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MOVING ON BY LIVING OFF (TWO LINES FROM ELLIOTT SMITH’S “L.A.”)

Izzy Ampil

     Early in October, I jump-started my car after a summer away. As the engine reignited and the stereo revived, out poured jangling piano and thumb buzzes of steel guitar. It was “Son of Sam,” the first song on Elliott Smith’s 2000 album Figure 8. My one CD was still alive inside.

     Last year was my senior year of college, and, like everything else, it happened online. I spent the fall drifting between my aunt’s house in Harbor City and my ex-boyfriend’s apartment in West Hollywood, grieving what at the time felt like major losses: of my time on campus, my budding relationships, now cut short, my faith in a knowable future. It added up to a lot of time driving, sitting in traffic, and replaying Figure 8. I loved, in particular, the song “L.A.,” not because I was spending so much time in the titular city, but because of two lines just before the outro: “I can’t go home / It’s not on my way.”

     After Smith sings it, the guitars echo his melody. The drums flutter, drop out, come back to hit the downbeats hard as he crows out one big, long “L.A.” over the scratched-up, tuneless strumming of the dirtiest electric guitar. Then the whole song swells with crazed intensity. The guitars go loose with riffs pressing insistently higher, every note gaping wide and vibrating; Smith twangs the bass, bangs his way across the drum set, and fills out the chorus with looping, reverent oh’s as he chant-sings one line four times: “Last night I was about to throw it all away.”

     Last fall, when I was listening to Figure 8 on repeat, I thought Smith was helping me justify my senior year in isolation. I would drive home from Santa Monica in the purple dark of a sun just set, the tang of saltwater haloing my face, listening to Smith’s heavy, disaffected voice croon about his vivid immersion in L.A. It made my loneliness seem serious and cinematic. I stopped wanting the campus life I’d been waiting for: senior nights at Opal and the Rose and Crown, parties at the co-op my freshman dorm friends were staffing, everybody merging their new friendships from the quarter they studied abroad. It all began to strike me as indulgent, shallow. I decided I was outgrowing my old dreams in pursuit of independent adulthood, and the comforts of my campus home were no longer on my way.

     But I’ve always done that, really. I spent my college years swerving away from my home on the East Coast, always finding something new in California. I shrugged off texts from old friends and from my parents. I was never home for more than three weeks at a time. I was, and always have been, more comfortable leaving than being left behind.

     Recently I’ve wondered if scrambling to graduate was the right call. My friends on campus make plans to go out in the group chat I’m still in, while I drive myself crazy trying to write as afternoon slips into evening, and then I’m eating dinner at 11:15. I’m hunting for jobs and applying to grad school and getting ghosted by magazines. L.A. has lost its novelty but hasn’t absorbed Stanford’s familiarity, and I can’t remember why I wanted so badly to leave.

     Last Friday my boyfriend and I drove up to the Bay. It was homecoming weekend, and the whole time, it was raining. Campus, usually swarmed by freewheeling bikers in the sunshine, people shouting hellos by the dozen on their commutes down the row, was instead grey and empty, blanketed by wet palm fronds and branches fallen in the storm. Our friends who took time off last year have all moved back to campus. They’re settled and unsettled; they can’t remember why they wanted so badly to stay. We all chose arbitrarily, and we’re splintered now by what we thought about ourselves last August, at least three chapters of the pandemic ago: whether we were the kind of people to abandon campus or to wait, to return home or to find a new way.

     I suspect I’ve lost the meaning of the whole song by working these two lines over and over. “I can’t go home / It’s not on my way” is a small moment in a work that mostly doesn’t worry about growing too fast or too slow. Instead, Smith, fresh off a night of near-suicide, seems dazzled by the passing of night into morning, the chance to be once more “walking in the sun / living in the day.” He’s been rescued less by his own will than by the unstoppable forward march of time, lucky not because he chose his path perfectly but because the world keeps going, people keep growing, and, in Smith’s words, it’s a beautiful day.

Author Bio: Izzy Ampil lives in Los Angeles and occasionally drinks soda, usually Sprite, never pop. Only once in her life has she ever had Coke. She grew up in New York, got her B.A. in English from Stanford last spring, tweets once per changing of the season @izzyampil, and puts up writing & design at izzyampil.com.

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