Splinters from America
The train dreams started a few months before I flew to Swaziland, three years ago. The dreams weren’t recurring, they were always different, but at some point a train would always appear. The dreams went away when I got home, and then came back just before I started university. They were there again before Tanzania, and they hung around the whole summer before I flew to San Francisco. Running for trains, waiting for trains, sleeping on trains, watching trains from bridges. Sometime the dreams are fraught and anxious, full of lateness and hurry, but I know they are just that dark part of my consciousness which frets, quietly, all the time before I travel.
During the day my forthcoming journeys are an adventure I can’t wait to perform. They are a stage onto which I can project a version of myself which is Brave and Courageous, Street-Smart, World-Wise, Culturally Bilingual: Exciting. My travels make me these things, and more – but below this thrill there is a small, practical self, and she is scared. She is the girl who used to hide from fireworks and the black-loud tunnels in the London Aquarium, whose father took her to the BFI to watch Charlie Chaplin in his silent movies until she was eight, because she was too scared of dark and noisy cinemas. She is the child who was afraid of dogs, goblins, friendly strangers, horses, and sleepovers. Of being lost in supermarkets, of parents driving in foreign countries, of being made to eat egg.
But she has never been afraid of trains. In Waterloo, once, on the way home from the city she got up from her seat and ran off the service to Forest Hill, around the side of the train, and waved at her mum and baby sister while the sister screamed for her to come back, to come back before the train left without her and they would be separated. But trains are not like people, or dogs, or loud sudden noises. Trains run on a timetable, and this train would not leave me behind.
My train dreams are a remnant of those childhood anxieties, rumbling through my consciousness when the stage make-up of the day has been rubbed off. What if I don’t make the plane? What if there’s a problem with my visa? What if I am separated, left on the platform of a foreign country without mother or father or sister, to fend for myself?
But these dreams are also a recognition of that underlying certainty particular to trains. The consistency of their triple-time rhythm, the reliability of their timetables. Though I travel so far from home, in my dreams I travel by train, and the train symbolises that distinctly west coast phrase – the one that eventually I will hold close as a particular kind of endearment: I got you.
Yes, I got this. I’ve had this since the moment I ticked the box next to University of California on my application. This is what I have wanted for so, so long: and now I am here. I am here and I am waiting on the platform of Davis station, waiting for a train that will travel for two days across the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas, all the way to Chicago.
This is not my train. This is the Zephyr. It pulls in and a couple with backpacks board, the station manager announces it over the loudspeakers, and then it pulls away, heading east, on a long journey through the mountains. Every time I come to the station I hope I will see it: this great tangible reminder of the vastness of the country I live in now, and how much of it I have left to explore. The longest train journey I know in the UK is from King’s Cross to Edinburgh, and it takes five hours. What would it be like to travel for two days across the Pioneer’s snow-capped mountains and the endless gold plains of the Midwest? There is no urgency underneath my love for this train. I have an abundance of adventure waiting for me here, in Davis, let alone in the rest of this beautiful state – but nonetheless, when Bijan will ask me much later, what next? – I’ll tell him: Chicago.
The train line runs right through the south of campus, and then straight across downtown, alongside 2nd Street, before it follows the highway towards Sacramento. You can hear the trains pass through Davis even from the end of Anderson: their horns bellow across the squat houses as they approach the crossroads. From classrooms in Olson and from the quad, the horns sound quarter-hour marks in the day, and if you stand on J Street you can feel the sidewalk tremble. Not yet, but later, I will become accustomed to the freight trains, a mile long, pulling slowly huge wagons on their way east. They travel mostly at night, when I am out shooting medium format in empty, forgotten spaces near the tracks, under the causeway bridge or behind Dutch Bros. You can stand on the edge of the bank and count the minutes down – one hundred seconds, two hundred – beginning to believe the clattering, moaning, titanic metal city will never pass. The last wagon always comes as a surprise and the silence it leaves is absolute.
I don’t know it today, waiting in the quiet the Zephyr has left, but in a few weeks I will be here again for the long train journey I have been hoping for. I will take the Coast Starlight twelve hours south, on the twilight leg of its thirty-four hour journey from Seattle to Los Angeles. Cierra has invited me to stay with her for Thanksgiving, my first Thanksgiving, and in Santa Barbara we will climb Lizard’s Mouth to watch the neon sunset, rummage through thrift stores downtown for Jackson Browne records (I will find two), and venture out onto the pier in the dark to see the pelicans and watch the lights dance in the ocean.
