The Christmas lights twinkled around Beverly Hills as my friend Audra and I headed down Santa Monica Boulevard. It was a road I’ve taken over a hundred times in my life as I drove to my grandparents’ home off of Palm Drive, but yet felt as strange to me as if it were in another country.
“I don’t know where home is anymore,” I said. “But I know where it isn’t.”
“Where isn’t it?” Audra asked.
“With polar bears.”
There was a pause from Audra to let my normal eccentricity rush over the conversation. “Polar bears?” she asked.
“Yup,” I replied. “It’s cold wherever polar bears are. And they eat cute little seals. They would have no problem eating me.”
“You’ve thought about this more than you probably should.”
As the holiday spirit takes over the little corners of Los Angeles, I have thought about home more often lately. It’s not so much a place anymore than a feeling, one that I haven’t felt in a long time. Sure, there have a couple hours here and there if the right people are around, but I’ve had to sit back and watch as the malaise of the world wears down the roots in me that would try to plant into the ground. The feeling has, if anything, been fleeting.
It has been this way for almost three years. That cold January night, I took a wrecking ball to my life as I left my ex. But the trauma didn’t come from the end of a marriage; it came from packing a duffel bag with my most precious items and being told I could never go home again. It came from something as simple as a marble cheese plate at my apartment being left out on the table after a party I hosted, and then coming back almost two years later to collect my other belongings to find that it was still in the same place, molded over with decay. I had spent nine years of my life building a life for myself in Orange County, a home that was beautiful and was an open tent for everyone. In an instant, it was shattered.
Every incident that showed my marriage was nothing but a falsity and the people who claimed to love me that only liked it when I was on top were like demolition blasts to the idea that I ever had a safe, secure place with anyone. My roots after divorce were gnarled and unable to attach to grounding force.
I eventually made a decision. I had to return to the place where I was born, where my family was: Los Angeles, where I learned to drive and my grandparents once lived and loved me. My cousins and other relatives in the city would protect me and give the sense of home that I craved, I thought. I could make new friends here and create a new life. Find a great job and work my way up. Find a new partner and build a home, both in his heart and in wherever we ended up together.
Two years after the move, I was now sitting in a cocktail dress on Saturday night that was once formfitting but now hanging looser on my body that I couldn’t afford to replace. My friend Audra was drinking the complementary bottle of water she got after the waitress at the Beverly Hills Hotel completely ignored her request for a glass 45 minutes before. We had gone to a party there and I enjoyed the friends who I was close to, but then got completely turned off as I watched the fakeness begin to permeate our surroundings.
I was thinking about the full day of work ahead of me the next day, and how I could barely afford to stop working even for a day. There were brief moments of happiness in there, like when I got onstage to do comedy and hanging out with friends. There were times where I felt at home, but they were fleeting at best.
“Here’s the thing about Los Angeles,” I said to Audra as we drove past the wealthy houses of Beverly Hills on our way back to Culver City. “Two things happen to the people who come out here. Either they get so sucked into the superficial culture that every good thing that was a part of them from where they came from disappears, or they get so jaded that they struggle with it, and they start rejecting it and becoming hard and difficult.”
“I don’t know where I am on that spectrum,” she responded.
“I know I’m the latter now. I’m rejecting. I’m friendly and kind, but I don’t really trust anyone anymore… present company excluded.”
She nodded in acknowledgment as we stared at the chandeliers that had replaced the street lights along Rodeo Drive, thinking of the friends who I watched go from down-to-earth out-of-towners to shallow Angelinos. We wondered about the people who we knew and if they would change sooner or later. The Christmas lights were a blessed distraction, but faded to the reality of the city streets.
“I’m getting harder than I’d like to be,” I continued. “I’m angrier than ever, and definitely unhappier. I’m crying almost every day, fighting for my survival here. I thought I would be closer to my family if I moved back, and I’m really not.”
“You thought things would be different,” she said.
“Yeah,” I replied. “And I know I haven’t always been the best person. I’ve procrastinated on projects and have been selfish and flaky. But considering the circumstances over the past three years, I’d like to think I’ve done the best I can.”
As we parked in front of my apartment and Audra put on her hazards, I sighed as I looked at her. Sweet Audra, who was so kind and brilliant, yet at the same time played along with all my crazy shenanigans, whether it was going to a Beverly Hills party or simply running out on a Saturday night at 10 p.m. to go to the Salt and Straw in Larchmont. I began to cry one more time as she hugged me tightly.
“I know if I’m going to leave Los Angeles, now is the time,” I said through the tears. “My parents are happy and healthy, at least for the most part. I don’t have a true career here, and I don’t have a partner or children. I can go somewhere else, begin again.”
“Would you go to Boston?” she asked. I have talked about moving to Boston quite regularly if I could find a full-time job out there.
“I don’t know where I’ll go. Just a place without polar bears.”
We began to laugh in our cocktail dresses at the absurdity of chandeliers hanging from city streets and the fact it took 45 minutes and a hissy fit in Beverly Hills to get water. We were over it.
“But you have to remember something, Reina,” Audra said. “It’s not the circumstances in your life that should create your happiness.”
It was an echo of things I kept hearing: That no matter where I went, I had to take myself with me. That flaky, procrastinating, selfish girl who was eccentric and strange, yet somewhere in there maybe possessed something good. Even if I left Los Angeles, she would be with me. And although the world may have thought her strange or eccentric or even a bitch, she really wasn’t all bad. I had to hear my therapist keep saying that I undervalued myself almost every session I was in with her. Now, maybe it was time to start believing she was right. And in valuing myself, I had to value more than what this city thinks of me.
No matter what the world thought of me, we all deserve a sense of home. Personally, my body has ached for it; I craved roots to something real, and I felt like plastic fake seaweed in a tiny fish tank. But I also needed to realize that I’m not plastic; I’m a living, breathing person who has been hurt by the past and current circumstances and needs to learn to not run. I need to learn to crack open her heart a little bit more to let the right people come inside and grow there. Otherwise, I was always going to stay unhappy, and I would never find home again.
But no matter how cold it gets out there in the world, I’m not letting in any polar bears. No matter how cute and cuddly they are.