Here’s how I’d block out this shot: Wide on the hawks as they turn in a fierce cadence far above the burnt umber salt-rock mounts and dry grassy gulches over which this old Highway 101 breaks, in a straight line mostly, for miles north-south with an occasional bow or heave that distracts our minds from the monotony of the road. Dissolve to the unforgiving landscape: heat lines warp the arid land that’s bleached from the constant sun. It’s late spring, and Southern California is a hazy diorama of distant irradiated moments that sweep past as we continue north. Dissolve to the snow-graced Sierra Nevada range fades like a forsaken mural or a dream, and despite the vastness of this great valley it’s quite visible this time of year because of the storms. Closer still are the verdant mountains of Los Padres National Forest behind which they built Santa Barbara settlement a few hundred years ago. Any other day and this road would be bewildered with cars and beach-starved weekenders and such but today there’s only the strange, lovely beauty of California, the heroic hammered mountains, and the spinning wing dance of hawks riding the wafts of orange-blossom air to the cobalt sky above. What a hard, beautiful place. I’m sure I’m lost here momentarily but that’s when we see her standing by the side of the road with a tattered suitcase at her side like some kicked dog; hair caught in a slo-mo updrift; she pulls strands from her parched lips. Some kind of 70s muscle car approaches to establish time, and as it does so we bring up the soundtrack—some classic, guitar-driven song that exudes rebellion, sex, drugs, and rock & roll. She glances toward the side of the road where the body is partially obscured in the desert underbrush; we just see the dude’s boot, a bloodstain, a scorpion. And then she sticks out her thumb, and in doing so the motion hikes up her dusty blouse where the see the silhouette of a holstered handgun—
Yeah, but then suddenly, somewhere between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, we pull over so Grant can puke. But that’s part of this story, which goes like this…
He had been going pretty hard with the pills and grass that the girl — some kind of screenwriter or P.A. or something — from Valley gave him; he choked it down with whatever the hell brand of tequila we picked up at Sav-On before hitting the road. He was back in the far reaches of the car, and in between songs on this worn-out CD he shouted that he was going to vomit.
A minute later he’s off to the side of the road retching like a wino.
We don’t laugh like they do in the movies; neither of us watches too keenly, and this ain’t a movie. He said that a couple of times, and Rooney and I agreed. It’s not a movie, and each time Rooney turns to me and goes, “It’s fuckin’ shame he’s there telling us that this isn’t a movie. Isn’t that his whole MO? Movies and all that shit?”
I shrug. It’s not funny when you were once someone doing something of potential consequence in the movie business, and now you’ve been hardcore dumped and you’re looking at a mountain of debt, a bunch of shitfuck freelance jobs in the Valley, and online porn and a host of fair-weather industry types for companionship.
He finishes and just weaves there looking at the flatness of Camarillo, lost in his own hazy lilac thoughts, maybe; shoes untied, life gone from his sky-blue veins, teetering on genuflection. He says he’s been crying for two weeks (mostly in the shower, he says) but buttons it down at work. (Grant Farrow’s a filmmaker whose two movies came out a decade ago to modest success and made him enough money to live on the cheap at a series of odd jobs; the other one he made wasn’t that good either. He just got bond for a movie he’s calling his masterpiece, the script of which isn’t that good, so he’s been asking me to write scenes. Otherwise he writes film reviews for Variety.) Francis Rooney O’Day, an attorney who once threw touchdowns at Syracuse and right hooks at Monty’s Krown in Rochester, New York, drives the car — a glorious Adriatic blue Cadillac Escalade. I ride shotgun. Rooney and I have been talking about a movie idea of his own, something along the lines of Wall Street meets Alien but so far we’ve only got an ending. Me, I make a living writing other people’s stories; I think I’m developing an ulcer, and Grant says this is promising; he says it’s a good sign and means that I’m close to something real. He says he’s one more movie in him and I tell him there’s at least one more book in me — one of my own. I’m not sure why I always say that.
So how the hell did we get to this point? On paper at least we’re still just getting going: we’re in our thirties, money’s occasionally within reach, we’re in California. How the hell’d Rooney wind up behind the wheel Cadillac Escalade of all things, how’d I end up more or less alone at this juncture but riding shotgun in said Caddy, and how’d Grant wind up puking all over Ventura Highway?
This is all happening in real-time, and is more or less how I hope I can remember it.
