12 Years Ago by Maya Gurantz
With profound relief I dragged my bag up concrete steps and opened the door to a sublet in Burbank. The California setting sun and soft purple twilight air turned the shabby little joint into a Joni Mitchell song, from the wood-paneled living room walls to the kitchen linoleum.
The next morning, I rolled out of bed, hungover. I put my right contact lens in and howled in pain. I had unwittingly soaked my lenses not in saline, but in high acid cleanser I bought in a rush the night before, replacing toiletries I forgot at my parent’s house, two hours away.
I had also left my glasses. Without glasses or contacts, I was and am very nearly blind.
So here I was. Driving was out of the question. Phones were not yet smart. The only two people I knew in town were insane: one, R., had already kicked me out of his apartment; the other, W., who wore the male screenwriter’s uniform of white tube socks, black jeans and resentment, seemed determined to be of no help at all.
I remembered big box stores near the freeway and told myself they couldn’t be so far away. I spent an increasingly panicked 15 minutes feeling around for my keys, then left the apartment on foot, the town a blur around me.
How had this happened? I was 24 years old, in LA that fall for a fellowship, and R., a high school friend of a friend, had offered me houseroom. His dad worked in plastics, specifically the coatings for electronic wiring. With the rise of home computing, the man made a fucking fortune, seemingly so his son could take it as a sign that he was entitled to pursue a career in movies. Cursed with a round face and desperate to have cheekbones, R. hadn’t eaten a carb in 11 months.
Perhaps I could blame his evil on malnutrition, but I knew too many people who had been burned by him before then. These people only had in common the following: whatever R. had done was so entirely beyond the pale of decent human behavior they never spoke to him again. I figured we weren’t close enough for that to happen, and his big spare bedroom was beautiful and rent-free.
Unfortunately, by the time I showed up in late August and with no warning, T. had moved in. She was the assistant to Hollywood’s biggest agent and got gift certificates to Fred Segal from Keanu. I was nobody, so R. put me on the living room couch. I spent 9/11 on my bed with R. and T., watching the towers fall. That evening, R. threw a fit because I was talking on my cell phone while he was driving, as friends in New York called to reassure me they were alive.
I knew something was wrong. I didn’t know that R. and T. had decided, jointly and individually, to push me out. I was working late hours and ignored the uneasy rumblings of toxic machination, figuring it was just two more months. But one Sunday afternoon, I came home to a handwritten eviction note taped to the wall, giving me two weeks to find a new place.
By evening—for reasons I will never know but ascribe to sociopathic tendencies meeting low blood sugar—R decided he would prefer me to leave immediately. He called my phone 47 times in a row, finally stating by voicemail that he would be dumping all my possessions including my laptop at the curb within the hour.
I missed these 47 calls as I sat and drank with W., who shrugged off my panic about where the hell I was going to live for the next two months. One of the older men I kept encountering at that time of my life who attempted to “mentor” me by trying to sleep with me (we did, then didn’t), W. seemed determined that if he couldn’t make me his muse, he could at least constantly undermine my ambitions. He didn’t even pay for the drinks. After I rescued all my worldly possessions from R’s front stoop, W. grudgingly gave me houseroom in his hovel for the night. I could barely sleep. He kept curling towards me in bed in a pretend-doze, while I, in a pretend-doze, rolled away. This little dance continued until I hit the wall and pressed myself against it until he gave up with a huff.
So here I was, one week later. Blind in Burbank. The sidewalks were empty. Some yards were rose gardens. Some yards were parking lots. Some yards involved strange Southern California moonscapes of white quartz and dark red and green rocks that once passed for water-saving landscape design in the 1970s.
I had left New York three months before for a cross-country road trip, abandoning the life I had begun to build, knowing in my heart I would never return. This was funded with my first credit card, and I was almost immediately behind on the payments. I was proud that I negotiated the strains of travel—financial worry, joy, loneliness, freedom, and occasional physical menace from strangers—without my beloved cigarettes, an addiction I had quit six months.
I itched for a cigarette now. I managed to locate a main street, but it was too early in the morning to get help. The neon wasn’t on. The grimy windows were dark. Every business catered to some almost quaintly specialized part of the movie making process, and they were all closed. Cars zoomed past me. I hesitated at a corner—right? Left? I generally had an excellent sense of direction, but had come to the apartment for the first time the night before. I still didn’t know LA, or what any geographic landmark, natural or man-made, meant.
I saw no other human around me. My phone was almost dead, and whom could I call? Not D., the man who had just broken my heart. We had dated in New York the year before, before he moved to New Mexico to attend the Crystal Light Healing Center so he could become a dancer-slash-massage therapist.
Earlier that summer, I had realized I was truly in love with D. and decided to be fearless and woo him. I pelted him with postcards and phone calls—only the pithiest of insights as I traveled, the most jewel-like of observations. Too late, it became clear that his response to all this, a strangely passive kindness was a half-hearted, cowardly attempt to communicate that he was rejecting me. I pretended to be fine and started sleeping with a surfer back home. A sweet guy, but numb and devastated as I was he didn’t leave much of an impression. I don’t remember his body, the sex, most of our conversations or his apartment with any detail though I remember enough to know these things existed.
One month after D. broke my heart, one year after he had loved me, three months after I left New York, nine months after I quit smoking, one week after R. kicked me out of his place, the pavement started pushing upward into a hill and I re-entered suburbia. I knew the deeper I penetrated residential territory, the further I was from my ultimate destination, but I didn’t stop. Somewhere in myself, I just gave up. I didn’t know where I was going anymore and I didn’t care.
The absence of vision heightened my sense of smell and sound. I felt present in my body, the air sweet and smoggy, I walked past potholes and lawns and stucco tract homes. It felt like I was moving through my childhood memories, my blurry eyesight the nostalgia filter, Vaseline on the lens.
I was here: unable to pay my credit card and phone bills, grateful to be living in a crappy sublet on a street I can no longer name, unsure of where I would be going next in my life, unable to imagine finding love again, cast out and blind in this strange corner of a Maximum City I didn’t know. It took four hours before a nice group of little old ladies in a Cadillac gave me a ride to the Lenscrafters. And I walked—unmoored from love, from community, from physical location, from any of the little props that gave me a sense of who I was, on that—the first morning of the rest of my life.