I squeeze into the crappiest seat on a USAir flight to LA. 36E, the middle one in the last row. I crane my neck, search for my daughter twenty rows up, who’s crying, sad to be leaving home — Ithaca, New York — “ten square miles surrounded by reality.” An LA agency had called two days before to offer her a job, her first after college. Two days to pack, organize a move across country.
I see her walking down the aisle.
“Mam, can I sit by you?”
“Nah, you’ll be okay up there. It’s crowded back here. Smelly.”
She puffs out her lower lip, flashes her puppy dog eyes, shambles back to her seat.
I stare at my tray table. Why’d I say “no?” She needed to know it’s okay to be upset, to sit by herself without me? Did she know I had her tethered like the baby in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Not out there alone?
I stack my reading material on the tray table: The New York Times, Vogue, The New Yorker. Look around. Everyone else has e-readers, smartphones. I’m the one who needs to build a bridge to reality. Seriously.
Jump cut: Wheels down. Bam. The tarmac. LAX.
Fear pings my gut, the back of my neck. I deplane, plaster on my mom smile, gird my heart.
Isabel’s sitting in the lounge area, head down.
“I wanna go home, Mam. I don’t wanna stay here.”
I flash back to her first day at nursery school. She’d clung to my leg. I stayed for a little while — ‘til she was fine. All she needed? Reassurance.
“C’mon, we’ve got a room for the night. Let’s get the car. Check it out.”
She doesn’t look up, sniffs, shakes her head.
I wished in that moment I’d booked the Beverly Wilshire, the Chateau Marmont, the Beverly Hills Hotel — a storied place — at least for the night. I should’ve spent the money. I ram a steel rod down my spine.
“You can’t just sit here. Want a Starbucks?”
She looks up, laughs. “Sure.”
I exhale. “Right on, girl.”
We walk down the jet way, sucking liquid happiness out of paper cups, claim our bags.
I act like I know what I’m doing at Enterprise Rent-a-Car, but feel lost in the woods, navigating with a compass.
“Hey, get out your GPS, tell me which way to go. We’re hitting the freeway!”
“Mam, I think you can stay on Sepulveda.”
She knows way more than I do. She’d interned in LA first semester her senior year.
I navigate the hatchback down Sepulveda Boulevard. We sing that dude’s song “Lullaby” about the Hollywood Hills and the boulevard. Not long ‘til I pull in the parking lot of a building that appears made of brown LEGOs, white plastic rectangles for windows. Extended Stay America. It’s like three in the afternoon. Lots of empty spaces. I’m worried it’s a welfare hotel. I’d booked twelve days — Isabel doesn’t have an apartment yet — so we can’t stay at a swankier place. We’re flying by the seat of our pants. How long does that take?
I park by a Jaguar, racing green, covered in dust like it’s been there a month. A Jag? I imagine our fellow guest. A washed-up movie star, producer?
We check in. Room 307. The third-floor bare-bones room feels depressing. A Spartan kitchen flanks the door. Olive green polyester bedspreads cover the flat pillows, the double beds. Isabel slings her bags on the floor, plops on the bed, sighs. I yank open the curtains. Rays of orange sunlight invade the gloom, scatter dust motes.
“Look, it’s beautiful. The Hills.”
I point to the Hollywood Hills in the distance, up the 405, hum the theme song from the MTV show.
Isabel starts crying. “It sucks here. I wanna go home.”
I stare at the parking lot, at a picnic area with a table and a grill — extended stay, indeed — feel like we’re trapped in a freaky sci-fi story, like some Fahrenheit 451 goon’s gonna break down the door, demand to know what we’re doing here.
“Honey, it’s gonna be okay. Tomorrow’s Friday. They’re expecting you. Why don’t you show up? See how it goes?”
“I don’t know, Mam. Don’t like it here. Don’t like it.”
Anxiety boils in the caldron of my stomach. I lose it.
“God, I need another coffee!”
She stares, zombie-like.
I’m gonna cry, so I go out in the hallway, call my mom in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“She doesn’t wanna stay, Mom! She really wants to go home. What should I do?”
“Ibby Jane shouldn’t have to stay there if she doesn’t want to. It’s far away.” My momma knows the pain of a daughter’s move far from home, to Boston. She’s trying to tell me something.
“I don’t know, Mom. I think she should stick it out, commit for eighteen months like she told them, then she can come home if she hates it.”
“Well, whatever y’all think. I’m sure she’ll be fine. Ibby Jane is real smart.”
My mom doesn’t get upset, makes me feel calm, even though I’m gonna go against her advice.
“Bye, Mom. Love you.”
“Bye. Love you, too, sugar.”
I go back in the room. Isabel’s lying face down on the bed.
“I talked to Grammy. She says ‘Hi, sugar,’ that you’re real smart.”
She sits up, wipes her eyes.
“Hey, you hungry?” I say.
“You know a place here?”
Duh, food. “Let’s go. Let’s eat!”
Action. Adventure begins. I rev up the hatchback. Isabel plugs in the GPS, programs the address in West Hollywood. The monstrous 405 crawls with vehicles, sucks us in. Lanes disappear. I screw up — get in the car pool lane, abort, cars honk. Santa Monica Boulevard, the exit. Praise the lord.
Lemonade nestles the corner of Beverly Boulevard and Almont. Almont, lined with palm trees, heads up into the Hollywood Hills, like a postcard. Do you believe in magic? We take pictures at the corner.
Inside we ogle the food displayed cafeteria style. We load our trays with salad portions. Avocado, cherry tomato, pine nuts, lime. Kale, mushrooms, kumquat vinaigrette. With goodies. Pastel yellow and pink macarons. Old-fashioned lemonade. So Cali. The Imperial Valley, our breadbasket. We eat on the patio, gazing at the Hollywood Hills in the baby blue evening air. California dreamin’, man.
She nods. “A little.”
Looks like she’s gonna stick it out. At least for one more day.
Next morning, I attack the drive to Isabel’s office so I can keep the car for the day. The 405’s backed up to Culver City, so we exit, pass Sony Studios, drive north to Beverly Hills.
“Listen to this, Mam. Skee-Lo’s a riot.”
She punches up “I Wish” on her iPhone, sings all the lyrics about how Skee-Lo’s bummed he drives a hatchback, how he’s glad it’s Friday, how you can even speed on the highway … We howl, laugh that we’re driving a hatchback on a Friday in LA too. A sing-a-long. Like I’m driving her to nursery school. Yeah.
Song over, I turn left onto Wilshire Boulevard, continue to a cross street not far from Rodeo Drive.
“This is it. Park on the side street. Same drill as when I interned.”
She poses for a picture, waves, strides into the office building on Wilshire. Cute flats, skirt, shoulder bag, caramel hair swinging.
I call Jim, my husband. Tell him she made it. We made it. We did it.
Back at Extended Stay America. What the hell am I going to do with ten hours of unstructured time? Work on my novel in progress? Prove my worth in the real world?
I write on Isabel’s iPad with the crappy word app since I don’t have a laptop. Lame, I know. Then I Google a local ice rink, so I can skate, get some exercise. The Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo near LAX has public skating around lunchtime.
I pack my skates in the hatchback, head out to Sepulveda, to the rink. A banner over the entrance says “Home of Olympic Champion, Evan Lysacek.” Oh! Home of the LA Kings too. Downstairs, the three-rink complex is painted to look like a castle, stone walls like a stage, decorated with turrets and crowns, black and purple for the Kings. I laugh. I’m wearing black yoga pants, a purple tee shirt.
Out on the public ice, a hockey coach instructs a group of hotties. Huh? New ice girls for the Kings? I look at the coach, raise my eyebrows. He smirks. The hottest girls in LA can’t skate worth crap. I laugh, work on my ice dancing, work up a sweat, ice familiar, feel less stressed about being in LA trying to figure out what to do, hoping my daughter doesn’t walk off her new job.
After the session, I unlace my skates, check my cell phone. No call, no text from Isabel. A good sign, I guess. I think about a routine for the rest of the day, about the eleven days I have left to help my kid launch herself in the world.
I drive up Sepulveda, stop at a Starbucks to attack the novel. I sit on the patio overlooking the Ralph’s parking lot, settle in between a screenwriter (?) hunched over, shielding his laptop from the sun, and a limo driver waiting for his next LAX pick up. Weird, like in LA you wanna be outside even in a parking lot.
I manage a few pages, but my thoughts do endless laps around a kernel of worry. Stop. What’s for dinner? I’ll shop at Ralph’s before I go, I think. Isn’t there a Zappa song about Ralph’s? Thanks to my husband, all the absurd situations in my life have a Frank Zappa soundtrack. Kinda hilarious.
I buy the groceries, maneuver out of the tiny toy parking lot. So many cars, people. LA, a playground. Is it real? Back on Sepulveda at Extended Stay America it is. About as real as it gets. I unload the food, make the beds, wash the breakfast dishes. Feel accomplishment. Beginning to look like home. I kinda dig it.
