by Andreas Economakis
3:30 p.m. Los Angeles, California. Five months after 9/11.
I’m sitting in the passenger seat of Clive’s dented, dirt-brown Cherokee, staring out the window. The West Hollywood scenery streams past me in colorful, repetitive bursts. White stucco house, palm tree, white stucco house, palm tree. Clean driveways spill into the street, beckoning the eye upwards, inwards, for a quick glimpse of the American Dream. “Armed Response” signs keep guard next to candy-colored cars and water-fattened cactuses, defending houses that peer onto the street with glassy, vacant eyes. The image lasts for just for a second or two, quickly replaced by a slight variation of the same thing. A change of car make or color. A Japanese plum tree instead of a cactus.
We rumble down Highland Avenue, the Cherokee’s wheels humming loudly, monotonously. Aside from the cars on the streets, there is no life to be seen anywhere. No people walking around, no kids playing, no one just hanging out drinking a beer or tossing a Frisbee for their dog. Nothing. Just the steady stream of cars and the silent houses. Immaculate sidewalks ply the ghostly neighborhood, snaking right and left and disappearing into the green distance. From above, we must look like a computer reenactment of a minimalist city. A city devoid of people. Los Angeles. The City of Angels.
A shiny, new 4×4 towing a pair of jet-skis pulls out of a driveway in front of us. I look around. The symmetrical landscaping, the chemical green lawns, the gingerbread houses, the cars moving up and down the street in neat, evenly-spaced increments. Something stirs inside me, vaguely, as imperceptible as a hairline crack on thin ice.
We turn left on La Brea Avenue, heading south. Overhead, to the right, a police helicopter flies in tight circles. If you squint your eyes, it looks like big fly looking for a place to land.
“Hey, there she is!” Clive says.
“The Star Trek alien lady! You’ve seen her before, right?”
On the sidewalk to our right, a skeletal-thin old woman is walking in extreme slow motion. She’s wearing a 1960’s era space-age purple robe and her hair is gelled into a perfect rod that shoots straight up of her head like an exclamation point. It must take her over and hour to walk a single block.
“She’s kind of hard to miss,” I say, my eyes focused on her hair.
“Man, what a nut!”
“I bet she thinks we’re the freaks, zipping around like mad all day long.”
I close my eyes as we cross Olympic Boulevard and open them up again. Suddenly (thankfully) everything changes, like a filter dropped in front of a lens. Bright, clean colors turn to sepia. The stucco walls peel away, revealing coarse brick insides. Spotless inanimate surfaces are replaced by lively disorderly graffiti, by the markings of life. Defiant crabgrass pops up everywhere, tickling the undercarriages of dusty cars that lie wounded on cracked, oily driveways.
Mechanically, Clive clicks the button that locks the jeep’s doors. Like magic, people appear on the sidewalks and in the dirt yards, talking, laughing, arguing or just plain doing nothing. Stoops fill up with old timers in various states of undress, their eyes tracking the little children who whirl about in play, who swirl between the broken plastic toys and empty beer bottles. This sudden burst of life, this Hollywood set change never ceases to amaze me.
Clive speeds up on the freeway onramp, making the Jeep’s broken vent whistle in the wind. This is all happening so fast. I look around the whistling car. The bunched-up towels and salt-crusted swim trunks, the white dog hairs stuck to the seats, the Body Glove sticker slowly peeling from the window. It’s strange that Clive doesn’t surf.
A ray of sun moves slowly across the dashboard and comes to rest on Clive’s hands, illuminating them. My eyes pan up to the sky. How I used to love this weather, this eternal LA summer. It’s like Prozac, like a warm, liquid pool for the brain to float in. Submerse yourself in this and you become it. Pretty soon you forget that there’s another world out there, a world of winters and springs and autumns.
“Greece! Dude, you’re moving to Greece! Fuck man!”
“Change is good,” I say, mostly to reassure myself.
“Yeah, but Greece…. How are you going to survive over there? Do you have work lined up?”
“I have some leads,” I say, unconvincingly.
Clive makes a sharp right for the LAX off-ramp, the ice in his coffee shifting in its paper cup. Barely on the 405 South, he practically has to slam on the brakes. Bumper to bumper traffic stretches down the highway for as far as the eye can see.
“Shit!” Clive says, sucking loudly on his coffee. “I should have taken surface streets.”
We start moving in spurts, slowly speeding up and then stopping.
“So, are you nervous? You know, about leaving?”
“I don’t know. A little, I guess. I’m trying not to dwell on it too much. I think it only sunk in this morning, when I woke up in my empty apartment.”
That’s a lie. It hasn’t sunk in. This is a dream. A reflex action. I feel like I’m speeding around a blind curve on a fast motorcycle or trying to fish an octopus out of a dark hole with my bare hands.
Clive lights a cigarette and I look out the window. The shifting LA landscape evaporates and is replaced by a different set of images and sounds: the grayish dust balls on the worn wooden floor of my apartment, my cats asleep on my duffel bags, almost afraid to let them out of their sight, the sound of the street echoing off of the walls, causing the suspended dust particles to tremble in the dirty sunlight. A jeep creeps up the driveway. There I am, loading my stuff in the trunk, feeling sad for my cats, feeling sad that they’re leaving their home. I will not allow myself to go deeper than that. A few charged seconds in rooms stripped naked of their history and we reverse down the driveway, my small cottage house getting smaller and smaller, fading into the light, fading…
“You guys are always moving back…. ”
“What?” I say, the LA scenery snapping back into focus.
“Greeks. You guys are always moving back to Greece. First it was Katerina. Then Christos and Dimitri. Now you. All back to Greece.”
“Yeah.” Should I tell him that they’re real Greeks while I’m some sort of hybrid? Does it make a difference? Does the one drop rule apply to Greek Americans?
“What I can’t figure out is that you all seem to move back right when things start clicking for you here. At least professionally. Why is that?”
“I don’t know. I guess we got tired of LA.”
“Everyone gets tired of LA. Fuck, I’m tired of LA. But you don’t see me packing up and leaving.”
“Maybe it’s because there are no seasons here.”
How do you explain reflex? How do you explain something as intangible as a feeling? Does Clive think I have a choice here?
We pull up to the international terminal and come to a stuttery halt next to a police officer standing at the curb. I’m dazed by the suddenness of this all, by the finality of it. I turn to get out, my eyes focusing on the cop’s massive utility belt. It’s bristling with shiny instruments and weapons. I swallow hard. Is this a good time to be traveling?
“You can’t park here!” the cop barks just as I step onto the curb.
“Moving right away, sir! Just unloading my friend, sir!” Clive blurts out, zipping around his car. He yanks my 2 duffel bags and 3 yowling cat cages from the trunk and practically throws them at me. There’s no turning back now. Things are moving too fast.
“Well dude…. Don’t overdose on the feta,” Clive says, his body tensing into that jocky American male stiffness. We’ll probably have to punch each other goodbye, or make that clicking noise with our teeth while shooting each other with our index fingers. Goodbyes are never easy amongst guys. Especially in this country.
“Yeah, well don’t overdose on the American cheese!” I say.
We both chuckle awkwardly. The police officer hovers near us, like a cloud ready to storm.
As anticipated, Clive’s right hand shoots up, pointing at me. Instinctively, I do the same. We both click our teeth at the same time. So this is how this chapter ends. Quickly, with emotion buried, the sudden breaking apart of two worlds, eyes looking in the opposite direction. Clive jumps back into his Cherokee and grinds the transmission into drive.
“Remember Griego. LA is always here, if the Greek thing doesn’t work out.” Clive then cranes his neck to look at the cop.
“Thank you, sir,” he says from his open window, with just a hint of mockery in his voice. He chirps the Cherokee’s tires for emphasis and gases away.
I retrieve a luggage cart and build a pyramid of cat cages and duffle bags on it. My actions are mechanical. I’m on auto-pilot.
I turn towards the terminal’s door and find myself at the end of a massive line of people. I look around the airport. Cars and people and business as usual and palm trees swaying in the warm, comforting sun. My eyes return to my luggage cart.
“Please take one step to your right,” yells the cop, one hand gripping his utility belt. “Keep the passageway open. Have your passports and tickets ready.”
The line takes one small step forward and I hold on to my luggage cart for support.
This story is a segment from the author’s novel: The Greek Paradox.
Copyright © 2011, Andreas Economakis. All rights reserved.
For more stories by Andreas Economakis click on the author’s name below.