*some names and details changed to preserve anonymity
"Rooms that should have killed me . . ."
I'm seventeen and riding in Vera's Blue Chevy Sprint. Foot on the dashboard, cigarette lit, white hands outstretched toward the Springsteen music playing from the tape deck, and I'm sneering. We'll drive all night for no other reason than to move very quickly, our voices trying to keep up with our bodies, our easy laughter cutting through the night as grown men in BMW's speed by us just to catch a glimpse of our faces before pulling over to weep from the sight of what they wish they never lost.
It's been twenty-eight years since I was that girl; but when I remember her face, it looks no different than the one that now stares back at me in the mirror. I'm not sure if people really do change or simply surrender to something – a mysterious fact allowing them to move through their lives with greater ease. There must be a trick I never learned – a decision I was supposed to make a long time ago, but didn't make quickly enough to create a difference. Why do I feel no different than I did then – still spinning in circles just to make myself feel dizzy? Why do I still want to avoid that same stillness I always avoided?
On one of these driving excursions, we stumble upon a psychic's shop in the middle of West Hollywood. It's 2:30 in the morning, but the red neon sign in the window says, "Come in," and we do. A young woman in a multi-colored kimono greets us in the waiting room.
"One at time please." she says in an Eastern European accent. Vera goes into the other room with her and I sit in the darkness think about what I might ask. I know that Vera hopes to be told she'll be a famous dancer and marry her forty-eight year old instructor. And she'll also want to know that she's made something important out of her life – made her mark upon a significant plane. I, on the other hand, just want to make an exit. As soon as I graduate – in just two weeks — I'm going to move to San Francisco and never look in the direction of L.A. again. I'll be the most sought after stage actress – first in San Francisco, and then the world (but never in L.A.). That's all I want: a play to perform in every night of the week. And a place of my own, with hardwood floors and no furniture except a mattress. And a dangerous, older man with cloudy blue eyes and a haunting past — a lover who will pull my hair in bed and call me "babe" in a voice that sounds like a canoe being dragged over rocks and when I'm feeling haunted he'll lie on top of me and whisper, "It's ok, baby, I'll get the bastards. I'll kill those bastards for you" even though he does not know that the bastards aren't a "who". The Bastards is a place.
I can't remember most of what she told me when it was finally my turn. Something about having a lot of excitement, but not a lot of happiness. That, and that I'd never make it as an actress, but would find "a surprising place in the theatre." I do remember that the encounter troubled me for months.
That particular night flashed before me in May of 2005, as I boarded my flight to Los Angeles for my twenty-year high school reunion. It flashed again a few hours later, while I waited in the buttery smog at LAX for a cab. Both times, I filed it away as something funny to talk about over the weekend.
The weekend itself was an adventure I dreaded the moment I bought my plane ticket. Like so many other people, I hated high school. Nevertheless, my closest friends from that time – Vera, Colleen and Desiree – demanded my presence and, along with the additional promise of a pampered night in the Mondrian Hotel, I wanted to see Vera, who I'd not seen for over ten years.
We all arrived Friday morning at roughly the same time: Vera — now a lawyer in San Francisco, Colleen – a writer for a major magazine's New York office, and Desiree — who still lived in L.A. as a representative for commercial photographers. Together we stood in the lobby, and took our usual positions within our twenty-year friendship. Colleen organized, Desiree daydreamed, Vera assessed and I sneered. Vera smiled as she looked each of us over and said:
"Desiree looks like she's aged the least. Colleen looks the thinnest. And Katie, well, you look as if you've had the most fun."
As our bags were brought to up to our suite, we moved outside and sat by the pool. I lit a cigarette and received the exact same wrath from my friends that I'd heard since the tenth grade. I closed my eyes and reminded myself that I was the one who had the most fun.
On psychiatric ward 4G, the locked unit, we are only allowed to smoke for ten minutes, three times a day. The nurse takes out the shoebox full of our cigarettes, and a therapist unlocks the metal wall plate that covers the lighter. Each of us is handed a smoke and we fall into a single line. Slowly the line moves as, one-by-one, we press our faces into the lighter and wait for our cigarettes to ignite. From a distance, it looks like we're kissing the wall. The way my hips lean and my lips warm when I'm doing it makes it feel like a kiss.
As my skin freckled beneath the L.A. sun, I reminded my friends of how Vera always made us carry her cookies during lunch so that no one would think they were hers. About the time that Grady and Clint picked Colleen off the ground and put her in the garbage bin because they could no longer listen to her talk. About the night that Desiree and I picked up two U.C.L.A. boys at McDonald's and drove to Mulhuland Drive where I had sex with the one named Vic outside amongst a graveyard of burned-out cars left behind from decades of drag races.
Mark is thirty-four and easily aroused and I am seventeen and easily impressed in a small room with a smaller bed at the San Francisco Astonia Hotel, two blocks up from the Tenderloin and two inches into a barely-not-virgin kind of skin he slams himself. It only takes a day for me to visit him on the second floor. It only takes ten minutes for the mock shop of dead writers and dead relatives to be discussed and down it all goes against the wall, in the shower and everywhere else he can fit a few hours of me learning the lessons of life from a man who might as well have never been born — just out of the army and going nowhere and already wanting to meet my parents.
