After I graduated from college, I set out on a journey to find something amorphous. I bought camping supplies and flew out to Arizona to join an old friend of mine who was living in his Toyota Tundra.
Forty miles west of Phoenix, Saddle Mountain lived quietly on a small fraction of the BLM land in western AZ. I-10W took us through the endless expanse of desert to a town called Tonopah, which wasn't really a town, but more so just a highway exit disguised as such. There was a run-down sports bar, a pop-up Mexican food stand with plastic chairs/tables, and then the overpriced gas station, where we stopped to get gas. It hit us right when we breathed the air, the smell. We knew it absolutely and completely as chicken shit. And then the flies; infinite little black nuisances blanketed over this portion of Maricopa County. Like flies on shit. And in this case, we were the shit, and not in the good way. The source of the flies became visible after we passed the massive RV park and signs for the Tonopah Hot Springs: Hickman’s Egg Farm sprawled in the distance, containing millions of cooped up, shitting hens.
We turned onto an unmarked dirt road, known to us only by Traveling Companion’s healthy scouring of Google Maps. The road soon devolved into more of a path; steep passes clad with large rocks and uneven terrain. Only when we figured that the odds of us making it past the next embankment were slim-to-none did we decide to pull off and make ourselves at home. And despite this being the middle of bum-fuck nowhere, the circle of stones denoting a fire pit and the shotgun shells littered about showed signs of previous renters.
At least our neighbors were friendly, the creosote bushes and the flies and the dust and the rocks. And the Mountain, of course, an enormous, desert-orange rock face that cut about three hours of sunlight out of the day. They were all the type of neighbors that one stays away from at first, those with odd idiosyncrasies surveyed from a hunched position through second-story windows. But the creosote bushes, we learned, smelled of desert water when we breathed on them, almost as if our life-force unlocked this secret, dormant scent inside the plant. Small morsels of picked creosote also doubled as a scrubber for pots and pans, or in our case, pot and pan.
At first, the flies were a terrible bother. A countless amount of these little fuckers crawled on us at any given moment while the sun was out; they sucked away at my fingers while I typed on my computer, went for the eyes while reading, plotted amongst themselves to infiltrate my tent. At a certain point, though, we exercised our one true option, which was surrender; a feeble capitulation to the tiny legs tickling our dermis interminably. I won’t say they became our friends, but we were well acquainted.
The dust we tolerated, a jobless neighbor that was around all the time but really meant us no harm. It got on and inside of everything we owned, but at least it didn’t blast loud music while we were trying to sleep. The rocks doubled as chairs, exercise equipment, fire-pit thresholds, tent/blanket weights for windy days, and were ideal for covering up our shit. Like, real shit. Like feces.
Pooping on the ground was something that took adjustment, I’ll admit (I’d only ever taken a shit on the ground twice in my teenage/adult life before this journey, and neither time was on purpose [don’t ask]), but I picked it up quickly. The most difficult part of the procedure, and I’ll just speak for myself here, was not getting urine all over my legs. I imagine this to be more arduous for men, but I won’t pretend to know definitively. Because think about it, okay, you’re squatting there, concentrating on your posture and targeting your deuce, but you have to find somewhere to aim your unit simultaneously. And chances are you’re wearing pants, so you can’t just spray wildly, hence the potential splash-back as you aim directly below. It’s really a lot to think about all at once. And I know, you’re supposed to dig a hole, but the desert floor is by no means easily manipulated with a shovel, or really anything else. So we used rocks.
The Mountain itself became a parental figure in the comforting way, as opposed to the disciplinary way. It’s a notion that swelled in my heart after spending every single waking moment being watched over by this towering, million-year-old tectonic elder. I stared back, hues and shadows optically altering its face on a moment-to-moment basis. At high noon, its features were bright and welcoming; as the sun moved further and further west, contours and wrinkles appeared as the entity tired in the evening. At night it loomed in the bright moonlight, but under a new moon its absence was eerie.
It was cold at night in January, and we cherished the act of gathering firewood. It became a new source of security; after all, we used it for warmth and cooking. We’d collect dead branches and drag them back, snap and distribute them into small, medium, and large piles. Dinner usually consisted of grilled chicken drumsticks, boiled carrots and beets, and jasmine rice slathered in garlic ghee; all staples that I couldn’t get enough of when I was starving and cold. Our lounge-wear at night always included winter jackets and the fire helped a great deal. The stars twinkled in the clear, light-polluted sky, Phoenix spreading its photons forever.
