This Must Be the Place
On being places and leaving them
Walking with my dog through the dark and quiet, damp and mild streets of Oakwood in Venice, Los Angeles. LA deserves that many adjectives, and more. The palm trees are slim shaggy-haired body guards. Compact four million dollar homes tucked away behind unassuming steampunk gates. Some drab concrete bungalows on a lawn of gravelly sand. Gigantic agaves. For now this is home. Literally, it’s home. Theoretically, I’m gone. In a week I’ll move to New York City.
As a kid, I was transfixed by airplanes. Not for the usual reasons (that thing is flying!) But because: simultaneity. I would think of all the people up there. Reading, watching TV, living their air-born lives, going somewhere. I could see them, imagine their reality — it was visible and concrete. And yet it was a world away. When I traveled on a plane, as we did to see my grandparents in Colorado, I would look down at the tiny dots below and imagine the kids in their houses, swimming in their pools, living their groundling lives. When I was on the ground I wished to be in the air. When I was in the air, I wished to be on the ground. Isn’t that what it is to be awake sometimes?
It’s a beautiful gift of human awakeness to know the truth of more than one reality. It’s sad and hurts a little (because you can’t be everywhere) and it’s beautiful. When someone you love dies, that hits you deep in the gut. They’re there and they’re gone. When someone you love breaks your heart, it also hits you. It confounds the brain and yet, somehow, you manage.
For the last year plus I’ve lived here, I found myself repeating the phrase, “LA is cool, but these aren’t my people.” Um, who the hell are my people, I should ask myself. And what the fuck does that even mean? My people are people who leave places, I guess (and say dumb things like, “these aren’t my people.”). They don’t seem to grow deep, deep roots, no matter how much they say they want to. They are nostalgic and sentimental and very sensitive people for whom change is hard, and yet like a moth to a flame...
The experience of leaving — what it feels like to know you’re leaving a place or a person, to be there to say that and say goodbye — is beautiful and scary and fucking weird. As adults, most of us have achieved object permanence (yessss!). We know when we leave a person or a place or a thing, it will continue existing, mostly as it was, without us. That doesn’t always feel good to know (won’t you miss me?), but we know that to be true.
I left New York City for the second time in 2011. It was January. January 19th to be exact and I was moving to Seattle. I remember my last subway ride back to my sublet — my ninth in four years (I was always “leaving” NYC, aren’t so many of us?). It was the 3 train to Eastern Parkway, and I was sitting in the seats all the way to the back left corner of the car, next to a woman, and I felt this violent surge of remorse. An arcane glimpse that I was missing out on something. Losing something or someone. I had been so fucking ready to leave NYC and then there was a last, violent shiver of life — NYC tearing at my clothes, nipping at my heels. I will never forget that feeling. But I left anyway.
And in that process of leaving comes a special, beautiful little cocoon of a time. It’s before the actual, physical moment you have to go. And it’s after those agonizing days or months where you’re deciding whether or not to leave. It’s after even the pregnant moments where you know you’re leaving but have yet to tell the people you’re leaving behind. Those are hard moments. No, the most pure little cocoon of time is when you know you’re leaving, everyone else knows you’re leaving, and yet you haven’t left yet. It’s the museum after dark. It’s the moment after all your exams and before summer break sets in. It’s the moment you taste the most delicious bite of cake and haven’t swallowed it yet. It’s poignant. It’s fleeting. It’s freedom.
After leaving New York, I left Seattle for Bangkok a year and a half later, in 2012. I surprised myself. Seattle was home. Like h-o-m-e . Seattle was my homegirl. When I first arrived in Seattle from New York , I cried as I stepped off the plane. Sea-Tac Airport touched me. Seems funny to write out loud. I swear it smelled like fresh pine. The air was absolutely magical. I was stepping into a life I had always wanted. A space to inhabit the person I wanted to be. It brings tears to my eyes even now, just thinking about it. I would walk around the steep-sloped streets of my little hood and just experience joy. I just kept saying, “Oh my god, I’m so happy!” Pure joy. Seattle is FRESH. It’s wet, wild and verdant and it touched me in a way that I wasn’t expecting. It was a soft landing. Then it broke my heart and I needed to go. My life fell apart and I was concerned that Seattle was to blame. An astro-cartographer (mm, yep) told me to go to Southeast Asia. The meridians there are my friends. Plus, I had landed a dope job. So I bought a one-way ticket for three weeks later and moved to Bangkok, Thailand.
