Tag Archives: Straight Boyfriend

Cries and Whispers.

Chapter 28 / 2009

Cries and Whispers.

“You’ll need to get a drug test before we can send you to a doctor,” the space cadet staffing co-ordinator tells me.

It is 8 AM, my head is bowed in reverence, not by the cadet’s newly minted authoritarian tone, but to the pain twisting around my left arm, my eyes see only floors, the wires and dirty throw rugs in the lost boy’s cubbyhole, the green fields populated by blue elephants, the thick blue veins on the top of Matt’s bare wet feet stretched out on the faded grey of my 30s Sears carpet. 

“We’ve got to make sure you weren’t impaired when you fell,” a voice way too familiar with cigarettes growls into my ear.

I look up from the peanut shells, swizzle sticks, empty cigarette packs and candy bar wrappers, Tallulah’s lips, pouting downwards from years of throwing quips around the Frolic Room, smile at me.

Where in the months past, the rambling cadet could never let up on the hold button he kept my under, suddenly an array of cunning voices pour out of my phone’s earpiece.  Apparently, the agency has a second floor, in whose rooms exist a cabal of nasty supervisors and manipulating managers, all ready to give the once over twice to anyone who takes the fall.

“If you’re not well enough to go back to the case…”

“We have a great job opportunity for you.”

“It’s a Worker’s Comp thing…modified duty.”

“If the doctor says you’re anything less than totally disabled, we’re here for you.”

“It doesn’t sound like he’s completely disabled.”

“If you pass the drug test.”

“We’ll arrange for you to work in the office answering the phones.”

“Starting tomorrow.”

“Nine to five.  Monday through Friday.”

“We’ll pay you eight dollars an hour.”

“Worker’s Comp will make up the difference with what you were making on the case.” 

“If he qualifies for Worker’s Comp.”

“We’d love to have you here in the office.”

“You’ll be part of our team.”

“We’ll make any accommodations for your doctor visits.”

“If you’re authorized for doctor’s visits.”

“Who are you people?” I ask.  “Have you ever seen the child I’m taking care?  Do you know how filthy that house is?”

“You’d better go downtown to get drug tested,” a voice spits into my eye.

“The test’s got to be done within eight hours of the alleged incident.”

“Anything less than temporary disability, our expectation is that you will be here at  9 AM tomorrow.”

Now I know where the worms slithered to when the roughness of their tongues stopped licking the insides of my skull.

The voices scrape against my face like sandpaper, my left arm throbs at their every word, my fingers iced into submission before I put the whining receiver down. 

The only thing left to do is to lift myself off the earth, to live in the sky.

I am a writer after all.  I have a story to tell.

♦♦

“How can I write if my fingers are numb?” I ask my ortho doc.

His grey hair is thick and unkempt, swirling around his head like the mist floating up Beachwood Drive to the Hollywood Sign at 6 AM.

“I’ll give you one of these shots every three months,” he says.

Syringe in hand, the ortho doc shuffles towards me, his gait as halting as the lost boy’s will be if Mother does not perform his leg exercises.

“Rheumatoid arthritis,” the ortho doc says.

His gnarled fingers inject milky white Cortisone into my left shoulder.  Before he can dump the syringe into the sharps container, the ice buried deep in my bones and muscles has melted away, the numbness drips out of my fingers onto the pale brown tiles I stand on, my eyes staring at the opened Velcro straps of my savior’s scuffed black orthopedic shoes. 

“It’s easier to walk this way,” the ortho doc says.

The tanned muscular arms of his assistant hand me my Worker’s Comp Patient Status Form, the words she has written on it spelling out my freedom:  “The patient is on total disability until further notice.”

“Go to physical therapy, do your range of motion exercises,” the ortho doc says.  “A frozen shoulder can hang around for months.”

“Be patient,” the assistant says.

“Would it be OK for me to write on my computer?”

“I don’t see why not,” the ortho doc answers.

The tightness which has held my body upright for the last two years floods out of the worn-down heels of my cowboy boots, my butt hitting the room’s round examining stool the way the dental student’s did when his spinning eyes saw the jig was up. 

“From what you’ve told me about your job and the characters you’re working for, you need some time off.  Go home, take it easy.  Relax, Jake.  I’ve got your back.”

“It’s like I’m Policewoman…on the roof on a building in Century City…you saved me right before the pimps threw me over.”

“Miss Dickinson, she’s the woman,” the ortho doc says.  

The worms holed up in the agency on Magnolia Boulevard do not take my diagnosis well, their voices nibbling voraciously at my ear, trying to finagle me into slapping on a headset and pushing down their flashing hold buttons.

“I get it…I get why you’ve got a sink in every room,” I purr into the phone.  “You guys need a place to sleep.”

♦♦

“Forget the co-pays, I’ll tell the front desk not to charge you,” the doctor says.

I forgot they grew them like this.

My new doctor stands before me.  Tall, brown hair brushing her shoulders with a Patty Duke 60s flip, grey pencil skirt, crisp blue cotton blouse, white pearls pulled snug around her long neck, her trimmed unpainted fingernails lie hidden in the pockets of her white lab coat. 

“Your poverty diet cured your elevated blood pressure,” the doctor tells me.  “If you think about it, you’re eating real healthy stuff.”

Wisps of smoke float past the thick glass of the narrow rectangular window behind the doctor.  It is July, the summer fires of the City of the Angels are beginning, the dead quiet of my nights without Matt interrupted by the wail of fire trucks floating in though my open windows at 3 AM.

My blood pressure had clocked in at 100/60, its threat of stroking me out evaporating faster than the heartless facility with which I dumped my PPO insurance during this year’s open enrollment.  Days before my new Kaiser membership card dropped out of my mailbox, the demands of my twisted gut, out of whack blood pressure and the continued swelling of my balls took my cowboy boots on a stroll through Hollywood to Kaiser Hospital, whose HMO tentacles continuously drop new buildings up and down Sunset Boulevard. 

The doctor pulls her hands out of her pockets, the fingers of her right hand twisting her engagement ring into place.

“We’ll take care of you,” she says, shaking my hand and patting me on the back. 

I head out into the smoke with the map she has given me, its blue Xs leading me to the GI doc on Edgemont Street and the surgeon a block down Sunset.

♦♦

My trio of infirmities addressed by the healers on Sunset in two hours, the worn-out soles of my cowboy boots walk me home, my eyes staring at the hills to the north, their brown faces not yet burnt black, a Pepsi One drowning the grit in my throat, born of the tiny ashes swirling in the air, my fingers yearn for the keyboard, the heat of the Angels sending beads of sweat down my back, tickling me the way Matt did whenever he tried to wake me up at 7 AM to hike with him in the Bronson Caves. 

“Did Matt…did Matt disappear for days on end when you two were friends in Los Angeles?”  Matt’s mother asked me a few nights ago.

Her voice has a soft twang, a perfect compliment to her son’s baby blues and square jaw.  She pronounces Los Angeles the old-fashioned way, Los Angle-Ease.  I like her on the spot, the way I did her son, missing that evening from both of our lives.

“Well, sometimes I couldn’t find him for a day or two…maybe a week.  And there was that time he visited you for a month when you had surgery.”

“I’ve never had surgery, except for birthing him.”

“Really?  I watched his dog when he went up to Sacramento to take care of you.”

My fingers tap the yellow daisy decals on my tall glass of Pepsi One, the same glass into which I poured ice water to soothe the sudden tickle in the throat of Matt’s fiancee when she knocked on my door two years ago.

“You’re happy up there,” Matt had told me after watching me perform a monologue.  “You’re comfortable, so at ease.”

“I tried to be his bud,” I say to Matt’s mother.  “To make him comfortable in his skin.”

“The boy has spoken about you.  He seems to like you, to trust you.  If he comes back, will you talk to him?”

How could I not?  Matt is my friend and I love him.

The silver tips of my cowboy boots lead me into the 99¢ Only Store on Sunset near Western Avenue for low blood pressure celebration treats, a can of stainless steel pot and pan cleanser and two bottles of Fast-Acting Antacid Supreme

“You’ve got to keep your gut coated,” my new GI doc told me a few hours ago.

I sat before him in his small office, his thick fingers pulling the intestines out of the anatomical model standing brazenly on his cluttered desk, the smoke moving like clouds past the window above the doctor’s bald head, his slow deliberate voice explaining to me how the brown plaster of paris colon I held in my hands absorbs nutrients.  

“Relax, exercise,” he says.  “Have you thought about taking a vacation to relieve your stress?”

I laugh.  A big, deep, cleverest, best joke I have ever heard laugh.

“The gut is a hard thing to predict, what works for one person is poison to another.”

I forgot they grew them like this.

“Next, I suppose you’ll tell me it’s a Jewish thing.”

“Remember, no chocolate, no coffee,” the doctor’s medical assistant says.

“Very hard on our tummies,” the doctor says.

I am a writer, Doc, as long as the joe pulses through my blood, I have a tale tell.

The doctor’s medical assistant hands me a thick stack of printouts addressing diet and stress, the pharmacy supplementing this trove of useless information with yet more paper detailing the workings of the antispasmodic medications I have been prescribed.

Hands are shaken, backs are patted.

Down the street, Kaiser’s Outpatient Surgery Clinic schedules my ball surgery for six weeks out, their twenty dollar co-pay sucker punching the five grand Cedar-Sinai’s Outpatient Surgery Center demanded in an upfront, pre-surgery payment in full, their shameless demand for Benjamins leading me to believe that my own people are a tad, just a tad, money obsessed.

My balls are to be drained by a twenty-nine-year-old doctor from Pakistan.

At last, I have something of interest to talk about in tomorrow’s Gay Senior support group.

Last week, I spent my first hour in their circle trying not to cry, wanting to tell my older bros the tale of my medical tsuris, my eyes seeing the cool brown tiles my father lay on during a broiling Long Island summer, the cancer eating out past his intestines, latching onto more organs than the malignancy of Kaiser’s tentacles, who have greedily devoured the east end of Hollywood.  My father was fifty-six when he lay on the tiles on his last Saturday afternoon in the ring, what remained of his body seeking cool comfort in our un-air-conditioned house.  I am fifty-six, my insides eaten up with the fear pounding and twisting in my gut that my body has given up on me, that I am an old man, like the men who surround me every Friday morning to vent their spleens.

“I don’t understand why my house hasn’t sold yet,” a bro says. 

As are many of these men, he was married in his younger days, the wives long discarded or recently dead, my bros, with fingers as arthritic as mine, logging on to SilverDaddies.com in the hope of making the connection.  

“It’s been on the market for weeks, not one offer.”

I tell him about the New Depression.

Nothing, not a smile, not the blink of an eye, instead a long explanation about how his PSA reading remains low.  

Odd, in that his prostate has been removed.  Not a lucky man.

“I finally made out my will,” the next bro says.  

A retired schoolteacher, as are many in the circle, he has taken out a second, or is it a  third mortgage, to remodel his kitchen, buy a few flat screens and a leather couch, on which he plans to wait out what is left of his life.

“I left my house to my son.”

Odd, in that he has a reverse mortgage.  Not a lucky man.  Not a lucky son.

“I’m letting my nephew stay with me, he has no place else to go,” my rotund and  furtive bro says.

Before we circled our chairs this morning, he stood in front of the brown wall of this tiny meeting room, an iPhone snapping wistful pics for his online profile. 

“The boy is kind of a fuckup, but family is family.”

Odd, the boy is in his mid-thirties.  Odder yet, the pursing of my bro’s lips, the sudden dullness of his eyes whenever he mentions said nephew.

“My husband is jealous of my lover,” the tattooed love bro says.  “I was going to bring him to a party with us, but the hubby says he won’t go if I do.”

He and the hub stopped having sex years ago, right around the time the love bro started taking Klonopin to calm his Frances Farmer afflicted nerves.

