As children we frantically treaded water in between the raging swells of my moms mental illness.
Only the strongest, most pure kind of love survived against the rough currents of schizophrenia.
So, in the way of love we were spoiled.
Normal sentiments neatly packaged in day to day life did not exist. Our mom’s love was shown in beautiful, unforgettable gestures. Like gasps of air. They were pure and sweet: Christmas tree hunting the night of Christmas Eve, litters of puppies with teeth like razors and soft, black padded feet, going to a department store to finally pick out a comforter for my room with my moms soft loving eyes approving everything I touched.
By the time I was a young adult I became addicted to this kind of pure love.
The impractical, impossible kind that demanded imagination and lived on daydreams.
The kind of love that started on a blurry eyed Friday night in Georgetown.
The kind that started with a slow dance to Purple Rain in the sweaty arms of an Airforce Academy Grad turned California surfer boy whose kisses were soft and sweet.
I had been California dreaming for a long time…
The night I met Purple Rain I was a college soccer player with a cropped vintage tee and bell bottom jeans out on the town. I was riding high from the year before. I had transferred from a college where I stayed in a dorm and ate my meals in a crowded dining hall that smelt like pancakes and coffee, to GMU; a commuter school five miles from my house. It was on the practice field of George Mason University that my coach Jac found my new identity. He turned me into a grass-stained-knee-hired killer. It was the last time I remember loving and belonging to a group of girls my age. I belonged with purpose. I found a use for my anger. Soccer became a way for me to vent my rage
and I could always find a way to make it personal.
My junior year we made it to the National Championship. I was to mark Mia Hamm…the golden girl of soccer in her last game of her senior year. Before the game my coach said to me, “Julie, I don’t even know if you really even know how to play soccer…but you can take absolutely anyone out of their game.”
After our star kissed night my Georgetown surfer prince flew back to Hermosa Beach. He liked that I had a six pack and that I could beat him in a 5k. I fell asleep night after night whispering promises with the phone pressed up against my cheek. I fell in love with the idea of him.
I had only met him once but it was enough.
We made plans for me to move west as soon as I graduated.
So, when soccer season was over and I had taken my final exams I left. I packed a bag the night before and my dad dropped me off at the United Terminal of Reagan National. There was no long goodbyes or check list of things I needed to remember on my big move.
Like walking out the door on any other day…without looking back…I just left. I had no intention of ever coming home.
On the airplane I was one of many. Busy shuffling bodies who stuffed their bags overhead and settled in for the long ride. Being together far up in the sky with a band of fellow travelers felt on par with my star crossed adventure and I fell fast asleep.
Well past midnight we lined up and filed off the plane into the empty terminal at LAX. The crowded plane had given me courage…but there was no one to meet me at the gate. I followed the current of bodies but soon they too thinned and disappeared. Eventually I was all alone. I tried to ignore the lump in my throat as I walked past the gated t-shirt shops with postcards of the Hollywood sign and Black and White portraits of Marilyn Monroe. Frantic Jazz played over the loud speaker and echoed through the wide open halls.
I called Purple Rain again but hung up at the beep.
Instead I called my childhood friend Bill. He was the kind of tall cowlick haired handsome that would make a father proud. He came from a home of after school loaves of fresh brown bread and collections of bobble heads on tidy suburban shelves. His father’s brother was rumored to be one of the richest men in Spain. He had paid for his young nephew to get his college degree and then MBA. He was being groomed for sky scrappers and mahogany desks. Instead, when he broke loose of his academic chains, Bill decided to move west to spread the word of God and maybe become a rock star in his free time. The last time I had seen him was half a year ago at his house. He had invited me over for what was supposed to be his goodbye. His dad looked at me across the table, wide desperate eyes and both of his fist clenched hard and asked me with a thick Spanish accent if I thought that Bill was crazy too. I looked across the way at Bill. His head was down and he was trembling. I excused myself from the table and drove home.
I saw Bill now waving wildly half his body out of an open car window. On the way home, in his clean hatchback Honda CRV, he reported proudly that he had already saved six hundred and fifty souls.
We were in the middle of our Chinese takeout picnic on his living room floor when there was a knock at the door.
It was my surfer prince. He was at a Lakers game and didn’t hear his phone ring.
I grabbed my bag and followed him out the door. Bill gave me a sad look when Purple Rain stumbled and almost fell while taking a step off the curb to his car.
During the hours I spent at Bill’s house he talked to me about listening to God and opening up my heart to Jesus. He knew I thought he sounded crazy, but even that was funny and we didn’t care. We were friends a long way from home. We laughed about his father’s rejection and the craziness of my house. That time…sitting cross legged in the middle of Bill’s freshly carpeted apartment floor talking about God would be the last and only time I felt at home in California.
On the way back to Hermosa Purple Rain pulled into a parking garage. I tried at first to believe that we were being spontaneous but my body felt like it was being used like a drunken pit stop.
