Just about a year ago— a little more, now— I packed up my life, put it in boxes, put the boxes in my car, and headed west. Well, first it was south: M and I drive from New York to North Carolina, to Georgia, to Louisiana, where we pulled up to a huge party in a beautiful house and ate slow-roasted pork and grocery store cake and drank vodka ginger ales on B.’s back porch. When the party started winding down the hosts gave us tequila shots and put us in taxis, and we went out and danced. The whole next day was lost to our hangovers, but we made it out to Domilise’s and ate po boys at the counter. There was a specific physical thrill to it, being back somewhere warm and damp, with salt air, low-slung buildings crumbling, all of those palm trees. Sprawl and spread. None of the vertical heft of the tied-tight northeast.
M flew back there, though, and K flew in, and she and I drove into sundown glares for days on end. The long line of the ten belting the bottom third of the country, hours and hours of undifferentiated highway under the wheels. I took a picture of myself in a store mirror in Austin wearing a silk blouse and cutoffs, my hair long and loose down my back. Shorts in December. We drove through a dust storm in west Texas, a handful of hours of tumbleweeds whipping at us out of the green-glowing darkness. In New Mexico we stayed with old friends who drove us out to a hot springs that runs out of the side of a mountain.
Every single minute of the trip was perfect, perfect. We didn’t wear our bathing suits under our clothes— I don’t remember why— and so we stood barefoot in the snow, hopping, stripping, briefly naked, and then when we were decent again we slid into the warmth of the water, watching the sun turn the mist in the air into fine soft gold. There was a little cave to crawl into, big enough for just one at a time.
When we got out again it was even colder, and we dried in a hurry, pulling our warm clothes on all over again. Jeans, boots, shapeless layers, a goofy hat. I don’t like practical clothes, as a rule. They make me feel shapeless myself. But my body had been cold and warm and cold and warm again. I wrapped myself up against the cut of the air. I knew where my skin was, underneath all of those layers. My body felt, for one, like a moving and useful thing.
Los Angeles and New Haven, back and forth forever.
So I’m in New York for the week. It’s weird. Or, I don’t know, it’s not weird, and that’s the weird part? I’ve spent so much of the last seven years back and forth between here and there that nothing is less surprising that the process of it: six hours in the air, the ground transport between, suitcases, never having packed the right thing. I walked to the subway yesterday listening to a mix I made freshman year, wondering if it was harder to be nostalgic for one place when I’m in the other. You just can’t imagine New York summer air when you’re in the desert, when it’s early in Santa Monica and you’re waiting for the marine layer to clear.
Maybe it’s this: I think about place so much that I imagine it’s essential, but then it turns out that it isn’t. I’m the same person all over the country. I could live wherever I wanted. I’m pretty good at being happy; the landscapes are different, not better than each other, not worse. There’s always nuance to discover and different kinds of sunlight to laboriously describe. Just because I don’t want to live in New York doesn’t mean I couldn’t. It’s strange to realize that it’s all just a matter of personal choice: what I want, what I like. Not what defines me, or even necessarily what I need.
Obviously, people have differing opinions. Every time you try to write about something larger than yourself and your experience, something as large as a city, which is mostly made-up anyway, you’re going to get things wrong. Or not wrong, exactly, because it isn’t objective, which is sort of the point.
I am doing a yoga teacher training. A couple of weeks ago we were sitting in the big room of the studio on a Friday night when there was an earthquake. The room stuttered, just slightly, the walls and the ceiling noisy when they moved. “Was that?” MK asked, and didn’t bother finishing the question, because yes, it was. We shrugged. We kept on talking about the sutras.
Spring here vacillates not just between sunny and rainy but between two different kinds of climates, the dry air of desert winter getting hot and huge so that it was ninety in the shade last week. Then it rained, and now everything is beachy again, covered over by a marine layer in the mornings. I had forgotten how gorgeous dry heat is, the way the air billows and swells, the way you can forget it against your skin until the breeze blows warm and it feels like clean sheets, maybe, scratchy and pleasantly foreign all around you.
I don’t know, everything is easy to make a joke about. Teacher training, the green juices everyone drinks for lunch, disaster weather and the relevant Didion quotes. I drive my car into the intersections when I’m waiting to make a left turn, because I’m impatient; the only person who has ever commented on this was a visiting New Yorker, who thought I was reckless and insane. Stories and stories and stories.
