This Is Us

Thanks for Nothing

California is America, only more so. That’s its burden and its gift. It’s so big and tiny, crowded and empty, foggy and smoky yet bright and shining, and it shakes. If you drive the whole length of the thing, 770 miles from top to bottom, you’re going to need some great driving music. If you’re cool, you’ll blast a playlist of all the newer stuff that I never know about until it’s not hip anymore.

I do get to it, though. I’m a late bloomer and I travel slow, but I catch up eventually.

Recently, I asked some savvy friends for suggestions. I needed a soundtrack to complete a therapeutic assignment: a road trip, no small thing for an agoraphobe like me. I was recovering from a recent flare-up of the anxiety disorder that has crouched and snarled in me for as long as I can remember. I’ve been through this enough to know that I’ve got to do my cognitive behavioral therapy homework (like another program of recovery I’m in, it works if you work it). And I know that good music helps. Great music fixes almost everything.

Over and over again, friends suggested one particular artist, a young woman with increasing critical acclaim. I knew the name.

“I haven’t heard her stuff yet,” I said, and people reacted like — well, you know the face they get when you haven’t seen, eaten, read or smoked the thing they love the most on the planet besides the parent they despise the least? That face.

“Oh my gaaaaaahd,” one friend moaned. “How? How have you missed her? She’s so greaaaaaaaat.”

I said I didn’t doubt she was.

Another friend said, “Her last album is haunting and beautiful. You’ll love it, it’s so you.”

I’m a Scorpio and I’m vain, so I appreciated that.

I said, “Thanks! I just don’t know if I want to be, uh, haunted on a road trip.”

My therapist, who specializes in addiction and anxiety disorders, emphasizes baby steps. I decided I would drive a little less than half the length of the state. I’ll do the whole thing one day, when I’m ready.

I took time off from my job at a charity, a career I am deeply lucky to still have. I booked a contact-free check-in at a relatively isolated spot where I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody. I joined some dating apps in case I changed my mind about talking to anybody. Changing my mind has proven to be a good thing in recent years.

I pointed my car north, on a route that took me through cities and suburbs and endless fields and through the intersection where James Dean smashed a 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder into a 1950 Ford Tudor. They cleared the wreckage a long time ago. There’s a great souvenir shop nearby. In California, there always is.

The whole trip was a dream of golden and green and brown and, at night, twinkling white stars in the broad black sky.

For music, I chose The Chicks, the patron saints of middle-aged white women who are trying their progressive goddamn best to be better. I had recently dyed my hair blond, and I was wearing a plaid red shirt.

The road was gorgeous, and everything was shining. I put on my sunglasses. There are a couple hours like that every evening here, and then there’s the Southern California moment right before sunset they call magic hour. Well, over in Ojai, they call it “the pink moment,” and then they talk to you about ley lines. I lived in Asheville, North Carolina, for two years, I know the speech. It’s better than the one about vaccines.

Later, I switched to Megan Thee Stallion, because Texas women will take you where you need to go and teach you something about yourself along the way. My best friend lives in Houston. Her small daughters think Beyoncé should be president. I do not disagree.

The whole trip was a dream of golden and green and brown and, at night, twinkling white stars in the broad black sky. It was a Chicks hit single about burying a no-good man and not losing any sleep at night. It was a Sturgill Simpson dirge about losing what you thought you wanted. It was an Ennio Morricone soundtrack to some melodramatic frontier romance I’m supposed to have seen. It was not a Megan Thee Stallion banger, but truly her music works in all settings — so you know what, yes, it was that, too.

I should’ve put on the Bruce Springsteen album Western Stars, East Coast energy in pastoral Real-ish America. I love my home state of New Jersey, which is prettier than you think, but delusions and illusions look way better out here.

I used to think North Carolina was the most beautiful state in the country, but with respect to residents of the state I have tattooed on my arm, I have revised my opinion. I always wanted to move to Buncombe County again, but I can safely say I’m not going back to Carolina anytime soon. If you’re lucky enough to live awhile into your own future plans, you get to the revision stage.

