In her early 20s, she left the Midwest for Los Angeles, thereby startling her parents, who’d assumed that once her schooling was over she’d settle into her adult life as a schoolteacher in Indiana, find a husband, and raise some children.
But her time at the University of Michigan had broadened her sense of life’s potential. She’d met people from all over the country. Her roommate, for one, hailed from exotic Long Island. Francie had dark hair and a strong accent. She came to college knowing everything—Samantha realized on the spot—she herself wanted to know. How do you look good in tight jeans? How do you wear dark lipstick? How do you talk to guys in bars and not seem shy? How do you drink but not get drunk?
Francie made Samantha a pet project without making her a pet. Lazing on her bed before they went out, she’d offer advice: tight jeans, yes—especially with Samantha’s slender figure—but stand up straight and wear a heel. Samantha was too fair for dark lipstick, but creamy apricots on her eyelids and cheeks would bring out what Francie called her “corn coloring.” Blonde hair, milky skin, small pink lips. Later, while holding gin and tonics, there was more to discuss. The trick with drinking was to sip slowly but always have the straw near your lips so you appeared to be drinking more. The trick with men was for them to see the straw near your lips. “Suggestive,” Francie said, “without being crude.”
Francie had lots of tricks for persuading men, but here’s where Sam stalled, grew shy. She settled for a farm boy from northern Michigan, and while Lester was sweet, he was also shy and overly deferential. Samantha felt they were little more than companions given that their main activities were studying and watching movies. Sex was tepid and slow to happen and she thought how people made such fuss over nothing. But Francie, who remained her roommate all four years, had an array of men who came into her bedroom and Samantha could hear them together, dark and rugged and filled with sweat, which was nothing she could fully imagine.
Francie’s breakups were also tumultuous affairs. Sam would return to their apartment to find Francie prone on the living room couch, staring at the ceiling with red puffy eyes. Cyrus Bailey had made out with Sarah Park at the homecoming tailgate. George Atkinson had forgotten her birthday and, when told he had, had shrugged and suggested he buy her a make-up beer. Sam would bring Francie popsicles or ice-cream bars as she recounted her woes—something sweet and cool to temper all that heat.
Lester proposed right before graduation. He and Sam were on the couch, a bowl of popcorn between them. She was highlighting important passages in her child psychology textbook when Lester got up only to drop to one knee, his brow sweating as he held out the open ring box. She was so surprised she kicked out her leg, knocking the bowl of popcorn off the couch, where it landed a flutter of salted kernels all over the rug.
“Lester!” He still held out the ring beseechingly, but now surrounded by popcorn, he’d turned a mottled red. “Lester!” She began laughing, unable to stop, and pointed at the popcorn.
“Will you marry me?” His knee had begun to tremble.
“Less, I don’t think this is right for us. We’re so young, and we have our entire lives ahead—”
“OK.” He stood, shutting the ring box with a velvet-lined thump, shoving it in his pocket. Walking backwards, he crushed popcorn kernels with his shoes. “Alright.”
Hearing about this, Francie laughed until she cried. “Oh, thank God! Sam, dear heart, I’ve always said that boy is all wrong for you.” She started giggling afresh. “I love that you spilled the popcorn.”
Samantha had mainly felt shame: to have been so long with someone she didn’t love.
Graduation came. Francie decided to move to Los Angeles to try her hand at screenwriting. Samantha moved back home. She was still in shock from her breakup, and returning from whence she came was her parents’ hope anyway, so nothing felt out of place.
Her hometown in southern Indiana had a population of 10,000. She got a job at her old elementary school, moving into a small apartment a few miles from her parents. Every Sunday night she had dinner with them and they gave her good-hearted grief about breaking up with Lester (she never told anyone but Francie about the proposal) and said it was time she found herself a robust Indiana farmer.
Teaching 6th graders is only so preoccupying when you feel trapped in your own life. The cornfields—which she’d always thought of as luxuriating in the wind, rippling in raw, pleasurable ways—now seemed tedious.
She wrote to Francie, saying she was bored. Francie sent her a postcard of the Hollywood sign, white in muted green hills: “Come out here! There are pink buildings and movie stars and lots and lots of ocean!”
