I was staying at Jean’s apartment in LA for two months to escape an especially dire Oregon winter and to test how much weight our relationship could bear. We had been conducting a long-distance romance for nearly a year then, back-and-forth visits and weekend excursions, spending all our money on the effort. All-the-time texting, everyday emailing. If we performed all the steps in our elaborate ritual, in exactly the right order, it was possible to conjure the other; to feel, rather than eight hundred miles apart, as though we were separated by a wall, a closed door. Jean happened to be better suited to this than I was. She possessed first-rate powers of object permanence; she was uncommonly kind and endlessly receptive to inspirations of beauty too minute and too remote for me to access. She worked in those days as a freelance copywriter and social media strategist for hip start-ups. Even these tasks she approached with unlimited, inexplicable enthusiasm.

Jeanie lived with an Australian woman named Indigo. I was never certain how Indigo survived in the world, especially in the high-rent landscape of LA. She ran sex and wellness workshops and associated with artist types. At the start of my California sojourn, Indigo invited us to her butt-plug party, which I was willing to attend as a sort of goof, but even Jeanie, as receptive to life as she was, had to blink at first. Indigo offered that it was basically a normal party, totally nonsexual, except that everyone would be wearing a butt plug like a happy little secret beneath their shorts. I told Indigo a butt plug was probably an improvement over the stick I usually kept up my ass at dinner parties, and she laughed like an angel, though I worried she didn’t care for me too much. I’m a rat. I thought she could smell it, my reluctance of spirit, my disdain for joys I didn’t understand.

Indigo drove a white panel van she called Dirtnap. The name was taken from some graffiti the van picked up while parked on a chain-link overpass above US 101. Someone was inspired to write Dirtnap on the passenger-side door. Before that the van had been called Esmeralda, but one glance at the sinister-looking beater and there was no denying Dirtnap was the more suitable name. Every year or two Indigo took Dirtnap to the Home Depot parking lot to find a DIY contractor to remove the graffiti so that the police would stop pulling her over for every little infraction. When pristine and white, Dirtnap might stay that way for months at a time, until someone spotted the empty canvas and christened it again with another first tag. Then the domino effect—one tag the first day, two more the second, three more the third, and soon the van took on the visage of a graffitied boxcar. Indigo loaned Dirtnap to Jeanie and me on a few occasions. We drove to some hot springs out past Ojai and painted ourselves with black mud that smelled like eggs. We trekked out to Anza-Borrego for a wildflower super bloom in the slot canyons. Each trip saw a generous amount of sex in Dirtnap, for which Indigo expected no shame or contrition, nothing at all. She asked only that we refill the tank and wash the sheets of the bed in back.

Partway through this California sojourn of mine, Indigo was required back in Melbourne unexpectedly—her grandfather was on the way out after a fall in his garage. Indigo asked if Jeanie could move her van for street cleaning, and Jeanie promised we’d take care of Dirtnap as though it were our own.

In those days I worked as a content strategist for a failing mental health and substance abuse nonprofit. I worked remotely, and without any baked-in reasons to leave my home, I seldom did. I worried this was doing irreparable damage to me, which would make itself apparent only after the transformation was complete. It was an irony not lost on my friends that I should be writing self-care content, primarily for teens, when I maintained a lifestyle of such mis-care. I drafted business briefs, executive statements, and interviews. I wrote PSA scripts for celebrity influencers no one had ever heard of. But mostly I wrote list-style clickbait. “10 Ways to Beat sad” or “5 Ways You Can Help Prevent Bullying,” “4 Ways to Make It through the Holidays after a Recent Loss,” and so on. This was the other reason I went to LA. There was a mental health policy conference upcoming in Pasadena. I was going to attend with our video guy to capture some interviews and other content for our website.

Homepage illustration: Geekdidi CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons