The day I turned 26 was one of the better days I've had since moving to Los Angeles even though I worked an unpaid internship from 10am to 6pm like every other Friday.
Ten years ago, when I was a student volunteer at an off-off-Broadway theater in Manhattan, I thought I'd reached my career's bottom. I walked two temperamental poodles in the sweltering heat three times a day. I hung twenty-pound lights in a black room without air-conditioning. I took a crowded train to and from my sister's studio apartment where we shared a bed and a box of melted granola bars. I had done it willingly, even proudly, in exchange for a seat at the casting table. I had no power, of course, but I got to read with the actors and too-confidently state my opinion of their performances. The artistic director would nod, purse her lips, and then promptly ignore me. I didn't mind. I was in love with theater. Just to exist alongside it was enough.
Three degrees, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a few dozen day jobs later, I find myself working for the same rate. Now I'm an intern at a film production company which, on paper, is an improvement, but the real responsibilities are not even marginally more sophisticated. I answer emails. I read scripts no one on the payroll wants to. I clock out at six by texting my boss an emoji of a hand waving and then lay on my floor for a little while, brooding about the future of my bank account. I think about my writing, and if anyone with an IMAX 70mm will ever bother to read it.
At least, that's what I usually do. The day I turned 26, I was energized -- even, dare I say, enthused. I'd planned a celebratory bonfire on the beach, something I'd longed to do before I even memorized my first west coast address. I wanted to get drunk, dive into the frigid waves of the Pacific, and drown out the final hours of being twenty-five, my worst age on record.
The year a turbulent long-term relationship ended
The year I got sick
The year I lost interest in the things I love most
The year I almost died
The year of physical, emotional, and spiritual rehab
A year ago, when I turned 25, a friend texted me a cautionary, "[It was] indisputably my shittiest year to date, so I hope you buck the trend and reclaim what I suspect could be a pretty great time in different conditions." Different conditions or not, the trend remained unbucked right up until the clock chimed and I transformed back into a pumpkin.
Then again, as my thesis professor so aptly mentioned, without the year of affliction, I would be without the year of expansion. Amidst the trials of 2022, I was reminded just how many things are worth sticking around for. My mother jumped on a red-eye hours after the emergency room called to let her know I was on the brink. My friend Howard reached out while I was in recovery and became my de facto manager, arranging meetings with fellow type oners in the industry. Jill, my wonderful emergency contact, brought flowers and pumpkin bread.
When I returned to campus two weeks after my release from the hospital, I received dozens of messages from people I know, work with, met once, admire deeply -- all of them messages of love and gratitude for my survival. It was overwhelming. It was beautiful. So the year was not without gilded linings.
Still, I wanted to get wasted on a beach and flip off the gods for putting me through all that, so I set out for some firewood.
The drive out to Playa del Rey was marred by heavy traffic. Even at 2pm on a Friday, it seems nobody in LA has any sense of place or time or blinker purpose. I spent the remainder of the day working in a little blue coffee shop less than a mile from the beach. I wanted to arrive early, claim a pit, and light my fire. I told my friends to bring Polaroids of ex-boyfriends and bad first drafts to ritualistically burn. I'd rather choke on a paper straw and die than not deliver.
Once my manager logged off, and I sent the aforementioned emoji, I jumped back in my car and hunted for firewood at a local Ralph's. I spent what little money I had with the flourish of an Elven king: Bubly, munchies, napkins with llamas on them -- I spared no expense.
I loaded my car down with these provisions and scurried to Dockweiler Beach like a soccer mom on regional championship Sunday. I struggled through the cold sand with twelve bags wrapped around my shoulders and sighed with relief when a nearby group gathered the last of their empty beer cans and offered up their space. I lit the first log and basked in my glory...
...for like sixty seconds before realizing that I had forty-five minutes to kill before anyone else showed. Screenwriters are notoriously mousy, and would sooner pass on a First Look than show up to a party first and risk weather talk. ("Yeah, it's cold out here, I'm so glad I bundled up! Anyway, any word from other people or would you be terribly offended if I just ran back to my car really quick and never returned?")
I sat crisscross applesauce on the pit's edge and listened to fellow beach goers' drunken conversations. Self-consciousness quickly melted into "fuck it", and I started to drink straight from a handle of whiskey I swiped from my roommate's shelf to keep warm. I curled up on the snack towel and stared up at the sky, watched the planes take off and land, take off again. There were ocean-liners about a mile out from the shore, lit up like Christmas trees. I considered who might be onboard; what they might be looking at. I thought of my mom all the way across the world and what she was getting up to. It was morning where she was. I imagined her smoking the first cigarette of the day while staring at the mountain just beyond, probably capped with snow. Maybe she was thinking of me. As the liquid in the bottle dwindled, the sea-spray and smoke, ocean and sky bled into each other, and I relived my coma dreams.
That's the question I get most often when I spin the old "I almost died" yarn: Whether or not I dreamt during my coma. I did. Where my normal dreams are a mundane rehashing of daily upkeep -- buying cheap Parmesan or leaving my wallet in the car -- my coma dreams were beguiling. All cartoons, unending, forever blending from one unclear image into another, to another. I thought of Greek statues with abs and mustaches. A figure on a computer. Cacti. Football fields lit only by flashlights. A kiss on a picnic blanket, red wine, hot gas emitting from volcanos on an empty ocean floor, lines of code spelling out the theory of everything.
It was surprisingly lovely, my coma. For months, I had been too exhausted to tie my shoes and suddenly I was transported all across the plane of existence from the comfort of a hospital bed. There was no nightmare shaking me awake, no insomnia screaming for daylight. Every inch of my body relinquished its autonomy. There was no fighting it; there was only absolute, unblinking acceptance. I miss it sometimes.
Hours later, long after my party people arrived and began blinking back the tears of inebriation, someone shouted, "Should we run in?!" before bolting towards the black water. I followed without question. When we reached the place where the sand flattens out and the foam spits, we stopped, semi-sobered by the cold. We ran back to the fire -- which at this point was alive only through the sheer stubborn effort of Amanda, our dumpster diver -- and stood with our hips akimbo over the smoke. Even now, three weeks out, my jacket smells like fire.
I made a birthday playlist because that's just how my cinnamon rolls. The last song I added is called Dream Song by Samia. (I'm a simp, I know, you don't have to say it but you could because it is true.) If there's one thing that woman does better than make me explore the deepest, darkest corners of my fucked up little psyche, it's put words to abstract thoughts that have conked around in the basement of my brain for a long, long time.
"There are six minutes of brain activity
After the body's dead
'Cause you get your dreams for free."
You get your dreams for free.
(Photo by Meg Campbell, my homie)