When I went out to the driveway to pick up the paper, a Starline Tours bus pulled up.
"This is Nick Blake's house," I could hear a nasal tour guide say into a primitive bus microphone. "Looks like we're in luck, folks. I believe the woman in the driveway is his girlfriend, Leona." Reflexively, I licked my forefingers and tried to remove the chunks of black crud from the corners of my eyes as I heard him lead the assorted bus simpletons in a wan greeting. "Come on, everybody . . . Let's all say good morning, and maybe she'll come talk to us. Come on over, Leona! Come say hello!!"
"G'mornin', Leona!" said a bunch of people, not quite all at once.
First thing in the morning I like to pretend that each new day is awash in infinite possibilities. Being stared at blithely by a busload of asymmetrically featured people did nothing to enhance this already shaky premise. Even if it had been a busful of handicapped children, I would not have acknowledged them. Well, maybe only then.
"Nick around?" the driver asked.
"Sorry. You missed him," I said, still looking at the ground. "He just left eight years ago." Like he would have played along had he been here. For a brief moment, I could see Nick's compact but chunky form facedown in our bed, unmovable, like a bulldog under anesthesia: his blanket kicked off, a pillow pulled tightly over his head as he angrily waved off all attempts to wake him before two in the afternoon. In response to "Nick, there's a tour bus in the driveway! Come out and say hello!," he would have screamed, "What, are you out of your fucking mind?," his black hair sticking out in all directions as though he had fallen asleep during a monsoon. "Tell them you haven't seen me in weeks. You heard I was flattened by an asphalt spreader." That would have been if he was in a good mood. If he wasn't, he would have just glared at me, too furious at being awakened to even remove his earplugs.
"Everywhere you take us is either not home or dead," I heard a woman on the bus whine as I caught a distorted glimpse of myself in a hubcap, dressed in the T-shirt I'd slept in. Silly me, not remembering to dress up for paper retrieval.
"Leona! Please! Can we talk with you for a minute?" the driver shouted.
"My name's not Leona," I said, tripping over absolutely nothing as I sprinted back to the house, demoralized, no idea what to do with all the anger except phone in sick to work. It was ridiculous that I still let the happy bus people affect me. Though it was once a daily occurrence, the tour organizers had started losing interest a few years back. I'd been so delighted with this sign that my life was now my own again that I'd considered sending the management a bouquet of Mylar balloons that said thanks a bunch!!, thereby expressing gratitude, but in the most annoying way possible.
By afternoon I'd been sitting immobile for hours, sprawled on the couch, in the room I had designated as my office, surrounded by piles of catalogs. I was wasting time circling things in red pen that I might like to buy one day. For instance, monkey candleholders, sixty-five dollars. Then wasting even more time debating with myself whether monkeys were still an iconoclastic, offbeat decorating choice or if they had now become an adorable housewife fad that would mark me as cutesy. As if what my big, dark underfurnished house needed was more whimsical pointless medium-priced crap.
By evening I had put down the catalogs and begun to go through the giant shoe box of recipe cards from the seventies that I had purchased at a thrift store for two dollars the previous weekend. None of the food photos looked particularly tempting as meal suggestions, but there had been something about the enormous quantity of cards for so little money that had made them irresistible. I hadn't known what I would do with them until today, when, while studying the brightly colored photo of the cauldron of Lamb Chops with Vegetables, I took out my Wite-Out pen and added one eyeball to each of the two protruding lamb-chop bones. This instantly turned the adjacent string beans into eyebrows and the cherry tomato at the bottom of the pan into a mouth. The furious snarling face that emerged was, in my opinion, so successful, and such an accurate depiction of the essence of Lamb Chops with Vegetables, that I began to go through the rest of the cards looking for the appropriate face in every one. Next thing I knew, it was evening and I had been making faces out of photographs of food for almost five hours. Berry Ring with Creamy Fruit had become a surprised guy with mandarin-orange eyebrows and a raspberry mouth. Chicken Liver Timbales were crying out in agony from their resting place between a tomato and sprig of parsley, looking not unlike those paintings of the screaming popes by Francis Bacon. Veal Cordon Bleu was three different faces in a row: the Pep Boys, only on a bed of noodles.
I got so lost in my new hobby that I took the cards with me when I decided to move to the couch in the front room, where it didn't seem so isolated. I planned to settle in for the rest of the evening. The front room was what the real estate salesperson who showed the house referred to as the Living Room, even though relatively few of the things the real estate person would think of as "living" had been taking place there since I took occupancy. The biggest room in the house, it was kind of cavernous and drafty because of what that same real estate person referred to as the Cathedral Ceilings-certainly the only cathedral-like thing in any proximity to my life.
Before I got too settled, I walked over to the unused fireplace and held a match to both ends of the paper wrapping on the artificial log I had deposited there weeks before. Instantly the room had a happier, cheerier, cozier, more magnetic center. A perfect environment for discovering the miserable grimace hidden somewhere in Steamed Cranberry Pudding, I thought as I sat back down on the couch with the recipe cards in my lap. I looked over at the crackling fire with satisfaction. "People might like it here," I told myself with a burst of optimism as I moved on to a pan of Pepper Steak, easily transforming it into a happy gathering of irritable and arrogant sliced-meat men. "Or maybe at least they wouldn't completely hate it if I served enough booze, so they didn't have the ability to scrutinize things too closely."
