This weekend, I went home to Los Angeles for the very first time since I’d moved to New York. Driving through the city in the daylight, I was immediately reminded of how MASSIVE Los Angeles is – not massive like New York is, in stature and borderline-overwhelming energy, but spread out and spread thin like a sheet of sprinkle-cookie dough rolled out a few too many times. Smoothed over, thinned out, and just the right amount of variety to make it interesting. It all seems familiar and slightly askew at the same time. I open Waze for the first time since leaving, because if you don’t own a car in NYC this app is useless. An hour and a half from LAX to the Valley. There it is. I remember now.
I feel older in LA than when I left, and it’s not just because I celebrated my 30th birthday one month ago. I have this feeling in my gut that something is off, something has changed…something isn’t what it used to be. Are the buildings a fresh color? Is that construction on the ever-elusive cross-city Metro line finally completed? Has the drought gotten better, or worse? In no part of my mind do I think I am the thing that’s changed. I try and remember what the billboards looked like the day I left.
I surprise one of my best friends on the way home and she cries a little. I almost fall asleep in the car (don’t worry, I’m not driving). I reach my parents’ house, the house I grew up in, and I try to remember if there were always that many cars and if there was always that much road separating me from them. It seems like so much now.
I notice things I didn’t before while I’m home. The way the streets curve. The smell of the backyard in the morning. The distance. Oh my goodness, the distance. Has LA always been this spread out and spread thin? Walking from the gym’s parking garage into the doors even seems extraneous, like, why is it all that far apart? Why do I see less people in a mile here than I do in a block in the West Village? It’s so sparse. They must all be on the freeway.
I have a strange urge to stay put while I’m in town. Which, for me, isn’t normal. I remember wanting to get away, get away, get away when I was here before. Or rather, explore explore explore. Hiking the canyons. Driving to the beach. Organizing my day so it flowed seamlessly, like a roadmap, from my bed to the street and back to my bed again by the end of the night. Fitting as much in as you can at once. Out all day then back. Because anyone in LA knows that if you come home in the middle of the day, there’s very little chance you’ll be going back out again. It’s one or the other. I feel inclined this time to stay close to home.
It’s not that I don’t want to see people. It’s just that I am slowly trying to navigate myself here again. People told me before I left that I wouldn’t be able to come back unchanged and I start to believe them for the first time. How is it I can feel like the same person but so different all at once? Why is it that I can’t pinpoint what’s changed? I scan the buildings and the billboards and look for a sign they’ve shifted since I was last there.
I drive through The Valley and give J a tour of my childhood (for those not familiar with LA: the San Fernando Valley, aka the place Cher goes to that house party in Clueless, aka “over the hill,” aka the region where Encino Man takes place). That’s where I took art classes, that’s where my elementary school was. I drive from one end of the Valley to the other and for a good few blocks in Tarzana and Reseda I try and remember if it always looked this way. More of it looks like a relic of the past than I remember. I try and decide if was built that way and I’m just noticing now or what. I settle on believing that that’s it. I can’t really start to grasp the difference and so I try to ignore it…
And then I put on my dress I brought for my cousin’s wedding and I feel really, truly beautiful. But it’s not an external type of beauty, even though the dress is killer and my date’s a knockout. It’s a confidence I haven’t registered till now, and a change in posture I haven’t thought about. Maybe it’s because I’m not in a car all of the time anymore? Maybe it’s because I’m not constantly going somewhere – because I can go home any time I want? I exclaim to J on the way to the venue “I feel GREAT!” and I struggle to verbalize why so I say maybe it’s the dress and maybe it’s the confidence.
But I know it’s not the dress. As I hug-attack my aunts and uncles and cousins, and tell people I haven’t seen in years that I’ve moved to New York, and I watch their expressions tell me that that was not the answer they were expecting when asking What’s New With You, I know there is now a Thing that separates me from them. My entire life up until now has felt like such a shared experience. We’re all from the same place, we all know the same parts, we’re all up to date with the same people. Even the old friends, they’re in on it too. And talking to them I realize I feel as if I’m back from a secret journey only I know about. Trying to explain it is both weird and comforting at the same time. Like, I still don’t quite feel like an adult and that’s okay because I truly believe that’s the hallmark of a true adult, but I feel like a grown-up for the first time ever. And I realize they’ve been on their own journey too, and even though I know the places and parts and people, I am NOT here and the space HAS changed and the buildings HAVE been painted and old things HAVE closed and new things HAVE opened and I can’t go share in someone else’s life’s setting by just driving a few freeway exits away any time I choose. Theirs is theirs and mine is mine. I finally feel what’s shifted, and it’s the complete ownership of my own story.
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