Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

Fritz Brantley '05, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

When you are 18, everything they tell you about California is true. It is very, very colorful. It is very smoggy. Nothing is more than 50 years old. The traffic is unimaginable. One can't imagine it more in Brentwood, where I was standing in a pair of very dark Diesel Jeans, a black Theory tuxedo shirt, and black, Tavarua sandals, next to Margo Roth, who was holding a blue glass, a devilled quail egg stuffed with bright green wasabi filling, and dressed head to toe in paisley peasant wear. I could see the country club from the windows.

Margo is shorthand for a life I didn't expect to have. When my uncle became very ill from an immune deficiency brought on by cancer treatment, my mother, my sister, and I moved to Los Angeles to help my aunt's part of the family keep up affairs. I have always been used to comfort, but all of this was new – I moved from a cozy artifact from the boom of Southern white flight to a dilapidated, morning-glory covered palace. I moved from my 3 R's high school in the inner-city to a quote-un-quote learning community in Santa Monica. It was as though Nathanael West and Bret Easton Ellis took turns guest editing a Eudora Welty manuscript.

Margo was the first person I met at said community, and while I can look back on her and I fondly, the truth is, we are much better as a literary pair than as friends. She was the daughter of very friendly and very funny Los Angeles new money, as though there is such a thing as old money in Los Angeles. When I was born, there was a fight over my name. When she was born, there was a fight over where she would have a personal shopper. This is not to say we weren't friends, but it is very difficult to stay friends with someone who finds Double Coupon Days "depressing."

I did not, in any of the time I spent with my aunt, have any of the set pieces of the Life of Riley, but I get the feeling I could have. Late at night, I would look at the house, and its mammoth front yard, and imagine it as a movie set. At that point, that's how I imagined my life. Not as a viewer to a blank canvas, but someone trapped inside a lithograph, albeit a wondrous one.

I drove from my aunt's house in the Hollywood Hills, to her friend's, in Brentwood, for a small shower. The shower was ostensibly in celebration of my classmates' and my own graduation from the school I was attending then. It was of course, an "acceptable" school. That statement had always bothered me, because to use that kind of litotes (and with the tuition my aunt was writing off, it was certainly an understatement) one seems to need a history. It does not have that history. It has few names in its alumni list, but many in its donor roster. It merely blends in. I had wanted to blend in at that reception, and in 2003, that was how I imagined it was done. I said little. I clung to a friend who was not invited. I dressed down. At that time, I was making a point of not being named, not being noticed. The charges I had made, I had corrected. I had performed admirably on a battery of exams. I was moving back home, as my uncle's cancer had gone into remission, and there were very few people who would remember me. I stood out, next to the artisan tile, and the Fairfax market produce.

That year, I read. I made it through every bestseller list, every librarian's recommended reading, and every glossy that the 212 area code could provide. Once, so entranced, I slept on the couch with my aunt's glass doors open. I woke up at 3 a.m. to the sound of a vase crashing. I was lying prone on the couch, clutching a copy of British Vogue, staring down a coyote.

I performed no heroics. I did then, what any self-respecting Angeleno would do, and I called Animal Control. I don't know what happened on the Harbor Freeway, but I sat for a quarter of an hour, staring down the terror of the Hills.

A half an hour after the coyote left, a van and two dog catchers arrived at my door. I hadn't the heart to let them in.

I was telling Margo about that night in my 3rd block class the next day.

--You mean you didn't know that?

If I can sum up my life in Los Angeles, it is in those six words. I didn't know it would take me an hour to get to the Valley. I didn't know my exit.

I didn't know the girl sitting next to me, and like everything else, this wasn't some lyrical assessment of the situation, but it led to one.

* * * * *

I get the feeling that Los Angeles is a city where everything comes back to you, where everything is paid for in double. Not just the gas, the water, or the suits – but the city itself, the smoke. Photochemical smog, the yellow haze that necessitates an extra 3 minutes in the weather report each morning, isn't just car exhaust. Car exhaust, along with factory fumes, starts dissipating the minute it rises from the stack. It then hits the tropopause, where it turns to light semifreddo, and drops under its own weight, from about San Bernadino to Long Beach.

The worst thing that happened to me was getting a tongue lashing from my boss for misusing my employee discount. This surprised me, because it seemed that milder lives than mine were dying left and right. I read the police blotter, and the Times' local section, and every day, there was so much that seemed to be happening that could only happen here: fires in Malibu, foreclosures in Brentwood, muggings in Macarthur Park, and if you can believe it, shootings on the 101. I didn't know if I could live in a city where I could get shot on my way to work. But I did, and many people still choose to. I maintain that Los Angeles is somewhere where you only live constantly on credit, beyond your means, in the pursuit of something immense. Not grand, but just immense. Living beyond your means is only easy when you are of a certain age, and only possible with a certain amount of money, and at some point, you just find yourself lost in the smog in the Santa Monica Canyon.

