I was the only one to help her move because I didn’t have a job, and because neither of us had any other friends. She was wearing a bubble gum raincoat, just in case. Her dark, curly hair was pulled back out of her face. Her lips were red. She always made a conscious effort to dress as if she was already famous, an undercover celebrity hiding behind a pair of oversized sunglasses, out of place in the dismal gray cubicles we found ourselves working in.
We struggled downstairs with her hand-me-down furniture. We laughed when the bottom fell out of her box of dishes. We laughed when we got stuck, half in and half out, one of us on either side of her bulky couch. We laughed when I tripped and fell and bounced on the springy mattress of her bed.
There was no room in the moving van for her chest of drawers so she left it on the sidewalk.
“Someone will take it,” she said and shrugged.
We went back inside for one last look around. Empty, her apartment was as stark and embarrassed as an unmade bed. She held my hand and gripped it tightly. I didn’t have to ask what she was thinking, we were too close for that. She expected me to follow her out there, to lay my beach towel down beside hers and soak up the bright, California sun. We’d talked about it, and I’d agreed to think about it, but I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t imagine a place for myself in Los Angeles among the mannequins driving down Rodeo Drive.
“I should go before it rains,” she said.
“Yeah.” I agreed. There was no point in telling her not to go, or that I’d miss her. I knew that her mind was made up, and that I’d miss her was understood.
“I hate this,” she said, squeezing into the front of the moving van.
“I’ll see you soon,” I told her, holding her tattered, blue backpack until she was settled.
“Soon.” I couldn’t look her in the eyes when I said it. She didn’t believe me, but she hugged me anyway and kissed my cheek.
She drove away slowly honking her horn, blowing a starlet kiss to the rearview mirror. I stood watching her drive away, and I stood for a while after she was gone, waiting, for what I couldn’t say. A sign. Something to point me in the direction of my next bold move.
The sky turned from gray to darker gray.
The security lights all came on at the same time, orange and dull.
I didn’t leave until one of Hannah’s neighbors asked me in Spanish if she could have the chest of drawers.
I told her in English that she could.
A drop of rain hit the back of my neck and startled me. The second hit my arm. I squinted at the clouds as more and more drops fell. The wind turned cold, so I turned to leave.
Driving away, I saw the woman dragging the chest back to her apartment. The rain made her white dress cling to her brown arms. I thought I should stop to help her, but I didn’t. I just kept driving away.
Friday afternoon I fumbled through the week’s worth of dirty dishes, crumpled newspaper, and soiled clothes for a pair of not too dirty underwear. Opening my mouth was like peeling up linoleum. I wanted to go back to bed, but thought I should look for a job.
I went across the street to the little market owned by Ali and his son Nazim.
“Hey Chief,” Ali said, when he saw me. “No vegetarian left.”
Every day I came in for a breakfast taco and a cup of coffee. Today I’d gotten a late start and missed my chance for the taco. But the coffee was hot and black. Ali stood up with effort. He smelled like incense and cheap aftershave. The top few buttons of his shirt were unbuttoned, revealing a thicket of gray and black hair tangled in gold chains. His foot was in a fracture boot.
“Anything else?” He asked.
“Just this,” I said, handing him a copy of the New York Times.
“Want these?” He asked, holding a box of condoms. “Someone take just one,” he said. He showed me the tampered box with two remaining condoms. “Or these?” He added, holding a box of similarly tampered cigarettes.
“That’s okay,” I said, smiling and embarrassed. He was always trying to give me half-empty egg cartons or cases of wine coolers with one bottle missing, juice about to go bad, overripe fruit, milk a day after its expiration date.
“Want a bag?” He asked me.
I always answered, “No, thank you,” but he always gave me a bag anyway, no matter what I purchased, even if it was a newspaper.
I paid for my paper and cup of coffee, and when I got back home I noticed that he’d slipped the condoms and cigarettes into my bag somehow without me noticing. I threw the cigarettes away, but kept the condoms, just in case.
I sat at my table and turned on my laptop. There was something comforting about the familiar tone as it turned on. I sat, waiting for my coffee to cool, and looked out the window into the courtyard of my apartment complex. The view was limited to a small patch of bright green grass, and a smaller patch of sky blue swimming pool that it was still too cold to swim in.