That night, we went out for Sushi together. Sometime after a few sakes, Vera revealed her secret to us.
"I stripped." She whispered.
"When? For who?" Colleen asked in a demanding tone.
"Well, Kevin and I used to go to strip clubs together before we got married. I wanted to try it with him in the audience. Then he got mad that other men were looking at me, so I never went back. Actually, it's hard work, but kind of fun."
"You were slumming," I berated her. "There's nothing worse than a rich, white girl trying to feel naughty."
And I'm flat on my back again, staring at a ceiling fan that spins and grinds and still won't make a dent in this fucking heat that holds me down like a paper weight as my thighs split open. And he's some nobody, some Ivy- League-Board-of-Trader-drinking- Stoley's in between bites of me and room service. And the whole goddamn Chicago skyline spies from behind the drapes, as crumpled hundred-dollar bills lay on the dresser, cheering me on. Once, I remember, this guy in from Boston who spent the first hour talking to me with a JFK smile and I wanted to put him in a glass and drink him slow, his untattered face, his unbroken brain, until that thing clicked in him like the "Last Call" scream in some sports bar and my body was folded away . . .
Each of these friends already knows everything about me – all the sorted details of my adventures in loveless sex, homelessness, manic depression and worse. Colleen went so far as to write an article about one of my experiences in another major magazine. She changed my name and paid me five hundred dollars, claiming herself as my "word pimp." Actually, the story was more about her than me. In it, she writes of a friend who worked as a high-class call girl while in her early twenties, and how she found herself telling this friend's story at parties for attention. I never told her more than the facts. The depth of that life is locked inside my brain.
Knees bent, mind blank and the lies begin the moment you walk through the door. You tell him your name, which isn't your name, but that doesn't really matter since he isn't likely to remember it anyway . . . And you begin to leave pieces of yourself inside of those rooms. It begins with the jewelry: a ring tossed casually on the nightstand or a gold chain broken beneath the sheets and next comes some fingers at the Hyatt Regency or a foot at the Hilton and you just keep leaving pieces of yourself behind as one by one they snap off until there isn't any you left and you're outside yourself smoking a cigarette and watching yourself slip through closed doors like a ghost.
That night, Vera and I plopped into a bed together just as we did as teenagers. We remembered some darker things, like the fact that she turned down an offer at Yale to stay in L.A. and continue her affair with her dance instructor. We talked about the men we used to want – grown men with rough hands and hard words.
It's the hard words I like now and I wrap my mouth around them like a light bulb and bite down into the dark. I want to press my whole body up against an electrical fence, dance on a tight-rope made of snakes, put rusty nails in my shoes, stick my tongue into someone and wrinkle him up for a while. It's the soft things that cut you — their blade dull and slow and peeling you away a section at a time and you can sit so still that your bones snap from the pressure of nothing . . .
She asked me if my taste in men has changed.
"Ah, Katie, you're almost too fervent to live. How do you survive?"
"Do you remember our psychic?"
"Yeah, that bitch told me I'd be a famous dancer. We should ask for half the cash back. Only your prediction came true."
To rupture in a New Haven motel room. To crack on a Chicago psychiatric ward. To be rescued from New York and put on a bus with forty dollars and a pack of cigarettes and two sandwiches and sent back one more time to Portland. All of those years, from my late teens through my 20s and into my early 30s, I continued to throw myself into the same on-coming truck as if it were only a game instead of my life.
I watched her silhouette in the half-darkness of the room. Did she still wish she'd been a dancer? Would she trade it all right now – her husband, her two boys, her law degree – just to dance on a tightrope made of snakes? Would Colleen trade her husband and son and New York salary for the opportunity to tour with Duran Duran? And would Desiree trade her L.A. duplex for the chance to do whatever it was that she always wanted, but was too afraid to ever say aloud? Did I win this game simply by default – because, unlike my friends, I had no other choice? What else could I have done but live the life I lived?
With a yawn, Vera said, "You're the one living the life.
Nineteen and wandering barefoot, at 5:00 a.m., through the landmines of Wicker Park as I drink myself into a charming display of black lace and a certain confidence only someone that young and asleep can carry off into rooms that should kill me but instead are merciful and let me kiss and strut and hoard bad love for poems. I am exactly and finally the girl I have for so long wanted to be.
The following night we attended our reunion together. The class of 1985 from The Oakwood School gracefully trickled into Casey Smith's home in Studio City. We all looked around to see whom we remembered and who remembered us. The stress from anticipating this night suddenly seemed ridiculous. Finally adults, we treated each other as blank slates, almost strangers. With each person I greeted, I shared a mundane memory that they had long forgotten. This is a dubious achievement on my part, making me present myself as someone who holds high school close, like the last of my glory days. I couldn't explain to them that I'm not nostalgic, just afflicted, and, even now, there is a lingering feeling within me that there must be something that I should have done but had forgotten to do. I need someone to lie on top of me to make me feel the stillness.
The Bastards is a place.