Dammit! What’s your problem, I curse at myself in the mirror, applying my morning lipstick. What the hell are you doing living in your sister Tricia’s ultramodern soulless Venice condo (or New York–style live/work loft, as realtors like my sister call it)? You’re twenty-seven, and you still don’t even have a place of your own.
As I brush my long brown hair that cries out for a stylist’s scissors, I recall what made me move in here two years ago. I was renting a small studio apartment in an undistinguished Mar Vista apartment building, the rent made manageable by its location one block from noisy Venice Boulevard. The owner lived on the ground floor. She was a born-again Christian, and she made sure everyone knew it. One evening I had a surprise visit from Juan, a fellow ex-student at Santa Monica College. We hadn’t seen each other since we graduated, and he had moved east. He was a handsome guy whose parents had brought him from Mexico as a baby. He had a black drooping mustache and long matching hair. He was gay and very popular at school. We had become friends in our junior year and done lots of fun things together.
He was only in town for twenty-four hours, and that evening we consumed a pizza and two bottles of wine between us. At the end of the evening he decided that he had had too much alcohol to drive his rental car back to his hotel. So I offered him my bed and slept on the sofa, which was too small for him. Early the following morning we were awakened by a continuous ringing of the doorbell. Slipping a coat over my nightshirt I opened the door to find the enraged building owner eying me and Juan, who was looking up sleepily from my bed.
“Miss Carter, I told you when I rented you this studio that I did not allow any illegal activities.” Indignation made her puce in the face.
“What are you talking about?” I was genuinely confused.
“I won’t stand for any immorality in my place. You can’t bring johns here. No way.”
“Johns? What are you talking about? What makes you think Juan here is a john?”
“It’s obvious. He’s Mexican.”
“And what’s that got to do with anything?” I was beginning to get as heated as she was.
“You’re white, aren’t you?”
“Well, he’s not. Must be a paying client.”
“He’s a friend, for Christ’s sake.”
“Don’t you take the name of the Lord in vain. A friend! Very likely!”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. Besides, he’s gay.”
At this remark she turned apoplectic. “That does it. I don’t tolerate perverts. You’ve got till the end of the month to clear out.”
“Are you serious?”
“You bet I’m serious. You better be out by the thirty-first, or your belongings will be out on the sidewalk.”
“What a pitiful bigot you are,” I shouted, and slammed the door in her face.
I had only ten days to find a place I could afford, and there was nothing on the West Side available at that price. So I put my pride aside and asked Tricia if I could temporarily move into her place.
“You can have the spare bedroom and bathroom for $1,200 a month,” she answered.
Money always did come first with her. I see money as a means, not an end. But a means to what? Self-fulfillment? Independence—especially from Tricia? I’ve never had to answer that question, because I’ve barely gotten by with poorly paid, part-time jobs.
Tricia and I share the kitchen and living room—with difficulty. Our problem isn’t just traditional sibling rivalry, although there’s been plenty of that. We’re such diametric opposites that we disagree about almost everything—down to how to tie shoelaces or mix a drink. She’s all wham-bam, make it happen the way you want it to. She just can’t stand my more deliberate approach—what she calls my passivity.
It’s been this way for as long as I can remember. Although my sister is barely two years older than me, she’s always treated me like a naive child. From the start she acted as my protector, which just made her madder about my supposed inexperience.
One afternoon when I was four, she’d just come home from school. I was playing with a new toy phone. I loved it; each of the brightly colored keypad numbers played a different tune when I pressed it. I was entranced by it. Tricia asked me where I got it. I told her I’d used my birthday money to buy it.
“How much did it cost?”
“What a stupid waste of money,” she snorted.
“Why?” I asked indignantly.
“Because you could have asked to play with either Mom’s or Dad’s real phones. Much more interesting, and they cost nothing.”
“But I wanted my own phone,” I said.
“And how long will ten different rings keep you happy?”
I stopped playing with that toy the same day and never picked it up again.
I look at my face in the mirror, now, for the millionth time. After twenty-seven years it still lacks firm definition. My dark brown eyes seem to be perpetually asking an unanswerable question. My small, straight nose and rosy cheeks give me the look of a country girl. Yet people tell meI’m attractive, and I get enough come-ons from men to believeit. I know I’m only talking about externals here. But in Los Angeles externals are everything. And my externals tell me that I’m an equivocator. An accommodator. Too much deference, too little pushback. Too much consideration for everyone else, too little for myself.
I don’t know why, butI feel that I’m approaching a turning point in my life. I feel so much pressure within me that I might explode at any moment. I simply cannot go on as I am.
What is it with me? If I could answer that, I wouldn’t be in this state of confusion. I have zero confidence in myself. I no longer feel that I have made the right life choices and that Tricia’s are wrong. After all, who’s living in whose apartment? Still, I have no wish to emulate her. I find her lifestyle and ideas utterly alien.
I feel I need to change everything about my life. I wish something external would force me to do that. Living with Tricia for two years has undermined my self-confidence, leaving me dissatisfied with who I am now but unmotivated to change it. What’s keeping me from taking charge of my life?
In the kitchen, I find Tricia ready to meet her first clients of the day, ready to try to sell them an overpriced, 1920s Venice bungalow—“a teardown,” she calls it—that has been way too long on the market.Tricia won’t tell her clients about the hoops they’ll have to jump through to get the City Planning Department and the California Coastal Commission to let them demolish the house. Of course she won’t: her commission on the sale will be at least $50,000—more than I earn in a year.
