The honest truth? Here it is: California (especially southern California, and even more especially LA and...Irvine) scares me. I do not think that this is because I am a particularly fearful person; indeed, there is really only the one big thing. Nor do I think it is because I am afraid of change: no, I packed up quite cheerfully for Champaign for university (granted, this was only 3 and a half hours drive away); and, just over four years later, packed up again for London in perfect faith (in God's will, Rasheed's love, my quick decision), making my first international flight alone, quitting my job and leaving family, friends, and my dearest professors behind. True, I was loathe to leave London for Brighton several months later, and even now know that my heart is still in that city, but Brighton, while ugly and irritating at times (I'm thinking of the masses of tourists & the obnoxious mobs of disgusting drunk teenagers choking the streets day and night; the street fights; the drug deals and break-ups that happen in my alley; the audacity of the children here, like the 16-year-old kid who sexually harassed me at my last catering gig & then was brazen enough to try it again not a minute later), was never scary.
Why, then, does California terrify me? (Though I wonder: when the time comes down to it, will it scare me still? I somehow doubt it.) True, it is partly because I am not yet done with Brighton; I feel instead that I've only just now gotten into it (maybe because for the first few months, I was still largely living in London, spending half of my long weekends there with Rasheed in our former flat, and when not there physically, certainly spiritually, memorially...). Suddenly it is as if, just when I've fitted the last piece together, my flatmates are starting to leave (Sari first; we went to her last Shabbat dinner here in Brighton together last night), and then I need to wrap up my dissertation (which I will never feel digs deeply enough), and then, I am asked to leave these places and people I am only just coming to know in real ways? I only just discovered that modest churchyard cemetery in Hove last night...; I begin to realize that I will likely never dance the tango on a rooftop above the beach of Brighton again in my life; and, though not Brighton, but London, I've only just now begun to make friends with the people I dance with at the 100 Club. (It's true, I've only just recently gotten a phone!) And Kirsty, who first remembered my name, a kindred dancing soul; Neil, whom I have watched learn to dance like watching a child discover the world (because it is its own world, the music, the space hollowed between one dancer's shoulders and another, against a chest & beneath a chin), and whom I have tested to that end; Zsolt, whom I knew by the freckles on his nose that we would be friends, who taught me how to tie a tie (unsuccessfully), and with whom I talked books at my second day of work; Sue, so ebullient and young, so brilliant - our friendship cannot end here, I wait for her return from Paris; George, who moves with the powerful grace of a horse, and in whose large dark eyes I see the knowing wisdom of that animal, so reminiscent of Michael, patient, strong, broad-backed and certainly stored with greater knowledge of the world than a 17-year-old me clung lightly atop his steady body, George, for whom I have no time to know better; and finally Rob Hawke, a face like his name, whom I have left behind already.
But this cannot be all; there were people left behind in Illinois, all left for the one in London. True, most of these people were family (or near enough), and I knew that no matter where any of us were, we were never "left behind"; rather, we move together still in parallel lines that, when we are lucky or just plain determined, occasionally intersect. It was, however, to my occasionally over-dramatic sensibility, near-tragedy to part with some of the swing dancers, some of the people at Pages - people a few of whom I am lucky enough to hear from occasionally or to dream full rich dreams about (last night, I was at a family gathering at my Auntie Kay's - their old house at Colorado Ave, but decorated like the Cherry Valley house, and with its porch, where I found my aunts & my cousin John in the sunshine, eating soft pretzels off of white paper plates, and where I knew instinctively that my mom was in the kitchen pouring lemonade - they were not at all surprised to see me there - happy, but not surprised; and countless times have I dreamt myself onto the swing dance floor in Champaign, literally [thanks to time zone differences] dancing with that group again, 10 pm their time, 4 am mine). My fear leaving these people was that they would forget me, who would never forget them & who dream about them still. Not an egotism, as I have been accused. No. If two people remember, there is still togetherness; if one forgets, the thread is broken.
So, I have separated from people before (Rockford & area for Champaign & area for London for Brighton) - it cannot be this that so spooks me. No, I think it is the place itself. California; LA; Irvine - they none of them seem real places to me. For weeks now, I've looked up information on the internet, I've read articles & looked at photos in magazines and newspapers, I even met a woman at Buckingham who grew up in Irvine (but who had been living in London for over a decade) - nothing can convince me that there is a substantial place that is California; that beyond the name there is landscape and buildings and people, and finally, a small home, a room, even, somewhere in the midst of this empty space for me.
You may point out (and logically so) that it can never be real to me until I am there. But I will counter (completely, utterly irrationally so) that London was always real to me, even before I had ever arrived. Sometimes I couldn't believe I was really there, but London was always Real, and from that moment on the train when I rested my head on Rasheed's shoulder somewhere between Hatton Cross & Hounslow and looked out the window at the grey, sleeting sky, it was Home. It was Real & it was Home even when I was neither. At a time when I myself was Unreal - during the worst stretch of post-operation seizures, medical misdiagnosis, soaring and plummeting blood sugar, drug disrealization - it was a comfort (more than that) to be, even if a ghost, even if only the faintest beat of blood in thin veins, even if sucked under by sudden seizures with little or no warning, it was a comfort to be surrounded by a Real city; to put my feet on real streets; to follow where Virginia walked; to sit in the green deck chairs at Hyde Park & watch the dogs romp without leads & stand by Round Pond, feeding the starlings; to put coins on the base of the statue of Gandhi; to dance at Holi and again at Gay Pride; to row in Regent's Park & drift round the back of the island. If I was transparent - the city was stone. If I was ephemeral - it was eternal, somehow.
Eternal - somehow. True, not eternal, but lasting - old - older than perhaps anything else I have known. This, I think, is what scare me most: California is so new. I imagine (mistakenly, the rational side of me knows) a film-set city-scape which will fall at the least puff of breath. In California, I imagine I must be real, and unflinchingly so - I will not have the protection, the security of a history that allows - indeed forces - me to whisp unsubstantially through its solid streets. I find, though, that this has always been true of me, even before the surgery. The more I travel east of Rockford - London, Paris, Budapest - the more solid the world feels. At my childhood home, I was comfortable with the earth, the space of the skies & fields & trees, but not with the house itself, whose walls tremble in the winds, nor with most of Rockford, especially as it develops still. In Champaign, I was comfortable on the Quad, amongst its oldest buildings, regardless of the fact the two I spent the most time in (Lincoln Hall, my sculpture studio; and the English building, of course) were rated by the fire department as the two most structurally dangerous buildings on campus; I was most comfortable in my longest-standing apartment, and was never quite at ease in my last in Savoy, a cardboard building only a few years old. No, I am terrified to leave a country who has known the ways of the Woolves, who has known and survived plague and fire and war, who changes and accepts that change (itself time-won wisdom that my natal-land, at least its current govt., has not mastered); I am terrified to leave a country whose skyline even before I knew it was built of stone, and on the downs, of earth, and to leave it for a space which to me has always been empty, a flimsy paper-and-lights world. The truth: it terrifies me to leave the place that filled in my own empty spaces.
But, optimistically, I still have time to fill the Unreal spaces of myself as solidly as I can before I leave. Today, I go to Knole (to Vita, Orlando, and beyond). Today, I fill perhaps the space between two ribs, perhaps the nook behind my knee, so that I will be at least that much more substantial when I leave for California.
[A request I have of people who have known California: not "visited" nor "touristed," but known in a meaningful way: will you tell me your stories? (I'm thinking esp. of Holly, whose story is perhaps the most lasting story I have known to come from California: will you retell it to me?) Pictures, even, cannot make it real to me, but your words & the depths in your voices can.]