I arrive back in LA as the sun is rising. It’s easy to forget the things you loved about a city that has ruined you, but I always liked this one small window of time when Los Angeles just looks like any other city in the world. It happens only once the streetlights have stopped twinkling in the dark, but before the golden sun begins to light the city like a movie set. It was the only time of day that LA ever felt like home to me.
I pull up outside the glass house in Venice. I don’t have the key anymore, so I ring the bell. There is a cactus next to the door that I don’t remember being there before. I reach out and touch it, but it’s softer than I thought it would be, and my fingernail leaves a wet, crescent-shaped mark.
My husband opens the door wearing a white T-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts. It’s what he wears to bed every single night, and he somehow looks both exactly the same and entirely different from how I remembered. I try not to think about when we first met, when we were just two teenagers staying up all night in his apartment in Los Feliz, drinking tequila as we talked about all the people we’d left behind to be there. For me it meant leaving my parents and sister who had moved across the world for me, and for him it was leaving a close-knit family in a town where fireflies lit up the sky and people kept guns in their glove compartments. When he had to leave the room to throw up from the tequila, I slipped quietly out the front door, leaving a note in my place that read you’re perfect in lowercase, drunk letters that didn’t touch each other at all.
“Shit, Grace,” he says, trying to look at me before he has to turn away. He already looks lost. When I was away, I only ever pictured him smiling, his bronze eyes crinkling at the corners like linen in summer, but now I remember this face too. I follow him into the house.
“Welcome home, I guess,” he says, and we both know that the house is mine only in the legal sense. It even smells like him, slightly sour and woody. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see that Dylan already has a Christmas tree up too, and that it’s not even the kind an interior designer puts up for you. It’s decorated with hundreds of swinging multicolored baubles and paper cut into crude animal shapes with lollipop sticks for tails. Nothing matches.
“You’re a little early with the tree,” I say, peering past him. “Did you get a wood burner put in?”
A woman with long dark hair and freckles is sitting on the sofa in plaid pajamas, holding a mug of coffee with her legs curled up underneath her. I can tell instantly that she is better than me from the way her entire face lights up when she smiles at me, and from how quickly it happened, as if her default setting is only ever .3 seconds away from elation. I don’t feel sad when I realize this, just a strange, muted relief that in some way, my expectations have finally been met.
“Where’s Doina?” I ask, looking between the woman on the sofa and Dylan. Doina was our housekeeper.
“She’s gone, Grace,” Dylan says, shrugging. “You should have called.”
“Now or a year ago?” I try to make a joke, but it turns out I still have the ability to hurt him, because he flinches.
“I’m exhausted,” I say, staring upstairs in the direction of the bedrooms longingly.
“It’s the morning,” Dylan says slowly.
“I’m Grace,” I call past him to the woman on the sofa.
“I know! I’m Wren. It’s great to meet you.”
“She seems lovely,” I say, to nobody in particular, and then I walk upstairs to the master bedroom because I know that Dylan won’t have slept in there once since I’ve been gone.
The room is lifeless, untouched. When I turn the main light on, dust particles spin in the air around me. I pick up a framed photo from our wedding day that still sits on the bedside table, wanting to recognize myself in it. We got married in Big Sur in January, the night I turned twenty-one, and during the ceremony I gripped my bouquet so tightly that I pricked my finger and it bled onto my white jumpsuit. I could taste metal for the rest of the night, but it didn’t matter because I read a poem by Richard Brautigan to my new husband while people held sparklers shaped like hearts, and for the first time I saw myself as everyone else saw me.
I left within the year.
I spend my first morning back in LA drifting in and out of sleep, waking eventually to the sound of someone tapping lightly on my bedroom door. My mouth feels dry and tacky, and I can smell my own sweat on the sheets. The sun is right above us and all I see is the blue, blue Pacific Ocean through the floor-to-ceiling windows. I remember how I once thought that being close to the water made me feel as if I could breathe again, but now I find myself missing the flat suburban sprawl of Anaheim, the sanitized public spaces and the flags floating lightly in the wind. I feel exposed being back in LA, and I wonder what it would be like to actually know how I feel about something before I’ve already lost it.
The door opens gently, scraping across the top of the carpet, and I grab the tube of pills from the bedside table, shoving them underneath my pillow. Dylan stands at the foot of my bed, looking anywhere in the room but at me. His eyes eventually settle on the movie poster for Breathless hanging on the wall above my head.
“I called Laurel. She’s downstairs waiting for you.”
“Why? You hate Laurel.” Laurel was my sometime friend, sometime assistant, always outrageously ineffective sober companion.
“I don’t like Laurel, but you don’t seem like yourself,” he says slowly.
“You haven’t seen me for a year, remember? This is what I’m like.” I pull at my shoulder-length hair with the greasy dark roots and the blond ends.
“I’m not talking about your hair.”
“Do you like it? Stripper chic, n’est-ce pas?”
Dylan exhales exasperatedly. At its best our relationship was based on me saying and doing stupid shit to make Dylan laugh, but I understand that what I did to him means that I have lost the right to that too.
“Sorry. Laurel. Please can you tell her to go away? I’ll call her later.”
“All right, but what meds are you on?”
I shake my head.
“Drug-and alcohol-free since the day I left LA.”
It’s almost the truth, but it just makes Dylan look more disoriented than ever.
“What’s up with you then?”
I stare down at my hand, turning it over and realizing that Dylan will notice I’m not wearing my ring. I don’t know if I need to feel bad about that or whether it would be stranger if I were still pretending. I tuck my hand back underneath the duvet anyway.
“I’m still getting used to being myself.”
* * *
? ? ?
I stay in bed for another hour, watching how the sun glitters on the surface of the water and trying to feel anything other than numb about that and everything else in my life. You know those days when you’re soaring and every single thing you touch is so immensely, undeniably perfect, and the best part is that you made it like that all by yourself, just by being so shining and lucky and brilliant? Well, those days don’t exist when you’re not on drugs. They’re no longer an option. And that may have worked out when I was with my parents in Anaheim, where life drifts slowly along a baseline, but I understand that people in LA are going to want something from me that I don’t know how to give them. They’re going to want an explanation, a reckoning or, best of all, some Hollywood sign of an emotional breakthrough. I have none of the above. Time stood still while I was in Anaheim, and maybe that was why I chose to go there; I always knew that I could walk for miles each day and still end up back at the exact same spot.
* * *
? ? ?
When I come downstairs to find coffee, Wren is sitting at the dining table with a boy who is about eleven or twelve years old. Or he could be fourteen; I actually have no idea. Wren holds up a card with a photograph of a teenage girl on it, and he pulls the same face I do when I’m expected to know anything about technology.
“Okay, Barney, try this one next. If Amy says to you, ‘I don’t believe you,’ and she’s making this face, what do you think she really means?”
Barney studies the photograph carefully. Amy is grinning in the photo and she looks like she’s being a bitch, but I manage to refrain from joining in the conversation.
“Ummm . . .” Barney frowns and holds the card at a variety of distances as if it’s one of those Magic Eye puzzles.
“It’s okay, take as long as you need. Do you remember the first clue we look for?”
I walk into the kitchen, where Dylan is grabbing a box of water from the fridge. I guess people are drinking water from boxes in LA now.
“What’s Wren doing in there?”
“She’s a speech-language pathologist.”
Dylan looks defensive. “I said it was all right to use the house for her pro bono cases.”
“Of course it is, that’s fine.”