“Morning, Jenny,” she greets me, barely looking round from her Italian espresso machine. “You look a mess.”
Tricia sees herself as a smart businesswoman, which she is, and dresses to fit the part. This morning she’s wearing a dark gray Roberto Cavalli wool business suit with a low neckline that offers male buyers an added incentive to clinch the deal. Sex, Tricia says, is a business tool. She’s always asking me why I’m wasting my sexual assets on “Dreary” (her pointedly unaffectionate nickname for my boyfriend Gary). And, I have to say, she can be super-sexy. Her male clients have difficulty keeping their eyes focused on her face. Strangely, she herself is only attracted to the brasher and equally self-confident bachelors who play the LA singles field with as much expertise as she does. Maybe she enjoys the challenge. She’s a born fighter.
An inch taller and two years older than I am, Tricia sees her appearance as her most important investment, and she spends accordingly. Her $600 Beverly Hills stylist cuts her hair at a merciless angle. Her brown eyes appear blue thanks to tinted contact lenses. Her aesthetician threads her eyebrows weekly. Of course, she wears false lashes (one hundred percent human hair, individually hand placed) enhanced by Clé de Peau Beauté mascara. Her small, upturned nose, which used to look exactly like mine, is the work of LA’s premier cosmetic surgeon. Her lips are collagen-enhanced, embellished by her signature Yves Saint Laurent Rouge Vernis lipstick.
Tricia cannot seem to keep herself from offering me advice. “Get real,” she’s been telling me for years. “Money matters. Stop doing plant maintenance for that client of yours and open your own plant store. Stop working part-time for Total Surveillance and start your own detective agency. Better yet, get your plant client who owns Wealth Management to give you a job, so that you can finally earn some serious money.”
She’s talking about Todd Granger. His company, Balboa Wealth Management Corporation, is the second-biggest mutual fund corporation in the country. I’m sure he could get me into his world—if I wanted him to, that is. But do I want him to do that? What do I want?
What do I really want?
Sure, money matters. But so does what you have to do to make it. Tricia’s at the mercy of her smartphone day and night. Her clients make sure she earns her commission by making her life as miserable as they can manage. They’re constantly changing their minds, asking for more, more, more, all while trying to bargain down her commission. In turn, Tricia despises them and trashes them behind their backs. If that’s what it takes to earn serious money, I don’t want it.
“I know you meant to put the coffee grinder back into the cabinet yesterday instead of leaving it on the counter.” This is Tricia’s opening shot of the morning. Instantly I’m transformed in her eyes—and my own—to the recalcitrant child who forgets to put her toys away.
Tricia sees her superior income as a confirmation of my immaturity. This, in turn, justifies her taking on the role of a strict, irritating parent, a role neither of us enjoys, but we cannot seem to escape it. I can hear her thoughts. Why can’t you understand the way this country works? When are you going to grow up? When are you going to learn not to put out unless the return on your investment makes it worthwhile?
Tricia fills her hideous portable traveling mug (reflective puce with soft rubbery handle) with coffee and drops it into her burgundy Italian leather purse, which she deftly slings over her shoulder.
“Your turn to sift Lulu’s litter,” she says with a sigh. “I wish I didn’t have to remind you every time.”
Needless to say, Tricia and I have different ideas of how often the cat box needs attention. Tricia always has been anal. Plus she hates the fact that Lulu, her long-haired black-and-white cat, prefers to sleep with me, which she does whenever Tricia can’t find her at night to lock her in her own bedroom.Lulu’s one of those rare cats who loves to sleep snuggling against a warm body. Some summer nights I wake up running with sweat because Lulu is generating double body heat. Tricia can’t stand that much closeness. But she wants Lulu to acknowledge that Lulu belongs to her, not to me.
I remember one night in our early childhood when Tricia and I were still sharing a bedroom—I must have been about five and she seven. I always slept with my teddy bear, Cuddles, pressed to my chest. I had a habit of talking to Cuddles and then answering myself in “his” voice, and that night Tricia lost her cool and snatched Cuddles away from me.
“Why are you talking to a stuffed piece of fabric with plastic beads for eyes?” she spat at me.
“Why,” I had Cuddles ask me, “does your sister have no imagination?”
“And stop pretending that it’s Cuddles who’s talking.”
Cuddles responded, “You’re not the only one who can talk.”
“Stop it!” she screamed. “Or I’ll throw Cuddles out the window.”
“If you throw me out of the window,” Cuddles replied smugly, “Jenny will cry her head off, and your parents will run in here and give you a hard time.”
“Just grow up, can’t you?” Tricia threw Cuddles at me. That was one of the rare fights in which I (or at least Cuddles) held our own.
Tricia always has been better than I am at dealing with the world. She sees me as hopelessly passive and out of touch with her world of big money and competition, the only thing that makes her feel truly alive. But I see the other side to her triumphs. The high she gets from winning a fight dissipates the minute she’s won, leaving her longing for the next challenge. Plus her inevitable defeats bring on lows that last until her next win.
I don’t want the lows, but I worry sometimes that I never experience highs like her. Is my life too bland? Am I afraid of taking risks? Am I too dependent on my sister? My boyfriend? My employers?
