|Oct/Nov 2004 fiction|
Note to editors: I would like to apologize in advance for exceeding the 1500 word limit. But remember, this is America. More is always better.
Thursday. J, my paramour, calls from New York City. It's a sunny June morning in Los Angeles. Sunny but also hazy. Noisy. Los Angeles is always noisy: the sounds of nature have been entirely supplanted, here, by the persistent roar of traffic. J is calling with a plan. It goes like this: Vanity Fair is having an essay contest. The prize: fifteen thousand dollars. The plan: "You write the essay," she tells me. But because she has notified me of the contest, when I win, we split the prize money. Fifteen thousand dollars divided two ways won't get either of us very far. Luckily, we have a better idea. We'll share the fifteen thousand dollars and do something with it together.
"Quit my job," J tells me, on the phone from New York City. "Quit my job and get out of this country for awhile."
It is Thursday. J has not quit her job, but she is taking the day off. Her friend Claire is passing through town, and one cannot do the things that one must do with an old friend who is passing through town if one has to be at the office. Shopping. Cocktails during the early afternoon. Shopping (again). Dinner. More cocktails. Then, at a certain hour, cocktails become drinks.
J and I have a disagreement.
"Fifteen thousand dollars is nothing," I tell her. "It wouldn't be worth my time."
"What are you talking about?" she retorts. "Fifteen thousand dollars is a lot of money."
"Enough to quit your job?"
"At this point," she says. "It wouldn't take much."
J has been working for the same company, a clothing line specializing in denim, for over two years. Despite her upward mobility within the company, she has long since tired of the job.
"Let's think rationally about this," I say. "How much time would we really be talking about on fifteen thousand dollars?"
We settle on three months. One-quarter of a year. A nice, round number, a period of time long enough to contain a past and a future. When I was nine years old, an hour seemed like an eternity, and three months was virtually inconceivable. Now I am twenty-eight. My grandmother, who is eighty-nine, offers another perspective. "You know what I always say at Christmas," she says. "Before you know it, it'll be July Fourth. And you know what I always say on the fourth of July?"
Finally, more because I am desperate for a way to spend three months consecutively with J than because I am particularly inspired by a fifteen-thousand dollar prize, I agree to the contract. I write the essay. I win the contest. We take the prize money and leave it all behind together.
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the notion of leaving it all behind. My parents, who are fifty-five, are returning to Vilcabamba, Ecuador, this summer for the first time in twenty-six years. Twenty-six years. When my parents were in their early-twenties, having just finished college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin, they took their dog and a black car they called "the bomb" and drove south until they reached El Paso. In El Paso, they sold the car and took the dog, two backpacks, the money from the car, and my father's three thousand dollar inheritance, and they crossed the border into Mexico, heading due south. A year later, they had lost their backpacks and lost the dog (but also recovered the dog), and they were still heading south. Then, after twenty-four hours on a bus out of Quito, Ecuador, after not one but four twelve-thousand foot mountain passes, after a day and night of narrow roads and nausea, they looked out the windows of the bus and saw the valley of Vilcabamba in the morning and at once realized that they finally found what they were looking for. They stayed in Vilcabamba for nearly two years until my mother's father took ill in Milwaukee and they decided to go back for a visit. My mother was afraid that her father would die without her having seen him again, and that if this happened, she would never be able to forgive herself.
As it turned out, he would not die for another ten years, but while my parents were in Milwaukee, strange things happened:
1. They got married. Neither of them was particularly interested in the idea of marriage, but my mother's parents, a bit more on the traditional side at the time, were uncomfortable with the idea of her living so long with a man without marrying him. To please them, they married. There were twelve people at the wedding and my father was dressed in a borrowed suit.
2. They got jobs. It was difficult to live, even then, on the remnants of a three thousand dollar inheritance, even in a relatively inexpensive American city like Milwaukee. My dad's first job was as a room service waiter at the Hyatt Hotel downtown, where he once brought food to home run king Hank Aaron, who has since purchased a fleet of Arby's restaurants. Later my dad worked in a bookstore. My mom found a job waitressing at another hotel, Milwaukee's famous Marc Plaza, which has since become a Sheraton.