A story for another time. Going home I take a Greyhound to San Jose, but the journey south is one long train ride, west to the edge of the country and then down, down, over the hills and alongside the ocean with the sea stretching out to touch the cliff below the tracks. I am sad not to be sat next to the window: my seat partner is a woman in her late forties who looks thirty-five. “Everyone has surgery where I’m from, hun,” she states easily, laughing. She is coming back from Seattle after seeing her son; she’s been on the train all night, and she will change in LA to another that will take her towards San Diego. We offer up versions of our life stories in those first few hour, and hers is sad and full of California’s Hollywood underworld. I had money, I had the perfect husband, I had a house in the LA hills, she tells me, but we sent the kids to a private school and everyone did drugs. We had a pool, a Mexican housekeeper, famous friends, but the kids rebelled. They dropped out of college, got in trouble with the cops. I divorced. She looks ten years older when she finishes telling me. I think to myself, this story could only happen here, on the Pacific coast under palm trees.
At lunchtime I wander down the carriages to the restaurant car with big windows and a glass roof. There are tables set out diner-style, and downstairs the young guy behind the counter flirts with me while I order food. We approach San Luis Obispo through the hills, gold-leafed in the light, following their gentle curves. I eat in the glass car opposite a college kid intent on studying his mathematics, and I want to shake him and say Look! Look at the view! When I get back to my seat my friend is asleep, so I go down to where the luggage is stored below and take video of the sea and the beach from the grimy windows there, and listen to Bruce sing about trains.
The Zephyr is hurtling towards Sacramento when my train arrives. I know nothing of the journey to Santa Barbara yet, or of late nights watching the freight wagons pass in the dark. Today I am taking the Capital Corridor twenty minutes west to Vacaville to meet Victoria: a tiny journey no more arduous than catching the P Line to campus in the morning. But today is thrilling, because this is the first journey I have travelled solo since I stepped off the plane. I show the conductor my ticket and sit upstairs, listening to Petula Clark’s bossa nova as we pull out of the station and start westwards.
It’s late November, but Davis is so bright there is summer even in the shade. The light falls heavy like gold dust through the trees on campus as I leave my last classes, and I flit between bicycles on the road on my way to the terminal. I always make my bus just as the driver is shouting the last call, Q Line, Davis Perimeter Clockwise, last call, Q-as-in-Quebec! The service will be packed and I stand at the front, close enough to hear dispatch on the radio ten-fouring their drivers. Russell Blvd runs east-west, parallel to campus until you cross the bridge over the 113, and the brightness of the setting sun sparks off the road, scratching at eyes. We peer, the driver and I, squinting with hands cupped on foreheads into the blank white distance, waiting for the turn onto Arlington that will shift and soothe the light. It doesn’t come and it doesn’t come; Russell is always longer than I expect. Behind me bodies press on bodies and voices rise, and the radio cracks and hisses as I sway and strain with the motion of the road, forehead-knotted. What lies ahead is white-hot and hazy and hard to look away from. When I close my eyes its indistinct light is seared onto the back of my eyelids, shifting in patterns which churn like the end of a kaleidoscope, like tealeaves left at the bottom of a cup.
Santa Barbara/Sutro Baths, November 2013
My days are gluttonous, and I gorge myself from the moment I wake. In the morning the sun spills, slanted, through the slats in my window blind onto my bed. It was supposed to be temporary, my bed: a not-uncomfortable but nonetheless makeshift couch-laid-flat, with three large cushions tucked under new sheets. In England this would be the place from which I sleep, eat, study, and unwind – the point from which so much of my life radiates from, the point to which I return, routine, early each evening. I have not made it to Ikea in Sacramento to buy a real bed yet; I have not even looked online. My room on Lake Boulevard is fast becoming a transitory space, where I pause for breath between days which swell well beyond the sun’s bright boundaries. When the moon rises like a rose-gold pendant in the hollow notch above the sky’s dark breast my world is lit in soft, cold silver. Its edges stand like cut glass against velvet shadows. Davis by night has already begun to seduce me, though it will take Sam’s eye to show this part of me to myself, and months of dark, late nights spent in medium format to expose what it is I am seeing. For now, I return most evenings in the white-hot haze, listen to Bruce while I cook the same meals I ate in England, and then – a text, a call: there’s something happening somewhere, and I’m wanted. The night is sharp and clear, and I am blind inside it when I step out of my door.
