A hot, gauzy morning in the late summer of 1987. That was the first time I ever laid eyes on the streets of Los Angeles. I was thirteen years old but looked ten at best—an agonizingly shy Texas boy with eyes like water, hair like the sun, and a tanker truck’s worth of secrets. I was jammed in the backseat of my mom’s massive yellow Malibu Classic between my little brother, Todd, and our stinking cat, Airborne. My mom said we were “on the move.” Others would have called it “on the run.”
Days earlier, my family had packed up what little we had of value and vanished without notice from our lives in the Lone Star State—leaving behind my middle school in San Antonio and our Mormon church in the Randolph Ward, heading west. My mom was behind the wheel, her hairspray-stiffened curls resting on worried shoulders as she worked the hand controls to speed up and slow down her beast of a car: a colossal artifact from a former life that now had to be wrested into submission by a woman who walked on crutches, her legs in braces, her spine fused and held together with metal bars hidden just beneath the scars that ran the length of her body.
My big brother, Marcus, sat up front beside her. His hair was just as long as hers but kissing a black leather punk-rock jacket covered in pins and buttons that shouted obscenities my mom had miraculously (if not willfully) grown blind to. He had a map spread out on his lap. We were lost. We were scared. But in good Southern, Mormon fashion, we kept our terrors to ourselves.
Here’s the thing: we’d been taught our entire lives that places like Los Angeles were filled with folks who’d traded their souls and salvation for fame, booze, drugs, cash, cars, hetero sex, group sex, and dirty, filthy faggot sex. Los Angeles was the embodiment of an unfamiliar, exotic America that we’d been warned to avoid: liberal, often coastal, a place for sinners and moral relativists. For our ragtag family on the run, passage through this city was a test of spiritual strength. So we plugged our noses in back, Marcus did his best to navigate up front, and my tiny runaway mom rotated the hand control that turned the gear that pressed down on the gas pedal that she hoped might propel us to safety.
Two hours later, Marcus and my mom finally spotted the entrance to the 5 Freeway heading north. The terrain grew steeper as we headed into the hills and over the Grapevine, a stretch of highway out of L.A., where the snarl of traffic gave way to golden grasses, a reservoir lake, ranches, and a meadow filled with wildflowers. These were more familiar sights. This felt more like home. My mom looked up into her rearview mirror, found my eyes, and with all of her mighty love and warmth, sent me a strong, silent message: You’re safe now, my Lancer.
I took a breath or two, pulled out a pen and a spiral notebook, and wrote a letter to a girl back in San Antonio. She and I had recently participated in a one-act drama competition. She’d played Eve. I’d played Adam. Her mom was our drama teacher. I described Los Angeles as the “second gayest city in the world.” It wasn’t a compliment. I was already fairly certain that San Francisco was in first position thanks to AIDS hitting the national news when Old Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson fell out of his closet and into his grave. Since then, even the news shows in Texas had started offering up images of emaciated gay men, most in San Francisco, but others in New York and Los Angeles, dying terrible deaths thanks to their “lifestyle choices.” So yes, it seemed that San Francisco was the closest to hellfire, but I was fairly certain Los Angeles wasn’t far behind. I suppose I felt it necessary to let someone in Texas know I’d survived our journey through this foreign land.
But as we reached the top of a mountain, something in my God-fearing heart stirred, and I looked back toward the city. It was calling to me. If I’m being honest, it had started calling well before we set out on this adventure. If Los Angeles was dangerous, I was curious. How true were the stories I’d heard? Did the people there really do so many strange things to their bodies, their minds, and one another? Did they really make all of those movies and TV shows I’d fallen in love with on the rare occasions we were allowed to watch them? And the most dangerous question of all: Did the nation’s current teen heartthrob, Ricky Schroder, with his golden hair and ocean-blue eyes, actually live somewhere down in all that chaos?
That question, and all of its invasive roots and sticky webs, lingered longest in my mind as I watched the city glimmer and shine in the morning sun until it slowly disappeared behind a veil of blue-white smog.
Thirty years have passed since that drive, and for more than two and a half decades of that time I’ve called this City of Angels my home, with all of its sunshine, celebrities, workers, artists, headaches, egos, booze, dreams, lies, cigarette butts, body parts, hot tubs, invitations, hangovers, trophies, and yes, reliably progressive values. And like most Angelenos, I’ve spent much of that time in my car getting from place to place, tucked inside my bubble. Isolated. And in a hurry.
So whenever I heard a siren, I did what most Angelenos do: look forward, left, right, check my rearview mirror, and keep on driving. As an Angeleno, the last thing you want to do is tap the brake. The clock is ticking. We have places to be, coffees to order, deals to make, and great things to accomplish by lunchtime.
But something happened a few years back to strip me of that habit. I was driving home down Hollywood Boulevard when my mom called. I hit the icon on my dash to answer. She sounded gloomy and called herself a “dinosaur” twice. I’d rarely heard her in such a state. I was worried. So I added a three-day layover via Dulles Airport in Virginia to my next love-fueled flight to London to see the Brit I was fast falling head over heels for. It was a little surprise visit to lift my mom’s spirits, and a big birthday present to myself.
My mom now lived in Manassas Park, in a house built right on top of the bloodied Civil War battlefields of Bull Run, where more than twenty-four thousand soldiers gave their lives in the debate over whether all men are created equally—a scar on our nation, reminding us of how divided we once were, and in many ways still are.