***

I guess you could say I found it at the movies. I would go to the late late show in West Hollywood sometimes to see something new and fluffy, or I would go to the LACMA sometimes if they were having a series, or I would go to my friend's house in Venice, the prodigal son of the power producer, who would show me rough cuts on Super8 tapes that he would play, while we would eat popcorn and get high.

The same day of that party, he called me, and asked me to come over after work. I suppose I shouldn't tell you that as he asked me, I checked the listings in LA Weekly. I suppose I also shouldn't tell you that that week, I had decided it would be better for me to watch 2 Fast 2 Furious than to finish Sister Carrie, but I had, and at 9 o'clock, I left work.

--You won't believe this.

--Try me.

--It's a rough cut of that new Sofia Coppola movie.

--What's it about?

--Don't know. But Kevin Shields did music for it.

--Kevin Shields? I thought he died.

I'm sitting on a black leather couch, in older clothes now, but when we watched Stagedoor, I was wearing an oxford and jeans, and if I remember correctly, when we watched Manhattan, I could have been wearing dress boots. The thing is, I can't imagine him in anything but t-shirts, clamdiggers, and flip-flops. It took me five movies, five outfits, and the countless alternatives I tried on in my room after he would call, to feel anything close to comfortable around him, and this was for a social call. That was then.

We were, in fact, watching Lost In Translation. I still don't know how he got it, and maybe I prefer it that way. It's a perfect movie for this situation, as it's a movie about a girl with too many possibilities, living inside her head, wandering through dreamtime Tokyo and Kyoto, where everything is video games, karaoke bars, and shabu shabu,, being watched by two boys aimlessly cruising through after hours LA County, where everything is foreign language neon signs, the Fred Segal September Sale and tortilla soup at Ivy.

* * * * *

"Apprehension, longing, and the fear of complete disintegration -- what palpably animates an airport full of passengers about to take to heaven at the speed of sound -- are what drive us to our gods."

--michael paterniti

Or rather, I'm at a gas station, and I'm on my way home from school. I have a Snickers, a 24 dollar gas bill, and a Diet Coke Icee. I'm thinking about the Icee then, and thinking that someone probably thinks that it's "so LA."

--After all, where's the one and only place you would find a Diet version of an Icee?

The thing is, if it were truly an LA moment, they would've found a way to make Inca Cola Icee, or make it organic, or fair trade, or raw. Fat-free is from a time I don't remember, from white linen blazers, lace-ups, and Vicodin in the bathroom at Michael's. I couldn't tell you what's real about that. All I know at this point is the Times' police blotter, which I read during Art History. Most days, I take a very typical moment and think,

--You know, statistically, what're the odds that I am going to get mugged, right now?

I am practical, perhaps to a fault. Worse, I am very interested in how I am going to survive things. This sounds resourceful, but in practice, it makes a mess. I found it difficult to explain to my very tidy aunt exactly what the three boxes of Band-Aids, the full bottle of Motrin, the case of Aberfoyle Springs water, and the box of iodine tablets were doing in my trunk.

--It's not natural.

--We live somewhere where an earthquake destroying the ground beneath my feet is natural.

--That hasn't happened in ages.

--Five years.

--Where'd you get that number?

--At least it wasn't cigarettes.

I didn't have one of those moments that day. I pulled out, got on the Santa Monica, merged towards Hollywood, and turned on what sounded like a drivetime block of Eazy-E.

* * * * *

Or maybe, when I would leave work, it would be the city as I remember it most – cool, dry, and an ecstasy of lights, a blanket of stars as viewed from a 3 year old jumping on the bed.

Work, to clarify, was a cute record store in Echo Park, the kind of place that could only exist after Silverlake rents went through the roof, and when the patrons at Roxy's could afford more expensive haircuts, but merely chose not to. Echo Park had a genuine appeal then, the appeal a neighborhood gets right after the locals find that crying about gentrification has gotten old. I didn't disagree with their reservations, but at that point, Echo was still a totally tenable place to live, and I was less likely to get robbed on shift. This state is not easy to maintain, as it is a very specific alignment of celestial and economic bodies – bodies that don't take well to heavy exercise.

It was not like that, that night. I wasn't surprised, as there was a smog advisory on the morning news ("the worst since that Piper crashed in Laguna," my thirty something boss told me). I was surprised, though, when I found a copy of a rare Lucinda Williams single. So surprised, that I tripped and broke my glasses. I figured that at least 20% of Los Angeles drove as badly with proper vision as I did without, but at about 6 o'clock, the smog hadn't cleared. At 8 o'clock, it had thickened. At 10 o'clock, it hadn't thinned, so I figured I'd wait it out. I went to a coffee shop within walking distance, got a late dinner, and read that week's "New York." At 11:30, I gave up, and after a lot of cursing, pulled out of the parking lot.

