By Ariana Chulack
Los Angeles is a place where some people tell stories and other people get lost in them. Rules, norms and limitations mean nothing to this gold rush town where logic is inverted and nothing is what it seems. Lush lawns and Safire swimming pools ornament the desert landscape, whose stolen water affects an oasis. Italian villas, French Colonial cottages, Spanish Haciendas, and modern palaces of steel and glass huddle together on the same avenue, having been built in the same year. They say everyone is beautiful; waitresses are movie stars and stitches and silicone keep them eternally young. Everything in LA is designed to make you believe in something that isn’t real, the city itself. Los Angeles isnt real; it’s a carefully performed paradise populated by Lotus Eaters. To live here is to live within a beautiful lie; it becomes dangerous when we, the people of the dream, can no longer decipher reality and begin to believe the lies we tell ourselves.
“A long, long time ago/I can still remember/How that music used to make me smile” -Don McLean, American Pie
I tell a story I claim to remember about a girl I think was myself; it seems to have happened a long time ago but that too is probably an illusion.
I once had a friend named Angie, like the song, whose parents worked in the music industry. I liked Angie because she was beautiful and reckless and shared my affinity for rebellion and exploiting the guilt of her wealthy but emotionally-unavailable parents. Through the connections of Angie’s father, we were able to make some connections of our own to people who could connect us with the disconnect we sought.
The summer Angie’s parents went to Europe to repair their marriage and “find themselves,” we moved into their house in the hills to get lost.
“Angie, Angie, when will those clouds all disappear? /Angie, Angie, where will it lead us from here?” –The Rolling Stones, Angie
The house was a ridiculous Spanish-style confection with turrets and towers that the gangster Bugsy Siegel had built for his mistress, before she sold him out and facilitated his murder. Madonna had purchased the house in the eighties and was responsible for the installation of a bathroom completely covered in mirrors that Angie’s parents kept because “it was fun.” Mischief on their part was suspected but never confirmed.
“Mirrors on the ceiling/Pink Champagne on ice/We are all just prisoners here/Of our own device” –The Eagles Hotel, California
I slept in a room with French doors that opened to the pool. The latch was broken by someone’s drunken boyfriend early in our revelries that summer, and on hot, windy nights the doors would fly open and the curtains would reach for my bed. I imagined Bugsy’s mistress walking the water of the pool, wailing like la Llorona with thirty pieces of silver around her neck.
The quiet nights of specters were few; however, as most of our time was spent in the pursuit of a Dionysian kind of happiness. Angie’s parent’s had left her a platinum credit card “for emergencies” and eight hundred dollars in cash for “food” during their two month hiatus. It seemed that every night we happened upon an emergency, a tequila emergency, a vodka emergency, and a particularly dire shoe sale crisis. During the weeknights we prowled the strip and on the weekends we brought new friends home with us for blow-out parties by the pool. We’d ask everyone we didn’t know to bring their friends to the house on the hill and we’d stand on the balcony above the pool, drunk on champagne and imaginary power as we admired our kingdom.
Somewhere in the melee Angie began dating a “film maker”/trust fund baby named Rob who had an expensive hair cut, nice abs, and said “fuck” a lot. Rob believed that “the key, the absolute fucking key to breaking into this town” to “just fucking blowing up as a director” was to attend as many high profile events as possible. According to Rob, “Clubs and shit are great for like just chillin’ with people like you know people. Like Eli Roth man, we blew it up at Privilege when it was like fuckin’ it you know? Thats how you really fucking work somebody, you know? Get them to have a good time and just fucking make ’em see your vision you know? Hyde, Teddy’s, fucking all of itthat’s were the important shit is going down.” I once asked Rob what he thought about Citizen Kane. He asked me if it was down on Cahuenga somewhere.
“Friends are so alarming/My lover’s never charming/Life’s just a cocktail party on the street” – The Rolling Stones, Shattered
It was at Rob’s behest that Angie and I spent three hours getting dressed for a party in Laurel Canyon that some “really fucking edgy” producer was throwing. As we drove up the narrow road through clusters of poison flowers and mud slide debris I couldn’t help but remember the date, August 8- the thirty-eighth anniversary of the Tate murders. We pulled up to the house and handed the car off to a valet who looked like Rudolph Valentino’s grandfather in a red vest. The house was a rambling craftsman strangled by bougainvillea and precariously balanced on the edge of a steep hill. We made a quick lap through the interior with its fuzzy rugs and painstakingly eclectic vintage furniture before emerging on to the deck. There, as far as the eye could see, too-thin people in carefully distressed jeans were refusing trendy canapés, nursing colored martinis, and darting their eyes about the patio to see who was more important than them.