Alone in my tent, I’d hang my flashlight and read until ready to snooze, then I’d curl up in my sleeping bag in preparation for the forty-degree nights. T.C. slept in the covered bed of his Toyota on the other side of the fire pit, safer from desert beasts than myself. Creatures roamed audibly in our vicinity, and coyotes sang in cacophonous yelping packs. One morning I awoke well before dawn at the sound of rocks tumbling down the embankment. I shined my flashlight toward the noise and found two teal eyes glowing back at me, the body of some white mythical creature skulking through the wash. I remember the fear that would surge through me if I heard a noise outside my tent, that pure vulnerability; all that protected me from my mind’s conjuring was a thin lining of polyester, a four-inch blade, and a can of pepper spray. I’d awaken many times throughout the night, which was highly unusual for a sleeper like myself. This didn’t stop me from feeling well-rested though, somehow, nor did it curtail the vivid dreams.
The sun rose above a nuclear power plant in the east, one that provided electricity to four million Arizonians, three thick plumes of steam ascending in the rays of dawn. It took a few hours for the sun to heat up the air, so a morning fire was generally in order. We’d boil water and add warming spices to our stainless-steel mugs; turmeric, cumin, curry, black pepper, etc. Then we’d go for a hike or play guitar or lounge in the sun and stretch.
It wasn’t until we ate a small dose of psilocybin mushrooms that I asked myself what the fuck I was really doing there. We’d fasted until the early afternoon, and consumed the dried fungi under the pretense of adding a little spiritual spice to our day. The two of us bathing in the sun, I briefly cried tears of joy; T.C. soon receded into his truck bed to deal with his rising emotions. The dose was small enough that I didn’t anticipate what was to come. I sat up from my supine position and realized how high I actually was; observing my surroundings, I quickly spiraled into an existential nightmare. The hot orb in the sky beat down on my skin, the flies landed where they pleased, and my armpits reeked from a week without showering. It was horrid, but concurrently beautiful, somehow. I was present, I was there. I pondered my motives while asking my Mountain-parent for comfort, questioning how I wound up in the middle of the desert like so. There were no answers.
So eight nights of camping and one mushroom trip later, we were holed up in a Tucson Airbnb, wondering what to do next.
In Tucson, we were looking for a change of pace. We took showers, occupied various coffee shops filled with spectacle-wearing, mustached hipsters, inconspicuously snuck into country clubs to laze by chlorinated water, explored Catalina Foothill’s Whole Foods—T.C.’s infatuation with the establishment bordered on psychotic—and waded barefoot through the astonishing amount of water amidst Redington Pass. Saguaros replaced trees. The local food co-op sold fresh-baked Barrio sourdough made with few ingredients. We purchased one of said loaves as a treat and ate the entire thing on a bench outside in an area where a good amount of homeless people tended to hang out. The juxtaposition was nothing short of morality shaking. Our bowel movements were discussed heavily for the next twenty-four hours or so.
Nights were spent wandering around North 4th and Congress, exploring the bar scene and talking to various strangers who told various stories and wore various get-ups. But mostly dawdling down the street was a combination of earthy New-Agers and pretentious U of A kids that reminded me oh-so-dearly of how glad I was to be away from university life.
These two groups never mixed though; the hipsters wouldn’t be caught dead at a bar like O’Malley’s, where the white college kids would go to purchase discounted well-drinks and hit on archetypically beautiful white college girls. The charade of a boozed-up college male playing billiards with a can of bud light dampening a dark circle on the green cloth while aiming drunkenly for geometric success was manifold. The amount of hubris crowded into this bar could have been harnessed to solve the energy crisis; hubris or utter self-consciousness, I wondered as I hit on the archetypically beautiful white girl that sat down next to me. Because let’s not sit here and pretend that these places aren’t contagious in their weltanschauung, and I certainly won’t expect you to believe that I simply sat and observed. That was really the extent of my participation, although I’ll admit I had an overly priced glass of light beer resting on the wood grain in front of me. And so what I’m trying to say is that this knock-out-but-most-certainly-basic girl sat down next to me while T.C. and I were taking mental stock of our surroundings, and the basicness became quickly apparent after I mustered up the courage to have a crack at conversing with her, and also she was obviously only interested in engaging in conversation until she was wrist-banded and handed her liquor, which in and of itself was surprising because the chances of her twenty-oneness were exceptionally slim. Archetypically beautiful in the way that a good deal of gentlemen preferred in this day and age, in that plush, made-up, heavy-perfume-smelling, facially symmetrical kind of way. The fact is, I didn’t even prefer that archetype; I was mainly just approaching her as an exercise to somehow validate my own hubris in this cloud of prevailing other people’s hubris.
