There are four stages of interrogation; the first is called Formation. Before the interrogation comes the need for it to occur and the mandate to undertake it. At this stage, the framework is established for how the interrogation may be determined, including the level of coercion that is permitted or not allowed.
What happened in the library?
My affair with California begins long before we meet. I am nine, tucked between stacks in the school library on the second floor. For years after, decades, I will have dreams about the second floor of this school. I will wrestle in my sleep to remember what the hallway looked like as it hooked a sharp right, to the farthest reaches of the building where only the sixth-graders went. I will smell the disinfectant wafting off the floors and hear the squeak of untied sneakers. I will remember, without knowing if it is real, a tide of anxiety about the girls’ bathroom—dirty stalls, cold tile, donut-shaped communal drinking fountain into which one could easily fall, or be pushed.
But the library is safe. I run my hand over the familiar rows of soft weathered spines, some torn fuzzily. The books have a certain smell: musty, the way I think the insides of the ancient mummy sarcophagi we learned about in class would smell if they were pried open.
I have a research project, assigned by Madame Sebag, who hates me and forces me to copy French dictionary pages when I forget to have my parents sign my homework, which is all the time. The research project must be on a country in the world, any country other than Canada, our own. It is due in three weeks. I am pulsing with excitement. I am in the fourth grade. I want to pick a rad country, one no one else will have. Madame Sebag will see how good I am.
The geography section is pretty decent, six shelves. The winter sun glints from the high-up rectangle windows, lighting the dust flakes in the air that look like goldfish food and the shiny plants our librarian, who wears stiff brown pantsuits and orange-flowered blouses, keeps on the top shelves. I see a book, All About California.
I open it.
As part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, California is subject to tsunamis, floods, drought, Santa Ana winds, landslides, wildfires, and has several volcanoes. It has numerous earthquakes, in particular along the San Andreas Fault. . . .
Death Valley, a desert with large expanses below sea level, is the hottest place in North America; the highest temperature in the Western Hemisphere, 134° F (57° C), was recorded there July 10, 1913. . . .
The name California is believed to have derived from a fictional paradise populated by black women warriors and ruled by Queen Calafia . . . a remote land also inhabited by man-eating griffins and other strange mythical beasts, and rich in gold.
I try to mentally X-ray the pictures of spiky palm trees, blood-red underground faults, nuggets of gold, soaring ocean waves and sidewalk stars engraved with famous actresses’ names. I stare these pages down, bear into them. Hollywood stars on the sidewalk — ohmygod maybe Molly Ringwald is there, and Alyssa Milano, and Drew Barrymore from E.T.
Already my mind is engulfed by California. Forget the project for horrible Madame Sebag. Forget Lake Placid, where my parents take us to stay in my grandparents’ vacation cabin every summer—I want to go to California.
How can I get there? Maybe if I do a totally awesome project my parents will decide we can go to California for a visit. Maybe they will know immediately that we all belong there; maybe they will love it as much as I do. Maybe California will help them love each other.
I look back at All About California, hungry for more inspiration.
“California is the 3rd largest state in the United States in size, after Alaska and Texas.”
A state? A state? Like New York, where we drive once a year across the border to do our school shopping, hiding new clothes and shoes deep in our Jeep’s trunk on our way back, away from the customs officials so we don’t have to pay extra taxes?
Slowly I put the book back on its shelf. The library wall clock reads 3:58. In two minutes my mom will be outside in the car to pick me up.
I skim the shelves again and see All About Italy. Fine, whatever. I scrawl my name at the bottom of the card on the inside of the cover to check it out. Hitching my heavy winter coat tightly around me, I step down the stairs and out into the snow.
Affair might be too strong a word
Not too strong. Too strange? I am writing about becoming obsessed with a state. A state of the U.S. Can you stalk a state? A state of being, yes. A state of becoming. A state of belonging, of trying to belong. The thirty-first state. First state I love. The state of love.
State your purpose
We know you know what a whore is
I know that the year I was ten my mind was heightened to the signs of romance. When the movie Dirty Dancing came out, with its posters of Jennifer Grey in metallic shoes mamboing in the muscled arms of Patrick Swayze, I pleaded with my mother to take me. I have to go! I begged, waving my own pink ballet shoes in her face. I’m a dancer! I did feel the movie would improve my jazz steps, but there was another, unnamable pull, too, the little lurch my lower stomach made when I thought about a man and woman dancing closely, when I thought about Darell/Daryl at school with their mix of rough boyishness and still downy cheeks ruddy from the playground.
She agreed to take me. But she went first with her friend Lisa, and that night when she came home from the theater she shook her head at me definitively—I was not old enough to see Dirty Dancing. Sorry, but it’s final. Her hips seemed loose as she glided to her bedroom.
