It was almost annoyingly fitting to take the California Car Service to JFK for my flight to Los Angeles. The driver, unapologetically Puerto Rican, was feeling especially chatty for 4:30 in the morning. It made me feel a twinge of melancholy that it’s only ever the people you least want to talk to who possess the need to establish a human connection with you. As I gave him yes or no answers to banal questions and finally nodded off, I flickered in and out of dream impressions of L.A., a town I hadn’t visited since the sudden New York exodus. You know, the one that reached a crescendo around the “NYC to LA to NYC to LA, Ad Infinitum” article in The New Yorker—and just the general barrage of essays from the sort of writers who only ever put out one book detailing why they’ve decided to throw in the towel for the west coast.
I stayed in L.A. as long as I could before going a bit mad and driving around Maria-style from Play It As It Lays as a source of unsatisfying therapy. The driving began to get to me. It was California where I began my life. But I came to know it as Comafornia®™ after leaving, the place where people went to either feel numb or prepare for death. There was no intensity there. It was all awash with “calm” (read: stoned) denizens or tech and film people. Yet, the allure it held for so many, particularly a select sect of east coasters convinced it could be their only solace from the high-pressure existence they had known all their lives, left me with a sense of perplexity. I couldn’t fathom why it was so lusted after as a promised land. An arid climate and freeways galore were its landscape. Sure, there were grand vistas along the coast near Monterey and Carmel, and San Diego had its charms if La Jolla or Coronado were your vantage point, but honestly, the panoramas people associate with Comafornia®™ are few and far between.
Of course, the perspective one has of a particular place when she grows up there is bound to make her a bit jaded. Then again, there were native Comafornians who revered and cherished the state just as much as those who drove cross-country to experience the good vibes Lana Del Rey espouses in “Freak.” What was missing from my Comafornia®™ DNA that made me immune to its alleged charms? I was congenitally high, which meant that the weed held no magnetic pull over me, so what did that really leave–Mexican food? Sure. But the Dominicans of NYC have come a long way in their ability to re-create the cuisine.
The reason for my pilgrimage to the crooked dick-shaped state this time around was to attend a funeral. That of my grandfather’s, who I rarely spoke to (he was of part of a near extinct generation of stern, “work hard and it will pay off” men). But he was the last of my grandparents to die, which made my presence at the service somewhat important. It was honoring the true end of an era in our familial makeup.
Dressed in all black and wearing oversized sunglasses, I had never felt more quintessentially and contrastingly “east coast” as I waited at LAX for my mother to pick me up. Ellie Rutherford (her maiden name, which she refused to part with), was the sort of woman who wore pearls and sheer lace tops with pinstripe pants and pointed-toe shoes. She didn’t have a job in the conventional sense, but she dressed like a business woman (a real term in spite of what Jack Donaghy says). As far as I knew, she was still serving in an “auxiliary” capacity for my father’s accounting firm in Beverly Hills. This meant she was his secretary, a word that should be abolished, yet has still managed to eke by all these years thanks to the Maggie Gyllenhaal movie of the same name.
As I fell into the car, I let Ellie’s appraising gaze wash over me. “Donna, you look so pale. Are you eating any meat?”
I found it to be a strange question. Ellie was a vegetarian, but maybe she was trying to be less cliche by asking me something other than, “Don’t they have the sun out there in New York?”
I replied, “If you count the pepperoni on my pizza, sure.”
Ellie rolled her eyes and stepped on the gas with understated ferocity. “Every time you come back, you seem surlier. Are you sure this city is a positive influence on your life path?”
I leaned my head against the window, noticing a fat man wearing khakis and a striped polo help his wife carry her suitcase toward the taxi line. I wondered if they were tourists or from the L.A. area–maybe somewhere like Burbank. Sometimes it’s hard to discern who lives here and who doesn’t. The aesthetic of Comafornians is often so bland that it can commingle with just about any other U.S. citizen from the south or Midwest.
“Donna, can you hear me? Did you take too many Xanax again?”
I turned to face Ellie. “Really, mother, is there such a thing as ‘too many Xanax’?”
Ellie sighed, irritated that we had gotten caught in the usual patch of LAX traffic before W. Century Boulevard lets you out into other avenues. “Is this how this trip is going to be? You showcasing your ability to be sarcastic in between occasional grunts? Because, if so, you should just get back on the plane now. I won’t have your grandfather disrespected that way.”
“He’s not even your father. He’s Andrew’s.” Andrew was, naturally, my father. I never wanted to be one of those prickheads who addresses their parents by their first names, but it just sort of happened as a result of going to Beverly Hills High School (same as Ariel Pink, but he was Rosenberg then. I think I tried to give him a hand job once, but he wasn’t receptive.) and being told to treat them as equals.
The traffic finally started to let up and Ellie stepped sharply on the gas pedal again, gunning it all the way as she merged onto the 405, a freeway that, lamentably, always made me think of the first sentence of Less Than Zero. Ellie stopped trying to make conversation with me until we pulled into our garage on N. Hillcrest Drive. The exterior was just as picturesque as I remembered, and it made me want to retch a little bit. Before I could pull on the handle to get out of the car, Ellie latched her French manicured claws around my forearm and warned, “Please act appropriately contrite about Grandpa Harold’s death when you see your father. He’s really very upset right now.”
Somehow, I actually believed Ellie. Considering the fact that Andrew had consented to using his bereavement time off during this period, I knew it meant that the demise of his patriarch must have shook him to his core. Men tend to be worse at dealing with mortality than women–that’s why they live so much more recklessly: to convince themselves they’re living.
I nodded as reverently as possible to acknowledge my grave understanding of Ellie’s request, prompting her to relinquish her grasp. She beat me to the trunk, pulling out my suitcase in fits and starts that led her to exclaim, “Here come get this, you have stubby nails that won’t get ruined.”
My suitcase was the kind you buy at TJ Maxx when you’re in a last minute bind. It was a nondescript blue and made of nylon. Ellie shoved it toward me like it was nuclear waste. It was a far cry from the Dolce and Gabbana weekender bag she would take with her on trips to Palm Springs for routine “touch-ups.” Without waiting for me, she sauntered into the house.
Though you might not have been able to tell thus far, I have two other siblings. Brothers–Benjamin and Martin. Both of them work for my father. Being surrounded by males during my formative years was probably my downfall, the thing that turned me into a drug-addled nympho. And when I say nympho, I don’t mean it in that hyperbolic, oh she had one too many drinks and is trying to kiss me sort of way. I mean I need to have sex at least twice a day to feel functional. My family does not know this about me, in part because I don’t live in the same city or on the same coast as them, which means I don’t leave a trail of semen behind me in their proximity.
When Andrew sees me, he forms something close to a smile, but it looks pained. “Donna. I’m so glad you’re here.” I let him embrace me and almost fully return it. He doesn’t have time to notice if this show of affection is genuine or not because Benjamin and Martin come barreling through the kitchen to mock me.
Martin begins with, “Donnie’s back in town, it’s about time.” My whole life, they both called me Donnie, joking that I was their third brother. Benjamin adds, “You look like a string bean. My god.” He pinches my waist.
I am starting to wish I had packed more Xanax or that I had taken Ellie up on her offer to just get back on the plane and return to New York where at least people don’t feign emotions when they don’t have them. It’s then I notice that Ellie has disappeared altogether. She’s probably gone to soak in her multi-jet tub which I’m pretty sure she uses to masturbate. Again, I’m left among nothing but men.
Martin pulls my sunglasses off and demands, “Who’s your boyfriend these days?”
“Are you still with the artist/stockbroker from Ohio?” expounds Benjamin.
I shake my head. “Maybe if one of you prepares me a drink I’ll regale you.”
Martin and Benjamin had married essentially the same woman. I honestly couldn’t tell one apart from the other. They could’ve been twins. One was named Tamara and the other Zara. They were thin, blonde and appeared to have been ordered from a Madewell catalogue. I never called either of them by name out of fear of saying the wrong one. Mercifully, Martin and Benjamin seemed a long way from having children, as I imagined whatever they produced to be an army of blonde clones. Though maybe one of them would prove to have a dominant gene that would allow their brown hair to spread to a second generation.
Andrew was the one who ended up mixing me a martini. If you want something done, usually an older man will be the one to do it. “Here,” he said, handing me the drink with a stoic manner. I pitied him in that moment, and contemplated if I would feel any sadness when he and Ellie died. I’ve often heard it said that a person can’t fully live her life until both of her parents have died. There’s liberation in not having to worry about the opinions of those who created you.
After knocking back a few martinis with Martin and Benjamin in the kitchen (Andrew had slinked away to his office by my second drink), I went up to my room. Ellie had turned it into something of a shrine, something that could pass as a Beverly Hills 90210 set (the original Beverly Hills 90210, to be clear). I wished she had just turned it into a gym like every other B. Hills mom. But Ellie was too languid and passive aggressive for such things. By not transforming it into something else, she was basically saying, “You’ll be back, Donna. They always come back to Comafornia®™.”
The funeral was going to be held at Woodlawn Cemetery the next day; it made me smile to myself as I thought of Holly Woodlawn. My prim, strait-laced grandfather buried in a place that conjured images of a transgender Warhol star. It was this that lulled me to sleep without bothering to get under the covers.
When I awoke, it was already the next morning. No one had bothered to call me down for dinner; Ellie claimed she had prodded me a few times but that I was out cold, nearly presumed dead. You never slept more soundly than in Comafornia®™.
I had spent most of my last paycheck on my funeral outfit. It was going to have to be worn at every funeral I attended for the rest of my life to make it worth the price I paid. It was a long sleeve crepe chiffon Prada dress I got at a sample sale from my work, where I slung buzz words about the merchandise for a living instead of doing what I had always wanted, which was to be the Sophia Amoruso of New York. Alas, Andrew would never give me any goddamn capital to become such a person. Grandpa Harold was the one who taught him not to give any handouts, especially not to his children.
I sat in the middle seat in the back of our Mercedes-Benz SUV on the way to Santa Monica. Sandwiched between Benjamin and Martin, I felt about fourteen years old again.
Our family bowed their heads in the front row as a Catholic priest gave a stock oration that Grandpa Harold would have enjoyed. I was thankful no one had asked me to speak or share a memory. The only clear reminiscence I had of him was when he told me not to stick my tongue out in pictures, that it wasn’t what classy girls did. I was about seven at the time, doomed for classlessness evidently.
Perhaps I was unaware of just how much Xanax I had been dosing myself with of late; this was the only explanation I could come up with when Ellie elbowed me in the side to wake me up after everyone else had already started to stand up to pay their final respects. But I couldn’t be brought to open my eyes. The warmth of the Comafornia®™ sun mixed with a beautiful combination of drugs amid a graveyard put me in what appeared to be a very literal coma. My inability to be drawn back to consciousness was only mildly troubling at first. But then they decided it would be best if they just threw me in the ground with Grandpa Harold. They were waspy enough to wait for the other attendees to leave before heaving me in; they didn’t want anyone to know about this little embarrassment after all, and they could easily find some excuse about my absence at the reception.
The priest turned a blind eye as Andrew put the final dirt mound over me and Grandpa Harold. Ellie let out a soft cry as she remarked, “I always knew she’d die in California.”
“Comafornia®™,” I muttered inaudibly. “It’s Comafornia®™.”