oh hey great
Swimming in the Darkness
There is nothing much to do in a small town except get in trouble, or at least do things that are inevitably going to head in that direction. “That’s not true,” parents will say, especially when the small town is a tiny jewel of a resort up in the Colorado high country. “You could go skiing. Or mountain biking. We live in a beautiful place, and you’re very lucky.”
Some nights we were very lucky indeed. The night someone had gotten his hands on a completely full keg, for example. It was full of Keystone, but this didn’t dim our enthusiasm by any considerable margin. We hoisted it into Diana Fairfield’s Vanagon, where it tumbled around for a few bumpy miles, along with four un-seatbelted teenagers and a number of mismatched socks.
The dirt road that ran along the creek was as familiar to any of us as the streets in Old Town that had proper street names like 11th and 12th, as well as the winding roads up around the mountain that were called things like Après Ski Way, Val d’Isere Circle, Ski Trail Lane. The straight stretch of the dirt road went by a house or two, small and tucked just inside the trees, with half-finished woodworking projects jutting out from under blue tarps. Then up and off into the woods, but not before it curved around the reservoir.
Diana drove the Vanagon up to the farthest point on the road before it dipped back down toward the creek, at the peak above the reservoir. One of the boys with us flung open the sliding door and another car careened up behind us; four more boys piled out.
On the far side of the reservoir, the rope swing dangled high above the water’s still surface. After an awkward, multiple-point turn, Diana angled the Vanagon’s lights in a vague gesture toward the far shore. The other car’s driver did the same. Four beams of light, two sets, crossed somewhere in an approximation of the swing and its trajectory. The boys from the other car set off, swimming in the darkness.
I was a terrible swimmer and had been all my life. More than a terrible swimmer, I’d developed a fear of the water that would get exponentially worse in a gym class scuba lesson. The purpose of this lesson eluded me at over 5000 feet above sea level, but it was mandatory and the embarrassment it served was the death knell for deep water. I had never jumped off the swing but had eyed it as it listed in the summer breeze, had thought about it, had wondered what it would be like to launch myself from it and soar into the dappled reservoir water.
Somewhere along the way — maybe a story someone told me or something I’d made up to terrify myself —I’d heard there were twisted metal rods in the reservoir that stuck up from the floor and out from the sloping sides. If you swung wrong, didn’t dive properly, canonballed down in the night, anything was possible.
As the boys jumped, hollering and splashing, a jolt of jolly fear set in to the Vanagon crew. Someone might hear us, and we were the ones with the keg. Back in we piled, into the hull, and with the side door still open Diana swung the Vanagon forward down toward the dirt road’s exit. We all screamed, half in earnest, and held on to handles with one hand, keg with the other. An itinerant sock flew out.
An arm swung the door closed, and as we drove away I could hear one final splash. I turned to look, and as he sank into the dark water I imagined him, pinned forever to the bottom, waving goodbye.
(cross-posted from Medium)
In fall the light here is perfect, more perfect than the rest of the year. A big arch of a glow, a deep amber California honey. That’s one of our seasons, anyway: perfect light season, mostly quite pleasant season, rainy season, damp and cold to your bones season, fire season, foggy season. They last as long as they last.
Summer, depending on which side of the bay we live and how we define summer, can be a series of stitched together weekends when temperatures rise. Or it can be the better part of the year found outside the traditional summer months, a parade of sunny, warm-but-not-hot days. The fog can gobble up the bay in summer too, as it clambers down from the ocean and swirls around us faster than we can pull on our jackets, faster sometimes even than we can run. “We have summer,” Nothern Californians will tell you. “But if you come during our summer, remember to bring a coat and a hat.” We can always tell the tourists in June by their brand-new bright blue San Francisco sweatshirts, found only in Union Square.
Summer aside, and the way the Berkeley Hills sparkle in May, and how rich and green the whole world looks here when it rains, it’s fall — Indian summer, really — that turns Northern California into the place people dream about.
To leave in October is to take a chance. In the good years, which are most of them, there will be plenty of other warm glows. Maybe too many, as brows furrow, lawns dry, and neighbors fret to one another across fences and in coffee shops of a serious drought. But there are those years when we’ll wait in the damp for glorious weather weekends and keep September on the horizon. Everyone knows the good years far outnumber the others, and no one ever remembers the others, or wants to hear about them.
I left for a week, smack in the center of October. I got on a plane and I flew to New York, which as every single person you know will tell you, is perfect in fall. More perfect than here. “Get ready to fall in love!” they’ll say.
I didn’t realize they were serious about that last part.
