Saturday, July 20, 2024

Life After College in a Little Town Called Ukiah

[All photographs by Ayled Zazueta]

My dog is 10 years old. She only gets walked when I’m home and in the last four years, she has gotten chubby and tired. I was 12 years old when Lily became mine and I changed her name to something much more creative. She is every password to any account and email I created throughout the last 10 years. In college, I adopted a beautiful black cat and he has also moved back home. My dog is old now and she can’t see well anymore, so my cat is simply a shadow in her house. Today I walked her around our neighborhood, and her little legs trotted quickly. She pants really heavily, even when she’s lounging around — my parents said the vet found some health issues at her last visit that make it hard for her to breathe. Her pink tongue hangs out, and her eyes hide behind her long bangs. She no longer barks at the dogs we pass, “who has the energy for that” she must think to herself. We finished our lap and returned to our cul-de-sac and usually, she would tug the leash desperately to run home and drink water, but today she was in no hurry. I dropped her leash to signal her she can run ahead of me, and her trot didn’t falter. She didn’t run. 

Just yesterday I took my dog to the Tractor Supply store to use the dog washing station. I paid upfront and the teenage cashier said someone would bring me towels. It is almost unsettling that I don’t know her, that I can’t identify who she is related to or who she hangs out with, I’m old now. In Ukiah, even after moving back and forth from school and home throughout the last four years, I can’t go very far without running into someone familiar.  Sure enough, just a couple minutes into lathering shampoo all over my dog, Mrs. Reardan and her dog came into the room for a wash, too. I smiled half-heartedly as she cooed at my little dog, saying sweet things while she wrestled with her much bigger dog. I rushed out to ask about those towels. My brother and I smiled and said goodbye to Mrs. Reardan once my dog was dried off. She hadn’t recognized me, at least she didn’t make any sort of cues or expression of recognition or curiosity. I was a stranger. Were my mom with me rather than my brother, she would have remembered me. My mom was briefly a St. Mary’s mom just like Mrs. Reardan, but those St. Mary’s kids and I didn’t stay friends after eighth grade, and anyways that was a lifetime ago. 

I graduated college two weeks ago. I don’t have a fancy new job, nor more than $20 in my savings account. I stayed in touch with exactly two friends from high school and they both are very busy women who took very different paths than me. When they clock out of work, I invite myself over to lounge with them as they decompress from their long days. 

Black Oak Coffee

Each day has dragged on, and each day I have filled my empty days with walks to Black Oak for matcha oat milk lattes and lots of reading. I go to Black Oak expecting to run into friends from the past. Twice now I have seen familiar faces, but no one familiar enough. They didn’t recognize me, didn’t even glance at me. I am nobody, but just another girl with brown hair and no company.

On warm days, I lay out in the grass at Todd Grove Park, eat chips and salsa, and read some more. I do this for hours. Imagine this: my brothers are at school, one at Eagle Peak, the next at Ukiah High, and the other at Mendocino College. My parents each at work, while I am simply fooling around, looking for company in the printed words of borrowed books. 

I have spent a lot of time alone in the last two weeks. It has been jarring to be somewhere that is under-stimulating in comparison to my living arrangements in college. I lived in the dorms and every person in that building was my friend. There was always someone to hang out with and always somewhere to go at any hour. 

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I enrolled in the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies at the University of Redlands and emphasized (their liberal arts term for ‘major’) in Journalism & Perspectives Across Cultures. These Johnston kids are proudly the weirdest group on campus, and for passive entertainment, we spread deranged rumors about ourselves to students outside of our Johnston community. I spent a lot of time with those freaks and together we grew up. My four years of college were easily the most painful and beautiful years of my life thus far. I did a lot of healing at that time, and my friends made space for me to process these big emotions. I was addicted to that community. They loved me and never let me go a day without telling me, we were disgustingly in love with each other. I have been begging them to visit Mendocino County, I gush about its quaintness and quietness. It is beautiful here, and the air is much more breathable than Redlands air, I tell them. I promise them they’ll hear their own thoughts for the first time, and the winds will come through the valley with secret songs, that the stars glitter across the entire sky. My home is not exciting, but the perfect getaway from the Los Angeles noise, I say.

Yet, I feel overwhelmingly detached from this place I call home. Ryan from Raley’s asked me how long I would be in town this time, and I said indefinitely. Two weeks ago I would have said, “at least a year and a half, maybe two” but now that I’m home, the people who were part of this home aren’t here anymore, and who I used to be haunts all my favorite places. 

The road along the Pomolita track

On my way to the park, I pass a cute little house that my high school boyfriend stayed at on the weekends he came to visit me. The park is where I got my first job as a summer camp counselor, where I met funny and kind people, where I heard “Head Over Boots” for the first time and my work crush said, “that’s our song.” In the same field I now read and eat chips and salsa, my friends and I took pictures of our groovy outfits before our last MORP dance. We applied temporary boho chic tattoos and wore headbands across our foreheads, and posed with peace signs, and laughed at ourselves. I was severely skinny and purposely hadn’t eaten for two days so I would fit into the outfit I planned. Later my best friend at the time would recount how her mom saw our pictures and said “Ayled is a beautiful girl, isn’t she?”

Downtown floods my senses with many memories, despite the renovations that took place while I was gone. Brunch with my guy pals at Mama’s Cafe, RoadRunner Breakfast sandwiches for the gym bros, and one Mama’s Potato Bowl for me. I haven’t sat at Oco Time since the prom dinner Susy invited me to, and before that, giggling obnoxiously over the steamy hot and sour soup with Donnie and Marcos. Alex Thomas Plaza, where one winter break before Kressa passed away, our friend group went ice skating and exchanged Secret Santa gifts. 

The young girl I was still lives within this new person that I have rebirthed into. I suffer twice when I remember again a memory I had long locked away. First I wince at the pains I hid in those adolescent days, then I grieve for those old friends who have long floated from me, from here. People make a home, and now that they’re gone I don’t know what this place is. I am a weeping ghost in a town haunted by my past.

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  1. Thank you for this touching and tender reflection.

    It certainly led me to recollect my own post-graduate realization that “you can’t come home again.”

    This town can be rough on people of any age, but especially adolescents and young adults.

    Given the limited avenues for 20-somethings to grow and thrive in this valley (country/society/planet?) one could do a lot worse than to focus on writing and reading. Keep it up.

    Hope to see more of you in these pages. Bless you.

  2. I stayed in Ukiah when all my friends went off to college. I feel this letter hard, and as my children get older I feel another sadness; despite my love for them, I want them to leave Ukiah.

  3. You speak of your old haunts of Ukiah and let me tell you I can talk you in anything that you’re saying I’m 64 and have lived here in mendo county for over 50 years. We ran wild on the streets and had all our favorite Hangouts which fill my mind along with where are those people now. I often feel all alone in such a friendly community. I have no regrets and wouldn’t trade it for the Moon


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Ayled Zazueta
Ayled Zazueta
Student journalist, University of Redlands '23

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