Monday, November 14th, Paul Mason, of the Guardian, wrote that the films that have topped the box office in recent years, superhero films and expensive cartoons, have been escapist and culturally blind. They’ve created an ever widening gap between average American viewers and liberal Hollywood elites. His solution? Hollywood must create films featuring modern themes and characters to articulate a response to real issues facing the country. Hollywood might then have the ability to use their influence to better the country. Instead, Hollywood drags us deeper into the sense of powerlessness that inspired voters to support Trump. It offers no solutions, no expression, no release from despair. Hollywood won’t change. There are too many millions at stake. They will continue to take on the tone and promote the prejudices of the producers who make them.
But to the artists and storytellers accustomed to working for little to no money, toiling away at day jobs and wondering if it’s worth it, I say this: you’re free. Free to be creative visionaries. You have permission to tell stories that illuminate as well as entertain. Prince once said that an artist who creates all the time is not going to have a hit every time. A lot might not be very good, but the hits will be even better. I propose that we create more than we ever have. If not now, when?
In April my husband and I started a five month creative journey that culminated in our opera, The Place Where You Started. It premiered Saturday, November 12th at Portland State University. It’s not agenda driven. It’s not about immigration. But the main character, Meredith, meets an undocumented gardener. Their friendship illuminates the complexity and tragedy that drives illegal immigration. My husband and I did not anticipate a Trump presidency, but that our piece opened November 12th felt more timely than we ever imagined. A few of the performers said they felt that they could offer audiences comfort and hope via their characters. The main character can’t save her friend from his fate, but she can do something. That is ultimately the message. That we must do something, even if we don’t know what it is. We must start.
Portland held some of the biggest and most violent protests in the days following the election. As my husband and I walked to rehearsals we heard the sirens. As we sat at dinner we saw paddy wagons careening down streets filled with people. Walking back from dinner one night we were caught in a stampede as protestors fled flash cannons. The last dress rehearsal I came into the bathroom to find a girl weeping. She’d just ridden her bike from the protests. Her friends had been arrested. She’d gotten away.
I’m not exactly sure how activism and art connect, or where they connect. But this past week was the most organic coming together of the two I’ve seen. I’m thrilled to have been a part of that. Let’s do more, together. Let’s keep doing more, of both.
As we move toward a production here in Los Angeles I wanted to write up an analysis into the deeper themes of this piece. I don’t think I was fully in touch with what story we were telling when we wrote it a year ago. Now, with some distance, I’ve gotten my head around it a bit better. For those curious, here is the trailer and the full production staged in Portland last fall.
Set in present day Los Angeles, the story follows Meredith, a frustrated screenwriter who meets Macario, an undocumented landscaper and gardener. They discover an unlikely kinship as they cultivate a garden together. But this friendship is misunderstood, leading to a rash decision with devastating consequences.
Overtly the narrative is about regret, however, beneath this theme runs a sense of disenfranchisement and isolation. Macario exists on the margins as an undocumented person and Meredith is lost in a life of shallow modernity. She never developed the tools she needed to know herself and now, as she approaches midlife, she’s desperate to find meaning.
She believes it’s a matter of just returning to her original goals. She makes the mistake most Americans make, that we are defined by the form and even substance of our work. She dreams of being a novelist and poet thinking it will make her happy.
Macario, who is from a fictional South American country, teaches her to find meaning in living itself. The garden they work together then becomes a larger metaphor for simply being, as the plants are, in the moment. For his part, the garden becomes a place where he can forget the terrible secrets of his past that have kept him running. He lives half a life in America. He feels like a sub-person here even as he is treated as one. In the garden he rediscovers his whole self again.
In these ways the garden mentors them both.
The two never form a romantic attachment. This is one of the things that makes this story unique. Meredith is a whole person struggling not to find meaning in love, but to find it in herself. Free from the Latin lover stereotype, Macario is not defined by seduction – instead he finds his identity as he remembers his wife and children back home.
The Place Where You Started was given a workshop production last fall by Portland State University Opera. Opening on November 12th, 2016, the opera ran for six performances. Portland was home to the most violent protests in America that week, the week of the 2016 Presidential election. In the midst of the chaos the singers felt the work had a kind of renewed meaning. One cast member described it this way, “I just didn’t know what to do, but when I stepped out onto the stage I knew that this was it. This is what I was supposed to do. Tell this story, right now because it means something more than it did before the election.”
Any new work should offer a gathering place for people who perhaps don’t have access to, or reason for attending new works. We envision dual supertitles in English and Spanish in order to attract and serve the vast Spanish speaking population in L.A. who may not feel a new work, particularly opera, is relevant to their lives.
In addition to the Portland State University Opera Department production of The Place Where You Started, the opera was subsequently performed in multiple venues around Shanghai, China. PLACE has a cast of six singers and is being revised and scored for a small ensemble of six instrumentalists (Pierrot plus percussion).
I considered writing you personally, but then you wouldn’t respond and I’d feel terrible for having bared myself to a stranger I’ve projected expectations on. Like you owe me something. Like just because I love your work and it means something profound to me that makes me special or interesting. It makes me regular. Plus, I’m a writer Marc. I’m a creative. I’ve spent my life trying to make something. I want to be seen. Which is why people latch on to famous people because if they can be seen by their heroes then it validates them.
Anyway, I usually stop myself from actually believing my hero will see me, respect me, like me. But you’re different. (Deep breath. I know I’ll sound crazy. Here I go anyway.) When I first heard of you, years ago, I made a point to avoid you. It’s like when you meet someone and you think, “Oh Jesus. I’m about to fall into this person’s orbit and something’s gonna change. A shift will happen.” I’m scared. I hate change. I also hate not being in control and not understanding things. We’re alike. Right. Which doesn’t make me special. But this is more than that. Paulo Cohelo has a book, it’s a weird story about a warlock and a witch.
In each life they take on different forms and always find themselves drawn back together. Because, in the beginning, they were one person. They, along with two others, splintered off from the same self and the four keep coming together life after life trying to make a whole again. It doesn’t really work as a story. You have to make some serious logic leaps to go along. And a lot of times I feel his writing is him just trying to work out his own spiritual questions, which get weirder and weirder the older he gets. Like McCain before his brain surgery. He was still himself, but trying to follow his off-the-wall rant about Hillary during the Comey hearing was like falling down the rabbit hole. I felt awful after finding out he had a brain tumor. I had a good Twitter joke about a Life Alert Spokesman. That got a lot of likes and RT’s. That’s the thing about social media. It makes you feel good about being a jerk. For some reason everyone likes a jerk.
So there’s more.
I avoided you, your comedy, your podcast. Nevertheless, you were in the ethos. Somehow you got in. Especially when Obama came to your garage. I downloaded your podcast to listen to it, but I didn’t.
Instead I listened to the Judge John Hodgeman Show. He’s so wonderful, insightful, funny, soft, but biting. Isn’t he? He’s someone I know I’d be friendly with. But, he’s not enough like me to scare me. I could just enjoy his person as an other and not think too much about it.
So what changed? Glow. And there you were. And I thought, “OK, this is fine. I can do this now because he’s not playing himself. He’s acting. How much truth can be there? I mean, there’s acting truth, but that’s not the same as honest-to-god, here I am as myself, truth.” I studied acting for ten years. Got my undergrad in it. So, I know.
I’m listening to your show now and everything I feared is happening. Instincts are a strange thing. Like the first email I received from my husband. I just knew he was it. I was done dating. Like the college I got into even though I didn’t have the grades or SAT scores. Got in on probation because they liked my essay. How’s that for strong writing? OK, but I’m not successful, so there’s a lot of untapped potential. I’m working on it. Finally. And so that’s the thing. I don’t think I could listen to you, which is to say, really know you (you put so much of your truth into your work) until I was ready to deal with my own truth.
I’m jealous of you, Marc. Jealous of what you’ve been able to accomplish by being yourself. And with every blog post you write and podcast you create you are more you than you were the time before. I don’t think I’m imagining that. So I latched on. And I need to be around truth-tellers right now. Because most people you meet in life will never be that honest. People use words to obfuscate their truth. How’s that for a word? It’s too big for this letter, but I’m not cutting it. The editor inside is saying, “Don’t go academic! Stay real!” Well, what if I’m both at the same time? What if that’s just who I am and I don’t have to be one way or the other? I’m figuring these things out right now. And listening to you has given me permission to do so.
