There was a golf cart stolen—one of us stole, the rest caught a ride—and on it we rattled through darkness, giddy with wind on our faces, the ditches off the road to either side shades darker than what was in front of us, pitch-black. The tops of the trees ranged overhead. Everywhere my vision fell I saw an ‘us,’ a ‘we,’ and my fear was that ‘we’ might all go there, into a ditch, the cart tipped, our joyride done with, what remained, broken and moaning, to be recovered at dawn. This is not what happened.
I drove, drove alone. A car of my own from one side of the continent to the other. There were fires from lightning strikes on the tall, curled median grass in Arizona dividing my progress from the possibility of its reversal, a turn in the opposite direction, and in a gas station at the border, sixty feet from a single-story casino, its entrance overhung by a giant and absurd headdress, I bought a pack of gum and a cherry cola and thought ‘California.’ But California had been thought before. I got that. Impossible to deny.
NO FIREWORKS IN SANTA MONICA / DRIVE SAFELY read the yellow-lettered sign in front of the gray sunset refracting off the smog. An officer pinwheeled her arms to coax my car along. Down the sidewalk there went families and couples and packs of sophisticate teens, and hobos lean and bronzed and gritted with filth. Someone, apparently, had called in a threat, credible enough to cancel whatever anyone’s plans were tonight. I watched firecrackers pop over Compton from the freeway, Santa Monica to Pasadena, those palms whose tops just clear the rails.
A short man threatened me with a baseball bat, shouting from a courtyard off Hollywood Boulevard that he didn’t take shit and would I come down from my apartment and face him like a man? He could not accept the volume of my music. When we passed in a corridor months later, he said nothing, but I was amazed at his height, the movie in his head, and how much taller he must have felt he stood in it.
We gave jive answers to the Scientology questionnaires, me and the spunky girl from Wisconsin. She worked at a talent agency, swore L.A. was the place to be, had been in a threesome once where no one spoke ever again. “What I want to do most is found my own cult,” I told our pair of questioners on Wilshire, who looked polite enough, hair crisply parted, “and make millions,” willing to hear out whatever it was I actually had to say. One nodded like, Yeah, well, you’ve come to the right place. The girl from Wisconsin was amused. We made out later; my skin broke out where our cheeks had touched, her cosmetics unfriendly.
They felt important, the nights I had somewhere to go, and on one of those, Bonnie before her long, final illness brought me to a gallery in Beverly Hills. Displayed there were prints by an artist after Ansel Adams, shots in crisp black-and-white of waterfalls, shadows, and the explosion of leaves on branches. “He burns and dodges,” she said, in her cigarette-thickened voice. Bonnie called the artist by his first name, a friend to her and her husband. “He burns and dodges on every picture—did you know that? That’s what the technique is called.” California elected another movie star governor. It just didn’t matter what anybody said to the TV.
A day came when I went to the office and the executive whose calls I took was no longer there. The producer whose company it was told me that he would not be welcome again. They asked me to call him from the phone in his corner office, which I did, sitting at his executive desk in the comfortable executive chair that had formerly been comfortable for him. The producer and her husband, a screenwriter, whispered to me what I should say. “We thank you for your time with us. A box containing your personal items will be sent to the address you provide.” I spoke these words in a voice as affectless as possible, listening for hitches in the former executive’s breathing, anything to signal how he was taking this news that I had been asked to deliver. My eyes were locked alternately on the eyes of the producer—glazed with medication, yet certain of herself—and those of her husband—vulture-like with hunger and a little wild. It was not long afterwards that I decided to return east. Pride before the fall, always, always.
On the walls of the firm in Midtown, a tower that took the distant view of life beneath it—specks, yellow beetles crawling Manhattan’s straits—prints hung; famous paintings, real or reproductions, depending on the floor. Across from an associate’s office window, sometime after 11, three teens in bras danced in the frame of their hotel room, music almost visible, darkened panels all around their light. One crossed the room, mounted the bed, took her friend by the belt buckle, and gyrated against her jeans with the caprice of a hummingbird. From the associate’s desk, I thought the possibilities for the light in the associate’s office—on or off—meant the difference between my being abashed or a creep—and how this choice must also fall to every associate fresh to the firm, working late nights, youth crying out on the surface of the skin for its own preservation under layers of silken formality, jackets buttoned at the waist, obligation on obligation, the Inbox forever salivating—these girls’ sheer obliviousness, the color of their bras, the music on their skin; each night the renewed suspense: what scenes might take shape across the way, a tapestry of window panels, mercury sliding in formlessness to formlessness, the hotel rooms like channels on TV, select occupants in for a night—from Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut, farther even—baring to lonely eyes and the shiny angles of Manhattan their oblivious ecstasy, and from them an associate turns to the document on his desk, one boat in the armada of a corporate defense. By e-mail, document from discovery, date REDACTED, tech mogul REDACTED writes subject-line REDACTED, “When you want to shoot someone, you don’t tell them what you’re going to do: you pull the trigger,” and in formal dress, the associate is responsible for filing this message. Do not disrespect his manner. Not thirty seconds after I flipped that switch: the sound of the janitor wheeling a cart down the corridor. He hummed a song no longer on the radio. I was not an associate. I did not know how many more days the lobby’s mirrored escalators would carry me up. I fixed the tie at my neck and went to meet whatever future it was that could fix me in place.
Recent reads: Godsend by John Wray, Friday Black by Nana Adjei-Brenyah, A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen, The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. Longer-term faves: Vineland by Thomas Pynchon, Creationists by E.L. Doctorow, Kafka Was the Rage by Anatole Broyard, Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos.