Originally published in our October 2015 newsletter
When J. Alex Cook graduates from high school in Paragon, Indiana he has almost $5,000 in savings, a shitty Dodge Neon, middling grades, and a varsity letter in wrestling. He also has a friend named Gemma Hyong who lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania and that he has never met, and together, they are moving to Los Angeles, her to become a star, and him not to be the movie magic, but to make it.
His mother, watching him as he walks across the stage erected on the school’s worn football field, covered in dying grass from a combination of drought and the lack of any meaningful maintenance budget, has no idea. She also doesn’t know he’s gay. Or about one of the two times his sister, Delilah, has tried to stab him in their kitchen. One day, he imagines, this might be a little bit funny.
Alex doesn’t tell his mother he’s leaving until the morning three weeks later when he packs his things into the Neon. That she looks happy about it, at first, breaks his heart. Because a stupid plan — and in his gut he knows running away to Los Angeles with a girl he’s never met is a very stupid plan indeed — is the best hope she has for him ever getting out of their shitty town. Only two people in his graduating class are going to a college not prefaced by the word “community” and most of them not even that. He’s not even sure he and his sister have the same father, and mostly, that relieves him.
He hugs his mother goodbye before he comes out to her. It seems a safer order of business, even if the only disappointment she expresses as he goes is the degree to which he has never been anything but secrets to her.
He manages to drive for about two hours before he has to pull over on the side of the road to call Gemma as he tears up. They’ve never been friends about anything other than stories, and he’s terrified.
“You will never guess where I am,” she says, and he can tell by her voice that wherever she is, she is standing up so very straight.
“Venice Fucking Beach.”
“Yeah,” she says. She’s been proud and smug in their secret Skype calls for over a week. The school calendar in Pennsylvania has meant that she’s gotten to L.A. first, and will now always be better than him. “It’s much nicer than our apartment.”
“I thought you said we were going to look together,” Alex says, not because he’s really worried about her taste in apartments, but because he’s wanted to believe that she’s something he can back away from if he needs to. After all, on the surface, his sister seems more or less normal too.
“Yeah. Well, I lied, and you owe me five hundred bucks, plus the security.”
He takes long breath through his nose and lets it out. “Okay. Guess I can let my mom know I’m not homeless then.”
“How did that go?” she asks.
The apartment, when he gets to L.A. after three days of driving and motels that felt like sets from horror movies and porn (and probably were) is the worst sort of shithole. Layers of peeling paint, not enough light, and roaches. On the other hand, it also has locks that work and a landlord who doesn’t seem to give a shit that at the moment they’re both unemployed kids. Compared to welfare cheese this is at least an adventure.
Gemma, as is her narrative destiny, gets a shitty waitressing gig at a shitty restaurant, and registers as a non-union extra with Central Casting. She coos at Alex over California’s ten dollar an hour minimum wage, while he signs up for the city’s film and TV internship program, which costs him nothing, but also pays him nothing. There’ll be a real job on the other side of it, or at least the potential for one although he knows as a P.A., he’ll be hired or not on a day-to-day basis. It may not be secure, but then, nothing for him ever has been.