Relax. You’re in Los Angeles.
Last Wednesday I watched a World Cup game — I have no memory of who played — at a mediocre barbecue place in Grass Valley. My friends left at the half, and I was just sitting there by myself, floating in the air conditioning. I thought about watching the second half of the game myself and then decided that would be too boring.
Suddenly, I was overcome by the powerful sensation that I had to get out of town. I have been in some “fuck it” moods in my life but this one was on a whole new level.
I drove back to my house and threw my bathing suit and a few sundresses and some underwear and some bronzer and mascara and tinted Chapstick into a suitcase and got into my Toyota Yaris. As I drove south I tried to tie up some loose ends over the phone. Those I could not tie up I left hanging. I was going to Los Angeles and nothing was going to stop me.
There is always some douchebag who will tell you he drives from Nevada County to Los Angeles in six hours. I would pay money to see that documented. There is only one response to the question “How long does it take to get from Nevada County to Los Angeles and that is: “Forever.”
I forced myself to go 200 miles before I took a break. I used the bathroom and bought a small Oreo McFlurry. The McFlurry had been hastily made, but I still took a photo of it and sent it to my friend Val with the message “McFlurgency!”, which is a word that I invented. Then I drove to Lost Hills, Calif., where I slept in a Motel 6 room. The room was, next to the São Paulo airport bathroom, the cleanest place I have ever been.
In the morning, I had a message from a friend that said “I can’t even” or “OMG” with a link to Tom Junod’s incredibly annoying Esquire essay about how 42 year old women were hot and funny and smart and wasn’t that wonderful to have that kind of approval from someone about to celebrate his 900th birthday. I wanted to get on the road but also felt that I had a civic responsibility to address this essay.
When an hour or so was up I felt I hadn’t really said everything I wanted to say. I wanted to talk about how what he’d written didn’t just make me angry, but also made me sad. I wanted to talk about how women feared aging and craved beauty at the same time that they just wanted to think that maybe it was OK to not be young forever, and that the worst thing about what he had written was that it was supposed to be this sort of compliment but instead it was this reminder that men liked the way a little bit of experience set off relatively youthful femininity but that too big a helping of experience would not be terribly useful. I sent it off I thinking that it might not be published and pre-resenting everyone involved, including myself.
I put my phone in the cup holder facing me, to the left of the steering wheel, so that if I got an email asking any questions I’d be able to pull over and address them. I drove over the Grapevine, where the trucks that had been dogging me all night were now struggling in the right lane. After an hour I’d heard nothing. I tried to tell myself that was all right, and then I started to feel ashamed, and stupid, and more resentful, and also thought of all the people who would have the time to write something better and tried to remind myself that surely someone somewhere would get the gospel to the people and that it did not have to be me, but I just couldn’t quite accept that in a graceful way. I listened to “An Officer and Spy by Robert Harris, and felt very jealous of his talent. (He also wrote The Ghost Writer, the most perfect book, and then film, of all time.) I consoled myself that his book The Fear Index had sucked and decided that everything I wrote that sucked was kind of like my own Fear Index.
Then, as I descended the hill, my phone suddenly burst into life. It had been published. People were reading it. Below me, Canyon Country sparkled in the hot sun. I went to a McDonald’s and bought myself a coffee and sausage patty. The girl at the counter was small and pale and she was wearing a lot of black eyeliner. “I like your earrings,” she said shyly. “Thanks,” I said. “I got them in a health food store.” I don’t know if she understood that this was funny or not. I sat in my car, cranking the air-conditioning, drinking hot coffee and looking at Twitter. I had earned myself another day on this awful planet.
I lived in Los Angeles for 10 years and think, more than any other place in the world, that Los Angeles provides proof of a wise and benevolent god. When you tell people up north, or really anywhere, that you lived in Los Angeles, they say, “I’m sorry.” And I’m always like, “No, I’m sorry for you that you don’t know magic when you see it.” I think, as with so many things, that Carly Rae Jepsen puts it best: “I like Los Angeles. So many artistic people, and I just love the weather.”
The reason I was visiting Los Angeles at this particular moment was that my friend B. was visiting there from the east coast. He too had lived there for a long time and moved away around the same time I did. We were inseparable. Mostly we would just drive around and find a joke we liked and repeat it to each other while we listened to Fiona Apple’s When The Pawn…
B. was staying in a house with a pool. I love pools but was still kind of cold from the cranked air conditioning and I wanted to make sure I was good and hot before enjoying it. So we went for a walk around Silver Lake reservoir. It was brutally hot outside but the reservoir was crowded with people working out. A lot of those people were thin women pushing baby carriages. I told B. how I’d recently asked a friend how long it took her to lose her baby weight and she had said, “About seven years.” I was very hyper from McDonald’s coffee and tweets and feminist outrage. “I think I’m upcycling,” I said to B., and he said he’d already taken note of this.
Back at the house we got into the pool. It was kidney-shaped with a view of palm trees and cypress trees and then, beyond, of the San Fernando Valley. Another friend of ours came over and demonstrated how pool noodles, held upright, made a good shelter for a balding head. The way he just stood there, holding them, with a sort of animal-like innocence in his expression, made me laugh uncontrollably for several minutes.