Gotta watch the Klonies, the numbness they send through your blood is not anyone’s friend.

I have done stand-up in rooms more hostile than this one, I can speak to these men, they’re my bros after all.

“I was up all night thinking about my uncle Jack…he had a stroke when I was a little boy…I’m gonna end up like him…”

The twisting of my gut tells me not to mention my father, not to speak his name in this circle.

“I’m afraid…with my shoulder…all these things are wrong with me, I don’t know…”  

Like the night I stood on the stage of the Comedy Store on Sunset, the room is quiet, the disinterested stare of the eight sets of eyes licking my face with the rough tongues of the worms slithering about in the sinks of my former employer.

“I don’t know how I’m going to make it when I start looking for work,” I say.  “Going through all that crap to find a job again…I don’t know.”

The lead facilitator breaks the silence:  “You’ve held up really well for your age.  Why don’t you get a sugar daddy?”

“Are you for real?” I ask.

The coyness of his seventy-five-year-old smirk tells me he thinks I can earn some scratch off of what is left of my once pretty face and slender build. 

“You’re an odd one for our group,” the co-facilitator says. 

Odd, gay men always think I am odd.  

The slight quiver of the co-facilitator’s brown eyes betrays his truth, that he will be planted in my seat in thirty years, the flutter of his fingers at his throat tells him that the sharp features of his handsome face will dull, the sweet smile of his thin lips will be history once life punches him in the gut a few times.

Best for the boy to sock me in the jaw before what has happened to the unlucky man infects him, infects all of the bros in the circle.

“You’re still viable, still out there,” his tense lips say.  “I’ve seen it happen before.  A guy your age loses a job or gets sick and the bottom drops out.  I don’t know where guys like you go.  There are no safety nets to catch you in the gay community.”

No shit.

I smile.  I nod my head.  

I stay.

I am a lonely writer, alive when my fingers tap out the tales, nothing touching my skin but the wail of the fire trucks in the dead quiet of 3 AM.

And the cries and whispers of the men who encircle me in this room, their Nikes and Gucci loafers firmly planted on earth, never once to fly above the red carpet below our feet, never once to get into the ring. 

Lucky man, wherever my maladies take me, I will never get that old.

♦♦

I might not be able to lift my left arm above my shoulder, but I know how to hit the keys to make the words fly.  

I just know. 

I have not been on earth for months.  I sleep from 3 AM until noon, waking up to do my range of motion exercises before my fingers, no longer beating with the threat of icy numbness, blast out the notes Satchmo taught my father deep into the Hollywood night from the ring I have stepped into, sitting in front of the white screen of my computer at the Cafe Solar de Cahuenga, down the block from William Holden’s “Sunset Boulevard” crib, the Alto-Nido Apartments. 

I hold my hands outwards, positioned over the keys at less than ninety degree angles, never for a second leaning my arms on the dark shiny wood of the table.  I sit straight up in my seat, my feet on the red concrete floor, my soles touching the earth beneath me, my body feeling the heat baked into it from the City of the Angel’s cloudless summer sky, the dirt still warm from the days when it was walked on by the heavy boots of real cowboys, who made extra dough taking the fall for actors and actresses unable to tumble convincingly down a staircase or out of a gangster’s speeding getaway car. 

My fingers tremble before the words come, before they run across the blank pages staring at me, their emptiness waiting impatiently for me to fill them up, the way I once sat at the Frolic Room’s bar, everything in me empty until the Absolut flew me to the sky.

I lean against my seat, it wooden slats welcoming my back, caressing this child of the New Depression, my eyes discreetly checking out the Highway Patrol cruiser on Cahuenga Boulevard, where it waits in the dark to hustle up some bucks for the City, the dark eyes of its movie star handsome Latino officers watching cars exit the 101, the unlucky Joes who miss the barely visible stop sign welcomed to Hollywood by the booming notes of money hungry sirens and the blinding flash of amber and blue lights.  

The dry brown dirt below my feet was paved over by a restaurant in the 20s, the children of the Great Depression smoothing out the linen covering the tables, at which studio stars ate early dinners, before sleep and waking up at 5 AM to make their 6 AM calls, a waiter with an empty belly scraping the uneaten food off the bone white plates for a late night meal with the missus in their courtyard apartment off of La Brea.  In the 30s, the flicker of neon painted the restaurant’s facade blue and yellow, the room’s long wooden bar once again allowed to serve drinks to the chosen ones, on who the City of the Angels smiled, allowing them to tell the tales once their hung over bodies were safely hidden from the bright morning light in huge stucco sound stages on Gower Street, under whose flattering light a hardscrabble dame from Brooklyn would be transformed with rouge, eyeliner and a lace dress into a Southern belle.  A genuine mid-Western monosyllabic cowboy became, through the perfectly tailored fit of his tuxedo, a Master of the Universe, decades before any background artiste could suss out that the damage these Masters cause is more lethal than any black and white heart they ever broke.  Audiences all over the globe waited in the dark to fly above the earth as our hero’s secretary melted the steel of her Master’s remote smirk down to his shy core.  To tower over his woman, the cowboy stood on offscreen phone books, his eyes gazing at a secretary who had worked for him for years, a real peach he had, for some contrived reason, never noticed before.  She was played with a sense of sass by a tall and elegant actress from Mexico, her name changed as she moved out of the shadows to supporting and starring roles, her dream inducing accent snatched from her vocal cords by a sad and nervous elocution teacher, who had escaped the Nazis a few months earlier. 

If you are lucky, you can tell your stories.  

With a few adjustments, anyone can.

I know my city, the City of the Angels, it is the place where the stories are told, where the pounding of fingers tells the tales, where an effeminate boy from East Meadow grows into a man who flies above Hollywood on the notes of his words.  Since the night I took the fall, I have floated on the warmth of my City’s breath, my gut stilled by the swaying of the palm trees above me, my words making the connection, the caffeine flowing though my blood pushing me onward to tell my tale, a tale of the New Depression and a once lucky man. 


Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

You Gotta Have Friends.


Chapter 23 / 2009 

You Gotta Have Friends.

The Filipino Zsa Zsa opens the door when I arrive at work.  

Wonderful, just great. 

Before I can take my coat off, Zsa Zsa, appearing as unhinged as her scary daughter, is singing about the fight she had with her boyfriend, leaving her to as she says:  “Sleep on the mattress on the floor like a beggar man.”

This tears it, I get to sit on the chair in the living room, my fingers frozen on the keyboard as I listen to Zsa Zsa snoring in Tagalog.    

If Zsa Zsa calls me “My dear” once, my fifteen year-old Doc Martens are hitting the bricks.  

If you take good care of your stuff, it will last forever.  

Except your soul.

Overlooking the smoothness and definition of his huge delts and biceps, I fell hard for my Chinese boyfriend, a surgeon I met when I worked at San Francisco General Hospital, when he asked me on our first date:  “Do you know how to say ‘Fuck you’ in Tagalog?  You smile and say:  ‘My dear.’”  

That was almost a decade ago, in the years when I made a living, when I had enough food to eat.  

How long has it been since I laughed like that?  

Has to be since Matt whispered into my ear that, even though we slept together and had sex on every piece of furniture in my apartment, his office and his condo, we were:  “Bros, guy…bros who hang together.”  

I will fake a seizure and go home sick if Zsa Zsa tries to take her grandson off the vent.  You know, just to see what happens, like the kid caretaker was want to do before he chanted the rosary and left for his imaginary school.  Absent the nauseating smells of the dead flowers, it will nonetheless be a long night, as the kitchen table has been colonized by Target bags.  I sit in the perpetually dark living room, which is kept that way at Mother’s insistence.  She intones that direct light upsets her son, not because he has autistic features, it is simply that any bright light at night makes him want to bang his head into the wall. 

Mother read this on the internet.  

And, naturally, when her son tries to bite or hit me as I change his diaper, he is simply behaving like any other eight year-old would.  

What is happening with the carpet?  I have looked at it nightly for months, the video cassettes, DVDs, neon colored toys, magazines and dirty clothes covering its brown stains and frayed tasseled borders obscuring its true nature from me.  Has the carpet been vacuumed?  Is that possible in this house?  Since day one on this gig, I have never been successful in my attempts to avoid the carpet’s filthiness.  My Docs are sitting on a green as dark as the foliage in le jardin, the delicate lushness covering the floor populated with blue elephants, a herd of which are running across the floor.   

Unfortunately, the chair I sit on is as uncomfortable as it has been since day one.  Mother is wedged into it every night when I open the iron mesh door, her dark eyes watching a reality or a home makeover show.  The chair’s body is covered with a stained sheet and a threadbare blanket, the meat of its hidden arms worn down to a warped wooden skeleton.  What remains of the chair’s upholstery is ripped apart, the bottom leg broken off, a phone book in its place.  I can not sit on the chair for more than five minutes without sharp pains shooting into my lower back and down my legs.  Putting my feet up on one of the lost boy’s tiny plastic chairs does not bring a whiff of relief.  At 3 AM every night–or is it every morning?–I put my head down and surrender to the snarky whining of Joe and Mika.  No matter what I put under my head to cushion it from the arm’s sagging bones, the chair’s fingers let me know I am not welcome on it. 

The elephants beneath my feet are getting restless.  Maybe their plan is to spirit the lost boy out of the cold darkness of his cage, a narrow cubbyhole off of the living room.  To make room for the swaying elephant snouts, I relocate to the kitchen table, loaded up with more junk than I have ever seen.  My body twists, contorting itself on to a chair so ill fitted to the crap covered table that once seated it is impossible to move my legs.  I can not write my nurse’s notes, my fingers distracted by the brotherhood I feel for the lost boy, his tiny body and disproportionately sized head tethered to this house by respiratory tubing, my soul held in limbo by the mean spiritedness of small furniture, leashed to this table, this kitchen, to the stench of this house by the monthly demands of rent money and $51.00 a week for groceries.

“Do you have any children?” Zsa Zsa asks me, her voice yanking the leash around my neck.

If I tell her I am gay she will fire me.  

I smile.  Nod my head.  

I could tell Zsa Zsa about walking Fifth Avenue in one of New York City’s first Gay Pride Marches in 1973 with my best bud Danny, the clogs on our feet taking us to Washington Square Park, where, to calm the escalating meshugas between the drag queens who started the Stonewall Riots and the, shall we say, more male-identified gay men, Bette Midler hit the stage and wailed out “Friends.”

If you take good care of your memories, they will last forever, they will show you the lucky man you once were. 

I choose to tell Zsa Zsa about my nieces and nephews.  

“The other nurse ordered pizza, we’d have a party,”  Zsa Zsa tells me. “We watched movies all night. He knew I love movies.”

I could tell Zsa Zsa about conducting an insurance interview with the head honcho of the Screen Actors Guild in his office on Wilshire or the interview I did a few days ago with the founder of the American Cinematheque in her Beverly Hills office, where the shining eyes of the skinny Prada clad receptionist could not see who I was, a writer, a teller of tales.

“You’re so direct…”  JoAnne told me as I asked her the questions scripted for me by the insurance company.  “…I was nervous about this and you’ve put me at ease.”

“Us New Yorkers are like that.”

“It’s not that.  Your voice is relaxing.  What do you when you’re not interviewing people?”

“I’ve been a nurse since I was twenty-five, that’s what my hands know to do.  But, they take me flying when I write my stories.”

Our business finished, JoAnne walked me to the elevator, her arm around me, the receptionist’s eyes tearing straight through the black and cream plaid weave of my wool jacket, her knife landing a few inches above my left kidney. 

“If you ever need anything, call me,” JoAnne said.  “I’d like to help you.”

“I’m not the other nurse…you don’t know anything about me,” I tell Zsa Zsa.  “I didn’t come here to watch TV.”

