California Part II.

At 3:00 am, I was jarred awake by the sound of my own heart beating in my chest. I couldn’t breathe and my heart raced and my thoughts raced. Am I having a heart attack? Should I call 911? Should I go wake up my roommate so that he isn’t alarmed when the paramedics arrive? Can I afford an ambulance trip and an ER visit? I this how I die?

Then I realized I was having a panic attack. It had been years since I’d last had one, so I didn’t immediately recognize it for what it was. I was weirdly relieved by the realization. But whatever the cause, if I didn’t lower my heart rate, I was going to have a very real heart attack. I’m 40 now. I’m a person who is of an age where these things can happen.

I breathed in deeply. Counted to five. Exhaled. Repeated until my heartbeat normalized. I drank some water, but I was rattled. Sleep didn’t happen again for the rest of the night. When my alarm went off at 6:45, I was still awake. It was to be my penultimate day of work, but I called in anyway. I was afraid of having another anxiety attack on the train and horrified by the thought of being wheeled off the Red Line in a stretcher.

I spent the day trying to distract myself from the all the things that were making me anxious, but they were unavoidable. All around me are boxes of things I’ve been putting off shipping to C’s mom, and the furniture that I keep meaning to make Craigslist ads for. My clothes are all in suitcases beside the bed. The walls and the closet are empty, stark, and naked.

I try not to think about the fact that this time next week I won’t have a job, or an apartment. I’ll be sleeping on a couch at C’s parents’ house, where we’re staying until we have jobs and a place of our own. I half-heartedly apply for jobs. I look at apartments in San Diego that we can’t afford. I try not to wonder how we’re going to pay our bills when neither of us has an income.

When I talk to him later in the day, C tells me not to worry. “It’ll all work out.” He assures me. He’s sitting on a patio with a glass of wine. They’ve just gotten back from a farmer’s market. I can hear the sunshine in his voice.

“Everybody keeps asking when you’re going to get here.”

Despite his reassurances, I continue to worry. Irresponsibly quitting a job and moving across the country is cute when you’re in your twenties, but much less so when you’re in your forties.

The first time I moved to California, I was 27. I was living with my ex-boyfriend in Austin, and when he got accepted into grad school at UCLA, I ended up tagging along. I didn’t want to live in Texas my whole life. And although L.A. had never been on my personal radar of places I’d like to live, it was at least some place different. It wasn’t Texas, and that was enough for me.

Our apartment was across the street from the Veteran cemetery. I thought that meant the neighborhood would be quiet. What we didn’t realize was that a block away there was a fire station, so firetrucks were constantly speeding down our street at all hours of the night. Coyotes howled in the rolling hills on the far end of the cemetery and some Sunday mornings we were awakened by 21 gun salutes.

I got a terrible job at a brokerage firm where the only saving grace was the view of the Pacific Ocean. Once I was sitting at my desk and suddenly felt dizzy. I thought I was sick until I looked up and saw my co-worker bracing herself in the doorway of her cubicle. Then I realized we were having an earthquake. I saw the palm trees and the ocean swaying outside the window and thought “I can’t die in this building with these people,” and made my way down 11 flights of stairs in less than 4 seconds.

I rebelled against the mundane job by wearing studded belts and dying my hair purple.

Everyone I met in L.A. told me that I didn’t belong there. L.A. was a surreal and shallow place. The weekly coupons in the mail were all for teeth whitening, plastic surgery, and botox. Everyone kept asking me what kind of car I drove. I felt like I didn’t belong, and L.A. agreed.

And my Daewoo impressed no one.

I dated a guy in PR named Strip Checkers. Well, not so much dated. I’m sure he has an actual name, but he’s gone down in the annals of my personal history as Strip Checkers for obvious reasons. We’d drive down Wilshire in his red convertible to his studio apartment in Korea Town. We’d play checkers on his floor, losing an item of clothing each time one of our pieces got jumped, until we were both naked.

Then there was the nice, Jewish doctor who was going to take me to Paris and then ended up getting back with his ex-boyfriend. The musician who’d call me and say, “You. Me. Sex. Now,” and would be knocking on my door five minutes later. He convinced me to strip with him in a burlesque show, and when I left L.A. all I had to remember him by was his little, black butt plug.

