BY ANDREW BARKER
saltem si qua mihi de te suscepta fuisset
ante fugam suboles, si quis mihi paruulus aula
luderet Aeneas, qui te tamen ore referret,
non equidem omnino capta ac deserta uiderer.
My pulse is pumping
My heart may burst
If you drink me up
I'm gonna quench your thirst
- Kylie Minogue
I leap up the small stair with a springy bounce that unthinkingly coincides with the stealthily thunderous backbeat and glance around for the table. My blue polyester shirt begins to cling uncomfortably to my body as the accumulated sweat finally has opportunity to settle, while I unconsciously tug at and straighten it. I light another cigarette despite being horribly out of breath and let it hang flaccidly from the left corner of my mouth, smiling broadly in an exhausted kind of way. Heading over to the table I bump shoulders with an entire procession of similarly-impaired individuals heading anxiously to the dance floor from which I have just extricated myself, beginning to lose any concept of personal space and realizing that a hand could be creeping into my pocket and taking its contents without my notice. I check my pockets out of habit and, finding everything in order, slide into the one free chair. Winger looks at me through eyes so narrowed that he appears sleepy, and smiles broadly, head moving slowly to the beat, Ananda standing behind him obediently with her arms around his neck. He says something that the deafening volume renders totally inaudible and I, fairly certain that I'm not missing anything important, lean forward and laugh without expelling any actual breath, sticking my tongue out between my teeth a little as I do so. He seems satisfied with this response, smiles dopily again, and throws his head back to relate something to Ananda, who leans over with closed mouth and seemingly feigned interest. I swivel around in my seat, resting a foot on the seat of the chair and taking a sip out of a half-full glass which may or may not be the one I was drinking before going down to the floor. I feel a flick at my ear and spin around again to see Abhi leaning toward me, laughing.
"So…are you having fun yet? I saw you out there man, you know I always just thought you couldn't dance or something, you know, since you never come here with us, but you weren't doing so bad at all," he whispers with wet vodka-scented breath very closely into my ear.
"Yeah, yeah," I scream into his ear, "this place is amazing."
"Yeah, man. The music's always amazing on Fridays, but shit, you should have seen this place two weeks ago, it was fucking insane!" He yells this at me with an attitude that seems to suggest that, as impressive as this place may be now, it was so much more so previously, and could never ever possibly be so impressive again, tough luck for those who missed it, such as yourself.
"There were so many people on the floor that it was just like this big mass - no one could like, dance on their own, it was just like this enormous wave back and forth in time with the music, it was crazy."
"That's crazy, man."
Having said his piece on the comparative uncraziness of Buddha Bar, apparently the only thing he has to say, Abhi leans over to the unfamiliar blonde next to him. I turn back around and watch the undulating masses as the misty lights flicker and pass over them, taking the last drag from my cigarette and dropping it onto the smoldering pile covering the ground next to my chair. Visages appear in splashes of neon and quickly vanish, all moving circularly around an indefinite point in a new manifestation of the tribal fertility rituals of Saxon ancestors, imbibing rainbow-colored elixirs and pulsating in time with the unseen forces that move everything around them until individual movement is obscured and the oscillation of the entire world seems to be perceptible and assisting the dance. People all around with faces covered in synthetic paints and clothes designating their gender and personal affiliations, scented with sundry alcohols and acids, are falling in and out of place and reflecting their wet glisten unto the statues and sweaty torches encircling the pit, imbuing it with a semi-religious significance.
I wonder how much longer we're staying here. Tali doesn't seem to be anywhere near and I know that I can't sit silently for too long before Abhi will feel the need to make awkward and pointless conversation. I quaff down the rest of the drink - equal parts vodka, Red Bull, and melted ice - and rise up, patting Abhi's shoulder as I walk by and head toward the bathroom. Getting there is of course no easy feat, and it takes a good four or five minutes of meandering to squeeze through the clusters of damp clubbers, all shrouded in clouds of perfume and cigarette and hash smoke. The bathroom is sopping wet, harshly lit, and pulsating to the bombastic beat that seeps through the doors and nearly drowns out the lurching sounds of vomiting coming from half of the stalls. I wait a few seconds for a urinal and, after finishing, slink over to the sink and splash a handful of water on my face. Staring up at the mirror I look into my own glazed-over eyes and see the oil that has gathered in the bags underneath them - oh, that's cute. Scrubbing them with a wet paper towel seems to help a little, and I walk out of the bathroom, noticing the steam creep in when I open the door.
I brave the labyrinth again and return to my seat to find Tali plopped down in it, hand-rolled cigarette dangling precariously in her left hand. She looks over at me and waves with a twirl of her fingers, involuntarily ashing the cigarette as she does so.
"Lost your seat, Josh. Winger tried to stop me, but he's too drunk and I overpowered him. Sorry!" she yells at me grinning.
"Ah that's alright," I say and make as if I'm going to sit on her lap. She huffs sarcastically and half-stands, allowing me to slide in underneath her before she perches delicately on my knee, facing me with her back leaning against the table. The huge disparity between our respective heights has never been so apparent.
"So there was this enormous Mexican guy stalking me out there. I was looking for you to protect me, but you ditched me like always so I had to throw myself on this other guy to get him away, and then that guy just starts blatantly groping me - it was a fucking mess."
