By MIA NAKAJI MONNIER
On an average day, it takes me 20 minutes to drive from my apartment to the office. By L.A. standards, it’s a great commute, and it’s the shortest one I’ve ever had. A few years ago, when I was working in Beverly Hills, it took me an hour, sometimes up to ninety minutes, to drive only nine miles each way. I spent that time locked between cars on Santa Monica, watching people do their shopping in the morning and dig through dumpsters at night. I came home feeling crushed, straight down like an aluminum can, by the weight of my wasted time.
I got my driver’s license late, at nineteen, and didn’t really use it until after college. When I graduated and got an internship at JANM, my dad passed his 2001 Honda Accord on to me. He asked me to drive him to Little Tokyo once, to reassure him that I could do it, and from then on, the car—almost ten years old but free of dents or scratches, with a moon roof perfect for letting in a marine breeze—was mine.
In that car, I began making a map of the city, starting with the 110 freeway, which connected my home in the South Bay to Downtown L.A., taking me past an oil refinery with an exposed orange flame, through the looming 105 interchange, and alongside the Coliseum. Since I started the internship in the summer, I usually made the drive in full daylight, until I worked my first evening event. That night, I took 3rd Street toward the 110 as usual, but at Los Angeles Street I looked up and saw the skyline there against me, as if I’d bumped, face first, into the glass wall of a 3-story aquarium full of luminescent fish. I took a phone photo that did the view no justice, my front window distorting all the lights, and drove home feeling buoyant, a mix CD from a friend coloring the night with sweet indie voices.
By the end of my first summer in L.A., I’d fallen in love, and as a result, my map stretched to include the 10 freeway, which I took to Leimert Park and then to Westwood. Driving west at the end of the work day meant the sun in my eyes, but then I’d arrive and step out of the car and breathe the wet night air, those few miles closer to the ocean making all the difference. I learned where to park, on Montana Avenue, a few blocks from campus where the “permit only” signs relaxed, and walk past single-family houses in the waning light until I reached that stucco apartment at the edge of the student neighborhood. If I was lucky, spam musubi or yaki onigiri waited for me there.
I walked everywhere in those days, just as I drove everywhere. My map stretched past the borders of what I knew, encompassing waterfalls in the Santa Monica Mountains and midnight movies and garlic sauce and bossa nova. In high school, without a driver’s license, I’d had to be driven everywhere by friends. With a poor internal compass and no responsibility to navigate, I’d let all the details of our trips wash over me. We went to the same places over and over anyway, once we’d discovered them: Coffee Cartel in the Redondo Riviera, despite its dirty couch covers, the creperie down the street, and RAT Beach, where we stuck our feet in the ocean and proudly tracked the sand back to our beds.
In my first car, I was 22 and 16 at the same time. Though I lived at home again and worked at the Del Amo mall after my internship ended, I imagined that life would extend endlessly before me, opening like morning fog. I like to remember that I once thought this, to find that exuberant version of myself who wrote stories on folded bits of paper during slow moments at the mall. In seasonless Los Angeles, that post-college summer stretched out for almost a year, tapering away first when I found a full-time job, then when I returned the Accord to my parents and started car payments of my own, then when I learned to fear writing stories on folded paper or anywhere. My drives, from home to work to campus, wore into a familiar shape, with only the occasional line breaking out like a starburst.
This weekend, I took a trip to Santa Barbara. When we reached that spot on the 101 where the freeway turns narrow and green before opening out onto rolling hills then flat fields, I remembered how many times I’d made that trip that first year. I remembered the wide-open window, our young, imperfect hair, the view of that spindly bridge out to Rincon Island. In the passenger seat, my friend unwrapped fried plantains from tin foil, and, just yards at a time, we cut through the rising fog.