There’s a place I rarely consider home, tucked neatly in the middle of other places that matter more: my birthplace, concealed birthmarks, scars across the left cheek ripped wide in 1989.
We’d go to The Spaghetti Factory every year for my birthday. I’d order spumoni: this is an example of failed memory. When I was 16, my Grandfather Fritz died of lung cancer. The last day my family visited him before he died, I went to Disneyland instead with my then boyfriend, the one I dated to act much older than my age, to skip all the steps of adolescence that seemed difficult and trite. I’ll harbor this decision in my gut for my life thereafter. Like a sunken ship, waterlogged wood held together by violent currents; Ursula impaled with a splintered mast. Fritz and his wife owned a brick house, a masonry business with our surname hand-painted on buildings and work trucks. My whole damn childhood smelled like brick and mortar. That whole damn town does.
They’ve named Magnolia Street so because it is lined with Magnolia trees. Thick, soft petals sprinkled along sidewalks. Dish soap fragrance, equivalent taste. Somewhat similar to the vodka in my grandmother’s coffee. The matriarch who lived in an apartment building across from the park where the grass was made up entirely of those palm-sized, lambs-ear-soft Magnolia petals. I don’t remember her much sober, before she went blind from a stroke. Six decades of vodka coffees and Virginia Slims: another false memory, like Jenga blocks stacked to be knocked down.
When we moved to the desert, I missed how dew formed on the orange blossoms, lit up the sky with their sweet aroma. How big the world felt before. How streets and names and places haunted me with tastes and smells. I’d visit that birth-town as an adult and cry into my Dairy Queen ice cream cone—one of the last few walk-up Dairy Queens in the country, refusing to be bought out and sold for disappointing burgers and the terrible choice to get rid of chocolate sprinkles. Because that was only topping I’d ever choose: when I’d barely reach my dad’s knees in height, side-by-side with his matching chocolate-sprinkled cone, when he still thought of me and our likeness fondly. I’d haunt all those places myself, it all tasting like a Molotov cocktail of childhood scents. Nostalgia-sick from birth; I’d chase the high of this longing forever.
Here, in the center of it all, stands the grand Mission Inn. Tonight is different than my past visits: Christmas lights as a kid, a honeymoon suite, once. Twenty-five years after we left a cardboard box rental on the wrong side of the tracks, I’m dressed as my mother in a neon purple Prince t-shirt and Joan Jett leather jacket wandering between past lives. Crimped with Aqua Net hair like a beauty queen in the need for a strong drink. There are club beats pumping through the thighs of college girls outside, and me in the back of the bar downstairs listening to a woman sing Etta James in finger waves. Her voice is as silky as the deep slit down her red dress, curves sweltering in mixed worlds. Everyone I know is bouncing in back patio warm-light; I’m on a back bar stool darkened under whisky on rocks.
There’s an old man sitting in a polite corner. He wears the camouflaged scent of a nursing home— rubber tint, sharp syringe, skin saddened from memory. It must be strange to see a girl, young in pink fluorescent lip gloss, hiding between orders of blended scotch in an attempt to resurrect the dead. He shares a smile with me, an hour of time. Revisits daylight savings and how his War turned back the spring hour with napalm, how he lost legs in a decade of hope forgotten between palm trees and revolution. He shares a common drink and a common song, discusses ink etched into my own skin, skin revived with a long love of freedom he wished still lingered on locks he cut off generations ago.
It was a cool reminder: this whole place, where the orange groves used to blow through the Santa Ana’s. A small fraction of commonality. Connected. Two people from the opposite spectrum of human existence laced with their own memories. Pieced together in a mosaic of music, time evaporated, two breaths of past lives exhaled in unison.