In the dark at night I walk to Turtle Ridge. There are savings which are not mine in an account I have access to, and with this money I call a cab and ride to town, where I catch a night bus to the city which takes me to the train station. The trains to London leave late, and from the capital I take the tube – the Central line to Holborn, then the Piccadilly – to the airport. At Heathrow I can buy a ticket to LAX, and fly all night over ocean and highway to California. From there, I guess, I’d get a cab to the train station, then the Amtrak to Irvine, and then – I know the route – I could walk to Turtle Ridge. Up the long curve of the hill, then left, then right: number fifty-nine. Safe.
For the first month I am back in England, I average a novel every two days. Mum goes to work, Dad goes to the university, my sister rides horses and stays at her boyfriend’s, and I lie in my childhood bed in a dark, still room, and find ways of being anywhere but here. I visit the deep South as black woman in the 50s. the Oval Office as a black man in late 2012, then I slip into the changing costume of an unwilling agent of the state and take a spin around North Korea (just to prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, that there are worse places to lie in than this.) When a plane ticket it bought (not mine) it’s finally safe to explore some more of Iran. I try out literary criticism, long fiction, graphic novels, and poetry.
I read and read, and – except for that first evening, starving and hysterical in my mother’s arms – I tell nobody my story.
The act of not-telling scares me. I have always told: sister friend diary. I have been gone for a year, but it is not the great scale of the memories that stops the telling. When I returned from Tanzania I ruined a pleasant afternoon of mother-daughter garden centre tea-and-cake to talk and talk until the telling was done, all of it. No, it is not the size. Nor is it for lack of a willing audience. Every time I reach out to shake a hand again they ask me: How was America?
Even so, the people who care the most say nothing. We bind ourselves in mutual silence – my family, my American friends, my boy, and me. To tell would be terrible. To tell would be to admit to a crime. To tell would make it come true. To tell would be to create its conclusion: the story ready to be told, beginning, middle, and end. How was America? How was America?
I am a tiny, burnt, coiled spring inside. This sadness is different to the other kinds. There is no way around this pain, there is no brave, righteous, grit-toothed answer to it. When a relationship ends there is a sharp-sheathed anger to cut through the sorrow. When there is a death there is the heartless shove of forward momentum that comes with definitive closure. This grief is a deep well. This grief is the loss of a home, the loss of a life. Molly called it tearing. One night I break the stillness and write Abby a long email describing the way things should be. There is a lingering summer with my family and short travels to see my friends, a fortnight with Bijan in my country and a plane ticket for both of us at the end. Why can’t I have that? I ask her, Why can’t I have that? Somehow my deep sorrow transforms into the petulant stamp of a child’s foot.
After I have sent Abby the email and she has not replied, I push the great ache somewhere black and boxed inside me. I have been scared of the feeling but I have also been scared of this, of losing the feeling. That first evening, naked, I managed to say: It is eating me inside, it is stripping my heart, but it is how I make things that matter. (Already I was thinking about writing this, and how important it would be for recovery and posterity.) Now I am forced into a self-imposed numbness.
I join the gym and learn to run again, pounding out breathless miles to a handful of songs which throb in my ears. Music is impossible. The hits that loop the music channels and supermarkets come from the radio in Bijan’s car, where they used to be drowned out by our voices or the rush of the wind; from speeding highways where we were a floating speck inside vast landscapes – mountains or deserts or the ocean over the cliff. Avicii, Katy Perry, Woodkid, Bastille, Lorde, Jason Derulo, Beyoncé, Calvin Harris, Two Door Cinema Club. Their intros are more memory-potent than smell, and make me sick. These were not my sounds before I left, so I try to go back to music which spoke to me before I was the way I am now. I find Springsteen haunting. Jackson Browne comes from Southern California and nowhere else. (I knew it the moment I heard Barricades of Heaven as we drove down the 101, and realised the towns along the shore were squat and lined with palm trees, not laced in mist from the North Sea as I had always imagined. Once, driving the 5 on a sweltering day, I turned up the music so loud the traffic was lost inside the song when the lyrics promised I was rolling down California Five/with your laughter in my head.) There are fifty-three songs on my playlist under “Cal”. How to block it out somehow? How to transpose them to my new here and now? I skip over the intros which pit up in my stomach, and pound out the ones I can under my trainers as I run a mile to stay still.
