The City of Angels Part Six: Ruin

After eight months trying to eke out a life in California, I found myself back in Alaska trying to get my feet back under me. I didn’t really tell anyone what I had gone through, what my struggles were, and if I told them why I was back up, it was typically vague and one thing was clear: it was temporary. My goal was clear to me. I transferred up with Best Buy. I was living back at home with my grandparents. I was going to work hard, get a good chunk of savings under my belt, move back, get back together with the love of my life and get back on a path to a happy future.

Part One: Departure
Part Two: A Perilous Journey
Part Three: The First Month
Part Four: Love and Tribulation
Part Five: Awry

I was in Alaska a grand total of four months. The middle of May until September 19th. My interview with the front lanes manager was a grand total of five minutes and ended with her shaking my hand and welcoming me to the team. I think she and I had a grand total of four conversations in the front four months I was there, which was a stark contrast to the ever-present oversight of my manager Stephanie in El Segundo. Stephanie wanted us to know what our numbers were at, what  our goals were. She wanted to know what we needed and she also loved us all to death. My manager in Anchorage was cold and detached and impersonal. Frankly, most of the management at my store in Alaska didn’t know what they fuck they were doing, much less what they wanted out of anybody.

There was a different department up north, though, one that required sitting in the back and taking phone and online orders for deliveries by plane out to the Bush  (rural areas of Alaska). It was a steadily growing side venture that Best Buy was taking a chance on and it grew in business every day. I worked that area every chance I got, using my downtime to learn about the other departments and get certified to cover for and work in those areas every time we were short staffed. I wanted to be the most valuable, versatile member of the team. It was a lot of work.

I also brought up the idea of the Black Tie Protection competition we had down in Los Angeles. The rewards weren’t as high (a $5 gift card instead of $25), but it took our store from being absolute shit to being one of the highest BTP selling stores in the district. It was fun, sort of, in the way a competition is when you can never really lose. One girl consistently outsold the hell out of me. She was good. I vowed never to let it happen once I moved back.

My grandparents never asked me why I moved back, and I never told them anything beyond I just needed to get stable again. They knew I’d be leaving again in the fall and I think they just wanted to make the most of the time I was back with them. I had missed them. I miss them now.

I lived about an hour, hour and a half from work and it was the summer, so I walked often. I would carry a book to read as I walked, and on umbrella as well, on rainy days. I lost a lot of weight (which, in five years, I’ve regained) and looked maybe the best I had since high school.

That’s what I did that summer: I fucking walked and worked and learned. I drank a lot and ate a lot, frequenting the karaoke bar I loved so much and which is now a weird bar/sandwich hybrid shop.

Somewhere around 4th of July weekend, I think, my friend Sam took me out to his uncle’s cabin. Sam is a great guy – he and I get lunch every time we’re both in town – so I leapt at the chance to have a quiet, earnest get-away somewhere outside of the city. The cabin was beautiful and rustic and sat on a piece of land with an expansive backyard that had been turned into a 9-hole golf course. To this day, it remains the one and only time I’ve ever played golf. I lost badly, but I enjoyed myself okay.

I was set up in the guest room, which was a separate house that overlooked a lake and the sun kissed it nicely and I was removed from myself via natural beauty. I took a picture of the sunrise over the water and sent it to my ex. We weren’t talking much at the time. “Wish you were here,” I said.

“I wish I were, too,” she replied.

And I thought I was good. I thought I was on track, working hard, being a better man, a better person. I focused on the job that was waiting for me to come back to, waiting on the arms of my beautiful woman to fall into.

But dreams and life are not always the best of friends.

It was late July. I was making a sandwich in my grandparents’ kitchen when my phone buzzed on the counter top. My ex had texted me and said that after a great deal of consideration, we wouldn’t be getting back together upon my return. Our relationship was irrevocably ended. I was crushed. I thought things were slowly getting better. I thought she would be proud of me for becoming better. And of course there were so many other reasons for her decision, but I was blind to them at the time. I was just so hurt and lost. I begged. I pleaded. It didn’t change her mind.

So I kind of lost mine? I definitely went a bit mad.

I had been celibate for three months. I was technically single. I had flirted. I’d even kissed a time or two, but my heart was with my lady in Los Angeles and so I slept with no one. But now?  Definitively single, no room for argument? Alone in Alaska? Hurt and lonely? I reacted by being a little bit of a slut.

I hooked up with a friend from high school. She was working through some things and so was I, and there was sort of a desperate tinge to the night, and it was good and it was fine, and it never happened again, but I think we became closer friends for it.

