I drove around my old neighborhood, the one my parents had lived in when I was a teenager and which I now had to drive through in order to reach the place where I was staying, and I marveled at my decades-long failure to leave the orbit of the place. An orbit, I thought, is what it was: a circling yoked with gravity. It was exactly like that, I thought. As if the place exerted some invisible force that kept me coming back. Locked in the pull of those streets of dingbats and dilapidated signage and invasive, Australian trees, the eucalyptus which gave the neighborhood its character and always shed large branches and swaths of bark whenever there was wind.
They measured gravity as a wave, I remember, they measured with lasers a wave from two black holes running into each other.
We are always standing on a wave between the single universe of the past and the many of the unlived future. The possibilities are always falling off like petals, they are always constantly dying into the one. I recall a line of poetry from somewhere as I drive. The One remains, the many change and pass. Or something. Life, like a dome of many-colored glass. When I roll the window down at a light there’s the loud sound of frogs croaking in a cement walled creek that runs somewhere beneath the road. The air conditioner hums and when the traffic light changes I drive off again, into the low and flat exurb where now I live. The signs I’d see there were the ones you saw on road trips. High and lonesome and common: they belonged to fast food places and gas stations, they glowed mildly across the dark, empty universe.
I was going home to reconstruct a memory, which would become a written story, which would become one day part of a film, and so on. I was going home to watch Buzzfeed videos about people who had figured out things I hadn’t, drink six shots of vodka and fall asleep. I was going home to look at old pictures of myself and picture my exes and be sad. I was going home to kill myself. The future was always coming and always falling apart minute by minute, peeling off into the single thing which it would turn out to have been.
There’s a mountain range near where I was. If you looked from that neighborhood to the north or the east it was all you could see. At night it would appear as a towering and inviting soft darkness, in the daytime the foothills would be like green folds of a towel and behind them the sometimes snowy rocks of the further peaks, hazy and abiding and mysterious. From the valley below I used to go on adventures driving up into those mountains. They called to us when we were teenagers, in those years when we had cars or friends with cars but no houses of our own. At night when nothing was open except for bars, when there were no house parties or anything we used to drive up into the mountains, heed the urging of all that velvety blackness, the song of altitude and the unknown. We’d put on our music and it would be loud over the wind in the rolled down windows when somebody smoked. We’d climb along the winding and imperious roads, Big and Little Tujunga Canyon, Angeles Crest Highway, Angeles Forest Highway. They would take us up out of the flat sameness of our neighborhoods below, and we would be able to stop on turnouts and with the car’s engine ticking softly behind us gaze out over the twinkling grids of the place we’d left behind, marvel at how small, how far and pretty and insubstantial it appeared. And the only sounds would be the turned-down music from the car, the distant racket of cicadas, and our voices. Sometimes it would be just me and Alice, and we would look in wonder briefly at the world from which we’d risen, and then we’d share a cigarette and then go in the car and there would be music and we’d start making out and then move to the passenger seat or the backseat. Whenever there was a pair of headlights on the road we’d duck and sometimes for an instant we’d be wholly visible to each other, bodies we’d unclothed in the dark open to their beams and I remember her smile then, the half laugh when like a Kilroy I’d rise to the level of the side window and we would go on.
Other times there’d be a whole group, me and Alice and her friends Joey and Stella, or else Billy and Christina and Tristan, or me and Alice and Greg, her ex, who I think cheated on her with Stella. And once, I remember, he was trying to get Stella to take her clothes off and he’d already proposed we stop the car and play strip poker or spin the bottle and everyone vetoed it so he just got drunk and took off all his own clothes in the back seat. He and Alice had been in a band together, though I don’t know if they ever played any shows, but he did talk constantly about genres of music and where various bands belonged… I called him the Linnaeus of Bands, once, and he got the joke and laughed really hard, and Alice rolled her eyes at me like she usually did, and only snuck a smile under her lids when she was done rolling her eyes. Then Greg said he’d compose a great chain of bands, like the Great Chain of Being, only that was the Neoplatonists, not Linnaeus.
“It’s going be the world’s greatest Wikipedia article and it will be my legacy to future generations,” he said. In the rearview, I saw him swig from a plastic vodka bottle. He was not wearing a seatbelt but straddling the center, and I remember I made him put a seatbelt on and it was more important to me that he wear a seatbelt than put his clothes back on. I actually said I was going to stop the car, like a dad in a sitcom.
