“THE BEACH GIRLS
AND THE BROKEN-HEARTED”
Years ago I wrote this stupid thing called ‘THE STARSAILOR NEWSLETTER’, which was a sort of unsolicited newsletter I emailed to all of my friends once or twice a month. I have no idea what my original intensions were, but I sure did go ahead and write a whole bunch of those things anyway. Mostly they were just little stories I wrote in the middle of the night that I fully admit years could not possibly have been interesting to anyone on Planet Earth. It was just something to do is all.
Anyway: It went like this for a couple of years, me pumping these things out with increasing length and complexity and torturing my poor friends with them, until one day I just stopped doing it. I got bored, or tired of it all, or whatever, and thank Our Heavenly Father for that.
Below is Issue 20—the final “issue”, which is about a trip I took to Los Angeles, and which is probably the only halfway decent one (and even then it isn’t very good). I will stop insulting my own work now and leave you to it. This was originally published on December 7th, 2012, when I was broke as hell in Texas, and all of twenty-three years old. Please keep that in mind as you read two or three paragraphs and then close the tab and never think about it again.
18 September 2018
• • •
I woke somewhere over the Midwest and remembered that I didn’t have a job. John was drinking coffee in the seat beside me.
“Aw fuck,” I said. “I had almost managed to forget about the job thing.”
“That bothering you?” said John. He looked tired as hell.
“Yeah. Damn shame. It was a good job, as far as those go.”
“I’ll find a better one.”
Two days earlier we had been whacked out and twisted in Hyde Park with our shirts off, looking for the starry white reindeer skeleton that lived in my front yard. It was lit up from the inside, wrapped in Christmas lights. A man we knew, who resembled a satyr, had earlier lead us to the top-floor balcony of an old apartment building where we watched lightning streak across the sky. We waited for a storm that never came. The blood-orange clock tower illuminated the bottoms of the clouds and we sat dumb and dead, taking the whole thing in.
“That storm is waiting to happen,” John had said. “Any minute now.”
The four of us—there were four of us—sank into the cement walkway and stewed, suffering—hoping with every boiling molecule to feel that rain come crashing down on us. But after a fruitless half hour, a dark breeze whirled us from our tombs and sent us running. The rusted railings clattered and shook and the elevator went swooping down. On the ground we were free to breathe again. The satyr lead and we followed.
John had told me, earlier that night, to take my shoes off and get a taste of the rocks behind my house. I buried my feet into the mass and wormed around a little. And he was right: the ground was real good. It was as brand new and delicious. It had been too long since I had taken my shoes off and done anything with my feet.
Then there was the pack of matches from the “STOP IN” gas station convenience store, which I kept in my pocket. John told me I couldn’t lose them—they were mine and no one else’s. I would light a match and think about chimeras and men who had feet made for running.
I would find that matchbook a month later, rain-soaked, in the middle of the night, and it would spook me half to death. It meant that day had really happened. I had gone on believing, up until that point, that it had been a dream.
Back on the plane I was sloppy-stupid and dumb-sober. I was a big dumb idiot. I wanted to open my mouth and scream until the doors blew off and sucked everyone into the troposphere. It wasn’t a nice image. And anyway, why should I punish everyone for the misery I felt regarding my employment? I killed the thought and began writing on the little napkin that had come with my orange juice. There was a map of the United States printed in blue ink. I put an “X” over every state I had visited. I counted thirty-two. Thirty-two. That wasn’t a bad number. There were, after all, only fifty. I was more than halfway there. I wondered when I would make it all the way there.
I had been to California twice before. I was going again. This time, I didn’t have a job. The time before that I did. The time before that I didn’t.
A stewardess walked by, smiling, the top button on her shirt undone. I thought, hell, and she placed a drink on my tray. It was a glass of orange juice. It had come out of a can. It had four ice cubes in it, which I thought was a rough ticket, but I didn’t say so.
“What time do we land?” said John.
“One-thirty i think. Will Megan be there when we touch down?”
“And she doesn’t mind that I’m coming?”
“Not one bit.”
Megan was supposedly a very beautiful young woman who had many talents—and who, John told me, had come from a shitty town in the middle of nowhere, and who had had nothing her whole life. And now she was building and designing things in Los Angeles. She worked on movies.
John coughed. “Check out this desert.”
“Man. That’s a hell of a desert.”
“Oh, you bet it is,” he said. “You bet it is.”
• • •
An hour later, there we were in Megan’s car, rocketing down the interstate. There were palm trees everywhere and the wind was real nice. John cracked the window and smoked a cigarette. We were on our way to North Hollywood—on our way to Toluca Lake.
And she took us through North Hollywood, where everything was sun-blasted and silver and terrible. I felt, maybe in my brain, maybe in my testicles, that Los Angeles was a place where humans lived, and where it was seldom cold, and where, given the right circumstances, not now, but maybe later, I could count myself amongst the swarms of good people who lined every sidewalk and filled every godless street.
