An American Tail

Boy, did this one dredge up a lot of thoughts in me. A LOT.

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I hadn’t seen this film, in full, since I was a child. I know it always affected me strongly back in the day, even if it wasn’t my favorite of Bluth’s (that honor still probably belongs to Secret of NIMH), but I honestly can’t imagine a more affecting — or upsetting — time to be seeing it again than our current climate. And frankly, as the child of an immigrant (albeit a voluntary one) who got into trouble at school due to discomfort with the entire concept of being forced to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, my own relationship to — and discomfort with — America and patriotism has always been… complicated.

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It’s just… it’s so goddamn hopeful about America, it was painful to take in now. It’s a film about the plight of refugees so earnest and blatantly (and deservedly) sympathetic that I honestly can’t imagine it being made today. In one scene, Fievel is literally caged by the cats, and watching that as American border agents are caging living children was almost too much to bear. I found myself thinking back on Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece MAUS more than once — a parallel it’s tough not to draw (and apparently inspired some litigation at the time of the film’s release), given the presence of evil cats killing mice; in this case, the only difference, really, is that the cats aren’t literal Nazis — the mice are still (Russian) Jews. They arrive at the port immigration authority, and their family names are changed; they’re then confronted by opportunistic vultures lying in wait, taking advantage of the poor and desperate new arrivals wherever they can, to put them to work in America’s longest, most successful grift: cheap labor off the backs of its most hopeful dreamers. The set palette, between Russia and America, it’s worth noting (and I’m sure is no accident) does not change; New York is just as grimy, dangerous, crowded, and threatened by fire and death as the homeland they left.

Don Bluth is a filmmaker I’ve always had a complex relationship with. The films of his I love, I love deeply. (Hell, I even have a soft spot for the duds; Rock-a-Doodle is like a drug-addled fever dream from an Elvis fanatic on acid, but that didn’t keep me from watching it more than once, back in the day. Thumbelina is a mess, but it’s so beautiful to look at, I was charmed by it anyway.) I believe I saw NIMH first, at about age 4 or 5, and it blatantly traumatized me, I know — it gave me recurring, vivid, horrific nightmares — and yet I returned to it again and again.

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Animation is an art form I have always adored and revered, mostly due to my deepest childhood dream of being an animator. I discovered I lacked the discipline as an artist to ever achieve such a thing long ago, but animated films still hold a power over me that no other genre of film does, and I love film. In a way, it could be argued they’re film, as a storytelling medium, in its purest form. There are visuals and scenes in animated films that never fail to move me to tears, and have influenced me in so many unconscious ways. I’m fairly sure I’ve been dyeing my hair red for nearly half my life now mostly because I was more obsessed by Ariel than any other fictional character during my formative years; seeing this film again, I can’t help but wonder whether I ultimately picked out a blue newsboy cap recently because it’s the color Fievel wore.

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Bluth’s films include a darkness that no other animator really dared explore for audiences including such young children. He isn’t the greatest animator of my time, in my book — I would personally give that honor to Miyazaki — but when he succeeded, he produced the stuff of unmistakable brilliance. The widow Brisby holding literal fire in her hands, upon finding her real self and true courage in order to save her children, marked me as a young girl; Littlefoot’s mother’s death — and the entire theme of inescapable death in All Dogs Go to Heaven — articulated the inevitable end of life to me at my most impressionable in a more profound way than any other fictional tales I can recall. Hell, even Anastasia — handicapped though it may be by Bluth’s growing over-reliance on awkward Rotoscoping in his animation — is irresistible to me; I will belt the fuck out of “Journey to the Past” and feel like I could do just about anything while doing it (and part of me always wanted to steal Anya’s newsboy cap-wearing, cropped-reddish hairstyle, too).

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Bluth’s violence is direct in a deeply un-Disney way, and I often wonder how much he pushed himself toward that darkness after walking out of those studios (taking half of Disney’s animation staff with him, arguably the greatest coup he ever achieved). There is visible, stark blood in them, which you will find in almost no other works by his contemporaries. There are knives, daggers, swords, needles glinting in the dark, stabbing into lab rats, bones of cannibalized characters litter the ground; the terrors and pain he animates look real. (The huge robotic mouse they build to scare off the cats onto the ship? Holy shit, I had somehow forgotten how terrifying it is.)

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Bluth’s nightmares are the stuff of genuine nightmares, honest to god hellscapes — when they literally go through actual hell in All Dogs Go to Heaven (apparently a tamer version of the original cut, if you can even imagine what it might have otherwise been; I never dared to), it will fuck a child up. The water that washes Fievel off the boat to America, that floods the old New York streets and sewers is not blue; it’s dark and dirty and appears bottomless; it really does look like something you would drown in.

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This applies to the grief in them as well: Disney films are full of missing (typically presumed dead) mothers; The Land Before Time has you witness the mother’s actual death. And all of this, within animation, is as unique as it is visionary. Bluth did many things, not all of them great, but he certainly never shied away from confronting the children in his audience with true fear, darkness, or sadness.

