Never was a cornflake girl. – Tori Amos
It all began in high school in a college town called Claremont. My father would drop me off somewhere between the main shopping street and the five-campus college sprawl, a fifteen-minute drive away from home. I´d spend entire Saturdays armed only with a backpack full of books and a journal, meandering from the Village shops through campus: over green commons, into unlocked dorm hallways, through air-conditioned library stacks, around the walled garden, along mosaic walls, past flimsy water fountains and sometimes via art galleries, further up and further in.
There were days I´d go as far as the Botanical Gardens above Foothill Avenue, or skirt across the seminary just underneath them. I´d pause there to gaze up at the stained glass of the chapel where my church youth leader´s funeral had taken place. The United Methodist bookstore door is a stone´s throw away, at the foot of an underground stair.
If I´d have money to splurge, I´d spend it at Wolfe´s Deli on my return descent. Chicken salad on Dutch crunch with a Snapple on the side was a decadent combination. Otherwise I´d settle for a simple cup of house at Nick´s in the Village – a shabby, eclectic café behind a parking lot and trellis, the most alternative place a girl of fifteen might hope to spend a dollar. A small, plastic mermaid sat at cash register height, balancing her fading blue fin on a clam, ready to catch tips.
Those flâneuse days were holy, because I spent them alone. I relished in the freedom of decision – when to go and where for how long, what to spend my cents on, what shops to linger in longer, whether to write or read while drinking coffee at Nick´s. There was so much to do and see, and no one else to consider but myself. Did I dare tread the aisles of Rhino Records, trying to look relaxed while surrounded by boys with Morrissey hair and checkered ska caps? Or did I prefer to hide out in the breezy rooms of the secondhand book store, submerged in the scent of soft, yellowing pages?
I only shared my Claremont days with the privileged friend, once in a very long while, or at night with a few from my crew. There were different rules at night – it was a different game in the dark, with Nick´s suddenly alive in headlights and conversation. I gave nothing away in bringing my friends there nocturnally, letting them in to my secret places. I had so many more to restore myself with during the day – from empty movie theaters at matinee showings to the gesso-covered halls of museums across Los Angeles County.
One of those friends that never came along was impressed I had the guts to go it alone. She went and saw a movie by herself, too, once, and said she had really enjoyed it. There was a college roommate at Berkeley, a few years later, who flipped out whenever I went off on my own. In the days before cellular, I´d slip across the bay without feeling the need to inform. Beginning at SFMOMA south of Mission Street, I´d pay homage to Rothko and Motherwell. Then I´d cross Market Street to Union Square, climbing up Powell Street to borrow German books at the Goethe Institut on Bush. The gate to Chinatown was around the corner, where I´d buy a deep-fried, sesame-covered rice cake for seventy-five cents and stride past smelly fish markets and windows hung with red, roasted, eyeless ducks. I´d venture left and upward, past the Cathedral and over to Russian Hill. I´d take in the view from the top, standing in the shadow of tall, ivory-colored apartment buildings occupied by the rich, cashmere-clad widows of my imagination. The entire bay, with Ghiradelli and Pier 39 shimmering in the distance, beckoned from the foot of the city slope. On my way down, I´d dip in to the courtyards at the Art Academy, remembering an old lover who took me there. Sometimes an avaricious spirit pulled me further – to Aquatic Park, Fort Mason or the Presidio – but I always ended in North Beach, where I browsed poetry at City Lights or sat at Café Puccini, drinking Grenadine sodas and balancing the contents of my leather bag on a marble-topped table with rickety bamboo legs. Shortly before midnight I´d swig my last cosmopolitan at the tiny jazz café, the Gathering, and run the long city blocks back to Montgomery Street Station.
I am sure there were more girls like me, also going it alone in different Villages, cinemas, and museums across the globe. Some of us have found each other at thirty-four, forty-four and fifty, relieved we understand our common need for solitude. We communicate with each other through text messaging, because we all loathe using the telephone. We love the fact that we can admit this to each other. Many would call us “anti-social,” others “introvert.” Tori Amos said it best when she sang about the raisin girls.
Independence, thus, comes naturally. I have great examples in my parents, both individualists, culturally elitist, and socially self-sufficient. The fruit of our common plight has been, appropriately, our emigration. Out into the wild we went, unfettered by a notion of citizenry. We are at home everywhere and nowhere. Our foreignness renders us solitary; it suits us, so it is okay.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered, after all, that I miss the experience of belonging.
How do I miss something I have never actually consciously known? Where does a half-Japanese, half-Armenian girl belong, even in Southern California? Any sense of camaraderie, from the traditional (Girl Scouts) to the linguistic (Japanese Language School every Saturday) to the ideological (the big, white United Methodist Church on Euclid Avenue) and the intellectual (co-valedictorian, class of 1994), provided the guise of community. I hung out with smart kids, we were all smart; I was a United Methodist, and still am, at heart; I wore a Brownies uniform for a year; I missed out on slumber parties with all those other deprived Japanese offspring on Saturday mornings. Despite the salad bowl of multicultural California, my bi-racial background always meant I felt different, even if part of me belonged. My parents did well to raise me to feel privileged in my difference. That might be why I love to set myself apart.
Then the other day, when the doorbell rang, I was pleasantly surprised to see Mormons. Two suit-clad, blonde boys out of a Norman Rockwell painting smiled and said “hello” in awkward Dutch. I ran into Mormons a lot when I lived in the Hague, but since leaving there last year, this was the first time I´d seen them.
“I´m from California,” I said, smiling. Their eyes popped out of their heads.
“Where are you guys from?”
“Idaho? Oh, cool.” As an afterthought, I added, “Potatoes.”
So after saying “cool” about ninety-six times, we grinned at each other sheepishly, and I bathed in the warmth of a silly conversation about places shared with vegetables – in Valley Girl Speak – with no one looking at me like I had three eyes or had said something profane in need of soap. A few minutes later, I closed the door, beaming at my baby in my arms.
“That was fun, huh? Talking to people from home!”
It was all I could do to not get on the phone and call my husband. Instead, I told my older daughter about it.
“Did you hear how I said, ‘Potatoes,’ like, ‘Duuuuude,’ and how he laughed? That was sooo cool, huh? Like, yeah.”
The next day was a school day, when my older daughter attends pre-school a few miles away. She only began a couple months back, with several weeks of holiday peppering her start. I hadn´t quite settled on a way to spend the hour and a half that I had to myself and the baby. The first week, I wrote e-mails to friends about how great it was that she was going to pre-school, while drinking cooled cups of instant cappuccino. Later, I graduated from twiddling my thumbs to riding onward with the bike to do groceries. This didn´t prove good for the baby, who was too observant to sleep.
Like Goldilocks settling for the smallest bear´s chair, I finally decided to take the baby jogger for a run. Baby was now old enough to sit a little, and the weather mild enough. After dropping my toddler off while dressed in my running clothes, eliciting the odd glance from other parents, I switched the bike for the buggy and went off. Unlike her sister, my youngest took to it immediately, and I was able to leave the papoose in the carriage the entire hour.
On my way back home, I was passed by a group of running grandpas. Having run for the last twelve years in three countries of habitat, I have grown accustomed to the kinds of people one meets on the path. This genus was familiar to me – retired, lean, smiling men who run in clubs to keep company. They mostly travel in pairs, sometimes alone, but always in a loose contingent.
As they passed me with the jogger that day, their smiles grew wider, and each raised their hand in hello.
“Keep up the good work!”
“Have a good run, both of you!”
Even without a baby in tow, I receive the runner´s greet. I got it in Heidelberg, when I was twenty-two and running myself thirty pounds lighter. I got it in San Francisco the year after that, passing yuppies in spandex through Golden Gate Park. I got it in Berlin a year later, kicking up snow-covered, park paths in winter. Now in the Netherlands, the runners greet me again – with a simple wave, smile, or encouraging word.
I never was a cornflake girl. Sometimes, though, it feels good to get mixed in with the best of them.
© 2010 Anastasia Hacopian. All rights reserved.