The Meaning of Life
At one time in my life, I lived in Los Angeles. It seemed like a crazy place for me to end up since I never had any inclination towards granola or shark steak, but love is love. I went there to cohabitate with my boyfriend who was writing a horror movie called AXE(IDENTS) or SUMMER(STALK), he was having trouble deciding. My life in Toronto had hit a dead end. My dreams of becoming an actress had dwindled to a commercial audition for tampons and catalogue shoot for bras. I was living with a religious fanatic and his protegee in a town house at Queen and Broadview on literally a one-way street going nowhere. He looked like Grizzly Adams and she was a sad, spineless woman whose future was easily foretold by her love of polyester. To this day I have no recollection of any other room in that town house except my attic bedroom which I never left except to go to work cleaning a rich woman’s home at St. Clair and Mount Pleasant. She was a nice enough person married to a Canadian who spoke with an English accent; a souvenir from his one year at Oxford as a Rhode Scholar. If memory serves me correctly, he was a brain surgeon and his presence in the house though rarely noticed was strongly felt. They had two rambunctious boys, and a little girl with Down Syndrome whom I adored. She was a happy, delightfully manipulative child who, quite honestly, was the only reason I stayed at that job. My miserable life filled with existential angst took on meaning whenever I was around her. Even more so, she looked forward to my visits, and since I had no friends at the time, her adoration just made leaving the job even harder.
“What’s the matter?” she asked me one day when I was scrubbing the toilet and feeling particularly glum.
“I feel sick to my stomach,” I confessed. “My life sucks.”
“At least you’re in the right place at the right time.” She said with a smile as she handed me toilet bowl cleaner. That kid was a genius. I had reached that weird in-between stage of my life where my old friends newly married were preoccupied with buying homes and starting families, and I had no new friends with whom I could feel superior in my decision to remain single and unattached. In hindsight, I probably chose a long-distance relationship over a deep seeded fear of commitment, but that insight would come several years and a few therapy sessions later.
At night, after raiding my employer’s pantry and eating them out of peanut butter and bread I would jog from Dundas and Broadview to Avenue Road and Cumberland in a sloppy pink windbreaker hoping to gain some insight into where I had gone wrong. Moving to Los Angeles seemed like a dramatic solution to the rut I was in, but then again, what did I have to lose…except a few peanut butter pounds. Surely there was more to life than this. Looking back on it even now, I can see this time period only in muted shades of grey. At least, I thought to myself, Los Angeles will be sunny.
When I told my employer that I was leaving, I think she was a bit relieved. That’s when it occurred to me that they probably didn’t have any use for a full-time cleaning lady at all. I was a charity case. I needed to get on that plane and pronto.
I purchased the cheapest flight I could find, knowing that it would need to be a round trip ticket even though I had no intention of returning. My journal entry suggests I paid $350.00 for it, and I can assure you, I saved that money for months. Bit by bit I squirreled away every nickel and dime while making plans for the move. It was late January when I took the leap.
“If anyone from customs calls,” I instructed my employer, “Please tell them I am only on holiday and will be returning.”
“Okay,” she said nonchalantly while finishing off an article for a newsletter.
My fear of customs agents started somewhere around the age of eighteen. Before that, living in a border town, going “across the river” was as easy as a trip to the mall. As teens we crossed the Honeymoon Bridge every Saturday to go clubbing. I was never asked for ID. And we were never refused. The first time I was stopped was an attempt to go skating at the Niagara Falls NY convention center with friends. 378 meters from the Canadian side to the American side went from a short eight- minute walk to something far more formidable. From that point on, I became a suspicious character. I was pulled off a bus enroute to Rochester to visit a friend at Eastman, I was pulled over trying to attend the Directors Lab at the Lincoln Center, I was put in a little room and interrogated trying to get to a BMI class, and our car was x-rayed. Even to this day I get anxious going over “the bridge”. It’s like a Stephen King story. Half way across I pass through this fog into another world that is hostile and unforgiving. I have nothing to hide. I have no nefarious intentions. I’m not hiding contraband, or drugs, but deep down inside I know I’m guilty of something. I just can’t remember what it is.
On the day of my trip to L.A. I arrived early at Pearson International Airport, checked my luggage, and lined up for customs. I could feel the back of my collar begin to dampen and told myself to breathe. I’d practiced my little speech until it was a mantra. “I’m visiting my boyfriend in L.A. I’m visiting my boyfriend in L.A. I’m visiting my…”
I was at the desk.
“Where are you going?”
“Purpose of your visit?”
“Visiting my boyfriend.”
Agent looks up and sees, what I can only assume is someone young enough to be a runaway or a potential illegal immigrant.
