There's a heat wave in L.A. this week, and for the first time in 20 years, my bare feet are skipping over the pools of hot asphalt again, as I make my way to Venice Beach from a remote parking space in the barrio. The barrio is farther away from the beach now -- I see new paint and alarm systems on shacks we used to rent on these streets in the 1970s for $200 a month.
I'm on a solo summer vacation in Los Angeles, a trip that started out as a lark and has turned into a haunting journey via Susie's way-back machine. This is the city where I lost my virginity -- a strange phrase because I really felt like I'd found something that I'd wanted very badly. It was the time I met the friends and lovers who have influenced the rest of my life.
When I left L.A. two decades ago, I couldn't clear out fast enough -- goodbye and good riddance to the plastic pod people of this sprawling smog-filled joke. But that's not how I began my teenage years in L.A. When I arrived in 1972, it was the most romantic place in the world. Now, I drive these endless freeways and they cast a hypnotic spell on me; instead of exit signs, I see old faces: Is that Arlington Avenue, or is it really ol' Bitsy Gomez shooting her gun off the rooftop of her housing project apartment, just to let off steam? What ever happened to her, to everyone I knew?
On top of all this, the "rock classics" radio stations are playing the exact same music that was at the top of the charts when I last lived here. KLOS is cranking out "Stairway to Heaven," and my way-back machine dials me straight back to 1974. I'm lying under the stars on Venice Beach, with my fingers tangled in my lover's hair and the phosphorescent foam of a red tide breaking a few feet away. I've got my own map of the stars to chart my dreams during this vacation, and it's a private pantheon of great moments, my sexual history writ large like the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Yesterday, I drove my new friend Shelley up into the Santa Monica Mountains canyon where I spent my high school years, explaining to her how my first girlfriend, Karen, and I had cornered the groovy baby-sitting circuit by the time I was in the 10th grade. People wanted you to put their kids to bed at 8 p.m., and then clean a key of dope for them. They didn't care how much you dipped into it, it was like the tip on top of the dollar an hour you got for watching their kids.
Housecleaning paid better, and that was how Karen and I met a handsome unemployed actor subletting the basement right downstairs from a little boy I was tutoring in spelling and fractions. Richard -- who went on to get a role in a prime-time series -- was the first person I ever met who thought that grinding up huge quantities of carrots in his Oster juicer was the key to everlasting youth and freshness. "Richard, you're turning orange," we taunted him, and indeed, his perfect tan was taking on a peachy tone. He was so secretive about his age (28 at the time) that on one occasion we confiscated his driver's license, threw it into his landlord's swimming pool, then took all our clothes off and jumped in ourselves. We taunted him to come in and fish it out. He ignored weeks and weeks of these shenanigans. Now, when I think about it, he actually held up remarkably well under the pressure of two teenage "housecleaners" who were determined to lose their virginity to him.
"This is where it finally happened," I said to Shelley, pointing to a bedroom window that we could barely see behind a high hedge and fence. None of these obstructions were here in the '70s. This was the hippie canyon, where you could walk onto anyone's property and chase the coyotes in circles for all anyone cared. The ivy-covered wall next to Richard's apartment used to have a graffito reading, "Free George Jackson," its letters slightly faded by the years after his death in an alleged prison escape attempt.
One time, Karen climbed up the George wall and jumped off, just to see how it felt to fly for a moment. She was a year younger than I, but she had all the balls. Her bedroom was a freestanding tree house in the eucalyptus trees adjacent to her granny's home, and she treated me to my first dose of peyote by bringing the buttons to me in a bowl filled with rose petals. Like a priestess, she set down her record needle on "Sister Morphine" and told me to start chewing.
Richard would observe the two of us carefully while we sponged up the carrot pulp in his kitchen and ran the vacuum. "You have a better figure, Sue" he said once, comparing the two of us much as I imagined he himself was sized up daily at casting calls.
"But you," he said to Karen, "You have something special that makes you sexier than the rest." I was slightly insulted by this, but also so titillated to hear anyone talking about me having a "figure" that it made me want to run and find a mirror.
Karen's "something special" was that she was unobtainable emotionally. She did not give an inch of intimacy when it came to sex. She'd fuck you, but she wouldn't sleep with you, she wouldn't whisper in your ear. No, Karen's way of being intimate was to offer you a risk, whether it was a bowl of petals and hallucinogens or a dare to climb into the hills with her after dark, to slip neighbors' horses out of their corral and gallop down into a creek bed.
I was euphoric when we finally seduced Richard a week before my 16th birthday. That day, like the others that followed, I appreciated that he didn't mind me showing up at his door with no more explanation than an "Are you busy?"
If he wasn't going to an audition, we would get it on. He would reassure me that I was doing everything fine -- which pleased me as much as getting straight A's -- and then he would fret that I shouldn't be shtupping any of the other men in the canyon because they were all just exploiting us and really ought to be turned into the police. Of course I had to laugh at him. We had birth control pills, STDs were nothing more than a minor inconvenience and we weren't looking for "boyfriends" either.
I was in love with my new sexual powers, and intensely curious about the magic of knowing someone else's body. I didn't want anything from Richard except his encouragement -- and to find out what he knew about sex. I hoped he didn't feel used by my determination to soak it all up. He was friendly and gentle with me, and when I look back on it, I guess I was lucky because everyone I went to bed with was friendly and gentle. I'd be a virgin to plain ol' heartbreak for a long time to come.
That spring and summer, Karen and I typically had sex as a team. It was part of our adventure story, and it was the ultimate buddy system. The two of us together were more than a match for anyone, and so we approached whomever we pleased. To me, it was like applying a page from the Girl Scout manual to my sex life. I remember one long-haired blond biker we picked up at Topanga Canyon beach, back when that spot was a bohemian public space with no bathing suits required and a giant trampoline propped up in the shore break. The biker boy was pretty, with his buttery, long Jesus locks, and we must have been very pretty as well. That and a smile were the perfect introduction.
When we got to Karen's treehouse, he sputtered a bit that he hated to choose between us.
"What's to choose?" we asked.
"Well, one of you has gotta leave, right?" he said, and we just shook our heads solemnly. No way were we going to separate. I could see this awful pleading in his eyes. I understand now -- he knew that a three-way was supposed to be every man's fantasy, but he was really a one-gal-at-a-time kinda guy. At the time, I only understood that we frightened him. We had to be extra gentle with him, and whether it was our constant reassurances, or his sense of the horny inevitable, he finally moved his body over Karen and began rocking their bodies into the waterbed. I spooned next to them, squeezing Karen's hand, making faces and mouthing questions at her that he couldn't see. She mouthed back at me, "Shut up," but her eyes said something else. She unfolded her hand from mine, turned my palm over, and started drawing letters in it: L-O-V-E U.
It's funny, I don't remember anything about him after that, although I wouldn't be surprised if his name, address and more of his story come back to me before I leave L.A. this time. Perhaps it will be just as I step off the curb on Westminster Avenue, halfway back to my beach parking space. I'll set down my bare foot, and another memory will roll in. We had the most fun ever back then -- why am I so certain of that now? Because I haven't felt anything like it since? I have to admit, I also cried a lot more in those days, too. But now, my nostalgia has turned those wet pillows into a cool sheet to wrap my romantic reverie in. It doesn't matter whether it was the horses or the motorcycles, the buttons or buds, the incandescent Rolling Stones or rolling waves flashing like silver. I realize it now: They just don't make teenage sex lives like they used to.