Tricia is my alter ego: what I resist, and what I need. I refuse to believe that the measure of everything in life is what you pay for it. How do you put a price on happy memories? Or regrets? Orlongings that spur you on to your next move? Why, then, do I spend so much of my time worrying about the money I don’t have?Maybe because I can’t afford to fix the brakes on my car, which urgently need fixing.
My reverie is interrupted by my iPhone’s ringtone, the chorus from Madonna’s “Like A Virgin,” my favorite song as a teen. I hit “Accept” and hear the voice of Felicia, Todd Granger’s housekeeper, who takes care of his enormous mansion in Newport Beach. Twice a week I tend to his houseplants. I don’t know what Todd pays Felicia, but I get $15 an hour. That’s not bad for the floral industry.
Felicia and I have bonded, as coworkers first, then as friends, despite our very different backgrounds. Felicia came to LA from Oaxaca in her late teens. She’s like a good mother to me, the only person who believes in me completely. Which leaves me feeling guilty, since I don’t deserve that kind of faith.
“I so worried.” Felicia’s grammar goes especially to pieces when she gets emotional. “Susan disappeared.”
Susan Kirby was Todd’s live-in girlfriend for two years until she ditched him three months ago. Felicia adored Susan, who treated her as an equal. Felicia was shocked when Susan and Todd broke up.
“What do you mean ‘missing’?” I ask.
“I tried to call and call. Finally, I went to her apartment in Palos Verdes, and it was no right. I could see through the window. All the plants were muertas. Plates broken on the kitchen floor.”
“She must have moved,” I say.
“No! No! The landlord told me she pays the rent. Is not right. Something is malo. It smell bad in there.”
“What does the landlord say?”
“He not care if he gets his dinero. What do I do?”
“She’s probably gone away somewhere to get over Todd.”
“No. She called me every weekend until she leave the house of Señor Granger. She is a friend. Then nothing. I try to call almost every day. Last week it say her machine full. I know something is wrong. Estoy preocupada. You are detective. You can find someone.” As I said, she believes in me, which is more than I do.
“Hardly a detective. I just review videotapes for a big detective agency.”
“You are modest.”
“Just telling the truth.”
“You’re the only detective I know.”
“Okay,” I say, cursing myself for agreeing. “I’ll look into it.”
Here I go again, I reflect. Volunteering for more unpaid work. And it’s work I’m not even qualified to undertake. But at least it’s for someone I care about. I can imagine Tricia laughing her head off at me: “Why can’t you learn to say the simple word ‘No’?”
“Thank you so much, amiga. Adiós.”
What’s done is done. Coffee, a slice of toast, then the 405 to Newport Beach. At least I remember to put the coffee grinder away.
I drive south through the parking lot that doubles as the 405 freeway, thinking about Susan Kirby. Tall, slim, short-cut blond hair, in her thirties, Susan dressed conservatively by day in pressed slacks, tailored blouses, and minimal makeup. She didn’t need much help in the looks department, with her wide grey-blue eyes, sensuous lips, and enviable figure. Susan was gifted as a personality, too, with a wonderful sense of humor and an interest in everything and everyone in her radius, including Felicia and me.
Felicia worshipped Susan. Susan genuinely seemed to think of Felicia as a friend. It was always left for Todd to issue any orders on the rare occasions they were needed. Felicia is one of those exceptional workers who anticipate their employers’ needs most of the time. Susan called Felicia Lici and insisted that Felicia call her Susan, not Miss Kirby.
I catch myself thinking about Susan in the past tense and tell myself to stop being morbid.
I remember the morning when Todd joined Felicia and me in the kitchen and told us that he and Susan had had a “falling out.” “I’m sorry to tell you that Susan is no longer living here.”
Felicia looked shocked. “But why, Señor Granger?”
“She no longer wants to live here.”
This was hardly an explanation, but neither Felicia nor I was in any position to press for details.
“I will miss her.”
“I will, too,” Todd said with what seemed like genuine sadness.
Felicia was devastated by Susan’s departure. For the rest of that dayshe kept bursting into tears. “WhySeñorGranger not try to talk with Susan? He’s a good man. He will miss her muchisimo.” But it’s clear that it’s Felicia who misses Susan, not Todd, who rarely mentions her name. Of course, that could be a way of hiding his hurt from us. Or from himself.
Susan would never let Felicia do anything personal for her, like make her a cup of coffee or take her clothes to the cleaner. “You’re employed by Todd,” Susan would tell Felicia, “not me.” Felicia cooked their dinners most weeknights, andTodd chose the menu. Susan often joined Felicia to do the Thursday shopping at the Costa Mesa farmers market. Felicia told me that Susan knew many of the sellers by name (“Hi, Dave,” she’d call out. “I want some of your ripest dragon fruit.” “For you, darling, nothing but the best.”) She and Felicia would have lunch under the umbrella-covered tables there, usually, according to Felicia, favoring the sushi food truck (Susan had the appetite of a bird). And she’d carry half the purchases herself back to the car. She sure humanized the household.
As I drive south I’m wondering what made her leave Todd? What happened between them that made her return to the job market when she’d seemed so happy living a life of leisure and fulfillment? Todd made it sound like the breakup was Susan’s choice. But I’ve learned never to trust either member of a coupleto truthfully explain their breakup. The past always gets reshaped to suit the present.