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“Ah, America. What a place!” Fuck me, but this line made me want to cry (and it repeats later!). The most painterly, loving frames in the entire film appear in its closing, when the camera pans slowly, reverently around the freshly built Statue of Liberty, still resplendent in all her original, pre-oxodized copper glory, shining like a true beacon in the sunrise: “Isn’t she beautiful?” She was. She still is — even as a brave black woman, an immigrant herself from the Congo, scaled her feet just a week ago, in protest of our government literally stealing children from their parents and abandoning them in cages — even as the American dream continues to rot at its very core. This film’s title is no accident; there is no story more American than that of the immigrant and the refugee.

I’m nearly 32 years old, and Don Bluth can still fuck me the hell up. LACMA is running a full series of his works all month long. I’ll watch them all, and they’re all going to fuck me up.

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How do I work this?

I had a thing, for a good portion of my years in school, all the way up through high school — likely influenced at least somewhat by my godfather, a highly sought after architect of, at that time, the richest homeowners in the country — about occasionally but obsessively designing my own imaginary house. Thinking back now, I’m not entirely sure where the desire to do so came from: I loved my childhood house. (And I do mean I loved it; I was fiercely devoted to it in a way I’ve never felt about any other place I’ve lived, observed and lived within it with deep affection and attachment for as long as I could remember, photographed it obsessively once I knew we’d be moving out after 17 years living there.)

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Doors (Carmel Valley, 19 April 2004). When I say I documented my childhood house obsessively, before we left (June 2004), I mean it sincerely. There was a light that lived in that house, which I did my best to capture — my father imparted to me the importance of the meaning of photography, which is “to paint with light” — but have never encountered anywhere else I’ve visited or lived. I’m always looking for it, but I have never found it again. I don’t imagine I ever will. The only place it still lives is in a few achingly earnest photographs I took when I was 17 and mourning.

Maybe it was just one more way of exercising my visual thinking acuity, or just another doodling outlet or outlet for my little Lego-loving ass… Maybe it was just a little girl who’d never known what it was like to have money trying to imagine a world where you get to create your own living space, the way they entice you to do in home style magazines and those early demo computers in hardware stores: the way rich people do. It definitely is to blame for my long-lasting and bizarrely fierce dedication to the use of graphing paper. To this day, any time I move, I still create a scale model of the room I’ll be moving into, complete with loose pieces representing every piece of furniture, and plot it all out before I actually lift any boxes or hammer any nails in.

This past weekend, the landlord has been (finally) doing some sorely needed renovations on the main bathroom in our apartment, which meant all three of us needed to find somewhere else to shower for a few days, while the paint and new caulking dried. Thanks to a very fortunate bit of timing, another tenant in the building, who’d lived in one of the upstairs units, to the east side of the building, just moved out at the end of January; we were able to wheedle the landlord’s permission to leave the back door to the place open for a few days, so we could make use of the shower up there, in the now vacant unit. I’ve lived in this building for over four years now, but I’d never once ventured upstairs, or even into another one of the six or seven other units, until now. (The fact that I’m honestly not sure — still! — whether there are six or seven besides ours probably makes that fairly embarrassingly clear.)

Walking into that apartment for the first time the other day, I was a bit floored, and suddenly wished, in a way I hadn’t done in many long years, that I could afford to live on my own. It reminded me of a game I once played with a childhood friend, where we’d run across the street from our neighborhood to the freshly built houses across the street — as San Diego expanded wildly in all directions and overbuilt itself into a sprawling suburban, traffic-ridden hell arguably worse than the bits of LA everyone bitches about the most — let ourselves into one of the three furnished model units the realtors always seemed to leave unlocked, and play dream house in them. But this, now, was somehow even better: this apartment here is, for the time being, blissfully empty. It’s a truly blank canvas.

It’s smaller overall, with fewer rooms — meant for one tenant (at most two), whereas we’re able to fit three into ours fairly well — and the bathroom itself, our point for having access to it now, is certainly smaller than ours. (No dedicated parking space either, so far as I know.) But… hardwood floors! Be still my heart. An A/C unit in the living room! Fewer rooms means they’re all at least somewhat larger, too, particularly the kitchen. Though the first thing I swooned at, even before the flooring, was the large picture windows facing out onto the main street. Sure, the bedroom is the closest to the street, but I sleep like the dead, so what do I care about road noise? Those windows are heavenly. There’s a ceiling fan in the bathroom, and their window isn’t painted shut! The air flow is divine. Then, of course, I turn to my right, and discover the walk-in closet, with its own window, and die a little inside. And, of course, fall a bit hopelessly in love with the whole thing.

It’s arguably a sillier fantasy now than it was when I was a little girl; pretending this great empty space is something I can furnish and arrange to my liking. At the rate I’m going, I’ll die never having had the luxury of living alone, let alone owning (or even renting) any property just for myself. Even considering it seems absurd. Still, for the first time since childhood, I know at least one little corner of my mind will be laying graphing paper gridding over those rooms in my mind, imagining what I could make of that fresh, open space, in that fantasy world that will never be, where it’s mine to do with whatever I want. Is it better or worse to be dreaming a little about a space that’s not only not entirely made up, for once, but that’s just a short trip up the stairs from where you already are? I’m honestly not sure.

