“Three people asleep in the living room last night,” I said, “and not one of you wakes up while someone breaks in and rummages through our things?”
“I did wake up,” Frank said. “I thought it was you, carrying the TV out the door. I asked where you were taking it and you said ‘to the repair shop’, so I went back to sleep. Jesus, give me a break.”
Evidently Frank had been duped by the same mind trick the Grinch used when he stole Christmas. Under normal, depressive circumstances, I would have screamed at Frank, but my blooming long-distance romance with Kate had cast an optimistic glow over everything. Besides, it was hard not to see the humor in the situation, especially in the misfortune of the burglar, who couldn’t have picked a worse apartment to rob. I imagined the feeling of defeat as his flashlight scanned over sleeping bags and plastic lawn chairs. “Daddy hit the jackpot tonight, boys,” he’d say afterward. “Let’s see…antacid pills, a digital alarm clock, a pack of Marlboro Lights…” The mother lode was a Ziploc sandwich bag filled with coins, also known as my change receptacle.
“They must have been looking for a wall safe,” Frank said, examining the Reservoir Dogs poster that lay curled up on the living room floor.
“Yeah,” I said, searching the bathroom for the toothpaste tube, which had apparently been stolen as well. “These guys were professionals.”
As it turned out, the only missing item of any value was the television, and that was a minor inconvenience. The five of us had already planned on upgrading to a color set, possibly one with a nineteen-inch screen, depending on the price. In that regard, the burglary was a blessing in disguise, forcing us into the nearest K-mart the following day, where we picked out the cheapest standard definition color TV in stock.
That evening, in our nightly phone call, I told Kate about the robbery. “My God, you must be scared shitless,” she said, tipsy after a Sunday night out with the girls.
“Mostly I’m pissed I forgot to set the alarm,” I said, substituting set the alarm for close the window. “The Dutch lambskin sofa, the crystal end tables, the rear-projection television…all that stuff is replaceable, everything except for the chestnut humidor that Jack Nicholson gave me. Still, it’ll take months for the insurance claim to go through. In the meantime I’ll be living in a hovel.”
Another blessing in disguise. Earlier in the week I’d offered to fly Kate out to Los Angeles for President’s Day weekend, and she accepted. I had fretted about the condition of my apartment—the second-hand furniture, the man living in my closet—and wondered how I’d be able to put a good face on it. The robbery did just that. There was no limit to what the burglars took: chandeliers, a baby grand piano, chinchilla bathrobes, hell, maybe even an entire patio garden, brick and all.
“Bastards,” I said. “Somewhere out there a degenerate junkie is reading my original manuscript of The Sun Also Rises.” I sniffled. “He better enjoy it.”
Now that I had a valid excuse for living in squalor I focused on my roommates. Kate believed I had only one, which meant the others would have to get lost for the entire three-day weekend. Howie offered to stay with his new friend, Butterfly, who lived in a motel on Hollywood Blvd. “It could be weird, though,” he said. “We’re sort of in that gray area between plutonic and romantic.” If that didn’t work out, he cited both the beach and the downtown bus terminal as viable options. “Worst case, I can always stay at that crack house on Slauson,” he said. “The important thing is that you make a good impression on this girl.”
Graham wasn’t as flexible. Although he’d been working at a movie theater for the last month, he wasn’t comfortable asking his coworkers if he could stay with them. He said they hadn’t yet welcomed him into their clique. That clique of course being high school. After some debate, I convinced him that living out of his Dodge Caravan would be the safest bet, so long as he parked on a quiet residential street and hid inside his sleeping bag at night. I suggested a cul-de-sac off of Argyle, mainly because of the nearby donut shop with the public bathroom.
That left Frank and Eric. Since his name was on the lease, Eric technically had the right to stay, but he was the only one with friends outside of our apartment, and, as luck would have it, one of them asked if he could housesit that weekend. So by default, Frank would be my sole roommate when Kate arrived. This also worked in my favor, as he’d just started a new job as a line cook at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, where he would be for all three nights. “I’m sure you’ll get to meet her,” I said. “And when you do, let’s not say ‘line cook’. How about ‘sommelier’, or perhaps ‘board member’? That would really help us both out.”
With my apartment and roommate situations under control, I bought Kate’s plane ticket, made possible by my seven hundred-dollar Christmas bonus. Even on short notice I got a great fare, thanks to three layovers and a departure out of Portland, Maine. “Logan is absolute chaos. Flying out of Portland is much easier,” I said, neglecting to mention the two-hour drive to southern Maine, or the connections in Pittsburgh, Little Rock and Tucson. I figured as long as she got here in one piece I could blame any travel inconveniences on the airline. “Three layovers?” I’d say on the drive from LAX. “Damn union strikes. I paid for a direct flight and a first class seat.”
