Dreams of Water
By Sarah Pape
Growing up, we understood what kind of year it was by measuring the red dirt steppes revealed by the retreating water of Lake Oroville. That year, the lake was low, as my father, my mother, my small brother, Milli the Beagle, and I hiked down into the earthen bowl of deep cracked beds and concrete walls that the lake usually pressed itself against. My father and brother headed out to find the shoreline, farther than they’d ever had to search, unfolded chairs, and cast their fishing poles.
Milli and I delved into the manmade structures of the spillway, eight towering sluice gates, built to release two hundred and fifty thousand cubic feet of water per second. Buoys and long strands of floats were strewn and baking in the sun. When I stood next to one of the sluice gates and pressed my face against one of its thick metal walls, I could feel the weight of the water that had been there before–the unimaginable crush and cold, the potential for obliteration. It was both unnerving and a comfort to occupy the space where water always was, but wasn’t now.
The lake bed reminded me of a story my mother told us again and again, The Five Chinese Brothers, in which one of the brothers holds the sea in his mouth so a young boy can retrieve treasures from the ocean floor. The boy is greedy and ignores warnings that the water can’t be held back forever, until finally, the brother opens his mouth to release it, and the boy drowns. The story left me with a false myth of treasures lying underneath the flat expanse of the lake, and described the temptation of riches leading us to stay too long in places we don’t belong.
On that day with my family, I felt it was my moment to run along the surface of the splitting earth and fill my pockets with its strange pearls. Yet instead of treasures, all I could imagine were the bodies at the true bottom of the lake, still lying beneath the water. I thought of those strangers who had been above the depths and then pulled under the surface without any hope of emerging, erased by water. Or those who lived along the Feather River before the valley was flooded, the houses that might still stand there at the bottom in an eternal dark.
That day, the lake was lower than we had ever witnessed, but the water would come again. Floods punctuated our town’s history.
I feared the dam. I had nightmares of standing in our front yard and hearing the great crack, a wall of water rushing with a low grumble as it lifted orchards by their roots and swept our neighborhood into a massive whirlpool. “We are safe. Nothing will happen to us,” my mother assured me.
On our way home, down the winding road, we could see the other side of the spillway–a giant ramp, thirty-five hundred feet long and a hundred and fifty feet across. “Look,” I pointed out the window, catching my brother’s attention, “it’s Paul Bunyan’s slide.” We all looked out at that great wall of earth, holding back the strength of so many rivers.
This is the last time I can remember our family together.
When asked where I’m from, I’ve always said, “I grew up in Oroville, but most of my family lives in Southern California.” I was ashamed of growing up where I did; as my gyre of relationships grew wider, I understood that I was from a place that was bad, populated by bad people. Our family down south sent us newspaper clippings about clandestine meth labs, crime rates per capita, and odd violences that made their way into the Los Angeles Times as novelties.
Our first house was an eight-hundred-square-foot yellow box on three-quarters of an acre. There was a garage with a slouching overhang and just beyond that, a wire-fenced pen to keep animals. It cost eighteen thousand dollars and was financed through my father’s VA loan. It was because of my father that we were in Oroville. Back in Oceanside, where I was born, my mom saw my dad falling deeper into an array of addictions he had been developing since his early teen years. He was delving further and farther south of the border, leaving for days at a time, not able to explain where he had been. Northern California was a chance for our family to get a clean start.
My father’s friends were rough men of few words. They were always in our garage. My father was a joiner, a follower. Even in Oroville, hundreds of miles from the border, he was always leaving, crushing the gravel into long tire tracks in his hurry to get where he was going.
We made three to four trips to Los Angeles every year. I was notoriously carsick, so my parents would dose me with Dramamine and leave late–The Red Eye. As I got older, I stayed awake, making long lists of town names we passed through on Highway 99: Florin, Lodi, Manteca, Turlock, Clovis, Tulare, Wasco. The California Aqueduct ran parallel to our drive, appearing and disappearing as we made our way down the state.
My grandfather always kept track of the rainfall and snowmelt of our area, which I came to understand as a way to predict the amount of water they would have to run the dishwasher, water their lawn, and bathe with. Melted snow flows down from the Sierras and is stored behind the Oroville Dam, which releases the water throughout the year down the Sacramento River through the Delta, where it finally reaches Southern California via the California Aqueduct system.
Our Northern Californian water offered me a rare sense of pride in my hometown. Our dam held the water that nourished the bodies and lawns of those I loved. Yet, for those who had lived in Oroville for generations, it symbolized a promise that wasn’t kept. The state had said ours would become a thriving recreation-based economy, that our lake would attract celebrities and adventure seekers. But the water was let go and no one came back. Some would say we should’ve known better.
I wore men’s clothes in high school. I felt most myself in faded Levi’s, a white V-neck T-shirt, a vest, and a velvet blazer. It was my uniform.
