Instafriend in California



At thirty-thousand feet, I was reading about destruction. I admit: it’s not the most pleasant subject matter for someone who’s facing her fear by confronting it. But I needed a plan, before landing, for how I could burn away everything that had been holding me back: frustrated relationships, insecurity about my career path, a temporary creative block.

With nothing but atmosphere between me and the Earth, I was studying Awakening Shakti, a book that introduces readers to female Hindu goddess. Kali, I was learning, is a goddess who represents creation and renewal, which can only happen when a person destroys whatever is keeping her from growth. In New Jersey, my origin, my heart and creative energy had become as lifeless and cold as the mid-January freeze.

When I landed at Los Angeles International Airport, where the temperature was about 40 degrees warmer than in Newark, I picked up a rented Hyundai Sonata and anticipated spending the next few days like a child’s lost and forgotten summer toy – a miniature water gun, perhaps – captured in a block of ice, waiting for the heat to melt it into being. I could go anywhere and be anything without answering to anyone.

I peeled off the layers – a scarf, a sweater, and heavy socks – that had kept me warm that morning and on the air-conditioned plane, and I considered what to do with my new sense of weightlessness. Hungry, I decided my first stop would be Veggie Grill, a plant-based fast food chain with locations throughout California, Oregon, and Washington. As a vegan, I wanted to take this trip partly so that I could indulge in all the best vegan food that Los Angeles has to offer. I wanted to celebrate, in abundance, my decision to be vegan, a choice that many assumed was limiting.

When I arrived at the restaurant, I couldn’t believe how many people were eating lunch at a restaurant with a meatless menu; all tables were occupied. After ordering a “quinoa power salad,” I sat down at a table that had just cleared and waited.

Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder. In the moment before I turned around, I guessed that the person tapping me might be another solo diner, hoping to share my table in the crowded space. Or had I forgotten to take my change from the cashier? I faced the stranger.

“Are you Laryssa?”

I squinted at the dark-haired young man. He was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt
and jeans. I tried so hard to place him in my memory that I could almost feel my hippocampus groan.

“Yes, that’s me,” I said.

Who, so far away from my home, would recognize me? I was trying to be something different here, to shed my East Coast identity. Obviously I was still carrying its weight.

“Do I know you?”

“We follow each other on Instagram,” he said.

Instagram is a social media community where I post photos of vegan food and other miscellany. To myself, I call it “Veganland” because nearly every one of the 1,000 users I follow is vegan. Whenever I feel alone, I can open the iPhone app and, as I scroll through photo after photo of vegan dishes, can pretend that our planet is a cruelty-free utopia.
But I didn’t recognize his face from any of the 110×110 pixel profile photos I had associated with people’s Instagram handles.

“What’s your username?”

“Spencer – “

“Oh!” I interrupted.

We chatted for a few minutes, and he hugged me: the perfect welcome. I learned that my Instafriend Spencer was visiting Los Angeles for the day to protest with an animal rights activist group from San Diego.

When he left, his absence made me feel as if my cover had been blown – what are the chances that someone would recognize me from my own square profile photo? I wouldn’t be to begin this trip as someone completely new, removed from my past failures and frustrations. But I realized, between bites of my quinoa salad at Veggie Grill, where I was surrounded by people who were actively making the same ethical choices I make, that I’m in good company, not only in a vegan fast-food establishment but wherever I am.

I wouldn’t have to be alone to burn away my past identities. Instead, I would soften myself to allow connection, which is the only way I’d be able to learn about new possibilities and opportunities, to gain insight into the person I am and who I want to be. When I stepped into the parking lot, I felt a dampness above my upper lip. The sun was at its highest point, and I was sweating.

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