I laugh a little and shrug, knowing that she's used to this sort of thing and isn't really expecting actual sympathy anyway. She takes a long sip of something and rests the glass in her lap, with the light from the disco ball reflecting off of the glitter on her black tank-top and the glisten of her silver rings rising to meet it. I notice for a second that if she were to sprinkle some glitter in her hair her dark roots would match her shirt perfectly.
"I'm really glad you decided to come with us tonight. It gets obnoxious being stuck with this crowd every time" she says, indicating Winger and Ananda behind her. "I always wondered why you never came before."
"Yeah, no problem," I begin, looking away a little as I do, "I mean I guess I always just assumed that this wasn't really my scene, you know? I mean, I didn't even used to be able to stand this music, and I can't exactly dance, you know -"
"That's bullshit, but go ahead."
This implicit compliment makes me avert my eyes from her even more. "And yeah, I don't know, that was it I guess."
"Well Josh, 'fuck' is really all I have to say. Emma and I were just talking about you the other night and we decided that you sitting by yourself in your apartment doing whatever it is you do every night isn't good for you, you know, it's unhealthy. She was like: 'our new mission is to get Josh fucked-up at some club and make him forget everything - make him one of us'" she says, holding her hands in the air and putting on a ridiculous shrill-sounding voice to approximate Emma's.
"One of you, huh? Might not be the best idea."
She laughs quasi-demonically. "No, it's a horrible idea - that's the whole point." She grabs my shoulders and leans forward, surveying the dance floor. "Where the fuck is Emma, anyway?"
"I saw her like ten minutes ago dancing with that black guy with the bleached hair," Abhi interjects, poking his head between us.
Tali bites her lower lip and shrugs by slightly tilting her head. She seems oddly provocative doing so; actually when she speaks, her facial contortions always lend a suggestive air to whatever she happens to be saying, a trait that I'm sure has brought her endless trouble from misunderstanding men. She is a quite attractive girl, certainly, with wandering green eyes, taut muscles accentuating her petite figure, and a sort of imperceptible darkness and feral mental sharpness shading her natural gregariousness, rendering her mysterious without making her intimidating. Her eyes narrow as she scans the room again, stopping suddenly and looking back down at me. "Christ, you can't find anyone in this place. She'd better turn up soon so we can get the hell out of here."
"Where else are we going?"
She shrugs. "I don't know really, but I think it's reggae-night at Peril, down on Franklin, and anyway nothing's really happening here, obviously."
"Who's driving?" I ask, looking over at Winger whose eyes seem ready to roll back into his head, Ananda speaking to him with a cold _expression frozen on her face as he sits obviously straining to continuously pull himself back into consciousness.
Tali shrugs again and offers no answers. She holds her cigarette tightly and determinedly between her fingers, taking frequent drags off of it with repeated stabbing motions to her face.
Abhi and the blonde both stand up, make salutary motions in our direction, and start toward the dance floor. I watch them as they glide artfully through the throngs of people and down the stairs. They make an odd couple: she being of only the most superficial, transitory type of physical beauty - dead _expression on her face, locked in a perpetual strain of painful self-involvement - short, with an oddly fake-looking hourglass figure that testifies to months of flagellatial self-torture on brightly-painted exercise equipment and full, yet untouched refrigerator shelves in an inhospitably-decorated studio apartment, and he a tall, hulking, masculine mass whose similarly gym-wracked body would render him as unnoticeably attractive as she were it not for his dark brown eyes, only a shade darker than his skin, betraying the little mischievous spark in his disposition that is only allowed to come out when his guard is down. As they descend the bottom stair they both have already begun to surrender themselves to the amorphous beat, the insubstancial yet hypnotic music that reigns in clubs like these, and by the time they have carved out a little cubicle of space on the floor they are already into it. I notice that in spite of his naturally cumbersome body-type, he still seems far more graceful than his partner, who immediately launches into a sort of bellydance-like pattern of gyrations that wouldn't seem so awkward were she making any attempt at all to perform them in time with the song. Abhi, on the other hand, somehow seems to be moving in all directions simultaneously, as if his limbs and other extremities are tracing irregular orbits around some center in the middle of his body that keeps changing place. It's a hypnotic show that he's putting on, far more suited for some street-theatre in his hometown of Delhi than for a meat-market watering hole like this. I watch as the girl makes frequent attempts to wedge herself in closer to him, while he remains oblivious to her invitations, maintaining a sufficient distance to continue channeling whatever mystical spirit it is that is allowing him to move this way.
Tali continues to sit awkwardly on my knee, periodically shifting weight from one thigh to the other. As I become aware of her presence there, I suddenly find it impossible to remain completely still, holding my breath for interminable periods just to keep her from fidgeting. I think about pointing out Abhi's vacated seat beside me, but figure she would know to move there if she really wanted to.
Just as I'm pondering this she suddenly springs up. "There you are, you bitch!"
Emma shimmies up to her and bestows three haughty kisses on alternating cheeks, then stoops over and does the same to me.
"Hey Josh, you look fucking hot tonight! You gotta come dance with me later, okay?"