My mom cried with joy and relief when I walked into her bedroom. I spent all three days with her there. We blew out candles. We ate cake. We ordered in from a local restaurant and enjoyed our dinners on her bedroom floor. Then I opened the presents she’d ordered off her laptop from her perennial perch atop her bed.
She wasn’t feeling well, but that was nothing new. For a variety of reasons, big and small, she’d long been forced to use her not inconsiderable strength to fight off this illness or that. We’d done this ailment dance many times. We simply took advantage of her sleepless nights to share stories, watch NCIS,
check out the Home Shopping Network’s jewelry specials and buy a few pairs of earrings she couldn’t afford on a military retirement check, sneak far too many Oreo cookies, and witness a sunrise. Her spirits were lifted by the company. So were mine.
Just before I left, my stepdad arrived home from work to take her to the doctor for a checkup, and get her some antibiotics for what she felt sure was a bladder infection. Love hungry and London bound, I ordered a cab to the airport.
It was a markedly quiet ride. I don’t remember music ever even being turned on. But then my cell phone rang. The caller ID said “Mom.” Nothing unusual. This was her regular call to say she missed me already, and I would say the same, because it was true. Instead, when I said hello, my stepdad’s trembling voice rang in my ears: “Your mother collapsed. In the garage. Her heart stopped. The medics got here. They did CPR and revived her, but she isn’t conscious. It’s bad, Lance. It’s really bad.”
I couldn’t process it. This was the same brave mom who had successfully slayed the City of Angels years earlier with three little boys and no use of her legs. It was impossible to imagine her having to be revived by anyone. My mom was the one who kept everyone else safe and strong. Her tough, stubborn heart didn’t need a stranger’s help to keep going.
Choking out the words, I told the cabdriver what I’d just heard, and bless his heart, he plowed right over the grassy center median and turned back the way we’d come. Soon we heard the siren. Then we saw an ambulance take a left turn off of my mom’s road, racing away from us toward the local Manassas hospital. That’s when I noticed that, like they did in Los Angeles, the drivers in this small, polite, Southern town mostly didn’t bother to pull over for ambulances either. Maybe a brief pause to let it pass, then a chase to make up their lost time in its wake. As we raced to catch up, I grew more and more distressed by this surprising similarity. My mom, my best friend, my rock was inside of that ambulance fighting for her life, and even here in her treasured South, no one seemed to give a damn. Our terror was their inconvenience.
Just like my mom, when things get bad, I get quiet. The worse they get, the more silent I become. The cabdriver looked back. I hadn’t taken more than half a breath since I told him to turn around. I must have looked like a ghost. And with far too much peace in his voice for my comfort, he said, “What is meant to be now, will be.”
I started to shake. Until then, I hadn’t considered that she might die. Everything I’d ever built was thanks to that stubborn heart of hers, and there it was, racing away from me in the back of an ambulance. Suddenly, I didn’t know if I’d ever again feel the warmth of her hand, know the might of her will, or stand atop the foundation she’d built for our family with the strength of her steel-clad spine.
My mom had grown up in the South. Louisiana and Georgia. She had been deeply religious. Baptist, then Mormon. She had worked for the U.S. military. She had voted for Ronald Reagan and Bush Senior. I now had spent decades living in that wicked city she’d refused to let us set foot in when I was thirteen. I had gone into the arts. Heck, I’d outright fought for progressive causes like marriage equality. To outsiders, in this day and age, my mom and I should have been enemies. Our house should have been divided—North versus South, red versus blue, conservative versus progressive, coasts versus mountain or plains, or however you choose to name such tribes. Instead, my mom and I fueled each other. Her oil lit my lamp, and eventually mine lit hers. The tools I learned to wield growing up in her conservative, Christian, Southern, military home were the same ones I’d used to wage battles that had taken me from a broken-down welfare apartment where gunfire sang me to sleep to the biggest stages in the world, and to the front row of the United States Supreme Court to fight for LGBTQ equality.
Although my mom and I had often disagreed politically and personally, she’d led our family by example, instilling in us a can-do attitude that often defied reason—an optimism many would call foolish, ignorant, and naïve, but an optimism that occasionally shocked our neighbors and our world with its brazen veracity. She was my reason.
It’s not something I’ve shared until now, and I know it may sound silly to some, but I had often hoped our relationship was like a pebble thrown into a pond, breaking the surface and sending ripples to the water’s edge. If my mom and I could set foot on the bridges between us, then perhaps our neighbors and those closest to us could too. Perhaps our diverging Americas wouldn’t be doomed to destroy each other the way our news shows and politicians would have us believe. And perhaps more could find a higher plane than politics.
So I let the cabdriver know that I’d pay for any ticket he got, but that if he didn’t push his pedal to the floor, he was asking for a big old can of whoop-ass from yours truly. He didn’t need much convincing. My red eyes had already made the stakes abundantly clear. My mom had to live. Because deep in my gut, I feared a storm was coming. Beyond the headlines of the day, I could just make out the sparks of division catching fire in the disparate places we called home, and I knew that my mom and I had much more to discover and build if we were going to help our neighbors and family weather the terrible schisms this storm would bring.
So I held my zen-like cabdriver’s gaze until he looked back out toward the ambulance that was now racing away from us, and he hit the gas.
Copyright © 2019 by Dustin Lance Black. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.