I wipe down the countertop and arrange my supplies for the night.  Before Zsa Zsa can say anything else, I retreat to the living room to work on my nurse’s notes.  When I walk through the kitchen to the bathroom, my eyes are pulled to the shining surface of the kitchen table, I squint with the realization that the table is wood, a deep brown wood. If I wanted to, I could move my hand across its smooth surface without immediately running to the sink to wash it off. 

“I fixed it up so you could do your writing,” Zsa Zsa says.  “There’s a plate in the oven. I cooked it for you this afternoon.”

Her brown eyes look into mine.  They are warm, smiling, welcoming, they would never put pills into medicine cups when I’m not looking or take my patient off the vent to, you know, see what happens.  The softness of her eyes gaze at me the way Matt did after I read him a story.  

Zsa Zsa places a plate of pork chops, potatoes and carrots in front of me, a glass of ice water next to it.

“Thank you, this looks SO good.  You really didn’t have to.”

“You’re like the nurse who comes in on your nights off,” she says.

“I am?  Isn’t he twenty-five?”

“You’re both so hungry.  Such skinny men.  You clean off the counter the same way he does.”

The pork chop melts in my mouth the way Matt once did, the potatoes as warm and soft as Zsa Zsa’s eyes,  the carrots are fresh, juicy, a bit sweet, the water fresh and clean.

“When I was twenty-five, I was finishing up nursing school,” I tell Zsa Zsa.  “I lived in a one room apartment with a bed that rolled out of the wall.  Seventy-five dollars a month.  The bathroom was in the hall.  I shared it with this crazy alcoholic guy.  The thing was…the thing was I could eat then…I ate three meals a day.  I went to school all week and worked as a nurse’s aide on the weekends.  It wasn’t like…”

“Like what?” she asks.

“Am I as tired at the other nurse?” 

Zsa Zsa laughs.  Her eyes watch as I gulp down the cool water and dig into my second chop.

“He can’t keep his eyes open past midnight.”

“I have some ‘Policewoman’ DVDs in my bag, I tell Zsa Zsa.  We could watch them later.”

“The nurse, the man who died here, he didn’t like being alone at night. I watched television with him, but I never wanted to.”  

“You sure?  It would be fun.”

“I don’t have fun here.  I can see you care about my little boy.  I need you to watch over him.” 

“Of course I will, that’s what I’m here for.”

“What do you do at night to stay awake?”

“I read.  Try to write.”

I finish the first real meal I have eaten in weeks.  I put the dish and glass in the sink and run the water to wash them.  Zsa Zsa gently nudges me away from the sink.

“Sit down and write.  You don’t have to clean tonight.”

♦♦

Looking at this ceiling only brings me bad news.  

Held in place by thin white strips of metal, the drop ceiling above me is an endless heaven of rectangular white tiles, their faces spotted with superficial craters, none of which appear possessed of either dirt or dust.   

The UCLA dental student, outfitted for today’s scene in lime green scrubs shielded from contagion by a billowy yellow isolation gown, has walked offstage for no apparent reason.

Hopefully, he is doing a line or two of pharmaceutical coke, anything to speed up his game, to get him to finish refining what his annoyingly dreamy voice calls the “build-up.”  

The provenance of the tiles dates to the early 60s, my eyes first spotting their celestial powers when I saw their brethren floating above the blonde Swedish Modern furniture in my father’s office, located a few blocks from Washington Square.  Maybe if I stare at the tiles above me long enough, Don Draper will hire me to write copy with Peggy Olson at Sterling Cooper.  

I am a writer after all.  I have a story to tell.

“Such deep thoughts,” Zsa Zsa whispered to me last night from her berth on the mattress.  “Write good stories, sell them to the movies.”

“Mr. Epstine…”

A deep voice, purring with the plush softness of an Eastern European accent, covers Zsa Zsa’s smiling eyes with a ratty blanket.

“…my student thinks a drop of your saliva hit his eye…you’ll need to get an HIV test.”

My eyes leave heaven and look at the thick plastic goggles which not only cover the student’s deep blue eyes, but create an impermeable seal encircling his lower forehead and upper cheekbones, the ceiling lights above his pale skin dimmer than they were when he first pried my mouth open to work on, as he calls them:  “Your totally difficult teeth.”

“What’s the drill?”  I ask.

“YOU BOTH HAVE TO GET HIV TESTED,” the bright red lips of the clinic’s chubby receptionist scream at me.  “FILL OUT THESE FORMS AND TAKE THEM TO OUTPATIENT CARE IN THE RONALD REAGAN CENTER.”

One thing about the bang-up powers of tiles above us, any sound that hits the hollowness camouflaged by the drop ceiling bounces back ten times louder to the mortals below.

So much for patient confidentiality at one of California’s shining jewels of higher education.

“Are you off your feed?” I ask the receptionist.  “You’re telling me to get HIV tested in a building named after Ronald Reagan?”

Yet another tale begging to be told.

“Those boots on your feet,” the deep voiced doctor whispers as I fill out my forms.  “They were invented by a German doctor during World War II.”

My eyes hit the ceiling, my soul flooded with remembrances of things past, like the fact that to cut back on expenses, the fluorescent bulbs illuminating the yanked opened mouthes of the dental students’ prey have been reduced from four per fixture to three. 

“I’m not too worried,” the dental student says as we wait to have our blood drawn for rapid result HIV test.  “I’m sure you’re clean.”

“I wonder how they keep the ceiling so clean in the dental clinic,” I respond.

It is the pristine condition of the forty year old tiles, the fact that despite all they have looked down on, all the quiet moaning they have heard as the sharpened tips of drills dig into decayed enamel, the tiles remain unsullied, their cleanliness carrying me through the two hour ride home along Sunset Boulevard, my jaw throbbing with such maliciousness I can not read my “New York Times,” my gut twisting against itself as I pass the Comedy Store’s round black and white billboard, my bones and muscles punching me with knockout blows only my Extra Strength Vicodins can kill, my eyes preferring the darkness of a Hydrocodone induced sleep to the blinding safety of the spotlight filling up the stage across the street, the stage I once stood on.

I had stories to tell.  I made the connection.  On the keyboard, my fingers banged out stories, whispered to me by the air caressing my body.  Was that a year ago?  A few months ago?  These days, I sit up until dawn on a viciously lumpy chair, trying to type into my laptop, my fingers fighting against the prison of wet cement.

I have seroconverted. 

I have infected the blood flowing through the blue veins running up and down the muscular arms of the dental student.

This is my new, unlucky tale.

♦♦

Two hours after my Docs staggered up Gower toward home and the inevitable bad luck bestowed by the immaculate tiles, I sit next to my friend Steven, his plus one for a play he is reviewing, a hopefully Broadway bound musical about Louis Prima and Keely Smith.  In homage to the wacky duo’s Vegas act, I am wearing my purple crushed velvet 60s jacket, a 50s tuxedo shirt featuring beaucoup black trimmed ruffles and my Zebra skin shoes.  In the air conditioned theater, we watch Louis and Keely sing, joke, fight and love, the back and forth ribbing of their stage act sitting me next to my father on hot Long Island summer evenings as we watched “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour,” my father mesmerized by Cher, me by Sonny.  

The cool air pouring out of vents from a ceiling bereft of life changing tiles beats down on my skin.  Let my balls ache, my gut twist, my jaw pound, I am done fighting.  My back sinks into the soft cushion of my chair, the air has its way with me, I will do whatever it wants. 

My fingertips run over the raised veins on my right hand, the blood pulsing through my body warming my skin with the realization it is not the air caressing me, but the hands of the dead, my friends who grew me into a man, Kerry, Ross and Marco, their hands around me in life, in death, pushing me forward, always forward, the heat of my fingers wrapped around the bones of my friend’s Mark’s hand, all through the night in Culver City as he lay dying, his scratchy voice saying to me:  “Remember who you are, you’re a special guy,” his touch as kind as JoAnne’s when we stood at the elevator.

Spittle flies out of the mouth of the wildly gesticulating Louis, its benign drops falling on to the edge of the stage as laughter tears through my body, the jaw, the gut, the balls afraid to attack a man as lucky as I am, a man who has friends.  The onstage couple’s knock-down, drag-out fights grab me in my throat, the concrete melts off my feet and hands, my eyes drip with tears at the life I am watching, the life still beating in my heart, the life racing to my fingertips, who promise to keep me up until dawn typing out my tale.  

The show over, my Docs push down heavy on my gas pedal, my cocksucker red 69 Chevy Malibu flying me to the keyboard.  I turn up Gower from Melrose, all thoughts of reporting the chubby receptionist to her supervisors forgotten, instead I run the lines I will speak to JoAnne when I ask her if she can help me find a literary agent, my fingertips steering me to the 101 as my ears listen one more time to the words whispered to me by the deep voiced doctor five minutes after I walked into my apartment earlier this evening:  “You are negative.”

Too true.

Our lucky man has a tale to tell.

Leave a comment

Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

Could Jenny Craig Shed the Weight of this Sad Time?

Chapter 21/ 2009

Could Jenny Craig Shed the Weight of this Sad Time?

The lucky man’s fingers are ready.

As soon as mom and dad go to bed, he will start writing out the last two years.

I have cleaned the folding table, moved and covered the wastepaper basket.  I open the kitchen cabinet to retrieve the night’s supplies, a thin film of grime covers the shelves, no shocker, nothing on this case would surprise me.  The once white areas encircling the knobs of the cabinet doors are stained black with who knows what.  No point in cleaning it, the dirt will be back tomorrow.  I wash my hands a lot.  I do not want the filth of this case to cause me to fall ill again.

I look at the bowl of rice and tofu I have brought for dinner.  On top of the stove are two pizza boxes, they are not from Domino’s or Papa John’s.  This is the good stuff, from a fancy Italian restaurant on Lankershim Boulevard. Taped to the box is the receipt, totaling out to over forty bucks.  That is what I spend on groceries for a week.  Fresh flowers sprout out of a streaked vase on the kitchen table.  I used to buy flowers, .99¢ for a spray of daffodils at Trader Joe’s.

The dad walks into the kitchen.  I am reading Frank Rich.   

“Help yourself to dinner,” he says.

I do.

I eat three slices during the night.  My stomach has surely shrunk, I am full after two.  I eat the last one at 4 AM, so as not to be hungry when I get home.  My lips pulse and my eyelids tickle as the garlic and onions work their way out through my skin.  For months, I have eaten only rice, mixing in tofu or a veggie if I have the coin.  

Without planning to, the lucky man has purified his body.  

The price of the free grub is listening to dad.  

“Do you live alone?” he asks.

“Yeah.”

“Would it be cool if I had my unemployment checks mailed to your house?”

“Can’t you get them here?”

“I don’t officially live here.  If I did, she couldn’t get as much money…you know, being a single mom with a disabled child.”

“Wouldn’t it seem strange…you living in the house of your son’s nurse?  You know, officially living at my place.”

“Nobody would figure it out.”

The lucky man laughs.  

Dad is frightened, his fingers wrap tightly around a cold can of lager.

“Mister, with the luck I’ve had, I’d get popped on day one. You’d end up with a reality show…and I’d be in the big house.”

“You don’t understand.  I don’t want the unemployment money…that’s chump change to me.  I want to go to the retraining programs they have.  You know…learn how to do something different.”

“What are you planning on studying?”

Dad pops open the lager.  Vent is quiet, as is dad.

I walk to the sink to wash the respiratory equipment, my eyes glancing at the Pier One prints hanging on the walls, the words “Le Jardin” and “Les Arbres” artfully scripted on their lower left corners. They are hung too high for the lost boy to gaze at, positioned so far up the wall adults have to strain their necks at dizzying angles to view them. Maybe the lost boy would want to swing his head back and forth if he saw their tranquil green foliage. Would mom and dad do the same if the sleeping trees were at their eye level?  A thick glass, coated with the same film that dulls the shelves, suffocates le jardin and les arbres as they hang captive in dented yellow metal frames.