The dichotomy here could be noted if one ventured to the northern-most part of the 4th Ave strip to Sky Bar, a joint that, on the weekends, brought in an astronomer with a high-powered telescope for patrons to view nebulae while absorbing craft beverages. At this establishment, the closest inhabitants to the hubris-emanating college specimens were T.C. and myself. Diverse groups of regulars, age-wise, skin-color-wise, levels-of-hipsterness-wise, ambled in to hug one another and check out the open mic participants or the trashy punk-rock bands that gigged there. We gazed at nebulae.
But then we journeyed South under a bridge towards E. Congress St., where there was usually at least some human feces—under the bridge, that is. And when we emerged from under the stinky overpass, multi-story bars and clubs sported lengthy queues of business-casual yo-pros and hipsters and students waiting to get the back of their hands stamped for entry. The line to enter Hotel Congress stretched past multiple storefronts. This was the main floor of a hotel that transformed into a nightclub with several different rooms/bars/dance floors inside, and then an expansive outdoor extravaganza with a parking-lot-sized stage occupied by a cringey DJ and at least one more bar and just an absurd amount of people drinking and getting down.
Let’s take a step back here for a moment. I don’t want to unintentionally glorify any of these places or our nights out on the town; a good deal of mine and T.C.’s thought-processes/conversations with one another involved the assessment of whether or not this was the optimal way to spend our time. Over a beer or a glass of wine, we’d wonder what we were even doing sitting in a bar acting like we were enjoying ourselves. Because I avidly avoided that scene while I was in college, and rarely consumed any alcohol for the latter part of my studentdom. Our explorations of Tucson nightlife seemed like—and we were more than conscious of this at the time—a futile effort to experiment with the bounds of our social personalities and desires. And the majority of our musings involved humbly astute observations of surroundings and theories of how one would actually go about enjoying themselves in such an environment. For better or worse, there was this thin, translucent film between our bubble of reality and the rest of the crowd. I got tired of all this pretty quickly.
The original intention of our journey was to live simply and directly, to wake up in a natural environment and fall asleep in the fresh air, eschewing superfluous comforts and stimuli. Meandering about the Tucson bar scene offered me a fresh reminder that this was not what I’d set out to do. And look, plans could change, I understood that, especially re deep-desert doses of psilocybin, but that didn’t equate to purposefully enmeshing myself in an activity I’d historically taken social and philosophical pains to avoid. Because let’s not pretend that the pressure wasn’t there, especially in college, to participate fully and often in the pervading culture, which we all know involved alcohol and drugs and just way more transient sexual tension than any participant cares to comment on. And it was a serious psychological breakthrough for me to genuinely stop giving a shit that other people had fun doing this sort of thing, and that I simply did not. The worldview of the modern university condemned those that decided to stay in on a Saturday night to read or work instead of engaging in ephemeral ego-dances with seldom-liked peers, and it was impossible for me to deny the difficulty in escaping from the prevailing pressure of this worldview.
The point is that I/we somehow—in an attempt to be a bit more open-minded or less condescending toward the average individual and their chosen way of passing the time, or let’s be real here and I’ll just admit that I can’t honestly make out what my true reasons were for intentionally (or unintentionally) sabotaging my own personal verities—lost track of our initial and bona fide intent to do away with exactly those sorts of activities.
