On the train on the way to the airport I pass time by memorizing strangers’ faces from the inside of a tempered glass separation.
In what reality do we meet?
A girl with curly hair and Chapstick smooth lips waits on the platform, hands resting on hips, toes pressed against a fading yellow line not to be crossed. She’s reality and a mirage simultaneously – the distance between us is only the cold space behind iron doors. When a static voice over an intercom says it’s time to move to the next station I can’t help but think we are moving too fast.
Another woman sits down beside me, on the seat I leave open closer to the aisle. She bounces a baby on her knee, all tired eyes and no escape plan. Life happens too soon, too soon to be ready for it.
What if humans moved underground?
I wonder. No more harshness, no more red-hot sun to singe pale skin. We’d sleep far below the rubble of our malnourished, mistreated past-lives. And I know that here you can’t go anywhere, but at least there’s nowhere else to go.
Two days after my 18th birthday I drank a bottle of red wine (Spanish) and folded myself underneath the table feeling more like a child than I’ve ever felt in my entire life. I wanted to pour a glass, full to the brim, over my head and taste bitterness instead of salt but decided against it. Who am I to waste blood on tears anyways? And besides, I would get in trouble if I stained the carpet.
So instead I curled fingers around a pen (the blue one I stole from the UPS store) writing this.
The writer’s job is to turn experience into words. I’ve always been captivated by the idea of this. Ever since a teacher in primary school stood up at an empty whiteboard and wrote with a steady left hand, good writers only write what they know, I have been ravenous for experience. Ticking boxes off an imaginary to-do list as if I might feel more qualified to say things if I’ve actually done them. Recently I find that I do this so often that I forget my life isn’t just some story to be written, but real. That pain and love are feelings not only to be coupled with superfluous adjectives but to be felt, to be felt by me.
And yet I write not because I enjoy it, but because everything is fleeting except words. Time (years, months, days, seconds) passes and I can’t remember anymore what color shirt you wore the first time I saw you. I can’t remember what my sisters used to laugh about when they were still smaller than me. More than anything I’m afraid to forget and afraid to be forgotten. But paper is concrete, I remind myself. When I change and we change words remain like earthquake-driven rifts in a valley, permanence against a background of constant movement.
From seat 15A (window) on a flight from Oakland to LAX I watch Los Angeles come into view 1,000 feet below me. From above the city looks like a heart beating orange with the pulse of 8 million bodies, embraced by a sea of velvety blackness. Someone should turn the lights off, show us how small we really are.
On the ground bodies sleep on street corners. They wait for the last train home holding cigarettes between closed lips, inhaling smoke like oxygen. And other bodies in an apartment many stories above the veins of traffic glisten with sweat of fresh love and kiss with dry lips until morning. After sunrise, they exchange cocktails of morning breath while – like water rushing over stones in a creek-bed – they talk around what needs to be said.
In the city that never sleeps night is just a reminder of the passing of time.
When we meet the cooling LAX tarmac, seat-belt sign switched off, the man in seat 15B turns on his phone to 10 new messages from an unnamed contact. I understand you need your freedom, but don’t expect you can come back to me loving you, is the line I’m able to read while I reach for my backpack from under the seat. His face stays stoic, unmarked by emotions. Then in a single movement, he switches his phone off and grabs his bag from the overhead bin, giving me a polite nod before walking off the plane. I’m disappointed not to know the story’s end.
There are parts of LA where I feel like a foreigner in my own land. Where on the train passing through Compton I know to keep my head down like I’ve learned to do in places where I don’t fit in to not draw attention to myself. I’m not scared but I sit in anticipation. When I travel alone I know to have an escape plan for any situation. At Safeway a few weeks ago when a man started following me around the store, confronting me in between aisles, I knew to find another woman and get out of reach. Looking around this train car at 7am I realize I’m the only woman among twenty men and I have no escape plan. It feels very much like Morocco except I’m home. I count seconds for 45 minutes on a fake phone call until we reach downtown and I can be at ease again.
But then there are times when I feel most comfortable as a foreigner. There’s a restaurant in Long Beach that most likely doesn’t have a Yelp profile but does have iron-barred windows and walls decorated with homemade signs that read Comida Autentica and Se Aceptan EBT. And since I know what these signs say and know never to equate barred windows to sketchiness I feel at home. The young Latina woman who emerges from behind a curtained kitchen doorway doesn’t even offer to speak English and I feel even more comfortable. Not because I speak Spanish perfectly, but because I’m used to fumbling for words in the broken tongues of a few different languages. This feels right. And I know what it feels like to create home in a place that isn’t really home.
I don’t say these things, but I do compliment the tamales which are two dollars and one hundred times better than any restaurant tamale I’ve ever had. She seems pleased and continues to top off our cups with hot drip coffee (the only American element to this place) while pacing between customers in the chili scented dining room.
In the moment every day seems the same. Change happens very much like plate tectonics, slow movement under the surface, until one day you look back to realize a year has passed, or even six months and everything is different now.
It’s like this that I watch the people around me growing up. That I watch my own life flow from one reality to the next. And that I smile and cry while people come and go all throughout. By trying to keep things the same I am only fighting the currents on an upstream swim.
I know this is an impossible task, so I’m learning to accept transition as something necessary. And as I pack to move to another continent in a week, I can only hope that this is true.
Published 8.31.18 from San Francisco, California