The following is a micro-essay that first appeared on Twitter—the second of mine…the first is here—that I’ve edited and pasted here in its entirety.
I’ve only ever been to a toga party once, back when I lived in Los Angeles.
I had moved to LA right after college (in the Midwest)—never having not lived in the Midwest—excited to try to get a job in the movie industry, and to reinvent myself…start over.
It was all on a lark, really. An acquaintance in college (who I didn’t know too well, to be honest) was moving out there. We were in film classes together—I acted in one of his student films, he filmed one of mine—and one day he propositioned me: “You should come with.”
That was all it took: “You should come with.” Why not, I reasoned.
My folks weren’t happy—my mom didn’t fly (still doesn’t), so the prospect of seeing me, visiting me, would require them to drive out to California (no easy feat, if you’ve ever done it), which did not excite them. But my mind was set: I needed to get to the West Coast. It had the allure, the promise, of something…anything. I had an English degree, I wanted to be a writer but barely wrote, believing writing wasn’t something to be nurtured, but that would just rear itself when needed. Some latent gift. I had a Film Specialization, too. I loved film (still do): it inspires me in a way that not even music, writing, can. And I was stagnant, here, in Michigan. Sick of the Midwest, wanted to get away from a crappy relationship, cold weather, and absolutely zero prospects. So, I left, end of the summer, a couple months after I graduated.
I arrived in LA…and, well, it was a weird situation.
My college girlfriend (we were broken up—for good—at the time) decided she was moving out there, too, on a whim! Really. She applied to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, got in, and we—me and her and her dad (ugh, it was awkward) flew out together. I knew exactly two people in LA at the time: my roommate, who was already out there, and my ex-girlfriend, who, for a while, wanted to patch things up, but I didn’t want that, I needed to move on—ready to leave it, us, behind.
I saw her only a handful of times when I lived in LA, I realize now, for that very reason: she reminded me of home, of the old me, and it hindered me, I thought. It didn’t allow me the clean break I needed. And, see, it wasn’t that I was escaping something heinous back home—nothing like that. I just didn’t come into my own, who I was, who my friends were, what I was comfortable being, doing, until later in college, and I felt…held back. I wanted that California sunshine, the waves, the glamor, the tanned body (why not!)…all of it. I had never had a chance to break free in my life, to really feel unencumbered, and I needed that. Desperately.
(Also: Can we talk for a minute about how horrible it was being on a plane with my ex, her dad, and me—me at the window, her dad on the aisle, him hating me, and whenever we talked, me and her, he’d lean forward and death stare me. Just horrible.)
So, there I was, stepping off the proverbial bus from the Midwest (but, you know, a plane), a walking cliché, never having been to LA before. In fact, I was so naïve, I arrived without a car thinking I didn’t need one. Ha! But I got a job pretty quick in the South Bay area at a mall as a manager of a…let’s just say a once-popular-but-now-declining-yet-always-controversial-clothing store that smelled—strongly—of cologne), and had to bus it there (1.5 hours each way). Which was…interesting, to say the least. I’d sit there, riding, listening to my Discman as we rode through the industrial parts of town, near the airport, scared, nervous, alone.
I bought a car not long after, an adorable all-white 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit convertible. It was cheap, needed a lot of work, but I loved that car. I could write for days about it (maybe I will someday).
Anyway, I was settling in. Time passed. I had my go-to order for In-N-Out (Animal-style!), knew my way around the city, the best beaches (El Matador!), where to get cheap good food (hello, small Hawaiian diner in Manhattan Beach with the huge huge portions!), and—soon enough—I was working at a film studio. I had somehow finagled my way into a job as the Assistant to the President of Production at an actual film studio that made big popular films. It was nuts, a dream, a nightmare…all of it.
But I was lost.
LA is…a beautiful city. Truly. I had made great friends, I loved the weather (didn’t, really, miss the seasons, if I’m being honest), adopted a very California-lazy vibe, and I had no real complaints. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do, to be, and that place is a very dangerous place to exist in with that state of mind.
I had been living there for about ten months when the toga party happened. We were invited by a woman that my roommate and I knew, a friend-of-a-friend situation. And I remember this clearly: to get ready, my roommate and I went to Target to buy new sheets, fresh sheets, and I got soft heather gray Jersey-knit style sheets to be my toga. I didn’t want white ones. Everyone would be in white.
The the party was at a moderately-nice-but-still-rundown apartment complex on a hill overlooking Culver City (where we lived). And it was packed. Wall to wall. People were drinking (duh), drugs were happening (not by me, but hey, no judgment), and it was…fun. Not crazy, nothing was going on I hadn’t seen before during college, just the good, semi-restrained fun I was used to back in the Midwest.
Then I met someone, a woman named Chichi.
Nothing happened, not even an eventual goodbye hug, but we hit it off, talked a bit out on the balcony overlooking the sprawl, and the party, eventually (as all good parties do) headed to the beach. It was late, closer to morning than night, and the handful of us that had relocated found spots, companions, and nestled. A fog had rolled in—I still remember it, this magical scene: waves crashing, no birds, no cars, dense, soft, otherworldly.
If I’m being honest, I don’t remember much about Chichi, but I remember her telling me that she had moved to LA from somewhere else, out East, I think, and that she loved LA, didn’t know what she wanted to do or be but was in love with being there. I asked her what she did, how she got by. She worked odd jobs, as we all do in our twenties, and then she told me, too, that she’d periodically go to the pawn shop and sell things, her prized possessions, one at a time to make ends meet, when needed.
“One of those ‘We buy gold’ places?” I joked.
“Yes,” she said. And she had sold some gold—jewelry, inherited—her DVD player, movies, baseball cards that she had collected whatever she could get money for.
“Why?” I asked. “Why sell everything you love, you own”—she did love these things, she told me—“why stress yourself out like this?”
“Because I want to be here that bad,” she told me. “Nothing else matters to me other than being here. In this place.”
I was…surprised. I had never loved anything in my life that much. It turns out I liked LA, but didn’t love it, my job was…okay, at times (mostly soul-sucking, though), but that sort of passion did not exist in my life. And I was jealous, immediately. There had been an idea, a kernel of an idea, bubbling in my mind for a while: I wanted to move home, back to Michigan. I wanted to go to grad school (somewhere) and I wanted to write…books. Novels. But here I was, feeling dead-ended, stuck, perpetually. I had good times, made the best of it, yes, but I wasn’t…where I needed to be. And she, Chichi, was.
Someone got spooked soon after that, thinking the cops were coming, that we’d be chased off the beach (or worse), so we parted ways. I never talked to or heard from Chichi again, but that was fine…it wasn’t about that. Everything changed after that night, after our conversation. My life, my direction, it all changed.
I had wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but I didn’t understand the hard work that it took, the time, the practice (oh god so much practice) and life experience, too. But talking to Chichi ripped something open—made me realize, running clumsily in the sand, toga sopping wet from having played in the dark ocean, that I deserved to have that, too, what she had.
I left LA a few months later, moved back to Michigan. I was happy with my decision, with where I’ve ended up now. I did go to grad school, and I picked up the pen in a way that I had always dreamt of, always wanted, from that point forward. In fact, I can pinpoint that night, if I think about it, as being the night that set me on the track, the writing track, understanding what I needed to do, how I needed to bleed for it, the craft. But every so often I think about being lost, about being in that place, that sprawl, especially, and I wonder, now, looking back, if Chichi is still there, somewhere, selling her possessions, scraping by, still, just so she can have an LA area code, zip code, apartment, stories, friends, and if she has any of her gold family jewelry left. Or if it’s been sold, melted down, it, too, gone, forever, from that place, made to be something else, for someone else—transformed into something it was really meant to be.