Do I see Susan as my model self? A woman who seemed to derive complete satisfaction from living on her own terms without getting caught up in the whirl of money and possessions? Do I see her as my better self? Am I looking as much for my missing self as I am for her? If she is as admirable as I believe, was her breakup with Todd a sign that the man she obviously cared for had crossed some kind of line of hers? Because Susan was no compromiser. She knew what she wanted from life and would not hesitate to split from someone who didn’t live up to her expectations. What might Todd have done to drive her away?
The car radio is playing Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie.” I remember the video of the fight the two get into (he’s singing, “You push, pull each other’s hair, scratch, claw . . .”). He’s abusive. He’s also a very emotional being, which is why he hits her and then swears he’ll never do it again (“though I know it’s lies”). How unlike Gary and me. I can’t imagine him ever losing his cool. King of bland. But what about my part in it? That’s probably why we’ve been together aslong as we have.
Come to think of it, my parents had a pretty bland relationship. There were none of the fireworks that sometimes erupted in the homes of my high school friends. If my parents disagreed about something Dad would call time out, they’d sit down at the kitchen table, and each would give the other five uninterrupted minutes in which to argue his or her side. I saw them almost contorting themselves to reach a compromise. God forbid that they should end up with opposing opinions. That would have been too threatening for them. I try to imagine what would have happened if one of them had lost it and gone off the deep end. It might have been a lot healthier. But they seemed to think that a truly angry outburst would set them on the primrose path to divorce.
Maybe Tricia got her aggression in opposition to them. Somehow she managed to cultivate the art of listening to her own feelings and acting on them. Selfish? Maybe. But decisive. A woman who seems to have no doubts. I, on the other hand, took from my parents a compulsion to doubt authorities and authoritarian stances of all kinds.
Still, at the time I admired my parents’ determination to work things out in a civilized way. I admired their keen social conscience, their insistence on thinking beyond their own needs and desires. But now I see them as stranded by the flash flood of life, bewildered by the fast-moving waters of my digital generationsweeping past them.They’ve never criticized Tricia in front of me, but I wonder what they really think about some of her values. Most likely they find some way of rationalizing away whatever she throws at them.
Mom was always very anti-war. She condemned even America’s repulse of Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in the Gulf War. She blamed the Pentagon’s inflated budget for America’s failure to take care of its poor and disadvantaged. Her bumper sticker readPEACE POWER—a perfect image of her confusion, seeing that peace involves renouncing power. Mom and Dad met on a peace march. Together they got petitions signed, organized bake sales, and the like. They believed that they could curb the power of the corporations and the Pentagon.
I inherited their liberal outlook, but not their belief in acts of resistance. Recently Dad said to me, “Look at how Obama got himself elected with millions of small contributions. We can change everything if enough Americans believe we can.” But look at what happened after 2008. Party warfare. Washington gridlock. Accusations of socialism (a current term of abuse), of appointing death panels for the elderly—the list goes on. And now everyone is forecasting a landslide for the Republicans this coming Tuesday. Dad: “Pollsters are always wrong. You wait and see. I put my bet on Americans’ common sense.” I’m waiting. But I don’t share his optimism, even while I wish I had his sense of commitment.
I arrive at the Granger mansion, all 8,000 square feet of it, perched at the end of Bay Island’s natural promontory, surrounded on three sides by the sea. At night the glimmering lights from the houses on the mainland add to the illusion that the mansion is floating on the water.
The estate includes Todd’s own private beach and dock, a swimming pool surrounded by cushy lounger chairs, and endless rolling lawns with deck chairs and barbecue pits. When he invited me to his Halloween party I got to see the place at night, the patios lined with long firepits that lit up the seawater lapping at his white sandy beach.
It takes me about five hours to take care of Todd’s indoor plants. Most of the containers they’re in are precious and fragile. In the bedroom, for example, there are two large Italian amphoras colored with a turquoise-and-terracotta drip glaze, that contain purple phalaenopsis orchids. In the entrance hall a porcelain Chinese fishbowl on a rosewood stand holds a scented Arabian jasmine with its clusters of white double flowers that turn green at the center. Although Todd says it’s not necessary, I’m nervous enough about water spills to insist on moving the containers to a sink or a tarp when I water the plants or change them. So everything takes longer than it should. Todd pays me for twice-weekly visits. Monday I take care of the plants on the upper two floors. Fridays are for the ground floor.
When Todd or his brother Dan is at home I feel compelled to spend (unpaid) time chatting with them. I like Todd, though I don’t worship him the way Felicia does—and no wonder, he’s been very good to her. He gives her generous year-end bonuses—she confided to me that he gave her $2,000 last year, significantly more than ever before. He even bought her a secondhand car several years ago, and he helped get her son into Balboa Target School. Felicia is fiercely independent, so she never mentions her financial problems in front of Todd. But he knows, and he never fails to help her out.
Once all the plants on the rest of the ground floor are trimmed and watered, I knock on Todd’s office door. He calls to me to come in. I find him sitting at his desk, and I think, as I often do when I see him, what a handsome man he is, especially for a guy in his early fifties. He could be a model or an actor. He wears his full, slightly graying hair swept back, accentuating his piercing gray eyes, tanned face, and perfectly shaped white teeth. He mostly wears Dolce & Gabbana suits over a white shirt with contrasting patterned cuffs and collar. His upright posture and relaxed smile exude confidence and success.
“Hi, Todd,” I greet him. I gesture at a huge plant in the corner. “I’m going to swap that red ginger for something different I brought you today.”