“All the people at this party/They’ve got a lot of style/They’ve got stamps of many countries/They’ve got passport smiles/Some are friendly/Some are cutting/Some are watching it from the wings/Some are standing in the centre/Giving to get something” – Joni Mitchell, People’s Parties
Rob promised to bring us drinks as he was swallowed into the crowd but after nearly an hour of awkward mingling he still hadnt returned. Her feet sore after an eternity of conspicuous posing, Angie decided to take matters into her own hands and set off to find Rob. I was left unarmed with neither a drink nor a companion to establish a buffer between myself and the world around me. I started to light up a cigarette when a woman, whose eyes had been tucked onto the sides of her head, told me it was dangerous to be smoking in the canyon during fire season. “Besides,” she said sucking the last drop from her martini glass with a serpentine tongue, “didn’t I know how cigarettes would age my skin?”
Around the back of the house my heels pierced the grass and spider webs caught in my hair as I eked out a quiet place by the bushes to enjoy a cigarette/alleged arson. I heard leaves crunching behind me and I thought of Charlie Manson lurking in the canyon with burrs clinging to his mane and acid trip visions of dead starlets in his eyes. The metallic snap of a Zippo lighter followed by a pensive silence assured me that is was probably a fellow smoker and not the Spahn ranch gang. I turned around to see James Dean smoking a cigarette and staring into space. He was wearing the caterer’s uniform of a white shirt and black pants, black suspenders hanging down by his sides and scuffed work boots anchored in the brush. His hair and brow were dark but he had these eyes, eyes like the way animals have eyes- glowing green in the darkness.
“Hey,” I said. “That’s dangerous you know. You could burn down this whole city with one ember.
“Like Rome,” he said and looked away. I didn’t know what he meant, I wasn’t even sure he was real. But I liked his voice and his otherness so I asked him what he’s doing here, and he shrugged.
“Observing the human condition,” he said, letting another pause hang in the air. I loved that he was mysterious, that he was dark and feral, and that he smoked like a rebel without a cause. I couldnt have made him any better than he was, and I was reveling in his unreality when he said,
“You look miserable. Why is that?”
And suddenly he was real, and I was real- and I was so lost I wanted to cry.
“I don’t know where I am,” I said. “I mean, literally yeah but I feel like I have no idea whats real anymore. I dont know.”
“It’s probably not you. I mean, it’s that kind of place isn’t it? Ive been here a few months from Philadelphia. Its like nothing else out here. Beautiful. But I dont know if it’s too good to stay.”
I told him I’d lived here my whole life, and then I told him my whole life on the back stairs. He listened the way most people don’t and sometimes he talked about his sister who was dead and books that he loved, but mostly he listened and seemed to see right through me. He was a writer and a waiter who loved Bob Dylan and was unaffected- he was real. Soon two hours had passed and I had nine missed calls and a text message from Angie that read, “Hope you found a ride home. Call me.”
I didn’t call Angie but I did find a ride to someone’s home; a barren apartment in the valley that contained only a bed, a record player, and a large stack of notebooks.
In the morning I caught a taxi back to Angie’s house and started moving out. As I carried my last suitcase out of the broken doors and into my car I waved goodbye to the weeping ghost and hoped that someone would forgive her and free her from an eternity of wandering those hills alone. The last time I saw James Dean was at a Starbucks on Riverside. He was going to New York, he said, to write and figure things out. I wanted to thank him but I didn’t know what for exactly, so I paid for my latté and wished him luck.
I don’t know if the story I’ve told is completely true, but this is the way I remember it. Any fantasies or nightmares, additions or subtractions, substitutions or fabrications are the revisions of the city. My story cannot be uniquely my own because it is an LA story; it is like the sunset,bathed in smog and haze which only makes it richer and more beautiful. It was the last time I allowed myself to believe the flickering images around me; it was the first time in what felt like a long time that the lies werent enough. It’s tempting to get lost in this desert Babylon and if I can trust what I remember, I almost did once.
“Night after night, day after day, it went on and on/Then came that morning he woke up alone/He spent all night staring down at the lights of LA/Wondering if he could ever go home” – Bob Seger, Hollywood Nights