(cross-posted from Medium)
“If you could choose any of them, who would it be?” my mother asked from across the table. She tossed the dog a piece of cracker smeared with cream cheese. I looked off to the side as if I were considering the question and my response to it but I knew the answer before the dog’s jaws closed with a satisfying snap. I tapped the table with my finger. My mother looked down, patted the dog’s head, told him he was the very best dog in the whole wide world. I tried to look as if I were considering all the options rather than being anticipatorily embarrassed at what my response meant, given all the explaining I’d have to do to.
“Oh, is he on the phone to Dave?” I asked of my father whose voice boomed from a distant room, nonchalantly changing the subject. “How’s the baby?” My mother launched immediately into the latest news and off we went. In the back of my mind I could see her question like a neon sign, lighting up one letter at a time. She got up to pop open a can of Friskies for a rain-soaked cat. Little footprints blossomed like mud flowers across the floor.
I don’t know why I wouldn’t tell her. It wouldn’t have mattered. I could have chosen any of them, really. They were all more or less equally unavailable and had all more or less equally thrown themselves at me, in the manner they knew best. They’d also been equally stupid, more or less, in the various ways men can be stupid, although one was perhaps more pyrotechnically stupid than the others. What made him different, aside from his particular flair for the dramatic, was me. Unlike with the rest, I was as close to myself as I’ve ever been. Better, I didn’t want to be him.
The rest were a varied crew. No rhyme or reason, no physical type. Writers, bankers, engineers, musicians. Gabriel had the sort of beauty that turned all the heads when we walked into the room, though not my way. Max wrote with such authority — he did everything with it. Robert’s encyclopedic knowledge and ease with phrasing got me to give poetry a tumble, and Scott was, in fact, the biggest dick in the theoretical room. Who knows, maybe some type of love is wanting to be the other person, wanting to have what they possess by possessing them. Or it could be just the same sad story of thinking someone else has the magnificent quality you wish you had, because god forbid you outshine him.
Jack was different. Maybe I was, finally. He was handsome, deeply intelligent, successful, talented. But these things were his. I had mine. It was weird to make that distinction so suddenly and so deftly. This time I didn’t want to possess him. I didn’t want something he couldn’t give me, like all the others, those things I wished I could be. Instead I wanted to make a family with him. I mean, not have children necessarily, but do what family is supposed to do: care for you, understand you, not understand you, be there for you, get irritated with you, fight with you, love you anyway. But then as it turned out all this was something he couldn’t give me, so that was all there was to it. For the most part. Then there was just letting it go, which I did, aside from the neon sign, and the answer no one much cared to hear.
(cross-posted from Medium)
Blue Sky Days
It’s not the heat, it’s the thirst that breaks you
There is nothing I can say about a drought that hasn’t been said by better, smarter writers, or by women who have been around far longer than I.
But I do know this. Whatever you’re writing is worth putting aside, at least for the night, when the drought breaks. I stood in the darkness of my doorway and reached my arms out into whatever came down. It wasn’t a downpour. It was barely even rain. But it was enough to make a person thirstier than during the strange dry lull of what seemed like an eternal summer-winter. It smelled like heaven. It felt like a promise.
Sometimes that’s all you need.
(cross-posted from Medium)
surprising how marvelous the tiniest bit of rain feels
Reflections of You and Me
I had been with him for almost three years, maybe two and a half if you counted the two major breakups and the the multiple smaller ones, when my mother got fed up. She was in my bedroom when she heard us at the door, him quietly bullying and me quietly crumbling. Suddenly my living room was the O.K. Corral and she was standing there like Doc Holliday, guns blazing. She ordered him to sit on the couch and he shrank into the brown microfiber cushions as if he could become part of the furniture.
Her anger — a bit of which was directed my way too, and rightly so — gave me the strength I lacked to finally break it off once and for all. But better was what she told me, shaking her head and sighing.
“People aren’t mirrors to reflect you back at yourself, Leah. That’s not what love is. Flawed as he is, screwed up as his perspective might be, it’s his. He’s got his own wants and needs, just like you do. He’s not something you can project your own image onto, and neither are you. You both have to see each other as people, and I don’t think either of you can.”
It’s very hard to see our own selfishness. Of course it is. That’s part of the gig, right? You can be selfish because you just have no idea, or if you do have an idea you’re able to ignore it or push past it. The other person will certainly want what you want, need what you need, think what you think. How could any reasonable person not? And if they don’t, well, god it feels so good to get what you didn’t realize you were missing.
I think about the people I’ve met, my ex and others, imagine them as beautiful mirrors with little arms and legs, and me projecting all my own desires onto them. I know too how it feels, to be so shiny.