As the heavy northern winter settled in that year, my Barbies began doing strange things with each other down in our basement rec room. Sometimes one of the girls and Ken would go out to a ball and then afterward they’d drive home in Malibu Barbie’s pink convertible, Ken would come inside, they would have a snack in the Dream Kitchen and then Barbie and Ken would lie down in her glow-in the-dark canopy bed with Ken on top. I wasn’t sure what they were doing or why, but If I heard anyone’s footsteps coming downstairs I would quickly rearrange Barbie and Ken back in the car or in the Dream Pool outside, my mouth pressed into silence, my heart pounding in my slight chest.
What does it mean to be good?
Be a good girl, my grandmother would urge me. What a good girl, they would say when I kept my hands in my lap and sat still at the symphony and ballet or stepped lightly at the art museum. Such a good girl, my mother and the women around me would praise when I had slipped quietly into the background, was helpful when asked, when I flashed a good report card, or tossed out a wry quip to a group of adults. That favorite small triumph I liked best of all because it was adults’ attention I wanted most. Good was silent, except when, able to impress or delight, it wasn’t. What’s the matter with you? My mother would ask, annoyed, when I prodded, poked, challenged, asked too many questions or inserted myself too much. Shut your mouth, she’d say to me. Watch yourself.
What else did you learn in the American school?
The Donner Party is the wagon train of eighty-seven American pioneers who, inspired by the philosophy of Manifest Destiny, found themselves trapped by snow late in the fall of 1846 while trying to cross the Sierra Nevadas on their journey to California. Part of the problem was the party tried to save time by taking a new route, a shortcut called Hastings Cutoff, which they were led to believe would be an easy crossing but in fact delayed them dangerously. Thirty-nine members of the party died from starvation, exposure, disease and trauma. Famously, some of the survivors resorted to cannibalism, turning a relatively unimportant pioneer party into one of the most spectacular tragedies in California history and the story of western migration.
Western migration. Those words rolled off my newly Californian tongue with a sense of sanction. A historical endorsement that placed me into a diorama of comings-and-goings. I was with pioneers. I was with buffalo. I was with computer-minded Indian families in saris, and geese coming south before the snows. Swept along in a great wave, I could fade into the background until I found footing. Despite the gruesome details, the Donner story comforted me. There were others before me, a caravan of them, who left their pasts and overcame their presents in a quest for the thing called home. Reinvention was possible. You just had to be willing to consume anything.
Where do you think you’re going?
The road ribbons out. Endless lanes forward, back, adjacent, a concrete football field undulating in every direction. I have a car. Someone has handed me the keys. At first I cannot make it move smoothly. I haven’t learned stick shift, but to spread out stipulates stick shifting, so I get up to speed; soon I move beyond jerk and stall to a place of mastery.
I coast, over under over. Pass palms, houses, hills, buildings of each decade, sun on factory walls. Pink, jade, softest mauves.
I am beginning to love her, California. Every direction is a new part of her mapped body, wild grasses like silky hair. Kidney swimming pools; flower-bud breath; warm-arteried highways. From my driver’s seat I look out at her, speeding by, left behind, always reappearing up ahead, with the wish for reflection: were these windows mirrors they might show a navigable self back to me, bright and busy, traveling toward purpose.
State of awe: I am touching this curve of beautiful earth.
A dream I’ve had takes many forms. Sometimes I am plowing along an elevated speedway, in a place that feels like a version of Berkeley or Stanford but Seussian. And right at the outermost arc my car flies off the road, soars through the air quietly, and calmly in my subconscious I anticipate the head-heart-stomach drop that is about to jettison me from this life. The way you prepare for a massive dip on the roller coaster. Not a yielding but a bracing.
Someone has handed me the keys. The roads stretch out ahead. The highway of California snakes everywhere: spellbinding esssssssses. Now all I need to do is navigate, stick to the curves, shift the stick, lean into the bend of the smooth S shapes. Press. Swell. Release. Slope. Adhere to the shifts. Stay the course.
Tell us the truth
Longing is embedded in belonging, hidden in plain sight. To desire openly—to desire after a silencing—is to strip to the skin and lie in the street for the crowd, rocks in hand, to see.
Later, when I am a young student journalist covering city council meetings about building permits and parking fees, I will dream about placing myself in real danger. I consider doing the work it would take to become a foreign correspondent. I long to embed myself with a military troupe—it would not be that hard to arrange—to disguise myself poorly and head into the heart of enemy territory, surrounded by bodies of tension, by ranks of unsecured need.
Tell us the real truth
I am afraid to do this in front of everyone.
Are you Californian yet?
