An old Yale chum named Barrington e-mailed Martin. ‘Chum’ was Barrington’s word, a salvo of irony meant to convey both congeniality and recognition of shared elitist satisfaction. Martin had not seen Barrington for years. Their last encounter was a series of hurried utterances whilst Martin packed his lonely suitcase on his way to Los Angeles. Very little was kept between them, save for a sense that all they had paid for in the last four years was symbolic, rather than meaningful.
“Hey chum, heard things are rolling forward with you in LA. Marjorie said she caught wind of you acting a smidge. Is this true? If so, how would one place themselves in a position to gain access to show business? My steady woman has intimations of talent, and has been pestering me rather incessantly about leaning on my prodigious contacts from our school days. I don’t mean to be forward, but if there is anything you can do to help her advance her standing in preparation for our move westward, I’d be very appreciative. By the by, my father is quite well. He’s currently recovering from a bypass surgery and speaks of you often. He’d be eager to share a round or two with you in Maine when the weather is appropriate. Looking forward to hearing from you, chum. Yours, Barrington.”
Martin scanned the timestamp on the e-mail. It read ‘3:45 AM.’ “I’m glad I’m not ugly yet,” he thought. He took an aggressive pull from his cocktail and set about to compose his response.
“Barrington, glad to hear your father is well. I’m taking a break from work at the moment, but I’d be happy to introduce your girlfriend to my old acting teacher. Maybe we can get together when you make it to town. Martin.”
Martin sent the e-mail off and hoped it would be the end of his correspondence. He did not so much hate Barrington, as he did not relish the need to recall the years they spent together. He poured himself another drink and counted the number of gray hairs in his latent beard growth.
Some moments later, a response came.
“Great to hear that you can assist! Steph and I are in West Hollywood for an alumni event at the Soho House tomorrow night. If it’s anything like the New York location, it should be a fairly posh affair. Perhaps you can join us and we can discuss next steps.”
True to form, Barrington’s machinations were transparent, but effective. Martin’s previous willingness to offer help, combined with Barrington’s very real presence in Los Angeles meant that he must oblige. Arrangements would need to be made. The cigarette smoke would have to be dry cleaned out of Martin’s threadbare blazer. He was resigned to once again perfecting the affected smile, firm handshake and approving glance. He painted a winged dog flying over Dresden, dropping bombs onto helpless Germans. Some of the Germans were committed Nazis, but most were just average citizens. The monstrous canine made no distinctions as it expelled fire onto the pathetic beings below.
“No one talked to me for six months, and let me tell you, that was the most anxious six months of my life!” No one made a story about mononucleosis more terrifying than Barrington, especially after three Tom Collinses. Martin had swayed through the alumni party and found himself back in Barrington’s welcoming embrace. He clutched outdated business cards in one clammy hand, a sweaty gin and tonic in the other. He was trying to pace himself, but the exquisite hum of drunkeneess was his only defense against a parade of ‘chums’ reasserting themselves in his life. He yearned to text Schwartz, or call Dorothy. Their lack of refinement reassured him that life existed outside of the yacht club.
“I think Steph is on her way. She had to make a deposit at the Coach store, but she has assured me that her arrival is eminent. Martin, tell me more about this acting situation. I’m eager to learn about the particulars. Everyone says it’s a shameful business, but let me tell you, it can’t be anymore sordid than a week on K Street. Dad’s in a real pickle over this student loan thing, and he’s going to have to bend over backwards and grab his ankles to satisfy the Congressional Black Caucus.” Barrington relished any opportunity to reference his father’s accumulation of power in Washington DC. It made his own meanderings and wasted potential less apparent.
“Ummm…you know. It’s work, just like anything, except harder to come by.” Martin smiled, which gave Barrington license to laugh. The assembled throng of pasty, bobbleheaded sweater vests in attendance chuckled along with their leader.
“I’d say so! I worry about her, you know. Let me tell you, I spent a good portion of my previous year on this earth doing my damnedest to persuade her to take up another hobby. She hemmed and hawed like a sickly chicken until I relented. I appreciate her moxie, let me tell you. She’s more motivated than any Wellseley girl I’ve ever met, unless we’re talking about sack time, if you follow my drift.”
