[Reminder: Names are sometimes real, sometimes changed, sometimes made up because of whiskey.]
Three months changed my entire life.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
In the years immediately following 9/11, a confluence of political conservatism and social frivolity made California’s Orange County the darling of pop culture. With its green money, yellow beaches, and rainbow of white epidermis, the OC-
…the OC was everywhere. Regardless if media was glorifying or satirizing the place, all of it helped mythologize that immaculate corner of America.
Orange County’s cultural bubble had burst by the time I arrived in 2007. I don’t mean to say that the county wasn’t still wealthy – it was – but it no longer captured the ADD-ravaged attentions of the collective television audience. It had lost its aura of cool (or ironic cool), so it was the ideal place for me to move.
In fact, I moved there because of Amber. Like myself, Amber was inflicted with a compulsion to write. We had met the previous December in Los Angeles at what could loosely be described as a writers conference. Our mutual appreciation for, shall we say, spiritual matters had led to a fast friendship, and whether in LA or at meet-ups in NYC, we made swift work of a bottle.
In the waning months of my year in Philadelphia, I still hadn’t determined where I would move for Year 3. I was leaning towards Chicago, but that felt too easy since I had spent a considerable amount of time in the Windy City during my college years. Then, one evening, Amber mentioned that she needed a roommate to fill an extra room in her Costa Mesa apartment. That was that.
At 24, I was single, young (not that I knew it), and living in the land of milk and silicone.
Oh, and I had hair.
Our days were filled with beach lounging, eating sushi, and drinking; our nights spent clubbing, seeing comedy shows, and drinking. My alcohol intake soared, and with it came confidence. Not with women, to be clear; just with my self-estimation of artistic relevance. Now in my third year, 10 Cities/10 Years had taken shape. I envisioned the future, the path ahead: a decade documenting hard partying in America’s coolest cities.
If my alcohol consumption was at an all-time high, my art consumption was almost non-existent. Orange County was woefully lacking in anything resembling culture. Sprinkled near the beaches were an assortment of art galleries that I’d sometimes peak in, but they were invariably unimpressive showcases for some hobbyist painter’s gaudy beach porn. Live music, usually lifeblood for me, was hard to find; I attended one concert the entire time I lived in Costa Mesa, and that turned into a bit of a mess.
Amber and I took it upon ourselves to address this deficiency by holding poetry readings in our living room. Mostly, they were gatherings of writer friends, like Ivy, our resident mystic and one of the driving forces behind the initial writers conference. The get-togethers occasionally involved the reading of poetry, an unsightly event we are all better to forget, but sometimes we did more seemly things, like the evening I manically insisted every new arrival watch “2 Girls, 1 Cup.” I like to think I did my part for culture in the OC.
Oh, we had jobs, too. I worked as the music manager at a nearby Barnes & Noble (now shuttered), while Amber tended bar at a local gentleman’s club (also closed now). I learned quickly that, like almost every city in the southern half of the United States, Orange County’s public transportation was abysmal. With my apologies to Leo, good public transportation is all alike; every bad public transportation system is bad in its own way. For Costa Mesa, that meant meticulously clean buses that only arrived once every hour. Not that it mattered. Only the help took the bus.
(Costa Mesa has been nicknamed Costa Mexico because, being slightly inland and more affordable, it houses much of the immigrant population that sustains the lifestyles of the rich and famous.)
I bought a bike.
It was stolen.
I bought another bike.
One day, as I rode to work and barreled down the sidewalk (Orange County bike lanes being a joke), I spotted a pretty young girl walking towards me. Not wanting to run her over, I deftly turned my tire to swerve around her. In my head, I saw myself soaring just past her, my hair waving behind me like Fabio. In reality, my front tire hit the lip of a jutting sidewalk slab and my momentum thrust me over the handlebars and hands-first onto the pavement. As I quivered in pain on the ground, scrapped and bleeding, the girl passed by me without a word. It was the most OC experience imaginable.
After six months of living together, Amber and I were still enjoying each others’ company, which, in my vast roommate experience, is a rare thing. In fact, we were almost inseparable, so we started talking about living together for a second year in a different city. Amber was a young, (generally) single woman with nothing holding her in place, so why not?
I had already set my eyes on San Francisco for Year 4, and as we discussed the possibility of moving together, we fed off one another’s excitement. In mid-December, we drove up for a Wednesday night in the City by the Bay. Our belief that San Fran would be bumping every night of the week, it turned out, was mistaken.
