It is not uncommon for my 66-year-old former roommate Billy to update his Facebook status with such fantastical literary gems as:
Found my self in downtown Los Angeles tonight giving my rendition of a pentecostal preachers sermon to the feeding frenzy homeless gathered at a public park. It was concerning me having dashed my gifts and talents in vice, gaming tables, horse flesh and worse.They—the homeless the worn-out dirge, that people, that tarpit—didn’t boo me, but they had seen a lot worse. I know this because their applause was tepid at best. I wouldn’t make a pimple on a good burn out’s ass. Afterwards, lonely and forlorn I went to “Big Moma’s Gentlemans Club.” Only two strippers entertained and they had that sombulesent air of typtaphane overload. I felt like such a Loser, alone on thanksgiving night with two strippers almost more haggard than I. Leaving there I went to a tattoo parlour, had the palsied tattooist mark me for life with a big bold stratchy looking word on my chest: PATHETIC
Or sometimes instead it will be Olivia—the tiny lady in her late fifties, usually dressed in satsuma tights and bright blue cowboy boots, a little frilly gingham dress with a petticoat and dyed red hair topped off with a cherry-pink Stetson—who will update hers with:
Just ordered dinner and Billy undressed at the table and SEEMS to be sporting an erection, that would be a pretty decent one for a pygmy, and Jonathan, following in his mentor’s footsteps, has stripped naked, as well, ran back to the kitchen and is rubbing a very fine extra virgin olive oil all over his body.
If we wanted to condense Billy’s online life into a word cloud, it would be a remarkably politically incorrect collection: speedos, erections, strippers, pygmies, Thai midgets, sex therapists, the ocean, sunrises, sunsets, sexual dysfunction, general failure of all kinds, and multiple arrests for masturbation and public fellatio.
They all knew I was dating some crackhead Actor with a ton of money who wouldn’t fuck me and treated me like shit, and that I couldn’t afford a damn thing.
I’d met Billy through Muck—this graffiti artist who was my sponsor at the time and rented a garage from Billy as an art studio. They all knew I was dating some crackhead Actor with a ton of money who wouldn’t fuck me and treated me like shit, and that I couldn’t afford a damn thing. They were the only people who didn’t judge me for any of it. The very first time I ever met him—Billy, I mean—he nodded to me as I sat outside on the street reading a book, trying to avoid the Actor who’d been up all night smoking crack and watching porn but pretended to me he’d just had trouble sleeping. So Billy nodded to me, sitting there in the cool chill of a February afternoon on Abbott Kinney Boulevard in Venice Beach, acting real brave trying to hold shit together with leaking eyes and a leaking heart, and he went into the coffee shop and emerged with a cup of coffee. Then he crossed the road and went into the liquor store and came out a few moments later. He came right up to me and handed me a packet of Parliaments and a coffee and walked off, wordless, before I could say a thing. We were all poor then and had so little that it didn’t matter much if we shared what little we had. And there I was, dating a millionaire who wouldn’t give me a cent without bringing it up in a fucking argument about bullshit.
I moved in with Billy and his best friend Lori a year later, at the height of the recession, when we kept pennies in a jar and counted them out painfully for groceries and Lori would get up at 5:30 a.m. on Saturdays and line up for the food bank and everyone was on EBT and no one needed dog walkers or laborers or adult kids who could write shit pretty. Billy and Lori’s house was a place for loners and drifters and weirdos and bums and poor folks and addicts and people who just came along for the ride. The house was like a junkyard back then: birdcages and Hollywood props and The Big Book and The Twelve Steps and three chainsaws and a broken blender and an enormous stuffed toy and a 1970s yellow office chair and three bicycles and one skateboard and seventeen pot plants and two kitty litter trays and a microwave with a hole in the bottom and a ratty sofa and an old brown La-Z-Boy—all covered in a fine layer of grease and cigarette ash. Billy said it was bad because after Lori quit tweaking, she also quit cleaning, and just watched “Animal Hoarders” and “American Idol” and “The Deadliest Catch” and “Celebrity Rehab” instead. It was a two-bedroom apartment, and I rented one room, Lori rented the other, Billy slept on the sofa in the living room, and we all shared the rent.