Every day, I’d sit at the table with my coffee, with or without a vegetarian breakfast taco, and peruse the online job boards for something, anything. But with a degree in Sociology, and little experience or marketable skills, there were few prospects. Since college I’d been in and out of one cubicle or another, the only thing differentiating them was the shade of gray carpeting the walls.
Hannah and I had met while working at one such call center, the billing department for a third rate credit card company. Since I was working largely to pay off my massive credit card debt, I was ostensibly an indentured servant. Our cubicles were adjacent and we became fast friends, bonding over our shared love of The Cure and black and white French films about death, and our disdain for the public at large.
We worked there for nearly a year as our friendship blossomed. We started going to movies together, Hannah acting out the most dramatic scenes as we drove home and having me critique her technique in her parent’s hand-me-down SUV. Then we’d go dancing, sometimes to clubs where she could meet guys, and sometimes to clubs where I could. When we weren’t together we were on the phone, spending hours analyzing our relationships or the lack of them, our childhood, our dreams.
We became so close that I couldn’t imagine a time when I hadn’t known her. She became superimposed over my own history, so that the two of us were sitting together in the high-school cafeteria, the homecoming game, the senior prom. The thing that Hannah most wanted was to be a famous singer, but despite a smattering of gigs in Austin, she hadn’t been able to build any momentum with her music. She thought that in Los Angeles her style would be better appreciated, and she’d have more opportunities. My own dreams were less defined. I wanted to make a living as a writer. Nothing glitzy, just a modest living in a small, cozy place surrounded by books. But while Hannah had discipline to spare, constantly working on new songs and practicing her instruments, I’d barely written anything since college and wondered if my dream was misplaced, a thing to get over so that I could finally grow up and find some proper, grown up career.
Then two months ago Hannah had been fired for repeatedly shouting an obscenity in earshot of a client who’d complained, and I’d been fired shortly thereafter for writing a scathing comment on an employee discussion forum about the disparity between our salaries and that of the CEO. Hannah took this as a sign from the universe that it was time for us to move on. I was mostly panic stricken about what was sure to be my inevitable eviction and starvation.
The job boards were not forthcoming. No one was hiring. I couldn’t even get the temp agencies to call me back. My initial relief at being free from the job I hated quickly turned to anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to find another job to hate. In the first weeks of my unemployment I spent hours sending my resume to any employer advertising a job I was even remotely qualified for. But as the weeks became months, my motivation became apathy, and the intensity of my search waned and became half-hearted searches punctuated by frequently miserable bouts of wallowing in self-pity.
After spending a few minutes looking for jobs, I turned instead to the entertainment news, the funny memes of the day, and porn. Part of me felt like I should take advantage of the time off to finally write that novel I’d been thinking of for years, but I couldn’t seem to get started. Instead of writing I bought a canvas, thinking I could get out my creativity in this other medium. But the easel and canvas remained untouched. I told myself that I was just too anxious about being unemployed to focus on my art.
The truth is the blank page and the bare canvas are too too full of promise. Nothing I can create can be as perfect as their blankness. In my mind images pulse and writhe, bodily. My fingers twitch to grab the brush to just paint for the sake of painting, write for the sake of writing. But my mind refuses. As long as the canvas remains empty there is the idea of beauty, of something substantial, a body that bleeds and sweats. But the second paint from my brush touches it the potential is diminished. A canvas is too small and ordinary to carry the beauty of my dreams.
If I don’t paint, then I can’t fail to realize my mind’s landscapes.
I can remain full of promise, like California, a dream.
Plus I realized that I seemed just as cool by merely keeping an easel in my living room, a glass jar full of paintbrushes on the windowsill, and telling people at parties that I’m an artist.
Hannah wanted me to move with her to Los Angeles. She tried to sell me on the beauty of it. In her eager, angelic voice she described the two of us in a red convertible, driving down Highway 1, with cliffs on one side, and the blue expanse of the Pacific ocean on the other, the trees and flowers that line the boulevards and avenues of the residential areas, the skyscrapers that sprout in a jagged toothed jungle downtown, the iron skeletons and lidless eyes of glass faceted windows designed to tower over the twisting palm trees, to outshine the dim and hazy stars.
“We can live together in L.A.,” Hannah told me one night when I was sitting in her bathtub as she cut my hair.
“You can write” she went on, “and I’ll land some gigs. We can share a studio until we’re both working and can afford something better. You can write anywhere really. Lift your head a little.”
She held my chin. I saw the tiny blond hairs falling into my lap.
“California is the last place where you can really live the American dream.” She said.
“Only because the American dream is getting your own reality show.” I said, joking, but only halfway.
“I’m serious.” She said. “What do you think?”
“It sounds great,” I’d told her.
“Really?” She asked, rubbing wax into my thinning hair and styling it.
“Yeah.” I said.
She had it all planned out, but I couldn’t whole-heartedly commit. California was her dream, not mine.
My Russian ballerina.
My bubblegum raincoat.
The unheard siren, singing to a captivated audience of one.
I didn’t expect to miss her so much. But her presence was everywhere, coiled in bedsprings, floating like motes of dust in patches of sunlight, pressed between the pages of the New York Times. Suddenly I found myself alone without someone to join me for cheap, Chinese, or to go on a 4 am donut run. Without her there was nothing for me to focus on but myself, and introspection was always a recipe for an inevitable downward spiral. I was disappointed when it rained, and I was disappointed when it didn’t.
That night I had a blind date with a man I’d met on the internet. We met outside an all night diner that Hannah and I had haunted. He looked older than he had in his picture. His face and stomach had gone slack. I was worried that I wouldn’t recognize him at all, that we’d somehow miss one another amongst all the other late night strangers. But he smiled and walked right up to me. There was an awkward moment when I wasn’t sure if he was going to shake my hand or hug me, so I extended my hand, and we half hugged.
“Should we go in?” He asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m starving.”
I could see right away that everything I said was going to be wrong. I knew that I’d be uncharacteristically honest, that my confessions would baffle him. I led the way into the diner. His hand was on my shoulder, an intimacy I felt he hadn’t earned and I disliked him immediately.
“So what do you do again?” He asked while we were waiting for the waitress to bring our drinks.
“I’m an artist,” I said, fidgeting nervously in my seat amidst the young couples with strollers, the lonely coffee drinkers with cigarette-stained fingers, the old fashioned amber colored hanging lamps.
“Are you showing your work anywhere around town?” He asked.
I said, “I’m very protective of it,” hoping that this would sound more mysterious than pathetic. I was grateful when the waitress brought our drinks.
He was a personal trainer, though he’d taken some time off after a back injury. “All healed now,” he assured me with a wink.
I repeatedly stacked and then toppled tubs of late night butter while blathering about a horror movie I’d seen recently. I described in unnecessary detail the plot, which consisted of a group of teenagers being stalked by a maniac in a remote forest.
“Are you nervous?” He asked.
“Why?” I asked. “Should I be?” The butter toppled.
He reached across the table and put his hand over my own, his thick, tan fingers weighing down my thin, pale ones. I pulled my hand away.
“I can’t read you.” He said.
Spittle wet the creases around his lips. His face was ruddy, and blotched. His shirt, taught over his once impressive chest, his slack stomach. I was repulsed by him.
The check came. We split it, to my dismay.
Outside I walked to my car. He followed me.
“So. What now?” He asked, leaning into me, his smile a leer.
I pulled back, was silent.
“My place?” He suggested.
“Sure.” I heard myself saying. “Why not?”
Afterward, I couldn’t stop shaking. I was sore. I saw myself reflected in the mirror. My thin, sweaty hair. My neck bruised from too many hard kisses. My mouth, swollen and red. I tasted like someone else. Like milk about to sour, like fruit that was too ripe. My eyes were dry and stinging. My shirt smelled like strange cologne and sweat. I peeled it off. And, unsatisfied, I peeled off everything. I wanted to be a blank canvas, white and full of promise. But it was impossible to undo the days, the years of strange apartments, the collected dust and detritus of dive bars and dance clubs, to buff out the oily grooves of so many fingerprints.
I crawled into my bed and lie there, sleepless, staring at my ceiling until the sun came up, pale and orange as a ball of thread through the sliding doors that led out to my balcony. Eventually I dozed off for a while and woke up, hot and sweaty, and couldn’t fall asleep again. I wanted to just keep lying there, forever, but I’d made plans so I forced myself to get up.
“Which do you like better, Indian girls or Pakistani?” The one without glasses asked. Sometimes Ali’s daughters were behind the register. I never learned their names and just differentiated them by thinking of them as the one with glasses and the one without.
“Which are you?” I asked.
“Pakistani.” She said.
“Then Pakistani.” I looked at the shy one with glasses and winked. They both giggled as I left with my coffee.
I squinted, unaccustomed to the pale sun that shined before noon on a Saturday. I had plans to meet my friend Scott who lived across town, and who didn’t have a car of his own. When I got to his apartment, Scott was sitting at his coffee table on the living room floor, rolling a joint. I was meeting up with him to go to a protest, of the war, or the disparity between the rich and the poor, or Gay rights. I was unsure of the particular cause. Scott was an equal opportunity attender when it came to defending the underdog.
“Hey.” He said.
“Hey.” I let myself in, scanning his apartment, dimly lit, the avuncular pad of a longtime bachelor. The patchwork sofa, celestial rug, the Coca Cola magnets on the refrigerator of second hand beer and frozen pizza. Sunlight stained glassed across the fake marble counter top in patches of orange and red and purple on the beige hemp mat in front of the sink, giving the impression, as you stepped inside, that you were entering a place of worship.
I sat across from him at his computer desk. He lit up and offered me a drag. I shook my head and thumbed through his CDs.
“Why do you keep all these?” I asked, since all of the music was on his computer, and the physical CDs seemed unnecessary.
“I just like the act of playing a CD,” he said. “I like the ritual of it.”
I didn’t get it, but I’ve never really understood him. Most of the times we’d hung out with one another, I’d felt as if the two of us were speaking different languages. I didn’t understand him, but I liked the idea of him, the intense, bearded young man who cared about social causes and justice, who wanted world peace. If you listened to the music I like, read the books I enjoyed reading, and watched my favorite movies, you’d probably know everything about me. There was nothing else beneath the surface. I was just an empty vessel, a reflection. But Scott cared about things, and was involved, and even if I wasn’t sure why, I liked this about him. I imagined him turning that same passionate intensity toward me, of him seeing something in me that I wasn’t even aware of myself. We’d made out once, drunk at a club, but nothing else had happened, and as time passed, I worried that the window of opportunity was closing.
“What is it today?” I asked, as he got in the rumbling, green car I’d inherited from my mother.
“The war.” He answered. I didn’t ask him which one.
Arriving at the protest provided no clarity. Crowds of determined progressives, college students mostly, white guys with dreadlocks, and girls in sandals, but also some holdovers from the sixties with their long, gray beards, and awful, tie-dye t-shirts were already lining the street by the lake. The signs were a hodge-podge of familiar slogans, “No blood for oil,” “End this War,” “Keep Your Laws Off My Body,” “We Are the 99%,” “Legalize Gay Cupcakes.”
We joined the growing throng by Town Lake and then made a slow walk down Congress Avenue to the capital. My eyes darted through the crowd of protestors, the vaguely curious onlookers lining the avenue, the annoyed drivers sitting in their cars at blocked off intersections, unaware of the day’s scheduled march. We walked down Congress, Scott joining in chants, and me tagging along in silence, stealing glances at any attractive, pseudo-hippies in the general vicinity.
We assembled on the steps of the state capital and listened to the speakers give their speeches, local politicians and community organizers. I zoned out shortly after the first of the seemingly endless parade of windbags got started. Politics have always bored me. Scott’s handsome, bearded face was intent, his brow creased. Everyone was similarly focused, and I wondered what I was doing there. It was becoming increasingly obvious that I wouldn’t meet anyone, that Scott’s interest in me was due entirely to the fact that I had a car and he did not, that the protest would offer neither romance, nor inspiration. I started formulating plans for the evening which involved overpriced cocktails at on overpriced club with music too loud for conversation, and a dance floor too full to accommodate dancing.
