Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets
“The artist’s life cannot be otherwise than full of conflicts, for two forces are at war within him; on the one hand, the common human longing for happiness, satisfaction and security in life and on the other, a ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire… there are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of creative fire.”– Carl Jung, THE SPIRIT OF MAN IN ART AND LITERATURE: Psychology section, third shelf on the right in the main gallery.
All stories have a beginning, or so it seems. Beginnings, middles and ends feel real, like supporting pillars that have always been there and will always be. If they were drawn on paper, their solid mass would look complete, finite and separate.
On taking a closer look, however, their true nature is revealed to be ephemeral. That solid dot that we have come to trust as “the beginning” is in fact like a cloud, made up of an infinite number of moments, any of which can be broken down again into smaller and smaller moments. This begs the question, is there really a start at all? Or do each of us, just by existing, bend the air with narrative threads so that every origin to any story resides not from without but from within? The “once upon a time” that looked like it had its origin firmly on the page is in fact a mirror reflecting that
the true source is, and always has been, you.
The honks of cars and the hum of exhaust leaking from engines reached a crescendo. I sat in the car, baking under the Hollywood sun. At 25 years old I was convinced that this is how my brief life would end. I would be found in my car, my body half hanging out the window, still stuck in traffic, having died from heat and exhaustion on an LA freeway.
My eyes squinted in the bright light, as I strained to see a line of cars ahead of me. Silver Lake Boulevard was usually free from congestion, but today the traffic wasn’t moving. Hot and anxious, I looked out of the window. Next to me was the dwindling expanse of water that gave Silver Lake its name. Like most things in Los Angeles, the lake was not natural but man-made, a concrete reservoir that almost emptied, dehydrated, in summer and filled partially in winter. Looking at it made me thirsty. Seeing concrete where water should be was like seeing the feet of the wizard of Oz behind the curtain; an unattractive reminder that this was the land of make-believe, where lakes didn’t exist naturally but could be conjured up by money and imagination alone.
If pressed, I couldn’t articulate why I loved Los Angeles, but I did. My former Bostonian identity had disappeared as quickly as people here applied fake tans. After just a year in the sprawling suburb, I was already feeling part of the city, and the smog, the sun and the water, or lack thereof. Growing up in New England, it had felt like I had spent my whole life fighting against some invisible force that was as strong and elusive as gravity. In California, that weight had been lifted. There was nothing to fight against here – besides traffic – and even then there was little you could do but give into the slow flow of the river of cars.
My Toyota blasted cold air from its dust-covered vents. I leaned in closer, feeling the cool kiss of air against my neck. My forehead gently fell against the wheel and I hugged my arms to my chest, away from the sun. It had been a long day at work and I was tired, burnt out and I now felt my pale arms beginning to burn.
An emerging film director, I lived in a studio apartment in Silver Lake’s lush, tree-covered hills, a hipster haven tucked into a small valley far away from the ocean, west of West Hollywood. It had the feeling of a real neighbourhood, not the typical billboard-and-boulevard vista that one would associate with Los Angeles. Silver Lake was ideally located between Pasadena, where my work was, and West Hollywood, where films and my social life resided.
In my street the otherwise grey sidewalks were littered with colourful petals. Bungalow houses were sweetly tucked into either side, each different in shape and size but all boasting views of snow-capped mountains and downtown Los Angeles. We were high enough to rise above the pollution – sometimes on very smoggy days, I looked down on a dark sticky cloud that hung over the city like a moth-eaten blanket.
My studio, nestled into the back of one of the bungalows, was a detached guest suite that had been converted into two studio apartments, one stacked on top of the other. I lived in the bottom studio – the bigger of the two, with private access to the garden. Out of the window of my four-walled oasis you could see, if you really craned your neck, the Hollywood sign.
My fingers gripped the steering wheel as I made a left out of the traffic and up a shady, empty side street. The backs of my hands were covered with pen-scrawled lists of to-dos, now smudged by sweat. I would joke at work that this was
my version of a PalmPilot. It was engineer humour.
