I've always wished that California was my home. My parents lived in Pasadena before I was born and my dad even got a job offer in Hawaii but somehow they finally ended up in Texas. I grew up imagining life in southern California or on the beaches in Hawaii. Meanwhile I was climbing trees and trying not to fall onto cactus in the Texas hill country. I think it's fair to say that I got gypped. In second grade my teacher put a huge map of the United States on the wall and we all got to put a dot where we were born. I wanted so very badly to put a dot in California and tell the other kids that I spent the first 6 years of my life in paradise. I imagined the other kids admiring me for having lived a life of excitement on the beach and everyone would ask me all about California. I would tell them tales of the Pacific, of Disneyland and Universal, of orange trees and sun and perfect weather. It wouldn't change my miserable existence in central Texas but I would be a star among the Texans. Or so my second grade mind imagined. I doubt the other kids would have given a damn but to me it made all the difference.
In third grade I switched schools and decided to hell with it, I was a new person here, my dot hadn't yet been placed on any map, I could be anyone I wanted. So I became Daniel From California. My lie didn't bring me the happiness I had imagined. Nobody cared that I wasn't from Texas and it didn't alter the distance between me and the nearest beach. When I began to make friends at the school I felt bad for lying to them. I slowly began to do away with my false identity. "California?" I'd say with a slight frown on my face when it was brought up. "No, I have family there and I visit a lot, but I was born in Texas." I dropped back down to the masses and blended in once again.
It took me a long time to realize that it wasn't the weather or the beaches that made California so special to me. The family that I had there and the connections to my dad's history were the reasons why I loved it. My dad's parents in Claremont were always in my life even though they were so far away. Weekly phone calls on Sunday evenings kept us close. And they spoiled me whenever I visited, as grandparents do. California was playing checkers with my grandmother in the dining room. California was taking months' worth of soda and beer cans to be recycled with my grandfather and getting $5 for them. California was playing "roof ball" with my dad. California was seeing my sister for the first time. California was story after story of my dad's youth.
I had only been back once since my dad died, and that was exactly two months afterwards when my grandmother had died. The house had been full of family for the funeral. The two days rushed by without pause for thought and then we were off to Palo Alto, to mourn, rest and recover through Thanksgiving. This was my first time back since then. I slept in my dad's old room, walked past his high school, rode the bike he shipped out to California when my grandmother first became sick. The first three days of this felt odd, as if I was trying to become him or merge into his shadow. I slept in his room because the alternative was an uncomfortable fold-out couch. I walked past his high school because it was around the corner from my grandfather's house. I rode his bike because it was there and I hadn't been on a bike since early January. I missed him more than usual.
The week was spent idly as I finished one book and started another. My grandfather and I watched baseball, basketball and hockey games together. We shared dinners and beers, entire bottles of wine and glasses of tawny, stories and memories. I'd go for a bike ride by the mountains in the early afternoon, even on the days when the temperature came close to 100. I don't know if I was running from the house or relishing in its past. No matter what, I loved every minute of it. We went out twice for Mexican food and each time I wrote a review of the restaurant in my head, giving and subtracting points for the menu, salsa, food and guacamole while I sipped on Pacifico and sat mostly silent with my grandfather. We visited his friend Dr. Seinfeld, the father of my dad's best friend in high school and college. I talked about Boston and Belgium and Niger and Geneva. My friend Ryan from Texas came and skated alongside me as I biked, and we went out for pizza, went out again two nights later for Italian with my grandfather and some family friends.
And when it finally came time for me to leave I said goodbye to my grandfather and to the house, and to my dad. I went back to Boston, where nothing is ever real.