It can be lonely next to you

The power of memory to edit can be a strange thing. It’s understandable — our brains are constantly reshuffling what we can recall from where, the older we get, so it’s the essentials that tend to stick. Mine is stronger, particularly visually, than average, but even so, the mundane moments between the highlights are as unlikely to stick with me as they are for anyone else.

I find myself wondering lately: How did I do it? In the beginning, the early parts, how did I manage what seems to have become so challenging now? Did it hurt? Was it confusing? Was it so much quieter? It must have been, and yet…

How did the time pass, and where was my head then? My emotional state then, how maddening could it have been for me? How anxious, how habitual, how manageable? Was it easier because there were fewer expectations, because I had no idea what would happen? Not that I have any better idea what might happen now, but how was it I could accept that so much more easily then? Did I? Or have I just forgotten those struggles in order to make room for what I’m wrestling with now? How did those days, those nights feel? How much have I edited out, for brevity? There must have been more of them then, and yet…

I wish I could call her up — younger me — and ask her: What are you thinking right now? How are you feeling? How are you doing it? (You don’t even know what it is you’re doing, do you? It just seems like that now, because now is not then.) (Younger me, probably, were this possible: “What the fuck are you even talking about?”) Hang in there; watch yourself. You will get careless, difficult, complacent. You will find new ways to create problems you don’t have to. You will end up stuck only because you walled off your best options with fear. Take it easy. Don’t get so ahead of yourself. Don’t confuse hopes with plans, which can be a trap. Be open, which is not the same thing as hovering over the precipice of holes you’ve already dug. The latter only means you’ll end up working so hard to control your future you’ll run headlong into a brick wall of your own making. You don’t like to be wrong, and you don’t like to be afraid, but in order to be prepared for whatever comes next, you have to allow yourself to be both. Whatever feels so insurmountable to you now — and it must be something; probably several somethings, everything is so new and scary and impossible to predict — will pass, to the point you can’t even recall it now. Can you even imagine? You got through it, you learned from it, you made yourself more. You are stronger than you realize, and yet…

Thinking back, so many of the best things, the best moments, the best experiences — you know the ones I mean — were never planned or expected. (Remember how your heart raced, how suddenly everything seemed so open ahead of you? It was because you allowed yourself to give up control, to be afraid, to move past it, to step into the unknown, to not pretend you had any idea what might happen. That’s where the magic was. That was brave. Stop, breathe, wait, look around: you can surprise yourself again.) Often they completely surprised me, snuck up on me, occurred despite things seeming unlikely or hopeless or somehow otherwise dire. The surprise in them was a bigger part of what made them great — made them memorable — than I think I have allowed myself to remember.

The revisionist in my head likes to look back and claim she knew what she was doing, she had a plan, she laid out all the pieces in order that That happened, and This was wonderful, and There was where we ended up. She’s also a liar, of course. I didn’t plan any of it. I couldn’t have; no one can. The illusion of control over one’s life is not confined to the present. I can tell myself that hopes being realized and plans coming to fruition were one and the same, though they were in fact nothing of the kind. My hopes only came true when I let them linger quietly and stayed open, did not impose plans upon them at all. They came true almost in spite of me. They were most fruitful when I got out of their way.

glance

This photo of me, which I took by mistake — I’m clearly not paying attention; I thought the lens was facing the other way — is one of the rare ones of myself that I love. (Candids are almost always my favorite photos, of anyone.) I want to look that lovely all the time, and yet apparently I probably do, or so I’ve been told; I look so hard the rest of the time, pick every little thing apart, until I can’t even see it. But there it is, right there: and it was a mistake. It, and the moment I captured within it, is vivid and worth keeping almost entirely for that reason. It’s okay. Just get out of the way. It sounds easy, but it’s not. Do it anyway.

I want to allow the world to surprise me more. I want to surprise myself again. I will.

Just have the courage to open up to yourself
Then we can be free, yes
I wanna be free…

Advertisements

Late fall

This can be a very specifically melancholy time of year for me, while at the same time I enjoy the feel of the season and the weather more than probably any other time. Growing up in Southern California, never having lived anywhere else, I can easily say that our versions of the fall and winter seasons are the period I enjoy most. And yet, I somehow forget in the warmer months, but am inevitably reminded every year once again in the midst of the colder ones, that I seem cursed to remember too many things — things that are particularly tied to this time of year in my mind — that can be both wonderful and painful to remember, or simply make me ache. Sometimes I deeply hate it. But, though I’m quite sure it’s only me now who does — those of us who are easily forgotten always seem to have far sharper memories than everyone else around us — it seems I remember everything. And sometimes, one of them will take hold of my mind, wrapping itself around me by the throat, constricting it with emotion held back. It can even become difficult for me to swallow; my eyes will well up until I stubbornly blink it all back.