In a few deft maneuvers, I was like many other Americans – just a speeding bullet on the Hollywood Freeway.

* * * * *

--Is Tokyo like this?

He asked me this as though I would really know.

--Couldn't tell you.

We've smoked a bowl, and he's probably dipped into the medicine cabinet. I have to drive home, so I'm drinking a Diet Coke, because at the time, it seems like the quickest way to get lucid.

--Do you like these people?

He asked that as though either of us knew.

--I don't know yet.

So far, Charlotte and Bob have only met in the bar. Charlotte has cried a few times, and listened to a self-help tape. Bob has had an awkward encounter with a prostitute and has had at least one maddening photo shoot for Suntory whiskey. I don't know how he expects me to have any opinions based on that. I'm too drawn in to have an opinion, anyway.

--You seem tense. Are you paranoid? Does that even happen anymore?

--It doesn't, I'm not, and why are you suddenly Bob Newhart?

--Sorry.

--Nothing to be sorry about.

* * * * *

It's the drivetime rush hour, and it's an absolute crawl to the Santa Monica on-ramp, and of course, I cut someone off, half out of necessity, half from trying to jam an R.E.M. tape into the deck while merging. I hear a honk behind me, and

--Get off the road, soccer mom!

I flip what I assume is a him in a Nissan Sentra off and take a sip from my Icee, and decide to go surface. This is many "natives'" claim to their heritage, but it's not as hard as it looks – you just take Santa Monica Boulevard until you get to La Cienega.

So I do, and so does the Sentra. I'm not concerned. Even the most vengeful can't begrudge someone good directions.

It's a very long way down the Boulevard, and the only thing that makes the whole enterprise worth it is the timed traffic lights, as there's absolutely nothing worth seeing. All those car dealerships, strip malls, I know there's something exciting about them, not just what they're selling, but the people inside them. You couldn't tell them from the signs. This could be any other artery in any big city on any planet. I think about the shopgirls, I think about the car dealers, and I realize I need to pick something up in Melrose, so I take a shortcut on Harper. I only begin to realize, as I'm crossing Waring, that the Sentra is still behind me.

* * * * *

It didn't help that it was still a little wet out, so I was skiing on the 101. It didn't help that I hadn't even found my prescription sunglasses. It certainly didn't help that I was driving through what I'm certain is the one time the Hollywood Freeway had about 10 feet of visibility. It didn't help that I really didn't know how to go surface. It didn't help that I had to drive by the cemetery, the night that the world looked like Day Of The Dead.

But despite that, I did make it to Melrose, where I could let the bright lights and the powdery glow of Fred Segal guide me home. It had started drizzling again, which when you think about it, is a little bizarre. I can only imagine it raining in Los Angeles those rare times when we get a deluge, and there's mudslides in Malibu, or when something important happens on a television set in Burbank. Light drizzles are for places that aren't in a desert, for places where it'd really ruin someone's day. Here, it just means we drive a little faster. But nonetheless, I'm on Melrose, and the sky opens up.

* * * * *

` Charlotte's standing in downtown, Bob is walking after her. I'm a sap for all movies, really, so I'm on the edge of bawling right now. I must be showing it, because he's looking over. He was a friend of a friend, who I've spent a lot of time with, mostly because he was the only person who appeared interested at the time. I am not trying to be glib. I am not trying to gloss over years of stolen glances, held doors, and longing, because as far as I remember, there weren't any. But that's not what's happening right then. Right then, I know, I am welling up a little, and right then, I imagine, I look like a cartoon character, with agate halves under my eyeballs. His name is Austin. I don't know why telling you that would make a difference, but it does.

* * * * *

I am on Melrose, and I am trying to drive to the dry cleaners, but I'm more than a little haunted by the dark blue Sentra behind me. It is nearly 6:15, and by then, the traffic is now at a manageable pace. I could make it home, but I remember from an episode of Unsolved Mysteries not to do that. I'm not sure what the blue Sentra is doing in Melrose. There's the distinct possibility that he's lost, and just following the car in front of him. There's the distinct possibility that he could open fire, the minute I get out. There's the possibility that he too, patronizes the same dry cleaners I do. I have an hour to spare, so I go looking for the next on-ramp to get to LAX.

* * * * *

Fred Segal does not a North Star make, and I am muddling through the side streets of West Hollywood. I am wondering, exactly, whose idea it was to build studio apartments with attractive track lighting, 1br 1bath, in a biome known more for low-nitrogen soil and succulents than for supporting life. A lot of people here make a very big deal about being survivors, being the descendents of the 49ers, but I remember that they went to San Francisco, and I remember that the reservoir in Silverlake is man-made, much like this London pea soup.

