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The Baja Bar in Santa Monica is one of those loud and trendy clubs, filled to capacity every night with Los Angeles' young and beautiful crowd. I don't know how many times I've found myself submerged in this den of noise and reckless indulgence and wondered what I was doing there. I'm neither young nor beautiful, and my idea of a night out is an elegant restaurant - one like Emile's, just down the street - with a bottle of wine, a piano and a chanteuse belting out Gershwin and Porter tunes. Nevertheless, the Baja Bar comprises a greater part of this life, along with a whole lot of other compromises and concessions.
You see, I moved to Los Angeles several years ago under the same naïve assumption made by most transient souls - that if you change your geography then you change not only everything about your life, but about yourself as well. It's some kind of rebirth that happens simply because the scenery has changed. I wasn't in town long before I discovered what a foolish notion that was. At thirty-two, I'd left everything behind but myself. It was 1992, when the computer age was becoming a sustaining reality with this thing called the Internet, some cyber-wizardry that would soon have new thousands going "on-line" every day, and everyone jumping on the bandwagon and making money in the high-tech revolution. Everyone but me.
I had two areas of expertise: art history and bartending. I mixed drinks back in Georgia while I worked on my master's degree in art history. I graduated only to find that the world needs bartenders a lot more than it needs art historians. Southern California was going to change all of that; all I had to do was show up. I did… and it didn't.
I found a job tending bar at a strip club called Sun City and chomped at the bit while I mixed gin and tonics for baby-faced entrepreneurs with seven-figure incomes and retirement plans for age thirty-five. I realized quickly that - though it may serve some deeply personal and intellectual need - knowing more than the average Joe about Botticelli would never be lucrative, that embracing culture and snubbing my nose at convention wasn't quite so noble as it had once been. And even if it was, everyone was too busy to notice.
I abandoned my search for a museum career and began looking for a niche somewhere in the machinery of all this money. Unwilling to return to school for training in the coveted field of information technology, I schemed instead to ride the industry's coattails, to make money from all the money being had by all the newly rich.
By 1993, I still wasn't certain just how I'd do that, but I bought an expensive car anyway. I also began dating a stripper I'd met at work. Her name was Laura Brandt, and for dinner and a few drinks, she danced privately for me. Later, I bought her a glass of wine, and we talked at a table far removed from the dronings and pulsations of techno-music and bass-saturated dance mixes. She surprised me with her humor and intelligence, and we learned from one another that, beneath our propensities for languor, we shared a common ambitiousness, albeit an ambitiousness impeded by a kind of dizzy indirection.
"So, what exactly can you do with a degree in art history?" she asked me from across the table.
Laura was strikingly beautiful in the soft glow of candlelight, and when she smiled, her eyes danced with the flicker of the candle flame. She wore a pair of gold shell-shaped earrings that enhanced the radiance of her hair, and a gold weave necklace hung loosely at her collarbone.
"Menial labor… like this," I answered, referring to my bartending job. "It's either this or teaching, and teaching puts me a little too close for comfort."
"Are you an artist?" she asked me. I began to laugh, so she justified the question. "It's just that most artists like to be close to their passion… until it begins to pay off for them. I would guess that most art historians are frustrated artists."
"I love art, but I'm no artist," I explained. "It was God's cruel joke - to make me love something passionately for which I haven't the slightest talent." A short while later, we were sharing her bed in a beach house in Malibu. Well, it wasn't exactly her beach house; it was more like an indefinite temporary gift from an ex-husband who thought he could appease his own guilt by giving Laura a nice place to live. Okay, I cheated on you - I'm sorry - here's a house.
I awoke every morning startled by the fact that I was living with a stripper. I thought I was destined to marry a Katherine, or a Rachel or maybe an Allison. It could have been worse; Laura could've perpetuated the myth by calling herself Jasmine or Monique. Popular stripper myths abound, and Laura has dispelled as many as she has confirmed. For instance, she's a voracious reader; self-help mainly, but occasionally a novel catches her eye. She has intricate and complex opinions about the state of this world, and she has no qualms about expressing them. She isn't intimidated by anyone. She loves plants and angels. She runs three miles a day and lifts weights, watches her diet closely and harbors a nagging curiosity about Iron Man competitions and that godforsaken
Eco-Challenge. Of course, that interest grew from her armchair love of nature. She watches public television and the Discovery Channel endlessly, absorbing every tedious lesson on the migratory patterns of birds and the feeding habits of amphibious creatures. You could forget that she's a stripper.