My full-time job was as a storyteller and media consultant for NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I had been hired as a communication consultant to help NASA use narrative as a tool for knowledge-sharing practices. What did that mean exactly? I had been hired to help make communication between individuals, groups, departments and campuses within the whole organisation more effective. My base was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a place filled with some of the most brilliant minds in the world, where people fulfilled dreams – dreams they had had from childhood – dreams of astronauts and outer space and rockets. It was an intense, inspiring campus. I walked down the same halls as Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman and future history-makers.
It was an ideal job, one that made me constantly anxious to live up to the incredible opportunities it offered. In college I had studied both mythology and astronomy, and voiced an uncompromising desire to be a film director, and many had scratched their heads as to how I would combine these interests in my future career. I was nothing if not determined. By the age of eight, on realising I could not be Hercule Poirot or Indiana Jones, I had decided the next best thing would be to become a film director. Subsequently, my whole life plan had been geared towards that vision. In the fourth grade, while other children were playing on the swings, I would make my friends stay in from recess to rehearse plays and scripts that I had borrowed from the library. Out shopping with my mother as a teenager, instead of trying on clothes to buy, I would try on long gowns and practise my Oscars award speech in the changing room while she waited patiently outside.
This determination went beyond dreaming. Every
moment I had, I worked hard towards my goal; internships at public television in high school, writing and making films and, on graduating from college, spending years without a holiday. I worked on Broadway, on films and in TV. I didn’t know what a life looked like without work. When The Devil Wears Prada came out, I couldn’t bring myself to read it, seeing it not as an entertaining escape but as a reflection of my own existence. I realised at this point that the hard work was gaining me experience but not the freedom I craved, so I took a risk. I quit my life in New York, putting most of what I owned onto the street with a sign that read “share the love”, and went to Boston to start my own production company. My first big break was filming for The Dresden Dolls, a punk cabaret band, as they went on tour throughout the US.
The call from NASA came a year later. It was from Ben Epstein at NASA headquarters in Washington, DC. He had seen my first short film and loved it. A mutual friend had told him about my background in folklore, mythology and astronomy and for 20 minutes straight we talked about storytelling, space exploration and film. I was enjoying myself so much that I forgot I was on a job interview. Ben told me of his desire to use the power of storytelling for knowledge-sharing practices at NASA. He believed everyone in the organisation had important stories to tell, but because they did not generally have a way of sharing them, their often very remarkable knowledge and experiences were lost to the community. My heart had quickened with excitement. This was something I could do, I thought. Cosmology and mythology had been my passions in life, the reason why I made films. I felt born for the position he was describing.
After several emails back and forth, I had landed an interview at HQ.
I rolled down the window as my small car, like The Little Train That Could, reached the peak of the hill. A fresh breeze wafted in. It was cooler up here, under the shade of the flowering trees. I felt myself relax for the first time in a week. We were working on many projects, the biggest of which was hiring an old friend and colleague, Jay O’Callahan, the world-famous storyteller, to create a story for NASA’s 50th Anniversary. Nothing like this had ever been done before; we had taken a risk in hiring him, and I felt the weight of responsibility for both NASA and my dear friend firmly on my shoulders.
My car slowly circled the block again. This was a tough street to park on as few people had driveways. In my vision for the perfect Hollywood pad, I had forgotten to include a parking space.
Before coming to LA I had spent nights dreaming of my ideal place. It would be a small studio, with its own side entrance and private garden. In fact, my vision was so precise that I could see myself leaning against the sink, with a cup of steaming tea, looking out through a window at a flowering paradise. I never questioned whether it existed but rather how I would find it, and after weeks of Craigslist searchings and dead ends, I finally did. Discovering the small Silver Lake studio, hidden on the leafy hillside, had been the first good omen about my new life in California.
There had been great demand for the apartment. It was reasonably priced, in an ideal neighbourhood and very secluded. The trouble was there were a handful of equally competitive applicants who were equally convinced the place was theirs. I didn’t think I was going to get it. I had given references, sent them a full resume and examples of
my work and dived in determined. After a rigorous interview process, the owner left a message that his boyfriend thought I had “nice energy”, so I had landed the apartment.