I blush a little and tell her I will. She looks sloppy in some slightly tangible way, drunken grin sewn onto her face, leaning precariously on Abhi's chair, her hair wet and tied into a little bun on the back of her head that orders it for a few centimeters before it explodes into little golden licks shooting out in all directions. Her velvety violet dress, although fitting her perfectly, still seems to hang on her wide-hipped frame, bunched up at the bottom and rustling capriciously over her breasts, which - being one of the rare pairs of god-given large breasts to be found in LA - roll and tumble freely behind it.
Tali folds her arms and looks at Emma with her chin jutted upward awkwardly. "So how much longer are we staying here?"
"Shit," Emma says explosively, gesticulating wildly with one hand high in the air, "I'm hoping pretty soon, we've been here like hours, you know."
"Relax, we just got here like two hours ago," I say, laughing.
She looks over at me with slightly watery eyes. "Well, whatever, this place gets boring quick. Oh wait, have you guys met Percy?"
I suddenly notice the man standing quietly behind her: apparently the black guy with blonde hair about whom Abhi was speaking earlier. He leans forward to us and shakes my hand firmly.
"Hey guys, how's it going."
Tali and I introduce ourselves and he pulls a chair out for Emma, who at first seems taken aback by this show of chivalry. No sooner is she sitting down than Abhi and the blonde barge in again.
"Alright kids, let's get out of here," Abhi says through panting breaths.
"That's all you guys are going to do? You just went out there," Tali asks.
Abhi shrugs. "Eh, all they're gonna play now is some shitty hip-hop, I can't dance to that man, too fucking slow."
I stand up and brush the errant ashes off of my pants. "Okay then, is someone going to go revive Winger over there?"
Emma pounds hard on the table and screams "Ananda, get your drunk-ass boyfriend up, we're gonna go." She looks over at Percy. "You're coming with us, right? We're thinking we might go down to Peril for a while."
"Naw, that's okay. I would, but I've got work at nine tomorrow, I was thinking I'd head home in a few."
Emma looks strangely crushed by this. "Dude, fuck work, man! C'mon, it'll be fun." She's looking over at him with imploring eyes and her lip quivering a bit, like a cartoon kitten.
He smiles demurely and shakes his head, starting to stand up. "No really, I've gotta go."
"But it's fucking reggae night!"
"Sorry, but I really do have to get up early and all, and it'll take us like an hour to get there anyway, what with driving from Pasadena, and you know how hard Hollywood clubs are to find." He averts his eyes and signals toward me and Tali. "Nice meeting you guys."
We wave goodbye and he starts to walk away, prompting Emma to jump up and nearly tackle him several feet away, still holding the wounded face and tugging at his limp hands as she talks. He holds his smile and gingerly takes her hands away, giving her a weak kiss on the cheek before disappearing into the swarm. Emma walks back over to us looking defeated, stumbling quite a bit as well.
"So now I'm like the seventh wheel again, like always…"
Emma is rambling pathetically as we stand outside the club waiting for Ananda to drag her now-crippled paramour out to meet us. Tali listens with obvious disinterest to her lamentations, responding with "fuck it" and a limp-wristed wave every time she hears her say "you know?" Abhi is a few yards removed from us, laughing convincingly at the blonde's jokes with his glassy eyes twinkling under the yellow streetlight. I pull out my pack of cigarettes and count what remains, fishing one out just in time for Ananda to emerge with Winger clinging desperately to her shoulder.
She stops me from putting the cigarette back, saying: "it's okay, he'll need to sit a minute to make sure he's not going to puke."
She leads him over to Abhi's Ford Expedition and plops his limp carcass down on the passenger seat floor, his legs dangling out of the sliding door.
I give her a sympathetic look and extend the Camel box to her. She clenches her teeth and extends a hand: "I stopped smoking two weeks ago, but thanks anyway."
"Your loss," I say, putting the box back in my coat pocket.
Tali springs forward and plucks it back out.
"She saw some 20/20 on all the girls on the pill who get heart-attacks when they smoke, so now she's all terrified, as if she didn't know smoking was unhealthy before or something." She drops a cigarette in her mouth and clenches it between her teeth, fumbling around her purse for a lighter before I do the whole gentleman thing and take care of it, the erratic wind gusts making it more of a production.
Ananda blushes a little, prompting a tirade from Tali on her being "such a fucking Catholic." She is about to respond when Winger hollers hoarsely for her, at which point she rolls her eyes and stomps over to attend to him.
"Are we gonna go anytime soon?" Abhi inquires. "The place is only open until three-thirty."
"Please," I say, relieved.
Tali launches her cigarette halfway across the street and climbs over Winger to the back of the car. I follow her in and help Ananda hoist him up onto the bench seat, where she scuttles herself a space by his feet. I sit down next to Tali, who takes my hand and crosses her right leg over my left. Heading toward us, Emma notices our position, gives a knowing smirk and tries to squeeze next to Ananda.
Tali huffs: "Come on Emma, don't be ridiculous, you know you can fucking sit back here."
She hesitantly moves into the back next to me. "Hey whatever, I'm just thinking, you know, two single kids, a little drunk, getting all touchy, you know, shit happens…"
Despite the irrelevance of the source of this drunken babbling, I still feel a cold sheet of perspiration begin to cover my palms at the thought of my theoretical involvement with Tali, this being the first time the issue has ever been vocalized. She notices this, and sets my hand down on her thigh, cracking the window as Abhi fires up the ignition.
