Invite me to a dinner party and I’ll tell you how to judge a first date by his or her favorite doughnut. I’ll tell you about having a baby with an anonymous sperm donor, and the best and worst truths about parenting alone. I’ll tell you the tags are still in the dress I’m wearing, and I’ll tell you your amazing chocolate bark could use a sprinkle of sea salt. But ask me about the years I lived in LA—about a decade ago, in my late 20s to early 30s—and I’ll probably say nothing. I might even leave the dinner table to help do the dishes. (And I hate doing dishes.) Because while my years in California were certainly “cool,” they were not always sunny.
I moved to LA for a few reasons. The main one was I was trying to end a relationship with someone I loved desperately, but who I had no future with. (He was Greek, had to marry Greek, I am not Greek, did everything I could to become Greek, but was never going to be Greek enough.) Meanwhile, a popular women’s magazine hired me to write about all of this for one of the world’s first “dating blogs.” This was in 2006 or so. I was never comfortable with the job—a daily post about my life as a vulnerable single girl who’d just moved across the country “to find love again”—but it paid well. Really well. And I had no money.
I’d been to LA a bunch of times with my previous job as a reporter at a weekly celebrity magazine, and was lured by the prospect of a sexy, wild life that included staying at Chateau Marmont and partying with movie stars. You couldn’t pay me to go to those parties now, but I used to like a little danger.
Los Angeles held up its end of the bargain. The dating blog paid me a lot to do very little. I hiked every day, sometimes all day, trying to sort out my feelings for my Greek ex, with whom quitting was akin to a nasty narcotic addiction. I got to hang out with celebrities while they wolfed down In-n-Out burgers, watching their star meters go up and down. My neighbor was a party animal who, for an entire year, loaned me a spare BMW, for reasons I still don’t know.
The thrills were there, but they were all superficial.
On the inside, I was in extreme pain over this breakup. The blog made me feel lame and ashamed, especially after I was ridiculed for it on a popular media gossip blog. The celebrity social scene left me empty and anxious. I was partying way, way too hard. Some nights I’d drive around Laurel Canyon while crying so much that I had to pull over because I couldn’t see. I was turning 30 and already yearning to walk away from all the shallow stuff and pursue life’s deeper meaning—and motherhood. I missed my friends and family living in New York, where life felt a whole lot safer and right.
But I had that free BMW. And a lot of time. And the wherewithal to know that I wouldn’t be young and unburdened by responsibility forever. So I’d take the car, windows down, music up, to Malibu at least once a week. It was a very important ritual, comprised of lots of little rituals. I’d blast all my songs (Natalie Merchant, The National, Kanye West); take a quick excursion to Topanga Canyon; and then hit the outdoor shopping haven, Malibu Country Mart. At one of the to-go cafes there, I picked up an avocado, sprout, and Swiss cheese sandwich served on a thick, grainy, seeded bread to bring down to the beach and eat alone in euphoric bliss.
I remember this avocado/sprout/Swiss sandwich as being absolutely delicious. Maybe because it tasted like childhood—my mom was a real Moosewood cookbook, carob brownies, cauliflower soup type. Maybe because it tasted like California—the California I’d dreamed about, not the California I was living in. Maybe because it tasted healthy, and my heart felt so sick. Maybe because it tasted clean, and my world felt so dirty. In any case, this sandwich was wonderful. I’d inhale it alone, at the beach just off the Pacific Coast Highway. trying to find the faith to tell myself it would all work out.
Cut to eleven years later. I am almost 41 and living in Brooklyn, where I belong. I have a beautiful daughter, Hazel. She’s two and a half. I had her on my own, as a Single Mom by Choice, but shortly after, I met an incredible man, who is now Hazel’s father. The Greek is a ghost of my past. I don’t “party” anymore, but Champagne is still one of my favorite foods. I often travel to Los Angeles for work (I now develop TV shows instead of dating blogs), but I hadn’t been back to Malibu in almost a decade.
Which is why I thought it would be a fun experiment to revisit that avocado/ sprout/Swiss sandwich after all these years. I’d been craving it forever. And this time, I’d bring my daughter, my boyfriend and his father, Ronnie, who was in from Maine, and who I feel very close to, as we’d all be in the area for a family event. Would the green goddess sandwich still have the same impact? Would it still warm my heart? Would I still inhale it like it was my last supper, as I used to?
Well. The little shop I went to was still there, but it no longer has sprouts on the menu. Or avocado—strange, considering we’re in California. So I tried to get as close to the original as possible with guacamole and Swiss on whole wheat bread, plus lettuce, tomato and mustard. The guys ordered fried chicken. My daughter got salt ‘n pepper potato chips. We took our sandwiches not to the beach this time, but the adjacent playground. If it wasn’t beach weather, I used to sit at the exact same picnic tables that encircled this playground. I remember looking at the happy families and praying it would be me someday.
As Hazel explored the jungle gym, we dug into our lunch. Looks-wise, my sandwich left something to be desired. And for a moment, I felt embarrassed that I talked it up so much. In any case, I was hungry. I took a bite. The sandwich wasn’t bad, but it definitely wasn’t good. I started to gripe about the quality of the ingredients. (Seriously, who doesn’t have avocado in Malibu??) And then I got interrupted by my daughter. Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! I made a friend!
Here, where I’d come to escape the loneliest days of my life, Hazel made a friend. I kind of wanted to cry.
We finished our lunch. I was disappointed by my sandwich, but it was impossible to be too bummed out about it. I might not have tasted the boho Cali lunch of my dreams, but I tasted something much more magnificent. I tasted gratitude.
Sometimes food can change your life and sometimes food is just food. For me, that sandwich was both. With Hazel playing in the background, and the guys drinking lemonade and sharing laughs, I gazed up at Malibu’s breathtaking blue sky.
It all worked out.