Reclaiming Los Angeles by Joyce Hayden

Los Angeles is as complicated as any woman you’ll ever meet. She never left me, but I left her. For 30 years I forsook her, turned my back on her, as one would a favorite lover who’d left her staring at the ground, wounded. But I always watched out of the corner of my eye, out of fear and desire, to see if she still pounced inside my shadow and to recall all the light and excitement of those wild and golden days.

I didn’t have to reinvent myself to return to Los Angeles. The city never had those expectations. Changing who I was had never been the city’s plan. Casting me out had never been her plan, either. She carried me as I walked Westwood and Santa Monica at night.

On March 10, 1981, I became a Los Angelena. Brimming with hubris, I’d left Hancock Airport in Syracuse, New York, with the parting words: “It’s a town full of losers. I’m pulling out of here to win!” In an attempt to reinvent myself for my move west, I had gone to the local salon for a spiral perm. I wanted to look like a blond Cher. But my cut made me look like a French poodle, in fact exactly like my grandmother’s dog, Suzie, according to my brother, Michael. Thank God, I’m moving, I thought. I don’t want anyone I know to see me like this! My parents, who’d been traveling cross-country, met me at LAX. I walked by them several times on the tarmac without them recognizing me. I finally had to introduce myself.

My first roommates in L.A. were two UCLA students. I’d found their ad on a bulletin board at UCLA. Their lease ended when the semester did, so I only lived there from March ‘til June. A secured building, named the Roman Gardens, which pleased me to no end because I loved the football player Roman Gabriel. It’s a sign, I thought. A sign of good things to come.

The apartment was located a block or two off Santa Monica Boulevard, walking distance from The Nuart. My roommates went home on weekends, never had boys over and refused to watch any TV shows that alluded to sex or drugs. While I lived there, I dated a guy, briefly. A friend of a friend. He was smart and funny and edited films at one of the studios. He took me to the Tar Pits, took me to listen to bands at The Whisky. But when he wanted more, I freaked. I was 23, had yet to engage in consensual sex. Flashbacks of an uncle and a family doctor sent me out of body just thinking about being with a man. Yes, I wanted intimacy, but I had no idea how to overcome the fear of paralysis I’d inherited from childhood molestation. I knew I wasn’t going to have sex on the first date, and beyond the first date, I had no idea what to do. When he wanted to come in, I told him: “I’m a very moral person!” Yes, I, too, am cringing even now. That’s what happens when you fly by the seat of your pants. When you want something, but the hurdle appears enormous to you and invisible to others. Of my own choice, although it didn’t really feel like a choice, I never saw him again.

I loved L.A. when I first moved there. I’m an Aries. I love beginnings, embarking on a new adventure. I arrived to sun and warm breezes, to the smell of perfumed flowers in the air. I’d come from 22 years in or near Syracuse, New York, city of salt and darkness. City of eternal winter. I was flying high; I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never been taught how to take care of myself. I just kind of learned the hard way … trial and error. I loved Sunset Boulevard and Monty’s, the bar on the top floor of a Westwood hotel where I would drink with my co-workers from Crocker Bank. I loved walking Santa Monica Beach with a co-worker from Boston on Thanksgiving, eating pie in a Venice diner. I loved the parties in the Hollywood Hills with my friend, Carrie. Every room offered up a banquet of drugs: there was the pot room and the coke room, filled with tall, stick-thin, sexy guys with long, curly black hair, whose faces you’d seen but couldn’t name. I loved riding to work in the bookkeeper Brenda’s brown MG Midget convertible and spending Wednesday and Thursday nights at Club Lingerie with my friend Niloo’s younger sister. Sunday afternoons meeting Niloo and friends at Cafe Casino. Taking Farsi night classes at UCLA. Until I was followed. Until I was running in high heels toward the nearest bus stop to anywhere.

