First, there is a road, a road that takes me away from my house in the San Fernando Valley, the house where I live alone with the picture of a buffalo my mother sketched in pencil on a white canvas hanging above the fireplace. That road takes me east of there and south, past the shake shop on Hollywood Boulevard where I would sit and eat fries and drink a chocolate malt and study the black-and-white faces of the old movie stars plastered on the walls. Just south of there is Cherokee Park, where my mother told me she did drugs for the first time when she was a seventeen-year-old runaway and a bad shot made her wrist blow up like a balloon. A little bit west of there is the convenience store where I bought my first legal beer, twenty-one and on a tear, and a few blocks farther is the tower on Sunset where I saw my face on the side of a building for the first time, my chin tilted toward the camera and my eyes looking down, all of me plastered twenty stories high and gazing out over the city. I keep driving. There’s a trance beat playing from the stereo, cigarette ash on the dashboard, crushed fast-food bags on the passenger side, a banana peel on the back seat like an unfinished joke. I let the beat drive me as the buildings whip past.
In the trunk of my car are shoeboxes and duffel bags and plastic containers stuffed to the brim with photographs and notebooks and letters, everything I could find about who I’d been. I spent all night combing through pictures, reading old diaries, searching long-abandoned email accounts. I do this most nights. I’m trying to find something in my past—the way a detective in the movies might search when they’re just about to crack the case—a bloodhound sniffing the air, evidence tacked to a corkboard with pushpins that you study, waiting for the shape to reveal itself. To anyone else, all those pieces of myself I shoved into my car would look like a bunch of old junk. To me they are clues, a scavenger hunt with an unknowable prize, mile markers that, if followed correctly, will lead me somewhere important. I keep driving. East and out of the city, on the widening freeway, past strip malls and drive-thrus, pawn shops and liquor stores, that same beat playing, frenetic as my heart. Red and blue flashing lights in the rearview, but not for me, and for an instant I can remember the heavy weight of a police badge I once held in my teenage hand, the metallic chill of a gun. When I pass the exit for Hemet, I can smell my mother’s perfume.
The road—it takes me farther into the desert, past the fields of wind turbines outside Palm Springs, past the hotel where I kissed my husband’s face in front of a hundred guests, past the facility where I was wheeled in for twenty-eight days, wearing Jackie O sunglasses, and still I drive, faster now, pumping the accelerator under my foot, willing the car to fly. There were so many roads, and when I look back at them, I can visualize it all like a map: a path cut through the sun-bleached Kansas fields, Canal Street teeming with activity, a trail that led from a white-sand beach on the Florida Panhandle back to the highway, and this—this road, the one that I am on now, taking me away from where I was. I tell myself that this is my one last trip down memory lane.
I don’t know where I’m going, but I am beginning to see where I’ve been.