Wednesday, August 31, 2011
The Cold Comfort of the In-Between
As I've been promoting all week, this coming Friday, September 2nd, I'll begin offering an updated special edition of my book, Dead Star Twilight, as a pay-what-you-want download on this site. The download itself will be free; what you give me for it beyond that is entirely up to you. At this point, the most important thing to me is that as many people as possible read the book; I really couldn't care less about money. You want it for free? It's all yours.
Over the past couple of days I've been posting excerpts from the book as part of the lead-up to the "re-release" and I'm continuing that today. What follows acts as another installment in the ongoing series of pieces I've published so far this week. It's appeared on the main page before, but once again it's been the kind of thing that's tended to generate a pretty good amount of feedback to my inbox, so here it is one last time. Tomorrow's excerpt, by the way, will be something new to the site.
While yesterday you got to read about a dinner date my ex-wife Abby and I went on in New York City just a little over a month after the 9/11 attacks, today I'm going back to about a year before that night. The last time Abby and I had seen each other before our dinner date was at a party in Los Angeles at the home shared by me and my wife at the time, Kara. The party was being thrown for a friend of ours' birthday; Abby happened to be in town, so she came along with the guest of honor.
The following takes place in January of 2001.
My drug addiction is at its height.
January, 2001: Deep Dark Truthful Mirror
About five minutes later, the doorbell rings.
I make my way around the guests, across our living room and to the foyer. To say that my heartbeat throttles up each time I hear the bell would be a gross understatement. With the bustling and cool sounds of the party at my back, I take a deep breath -- hold it -- open the door.
Standing in front of me is Brando.
"I thought you were Abby."
"Which Abby -- your ex?"
"How many Abbys do I know?"
"She's gonna be here tonight?"
"Oh yes," I say.
He flashes me a broad, toothy smile.
"Dude, your ex-wife and your new wife in the same room together. I'm suddenly glad I came."
"I can't believe I'm friends with you."
I step aside and let Brando in, then head toward the kitchen to get him a cocktail. Like me, he favors gin and tonics. When I return to the living room, he and Kara are laughing together. Once again, a matter of propriety: Kara would never publicly be rude to a friend of mine, especially not at a party she's hosting. It also doesn't hurt that Brando's almost impossible to dislike, even if you know that your husband's got a bad habit of doing heroin around him. Kara doesn't currently blame my friends for my drug use, which is actually wise on her part. However, it doesn't take much to gather that the favor shown to them can and will disintegrate in short order if I continue down this path.
Speaking of which --
I pull Brando off to the side, which conveniently allows Kara to continue her power-mingling. I hand him his drink and lower my voice, trying not to seem too shady.
"I've already had three of these," I say, tapping the side of his drink. "I'm ready for something stronger."
"Shit, with Abby and Kara here together? I don't blame you, kid."
I make the slightest motion with my head. It says it all: Let's go.
Brando smiles. "To the Bat-cave," he says.
I make one call to Isa to get her E.T.A. It's not for at least another half-hour to forty-five minutes. Perfect. I may be willing to take a minor risk to replenish my high, but I'm not fucking stupid enough to leave Kara and Abby unattended. Propriety or not, the results could be disastrous. Kara stands a good chance of keeping it together. Abby, however, is a different story. The irrepressible passion that makes her incredible in bed also makes her as volatile and dangerously unpredictable as a suicide bomber.
Less than a minute after I get off the phone with Isa, Brando and I are out the door and trotting back to the garage, which is just behind my apartment. The sliding door goes up. We get in. My freshly washed and waxed car, which I had backed into the garage, is pulled straight out. Despite the chill in the night air, the windows go down and the sunroof opens as the vehicle slides down the driveway along the side of my apartment building. It emerges, brilliant white headlights flaring, from the thin space between the building and a large hedge which separates our property from the one next door. It really does look like we just pulled out of the Bat-cave. Arriving partygoers, walking along the sidewalk directly in front of the apartment, jump out of the way as I gun the engine, turn the wheel and speed off into the Los Angeles night -- tires screaming.
"What did you tell Kara?" Brando shouts over the wind and the sound of the stereo, which is pumping Girls Against Boys' Park Avenue.
"We were going to get more beer."
"Think she bought it?"
Brando laughs, bouncing up and down in his seat like a kid.
