I was born on a bed that smelled of tea, sex, and tobacco. My mother promised the midwife she’d clean the sheets and sanitize them in the oven as instructed, but I arrived early, on the last day of the year—the end of a decade—and there hadn’t been time. My father had hoped to begin a new decade with my birth. He thought it auspicious: a moon walk at the end of one era and a baby girl at the beginning of another. Instead, I was like a postscript, or like the fine print at the bottom of a coupon. My father called me an Oh Yeah, as in, “I’d love a glass of water. Oh yeah, and did I tell you, we had a baby last year?” At least the tax deduction offered some solace.
My mother wasn’t nearly as glib. She played along because it was the way of our household, the way of my father, with his dry humor that got mean if he was tired, with his bowl of film in the fridge, with his parties: his cameras out and the hand-carved backgammon boards balancing on the sofa arms, and the women in the bath, cuddling. My mother accepted it all gracefully, refilling drinks and making sure I was in bed on time, combing my hair as the music played muffled but loud on the other side of the wall. I remember loving the way she smelled, like jasmine oil and bread, and she’d hug me good night with those long skinny arms, tan and beauty-marked. “You live such a glamorous life,” she’d say, and then shut the door. She never wore shoes inside the house, and her feet cracked as she walked away.
She’d grown up in a big rickety house outside Santa Cruz, where she milked goats and braided her mother’s long gray hair, and swam naked until she moved to L.A. and realized only little girls and hippies and wicked women did that. When she bought me my first bra, at 12, she said, “You have breasts now,” as if I didn’t know. How could I have blamed her? She didn’t see her own body until she was 19 and others saw it for her. My father, for instance.
He was a cinematographer, 12 years her senior, tall and broad-shouldered, with a thick copper-colored beard and a beach house on stilts. During their courtship, they’d sit beneath the house where the sand was packed hard and dark and cold, and he would ask her about nature as if it were a far off kingdom he needed a special passport to enter.
When I was a little girl, my father and I would drive down the Pacific Coast Highway and through the tunnel and into the city. He would take me to the movies and let me eat a barrel of popcorn as long as I pretended to be hungry for my mother and ask her what was for dinner. Sometimes we went in the opposite direction, to Ventura, the highway hugging the water, and when we arrived in that little sleepy town he’d say something like, “What now?” and laugh. His laugh was husky and it always ended in a cough, him shaking his head.
One night when I was 12, after one of his parties, he drove one of the actresses home and didn’t return for four hours. He claimed he’d gotten a flat. My mother only laughed at that, yelled she could smell the pussy on him. She had stopped going along with whatever he wanted; she was turning bitter, I realized later. “You’re a cameraman,” she cried that night, “not a playboy.” It sounded like dialogue from one of the scripts in the bathroom, which we kept in a wicker basket next to the toilet.
That actress had short bleached hair, the roots dark as a secret, and a deep dimple on one side of her mouth when she smiled. She was going to make it big, she’d told me so as we shared a cigarette on the shore during the party. “It’s just a matter of time,” she’d yelled, the ocean pounding unseen behind us, and I imagined her smile, that groove of a dimple. My mother thought I was asleep.
When he told me he’d started writing movies, I imagined him staying awake all night to work. I probably thought that because once he booked a room at the Biltmore for a whole week, telling me he had a deadline he needed to meet. The cleaners picked up his shirts, and he ordered every meal in. My mother called once to say, “What a fantasy you live in, Freddy.”
The summer before my senior year of high school, he hardly came home: he was always on location, and when he wasn’t, he’d have meetings until late and then stay at a hotel—the Hyatt on Sunset, the Roosevelt. This was when Hollywood was still seedy. Crack had sunk its fangs into the poor and wasn’t letting go, and the deranged wore foil on their heads so they could commune with aliens. My father had dinner or drinks or both with someone rich and important and then he fell asleep in a quiet strange room with the Do Not Disturb sign hanging from the door knob. That’s how I pictured it, anyway.
One day while I was at school my father packed up his belongings and never returned to the house again. He and my mother signed the papers, and my father went to shoot a movie in the Catskills. I didn’t see him for six months. In that time I gave up smoking, tore all my shirts into midriffs, got into UCLA, and lost my virginity. I thought I would need an abortion until my period came a week and a half late and I had to stuff my underwear with toilet paper in a bathroom stall at the Hollywood Bowl. My mother had found a new beau, a music executive, rich and bland, but nice, not a shred of duplicity in him. By then I was beautiful—older men had begun to ask me my name, girls wanted to know where I’d bought my earrings, got my hair cut—and, that night at The Bowl, the red-brown stain of blood on my underwear seemed like a terrible omen. “Beauty is unlucky,” my grandmother in Santa Cruz had told me. “Look what it did to your mother. Brought her nothing but pain.”
That wasn’t true, not in the end. My mother married The Executive and she moved into his house on Benedict Canyon. I went to college, living first in a dorm and then in a shared apartment in Westwood. Sometimes my friends and I would swim in The Executive’s black-bottomed pool, the deep end guarded by stone lions, water dribbling from their mouths, and every week I came over alone to see my mother and let her cook me dinner. She seemed happy. The Executive called her darling and took her to concerts, and he liked her new haircut, which was short as a bathing cap, dyed a rich chocolate brown. He even let her raise chickens in the side yard. My father, she said, called her occasionally. “Don’t lend him any money,” she said. One time he called me. He was in Palm Springs, trying to get funding for a project. “I want to write and direct,” he told me. Every sentence began that way. I, I, I.
If my father had asked about me, what would I have told him? That I was studying economics because I figured it was a good way to meet guys, but that I knew I’d switch to art history by the time I needed to pick a major. That my roommates and I hadn’t washed a dish in at least two weeks, that I’d used a frisbee as a breakfast plate one morning, just for the fun of it. That I liked doing coke and heading out to the beach, driving all the way into Ventura if I felt up for it. That I wished in equal measure for my father’s career aspirations to come true, and for him to fail completely. Letting him talk was easier for both of us.
I was 26 and still living for free in The Executive’s pool house when I met Connor. The Riots had helped my situation; my mother hadn’t wanted me living alone “out there,” as she said, and I let her be afraid.
I worked for a nonprofit, answering their phones and sorting the mail, doodling in the margins of the phone message book as I flirted with delivery men. Three years had passed since the city had burned, and my mother was no longer so nervous. In fact, she seemed always on the verge of kicking me out: My father and I hadn’t spoken in two years. There had been an argument about the house on Flores, which my mother officially owned, and which my father rented at a ridiculously reduced rate. I wanted to live there, I’d had enough of the pool house, and why was my mother bankrolling my scumbag dad?
Eventually, my father moved out of the house, and my mother rented it to a nice couple, told me to get over it. I called my father three times, left three messages on his machine. He never called me back. He was in an apartment now in North Hollywood, my mother said. His own projects had never panned out, and he hadn’t kept up with the producers who used to hire him. “It’s all who you know,” he used to tell me, with pride, not disgust. Now he didn’t know anyone. My mother said he’d sold one of his medium format cameras, and he’d also gotten some work shooting soft-core porn. It paid okay. My grandmother in Santa Cruz, had she still been alive, might have said, “Oh how the mighty have fallen.” Or I would have said that, had he called me back.
Connor ran a video store on Melrose that his parents owned. His father was ill and his mother wasn’t good with people, and so the shop was his. It didn’t matter that he cared little for movies; that had been his dad’s passion. Connor was a good manager and he knew how to do the books. He even liked cleaning the place, running the vacuum across the bald gray carpeting after closing. I went there weekly as it was—I was a junkie for movies that made me cry—but once he started running things, I found excuses to go even more often.
Connor was small, my height if I was barefoot and he had his shoes on. His glasses couldn’t hide his bright brown eyes, which my mother called twinkly. His hair was boyish and floppy and blonde. Even so, he wasn’t handsome in the traditional sense; my father would have raised an eyebrow if he’d seen me out with such a short, skinny guy. But there was something about Connor’s face that arrested me. Those eyes, as I said, and a focus on the world around him that made me want to sit up straighter and memorize every detail in the room. My mom had a yoga guru around that time who liked to say, “Be here now,” and that’s what Connor did, he was here now, all the time. For him, the hardest thing about running the video store was that the other employees treated it like a temporary gig. They wanted to be directors or screenwriters, or they were paying their way through college. No one really wanted to be at Movies Madness. When Connor was behind that counter, he lived as if there was nothing else.
Every night I’d come by and we’d talk. His presence slammed through my body. I wanted to bring him back to the house in the middle of the night. I wanted to have sex with him and then invite him for a swim. As long as we didn’t wake The Executive, I wouldn’t get in trouble.
Finally, one night, I asked Connor to have a drink with me after the store closed. It was tea he wanted, not liquor. We went to a coffee house across the street. A sullen girl worked behind the tall counter in the front, and all around us people sat in wooden chairs with velvet cushions. The room was dark, as it always was. At the back, a woman with stringy hair warbled into a microphone, strumming a guitar.
“Really?” I said to Connor. “This?” I wondered if he was gay.
He laughed and said he didn’t drink. Not that he was in AA. He was allergic. I told him that was the worst thing I’d ever heard, and he laughed again.
It took me a week to get him to come home with me, and afterward we didn’t swim. BREAK
I only moved out of the pool house because Connor said it was demeaning to freeload on The Executive like that. “For me or him?” I asked, and he just shook his head.
Silverlake was still a little rough when I moved there, but it was what I could afford on my receptionist salary. My mother was appalled I’d live in such a place: She said the gays were fine, but weren’t there gangs on every block? She didn’t know a thing; she’d only driven through the neighborhood, doors locked, on her way to or from Dodger Stadium. It’s funny to think how fancy the area is now, with its expensive coffee and willowy tattooed girls in headbands, the gangsters and poor old ladies pushed out, as they always are.
My first apartment overlooked Sunset Boulevard on one side and Silverlake on the other, and no matter how often I cleaned them, the window sills were covered in the fine sticky grit of car exhaust. A few blocks away a neon-sheathed Latin club blinked its garish promises to everyone who drove by. Sometimes I stopped in to dance. I went there more and more often because Connor was coming over less and less.
That was thing about Connor. He gave me so much, and then nothing at all. Sometimes I made mental lists of his goodness: after we made love, he would cook us pasta or turkey burgers; he helped me paint my apartment, and hung my pictures; he’d wash my car regularly; he’d lift my hair and kiss my neck, tell me he needed me, right there, always. And then he wouldn’t call for a week.
His father’s cancer had spread, and his mother wouldn’t leave the house. That’s all I knew because Connor didn’t want to talk about it, and he didn’t want me to meet them. He had begun working more, and he took up meditating. He’d learned how from a book, he said he didn’t need a motherfucking guru.
One morning I found him sitting against the south wall of my living room, legs crossed, eyes closed. His skin looked so smooth and unharmed in the new light, and his eyes fluttered behind their closed lids. Those beautiful eyes, still they slew me. I wanted to touch my lips to his, suck up his calm. Instead I asked, “How do you know you’re even doing it right?”
His eyes flipped open as if my voice had scared him. I knew it was an awful thing to say, and yet I had to say it: All my life I’ve struggled against my compulsion to be petulant.
Connor stood up and said, “You do everything wrong.” Then he left.
That was the end of us, though I didn’t figure it out. The next day, when I called him, he told me he couldn’t do this anymore. “This” being me. It stung that this break-up cliché had come from a man with such a unique mind. That he couldn’t even be bothered to say something honest.
What I didn’t know then was that his father was dying, he was actually in hospice, and that by the end of that month, Connor would be burying him. Not that I was invited to the funeral.
It took a long time for me to accept that a man who keeps that kind of information from you doesn’t really want you in his life. Even now, when I drive past where Movies Madness used to be, I think of him, and all the pain he must have endured in that year we were together, and how I was a diversion from it. I offered him something useful—relief is useful—even as it wrecked me.
It’s easier if I look on myself as a martyr.
For the next two years I did everything as if Connor were witnessing it. If Connor could see me, I’d think, and I’d hold my head up higher. I wanted him to be proud of me, to see the error of his ways, to come crawling back to me, wild but sensible me. Every Saturday night for a month I went to the Latin club and I danced until my clothes were heavy with sweat, ignoring the men who wanted to dance with me, pushing them off if I had to. On these nights I drank lots of water, no liquor, and as I walked home, tired but clear-headed, I imagined Connor watching from one of the apartments above. I would be a woman he couldn’t not want. Exemplary, but mysterious. I would change for him. I did change.
I quit my reception job and I went back to school for art history. UCLA again—I thought about leaving home, but I couldn’t, what if Connor couldn’t find me? I thought I would get my PhD, and that I could teach college, or work at a museum. Of course I was being a fool. I hated teaching undergraduates about cuneiform and Botticelli and Warhol’s soup cans, and I hated the other students in my program, who were too serious.
I was almost 30, and I’d dropped out of graduate school. I would have to find a job or else I’d lose everything. Everything wasn’t much back then, but it was enough that to not have it would spin me into shame. Connor, I thought. Damn it, Connor. I wanted to be better, to not do everything wrong, and that seemed impossible.
I called my father. Looking back, the logic isn’t clear, but at the time it made sense. I needed a job, and he was the only person who might be able to help. He had hustled for years. I told myself I needed his advice. Besides, it was time. We hadn’t seen or talked to each other for over four years. So what that he hadn’t called me back. My mother said he was doing better now, living in a small house in Valley Village. He’d shot a film for an old friend that had done pretty well on the festival circuit. “He says he’s having a comeback,” she said wryly. Whenever she told him about me, he said, “Tell her I love her,” as if it had been my fault we hadn’t spoken. The house was white with navy blue shutters and a red door. My father had sounded surprised when I called, but he opened the door before I rang the bell, and smiled. He looked the same, except his hair was striping gray, and his beard was trimmed. Without a word, he pulled me toward him in a hug, cupping my head. He smelled like cigarettes, like always.
“You’re so beautiful,” he said, and I choked up, swallowed the cry in my throat.
“I’m an idiot,” he said then, which was the closest he’d ever come to apologizing. I said I was, too, and that was that.
He was working steadily, he told me, leading me into the living room, which had the same couch I’d done back flips over when I was a girl. A large photograph hung over the television: it was of the ocean, taken right at the shore, the water glittering green ribbons.
“Yours?” I asked, and my father nodded.
He said he had a girlfriend named Yuki who painted sets, and did I want a job with her? I was grateful he didn’t make me ask for his help. I took down Yuki’s number, and half an hour later I was in my car, heading back to my apartment.
That was when Connor slipped out of my life, once and for all. I’d decided to take surface streets home, and as I drove down Laurel Canyon his specter flew out of the car as if spooked. As if intimidated to be in the car with me, a woman with a destination.
Yuki was younger than my mother, but not by so much that it embarrassed me. Her parents had moved the family from Tokyo to San Francisco before she could walk or talk, and she couldn’t remember anything before that. She had a degree in painting from a school on the East Coast, but she said she hated making art, that this job was mostly pleasurable, which was more than she could say about painting canvases no one cared about. On set, she said, there were people around to keep you company and complain about.
“If you put the hours in,” she told me over the phone, her voice firm, “you’ll be okay.”
I’d imagined a thin and severe-looking woman in all black, her hair tied up high, maybe some paint freckled across her arms and hands. She was heavier, more solid, than I expected, her hair chin length and held back with dozens of bobby pins. Not a speck of paint anywhere, though she wore work clothes—heavy boots, ratty shorts—that looked destined for a mess. Her front tooth was chipped, and for some reason, this imperfection made it hard for me to imagine my father falling for her. He preferred his women flawless, or he used to. He’d changed, I realized. He’d softened.
Yuki became my mentor, and even after she and my father broke up, we worked together. I followed her from movie to movie, painting sets and old mansions and barns and office buildings and school gymnasiums. I did whatever she said, and I loved it all: the pain in my neck after standing on a ladder all day, the way the stink of paint thinner sometimes made me woozy, flirting with the grips, getting fat on craft service. I began to understand how my father had been seduced by this world.
I was making money, and saving it. I moved out of my place in Silverlake and into a little shack in Venice with my own yard. Going east to west changed my center of gravity; it was like I’d moved to the moon. None of my old friends came to visit me—I don’t blame them, the parking was impossible— but I didn’t care. I was hardly home anyway.
I did a movie in Vancouver, and then one in Mobile, Alabama, and one in Manhattan, where I saw snow fall for the first time. I swam in the Atlantic Ocean. I met a man in Boston that I thought I’d love forever, but long distance was too hard and we fell away from each other as easily as we’d come together. I ate boiled peanuts in North Carolina and barbecue in Kansas City. Every time I got home, on hiatus between films, I’d go on a liquid diet until I could fit into my pants again. I was so happy.
Two years into the job, September 11 happened. Yuki said she wanted to make art again, maybe get into sculpting. Movies seemed so frivolous, she said. Not everyone thought so, most people in town wanted to get on with it, but the grief that had overtaken my boss didn’t seem strange—things changed for me that fall too, in big ways and private ways. I stopped traveling for work, stuck with local stuff. I’d gotten sick of leaving home. And I wanted a baby.
