ABOVE THE WORLD AND LOS ANGELES

Not many people know my secret, so please don’t tell anyone I tattled but they call me Lupita and I live among the clouds.

How? I can’t say. Why? I wish I knew. For as long as my mind can remember, I’ve floated among chunks of chubby cumulus and slivers of strati.

And to be completely honest, while the days are fine enough, I’m sick of talking to the stars when they bother to show themselves at night. They’re not as interesting as you might have guessed, (if in your daily thoughts you ever took to guessing that sort of thing), and they could care less about holding a conversation with me unless they’re in the mood to brag about how very bright they are. Well you know something, none of them are all that bright except maybe for Polaris … and he’s far from the talkative type.

Polaris did speak to me once – but just once – a few years ago, when I was somewhere hovering over downtown Los Angeles. In the smoggy March night, he was the only star I could see.

“Lupita.”

I knew instantly by the familiar crispness in his voice that it was Polaris, The North Star, who said my name.

“Yes?” (I may have gasped and it came out like a small, surprised breeze. Polaris spoke often to the other stars but never to me.)

“Are you happy?”

Was I happy?

At first, I almost laughed at the question and then laughed again because it was Polaris who had asked it. He was supposed to be such a serious star with such serious things to say.

But then, his words repeated themselves a few times – Are you happy? Are you happy? – swirling as unanswered starlight through the hazy, chestnut sky above Hollywood and Vine.

And I could only think how unhappy I was. How unhappy I’ve always been.

“No, Polaris,” I began, “I don’t think I am.”

“Lupita.”

Again he spoke my name and I think, if it were possible, I would’ve bottled up the sound and wrapped it inside a little golden curl of hair by my ear so it could’ve remain close whenever I needed to hear it again. My own personal North Star wish come true: Someone knew my name.

“If it doesn’t work out exactly as it should,” Polaris continued. “That’s not the way it should’ve worked out.”

That was it. The only words Polaris ever sent my way. Who can say, in the vast strangeness of space and time when they were first conceived. I only know that whenever I’m feeling empty or confused about why I live in the sky or why I’m so bothered by the other fair-weathered stars, I think about his words and the clouds around me seem less like random collections of gauzy air and more like sensible – if not forever silent – friends.

They’re the words I hear in my head tonight, the words I heard in the hours before this present one as the sun made its peaceful descent to darkness and I grabbed my blue coat from behind a heavyset cumulonimbus cloud. Without hesitation or regret, I jumped from my overcast perch above everything, right into the twinkly sprawl of the city below.

It’s no accident I find myself again in Los Angeles, the same place where Polaris doled his star-like wisdom years before. Only this time, I’m down in the muck of a rainy Sunday night.

But forget the muck for a moment, you say, and then ask me, quite understandably, why I’ve never thought of leaving the clouds before.

To that question I have no good answer although I will tell you fear is a more crippling foe to fulfillment than anyone gives it credit for. It’s also trickier than you’d suspect, a mercurial warrior of an emotion that lodges itself in your mind, relentlessly strong and expectably fearless, then one day, without so much as a warning, leaves in surrender and doesn’t bother saying goodbye.

I won’t miss my fear though because if I still had it, I wouldn’t be sitting inside the Moonlight Diner of Santa Monica, glamorously unglamorous in my sleeveless chiffon gown, the blue coat from the clouds draped across a fraying cushion lopsidedly attached to a stool nearby.

“Coffee, hun?”

A woman, short, round and true, with curls stuck tight to her head and fuchsia smeared across her teeth, clanks a lipstick-stained mug and lightly cracked-down-the-middle saucer on the counter.

I shake my head. What could I offer in return for this drink? The world below isn’t free as the one above.

“I’ve got her, Fran,” says the man next to me, and I turn to thank him.

He’s skinnier than I would’ve guessed from the husk in his voice, and hairless except for a patch of grey between his buttony nose and thin mouth. Most notably, he has an illustration of a cactus chopping a bucking horse in half – right in half! – drawn to his forehead.

I’m instantly intrigued.

“You new around here?” He asks, scratching at the hair above his top lip. “I would’ve remembered seeing you before.”

“I … I just moved here,” I say, careful to remain close to the truth.

“Oh!” The man crinkles his forehead and the horse’s head – already missing from its body – disappears into a wad of skin. The knife-wielding cactus remains intact by his left temple. “Well, I’m not exactly going to hate on this dump of a city, especially to a new and darn classy gal such as yourself but why move here?”

If it doesn’t work out exactly as it should, that’s not the way it should’ve worked out, I think and twist at a tiny curl by my neck, saying nothing.

“It’s okay if you don’t know yet,” he responds, dropping a few quarters by his own lipsticked coffee cup and shuffling to stand. “Although, in the end, there really is only one reason anyone comes to Los Angeles.”

I watch him walk toward the door. He opens it slowly, to the sounds of chiming bells that hang above. He stands in the entrance for one moment more, rain peppering the black-and-white tiled floor of the Moonlight Diner.

There’s something else to be said.

“Why is that?” I half-yell across the room, watching droplets from unseen clouds wet the vengeful cactus on his face, wanting to know.

The man clears his throat and smiles. “The only reason anyone comes to Los Angeles,” he says, pointing an upturned hand toward the sky, “is to become a star.”

[This story is a little word art collaboration with Sophie Prentice, an extraordinarily talented and of course, incredibly fashionable illustrator. You can view more of her work here.]