Earlier this year, I found myself very recently graduated and still very young, affronted by my perceived realities of adulthood and bouncing from job to job. I tried my hand at working in a law office, then in a television production studio, and finally resorted to the quintessential Generation Y yuppie occupation: marketing. All the while racked by “guilt privilege,” I was in a free-fall, frustrated that commitment seemed to be such a struggle and reluctantly missing the freedom and whimsy of being a student, when I had lived for long periods of time far away from my home. While I’d been away, I spent years singing my California swan song as I tripped from one city to the next. The ultimate promise to return (with the swallows in March) fueled my momentum. I was gone for a long time but now that I was back, I was directionless and afloat in purposeless uncertainty.
It was no longer possible to ignore the bittersweet little tug hoo-ha-ing on my shoulder, trying to get my attention, yelling up at me, “Everything is different now.” I sat on the patio with the people who are still here — Brian was melodically strumming a guitar — and I looked from face to face. I marveled at these adult versions of the tiny people I used to run to the kickball field with. These are the people who knew me in the glory of wild childhood abandon, and isn’t that the most intimate type of knowing?
But we were no longer a part of the daily grind that was our present reality. There was a distinct disconnect: gaps left by friends who were now far from here and pursuing a Great Perhaps that did not involve the Home Team anymore. The sun was setting, casting a golden glow on Rachael’s face that doesn’t light up her eyes; she puts a hand up to her forehead and squints away from the sky. She was leaving tomorrow, only here to visit, and her desire to leave was palpable in the waning summer brightness.
As the biting chill started to set in with the evenings, my old friends trickled away from our hometown. They left for school, or for jobs on Wall Street, or just to go. I, however, the Master of Goodbyes, found that I could not leave. Instead, I settled into a mediocre nine to five routine that paid okay, chanting my mantra: This is how things are supposed to be.
Inevitably, the less-lovely things that I had left behind when I had left this place made themselves known once more. This was the pool I almost drowned in when I was six: I closed my eyes and could only see my own ghostly fingers stretched out in the ethereal chlorine blue. This was the house he lived in: I drove past and felt so much for feeling nothing. Here was the bar I went to with my god-brother before he moved so far away and beyond my reach that I’d never seen him again. I couldn’t go anywhere without remembering, or being remembered, and it was suffocating.
My high school boyfriend was in town for a week and I clung to him, following him around like some sad little animal and disregarding the sophistication I thought I’d collected in the six years since I’d last seen him. A whirlwind of drugs and ravenous kisses occurred, on cold jungle gyms at the public park, middle of the night. I devastated myself, putting in motion a crazy spin on my axis and then watching the world unfurl. He left again, very probably disgusted and bewildered at my new desperation, and I drank wildly. I wrote a book about the five days we’d spent together in twelve hours flat. I dragged old friends out to bars on Tuesday nights, guzzling whiskey and avoiding their questions. They were confused: are you really still in love with him, Heidi? Were you ever? The answer, of course, was no — I was not in love with him but I wanted to be. Perhaps, caught in the throes of passion, I could escape from the feeling that I was slowly, slowly disappearing.
An illegitimate rage, the first time I realized that the things I had spent years missing were gone for good. It could be a big tree, or a cup of coffee, or a Mexican food joint. Sometimes it is a person, which is the hardest. While I had been away, running and falling, growing and hurting, with the assumption that coming home would always be an option, certain fundamental truths had changed. I had been growing further and further in one direction; home had been doing the same in another. I was suddenly humbled by the realization that my home was not exclusively mine, after all. Kneeling, with my knees digging into the damp, dark soil in the garden my mother used to till when I was a child, I would search wildly with frantic fingers for a bulb, a root, some sign of life.
Hung-over from too many shots of tequila taken the night before, I would vomit all over myself on my morning commute to work. The formidable Los Angeles traffic was endless before me as I mopped myself off with a cardigan, wheezing and incapable of grasping what had just happened. What the fuck. Later, I would walk into work reeking of puke and alcohol, deftly closing my office door and turning on my computer, my hair still sopping wet. I did not say it, did not even think it, but I knew something had to change.
Then, an opportunity arose. I sent my resume out on a whim, not expecting a response; so I was all the more taken aback when one came. A position was offered — to be a reporter for the state-run China Radio International, requiring relocating to Beijing for the indefinite future. I dismissed it, calling it crazy. I did not want to leave again after having just made it back, after having waited and worked for this for so long, but it was an impossible game that I was playing with myself; I could feel the itch to leave blowing in with the hot Santa Ana Winds — Devil Winds.
Still, the determination it takes for an Asian American girl who had grown up very much integrated in American culture to make the decision to move back to the Motherland is no small thing. I had to smoke a joint in the backseat of my car on my lunch break to muster the courage to quit my job. That Saturday morning, confused and afraid of my own endless wanderlust, I called my best friend. Becca drove all afternoon to come home immediately, no questions asked. “I don’t know, I just feel weird. Restless. I think I need to leave but I am afraid to go,” I tried to explain. Before the end of the week, she had rounded up a rag-tag patchwork of the old gang, calling an emergency maneuver and bringing them back from the corners of the world. We tore through the town of our childhood, howling yippees and enveloped in breathless wonderment. Later, we would curl up with each other in front of a bonfire by the sea and they told me to go, just to go. Like the swallows, they said, as long as you claim your California home, you will be back and we will be here too.
There was only one last order of business before I let the Leaving Season carry me away, to Beijing this time. I had to reclaim California. Arrangements were made for two months of travel, my old friends offering to host me in different parts of our Golden State. My travels would be conducted primarily alone, by car, each stop lasting no more than a week and offering a different episode of what it is like to be in your early twenties, living in California. And so began the process of Reclaiming California.