"You're fuckin' dialed-in, brother -- you're dialed-in, I tell you," he says, spouting L.A. lingo I'm almost sure he invented himself. He sticks his head out the sunroof and shouts/sings:
"COME ON BE MY BABY TONIGHT! I SEEN THE WAY YOU TREAT THOSE OTHER THUGS YOU BEEN WITH!"
I let out a maniacal laugh, shift -- force the accelerator almost all the way to the floor. Wilshire Boulevard goes by in a blur of color and light.
The buy is simple. Even simpler than usual. Get to the Westlake District. Make the deal. Head back home. Stop quickly to actually do what I said I was going to do -- pick up beer. The entire trip takes twenty-five minutes.
We pull the car into the garage and spend about ten more minutes sitting in privacy, smoking the fruits of our labor. Thirty-five minutes total. Right on time.
Abby's about to arrive and I'm as high as the sky.
This whole situation tonight is completely fucked-up. Now, thankfully, so am I. Yes, yes, yes, Reality is so much better when you're not facing it sober.
Once again, the will of the gods. This has all been preordained and everything is proceeding as they have foreseen -- according to their divine plan. Five minutes after Brando and I walk in the back door and put the beer in the refrigerator, the doorbell rings. This time there's no racing heart. There are no nervous deep breaths. There's just me and the glorious, satisfied calm I've inhaled into my system. I give Kara the required smile of solidarity, edge through the crowd -- which has grown quite a bit over the last half-hour -- make my way to the door and open it wide.
Isa's there, smiling.
I wish her a happy thirtieth birthday and give her a hug, inviting her to come inside and enjoy the cool fucking party in her honor. As she steps aside, there's only the sight I had been anticipating and dreading in equal parts all night -- that is until I carpet-bombed my apprehensions into complete submission.
Abby gives me a tight little smile and silently nods her head in what looks to be a strange sort of acceptance of the discomfort of the situation. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Kara watching me -- waiting to see what I do and how I do it. I smile, careful not to make it seem either too inviting or too bittersweet. I lean in, wrap my arms around her and pull her close -- squeeze then release.
She's wearing a black coat over a red button-down blouse and a pair of jeans with black high-heels. Her hair is shorter than I remember. Tonight's little excursion to the other side of the tracks has all but guaranteed that my stomach won't be tied in nervous knots at the sight of her, but the overwhelming desire I feel whenever Abby is in my immediate presence -- that's something even the drugs can't calm.
I invite her in -- into the lion's den -- and take her coat. For what it's worth, I understand fully that this unexpected planetary alignment is a hell of a lot harder on her than it is on either Kara or me. We have the home-field advantage. She's the outsider. I'm almost sorry she's not on drugs. I watch her quietly and coolly move her eyes over the candlelit elegance of our apartment as she enters. She's sizing things up, like a stray cat that's wandered in and is proceeding deeper into unknown territory with caution and restraint. Still, if she's trying to project a subtle air of confidence, she's not failing. In this room full of people, she seems to silently draw attention to herself. I'm not sure whether it's an innate magnetism or the fact that Kara has probably seen to it that almost everyone at this party knows exactly who she is. If the latter is true -- and I wouldn't be surprised if it is -- then I'm going to find myself walking an even finer line than I thought tonight. I won't let Kara ally her forces against Abby. At the same time, my overall loyalty has to lie with my wife -- my current wife. I can't allow either of these women -- or both of them -- to create a spectacle.
My diplomatic solution: Act like absolutely nothing is wrong.
I close the door, then turn to make my way through the polite and stylish throng -- guests talking and holding drinks -- with Abby.
"Come on -- meet Kara," I say, gently putting my hand on the back of her arm. I'm fully aware that my thumb makes a tiny, involuntary circular motion against her skin as I do this.
I hear her take a sharp breath -- hold it. I can't tell if it's from our sudden contact or the entire situation. "Can't wait," she says as she releases it.
"That's the exact same thing she said about you -- and it sounded like bullshit coming from her too," I say, threading the two of us through the tight spaces between guests and keeping my focus forward at all times. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Abby continuing to look around -- inquisitively inspecting. The flickering candlelight casts deep, long shadows in all directions. They alternately illuminate and swallow faces and create living art on the high walls. Poe's Amazed drones beautifully from the stereo.
People part for us like the Red Sea. Their heads follow us as we move past them. They all seem to be waiting for the moment when the Irresistible Force meets the Immovable Object. It becomes perfectly clear: Kara has told everyone here what's going on. As much as I love her, the realization makes me shake my head and suppress a grimace.