“Susan gave me that for my birthday last year. You’re not thinking of dumping it, are you?”
I’m surprised at his bringing up her name, something he has avoided for the past three months.
“I know. I helped her choose it for you,” I reply. “I’ll keep it for you until next year when it’s ready to bloom again.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
I screw up my courage to ask him the next question, the one I promised Felicia I’d ask.
“Felicia told me that she hasn’t heard from Susan since she left. She and Felicia normally talked to one another weekends. Have you by any chance heard from her?”
Todd looks uncomfortable. I feel as if I’m treading all over his feelings. This detective work doesn’t come easily.
“Not a word.” Now he won’t look me in the eye. I feel bad. But the investigative me has a nagging doubt—is he telling the truth? A professional detective would push this further. But I care too much about Todd’s feelings to do so. Stuck in the middle again.
Todd’s brother Dan walks in. I don’t like him. He’s smarmy in his regulation dark blue suits and red tie. Actually I find him downright creepy, and, when we’re alone, he makes verbal passes at me that he disguises with stupid jokes. “Would you step away from the freezer? You’re melting the ice cubes.”
Dan is married and cares too much about his political career to risk an extramarital scandal, which makes his verbal come-ons all the creepier. I also hate his politics. He’s a Republican state senator, running for governor. Like most politicians, he stands for whatever he thinks will make voters like him. The main plank of his platform is to get tough on illegal immigrants. As Felicia tells me, this puts every immigrant, legal and illegal, into the crosshairs, because it subjects the entire Mexican American community to more frequent searches and arrests for no good reason.
This is more than politics for Felicia. Her undocumented cousin, Miguel, works at Cal Fowl, an Azusa poultry processing plant. When Felicia told me how they kill the chickens I thought, that’s a job that only an illegal immigrant would be willing to do. He would have to enter a half-life of evasion and fear should Dan get elected.
“Hi, Todd,” Dan says, and to me: “How is our garden rose today?” I want to punch him. He’s appropriating a term of endearment that only Todd uses for me.
“Enjoying my day in the sun,” I reply. I move to the ginger, spread a tarp on the floor for it, and start to ease it out of its container.
Dan turns to Todd. “I need to talk to you about the campaign. Jill tells me we need to start paying some of those overdue bills.”
“I told you not to worry about it,” Todd says. “I’ll have Bob write a check.”
“What would we do without the Supreme Court,” Dan quips.
“Or the Founding Fathers,” Todd rejoins grinning.
I have a vague idea of what they’re talking about. It has to do with a Supreme Court decision made last January that allows corporations to contribute huge sums to political campaigns in the name of free speech. To me the idea that corporations have voices, as if they’re actual humans, seems totally weird. But what do I know? My main source of news is NPR when I’m in the car. Admittedly that seems like half my life, but still, my information comes in arbitrary snatches of stories that I catch partway through as I turn on the car and are cut short when I get wherever I’m going.
Todd turns to me. “I’d really like to have a new purple cattleya orchid for my desk. You’re going to scold me for throwing my money away, aren’t you?”
“I only do that when you want to replace perfectly good dormant plants with new ones. Sure, I’ll get you a cattleya.”
Todd explains to Dan: “Jenny takes my plants home and nurses them as if they were my kids.”
“Maybe she’ll give you that treatment someday,” Dan responds.
Todd ignores his brother’s crude insinuation.
Having finished replacing the plant, I excuse myself and leave them to their business and make for the kitchen to pass on to Felicia the outcome of my questions to Todd.
On my way to my car I pause in the driveway to check my social streams. Social media makes me especially schizophrenic. It’s full of posturing, narcissism, and insecurity. At the same time, it’s my generation’s medium. I often ridicule what I read there. But that doesn’t stop me from using it. My problem is not so much with the medium itself, as with the temptation it offers, its invitation to its users to expose themselves to the world, to become dependent on the “likes” of others. That leaves me torn between ridicule and pity. With social media, as with too many things, I seem unable to make up my mind exactly how I feel about it.
Here’s Amy, my college roommate, now dating a software wiz, on Twitter: “omg. im done with texting today” (who cares? I bet she’s not done). My fourteen-year-old cousin June tweets: “I don’t want guys to put me on a petal stool.” (I guess that’s how we all add to our vocabulary by repeating phrases we’ve overheard.) I switch to Instagram. Scrolling down I come across a selfie taken by Amy. A headshot. It’s clear to anyone who knows her that she has manipulated (or more likely had manipulated for her) her image: the mole on her chin has been removed, her eyelashes darkened, the color of her pupils altered from gray to blue, her cheekbones highlighted, and her teeth whitened as if she’s starring in a toothpaste commercial. She’s added a hashtag: “#hotnightwithmyBESTguy.”I don’t get it. Who’s she trying to kid? I turn off my iPhone and get in my car. Time to grab a salad at Taco Bell and then head north.
On Friday afternoons the 405 going north, like every other frigging freeway in the area, slows to a maddening series of stops and starts. Most of the male drivers around me look too tired to inspire my sexual fantasies. Or am I the one who’s too tired?On the car radio KCSN is in the middle of “No Line on the Horizon” by U2. That wakes me up instantly. (“I know a girl, a hole in her heart . . .” That’s me). I’m headed for the Century City headquarters of Total Surveillance, LA’s largest (and most expensive) private investigative agency. There I will spend four tedious and instantly forgettable hours in a cubicle fast-forwarding through surveillance tapes looking for evidence that only occasionally shows up. For $12 an hour! What is it with me? $48 minus deductions for giving up my evening. Why am I still just getting by doing such menial work? What is wrong with earning good money? Why do I subconsciously distrust the whole world of money? Earning the derisory amount of it I do only facilitates the accumulation of wealth by the one or five percent.
