Driving down the pastoral road rendered more “hick” than “quaint” by its population, Josefina remarked to her father, Raymundo (or “Ray” for most “Americans'” comfort), on the scant number of brown cows that had opted to situate themselves higher up on the hill they were passing. He replied to her observation, “Not much for them to eat. Grass is all dried out. And the rain won’t come.” Something in the banal simplicity of the statement made Josefina feel as though she were in a Joan Didion book. One of the more particularly “salt of the earth” works, like her debut, Run River. Didion–that daughter of California who betrayed it for New York Shitty in the end.
Yet she wrote about CA even now, up there from her Upper East Side perch. Josefina reasoned that maybe it was easier for Joan to see California more clearly when she was removed from it. Or so Joan would like to believe. Josefina, a loyal subject of the Golden State even right at the moment when she could have the opportunity to flee it for good via “the college excuse,” would never dare to leave. She was not like Joan, searching for the “greatness” that “the big city” was meant to offer. Especially to an aspiring writer. She knew better. Knew that, after reading each and every single one of Joan’s tomes, her brand was a sham. First and foremost because she did not stay. The majority of her life had now been spent in NY. She no longer had the right to claim the state as something she “knew about.”
As Elena Ferrante phrased it in a book title, a place consists of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. The former being those who are convinced they can “do better” elsewhere because they are “better” full-stop. Didion, like Elena in the Neapolitan novels, classified herself among those who leave. Decided to live at Xanadu, as she called the monstrosity once known as New Amsterdam. Didion, after all her grand talk (nihilistic as it was) of California and then becoming the “queen” of the L.A. “literary scene,” which as most even outside the “literary world” know, isn’t that hard to do, decided that wasn’t sufficient.
Perhaps some part of her felt it was too easy. Perhaps she wanted to be “challenged” again by returning to New York–the very place she wrote a seminal essay about leaving for good. Talk about a phony baloney destined for Holden Caulfield’s Hall of Shame. But apparently holing up in her posh-for-an-author apartment and waiting for Death to cave in near Central Park was what she wanted. Even though, Josefina mused, everyone knows you’re supposed to die in California.
The car lurched forward harshly and Josefina was all at once shaken from her thoughts of Joan the New York Crone. Ray had come within an inch of rear-ending the vehicle in front of him: a pickup truck with a “Trump Is My President” bumper sticker. A collision, therefore, might have been fatal in more ways than one. At this point, Josefina didn’t know why she was surprised by encountering such a high concentration of this ilk anymore. It was just the part of California they lived in–very close, in fact, to the part that Didion grew up in and ran away from.
As Ray began to collect his bearings after the shake-up, they pulled into a nearby rest stop. Both had admittedly small bladders…granted, Ray, at age sixty-six, had a stronger reason for his, shall we say, petite reservoir, whereas Josefina reckoned that it was her constant coffee-drinking that rendered her a walking piss bag. Whatever the reason, they were both in sync on this matter. It would also give Josefina a chance to secret a cigarette break. Even if Ray could smell it on her in the car, it wouldn’t be relevant any longer because he didn’t stop her from carrying out the task. She could deal with the reprimand that came with the territory of having an overbearing parent, but she couldn’t deal with his attempt to make her cease prior to engaging.
As she wrapped her lips tightly around the filter and sucked on it the way most men wish a woman would to their most precious appendage, her thoughts turned again to Didion’s betrayal. How complete and outrageous it was. Not only that, but it was just so goddamn typical of a white lady to be deemed the spokesperson of an entity only to drop the mic and totally abandon it once she got bored. At Didion’s apex of influence in CA, that other annoying literary tastemaker, Michiko Kakutani, announced, “California belongs to Joan Didion.” But how can that possibly still be deemed the case when that gringa peaced out decades ago?
It was enraging to Josefina that Didion could have the gall to say in one of her best-loved essay collections, The White Album, “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.” So, what? She felt because she still did–from her ivory tower in Manhattan no less–that it was hers to claim forever, as opposed to a new generation of non-white voices like Josefina’s? It was untenable. Didion had left California to burn yet was continuing to profit off peddling it as the false version she saw it as. No matter how “gritty” her attempts were to stay connected to the “real” California in something like Where I Was From.
Was it “too painful” for her to be here now? Would she try to wield the excuse that because she had known what it was like at its “greatest” back in the 60s and 70s that she could no longer live there? If that were the case, then how could she fuck with New York, which was a goddamn paradise for those who loved the debauchery of hell back in the proverbial day? Exhaling a plume of smoke in unwitting exasperation, Josefina was tapped curtly on the shoulder by Ray. The second she turned around, he plucked it from her mouth and sternly demanded, “Get in the car. We’re already late for the pickup.”
Josefina stared sadly at the half-smoked cigarette on the ground. She stepped on it harder to ensure it was fully out and then put it in the trash to avoid igniting a fire among these arid lands. Josefina bet Joan wouldn’t have gone to that kind of trouble to help preserve the state she persisted in making her fortune from.