There were always movies being filmed in our neighborhood, and once a week there’d be a movie premier, a red carpet and paparazzi blocking my route home from the gym. We’d go to some vegan restaurant, and an over enthused waitress would tell us in an excited whisper, “Jodie Foster is here!”

Once, walking to my car after work, a pasty guy with long hair said, “Do you model?” And handed me his card.

I stared back at him blankly before stammering, “I’m a writer.”

Like everyone in L.A. I was toiling away on a screenplay. I sent off spec scripts for imaginary episodes of Will and Grace. It seemed like everyone I met was “in the industry.” But nothing ever came of any of it. I mostly sat at Starbucks with my second hand laptop and dreamed of being someone. Someone shiny and pretty with perfect teeth, a tan, and a red sports car.

But instead I was pale, purple haired, and skinny. I kissed a guy at some club, and he asked if my  parents were professors because I had more than a monosyllabic vocabulary. I didn’t like him, but I kissed him anyway, while some horrible pop song played, and tan, toothpaste commercials danced with one another beneath the pulsing lights of some bar in West Hollywood.

I irresponsibly quit my job at the brokerage firm. I left my badge on my boss’s desk on a Wednesday afternoon. I walked down to the beach, took off my shoes and my tie, and sat staring at the ocean, wondering what to do.

I was lost, and I felt rejected by the city.

At least once a month I got a parking ticket.

I was constantly getting lost. The first time I saw the Hollywood sign was by accident. I was trying to get home from a job interview downtown and stopped at a gas station in East L.A. to buy an actual map because there weren’t smart phones back then. After a number of wrong turns, the big white letters (only ever so slightly obscured by smog) were there in front of me.

I sat in Jewish deli’s pretending to write, and danced at 80s clubs in Hollywood. I went to bars in Los Feliz and Silverlake.  I met some genuinely wonderful people too, but by then I was already on my way out of the city and planning my move to  Seattle.

I never thought I’d move back to California. I’d felt like such an outsider the first time around, an encore hardly seemed warranted. But in less than a week, I’ll be in Southern California again. This time around I’m armed with experience, which feels like a double edged sword, and I just don’t know what to think, or how to feel.

The biggest difference is that this time C will be with me.

“My mom bought you a bag of Muddy Buddies.” C texts me, as I was typing this.  “We’re recording American Horror Story for you.”

I text him that I love him.

He texts me that he loves me too.

This time around we have a support network. I know that they won’t let us starve or be homeless. So, despite my fears, which are numerous, I’m trying to be optimistic that this time around will be a different experience, because he’ll be with me.

So when my heart begins to race, I breathe in. Hold it. Breathe out. Think of him, and know that everything is going to work out.

Cities

 

IMG_1837Spring comes, even to Chicago. The snow has melted. The trees lining the boulevards are lush with green leaves. Every sidewalk is thronged with pale people in shorts, over-eager for any sign of warmth after a long winter spent indoors.

On sunny days I walk home from work instead of taking the train. The trek from downtown to our apartment takes me an hour and a half. I walk past the Magnificent Mile with its upscale shops and small boutiques, past the bistros that have pulled out their patio seating, past the planters with brightly colored flowers, through Lincoln Park with its brownstones and kids drawing on the sidewalk with pastel chalk.

Yesterday I walked past a park near the Loop and crossed paths with an elderly Asian woman on a cell phone, pushing a Shih Tzu in a baby stroller. The woman was wearing a parka even though it was warm, and the dog was decked out in a little, pink bow. This is what I love most about living in cities. The random intersections of strange lives, all of the different characters one sees in passing.

The first real city that I lived in was Los Angeles. I was still living with my ex-boyfriend in Austin at the time, and when he got accepted into grad school at UCLA, I was faced with the choice of finding another roommate or taking the plunge and heading out West to sunny California. Even though L.A. had never been on my radar of prospective places, at that point I was ready to experience life anywhere that wasn’t Texas.