Megan’s apartment smelled like my grandmother’s apartment. John pointed this out. She was dismayed to hear this, saying, “Thanks a lot, guys”—but we told her, no, listen, that’s probably the best damn compliment you’re ever going to get, cuz our grandmother is a fine lady who, after eighty-five years of being confined to this awful planet, had developed a complex and refined mastery of her olfactory senses. She knew the difference between a good smell and a bad one . . . and her home, which was and always had been a safe place for loopy-weary stupid grandchildren, was a testament to this fact. The place smelled of potpourri and baby powder blended with some expensive Austrian perfume.
“No, Megan,” we said, “your apartment smells real good, dude.”
John and I smelled like hell so we took showers. He went first and I went last. I sat on Megan’s leather couch with my computer writing god knows what. I designed business cards for John and me, stamped “VIII Nothing”. I told John, when he was soggy and damp, having just gotten out of the shower, that I would assign a random occupation or state of being following the two titles that were, to some degree, true, being “Writer” and “Editor”, to wit:
Writer, Editor, [Absurd Other Thing]
I would choose three, I told him, to be randomized. A third of the cards would say “Insane Loser”, a third of the cards would say “Jerk”, and the final third would say whatever the hell I wanted. I hadn’t thought of it yet. Sixteen, seventeen, seventeen: fifty cards in all. Who knew which card would be one less than the others. I hoped, secretly, that it was “Insane Loser”. I figured that might confuse people. . . . What does it mean to be an “Insane Loser” anyway? It sounded completely meaningless. Maybe that was cool though.
John liked that enough. He had a towel wrapped around his waist, his hair dripping and dangling down. Hands on his hips, he said, “Sounds great, man.” This was intriguing to him, and maybe dumb as hell. But it would be a crucial step in forcing ourselves to be Humans Who Have Purpose. We could hand them out all over the place—and say, look, you fools, this thing exists, and we want you to see it, and by the way, should you ever need to contact me, lookit here, there’s an email address containing my first name, followed by a lowercase “A” with a circle around it, and then the address “viiinothing.com”—our weird dumb website.
Alive and awake in Toluca Lake, Megan opened the sliding glass door connected to the living room “Are you guys going to work on your website all day,” she said (John had opened his laptop), “or are we going out there?”
It was true: Los Angeles was waiting outside, ready to eat us alive. It was littered with porn stars and personal trainers—and dog-walkers and dream-eaters. All we had to do was step outside and let the sun shine down on us. If we moved our legs, we would begin walking. When we stopped, that’s where we’d be.
We moved our legs in the direction of a frozen yogurt joint.
• • •
I had a problem with frozen yogurt because I liked it way too much. But I wanted to pull that lever and let the soft stuff come on down, floating almost, and have it coil at the bottom of my cup like a frozen pile of candy-colored dog shit. And then, aha, cover it with fruit and crumbled cookies and little chocolate chips. And when the whole dumb thing was assembled, I wanted to stick a plastic spoon into it, scoop it all the hell up, and shovel it into my mouth until I died.
Megan, God love her, made that happen, waving us on vaguely toward the neighborhood Ralphs where, if you looked without much effort, you could make out the faraway scorched-dead hills rising out of planet Earth. Those were California hillsThey were weird alien things. I wanted to fly to them. But instead it was Ralphs, Southern California’s answer to the question, “Where will people buy their groceries?”
And there it was, Tutti Frutti Frozen Yogurt, resting for all eternity in that little dingy stripmall, multicolored sign inviting the world to come on in, baby, it’s always cold.
“I could go for a pack of smokes first,” said John. He pointed to the enormous grocery store to the right of us. “Guess I can try to get some there.”
Ralphs. For God’s sake: Ralphs. Looked like a real freakfest in there: the urine-yellow light, the dust, the cart-pushing losers; men with suspenders attached to sweatpants and Vegas grandmas well past their expiration date. Weird vibes all around. Los Angeles for breakfast, and Los Angeles for god damn lunch. Fuck dinner.
John bought a box of the spooky stuff and Megan got an armful of bottled water. She said we’d need it later. I didn’t ask why.
Finally: yogurt. I mixed strawberry with blueberry and, using a black ladle, covered the fruity coils with all sorts of satanic shit. And: I did as I had planned, a large spoonful here, then another. It sank into my stomach and I felt all right.
An attractive young woman was there with her son. She looked a little lonely and a little sad. I thought, hell, man.
