Getting ready for my recent trip to L.A., I told anyone who would listen that I’d never, ever been there. But when I walked out of LAX to catch the FlyAway to Union Station—boom! I caught myself in a lie. The low overhang that made me want to duck as I stepped out of the doors, the slice of blue sky just beyond, the scraggly palm trees against the white parking garage—I’d seen it before, on another June day fifteen years ago. The exact same tableau had been my first glimpse of the U.S. after returning from more than half a year in Southeast Asia.

Last month, I published a novel set mostly in Thailand. It’s about a Thai man and an American woman who get involved with an exotic animal smuggling ring. When people have asked the inevitable questions about how much of Currency is autobiographical—because, of course, everything’s more interesting if it’s autobiographical—I’ve been yakking about how sleeping with Thai guys probably inspired me to write from the first-person point of view of a Thai man. I’m trying to get over my fear that I’m boring people by talking about or reading from my book, but I’m not always successful, and that’s sort of sexy, right? Not the semi-failure, but the hooking up with a few too many foreign men? So I throw it out there to liven things up. And besides, it’s true. Sometimes I precede or follow the comment by making a lame joke about how I never smuggled anything—as far as I know, ha ha.

Until last week, I’d forgotten that I do have an autobiographical connection to Currency’s smuggling plot, a Los Angeles connection. That’s where I landed on my return from Bangkok, and, although I was continuing on to San Francisco, that’s where I went through Immigration and Customs and officially entered America. I’d recently been to Vietnam and Laos, among other destinations, and I was actually looking forward to this border crossing, to officers who spoke an English I knew I’d understand, to the certainty I wouldn’t be squeezed for a bribe, to belonging. When the immigration officer asked me questions about the length of my trip and how I’d managed to stay away for so long, he sounded friendly.

But maybe he tagged me in some way, tapped his loafer to a button on the floor, splattered invisible ink on my back, because while I waited for my stuffed, bedraggled, beloved backpack to roll off the luggage belt, I was approached by other men who asked me the same questions: How did I afford to travel so long without working? Where all had I been? The interest no longer seemed friendly, and I was wearied but not surprised when I was pulled aside at Customs. The search was thorough. Unzipped, my bag emitted the stink of tropical rot. It embarrassed me to watch gloved hands finger my crumbled clothes and dirty underwear, to see my souvenirs splayed out on the table, drained of meaning under the harsh fluorescents—the bunched-up jewelry, the crude carvings, the yak bone I had picked up on a trail in Nepal. But my heart didn’t start seriously pounding until the officer turned over the bone again and again and then walked away with it. He conferred with another uniformed guy. Then maybe another. One of them came over to ask me what the bone was. There was the crackling of a walkie talkie. The bone was taken out of my sight. It reappeared. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember the order in which these things occurred. But I remember being informed that the wildlife expert was on his way. I remember them telling me to repack my bag while we waited for him, the awful feeling of stuffing my messed and cheapened life back inside, under watch. “How did you know so much about smuggling?” people have asked me. “Research,” I’ve answered. And: “I got the animal smuggling idea from an article in a 1997 The New York Times Magazine.” And (in a snotty tone that implies Duh, I’m a fiction writer): “I just made up what it might be like to get caught carrying contraband into another country.” Why did I not recall until revisiting the airport where it happened that I myself was waylaid while carrying a piece of mammal?

It’s not accurate to say the incident slipped my mind. It must have been in there somewhere, hiding in the shadows, because I can recall it vividly now. I can recall the frog enclosures on the blue shirt I was wearing, the heavy string of Kali beads around my neck. (Jesus, how stupid I was to dress like such a clichéd hippy when coming back from what was at that time still a capital of drug production.) My backpacking trip was one of the most influential periods of my life, but I’ve become sort of sheepish about trotting out travel experiences that happened in the previous decade—or, ouch, are the 90s now considered to be two decades ago? And I’ve been laboring over Currency’s manuscript for so many years that my character’s experience had became more legitimate to me than my own, even though I still have the yak bone displayed at the top of a bookshelf in my dining room.

