The thing about Los Angeles is that it’s awful and I hate it, but when I’m there, nowhere else exists, and I can’t imagine leaving. It’s a difficult place to be old or sick or fat or poor or without a strong social media presence. It’s not an easy place to be young, either.
After college graduation, I postpone my return from Boston by one week, then two, cat sitting for a professor. It’s the second week that drives my mother over the edge. She calls, she emails, she accuses me of loving the professor’s cat more than her. She says don’t I know how hard she has been working, how lonely and depressed she has been, how she has been counting down the days until my return.
I get sick upon arrival, aching limbs at baggage claim blooming into a fever by the following day. Garden-variety virus, but it hits my mother’s sweet spot. “You’re run-down, poor baby. I’ll take care of you,” she says.
My father sends a “welcome home” text. Hope to see you for dinner soon, he writes. He doesn’t ask where I’ll be living or if I’d like to stay with him. I suspect he doesn’t want the infringement on his space, his freedom.
It’s strange being back in my mother’s house. She has just finished renovating, and it barely looks familiar, though somehow items from long ago—CD players, pants from GapKids—have resurfaced in the new version of my old bedroom. The sight of them is unsettling.
My parents divorced when I was ten, during the summer before fifth grade. They were civil, but it was terrible. My mother suggested we go on a diet together. “It’ll be fun,” she told me. “You’ll look great for the start of the school year.” She said she knew I had been overeating because I could tell she was unhappy in her marriage. This was news to me. She taught me all about calories and the places they hide. I dipped carrots in Dijon mustard while my friends at day camp traded Skittles and M&M’s, candy coatings melting in a rainbow smear on their palms.
My weeks were split between my parents. My father kept the house in the Hollywood Hills, and my mother moved to an apartment in Santa Monica, across the street from the beach. There was an infinity pool on the roof and towels were provided. She called it Heartbreak Hotel.
A few nights a week, I would ride my scooter to the Third Street Promenade with my mother and younger brother. While my brother browsed the toy store, I punished myself in the basement fitting rooms of GapKids, trying on jeans two sizes too small and watching my stomach pucker as I did up the button. I practiced sitting casually on the bench in the fitting room, as if I were on a playground bench at recess. I made believe I was talking about normal things with my classmates and kept an eye on my stomach in the mirror.
My mother moved several times over the next five years, a real tour du West LA, before landing back in Santa Monica, two miles east of Heartbreak Hotel. When I think back on those years, I remember a choking sensation. My father’s silence, my mother’s longing, my brother’s rage. My bottomless hunger. My psychiatrist kept increasing dosages, switching medications. Trial and error, she said. I would stare at the tapestry behind her head and say, week after week, “I want to stop falling asleep in class.”
The day my mother moved into this house was also the day I got drunk for the first time. Early evening, a bottle of Grey Goose on the kitchen counter, carton of orange juice next to it. I helped myself. “If you drink that screwdriver, you can’t drive,” my mother said. I said I didn’t care, and I drank that one and then another and another until the floor tilted. I was fifteen. I couldn’t drive at night on a learner’s permit anyway.
My parents were both from New England, high-achieving youngest children of long-suffering Jewish immigrant mothers. A perfect match on paper. My mother moved to Los Angeles for my father, a literary historian who moved for his research, wooed by a trove of archives acquired by USC. My mother often said that my father was the only person who would willingly relinquish tenure at Harvard. It took me a long time to understand the double-edged slice of that comment.
My mother never liked Los Angeles, but she also never left. She stayed for my brother and me, so that our lives would be stable and we could have a close, or closer, relationship with our father. She made do with what she believed to be a pale imitation of the career she imagined having in Boston, where her star was on the rise and her expertise—as a lawyer and legal activist doing groundbreaking work on victims’ rights and rape laws—was more highly valued.
Until I went to college, I didn’t know where my mother ended and I began, a lack of differentiation more common in toddlers than teenagers. It was a problem my mother didn’t recognize as such, which was of course part of the problem. Her life’s purpose was to sacrifice and provide for me, and mine was to make her feel sufficiently loved in return. What could possibly go wrong?
Growing up, I assumed I would become a lawyer, like her, or go into politics, become an advocate for issues affecting women. A public feminist, broadly conceived. But a Capitol Hill internship the summer after freshman year—when Democrat dreams of single-payer health care were shattered—disillusioned me about politics and I realized I didn’t actually want to be a lawyer.
I spent much of college trying to develop my own interests and a fundamental sense of self. The only thing that didn’t feel like a hand-me-down was my love of words, my belief in the power of storytelling. Before benzos and SSRIs, I had books and TV. I was never a movie person. I preferred ongoing narratives, parallel realities to dip into alongside my own. Different stories for different moods, like vitamins to address certain deficiencies. I became an English major. I read a lot of novels.
I liked Cambridge, the unfashionable bookish atmosphere, the red bricks and history. I considered academia. As a trial run, I took a graduate seminar on intertextuality, which involved endless discussions about “the literary word as an intersection of textual surfaces” and “‘textasy’ as the ‘release’ of the subject in a sexual or textual ‘coming.’”
I spoke exclusively in fragments, stringing together phrases I barely understood. The professor was invariably pleased with my insights. She complimented my analytical clarity. So much performative nonsense, and to what end? All to spend a decade picking at the carcasses of my favorite books and competing for underpaid jobs in places I don’t want to live? I might as well work in television.
I grew up in the shadow of Hollywood, both figuratively and literally, the sign itself visible from the rooftop playground of my elementary school. I hid behind the role of Smart Girl, smug with intellectual superiority. I was meant for Harvard, not Hollywood.
But Harvard was its own Hollywood, I learned, just with different jargon and celebrities.
So, really, why not television?
It’s the golden age. Everyone’s talking about the quality of the writing, the power to catalyze social change, even. Prestige dramas are the new social novel, my thesis adviser assures me. The Wire is Middlemarch. Why write academic books about increasingly esoteric subjects for an audience of approximately twelve when I could be a part of this creative renaissance? It’s what I want—what I’ve always wanted. I ran in the other direction out of insecurity, not disinterest.
And so, though I am daunted by the prospect, I move back to LA.
That I get sick upon return is, in its way, a blessing. It helps me skip past the claustrophobia and panic that typically smother me upon arrival, a cling wrap that I have to claw my way through. Or maybe, I think, as I roll over in bed and wave my arms in search of a cool patch of sheet, mood softened by an Ambien-NyQuil haze, maybe I’ve grown.
* * *
As soon as my fever breaks and my head clears, I start job hunting. For what job, I’m not sure. I meet with everyone I know and everyone they know, shuttling from sleepy production company offices in the valley to crowded backlot bungalows to try-hard offices in Hollywood where I struggle to sit in a dignified position on the neon foam amoebas that someone deemed a step up from regular old chairs. I feel guilty about using connections, but there’s no apparent alternative. This is a town full of people with connections.
Most of the people I meet are producers. Few have produced anything of late.
Somebody advises me, early on, that when the assistant offers water, I should always accept. My car fills up with plastic bottles, rolling on the floor of the back seat. I have coffees, many coffees. I nod and smile until my cheeks hurt.
A writer whose daughter went to my elementary school and with whom my parents are friendly asks if I’ve thought about working in development. “That’s where the power is,” she says. “Hollywood needs more smart executives. If you want to make change in a big, noticeable way, really impact how women are portrayed on television and what stories get told, you need power.”
She tells me about a meeting she had that ended with her saying yes, she would be delighted to work on a network drama called Marsipan (logline: “Decades after humankind has conquered the red planet, a diverse group of colonists form Mars’s first ‘Reduced-Gravity Bake-Off’”).
I learn that development is the department in charge of coming up with new shows—television’s editorial department, so to speak. It’s a job with a real career path, a ladder of executive positions to climb. It sounds like something I could be good at, something I might enjoy.
Copyright © 2022 by Isabel Kaplan