The Postman Only Rings Once.
I wake up at 2 AM and hightail it to the Ralphs on Western Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. As sad young Latino men stock the shelves I can not buy anything from, I empty the glass jug of pennies I keep in my kitchen closet into the coin redemption machine, my haul of fifteen dollars and sixty-five cents leaving me with a choice, my first in weeks. Cat food versus apples and pears, a roll of toilet paper, a book of stamps and some veggies to mix into my daily rice. In the morning, I will go to the pet store and ask if I can work in exchange for cat food. I can direct thin yoga moms and muscular out of work actors in and out of the too small parking spaces of the strip mall’s lot for a few hours.
I return home to the silenced phone ringers and the nasty pontificating of Joe and Mika, their arrogance the only light in my living room. These two should do the deed and get it over with. An instant message, sent by a man I have been chatting with on Adam4Adam, usurps the fun couple’s bantering. The man wants to know what my plans are for the morning. Like I have plans outside of sleeping. The man suggests meeting for coffee. I type out words about cat food and maneuvering big cars between white lines. At 10 AM, he picks me up on the corner of Beachwood and Franklin and drives me to the pet store. The man possesses an unworldly calm, he is handsome, smart and quick witted. He feels the wind blowing through his thick hair. Lucky him, my days revolve around watching the sheer curtains dance in my living room and my upcoming purchase of stamps and apples with my fifteen dollar windfall.
The man buys me fifty dollars worth of cat food. My lips want to kiss his cheeks, the way my neighbors kissed mine when I was a teenager and mowed their lawns every Saturday for free, the vibration of the mower’s handles rattling my hands, making me feel for the first time I had a man’s body, my nose breathing in the Long Island mixture of gasoline and cut grass.
“This is very kind of you,” I tell my chat buddy.
The Hollywood Sign, pure white hope on this clear morning in the City of the Angels, watches us as we sit in the man’s freshly washed car in front of the drawn blinds of my building, the occasional emaciated runway model walking her dog languidly up Beachwood Drive.
“I’ve been where you are. Try to remember you’re only looking for a job for yourself, not the whole country. Write every day. You’ll make it.”
I stare at him, at the deep blackness of his hair, my lips can not tell him my fingers have stopped flying over the keyboard, that they are numb now for all the wrong reasons.
I smile. Nod my head. Whisper good-bye.
My body holds none of the stamina of the Hollywood Sign in the hills above us, the bones beneath my pure white cheeks tingle, I am certain that when I open my front door, they will shatter like cracked glass.
The boyfriend offers to pay October’s rent. I push the check back across the table.
“I’m so broke now, what difference does it make?” he asks.
“I lied to you about working for the old man. I promised you I wouldn’t go back there.”
“After all I didn’t tell you about myself? Guy, what you did wasn’t lying. Promise me you’ll stop watching the news. We know the economy is tanking. Do you have to have it pounded into your head from the minute you get up?”
“Can I still read Paul Krugman?”
A month ago this would have made us both laugh.
I take the check.
The boyfriend and I used to talk all night and into the morning, our foreheads touching, greedy fingers running up and down backs, legs, arms and butts. Now when he visits, we sleep in my bed for twenty hours a day, only waking up to eat or walk his dog. The boyfriend came to like our new diet of rice and tofu very quickly. He eats way more than I do. He brings the tofu, I can only afford the rice. He has admitted to no longer feeling the air on his skin.
Exhausted by noon from our attempts to feel the air, we eat Vicodins in the late afternoons and hold on to each other until the night comes on.
October is cold and dark. No more drawn blinds blue in my bedroom. I wake up every morning at 3 AM and stare at Joe and Mika from the couch. They are like “Moonlighting” without the jokes, chase scenes or the fucking. LAUSD does not call. At 7 AM, I yank the silver curtain grommets along the wrought iron curtain rod and open the windows. I am unable to feel the air as it quietly seduces the curtains into undulating before me. I drink the first of my eight daily glasses of water. Pour out the day’s cup of rice. Check my voicemail. Not like anyone would call. I walk past my writing desk. Stare at the post-it notes climbing up the wall. Orange are characters. Blue, plot points. Green, lines of dialogue. Who lined them up so perfectly?
The thought of calling LAUSD pushes me back on the couch for a nap. When I wake up, their office has closed. I continue to play this game for two weeks.
I mute Joe and Mika and lie on the couch until the stillness and endless quite of my living room laugh at me.
I call LAUSD.
“This has never happened before,” the voice says. “No one is calling in sick. And for the few that do, we’re using subs from the top of the list. Do this for now, take yourself off call. There’s no point in waiting around if we’re not going to use you. If things pick up, our department will be in touch. But, don’t expect much.”
I do not expect a thing.