The wildlife inspectors ended up letting me keep it. By the time I was cleared, I needed a smoke, and I headed outside. I noted the contrast of the gloomy overhang and the sky’s robin’s egg blue, the outline of the palms’ ragged edges against the garage’s grimy cement. Southern California, I thought. Check. Then I stubbed my cigarette, went back inside, and got on my flight to San Francisco, where I stayed with my friend Brenna and her girlfriend Paula. I used their apartment as a halfway house, a place to acclimatize before I fully reentered American life.

Brenna has long since moved to L.A., and I stayed with her again on this recent visit. We’ve known each other since we were kids. We’ve hardly talked these last ten years. As she drove me around town to readings and parks and Venice Beach—I leaned on her for that one—her truck’s radio was often tuned to a station that played “Ladies Night” and “Celebration” on heavy rotation, songs we had danced to as preteens. We looked at each other across the wide bench seat and laughed. We grooved. We sang along, and she corrected me on some of my lyrics; apparently I’ve been wrong about them for thirty years. (It’s not “Celebrate your life,” it’s “Celebrate good times,” which I hope I can forget by the next time I hear it because I think my version is bigger-hearted.) One night, we all three went out, the same San Francisco trio, Brenna and Paula—just friends, now, best friends—and me, to a bar in Culver City, and Brenna and I danced in the back to the deejay’s nowest of now mix. We told Paula about how we had met on the dance floor at family night at our small town’s disco, and how we had fallen in love. We are still in love. Never-mind about the last ten years.

The phrase “the accordion of time” pops into my head a lot lately. I picture the long stretch of years—of course some things will be forgotten; there’s so much!—and then the squeeze that brings them together until they all exist at once, until everything seems as if it’s happening now. The sensation is accentuated by publishing a book that I’ve worked on through so many stages of my life and that’s inspired by an earlier stage yet; by a book tour that’s reconnecting me with people I spent formative years with before drifting away from. Lately, it’s common for me to recount a night on a 1980s dance floor as if it were yesterday, but to forget what happened last weekend. I’m an old lady in that way. But, also, I’m still a girl. Some enthusiasms are as fresh now as they were then. I keep having the feeling that I’ve been here before, and that it’s exactly the same, I’m exactly the same. But also, that it was nothing like this. Coming home, I’ve returned to a place I’ve never quite been: tropical flora, brilliant sunshine, dirty but still bright, white walls.

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ZOE ZOLBROD's first novel, Currency, won a 2010 Nobbie Award. She was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania; went to college in Oberlin, Ohio; and got a MA from University of Illinois at Chicago. She works in educational publishing and lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband, the artist Mark DeBernardi, and their son and daughter. She's currently at work on a memoir.

25 responses to “Haven’t I Seen You Here Before?”

  1. Greg Olear says:

    LA, the city of flashbacks.

    This has happened to me, too, although on a less grand scale, the fictionalizing of a repressed memory, not realized until later. On some level, I think, fiction is how our brain processes certain traumatic experiences.

    And yes, one of the great surprises of my book coming out and the mini-tour was how many old friends came out of the proverbial woodwork. And not just friends — even people I thought didn’t like me at all. Time’s accordian, indeed.

    A great piece, Zoe. Welcome to TNB (although you’ve been here, of course, for some time).

  2. zoe zolbrod says:

    Thanks, Greg. “The fictionalizing of a repressed memory,” that’s a great way to put it. Although I didn’t think of the experience as being traumatic at the time.

    • Greg Olear says:

      I felt the same way about my own experience, that it wasn’t a big deal. But it came out in a story I was trying to write, until I realized what it was, and was able to address it in a memoir-type piece here at TNB (my 9/11 post, one of my few efforts that doesn’t concern some or other pop cultural figure).

