*Dedicated to Taylor Dziuma on her 21st birthday.
When I turned twenty-one I lived in a glass house in Beachwood Canyon with a wrap-around porch that overlooked the Hollywood sign. I smoked a pack of a day and earned my pay by working as a night receptionist for The New York Film Academy in Burbank. I spent my days driving to auditions for parts I’d never get.
The glasshouse was a mid-century modern mini-mansion that looked as if it had been plucked right out of a 1970s porn film.
I know what you’re thinking: How did a receptionist afford a house in the hills? We all know a failed acting career doesn’t pay the bills. Must be a trust fund baby.
Listen up, lady. I’m no a trust fund baby. We both know that if I was living off some colossal inheritance I wouldn’t be sitting around in this ratty $27 nightgown. I’d be somewhere more fitting; rehab somewhere fab. Tahiti. Talum. Telluride.
Let me tell you a little secret about LA. LA has an interesting way of keeping her inhabitants stuck in her wicked kingdom. She’ll choke you with her toxic smoke and polluted mirrors. She’ll render you sick from her god-awful smog and cover up the sparkly California sun with melancholy fog. The gloom extends far beyond June and before you know it you’ll be teeming with thoughts of pending doom. She’ll turn the glitter into litter and your dreams into pyramid schemes. She’ll send the sweet promise of fame right on the next plane somewhere bleak like Spokane. And when you finally realize you’ve had enough CHRIST all this palm-tree chasing is far too rough on your soul which is now is peppered in holes — she’ll bestow you with a miracle so lyrical you won’t help but be able to stick around this no-good town.
Right before I moved to the glasshouse I lived in a haunted, rat-ridden apartment with an unhinged neighbor who’d call the cops on me whenever I watched TV. I’m serious. The LAPD would knock on my door twice a week armed with noise complaints. I let my ambition rot. I smoked too much pot. My best friend had died and I was thinking maybe I should too. I wanted to be an actress but at what cost? I was so, so lost. I began to notice that everyone I knew in LA was lost too and we were all gripping on tight with all our desperate might to the same rope of hope but the rope was wearing thin like a pin and was about to SNAP and one fine day I decided I wanted OUT of this town before I fell and hit the ground.
I sat in a car parking contemplating a nap when I felt my flip phone vibrate on my lap.
It was Charlotte.
I liked Charlotte.
“Zara?” Charlotte asked, even though she wasn’t asking. Charlotte — you see was nothing like me — she was a born and bred Valley Girl with the voice of a stoned toddler and an unshakeable habit of turning statements into questions. Not that I minded. I found the upspeak of the California Girl to be quite chic.
“Hiiii,” I vocal-fried trying to sound aloof because I was twenty and when you’re twenty caring is creepy.
“Do you want to move in with me? Say yes and I’ll make you a key.”
Charlotte lived in the glasshouse and I’d been there several times slugging back tequila shots with limes among other illicit underage crimes. She was 22 and no one knew how she afforded her sexy, sprawling, mini-mansion but no one cared. In LA no one is hell-bent on how you pay your rent. New York is the opposite. Tell a stranger about your studio apartment and you’re in danger. How much is your rent? Is your dad a drug lord, how else could you possibly afford? Not to be catty but who is your sugar daddy?
“I would love tooo.” I heard myself coo. “That would be a dream. A beam of hope. But I’m as broke as a joke and could never make rent.” I flicked cigarette ash out the window and sighed.
“You, like, totally can Z, you’ll see. I’ll charge you six hundred a month — you can do that — plus doesn’t your place house a rat?”
It seemed too good to be true but what else could I do?
That was that. I said goodbye to the rats and moved into the glasshouse a few days shy of my twenty-first birthday. The glasshouse felt like a fever-dream: floor-to-ceiling windows, white couches soiled with cigarette burns and a red wine stain, champagne bottles rattling around garbage cans, passed-out party girls with fabulous Malibu tans curled up on bean bag chairs, a larger-than-life painting of Madonna hanging heavy in the corridor. My room had blood-red walls and I fell asleep to the sounds of palm trees swishing in the Santa Ana winds.
The morning of my twenty-first birthday I woke up and felt like my life had started for the very first time. Life before twenty-one I had fleeting moments of reckless fun but it wasn’t a life that was mine — I was always on someone else’s time. Clocking in, clocking out, asking for permission to breathe, to live, to take up space. Always making myself smaller, but I swear to Lana Del Rey, that morning I woke up three inches taller.
I can’t give the glasshouse all the credit for the sudden rush of independence, the newfound excitement, the autonomous intoxication I experienced. But the glasshouse represented something utterly important. The glasshouse served as a spectacular metaphor, there to remind me that no matter how tragic life’s always got these undercurrents of magic. And when everything seems to be going wrong; when the strong career you’ve worked so hard to build is suddenly shattered by a category seven earthquake; when you’re in the thick of a depression you can’t quite shake, when the love of your life sticks a knife into your heart, when you audition and audition and never get the part, when you peer over at the person you thought was the love of your life and are stuck by the unfamiliar image of a human you no longer recognize, when you look in the mirror and don’t recognize yourself, when you’ve lost your wealth and your health and your sanity has been knocked right off your bedroom vanity, when your friends become fiends, when the pills turn to poison, when every time you wake up your genetic makeup is nothing but dread, when your soul is dead, when you’re in so much pain and just want to quit the fucking game, when your lips can’t stop spewing out lies and you’re are secretly hoping to die — a shiny emblem of hope appears.
It was that morning on my twenty-first birthday, in the glasshouse, that I realized everything will always be okay. That as quickly as your life can fall apart, it can just as easily turn into a work of art. And so long as you are not blind to the beauty of being alive, anything is possible. Anything. In that moment I vowed to forever chase glasshouses. No matter how broke or sad or bad I’d been — if a glasshouse appeared I’d push my fears aside and walk inside.
Right now I’m in a place where once again I feel like I’m floating through outer-space not knowing when or if I’m going to land on solid ground. I’m that lost twenty-one-year-old all over again, but instead of smoking cigarettes in my car, I’ve been seeking out angels in bars. And for a little while there I forgot all about the glasshouse. I lost the plot. And then I realized you were twenty-one today. And I remembered that the universe is the chilly less frilly big sister of LA and despite their difference in window dressing those bitches work the same exact way. They turn the grit into gold right when your whole world has turned COLD.
And I heard then I stopped feeling fear and heard a voice whisper in my ear: “A miracle is coming, you hear? But she’s quick on her feet, she won’t stick around long. Blink twice and she’ll be gone. When you see her don’t ask questions. Grab her by the hand and let her lead the way, okay? She’s taking you to a new glasshouse, which is actually a lighthouse, and once you’re out of the dark you’ll find home again.”
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