I’m on my third boomerang move. The first time, I was just 21: dropped out of college my senior year, moved back “home” with my parents as a sort of cheap alternative to rehab. It wasn’t the house, or even the town, I’d grown up in: Mom and Dad upgraded to a bigger, nicer house in Victorville, 30 miles across the desert from Barstow (that much closer to LA) my second year of college. I felt terribly cheated by their decision to move, selfishly so. I wanted, on those rare times I came home to visit– Thanksgivings, Christmases, the occasional Easter, to come home to the house of memory.
I would create new memories, somewhat, during the first boomerang move, which lasted maybe eight months. I met a guy online, fell in love, moved to Davis to be with him at the first possible opportunity. In the meantime, I worked as a janitor at Mountain High with my brother, and also at the Hot Dog on a Stick at the mall. I also tried out for, and got to be a contestant on, Win Ben Stein’s Money. I didn’t win, but I did well, and had a lot of fun.
When at twenty two, after transferring to UC Davis, and setting up house with the boyfriend I’d made online, I thought to myself: well, I’m totally independent now. I won’t hbe moving back with the folks ever again. After entering the PhD program in English at Davis two years later, I believed myself to be 100% grown-up, worldly-sophisticated and totally self-sufficient. Adult, if you will.
Then, shortly after my 26th birthday, my Dad died of melanoma. I came to Victorville at the end of his illness, and stayed for the funeral. The next day, I was back in Northern California, sitting at a seminar table at UC Berkeley, where I was taking a class through the inter-campus exchange. I still thought I was going to finish that PhD. School started at Davis just a week or two later, but because my personal tragedy had occurred after Summer Session 2 ended but before Fall quarter began, I didn’t get one of those department-wide condolence emails announcing a death in the family. I think quite a few of my professors had no idea what had happened. To them, I just stopped being good at my work (do I still sound bitter?). My only concern was coping. I ended the relationship with the fellow from the internet following our four years of cohabitation, and tried to figure out what it was I ought to be doing with myself. I didn’t have many ideas, but a PhD didn’t seem like so great of a goal anymore.
I stuck around for a few more quarters, just long enough to eke out a Master’s before taking the leave of absence I wouldn’t return from. I should be home with my family, I thought. We ought to be together for our mourning, to support each other in our bereavement. I moved my stuff into storage and returned to Victorville for the second boomerang move.
Here’s what I thought was going to happen (besides mutual familial support and healing): I’d live at Mom’s, rent-free, get a job substitute teaching, and save enough money to pay off my student loan. It was a fine plan. Except I hit one little snag, trying to get that subbing job: my background check didn’t check out. Just one little arrest (no conviction) and I was deemed unfit to teach (well, I had to assume: I was never told specifically that I was prohibited from teaching, only that there was an indefinite “hold” on my LiveScan, which was finally lifted a full year after I’d jumped through all the hoops and expenses of getting cleared to substitute teach— TB screening, the CBEST exam, the aforementioned fingerprinting, etc. . . . costs I never recuperated because I never set foot in a K-12 classroom). Instead, I parlayed my fancy MA degree in English into a job as a Barnes & Noble bookseller, where I earned just enough to cover my gas and drinking expenses at the local karaoke bar, the only place that made living in Victorville tolerable.
With my income-to-expense ratio resulting in a net savings of zero, I made one last-ditch effort to earn the kind of cash that would allow me to settle my undergrad debt: I took the online test for Jeopardy!, and got called in to audition. I made it. As with Ben Stein’s Money, I acquitted myself admirably, but got matched up with a competitor who couldn’t be beaten. I took second place, a disappointing $2000 (yes, a tidy sum for just a day’s work, but one fifth of what I expected to take home. Yes, expected. I was that naïve). With the prize money, I bought a train ticket to Ann Arbor, where a new boyfriend was waiting for me. I had decided there was little reason for me to stay in Victorville, since I could as easily work at a B&N in Michigan and frequent the karaoke bars there; my presence at home didn’t seem to have much of an impact on anyone else’s grieving process, let alone my own, so why stay where I felt so stifled?
That was 2006. My issues with Victorville are no different than they were six years ago: the arts get little play here, and culture lies predominantly in the realms of off-road vehicles, professional wrestling and/or MMA fighting, drinking 40s in garages, indoor flea markets and dollar stores, and customizing the rear windows of SUVs and low riders with memorials to the dearly departed. Food is fast and life is cheap. Gang activity is common. Sprawl is rampant and walking is seldom an option—not just because of the relentless heat and lack of shade, but because of the aforementioned sprawl and dearth of sidewalks (not to mention a lack of worthwhile destinations, the Barnes and Noble at the mall and my favorite karaoke bar being the only notable exceptions, in my humble opinion).
I should add that I am deeply ashamed by that paragraph. I know the biases that it betrays, and that these are rooted in some ugly tendencies—a classist, racist attitude that college inculcated in me even as I studied the strains of academia that ostensibly would help me recognize those tendencies and combat them (women, gender and cultural studies). Where I come from, people are poorer, less educated, and more ethnically diverse than they are at Gonzaga or UC Davis. I’m trying to figure out how to own this in a way that doesn’t manifest as shame, or regret at the opportunities that weren’t available to me as a youth.
This investigation is part of the reason for my present boomerang move, though not the primary one. As with the prior moves home, this is an arrangement of convenience: I needed some time off during my transition between my accidental career in co-op marketing and my next move to MFA school and (what I hope will be) the start of my career as a writer. Mom’s house is still a rent-free, air-conditioned haven with a well-stocked refrigerator. There are additional physical considerations: Davis is temperate, near sea level, and a Shangri-La of sustainable living and local, seasonal, organic food. Leaving was difficult. I hope that the culture shock of my move to Tucson will be mitigated somewhat by this summer break in a place where the climate and elevation resemble southern Arizona more closely than northern California. I’m re-learning the necessity of copious hydration, the regular application of body lotion, and fabric softener PLUS dryer sheets (static electricity is a nightmare I had completely forgotten).
I’m re-learning how to be me in a desert, as well as in a more existential sense. This family I come from, these cities of Barstow and Victorville helped shape me. How to reconcile where I come from with where I’m going—not to mention the exposure to dry, open spaces, spectacular sunsets and a sky as broad as the Earth is wide, and the interaction of this environment with my particular aesthetic (part of the draw of Tucson)—that’s what I’m here to do with my summer vacation. I’ve got a month left to do it in. I hope I have some progress to report before I go.