My parents keep saying I am too close. This is hilariously bizarre: the point is that I am so far away, but I understand. Mine is a Janus-faced problem, and they see England as the control specimen, ground zero, my place of return. I am too close to that sun-kissed capitalist California, tan and other. It suffocates my words, stuck in my throat too tight to tell. Come home, and breathe easy again like you used to, they want to tell me.
Come home, come home. Yes, to come home would allow me to tell my story. I would write it in snatches between class and homework and Aggie assignments and late-night trips to Dutch Bros. I would write it in the CoHo, or the fourth floor of the library, or on the benches under the redwoods in the arboretum, or on the sofa in the darkroom, the basement in Freeborn, the silo, the quad, the pad, the freeway, the Safeway parking lot, the In n Out drive thru, Bijan’s bed, 2222 Anderson or 101 Lake Boulevard. To come home would allow me to tell my story; it would be to return to it again.
When I wake up in the morning I lean on fences. I have built up a very delicate barrier between my memory and my consciousness, between my then and now. I read a lot and go to the gym and reorganise everything in my bedroom, and avoid radios and photographs, and only cry in the shower. But I know that the person I am isn’t just British any more, and she’s not American either. She’s mutant, a freakish new hybrid unsure of herself and strange and sad. Sick with sadness. She can’t tell her story because her story is piled up in memories and music behind a fragile fence, and every morning she leans on the fence, gently gently, reaching out to touch the faintest wisps of those things which made her so happy, so unbearably and wonderfully happy.
The idea of not being able to remember those moments is frightening to me. I have lost the chance to be inside that part of my life, but I have also lost the only part of it which remains, because I can’t bring myself to remember. To remember is to remember what I no longer have, who I no longer am. It is a punch in the gut.
But I have to remember. I have to preserve what is left of the year which changed me, which threw me off the edge of a cliff into the warm Pacific and said go: this is what you have been waiting for. I am a photographer: I am a moment-preserver, a memory-keeper. So every morning I lean on the fragile fence and touch the edges of those memories, and when they become unbearable I fall back and call Bij and talk about everyday things until it is safe again. Tomorrow morning, and the morning after, and the mornings which follow I lean a little further, hold a little tighter, until one day I walk into Boots and print up all three-hundred colour negatives I shot in California. I stack them, solid, and tuck them away until I am alone in a new room in Canterbury. Now it will take days to choose which of the eight-hundred black and white shots to scan, and while I decide I pin up the colour prints until they cover my whole bedroom wall. There are hardly any, really, and they don’t make a coherent picture. The things I am ready to remember now are not the things shown in the photographs, and the photographs tell only fragments of the story I have begun to narrate.
I lay them all out on the floor again in chronological order. Then I number them off, one through to three-hundred-and-nineteen. I take out the ones which have no merit, and then longlist my favourites. The longlist goes back on my wall. I stare at them every day, next to my desk and opposite my bed and all over my wardrobe. I take a few down. Pairs reveal themselves, shot months apart. Compositional mirrors, aesthetic themes, an odd colour pallet. I have never written a film diary this way. Sam taught me this, I realise one night: Sam and Misha and those other kids down in the basement making photographs at midnight, cheering each other on.
Then, slowly, one night – very late – I try writing. Something bruised and bloodied and fractured appears. I write about a place which brought out the best in my generation. It makes me cry but I recover more easily. Canterbury – England – settles into a crisp autumn and I am no longer knocking my heels together with the same desperation, this is no place like home, this is no place like home. I take a class on cross-cultural coming-of-age-narratives and read books that explain myself to me. A critic suggests something profound. I write a little more as often as I can, talk to Bij every day, and buy a plane ticket.
Yes, for now home is no/where. I am twenty-two and only beginning. I am finding it through travel and photographs and reading and writing. I am spread across continents and I live in two time-zones. For now home in no/where, but I can hear the cathedral bells from my window and letters with my name come through the door. I have a key to a room and a student card for the campus library, and the other things I know and love are only across the internet, at the end of my phone, in the pocket of my dress as I walk through this city. Home is no/where, but, for a little while at least, it is now/here.
Newport Beach, Southern California, May 2014
From Point Reyes, Northern California, March 2014
Leaving Heathrow, September 2013
American Flag, Santa Barbara, November 2013
Driving the Golden Gate Bridge, November 2013
Davis, October 2013