“I don’t think the plane had first class,” she’d say.
At which point I’d sigh, then remind myself, aloud, to fire my new assistant.
* * * *
I was nervous on the way to pick Kate up from the airport, but as soon as she walked into the gate I felt at ease. When she saw me she ran into my arms. “I’m finally here,” she said.
We hugged for a while, then I took her suitcase. “My Acura’s in the short term parking lot,” I said, referring to my car by its manufacturer. This was one of the many tactics I’d employed to improve my decorum.
Having grown up outside Detroit, Kate was impressed by the car culture of Los Angeles. After five minutes on the road we saw several Porsches, a few Bentleys, a ’67 Shelby, and two Lamborghinis. On La Brea a black Ferrari Testarossa sped past us and blew a red light. “Whoa,” Kate said. “You think that was someone famous?”
“Probably,” I said. I turned to her and smiled, then hit a button on the console, retracting the moon roof of my ’92 Acura Integra.
We took the scenic route home, heading west on Sunset, cutting up Laurel Canyon and then doubling back on Mulholland. We parked at a turnoff on the side of the road, looking out at the basin of Hollywood at night, and had our first kiss. “This is perfect,” she said, leaning against my shoulder.
“It’s just the beginning,” I said. “I’ve got a whole weekend of fun activities planned for us.”
The first fun activity was getting stoned, on my futon, in front of the TV. “Yippee!” Kate said as I handed her the pipe. She took a hit. “Promise me we’re gonna go out and do things, though. I don’t want to sit in here and smoke weed all weekend.”
“Of course we’ll go out,” I said, taking the pipe from her hand.
Before long she was curled up next to me with her eyes closed. “I knew I’d see you again,” she purred into my ear. I yawned and covered us both in a blanket, which I quickly removed once I caught a whiff of it. It smelled like pus, the same sickly odor as Frank’s knee brace, whenever he took it off and left it on the coffee table.
I turned the TV volume down, and the room eventually faded out.
An hour later I woke up, disoriented, still sitting upright on the futon, holding the pipe in one hand and the lighter in the other. I wiped a trickle of drool from my chin. As the room came into focus I noticed a rerun of Cheers on the new color TV and then heard a slow, rhythmic sawing noise. It was Kate, snoring, her head titled back and her mouth hung open. It wasn’t the hearty kind of snore that indicates a deep, restful sleep, but more of a guttural wheeze, like a dying alien, struggling to breathe after crashing its UFO on a smog-ridden planet.
“Kate,” I said, shaking her gently. She twisted away and curled up on the other side of the futon.
I looked at the clock. It was nine forty-five. I tried waking her again but she slapped my hand away and mumbled what sounded like “fuck off, Tommy”. I let her be, smoked some more weed, watched an episode of Law & Order and went to my bedroom.
When I awoke the next morning, Kate was in the kitchen eating breakfast. “God, I’m starving,” she said, standing before the open fridge, a takeout container of week-old Italian food in her hand. “So, what are we doing today?” she said, her other hand holding a clump of cold linguini.
“I thought we’d spend the afternoon in Santa Monica, hang by the pier, get lunch, you know, whatever.”
“Ooo!” she said. I’m pretty sure she meant “cool”, but her cheeks were packed with chicken parm, making it hard to form consonants.
I gave her a quick tour of the apartment, showing her where everything used to be, before the robbery. “The mid-century teak armoire stood right here,” I said, pointing at the corner of the living room normally reserved for Graham’s air mattress. “They even ripped the antique sconce right out of the wall, left a gaping hole. Hence the Pamela Anderson calendar.”
“Where’s Frank?” she said, gesturing toward his bedroom. The door was wide open and the room was empty.
“I don’t know. He must have gone out after work.”
Kate poked her head into the room. “Why are there two beds in here?” She looked back at me, her head tilted. “Does he share a room with someone?”
Blood rushed to my stomach. “Oh, uh, no, he just likes to have two beds. Sometimes he sleeps on one side; sometimes he sleeps on the other. He’s eccentric.”
Kate stared at me, her head still cocked to one side, and said nothing.
We spent the afternoon in Santa Monica, sparing no expense. I dropped thirty bucks on parking, seventy-five on lunch and drinks and another twenty on some amusement park rides. I have a catastrophic fear of heights, but Kate wanted to go on the ferris wheel, so I obliged. Once the ride started she sensed my anxiety and asked if I was okay.
“Me? I’m fine,” I said, my hands clutching the sides of the car, my neck rigid, my eyes plastered shut. I knew that in reality we were moving as fast as a baggage carousel, but I still couldn’t dispel the image of the wheel coming off its axis and rolling slowly into the Pacific Ocean. Every time I heard a creak I’d tense up. “Does that sound normal to you? Ahh Jesus we’re going backwards now!”
When the ride stopped and our feet hit the ground I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment. I did it, I said to myself, holding my head high as we walked past the line of senior citizens and grandchildren waiting for their turn to board. A pleasant-looking white-haired woman smiled at me and I smiled back, a reassuring smile, the kind that says, “It’s okay. You have nothing to fear.”
Afterward, Kate and I sat on the edge of the pier eating ice cream cones, our feet dangling above the breakers. We talked about high school mostly, things like sports, the prom, best friends, keg parties. Kate had a high school sweetheart named Brian Lappin who still lived back in Bloomfield and worked for Ford. “He was my first love,” she said, and I could tell by the way she said it that there hadn’t been another since.
The drive back to Hollywood was quiet but nice. Kate suggested we lie down for a nap when we got home and then stay in for the rest of the night, maybe rent a movie and order Chinese food. It was as though she read my mind. I turned onto Sunset, passing the Whisky a Go-Go, Tower Records, the Chateau Marmont, the Mondrian. For the first time since I moved here I felt like a piece of the city belonged to me. Just a little piece, but still.
The next morning we got breakfast at the 101 Diner on Franklin. Kevin Spacey sat in the booth next to us. He wore sunglasses and a nametag stuck on his t-shirt that read HELLO, MY NAME IS: with “Satan” written in underneath. “Is that his son?” Kate asked, referring to the 20-year old boy in the leather jacket, sitting across from him.
The server dropped off our breakfast. “Okay pal,” Kate said. “It’s Saturday. Can you finally tell me what our big surprise plan is for tonight?”
“Vegas,” I said, grinning at her over my French toast.
“Vegas? I thought we were going to an awards show or something, that’s why you wanted me to bring the dress. But…Vegas is awesome. Vegas! VEGAS!” she shouted, adding a little “woo-hoo” at the end. Some of the nearby diners looked our way, including Spacey, who just shook his head.
We hit the road at 1:00 and arrived in Vegas just before sunset. Once we merged onto the Strip, Kate stuck her head out the passenger-side window to get a full view of the epic resort-hotels. The Mirage, the MGM Grand, the Luxor, The Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace. “Which one are we staying at?” she said.
“Just a little further up the road.”
Ten minutes later we pulled in front of the Tropicana, which, in 1999, was owned by the Holiday Inn. “This is my favorite place,” I said to Kate as the valet attendant parked the Acura. “It’s original. All the mob guys used to meet and do their business here.”
I kept talking, but Kate had stopped listening. She had wandered down the driveway and was staring at the sparkling, distant lights of the Strip.
“Frank and Sammy and Dean used to play here, every Saturday night back in the sixties,” I said as we got off the elevator on the seventh floor. “In fact, our room, 704, is where Sinatra himself used to stay.”
None of that seemed to impress her, which was unfortunate because I’d been preparing that lie for two weeks. The truth was that the Tropicana had the cheapest available rate while still being technically on the Strip—$329 for one night, more than I paid for Kate’s plane ticket.
Our room was small and musty. It reminded me of the beach house my family rented for a week every summer, specifically the guest bedroom that my sisters and I were afraid to sleep in. The bedspread was threadbare cotton, a faded turquoise color, with tears in it that looked like panty hose runs. It wasn’t the plush kind of blanket you’d curl up in naked after sex, but rather something you kept in the back of your closet to dry off wet animals.
“Let’s check out the view.” I opened the blinds, rested my hands on my hips and marveled at the flickering lights, which, it turned out, was the control panel of the hotel’s ventilation system.
Kate and I lied in bed, watched TV and fooled around a bit, then got dressed for dinner. I’d made a reservation for 8:30 at Ruth Crist’s Steakhouse. Kate looked gorgeous in makeup, a black cocktail dress and heels. I had on the dark gray Banana Republic sport jacket and slacks that my sister bought me as a graduation present, but I forgot to pack my dress shoes, so I had no choice but to wear flip-flops. Everything was fine down to my ankles. Luckily my feet were so pasty white that they could have been mistaken for saddle shoes, the kind with five gangly toes hanging off the tips.
Still, with Kate beside me, my confidence was high. “Hold up,” I said once we got to the lobby. “Lets hit a couple tables first.”
I sat at a blackjack table while Kate stood behind me, her hands on my shoulders. On my first hand I split a pair of aces. “Looks like you’ve played this before,” Kate said, leaning down by my ear. I smiled, raising only the corner of my mouth. The dealer beat me on both hands and I quickly lost the next two games. I laid down another hundred and lost that in seven minutes.
I sulked for the entire cab ride to the restaurant. After the two hundred I blew at blackjack I had one-ninety left in my bank account and about one-thirty available on my credit card.