I popped open the trunk and removed my forlorn yoga mat, recently overlooked, and a bag of groceries, and felt glad for the walk uphill. My days had been filled with eight-hour stints staring at a computer. When I returned home, my second job would begin: running my production company. The combination left me frazzled, in that strange modern way of being constantly exhausted but under-exercised. However, my work had given me financial freedom for the first time in my young adult life. I had a car, an apartment full of IKEA furniture and, as long as I practised moderation, I could indulge in new clothes, shoes and a night out when I wished.
I looked back at my car, which was growing smaller as I climbed the street. Had I locked it? Crap. I couldn’t remember. I’d been so stressed lately that whatever new information came into my mind tended to push out the small, immediate things that I should remember. My brain was leaking, and a nagging voice, like a distant bell, sounded out how desperately I was in need of a holiday.
Lazily, I decided to continue up the hill regardless of whether it was locked or not. My MIT engineer father was the one who had insisted that I avoid all cars with automatic locks and windows. His insistence stemmed from the fear that in the rare event that I drove into a massive body of water (Silver Lake’s lake on a good day would barely cover my tyres), the electronic system would fail and I’d be trapped in the car and drown. Today, happily, I was safe from that eventuality – although I might have my car stolen instead.
Up ahead, the girl from the studio above me opened our
gate. I felt myself quickening my pace. She was tall, blonde and an assistant to some big movie producer whom she always refused to name, which made me think he, or she, was quite a heavyweight. I took out my keys, shifting my bags to the other arm, and reached the gate, out of breath, just as she closed it and turned towards me. A smile appeared on her face as she fluttered her mascara-coated eyelashes. Before I could think of anything neighbourly to say to her, she disappeared into her car. I suddenly felt very alone. The elusive quality of LA people was deeply unsatisfying. I had friends but they were scattered throughout the city, and it took me at least a half an hour to drive to see anyone. Even then, it was rare that we’d get together in numbers of more than two. I craved a sense of cohesiveness. Other than on a film set, I had never been part of a gang or a group, and for some reason, at 25 years old, that feeling had suddenly become important. I was missing a sense of belonging.
Making my way down decking covered in potted plants and cacti, it occurred to me that I didn’t even know my landlord. He lived with his boyfriend and his two tiny dogs – with whom I waged a daily battle to prevent them slipping into my apartment – in the well-groomed, stucco-style main house next door; and, from what I could tell, he seemed like a quiet, nice man. Sometimes on my way out of the gate, I would see him in his small makeshift studio in the converted garage painting these beautiful, surreal landscapes. When our eyes met he would smile and gently close the door. I got the not-so-subtle hint that he felt that, even by looking, I was intruding on his privacy.
My phone buzzed in my pocket but my arms, filled with yoga mat and groceries, stood their ground. I leaned against my door, ferreting around in my bag for my keys, when it slid open. I stumbled into my apartment. My overworked
brain had forgotten to lock my front door too. That settled it. Before I really lost my marbles – or any other possessions – I was going to take a break.
Besides a ruffled pillow and some papers knocked over by the dogs, who had clearly won today’s battle and whose muddy paws had left a trail on the floor, nothing in the studio was out of order. Deliciously savouring the idea of a full night with nothing to do ahead of me, I put my groceries onto the kitchen counter. I didn’t have much to unpack: canned soup, slightly melted ice cream and a chocolate bar that was now mostly liquid. I was not a chef. In fact, I despised cooking generally and had a talent for finding boyfriends who enjoyed it.
Flopping onto the couch, I took out my phone. I had a text. Probably from my friend Rose, the actress, who wanted to get together for dinner. I flipped open the phone. It was not from Rose. Instead, a horribly familiar number stared back at me and my hairs stood on end. I did not want to read it. My stomach lurched and I stood up quickly, convinced that I was going to throw up. I shut my phone and threw it onto the sofa. Suddenly, a night with only myself and the silence of my four walls seemed like a very bad idea.
Josh came to pick me up at 8pm. I waited outside my gate as the night grew dark. It was chillier now that the late afternoon sun had disappeared, and I rubbed my arms, my eyes scanning the street for Josh’s car. I had met Josh during my first week in Los Angeles when we sat across from each other at the OM Café, a sweet coffee shop that I had claimed as my local haunt in those first few days. Josh had started up the conversation, something about where was I from and how long had I been in LA. He was a good-looking
guy, tall and slim with a mop of dark hair and had a cute, slightly nerdy manner. He was a computer programmer and video game creator with many famous games to his credit. I had known only a little about that world but had known enough to be impressed. Our conversation had quickly evolved into discussing storytelling, NASA and video games. Josh had been easy to talk to and smiled at me with his handsome, dimpled cheeks. The whole package had been endearing.
Josh clearly viewed tonight as a rescue mission. He knew from the tone of my voice that I was upset and was whisking me away to his friend Tate’s birthday, the biggest video game designer in LA. The party promised to be very Hollywood, very Josh. He always had interesting things going on and our adventures were never disappointing. Being a self-subscribed workaholic, I often passed on his invitations but tonight I needed to be distracted.
Headlights appeared from down the hill. With the low rumble of an engine, Josh’s sports car came into sight. The car circled the narrow street and quickly pulled in front of me, and I waved.
I smiled, thinking that on our first meeting Josh had asked me if I wanted to join him in getting his nails done and drinking margaritas. “I know of a great place,” he said with a smile. At first my heart had sunk, disappointed. He was gay, I thought, but quickly agreed to go, thinking at least I was making a friend. That night, when he showed up at my door with flowers, my assumptions flipped again, realising he had actually been asking me out on a date. Men in LA were just as into taking care of themselves as women were, apparently. I had entered an alternate universe – one slightly intimidating, or at least one that I didn’t yet understand. That night was fun, and Josh and I had proceeded
to go on three dates but it had never worked out. I wasn’t ready; my heart those first months had been still entangled elsewhere. To his credit he quickly got the hint and our friendship grew. Josh had once said that I could call him day or night and he’d answer. I often put his offer to the test and he was – true to his word – consistently there for me.
As Josh unrolled the window, he smiled. “My God, you look hot,” he said. “Get in before someone else tries to pick you up.”
I smiled, sliding into the low black leather seat beside him. He had a talent for making me feel better.
“It’s really good of you to pick me up, Josh.” My voice wavered. I was still unsure if I had made the right choice to go out tonight. If I’d stayed in, I’d have spent most of the night feeling bad. This seemed like a better alternative. Every time I thought about the text, my stomach did fresh somersaults. My phone lay in my handbag like a loaded gun. The temptation to look at the text was mounting.
I turned to Josh, hesitating, “But remember if I come tonight I can’t stay late, okay?”
“Uh huh. Sure.”
“No, seriously, Josh.” Frustrated, I shook my head. Whenever I felt myself relax, the workaholic inside me kicked in. It was always there, keeping me solidly on course.
“It’s Tate’s birthday – loads of producers who should meet you will be there.”
Although my East Coast tradition of self-improvement had been replaced by LA’s softly adapted Eastern belief in self-acceptance, my intense focus on my career had not relaxed. I had joined a meditation group, frequented by Bonnie Raitt (and her dog). I drank my weight in wheatgrass shots, had my chakras realigned and enjoyed getting free meals at all the major Hollywood spiritual institutions, from
the Scientology Church to the Kabbalah Centre. Everyone and everything in LA was telling me that wisdom lay not in discipline but in letting go. Of what? Of everything, I guessed, even of that question. The hot sun had bleached out my memory of dark winter days, shopping had replaced shovelling snow and socialising had challenged my hermit tendencies… but my work still came first.
Josh shot me his gentle smile. “You’re too serious. You need to have more fun.”
I looked out of the window pretending to consider what he said.
Tate lived in Los Feliz, the upscale neighbouring area to Silver Lake, with larger houses and manicured lawns. His street hugged Griffith Park, a gorgeous span of wilderness and according to some sources, the largest city park in the country. At the highest point in the park, connected by many walking paths, rested Griffith Observatory.
Griffith, a wealthy businessman at the turn of the 20th century, made his money in mining and then in developing Californian real estate. He had always loved astronomy and when, in the early 1900s, he had looked through the 60-inch telescope at Mt. Wilson, then the largest in the world, he had seen an image of deep space that had left him forever changed. It had transformed him into an altruist.
