By Lara Shelton
When I was eighteen I had a boyfriend who was six years older than me. He had a farmer tan, a crew cut, and he wore Oakleys. The last book he had read was a 1979 Trans Am owners’ manual. He drank Hamm’s beer like it was water. But he was mine, all mine.
When my parents moved to California, I wanted to bag a surfer. But we moved too far inland and I ended up with a jet skier.
There’s a certain culture of “going to the lake” which involves Sea Doos, beer, and trailer hitches. I was never a part of this culture. There were too many muscle tees, too many bikinis, too much bleach-blonde. But this is how they do nature in Riverside: by dominating it. One does not walk alongside a quiet creek; one rips across a lake at top speed while blasting Def Leppard.
And my man was taking me to the lake.
I was prepared for it. I grabbed my bottle of Sun-In, my bottle of Hawaiian Tropic, my Croakies.
And then we broke up on the way there. I don’t really remember why; with this particular boyfriend it’s more difficult to remember why not. I remember arguments about abortion. I remember arguments about fundamentalism. I remember arguments about alcoholism. We did not see eye to eye, me and him. But he had taken the day off, and he was not going to waste it driving me back home.
We arrived at the lake. It was hot. I sat on the beach eating a bologna sandwich on white bread while he unloaded the jet ski. I had a six-pack of Hamm’s to keep me company, and I camped out in the scorching sand near a line of vacation houses—the low-rent kind that week-end partiers trash and lower-income families rent for two weeks every summer. The water was flat and steel-gray. The sky was nearly white, feathered with brown, like my ’80’s hair.
From one of the houses, someone began to play music. Hotel California.
To me, the Eagles were always something like the lake crowd. They were a part of the dominant inland culture, a part from which I felt alienated. It was well enough when this music was playing in the background at a 7-Eleven, but it was nothing I would have chosen to listen to deliberately. It was something I put up with.
Hotel California is a long song, and it got louder and louder as it played. It sounded as if the people at the house were playing it over a loudspeaker, rather than a normal system. It blared out across the flat surface of the water, claiming nature as its own. And I watched, getting buzzed on Hamm’s, as my ex-boyfriend flung himself back and forth across the lake, beating it into submission.
When the song ended on its protracted guitar solo, I briefly wondered what the yahoos in the house would put on next. And the answer, of course, was Hotel California. They put it on again, louder this time.
Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place. Such a lovely place.
Trouble out on the water. Screams, and voices over bullhorns. A police boat. People run to the edge of the lake, looking out from underneath bucket hats.
Living it up in the Hotel California
Any time of year, you can find us here.
The police boat brings someone in to shore: a sobbing woman in a bathing suit. She stumbles off the boat with the help of the officer. She has been drinking. There are children in the boat with her, and they follow, sobbing as well, bundled into awkward blobs by their O’Neill life jackets. The woman crashes to the sand on a beach towel; the children stand, still looking out at the lake. Someone else in their group says, “they’ll find him.”
And my ex keeps careening back and forth across the water.
They don’t find him—the woman’s husband, the children’s father. The music keeps going. Another round of Hotel California.
I offer the children bologna sandwiches and the mother gives me a dirty look, as if I were a pedophile.
I remember a very cruel thought going through my mind as a fourth round of Hotel California starts up again: you deserve this. Not the missing husband, not the weeping kids. She deserved the soundtrack. I felt that, in a way, she had chosen her tragedy, and she had chosen Hotel California.
And so had I, in a way. They must have played Hotel California a dozen times that day. As evening fell, the woman and her children were loaded into a State Trooper’s van. Something about the scene cut directly to what California was for me, and still remains. Death was everywhere. Death was banal. Death was the sort of thing you might see on a holiday, and say, “Oh, how sad” before you turn up your music and get on the freeway to drive home.
My ex-boyfriend came in and loaded the jet-ski back on to the trailer. He was polite enough not to ask me to help, but only because he thought I might scratch it.
As we pulled away, I could feel my skin already beginning to smart from a day in the sun. I knew I would be smarting for a long time.