The mountains were always coaxing us to explore. The roads wild and with things by their sides like abandoned gold mining forts and half sunk wagon wheels and trees of otherworldly size. Like with so much else we would keep going further. Alice’s friends would graduate, and they would keep meeting new people, be on famous blogs, have threesomes, meet their idols, try heroin, and get engaged. And if, as I always half ashamedly thought, sex was the denouement or concluding epigraph to the novel of childhood, the awaited solace in the sense of an ending, then love and independence were at the climax of youth, love the awaited, coming through to make up for the shock of yet another ending. And what was at the end of it all, on the other side of all the abortive strip poker games and nights of drinking and plans and threesomes and mildly regrettable drugs?
If you kept going on any of those canyon roads that traversed the San Gabriels you would find yourself on the other slope, looking down only at hundreds and hundreds of miles of desert. Once or twice I did drive all the way to the end of the Angeles Forrest and Angeles Crest highways. I was alone and I remember stopping on a turnout and the desert spreading out tan and dry and unending, the land finally blueing and blurring into haze among some far away ghosts of other mountains. I was at the end of the road that had called me to adventure and all I saw was the dead shrub and tumbleweed of the Mojave, a few squat buildings and the grids of a sad, low lying town, tiny, white hyphens of trucks. At the same time I sometimes think that in life the sweetest promises of adolescence led to an adulthood as barren as that desert.
At the end of all the experimenting there was addiction and 12-step programs; at the end of all the meetings with idols there was the disappointment of internships and graduate degrees that arrived with laughable, otherworldly bills. Greg, who I was still friends with on Facebook, shared a post of someone who’d gone to his college and graduated, and she said it was a third of a million dollars, more than her entire family made in two years. You leave the bracing, interesting mountains for the brute and open facts of the desert. You leave college for a world in which no one reads your resume and you stay in the fashionable hip neighborhoods until you get evicted or can no longer bear the number of roommates you’re obliged to have in order to afford to live there. At the end of sex, we’re told, is a family or else loneliness. You have children and pin your hopes on them as you grow old.
I parked on the last rise of the foothills, overlooking a great dry wash and the gray tabletop of the high desert and there was a bird moving silently high above, the air was still and hot and different from the air in the mountains. I thought about Alice and then I thought about life and how it was all such a mystery to me.
I got back in the car and turned the A/C on and turned around, and that’s where the metaphor ends, I guess. Of course if I wanted to keep on drawing conclusions about the substance of life from the accidents of its description I’d have to note that those weren’t the only mountains. There were other mountains, too, if we drove west southwest instead of north from our neighborhood we would go up likewise into the inviting folds of a canyon with smooth, black roads. And at the end of these other, more frequent mountain adventures the highway ended not at a desert but at a very good Thai restaurant, a beach community where old hippies lived next to middle-aged celebrities and executives who drove Teslas. There were stands of tall sycamore and eucalyptus trees, a salty, sea-moistened wind and at night the drift of fog faintly reflecting the lights of the city.
At the end of the experimenting there didn’t have to be an austerity of life, painful addiction and 12-step programs and vast college debt and settling with a disappointing job and renting a string of sad apartments whose utter lack of the hip aesthetic your generation demands seems like overt punishment for failing to join the one percent. There didn’t have to be disappointing children on which to pin your futile hopes as you got old. In other words, I thought, I didn’t have to just become the downgraded, post-neoliberal version of my parents. But what haunted me was the fear that mere refusal wouldn’t be enough. It was like how, in the story of Oedipus, or of Jason, or any of the ones where a King tries to escape a prophecy, it is usually his attempt to avert the thing that brings the thing about. King Laios exiles young Oedipus and that’s why Oedipus happens to be on the road in the middle of the night and mistakenly kills his father. In trying not to be boring, working-class squares like their parents, my parents smoked lots of weed and went to college and dropped out and worked odd jobs and lived in communal houses and then to keep surviving they got working class jobs where they had to act like squares and then eventually became squares, or so it seemed to me. Refusal was limited, and fraught with peril. To get out of the class you were born in you had to be as careful as a hero on a narrow bridge. You would probably fall into a pit or a swamp and have to climb out.