You could forget unless, of course, you understand that she also confirms a great many of the stripper myths as well. In direct juxtaposition to her adherence to diet and health, she drinks too much, she has a penchant for cocaine and ecstasy, and though she adamantly denies it, I think she indulges in a little heroin use now and then. She wants money, and in lieu of love, she'd marry wealth. She can be a little rough around the edges, in her dress, her speech, her mannerisms, and there's an untamable wildness in her that tirelessly seeks out self-gratification. She's beautiful though, so I pretend to love her. And I assume she pretends to love me, too.
Aside from Laura, I knew one other person in L. A. on terms that were more than casual. Aaron Richards, a kindred spirit of sorts who became my best friend and talked me into becoming a stockbroker. He correctly predicted the rise of high-tech stocks and the domino effect they would have on other industries. When I tried to imagine myself as a suit-wearing, Wall Street Journal toting financier, I must've given him a blank look because he said to me, "You have a degree in art history. What are your options? You gonna go back for your Ph.D. so you can be more of an art historian?"
That was enough to send me scrambling for my Series Seven license, and Aaron's firm, Hamlin Thompson, gave me sponsorship. To hell with Katherine or Rachel or Allison. I was on my way; I'd have money and a beautiful woman, and I'd no longer envy those hotshots I'd been pouring beer for at Sun City for so long. Another year later and I'm a year older and waking to the realization that my life has been little more than an endless chain of working days and drinking nights. Laura still seemed perfectly content… except for her resentment toward my restlessness. Aaron was doing well, capitalizing on the growing profitability of the "Information Super Highway." I was groping along and hating the world of finance. Like every job I'd had since high school, I merely went through the motions and feared that there may be nothing in this world that I did love.
That all came to a head on a Sunday morning when I was sitting out on the deck and reading the employment section of the Sunday Los Angeles Times. A specialty gifts store and gallery on Rodeo Drive was opening a kiosk at an upcoming exhibit of Russian art at the Los Angeles Exhibition Center. They needed someone "with a background in art history, preferably Russian art, to manage retail sales and make discerning exhibit visitors aware of our gallery of fine art and giftware at the Rodeo Drive store."
I nearly passed it over as a glorified storeclerk position, but something Aaron had once said to me came back with ringing clarity. Observing his tireless devotion to his job, I asked him why he insisted on attending every meaningless party, luncheon, wedding and barmitzvah that came his way, and he said it was because every seemingly insignificant event may be the first rung on the ladder to windfall. He'd read somewhere that most of the time we can't trace our successes back to the root. We misapply credit to links too far up the chain, when ninety-nine percent of the time it all began with someone or something insignificant. This job opportunity struck me as that insignificant link to something better. Laura, no doubt, wouldn't see it that way.
I decided to break it to her that evening at a birthday party. One of her aging porn-star friends, Heather Storm, was turning thirty, and Laura had committed us both to another night out at the Baja Bar. But on this night we'd compromised. Before heading to the Baja Bar, we would enjoy a quiet and elegant dinner at Emile's, soaking up an expensive Cabernet and the velvety voice of Maydelle King, whom, I'm convinced, is Sarah Vaughan arisen. In the trendy, pop culture of Southern California, Maydelle was my saving grace. She was from New Orleans, and she spent the bulk of her life singing in the small blues clubs across the South. At Emile's, she sang the list of jazz standards to its hip crowd of overindulgent suburbanites, but she sang them with the heart of a backwoods blues diva, sonorous and throaty. She was my most persistent addiction. I could've told Laura about the job while we were having dinner, but everything was too perfect. I wanted to sit forever at our table at Emile's, with its starched white tablecloth, dim candlelight, music and good wine. The entire atmosphere lifted my soul above the incessant prating of the mind. It was a cleansing of sorts that made real life disappear behind the shadows for a while.
I nursed the last glass of wine and drew long, deliberate drags from a cigarette, prolonging our stay as best I could. How I wished that Laura was the type of woman who would turn to me and say, "Let's forget about Heather; this is too perfect. I could stay here with you all night." Instead she began to fidget, then she made a comment about the music making her hair grow gray prematurely. I knew it was time to leave. As we left, I blew a gentle kiss to Maydelle King, and she reached out and clinched her fist to grasp it. She smiled without disrupting the silk of her voice as it crooned a perfect "I Cried for You." In that instant, I knew that heaven was a series of sweet, indefinable moments on earth, fleeting and ethereal, and I had just exhausted another one.