I hooked up with a woman I used to work with that I always thought hated me. She picked me up from a bar to give me a ride home and argued with herself over whether or not she should sleep with me, and I calmed her down and took the pressure off and told her if she didn’t feel comfortable, we absolutely shouldn’t, but if she genuinely wanted to, we could, with no expectations or attachments or anything like that. It was an interesting not, and I think both of us felt good about having someone there to make the other feel valued. We didn’t speak much in the days after and we haven’t spoken at all in five years.

And then I fell into a steady casual relationship with a woman I met in a bar. I finally had the balls to ask her for her number, and she gave it to me, and we went on a couple dates, and I went home with her and met her mom and we all got on well and it started a thing.

That last month, month and a half I spent primarily with her. I was still going out too much. I was drinking too much, trying to quench the pain I was feeling, and I would go home to this girl and she would make me feel handsome and funny and valued. It was incredibly selfish of me. I did care about her a lot. I care about her still, and we’re always easy around each other. That being said, that casual relationship was still birthed out of heartbreak and very much felt like a rebound solely because I felt like a piece of shit and she made me feel worthwhile.

I could feel my life sort of crumbling around me. I didn’t give a shit about anything. My dreams to be an actor/writer were a distant memory. I was still putting money away because the bartenders at the karaoke bar essentially let me drink for free. I was learning more about my job, but I stopped really giving a fuck.

And then something inside me broke.

The store in Anchorage that I worked at had one large difference from the one I worked at in El Segundo: they kept the new, popular video games up in the front lanes, where the check-out registers were, instead of back in the gaming department. The camera in the front lanes was poorly positioned as well. Sometimes the front lanes were lightly staffed. It made it incredibly easy to steal video games, and I did. I took two or three games over the course of two or three weeks. I didn’t sell them, they were for me, but they were most certainly obtained illegally.

Why? Fucking why did I take those games? I played them, but I don’t know that I even enjoyed them. I spent most of my free time with this woman. If I had to guess, it’s that I was lashing out in every unhealthy way I could just because I wanted to feel something. Or maybe I felt that I was a garbage human being, so to hell with it, why not do garbage, self-destructive things?

I didn’t got caught, though. Not then, not for that. I did get certified in every department in the store and provided coverage anytime an area was understaffed. I made myself useful. I was well-liked.

September rolled around and I was about to move back to Los Angeles. The transfer request was in and approved. I had my old room back in Jenny’s family’s place. I decided to spend my last weekend in town with my friends.

And promptly got alcohol poisoning.

I blacked out somewhere around midnight. Apparently we had a few more drinks and then I wound up at my friend Steven’s place with him and some girl. The girl I was dating lived right up the road, so despite my friend’s insistence that I stay, I left. He let me borrow a coat. Instead of going straight up the road, I walked about five miles to the right. I came out of the blackout around 4 in the morning, early September, with no coat, in the rain, in the middle of the goddamn woods with no idea how I got to where I was.

I vomited and staggered in a direction, hoping against hope that it would lead me to civilization. I slipped and fell and the battery in my cell phone – I had a flip phone at the time; this was five years ago and I was stubborn – spun into the underbrush. I sprained my right elbow trying to catch myself as I fell and I spent ten or fifteen pained, stressed, confused, drunk minutes trying to find the battery before giving up and hoping for the best.

I walked for another ten or fifteen minutes before finding a road. It was on the completely opposite side of town from where I last remembered being. I didn’t even know anyone who lived near there. With how early it was and looking the way I looked, drenched and dirty, haggard and still drunk, I couldn’t just knock on someone’s door to ask to use their phone. All the businesses had yet to open. Shit, did I even know anyone’s phone number by heart? I did, in fact, not, except for the cab company that I had no phone to call for and no money on hand to pay with.

So I set out to the house of the girl I was dating. When I found out I had walked the same distance to the woods and back, I realized I must have trekked a total of ten miles or so. My legs and feet were killing me. I felt so sick. My arm throbbed. I couldn’t stop shaking. When I got to her house, it was nearly six in the morning.

I went around back to see if the back door was open. It wasn’t uncommon for me to just show up at her place and spend the night, so I thought that was a good idea. The door was not open. I think I sob-moaned and curled up in the fetal position on the back porch, hoping to sleep until someone woke up. About twenty minutes later, her mom found me and let me in. I mumbled out an explanation and she told me to go upstairs and crawl into bed. I surprised the girl, and I really pissed her off when I crawled my damp, dirty, freezing body in next to her. She wasn’t very impressed with me. I wasn’t very impressed by myself.

It took me a few days to fully recover from that hangover. I bought a sling for my arm that I wore for almost two months. A few days later, she drove me to the airport, we kissed goodbye and I left to try and fix things in Los Angeles.

At first, everything was working out great. Everyone remarked on how great I looked. Kevin, my friend and one of the managers put me in for a full dollar raise. I moved around the store, still selling more Black Tie than anyone, still winning those  $25 gift cards. We had a new general manager and I impressed him quickly.