Griffith believed that if everyone had the opportunity to witness such an intimate view of the cosmos, we would be able to achieve world peace. He had donated all the land in Griffith Park, along with money for the observatory, to make it possible, and free, for anyone to see deep into space. I had visited the observatory many times and was moved by his vision.
Cars spanned Tate’s street and Josh pulled over.
“You should get out here so you don’t have to walk.”
Josh glanced at my face, which wore a nervous expression. “You’ll be fine, honestly, go in. Tate will remember you.”
His eyes twinkled. I could tell he was feeling on top of his game, taking a young woman to a swanky Hollywood party in his sports car. He winked at me.
I stepped out of the car and laughed. “You’re just like James Bond, Josh.”
His grin widened. For a video game programmer, he was pretty close. Programmers and game designers were an interesting breed of Angelino. I had felt instantly comfortable in their company, perhaps because their manner and interests were akin to many of the people I met at NASA. Or perhaps they reminded me a bit of my engineer father, someone who still loved playing and inventing. Either way, they were atypical for Hollywood, like an exotic spice in the LA cupboard of ingredients. Egotists and personalities existed in the gaming community too, of course, but for the most part gamers were non-judgmental, open to new ideas and fun, if with a twinge of mild Asperger’s.
I stood in front of Tate’s house, uneasy about arriving alone. The great, curved wooden door facing me looked like it belonged in a castle. Large green palm leaves fanned out on either side. A lion, with a ring through its mouth, acted as the knocker in the middle. It was an entrance appropriate for a royal establishment – Tate was Hollywood elite.
The door opened to reveal Tate barefoot in khakis and an unremarkable, untucked blue button-down shirt. I felt myself slump and shift my weight. Tate was shorter than I was, up to my nose, with ice-blue eyes resting in an angular eastern European face. He stood alone in the doorway, staring at me.
“Hi Tate. I hope I’m not too early.”
“You’re not.” He stepped aside and let me into the tiled
I held out my hand and he shook it awkwardly. Perhaps I was being too formal. “Tate. I’m Jessica, Josh’s friend? We met once before.”
His blank stare indicated he hadn’t a clue who I was. My cheeks flushed at my bold assumption that he’d remember me. He knew so many people. I should have introduced myself at the very beginning.
“I remember.” He lied politely. “Why isn’t Josh with you?”
“Oh. He’s parking.” I shifted uncomfortably again and looked around. A large sweeping staircase curled behind him, bordered by stucco walls, with inbuilt cavern-like shelves rendered just like a period villa.
“He was supposed to come early,” Tate explained, closing the door behind me. “There were people here that I wanted him to meet.”
“Oh. I’m afraid he had to pick me up first.” I was trying desperately to keep away the awkward silence that circles new conversations, like swatting away a hovering fly. “Well, Happy Birthday. You must be having a good time?”
“No, not really.” He shrugged. While most people might have found Tate’s bluntness rude, I felt myself relax. He led me into the kitchen where a large Mexican woman was leaning over a sink, washing vegetables. Steam was rising from pots on the stove and the air filled with the smell of roasted meat and sweet chilli spice. The aroma was incredible. My stomach growled.
I turned to Tate. “It’s a beautiful house. When was it built?”
“Some time in the early 1920s. Typical Spanish-style villa.” I followed him into a large sitting room. The floor was covered with Oriental carpets, but otherwise it was
mostly empty – a piano rested in the far corner and a couple of skateboards and bean bags littered the floor around a television and video game console. The decor could have doubled as the movie set for Big.
“Room to play in,” I said stepping into the space. I could hear my voice echo off the high ceiling.
Tate slipped behind the piano at the far end. “Exactly,” he called, and began to play Bach with such precision that it caught me off guard. “Sorry I’m so rusty,” he shouted over the music. Chords that a professional pianist would have been proud of effortlessly flowed from his fingertips.
My personal concert was not quite a private one though as I looked out of the sliding doors to my right. I could see guests filling the back garden, crowding on a patio and milling around a large, well-lit pool. It looked as if the party had been going for a while.