And so there it is. The shift I mentioned fearing at the start of this letter. I came from a pretty strict religious place. I was a Republican when I could vote and a Christian when I could breathe. All that meant was that I spent my developmental years striving for an identity defined by Biblical teachings. Whatever that means. But finding out who you are when you leave behind everything you thought you were… I don’t know. It’s dizzying. Every time I start to talk about it again I lose sight of my original idea. The guilt I feel at leaving. The shame I carry about being an atheist. And so there it is. I say it and each time it feels like coming out of the closet anew. Terrifying. I’ll be stoned. Shamed. Kicked out of polite society. Doomed to wander with the worst of God’s rejected creation forever. And what if there is a God? There might be. I’m not foreclosing on that possibility. What I’ve seen just doesn’t prove it out, yet.
So the shift. The truth. Here it is. There you are. Here I am. Weird, huh? This happened one other time. Hunter Thompson. God, his work brought my writing back to me. For several years there I read and re-read everything and I learned that I could write like I thought and it could be good. And I got published in several big places. One of my articles went viral! I got on TV! 15 minutes. Lighting in a bottle. Since then, which is to say 2014, I’ve been wallowing in fear, paralyzed by the idea of success. Just stuck. Only writing here, on my blog. And hating myself. And mad at everyone. Especially you. Well, the existential crisis you bring. Really I love you. Not in love with you, but love what you’re doing in the world, love that you’re on this planet, changing it. Like The Mad Hatter and Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland. They have this intimate friendship that’s totally platonic. I’ve watched and re-watched those films to understand that dynamic. I think there’s just a deep kind of friend love that exists sometimes. Rarely. As rare as true romantic love. And it can exist between a straight man and woman. Well, this is pretty one-sided so I’ll never have to worry about the weirdness of having admitted it to your face. Once you say true stuff to a person it’s always there and you never know if the other person gets it like you meant it and maybe you don’t even know if you meant it the way you said it or if you’re still hiding something.
Anyway, that’s what being a fan is, isn’t it? You project a certain kind of love onto your hero and it’s pure. You never have to worry about the fractured darkness of the actual person. Which I know you have because I see you. Us knowing each other in real life probably wouldn’t be good. Too much of the same. It makes for shifting boundaries. Too intense.
Like this letter for instance. Because I’m baring my soul.
That’s what I want to do. I want my truth to help others understand themselves and the world. I’ve always thought it was a dumb idea. Naive. Silly. Idealistic. Overly sincere. Who makes money doing that? I don’t understand money. I’m terrible with it. I don’t know how to make it and if I do I usually can’t keep it. So I’ve always doubted my art and hated my own creative process. I think you get that. You said you don’t spend your money. Your bathroom door is still broken. Which is like your thing you subconsciously taunt pretty Hollywood people with. I think. Or it’s a test to see if they’ve listened to your show because if they have they’ll stop at the Starbuck’s on the way to your place to pee. If I’m ever famous enough to get invited to your place, I’ll have stopped at the Starbuck’s to pee. I like you man, but that’s just not the kind of thing we need to share.
So that’s it. I’m off. Boomer lives. Actually, I hate that sign off you use. It’s dumb and repetitive and glib. But I just say I hate it because I’ve bared my soul and feel like I have to tell you something I don’t like about what you do. It’s human. Deep down we’re all jealous assholes. Or, at least I am.
America swirls the drain. The world is run by criminals. I don’t know where I’m going creatively. Chipped nail polish. Age. Weight gain. Time pulls me to the grave. OK, that’s a drag of a thing to write. But I don’t know where I’m going creatively. I saw a monkey at the San Diego Zoo studying the feces on his hands. I It fascinated him. Or he was pretending it fascinated him. He sat himself in front of the viewing glass, looked at all the people looking at him, and I swear to you, started playing with the feces on his hands to gross everyone out. He shared a habitat with the orangoutangs. The oldest one, the alpha. 42 years old. He looked like a sad version of Maurice from the Planet of the Apes movies. All of the animals in the zoo looked sad. Zoos are inhumane. The Reptile House was the saddest of them all. The reptiles lay tangled in small cages, pressed against the furthest corners or hiding altogether. Nobody likes to be watched for a living.
Except the penguins. They were having a ball. But they’ve only been there since June. Everything is new. They swam happily and played joyfully bumping up against the reinforced glass as children banged their little fists and adults dangled bracelets the penguins tried to catch. I wondered if they would tire and grow as jaded as the other animals.
