Dayna Tortorici is co-editor in chief of n+1 magazine.
7:30 AM, an Air BnB in West Hollywood. I wake up and begin to narrate: I wake up. I draw the blackout curtain so Stephen will keep sleeping, and in the dark I grope around the edges of the bed frame toward the door. An obstacle course. The bed takes up three quarters of the room and I’m cornered. I find my way, too loudly.
This part of LA is quiet. The faraway sounds of leaf blowers, traffic, construction, not much else. I sit on the couch to write, but I’m confused, and the feedback loop of my actions and thoughts is too tight. I’m narrating my gestures before they’re done, which is mentally hazardous. I think of the part in Days of Abandonment when Olga chastises herself: Stop thinking in the third person. Also the part of the Derrida documentary where he says to the camera: Everything is false, I’m not really like this, if you weren’t here I’d spend the whole day naked with my cat. Instead he’s in a nice shirt and pants, buttering an English muffin. I email Mona.
10:00 AM, on the couch. I’ve been in LA since December 26 and no longer remember what day it is. I’ve reached the point where pleasant vacation amnesia morphs into a bad dream.
I’m an unreliable narrator of this city. I grew up here, unhappily, and ever since I left I’ve found it difficult to come back. My family still lives here and I visit once a year, half-expecting things to be different, but all my visits are the same. I arrive optimistic and full of touristic wonderment. What had I found so hateable? It wasn’t the city, I think—I’d projected my emotions onto the landscape and my darkened brain had constrained my generosity, clouded my perception. I discover things that weren’t here before, or that I failed to appreciate growing up, like the flora: massive tentacular cacti planted casually beside charming apartment complexes, front yards flanked with birds of paradise, a jade bush as big as a tree, jurassic palms and pointy cypresses a hundred feet tall. Or the architecture. Only a person with no sense of humor or appreciation for the variety of human taste could be glum in its presence. On this block there’s a miniature Spanish villa, a modern cuboid space station, a gingerbread house, and a New England cottage all in a row. Hundreds of donut stores and none of them dunkin’. Swimming pools. Palm trees and concrete, a video-game background—Grand Theft Auto or Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3. It’s fun.
But then something shifts. I haven’t walked or read enough. The scale of the city and its infrastructure—the width and slope of the streets, the height and mass of the boulevards and freeways—makes me feel terrifyingly small. Whether on foot or in the car I feel like the city has me surrounded. All the people hurtling past in metal suits on wheels are out to kill me. For safety, I’m corralled into little shopping worlds for bipeds, oases of fountains and bad food and validated parking. I feel like Monica Vitti in every Antonioni movie except all around me people in tasteful spandex are working out. I’m alienated by the walled gardens, the private property, and the fact that no matter where I go I feel like I’m trespassing and probably am.
Stephen, articulate and good-humored, is not so easily disturbed. He says, “It’s funny here. None of my gifts are recognized but none of my weapons are necessary. I don’t mind it.” But I do. What am I but gifts and weapons?
1:13 PM, the neighborhood. To stave off madness, Stephen suggests a walk. It’s a warm clear day. Scrolling on my phone, I read aloud a chapter of On Beauty and Being Just as Stephen guides me by the arm around the block. I want to read him the section about palm trees, so he can hear about them and look at them at the same time.
Elaine Scarry is an idiosyncratic thinker, which makes her difficult to paraphrase. In the chapter I choose, she’s describing “errors in beauty,” mistakes one makes when assessing the beauty of an object. She says it’s an odd feature of intellectual life that it’s hard to remember a moment of intellectual error, even though one knows one has made many such mistakes. But it’s easy to remember a moment of error in beauty, because errors in beauty are felt viscerally, like a slap in the face. “In my own case, for example,” she writes, “I had ruled out palm trees as objects of beauty and then one day discovered that I had made a mistake.”
I read aloud: “Suddenly I am on a balcony and its huge swaying leaves are at eye level, arcing, arching, waving, cresting and breaking in the soft air, throwing the yellow sunlight up over itself and catching it on the other side, running its fingers down its own piano keys, then running them back up again, shuffling and dealing glittering decks of aqua, green, yellow, and white. It is everything I have always loved, fernlike, featherlike, fanlike, open—lustrously in love with air and light. The vividness of the palm tree states the acuity with which I feel the error, a kind of dread conveyed by the words, ‘How many?’ How many other errors lie like broken plates or flowers on the floor of my mind? . . . Beauty always takes place in the particular. When I used to say the sentence (softly and to myself) ‘I hate palms’ or ‘Palms are not beautiful; possibly they are are not even trees,’ it was a composite palm that I had somehow succeeded in making without even ever having seen, close up, many particular instances. Conversely, when I now say, ‘Palms are beautiful’ or ‘I love palms,’ it is really individual palms that I had in mind.”
The individual palm in front of us look young. Tall and skinny without much hair, just ribbons of green and silver whipping around at the tip of a dry stalk, catching the light like tinsel. It is beautiful.