An October afternoon Sam emerged from school, walking across the parking lot. Wind cast maple leaves along the asphalt, twisting them into small, fitful tornadoes. Her life would contain only churlish 11-year olds, dead leaves, leaden skies, and unrelenting cornfields. But there was time yet for something fresh. She was just 23. That night she called Francie, asking her if she wanted a roommate.
Francie was delighted. Sam’s parents were horrified. “L.A.?” they asked as if she’d announced a new life of hedonism and crime.
“Yes,” she said at the dinner table. Heavily vexed, they passed the bread basket.
Her certainty her decision was correct collapsed almost as fast as it had erected itself. She watched patches of green and brown land grow fainter and fainter. There went her life, which she’d abandoned for no good reason.
The drive from LAX: the neon, the bright store fronts, the pollution-suffused night sky. Francie was driving them to Santa Monica, where she lived. Where Sam would live now, too.
Francie announced that she’d found a job as a marketing assistant at company in Venice, and that she’d finagled Sam a position. “How’d you manage that?” Sam asked. By then, they were in the tiny apartment, a celebratory bottle of wine before them on the coffee table. Marketing. She’d been thinking of getting a job as a teacher, of course.
“I’m sleeping with the boss.” Francie clinked her glass with Sam’s. “Cheers.”
The sky was hot blue, and the streets had palms. Some neighborhoods were spacious, composed: mansions pale cream and white. Smog hung like dirty wool in the sky. On certain blocks the store windows had iron bars over them. On others, stores with two-story high windows shimmered as they displayed crocodile purses and fabulous dresses, sequins and silk. There were gangs; there was Rodeo Drive.
They worked a little ways from the ocean—close to the Santa Monica Pier, with its Ferris wheel and seedy carnival vibe—in an industrial office all shades of steel and slate. She sat in a cubicle, dreaming up marketing schemes. After work, they went as an office to dimly lit places with polished floors and sipped drinks mixed with egg whites and basil and peach. People displayed a glamour borne of correct clothes and constant nonchalance. If Samantha hadn’t had Francie to act as cultural ambassador, she might have turned around and gone right back to Indiana.
One day a few months in, Francie said, “We don’t even have a Lester for you.” She was still thickly involved in her affair—the boss, it turned out, was married—and unfazed by its intimations of despair. “It’s not like Joe is really married,” had been her explanation. “He’s on the cusp of getting a divorce. And he’s only 33.”
There is a wife, Samantha wanted to say. She exists. And why be part of something that could crush another? But during the week, Joe was professional. And on weekends, he’d come over and look at Francie with such happy eager eyes. Sometimes they’d head to the Santa Monica farmers’ market and return with bags of carrots, baskets of cherry tomatoes, small bundles of dill and thyme. Or, they’d sit listening to music, Francie’s head against Joe’s shoulder. Perhaps, Sam thought, there was love between them. And maybe that justified it. Of course, Francie knew when he’d arrive—he claimed he was playing golf these weekend mornings—but never how long he’d stay. It was just temporary, she told Sam—just until Joe got things sorted out.
Perhaps having to let his life—and its dicey parameters—dictate hers was wearing on her. It might explain her newly fierce need to find Sam a boyfriend.
“Let’s ask out Chris,” Francie said. “For you.”
“I’m not ready,” Sam said.
Francie threw a pillow at her. “Enough. Lester was the biggest nobody ever. I’ll make sure Chris is sitting next to you when we get drinks on Friday.”
In Samantha’s defense: most of her energy had been spent acclimating to this sprawled metropolis frenzied with freeways. Once, trying to get across the city to a restaurant in Los Feliz, she missed her exit, and when she finally did pull off, ending up in some shady section of downtown, near Union Station, where yellow billboards offered the services of bonds bailsmen, she shook with frustration. She wanted to be where a Main Street was at the center of things, where roads only fattened to two lanes. Where cornfields—forget tedium—signified the ease of open space. Where the sky was not hazy with dirt.
That which also took getting used to: urbanity and beauty. One Sunday afternoon Francie took Samantha the Getty, and she decided that if the universe had conceived of itself in miniature it would’ve orchestrated itself thus: high on a hill, with tangles of fuchsia bougainvillea surrounding white marble. Gardens with lily ponds, slim green disks and liquid white blossoms.
