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  • Kai Straw

Hollywood: The Dell

I’m writing this at 9:44PM in Hollywood.  And I’m specifying Hollywood instead of Los Angeles because Los Angeles is too massive not to make the distinction.  I am in Hollywood, specifically; and to put a finer point on it – I’m in The Hollywood Dell; a neighborhood within Hollywood that I’d never heard of before.

 

“The Dell”, as it was called by a quick text from Michael Tennant, is a network of winding one-lane roads webbed through the hills of Hollywood.  There are cracks and potholes in the asphalt and it has no sidewalks.  There are modern mansions made of stone next to small two-bedroom homes made of wood that look like they were pulled from a 1950’s catalogue – and around, above, and in between all the architecture are overgrown trees and shrubs and vines like maybe Hollywood itself has forgotten this corner is here.  Everything is broken and overgrown and uneven.  It’s like if Dr. Seuss was given a neighborhood in Los Angeles and allowed to have his way.  There’s as much degradation as there is abundance.  A home is suffocated by vines and the unkept tendrils of plants that have been climbing its walls for maybe decades; you can imagine ghosts living inside – like maybe the neighborhood is ethereal and imagined, caught between all the cultures that have called Los Angeles home – but before you can say, “man, what happened to this place?”, a Lamborghini drives by – from further up the hill – from somewhere deeper, higher, more hidden.  The Hollywood Dell feels like the spirit of a long-forgotten movie star reaching for you slowly from her grave through the ivy.  It’s an old elegant hand wrapped in fine gold chains and weeds and a couple beetles clicking across its knuckles.  The Hollywood sign looms above it – peering through canyons of bent trees that form caves over the roads – trees from every type of place, growing above every type of rooftop.  Around any corner there could be an elegant manor, or maybe something humble with a crooked picket fence – or maybe there’s a party attended by locals who have their skin pinned back to hide their age, or – maybe somewhere tucked away and in the shadows – roll the camera, set the lights – a murder.  If Hollywoodland, a neighborhood next door, can be seen as the father who knows how to dress up to impress the relatives – The Hollywood Dell is the eccentric aunt who doesn’t care, whose income you’re unsure of, and whose actual life you can hardly imagine.  Some characters are so abundant with idiosyncrasies it’s as if they themselves manifest just before any event they attend and dissolve once they leave, like their energy is so acute and interesting it can’t possibly be permanent.

 

I’ve had a roommate during my time here.  She asked me if I could come stay at her place in Los Angeles for an upcoming surgery – invasive and concerning for her – and that was the cause for my choosing this city.  She’s someone I used to date, who became a welcomed phone call, who became a friend – and at this point, a friend I’ve had for many years.  Sometimes when two people are truly and completely certain of their romantic incompatibility, a friendship can find its way in.

 

Tonight, just about an hour ago, she was sitting next to me on the couch looking through her phone.  We’re a few days past her surgery.  Before this, I’ve seen her laying on the hospital bed completely covered to her neck in blankets as the nurse explained to me the pills and creams she’d have to take and apply during her recovery.  I’ve seen her bruise and swell; I’ve seen her replacing bloody gauze; I’ve helped her walk very slowly from her bed to the kitchen.  I’ve sat by her as she stares off into space, unspeaking – high from the medication, and I’ve been here as that despondence turned to nausea.  While all this has gone on, I’ve thought of other moments, too, long before this.  “Here’s me and my brothers before our parents got divorced,” she’d say – showing me a cute photo of her and her siblings at maybe three to eight years old.  In life, I’ve seen her cry so hard that she couldn’t speak, and I’ve made her laugh so hard she couldn’t breathe.  Now, here, she’s looking at her phone, glassy-eyed, in the throes of a brokenness that can only be earned by a car wreck or a team of surgeons.

 

Talking, eating, and ultimately existing up to this point has been painful – yet, suddenly, she starts to sing.

 

I have never in my life heard her sing, and I’ve known her for nearly a decade.  Though she’s keeping her voice small, like if you could sing with a whisper, she sings it with a level of intent and emotion that reveals what sounds like honesty.  The melody is slow and melancholic.  She sings it unprompted and unexplained, “ – oh, dre-e-e-a-m maker.”  She keeps on.  “You he-a-a-rt breaker – wherever you’re go-o-in’, I’m go-o-in’ your w-a-a-y.”  She looks at me and smiles – a smile that recognizes and is proud of just how random this is, like a kid who has just stolen from the cookie jar.  “Have you heard that song?”  She asks.  I said I hadn’t.  She sang more of it, and with more conviction.  “Tw-o-o-o dri-i-fters off to see the wo-o-o-rld, there’s such a lot of w-o-o-o-rld to s-e-e-e.”  She’s wearing no makeup, she’s bruised and bandaged, her hair is pulled back in a ponytail.  It was dark where we were in the living room.  The light from the kitchen behind her wreathed the profile of her face.  In a way, it was like the kitchen light had become the moon. 

 

She has two small scars, old and faded, that run parallel to each other beneath her ear.  In combination, the scars, the surgery days before, her recovery the days after, her life before it, her as a little girl, the photos she has shown me, her lowest moments, her greatest – all of it sort of melded together with her singing as I watched and listened; she seemed so perfectly human.  I couldn’t have drawn it better, or written it better.  There is little more beautiful to me than radical authenticity.  Uninhibited self-ness.  She kept on.  “Moon River!  Breakfast at Tiffany’s!  Audrey Hepburn?”  Here.”  She pulled up her phone and played the clip for me.  She looked at the clip, and then to me, and then to the clip, and then back to me.  I’d sat across from her on dates years ago, fallen for her, kissed her, slept with her, said hopeful hellos and tearful goodbyes, and there has been no moment choreographed by courtship nor sex that has brought to my mind and heart such an absolute feeling of, “ – you look beautiful tonight.”

 

When no one’s watching, when our performance for the world stops, when we unwind completely, sometimes – we let ourselves be, and be completely.  That’s where you find the unique beauty of a person.  I am uninterested in what someone thinks what qualities are their best, what outfits they think best hug their figure, or what performed version of themselves they think will best impress me or whoever sees them – because what we think of ourselves doesn’t always match who we are, what we plan for ourselves doesn’t always match what we want, and what we reach for isn’t always an expression of our own needs.  I am interested in the unplanned soul that emerges when no one’s looking, and how that soul seeks to express itself when there’s no reward.  It’s with that – someone’s distilled version of their deep and precious truth – unincentivized and uninhibited – that I find myself most taken with.  You have allowed yourself to be seen, and I have seen you, and I am grateful.  To love someone is to take the hand they’re afraid to give, to hold the secrets they’re afraid to tell, and to cherish what hidden songs they otherwise keep from the world.

 

Just a story from The Hollywood Dell.  Shared with her permission.  “You know I love you, right?”  She says.  She looks emotional.  “I know,” I reply – and maybe I should’ve said it back, but somehow it felt as though the moment said it for me.

 

Some songs aren’t meant to be kept.  Some views can’t be taken with you.  Love can be brief or last a lifetime.  Whatever the case may be – the length of a moment does not add color to the wings of the butterfly, and brevity cannot rip the awe from my eye, nor the love from my heart.

 

Kai Straw

Hollywood, 2024

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