La Rue & Hutch, April 2014; The Death Star, January 2014; In n Out, May 2014; Tercero, April 2014
Some nights I leave for study groups, some nights for fast food, some nights because the boys are driving somewhere I’ve never been. I try my first shake at In n Out at ten p.m. one Thursday night, strawberry, so think it sticks in the straw, the place packed loud with students. Soon after I’m eating a burrito with a fork downtown while Ryan non-too-gently tries to explain that that’s not how it’s done. One night we take the interstate to Sacramento, and drive around the sketchy part of town just to find a tiny donut place that opens at one a.m. On the way home it spits with rain, the drops catching the moonlight on the windscreen, and road signs flash warnings against bad weather. I say we should hurry back and Bijan, laughing open-mouthed with sugar dust around his mouth, tells me this is the bad weather. Had I forgotten – I’m in California?
The Wednesday night crash at the Aggie soon becomes a fixture in my mid-week. The office erupts with loud humour and hot temper, racing for a one a.m. print deadline. We congregate in the basement with last-minute assignments, uploading and editing and watching the clock. Copy editors arrive. Shouts blast through doorways. When it gets late I help research captions while editors try and catch sleep on the couches. When the paper goes to print and we walk up into the night I am buzzing, I am soaring. Bij drops me home, and often the radio will play OneRepublic’s new hit. The refrain rotates in my head as I lie in the dark on my almost-bed, awake, waiting for the adrenaline to fade. Lately I’ve been, I’ve been losing sleep, dreaming about the things that we could be.
Sometimes, though, when the radio is too loud, too repetitive, Bijan plugs in his phone and I find the music I would have known if I’d been here earlier. He has stories for each song, but I am making them new ones. When Thanksgiving is over the city is staggering towards the end of the Quarter, and I listen to this new soundtrack on my bus rides to campus when I have, briefly, the day to myself. Here is the kind of moment where the first phrases of a film diary are composed. I am alone and still and moving through the world, and my mind is focussed and full of melodies which come from here and only here. The songs help set my narratives in motion. Now I have some which have not been transposed from my other country and my other life, but which I have heard only here, and which belong solely to this place and to my place in it. This music narrates my memory, and so my story is fully and finally liberated from what remains of before.
Santa Barbara, November 2013; Mount Tamalpais State Park, March 2014
Bijan has a paper to write for a film studies class. The piece is called Melancholia, and we watch it together in the boys’ apartment. It is eerie and beautiful and desperately sad. For a long time I think about the image of a planet crashing, gently, into the earth. On the way home a song by Andrew Bird plays through the car and it is haunting. The dark is freezing, and the stars prick like crystal through the frigid air. Breath tangles and drifts and fades.
One night there is going to be a meteor shower. The mountains which rise far at the end of Covell, sending sunsets spilling over the flat valley, cup a reservoir between their peaks – or so Googlemaps suggests. We grab In n Out, and then plug vague directions into the GPS and follow Covell east, further than we’ve gone before. There are squat towns out here, passing in shadow under the brilliant full moon. The first shooting stars tumble over the hills and Bijan calls his mom. We follow the road up, the incline steepening gently, and then a corner twists and the noise of the falling water rolls heavily over the car. The reservoir stretches out on our right, the water sheets of steel under the moon, and we follow the road higher until we are looking over the lake, pull up on the edge of the cliff, and turn off the engine.
We watch the stars from the roof of the car. They fall slowly, and then all at once: a cascade of silence. The water below us roars like the sound of blood in your ears, so present and interminable it is rendered mute. I am numb. Above, pieces of sky burn up in unrivalled brilliance as they enter a new world.
In the car, speeding down the steep road, I fumble in the glove compartment and find an old chewed biro and a piece of scrap paper. We turn on the interior light and put the radio on loud, and I start a list with no title. Visit the redwoods, Sleep in the desert, Make it to LA... At the top I write, Go back to Berryessa. I fold the list twice and tuck it between the car’s sun visor and the roof.
