It is just after ten a.m. on a weekday. I’m sitting in a booth by a window in the diner on the ground floor of The Standard Hotel, on Sunset. I’m sipping an iced latte but mostly I’m studying the geometric pattern of the blue linoleum tabletop.
“You hiding out? Cos’ if you are, let’s order breakfast. I’m starving.”
A slender, mocha-skinned woman in a white t-shirt and jeans is standing at the edge of the table. Without waiting for an answer, she unslings a leather bag from her shoulder and slides into the booth alongside me. She moves with the sinuous angularity of a snake.
Her name is Aisha. We met in a café on Abbot Kinney a couple of months ago.
“They’re looking for you back at your office,” she says.
“Did you tell them where I was?”
“Baby, who knows that anymore?”
She relaxes into the scuffed vinyl cushioning of the banquette with the weary grace of someone who, at age 26, has played most of the supporting roles in the repertoire of L.A. cautionary tales. She’s was once the too-young wife of a successful hip-hop artists’ manager, flashing a black Amex card in the fashionable bodegas off Rodeo Drive. Now she’s a divorced, single mother sharing a ground floor apartment smaller than her ex-husband’s garage with her young son on the edge of West Hollywood. She’s an an actress, almost too old to hope for a break, so she does what she has to make ends meets: even, she confessed, hooking with a girlfriend who offered her a thousand dollars to do a threesome with a well-known director. “I didn’t mind it much,” she told me, “I was pretty desperate then.”
There’s a faded tattoo, blue-black like a bruise, on her right shoulder. I haven’t asked her about it but I know it’s from a life before the ones she’s told me about.
“You OK?” she asks.
“I don’t know.” Actually, I’m free-diving into a deep, aqueous depression. With luck, negative buoyancy will hold me down until I run out of air. “I lost it today.”
She shrugs. “It’s not the first time.”
A pneumatic, not-so-young blonde waitress with a tangled perm and creamy flesh that billows from a utilitarian, faux-Fifties yellow cotton dress puts a Caesar salad in middle of the table.
“It’s this town,” Aisha says. “It does it to all of us.”
The aging English pop star is silent.
He’s performing tonight but his voice is strained, so he communicates through mime and when that fails, phrases scribbled in pencil on paper napkins. His hands are always in motion, rotating and flicking lightly from the wrists, like a percussionist working the inside of a beat.
There are three of us at a table beneath a bleached calico umbrella on a terrace of the Argyle Hotel. It’s just after midday. Beneath us, partly obscured by a sooty, carcinogenic haze, is West Hollywood: a symmetrical grid of boulevards and streets lined with grubby terracotta roofs, palm trees and eucalypti. Here and there, the glistening, crystalline surfaces of swimming pools.
I don’t even bother to take in the view. Too much of my life has ebbed away in hotels, restaurants and parking lots around here. Whoever it was that said “Hell is other people” must not have lived in L.A. Here, hell is the shiny, empty places, from which all care has gone.
The other guest is English, too. His hollow-chested reediness and nasally Liverpudlian twang, along with the red Prada slacks and black Prada boots he’s wearing, mark him as a common music industry archetype. He has none of the pop star’s long-practised charisma. His name is Nick and together with the pop star he owns a music company in Tokyo that produces elusively pre-pubescent music acts called idoru for an adolescent market weaned on Sony Playstations.
“I was talking to someone this morning and he said I shouldn’t have anything to do with you,” Nick tells me.
I wait a beat before replying. “He’s heard the worst, I guess.”
“So have I,” Nick says. “How much of it is true?”
“Most of it.”
“You don’t seem too fussed.”
“Not much I can do about it.”
And that appears to be the end of it because as we eat, Nick tells me about the pop star’s plans, still in their early stages, to re-form the group with which he gained a rarefied stratus of fame in the Eighties. An hour later, the pop star himself scratches three words on a tea-stained paper napkin: “Come to Japan?”
I peer into the pop star’s famous blue eyes for a moment, then past them, over the low terrace wall, to a grassy reserve verge below that local residents use to exercise their dogs. Police in bicycle helmets, white golf shirts and blue shorts, are rousing several vagrants who were asleep, bundled in blankets. Disheveled, faceless figures rise and begin to wander away like refugees, trailing layers of threadbare wool, flannel and nylon, towards the scrappy suburban flatlands north of Melrose. A few stragglers, probably stoned on cheap crack or Thunderbird, are hurried along with the prods of batons.
I wonder if the hotel pays the police to do this so its guests don’t witness the only mortal sin you can commit in America: poverty.
I am so fucking tired of this place. The realization is abrupt and unexpected.
“Sure,” I say to the pop star. “When do I leave?”
I drive until dusk. With no particular place to go, I helm my reconditioned ‘63 Chevy Impala SuperSport like an elegant boat down La Cienega to Highway10, then west to the turn-off for the Pacific Coast Highway. From there, I follow the wide ribbon of four-lane blacktop north as it unspools along the beach. At Big Rock, the ocean’s shining, stainless steel surface disappears behind fragile homes of wood and stucco clinging to the eroded foreshore; it’s glimpsed again only in shimmering slivers until I reach the old Malibu pier. I hang a u-turn and re-trace my route on PCH until I reach the Topanga Canyon intersection. Turning my back on the Pacific Ocean, I alter course inland towards the grim sprawl of Hollywood.
