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Updated: Sep 12, 2019
There’s a common idea that in San Francisco everyone has Peter Pan syndrome. More or less this means that people refuse to grow up: in the ten years I lived on Haight Street, across the street from the house in which the Grateful Dead famously lived, and two blocks down from where Charles Manson once rented an apartment, commuting hour was rife with balding men sailing down the middle of the road on skateboards to their downtown jobs. You aged in San Francisco, sure: the paunch grew, the bald spot got sunburned. But you didn’t have to grow up. The city is tiny and a skateboard commute is feasible—even preferable to public transit, which is unreliable to the point of absurdity.
Tech is often blamed for this, as a person with coding knowledge can make a mystifying amount of money and still not be able to afford a house or car thanks to a decades-long housing crisis that nobody can agree how to solve. My husband Alan worked in tech for years, and I can see how its culture also gets it blamed for this. Dogs are welcome in most offices, as are ping pong tables and cocaine and heavy drinking during work hours. It’s a childlike world, tech. Work-as-Happy-Hour.
We live in New York now. Alan wears slacks to the office, can't even work from home. He was the first person EVER to organize an office-wide post-work Happy Hour.
I grew up in New York, on Long Island mostly, which is why that particular San Francisco sensibility felt so alien to me. But in the short time I lived here as a proto-adult before I left for what I thought was forever, I went everywhere my car, or sometimes a train, could take me. My good memories of this place involve throwing a frisbee as hard and far as I could across an overgrown field to a friend I could barely see, over and over until my middle finger split wide open from the effort; serendipitously getting stuck waiting for the drawbridge to Fire Island to close after the passage of a boat while in the car next to a boy I wanted to kiss; driving for hours along winding roads upstate way WAY above the speed limit, with all the windows down and singing and crying at the top of my lungs. Once I could escape, I did so constantly until the moment I moved away. I was trying so desperately to Peter Pan, to create a freedom I never had as a child.
I aged while I was in San Francisco. I was there from age 24 until 34, so saying this seems obvious because it is. I felt it in some ways: the pain in my bad ankle; the dark spots on my forehead from years of dubious sun protection; numerous grays, wild and kinky, where I part my hair; a decreasing ability to drink myself into a blackout. But in most ways, the passing of time seems to never have happened while I was there.
The weather, I think, is an overlooked factor. If the seasons don’t change—if you don’t have to worry about how many precious days of summer are left before the world turns grey, if you don’t eagerly open all the windows on the first day the temperature cracks 60 after a long winter—how do you even know that time is passing? If an upcoming gorgeous day is a certainty in your mind, why make the most of the one you have? Why feel the fleeting sprint of your life at all?
Labor Day has just passed, and I am nearing my first complete turn of the earth back on the East Coast. I feel as though I have aged every one of those ten years in the past four seasons. Currently, I am writing this from Stone Ridge, New York, a tiny little one-street town in the Hudson Valley. I’m here to do some research for a book I am writing, but I’m also here because I find traveling on the slightly-off season, the cusp, much more enjoyable. I like to be aware of a shift in the mood, the light, the energy. There is nobody here, at this tiny manor house they’ve converted into a hotel, except one young couple (the wife of which is extremely pregnant), and an old rich couple who have taken over the entire stable house by the pool. The weather is warm enough to swim during the day and stay outside at night with a light jacket; the air is cool enough that I am typing this outside at 5PM. Every outdoor surface has at least one cricket on it. Even the deer keep walking right up, as though they’ve assumed the place is already closed for the season.
I just dropped Alan off at the Poughkeepsie train station, because he has to work tomorrow. I'm here for two more days, for research. I cried as though I were sending him off to war. In a way, every time I say goodbye to him it feels as though I am sending him off to war, because I have had to do that. I left him at the airport in Anchorage, Alaska to deploy to Iraq at the height of the action—the Surge year. As I stood in line for security to board my own plane back to Philadelphia, where I lived at the time, I physically, for the only time in my life up to that point, could not stop crying (I was not a cryer until recently, if you can believe it). I sobbed until I shook, until I couldn’t see where I was walking, until I dropped my bag over and over again. A woman standing behind me dropped her bags and hugged me, right there in the security line while I trembled and smeared my poorly-planned mascara on her jacket. She lived in Anchorage, she knew the boys were deploying.
And then I had to do it again, after he came home for his two-week mid-tour leave. I had to send him back there, back to the place where rockets fell on his dining hall and infrequent phone calls cut out mid-sentence. That time, if I’m being honest, I can’t even remember.
There is nothing that will make you count time like waiting to see the person you love debilitatingly while they are on another continent and in constant life-threatening danger. I joke a lot about Alan's time in Iraq, but that's because it's too traumatic to talk about casually. When he got home, I slipped into the deepest depression I have ever been in. I cried, literally, for six entire months without stopping.