Lucky me, I can not see dad’s reflection in the glass as he talks.

I turn around.  Dad is slurring his words, talking about how the unions keep all the high-paying jobs for their members.  Next, he will start in on the immigrants undercutting the salaries on whatever job he fantasizes himself working at this week.

“You can get a job at the Arclight in Hollywood,” I tell him.  “Pays ten dollars an hour, I think.  You can see movies for free.”

Dad pops open another lager and moves on to the immigrants.

An hour later, Dad waddles into the bedroom.

Too bad, he will miss the black helicopters landing amidst the broken furniture thrown into the street.

My lips throbbing and my eyelids giggling from the pizza break in my poverty pay master cleanse, my tingling fingers fly over the keyboard for the first time in months.

♦♦

Matt sits at my dining room table.  

He has not spoken for a few minutes, not since telling me how he unloaded his condo:  “I asked the bank to produce the deed…those fuckers sold my mortgage so many times they couldn’t find it…since they can’t prove ownership…they can’t make me pay any more money.  I gave them the keys this morning…I’m free and clear.”

I want to bathe Matt clean, hold him in my arms in the drawn blinds blue of my bedroom.

“Whatever, that place’s worth a third less than it was a year ago,”  he says.

I am cooking tomato sauce, peppered with meat and sausage.  The spaghetti was .69¢ at Trader Joe’s, the meat, one pound for $1.99, sausage $3.99, Cento Italian styled peeled tomatoes $1.50 a can at Gelson’s, of which I bought two.  I have not been to Gelson’s for over a year, even its sales items are way too expensive.  The cans’ bright yellow labels feature tomatoes so deeply red as to be garish, the very sight of which would cause the lost boy to rock his head until it became a dark blur.  I use the empty cans to hold pens and magic markers in, each can on the periphery of the chipped yellow wood of my writing desk.  I cooked the sauce last night, tonight it is perfect, well worth the money to keep Matt’s belly full.  

Lucky man, I still have my emergency ten bucks.

Matt walks to the stove and takes a last taste of my earlobe.  We look out to the building next to mine, six attached two-story townhouses surrounding a courtyard centered by a fountain whose water was turned off when the complex went condo last year.  Matt was interested in buying one. The tenants–actors too handsome to look at, actresses still flawless when they stumble in at 6 AM, nervous screenwriters with beaucoup back hair and the way butcher than Samantha Ronson lesbian headshot photographer–moved out, but the owners have been unable to obtain the scratch for the remodel.  They live behind stark white curtains in empty rooms on the second floor. 

I stir the pot as Matt walks into the living room to e-mail his mom.  He is driving home to Sacramento after we eat an early supper. 

There’s nothing left to say or do.  

The lucky man and his unlucky straight boyfriend eat.

“Would’ve been nice,” Matt says

“What?”

“To live next door.  In the canyon.  Would’ve been nice.”

“You’re going to come back.  You’ll be living here again.”

“I’m done.  I’m not like you.”

“Like me?”

“You keep going. I can’t…I can’t keep doing this.”

“You’re doing the right thing.  You’ll find another way to make a living.”

Matt stares into the dampness of the melted butter sinking into the brown garlic bread sitting between us.  His hands are still.  He clenches his jaw, the way he does in the moments before he starts grinding his teeth in his sleep.  Has he eaten anything tonight?  I can not say, I have not been man enough to take a last look at him.

“What I did for a living…,” Matt says.  “My work…it doesn’t translate into anything.  I’m so fucked.”

Matt moves his hand across the table towards mine.  My gut knows I will never feel his hands again, never see his ringless fingers, fingers which ran up my back like a warm breeze.  When Matt realized he would no longer be shaking hands with clients, he sold his fancy suits on eBay, then pawned his Rolex to hold him over until he went home.  I grab Matt’s hand and we sit in silence. The food turns cold.  Are we praying?  For what?  Matt is not closing a door so that another will open.  He is not walking into a room full of opportunity and promise.  All the doors have been slammed in his face.

He cries.  I cry.  We do not finish our the tear soaked food.  I store it in the freezer, but it is the one meal I never think about eating.  I do not throw it out for months.  

My arm around Matt, we sit on the soft cushions of my couch for an hour, maybe an hour and a half, my voice whispering over and over into his ear:  “You are my friend and I love you.”  

Matt buries his face against my chest.  We could float like this forever.

Matt’s dog has to be walked.  We take our last stroll up Beachwood Drive.  I kiss Matt good-bye, tongues slide down lonely throats, backs arch, fingers probe, the whole thing.  We are outside, Matt does not care. My hand waves as he drives off.  My lips smile.  This is how we wanted to leave it between us, it could not have been any other way.  I wash the dishes.  I throw away the plastic bowls Matt’s dog ate and drank out of.  

I hit the sheets, my muscles and bones sinking into the 8 PM silence of Beachwood Drive.  

Sunset lays on the floor of the hall closet, her eyes never close.

♦♦

In the morning, I turn on my computer, its insides booting up surprisingly fast.  Matt has changed the streaming quote on my screensaver.  Bright silver comic sans font crawls slowly across the black screen:  “The weight of this sad time we must obey/Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

We knew each other, this man and I, in front of and behind the curtain.  

My heart can not jump anymore. 

I walk into the kitchen, my tears falling everywhere, on my bare feet, on my clean floor, my tears shine without smiling as the light hits them where they sit on the green tiles of my empty countertops. I ease Sunset off of the shelf, her eyes widening in fear, her claws tearing through the white paper lining her perch.  My body shakes, my tears hit Sunset’s black and orange fur.  I can not feel my jaw or my balls, can not feel Matt’s fingers running up my back. I take Sunset into the bedroom and hold her in my arms as tight as she can take it.  She has lost her doggie friend.  I have lost too much.  We lie together for hours.  When I get up to pee, Sunset stays on the bed, her all fours stretched out in cat surrender.  Sunset never returns to the closet or the cabinet in the kitchen, instead she silently follows me to any spot in my apartment where I spent more than five minutes, situating herself within a few feet of me.  Her eyes are on me, always on me, maybe the only eyes left in the City of the Angels which watch as the lucky man paces his cage. 

♦♦

Looking for incense to purify my kitchen after my tears have evaporated from the floor and the tiles of my countertops, I open my writing desk drawer, laughing, as if the karaoke caretaker was singing in front of me, when my eyes spot the bottle of extra strength Vicodins.  My fingers push aside ACT/UP stickers, freeway maps and postcards, finding a twenty dollar bill buried beneath them.  Michael Sadler gave it to me last year to cover my gas money when I was in his play.  I chose to think of it as the first money I made acting.  The tears come again, this time followed by deep breaths and the throbbing of my fingertips as they imagine touching not only a movie ticket at the Arclight Cinema, but boxes of popcorn and Milk Duds.  Twenty dollars is a lot of money.  Peanut butter, jelly, bread, two bottles of apple juice, a dozen eggs, a bag of peeled carrots.  I will light the incense later.  If I spend any more time debating between a movie and food, the worms will crawl out of the walls.

Before I leave, I pet Sunset who, after realizing I will be out for a few hours, has retreated to the bed.  She closes her eyes for a well deserved sleep.  My feet rebel as they walk toward Sunset and Vine, their heaviness insisting I push down on my car’s gas pedal and drive to Trader Joe’s, while my heart escorts my cowboy boots to the noon show at the Arclight, in whose empty lobby the ticket seller informs me my matinee admission earns me five dollars worth of snack bar goodies.  

“Happy Holidays,” his pink unlined face says to me.

I am pretty sure the holidays are over, but I do not say anything.  

I smile.  Nod my head.  

A small popcorn and a huge box of Milk Duds cost me a buck. I cry through the last forty-five minutes of  “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”  I am in awe of Cate Blanchett, the movie is sad, but this is not what earns my tears.  My belly is full, my body does not hurt, I have forgotten for a few minutes that Matt is no longer at my table.  No matter what world Cate takes me to, when the worn down heels of my cowboy boots hit Sunset Boulevard, I can not go backwards, no one can.  Living in the City of the Angels teaches some Joes that right quick, most never get it. 

The tears come again.

The lucky man, seven extra bucks lining his wallet, walks home, thinking not of his extraordinary windfall, but of the breeze his back will never feel again.

Leave a comment

Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

“It’s happening to a lot of people.”


                     Chapter 16/ 2008                       

“It’s happening to a lot of people.”

 The straight boyfriend closes his business.  Having sold his black BMW to an Armenian arriviste from Glendale and auctioning off his Prada and Dolce & Gabbana business threads on eBay, all he has left is a few Benjamins.  

“It was all show, guy…all show,” the boyfriend’s tight throat spits out.

The passive innocence of the Hollywood Sign looks down on the boyfriend’s newly acquired clunker pushing its way up Beachwood Drive, his right wrist weightless and free with the sale of his Rolex, my boyfriend’s hand shakes as he parallel parks in front of my building. 

It is high noon in Hollywood.  We are going to sleep.

I do not tell the boyfriend about the out I have come up with.  He knows.  When he wakes up in the afternoons and shuffles to the bathroom, never once having entertained the thought of spending his morning running the hills of Bronson Canyon, I know he is thinking the same thing.  We talk around the outs.  They sleep with us at night.  In the few hours we are awake, he asks me to read him my stories. 

“Your voice hypnotizes me,” he whispers.  “You’re the hardest worker I’ve ever met.”

“Where has it gotten me?” 

I have done what is easy.  He is the one who has made a business out of nothing, from an idea people thought was frivolous at best.  For me, going onstage to fly, to make people laugh or tell them a story is as natural as breathing in the hopeful air of the City of the Angels.  He is the brave one, the man who goes out every day into a world which never once frightened him, a world he is comfortable in.  He is the one whose baby blues put people at ease, who does not hide behind jokes, who listens more than he talks.  

I am the one in tattered nightshirts.

I wake up at 6 AM.  The boyfriend and I have been sleeping for days, two, three, four, I do not know.  My pillows and sheets smell of our sweat.  I am too tired to change them.  I walk the dog, put food out for the cat, empty the litter box, my feet shuffling back to the bedroom to watch the boyfriend as he sleeps.  He is the one man on whose square jaw stubble does not work, scruffy makes him look like a crystal freak.  It was a great joke to say he gave me his Viagra so I could pound him good.  People laughed until they gasped for air when I told that tale, it was one of my best.  

His name is Matt and the fact is Matt wanted me in him.  

That is not funny.  What have I put in him?  My sadness, self pity, my doubts, the fear I hide behind my stubble and dreamy eyes.  

It is time to pull out.   

I draw Matt a bath, hot as he can take it, peach scented bubbles and foam courtesy of a sale at Rite Aid.  There is enough left in the bottle for one more bath, then no more.  I wash Matt’s hair, shave his face, scrub his feet, trim his fingernails.

“We’re not going to sleep all day anymore,” I tell him.

“No? Not anymore?”

“I’m going to work the phone banks for Obama and No on 8.  I don’t know what will happen after that.  I can’t think that far.”

I brush back his wet hair.  He looks good.

“What are you going to do?”  I ask.

The water is still.  He moves his big toe, a small ripple hits the side of the tub and bounces back.

“I’m going to live with my parents…it’s come apart so fast…I want to go home, guy… I want to go home.”

I wipe away tears with a warm wash cloth.  From his eyes or mine?  What difference does it make?  Tears are tears.  I take a sip of cool tap water and put the glass to Matt’s lips.  He takes a large gulp, his Adam’s apple moves up and down.

“That’s good…you’re smart, you’ve always been smart,” I tell him.  “You’re doing the right thing.  After I dry you off, we’re going out for breakfast.”  

“You don’t…you can’t…”

“I’ve got a few bucks left on my American Express card. We’re going.”

