Fairytale Land

Courtesy of Terra Galleria. (c) QT Luong.

*For more information on the prompt that inspired this piece, visit here*

I moved to Burlingame, California from Plymouth, Michigan in the summer of 2007, right before eighth grade. While it was only a suburb hop, Burlingame was a step up: there was life, the trees showered lush leaves on us in welcome. I thought I’d have a normal time there. In Michigan I’d lived in a lonely cul-de-sac of mostly retired couples who powerwalked every dawn and in the afternoon sat in lawn chairs on their driveways to read and nap.

Burlingame felt temporary. We’d owned a two-story in Plymouth, but in Burlingame we were renting a one-story from a Korean lady who mistook us for Korean the first time we met her due to our last name, Han. I remember she had sprouted, dyed hair, red-painted lips curved like thick petals. She looked like she spent all her free time in salons. She also smiled too widely as if trying to prove with her bared teeth that she was beneficent, sincere.

“This means you lucky,” she once said, pinching my earlobes, baring those teeth. “Buddha ears. You lucky.”


By senior year in high school my friends and I were over Burlingame. We felt done with it—it was empty, nothing more than a sucked-out juice box. My patience for everything—the greenhouse effect of suburbia (the trappedness of it, how everything “grew” a certain way), my pent-up home life, high school in general—had worn so thin I could see the bone beneath. Boringame, some complained. What juice had there ever been?

Right beside Burlingame is Hillsborough, which is the fifth wealthiest town in America according to Bloomberg Business. Sometimes, after school, my friends and I would roam around Burlingame Ave—the Ave, for short—where you could find retail outlets like J. Crew and restaurants ranging from Five Guys to Ecco. All the rich Hillsborough housewives would be window-shopping at that time, pushing their babies in strollers, walking their tiny, sweatered dogs. It was a jarring shake from the Midwest and I often felt like I didn’t belong—my family wasn’t poor but we weren’t rich, either. We were in the happy medium that often feels like part of no world at all.

My friends and I found nooks to escape in, where we felt safe and free and without a care in the world. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were trying to stay children as much as we yearned to be adults. Our favorite and beloved nook was a little grassy promontory in Mills Canyon—a hiking trail like a woody heart in the chest cavity of the hills—where a tall tree named Pandora sprawled its long, leafy arms. This was where we smoked, up in those arms, or down at the foot of its trunk. In Mills Canyon the world vanished and only our immediate conversation was real. During my senior year we often found ourselves in Rue Du Thé, a French-themed tea bar hidden behind a fence in the corner of a parking lot.


Last year, in the spring of 2014, I decided to take a walk through Mills Canyon for old time’s sake—but Pandora was gone. It was only a stump. I asked a passerby, and old man holding a walking stick shaved and smoothed from a branch, if he knew what had happened to the tree. He told them “they” (the Burlingame City Council) thought it was a hazard, that it was too old, too dangerous if a storm came and hit; some of the branches might break off the trunk. He shook his head sadly and said, “That’s why they cut it down.” Then he told me his name was J—, and that I should write a letter, a petition, to the council, signed by myself and my friends, explaining how important Pandora had been to us. He urged me to do it. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll do it.”

But I never did because it didn’t mean anymore what it had meant to me. It was gone, like most things from that time when my friends and I had wanted nothing more than to be gone from Burlingame.


My friends and I were at Rue Du Thé last summer, catching up on each other’s lives for a while and the whole time I marveled at how much we’d changed.

“You know,” a friend said. “I love Burlingame. You really appreciate it once you’ve been away. If I ever have kids, I’d kinda want to raise them here…”

“It’s stable,” said another friend. “It’s a…fairytale land.”


Later that afternoon I was reading a book on a bench on the Ave when a stranger sat next to me. He told me he was an actor who’d come to Burlingame to visit a cousin for the weekend.

“It was strange,” he said. “I came here from Beverly Hills, and the morning before my flight I was at a café on Rodeo. Then I came here and it was like I’d never left.” He chuckled. “The people here have it good.”

I nodded, smiling. I looked around me at the Ave, glittering in the setting sun. It was true. “For sure,” I said to him. “I’m lucky. I’m truly lucky.”

Posted by James


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