This morning when I was driving Vera to school I rolled down the windows to let in the morning air. It’s spring in Los Angeles right now, which may not seem real to people in places who go through real winter, but it’s spring nonetheless. The trees and shrubs are bursting with blossoms, the light doesn’t edge out of the sky until past Vera’s bedtime, and the air in the morning shines with the silvery promise of a warm day ahead.
I used to visit California as a child. We’d come out once or twice a year to visit my grandmother and my aunt who lived on wide palm-lined boulevards in the sprawling subdivisions that make up Orange County, about an hour south of Los Angeles. What I remember most from those visits are my grandmother’s hands, the lines around her mouth, and the way she laughed. I remember my aunt’s avocado green couch that I slept on, her patio thick with bougainvillea, and our trips to Laguna Beach where I would walk along the cliffs with my mother, both of us lifting our faces to the cool salt air.
When I was in middle school and living in Florida I used to write stories about girls who ran away to California. We lived near the water then, and in my stories the girls always set out across the sea, hitchhiking from boat to boat. In my head California was on the other side of the ocean, instead of miles and miles away across flat plains of prairie land that I would eventually have to drive in order to finally get there.
In my early teenage years I used to dream about moving to Los Angeles one day. I would go to UCLA I decided, and I would live by the beach and I would wear a lot of white and pink, and I’d have a million pairs of sunglasses and date a surfer. But as my teenage years waned, so did my desire for the West Coast. Instead I began to feel a pull to the northeast, to cold and darkness, to small crowded towns, and cities. I forgot all about California and by the time I was nineteen I had landed myself in Manhattan where the buildings around me were so tall that it was sometimes hard to find the sky.
At the same time my father found himself drawn back to the west coast, to those same palm-lined boulevards we had visited so often in my childhood. His sister and his mother were long gone, but he made a home for himself there anyway and when he grew too sick to travel anymore I flew to visit him every few months, reaquainting myself with those old, familiar places. We took long drives, down the coast, through Laguna Niguel and San Juan Capistrano, and deeper towards Mexico where the edges of the continent grew more jagged and alluring.
We rolled down the windows and let in that silvery air and my father told stories and I stared out at the water lapping against the ends of the earth.
After a while it became difficult to return to New York, to go back to the darkness and the smoke stacks, the crowded buildings and tunnels. I missed the air and the light, the promise of something new.
I began to remember what it was that had made me want to run away here all those years earlier.
Now I’ve spent a total of seven years living in California. I’m used to it in a lot of ways. The strange plants and spindly palm trees, the flowers dripping down from every wall, the ocean mist and hazy fog, it’s become part of my landscape, in a deep, internal way.
But every once in a while, like this morning on the way to take Vera to school, I remember to roll down the windows and let in the cool, shimmering morning air. And when I do and when it hits me just right, then sometimes I remember those first impressions of this place, those first early yearnings to disappear into it all, to claim it as my own, to know it as my home, my forever here.