Washington & Lincoln at Seventeen

My best friend and I have been going back and forth about what I should do for my upcoming birthday…

Maybe I should have you come out here.

Maybe you should come back to Los Angeles.

Maybe we should do like we did ten years ago, and hire a car and just drive around town.

Maybe maybe maybe.

Nothing has come of it. Yet. In the meantime, I’ve been reading dozens and dozens of magazines as I run indoors on the treadmill or the elliptical trainer in preparation for two upcoming races. I’ve a terrible fear of a slip-and-fall accident — I have brittle bones — so in the winter I do much of my training indoors.

Which was how I came across the New Yorker article, the one with Paul Haggis, where they interview Haggis and others about leaving the Church of Scientology.

It brought me back to a time and a place I hadn’t thought about in almost half a lifetime.

My best friend and I had been asked to house sit in Marina del Rey that summer we were seventeen — we were doing a favor for family friends of hers. It was around that time, as we were driving back to the beach house from some forgettable errand, that I found a copy of Dianetics kicking around in the back of my best friend’s Mustang, and I confronted her over it — all hot-faced and accusatory. As if I had something meaningful to say about it.

What? I was curious.

She’d been taking classes at a certain playhouse; had been taking classes for years by then. She’d been one of Uncle K’s youngest students at the time. My best friend would dutifully disappear on Saturdays, her imposing British father sitting sentinel somewhere in Beverly Hills, and I’d deride the whole affair as “Scientology Sunday school.” But I never thought I’d find that book in the back seat of her car, right next to the binder from the Acting Class — the binder’s black cover with the red writing that made the whole thing look like the clamshell from the Flashdance VHS.

You were curious? I thought you said you’d never be curious.

I got Audited.

I knew enough, at seventeen, to know she wasn’t talking about the IRS. And when we pulled back up at the house, I stormed out of the car, through the high-ceilinged living room, and out to the back patio.

Air. Sweet ocean air.

Someone’s coming over in a bit. We’re going to work on a scene. For class.

I ignored her.

Did you hear me? Someone from class is coming over to work on a scene.

I slammed the back door.

(It seems curious now, because I can almost see myself out on that back patio like I am watching a film of myself out there, and the shot is both familiar and distant. And what would seem so utterly natural now — i.e., pulling out my mobile device; making observations about the circumstances; sending them out into the world — I feel like I must have done those things then because I recall the moments on the patio so clearly.

But the fact of the matter is that those things simply didn’t exist then. I had no mobile phone. There was no such thing as mobile internet; wireless broadband — at least, not for the average household consumer.

However, I so vividly recall the feel of the sun on my face; the damp saltiness of the Marina; the coolness of the terra cotta tiles. I must have been out on that patio for at least half an hour.)

My best friend’s scene partner, a woman she knew from the playhouse (a fiercely attractive, cat-eyed actress, familiar to anyone who lived through the 80s & 90s; a woman I’ll call Beth) was there when I went back inside. I gave them a withering glare and retreated to the upstairs bedrooms.

It was strangely tumultuous, it felt, to be stuck at the shore with a friend who was a stranger, suddenly. I sat, alone, in one of the upstairs bedrooms, the windows closed and the stale salt air stagnating inside. Through the half-closed shade I could see a sliver of sun on the street outside. I waited for the scene to wrap up.

It was time the time, I knew. The separating time had begun. Soon enough, I would go off to some university somewhere, and I would grow up to be a lawyer or a banker and she would be a famous actress, and so perhaps this was all just a part of our education, and I just had to get used to it.

Beth impending departure interrupted my silent moment. They were done. Beth was leaving so I said goodbye like we knew each other, because that was the way my best friend had taught me to treat people she worked with: cool detachment — goodbye, so nice to see you.

My best friend and I avoided each other for the rest of the day, until the sun sank into the Pacific.

Do you want to go for a walk.

Yes. Let’s.

And so we walked to the beach, not minding the path we took to get to the sand, kicking our shoes off at the edge of the path. The sun was already down, and we were seventeen and alone.

You’re not really…are you?

I don’t know.

We didn’t have anything else to say. She looked at me in that curious, tired way that seemed to say, We all have to find a way to figure out who we are, Mere. And maybe this is the way for me. I didn’t know what the look meant until I was much older, because she was such a good actress, and doubt never passed the front of her face.

But before my seventeen year old self could finish getting a read on her, she stripped off her top and ran down to the water’s edge. I had no choice but to follow her. When we hit the Pacific, we realized our mistake — the waves were walls of icewater. So we ran back for dry ground, soaked and laughing, only to realize our shoes were gone.

Where are our shoes?!

I don’t know. How do we get back?!

We were wet and shoeless. Lost. It was dark. We were stuck on the beach in Marina del Rey.

And laughing hysterically, we found our way off the sand, and out on to the street; by good luck and my good sense of direction, we found our way to the intersection of Washington & Lincoln Boulevards, from which I navigated us back to the beach house. We were found.

That was the first of several, life-changing moments during those weeks when we found ourselves lost, and when, together, we girls were found.

My best friend never went through with becoming a full-fledged Scientologist.

More than a decade later, in late 2008, my best friend called me, as my life was in shambles around me and my marriage was crumbling, and she breathlessly gave me the news that Uncle K had died. As if I had been with her through the Acting Class years, and K’s death meant more to me than it actually had — though in a strange way, it did.

So.

There I was, nearly twice as old as I’d been when my life had anything to do with Dianetics, reading the New Yorker story, and I nearly fell off my treadmill.

My mother sometimes tries to tell me what a normal childhood I had; sometimes tries to convince me that everything was ordinary and usual. I wonder what teenage Meredith she knew; what life my mother was living while I dove into the icy Pacific; when I wandered Marina del Rey barefoot; braved the Scientologists; while I was waiting for the scenes to conclude.

And then, as I watch my friends become parents, and I see their children start to grow, I realize that we all filter our information. We cut our worlds down to size so we can process the people we are, and the people we intend to become — as parents, as children, as bankers, and lawyers; as actresses and believers.

The water was cold. The streets, at night, were still warm. We were once lost, and now, still, we are found.

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