Okay, but maybe this is something worth digging into for a moment, i.e. please bear with me as I work through this retrospective cognitive dissonance, which I’m quite sure that this sort of value-sabotaging behavior is a common occurrence among us complicated humans, consciously or unconsciously. At the time, T.C. and I were the type to patronize a good deal of the thoughts and actions demonstrated by the general public and the individuals surrounding us; in short, a breed of self-proclaimed avant-garde spiritual ascensionists searching for the means to heal body and mind, hence the whole relocation-to-the-desert-in-tent/truck endeavor. I’d bet this sort of individual was looked down upon by the likes of the hubris-swelling playing-billiards-just-for-the-looks college boys just as well, along with the rest of the era’s modernity-plagued sycophants. Nevertheless, it became our temporary goal to assuage these hateful tendencies, to put our money where our mouths were, so to speak, and resolutely ensnare ourselves in the very pastimes we’d trained ourselves to abstain from, or in certain cases, loathed. The idea was to hop off our high horses in an attempt to learn that everyone had a right to spend their time however they pleased, regardless of whether or not we approved.
But so anyway, I remember standing outside in the back of Hotel Congress, observing and taking mental stock of the avaricious display of pleasure in front of me. I am not a pleasure-hater, just to be clear; on the contrary, this whole post-grad undertaking was a means to find a deeper pleasure in life, away from the hedonistic, instant-gratification attitude of our culture. And finally, in that moment, I was able to understand—or rather, remind myself once again—that my preferences just did not align with what was going on in front of me. This wasn’t exactly an epiphany, but sort of a throwing-in-the-towel in terms of trying to enjoy something I simply did not. Because I was well aware that there were better ways to spend my time, which is precisely why, in college, I’d be exercising or playing music or reading in the early a.m. of a weekend instead of comatose and dehydrated and in bed. In the midst of all this I realized that I just wanted more for other people, to see others explore alternate avenues that could bring more joy to their lives rather than congregating in such places. I was walking around with this perspective on health and mindfulness and creativity that I, to put it bluntly, perceived to be better than those of many people I encountered, and certainly better than the egregious philosophy of the crowd I’d somehow found myself wading through.
And that’s fine; everyone’s perspective is not of equal merit. Moral Relativism is a nihilistic, escapist product of an over-tolerant society. Hold on, okay? Don’t go calling me a fascist, please, that’s not the point that I’m after here. I’m not going to act as though I’ve developed a model to “measure” the utility of a perspective, because philosophers have been going back and forth on that one for thousands of years ad infinitum. But certainly, there are some things we can agree on, i.e. we don’t go around congratulating serial killers for their strong sense of individualism and their righteous ability to follow through on their convictions, and no one gives the neighborhood child-rapist a medal either. Instead, we put them in penal institutions for the rest of their lives or we murder them. Which for this to be true, we must admit that certain perspectives are condemned in this society, hence the uselessness of arguing Moral Relativism.
In the case of Hotel Congress, I was obviously observing a much more benign worldview vs. the whole serial killer/rapist thing, but nevertheless I’d concluded that these collective outings to party were merely a feigned apotheosis of pleasure-seeking, and that these people could’ve been spending their valuable, conscious time in seriously different ways.
Just to be clear, I was by no means standing there thinking I had it all figured out; on the contrary, it was like I’d taken another dose of mushrooms and was existentially, internally breaking down with alienation and empathy and really just a total lack of understanding in terms of where the fuck I was and what I was doing there. And it’s not like these people were doing anything to me; I mean, I walked into this place out of my own volition, and no one had any issue with me being there. Regardless of whether or not my methods of living were better or worse, these people weren’t hurting anybody; they were just participating in their idea of fun, and they were entitled to that, regardless of how I felt about it. So I resigned myself to the notion that we’d simply accomplished what we’d set out to do.
And plus, people don’t like being consciously told to change, and it’s not like I was going to stroll around proselytizing to strangers about how they were wasting their precious time. Folks tend to change their behaviors and attitudes only when they personally want/need to, not when the Jehovah’s witnesses show up during dinner time.
How I Was Able to Do This in the First Place
Because if one has money and time, one has options, right? And that’s exactly what I had. Albeit nothing of significant exorbitance, just the money I’d saved up from summer jobs, money that I never had to spend because my parents so generously funded my life up until, well, pretty much the day I set out to live in the desert. Nevertheless, I had more money in my checking account than the majority of our great country.
