Days had melted into weeks, weeks into months, and months into more than a year when Los Angeles, the city with which I’d had such a painful falling-out, began to shimmer in my memory as an over-the-rainbow place where all problems might be solved. As the minutes remaining on this long, strange family trip ticked down, it was clear the running from had become a running to.
We had come to Germany and eastern Europe to experience my family ties to World War II and the remnants of Communism. But somewhere between visiting the grave of my grandmother, who was killed when an Allied bomb hit her Bavarian farmhouse, and eating emerald green pumpkin oil pressed by a Slovenian farmer, a virulent mystery illness hijacked our last hurrah.
In the Croatian capital of Zagreb, which sits like a dirty thumbprint far inland from the tourist meccas on the Adriatic, I knelt over my three-year-old son, his green eyes bright with fever. A church bell tolled 2 a.m. somewhere in the hot, humid night.
“You’re the goodest mommy in the whole world!” Adrian whispered, the wet towels I placed over his burning body warming up too fast.
No, I thought, I’m not! The goodest mommy would be at home in Los Angeles speed-dialing her pediatrician, not thousands of miles away in a cheap rented room with metal-shaded windows, a disintegrating rug, and a shower the size of a coffin.
From that cell-like room in Zagreb, where Adrian’s fever spiked close to 106 degrees, we rushed to Hungary, checking into a fancy Budapest hotel with an English-speaking concierge, a house doctor, and a room with a bathtub. I did not have the time or energy to feel guilty about the splurge, as now it was Griffin’s turn to burn. We did not see the world’s second-largest synagogue, the famed thermal baths, or Heroes’ Square, where Soviet tanks quashed a Hungarian rebellion in 1956. Ethan and I were too worried to care.
Hanging just outside our window, which was framed by Budapest’s Széchenyi Chain Bridge arcing gracefully over the Danube, I did see a large yellow spider. Body still as death, it waited for the insect equivalent of a jackpot. Stronger and more flexible than steel, the spider’s web anchored it to the hotel’s sheer wall, and I felt a sudden desire to be anchored again myself—not to a job but to a place. Only a spider, I thought, is able to weave a new home each night with such effortless skill.
In the 18 months since I had walked off CBS’s Radford lot for the last time, we had visited 22 countries, taken more than 40 flights, and driven almost 20,000 miles. But sickness crushed any adventurous spirit we had left.
“What do you miss most about home?” I asked Ethan.
“The Apple Pan,” he replied quickly, naming his favorite hamburger joint, in West L.A.
“What about you, Griff?” He had just turned six.
“Mammoth!” he answered. That was where he’d learned to ski.
What I missed most was not as easy to define. Was it the way the rising sun hit my bedroom window so that I knew the time before I opened my eyes? Finding the light switch at night without banging a shin? What about the owls hooting in the eucalyptus and the distant screams coming from nearby Universal Studios that made up the melody of my neighborhood? Adrian, who’d now been traveling for nearly half his life, couldn’t miss much about a place he barely remembered.
“Nana,” he said when I asked him, speaking of my mother, whose soft voice and healing hands we all could have used. “I miss my nana.”
As I drove down Ventura Boulevard in Ethan’s 1973 turquoise blue International Scout, Los Angeles appeared fresher, like the face of an old friend who’d sneaked in some skillful cosmetic surgery. The truck had been pressed into service, since I no longer had a car, and its hand-cranked windows and AM radio felt ageless, not old. L.A., with its surplus of sun, sand, and celebrities, was certainly no gulag, and I’d long since concluded that blaming the breakdown of my former life on a place was kind of like blaming a weight problem on a comfortable couch.
In front of me a new Range Rover, its vanity plate declaring “ACUMUL8,” idled at a stoplight. I laughed because my family was going in the opposite direction—sometimes to the extreme. After I sewed up a rip in Adrian’s shorts that immediately ripped again, it was obvious that ten bucks spent at Old Navy would be a good investment. And when Ethan came home one day looking like an AWOL Marine from Camp Pendleton, I wondered if he’d lost his mind.
“What happened?” I asked my normally handsome husband, whose salt-and-pepper hair was abnormally high and tight.
“There was an Airstream trailer parked on Riverside Drive with a sign saying ‘Barber,’ ” he said, rubbing a hand across his head, as if that might fix it. “Only 17 bucks!”
Back in the steady pulse of energy that is L.A., a city fueled by the excitement and possibility of dreams coming true, I began to think about a job. Raising two kids isn’t cheap, and besides, the work gene is in my DNA. But the big CBS2 billboards around town featuring the evening anchor team, seemingly thrilled to be guardians of the public airwaves, made me queasy, the potential paycheck dangling like poisoned bait. That’s when I remembered the doomed brown pelicans and the monotonous, mindless dives that steal their sight.
In what was either a foolish or courageous decision, I declined an offer to go back in front of the camera five days a week and accepted one from an Internet company that provides resources to people struggling with infertility. In this field nobody knows who I am, the pay is what I was making 15 years ago, and the learning curve often makes me feel like I’m back in school. But my heart is in the job, and mostly I am happy as I head down to my home office in pajamas after getting the kids off to school.
There are times when I miss the glossy anchorwoman I used to be. When I recently played myself on HBO’s True Blood, reporting a war between vampires and humans in a low, carefully cultivated news voice, I was hit by a wave of nostalgia. Feeling like a ragtag remnant of that informed, ambitious player, my face clear of makeup and Botox, it’s hard not to compare myself to the lovely would-be actresses working at the coffee shop or the latte-drinking moms who, with their Tory Burch boots and sleek ponytails, look so effortlessly chic and uniquely L.A. I glance at the running shoes and shorts that have replaced my sexy heels and designer suits and wonder, What the hell happened to me? But Ethan insists he prefers this stripped-down version (or perhaps he just loves that I’m less bitchy, stressed, and sleep deprived), and my children are precious, perfect mirrors that reflect how beautiful I am to them, no matter what I do, how I look, or where in the world we go.
“Mommy,” says Adrian, looking up as we share a last bedtime hug. “I love you more than the sun.” Something like rapture shines in his eyes. “I love you more than the stars,” he continues, “and the planets…and my penis!”
“Baby,” I tell my son, laughing, “that’s an awful lot.”
Suzanne Rico is working on a memoir about her trip. This is her first feature for Los Angeles.
This feature was originally published in the November 2012 issue of Los Angeles magazine