Los Angeles, California / Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

I live in Los Angeles, a city that’s much maligned but to my eye is an enchanted place – a city of hummingbirds, long bright boulevards, explosions of bougainvillea, fruit trees heavy with avocados and figs. No matter where you are, you can see three things hovering off in the distance: mountains, a little gathering of skyscrapers, and far away, a faint winking line, which is the sea. The skyscrapers are a phantasm, something that the real city (the expansive, radiant, endless city) has dreamed into being: a proper downtown. But no one I’ve ever met has actually lived there, or worked there. We live in the city that stretches away in all directions from the ghostly skyscrapers; we live and work among the scrabbled hills, or in the spreading flatness of the empty basin.

Even in the real city, the houses have the quality of fantasy. On my particular street, you will see two matching Tudor manor houses and a Normandy castle with cream-colored turrets, a smooth Art Deco edifice and many Mediterranean villas – all of them ersatz and strangely alike, one long vague daydream of European grandeur, conjured up in plaster. But very beautiful nonetheless, especially in the evenings when the street lamps come softly on and everyone is outside, walking their tiny dogs. And old, too – for the purposes of Los Angeles, historical – the apartments dating back to the 1930s, where inside you can find the turquoise tiled bathrooms and pie closets and formidable oven ranges of the era, most everything amazingly intact. You wouldn’t know, wandering down this antique block, that just beyond is the boulevard, alive with its own sort of magic, the traffic, the melon vendor’s cart, the television studio, the fountain with the dancing waters, the Thai massage parlor, the café at the corner, the synagogue. Trees laden with magnolias as big as bowls. And above all, the bright billboards, curious and ever changing, unfolding like a picture book without a story as you drive. You see a puma crouched on a rock. The black-rimmed eye of a girl who’s been crying. A woman aiming her remote control at you.

Click. She switches the channel. The program changes. And you are driving down a bleak incessant boulevard, laid bare by the sunlight, everything hot and dazzling and terrible, with fear curdling inside you. It can happen that quickly. The buildings are squat and empty; the one person walking down the sidewalk is used-up and mad. When this happens to me, when the city shows me its other face without warning, I grow afraid, and all my enchantment sours into a feeling of being fatally deceived. The figs, they never get eaten; they fall onto the driveways, are flattened by cars, and then attract swarming hordes of fruit flies. I can’t let my daughter play on the well-tended grass that grows along our street because she will inevitably step in the tiny piles of shit left behind by the tiny dogs.

But then the puzzle becomes, do I truly feel that this is a city of turds and ruin, or have I simply read a novel by Nathanael West and watched the movie Chinatown? I never know if the fear I feel is my own or somebody else’s – just as I never know whether the street I live on is mine or someplace I saw in a David Lynch film – and this is the basic confusion of living here, of never knowing quite where the images end and your own perceptions begin. Sometimes this confusion is very pleasurable (when I am walking down my street at dusk, for instance), but more often it feels like a local sort of dementia. I might ask my husband, Didn’t we once see a coyote crossing the boulevard late at night? and he might tell me, No, no, you’re thinking of that scene from Collateral.

The dread I sometimes feel living here – I think this dread really belonged to Joan Didion at one time, and now I’m wearing it like someone might wear a Pucci blouse or an I. Magnin dress that they bought at a high-end consignment shop. In an attempt to locate the original owner, I found myself reading The White Album again. And looking at the flyleaf I was reminded that this is my second time living here, a fact that I usually forget. In purple ink I have carefully written my name, and the date of November 9th, 1990, and the place where I bought this book: Los Angeles, California. I was eighteen years old then. Further down on the page is Joan Didion’s own signature, a heavy black horizontal line attached to three Calder-shaped loops. I asked her to sign this copy many years later, in New York City, after she had given a reading at the 92nd Street Y. At that same reading, while standing dumbly in the lobby, I happened to be chosen for a radio interview. The reporter wanted to know why I liked Joan Didion. Or maybe he asked, What does Joan Didion mean to you? And I gave him such an urgent and effusive answer, in such a breathless and high-pitched voice, that my interview was useless. He had to go find someone else to talk to.

What I tried to explain to the radio reporter was this: that Joan Didion brought me to Los Angeles, many years before. I read her for the first time in an English class at the beautiful school I went to, outside of Boston. By the time I read Joan Didion, I’d begun to develop a feeling that I would not be going to college (and more specifically, to Harvard or Brown or Columbia or Yale, where most of my class were headed), but rather driving to California, so that I could become friends with Guns N’Roses. Joan Didion agreed that this was the right thing to do. Her essay about paranoia and senselessness, the Manson murders and Jim Morrison’s black vinyl pants, about living in Hollywood at the end of the sixties where everything was on the verge of collapse, struck me not as warning but as invitation. She gave a language to the particular brand of darkness I was looking for. What I didn’t understand then was that I liked Joan Didion for being a part of both places: the despised city I was seeking on the other side of the continent, and also the beautiful school I went to in Boston, the huge ancient table around which we sat in English class, speaking fiercely about novels.