I observe Abhi's face through the rearview mirror, head sinking back into the seat a little as he leans on the accelerator and nudges his bloated behemoth of a car forward. He unconsciously glides his fingers along the back of the steering wheel, making light circular brushes around the grip indentations with his pinky. Climbing up the freeway onramp he exhales emphatically when he guns the car into a higher gear, his neck muscles tensing and relaxing in concert with the oscillations of the rpm gauge, eyes narrowing as the brute force of the engine bellows beneath him. He merges onto the I-10 and wantonly pushes his intermediary through the ephemeral voids between the other cars, gliding along smoothly in zigzag patterns across the asphalt.
"Hey cowboy, relax!" Emma yells in her trademark high-pitched squeal.
Abhi doesn't seem to notice, enraptured with his own vehicular communion, shifting his hips convulsively. We're plowing dangerously through scattered traffic at near ninety miles per hour in an aerodynamic tank, yet Abhi is so collected and controlled that no one's nerves are too on edge. He thrusts through narrow openings in the flow and in and out of lanes at a perpetually increasing pace, his foot caressing the gas pedal through a series of strains and reprieves, the arboreal canopy above abruptly seceding to reveal the lustrous glowing cylinders of the Los Angeles skyline. Some Queen song about a car is thundering through the subwoofer on the floor behind the back seat.
"Oh what the fuck is this?" Abhi yells to himself, easing in on the brake as we approach a stretch of red taillights.
Grey smoke is billowing out of road flares and scattering up higher in the wind, the five lanes of traffic all merging into one channel on the far right of the freeway.
"Is there an accident?" Emma asks anxiously.
The twin ambulances halted on the left side of the road indicate that there is, and Abhi huffs in frustration as he brings the car to an abortive halt behind a comparably dwarf-like Jeep Cherokee.
Emma leans over me to gawk out the window, then plops back down with a disappointed sigh.
"I can't even see shit, those ambulances are in the way." She stares down at the floor, her mouth open slightly, looking such that I would think her lost in thought if I didn't know that such a thing was nearly impossible for her.
Abhi sinks into his seat and indicates to his right. "Well, at least you've got the beautiful LA River over there."
I look over at the muddy concrete chasm and strain to read the multicolored graffiti that snakes up and down the slopes of the cement channel that tower over what would few would ever refer to as a river - an immobile spittle of murky sludge languishing in the dusty void. Pieces of broken appliances, old tires, car bumpers, and chaotically arrayed piles of rotting leaves and tree-branches form the only visible evidence of any connection to anything living, and all around the decayed crack in the landscape stretch jagged spires of decrepit industrial buildings, gnarled chain-link fences, and broken pavement.
"Why do they still insist on calling this a river, anyway?" Tali asks me lowly, drawing her silver cigarette-case out of her purse and twirling one expectantly between her fingers.
"It's really all…" she breaks her thought and peers down at the river. "What the fuck is that guy doing?"
"Him, that guy down in the river."
Puzzled, I glance over and struggle to see through the dark wasteland to figure out what she's talking about, when out of nowhere I notice a disheveled wretch limping downriver, plodding his dirty feet through the muck and using a broomstick as a sort of a cane.
"Oh shit, I see him! What the fuck?"
"Yeah, what the fuck is he doing down there?"
I laugh incredulously and shrug my shoulders. "I don't know…fishing?"
Tali giggles quietly. "Fishing, right."
"Here we go," Abhi exhales with exquisite relief as the crowd of drivers ahead stop craning their necks to glimpse at the mangled metallic rubbish on the highway and begin to pick up speed. The bum slowly inching his way through the river fades out of sight as Abhi quickly guns the Explorer back to its desired speed.
"That was weird," I say to Tali, still mentally sorting through possible explanations.
"What's weird, what?" Emma says, snapping out of her self-induced hypnosis.
Tali dismisses her with a wave and leans her head on my shoulder, causing me of course to instantly become fidgety. I make a vain attempt to restrain the violent spasms that seem to shoot through me uncontrollably when ever she leans on me thus, but after knocking her head around a few times she straightens up and rests her head on her left hand, clenched into a fist.
The blonde in the front passenger seat leafs through Abhi's CD booklet for a few seconds and takes out a silver disk with a palm-tree emblem on the bottom. She slides it in the player and after a moment the opening organ strains of U2's "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" fill the car. The blonde sings along with Bono and bobs her head gravely, imbuing her low chanting with so much feigned emotion that I'm sure she has no idea what she's singing. I look over at Tali, who smiles reassuringly, and realize that this song isn't nearly as profound as I once thought.
We tear along to the Hollywood Freeway, the drive peppered only with scattered and vapid conversation attempts, emanating mostly from Emma, and ending mostly with a shrug or a "fuck it" from Tali. Exiting on Highland, we drive up to Franklin, where even Abhi concedes to slow down on the narrow, low-lit street. It's the part of any journey where all the involved parties snap out of their interior monologues and begin to pay attention the their surroundings, in this case to be the first to spot the elusive club.
"Dude, I'm serious, the last time I was here they had just re-painted it, it was all dark blue in the front with the name in black, so I really don't think that was it," Abhi says, rebuffing Emma's claims that we must have already passed it.
"Well whatever, all I'm saying is that I know it was before Western, and I wasn't really looking anyway," she says assuredly.
"Does anyone know the address?" I ask.
"You know, I think she's right, I think we passed it." Tali says, pensively touching an unlit cigarette to her lips.
Abhi throws his shoulders back and exhales loudly, an action implying but not explicitly admitting defeat. "Alright, we'll go back."
He impatiently spins the car around in the middle of the street, forcing me to grab onto the seat back to avoid falling onto Tali; Emma neglects to take this precaution and tumbles over into my lap, her still-wet hair spilling all over my pants.
"Emma sweetie, why don't you put on your seat-belt, it is Abhi driving, you know," Tali says.
Emma picks herself up, giggling. "Oh, I'm sorry Josh, I got your pants all wet, shit, they're not dry-clean only are they?"
"They'll be fine, they're fine," I assure her, laughing.
Tali reaches over and brushes at them, which does very little to dry them off.
Abhi is still hung-up on our insult to his sense of direction. "I still say it's closer to Vermont, but we'll try this way."
"Yeah, I think so too," his yellow-headed accessory adds.
"How's Winger doing, anyway?" he asks, looking back in the rearview mirror.
Ananda looks up at him with tired eyes. "He's fine, he's fine. He's just taking a little nap, I think."
Winger, as if on cue, lets out a dry snorting sound, followed by a content groan and a sudden shudder of his legs, nearly kicking Ananda in the stomach.
Tali falls back into her seat and smirks, eyes rolling off to the left. "What a night," she sighs to the window, slightly amused.
Emma puts a hand on my shoulder and leans over to whisper in my ear. Her breath is hot and damp on my neck, smelling of beer and breath mints. "She's a fucking saint to put up with his shit. He's like this like everyday, she can't even take him anywhere, he's always stoned or puking or something. I wouldn't put up with that kind of shit."
I shake my head and roll my eyes a little, expressing enough somber disgust to agree with her without having to say anything. Ananda does look pathetic, sitting upright with the same accepting, emotionless __expression she's been wearing every time I've seen her, staring down at her alcoholic wastrel of a boyfriend with that mixture of revulsion and maternal pity that makes it clear that she'll marry him someday. I try to think back on what I know of her other than the fact the she's Winger's boyfriend and can bring nothing to mind. My only consistent picture of her is as the docile, well-dressed girl sitting silently beside Winger as he screams outrageous comments at passers-by or nods off on some mixture of controlled substances, observing everything passively without seeming to pass much judgment.
I glance over at Tali, starting a little when I turn my head to find her looking at me. She smiles ironically and sits up to adjust her shirt, exhaling forcefully with mild frustration and a narrow-eyed flash that seems to convey "yes, I'm as annoyed with this as you think I am." Her smirk fades into the foreground of my sight as I feel myself compulsively drawn into the blur of arid palm trees shooting by the window. I try to catch one individual tree as it comes into the frame on the right and follow it as it goes past, my head weighing less heavily on my shoulders as our advance down the road and through time seems to vacillate at a seesaw speed - all progression pausing momentarily with every tree I catch in my sight, then hurtling back into the future and across La Brea as it rushes out of the window frame.
We drive on for interminable minutes with all seven of us unspeaking, "Running to Stand Still" trickling out of the speakers and becoming so much a part of the blurry exterior landscape and silent supinity in the car that it begins to become as apparitional as the music in the club, perpetually building and building upon itself until it begins to disintegrate, music being so intangible that its immaterial and imagined foundations give out and all order slips away and spirals downward to a peaceful ethereality. The air in the car is damp with sounds that seem to smooth the jagged edges of the tableau like broken rocks in a stream and drown the senses in intoxicating reverberations flowing unobtrusively behind meandering vocal incantations. Tali again places her head on my shoulder and for some reason I don't twitch, I just allow it to roll there gently, her cool perfumed hair fluttering against the side of my face, tranquil, with my gaze fixed on the panorama streaming by the window. We pause at traffic lights for yuppie kids in Jettas borrowed from their parents that they've driven in from cookie-cutter suburbs for a night out in Hollywood, flooding aimlessly through the posh northern streets desperately hoping to be spotted by one of their classmates as they nearly swerve into the ancient homeless women in the gutters dragging rusty-wheeled shopping carts filled with blankets, aluminum cans, and other withered stumps of time up along with their dried hands in search of shelter for the warm, windy night. We seem to have been drifting like this for hours, although I'm not sure when we left and can't find a clock.
"Abhi, if you guys can't find this place could you drop me and Winger at my place? I think he needs to sleep this off," Ananda asks plaintively, softly stroking his leg as she speaks.
Abhi huffs and grips the wheel more tightly. "Yeah, I don't know where the fuck we're going, and I mean it's already a quarter past one."
"I really could have sworn it was back this way…" Emma ponders pensively, unconsciously sucking on her index finger.
Abhi continues on Franklin to Highland, where he turns left and heads back south, the typical indication that the evening out is, for all intents and purposes, over. Abhi is forced to drag his metallic monstrosity along at a slow crawl as we inch by the tawdry neon and equally tawdry gawking tourists of Hollywood and Highland and are then caught up in the convergence of lowered Hondas on Sunset. Winger is snoring brusquely, Emma huffing about it between swiftly occurring bouts of alcohol-induced narcolepsy. Tali, head still resting comfortably on my shoulder, takes my left hand in hers and begins to graze it gingerly with her thumb. She traces circular patterns on the back of my hand with fluid little strokes, just barely touching the skin and sending cool waves of mesmeric tension trickling to the endings of every nerve in my body.
