Just Sex

Vic was someone to whom I owed no excuses.  She’d be walking away with more than she’d started with and she knew it; she had no cause to gripe.  But I needed something—a rift to justify my disgruntlement.

There was her aborted marriage.  The engagement was in the final stage: invites out, two families mobilized, travel accommodations booked, everything nonrefundable.  Then, with only days left to go, her fiancé bailed.  One could only imagine the humiliation.  Vic had become calloused after that, eschewing commitment altogether and indulging in casual sex, which she regarded as essential.  We’d discussed her history, which I had no problem with.  She was slutty, so was I.  But Vic truly believed that a sexual relationship could persist in a state of unemotional purity—a notion I knew I could debunk quite easily, so one night I baited her.

“So Vic, I’m curious.  You can sleep with a guy and it’s just sex, is that right?”

She said yes. 

“So, what would happen if you and your fuck buddy bumped into each other one night at a club, let’s say?”

“Then we’d probably end up together that night.”

“Okay, here’s the scenario: What if you see him, but he doesn’t see you.  And he’s with another woman, what then?”

“Then I’d avoid him.”

“Okay—weird enough, but okay.  But suppose he calls you the next night wanting sex, what happens then?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t give me that bullshit, Vic, answer me!”

“Why are you being mean?”

“Because I’d like you to face reality, that’s why.  What do you do?  Do you fuck him? Even though you know he’s fucking someone else?”

“I don’t know.  I guess not.”

“You guess not?  Well if it’s just sex, then what’s the problem?”

Winning the argument didn’t make me feel any better; I knew I was projecting.  But I felt justified.  Wheras Vic was blissfully accommodating her own artifice, I was, at the very least, aware of mine.

The Wrong Rice

Jeannie was souring. She yearned for hairdressing work, her vocation of training, but rather than search aggressively, she was content to complain, blame the market. Then she “lost” her job at the clothing store. I was handling the bills, which suited her fine, but I was getting agitated as well. Jeannie was cute but she wasn’t exactly arm candy, which made her attitude all the more baffling. She spoke of connections she had—industry people—but the evidence didn’t bear it out. From what I could tell she had two friends, Nicole and CJ, her roommates from before she moved in. Theirs was a triangular friendship, built drunkenly at the Burgundy Room on Cahuenga every night. Now Jeannie seemed to be falling out with the other two.

I’d met Nicole and CJ. They had the funky hair and stylish clothes, but they were both brusque and unseemly. My theory was that Jeannie had always attracted more men, leaving Nicole and CJ to subsist on the runoff from last call’s panic rush. It’s the same scene at every club in Hollywood. The offensive house lights, having been forced upon the crowd so suddenly and so mercilessly, feel like a sexual death sentence. Bar patrons, looking like utter shit all of a sudden, scramble. Bedlam ensues. Bodies begin funneling through the bottleneck, spreading out into the night, regrouping on the waiting curb. 100 cigarettes are lighted. “So where’s the after party?”

With Jeannie becoming increasingly withdrawn, her phone stopped ringing altogether. I wasn’t surprised; surely Nicole and CJ were getting laid more. Jeannie was sedentary, sinking ever more deeply into my couch.

I’d dropped a few grams at the King King, and I was taking the surface streets home. I called Jeannie to see if she wanted anything. A burrito with beans and rice, she said, so I stopped at Machos Tacos on Vermont. When I got back she was on the couch watching Family Guy, my Homer Simpson slippers on the coffee table, her feet buried inside them. I handed her the bag of food. She thanked me flimsily and began excavating.

“Wait, you got me white rice.”

I just looked at her.

She presented me with a takeout container, flaps fanning out. “You got me WHITE rice from a fucking taco stand!”

“You asked for rice, I ordered rice.”

“I meant MEXICAN rice.”

“Are you kidding?”

“Whatever. Forget it.”

“Forget it? I don’t think so Tonya Harding.”

White trash equals Tonya Harding; my mind just went there. Missing the reference of course, Jeannie just called me an asshole. I agreed with a caveat: she was too dim to fathom the scope of it. She abandoned her food and began storming around, gathering belongings. I plopped on the couch and lit a cig.

“I don’t give a shit where you go, just leave the key.”

“NO!”

I got off the couch and went after her. “Give me my fucking key!”

She kept her back to me. “I’m calling Maus!” she said. She’d struck another nerve. Jeannie had been telling people that she’d befriended Maus at the Burgundy Room, which was patently false. She’d glommed on to Maus while I was living with her, and the two shared a superficial girl bond at best. I knew that Maus was a capitulator, though, and that she’d buckle to Jeannie’s rants. I figured my key had to be in the bag swinging from her shoulder, so I reached for it.  Under its own weight, the bag bolted south, the strap catching the pit of Jeannie’s elbow. I was mortified, first at the thought of her being marked, then at the thought of my being implicated, and finally at the thought of having just prioritzed my reputation over her injury. I apologized effusively. Not only was Jeannie unmoved, she was emboldened. She left nearly gloating, key and all.