• • •
That night we went to some Irish pub and I got some shitty Irish beer. Megan and John and I shuffled around the place until we found a good table. We started on the second story, which was loud and smoky and dimly lit, and then to the bar where John bought another beer (“Just turned twenty-one, huh?” our bartender had said), and finally I spotted a table by the window. I thought it looked nice enough. We sat down and I watched in horror as a folk band strummed and clapped and sang loudly on the other side of the room. Between songs they clinked their glasses together, saying, “Here here!” Lord, was it miserable.
I had a few beers and was feeling pretty good. My head was filled with stars. What made me come crashing down was this: three young men knocked on the window where my head was resting. I looked up. One of them waved. They looked like nice enough dudes. Megan sat up in her chair. She announced that these were her friends. I was maybe a little intimidated. I felt like an interloper being there. Megan knew John, and John knew me. Now three other people connected to Megan would come in and my connection to them would be tenuous: Why is this guy here? Why is he with Megan? Who the fuck is John?
In five days I would be out of my mind on a midnight train to San Francisco. All I could think about was the Bay air and making eyes with people on the BART and Thai food. Thai food was so good, man. I remembered there was a lot of it in the Mission. I wanted to be there, just then, thinking about it. I didn’t want to feel awkward and unwanted. Being on a train would be nice, too. I could read a book or sleep or close my eyes and imagine my own funeral.
In Los Angeles, in the Irish pub, I wasn’t aboard public transportation, and I wasn’t eating Thai food.
I was a freewheeling maniac just then. I shook hands with Megan’s friends, was introduced, felt stupid. They ordered food, all kinds of it, and I sipped some honey-flavored beer that I didn’t really care for. I didn’t like the brown color or the foam floating on the surface or the flavor or anything. I didn’t want bubbles in my throat. I sneezed. The little folk band kept playing. They slammed their hands on the table for percussion. A waitress asked me if I wanted anything to eat and I said no.
I wondered what my expiration date was.
Sitting there, ignoring the world, I figured it was this: “BEST USED BEFORE THE END OF THE WORLD.”
In three months I would endanger myself in the name of A-R-T. I told myself that. I would lower the amount of medication I put in my body to clear the chemical fog.
Three months before, in that booth, warped on Lamictal and Abilify, I was given names: Jeremy, Adam, Corey. I decided I liked these damn guys.
They said they worked on movies—the “real ones” they said. Gosh. These people were doing something they wanted to do. I was unemployed and broke. I was a real loser. But I liked these people. I thought maybe I could learn something from them if I didn’t talk too much.
After a few beers and a plate of fries, the trio stood up and left. They told John and me that if we wrote something, they would film it with us. We said sure. And what should we write? Anything, they said. Come up with a treatment, they said. Write a god damn thing, why don’t you.
John and I shared Megan’s enormous bed that night. We promised each other we would wake early in the morning and put our brains together and will something into existence. We would write a god damn thing. I put a little white pill in my mouth and fell asleep.
• • •
In the morning I was psychedelic candy and translucent neon plastic. I was flushed and stupid.
John was cooking eggs when I stepped into the kitchen. He was shirtless. I told him I wanted to see the Hollywood sign and he told me he felt the same.
“We need to write that treatment, man,” he said.
“Except I have no idea how to write a treatment.”
“Me neither. We can just write down some ideas and see what happens.”
Megan warned me not to use her roommate’s expensive eggs because she didn’t feel like replacing them. I ate cereal instead. I didn’t drink the milk when I finished. I never have. I don’t like milk. I think it’s a weird thing for a human to drink.
My father told me, long ago, that I wasn’t breastfed as a child. I refused to do it was the rumor. And I have always read that breastmilk is just about the best thing a baby can put into its little body, because of all that good honkin nutrition. Instead I was bottle-fed. Anytime I’m feeling a little insane, a little sad—I wonder if that’s the reason why. I probably needed that stuff. And because I didn’t get it, my brain is full of sawdust and snapping electrical wires, dangling an inch above a pool of oil.
I poured the milk down the drain and ate a handful of pills that I trusted to suppress the monstrous parasite that lived inside my brain.
• • •
Jeremy and Corey and Adam were in good moods when we arrived at their apartment. They didn’t have a refrigerator. I had brought them pizza and tea as a sign of friendship. I figured, you know, you give a guy some pizza and he has no choice but to be your friend.
It was suspiciously cheap pizza. My buddy Zak “Delicious” McCune had once told me that these pizzas, which were advertised as being both Hot and Ready, were squeezed out of a gigantic cookie tube and cut into that familiar disk shape by a masked man wielding a scimitar. I said that to my new friends and they laughed. It didn’t sound improbable.
John whipped out his computer and showed Jeremy the treatment we had thrown together earlier that morning. We had two ideas we felt were relatively OK.
The first: “Conspiracy Theory” Kyle, wheelchair-bound and insane, approaches two men on a walk and rambles on about ridiculous government cover-ups surrounding World War II, 9/11, the pyramids, and so on. He drinks kerosene out of a milk jug.