2 PM, the apartment. Stephen takes a nap. I pay my rent online, a day late.
3 PM, East Hollywood. We drive to a stupidly named restaurant called Sqirl. Gotta go to Sqirl, friends said. It’s the kind of hip place where you wait in a line around the block to order, get a number, and then wait again to get a table. I find one outside on the sidewalk—metal, hot—and watch an old woman on the street corner, not in line for Sqirl but sitting nearby, flip her top dentures with her tongue the way I used to flip my retainer as a kid. I’m mesmerized. It’s gross and awesome. She clicks her teeth back in and squints. I eat avocado toast and make a mental note to pickle shaved carrots at home.
4:36 PM, apartment patio. I’m writing on my computer when out of nowhere a Russian Blue cat curls around my leg. He jumps up onto the table, steps over my laptop, and walks right into my lap, getting to work kneading my sweater. A few minutes pass and man walking his dog stops on the sidewalk. “That’s my cat, just so you know!” he calls over. “Or wait, I’m not sure.” He walks closer. I check the collar but the tag’s fallen off. His obedient dog sits. He pulls out a cell phone and asks someone to come outside. Another man materializes from behind a hedge, barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt.
“Is this Thunder?” the first man says.
“Yeah that’s him,” says the second man, unworried.
“But he’s so big. And the color—” says the first man. “Does he knead like that?”
“He did when we first got him,” says the second man. “That’s him, definitely.”
“The tag fell off.”
“I told you that weeks ago.”
“Well, now I’ve seen it.”
I like this couple. We introduce ourselves but I only catch the second man’s name, Brandon. “We named him Thunder because you can hear him purring from far away,” Brandon says. He has two dogs and three cats and used to work at a shelter. After the kittens were adopted, Thunder gave up his life as an indoor animal. Now he roams the neighborhood freely. He’s fat, handsome, well-fed, well-loved.
6:30 PM, my parents’ apartment. I walk with my family to an Italian restaurant around the corner. My dad, brother, and cousin Josh watch football on an overhead TV behind me, a college game. Football is a universal language, says Stephen, meaning that he can relate to many people that under ordinary circumstances he would not relate to, just by talking about fantasy teams, the draft, stats, injuries, good players, crappy owners, the overtime rules in college being more fun than in the NFL—whatever it is football fans talk about. I have seen him do it many times and I buy the theory, but I think he underestimates his own powers, attributes to the community-building nature of professional sports what is, in truth, an effect of his natural geniality. The gender segregation bugs me, so I watch, get invested. It’s high drama, triple overtime.
On the way back from the bathroom my mom spots T, a yoga teacher who used to work at the neighborhood studio. I crane my neck to look. He’s had work done and his skin looks oddly moist. His hair is still long, reaching for Jesusy but too manicured; he has highlights. He is, unbelievably, wearing a white henley with a powder blue cashmere sweater tied around his neck. In the 2000s, T had a cult following. My friend Jesse told me that all the westside women in couples therapy were forbidden by their husbands to go to T’s class because he’d seduced them all. His signature move was to walk around the room and press into your lower back when you were in child’s pose, massaging your sacrum. Now he’s a porn actor, my sister tells me.
I’m leaving tomorrow. Back at home, before the send-off, my mom brings me a manila folder with a dozen or so loose sheets inside. They’re notes she took in a parent-tot program when I was two years old. I’m moved by how meticulous and attentive she was, how anxious and observant and clearly exhausted. In response to a field for Additional Comments, she wrote: “Dayna has a difficult time shifting gears here. She is very independent at home, and maybe that’s why—her day is very unstructured (except for naps) and she’s so pleasant, self-sufficient. Here she is much more aggressive and strong willed.” The teacher writes back: “That’s OK. I know it makes it harder on you, but it’s nothing to worry about. Will just deal with it.”
On an entry dated May, 1992, my mom writes: “She has been wetting her pants about once a day. She doesn’t complain, and seems to be doing it when she’s busy doing something else. Maybe (?) she is having too much fun and doesn’t want to take the time.”
9 PM, Venice. Stephen and I drive to meet Mona for a drink at Chez Jay, a seaside dive where they give you a basket of peanuts to husk and discard on the floor. But we’re early. We smoke a little. I loop the neighborhood in search of a dimmer, less exposed block and park off Main. We climb into the back seat of the rental car and have sex. A couple walks by—I can see their feet—and I feel like a teenager, embarrassed. But who cares, people have sex in cars, and I’m having a better night than whoever is walking to the Urth Cafe for a chai.
10 PM, Chez Jay. I order two beers for us and a glass of wine for Mona. She’s teaching Middlemarch for the first time on Monday, and though I wrote about it for my undergraduate thesis I remember it very poorly. We talk about New York, magazines, her kids, Los Angeles. She didn’t like it at first but it snuck up on her. Now she finds she can get a lot of work done here, her life is set up for it. She’s so animated. I love talking to her, watching her flip her hair.
I ask her about her students, which leads us to feminism. “What does your generation want?” she asks. “I worry my generation screwed it up for all of you.” I say the usual things—work, kids, sex. The sex thing is interesting, we agree. She tells us a story about the open-marriage / free-love throuples she knew in Berkeley, where she went to college. They were very open in this particular way, she says, but it was still a woman who was inviting people over, who was serving the drinks or cooking the food, who was following up to say thank you if the throuple had been invited over. What would it take for all that to change? The world would be unrecognizable if it did, says Mona, for the better.
Midnight or so, the 10 freeway. This is my freeway. I love to drive it.
1 AM, the apartment. We fall asleep with all the lights and our clothes on.