The last of the crowd parts and there, in the clearing, is Kara. She's standing with Isa, the two of them talking and laughing. She's wearing skin-tight black leather pants and a sheer white tank-top with nothing underneath. She looks -- for lack of a euphemistically appropriate term -- really fucking hot. I shoot a quick glance in Abby's direction and do a lightning-fast double-take when I notice her eyes.
Oh, holy shit.
I abruptly stop, take her by the arm and hold her back -- firmly. She turns and looks at me with a smile that's almost admirably subversive in its projection of complete innocence.
"What?" she says -- a tiny hint of playful sweetness in her voice.
I just stare into her eyes.
Jesus fucking Christ.
"Nothing," I say. "Nothing at all."
I'm not doing this. Not here. Not now. Not this close to Kara.
I turn and lead Abby one more step forward. Here goes nothing. Almost everyone at this party is pretending like he or she isn't watching -- but almost everyone is. I can feel a roomful of eyes.
Who to introduce to whom. What does Miss Manners say about a situation like this? Simple, don't get yourself into one.
"Abby, I'd like you to meet Kara."
Abby extends her hand and Kara smiles and takes it. Abby manages another tight-lipped smile. Kara smiles back. I hold my breath and wait for time to stop and the universe to collapse in on itself.
"It's really good to finally meet you. We're so glad you could come tonight," Kara says, wrapping her other hand around Abby's and giving it the kind of engaging, two-handed shake that screams sincerity.
"Thank you for inviting me."
Such innocuous conversation and such fucking hysterical subtext.
Kara asks Abby how her flight was. Abby says fine -- tells Kara that we have a beautiful home. Kara says thank you -- offers Abby a drink. Abby says no thank you.
And that's when I know for sure.
I glance across the room and find Brando. He stops chatting up a great-looking brunette I don't recognize just long enough to give me a confused look -- he shrugs as if to ask what's wrong. I simply shake my head. Just then, Kara -- in what appears to be a respectable attempt at congeniality -- offers to show Abby around the apartment. In the short time she's been in our living room I've already caught a whiff of passive-aggression emanating from my ex-wife like gasoline vapors. Left unchecked, this could explode into a very bitter, very public tantrum at some point during the night. For now, though, I choose to leave well-enough alone and see if the Greasers and the Socs really can play nice. Abby follows directly behind Kara as she navigates the guests, the two of them disappearing into the dining area. Everyone watches as they pass and titters in their wake. Everyone probably marvels at Kara's graciousness and calm in dealing with this uncomfortable situation -- just like Kara hoped they all would.
I'm left alone with Isa -- which is exactly what I wanted.
I take her by the arm.
"Can I borrow you for a minute?" I say through a forced smile of clenched teeth, pulling her into the dark of the downstairs hallway directly off the living room.
I stop and turn to face her.
"Are you fucking crazy?" I say.
"What's she on?"
"Don't who me. You know exactly what I'm talking about. What is Abby on? Her pupils are the size of saucers and she's not drinking. There's no way Abby would walk into a situation like this stone cold sober. The only thing that would stop her from drinking right now is not needing to."
So much for feeling sorry for her because she isn't on drugs. And the hypocrite of the year award goes to --
Isa just shakes her head and sighs, resigned. She focuses her eyes over my shoulder -- on the guests behind me in the living room.
"What is it with you two? Why are you both such pains in my ass?"
"It's ecstasy, isn't it," I say.
There's an interminable pause.
"Mushrooms," Isa finally says. She takes a sip of her drink and I hear her casually crush a piece of ice between her teeth.
I close my eyes and exhale through my mouth loudly. I'm not high enough, apparently.
"You let her come here tripping?"
"Hey, don't look at me. I'm not responsible for your ex-wife."
"She's staying with you, Isa. Is she so wily that you couldn't keep an eye on her for a couple of hours?"
"She got them from John. I think he was kind of hoping to sleep with her if she got fucked-up enough."
"Who the fuck is John?" I say, trying to stop my voice from turning into an effeminate squeal.
"Nobody. Some guy."
I'm shocked that I feel a sudden twinge of jealousy shoot through me like electricity. As far as I'm concerned this gives me a second reason to kick the living shit out of this John guy if I ever meet him.
"Sweetie, I'm the idiot." I'm gripping both of her arms for emphasis. "I'm the one who does irresponsible, stupid shit. You're supposed to be the smart one. I don't like you stepping on my territory. Now we've got to get her out of here." I let go.
"She'll be fine. She's very subdued."
