I grew up in Los Angeles. Some things about the place I purposely left behind, and other memories eventually turned vague, replaced by new daily routines, new landmarks, new sights and sounds and smells. But a few details from my years in L.A., I carried with me.
There was the sun and the heat, in all their various incarnations; the sweltering interior of a car parked out under a cloudless sky, the sizzling red blaze of the sunset piercing through the windshield. I knew well the long lean of the afternoon sun as it slipped through the living room blinds, staining white plastered walls with deep orange stripes. Those same stripes turning blue in the evening, reflecting on passing cars and gliding across the stems and leaves of my mother’s houseplants.
I remember the manic landscape. Giant, smooth trunked trees with bright green canopies pruned into odd and fantastic shapes. Jacaranda flowers bursting bright violet and floating like confetti onto the wide boulevards. Miles of sidewalk littered with fallen ficus berries and spiky Sweetgum seedpods. Finding tiny succulents squeezing through cracks in the cement, and ripping dead and dried morning glory vines from balcony rails.
I remember the fourplex apartments dwarfed by giant, towering cacti, and yellowing snake plants sliced in half to show the plastic surgery advertisements behind them. The smell of desert dust and sweetgrass that rose in the cool air after sunset. The gravel crunch and the earthworms that only crawled above ground during the winter rain, turning the sidewalk into a writhing, glimmering minefield.
I remember the distance. How far from nature I felt in some parts of the city, where the only trees in sight were spindly palms, a million feet tall and too thin to offer more than a cruel strip of shade on the gum-stained sidewalk. How exposed I felt there. How giant the sky, and how lost and tiny I was beneath it. I remember straining my eyes toward the palm leaves, strands of green glittering in the harsh sun, reflecting the glare like wet glass. After nightfall, the same palms drummed out a soft sweeping when the warm Santa Ana winds blew, fronds brushing against each other, their echoes interspersed with the roar of traffic.
I grew up in Los Angeles, and last week I went back. In the short time I was there, the city showed me that it’s still vast and incomprehensible. It’s still a strange, jumbled grid of green and gray, an intricate puzzle of well-landscaped parking lots. The city wheezes, choking out hot, smoggy breaths, struggling to hold onto whatever water it can find, and to pump out whatever oil it can still generate.
And yet, it is still beautiful. During our trip, L.A. felt foreign, and just like home. My memories came rushing back to me. The looming San Gabriel mountains burned orange and pink at sunset. The lull and crash of the Pacific’s waves played familiar rhythms. I retraced the curve of ancient oak branches in sandy canyons. And my eyes followed the immense chain of brake lights, so many lanes wide, disappearing in the distance.