Of course, we could’ve planned our visit better. Renting a room central-ish to the city, we unloaded our stuff and started walking. As dusk fell, we strolled through our future home together and anticipated the wild, drunken stories that awaited. While we walked, a homeless man stopped us and asked for change. Amber replied…
I’m going to be honest here: She made a comment that, although not meant in jest, cracked me up in the moment. After joking about it for months afterwards, though, and with many years to embellish the memory, I can’t recall what she actually said. So, here are some options, pick your favorite:
- “Can you break a hundred?”
- “Could you take a debit card?”
- “No, but do you have a cigarette?”
We wandered on through the dwindling light until we came across a streetcar to nowhere. We hopped on, hoping it would take us to the night life, but as the city light receded behind us, we realized we were heading in the wrong direction. Debarking in the dark, we sought a taxi.
“Where to?” The cabbie asked.
“We’re looking for a dance club,” I told him
“Got it.” After fifteen minutes, we arrived at our destination: a strip club.
“Not that kind of dancing.” Amber and I discussed it amongst ourselves and surmised that if we wanted mid-week dancing in San Francisco, there was only one group we could count on: The Gays.
“Take us to a gay club,” we instructed.
“Got it.” He drove us across town and deposited us in front of a garishly painted building with a large black sign that read in bold, stenciled letters, “STUD.” Oh yes, this would do nicely. Not knowing what type of bacchanal to expect, we giddily threw open the door and entered into…
An empty bar. In the void stood Nick, a solitary bartender occupying himself with the polishing of glassware. One man sat at the bar, but it was readily apparent that he was less a patron than a down-on-his-luck chap being tolerated because no one else was around. Nick’s face immediately lit up when he saw us approaching.
Apologizing for the lack of festivities, gay or otherwise, Nick offered us a drink. After two hours of fruitless searching, we saddled up. With no one else in need of Nick’s services, the three of us chatted for hours. We told him of our plan to move to the city next year and Nick assured us that, despite the evidence of this evening, we would adore San Francisco. Upon request, he happily played music so Amber and I could dance on the vacant floor by ourselves.
For every drink Nick poured Amber, he tossed me one on the house. In Costa Mesa, Amber received free drinks all the time from bros in the bar. Frequently, I milked a couple gratis cocktails from the guys trying to usher me out of the way. In the Stud, the roles were reversed. I’ve set off my share of gaydars in my time, so I knew to turn into the slide. By the time we called it quits, I’d paid for one drink and we had a new friend waiting for us to move up. Nick hugged me warmly at the door.
(I never saw him again.)
The next day, Amber and I toured the city that would be our future home. In the light of day, there was no doubt that San Francisco was one of the most beautiful metropolises I’d ever visited. I was already picturing the possibilities.
There was just one hiccup in our plans: Though I’d been preparing for this move since I deplaned in June, Amber hadn’t been anticipating a relocation. 2008 was dawning, with five short months until my intended departure. So she asked: Was willing to delay my move through the summer to give her extra time to save funds?
Sure, I said. What difference could three months make?
In the interim months between our trip to San Francisco and the time I had originally intended to move, things between Amber and I changed. Mostly, I suppose, it was simply the passage of time. I made friends at work and had developed my own sort of life, while Amber dated and went out with friends from different circles. Our drifting apart was, at least partially, due to the inevitable entropy of existence.
With the summer approaching and the move less than three months away, I was keenly aware that Amber’s financial position seemed no different than it had been in December.
I can’t speak for her. There are dozens of reasons why a person may decide to stay instead of moving, most perfectly understandable. I suspect for Amber there were a number of reasons, including the simple fact that she had built a life in Southern California. She may have also concluded that while I had a specific (albeit esoteric) rationale for moving, she was just going on a whim.
In those final months together, Amber and I didn’t talk much. Our lives were on different tracks. I had fallen head first into a romance with a coworker and my plans for San Francisco were quickly – and dramatically – changing. Rooming with her had been the best living situation I could have hoped for, but that phase of my life – like so many before it, so many after – had to end.
I ruminate often on how much my life changed because of that one choice to stay an extra three months in Costa Mesa. If I had arrived in San Francisco in June instead of September – before the Great Recession had kicked into full gear – I quite possibly could have found work right away instead of being unemployed for five months. I would have lived with different roommates instead of an emotionally damaged woman and her abusive boyfriend. I wouldn’t have had to move halfway through the year because of mold eating away at every surface of the apartment.
Something might have kept me in San Francisco. Maybe I would’ve done the next six cities in a different order, or picked different cities altogether. A thousand divergent paths came into existence the moment I made that seemingly minor deviation.
I will never know the ways my life changed because of those three months.
What I do know is, I would’ve never fallen in love with Selene.