Los Angeles was sprawling and strange. The weekly junk mail was littered with coupons for Botox, teeth whitening, and plastic surgery. Every time I met new people, they asked me what kind of car I drove. It seemed that everyone worked in the movie industry, drove a sports car, and had impressive stories of brushes with celebrity. I did temp work at a brokerage firm, drove a Daewoo, and impressed no one.

At my job, I was forced to wear a tie and sit in a cubicle doing mind numbingly boring data entry work. I rebelled in little ways at first, by wearing cheap, studded belts I’d bought downtown beside the men in track suits who were selling bootlegged DVDs. Later I rebelled more openly by dying my hair blue, or magenta, or purple.

Once an old man drove his car through the crowd at the Farmer’s Market on the Third Street Promenade across from the building I worked in. When our building was surrounded by helicopters, police, fire engines, and ambulances, our first thought was that there was a hostage situation. We scoured the internet for any news, and then watched in horror at the first responders carrying bodies away on stretchers. I’d had lunch at the Farmer’s Market not a half hour before, and shivered when I thought about how easily it could have been my body, limp and lifeless beneath a sterile, white sheet.

I experienced my first earthquake in that building. I was sitting in my cubicle and thought I was having a strange, sudden dizzy spell, when I looked up and saw a co-worker across from me bracing herself in the doorway of her cubicle. Beyond her I could see the horizon with the palm trees, the beach, and the blue waves of the Pacific ocean tilting back and forth as the building swayed. In a panic, my first thought was, “I can’t die in this building with these people,” and I ran down eleven flights of stairs in less than four seconds to the street below. (I would later learn this is what not to do in an earthquake since there could be falling glass and downed power lines, but I was willing to take my chances).

A few months later I left my access badge with a note on my boss’s desk telling her I quit, and walked down to the Santa Monica Pier and sat on the beach with my pants rolled up, holding my tie in my hands, my purple hair blowing in the breeze.

A few months later, a friend and I took a road trip through the Pacific Northwest. We were nearly into Portland late one night when we saw a giant ball of fire in the sky. It was neon green and larger than a full moon, and hurtling down toward the city in front of us. It was so big, in fact, that as it disappeared below the tree line, we braced for impact and expected to pull into the city to discover it engulfed in flames. But when we arrived, the city was intact, and there was no sign of the meteor. The local news mentioned in passing that several people had reported seeing it, and that it had most likely burnt up in the atmosphere as it descended.

We liked Portland, but kept driving past the lush green forests and gorgeous vistas of Multnomah falls, past the snow capped peak of Mount Rainier, to the picturesque city of Seattle. As soon as we arrived, I felt like I’d come home. A fat, colorful rainbow stretched across a pale blue sky to mark our arrival. It felt, on that first day, like the city was embracing us.

I stayed in Seattle for seven years. The friend I moved there with couldn’t quite take the long, dreary, gray Seattle winters, and after our second year decided to move back to Los Angeles. I spent a couple of lonely years after that inhabiting coffeehouses, looking for a connection. After Los Angeles, the people of Seattle seemed timid. The times I tried to strike up a conversation in a coffee shop with a stranger, I was met with an inevitable look of horror as the person I was trying vainly to engage panicked over the fact that someone was speaking to him. I grew so accustomed to being stood up on dates, that I started to take my laptop with me, so that when I was left sitting at the agreed upon place…alone, I could at least be productive and write a blog about it.

I did eventually manage to collect a group of friends who made Seattle feel like home again. I got a job where I worked from my apartment. I became gym obsessed and was in the best shape of my life, culminating in the running of the Seattle Marathon.

Around that time I met C who had also lived in California. We hit it off by trading war stories and bonding over our shared dislike of everyone who wasn’t us. After a year of not getting sick of one another, he suggested we save our money and head East, to New York City. A year after that, we got rid of everything we owned, and took the long flight to the Big Apple.

My first night in the city, we went to Times Square. I was immediately overwhelmed by the noise, the bright lights of the big screens advertising Broadway shows, M&Ms and Coca Cola. There were so many people everywhere we went. On any given block I was surrounded by languages I’d never heard before, and people from all over the world.

