The West |


by Keith Wagstaff

edited by Lisa Locascio

We woke each other in the night. We lit stolen cigarettes in strange places. We lied. We sent each other notes signed with lines from poets we had never read. In Salinas, we walked past mannequins in dark windows. We told each other trivial secrets and drank harsh vodka from a plastic bottle and almost missed our bus back to Berkeley.

We kissed. It wasn’t the first time but it was the first time like this. In our rooms; on Gilman Street; to ricocheting drumbeats in clubs that barely existed; at dawn on mats of pine needles in the hills behind Safeway; when we were in school; when we should have been in school; when our parents were away, which, for both of us, was often.

We flicked plastic lighters across loosely rolled joints and sneered at students straining under the weight of their books. Eventually, we moved in together. We found a place that smelled like incense and cat piss on Shattuck and drank cheap wine on the fire escape. We read the newspaper to each other with the smell of sex still in the air. We clipped stories that seemed absurd or horrible or made-up. A man found at dawn in the street, an arrow sticking out of his chest. A child poet exposed as a fraud. The damp remains of a head wrapped in silk, unearthed by an old woman in her garden.

We fiddled with our guitars and got bored and fucked. In summer we walked around naked and filled cardboard containers with food for the feral cats who screamed outside. We read things we didn’t understand. We cut each other’s hair. We left for work at night and met afterwards in the yellow glow outside of the Ashby stop.

At the beginning, we didn’t need coffee. We had incredulous conversations about Marx, Desert Storm, soft drugs, and warm tomorrows. Mostly, though, we talked about our childhoods. Gradually, we exhausted our appetite for conversation.

She would distract herself with books and I would lay in bed, imagining impossible things. I became lazy, it’s true. I called it malaise and she told me she didn’t care. She slipped out to her mother’s house for long talks. I found a working television at the Goodwill on University and watched old movies every night for a week, always catching them from the middle or near the middle and falling asleep before they ended, giving me the strange impression that they were all from the same endless strip of film and even today I couldn’t tell you the name of a single one. I woke in the anonymous hours of the night and saw her sleeping across the room, glasses still on, a half-finished drink on the table next to the couch. Soon she began sleeping at her mother’s and then, who knows, who knows where she was sleeping.

I picked up extra shifts at Lorenzo’s and started giving free tequila to a wiry punk with patches on her jacket. I didn’t check her ID. I didn’t check anybody’s ID. At around four in the afternoon, the same group of workers (I’m not sure what they did, I barely speak Spanish) always came in with their gray cattle dog and put blaring norteño songs on the jukebox before ordering their beer. Later, most would leave, except for the man with the dog, who made it do tricks for the girls who came in from the publishing house down the street for two-for-one gin and tonics.

My years and debts stubbornly advanced. I married a woman, Diane, from a family of alcoholics. She once told me that a man passed out on the living room floor was like a pile of laundry, comforting and familiar, but still a chore. She painted a portrait I barely remember. We gave it to a neighbor before driving down 101.

I found a job at a liquor company in West Hollywood. I went around to different bars and asked if they wanted to carry a new brand of vodka, one that a rock star or a movie star had been seen sipping in a magazine. I was scared I was too good at it.

At my mother’s funeral in Oakland, my father asked where my old girlfriend was, the one with the purple stripe in her hair. Not that he didn’t like my wife; my dad was just sentimental like that, always falling in love with things long after they had disappeared. I told him I hadn’t seen her in years.

He moved to down to the Valley to be closer to us. He became a regular. One Sunday night, after he had come and gone for dinner as usual, I waited until Diane went to sleep and looked her up on the internet with the door closed and the speakers turned down low. It was amazing how easily I found her.

First came the emails. We left poetry out of it; we didn’t read it anymore and we didn’t know anybody who did. We talked about the old neighborhood, where she had returned, and how much it had changed in the 10 years since I left it. She had enrolled in college while I was serving drinks in the Mission. Now she had that degree, and another on top of that one. In a month she was visiting for a pharmacology conference at UCLA. I wrote that I was only thirty minutes away from Westwood. We could meet for dinner. I knew a great place on Glendon, I wrote, right off Wilshire, with a leafy courtyard and a fantastic Brunello di Montalcino.

I look forward to it, she wrote back.

We met on a Thursday night. The patio was empty except for one other couple, who ate in unsettling unison. We sopped up white wine sauce with stale bread and pretended not to stare at each other. We stopped at one bottle and said polite goodbyes.

The next day, I bought a boxful of paperbacks, priced-to-move classics on a flimsy metal rack and threw them in my backseat. At home I wedged them carefully into a bottom bookshelf. I began having problems sleeping. Vague impressions of familiar dreams were the only way I knew I had fallen asleep at all. Awake I crept down to the den and checked my inbox incessantly. Every time I wrote her, she took a little longer to respond.

A month passed and I stopped trying. I read message boards about old movies. I closed websites and immediately reopened them.

I fell asleep in my chair and woke to the rumble of my cellphone. A text.

Meet me tomorrow in the city?

Tomorrow? Where?

La Sombra Inn, 299 Olympic. 8 p.m.

Okay. See you then.

See you.

We met in the perpetual Los Angeles summer sunset, dry and hushed by the ebb and flow of motors. At the front counter, I slipped my credit card to a man behind scratched glass. He was watching a movie in which a woman looked up at a portrait of herself. The redness of his eyes shocked me, and I forgot to thank him when he gave me my receipt.

