If you want to see California, you should take the 101. If you are tired of seeing things, take the 5. I got a late start, so I’m pushing 90 on the Grapevine when the golden hour hits. Hyper-saturated light enhances the heaviness of the burnt mountains; women tan in it on mud flaps. A cloud cover swells low and leeches blue out of the sky.
I was never afraid of earthquakes. In school, we had these drills where a siren would go off during class and the instructor told us we were experiencing an earthquake. We scrunched under our desks and did homework until we were dismissed onto the soccer field. Sometimes they would make one of us carry out an emergency toilet; sometimes a girl would pretend to shit in it and a teacher would pretend to care that we were making a mockery of disaster. The last big quake — a real one — was two decades ago, and I slept through it. Plaster shook off the walls and my parents’ objets d’art smashed into powder on the floor. My childhood home crumbled around me and I dozed.
The Grapevine is a circuitous central California truck route. It is a forty-mile corridor and all the doors are closed. I’m driving fast enough that when I slow for turns I experience the world pausing on its pivot: from the center lane, I can see cars pass into my rearview mirror and the reflections and the distance and the things facing away from me cancel each other out and I can’t tell what’s coming or going. The mountains are puppy soft, sloping from the road on one side to pucker in an inverted tent at Pyramid Lake. Man-made shores and motorboats circle under the grace of an afternoon sun.
Last night my high school had a birthday party. My visit to LA, situated in the middle of a move from Brooklyn to the Bay, coincided with the 125th anniversary of the esteemed all-girls preparatory school where I spent grades seven through twelve. Admission to the birthday cost between $89 and $25,000, depending on your age and if you wanted to sit near the headmistress. My mom paid for me. I was told there would be a cake in the shape of the school.
On the soccer field where I wasn’t afraid of earthquakes, attractive male cater-waiters passed canapés. Someone had set up heat lamps shaped like house lamps with cream shades the size of café tables, and an empty dance floor. Women laughed, and their faces were pearled like expensive kitchen knives.
I waved to a pre-calc teacher who is the subject of recurring anxiety dreams. She’s really nice IRL and I didn’t want to tell her that I often see her in my nightmares. Instead I said, “I kind of just moved to Oakland,” to her and a lot of people. I tried to explain that I didn’t live there yet. My hair was bleach damaged, so just before the move I cut it off and dyed it a cold brown, and I felt protected by this boringness, like I was allowed to speak slowly and occasionally trail off. “They say Oakland is the new Brooklyn,” said everyone.
I’m afraid of car crashes, but not afraid enough to slow down. I imagine gunning into the lake. The plan was to move into an apartment of my boyfriend’s friends, so he could come meet me in December. Before the birthday party, via email, he wrote to me “I no longer wish to be in a relationship at this time.” As though I was an independent contractor — my services are no longer needed. You can spend months over-analyzing a situation, trying to put the pieces together, justifying what could’ve, would’ve happened. Or you can just leave the pieces on the floor and move the fuck on. Tupac said that. I’m not afraid of driving alone.
I attended the party with an old and dear friend, who looked on patiently as I explained that I didn’t have a job, per se, but a lot of my old clients from New York were keeping their ears open for me. We were at the bar when she said, so kindly, “You know, I got one commercial gig and I tell everyone I’m an actress.” She said hello to everyone, her hair flooded the reception like popped champagne.
It wasn’t all bad. “I recognize you,” said a girl about whom Taylor Swift once wrote a revenge anthem, class of ’05. In the buffet line, drunk senior citizens scratched me with their engagement rings. They told me I was going the wrong direction even though I wasn’t. I took a double helping of salmon and explained to my ninth grade English teacher that I didn’t have a job, per se, but I’d been casting small resin decorative fountains in Brooklyn, and could maybe make a business of it.
Car culture means that rich people never have to interact with poor people, which is certainly distressing on a sociopolitical level — but another thing about this that interests me is that this means rich people are never forced to interact with culture. Struggling artists and urban youth are obliterated from the upper class day-to-day. The upper class’s experiences are purchased; they’re filtered, curated, and censored. The birthday party was rife with rich people who were gleefully uncool. Our host performed onstage magic tricks. A cinema-sized screen descended, and an alumna prodded her eighth-grade daughter into singing the alma mater for a pre-recorded set of interviews. The same alumna asserted with satisfaction that my high school taught her to be “Upright. Subversive, but always upright.”
My high school had the strongest science department in the country and an employee who made us raspberry lemonade and Madeleine cookies. I won an essay contest and my prize was a silver cup from Tiffany’s. During the alumna’s speech, I tugged at a hole in my darkwash jeans and recalled my apartment in New York that was set up like a cubicle with three-quarter walls, whose superintendent groped me, whose landlord was found burnt up in a Long Island dumpster. I was the only person on this soccer field who dropped out of college, probably including the cater waiters. When I tell people this—which isn’t often—there is usually a response involving my potential.