I’ve given up on convincing anyone else I’m right, and maybe that’s what bothers people so much about this place: it encourages a kind of living that isn’t interested in much outside of its own skin. If I were going to make generalizations, I might say that New York’s insistence is on the moral rectitude of ignoring physical discomfort and having a loud voice, that both modes work better when tempered by one another.
Later today I’ll go to a yoga class with a teacher I know, and she will encourage me to identify my thoughts as thoughts, to think them without being attached to them, to find a way to observe myself as a thinking thing. We’ll do some poses. If there’s something she wants me to explore more deeply she’ll use her hands to show me how.
On Sunday I was at this barbecue at a house in the hills in Echo Park and it was drizzling so everyone was making faces about it, including B, who had just flown in from New York. “You should be tougher than this,” someone said.
"It snowed last week,” he said. “I’m done being tough.” He’s moving back in just over a year; we walked around the property together, the yard and the porch and the deck overlooking a ravine, the steep sharp fall carpeted in what looked like nasturtiums, watching the sun set through the slits in the hills to the west. “People just live like this here,” he said, sweeping out a hand at it: space, sun, a pinata from somewhere south of here rigged up in one of the trees. “They just… do.”
They do; we do. I miss eastern spring a little bit, though, too. The day last year that I wore that stupid romper and drank rose on the train, brought N the season’s first asparagus, the curling tips of the scapes.
About the novel … the one in progress … :
E had a dream in which a man came up to her on the street and demanded to know if her work was influenced by William Gass. When she woke up, she tried to reconstruct her response but couldn’t. Instead she made a new list (not Gass but yes, CPK and…
I promised I would out her if & when she started using it, and, faithful daughter that I am, I’m following through. My mom has a blog! She is going to post things on it, and write about writing her novel! You should read it, mostly so that you can see that everything I think about process & place pretty much comes from her.
I’ve been back in Los Angeles for almost a month now; I haven’t been writing about it because there’s nothing to say about comfortable unemployment except that it is, you know, not unpleasant. Yesterday Darling picked me up and drove me around while he chatted with a framer about the pieces his brother had bought at Art Basel and then we had bacon and leek pizza at the bar at Pizzeria Mozza, a glass or two of white wine, brandini for dessert. “Do you think it’s so packed in here because it’s a holiday or because no one in Los Angeles has a real job?” he asked. “Yes,” I said.
The week before we went to see a high school classmate’s band play a show at the West Hollywood SoHo House; Darling’s black Lexus pulled up behind another black Lexus, behind a row of four black Priuses at the valet. It was still in that little cold snap, getting down towards freezing at night, but luckily their patio is enclosed: a balcony that runs all the way around the building with couches and chairs and little tables, heavy ashtrays. It’s on the top floor of the only tall building for miles, so that the city spreads out in front of you through the glass, vast and blurry and sparkling. I could see people’s leftover Christmas lights for blocks and blocks. Darling was driving so I took advantage and got drunk.
A thing I’ve been enjoying is Doing The Californians with people: the other night J and I were at Tom Bergin’s and I was bitching about having to drive to the Palisades for a party and we like, got into it, “I mean, it’ll take 30 minutes without traffic” “are you sure, I think you’ll have to take surface streets, Sunset can be” “no it’s like, off the PCH I think, I’ve been there before” “oh so just the 10 down from La Cienaga, that won’t be that bad” “as long as I’m right” “well sure.” My brother has this internship that requires him to run errands all over the city and he and my mother have strategy sessions after dinner sometimes, trying to figure out if there’s a better way to do whatever run he got stuck on that afternoon.
It’s not that traffic is always that terrible, though sometimes traffic is that terrible— I think it’s more to do with the fact that the city is huge and unmanageable, a complicated sprawl, and it’s the best way we have to say to one another: how well do you know it, what parts do you know intimately and which do you skip over, are you paying attention, do you love it, do you love the parts I love? I had breakfast with G and T the other morning, went to see G’s sister at the valley high school where she teaches after; we took a funny route back, the 170 to the 134 and through Griffith Park, all still winter brown and kind of scrubby, even though the sky was bright, deep blue. You pass through miles and miles of it on any given day, and it’s hard to talk about unless you understand what I’m saying when I say it: not the 101 but the 170 to the 134, through Burbank, skirting Forest Lawn, to where T and I had left our cars on Heliotrope near Fountain.
