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  • Writer's pictureJessica Abrams

My Utopia

Today I made an apple lemon cake. I zested four lemons, cored and thinly sliced four apples, mixed the zest and the apples into a batter consisting of a cup of almond flour, a cup and a half of sugar, two eggs and some milk, poured it into a pan and baked it for an hour. A few weeks ago, I made a birthday cake for myself – because even birthdays happen in quarantine. I’ve never made a birthday cake for myself. I’ve never made a birthday cake for anyone, for two main reasons: my mother always hated everything she baked which made me think I inherited a gene that caused me to fuck up anything that came to life in an oven; and my kitchen is so tiny I worried that one wrong move would send the batter cascading to the floor. Baking seemed reserved for people with granite-topped kitchen islands, like the kind the Real Housewives convene around as they guzzle wine. But on this birthday, I made a layer cake with quinoa and cocoa, and the frosting had semi-sweet chocolate chips that I bought at the grocery store nearby, one I had not set foot in since the quarantine. “Quinoa and crack,” a neighbor dubbed it. My cakes happen to be gluten-free, but that’s just because I prefer to limit the amount of gluten in my food if I’m going to start calling myself a baker. And I guess at this point, I’m calling myself a baker.

My entire life had prepared me for lockdown. I started sequestering myself two weeks before my state, California, mandated it. Keeping calm and obeying the rules amidst a global pandemic was the war my German mother had lived through. It was the natural disaster for which I, residing in a land of natural disasters, had forever been ready. I didn’t just do what I was told: I did better. I barely left the house, and if I did, I wrapped my head in scarves to resemble a Middle Eastern Grace Kelly. I washed and re-washed my hands after I got the mail, touched an Amazon box, used the garden hose. My competitive nature and deep-seated control issues came together in an all-hands-on-deck situation, turning me into a lockdown ace. And an incredibly annoying one at that.

I count myself as one of the lucky ones: a writer, actress and standup comic – thus, a non-essential worker (which, after being described as such one too many times, brings forth its own issues, but that’s another story) who could stay safely ensconced in her own personal biosphere. But who am I kidding? I wanted to. The quarantine gave me an excuse to jump off the treadmill of life, to resist the internal pressure of having to say yes to things that perhaps I didn’t want to say yes to: the comedy shows at ten p.m. on a Monday deep in the San Fernando Valley or the auditions across town requiring the totality of my thespian skills to show themselves in one word. It wasn’t that there were no more shows or auditions; there were no other people going to them.

But by June, I found myself getting anxious just driving twenty minutes from home, having barely gotten off the couch in four months. I got twitchy whenever another human came within six feet of me. As a single woman, I started envying the couples I had previously pitied. I cried when a friend brought a bottle of wine over and he sat on my porch and I in the living room as we drank and talked, and things felt normal. Yes, I wanted normal again.

I live in what in Los Angeles is known as a bungalow courtyard: a group of six free-standing units with two duplexes at the far end built around a walkway running through the middle. Most of the bungalow courts in L.A. were built in the late teens and early twenties. The 1950 movie “In A Lonely Place”, starring Humphrey Bogart, showcases the lush, Spanish-style courtyard apartment that competes with him for top billing. These self-contained oases combined a sense of fantasy with the reality of the landscape: namely that, in the City of Angels, one can be outdoors most days of the year. They also took into consideration a city built around the automobile, so you can’t always walk outside and be absorbed in the throng of humanity. The bungalow court, with its verdant conviviality, provided a place for people to commune.

When I moved to L.A. twenty-two years ago from New York City, convinced I had arrived in a land of milk and honey that would pay shitloads of cash for my screenplays, I wanted to live in as different a place from a New York apartment as I possibly could. One day, after I had been in L.A. for about two months and wearing out my welcome on a friend’s couch, another friend passed a group of Spanish-style buildings with a “for rent” sign in front. She called me the minute she got to the office. “Take down this number,” she commanded.