"Fuck it, I'm stopping at In-and-Out," Abhi announces suddenly, as if he has just been overcome with resolve after quietly debating the issue for several hours. "Does anybody want anything?"
"A chocolate milkshake…you're paying since it's your fault we couldn't find the place." Emma says seriously. Abhi mumbles something under his breath that vaguely resembles agreement.
"I just want a Coke," Tali says lazily, lifting her head and letting go of my hand.
"Just get me some water."
Abhi clicks his tongue disapprovingly. "They don't have bottled water here, man. We'll stop at a 7-11 or something."
"Why? Just get me some here."
"But it's out of the tap, man."
"Dude, it's okay," I say while laughing incredulously. "I'd drink anything at this point."
"Well, whatever. Just that I wouldn't drink the tap water in this fucking city."
We enter the drive-through lane and Abhi orders with the blonde whispering instructions into his ear. We then pull up to the window where a cheery-faced and carbuncular sixteen year old with a yarmulke-like paper hat carefully balanced on her head hands Abhi the food. He pulls forward a bit and begins distributing it.
"Shit. Josh, they forgot your water. Lazy little fuckers. We'll go back around."
"Dude, don't worry about it, it's cool."
"Yeah, it's fine."
Ananda passes a palm-tree adorned cup to Tali, who immediately gives it to me.
"I'm not really thirsty anyway," she says.
Dragging Winger into Ananda's place is less of a struggle than it could be, as he begins to flop around, groan, and rub his bleary eyes as we approach her Los Feliz apartment. She gives us all an abortive wave as he heaves himself out of the car and stumbles up the passageway, left hand adjusting his crotch as he walks. We head south for a few minutes towards Tali's, Emma slurping her milkshake noisily and deliriously giggling at herself as she does it, almost as though she's imagining herself playing with an infant, cooing and vibrating her lips on its belly. Abhi halts jarringly in front of Tali's somewhat decadent apartment complex - gated, shadowed heavily by swarms of fir trees, with a propulsive fountain spurting off in two directions at the entrance.
"Josh, you're parked here, right?" Abhi asks.
"Yeah yeah, just around the corner," I say standing up. I bend over and give Emma a hug. She kisses me on the cheek, then holds me by the shoulders and looks at me with an off smile on her face.
She leans back over and whispers in my ear: "You know what to say."
I stare back at her blankly, mouth open expectantly, waiting for words that don't seem to come, completely confused.
She abruptly pierces the silent air with a high-pitched giggle. "Never mind, Josh, goodnight."
I half-smile at her and hurry out of the car, leaving her to bestow Tali with excessive amounts of parting affection. I wish Abhi goodnight and say "nice meeting you" to the blonde, even though I haven't. Tali follows me out and descends from the Explorer with Elizabeth Taylor suavity, blowing a purposely over-done kiss to Emma and waving to the others. The car quickly disappears and Tali scurries up to me, taking my arm tightly as we walk up to the gate.
"Would you like to come in for a minute?"
She extracts her keys and hands them to me; I realize after a moment of confusion that she wants me to open the gate for her, which I do.
"You know, I feel bad for Emma. She's so cute and sweet and yet she never has any luck with guys whatsoever. If I were a guy, I'd go for her in a second. Wouldn't you?"
"Yeah, totally. She's adorable."
"I know, it sucks. She's like the kind of girl who would make a good wife, or mother, you know? I can totally see her at PTA meetings, it's kind of scary. But everyone's running around with empty-headed little bitches with no fucking personality, it annoys the hell out of me. I almost hate going clubbing with her because it always ends with her all self-deprecating and shit after striking out again. Whatever."
She ends her thought as she ends most, with a knowing little huff and brush-aside that renders inconsequential everything that she has just said, cleverly catching anyone who has been agreeing with her.
We walk by the fountain as a sudden gust of wind blows a shower of spray over us. Tali makes no attempt to avoid it, and I instinctively crouch away a little.
"You don't want to know how many of our little nights end like this, with a whimper," she begins. "I don't think I'd go along with them as much as I do if I had anything better to do. It just makes me wonder how we managed to convince you to come along."
"Same reason, I guess."
Tali lets out a low reverberation of acquiescence.
"I guess I'll take that. As long as you weren't totally miserable."
"No no, not at all. It was entertaining."
"Liar," she says, running her hand up and down the length of my arm. "But whatever, I mean what else is there to do in this city but look bored while being well-dressed and surrounded by a lot of people doing the same thing? I think you have to be unimpressed to be fashionable."
"So you're saying we're fashionable?"
"Yes, we make a very fashionable couple, and I mean that in the worst possible way."
The sidewalks we traverse meander to and fro for no conceivable reason other than to add to the mystique of the dark and equivocal grounds of the complex, as planters exploding with hyacinths seem placed so only to provide hindrance to the pathway. There is an uneasiness to my step that I blame on the alcohol, made more apparent by Tali's slow ease in walking, unimpeded by the her having had far more to drink than I have. We duck into a dark passageway containing three doors, Tali's being the one at the far end. We walk up to the threshold, where she stops and looks at me attentively.
"You still have the keys, I hope."
"Oh, shit, that's right, hang on."
