It was already morning and time to put on a pair of shorts. But, like an intruder outside the door of our motel room in the middle of the night, the pain in my lower abdomen had been making a fuss since dawn. I found yesterday’s clothes in a pile in the middle of the room, the same clothes as I’d worn the day before, and the day before that. None of them stank exactly of sweat. They smelled of the padded seats of the car perhaps, and of the proximity of boys’ deodorant. Such was the magic of the trip, preventing bodies from being or feeling stagnant.
We’d made a rule of not smoking in the car. We’d packed clothes for every climate on the West Coast. Anyone could veto any song on the playlist. We shared snacks, sunscreen, motel rooms. We were all pushing thirty. Who would have thought that, ten years after meeting as University of London undergraduates, we would still have to travel cheaply, or that covering long distances would feel so exceptional.
I suffer from embarrassingly acute premenstrual syndrome, yet every month I forget what it feels like. I forget until I remember. For the last few days I tried to make as little space as possible in the car, feeling socially awkward even when I wasn’t speaking.
The only vetoed song so far had been ‘Common People’, which reminded us of London too instantly.
I’ve never been very lucky with men, unless if you count this group of friends, who are mostly men. And the fact is that for about as long as I’ve had them, I’ve also had a lover, a lover who was as unreliable as he was entrancing, who came and went into and from my life as the manifestations of climate dysregulation which may or may not foretell imminent doom, someone who was warm one minute and cold the next, someone who fucked me sometimes, when he pleased, smiled and held me, left me, someone who hated himself for the way he was treating me, and therefore somehow hated me too now as well. It had all gone on for a really long time. On and off, it had been almost ten years.
Nausea washed through me as I slipped quietly through our motel door and let myself skip down the stairs, outside on the parking lot. The day was already ablaze with sunshine. Any shop in America would sell a variety of painkillers, I thought, as I set out on the main road. Pharmacies sold everything else.
I don’t drive. Denizens of big cities may never bother to learn. I crossed the boulevard in my bare legs. I was in such pain I thought my body would combust and dissolve, if I was lucky, by the time I reached the opposite sidewalk.
Since I’d gone off the pill aged twenty-five, my period had been an occasional nightmare. I had looked flushed and healthy, a moment ago, in the bathroom mirror’s Hollywood make-up lights. I had looked of an indeterminate young age. A certain kind of debilitating numbness was on its way, cooking up in my body, fast approaching now, which would make it trickier to walk, or even stand. I had felt it, pushing the tampon inside my body, had felt the tender wound that would never heal.
The light flush now was a sweat, cooling in the breeze. From my lower belly, the pain had travelled to the front of my body, head to toes. None of what ailed me could really be localised. If things went the way they went usually, and I felt like they would, spasms would eventually take over me, like a trance, forcing me to lie down, wherever that happened to be. Possibly the middle of the street.
The town looked different in broad daylight. At night, when we went out, I made an effort and put ample clothes on, something that covered my legs and arms. At night, even mutilated bodies can be looked on with composure, if not compassion. A man had dragged himself across the road on Ocean Drive the previous night, his trunk resting on a skateboard, rolling forth, down with what Kerouac called ‘the low level of the world’. He’d asked us to step out of his way. The boys had apologized and after that, they had been speechless for a while.
Where are you from, people asked, before we even could get a conversation started. Me and the rest of the group had been allowed to smoke while we drank and played pool inside. Every bar had wide open doors so there was not really an inside, and not really the street. Locals everywhere scorned our exuberant dress styles. Laura’s masculine shirts. James’ braces, straight from the fifties. We dissuaded Ted from wearing the top hat he carried with him like a stage prop.
We had driven around for a long time before we could find a free motel room. While Laura enquired about prices, a cat had been let out through the office door, sending the manager out in a total display of panic. He found us in the car park, asked us to look for the cat with him, ranted about the possibility of a wild beast attacking his pet, about vet clinic bills, which he could not afford.
‘He is my son,’ he had exclaimed, to Ted who was reclining at the front of the car, enjoying a bit of spaciousness. He held his bald, tanned head in the parking lot. ‘I know him as if I had made him.’
Ocean Drive was just a road, wide as it gets. The air there smelled of weed and gasoline. I found a gas station after dragging myself a few blocks down towards the water. None of the pedestrians around me looked like they were okay. I walked across the parking lot with a hand held out to a future door, or to a collision. Distances were all wrong. There were only motels and drive-throughs on this stretch of the coast. Mean wide roads that led to a boardwalk and, beyond that, the ocean.
The doorbell jingled when I pushed my way inside the gas station store and suddenly I was in air-con wonderland, surrounded by fridges. I picked something that was not a soda, mourning the joy and freedom of being able to walk my way through life while not being in ungodly amounts of pain. The luxury of being able to get distracted by things, consumables, cheap joys. To the person over the counter I said: do you have any painkillers? She points to a rotating display on the counter. Each sachet holds only two caplets. I buy several.
‘Are you from Australia?’ she asks, concerned, after I say thank you, but I’m already pushing my way through the front door.
I drink some green juice so thick the contents of the bottle could hold a straw, like an old-fashioned malt. Tastes tropical. A train of cars just swoosh me by. I close my eyes and I swallow.
I walk towards the entrance of a diner next door. There’s nothing else to do now but wait in a cozy place. Upon entry a sign asks me to wait to be seated. I see friendly crabs, pale mermaids, ill-shaven sailors. I go lie down on the long seaweed-blue leather seat of a booth and wait for this moment to pass. Every sign sounds like it’s meant with a smile, even, above the counter:
Guests who do not order food will be kindly asked to vacate the premises.
This one I read upside down.
I wake up, as in a fairy tale, to a large omelette I do not remember asking for, a large yellow half-moon checkered with both mayo and barbecue, two grids placed on top of a coat of hardened orange cheese. I do not touch it. My coffee cup gets refilled. I toy with the containers of UHT cream. My phone awakens to find several missed calls, and a text message that says WHERE ARE YOU. SWEETIE U OK.
I drink several cups before Laura walks in with the boys. She hugs me. My t-shirt is cold with sweat. Gathered around me, the boys start ordering cheeseburgers and onion rings, pushing me around like a sibling. I ask permission to go nap in the car. All of us here are the same age, but because Laura and John are married and can drive, the rest of us have been acting like children for the entire trip. I trot across the parking lot and take my place at the back of the car. I make sure to open a window. I dream caffeinated dreams in the marine breeze, thinking of the blank platform of my experience now that pain is a distant fuzz in my nerves.
When the boys get back into the car, I tell them why ibuprofen works better for period pain. They look at me with big sated eyes.
We drive through Big Sur. Firs are bigger than before, excellent, large. Laura makes a stop by a roadside shack where she buys tampons for me and a new bumper sticker with an alien spreading its spindly arms over a BIG SUR sign, all white letters against extra-terrestrial grey. Outside, the boys have made the acquaintance of a mythical American hobo who must have been young once and perhaps thought he would always be. It’s important to him to ascertain that we are not Americans. Then he hands us out tiny comic books, for the road, which he normally sells.
‘Is the little lady a foreigner too?’
The comic book is small as a TV guide, glazed colour on the cover, black and white on the inside. The man smiles through two or three missing teeth.
‘I love everyone on earth, don’t get me wrong, but in my opinion everyone who’s not American is a fucking aristocrat.’
As we drive south, through the winding coastal roads, and in the breeze, which no air conditioning can emulate, Laura asks: ‘What did you guys like best about Santa Cruz?’ She asks this at the end of every town, every attraction.
At the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in the afternoon, I feel on top of the world, but really I’m just on top of my hormonal malaise, and left with only the faintest sense of delirium from the painkillers ingested. It’s a bit like when that idiot had raised a hand to me and left bruises on my cheek, and instead of feeling crushed I felt like I had finally escaped.
We all go our separate ways through the cold sterile air of the galleries. I see a Rothko, and later a Chagall. I consider the thought of home, the thought of Europe. Thoughts roam through my head that have nothing to do with art, for which art provides a mere visual aid. I see my anxious lover, tall and spindly. And the sinewy understatement of his frustration. The role he would play, everyday, to conceal his anger and put his pain on display.
‘Laura has a surprise for you,’ said John, who met me on the basement floor after long peregrinations had led me to the car park, almost in tears. The museum was as good as empty. Possibilities were endless. I followed him and joined the group through a fire door which, to my surprise, triggered no alarm. There was a little courtyard, narrow and grey, and at the end of it to the right, a random tall cactus in a granite planter. Laura stared at me with a sparkling gleam of an expression. She looked so excited. She took my hand.
‘Close your eyes,’ she said.
I knew this whole trip had been organized for me, to help me get well quicker. For a moment, I thought the lover I had left back home, the one who had broken me to pieces and had been cancelled from our little community of men and tomboys, would appear, absolved somehow, allowed to reintegrate into our lives. What a surprise. I thought this would turn out to be the most beautiful day of my life.
Standing by the cactus, Laura, who was tall and strong, positioned herself behind me and grabbed me by the waist, with both arms. She always did this. Any excuse to carry me like a child. I didn’t say ‘ouch’. I just tried to be still.
‘You can open your eyes now,’ she sang, while her arms pressed against my insides, lifting me in the air.
In the upper curvatures of the cactus branches was a nest that contained a baby hummingbird. It took me a moment to register my own disappointment over this. It was the tiniest creature I had ever seen. But it was just a bird, a bird of America, a modest surprise compared to the joy I had spontaneously expected, which was the joy of the past, the rarest and smallest of all things.
‘Be quiet,’ she said. ‘I bet his mother is nearby. We don’t want to scare her off.’ She put me down and led our way back in, through the museum, all the way back out. ‘Otherwise she won’t come back.’
The boys didn’t like L.A. much. I didn’t get why. Everything here was fast, violent, beautiful. The following day, we set out for the desert, and spent two days and two nights there, drinking Walmart moonshine, burning marshmallows on a camp fire. And when it was all over, this whirlwind of silence and images, Laura turned around from the front of the car and asked everyone, in turn, to pick which one had been their favourite place, of all the places visited.
‘Could be a city or could be a restaurant,’ she said. ‘Could be anything.’
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