Upstairs in the room, I pulled out a fifteen-dollar bottle of Chianti. We sat on the bed and drank in silence. Between us the mattress sagged and slowly we slid towards each other and almost accidentally we were kissing again, although it didn’t feel familiar; it felt like something new. She pushed me away, stood up, and started to undress. When she was nearly naked, she stopped and looked at me and I realized I was fully clothed and that this wasn’t a show. It was sex, or it was going to be. I don’t remember taking off my clothes. I don’t remember her climbing on top of me. I don’t remember when she started to cry. When she stopped, she leaned back and began talking about the past.

It was her sophomore year at Santa Cruz. She was two years older than everyone else, but drank like a freshman. I didn’t ever remember her being a serious drinker, I said, but she reassured me that she was, even back when I knew her. In class she sipped whiskey from cans of Coca-Cola. When she very slowly asked her professor how she should study for the midterm, he smiled and told her to come over later. He was having a few people over for drinks and it would be good for her to talk to people in the field.

On her way over, she stopped to smoke a joint and got lost in the woods. It was dark. When she finally got to his apartment, he was alone. The table was littered with used glasses and a knife smeared with cheese. I’m glad you’re here, he said, putting down an old newspaper.

The walls were covered in fragile antiques: thin metal rods and picture frames filled with rare feathers that hung from nails. A scratchy recording of Edith Piaf played in the background, which made her think of a shitty bistro her mom had taken her to as a child. He wasn’t unattractive, she said. It was a rush, anyway, drinking your way through a cliché. The plot had been outlined. All that was left was the moment and the release.

Tell me about your research, she asked her professor, filling a dirty tumbler with something.

I’m researching Capgras syndrome, he said, it’s very rare.

It sounded made up to her. Something an eccentric millionaire might catch in a movie.

Let me explain, he said, slowly turning to face her. He held his finger near her face. Sometimes when people are injured right here, behind the forehead, it can make them perceive people they know to actually be doubles; impostors acting like their mother or husband or whomever. They see them and recoil, accuse of them of being someone else, even though they look the same, everything looks the same.

She laughed. That’s not a disease, she said, that’s love.

On the stereo, Edith sang about shadows of the street and the professor looked lost in a dark dream as the couch scraped, arrhythmically, against her back.

The following day, bored in class, she sketched a portrait of a TA writing notes in the corner. At night, she tacked the drawing to her wall. After lying down on her bed with a glass of vodka, she looked up and realized she had drawn me, right down to the squat nose and the worried look in my eyes. She started laughing and then quieted down and called me, but I didn’t answer, so she hung up and never thought to try again.

She asked me what I thought of the story. I told her that I didn’t understand why she had told it. She asked if I smoked and I said, yes, but my cigarettes were in my car. She asked me what I smoked. Marlboro Lights, I responded, and she nodded. I didn’t move. I knew she wanted me to go out to the car and get them but instead I lay there until I fell asleep and woke up to an empty room.

I needed that , she texted, days later.

Yes. Me too.

Same time, Tuesday?

Yes, Tuesday.

This time, the man at the front desk was inert in his chair, staring at a blank TV. She had already paid, so I rushed past to the room, this time on the first floor. She was shaking out a few pills from a bottle when I entered. There was no ceremony. We unbuttoned our clothes in silence and had sex almost as quietly. Afterwards, we poured wine into heavy glass cups we had found wrapped in paper in the bathroom. I asked her to tell me another story, but she told me she didn’t have any more.

Oh, I said, well, this was nice anyways.

You know, she said, you were more interesting when you were younger.

I told her that was probably true and walked to the bathroom.

When I came out, her head was slumped to the side. I nudged her and shook her and looked into her eyes and whispered her name. She breathed in shallow, rapid bursts. I fumbled with the white plastic telephone and called 911. A husky voice asked me where I was.

In a motel on Olympic, the La Sombra Inn, I said.

There are three La Sombra Inns on Olympic, the voice replied.

I didn’t say anything. I tried to think. I told her I would find out which one it was and call right back.

I put down the telephone and ran to the front counter. The TV was on but nobody was there. I rang the service bell. On the screen, someone fell, a graceful, vertiginous descent, like water going down a drain. I ran out through the parking lot, got my cellphone from my car and dialed.

Okay, I’m out on the street, I said into the phone, I’m walking to find the cross street. I’m almost at the corner.

When I got there, I saw the sign for Olympic but that was it. Where are you, said a voice, different from the one before. I’m on Olympic, I said, there is no other street sign. I ran bent over, looking for an address. It was dark and the paint on the curb had faded away. I crossed the street. The next block was taken up by a home and garden store with locked gates. I peered but saw nothing.

Where are you, sir? The voice sounded impatient.

I’m coming up on another corner. We’re at Olympic. There is no other street sign. Someone stole it or something I don’t know. We’re at a motel. We need help, please. We are on Olympic somewhere. There was no answer. I flipped it closed and let it fall into my pocket. From around the corner, headlights appeared. A car slowed. I forced myself to keep my eyes open and when the brightness passed, I saw the outline of a familiar man, looking at me with both hands clutching the steering wheel. My phone vibrated against my thigh. The engine faded, and when I opened the phone, I saw that no one had called. I listened for the sound of other cars. Which motel room was she in? I don’t know, officer, I imagined I would say, it was dark, and that was a long time ago.