3. They had sex and my mother got pregnant. That's where I come into the picture—or, to be more precise, nine months later is where I come into the picture. I weigh in at four pounds, four ounces. In an effort to simulate the embryonic fluid and thus ease my transition into the world, my mother has me immediately dipped into a bucket of water. Unfortunately, the hospital staff is not schooled in nouveau birthing techniques. The water is too cold. I turn blue. The doctor orders me dropped into an incubator and an hour later I emerge plenty warm and looking, according to my mother, like a plucked chicken.
My parents, at the time of my birth, are wearing turbans and going by Sikh names, but that's a part of the story I'll gloss over.
Two years later, no more turbans, they bring me to Vilcabamba for the summer. Their old friend don Vidal takes a shine to me, and I to him. I play with pigs. When we come home to Milwaukee in August, I demonstrate my cultural affinity for small-town Ecuador by defecating in the backyard.
I do not know where J and I will escape to with our fifteen-thousand dollars (five times my father's inheritance, but then there's that pesky inflation to keep in mind), but I imagine that wherever it turns out to be, we will not be defecating in the backyard when we get home.
"By the way," J tells me. "Did you hear about the girl at the Fox media party last Thursday."
"Oh. Well, she was a young media buyer for Fox, and I stress the word was. There was a story about this in the Post, I can't believe you didn't read it. At an official event last Thursday night, this poor girl gets so drunk that she ends up shitting all over herself on a white couch and she has to be carried out on a stretcher. The next morning she shows up for work, this poor girl, and they're like, um, you don't work here anymore. What was she thinking. These are parties but they're really work events. You have to keep your head about you."
The best is yet to come. As it turns out, J's friend Meghan also happens to work for Fox media, and also happened to be at the party on Thursday night, and just happens to have sent J, for her amusement, a series of photographs of this poor girl sitting alone on the white couch with the Fox media sign hanging up behind her.
"Her arms," J tells me, "are covered in poop. I wanted to send them to you but I was afraid I would clog up your inbox."
"You wanted to send me her arms?"
"No, no. The pictures."
Then: Light bulbs! Eureka!
"Forget the essay contest," I cry. "Too much work. Too much compromise. We'll turn those photos over to the tabloids and make twice as much money!"
In the end, we reach a compromise of our own: She sends me the photos, which I turn over to the highest bidding tabloid, and I send her the essay, which she turns over to Vanity Fair Magazine. If my estimates are correct, and the photos pull in thirty thousand dollars, and her estimates are correct and the essay which has not yet been written wins the Vanity Fair contest, in the end we will have forty-five thousand dollars to show for our troubles, and while forty-five thousand dollars still is not a tremendous amount of money, it is, after all, three times more than fifteen-thousand dollars, and if fifteen-thousand dollars buys us three months, then, by those estimates, forty-five thousand dollars should buy us nine months, depending on inflation and currency fluctuations between now and the time the checks come in.
Another possibility: we use the fifteen-thousand to buy three months of guaranteed freedom and in the meantime invest the other thirty-thousand in guaranteed high-risk commodities. Three months later the thirty has become sixty. We take fifteen out of the sixty to buy another three months of freedom and repeat the procedure, ad infinitum or until we can afford our own Caribbean island.
Problem: guaranteed high-risk commodities can be hard to find.
Los Angeles is a noisy, dirty city, dangling off the edge of a noisy, dirty country. New York is a noisy, dirty city dangling off the other edge of the same country. J lives in New York for reasons I cannot begin to fathom. To me, New York City is a good place to watch your life disappear as you struggle desperately to keep your head above water. Although J pays her own way as a twenty-something in New York City, she comes from money, and so I imagine that for her the sense of impending disaster living there is less acute than it would be for me, who comes from less money. I live in Los Angeles because it is a good place to feel alone, and feeling alone is a good way to write books, and writing books is what I do when I am not working, and I am usually not working.
J and I end our conversation optimistically. The future holds great promise for us: sex, money, and freedom. I am in the car. I turn on sports radio. The host of the show I suddenly find myself listening to is perturbed about a book a female soccer player has written entitled, apparently, It's Not About the Bra. Six or seven times in a row the host bellows, "That's exactly what it's about."