After Total Surveillance comes another stimulating late evening with Gary of no fixed address, who bums off his friends, including me. Gary spends all his time playing military video games. Nothing, including me, seems to turn him on more than a new video game. One of the few ways of distracting him is unfastening his pants. What’s wrong with him? He should be wanting to unfasten mine. No, wait. What’s the matter with me? I should be dropping him, not his pants. Instead I keep on making up to this couch potato as if he were God, or next best, George Clooney.
As if by Pavlovian instinct, I turn on KCRW at the top of the hour, just in time for the news. At a rally in Burbank, GOP gubernatorial nominee Dan Granger predicted victory: “This is a very important election. It is the battle for the soul of California.” I ask myself, what the hell does Dan mean by the soul of California? What does he know about souls, seeing that he appears to lack one of his own? He talks about erecting an economic barrier to keep employers from hiring illegal aliens, as if Mexicans were invaders from outer space.
The tall tower of Total Surveillance fills my windshield. Its blank reflective facade predicts the blank experience of the hours, weeks, years I’ll be spending inside it. I pull intothe underground parking lot with its low-level lighting, unnerving absence of humans, and hot stale air. I make for the stairway to give myself what exercise I can.
I settle into one of eight identical cubicles in the near-empty office, position my iPod headphones over my ears, and select Taylor Swift’s Speak Now. Then I get to work reviewing security tapes. My first video in the pile left for me is markedRAUL PEREZ. It consists of two hours taping him each of the last five nights. An attached note informs me that Perez works in a warehouse downtown. He claims that his left leg was severely injured when a load on a forklift tipped over and fell on him. He walks with a severe limp, for which he’s collecting workmen’s comp. As it happens, a supervisor reported seeing Perez walking in the parking lot without a limp. The warehouse owner hired Total Surveillance to prove that Perez wasn’t as badly injured as he claimed.
The clock on the tape shows it’s 10:07 on the first night. I press PLAY. The gate of Perez’s apartment building opens, and the suspect emerges, walking his German shepherd on a leash. Sure enough, he is hardly limping. He releases the leash, takes a tennis ball out of his pocket, and throws it. The dog chases after it, and Perez breaks into a jog with barely a sign of a limp. I’m annotating the tape to mark the nine-minute segment in which Perez appears when I feel a presence behind me. I pivot my head and see the broad figure of Grant Poole, the CEO of Total Surveillance. Despite the disparity between our positions, Grant and I have always had a strange rapport. I pull off my headphones and swing round to face him.
“Wegot him,” he says.
“It looks that way,” I say. “How come you’re interested in a small case like this?”
“His boss is a friend of mine. I promised to keep an eye on the case.”
“What if the guy argues that he was walking normally on the tape because he took a painkiller?”
Grant laughs. “You’re wising up to this business. We’ll have to show multiple instances of him walking without a limp to make it stick. Hey, have you ever thought of getting a private investigative license?”
“Um, no offense, but I have no intention of spending half of my nights parked in a car waiting for nothing to happen.”
Surprisingly Grant takes no offense at my jab at his profession. “Smart girl. Let me know when you’ve finished gathering all the evidence on this case, will you?”
“Sure, Grant. Poor guy. He doesn’t stand much of a chance when you big boys take an interest.”
“I have zero interest in protecting anyone who leeches off my tax dollars. Workers’ comp attracts scam artists like pollen does bees.” Grant breaks out in a grin. “Keep up the good work.”
I spend another hour fast-forwarding through night after night, capturing all the moments in which Perez appears with his dog. Sometimes he shows a pronounced limp; other times he’s hardly limping.Who knows if he’s scamming his employer?
I spend the next couple of hours on two cases of marital cheating, with no conclusive evidence of sexual contact, just a hand on a waist here or a light kiss on the cheek there.
As I sign out I wonder whether the rest of my evening with Gary will prove any more exciting. I can hear Tricia’s voice in my head saying, “Well, now. That’s up to you, isn’t it?” She’s sure got a point, damn her.
Surprise! As I let myself into Dave’s apartment I find Gary sitting slouched in his friend’sarmchair, exactly where I always find him. He’s wearing torn jeans and an old wrinkled black T-shirtthat he probably slept in last night. His ginger hair is done in a ponytail; it looks as if he last shaved a week ago. He is balancing his PlayStation 3 console on his lap,immersed in “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.”
“This version is really cool,” he greets me. “Instead of taking you back to World War II it takes you into the near future. I’m playing the part of Sgt. Soap McTavish of the SAS, and we are searching for a nuclear device on a cargo ship in the Bering Sea when our ship is fired on by Russian MiGs and begins to sink. I gotta find out how we get out of this one.”
Although this greeting is normal, I feel unusually irritated.
I settle down to eat one of two turkey burgers I’ve brought with me and pass the other to Gary. He accepts it without looking up. I turn on the TV. CSI is on, and it’s about a missing person case. I glue my eyes to the screen, hoping for a clue that’ll help me find Susan.
