I Learned the Truth at Seventeen.

  Chapter 17/ 2008

I Learned the Truth at Seventeen.

“It’s not the goddamned stocking anymore. Forget it.”

Gloria, Jane Fonda’s character in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” spoke her newly acquired truth when her last decent stocking tore apart as she packed up her belongings, the tight marcel waves of her hair calmed with the thought of finally leaving the marathon.

I learned the truth at seventeen.  

I saw it in Gloria’s tears.  Having danced in circles for weeks in one of the marathons endemic to the first Depression, life punches Gloria for the last time in the instant her partner hands her her missing silk stocking, the excruciating hiss of its gapping wound making a sound fiercer than the siren blasts summoning the dancers back into the ring.  Gloria bows her head down in surrender, the salt of her tears the first nourishing thing she has tasted since running the maze her life has become. 

I pulled out of the theater’s parking lot on my first night driving after dark, my friend Corinne sitting next to me in my mother’s shaky green Rambler, our high school eyes staring silently into the darkness of the quiet Long Island streets, our souls waiting for the instant our heads would bow down, the moment when our bodies would shake with the truth, as Obama’s did when he chanted “Enough” in Invesco Field.

The truth hits everyone.  Just wait.

♦♦

Two weeks before Thanksgiving, floating in a dream more seductive than any promised by the bone white steel of the Hollywood Sign, the pacifying reverie in which Obama changes everything when he is inaugurated in January, I return to a writing group I had left a year ago when I was cast in a play.  No one in the circle of intense, confident and sure to be published screenwriters and novelists asks how I am doing.  Works for me, as I would not have told them, or anyone else for that matter.  I have learned not to speak of my life in rooms where success hovers outside the door, in rooms in which people can smile.  That and my stories are all I have to bring to the table these days.

I listen to great work, original and compelling.  I read the last pages of my novel, telling the tale of a nurse watched over by the City of the Angels’ palm trees as he tries to make it as a comic, the silence of my fellow writers telling me they like it.  The room is warm, the people in it smart, all able to feel the cool night’s air on their skin.  It has been so long, but I make the connection.   

I am sure something will fuck this up.  And soon.

♦♦

Matt and I feast on Thanksgiving.  Always the lucky man, but never the gay man who cooks or is big on cleaning, I manage to pull it off, despite the numbness in my fingers, born at high noon when standing in various check out aisles, my sore jaw tapping into my brain that this is too much money to spend in one afternoon for one meal.  I have bought barbeque chicken from Ralphs, green and black grapes, two yams, Progresso soup, broccoli, a day old bunt cake, Häagen-Dazs, a bottle of wine for Matt and goddamned rice I have flavored with dill, which tastes like the rice I eat every day. 

Matt needs food in his gut, his heart needs someone to listen to him.  He eyes the setup:  a tablecloth of red, blue, yellow and green stripes, turquoise Fiestaware plates, orange bowls, heavy clear glasses with bright blue running around their rims, my mother’s monogrammed linen napkins and her silverware, polished to a bright gleam with toothpaste from the 99¢ Only Store.  Maria Callas sings her sorrow and ecstasy to Matt and I, long black candles providing our only light.  My man smiles, his first in weeks.  

♦♦

Our bellies full, our demons sleep when the worms knock at my front door. 

“We’re not home!” Matt screams.

I forgot.  The man is funny when he is drunk.  

“If you’re not gonna’ drink, at least take a Vicodin. Meet me half way here, guy,”  Matt says.

“I want every pore to be open, mister,” I tell him.  “I want to feel you clean, without any…”

The insistence of his wet tongue stops me from finishing my sentence.

I pour Matt more wine and tell him we are going to watch five John Cassavetes movies in the next few days.  He retrieves another bottle from his clunker.  He is hooked on Gena Rowlands immediately, a good hour before she goes onstage drunk in “Opening Night.” Watching Gena stagger through her scenes, Matt smiles again and laughs.  I do the same, our faces not familiar with the contortions Gena has visited upon them.

For four days, my body remembers truly better days, nothing in me hurts.

It’s all good.  

It will be even better in January.

♦♦

The Monday after Thanksgiving, I need to make three copies of my resume.  I am going to storm every hospital I know of to get work.  It will be like crashing a casting agency to get the part I was born to play. Hell, I have smiled and laughed for four days running, a cliched movie scenario might work.  The store on Franklin Avenue I always use for copying and mailing packages is shuttered closed.  When did that happen?  A nice Latino guy, efficient, fast and funny, ran the place.  The store next to his closed too.  I forgot what they sold, maybe a cleaners? 

My stand-by shop on La Brea Avenue has also gone out of business, the stores on each side empty.  The condo complex going up a half block away stopped construction last month, its investors pulling out after the buyers got cold feet.  It was a huge project, a few blocks long, a few blocks wide.  

I hit a copy store on Hillhurst Avenue, run by a friendly Armenian, his handsome face as sad as Callas’ funereal laments, his shop as quiet as my apartment at noon.

“How you doing?” I ask.