"Yeah, so are most spree killers, until something sets them off -- then you don't want to be anywhere near them."
"Just leave her alone. She's gonna walk around quietly and no one will be the wiser. Make a scene and who knows what'll happen. Did I mention how tired I am of you two by the way?"
"Leave her alone? She's hallucinating. She already thinks Kara's a dragon lady. Chances are she's actually seeing it right now."
As if on cue, I glance over and see my wife, who's buzzed on two martinis, and my ex-wife, who's tripping on mushrooms, come around the corner and back into the living room.
This is all kinds of fucking perfect.
I fall back on the drug-induced haze in my own brain to help me bring a perfectly insouciant smile to my face as they spot me. Out of the corner of my eye I see Isa look at them, then back at me, then shake her head and walk away -- probably back toward the bar. I just keep right on smiling. Kara is willing to play the polite and pleasant host to Abby, but only up to a point. Her canteen of goodwill is only so big and there's no telling how long she's going to have to wander through this barren desert tonight, so she'd better pace herself. This is no doubt why she's now leading my ex-wife in my direction -- to pawn her off on me. The expression on Kara's face as she approaches -- with Abby safely behind her -- is, I have to admit, a hilarious mask of faked cheer. She's giving me a pronounced, toothy grin that seems to say exactly what I was just thinking a moment ago: This is all kinds of fucking perfect.
Of course Kara doesn't know the half of it, unless Abby began running her fingers over the knives in the kitchen like a baby playing with a rattle for the first time: With a noticeable combination of excitement, confusion and wonder.
"It looks like we're starting to run low on hors d'oeuvres," Kara says through her exaggerated smile. "I'm going to get some out of the fridge, 'kay? Here, why don't you show Abby around a little bit more."
And with that she steps out of the way and the woman I promised my life to years before her is once again standing in front of me, her face suddenly looking to me like one of those paintings of the puppies with the big eyes. I'm sure that right now to her my face looks something like this too, if not worse.
I shake my head and shove my hands into my pockets -- sighing -- as Kara steps away. All I can think to do at this point is scream, "Serenity Now!" like Frank Costanza on Seinfeld. That's really all that's missing from this entire experience.
Abby continues to throw her gaze around in every direction -- likely absorbing all the pretty shapes and colors in my apartment -- as she takes the final step to fill the space between us.
"Nice place you have here, Chester," she says, glancing around one last time then turning to look directly at me with a big smile. "And she's just lovely."
My expression is blank. My shoulders slump. I need more drugs -- no sane person would deny me that right now.
"Glad you think so, Ab."
"No, I'm serious. It really is a beautiful home you've made here," she says, nodding and smiling and nodding and smiling.
I already know what's coming. I know where Abby's going with this and, high as a fucking kite or not, I don't want to be around when she gets there. I can't leave her alone, though. So I just stare ahead and wait for the inevitable. It's on its way.
"Yeah," she continues, looking around again and nodding and smiling and nodding and smiling. "A really beautiful home. A gorgeous wife. A perfect life."
I concentrate on my breathing.
Here it comes.
"Everything is just perfect," she says, nodding and smiling and nodding and smiling.
She once again looks directly into my eyes. Her pupils are monstrous. They've practically swallowed all of the hazel surrounding them like two black holes. Mine, meanwhile, are the size of pinpoints. Together we just about even out to one normal, sober person.
There's suddenly silence between us.
Come on, spit it out.
"Of course, I did happen to notice my shelving units in your perfect little kitchen," she declares with a stab of pure satisfaction.
I close my eyes, inhale deeply and try not to choke on the air in the room. I'm about to do something incredibly dumb -- which is pretty laughable, considering that I can't imagine anything dumber than being on heroin while your ex-wife, who's tripping, is wandering around a party with your new wife: I'm actually going to debate this with her.
"Those aren't your shelving units anymore. I got those, remember?" I say calmly.
"Which you never paid me for."
"You're really gonna do this here -- right now?"
Her expression changes -- her brow pushing down on her eyes. She blinks rapidly and heavily. She glances around at the floor. I don't know if this is just some effect of the drugs -- her drugs -- but I can't deny that she suddenly seems very, very hurt.
Enough of this.
I reach out, take her arm and lead her through the guests, pushing her gently in front of me. As we move in the direction of the front door, for a brief moment I allow myself the thought of simply turning her, marching her up the stairs and into the bedroom, stripping her naked and making love to her.
Let's settle this like adults. Let's settle it the way we always have.
We make our way to the door, open it and step outside. I'm not even going to bother concerning myself with what anyone at the party might think about me being outside and alone with my ex. I couldn't give a shit at this point. Once we clear the windows, I turn her around and look right into her huge, pixyish eyes.
"Alright, come on -- let's get this over with," I say.
"Get what over with?"
"Just say what you want to say so that we can try to put it behind us and have an uneventful rest of the evening."
As these words come out of my mouth, I immediately regret them. Abby takes full advantage of the opening I've given her.
"Put it behind us?" she sneers. "It looks like you've had no trouble doing that."
"What do you want from me, Abby?"
"I want you to take some goddamned responsibility."
"For what?" I say, trying not to sound too shrill. It isn't easy at this point.
"For what you did to me. For what you did to us."
"And you've decided you want this mea culpa right now?"
"I think the poetic justice is kind of fitting." She stands with her fists planted into her hips.
"What do you want?" I'm practically spitting the words through gritted teeth. I take a step toward her. "Do you want me to march right back in there, shut off the CD player and say, 'Scuse me, folks, can I have everybody's attention?'" I hold my arms out wide at my sides. "'I am an asshole. See that beautiful young woman right over there? I cheated on her, took her for granted and robbed her of her heart, soul and innocence and crushed every dream she ever had. Because of that, I don't deserve any of the luxurious trappings you see all around you here tonight. Now if anyone needs me, I'll be hanging in the upstairs shower.' Is that what you want?" I say, then before she can even respond the way I know she will -- "Don't fucking answer that."
"This could've been our life, Chez," she says -- with something bordering on desperation. Her face becomes a mask of hurt again.
I turn and look over my shoulder at my apartment. My gorgeous two-story place in West Hollywood. It is indeed perfect.
"No, it couldn't have," I say, almost wistfully. I'm suddenly exhausted -- I feel my whole body sag. "I mean, look at me, Abby. You know me better than anybody -- even better than Kara. Do you really think all that domestic bliss in there is me? This whole place is Kara. This whole life. I mean, it's beautiful and I like it, but make no mistake -- I had nothing to do with creating it. All I do is help pay the bills and try to stand up straight and smile pretty when company comes over." I'm pacing now. I feel like I'm sinking into the ground. "Jesus -- Kara was pissed that my credit wasn't good enough to get an even bigger and nicer place. That's me, Abby -- the guy with the lousy credit and the sordid past and the metric ton of emotional baggage. This?" I thrust my arm in the direction of my attractive home and the social event filled with attractive people that's going on within it. "This is all just a floor show."
"We could've done it together."
A tired chuckle escapes my throat. "You're dreaming."
"I know. I always was."
The overwhelming sadness of this simple, tragic statement hurts like hell. There aren't enough drugs in the world to bury my sorrow under.
"I'm sorry, Abby, I really am."
"I know you are, Chester. You're always sorry."
There's no venom in her voice. This isn't an attack or indictment -- it's simply the truth. I used to half-joke that my personal mantra was, "Apologize Often, Change Never." It's funny for a while, until you find yourself looking down at the face of someone who reaped the cruel reward of loving a person content to live life by such a pathetic standard.
There's a sullen hush between us. A moment of silence for the death of youth, innocence, love, hope -- everything we once had and were. The moment feels like it goes on forever. I can't pull my eyes away from her.
"You look great," I say softly, breaking the stillness.
"Thank you. So do you." Abby reaches out and runs a hand across my stomach. "You're too thin, though."
"Thanks, Mom. I really wouldn't trust my eyes right now if I were you."
Despite her best efforts to remain somber, an adorable and mischievous smile slowly creeps across her face.
"Uh-huh," I say, nodding. "I can't believe you came here tripping. Tonight just wasn't challenging enough already?"
The corners of her mouth drop. Her face expresses something beyond burden. God only knows what I look like to her right now.
"Believe it or not, I'm worried about you," she says.
"What's to worry about? Haven't you seen my apartment and my wife? Everything's just marvy. You said it yourself."
"What's wrong?" -- quietly.
I want to tell her. I want to tell her that I'm high and I'm scared. Instead, as usual, I say nothing. I'm terrified of doing drugs. I'm even more terrified of not doing drugs.
"We should get inside -- it's chilly out here," I finally say.
"Not to me. I'm a New York City girl."
"Yeah, I know. I'll have to come visit you sometime."
We turn to walk back inside.
"Don't even think about it," she says. "I moved there to get away from you. Stay out my city."