Photograph by Eleanor Leonne Bennett
I WISH THEY ALL COULD BE CALIFORNIA GIRLS
by Nadine Vassallo
There was hardly anything left that she knew for sure, but one thing was that she didn’t want to live in the same city where Ray lived, and where-- for as long as she stayed-- she’d have no better option than to hang out with him or people like him.
It wasn’t that she particularly wanted to live someplace else. Given the lack of appeal the possibilities presented, she decided to leave it up entirely to chance. She was willing to move anywhere: a mansion, apartment, shack, house, doghouse, houseboat, Hell. She would exert a minimal amount of effort and whichever possibility came through first, that’s where she would live for at least the next year and that settled it. Whatever, you know?
Issue #41 soundtrack: Steffaloo "The Whale and Me"
So she jetted off to Los Angeles and to her old friend, Eli Adams, who said he might have a room to spare in his new condo in the Valley.
Eli had been her boyfriend once, when they were both fourteen years old. At twenty-seven, they shared the cozy closeness of two people who had kissed each other once, were ashamed of it, and knew they never would again.
“Stay as long as you like,” he said, “and then you can decide if you want to stay forever.”
She’d saved up a pile of money and quit her job at the start of the summer. She got a kick out of being a quitter. On the plane, she read Us Weekly, which was the sort of thing she never did. She felt like she was playing hooky. Or maybe it was more like starting a love affair: she was cheating on everyone who’d ever told her that things were supposed to matter, decisions were supposed to be made with care.
Behind LAX, underneath an outdoor parking garage, she looked up at a sliver of sky peeking through the concrete and was surprised to see palm trees stretching their necks toward the sun. She knew she would see palm trees; it’s not like she’d never seen a picture of LA before. But she didn’t quite expect to see so many or so soon. They looked like confused birds.
Eli pulled up to the curb. He honked the horn three times even though she was obviously standing right there. She tossed her suitcase in the back and hopped in.
Eli had curly ginger hair and too many freckles. He drove a red Pontiac, one-handed; his right arm was in a sling. It surprised her, how effortless it was for him.
Los Angeles was strange and at first she expected to hate it. People always said she would. She was accustomed to the compact cities of the East coast, red brick houses lined up so tight they almost strangled each other. Where she came from, people got around on subways or buses or bicycles; they never drove. She didn’t understand freeways cutting through desert canyons, or streets without sidewalks, or the complex landscape of weird Southern California nature. It spoke a foreign language to her.
One of her favorite LA activities became listing all the reasons she shouldn’t move to LA.
“I don’t own a bathing suit, for starters,” she said. “I can’t tan.”
“You don’t even know how to drive.”
“Right. If I lived here, I’d be that weirdo who takes public transportation everywhere,” she said. She wasn’t sure it was actually possible to take public transportation everywhere, but was trying to ignore that.
“I don’t think that’s actually possible,” said Eli.
She settled into a routine. In the mornings, they rode through the Valley in search of breakfast. She ate a lot of avocados. The phrase ‘June gloom’ found its way into her vocabulary, explaining the distinctly unsummery feel of this city where she thought it’d be eternally summer. Over the course of each day, the gloom dissipated. It even got hot. The desert heat was dry and made her hair look good at least, so that was a plus.
Each day, they’d try to visit one tourist attraction or neighborhood she hadn’t been to before. They spent a lot of time in the car.
One day, at sunset, Eli pulled over by the side of Victory Boulevard and hopped out to take her picture in front of the sign that had her name on it. Her name was not common, so she still permitted herself to get childishly excited about those sorts of things.
“Do you think this is a sign,” she said, “or is it a sign? Like, the kind from the universe?”
“The second kind, definitely,” said Eli.
In every picture he took of her, she threw her arms open wide in an expression of joy. Or was it defiance? Or was it just an ambivalent shrug? They didn’t even notice until later, when they put the photos onto Eli’s laptop.
“Look,” he said, “in this one, you’re throwing up a peace sign.”
“I think that’s a V.”
It occurred to her that they hadn’t gotten really, truly, properly drunk even once since she’d been in town, and it’d been three weeks already.
“Take me on a bender,” she said. “Pretty please?”
They went to a dive bar in the Valley, where she chugged Tecate out of a warm can and watched the Dodgers lose to the Cubs. They went to the oldest bar in Hollywood, where all the bartenders wore tuxedos and she drank a dirty martini and hated it. They went to a trendy, Mexican-ish club where she drank a margarita out of a pineapple.
“Will we see any celebrities here?” she asked. Immediately after the words were out of her mouth she regretted admitting that she cared. She sat between a gossip reporter and a one-time mail-order bride (they were brother and sister, Russians) and wondered how this had become her life. More to the point: how had it become Eli’s?
Eli Adams, her oldest and quite possibly truest friend. Her favorite thing about him had always been his awkwardness. Eli at fourteen was all gangly limbs, oversized teeth, and curly red hair tucked into an ugly bucket hat. He used to get teased for riding a skateboard to school; now he did it professionally. She used to be his only friend; now he had friends like these. He’d become so comfortable in his skin that she almost couldn’t recognize him.
She didn’t believe that her own life was something Los Angeles could hold. It felt like the entire city could drift away at any moment.
“People in California are so laid back,” she said.
“Not really, darling,” said the gossip reporter, “they’re just stoned.” And he winked at her across the pseudo-Mexican print tablecloth.
On the East Coast, people get drunk; on the West Coast, they get stoned, she thought. How perfect! After much internal deliberation, she decided that she was definitely a ‘getting drunk’ type of person. She ordered another margarita and let the gossip reporter pay for it.
The gossip reporter’s name was Boris and he dressed in a style that could only be described as ‘Turn of the Century Newspaperman.’ Ironic, she thought, since none of his writing appears in an actual newspaper. She wondered if she meant ‘ironic’ in the high school English teacher sense or the Alanis Morissette sense. She didn’t really know the difference between the two, just that one was right and one was wrong. It occurred to her that no one in Los Angeles had a sense of irony, which made her respect it more.
The drinks kept flowing and the rest of the night devolved into a thick haze. It was the first night, out of many that summer, when she would black out.
Just after six o’clock in the morning, she awoke to the sound of her cell phone ringing. It was Ray and, feeling the pinch of inevitable regret, she answered.
Since they broke up, Ray called only during business hours and spoke to her like a real estate agent: overly formal, but with a disturbingly cheerful tone. It didn’t help, either, that the only thing they had left to talk about was their apartment. “I apologize,” he said, “You said you were staying with your parents. I had no way of knowing you were out of town, or about the time difference.” But she could tell he was pleased that she’d been sleeping.
“I just thought I should inform you that I spoke with the landlord this morning. I’m keeping the apartment,” he said. She’d expected nothing less. He sure did love that apartment. He considered himself something of a hero for his ability to find sleek, ultra-modern furniture for free on Craigslist and criticized the way she swept the floors.
“I think Jackson should stay, too,” he said. Jackson was a three-year-old Shiba Inu. She and Ray had taught him how to ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ together the summer before.
She cried a little after that.
“Jackson is the only thing I’ll miss about that whole shit city,” she told Eli over an avocado omelet.
“We could kidnap him,” he said.
“No, Ray’s right. I’m not responsible enough for a dog really.”
“And he is?”
“Of course! His whole thing is being responsible.” She stared down into her empty coffee cup. “He’ll never let me see Jackson again,” she said. Silence settled over the table uncomfortably, as they mourned for Jackson. He was as good as dead to them.
Eli drew his breath. “Look,” he said, “I’ve been waiting for the right moment to tell you. There is no extra room. My parents paid for the condo. It’s theirs. And they want to spend the rest of the summer out here, you know, living in it.”
She told herself she wasn’t allowed to get upset. When you leave your choices up to fate, you can’t let something like that break your heart.
Better get what I can out of LA while I can, she thought.
She made Eli take her to try on bathing suits at Abercrombie & Fitch, the one with the real live models modeling minimal amounts of clothing on the sidewalk out front. She tried on bikinis with names like the Mackensie, and the Clarissa, and the Blair. They made her feel like she was putting on someone else’s skin. Eventually, she settled on something called the Abra, which meant it was navy blue with a white moose-print on it. The least summery of all possible bathing suits.
They spent the rest of that day floating on inflatable rafts in Eli’s swimming pool. She ignored the feeling of her skin burning in the sun.
Could this be what I’ve been looking for? she wondered.
At that moment, her phone rang again and she cursed herself for forgetting to turn off the ringer. It was her mother—who had apologetically opened her bank account statement—calling to bitch her out about her lack of fiscal responsibility. And what was she doing just gallivanting around Los Angeles in the middle of the biggest Southern California wildfire in half a century?