Parents are funny that way, dads especially, in that overly rational I’ll-help-you-if-you-succumb-to-my-wishes type way. If you want to call it funny. Granted, my dad put me through a private college, which is pretty much like buying your kid a house. And this logical fixation of my dad’s is nothing to be fucked with, let me tell you. Would my dad have given me $150,000 to try my hand at musicianship? You’d sooner see him shelling that money out for red meat and luxurious vacations. Yet, he had no problem paying for music school, the more conventional side of the whole starving-artist thing. Admittedly, I studied music business, which obviously having the word “business” in the degree had my dad sold on the program.
The paradoxical nature of this post-grad journey was the reality that only someone with money could participate in such an adventure. Granted, there were some exceptions and ways around having money, which included things like work exchanges, mainly, and also just being a genuine dirt-bag and roaming around with what one can carry on their person, and the only difference here from being homeless, I gathered, was intention, i.e. if one wanted to be homeless, then they were a dirt-bag. If homeless by accident, then they were just plain old dirty and schizoid, talking-to-yourself-in-the-middle-of-the-street homeless. It’s almost like the condo vs. apartment thing, where the terminology is strictly dependent on whether it’s owned or rented. Take the analogy or leave it, I won’t be offended.
Getting to renounce all the comforts we’d grown up with to fuck off and live in the desert was a luxury, although as noted, the desert camping was short-lived. But the point is that we were choosing to put ourselves through discomfort in order to catalyze self-growth, and this just isn’t something that blue-collar or white-collar or really most people get to do, or even want to do. And to the older-generation folks that I chatted with about this concept, the asceticism-as-luxury thing—asceticism more so in their eyes, not mine, considering I was going to be getting everything I thought I wanted at the time—did not seem to register in their minds as something useful or productive in any way. And by older-generation folks I really just mean my father, who admittedly didn’t do a whole lot to sway me from my decision, and who also was understandably concerned about his son derailing off the path to careerdom after just having purchased a house-worth of education. This pushback I naturally took with a grain of salt, coming from a man that went straight through law school and has been practicing ever since, aside from occasional week-long island vacations that for a significant period of his life just seemed to cause him headaches on account of the severe drop-off in stress levels. Virtually everyone else was supportive of this decision, which I was certainly appreciative of, but also too anxiously self-involved to really give a shit what anyone else thought was wrong or right.
The amount of stress that went into deciding my post-graduation fate was in and of itself an alarming indicator of my general freedom. I’d decided on graduating early from school at the beginning of my penultimate undergrad semester, so about a year before I actually left for AZ. Ironically, in my final semester as an undergrad, I took an entire class on Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, which provided the basis of his philosophy in terms of how conscious humans perceive objects and people et cetera. One pertinent topic re Sartre was the idea that with the knowledge and understanding of our freedom comes a powerful anguish to boot. Like I said, money and time equated to options, and having options meant making a decision, which entailed the opportunity cost of all foreclosed-on decisions. I’d considered flying to Thailand to backpack, spending time living and working on a farm, searching for a guru to deal with the spiritual awakening that I was beginning to go through at the time, among other possibilities. And at certain points throughout this lengthy decision-making process, I’d go through these pockets of self-loathing for seriously worrying about my future even though when it boiled down I was really just getting overly hung-up on my travel plans. I’d have to remind myself that my existential grief was not the end of the world and that I had everything I needed and then some.
T.C. and Bisbee
Even before venturing out on this journey, T.C. and I had discussed the possibility that we’d get sick of one another. I originally met him through a mutual friend in high school, and we subsequently teamed up to start a folk-indie trio with a black, gap-toothed vocalist that eventually moved away and became a woman. His voice was creamy and enchanting. T.C. was a few years older than me, and had abstained from university aside from two unfruitful semesters at the University of Cincinnati. So by my senior year of high school, T.C. was still living in town, working through his own existential- and health-related issues. Our musical endeavors had fallen by the wayside and T.C. wound up casually sleeping with a close female friend of mine who I’d unfortunately been in love with at the time. Granted, I’d introduced the two of them before I’d fallen in love, and that complicity did not help my position. This ordeal naturally extracted a great deal of stress and anxiety from the core of my being, especially given the fact that this female friend did not—and we’d discussed this—have more than smoking-weed-together-with-a-best-friend-on-a-daily-basis feelings for me. And T.C. was not in a mental place where he cared or fully understood the heart-clenching effect this situation was having on me, given our distance as friends. Eventually—months after I’d unfortunately, but necessarily, severed my friendship with said female friend—he came to me apologetically and we agreed never to let something like that get between us again. We’d stayed in touch throughout my college years, bouncing ideas off of one another and discussing methods of reality deconstruction.