“You’re the first customer of the day.”

“It’s after a holiday, not a big time for a copy center.”

“It’s been like this for weeks.  None of my customers are shipping anything, not anywhere.”

When I tell him I need a total of six copied pages, his face looks like mine did on the first morning LAUSD did not call.  It is three forty in the afternoon, the traffic on Hillhurst is heavy.  I leave two bucks on the counter and walk out fast. 

♦♦

The weekly offers from Discover Card, of a four hundred dollar a month payment plan stretching over five years, lead me to believe Discover wants my business.  I can consolidate all my debt into this note, the four Benjamins being lower than what I pay monthly on minimum payments.  Finally, a way out of my credit card mess.  I would be a lucky man again.  I call.  They are happy to hear from me, overjoyed.  They are not in India, sounds like they are in Ohio or Indiana.  They would love to finance this loan, love to.  They are so glad they can help me in these tough times. After holding for a few minutes, the love is gone.  My credit rating is bad, I earn too little to qualify.  My jaw throbs, my stomach twists as I explain how I can easily make the monthly payment.  The agent sympathizes with my obvious frustration, but it is a no go.  Time for a bowl of rice and a nap.

Next week, Discover lowers my credit limit to five hundred bucks from the 15K it had been for the past twenty years.

Like a siren blast to hit the dance floor, the startled sound of heavy cotton tearing against itself wakes me up as I turn on my side on the couch, the seam running down the side of my lone intact nightshirt ripping apart from the armpit to the hemline.

I do not need my marathon partner to hand me anything.  The tears hit my tongue with the tease of the fizzle of the Pepsi I drank sitting next to Corinne in a movie theater forty years ago.  

Lucky man, the salt of my truth is sure to spice up my rice bowl.

♦♦

The piping on my couch is frayed, shredded more maliciously than my discarded nightshirts.  Rejuvenation is needed for the cushions worn beyond boho chic, maybe black velvet trimmed with blue piping.  Right, like that is going to happen. I have fallen asleep on my couch at high noon once again.  More often than not, my days go this way.  I wake up to stare at the frayed and faded piping, gaze at the framed Bauhaus posters on the wall, the dust covering them reminding me of the scary cleanliness of Berlin, where I vacationed in the days I made money.  Most likely, there will be no more vacations.  Could I get any money for the posters?  I bought my 20s iron bed frame for five hundred dollars.  Sell it for three hundred?  And when that money is gone, then what?

I get up and look out the window, a clear blue sky intersected by palm trees, but all my eyes see is the darkness of the street I grew up when I first drove a car at night.  I put cat food in the bowl I lifted from Canter’s twenty-five years ago.  I listen to the silence held hostage by the thick walls of my apartment.  I get it, I remember, I was going to be a stand up comic when I first discovered Canter’s.  No calls on the phone, the ringers are off.  Or did I leave them on?  Who cares.  I eat generic Naprosyn to quiet the jaw.  No go, nothing can touch this pain.  I take a Hyoscyamine to kill the throbbing in the gut that does not want to live in my body anymore. 

I do not want to be in my body anymore.  

My apartment is a trickster, quiet, welcoming and warm, the light lunging through its sheer curtains a shimmering blue, the wood floors cradling my bare feet, the once industrial white walls hold me in their arms while their silent jaws eat my body alive, chew me down to the bone as I lay on Don’s grey carpet, my flesh devoured like Sebastian Venable’s was on a blazing white hot hilltop in Cabeza de Lobo as his cousin Elizabeth Taylor fell back against a boulder, her melons bobbing with each of her terrified screams.  I stare up at a long vertical crack in the ceiling.  My home is expensive, I can not afford it anymore.  Where else would I go? The other Hollywood apartments I did time in were mean and hostile, screaming neighbors beating each other up, dogs barking and howling to be walked, the proverbial boy next door banging on his drums at 6 AM and skipping rope at midnight, my car broken into weekly, its engine set on fire, the other cars rumbling like earthquakes as their engines turn over at dawn, always waking me up, never to fall back to sleep.

I can sleep when I have to.  

I have my own lullaby to get me there, when the walls close in on me as the silence of  the night comes on, a song to be sung without benefit of an intro on the day my gut gives out and shoots its pain to my feet and toes, the day I stand in my own Invesco Field and shout “Enough,” the day I can feel the air again as it stabs its daggers into me.  A torch song to be belted out on the day I wake up and accept that no matter what I say or do, no matter how smart I am, how funny I am, I am not going to find another job.  All that remains is an illusion of a real life, staged in a quiet blue room on a sunny afternoon in the City of the Angels.

I have my out.  Without admitting it to myself, it has lived in my gut for months, it has beat in my blood since the kid and the karaoke caretaker had their way with me, the pulsing of my veins whispering to me that when sleeping twenty hours a day no longer works, my out will.