I reached my destination and I was not anxious, not even once. The agoraphobia was way in the rearview mirror, which is where I like it best. I sat around the ranch cottage for a few days and thought about writing but got distracted by a friendly cat and curious wild turkeys and the live oaks and the gleam of the rolling hills.

One day I put on my mask and went to a restaurant, sat on the outdoor patio far from anyone else, and watched the regulars watch a new guy lightly harass the young waitresses. I saw the moment they almost said something and decided not to. He paid his bill and walked off into the night before it got real gross. Everybody started talking shit then. The girls seemed fine.

The night before I left, the people in the cottage adjacent to mine got drunk and fought loudly. They woke me up at 3:30 a.m. For a moment I worried they would hurt each other, and then I thought, “That’s silly. Other people aren’t your responsibility.” This is a thing I have learned in the past couple of years, but I need to remind myself sometimes. Eventually, I fell back to sleep, but for the first time on the trip, I was restless.

I gave the cottage a rave review and wrote a private note to the proprietor about the people who fought, in case they had broken anything. I never heard back. I figured it was her business, but maybe she just didn’t want to deal with all that. Not every woman does, not with everything else we’ve got going on all the time.

I took the long way home, the Pacific Coast Highway. At one scenic stop, there was an overflowing trash can by the railroad tracks and, just beyond, the most beautiful ocean. The breeze was perfect and the stacked refuse looked like a sculpture. I took a photo of it. You can kind of see the ocean in the background.

I got back in the car and, without thinking, put on a perfect album I hadn’t listened to in a very long time.

Some musicians get one perfect album. This guy got a couple, and the many imperfect ones are still excellent. He used to be one of my favorite writers in any genre.

I knew him once, for a little while. He scared me, but not because I thought he would hurt me. I thought he would hurt himself. I wanted to go out with him because I had loved his work for many years and I liked talking to him, but it soon became clear that he was terribly unhappy.

He had the kind of mind that seems forever colorful, fascinating, and unquiet, a party that gets real bad sometimes but always rallies and never, ever stops. He was a genius, too, and I mean that. I’m a good enough writer, sometimes very good, but I know how to recognize a truly great one.

When we started talking, I had just stopped drinking, and your body takes time to adjust. I couldn’t sleep for a month, and I was Very Online at odd hours. So was he, but not because he was sober. I don’t think he’d slept in years. Some vampires don’t need to.

Texts, phone calls, video chats, DMs — there was no pandemic then except loneliness, but our socially distant non-romance worked fine for me.

I reached out privately. I am accessibly pretty, but unintimidatingly so, not the show pony you’d trot out on a red carpet, but the type you might lust after in private because she reminds you of a quirky girl who never talked to you in middle school, the kind of girl you’re too cool for now but haven’t quite gotten over. This buys me a certain amount of access with some types of successful men.

Texts, phone calls, video chats, DMs — there was no pandemic then except loneliness, but our socially distant non-romance worked fine for me. I suppose you could call it a friendship. I wanted to meet up, to go on a date, to get together, but he kept dodging it or backing out. It was confusing, but I was never bored. We never actually met in person, but it felt like something oddly intimate, though not romantic.

“I know you won’t betray me,” he said once, out of nowhere. He said a lot of things out of nowhere. It was part of his charm. “I know you won’t tell anyone about this.”

“About what?” I said. “You just showed me your Star Wars toys, and we talked about books.” He had a lot of first editions. He had a bed that used to belong to a wizard, a real one. He had a suit of armor. I don’t know if he ever wore it. I would’ve worn it every day and ordered really expensive pizza just so I could answer the door that way.

His stories were disjointed, and I didn’t know what was real and what was not. Swords, wands, endless cups, so many coins, princesses or at least the American equivalent, armor and spikes and wet soft vulnerability.

I got the feeling I was on my own life raft, a bit tossed and turned by the waves but overall looking at favorable odds of survival, watching an oddly familiar stranger dance madly on the deck of a ship that was sinking fast. And yet, there were more life rafts, all around, ready and waiting for him.

He could get well if he wanted, I thought. Some people don’t have the money, but he’s got the money. There are doctors. There are places people go.

