I wanted to date my mentor’s colleague. Was that a problem?

“I love your work. Are you teaching anywhere?” I messaged the author on Instagram. Her novels were all set in the sun-spilled hills of Los Angeles; I’d read them since I was a teen. To my shock she replied, inviting me to her workshop in Culver City. But there was a catch. I still lived in New York and was having debilitating panic attacks after a bad breakup. I couldn’t imagine getting on a plane.

After a few more weeks of anxious roaming, I couldn’t take it anymore. I bought a ticket and some Xanax. I had found her stories at 16 when I was battling anorexia. Back then, her words made me feel less alone. Now, flying as a heartsick 30-year-old, I read a scene from her work over and over about two women making two separate movies, each with the other in it. There was an underlying theme of love being healing, but I guessed that only happened in fiction.

Landing at Los Angeles International Airport, I recognized the silver smog from her stories. Taking a cab, my heart soared with the palm trees and billboards big as gods. I was in her world, not mine.

I’d escaped.

“You made it!” she said, opening her cottage door. The head shot I had once studied sprung to life. She was beautiful in layers of rose quartz necklaces, the stone of compassion.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said.

Inside, students ringed a table with flowers, vegan treats and tarot cards. I soaked up all the artist’s advice, forgetting I’d ever felt broken.

After, there was a knock at the door.

“I was curious about you,” a beautiful blond man said. A colleague of the artist’s, he’d noticed me on her social media. In my mind, I nicknamed him Salm, after one of her characters.

“Will you take a photo of us?” I asked. Salm was cute, but I was here for work, not flirtation. I put my arm around the artist and smiled.

After all that sunshiny connection, home on the East Coast was extra dark. Each day I walked by graffiti scrawled: New York City Eats Its Young.

Yet each night I worked on my art, fired up by the artist’s workshop. I wrote her regularly to report on my progress. She always wrote back. Her connection tethered me.

“Hi,” Salm texted. Soon he was the first person I texted each morning, the last each night. I felt I was writing one of the artist’s characters in real time.

That’s until he started seeing someone and went dark.

One summer two years later, I had time off from my teaching job and stayed with the artist in Culver City. I lived in her guest house, and we fell into familial intimacy: eating salads and green Moon Juice at home and all-you-can-eat buffet plates from Govinda’s when out. Both single, we commiserated about loneliness. Now at least we had each other. We were even astrologically connected, though our rising and moon signs were flipped.

I’d had a mentor once before, an older male teacher who eventually hit on me. But with her, I felt safe.

“Do you still have a thing for Salm?” she asked one night.

“A little,” I said.

“He asks about you.”

He did?

I wished he were here. Then I pushed the thought away. I looked at the artist’s work lining her walls, her awards and accolades. For art, it was better being alone, I told myself.

When I wanted to leave New York and move to L.A., I began applying to jobs and got an offer.

“A miracle!” the artist said, picking me up from LAX.

“I even have someone to set you up with,” she said, showing me a photo of a tall man at one of her events.

“Oh,” I said, embarrassed I still had feelings for Salm.

I was living in L.A. for a year before he resurfaced. We met in Santa Monica under two palms. He was single again. I felt calm around him. We began dating, going to midnight movies and the Griffith Observatory. As the star shows began, our fingers interlaced in the dark.

Seven years after meeting, we were in first love. We joked that if we got married, the artist could officiate.

We eventually moved in together in Palms and got a dog. But whenever I tried to meet up with the artist, she was busy with work or her kids. I was thankful for romantic love, but mentorship and friendship were huge loves too. She had guided me into the L.A. sun and helped me open my heart again and even trust my own voice. I was afraid to lose her.

“Is everything OK between us?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Just so busy right now.”

I continued to work on my art, watering the seeds she planted. When I got into grad school outside the city, I wanted to say goodbye.

“I’m sorry. I can’t right now,” she said, describing mourning over the death of a loved one. I wished I could do something to lift her as she once had me.

Salm and I drove away in a U-Haul, the bowl of L.A. emptying into the desert. I was so grateful I’d met him. My heart was full. But as the artist’s magic cottage faded behind us, I was hit with my own grief. I had gone toward the artist when I’d had no direction. Now I was driving off toward my work.

Mentorship had strengthened me. The artist’s stories had lit the way.

Now it was time to write my own.

The author is a writer, educator and yogi at work on a memoir. She’s online at sarahherrington.com and on Instagram: @sarah.herrington.

L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the L.A. area, and we want to hear your true story. We pay $400 for a published essay. Email [email protected]. You can find submission guidelines here. You can find past columns here.

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