California

Last week was the fifteen year anniversary of the day I moved to New York. I meant to write something about that, but a couple weeks earlier, I read Chris Adrian’s “The Great Night," and it just absolutely put me on the floor. “The Great Night” is set in San Francisco and it is impossible to overstate how much it got me in my feelings about that city. So anyway, here’s a letter about San Francisco. The Great Night is very good, please read it, please go buy it right now, please read it instead of this letter if you have to only do one for some reason.
 
I grew up just outside San Francisco, in an archipelago of beautiful towns set in mountains around the bay, a place where dusk comes in as slow as a movie and the nighttime air is kind the entire year. It was a place absolutely convinced that beauty is both sufficient and sustainable. My parents had moved there when I was a very young kid, leaving New York for a job offer and for the view of the water from a deck in Sausalito on a single day that had convinced them to uproot their lives. I planned to leave as soon as I was old enough to plan things; my whole fantasy of my future took place elsewhere.
 
Things get into our foundations and take root when we aren’t careful with them; all proximities turn into intimacies if you let them go unchecked long enough. While I talked about how much I wanted to leave, some part of me was memorizing street signs and printing for safekeeping the image of how the bright orange bridge throws itself cleanly over the water, the geometry of hills and boats and sunlight, quietly filing away the assumption that San Francisco was a place I could eventually come back to and know as an adult, that I might, one day, after making a life for myself elsewhere, finally understand why Tony Kushner set Angels in America’s vision of heaven in this grey, wrong-angled place that I drove into with my mom on weekends.
 
But of course, the version of San Francisco that Kushner wrote about doesn’t exist anymore, and neither does the one I grew up next door to. I thought eventually the things that were stubbornly unreachable when I lived just outside the city as a child would unwind and soften, and show their hinges, offer the doorframe spaces where the light gets through. I was young enough and coddled enough when I left to still believe that we get everything back, that simply once having had something is a guarantee of being able to return it, that nothing disappears when we turn our backs.
 
I can't talk about what happened just before I left because I am in my thirties now and still don’t know the details, but all you really need to know is that the place where we'd lived wounded my family badly enough that they never went back. I had a relatively uneventful childhood that ended abruptly when something went very very suddenly wrong and a lot of things came crashing down at once; they were things that had to do with money, because every disaster does, in one elemental way or another. I grew up living in a big house just outside the city and then for a few months before I went to college we didn’t really live anywhere at all.
 
It is just as big a loss to never forgive something as to have something refuse to forgive you, and at times the two things seem indistinguishable. San Francisco turned from the promise of a childhood outside reality, in which I was often unsatisfied because I did not know enough to be grateful, to the hard limits of the world and its unjust bargains. I do not have enough money to know or to love the place I grew up intending to keep with me, the place I would come back to if I came back the way people are supposed to come back their childhood homes, the bedrooms and driveways in which they were first young. The place of lushly decrepit parks and sunlight that filters the wrong way through leaves, a city whose resting places I could never find, whose stillness eluded me, disappeared by the time I was old enough to navigate it, and taught me that in the end beauty always has a price tag on it, even if it stays hidden for a while, even if it makes its sales pitch for free, and breaks your heart with it.
 
I still know all the names of places there, in the way that living somewhere becomes its own language, so that the street names and park names, the place markers, the things on maps, becomes stories rather than directions, placeholders for feelings and memories, rather than simply the way to get from here to there. After that one big crisis, I burrowed into its geography, its salt-weathered myths, its disappearing places, loss coloring in between the lines, so I noticed the heft and warp of the things I had always passed smoothly over before. The map became a body, with all the pain and consequences of a body, with all a body’s limits and grossness, fallibility and miracles, all its potential to ladder to a life full of nexts and promises. I’d spent so much time trying to get out and away, backwards to the east coast, on to the cut-cloth rest of my life, past this seam where the zipper stuck, but just before I left, the place was lit up electric, shot through with the gratitude that loss engenders.
 
Thomas and I went back two years ago for a wedding; we complained about it ceaselessly until the moment we got off the plane and were swallowed up by sunlight that was familiar in an expansive, stunning way I could not possibly explain to him, like the feeling after crying for a long time and then taking a shower, like waking up to the revelation of my own stupid skin, still here and whole and keeping all my blood inside one more morning. I hadn’t been back in years, but when my phone died I refused to use Thomas’ or stop and buy a charger and made him let me navigate us from the airport to our hotel in Sausalito by memory. And I did it, and it felt like the closest thing I will in this lifetime experience to time travel, talking us through the right place to change lanes, the right time to ease from the highway onto city roads. I still knew how to find the city’s arteries, which streets went which way and which lane of the freeway would take us over the bridge. The Rainbow Tunnel still had a rainbow on it and the many-laned convergence that ran under the Presidio was still chalky gray and overhung with dinosaur green and still made me feel like coming back from the beach at the end of the day or coming home from a school field trip. When we got to Sausalito it was very quiet and the buildings were so small that I felt like I had grown into something fantastical, striding down the street come home like a victorious monster, dragging the spoils of war, which was really just my suitcase, which was over-packed and messy, and revealed I hadn’t turned into any kind of fancy grown up after all.
 