For the first time in a month, they turned on the news. And there it was. The Biggest Southern California Wildfire in Half a Century. Not threatening the Valley yet, but it looked like it could head that way.
Eli shrugged. “No biggie. Happens every year.”
But her mother was right: the money was starting to run out. She accepted that the extra room in Eli’s condo was nonexistent, and that she would never learn how to drive. She took what was left of her savings and bought herself a plane ticket.
On the last day, Eli suggested they drive to Venice. “You have to see Muscle Beach,” he said, “it’s totally ridiculous.”
While he wasn’t looking, she stashed her suitcase in the backseat of the car.
They pulled over on Venice Boulevard. “I’ll just catch a cab to the airport from here,” she told Eli, hopping out before he had a chance to protest. She wanted to avoid that uncomfortable moment of goodbye, as well as the questions about where she would go next, and how, and why. He knew better than to stop her.
She walked alone past the tattoo parlors, skate shops, and sunglasses stores. The palm trees and the people, their skin baking under the sun.
The tacky souvenir shop smelled like patchouli oil and played reggaeton so loud she could feel her heart pounding in her ears, but still, something about it drew her in. She could never resist a good tacky souvenir shop. Inside, she searched every last mini California license plate for one that had her name printed on it, but she never found one. She picked one that said MARGARITA instead. She clutched it tightly in her palm all the way to the counter and out the door, like she was afraid someone would steal it from her.
Suddenly, it seemed vital that she not leave the West Coast without touching the Pacific Ocean.
She walked directly toward the beach, stopping at the edge of the sand, under the shade of a palm tree. She shed her sandals and red mini-dress, revealing the Abra bikini underneath. Abandoning her suitcase and clothes in the sand, she charged down to the water.
Up to her knees in the Pacific, she looked at the mini California license plate in her hand. It was such a stupid thing to buy.
Safe inside the plane that would carry her back east, she gazed out over the vast Southern California landscape. She thought she could see the wildfire shaking its fists in the distance. It’s like the city just borrowed this land, she thought, and any day now the wild is going to take it back.
“We are now cruising at a speed of 525 miles per hour,” the pilot said.
She thought of all the ‘getting stoned’ types down there, driving their cars through the canyons. She wished she’d gotten to stick her feet out the car window at least once.
“Our altitude is 33,000 feet, give or take,” said the pilot.
The country seemed so huge, suddenly, spread out like that below her. It was crazy that it could hold so much.
“Our estimated time of arrival at JFK International is 10:30pm.”
She listened to “California Girls” by the Beach Boys on her headphones, paying attention to the lyrics for probably the first time ever. Does he mean he wishes that all the girls were ‘California girls’ instead of the types of girls they actually are, or does he wish that all the different types of girls lived in California?, she wondered.
She never really liked that song.
Nadine Vassallo was born and raised in Philadelphia and currently lives in New York City. Along with working in publishing and occasionally writing fiction, she is collaborating on a series of short films with her twin brother. You can follow her on Twitter @tinygem.
Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 15 year-old artist who has won contests with National Geographic, The Woodland Trust, The World Photography Organisation, Winstons Wish, Papworth Trust, Mencap, Big Issue, Wrexham science, Fennel and Fern, and Nature's Best Photography. Her photographs have been published in exhibitions and magazines across the world including in the Guardian, RSPB Birds, RSPB Bird Life, Dot Dot Dash, Alabama Coast, Alabama Seaport, and NG Kids Magazine. She was the only UK artist to have work displayed in the "See The Bigger Picture" global exhibition tour with the United Nations International Year Of Biodiversity 2010, and the only visual artist published in the Taj Mahal Review June 2011. Also, Bennett was the youngest artist to be displayed in Charnwood Art's Vision 09 Exhibition and New Mill's Artlounge Dark Colours Exhibition. To view her online portfolio, click to eleanorleonnebennett.zenfolio.com.
Steffaloo, a.k.a. Steph Thomspon, is a singer songwriter based in Los Angeles. She’s worked on collaborations with other notable artists such as Blackbird Blackbird, Sun Glitters, Chrome Sparks, Billy Comfort, and Germany Germany. Her own original releases include debut 7" "On fire," released thru JAXART and first full album "Meet Me in Montauk." For more, visit Steffaloo on Bandcamp.