When I return to Southern California, to the inland empire, I feel at home. In my body. It’s not an emotional thing. It’s not a relief. I just remember it. The air. Dry and warm. Soft even, with smog. Air that burns your lungs in the summer. Where you have to stay indoors. Where you can’t see the mountains in July.
On days without smog, usually in the fall, when there’s wind, there’s a hush to the inland empire. Rancho Cucamonga, my hometown, is a suburb where no one walks. Everyone drives. And sometimes, no one does. If you take the right streets. If you drive out in the evening, the air orange and pink and green.
I went to a meeting in Cucamonga a few months ago. I never drank when I lived there. And I had never been to a meeting there, except once, in high school, for my sister during her 51-50 lockup at the hospital.
The meeting was like being at Walmart, in the way everything in the suburb is. But it was also like being at home. Like a homecoming. Like I had returned. I looked around the room and people were like people I knew. Family members. Like people from high school. They talked a lot about their jobs. It felt strange because it felt permanent. It meant that my being in recovery was real life. This was as real as driving down Church St. at sunset when I was 17, with the windows down, feeling free and wanting more of it. This was as real as writing in my room every year of my life. As real as everything that I ever did or experienced or struggled with as a kid. I was in recovery. Even in Cucamonga.
I remember my sister’s Corolla in high school. How it smelled. Like chemicals. Like someone had been smoking speed in it. I remember sharing a math class with her because I had skipped ahead. Her sitting behind me, because it was alphabetical, showing up and then not showing up except once, when she came and late and sat with her hair covering her face and her forehead on her desk, the whole class and no one said anything about it.