Extraordinary stories from everyday life on the edge of the world

Stories

the best thing about us is the people we know.
 

Vail Court || Saturday, 2.30pm

View from Caleb's window, San Diego, California Things I love about California:

  • Being awakened at 7am by sunshine
  • The smell of star jasmine in the morning
  • Tanned feet in January
  • Snacks that come from trees
  • The smell of In-N-Out wafting across the freeway at noon
  • Water drops on potted succulents
  • Picking flowers to put on a salad
  • The smell of chaparral at night

...and, surprisingly, being at home.

Dad, San Diego, California

Did I mention my reluctance to return for Christmas this year? I know it sounds crazy--after nearly a year's worth of humidity, frost and 5-hour windows of sunlight (if that), I should have been overjoyed at least at the prospect of a serotonin boost.

But I wasn't. I didn't want to come back. I don't know what's wrong with me.

But then I got here. Maybe I've just been gone long enough. Maybe it's the renewed vigor of the old homestead, thanks to a new assortment of grandchildren and these two adopted crazies. Maybe it's just that this is what I grew up with--sunshine, oranges, palm trees, bougainvillea, and calling it chilly when the marine layer drops the temperature to 60 degrees.

Whatever the reason, the sunlight is drawing a deep, bone-weary gratitude to the surface. I might not always feel it, but my insides are so glad to be here again.

San Diego, California

On the train from Harrisburg to the Philadelphia airport, I spent a good hour scrolling through the past two years on Instagram. I should have written down then what I was thinking; now I can only remember this overwhelming sadness. So many places that I've been to and no one was there. I mean, people were there, but different people in every place. Never anyone who came and went with me. The only way to even approximate that kind of sharing is, alas, through the necessary evil of social media. Now you haters know why I swamp your feed the way I do. If it weren't for those 600-by-600 pixel squares, I'd be no better than a ghost.

Date palm, San Diego, California

I found the United terminal empty, when I arrived at 8.30pm; all the kiosks flashed a "no service" sign. A befuddled security guard passed me onto a Zolofted-up lady in a double-breasted waistcoat, who told me maybe my flight was being carried by USAir, their partner airline. But the USAir ladies, with their on-shift alertness, pointed out to me that 10.45pm was the departure time of my connection in San Francisco; my flight from Philadelphia had left two hours previous, at 6.10.

Alone! Alone! my lugubrious, light-starved brain telegraphed, as I dialed the service number to re-book my flight for tomorrow. I wasn't about to call Dan to come from Harrisburg and get me, especially when he'd already dropped $30 on a train ticket to save the trouble of having to drive to the airport and back.

I remembered, with grudging fondness, sleeping with Josie and the Mexican immigrants under an abandoned terminal desk in Heathrow, and figured it shouldn't be so hard to find a similar spot here in Philadelphia. Maybe it would be a good thing to do. It had been a while since I'd really roughed it.

Then it occurred to me to text Katie.

Less than an hour later, Ben was picking me up from 30th Street Station. I examined his grin for hollow spots; he'd just come from work only to have his wife ask him to drive back downtown and pick me up.

"I'm so glad we can do this for you!" he enthused. "That's the great thing about living downtown, in a city that's a hub for so many places--we can do things like this!"

Katie+ Ben's house, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Katie, despite being in the early stages of winter plague, had made a bed for me on the couch, and put the rest of their sweet potato soup back on the stove. Teddy gave me his signature leaning-120-pounds-of-muscly-Rottweiler-bulk-against-your-knees hug. Ben poured me some Laphroiag and asked about how my year (and change) has been since I saw them last.

The gist of my answer was that everything was better, I felt more settled, and yet I was again in the throes of a spaz-out just like I was last time we saw each other.

"So clearly," I said, "it's really nothing to do with circumstances."

Considering how easy it is to annoy certain people, the resilience of certain others against being brought down truly astounds me. No matter how great an inconvenience I might cause to these friends of mine, no matter how spazzy or spiritually needy I present myself, time and again, they just seem really happy to see me.

They're not alone in that, of course. There's a lot of you like that.

I just can't get used to you.

Succulents in Mom's garden, San Diego, California

I've said before...maybe not here, but certainly in conversations...that saw about your "true" family being made up of the people you really "do life" with. But I'm not totally assured of that anymore...at least, for myself. By that criteria, my "family" is a big, widespread, nonspecific group, most of whom don't know each other. I love them all, I really do, and I feel that they love me...but I can't expect a ride home from the airport from many of them.

That's what I'm beginning to think family really is. Not the people who would do anything they could for you, but the people who forget to consult whether or not they can. The people whose genetic coding provokes them to answer your demands, often to their own detriment, so that they're halfway down the freeway before the notion of "healthy boundaries" even occurs to them.

I'm not saying that this is right; I'm only saying that it's real. I'm not saying they always do come through; whether or not they do it is kind of beside the point. It's that sense of unthinking obligation to do and be done for with a select set of folks. The folks that it's easiest to get stuck with, even if you don't like each other, because at least you know what to expect.

I don't know if that's the same thing that qualifies a place as home. I'm not willing to go that far. But I do feel a necessary pull within my bones, my organs, my skin cells, to always end up back in southern California. It might not be the best place for them, but the deepening crows' feet on my face long to be filled with smoggy ultraviolet. My freckles cry for their manifest destiny in the expanse between my shoulders.

Sunset over ridge, San Diego, California

I'm leaving San Diego again, in a few days, for Phoenix.

"What's in Phoenix?" people ask, when I tell them I'm going.

"Friends," I say. And I tell them about the great people I know there, and what a fun and interesting place Phoenix proved to be, when I stayed there for two weeks last summer. I try to think about the evenings at the Welcome Diner, about cool mornings at one of Phoenix's Five Finest, about boating at Tempe Town Lake and swimming at Hell's Gate, about the crowd that meets on Saturday nights at the Cottrells' house, and wonder what I could be crying for.