I moved to the country after living in Oakland, California, for the better part of twenty-five years, adoring and defending my troubled city as if it were my wayward though generous lover. Oakland, you’ve given me everything you’ve got: trails through the hills at the edge of the city; trees, creek, and sky; the long-legged, sorrowful strut of the hookers on San Pablo; and the best fish tacos I’ve ever eaten, just a buck down by International Boulevard. You’ve given me lemons and oranges, loquats and plums waiting on laden trees, and, in the evening, that creamy layer of light that settles over the blue waters of your bay. Mockingbirds sing all night long on your electric wires, and hundreds of brown-and-white goats graze your wild hillsides (trucked in by the fire department, it’s true, but still: goats in the city!). You’ve given me homemade corn tortillas, sirens all night long, the smell of piss rising from the asphalt, and the endless mumbled litanies of strangers who are just trying to get me something to eat, or a cup of coffee, or enough gas to get home. Once, when I was new to you and young and worked in a tall building, I went right back into that building and spent an hour making calls, trying to find help for the woman camped out on the sidewalk with her two daughters. Once, I wrote down my address for a man who swore repeatedly that he would send me my twenty dollars back. In those days twenty dollars was two hours’ pay for me. Now I make more and give away less. I have become someone who can leave the grocery store with my ecologically correct canvas bags bulging with food and still say, “No, no, no. Sorry, no,” and flick my eyes away.
The truth is, I have not moved to the country. I have only rented a weekend place there — or, rather, what was supposed to be a weekend place, though I have found myself going there increasingly often during the week, sneaking away for trysts. The truth is, I am only fantasizing about moving to the country, or perhaps plotting. I’m not sure which. Meanwhile my neighbor goes on yelling at her children, “I’m gonna whup your fucking butt! Get the fuck in the house!” and her children go on screaming and wailing, and her gentleman callers go on firing up their mufflerless cars at 6:30 in the morning, and also the public-address systems they call stereos. More than once I have found her children, all younger than five, walking down the street by themselves, a street where cars whip around the curve at alarming speeds. More than once I have said exactly that to the Child Protective Services worker on the phone. But, no, I answer when she asks, I haven’t seen bruises. I have not actually seen the children get slapped, beaten, tied to bedposts, or starved.
So, yes, I moved to the country because of my neighbor, because of how she yells at her crying, screaming, endangered children, because of her steady stream of high-decibel visitors — or, at least, that is what I will say in the small-claims suit I imagine filing against her landlady for failure to abate the illegal disturbance of my peace, since my research tells me I could be awarded up to five thousand dollars in damages, money that would help me pay the rent on my country place.
I admit: if I were a better person, I would befriend my neighbor, bake cookies for her children, and offer to baby-sit. Perhaps if I lived in the country, I would be that better person rather than this one — surly, hostile, stretched thin.
I had made my home on Rawson Street an oasis, with shaggy, golden bush marigolds overtaking the sidewalks, night-blooming fragrant bellflowers by the door, wind chimes, and colorful mosaics. Some nights I would settle into my hot tub and look out at the city lights and feel like the luckiest person alive. The fog would blow in, hushing everything, and I would gaze up at the big Monterey pine in my yard and thank it for being there.
What changed? Did I fall out of love with you, Oakland, or did I simply realize that, as I once wrote in a letter to someone I had cherished and hurt and been hurt by too many times, our love had become “untenable”? I ponder this question as I sit in the country, watching the mustard-colored banana slug give its slow, oozing, full-body kiss to the forest floor. In the long minutes it takes me to open up an e-mail on my dial-up Internet connection (there’s no broadband here), I look up from my computer and watch a family of quail — the plump, conscientious parents and their brood of impossibly tiny, striped, skittering quailettes — foraging in the dry grass. Later, from the upstairs window, I spend more long minutes studying the exact pattern of spots on a fawn’s back. It lifts its head, ready to flee, but its mother continues nipping at the grass, unalarmed. So the fawn stays put.
It’s not as if life in the country is perfect. The wasps hover close, incessantly curious about what kind of food I might be eating. There are mosquitoes for a few hours in the evening, and patches of poison oak on the trails, and dust when cars drive by on the gravel road. I have to cover my water glass at night to keep from drowning all the insects drawn to my bedside light. But no one yells. No one cranks an engine, slams a door, blasts a stereo, curses, or shoots, though the deer do crackle loudly through the brush, an army of buzzing bees hums through the flowers, and hawks keen overhead.
On the days when I drive back to Oakland, wearing my noise-canceling headphones because even the whooshing highway seems too loud to me now, I feel as if I am returning from going AWOL. Who has issued me a pass to travel between such different worlds? Yet my car starts up when I turn the key; my feet remember the dance of its pedals; I know the way.
This week my affair with the country is so hot and heavy that I have planned to stay just one night in the city, and on that one night someone traverses my block, throwing bricks through car windows for the sheer pissed-off joy of it, and in the morning I awaken to a gaping hole and shattered glass. Then I bond for a few unlikely moments with one of my neighbor’s gentleman callers, who is sweeping up an identical pile of auto glass. “They got you too?” we say at the same time.