“What’s wrong?” Kate said.
“Nothing. My feet are just cold.”
The maître d’ overlooked my flip-flops and sat us without incident. Once I got the check, however, I wished that he had refused us service. The bill was $180 with tip, and that didn’t even include bread rolls. I intercepted the server on his way to another table, handed him both my debit and credit cards and asked him to please make it work.
After dinner Kate and I walked down the Strip, arm in arm. We stopped in front of the Bellagio and kissed while the fountains sprayed up behind us. Other couples strolled around the area, holding hands and posing for pictures. I felt a kinship to them. The loneliness of L.A. seemed like a distant memory.
“Let’s go back to the hotel,” Kate said, tugging on my lapels. My heart raced. A cab ride would get us there quicker, but I thought it might be more romantic—and cheaper—to walk the remaining mile and a half. It was a nice idea, but after a block my right flip-flop broke, forcing us to hail a taxi. Kate flagged it down while I hopped along behind her.
Back at the Sinatra Suite, Kate and I took our clothes off and got into bed. There was no radio, so I turned on the TV for ambience. We made out to Pat Robertson’s opening statement on The 700 Club. Things escalated quickly, but thanks to my bowel disease I had to call a time out and use the bathroom. I felt a sharp pain in my abdomen, which could have been gas or something more serious. Either way, the only solution was to open my escape hatch as soon as possible. In the likelihood that the discharge would be loud, I turned up the volume on The 700 Club. For ten minutes I sat on the toilet and strained with no relief, all while listening to stories of God performing the miraculous. By the time I returned to bed, Kate was snoring.
The next morning we packed our bags and went down to the breakfast buffet. I was starving, but the line stretched out into the lobby so we skipped it and checked out. Outside, the valet attendant pulled up with the Acura. He waited by the door as I got behind the wheel. “I tipped the guy last night,” I said, and drove away.
We stopped for gas outside the city limits. “Wait,” Kate said from the passenger seat. “Let me pay for this. You’ve paid for everything so far.” She searched her pocketbook and handed me a ten-dollar bill.
“Thanks,” I said, staring out at the endless desert highway that lay ahead.
For two hours, neither of us spoke. Kate stared out her window, her head resting on her fist. Once we got to Barstow I asked what she was thinking about.
“Us,” she said. “I had an amazing time this weekend. So what happens now? Long-distance? I can’t do that, Danny. I tried it with Brian when I left for college and it destroyed us, not just our relationship but our friendship. It turned us into monsters.” She turned to me, her eyes watery. “But I just can’t go home and pretend you and me never happened, either. It’s been almost six years since Brian and I haven’t felt this comfortable with anyone. Do I just get on a plane tomorrow and say goodbye and wait another six years for someone else to walk into my life?”
I took a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking the same thing,” I said. “And I don’t know the answer, either. But we don’t need to figure it out right now. Let’s just enjoy the ride.”
Kate wiped away her tears and nodded. “Just promise me we won’t turn into monsters.”
“I promise,” I said. Kate leaned over and kissed my cheek, then returned to her perch by the window, only now she was smiling. I knew this conversation was coming and I had already prepared the appropriate soundtrack. I took the CD out from its case, slid it into the deck, skipped to track seven and hit play. It was “Love Walks In” by Van Halen, from 5150, the band’s first album with Sammy Hagar on lead vocals.
Kate put her hand over mine. The Acura roared down interstate 15.
* * * *
For our last night together I took Kate to a Japanese restaurant in the Hollywood Hills, spending ninety of my remaining one hundred dollars. We kept it light, avoiding talk of the future, but my mind had already begun plotting an exit strategy. Two, maybe three months at most, and I was out of L.A. Before this weekend I was just another show biz bottom feeder, shuttling along the freeways, eating fast food, going to the Beverly Center once a month for a new shirt. But after three days with Kate I felt reborn. My desire to be with her was matched equally with a blistering hatred for this town. So what if I threw away a career in the movies? The real thing sat across from me, in the flesh, and to have it all I had to do was pack up the Acura and take a nice long drive home.
We went to sleep early that night. The next morning I woke up to the sound of the shower running. Kate’s suitcase was packed, standing upright in the hall. An hour later we were in the Acura, heading south on La Brea, back to LAX.
“I’ll call you when I land,” she said in the terminal. She gave me a long hug but no kiss. I wished her a safe flight. She wiped her eyes, thanked me for a wonderful time, then turned and walked to the gate, pulling her suitcase behind her.
I watched her yellow-blonde head disappear into the crowd, and I thought of something she said on our drive back from Vegas.
It turned us into monsters.
A shooting pain rose up from the pit of my abdomen, the same one I felt back in the Sinatra Suite. I turned around and walked back to the Acura.