the island in a way that I never could when I was focused solely on alleviating the ache in my heart. Then, I saw only what I wanted, what I needed, and Coronado was my paradise, my land of solace and endless paradise.
Now, Coronado looks as idyllic as ever, but even this small island is not impervious to these times, and especially to this awful war. Six years ago, I saw only the charming architecture, elegant shops, and upscale bookstores, but now I see also the soldiers training on the beaches and the navel bases hidden on either end of Coronado like secret weapons.
Sometimes I try to pretend that my husband will never have to risk his life. That we live on Coronado because we have gobs of money and choose to have our kids grown up here.
But I can't pretend for very long. As soon as I believe we're safe, a helicopter flies overhead, pounding the air with its great, sonic heartbeat, and the lights on the North Island runway shimmer like someone else's holiday. On runs with my son Oliver, I point out the seagulls and pelicans, but still, we see the SEALs training on the beach or groups of soldiers in uniform, thundering down the road in perfect formation.
This morning, Oliver and I ran by a group of young SEALs, waiting to cross the street to the beach. It wasn't even seven in the morning and there they were, covered in camouflage, helmets on , standing at ease with their feet slightly apart and their hands clasped behind their backs. Up close, I could see their faces, and I realized they were just boys -- all much too young for this serious business of war. They stood perfectly straight -- in a pose that is anything but easy -- and, as usual, I wondered how they could be so fearless. I wondered how they could be so selfless and what makes them willing to give up their lives for a country that won't even give up its Hummers for them.
As we approached, my son raised his bagel in the air and one of the soldiers looked at us and cracked a smile. I held my hand up too and placed it over my heart. "Thank you," I mouthed silently as we passed, and the soldier nodded back, almost imperceptibly.
I put my head down and we kept running. I didn't know what else to say. For that soldier, for that boy, Coronado isn't a place of solace or decadence. The warm sand here only slows him down, fills his boots, and the Del probably taunts him as he sleeps in his stuff barracks.
Maybe there are no more true havens left. Or maybe there were never any to begin with. Perhaps the only safe places are the ones that we create ourselves -- if we are very lucky and very still -- within the secret chambers of our hearts.