Like a late night McDonalds drive-through…or a quick run into a local 7-eleven for wilted taquitos.
I woke up the next morning in a dark room. I could see through the crack in the shade that the sun was already up. The room was small and smelled like stale cologne and wet rubber. I was in what was supposed to be my new home. I felt buried alive and ashamed. Purple Rain had already gone to work and he had not woke me up to say goodbye.
I rollerbladed down the strand alongside the ocean trying hard to make eye contact with the strangers. Tanned bodies with green smoothies busy on their LA day to day. I floated by lives going on like a ghost skating along the horizon.
That night Purple Rain took me to a party of a friend who lived on the beach. The girl who owned it smiled and handed me a beer. She wore a red checkered bikini and when she hugged me hello she smelled of a pleasant mix of hairpray and coconuts.
I saw myself in a group of people partying by the waters edge. I longed to feel connected. I looked through faces to find any reflection of myself. I tried to talk but couldn’t think of anything to say. Usually I was one to mingle but CA had me by the tongue. As I sat on the ledge watching checkered bikini girl laugh cutely as shirtless guy smiled, I realized that normal made my skin crawl. Purple Rain walked over to me and asked me if I knew how to speak.
On our walk home that night he did not take me by the hand and pull me towards the beach to watch the sun go down.
He did not tell me he’d been waiting so long for this moment and he was so glad I was finally here.
I could feel myself walking too upright. He gave me a sideways glance and mentioned it was the second time in two days he’d seen me in same bathing suit…then he looked down and mumbled something about an ex girlfriend with a closet full of bikinis. So many he said, that she never wore the same one twice.
The next morning I packed up my bags and left.
I walked to a near bye coffee shop alone, opened up an LA Times and called a number on a wanted ad for a nannie in Malibu.
I interviewed over the phone. The next week I moved in with the Andersons. He was the most successful sports agent in Beverly Hills. Short, muscular and direct. She was the former Miss. Arizona. Short, blonde, and always seemed to be walking on her toes. I would be moving into their six million dollar mansion in Calabasas. They were glad to have a fourth daughter they said. And they hoped I wasn’t intimidated by their high profile lifestyle.
At night before they went to bed I put away their decorative pillows and fluffed the ones they slept on. In the mornings I steamed the crotch of Mr. Anderson’s well tailored suits.
They had three daughters: Chloe their oldest talked me into giving she and her friends rides to Melrose Avenue to buy clothes but always ended up coming back with a bag marriijana bongs. Kendal, was the middle child. I was told I’d get a hundred dollar bonus if I got her to lose ten pounds. The youngest Sophie wanted to sleep with me every night.
Instead of appreciating her small warm body curled up next to mine, I resented her for not leaving me alone to cry.
The house was too big and they spoke to each other via intercom. The crackling sound it made just before a request made my skin crawl. I cleaned make up brushes and fretted over the streaks I made in the glass while wiping Mrs. Anderson’s bathroom mirror. They wrote me weekly checks that I squirreled away in a desk drawer. Mr. Anderson had given me a credit card and told me to use it for my daily needs.
I talked to famous baseball players on the phone daily. Barry Bonds voice became familiar. “That’s my fourth daughter, ” he would say as I handed him the phone. I went to coffee shops and read Tolstoy. I walked down the stretches of Malibu beach.
At first I had confused their need for me as a kind of love. But their world of freshly cleaned towels and bottled water made me feel dirty. And their gestures of love were clean and neat. I felt more alone than I had ever been in my life.
One of my weekly jobs was to drive their oldest daughter to acting class. She would recite her lines with me in hopes of making it big as a friend on Full House or an angsty teen in a drier sheet ad. During one audition the producer mistook me for a person trying out and shuffled me into the casting room. It was me and a seven year old boy with freshly cut bangs and a white polo. The director explained it was an audition for Disneyland’s anniversary. When the lights went out we were supposed to pretend to watch a fireworks display in the make believe sky. When the music started I felt my body tighten. The little boy grabbed my hand, he mouthed “look” “look” as he pointed up the the make believe sky. I would have helped him if I could but when I looked up all I could even pretend to see was black.
Weeks later I was driving to another audition in Culver City. I was helping Chloe remember her lines and I looked down to read. When I looked up the small BMW in front of us had stopped on a dime. We were in a Suburban.
Time slowed down as the anti locked brakes pumped forward then back. My seatbelt locked as we crushed the BMW and watched it fly like a toy into the back of three other cars in front of it.
Most people came to California to chase their dreams. I had come there to find a love I projected was crazy and real. Like a vodka soaked kiss on a dirty dance floor. Or the highest note of a Prince guitar solo with a strange California boys arms wrapped around my waist.
I got of my car. I couldn’t feel my legs as I made my way across the four lane highway. The bumper to bumper traffic had already built up as far as my eyes could see and I said goodbye to a California. A place I had never really been.
*** names changed for privacy