The Long Drive Home

I. MEMORY

My first memory of Los Angeles is one of mispronunciation. I am in our old family minivan, squished on both sides by moody brothers who take up far too much space. My parents are complaining about Los Angeles, but I am convinced the city is called Lost Angels. This astounds me. To live in a City of Lost Angels! The city becomes, in my mind, a fantastical dreamland, filled with white-robed creatures without maps. It’s the kind of mythic mystery that children stick in their mouths and chew on for days. My parents let me ramble. This was apparently an important enough moment for my mind to cling onto, and I’m still not sure why.

I wasn’t wrong about Los Angeles completely. Summer in LA is a place of myth. At eight p.m., the fat, flushed sun lounges on the horizon and stretches out its limbs until the entire freeway glows orange. Red-tailed hawks and blinking airplanes wade through tomato-stew-clouds like fever dreams. Reluctantly, the sun falls asleep and plunges the world into a rosy darkness that never quite feels complete. Slumber passes quietly.

I used to have a way of knowing spring had ripened into summer. It had something to do with the way the dusk sounded. Things sounded realer, somehow. Sharper. When I stood still on my porch, the 101 traffic echoed long into the night, as if summer had carved out space from the city’s edges. Because I was a restless romantic, I started to grow expectations for these extra spaces. Into the seams of an approaching summer, I stuffed delusions of adventure and finished novel drafts and skinnier thighs. I figured that in the summer, I had the greatest chance of stumbling across a better version of myself.

This June was no different. When I boarded the plane, New Haven was still damp from late spring showers. Too many months in Connecticut had left me a caffeinated husk of a girl. As I folded myself into a neat corner of my airplane seat, I grew giddy with the expectation of familiarity. I creased and uncreased my boarding pass until the paper began to tear.

My mom recites this saying once a year or so: people travel so that they can fall in love with home again. I don’t think it was a fondness for LA that left me giddy, but a fondness for the pocket we had carved out of LA—the pocket that wasn’t LA—the pocket that held a broken TV, a dirty Prius, and our stained L-shaped couch.

 

II. MOTION

They say LA has a driving culture. It is a city of cracked concrete and pricey gas and too many Priuses. The rush hour traffic becomes a study in communal meditation. Cars groan in shuffling lines, heaving forward under desert sun. Rows of drivers turn the speakers up and attempt not to get angry.

This summer I go home and spend too much time inside my family’s Prius. The interior of the car is beige, battered, and a little dirty: like the color white Converse turn after a year of abuse. Through foggy, smudged windows the world ripples in the summer heat as if underwater. My car becomes a submarine. Los Angeles becomes Atlantis.

After the rush hour passes, the freeway empties out and reclines before the dashboard like a promise laid bare. The wheel slides beneath trembling fingers, and the radio static croons, and the windows vibrate, and the engine gently hums. We are passengers, my car and I, through a freeway suspended in time. We occupy a limitless space: a world made real only by the transience of the universe around us. It is one a.m., and the road outside my static atrium has collapsed into a medley of headlights. The freeway lanes become guitar strings. Our fleeting tin bodies become single notes in an irrational symphony. We are surrounded by other humans in little flying cans, and yet we are so starkly alone. Ninety-seven miles an hour is a speed you can grow tipsy on. At night I move at 97, 98, 99 miles an hour, and I am drunk driving without a lick of alcohol in my veins.

This darkness is the closest I will come to understanding flight. This is how I spend many summer nights, driving at speeds that abandon featherweight thoughts on the road behind me until all I am left with is the rugged intake of my breath.

 

III. FEAR

When my mother talks about the LA Riots, she mentions the words “war zone.” She tells me that this was the first time she felt afraid of being a minority. Pregnant with my third brother, she feared for the city her sons would grow up in. My father bought a bullet-proof vest and stood guard on the roof of my grandfather’s clinic to protect his business from looters, gun at the ready.

An innocent man was killed in a disgusting act of police brutality. Three-quarters of Koreatown’s businesses were looted or burned down. It was people of color turning against people of color. It was a city bleeding the same color. When my mother tells me this, her voice is still taught with disbelief, frustration, a bit of fear. The scent of fire is still fresh in her mind.

I am more scared of Los Angeles than I’d like to admit. This is the city where my dad kneeled before armed robbers, the city where my brothers learned the word chink, the city where I started taking self-defense classes.

I think the reason that Los Angeles feels so distant to me is because I’ve never actually walked it. I’ve walked on LA streets, but I haven’t walked them with the unapologetic familiarity of a native. If I catch my reflection in the display case window, I look like a tourist.

This summer I try to take up running on these streets, and the city hollers konichiwa at me from rolled-back windows. Cars follow me. I start bracing myself every time I heard an engine. This city is not kind to solitary women.

My car becomes more than a midnight joyride. I learn that the best way to hide from cars is to ride a car. The best part about driving is escaping confrontation. You don’t have to look anyone in the eye. You don’t have to apologize for occupying space. Within these walls, no one can comment on the way your hips are moving, and if they do you can’t hear them anyways.

In August I drive through famous intersections and look for love, but it’s difficult to romance something from behind windshield wipers. How can you love your city when you fear it?

 

IV. EXTRACTION

We moved north of downtown proper because my mom had four sons, and she wasn’t comfortable with the odds that one of them would join a local gang. Los Angeles is the space we tried to run away from.

I grew up in the west San Fernando Valley, in the wealthy suburbs that the Kardashians consecrated into pop culture. The students in my high school jokingly referred to our Jewish enclave of picturesque suburbia as “The Bubble.”

In The Bubble, our school emptied out on Coachella weekend. We had a “tribal dress-up day.” Kids got grounded for doing cocaine. The Bubble was funny to us because we could not fathom life outside. We could make fun of our privilege all that we wanted, but we still depended on it. We were guilty bystanders: mocking our entitlement to fulfill some quota of self-awareness.

When I find myself lukewarm about Los Angeles, I am reminded, uncomfortably, of The Bubble. It’s less a bubble and more a bubble suit, a damning and inescapable fragility. It’s a privilege to dislike Los Angeles. I can hop into my car and speed away. I can leave.

It sounds delightfully dramatic when I tell people I don’t like Los Angeles. Maybe because it’s a half-truth. In reality LA has always felt more like a space than a place. Los Angeles is the outgrowth of freeways and buildings outside my bedroom window. It is a list of ten important locations that I visit outside of home, no more and no less: the tangle of gray buildings that I frequent when I need a new pair of shoes. LA was the backdrop to my childhood boredom, the precise intersection of longitudinal and latitudinal lines where I waited for my life to happen. It is not home; it is the location of home.

I never grew fond for the streetside delis, never plastered memories over street corners, never wandered through this urban maze with sneakers tapping against cracked concrete. Instead I watch Los Angeles like a spectator: through windows rolled all the way up. Behind locked car doors, Los Angeles becomes an exhibit, a museum. It becomes a deconstructed collection of landmarks, carefully extracted from the unknown blocks and winding roadways and alien street names that connect them. These are the landmarks that are safe, trusted, clean: the Getty Museum, Six Flags, the Santa Monica Pier.

I like to say I’m from LA because the city comes with baggage. When I’m from LA I am glamorous, urban, thrifty, street-smart. When I’m from the Suburban Part Right Outside, I’m sheltered. And so I take from LA what I find useful and discard the rest. It’s a clean process, except for the sourness it leaves on my tongue.

 

V. ALIVE

I often wonder what keeps my parents in this city. When she talks about Los Angeles, my mother is a mother. She grew up downtown, and she talks about the city like it’s a child. You don’t give up on your children, she says.

I keep seeking some sensation of home in other cities, some recognition of belonging. I go to Seoul, Boston, San Francisco. I expect my city to be the place where it all happens: the place where I find myself and my people. The place where my fascinating life story unravels like a pristine tapestry, stitch by stitch: the bus stop where I fall in love, the subway where I ride drunk on weekends, the park bench where I realize, finally, what I am meant to do.  

So I am here in Los Angeles, and I wonder if maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe home is the place you feel comfortable complaining about. For all my complaining, anyways, there’s a beauty here. Los Angeles is a work in constant motion. It is oven-top asphalt and graffiti Picassos and sweaty bodies. From afar, the afternoon traffic looks like gleaming river rapids. Buses unload tittering tourists who snap pictures with dancing palm trees and shiny billboards. Power drills puncture the Pacific breeze. There are cigarettes in the sand.

This is a space 200 years in the making, carved out of struggle, still bruised around the edges. This is a city chopped-up on the inside, partitioned, squeaky clean, falling apart. This is a bleeding space, but you can only bleed if you are alive.

 

 

Madeleine is a starry-eyed skeptic from the better coast. Her sole distinguishing feature is her unnatural affection for Brussel sprouts. Spam her with email at madeleine.lee@yale.edu.

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