Late last night, despite the impending return of more unwelcome heat due later in the week, I was surprised to discover it raining, slowly, drops trickling down through the trees out back so softly I nearly missed the sound, as if they were falling almost accidentally. It dropped me suddenly backward in time as I poked my fingers through the living room blinds, in that way memories return so much more immediately to me in this season, to years earlier, when I was just getting settled into my first place. When I had moved here, it was late September and still unbearably hot at times, but by the time I was just finally starting to tentatively poke my frightened roots into the cracks in the concrete to see whether they would accept or reject me, little pockets of rain were beginning to burst over the city. If I had found enough of my way through those cracks, I hoped it might water me, too; maybe it would let me grow. I was still too afraid to allow myself to hope. I’ve so often been bitten back by life for hoping for anything, it’s still something I almost seem to punish myself for feeling, though I’m learning to at least curb that instinct somewhat. Even then, in spite of myself, it was slowly blossoming inside me, daring to insist I belong here, in a way I had never belonged anywhere.

I fell back still further to a particular night then, a little later in the year; one of the more (if not most) important ones. It had threatened with gray clouds all day then, too, but seemed noncommittal, only to finally burst out in a little pocket of droplets like surprise party confetti late in the night. After moving inside among the false neon warmth to keep dry, we had gone out to walk back along the dark, slick, glistening streets, red and green and yellow lights winking at us from the ground. There were still little beads of water left shining on the hood of my car, though the parking ticket — my first — was defiantly dry. But back then, though I should have, I couldn’t even care. My hand was warm and something large and new and terrifying and deeply life-altering was beginning to yield like the halves of an oyster’s shell, peeking open inside my chest to reveal some hidden pearl.

Sitting here last night, before the rain came, in the same spot I write this from this morning, I read one of those sentences in a book that sneaks up on you and devastates you with a longing so deep and specific and almost desperate that it physically hurts. I was at work, but I could have cried. For a moment, I thought my near-constant stoicism might crack a bit and I actually would.
But I stubbornly swallowed it back, as I always try to do, and — along with the rain, by this morning — it had gone back, hidden away somewhere unseen, though sure to reemerge, just as the cold soon will.

City of Angels

Four years ago today, I moved to Los Angeles.

I was afraid I might be running away, the sort of running away you engage in when trying to escape yourself — both impossible to accomplish and impossible to resist attempting — and maybe I was. I’m not even sure now, because returning to the state of mind I was in then is impossible. Considering how unhappy I was then, this is a relief, even if it makes the me of my early 20s essentially a stranger to me now. I don’t know how that girl was somehow able to spend so much time so alone, doing so little; I don’t know how she survived wasting the countless hours on the horrible jobs she did. I don’t now how she survived to become me, but perhaps that’s the key word: survival can erase everything but the barest essentials from your life. You can withstand things that might cripple you under other circumstances, or that might seem insurmountable from the outside, purely because human beings are as stubborn about surviving as a virulent strain of some horrible plague. We keep thinking things cannot be survived, and then survive them, almost in spite of ourselves.

One of the best novels I’ve read this year was centered around the multiple universe theory of physics. (Well, funnily enough, that’s actually true of the plots two of the best novels I’ve read this year…) The concept of the various versions of yourself you both do and do not become (or, rather, the version you become in one timeline versus another) has always been something I’ve thought of now and then, but the plot of a book bringing physical manifestation to that idea made me think on it more. Who would I have become if I hadn’t come here? How much longer could I have survived my life as it existed then? One of the few things I do remember vividly from that time is how desperate I had become to change my circumstances; I would have done just about anything to do so. I had no money, and I let that keep me from making the move for years, but eventually even that could not stop me. I risked living out of my car to get away. To come here. I only escaped that potentially disastrous outcome by the very thinnest skin of my teeth, with some unexpectedly generous outside help, and through some pretty absurd (and uncharacteristic) luck.

The first month was hell. I told no one, because I didn’t have the words, and there was really no one to tell, besides. I burst into tears in my car on several occasions, in full view of any strangers who might see through un-tinted windows; whoever I was becoming, I was frighteningly different from the woman who, just weeks before, had never even shed a tear in front of the friend she’d had since she was seven years old. It shocked and confused me; I felt like a stranger to myself. Whatever I thought I knew so solidly about myself, my identity; nothing felt certain anymore. I ate very little, and poorly; I couldn’t afford to do otherwise. On more hopeless days, I thought I might be losing my mind. Just who did I think I was, driving a U-Haul up here with absurdly unfocused hopes of finding some kind of salvation in a new city? At least actors, actresses, writers — the ceaseless tide of people who come here with dreams of becoming part of The Industry — have some idea in mind of who they want to become, of what life they want to find or manufacture. I had nothing. I didn’t have any sense of who I was then, and no idea who I might possibly be. I looked at the choice I had made the night I arrived, sitting on the floor alone in an unfamiliar apartment littered with cardboard boxes, and the brazen stupidity and recklessness of what I had done crashed over me like a wave. (And that was before I realized I’d left my cell phone with my friend already on his way back to my hometown, and knew literally no one in the city.) I can be terribly cruel to myself, but I’m sure I’ve never berated myself with more force than I likely did then, knowing I had no way to go back should I change my mind or fuck up, no safety net of any kind to protect me if I failed, and no idea at all how to move forward. I’m amazed I didn’t actually throw up. Probably all that stopped me was sheer stubbornness and an empty stomach.