Another friend came over, a woman about five years older than me. She pointed to my chest, on which I had probably not put enough sunscreen, and said, “I have two words for you: laser resurfacing.”
I pushed at the flesh. My huge synthetic Alexandrite, purchased by my grandfather in Cairo in 1952, possibly in a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get my grandmother to stop cheating on him, reflected across its top facet the entire expense of the pool. “I don’t know,” I said, “I don’t think it looks bad.” She stretched out on a chaise lounge in the shade and from underneath the brim of an enormous straw hat muttered: “Just wait.”
For days it was like this. Walking around the reservoir, sitting in the pool, debating the relative merits of chiropractic and skin treatments. I only did one thing: a friend of mine who is a writer took me to lunch at Bäco Mercat. After months in the country I was overwhelmed with the sophisticated bounty of the menu so she ordered for us: fried squash blossoms, paté, butter lettuces and a shrimp sandwich. There was wine. We debated men and women and various theories of biology and socialization. We talked about how nice it felt to disagree with someone and just find the whole thing amusing. “I think you are so totally wrong about everything you are saying, and yet, my heartbeat and adrenaline level remain stable,” I marveled. “It is because you are so utterly delightful and brilliant that you might just be right — although, of course, I very much doubt it.” We took a selfie and it emailed to mutual friends, rather than posting it, which I thought was rather classy.
The other reason I had come to Los Angeles was to get my hair colored by one of the only people in the world who I feel is truly good at coloring hair. Then, Saturday morning, an hour before my appointment, I received a text message from this person telling me that one of her eyes was swollen shut. We were in a waffle restaurant in South Los Angeles, and I started to howl. “Can’t she see my hair with one eye? Twenty-five percent of the reason I came down here was to see her.” I was quiet for a minute and then just talked at length about how I wanted to stop being upset but couldn’t.
B. just looked at me. I could tell he was trying to think of something to say to make it look like he cared and like I wasn’t annoying the shit out of him and that he just couldn’t think of anything, but that he was also realizing with each passing moment that whatever he came up with was going to have to increase in quality.
“Can you find someone else?”
I glared at him. “There is no one else.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I guess I just don’t really know how you feel.
“Just imagine the worst thing that could happen to you that’s not really that bad,” I said.
Later on I was driving him to his mixed martial arts class in Highland Park. As we got into the car my foot started itching and when I looked down at it I saw that in the span of no more than two minutes I had developed a sizable lump on the top of my foot, about three-quarters of an inch high. I am the opposite of a hypochondriac, so my fear was not that something awful was actually happening to me but that if it were I would ignore it and somehow end up dying.
“I am going to assume the fact that I suddenly have a giant lump on my foot is nothing,” I said to him. “Is that an okay thing to assume? I just don’t want to not worry about it if I should. That is my fear.” I was actually feeling fantastic. There was something energizing about having a fast-growing lump on the top of my foot, and the fact that I was both not freaking out about it but allowing myself to explore the possibility that I should made me feel very mature.
The lump was growing before our eyes. I could see the panic in his eyes that this might interfere with his getting to his class.
“They have an urgent care in Glendale,” he said. He said this about 500 times. Then he said, “Why don’t you take me to class and then go to the urgent care in Glendale?”
I made him drive to Highland Park so I could stare at my foot. By the time we got there I had decided that I had been bitten by a spider that was more powerful than your average spider but not terribly dangerous.
I drove to the Valley and picked up a camping cot that I’d left on my friend Mary’s porch two years ago. She made me a Greek salad and we discussed doing a sort of meditation/mindfulness practice where you don’t say anything mean for 40 days.
“It’s not even the whole part of not being able to say, like, ‘Oh my God what a fucking bitch,’” I said. “It’s like, how do you, you know, just critique people or situations in general?” Mary nodded understandingly. “Well,” I said, “The whole part about not being able to call somebody ‘a fucking bitch’ would be hard, too.” She agreed.
I had left my phone in the car. There was a text from B. “I had the time wrong for my class! I’m so mad. I am being punished for not caring about your hair.”
I wrote back, “Or my foot.”
I convinced B. to forgo his flight to San Francisco, where he’d stay a few days before returning east, and to drive up there with me instead. We drove past a sad, filthy field of cows in Coalinga. “Every time I used to drive past these cows I would swear I was going to become a vegetarian,” I said. “But now every time I drive past I just think, ‘Oh well.’”
B. nodded. “Those cows are just Big Ag’s way of saying people never change.”
We had tried to leave early enough so we could watch the last World Cup game in San Francisco, but as the last half began we were only in Livermore. We watched the last 20 minutes of regulation and then the overtime periods in a Mexican restaurant in Castro Valley. “This is where Rachel Maddow is from!” I said knowledgeably. “Really?” B. said. “From this restaurant?”
The waitress came. We decided to split a burrito. “Beef or chicken?” the waitress asked, and together, we replied, “Beef.”
“I really did care about your hair,” he said. “I just didn’t know what to say.”
“It’s OK,” I said. “I wouldn’t have cared.”
Previously: What Really Happens at the River