The rain pauses for a moment, my body suspended between raindrops like a helium balloon, bursting. “I know where we’re going,” Casey hollers, his voice clanging against the sounds of Sonic Youth. Casey doesn’t remember what happened last night; he had too many, took too much—he had all that my mama warned me about. The slick leather of his back seat vibrates with ghostly murmurs of girls he’s screwed, their soft sounds harmonizing with the languid poetry of Leonard Cohen, the open-hearted twang of Johnny Cash.
We glide into the lot just as the word “FULL” blinks yellow on the sign outside. “People say I have parking karma,” I offer.
“Wait,” says Casey, “Isn’t that a bad thing?”
Hasn’t he read The Dharma Bums? Or at least the Wikipedia page on Spirituality? On the verge of launching into a lecture about Kerouac, I remind myself of my purpose—a flirtation with rebellion, not a college-level lit class.
On a lark, we walk to Goodwill, banging on the locked door.
“We came all the way from Colorado!” Casey lies; no one hears him, or no one cares. It starts to drizzle again as we stomp through puddles in the back alley.
Casey stops, leans against a rain-stained building, lighting up. Damn the attraction of boys who lean, skulls dangling from their ears and red leather jackets like Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause. Max, his sidekick, waits for instructions—Plato, the sweet-eyed boy wonder who softens the dark tone of our brooding hero. On Casey’s signal, he yanks the emergency evacuation ladder; it jackknifes down with a metallic thump and jangle.
Casey turns to me, the glint in his eyes a taunt, a dare.
“You don’t have to come up if you’re scared.”
Scared? I’m here to grab the brass ring, to escape my status as the sheltered girl whose grand act of defiance consists of dying her hair from Hot Tamale red to Black Cherry. With that, I follow Casey’s green Chucks up the first flight of stairs.
On the ninth floor, my stomach starts to churn. I gather my courage and glance around. Teenage couples stare back at me from the American Eagle billboard. I feel silly next to their untouchable arrogance, like the little girl who hangs at the fringes of the grown-ups’ party. I march on autopilot—one foot, the other—peering down every so often to watch the people below transform into insignificant specks as I get closer to what God would be, if I believed in Him.
What will my parents think if they get a middle-of-the-night phone call from the Santa Monica Police? They’ve feared the day that their little girl made the same mistakes they did, the nights they snuck out of the house to see Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin at the Fillmore East.
Casey walks along a precarious ramp and out of sight; I trail behind.
“Only three more flights!”
I want to throw up, breathing heavily. Do I have to make it all the way to the top?
A stray siren dissolves into the white noise of wind and waves. The metal handrail, sharp and cold, indents my skin, chilling down to the bone as I cling and grip.
From the rooftop of the second tallest building in Santa Monica, I gaze out at our sprawling, fog-covered burg. Los Angeles appears half-baked from this height, a lame pretense of a city. Buildings, dwarfed by the legend of New York skyscrapers, with every light extinguished and windows dark by eight o’clock. The heartbeats of neighborhoods, loosely connected by arterial freeways that run parallel, collide but rarely meet. City planners like artists who died before they could finish their masterpiece. Hard to notice when the city envelops you. But from up here, from the point of view of planes and birds, it ain’t hardly the land of milk and honey.
After his father left farming to become a dental technician, James Dean and his family moved to Santa Monica, California. The family spent several years there, and by all accounts young Dean was very close to his mother. Casey’s father came here to represent a glam rock band in the ‘70’s, got wrapped up in it all and never left. Casey’s mother left him five years after he was born. Casey was raised with the help of a few bottle blonde trophy wives drifting in and out of their Malibu beach house. Despite his countless tattoos and bad decisions, Casey is a lot like me, just better at hiding it behind his grunge-perfect hair.
I turn the corner and see Casey sitting on the balustrade, feet dangling.
“Great place to end it all,” he snickers.
He’s thought about it, weighed the pros and cons of suicide when his father had left town for more than “a night or two” and he found a stash under the kitchen sink. Casey lights another cigarette as I join him, hanging over the edge. I imagine the cold, hard splat of a body meeting pavement. Instant crush of looky-loos and bystanders with cell phones, hoping to make a killing. A crowd gathers, but I—now dead—have faded into something small and dark and inconsequential, a dot in the center of frantic and ravenous activity.
Casey beckons for Max to join us; Max shakes his head. He didn’t climb up fire escapes back in Berlin. No one understands why he and Casey are friends.
Casey waves a regal arm, as if he owns everything our eyes can see. A circle of lights winks along the deckled black edge of the Santa Monica Bay. High-end real estate brokers refer to that string of lights as the Queen’s Necklace in all their glossy brochures. I can see why now: a royal collar of yellow diamonds, embers strewn along the coastline, growing dimmer and dimmer until they extinguish in the hills of Point Dume.
“That’s where I live,” Casey announces, “In the middle of that black hole.” The three of us stare out at the dark colony of shapes on the water. “Have I shown you my tat?”
I shake my head. Casey snuffs out his cigarette with the tip of his Chuck and lifts his black Cramps t-shirt to show me the skin of his white chest. Emblazoned in multi-colored glory, wings spread from nipple to nipple; an eagle holds a dangling emerald snake in its talons.
“Etched with battery acid.”
Said by anyone else and I would have laughed out loud. Truly an honor to be climbing up their fire escape and trusted enough to keep it on the D.L. But to become one of them, I would have to undergo a few changes:
I make a mental note to come back here if I ever feel like ending it all, but for now I back away into bustle and awkwardness, a teenage girl who climbed too high and now making her way back down to earth.
Three months later, Casey and I sit at a coffee shop late into the night. Unable to meet my gaze, he confesses that at lunch, his dad mentioned his biological mother.
“He called her a bitch,” Casey mumbles as he turns the sugar packet over in his fingers. “I went into the bathroom and cried, trying and failing to reach her.” He stares blankly at the point directly above my head, then at me. “So, tell me about your shitty life.”
I tell him stories, carefully editing out the happy moments that might make him envious. I see his future spread out in front of him. Casey has cried twenty-seven times in the past year and still he is nothing but trouble. After graduating from Fairmount High School on May 16, 1949, James Dean moved back to California with his beagle to live with his father and stepmother. He enrolled in Santa Monica College and majored in law. Dean transferred to UCLA and switched his major to drama, which resulted in estrangement from his father and later dropped out after only one semester to focus on his acting career. I wonder what soft sadness and secrets James Dean was hiding under the legend immortalized forever among the mangled remains of Little Bastard at the junction of California Highways 41 and 46. He shoots me a half-smile, one that means to say, “Don’t worry; I’ll be okay,” but I’m not fooled, not even for a second.
Sariel Hana Friedman, 18, is a Pisces from Los Angeles, CA and will be a freshman at Barnard College next fall. She is a is editor-in-chief of the award-winning Dark as Day Literary Arts Journal and co-founded a feminist literary magazine called “The Riveter Review” which you should definitely read and like on Facebook. She was recently featured on a Nick News segment with Gloria Steinem entitled “The Future of Feminism.”