In the Panda Exhibit the youngest panda went out of his way to defecate at the crowd. He came out from where he ate and sat on the closest branch with his back to the crowd, urinated and defecated, then returned to his place near his enclosure.
In spite of these things, there were a few magical moments. A male gazelle approached me where I stood and stared at me while he ate from a tree. It was strange and wonderful. Not many people watch the gazelles. But they seemed as smart as they were graceful, muscles on top of muscles moved over sinewy limbs. A baby was born only two hours prior. I couldn’t see it, but just knowing it was there was cool.
It made me appreciate and respect my animals more. My cats aren’t human babies and I think I do them a great disservice when I treat them that way. Nevertheless, we’ve been together nearly 15 years. When I returned home they greeted me at the door and followed me from room to room. Chloe, my calico, waited at my feet until I picked her up. She’s always done that. When her head was bigger than her body I remember looking down at her little face when she was eight weeks old as she waited to be held. My husband read somewhere that domestic cats remain in a perpetual state of kitten-hood. As I sit Charlie, my orange male cat sleeps, paw stretched out pressed against my leg. He often sleeps that way. So, it’s hard not to think they’re not human. Or human-like. Or that they have achieved some kind of sentience through our relationship to them.
I don’t know. This is where it ends today. I don’t know where I’m going creatively. I’ve written a web series I will produce this fall. Stay tuned for that. I’m working on a feature, or a play. I’m not sure what it is yet. It seems to be a hybrid. I guess those are things. I just haven’t written in them in a week. And I have no way of knowing if they’ll ever see the light of day. But, build it and they will come, yeah? Yeah. Otherwise, there’s nothing.
I’m a depressive by nature. I can’t help but feel as if we’re all doomed. Aren’t we? Doesn’t it all prove out? I have to shake this off. Today I drive to the City of Industry for a gig where I have to look ten years younger and act even younger than that. Beauty and youth are commerce in my line of work. You never go looking how you feel. I’ve seen the girls who do that. There are a lot of them actually. I don’t know if they know that when they don’t wash their hair, or finish their makeup, or where clean black, they look like they feel. They look like I feel.
Do you know where the City of Industry is? I’d never even heard of it. It sounds terrible. City of Industry, like a place for car dealerships and massive pharmaceutical complexes. Aren’t those the only industries that make legit money anymore? I used to work for a company that shot talking head videos for pharmaceutical companies. They were inner-office video memos and training videos. That was 15 years ago. That industry is dead. The professional video servicing industry. It got replaced by college students with a camera and Final Cut Pro. Cheaper, faster, less is more.
I don’t know where I’m going creatively, see. I have this web series. I need to finish it, but it’s a comedy and I’m not feeling funny anymore. Or right now. And it’s probably not funny anyway. And what am I doing writing screenplays anyway? Well, everything else is harder. I just know how to do it well. I teach it. Did you know that? Yeah. I’m good at teaching it. I just figured I should finally do what I say. I know what I’m talking about. I don’t know. You wouldn’t know it to look at me, or even to read this, but I’m good at writing stuff. Maybe not today. But in order to write anything you often have to lower your standards just to get past the first sentence.
At 30,000 feet, after the pilot announces cruising altitude and turns off the seat belt sign, people change. It’s a small shift, a quiet adjustment, intangible even to them.
In the 90’s and early 2000’s, before the proliferation of personal media devices, airlines showed outdated movies and cancelled television shows. You purchased your headphones for two dollars and plugged into the armrest to watch on a screen overhead, or one embedded in the seat in front of you. Movies like Hope Floats, Forces of Nature, He Said, She Said, television shows like Who’s the Boss, Charles In Charge, Full House, and when you were lucky, early episodes of Seinfeld, or Will and Grace. Anything cheap. There were a lot of commercials.
Those programs had a strange effect on many passengers. People, otherwise hardened by life, cynical by nature, non-criers, sobbed during movies that once made them scoff. They laughed hard at out of date humor. And no one was more shocked than they. I heard a woman tell her story, a New Yorker who flew from L.A. and back again frequently. She sobbed during Pretty Woman and even harder at Notting Hill. She could not explain the mutation. A friend of hers, a man, confessed the same happened to him. Was it altitude? Was it something in the water? Was it that she was alone and allowed to just feel her feelings. Sort of, something like that last one. A psychologists explained it this way: Untethered from her life, her career and her relationships, her subconscious crept to the surface and found a crack through which to escape. I never experienced this. I’m a crier. And I definitely feel my feelings.