But I remember lots of other, less dangerous but no less traumatic times. Times I watched him leave for trainings that would take him mid-swamp mid-summer in Louisiana for weeks, or for flights from which he, as an Airborne Ranger, would jump out of for no good reason anyone could ever give me (it's not like the troops are currently out there parachuting into Paktika). The army is stupid and dangerous even when you’re not in a war zone. One time, during a routine practice jump, I watched a friend of ours land in power lines. When this happens, you have to get out of your parachute because your parachute harness has metal all over it. He was trying to maneuver out of the harness without touching the metal when it arced, the spark jumping like lightning from the wire through his chute. He got out with little more than a burn, but he almost died right there, on a sunny weekday afternoon in central Louisiana, with his wife watching.
When he was safe, we (the wives) cracked another round of beers and kept on cheering.
And then poof—San Francisco. Ten years of drinking and fucking and never being out of each other's line of sight, never getting stuck in trees because one of us jumped out of a plane for work. For two years, while we were finishing college, we only showered together. Not because we couldn't have arranged out schedules to accommodate two showers or because we were horny for conserving water—we just really wanted to be together. In some ways, we didn't age a day. We'd done a decade of aging in three years of him being in the army.
We were early to the train station, today, and we sat in a little park near the Hudson. We were quiet, watching some ducks float around like the perfect tiny boats they are, and he said, suddenly, “Be careful.”
I asked why he said that and he answered, half-jokingly, “Because watching your lived experience has rubbed off on me.” He is referring, of course, to terrible luck I seem to have on my own, my tendency to lock my keys in my car, to get pulled over by every cop who passes me while driving solo, to injure myself, for my credit cards get inexplicably cancelled, etc. etc. He is also referring to the fact that after thirteen years of marriage, he can’t ignore that the world treats me differently because I’m a woman. I'm not the only one who worries, now.
But I think it’s also because he, too, is feeling those ten years acutely, just like I am. Suddenly, the speed limit feels like the right speed to drive. Suddenly, my dad seems grayer and frailer. Suddenly, being apart feels unsafe.
For both of us, I think, being back in New York means not only an increased sensitivity to the micro and macro sense of time passing, but a forced reentry into the world of our traumas. It was here that I sent him off to war, it was here that my family scarred and terrorized me, it was here that I lived on the razor’s edge of poverty and alcoholism and was always one unsuspected panic attack away from totaling my car on an interstate.
I am up here alone to, for all intents and purposes, mine my own trauma for content. Once, when I was trying out writing as a kid, I wrote the phrase “all intensive purposes,” because I had never seen it written out, only heard it spoken. My great aunt wrote in the margins of whatever paper it was she was for whatever reason reading, gently correcting me. Then, she encouraged me to polish the things I’d written and submit them. Even though I was a kid who didn’t understand basic phrasing, even though my writing was juvenile and blocky and trying too hard. She would have me read things from her Reader’s Digest and ask if I thought I could write at that level, and tell me that if I did, I should do so and submit that writing. She was, I think, encouraging me where she knew my parents wouldn’t. She’d once been a college professor, she knew how the world worked.
I now find myself in the curious position of, for all intents and purposes, dramatizing what I remember of her life so that I can create a book that lives in the world she inhabited when I was growing up—a world that looks increasingly, as I age, like a cult. We visited her regularly, up here in the Catskills, at the place where her cult-like religious/spiritual/self-improvement entity ran its business of selling motivational tapes and hosting lectures. And more than once while I was in my particularly troubled teenage years (and by ‘my particularly troubled years’ i really mean ‘my mother’s particularly troubled years'), she sent me tapes in order to bestow the quasi-cult’s wisdom unto me, to teach me a way to live and think that was different from the one my mother was teaching me.
I rejected her attempts to indoctrinate me, at every turn. Never, ever, did I imagine myself twenty years hence creeping around the old grounds and seeking out their original pamphlet—now in the public domain, to their dismay—to read and absorb for myself. Never did I think I would hear inside my head her repeated, enthusiastic advice—“submit”—or intentionally seek to understand deeply the knowledge she so desperately wanted to impart on me back then.
I'm writing this in the grass of the vast lawn of the tiny manor house hotel, covered in mosquito bites and lightly sunburned on one shoulder and three-quarters of a bottle of wine deep into my feelings. Tomorrow I drive to the place where she lived, where They also lived and where I’d visit in the summers to swim and the winters to sled. I’m so deep into my past and my trauma and the family I said goodbye two almost six years ago that I am having, honestly, a little trouble finding where I am inside the miasma of this memory, the churning of the anxiety in my brain. Saying goodbye to Alan, even though I was sending him nowhere more dangerous than the Port Authority bus station, left me alone with this, and for the first time, I’m going towards all of it instead of away. And maybe that’s what getting older really means. Not hiding, not running.
But I want to do it, because if I don’t get to have a family, I get to at least mine the memories I have of having one and turn them into, hopefully, something beautiful, something that makes someone feel seen or understood.