LAX—

May 1, 2022   •   By Emily Ratajkowski

This essay is a preview of The LARB Quarterly, no. 33: “What Is L.A.?” Available now at the LARB shop.

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THE FIRST TIME I fell asleep at the wheel, I was 19 and a few miles south of where the 101 drops out of Downtown into the 5. I was in typical Los Angeles afternoon stop-and-go traffic, which always starts around 3:00, sometimes even on the weekends. I caught my head falling against my neck and told myself, out loud, to wake up. I turned the radio louder, kept driving, and, despite the warm Californian day, left the heat turned up. The car was my sanctuary; it was a place to relax, my own private world. My backseat was filled with heeled boots and crumpled jeans. Stained coffee cups were piled up in the median, and a gold medallion hung from the rearview. The environment was mine. I chose the conditions, and I liked it to be hot. My body melted into the driver’s seat like a warm bath.

When I came to once again, I was being propelled toward two bright tail lights too fast. I instinctively slammed my foot as hard as I could on the brake, but it was too late. The front of my car crumpled easily against the vehicle in front of me. I was spending a lot of time on the road then, commuting to L.A. for work multiple times a week from a small town in North County, San Diego. If I left at 4:30 in the morning, I could do the trip in an hour and a half, but it usually took me closer to four. This is when I’d fall asleep: sitting in gridlock traffic, cozy from the heat and lulled into a dream-space by the monotony of the drive and the West Coast sun. I had two more accidents during this year of commuting. Luckily no one was ever hurt.

This is a moment in my life that I like to gloss over: an in-between time at the beginning of adulthood when I felt simultaneously stuck and untethered, unsure of where I belonged or who I wanted to be. I dropped out of college to work full-time as a model, but I didn’t know where to live in Los Angeles. The city, despite the time I spent there, felt like a stranger to me.

One afternoon while still enrolled in school, I decided to take Sunset Boulevard all the way from my dorm room on the edge of the 405 over to the East Side, and then south to Downtown. At traffic lights, I studied the billboards and the endless strip malls filled with smoke shops and neon signs, feeling a loneliness I have only ever known in California. Driving allows you to be in the world while also keeping you entirely separate from it.

You interact with nothing and no one, save the occasional eye contact through windows at a traffic light, or, of course, the encounter that comes with an accident. I did not dare pull over to get out and explore by foot. It seemed inappropriate and absurd to imagine my disproportionately small figure walking along the massive boulevard. I was determined to understand the city, to find a place for myself in it, but when I returned to campus, I was as confused as ever. L.A. seemed impenetrable.

So, instead of trying to find an apartment in Hollywood or wherever else, I returned to my hometown, defeated. I told people I just didn’t like L.A., but the truth was that I felt rejected by her. I moved into a small studio apartment five exits north of my childhood home with my boyfriend. He was a couple years older than me, but I’d known him through the group of guys I’d hung out with in high school. He had a job as a line cook at the bar and grill on the 101, just down a small hill and across the train tracks from our place. He would walk or skateboard to the kitchen in the afternoons and if I managed to get back early enough in the evening, I would pick him up. He always smelled of pizza dough and dish soap.

Eventually, after more time than I’d like to admit, I moved to Los Angeles. But I continued to come and go, traveling nearly every week and moving to the East Coast twice, keeping an apartment in Los Angeles with a roommate and later moving into a house there. I never was able to permeate the city. I could also never let it go.

Arriving at LAX now, a 30-year-old woman with my infant son in tow, overdressed from the winter I’ve left behind in New York, where I plan to raise my child, I step out onto the curb. I peel off my layers and take the socks off of my son’s feet. It is bright, of course. The sky is blue as hell — I squint to glance up at it. It feels like noon but it could be earlier or later. It could be any season. Any year.

For a moment, I feel a wave of confusion pass over me, as if I’ve woken suddenly. I have a split second of trying to locate myself. How old am I? Where am I in this life? Los Angeles is a place that makes it difficult to measure time: the never-ending continuance of the freeways and their exits. And, of course, the weather — always the same — mostly sunny and 70 degrees. There are no real conditions to help measure a year.

There is something disorienting about the relentless consistency of Los Angeles that makes me feel initially lethargic and then panicked, just like the moment before my collision, as if I could suddenly find myself in the future or the past. I might be an old woman at the end of my life, or perhaps more frighteningly, 19 again — irresponsible and reckless and lost, searching for a way to ground myself, unaware that time will not always feel so abundant. People say Los Angeles offers a comfortable life, but it’s that ease that scares me the most. The radio is playing, the heat is turned up. I am still afraid of falling asleep at the wheel.

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Emily Ratajkowski is a model, actress, activist, entrepreneur, and writer. Her first book is My Body.