The morning brings no sun. Clouds pregnant with storm are slung low over the horizon as Bijan and I watch the waves churn on the grey sand. His parents have brought us all for breakfast at a historic beauty spot, Crystal Cove, but something of its sparkle is dulled under the sky's swaddling wrap. We parked the car in the lot at the top of the hill, and a shuttle bus trundled down to the shore where the restaurant sits. It's well-known and busy; we are waiting for a table.
Bijan shoots portraits of his mum and sister under the flat light. The clouds are a perfect softbox, but later, under chemicals, it will be difficult to draw out the sharp contrast we have come to define our monochrome world through.
Crystal Cove is historic in the American sense. Scattered along the shoreline here are beach cottages from the 1930s and 40s. Some have been restored - repainted and refitted with vintage upholstery and amenities, ready to be rented to holidaymakers - while those further along the beach remain weather-beaten, worn by Pacific salt and spray. Eventually the hope is that they will all be returned to their original state: the money made from letting the restored cottages goes towards the restoration of the others.
For now, Bijan and I walk up the long wooden fence and I shoot quiet, sea-spat photographs of transitory homes. Each one is a little America for me. Imagine the photographs taken here, through the years, on family holidays and romantic escapes and cosy weekends away. Imagine them projected onto the walls now, held inside what remains of the physical shells of those memories. People came and saw the same sea view I shoot now, and laughed and slept and ate and walked the beach and made love and took photographs. People came for a season, and then they had to leave. I think: these houses remain, there is something to come back to - a site, a structure - the same building they lived in, briefly, all that time ago. But if they returned today, would these skeletons push back against the authenticity of those memories? Would they call those photographs into question? The holograms on the wall flicker and extinguish; truth is unstable, and homes remain as long as their inhabiters. Some places can never be returned to. (Even if you return, the place you left from is not the same place you go back to.)
We wander back along the shore, following the rusted wire that runs from wooden post to wooden post where the No Entry signs hang. Next to the restaurant is another cottage with its door open, and inside there is children's writing in driftwood frames. There has been a poetry competition. I like kindergartener Shannon Burke's 'Humpback'.
Baleen whale/Breathing through blowhole/Fast fluke frightening fish/Splash
She doesn't repeat the word "whale" in the title; she lets you do that work. Her alliteration is bloated like her big mammal, or swishes like the frightened fish's tail. Looks like she knows what a blowhole and a fluke are. There's a pace change in the third line to match the action. Brave, to end on a single word, and a word which gives a sound instead of an image - but it's a careful choice, and all that's needed to make the picture for you.
Impressive, especially for a five-year-old.
A table is ready. We sit on the verandah and order tea and OJ and omelettes and pancakes and corned beef and bacon. Shiva wants to try Baba Nassi's camera, so she takes a shot of Bijan and I together, all awkward grins and angles. Later, when we develop the contact sheet in the basement, I find a second shot next to the first; Bij is making a face at the camera but I have turned around to take a photograph of the beach - the light has pierced a hole in the swaddled sky and the edges of the grey clouds are haloed in my viewfinder - and together in the frame we make an impossible subject: one too aware of his photographic presence, and one oblivious to hers. In the basement we laugh at both shots and they are left unprinted, fraught with an awkwardness we thought we'd outgrown.
Our breakfast and the sun arrive. I have a stack of creamy pancakes I won't finish, plus sweet sharp orange juice and tea whose strange American taste is shallower than the Twinings I have stockpiled in Davis and the bronze-tinted blend Shiva pours in delicate glass cups. Yauss texts under the table, deep in a sweet sixteen world filled with junior prom, cross country, SATs, college applications. It's a safe but agitated universe, interrupted constantly by adults and expectations and a want to do well in a system which makes that seem impossible. Yaussi hides those anxieties much better than I did: my camera makes plain a poise which belies her years, a portrait that stands in looking-glass inversion to the shot of Bij and I that morning.
It is time to leave. Back home, I jump out the car with just my camera and tell Bijan that I'll be five minutes. Last night the climb to the top of the hill felt Olympian. Looking down, Zeus and Hera surveying their realm, the lights below were as the stars above, and under them, darkness. Now I run, down the pathway from Bijan's house and across the road and up, through the dry yellow grass, following the dust trail that kids and dog-walkers and late-night adventures have made to compliment the official path that winds all the way around, my calves burning, until I reach the summit, squinting in the bright white sun.
Up here I am alone for perhaps the first time all weekend. I stand on the little round wall, turn a full circle. The air has a hot, sweet taste; it smells of dust and a climate in which I am still not sure of myself. I don't want to leave.
I shoot a handful of pictures and an instax of the red-roofed houses and the long shadows the neat trees make on the roads. It feels Tuscan, Mediterranean, but with American vastness. The skies have cleared. In The Odyssey, Homer describes the home of the gods atop a mountain in Greece,
Olympus, the reputed seat
Eternal of the gods, which never storms
Disturb, rains drench, or snow invades, but calm
The expanse and cloudless shines with purest day.
