When I was nineteen I spent a week in Santa Barbara with a friend who lived in a two-bedroom with five housemates. People came and went all day and it took me half the week to recognize who actually lived there. The apartment—El Forte, they called it—was never empty.
No one left for the day without waving the peace sign. They welcomed my presence and I imagined staying with them longer. I imagined walking State Street, handing out sandwiches and cigarettes to the homeless. I didn’t even smoke; I’d just buy a pack and give them out two at a time, offering a light to those in need.
El Forte needed a new fridge and the landlord promised to deliver one in the morning. Ashley, Andy’s girlfriend, held an impromptu cleaning-out-the-fridge party. I ditched early after seeing the slimy black mass fly into the trashcan. That explained the sour smell that’d been lingering in the kitchen, and likely why I found a cockroach in my cereal the morning before.
Other than a rudimentary science experiment, the kitchen was also a makeshift recording studio where you had to move guitars to get to the orange juice. Posters of Radiohead, Foo Fighters, and The Mars Volta decorated the walls, thumbtacked at crooked angles. If a housemate was cooking, they were more than likely making grilled cheese. En masse. I never ate so many consecutive cheese sandwiches in my life.
There was tea most nights, and weed, and walks to the corner store they called “MJ’s” because the head clerk looked like Michael Jackson. I started a Vitamin Water habit and added to the collection of bottles—soda bottles, liquor bottles, flavored water bottles half-filled with seed shells—on every surface of the apartment.
The loveseat I slept on had a large red stain that I hoped wasn’t blood. Maybe Gatorade? Or calzone sauce? Nick, Brandon and them loved calzones. At least the stain was dry and I could cover half of it with my pillow.
Every night, the guy crashing in the living room across from me snored through ragged sinuses—a side effect of a former coke addiction. He had dark curly hair, the tight spiral kind that I wanted to reach out and touch. But not more than I wanted to run a drumstick up his nose to end his incessant snoring.
So I slept a few nights upstairs on Jackie’s couch. Jackie was from Colorado and missed seeing deer in the mountains. She was twenty, petite, and blonde. She had a fake ID and a medical marijuana card. Jackie made a killing off the guys in El Forte.
Ninja Turtles and expandable-shape pill capsules lined El Forte’s entertainment center. The pills shook all night—sponge dinosaurs anxious to emerge—above the TV that no one ever turned off.
A longboard stood by the front door next to a crate of shoes—tossed together like so many personalities living in one space. Taped to the door, a poster of two women in their underwear lay kissing. It was artistic, said Andy.
On Tuesday, Stefano—one of the Italian brothers—rode over on his bike. He’d had eighteen beers and still wasn’t drunk. As he talked, he scraped Special K on a cd case.
Andy said that I put myself in those situations for the writing material. I denied it then, but it’s true. I’m no Tom Wolfe, but I like to pretend.
El Forte was alive—everybody acting out their own movies like mad, listening to Coheed all day, Jonestown all night.
It felt artistic. And it felt real.