The flight was bumpy as a massive drencher pummeled the west coast. I landed at John Wayne for the first time ever, a small airport in Southern California clean and bright and full of Orange County types briskly wheeling expensive-looking luggage.
My sister arrived in her new SUV. I ran out from baggage claim bumping my unfortunate three-wheeled Samsonite behind. We pulled away from the curb, increasing speed beneath the sagging rainclouds. Sheets of rain released to the mountains, canyons and freeways upon which we drove. The puddles resembled black ice; slippery and dangerous.
I was returning to Southern California for the first time after moving to New York one year ago.
My body was tired. I felt worn out, starting with a pinch at my temples that lurched up into my skull then downwards.
It was either an immediate result of the copious amount of alcohol I’d uncharacteristically consumed in an effort to deal with the unbearable polar vortex, or the outcome of a quite unfashionable decision to wear ill-fitting eyeglasses for a prolonged period of time.
The girl across the aisle sneezed and impulsively I looked over. She had smooth brown hair, a light tan, and wore shorts paired with a smart-looking windbreaker. She wore strappy sandals with perfectly polished toenails and fingernails of the exact color, fingers idly flipping through an unmemorable women’s periodical.
My nails were pretty much sawed off at this point, chewed down to little nubs as a result of stress and cowardice and the short-term pursuit of makeshift relief.
My hair was dull with about 2 inches of dark root poking out from the base. I wore knee-high winter boots covered in a thick maquillage of grey-white urban detritus that made it impossible — unlike my hair — to determine true color.
Buried in an overcoat I rarely took off these days, my pale skin hadn’t seen the light of day in months. Something smelled like take-out and I had a feeling it was me.
I sighed and picked up the New Yorker, going back into an article about Jeff Bezos and Amazon.com while trying to forget what I had allowed New York to do to me.
The plane cut down through thick clouds and eventually found ground. We bumped along for a bit before concluding with an abrupt stop. You know the part — they punch the brake a bunch of times then really give it a go.
A short pause, then a ripple of applause broke out from the crowd. “Irony?” I thought and immediately glanced around. But it wasn’t. Oh yes, Southern California — the place where people applaud for random reasons like when a movie ends or when the sun sets over Venice beach, or in this case when an airplane lands.
God, I missed this place. Fourteen months after moving to New York I was nearly home. I dropped the magazine as my hands moved to applause position. The girl across the aisle smiled in my direction, and before we made eye contact I went to adjust the time on my watch instead.
The palm trees swayed and bent as if to acknowledge my homecoming. It was a new adventure in an old place, not many miles from where I called home for nearly a decade.
My sister and her fiancé had recently purchased a home in Orange County. It was lovely — a spanish revival where everything felt comfortable. Plush towels, a bathrobe waiting for me on the back of the guest room door (a guest room!), and a couch one could get lost in for days.
I texted my mom. “Healing already.”
The hand soap smelled delightful.
We poured two glasses of red wine and turned the television on to the news. A weather woman was conveying the seriousness of the storm — an apparent dire situation consisting of lots of rain falling to the earth at once.
The rain was nothing compared to winter on the east coast, but there were other things I wasn’t prepared for.
For example, I was suddenly terrified of riding in cars. My eyes grew wide when we braked as I worriedly reached for the “oh shit” bar. I spent plenty of time in and out of cabs in New York, but somehow was nervous about the sheer force of an SUV careening down the freeway.
I used to dislike shopping malls and popular food chains, yet over the course of the next twenty-four hours I’d come to appreciate these familiar things.
We cruised the makeup counters at Macy’s and stopped for lunch at Panera, enjoying the experience of being regular people doing ordinary things.
I found a certain slice of joy in pushing a huge cart around an enormous grocery store. We gently weaved around other traffic — house folks reading labels, taking their time to make important culinary decisions.
My sister and I enjoyed the slow pace we took during the time we spent together. Our relationship was tried-and-true and so were the actual physical locations of where we happened to be. However conventional, all of this brought to the surface the concept of home.
I started thinking - I could create a home here.
I could live near the ocean.
I’d run on the boardwalk every day and wave hello to the neighbors.
It wasn’t crowded and crazy and everyone wasn’t clinging to the principal of simply getting by.
New York is a struggle. One must work hard to sustain the lifestyle required to live here.
Interestingly enough, the quality of living isn’t even that high.
Sidewalks are crumbly, the subways stink, and there’s trash everywhere. One finds themselves elbowing around a tiny bodega for essentials like 2-ply toilet paper and cat food. Yet somehow it’s the most wonderful place on earth. I look around and see strangers I’m proud of.
It’s a different kind of home. It’s the America I believe in.
On the flip side, Orange County is not diverse. It is by no means an inexpensive place to live either. It’s beautiful in other ways, the ways one finds in nature — lush green landscapes, sandy beaches, a limitless sun and vast blue sky.
After three days I returned to New York on schedule, reluctant to abandon my new dream. My therapist, a true New Yorker, bluntly told me to stop living in the past. “Live in the now,” she said. “Look on the bright side of things. Yes, it’s stinky here. Yes, the subways are disgusting. But this is New York City! Do you really want to live back there again?”
That night I met a good friend from Los Angeles. She was in town on business and I was happy for the opportunity to get together. We’ve known each other for over a decade — long enough to see the other person go through stuff, those crazy ups and downs of life.
Occasionally, one of us would go through a phase that made it challenging for the other person to find the original version buried way back in there. During those times we’d go away for a few months and later return, finding that our friendship was still intact along with the same foundations that built it in the first place — good humor and similar curiosities.
Like my relationship with New York I had to bank (or be) an occasional headache to earn the warm familiarity of being welcomed back with love.
Perhaps the idea of “home” isn’t physical. Perhaps it’s everything we’ve collected based on where we choose to invest our energy and subsequently are the most cognitively aware. It’s a feeling of familiarity and mutual understanding - the camaraderie, joy, patience, and at times endurance that builds credence and plants roots.
Home wasn’t what I had left behind back in California. It was something I carried with me and needed to be re-lit from within. The people you love keep the flames burning, and the location is complimentary.