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  • Vestiges of Sea Pilgrims
  • Karen An-hwei Lee (bio)

Water on Sunset Boulevard

On Los Angeles's 230th anniversary, Emily Dickinson and I cruise the city.

Vernal greenery. We stay on Sunset in search of water. Two unlikely sisters, Emily and I are a pair of cool Berkshire fronds this afternoon. Atlantic sea pilgrims. Woodland ferns. I grew up in Massachusetts before moving to greater Los Angeles. Emily, who lived in the Berkshires her entire life, is no longer alive. Fiddleheads and orchid kin. Lady slippers. No shops, no boutiques, no dermatologists, no glass edifices. Ornamental shade only, trees never sacrificed for poles or coffins. I talk while driving even if no one's there. To live at the end of a blind driveway, I say. You mean an unseen one, Emily says. We drive on Sunset, rows of trees: cedars, stands of white pine, evergreens, junipers twisted in funnel clouds. Blindness. Trees conceal the houses, glimpsed now and then.

Our childhood in Massachusetts, I say.

Trees, trees, murmurs Emily.

The boulevard curves past a cast-iron Bel-Air gate, no signs except citadels of trees. Basilicas of air. Groves of sky. I lived here as a girl, says Emily. Sunset is a myth, I say. No one lives this way, among sentinel firs in Los Angeles. It costs multi-millions to do this. It's the location, I say. Location is in the heart, says Emily. In the cathedral of a soul. One underground river sustains greenery by night, originating from a glacier lake in Beverly Hills. Jurassic glaciers, underground caverns of Los Angeles.

There aren't any of those here, I say.

Where are glacier hills, says Emily.

None, I say. You're thinking of Burbank.

La Brea Tar Pits, she coughs. Brea tar flows on the Orange Freeway, black as the spice cake in the basket I once lowered into my garden.


Were the Berkshires formed by glaciers? [End Page 138]

Water on Rodeo Drive

Did you ever grow heather, Emily?



Emily shakes her head. I only remember the daylilies.

We're lost, Emily and I. We choose a road with a whimsical name, Rodeo. Of course, Rodeo Drive, the famous one. Shops and boutiques with silk gloves but no ambient music. Strangers photograph one another on a cobbled alley with a steep grade. Los Angelenos, who live in the city year round, do not. Take photographs. Almost vertical: a movie set? Is it Boston, where Emily visited her eye doctor? High noon, yet flash bulbs spark magnesium in the sun. Venice, I say. No, Vegas, Emily says, adjusting her snood, auburn hair awry. Venice section of Vegas, she explains. Venezia. I can tell by walking on it. The stones are machine eroded, not foot worn. You tell genuine sea glass this way, too.

We visit an Italian zapateria to ask about women's shoes.

Zapateria is Spanish, I say.

Are you sure this isn't Paris? says a tourist.

We're sure this isn't Paris, we say.

Emily, can you speak another language? I ask, but she does not reply. Odor is a saloon in a desert. Saloon, echoes Emily, as an afterthought. It's not a word I used often when I was alive. A saleswoman, two salesmen, and a third man who doesn't identify himself, a fashion spy, emerge from leather-clad halls to hear a tale I recount with raised hands, my ancient mariner toast to wedding guests: Listen! Once upon a time, a woman grew large bone spurs, also called onions, eleven and a half wide . . . We hear tongues in Russian, Portuguese, Czech, Vietnamese. Everyone comes to Rodeo Drive.

Bunions, says Emily.

Not onions?

I remember narcissus.

Not the daylilies?

A flash bulb strikes. Not white magnesium, we remind ourselves. Not stars. White chrysanthemums. On a street corner, an evangelist shares the gospel in Japanese: イエス・ キリスト. We listen closely. Parking meters hum tangible minutes in a digital staccato. Emily says the parking meters remind her of grave mounds and tombstones in the Berkshires. A person is looking at you, she comments, but it is not a person. The hum summons her memories of the sea. [End Page 139...


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pp. 138-143
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