bw04

Alta Loma & Holloway (West Hollywood)

But I had felt the energy here, so many times before, during brief visits to the city; all the people in the midst of creating or striving, and felt so drawn in by it, you could have measured the polarity inside me changing with a multimeter.

Whenever I came back to visit my hometown in the future, I wanted to be nearly unrecognizable from who I had been before. I guess I never knew, until it propelled me here, how powerful a motivator self-hatred can be. If you are determined enough to become a person you don’t hate anymore, you can do just about anything. It will sting your throat like bile and make your insides feel scraped out and raw, but you won’t be the same on the other side of it. You’ll shed the skin of your former self like some venomous snake.

Not much later, I met someone who not only forced me to confront my honest, truest, sometimes ugliest self, but saw through all that to the better and best parts of me, then chose (and still chooses) to remind me of them often. He thought I was beautiful even at my messiest and most lost (and still does, though I can still be plenty messy now). He looked at me and didn’t see anything other than who I really was, before I even knew how to see her fully. He helped me build a safe place to discover her for myself. Now, we get to move forward together, too; we get to build new things, forge new paths. I get to be braver than I knew I could be. But that version of me was always in there, somewhere, or I don’t believe I could be her now. I had to earn the right to meet her, then to become her. It was the hardest, most necessary, work I’ve ever done.

bw01

Kauai Surf apartment complex (Martha St., Van Nuys)

I found an amazing city. I found streets I loved to walk on, and places I loved to walk to, things I loved to do. The first place I lived here was not ideal, but it was preparation for where I would end up next, which pretty much is. Sometimes, still, I walk through my neighborhood, or further out, and feel the breeze move through me like wings fluttering in my chest. I feel so full of love for my city I could run over with it like an overflowing cup. I’ve found a kind of home and peace here I don’t believe I’ve had anywhere else. I found wonderful friends. I found good work. I found inspiration, which had been absent so long I was afraid I’d lost it forever. I sat at a table in a dumpy little burger joint late at night, after coming in from a bit of rain, let someone hold my hand and really look me in the eye, and took a step toward an unknown future, cracking my heart wide open to any and all of it like an eggshell. All of these things are, in a way, part of the same single choice I made to point my car north and set out alone for whatever I could carve out in the world for myself. It was — all of it, simultaneously — the best, bravest, craziest, most terrifying, and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I never knew I had it in me until I had already done it, and by then there was no turning back. Not that I ever would have.

bw06

Fatburger (Santa Monica & Vista, West Hollywood)

I blogged throughout all of this, sometimes in painstaking detail (albeit on another site) to bolster my memory —  to this day I know (and am grateful for knowing) that particular memories are especially vivid to me because I documented them while they were freshest in my mind — and later, as I allowed it to become more personal, more therapeutic; to understand, or at least attempt to make some sense of myself. I still do. I’m doing it now.

It wasn’t a painless process by any means; I’ve weathered things since coming here that brought hurts with them deeper than anything I’d experienced before. But I’ve earned what I’ve made, and part of it comes with and through those things, too. Nothing worth having comes without struggle, or so they say. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience plenty of firsts in my life during my time here, too. Some infuriating (first parking ticket, moving violation and tow to the impound, though thankfully not all at once), some disgusting (cockroach infestation! thanks to the messiest roommate ever, also my first, of the non-familial variety), some exhilarating and transporting (kiss, and all that followed it), some shocking (celebrity friends (?)), others all manner of bizarre (too many to list here, frankly). An on and on, and so it goes.

bw03

Spaulding & Santa Monica (West Hollywood)

Maybe you do have to start out running away — and maybe it doesn’t much matter what from — to end up finding the truest version of yourself. To each their own. Maybe fear and pain and risk and struggle have to combine in just the right way, at the right time — like chemicals in solution, under just the right control settings — in order to burn through whatever falsehoods and barriers you’ve constructed around yourself, until there is nothing left but your true, core self. It’s not that your real self never changes — it’s changing all the time; we are constantly remaking ourselves and relearning ourselves until the day we die — but that you reach that decisive point, where you make a choice: I will not stay still the better to hide from myself. I will keep moving forward to see myself more clearly.

