My Lover, LA
by Laura A. Munson
I love my children. I love my husband. I love my mother and deceased father. Sister and brother. Every person on my Christmas card list. Two dogs, two horses, cat, and pet rat—love ‘em all. I love Montana too—my twenty acres and the hills around our house, the miles I log in them on my trusty horse, the tracks I make on my cross-country skis, the birds and trees and insects and frogs and wildflowers and mushrooms I recognize as they do their seasonal dances. I love the peaks of Glacier National Park, and I’ve even grown to love the fact that here, I’m on the food chain; grizzly bear sushi. It builds character. But what I love a lot more than perhaps I should or would dare to openly admit in a small Montana town where it’s popular to hate all things urban, and Californians as well…what I yearn for, especially in mid-January, is what I can’t get here and that’s excellence in the following: art, dining, shopping, sunshine, surf. So every so often, I sneak off to LA.
I have two great friends there. Best friends. God-mothers to my children. They don’t know each other, and maybe it’s better that way because I can divide my four-day get-away between them, and basically act as gluttonous and selfish as possible. And they forgive me for it every time. Gluttony and selfishness are forgivable in two-day stints/binges, turns out—especially if you’re from Montana.
So I am picked up at LAX in a Mercedes station wagon, by one dear friend, and delivered back four days later in a Volvo station wagon, by the other– my suitcase doubled in bulk, my intestinal tract processing things it hasn’t known in a long while like foie gras and uni and cassoulet, my face a little tanned, my skin a little bare, my toes feeling sad covered in shoes again, but my hands happily around a new, fabulous purse. I take my seat on the plane wearing even huger sunglasses than last time, with a smug movie-star feeling inside—like I’ve had an affair. The flight attendants notice it. I might be famous. I’m glowing. I’ve bloomed.
Friendship is an interesting creature, especially when it’s long distance. It’s alive, but it doesn’t necessarily need your tending. It goes about life without you changing its diapers or helping it with its homework, or remembering its birthday. But then it suddenly shows up and you feel like, without it, you can’t live– you’ll have no oxygen. And then it goes, and you’re breathing along again just fine. You’ve heard people say, it’s like we just pick up from where we left off every time. That’s the kind of friends these two women are to me.
They listen to me sob and bitch about the impossible rejections of the writing life and how my husband likes skiing more than he does me, and that my kids are ungrateful, how I should have gone to Yale, should have stayed in Seattle, or Boston, or Chicago, or New York, and whenever will I get back to Firenze… These are two women who’ve loved me, combined, for longer than I have lived and probably will live. And I love them. They show up at weddings and funerals and they answer my calls; granted each of them spends a lot of time bored on the freeway.
Here’s what we usually do when we’re together—and this extends past LA, to all the afore-mentioned cities, including Firenze and Paris too: We go directly to the best restaurant we can think of, order wine, and eat a long, multi-course meal. Then we go walk around somewhere edgy or gritty or shiny, but with lots of people to look at. In LA, we go to Venice Beach and mix with the Carnies, or to Rodeo Drive and try on dresses at Prada in the best dressing rooms ever (you can watch yourself in a Prada dress on a virtual runway video), or to Montana Ave. in Santa Monica (so far away from my Montana), or to Abbot Kinney or Melrose, or just simply to Mecca: Fred Segal. Once, on Venice Beach, we saw a two-headed turtle and a two-headed raccoon at the same time, and once, we saw Glen Close (who looks like George Washington in person) and Rick Ocasek (who looks like Ichabod Crane in person)—not at the same time and not on Venice Beach.
Then we go back to their houses and lie around on their outdoor futons and read Vogue or do The LA Times crossword puzzle together— because even though we’ve been New York Times crossword puzzle snobs all our east coast spawned lives—hey—we’re in Cali. This crossword puzzle is way more fun. Then we make a pitcher of mojitos and get into the hot tub nude, and talk about mutual friends—their divorces and dalliances or suburban woes. We feel pretty good about ourselves then. So we get dressed up and go out and flirt. Maybe go to a bar cantilevered over Malibu Beach (Moonshadows) or to a museum cantilevered over the hills of Brentwood (The Getty). The last trip, I went to Moonshadows and The Getty twice—once with each friend. The last time I visited LA, both of them had coi ponds.
Well this most recent trip to LA, let’s just say, there were no coi ponds. No Moonshadows and no Getty and no flirting. Why? Because these women are mothers, just like me, in their Januarys, with their kids’ science fairs looming, their constant state of chauffeur-dom, and too much goddamn sun sun sun all the time…and besides, LA is so ridiculously expensive and with the way the economy is going, who can afford a place with a coi pond. In particular, one of them is a new mother—eight weeks. And for the other, this was her weekend with her kids. Which was great. I love these kids. But I had huge sunglasses to buy!
Somewhere between gathering water samples from eight beaches and NOT getting to put my toe in the water due to impending traffic constraints, and wiping up that old familiar French’s mustard-colored diaper goo, I realized that this trip was not going to be about buying sunglasses. At all. Here’s how it went down, present tense so you can feel my pain (keep in mind that in my valley in Montana, we get on average, seventy-five days of sunshine a year, and you can’t get a New York Times—except the Sunday—on Wednesday), and you can’t get an LA Times at all:
I awake to bamboo and the sounds of exotic birds. It’s pitch black and twenty-two below in Montana, but blue sky winks at me through the blinds and I think I’m at the Hotel Bel-Air—my fantasy hotel, with my non-existent but very real to me, Italian lover, Giovanni.
I burrow into my pillows and dream about my lox and bagels and my crossword puzzle. And the amore Giovanni and I will make… More important, it’s Monday—the easiest day for the crossword puzzle; like David Sedaris, I base my personal worth on the completion of major urban crossword puzzles, and today I won’t have to do it online—just good old fashioned ball point pen (yep) to newsprint!
I sit up and stretch, anticipating the walk I’m going to take later on the beach, alone, because I will be done with Giovanni by then and he’ll be off shopping for me on Rodeo Drive. Then I hear the cries of a newborn and remember that I’m in a child’s cot, in an office in Long Beach, and that I’m staying in the home of exhausted people who “miss the seasons.”
That’s okay—this is their little miracle bundle of joy and I’ve come here to visit it. Help them. Give them their much-needed break. Yeah, right.
I put on my Nike Frees, instead of my lug-soled Sorels, and try to sneak out for a walk to the beach just three blocks away—terra firma. No snow. But they see me. And I am so helpful. I am so good and kind. And loving. What a friend am I. Watch me hold this baby so “you can get some rest.”
I forget why I needed so much chiropractic during my children’s infant years. Four hours later, we go out. We’re walking to the beach. I am ecstatic. Baby starts to cry. We decide to drive. My friend has to do some banking. No, of course I don’t mind sitting in the car with the baby. I end up standing in the parking lot for a half an hour, the baby asleep, leaning against the car, face in the sun. This isn’t so bad. I’m in LA! There’s a tree with flowers on it…right here in this…parking lot…where I’m so lucky to be…standing…in the sun! A deliveryman makes fun of me. I flirt with him, but he’s unimpressed.
We get to the beach. I forget that my friend has moved from Santa Monica, and let me just say this about the Long Beach beach: It’s got a great view of some of the largest oil refineries in the world.
I meet my next friend in Santa Monica, and I’m thrilled because I love Santa Monica—barefoot, wet-suit clad surfers jaywalking with their boards, the Farmer’s Market, Shutters on the Beach… We experience a movie-star sighting—a movie star I can’t stand—fingers on the chalkboard. Why do they have to wear those stupid baseball hats that say, I’m a movie star—look at me so that I can say, ‘no thanks—I’m not giving out autographs right now.’
We wait in line a half an hour to order a panini, and slowly…I begin to realize that there’s no wine list. But we’re close to my friend’s kids’ school, plus we have a parking place, so this is it. Slowly too, I begin to realize that it’s a vegetarian restaurant. So there’ll be no fancy meat in my panini. Ah….Firenze. For a quick moment, I think of Giovanni—wonder how he’s doing on Rodeo Drive.
