I was born in Ventura, California. A place notable only for year-round 70 degree weather, long stretches of beaches, and the fact that it’s sandwiched in between two actually notable places: Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. It’s too small to be big, but too big to be small. It’s a lovely place to raise a family and drive a mini-van, and a terrible place if you can’t surf and are looking for entertainment that doesn’t involve loitering around Barnes and Noble.
When I run out of things to do, I usually end up at the park. I seem to have a park obsession –there’s at least five parks in Ventura I frequent regularly. But one specific park, more than any of the dozens of others, has somehow over the years made its way into a special place in my heart. When I went back home over the holidays, I realized it’s become one of the few places that’s really nostalgic for me.
I find myself making it a meeting place even though it’s not a very good one. During the day, it’s hard to find who you’re looking for amidst the families and commotion, with children and dogs running everywhere and barbeques distorting the air in the distance. At night, although it’s not in a dangerous neighborhood, it’s dark and hard to see. It’s not within walking distance of my house. It’s just a normal park, just like they have in every town. It has some tennis courts, disgusting bathrooms, a basketball court, a jungle gym and some swings set in the sand. There are a few trees and a lot of grass. Like the town itself, it’s neither very big nor very small.
The last time I played tennis on those courts was years ago. I made a vague effort for about 15 minutes before abandoning the venture in favor of making a trip to the nearby Taco Bell. I walked there with someone, who was somewhere in acquaintance-friend limbo, who I’d hung out with a couple of times, but who I probably wouldn’t call up on a whim. In a few years, I would be having regular coffee dates with him, and he would know my entire life story. We still occasionally reminisce about that Taco Bell run, though there was nothing particularly interesting about it.
There’s a large section of dirt and shrubs between the grass and the top of the hill where the road is. Despite my protests, I have been carried across it, barefoot, with feet wet from running through the damp grass, because I refuse to play Frisbee with shoes on.
There’s a certain bench overlooking the park on the top of that slight hill. It’s where I held one of approximately four serious conversations I’ve ever had in my life. It is a reminder of mistakes made and experiences I don’t want to repeat. I don’t sit there much anymore. But I don’t blame the bench.
On that field I’ve played Frisbee, participated in Nerf gun wars, pretended to be a zombie, walked my dog, napped, done homework. On that field I’ve had mindless, enjoyable discussions. I’ve gotten plenty of mud stains from sitting in that grass, and probably stepped in an adequate amount of dog poop.
It was on that patch of grass that we attempted to eat our way through the largest tub of ice cream available at the grocery store. Back in the days when no one was afraid of swine flu, it became a communal bowl scooped out of with plastic spoons. Later, after we had failed to finish it, the half tub of ice cream managed to open and defrost my freezer as it made its bid for freedom out of the icy depths.
I sat on those slides on many a long and boring night, getting my pants wet on the dew that collects at the bottom. I clambered my way to the top of the monkey bars, only to discover that sitting on them is incredibly uncomfortable. I got stuck at the top of those bars more than a few times, realizing they look higher from above than from below. Sitting on that jungle gym, staring up at the stars on nights that were cold and foggy and nights that were hot with dry, desert winds, I’ve answered some of the most difficult questions I’ve been faced with in my life. Most of them began simply. “So you’re stuck on a desert island…”
I don’t know how my park obsession came to be. It’s often not a place I set out to go to. But, somehow, it’s a place I end up. It’s an answer to the endless question “what do we do now?” On one of my last nights in Ventura, I met a friend there with the strict intention of it being a meeting point, where we would create our game plan. The plan never really materialized, and instead we sat there, swinging aimlessly in the darkness.