Same as it ever was, same as it ever was…

 

via Daily Prompt: Permit

恋の予感

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Pretty mountain. (West Hollywood)

I was running late, from my other job I was pretending I didn’t have — or rather, lying about it being somewhere else, mentally berating myself over both things, simultaneously. He was running late, too, though I have no idea from what — I was too nervous to ask. I remember wishing I could’ve dressed more nicely, without being sure whether the occasion even called for it, but having no time between to do so, not that I would’ve known what to wear, anyway. I didn’t know how to look nice, really; I wasn’t used to caring. I might have even had my (then longer) hair tied back, lazy as ever, because I wasn’t in the habit of caring about how it looked, either, but I can’t recall for certain. Fuck, do I hope I didn’t.

I do remember, hilariously, that I pointedly hadn’t shaved my legs, not so much because I believed there was any potential for anything to happen (I didn’t dare be that optimistic), but more a ridiculous little inside joke between me and Bonnie Hunt, who I do not know and will never read this, by way of Return to Me. The only thing I had on to potentially look more presentable than I typically did was my boots — fashionable and covered with buckles, but far better for walking than they appear — otherwise all I could do was put on a vaguely nice outfit, despair at my skin as I did (and still do) every day, hope for the best, and head out the door. This was what I’d come here for, I was finally ready to say: I am ready for things to happen to me. I am ready to make things happen. Back down in my hometown, I couldn’t; too much despair and anger tethered me too closely to the ground. But now, at last, I could. As the late poet John Berryman said, “We must travel in the direction of our fear.”

While I was still in the car, looking for parking in an unfamiliar neighborhood, he chanced sending me an unmistakably, albeit gently, flirty text message, and I finally felt I could chance some real optimism about the whole endeavor. I’d been too busy for the past week or so being extremely, silently pissed at myself for having any interest in the first place; I was new, this was stupid, I can endlessly punish myself for feeling things, no matter how innocuous, etc. It was already the second thing — after asking me to meet him in the first place — that he’d been brave enough to risk; that I’d wanted to do myself, but had been too afraid to. My pulse quickened a bit, and I finally found a spot.*

As I approached him on the street, where he stood in casual silhouette waiting outside his apartment, I realized: yes, this was a date. We both wanted it to be, and this seemed to hang in the air between us the closer I got, and so it was. And from there, we walked. Winter was approaching, and it was already dark out; streaks of reflected neon light from shops lining the boulevard shimmered up from the asphalt, as cars hissed sleekly through them. There was still a slight mist of the earlier, weak drizzling rain hanging in the air like a moist kiss.

I wish I could retrace our steps exactly — I have a vague idea of the paths we wandered, but I was still new to the city, and not very well acquainted with the area yet; the streets didn’t mean anything to me then. Our strides matched each other perfectly, which he noticed, and commented on, sounding pleased.

My heart remained simultaneously in my throat somewhere all night, while I also felt surprisingly calm and at ease. I rarely ever feel at home with people, and almost never do so immediately. It felt a bit like being mildly high, or some other form of chemical imbalance in the brain. He was easy to talk to, with a slightly shy smile, as though he wasn’t sure he wanted me to see beyond his moodier way of presenting himself outwardly. He watched me carefully all night, while I deftly avoided eye contact, not yet used to feeling okay about looking anyone right in the eye, after having been trained out of it for so long. Later on, sharing a milkshake, he watched me again, more closely still, playing with my hands across the table; I watched his fingers caressing mine, instead. At one point I did chance a look up, and there was such an open look of sweetness on his face, it shocked me, warmed me to my toes. I didn’t look away that time.

It was late when he walked me back to my car, holding my hand, sharing jokes as we traversed the mostly empty streets. Standing by my car, lingering, I gave him an opening, surprising myself, and he wrapped an arm around me and pulled me into him. It was a hell of a first kiss — though I didn’t tell him then, not for a little while, that that’s what it had been. I was afraid he’d think of me as childish or pathetic, given my age, or worse: it might break the spell that seemed to have taken hold of me, and cover me back up with the veil that had always made me as invisible and unwanted as I’d always appeared to be. I was visible now; I wanted to be seen.

And so I was. I melted right into him, and forgot about everything else. It went on for several minutes, and genuinely made me weak in the knees; I sort of fell into the front seat of my car after we said good night. But I remember, too, how I could feel his knees trembling against my thighs, and how wonderfully endearing that felt, how awed I was by even the concept of having any sort of power over anyone to inspire such a reaction, let alone facing the reality of it pressed warmly up against me. *I’d gotten a parking ticket; something I could not afford to deal with then, and which should’ve both terrified me and pissed me off, and yet in that moment, and for hours afterward, even, I genuinely could not care even slightly about it. It had flown out of my head, along with just about everything else.

I even missed seeing a pothole on yet another unfamiliar street, on my way home, just before merging onto the late, near-empty 101 North (and later overshot my freeway exit, too). My car had already been making a lot of cranky noise about the slowly degrading control arm in its undercarriage, but following this it made even angrier noises related to this particular oversight for years afterward, though I never told him. Slightly damaging my car driving home from that first date in such a haze of wonder and lust and smitten energy remained a funny reminder of that night to me alone, even once I’d finally gotten it repaired, only just earlier this year. My mother would’ve understood, but my father never could have.

