L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
On Jekyll Island, the beaches are nearly rock-free and, at this time of year, ocean swimming feels like bathing in a warm tub during an understated earthquake; the waves roll gently but unpredictably. I spent the third week of June on Jekyll, a resort destination located on the North Atlantic, halfway between Savannah and Jackson. I was vacationing with my aunt and grandmother—the same grandmother who called Terry Southern a brooder and often says she could have married Jasper Johns if only he’d preferred women. The second night of our trip, a small storm broke out. We had seen white chairs and reception tents set up on the beach in anticipation of two weekend weddings and, as the three of us sat on our balcony watching the rain pass and drinking the heavy-handed martinis my grandmother prepared, we wondered if either bride had cried when she saw the clouds move in.
Brides and tears naturally led to the topic of heartbreak, and we took tallies. My aunt’s heart has broken three times. To date, mine has broken only once and my grandmother admits to only one break as well, though my aunt and I suspect her of fibbing (she argues that, if both parties agree that a relationship is doomed from the start, the hurt it causes doesn’t count; we find that logic dubious).
My grandmother’s single countable heartbreak involved a married captain named Brooks. He was stationed at the army base at which she worked as an activities coordinator. He practically ordered her to date him, charmed her into loving him and then sent for his family. When my grandmother found out that his wife and children were on their way, she stopped taking his calls, and so Brooks tried to seduce her friendly Methodist roommate instead. “You must never compare the other men you meet to me,” he once told her. This sounded narcissistic and patronizing to me. “But it turned out to be good advice,” my grandmother said.
On June 26th, Freewaves, L.A.’s longstanding new media organization, celebrated its 20th anniversary with a video extravaganza at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Monitors were arranged in the shape of an oval and heartbreak, or the precariousness of being breakable, recurred as a theme. Jaco Bouwer’s I Love You Jet Li, the only video I watched three times, begins with this monologue: “I’m born with a septal defect. A hole in the heart. . . . Because of the hole, I’m defective when it comes to love.”
In I Love You Jet Li, the female narrator has a melancholic lilt to her voice. As she speaks, murky, slow-moving footage of figures waiting in an airport plays out on the screen. She first discovers the extent of her heart defect in high school, when her crush on a rebel vanishes as soon as he tells her she’s beautiful. She can love, but she can’t receive love. Later, her flirtation with a college English tutor ends after a graduation day hug: “He holds me a moment longer than appropriate. That’s the end of my crush.”
As the narrator speaks of falling for a married man, a young brunette woman wearing a tie-dye t-shirt with a heart in its center rubs her right arm and stares into space. Then, as the narrator speaks of the man who split her lip open and wore Def Leopard t-shirts that she routinely ironed, a middle-aged woman in a pastel sweat-suit wanders through the airport, sometimes barefoot. At one point, this woman quietly cries.
The narrator visits a therapist who tells her she’s confusing love with fear. She falls for this therapist who then dismisses her feelings. Her final crush, however, is the least attainable. She becomes enamored with martial arts film star Jet Li, learning about his hobbies and eating habits and masturbating to his fight sequences. She plans to visit to China to see him and emails asking him to meet her at the airport. “I don’t know martial arts,” she writes, “but my love is pure and true.”
Years after my grandmother ended her romance with Brooks, she randomly encountered him on a beach in the Philippines. It was a Sunday and she was heading to mass. He accompanied her and spent the rest of day trying to rekindle their flame, an effort she deflected, though doing so was hard. She knew he would hurt her, but part of her wanted that hurt.