A row of police in riot gear stood behind the makeshift podium just in case things got out of hand. I stood, imagining them advancing on the docile crowd like I’d seen on television. I imagined the peaceful crowd erupting into chaos of tear gas, and people getting trampled and beaten with batons. A big part of me longed for this to happen, just to feel like I was part of something. Just for some kind of real human contact, just to feel something aside from my usual existential angst. But nothing happened. The speakers spoke. The crowd chanted and cheered. The police stood, and then all of us quietly dispersed to middle class cars to drive back to the suburbs.
I asked Scott if he wanted to do anything else, but he just shrugged, so we walked back to my car.
“It was a good turn out.” I said, and he agreed, and even though we had nothing to say to one another, I still thought we might end up making out.
But when we got back to his place, he just unfastened his seatbelt and said, “Thanks for the ride.”
Not knowing what to do, myself, I drove back to my own apartment. I thought I’d stop at Ali’s for a soda, but there were police cars outside. For a moment I panicked irrationally that the police had somehow come for me, even though I’d done nothing wrong, but I realized that they weren’t there for my sake. Someone had broken the windows of the store and spray painted the word “Terrorist” in big red letters across the side of the building.
Inside my apartment, I found myself upset, without really understanding why. I wanted to somehow exorcise the feeling, but it was too primal to write down. I wanted to paint. Not with brushes, but with my bare hands. I wanted to feel the paint on my fingers, to run my fingertips across the bare canvas, and to pour this image that existed in my mind out onto the white expanse before me.
At first I didn’t know how to start it. I just stood in front of the easel, wondering where to begin. Red was my key to getting into it. Once I started with red, the rest followed. Images that bled and sweat, corpulent masses of color. Hannah’s hair, her bright red lips, the swirling lights of dance clubs, the bedrooms of strange men, the loneliness of crowds, the helplessness, the brutality of vandalism. My fingertips smeared color across the canvass. The colors of regret, the unbearable devastation of rejection. First red, yellow, green, gold, and from the side, black and blue, a cloud, a bruise, a threat. I painted, my fingers stained, a blue, satisfying smear on my cheek.
I stopped when Hannah called to tell me she’d made it safely to Los Angeles.
“Are you writing?” She asked.
“Painting.” I said, wiping my hands on a towel, my body smeared with blue, and brown, and gold.
“That’s great,” she said. “I don’t want to disturb you. I just wanted to let you know I’m here.”
“I’m nearly done, I think.” I said. “I’m glad you made it okay. Was the trip hard?”
“No.” She said. “The longest part was just getting out of Texas. But now I’m here, too exhausted to unpack anything, but too keyed up to go to sleep.”
“I get that.” I said.
“When are you coming out here?” She pressed.
“Soon,” I said. I didn’t tell her about my date, or the protest, or Scott, or any of it. There was really nothing worth talking about.
I painted for a while after we’d stopped talking, and when I felt like it was done, I stood back and regarded my first creation in years, feeling this bubbling thrill of accomplishment at having actually created something, of following a project from start to finish, of taking something that existed in my mind and making it exist in the real world.
When I stepped back to get a good look, my heart sank. The painting I’d poured all of my energy and emotion into was nothing like the image I’d had in my head. The lines were unsteady. The confidence of my college years was gone from lack of practice. The painting was amateurish at best. I was disappointed, but more than that I was afraid. If I couldn’t paint and I couldn’t write, what was I going to do? Who was I if I wasn’t an artist, except a twenty something failure with no job, and no prospects?
While it was still wet, I took the painting with me to the bathroom. I stood beneath the florescent lights with all of my faults exposed. The sudden shock of first cold, then hot water covered me. I watched my pale skin turn red. The colors of the canvas ran together, colored the water at my feet in purples, reds, browns and blue. I rubbed the canvas with my hands smearing the colors together, obliterating my disaster, the watercolor running together in blobs, coloring the bathtub, but, once paint smeared, the canvas could never be made white again.
I stood in the shower long after the hot water had disappeared and wondered, how much water and how much time it would take to cleanse us both? I wondered if enough time and enough distance could take my illusions, my lies, my deceits and make them true. That maybe instead of just calling myself an artist, I could actually be one, if I just had the right inspiration, the right location. Maybe not here, but in a sunny state. A dream. California.