Growing up, we learned that we could have whatever we wanted if we listened and followed the rules. We never learned to want. I graduated and did the most rebellious thing I could do, the wrongest, most perverse thing. I rounded my eyes and smiled with my mouth closed and coquettishly shook my head, refusing my promising future like my promising future was a slice of birthday cake. No, thank you.
Stevie Wonder sang “Happy Birthday” to our school via video chat and we mingled over dessert. I thought about fucking the guy who gave me a free latte at Intelligentsia that afternoon. “I didn’t pay for this event,” my friend told me.
I’m struck with desire speeding along the 5, towards Oakland. My desire parallels but is not the same as ambition. Ambition is admirable, upright. Desire is an unorganized force; a natural disaster. It’s sick — like Pyramid Lake. Maybe the boats’ loops are supposed to connote leisure, but I see them as anxious. They pace the lake like tigers in cages at the zoo. This psychosis of containment, when the bars around you become clearer than the vision beyond them, it’s why I left. In New York it always felt like we were getting away with something. We built a metropolis and left our garbage on the street. We got high off battery acid coke in clean bar bathrooms, ignored homeless people, watched films about the city in which we lived and deemed them inaccurate. It was thrilling. And one day I was walking home from my job at the holistic yoga studio and I saw a toddler feed another toddler a cigarette butt off the sidewalk, or something trivial like that, and New York became a catwalk for the smallness of human power. The construction, the detachment. Why doesn’t anything stop us? I thought. And it struck me that we weren’t getting away with anything. The universe just didn’t care.
Between the breakup email and the birthday party, I spent a fair amount of time between places, on side streets, taking long routes that were not scenic and switching the radio every twenty seconds. I ended up in a craft market in Topanga, perusing racks of hundred-dollar tie-dye shawls. I flipped through a children’s book about divine unity while a dreadlocked man arranged eastern spices into a mandala. The booth next to me sold sage bundles and cloth bags of Palo Santo and little jars of floral smoking mix. A girl in a leather head-wrap elbowed past me and grabbed one.
She asked, “Can I use this like weed?”
“Yes,” the merchant smiled, “you smoke it, like tobacco.”
Los Angeles used to be my favorite place in the world to be stoned. So much neon flatness. James Turrell was born in Pasadena; in his work you can see freeways grinning under a white sun. I bought a jar.
The road gets flat southwest of Fresno. I stop for gas. The sky has turned neon on me, a lurid violet surge. The only clouds now are made of birds. I lean against my coup and watch the birds change direction en masse in a way that is both effortless and calculated.
The thing about loving someone who doesn’t love you is that you are always trying to hold hands with a fist. They keep punching your fingers, and like an idiot, you just keep your hand open.
I came home from the market and extracted vaguely fancy clothing from my moving boxes and put it on. I got in my car. I drove up the mountain behind my house and I sat at the top of Chautauqua, a street named after a lake in New York. I looked over the mouth of Santa Monica: apartment buildings and pools and palm trees. Blurred by smog, the streets glittered. I shook ugly little tears over the canyon.
By the time I’m back on the 5, the miles of arid farmlands that surround me are discharging thick sheets of dirt. They rise vertically like ghosts. The radio warns of a dust storm and then cuts out, and I surf planes of static, picking up a few seconds of song before drifting away from it again.
Waves of dust roll across the road and slam into my car so it shakes. I hunch forward and squeeze the wheel. The sky is entirely brown now. Tumbleweeds get stuck in the grill of my car and I can’t see far enough to pull over.
In my new life, in Oakland, I am prepared to pursue a full schedule of things that make me happy and push me forward in life. I’m prepared to be modest. I expect to ask for approval where I cannot ask for respect. I am prepared, once I’m settled, to put my schedule aside: to dress seductively and to sum up my life in terms of selling points while I am actually missing it, my life, I mean, to offer myself to strange dudes, raging and interested. I am ready to engage in frottage on loft beds. When life offers me a man with cum-stained jeans and opinions on body hair at a dive bar by the bridge, I will Say Yes To Life.
I’m forty-five miles from the next exit when the wind smoothes out. It’s still blowing, hard and fast, but it’s changed direction. I heard once somewhere there’s no point in opening a door if you don’t walk through it. You can’t stay where you are and just look at the open gate.
In my apartment, where I’ll live alone, I’ll run a bath. I’ll dump in the contents of my herbal smoking blend. I’ll crouch in the tub, waiting for the water to cool before I sit down completely. By then the flowers are slippery; calendulas float in mysterious orbits. The mugwort will cling and suppurate. I’ll try to relax, breathe the sweet steam, peel petals off my stomach like scabs. I’ll take an additional shower. I’ll try to erase the flora from my body but I will be pink and wrinkled so that I feel like a papery bloom when I stand in front of the mirror. I’ll open a puckered hand and wave at myself.
I’m afraid, but not enough to turn around.