Monday morning, I’m pulling a trailer containing a four-year-old girl, en route to preschool, both of us coming off a half-decade in the Middle East, and I’m feeling a little shaky about how things are going, wondering how it is I should think about our new life in Los Angeles. I’ve just turned down a tenure-track job offer, an essay collection (not mine) is taking the world by storm, and as ever it’s never particularly easy to find the time to write—nor is it clear why one should bother. There’s a house to work on and a kid who needs raising and a marriage to maintain and yet, that compulsion, every day: To sit down and type.
Surely, I feel guilty—pedaling the trailer, a little bit wanting not to—tending and nurturing and fighting a desire to spend time I don’t feel I deserve, in front of a computer, not with my wife or my daughter or working on my house, aware as ever how fast the smallest is growing and how welcome for the less small if I just stopped. And yet: This typing. And the fact that we left.
It’s sunny here in Southern California, as usual. Birds careen through the sky and a stiff breeze blows off the ocean. It’s safe. It’s nice. I like it. Pumping pedals, I’ve left the girl with her brethren, recalling the fact of a flyer I found at a weekend farmer’s market: The local franchise of Dave Eggers’s educational program, 826LA, is looking for tutors.
I picture the sheet of paper, this idea of what I might do, now that I’m in America, riding through gangland en route to a bike path that runs along LA’s Ballona Creek. It’s the same trash-strewn ditch where I brought my daughter the other weekend to a clean-up. Great idea: America! Clean-up! She lasted five minutes, the creek’s steep slopes too scary.
Most days, going this way—in addition to being a path through gangland, it’s a longer route, but beautiful, this new and simple joy of being able to ride somewhere, something I couldn’t do for five years—I see an old silver-haired couple, sitting on their porch and regarding what’s before them. The road out front is cracked. I pass a lawnmower repair shop, a liquor store, and a food mart called Mother’s Nutritional Center. Tough dudes lounge around on stoops at nearby apartment complexes, all of it behind iron gates. On one of those box trucks that sells produce someone has spray-painted the words, “Slauson Locos.”
I don’t see the old couple today. From gangland to bike path, I climb a hill, shifting into a lower gear, having made the calculation that though it’s double the number of miles to get home and though it cuts into my brief time at the desk and though I myself am not a Slauson Loco, I’ll take the hit. It’s worth it.
Time. You want it all but you make your choices. Prioritize. You move from Beirut to Venice. You buy a house. Up here, flying along next to the creek, I admire a path that’s been open since at least 1991, when there were no fences and you might get jumped. Now there’s talk of installing speed bumps and it’s less likely you’ll be jumped. Which: Change. Which: Slow. The National Army Corp of Engineers covered this river with concrete after the city flooded in the 1930s.
And I’m thinking: Isn’t writing or at least the teaching of writing, which I’ve declined to do, for now—though it pays better, except when it doesn’t—all about showing up, about showing how to slow down and notice things? The opposite of covering it up with concrete. The slippery adjudication of a life in Lebanon versus one in California. Observed details, when recorded, that begin to add up to something, patterns emerging, a longer path that feels worth taking, and perhaps there is something good in this recording and ordering? (Here or there, even though it takes more time, it’s worth doing?)
There are middle-school girls in the water. I see the group smiling. It’s many more children than I thought and I slow down and think about getting off my bike, think about my own girl in middle school, some day, in Los Angeles, or else back in Beirut, which probably won’t happen. These kids, I imagine, regarding them, admiring them, love the river for what it is and what it may yet be.
Then, reality: “That rock hit me in the head,” an old man in shirtsleeves is yelling. “It hit me. In. The. Head.” He points to the children, then at his head, then maybe at me. I stop.
Upon closer inspection, the reality is that a bunch of rotten schoolchildren (on a field trip?) seem to have assaulted their teacher and are laughing hatefully about this fact. They are standing in the water and holding rocks. Or maybe it was an accident? Maybe they are laughing in confusion and embarrassment? Are there rocks?
“Hi,” says a girl beside the path. I think she’s holding a rock. She is both young and old. She is holding a rock. “Bye,” she hollers, hissing.
Pedaling fast, I remember how William T. Vollmann felt when he noticed an itch on the back of his head, this feeling of a cross-hairs that awaited attention. From a sniper. You don’t want that to happen, you don’t want anything like that to happen. Yet you ride through gangland. You pedal fast. You make choices. He was in Bosnia. I am home. I left Beirut. This morning, before school, my daughter said she wanted to bring headbands for three of the five or so school friends she might have brought a headband for. I tried to explain that she could bring one, or none. That it would hurt the ones who were excluded. That she did not want to cause pain. She looked at me quizzically. Pain. The girls have small heads, and they grow every day. Nothing lasts forever. It’s for her, largely, that we left the Middle East.
There’s suddenly a riot—maybe a hundred shore birds, swooping down, plunging into the water, squawking. Terns and gulls and pelicans and herons and a kingfisher—all of them together, some of them, I suppose, eating each other, or at last fighting for the same food—and I marvel that they’re thriving where some days it smells like sewage and others like oil.
Then I notice slow waves rolling toward the birds, this steady wash of water up a river. Did someone jump? Was an old TV thrown into the creek? A serious bicyclist in tight clothing comes up behind me fast, then slows, coasting in my wake.
Pedaling, wondering, sweating, I think about what we can and cannot accomplish, what makes a good life, about writing and reading and sharing, about excellence and weakness, about my daughter and the other kids growing up here and there and who, if anyone among us, can do right by any of them, and whether there’s even sufficient time to try.
Then it’s my exit. The guy behind me, I realize, was just using me to draft. I turn off and he grinds away, going at his own pace, heading wherever it is he’s going, taking off from wherever he’s been. For a little while, I was blocking the wind for him.
I slow for a traffic light, beside a busy highway where a man was recently killed. I know because of the picture of him taped to a lamppost, the dying flowers, the unlit candles. In the creek, I see waves—noticing, for the first time, though I’ve ridden this way for weeks and weeks—that this rolling in of water is actually just the tide coming in, a steady procession of water from the ocean, and addition and subtraction, cars and trucks going by in an inexorable flow, everything changing but a lot of it staying the same.
Nathan Deuel is the author of FRIDAY WAS THE BOMB, an Amazon Best Book of the Month. He has contributed essays, fiction, and criticism to print and digital versions of The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, GQ, and The Paris Review, among others. Previously, he was an editor at Rolling Stone and The Village Voice. He holds an M.F.A. from the University of Tampa and a B.A. in Literature from Brown University, and he attended Deep Springs College. He recently moved to Los Angeles from Beirut with his wife and daughter.