It has been a while since either of us has eaten something besides rice.  My tattered nightshirts thrown into the trash, I listen to Matt for hours after we eat.  His voice reaches behind my eyes, we lie in each other’s arms, afraid that if we let go we will no longer feel the air of our City stroking our skin.

♦♦

Unemployment sets up a phone interview to determine if I qualify for benefits.  It seems the pimps on Sunset told them I refused to work with Medicare patients.

“Those are cases with infants on ventilators,” I tell the unemployment worker.  “I’m not trained to do that.”

“Why would they even suggest you take that type of work?” 

“The scary thing is they’d orient me on a case like that for two or three hours and then assign me to it.  If something goes south, they’d say I never told them I had no experience with infants.”

A  month after applying, I get unemployment.  $177.00 a week.  $159.00 after taxes.  The total of $636.00 a month covers credit card payments, a few bills, a week’s worth of groceries, but not the rent.  My New York work ethic stops me from defaulting on the credit cards.  I will pay them down.  

Lucky man is more of a dreamer than people think.

♦♦

I have to make the call.  

Jerk off three times, then clean the living room windows with watered-down Windex and unread editions of “The New York Times.”  When the daylight comes, I pound the pavement from Franklin Avenue to Western Avenue, walking back very slowly, not wanting to go home, to the emptiness of high noon in Hollywood.  I check my car’s oil and transmission fluid, my eyes ignoring the bald tires.  I locate my cat Sunset on the shelf in the kitchen, tell her today is not the day.  My Ajax used up weeks ago, I scrub out the toilet using bleach and stainless steel pot and pan cleanser.  

Every porcelain surface in my apartment gleaming, there is nothing left to say or do.

I call Bank of America.  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 advance me one thousand dollars, love to.  They are so glad they can help me in these tough times. The rent for November covered, I fall asleep for five hours during which Sunset vacates the shelf to eat the wet food I left out for her a few hours before.

♦♦

The No on 8 people are flat out dumb, not because they are young, their passion and outrage are in the right place.  More totalitarian than “Morning Joe’s” Mika, their playbook of encouraging the No on 8 voters to get out and vote is flawed.  A few calls in, it is obvious the voters do not need me or anyone else to tell them how to do anything.  The phone bankers and I prefer trying to persuade the yes voters to change their minds.  

“Don’t waste your time trying to change anyone’s mind.  It’s too late for that.”

No, it was not.  

A week in, I quit my brothers and sisters and start working the Obama phone bank on the sound stage of “From Here to Eternity” at the former Columbia Studios in Hollywood.  These people have it down.  Skipping the coasts, we call undecided, independent and Republican voters, concentrating on states where Barack might not make it, Wyoming, Missouri, North and South Dakota, Tennessee, Kentucky.  We spend as much time as we need chatting voters up, telling them Barack is not a Muslim, he is a citizen, Michelle is not a racist.  

We call him Barack, never Obama.

Plates of food wait for us on our breaks: pasta, pizza, veggies, bread, salad, chicken, sushi, pastries, candy bars, potato chips, fruit, juice, sandwiches of all varieties. My shrunken stomach expands in delight.  I make a plate to take home for dinner, covering it with Saran wrap and slipping it into a paper bag. Matt and I can eat a real meal tonight.

One of the phone bank staffers shoots me a look.

“I shouldn’t have,” I say.  “I’m sorry.  I’ll put it…”

“It’s happening to a lot of people,” the staffer says, handing me a six-pack of apple juice.  “Take what you need.  We want you here.”

♦♦

On election day the phone bank is packed, a line of volunteers five people deep threads a half block down Gower Street.  We call all day, until the polls close on the West Coast.  Over and over, we make the connection.  

Enough.  Enough. Enough.  

Barack is going to win, he has to.  

My grateful belly stuffed with pizza, I call a man in Florida. 

“I’m not voting for him.  No way.  No how.”

“Do you know where your polling place is sir?”

“Yes…I’m not really sure.”

I tell him.

“Why you telling me that if I’m not voting for your guy?”

“Everyone needs to get out and vote today.  If you’re not voting for Barack, please vote for whoever your choice is.”

My throat tightens whenever I say Barack, growing hoarse by mid-afternoon, having chanted it all morning.  

“Thank you,” the voter says.

His throat tightens as hangs up to go vote for his guy.

♦♦

After watching Barack claim our victory, I wake up to my lucky life.  

In the mornings, I apply online.  

In the afternoons, I cold call hospitals.

“Our protocol is for applicants to apply online.”

I cold call agencies. 

“We’d love for you to come in and apply.” 

An actor friend calls, crying, screaming he has no money for food, his cell phone has been cut off, gas next, then his lights.  Unable to pay his car insurance, he no longer drives.  Funny, he has never been able to cry onstage, now he has something to draw on.  I mail him  a fin and give him the address for the SOVA food pantry.  I have not been there yet.  I wake up early on the Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the pantry is open.  I am the nurse, the one who helps people, I do not need anyone’s help.  Rice, pasta, peanut butter and jelly.  I will be OK.  

Thinking about my out, I go back to sleep.

♦♦

I get an insurance assessment, my first in a month, fifty bucks, food for two or three weeks.  Before he gets a chance to change his mind, I set the appointment up with the applicant, a nice gentleman in Century City.  I park next to his Mercedes, my eyes staring at mauve cinderblocks, my skin yearning to feel the air again.  I spot a first edition of “The Day of the Locust” on the bookshelf as I walk into his living room, where we are swallowed up by the silence of glass tables, leather couches, Persian rugs and the intricate patterns of family silver billeted in dark antique cabinets.  He is impressed that I know Nathanael West lived on Ivar Avenue in Hollywood.  We talk about West and John Fante before the assessment begins.  If I met guys like this in my other work worlds, I might get someplace. 

Never happens.

“Are you having more difficulty balancing your check book or managing your finances?” I ask.

This is a sneaky assessment question to see if early onset Alzheimer’s has kicked in.  My neck hurts, fingers throb, jaw aches.

“I let my accountant do that.”

“Could you do it on your own if you had to?”

“Sure, couldn’t anybody?”

I stare at the wall facing me in parking garage, then look at the assessment’s signature page to make sure the gentleman signed in the right place.  I turn on the ignition, the mauve concrete shouting at me that I have not reconciled my checkbook against my monthly bank statements in over six months, not since the morning my hands went numb and sweat seeped through my wife beater with the realization my check register was ten dollars off.  I go over the numbers, go over the numbers again, do it until two hours have vanished and I can not find the ten bucks.  I can pull it from the week’s gas money, buy five dollars worth instead of fifteen.  I drive with the gas gauge on empty for two days, my gut screaming that calling AAA to fill my empty gas tank would eat into my GoPhone minutes.  The signature’s good, my foot presses down heavy on the gas peddle.

The engine will not start.  I am a dead man.  

I want to get home, sleep on my featherbed, eat toast and jam.  My ice cold fingers slowly turning the pages, I go over the gentleman’s paperwork for twenty minutes.  Which card can I use to fix the car?  I could sell it, the money for its intact body and interior would net me beaucoup bucks.  Taking the bus is not too bad, the Metro Rail is a bit lame for this New Yorker.  With a world-weariness I can only associate with Marlene Dietrich, the engine turns over, my bald tires crawl down Olympic Boulevard in the mind numbingly slow traffic of a Friday afternoon as bone white smoke billows out of my muffler.  I light Shabbat candles, my stomach punching at me as I wait for what my balls and jaw have in store for me over the weekend.  I will figure out the repair money Monday morning.  I lose the next two days to a sleep so deep my gut does not demand food, my soul refuses to dream.  

Monday morning, my car starts up without a hitch.  

Lucky man.

♦♦

The receptionist from the hospice agency on Olympic and Fairfax calls.  I always liked her.  She asks how I am doing.  I tell her.  

“I’ll pray on that.  You should pray on it too, like when you’re in temple.”

I look at Sunset, wide awake on the closet floor, never taking her frightened eyes off me.  I want to tell the receptionist to go fuck herself.  Sunset closes her eyes for a few moments.  

I say a polite and final good-bye to the receptionist. 

♦♦

Enzina, a college friend who now lives in Kentucky, calls.  She asks how I am doing.  I tell her.  Why not?  After graduating for college, we lived for two months on a hippie farm in Arkansas, swam naked with the locals, got the shits the same week after eating veggies for a month, stumbling over each other at 2 AM running to the outhouse.  I could not keep my eyes off the boys swimming.  Enzina was the first girl I loved, but once the naked boys kicked in, it was time to sing her a sad good-bye song.  We are still in each other’s hearts.  

Enzina is not big on prayer.  Her photography business is starting to get shaky around the edges.  She is holding on for now.  Turning it over to Jesus would only help if Jesus and his buds wanted to pay cash to have their pictures taken.  When she says she will send me five hundred dollars, I tell her I do not need it, I was not asking for it, I will make out OK.  She knows I won’t.  I know I won’t.  I hang up and cry for an hour, smash my blue plastic wastebasket against the shining salmon and pink tiles of the bathroom wall.  I never take anything from anybody.  Except their crap and their bullshit. 

Is it possible the receptionist’s prayers worked?

♦♦

I need stamps to mail bills and birthday cards, but at $8.40 for twenty, they have become a problem.  Eight bucks is gas on a slow week.  My literally starving actor friend tells me about paying bills online and how to insert quirky pictures into e-mails for birthday, thank-you and holiday cards. 

The lucky man will use his stamp money to buy two cans of oil to lubricate his Chevy’s dried out bowels.

♦♦

Thanks to Enzina, I only need to credit card part of December’s rent.  This time, I do not get too weird before the call.  I take a short walk, do a bit of vacuuming, save my sperm for Matt.  I call Bank of America.  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 advance me seven hundred and fifty dollars, love to.  They are so glad they can help me in these tough times. With the rent for December covered, I fall asleep for a mere hour after the call.

♦♦

Getting the 411 off of Craigslist, I interview with a paraplegic in his high-rise condo on Wilshire in Westwood.  He is a quiet guy in his early thirties, our tortured stubble and dreamy eyes like each other right away.  After being hit by a car while riding his bicycle, he moved from Connecticut to Hollywood to study cinematography.  Wanting to hang out in coffee shops and art galleries, he smiles when I Google map the ones I go to for him.  He is a sweet kid, brave to take all of this on.  The nursing tasks are minimal, basically he needs someone to watch his broken back, someone to tell him when to slow down, to conserve his energy for the real battles.  

His mother asks me what kind of music I like and before I answer, she tells me the money for her son’s care comes from a trust.  She informs me I can work off the books, actually, she prefers it that way.  I quote her my rate, smiling as I explain to her that working as an independent contractor involves paying more taxes than what an agency would pull out of my pay.  

Mother pulls up her pink tube socks, tightens the laces on her green Nikes and proceeds to escort me to the door as I tell her I was listening to Billie Holiday that morning.

I e-mail the son a few times, telling him I would love to do the job.

I never hear from him.

I stay up nightly until four or five in the morning.  Jaw aches, balls throb, gut lurches.  No bills are due in the middle of the night, no resumes to send into the black hole of the internet.  

Who needs sleep?  Not the lucky man.

♦♦

There are more garage sales on Beachwood than ever, folks selling everything before moving back home.  Should I start peddling my stuff?  The 30s Sears rug in my living room was my friend Don’s.  Back in my San Francisco days, Don’s life got too hard, at forty-five he thought himself too old, his hair too grey, his belly too fat, his out was to kill himself.  My living room couch and chairs were my friend Mark’s.  His sister Diane and I sat at his bedside at 3 AM as he lay dying in a Culver City nursing home, our hands on him like the caressing air of the City of the Angels, his once strong voice pleading with us not to pray for him.  Don, Mark and my dad touch my skin every day.  I should be able to let go of the things they willed me.  Everything else I have is junk, “Northern Exposure-esque”  Boho chic, none of it could net me much.  Sleep takes me down at eight-thirty at night, knocking me out way past noon the next day.  