I am born Nathaniel Everest Oakland three decades and change ago; I became a Hollywood writer, one who is seemingly forever contiguous to unremarkable fame but nowhere near past my prime; indeed, a published Hollywood writer doing a full-frontal in the ashes of a fail marriage with six completed, (and I think) interesting novel manuscripts of my own, and dozens more started on hard drives, courting mine and other ghosts; further, a produced Hollywood writer, for what it’s worth, even if I didn’t get screen credit.
Alright, so it wasn’t Chinatown but I got paid, and so what if it went straight to video? Everybody gets paid eventually.
All this movie-writing stuff meant something once: the lifestyle, Variety, the connections, the coverage, the would-be deals, the drives along Mulholland Drive picking out my latest mansion. But now I fix B-movie screenplays for a living; there a lot of crappy scripts out there. It’s good work if you can get it. Netflix and Amazon Studios are changing everything, and I’m part of said change.
So, my agent loves me. She loves me because I’m out here and she’s not, and whatever selfies I could provide are completely lost on her; she types on an Underwood. She’s boozy and connected, and she’s in New York being glamorous right now, a fading luminary in her field no doubt, and I’m endlessly in California.
California: through the hazy windshield again — a cathartic rendering of days gone by — lovely, glorious, heartbreaking, and endless. Most of it seems like a dream to me now, a scattering of old pictures splashed loosely across some soft bedspread. You rearrange the moments and memories as best you can but still they make no sense, much like a dream. And despite this, or maybe because of it, you awaken, and another-day-of-surviving face looks back — tiredly, sadly, doubtful, like a windy tree at the dryline of an encroaching storm. The rains haven’t seen the ground for several months; it’s late autumn, a few weeks after Labor Day, early twenty-first century. It’s been sun-shiny for a decade, and then last year happened. Obama’s over; many things are.
Okay, so Rooney came out to go to law school, and after that was done he transitioned into becoming a successful attorney these past ten years. Now he says it’s killing him. He hates his job almost as much as he hates his soon-to-be-ex. He’s got season tickets near first base at Dodger Stadium thought isn’t necessarily a baseball fan.
Grant is from some old Boston blueblood family (if you believe his backstory about the Mayflower), and came out here to be a movie director, has miserably semi-retired from it, has been cut off from whatever monies have been promised him by his brothers, and now lives in a two-bedroom bungalow in Los Feliz plotting a return to the Industry. I came out from New Hampshire via New York City with a Midwest wife and a part-Siamese cat. Both are gone now. I can carry a conversation in Italian and French, which isn’t very useful at turns but after the post-separation trip to northern Europe I vowed to get back there to look up a woman, the memory of whom is probably more idealized than the reality.
Every few months we talk about getting into the car and hitting the road looking for the Great Unknown; we actually do it once a year. California is the last great American place of any importance — really, the last place in the world that makes any real difference at all — therefore it’s the ultimate great unknown. And though I’ve said it before — that in between LA and NY is this big, huge, sobbing, sagging, seething, sweating thing called America — it is that which lies on the other side that is the dream, the breakpoint of the continent, its beginning and end, beautiful, tragic California.
And I used to think that there was actually something out there but now have discovered that California is a country unto itself, and therefore not worth leaving. But I don’t think I ever will. In fact, I think it’s big enough for my ex-wife, all my friends’ ex-wives, and everyone else’s ex-wife, and us. Yes, California is still the place where everything begins and ends. So, every couple of months we try to find another part of ourselves in another part of the state, the great unknown.
Hell, I know it might not even exist. But what do exist are the silences in the high canyons of the San Gabriel Mountains. It’s overwhelming that Southern California can be so silent, even when it’s not the mountains. Sometimes I wake in the early hours after the peacocks have fallen asleep (I live at the Outrigger Apartments, a sort of silly romance of a place in Arcadia, which, along with Asians, has a considerable peacock population) and find that I’m surrounded by the cottony silence of the Arcadia night. I think it’s that which awakens me, the silence. Therefore, I don’t think I would do well living in some mountain town, not unless there was plenty to drink.
And in the post-divorce world, you have silence and drinking. And time to think about what has been. You have time to think like your characters do. Suddenly you’re all about freedoms: should I do nothing today? Should I go to the mountains? Should I be a downtown hipster; can I afford to be a downtown hipster in L.A.? Should I fall in love with the weathergirl every morning? It’s endless and maddening.