The intimation made Martin spill his business cards on the ground of the Soho House. Various and sundry ‘Todds’ and ‘Carters’ bent over to help him pick up the signifiers of his failure. The cards listed a home that belonged to a woman who abandoned him, a cell phone number paid for by his parents and an occupation that embarrassed him. He was no actor. He could barely even feign interest in his surroundings.
One of the ‘Todds’ handed Martin a stack of cards, then said, “I’ve heard that these things are kind of passe, that there’s this app that allows you to just touch iPhones and each person automatically transfers their contact information. It’s all going digital. I bet in a few years, all fucking will be digital too.”
A “Carter” laughed and added, “Can you imagine sticking your dick in an iPhone?”
Martin had to laugh. He’d probably tried that while high once. He rummaged in his pockets, hoping he had a Xanax. Instead, he found the beginnings of a hole forming in the right front pocket. He’d have to start storing his drugs elsewhere. An awkward, gangly blonde in a suggestive dress swam into the exceptional gene pool of Yale grads. Barrington grabbed her tightly with his bloodshot eyes and did not let go the rest of the night.
“Steph made it, chums. Can you believe it? After all this time, our fair lady.” Steph clasped her left hand to her right forearm. Her breathing grew heavy, leaden. “We were discussing your career a few minutes ago. Isn’t that exciting? I mean, you’re going to be a huge star.” Steph’s smile was one Martin recognized. She practiced as much as he did.
“I think you’re going to be the next Jennifer Lawrence,” one of the Todds and/or Carters said.
“She seems more like a Malin Ackerman to me,” ToddCarter said to CarterTodd. “What do you think, Martin? Lawrence or Ackerman?”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not familiar with either off the top of my head. Maybe I can look them up on IMDB?” The first and only time Barrington took his gaze off of Steph was to deliver a horrified face to Martin. It was a look akin to that of a man who has just seen his homestead swept away by a tornado. All is lost.
“You haven’t see Hunger Games, chum?” ToddCarterToddCarter said.
“I think I have.”
“She’s in that.”
“Oh, she’s good. Gents, I need to take a moment to avail myself of the restroom, if you don’t mind.” Martin stalked off, knowing his cover had been blown wider than the hole he wanted to shoot in CarterTodd’s head. As he swung the door of the bathroom open, he saw the extensive leg that clearly belonged to Steph. She must have wandered off while Martin was chewing through the last of his social capital for the evening.
“Oh, hi. Sorry,” Martin whispered, still making the minimum of eye contact.
“Don’t be sorry. I followed you. You seemed lonely.”
“You don’t. You have lots of friends here tonight. I’m pretty sure they all have the same name?
“I’m pissed you think those are my friends.”
“You’re spending time with them, so I had to assume.”
“You’re here, too. Are they your friends? Do you even have fucking friends, pal?”
“Why are you getting hostile with me?”
“I don’t want to fucking be here. Just come in the bathroom and do some coke with me, OK? Don’t talk about what you think or don’t think about me. You don’t know shit. Just shut the fuck up.”
Martin gladly took his cue and remained silent. Steph removed a small baggie from her purse. It was smaller than Martin expected. Barrington was still good at making people expect that his life was more extravagant than he could actually afford. Martin had always wanted his gift for illusion. Martin snorted a decent sized line off a mirror provided by Steph.
He thought about Popeye, who would always say “I y’am what I y’am and that’s all that I y’am.” Popeye was an idiot who was constantly getting in fights with a giant over an ugly girl, so his advice was essentially useless.
No one is who they are. They are who they want to be.
As Steph bent over to do her line, Martin recorded a mental image of her heaving chest. He wasn’t sure how a particular pair of breasts could hang more seductively than others, but these did. They said “we have to go somewhere other than this dress, please help us live free.” Martin did his best to ignore their pleas for attention. They were not talking to him. They were talking to everyone else. He didn’t even speak their language. He was speaking Chinese.
He did another line. He wished he spoke Chinese. He could move out of LA and get a job in Beijing and enjoy their clean, modern public transportation system. He hated driving, and somehow had avoided owning a car in Los Angeles, but it was getting harder to justify his eccentricity.
She offered a third line, which he snorted eagerly.
Popeye could have left any time he wanted to. He had job skills. He could have worked the docks anywhere, and not had to deal with Bluto’s horseshit all the time. Steph was now blowing Martin. Wait, no she wasn’t. She just dropped her contact lens cleaner out of her bag. She looked like she was blowing him. He needed to quit making things up in his head. Maybe if he asked for a blowjob, she’d give him one? What if she said no? She’d say no.
Olive Oyl said no to Bluto constantly. Maybe Martin was more like Bluto than Popeye? Maybe he was a huge fucking piece of shit prick bully who didn’t know how to talk to women? He snorted one more line, then decided he wanted to kiss Steph. He didn’t tell her, he just thought it, hoping his mental energy brainwave would overcome scientific implausibility and carry them to Catalina Island, where they’d raise ponies and eat lobster for every third meal. Martin went to the bathroom stall, thought about taking a shit, tried jacking off, but just peed a little.
It felt good to pee.
He didn’t pee nearly as much as he should. He’d probably develop some urinary tract disease and die at 30. That’s how he wanted to die.
He wanted to die from not peeing more.
They could put that on his tombstone. “Martin did not pee enough.” He could look down on his friends from Heaven and marvel at how stupid his life had been. Martin didn’t believe in Heaven, but he also didn’t believe in himself, which didn’t stop him from imagining fucking Steph while Barrington watched from a small birdcage with a gag in his mouth and giant nipple clamps attached to his body, crying and being forced to jack off while his college ‘chum’ ejaculated inside his slutty girlfriend.
Martin left the bathroom stall and Steph was gone. He decided to leave without saying goodbye to Barrington, CarterTodd, ToddCarter, John Carter, Carter Burwell, Todd Philips, or Todd Rundgren. He just left. The cab ride back to Echo Park was expensive, so he called Schwartz to pick him up.
“Do not puke in my car,” Schwartz said as he strapped Martin into the front seat. “There’s not enough pine air freshener to make the smell of coke puke go away. Just don’t. And if your nose starts bleeding onto the seat, I will punch you. Don’t make me punch you.”
“You would have loved this party, dude.” Martin seemed kind of giddy to Schwartz. It could have just been the cocaine, but he wasn’t sure.
“Why didn’t you invite me? I love parties. I go to parties and I have fun. People remember me. They say, that Schwartz. He was so erudite and clever. More handsome than I could have imagined. I want to produce his screenplay and let him penetrate my daughter.”
“No one says that. You’re delusional.”
“Maybe, but it’s working for me. You should try lying to yourself more.”
“How’s therapy? Still being told to leave your ex-girlfriend alone?”
“Yes. He’s not making this easy.”
“His job is to make you happy. Shelly does not make you happy. I’m not sure what does.”
“Sex gets us nowhere, except exactly where we were before we had it. Alone. You spend so much time trying to be in love. Just exist for awhile. See how you like that.”
Schwartz sped the car up a bit. He was ready for bed. Martin certainly was not. Drugs made him chatty.
“I worry about you,” Martin whispered, as though he didn’t want to hear himself speaking.
“You don’t need to worry about me. I have it figured out. I’ll have everything I want. Do you even know what you want?”
Martin searched around in his pockets for a Xanax, forgetting about the gaping hole. “I have some ideas,” Martin said.
“Tell me about them. I need the conversation to keep me from falling asleep at the wheel.”
Sunset Blvd. was empty, other than the lights. The lights were always there, blinking, pulsating, throbbing. Schwartz thought they made sure you were aware that your city was more important than it seemed, like a child throwing a temper tantrum to get its parents’ diffused attention. The city was as needy as the people living in it. Los Angeles always needs approval and acceptance. You love LA. You really do. Don’t forget to call LA on its birthday. Tell LA how hot it looks in that dress. Ignore the pimple on LA’s ass. LA’s mom is a real bitch, but don’t let that get you down. LA loves you too.
“You’re not saying anything,” Schwartz barked at Martin. “You want this car to plow into that Arby’s or what?”
“I thought cocaine made you gloriously verbose and charming”
“I guess you were wrong.”
“I’m taking surface streets the whole way. Do you mind?”
Schwartz drove through the void and they didn’t say another word.