I moved to the country because of Jim, the well-built, well-meaning black guy who fixes my car. His left eye is permanently half closed, and the car smells like pot when he brings it back, but he works cheap, his repairs mostly hold, and I like him a lot — except when he confides to me late one night how the Mexicans are ruining everything. “They sneak across the border into the U.S. when they’re pregnant and take all the services and benefits, so Americans don’t get nuthin’.” But I also moved to the country because of Jorge, my five-foot-tall Guatemalan day laborer who can’t read or write but is as strong as three men and an ox combined, who built my terraces and retaining walls and patios, and who tells me often how dangerous Oakland is because of los morenos, the black people, who ruin everything.
Yes, I tell Jim that the real reason he’s got nuthin’ is because of the CEOs with their hundreds of millions in bonuses, not the undocumented workers who take jobs even he doesn’t want. And, yes, I remind Jorge that there are good people and not-so-good people of every color. But I feel like I’m pushing a river uphill. I moved to the country so I can watch the creek flow downhill instead, the way creeks are supposed to flow, and so I can feel my other life, which is wordless and exists most fully when I gaze so long at the leaves in the breeze that my sight softens and blurs. In that life I am a mythical creature, a naked creek-maiden stepping gingerly over rocks until I am up to my waist in icy water, watching the sun on the water strobe and waver, flicker and pulse. I lean against a moss-covered boulder for a long time before plunging in.
My psychic friend Laila says I moved to the country because the land there had corded me and wanted to heal my first and second chakras. Laila talks like that.
It’s not as if I don’t know what Jorge and Jim are railing against. I moved to the country because part of me had grown entirely too used to chopping brightly colored heirloom tomatoes, pinching some coarse, gray Celtic sea salt onto them, mincing fresh basil leaves, and drizzling on local extra-virgin olive oil, all while listening to the music of staccato gunshots outside my window. In the early years I tried to pretend they were fireworks. When a fifteen-year-old boy got killed less than a block from my house, I thought the sounds were my neighbor dragging something heavy down his driveway.
Eventually I learned to admit that I was hearing gunfire, even while I watched the hummingbirds drink their cherry-colored manna from the feeder. Yet I would take my blue cart to the farmers’ market on Saturdays, load it up with sumptuous produce while people of every age, color, and type — and speaking the music of as many languages — sprawled on the grass in the California sunshine, eating spring rolls, enchiladas, curry masala, and African peanut stew, and I would say happily to myself, “Only in Oakland.”
Everyone knows we have better weather than the more famous city to the west, and cheaper rent, too, which recently has been luring a new crop of gourmet chefs over the bridge. Some of the best eating in the world is now in Oakland, food critics say, and although I am not a person who goes out for expensive meals, I glow with pride when my city — my city — is in the news for something other than its crime and murder rates.
But I have a shameful secret. In the middle of the day, when the freeways are clear, it takes me less than fifteen minutes to get to Orinda, a lovely, leafy suburb with a public library whose floor-to-ceiling windows look out on oak-studded hills. I love the cramped Oakland branch library that serves free lunches to kids all summer long, kids who, the librarian tells me, otherwise might not eat. But the Orinda library is huge and bright, its walls covered with art, its patrons well-dressed and well-mannered. Once, I saw a sparkling troupe of six-year-old ballerinas run through its halls — shiny, happy, privileged kids with rhinestone tiaras in their hair, not a dark face among them. Charmed by them, I felt like an unfaithful lover. Of course, the children are just as beautiful at the Eastmont Mall down the street from my house, not a white face among them, but the streets around them are littered with garbage, and their daddies or uncles or big brothers are mostly in wheelchairs or in jail or deported or dead — or, if they’re lucky, just waiting all day on street corners for what little bit of low-paying, back-breaking labor might come their way. I love you, Oakland, because it’s all true, all of it at once, and I feel compelled to gaze upon what is true. And I moved to the country because, may God and my soul forgive me, I can no longer bear that concentrated dose of truth. I’ve gotten too thin — not in body but in spirit. I need to sit on a front porch for hours, hearing nothing but the rustle of wind through the trees, letting my heart bloom out in all directions.
But truth, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, is large and contains multitudes. One night I return to you, dear Oakland, and find a small, ripe peach on one of my new fruit trees, a tender sapling I planted four months ago. No, Jorge planted it. I did the hard work of ordering it online, and it came, along with fifteen others, packed in a cardboard box as long as a coffin, its branches bare and its roots wrapped in plastic. Then Jorge dug hole after hole in the hard ground, and now the tree is thriving here in my urban yard. I caress its fruit, admire its perfect blush, smell its ripeness through its skin, and then eat it, juicy and sweet. This peach, too, is part of the truth, along with the pop-pop-pop of the semiautomatics down the hill and the calling and screaming of the kids next door.
“Maaaaaameeeeee,” one shouts now. “Maaaaaameeeeeee.”
It’s many minutes before my neighbor finally grunts a response. “What?”
“Maaaaaameeeeee,” the little boy shouts again, as if quite unused to being heard. “I looooove you.”
And then, after a pause so long I think the world may have stopped on its axis, she says it — the right, the necessary thing: “I love you too.”