I’ve never had bad allergies before but my first weeks back were basically one long, shifting half-head cold: runny nose, stuffy nose, sinus headaches in rotation. “It’s the dryness,” my mother said, “you’ll get used to it again.” But I’d never had to get used to it again, coming back for winter break in college, even last year; I’ve been feeling some fundamental shift this time around, like I really left, three years ago, and now I’m not quite native anymore. But then I come barelling over the curved, rising interchange where the 405 meets the ten, driving east, heading home, and a song will come on the radio, crackling over the beat up sound system in my terrible car, and my whole body knows it: this ugly city full of rich, rich people, that you have to navigate alone in a car, that you have to know the tricks and shortcuts to make it across in one piece: it’s home, it’s home. Of course it is.
trying to fit boots into a suitcase, c. 2008
The night before I moved out of my junior year apartment for the summer I got drunk instead of packing. Not wasted or anything, but drunk enough that I came downstairs after black & tans at M and L’s and threw some things in a box and cried and set my alarm to wake me up early and then fell asleep on top of my covers in all of my clothes. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident but it wasn’t: I hate packing, and I put it off mercilessly, to the point where I am genuinely surprised that I’m not still in one of those apartments, surrounded by things that don’t quite fit in their boxes, insisting that it’s just going to take like five minutes so there’s no sense in starting now.
When I moved to New Haven for the second time I arrived to this very empty one bedroom, three echoing white rooms all mine. I signed up for Netflix and watched the entire first season of Party Down on an air mattress someone had lent me; I wanted to get drunk but it was Sunday and the liquor stores were closed. Instead I just stared out the window at the fine grey light and wondered how I was going to survive it, two whole years more.
My things are packed, mostly; tomorrow morning I’ll have to see what fits in the car and what I have to suck it up and ship. I thought I had jettisoned all of the excess when I moved from that one bedroom into my current sublet, selling off furniture and books, throwing away magazines and paper scraps and endless handfuls of sentimental nonsense. Despite all of this, I’ve still got somewhere between plenty and too much. It’s just too strange to sit in this room and look at it, dusty and mostly empty, to watch it turn back into a place that doesn’t look anything like home. That might be the hardest part, for me: going to sleep in a blank space, and waking up for the last time in a room I won’t recognize.
It’s gotten to be the point in the year when I can’t leave work early enough not to walk home in the dark; I thought I would mind this, when I first moved, because my new neighborhood is less nice than my old one was, but the walk is shorter now and it turns out that it’s hard to be anxious about something so familiar. If I sneak out a few minutes early I can catch the last bit of sunset, which is always cold and red and spectacular, and make up the work in the morning.
In less than a month I’m making the big move, the uprooting everything cross-country kind, which means that I spend a lot of time now deciding what I will and won’t miss about life in this particular part of the northeast. I won’t miss how it gets dark early, definitely, or mid-winter slush and ice and windburn and the rattle of radiators, steam on the inside of windows. I will miss trains, specifically the MetroNorth NHV-GCT, and the miserable scenery they provide, the kind that always makes me grateful to be inside and warm and moving quickly along.
I will miss living in New Haven, that’s for sure: a town where there is only one cobbler and he works quick and cheap and gives me attitude about how awful I am with my things, where there are two good bars and one unbelievable burger and where I know the owners of the restaurants and the waitstaff at the coffeeshops and the teenage daughter who does her homework behind the counter at Zachary’s Package Store. It’s very life-sized, New Haven, or sized nicely to my life, anyway. In half an hour I can walk from my apartment to my boyfriend’s; I can bike it faster, and I know how to navigate the series of one way streets in the middle.
Now when I walk home I inevitably get caught at the intersection of Whitney and Edwards, waiting to cross; I peer down the slope of Whitney’s hill, the rows of streetlights descending. Then I take Hillside down and it’s mostly dark until you get to Marsh at the bottom, the greenhouses brilliant, white-hot and well lit all winter long. I know the man who runs them; I could stop in and say hi, if that was what I wanted to do.