I went outside to brood over a beer. The skyline was orange, ominous, and I gazed for a moment, put a Parliament in my mouth. I patted my pockets for a lighter that wasn’t there, but I felt my blaster, so I pulled it out and bumped twice, maneuvering the scooper around the unlit cig dangling from my lips. There was work ahead: collapsible boxes to fill, locks to be changed. I hopped in the Geo and lit the smoke and headed for the Home Depot on Sunset and Western, the only one open 24 hours, the one that, because of the supposed aisle by aisle cruising code, my gay friends called the “Homo Depot.”  I want to say that hardware was for tops and plumbing for bottoms, but perhaps that’s just a fanciful reconstruction.

A Luddite Weeps at the Gym

I once picked up a woman at Packard’s.  She was heavily tatted and pierced, had the geometric, multicolored hairdo, some scarification—the prototypical gal I’ve been attracting since I was twelve.  When we got back to my place, the first thing she noticed was a copy of Rolling Stone sitting on the ironing board.  “Lady Gaga is the shit!” she said.  This saddened me.  It made me yearn for the old days, when we met at all ages shows: all sweaty with sticky hair and runny makeup.  Ripped jeans, safety pins, Doc Martens with colored laces.  Ten dollar T-shirts from Newbury Comics.  We were like a tribe.  Maybe we weren’t into the same bands exactly, but fuck pop music, fuck the radio (though we loved our college stations), and definitely fuck Mtv (unless of course it was 120 Minutes).

Well, I’m old now.  And times have changed.  The average freak is more likely to be into Katy Perry than Nick Cave.  How the hell that happened, I can’t say.  It probably has something to do with Madonna.  (That issue of Rolling Stone, btw, featured a piece on Dennis Hopper’s final days, which is why it was on my ironing board.  As for why I had the ironing board, I have no excuse for that.)  I think everyone, including me, figured I’d outgrow punk rock culture.  But not only do I still love it at forty, my appreciation for it has grown, perhaps because it’s always been there for me.  For years I avoided downloading, for fear of it.  There’d be nothing tangible there, and I was reticent about providing information,typing shit, and, like, committing to something.

Well, all that’s changed.  I got my account with iTunes (way easier than I imagined) and I’m loving it.  I even had my mother dust off my old cassette tapes and ship them to me, so I could see what I’d forgotten about.  Dag Nasty.  The Virgin Prunes.  Anti-Nowhere League.  All my old favorites at 99 cents a pop!  I’ve been having a blast building my library.  Syncing to my Shuffle.

I was one of those sensitive-type punks.  (We didn’t have a name for it then, but I read that it’s called “emo” nowadays.  I also read that emo-types, understandably, hate that label.)  So what went along with all the thrash and hardcore was a slower, more melodic sound we called New Wave, which sort of morphed and mainstreamed, becoming “alternative” in the 90′s, but that’s getting off point.  Among my latest downloads is a song called “What’s the Matter Here?” by 10,000 Maniacs.  It’s about child abuse.

With the shuffle, obviously, any song could play at any time.  I was at the Northampton Athletic Club, doing shoulder shrugs real close to the mirror, when Natalie Merchant got to me.  It was the crescendo that did it:

All these cold and rude things that you do, I suppose  you do because he belongs to you.  And instead of love and the feel of  warmth, you’ve given him these cuts and sores that don’t heal with time  or with age.

I’d forgotten about the passion in that vocal, so hauntingly beautiful.  I felt the tears well up in my eyes.  I worried that this might look odd: a grown man crying in the gym.  I hoped that people would simply assume I’d had a blistering set, hence the puffy eyes and crimson face.

And then I wondered why it mattered.  I was feeling something.  And feeling felt good.  It was that old friend again, the one I keep neglecting.  The one who’s kind enough to keep giving me second chances.

Slow Hemorrhage of the Soul

When I arrived in Los Angeles, one of the first things I noticed was the near-constant presence of cocaine, and its ubiquity had nothing to do with any sort of subculture.  It was at all the grungy after parties, of course, but it was also at the wine and cheese gatherings, the ones that start at six.  Put on a collared shirt, bring a bottle of Bordeaux, kiss the hostess on the cheek, do some coke.  People who would be considered “grownups” back east were using cocaine openly in LA.  I hadn’t done it in eight or nine years, and what I remembered was juvenile and sketchy: people winking and pee dancing off to the bathroom.  But now it was out in the open, and more like a tango: tension and slinking, staccato speech patterns, syncopated dialogue.  I’d be chatting up a girl, cutting up lines casually, the number determining the length of the dance, the girl following my lead.  I’d better offer him a smoke, get into the rhythm of his jokes, or he’ll whirl off with the coke.

