Stray by Stephanie Danler Read Online (FREE)
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Laurel Canyon, California
The list of things I thought I knew but did not know grew quickly during my first weeks back in Los Angeles. A hummingbird dropped dead: its wings stopped pounding, gravity took over, its body jumped when it hit the wooden deck. I didn’t know that the water in my bird feeder was moldy.
An omen? asks Eli, who is sunning himself in my yard, his tan a mark of leisure, unemployment, and depression. It’s 2015 and he’s living in San Francisco, his “start-up” circling the drain, his bank accounts depleted by a summer in Mykonos, Spain, Tel Aviv. But here he is, hopping commuter flights to Los Angeles based on his whims or mine, coming home at eight a.m. from an after-after-hours party (I thought you were at breakfast, I would say, already at my desk, and he’d laugh in my face before passing out in my bed fully clothed, cigarette smoke wafting up). He slept off entire days, weeks, months of his life. Oh to be Eli, was what we said behind his back. It seemed that no triviality of responsibility, debt, or consequence could ever latch on to him.
Is it possible it’s a good omen? I ask.
No, says Eli.
I stare at the bird and wonder why it chose me to witness its death. I’ve always been ashamed of the Southern California mysticism I’ve kept. But there it is, the belief in a divine pattern just outside my field of vision. It’s given me this seeking frame of mind that never resolves or rests but wants to move me closer to a fundamental truth. Mystics, I find, ask why before who what where when how, a tendency that leaves them bereft of practical knowledge. And this is Los Angeles, a town full of oracles, con men, real estate speculators, all high on self-delusion, self-gratification, marijuana, and a shitload of quartz.
I had just come outside from writing about my father. The writing made me physically tender: flu symptoms would flourish, and I’d sit in the sun until they passed. I moved here in the middle of fire season. A knuckle-cracking wind flies through Laurel Canyon, where I’ve found a cottage to rent while I wait for my next life to start. Every snap of static is a potential spark.
A few nights earlier I had entertained at the house, built as a hunting cottage back in the 1920s, when the Santa Monica Mountains were filled with populations of mountain lions, deer, and boar, which by the 1920s were well on their way to being killed off, in no small part due to cottages like this one. There were stone stairs carved into the hillside outside my bedroom that led to an old trail. The trail now led to the mansion above me on the hill, whose pool was resting on stilts that touched down near my house. I heard their pool parties. Once a flamingo float was thrown overboard and landed in my yard.