There the inhabitants divine rejoice
I rejoice on my own, on the hill, with my photographs and my very sudden happiness and the newly clear blue skies. A hologram, perhaps, but mine here and mine now, and just in this moment it is possible to believe that nothing is wrong, and that this divine feeling is mine to keep forever.
I take my time returning, side-stepping down the dusty path and pausing for pictures I find on the way. Two sisters walk their dog on the sidewalk. I follow snail trails up the track towards Bijan's house, checking whether we stepped on any in the dark last night. At the top I look up, and he is waiting for me. "I thought you'd never come down," he says.
We pack the car with our bags and the food Shiva, Mahin, and Nassi have cooked for us, and check to make sure we haven't forgotten anything. Bubbles keeps watch in Bijan's empty bedroom, lazily surveying the street below. She wags her tail lethargically as I pet her goodbye, closes one sleepy eye, and slips into the blue.
Bijan is outside, shooting on his grandfather's Minolta behind the back wheel of our car. Here is a photograph to run in tandem with those from the beach this morning, I think. Now my pictures show a handful of transitory homes - his family house, returned to sporadically on small trips back to a time from before, and the car which journeys us from moment to moment in the present and now.
One is solid and stable, a nucleus, a kernel from which a young twenty-something tumbles with pocket change and a wild heart. The other is no house at all, but a wagon in a single caravan whose occupants are late pioneers, travelling a land unknown to them (the redwoods of the Sierra Nevada, the hills around the Golden Gate Bridge, the backstreets of Davis at night.) What constitutes a Home, at twenty-one? The house you grew up in, the country of your passport? The bosom of your family or the bed of a favorite friend? An ideal to work towards?
Is my heart homeless now? Is it stateless? Is that ok, at twenty-one, and abroad, knowing what you have been given will never be enough?
I photograph Bijan outside his family's home, and then we get in the car and drive.
There is bad traffic on the road towards LA, and when we try to be clever and take a different route we end up on the wrong freeway headed east, listening to Stand Up by The Prodigy and zipping between the big-rigs to make it back on the 405 before rush hour. In the daylight the grapevine that divides North and South California is less ethereal than it was under the full moon, but Bijan pulls left and shows me the Pyramid Lake as we pass and on the long descent I photograph the signs for Runaway Truck ramps against blue sky. He plays cute Ludo songs to me for the first time and then hums along to the Tetris theme tune until I want to scream. Then the road turns, the wide flat valley is spread out in front of us the colours of sand and tarmac, and the I-5 stretches ahead as far as I can see. Over a threshold, we head for another home.
The sun stoops on the horizon as we pull into Kettleman. We stretch our legs on the edge of an In n Out parking lot, and then Bijan takes a nap in the front seat while I curl up and use the restaurant's weak wifi to browse Facebook and Instagram. I have a fondness for places like Kettleman, truckstops in the desert where everyone is from somewhere else and on their way to somewhere else. (Though there is a beat-up sedan parked near the entrance with a UC Davis license plate frame - we should write "Go Ags!" on the dusty windows.) People who share nothing but the road, yet here we are, at a little oasis of fast food and cheap gas.
I have fallen asleep too when Bijan wakes up, refreshed for the final two hundred miles we have to cover tonight. We eat the rice and chicken his grandmother prepared us, check phones and fill up the car, and pull out onto the interstate again. Pretty soon we pass the sign which puts us equidistance from San Francisco and Sacramento. We head east, though, and put on The Piano Guys to lull us down the straight flat road as the sun makes a flaming watercolour canvas out of the sky. Later, in the dark near Sacramento we will fight, half-seriously, over my inability to peel an orange, and by the time we pull into the drive on Anderson Road with Stand Up blaring triumphantly from all speakers I will be glad to stumble into a house, any house, so long as I can sleep lying down and so long as it's not humming the goddam Tetris theme song.
Tomorrow I have classes on books I haven't read, midterms I haven't studied for: but these are not the things which will keep me awake tonight. Instead I will lie heavy in the dark with the gentle sound of soft, synthetic chimes, as Lorde's song rotates around my head, thinking about halves. This weekend split both Winter quarter and my life in California down the middle. I feel a definitive before and after, as though my time in Irvine was a moment atop the pyramid in the lake at the highest point of the grapevine, and now, stretching out ahead is a steep, breathtaking descent towards a sunset, towards a departure, towards some kind of little death. How now to understand my presence here, then? Hyper real, Lorde suggests, make believe. I am here but not really here, not truthfully here: I am only passing through. America. Fast food and cheap gas.
But a hologram could not make me cry for it like this. A hologram could not fill me with such overwhelming joy, just for being alive and inside it. A hologram could not make me ache with a fearful longing, bound up in gentle synthetic chimes that echo soundlessly in the dark. I am here. I will always have been here. And, for now, the descent into the sunset is a long, long road, full of goodness and laughter and new experiences, and those things - those very real things - I will take with me when, eventually, I come to leave.
And I'll never go home again
Place the call, feel it start
And nothing's wrong but nothing's true
I live in a hologram with you
Where all the things that we do for fun
And I'll breathe, and it goes
Make believe, it's hyper real
But I live in a hologram with you