And soon you’re in another romance and it’s a slow drift back to normalcy. The post-divorce romances are just as disastrous as the failed marriages. It’s amazing anyone gets along at all, or would even want to.
And these sad-fuck divorce-candidate types… Dude. Once you’re one of them you begin to recognize the browbeat types, slope-shouldered and rained-upon. Even if it was for the best of reasons it’s a terrible thing to go through. You wind up hurting more people than yourselves — the next bright-eyed, sympathetic man or woman who comes along for the terrible ride. You look for solace anywhere and mostly it eludes you. Then you’re alone again, because the romances never really seem to work out. You know you’re going crazy when you start to see the ex everywhere — in the clouds, on the 210, in the mirror, on the Boulevard. You hear her voice, she visits your dreams. And it’s never sexual but often comforting, or maybe it is just for me. More than anything I’m completely and utterly spent. I don’t think I’ll ever fall in love again.
“Why the hell would you want to?” says Rooney. “Jesus Christ, you were there for ten goddamn years. You never got laid. You were friggin’ miserable.”
“Yeah, but I loved her.”
“You loved the idea of being married. That’s what you loved. The idea.”
Grant is passed out in the back of the Escalade. We’ve got the windows down. It’s getting late in the afternoon. We’re heading over toward Santa Barbara to try to sleep on the beach; Grant read about this in a book; Rooney said he’d drive.
“I think she’s got a new guy in her life,” I say.
“Good for her,” Rooney says. “So what? Why the hell shouldn’t she?”
“Doesn’t make it any easier. No, I did love her and I do think there was something to do with the idea of being married.”
“You get laid now, right?”
“And how’s that going?”
“It’s going okay.”
“You didn’t sound very happy the other night,” Rooney says. “You sounded sad.”
“I am sad,” I hear myself say. I am sad. Those words come to mind a lot these days. I really don’t like to think too much about it and since I’m not much of a drinker I can’t exactly numb the misery. I’m beginning to sound more and more like Grant the more we hang out together. (We played pool last week and he barely smiled the whole time. By the end of the night there were three girls playing at our table and he was brooding through the whole thing — and the girls loved it. I took one home with me that night but thankfully she passed out and I let her sleep on the sofa. She was drunk on Coors Light but her breakfast conversation was very nice. I haven’t heard from her since, and I suspect she’s forgotten about it already.)
“You’re not sad,” Rooney says. “You’re a Hollywood writer. You have steady work in a town full of shitheads. What the hell do you have to be sad about?”
“Because when you’re thirty-something and going through divorce, you’ve never made any real money and are beginning to enjoy watching baseball on TV, you’re pathetic.”
“I can’t stand baseball. It’s boring. I mean, I like the pennant race. But it’s too long a season. Like hockey. Too damn long. Fuckin’ Canadian pastime.”
I agree with him. Baseball is kind of boring and hockey season’s too long. I like the opening games and the pennant race and maybe a game or two sometime in July to remind me it actually is summer (since we’re talking California here), but otherwise it’s lost on me.
“But you’re not an athlete,” Rooney says. “You’ve got that asthma.”
“I can still run and hike and box,” I say. “I can hit the stacks and powerwalk.”
“Baseball’s a great game,” Grant says, rising. “It’s a colorful moving game of traditions beyond our understanding. It is a thinking man’s sport. You two are just too stupid to appreciate it.” He braces himself on the seatback and rubs his eyes. He then crawls over the seat and looks out the window. “Where the hell are we?”
“Coming on Santa Barbara.”
“We’re going to sleep on the beach,” he says silently.
We roll into some traffic to the northwest of the city. The ocean is afire with the sherbet lipstick sunset. Grant rolls the window down and leans out. He howls down the canyon. A passing car echoes its horn back. Santa Barbara is below.
On a weekend night Santa Barbara is to be avoided but during the week you can actually find a place to sit in a restaurant or in a bar. And if it’s during the school term (UCSB is nearby), the weeknights still aren’t half bad. It’s a young crowd that comes up here, mainly to the downtown area, which is door after door of bars, restaurants, knickknack shops and clothing stores. “I just want to look at the women,” Rooney says. “I don’t care about any of that other shit.” Grant agrees with him. He’s sobering up and there’s color back in his face. We find a parking garage, slip into long sleeve button-down shirts, hit the streets and hustle down the boulevard.