We spend the afternoon taking water samples from beaches that we don’t walk on more than to get to the water and walk back to the car. Then we get stuck in traffic. It’s sunny, but it’s sixty-four degrees, and in LA this is freezing. It’s parka weather. My friend’s actually wearing a parka. And huge Prada sunglasses. I’m sweating in a tank top with the windows down, sporting the knock-off Gucci sunglasses I bought the last time I was in LA. At least I get to see the Malibu fire damage. In Montana when we have fire damage, it doesn’t look like you could make it go away if only you had a crane, a really good landscape architect, and a truckload of Mexicans.
That night, we have an early dinner because the water samples need to incubate.
We spend a lot of time cutting holes in a Styrofoam cooler—again, nails on chalkboard, and go to bed early.
Phone rings at 8:00 am. It’s a professor friend from UCLA who’s a famous writer/friend of my friend’s (I would be her non-famous writer/friend) and what I hear from my end is something like this: Oh, hi. Yes, my son would LOVE to accompany your son to the pre-party for David Sedaris tonight. Yep. Uh-huh. Back stage passes? Great. We’ll just drop him off at your house, and then my friend who’s visiting from Montana (that would be not Montana Ave. See: hick) and I are going to take my daughter to a pizza party in Beverly Hills. We’ll just drum up all his David Sedaris books so David can write charming meaningful notes of inspiration in them, and we’ll see you tonight.
It is everything I can do to remain cool and not brown-nose my friend’s thirteen-year-old son. I’ll probably meet David Sedaris in Whitefish, Montana—right? Isn’t he, like, really into skiing?
I can’t go into the rest of this aspect of my trip because it’s just too heartbreaking. Suffice it to say that I met the writer/friend of my friend’s on the front porch of her home in Pacific Palisades, and said something really mature like: “Hi. I’m the un-published novelist friend.”
Then we dropped off the girl at a pizza party which was behind big gates that I didn’t attempt to penetrate as the un-published-novelist-friend-from-not-Montana-Avenue, and went to Shutters and had a drink or ten and the rest of the night, to tell the honest truth, was kind of a blur. Fine, base your entire self-worth on the completion of a daily crossword puzzle. Jerk. Loser. You missed out. I’m so friggin fabulous. You could water-ski behind my fabulous career someday if I’d let ya. Sedaris. Did I tell you I coulda gotten into Yale! That’s a different story. But I coulda. Just didn’t wanta.
So, it’s my last chance for huge sunglasses, and I wake up hung-over, with an airplane to catch and the little girl, who is my god-daughter, (and exceptional I may add), climbs in bed with me– not as much to cuddle, but to get to the laptop I’ve smuggled away in a drunken stupor to watch re-runs of Brothers and Sisters. She wants to do Webkinz together. I don’t even stay in the same room with my kids when they’re doing Webkinz. I feel about Webkinz the way I felt about Teletubbies and Cabbage Patch Dolls. But I lounge around with her and help her choose furniture for her weird consumerist Webkinz world. Hey, I figure, I’m shopping in LA. The tambourine table actually feels like something you might be able to pick up on Abbot Kinney.
I decide then to make a varsity decision: I’m not leaving. I’m going to have my Hotel Bel-Air fantasy. Damnit.
So I book it—change my ticket and book a room at the Hotel Bel-Air. Spend an extra hundred dollars for a room with a courtyard. Book a dinner reservation and everything. My friend is thrilled. We’re all going to be sprawled poolside for the day, sucking on lavender Popsicles, our faces spritzed with Evian water by guys in pink polo shirts and white shorts. We’ll eat dinner in their fabulous vine-covered outdoor dining room with a fire going. We’ll eat foie gras! And what’s more, her kids will love me forever—maybe even enough to introduce me to Davis Sedaris!
But the incubator was too hot and the bacteria fried, and she and her thirteen-year-old have to go back to All Eight Beaches and take NEW samples.