But my ex was still dead set on not renewing our relationship. I tried everything. Gifts. Compliments. We still hung out occasionally, I could still make her laugh, but it wasn’t enough. It was hard working with her and not having her look at me lovingly anymore. It was hard seeing others flirt with her.

I started drinking. Daily. A lot. I was still sort of broke, so I’d buy these ridiculously cheap, ridiculously huge bottles of wine and/or vodka from the CVS down the road and I’d drink most of it that night and go into work smelling like liquor the next day. Jenny told me I couldn’t be doing that. What if a customer complained. I said something about half the customers being fucking morons and that even if every customer could smell the liquor, it apparently was doing nothing to stop the sheer fucking magnitude of insurance I was selling. “There’s a reason you have all the seasonal hires train with me.”

I was a bit of a smug asshole, but Jenny still loved and worried about me, and my friends would still invite me over and try to help me get over my ex. I smiled and nodded. “You’re right. I know.” I couldn’t do it.

I tried! God help me. My friend Angie and I hung out a few times, and I think there could have been something there, but even if there was, “You dated my friend,” she told me. “I can’t do that to her. It would make things too awkward.” That’s fair. In my mindset and with my emotional instability, I don’t think I would have made much of a boyfriend for her, either.

I started hanging out with other friends more. Marisol and I went and donated blood at Universal Studios during a Saw marathon. We got some free swag afterwards. Thanks night or a couple nights later was Halloween. She introduced me to her friend, a pretty Mexican woman. She and I swapped numbers and had sex not long after. It was nice, and passionate, but I just didn’t have the energy to pursue anything more. I still had my heart set on my ex.

November rolled around and I went to Temple with her and her family. Her sister invited me to Thanksgiving again and I asked my ex if she would be okay with that. She was, but I think a little reluctant. The dinner was nice. We laughed a lot. We got along as easily as ever.

And it still wasn’t enough. We got into a discussion about it in the car which quickly turned into a full-blown argument. “What is it?” I asked desperately. “We have fun. We get along. We make each other laugh.”

“Because you’re not the person I thought you were.” And that broke my heart completely. And I think I just gave up on everything then.

The next day was Black Friday. Black Friday in the front lanes of Best Buy in El Segundo is a fucking nigtmare. I got given charge of the registers. My job was to direct traffic to available registers, radio back to the warehouse to bring up the correct big ticket items, unfuck any mistakes the new kids made, and sell Black Tie any time I found myself at at a register. I did this for 12 hours on two hours of sleep and a hangover, and I was fucking great at it. I was supposed to work 14 hours that day, but the general manager sent me home a couple hours early because I looked like I was going to collapse at any moment.

“You’re maybe the only reason the front lanes didn’t completely fall apart,” he told me, before giving me my second dollar raise in a month. I was on track to move from the front lanes to the computer section and expected to get promoted to a supervisor somewhere within the next 6-12 months. Professionally, I had my ducks in a row. Mentally and emotionally, I alternated between being on the verge of tears, vomiting from full blown panic attacks, or feeling absolutely nothing at all.

Christmas season comes around. I’m still winning $25 gift cards. A new promotion comes out where if you bought a video game system, you automatically also received a gift card for $50 or $75 dollars (depending on which console was purchased). The thing is, not everyone knew about those cards. So I pocketed a few. No real reason why. I thought I was just being greedy back then. Nowadays I think I just wanted to do something risky just to feel something. And it was fucked up! I know that. That’s cards those people could have used for Christmas gifts. I just didn’t… care. I was so emotionally drained and self-loathing and hurt and lost. I stole those gift cards. I felt like a scumbag. I made a poor judgment choice. And because my head was in a constant maelstrom of grief and alcohol and loneliness and self-hate, I slipped up.

Using the gift cards, that’s when I got greedy. I would use my employee code to shave off a few more dollars from whatever product (usually movies or energy drinks) I was buying. And one of those customers that didn’t know about the gift card? He sure as shit found out about it, and when he came back to ask what happened to it, a little research tracked the usage back to me. And I was done for.

I got called into the office during a busy afternoon in a tone that very much indicated I had fucked up. I thought it was a transaction or something. When I saw my general manager and a stern-looking stranger, I knew exactly what had happened.

I had a weird mix of feelings wash over me then. Relief, weirdly, at finally just coming face to face with my self-sabotage and not having this guilty weight in the pit of my stomach. Resounding shame. Embarrassment. I didn’t want the people I had grown close with to know I was a thief on top of being an emotional wreck and a drunk.

