1 : Chasing It
I was an actor. After a rough upbringing and theatre work in Chicago I was told I could possibly make a living at it.
I moved to Los Angeles. Two years later I found myself in the Hollywood Hills attending a birthday party for my well-regarded manager and two of her clients. One would go on to star in a long-running television show and subsequent films. The other would pinch my ass.
The party was an indoor/outdoor affair; crowded, and I knew no one. As the most recent client signed, people did not gravitate to me. I ate, drank, and stood on the brick patio, staring in awe at the thousands of lights dotting the surrounding hills. The hills themselves rose up against the night sky, backlit by the ambient glow from the Valley on one side and the effulgence of Hollywood on the other. For a flatlander it was all hypnotic: the low music, the cool dry night backed by the pulse of a hundred people mixing in a limited space.
Inside and searching for the manager to say my goodbye, I turned sideways through the crowd, holding my drink aloft, and I felt the unmistakable pinch on my backside. I pivoted, more curious than annoyed, and she was there holding a slightly inebriated smile. We locked eyes. She was beautiful. It was LA. The room was beautiful. She leaned in. At 5’9” and wearing cowboy boots she didn’t have to rise on her toes.
“You looked like you were leaving.”
“You should stay and help us clean up.” Eyes holding, her smile relaxed. Time bent. People rubbed by. Finally, I responded—
“Now that’s an invitation.” The corners of her mouth turned back up. I stayed.
Three hours later, on a deck above a ravine, we stood at her door. Hollywood shimmered below, to our right, the hills all around, downtown LA a faint luminesce in the distance. A car hundreds of feet below wound its way small and silent up Laurel Canyon. The walk was easy and light, the neighborhood quiet, the alcohol burning off. The talk had been free and slightly urgent, as if to catch up with the looks we had exchanged. The last ten minutes we held hands. It was seamless and natural.
There was a faint yellow bulb casting an aureate glow onto the deck, and she turned to unlock the door, her hands betraying the slightest tremor. Then she turned back to me, looked up and we closed the foot of space between us. A mix of pent up anticipation, raw sexuality, and need met. We used our lips, mouths and tongues to reassure each other where we wanted this to go. I don’t know how long it lasted. Finally we separated, hearts banging; her head on my chest muttering “Oh, god.” We caught breath.
I remember driving home out of the hills toward the ocean thinking, So that’s what it’s supposed to feel like. I was thirty years old.
Almost five years later, after living together for four and postponing two wedding dates, she married someone else.
I had gone through a marriage and a live-in in my twenties. I was not dispensed to believing pop locutions like Soul Mate or Love of My Life. As if you could sum up the heart with catch phrase. Well, you don’t believe something, ‘til you do. I eventually did.
I’ve chased it with everyone since, but never replicated it.
Now past fifty, I shake my head at the memory. Although it’s been over two decades, sometimes up in the middle of the night, staring through the cast of moonlight out my back door, I think, Perfect.
2: Kiss of the Spider Audition
After a few years in Los Angeles, I found myself stuck in an early morning rush hour. I was not happy. The obligatory traffic jam was not the only reason for my foul mood. I was en route to my sixth callback for what I had deemed “The Spider Movie”; a low-budget film centered around spiders mutated by nuclear waste that take over a small town. My part was the male lead, a sheriff, who is not only tasked with saving the town from glowing arachnids, but also falls in love with a beautiful nuclear biologist who just happens to be passing through.
It was shit. But, my agent said, I had to start somewhere, and it beat throwing drunks out of a west LA bar five nights a week. It was four weeks of work at union scale, which was four months’ rent.
What vexed me was the sixth call back, which meant they were seeing me for the seventh time. The third time through I had read for the director, a craggy faced man in his sixties with a wispy goatee and a scarf the size of a horse blanket. After the fourth call back I thought we were done; union rules stipulated that you were compensated for any subsequent calls, and it was low budget. Wrong. I got the seventy-five bucks for my fifth visit and all nine present got a healthy dose of edgy sarcasm before I read: “If you all call me back again we’ll be spending Thanksgiving together and sending Christmas cards and shit.”
I pulled into the parking lot deep in North Hollywood and cut the engine. I took a breath and let it out slowly. I reminded myself I was being paid to show up and it would surely be the last time because I was going to read with the lead actress. She was the little sister of a major movie star. Maybe talent ran in the family.