I was only too aware that if I was going to become someone who entertained, a lot more attention to detail would be necessary. My living room was decorated with other people's discarded things: matching nautical brass lamps that I took from my father's apartment after he died, not because I liked them but because no one else wanted them. Weird mismatched end tables and chairs left over from past relationships in which I was stupid enough not to know that agreeing to a piece of bad furniture was not a symbol of a lasting emotional bond. My whole life I had been very good at tuning out details I feared I couldn't control by ignoring them and escaping instead into fantasy. Which was why the fact that I had hundreds of recipe cards still needing faces offered me such comfort. There were things about my life that I wanted to forget. For instance, I needed to make my brand-new unhappy workplace situation disappear. After promising myself never to take this kind of job again, I had agreed to "consult" on a television show. My last experience had been so upsetting that on New Year's Eve I had made a special trip to the Psychic Eye bookstore to purchase Fiery Wall of Protection incense, which I burned while I chanted, "Nicely you shall put my heart back into its former condition again. Pleasant again it has become" from a Navajo Indian prayer book. I was counting on the Navajos to help me harness natural forces bigger than my own will, to keep me from being lured back to a mind-numbing job by a large paycheck. What I really should have looked for was an incense and a prayer designed to protect me from expensive home-maintenance bills. The cracks in my walls, the sinking foundation, and my near-empty bank account had all recently formed a guerrilla alliance that was holding the Navajo forces of nature hostage.
It was very disheartening how quickly I succumbed to the praise of the team of guys who created the show, Mark Eden and Steve Rosen. They had begged me to come on board because they needed to add "a smart, funny female point of view." And they said this right when I was feeling overwhelmed by the spooky isolation of writing at home alone.
So there I was, on the staff of a midseason replacement called You Go, Girl!, a sitcom set in a gym. It involved the
theoretically hilarious misadventures of genetically superior spandex-clad Hitler Youth coulda-beens whose sarcastic dialogue made them sound more like Catskill comics than any gym rats on this planet. Ten doughy white boys made up the rest of the writing staff. Not one of them had ever actually set foot in a gym.
I wanted very much to convince myself that there was a way I could work on this project, collect some money, and not let the ham-fisted written material get under my skin. It would behoove me to learn how to compartmentalize troublesome feelings, like rage and humiliation. Plenty of other people were able to do this. For example, everyone else in the city of Los Angeles.
In fact, once work began, I was able to maintain an aloof, businesslike attitude. For about two hours. From that point on, when I was supposed to be thinking of ways to help the script, I was actually silently reciting an ever lengthening prayer that began, "Dear Lord. Please let the show be canceled prematurely and the stars be possessed by the desire to leave television for movies, thus causing them to be cast into the pit of oblivion forever and ever, world without end, amen."
The worst thing about it all was that when I got home at night, I felt so whiplashed and stained by bad comedy that I had started to refuse to leave my house. Right now I was once again thinking of backing out of the plans I had made for the evening. Plans, I might add, that I had made a few days before, expressly to force myself out of seclusion. I had patiently worked my way through a lengthy dissertation on hipster nightlife in the L.A. Weekly, then combed through the weekend listings before deciding to purchase a ticket to see the only thing that really caught my interest: a live show called Tommy! (Lee!) The Musical, playing at a small hipster club called the Empire. The review said that even though the play was based on the doomed, overpublicized, and ill-considered love of Tommy Lee for Pamela Anderson, it defied all logic by still being delightful. The only other thing I knew about the show was that my musician friend Kat had seen it and liked it. And though Kat's taste in men was nightmarish, her taste in music was solid. So I forked over the ticket money by offering myself the secret proviso that if, at the last minute, I was too depressed to get up off the couch, I did not have to attend.
But as I lay there resisting, I also knew that if I stayed home, I might be looking at another no-speak weekend: two big long days and nights when I might have to phone people at random just to hear my own voice interact with another human being.
That was the hardest thing about living alone: the amount of work required to constantly jump-start a social life. How many clubs and bars and restaurants and concerts and street fairs and art openings and novelty balls and one-person shows and poetry readings and heavy-handed little plays and evenings of new comedians and readings at bookstores was a person supposed to attend on a monthly basis to prove to her friends that she wasn't deteriorating mentally?
And then the phone rang. "Honey, you are still going tonight, right?" drawled Kat. "Because Jake and I decided we're going. So if you want, we can save you a seat at our table."
"I don't know," I said flatly, feeling tired just visualizing the amount of work a "yes" was going to require: the grooming, the driving.
"Don't you dare talk yourself out of it. You're spending way too much time out there in the Cathedral alone," said Kat. She sounded relieved when I said I'd meet her there. What the hell. I actually did want to see the show. I was also vaguely curious to find out who Jake was.
Which was how I came to be walking into the Empire at nine-thirty at night, wearing a serene yet amused expression that I hoped effectively covered up my fear of being overdressed in the pin-striped suit that I always wore when I had no idea what to wear. I strode purposefully into the darkened, candlelit room, past table after table of couples, trying to appear too preoccupied with weightier matters to have noticed my own lack of an escort.
And not a moment too soon. The show started thirty seconds after I hunch-walked to the empty chair at the table up front where Kat and a guy I assumed was Jake were seated. Even before I turned to look up at the stage, I liked what I was hearing: great, elaborate, baroque melodies with complex vocal harmonies. The singing was beautiful: a loud cross between rock and operetta. But the lyrics were what really caught my attention. Good word usage, I thought, immediately sitting up straighter. Good word usage got me hot.
"Who wrote this?" I asked Kat, scanning the large group of theatrically dressed people on the tiny stage. She pointed to a tall, skinny, long-haired guy in a black coat, stage right.
"Hmmm," I said, raising my eyebrows.
Kat looked at me and shook her head. "No, no, honey. Trouble," she mouthed in the softest whisper that could still be heard above the singing. I raised my eyebrows again, to ask what she meant. When I couldn't hear her over the music, she wrote it on a napkin that she passed to me. "Porno addict," it said.