Within the fierce social-climbing jungle that is the LA party scene, cocaine is more than just an accoutrement.  It’s bait.  You can lure with it, build a party around it.  People will stay so long as you don’t run out.  You can’t buy charm, wit, affability, handsomeness or intellect, but you can find a delivery dealer.  But there’s an unintended consequence, one that’s slower and somewhat more insidious than the obvious health and legal concerns: you become an asshole.  How affable I was to begin with is questionable, but over time my motivation to be polite diminished considerably.  Why polish your manners when you can just pull out your bag?

I became an unapologetic cokehead.  And everyone knew it.  After all, that was the point.  If you needed a bump, you came to me.  It was my contribution, the least I could do.  I was glomming onto a scene that far exceeded anything I could’ve imagined.  Everyone had been around long enough to have acquired connections.  If we wanted to go to a certain club, we got on the list.  Having never bypassed a velvet rope in my life, I fell quickly into the flow of entitlement.  And the timing!  Bands I’d loved growing up—Sex Pistols, Bauhaus, Pixies—were reuniting and gigging in LA.  I was backstage at the Fonda when Echo and the Bunnymen were about to go on.  The show was delayed because Ian McCulloch was characteristically drunk and missing (“Same ol’ fuggin’ coont,” muttered one of the roadies).  No ardent Smiths fan ever expects to encounter Morrissey, so when I saw him at the El Rey it was like a dream.  That impossibly close shave, the hair, the hurt.  I wanted to touch him, if only to freak him out, but he was flanked by bodyguards.  I saw Circle Jerks, Buzzcocks.  I got in everywhere, easily, and always had the run of the place.

Then there were those grungy after parties.  We may’ve begun the evening in the inner sanctum, getting high with the opening act and watching the headliner in style, but by dawn we’d be at a gutted loft space downtown, scraping our vials and scrounging for douched beers and leftover pussy.  Fine dining, VIP-lounging, dive bar slumming, house party crashing—it was all part of this adult-but-not limbo we swam in: an oblivion linked, inextricably, to cocaine.  I always had coke on me and it would’ve been foolish to pretend that I didn’t.  My friends were the hip ones.  I was a mere tenant among them.  If one of the boys wanted a bump, what was I going to say?  Sorry, can’t spare one.  Thanks, though, for getting me in everywhere and getting me laid all the time.

C’mon.

Boy’s Regular

My whole life I’ve worried about the future.  Just a lingering sense, long before I became an outlaw, that somehow the tracks had been laid, the wheels set in motion.  That something was amiss, that things were going to go awry.  Terribly, terribly awry.  The first real rumblings of it, I think, can be traced back to 1995, the year I graduated college.

The general attitude among my peers was that the four-year degree had lost its relevance.  The only one who seemed optimistic was Geoff, one of my roommates that final semester.  He had one of those bulletproof jaw-lines and he made no apologies for his ancestors having arrived via the Mayflower.  Shortly before we went our separate ways, he cornered me drunkenly in our kitchen.  “Listen to me,” he said, “you know my deck is stacked.  All I have to do is show up.  It won’t be so easy for you.  It’s a rat race out there.”  An ice cube popped in his Dewars.  He polished it off, dumped the glass in the sink.  Then he gripped me by the lapels of the blazer I was wearing—the one I was borrowing from him—and drew me close.  “You have to know people,” he said.

I winced.  His boozy breath was one thing, but I was tiring of the news.  By senior year this was requisite keg party conversation: the necessity of knowing people.  If, like Geoff, you were fortunate enough to have been born into royalty, then you were set.  Otherwise you’d better be out there making “contacts.”  It seemed a bit crass to me: sidling up to people on the off chance that they may be of use at some point.  I was content to wing it.  Something was bound to happen.

I’d always been neurotic when it came to unknowns.  Now my existence was open-ended, and I went into a state of unobservable panic.  I began to hear strange murmurings.  Something about a “station in life” and then something more particular-sounding called a “skill set.”  These concepts barely resonated with me.  I was raised to believe I’d go to college; there was never any doubt about that.  But now that I could no longer call myself a student, I realized something worrisome: I’d reached a point where I was expected to know things.  Not just people, but intangibles, like the direction of my future.

I didn’t really want to work, but not working wasn’t an option.  Money was one thing, but I was concerned about perception; women in bars had begun making job-related inquiries.  Having white-knuckled my way through various summer gigs—warehouse temp, parking lot attendant, dishwasher—I was conditioned to believe that employment was at best a necessary nuisance.  Those who claimed to enjoy their jobs were posing, I decided, unwilling to acknowledge that they were settling.

I bought the Globe on a Sunday and pulled the classifieds.  Part of me wanted to find a match, but mainly I just wanted to feel as though I’d tried—and here the ads helped.  They all required experience in one capacity or another.  And skills.  Organizational.  Analytical.  Interpersonal.  One wanted a strong command of something called the SCRUM process.  I looked it up.  It’s not even an acronym, proving I knew even less than I thought I did.  Still, I felt I should keep trying.  One caption read FOUR POSITIONS LEFT and I skipped over it because I figured (hoped) I was too late.  Only four positions, why bother reaching for the phone?  But there it was again, the following Sunday.  The body was terse: Looking for honest, hardworking, positive, upbeat, and energized individuals to join our team.  People skills a must.  I didn’t exactly fit the profile.  But below that, in bold, were the buzz words: no exp nec, we will train.  I dialed, a peppy-sounding girl answered.  Within moments I was booked for an interview with this company, FJ Associates.

I arrived on time and submitted my full name to the girl at the front.  She smiled toothily and motioned to the waiting area, where I took a seat among several other hopefuls.  The guys were all wearing suits, two of which included vests.  The girls: some variation on the pantsuit.  My pastiche—polka dotted tie, blue blazer with gold buttons, tan khakis—diminished me immediately.  Pearl Jam was pumping from a nearby boom box.  ONCE upon a time I could CONTROL myself.  Overlapping, muted conversations could be heard from behind drywall partitions.

I settled into a vacant seat.  The guy across from me made eye contact, so I raised my eyebrows to acknowledge him.  He looked away immediately, so I pretended to have been looking at a poster above his head: a surfer on his board, squatting inside the barrel of a perilous-looking wave.  RISK it said.  Below that: Fate loves the fearless.  Next to that, there was an Ansel Adams print: a single rose sitting on driftwood.  It was a black and white shot and the petals were gaping, unfurling.  I began thinking of a vagina, and the probability that I wouldn’t be seeing one for a while.

The door on the far wall flung open and a spindly-looking guy scurried out like a rodent set free.  A man appeared at the threshold.  “JAMES FERRY?” he shouted, some kind of European accent easily detectable from those three syllables.  I raised an arm, my voice cracked on “here.”  I cleared my throat while this man approached me.  “Mark,” he said, jutting out his hand.  He was beady-eyed and pointy-nosed with a close shave and a neat haircut clipped over protruding ears.  I shook his hand, followed him.

Mark’s office was stark and lifeless.  I took a seat across form him and he presented me with a laminated brochure that had the Yankees logo on it.  I got distracted by the price tag: $19.99; it made me think of an infomercial.  Then he began talking and his accent was so thick that I could only make out bits and pieces: Yankee Stadium, tickets, certificate, twenty bucks.  And he punctuated everything by saying MAKE SENSE?  I’d nod.

He produced another brochure, this one bearing the logo for TGI Friday’s.  I caught what I could: twenty bucks as well…restaurants…buy-one-get-one…MAKE SENSE?

I nodded.

He asked if I had any questions.  I didn’t but I knew that to be the death knell of the interview process, so I said, “Do you have a web-site?”  I was vaguely aware of these and that companies were now using them, whatever they were.

Mark stared at me vacantly.  “It’s under construction.”

The meeting ended abruptly.  Mark ushered me toward the door.  “Thank you James, we’ll call you if we need you.”

As I approached my mother’s Volvo, I caught my reflection in the window.  My hair was unruly in the wind and my stubble was more pronounced than I’d originally thought.  My tie was sloppily knotted, my shirt crinkled at the waist.  I looked down at the jacket I was wearing, the gaudy buttons, and thought of Mark.  Clean shaven, crisp-shirted.  He wasn’t handsome, but he owned that room.

I got home and cracked a beer, hit the couch.  I must have dozed off.  The next thing I knew, my mother was standing over me with the cordless.  “There’s a girl on the line for you, it sounds important.”  I took the receiver, said hello.  She asked if this was “James.”  I said yes.

“This is Katrina from FJ Associates.  Congratulations.  We’d like to have you back for a second-round interview.”

“You would?

I had two days.  I went straight to the Men’s Wearhouse and got fitted for a suit.  The guy assured me it’d be ready the next day, but I made him promise anyway.  From there I went to Supercuts.  The barber, Bruno, asked me what I wanted.  “Boy’s regular,” I told him.