Sometimes I think about the video that Elena, my old friend from Art Center, made about me—I should say for me—during those long months I slept on her couch, recovering from myself. Maybe I’ll watch it with my husband someday late at night. We could make popcorn after the kids fall asleep. According to Elena, plenty of universities carry the video since she’s something of a star in certain circles, and I’m sure I could find it somewhere on the Internet if I really wanted to. But I doubt I ever will. My husband doesn’t know who I used to be. He doesn’t need to know.
I’d been traveling for six years—maybe even seven—when I came back to L.A. where Elena was living in a loft on Skid Row across the street from a flophouse everybody called The Zoo. This was the late ‘80s, and a lot of the art folks were making videos, including Elena. She was doing this project she called conversions where she’d follow people, usually strangers, with her camera while they went about their days. She’d do this for about a week then edit the footage, sometimes adding her own commentary, sometimes distorting the sound or adding homemade recordings. I remember Elena saying something that I’d found very trite, even stupid, at the time—I no longer do—something like, I’m making every person beautiful through these videos, I’m literally making them beautiful. Artists often sound like morons when they’re talking about their work. But, of course, I didn’t say anything at the time—I was a mess with nowhere to go; Elena was doing me a favor, a massive favor by giving me a place to crash. She saved me.
After I’d been staying with her a few weeks, Elena asked if she could make a video about me, a new conversion, and I told her sure, she could follow me if she wanted, but it probably wasn’t going to be very interesting since I didn’t have a job or any money or any friends in L.A. other than her. I rarely left the couch. There’s no pressure, Elena said, but I think it’ll be good for you, Sophie. I don’t know if she intended it to happen quite so dramatically, but being filmed for a week was—to use a word I usually avoid—cathartic. I don’t remember much of what I did for the first few days. Though I do recall walking to Griffith Park and pulling at the grass while I fed the ducks white rice I’d been hoarding in my pockets. I remember two teenage girls jumping rope and singing: the way I dance the way I’m sick the way I kiss your boy when you’re not there—I haven’t heard those lyrics since. I also remember, dimly, picking up a pebble and swallowing it. But I might be making that up. Until day five of Elena filming, I didn’t say a word. I know that.
You get comfortable being ashamed when no one’s looking at you—and I’d made sure no one was looking at me for quite a while. At least not looking at me for very long. But when all of a sudden somebody’s watching you, really watching, focusing on you, recording everything you do—suddenly, the worry starts to throb again. Or maybe it’s just that you suddenly become aware of how scared you are, how scared I was then. It was sometime in the early afternoon—around the time I was waking up back then—of day five that I couldn’t take it anymore: the camera always there. I started talking to it—the camera, not Elena; by that point, Elena was gone—first telling it to fuck off, to let me disappear, to please please go away, but then telling it things about myself. At first, seemingly random, not particularly revealing things: the real color of my hair (black), my favorite elementary school teacher (Mrs. Wise), my first kiss (Raúl under the bleachers in the seventh grade). But then my confessions—I remember many of them vividly; memory is funny that way—became more and more personal. How I’d stolen firewood as a child—I was eight and living with my Aunt Liz—from the back of our neighbor’s truck, how I’d lit the uneven pieces deep in the woods that night—it was winter in the Lower Sierras—and took off all my clothes except for my socks— then burned them up; I just sat there, hot and cold, barely touching my legs with the tips of my fingers. I told the camera how I used to hate it when my old boyfriend Anthony would always say punk rock is killing all my friends, because all his friends, who were also all of my friends, were always dying and it was their own fault. How it was always my fault too. How my mother used to say some people deserve to suffer, when she was talking about me. How I liked to close my eyes—I closed them then—and have someone wave a flashlight in front of them—Elena had waved a flashlight. How the raindrops used to shine in the beam of the flashlight I’d had—one of those big black ones cops often carry—when I lived in a Swiss valley near the Italian border. How I’d lived there, in a stonecutter’s cottage, with a guy called Derek. How we grew pot. How I’d pick the crickets off the green buds before we’d take it to Milan and sell it to a dealer who called himself Super Mario and then rent a room in a nice hotel called La Luxuria—an appropriate name—and watch TV for days, spending the money we made. How I liked watching sitcoms where the family was a family: a mom, a dad, some kids: a real family. How it always made me happy to see people living in a house together. How I’d ask Derek, Can we have a family like that? and he’d say, no sé—he was from Barcelona; Derek wasn’t his real name; I don’t even know why he called himself Derek; I never asked; he’d had some computer job but got tired of it, got tired of everything like so many Europeans who are born tired; Americans are lucky; we don’t know history, so it takes us longer to grow bored. How Derek and I met on an island in Portugal, one of those clothes-optional places, those pleasure places where the pleasures are small. How you meet too many people to remember. How dead leaves make the best pillows. How the sun looks blue from the metro stairs in Paris. How a void is a place where you wish you had wings. How I’ll always remember a little girl—shoeless, a dirty face—who grabbed the sugar cube that came with my coffee at a Bucharest café and smiled before she ran. How I kept having the same dream where I was flying through a sky thick with rain, a sky I couldn’t see through until suddenly a rainbow appeared—corny, I know—and my elbow bumped up against all those colors and turned orange, a brilliant orange, the orange of Cézanne’s apples or Derain’s floating ships. How I touched down in a meadow of sunflowers and walked back to my Swiss cottage and filled a large coffee mug with water and then soaked my elbow in the hope that it would remain bright. How, for some reason, in this dream, it was paramount that I keep this brilliant orange alive or else something very bad would happen, like the sea would swallow the continents or a baby would be thrown into a well, something dreadful. How I was still having this dream in L.A.
I remember the wind was blowing hard outside Elena’s apartment window and that, after relaying this blast of information to the camera, it suddenly occurred to me that I wanted very badly to dye my elbow orange. I asked Elena for a little money, which, of course, she gave me—who is more generous than Elena?—and off we went, Elena following close behind me with her camera. I remember a group of bums was huddled around a kid dancing on the sidewalk, this shirtless kid doing handstands on big pieces of cardboard then spinning on his head. Everyone was clapping. A soft rain was falling. You could hear the cars skidding past on a freeway overpass a few blocks away. You couldn’t see the sun, but up above the dancing kid there was a patch of clouds that looked a little whiter, like a cataract hiding an eye.
I watched that patch of clouds, and I knew that the long days of filming had made me focus long enough to dig up every buried thing, so that I could let it all go. The sky’s blind today, I remember one of the bums saying. I still don’t want my husband to see the video. It’s not that I’m afraid that he would love me any less if he saw that woman, that skinny woman with rice in her pockets. It’s that I don’t need to see that me again, that me that I’m not anymore. Which is probably why Elena and I rarely speak these days. I gave her all my words.
When I walked into the supermarket that day, I thought first about getting paint, then I thought maybe magic markers would be cheaper, but right there at the front of the store—it was springtime—there was a big Easter egg display. I bought several packets of the most inexpensive dye. When we got back to Elena’s apartment, I mixed an orange packet into a big mug—I think it was shaped like a whale—just like I’d dreamed. When I dipped my elbow into the mixture and saw it turn that carrot color, I felt better. I’ve felt better ever since.