She had positioned herself as one of the die-hards. Not a poseur like all the other transplants that flocked to the Golden State in droves. She would never leave, not even if, for some inexplicable reason, she didn’t end up becoming a star. Of course, how could she fail? She didn’t need to make an Emma Stone-style PowerPoint for her parents to explain to them all the reasons she had to go. She simply went. Ran off into the night and never spoke to them again. Elaine Deringer. That would be her new name. She knew nothing about this Erin Bowman. Such a plain, unextraordinary name. It never suited her. Nothing about her upbringing did, and she wanted to sever all ties with it. If her parents ever happened to find her after seeing her on TV or in the movies, she would deny ever knowing them. It was their fault she had to start from the bottom like this anyway. Why couldn’t she have been born a Coppola or something?
She got off the plane (only her third time ever riding one) that had originated from the Central Illinois Regional Airport in 2017. April 1. It only took about twenty days after for wildfire season to start early that year, quickly introducing Elaine to the notion that maybe the “myth of California,” as headlines had started referring to it in 2020 (as though “unmasking” the myth was a novel concept), couldn’t live up to itself. Was, in fact, going up in smoke before she could manage to land an audition. She had even fallen prey to the cliché of bleaching her brown locks. She wanted to be a bottle blonde, but first she would need a professional to do the initial grunt work that would allow her to maintain the upkeep. She knew it would be the key to standing out, figuring that everyone would try to shirk the blonde bombshell stereotype in order to seem original with their Dita Von Teese attempts at the pinup aesthetic. Well, Elaine wasn’t going to fall for the reverse psychology trap.
Alas, she wished she had, for she walked into the audition waiting room only to be bombarded with a sea of yellow- and white-tinted blondes. She was just another “Marilyn” in the crowd. She wondered if Norma Jeane ever felt this insignificant among other blondes she had to audition with. It was no matter, she was starting to reconcile already that she would never ascend to the heights of Marilyn’s star. She was discouraged and depressed, and the line-reading hadn’t even started.
She shook herself out of her self-pitying reverie, stopped staring at the others and proceeded to bury her head into the script. She would not be intimidated. She was not going to leave California. Ever, she promised herself. And then December came. The apocalyptic image of the 405 on fire as one drove toward the Getty Center was like nothing Elaine ever could have envisioned in her mind. It was as though the gods were punishing her for finally trying to fulfill her dream. She then remembered that there were thousands of others trying to fulfill their dream as well, and they probably felt just as personally targeted. Just as deflated about the expectation versus reality divide of what California was “supposed to be.” Mecca. A Promised Land where glitz, glamor and gumption existed just as much as it did in the fabled days of the studio system. An extended vacation, as long and as lush as the coastline up the Pacific Coast Highway. Instead, Elaine was engulfed in flames rather than hopes for the future that this vision she had for herself and of California might actually come to pass.
By the end of 2019, she had found a part-time job at an Ulta Beauty on Maxella Avenue. Paired with the patchwork string of gigs she could get reading scripts and/or rewriting them, it was enough for her modest apartment in Marina Del Rey. Modest being a polite euphemism for totally depressing. But it was near enough to the strip mall she worked in to walk, therefore sparing her once more from the expense of getting a car, still relying solely on Ubers or the bus when she absolutely had to in order to get around. That was the other thing she realized you don’t really think about before you move to L.A.—can’t really fathom the full weight of until you get there. It is impossible to live without a car. Or at least live without feeling even lonelier and more isolated than you already do in choosing to bypass ownership of a vehicle. The freeway infrastructure was built at a time when Americans didn’t even have the foggiest notion of climate change (many of them still happy to be unaware of it despite indisputable evidence to the contrary). And it was impossible to alter that infrastructure now… that is, unless it all got destroyed in Mother Nature’s ravaging, flaming arms. The only way to truly start all over again is by complete decimation. But Elaine was finding she didn’t have it in her to stick around and see if there would be a California 2.0 once it was all swallowed into the hellmouth.
She was finding it impossible to breathe, made more profound by the fact that she, and everyone else in the world, had been muzzled by the requirement of wearing a surgical mask in public. All it served to do was choke the fumes of the smoke inside of her mask. She wanted to rip it off and scream in the middle of the crosswalk at Lincoln Boulevard. Instead, all she could do was continue to comply, like every other docile citizen secretly hoping they could find the courage to engage in right proper anarchy.
In the months that followed, things continued to deteriorate. With the pandemic having increased the limitations of filming, as well as the personal cost to many just trying to be extras but unable to without paying for their own COVID tests, she was increasingly frustrated with the walls closing in at every turn. The barrier to ever making it as an actress in Hollywood was altogether too rigid in the present. As ash rained down upon her that night on her walk back to her abysmal abode, she decided she was going to leave. That the promise she had made to herself, and to California could not be kept so long as these conditions were to be “the new normal.” Certainly, she wasn’t going to go back to Normal, Illinois, where she was from, but she could go farther inland, maybe to New Mexico, where an acquaintance of hers said the living was as easy as “they” promised it would be in California.
Why not? She simply couldn’t hack it here. Like so many who had arrived with stars in their eyes, her twinkle had been dulled by the realization that there was nothing tying her here. She was not born here, had no family and no real friends. There would be no shame in leaving. No one would even be the wiser to her disappearance. But in the back of her mind, as she served corn to tourists in Taos, catering to their perception of Native Americans on their way to visit the Taos Pueblo, she couldn’t push away the cold, hard truth: she was the little bitch who had fled CA when the going got tough. She had not lived up to what Del Rey had said in “LA Who Am I To Love You,” with, “What I do know/Is although I don’t deserve you/Not you at your best and your splendor/With towering eucalyptus trees that sway in my dominion/Not you at your worst/Totally on fire, unlivable, unbreathable, I need you.” She was a fraud. Another faux “Californicator” who only wanted to take it with its good and not its bad. Who didn’t even want to try to help fixing the problem that might spare, or at least mitigate, its ongoing fiery fate. She kept having dreams of Gavin Newsom fucking her against a redwood tree as the rest of the world burned around them, finally orgasming at the moment when all the blazing trees collapsed on top of them. She wondered what it meant.
She serves corn now in New Mexico. But she’s thinking of moving to New York next. The ones who lived in New York liked to believe they were tough, told themselves always that Californians were flaky, flighty and too dainty to handle the “mean streets” (so mean there’s practically a Blue Bottle on every one) of New York City. They were deluding themselves. The stamina of those who have lived in California their entire lives has long been underestimated. Their capacity to endure the sight and aftereffects of natural disasters at every turn is rarely acknowledged; and just when they think they have surmounted one, another arises. It was the very pinnacle of Sisyphean living. But no, Californians still couldn’t seem to shake the long indoctrinated myth into pop culture and literature (back when people still created it and read it) that life in CA was a breeze. An easy, unchallenging paradise. The place you went if you wanted to be bored, numb your brain out with drugs, get plastic surgery, or all three. People like Elaine were always, in the end, smoked out.