Last Tuesday, I went with my friend, Marisa, to Home Depot to purchase supplies needed to repair a gate leading to her backyard. It was a bright, hot day. After walking through the parking lot and entering, I waited for my eyes to adjust to the lighting of the vast expanse of the store. My left eye settled just fine, but my right eye was filled with many bright, flashing spots of all colors. Several moments later, my right eye was still filled with these spots. I covered my left eye with my hand – looked around only with my right – but couldn’t see anything beyond the spots.
“Are you ok?” Marisa asked.
“Sure. I think.”
The spots finally went away, later, as we waited for our lunch at a taco stand, on our way back to Marisa’s place. But as soon as they went away, an intense case of nausea set in. Marisa was talking to me, but I barely heard her as I debated throwing up right there on the sidewalk. I hung in there, but as we drove to Marisa’s house in Silverlake, the nausea grew worse. Then came the brutal headache. By the time Marisa steered us into the driveway, I was pressing hard on the left side of my head where the pain occurred. I’d never felt anything like that before.
Marisa gave me some aspirin with codeine, and by the time we finished eating, the headache was gone. Everything was just fine, actually. Dandy. But an hour into the repairing of the gate, I felt weighted down at my shoulders, hips, feet and arms. My head moved about like a bobble-doll, and my fingers were twice as thick as they were that morning. I was able to finish the repairs, but there was much hesitation in my work. I could see what needed to be done, but I couldn’t articulate it to myself. I felt like I’d been reading the same page of a Dostoyevsky novel over and over, and just wasn’t getting it. Joggers jogged by the hillside street, smiled, waved. Dog walkers, too. Cars passed by. Gawky, pimpled teens wearing private-school uniforms, came home from school, did chores in the yard. The sun slowly moved across the sky, then began its descent. Life was a shallow stream and I was an old tire stuck in the middle of it – half above, half below the surface.
I went to a pizza joint that night in North Hollywood, after repairing the gate. The last few stragglers of the evening rush hour raced by, honked, screeched. I’d only eaten half of my slice of pizza but it felt like I’d been there for hours. There was music playing over the PA from musicians I was familiar with, but I couldn’t name the songs. I wandered out of the pizza joint like a foreigner at the customs station in an airport, then zombied my way over to the Orange Line bus that would take me across The Valley to – my friend – Karen’s sofa-bed that’s been Home, lately.
The next morning, I decided a slow, long walk would do me good. Walking south on Sepulveda Blvd, I passed a firehouse. It was September 11th, and people were setting out folding chairs in front of a stage. Other people were placing flyers with “NEVER FORGET” printed on them on the chairs. Little American flags fluttered in a line along the sidewalk. There was a fountain in front of the station, which was covered with candles and cards and photographs of firemen who were killed in the World Trade Center attacks, 12 years before.
I turned east on Ventura Blvd, away from my mind, into a total vacuum, and by the time my mind and the laws of physics caught up to me I was several miles down the street, almost to Studio City. I turned around and began my walk back, passing massage parlors that advertised massages at $45 per hour. A little further down the street, they went for $40 per hour. Even further down the street they were $35, whereupon I took the bait.
An old man with gray-blue eyes entered the massage parlor with me. He was grinning, but with one of those permanent grins like that of Private Pyle in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. One smiling, middle-aged Asian lady led him into a room, another led me into the room, adjacent. I lay there in the dark, soft, pink light, waiting for the masseuse as Chines, instrumental reworkings of tunes by the likes Kenny G and Celine Dion softly flowed out of unseen speakers. Then the masseuse came in and started working her magic. I began to relax, but only a few minutes into the massage, the grinning man began whispering loudly.
“Oh, yeah, dat feels so good. Yeah, c’mon…you know.”
“Oh no, he, he, he,” the masseuse replied.
This banter continued for about 3/4 of the massage, until the man said, “Alright, you made me feel good. Now, it’s your turn. Lie down.”
“Oh no, he, he, he…”
“C’mon, I wanna do dis!”
“Gimmie da oil and lay down!”
“YOU FINISH GO!”
“A’ight, settle down.”
There was the ruffling around of clothes, then footsteps, then the bell over the front door rang. I left a few minutes later, less relaxed than when I went in to the place. The massage oil made me feel grimy in the hot evening sun. Wind would blow and dust would stick to me. Karen’s apartment moved further and further away with each step I took toward it.