When I step on a plane and I’m headed somewhere I want to go, I experience relief. Unbound from my anxiety and frustrating jobs, I relax and sleep for hours, dreaming nothing. Typically my dreams are more fraught than my thoughts even on my best days. Winding through a maze of emotional IED’s, my psyche drags up the most desperate sludge. When I wake, yesterday’s anxieties are replaced by new ones, or old ones, they’re all on a loop. The last one I remember today fused my former church life with my current writing ambitions. The theist to the atheist as represented by two specific men in love with one another and not with me. Obvious, right? Unable to penetrate a career in any carnation (I once wanted a career in the church) I nibble on its crumbs, volunteering for nothing, while I languish in humiliating jobs.
On Saturday I worked a retail makeup event. I received a complaint. The big boss woman, alpha woman, confronted me about it in front of her client, the current client in my chair, and my co-workers. The complaint: The client approached me, wanted her makeup done because her artist cancelled on her at the last minute and she was going to her sister’s wedding. I was affable, we chatted genially. At the end of the application she seemed fine. She could have asked me to fix the problems.
However, the nature of the complaint isn’t important. Complaints happen and when they occur the bosses act like it’s the apocalypse. No one ever asks the employee what happened. I see it all the time. However, in 13 years, I haven’t seen a boss confront the employee in front of everyone. As I stood in shock, she said of the new client, “I need to see her when she’s done. You need to clean up all this fall out here and blend this out. There shouldn’t be any harsh lines.” Her voice boomed. I nearly burst into tears. I wasn’t even half-way through the application. My client was embarrassed for me. I went to the back, pulled myself together and made it through the rest of the day. I’ve been simmering since.
The way this alpha woman treated me felt like rubbing alcohol on an open wound. Insult to injury because the day prior I had worked on an article about Wonder Woman for 17 hours then submitted it to a handful of publications. I felt it was strong and timely, something I never have time to write. I thought it had a good, no a great chance of getting published. Hours later the terrorist attacks in London occurred. Perhaps my article got lost? But I think it’s more likely that it wasn’t good enough, clear enough…something. These pubs are still posting essays on Wonder Woman. It earned 103.1 million at the box office this weekend.
When I worked in restaurants I cried all the time. I received bad tips and complaints. I was a pretty bad server. But I’m a good makeup artist. I haven’t received a complaint in years. I’m new with this company, they don’t know that and they don’t care. Anyway, it’s a bad omen. And here’s the thing. I don’t think I can recover from it. I hold onto things and they get bigger. I sort of revel in not forgiving, letting the anger grow into rage and the rage into hate. It makes me move. Otherwise I get too comfortable in uncomfortable places. And I want to move.
She sold $1000 worth of makeup and brushes on the regular. This meant she got more hours than other freelancers. Her bosses loved her. Charming, pretty, forceful, but with a smile, she could sell swampland to a frog.
Except her sales carried hefty returns. Buyer’s remorse hit her clients hard. No matter. As a freelancer she’d be gone by the time the products came back and smack the associate, who rang her up, in the paycheck The freelancer’s hourly did not depend on her returns, but on her perceived overall sales. In that arena no one circled her stratosphere.
You can’t be too honest in the retail cosmetics game. We’re all at war. War with one another, war with the client, war with our companies. The pressure to sell and sell hard creates a burden that stretches ethical boundaries. “Watch her and just do what she does,” my boss told me. I stood by the freelancer as she closed the sale. “Oh, no, no, no, you can’t just take one of these. You need them all if you want to look like this. Your husband will be amazed. You look 10 years younger.The brushes, the skin care, the makeup. It will last you a year. Two years. Here, I’ll give you gifts. It’ll be a great deal. If you come back and get them separately, you don’t get any gifts.” She spoke quickly without a breath and as the customer stood there in a daze, she threw as many free items into the bag as she could find and grabbed the client’s credit card.
Often, when the counter sold out of an item, she’d send the client out with a substitute just to make the sale. Tawny shadow gone? Sunny Blonde is close enough. Foundation number 32 sold out? 33 will do. Sub the Cola for Cocoa, New York Red for Moulin Rouge Red. She’ll never know the difference. The freelancer knew what we all know. If you’ve sold her hard on an item that’s perfect for her, it’s nearly impossible to swing her in another direction at the last minute.