This only scratches the surface of the complex and lengthy emotional ties that T.C. and I had since carried around. It was a brotherly connection by the time we were slowly climbing in elevation between Tucson and Bisbee. In the long gaps of silence that became utterly normal and even comforting, I’d glance over at T.C. in the driver’s seat and marvel at the fact that we’d maintained our friendship for all those years. Some people are just inexplicably and cosmically bound together, it seems.
However, traveling with anyone in this capacity tests the bounds of a relationship. The idiosyncrasies of another person (imagine that roommate you hated, and subsequently began to hate everything they did, things that only bothered you because it was your hated roommate doing them, like chewing annoyingly or just being in your general vicinity) can get to you when in their proximity for extended periods of time. T.C. and I were essentially attached at the hip. We shared beds. Daily moods and attitudes enmeshed unavoidably. Both of us brought to the table our own habits, tendencies and personal existential grief; T.C. had been on the road for about six months at that point, and my post-college addition to the endeavor brought a whole new dynamic to his situation.
Bisbee was a rich mining town until the middle of the 20th century, subsequently became a countercultural hippie haven in the ‘60s, and remained as a day-trip tourist destination for Arizonians to get out of Dodge. Although Bisbee had for the most part kept up with modernity, the little town still carried this eerie, movie-set-like quality. Gazing out at the old Bisbee copper mine, marveling at the 5,000-person town of staircases built into the mountains, contemplating wind-speeds at high-altitude overlooks, T.C. and I were forced to exercise our communication skills. An open, honest, leave-nothing-inside-the-skull type of emotional- and grievance-disclosure. Sometimes I would perceive my misgivings aimed at T.C. to be unwarranted, selfish, or simply delusional perceptions of his actions/words. Other times my qualms were more than justified, and the same went for T.C. The hardest part was verbalizing these sentiments, but of course once these things were discussed, laid out on the table, their potency diminished.
We stayed above an olive oil & vinegar shop owned by a long-haired, glasses-wearing Venezuelan in his early forties, who I’ll refer to as Albert. T.C. and I thought Albert looked considerably more Japanese than Venezualan. He also lived above his shop with a beautiful, curvy, Colombian girlfriend that owned a crafts shop down the street. Which means that we were living with them. As we’d learned in Tucson, staying in a stranger’s home was ripe for awkward interactions, strategic cooking patterns, and sort of an unshakable intruder-complex, regardless of the fact that we were paying to stay there. However, Albert was a generous host who cooked us seafood soup and treated us to drinks at one of the few bars in town. He’d discuss with us the multi-presidential issues going on in Venezuela along with the fear he had for family still in his home country. His spaced-outness suggested some form of reality-altering-substance ingestion, but eventually we’d found that he was just happy.
By this time, T.C. and I were beginning to get restless. It was cold outside and the attractions of Bisbee could only occupy one for so long; plus, we weren’t there as tourists looking to spend money on souvenirs or tour the copper mine. We began the discussion once again of what to do next, where to go; this question had been beside us for the whole of our journey, as we’d book lodging only a few days out at a time. This was a striking change compared to every other part of my life up until then, where the path was unquestioningly laid out before me and there was no question of where I’d be sleeping within the week. It was at this serendipitous impasse that T.C.’s cousin got in contact with us.
Fear and Loathing in Los Angeles
T.C.’s cousin, heretofore Lily, lived in Santa Monica (I thought about referring to her as T.C.2, but let’s just not go there). She’d just had some pretty serious back surgery, and so was staying at a friend’s house during her convalescence. Lily offered to let us stay in her vacant bedroom for a couple weeks in L.A. until she moved back in. T.C. and I graciously accepted the offer, groping for some sense of stability.
It just so happened that this fateful February ended up being the rainiest and coldest Los Angeles had seen in almost a century. Once through Palm Desert, the highway weaved through mountainous terrain, which combined with flash-flooding and high-speed California drivers made for some serious character building. Water splashed our windshield from the wakes of oncoming vehicles. I feared for my life.
