UNITED STATES—“What am I going to do for three days?” I asked. It was a rhetorical question inspired by the looming three-day Veteran’s Day weekend. My dad said, “You could fly to Los Angeles.”
The resulting weekend cemented my relationship with Los Angeles. I stayed with my cousin in West Hollywood. It was 1982. Straightway, I rented a bicycle on Venice Beach and soaked up Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. A short ride from Venice lived Christopher Isherwood, whom I located by consulting a phone book. His and Don Bachardy’s house was a place full of art and light, perched on the edge of a canyon where Santa Monica ends, a modest house with immodest views of the canyon and the slate-blue Pacific beyond.
Isherwood was a cordial man, one of those I’d written for advice when I began writing, and whether he remembered any such letter, it got me in the door. The conversation we had fueled many inspired months when I returned back to my isolated hometown to the north and plotted my return to the city I loved.
I believe Los Angeles often shows off best in short, intense doses, and the same may be said for family togetherness.
The homecoming between myself and estranged family on the front doorsteps in Los Angeles in 1990—it lasted from one Saturday afternoon to the next Sunday morning, less than 12 hours. It epitomed short and sweet; proof that when there’s “not enough time,” there’s plenty of time to be giddy and joyful.
The visit was a breath of intoxicatingly fresh air in my building manager’s stale routine. I got to go to their hotel on Wilshire and look out on Korea Town and the rotting sign of the Ambassador, like some relic of Vegas and remnant of the hotel’s glitzier days. We drove to the Griffith Park Observatory with my parents and sister and I felt proud as if I had invented it. (By the way, one of my more notable feats was during an 80s refurbishing of the Planetarium I scaled a scaffolding and touched the gold dome.) From here we could look out over the city, and then we went back down the hill to Sarno’s Caffe dell’Opera, where a man with hair like Harpo Marx brazenly cozied up to tables and sang arias that catapulted our little Presbyterian group into a zone of mirth, while we drank Chianti and supped on an Italian repast. We talked, we laughed, and cried a little too during those brief hours.
Who’s to say that the buoyancy of this surprise reunion was created by brevity, livened by the pale breath of death: that of my cousin from AIDS.
I have no illusions about ordinary family time being a categorically happy time. I do counsel those who are not on speaking terms with their family, to start speaking. To know yourself, hang with your family—they have all the customized antibodies as does mother’s milk; it is painfully obvious that nature intended family to taunt, terrorize and test—just don’t get to the point where you want to hang yourself. A shaky enlightenment spirals outward into pale understanding that deepens into empathy, whilst the experience itself can be rather like shock therapy. Look at it this way: if I can endure it, at least I get rare archeological insight into the inputs that made me the way I am.
Again, the buoyancy of that reunion owed so much to surprise on the circumstance: my parents venturing into the big bad city after seeing my cousin buried in Taft.
You want happiness I say, get ready to stand close to death and disease, not too close. It is in the overcoming, the surviving that animal happiness blossoms. The wake of my cousin’s death set me free with a kind of nihilistic glee. I could be many things to many people—it marked the initiation of one of the freest streaks of chutzpah. You might think that his death would make me cautious. It did not. It made me fatalistic, and there is a peace in fatalism. You live more wildly when you’ve got a skeleton in the sidecar.
Soon after my cousin’s death, I scribbled on an envelope: “While no one was looking the beans burned/ the universe did a somersault.” Yes, the universe did a somersault.
Grady Miller is a humorist. He lives in Hollywood.