I wandered into an oasis of ficus and banana trees. The apartment – though it feels strange calling it an apartment – had floor-to-ceiling windows covered in contact paper, clearly put on when the painters were donning a fresh coat on the frames. It caused the light to filter in so gently that it added to the charm. The place was small, but having lived in a studio apartment on an airshaft for the previous five years, I didn’t mind. In fact, that made it less daunting to furnish. I rushed to the manager’s apartment. “That place? I want it,” I told him in my most brusque New York way, as I hadn’t yet learned that in Los Angeles it’s best to engage in small talk before getting to your “ask”. The manager, himself a former New Yorker, was clearly not put off and the next day handed me the keys. Rumor had it that my bungalow court as well as the two north of it had housed contract players for Paramount Pictures in the Twenties. Talk about creative energy. But despite being welcomed by the angels of former creatives who themselves had decamped in that charming space to pen screenplays quite possibly for the likes of Mr. Bogart himself, my ultimate goal, my holy grail of success, was home ownership. I realize, in retrospect, that I wasn’t yearning for a canvas on which to paint my personal style; I just liked the sound – and the perceived status – of it. I would live in the bungalow for a year. Then fame would hit, and I would sell everything in a yard sale, feeling generous at dramatically reducing the price of my wine rack. I would load the remaining furniture into a moving truck and move into my new house. My house. My house. It would be a concrete example of my success and at least twenty yards away from the domicile of another human being. My own personal utopia.

The years brought struggle – the kind that comes with living in a city where the prospect of success hangs in front of you like a hypnosis amulet in a Seventies TV show. My not having achieved success at the speed of, say, friends who had arrived in L.A. when I had became a source of endless self-loathing. I measured their trajectories against mine and always came up short. My bungalow, once a cozy haven, started to become the physical embodiment of my failure. From its cramped kitchen to the closet door that refused to shut, everything told me what a loser I was. I spent very little money on it, as if I were punishing it somehow. But I still couldn’t bring myself to move.

Despite my best efforts, I started growing closer to the people living in my immediate vicinity. We had things in common, like incompetent building managers and a pair of brawling meth heads squatting in one of the apartments, not to mention a walkway that gave people outside a bird’s eye view in and people inside to see who had a new boyfriend and who ordered a lot of Domino’s. Yes, it immediately became clear we had no privacy. We knew it when we heard that first phone conversation that caused us to follow the situation as if it were a Latin American telenovela: Will David’s dispute with Visa get resolved? Will Mary ever develop the strength to hold her own with her family or will she eventually move back to Michigan? We accepted the limitations of our homes, in favor of charm and history and, finally, community.

When the world went into lockdown and Instagram showed photos of people peering out of apartment windows in New York and Bergamo, my little courtyard community proved not such a bad place to be. I could leave the front door open and let my space blend seamlessly into the natural world outside. Noises from other bungalows would drift into mine: Liz teaching first grade over Zoom, David’s coffee grinder ringing in a new day – and I was instantly comforted by the fact that others were trapped in their homes as I was in mine. Taking a break from work in the middle of the afternoon, I would stroll down the walkway towards neighbor Kathleen’s place. She would come out and we would catch up, she in her mask and me in mine. We would talk about the stray cat that keeps roaming into the courtyard and the state of the world. Did she happen to have any olive oil? I had run out and didn’t want to venture to the store.

About five months into the pandemic, I started baking for a very simple reason: I needed something to do. With no kids to home-school or a significant other with whom to binge Netflix, the party in my head was turning into an intimate dinner with some very boring people. It became obvious I wouldn’t necessarily tackle all those writing projects I had left dangling, and the pressure to do so threatened to kill me. I yearned to make something with my hands, and yes – something that, when all was said and done, I could eat.

I started tackling gluten-free baking. I scoured the internet for recipes and read cookbooks on the toilet; and the cakes I made, like the bourbon butter cake or the gluten-free tiramisu or the Cajun pecan pie – were not the disasters I considered my genetic legacy. This is because baking is all about the love you feel while doing it. The day I tried to make a marzipan cake following a phone argument with my mother, I ended up with two epic failures I had to toss. Being happy and feeling good translates directly into something delicious to eat. I lay hefty pieces in front of my building manager’s door to thank him for letting me pay rent in installments. I gave pieces to the neighbor who can tolerate almonds but not gluten. Cooking soothed me, but it had another payoff: it allowed me to see people, albeit from a distance. So thrilled was I to discover this newfound talent that I started a baking business. I donate a portion of the proceeds to Coronavirus relief.

I bake another cake – a clementine cake from one of Nigella Lawson’s many gems. You boil four clementines for two hours – because what else do you have to do during lockdown? And then you remove the seeds and chop everything and add it to a batter of sugar and almond flour to yield the most moist, delicious, not totally-unhealthy cake you might have ever tasted in your life. As I’m assembling this, it dawns on me: with the front door open and the breezes blowing in and the light outside lingering just a little longer as the summer approaches, maybe I’ve found my utopia right here. The comfort of hearing my neighbors just a few yards away, the orange-y smells coming from the oven – all this makes me not only happy to be home, but to revel in it. Home. After twenty-two years, I’ve finally found it.

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