I can not sell their stuff.  Not yet.

One hundred dollars arrives from my nursing school friend, Kathi.  

The memo line on check reads: “Hope this makes it easier.”

Despite what Obama preaches, hope can not do a thing, only cash does.  I wait a few days to deposit her check,   signing it says I need it, that I can not make it on my own, can not take care of myself.  

“It means you have friends who love you,” Matt says as we eat our rice.  “You have to let people touch you…get inside you.”

I might never feel the air on my skin again, but I can feel the beating of my friends’ hearts.

I am a lucky man. 

4 Comments

Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

The Postman Only Rings Once.


Chapter 15/2008

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 Reinas 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.”

“Whatever.”

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.

Enough.  

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

Once I was.

Chapter 14/ 2008

Once I was.

For reasons I do not understand, I get up off of the couch a week later.  Maybe the  worms beating against my skull need to get out of the house for the afternoon.

I attend once again to my Holocaust patient.  Twenty-five years ago, I worked in the hospital he has been transferred to.  I know the place well, he will be a lucky man if he gets out alive. 

The flat screen in the corner of his room screams out the new mantras: “Times are tough,” “You’re blessed if you have a job,”  “We’re all in this together.”  

And my favorite, repeated several times a day: “One of the only sectors of the economy not shedding jobs is healthcare.” 

Really?  I am making a few dollars more than I did when I last worked in this hospital, in the shoulder pads and big hair days of “Dynasty” and “Knots Landing.”  The pimps running the agency on Sunset claim they are not reimbursed enough by Medicare, Medical or private insurance companies to pay their nursing staff a decent wage.  Interesting, in that they all drive Mercedes, wear Prada, sport Rolex or Raymond Weil watches on their well-fed wrists, go out to lunch every day and scream into one of their two or three iPhones.  

We’re all in this together.

My patient’s youngest daughter and her husband enter the room, the savagery of their unblinking eyes slapping my face on both cheeks.  I guide their balled up fists into the sleeves of bright yellow isolation gowns, mandated by my patient’s tanked white blood cell counts.  

“Why didn’t you ride home in the ambulance with him?” the husband asks.

“I wouldn’t have had a way to get home from his condo.”

“You could’ve taken a cab.”

“I don’t have the money for a cab.”

“GET ON A BUS.  If you’d gone with him this wouldn’t have happened.”

“I’m taking off,” I spit out with the venom of Brooklyn born Barbara Stanwyck.  “I’m sure you can find someone else to take care of him.”

I chose not to continue the scene as Stanwyck would have, employing instead the humble voice of a little boy lost, lovingly slipping my copy of “The House of Mirth” into my 1950s medical bag, its cracked black leather skin in need of a few shots of Restylane filler.

“No,” the daughter says.  “Daddy’s comfortable with you. Why wasn’t his caregiver here? Shouldn’t you have coordinated the trip home with him?”

“He didn’t answer his cell when I called.  Actually, he never answers his cell when I call.”

“None of this would’ve happened if you’d done your job,” the husband says.

The bone white scleras of their eyes hurt my skin.  My balls are killing me, the groan in my stomach is waking up for the day, as are the worms.  The straight boyfriend is right, this is like sewing together a sleeve that is ripped open at the elbow, only to split apart when my fingers point the remote at the curved glass screen of my television.

The daughter and husband smile at the man in the hospital bed.  I sit a few feet away, reading the tale of Lily Bart, a woman whose cup is most definitely half empty.  The man I have bathed, massaged and groomed that morning closes his eyes the moment his daughter approaches, all ears unable to hear the new mantras being mouthed on the flat screen by a meshugge Ali Velshi, my fingers having muted his song when the husband and his wife entered the room.

♦♦

“Their botox is fierce,” the charge nurse, whose Louise Brooks bob reveals an unlined neck, says after the daughter and her husband leave.  

How did I not spot that?

The nurse mimics the way the daughter’s fingers pound into her BlackBerry as her lonely green eyes and immobile face stare down anyone in her way.

Time for the lucky man to lay off Garbo and Stanwyck and start watching “America’s Next Top Model.” 

 ♦♦

At 6 AM a week later, the pimps on Sunset call to tell me my patient is back home.  I arrive at his condo in Westwood early, a surprised sounding kid buzzing open the garage’s black iron gate.  The car behind me, piloted by a young man, follows my unwashed 69 Chevy Malibu into the dark hole I find myself once again descending into.  As I listen to Chet Baker’s breathy “My Funny Valentine,” I try to imagine having the energy to hose my car down when I get home.  The young man, turned out in well tailored new brown scrubs, exits his Honda.  This building sure seems to have its share of sick tenants.  I watch as the young man’s feet tap dance over the smooth grey concrete floor, his body bouncing to the lobby door, white teeth and blonde hair gleaming in the underground darkness.  He appears to be, at tops, twenty-one, the skin on his thin body no doubt feeling every soothing caress breathed out by the heavy air seeping in from the street.  

He is a sweet, funny valentine, alive in the City of the Angels.  

Did I move like that when I started nursing thirty years ago?  Did my eyes look without fear at what was in front of me?  Was my smile welcoming?  My stomach woke me up this morning an hour before my alarm was set to.  Balls swell in pain beneath my years old green scrubs.  I have an apple and an avocado sandwich for my daily meal.  Maybe the Cuban will fix me a coffee after I have folded my patient’s freshly washed bed linens.

The condo is quieter than my apartment is at noon.  The Cuban spots me from her perch at the kitchen table and walks into the dining room, leaving me unable to see her from where I stand.  I walk down the hallway to my patient’s room.  The young man from the garage is at my patient’s bedside, the kid is demonstrating how to suction the trach.  Neither wears gloves, neither gets the catheter in deep enough or pulls it out fast enough.

“This is rich,” I say.

“It’s not me…the daughter…he make the decision” the kid says, his dirty bare feet leaving long grey streaks on the white carpet.  “He say you cost the too much.”

I fix the kid with the look I gave the Armenian.  He fingers his rosary.  It will not save him.  

I look at the young man.  

I did move like that.

♦♦

While executing a flawless turn on to Beverly Boulevard, I use my cell for the first time in over a month to call my iPhone wielding procurers.  Much to my cynical surprise, they are clueless about the young man, offering to pay me two hours show-up time.  It amounts to groceries for two weeks, but if I stretch it, I can also buy GoPhone minutes.

I call the boyfriend.

“How do you feel?” he asks.

“Real light.  Whatever was pressing down on me is gone.”

The boyfriend is vacating his office to work out of his condo in West Hollywood until things as he somberly states: “…pick the fuck up.” 

I offer to help, but as usual, he wants to do it alone. I head to the his office with a plan.  Now, it will be my turn to keep the boyfriend off the zebra skin of his Crate & Barrel couch.  I will pound on his chest like Stanwyck does whenever she wants a man to do things her way.

I make a left to get off of the always slow moving Beverly Boulevard and take Melrose Avenue to the boyfriend’s office, my fingers touching the steering wheel’s warm plastic, as I smile with the realization that when I start teaching in two weeks my lost year will finally be over. 

Such a lucky man, with so much more to lose.

I do not have to pound on the boyfriend’s chest.  Our eyes looking out on to Highland Avenue, he smiles and surrenders the duct tape to me.  I work on my list of what is going where, then line up rows of sealed numbered boxes in front of his live/work space’s floor to ceiling wall of windows.  The street is quiet, the sun so bright it blanches out the gummy grey layer of film hugging the windows’ exteriors.  In the still air, a man pushes a fully loaded shopping cart up Highland toward an empty donut shop across the street, the baker behind its counter waving the man and his cart away before it reaches his door.  The gas station at the corner gets a customer every few minutes, each purchasing gasoline in odd denominations, seven, twelve or three dollars worth.  I have been feeding my Malibu like that for the last year.  

The boyfriend and I stand at the parking spaces in the back of his building, its burgundy wall deflowered by graffiti, whose elongated lettering and huge terrified faces have never been painted over by the landlords, despite their promise to do so over a year ago. 

“Remember the party you helped me with at the Chateau Marmont?” the boyfriend asks.  “It was so totally your style, guy.  You’ll be living there when your book sells.”

“We slept here because you were afraid someone would break in and steal the gift baskets.”

“Stupid office…I always had to up the volume on the phones when the cars raced by to Wilshire.”

The sliver of red paper I have attached to the floor lamp sticking out of his trunk waves at us as a transitory breeze blows through the alleyway.  The boyfriend’s tears come and go as quickly as the breeze, his head rests on my shoulder a bit longer before he pulls out for the last time from the parking space, his company’s name stenciled defiantly over the nervous colors splashed on to the brick wall.  

♦♦

The boyfriend and I drive the empty streets of the City of the Angels to homes we suddenly can not afford to own or rent.  I head up Gower, watching in the rearview mirror as my lab coat blows in the breeze, its collar secured to a hook above the back seat’s passenger window. Whenever I have left empty rooms with labeled boxes, irreplaceable yard sale bought tchotchkes and beloved pieces of furniture, I was moving to somewhere better, to a place I wanted to be.  I am lucky the streets are empty.  All four of my tires are bald, causing my car to do a wicked shimmy whenever I drive up the ramp out of my garage or make a sudden turn on to Santa Monica Boulevard.  I have noticed many tires like mine lately, SUVs, BMWs, pickup trucks and even school buses, all with  their bottoms bulging out on the insides.  I stick my arm out the window, my palm facing ongoing traffic, my fingers splayed open.  

I still can not feel the air.  

Like the indifference hovering behind the placid faces of my patient’s daughters, I never once tried to open myself up to him, to take him in, to imagine what was going on in his head after watching hours of Filipino soap operas or to have our days together give him some degree of refuge from the diseases slithering through his body.  Lucky man, I was able to forget the kid and the unthankful daughters by the time the magnet of the boyfriend’s round delts pulled my car on to Beverly Boulevard.  My eyes stare at the blank wall in front of me as my tires slide nervously into my parking space, the dead stillness of my lab coat making me realize that for the first time in my thirty years of nursing, I never once entertained the thought of getting close to this patient.  

Everything ends so quickly.

What’s the point?

♦♦

My abandoned lab coat hanging in the closet next to the restless vintage suits I plan to wear when I teach, my jaw drops as I watch the Republican convention. This Sarah Palin is going to throw a wrench into it.  

I have covered the rent for September, leaving me to choose between paying the minimum payments on my credit cards or buying food.  With two full bags of rice in the cupboard, I make the payments.  I eat rice sprinkled with cumin, dill or basil for my one daily meal.  It tastes lousy, like I am eating rice every day.  To keep hydrated and without money to buy fruits or vegetables, I fill up empty three gallon Arrowhead containers with water from the sink, my newly shrunk stomach unable to tell the difference between tap and bottled water.

Gazing straight ahead at the Republican gladiators before them, Levi Johnston holds his pregnant girlfriend’s hand.  I say let McCain win the fucker.  Things will fall apart quicker, maybe then people will hit the streets to change all of this.

♦♦

I apply for unemployment.  First week is a waiting period.  No payment.  They will be in touch for a phone interview to determine if I am eligible. When I call to speed up the interview date, I am bounced around in a voice mail labyrinth whose final destination is hold.  I press the phone to my ear as I wash the dishes and look for my cat, only to have the line disconnect after a few minutes.  I hit redial and rearrange glasses and dishes on shelves lined with faded white paper, its smiling sheen having faded months ago.  I call Monday through Friday and, when not being disconnected after fifteen minutes, wait on hold for an hour or two, never managing to get through, not even at 6 AM.  