Irvine, February 2014
“What’s next?” Bijan asks. It’s one in the morning. I couldn’t possibly sleep. I am feeling reckless and wild-hearted, so I say, “Let’s have a driving lesson.” We follow Hutch all the way out, under the 113 until we are past West Village and there is nothing but the fields and the stars. Driving a car in America is a lot like being in control of an oversized go-kart. I’m on all the wrong sides and there is no clutch and no gear stick, but once I’ve got a feel for the brakes and Bijan’s stopped telling me to relax it feels like smooth sailing. I cruise up the road, swing Jorge in a tight U-turn, avoiding the ditch, and repeat. It’s fun. It’s simple. We should go to Target and try bay parking some time. I’m pulling round in another turn, nice and smooth, when headlights appear on the road ahead. I laugh, “Help! A car!” and Bij says, “Just pull in here,” so I do. I even use the indicators. I watch the car in the wing mirror, waiting for it to pass, but when it gets close it doesn’t pull round us: it stops. The headlights illuminate Bijan’s face, tense, staring in the rear-view mirror. The car behind us puts on its hazards. He says, very, very calmly, “Don’t panic. It’s the cops.”
We sit very still for a couple of seconds. Then someone is getting out of the police car, and Bijan is opening his door, very slowly, his hands palm-spread in front of him as he climbs out. “Evening Officers,” he says. I am shaking hard. The cop talks to him. I hear Bij say, “I’m teaching my friend to drive. We came out here so as not to bother anyone.” The cop says something about wanting to check we were ok; we were driving erratically. (In the morning I will be indignant – but I even used the indicators!) Have a safe night, kids. A car door closes, the cops pull away. Bijan gets back in the passenger seat. Neither of us say anything for a long minute. Then he starts to laugh, and I start to laugh, and I say, “I thought that was the end of my visa for sure,” and he says, “The first time you go out driving…” We swap seats and he takes me home.
This is not a tale I tell my parents at Christmas. Instead I apply quietly for a provisional license, and Bijan and I agree to stick to parking lots from now on. I get pretty good a bay parking.
Anderson Road, May 2014
For the rest of the Quarter the list rests quietly against the roof of the car. When I pull the visor down to shield the sun from my eyes as we ride Covell or Russell at sunset it drops onto my lap in a momentary flash of foresight. I tuck the paper in my palm and look up again. The city I know now is clear and distinct, and the road unfolds ahead.
Bijan drives me to the Amtrak station. I am going home with just one of my enormous suitcases, filled mostly with bubblewrap and textbooks. Bij is still in slippers but he waits on the platform with me. It is three months to the day since I arrived in America.
I cry as we leave Davis and chastise myself, unsure of where the feeling comes from. The train snakes towards San Francisco, through the flatlands to the hills and over a long steel bridge that crosses a wide, wide river. The tracks hug the narrow cliff, following the waterline. This is my favourite part. The conductor sits opposite me at my table, and we talk about England for a long time.
Just outside the city my uncle collects me and drives to the airport. The terminal is glassy and calm. When I arrive in the departures lounge I hear British accents and feel a kind of impossible estrangement. But there are Americans too: a group of frat guys in Stanford gear with oversized carry-on bags, and a young man in a UCD sweatshirt just ahead of me in the line. I’m about to say, “Good taste”, when he says, “Rosa!” It’s Janesh – he’s a senator I photographed for a story back in October. I’m astonished that he remembers my name, but perhaps it’s a skill that comes with getting elected. It turns out that we’re sitting a row behind each other, upstairs on the jet behind the Business Class cabin. The Stanford frat group are up here too, taking up most of the seats across the aisle. Janesh chats to them more easily than me, and it turns out they’re on their way to see a friend who’s studying abroad. “Oh!” I say, “Where?”, and they say, “Oxford.”
We fly all night. I listen to Joni over and over again, and enjoy the view from my porthole as we cross the Sierras, the sunset turning the snow pastel pink and the crags deep blue. The light fades suddenly, left behind on our trek eastwards, and the glow of sparse cities far below are swallowed in miles and miles of darkness. A few hours in, when I have sensed a residual thrill at eating plane-food and the champagne the frat boys have ordered has sent them into a thick slumber, I look down and see the outline of a city. It is so recognisable that I check the flight information, unable to believe that we are flying right over New York City. There are the skyscrapers downtown, and the bright buzz which must be Times Square, and then, further up, a dark rectangle signals Central Park. Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx sit across the water in relative silence, but the bright grids of the island make a pen-and-pencil game out Manhattan.
In three weeks I will touch down here in a State of Emergency. The snow on the runway will have to be cleared every hour, our landing will be so frightening I will hold hands with the woman next to me, and when I make it through immigration, an hour before my next flight, I will have to find from somewhere a wily and determined young woman to navigate the hellish situation in Terminal 4. I will make my plane, just. At SFO Bijan will be asleep in his car, waiting for updates on flights from the east, as I chase the sun across the sky.
Santa Barbara, November 2013