Sometimes I think about that ex, try to think about what it would be like to go back in time and understand him better, get a grip on his interiority in whatever weird — because I mean knowing him, it probably was weird — form it took. But I can’t do it, can’t imagine it. He had to be my mirror to eventually reflect the worst of me back at myself. Otherwise how could I see my inability to grasp the depth and meaning of someone else’s desires and fears, including the terrifying desire to be loved and treasured as a person, flaws and all.
(cross-posted from Medium)
The first place that ever felt like home to me was a place I lived for six months. Not the apartment itself. That was sort of a shithole, right on 7th between 2nd and 3rd, and my bedroom was immediately next to the front door buzzer and directly in front of the garbage cans that had no lids on them. The nights I was home I could lie in bed and listen to rats rustling around in the cans, or beer drinkers from Burp Castle and McSorley’s vomiting on the stoop. The nights I came home from my shifts as a bartender I could watch rats crisscrossing the streets, running into countless basements, taking particular interest in ours, which we later learned was where the super was storing years’ worth of recycling rather than actually recycling it.
No, I loved the city, as much as I was the wrong person for it at the time. I still do. When I visit, I feel at home in a way I don’t feel anywhere else. At least not the place I grew up, not the places I’ve lived, not the places I’ve visited, not anywhere.
The second place that felt like home was a city that took me by surprise. It takes everyone else by surprise too when I tell them not only did I not hate it, I actually had a wonderful two years there. I loved both apartments I lived in, the second more than the first, but again it was the city, with its warm spring nights that smelled of honeysuckle and the unavoidable — if you were willing to engage — realities of living in a city so deeply divided along racial and socioeconomic lines. I didn’t take the city at face value and the closest I got to the government was working as a bartender across from the Treasury, quitting in order to finish my thesis about cyborgs.
I had no expectations of the place and so I dug beneath the surface and made it my home, took the time to become less the wrong person than I had been before.
The third place that felt like home was a condo in a city I hated. Almost everything about the city — or the county — felt wrong, at sharp angles that pointed into and away from me. I was the squarest peg in the roundest, sun-shaped hole. But as soon as I stepped into that condo and shut the door behind me against the awful woman who lived downstairs, it was like being in a serene oasis, complete with an occasional ocean breeze. There was a window in one of the bedrooms where light streamed in, and during the times I didn’t have a roommate I sat in that window and made it window.
Armed with nothing more than a camera and the light, that window in that condo helped teach me how to feel comfortable in my skin, to be at home in myself.
The fourth place that felt like home was a sprawling city that I never lived in but escaped to. I pieced it together, on occasional weekday and weekend trips. I drove it from end to end. I never saw everything there I wanted to, so I go back, when I can. It is warm, and beautiful, and ugly, and it is both exactly what you expect and everything you might not imagine. Still I can’t figure out how it makes me feel at home, but it does, in its familiarity, comfort and ease.
The fifth place that felt like home was a person. And then he didn’t feel like home anymore.
I haven’t visited the town where I grew up in nearly 15 years. The last time I saw the city of my birth was 10, 11 years ago, and only for a day. I’ve called one state “home” for the better part of 20 years, and for some time now my parents have too. Yet I still wonder exactly what home is, and what it means. It could be one of these things — the way I feel, the way a place feels, the way a house feels, the way someone else feels — or it could be all of them, and something else too.
I own a house now. Last I got the keys and walked through it, simultaneously luxuriating in the space and ticking off the things that need to happen next. The house is small but full of light. It has good windows. It’s in a place where I can, more or less, dig under the surface. Maybe it’s home, too.
Both Sides Now
The apartment we rented turned out to be in a tiny mountain village many kilometers through narrow hillside roads from almost any restaurant or market. The main walkway in the village was under construction, with workers just outside the apartment every day, first thing in the morning, including on Sunday. The other main attraction in town, the old church, was closed for repair. The bed was lumpy; the bathroom was a sink, a toilet, and a shower head, all in a single, small room, with no curtain or tub or divider; the garden out front was less hospitable than the photos led us to believe. And from up high on the hill just above the village, the large church bell rang out every hour, on the hour, from early in the morning until dark.
Yet there we were, grinning like fools in a medieval village in Liguria, so tiny you can barely find it on a map. An arbor of grape vines ran over the front door, so really — how bad could any of it be?
He’d been to Cinque Terre once before by himself and had fallen in love with it, even though it was seething with tourists in the sweltering heat of late summer. “I want to take you,” he said, only months into our new relationship, “but let’s wait until September.”
Over a decade before I’d found myself in Paris with the very wrong person, but this one seemed like the very right one. And anyway, of course I said yes. Who says no to Italy?
