“THIS IS THE OLDEST freeway in the country,” say several of the rideshare drivers. Only one kind of palm is native to this city, say several of the rideshare drivers. “I’m working on a screenplay,” say several of the rideshare drivers. “It was the oils, from one of the foreign palms, that was the cause of last year’s fires,” says one rideshare driver. I ask him if the palm is from somewhere wetter than this city. “I don’t know,” he says. “I learn things from the riders.” I think he is saying “writer” and pause, servile, to understand. I am waiting to hear about his screenplay. He has no screenplay. In the rearview I see his eyes set so sure, so sure, on the road. His ponytail is a semaphore of something, lashed in hanks against the headrest by static. I do not think that the palm oils were the cause of last year’s fires. I had read another claim: It was people, their campfire. That was the whole name of it. He might have been speaking of another fire. I take cars everywhere. On these rides I replace disagreement with silence. Even I know this is sinister. Later via internet search I will discover I was wrong about the cause of the fire. We were both wrong. A faulty power line, dropped chaotic into dry plants, a drought. The exacerbation of a drought, the reason for that being—
“If you stand on Gower you’ll get a clear look at the Hollywood sign,” says the rideshare driver. His ponytail peels strand-by-strand from the headrest as he turns to say so. I am not so interested in the sign, not the way a newcomer should be. He drives away. The sidewalk here is pitched up by a shallow root. The flora in this city is spectacular, speculative, mega. Here, I have learned that a ficus is also a fig tree. That it can be the size of a factory chimney. You can’t eat the figs. “They’re like crabapples,” said someone, to me. “They look like something you can eat, but you shouldn’t.” I imagine biting the bitter thing—
I go up the slope of the sidewalk and back down it. I don’t feel smart. I don’t feel athletic. I feel hot. In this part of this neighborhood there are low-rise office buildings. Also the Thai Consulate. Also graffiti on the wall of an antique furniture shop that says “Jazz’s not dead.” Also a restaurant I’ve heard about on a podcast. A punchline of a place. You’ve heard it, too: Every menu item is also an affirmation. I am expansive; I am exquisite. Walking by, I affirm: “I am sweating.” Where is my body? I have lost track of it so many days. But here it is now, damp, returned to me among foreign palms—
It is hot, but I have been taught by years of culture that Los Angeles is always hotter than anyplace. No matter it is February. I have laughed at the night sweaters of reality stars, watching rapt as they doe-walk down West Hollywood blocks, shivering. I wanted this weather; I wanted salvation from salt stains on pant hems, removal from the late and shuddery snow. I came here to this weather. It was mark-making to do so. A concession to the body, its temporary wants, which I often hold above my values, my ethics; get on a jet plane trailing what and be where—
This neighborhood is money-boasting, not mansions but Monopoly cabins worth a couple mill or more. It opposes an extensive studio lot. The air is complexly candied. An expensive candle. A lowing note of cedar or boxwood. The scent of a store where everything is too dear. I want to gather my clothes close, nip my bag to my chest. Make myself a blade and not this rambling, damp, damp thing. The cafes and shops are hives for people in long linens. I find the cafe where I’m meant to be, request a table, then sink. “It’s the jasmine,” says a server, pouring herbal iced tea into a tall glass. The ice cubes spin in the stream. “Two weeks earlier than last year,” says the server, “and you wonder why—”
“People in their thirties are the smartest people on earth right now,” said one rideshare driver, yesterday. “They were raised in analog life, and helped to build the digital.” I think younger people may be smarter, I said. They are more radical, less prone to binary organizational systems, more desperate with twin mouthfuls of hope and action. “You may be right.” He disagreed. He wanted instead to talk about his screenplay: “People aren’t aware of all the different ways they can be murdered.” I am, I didn’t say. I inventory maladies and could-bes in my darker interior tablatures—
My dining companion arrives thirty minutes late: a not-friend I haven’t seen for several years, a neat decade even. We once worked in tandem at a mall register on a different coast. When first texting I had identified myself. I’d asked her did she want to have lunch one day soon. She apologized that she had lost contact. Neither of us had lost anything; I’d typed “np” to be airy. We had met under different terms of life; it felt disordered to believe we would still be friends now. However, I had time to burn. “My friend,” “my friend”: the phrase shuttles childishly in my head as I sit here in this fragrant, moneyed heart. “Can you believe,” she respirates, having arranged her effects on the back of the chair, a table, a planter, “that Lynn is dead?” I had not heard this, had not even—
