Back when I was urging my heart to flow into slow circles, Grace parked her old, blue convertible across the street and met me at the front door of my apartment building. We stood there, smiled, moved into some sort of embrace we hadn’t fully formed, and I followed her back down the steps. She opened the car door, waited until I was settled, and gently pushed it closed. As she drove, the wind and music made it too hard to speak, so we smiled at each other in those moments when she peeked my way and otherwise enjoyed the ambiance of stop-and-go cars surrounded by mountains.
California holds something different for each person that comes and goes and comes back or leaves again. Maybe the hunger and the spirit are connected to the past, or maybe, it’s just a place that’s both slow and fast and leaves room for those trying to stretch themselves and those trying to hide for a little longer. I hadn’t yet decided if I was over my ex-boyfriend, someone I’d been trying to pluck from each individual cell of my heart for almost two years. I’d lived in Los Angeles for less than a month.
It was my second date with Grace, two days after our first date. She drove us to the Greek Theater to see some woman I’d never heard of, someone she grew up listening to. The woman wore all black and played a violin or some similar string instrument. This was at a time when I wasn’t paying much attention to what was happening around me. When I was so lost inside of myself that I often didn’t realize how little I noticed the Hollywood Billboards, the C-List celebrities at Starbucks, the people around me and what they needed from me.
I found Grace on Tinder, on one of the days I plopped myself at a coffee shop and said I was going to write and write until something good came out. Instead, I swiped right until someone said hello. She was pretty, bisexual, and a feminist. We talked about where we were from, how we ended up in L.A., and how neither of us were doing much of anything that afternoon, all in the casual back-and-forth of the app.
I had a press pass and a plus one, a gift from a friend who had something more exciting going on that evening, for an Outfest screening. My plan was to go alone, to convince myself I was capable of showing up places without someone leading the way. Instead, I told myself I was ready for my first date with a woman.
I almost chickened out—worried it was too on the nose. Could I bring the first woman I brought on a date to a queer film festival? I worried she would instantly mark me as a girl who hadn’t figured it out, who was straight but trying to be relevant. I didn’t have time to think about how much I was projecting, how much I was already judging myself and diminishing my own desires. The screening was in a few hours. Grace came, and she was excited. Our pinky fingers played a touch-but-don’t-touch dance as we watched lesbians wrestle, both literally, with costumes, and with their own acceptance of sexuality. Every time the “Out and Proud” character became frustrated with the “I’m New at This and Scared” character, I wanted to dig a hole in my own skin and crawl inside. We probably would have made out a little if I hadn’t been so busy wondering if she thought I was a fraud.
We got drinks after the movie, sat on a rooftop bar, and looked over the rainbow lights of Santa Monica Blvd., and I sipped whiskey as she sipped vodka. I let the conversation float along our college experiences for too long because it felt safe. Because it was two months after I graduated, and, besides moving to L.A., I hadn’t done much that was worth talking about. She went to NYU, and I felt small in my tiny, Midwest degree.
The connection between “big city” and “cool” was so strongly formed in my Indiana-grown mind that I couldn’t always find the confidence I slapped on my face on the nights I followed friends around the city. I couldn’t always find the happiness, the surety that everything was fine, that I tried to staple into my voice every time I called my mom. I could already tell that Grace believed in herself more than I would for years.
This was during a time when I still kind of wished my ex would fly across the country and beg me to try again. I had romanticized my heartbreak for so long, I had no idea how to let go of it. It felt like there was nothing outside of it. Nothing to think about, write about. I was afraid that my desire to date girls was a way to distract myself. I was also afraid I moved to L.A. to distract myself. I walked the streets of West Hollywood to distract myself. I browsed Book Soup and brought home piles of other people’s stories to distract myself. It rarely crossed my mind that I was simply living. Simply doing the things that made me happy.
I took pictures everywhere I went and posted them religiously. There was finally something to post about. I was tan and smiling, and I knew my life looked more exciting than it really was. My favorite professor sent me a message that said I looked like I was made for California. I thought maybe I was succeeding at fooling everyone into thinking I knew something.
At least once a week, I ate grocery store sushi and the better half of a bag of $1.59, cheddar and sour cream potato chips. Once a week I got the gyro platter with fries and rice from George’s Greek, the place on the corner of my block. I watched so much Netflix. I ate so many Trader Joe’s pre-made salads.
I felt like nobody, trying to be somebody, but mostly, horribly alone.
I took long walks up and down the hills of West Hollywood. My apartment was on Palm Ave., sandwiched between Sunset Blvd. and Santa Monica Blvd, and I really didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t care to learn. The Sunset Strip was the busy part I walked past to go up another hill. Doheny Rd. was where I turned from one block to the next as I circled the residential streets in my neighborhood. The significance didn’t settle in my chest. I met my best friend in the city at the Chinese Theater to see movies. I took long Uber rides to Venice Beach. I went to the Hollywood Bowl. Occasionally, I thought about all the people who loved Los Angeles Culture and really, really cared about the seemingly small things I was doing, but mostly I ignored the scope of it all and focused on my day-to-day distractions.
A few weeks into our calm charade of romance, I met Grace at a cafe so she could read and I could write. She drank coffee with cookies as I ate a pot roast sandwich. The café was small, with white tiled floor and tiny, circular tables. We settled in with our bags under our chairs and my laptop balanced just a little off the edge of the table, and we looked up at each other too often, and I couldn’t focus, but I pretended to be working on something important, and she kept the pages of her book flowing. Afterwards, we sat on the balcony of her summer apartment, and I could tell she wanted to make out. We’d already kissed at my apartment door. In the blue convertible. After dinner at Gracias Madre. I knew I was supposed to let her kiss me for longer on that roof. I kept talking. I don’t know what I said. We smoked a bowl. She told me about her siblings and her internship. She rubbed her thumb up and down the back of my hand as we stood at the curb, waiting on my Uber. I knew, again, that I should be kissing her. I got in the car too fast.
I wasn’t sure how to make peace with being someone who had half destroyed herself while falling over boys, how I could be my past and also acknowledge my attraction to women. I wasn’t ready to acknowledge the nuances of bisexuality, that it didn’t mean everything was 50/50, that it didn’t mean I had to disregard every feeling I had for the boys of my past in order to feel something for a woman. Every other minute I wondered if I was seeing Grace because I simply wanted attention.
With my thoughts tricked into tiny boxes, I managed to turn us both one-dimensional. We sat in the middle of a line between friendship and more. Were we pals who got drinks and dinner and laughed, or something else? Something that involved slow walks and lingering glances. Instead of leaning into any of the uncertainty, I made us small. I kept us in the in-between place where growth doesn’t die but lingers. It would be easy to say I felt trapped, but really, I was careless. I spent maybe 10 seconds here and there thinking about what I was doing or what I wanted, but mostly, I was sliding, day after day, along some path I couldn’t be bothered to map out.
I found safety in the fact that Grace was only in L.A. for the summer. I decided, without ever asking, that neither one of us was taking what we were doing seriously. She’d be back in New York by fall, and I wouldn’t really have to decide how I felt. I took longer and longer to answer her texts. She stopped giving me looks that said she wanted to kiss me. We saw less of each other. I never bothered to wonder what she was really thinking, what she wanted.
By the end of the summer, I’d wrapped myself around a mediocre guy who was too old for me. He had a vinyl collection and a surfboard and a cat named Blueberry. When I should have been taking Grace to dinner, sending her off with well-wishes and a kiss goodbye, I was wrapped in his bed and being naively impressed by his ability to roast a whole chicken.
I was trying so desperately to find a piece of myself that I recognized. To grasp the college student that stayed up too late and laughed too loud just to make sure some frat guy noticed her, spent the night rubbing his greasy hand along the side of her face. In Los Angeles, I didn’t have the layer of distractions I’d built up around myself in Indiana, and it was so much easier to find more people, mostly boys, on Tinder and Bumble than to sit with myself. So I kept going on dates and half getting to know more people I didn’t have the capacity to care about.
In the week before Grace left for NYU, I made half-ass attempts to set some kind of meet-up. A drink. Coffee. Something quick and thoughtless. She answered my texts quickly, but we never made the time for each other. My final goodbye was a text, a simple “hope you have a great senior year.” The kind of message you send to a friend who isn’t really a friend anymore.
It’s rare for my thoughts to wander back to those internet boys I dated when I was 22. They’ve become a meshed memory of “the surfer guy” or “Griffith Park guy” or some variation of a hobby or place I’ve connected them to. They were simply moments, pauses between my own thoughts. Maybe I remember Grace so vividly because she was the first woman I dated. The first girl (who wasn’t a friend, drunk at a party) that I kissed. Maybe that’s part of it, but that’s too easy. That’s the voice of a younger me, someone who hasn’t spent the time learning to be more careful with thoughts and words and actions. I remember Grace because I see her still. Because I cared about her enough to not press unfollow as soon as whatever we were doing ran itself dry. But also, I remember her in the fuzzy way we remember our past selves, the versions we can picture without fully grasping. Grace is a mirror into the self-acceptance and understanding I’ve been seeking for so long.
There are still things I hide from myself—questions I’m afraid to ask—but I have found Grace in the unknowing. I have stopped looking for perfect, clear-cut answers and flawless sentences. Life is too messy to believe the answer we have one day will be the same the next.
Grace challenged me. We talked about things that mattered—the world, how it is always unraveling and we have to find something to hold onto. How we’re in the middle of this weird generational switch that sometimes leaves us feeling lonely in the middle of company. We sat on rooftops under the stars, and she asked me what I planned to do next. With my writing. With my life. If I was going to stay in Los Angeles. If I was open to a real relationship with a woman. She held eye contact the whole time she talked, and she listened to my words with her head leaned towards me.
I remember Grace so vividly because, even though I was avoidant and confused and probably frustrating, we connected. We were two people that sat in one place in a large city and really got to know each other, even with all the ways I didn’t pay attention. I think of her when I eat Greek food. When I see blue convertibles. When I get out of a car on the roof of the garage and see darkness, the haze of clouds that hangs just below the stars.
Sam Frost is a writer who spends too much time and money drinking kombucha and is always craving fast food breakfast. Find more work at C&P Quarterly, Ghost City Review, Kissing Dynamite Poetry, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @sammfrostt.