I used to live in this beautiful 1940’s apartment in Los Angeles before I moved to Santa Monica ten years ago. It was on a major busy street but nestled far back enough that once you were inside the apartment you couldn’t hear any of the noise from the road.
What you could hear however were my neighbors.
One man would repeatedly scream Get the fuck out of my house so many times and with such passion that I often thought I was dreaming it. That maybe something had broken inside of my head and things had started to skip. Maybe my mind got stuck on that one sentence and it was trapped inside my dream. Get the fuck out! Get the fuck out!
He would stand outside our front door, red-faced and hyperventilating. He seemed shriveled, slightly polio ridden. (Through some mysterious force that constantly seemed to pull at me, this spastic neighbor and I were both from the same town in South Jersey, Cherry Hill.) I’d heard it in his accent and knew that nasal tonality that inhabits the voices of South Jersey folk. And also a certain sadness which recognized immediately.
She is a fraud he would scream in the courtyard. She’s left maggots! She ate all the cereal! She took an ice pick to my piano! My Piano!
He didn’t look anyone in the eyes. Ever. Not even anywhere remotely near your face which was disturbing and creepy. But this one morning. This wonderfully otherwise perfect Los Angeles Sunday morning, with his lip cut and bleeding and his curly hair flying around his chubby red face, there was something. His eyes stopped roving and focused on something.
Maybe he saw the point ahead of him, that point of utter loss. He was stupefied and panicked.
The kind of panic when you realize you really are alone and that she did eat all the cereal.
He understood then that all the Get the fuck out of my houses took their toll. He had prayed for that woman to be gone. He had screamed it into the air. But I saw it in his motionless eyes. That fear. That what have I done?
I was happy when I finally moved from that place even though it had been inexpensive and huge with gorgeous hardwood floors and charm like nobody’s business. Those years are what I refer to as The Dark Years. They all blend in, gray and dank in their lack of happiness. Years of nothing on top of nothing. Years of picking at my face and talking about what I should do but couldn’t seem to get out of bed to do. I slept almost all the time. I starved myself all day and would get up in the middle of the night and eat in my sleep. I had hated waitressing but didn’t know how to stop. Like it was some kind of addiction I was in the throws of.
Which, of course, it was.
The Dark Years.
And throughout those very dark years, there were these neighbors I was terrified of becoming. These screaming hate-filled red-faced people who loved and abused each other and wanted their lives to be anything but what it was.
I would lie there listening to them scream and see myself as a waitress for the rest of my life and then maybe I would eat all the cereal and take an ice pick to a piano and maybe someone would find out I was a fraud too.
The What have I done? some unspoken code between my neighbor and I. Even though we never made eye contact, we were from the same town in South Jersey (weird!) and we had this pact. This Oh My God, I’ve made a mistake like a car we’d loved but had long died and yet sat and sat in the driveway as if one day it would be able to go back up the hill.
We’d wimper silently and sometimes not silently: How can I get it back to the way it was?
Well, here’s the good news and the bad news: You can’t. You can’t ever get it back the way it was.
I remember lying in my room in that old apartment and thinking How can I get it back? How did I even get here? I would be here the rest of my life. Who could I blame it on? Who put me here, dammit?
Before I had moved into that apartment I had been still living in New York City. My mother had recently moved back to California (for the second time in our lives) and I had come to visit. Having lived there as a kid for a few years I still had a lot of friends in Los Angeles, so when I came to visit my mom and sister I also planned on seeing my friends.
I had borrowed my mom’s car and took off to go to my friend’s little party despite the anxiety I had. I hated driving. And I hated parties (still do, but for different reasons.) I was afraid people would try to make me eat. I had anxiety as I drove my mom’s Isuzu Trooper or mini-van (one or the other) down the street looking for my friend’s address. (This was before cellphones.)
I couldn’t find the building and my anxiety became a steamroller. I hit the steering wheel and cried as steam poured from my ears and I bit my fingers. I hate driving! See! I suck at it!
I remember pulling up to a building I thought sounded like maybe that had been the address? 7890? 8790? 6790? I don’t remember (and can you even imagine a world with no cellphones during a crisis like this?)
What do you do? Well, you park and knock on a door.
The door opened and a very cute and very gay man answered. This was not my friend’s house the tears in my eyes told him before I could mutter I am lost. He asked if I wanted to use his phone.
He proceeded to show me around his beautiful (so stylish) apartment and then to the phone (a real wall phone.)
I called my friend and was told that I was the three blocks north. I thanked him, told him he had a beautiful apartment and that his boyfriend (who was away working as a flight attendant apparently) was very very lucky.
And off I went to the party which I probably hated because I probably ate food that I simply ate to make it look like I wasn’t starving myself which I very much was. The lies! The lies!
How did I get here? What have I done?
Almost a year after that I left New York City. People used to ask why I moved to L.A. when I was half-heartedly trying to be an actress. Did you move here to be an actress?
I would say yes because it was easier but the truth was a No No No. I moved here because I had nowhere else to go. I was dying in New York. I had no choice, don’t you see? But I would nod and say Yeah, totally.
In New York I had been severely anorexic, lonely, depressed and also very quickly going crazy. My mom had moved back to California and I wanted to feel safe so I fled New York to be with her. Clearly it wasn’t to pursue an acting career but once people started to assuming that I decided it was my best bet. Yes! I came here to be a star!
For a while I lived with my mom in a one bedroom apartment where she slept in a closet (I am not kidding although I am horrified) with a little bed on the floor and I took the master (and only bedroom) I was 21 or 22 and apparently okay with my mom sleeping in a closet/room? It lasted only a few months until I moved into the apartment on the busy street. The beautiful 1940’s apartment on the busy street.
It speaks volumes of my mother though, that little sleeping in the closet living situation.
You like this necklace? I will give it to you. It’s yours. You want the bed? I will sleep in the closet. (That’s my mom.)
One night, after I’d been living in the big beautiful apartment a couple years or so, my roommate M. and I had dinner at our next door neighbors. There were this fantastic gay couple with a dog and a washing machine. They also loved us in the way gay men love cute and single twenty something women. You have the best boobs! I love what you are wearing. OMG your boyfriend is so cute.
We loved them.
So, here we were hanging at their extremely well decorated place, drinking wine and laughing and I get the strangest deja vous. The kind where the ground lifts up and you have to grab the edge of the table and your wine spills over and you don’t even notice because you are so immersed in the I have been here. I don’t know how I got here but I have been here.
I turned to one of the Boyfriends and said I’ve been here.
Yes, you have many times, Jen. Keep drinking girl!
Me: Last year. I was lost. Remember? I was still living in New York. I knocked on the door and you let me use the phone.
One of the Gay Boyfriends: No that wasn’t you. That woman was like 40 and really skinny and miserable looking.
It had been me.
I was a lot thinner last year. And I was unhappy. But I wasn’t 40, you asshole! I joked as I cleaned up my spilt wine, and of course, spent time obsessing that he meant that I was fat. I was much thinner then? What did he mean? I didn’t care about the miserable comment but the really skinny part slayed me. Much thinner? Much?
How did I get here I remember thinking. How did I get here? How did I get pointed to this building? To this moment?
To this life?
Everything is always against the odds.
The fact that I got lost and ended up there, at that very building that I would eventually live in. Not only that I ended up at that particular building that night, but of all the apartments I had knocked on their door: the only people in the building I had become friends with or even seen the inside of their apartment.
I’d also had no intention of leaving New York. It was a last ditch effort to save myself before I faded away into dusty bones on some street corner in Manhattan, my hair falling out and my face apparently aged beyond my years. I end up living at this random building. How can this be?
How did I end up here? What have I done?
It chose me. I had been driving along in my mom’s Trooper (or minivan) and it called me. Come, come in your awful little Boy Scout pants made for a 12 year old and pale face. Come, leave your life as you know it in New York City. It will take you many many years to get where you are going but this is the first detour. The first stop. Come.
So I went.
I would listen to my locksmith neighbor scream at his wife or not-wife and hate myself for sleeping until 11:30 am and I would wonder How did I get here? When really I knew. I knew that I had been chosen. How many apartment buildings in Los Angeles and I end up at this one with a friend of a friend of a friend who had found it and needed a roommate. I had been plucked out of my life in New York because I probably would have died if I hadn’t. Or maybe not. Maybe I would be fantastically rich and happy. Either way I needed those Dark Years and that screaming neighbor and my years of donning an apron.
I have a compass now. I know who I am. I can look back. I have a map. Here is where I was and here is where I am now, my little map says.
I had been waitressing at the same job for about 12 years when the What have I done? creeped in and couldn’t find its way back out. What have I done? I thought I would be somebody? I’ve wasted so much time? I hate L.A. Why do I even live here? What have I done? I’m old now.
I would take someone’s order for a veggie burger and it’s all I would hear: What have I done What have I done What have I done What have I done Do you want avocado on that and anything to drink What have I done?
My whole life led up to it. The first what have you done? after my father died. The last words I spoke were I hate you, Daddy.
I couldn’t undo it. What have I done? Oh, what have I done?
When my neighbor had said that it couldn’t have been me that had come to the door the year before because that girl had been so thin my initial response had been What have you done, Jen? You’ve let yourself go. How could you? What have you done and how can you get it back?
There is no getting it back.
After 13 years of working at the restaurant and after so many years of being mad at myself for failing I realized one day, or throughout the course of many many days, that its okay to never get it back the way it was.
I was always meant to get lost at that building and then move into that building. I was always meant to cry in my room and ask Why Why Why I’m too smart for this shit as I put my apron on again and again over the screach of my neighbors screaming Fuck Yous at each other.
Here it is. Thirty years after I said my first What have I done? Here it is: It’s okay.
This will not determine the rest of your life. You have a choice right now in this moment. What will it be?
So. What will it be? Asking the questions is a good thing and I wish for you, and for me, and for all of us, all that we never stop asking the questions. How did I get here? What have I done? And then look closely , with a magnifying glass so you can see all the cracks and bugs and little hairs. Really be willing to see. Start to contemplate. Then ask more questions. Then get a really good microscope and go deeper. What have I done will lead you to different places on the map until you get to where you are now.
Please, when you start to get close to finding some answers, or more questions for that matter, please do not judge. Put down the ice pick and stop screaming and simply say I love you right into the microscope even if it makes you feel a little crazy. By doing that you’ll start to see the map move under the lens. Where there were rigid lines and boundaries on the map there will be moving molecules and big empty spaces.
That’s your moment. Right there. Look down and for the first time see that no matter what you have done you are not stuck. Your map is moving. The lines are no longer there. You are free. You can go.