At UCLA, I also found my second living situation: a two-bedroom apartment in Westwood, a few blocks from the university. What I didn’t know moving in was that I wasn’t supposed to be there. The landlords only wanted three people in the apartment, but the two guys and one young woman wanted me there to lower their rent. I didn’t usually hang out with the roommates. One of the guys worked at a local gym; the other was a lifeguard at Malibu Beach. I don’t recall what the girl did … except that way too many nights I’d wake up hearing her in the other twin bed saying to some guy, “I don’t normally do this.” And then they’d do it and he’d leave. One Saturday night we threw a big bash. Since I didn’t spend much time with the roommates, I decided to immerse myself in the party. It’s clear now that I was only invited because they needed someone over 21 and with enough clout to sign out the beer keg. The oldest roommate was 19. I was 23 and had a charge card. I remember great music. I remember dancing. I remember always having a drink in my hand because I was shy around so many people I didn’t know. The party was fun. I invited some of my friends from the bank where I worked. When Niloo arrived mid-evening with some friends, I invited her in. “No,” she said. “We’re here to take you out. Come with us.” I think she told me I shouldn’t be there. Too much alcohol, she said. Too many strangers. But I just danced around her, happy, knowing I could see her and her friends the next night. I said goodbye, shut the door and spun myself back to the middle of the room.

I’d been living in L.A. for four months when my friend Carrie took me to her grandmother’s house to watch the prince marry his princess. Carrie’s grandmother was every bit the queen, with her special teas and crumpets, her fancy lace and hand-painted china, her upscale bungalow in one of the canyons. Carrie and I splayed out on Grandmother’s bed, with its soft, fluffy duvet and the bedspread layers of pink-rose silk. Gran sat in a fine, high-backed mahogany chair and we all wept and giggled at the sweet young maiden whose life had turned miraculously magic. I felt somehow akin to Diana, newly planted in Los Angeles, where I believed anything was possible. Any dream could come true.

* * *

A month after the party, I still hadn’t had my period. I had tried to put the pieces together: Dancing with some guy on the sidewalk during the party. Pushing him away. Laughing. Saying goodnight. Finding him back in the quiet house, knocking on my bedroom door. No, No. You gotta leave. Goodnight. Then, sunlight. Then, gray pants, black panties around my ankles. Silk black and purple blouse ripped along the button line. Bruises … on biceps, on thighs. What happened, what happened, what happened? Sleeping the entire next day.

By the time I woke up Monday morning, his face no longer loomed before me. I made an appointment downtown. When my supervisor asked why I needed time off to go to the clinic, I froze. “Oh,” she laughed, conspiratorially, “yeast infection?” I nodded. “Yeah, they’re a real pain. Get used to them.” My inner monologue on the buses to the clinic was so loud I couldn’t figure out why people weren’t complaining. If I’m pregnant, I was raped, I was raped, I was raped. If I’m not, nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened. If I’m pregnant, I was raped. If I’m pregnant … Did I have a history of blacking out? Yes. Did I wear cute clothes? Yes. Was I a somewhat naive, happy-go-lucky, trying-to-experience-all-she-could kinda girl? Yes. Was it my fault? I certainly thought so. Which is why I never reported it. By the time I arrived at the women’s clinic, I was a basket case. I was sure I was pregnant. I had no memory of ever missing a period before. When the young woman assigned to assist me came back from testing my urine, I blurted out, loud enough for everyone to hear, “If I’m pregnant, I was raped.” I stared at her like a caged animal, wild eyed, hyperventilating. She had no idea how to respond. She stared at me and stayed quiet for a bit. Then she told me the test had not come back positive. She didn’t ask me what my story was. It was 1981; the fact that women’s clinics existed was itself a sign of progress. She told me I’d probably been so worried that my own stress had caused me to skip a period. I was told to return in two weeks if nothing changed. On my ride home I chanted over and over, I’m not pregnant. Nothing happened. Nothing happened. I never told anyone. Just my friend Jesse when she came from San Diego to visit one weekend. But I insisted it was just a bad dream I’d had. Just a very vivid nightmare.