It’s not the end of the world. It’s just makeup. So she doesn’t like it. So she decides it’s not right for her. So what it’s not exactly the right one. Maybe it will work out for her anyway.
Or maybe you’ve just lost her trust and her return business.
Don’t be naive, dear reader, corporations don’t care. All numbers and annual projections are based on perceived possibility. If this freelancer can sell $1000 in one sale, why can’t all of them do that? Who cares how. And so the pressure is on and the ones who figure out her secrets close in on her lead. Others who insist on honesty fall behind and eventually lose the race.
With online deals and internet beauty influencers cannibalizing sales, makeup corporations struggle to find their base. The ground shifts constantly. Anxiety flows downhill and picks up speed. By the time it reaches the makeup artists and sales associates it’s at a fever pitch. Sell, lie, lie, sell. Make the customer love you and it just doesn’t matter. I’ve been in this game a long time. There are times that you can do everything right and it just doesn’t play. Your bosses however will never believe it. A former boss stepped down and became a freelancer. She and I worked together one day. In confidence she said, “I’ve been sitting everybody down and people aren’t buying. I’m doing everything right!”
I shrugged. “Sometimes customers just don’t buy.” I wish all bosses would come down and work the floor.
Everybody who lives in Los Angeles seems to love it. I have yet to meet an exception. Even my cynical friends confess their undying attachment to it. It’s their everlasting commitment to the Entertainment industry, that abusive boyfriend of careers. Good looking, arrogant, James Dean bad boy, aloof, yet occasionally interested, the Entertainment industry holds people in its spell. No matter how much it rejects them, they run back whenever it calls.
A town too small, yet too big. In love with itself yet too insecure to appreciate anything new borne from its womb. Unless an artist receives approval from New York or other competitors, she does not exist. Sounds like sour grapes, but it’s just an observation. Ask Mark Ruffalo. Nobody worked harder than he to get representation in this town, one man shows, dozens of mailings, tireless networking. Then he goes to New York, has one good show and L.A. clambers over itself to get to him. One agent asked him, “Where have you been? Why haven’t we heard of you?”
As any true narcissist, L.A. gazes upon itself in full loving adoration and calls anything the establishment does as good. The L.A. Times regularly bathes the L.A. Opera, the Mark Taper Forum, and The L.A. Philharmonic with glowing reviews. I often wonder if that dude even goes to see the shows. La La Land swept up awards not because it deserved to, but because it was a love letter to the industry.
Once, as I exited the freeway and stopped at the light I saw a young guy with long brown hair and a stoney expression. He held a sign that read, “Musician. Hate L.A. Trying to get out. Please help.” I don’t know how effective that was, but it was the only time I saw anyone openly admit to hating L.A..
I attended dozens of industry parties when I first arrived here nearly ten years ago. I found I had two things to offer, well one really, fucking. Gross, I know. But this is a gross city and I didn’t have a career or a body of work to offer anyone. Just a body. Once somebody assessed that I wasn’t important enough, sexy enough, or young enough to help them, they’d be on their way, eyes darting around the room, hunting.
I almost dated a gorgeous guy with a million dollar smile until I found out he lived in a bedroom in someone’s house so he could lease a brand new BMW and pay for acting and writing classes. He wasn’t even good.
Miranda Frum wrote a piece about how a hypnotist to the stars helped her quit smoking in The Daily Beast this week. She’s a model with a famous journalist father. Frum gets her opportunities the way most people in L.A. get them, nepotism and looks. Just read her pieces in The Beast and you’ll agree. It’s like Tom Hanks’ wife Rita Wilson. I read a piece of her’s in Vogue once and nearly fell asleep four sentences in. Writing isn’t easy folks. Take a course. Oh, but she did. I worked at a screenwriting training facility to the stars 12 years ago where she received private tutoring. Have you seen anything she’s written?
Frum loves L.A.. In the article she writes about cerulean skies and perfect cloudless days. The hypnotist charges $800 for an in person session. There’s the option to stream him online for $9.99. She chose the $9.99 option for obvious reasons, right? Because she doesn’t have $800 to spend on a single session, right? No, she chose it because she didn’t want to drive the 45 minutes from Hollywood to Santa Monica. In the end, however, she makes the drive and visits the dude and is now living a charmed smoke free life writing on her glorious balcony and drinking her Ayurvedic tea.