I have no idea what he is talking about, but his enthusiasm amuses me. I drive, of course. I am in Los Angeles, so I drive. My attention fades in and out until I hear the host of the sports radio show say, "Getting a book published is just about the easiest thing to do in America." This perks me up. Somebody should have told my last agent that.
At home, I write a letter to Chris Kraus, author of a book I very much admire called I Love Dick. Last June, when I saw J for the first time in nearly two years, I gave her a copy of I Love Dick as a gift. It was, I think, the perfect gift for the situation: suggestive but also literary. Dick, as it turns out, is a person, and Chris Kraus a writer, filmmaker, and the very heady editor of Semiotext(e)'s Native Agents series of books.
Recently, I discovered that I know somebody who knows somebody who knows Chris Kraus's stepdaughter. I tell Chris this in the letter that I am writing to send along with fragments of some of the books that I have written during the last couple of years. I also say to her, in this letter which she may or may not read: "I am writing to you because I would like my books to be corroborated and distributed, and on some level I have identified you as somebody who might be able to do that."
My younger sister, who has just recently broken off with her boyfriend of four years, is in town visiting and acting depressed. I take her to Sav-On to buy bottled water and paper towels. She was planning to start graduate school in London in the fall, but her ex-boyfriend is already in graduate school in London, and now that they have broken up (or, rather, now that he has broken up with her), she wonders whether it would constitute stalking for her to follow through on her plans. My Aunt Sue, who can be generous to a fault, has donated ten thousand dollars to my sister's cause (whatever that cause may be) in the aftermath of the breakup. My grandmother, not wanting to be outdone, has matched the donation. Make that twenty-thousand dollars. When I was the age that my sister is now, my girlfriend of four years broke up with me, and nobody gave me a cent ("Maybe if you weren't so hard to get along with," my mother said regretfully).
1. On Tuesday, I went to the Dodger game and saw the actress Jennifer Love Hewitt. I saw her first on the diamond vision screen above left field. She smiled and waved to the camera and, by extension, to all of the rest of us in the stadium. There was a smattering of applause. The square-jawed and well-coiffed man sitting next to her, her boyfriend I assumed, was wearing a bright green shirt. I was sitting high, high above the field in the six dollar deck, and when I leaned forward, I could easily identify her, next to the bright green shirt, three rows behind home plate. Seeing her like that, I was filled with a deep sense of regret, knowing as I must that if she were to turn around and look up she would not be able to identify me, not only because nobody near me was wearing a brightly-colored shirt, but also because she would not know who it was that she was looking for. I was sitting between my sister, who was depressed, and my friend Jesse, who had left a seat in between us in order to emphasize the absence of homosexuality in our relationship.
2. The feeling I had seeing Jennifer Love Hewitt sitting pitch below me at the Dodger game on Tuesday reminded me of the feeling I had after playing basketball at the Hollywood YMCA with Justin Timberlake. Deep regret, yes, and just a touch of nostalgia for what I might have been.
Last night, a birthday party for a friend of a friend. I found myself sitting at a table with a Mexican banker, an Argentine journalist, a black homosexual elementary school teacher, and a girl named Ilana with bangs and a very long nose. We were at a bourgeois Mexican restaurant in the hip Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. The black homosexual elementary school teacher offered, rather, cryptically, that he was moving back home to Chicago for "personal reasons that I would rather not get into." The Argentine journalist seemed dismissive of me for my lack of identifiable ethnicity (I'm Jewish, you schmuck!). The Mexican banker revealed that he was on his way to Barcelona for the Sonar music festival.
One of the great triumphs of my twenties is that I have secured a recurring
summer job in Spain. For at least two months out of every year, I escape into
relative cultural anonymity. Thank God.
Ilana, with the bangs and the long nose, announces with pride that she spent a semester studying abroad in Spain when she was in college, but when her distinctly Mexican soft tacos arrive at the table, she picks one up and proclaims, "Mmm, real Spanish food!"
The Mexican banker complains that his pozole is not authentic enough. Confusion abounds. He asks me, "Are the men as hot as they say they are in Barcelona?"
I mumble something rather awkward about unemployment and Spanish women.
Apparently the Mexican banker is a homosexual Mexican banker.
Two margaritas = twenty-four dollars.
