Dedicated to all the high school seniors who, come September, will be leaving their hometown.
Everyone at the party was four freeways away from home, but just one Instagram away from fame.
We were born at UCLA. Or Saint Johns. Or Kaiser. We took our first breaths and it was 30 parts oxygen, 60 parts diesel truck exhaust, and 10 parts stardust.
One day in a sixth grade math class, pre-algebra or some other bureaucratic name, I looked up from my times-table test and I saw us. I saw us for how we looked from outside of our own eyes. We had become so large, like the world had zoomed in on our bodies and zoomed out on our surroundings at the same time. We were spilling out of our small, graffiti-marked desks.
Try it. At graduation, or grad night, or the next teenaged bacchanalia you attend. Look at us. Look how big we are.
What I wish I had known as a freshmen:
- Stay up.
- Speak up.
- Always stare back.
- The administration is unlikely to be on your side.
- Your best friend is not a better version of you.
- Embrace being over-the-top: being a teenager is not any less immense than being old, and your stories are profound.
Everyone at the party either witnessed, or experienced, the mess of a doomed relationship that started the spring of our senior year. Contrasted with these unravelings was the greenest spring of our parched lives, when we were finally aware of the miracle that is life. This was when we discerned it in a visceral way, even though the dry facts were delivered on a DVD in middle school science class– “The Miracle of Life” is not fathers making whale noises or HD shots of women crowning, no. We discovered that the miracle of life is Kenneth Hahn Park looking like a giant green pimple off the I-10; it is a 30-inch rain season; it is walking down the middle of the Expo rail with ring-pop-stickied hair plastered to puffy cheeks, smiling at someone who smiles back.
We live in California, the most seductive state. It’s primal and dusty, and made of metal, ocean, dirt, and stars. It is a state of fickleness because it is green and yet has no water. It’s a place of newness, of frontier and cattle and pioneer wagons, but it’s also where the sun goes to die everyday and lizards fry on stone beds and grandpa’s ashes are scattered on Catalina Island. It’s a state of waiting, especially for teenagers. Waiting for The Big One, for the next epic party, for first kisses, touches, and tastes, for life-affirming coincidences, for the muses to visit, for college acceptances. Waiting to leave.
In some ways our lives began when David Bowie died. There are little pieces of him in all of us, like the stardust we inhaled upon birth, because on the night he died there were juniors who sipped sloppily-mixed drinks and shared kisses behind couches and discovered they could actually dance beyond the knee-bobbing bar mitzvah jive they’d been doing until then.
One day I stood on the ridge of Griffith Park and watched a family squint at the city, that from up there looked like one of those giant landscape paintings I always disparaged for showing blobs instead of people. The mother, she’s holding an apple to her mouth, she takes a bite with a wet crunch, and, spontaneously, my view of the city changes, and I realize that Los Angeles success stories are not names in shining letters 5-feet tall and 30-feet wide. Los Angeles success stories are snow on Mount Baldy, and when the public storage sign isn’t missing any letters. They include the bond of teenagers who have witnessed each other’s illicitness (a hand on a thigh, a swig, a puff, a text ignored). They include the subsiding of period cramps in the computer lab, a scream neck-deep in the ocean, a beautiful bit of snot stuck in the cleft of a lip, and a desire to be seen crying– followed by a parent’s knock on the door.
Los Angeles is a fever dream, its biochemical culture containing a thousand microcosms. The torturous tendrils of past nervousness flips you around in your sleep. Your nostalgia manifests as acute memories of precious restrictions now blown away; before you were allowed to drive, before you could buy cigarettes, etc. The peer pressure of “possibility” sees the Subaru in front of you on PCH, and wants to push your right foot down hard on the gas pedal, suggesting the delicious idea, “You could just keep going…” And the ghosts of gentrification whispers in your ear while you stand, money in hand, at the new waffle place in Echo Park.
You stood in front of the upperclassmen and asked, “Do you drink at these parties?” referring to the Satanic Panic themed party you were just invited to. You looked up, your eyes glistening, your tone consciously causal, while your heart sped up, and your brain pounded against your skull. Their eyes moved in slow motion to your young, eager, innocent face, every cell in your bodying preparing, preparing, as they say “yes,” to explode in rapid fire release of anticipatory serotonin, as a future of being teenaged and drinking alcohol flashes through you before they turn away.
What you didn’t know when you were fidgety and flighty in ninth grade is that it all happens. All of it. And faster than you think. You didn’t have to worry. But along the way your hallways will be blocked by large Jansports. You won’t make it into the yearbook and you will have to pay an inexplicable $5 transcript fee for every college you apply to. You don’t have to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance, but you will have to cry in the big stall and walk through Armageddon puddles on rainy days.
At the party I felt the anxiety of an uncertain future replace my freshmen impatience. I felt my cosmic placement in the memory of eating the popcorn that Grant Elementary sold every Friday, of hearing the warm piano noise from Thanksgivings in Pasadena, and of feeling the wind through an open sunroof one night in January. I felt the wholeness of my youth and the diversity of my experiences. I felt all these immensities rising up from different parts of the city, pinned on my mental map of First Times, multiplying over and over until they overwhelmed me and I felt like I must leave the state, or the planet, or the solar system, or at least drive to Santa Barbara.
At the party I still had four freeways to go before I sleep.
At the party I saw us as I did those sixth graders overgrowing their chairs, but I saw us as 18 years old and uncomfortable with parent packed lunches, 18 years old and exasperated with busy work assignments, 18 years old and awkwardly tumbling out of trampolines. 18 years old and too large for this city.
Goodbye, Los Angeles.