“What does your boyfriend do?”
Here come the questions I was not prepared for. But it’s all good. I’m calm.
“He’s a screenwriter.”
“What do you do?”
“I haven’t figured that out yet, but I work cleaning a house for a woman in Toronto.”
“What’s in your bag?”
“Oh, this?” I say pulling out his latest draft of Axe(idents) “It’s my boyfriend’s screenplay.”
“Can I see your wallet?” She asks.
I hand it over. It has about $350 dollars in it and – shit – a YWCA card from New York City.
“How come you have this?” she asks waving the membership at me.
“Ah…I went to school in New York.”
“What did you study?”
If only it was nuclear science or astrophysics…anything but - “Acting.”
Now I can see the agent putting pieces together. “So, you’re an actress and your boyfriend is a writer in Los Angeles. And you have this screenplay in your bag. Are you going there to work?”
“Work? Work? I wish. I mean, No.” Now I’m sorta lying. I mean, I don’t HAVE work, but if it’s offered to me…?
“Can I read your journal?”
My journal? She wants to read my journal? No one reads my journal. Do I have an option?
“I’d rather you didn’t.” I say
“Are you going back to your place of employment when you return?”
“Yes! Yes, I am. Call her if you like. Here’s her number.” We are back on track. They will call and she’ll corroborate my story. But when the officer returns she says that my employer has no idea if I’m returning and that my job has already been replaced by a friend of mine. That’s when she stamps DENIED on my paperwork and refuses me entry.
My worst fears realized. Worse than my worst fears because my luggage is now on its way to La La Land without me. I sit by the escalator and sob. I’m not crying. I’m not weeping. I’m sobbing so hard that someone associated with Air Canada has to come over to me and see what’s wrong. I’ve lost my ticket. I’ve lost the $350 dollars. And the $350 dollars I have left is my Los Angeles contribution to the relationship that now hangs in the balance. The day has been dashed and I’m sitting pathetically alone at the airport with a face swollen from crying.
Phone calls must be made. Bernie is going to pick up my luggage at the airport…or try to without ID. My friend’s parents gather me up at the airport and I take a bus to Niagara Falls where my father has agreed to take me across the bridge the next morning to the Buffalo airport and attempt number two, which goes surprisingly well. No questions. No issues. No problems. The next day I’m in the air and headed towards LAX. Hello future!
I wish I could say that my time in Los Angeles answered all those pressing questions I had, up until then, been unable to answer. It was definitely brighter and warmer and I substituted peanut butter for avocados and sprouts. Dinner was rarely eaten at home, and going to the gym was practically a prerequisite. I was still unhappy but my unhappiness was smothered in a blanket of smog and possibilities. I was always meeting people with names like, Mac Lenack; people with the potential to give you things…jobs, parts, money, opportunities, used cars. I once sat at a table in a Chinese restaurant next to Gene Kelly and there was the time Dick Smothers tried to pick me up in a Sushi bar. I even met a woman whose sole occupation was arranging to get hit by cars backing out of parking spots. She’d feign an injury and collect these outrageous settlements that bought her a house in Malibu. Maybe she was a stunt woman. I never asked. It was clear though, that things were done very differently in Los Angeles. Deals were made over salads at counters in places like Neptunes, or pastrami on rye at Canter’s Deli, or Pinks Hot Dogs instead of conference rooms in office buildings with views of the CN tower and snow. Generally speaking, I was a fish out of water. I no more fit into the L.A. scene than I belonged cleaning houses. I knew what I wanted to be, I just didn’t know how to walk the 378 meters to obtain it.
I have this vision of a moment in time during my life in LA. It’s a parking lot at a strip mall somewhere near La Costa. My boyfriend and I are going to see a movie and I’m completely, utterly, happy. I’m not on a beach. I’m not sitting by a pool. I’m not at a party or eating dinner in a restaurant. I’m in a parking lot at about 6:00 PM at a revival theatre about to see Monty Python’s, The Meaning of Life. And for a few moments, the irony isn’t lost on me. Inside the dark air conditioned theatre we settle into our seats with popcorn and a feeling of contentment. There is a sense of certainty that my life is about to take a turn for the better. From here on in, things won’t be good, they’ll be great. Cue Ethel Merman, “Everything’s coming up Roses.”
I was happy for about 1 hour and 18 minutes until the fat man appeared and on this one, I’m with Quentin Tarantino when he said the only time he was upset by gruesome imagery was Mr. Creosote in The Meaning of Life. I couldn’t stick it out. I had to leave the theatre.
And that’s life. Just when you’re feeling great and you think you have it all figured out, someone pukes all over your happiness.