It is true that I miss Oakland, though I don’t particularly want to be there. I was miserable when I was there, and I missed it even then. I missed the place while I was inside of it!
Like me, my friend Cecelia has moved away from California and back again something like four times. She stayed with me in Oakland this past July, when we were both utterly miserable and sick of California and weeks away from leaving it. She ended up back in New York, where she’d lived twice before, and I left for Virginia. The other day she told me she missed Southern California and had an insane notion to go back to it. And I said that missing California and feeling like you must return is the lie your brain tells you when you’re a little sad. You want to go back because it’s always so nice out, and everyone wants to be there, and you can live in this big huge weird place and never have to leave its borders because so much is inside of it. But were you to follow through on going back, a feeling we both know more than anyone else, then you immediately realize that you’ve been fooled once again, and you’re out a bunch of money, and you’re trapped there until your lease expires or you get out-priced from your neighborhood—whichever comes first.
To have lived in California is to love it and hate it. I don’t really feel that way about any other place I’ve lived. It’s a very special place but it breaks you and it always will. In my mind there is the dream California, which is the one that I grew up believing in. I believed in it so much that it lead me there a long time ago. I spent nearly a decade of my life in California, which is about a third of my life, and certainly most of my adult life. I realized the dream was just a dream very quickly, and would frequently have to reconcile the dream with reality, which is that it’s difficult to get by unless you make mountains of money. But then you go for a walk, and the sky is blue and often cloudless, and the trees and flowers smell good even in the dead of winter, and you sort of forgive it for all the pain it inflicts upon you. Even your worst day in California is beautiful in some way. You only have to reach out and touch it.
And yet still, even now, I remember the dream of the place and it almost makes me sick, because at once I both believe in it and also know that it is a lie. It is nothing more than a siren’s song meant to lure you back. I want it so badly for it to be real. If it were real I would stay there forever.
I know that I will always feel this way. I will always miss the East Bay, which was my home for so long, and the home of many of my friends and hundreds of interesting people I met during my decade there. I saw the mountains and plains and the ocean. I did hallucinogens in the dark with pretty girls and total strangers, most of whom were both. I fell in love, or something like it, and had my heart broken a million times up and down the coast. I had many sad days but also experienced the best ones of my life there too. I’ll always wonder what would have happened had I moved to Los Angeles, which I almost did four or five times. I guess I must concede that if it were gonna happen, it already would have. Still, everything I ever did that was worth doing, I did it in California. But it broke me. And yet . . .
I miss driving up and down I-5 in the middle of the night, and seeing the lights in the hills there. I miss how wide open and endless-feeling it is. It’s such a strange, sad place, when you get down to it, and I love it for that. I just need to remember that I’ve seen it all and that towards the end it came to feel like a big bummer hanging around there anymore. John Carpenter calls it a dark paradise. California was always many things at the same time to me and I always felt conflicted. I only wish it could have stayed the same, and had edged closer to the dream than the reality that pushed me away from it.