I leave early with no idea what the 405 will be like to pick up Isabel at seven-thirty. I feel nervous about her, worried she hated her day, that she’ll want to go home, not commit to the job. That we’ll have to turn around. Go back. Half of me wants her to leave the nest. Other half? Wants her home.
I sit on the side street off Wilshire for thirty minutes. Watch gardeners pack up, sprinklers whoosh, folks dog-walking.
Isabel comes out the back of the building, gets in the hatchback, smiles at me.
“I’m so tired. Can we get frozen yogurt?”
“Sure! It went okay?”
“Oh, yeah, Mam. Fine. Just like when I interned here. They were really happy to see me.”
I sigh. With proverbial relief.
“Where’s a yogurt place?”
“Not far. Off Rodeo Drive.”
Frozen yogurt for dinner. Awesome. LA = Awesome. I lap up chocolate yogurt with hot fudge sauce, lick the spoon, smile at my daughter again and again.
We spend the weekend sightseeing, tooling around in the hatchback. Up and down Sunset, zigzagging Mulholland, Coffee Beaning in West Hollywood, in Calabasas, having a blast, a laugh riot. Isabel works a lot, reads film scripts, writes notes. Her title, Creative Executive, makes up for the pay.
The whole next week I repeat my routine. Work on novel, skate, work at Starbucks, get groceries, pick up kid, make dinner. Like a mom.
I drive Isabel to work every day. We sing “I Wish” with Skee-Lo. Laugh with him about how he’s too short to be a playa, to play basketball, about the cute names of the kids he wants to have. Slap-your-thigh, guess-you-had-to-be-there stuff.
Every night I watch to see if she’s reading her scripts, if she’s bonding with the job. If it looks like the apartment she lined up is going to happen. Every day the dusty green Jag remains idle in the parking lot, unmoved.
By mid-week Isabel’s apartment falls through. I spend manic hours at Starbucks on Craigslist searching for an apartment to share in West Hollywood, Culver City, Silver Lake, emailing her possibilities.
Thursday now. I leave on Monday. Still no apartment! How long can she pay $112 a night at Extended Stay America? I make a reservation for another week in case, my stress level high. No reservations for fewer than seven days. My heart tears thinking about her in the hotel room alone. Me back in Ithaca.
She emails to say a woman wants to show her apartment that night, a room to rent. The woman wrote the most beautiful poetic ad I read out of hundreds of Craigslist postings. I feel okay about her, kinda like I know her. A writer, an actress. I check her out on IMBD. Beautiful — a Mary Tyler Moore — wholesome, Midwestern.
That night we drive to West Hollywood to see the apartment. I wait in the car, watch. Folks walk their dogs, the street neighborhood-y. I get a good vibe.
Isabel comes out beaming. A cool place, homey, $775 a month. She took it. We whoop and holler.
The second weekend passes in a blur, except for one vivid event. Some college friends invite her to the premier of their web series at a theater in West Hollywood. I ask if she wants me to go with her.
She rolls her eyes. “Uh, that’s okay, Mam.”
I high-five her. Good work, mom. She doesn’t need me anymore.
The last Saturday night, while she’s with her friends, I hang out at Extended Stay America alone, watch a corny Oxygen movie starring Kate Hudson. Love it, feel at home, that all’s right with the world.
My flight back to Ithaca leaves LAX at five thirty a.m. on Monday. I hug Isabel to death Sunday night. She drives to her new apartment, leaves me at Extended Stay America. The next day I’ll be gone. She’ll drive herself to work from her new apartment.
Hooray for Hollywood!
But there’s one more ending …
Day Twelve. Monday. Three-thirty a.m. I close the door on Room 307, sad to be leaving, like I live there. While I wait in the lobby for a cab to pick me up, take me to LAX, the elevator dings. The door opens. An elderly gentleman in a three-piece suit gets off, carrying a stack of screenplays. He parades through the lobby like a matinee idol, a movie star, exits stage left to the parking lot. I cup my hands around my eyes, lean against the glass, peer out. The man proceeds toward the green Jag, places the screenplays in the trunk, gets in the driver’s seat.
My cab pulls up. I roll my bag outside, wave at the man in the green Jag as he drives past, headed toward Sepulveda.
Fade to black …
What the hell am I going to do with the rest of my life? Can it compare to the job I finished in LA? Doubt it …
Guess I’ll live to tell the tales.