I have a boyfriend now. I meet him at the end of my senior year in high school. I am in need of a group or, really, any human connection, but I have entered the realm of American high school far too late to form deep and selective friendships. So I allow myself to drift along with a somewhat welcoming cluster of kids who are generally interested in privation: They are members of DARE, making pledges in AA-like group circles not to drink alcohol or do drugs. Some of the girls flash a gold band on their right ring finger, slipped on them by their fathers in a special ceremony and representing their pledge to remain virgins until marriage. The rings repulse me and also force me to think of my own father, whom I haven’t spoken with since I left for California. Our relationship has been strained since I was fourteen, when he remarried to a woman who disliked me and took on a seven-year-old step-daughter. It feels like I am always on the outside, the daughter who reminds everyone of her mother (and so what?). Tainted.
I don’t know what it is that draws me to Jim—he’s a generally kind person but we are not well matched. His interest in me is probably what determines our courtship, because I am inept at deciphering my own desires or preferences. He’s a member of DARE, too, but he is learning to manage the guilt of indulgences like beer and shooting fuel-tank levels of Jagermeister. His family is Episcopalian; a reference to the Lord or Jesus could pop any time from his mother’s mouth or from some longtime friend in Jim’s clean-cut, Nascar-loving circle of boyhood friends, though Jim himself is moving into a loosening. In April, before we begin dating, I am invited to the family’s Easter dinner. Sitting before the first glazed ham I have ever seen up close, I mention that because I am Jewish the finer points of Easter are unfamiliar to me. Jim’s mother, Anne, who I will soon learn maintains a special room in their home just for storing her abundant collection of decorations for Christmas, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, St. Valentine’s Day, and other such holidays, looks worriedly at Jim as her eyes tear up. I’m not sure I can have someone at my Easter table who doesn’t believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, she says softly.
This reminds me of a cowboy at my high school, a senior with a palm-sized belt buckle and a chipped front tooth named Sean who earlier this winter took me for a couple of rides in his gray pickup truck. After the last ride, we parked in front of my house and I bumped my head as we kissed chastely on the lips. While pulling away he noticed the tiny gold Jewish star dangling around my neck. What is that, he wanted to know. I told him. The cowboy never asked me out again. Later, away from the cramped chamber of that cab, I wished I had had the chance to run my tongue one time along the tooth’s sharp edge.
But now I’m with Jim, and Jim has a car, a Mustang he diligently saved for by mowing summer lawns, and with him I begin to see the California beyond our suburbs. It will become a hallmark of our relationship, perhaps the very purpose of it: a joint desire, though possibly for different reasons, to venture out, trace our fingers along a paper map and then together move our bodies to that place. To constellate ourselves by crossing over to somewhere new, to bear witness to what is there.
What would the Prynne girl do?
Sometimes, suspended in a state of longing, you can only refer to the characters who have been presented to you, whom you appropriate—perhaps from the pages of texts that help you navigate California and yourself in it, perhaps from the topography around you—in hopes that a mirror, however distorted, could lead to a sense of satiety.
I often think about Pearl, birthed by her author in the year of California’s Gold Rush. As a toddler and young girl she believes fiercely, without any public evidence to support the notion, that she should be adored. Later, she asks Dimmesdale and her mother when she will be acknowledged fully and, given no certainties, demands it. Against all conventions, Pearl exposes her own longing, does not shy from insisting that she be seen and therefore written into existence. Asking questions, then, is a kind of granting of permission to oneself, an entering into a state of permissiveness. Interrogation is a taking possession of one’s being. A (re) claiming of voice.
I think Pearl would want to tour the shit out of California and, for a little while, bide her time.
Natalie Singer is the author of the memoir California Calling: A Self-Interrogation. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in journals, magazines, and newspapers including Proximity, Lit Hub, Hypertext, Literary Mama, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times, ParentMap, Alligator Juniper, Brain, Child, Largehearted Boy, Full Grown People and the 2015 anthology Love and Profanity. Natalie has been the recipient of several awards, including the Pacific Northwest Writers Association nonfiction prize and the Alligator Juniper nonfiction prize. California Calling was first runner up for the Red Hen Press nonfiction prize and a finalist for the Autumn House Press nonfiction prize. Natalie has taught writing inside Washington State’s psychiatric facility for youth and Seattle’s juvenile detention center, and she has worked as a journalist at newspapers around the West. She is a 2017-2018 writer-in-residence at On the Boards, a contemporary performing arts collective in Seattle, where her writing responds to the season’s works and creates a conversation with the community. Natalie earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from the University of Washington. Originally from Montreal, she lives in Seattle. (@Natalie_Writes)
From California Calling, by Natalie Singer, Copyright © 2018. With the permission of the publisher, Hawthorne Books.
Author Photograph by Stuart Isett. ©2017 Stuart Isett. All rights reserved.