“You're in the jungle, baby...
and you're gonna die”
Guns N' Roses – Welcome To The Jungle.
Los Angeles, United States – November 2003.
Los Angeles was nothing like Zowie had ever known before. Born and raised in Wellington, not many similarities could be found between her home town and the city where she had been living for almost three years now other than the mountains that rose over the horizon. That, and the occasional earthquake, too, but all similarities ended there. Green and unpolluted, Wellington had been the perfect place to grow up with an ideal mix of urban setting and nature just around the corner.
Los Angeles, however, couldn't be any more different.
The day of her arrival, for example, Zowie had been welcomed by a layer of smog so thick it had felt like a heavy cloak on her shoulders. But of course, Zowie was still Zowie and a little smog wasn't going to ruin her plans. It was a tremendous change, yes, and many things had intimidated her at first, but Zowie was still willing to prove that all the other things she knew about California were true. Like that image movies and TV shows had nurtured, for example; the one that depicted California as the land of the ever present sun, amazing bodies, movie stars living right next door to you and the one place in the world where all your dreams could come true. An optimistic perception that soon, however, began to change as Zowie was faced with a reality she had ignored until then.
While the hot summer sun and the possibilities of a beach not too far away had indeed been real, Zowie soon discovered that most of the amazing bodies appeared solely on TV. She had yet to see a true movie star, let alone one that lived next door, and as for dreams coming true at the snap of your fingers... Zowie now knew how improbable that was.
How many people had come to LA looking for success, fame and stardom and how many of them, much like Zowie herself had seen nothing but the rough side of the city and their dreams smashed down to pieces? The phrase “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” had a whole new meaning to her after almost three years in California.
It hadn't always felt that way, though. Upon arriving, nothing could have brought Zowie down; neither the long flight nor the issues she had left behind in Wellington could have put a damper on the excitement of being in a whole new place, on her own... and looking for the love of her life.
Moving to Los Angeles had definitely been the right thing to do. She loved Wellington, she loved New Zealand, but never before in her life had Zowie felt the urge of putting an entire ocean between her and her loved ones. Well, maybe not all of them, but unfortunately, they had all been dragged into the same category by one single person. Heartbroken after discovering her dad had been living a double, secret life for almost as long as Zowie herself had been alive, she could not stand having him around any longer.
Yes, she had lied to him in a way her mum had found despicable in order to get the money to leave New Zealand, but Zowie had still to find a part of her that mildly regretted her actions. William had lied to them for sixteen years, what harm could one single lie coming from her do, and especially to him?
Nevertheless, it hadn't all been about William and his secrets. Of course it had played a big role in Zowie's final decision, but that wasn't all that there was to it; in the end, she had come to realise that she simply couldn't live in Wellington any more, at least not while that city held both memories so dear and so painful at the same time. Everywhere Zowie looked, everywhere she turned, memories of the sixteen months she had shared with Orlando followed her, dancing mockingly before her eyes. He wouldn't be there any more. Zowie wouldn't be able to take the bus to Seatoun and knock on the door of his house on Marine Parade like she had been used to for so long. They wouldn't go out together anymore either and what terrified her the most; Orlando would never be able to know exactly how much she loved him.
That was why she had moved to Los Angeles in the first place: to see him, to tell him all about the feelings she had kept bottled up inside her for so long. To Zowie, the way Orlando had broken her heart was of very little importance as she began her search only days after arriving in the United States. Last time they had talked, right before she left New Zealand, Orlando had mentioned he would soon go to Los Angeles, looking for ways to capitalise his experience in Rings. How hard could it be to find him?
She couldn't have been any more wrong.
In her joy, in her careless, teenage enthusiasm, Zowie had overlooked one tiny detail: she didn't know where to start. That complicated things, of course, but it wasn't enough to kill her hopes. She could always try to contact him through an email and ask him for his address, but what good would that make? She could and would find him on her own, for she and Orlando were meant to be together. Why had they been put in the same path, then? It had to be written somewhere that, someday, Zowie would be happy by Orlando's side. Besides, how hard it could be to find the right agency, the one that managed him? She didn't know any details, but stubborn as she was, Zowie would not be easily discouraged.