The truth, the thing that I don’t want to admit, is that what broke my heart was not the difference but the sameness. I talk a lot about how the way I lost San Francisco coincided exactly with the invasion of the techlords, and how the place where I grew up is inaccessible not just because both I and my parents moved across the country and I have no reason to visit it but because it quite simply doesn’t exist anymore. All this is true, and yet at the same time, steering that car back through the small roads stuck amongst the redwoods and the fog and the casual billion-dollar views, what hurt most was how all of it was the same, how many coffee shops and parking lots were still there, how things smelled the same and the streets still went in the same direction and all the markers that taught me to drive once were still there, pointing the way to the empty center I still wanted to call home. I wanted the place to no longer exist, to have vanished off the face of the earth in any recognizable form, so that I did not have to confront the echo of how I had once loved it without even knowing I loved it, the way we love things when we are young enough to assume that because we love something, it will always be available to us. It was all still here, it just wasn’t for me, and maybe it never had been. This loss was about money, just like everything is, but it was also about the way that a life is built out of choices, and choices close down the other avenues of possible experience. I had built a life for myself, consciously or unconsciously, sometimes more by panic than by consideration, but I had built one, and it did not include this patrician, heart-familiar place where the fog rolled in in the same way it always had. Things remain, but the sacrifices they ask have weight and substance. California costs more than it used to, but the price is as figurative as it is literal.
 
As we drove back to the airport with the old radio station blaring and I put my feet up on the dashboard and across the Bay Bridge the hills beyond Oakland looked like bedsheets and like broccoli, I said that I wanted us to come back more, and I meant it, but I am also not surprised a few years later when we haven’t. I love this place, but not nearly enough to change my life for it, and that’s often how we lose things, how we shed things from our lives, what comes up against the limits of what we are willing to sacrifice, of how much we are willing to change.
 
It is so horrifically complicated to love a thing. It’s bad enough when the thing is a person, capable of at least potentially returning your love, capable of fighting back when you yell at it about its limitations, of dragging in notions of fairness and kindness to remind you that to love does not undo boundaries or inabilities. At least a person can get angry at you; at least a person can say that they fucked up, and then fall asleep next to you anyway. But most of the stuff we love isn’t actually people, although sometimes we try to make things easier by tying those things to people; we try to locate our love of a place, a color, a memory, a time in our lives, in a particular person so that we can follow it around and put our body against it and make it talk about its needs and give us a key to its house. Loving a place is extraordinarily stupid. A place exists to not love you back, and a place is fundamentally disloyal, utterly unbound to the moment in time in which it mattered to you.
 
I left San Francisco in 2002 in the middle the night, the way you sneak out of an apartment after a one night stand, the way you leave a party after everyone falls asleep and the host is in the kitchen cleaning up and won’t notice you closing the door. I drove home from a weird, bad night with the person I was dating, which I tried to cast in my mind as romantic and which in hindsight clearly wasn’t at all. I took the long way over the Bay Bridge just before the sun was rising, catching the light one last time at that moment when the sky and the water around the bridge are exactly the same color. I drove across the Oakland border and rounded the long arm of an empty freeway, taking the hill too fast, as the sun started to come up, and parked a car I would never drive again, and blearily packed to go to the airport for an early flight. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that doing things at the absolute last minute is a signal trait of the overly sentimental; the need to finish packing, to get in the car, overwrites what is otherwise an unmanageable surfeit of feeling. What am I meant to do with all of this time, with this place that will transform, that will paint over the map and pave over the secret doorways I made in it? Fifteen years ago today, I got on a plane to New York, and now when people ask, I tell them I’m from Manhattan.

hi friends. happy september 1st. I have couple new essays up here and here. here's another thing I wrote about california, which is maybe one of my favorite things I've ever published on the internet. as ever, you can support/tip this tinyletter here and, as ever, you don't have to. on monday, I'll probably send the letter I intended to write for this anniversary, which is more or less about new york and why a person might choose to stay there for fifteen years