Letter Home

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This writing appeared in Airmail, from Women of Letters

 

 

Hi and how are you and all of the niceties. How are the children? Are they beating down the gates of your loins? How is their mother? Have you met her yet? I never said this to your face, but I hope that time is standing still.

The weather—let’s address it. I know yours already. I know it the way you know it, with so many summers ground into the dust. I know the kind of heel you have on your boot and the way it slopes forward on the pair you like best for this time of year. I know by now there’s a straight line across the broadest part of your forehead that can mostly be rinsed off in the sink before dinner, but will still be the telltale color of dry earth where it changed in the sun. I know how the hat fits your fingers and rests in the palm and the way you press it down into your hair with that same long step every morning from the porch to the ground as the dew begins to steam and you can already feel the heat rising up through the sole. I know how the animals sound before they eat.

And here? There is no weather here. It is a city designed for movement. It is a great hallway, made to be passed through on the way from one distraction to the next. There is so much petty business, every person with a card and a headshot and a broad résumé. Broad smiles. Everything is room temperature.

How is my mother? Does she ever stop? And yours? Leave a kiss on her cheek for me. If we are nothing else, we are at least sons and daughters.

What is the town like these days? Do the streetlights still hang from cables and rock in the wind? I miss the way the road signs were more of a suggestion. Do you remember when we practiced my driving on the main street? How I stalled the clutch and the truck lurched forward and died and afterwards the door stuck on the passenger side? Remember climbing over my lap and taking the wheel? There were too many parked cars with doors swinging into the street, dogs and children running between them—so many obstacles. I miss the careless nature of pedestrians.

I merged onto a freeway today with no shoulder. The sun has bleached out the color of the roads, and they feel calcified. Nothing hits harder than a pothole in Los Angeles. I tried to make sense of where the paint had been but instead followed the cracks as they spidered across six lanes and an off-ramp. Then I sat staring at all of the things trying to break through, the world wanting to take back the land: seeds sprouting in the husk, digging roots down into the fractures padded by cast-off cigarette butts and the debris of runoff, protesting their right to life beneath the sheet metal sludge of a million cars, both ways stopped on a freeway. They were waiting for their own break, their own dark chance to push limbs through a shell and grab hold and never let go.

Do you know what you’d miss if you left right now? I didn’t. I see you leaning back at your grandmother’s kitchen table with that same coffee cup. And that saucer. The cutout shadow you made sitting by the window and the way the light shone through the paper. I think you’ll have that always. No matter what, you can open one of those hard little unused suitcases and wrap the saucer in the paper, fold the shadow up, tuck it in the cup. Anywhere there is a worn table and a window, there you’ll be.

That’s what I miss though. What would you miss? I’m sure it is something so large that it will always be your reason not to leave. The other thing I can’t seem to replace out here is the levee that connects the two ends of the lake. You never let me take you there because you couldn’t dive off of it, and you said the fish were spooked. It rises up on a sharp gradient ten feet above the water.

It’s more than the levee. In the summers when you weren’t around I would put on a bathing suit—just two little patchwork ragged pieces that you’d only ever wear alone—and I’d swing a leg up over the sweaty back of my horse and wrap the reins through his mane, and I’d grip. For dear life I’d grip. I was so bony back then, and bright white in the sun. I miss the course of the days. Do you remember in the mornings how we’d fold sandwich meat over cream cheese on buttered bread? For energy, you’d say, and I’d take two bites and couldn’t finish. Then we’d go to a swimming hole, or we’d grab walking sticks and canteens and head towards the mountains, or we’d bait rabbits, and all day you’d keep dangling the reminder of food in front of me and I wouldn’t budge. Once you thought you finally figured it out. You said women are charged with holding back and men with pushing forward. You said we are equal and opposite.

If you still believe that energy is always in motion, then this city is what happens when it’s caged. We are like sharks here, swimming up against the glass. How easily I settled into it. Right now I’m sitting at a café with a red-checked tablecloth, and it’s the kind of place where they ask if you want your eggs over easy because that’s how they think it’s done in the real places. Everything is a study of another way of life. The waitresses use pet names, and they practice the act in the mirror while they wait at the end of the food line, smoothing their hair into something a little more messy. A little more lifelike. The whites are crisp and nothing has crumbs. The children don’t spill and the butter won’t melt. When I press my palms down flat on the surfaces, I can feel them vibrate.

I want to know where we’re going sometimes. I keep thinking I might be able to plan accordingly, that if we both arc out from our common origin we will come back around to a common end. When I sit down in this crowded space, I know that you are sitting somewhere opposite, somewhere open—the other side of the table, the other side of the day. Somewhere you’re contemplating quiet while I struggle with noise. I want to ask what you look at now when the sun comes up and you’re there to meet it. I miss the calmness in your steps when you walked heel to toe so that the sound traveled through the wood of the porch and the dogs came running. Hearing you taught me that you can’t love anyone with whom you can’t love mornings.

