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TODAY

Saturday, February 23

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Airbags

I wake up in Carlsbad, California, about an hour southwest of Los Angeles. The bedroom is dead quiet as morning light filters in through the curtains. The occasional car driving past outside makes a soft whir that ripples the silence. I lie in a soft pillowtop bed, a half hour before the alarm is set to ring. I am staring at the ceiling. It is a stippled texture, so white and creamy and I know it would taste like flavorless ice cream. Up through the ceiling, I can look down and see myself at a distance. I look old and tired and my repulsion pushes me higher and away. Now I see that the roof on top of the building around flows in a pattern and connects to other flat rooftops, all jagged with pitched sealant and a latticework of patching, black on dark grey.

The corporate housing where I am living is surrounded by other corporate houses, carefully separated by smooth new roads and lines of perfect shrubs. Beyond this small cluster of buildings, the deep hills and intersecting lines of roadway form a cupped hand, with fingers of growth leading out into the desert that surrounds Carlsbad. Perfect suburban sprawl, so new that it doesn't know what to do with itself until it races to the ocean's edge and sticks its increasingly expensive toe in the clean salty water.

Back away from the bird-speckled beach, power lines tie down the mountainous brown terrain like Gulliver's ropes. Near one central road, cars back up in a long dotted line. A few small planes browse the hills and look down on the men standing outside new developments, waving signs to lure motorists into this lane or that. The planes land in a small airfield, next to the office where I will later be working. Men leave the planes and drive past the road construction workers. A giant machine named BRAMBLES hoists two men up, where they are fixing a security camera to an intersection light. The camera switches on and begins to stare at the only thing it will ever see — hills sloping with polite slow traffic, rich people's traffic that couldn't get into an accident if it were blind drunk and stoned on the intern's weed.

In the room where the traffic camera transmits the brand new images, two men are sitting. One is surfing the Internet, the other is texting his wife. His wife gets the message and sets down the baby, a quiet little guy named Clive, in order to respond. Her fingernails chip at the buttons on the phone, making it clear to her man that he should definitely stop and pick up formula on the way home. And dog food. She puts away the phone as a knock comes at the door.

Fifteen minutes later, she is out on the street, walking alongside a similarly trim and blonde woman, also with a baby in a stroller with knobby mountain bike tires. A red Ridgeback pants and pads along beside them. Cars pass by silently — no honking, no shouting at the two women as they advance on another long sidewalk, ready to take the next hill. One looks at her watch and then scratches at her shoulder blades. She adjusts her sunglasses and then looks down at her child, a 16-month-old with a wide-eyed stare. He looks up at the clouds drifting. Streaks and patterns, all broken by the blue screen above.

The same blue sky leans down heavily outside the coffeeshop where two of my coworkers are standing. One is inside getting the coffee, the other two are standing outside staring at their cell phones. All around, the trees are alive with the sound of birds that came from who knows where. They are talking about me as they text other people.

"You like the new guy, Sean whatsisname?" Silence, busy fingers.

"He seems cool," says the other guy.

"Yeah. Got an idea," says the first.

"What's that," says the second.

"Let's keep working with him, and say that we've got a bunch more work for him to do in a few weeks. Then we never call him again. Even if he calls a whole bunch of times, we just pretend like we're busy or something." The birds grow louder in their chirping and a low buzz comes from a passing car. The door to the coffeeshop opens and my third coworker steps out, sunglasses in mouth and three coffee cups in his hands.

"You think that's good?" asks number two, taking his mocha.

"Nah, but why the hell not? He's a nice guy and all, but you can't have him getting too comfy with a steady paycheck. He did just move to LA a year ago. Ooooh, hot." He takes his cup and the driver clicks his keychain. The car chirps at the birds in a high-pitched warble. Someone elderly down the strip mall pulls a newspaper from the paper box and it slams shut on the last chirp of the car alarm.

The alarm next to my bed goes EHH EHH EHH EHH and I slap it hard, aware that I was dreaming but not for how long. I rock my legs out of bed and slump, feeling fat and tired. Pray for a moment and then stand on creaky limbs to head for the shower. I turn on the shower and then move to the sink. I have two toothpaste tubes to choose from. One is a large fuel tank, the other is a snazzy red flavor that was packaged along with as a sample. I choose the red one. I think the idea of red toothpaste is remarkable. No longer will a heavy brusher like me have to recoil from a crimson toothbrush.

I stand in the shower, brushing my teeth. The dream of the hills and the dog and the hot sex with my third grade teacher all come back to me. The foamy red drips from my mouth to the floor of the shower. I stop brushing and stare at the white-red whirlpool as it leaks down through the steel shower grate. In a moment I am staring into the garbage disposal, grinding up the last of the tomato from my omelette. I try to use the garbage disposal once every meal, even though its so powerful it shakes everything on the sink like a hungry earthquake. I once stopped a spoon from toppling in. It probably would've shot straight through my head as soon as it hit the dark blades below.

Outside, the sun is dispersing the clouds with the bored efficiency of a well-fed security guard. Morning doves sing their lowing calls, just as they did outside my grandmother's country house when I woke up early there. I trudge to my car across the parking lot and notice that it must have rained early this morning. Long stretches of dark water streak the black surface of the parking lot. I am at almost at my car when I look down and see him.

The mottled curl of the shell is smooth, unlike the pockmarked driveway below. I get as close to the snail as I can and watch his stalked eyes roaming all over. Has he seen me? I wonder. I reach out gently but he tightens up in fear as soon as my fingertips brush his little house. I slowly pick him up by the shell and raise him to eye level.

His brown leathery underside is tender and wet. He awkwardly tries to scooch into a tiny cup-shape but cannot collapse into his shell completely. I have never touched a snail before and I linger, examining the tiny brown bumps on his shiny skin. Carefully, I take him to a dry spot in the tough grass and set him down. Even after thirty seconds, he has still not opened up from his hunching spell. It must take a long time for him to trust the world again, after being so displaced. In human time, his little trip must equal miles, his uncurling must take years of disbelief and effort. Even then, he might still be inclined to remain in a ball for a long long time. I stare for a moment longer, glance at the sky, at my watch and realize I'm about to be late for work.

I punch it up the hill but my car is still just a station wagon. It is passed by an Audi and a BMW. Drivers everywhere are coming out of small gated developments to zip toward the main road. When I glance at the sidewalk, I see a man walking two dogs and a happy little boy, all on leashes. The boy's leash is tied around his waist and he hops and spreads his arms, making the line tight. I see his father laugh as I turn the corner.

I wait at the next light, watching a small plane pass by overhead and land behind a row of identically-shaped trees. The clean blacktop moves us along at a uniform clip and in a few minutes I turn down the long drive to the office, to my Aeron chair and a 3D Scion commercial I will be editing for a few weeks, all expenses paid. With any luck, the advertisements will help fill these streets with even more cars. And more and more and more. They pulse like cells in veins as you travel along the tiny lines in the map and try to find a place to rest. Then, as soon as the papers arrive or the stick turns blue, a garage suddenly forms around your vehicle. It's attached to a serpentine apartment complex and uncomplicated neighbors. In the middle of a tiny yard, a single new tree rises with a slide whistle. Deep inside the master bedroom, all the noisy decay is conquered by white curtains and soft clean silence everlasting. Come here, come down and see.

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About the Author(s)

Sean U'Ren is a video editor who recently moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. In this occasional column, he shares his experiences transitioning from one city to another.

Ask the Librarian will return next week.

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