We drench our dry throats with the iced tea and talk about our dead friend, or our friend being dead. I do not for some reason confess my previous ignorance. I listen for context clues, collecting in her speech: “It was shocking.” “No one could believe it.” “I didn’t know that it had gotten that bad.” “I wish she’d reached out before, you know.” Because I have not confessed my ignorance I cannot ask the method though I am clawing to know. Lynn had been a warm rock during a cold era of life. Though hadn’t I, later busy and distracted, let that warmth run out? My not-friend’s poke bowl arrives—briny and macro, a landscape of pink cubic food on rolling grain heaps—Excuse me, I have no appetite. Lately any death feels like a marker or cue, not to my own mortality but everyone’s, all at once. “Déjà vu,” I’ll say, when my consciousness goes dark—
I feel sad and speak wan sentences: “Once I thought I saw her in Montreal. It wasn’t her. A woman had her hair, her jacket. An impersonator.” A purposeful, dripping effacement of sense. Two years she’s been dead, I gather: a late report emerging only now in our convention. Dead when I was in Montreal. My not-friend is asking for the check. All the ice is gone from my drink. My teeth hurt. I have been crunching. This death like the morning discovery of an empty socket, a tooth stolen from your jaw in sleep. A dreaming kind of shock. In the heat the death feels symmetrical, predictive. What are we already missing, now. What can’t we comprehend. I’m sweating into my unshaven pits. Once I associated loss with snow, with ice, by way of Ethan Frome, that kind of eating of gray, but now I am flooding—
I call a car and the rideshare driver says nothing to me, except: “It’s fucking hot.” I agree but she jockeys the stereo and is not listening. I let my own irrelevance clear me out into a body that feels the heat and is now, maybe, feeling hunger also. She drops me in a different and currently gentrifying neighborhood where I am staying with friends. It smells here of fumes and food. I locate a gourmet burger restaurant. It is done up to look like a diner. A whole section of the menu, fretted away from the rest, is vegan. Am I vegan. Of course I’m vegan. Haven’t you seen my coat of many conflicts? I choose a burger, a vegan burger, with vegan cheese and I don’t want the onions and I don’t want the special sauce. It is brought to me in a compostable beige package. I am always having things brought to me: cars, burgers, my own self-deceit! I carry the compostable beige package to a bench so I can sweat and eat. Sweet. I am reddening in the sunrays. I am folding, browning. My cells are being damaged. Right. I’ve sweat off my sunblock. No matter: I open the compostable beige package and there is a little picnic red flag that assures me of my dietary lifestyle. “Vegan,” it affirms. I denude the burger of its flag and paper wrapping. I fold my eyes into sun-filtering slits. Lynn has been gone; I am about to take a bite. Ghastly, ghastly, vegan. A young guy is next to me, hunched high and happy on the back of another bench. He is watching his friend skate but he is also watching me. The skateboarder makes a mechanical sound and a grunting sound and a chalky, dragging sound. “It’s a beautiful day. It’s a hot day. Don’t worry, it’s vegan,” says the young guy. Has he clocked my countenance. Has he noted the picnic red flag. Is it just a joke about my whiteness and gentrification. If it’s a joke, it’s a funny joke, and I want it—
The burger is bad and that’s no one’s surprise and the next day I’m leaving. “You look different than you did yesterday,” says my friend’s child by way of farewell. I ask if it’s my tan. I want to know if it’s my splayed shock. “You’re red and not brown,” says my friend’s child. Her father gives me a passion fruit from his neighbor’s invasive vine. “When it’s wrinkly, cut it open,” says her father. I call another car. “All of this, all of this, was once orange groves,” says the rideshare driver as he takes me around a cloverleaf flyover so I may board a jet plane once more. The flyover makes me feel like I’m already flying, heart first, plunging upwards, away. The nose of the real plane will puncture the heat. It will ferry me back to the heart of the country. The nose of the plane will show me there’s no hope anywhere—
AMANDA GOLDBLATT is the author of the novel Hard Mouth (Counterpoint Press), a former NEA Fellow, and a teacher of creative writing at Northeastern Illinois University. Her fiction and essays have been published in Catapult, Puerto del Sol, Diagram, Fence, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago.
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