Nouveau hippies navigate the Coast and find this place eventually. It’s one of those stops along the way between L.A. and S.F., the other being San Luis Obispo, which is where we’ll be in a couple of days. I imagine that there are good drugs bought and sold here, and since there’s a college in town the pushers probably make pretty good money. You can be in and out of here in an hour. It’s not that hard to navigate.
We find a bar & grill about a block from the parking garage and order some burgers and beers. Rooney says he’s buying since he’s the one with the money. He’s notoriously cheap so this offer is met with suspicion from both Grant and me.
The waitress’ name is Jill. She’s probably in her mid-twenties, cute, mousy, with a singsong voice that I fall in love with immediately. Her hair is in a ponytail. She says she’s studying agriculture. Grant perks up and takes over. Rooney makes a few jokes and she laughs. I drink my Sam Adams.
“You guys are funny,” Jill says. “Where’re you heading?”
“Frisco,” Grant says.
“Frisco?” says Jill.
“San Francisco,” I say. “We’re going to San Francisco, and maybe further. Wanna come?”
“I love San Francisco,” she says. “I’ve only been once.”
“Where’re you from?” Rooney says.
“Amarillo, Texas,” she answers.
Grant nods. “I thought I recognized the accent. I’m Grant, this is Rooney and Nate.”
“Are you from there?”
“No,” he says. “Texas and me don’t mix.”
“We’re from back east,” I say. “Northeast.”
“I went to New York once.”
“What are you studying agriculture for? Do you want to be a farmer?”
She laughs. “No, I want to manage land. There’s a lot of that down in Texas.”
“Oh, I know. I went through there a few times.”
Grant says, “What’s that tattoo there?” She has a Steal Your Face tattoo on her shoulder.
Jill kind of brushes it off. “Grateful Dead.”
“Are you a Deadhead?” Rooney says.
“I like their stuff.”
“I saw them a couple of times back in Albany,” he says. She perks up, and Rooney continues, “Yeah, I really tried to understand what the big deal was. I even smoked about a pound of hash before going in there. Wound up passing out midway through the show. The security guards woke me up as they were tearing down the stage; I had fallen asleep on a pile of folding chairs in the corner. I told them I was with the crew and they let me hang out. So I spent the rest of the night drinking coffee and taking the stage down. At around five in the morning I said to the guy, ‘Y’know, I’ve always wondered what was in Rochester. I think I’ll go check it out,’ and walked away. They were calling after me. I broke into a run and lost them in some alley. God, I’m a loser.”
We all laugh. Rooney has these stories that are not quite amazing but very slice-of-life. He’s got the sober wisdom that neither Grant nor I possess. For that I know Grant is thankful.
Jill excuses herself and goes into the kitchen. We pull into a dark huddle.
“She’s hot,” Grant says.
“Yeah, she’s sweet on you,” Rooney says.
“Think she wants to sleep on the beach tonight?”
“Who the hell knows? Why don’t you ask her?”
“I think I will,” he says.
Rooney says to me, “Need another beer?”
“No, I’m good.”
“Do you want to sleep on the beach?”
“Not really. But we’ve got the sleeping bags. We may as well.”
Rooney nods. He finishes his Coke. Jill returns with our burgers and salad. Grant is back into his moody look (the one he thinks girls find irresistible) and smiles wolfishly at Jill.
We plow into the food. Hot burgers, cold salad with ranch dressing, plenty of napkins. Jill brings us a refill on our drinks. “They’re on the house,” she says, smiling. We thank her and continue eating.
Rooney says, “For a Deadhead she sure is generous with the burgers and beer.”
Grant finishes his burger first and leans into his locked hands. His bloodshot eyes scan the sidewalk. When Jill checks in with us he ignores her. He says something arbitrary to Rooney when she’s clearing our plates, but she doesn’t hear. His tactic doesn’t seem to be working. Then she drops the check and smiles at him.
“So, sleeping on the beach tonight, huh?” she says.
“That’s right,” Grant says. “Ever do that?”
“No, I haven’t,” she says. “I don’t think you can here. Up the coast maybe, but not here. At least I don’t think so. I could check for you.”
“Wait, what do you mean?” Grant says. “You can’t sleep on the beach in Santa Barbara? Why not?”