I think I’ve changed. I can be vain. More so now that it matters. I used to let my bones stick out because there were so many better things to do in the world than sit inside with food. I didn’t have the appetite. When we were halfway up a hill or suspended in air above the water, swinging from ropes and falling belly up, there was no time. And when we spread out in the grass and stayed perfectly still in the sun, I couldn’t be interrupted. Then at night when you spoke and colored in the ways you saw the world, I couldn’t look away. Now, when I sit here calculating how best to keep my bones showing, I realize the fight is in the preoccupation. There are so many constructed things that need to be plugged with fiber but are left empty. I fill up on little personal histories and chew on what I’m working for and fall asleep hungry. I convince myself that there are things that miss me too. I think you do. I think you miss my collarbone and the way my body sloped down off of it. I assume you miss how our youth would lock together and ignite. I assumed there was nobody like me.

Yesterday was another audition. I did what I do best: I showcased those big barrel-rolled wheat curls, the soft-strong of a farm girl, the accent, the body we made together, swimming, baling, running, working, jumping, tumbling, writhing over each other. I spoke with the soft vowels the way you remember, even though by now I can feel in my speech the hardened letters of a place at odds with itself. I sat in a holding room filled with girls doing the same, saying the same things, following the script. The girl to my right reapplied her lipstick in a compact, and when she turned it over I noticed it was my brand, my color. The sticker on the bottom said Cherry Red. When they called for me, we all looked up. They led me through double doors, through carpeted halls, day-lit, with mass-produced prints hung at an equally measured distance. The weather was the same outside. And then there was a meeting room, and we sat. Three of them and me. Two women and a man, perfectly in balance with one another, opposing me. An executing team. The conference table was meant for sixteen or twenty, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was responsible for filling up all of that emptiness. I thought this was the final test. How much space can I fill? What fiber can I bring, or at least what kind of illusion can I create? But then they started talking about schedules, about filming. They talked about scripts. There was an uncertain flicker of happiness. I’d stood out. I was something in a sea of likeness. And then they talked about my name. About what name I should use. Even the individual parts of me are replaceable.

Tell me about what your body does in the heat at night. When the windows are open and the curtains are still. When the air is still and it’s so much that you can’t breathe. When the bed sticks to you and your mind floats between conscious and not. Where do you go? I go home to a valley that I stole by trespassing. I had to get there by following a cow path along a barbed-wire fence, climbing over the fence at the t-post, cutting my skin on the rust. Or I’d squeeze through in that same bathing suit, clawing red down the length of the belly or over the back. I’d bring a book and a blanket and lay out on wild grass spread across a hill that sloped like a body—a collarbone supporting the parts of a chest. A tree says a lot about a place. A tree will outlast a clock. Los Angeles is at war with this. What trees are here are planted. Infant or diseased. They grow elsewhere and are brought in for show. They wither in the sun or without water and for lack of weather. The trees in this valley, though, were robust. They were thick with age and the characteristic strength of home. Native. I would wrap my arms around them, and my legs, as I scaled the height. I would climb until my muscles gave out, and there would still be more ahead. I’d swing from them, build on them, throw the force of humanity against them as they stood fast, outlasting me. There was health back then. When I come back from it and find myself plastered between the sheets, I am drenched in sweat and smell like the earth. My body feels like it’s hazy and running out of the lines. There is no weight to hold it down.

I can see the malady now. You don’t know what balance is until you’ve had imbalance. Every time I look up, I’m staring at a ceiling. At night it’s the popcorned, reflective texture from another decade. And then the days blend one paneled, low-slung, hard-lit top into another, always of a color not even worth noting, always a little paint where the water stains bled at the edge. Pieces go missing or fall through the structure. It becomes so common that it won’t stand out, and then suddenly you realize that it’s the sky that’s scarce. Everything is an instruction to lather. Rinse and repeat. Is it ironic that I was looking to shed routine? You were always the steady one. Staying the course. You’re happy to let it come to you, watch the seasonal reruns, grow old with the things in your house. Your father’s house and his father’s. You take the torch and you push forward.

And I was determined to not hold back. I needed different things—like that levee. You had it all wrong. You couldn’t see the value of the levee because it didn’t interact with the lake the way you knew how. It wasn’t a dock or a bridge or a shore. And you thought it was so plain. Ugly. Just a flat-topped gravel stretch of nothing. It made the sky look bleak and the clouds low.

But this is the last thing I will say because it is the point I’d meant to leave you with the last time: In the summers when I was alone in that nothingness of a suit and the dirt was rubbing lines into my thighs with the sweat and the hair and the horse was pulsing and winding through the trails and over roots and loose rocks, I would hold him back with both hands so he wouldn’t slip. His veins and his nostrils and his eyes would all bulge. They’d be pushing out at the seams, and we’d clear that last tree, wrap our bodies around the corner and there it would be: that vast expanse of flat land. That elevated runway with water on both sides and no front to stop us. And we’d blow. I’d ease my weight up over the withers and ball the reins high on his neck in two small leather-reddened fists and tuck my chin down into his hair. He would trap the energy, and for a second his stride would be short and high like a carousel, and he’d raise his head and swivel his ears behind him to listen for the cue and flip his tail over his back, and he’d tuck his chin too. And then he’d hear me. We’d snap and release. And he’d push his head forward and extend his legs and lengthen his whole body along the ground like he was gathering it up to take it with him. I’d squint to keep the wind out of my eyes, and they’d water and streak tears across my temples. We’d be so free we couldn’t stand it. We were running in the sky.

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