I had met Carrie, my third roommate, through my friend, Ann, at Crocker Bank, when the three of us went to a U2 concert at the Santa Monica Civic Center. Carrie and I became quick friends. We rented an apartment together in West L.A. One night, she had tickets to see The Clash and The Ramones at the Hollywood Palladium. We were dancing in the mosh pit when a guy passed us little black pills. After Carrie swallowed hers, I asked her what it was. She just laughed and shrugged her shoulders. What the hell, I thought, and down the hatch. I didn’t much like the confines of the pit, so I managed to climb on top of the huge speakers at the side of the stage, where I danced alone, high above the musicians. Ultimately deciding from that height, that, yes, Joey is cuter than Dee Dee. We were parked at the corner of Sunset and Vine. After the concert, we grabbed a couple sodas and went back to the car.

L.A. was not my city yet. I was too new to the area to know her well. I assumed that Carrie, who had lived here all her life, knew how to handle herself in the big city. It was your typical hot summer night in L.A. We sat in the car with the windows down, talking about how fun the concert was. Talking about how amazing it was that security hadn’t kicked me off the speakers. I had my head back, taking a swig from the red-and-white can, when I noticed, in the side mirror, a surfer-looking punk approaching on my side of the car. “Roll your window up,” I heard Carrie shout, but a knife was already stabbing into my neck. The knife-wielder had a partner on Carrie’s side of the car, but she had managed to get her window up in time. When knife-wielder asked for our money, I just looked at Carrie. This is your city, girl, I was thinking. What do we do now? Carrie looked past me and said to the blond surfer punk, “She’s got all the money.” It was harder to accept the knife in my back than the knife that was now pushing deeper against my jugular. I couldn’t breathe. All fear left my body. I was now fueled by betrayal. What does friendship mean, here in Los Angeles? I wondered. While I reached into my left pocket, digging for bills, knife-wielder ripped my necklace off and pulled out my earrings. I was out of body for the ride back home. I was high above the white Chevette, soaring through the night, through the beautiful lights and stars. I could not go back into that body. That body that had no idea how to be safe. That body that would have taken good care of Carrie had we been in my town. That body that had only ever learned how to succumb. When we were back inside our apartment, Carrie explained the desperation of L.A. “There’s a lot of beauty and wealth here,” she said. “But the city’s divided between haves and have nots. At least we didn’t get hurt.”

I was friends with several different groups of people at the bank. Which meant every night after work I was going out drinking with someone. Either the bookkeepers, the tellers, the new-accounts people or the loan officers, One night, I was out with Niloo, Ramtin and Johnny. We’d been at an after-hours bank function, where I had definitely consumed way too much alcohol. I was wearing a blue-jean skirt and a light-blue sweatshirt with a map of the streets of West L.A. We were in a cab. They were trying to get me home. Apparently I kept giving them false addresses; one was a freeway entrance. They couldn’t figure out where I lived or what to do with me. Ramtin kept pointing at my chest and laughing, asking, “Which street do you live on?” Someone finally went through my purse and found my checkbook with my address, and they walked me up to my second-floor apartment. They didn’t get me any farther than a foot inside the front door. When Carrie came home and opened the door, it pushed against me. She yelled my name several times. When I didn’t move, she was sure I was dead.

After I’d been in L.A. for three years, I called my parents, retired in Florida now, to tell them I was ready to move back east. My father was disappointed. “Why don’t you give it a little more time?” he said. “Try to make your dreams happen.” I’d moved to L.A. to become a screenwriter. I wanted to go to USC film school, but after the mugging, after the rape, I deemed it a dream, I was too afraid to go anywhere by myself at night. If I wasn’t with friends, I was home by dark. I was tired of being scared. Tired of walking in a city when everyone else had a car. Tired of working in a bank. It was a job that I knew I wasn’t capable of pursuing as a career. I excelled at the people part; it was a great job for socializing. For meeting people and having a good time. But I was terrible with numbers, dyslexic even. Something about sevens and nines. I was also too trusting. I cashed all kinds of forged and stolen checks for people who claimed to be someone they were not. I had no clear sense of ascertaining people’s motives or character. As I said, I learned the hard way.

