California Part II.

At 3:00 am, I was jarred awake by the sound of my own heart beating in my chest. I couldn’t breathe and my heart raced and my thoughts raced. Am I having a heart attack? Should I call 911? Should I go wake up my roommate so that he isn’t alarmed when the paramedics arrive? Can I afford an ambulance trip and an ER visit? I this how I die?

Then I realized I was having a panic attack. It had been years since I’d last had one, so I didn’t immediately recognize it for what it was. I was weirdly relieved by the realization. But whatever the cause, if I didn’t lower my heart rate, I was going to have a very real heart attack. I’m 40 now. I’m a person who is of an age where these things can happen.

I breathed in deeply. Counted to five. Exhaled. Repeated until my heartbeat normalized. I drank some water, but I was rattled. Sleep didn’t happen again for the rest of the night. When my alarm went off at 6:45, I was still awake. It was to be my penultimate day of work, but I called in anyway. I was afraid of having another anxiety attack on the train and horrified by the thought of being wheeled off the Red Line in a stretcher.

I spent the day trying to distract myself from the all the things that were making me anxious, but they were unavoidable. All around me are boxes of things I’ve been putting off shipping to C’s mom, and the furniture that I keep meaning to make Craigslist ads for. My clothes are all in suitcases beside the bed. The walls and the closet are empty, stark, and naked.

I try not to think about the fact that this time next week I won’t have a job, or an apartment. I’ll be sleeping on a couch at C’s parents’ house, where we’re staying until we have jobs and a place of our own. I half-heartedly apply for jobs. I look at apartments in San Diego that we can’t afford. I try not to wonder how we’re going to pay our bills when neither of us has an income.

When I talk to him later in the day, C tells me not to worry. “It’ll all work out.” He assures me. He’s sitting on a patio with a glass of wine. They’ve just gotten back from a farmer’s market. I can hear the sunshine in his voice.

“Everybody keeps asking when you’re going to get here.”

Despite his reassurances, I continue to worry. Irresponsibly quitting a job and moving across the country is cute when you’re in your twenties, but much less so when you’re in your forties.

The first time I moved to California, I was 27. I was living with my ex-boyfriend in Austin, and when he got accepted into grad school at UCLA, I ended up tagging along. I didn’t want to live in Texas my whole life. And although L.A. had never been on my personal radar of places I’d like to live, it was at least some place different. It wasn’t Texas, and that was enough for me.

Our apartment was across the street from the Veteran cemetery. I thought that meant the neighborhood would be quiet. What we didn’t realize was that a block away there was a fire station, so firetrucks were constantly speeding down our street at all hours of the night. Coyotes howled in the rolling hills on the far end of the cemetery and some Sunday mornings we were awakened by 21 gun salutes.

I got a terrible job at a brokerage firm where the only saving grace was the view of the Pacific Ocean. Once I was sitting at my desk and suddenly felt dizzy. I thought I was sick until I looked up and saw my co-worker bracing herself in the doorway of her cubicle. Then I realized we were having an earthquake. I saw the palm trees and the ocean swaying outside the window and thought “I can’t die in this building with these people,” and made my way down 11 flights of stairs in less than 4 seconds.

I rebelled against the mundane job by wearing studded belts and dying my hair purple.

Everyone I met in L.A. told me that I didn’t belong there. L.A. was a surreal and shallow place. The weekly coupons in the mail were all for teeth whitening, plastic surgery, and botox. Everyone kept asking me what kind of car I drove. I felt like I didn’t belong, and L.A. agreed.

And my Daewoo impressed no one.

I dated a guy in PR named Strip Checkers. Well, not so much dated. I’m sure he has an actual name, but he’s gone down in the annals of my personal history as Strip Checkers for obvious reasons. We’d drive down Wilshire in his red convertible to his studio apartment in Korea Town. We’d play checkers on his floor, losing an item of clothing each time one of our pieces got jumped, until we were both naked.

Then there was the nice, Jewish doctor who was going to take me to Paris and then ended up getting back with his ex-boyfriend. The musician who’d call me and say, “You. Me. Sex. Now,” and would be knocking on my door five minutes later. He convinced me to strip with him in a burlesque show, and when I left L.A. all I had to remember him by was his little, black butt plug.

There were always movies being filmed in our neighborhood, and once a week there’d be a movie premier, a red carpet and paparazzi blocking my route home from the gym. We’d go to some vegan restaurant, and an over enthused waitress would tell us in an excited whisper, “Jodie Foster is here!”