There were moments when something clear poked out of the hypnotic swirling poisoned mud, some creature that was still and wise and untouched by whatever had happened to him, and I glimpsed the healthy part the rot never reached.

Once he said, “You’re an actual nice person, Sara. You’re a good friend. I’m an asshole. I don’t want to mess you up.”

It sounds like a line, but I could tell he meant it. And then the clear, true thing went back under.

He was lovely sometimes. He was never cruel to me. We don’t stick around because they’re awful all the time.

I had dated a guy years before in New York. A handsome, funny, mean drunk, he slapped me once and wouldn’t let me leave his bed, and I could’ve gotten hurt worse than I did. He didn’t even leave a mark. For years I thought that meant it didn’t matter.

He blacked out with that arm over me, pinning me down. He was more than a foot taller than me, and he was not a weak man. If I fought, it might get worse. I gave up, staring at the ceiling because I knew sleep wouldn’t come.

What was the point in trying to rest? I was no Sleeping Beauty. Everything wouldn’t be better once I woke up. I was, if anything, Sleeping Cute Enough. Magic wasn’t real, and I wasn’t a princess. I was just some random mediocre diversion, one in a long line of losers, a minor character in some handsome fellow’s story, Bluebeard’s bride number 31. Somebody else might defeat him one day and be crowned with the laurels given to true champions, but it wouldn’t be me. My skull is in the basement with the rest of them. Throw another one on the pile.

His arm lay across my body for hours. It was a tree trunk, thick and alive and pulsing with sap. It was a log felled in the forest. It was a broad, unshakeable ceiling beam in a storybook cottage in Fantasyland.

I tried once more to get out, and he moaned in his sleep. “Baby, where are you going?”

“You slapped me,” I said. “I’m leaving.”

“No I didn’t,” he mumbled. “Don’t be silly.”

“Yes you did,” I said, but the arm didn’t move.

“I didn’t do that, but I’m sorry if I did. Come back to me.”

There was no way to leave, so I stayed. I stayed that night and other nights. And I kept staying, until I ran away to California.

On the road home from the ranch, listening to the perfect album I used to love from a man I used to want, I blinked several times, remembering more about him. It wasn’t so long ago, but I’d put it all away in some neat little box. The rhythm of the road can jostle the lid until it pops off.

The musician and I had talked and talked. He talked and I listened. Sometimes we flirted a little. He drank and told me I was reading tarot incorrectly and explained how I should be doing it and showed me all the things he had in a California storybook mansion that was either a fairy tale castle or a nightmare lair, depending on your perspective. I thought it was quite tastefully done, honestly. It was exactly how I would decorate if I had all that money and all that time.

He wrote and wrote and wrote, and so did I, in my studio apartment 10 minutes from the house to which he never invited me. I had creaky floors and exposed beams, too. He just had more of them than I did.

After a little while, he began to sound paranoid. He spoke of people trying to get him, of people saying things that weren’t true. He was never specific about who or what, and I wondered if he were delusional. I am the fourth generation in my family to have required psychiatric care, and there are many among us who never received what they needed. I am not unfamiliar with men plagued by delusions, in the clinical sense and otherwise. There’s a reason I thrive in Los Angeles.

“Did you do anything wrong?” I asked.

“No!” he said.

“Well then,” I said, “you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

I suggested addiction therapy, or sobriety meetings. I was not yet in addiction therapy, and I didn’t yet go to sobriety meetings, but telling other people what to do is always more interesting than doing it yourself. I suppose he preferred tarot, hypnotherapy, and the company of women without strong boundaries because they hadn’t lived long enough to grow them yet. I have used all these crutches in my day.

Even my closest friends never ask if they can take a shower while we talk on video, and if they did, I wouldn’t say yes. When he asked, in the midst of a decidedly nonsexual conversation, I said yes. Though I’d cut the booze out, I wasn’t quite sober yet, and sometimes I said yes just to take the ride.

Nothing untoward took place, to my utter relief and sneaking disappointment. He just took a shower, like it was normal. I acted like it was normal. I got the feeling I’d passed some sort of test.

I didn’t want to be a victim. I wanted to be a girlfriend. In the end, I was neither.

One day he stopped responding to calls and messages, and that was that. I was not surprised. He had girlfriends galore, probably, and far closer friends than me, probably. I had work and family and friends of my own, and I got into therapy, and I found out you’re not actually sober if you smoke weed (who knew?) and I got actually sober, one day at a time, which is all you can do, and it’s a lot sometimes.

Women talk. We always have, but it’s easier for us to find each other now. We compare notes. We compare bruises.

I tried to put him out of my mind.

A couple months after he went radio silent, somebody who didn’t know about any of that stuff sent me an article.

“Did you see this?” they asked.

I read it all, all of their stories, and my heart turned cold, though it kept beating, and the sound of it throbbed in my ears. It was cold outside.

Women talk. We always have, but it’s easier for us to find each other now. We compare notes. We compare bruises. I read it all, and the shattered mirror shards he’d shown me assembled in my head as a whole. I saw myself in the reflection.

One of them was a kid when it happened.

I used to teach kids her age. I told them they could tell me anything in their writing, but if they said they were being hurt by somebody or intended to hurt themselves or somebody else, I was legally obligated to tell. Some of them told me anyway and got mad when I did what I said I’d do, but they weren’t stupid. They told me because they couldn’t speak up, and I could. I could say the names. I could do it for them.

I guess I never learned how to say the names for myself.

After a little while, my cold heart started to warm again. The noise got a little quieter. I realized I hadn’t responded to the friend who sent me the link.

“Don’t know how I missed that one,” I said.

I went out to eat with a friend, and our driver was drunk. She was mad, too, and glad that she’d just dumped her no-good boyfriend. She wasn’t swerving, but she stank of booze. We should’ve called the cops, but we didn’t. It was Valentine’s Day. I hope she didn’t kill anybody.

I told my friend the story. She told me about another friend, who told me about another. Los Angeles is the biggest small town in the whole wide world.

“I guess I dodged a bullet,” I said, but that wasn’t true. I ran right at him, full force. I just got lucky because he pointed the gun in another direction. In a lot of other directions actually.

Back to this year, to the road, to the music. It was still as great as I remembered. There’s one perfect album, and there are other ones that are very good. It’s still not worth it.

Magic hour ended. The sun set. I turned him off.

When you clear out the garbage, even the prettiest trash, there’s room for better stuff. Or you just leave a blank space because there’s beauty in the emptiness, when it’s a choice.

It was quiet for awhile and then I put on his ex-girlfriend’s album.

It was the one people couldn’t stop recommending to me, the one my innocent friend described as “haunting.”

Those friends didn’t know the story. There was hardly any story to tell, as far as I was concerned, so why would I say it? I didn’t get hurt. He wasn’t bad to me. I got to see the blueprints executed in black and white in the words of these other women. He left me on the drafting table, and I am thankful for that.

I’d avoided the allegedly haunting album precisely because I knew I’d love it, because I was afraid I’d project my own shit onto her work, and because I want to appreciate a woman on her own fucking terms, and because I didn’t like thinking about him or what I could’ve or should’ve noticed.

I had seen the red flags and called them baby pink. I was ashamed. But my friends didn’t know about all that. They were just trying to give me something actually good.

I drove south toward Los Angeles, and I listened to the whole thing, twice.

Actually, it was not good. Actually, it was fucking great.

And it was not haunting, not to me. It was illuminating and moody and wistful and angry and I forgot who she was in the scheme of my own strange story, until it was over, and I remembered her in context.

A realization hit me, and I put my hand over my heart without thinking. You should really keep both hands on the wheel.

It shocked me, and it shouldn’t matter, and art is art is art and we needn’t compare, but I’ll say it plain, because it’s true: She’s a better writer than he is. And he is a great writer. That’s why it’s astounding to say, and mean, that she’s better. I don’t say it out of bitterness or anger. I’m not angry. I’m just telling you the truth. She’s better, and she’s younger, and if we’re all lucky, she’ll get many more years to make many more songs.

“Fuck,” I said, and I laughed — this time, with genuine delight. What a wonderful surprise.

There were a few songs about him, though she didn’t name him there. She named him elsewhere. A lot of these younger women will do that sooner than us older ones. I like their style.

It was night, and her voice carried me down, down, down the coast, and I thought about California: black and brown cattle in the golden fields, the golden people breathing raggedly the moment they step away from the microphone, coughing up fog and smoke, all of the golden pollen everywhere all of the time, a land where every season is fire season, so many prone bodies barely breathing on ventilators, the skeletons in cold flesh stacked in boxes waiting for the final rest, the people who say they’re sober and aren’t, the people who say they’re sober but won’t be in a minute, the ghost of James Dean and other beautiful people who broke early and stayed that way.

Not everybody stays that way. Sometimes you knit yourself back together because you’re lucky, and you get back out there.

When a woman makes angry art, it is by its very nature a refusal to make nice or back down. It exists on its own as a beautiful blazing thing, but it can also be seen as a denial of anyone’s attempt to make her a supporting player in some asshole’s tragicomic star vehicle. In its disagreeability, it is revolutionary.

We make art because we can’t not make art. People care, or they don’t, but we keep going. We tell the stories we need to tell. It’s okay if it takes some of us longer than others.

On the road, driving down the coast, the western stars above, a couple months away from 40, in the brief space between one song and the next, I said aloud, out of nowhere, “I forgive you.” I say a lot of things out of nowhere.

It wasn’t for him. I wasn’t mad at him, so no forgiveness was necessary. He was sick, and I can hold someone accountable for harm while having compassion for their pain. I hope he gets well, and I hope he stops hurting people the way he did, but it’s none of my business. I have to keep my side of the street clean.

I got home. My cat ignored me for an hour and then walked over as I lay on the couch. She stuck her butt in my face and settled on my chest. She forgave me but wanted me to know who the fuck was in charge. Cats and women are like that sometimes. We have to make sure you hear us.

A few days later, I was on one of the dating apps I installed. I matched with a guy who was moderately cute, which is good enough for me, in a pandemic or otherwise. It’s always more about the personality for me anyway. We talked about the music he likes to play — he was learning the dulcimer and banjo but mainly collects very old guitars. He has a kitten and he loves his job. He told me I seem really genuinely kind, and I thanked him.

Shortly thereafter, out of nowhere, in the middle of a conversation about how we organize our workspaces at home, he told me to grab my tits for him.

Haunting or not, you can hear a record scratch to a halt in a moment like that.

Grab your tits for me? Really? I was annoyed by his stupid request, but gross men have been saying stuff about my breasts since I was nine years old. What really got me was the utter lack of creativity or finesse in execution. All the words to use, in all the possible combinations, and that’s what he picked? During a global pandemic?! What an execrable, pathetic lack of invention.

Two years ago, I would’ve engaged him in an extensive conversation about why he felt it was appropriate to say such a thing and what was wrong with him and if the allure was actually in the risk of the boundary-crossing and why that was and if he had considered how it might make me feel and did he think he was a sociopath or was he into the shame aspect of it or what, and then I would’ve accepted his apology and continued talking to him, probably about his family issues and the gap where the loving mother should have been and what it was like to have a wire mother and not a cloth mother, or perhaps the absence of the father and whether the father gave him what he really needed and if he felt lonely, and if he felt sad because, after all, maybe this guy is just troubled and trying to connect and I tend to be flirty so maybe he misinterpreted something I said and—

“Dude, you’re gross,” I typed. “Goodbye.” It wasn’t the most eloquently stinging final salvo, but I’m new at this. Baby steps.

“I’m sorry!” he typed. “Come back!”

It’s not two years ago. It’s this year. And this year, I do not have the time.

I unmatched and put down my phone.

His name is Conor. He lives in Santa Monica, and he fucking sucks.

I’m a late bloomer and I travel slow, but I catch up eventually.

Author, REAL ARTISTS HAVE DAY JOBS (and other books). Writer of scripts. Host of WELL, THIS ISN’T NORMAL podcast. Patreon.com/SaraBenincasa

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