“Why do you want to come back?” Dad asked. “Why now?”

You won’t understand. You can’t understand. You don’t get afraid. I don’t want to hear “no.” I can’t take “no.”

“I’m just done,” I said. “I’ve already made plans to move in with Ron.” Of course, I’d done no such thing. I was just winging it. Again. Flying by the seat of my pants. When I did, however, call my older brother and ask him if I could live with him temporarily while I found an apartment in Boston, he agreed. To my father I said, “I just want to visit you and Mom for the holidays first.” How could he say no to that? I couldn’t say: “I need protection.” I couldn’t say: “I want to learn to sleep with the light off again.” I couldn’t say: “This city doesn’t want me.” And my father said exactly what I knew he’d say. “Well, of course, we’d love to have you here for the holidays. We’ll see you soon.”

* * *

Labor Day 1997. I was living at my younger brother Michael’s house in Colrain, Massachusetts. Our family was visiting us: our parents, our sister and her family and our older brother, Ron. The guys had golfed all day. The girls had gone to Emily Dickinson’s house and grave in Amherst. No one had watched or listened to the news. We were filling our plates, discussing the day, sitting down in front of the TV. After we’d gotten over the initial shock, after comprehending what the black screen and the dates, and Peter Jennings on the TV meant, after hearing Mom in the kitchen say, “This is going to ruin our dinner,” Michael went to the computer. At first I thought it was his way of coping … playing a mindless game or checking email. But I heard the printer at work, and Michael took a piece of paper to the dining room that had no table but a pool table. He taped the paper onto the dartboard. Prince Fucking Charles. Oh, how we hated him for making Diana’s life so miserable. Michael split the darts between me and my sister and himself. We threw with all our might. Laughing and yelling obscenities at the only person it made sense to blame. It’s possible we had a picture of Her Highness up there as well. Appalled, Mom and Dad left the room. In fact, they left the house, preferring to go outside to sit in lawn chairs on the newly refurbished front porch. Ron, my niece and my sister’s husband continued to watch TV. With full gusto and zest, we three threw ‘til our arms ached, ‘til our throats swelled. Were we really the only three, I thought, who understood the private battle Diana fought? The untimely injustice of her death? The fuckedupness of fate? I switched from beer to margaritas. Then, blackout.

Six days later, everyone had gone back to their own lives, their own cities. Michael and his girlfriend left for vacation. I woke early. I watched the funeral alone, in the living room, sitting on the red carpet. Sobbing, along with the throngs of Londoners lining the streets to the Abbey. Wailing, for a woman who had just reclaimed herself from the vicious tentacles of a queen and a prince who never loved her. She fought her demons. She had her title stripped. She stood her ground. Head high. She had reinvented herself. And now her light had gone out.

The morning after the funeral, I awoke, sun streaming through navy curtains. My cells vibrating. An understanding was working its way from the deepest paths in my brain … side-winding, serpentine toward my heart. Or was it heart to brain? I sat up in bed and, as I did so, I knew without doubt, without reservation, that what I had remembered for years as a dream, what I had remembered of myself prostrate on that bedroom floor in my Los Angeles apartment, was in fact a truth. I ran downstairs to make sure all the doors were locked. Sensing my fear, my black lab, Magic, ran behind me, barking. I ran from window to window, shutting and locking, despite the late-summer heat. Magic threatened everything that moved: an oak branch in the breeze, a neighbor’s passing car, my shadow on the linoleum floor. Then, I called Jesse at her home in Columbus. She made a loud gasp. “I knew it!” she said. “I knew it back in L.A. when we were sitting in your kitchen and you told me. I knew it wasn’t a dream. It had happened, and you didn’t know how to cope.”