♦♦

Thinking it will be easier to write in a tidy apartment during the two weeks before school starts, I decide to organize the piles of books, newspapers and magazines I have not read in the past year.  Instead, I begin with the movies I have recorded but never watched.  What can they tell me that the worms slithering around in my brain have not?  Forget it, I will clean.  Not having the money to buy paper towels from even the 99¢ Only Store, I use old dish towels and rags I have made from torn nightshirts to wipe down table and counter tops, before moving on to the soiled areas around the knobs of once industrial white doors.  Two minutes into running the vacuum cleaner over my carpet, the floor rollers snap after  eating up the lone black nylon sock my cat has been playing with when I am not around.  Lacking the skills required to resuscitate this machine, I affix an upholstery nozzle to the long black flexible attachment hose.  Vacuuming takes a bit longer, as I have to run over everything twice, still it sucks up dirt pretty well.  I have the time, but the exertion makes me hungry, leaving me to wonder if I am cheating by eating two bowls of rice.   

I sit down to write, stomach churning in protest, balls laughing in defiance, my neck tightening to stone.  The truth of my life remains stuck in my fingertips, their refusal to tap out what is real on to the keyboard seducing me, along with the silence of my building, to lie down on couch to read the “New York Times.” 

I fall asleep pages before reaching Paul Krugman. 

♦♦

To save on gas, I walk to the Staples on Sunset to buy the mandatory supplies my instructors at the Teacher Training Academy told me I will need as a substitute.  I show the checker my LAUSD ID and ask for the ten percent discount on supplies the always smiling instructors told me teachers receive.

“No such thing,” the checker says.

I ask to speak with the manager, the customers in line shifting their weight and letting out loud deep breaths.  As the man behind me sighs painfully, the manager tells me there is no discount for teachers, never was.  I charge one hundred dollars for pens, pencils, transparencies, felt tip markers, rubber bands, reams of paper, post-it notes, clip boards, paper clips, manila folders, index cards, chalk and crayons.

The Beachwood shuttle to home, leaving from the Pantages Theater, next to the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard, costs twenty-five cents.  

A quarter. 

I walk.

♦♦

The afternoon is quiet, my cat sleeping on the couch, stretched out and dreaming.  

I can see, but not feel, the warm air and caressing heat of the City of the Angels, its arms refusing to hold me as they run their fingers over the hedges in my courtyard.  I wear a wife beater and boxers, sit at my writing table and pour hot water over the orange mango tea bag I used this morning.  My fingers scroll through pages of my novel, my eyes smiling as they take in my words, which are not half bad, they are good words, strung together by the invisible chains encircling and pressing in on my heart.  When was it that I last sat and wrote until my fingers were numb?  When the hot air of an afternoon like this held me to my desk straight through to the cool stillness of early morning?  

My fingers rest on the keyboard, forgetting that my way into writing is to edit the words I last worked on.  

Where will I pull the hundred dollars for the school supplies from?  

My eyes move to the chipped yellow paint of my desk.  

I should be able to recoup the money my first week teaching.  

My back pushes into the wood of the chair I sit on, my feet wrapping around its legs.  I have been fired for the first time from a job.  Replaced on the other by what appeared to be a teenager.  Everyone can see who the lucky man is behind his curtain.  The students I will be standing before in two weeks will not listen to anything I say, my co-workers will roll their eyes when I walk past, they will  smirk and tell me about my attitude when I sit with them in the teacher’s break room. 

I turn the computer off and sleep for a day, which is a good thing.  

Lucky men do not eat when they sleep.

♦♦

For the next two weeks, I give up Garbo and Stanwyck to review teaching strategies and rehearse lesson plans.  During my worm imposed naps, I dream I am in front of a classroom taking roll.  I wake up to peruse the passages I have highlighted in “The Substitute Teacher Handbook”  and re-read “The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher.”  To prepare myself for my new hours, I go to bed every night at ten and wake up at five in the morning.  

To avoid the drama of my computer’s five to ten minute boot up time and the ten to twenty minutes to get online, I set my silver Sony Viao to hibernate, Mozilla opened to Google Maps on the Sunday night before my first on call day.  I will shower while the printer takes its customary five to fifteen minutes to eject the one page of directions to the school I am assigned to.  It is my belief my computer was crippled early last year by the berserk machinations of MySpace’s out of control graphics. 

To compensate for the fact I can not sleep with my phone, its battery so old it will be dead by morning if I remove it from its base, I go to sleep with the ringers of both my landline and fax machine set to loud.  At 5 AM, I turn the television on to something called “Morning Joe,” my ears waiting for the ringers, who have not uttered a word for weeks, to break their silence.  This Joe guy is a serious loser, the bitterness of his smiling cynicism putting to shame the best of my stand up routine.  The ringers have not yet spoken when Joe signs off at 6 AM.  My stomach heaves, my balls tighten and push against my upper thigh in the stillness of the next hour as the light blue of early morning fades into a grey mist.   It is my first day on call.  Tomorrow, I will be working.  

I will write today.  

I switch the channel to CNN, where the red shoes, pencil skirt and tight blouse of Sarah Palin whip her crowds into a frenzy, their cheers screaming for Obama’s blood.  

Tomorrow, LAUSD will call, I think as I check IMDb to see when Leni Riefenstahl died.  I take a nap, eat rice and look at the one can of cat food I have left before falling back to sleep.

♦♦

For the rest of the week, I float in the blue silence of 5 AM, watching Joe and his sidekick, the off the hook and beyond controlling Mika, my only thought being: what retraining camp did MSNBC find this woman in?  

On Tuesday, I feed my resume into the void of Monster.com, CareerBuilder.com and Craigslist.

No response from anyone.

On Wednesday, I call the agency on Sunset.

No work.

On Thursday, I call the 800 number for my insurance assessor gig.  

People have stopped buying insurance,” the voice whispers to me.  It must have something to do with the economy.” 

On Friday, I call LAUSD.

“It’s the beginning of the term,” the voice says.  “Give it another week or two.”

I do not tell any of the voices my bag of rice is getting low or that the cat food can is half empty.  

The worms put me to sleep on the couch, chanting into my ear: “It’s going to go like this now.”  

I wait to be lucky.

5 Comments

Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

Walking After Midnight


Chapter 13/ 2008

Walking After Midnight.

As the buffed whitewall tires of the Armenian’s black Mercedes screech out of the parking garage, the Persian carpet under my feet melts into grass cooled by early morning dew, cozy dachas wink at me from the Hudson River Valley paintings, the wooden benches in their cherry orchards offering relief from the tightness in my back.  The residents have all been given their pills on time.  Blood pressures are normal.  Sugars are within acceptable parameters.  Oxygen is flowing.  When he asked for it, I made sure the faggot friend had the correct spelling of my last name before he left for the night.  The Armenian managed to put extra pills in almost every med cup I had prepared for the last med run of my shift.  By the time her ruse is revealed, the damage had been done.  Bringing the med books with me to explain to the residents which pill was which only made me look like the bumbling Ferapont, a half deaf old man trying desperately to answer the questions thrown at him.  As if I was sitting spellbound before “The Seagull’s” shattered Nina, I can see what life has done to the residents I minister to.  Having shattered their routines and rituals, I am the bad nurse.  It takes weeks to repair that kind of damage.  I will try to make it better.  

Doesn’t every nurse say that as his ship is sucked into the Bermuda Triangle?

The med trays empty of their potions and washed down with rubbing alcohol, I have a minute to pee.  Locked in a bathroom overwhelmed by lavender potpourri trapped in pink satin sachets, I squirt out what I have been holding in for the past seven hours.  I think about pissing on the caregiver.  Problem is, he would like it.  He would like it a lot.  I zip up the fly of my khakis and carefully tuck in my blue linen shirt.  I could say I have been through worse.  I have not.  Not even my seven year stretch at San Francisco General Hospital comes close to this muggy evening amongst the fake paintings, the MIA co-workers, the plastic plants in plastic terra cotta pots hanging from the ceiling of every room by plastic chains, the withholding kitchen staff and the books, whose promising titles possess no pages in their guts. 

♦♦

I check on the actress.  She is awake, lying languidly against the white lace covering her thick pillows, her yellow muumuu making her tiny body look like a mangled grapefruit.  

“How’d your monologue go?” she asks.

The sound of saws biting into the trees in the Hudson River Valley paintings leaks through the walls from the hallway, its thudding anger seeping in through the door’s half open transom window:  “He’s the unprofessional…THE WORST NURSE!” 

The caregiver is going home.  Call lights flash and buzz in the wake of his hip swinging waddle to the elevator.  

“I’ll have the bad one fired!”

I have a half-hour left on duty.  I look out into the hall.  The buddies walk as slowly as they possibly can to answer the call lights.  I do not say a word.  I am the bad one.  Even the faux Persian carpets know I am evil, I can feel it as I trip over their fringed borders.

“I was flying when I finished,” I say, shutting the actress’s door.  “But, I can’t remember performing it.”  

I sit in the lotus position on a leopard skin pillow at the foot of her bed.

“It was like I was on stage for a few seconds.  The words came out of my mouth from another place, like someone…or something else…some other power was channeling through me.”

“I knew you didn’t belong here the moment I met you,” the actress says.  “Your heart is beating.  I can feel it.”

Having forgotten, accidently on purpose, to sign the Armenian out early, I punch myself out and return to the actress’s room.  She talks until the streets become damp with middle of the night tears, her voice, deep and husky, pulling the tightness out of my muscles. 

“You stand in front of your audience and lose the weight of your body.  Use everything, my sweet boy, fuel your performance with your demons and fears.  The only freedom we have is to plant our feet on the stage and make the connection.  Take care of yourself…get out of this place.  Our job is to walk into the mystery of the stage…serve it above anything else.  It’s all people like us can do.”

The actress falls asleep without taking her nightly Vicodin. I kiss her forehead good-night, thinking she would make a luminous Arkadina to my heartfelt Konstantin.

I smile as I drive home, my solid black tires floating on the soft clouds of her voice.

If I open my heart, if I plant my feet in the right place and tell the truth, I can make it through any nightmare.

♦♦

In an attempt to brush off the gut twisting charge of six hundred dollars for weight training DVDs I never ordered on my American Express bill, which hit my mailbox at approximately the same time the caretaker first spotted his prey,  I stare at the week’s accumulation of unwashed dishes in what was, until a few months ago, a gleaming white porcelain sink, now stained with tea bags reused until their innards have disintegrated.  I try to remember the provenance of the peanut butter crusted spoons marinating in glasses of brown water, cobalt blue plates pock-mocked with crumbs of hardened tofu and stainless steel pans shellacked with dried out rice, bits of celery and Persian cucumbers.  Gut hangs over my boxers.  I have nine dollars for the next two weekss groceries.  My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to figure out where the three hundred and fifty dollars in minimum credit card payments will come from.  I will read this week’s “New York Times” over the weekend.  I say that every weekend.  I say it whenever I pass my dining room table, piled to the point of sagging beneath unread books, “Interview,” “Vanity Fair” and “Entertainment Weekly” magazines and the “Calendar,” “Magazine” and “Book Review” sections of  “The New York Times.”  The heel of my right foot has become welded to a sticky section on the black and white linoleum of my kitchen floor.  Guess I should break out the mop.

The clouds of the actress’s voice have floated away, hovering over a man luckier than I.  

I have been home from work for an hour. 

My neighbor glides his car into the parking space facing my kitchen window.  Unlike the light I melted into onstage, the glare from his halogens tightens the muscles in my back, sending a cold numbness down my legs, where it finds safe harbor in my toes.  I used to make the bed as soon as I got out of it, write out my morning pages to center myself for my writing day, proceeding on to do five hundred sit-ups, taking short breaks to put away my dried dishes.  All of this accomplished by 9 AM, all now forgotten, like the ritual of drinking coffee and reading the morning paper, saving Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman for last before taking an hour long walk in the Bronson caves.

