LA like Nicotine,
LA like Honey
You never really know a city until you look at it through someone else’s eyes, until, as Atticus Finch might say, you step into someone else’s skin and walk around in it.
* * *
For Marie, the cities she visits only become horizontal on arrival. Before that, they are stacked things in her mind. Towers of everything she knows about a place, one thing on top of the other. Only once she arrives can lay it all out and piece it together like a puzzle.
Los Angeles was particularly stacked. All of it packed into a box and compartmentalised: here is the category of big cities Marie has never been to, yet somehow still feels nostalgic for, because things she loves have been set there or some of the best words ever put together come from that place or describe it or cut it right open like a wound, so she feels like she knows it, like part of her might have grown there.
Luc was born into sunshine. It happened outside even, his mother likes to remind him, it wasn’t meant to, but it did. Luc owns LA’s smog like a cloak, listens to the news too much and too loud, thinks LA is like a loaf of bread, kind of crusted on the outside but still fresh if you dig deep enough. When he thinks of LA, he can’t separate it from old memories, from baking summers and jacaranda aprons, from desert road trips, from his hand being held as he was pulled through buildings (this one’s a Neutra son, see its low roof like an eyebrow), and that great forever-blue sky blurring each season into the next.
Marie learns about LA by walking. Long, yellow streets made three-dimensional by the tallness of those famous palms stretching to hold the sky up, swollen purple-flesh gum trees peeling their skin onto the pavement, almost every style of house in a ten mile radius. Each house trying to be something else, and all of it unapologetic in its plagiarism or its bigness or its beauty and especially its ugliness.
* * *
Marie notices that in summer she barely casts a shadow. She finds it hard to know instinctively that she’s even there.
Luc is used to feeling invisible, to making himself bigger in order to leave a mark on a place.
* * *
Somehow, in LA the ground is not the ground. They are walking outside, on the road. There are trees, and fire hydrants, the lobbies of buildings and then they realise they’re five stories up, and there’s a whole ‘nother network below them.
On the “real” ground the roads part like curtains above to let light in.
[Luc kicks a used needle away so they won’t step on it]
Trucks rumble like blood and earthquakes and the air rushes.
The city survives down there.
* * *
Luc and Marie both sleep on their sides. There’s a thin patch on their sheets where their hips rub. Luc never knows where to put his left arm.
* * *
Once, they visited Santa Monica Pier. For Marie, on a June Gloom day, where everything fades, it’s a teleportation device. It sent her right back in time and if it wasn’t for the way we’re all glued to our glowing hands, she’d hardly know when she was. It was something about people screaming on amusement rides, that universal joy, and the boards of the place, and the levels of the pier, all piled, connected by slow stairs, all of it pointing towards a sad sea who knows what it feels like to lower the sun down each day but doesn’t know what years are.
What interests Luc about the boardwalk is that somebody had to decide when to stop. At some point, as the concrete veins of the city spread outwards, someone literally had to draw a line in the sand, and say – this is it, this is where it ends. How do you decide how deep a shoreline should be? How do you tell the beach who to be, how wide and how long? What lies beneath LA’s grey bloodlines? Does the shorefront just separate one ocean from the next? Is the desert drowned by an ocean on both sides?
The more Marie thinks about it the more she thinks LA is the same as the Pacific. That from space, on a June Gloom day, she could barely distinguish one from the other. If New York is a concrete jungle (where dreams are made) then LA is a concrete ocean (where dreams drift). The whole place is a big spread of islands and the cars, the cars, the cars, millions of cars move between them like boats. When she walks, she is wading (through the heat, through the smog, through the jetties of street dwellers, floating on the footpaths), when she walks, she is swimming.
Is there anything as wide and vast as the Pacific Ocean?
LA is the deepest, vastest ocean of them all.
Luc never learned how to swim. He was born a boat driver, a drifter on the water rather than in it, a back-seat-beat kid with sunglasses on and wind in his hair rolling on and on, that great, sad leaning forward along LA’s grey and yellow autopian freeways.
* * *
Marie has only been in love once and in LA she finds him everywhere. LA is pacific-ocean eyes and honey-colouring. LA is worn but still growing up. He was the sun, and in LA, it never rains.
* * *
At night, the sea and the sky blend from velvet to a deep fold of darkness in the middle. It’s like everything is being sucked away. Marie never understood the ocean without its edges, there’s always been something. An island, a cloud like the top of a mountain, the moon to make sure you remember where you are. She wonders what the sea is like between the lights, after the sun sinks, and before the stars in a moonless sky. She wonders if anything feels the right way up.
* * *
Luc once said - if you take all of LA’s concrete and break it down and cut it up into pieces, you could put it back together and make a belt around the world one foot deep and ten feet wide.
You could tie a noose around the world.
You could suffocate the world at the equator.
Marie is still getting used to feet. The good thing is, she thinks, you can step them out, one in front of the other. Ten steps across the equator, all that concrete.
She wonders where the sand must have come from to make it. If they scooped it all up (the way a man might scoop up the waist of a girl) and hardened it, again and again.
LA as the ocean, LA as the hardened desert, LA as a belt pulling tighter.
Luc was born from concrete, from endless roads in endless fields where everything is a horizon. In the mornings, the sun would shatter over the edges in a big white burst, and then slowly fade to yellow.
* * *
Marie’s parents have owned their blue canvas tent for 33 years. It’s probably got another ten if they keep up the water-proofing. The life expectancy of a building is 25 years but we still call it permanent. We ignore that we peg it into the ground, that the climate can still bring it down, that in high enough winds, steel floats like fabric. Marie exists at the edge of the city and sees her parents’ tent everywhere. Each building is glass and flapping awnings, is poles and stretched translucent sunlight, is temporary and changing the moment they drove its deep pegs into the crust of the earth.
Luc is used to sitting in reflected light. LA has a way of turning buildings into moons.
They come together knowing that LA is yellow. Like it has a constant filter on, like it’s nicotine-stained from too much excess, like its honey sweetness has been spread and drizzled and runs down the concrete river and comes out of the taps. Golden is everywhere, the word of it, the feel of it in the air, written haphazardly on all the roads, broken into pieces by trees, spread thin over everything like there’s cellophane in the sky.
LA like nicotine, LA like honey, LA with her cellophane sky.
Marie moved to LA in June, from the winter to the dripping heat, loving LA on the days where there is more air. She likes to think of herself in a city in third person, to imagine herself as someone else. Sometimes she introduces herself with an American-sounding name. Sometimes she wants to feel like she comes from the place that feels like home.
* * *
Luc and Marie, the local and the visitor. Eyes to see the city through. Both orbiting LA in infinite time, one drawn from the city, the other pulling the city to her with all her gravity.