If she had a lot to contend with, it was for her own betterment, and she had Francie to thank for that. So when Friday came, she sat near Chris, smiling and letting her eyes linger on his. Even though he came from foggy San Francisco, he had a beach bum’s tawny coloring—dark blonde hair, gold skin. He wore tortoise-shell glasses and seemed, for all he talked about being a double major at Berkeley in political science and math—quiet. She told him about studying child psychology, her childhood in Indiana, and felt he perceived her shyness not as naivety, but as a slow approach to knowing another. Oh, she liked him! What luck that Francie, in her schemings, had decided upon a delightful man.
Francie, pretending to flirt with an accountant, glanced over—no knowingness, no winks. She’d not botch it by being obvious. Moreover, all-around neutrality was required: Joe’s wife, who rarely showed up these Friday evenings, was tonight exercising her right to be beautiful and charming by her husband’s side. Silver chopsticks pinning back her hair glinted as she leaned forward to listen to a VP regaling her with some raucous story. She struck Samantha as regal. Joe didn’t display eager affection toward her as he did Francie, but his arm around her was proprietary: she was his. Or they were each other’s.
The accountant started twirling his hands as if mimicking a helicopter and Francie clapped a hand over her mouth, giggling. The VP lifted his beer in toast, Joe and his wife clinking glasses with him. Did she wonder at her husband’s continual absences? Joe ignored Francie, who ignored him in return. And Sam displayed a boldness not her own but appropriated on orders from her college roommate. Around them, shining glasses, flushed cheeks, erupting laughter: a moment suffused with charm and deceit. Perhaps this, then, was the origin of sophistication: you learned to be good at being false.
As the evening waned, Chris asked Sam if she’d like to get drinks at some point, and she said she’d love to. Already she realized longing was rising diffuse and heady in her.
After waving goodnight to the crowd outside the bar, she and Francie walked back to Francie’s car. “You were right,” Samantha said as they passed a food truck scenting the air with the sweetness of frying peppers. “About Chris. I like him, Francie. We’re going to go get drinks next week.”
“That’s great.” But she walked hunched. They turned the corner for the parking garage, taking the elevator up.
“You’re upset his wife was there?”
“His wife is pregnant, three months along.” The elevator doors opened, and they walked to the car, Sam waiting for the outburst sure to come.
As Francie fed a ticket into a yellow machine, she said, “she ordered a glass of wine, but didn’t touch it. Very savvy of her, calling less attention to herself than if she’d not ordered a drink. He told me after work they’re going to announce it soon and felt I had a right to know.”
“That’s bullshit. Didn’t you have a right to know three months ago?”
“I have no rights. I’m just the young thing he’s having an affair with.”
Sam was sure, as they pulled into their apartment complex and went upstairs, that Francie would cry. But she just went to her room, Sam following and lingering in her doorframe.
“Let me go get some ice cream.”
Francie shook her head. “He betrayed her, now he’s betrayed me. I was wrong to get involved with him. With so much wrongness?” She shrugged, hanging her coat in her closet. She came to Samantha, running her hand down her arm as if Samantha were the one needing comfort, then closed her door.
Samantha and Chris went to the Hollywood Bowl to see a concert and be among thousands. Marvelous to be in such a crowd. And afterwards, she’d gone to his place. Marvelous, then, it was just them.
“Details!” Francie demanded later that evening. It was midnight and Francie lounged on the couch in a pink bathrobe, her toenails gleaming a fresh crimson. She did not appear to have been crying. For over a week now, Samantha had been waiting for that fitful burst of catharsis that would let her friend begin fresh.
Sam felt the nervousness that comes from watching someone close be inscrutable. Plus, to proclaim happiness in front of someone so bruised was bad form. Chris and she had sat on his couch holding tumblers of gin and tonics neither of them drank. Dim lamplight made the glasses shine, the tonic fizzing and bright, the lime wedges at the rim brightly acidic. Beyond the lamplight, Chris’ apartment dissolved into dark, a thick languor, and finally he put down his drink and put out his hand. She leaned in, his cologne smelling of forests. A slow kiss, which was like melting. Not wanting to trivialize it, she answered, “It was the best.”
“Bah.” Francie pretended to wave her away. “You and your circumspection. It’s all on your face, anyway.”
“We’re going to see each other again after I get back.” Sam’s father’s birthday was the following week, and he’d requested his daughter come home for a few days.
“Off to the land of milk and honey,” Francie said. “You shouldn’t leave me alone to my own devices.”
Sam sat next to her on the couch, lay her head against her friend’s shoulder. “In no time,” she said, “you’ll be out there again breaking hearts.”