There’s sometimes a curative mindlessness in driving around this way, a kind of meditation – a mechanised zazen, if you like – in which time and space pause, consciousness stops, and there is just being, a solitary samadhi experienced on the road. Except it’s not like that this evening. I can feel the persistent itch of psycho-toxins seeping through my brain, corroding reason. I’m unable to slow my racing thoughts. Incomplete images and addled phrases assemble then disassemble in my mind like arcane cryptography, impossible to break. My body is tense, as if expecting a blow, and every sensation, from traffic noise to a draft of air on my skin, is an unbearable irritant.
A rusted, cast-iron gate, framed by a scraggly bougainvillea, opens from the sidewalk onto a metre-square patch of bare concrete. Four steps ascend to Aisha’s front door. An unprotected bulb at the end of a length of duct-taped flex burns a pale yellow above the door. The windows of the apartment are dark.
I knock on the door. Shuffling footsteps inside, as light as a child’s. The door opens. Aisha’s hand appears, then half her face, to beckon me in.
“Hey baby,” she whispers, smiling, closing the door behind me. She turns on a lamp. Its light is diffused, candle-like, beneath an earth-toned Moroccan veil. “I was waiting for you, but I couldn’t stay awake.”
She encircles my waist with her arms and presses her head against my chest.
“I’m sorry,” I tell her. She looks up at me, expecting me to continue, but my eyes are focused somewhere just short of the wall beyond her head.
“I’ll make us some tea,” she says.
The apartment is a large single room. A deep alcove, separated from the rest of the space by a hand-sewn curtain, painted in abstract, earth-toned patterns, serves as a bedroom for her son. A timber daybed in a distressed whitewash, across which are strewn several cushions and lengths of colourful East African fabrics, is set against a wall facing an open kitchen. A djembe, an African drum, is next to it and supports the veiled lamp on its desiccated skin,. In front of the daybed is a blood red timber coffee table, of the sort you can pick up cheaply in Mexican furniture stores at the less fashionable end of Third Street.
I kick off my boots and my socks, and lie on the daybed, my head angled so I can watch Aisha in the kitchen. She’s wearing a plain, black satin slip that clings to her skin as she moves. She’s not wearing anything else; her coarse pubic hair ruffles the fabric’s easy flow above the hem. Her slender legs are unusually long.
“Come here,” I tell her. The voice isn’t mine: there’s a gonadal rawness about it, disconnected from anything sensual. Aisha stops what she’s doing and turns to look at me. She doesn’t move from the kitchen counter.
“Come here,” I repeat, less urgently, holding a languid hand out to her, as if reassuring a wary animal. She walks over and takes it. I try to draw her down onto the daybed but she balks.
“Let’s just talk for a while, OK?” she says. I try again to pull her towards me again, moving my body deeper into the daybed to make room. This time, she joins me. She lies with her back towards me, his shoulder blades against my chest, her ass pressed into my groin. She positions my hand where she wants it across her stomach.
“How was the rest of your day?” she says. Anxiety ripples through me. Unable to speak, I bury my face in her hair. Then I thrust my hand between her legs. I slide her light body up the mattress so my mouth can reach the side of her neck and her exposed, tattooed shoulder. “Baby, don’t,” she insists. “This isn’t what I want.”
I ruck her slip up over her belly as I turn her onto her stomach. I take in her exposed body with the clinical indifference of a mortician as I unbuckle my belt. There’s no tenderness, no desire, just this nagging emptiness that I want to caulk with sex.
“This isn’t what I want,” she says again, more softly – a last attempt to assuage what she senses is the worst of me.
I fuck her hard from behind, my fingers probing, bruising, as she lies still, silent, not even breathing hard. When finally I roll away from her, she stands, strips off her slip, and without looking at me, runs to the bathroom.
I think I hear her crying. I wait for an astringent of self-loathing to sting me but there’s nothing, not even care. Fifteen, twenty minutes go by, then the shower sputters. I get up from the daybed to wipe myself with kitchen paper and get dressed.
When Aisha returns from the bathroom, she is covered by a plain, ankle-length djellabah, with a white towel wrapped loosely around her head. She stands in front of me, just out of reach.
“What the fuck was that about?” she asks. There is an unnerving calm about her.
I want to answer but I can’t find the emotions around which to form the words.
“I am trying to understand – really I am – what would make you think it was okay to treat me like that.” She studies my face like it’s evidence of some un-nameable crime. Contempt flickers in her eyes.
I meet her stare but say nothing. A tear threads down her cheek. She turns away. I want to hold her, to console her, to tell her that I am sorry even though – I realise then, with a sickening jolt – I’m not. I’m not anything. Something is broken inside me and I don’t know how to fix it.
Without saying a word, I go to the front door, open it, and walk out into the empty night.
***C.C. O’Hanlon is a traveller, diarist and lebenskünstler (‘life artist’), who was best described by Wild Culture Journal as a ‘wild polymath’. Over the past 30 years, he has published numerous essays, short stories and poems. His meditative essay, Northing, first published in the Australian Griffith Review, was included in Best Australian Essays 2005, edited by Robert Dessaix. His very first short story was also included in Best Australian Stories 2004, edited by Frank Moorhouse. The poem [submitted to Sick Lit] is the first piece he has published in over a decade. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany. Find him on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ccohanlon ***