One of the windows slid open and in leaned a slim, attractive young Asian woman. She yelled over the music. “Hey, birthday boy. Time to be social.”
Tate stopped playing.
The young woman was my age, mid-twenties, clad in a hot pink bikini. Tate looked distracted by her cleavage as she leaned in further. “I said, time to be social. It’s your party, after all.”
I suddenly felt overdressed, and a size too big, in my sundress and flats. Outside, despite the chilling night air, gorgeous women stood scantily clad in swimsuits while the men, comfortably clothed in shorts and polo shirts, looked like they just came from a round of golf. Small torches lit the way through the garden and warmed the air, as if the sun had never gone down. I dipped my hand in the pool and felt instantly sad I hadn’t brought my own swimsuit. It was cosy warm, like a large bathtub.
In the far corner of the pool, a famous movie star minded his children as they splashed about the shallow end. I was about to go over and open with a “Hi, fellow Bostonian” but thought better of it. I didn’t want to bother him, or sound like a nerd. There was an unspoken, “don’t bother me” rule when mingling with the Hollywood elite. Saying “I’m a big fan of your work” was acceptable; acting like one was not.
There were a handful of people from TV that I recognised as well. A couple of them were mixing drinks, while two others waited in line for food. I recognised some of Josh’s friends from the gaming industry too but the rest of the guests were strangers that I guessed to be film producers, their wives, girlfriends or entourage.
Josh appeared and found me in the crowd. He smiled. “Are you wearing your bathing suit?”
“No, someone forgot to tell me it was doubling up as a pool party.” I watched as Josh’s eyes were momentarily distracted by a stick of a woman in a red bikini with watermelon-sized breasts.
A waiter came by with a tray of pink-coloured cocktails. I took one and lowered my eyes. “This skin show is ridiculous,” I said and was immediately embarrassed by my own modesty. I sounded like a disgruntled 1950s housewife.
“What do you want? They’re actresses.” Josh shrugged. “They see this party as one long audition.”
“I guess.” I suddenly wanted to go home.
“Look, there’s loads of people here I want to you to meet. I’ve told them all about you already.” Josh, in his generous way, proceeded to take me from producer to producer, as I increasingly felt like I was on some bizarre parade.
Josh consistently referred to me as the “next thing to watch” but most of the producers were more interested in
why I wasn’t wearing a bathing suit. “I thought it was too cold,” I repeated, like a parrot. Others seemed disappointed that I wasn’t an actress.
“Why an actress?” I asked Josh later, looking confused.
He whispered in my ear, “Actresses usually sleep with them.”
I moaned. “Josh, I could have been on my couch in pyjamas…”
“Eating soup out of a can?” Josh laughed and shook his head. “Don’t give up so easily. They’ll see you’re brilliant and become interested, I promise.”
Josh left to network for himself. I grabbed a burger from the food table to fortify my constitution and re-entered the fray. Each conversation was more painful than the last.
One mega-producer asked what I did.
“I’m a director,” I stated proudly.
He looked disappointed. “So what do you do then, chick flicks? Kid’s shows?” His eyes began to wander, desperate for something more interesting to land on.
Suddenly he looked at me, less confused. “Oh wait, you’re a lesbian.”
From out of the corner of my eye, I saw a tall 30-something-year-old producer sprinting towards us. As I stepped out of the way he yelled “heads” and bashed into the man I was speaking with. Both of them went flying into the pool, fully clothed, and the loud splash sent bikini-clad actresses screaming for their lives. The two producers scrambled to give each other a head-lock, twisting in the water, while their wives looked on with faces that showed neither amusement nor interest.
I looked at them, a pair of young, idiotic walruses, who held the key to the world I so loved and wanted to enter.
They splashed about in the water as if it was their own private lake, and I suddenly felt utterly depressed.
This was the land of gold dust. We were in the middle of a desert where everything was warm and bright and cities shouldn’t naturally exist. Perhaps we were not in a city at all but a beautiful mirage, and I was Odysseus, journeying through Los Angeles, the city of angels: a fairy realm, a living dream, where everything was easy, comfortable and warm and where no one ever grew up.