Untouched Currents

Untouched Currents

Some say it has been like a war.

Casualties mounting in hospital parking lots. Families never having the chance to say goodbye.

In the quiet, shellshocked aftertimes of the summer of 2021, I move to Los Angeles.

A hush has settled over the city. It’s supposed to be frantic. Instead, it is wary. Weary. Waiting. The problems have shifted. Everyone wants to talk to me about President Reagan.

“I didn’t know him,” I say.

I have lived in Melbourne, in Sydney and Switzerland, on the wet and windy west coast of Ireland, my hometown of Perth. I have walked the streets of St. Kilda, hugged the tree outside the house my parents were renting when my spark of life began.

I have traced my ancestors to the northernmost corner of a land that was stolen, stood on the hill where a warrior queen lay buried with her sword. Seen the shape of my face reflected in strangers in Copenhagen, traveled Switzerland on a motorcycle, paraglided over the Alps, and pieced together a home with furniture made of wood dragged from a forest on the side of a mountain. I have walked knee-deep in snow, run across the desert, climbed a tor in bare feet, and lay down in the dirt. But I have not yet found a home.

I come to California because, tangled in my long and salty hair, I, too, have stories and songs and dreams.

I settle into a room in someone else’s apartment. Everything is different. The light switches, electrical sockets, oven, stove. I have only ever seen a garbage disposal in trashy American movies where an unfortunate character gets horribly, irreversibly trapped. I dream that my housemate's thin blue tie gets pulled into the monstrous contraption in the sink, and she gets sucked all the way down, never to be seen again. I wake up whimpering.

I’m doing the right thing, aren’t I?

This is not an immigrant-friendly country. It’s not the people, it’s the system. The people welcome me with invitations, gifted furniture and tamales. The system is suspicious.

The system holds my computer and luggage for weeks. Clothes, high-heeled boots, the quilt my mother handmade for my last birthday, intricately hiding tiny white hearts in the stitching for me to discover later. The flute I’ve had since I was thirteen years old that has played in orchestras, travelled through Europe, echoed in the forests and caves of Australia, borne my frustrations and delight. Eyeliner, swimsuits, and Indian coloring-in books. All subject to investigation and taxes in America.

I cannot work without my computer. I open the last draft of my screenplay on my phone but I am not ready to revisit the trauma.

I wait patiently for the Social Security Number that will afford me the basic essentials so many take for granted. I can’t shop online. Open a bank account. I can’t use the wash app in my building. It sits teasingly in the U.S. Google Play Store, which I can't connect to without a bank account, which I can't open without an SSN—

"I just want to do my laundry, man. What about quarters?"

There’s a coin shortage.

The heat bears down. I am lucky. There is a pool in my complex. I slip into the cool, calm water in the afternoons, drink iced coffee in the early morning shallows, glide under palm trees and LAPD helicopters and let my tears blend with the depths.

The work I was offered falls apart. An unkept promise whose purpose was to get me on the plane.

I buy a sweet little car from a man who builds fighter jets. A friend drives me to meet him in the Antelope Valley, across planes that glow orange in the sunset. We sing loudly out the car window. I laugh for the first time in weeks. I name my car Silver Foxy and drive her home in the dark, listening to Mexican radio, trying to remember how to drive on the right side of the road. It’s the turns. Long left, short right.

The roads in The Valley warp like a corrugated iron fence in the Australian outback, and I miss the smell of Eucalyptus coming off the karri trees. The roads in Beverly Hills are smooth. They lead to tall, wrought-iron fences. Hedge funds and possibilities. A friend films an avenue of palm trees through Silver Foxy’s sun roof, and we don’t care that we are lost because we are talking about writing.

"You should be repped by now." Four people tell me this.

"A mediocre white male would have queried after winning just one of these." Two women tell me this.

They may be right. I consider writing a piece on fear. It's a distraction.

In my Valley apartment, the window slumps to the right. I push an iron bar against the top of the frame to shut out the sound of sirens and helicopters and the man downstairs throwing his wife against the wall. One night, the pane comes loose. It slices my finger open on the way down.

“The window is crooked,” I roar.

The window is straight, I am told. It’s the building that’s crooked. Through decades of earthquakes, she has shifted, settling her old bones into the shape they are now. The window is straight. It’s the building that’s crooked. It’s a shift in perspective.

I’m writing about trauma recovery. It can be lonely.

I get work as an Audio Engineer. Working with big publishing houses and magazines. I’m directing again. But not films, audio books.

I get invited to a private party in Santa Monica and eat caviar and truffles and feel special when the valet brings my car. For the next three days, I eat ramen noodles, huddled over the bowl for warmth.

Film festivals. Strange men in suits. Meetings that don’t feel right.

I get work as a Script Supervisor. I drive down a busy Los Angeles freeway to Orange County as the sun is rising over the city. Trucks zoom past. Everyone is going so fast. It’s a long time to be intensely focused on not dying.

My car is covered in a constant layer of dust and black smog. I ignore the engine light that comes on in four-day stints. Stale cannabis seeps into my air vents on the freeway.

I work rehearsals for a Vegas show. There is loud dance music and strobing lights and fake snow. I work an L.A. show and get put up in a flashy hotel in Downtown. I drink beer on the hotel roof in front of a gas fire. Sirens blasting. Smooth hip-hop music blaring. Vintage cars. I feel rich and alive. I nearly run out of gas in the middle of the night in Compton and pray my way back up to The Valley.

Yes, everything is different. Try to embrace it. Try not to start sentences with, "In Australia ..."

I get work as a 1st Assistant Director. I am in preproduction for a short film involving gangsters and semi-automatic weapons when a horrible, avoidable tragedy occurs in New Mexico. I learn how different the responsibilities of a 1st AD are here. There is no Safety Officer position on American film sets. The buck does not stop with the Armorer. What in the actual fuck? For the first time in my life, I have to learn about guns. I find it confronting, but knowledge is power.

Health insurance is 27 layers of complication. I spend several weeks trying to navigate it and already I am in a dispute over medical bills. "In Australia …"

My screenplay is finished. It just needs a polish. Some tweaks. Maybe a complete overhaul. I pull it apart. Re-card the beats. Maybe I should be more adventurous.

What would happen if I said what I really want to say?

AMBER Alerts and Safety Bulletins. How To Survive a Bear Attack. I have a strange L.A. moment, listening to meditation music while ordering pepper spray. I sit in my car for an hour, hiding from a pack of howling coyotes. I don’t even feel the earthquake. It takes six weeks for the incessant crying to stop. I am told this is good for L.A.

My Green Card arrives. I sued two Presidents to get here. They almost didn't let me on the plane. Then they hauled me into the immigration hall at LAX and held me there for hours. I showed them Biden’s Presidential Proclamation, overwriting Trump’s immigration ban. The lawsuits. The letter from my lawyer—

I’m here now. I have it. I’m holding it in my hand.

Breathe.

I go to a movie house in Pasadena.

I write a country song about moving to L.A. It makes about as much sense as writing a rap about moving to Nashville. But there's a hummingbird in my song and the golden glow on the San Gabriel Mountains, where the Spanish monks first made their way down into The Valley. I strum it on a tobacco-stained guitar I pick up south of Ventura. It feels good to sing again.

I have to testify in court.

In Australia, over video link. A historical child sexual abuse case. I am a witness. A friend drives me to a facility in Downtown L.A. We cruise under a bridge past burnt out tents and clothing. The jury can see me, but I can’t see them. The defense lawyer is smarmy. The defendant is guilty. He gets off. They always get off. I’m mad as hell. My friend takes me out for tacos.

I have no work. I color in a page of the Indian coloring-in book with a slow, steady hand and try not to scream.

Every few weeks, I contemplate packing up my car and driving out to the Nevada desert to live on beef jerky and rattlesnake. I'd need a gun. Leather boots. A wide-brimmed hat. I think it could be workable. It's quiet in the desert. Peaceful. The Santa Ana winds catch you by surprise.

Be present.

I get a Mickey Mouse plush toy.

My ancestors walked these lands. Great-great-great-grandmother Sarah and her lovely Thomas, the silver mines in Nevada a relief after all that choking coal in Yorkshire. And great-great-grandmother Maggie came from the workhouse in Belfast to the bay of San Francisco to live with her brother, John.

I am the first in Southern California. I drive through the Agoura Hills and choose the spot where I would build my house.

Survival is tough in this town. Like following a hundred pieces of string that just fall to dust in your hands. I contemplate selling my plasma for food money.

People ask me how I survived growing up in Australia. I tell them that snakes, spiders, crocodiles, sharks, and scorpions all exist in America. But here, there are guns, gangs, and serial killers. At any given time, America has 25 to 50 active serial killers. A man tells me this at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, and I spend the next two weeks afraid to go out at night.

People ask me how I managed to escape Australia, as if we are not really free. “Nine people died in my state,” I tell them, “In the beginning. None since.” I remind them that in order to be free, you need to be alive.

I wheel a whiteboard into my closet and scrawl affirmations, ideas, shopping lists, wish lists, an outline for the screenplay I want to write, to avoid writing this one.

I finally see the Hollywood sign. It feels too far away.

I get work with Central Casting. I’m on studio lots. Fox. Disney, CBS, Universal. I'm a neighbor, a mom, a displaced person. An actor standing out in the cold all night for peanuts because she's not in the union.

My car becomes a movie star.

I train to be an autocue operator. I handle panes of glass with white gloves—the same gloves I wear in my car when my steering wheel is too hot. It makes me feel like Grace Kelly. I format scripts and scroll the teleprompter under a poster that reads, Keep Calm and Scroll On.

I have an idea for my screenplay. It’s risky, but I’m committed. I write the scene. It pays off.

I miss my niece's birthday.

I tweet for my sister on Indigenous Peoples' Day, but I can’t hug her.

I imagine my mother is visiting and I am driving her around the county. Look mama! See how golden the light is on those hills? See these flowers? Maybe they came down here before Nevada, Sarah and Thomas, your blood. Maybe his brothers, too, on their way to the saw mills in Pennsylvania.

Winter descends on the mountains. The pool grows cold.

I become a crooked little woman in a crooked little house, in a crooked little street in a crooked little town, in a country that is only just starting to straighten out.

I have no garden. No living thing to nurture. Everything is managed and manicured by kind, Spanish-speaking men, who blast leaf blowers and chainsaws and climb up on the roof. The garden is not for me. It is a playpen for the squirrels.

I narrow in on the beats of my story and move the cards around like a jigsaw puzzle. I feel like this screenplay will never be finished. It will just go round and round until it eats its own tail. One day I will simply decide to stop writing it.

I am somehow surrounded by warm, generous people. I experience my first Thanksgiving and buy a candle in the shape of a One to mark my first birthday in America. People come to my party and take me to dinner and lunch and drinks.

I push my One into a brownie in Pasadena and make a very solemn wish.

There are people who tell me that the last two years have broken them. That there are parts of themselves that will never recover.

My pepper spray arrives. It will spray my assailant's face hot pink. How Malibu Barbie. When I pull my keys out of my bag, the clip comes off, and I almost spray myself in the face. I’m glad I didn’t buy a gun.

I ride the constant rollercoaster between there are so many opportunities here and what the fuck am I doing here?

I lose hope. A man screams at me outside the Dollar Tree. He's not wearing any pants.

Under my window, a Peace Lily quietly grows. I cup one of her leaves in my palm and sleep better knowing she is there.

I get work as a songwriting tutor. My community grows stronger.

I produce fantasy erotica to pay my rent.

What if I can't even write this fucking screenplay?

I remind myself how to swim inside fear. I tell myself that there is an untouched current underneath every emotion, and it's always peace, and it's always joy.

And all I have to do is tell the truth.

It’s Christmas and the silver in my hair starts to look like flecks of tinsel. I drive through crisp, mountain air, down the coast to Rodeo Drive. The mannequins in the store windows look like rich teenagers. One of them has her legs in the air.

Body aches and chills. I skip Covid test number five because I can't get out of bed. My head is pounding. I am sick, my friends are sick, everybody is sick. There is nobody to bring me painkillers or soup.

It is a new year. I am most alive when I am at the ocean. The sea in Malibu licks at my sneakers. I perform my annual ritual of letting go and calling in, to the rhythm of the waves. I collect treasures, as a dark pink sunset settles behind the palm trees: two shells, three smooth pebbles. The weight of them in the pocket of my puffy jacket feels extravagant.

I drive back through the mountains under the stars.

When I get home, I find the Peace Lily. I roll up my sleeves and sink my hands into the dirt.

I am here.

I am a California woman now.

*Feature photo by Aminah Hughes

Aminah Hughes is a writer, director, musician and photographer. She is an avid sunset beach walker in her homeland of Australia and her adopted home of California.
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