I fish through my pockets and bring her keys out in a handful intermeshed with my own, inelegantly extricating them and opening the door.
She enters the dark alcove and quickly finds a light switch on the opposite side of the room, the light from various low lamps placed at all corners uncovering a meticulously well-decorated living space that at the moment seems so furnished solely for the entertainment of guests, a practice at which she seems far more at home than I. A brown leather couch is pushed up against the far wall with a matching armchair and ottoman perched beside it to the right, a glass coffee table in front of it with chronologically arranged copies of The New Yorker piled in a well-ordered fanning pattern centered around a porcelain ashtray. Vintage film posters and French perfume ads decorate the walls which are painted in perfect period putty white, giving a pseudo-aged quality that renders the idealized vision of the past complete. The small kitchen on the left is notably unnoticeable, save for the bar that borders the rest of the living room on which sit a chain of multi-colored bottles and glistening silver martini shakers. As if an afterthought, a cheap television set sits unobtrusive and unused on the carpet beneath the bar.
"Have a seat, I'll be right back," she says, already out of the room and into the hallway on the right before she has finished her sentence.
I close the door softly behind me and walk over to the couch, which gives off pleasant odors of imbedded incense smoke. I wonder what time it is and, forgetting my watch, look around the room for a clock, finding an unnumbered analog one in the kitchen. I strain to determine the time with a minute hand and hour hand of indistinguishable sizes when I am interrupted by Tali's return.
"Sorry, I'm compulsive about checking my messages, even though I'm never patient enough to listen to them." She glances briefly around the room, her hair now tied up on top of her head, bouncing around incongruously with her rapid motions. "Have you been here since I redecorated?"
"No, it's quite nice."
She giggles and looks at me askance. "I know, I'm a trendy little whore, aren't I?"
"Maybe a little," I say, laughing a little nervously.
She throws one hand up into the air and shrugs, walking over to the couch. "I know, but the Simpsons posters had to come down eventually. Don't I have more mystique now?"
"I guess so, but can you really manufacture your own mystique like that?" I ask, nearly unaware of what I'm saying.
"Of course you can," she says, emphasizing her words with a dramatic landing on the couch. "It's very Hollywood of me. If you're an adult woman all you need is a dark sense of humor, alcoholism, and a living room like this and all of the sudden you're a 'character.' It's easy."
"I'm glad you're so conscious of your image, it's refreshing."
"Fuck you," she says through one of her hand-rolled cigarettes. "Here take one of these, I can't stand to watch you smoke that Camel Lights shit."
I take it and grope around for my lighter, lighting my cigarette before hers, which causes her to chuckle bemusedly.
"I want to put some plants in here, but I worry that it would clash with the dusty casting-room vibe, too much life, you know."
"Yeah, I gave up on the plant thing after a while."
"They were always dying."
She ashes her cigarette with a dexterous flick of her thumb, holding it poised next to her mouth in a picture-perfect pose. She pauses for a minute, and I can't tell if she's lost in thought or just waiting for me to say something. My mind goes blank, I can't think of anything, desperately trying to squeeze some little trifle out of my brain but all I can think of is the silence.
"Do you want anything? Like to drink?" she asks.
I'm a little struck by her question. "Uh, yeah, I guess, if you're having something."
She laughs languidly. "Yeah, I could use some more. I'm not keeping you here am I? You know you can go if you want."
"No, you're not…you're not keeping me."
She walks over to the bar and produces two conveniently-placed snifters, unstoppering a wide-bellied bottle and pouring a generous splash of dark liquid into both. Wine? No, brandy.
"Thanks," I say as she hands me one and sits back down.
"My sister gave me this for my birthday. It's pretty good stuff, which annoys me because I'm always so conscious of not hoarding it that I end up going through it really quickly. Inappropriate glasses, I know."
I take a large sip and set it down on the table, uncoastered.
"Tell me something interesting," she says before bringing the glass to her lips, looking classic with the brandy in one hand and the cigarette resting daintily in the other.
"I don't know, a story."
I struggle vainly for something to say. Interesting? Such a request immediately brings into doubt the validity of anything I could possibly come up with.
"You're being way too vague," I say with a self-confident air that does a bad job of masking my uncertainty. "I don't really have any stories I'd call interesting."
Tali laughs again, very lowly and self-contained. "Yes you do, but the fact that you won't tell me gives you mystique too. Don't tell me you haven't planned this out."
"Why don't you tell me something interesting? A story."
"You're stalling, but that's okay, it's a good maneuver. I'd tell you a story, but mine aren't very interesting either. I think tonight's events and the décor in this room pretty much sum up my life."
"So you're saying you're a disaffected, self-conscious party girl?"
She stubs out her cigarette and feigns deep reflection of my accusation. "Well, I guess so. But I'd say I'm more of an Audrey Hepburn-style party girl than some dumb slutty midrift-baring type, which is what I usually think of when someone says party girl."
I pick up my glass, intent on downing the rest of the brandy as quickly as possible. "Yeah, I can accept that. Where is that Breakfast at Tiffany's poster you used to have up, anyway?"
She finishes off her drink and sets the glass down defiantly, taking in a deep breath as if to summon up the necessary courage to tell me. "Well, when I was redecorating I guilted Winger into making himself useful and helping me move the couches and put up the posters and everything. He somehow ripped it right down the middle. Thought it was funny too, the fucker."
