I wake early under a tender caress. The morning light here is gentle, muted. I curl in the cup of its soft palm and fall back to sleep. A little while later, when the sun has risen to a harsher starkness there is a commotion downstairs, and it takes me a disorientated moment to remember the secret Yauss whispered to Bijan and I last night: their cousin Fareed has made a surprise visit.
There are plans laid out for the day, but the morning languishes in its soft, heavy heat. Over breakfast Fareed banters gently with Yauss, teases Bijan about not yet being quite twenty-one, and asks me about home. It is a foreign word, now. When I return from loading a new roll of film into my camera I find Bijan and Bubbles on the couch, cupped in the same strange gentle light I woke to.
We are going to the Spectrum Center, a huge outdoor mall, on the pretence of finding Yauss some shoes for her formal. Last week, when I told SoCal friends I was visiting Irvine, every one of them asked if I'd be going to the Spectrum. The idea of a shopping trip as an attraction in and of itself seems very American to me, but perhaps that will be my experience of this experience. Bijan reminds me to take my camera, and shoulders his grandfather's Minolta too.
It is Sunday and busy and there is just a hint of a breeze. Bijan wants to show me everything at once. Inside the complex there are merry-go-rounds with painted horses and a full-size ferris wheel that I only want to go on later, when I see the photograph. For a long time after I first moved here, shopping in America used to reaffirm my alienness to myself: my foreignness re-revealed in my failure to recognise shop names, brands, products. Where should I go to buy an everyday dress (New Look, H&M, perhaps Next) or a party dress (Zara, Coast: Debenhams) or jewellery (Accessorize) or cheap-but-pretty underwear (Primark) or good stationery (Paperchase)? What were their equivalents? I'd default to Target, or the internet.
Now Abby has introduced me to Forever 21, American Apparel, Nordstrom, Macy's. There is something comforting in their universal fluorescent lighting and their smiling shop assistants, but something disappointing too. As much as I crave home I reject it. I can only discover myself when I am lost.
At the Spectrum there are a lot of shops I haven't heard of selling things I don't recognise, but I am on no hunt and in the mood to explore. I like looking at everything. We linger. I am about to join the search for shoes - I too have a dance to dress for soon - when we pass an enormous Barnes and Noble for which there is no competition. Bijan and I haunt the photography section for a while, and when he goes to find computer science textbooks written in a language I can't understand, I search for the latest edition of Time and spend a while looking hard at the photograph on the middle-page spread. It is from the Central African Republic. I am trying to reconcile the terrible thing it shows with how well it is showing it. Morbidly, I want to take the photograph and put it up on my wall: to study it, to aspire to it. I buy National Geographic instead, uneasy with myself.
Yauss is still trying on shoes. I should join her: I want to join her, but I am thinking about explosions on TV.
We eat lunch at Bijan's favourite sushi restaurant: I try everything and it is all good. A return to the blue. Yauss and Fareed lock each other out of their phones, the people next to us don't know how to use chopsticks, Bijan is excited for the movie. We buy popcorn. The film is funny, but Bijan makes me laugh harder with how funny he finds it. (Cinema-going in this country is another experience which I find singularly American. Where at home the audience might titter behind a hand, here the whole auditorium will burst into raucous laughter. Here you can gasp, or shriek, or call out at the screen: the screen does not exist. The lights always go up at the end.)
The sun is still bright when we come out, but the heat is calmer. We walk under the palm trees and around the edge of the fountains where small children are wet and laughing. All the shops are still open. Yauss has found her shoes. It's time to go home.
This evening we are going to Bijan's grandparents' for dinner, but he has an assignment to finish first. I ought to be studying for class too, but it is impossible to read more fiction this weekend. I open my copy of National Geographic and find an article called "No Place Like Home".
'Garrison Keillor’s piece is the map of a man’s soul. In summoning up the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, he talks about what it means to be not just from a place but of a place and why where you come from matters.'
I can tell straight away, but I look up the photographer Erika Larson online to be sure that the images are shot on medium format. The light is perfect and I have time to myself, so I bring down Linden and a tripod and the Mamiya loaded with 120 film, and tell Yauss - curled on the couch in front of New Girl with the light touching her face just right - to stay put and ignore me.