I guess what I’m telling you—in case you haven’t picked it up yet—is that what we had in common was threefold: poverty, sobriety, and abstinence of the loneliest and saddest kind.
Lori told me that since she quit crank in her early forties, she hated her teeth and her skin and her hair and her body and there was no way, no fuckin’ way, she was leaving that sofa for a date in the cold light of day, but she might consider it if she had dermabrasion, Juvéderm, Botox, and lost thirty pounds.
Billy had a varied and colorful life of online fantasy that he had no qualms about sharing with the Facebook world—but in reality, the guy was an insecure fucking mess and he knew it. He was a tender wordsmith and, using vast connections made during thirty-four years in Alcoholics Anonymous, had no problem picking up women by promising them the friendship of Bill W. And I’m talking real genteel ladies, California bitches in their forties with luscious locks and beautiful sad faces that were always lined in the right places and legs I’d kill for in designer jeans from Ross.
I don’t know if it’s patriarchy or my deeply ingrained stripper instinct to please, but seeing a 65-year-old man working his fingers to the bone for chichi hipsters moving into Venice Beach and snapping up the real estate, a 65-year-old man with three ex-wives (one used to be a ballerina) and a kid he never spoke to growing weed someplace up in Humboldt County—well, if you care about that man, you want to see that man get laid. I’m not sure why sex is sometimes a gift we want to confer on those we love, but it is. Healthy, messy, wet fucking—I wanted to see Billy with a good woman or trans-midget and realize his illicit fantasies of speedos and pygmies and erections in public places. I suppose because I diligently shut down all sexual desire out of some kind of survival instinct and clung to the bloated corpse of a relationship that bobbed in the ebb and flow of my own poverty, thinking about Billy was a way of deflecting interest about me and my own shameful lack of sex. And Lori—Lori, like me, was doggy-paddling in a circle, holding onto something already dead, head held high, afraid to get anything above her shoulders wet. Lori was worse than any of us. She didn’t even talk about her need to be touched and held, as if it didn’t exist. Perhaps it didn’t, because she had Billy, every night, sitting across from her in his La-Z-Boy as they watched “Celebrity Rehab” together, Dr. Drew and each other making them feel a little less alone.
It is a strange place to be, thirty years old and sexless in a sober house with other sexless people, giving uncomfortable blowjobs fortnightly to a rich Actor who is meant to be your boyfriend.
I turned toward the man and I slipped a finger in his waistband. He pulled my sleeveless dress down to my waist.
About midway through that year, when another refugee had moved in with us—John from Virginia, fresh from filing for bankruptcy, IRS after him, Ukrainian baby mama threw him out—Billy started to talk about this chick he’d met online. Clare. He spent hours on the Internet chatting with Clare. He’d compose missives and then come into my room and read them out and I’d help him with the spelling and the grammar and he’d go back and type them in on his shitty old laptop, painfully, one-fingered. Clare was from Phoenix but had lived in London and had had a rough divorce and was in the program—a friend of a friend of a friend; you know how it is. She was currently located on the East Coast, someplace far enough that Billy could spill his guts to her about the midgets and the pygmies and public erections and all the other shit he wound into his online compositions—which always, incidentally, seemed to involve him walking down to the beach in the early morning with a posse of weirdos, though when I left the house at 6:00 a.m. for yoga every day I swear he was still wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa with the dog and the TV on and the sound turned down low. But as his online relationship with Clare deepened, Billy started to get real happy. He stopped being so grumpy and even committed to smiling. He started singing—playing old tunes real loud, stuff from when he was a kid in New York and Dylan and that lot were shaking up the West Village, some Billie Holiday thrown in for good measure. Because Billy was happy, Lori was happy, and because they were both happy, when one morning I bumped into a guy I used to date down at the coffee shop on Abbotts, I took him home. Billy was on the computer, chuckling to himself and playing James Taylor. Lori was out walking dogs. My bedroom door swung closed with a judgmental creak. My chihuahua poked his head out of the bed covers and regarded me with indignation as if to say, It’s 9:00 a.m., you fucking freak! and then went back under. I turned toward the man and I slipped a finger in his waistband. He pulled my sleeveless dress down to my waist.
