EVERYTHING HAS A PRICE
On my eighteenth birthday, my parents told me I was adopted. I already knew, having found the paperwork four years before. Rather than admit to picking the lock on my dad’s filing cabinet, I pretended shock. Convincingly, I might add.
I told them it didn’t matter, that I couldn’t have asked for better parents. That yes, I forgave them for not telling me sooner, and that no, I wasn’t interested in learning about my birth parents. All of which was true.
My mom was so relieved she burst into tears and tackled me on the couch, squeezing me against her ample chest like I was five years old again. That moment—smothered by her love while my stoic dad looked on with a small, satisfied smile—was perfect.
Do I think being adopted led me to this moment in time?
Although if I’m being honest, none of what’s happened would have been possible otherwise.
I sometimes wonder what my life might have been like had a different couple adopted me. A couple less loving, less honest, less good. Say, a mother who taught me to be ashamed of my body, or, conversely, to use it like currency to get what I wanted. Or a father who ruled by the fist, or drank and cheated, or taught me that I shouldn’t-couldn’t-can’t instead of what my dad had actually taught me—that with hard work, perseverance, and an attitude of gratitude, I could do anything.
Here in the dark, to avoid thinking about the pain, I often reminisce about that day on my parents’ couch. The moment my life forever changed course. I remember the tickle of hair on my neck as a breeze moved through a nearby window. The smell of my mom’s lavender perfume. The scratchy fabric of the couch cushions against my bare skin.
I remember what it felt like to be eighteen and fearless, with a belly full of dreams. The expansive feeling of possibility. The hunger for work and accomplishment.
I should have listened to their warnings.
When my mom stopped crying that day, I told them my plans. I wasn’t staying in our backwoods Oregon town where my dad was an electrician and my mom a preschool teacher. Nor was I going to an in-state university, two of which had offered me hefty incentives.
Just like they’d taught me, I’d gone for what I wanted. Worked my ass off and earned it. Bursting with pride, I told them that with a combination of student loans and partial scholarships, I was going to UCLA. The first, biggest step on my road to medical school.
I mistook their silence for stunned joy, the fear in their eyes and words of caution for parental worry.
After all, how could I have known?
What were the chances?
In a world of billions, and a city of millions, the probability of finding Alexis Sharpe was next to nil. We found each other anyway.
Alexis said it was kismet—that destiny brought us together. And despite my worship of science and logic, I believed her. I still do. There’s simply no other explanation.
Meeting her was sheer magic.
And the beginning of my end.
There’s nothing glamorous about working the graveyard shift at a diner in West Hollywood. Every hour between midnight and 6 a.m. is a test of endurance, as every tourist and wannabe actor-model-director stumbles out of the nearby bars and clubs and straight into Al’s Diner.
They come here because it’s convenient and the food’s cheap, but they also like the retro atmosphere, which makes them feel younger, hipper, and more relevant than they actually are.
Most of all, they come for the novelty of being abused by the costumed servers. Yes, Al’s Diner is one of those places—we’re paid to be mean to our customers. It’s not that hard, honestly. Most of them are assholes.
I dodge a tray-wielding arm and pop up at the kitchen window. Raul frowns at me, his face glistening with sweat, eyes racooned by melted mascara—a look I think he cultivates on purpose.
“Girl, you look one wrong step from the grave.” Fishnet encased forearms thump onto the counter between us. Lowering his voice, he murmurs, “Insomnia shit bothering you again? You need something to help you relax?”
I roll my eyes. “Yeah, a vacation.” Raul smirks, lifting his hands in surrender. Him offering me drugs to help me sleep is an ongoing theme in our unlikely, two-year friendship.
A plate breaks somewhere in the kitchen, and a line cook shouts angrily. With a final wink for me, Raul spins toward the chaos, his voice ringing out in fluid Spanish. Macho he is not, but the man has a voice that demands obedience. His weekday work is doing voiceovers for telenovelas and porn. But oddly, what he loves most is the insanity of running the diner’s kitchen.