Once, walking to my car after work, a pasty guy with long hair said, “Do you model?” And handed me his card.

I stared back at him blankly before stammering, “I’m a writer.”

Like everyone in L.A. I was toiling away on a screenplay. I sent off spec scripts for imaginary episodes of Will and Grace. It seemed like everyone I met was “in the industry.” But nothing ever came of any of it. I mostly sat at Starbucks with my second hand laptop and dreamed of being someone. Someone shiny and pretty with perfect teeth, a tan, and a red sports car.

But instead I was pale, purple haired, and skinny. I kissed a guy at some club, and he asked if my  parents were professors because I had more than a monosyllabic vocabulary. I didn’t like him, but I kissed him anyway, while some horrible pop song played, and tan, toothpaste commercials danced with one another beneath the pulsing lights of some bar in West Hollywood.

I irresponsibly quit my job at the brokerage firm. I left my badge on my boss’s desk on a Wednesday afternoon. I walked down to the beach, took off my shoes and my tie, and sat staring at the ocean, wondering what to do.

I was lost, and I felt rejected by the city.

At least once a month I got a parking ticket.

I was constantly getting lost. The first time I saw the Hollywood sign was by accident. I was trying to get home from a job interview downtown and stopped at a gas station in East L.A. to buy an actual map because there weren’t smart phones back then. After a number of wrong turns, the big white letters (only ever so slightly obscured by smog) were there in front of me.

I sat in Jewish deli’s pretending to write, and danced at 80s clubs in Hollywood. I went to bars in Los Feliz and Silverlake.  I met some genuinely wonderful people too, but by then I was already on my way out of the city and planning my move to  Seattle.

I never thought I’d move back to California. I’d felt like such an outsider the first time around, an encore hardly seemed warranted. But in less than a week, I’ll be in Southern California again. This time around I’m armed with experience, which feels like a double edged sword, and I just don’t know what to think, or how to feel.

The biggest difference is that this time C will be with me.

“My mom bought you a bag of Muddy Buddies.” C texts me, as I was typing this.  “We’re recording American Horror Story for you.”

I text him that I love him.

He texts me that he loves me too.

This time around we have a support network. I know that they won’t let us starve or be homeless. So, despite my fears, which are numerous, I’m trying to be optimistic that this time around will be a different experience, because he’ll be with me.

So when my heart begins to race, I breathe in. Hold it. Breathe out. Think of him, and know that everything is going to work out.

Home

IMG_4288There’s always that moment of panic as I’m walking down the steps at the Austin airport, and I see my parents standing, anxiously awaiting my arrival, where I have the overwhelming desire to turn around and get back on the plane.

This trip was no different. In the airport bathroom I’d changed from the dapper hat that my parents hate, to the baseball cap that they find acceptable. My mother, for one, still hasn’t forgiven me for going bald, despite the fact that it was her family’s genetic legacy that has left my scalp bereft of natural covering. The hat is one of the many ways I feel I have to change myself to make myself acceptable to them. I lower my voice. I dress like a frat boy. I limit my conversation to my job and the weather.

On the plane, I’d sat next to a woman who apologized for smelling strongly of lavender. The scent reminded me of C who is always diffusing some concoction of essential oils in our bedroom. I decided the woman was probably a yoga instructor and wasn’t sure whether this revelation should make me like or dislike her.

We sat on an exit row. The flight attendant reminded us of our responsibility to help other passengers out in case of an emergency.

“We paid more for these seats, but in an emergency we’d be the last ones off the plane,” the woman said.

“In an actual emergency, I’d be the first one out of the plane.” I said. “The rest of these jerks can fend for themselves.”

“Who am I sitting by?” The woman asked, before adding, “Of course if the plane really crashed, it wouldn’t matter because we’d all be dead.”

After that I put in my headphones, even though they’d stopped working, and pretended to listen to music to discourage further conversation. I just wanted some time during the course of the flight to try and sort my life out before I was thrust into my family’s quiet chaos.

The first thing my mother said when she saw that I’d grown a beard was, “What’s that on your face? I don’t like it!”

That set the tone for the rest of the car ride home. I sat in the backseat of my mother’s car, and stared out of the window at silos, yellowed pastures with hay bales, grazing cattle…while my parents sat up front bickering about how fast to go, what lane to be in, and where to stop for gas.