I will grind the Vicodins and Ativans into a fine dust, refusing to sneeze as the powder of their mist floats up into my nostrils.  I will spring three bucks for a pint of chocolate Häagen-Dazs, always my favorite, once a monthly treat, now sketched on to the long list of things I will never be able to buy again.  Its cold darkness will blunt the acid taste of the crushed pills.  I will eat it slowly, let it melt in my mouth and slide down my throat.  There will be no more mornings with nothing to do, no job to go to, no more feeding the internet, listening to the mantras, spending hours with a calculator trying to squeeze out five dollars for gas.  I will not have to walk to my mail box and turn the key in the lock, freeing the bills and minimum payments to tumble out into my shaking hands.  

Sunset knows the deal, still I do not want her to be alone after the marathon ends.  I will take the crushed pills in a room at the Chateau Marmont.  My friend Graham will take Sunset into his home, giving her a life in which she does not have to hide on a shelf in the kitchen.  Sunset has seen me cry at the stupidest of movies, Kate Hudson movies, crying for hours, about everything that is gone, disappeared so quickly.  Crying can not do anything except use up toilet paper I do not have.  Understanding the intricacies of the faltering economy does not make the slightest difference.  Just because I have fallen into a world unlike anything I have known or experienced before, a world which has no place for me, does not mean Sunset has to live there too.

Matt said the Chateau fit me like a glove, I will let the warmth of its hands hold me as I fall asleep.  The day I check in, I will put a do not disturb sign on the doorknob and mail a letter to the manager.  I do not want the housekeeper to find me.  I know what that is, to find someone dead.  Before I retired from San Francisco General Hospital, I was asked to check on a friend who had not shown up for work, a nurse I worked with who could not make the connection to himself or to his patients.  

“There’s someone passed out on the floor,” I said when I walked into his apartment.

My eyes move to a yellow formica table on whose scratched surface my friend had laid out his wallet, key, pens and watch in a perfectly straight line.  

“Where are you? Where are you?” I ask, believing my friend to be just around the corner.

My eyes push themselves away from the dull sheen of the table, looking down at my friend’s beefy body, hunched over as if in prayer on the dark wood floor, his face purple, eyes bulging out of their sockets.  A needle sticks out of his mottled blue arm, his heart stopped the night before in a lonely second, its muscles unable to fight off the Fentanyl he shot into a vein tied off by his brown leather belt, his soul screaming “Enough” as it waited for the narcotic to take him out of this windowless room I find the two of us in at seven-thirty in the morning.  Knowing what damage that did to me, my letter will tell the Chateau’s manager to call the police. 

I will write notes to my friends.  I do not have many, but the few I have, I hold deep in my heart, they live in my bones and muscles.  They have seen behind my curtain and stuck around.  My ears would rather hear the siren’s agonizing call to dance than listen to the stagnant pauses in my friends’ voices when they listen to how small, how shabby my life has become.  Whenever my friends and I talk, we look down on to the man who lives in my rambling one bedroom apartment on Beachwood Drive.  He looks pretty good for his age as he tools around the City of the Angels in a shiny red 69 Chevy Malibu.  Between our words, my friends and I know I am a rat in a maze, a man who no longer fits in the world, a man who can not fix what his life has become, a man who can not make it right.  I do not want anyone I know to have a friend like me, the man who is the bit player I have become.  After my out became the air I could feel on my skin, I learned it was easier to joke and rant than to tell the truth of my days, that I am fifty-six years old and do not want to start over.  I haven’t the slightest clue how.  The notes to my friends are simple, all I ever wanted was to make the connection, but in the end there is nothing left to say or do.  I write to Matt, my steady hands printing the unspoken in clear simple letters.  I love him.  

I’m living for nothing now, Matt and I both know it.

This is my out.  It is mine.  It belongs to me.  The jumping through job hoops, the minimum payments, the bills, the rice, the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the mantras, the no calls in the morning from LAUSD, the dislodged muffler, the bald tires and every other car problem I encounter, the rent, the co-pays, the deductibles, the empty kitchen cabinets, the hunger pains, the crappy water from the tap, the five dollars for gas when twenty are needed, the caretakers, the nurses who don’t give a shit, the void of the internet, the waking up at 6 AM to a day which will again pass me by–not one of them can take my out away from me.  The first push of the Vicodins will knock out the pain.  I will have at best an hour without feeling the throbbing in my jaw, the twisting in my balls, the tickle in my gut before it turns into a howl.  The air will break through the walls and windows, caressing me the way it did when I could take care of myself, it will bathe me with its warmth as I fall asleep, the dead body in a patched together nightshirt leaving the New Depressions marathon to others, to the people who keep “The Secret” to themselves, the people who manifest wealth, to the lucky ones who can reinvent themselves.

It will be over.

The morning comes on.  I stare at the frayed piping and the dusty posters.

The morning, whose siren tells me the only things I can be sure of, the only things I can count on are the bills and the minimum payments in the mailbox.  And the fact that I should apply online.  And that every fucking agency in this city of supposed angels would love for me to come in and apply.

This is the lullaby I sing when I can not sleep.  

If you think it’s about the goddamned nightshirt, forget it.

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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay, Uncategorized

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