There was some great expression in me that had been waiting to be brought out, or is still forming even now, or perhaps there are yet many of them in me still, big and small ones, coming out all the time, while others lie in wait. I do know that I wouldn’t feel this about myself at all if not for the spigot opening that night, and his uncanny ability to continue to open me up beyond that intial spark, and help me to face all the things I’ve found there — good and bad, silly and sad, beautiful and ugly.

This was all only 10 days after we met; 10 days further on, and he’d be wrapped around me from behind in my car, in a seemingly impossible position, the physics of which I still can’t fully explain, gently stroking his fingers along the top of my breasts, just above the line of the tiny red dress I’d deliberately worn to the holiday party, working his hand under it to my bare skin while a cop car sat just 50 feet ahead of us. Fuck, was I in trouble.

But I knew that before then. I knew it out on those streets, when I realized as we struck out together in the night that I would’ve walked anywhere.

But it was mine in the first place/ so I’ll burn it to ash

Ash over sunrise (Rancho Peñasquitos, October 2007)

They called it, at the time — or at least one of the three fires that were boxing us in from north, east, and south — the Witch Fire. Looking back through my oldest journal, I realize it was almost exactly 10 years ago. I was still living with my mother, of course. I was still in college, though I wouldn’t be much longer. I already knew I wanted out of my hometown; I’d taken my first solo trip to Los Angeles a month prior, and fallen immediately in love with it. It would take me five more years, but I knew I had to get there. My hometown was burning on all sides but the ocean, and I figured, with the arrogance and cavalier attitude of youth, that it would either burn down with me trapped in it, or I would escape, and be free.

I had just turned 21. I had not fully abandoned my pursuit of a career in forensics yet, but I was on the cusp of it. This was around the time the idea that it was time to walk away began to really germinate in my brain, in fact, even if I hadn’t articulated it just yet. Time to throw it away, abandon my degree, move on, work past it, go somewhere else. I had not yet gotten my first bookstore job, but I would less than six months from then. That, of course, would become my real career, and eventually bring me here.

This post isn’t really about continuation, though; it’s more about its opposite, but I found the prompt to be a bit ironic when I saw it, for that very reason. I associate fire with decimation and rebirth, as most naturally do, and it’s come around again, with all that restlessness in the air it brings for me. There was ash on the hood of my car this morning, miles from where thousands of acres just outside Burbank burn. I took it as a timely sign to scrap some things, at least for now. Some ideas, some wishes, some projects, some mistaken areas of focus; a little bit of everything. One or two I may come back to sometime in the future; one is too late, for the time being, and another it is arguably far too soon to address properly. Some may never have a right time or place, and should just be allowed to burn away. But I often have a hard time letting go of things, so by the time the fires will hopefully be contained, they may not be quite gone. Time will tell, as always.

Ten years ago, I couldn’t sleep, much like this week, though the reasons were different. (Now: financial stress, general anxiety, interpersonal problems, a horrendous heat wave, and two straight days of horribly timed power outages forcing me out of my home, scraping together what I can until it all blows over.) Then: there were three separate, large and growing fires, all moving toward my mother and I; one moving north from near the border, one moving west from the inland hills, and another moving south from not far from where I live now. We were on evacuation notice for three days, our cars already packed up, wondering how we would deal with the cat, and where we could go. All the fire had to do, at the worst point, was catch the right (wrong) wind and hop a single freeway, and we would be toast. We were just waiting on that call, which could come at any time (back when we still had a land line, though even then, calls like these were really one of the only remaining reasons to still have one). The air was so thick with ash that even stepping outside for a moment or two made your eyes water and your throat constrict.

Still, I felt agitated, and weary of a near-constant vigil watching the news for updates. My mother was trying to nap in her room. I snuck outside, a bandana stretched over the lower half of my face, and got all scraped up climbing the ten foot brick wall that surrounded our condo complex to perch on the edge of it to watch the sun rise. I waited, breathing shallowly, in the eerie silence, on my moment. No one was awake who hadn’t already left for a shelter, and the birds and coyotes had all gone. The near-blinding light began to creep over the edges of the hills to the east, painting a momentarily oblivion-white edge along their jagged lines, before rising slowly through the unnaturally heavy sky, and I snapped the above photograph.

Later in the day, the sky was so dark with ash and smoke, the sun was red in a permanently dusky sky, so dark and strangely colored it could have been any hour of the day at all; the illusion of time felt shattered.

Midday sun in fire season (Rancho Peñasquitos, October 2007)

I eventually made my way back inside, coughing. I would soon begin to change the course of my life, to burn to ash what had been my focus for some years, and hope to start fresh. In much smaller ways, it feels a bit like I’m doing that again now, if only in my mind this time. The silence around me now is of a very different kind, and has enveloped me for entirely different reasons, but it’s unsettling in much the same way. But change is change is change; rebirth of any kind only rises from ashes, so something has to be sacrificed to the flames. Back then, we sat inside, and we waited. I am waiting on something different now. I’m curious to see what sort of sun rises on me tomorrow.

 

via Daily Prompt: Continue

Bumper

The afternoon sun slants through the blinds; sometimes there is a birdcage hanging in the window, a towel covering most of it, obscuring a wildly excitable parakeet, and other times there is not. I sit in the stuffed chair, and the boy sits between my feet, on the floor, in front of the coffee table and the television, Toonami on the screen and a bowl of Rice Krispies cereal buried in brown sugar in front of him. He finishes off his after-school snack and his episode of Ronin Warriors, and heads upstairs to work on his homework. I’m left alone in the family room, waiting for Sailor Moon to come on, doing homework of my own. He is either in grade school, or junior high. I am in the latter; at other times, high school. Later, he’ll ask to go play outside at the round, dead-end of our cul-de-sac, by the communal basketball hoop, where I can keep watch from the living room window, while reading on the couch. Few of these details will change much, from one day to the next, year to year. The shadows fall and move across the wall as the day wears on, until his parents come home later, before dinner. The curtains are always open. No matter how familiar it might become, there is a certain kind of quiet that only surrounds your ears in someone else’s house.

Looking back on afternoons like these, I can’t possibly count how many there were. I babysat him for years. He was very quiet, and so was I; at his age, I spoke even less. His older sister played “Hummer” for me off her Siamese Dream cassette — by which I mean she let me hover in the doorway of her bedroom upstairs while it played, and she ignored me. When you are so habitually quiet, this is easy for people to do. Their parents let me use the internet on their home computer, years before we had one in ours. His father called me Nori. I’d sit in his office and chat with my best friend Matt on AIM while we played goofy online games. I possess — always have, still do — a very odd sort of sentimentality about things, and in a binder somewhere packed away, I still have a few printouts of some of those chat logs. (I couldn’t tell you why I printed them out then, nor now. I just did.) So much, of so little.

Maybe things have always felt as if they may slip away from me at any time, even when I was young, and I’ve always attempted to capture what memories I could in whatever strange places I could enmesh them. I’ve never been able to justify this feeling, but I think it must always have been with me. I have a very sharp visual (and aural) memory, almost eidetic. I have a couple of boxes hidden away in my room even now, in my 30s, associated with certain people, filled with such random objects and pieces of paper. When processing crime scene photos in college, I often morbidly wondered what a stranger would make of all the tiny, seemingly random little nothings that comprise a life and litter my small spaces in the world, when I would one day inevitably leave them behind; the things that shaped and tethered me, removed from context in death, left with nothing more to do but be thrown away, forgotten, to gather dust. There is a bittersweet little matchbook sitting one of my shelves of knick-knacks at home, and I can tell you exactly who gave it to me, and when, and how it felt to me then to receive it. Considering what a nothing object it is, long forgotten by anyone but me, this can seem awfully absurd. I have no explanations or excuses for my brain doing these things. I often wish it wouldn’t.

Slow afternoons as a child and young adult feel so different to look back on, let alone compare to what slow days feel like in adulthood. I suspect this is mostly to do with the same reason why any other passage of time feels so different the older you get, why time seems to fly through an hourglass the more it passes. When you are a child, an afternoon represents a much larger chunk of the time you’ve lived up to that point than it would today. Birthdays, holidays, vacations, they all seem so much further apart; and to you, at that time in fact, they are, in a way they never will be again. I don’t remember afternoons dragging, to me, as a child — but I’m sure that they must have! children can be some of the most impatient beings on earth — I only remember them now as if they are warm, quiet, heavy moments, like flies suspended in amber. This effect, which can only exist in hindsight, may also be tied in to the general lack of obligation that children can enjoy, up to a point — we do usually have to go to school, but until I began working at 15, that was the main structure around which my whole life existed; everything else was flexible, open, and so free to be wasted. I must have whiled away hundreds, if not thousands, of afternoons in that living room, with that little boy, with very little changing. And yet then, just as now, time was passing; my gawky limbs were lengthening and lines were already beginning to form on my face — we were growing up, growing older. Growing old. These days, any slow passage of time takes work to appreciate and enjoy, if my head is not in the right space. I can easily look at it as wasted, stagnant, lonely, and with regret. What other things could I have been doing? Productivity is such an ugly word. I imagine this may be one of the great things that kills so many artists once they begin to grow up. Productivity is where daydreams flatten out into nothing, where mindless doodling goes to die.

Summer is here now, which is a largely meaningless season outside the construct of school, as work doesn’t have an off-season (or at least, not for most of us). The air is heavy with heat, and the light is golden and sharp on the eyes. I wish I had grown to accept and thrive more in isolation then than it seems I ultimately did — it is a much more uphill battle now, sometimes, particularly as my solitude increases of late. This uncomfortable place between a restless mind and a peaceful one is likely the biggest place for my anxieties to hide and thrive. Whatever losses I did — and still do — mourn recently, I am much better at tackling it than I have been in several years, to be sure. There was definitely some adjustment necessary, learning to be alone in a much bigger, darker, more wide-open city. Walking around it alone is essential, and I always should be doing more of this. But there will probably always be a part of me that envies my younger self — she will crawl out of dark corners like a snake — and her ability to pay far less attention to time passing, most of all to those countless hours passed alone.

Undoing the laces

This past month, I skipped a period. Thanks to the current state of my social life, this was fortunately no cause for alarm, and the only reason I noticed it is that, for the past couple of years, I’ve been using an app to track it (for the times when it would be more pertinent to know). When I was younger, it took years for my cycle to stabilize; as a late teen and even into my 20s, I’d sometimes go two or even three months without having one at all, though I have no idea why it took so long to even out. This is only noteworthy now because it jogged a memory in mind which I typically am able to successfully avoid thinking of. The last time I skipped a period, it was because I was pregnant.

This is not something I even have to actively shy away from thinking of often, both because a good amount of time has passed now, and also likely because of how strangely I processed it as it happened (namely at a strange remove from both myself and my body, in hindsight, likely as a means of self-preservation when I felt frighteningly out of control of both). But every now and then, some small thing or comment might bring it back to me, and I try to dodge it as quickly as possible. I don’t feel any pain or emotional distress about it, and I’m not sure that I ever really did; I simply don’t see the point in staying with that thought. It is past. It happened, and then it didn’t, and life goes on.

My sex life in general, and with the partner in question, is irregular enough that, once I figured out what had happened, I knew immediately when it had happened — two days before the end of 2014. It had been a relatively busy day. We worked, we had a business meeting, we drove back to my place, we talked and relaxed a little while. He discovered there was a health scare with a relative, after receiving a phone call from a family member. (Ironically, the relative in question passed away later that same day, though he didn’t find this out until a bit later, probably the following day. Insert whimsical musing from a more spritual person than I about the cycles of life and death: here.) I remember it still as some of the most intense and intimate sex we had ever had up to that point; I remember looking down at his face in the dusky light coming through my window, and the way he looked back up at me. (I even hit a fun personal record that day, actually, if I remember right; I have yet to top it.) We made it last a long time, and I remember plenty of what was said, still, and how it felt. All of it was quite memorable even before the date gained any extra significance. I still get a little warm, even now, thinking back on it.

Thinking back now, the most recent time we were together was New Year’s Day, the start of this year, and it was a lovely and surpring way to start it. But I also remember, later that same day, suddenly realizing, I think while sitting and reading in a cafe, that at that same time, two years prior, I would have been (unknowingly) pregnant.

The fact is, I didn’t find out that I was pregnant until it was already over. I found out because of that, in fact. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t aware that something was different; I was. (Describing it to a friend later, one who had also had a pregnancy scare earlier in her life, she agreed with me completely that the only way to describe it was just: “weird.”) I didn’t feel sick, or in pain; I just knew that something was fundamentally off about my body, whatever it was. I couldn’t explain it, but it was foreign, and it frightened me. I gaslighted myself about it a good bit for a while, because plenty of other factors in my life at that time were putting me through the ringer. I was being systematically abused and harrassed at work, to the point that the stress was affecting my health in numerous ways, both mentally and physically, though I couldn’t see just how badly so until it was over. I assumed, at first — or at least told myself, because it was less frightening — that I felt so weird simply because I was so stressed about money, constantly under attack at work, and never felt free from stress. And when I missed my period, I told myself that these were also the reasons why. Stress causes skipped periods all the time. It was nothing to worry about, and I certainly didn’t need any extra worry. I am fine. Stop thinking about it. I am fine.

My partner, and dear friend, of course picked up on this. There was even a moment where I could tell he suspected, consciously or unconsciously (I still don’t know which), exactly what I was afraid was happening, even as I denied it to myself. He gave me a particular look, at the end of a work day, while holding me by the hips; I said, “What?” and pretended I didn’t know what had just crossed his mind, and he said, “What? Nothing,” back, just as defensively as I had, and we were then united in pretending that neither of us was thinking about this at all. After this point, I’m sure he dismissed the thought entirely, because he told me later he hadn’t known what specifically I was worried about. And why wouldn’t he forget about it? This was my body that was beginning to feel foreign to me. He couldn’t feel any of it. Still, he asked me to come over later that night, after I was done with work, because he was still concerned about me, and I did. He knew that I was seriously worried about something, and did not pry. I was relieved, because I was completely incapable, at that moment, of confessing what I was thinking. I was terrified; both of myself, and what he would think of me, however irrational that was.

(My Google search history around this time, in retrospect, was hilarious. It had started as simply as searching for the strangely unquantifiable “symptoms” I was experiencing. Once “what are the signs of early pregnancy” became the first suggestion to pop up, I felt singled out by a fatal spotlight like an inmate attempting to escape from prison, and panicked. Once I let myself go down that rabbit hole, I moved fully into terror. My search history then shifted: First, “Does Medicaid in California cover abortion?” Then, “What does abortion cost through Planned Parenthood?”, and so on. I started reading about what going through one feels like, and felt sick, and more afraid than ever. I wondered if I would have to go alone, before I even knew if I’d have to go at all. The only way I could answer that question was if I confronted how cowardly I felt about telling anyone what was happening, or even what I suspected was wrong. I told no one. I was entirely paralyzed by fear.)

Curled up in his lap on his couch, I still did not tell him. I justified this by telling myself: We’re both anxiety-prone and mildly hypochondriacal. I don’t want to tell him anything until I know there IS a concrete thing to even worry about. This was a purely honest reasoning, but I’m not sure I’ve ever decided whether it was the fair or right thing to decide. But ultimately, I kept quiet. He held me close and tight, stroked my head under his chin, and said: “It will be okay. I’ll always take care of you.” Despite my crippling panic, I believed him. And I felt a bit better. Better enough, at least, to leave his place near midnight, drive immediately to Ralph’s — lying and saying I had already made it home — to buy my first ever pregnancy test. It was not cheap, because none of them are. I silently begged the young male cashier to not judge me for coming in, alone and pale, after midnight in the middle of the week, and buying nothing but that. Blessedly, he said nothing, and simply wished me a good night. I smiled, because I felt like throwing up, and didn’t feel capable of speaking to anyone.

I had read online — because, in America, shamefully, that’s likely your best source of sex ed, and it was never a question I’d needed answered until then; I was 28 — that the best time to take a pregnancy test is in the morning, just after waking up. This meant attempting to sleep first, which felt impossible, but I must have, because I do recall waking up the next day, feeling like a stone had replaced my entire stomach. By this time, though there had been some spotting and inexplicable pains very different from cramps — which was what had set me off on my bouts of paranoid Googling in the first place — my period was over two weeks late.

I got up and did what I had to, then sat and waited. I think I had to put my head between my knees to calm down, as I hadn’t eaten yet, and felt like I might pass out. Every joke about how long the two minutes is where you are waiting on one mark or another to appear in a little white window are true, and I can only recognize now what a cruel joke that is. I finally checked it, and my hand was shaking. What will I do? What am I going to do? What is going to happen to me? kept flashing across my brain like a visual siren. I still hadn’t even begun to answer any part of that question. I had never been so frightened, nor felt more alone, that I could recall, in my life. But then: it was negative.

I wouldn’t find out until the following month — when that period seemed to arrive early, heavy, bloody, and more painful than any other I had ever experienced — what had happened. By the time I took the test, I had already miscarried. That early on, it’s called simply a chemical miscarriage, which I found out — now searching online through a haze of stupid relief and mild confusion — actually occurs a large percentage of the time, but is rarely talked about, because it happens so often and so early (though is part of why there’s something of an unspoken rule about announcing a pregnancy until after a later benchmark has already been reached). It was extremely painful, and I knew what it meant, but I still did not tell him. I kept the blood and pain to myself. I still cannot say why I did this, because I do not know. I did not ever actively decide to keep silent. I don’t even recall thinking of doing anything differently.

I was racked with too many other worries, I suppose, to even consider doing more than laughing hollowly to myself, “Well, there’s an abortion I don’t have to get!” and moving on. But all the other stresses from before had not gone away; many had, in fact, only gotten worse. In just two weeks, I would be wrongfully terminated from my job. I had never been fired before, and had — at the most generous and optimistic estimate — no more than three weeks in which I could conceivably be without work before I’d have to start thinking about whether I could survive living out of my car. I had no time or space in my mind to think about it. It was over. Before I even realized what had happened, it was already over. So it didn’t really matter, right?

I didn’t even use the word “miscarriage” until several months later, in the midst of a conversation with a trusted friend; I think it was as late as November. We were discussing how crazy my former job had gotten toward the end, from the safe remove of hindsight, and I shocked even myself when the words “It caused me so much stress I literally miscarried” came out of my mouth. She looked as surprised as I felt to hear them. But, of course, Oh. That is what happened.

That night, I finally did tell him. I knew immediately that he was shocked and hurt that it had taken me nearly an entire year to confess this to him — though I had never actively kept it from him, as far as I knew — and felt horrible. But I had just… moved past it. I didn’t think of it. It happened, I barely examined it, concentrated instead on getting a new job, then adjusting to that job, and so on. Life moved on, and the more time passed, the less I thought of it, if at all. I tried as best I could to express this to him, but I’m not sure he ever understood. He was able to laugh a bit and shakily joke about it, just as I had done (“I guess that’s your free pass!” and “We would make really cute children, but uh, not right now.“), but not before he said, “I’m sorry you lost it.” I didn’t dare ask him what that meant, because I realized it likely didn’t mean much of anything, but maybe that I felt the same, and that I couldn’t fully understand what that meant to me.

I know, in hindsight, that it complicates my feelings on children somewhat, which I have never wanted — a woman like me should never bear a child — and in particular, these days, with the current state of the world, it feels just cruel to me to even consider. My mother, though never the sort to expect me to procreate, nor push me to, used to gently say, now and then, “You might change your mind someday!” Because, yes, one can never truly say “never,” and also because that is what had happened to her. But I always quietly resented it. Once, just before I moved to Los Angeles, when I was riddled with those particular fears and stresses, I had the most vivid and horrifying nightmare I could recall having as an adult: though I wasn’t yet sexually active at the time, my worst stress dream manifested in a fiction where literally everything else about my life was normal and exactly the same, except for being roughly 7 months pregnant, and having no idea how it had happened. I felt deep, visceral horror at it, that I was hosting a parasite (not an inaccurate comparison). I woke up just on the very edge of what would have been the first fully-fledged panic attack of my life, nearly hyperventilating. It took me at least a half hour to calm down. My mother finally stopped dropping her little comment after that.