I hadn’t felt frightened quite like this in years. Old trauma, reawakened, had an immediacy that bordered on present tense. When my therapist asked me to name what I was feeling, she expected an emotion. But I said, “Cortez.” My Los Angeles rapist, the man who had entered me way back when and had continued to live and breathe inside me, unknowingly, for all those years, now had a name. I saw him as an explorer who had raided and stolen all my gold and gone on his merry way to the next body, the next continent. I continued to walk Magic in the vast woods behind our house, but I was now afraid. Of every branch blowing in the wind, of every squirrel running up a trunk. Of every deer or fox footfall. At any sound, I turned and jumped. But I kept going up there. Day after day on different paths. Magic always in the lead. My therapist taught me to assess every sound and situation for its actual sense of danger. Eventually, despite the fact that women with dogs were raped by a man with a bow and arrow in a town across the river from mine, I made myself walk the woods. Every day. Made myself move through fear, and by the end of that winter, Cortez collapsed under all those leaves, under all that snow, at the crooked beaks of vultures.

* * *

“Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC,” except it was LAX from Hartford on Southwest. First time in 30 years. I was excited. I was scared. I never dreamed I’d come back. For years I thought L.A. would chew me up and spit me out again. For being a New Yorker, for being a runaway, for being afraid. I felt Cortez clawing up my spine. What would he look like 30 years later? What was I doing here? How was I ever going to manage public transportation to the Convention Center for the Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference? Walking around downtown, of all places. I wondered if I would actually attend AWP, or just play it safe. Tell everyone I went to the conference, but instead just walk around Westwood and Santa Monica. Go to movies. Ride the Ferris wheel at the Pier. I’d made arrangements to take a bus service from the airport to Westwood, near Niloo’s place of employment, so she wouldn’t have to make the drive. Because I hate asking, because I’d done it in Paris, because the 405!

After the bus dropped me off in Westwood, I walked to the café at the end of the block, dragging my backpack, my purse and my suitcase with me. I sat outside. Oh how I wished for a margarita or a martini, but due to no liquor license I had to settle for a latte. I had two hours to kill before Niloo could pick me up. After ordering some vegetarian food, I looked at my surroundings. It was all so familiar. I was at the corner of Kinross and Gayley. When Niloo drove up in her sporty white car, the first thing she said was, “Joyce, you’ve returned to the exact spot from which you left. That building was Crocker Bank!” Crocker Bank, my first and only job during my L.A. years. The bank where I met a myriad of friends, where I was even robbed on a busy UCLA payday by a sexy man I’d noticed in line and hoped would come to my window. Well, he did … passing me a note, and, now I know, pretending to have a gun in his pocket! Even three decades later, I remember he was L.A.-handsome.

It turned out that navigating buses from Westwood to the Convention Center downtown for AWP is pretty straightforward in March 2016. But, back in the day, it required numerous phone calls to numerous bus stations. And once I arrived downtown, in 1981, to the heart of the city, there was nothing there. It felt like an apocalypse had hit that day going to the women’s clinic. Streets downtown were empty back then. Buildings soared 20 and 30 stories into the sky, but who was in them? When Niloo went to work the day after I arrived, I took a practice run on the bus. From Westwood to the Staples Center. Google had provided three possible bus routes. I decided to take the scenic route, the longer ride. It went through Beverly Hills and Hollywood. It went down Sunset, past all the billboards. Except for the presence of more homeless people, the streets didn’t look that different. I got off the bus and walked around. Cortez made himself known, but the sun, the people on the streets, the bright lights of neon made him fade away. I walked and walked. I found my way to the Convention Center and the Marriott, to the rooms where I would attend conference presentations. I walked until I found restaurants and coffeehouses and other bus stops that would take me back to Westwood. I saw taxis; I saw police cars. Strangers smiled back at me. I walked with excitement and with confidence. The streets held me. The bus seats held me. The street lamps and sidewalks held me safe, even at night while I waited for the 4 or the 728 back to Niloo’s.

