Letter From Los Angeles

Sitting in the living room of my new apartment, on the corner of Figueroa and Venice, I heard my phone buzz. Welcome to La La Land the text read. Scenes from the Ryan Gosling-Emma Stone film flashed through my mind. Yellow dresses. City lights. Hazy nights. Dance. Love. Loss. I laughed, amused. September 2019 was weeks away, and August had been yet another blur in a whirlwind of a year. I’d been settled in Los Angeles for a week or two after two months of transition–weekends spent driving my things from San Diego to LA, only to return to San Diego for the work week, followed by a visit to Orlando to meet my newborn niece. I felt uprooted and restless and couldn’t wait to take LA, my new home, by storm. I kept replaying this fantasy in my head cut straight from a Hollywood movie: a young woman in a new city finds her community and lives out her dreams.

I’d been curious about LA for so long. A city of contradictions. A stunning landscape, coated with smog. Home of incredible wealth and devastating poverty. A place where some fantasies blossom while others are demolished under the pressures of perception and unrealistic wealth. LA has the energy and intensity of my favorite cities, and it also offers so many avenues for escape–from the hustle of the city and from yourself. I was intrigued by its fickleness and duplicity. I fell in love with its streets, teeming with stories. The lights from the Staples Center lit my street up at night like an amusement park.

I spent my first few days anchoring myself, walking up Figueroa towards the chaos of the Staples Center before veering away from it towards the parts of LA where the grit hadn’t been glossed over and pushed out by an ever-vigilant neighborhood patrol on their bicycles and segways fitted in forest green polos. I quickly learned that walking too far would lead me towards San Pedro street where the first undeniable signs of Skid Row would appear.

During one of my first real weeks in LA, I took the train with my then boyfriend of four years to Santa Monica. We marveled at the way the city transformed, each stop an entirely different neighborhood. Then we emerged into the bustling, beachy, tourist-filled streets of downtown Santa Monica. In Santa Monica, the downtown suits and hipsters were replaced with hippies in beach wear and the tech startup community in office casual clothes, straddling the corporate and the beach bum worlds effortlessly. We plotted our lives together–the neighborhoods we would live in, where we would buy our house. I couldn’t wait to make this sprawling city filled with rose-colored fantasies my home. 

When I finally made the move I thought my restless soul would find its “place.” I thought I would settle down. Long-term relationship: check. Dream job: check. Incredible friends who just happened to move to the same city at the same time? Fate. 

I kept forcing all of the pieces together, refusing to acknowledge the cracks in the picture. I wanted my shot at the Los Angeles fantasy made reality, and I tried not to acknowledge anything that didn’t serve that didn’t speak to this picture-perfect story.

There’s this thing we do when life gets messy. Instead of facing the pain head-on, we try to paint over it and pretend that everything is okay. We resort to fantasy, escaping into other realities. It’s part of the beauty of Hollywood. They churn out stories that we can turn to in order to avoid  the things that are happening in our own world. 

So much of my life had spun out of control in the last three years. My parents’ health declined. I kept betting on companies that didn’t have the resources to allow me to fulfill my professional dreams. The mental health of people close to me deteriorated rapidly. My own health took a deep dive as I crumbled under the stress of it all. In spite of the struggle, I was intent on “keeping it all together,” or at least appearing to have it all together.

I treated my life like it was Instagram, only willing to present the highlights. Oysters and wine in Silverlake, My boyfriend and me soaking up a fun-employment day by the pool before we started our new jobs. Smile. Capture. Repeat. Adjusting the contrast on the darker moments. Archiving anything that couldn’t be filtered into submission.

La La Land sang to me like a siren and I came running. Ready for the reset. Ready to take some semblance of control back in the chaos that had become my life. I had a picture in my mind of how this transition would go. It would be a movie montage: soft lighting, emotionally acute songs, soulful moments on the shore as I gazed at the ocean, listening to the rhythm of the waves crashing into the surf. It would be peaceful and affirming. I thought LA would be kind to me with its movie magic and star-filled sidewalks. 

I was wrong. The glow of Hollywood did not comfort me. It shined a harsh light on my life and forced me to reckon with difficult decisions I’d steadfastly avoided for too long. The pieces of my life that I’d carefully constructed had fallen apart, and I was faced with nothing but harsh truths and reality.

Within weeks of arriving, the layers of protection I’d built around myself began to crumble. Within one month, the cracks were showing. Within two months, my life had become consumed by and imploded in La La Land. Ice cream could not cure the pain. There was no riding into the sunset.

Los Angeles forced me to make choices about the life I want to live. The career I want. The people I want to share each moment with. It forced me to let go of how I thought I “should” be and to get comfortable with how I am. In a city filled with so much artifice, I was forced to let the mask fall and allow myself to be vulnerable because I had no routine or feeling of familiarity to lean on.

Now, sitting on the other side of this season of transitions, I see this city a little differently. What’s so beautiful isn’t the fantasy, It’s the tug and pull taking place every day. It’s the choice that people make to create beauty when the flip side of reality is always two inches away, staring us in the face. It’s seeing that the most ordinary people can and do accomplish the most extraordinary things.

When I moved to LA I was ignorant, unaware of how much my own life would be altered by and in this city. Dreams fulfilled. Love lost. Self? Found. My own movie: a parallel story. 

Propelled by the momentum of the move, everything changed. The reset I’d craved had occurred, and it was more brutal and beautiful than anything I could have imagined. LA  is more real to me now with its faults, and I have little need for the rose-colored impression I’d nurtured for so long. Because even in the place that defines the art of escapism, reality won’t wait.

Mae Cromwell