Letter to a Friend

Dear Wes,

Being in LA always makes me want to write, and since the last thing you said to me as I walked out the door was “write me a letter” I am addressing these scattered thoughts to you.

Riding a bus over a long distance is always interesting to me, even if I spend most of it half-asleep as I did on this trip. I awoke, bleary-eyed and crooked-necked, to a landscape that seemed wholly unfamiliar to me, though I have made this same trip hundreds of times before. “Where am I?” I kept thinking in my incoherence. I was near the end of the grapevine on the 5, why was it so unfamiliar? I began to recognize the scrubby vegetation off to my left, but the sparkling body of water on my right I could swear I’ve never seen before. Which is strange because I was in this same spot only a week and a half ago — I remember having a conversation with N about it — Pyramid Lake, same as in Nevada. To my blurry eyes, it was so bright and fresh a sight that I could feel it in the center of my chest, and I mapped the rest of my journey around that feeling: the familiar hills in gold, the descent into the valley, the surprise of plants I could recognize from the road, even a line of Catalpa trees in North Hollywood.

As the bus rolled down the freeway offramp in San Fernando, it stopped working. And there we were, all thirty-five of us, stuck on the offramp in a hot stuffy bus. The lack of airflow and the poison smell of cheap perfume was making it hard for me to breathe, so the bus driver escorted me across the offramp, where I realized that it wasn’t the air in the bus that was stuffy, it was the air in the valley.

I stood on the side of the offramp with a group of men from the bus (I was the only woman who had decided to get off). They stood in one group and I stood alone, staring at the oleanders that grow next to every freeway in southern California. Cars drove by, sometimes stopping for the light, and stared at me. I met the challenge of their gaze every time, though I noticed the group of men weren’t getting stares. And I wasn’t even wearing a short skirt.

Finally, another bus came and we all crammed on, most people confused about what, exactly, was going to happen to their luggage. I love seeing the people on the bus, such a different scene than an airplane. All the maternal-looking Mexican women squeezing down the aisle carrying two bags in each hand, obliviously hitting their already-seated fellow passengers, or all the Korean women talking to each other in the back, or the men on their cellphones. I heard the man seated behind me get a booty call — you were right, I just am completely unfamiliar with the mating habits of people in this society. The woman called him from his hometown, he was in Pomona on business and had taken the bus to see the sights of Hollywood for the day. They chatted for a bit, gossiping about other people, and then he said “That’s personal, that’s none of your business… That’s like asking someone if they had sex because they went on a date….”So you wanna go on a date? … Well, that depends on how horny you are… Now you’re talking about something I’m interested in…. Yeah, well, I’ll call you when I get back to town.” It went on like that for a while. They do not seem to like each other that much, but they are definitely going to have sex. Oh, and she is going to work out at his gym.

I know you might have heard this already, but let me confirm that it is true: there is a financial crisis. We live in such a bubble in Santa Cruz, and even the news reports don’t make something real to me. But walking through a store and hearing conversation after conversation about how it is actually affecting people’s lives — now that is real. I heard a woman on a cellphone find out that her company was merging with some larger company, and she was frantically making phone calls to find out more information, to find out if her job was safe. I overheard things like this all over the place — people losing their houses, people losing their jobs, people not having the money that they had last year, people hoping it will all work out, but finding it hard to see how giving 700 billion dollars to Wall Street banks is going to help them.

But you probably want to know how I am doing. That is what everyone wants to know, it seems. I’m fine, of course, I’m always fine, I always weather every disaster that comes my way in what is seeming like the hundred-car-pile-up of my life. “This state of emergency is not the exception but the rule.” That has always been one of my favorite quotes from Walter Benjamin. It describes so aptly the sense of crisis that the news is always telling us were are in, as if it is new. But sometimes it feels more personal than that, it feels like it applies to my life.

I’ve been prepared for my dad’s death for so long, that I thought it would be easy. It turns out it’s not. My dad has been sick for twenty years, and now I find myself mourning for the dad that I lost when I was ten, as if the past two decades had never happened. Except that I am an adult, I am making all of these funeral decisions as an adult, contacting long lost friends of my dad, people who never knew how sick he was.

I feel surrounded by death right now, and that is hard. I want to be surrounded by life, by trees, by music, by babies, by friends. Death is part of life, but there is no place for it in this culture. We lock it away, we put it off, we ignore it. I don’t even know where my dad’s body is right now, some central holding location in some other part of town, I suppose. I haven’t even seen it. How can it be real if I haven’t seen it? It was so different when my grandma died. I was right there. I hugged her goodbye after her last breath. I wish I’d been able to do that for my dad.

Looking through old pictures, contacting people who knew my dad before he was sick, helps me remember my dad as he was when I was a kid: the man who taught me to ride a bike, hit a baseball, shoot a free-throw; the man who brought me a doll from every country he visited; the man who cared deeply about the condition of life in countries far away; the man who sat at a desk surrounded by books; the way he smelled when he got off plane, holding hands with me as we walked through the airport; tickling me, taking me out to dinner, teaching me to play chess. That man has been gone for so many years, but right now it feels like he just left.


One Comment

  1. Posted October 13, 2008 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    Come celebrate life with us. Trees, babies, new projects, loves past, loves future. Say goodbye as you need to, then hurry home where we lvoe you.

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