Today I leave for Los Angeles to attend this wonderful thing, and it’s been a long time. A long time since I’ve made the drive alone from San Diego to Los Angeles and back again and vice versa. I’ve driven that stretch of road connecting two lives for more than 20 years. Some years I’m coming from Woodland Hills, or Encino, or Brentwood, and other years it’s Rancho Bernardo or Bay Park or Ocean Beach. For year upon year upon year, I’ve endured that painfully long stretch between Camp Pendleton and San Clemente, and another endless line from Irvine to where the 101 hits the 405 in car after car after car — a Hyundai Excel, Pontiac K car, Lexus SC300, Dodge Dakota, Cadillac Sedan DeVille, and a Chevy Suburban, which is the car I take today.
Some years I’m an editorial intern at a video game magazine housed in a peeling yellow cottage off Topanga Canyon; and I’m a nervous young thing, fresh off the lot of Marquette University, living with a self-absorbed auditioning actress who left me to sit in my rented room listening to the Indigo Girls most nights. I was 20 pounds overweight and alone. Each Friday, I’d load up the Hyundai and drive to my parents’ home in San Diego, navigating the Sepulveda Pass and the LAX congestion, willing myself home or at least not in that morose room anymore.
Some months later, I met a Marine and we started the first days of what would be nearly three years of lies and emptiness and a little girl heart shredded in the meat grinder of a cheat. I was wholly unprepared for that; “that” such an innocuous word for the worst emotional pain I’d undergone to that point. Again, I’m driving the Hyundai back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. I lost nearly 30 pounds, mainly in naivete and tears. Most days, I drove alone. Even when he was beside me.
By then, I’d moved twice. I left the actress to her own vices and took a studio apartment in Woodland Hills, about a mile from work. And then packed up to my aunt’s house Torrance, so close to the airport, and nearer to “home.” But by that time, I’d decided to move back to the Midwest, so the house in South Bay was just a stop on my itinerary. I continued to travel to San Diego every weekend and was just half myself; one of me in another rented room with maudlin music, and the other somewhere in the amorphous ether of a future room or state or self. Six months after Torrance, I packed up my Hyundai with not much at all, and drove to Chicago with the Marine. We broke up in Wyoming at a McDonald’s. I was just glad I wasn’t in Los Angeles.
I was back two-and-a-half years later. This time, I lived in West L.A. and went back to the video game magazine as an assistant editor. And I was happy being alone. I didn’t plan to drive to San Diego much…that drive still evoked dark days…and so settled in a whirlwind life of discovering Los Angeles the way it was meant to be, entirely and openly, without the pull to be somewhere else.
It was that complete openness that led to The Rock, who of all places, lived in San Diego. A year of the back and forth followed, but it was simply a physical back and forth, not the soul-crushing metaphoric kind. This time, I was in a Lexus I couldn’t afford, the other cars long abandoned to broken timing belts and cracked engine blocks and thieves. There was a certain ribbon of road I particularly loved, the one where I could sense the lights of San Diego, but not quite see them yet. My stomach flopped and my heart flew at that yellow fuzz just breaking over a long asphalt hump in the road. I knew this time I was heading home.
And it’s been that way ever since.
So now I think of each trip down the 405 as etched tree rings marking my life, or a spine with each year a vertebra. When I go back, I still see the same smog obscuring the eastern hills, the same honeycomb condos perched on Sunset, the Target sign barely visible past the DeSoto Ave. exit, but emerged from the ether of what each trip meant or didn’t mean and where the car takes me now.