Yet as days, weeks, and even months passed and her search proved fruitless, Zowie began to grow concerned. Every agency she visited, every place she went to seemed to be nothing but a dead end and no one had been able or willing to share any information with her, doing little else but casting a quick look in her direction, if at all, before sending her off with curt and some times downright rude words. She still went on, though, refusing to admit that she had come to that dreaded point in her quest when she would have to admit defeat.
Out of sheer pride, Zowie had never asked anyone for help. She could have emailed Elijah and ask for help, but she wanted to surprise Orlando by showing up at his doorstep with a huge smile knowing that he would take her in his arms and never let her go. Asking Elijah for help wouldn't only be cheating; as time passed, the emails coming and going between them had grown more and more scarce until they had stopped coming altogether. Zowie regretted witnessing the end of her friendship with Elijah, but some things were beyond her control.
However, fate had a surprise in store for her that had erased everything else from her mind. Once “The Fellowship of the Ring” premiered, Orlando was everywhere. TV, magazines, they all wanted to know every single detail about his life and it was through them that Zowie found out that he had indeed moved to Los Angeles. Sure, he still went away often to shoot movies here and there, but finding him now that pretty much everyone knew who he was would be a lot easier. With renewed hopes, Zowie's search began once again. Someone had to manage Orlando and Zowie would find out who that person was even if it was the last thing she did in her life.
What she had never taken into consideration, however, was that regardless of how hard it had been before, trying to contact Orlando now that he was a celebrity would only be much, much harder. It didn't matter how many times she argued that she had known Orlando for years, that they had worked together... none of that seemed to matter to receptionists with sour looks on their faces; if anything, it only made things worst.
Pretty much laughing in her face, one by one they had discarded Zowie, some of them asking her to leave with polite words and guarded looks on their faces, others threatening to call security to get her out of the building. Zowie couldn't understand that. Couldn't they see that she wasn't just another crazy, rabid fan? Why couldn't they understand that she didn't intend to break into his house and assault him or do something equally nonsensical? Only one thought had comforted Zowie at the time and it was the image of how all those mean receptionists would have to swallow their bitterness and put a smile on their faces when she showed up arm in arm with Orlando.
But time passed. More days passed, more weeks passed and before long, Zowie had been living in Los Angeles for over a year and still there were no signs of Orlando. He was everywhere, in every magazine, every TV show and yet... he wasn't in her life. That enthusiasm, that lust for life that Zowie had felt upon arriving in California had slowly begun to disappear, leaving her cold and numb inside, her mind and body flirting with the idea of old habits that she had fought hard to avoid.
Zowie had tried to think of other things, had tried to busy herself and had even managed to do so for some time. She had been wise with her money and after renting a small studio apartment on the West Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park, she had begun looking for a job at the same time that she looked for Orlando. Sure that she would have no problem getting the kind of job that she wanted – training actors in swordfighting or, at the very least, assisting on it – Zowie had declined other offers. They had been very varied, yes, but none of them interested her. She had jogged every morning to keep fit and had practised in her apartment every afternoon to avoid getting rusty, aware that if she wanted to keep up with demanding schedules, then she would have to meet the standards.
It was out of sheer determination and the simple fact that, although living in a huge city she had no idea where to get her fix, Zowie had been able to stop the one habit that had been slowly consuming her life for some time now: drugs. It hadn't been easy. It had been painful and she had been more than willing to relapse on more than one occasion, but she was starting a new life, and she wanted to be clean and clear-minded during every second of it.
Eventually, Zowie had got the job she had been looking for: assistant coach on a TV production about Ancient Greece. It might not have been a huge endeavour like Rings, but she had to start somewhere, right? Happy, excited, looking forward to a future that only seemed to get brighter and brighter, Zowie had thrown herself on her job with every bit of her energy. It didn't matter if she had to get up at 4 AM to get to the set or if she had to spend long hours under the sun – she did it all with a smile. It was great while it lasted, but it hadn't lasted long.
