Friday, April 20, 2007

California, You Break My Heart

A couple of weeks ago, we drove the hour-ish out to Newport Beach to see a friend of Max's. Usually I don’t get along with this friend very well. I mean, we make nice conversation, but end up arguing about stupid stuff. I try to make all these highfallutin’ points about how if you’re a real fan, you’ve got to be willing to admit when something sucks and you need to maintain some objectivity or you’re a mere sheep who will wind up watching the new Star Wars trilogy while sucking down a Big-Gulp and raving about how funny Jar-Jar Binks is. Much of my ass-talking about art and artforms is lost on my husband’s friend. But Max loves this person as though they were blood brothers forged from the same unholy mold, so I try to shut the fuck up and make nice. I often get the impression that Friend doesn’t quite know what to do with me, he’s unaccustomed to a girl who talks about which actresses she’d like to sleep with and curses like a sailor. And I don’t know what to do with him, either. He has an engineering degree, he’s from the same small town Max is from, we have some TV shows that we both like. That’s about it.

This time, we did better. We managed to find some things in common. We went to Huntington Beach and walked the windy, chilly pier up and down. It was a fun outing.

Friend lives in a tiny studio apartment. He doesn’t have much stuff, mostly a few clothes, a big-ass computer (with two huge monitors), and a really big-ass television. You know, the usual trappings of an unattached guy with disposable income. We gazed around his small, just-moved-into place with envy. I think, in our hearts, we both long to live like that. Barely any stuff, able to pack up and go whenever we please. But we have a lot of stuff, and nine cats. We have school debt and car payments and will usually opt for groceries over a faster Internet connection. There are no studio apartments near the beach in our future. Which did not stop me from being filled with a terrible longing to live where Friend lives. He’s just up the hill from the beach, less than two miles. In my head I saw myself pushing an expensive, streamlined stroller full of baby those two miles and back to our tiny, uncluttered apartment. I saw myself working at a desk, doing freelance writing, and actually making enough to help with the gargantuan cost of living so near the ocean.

It was a stupid thing to imagine, stupid stupid stupid. Unchecked fantasies of a life so completely different from the one we have now are dangerous; they are insidious, creeping like vines to infiltrate the brain. They grow like cancer, and poison everything in their path. Weeks later, I still find myself drifting off to sleep lulled by these visions. I ache for this different life, this fantasy life. The longing fills my days and makes me useless to manage the life we already have.

But, truthfully, can I be fully blamed? I love it when we go out to the coast. We’ve never been in the summer, so I haven’t gotten the full-force experience of noisy, rude tourists crowding every square inch of space and crawling so far up the locals’ asses it takes the Jaws of Life to pry them out. We go in the off-season, November or February or other months when the sunlight fades fast and breezes are more chilling than welcoming. I still love it. It’s always about twenty degrees cooler there, the wind is incessant but not dry and baking like it is here. There’s little or no graffiti on the buildings there; here anything that doesn’t move for 12 hours will be covered in spray-painted scrawling. There are sidewalks everywhere, and real bike trails; it’s not like here where you’re lucky to even find a sidewalk and the drivers consider anyone on a bike a moving target. There are actual things to walk to along the sidewalks there, shops (albeit full of overpriced souvenirs and “beach wear”) and restaurants and grocery stores. We’d hardly need our car.

I build this life in my head and then idealize it. In this dream-life, we’re both the trim, athletic versions of ourselves we've always wanted to be. Our daughter is adorable in her tiny tank tops and sandals as we let her toddle about in the sand. And there I am, sipping coffee in a real cup from a local coffee house as our adorable girl slumbers in the stroller beside my table and I type furiously on my laptop. The baby and the stroller and the laptop and I walk all the way home to our tiny uncluttered apartment, and a few minutes later my husband arrives, smiling. He loves this job, which actually pays him enough to live on. Later, we turn out the lights and crack the window, then fall asleep in each other’s arms with the ocean smell wafting in.

You see? It’s poison. I ache so badly for this future that can never be. We will never have this, this simple but happy life in a beautiful place we love. At least, that's how it feels from where we are now.

While we were in Newport, I kept thinking that California is evil. Because this, this was the California all our friends are shocked we want to leave. Sandy beaches, breezes, a sense of freedom – it’s the California you see on television, the one they write songs about. It in no way resembles the place we actually live. And it broke my heart to get in our car and drive back out to the dust and sand and the terrible kids my husband tries to teach all day and the trash everywhere and graffiti covering everything. I felt so miserable as we came back to all this, miserable and trapped and filled with rage that we couldn’t have our tiny slice of the good life.

No comments: