story / Ilyse Kaplan photos / Dominoe Farris-Gilbert
I was nineteen when I landed in Los Angeles and moved in to a tiny dorm room in Playa Del Rey. It is now two weeks until my twenty-fifth birthday and I am writing this from the music room I share with my boyfriend in our home in Koreatown. In one month we will move to Austin, Texas.
It was the place—not what I was going to do there. Then, it became the people.
I would sit at my window sill overlooking Newton, Massachusetts, from there I could see the light towers. I watched the planes above them and knew I would be happy once I was out of high school and out of the town that did not understand. They were teenage thoughts of depression that were only confirmed by my peers who told me “you don’t belong here.” It wasn’t said in a mean way, I got along with my peers, but from my vintage palm tree Vans slip-ons that were worn even in snow, they knew maybe I was not meant for Massachusetts.
When I sat with my college counselor to decide what I wanted in a college all I could tell her was, “California. I want to be in California.” I don’t know where my California romance began, perhaps with my father’s Beach Boys records or the first time I saw “Almost Famous,” or the rugged glamour I felt watching “Dogtown and Z-Boys” for the first time. I yearned for a place where I would not have to hide in my music because others would feel the same thing I did from the music I listened to. Part of me knew the only way to find friends who understood was to find friends who were musicians themselves or held the intense passion I did for discovering music no one had heard.
The California Universities I’d hoped for did not accept me and so I spent a year in New York City where it rained every day and on the days it didn’t, it snowed. I lived in the 92nd Street Y with cockroaches and a girl from New Jersey who I can now compare to reality show characters from said state. New York for me was a blur of too much sleep, too little food, degrading night clubs, a new smoking habit, and lots of studying.
Our room was high up and I would put my forehead to the cold window, looking down on the taxi cabs below. I would look down and feel numb to the city. It was not mine. If you get down in New York there is no way to come out of the cocoon, even when summer returns and the cold doesn’t hurt any longer. My bed was the place I felt best, but again I was left yearning for friends who liked the same things I did. Instead I was left with girls who had little passion besides Malibu Bay Breezes and casual sex, both of which I pretended to like. This left me with my head bent over the sidewalk vomiting, because it turns out neither are wise when you aren’t eating much.
The moment I could leave, my Mom packed up my stuff in the back of her SUV and I said goodbye for good. Goodbye to the city and the empty person I was while exploring her cement.
When I found out I was accepted to a university in Los Angeles, I knew my life would finally begin. I was not sad to leave New York–or Massachusetts once again.
At my new college, when standing on the bridge leading to the building my writing classes were held in, you could see the slight glimmer of the ocean. The second I saw it, I knew I was home.
First a place becomes your home, but soon you find it is the people that make it home. Sometimes it is finding yourself sweating to a band spouting gibberish on the Sunset Strip and dancing until the lights come on. That is how the five of them became home. Later, we would live near each other and with each other and even when tension arose, I remembered just how lucky I was to have them in my life because I knew how it felt to pretend not to be myself.
I lived by the beach then, watching the ocean during the days and trekking to the east side almost every night to watch the music. I knew all of it was special. We gained new friends and new music constantly, most nights spent sitting on the edge of the skate ramp at the sixth street warehouse in a fur coat, Sparks in hand, resting my head on a friend’s shoulder as my tongue turned orange. We recognized most faces each night but the sounds were always different. Though we were crammed in to a tiny warehouse sans working bathroom, everything felt new, like the things we’d romanticized about our parents generation. It was a resurgence of psychedelic rock but it felt as though it had not been done before.
The long drives from East to West soon took a toll and we moved East. I lived alone in a stucco apartment complex that I chose fast instead of carefully. I never even used the indoor swimming pool or other “amenities,” nor did I see any neighbors in the hallway—ever. I continuously lusted over the bright green and pink Los Feliz buildings left in their retro state from the sixties. I would walk back and forth up Vermont ave to my best friend’s house feeling some Los Angeles history in her tri-plex—us making more watching “Cat House” and laying around in our underwear (yes, even guests) and frequenting the dark bars at night. My own apartment felt like a carpeted prison, always too hot with little sunlight coming in and a viewconsisting only of a cat across the way that liked to spy on me. I would sit at the nearest coffee shop and write because I felt my apartment did not provide enough creative space. Soon, I began to walk across the street to Barnsdall Park which overlooked all of Hollywood. I would lay on the grass with my notebook and write until I couldn’t think and when I couldn’t think I would read to give me fuel. The spot encouraged the reading and re-reading of Joan Didion, imagining the Los Feliz hills in the sixties, wishing I could live that life as I sat in front of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock house.
Soon I began to bring a boy to the park with me. The prison-like apartment became ours. He would pound on my typewriter as I clicked my keyboard, taking new pages with him when he left. He was quiet and gentle and my first view of how Los Angeles can tear you apart if you let it. Our first kiss happened over a joint and Grizzly Bear humming “I want you to know when I look in your eyes…” his first time hearing the record. He soon became part of my world, watching “Cat House” and frequenting the dark bars. He shared his world, with hikes through Topanga Canyon and 40’s on the beach after class. It was the dark bars he could not take and worry set in for me. I’d been out one night when I got a crying call, he was frightened but did not know of what. In the vast city of mountain, dust, and endless-car freeways it is easy to become isolated and he was—even from me. I could not fix a lonely soul, and he could not help me through my own fears. Scared to climb to the top of Vasquez Rocks, I said I couldn’t. He threw my jacket at me and climbed to the very top like a spider, until he looked like a small dot on the expanse of red rock. On the way home, stalled on the freeway I decided I couldn’t do “this” anymore. I had been alone my whole time in Los Angeles until then, not caring to share my time with anyone except the friends I’d met along the way. I could not belong to someone who, in their head was all alone, to someone for whom Los Angeles was the problem.
Sad for the boy and being unable to help him, I had to cut my ties. It was not healthy for either of us. He seemed to be slipping in to psychosis, falling deeper in to the woes of living at home with your parents and being too creative.
I moved from the Los Feliz home down the street to a duplex in Franklin Village. The house was built in the early 1900’s and there were horses painted on the wall in the backyard. I moved in with two of the five best friends and a musician friend who was like a big brother to me. “The house is haunted,” our duplex neighbor told us. “If you take care of the house, it will show itself to you.” It felt frightening and magical at the same time. I was done with college then, ready to embrace the real world though I wasn’t sure the real world would embrace me.
The time in my life began as far from reality as it could have—in Joshua Tree. I’d spent the end of my college career making myself known in the music scene so I would be able to easily find a job. I became close with a small label owner and his musicians, they were the free spirits of the music industry. They created sounds that no one had heard before, each band different and special from the next. It was noise pop mixed with world music, synth and psychedelic. Each show I attended left me mesmerized. The first weekend in October the label and its cohorts headed to a music festival the owner put on at Pappy and Harriet’s in Joshua Tree. When I arrived in the desert, I felt at home with everyone I knew from the label. It was as if we were surrounded by family. Everyone hugged and danced, watching bright colors through their mushroom eyes. I hugged new friends like I’d known them my whole life, sharing my fur coat in the cold desert air.
A man came up behind me and said “I know you.” Not recognizing him at first but drunk enough to go along with it, starting to come down, I asked his name. He pulled me outside and we kissed beneath a dim light, the only place that no one was around. It continued in to the bar and a new friend said “I’m so happy you guys like each other. I love Brandon!” So, that was his name. We watched a girl they called Feather play the drums and continued kissing in to the blurry night outside as Edward Sharpe sang “home is whenever I’m with you.” Kidnapping his friend’s dog who happened to be sitting in his car, he drove us back to the motel room. As I smoked out the window, the air felt so chilled the stars seemed frozen. Though I did not know I would be in love, the night was the happiest one I’d had in all my California days. It ended in a campfire circle singing “Rocky Raccoon” with strangers, the dog led us there following his owner’s scent.
Everything came full circle and the boy not only knew my new friends, but a friend from college. We created a new family of friends together, running around Echo Park joking that we were a cult. (Many people did not get the joke, we were kicked out of several restaurants). We painted our faces and laughed louder than any music playing in a bar. These times felt like they were filled with so much love but when you love so hard, there is always a downfall. My “real world” was quickly turning in to one of leisure disguised as creativity. We hiked Elysian Park, crafted, and played with dogs. We wrote and read at the coffee shops but novels werebegun with no end in site. Amphetamines were ingested on weeknights and wine was poured beginning at 4 PM. All of it was hard on the body and mind. Though dinner consisted of 3 AM Jack and the Box grilled cheese, our bodies were thin and weak and my mind felt as though it was beginning to match.
If drugs were good for anything, it was to reveal truths. Though I’m not convinced he knew he said it, I knew he meant it when he told me he loved me on New Years Eve 2010. We stayed naked in my bed all night, rolling on molly and kissing madly as The Black Angels sang “I see you, see you in color.” He took care of me after the pill kicked in too hard, though I was sad to see he’d used my favorite Radiohead cup as my basin. “I love you,” he whispered and I said nothing back though I knew I did. It was the best new years I’d ever had, kissing all night until we realized we’d missed the countdown so we had our own and popped a bottle of champagne under the covers, sharing a proper midnight kiss.
Often it takes a tragedy to convince that you love and going through it together reveals whether the love will stay or fade. During ours we created our own world that only we could understand. My depression kept me in his bed during the day, sometimes until he returned from work. If I could not be with him, I wanted to have his essence around me. During this time he fluctuated between whether he would stay with me or let our relationship fade out. The day he told me he loved me behind The Drawing Room, in a moment influenced only by nicotine, he decided to stay.
Around the time of our tragedy, a piece of glass got stuck in my foot from walking barefoot in the yard of the Franklin house. I went to see the foot doctor on Sunset Boulevard. The sign for the doctor spun around with a happy cartoon foot on one side and a sad foot holding a crutch on the other. It is Echo Park lore that if you drive by while the sign is on the happy foot you will have a good day but if it is on sad foot your day will be bad. Stepping in to the Orthopedist’s office was like finding The Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. The doctor told me it would be an easy procedure to remove the glass. I called to confirm my appointment a few days before it was scheduled and was told I would get a confirmation one day prior. I never did, and for some reason, I did not schedule a second appointment. I’d heard the glass would eventually fall out naturally but I grew to enjoy the pain of walking. The ping to my nerves each time I set my foot down was my reminder not to walk around barefoot–which in turn was my kick in the ass to be a “real person.”
It was not that I did not consider myself “real.” The life we lived was beautiful but tragedy can put things in perspective. Ours caused me to remember what I wanted in life and why I’d come to Los Angeles in the first place. I came because the city itself drew me there but I stayed because of what it revealed and inspired. My dreams led me to find the other dreamers, the ladies of the canyon who lay naked in the dust of Joshua Tree 50 years after their predecessors took the first tab of LSD and danced naked in the mud. We mimicked the photographs of the past but the love was present.
In the morning light, the desert is never as appealing as the nighttime. The stars are only shadows and the heat will melt your skin down to bone. It was spring of 2010 when we heard the creak of boots walking through our campsite–our face paint as crackled as the Bud Light cans strewn across the ground. The stern faced park ranger demanded we clean up our mess immediately and in his anger pointed to a heart someone had drawn on a rock in charcoal the night before. “Who drew that heart?!” he shouted, “Clean it immediately!” Our faces pale and blank, we looked up at the angry man. “I won’t leave until you clean that rock!” Our mark of love could not be left behind for future travelers. Our footprints would blow away, our photos would be taken with us, our night captured only in a song that made us cry whenever we heard the words “they made the sunrise for people like us”–the only imprints to a time where everyone was content in what we were.
“I would have moved back to New York if it wasn’t for you,” I told him. Sometimes I still thought I might have to. First it is the place, then the people that become home. “I’ll have to move if we break up,” I told a friend. California had become ours.
The Joshua tree kiss, our lips tasting the crisp autumn. Driving through the misty Big Sur mountains in the rain to a ghostly restaurant playing doo-wop through crackling speakers. The topless Yosemite picnic as sunlight broke gently through the trees and the deer watched us from across the lake. The Santa Barbara Easter at the old church as he taught me to repent our sins. Running our hands over the rough Seqouias, wondering if they would live forever, sad that we would not. Looking down on Temecula from a hot air balloon, his hands at my waist as I smiled back. The Bakersfield Western bar, laughing as he spun me around in the middle of the line dancing ladies. California was ours.
When people become your home, it is easy to blame the place for letting you down. It is easy to blame the place for breeding its people a certain way. Suddenly, your love is constantly being tested as new faces enter the group and the dynamics shift. Our desert trips were ending in panic attacks as I realized I did not want to be dancing naked around a camp fire. The last time I went, I took off my dress as the molly kicked in. I was laying on Brandon and he rubbed my back, it felt soothing. As his hands began to rub the back of another girl, I no longer liked it. I snapped out of my molly haze and suddenly realized I was not okay with “free love” and living as if we were invincible. In that moment, I knew I was not. I had real feelings for a man and I did not love everyone I was with, everyone I was with did not love me. The panic set in as I saw naked bodies making out and holding each other around me, groping whomever was closest. Though Brandon wanted to do nothing but strum his guitar, he held me safe in our tent until I calmed down and the drugs wore off.
The shift could have also been in myself. We moved to Koreatown, this we being Brandon and I. I became the “real person” I’d scolded myself for not being and got a “real person” job at a record label. I woke up at 5:45 each morning to arrive to the west side by 7:30. It was what I wanted: stability, steady income, to feel twenty-four, and to give Brandon a reason to take me seriously. I knew I wanted to marry him someday and though he loved the girl who dragged him in to the middle of a red-lit bar for some PDA 2 years prior, I didn’t think she was wifey material. My days were long and due to the demoralizing nature of my job, when I got home each night, I was unable to do much else besides watch mindless television shows. The major label work environment did not allow me to thrive as I did working with small labels throughout college. There was no room for creativity and my bosses continuously made me feel like I was waning intelligence each time I made a mistake. Though I held the job, that person was not me. I wrote less and less as the year went on and saw less and less of my friends. Going out on a work night was a rare occurrence reserved for extremely special musical performances. I stopped caring how I dressed when choosing an outfit used to be one of my favorite ways to start the day. Each time I went out at night, there were new people around that I immediately found reasons not to like. I often was jealous and weary of Brandon being around new girls, probably because they were living like the free-spirited me had, without a care in the world, and I was worried he would be drawn back to the lifestyle I’d left behind. The free love and little sleep were not appealing anymore, it was Netflix and bed by midnight for my career woman self. Eventually I stopped caring about my job, I wanted to feel freedom again. When I had it, I was unable to write because I’d wasted too much of it on drinking and doing drugs until the sun came up and when it was gone I was unable to write because I was not free.
You get to a point where you realize a place has worn on you. I have always believed that moving would fix a problem. In high school, I believed Los Angeles, or some big city would cure my suburban depression. Then it was New York that would solve my boredom. When New York wore on me, it was Los Angeles again. Finally, L.A. has worn too.
It is okay to leave before you are a success, but what is that really? You have achieved what you said you would. Your high school self would be proud and jealous of your life. You lived your passions, realizing what they truly are. The memories collaged in your brain are more beautiful than you could have hoped, you lived these in the moment packing each away in to the tiny suitcase in your brain. You will pick each one out and go over it piece by piece some day. Your decision to move might not be the right one, but Los Angeles will always be there, waiting for you.
And so, I decided the candy colored sunsets would best be seen from somewhere else, where the bats fly over head just as the sun falls back behind the clouds. I will take the best part of Los Angeles with me, for he is my home.