This guy was the loss prevention manager for the entire west coast, and a former cop. He told me the easy was just to admit everything because they had tape, which may or may not have been true. The hard way would be to cuff me, parade me through the store and take me to jail. So I came clean immediately. I came clean on the gift cards, all of them, and the video games in Alaska.

“But there’s still something you’re not telling us. We know there’s more, just say it.” Oh, he was good. I knew another employee who got caught for stealing and then, when pressured, copped to taking money as well, sonething they hadn’t known. But I had admitted it all. I denied stealing anything else, like ipods. I didn’t need anything else. I didn’t even need the shit I actually took, but I warned them about how easy it would have been and suggested more thorough checks before leaving. I denied using my discount on behalf of friends except one time for a birthday (which was allowed). “I don’t know anyone in Los Angeles. All my other friends are Best Buy employees.” My manager told the guy he believed me. I had been a stellar, model employee other than this incident.

We tallied up the cost of the games and the gift cards. It came out to $350, I think. I agreed to pay it immediately. I had just paid rent, and I had been blowing money on booze, so I had to use what remained on my credit card to take care of it. I went on the floor to do it, and I looked at my direct manager and friend and said, “I’m sorry I let you down. Please don’t think I’m a bad person.” She told me she didn’t.

The LP manager still wanted to cuff and parade me. My general manager convinced him not to. “He’s been honest and upfront, he’s been a great employee, and he paid his restitution without any problem. Just let him leave.” I had only known the guy for four months and he cut me a break he had every right to shit all over. He walked me back to get my stuff, walked me to the front door and shook my hand. “I’ve had to do a lot of these walks over the years. This is one of the few I truly regret. Take care of yourself.”

I walked out in a bit of a daze. I barely had any money. I had no job. I couldn’t stay in Los Angeles. I called up RJ in Seattle and told him I was probably going to move up there with him. “What’s changed?” he asked.
“I got fired.”
“What? For what?” To the side, he told our friend Isaac, “He got fired.”
“Uh… theft. And embezzlement, they said.”
RJ cackled. “Embezzlement?!” Isaac cackled in the background. “What the fuck can you even embezzle from Best Buy?”
“Uh…gift cards?”
Gift cards? You couldn’t embezzle actual fucking currency? You went with gift cards?”
“Look, can I move up or what?”
“Hahaha yeah, man. See you soon.”

Jenny was on maternity leave at the time, so she hadn’t heard the news. She was visiting her family for Christmas and I dreaded telling her. But I sucked it up. “I have something I need to tell you. I’m moving this week. I got fired.” And I told her why and I told her I felt terrible about it, and she was disappointed, but she was so supportive and understanding. And her family gave me unexpected Christmas gifts because they are lovely people.

The fallout was interesting. I became a bit of a pariah, and I was somewhat flabbergasted by who stayed and who didn’t. Kevin, one of my best friends in the store, never spoke to me again. I didn’t blame him. He stuck his neck out for me multiple times and I betrayed him. Stephanie wishes me a Merry Christmas every year. Jason and Angie didn’t really give a shit. Some people I wasn’t that close with at all stayed friends with me for years. Others that I had been extremely close with, people I helped through hard times, people who could tell me anything because I wouldn’t say shit, pretended I never existed. I guess they felt like I betrayed them. The real me was a criminal and a fuck-up.

The loss of those friendships hurt; I didn’t take the gift cards from them. I paid back every cent I took. I lost my job. I lost my home. I had to move out of the fucking state! And California’s shoplifting laws allows for an additional restitution charge of  $50-$500. They got me for another $450, more than the original amount I took, and I paid that, too. I went into debt. And I didn’t complain about any of it because I broke the law. I took my punishment. But how much more did I have to give up? I lost everything, had to start from scratch all over again after everything I went through to get to where I was, and I fucked my own life up. The loss of those friendships hurt because I knew, knew that nobody hated me more I hated myself.

Brittni, one of my closest friends, took me out for milkshakes a day or two before I was set to fly out. We talked about what happened. She told me how hurt she was that I could betray her trust. She drove me home. She hugged me. She never spoke to me again.

And of course, my ex. Her words about never being anybody rang in my fucking soul. Her words about not being the man she thought I was were hooks in my heart. And now I knew this woman who loved me once, who I still loved so fiercely, would always view me as this tainted fuck-up. It killed me to think she would regret me. She didn’t speak to me for five years. Only recently did we reconnect and become friends again, and it brought closure to a demon weight that had been breaking me down for years.

I flew out of the city of angels a few days before the new year began to kick off most of a year in Seattle and Redmond, and some pretty life-defining things happened there. But Los Angeles changed me. It opened my eyes to so many amazing and terrible things. I met so many incredible people. I fell in love. I broke my heart. I built something good. I burned it all down.

Los Angeles changed me, for better and for worse. I’ll always love it, for better and for worse.

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