Inside the paneled waiting room the casting director took me aside. We were almost old friends by now, and in hushed tones she gave me the low down: “The scene you’re doing ends in a kiss. Under no circumstances are you to kiss her. No matter what. Just embrace.” I shrugged, said, “No problem,” and took a seat. Four other actors sat around nervously looking at their pages. I got up to use the john.
The bathroom had a urinal and a commode separated by a partition. As I unzipped I heard the unmistakable sound of someone retching. I rose and peeked over, and sure enough a short muscular man was heaving into the bowl. As I finished my business he appeared at the sink next to me. He washed his mouth out and then fixed his hair. “He definitely shouldn’t kiss her,” I thought.
I was the last called in. I counted eleven people in the room as I was introduced to the starlet. She was red haired, blue eyed, thin, and looked nothing like her big sis. We read the scene. The end came and I moved to embrace and she planted her plump lips on mine, her tongue entering my mouth like a lizard on a mission. The rule in the thespian profession concerning kissing is you don’t use your tongue—it is considered rude and, after a warning, a firing offense. So as she mopped my teeth and the roof of my mouth, I froze. My own tongue cowered behind my lower gums. Time seemed to elongate. When she finally unlocked her mouth from mine, someone said softly, “Scene.” I stood paralyzed at the breach in etiquette. As she looked at me with bright eyes and mussed lips I had to remember to close my sarcastic trap, which was sprung open like it had a bad hinge. Finally I stepped to the door, opened it and heard her say in a breathy timbre, “I like him.”
I did not get that job. I did not spend Thanksgiving with them. I did not save a town from spiders. But under no circumstances did I kiss her.
3: Kissing LA Goodbye
I had left LA but I hadn’t said goodbye. So I drove 300 miles on four hours of sleep to try.
The Inglewood Cemetery is a flat expanse, all the headstones flush to the earth. The Great Western Forum sits across Manchester Avenue, its enormous circular structure vacant and surrounded by acres of asphalt. Planes roar low overhead in route to landing at LAX. The flight path had been a hot topic decades earlier, but the poor lost out and the dead didn’t care.
I came to Los Angeles fourteen years before to try and make a living in the movie business. I worked on the margins of that industry; I had enough acting gigs and writing jobs to buy a house, but never enough to quit my night job.
After two failed marriages and far too many girlfriends, I fell in love for what I thought was the last time. We moved in. We planned, loved, fought and laughed. Then suddenly, after a routine out-patient surgery, she died. Then grief. Grief tortures. It cleaves you tangibly and drops you into an abyss. I plummeted from 205 pounds to 165. I drank. I was at her grave six or seven days a week. When I didn’t go, I felt guilty. Nothing else mattered. Eventually, with the help of a few great friends and a shrink, I began to climb out of that hole.
I sold my home and took a year-long contract job in Las Vegas, a place I abhorred. But I had a plan: One year in Vegas, one year in Mexico to write and fish.
So I sat on the blanket that used to cover us, a large nylon bag full of mementos from our brief life together next to me: Cards. Pictures. Her flight attendant uniform. I talked to her. I used to babble for hours, but I found the more I healed the less I had to say. It was noon on a Monday and the cemetery was empty. The sun shone, the planes descended through it, and I sat.
After some time I called my brother, who knew all my secrets and kept them to himself. He’d received hundreds of my calls over the past year and never failed to answer. I told him about the drive and where I was sitting. He took a long beat and gave it to me straight.
“Everybody still dead?” A bit taken aback, I actually looked around.
“Good. If not, you should call the National Enquirer. Go be with the living, some of them are more interesting.” He hung up. I grunted through a tight grin. I was getting better.
I struggled mightily with the decision to move. To leave her. To say a goodbye she would never hear.
During that year I had seen an elderly black woman sitting in a low folding chair at the far end of the same row. She came almost as often as I did. She always brought a thermos and a pack of wet wipes. When she had finished her visit, she would take out a wipe, slide off the chair to her knees, clean off a section of the stone. Then kiss it.
Once, after she had left, I walked by. He was a nineteen-year-old who had been dead five years; the faint outlines of past kisses were baked on the stone, surrounding the fresh one like halos.
Back at my vigil, my fiancée beneath me, I faced her inscription. I did the best I could to clean it with my hand. My palms on the short cropped grass, I bent and kissed her marker; I smelled the sandy earth and felt the warming metal. I pushed up, and at arm’s length stared down.
“Goodbye honey. I won’t be back for a while.” The “I love you” caught in my throat, but I got it out. I walked to my car with the grit from her stone on my lips.