She shrugs and tells him to hold on. We watch her go over to the bar to talk with the mustached bartender. He leans in to listen, his eye locked on hers. He looks over to us, then back at Jill, and then he shakes his head. Jill comes back to the table smiling, shaking her head, almost laughing. It’s a youthful, told-ya-so kind of laugh. “Dex said they don’t allow that anymore but he says there’s a campground up in Goliad, just north of here. It’s on the beach.”
Grant’s deflated. He takes the bill and rips it in two, kicks his chair from underneath him and storms out the door.
Dex the bartender shouts, “Wait! Did he pay?!”
Rooney stands up. “It’s all right, I got it. He’s a little checked out.”
“He only had two beers,” Dex the bartender says.
“Yeah, and about a half a bottle of tequila,” Rooney says.
Jill writes up another check. She takes the drinks off. She writes her phone number on a piece of paper and hands it to me. “Does Grant have a cell phone?”
“Tell him to call me at midnight,” she says.
It works. The brooding, lost poet thing really works. Maybe on Deadheads only, but by Christ it works.
We catch up to Grant up the street in front of a bar watching the TV through the window. He smiles when he sees us. “Did it work?” he asks. I hand him the phone number.
“I don’t know why you’d waste your time with that other woman,” Rooney says. “You’ve got twenty-year-olds giving you their phone numbers.”
“I know. It’s weird.” Grant gestures to the TV: “Lakers are about to get buried again.”
“I’m glad,” Rooney says. “I can’t stand those fuckin’ guys.”
“So, if we’re not going to sleep on the beach down here what are we going to do?” I say. “Drive up to Goliad?”
“Sure,” Rooney says.
“I’m going to be sleeping with a waitress,” Grant says. “You guys should find yourselves one too.”
We walk to the car and say goodnight to Grant. He says he’ll catch up with us in the morning and turns on his heel and disappears around the corner. Rooney says we should get a coffee and I agree so we walk to the Starbucks and order a couple of cappuccinos and sit watching the people walk by. Rooney says, “Anne’s crazy. She’s called me fourteen times in the past three days. The sad thing about it is I know she’s completely out of her mind — off-to-see-the-Wizard kind of crazy — and if it weren’t for the boys I would’ve had her committed years ago.”
“But you weren’t put here to be her damn keeper,” I say. “We both weren’t.”
“They’re the same.”
“Anne and Donna.”
“We married a couple of losers.”
“Who’re you tellin’?”
“At least Grant’s got the right idea.”
“He’s a retard.”
“Yeah but he’s getting laid tonight.”
“We don’t know that. And even if he does you know he would lie about it. He lies about shit like that. And he’s so fucked up all the time I doubt he would even remember the girl’s name in the morning.”
Rooney sips his cappuccino and says that he wished he got a tea. “This is like acid in my stomach.”
“Do you hear music?” I say. “Like horns? Jazz horns.”
We listen through the passing voices, cars, footsteps, wind, and car alarms; through the restaurant presence and palm fronds; through memory and futurity, then decide at the same time that we do indeed hear music. Rooney says, “Let’s follow it,” and we start walking up the street, neither saying anything at all but waiting for the moment when the jazz brings us home. It’s straight ahead to the right, the music says, halfway down the block and through the alley, not far from where Grant hit on the Deadhead. We won’t stop for nothin’ tonight so get on in here because you might miss somethin’.
We find the place right there at the end of a well-lighted alley. There’s no neon over the door but the windows are all open and the listeners are packed inside. It may as well be some other time of the week than a Tuesday.
Rooney says, “This is exactly what we needed. Do you want a cigar?”
“What the hell for?”
“To smoke, dumbass.”
“Sure, if you’re getting one.”
“Well, of course I am. What do you want to drink?”
“Just a whiskey, I think,” I say. He goes over to the bar and I lean against the frame listening and watching the quartet do their things.
Alright, I don’t really know a damn thing about jazz aside from what could probably appear in the Calendar section of the Times. I know of the greats — Davis, Coltrane, Monk, Baker, Gillespie, etc — and know that Kind of Blue is a milestone, and I’ll even admit that if I could build a time machine I’d get back in time to witness that recording session, but on the whole it’s all lost on me. It’s in the moment, and I’m not. In fact I don’t know anyone who is, except maybe Grant. He’s in the moment right now, or thumbing a ride back to the beach. Which I guess is why it’s so important to at least try to understand jazz, and toss aside all hope for somebody like Grant. He plays by rules he might’ve read about when he was younger — not his own but from one of his heroes — and therefore only he understands his world. Thus he is very much like jazz—borrowing from his heroes, altering it to suit his mindset, wooing the younger women, remaining ageless, living on the edge of some moment that is constantly happening. He is, I guess, pretty goddamn crazy, and damnit I wish I were more like that. Not crazy like loonytoons, but willing to take the same chances I took when I was ten years younger. I know that once I did because it would have been ten years ago and I would’ve been more apt to lasso a vision out of the sky and wrestle it to the ground. And I would’ve been able to drink more, but I wouldn’t have cared in the least for jazz.