I endured the Baja Bar by drinking three scotch and sodas in rapid succession before sitting down and floating dreamily outside of myself in a kind of voyeuristic observation of Laura's world. If I was drunk enough, I didn't wonder so much why I was in it. And there was plenty of time for passive observation because not long after we entered these places, Laura would peck me on the cheek and disappear into the dark recesses of the club, to those tables beyond the reach of the dance floor lights where cocaine and ecstasy were exchanged and consumed.
I sat at our table and drank, my world beginning a slow spin, and the thunderous beat of the music centering its pulses in the middle of my chest. Soon, I was absorbing my own sweet debauchery with Laura's friends, the dancing girls of Sun City and a few who had graduated to porn. All practicable restraint was leaving me, my mind floated and tumbled beyond reason, and I laughed and swayed and flirted lustfully while I swallowed the tongues of women I hardly knew. Their mouths tasted of ashes and sweet champagne, their lives so corrupted by vice that it soured the very expulsions of their breaths. Not until she spotted Heather Storm, the birthday girl, sitting on my lap and playfully mussing up my hair, did Laura feel inclined to return to my side. "I'm quitting the firm," I told her from across the table as I tightened my grip on Heather. "Heather and I have been talking about it, and she agrees - I should quit the firm."
"Is that right?" Laura said, folding her arms across her chest and leering at both of us. "Well, maybe she can get you a job screwing half-wits and contortionists."
"I have no idea what he's talking about, Laura."
"I know," Laura said to Heather. She held out her hand to me. "I'm not dancing," I said.
"I want you to go for a walk with me."
Once outside the club, we didn't speak. I walked swiftly, dragging her behind me like a child on the way to reprimand. She trailed along submissively, double stepping to keep up. We walked out onto the sand just beyond the trailing shadow of the pier and Laura stopped. She placed a hand on my shoulder for support and removed her high heels then bolted past me toward the surf. Gestures such as these infuriated me. It was another way of exerting her fierce independence.
"It's retail, Neil," she said when I explained to her about the job at the exhibit.
"I know what it is," I fired back.
"This makes no sense. Aaron says you're good at your job."
"No, Aaron's good at my job. If it wasn't for him, I would've been gone a long time ago."
"You already have an interview with this five-and-dime joint?"
"No, but even if I can't get one, this is a wake-up call. If nothing else, it makes me realize that I'm someplace I don't belong. Can you honestly say that you still believe that Sun City is where you belong?"
"Yes, I can."
"You're thirty years old, Laura. How long do you think you're gonna look like this?" I asked, and I didn't realize what a cruel thing it was to say until it had escaped my lips.
"As long as I can make guys come in their pants, I'll keep doing what I'm doing," Laura said maliciously.
"I thought you wanted to dance professionally," I reminded her. "When we went to the ballet in San Francisco you told me that that was the kind of dancer you dreamed of becoming."
"That was one of those rare moments when you and I respect one another enough to believe that we can confide in each other. But you know what? I like exotic dancing, Neil. I find it extremely exciting… not to mention that my time at work tends to fly by. I just want you to be happy in your work like me. Don't get me wrong, but I can't see you working a gift shop, even if it is at an art exhibit. I mean, you'll be selling postcards and souvenir booklets. My god, you'll be a thirty-four year old cashier."
"Is that a problem for you?" I asked.
"Isn't it a problem for you?
"No, not anymore. What is a problem for me is the way things are now. My job, this relationship, all of the - "
"What's wrong with our relationship?" Laura interrupted.
I turned and looked back toward the club. The muffled, resounding beat of the music droned on at the Baja Bar, and just up the street, the amber light from the dining room of Emile's stretched across the beach toward the low billows of breakwater.
Laura stood with her arms folded across her chest, staring down at the arc indentations she traced in the sand with her bare toes. I watched her, I watched the sea, and occasionally I turned back toward the light of Emile's as if I had some interest there.
"We lean on each other," I began. "We're convenient for one another, but passionate love eludes us, so we coddle each other while we keep our eyes open for what we really want. It's a sick little arrangement if you think about it."