So I spend my day at the Bel-Air, with my adorable but still EIGHT-year-old, god-daughter. She’s wearing a scarf, Jackie-O style, and her mother’s yes, HUGE, (real) Gucci sunglasses, a dress she got in yes, Paris, and Uggs (I’m wearing flip-flops because I wear Uggs every day of my life—for function!)…and we sit by the pool while she eats a nine dollar hot dog and tells me about her trip on safari in the Serengeti. Wait ‘til I tell my own kids about my trip to LA. Absolutely no elephants. Or famous authors. Or even my dear dear friend, Fred Segal. But at the Hotel Bel-Air, they do have pads of butter in the shape of swans. I have a photograph of one.
I eat dinner alone, and have drinks at the bar afterward and hang out with the piano player and request Laura, which is one of my all time most disgusting personal habits. In fact, I have a vague memory of doing the same thing the night before at Shutters.
This story ends like this: I wake up. Five hours to spend in LA, alone, on my one hundred dollar terrace. Five lovely, languishing hours on my sunny terazza…and it’s fucking raining. So I lie in my bed, surf between the Today show, Good Morning America, and the Food Network, get bored, and decide, for the first time in my life, to order porn—see what all the fuss is about. That’s right, porn, at the Hotel Bel-Air. Maybe I can find one with an Italian guy in it.
The whole experience is so utterly tacky that I turn off the television after about five seconds and decide to add porn to the Webkinz, Teletubbies, Cabbage Patch Doll list. Then I pay twenty-five dollars for it at check out, where they give me a look which I’m not going to base my entire self-worth on, but I’m not going to not either. I tip them about as much as I would have dropped on huge, non-knock-off, sunglasses because I want to be invited back.
Sometimes I wish my friends lived in Montana. And I lived in LA. And I could complain about sun sun sun. And then maybe I’d take graceful joy in dirty diapers and fried science projects in a dark, culturally barren, January place, thickly coated in snow—far away from traffic and the horrible torpor of sun and shopping and surf and fine dining. Maybe I wouldn’t be so selfish and gluttonous…and horny.
When I board the plane, I do not look like I’ve seen my lover. I look like I need a vacation. Maybe in a ski town.
As we’re hovering over our white valley, the square claims of farmland, feminine S-ing rivers, masculine mountains, I have a very real attack of not wanting to return to this place. Not because of anything to do with sunglasses; not really. But because of how hard Montana is. How tough you have to be. How brave and humble and honest.
As the wheels hit the runway, the flight attendant announces, “Welcome to the beautiful Flathead Valley, Montana. If you’re here on business or pleasure, we do hope you enjoy your stay. If you live here, welcome home.” And I join the part of me that never went to LA, and never wanted to in the first place.
When it comes down to it, there’s really not much room for the silliness of the “excellent.” Not when it comes to towing your neighbor’s truck out of a snow bank, or feeding your shivering herd in twenty-two below temperatures, digging your buddy out from an avalanche, saying a friendly, “Hey, Bear” as you come around a switchback on a mountain trail, or finding Mountain Lion scat in your back yard where your children play. Whatever Bacchanalian indulgence I might crave, is just that. A craving. And when it’s met, it doesn’t last very long. And I can’t say I’m really better for it. Not really.
What I am better for, I realize, as I turn the key in the ignition and wait while the engine moans and squeaks and finally turns over, is the good coffee I had with my friend at six am, her baby at her breast; the way my god-daughter’s hair smelled as we cuddled in bed, and the way her eyes looked when she told me about the wildebeests, the way my friend leaned down at the water’s edge with her son and collected water samples. For the indulgence of friendship that picks up where it lets off every time.
And it occurs to me as I pull out to the white stark highway, with the logging trucks whizzing by, and the dilapidated old barns and abandoned businesses with permanent Closed signs, that there is power in displacement. Everyone should try living just where they least expect to find themselves. Because it reminds you where home is.
When I get to my house, I am greeted by four feet of new snow, my two dogs, and the neighbor’s dead, frozen, and half-eaten, chicken placed, sacrificial, on my front stoop.
Do you feel sorry for me? Probably not. Either way, please don’t tell anyone in the City of Angels…that way down deep, it is precisely in this mangled but beautiful offering of this exact chicken, that I find my self-worth.