I wear my nightshirts all day and into the evening, ignoring their ripped sleeves, torn collars and frayed hems when they catch on doorknobs, the arms of chairs or the assorted kitsch tchotchkes I have acquired over the years. I shower at ten or eleven at night. The whispers of air blowing against the sheer curtains in my living room still can not touch me. I keep the TV volume low and shut off the ringers of my landline and fax machine. Sound hurts my skin. There are two dollars left from my fifteen dollar windfall. After holding on to it for two weeks, I buy a jar of peanut butter from Trader Joe’s. From the forty cents change, I put a quarter with the other quarters for the laundry, the nickel and dime with the money I have alloted for bus fare.
Lucky man, I eat from the plastic jar with my fingers when I am hungry.
My cat has left me. She is afraid. She only eats and uses the litter box when I am asleep. When I am awake, she positions herself on the floor of the hall closet, watching me from under the shelves which hold the videos I have taped over the past twenty years. If I walk towards the closet, she retreats to the upper shelf of the kitchen cabinet, her whiskers alert under the silverware drawer as she lies where I used to store rolls of toilet paper, which I no longer have the money to buy, not even at the 99¢ Only Store. I shower to clean up after using the toilet. My family is French. It’s no biggie. My cat never once closes her eyes when I am awake or lying on the couch.
She knows what I am going to do. She watches for it.
In the mornings, I apply online.
In the afternoons, I cold call hospitals, whose voices scream into my ear: “Our protocol is for applicants to apply online.”
I cold call agencies and listen to their song: “We’d love for you to come in and apply.”
I cut to the chase and ask if they have work. They don’t, haven’t for months.
The red ink circling phone numbers in the “Yellow Pages” tells me I have gone this route before.
I sleep for a few hours, then wake up and call the agency on Sunset. No work. My peanut butter jar is empty. Did it last a week? Two weeks?
I get up off the couch and head out to UCLA, where I find myself reclining once again for three hours at a clip on a hard and oddly contoured examining chair. In his attempt to replace the crown on my lower last tooth, the UCLA dental student pulls my jaw as far to my right as he can. Having been a wrestler in high school, he is strong and, in spite of the novocaine, it hurts, it feels like a hot spike being hammered into the tip of my tongue. My blood pressure readies itself to stroke me out as the student adjusts the examining chair to a position where my head is below the level of my heart. Not such a lucky man, the pounding in my head reminds me I can no longer pretend my pressure is low. Props to the Armenian, the kid, the karaoke caretaker and the worms. I have not met my deductible this year, a visit to my doctor would be, at minimum, one hundred and fifty dollars. Eat right, lose ten pounds, exercise daily. I will see a doc next July when I switch from my PPO’s money sucking deductibles and co-pays to Kaiser, whose doctors extort ten bucks for a visit and fifty for the ball surgery. The student readjusts his goggles. I stare up at the tiny black holes in the ceiling above me.
I moan, remembering that in November of 2007 the student presented me with a simple treatment plan. Now, nearly a year later, he is no where close to being finished. I squeeze my hands together, my knuckles turning white, my feet kicking in the air.
“You can’t be hurting,” the student says.
“It really does, can I have more novocaine?”
“You’re weirdly sensitive to dental work. There’s no way this could be bothering you.”
“Humor me. Give me the novocaine.”
Thinking I would cover everything on the treatment plan by doing insurance assessments, I am saving money I do not have getting care at UCLA. I hold my tongue, force it to the left side of my mouth, my eyes tearing with the knowledge that I do not have the two hundred fifty co-pay for the crown.
The next day, my jaw is literally floating in my mouth, its pain throbbing more intensely than the relentless snark attack Joe and Mika dish out at dawn. The ball pain is a blessing compared to what my mouth is doing. I try to drive down Sunset, but after two blocks, I pull into a Rite Aid parking lot and cradle my jaw in my hands.
I want to see my cat again. I want the air to touch me.
I cry for ten minutes, making sure my jaw does not move, trying not to shake with fear as my balls vibrate with their own grief.
“You’re drug seeking,” the student tells me when I ask for pain meds.
“People in pain do seek drugs,” I tell him. “What’s your plan to fix this?”
“You need to understand that this has nothing to do with me. You react so inappropriately to dental care. I have no issue with your going back to your own dentist.”
“I don’t have the money to see you, let alone another dentist.”
“The pain will go away. Your jaw has to reacquaint itself with your mouth.”
And Sarah Palin will learn to read the “New York Times” and understand it. Hell, she and Todd will do the crossword puzzle in ink every morning.
Over the phone, my doctor, understanding I do not have the money for an office visit, prescribes me Vicodin, whose dosage of two every six hours does not come close to touching the pain.
Lucky man, I can use them for my out.
I answer a post on Yahoo’s Big Cheap Theatre group and am brought in to interview for a job as weekend house manger at a theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard. The full time manager is a friendly actor, one of the surplus of radically handsome young men who populate the City of the Angels, all waiting for their break.
“Do you have any objections to cleaning up the bathrooms after the house closes?”
He is standing on a ladder screwing in a lightbulb. I look up at him, glowing skin, shining green eyes, hair falling over his thick black eyelashes.
I have absolutely no objections to anything he asks of me.