I say goodbye to the birthday girl and offer a simultaneous hello and goodbye to Simone, a half-Korean, half-Jewish stylist who used to date the brother of filmmaker Spike Jonze, whose real last name, as it turns out, is Spiegel, as in Spiegel Catalogues.
There's a fair explanation for everything around here.
In the car, my phone rings. It's Andy. In college, Andy was a crusader against injustice. Recently, he started working as a corporate lawyer in the Silicon Valley. "I'm just heading home from work," he tells me, now, sounding resigned.
Thursday night, 11:13 post meridian.
I live in a big loft in a nondescript neighborhood in Central Los Angeles. At night, the view from the roof is spectacular, or in any event much more spectacular than it is during the day. To the north, the lights scattered over the Hollywood Hills. To the south, South Central, rows of palm trees, the vague geographic memory of a momentary explosion of violence. At the time of the Los Angeles riots, I was in high school in Shorewood, Wisconsin. I have trouble separating the riots, as a television event, from the O.J. Simpson chase scene. One of them, I do not remember which, pre-empted the NBA finals. J calls me and I take the phone up to the roof. "It's so pretty up here that I just had to share it with you," I tell her, but I'm out of breath from climbing the ladder and have to repeat myself twice.
"Awww," she says, finally, but half-heartedly.
"Regarding the Vanity Fair contest," she says. "The topic is assigned. Did I tell you that?"
"Something about how nobody likes Americans anymore, so what would you tell somebody who wasn't American about America to make them like it, or something like that. I'll email it to you."
This is a problem.
"Why didn't you tell me that earlier?" I demand. "I've
been marinating on this all day and I didn't even know what it was supposed
to be about. I didn't even know that it was supposed to be about anything.
And plus, what am I supposed to say to make people like America when I'm
always trying to get out of here myself?"
"Just go with it," J tells me. "Remember, this is commerce, not art. And besides, we really need that fifteen-thousand dollars."
We make a plan. Fifteen-thousand dollars = three months on an island. What island? It doesn't matter. Month one: relax, drink, have sex. Month two: relax, drink, have sex, and work on the manuscript for a book called The Postmodern Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Sell book. Rake in the royalties. Month three: relax, drink, have sex, and work on our next masterpiece, The Post-Postmodern Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus. A book a month for twenty years or until we've saved enough money to buy our own island.
"Don't forget the pictures," I say.
"Of the girl covered in poop."
"Just her arms. Not her whole body, just her arms. And don't act so eager, you're freaking me out."
"This is commerce," I tell her. "There's nothing to worry about."
In bed, I am wondering what it is, exactly, that I might be able to say about America. America, it's noisy and dirty! America, where we confuse Spain with Mexico! America, it's commerce, not art! America, because it feels so good when you stop! America, the easiest thing to do here is publish a book (just don't ask my old agent to help)! America, it looks better in the dark! America, you know us but we don't know you! America, there are just as many homosexuals here as anywhere else (but not Jesse)! America, our crusaders turn into lawyers! America, we're always heading south! America, poop on yourself and we'll fire you! America, everyone's favorite guaranteed high-risk commodity! America, it is about the bra! America, we love Dick! America, we know someone who knows someone who knows your stepdaughter! America, you will be filled with regret and just a touch of nostalgia for what you might have been!
To put myself to sleep, I read a passage out of Camilo José Cela's 1994 prize-winning novel La Cruz de San Andrés: "Cuando Gambiño emborrachó a Berta con anís dulce se sintieron muy felices los dos, lo malo vino inmediatamente después y no terminó hasta que el verdugo le puso fin, el garrote que estranguló a Gambiño está ahora en la Fundación Camilo José Cela." He's a regular self-referential Beckett, this Cela, and he makes me sleepy.
Before the Dodger game on Tuesday, members of the cast of the Broadway musical Mamma Mia sang "God Bless America" and the National Anthem. In bed, now, I think about those songs, about the thirty-thousand fans standing, hats off, hands on hearts, beer, actresses. I think about the roar of applause at the end of the second song as the three (homosexual?) cast members wailed in imperfect harmony, "...and the hooooooooooome, of thaaaaaa, braaaaaaaaaaaaaave!"
In America, I think, all it takes is a big finish.
So here goes:
I LOVE THIS COUNTRY!!!
(Now get me the hell out of here.)