That first time, I lived in West Hollywood with a model and her boyfriend. They were both twenty-one, already able to drink and go wherever they wanted. Living with them, I felt I had luckily stumbled very close to the source. She wore a bikini in heavy metal videos; he was a drummer in a band called the Electric Love Hogs. It didn’t seem to matter that I lived in a small room without any windows. For a while I worked in the movie rental section at Tower Records, and then as a hostess at a coffee shop on Melrose Avenue. Along the walls of the coffee shop was a collection of immaculate toasters from the 1950s, and up above the cabinets where we kept the coffee filters stood a life-sized version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, looking harmless. Lots of musicians came in to eat, and sometimes movie actors. People I recognized, people who made me lose myself for a moment. They would stand there beside the sign that said, «Please Wait For the Hostess to Seat You,» standing and waiting obediently as if all the rules of the world really did apply to them, but then as soon as I saw who it was I would wheel around and walk away, every part of me trembling, and leave them stranded by the wobbly sign.

In between these elated moments were long, long stretches spent fiddling with the menus, wiping down the counter, rotating my ankles because my feet were sore. I was bored nearly all the time, which I didn’t understand, since I was finally surrounded by the actors and bikers and rock people that I had always wanted for company, and here they all were, eating huevos rancheros and letting me ring up the bill. I watched the slowly moving hands on the huge red neon clock; I made desultory attempts at the daily crossword puzzle. Once I asked a regular customer, «James, are you famous?» and he said to me, without too much bitterness, «Some people think I am.»

The best waitress at the coffee shop decided she liked me after I described to her a dream I had about the Campbell Soup kids – they were so mushy and adorable I couldn’t bear it, I ran after them all night, trying to herd them into a cage so I could squeeze them and squeeze them. She thought this was funny, but never told me which part. She invited me over to her apartment, and showed me her pet rabbit and the tall fuzzy purple hat she was wearing to a Halloween party thrown by Jane’s Addiction. The hat wasn’t tacky at all; it felt like it was made from something dreamy and rare, like alpaca.

She had done some modeling a few years before, but now she was saving up money to open her own flower shop. This was a first for me: an aspiring florist. Customers at the coffee shop would ask me, What are you here for? and it was a relief to have no ambitions to speak of. I didn’t have a headshot or a demo tape. And I couldn’t tell them, I came here because I wanted to live inside a Guns N’Roses song. People wouldn’t understand that; the people who asked me this question didn’t know about Joan Didion; when I sometimes confessed, in moments of despair, I might end up going to Columbia, they said: Why would you want to go to Colombia? You could get killed.

I could get killed in California, too. One night I went with some people I’d met to a birthday party in a tidy backyard, a barbeque with grandparents, small wound-up children, metal tubs packed with juice boxes and Mexican beer, everything dappled by the colored Christmas lights strung up around the fence. Afterwards I drove a couple of kids home and a boy shouted something unintelligible out the passenger side window and then somebody starting shooting at my car. It sounded like the popping of homemade firecrackers, a sound that made sense among the gentle little bungalows and the sprinklers whispering across the lawns, so it was puzzling when the kids began screaming at me to go, go, go! A few miles later, we pulled over and walked around the car, tracing our fingers lightly over the bullet holes; and then opening all the doors we stuck our heads inside and found a bullet buried in the car’s velour upholstery. A girl who’d been sitting in the backseat asked if she could keep it. She believed that the bullet had been meant for her and she’d been spared. I let her have it, because this bullet was to her a sign, but secretly I wanted to keep it to myself, for the very opposite reason, as a proof of all that was arbitrary. And driving away, thinking this, debating how to tell my mother about the new bullet holes in her car, I felt like a jerk from a beautiful school outside of Boston, because to me being part of a gang shooting in Los Angeles was nothing but an incongruous detail, an exercise in randomness; to her it was a possible chapter in the narrative of her life.

Mysteriously, being shot at didn’t get me any closer to living inside a Guns N’Roses song. Neither did handing menus to the actual members of the band, or rooming with a bikini model who would sprawl belly-down on the futon in our living room, complaining delicately, having had anal sex the night before with her drummer boyfriend. «Would you get me some soda?» she’d ask me. «I can’t even move.»

