(The City of) What If

by Laila Frank

 

The place was deserted except for one man, carrying the unmistakable air of a long-life surfer. With a cigar between his lips he had sat his slender and tall body on a rock, patiently staring at the ocean. “Waiting for the waves?” I asked. “It might be a while”, he said. “Care to join?” We sat and waited. Richard, as it turned out, was not a man for chitchat. After about ten minutes he broke our silence: “I surf because the water is the only place I feel free. There is only the moment itself, the waves and the motion. There, I am present. In that moment, everything is perfect.”It turned out life had not been quite perfect. His ex-wife recently drank herself to death. Two years earlier they had divorced, leaving him with a large debt. She left him for his best friend. What if things had gone differently? he asked of no one in particular. The ocean responded to his reminiscing with a set of waves and we went in. We surfed in silence until sunset, grateful we had the waves to ourselves. Hungry and satisfied we decided to share our Christmas dinner at a funky little fish place a bit further up the coastal highway.

Richard was a gifted musician. “I wasted a lot of it on booze, though”, he said. Casually, the way only Americans can morph a celebrity into a conversation, he mentioned his favorite artist to play with was JJ Cale. A surfer late in life, I learned: they went into the water frequently. On one of their last sessions before his death, Cale made a remark that still haunts Richard: if you want to make it in this business you can’t hold back. You have to give all of yourself to it. “What if I had spent all that time on my music instead of drinking? What if I had spent all that time in the water on my music?” Richard asked of no one in particular. The waitress brought the check and we parted.

His ‘what if’ resonated on the drive home that night, passing endless strips of billboards with the promise of success and a life of fame and fortune. Los Angeles is filled with what ifs: American Dreams as business models captured and romanticized in many stories of Hollywood. What if tomorrow is my big breakthrough? What if I get the gig, the house, the girl, the investment, the part? One the one hand it’s this wonderful, contagious, palpable energy the City of Angels drives on. Whenever I need courage or the feeling that anything is possible, it’s always there providing inspiration on demand.

Most dreams don’t come true, though. ‘Part of the journey’, they say out here. You dust yourself off and try again. It’s part of the narrative. Richard moved me because he refused to march to that drum. He voiced the sound of broken dreams. He was a man who had given up on them and was not afraid to show it. He was a breath of fresh air in a choking mantra of success. I knew I did not have to feel sorry for him in any way. He would be fine. Richard had found his place in LA free of ‘what if’s’, the only place he was truly free. Richard had the ocean.

 

Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.