But there was also that other set of mountains and the roads through them that led to the city and the seashore. I was at that Thai restaurant on the beach on the last night that I came close to the sense of home. It disappeared like an island in a storm but there it was for a minute. I remember watching her sip the red wine the waitress brought and having an uneasy sense of borrowed time wash over me as I desperately prayed that words which she would like or find interesting might keep coming for me. How I begged, like an addict, for the fix of words, for some genuine laughter and a look in her eyes as of someone in love. And the whole time I was somehow not admitting to her that I was even in love at all. It was weird. I remember the smell of the ocean, the sand in the parking lot, how in the car after we ate vegan thai food we didn’t know where to go and I didn’t want the night to end because then we’d be on different coasts again, though for a length of time which at my age now seems impossibly tiny. I remember how back then “three months” seemed big enough to fit worlds and lives, whole novels in.
I wanted that night to be followed by thousands of copies of itself and by days that grew out of it. It seemed so weird to me. I preserved for decades the memory of a few nights with this person, and I’d forgotten almost every day and night that I’d lived. I forgot everything about love except that feeling of gasping for words next to someone I wanted to keep. I forgot everything except the fear of ghosting, that like the photograph in Back to the Future she would disappear and turn out never to have been my love at all. I think about the past and the future switching places all the time, wonder if where I’m at now is just the stage of an ending.
It’s after two when I finally pull into the parking lot of the place I’m staying. I don’t call it home, not even in my thoughts. In the parking lot I pass an RV with a light on inside of it and I don’t know why this bothers me so much. At night I can’t see the yellow grass that covers the medians on either side of the parking lot. Only the street, with its single street light, the mostly crappy cars, the inky dark of the streets beyond and the velvety dark of the mountains. When I get out of the car after a drive that began in the city I always notice the smell right away, how it isn’t Los Angeles. It’s a desert smell, made of dust and industrial and agricultural things, some combination of fertilizer and exhaust.
It felt like falling through the whole web of the world, sliding out of the places where a person could stand and look around and be. I was somewhere else, still dizzy from the fall and unprepared for what it was like. That night, I went to get a snack and something to drink at the nearest convenience store, and it too, I noticed, had exactly one street light and it only lit one particular, empty parking space, like a spot light on a stage waiting for the performer to come out. I got a few cliff bars and a bad iced coffee and as I was walking out a guy who looked like the Meth: not even once commercials came out from the darkness and followed me to my car. First he asked if he could use my phone and then he asked if I had any money for gas, though there were no cars around, and then if I could go back inside and buy him some beer.
I kept shaking my head, doing my best to seem unapproachable without seeming like a total dick. I felt stupid, both unable to help in any meaningful way– I didn’t have any a rehab in my pocket, or even a few thousand dollars or a home or some codeine or anything, and yet I was still on the hook because not only was I unable to help but I was also unwilling. I felt afraid and repulsed, not filled with charity, however much I might lack the power to make that charity life-changing. I nearly ran to my car and drove away, having, if anything, made a poor person’s life worse.
I remembered where I’d fallen from and that, too, made me dizzy and it made me think a lot about death. I went back to my shack, with my brown paper bag of bad coffee and camping snacks, and when I turned the heater on, it smelled like something which brought me back all the way to when I must have been a toddler, and my parents turned on the gas heater in our house after it had been shut off for two weeks because of the Northridge earthquake.
Thousands of miles away, the people I once knew were slowly forgetting about me.
Less than a hundred miles, but also a world, away, in the city, my friends were drifting into the final shapes of their own lives. Youth was shuttering for most of us, like a bar that obnoxiously always plays the song, “Closing Time,” and turns the lights up high when it’s last call. Leaving us like blinking, unready drunks to stumble out into the world, fill out lots of forms, compromise, stare blankly at the plus sign on a pregnancy test or a summons or a repossession notice. Sasha with his job that he now at nearly forty recognizes as a dead end, Margot who keeps trying to escape it all, with commissions, with jobs that seem gilded by association, but offer little in the way of actual gold. Other people I once knew have vanished likewise into worlds of their own. One is a sound engineer for a studio and only talks to other sound engineers, lives in a luxury trailer in the parking lot of a warehouse that is sometimes used for steampunk-themed raves. Another moved to Argentina, and another is a successful graphic novelist with a book out from Random House and seems to make rent on her single in West Oakland, but she only talks to the people who donate to her monthly Gofundme pages.