In the airport, she ran into her parents’ hugs. But on the drive home the landscape seemed blurred. Seeing the muted blue sky marbled with clouds made her consider the dirty cerulean shimmer of LA at noon. Returning to her family’s elm-lined street, the old gray branches towering above rooftops, intricately sagging arms just budded with green, she thought of the jasmine in her new neighborhood, waxy dark bushes thick with white flowers that opened at night, perfuming the streets.
Her parents ushered her into the kitchen, and they shared molasses cookies her mother had made that morning. They brimmed with questions, which she answered carefully. Verboten to discuss Venice as a pastel circus steeped in patchouli and grit, sometimes even crime. She’d seen along the backs of buildings seedy, huddled men in thin windbreakers, which she later asked her colleagues about. Drug deals, they told her, glad to be matter-of-fact to her scandalized. She also diminished the existence of pretensions: art galleries hanging splattered canvases, overpriced eateries dousing everything with truffle oil. The same went with her job: she liked working on projects, she told them—being among people her own age or older was a pleasure. She didn’t speak of Joe because she wasn’t sure she could keep judgment out of her voice. All these semi-narrations, these just-about truths: lately, she’d been thinking of this kind of obfuscation as adult, the correct means of handling the world.
But given that her new life bewildered them, they were looking for more than a superficial understanding of it. They even took what was for them a bold step: gentle criticism. Her father broke his cookie into careful bits, already regretful over what he was about to say: they were concerned she’d forsaken teaching.
Oh, no, she didn’t think she had; she was just exploring something new. “I have time,” she told them, “to figure it out.” Her mother pursed her lips.
“I’ve just been on a wonderful date.” Samantha realized she was trying to reassure them. People their age didn’t flit about the country, they didn’t test out careers, they didn’t break up with their college sweethearts. She told them about Chris’ double major at Berkeley, his good looks, his quiet charm, and less cookies got crumbled.
The week passed pleasantly. She went shopping with her mother, saying hello to everyone they met at the grocery store, nodding while they exclaimed, “California!” She helped her mother prepare her father’s enormous birthday meal—turnips and roasted squash, a baked ham—and to finish a three-tired chocolate cake with white icing. She also fantasized about the things she and Chris would do together once she returned. He’d mentioned being a soccer fan and she thought they could go to a Galaxy game together. She wanted to suggest a sushi place off LaBrea that was delicious and cheap. She imagined if that kiss had gone further and then further still, and something brewed in her, steeping like tea, turning her warm and dark. Also, she worried about Francie, who’d been quiet over email, not keeping up with her usual bright patter.
When Francie picked her up, this time—while not jolted by cityscape, not shocked by back-lit palm fronds and midnight traffic—she still felt home’s pull. The delicate Indiana spring, the dissolving pockets of snow, the front-yard daffodils just emerging made Los Angeles a phantom of itself. Change was not some clean sweep. Even when you wanted it, it left you muddled.
“Time with the old folks was wholesome and good?” Francie asked.
“It was.” Sam sighed, watching traffic hurtle past in the gray dark, finding some elation in the speed and clamor. “We ate molasses cookies. How was your week?”
“Downtime was good?”
“Everything is fine. I’ve gotten my mind off Joe, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“There’s no need to be defensive,” Sam said. “I’m just concerned.”
Samantha, tired and not wanting to push Francie’s bad mood any further, pretended to doze the rest of the way.
The week began as a mildly jet-lagged blur, as if she were watching everything through glass. Joe maintained equanimity. Francie was cheerful with everyone. Chris was timid around her—smiling when she came past but looking at her with disengaged eyes. She had to quell the impulse to step backwards. That kiss? The smell of limes? But maybe he was just establishing a proper work dynamic. Not wanting to seem overly concerned, she decided not to bring up their next date until Friday after work, when everyone would congregate for drinks.
She wished she could ask Francie for advice—but to burden her friend with relationship anxiety would be selfish. Plus, Francie continued to be surly. The last few nights they’d watched movies together in silence, after which Francie would retreat to her room. Was this how Francie’s unhappiness manifested if left to fester? Samantha felt punished.
Everything funneled down to Friday night. She’d ask out Chris, reestablishing what they’d begun. And she’d coax Francie into doing something fun—maybe a return trip to the Getty—which would help resurrect their natural dynamic.
Returning from the bar with her gin and tonic—a symbolic nod, she hoped, to them both—she sat at the long table’s end, taking a small sip through her straw, which she then let linger too long near her lips to see if Francie would laugh. Francie sat to her right, Chris to her left. Each talked to the person one over from them. The accountant was at Francie’s side again, and she indulged him with her laughter. The receptionist sat near Chris, a thin redhead with a diamond nose stud, the tattoo of an owl on her wrist that she was explaining she’d got done at Sunset Strip Tattoos in Hollywood. Samantha wished that Chris didn’t lean in to her as she talked.
She sipped her drink—faster than she should’ve, unhappy to be so close to the glamorous fray and yet not part of it. She ran her finger along her glass’ rim. “How’d you choose that tattoo parlor?” she asked and both Chris and the receptionist raised their heads in her direction. She’d heard her mother in the question: slightly off topic, a few steps behind.
“Well, it’s famous,” she said.
“Sure,” Samantha said, not knowing that.
But at least Chris looked her way. She smiled and he smiled back—but the wrong kind of smile, without promise. And then he said, “Hey, Francie.” She looked over. “Would you pass me that napkin?”
Francie reached for the cocktail napkin and handing it to him—just for an instant—she screwed up her face, her lips tight, her eyes scrunched. Go away, that assembly of features said. Sam didn’t understand—the asking for the napkin, the exasperation—and then she did. She looked down, not wanting to stare at them so unabashedly, and saw under the table Chris’ foot rubbing the back of Francie’s calf, slow and languorous.
Her stomach dropped, her neck went cold. She’d been crushingly naïve.
“What’s wrong?” Francie said.
“Nothing.” She looked up, studying the ceiling.
“You sure?” The audacity of her concern. All eyes on her now.
“Excuse me,” Samantha said, getting up. She’d gotten to the small hallway, about to go into the bathroom, when Francie, who’d followed, put a hand on her shoulder. No fortitude at all in her. All she could think was how she wanted to go home.
“You slept with him.” She turned, feeling ridiculous and awful and so angry.
“So?” Francie’s face was stony.
“So? How could you, Francie?”
“It just happened.” A woman gave them a sidelong look and slipped into the bathroom.
“It did not! You went after him. And you knew I liked him!”
“I do not,” Francie said, flush to her cheeks, “know what the fuck I did that was so wrong. You went on one date with him, Sam. You weren’t exactly married.”
As if water were rising around her, a viscous cold swell. “Like that even matters to you!” Now she was crying, never the one to give in to histrionics.
Francie actually reached out and pulled Sam’s hair. “Stop it! Don’t you dare criticize me. You sit and wait for happiness to come to you. You liked him so much? Bullshit. You went out with him because I told you to. You joined this firm because I told you to. You came out here because I told you to.”
Sam was passive, yes—she wanted to lie on the floor right now, her hands over her ears. Water sucking her under and she wanted to go down. Still.
“Your self-absorption makes you cruel.”
“Fuck you! Grow up! Just go on some more dates and you’ll see this isn’t a big deal.”
Samantha walked away, Francie did not follow.
“You wish you were more like me!” Francie cried after her. “You always have!”
Chris was watching for them to come back, apprehension on his face. As she approached, he broke off the conversation he’d resumed with the receptionist.
“You can have her,” she whispered, tears at the bridge of her nose as she gathered her stuff. She couldn’t maintain any equilibrium, and everyone looking at her—Samantha that soft failure of a girl, that rube, that silly thing. The one who makes public scenes when everyone else stays cool.
Outside, the palms were fringed shadows, streetlights cast the sidewalks a dirty halogen orange. Everywhere storefront neon, the stink of grease. Couples passed her, teenagers in low jeans—a man in rags, who grinned, his teeth straight, beautiful. “Konnichiwa,” he called and gave a guttural laugh. A few pigeons pecked at a discarded hamburger bun, a muddled green shimmer to their extending necks. She could not think to go right or left, and then realized there were no cabs—never cabs in L.A. unless you called one ahead.
Sam scanned her phone for the names of taxi services. She should’ve known Francie would’ve done this. She’d seen this from her for years, she’d just never been a player in the scenes. A pigeon blinked its moist dull eyes her way, then fluttered into the street. She was who she was, too, she thought. But she didn’t know where that left her, or where she would go.