Lily greeted us at the floor-level apartment, using a walker and a friend of hers for physical/emotional support. Weeks of lying in a bed had resulted in some extra weight, which I gathered from pre-injury photos. Lily had a round, pale and freckled face, with dried out red hair. Fourteen blocks from the beach, this was prime real estate, acquired by T.C.’s Uncle some thirty years prior. With grandfathered rent, he fled to Ecuador and left the apartment in Lily’s hands.
The catch was that T.C. and I had to share the two-bedroom living quarters with Lily’s bitter, smooth-skinned, Korean, Pilates-instructing roommate that couldn’t really voice her objections of the situation on account of the whole cheap, grandfathered-rent thing. Whenever we’d come into contact with her—which wasn’t often, considering she worked an obscene number of hours or just avoided coming home—there was this sludgy, guilty energy between us. I empathized with her, tried to understand how I’d feel if two strangers started living in my apartment while I’d otherwise have had the place to myself. I slept on an air mattress in Lily’s room, while T.C. got the bed to himself. All of the floors were bare concrete, aside from the linoleum in the kitchen, and the toilet was kiddy-sized. There were twenty different kinds of tea that we were welcome to, and alkaline-filtered water, which T.C. was ecstatic about. The kitchen table was a booth. We did some chores around the house to help Lily out and did our best not to encroach on her roommate’s space.
For the most part, it wasn’t warm, and the rain made it difficult to leave the house. On pleasant days, I’d run down to the beach, past fecal-smelling alleys, piles of Bird scooters, neon supercars, and designer clothing shops. I’d bathe in the wan sun while contemplating the vast expanse of blue ocean before me. I never thought insignificance could feel so good. Juxtaposed with my constant existential grief, the ocean helped to mitigate my borderline-narcissistic mental loops. I wasn’t happy, but somehow I felt more like myself than I ever had—maybe not identity-wise, considering the complete change of scenery and lifestyle—but, as in the desert, I felt there, like everything in my life had led up to that point. When compared to the little pockets of dissociation that plagued me throughout college, the presence I felt there on the beach offered me an unprecedented level of clarity. The carnival-esque pier was uncannily reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto, and it seemed comical to me, the contrast between one of the most progressive, luxurious cities on the planet and the ancient grains of sand I felt between my toes.
One night, T.C. and I took the metro to China Town to welcome the Year of the Pig. Traditional Chinese medicine shops were packed with tourists and pop-up malls redolent of the Grand Bazaar sold endless amounts of cheap trinkets and clothing. Dragon-costumed dancers performed on the main stage, surrounded by a chanting audience equipped with tinnitus-inducing confetti cannons. We ate large helpings of salted white rice for dinner out of Styrofoam containers in lieu of the gastrointestinally threatening options abound.
As T.C. and I wandered, we heard dance music coming from an ally, and followed the source; there was a DJ outside of what appeared to be some sort of venue. We entered the crowded place, back-packed and clearly underdressed for the occasion, and noticed the open bar, the whole pig carcass on the kitchen island. It became quickly apparent that we’d intruded on a private event, but after I’d obtained a couple glasses of red wine from the bar, it seemed that no one was going to bother us. On the contrary, we were approached by a couple of mildly intoxicated middle-aged party-goers, who—on account of our attire and the lack of conversation between T.C. and I—assumed rightly that we were weary traveling companions. We gave them the platitudinous explanation of our journey and learned that the party was being thrown as an anniversary for a start-up company. Soon we were introduced to the welcoming host and an employee of the start-up, Jonny, his boyfriend, Dominic, and their real-estate acquaintance, Josh. Jonny was a short, skinny Vietnamese computer programmer that looked ten years younger than he actually was. Dominic played poker for a living, and Josh was clearly smitten with T.C.
Next thing we knew, T.C. and I were out perusing the gay-club scene in West Hollywood, or WeHo, as our three new friends referred to it. I’d never been to a strip club, hadn’t ever planned on going to one, and certainly never thought I’d witness Greek-like, chiseled and body-hairless men swinging from ropes and gyrating their hips for tips. Thousands of people flocked to this strip of bars to dance and sweat all over each other; to drink, yell, and shove bills into man-thongs. We were told that straight guys had it much easier in terms of picking up girls, considering the lack of competition in that regard, but I was just there to witness the spectacle. Multiple ambulances navigated through throngs of wasted bar-crawlers to presumably pump the stomachs of a-little-too-wasted partiers. Josh never won over T.C.’s heart, but T.C. was certainly flattered by the attention.