The memorial was about to start when I finally made it to the firehouse on Sepulveda. Firemen milled about – some in working uniforms, others in dress-blues – chatting, cracking each other up. A group of gray-headed ladies wearing red, white and blue sequenced vests were warming up their voices on the stage in front of the folding chairs. 12 Years Ago. Wow…a snap of the fingers. I was just a clueless 26-year-old kid, then. Now, 12 years later, I’m a…I’m…
The next morning, I did my laundry. Things were fine during the wash cycle, but sometime during the drying – as I drank my coffee, listening to the metal on my jeans clanking around in the dryer, down at the end of the hallway of the apartment complex – the bottom dropped out of the day and I went spiraling down, down, down. Voices accompanied me on the descent, shouting or whispering phrases like it’s no use or all effort is utterly useless or there is only death or hopelessness. I sat up, looked around the apartment – found the computer, the sofa, bookshelf, anything easily definable that would keep me in the Here and Now instead of falling further down The Hole.
The dryer stopped. I tried to fold the clothes but gave up and took another walk. I turned north on Sepulveda Blvd. The mountains loomed in the distance and I began to feel compelled to walk to them, climb them with no food or water, find a ledge and wait to starve to death or – preferably – get mauled to death by a mountain lion. So, I turned south, away from the lions and hurried to Ventura Blvd. There, I headed west toward Encino.
Encino may as well have been a foreign country. It had the standard suburban shopping centers and restaurants, but absolutely none of it seemed familiar, or more so, made sense to me. A feeling so real came over me: that I would never, ever, be able to understand Encino. Or LA, or New York, or Texas, or Planet Earth. You’re done, a voice told me. Finito. You gave it your best shot, but it’s time to move on, pal. I had no headache, no nausea, but I felt an incredible amount of pressure around my head. I was approaching real despair, that only careless jay-walking could alleviate, until a sudden rush of serenity came upon me. Oh, I thought, this must be terminal brain cancer. Whew…for a minute there, I thought it was something really bad. So, I’m gonna die soon. Well, I’ve had a good run. Hey, 12 years and one day more of life than all those people who died in the 9/11 Bombings. More time than the thousands of soldiers killed by suicide bombers, or their own suicides, or by friendly fire. And more time than the 150,000 plus civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since the bombings. You got it easy, Todd, you’re just gonna have one hell of a headache, see crazy lights and colors, pee on yourself every now and then until you go to sleep one day and never wake up again. I sat in the shade of a bus stop, thinking of who I should call to let them know of this diagnosis. My mother, of course, sisters, aunts and uncles, friends in New York, Chicago, Texas, Los Angeles…
The voice came from inside a beat up, gray sports car at the curb. I walked up to it and peeked inside. It was a guy I met at an AA meeting earlier in the week. I didn’t even know his name.
“You need a ride?”
“I’m a bookkeeper,” he said, as we cruised down Ventura. “I guess. I mean, that’s what’s made me money. But I’m really a musician. I just haven’t played in so long. I’m kinda craving to do it again, you know, sit and play with another person. And playing for people. I don’t care how small a crowd, you know. I just wanna play. Maybe you and I can play together sometime.”
Friday, I felt better. But there was still much walking to be done. I started north on Sepulveda – the mountains were back to being mountains again, no longer giant rock sirens calling me to my demise. Then I headed east on Burbank Blvd, then north on Woodmen St, and finally onto Victory Boulevard.
Near a gas station on the corner of Victory and Woodmen, a young mother bounced a baby on her hip as she talked to another woman. She looked so young – around 20 – and still had a youthful, plump quality about her. The sun had just set. The sky behind her was apricot in color, slowly turning to indigo blue, further up. 3D palm trees loomed over us.
“I’m turning myself in to tha’ cops in Fresno at the end of the month,” said the young mother. “I got two warrants on me. I gotta cousin that got a year up there but he only served 9 days ‘cause the jail was so overcrowded. I dunno. Whatever happens’ll happen. I’m done runnin’ and I’m not scared of any of it anymore.”
Behind her, three chopped Harley-Davidson’s raced by in glorious, thunderous, weekend anarchy. The baby’s fat arms flopped in every direction as her mother bounced her. The little purple bow in her hair had fallen and dangled in front of her eyes that gazed passed her mother, through me and far beyond the liquor stores, check cashing stations, bail-bondsmen offices and body shops of Victory Boulevard, watching the wisdom of the entire Universe that she possessed upon birth slip further away as her billions of tiny cells relentlessly divided, divided, divided…