By Mr. Motgol
When you’re coming down off a three-day meth binge, every cigarette is a feast. Each inhalation is an exercise in deep, existential satisfaction. Your nerves are blown out and you need cigarettes to keep the frayed ends from unraveling completely, but more than that, they just taste good. Each one is delicious. As you suck in the blue smoke, it dances over your tongue, which is hungry and rewired hyper-sensitive from the deprivation of both food and sleep. The earthy tobacco taste seeps in first, followed by any impurities, which the speed-fiend also comes to crave—hints of fiberglass, ammonia, the faint taste of metals. All of these unholy additives stimulate the taste buds and manage to give you a little boost; they complement the tail end of the chemical bender and are the main reason that you will never see a tweaker smoking American Spirits.
Chaz, my basement roommate, stood in the doorway to his room, awash in thought. “She was our in, I’m tellin’ you,” he said, chewing on a sunflower seed. “And the one day, BAM! She changes her number, changes her locks, and kicks his ass to the curb.”
Though he was just feet away, his voice sounded distant, as if he was speaking through a megaphone. My pupils felt like raisins and did their best to focus on the TV, which showed the latest episode of Survivor. The unit was hopelessly old; the black casing faded, cracked, and literally taped together in spots.
“She was an A-Lister! The big leagues, baby! How often do we get that kind of access?” Chaz cracked another seed between his teeth and swallowed some spit.
I scratched at my scalp through oily clumps of hair, searching for recesses and scabs. My skull was a bar of soap; I felt like my fingers could dig right through the bone. I realized that I hadn’t shampooed in months.
Chaz continued: “Rick told me that she was interested in the script… this was before she dumped him. That’s what he said, that she was biting. We get her on board and we are fucking in… I can’t help but think we missed our one shot here.”
“Yeah, man,” I said, sipping from a tall boy of Miller High Life, captivated by the events pulsing on the screen. “Some fucked up shit…”
“Damn right it’s some fucked up shit.”
Chaz disappeared into his room and I was left alone with the TV: Tiki torches, ominous music droning over the rumble of drums. The contestants snaked in silently, funeral faced. It was time for Tribal Council.
The fluorescent light above weakly soaked the room, giving my already sickly skin a diseased, purplish hue. The white board behind the couch listed ongoing script projects, with the ink fading mightily on those long-dead works that we refused to give up hope on. Books, screenplays, and dog-eared papers lay in piles and jumbles next to the TV. Random props and costume pieces graced the room: A nude baby doll with a bloodstained face, an authentic Nazi helmet, a pellet gun, a wheelchair, a couple of Klan robes, a human arm, a gargantuan double penis springing forth from an unruly nest of dark pubes, and a custom made life-sized carcass of a white-tailed deer. Headshots, glossy publicity photos, and flyers from theater shows we’d put on over the years clung to the yellowish walls, along with a red star-adorned poster from the Italian Communist Party, a free score from a local yard sale. The couch I sat on was shit brown; the carpet a mosaic of beer stains.
I smoked my cigarette down the filter and snuffed it out in the overcrowded ashtray. I immediately lit another, gripping it like a talisman. Survivor came back on and I poured myself in. I wonder who will get voted off this time? I surrendered to the actions on the screen, feeling a sense of camaraderie with those starving people forced to betray each other through pure chicanery and cunning. Not so different than Hollywood. I allowed them to think and act for me, since both were nearly impossible tasks at this point. I felt ravaged, as if a scalpel-clawed beast had ripped me open head to toe and devoured everything inside of importance. I was zombified, an empty, jittering shell. I would manage sleep in a few hours if I could just gulp down enough beer to bring on the black.
Hypnotized by the warm timbre of the voice of the show’s host, Jeff Probst, I continued to rot on the crap-colored couch, twitching and chain-smoking, until the banshee’s scream of phone jolted me back into the here and now.
Chaz emerged from his room and shot past, answering it.
“Greco, it’s for you,” he said, holding out the receiver.
I turned to him in horror. He shrugged.
“For me?” I mouthed, tapping my chest for effect.
“Yes,” he replied, full volume. “For you.”
“Who… is it?” I whimpered.
“I don’t know, dude. Some girl.” His eyes began to burn with impatience.
“Yeah, a girl.”
“Oh, man…” I closed my eyes, took a long, deep drag and exhaled. “I don’t know…”
“You gonna talk to her or what?”
He waved the receiver in the air, over his head.
“Uh… okay okay okay…” I downed the last of my beer and stood up. The room twisted and warped and everything went dark for a moment. I staggered but managed to stay on my feet, propping myself up against the wall and catching my breath as my vision crystalized. Chaz thrust the clammy plastic phone receiver into my hands, patted me shoulder and said: “Good luck.”
I tried to swallow but my tongue was made of leather. My mouth was entirely sapped of saliva. For a moment I stared at the receiver, quashing the impulse to drop the thing and sprint out the door. Finally, I put the phone to my ear and squeaked out a word.
“Hi… Nick? Nick Greco?”
