Jun 25, 2012
I’ve been traveling. Or at least this is what I tell people. The truth is that when we arrive at LA neither of us feels different or amazed in the way you feel different and amazed to discover yourself someplace entirely new. The air is warmer and heavier than it was in the place we left; in England there was a summer wind, blowing big clouds across a narrow sky, whipping my freshly-washed hair around my face. But we have a history here – if not here specifically then here generally, in this part of the world – and the pleasantness of familiarity borders on mundanity. We take a shuttle to the Hilton and check in. Everyone is cheerful, and the mirrored elevator whisks us up a dozen floors. Our room looks out over a parking lot. Anonymous lights flicker and blink in the distance. We’re in a no-man’s-land. Hard to believe this place ever had any other purpose, though it must have, once. We fall asleep with the TV on – a film with Russell Crowe, I think, or someone like him, playing a cop in 1970s America. He’s yelling at a junkie in an ambulance when I nod off.
We wake very early; no spectacular sunrise, just a dark grey that lightens as the invisible sun moves behind a curtain of June clouds. I ride the elevator to the pool. There are two men splashily attempting laps as I swipe my card and enter the gates, but they soon leave and I have the place to myself. The pool is shallow, and so small that within six strokes I can cross it lengthways. But the water is warm, and the air outside is cool and the overall sensation is soothing.
Orange County is a source of perpetual amazement. In Garden Grove, Anaheim, Santa Ana, I think: people made it this way. But how would you ever know that it was people and not robots, that it was meant for human inhabitants, that it was deliberate at all? Do you see any humans? Do you see anything that’s human-sized? No. You see the drive-thru ATM, the drive-thru coffee shop, the strip malls, the six-lane streets, the parking lots. Even the Crystal Cathedral, with its garish screen announcing services and its spires pricking a white sky, is too big, meant I suppose to contain multitudes but destined, I fear, to look comically (or tragically) like a cartoon version of itself. Where they exist, the sidewalks are hot and narrow, stained by chewing gum and spilled McFlurries, interrupted every few feet by curb cuts. We pass hamburger joints, hospitals, hotels. Nothing seems particularly busy, but there are always cars pulling in and out and people must be inside the cars, compelled to keep moving by some obscure motive or other – errands, lunch breaks, breakdowns. There are people behind counters and cash registers, taking money, making money. We repeatedly seek respite in the old part of Orange, where antique shops and cafés and wide shady spaces make us feel welcome, even a little nostalgic. I fall briefly and irrationally in love with a vintage 1940s swimsuit, made of thick navy blue wool with red straps, “a really rare piece,” the girl in the shop tells me, smiling encouragingly but understandingly; it belongs in a film, or a frame. So I pretend that if I had lots of money, or even any money, this is the sort of thing I would impulsively spend $250 on.
I watch episodes of Friday Night Lights and feel nostalgic for small town Texas, even though I’ve never set foot in Texas, even though I’ve never been to a high school football game. My high school mascot was the earwig, which inspired very little spirit in anyone, and all the boys played lacrosse, although certainly not well enough to be state champions. People weren’t really from there, anyway: it was mostly a boarding school, and everyone scattered at the end of each year to go home or to college. I flip through old yearbooks; I note that in my senior year, I was voted ‘most likely to succeed’, alongside a male counterpart. As I was never sure, and still am not sure, what it is I’m supposed to succeed at, I doubt I’ve lived up to the challenge yet. (My primary achievement so far, apart from moving far away and finding somebody who continues to love me even though I never put the bread back in the bread bin, seems to be writing a book centered largely around the idea of changing definitions of success). The boy voted most likely to succeed now, I believe, works in finance, which sounds much more like something approaching success, particularly if success involves being able to pay your rent on time.
I revisit the valley where I went to school. The uncertainty of my relationship with the place now is based on the understanding that I know almost no one here anymore: there’s little chance of a chance encounter, one of those movie scenes where you’re standing at the counter picking up your mother’s prescription and someone taps you on the shoulder and says ‘oh my god, I can’t believe it’s you!’. I keep thinking about how different everything is – none of the places that used to be here are here anymore – but at the same time nothing’s really different. It’s not the same salon, but it’s the same old story, or a version of it – this time it’s the hairdresser’s husband, not the hairdresser herself, who was born and raised here.
I drive home, listening to a mix CD I must have made in high school – Jimi Hendrix juxtaposed with Dashboard Confessional. I always did like to be contrary. The sights are familiar and so are the sounds. I turn the volume up, blaring Weezer like I’m 17 and pissed off at nothing in particular but nevertheless enjoying the freedom and the speed and the inherent understanding that all the big decisions are still somewhere on the horizon, not yet made.
As it happens I’m not pissed off at anything and am feeling pretty mellow, driving slower than I used to, pulling over to take bad photos with a borrowed cell phone, momentarily at peace with the big decisions that have already been made. But I still remember the time I hit the squirrel on this stretch of road and the time we discovered that the cows had escaped their pasture on that stretch of road. I’ve been thinking a lot about memory lately and I wonder why these are things I remember particularly.