On a Saturday morning I put the album into my tape deck and drove out to the Pacific Coast Highway. I wanted the songs to feel like they used to. I took curves too fast, the light flaring off the ocean; then I pulled over and picked up hitchhikers, two boys with huge backpacks, my heart pounding. Nothing happened. I was like a girl trying to come with her own hand and not getting there, but still rubbing between her legs in misery. I drove and drove, rewinding the tape and rolling down all the windows, the songs playing so loudly that I could howl the words and not hear my own voice. That day I drove more than four hundred miles, all the way past San Francisco. Still I couldn’t get the songs to sound as good as they had sounded when I was living at home with my mother and my brother, when I was going to my school. Then, I would listen to these songs as I did the dullest things – drive carpool, serve ice cream on the weekends, dance around a bedroom with my friends – and the dull things were made beautiful, fluttering with a hidden danger. In the middle of having sex for the first time, I stopped whatever the guy was doing and sprang to my knees, then hunted through my backpack until I found the tape and stuck it into the little boom box beside the mattress. Every forgettable and important moment unfolded to those songs, at my insistence, all the time – always at the terrible risk of wearing them out. But that was their magic: they were inexhaustible, withstanding my enormous appetite and the endless last two years of high school, somehow managing to still sound murderous even after the millionth time. Then I moved to California and destroyed them. The songs used to be full of speed and joy and perfect darkness, and now they were almost empty.

I gave my notice at the coffee shop. I told my roommates I was leaving. The drummer acted sweetly regretful, and the girl acted irritated. Lately her liver had begun to swell, but instead of drinking less alcohol, she brought home baby animals from the pet shelter. They were all incontinent, in one form or another. I’d come home from work and find the floor dotted with foamy mounds of carpet cleaner. I didn’t want to live there anymore. I sold everything I couldn’t fit inside my mother’s car. When I drove away from Los Angeles, it was with the half-grateful, half-humiliated thought that I would never be moving back again.

And it is as if I never did. My life now is nearly unrecognizable from my life then, which is why I almost forget that they have happened in the same place. The coffee shop on Melrose has been closed for over a decade, and even Tower Records, which used to be a monument, is now abandoned, bankrupt. I haven’t seen a band play, or even stepped inside a record store, since I moved back here. I don’t really listen to music anymore, at least not in the same thirsty way. That first time, I came to Los Angeles looking for the darkness I had heard inside a song, and couldn’t find it. Now I am here for the most innocent and hoary reasons – to raise a small child, to make some money, to chase after that chimera, opportunity – the old hopeful notion that Life is better out here! I came back with a husband and an unborn daughter, with an unfinished second novel and a staggering set of student loans and a brand new hybrid car. No bullet holes.

Now I feel darkness surrounding me, all the time. I think it might be simply a matter of closing one’s eyes and entering into the identical dream that everyone in this city shares. When I was here at eighteen, I held myself apart, refusing to want anything, my only declared ambition so neutered and absurd – to become friends with, but not to fuck, Guns N’Roses – that I unknowingly immunized myself against the city’s spell. But now, back again, I am wracked with aspirations, hounded by wants. I want a three-bedroom house in a decent school district, I want my husband’s new project to happen, I want to throw dinner parties with the smell of jasmine coming in through the open windows. I want to no longer feel as if we’re living at the precarious edge of our means, an affliction that everyone here seems to share, like the dream. To admit to such desires is to open myself up to the deep horror of seeing them go unfulfilled, and on some days, on bad days, all I can see around me are signs of doom: the half-renovated house in foreclosure, the minor t.v. actress looking heavy and muddled as she steps out from her dirty car. The little girl beside me in the elevator, no older than three, skipping in place and holding her mother’s hand, has just returned from an audition for a Tide commercial, and overhearing this makes me strangely seasick, and the whole city turns sad and malevolent.
But it only lasts a little while; or maybe it lasts forever, and I just get more and more accustomed to it. I can’t remember where, but recently I read something that pointed out – and I mean this literally – the nose on my face. Incredibly, I had never before noticed that our noses sit in such a way as to slightly obstruct our line of sight. For a few days, I wasn’t able to do anything without being aggravated by the blurry presence of my nose, and then my awareness receded, ebbing back to the state of oblivion in which I’ve always existed. In the same way, I imagine that the fear I sometimes feel while living in Los Angeles will one day become imperceptible to me. The horror will still be there, floating hazily in the middle of my vision, but I will not think about it anymore. Just as I don’t think too much about the unnaturalness of the bougainvillea and the fruit trees, fed by water pumped in from some distant, diminishing source; nor do I dwell on the fact that in order to even write this sentence, I am paying a woman from El Salvador (not as much as she deserves, but more than I can actually afford) to play with my daughter in the park. If I stopped to think too long about any of these things, all the radiance would vanish, and I could no longer live in a magical place.


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