I don’t recognize the voice.
“This is Adrianna.”
My eyes rolled back as I tried to connect the dots. White noise. Nothing.
“I’m… sorry… who?”
Unable to retrieve file.
“You don’t remember me?”
“Sorry, I’m having a hard time… uh… Could you… repeat your name?”
“Adrianna. Adrianna Giannopoulus. You were my prom date, remember?”
“Oh my God. Adrianna, of course. Oh man… uh… wow. Adrianna Giannopoulus. Sorry, it’s been… a while… So… uh… How are you doing?”
* * *
I met Adrianna in high school, where, like me, she was a member of the International Thespian Society, a school theater organization that gave official sanction to drama geeks everywhere. Adrianna, however, was hardly a geek. She was a stunner—simmering and tall–with a cascade of curly blond hair, steely eyes, and a nose straight off a Roman statue. As her named suggests, her family was Greek, and she had spent her childhood moving all around Europe and South America, eventually–for reasons never really explained to me–settling in the suburbs of northeast Seattle. As a result of her international upbringing, she was fluent in Greek, Spanish and Portuguese, with a pretty good grasp on German and Italian as well. On top of it all, she was a hell of an actress-a magnetic natural capable of true incandescence on the stage. Talent and competence just radiated from her bones, and I was smitten at once, unable to take my eyes off this gorgeous Greek girl during the two or three drama conferences a year where we’d run into each other.
By my senior year, I too had proven myself to be one of the dominant fish in our state’s high school actor pond, and by the last conference before graduation, she was mine. We made out in the dark on the bed of the motel in the college burg of Bellingham, near the Canadian border. I was riding a high, bursting with euphoria, invincible. I’d done it. I had finally managed to snare not just a true beauty, but the whole package, an alpha-female. She was magnificent–a Goddess in my eyes–and as I held her close and ran my hands over her body, I couldn’t believe my dumb luck. Or just maybe I had earned it: perhaps Adrianna wasn’t so out of my league, despite the hairball of self-doubt lodged deep down in my throat. Why couldn’t a working class kid from the trashy hinterlands of Lacey, Washington secure such a prize? Was I not also talented and capable? Adrianna was clearly destined for success, and according to what many people were telling me at the time, so was I. Why should I have disbelieved them?
* * *
“It was… my brother’s car,” I spoke deliberately into the receiver, concentrating on every word. “He lent it to me… for the night.”
“Yeah,” she said. “It was a white Nissan, wasn’t it? And we went to a little French place near Pike Place Market for dinner, remember?”
“Yeah… I do,” I said, drawing on my reserve tank of memory. “I think it closed a long time ago.”
“You ordered the rabbit, said you’d never had it before.”
“Oh yeah…. I ate a rabbit.” I tried to recall the taste. “Or part of one, at least.”
“And then after the dance we had espresso and cannoli with my friend Lisa and her date at a trattoria in the U-District, which was also a first for you, if I recall.”
“You guys were a bit more… cultured than me. I was kind of from the sticks.”
“And then afterwards we ended up at my friend Anna’s parents’ place on Lake Washington…”
She lowered her voice. “…where I gave you a blowjob on the couch.”
I attempted to summon the scene, but drew yet another blank.
“You gave me a blowjob?
“Yeah, I gave you a blowjob.”
“Oh, man… I… I don’t remember that.”
“How could you not remember? You told me it was your first.”
“Really? Sorry, I uh… My first blowjob? Really? I think I’d remember it.”
“Do you think I’m making it up?”
“No no no… I just don’t… uhhhh… What I’m trying to say is… oh man…” I let out a pathetic wheeze and zoned out on the wrinkles in the wallpaper, which seemed to dance on their own. My head felt like it had been exposed to uranium.
“Are you high?”
“No. No no no. No.”
“Well you sound high.”
“Listen… I’m not… high.”
But I was, and part of me wanted to cop to it. I wanted to tell her that I was coming off a beast of a tweak, that a few years back I had developed a vicious little drug habit and that since coming to L.A. I had generally managed to keep the ogre chained to the rock, but how from time to time he snapped free of his fetters and took me on a wild ride. I wanted to tell her how just, three days ago, I was drinking away my afternoon at a tiny East Hollywood dive, and after getting good and juiced I decided to score. I wanted to tell her how I followed my demon’s instinct and located the entrance of a rough looking gay bar where I could just smell the gear, how I ended up paying a homeless street hustler and his buddy to hook me up (and them in the process), how we hiked up the hills behind Hollywood under a full moon and shot up within eyeshot of the big sign. I wanted to tell her how I spent my night wandering Hollywood and Santa Monica Boulevards and streets in between, just walking and walking and walking until I ended up on The Strip, where obscene people cruised in Hummers and limos under garish billboards promoting such gems as Rob Schneider’s “The Animal” and “A Knight’s Tale” starring Heath Ledger. I wanted to tell her how the next day I returned to the bar to score some more, this time through a blond ex-con named Glenn who I drove out to the far-flung suburb of West Covina, where I passed the next night with a house full of malevolent men lost in the spirals of speed. After taking an informal poll, it was determined that I was the only one there not on parole.