The second: A man with anger issues stands on a Mars-red dirt hill and screams for several minutes at someone/something off-camera. Then the punchline appears. The end.
Jeremy, who I believed was something of an alpha male, liked these ideas enough to spend a whole day bringing them to life.
So we walked down to some lonely stretch of road and filmed the first video. Airplanes flew overhead and cyclists rode by with confused looks on their faces. Why is this guy vomiting fake kerosene in the street? is what they seemed to be thinking.
After Adam changed out of his bum clothes (he was “Conspiracy Theory” Kyle, after all), we drove to Sunset Boulevard. The sun was, yes, setting when I noticed the “Elliott Smith wall” on the 4300 block. It was badly vandalized. Jeremy parked at the strip mall across the street. John and I walked over and snapped a few pictures. I figured the wall was only going to get worse over time. Better take a damn picture of it looking like this than have nothing to show for it at all.
• • •
Soon we were snaking into the Hollywood Hills. Our destination was the Hollywood sign. Jeremy said there were plenty of copper-colored dirt hills up there.
We hit a straightaway and I could see the nine-letter word way up ahead. It was surreal. I had seen it so many times in pictures and movies that I had decided somewhere along the way that maybe it wasn’t even real. But there it was, right the hell in front of me, and we were headed straight for it. I asked Jeremy if we could get close to the letters, and he said there was some sort of crazy surveillance system in place to deter would-be vandals from spray-painting dumb bullshit on the iconic sign. So nuts to that!
Jeremy parked the car on a dusty slope and the four of us got out and made our way up the road a bit. The sky was sad as hell and we knew rain would soon come. There were families everywhere. I heard a bunch of different languages. I guess the whole world wanted to see those letters. Not us: we had come to film something stupid. Specifically, I had come to scream at those letters.
I found hidden paths leading up to hidden hills. I tried them all until I found the best one. John and Jeremy and Adam followed. A family who said they were from Spain was there taking pictures of the Hollywood sign. It was a good place to do that. From there it was a clear shot of the thing.
We waited for them to leave, and then quickly went to work. Jeremy surveyed the land through his camera and told me where to stand. Then we did a few test shots. I screamed at the city of Los Angeles while Adam and John watched on.
All in all, we did six or seven takes. Jeremy told me to get really angry. My fake anger wasn’t enough. So I sucked in a lungful of air and let my voice roar over palm trees and the red dirt and the sun-baked skyscrapers: “You took my cats and left me for dead!!!! What am I supposed to do!!!! Why did you do this to me!!!!”
“Whoa,” said John. “Maybe, um, you shouldn’t be so autobiographical about it.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I reckon not.”
We took some pictures on that hill—with big-ass “HOLLYWOOD” looming in the background. I took my shirt off and put on my big stupid white sunglasses. John unbuttoned his shirt and put his hands on his hips. We told ourselves this was work, man. We were creating a thing for VIII Nothing. The message was this: Where there are cities, we will go to them . . .and when we get there, we will temporarily ruin them.
Through the amber tint of my sunglasses, I could make out a group of preteen girls and their two chaperones coming towards us. They had English accents. Both of the men escorting the girls had grey hair and wrinkles. One man looked like a pirate. He was heavily tattooed and looked rough. The other man was a walking cartoon. He looked like the stereotypical English butler. He had on a cardigan, herringbone pants, and his arms were folded behind his back.
Jeremy was still taking pictures when they approached. The preteen girls, thinking John and I (still shirtless) were of some celebrity, however small, began taking pictures of us as well. They tried to do so as secretly as they could, hoping we wouldn’t notice. I felt dirty after that and put my shirt back on, knowing that my pale chest was now stored on the memory cards of a bunch of poor bastards who didn’t know any better. God only knew, I thought, where those damn pictures were going to end up.
Before we left, I looked up at the letters one last time. I remembered once reading about Peg Entwistle, the twenty-four-year-old actress who had jumped off the letter “H” in 1932, back when it still said “Hollywoodland”. I thought that was the saddest thing I’d ever heard. Dang. Poor Peg Entwistle.
We drove home as the storm clouds swelled overhead. The rain came shortly after.
• • •
Jeremy and Adam dropped us off at Megan’s apartment after dark. Megan was drinking a beer on the balcony when we got in. John joined her outside. I sat down on the couch and swallowed three pills, two blue, one white, that made the nightmare of living go away for a few hours.
“Join us, jerk,” said Megan, through the screen door.
“Yeah, OK,” I said. I slapped my thighs and stood up. My head was ping-ponging with weird thoughts. I told myself if I ever again got the point where I couldn’t tolerate existence, I too would jump off the letter “H” and hope the fall would send me to Heaven. I guess I stood there thinking about it for a long time.
“Ryan,” said John. “Are you coming?”
There were purple-grey clouds far north. Megan took a sip of her beer and watched as a bolt of lightning zigzagged beneath the waxing moon.
“I’ve been here six years and that’s the first time I’ve ever seen lightning in LA,” she said.
“No kidding?” said John.
“Nope. First time.”
• • •
In the morning we met up with Megan’s boyfriend, a guy named Joe. Joe was great. He had a nice apartment in the western part of Los Angeles near Venice Beach. Our mission that day was to go to Venice Beach to see the circus freaks on the promenade. We left our bags at Joe’s and drove a mile until we could see water in the distance.
I alone wore pants and tennis shoes. Everyone else had on shorts and sandals, which I would sooner die than wear, on account of my warped and childish principles. Megan warned me that I would likely get sand in my shoes. I shrugged. I told her, man, I had been to the beach a few times in my life, had never worn anything other than tennis shoes when I went there. I was used to a little sand getting in there, I said. It didn’t bother me one bit, whereas wearing sandals would send me tailspinning into oblivion.
Venice Beach was hilarious and awful. It was a never-ending cavalcade of dopeheads and burnouts and freaks and weirdos. There were artists and fortune tellers and skateboarders and coked-out psychopaths screaming about God and drugs. Pretty blonde girls in hospital scrubs were holding up signs advertising medical marijuana cards. Behind them were men and women in lab coats. “Weed Doctors,” they called themselves. Lord!
A man I had seen earlier near Joe’s apartment was shouting at the top of his lungs on steps leading up to a beachside townhouse complex. Earlier he had been brushing his teeth. Now he was making absurd demands: “I want me an apartment,” he said, “a white woman, a thousand dollars worth of weed, and a big-ass electric guitar!!!”
I can’t say I understood the man’s methods. Maybe some rich fool would approach him and give the man everything he desired. Or maybe nothing would happen, and the man would go home empty-handed. At least his teeth would be clean.
• • •
It sucked and we got tired of it pretty quickly. It was a two-mile trek to the pier with the ferris wheel, but we stopped short and walked out onto the beach. John and I sat down under a palm tree while Joe and Megan shared an enormous and terribly overpriced cup of lemonade.
Megan asked John and me what we planned to do with the rest of our day. I told her we were meeting up with our new friend Alex, who read our website and who we had never met, and who was in Santa Monica. She agreed to drive us there, but only if we gave her exact directions. Megan wasn’t the best driver, as evidenced by the scrapes and scratches on the exterior of her car. She wanted to avoid getting any more. So to know precisely where her car was going meant minimizing the risk of that happening (such was her thinking). I sent Alex a message and asked for an address. He told us to meet him at Santa Monica Place, which he said was an open-air mall not far from the exit we would be taking to get into Santa Monica proper. I told him we were at Venice Beach, and would be there soon.
“Venice!” he said, “It’s a charming place, isn’t it? Where art meets crime?”
Joe drove. We got on the parkway and made the three-mile trip to Santa Monica in no time. I wouldn’t learn until much later that the ferris wheel we’d seen at the end of Venice Beach was actually the start of Santa Monica. So much for that. We could have walked.
John and I got out of the car at a busy intersection and promised Megan we’d be finished in a few hours. We then walked a few blocks to Santa Monica Place where Alex was waiting.
Santa Monica was ritzy and flashy and full of rich jerks. There was high-end stores every which way. I didn’t see a single homeless person. After having spent the afternoon in Venice Beach, it was a blast to the brain. We had just left the Kingdom of the Weird, and were now sloppy and badly out of place in an upscale district of Los Angeles.
I had always been told LA was a “fake” place, but I didn’t get a sense of that during my time in North Hollywood and Toluca Lake. Santa Monica, on the other hand, felt like someone had cranked the dial all the way up to Barbie Dream House. I didn’t blame the people who lived there. Hell, I figured it was probably a pretty nice place to live, if you really thought about it. But as a human whose annual income had never exceeded $10k, I felt deeply uncomfortable.
I pulled out my phone and shot Alex a message: “Just look for two freaks with mustaches.”
Alex quickly replied: “Walk a block west on Broadway and make a left towards the mall. I’m the freak sans the ‘stache.”
We did as we were told. It wasn’t hard to find Santa Monica Place, which we quickly realized was quite nice. The fair weather was able to pass in and out of the mall. There was no ceiling. The sun shined down. I could feel the heat inside my head.
To the monied dopes inside the mall, we probably looked like a couple of lowlife jerkoff losers. We scanned the faces and didn’t see any familiar ones. I remembered I had no idea what Alex looked like. So we stood there, quiet and stiff, until our mustaches gave away our identities. A man sitting in a chair suddenly stood up. He was wearing a button-down shirt and expensive jeans cuffed at the ankle. He had on a pair of brown boots. He looked at me like he knew who I was. It was Alex.
Alex knew of my existence because he had once felt apathetic about his own existence. That’s my guess, anyway. So he turned to the internet, hoping to find an answer to his listlessness. He’d had enough. It was time to get out of the hole he was in. So he typed in the phrase “enough of this ennui”—perhaps looking for answers, perhaps looking for like-minded people. Instead he somehow got me. I was the only person in the history of the internet to have assembled that phrase in that precise syntax.
The essay Alex had stumbled upon was from a website I used to run called Octonaut. It was one of the last entries I ever wrote there, and was about my frustrations with writing. I couldn’t do it at the time. It was rather difficult for me, since I was so damn sad to be living in Maryland. (I wouldn’t write again for another eight months, when I began working my terrible novel.) Here is what Alex read on that fateful day:
“Perhaps [my inability to write stems from] this idea I have in my mind that is stuck there like a barb or a splinter: I am leaving. How eternally grateful I am to go where I wish to go, live where I wish to live. I don’t want to be in this place any longer. I have got enough of this ennui and this stagnation. It’s time to leave—and so soon! Maybe that’s what keeps me from writing anything down, that I have hope that these thoughts in my head will soon enough vanish for ever and ever. I don’t want them there.”
When Alex typed in “enough of this ennui,” he likely meant it in this way: “Enough is enough! I’ve had it up to here with ennui!” I had meant that my capacity for ennui was full—I had all I could possibly store inside me. My admission was a somber one. I wasn’t pushed to action . . . action would soon take over me! That is to say, I thought I was moving away from Baltimore—away from the doom-metropolis, and away from, what Alex would later call, my “muse of misery”. Moving, I thought, would cleanse me. Then I would care maybe about life again.
If you’ve read anything that I’ve written in the last year, then you know that I (foolishly) stayed in Maryland for another year. Some of that time was spent traveling around on what I believed at the time was a suicide tour , but regardless, I was still there a good amount of time, still living, barely, in that abhorrent godforsaken place.
Alex, God love him, found my email address. He sent me a long message the day before the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center atrocity, saying he had read everything I had ever written on Octonaut, and that he appreciated my musical recommendations (which I sometimes sprinkle in my writing I guess)—that he lived in California, could see the ocean, and had spent $80k on a worthless education.
For the next twenty-four hours I tried to figure out if someone was fucking with me. I asked all of my friends if they had created Alex as a way to trick me, but none stepped forward. The only thing people really said was that “he” (whoever he was) had a writing style strikingly similar to my own.
After I ruled out the fact that he was a cruel invention, I decided I liked him a great deal. Here was an English-speaking, American human who was my age, and who existed in the same century as me—and who, by some miraculous coincidence, possessed a brain that had strung together that precise phrasing, which he then tossed into the endless ocean of the world wide web, hoping to find another human to feel a connection with. Out of the black miasma came a fool who happened to be me. And he held his hand out firmly, saying, “I exist! I exist!” Once I acknowledged him (“I, too, exist!”), there was no way we could ever go on living in the same way again.
So acknowledge him I did: I responded the next day with an enormous email. Among many things, I said this:
“I will now write the rest of this letter under the assumption that this was a well-intentioned email sent to me from the void—from California—simply because one soul felt something for another, and wished to tell that other soul just what it is he felt. I’m assuming you are a man. I don’t know why I think that. It’s just a feeling. Why the pseudonym, friend? I am Ryan, but I am not yet a true Starsailor—but maybe someday I will be. I intend to die a Starsailor, even if I couldn’t have been born one. What’s your name? As I have said, you are my friend already. I have accepted you. If you write always like you have here, then you are of my friend, and so I am happy with your arrival into my life: Hello! You are my equal.”
I spent the next several days writing to Alex. He told me he hoped things got better for me, and I told him that was a nice thing to hope for someone. I was in a bad place back then . . . I was hungry and tired and completely alone in my apartment . . . my cats and my girlfriend long gone!
At the end of our ten-month correspondence, after I had moved my home 1,500 miles away, after I had been snatched from the claws of death—the man I knew in words alone was standing twenty feet away. I knew it was him because he knew it was me. He had a little smile on his face when he approached us two mustached freaks.
“Ryan Starsailor,” he said. He held out his hand and I shook it. He turned to my cousin. “And John Blacksher.” He shook John’s hand too.
“Nice to meet you, man,” said John.
“John, I just want to tell you that ‘Ranger’ is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read in some time,” said Alex.
Alex asked us if we were hungry, to which we said yes, and so he lead us around the mall in search of a place to eat. We passed on a Japanese grill on account of the whole damn thing being meat, and ended up at a place that had floor-to-ceiling windows and an extensive beer selection. An overly enthusiastic waiter would show up at our table from time to time—his favorite phrase was “Excellent, excellent, guys!” (Jesus!)—but otherwise we were let alone to talk about the end of the world.
The menu was intimidating as hell. A grilled cheese sandwich cost $12. That’s cheese and bread. It must have been some kind of cheese and and some kind of bread to add up to that, I thought. I did some math in my head and realized this meal was probably out of my budget. Everything was, now that I thought about it. I was, after all, recently unemployed. If I skipped a meal, I could justify it. So I wouldn’t eat breakfast the next day (I told myself just then).
Yes, and I ate my fucking fuji apple panini (with melted provolone), and drank my little iced tea. And I shoveled cold quinoa salad into my mouth, and nodded along when John pointed to me and said, “And Starsailor here is working on that novel of his, which he says is charmingly awful. . . .”
When the check came, I reached for the booklet, but Alex shook his head and took it into his hands. “Please,” he said, “this is the least I can do.” He pulled out his credit card and placed it inside.
“Well gosh,” I said, “Thanks dude.”
• • •
Alex lead us to the pier with the ferris wheel. We slipped between enormous clusters of people in hopes of seeing the big stupid thing up ahead spin and flash its lights. There were carnival games and clowns selling cotton candy, and plenty of children and tired-eyed adults connected by the arm.
And then we walked on the beach. Alex and I looked like a couple of weirdos as we traversed the sand with our jeans and shoes.
“Why didn’t Jason come?” said Alex. There was something magical about that: this dude knew the name of my roommate/best dude friend, even though he’d never met him! He knew about Jason because I had written about him and Alex had read it.
“Jason just started a new job. I guess he thought it would look bad if he immediately went out of town.”
“In your writing, you make him sound like a . . . like a dweeb.”
“Nah. He’s not really a dweeb. He’s just conservative and quiet.” Then: “Yeah maybe Jason is a dweeb actually.”
“Look, over there—” Alex pointed to a row of pastel beach houses directly ahead. “Let’s walk towards those houses, hideous though they are.” The three of us collectively sneered at the invisible opulent tenants of those multi-million-dollar mansions.
The afternoon was gone by the time we ascended from the beach near the highway. Alex told me he had seen Deer Tick a few months before—on the same day Adam “MCA” Yauch from the Beastie Boys had died. He said lead singer John McCauley dedicated a song to his memory, and then proceeded to play it.
“Oh, yeah. I think I saw a video of that. They played ‘Fight for Your Right’, or something.”
“How’d that go?”
“Well, I saw John McCauley’s penis that night.”
“Yeah. He does that. I’ve seen him play his guitar with his penis a few times now.”
“That doesn’t sound pleasant.”
“No, I’m sure that doesn’t feel very good. But you’ve got to admire how stupid it is. The guy’s about as unpretentious as they come, so he’s all right with me.”
Alex lead us back to the intersection where Megan and Joe had dropped us off hours earlier. We were expecting them any minute. Megan had told me to be ready to jump in the car as soon as it pulled up.
The three of us, now buddies, stood with our backs against a brick building near the bus stop. We watched the crowd and watched the sky. We watched the crowd watch the sky. John suggested we take a picture together. I took my phone out of my pocket and squinted at the screen. I heard the squeal of car brakes and then a human voice: “Getingetingetin!” It was Megan’s voice. I looked up and saw her waving us into the back of the car. I turned to Alex and gave him a hug. I then dove into the backseat. John followed suit. The light turned green and we sped off in the direction of Toluca Lake. As we turned the corner, I saw Alex standing alone. I slapped my hand against the window and watched him smile from far away.
My phone vibrated when we were soaring down the parkway. It was Alex: “It was real as anything can be.”
• • •
That evening, Megan let John and me borrow her car. Leila Wylie, the best person I knew, was in Los Angeles for work. She was doing ethnographic research for a major pharmaceutical company. She had some time off that evening and wanted to do something other than sit alone in her hotel room. It also happened to be her twenty-fifth birthday.
We got Leila, who had on a striped shirt and these really nice red pants, from the Hilton near LAX and drove all the way to Hermosa Beach. “My dad said it’s really nice there,” she said. I shrugged. It sounded like just as good of a place to go as any. And anyway, it was Leila’s day: she was the birthday bitch. I was prepared to take her wherever she wanted to go.
Hermosa Beach ended up being an all right place. It was a sort of tourist destination, but the air was nice enough and you didn’t have to walk far to see the ocean. There were little apartment buildings and shops, all of them worthless to us, because all we cared about was eating. I told Leila to pick a restaurant and we would go there. It was the least I could do for the birthday bitch.
The three of us walked down to the pier, which I figured was a quarter of a mile long. There were no smoking signs everywhere, but John dismissed them and put a cigarette between his lips anyway. With each exhale, the by-product of his terrible Homeowners Association-hating sin floated out of his mouth and soared across the ocean until it dispersed and became nothing.
The sun was sinking into the ocean and the sky was pink and orange and cloudless. John snapped a picture of me at the end of the pier. I looked pretty sad in the picture. I wasn’t really sad. It was a long-running joke of mine to have people take pictures of me looking glum and vaguely disappointed while standing in front of famous places: Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, Central Park in New York City, the Stille Nacht Kapelle in Oberndorf, Austria where “Silent Night” was written, and so on. And now I was standing before a beautiful beach at sundown, looking like I’d sooner put a pistol in my mouth than spend another second there. I told John when I am old I will compile a scrapbook, and the joke will be complete, and then I can finally die.
As John prepared to take a second picture, Leila dashed across the length of the pier and wrapped her arms around me. I thought about it for a minute and realized it was the first picture of us together. That was nice, I thought, because now people would know that the person I talked about all the time was in fact real.
A man tourist approached us. He held out his expensive DSLR camera and asked John to take a few pictures of him standing at the end of the pier. John took three or four shots and then handed the camera back to the man. He looked at John’s work and turned to Leila and me. “These . . . pictures are . . . not so good. Pretty bad. Can one of you do it?” I took the camera from him and tried my hand at it. “Yes,” he said, “these are OK.”
The beach was dark time we made our way back to the promenade. We decided to get Mexican food for dinner. Most of the Mexican restaurants in the area had dumb names (“Sharkeez”, for God’s sake) and were loud and full of chain-smoking tourists. Eventually we found a place called La Playita, which was near the pier. Leila made a reservation with the hostess. She said she had to use the restroom and went into the restaurant. John and I waited outside on a bizarre artificial land formation that included snaking sand paths separated by grassy mounds and palm trees. John puffed on a cigarette and I told him a secret that I kept locked up in my head. I realized after I’d said it that it was the first time I had uttered it to another person.
Leila returned and said our table was ready. We stood up, dusted sand off our clothes, and followed her inside. La Playita was a no-bullshit place. It felt like being in someone’s house. Our waitress brought us chips and salsa and John and I told Leila we were going to San Francisco soon. Throughout the meal, I thought that, had my internship not expired, it would have been nice to buy Leila’s dinner. I told her that at the end of the meal. Leila shook her head and told me all her meals were paid for by her employer anyway. I shrugged and thought, hell, all right.
• • •
I drove Leila to her hotel in Woodland Hills. It was dark and the highway was nearly empty. We passed a sign for a strip club called Jumbo’s Clown Room, which was the best thing any of us had ever heard of. There was a brief, serious discussion about maybe actually going to the Clown Room, mostly because we wanted to catch a glimpse of Jumbo himself, who we hoped was a huge gross sex-peddling clown, but ultimately decided not to, fearing there would be an enormous cover charge. That and John and I had an Oakland-bound train to catch at 1:45 a.m.
We got to Leila’s hotel at midnight. Even though it was late, I could still see people seated at the bar and walking through the lobby. Leila got her suitcase out of the back. She stood there on the curb, all tall and lovely and shit, in her striped sailor shirt and her red pants. I felt gloomy, knowing it would probably be another six months before I saw her again. She said good-bye, and leaned down to hug me. With my left hand I parted the black hair that hung over her cheek and kissed her.
John and I sped off as Leila pushed her way through the glass doors of the hotel. We made our way back to Megan and Joe, who drove us to Union Station.
From Los Angeles we traveled to Bakersfield, and then transferred to a northbound train headed for the Bay Area. We slept on our suitcases, and in the morning shared truly terrible coffee at a plastic booth in the dining car. We met up with Tim Rogers and Zak “Delicious” McCune and accompanied them, on almost no sleep, to a 3 a.m. showing of The Dark Knight Rises. We talked to strangers on Powell Street, and had Thai food in the Mission. We took another train to Sacramento and then to Davis to see John’s brother, the physicist-genius called Ned. Together with Ned and John’s parents, we scaled a mountain overlooking Lake Tahoe and hiked into Nevada.
There was a clearing at the top and I looked out over the trees and watched a huge streak of sunlight waver on the surface of the lake. I tried to think about what it would be like if I was the third son of my aunt and uncle, like a fraternal twin to Ned, maybe. Standing there in my stupid Starsailor uniform, I felt that maybe it didn’t matter anyway. I was tired of the whole damn thing no matter who I was.
In twenty-four hours I would watch from an airport terminal as the sun set on Las Vegas. I would see the city lights in the dark desert sky. And I would think about that weird secret I had, the one I had told John about, and wish it didn’t exist. And I would admit to myself that I really was a jerk and a fraud. And as I picked up my bag and stepped onto the airplane, I would remember the smell of Leila’s hair.