When the show ends I turn off the TV. Gary reluctantly puts down his controller and slumps down next to me on the couch that will serve as his bed tonight. He bites into his burger, which must be cold and greasy by now.
“This game’s really cool. After we’ve been hit by Russian MiGs I manage to salvage the cargo manifest of the boat before it sinks. . .”
My mind wanders as he goes on and on. “Now we’ve found out from his cell phone that he was financed by Zakhaev. So next we’re going after him.”
“It sounds incredibly Boys’ Lifeto me,” I say.
“You chicks just don’t get it, do you?”
My irritation flares.
“What don’t we chicks get?”
“That this is what men do.”
“What? Act like couch potatoes while dreaming that they’re Navy SEALs?”
“Forget it!” he snaps. And then, after a brief pause: “Get me a Budout of the fridge, would you.” This doesn’t come in the form of a question.
Why don’t I tell him to get it himself? Or to go to hell? Instead I get up and bring him a beer. By way of compensation I help myself to one as well. But I still reproach myself for acting like a wimp.
“So,” he says. “What you been up to?”
“Susan has disappeared without a trace. Felicia is really worried about her. Today Feliciaasked me to find her. She thinks I’m a professional private eye. But I’m not, and I don’t know what to do.”
Gary thinks for a moment. “Don’tyou have the Find My Friends app on your phone?”
“And do you have her phone number on your app?”
I nod again.
“Well, then,” he says disparagingly, “why haven’t you given it a try?”
I give it a try. The app says, “NO RESULT FOUND.” Susan must have either powered off her cell phone or left it in hidden mode. Too bad.
“You can always try later,” Gary says dismissively. He turns to me grinning. “In the meantime we could make out. Take your mind off it.”
“You’re so romantic,”I say sarcastically.
“What’s gotten into you today? You’re being real bitchy. Don’t tell me you’ve got a headache. Or your period.”
“Neither.” I can feel myself close to losing my temper.
“Well, then. Here I am. Waiting to be turned on.”
Rage seizes me. “Why don’t you just rent some porn and make out with yourself?” I snap back angrily.
“How come none of the chicks in my video games are as bitchy as you?” he sneers.
“Because they’re created by jerks like you.”
“At least they’re a turn-on. Unlike you.”
Finally I snap. I actually see red. “Then be my guest. Have a party and let themturn you on.” I jump up, grab my things, and head for the door.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Gary shouts at my back.
I turn to face him. “Go back to your zombie half-life. I’ve had it with you. We’re done.”
“What do you mean, done?”
“I mean I’m leaving and I’m not ever coming back. Got it now?”
“What have I done to bring this on?”
“Just being yourself. Asshole!”
At the door I take a final look at the shabby apartment with its institutional cream walls, drink-stained sofa, and worn rugs that Gary considers home. Then I storm out of the room, yanking the door shut behind me with a crash.
Standing in the hallway I feel relieved. It’s over. Years of being taken for granted by him. Years of pretending he was better than he was. Years of pretending that I was weaker than I am. It’s over!
From inside the apartment I hear Gary turning his game back on. I imagine him zapping my avatar on his PS3. Poof! I’m gone in a digital puff of smoke.
Driving back to Venice I ask myself, how did he and I ever become an item? We met in my second year at Santa Monica College. In its notorious parking lot where I’d spent an hour that morning cruising, looking for a space until I finally ran out of gas. After pulling over to the side and raising my hood I peered into the engine, fuming. That’s when Gary pulled up next to me on his motorbike, told me to hop on the back, and drove me to the nearest gas station, where he filled a gas can he kept stashed in his panier. How unlike him that was. As I later came to discover, life was one long series of unpleasant surprises for him.
But I didn’t know that then. So we started dating. Gary was a talented runner, and I traveled with him to lots of races. He always performed well but never won. And no wonder: he often overslept, missed training sessions, and drank too much. How telling. Commitment was not Gary’s thing.
Meantime I was studying for an Associate Degree, takingcourses in interiordesign, digital capture, environmental studies, American literature, and Spanish. I took my studies seriously and had a GPA of 3.8. Thanks to Gary, I also had an active social life, partying heavily with the athletic students. Most of the men were jocks and heavy drinkers. Compared to them Gary seemed more my kind of guy—less driven, more casual. Even his drinking seemed restrained compared to theirs. I realize now that this comparison was like measuring the temperature of Venice against the Mojave Desert.
Gary and I started having sex one month after we met. I remember the first time. We were celebrating a win by the track team. A crowd of us ended up plastered in a frat house, when the guys started playing rough, stripping their ownclothes, then the women’s, until—surprise!—the women found themselves naked while the guys were still wearing their underwear. One couple started having what looked like unprotected sex as the others cheered them on. The remaining guys began to urge the rest of us women to join the action.
I turned to Gary and whispered,“Let’s go.” Looking at his face, I could see he was turned on. I felt half-repulsed, half turned on myself. Gary had spent the past weeks trying to get me to do more than blow him. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t lost my virginity in my senior year at high school.
“Can we go all the way?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “as long as you’ve got a rubber.”
We jumped on his bike and went to his place. It was all very rushed. We made straight for the bedroom, where I undid his jeans and pulled them to his ankles. Retrospectively I realize this was a mistake, as from then on he expected me to take the initiative every time we had sex.