  3. Joe Daly says:

    It’s funny how coming “home” can become so fraught with anxiety, simply because an anonymous face behind a US Customs uniform decides that in his or her estimation, something is amiss. Nevermind that they don’t know us, who we are, where we’ve been. They don’t know if that tic is a sign of deception, or something we struggled with since first grade. They seem to brush aside the fact that many of the people they see have been awake for almost a day, riding jets from one continent to the next in the hope that their final stop- a couch, is not far away.

    Enjoyed the build up, and enjoyed the way you tied it all together in the end. And the accordion metaphor is nice- good reminder that the best sounds come when we’re in the present.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      This should make you younger people laugh your asses off. In 1973 I was on my way home from Papua New Guinea via Australia. PNG and Australia were cool with mainland China goods, but US Customs was not. So in the hotel room in Sydney I spread out all the things I’d acquired in the previous 2 or 3 years and worked out which were Chinese. Then I left them behind, because in those days anything made in China was a prohibited import and I’d have had big trouble in Honolulu. Amazing to remember those days.

      Also, there was a period of about ten years when I was regularly (and absolutely legally) moving computing equipment in and out of Canada, from the US. I always had the correct paperwork, and everything was packed in equipment cases. I almost never was asked to show serial numbers. One day, coming back from Ontario, I was waiting in the Customs area, where I usually just had to show my forms and then go on home. But that day, a woman supervisor chewed out a young male officer, in the open area. That was unprofessional but more to the point I was worried that I’d get that guy and he’d take it out on me. I did, and he did. Every fucking piece of equipment had to be unpacked and every serial number checked against my 4455 form, which was the correct form and correctly filled out and registered. I had done everything properly, but that didn’t matter to him. He even put my van up on a lift and checked underneath. It took a couple of hours, and all because of that chewing-out. I kept my mouth shut because until you’re cleared to “enter,” never mind that you’re already in, you’re in a serious, scary no man’s land where you have no rights.

      And Zoe, I’m about a third of the way through Currency, and am enjoying it. Your “Thai man speaks English” is working perfectly for me.

  4. zoe zolbrod says:

    Thanks for reading, Joe. Your comment reminded me of another time I was stopped at the border of our gentle neighbor to the north. Canada refused to let a bunch of us filthy anarcho-hippies in during a time of a big political convention, and were very mean about it—strip searches! But the American Customs guys just laughed at us every time we had to come back after being turned away. From this I developed the idea that it was easier to come home than to go elsewhere. But not always.

  5. I really related to this, Zoe. Too many times under the eyeball in some white-tiled customs closet feeling doomed even though I knew I wasn’t carrying anything (but was I sure? I mean, REALLY sure?) Mostly, that feeling you really captured of returning home to a place that felt like anything but, a feeling of hostility after being somewhere else that by definition was less regimented in outlook, not just more exotic in it’s interpretation of security.

  6. dwoz says:

    On smuggling:

    there’s an old sufi tale, in which Nasrudin brings his donkeys to the border, and the guard captain, suspecting him a smuggler, searches the donkey’s packs and saddlebags thoroughly. But the captain is thwarted, not finding anything. Every couple weeks, Nasrudin comes to the crossing with his donkeys, and every time the captain searches meticulously, but never once finds anything he can claim for proof of his certainty that Nasrudin is a smuggler.

    Years later, after the captain is retired, he sees Nasrudin in the bazaar, in a cafe. He greets his old nemesis.

    “Nasrudin, I am retired now, and so my policing days are over. But I must ask. All those years, I was certain you were a smuggler, yet I was never able to catch you.” Nasrudin nodded, smiling. The captain continued: “So now, as friends rather than adversaries, may I ask what you were smuggling in those packs that I could never find?”

    Nasrudin replied, “donkeys.”

  7. Matt says:

    Living as I do in San Diego, I grew up being able to cross the border into Mexico more or less whenever I wanted to; this is great for when you’re looking for teenage hijinks to get into. But no matter how many times I made that border crossing, there was always, ALWAYS that moment of tension coming back over, being asked to produce ID, state nationality, etc. I was never carrying anything illicit, but still, under the stares of the Border Patrol agents, I always felt like I had to be guilty of something, and it was only a matter of time until they found out what.

    Nice piece, Zoe. I look forward to sitting down with my copy of Currency this weekend.

  8. zoe zolbrod says:

    Thanks, Matt. I commented earlier about my other memorable border brouhaha going into Canada. We had made a point of cleaning out the truck and ourselves the morning we tried to cross, but the guards were determined to turn us away for something.

  9. Girl, so good to see you on TNB in earnest! Welcome!

    I can so relate to this story. You probably know about David getting strip searched on our way home from Amsterdam in 1995. I was seriously practically making love to the drug dog, like an idiot–it was a really cute dog!–and I must have, by loving it up, alerted its attention to our clothing reeking of hash. We didn’t have any on us! But we–probably particularly I–smelled of it something serious. They had no female security people free at the moment, so after searching our bags and coming up empty, David was taken off for the strip search. Before I knew it, some security guy was walking past me snapping a plastic glove over his hand, and I had my Worst Wife Ever moment by literally falling off my chair laughing my head off. David reports that he could hear me cackling from inside the room, which really endeared me to him as you can imagine . . .

    Turned out they were only trying to scare him and they didn’t go through with the body cavity thing. They ended up sending him out about 30 seconds later. But he was jittery for days!

    • Zoe Zolbrod says:

      Ooooooh, I think I’ve heard that story, Gina, but maybe not the part about you laughing. That is too funny. And cruel. They should have come for you next!

  10. Great piece, Zoe! And I loved hearing you read from the novel a few weeks back in New York.

    Yes, it is funny, how everyone wants the real story behind the story. But, I’m like everyone, too, and always ask writers which parts are real. The strange thing is that after you’ve written something based on the truth, revised it fifteen or twenty times, it’s sometimes hard to remember what you’ve made up and what really happened. Or maybe that’s just a problem I’ve been having!

  11. Zoe Zolbrod says:

    It’s true, Jessica. For those of us who think in fiction, the line between real and imagined starts to blur, right? I have to watch myself when I’m writing nonfiction for just that reason. Ha! Or James Frey time. I have a nonfiction project I’m sort of working on now, but I’m guessing it won’t stay in that genres’ camp for long. Thanks for your comment.

  12. Marni Grossman says:

    Congratulations on the novel!

    I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. Though, I confess, I’m disappointed: I was hoping you had been a high-flying smuggler in a past life.

  13. Zoe — the line between fiction and non-fiction is so blurred that there are many times when I am in the thick of writing that I have a hard time discerning what has happened versus what I have made up– that is why I have teenagers — they are here to remind me with an exasperated sigh and an eye roll.

    I so enjoyed Currency — and our joint reading a few weeks back — your experiences in the real world have only added to the amazingly textured and layered fictional world you created. Keep the genre line fuzzy — who but you really needs to know the truth? ~ r

  14. Stacy Bierlein says:

    I love this piece, Zoe, love that so much can be set into motion and forgotten and remembered starting with a Yak bone. I love that you still have the Yak bone. And I wish that I had written these lines: “We are still in love. Never-mind about the last ten years.”

  15. brenna says:

    still in love for sure!!! what a great article, and AMAZING visit! i’m so glad to reconnect with you. xoxo

  16. U.S. customs officials seem to be trained in the art of subtle humiliation, something about their stares and the way, as you perfectly put it, they manage to make all your possessions “drained of meaning.” We travel often between Europe and the US and every time entering the States is an ordeal, even my 4 and 6 year old daughters get treated with suspicion.

    But very nice piece, the last paragraph is beautiful.

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