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My controlling boyfriend was my L.A. guide. But was it enough?

When I read the news that Silver Lake’s Café Tropical had abruptly closed, memories came flooding back — memories of a time, a place and a boyfriend. I met John at a dimly lighted Los Feliz duplex, at one of those “friend of a friend” parties I found myself frequenting during my first year in Los Angeles.

He was tall and soft-spoken and had long brown hair that reminded me of Jim Morrison. His eyes wouldn’t let me go, and we were soon locked in the bathroom, with John whispering poetry to me among the candles and scarf-draped lamps.

He was a welder helping to build the Getty Center, and I was accepted into the Directors Guild of America training program, an apprenticeship that placed me on TV and film shoots for roughly two years. John wasn’t my type, although at 22, my spotty dating history didn’t exactly mean I knew my type. He kept a massive python named King in his bedroom. He told me without irony that he owned eight guns that he disassembled and hid throughout his Silver Lake bungalow. Our attraction was intense, the sex tinged with an air of danger.

John introduced me to Los Angeles. Silver Lake and Los Feliz were our playground. We started every Sunday with cafe con leche and guava pastries at Café Tropical. We caught films at the Vista and drank at the Smog Cutter, and John took me to sweaty punk shows at Spaceland. Our late nights always ended at the Ranch, an old-school Hollywood house behind the old Albertsons at Melrose Avenue and Vine Street, chock-full of John’s hard-partying buddies.

John was light-years away from my stuffy East Coast upbringing and liberal-arts college friends. I fancied us as two characters in a Beastie Boys video, especially when we dressed up and had date night at Netty’s on Silver Lake Boulevard.

That part of L.A. in the mid-1990s was its own ecosystem. “Swingers” was about to turn my neighborhood into a hipster haven, but before that, you could rent a two-bedroom on Los Feliz Boulevard for a steal. I used the Thomas Guide to learn L.A.’s sprawling streets, but John was my guide to everything else: where to eat, where to drink and how to find a community in this fragmented city.

John actually grew up in L.A. He regaled me with tales of living in a downtown loft, where he used to shoot rats in the alley from his window. One night, he took me to a rave on a deserted stretch of Jefferson Boulevard, where we danced inside a massive warehouse among twisted metal sculptures.

He also insisted I couldn’t live in Los Angeles without driving Mulholland Drive in its entirety, so we spent all day in his Bronco dodging motorcycles and tourists, savoring the views on each side.

Both my apprenticeship and my relationship with John grew more serious, creating tension in my life. Working on set was all consuming, and John wanted every moment of my free time. He brushed aside any efforts to see my friends. We always ended up with his at the Ranch. Although I appreciated getting to know both the iconic and hidden parts of L.A. with John, I chafed under his control.

Soon, we were at a breaking point. John and I fought more than we didn’t. His poetry turned into rants, and sharing a bedroom with a snake stopped being sexy. Nights at the Ranch lost their punk-rock allure, like someone suddenly turned on the lights at closing time.

John gave me grief about my schedule, implying that I was ignoring him in favor of my career. I graduated from my production training program and was offered a plum position on a film that was supposed to be “the next big thing.” Despite my outward success, I was confused, burned out and needed space to clear my head. Something had to give.

When my best friend from college called and said she was going to spend the summer union-organizing service workers in rural Ohio, I saw my opening. I turned down the film, broke up with John and hightailed it out of town. I paused my L.A. dreams for a few months, getting the time and distance I needed to get over John and recommit to my career.

When I got back in August, I set about rewriting my L.A. story — at the Dresden, at the House of Pies and in the winding trails by Griffith Observatory.

I carved out the career I wanted. I met my husband on set and have a daughter who’s discovering her own city. Once, the younger me swore I’d never live west of La Brea Avenue. Now, the older me lives in Culver City and rarely gets back to Silver Lake or Los Feliz. The area has changed, and so have I.

My memories of that time and place are bittersweet. I miss the guava pastries at Café Tropical, I miss my early 20s and I miss the endless promise of a night out in L.A.

I don’t miss John. But I have only one big regret: turning down the job on that “next big thing,” a little film called “Boogie Nights.”

The author is an assistant director/producer for television and films. She lives in Culver City and is writing her second novel. She’s on Instagram: @metaval_la

L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the L.A. area, and we want to hear your true story. We pay $400 for a published essay. Email [email protected]. You can find submission guidelines here. You can find past columns here.


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