Parts into a sum

It is indeed winter in southern California, the sun low and blinding though warm and bright. My companions laugh; this resembles nothing of their winters, this farcical spring in a land that never pales. There are no seasons here, they complain. They hate this place. They don’t see what I see, and it’s obscured even for me.

But everything changes, even here, and not just a new shopping center in the place of the last strawberry field. Some changes are so slight that it takes a sixth sense to realize them.

These old friends of mine, faces from my past life, barely notice the changes: thin, slight perceptabilities. It is not because they are incapable of the awareness but because, like the rest of us, their lives move fast with few silences. They take me to a bar, where one of my old friends spins vintage soul music on vinyl against a backdrop of drinkers and hipsters, not-so-starving artists and lonely souls hoping for someone to take home — a social haze that is unusual for me now. Half of the people there are old friends of old friends, the same friends have been meeting up for years, longer than the whole time of my absence. Some changes are imperceptible.

I drink with them, knowing I can’t afford enough liquor to break down the walls that separate me from them, my oldest friends. I’m thankful for them, these boys surrounding me once again, protecting me from bar vultures that keep looking at me, trying to catch my eye. One of these strangers, drunk enough to be brave, or maybe just from a more bold subculture, tells me it’s his birthday. He looks deep into me with his dark, soft, unfocused eyes while my friend puts a song on the turntable for him. He asks me how old I am and I ask him back. He says, how old do you want me to be? Then he tells me I don’t look a day over 26, which is how old he is as of today. Would I ever mess around with a 26 year old, he wants to know. I tell him it’s not about age. When he leaves the bar, alone and with a loud flourish, I think: there goes a person who will never remember meeting me. We could meet again tomorrow and he would not remember my face.

But my old friends surprise me with their remembering. I hear one of them, one I was never even close to, call my name from a car outside the airport where I’ve been anxiously waiting for my ride. The friend who was supposed to pick me up, my best friend from that period of my life, is himself stuck on a plane between here and Portland. So this person, whom I barely know and haven’t spoken with in at least six years, takes me to his house and we renew a friendship we never shared. But the shock of him being able to pick me out of a crowd, in the twilight, sits with me throughout the evening. I think that I’ve changed so much, so many times. I mention it to one of my old friends later and he dismisses it. “You haven’t changed that much,” he says. Really? Damn it.

The whole visit is a memory game: remember this person? Remember when we did this? Remember when that happened? Exercising parts of my brain I rarely use. These memories are some of the furthest I can recall, and even then only when I’m here, it seems. My old friends, who never leave this place, must be able to recall every moment of their lives. What would they do if this place no longer existed?

My friend gives me his usual litany of excuses for not leaving, and I give him mine for not visiting. I’ll be better this year, I swear. He doubts it. He tells me he’s going to move across the country. I doubt it, but I tell him I’ll visit.

We see a performance by a woman who sings heartfelt jazz-inspired songs she writes herself, backed by a band of people that have never played together before. They all grew up here but now live in New York; they are playing together because they all returned home to visit their families for the holidays. The music wraps around us in our seats, something deep in a shallow pool. My friend is deeply touched by the music. He says “it is rare that I feel so connected when I go see live music.” I don’t tell him that, in my present life, it is rare if I don’t feel that connection.

I connect to him in almost the same way that I used to, except with less sexual tension. It seems we have grown up, that sex was more meaningless before it was really part of our lives. Or maybe I’m remembering it wrong. Though we connect as adults, it feels like something is missing, and I wonder if it would help if we kissed in that careless friend way I always thought we could when we were young. I usually miss feeling connected when I’m here and I miss being touched, the way that my friends now hug so easily. Everyone here barely touches each other, only briefly hugging hellos and goodbyes. In a comfortable, lazy moment on the couch, I consider reaching out and hugging my old friend, wondering what would happen. Would he be receptive or repelled, as if I’d broken something? I keep reading my book instead.

There is a permanent sense of a vague loneliness, surrounded by the almost sexless flirtations that always made me feel equal, in this group of male friends. It is odd, these are my friends, so I know how they can talk about women — the senseless, sex-filled ideas that have popped into their heads — but I never feel objectified by them. Instead, I lulled into the security of being surrounded by men who are not trying to sleep with me, the safety, the comfort of harmless flirting. There are few men I feel that way around anymore, I realize with a slight shock.

Now we are at a different bar, a dimly lit Hollywood dive that’s playing excellent old blues on the stereo. We exchange fluffy conversation filled with bits of Hollywood trivia, old tv shows and movies, dead hip-hop artists, things I never think about but somewhere in the back of my mind I still know, my B-ticket into this conversation. I enjoy it, the same way I enjoy the fast food we eat later that night. No one asks me about the other things I know: how to identify plants, the shortcomings of capitalism, how to knit feather-and-fan lace, what it’s like to hike from the forest to the ocean . . . And I don’t offer them this knowledge either, because sometimes it’s just more fun to eat fast food.

I never used to blend my social spheres and I still don’t. I don’t introduce my new friends to my old, barely mention them to each other, in fact. But being here reminds me that I don’t want to lose all of my past, having lost so much already. Maybe not lost. Maybe buried or thrown away with both hands. But I’ve been so many people since then. Possibly they were more similar than I give them credit for: people in different locations, all looking for the same thing.

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