In an instant, there's a sudden ripple in the air in front of me – not a movement, but an occlusion in the 10 feet in front of me.

* * * * *

The tape ran out a few minutes ago, and I am stretching and curling into the couch with the imagined languor and sensuality of a housecat, but really, with the languor and sensuality of a pudgy 18 year old in thick glasses. There's a holy silence, and in a second, Austin grabs my forearm, and plants a furious, lacerating kiss on me. I don't mind the attention, but I quickly recoil and say

--Christ, what are you doing?

* * * * *

At the last exit, I sweat onto the steering wheel. At this exit, I actually experienced white knuckles. At the next exit, I will have to merge. At the exit after that, I will be at the only terminal I know, and I will have officially run out of options. I don't know if the Sentra is still behind me, but it followed me onto the 405, and I remember seeing it on Sepulveda. Or an Accord, or a Camry. At this point, I'm wondering what would be more frightening — the threat of violence, or getting asked for directions. I must look insane.

* * * * *

There's a sharp thunk and a pitiful rumble under my right tire. I quickly pull over, and get out — this isn't suicidal, I'm in what looks like a small neighborhood. As I get out of my car, in fact, things are very clear in front of me. I'm near a row of houses, and there's a coyote twitching under my Volvo. The truth is, at that moment, I didn't know what to do. I had spent a long time not knowing, but I had always known what to do. I was wondering if it had been the same one from my living room. I had wondered what he had done since then, and how we had ended up in the same place. I took out my cell phone and called Animal Control. I didn't know what else to do.

* * * * *

--Isn't that what you wanted?

--I… Fuck, I don't know!

--Was it that unexpected? We hang out this much, and…

--Do you think I have other friends? What else am I going to do?

* * * * *

--Hi, can I have your flight number?

--Listen, I don't have a flight, I think I was followed here, and this is the only place I could think of driving. Could you call the police?

* * * * *

--Um, we'll clean it up. Thank you for calling.

* * * * *

When I had finished delivering all of this to the detective, he was more inclined to recommend a suicide hotline, and to congratulate me on my intelligent, if overzealous approach to highway safety.

--I doubt he was actually following you, but I guess you can't take too many precautions these days.

There wasn't really a comfortable way to walk out of Austin's. I don't like burning bridges, especially bridges whose only test was unexplained and undeserved affection. We still hung out in groups, I even watched one last movie with him. It was no lovelorn meeting of opposites in the city of dreams. It was Broadcast News.

There's no lesson I can draw from any of the books I read, or the movies I saw, but when I walked out of that office in LAX, I walked past the security line. I watched people shuffle through the metal detectors into the divine blankness and rootlessness of an international terminal. I wondered though, if we move between a world where the erotics and ethics of friendship are so strange, a world where you can hit a coyote in the Hollywood Hills, did we ever truly have roots to unearth and erase?

I was in that terminal a month later, to fly back to my home, my bed, my dog. I saw all those people, saying goodbye, and I wondered if I was one of those people, saying goodbye to all this.

Afterword

The title: Lucinda Williams' breakthrough album, detailing her whirlwind life across the American South. Miller Williams' daughter, and perhaps the great poet of rootlessness, and of the American nomad.

Biographically: This piece developed from an essay I wrote for a nonfiction workshop in memoir I took last year, long before I had read Joan Didion. It was something airy about movies, Los Angeles, and longing.

What I am trying to do: I attempted to steal partially, Joan Didion's style in the purest sense, her crisp, meticulous prose, and break it where I found it useful. What I attempted to use of hers was her scattershot and deeply personal approach to history as per "The White Album" and meld it with her radically different approach to memoir as seen in "Farewell to the Enchanted City." Both essays are in a way, a valediction to youth — the latter to youthful idealism, the former to the promise of the 60s through its revolutionaries, and through the loss of her stability, her "narratives." I am not attempting to write "The White Album" of the 90s, precisely through what I am attempting to interrogate. The guiding image of "The White Album," the man with the knife at the door, is the fear of having what is below our narratives — our mortality — destroyed. I wanted to show that there is nothing below our narratives. Friendship and lust, no matter how bizarre, is just a love story, with new actors. Nature is just how we see it through culture, and coyotes will always end up in the Hollywood Hills, staring through your copy of Vogue. And even our most basic desire to protect our own lives can just be paranoia and guilt from cutting someone off on the freeway. More than anything, though, I wanted to emphasize that those boundaries that the "man with the knife" impinges on are unsteady and ill-defined, which is why I chose to break the three central events into a style that has inundated contemporary popular fiction. I did not intend to create a panic from any of these, no matter how panicky they may have appeared. I merely wanted to fragment the text, in order to reflect the confusion of our most basic social codes, our ethics of ourselves.


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Last modified 12 May 2005