Did I drink in L.A. when I went back? You bet. Two glasses of wine with Niloo at a local Persian restaurant my first night back. A couple drinks at a party in Laguna Beach on my birthday. And a very expensive, very delicious Grey Goose cosmopolitan at the Marriott, during AWP, after I’d pulled a muscle in my left thigh while walk-running from the Convention Center to a panel on freelance writing at one of the salon rooms at the hotel. But alcohol didn’t define my trip. It hasn’t in years. Yes, and though I’m 50-something, I still wear cute clothes.

My last day in Los Angeles, I took the bus to Santa Monica. I got off at the corner of Ocean and Wilshire and walked to some cool shops south of Pico, on Main Street. I had coffee at Urth Caffé. I bought a necklace of pink stones for Niloo and a small crystal for myself. Instead of taking the bus back to the beach, I decided to walk. It was getting hot, so I stopped in a small convenience store and bought a bottle of water. I specifically remember saying to myself, Take your time putting your wallet back into your purse. There were people in line behind me and I was trying to be quick. I left the store, and headed back to the pier. At one point a man on skates bumped into me near a park. Then, at the corner of Ocean and Colorado, I was pushed, I was shoved. Half a block away I looked down and my handwritten notes on pink index cards were blowing all over the sidewalk. Panicked, I pulled my small backpack purse to the front, cursing that I’d ever brought it to L.A. to begin with. It’s normally a bag I use to hold hooks and filament, spiders and flies tied by my ex-, bug spray and a laminated license for fly-fishing small streams in the Berkshires, and there it was, the zipper wide open. No red wallet. I did what we all do in such cases. I called a couple friends until I reentered my terrified body. I retraced my steps. I stopped every couple blocks to look again inside the purse, It has to be there! I called my bank, looked in garbage cans, went back to the convenience store, and finally gave up and went to the police station. After leaving the police station, I had to laugh at my turn of events. Three hours earlier I’d been parading down Rodeo Drive. Dressed in my multicolored mermaid skirt, with a silk purple top and new black sandals. Feeling like a princess, I walked in and out of stores as if I owned Beverly Hills. I made a few purchases and caught the bus to Santa Monica, feeling as though I’d conquered something. Maybe even Cortez.

When I’d given up on ever finding the wallet again, I got a call from Niloo that a man named Gary had found my wallet on a sidewalk off Neilson Way. Everything was intact, and she was on her way to retrieve it. If that wasn’t miracle enough, she told me to walk to her mom’s house on San Vicente, and she’d pick me up there. My legs held the rigidness of two-by-fours, but I kept pushing to make it to Niloo’s mom’s house. At one point I needed to take a break on a bench by the beach. As I was about to sit down, I heard my name being called. “Joyce! Joyce!” I turned toward the street and Niloo’s sweet mother was sitting in her car, waiting for me. After she found out from Niloo what had happened, she had gotten into her car and come looking for me. And in all of Santa Monica, she found me in less than five minutes.

Los Angeles carried me as I walked Westwood and Santa Monica at night. She held my hand. She walked with me, steering me in the right direction. In fact, she always had. Her hand was always in mine, even back in 1981 and 1982. It’s just that back then I wasn’t able to feel her tug. But she always offered me an escape route. It was my past that kept me on a collision course. So, dearest L.A., with your light and your wings, shadow-love of my life. I’ll be back. I’ll always be back, Los Angeles. Because now I’ll never have to question. Now I know with heart and brain: “You like me, you really like me!”

* * *

Joyce Hayden has worked in restaurants as both a cook and server, as a bank teller, a house manager at a battered women’s shelter, a counselor on a Rape Crisis Hotline, a cocktail waitress at Rodeo Nites in Santa Fe and, most recently, as a college English professor. She currently is at work on her memoir, “The Out of Body Girl.” In addition to editing and coaching other writers, she is a painter and assemblage artist. Follow her on her blog at