Laura was crying softly but she didn't deny it. We both had known for some time what our relationship really was, but this was the first time either of us saw fit to define it openly. She moved toward me, and the smell of her hair was more powerful than the sea. I could hold my ground as long as I kept her at a distance, but when she maneuvered close enough, the subtle curvature of her body pressed hard against me, and the warmth of her breath on my cheek left me irresolute, pitifully acquiescent, as if every word out of my mouth was a pleading of sorts. She wrapped her arms around me and we stood in silence for several moments listening to the sea pounding the shore.
"You think too much about tomorrow," she said finally. Her voice was so soft that I could barely hear her words. "That's where we differ. I don't ever think about tomorrow; it creates too much introspection, and I could miss something. I'd rather just have fun."
With that, she left me standing alone near the sea, offering a soft kiss to my cheek before turning and heading back toward the club. In retrospect, I wish I could've just left it alone, gone back inside and had another drink before saying goodnight. But Laura and I could never quite finish with one another. I hung around and watched her gestic rituals that seemed to invite all the demons to her, bringing their bodies and their gifts of mind-altering drugs. And as the night wore on, I could see that she was gradually losing control, the high was becoming frustratingly weaker and shorter in duration. No one else cared; they were enablers to whom she would express gratitude for their generosity while cursing me for giving a damn.
When she was high - dangerously high - her tan seemed to pale away, a wet sheen veiled her face, and she became nervous and flustered. "Don't you think you should ease off of that… just a little bit?" I asked, pushing through the crowd and taking her by the arm.
"Fuck you," Laura said without looking at me. "How much have you had to drink tonight?"
"That's different," I snapped.
"Oh, please… Neil. It's a matter of preference, so don't pretend it's not. You're always trying to place yourself outside the cesspool," she fired back. "I don't suppose it would do any good to tell you that I'm just looking out for your best interest," I said. Laura laughed, a silly, high-pitched, drunken laugh that fueled my anger.
"People who don't love each other have no business looking out for one another's well-being," she instructed. "Would you feel better if I assured you that this won't affect my performance in bed later?"
I reached out and took her arm to pull her away from the table. She startled me by spinning around and yanking free of my grip. I heard her growl truculently before she shoved me violently backward, where my heel caught the raised edge of the dance platform and I tumbled into a crowd of dancers. By the time I got to my feet, we'd attracted the attention of a good-sized crowd. I literally picked up Laura and carried her through the club toward the door. We rode back to Malibu in silence, fighting sleep and the sudden curvature of the highway, twisting and turning up the coastline. We both thought about the scene we had made at the party, and as we began to sober we couldn't help but look at one another and laugh.
"Sorry I had to beat your ass in front of all those people," Laura said. Her voice was like the low rumble of an airplane engine, gaining altitude and shrieking noisily as her words trailed off in an annoying giggle. She slumped forward in the seat and howled.
"No problem," I said flatly. "I'm getting used to the humiliation."
"Oh, I didn't humiliate you, did I?" Laura asked mockingly. "Let's go back and ask those dipshits if I humiliated you… and let's have another teensy-weensy little drink while we're there."
We had the top down on Laura's Porsche, and there was a chill in the ocean winds. It was early in the morning, that mysterious time belonging more to the night than day, a shadowy time of blue darkness and repose. The dew begins forming, and the earth seems to lift the moisture off the sea and lend its face to the mists. She seems to be sweating off the dust from yesterday. We were alone, buzzing up the Pacific Coast Highway. Everyone else - those normal folks with children and minivans and homes in the valley - was sleeping soundly, resting among normalcy. I began to wonder just when I learned to be so extremely uncomfortable with routine and normalcy. When did I develop the absurd notion that life isn't worth living unless it's full of turmoil, loose and jagged ends, frays and cracks that send me to bed at night uncertain of tomorrow? I took Laura home to our bed, and we clumsily made love despite fatigue and a fading drunkenness. Afterwards, Laura was fast asleep, but I lay in bed and felt ashamed. I tried to sleep, but I couldn't help scrutinizing my every move back at the club. Too many mornings I lay in this bed embarrassed and regretful of our reckless nights. While I struggled, Laura lay next to me and slept, and I wondered if her world tormented her as mine often did. If so, how could she sleep so peacefully?