When that shooting ended, Zowie had been hopeful. With Rings and a local production in her resume, things could only get easier. Hopeful, she had looked harder for a job, knowing that she wasn't too far away from making her dream come true: becoming a renowned swordfighting coach and finding Orlando at the same time. Two amazing things at the price of one.
She looked hard. With such motivation in mind, Zowie had turned Los Angeles upside down, a hundred percent sure she would get the job she wanted. She had the experience and even a few contacts that could, eventually, help her. It had to happen!
There wasn't a single ad she didn't respond to, a single interview she missed, but her determination, however, had slowly begun to falter as all her attempts were unsuccessful. Why did no one hire her? She had the experience, she had the talent! There were many things she didn't know, sure, but at nineteen, no one could expect her to know every single aspect of the business, right? Zowie wanted to work, wanted to learn, and she wouldn't be able to do any of those things if no one gave her a chance.
She couldn't have possibly repressed the sadness that tinted her sigh as she walked. After a while, she had lost the count of how many resumes she had handed in, how many interviews she had attended to, but she would never forget how they all had turned out for the worse. It's not that Zowie hadn't known how to carry herself or how to channel her enthusiasm into something that made a good impression on whoever wanted to hire her, but not even all her energy and cheerfulness, spontaneity and talent could have helped in that jungle that show business was.
It was when money began to grow tight that Zowie had truly begun to worry. Her earnings from the movie hadn't been incredible but had nonetheless allowed her some freedom of action for some months, but as her financial support decreased to an alarming point, Zowie had sat down to ponder her options.
Not that there were that many to begin with, Zowie had realised after writing them all down on a piece of paper, and some of them were absolutely impractical and unreal. In the end, she had ended up narrowing the list down to three; three that raised different levels of uneasiness inside her, spanning from discomfort and slight shame to absolute and rotund disgust.
Her first option, one her heart rebelled against with all its power, was selling her necklace and earrings. A present for her 18th birthday, the diamond studs and the matching gold necklace could have provided her, if not with a fortune, with at least enough money to pay the rent. However, Zowie had banned the idea pretty much as it had entered her mind. She couldn't do it. She couldn't do that to herself or her grandmothers. What would they do if they found out? Zowie would never be able to look at them in the eye if she did something like that. Back when they had been given them to her, Zowie had considered the idea of ever losing those presents as the most horrible thing that could ever happen. How could she possibly ever sell them?
With that option ruled out, Zowie had gone to the next: getting a job. Not entirely a bad idea since it was precisely that what she had been trying to do for months, but the thought of giving in if only an inch and getting a job that wasn't involved with coaching seemed dreadful to her. Still, an impatient landlord and the bills that kept piling up were a painful reminder of how dire her situation was. Zowie had tried to convince herself thinking that it would only be temporary, that she would get a job that would help her make ends meet for a while until she got the job, but the idea of failure had slowly begun to creep up her skin. She had come to Los Angeles with one goal in mind and that was becoming a successful trainer. She didn't want to have to swallow her pride and admit that she had been wrong all along or that she hadn't been able to make it; she would rather starve and make her dream come true than admit defeat.
Which led to her to the third option, one that filled her with such dread and disgust it made her sick even now.
As all other options met the same end, which was dying under a thick blue line scribbled by Zowie's pen, the last one had lingered, persistent as she tried to avoid it. Why would she such thing? Zowie refused to admit defeat, would always do so for as long as there was a tiny little flicker of hope in the horizon. Why, then, would she cave in and call her family? And not to ask, but to beg for some money, to top it all?
