By Sarah Michelson '18
My mom and I are sitting in a diner on the Pacific Coast Highway, about three thousand miles from home. It's pretty fancy for a diner-- the decor is nearly all black and white and divided into neat, modern lines. There are stainless steel lamps hanging from the ceiling at sensible intervals. Rustic brickwork offsets the monochrome furniture with a warm red. The entire front wall of the restaurant is a massive glass window from which light is pouring in and illuminating the room with the cool mid-morning glow. My menu is a thin white pamphlet, like a culinary travel brochure promising something far more exciting than it can possibly deliver. The only decoration is an optimistic greeting on the front, in lacy red print-- "Good Morning!"
I order a cup of coffee and stir it with my spoon, despite the fact that I haven't added any cream or sugar. My mom is taking slow sips of her orange juice. We are waiting for breakfast, and are enticed by the scents of savory meats and sweet desserts wafting from the kitchen,by the sizzly pops and the clink of glassware.
We came all the way out to California because she wanted to take me to the Festival of the Arts in Laguna Beach. Our tickets are for tonight. Tomorrow, we go back to Atlanta. She asks me if I'm looking forward to going, and I respond yes, I've been looking forward to it since we got the tickets, and she seems excited, because she's wanted to take me to this for a long time. There's a show at the festival where people are costumed and made up to pose as famous paintings, and that's what she wants to show me most of all.
I'm stirring my coffee and she's sipping her orange juice, and it's quiet. It's a nice quiet, the kind you can appreciate and don't feel the pressure to immediately break. Just outside, the Pacific Ocean is beating down on the shoreline. Yesterday, we went to the beach and it was also a nice quiet. A few days earlier, we went to the Getty Museum, and that was a nice quiet too.
My mom had struck up a conversation with one of the Getty guards. She told them about how she'd grown up in Orange County and how it would always be home to her. She told them about how she'd experienced a ton of earthquakes as a kid, and how she keeps hearing about how "The Big One" is coming. But as we admired Van Gogh's Irises and enjoyed the sweeping views of Los Angeles from the elevated museum campus, the earth stayed completely still. Even now, as I was stirring my coffee, the only thing that disrupted the surface tension was my spoon.
That night, when we went to see the show at the Festival, I found myself amazed to see paintings that I knew built up on the stage-- and then, incredibly, dissolve into people and scaffolds before the next painting was put up. It was shocking, in a way. The art that I see in my studies does not move. It does not change. It does not blink, or breathe. It simply exists, and I can rely on it to look the same whenever I come back to it. Though I often find myself waxing poetic about how the meaning of art is fluid and how interpretations are ever being added onto and changing, and how subjectivity is so important, I must bring myself to confess that I'm very attracted to art's physical solidity. The lines and colors and shapes remain ever static. No matter what happens to me or in the world, Dali's clocks will drip the same way and Pollock's paint splatters don't change their points of impact.
Earlier in the week, my mom had driven me to see her old high school. She pointed to the places she practiced with the flag team and sunny spots in which she used to hang out. She noted what was different and what remained the same.
There used to be bleachers there.
I don't remember that building being there before.
I tried to imagine my high school mom, but couldn't do it. What was it like for her, to come back? To show this place to her daughter, who was now older than she was the last time she'd set foot here? And to see this once familiar place made new and strange in her absence? Nothing stays the same.
When my mom comes back to California, she talks about how she's coming home. But we got a strange hotel room and ate most of our breakfasts at random IHOPs we found on the GPS. We see her old haunts in brief passing. I have family here and a lot of my cousins are married. Some of them have their own kids. I don't see them often, and every time I do, the age jump is uncomfortably noticeable. My early childhood memories of them are vague and foggy. The painting dissolves. The scaffolding comes down. And the next painting arrives in its place. When we went to the beach, I spent a lot of time talking to my cousin's children; asking them about how school was going and if they were enjoying summer vacation and such. They don't really remember the times they've met me before. Their early childhood memories of me are vague and foggy. They're good kids. The painting dissolves. The scaffolding comes down. And the next painting arrives in its place.
I'm still stirring my coffee when our breakfast arrives. I got french toast. It's light and fluffy and delightfully bread-y. My mom and I eat and continue to discuss our excitement for the evening between mouthfuls. Soon enough, we've finished everything, down to the coffee and orange juice. My mom pays the bill and we go back to our car, thinking up ways to use the time before the festival as we walk. We could go shopping, or see a historical site, or--
The time passes quickly. Soon, we're at the festival and perusing the artists' booths for treasures. The diner is just a memory now. It could just as well have never existed. I could have imagined it. My only proof of it is a Yelp page and the Instagram photo I took of my breakfast. I thought of it as peaceful and quiet and now the festival is my new reality, now the festival is a kind of rambunctious serenity that I can enjoy as painting after painting zips in and out of my field of vision, never staying for too long. There's too much to see to wait and ponder.
We see the show; we leave the show. Scaffolds and paintings go up and down, up and down. My mom asks what I thought. I said I enjoyed it. She seems to wonder why my response was not more enthusiastic. I assure her that I was impressed and I did have a good time. We go back to the hotel and rest up for our flight tomorrow.
After we check out and before we drive to LAX, we stop at another IHOP for breakfast. I order my favorite blueberry pancakes because I loved blueberry pancakes as a child and they taste nostalgic to me. The waitress pours me coffee and I stir, stir, stir. My mom is about to leave an old home full of things that she could rely on to comfort her and stay the same. The scaffolding is coming down. When breakfast arrives, I pray that the pancakes taste the way that they tasted when I was five or ten or fifteen. I pray for time to freeze, just for this one moment, and silently give thanks for constancy.
From March 2016 issue