Have You Ever Felt Like Coming Into Adulthood Is A Dizzying Circle Of Bullshit?
By July Westhale
I am always looking for answers.
I ’ve always been a person who has been a boss.
Once, when I was four, my stepdad and I were driving through Phoenix in his white 1988 Ford Ranger. He put cinnamon sticks in the air vents to cover the smell of his cigarettes, which only sort of worked.
“I want to go back to the gun shop,” I’d said, arms crossed firmly over my chest. “And after that, back to the playground. I’d like another Happy Meal, and to see Bambi’s dad again.” Bambi’s dad was what I called all taxidermied animals, regardless of species. “I want to drive to Buckeye and I want to sit on a motorcycle. I want . . .”
“July,” my stepdad has his jaw set, and from where I’m sitting, it looks like a hard line against the red mesas out the window. “We’ve done all of that and more for today. It’s time to head home.”
“Dad,” I’d said, so even I thought he’d understand my wisdom and logic and get me my way, “You’re really starting to piss me off.”
My mother is not alive, and I have never met my father. So my ghosts, already endowed with normative surreality, are free from the collective consciousness that inheritance comes with. I spend my life truth-seeking, only to find, over and over, that truth is there to serve the teller of it. Every time I believe myself to have found the thread, I discover its severed end somewhere else.
I have always been a kid who challenged truths presented to me — largely because developmental trauma made the world surreal in terms of normalcy. By that, I mean that there were concepts of the world I took at face value as normal (being a 3-year-old in charge of watching out for cars while your mother slept off a high in the driver’s seat, for example), and concepts of the world I found strangely suspicious (that information should be taken at face value). Throughout my life, I’ve developed an obsessive relationship with understanding — not the world as a series of truths and not-truths, but the world as a landscape of gray, where the context behind reason is every bit as important as the question itself. That there are perhaps infinite answers to every question I could ask.
I’d once found a letter from my father to my mother, in an old storage unit in Arizona, the state they’d met in after he’d been exiled to the United States. He calls himself “Bob,” and boasts to her about how his benefits could easily cover any medical costs I may have. He gives two phone numbers for where he is staying, and pleads with my mother to call him. The letter was pristine, as if just written, when I’d discovered it in the protected pocket of my mother’s leather briefcase. The area codes were from New Mexico, Santa Fe. When I called them, 22 years after the letter had been written, both numbers had been disconnected.
I have looked for my parents since my mother’s death in 1992. This isn’t entirely true. I’d stopped looking for my mother the moment I’d discovered she was also a poet, and our handwriting was the same. I’d started looking for my father in 1994, when I was 8, and the Riverside County Courthouse couldn’t locate him. My family — my mother’s sister, her husband and children, my step-father, my grandparents — all discourage this. Their reasons are all different, and subjected to the curation of their own memories.
“He drove a motorcycle,” my red-headed grandma says, keeping her hands steady on the pair of slippers she’s crocheting. It’s an old family pattern, brown and white mottled slippers with big pom-poms on the toes. They’re as ugly as lies.
“He drank,” my mother’s sister says, flatly. “I only met him once, but he was small and green-eyed like you, and he and your momma got on a motorcycle after he’d had some beers and it was raining and I didn’t think that was right.” She’d been 19 at the time. I hadn’t even been a speck of too-much Spring Fever in my mother’s eye at that point. It seemed to me that it was the early ’80s, and everyone was drinking and driving motorcycles in the rain. But my patrilineage seemed to not be the important point for anyone else.
“Look, Mudge,” my stepdad finally sighs, trying to soften the truth by using a childhood nickname that is a mashup of my childhood stature and chubbiness, “your mom just didn’t want him around. And she had her reasons for that.”
What kid accepts that as a resolute truth? Not one who had once fallen off of a refrigerator, trying to reach a jar of coconut flakes she’d been explicitly told she couldn’t have. Not one who, after finding it difficult to make friends with a Dead Mom, had developed a relationship with a stable of imaginary ponies who lived in the sky, charging her mean classmates 25 cents a pop to ride them — not someone who’d figured out how to make people pay her for her loneliness. Not a kid who’d always had to figure out how to be an adult, how to be her own boss.
My patrilineage seemed to not be the important point for anyone else.
I am always looking for answers. Mary Karr, in her most recent book, The Art of Memoir, talks about how she’s not sure if orphans just weren’t loved right or told right (orphans here being a loose term for all of those who experience parental loss, even those orphaned by divorce or negligence) — but that those who go into the biz of writing find themselves constantly facing that insatiability (for information, for truth, whatever that is).
Chile has always been a place where answers live, in their natural habitat, their bodies fit to the landscapes (physical and social); they know how to survive despite war, erasure, and the strong control of information, whatever may hold it. This is why I ended up there in 2005 for a longterm stay.
When I’d first arrived, I didn’t even know I was looking for answers, or that I had questions. I had been 19 years old — which is old enough for many folks to know their way in the world, but it wasn’t for me. Even going to Chile had been a bit of a whim — I’d almost gone to Granada instead, or moved to Colorado to follow my college love, a tall, thin saxophone player who’d broken my heart seven ways to next Tuesday — badly enough, I suppose, that I’d moved out of the country. I’d almost stayed in Peru, when my money had run out and I had to waitress and teach English to afford a bus ticket to Santiago.
And when I’d finally, finally arrived in Santiago after all of those other almosts, I’d immediately had the meager waitress savings stolen from my by a toothless taxista, who’d pulled over the cab while I was en route to college orientation, and taken my money and kicked me out the door. I didn’t mind the lost money — I knew how to get by until my scholarship came through and I could figure out housing — but it felt excruciatingly unfair that I’d made such an effort to stick to a plan, and when I’d finally arrived, I’d been greeted by having everything taken away.
So I started in Chile with nothing. The college orientation program put us up in a hotel for a few days, enough time for the scholarship to come through, then I moved into a tiny room in a giant house with 11 other people, and then I started school, and then I met my friends.
During my time unconsciously looking for answers in Chile, I found myself doing everything but the actual, physical work of trying to figure out where I’d come from. I read, for example, one entire wing of canonical literature in the university library (including every single volume of Virginia Woolf’s diaries ever published). I wrote endlessly, including a terrible novel called “The House,” the sole manuscript finally going into the trash after a few years because my cat, wiser than I, mercifully peed on it.
I drank, a lot. I made a good deal of drunken phone calls to people back in California. I bought a tiny Andean guitar, and sold it for food, then bought it back when I could. Repeat. Repeat. I didn’t once reach out to family members who I knew were in Concepcion, just a bus ride away from Santiago. I didn’t once ask anyone for anything. I didn’t even let my tight-knit group of friends in Santiago know that I was looking for anything.
Have you ever felt like coming into adulthood is really just a giant, dizzying, and often maddening circle of bullshit?
As a 6-year-old, I had a fairly good sense of who I was in the world. Not only was I largely out-adulting the adults in my life, I was also kissing girls behind my elementary school gym, holding down my own imaginary pony business, and listening to Fleetwood Mac (“Rumors” is still one of the greatest albums ever). I feel that adolescence and younger adulthood were all means to get me back to the self I was aware of as a kid, as if hormonal shifts and existential angst were really just a big test, a giant “Are you sure?”
Not that I have it figured out now — clearly, this series is a big, winding, circular way of trying to figure shit out.
This piece is the second in a four-part series by July Westhale that explores identity, displacement, and a body attempting to occupy two spaces at once. It follows her travels between California and Chile, her research on the Pinochet dictatorship/coup of 1973, and what archive and memory look like when they’ve been actively suppressed — either by a government, or by the individual themselves. You can find the first essay here.