My father is losing his hearing, and so every time he asked me a question, I had to shout back at him. My answer to nearly every question was the same. “I don’t know.”

“Huh?”

“I DON’T KNOW.”

What are you going to do in New Orleans? What is your roommate going to do? How are you going to afford the move? When are you going to start saving for your retirement? When are you going to settle down and stay in one place?

The two and a half hour drive from the airport to my parent’s house out in the country was longer than the flight from Chicago to Austin. We stopped on the way and had Mexican food for lunch. When I lived in Texas I never wanted Mexican food, but in the nearly 15 years that I’ve lived in various northern towns, after having been deprived of actual Tex-Mex, it’s suddenly something I crave in much the same way I imagine that junkies crave smack.

Once at my parent’s house, things mellowed. My dad puttered around outside, and my mom sat at the kitchen table reading a romance novel. I sat in my old bedroom, now home to my father’s guns and hunting trophies and my mother’s library and extended closet. The past and present were superimposed over one another. Two rooms overlapped when I closed my eyes. The current one that my parents have repurposed, and the former one with my posters of Trent Reznor and Kurt Cobain, Lego blocks, and Super Metroid.

The next day my dad had to drive back to West Texas for work. I was relieved when he left, because the dynamic is always more relaxed when it is just my mother and I. We watch shows where people renovate houses, and then we retire to separate rooms to read until it’s time to eat something.

Most of the trip we spent at my grandmother’s. My grandmother’s house is small with wood paneling, and is cluttered with pictures of her children, grand children, and great grandchildren. In the guest room there are two pictures on the wall. Jesus and John Wayne. Two snarling bob cats are mounted on either side of the entertainment center, decaying gifts from my uncle, the amateur taxidermist.

One of my aunts recently left her boyfriend and has moved a travel trailer next to my grandmother’s house where she lives with her four chihuahuas. My aunts and my mother all take turns taking care of my grandmother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.

“Let’s go out and sit in the swing.” My grandmother says.

“Mama, it’s too hot right now. We’ll go out this evening when it cools off.” My mother says. It’s disturbing to see their roles reversed. My mother making my grandmother dinner, bathing her, dressing her, giving her her medicine and telling her when she can and can’t go outside.

“I can go out if I want to!” My grandmother says.

“Alright, old woman.” My mother says. “Go outside then.”

My grandmother and I go outside and sit in the swing. We’re there for less than 5 seconds before my grandmother says, “Oh lordy, it’s hot out here! What are we sitting out here for?”

“I don’t know, Maw Maw.” I say.

We sit for a little while in the shade, sweat dripping down my back. The still air is unmoved by even a hint of breeze. A gold and black butterfly skitters out of the sky and dies at my feet. We get up to go back inside, and, once there, my grandmother says, “Why don’t we go out and sit in the swing?”

She’s like a cat who can’t decide to stay or go.

She has too much money and too many assets to qualify for any kind of assistance, but is too poor to hire someone to care for her, so my aunts take turns spending the night and staying with her during the day.

When she turns 91, they throw a party to celebrate, but my grandmother keeps thinking it’s Thanksgiving.

“Are you making the stuffing?” She asks my mother.

“It’s not Thanksgiving, Mama,” my mother says for the 15th time. “It’s your birthday tomorrow.”

“My birthday?” My grandmother says. “How old will I be?”

“Ninety one.” My mother says.

“Oh lordy!” My grandmother says.

The change in routine confuses her. “What am I supposed to do?” She asks. She is red faced and confused, and shuffles back and forth, clutching her wrinkled hands.

She and I are watching the Ellen show. She keeps getting up and walking over to a picture of my cousin from his high school graduation. She reads and re-reads the graduation program. She sits down and she stands back up.

“You’re not supposed to do anything, Maw Maw.” I say. “Just sit here and talk to me.”

She becomes more and more agitated. “Should I take the pictures with me when I go?” She asks.

“When you go where, Maw Maw?” I ask.

“When I go home.” She says.

“Mama, you are home.” My mother says. “You’ve lived in this house for 40 years.”

“I’m staying here?” My grandmother asks.

“Yes.” My mother says. “You’re staying here.

My grandmother laughs and throws up here hands and says, “I guess I’ll just camp out here then.” She reads and re-reads the high school graduation program. “I just can’t make any sense of this.” She says. “Everything’s all mixed up.”