Not wanted, but needed. I stole the pictures of my birth from my mother’s office desk drawer and studied them. I was a small and skinny newborn, covered in sticky slippery blood, roaring as they lifted me to my mother’s chest. In the photos, my mother’s nipples are huge, almost purple, and I nurse from them ravenously, my first meal. My mother is pallid but smiling, my father, stunned. I wondered if I would ever get to love and protect someone like that, like my mother had done for me.
In Beverly Hills, my mother and The Executive were fighting a lot. He thought she didn’t care enough about what had happened “to our country,” and my mother told him she didn’t like having to emote for his benefit. My father called to announce he’d started working on a script. It was about the firemen, he said, the nation’s heroes, except it was a personal story, a story about a man and a woman and their undeniable love. He wanted me to read it. I suggested he call The Executive. He didn’t realize I was kidding, and did. To everyone’s surprise, my mother’s past and current husbands became friends, took up golfing together.
Now I’m in my early 40s. Not necessarily past reproductive age, if I ever had one, but I’m resigned to never being a mother. It’s fine, this is how it goes for some.
I moved out of the shadows of the 405. The market was right, and my mother had deposited a large check into a savings account we used to share. I didn’t know it until I got the statement. The sum made me laugh with gratitude, and then I thought of old Connor, and how annoyed he would be. But I am a child and not a parent, it will always be like that, and being rescued is what I do best. I took the money and I bought a house near USC, on a beautiful street surrounded by not so beautiful ones. My mother deplores it, but the neighborhood is old and the houses majestic and wise. Mine is a Craftsman with a wide door and porch, and dark rooms that keep out the heat. This one, though, was renovated long before I came along, and all I had to do was buy more furniture to fill its large rooms. Of course I painted all the rooms.
Some evenings I drink too much wine and I run my hand along the wainscoting in my dining room, humming, admiring the place. I hear I’m invited to Thanksgiving at my father’s place, but I’ve already committed to my mother and The Executive, who are doing the heirloom turkey thing. For Christmas, I plan to drive up to Santa Barbara. I’ll find a beautiful hotel and stay there until my birthday.
The other night I was watching TV alone, eating a bowl of brussels sprouts, when a commercial for a prescription drug came on. It was for Lipitor or something, and the woman smiling from the screen had a deep dimple on the side of her mouth. The actress. The one my father had driven home so many years ago. I couldn’t look away.
She was older now, of course, and her hair wasn’t blonde but gray, and shoulder-length, ironed straight and coiffed just-so. She was in a light-filled kitchen cutting tulips and arranging them in a vase, and then she was playing with children—her grandchildren, was the implication— and then, taking a bite of strawberry pie in a Formica-laden diner. Then she was running on a track alongside a large lake, the air cold, clouds of smoke emerging from her pink lips, a terry-cloth headband across her forehead, a silver-haired man running next to her—her husband, was the implication. The images kept coming as the a soft voice narrated the side effects of the drug. I laughed, delighted.
The woman had made it after all. Not in the way she’d presumed, but she was working, she was still beautiful. And she was playing a woman I’d like to be in 20 years. Hers was the kind of future that my own life won’t provide. Not that I don’t want my own future, but hers is the ideal, I don’t mind admitting that.
I thought to text my father about her, but he could never find his glasses, he was always having his girlfriend read his messages, and I didn’t want to confuse everyone. I was probably the only one who remembered her anyway.
That night on the beach in Malibu, when she and I shared a cigarette, she’d made the filter wet with her saliva. I remember being disgusted by that. She was pretty, but she couldn’t share a smoke properly, and she was so intent on bragging about her future. I thought I knew everything there was to know then.
When the commercial ended, I turned off the TV. I expected the sounds from outside to rush through the open windows—cars, sirens, lunatics. But all was quiet. I turned the TV on again, and fell asleep to its noise.
Artwork by Mara Magyarosi-Laytner. The series “Hyperstimulation” uses wild, bright colors and complex imagery to evoke the visual impairments that can result from anxiety and panic disorders, known as the stress response. Visual hyperstimulation can take the form of ghosted images, shimmers, blurs, and a surreal or dream-like state.
This short story originally appeared in the Madness issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Madness issue here.