As I load up a tray with my table’s order, Sammy sidles up next to me. Nosy in the worst way, she whispers, “What did Raul say to you? Did he offer you weed? Alice says he sells weed, but when I asked him, he ignored me.”
That’s because you can’t keep your trap shut.
I keep the thought to myself. “Nope.”
“Aren’t you guys friends, though?”
I heft the tray to my shoulder and give her a flat look. “Yes, we are. Any other questions, or can I deliver food to the bratty coeds at table twelve now?”
Her cherry-red lower lip juts out. “Fine, be rude.”
I grin tightly. “That’s what I’m paid for,” I say, and I beeline for the table of sorority girls.
As I move closer to the table, I see that Stacy 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 have been joined by Brad 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0. The booth is now a swirling vortex of drunk, barely legal hormones.
“Hey, weren’t you my Biology TA?” slurs Brad 2.0, squinting as he examines my face.
I ignore him and begin slamming food onto their table. When the plates are down, I tuck the empty tray under my arm and point at the Brads.
“If you assholes want to order, now’s the time. I’m not coming back unless you promise me a fat tip.”
Stacy 3.0 waves me away with a haughty, “Bye, Dorothy. We’ll share.”
“Suit yourselves,” I snap, and hustle back to the window where another order is waiting.
“Did that bimbo call you Dorothy?”
I glance over at Karina, whose fingers are slamming buttons on our antique, piece-of-shit cash register. “Yeah,” I answer with a shrug. “Whatever. Dorothy was badass. Survived a tornado, killed a witch, wore great shoes—”
Karina’s laugh interrupts me. “Okay, okay. Clearly you’ve heard that before.” She tilts her head, studying me like one of her unfinished paintings. “I can see it, actually. The freckles, the wholesome, girl-next-door vibe. Personally, I see you more as a cross between Mary Poppins and Dita Von Teese.”
I make a face. “Dita Von Teese, really? Her waist is probably the circumference of my arm.”
“Bullshit,” Karina retorts. “Anyway, it’s more an attitude thing. Like, you look all innocent, and even though we all know it’s an act, we still can’t help believing it.”
I roll my eyes and finish loading my tray. As I walk away, Karina calls, “You coming to Frank’s with me after our shift?”
I throw over my shoulder, “I’m still thinking about it.”
Her loud groan makes me smile, until I see a table of newly seated customers glaring at me with bleary, entitled eyes. One of them summons me with a slowly twitching finger.
I salute him with a finger in return—my middle one—before walking in the opposite direction to deliver table four’s food.
* * *
I’m not the same anxious, starry-eyed girl who hightailed it out of her tiny town at eighteen. Four years later, with a BA in Biology from UCLA under my belt, I don’t even recognize that girl—her smile too wide, her hair in a perpetual braid down her back, her clothes ill-fitting and drab.
That girl, and every last pair of unflattering jeans, all the multicolored skirts, clunky sandals, and boxy flannel shirts, all of it, all of her, is gone.
Los Angeles has a way of changing you. There’s black magic in the sour air. Magic generated by millions of minds focused on a singular greed—to make it and damn the cost.
That magic seeps into you whether you want it to or not. Stay in the city a while and it begins to mold you. Stay long enough, and it will push you to breaking points you never knew existed. Push you until you shatter. Or triumph.
More than any challenge before in my life, living in Los Angeles has stripped away who I thought I was. Left behind is someone sharper and harder. Less forgiving. More calculating. Not broken, but rearranged by disappointments and heartache. The new version of me still believes I can do anything, but has a much better understanding of what anything costs.
I hate this city and yet, I’m grateful to it. Los Angeles taught me the difference between dreaming and doing. And I’ve done, graduating a semester ahead of schedule in the top 2% of my class.
The happiest result of all is that in three months, on August 1st, my time in the City of Angels will be over. When my lease ends on my studio apartment in Westwood Village, I’m moving. I didn’t even bother applying to UCLA Medical School. By the middle of my sophomore year, I knew I wasn’t staying.
The University of Washington in Seattle is my new destination. Great med school, not too far from my parents. Most importantly, there’s less poison in the air of the Pacific Northwest.
A different, softer magic. Exactly what I need.