I stay for five days. We go back and forth between my mother’s empty house with it’s immaculate furniture, to my grandmother’s where everything is worn and cluttered. At my grandmother’s I sit in a chair in front of the TV while my mother and aunt put a puzzle together.

One night my mother spends the night with my grandmother, and I stay home alone. I feel giddy like a teenager who has been left alone again. I take pictures of myself in my underwear and post them on Instagram. I don’t know why I’m doing this. I took one picture of myself with no shirt on and it was strangely liberating. Now I’m addicted to exhibitionism. Me, the prude, who sleeps in pajamas, who is barely naked in the shower, the scrawny boy who was always too embarrassed to get undressed in the locker room, is suddenly taking pictures of himself nearly naked and posting them online for strangers to gawk at. I don’t even recognize myself sometimes.

The time passes by quickly, and before I know it, it’s time to leave. Despite the fact that I can’t really be myself, that I feel like a complete alien around my born-again, open carry, registered republican extended family, these people and this place will always be part of me. No matter how many cities I live in, the other countries I visit, the skyscrapers I work in and taxi cabs I ride in, a fundamental part of me will always be most content among dirt roads, cicadas, with country music playing on  an AM radio.

My mother drives me back to the airport. We pass double-wide mobile homes, cars on cinder blocks, horses in fields, churches, John Deer Tractors. We pass yards with Trump signs prominently displayed. Trucks with gun racks and confederate flag decals.

“Why don’t you stay here?” My mother says when it’s time for me to go. But I can’t even imagine staying. I’ve become a city boy. Accustomed to the hustle and bustle. The excitement of strangers and possibility.

She starts to cry as I get my bags from the backseat of her car.

I tell her that I love her as I rush to get my boarding pass for the return flight.

On the way back to Chicago, Dan Rather is on my flight. He looks old and frail in a suit with a hearing aid. A young, Asian woman travels with him. I resist the urge to take a picture of him. On the flight he is in first class, of course, and I’m at the back. The flight isn’t full, and there is an empty seat between me and the pretty, blonde woman beside me.

At first I’m reassured by Dan Rather’s presence on the plane, because what are the chances that a plane carrying Dan Rather will crash? Then I become anxious as I imagine the headline, “Beloved  veteran news anchor killed in crash, along with a hundred nobodies.”

The plane doesn’t crash. I change back from my baseball cap to my weathered, gray ascot. I catch a taxi back to my apartment. Because of rush hour traffic and lane closures, the 20 minute ride takes over an hour.

Back home C kisses me and takes my bags. I can tell there’s something on his mind before he says anything. His long, black hair is pushed behind his ears. His fuzzy beard tickles against my fuzzy beard as we kiss.

“So I’ve been thinking,” he says. “Since you can’t work from home anyway, why don’t we just move to Santa Barbara?”

He goes on to tell me that he misses his family. He wants to be close to them. He wants a support network. He thinks we’ll be happier there with the beach on one side of us and mountains on the other. His family is already working to find us an apartment and jobs. They’re so excited for us to move back.

The thought of moving again fills me with anxiety. Since we’ve been together we’ve lived in 5 different states. Every couple of years we’ve moved to a new city. We’ve exhausted our savings, and I have to find some new job and start all over in a new town. We never stay long enough to make friends, or put down roots. I feel as if for the past 7 years we’ve only been squatters, moving from place to place.

I want some stability. I want to stay in one place. To buy a house. To have people over for dinner. To have longevity in a career. To not have to start a new entry level job again. I don’t want to max out my credit card to pay to move our belongings to a place where neither of us will have jobs.

I tell C that I want to stay in Chicago for a couple more years.

C says that he absolutely will not spend another winter in Chicago.

“You’ll love Santa Barbara.” He says.

I’m unconvinced, and suddenly no place feels like home.

Home.

You can’t go home again.

There’s no place like home.

Home is where the heart is.

But right now my heart is torn between the past and future. Between what feels like home to me, and what feels like home to him. I try to imagine myself on sandy beaches, with palm tree moonlight, and clay tile rooftops. Bright smiled Californians and avocados.

Try as I might, I just can’t picture it. Home is just a word on Lifetime specials, and holiday greeting cards. I thought the two of us could make a home anywhere, with second hand furniture and thrift-store prints. But home for him will always be the Pacific Ocean, landslides, and tennis courts, and home for me will always be a Texas thicket, an overgrown pasture, and dirt roads, always winding into the distance.

Always leading me back home.