I also had to undress myself, but I was so over-stimulated by the scene we’d just left that I allowed him to short-circuit the preliminaries. I fitted a condom over his pulsing penis. Heimmediately thrust it into me and came within a minute.
Disappointing? Maybe. But I was too excited myself to recognize the lack of subtlety until repeated experience made it clear that he was as unpracticed as the other two guys with whom I’d already experienced sex.
I have to admit that for a time Gary’s rough, aggressive approach to sex turned me on. It made me feel really wanted, special, desirable. It just shows how deluded you can get when you’re needy. I realize now that he would have treated a blow-up doll as well, maybe better, than he treated me.
Why has it taken me so long to wake up to the reality of who Gary is and what our relationship was? Tricia says I lack self-esteem. But then, she goes toworkshops and groups like“Building Your Self-Confidence” and “Developing Your Self-Worth” that have basically taught her to put a price tag on her pussy. As Tricia says, “It’s your most valuable asset, and it depreciates over time.”
For most of the time I really do believe in myself. But when I reflect on how I have related to other people, not just employers but friends and family, I wonder whether I’m not kidding myself. Look at the way I just fetched a beer for Gary instead of telling him to shift his lazy ass and get us both one. I guess I could do with more ego. But Tricia could do with more empathy for other people. Like me, for example.
How much longer am I going to live my life by just getting by? Does it all boil down to money? Is money all that matters? Or that matters most? I refuse to believe that. Sure, it matters. But other things matter as much.
These thoughts are brought to an abrupt halt by arriving home—okay, arriving at Tricia’s apartment.
I am greeted by Lulu, who’s rubbing herself against my legs, purring loudly. I realize that I’m feeling really down. I raid Tricia’s luxurious liquor cabinet and pour myself a generous shot of Herradura Reserva tequila. What will she be doing now? Is she dancing and drinking at a nightclub? Watching her latest date playing blackjack at a casino? Leading him on, then holding out on him?
Wait. What makes me think my life is better than Tricia’s? My greatest accomplishment today was finally ending a dead-end relationship with a dead-end dude. I pour a consolation shot into my glass, hoping the tequila will put me to sleep quickly. But not before returning the bottle and washing and putting away the glass.
Miguel feels even more tired than usual at the end of his shift at Cal Fowl. He takes off his work apron, washes his bloodstained hands and arms, and goes out to collect his bike. He feels lucky—this Friday he has been paid in full for last week’s work. Sometimes the pay is late or less than what he is owed. He has a few minutes to spare before biking to Citrus College for his afternoon class in Fundamentals of Automotive Technology.
He refuses to think about his job, but at night his dreams take him back to the processing plant, where he finds himself attaching not chickens but live dogs, cats, birds, even babies to the processing line. The line carries them inexorably down into the vat of electrified water from which they emerge with rigor mortis setting in. To get rid of the dream he will wake himself up and try to conjure up photos of his grandparents’back yard in Oaxaca, where, he’s heard,chickens and a rooster spend all day pecking for seeds and insects in the rough grass. But he cannot recall anything of his life back in Oaxaca. All he can remember is what his mother has told him about it. That’s because his parents crossed the border when he was an infant. That must be at least twenty-three years ago.
He stops off on the way to the College to grab a pork taco from Taco Nazo, a stand on North Azusa Avenue. Since starting work at Cal Fowl he can’t face chicken. He counts out $1.69 in coins and pays the guy. Turning around he bumps into Jesús, a fellow Mexican student from his morning class.
“Hey, hombre, how goes it?” he greets Jesús.
“It’s tough, man. You missed the panic here this morning.”
“What you talking about?”
“We thought la migra was raiding the stand. RCGT broadcast a warning about two ICE agents seen near the stand. It shut down just as I was about to get my breakfast burrito, and everyone (me included) vanished in seconds.”
“Glad you made it out, man.”
“It turned out to be a false alarm. Some joker sent out a fake tweet. Followed it up later ranting, ‘Kick those wetbacks the fuck out and the fat pigs that gave birth to them.’”
“Bienvenidos a los Estados Unidos de América.”They exchange forced grins.
Miguel pays for his taco and soda.
“I’m starving,” Jesús exclaims, his mouth stuffed with food.
“That’s why you’re guzzling two tacos, is it?”
“You try going all day without breakfast.”
“What you doing Saturday?” Miguel asks.
“You mean afternoon?”
“Fishing in the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. And you?”
“I’m texting her once I’m done at school.”
“She still holding out on you?”
“What can I say? Chicas are all the same.”
“No they’re not. What’s she got that keeps you going back for more?”
“Haven’t you noticed? She’s got really great breasts.” Miguel doesn’t think Jesús would appreciate her other non-sexual attractions.
“Keep with it. They all put out in the end.”
“You an expert?”
“I just have lower standards.”
“Each to his own poison.”
“Poison? More like honey.”
“Sweet tooth, ha?”
“Best candy I know.”
Grinning, Jesús finishes off his second taco and swills it down with a Coke.
Miguel gets back on his bike. “Tonight my mom wants me to join the family after class at Almansor Park.”
“El Día de los Muertos?”
“Right. They’re making an altar for my aunt.She died in the Sonoran Desert two years ago trying to get back from Oaxaca. Someone slashed the water supply.”
“Bad luck.” Miguel isn’t sure whether Jesús means him or his aunt.
“I miss her.”
They both are silent for a moment.
“Got to go to class,” Miguel calls back as he cycles off.