"Yeah, I loved that fucking poster."
"I have the exact same one, you know."
Her eyes light up a little, only I can't tell how deep or on what level her excitement lies. "Really? Can I have it?"
I shift on the couch a little bit, inching in a little closer to her. "I've had that poster since I was in high school, it's my favorite poster too."
She slides in a tad nearer to me. "Yeah maybe, but I don't think you quite understand what Holly Golightly is to me, she IS me. Unless you can prove that you deserve it."
"Holly Golightly is my perfect woman. Audrey Hepburn, she's like the ideal. When I was in college, senior year I think, I nearly got into a fight with my roommate when he said she looked anorexic."
"What a little shit."
"Yeah, totally. And when I was high school, the poster was, like, my good luck charm, or something."
"How so?" she asks, sliding a hand on to my knee and leaning in closer, sight fixed hard on my eyes.
"I don't know, it's stupid really."
"Tell me," she says, "come on." Electric currents are running through the muscles of her hand, my thighs constricting as her grip tightens a little.
"Well, like…" a sheen of sweat spreads across my palms, and it takes some doing to unstick my tongue from the roof of my mouth. "Like whenever I would have something important, like, I don't know, SATs or something, whatever it was that you think is important when you're in high school, before I would leave I would blow a kiss to the poster, you know, like: 'wish me luck, Audrey.'"
"Did it work?"
She leans forward and our lips meet, while concurrent cold shivers tense up my neck muscles, my lungs empty. The moisture of her mouth fills my own, my tongue immobile, my lips failing to respond. I look down at her closed eyes, mine wide open, and try to calm myself, force feeling into my head, do something, anything, relax, any sort of reassuring gesture or calming respiration but my anxious attention remains riveted, aware of my parched mouth with her foreign tongue attempting to slip inside it, my own inability to close my own eyes and fall into her embrace blinding me all the same. The millions of reveries into which I have endlessly drifted of this exact situation while next to her in a car or idly marking the progression of the second hand at work rushing through my mind's eye, the words "DO SOMETHING" flashing in bold case in my inner vision, yet my eyes seem to fail me. My own tongue, like a dried fish languishing in my mouth no matter how hard I try to command it to respond, my whole body sitting comatose while a world of opportunity opens itself to it and I lie still, focused but disabled. I reach out and want to clasp her arm, pull her closer, but I watch in disbelief as I plant my hand high on her chest, gently pushing her away.
She breaks contact with me and retreats back, lips still parted expectantly, eyes opening up slightly, breath coming in profound heaves. Her eyes close again and she leans into me, clasping my head with both hands and embracing me again. Again I can do nothing. My mind burns with indignation at itself, yet I remain numb and motionless, silently resisting her advances that I have no desire to refuse.
She leans back and looks at me with eyes that try to mask their frustration but betray it all the same. Her breath slows to a steady rhythm as every exhalation seems to push her further back toward the other end of the couch. She nervously runs a hand through her hair and looks away with such deliberateness that she doesn't seem to be looking at anything in front of her other than my absence from her sight.
"I, I'm sorry…" I struggle to get out, leaning forward with my hands tucked into my lap.
She laughs loudly, irritatedly, embarrassedly. "No, no, I'm sorry. I, that was, I'm just a little drunk Josh, apologies."
"No really, I…" the words seem to scrape across my dry throat as they struggle to the surface, "I just, don't know, I don't know, sorry."
"Stop it Josh, don't worry, I'm sorry, I'm just like that sometimes, it's…that was just a mistake." She's flushed with angry discomfort, her cheeks and chest pink and exuding heat, trying to casually play off her frustration with forced laughter and awkward nonchalance.
I sink into the sofa and wipe furiously at the layer of sweat on my brow, still trying to piece everything together, blue polyester shirt slowly suffocating me.
Tali stands up and straightens her clothes, exhaling sharp and infrequent sighs while I stare at her silently.
"I'll be right back, I've just got to go to the bathroom for a second."
I hear the door slam shut and manage to pull myself out of stunned reflection just long enough to stand up and walk out the door.
I walk from my car up through the lawn towards my apartment, smoke trailing out of my mouth for a few inches in front of my face before it is swept upwards by the desert winds that have been blowing westward from Santa Ana through LA for the last several days, stirring up dust and crinkled blades of brown grass that have dried out in the unseasonable April heat, covering the city with a fresh blanket of infertile desert sand. I stop at the foot of the cement staircase and watch the wind wrestle leaves off of the big eucalyptus that have held out this long through the rainless winter, sending them showering down into the dumpsters. Squatting on the lowest stair I drain the last bit of tobacco smoke through the filter and toss it into the lawn, where the embers succeed in sparking up a few blades of grass before dying out. My chest feels heavy, the result of too much physical exertion combined with too much tar weighing down my lungs, already weakened by the industrial dust and smog to which one living in this city grows quite accustomed. Out of nowhere I remember reading something I liked by Oscar Wilde, something about a cigarette being the perfect pleasure because it leaves you so unsatisfied: too true. With a dry sucking sound the sprinklers pop up and begin their futile task, all save for the broken one at my feet, whose sprocket shakes limply as water drizzles out the side and spills onto the sidewalk. I pull myself up by the handrail and walk up the stairs, checking my watch as I do: four o'clock.