I was at Woolworth’s buying a five-dollar sweater out of the men’s section bargain bin and the cashier was a boy I liked. He was cool. He wore pajama bottoms to school every day. Eventually, everyone else did too. He had a Camaro with four bobblehead Beatles fastened to the dashboard. He was two years older.
He asked for my number and I gave it to him. He called that afternoon and asked if he could take me out. This was my first date.
We didn’t go to Cornucopia, the 24-hour diner that everyone went to late at night to order gargantuan platters of fries with ranch or mud pie slices as big as cinder blocks. We also passed by the Taco Bell, where cars parked haphazardly and people wandered from open door to tailgate, Def Leppard blaring from speakers.
He headed, arrow-straight, toward Oro Dam Boulevard, twisting up the two-lane road toward the top, where lights burned along the mile-and-a-half long surface. I was wearing the burgundy sweater I had taken from his hands earlier that day, over some uncharacteristically tight black leggings. I pulled the sweater self-consciously over my knees, watching the bobbing heads of Ringo and Paul, trying not to get carsick. I wanted to seem effortless in the passenger seat, The White Album pouring over us, filling in the fact that we had nothing to say.
Parked at the top, we stood against his car, looking out over the black surface of water, high and lapping against the rocks just twenty feet below us. The wind whipped our long hair into knots and I let him guide me into his backseat to warm up. I remember kissing and trying to stay ahead of his hands wandering the expanse under my sweater. I remember him saying, “I just can’t help myself,” like a mantra, willing me to believe this was true.
He never called me again, but this was the beginning of many trips up that narrow road. I see myself in each vehicle, like a procession of my early sexual testimonies:
. . . winter formal, a car full of couples in strappy clothes, discovering the friction of polyester in the dirt turnout.
. . . blaring “Six Different Ways” from my first car, spinning in circles and falling clumsy and knowing into the grasp of my best friend’s ex-boyfriend.
. . . a scratchy wool blanket under my naked backside, watching the meteor shower under the bare arm of my too-much-older boyfriend.
The obsidian sheen of the lake was the constant. It was a third entity, always there around that last curve, so large and present I felt I could reach past whomever’s body I was against in those moments to trail my fingers along the dark edges. As if my hands would come back to me, wet and glistening.
It was New Year’s Day, 1997, when we were told to leave. For three days, they tried to evacuate Oroville, the threat of flooding upon us. The town was waiting and no one was packing up. The spillway was releasing its limit, balancing between the need to unloose enough to avoid water coming over the top and not entirely flooding the Feather River below, submerging the town in the overflow.
The water was coming. I was nineteen and my daughter was three months old. Her father and I were living with my mother and now adolescent brother. My father had been gone for six years, to prison and not to return. We decided we would pack up what seemed necessary and head up to the town of Paradise to stay with a family friend. It was twenty-two miles away and two thousand feet higher in elevation.
We packed family photo albums, some clothes, our cat, and the baby’s varied equipment. We jammed ourselves into one car, the baby between her dad and me in the backseat, looking up at us, delighted to see us both in one view.
But I was terrified. I had actually been in an extended state of fear since my daughter was born. Her arrival made me feel both ancient and like a child, as if the world itself had unwound at my feet–the darkness made more dark by her vulnerability, everything good, now possible. I was paralyzed by my own uncertainty. Her dad worked at a record store and I was enrolled in community college, but by the world’s standards we weren’t anything yet. No money. No shelter of our own. Not even a bed that belonged to us.
We watched the news all New Year’s Day, watching shot after shot of the swelling riverbanks, the ankle-deep water covering the downtown and the torrential outflow of the spillway, soaking the camera lens. Outside, the rain kept coming in a steady downpour. We built a fire and made meals, imagining the next life, one in which my family home and its contents were carried away on a great unstoppable current.
My daughter was content, sleeping and nursing in my arms, being passed around, no distractions to pull us away from her new spastic gestures and gurgles. Everything could be washing away in my hometown below us, but she was our anchor–this small blanketful of unfettered presence.
I made a resolution that day to move away. Not because of the flood or the weight of living under the shadow of a dam, or the sadness that filled me up as I turned familiar corners populated by resigned men. But the flood, or the threat of it, helped me to see something that I hadn’t yet been able to recognize: my home was no longer mine. When we combed through the house to carry away the things that mattered most, the contents of my bedroom looked like an outgrown shell–rock ‘n’ roll posters, half-done paintings, burned candles, eighteen years’ worth of diaries, piles of laundry; this was not the room of a mother, even one who was young and scared. These were the four walls of a teenage girl, caught unprepared and asked to become something she was not yet.
The second day of January in 1997, the rain stopped and the irrepressible volume retreated. We stayed in Paradise one more day, close to one another, making promises and plans for the unknown.