We bounced around from Queens, to an overpriced room we rented in Brooklyn from a vegan lesbian who made a living giving colonics. We spent a summer in Brooklyn sweltering with no air conditioning, lying naked in front of a fan circulating hot air. We ate $1 pizza slices and hot dogs in Central Park on our days off work.

Eventually we settled in the slightly cheaper, but considerably less convenient Staten Island. We took the ferry to Lower Manhattan. When Hurricane Sandy devastated the island, we went for a week with no electricity.  I was amazed at how the city came together after this disaster. How everyone was willing to help one another. Several times I got rides to and from Manhattan from neighbors I’d never met while the ferry and the subway were out of commission.

We spent a year and a half in NYC. I loved the excitement of exploring the city, the museums and shops. So much of the city seems so magical. There really is no place like it. What wasn’t magical was the constant crowds of people, the piles of garbage everywhere, the filth, the rats fighting in the subway, and the increasing rents. So I convinced C to leave for a place more affordable where we could still have an urban life, but also space, and the money left over to actually enjoy ourselves.

He hasn’t quite forgiven me for our departure. And now that we have nearly a year under our belt in Chicago, (after a lost, ill-fated year in Austin, TX) we’re starting to get that wanderlust again, a longing to head off into parts unknown.

These cities, my cities, are all stacked on top of one another, are superimposed in my memory, so that some mornings I wake up, thinking about going to get a breakfast taco before realizing I’m not in Austin, or walking down to the Farmer’s Market for some flowers only to remember that the market is across the country in Seattle.

Now strangers walk down streets I once walked down. New places crop up and replace the ones I used to haunt. Other people are having their own experiences, and their cities are not my cities. These cities are ghosts. They exist only in the past, only in my memory. But I love every one of them, and all of the scary, fantastic, amazing, wonderful experiences I had when I lived in them.

The Time I Was a Stripper

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When I lived in Los Angeles, I dated an Armenian musician named Ara. Well, “dated” is something of an exaggeration. Ara was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a fuck buddy. When he was in the mood, he’d call and ask if he could come over, we’d do it, and he’d leave. The arrangement worked because I didn’t like him very much. He was stylish enough that I could overlook his lack of personality.

One evening after a particularly adventurous session of hot, sweaty monkey sex, he asked me if I wanted to strip with him at a club in Hollywood. Since moving to Los Angeles, I’d had a rule that if someone asked me something truly off the wall, I had no choice but to comply, because, if nothing else, it would lead to a good story. So this is how I ended up performing in Skinny Boy Burlesque at the now defunct Hollywood club, Star Shoes.

Because we were roughly the same size and build, i.e. short and scrawny, Ara had this idea that I’d come out on stage dressed like him, dancing to “Rock and Roll” by Peaches, and then he’d come out on stage and we’d get into a mock fight and rip one another’s clothes off, down to our Incredible Hulk underroos. Which is more or less exactly what happened.

To his credit, Ara had some mad fashion skills and was able to sew our matching, tear away outfits himself. I strutted out on stage with the faux confidence of a supermodel, wearing a ripped, black t-shirt, skinny jeans, and boots. I danced to Peaches, my lip curled up in a snarl. The hipster girls (and boys) were screaming and taking pictures. There was something exhilarating about standing beneath the black lights, being blatantly objectified.

Ara came on stage dressed exactly like me. We stood, identical, regarding one another. I was wearing a long, black wig so our hair would match, stenciled in eyebrows and drawn on sideburns. But in the semi-dark of the club even his brother couldn’t tell us apart. He shoved me. I fell back against the crowd and they pushed me back into him. In the heat of the moment, our fight was more real than feigned. He ripped my shirt off. I grabbed him, turned him to face the crowd, holding him from behind, ripped his shirt off with both hands, and then licked the side of his face.

The crowd went wild.

Our pants came off as each of us struggled to get the upper hand. In our undies, there was little left for us to do. The music died, and Ara picked up the microphone to MC the rest of the show while I got to watch with Anna from the sidelines. Being lusted after by so many strangers gave me a confidence (albeit short-lived) that I’ve seldom regained. But one night, in a club, surrounded by screaming, adoring young people, flashbulbs and desire, I felt like a star.