It was over quickly and quietly; needed to be, because it was the kind of sex that is urgent and profound and involves no words or nudity or thoughts or screams, just the thankful fruition of deep longing, and then the realization, when you’re wiping damp thighs, that it’s never enough. He left while I was still throbbing. Outside my door the floorboards creaked and Billy yelled, “Sweetheart, how do you spell CUNNILINGUS? I ain’t got a fuckin’ clue.”
I suppose I must have brought rain to the desert, because it was only a few days later that Billy got some terrible news. I walked in from a meeting and he was curled up in the La-Z-Boy, brittle and fragile, his hoodie pulled over his head to hide his face, holding a cigarette that needed a long overdue ashing. “What is it?” I whispered to Lori in the kitchen. She was cooking mystery meat on the stove, poking it with a chopstick left over from last week’s takeout; we had no spoons.
“Clare’s comin’ into town. An’ she’s stayin’ over. Here.”
If you have not ever suffered the humiliation of living in extreme poverty, a “can’t afford a two-buck coffee” poverty, a poverty that doesn’t remotely match the rich inner world of your complex and wonderful imagination—never mind your beautifully detailed sexual fantasies—you will probably not understand why Billy felt the way he did. It was not that he didn’t trust Clare to look past the junk and the three roommates and the bedroom that was a living room with a screen drawn across it and the five cats and three dogs and no money. He knew that women are tender-hearted creatures and that whatever had connected them on that phantasmic space of the Internet would still exist when they met in person, would be cemented when she saw his flaws for herself. It was that Billy was afraid of being pitied. He didn’t want prolixity and a beating heart and the warm blush of intimacy and something vague and sorrowful behind the eyes. He wanted to meet Clare in a coffee shop, recognize her vaguely, not admit he couldn’t quite remember her name, take her back to his and pull her sleeveless dress to her waist as she hooked a finger in his waistband.
“It ain’t easy gettin’ laid at sixty-five years old—you gotta get that shit while you can,” brooded Billy, as he held up a variety of shirts for us to choose from.
“I like the plaid,” said Lori.
“I fuckin’ hate the plaid. I’m doin’ the pink. Does it make me look too fuckin’ East Coast? Ah, to hell with it. Problem is—problem is—”
“She’s so into you Billy. I’ve seen the messages she sent you.” Virginia John poked his head in from the kitchen, grinning. He was screwing some 21-year-old called Heather he’d met in NA and she was bendy. Fuck the IRS, John had a La-Z-Boy and a girl who could do the splits and enough money for a packet of smokes. John was a happy man.
I thought about my dress spooling round my hips, strong hands on places not touched for too long.
“You’re gonna get laid, I wish you’d quit worrying about it.” Lori was all business—tired of listening, perhaps.
“But I don’t wanna pity fuck! I don’t want any of this messy emotional bullshit. I don’t want no bleedin’ hearts.”
I thought about my dress spooling round my hips, strong hands on places not touched for too long.
“Maybe she feels the same.”
The night arrived. Lori ventured forth into the world and went to watch a romcom with some friends from the dog park. I spent a tedious evening in the Actor’s house being growled at. Later, I crept into my house; the screens were drawn and I peeked through them and caught a glimpse of natural blonde hair, streaked with white, tied up loose and messy, a sad face, whispers and regrets, a naked shoulder. I didn’t smell sex. I smelled intimacy. Something welled up in my throat, something sour and strong, and I choked it back and closed the door to my room and for some reason I cried for a little while before I drifted off to sleep in a room that was hot and humid and airless.
In the morning, Billy was standing on the deck, holding a coffee and gazing across at the June gloom shrouding Venice Beach.
“Did she stay?” I asked.
Billy shrugged miserably. “I sent her home. I told her I didn’t wanna see her no more.”
“Why didn’t you fuck her?”
“I couldn’t. We kissed and she was in my bed and… I couldn’t. I’m too old for that shit.”
“Why don’t you just get a hooker?”
“That shit is all tangled up with my usin’. I got thirty-five years clean, I can’t do that shit no more.”
We drank our coffee out there on the deck not saying too much, and then I started to leave for my yoga class.
“Hey, you think me’n Lori gotta weird relationship?” Billy asked, looking troubled.
“In what sense, ‘weird’?”
“We’re best friends. We share everything. If she got no money, I give it to her. If I got none, she helps me out. I used to give her money for speed when she was using. But we don’t fuck. We never fucked. Everyone thinks we fuck. Clare thought it.”
“You’re friends, Billy. You’re like family. We’re like family, all of us. Quit analyzing everything.”
Eight months after this, I sold a screenplay and moved out of Billy and Lori’s house and away from the Actor. I settled into a tiny guesthouse in West Hollywood and I juiced green things daily and I quit smoking and I dated forty-something well-educated guys with names like Bruno who had published bad novels and written worse screenplays. I went to Burning Man and I fell in love with a 21-year-old and we took so many drugs that we forgot to fuck while we were there, and then it was too late. Then I went down to report on the Occupy crew in the fall of 2011, and I slept with a weed farmer who believed in conspiracy theories and said he could heal cancer with radio waves, and then I met my husband and we ran away to get married six weeks later.
When I came back to Venice Beach a year or two after I’d left, the house had gotten all neat and tidy, and they’d ripped out all the superfluous junk, and repainted the walls, redid the kitchen, put new tiles in the bathroom, got a washing machine and a dryer—you should have seen the damn place. I’m not saying it was a fucking palace, but you didn’t have to carry hand sanitizer no more. Billy hated it, and kept the La-Z-Boy he’d found at the corner of Brooks and 5th out of defiance, rocking himself miserably, holding a cigarette with ash destined for an ashtray designed specifically for the occasion. Some fancy shit. Venice had changed, and not for the better. There was a new movie theater in Marina del Rey which had big-ass seats and served you dinner and cocktails during the movie for an extortionate price. Lori had started working as a receptionist at a plastic surgeon’s, and had gotten some Botox and fillers and, frankly, looked exactly the fucking same as before, except she smiled more and moved free and unafraid in daylight hours. Billy still kept updating his Facebook with the same weird and sad and wonderful and lonely shit:
I want to get my mind even with my body, old! Not this disparity, creaking body, hunched decrepit, achy with a mind that says “oh look at her butt! I think i can dance! I’ll do this and that and then more of this and a lot of that gimme gimme gimme foxtrot, breakdance, make love like a banshee,” when it could be,“I’d like warm toast please with soft boiled egg, where’s my slippers? I need suppositories now li’l nursy!”
If this was fiction, I would make sure that each of my characters were rewarded with love or sex or heartbreak—something to spur on the requisite growth, maturity, and change we all expect of people who appear in celluloid or print. But to my knowledge, neither Billy nor Lori have broken their abstinence of the saddest and loneliest kind, and yet they are neither sad nor lonely. Sometimes I think it is I who am all of these things, and that I am somehow inured to the intimacy they both fear, with a string of past lovers and acrobatic sex acts, and even now with a husband, and with a sometimes painful history of leaking hearts and loneliness that I wore on my face until it was erased by visits to the same plastic surgeon Lori works for.
Today, Billy posted this on Facebook:
…the mind is fighting me, tooth and lusty nail, it has plans man! It wants to party and go places, kick ass and take names…
Ruth Fowler is a writer living in Venice Beach. Her first book, Girl, Undressed: On Stripping in New York City, a memoir about being undocumented and working in the sex industry in New York, was published by Penguin in 2009. She works as a screenwriter, essayist, and journalist, and is completing her second book. She can be found at theworldbreakseveryone.com.