I ran and I ran, I was looking for me […]
I ran and I ran, I’m looking there still […]
I ran and I ran
I’m still running away

Song lyrics are Madonna’s, © 1998, from my favorite song of hers; photographs are all mine, © Eleanore Studer. Shot long exposure throughout the city with my ’76 Nikon F2S on Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros black and white negative film, winter 2015/2016.

Doggerel

In my waking nightmare
time flows in a backward stream
slices around my hollow torso
forks between my trembling legs
drags the bed of my restless mind
dredging up memories like rocks

Recalling them runs me through
like little biting blades
so far behind me now
things I’d never dared wish for
already here and gone, never to return
greed for lost things scrapes away at my insides

No one cares to remember them
prefers them erased from the ledger
so: I do not turn my head
if I’m to be forever alone
hollowed out by lonely hope
mine stands as the only record

I was 10, 11, 12 years old, approaching the tail end of elementary school. My friend I’ll call K, for her first initial, lived nearby; one of my parents always had to drive me to see her, San Diego being labyrinthine and sprawling, disconnected canyon valleys and their answering hilltops spilling over with housing developments, even then. Her family was perhaps the only one I knew, growing up, that had even less money than mine. Their house was situated at the bottom of a firetrap hill, graded so steeply fire trucks couldn’t physically reach the bottom; she and I would whisper about this excitedly at times, wondering what might happen if the valley bottom burned. The house was surrounded by acres of dry brush kindling, that fit in with no other development anywhere near it, as though it was one remaining piece of an old, forgotten thing to be cleared away. The nightmares of Southern California children are built upon foundations shaken apart by earthquakes, swept away by flames.

It was a round house, or appeared that way from the outside, though it was either hexagonal or decagonal in its true shape. You picked your way through low-hanging tree branches and bush to find the front door, which was around the far end from the driveway where the massive hill bottomed out. When we wanted to walk the few miles to the nearest — and only — group of shops, the only thing within miles that wasn’t another house or apartment, the climb up that hill had already stolen most of our energy by the time we reached the top, the grade was so steep, baking in the sun. We would play basketball in the dirt under the shade of the one tree large enough to provide any. I had never painted my nails before visiting her, but she loved to paint mine, my tangled mess of hair, waist-length and still never cut by this age, spilling over her lap, getting in the way. I was a gawky, coltish tomboy with strangely girlish hands, according to her. We would sit together in her stuffy, perpetually dark room, which smelled like a girl’s space in a way that was new to me. A giant, glittery plastic Kaboodle kit full of pre-teen makeup and nail polish was forever laid open on her dressing table. I’d never even had a mirror in my own room, spending all my time running around in the dirt with boys, getting everything I wore covered in grass stains; all of this felt exotic and impenetrable to me. She had a routinely angry older sister who flitted in and out of the house, making a lot of noise, whose name I don’t remember.

We made up a secret language comprised entirely of stamps only made by a single set of Crayola stamp markers. There were a very limited number of shapes they could produce, which meant the code worked much like Morse: multiple instances of the same shape appearing in differing configurations meant different things. I don’t recall what any of them said; the construction of them was so painstaking, it likely didn’t matter all that much in the end. We were two poor, awkward, young girls who went to schools sorely lacking in other children like us. She saw the faded, fraying plaid shirt I kept tied around my waist, and recognized what it meant; she crossed the upper grades’ outside playground area, her large feet crunching on woodchips, and sought me out like a beacon. She was so much bigger than I was then, in all ways, and though I usually flinched away from being touched, I would let her wrap me up in gargantuan, enveloping hugs, sometimes.

A single star, stamped in yellow, stood for “A.” The pale blue asterisk was an “E.” She signed every note with the single goldenrod smiling face. I turned 13, just after her, and entered junior high; my new school sat on a grassy hill above the sea, I filled sidewalk blocks with chalk mazes, and she dissolved away.

Neighbors

(Today’s WordPress prompt is slowly. I made my up this old street, through these memories, and through these photos, especially: slowly.)

I think back on these people now as the first and last neighbors I will ever have. I simply have no reason to anticipate ever inhabiting a neighborhood like the one I grew up in again. There will certainly never be a day when I own a house, and the neighborhood I was raised in was comprised entirely of them. The people who surrounded me as I grew, who I came to understand and recognize as my neighbors, were a part of that environment, and do not exist outside of it; they are only of that place and time. Since then, I’ve only resided in apartments, or my mother’s condo. She knows some of her neighbors now, but they are not mine. Even in the six long years I lived there with her, in much the same way I never made the room in that condo my own — never finished unpacking many of my possessions, never organized things in a more pleasing manner, never hung anything on the walls — those people were never my neighbors; they were hers.

eyes

I drove slowly up and around that cul-de-sac, and was overcome by the knowledge that there was no one there who would know me. The sole remaining family from the 20-odd ones I once knew was not at home; the garage and windows were closed, no cars parked out front, no signs of life within. Even if there had been, I’m sure I wouldn’t have stopped my car, let alone gotten out, walked up to the door, and knocked. If the man who used to fondly call me “Nori” were there, or the woman whose young son used to do his homework under my watchful eye had been at home, I don’t expect either one would have recognized me. The last they had seen me, I was a fresh high school graduate; tall and still rather rail thin, with the only curves to my appearance still lingering around my face. My hair was long, blonde, and messy, down or habitually tied up, stuffed away at the nape of my neck. It was nearing half my lifetime ago, and I would have been a stranger. Nothing of me was left.

I drove a slow lap, marking each house as I passed it. Next door to us, one of the few single-story homes on the block, was Irene’s house. She had long since moved away — I wasn’t even sure whether she was still alive, a realization that filled me with a mixture of guilt and dismay — but I could only think of the house as hers. Hers was the living room in which I had sat on the area rug, petting her old mutt whose name I had forgotten, but whose soft, matted fur I remembered still; hers was the kitchen sink in which I had washed out her watercolor paint brushes after watching her fill a canvas with a precision I would never have, longing to be a painter myself, knowing I never would be. Hers was always the first door I knocked on as a Girl Scout, knowing she would be delighted just to see me on her front step. Hers was the husband who died when I was only four; who I knew would die the day before, standing in our guest room — which would later become my mother’s, after my parents separated — looking out the window in the late afternoon light, seeing him standing in the driveway.  My parents hadn’t yet attempted to explain death to me, as much as you can ever explain it to a child, but standing in that room, looking down at him, without him seeing me, not even knowing he was sick, I knew he would not see him again.

The next door down had housed a family from Switzerland, so naturally my father had immediately befriended them, despite their having come from the German part of the country, and my father coming from the French; his nationalism never wavered in the face of any other factors. The father was odd, but he is the only one I remember, because I had worked for him for a summer, attempting to organize his extraordinary mess of a home office. Struggling to alphabetize his folders in their clunky filing cabinets, often having to guess at the first two or three letters of words, because his handwriting was all but illegible, and if I ever guessed incorrectly, he never told me. From one day to the next, he would change his mind about how he preferred his books to be arranged; one day by author, the following by title, other days by subject, and so on. He was paying me, and I have always loved books, so I didn’t mind moving them around all over again. I could sense I was glimpsing the remaining fragments of an unusual and perhaps extraordinary life, given the evidence in those drawers of the places he had been and the things he had done. I remember he was fond of me for being a reader, and for playing the guitar, which he had once taught himself. Apparently that was all it took, though I could never say I knew him, let alone the rest of his family, well. Of his wife’s face I have only a vague impression now, framed by her short brown hair.

The next house was the Day’s, and the aforementioned last standing of the original families, or so my mother had told me. Their older daughter Allison’s room was where I had once sat and listened to “Hummer” for the first time on her cassette, on one of the few occasions she ever acknowledged my presence in the house, before I was old enough to look after her younger brother Tyler. Thinking of him made me ache now; the last I’d heard of him was that he had fallen away from his family and into heavy drug use. I still could only think of him as the best behaved child I had ever babysat, and my favorite. I looked after him long enough that we established a routine; the same bus that I had once taken to the same grade school would stop at the end of the street, drop him off, he would walk up and let himself in the front door. I would be sitting in the living room, doing my homework, waiting for the sound of his key in the lock, and his endearingly, extremely low voice announcing “Hello,” to me and the house. He would make himself a bowl of Rice Krispie’s cereal, with a heaping spoonful of brown sugar on top, watch cartoons for a half hour on the floor between my feet, then go upstairs to his room to do his homework. He would bring it to me to check over when he was finished, and then ask my permission to go outside and play. The house was situated in such a way on the street that when he did, I could see him through the living room windows, and make sure he was safe. For a brief period his parents had attempted to use Ritalin to curb his attention deficit disorder, which apparently caused him to struggle in school, but all it did — and this hurt to remember, too — was turn him into a shell of a person, all personality, energy, and feeling removed. This experiment didn’t last long, thankfully, but I couldn’t help but think of it now, passing his old home, and wondering how that might have informed the place he found himself in now, and I had to turn away.

The next house had never had children attached to it, as far as I ever knew, and as a result, I never knew the inhabitants well. On a small street with 26 kids apart from me, it remained quiet and separate. The next belonged to my childhood best friend.

Josh had been born almost exactly a month before me, and his mother and mine were friends — and later, the church-going kind. Dawn often played Christian rock cassettes in her huge blue minivan when driving us to school some mornings, when one of us was too late to make the bus. They had us play together as babies while they talked in the evenings, and I do not remember a time, as a child, that I didn’t know him, his sisters, his parents, his backyard, his house. It all seemed to exist as simply a phantom extension of mine, as if the four houses between ours were not really there. His much older half-sister was a model, and a former Chargers cheerleader. His younger sister, Elisha, was a tremendous brat. His father was our baseball coach, when we were a little older. Dawn was the fiercest Tetris opponent I ever played, and I only ever managed to beat her once. Their garage never served as one for as long as I can remember; it had been carpeted, outfitted with a couch, shelving, and laundry room amenities, and the garage door was only ever closed at night, after the last member of the family had gone to bed; the rest of the day, kids in the neighborhood were free to wander in and out freely. The only video games I ever played as a child were played there, never having owned a gaming system myself. We played with his Batman figures and little green army men on the floor; we ran through the house playing extremely rough tag when left alone in the house, searched out junk food in the pantry, and watched crap on TV. We listened to comedy bits on cassette in his room, and climbed out his window to sit on the roof above the garage, which my mother never knew (and probably would have killed me for). We raced, bobsled and luge style, on his skateboards down the incline in the street, flying around the bend leading out to the bigger road, somehow not breaking anything or killing ourselves, ruining the soles of our sneakers, when we bothered to wear them at all.

His father had dragged out a regulation height basketball hoop to the head of the cul-de-sac — long gone now, of course — and we would play street hockey, HORSE, and small, short, half-court pickup games out in that communal circle outside his driveway. Without the hoop in the center, the street seemed lonely and empty, now. The yards were all different, too, and that in its own way felt like a loss. I had spent so many afternoons and nights, running back and forth between our houses, through the front yards, to my mother’s chagrin, so often, and so precisely, that I had worn with my long, athletic strides on my sure (usually bare) feet a perfect path between bushes, patches of dead grass, driveway, and front garden wall. I ran it so often I could have done it blind, but by now that was long since erased, too.

Next to Josh’s place was one that had housed a few families over the years, but I only really remembered Jaqueline, who I had tutored in reading when I was 12 and she was seven. Her parents ran a salsa company on the other side of the border, where they had moved from, and would often bring back baskets of the best green apples I have ever tasted. One year they were the house to host the block Christmas party, and, wanting me to learn something from her for a change, she taught me 16 standard Christmas carols on their piano. She seemed just as proud of me for playing them at the party that night as I was of her for all the progress she had made, though I would never play the piano again.

The most changed yard on the block, I noticed, was the one that had belonged to Chris’s family, another young boy I had looked after, and probably the next best behaved after Tyler. I had him to thank for becoming a fan of the Harry Potter books, as one night in the summer of ’99, he asked me to read the first chapter of the first book to him when he went to bed, and I stayed up to read the rest of the book before his parents came home. If I was looking after him on a Saturday night, I’d let him stay up late and we would watch SNICK. The best part of his house, however, was the humongous bush that had been planted in the front yard; a bush so huge, everyone had assumed for years it was a large tree with very low branches. On summer nights, after afternoons filled with water balloon fights and NERF gun wars, all the kids would drag various broken down cardboard boxes and pieces of old furniture into the darkness and play flashlight tag. The spotter would always climb up into that bush as high as they dared, armed with the high-powered camping flashlight, while the rest of us scrambled from one driveway at the crest of the street to the next, hunkering down together in bunches to avoid the light sweeping over us.

Most of the other houses on the opposite side of the upper half of the street I didn’t know well; the children who lived in them were younger, the parents not as close to mine. I’d recognize all of them during holiday block parties, but I don’t recall their names now.

Just across from ours, though, was Bill and Alice’s. It was the largest lot of property on the street, and Alice had taken full advantage of this, transforming the backyard into the finest garden I’ve ever seen, of the caliber that could’ve been — and was, at times — featured in a magazine. There were massive trees, rows upon rows of rose bushes, dozens of flowers whose names I never learned, patches of space dedicated to growing tomatoes, strawberries, and every type of herb; stone footpaths, even a couple of benches to sit on. She would let me come over whenever she was home, and I would often play around in the flowers, when I wasn’t sketching them. One afternoon I spent hours attempting a full picture of the entire garden, breaking all artistic rules of space and perspective to cram a sort of warped interpretation of a large place that seemed truly magical to me onto a single sheet of paper. She framed it and put it on the wall of their library, where Bill, a well-known local author, had put together a wonderful collection of books.

fluffy

Next to them was the house that my first cat had come from, where Kris the real estate agent had once lived, who spent her off time rescuing boxes of kittens from shelters, raising them until they were old enough to be given away to good homes. After she left, the Jones family moved in, who I often pet sat for when they would go out of town; happily looking after their big, dumb Labrador, their skittish, soft-as-a-cloud chinchilla, and their oldest son’s python.

A couple more childless houses I never saw the inside of much followed, then came Alex’s. As Josh and I grew older and grew apart, Alex moved to the street, and became my closest (female) friend in his place. Like me, she was a tomboy, though more brash and reckless. Though I didn’t come close to feeling anything like love until I was much older, I developed an embarrassing crush on her older brother, Dan, who had a garage band, and used to invite me to sing when they would play. I sang Fiona Apple songs when I was still a bit too young to appreciate their content, because I could mimic her closely, and wished I were older than I were; even then, wished someone might notice me. (He didn’t, of course. For much the same reasons why I’ve never been the recipient of flowers, jewelry, anonymous letters, or any gesture even mildly romantic — when I was younger, let alone now — I remained as much under his radar as that of anyone else, anywhere I went.) Fortunately, the crush didn’t have much potency to it, and didn’t last. Alex’s was the tiny back yard in which I first experimented with putting any effort into my appearance, attempted in any way to be girly. She would style my hair, put make-up on me, and we’d photograph each other as if we were models. We made silly short movies on her father’s camcorder, an activity that came to an abrupt end when, under her dramatic direction, I fell backwards out her bedroom window onto the roof of the garage, cracking three roof tiles with the force of my spine slamming into them. We would send each other “mail;” hand writing short, almost pointless letters in made up, pre-teen girl code, running up and down the street and stuffing them in one another’s mailboxes, giggling as one of us raised the red flags, so the other could look out her window and see there was something waiting.

wall

ground cover

There are more houses on the block, and one more down toward the corner, but none of them hold any lasting memory for me. It is just the right time of year to drive back through here; just before Halloween, when all the yard decorations have come out. Living on a cul-de-sac full of kids, within a much larger, circular street that housed even more, was prime territory for enjoying my favorite holiday. We all ran around in groups — my parents away on their anniversary dinner — knowing which houses were the best (particularly the woman at the end of the outer street who cleverly gave out cans of Hansen’s soda) for what sort of candy, which had haunted houses hiding in their garages, which yards we could tear through without being yelled at. I was strangely reassured to see that one patch of solid grass remained exactly where I remembered it, one I remembered running along with Alex for years, on our way to the housing development that was coming up across the main street, where we would sneak into the three furnished model homes when realtors weren’t around, coming up with elaborate fantasy lives that only existed then and there.

houseI circled back around and finally stopped at the place I’d saved for last: my old house. The front yard had been rendered nearly unrecognizable; a gangly, garish palm tree, of all things, now towered over it.

eucalyptus

All the grass had been torn out, and the beautiful eucalyptus trees that had been planted just before I was born, that I’d watched grow with me to tower and fill with murders of crows, had been torn out just after we’d sold it. The hillside looked bare and wrong without them, but the wall surrounding the backyard was exactly as I remembered it.

A five-and-a-half foot high wall of clay brick, I had stubbornly begun climbing it every chance I got, long before I was tall enough to see over the top, running along its narrow edge, terrifying my mother but never falling, sitting upon it and reading, blowing bubbles, watching the cars and people — the world — go by. I pictured the yard behind it, and could almost see it; the patchy grass my mother would drag our plastic kitchen chairs out onto to lay beach towels under and over to create a fort for me to hide out and read in, the budding ground cover my father had painstakingly planted once it became clear grass would never survive in the dry soil, the little rocks my cat loved to roll in when they were heated by the afternoon sun, the rose bush in the corner where my first dog was buried.

The morning he died was the first — and one of only three times to this day — I had ever seen my father cry. It was Easter Sunday morning, when I was six, and while I sat at the coffee table in the den, my knees curled up under the wood my father had crafted — a place I spent thousands of hours making art over the years, producing so much of it my parents affectionately nicknamed me “fire hazard” — several of our neighbors gave up their holiday morning church or party plans, left their own children to be watched by others, came over with shovels and a wheelbarrow and, without even being asked, helped us commit a small misdemeanor, and bury our dog. It was a wordless, selfless kindness the like of which, when I was that young, I had never before seen, and have seen very rarely since. When I think of what it means to call yourself someone’s neighbor, I think of that morning.

doorThe paint colors of the house itself — white and blue-gray — were unchanged, but one of the owners after us had painted over the distinctive red door. It had been a point of pride of my father’s, after he’d stubbornly fought the neighborhood council for months to get the color approved, and had always been used as a reference to anyone who came to visit: “It’s the blue and white house on the corner. Look for the red door.”

kitchen

kitchen2

I sat in my idling car, my eyes roving over every part of the façade, bombarded by memory. I saw my bedroom window, the window of my father’s home office, the living room window our Christmas tree’s lights once winked out of from between the curtains. The garage door behind which my father’s photo lab was built, where I’d learned to first use a camera, how to paint with light.

I thought back to my final weeks in the house, during which I photographed it obsessively; I was sure somehow I would forget everything about it once I stepped out the door, and wanted to record every detail. The living room carpet I’d built villages of Polly Pockets across, and rolled all over with my cat; the bar area that had never actually functioned as a bar, and ultimately filled with boxes of school and art papers and tracing paper animation studies; the kitchen counter my mother taught me to bake at; the sliver of parquet floor between the kitchen and den where I played elaborate games of marbles, as only a bizarre only child like me could have concocted, listening to my father’s records; the dust motes that would linger near the hallway banister upstairs as the sun set.

sunset3

sunset2

The bedroom that was mine; the room I did my beloved schoolwork in, the room I used our first home computer in and wrote horrendous fanfiction on as a teenager, the room I recovered from severe injury in, the room I looked out of in silence at the sky at sunset, my room, my room. My room. After leaving it, I never made a space mine again until over 10 years had passed.

Strangely, as I pulled away, my last thought was of the photo my father had taken of me, as I was going around attempting to preserve everything, not understanding that some part of me was trying to preserve the memories better, too; knowing my family and my home were splintering around me, in a way that would never be recovered. Things eventually would become better in other ways — my parents would get along better, my mother would be happier again, I would find a city to call mine — but I didn’t know this then. Maybe he also knew that, once we moved out, he and I would never have the sort of relationship as a family as we did under that roof; from this point on, we would exist in each other’s lives only as visitors. I would have no home in that city again.

17-4

He took the camera he had given me out of my hands at the top of the stairs, as the sun set, trying to catch the same perfect light I saw filtering through the windows behind the hanging lamp, and took the last photograph he ever took of me. I am tired out from weeks of packing up 17 years of a life, and my eyes are a little wet, though he cannot see this behind my glasses, nor would I ever have let him; my hair, uncharacteristically, is down in loose, messy waves around my shoulders; my smile is fleeting and sad. I know that when I take it back from him, I will walk down the stairs for the last time, and drive away, never to return. I look as if I might disappear from the picture if you look long enough. I look as though I am already gone.

A dear friend of mine is very fond of this piece, and when I came across the photos from the time period mentioned toward the end of it while organizing some files on one of my external hard drives, and though I’m no writer, I thought I might as well post it here, too, and include some of them. I realized, while browsing through them for the first time in many years, how closely my younger self had managed to capture the feel of my old house and life; I focused on small things I wanted to remember that might be less likely to remain than larger memories, details much to do with the way certain types of light during certain times of day came through which curtains, or struck which wall — the light in that house; it was so beautiful, especially during the golden hour. I even photographed myself a little, in a very specifically teenage-girl sort of way (bizarre, angled close-ups; it’s a common theme, when young women are attempting to figure out exactly what we really look like, coming of age in a society that objectifies and examines us so harshly and closely). Somehow, younger me knew exactly what sort of strangely personal images I’d want to revisit over a decade later, which I found oddly comforting to discover.

(Originally written December 2015, referencing an October 2015 visit to my hometown that included an impromptu solo drive through my childhood neighborhood. Personal photographs from April-June 2004.)

Damned if she do

drowning

© 2016 Eleanore Studer

When I was 13 years old, I drowned.

Out in the proper ocean, not in some backyard pool. There had been a storm the day before, and the waves were massive; it was stupid to go out in it, but growing up in Southern California, I spent much of my time in or near the water — one summer, my record number of days spent at the beach in a row hit 39 — and when I wasn’t in it, I was always aware of it. The compass in me always knew in which direction West could be found.

As I was pulled under a huge wave, for a time I lost all sense of equilibrium; which way I would need to swim to reach the surface was impossible to know or sense. I was rolled and tossed around long enough for oxygen deprivation to kick in, which slowly released any hold pain or panic might have had on me. I relaxed. I stopped fighting. I accepted the inevitable.

I was struck then with the simple, profound certainty, lacking any drama or fear, that I was — not dying — but dead. It arrived as a conclusion to whatever questions my stricken brain and nervous system must have been asking: Oh. I’m dead. 

A genuine out-of-body experience followed to solidify this concept, and as I watched myself stop struggling, a calming sense of nothingness settled over me; both of myself, and of what was to follow. I blacked out, though I have no idea for how long. Fortunately, I hadn’t been swimming alone at the time, and my friend was able to find me once the wave set had passed, a few minutes later, pull me out and drag me to shore, pound the water out of my lungs.

I’m not sure why this memory has been called back so strongly now — despite how many difficult things continue to pile themselves on me, one after another, these past couple of months, and how tired all of this continues to make me; both of my circumstances, and simply myself — because the sort of drowning sensation that’s gripped me recently is not at all peaceful, as the real one so strangely was. Instead, it’s simply a perception of moving in the opposite direction of my intent, away from the surface where I might finally breathe again; the sensation of the waters converging above me, closing in over my head; of waning strength, of erasure, of sinking.

I don’t know that I’ll cross-post artwork all that often from where it typically lives, but this piece — quick, sloppy, still with its pencil sketch marks, finished with slowly dying markers —  needed words to go with it, and Instagram isn’t the place for them. So, I put them here.

The post title comes from the Kills song, which I’ve listened to several times today, the lyrics of which feel all too appropriate of late…

If history hang hang hangs her well/ Her memory won’t.