“I know it’s a little short notice, but we can work around your schedule,” said Juan Tapia’s voice to me over the phone. “The model is free pretty much anytime before 7 pm.”
I watched the fountain in the courtyard pretend like there was no drought. It was a Thursday afternoon, and I was pacing the hardwood floors of my friend Morgan’s San Diego apartment. Back and forth. To the window. Back to the table, where my laptop sat open. I refreshed my email. I was cutting a podcast episode, trying to schedule a call with a freelance client, editing photos, and waiting for a call from the car repair shop, where my car was getting a break job and a tire replacement.
“And if there’s anything you want to see in L.A., we can check it out after. And -- “
I walked to the bedroom, dug through my open suitcase. I was missing something, as usual.
“I’m down,” I said. “What time do we leave?
The next day, I packed light enough for a day in a desert city. Tripod. Light stand. Bounce. Pelican case (not light, actually). Small backpack. Sweater. I picked up Juan at his apartment in Chula Vista, pre-coffee and a little weary to embark on a three-hour drive with a stranger -- if only because I’m not a fan of small talk. We’d met online via a San Diego Creatives Facebook group, where I’d responded to his comment looking for a photographer to collaborate with on a model shoot in L.A. Turns out, we had plenty to talk about.
Juan’s a 20-year-old college student with a photography portfolio and maturity level that belies his age. For nearly three hours, we talked about how painful (yet necessary) it is to market creative work, our favorite photography moments, our ideal combinations of multimedia. We shared a package of Airhead Bites as the traffic rushed to congeal around us.
In Hollywood, we picked up our model, Oksana, and headed to the Getty for what we thought would be a carefully-crafted, well-lit, fashion-esque shoot -- but a snag at security meant our mission suddenly became covert. We ditched the light stand, softbox, and speedlights, and pared down our equipment to one lens each. Our approach was then to get as many shots as we could in one spot before a security guard inevitably speed-walked over to us.
Juan is super talented, with an eye for posing, lighting, and the human form. Strong winds blew Oksana’s skirt up like Marilyn Monroe, but her eyes stayed steady. The modern architecture of the Getty on its hill didn’t dwarf her; it suited her. He’d stand calmly, giving gentle directions and waiting for the perfect moment -- then, he’d take his one shot and tell her to relax. For better or for worse, I’d chosen my long lens, so I hung back a little, wishing I had a wider angle on the scenery, but appreciating the creativity that comes from working with constraints. We wrapped up and headed to our next destination, the Sunset Strip.
I couldn’t put my finger on Sunset -- it was the end of a sunny day chilled by the sort of desert wind that seems to reach you from a long distance, but isn’t quite cold. The hills to the west were hazy, perpetually vintage, an Instagram filter. Dangerous people looked like props, handsome people suddenly seemed commonplace. We walked past stores packed with bling, neon lights, the Museum of Broken Relationships, and nothing seemed really urban, just cinematic.
So much of this trip has involved going back in time. Something like six years ago, I came to visit an ex-boyfriend a few times in the L.A. beach neighborhood where he’d grown up. We’d spent time at the Getty, Venice, hung out at the beach, had dinner with his parents. I ended up visiting three or four times in total, but I was never behind the wheel -- I was always the guest. Now, as an adult, I was driving myself, but as much as I wanted adventure, I wasn’t just here as a tourist. I knew I was also looking for something: a place in the world.
So far, I’d been in San Diego for about a week. I really liked San Diego, Los Angeles, and Southern California in general. And I was so ready to make a move to somewhere I liked enough to invest in. But I’m a bargain hunter, and I want it all: quality of life, access to cool things, nature, city, a great job, and creative freedom. Is that too much to ask?
The question I wanted to get to the bottom of was: can I see myself living in L.A.?
Exploring this idea with Juan riding shotgun was surprisingly validating. I awoke on our second day in L.A. underneath a dusty wool blanket on a futon in a sparse living room near Citrus College in Azusa -- we’d met up with Juan’s friend, Isao, and had decided to stay the night. The three of us drove to a restaurant called Square One in Silver Lake, where I was ready to test the authenticity of a vegetable omelet, a breakfast salad, and a pourover among my hipster-y brethren. We sat together waiting for our food to arrive, blinking but comfortable in each others’ company, even though we’d all just met.
When I had first met Isao the night before, I was wondering if this is where it’d get awkward. He’s very quiet, almost disinterested-seeming, yet polite. But over a spinach salad, which he ate leaf-by-leaf, I interrogated him. He’s 24, he drives Uber, he’s a college student, he’s a musician working on writing his second album. The second album is about the importance of sadness. We switched to Spanish and talked about our life stories until the restaurant closed. We all went to Isao’s house and talked late into the night.
A trait that many of my oldest and dearest friends have in common is the ability to indulge in lengthy speculative conversation. Now, we sat at the breakfast table, again speaking Spanish, and again slipping into the hypothetical.
“I like it here,” I said, scrolling through Craigslist. “Should I move to L.A.? I mean, look at this Koreatown studio for only $1050 a month.” We all looked. It was beautiful, simple, clean, open. To be honest, all I needed was a bed, a desk, a beautiful carpet, place to store my closet, and lots of light.
Isao asked if I ever meditate, to which I replied: “Yes. Well, sort of. I run. I drive. I spend time alone. I imagine.”
“You can’t make all your decisions with your brain,” said Isao. “Your brain is working hard all the time. As cheesy as it sounds, you have to listen to your heart. You have to find a balance.”
“I understand that idea, and I feel like I do my best to live that way,” I said. “But what if your heart thinks it wants something, but it’s impractical -- even impossible? Like in love. Following your heart sounds good, but I’m not sure it always makes sense. Sometimes your heart is an idealist. Sometimes your heart lives in a made-up, fairytale world.”
“You have to find a balance,” he said. “Go home, sit quietly, and think. Imagine the life you want. Then it will feel clear which path you should take.”
Juan nodded sagely. Was everyone more in-tune with themselves than I was?
We spent the day walking through the Silver Lake neighborhood, which, despite knowing the cost of owning a house there, felt like a pleasant, regular neighborhood. After a quick pitstop in Griffith Park, we said our goodbyes. It didn’t feel permanent. We were close friends already. They knew my middle name. Connection transcends.
Back in San Diego, I spread my sleeping bag out on my friend’s couch. It’s a nice, down-filled one I invested in this past summer, and feels more permanent than most beds I’ve slept in during the last seven years. I turned off the lights and looked up at the ceiling. I imagined a life.
Just a few days later, I would make a decision.