Rooney says, “Here’s the thing about this kind of music: It never really has an ending, does it? I mean, we’ll probably still be standing here next week — holy shit! Over your right shoulder: Hottie in a brown T-shirt.”
I look over my shoulder. The woman leans against the dolly column with a drink in her hand. Like us she’s trying to “get it,” and like us she probably won’t. She looks over at us — right at me — and our eyes meet in a moment of music and space, then it’s over. She looks back at the band. She looks over again and this time Rooney isn’t watching. He’s about to put his drink down. He leans over and says he’ll be outside. I tell him that I’ll call.
I walk over the woman and ask her name. “Lori,” she says loudly and laughs, because as she’s saying her name the music stops. We shake hands. I introduce myself and ask her if she would like another drink. She smiles and shakes her head. She says that she really isn’t a drinker but she and her boyfriend just broke up. Yeah, she says, He just walked out. She says that she broke a window throwing a potted plant at him as he hustled to his car. I act concerned. She says he’s going back to L.A. where he lives (he usually visits her on the weekends but for some reason came up and found her with this other guy, whom she swears is only a friend). I ask her if she would like another drink and she nods. We walk over to the bar and she hesitates. She says she would rather have a coffee. I say that’s a great idea. There’s a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf up the street.
So as we walk out of there I place my hand on the small of her back. It’s very warm and hard, a summertime feeling, like she’s strong or hasn’t an ounce of body fat worth noting on her. We don’t say much on the way to the coffee shop. We pass Rooney who laughs and winks and goes on into a record store. He gestures to his watch and holds up two fingers. I nod. Two hours.
We order two lattes and sit opposite each other.
“Where are you from?” she asks.
“Los Angeles — well, Arcadia,” I say.
“I’ve never heard of that place. Is it — where?”
“It’s on the other side of Pasadena. Have you heard of that?”
“Are you a student?”
“I’m studying botany.”
“It’s hard. But I like it. I work at a nursery in town.”
“Graduate degree? Undergrad?”
“Undergrad. I’m twenty-one, don’t worry.”
“No, it wasn’t that. I wasn’t sure if they even offered a post-grad gardening degree.”
“It’s not gardening. It’s botany.”
“I was being facetious.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a ghostwriter.”
“Oh. Do you like it?”
“It’s all right. It’s a career. I can’t complain.”
“Writing someone else’s stories?”
“Yeah. You’d be surprised how many of us are out there.”
“Really, wow. Are you from California?”
“No, back east. You?”
“Colorado and Wisconsin.”
“Well, which is it?”
“I was born in Wisconsin and grew up in Colorado. I summered in Door County ever since I was a kid. My folks have a place out there. It’s real pretty. Have you been?”
“No. I’ve heard it’s real nice.”
“You should go. What’s your name again?”
We shake hands and laugh. The softness returns to her eyes now that name recognition has taken place. She’s slender with a strong, birdlike voice that’s decidedly feminine and friendly, something not at all common in L.A. Her hair is dark and there’s a luster to it, like she’s been in the sun all day. In fact, she’s tan like a vacationer or a movie star. She says her name’s Lori Bird, and I don’t care if that’s not true.
“Nathaniel Oakland.” The swagger returns. I haven’t introduced myself to someone like that in years. It sounds practiced, actoresque. Grotesque, maybe? I don’t know. But the woman smiles.
“Well, Nathaniel Oakland from Arcadia, do you want to come back to my place?”
“Of course. Do we need to drive or can we walk?”
“It’s not far,” she says.
We enter the night, closer now, along the cold dry sidewalk, and the hill above the city is all lights and the mountain behind it just a shade cooler and lighter than the sky above.
Lori says, “What brought you to Santa Barbara?”
“We’re driving up the coast, some friends and I. Up to the Bay Area. Want to come along?”
