by Guy Walker
Three oysters for twenty-four dollars. Every time I sucked in the erotic phlegmy growth, I paid the waiter my half-hour working wage. I have a habit of counting ten dollars in hits of ecstasy—an appetizer at a fancy restaurant in Hollywood on a three-course Christmas eve dinner for the price of two and a half hits of ecstasy. Not bad. I couldn’t help remember when I lived in a spare closet in a house on an island in Norway, and in the evenings we’d bicycle out to the river mouth and collect hundreds of blue shells, and the pretty girl with the long red hair would cook them in garlic and butter, and we’d drink a jug of cooking wine together and make love until the seagulls screamed their vile obscenities—it was mating season for them too, and the sun never slept, and neither did we.
“Sounds like this is clearly a pattern for her,” my uncle said, sitting across from me, always slightly smiling in his jovial penetrative old age, “to just run out on someone who loves her.” He was speaking about the ballet dancer who broke up with me and then drove off in the middle of the night, leaving Los Angeles altogether.
“Another Pellegrino please,” I called to the waiter. He wore an ironed black collared shirt, his hands folded behind his back, and he bowed obediently at my request. I craved a martini, but my aunt and uncle don’t drink, and I respect them because they are rare and gentle and good enough to be respected, so this arrogant magisterial form of water was the best I could do. I don’t remember what I replied to my uncle—something about the loss of innocence—all I remember was the girl with the long tan legs and the good posture and the gorgeous face walk into the restaurant. It’s easy to automate any conversation—I do it with everybody as I think about the ocean, or how I would like to throw rocks at sand dunes, or how it would feel to hold an ice-cream cone until it melts completely over my hand. Anything. We live in playgrounds. So I automated the rest of the conversation with my relatives, and stared at all the strutting pullulating romance ahead. The girl sensed I was still looking at her, and her eyes turned to mine, and she smiled a little, I’m pretty sure.
She then turned away and headed to the other room of the restaurant with her family, to go suck oysters in their buttered cream.
“Any special plans for New Years?” my aunt asked. She sipped her raspberry Izze from a champagne glass and then wiped the corners of her mouth with a crudely neoteric purple cloth napkin. My aunt is one of those extremely beautiful women who could probably heal the world if given the right chance. But we’re all chewing on the last morsels of innocence, and I knew not many of her kind are around any more.
“Well, a friend from college invited me to Vegas,” I replied, “It’s all very random and unexpected how it happened, but she was always just the sweetest person in school.” And we all smiled and agreed that it would be a very lovely time indeed. The waiter returned to our table and poured my Pellegrino like it was a choice Italian wine.
On arriving here, I parked my car around the corner, and walked past the sick miasmal backdoor of the restaurant, where the cooks took out dripping bags of food scraps and wasted meat and coffee grounds and crumpled blotted toilet paper all spun and sprinkled with used tampons. Who knows what else. My lonely cheap appetite for ruin wanted the overloaded bags to burst from their bottoms, for all their contents to spill into heaps of trash, as piñatas of misery, and the pigeons and the homeless and I could all scurry into a frenzy, sorting through the garbage and picking out little morsels of red velvet cake and hunks of fat cut from the steaks. But it didn’t happen. The trash boy just heaved the bags over the edge of the dumpster, and that was that. The sidewalk was stained forever from years of heaving kitchen waste over the edge. A homeless man walked by me, his head down, muttering his obscure lucid rituals to himself. A pigeon limped on her peg leg. A rose bush grew from its square-foot portal, cut back for the winter, but still pushing madly for a bud.
“O darling!” a lady across from our table touched her breast and smiled, and her apparent man-crush or husband leaned back and laughed approvingly. “O darling,” she said again, “you shouldn’t have.” And she set her nearly empty wine glass down and leaned across the table and he leaned across the table and they kissed—just a peck, if that even qualifies as a kiss. If no bodily fluids are exchanged whatsoever, then it is usually something else—a tepid grunt in the animalistic heap of conversation. They smiled more and said a lot more blushing reassuring things to each other, and then he excused himself, either to piss or to shit, or to jerk off or clean under the rim of his penis. Bathrooms are the last deserted refuges for us to go. Whenever I go out to bars or clubs, I go to the bathroom so many times when I don’t need to—it’s the only place you can breathe, the only place you don’t have to keep bluffing, where you can sigh in the comfort of yourself. The lady kept tapping her bright red fingernails against the edge of the glass, and she kept pressing her very listicked lips together, staring down at her glowing phone, scrolling through various doddering archives of the young and the famous.
I wanted to see the girl with the good posture and the gorgeous face, and make her smile and lean forward. I know it’s pretty much everywhere—the brief consorting episodes that help us make it through the squalid nights—a little hope and intrigue that keep our pulse quietly surging. Lacan was right—desire itself is what we have to chase but never catch—it’s what keeps us running towards the light again and again. When it comes to romance, we are all dogs, running again and again after the ball that was thrown, retrieving with little scraps of optimism, panting, gasping for more. Somehow we all believe getting laid helps, as if for just a moment it actually relieves us from the immortality of quarantine. Anyways, I looked down and ate my fish and velvet cake, and sipped my espresso. Before leaving, I asked the waiter for a pen, and wrote my phone number on a scrap of paper, and walked into the other room of the restaurant and gave it to the girl, and she smiled and told me her name was Lily. I would have kissed her right then and there because she was so damn pretty, and I know she could have too, but there are rules to these sorts of things—we would need a very tailored context to actually do what we desire. So I just told her to call me sometime.
I hugged my relatives, drove home to my little house in Topanga beach, collected my kitten, tent, coffee, stove, two huge blankets of many sewn together rabbit furs, firewood, and many other odds and ends for the next week. After Christmas in the mountains at my parents’ huge secluded home, I kissed my kitten on the head and he bit my finger and sucked on it, and he kneaded my chest with his paws and purred loudly, and I hugged him again, leaving him at my parents home, and then drove a hundred-and-ten miles an hour through the desert where all the Joshua trees grow and the spiny creatures hide in their corners of shade. The wind blew hard and burned my lips, and I went hiking and got lost amongst the huge swirling red rocks during the day, and huddled around my fire drinking box wine from a tin can. It was so cold, I couldn’t feel my fingers. Sometime that night, there in the middle of the desert, I received a text message from Lily. She wanted to meet up, sometime tomorrow evening, but I’d be out here a few more days in the desert before heading to Vegas before heading back to Los Angeles. So we wrote back and forth a while and made plans to meet up as soon as I returned. I set the phone down and stoked the florid embers until the flame returned.
Vegas on New Years Eve happened with the other beautiful girl who normally lives in Amsterdam. I could die just seeing her smile. We drank and danced and snuck into the parties, and did everything you’re meant to do in Vegas. I like strolling the casino floors early in the morning the best. Somehow you feel the same lonely confidence on the crowded casino floor as you do in the desert. The winds howl through the red canyons, biting you around your neck, and all the cacti shiver in the wind, and a pack of coyotes scream and convulse in the middle of the night, and you get a glimpse of Eternity, as if this here is the state of the Universe forever and everywhere—nothing but wind kicking sand into the overcast sky, and only you’re there to see it. Crowded casinos are much the same. Obese men hunched over their wheelchairs, pressing the buttons of slot machines again and again, trying to win back their happiness and youth, and the ubiquitous ringing of bells and chatter and coughing. Blonde women strutting around with cigarette trays, smiling at everyone, their panties sweating and aching from all that endless roaming around. Vietnamese ladies dressed in uniform, just standing there with unused aging faces behind their blackjack tables, waiting for any random half-drunken stranger to sit down and play cards with them. Every casino has its own distinct fragrance, but really they’re all the same miserable pheromone of a free America. A thousand bartenders pour their ten-thousandth drink at the same time, and a girl in a tight little white dress sips one from a miniature straw. I was with the beautiful girl, standing in line for a crepe at the Bellagio, staring at the chocolate fountain, staring at the parts that flow freely and the stagnant chocolate pool that had formed a thick film with a stray hair on top. A large Chinese lady in a long green and white striped penguin coat is behind me, and she smiles at me with big wide-open eyes.
“Helloo honey,” she says, “you having a fine time?”
“Very fine,” I reply. Her smile is contagious and honest, and I can’t stop grinning. “Sure is the happiest place I’ve ever been.”
“Oh yes honey. I’ve been coming here for twenty-nine years. My mother is waiting for me, she just loves it so much too. Oh you and your girlfriend are just so pretty. You are very lucky, you both are.”
“Ah, thank you. You been lucky tonight?”
“Oh yes, I started in the morning by losing thirty-two hundred. But I went to eat my lunch, and I came back, and I said, ‘Betty, you’re going to make it all back,’ and I’ve won everything back so far. Very lucky.”
We talked a while longer, and she told me of all her big winnings over the last three decades, and then told me not to eat the pastries in this front window. They are old and I will die if I eat them, she says. She eventually leaves without buying anything, and I never saw her again. But the beautiful girl and I danced more and drank many more Old Fashions, and kissed beautifully when the New Years exploded, and in the morning I dropped her off at the airport to fly back to Amsterdam, and I guess that was that.
Driving home I knew I would miss the desert—everything constantly roaring and exhausting inside your head is quieted when you are in the desert. The cities are just a perishing thunder. All that empty squalid paradise passing by—there was an abandoned hotel in the middle of nowhere with huge overgrown palm trees towering over its crumbling walls. I was writing a lot with Lily during my drive, and then she told me during “a photo shoot in Malibu” her car got broken into. Just terrible. “And now I have a lovely cardboard box on the window haha,” she wrote. I told her not to worry, that my front window has been stuck rolled up halfway for the last several months. That was the last I heard from her, she never wrote again. I wanted to tell her I didn’t like the window in the first place, or I can do eighteen pull-ups, or I can beat everybody else on the freeway. But I didn’t, I just turned up Giorgio’s From Here to Eternity as loud as I could, and drove with only one hand on the steering wheel.
From the road, I could see above me a flock of birds flying in formation. I pulled over and ate a hotdog at a remote dusty gas station, and watched the sun set across the enormous old desert. The wind had calmed, and everything was quiet once more. For the first time in months, I finally felt happy again.