My L.A. is more James Ellroy than La La Land. “You hate it so much, why don’t you leave?” You ask. What’s the alternative, New York? I don’t know the answer. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. No, that’s not true. I want to be a writer. I just don’t know how to be it.
Unfinished business gets in your DNA. Like that guy from high school I almost loved, but feared. He symbolizes much of what I didn’t do and now regret. He’s in my dreams from time to time. Because I don’t do what it is I want to do. His ghost lingers over all I’ve let drift.
If I could go back I’d change…but what would I change? When would I change it? How far back do you go? Because you could go all the way back to childhood but you’d just end up accumulating different regrets. I’m obsessed with high school. I wasn’t popular, but I wore that like a badge. I knew it meant I was better, more artistic, smarter than the cheerleading uniforms bouncing through the hallways on a Friday afternoon before the pep rally. Pep rallies. A time my outcast friends and I used to troll for older boys and pass private notes like they were Pentagon secrets.
Until Satan and God and a club called Medusa’s. Before midnight on Saturdays it was a juice bar. After midnight, bouncers kicked underagers like me out. They kind of did. It really depended on whether they thought you were cute. Anyway, I didn’t like to drink. I just wanted to dance, and do things my parents feared. But my overactive guilt complex required absolution. I told my mother about the upside down crucifixes, gargoyles, and twisted angels hanging from the walls while The Sound of Music played ironically on a 20 foot screen overlooking the main dance floor. My mother grounded me for life. No, I’m serious. She grounded me until the age of 18 or until college, whichever came first. No phone. No television. No activities of any kind. Her one stipulation. Go to church. And as long as I did stuff with church kids, she’d allow me day passes. She picked me up. She dropped me off. Until it became too inconvenient, then she let me drive myself. And by that time, I’d stepped fully into Stockholm Syndrome. Church became my life. Church kids. Church writing. Church membership. It lay the groundwork for my life. Every decision I made until the age of 29 shot out from the center of a rigid, literal interpretation of the Bible.
I killed myself. Not to be overdramatic, but I think there’s a certain truth to it. I killed my potential. The person I almost became. The one Mr. Banacheck identified in our Cinema Studies class when I was a Sophomore. He wanted to mentor me. He saw that I had promise as a writer. He was Jewish and secular. Two things my mother could not abide.
And now, more than 10 years after I shed the shackles of my faith I still feel too guilty to write freely. I went in the wrong direction, forged the wrong neural pathways. The ones I need do not exist. Writing in my voice feels much like learning a new language. In youth your brain moves freely to find its truth, like an amoeba shifting between poles. I sense my truth, but I can’t access it. What if it’s too weird? Too gross? Too overtly sexual? What if that makes me too broken? What if people see it and know my worst secrets? And judge me. What if it costs me work? When you’re young you don’t fear because you don’t know what to fear.
I dreamt about that boy last night. He lives in my basement and he loves me, desperately. I’m dating someone else. A safe boy. A church boy named Jim. He actually existed. Jim was Tracy’s boyfriend for four years. We thought they’d marry. They were the most popular couple in the group. Athletic. Good looking. Fun. In my dream I am Tracy. I mean I’m me, but I play Tracy. I long for this other boy living in my parent’s basement. My mother refuses to let me see him. Until I tell her she cannot stop me because I am a grown woman. She realizes I am 18 and her spell breaks. I descend the stairs and say to the boy, “I love you. I will always love you. I’m breaking up with Jim, just give me time.”
“You’re so confusing,” he says. “You East Coast girls are so confusing to us on the West Coast.” This is a dream statement. He and I both lived in the Midwest. We spend the rest of the dream in a push-me pull-you state. Much like the actual dynamic in our high school days. I did love him. As much as a kid can love another when she barely knows herself. But knowing myself now I know that I never loved any other until I met my husband. This particular boy haunts my dreams because he was the last significant contact I had with my authentic self before I got lost in the forest of faith.
Our identities are shaped by the people we love. Entire selves emerge from the fires of our deepest connections. The people I loved, the men I knew all had to do with a false self, a supposed self, a self created for safety’s sake.
Most of the time I don’t think about this boy. Actually, I don’t think of him at all in my waking hours. But in sleep he visits to find resolution and I wake aware that resolution never comes.