The theater owner is a tough cookie from the East Coast, blonde hair, black roots, ten pounds over the skinny actress limit, oddly smooth face of undeterminable age. As deep as our laughter is about the Joan Didion disconnectedness of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciúncula, we live for the days when la Reina’s warm air kisses our middle aged skin. I tell her of my hope to be teaching soon, my stand up days, my monologues, my novel. She talks about her plans for this season’s plays and her early gigs in New York City. The traffic glides along Santa Monica Boulevard as the three of us sit for an hour, drinking coffee, talking about our performing anxieties, going up on lines, auditions that put us in bed for a weekend and the few onstage seconds when we have each lost the weight of our bodies and made the connection.
I can almost feel the air.
Driving home, it occurs to me this is the first job interview I have ever been on during which I have not been asked the inevitable: “Where do you see yourself professionally in five years?”
I receive an e mail the next week telling me the theater is unable to hire anyone, seems they are hemorrhaging money, no one has the scratch to book a show, not even for a weeknight. Nice dream while it lasted, still I try to hold on to that hour when my body did not hurt. If the worms would free me from the couch, if I could break the spell Joe and Mika have over me, I could volunteer and help my fellow dreamers out.
I eat two Vicodins. I have to. I do not want to feel the stiffness of my body when I lie on the couch or the ache in my balls, the throbbing of my jaw, the twisting of my gut. I have not been high like this in years. Just for today, I will be part of the light Joe and Mika splash into the room. Tomorrow, the Vicodin bottle goes into its hiding place, next to two full bottles of Ativan. I walk past the apartment of my neighbors, a sweet married couple in their early thirties. She is willowy and cornfed pretty. He is overweight, smokes cigarettes down to the filter and chats on his cell in the courtyard in front of my living room window. His puffy face is familiar, undoubtedly a child actor now scrounging for extra work. Even though they are cooking with their windows closed, the smells of garlic, paprika, thyme, onions, curry and meat being grilled until blood drips red from its insides spill into the courtyard. My nose breathes in my old life. Punching in protest over not being fed like it once was, my stomach pumps out digestive juices as if I had devoured the smells seeping into the empty courtyard. I do not want to eat rice today. My knuckles are one inch from the couple’s door. I will knock, tell them I will wash their dishes, polish their hardwood floors, do their laundry. I will knock just once. If they open, I will ask for a plate of what they are cooking.
The postman only rings once in this stretch of Hollywood, the loose skin of his dehydrated arms carrying the afternoon mail, its bounty of bills always making my stomach churn. The Vicodins are not afraid of the mailbox today. I will open it, then knock on the door. A lone letter from American Express falls into my shaking hands, its blue tinted paper informing me their investigation has concluded. My nostrils tingle, the sting of cilantro pushes its way into my apartment. I lick my lips. The black words tell me AMEX intends to reinstate the six hundred dollar charge for the weight training DVDs.
Lucky man, now my eyelashes hurt.
I call AMEX, there is no hold time. Is it a holiday? I get India.
“I don’t have this type of money, I can’t cover a mistake like this. I don’t charge anything anymore.”
“You recently charged over one hundred dollars at Staples.”
“That was for teaching supplies.”
“You don’t get paid as a teacher? You must have some money coming in.”
“I DON’T HAVE A FUCKING CENT COMING IN. The teaching job fell through. My other two jobs fell apart in August. I don’t have…I eat God damned rice every day. I walk…ride my bike to save on gas. DO YOU THINK I FUCKING BOUGHT A SIX HUNDRED DOLLAR WORKOUT DVD?”
“I sympathize with your obvious frustration.”
“No you FUCKING don’t. Bush gave you guys the bailout money. The way I get it, that was to cover the money you weren’t getting from people like me.”
“Can I put you on hold?”
“This is the most unprofessional…the worst…I’m going to get you fired.”
“I won’t be gone for more than five minutes.”
Having used up the last of my Trader Joe’s multipurpose cleaner weeks ago, I clean the top of my formica dining room table with a nearly empty bottle of Windex.
“Sir, we’re going to go ahead and take off the disputed charge.”
“Thank you…thank you so much…I’m sorry I…”
“Many of our customers find themselves in your position. We appreciate that you continue to make your minimum payments on time. You have a nice afternoon.”
I open the fridge, the tofu the boyfriend left on the bottom shelf is growing two green spores, both black in their centers. I have not acted like this since my father died, when I was an unworldly longhaired twenty year-old, smashing a white metal garbage can against the polished green tiles of the bathroom wall in a Long Island funeral home. Daddy’s friends came in, telling me to scream and hit out until the pain went away. I wailed until my throat became as numb as the day’s Vicodins refuse to make me, their seductive tickle licking my ear, whispering that I am a man who can not pay off credit card debt, can not make the rent, can not buy food. A man who shrieks like the karaoke caretaker at an AMEX woman in India named Harriet.
And now, even my eyelashes hurt.
I didn’t sign up for this.
Not any of it.
The worms, having no shelves to hide on, slither out of my brain, their fear spitting out one last sentence: “It’s either this or the out.”
I never hear them again.