I am thinking a lot about the article in National Geographic and about the documentary we watched on Tierney Gearon in class last week, and wondering whether this new camera and this new film, which already feel foreign and exciting, will show me something new in what I see. I use Linden as a prop to help set metering and focus, check everything three times, wait for the light to shift just slightly through the window. I don’t realise it yet, but inside my camera my film is loaded wrong.
A little later I am on my knees in the guest bed, surrounded by scissors and sliced strips of 120, trying to work out what is wrong. It’s not about the medium format, although this is the excuse I will give later. There will be other opportunities and this is the only way to learn and for crying out loud, it isn’t like I have missed an important moment. It was only Yauss on the couch, only a test roll. But I am really sobbing and I don’t know why.
It’s not about the camera but it is about photography. Recently I have been thinking a lot – too much – about what photography means to memory. I’ve been re-reading Susan Sontag’s thoughts on it, and that part in Camera Lucida by Barthes, and dipping in and out of articles online. My final project for my photography class has developed out of, or alongside, these things because when I stopped to question why I was making the work I was making I realised: the pictures I was exposing in the darkroom, of Davis’s empty nighttime parking lots and gas station and coffee drive-thrus, were full of a desperation I have yet to admit owning. Writing for a midterm critique in a week or so I will put it like this: I think it would be hard for me to make these pictures without a sense of imminent loss, both inside the photographs and inside me as the photographer, taking these images before I am gone.
Photography and memory share a difficult intimate relationship, but this medium is the only one I have through which to try and preserve the things I have made and experienced here. Last week I finally said it out loud to Abby: I am leaving and I am never coming back. She told me, No, you can always come and visit: but it’s not quite true. Just like I can never go home again – not as the person I was before I left Heathrow last September – I can also never return here. Sometimes, in a fit of happiness on the quad on a sunny day I will say, Let me stay here forever. But I know that what I really mean is, Let me stay here, and twenty-one, and young and optimistic and curious and surrounded by friends and still new to this place – forever. My love for this place, I know, comes out of this particular moment, this context, and can never be duplicated. Except – in part, in shadow – through photography.
In the guest bedroom, I put on Lorde again in case I just need a good cry to stop this terrible feeling. But I live in a hologram with you. I have not missed out on important photographs tonight, but it has been enough to remind me how important it is that I try to catch in light and cage in my little black box as much of my experience as I can, because very soon it will be finished. I am nostalgic for a place and a time that I am still experiencing. I am beginning to live a life I am already in mourning for.
Bijan and I arrive a little late to his grandparents'. Tonight it is his father's side of the family, and I have come armed with my misshapen Farsi and a big smile and a camera that I will put on a side table when we walk in and forget about all night. We make hellos and Bijan's little cousin shows us excitedly his new microscope. The Winter Olympics is on the television, my favourite ice dancing, and I leave the boys to their toys to make easy conversation with their cousin Layla. Shiva piles a plate full of food for me - Bijan's special ush, cooked for days; sabzi; albaloo polo; eggplant stew; chicken - and asks me about home and my travels. (A lifetime ago I was, again, watching the Olympics from a country that wasn't my own. How far away Shelui seems now.) On the TV the skiing has begun, the Super-G which needs speed and slalom accuracy, and the American favourite Bode Miller is up. We all cheer him on together.
Home in the dark, with half a roll of black and white film to use up in the Minolta before we leave tomorrow. We stumble around Bijan's neighbourhood for a little while, in and out of his memories and my fictions. We stand under the archway which gave him a scar on his left shoulder. (The scar has always existed while this place has not.) We climb the steep hill above the shadowed houses, laid out in neat sloping rows with the lights in their windows pricking the dark. We try to work out which prick is home. Long rivers of light snake the freeways below and the ocean trips over itself, dark in the distance. A whole life happened here while I did not know I did not know it existed. I feel an overwhelming sense of loss. We shoot film, finish the roll, sidestep down the hill with our phones for torches; two tiny beacons in the warm and empty night.