Lori laughs. “Come on, you know I can’t. I hardly know you. Besides I have class.”
We turn onto a side street. It’s even less lighted than the last one. I look back, trying to retrace the steps in my head should this not work out. Wind blows through the palm fronds overhead. The air smells of jasmine.
And Lori’s not saying much. She doesn’t comment on the palm fronds or the jasmine flowers. Still I stop to smell them — they’re growing in tremendous bushels along a low cinder block wall — taking a handful and breathing deeply, experiencing them as they should be experienced, as all flowers should be, knowing that my nasal cavity is about to expand like a horny sponge in an allergic reaction. But she doesn’t need to know this. All she needs to know is that I am somewhat romantic, that I could stop in the cold hazy moonlight on some darkened Santa Barbara street and breathe in this sugary sweet flowery air that lines the sidewalk, come up with some glib romantic remark, and continue as though it weren’t rehearsed. She doesn’t need to know anything.
Hers is a bungalow behind a larger house. It’s actually a converted garage. There’s a yard to the left of it. A tail-wagging dog greets us momentarily and leans in against her leg, looking up, licking her lips. She goo-goos the dog then pets her heartily before scooting the old thing off. I act amused. I can’t stand dogs. My nasal cavity is already fighting back.
Lori says, “Here’s the window I broke.” It’s a large hole and there’s glass everywhere.
“Is that blood?” I say, pointing.
We look closer. Blood marks on the driveway.
“Oh, shit, I think Daisy stepped in the glass.”
We look at Daisy the dog. She is limping slightly.
“Here, let me,” I say heroically. I get down on my knees and pull the dog close. I look at her paws one by one. “Yup, she’s cut. Let’s get this cleaned up.”
Lori brings the hose over and turns it on. We rinse the dog’s cut paw in the dark. We’re talking very seriously now, in low tones of abrupt concern. I tell a story of a neighbor’s cat that lost its paw on some harsh farm machinery. Lori groans something back. She’s real close. I can smell the sunny, sweaty perfume of her skin; there’s jasmine from the street and salt-air from the ocean. Daisy is very still and obedient, like an older dog can be.
We go inside where it’s warmer and brighter and I sit on the sofa and Daisy the dog sits nearby. Lori excuses herself and goes outside with her cell phone. I strain to hear but can only make out something about the boyfriend already in L.A. That’s good enough for me.
“I like your place.” It’s not very big, though it is well-lighted. There’re plants everywhere, some rock & roll posters, a futon, a TV, a stereo, a makeshift kitchen with a range, refrigerator, sink and counter. Bookshelves line the wall.
Lori puts on a record — something vaguely Uncle Tupelo — and sits nearby. She’s playful with the dog but that fades fast the closer she gets. Our hands are barely touching.
“What time’s your class?” I say.
“Eleven.” She’s leaning closer now. “Aren’t you going to kiss me?”
“Do you want me to?”
We kiss. And the salty, soft magic of her lips come together in a tender moment, the kind of which only strangers can own. She pulls me closer into that perfect embracing kiss, her strong arms around my back and neck, and we turn in an moment of pure ether, perhaps the two last people to do so on a night like this. In the tight stillness of the bungalow garage I ask, “What about your boyfriend?” even though I already know.
“He’s in L.A. He has to be at work in the morning. He won’t be coming back. Are you going to stay?”
“Yes,” I say, taking off my jacket.
We waltz past Daisy the dog as she lays in the middle of the floor cleaning her wounded paw. The bed is draped in beads and some sort of Indian fabric. The CD plays something smoky, remotely druggie, as the clothes come off. She’s perfect: lean, like a memory, and willing like a midlife crisis ideal should be. I don’t apologize for my age when she asks. She says she doesn’t care as long as I don’t.
Then I hear myself say, “I don’t think I can. I don’t think I should.”
She smiles and lies back, pulling me with her. She kisses me gently; it’s sweet and reminiscent of nothing. We move in that moment together and though I’m not thinking it outright, I could very well fall in love with this stranger; the upshot of being a semi-failed writer who builds other people’s bestsellers and who gets laid is you’ve the option of reenacting all romances you’ve read, or walking away world-weary but fully released. Either way you come away with intimacy. But then she rolls over and takes a deep breath. All the moments in the room are lost and I stare into the darkness.
I’m Nathaniel Everest Oakland, ghostwriter.