I look at the film coating the glasses in my sink, my only coherent thought being that I can drive to the assisted living facility in under fifteen minutes.  

I never want to  go there again.  

♦♦

“I don’t know why you keep working in that place,” the straight boyfriend says the night before I am scheduled to go back on the road and get on with the show.  “How do you put up with their BS?”

“It’s a job.  I’ve got a New York work ethic.”

“It’s something different, guy.  I don’t like what it does to you.”

“I just have to plant my feet there and make it through until September.  I like the patients.  By the time I learn to hate the teaching, I’ll be old enough to retire.”

“You’ll be a big time writer by then, with your famous blue raincoat and your smart glasses.”

I give him the undiscovered-writer-working-the-nurse-day-job Viagra fueled pounding.  

As always, he feeds me from his limitless supply of blue diamonds.

♦♦

Where two weeks before, I had seen waves of heat rise up from the sections of the floor not covered by Persian carpets, now icicles drip from the perforated ceiling tiles.  The Prada boots I bought for ten bucks from a stubbly out of work actor at a garage sale walk quietly over the fake threads beneath their red striped soles.  All eyes avoid mine.  No one talks as I pass by, phones ring without being answered, my punch card is missing from the dented green metal rack in the nurse’s station.  

“Why didn’t you come into work yesterday?” the Nursing Supervisor spits out in her braying Southern drawl.

“I wasn’t scheduled to.”

“You were scheduled to be here.  You’re a no call, no show.  That’s grounds for termination.”

The cook who charged me a buck for the OJ enters the supervisor’s office.

“I was hired to work every other weekend.  Why would I be here on a Friday?”

No whining from the fuchsia lips before me.  The cook stares at me.

“Is there some reason he’s here?” I ask.

“Whenever a manager disciplines an employee, our policy states that another manager be present.”

“That’s rich,” I say.  “Let’s hope no one needs any orange juice.”

“That’s what nobody likes about you, your mouth.  I have letters here from three residents, all complaining about you.”

She hands me the letters.  I am unprofessional.  I am arrogant.  I mixed up the residents’ pills.

“Strange,” I say.  “Odd actually, that a person who’s had a stroke can be so articulate.  And shocker, all three say exactly…I mean word for word, the same thing.”

“Do you deny any of it?”

“I’m not saying anything.  I already know what’s happening to me.”

“Will you sign these papers?”

She pushes papers across her desk at me.

“No.”

“Will you look at them?”

“No.”

“We can’t have someone like you working with our clients.  We’re a high-end facility.  This is nursing for the rich.”

“I didn’t go to that nursing school.  I went to the one where you checked on a patient after she fell.  Minus the suggestion of an ulterior motive.  The school where you’re taught to prioritize and take care of the sickest patient first.”

“You need to get your priorities straight.”

“You mean when all these crises are erupting and the staff, including this bozo, mysteriously disappears, you want me to cater to the least acute patient?  You think it’s appropriate for a caregiver to strut down the hall screaming so all the residents can hear…hear about how awful their charge nurse is?”

The supervisor smiles.

“You’re smiling because you know I’m speaking the truth,” I tell her.

“Do you have anything else to say?”

“A cynical person could say that you want me out of here because you suggested I…what was it you said?  Right…yeah, that I get on top of one of the female patients?”

The cook cracks up.

The supervisor’s shaking hands push my final check at me.  Her nails are painted pink, they glitter with the fierceness of the diamond ring on her finger.  The cook’s dead eyes look like they are ready to deck me.  Maybe he has been on top of her.  I bet he liked it.

“A cynical handsome person could say that,” I say to the two as I open the door.  “But, I’m about making the connection.”

♦♦

I walk past the Armenian on my way out.

“I’m sorry,” she says.  “I liked working with you.”

I give her the look, the few seconds too long stare which for years has told nurses like her that one more word out of her red lips and I will not only slash her tires, but pour sugar into her gas tank.

New Yorkers are like that.

In the lobby, the residents sit in a circle for Karaoke Saturday.  With a heavy Filipino accent and the worst enunciation this side of the pre-Oscar Penélope Cruz, the caregiver is singing “Feelings.”  Apparently, we all possess the need to make the connection.  The caregiver tears up as he launches into his final crescendo.  As if my stomach was burping out the trapped gas of cheese laden lasagna, I let out a big, deep, cleverest, best joke I have ever heard laugh.  The room follows my lead, breaking out in laughter so pants wetting and heartfelt one would think the residents are at a matinee of Neil Simon’s “The Good Doctor.”  The eyes of the actress, who won a Tony for singing in a Broadway musical, dance with kinship as smiles and blows me a kiss.

I enter the elevator to the parking garage, tipping my imaginary hat to the actress and shooting a quick wink at the caregiver.  

Given the heave-ho from my truck and bus tour, I am a lucky man once again.

♦♦

Like a good Chekhov heroine, I spend the first twenty-four hours after getting the boot reclining on the jet black velvet of my couch, TCM hypnotizing me with Barbara Stanwyck and Greta Garbo movies.  I do not understand any of it.  When Stanwyck goes off and gets tough, people listen.  When I do it, I am shown the door. 

The boyfriend switches the channel from “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” to the Democratic Convention.  

Obama chants: “Enough. Enough.”  

It is enough, for all of us.  Even the kid and the karaoke caregiver must be feeling the burn of the last eight years.  

The crowd in Invesco Field screams out the Triumph of the Democratic Party’s will. 

“He’s a charismatic jerk,” the boyfriend says. “Wait till they discover the man behind the curtain.”

Having grown up in an Evangelical family, I should believe my blue eyed, square jawed boyfriend, but I do not catch on to his logic.  I get it a few months after the election.

In the morning, the boyfriend and I lie next to each other, floating in a silence so deep and endless I am sure no one else is in my building or even on my street.  In the drawn blinds blue of my bedroom, the boyfriend’s head sinks into a pillow, mine resting on his thigh.  He is in trouble, big time, major trouble.  The boyfriend funds his product placement business at high-end parties on lines of credit, his profit being the difference between the money spent up front and the money paid to him when the party is over.  Within the last month, all of his lines of credit have been cut off, the limits on his personal credit cards topped off to the nearest thousand dollars.

“I have twenty credit cards,” I tell him.  “You can use them to cover a job or two.” “Twenty credit cards, guy?”

“When AIDS happened, I applied for as many as I could, in case I got it and needed money to live on.  I figured I’d be dead before the first payment came due.”

“No way would I risk that,” he says.  “I’d end up doing a party and the client would bail on me.”

He laughs and squeezes my earlobe. For a moment, I can feel the air on my skin.

                                                        ♦♦

The clouds of the first twenty-four hours have passed, the glow of the boyfriend’s skin has left to hunt up work.  I have never been fired before, never been pummeled by such hostility at a job.  I can not get off the couch.  I jerk off and sleep for a day or two, until American Express gets me moving at three in the morning, when I find myself walking the length of Franklin Avenue from Beachwood Drive to Western Avenue.  I can only assume I am walking after midnight because I do not want anyone to see me.  I do know that, while my skin can not feel the air, I do not worry about what I can feel, the stinging needles in my fingertips or the constant churning in my gut.  The demons I was to use to fuel my performances and writing slither about in my brain like worms, the roughness of their tongues licking the insides of my skull, each sandpaper like stroke telling me that a lucky guy like myself deserves every bad break he gets.  

After my walk, I hit the couch and call American Express to dispute the weight training DVDs charge.  

“If you look at what I’d been charging for the past year, it’s only cat food and groceries.  I would never buy anything like this.”

“Are you sure you didn’t purchase these DVDs?”

“I’ve stopped charging anything to my cards months ago.”

“Except for your ‘New York Times’ subscription.  Mr. Epstine, you are in fact charging on your card.”

“Don’t do this to me….you’ve got to remove this charge.  I can’t…I can’t…”

“I sympathize with your obvious frustration.  We’ll start an investigation into this charge.  You’ll hear from us in six to eight weeks.”

The next week, the credit limits on the three cards I have balances on are topped off to the nearest thousand dollars.  As well they should be.  Not only did I once live on what I made, I had a savings account.  The worms speak the truth:  even if I made that type of scratch now, the job would fall apart in a few months, if not after a week or two.  

                                                           ♦♦

All I can afford is one meal a day.  I will not be hungry once my stomach shrinks.  To kill the hunger pains, I tap three drops of peppermint essential oil on to my tongue.  Maybe a smaller stomach will stop the churning and twisting in my gut.

Gold’s Gym in Hollywood is at its least crowded after 10 PM, which is the time I choose to go, knowing, as all lucky men do, there will be a lower percentage of successful and preternaturally muscled gay men to work out amongst, men who will ignore a man whose water bottle is perennially half empty.  My fingers wrapped around the vertical rubber handles above my head, my feet sink down on a bar affixed to eighty pounds of black rectangular weights as I do fifty pull-ups on my favorite machine.  In that moment, I am weightless and free, the iron below my feet pushing me up to fly, the blood pumping through my veins no longer caring who sees me walk home to save on gas.  Not the least bit winded, I rest before doing another fifty.

My balls pulse with slivers of pain.  Of course, that has returned. 

Why not?

                                                                                                                                                                                        ♦♦

Plan A is to teach in September.  Plan B is to sleep, but the boyfriend will not let me.  He comes by at nine in the morning, opening windows and pulling back curtains, the round muscles of his biceps making the drawn blinds blue disappear.

“At least take a walk before it’s dark out,” he says, as his thin fingers mute Garbo.

“I don’t get what you see in her.”

Me either anymore.  A lucky woman, Garbo is a sleepwalker who the world can never quite reach.  The unrelenting fingers of the same Los Angeles light Garbo walked and lived in scratch against my skin as the worms hammer into my skull, the sockets cradling my eyeballs screaming for respite.

“Do you think there’s something wrong with me?”  I ask the boyfriend.  

He draws open the living room curtains, the light illuminating the dust floating in the air.  What a joke.  I will never feel the air on my skin again.  I am afraid to ask the boyfriend if he still can.

“Do you think I’m too in your face?” I ask.  “Do you think my mouth gets me in trouble?”

“What is all this?  I love your mouth.”

He laughs.  I lick my lips.  Our mouths have been good to each other.  Very good.  

“You’re your own man. You write what’s real.  Guy, you wail on stage.” 

I look at his clean shaven face, his pores appear to have tightened.  We have both stopped buying Bobbi Brown astringent,replacing it with witch hazel from the 99¢ Only Store at the bargain price of two bottles for ninety-nine cents.  

“You’ve worked parties for me.  You’re the only guy I trust not to lose it in totally stressful situations.  You’re fine.”

He appears to be telling the truth.

“I could’ve been nicer at work…more agreeable, more politic.”

“You were too civilized for what went on there.  Ge’ez guy, for all intents and purposes, you were working in a third world country.  You’ve been doing your insurance job for two years. They love you. Look at how much work they give you.”

I close my eyes.  

“You can’t keep putting yourself in these arenas,” he says.  “It’s like those old nightshirts you keep sewing together.  Can’t you see they’re torn to shreds?” 

Sleep will calm my gut, silence my balls, relax the sockets of my eyes, maybe kill the worms.  Up since dawn, the boyfriend has already hiked the Bronson caves.  He takes a shower while I measure out two cups of coffee from the on sale at $2.99 can of Café Bustelo.  I watch his Adam’s apple bob up and down as he drinks his black joe. My lips want to lick the thick blue veins on the top of his bare wet feet as he stretches them out on my grey 30s Sears carpet.  This man has seen me on stage and liked me, listened to my stories and wanted to hear more.  He puts his cup down and holds his arms out for me.  

Unlucky man, he can not see who I am behind the curtain. 

1 Comment

Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay