The Valley (11.25.2000)
Mona and Mary lived on the second floor of a former fire station in Fremont, probably a couple of miles away from my apartment, on a block-long street wedged between two main drags that represented, in near-Dickensian fashion, the city’s socioeconomic cleft. In one direction was a chaotic plaza — a convocation of commuters, the rose vendors, and soft-eyed drunks. On the other side was Mowry Street, a living diorama of gorgeous new homes overlooking the valley.
The apartment was cozy and welcoming, full of strange artifacts: a bookcase hammered on the wall at a slight angle, a walk-in closet slightly out of proportion with the room that had shoes and bras strewn at random. In the bathroom, a half-melted vanilla candle lined the edge of the tub. Mona was climbing the management ladder at the startup where I worked and kept impossible hours, appearing only occasionally to make generous pots of soup or to do the laundry. It seemed like the sort of place where the people would share towels, laying claim to whichever smelled least like mildew, and it was. I loved being there. It was on any given day two shades better than my roach-infested apartment housing six roommates.
I had met Mary at a random office party in which Mona had dragged her along and we got along well. She worked in a biotech firm as a research analyst and I was fresh off the boat — My third month in this country and just the second in San Francisco. She would talk about everything — except her work. In a city where bars and coffee shops and parties were trade-secret word clouds, this was a regionally specific litmus test. But even when we were slightly drunk, or sitting under the moonlight overlooking the valley, Mary kept company secrets. It was easy to trust her.
One night we three traveled to a Michelin-starred restaurant, which her biotech startup had bought out for the night. Silent and dark-suited waiters served us almond-crusted chicken salad, seared black sea bass, and lobster pot pie paired with bottles of wine. The bar was open. People made out with their dates in a photo booth, unaware that it was digital — the photos would all be sent to the operations manager the next morning. Energy shots and lines of cocaine materialized in the bathroom. They danced against the glass windows of the restaurant — napkins strewn on the tables, shoes torn off — while I shuffled my feet in a corner watching them, avoiding eye contact with the waitstaff.
Eventually, people spilled out onto the sidewalk to smoke. I took a restroom break and found Mona sitting alone, savoring her dessert.
“This is one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had in my life,” she said, scraping her spoon along the edge of the plate. Desserts had been placed carefully in front of every setting, and they sat uneaten, discarded. I felt grateful for Mona and ashamed that I had slipped so easily into a smug sense of belonging with this first-world citizenry. I’d been so busy eating, drinking, chatting, performing my entitlement, that I hadn’t even tasted the dessert.
To celebrate his birthday, the CEO of our startup Dennis threw a small party at a campsite, technically a horse camp, near Muir Woods. The following weekend, Mary and I arrived at the horse camp to find a group of coders in outdoor apparel assembling, somewhat inefficiently, a trough of salad. Several slabs of salmon lay on the grill. The corrals were empty. “Ah, you know Dennis,” said a cheerful entrepreneur in a fleece vest, when I inquired about the salmon. “He is semi-vegetarian.”
Mary fell into conversation with an engineer she knew, a designer of conceptual, experimental user interfaces. It was rare for me to hear him talk about computer science. He was so reticent when it came to his job that I easily forgot how much he loved the work, the puzzles, the magic of it. I sat on a picnic table and tried to insinuate myself into a conversation between two people discussing the joys of interface coding.
I had not spent a ton of time with Dennis around other people, but I had spent enough to know I was an outlier in his social circle, which was largely composed of entrepreneurs, and technologists. I often felt embarrassed to tell this crowd that I had just come from India and barely knew how to code, then felt angry about my embarrassment. It did not help that whenever I felt insecure, I tended to get defensive, or quiet, or in over my head. I was always sulking around most of them.
The mood was upbeat and polite. I managed to behave myself. Conversation rose and died down. When Dennis spoke, people outside of his immediate radius fell quiet and listened, like he was an oracle. Then again, I wanted to listen, too.
The salmon came off the grill and we incorporated it into the salad, gathering around the picnic tables to eat. Dennis did not even touch it.
“The maladies of having experienced too much…” Mary said.
After a while, someone brought out a small cake and a candle. We sang “Happy Birthday” while Dennis turned pink. “Well then,” he said when the singing was over and conversation did not resume. “Shall we put out the fire?” Mary suggested we leave it burning. We could set up our tents, then drink whiskey and talk until it got too late or too cold. This was my first experience of camping and also my favorite part as I had seen in the American movies: everyone swapping intimacies and confidences, leaning into the evening as time slowed. I was excited about it, eager to find common ground and see everyone relax a little bit. Dennis seemed confused.
I looked around the group. It became very clear, very quickly, that the plan had never been to camp out. Mary was alone in having brought a tent. Within half an hour, the party had been disassembled and packed into paper bags, the grills scraped, the recycling sorted. People filtered out into the night in carpool configurations, carrying leftovers and coolers. Flashlight beams floated out into the road and disappeared around a curve. It wasn’t yet ten o’clock.
“I guess we have the place to ourselves,” Mary said, looking around. It suddenly seemed ridiculous that we should be camping out by ourselves in the middle of an outdoor stable in Marin. The site felt rough, too large for just us. The lights down in the valley glimmered and there was a slight hint of mist in the air. I wondered if park rangers might come through, and if so, whether we would be on the hook. Would we be fined? It was state land. Why had I thought we were all going to sleep there, like people with nothing to do the next day? Part of me felt bad for assuming that we would camp out that night. Part of me felt indignant. I didn’t want to feel ashamed about being unproductive, for wanting to drink whiskey and make up fake constellations.
We should just go back, I said. Mary shook her head — she’d downed a couple of scotch, and I didn’t know how to drive a stick. The roads were unlit and winding. We set up the tent. In fact, she set it up while I attempted to help, unsuccessfully. We sat outside in two foldable chairs, listening to the redwoods bend in the wind. The tent ground looked out across a valley: a bowl of fog. The landscape dripped.
Mary reached deep into her pocket and pulled out a small pill. She cut half of it with her teeth and dropped the other half into the bottle of orange juice that lay in her lap. As the hour passed by, we drank the bottle and lay on the grass listening to the cottony echoes of the older couple in the tent next to us. I felt an aching regret about what I had just attempted, but I felt bold in the moment, almost reckless as I waited while my brain was artificially flooded with serotonin. Mary put on a Sneaker Pimps album and we shared revelations about our families. I told her my worst secrets and felt content. I didn’t feel high, or ecstatic — just like myself, but the good parts. My own self, but less anxious, less afraid. I wanted to replicate the experience with everyone I loved. I wanted to spread the joy, soak in this newfound warmth of a feeling of deep love. I had never felt more happy or content than at this moment. Far down in the valley, a rave party had kicked off. The strobe lights and the thumping music reverberated across the horizon.
Life existed at that moment just as it was — clear in its simplicity. I had visions about the arc of my life so far as my feet touched the edge of the chair that sat empty next to me. Nothing seemed impossible yet it felt like I was reading from someone else’s script. I swam in relief. Watching the valley, Mary’s fleece jacket bundled like a pillow under my head, I did not still comprehend that I was in good company.
Mary had put on sweatpants and was stretching, happily, next to my feet. This was the new economy, the new way to live, I said — we were on the glimmering edge of a brand-new millennium, and yet I felt a bit discontented by it all. I wondered if all this was perhaps just a form of resistance. Technology was gnawing into relationships, community, identity, the commons. Maybe nostalgia was just an instinctual response to the sense that materiality was disappearing from the world. I wanted to find my own way to hedge against it, my own form of collective. The rave was picking up steam and we could hear the faint sounds of joy even in the distance.
I did not know what was to come — A new job, an upcoming marriage, the responsibilities of being the male in the family, but at that moment I felt light, unburdened by any of those thoughts. I shared some of this with Mary, who was laying on the mat, her legs dangling behind her, looking at me. I didn’t know if I believed everything I was saying, but it felt so good to say it.
She shrugged as the strobe lights of the rave bobbed across the sky.
“If you were not engaged to your fiancée, I might have taken you home tonight. I think you’re underestimating what you have that most men don’t,”…
“You?”, I asked, turning on my side to face her, trying to return her comment with a failed debonair attempt of my own.
“That’s sweet,” she said. “But it’s much larger than that, I think. Just something worth considering.”
I sat there contemplating what that implied and what it didn’t.
Beneath me, the earth was hard and cold. It vibrated, perpetually, to the bass line.