We talked about it after and thought maybe, had we known, we’d have picked a place a little closer to the water, or perhaps not quite so close to the church bell. This little apartment, as funny as it was, did have its benefits. Had we not been in Anunziata, we’d never have driven on tiny narrow streets into the hills just to see where we’d end up. Sure, we’d have made it to Lucca on a gorgeous rainy day, and then back again in the sunshine because we loved it so much. Of course we would have wandered through the alleys Siena, taking a break to sit in the Piazza del Campo and watch families from Italy and beyond wander by clutching cones. We’d certainly have made it to San Gimignano, even if it took longer than we realized and we got there sort of later in the day than we meant to.
But driving from Anunziata, a skill he mastered quickly in the tiny Fiat 500, meant we could see Ortonovo, a comune high atop a hill at the foot of the Apuan Alps, overlooking the Ligurian Sea. Or meander through the mountains down and around Carrara. Carrara is most famous for its marble, and roads are lined with slabs of it alongside sculptures of varying quality — altho none quite rivaling those of Michelangelo, whose marble was quarried for him, including the marble for David. The marble quarriesare in the mountains that surround the town, which includes Monte Sagro. Gray and white mountains, looming high above, some made almost entirely of marble: imagine the coolness of a marble counter swirling around you as the breeze, blowing off the mountain itself. Marble made into mist.
Had we stayed closer to Cinque Terre, certainly we’d have found what we discovered there, which was both the worst gelato I’d had in my life and then, in short order, the most sublime. We’d have found our way through twisting streets, seen laundry drying in the slanting rays of the sun, watched the sun dissolve into countless diamonds scattered across the ocean. We’d have discovered Ligurian trofie al pesto, the pesto alla genovese made of basil that tastes unlike basil anywhere else on earth, growing as it does on the hills of Cinque Terre above the Ligurian sea. We’d have had, in other words, a perfectly marvelous vacation in Italy.
Had we known, maybe we’d have done it differently. Any of it, all of it. Who knows how it might have turned out. But at least for one week, we got to come home to this.
(cross-posted from Medium)
Light, Love, and Los Angeles
Ten years ago, I had been living in Orange County for just over six months. Costa Mesa, to be precise, even though I was going to school at UC Irvine. I would live there another five years. I never loved it, and at times I hated it. The first time I ever visited UC Irvine, before I accepted the university’s offer and enrolled as a PhD student, I burst into tears as the plane landed. I don’t think I ever got over that immediate, visceral reaction to the feeling of being exiled to an unfamiliar land, cast off into an exurban blightscape. I’d never lived in the suburbs, let alone the strange continuous megalopolis of centerless suburban cities that stretches from Seal Beach to Coto de Caza, Buena Park to Mission Viejo, Brea to San Clemente.
Although, to be fair, it’s not like it was truly exile: Have you seen Laguna Beach?
Many, and maybe most, of you have never really been to Orange County—even those of you who have spent any time living in Los Angeles—and it’s unlikely you’ll ever go, because why would you? Everything you need to know about Orange County you learned on TV, and plenty of that isn’t exactly off the mark. There are unappealing housewives and there are banana stands, and there are appallingly rich people who behave in appallingly awful ways. There are also not-at-all-rich people whose behavior is legendarily terrifying and bad, all manner of everything else that makes people say with a visible cringe “Oh, yes. OC. I can’t believe you survived five and a half years there!”
But I did. I found plenty to hate about Orange County. Sometimes I still like to read Gustavo Arrellano’s 50 Reasons Why Orange County Is The Worst Effing Place In America (and I encourage you to read it too). Yet despite myself, like Gustavo and the OC Weekly crew I found things to love too. Maybe not as many, and certainly not anything that could have gotten me to stay there.
What do I miss most about Orange County? There’s the warmth and the light (and I miss those most of all), but alongside those: The food and the proximity to LA. OC has the best sushi I’ve ever eaten in my life, and so many izakaya. Amazing Vietnamese food. Southern California’s tacos are better than Northern California’s, end of argument. Even more than that: During my time in OC, I cooked and baked more than I ever have in my life, and I discovered photography when I lived in a condo that was full of light. I spent a lot of time outside, and whenever I could I escaped to LA, where I learned to explore that giant city bit by bit.
Being in LA this past weekend for the first time since 2011 reminded me how much I love Southern California, and how wonderful LA is. It also reminded me how the air can be warm in a particular way, about the quality of the light that creates a perfect glow while also defining the shadows, about wanting to explore little by little. So here we go: words, images, tastes, sounds. A year of Wednesdays.
(originally posted on Medium.)
A gift for @darth:
send the photos to @ohheygreat obvs