I’ve never asked what he meant by that Sorry; I imagine it was mostly more along the lines of, I’m sorry you had to go through this, or I’m sorry for my part in this, or I’m sorry that you didn’t tell me sooner, or simply I’m sorry that a bad and painful thing happened to you. It might have been all of those things at once. Maybe he even shared some of the inexplicable sorry that I also felt, and could not explain, but that would hover in the back of my mind when I would remember, at random moments, the fact that, somehow, despite protective measures, at that time, some of his cells began to combine with mine to make what might, theoretically, have eventually been a new person, but of course, for so many reasons, never could have. That this was likely, for better or worse, the closest I would ever come to having a child. The inexpressible sorry that says: It’s just… strange to realize that that’s something that happened to you (to me). I don’t know. But it did.

I do know how silenced I was by so many irrational and shamefully selfish fears, surely heightened by my anxiety disorder, back then: How could it not change everything between us? What if he never wanted to touch me again? How could I even justify to myself having both those worries in my mind at the same time? Some small part of me is probably just as irrationally (if not even more so) afraid of the same things now, simply in writing this. Whether this is because of the strange stigma and silence that surrounds women and miscarriage, or the constant change that exists both in relationships and in life, or simply because love — being as hideously complex as it is — involves both selfishness and selflessness, simultaneously, and pokes at our very deepest fears, I don’t know. I do know that I am a worrier, to a typically ridiculous degree, because that is the largest part of what having an anxiety disorder means, and I also know that most of the time, my worries end up being completely unjustified. But I also know that some form of this post has existed in my head, off and on, for many months, and apparently needs to be written down somewhere, because it has not gone away. It was keeping me from sleeping last night, even. I don’t know what that means, either.

I do know that, almost exclusively, my favorite songs — or at least ones that I can fixate on or end up sitting with on repeat for hours — by artists trend almost exclusively toward the melancholy or mournful: Michael Jackson’s “Stranger In Moscow,” Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street,” Pink Floyd’s “Take It Back,” Aimee Mann’s “Real Bad News,” Bloc Party’s “Signs,” David Usher’s “Devil by My Side,” Genesis’s “Carpet Crawlers,” Harry Nilsson’s “Remember (Christmas),” and so on, and on… And I know that, long before I knew what the lyrics were largely about, my favorite Fleetwood Mac song was “Sara.” It still is. But the way in which it speaks to me now, I realized when listening to it recently, is slightly different. And I don’t know how to feel about that. I don’t know that I’ll ever know.

Hold on
The night is coming, and the starling flew for days
I’d stay home at night, all the time
I’d go anywhere, anywhere, anywhere…
Ask me and I’m there
Ask me and I’m there, I care…

Day for Night

Certain winter nights with the right amount of moisture and fog in the Los Angeles air mean it almost feels warm, even when you find yourself dressed in at least three layers to keep the chill out of your bones. The low hanging clouds refract the city lights in all directions in a soft, fiery-toned magenta glow, like a diffuse filter in a photographer’s studio, throwing the iconic palm trees into permanent, postcard perfect silhouette.

I walk a slightly longer path home from work in this season, crossing the street an extra time and back to share the same side as the Christmas tree lot that crops up every year above the otherwise abandoned lot that once housed a gas station, leaking tanks still crumbling beneath our feet. Here in Hollywood, the trees are almost suspiciously symmetrical, standing ready in the setting sun to take rides on the roofs of cars tied down with twine, to grace the living rooms of the fanciest, brightest homes. As a child, though, I always grew unreasonably attached to the weirdest trees of them all — the sadder and more lopsided the better — just like Charlie Brown; once, when I was four or five years old, according to my mother, I apparently was on the verge of tears at the idea of leaving behind a particularly funny-looking tree, convinced no one else would take it home, that it would be lonely if we left it behind.

I drove around for hours tonight, presumably on the hunt for a silly little item, though not all that concerned with actually finding it. I migrated between three different locations of the same chain, none of which had it (though apparently any one of them should have), and wasn’t particularly bothered with the failure of the quest. In a more negative mood, I would definitely have described it as a waste of gas, considering the quest took me from Glendale, to Burbank, back to my old neighborhood in Van Nuys, and back home again, with little else to show for the miles clocked.

The legions of holiday lights strung out among houses and apartment buildings certainly helped; I found myself smiling alone in my car passing them by, in some areas not able to look in enough directions at once to take them all in. Holiday lights have been a lifelong beloved sight for me, ever since my earliest days of my father teetering up on the rickety metal ladder outside the house I grew up in, swearing to himself as he nailed them along the eaves of the house and above the garage door; the two little bulbs of a special type he would leave for last, carefully switching out our white front porch lights for one red, and one green. In a city this size, you see all kinds; the McMansions, professionally strung up to an almost gaudy degree, though still impressive in a way that makes me smile, too, sometimes two across the same street, brightly one-upping each other. My favorites though are always in the smaller neighborhoods; quirkier, more haphazard and multi-colored displays across so many more little homes, sweetly defiant little twinkling points of light shining from a single apartment balcony on the upper floor of an otherwise dark facade looming in the night.

Taking a detour through my old neighborhood, the first I lived in in this city, tugged slightly at me; my throat tightened a bit, recalling the particular feeling of making certain long drives to and from it during my first winter… of what was happening to me, my heart, my life, back then; how it can somehow, already, feel so long ago, even now.