I left Bangkok in 2013 and moved back to Seattle, for the second time. I felt guilty telling my friends I was moving. Bangkok is such a transient town, a chaotic and dizzying city that’s brimming in every way. I adore it. I describe it as New York City except it’s tropical, neon-colored, and most people are in great moods all the time. People expect you to leave in three days, or 10 days, or maybe a few months. Once you make it past that threshold, people start to rely on you. They count on you to be there. You live there, that’s home. So there was a receding guilt and then a quietude in the last week before I left there. Even when your last days are filled with goodbye drinks and last moto rides, and last all night benders, the in-between moments you’re all alone with your liminal reality: you are leaving, but haven’t yet.
Leaving a place is living out object permanence… it is being in one place and another at the same time. It is lucid dreaming, man. Watching where you were go on without you while you’re still there.
I left Seattle for Los Angeles in 2015. Leaving Seattle for a second time hurt. It’s where I broke and mended myself. But “I moved for love,” as would become my trope in conversation with folks asking, “what brought you to LA?.” And it was true, and it was very worth it. But, for the most part, “these aren’t my people.” Once I sat down at a bar and Ted Danson sat down next to me. I workout at the “body building mecca,” Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach. I went to a party of industry people in Hollywood and was introduced to someone. They offered me a slim multiple choice of identities, “Are you a writer or an actor?” So I guess LA isn’t *really* my people. But LA is cool. LA is weird. LA made me very seriously consider getting acrylic long nails (WTF, LA?!) LA is what it is. But I’m leaving LA. That is what it is.
When I left New York City for the second time (the first time being in 1989 when my family moved to a town in the Hudson Valley, unpacking three little girls from a two bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side to a roomy old Victorian with a healthy yard), I was sure that was it. I told my mom, “I’m never moving back to the East Coast. Sorry.” The west coast was dope! Plus, once you finally gather up enough momentum to escape the gravitational pull of New York’s orbit why would you go back? That’s for masochists or actual lunatics. Not mostly-adjusted folks in their thirties. You live in New York in your twenties, when you don’t mind the grind and the brokeness, and in fact nothing is better. You share a twin mattress with your boyfriend in a “nook” off of his roommates room which is only accessed through the railroad style entry of two other peoples’ rooms, and you use a piece of plywood you found on the street as a “door.” It’s cool!
I had more than one unsuccessful attempt to leave New York. One involved an actual god damned goodbye party on Governor’s Island (that is a haul!) and the selling of all my stuff. Then I moved back a month later. But when you do finally leave New York, you breathe really, really deeply. You’re like, “holy shit, WHOA. So THIS is how the rest of the world lives.” You don’t mind lines. You don’t really make plans. You smile at people on the street. You take the liberty to chat just because. You just CHILL. You take a drive.
My sister came to visit me in Seattle. We went to a coffee shop (duh). The barista was really friendly: “Hey! How are you guys? What are you up to this weekend?” Me: “Not much! My sister’s just in town for a visit.” Barista: “Right on! That’s awesome, what are you guys gonna do?” As we walked out, my sister, annoyed, asked me why I hadn’t introduced her to my friend. “She’s not my friend! That was just the barista .” When you leave New York City, you suddenly LOVE driving to the grocery store and to places like TJ MAXX. You have more space and you immediately just start to e x p a n d. A personalized, less oppressive Manifest Destiny.
But now we’re contracting. Slimming down from two beds, three cars, three bikes, and a motorcycle to almost none of those things. Goodbye fire pit. Goodbye grill. Goodbye surfboard. Surfboard. But life actually is the experience of expanding and contracting. It’s that frequency. So I’m just going with it. It feels good to flex your accordion-like nature as a human being. That’s the gift of being awake, I think. You’ve got to keep yourself on your toes, or life will, anyway. You can’t get too comfortable, you gotta keep moving and flowing. Once you start to get attached to your hair, you must cut it very short (a personal credo of mine).
Breathe in and savor those cocoon moments and then pack your bags and go.