from Dark Storage
Lauren W. Westerfield
. . . I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better, but I did not bother to weight the curtains correctly and all that summer the long panels of transparent golden silk would blow out the windows and get tangled . . .
—Joan Didion, “Goodbye To All That”
Sometimes, it is easier to see the ends of things, and harder to see how they began. If one particular thing—a relationship, for instance, or a season—has just ended. Has ended so recently that time is still inching into melt-drip spring. Sometimes, there’s a sudden change in light. Language, too, begins to drip. The sudden yellow-orange sunlight startles with its marmalade-tinted brightness. Words take on the honeyed echo of a voiceover. What I mean is, sometimes the end of something isn’t so much clear as it is a kind of immersion: where you, too, succumb to spring—permit your neck-nerves to relax and melt beneath the syrupy weight of flame-flecked marmalade. All around you, there is light that catches you and clings, as if your skin were the gossamer wings of a fly.
Take me, for instance. For months, the nerves inside my neck have been constricted. For months, I’ve felt the weight of this: tanned arms, black hair. The weight of eight full years, and how we met—[his hands and lips, salt waves, dry Baja palms]—and how, for me, that memory has since lightened, thinned. Blurred out like a film dissolve.
But now, because of this ending, the tension gives way. Now I almost feel like I’m inside the light. Sometimes, I feel like giving in. My body wants to uncoil. My lips catch hints of sweetness. And because I’m talking about myself—that is, telling you my version of this season, ending, sweet—the sweetness might be something in particular. Say, the sweetness of North Idaho in spring: tulips and exploding crocuses, gold-green-soaked Palouse prairie, hills that roll and roll and green so green it melts right through the atmosphere.
It is a porous green. It turns me porous. Lands against my tongue and tastes like marmalade; like citrus, and the smell of good light in the morning.
Sometimes, the end of something is a kind of unraveling. Sometimes, the thing that ends is not so much a thing as it is a place. Say, a city. Say, Los Angeles.
Except of course I know that green—or any other color [yellow-gold, sky-blue, blade-of-grass]—probably can’t land upon my tongue. Because it is nothing more than sheen: the surface of an object that my optic nerve perceives and then perverts. Reflection or absorption, or a little bit of both. A version of a version of a thing.
It is easy for me to see how Los Angeles ended, and harder for me to see how it began. Not because I don’t remember, but because the beginnings were so many. Because they blur and overlap. Because, for me, Los Angeles began inside my bones. When I first saw Los Angeles, I would have been about three years old. It would have been summertime. I would have seen it from the backseat of my parents’ boxy Volvo 240 sedan as we flew along the I-5 South—past San Jose, Los Banos, Buttonwillow, Gorman; past Castaic and The Grapevine, then Valencia, then Burbank, then sputtering, at last, down to a crawl [as one does, eventually, from any direction, when arriving in Los Angeles] and merging with the sludge of cars and smog and asphalt heat in a collective westward push onto the 101.
We would have pushed between the high-rise towers of Downtown and on to Central, to the house with the hot tub ﬁlled with plastic floating vegetables where my mother’s best friend [who’d married my father’s best friend] lived with many cats and dogs and records and most likely marijuana plants, though I didn’t know about that then. We would have been headed to Disneyland. But that year, and every year thereafter, we would first have made our way into the city. We would have driven through Hollywood, and I would have gaped at the palm trees, the brownness, the occasional Rolls or Bentley, the Capitol Records building, the storied turrets of Chateau Marmont.
Could I have rolled the window down myself? Been old enough, arms long enough, to reach the plastic lever on the right-hand passenger door? Felt the brownness of the hot dry wind against my palms?
Sometimes, the thing that ends is not so much a thing or even a place as it is a feeling. Perhaps that feeling is love. Or it is dreaming. Or it is a kind of rupture—of memory, connection. Sometimes, perhaps it is a tangle of all three: a golden plait torn ragged by the winds of spring and waves of porous green.
The brain processes visions through the retina, transferring data first via the thalamus onto a whisper-wall of tissue called the visual cortex. It is bigger than the plastic cap of a film canister, smaller than a camera lens cover. It hovers somewhere near the back of the brain, floating in the occipital lobe. It waits to see the surface of things—floorboards, jam jars, cacti needles—bent against the light.
Let’s suppose I had to choose. Let’s suppose I had to lay a finger down—select a single, fated, switch-flick moment—when what I’m calling “Los Angeles” began. What moment did I feel the city’s heat-bleached streets—blue on gold on black in every season—reaching up to stroke my skin?
When I ﬁrst saw Los Angeles like this, I was twenty-seven, and it was just past New Year’s, and A and I were getting on an E175 regional jet at Bob Hope Burbank Airport to fly back to San Diego. I wore a brand-new cream-white patterned blouse from Anthropologie that was very beautiful and had cost far too much, that still held within its inexplicably soft weave some of the gold and rarity and unseasonable warmth of the city. Because, of course, the January air outside was warm [as, when in Los Angeles, it always seems to be]. And something of that warmth stayed with me: as I sat against my pleather seat and breathed recycled air; as I leaned against A’s tanned and sturdy arm and watched the Burbank backlots shrink and morph and glitter in the distance, as in intro clips for Warner Brothers films. I realized [in the same thought-breath in which A said imagine if we moved here], I’d been imagining it, too.
Back then, we were still trying. Still in couple’s therapy. Still driving forty minutes to La Jolla every week, to the VA hospital, so the sessions would be covered under A’s disability benefits. Still mirroring, repeating one another: I hear you when you say you feel as if you don’t deserve a future. I hear you when you say you think your life will be cut short. Back then, something about sitting on an airplane on a January evening, just past New Year’s, looking out the window at Los Angeles, soothed this vague and sprawling notion—this idea of future—into something warm-soft; something welcome. And as I settled back into a pool of plastic-window-filtered sun, some instinct—programmed by Warner Brothers and Turner Classic Movies, by Disneyland and coastal drives and palm tree curves and sunshine bright on swimming pools, by shadows falling black against the San Bernadino Mountain peaks, and by the warmth, that warmth again of sinking to my boyfriend’s shoulder as we craned our necks to watch the last of golden-brownness fade—informed me that Los Angeles, or at least my feeling of it, would never be quite the same again.
But perhaps you already know that. Perhaps you can tell where this is going.
SURFACE STREETS/ECHO PARK
Of course, it might have been some other city [had circumstance been different and the time been different and had I been different]. It might have been Dublin or New York or San Francisco—and it very nearly was. But because I am talking about myself, and because I am talking about the truth and not what might have been [and yet, because of what was true, I have no choice but to include what might have been], I am talking about Los Angeles.
Los Angeles: a city that has always held a rigid sway over my body, asserted a magnetic pull over my blood. A power buried under palms and sand and grit, or maybe shed from city lights spilled into darkness that unfolds each night just like a reel of ﬁlm. Its power drew me in. Drew me, somehow, down the same small maze of side streets off of Sunset—Fountain, Effie, Sanborn Bates—where my mother had once lived, some forty years before I’d ever even heard of Silver Lake or Echo Park. Where she had lived against the hills, in the shadow of those rising palms, in the shadow of the Downtown high-rise towers, in a basement apartment beset with floods and cockroaches.
And yet, because she [I?] had been in love: a place of happiness. No, not quite a place: a feeling.
Sometimes, I confess, I have confused the two.
Los Angeles was where she had lived with Steve, the man who might [had circumstances been different and the time been different and my mother been different] have been my father: long red braided hair, green and white plaid pants in all the pictures, bachelor’s degree in film. A carpenter who once got paid in Pringles chips for fitting fire doors into the flophouses Downtown. Steve, who called my mother his “Spicy Ravioli,” and drove a motorcycle, and took her to see Charlie Chaplin marathons at the Los Feliz Village Cinema; the same small theater where, forty-three years later, I would go with A, my own long-haired, motorcycle-riding, photograph-taking, aspiring-actor boyfriend, and drink beers on sunny summer afternoons and sit in back and lean against his arm and feel his warmth and think yes, this could be happiness.
Spend enough time in Los Angeles, and you may ﬁnd that film and vision start to bleed together. Start to infiltrate your sense of color, distance, shape. Take me, for instance. Here is what I’ve come to know: about color, and how it pertains to reels of film—of Kodak’s Kodachrome, to be precise. Kodak introduced Kodachrome in 1913. It was the first film of its kind to use what’s known as subtractive color. Previous iterations [Autochrome, Dufaycolo] had always employed the so-called additive color method—that is, the use of discrete color elements that only became visible upon acute inspection. But Kodachrome employed just two color pairs: blue-green and red-orange. The resultant ﬁlm, reintroduced in 1935, came to be known as non-substantive; color-reverse, and is still appreciated by contemporary archivists—both for this reverse approach to image rendering, and for its unique dark-storage longevity*.
When I was twenty-two, I spent a week in Spain. My friend Veronica and I traveled, perpetually cava-drunk and giddy, west from Barcelona to Madrid, then squirreled east again until Valencia. We were headed, ultimately, to the beach. It was early summer, June, and looking out the windows on that train trip to the coast was like traveling in time, like sitting in the Volvo on the I-5 South: same feel of El Camino, same view of sunbaked brownness as we watched the land fly past. The light, the heat; uncanny. As if a piece of me, despite my pink-pale skin and Anglo-Saxon name and nonexistent Spanish, was somehow rooted here. Was somehow of this place, this terrain, or knew it well. Just like the way my child-palm knew hot dry wind was code for Angel City: we are almost there.
SURFACE STREETS/SUNSET JUNCTION
In retrospect, it seems to me that those days before I knew the names of all the streets off Sunset were happier than the ones that came later. But perhaps you already know that. Perhaps you can tell where this is going.
Part of what I want to tell you is what it’s like to realize you are no longer all that young in Los Angeles. How all those old stories and glimpses from windows and afternoons of beer and sun and warmth eventually add up, and how the city’s golden sheen deceives—then melts away. For that is how those two short years seem to me now: like a slowed-down sequence, artfully arranged. Rose-tinged dissolves. Old-fashioned trick shots. Two short years slowed-down and stalled and spreading out. Prettily unraveling the six long years that came before. Clever angles rendering our brief stint in Silver Lake—the sweaty walks around Echo Park Lake in summer, the nights I’d pan-fry fish from the Farmer’s Market, and we’d eat together on the balcony, the empty Soju bottles hidden underneath the sink, the hours spent in bed together every morning with my head on A’s shoulder and my hand on his cock, stroking him apologetically instead of having sex, instead of getting up—into something mistakable for happiness. Rendering the two of us, A and me, into rose-tinted lovers sitting side-by-side and laughing, always laughing [even when we were, in fact, quite silent, stirring drinks with elegant steel toothpicks, reading menus we had read before], our fingers intertwined beneath the bougainvillea, our credit card bills swelling month to month, our hearts still trying to convince us that somewhere, just around the corner, there would come a green-gold paycheck.
Something about the heat and light and color of Los Angeles managed to subtract from this—our shared equation—all the nights where no amount of talking, silence, holding, wanting, could make it better. Subtraction, non-substantive—color working in reverse. Such nights nearly always ended with me crying in the shower while he sat, morose and stoned, out on the balcony. Where he sat staring off into the blinking red and yellow lights of El Pollo Loco through the shadowy bamboo and palm, combing fingers through the tangle of his long black hair, leaving little nests like snakes against the rust-brown terra cotta that I’d find and sweep and sweep into the bin each palm-bright morning. Nests left so often that the birds moved in.
Want to read Lauren W. Westerfield’s “Dark Storage” in full? Order Indiana Review 41.1.