After a week, Lily ended up prematurely moving back into her apartment, which meant less space than we already had. I kept the air mattress, but T.C. had to share Lily’s bed. I wasn’t getting very good sleep to begin with, and Lily’s sleep-apneatic snoring convlusions kept me up through the night more than once. She smoked medical marijuana in the house for her back pain; I joined her once or twice. We met Lily’s friends, who all seemed to be just as cosmically lost as T.C. and I, despite all being in their thirties and managing to support themselves in one of the most expensive cities in the world. This was both comforting and disquieting.
A gut-wrenching sense of purposeless began to wash over me around that time, a deep dissatisfaction digging away at my insides, and I couldn’t quite envision what would assuage the strain. I started looking at other options for myself. I came close to purchasing a ticket to Thailand on a whim—all I had to do was click the “purchase” button and it’d be decided—but I chickened out at the last moment. I explored work-exchange options on various farms and even reached out to a commune in Hawaii. Those options all seemed pleasant in theory, but when I would attempt to future-cast myself into those situations, I’d only be met with fear and anxiety. I had come that far, but was still burdened by an unceasing bout of inner turmoil. I knew that if I wasn’t okay in that Santa Monica apartment, that I wouldn’t be okay crammed into a hostel in Southeast Asia. And that was the truth I had to overcome, that I didn’t have to be doing what I was doing.
The thought of heading back home to Cleveland became more and more enticing. I’d have a place to sort things out without having to worry about spending money on food or housing. I’d initially planned to travel for at least a semester’s worth of time, and before I’d left, the thought of quitting early seemed asinine. The strangest part about indulging the going-home option while in L.A. was that it didn’t seem like a regression. I considered how I’d be perceived by friends and family, by my father, but managed to allay that ego-bent mentality. I didn’t need to prove anything to myself or to anyone else, I needed to do what I thought was best.
After about six weeks of travel, we wound up at a beach house owned by a friend of my grandparents. I’d purchased a plane ticket back to Cleveland. Liz was generous enough to let T.C. and I stay in one of the guest rooms for a few nights, what were to be the last of my trip. I’m talking right on the beach; pedestrians walked and zoomed by on the boardwalk right in front of us as we sat poised in tall, white lifeguard chairs. As we observed the passersby, there was an odd lack of privacy that gave way to a sense of entitled guilt.
Mid-70s, short grey hair, with the presence of someone half her age, Liz lived alone ever since her husband passed away. He was a manufacturing tycoon in the L.A. area, hence the multimillion dollar abode. Liz took us out for sushi and sashimi in Manhattan Beach and encouraged us to order more and more food; this luxury was a stark divergence from recent endeavors.
The beach house I’d been to before, but not for more than a decade, and it brought back memories from what felt like a different life. The walls were painted with various pastels, the living room akin to an art museum. Tall windows looked over the ocean, and dolphin fins arched in the early morning. I took advantage of the rooftop terrace, where I meditated on the end of my journey under windy sunsets. The key feature of the house, though, was the rain shower on the lowest level, large enough to work out in with the water pressure of a fire hose.
Downtown Hermosa was surprisingly lively. We handed the bouncer our IDs at Tower 12, where T.C. and I traveled backward in time for the evening. The main act was a psych rock quintet with a getup straight out of Dazed and Confused; denim jackets, aviators, mullets, mustaches, the whole thing. And they acted the part, too. Watching them interact with their similarly dressed groupies after their set was analogous to every stereotypical ‘70s high school flick, complete with the cigarette-smoking, one-foot-back-on-the-locker, obstinate teenager. Their facial expressions, even their lingo, was a seemingly incidental, gestalt cosplay unfolding before us. I was both confused and jealous, and T.C. was more shocked than anything.
We did our best to have a good time despite my pending departure. I was ready to go, excited to be on my own, no longer Siamese. At the same time, I couldn’t believe that my time with T.C. was coming to an end, and I was grateful for the experience in an everlasting way, indebted to him for inviting me to occupy a seat in his truck. Bitter-sweetness aside, I knew I had some serious work to do once I got home.