Not many things could have disgusted Zowie more than the sole thought of picking up the phone and making that long distance call. Never, for as long as she had two hands and enough reasoning to fend for herself, would she call William and ask for help. Noemie would never refuse her daughter any sort of assistance and Zowie knew better than to think so lowly of her mum. However, in order to get any help from her, she knew she would have to put up with more preaching and “I told you so's than she could probably ever handle. Or that she felt like handling, anyway. She had survived that long on her own and didn't feel like being told off by her mum who was halfway around the world. The only person who wouldn't ask a single question, who would never tell her that much dreaded “I told you so” was William, but as soon as the thought crossed Zowie's mind, she had rebelled against it.
Never. Not in a million years. Not even if she was starving to death and that was her only one way out. If there was any way she could avoid getting in any touch with him, then she would, like she had been doing since moving to California. That was how she felt for her father, and nothing would ever change it.
Consequently, her last option met then the exact same end the others did, leaving her with virtually nothing else to do but hibernate until she got the kind of job she wanted, or save some dignity and get a normal, nine-to-five job. It wouldn't be easy since she had no experience whatsoever, but considering the way things were, Zowie would have to learn... and fast.
Much to both her surprise and even a little disgust, Zowie had quickly found a job as a secretary in a small office not too far away from her place. It wasn't all that demanding and she hadn't needed any more skills than the ones she had graduated with, but no matter how easy it was, Zowie had never felt quite at ease there. Sure, her boss was a nice woman in her late forties who woke up on the wrong side of the bed once or twice every week, but nothing Zowie couldn't have handled. However, even though the job was easy and her boss wasn't abusive, and even though her weekly pay check did ease some of her most urgent concerns, Zowie had never quite managed to be happy there. After a few months and especially after a few interviews she hadn't been attending because she was working, Zowie had begun to experience a familiar feeling that hadn't bothered her in a long time. That pressure on her chest, that feeling that she wouldn't be able to breathe anymore... Zowie was all too familiar with it to pledge ignorance.
She didn't want to be there. She didn't want to be stuck behind a desk when she could be doing what she had come to Los Angeles to do, and feeling how her dreams slipped away between her fingers had scared her to death. How would she ever contact Orlando if she didn't move in the same circles as he did?
The critical, lowest point had caught her almost by surprise. She had been juggling with depression and the asphyxiation inside her for so long that when the enormity of the facts finally hit her, Zowie could have never fought against it. Suddenly collapsing on her apartment, reality had struck her so powerfully she had found herself completely out of breath.
What had happened to her? What had happened to her dream, to the promises of it becoming real at a snap of her fingers? The pain had slashed at her heart. She had been cheated! She had been lied to! Not having Orlando by her side, being trapped in a job she absolutely hated and being halfway around the world from all the people she knew, all of that had hurt Zowie immensely, yes, but it was nothing when compared to the sudden epiphany she had had.
She had been lied to, yes. She had been cheated, too, to make matters even worst. But despite the grief that had exploded inside her at the sole thought, Zowie hadn't been able to deny the harsh reality: she had lied to herself. In her desperation, in her need to run away from the pain, Zowie had intentionally cheated herself with promises of things that could never come true. How could she fight against that? How could she carry on normally after that? Reality was harsh and painful and tortured her with images of what might have been, of possibilities she now knew would never come to completion. Knowing she had brought it all upon herself had brought her to the edge.
Yet, no matter what she thought of her reckless, foolish actions, of the decision that had taken her to California, she was not going to give in. She was not going to call her parents and ask them for help or admit that she had been wrong, for doing it meant killing those little remnants of dignity that still managed to survive in her heart. If she ever went back to New Zealand, it would be on her terms. Even if she turned out to be nothing as successful as she had first envisioned, Zowie would still find a way to hold her head high. No one needed to know she had failed, right? Failure... the sole concept was terrifying to Zowie. If she couldn't make it the first time she tried something, what would happen in the future? Would she always fail at everything she tried, no matter what?
Darkness had slowly begun to close in around her, coming at her from every angle but failing to numb her soul to the pain. Trapped, depressed and grief-stricken, she had only known one way out.
For a city as big as Los Angeles, Zowie had found it very hard to find the right person. Not knowing who to ask, where to look and afraid to ask the wrong person and getting in trouble, she had walked around her neighbourhood and the nearby areas in an almost desperate state. Where was a guy like Tony when she needed him? He had come to her that night in Wellington, not the other way around!
Yet, as desperation coiled inside her, so did her disgust. Why was she doing it? Why couldn't she stop herself and deal with her problems like the grown woman that she was? Why did she always have to find a way out, an escape to the things that troubled her? Zowie had discovered that finding the answers to those questions meant facing the very same things she wanted to avoid. Questioning her reasons meant digging deeper than Zowie dared to and feeling as vulnerable as she did; only God knew where it would lead her.
Eventually, she had led herself to the right place. A couple of miles south from her own place on West Sunset Boulevard, Zowie had come across an abandoned apartment building. A car was parked at the corner and it didn't take much observation from Zowie to understand the mechanics of it: people approached the car discreetly, sometimes not so much, and handed what appeared to be money to whoever was inside it in exchange for something that, although she couldn't see, she had known instinctively what it was.
Zowie hadn't lingered, her thoughts focused on that first high so long ago, on the joy, the euphoria that had filled her completely. Of course that first high had never been matched, but anything would be better than dealing with the cruel reality on her own. In order to remain sane, Zowie needed to escape.
The transaction had taken almost no time and soon Zowie sat on her bed, three red pills before her. She had been clean for what, over a year? She didn't even bother counting and quickly swallowed one pill, eagerly waiting for the rush to kick in. God, yes! It felt like her first time all over again, only that this time, Zowie didn't needed the music and lights of a club to feel the joy and euphoria pumping through her veins. For a moment, everything had been perfect and in its right place again, but just like every other time, it was over much too soon.
It wasn't long before Zowie was back on her steady drug use. With no one to hide from, nothing could have stopped her, and the asphyxiation her job brought her had led her to crossing a barrier that shouldn't have been crossed: taking drugs at work. A crossing that Sandy, her boss, didn't approve of.
Sandy was quite an easy going person. She had helped Zowie on more than one occasion but had zero tolerance for the path the younger girl's life had taken. She had looked past her incompetence and sloppiness for some time, but the minute she had realised exactly what was going on, she did not hesitate for a second before kicking her out. Intoxicated as she was, it had taken Zowie some time to understand what was truly going on. Unemployed and with absolutely no real prospects of anything good happening soon, Zowie had found herself teetering on the edge. The way she had been ever since.
Zowie tried to push those thoughts aside, but as she walked, she couldn't repress the shiver that ran down her spine. Even if she didn't remember much, even if her memories were hazed by the drugs, Zowie still remembered having to leave her apartment and the rough times that had followed. Now, as she neared the place she had called home for over a year, Zowie felt her determination growing in her heart. She would not think of the past. She wouldn't dwell on what ifs and what might have been. She had made her decision and she had to stick to it. She had never been as far away from making her dream come true as she was in that instant, but she had learned to live with the idea.
With a sigh, Zowie entered the modest apartment block with its red brick fronting and narrow mirrors all over its four floors, barely sparing a quick glance at the tall skyscrapers that made the Los Angeles skyline a couple of miles away. A picture of success, they painted a bitter reminder of her own failure, and Zowie avoided breaching the barrier that the Harbor Freeway represented if she could help it. She seldom closed the freeway, choosing to remain in a neighbourhood full of stories such as hers instead of having the success of others rubbed on her face.
Turning her back on the sight, she headed for the external stairs and slowly climbed to the first floor. Taking her keys from her back pocket, she slowly entered the apartment, her eyes scanning the place with an almost detached feeling. Yes, this was the place where she lived, but it had never felt like home. Clothes were scattered here and there in the main room and Zowie didn't need to take a look at the fridge to know that it was, most likely, empty. But she didn't care, and as far as she could see, neither did her room-mate. Zowie sighed. What was the point in bothering? She was already coming up with an answer to that when a voice, low and raspy, touched her ears from behind.