I wanted to tell her all of this, but that would require stringing together sentences and forming consonant and vowel sounds in the dried out cavity of my mouth. It would require being honest, not just with her, but with myself. Lying was easier, and it would get me off the phone that much more quickly, which was really my overriding concern.
“So…” I asked. “Are you married?”
“Yes,” she answered. “I’ve been married for four years now. How about you?”
“Me? Nah…” I rocked back and forth on my sore feet, twisting the receiver chord in my fingers. “Still single…”
“What does he do? Your husband?”
“He works for Microsoft. Project manager.”
“Okay… of course…”
“What do you mean, ‘of course?’”
“Uh… I don’t know man… I mean… it seems like everyone in Seattle is working for Microsoft or Amazon or something… What… about you? What do you do?”
“I’m a corporate consultant.”
What the fuck does that even mean?
“Yeah, she continued. “Just doing the corporate thing.”
“Sounds like good bread,” I said.
“Uh, yeah. It is. I do very well.”
“We have a beautiful house on Queen Anne here in Seattle. Things are good.”
“Any, uh… kids?”
“Nope. Not yet.”
“Cool…” I lowered my voice. “Are you still hot?”
She took a beat and then answered back: “Yes. I am.”
“I bet you are.” I attempted to direct enough power to my worn-out synapses to conjure an image of her in a corporate power skirt, glasses, and fuck-me pumps, with her blond Hellenic mane pulled back into a tidy, fascist bun. For a moment, the remnants of speed in my system helped to shoot a flash of electric heat into my groin.
“So, you’re in L.A.?” she asked.
“Yeah… uh… yeah. L.A.”
“Do you like it?”
Oh God what do I say?
“Uh, yeah, yeah…” I nodded my head as if to convince myself of my own words. “It’s cool. Sure.”
“What, are you like trying to make it?”
“Um… no… I mean yes, but not make it make it… Sure, that’d be nice, but… I moved down here three years ago with some college friends. We… uh… had a group in Seattle…. Did kind of well for a while… Catastrophe Theatre. Ever hear of us?”
“No… can’t say I have.”
“Well, we were a little popular in Seattle… thought we’d, uh… give it a shot down here.”
“So how’s it going then?”
“How’s… what going?”
“How are you doing? Are you making it?”
“Uh, sure… I’m—I mean, we’re trying… doing late-night shows at some little theaters in Hollywood… here and there… writing some scripts to sell… you know Christina Ricci? Our buddy was her boyfriend and… well we wrote a thing with her in mind but… uh… she, uh… never mind… so now we’re just… just…”
The words evaporated in my mouth. I looked to the TV, but the credits were rolling. Shit, I missed it.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Uh… yeah… just kind of out of it.” I scratched my neck. “I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. I just… uh… well.”
She went on to tell me about her time down here. How after going college in the area she spent a couple of years working the town. She had an agent, booked a few commercials and other TV gigs. An improv group she was in performed on the Tonight Show at the end of Carson’s reign. She’d had a taste of it, at least.
“… but the life of a struggling actress wasn’t for me,” she concluded. “I am more than happy not acting these days. I don’t like being poor.”
Neither do I.
I tried to keep it upbeat: “Well it sounds like you’re doing quite well.”
“I am,” she replied. “I am… I’ve thought about you here and there over these last many years. Just curious as to how you were doing. I always imagined that you’d be very successful.”
I let out a weak laugh. “Work in progress,” I said.
We ended the conversation by exchanging email addresses and promising to write, but I knew from the tone of her voice that this would never come to be. In LA, failure is considered an infectious disease; people want nothing to do with you once you are branded with the Scarlet F. At this point the letter had been irrevocably seared into my skin, and I knew that even she could smell it over the phone.
* * *
“Who was that?” Chaz asked from inside his room, where he was doing his nightly yoga stretches. He kept things clean, sober, healthy. I could learn from him.
“Blast from the past,” I replied, snatching up my box of smokes and heading out the door into the cool night air.
Our rental house sat atop the main hill in Echo Park, a historic neighborhood that was known more for gang shootings than the old movie star bungalows tucked into the canyons. But things were changing now. Crime was on the decline and rents were going up. The yuppies and hipsters were moving in, a wave that we were surely part of. The barrio was being colonized by the industry crowd.
I strode out to the massive wooden deck just beneath the house. It was easily the property’s best feature, constructed over the street-level garage. I stopped at the rickety railing, looking out over the roofs and palm trees, down onto the twinkling flatlands splayed-out in the distance. These were the bowels of L.A., the dirty, violent, unglamorous neighborhoods that housed the people who weren’t here to make it. For them, and even some of us, life in the city was just an act of survival. I lit a smoke and took in the scene. A police helicopter circled far off, blasting its spotlight onto the boxy houses and streets below. Perhaps I would finally get some sleep tonight, but all I really wanted to do was hide.