On the phone we decide to check out the mansion of the condiments empire heiress—the intricate brickwork and the midnight guards who sleep outside for $10 an hour. I always say yes to a new set of dark, expensive streets. I’ve only just moved to LA, I like to walk, and every lawn is its own universe. My eyes go wild for shadows.
There is a parallel plot, a story about a party and several rowdy private school girls. People always want girls, school girls, private school girls to go bad, but they don’t, they can’t. They live out their own narratives without knowing you exist and there’s nothing you can do about it.
We’re ten minutes in and on this street every residence has a white envelope laying somewhere on the property. Basking sadly on the front walk, run over in the driveway, tossed haphazardly onto the lawn. I keep daring myself to pick one up, but it’s more exciting to pretend they contain something confidential.
I’m not wearing my glasses, opt impulse over focus. I take a couple pictures no one will ever see the point of. This neighborhood is fun if money compelling the absurd turns you on. Here, an almost replica of the Trevi, there, bushes cut into beasts the size of clouds. Farther down, actual animals lurk. We can’t see them, but we hear their breath quicken behind pillars as we pass.
I love a dog that runs a marathon around his yard, howling at an inconvenient hour. He hears something we can’t; he refuses to consider we don’t care.
The estate is disappointing from the road. I don’t know what I expected, but it’s just a hulking fort that someone built an ugly wall around. All turrets and no sauce. It’s too dark to see the bricks and no one is home to glimpse through a forgotten, open window.
It’s true, every twenty feet a man sleeps behind a wheel. This one has purchased a pillow, that one uses his arms to block out the night. My favorite looks up at us sleepily, smiles, can tell right away we would lose. He rolls over as we pass, snuggling a water bottle.
“Pathetic!” one of us yells at a house that is not following aesthetic directions.
“Pathetic!” I shout for the next three blocks. I can’t stop laughing at the stupidest house. To me a joke is any antic I can repeat.
Along the way my body starts swelling a little. Some people might be able to walk forever, but I’ve made questionable decisions and my ankles bear the weight. Soccer, tumors, skateboards, cheap soles. I’m not craving sympathy, I just don’t want a permanent limp. Still, I pause to watch people play or sprint or dive and I long to join, to risk. It’s only natural to picture oneself in everything.
I yawn excessively; we break protocol and turn back down the street we’ve just walked, towards the picnic tables and boutiques of Larchmont.
At the intersection is a 1986 Pontiac Firebird that may as well be smoking. It’s hanging out in the road like it was dropped from a crane, or a black hole, or a memory. The driver’s door crushed and cowering. Passenger door halved vertically. Metal missing all over. Hunks and shards are lying around as if the car grew tired of its personality, gave a wet dog shake. The windshield is nonexistent, an exquisite gash. The whole contraption reeks of a mayhem you could slip right into and drown under. The car is bloodless.
Something can feel impossible and also true.
I almost take a picture but it’s too morbid for my brand. We back away, reluctant to ignore the wreckage. A teenager walks by complaining into a phone about dog shit without glancing up. The car gives off little pings and creaks, or maybe I just expect it to.
When I was nine years old I wanted to kiss a ghost. I spent hours practicing on a church sale pillow, my mother’s retired winter coat in the closet. Whipped cream, balloons, the cotton filling from a stuffed owl. Nothing was soft enough for my mouth. I didn’t want a person, I wanted air. I didn’t want sex, I wanted something singular.
We make it two blocks away and I hear you stumble as you notice her—your whisper of alarm, the flicker of my eyes, and the twitching turn of the cloaked individual across the street. If it is a woman, it is my favorite woman. If it is not a woman, it does not mean I will forget her. Sometimes we name things to catalogue what we cannot identify.
Soaked in the porch light of a cottage she clutches a bassinet. Repositions a small, breathing lump in the dark. Works her hands as if they aren’t her own. Leans in to lick the blood? Hears us watching.
The eye contact from under the hood is paralyzing, we run before it can keep us. The cloak gathers its cradle tighter and flees, back towards the alarming pile of metal. Not running but hauling, the dragging gait of the injured and panicked.
We re-trace our steps without thinking, white envelopes warping with dew left and right. We look at each other to repeat, “I don’t know.” One more joke about turning back to follow her and I will cry. Our curiosity and desire to help are outweighed by the instinct to avoid any drop of what we think we saw.
A helicopter arrives, confirms something is happening around us, to us. It’s everywhere all the time in this city. We peer up at it through the trees as if it might announce its purpose. It licks us with its spotlight, but we are bland. Only our speed is notable. That dog is howling again. The private school girls dance jaggedly under a disco ball in the sun porch. Two of them sneak away to hold each other in a dark room while the dead watch quietly from the walls.
Most people look for a light when they are scared, but this only works if the fear is in your imagination. If what terrifies you is real the light only illuminates it. The helicopter has been circling three blocks south for five minutes, then abruptly veers off into the void. We turn the last corner onto the main drag half assuming we’ll find the Firebird, a specter in the driver’s seat. Is that what we want?
Instead, our car waits for us alone, bored. A puppy wanders behind its new mom. Someone is served an ill-advised 11 o’clock espresso. Two celebrities from that show, the one about the men and the money and the technology, have a lovers’ spat in the entryway of a closed bank.
One of us claims to know the actors, would say hello if it didn’t mean getting in the way. When doesn’t it?
We buckle in, try to speak what we saw but every word is unfit. If we say vampire, we laugh. If we say baby, we shudder. If we say nothing, the possibilities threaten to suffocate us. Some people have called me half ghost half woman, and I love many who are superstitious, but I am wary of how quick they are to refuse explanation. I can never tell how much I want of what can’t be described or proven.
As we drive I lean my head against glass, watch my heartbeat throb in my neck.
I’m sweating just enough to smell my deodorant. Not because I’m scared but because I wore the wrong thing for tonight’s weather. I repeat all of this to a believer, a nonbeliever, and my own reflection. None of them seem impressed. My ankles ache and blame me. There’s not much you can do but expect things to be hard, or harder.
Emily Siegenthaler is a writer and artist living in Los Angeles, CA.