The one that had preceded Nina suffered from a permanent tension of his vocal cords. He had picked me up at the Santa Monica Library — a house of glass and metal, and the place of rest for many a homeless in the City where no one could ever find a home. Not really. Sure, one had a house, or a place. A joint. A roommate situation. But to be at home — one had to be willing to belong.
“Hmm. That’s an interesting pullover you’re wearing,” said the young creature, at the Library, smug with studied confidence. Not natural at all.
I granted him a single glance-over: An overachiever, to a tee. Something about him lacked the swagger of those whose choices and whims were endorsed by family’s name or a bank account (which ever one had more clout). Yes, still: He tried. Immediately, I knew: He, who poured this much attention into his subject — who reached too far and tried too hard, straining beyond the plasticity of his compassion (which would already be magnificently excessive), he who choked with forced praise — would rarely be comfortable in silence. Not in the mood for busy talk, I changed the subject whilst looking for an exit:
“What are you reading, mate?” I threw over my shoulder. The echo played a round of ping-pong with my sounds between the glass walls of the reading room. Ate, ate, ate. To which, a studying nerd deflated his lungs, somewhere in the corner:
Neither looking back at the distressed prisoner of knowledge nor wanting to look ahead at this new lingering aggressor against silence, I focused on the hardbound books with which he had been shielding himself, with brown, hairless arms. The fading edges of their cloth binding would smell of mold at the spine, and then of dehydration from the air and sun; overexposure to the oil of human fingers and the salt of readers’ tears, surprised to have their empathy awoken by someone’s words: Still alive, that thing? Because the heart was usually the last one to give up. And then, the lungs: SHHHHHH.
The aged tomes in the man-child’s arms promised to titillate my ear more than his words. Words, words.
“What am I reading?! Oh. Um. Nothing…” (Oh, c’mon! The nerd in the corner was turning red, by now, from the justified resentment at being invisible to us, as he had been his whole life.) “Well. Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh, actually.” The man-child finally spat out, then hesitated, gave this cords another straining pull: “I know! Not butch enough — for a straight male!” He nearly choked there! Words, words, word.
Oh. One of those: Simultaneously eager and tormented! The one to flaunt his politics out loud, just so that the others didn’t get the wrong idea. Because whatever happened in beds he visited (even if out of the other lover’s loneliness or boredom) would be the reason for his later torment. The guilt, the loathing. The other obstacles to self-esteem. And he would wear them like a frilly scarf from Urban Outfitters, meant to accent things — to draw attention, and perhaps make him more “interesting” — but not to serve the very original function. The it-ness of the thing was lost.
With me, the man-child, worked his words (words, words) to become liked enough. And after one eve of heavy breathing and pulsating blood flow, perhaps, he would be asked to stay. I questioned, though, if he knew exactly what he wanted: sex — or its statistic? The mere happening of it? Sex was a fact of his hormonal balance; and if he could help ignore it, he would move out of his body entirely and occupy his head. But for right now, the boy still had to get some, however accidentally.
The love you take — is equal…
He took, he claimed. And if he didn’t, he would storm out of sentences with scorn of having to sublimate his desires, yet again. Alas, the world was so unfair.
“But you!” Against the walls, he kept thumping the words like racket balls. The poor boy was trying! “You! — must be so erudite!”
“Or really?” I hissed, considering the possibility of the nerd’s heart attack for which I was not willing to bear the responsibility. At least, not on a Monday night. “Is it the pullover?” I asked and pushed him out of the way. Over, over, over.
The man-child lingered, then began to laugh with that obnoxious howl meant to draw attention. Again, too much. Too hard. So insincere! Petrified! SHHH! SHHHHHH…
“He sounds messy!” diagnosed Taisha, while she herself was negotiating the rush hour traffic. It was always rush hour, somewhere, in this City. Her windows rolled down — I could hear the screech of others’ breaks in the lazy heat of another smoggy afternoon. If one survived the mind-numbing dissatisfaction at having to just sit there — while getting nowhere and watching life slip out thorough the vents of fans — half of LA would give up on the idea of stepping out again, that night.
“I think I’m coming down with something.”
“…It’s food poisoning, I think.”
Like nowhere else, here, people were prone to canceling plans. To giving-up.
“I’m waiting for the cable guy. It sucks!”
“My cat is sick.”
Each night, the people landed in their private spaces, shared with other people or their own delusions. They heated up some frozen options from Trader Joe’s and locked their doors agains the City.
I listened to the life force of LA: Still plentiful, it breezed through all four open windows of Taisha’s Prius. This place — a forty four mile long conveyer belt that moved things along, living or inanimate (it moved lives along); and if one could not keep up, the weight of failure would remain under one’s breath. The City of Lost Angels. The City of Lost Hearts.
“Now listen! Don’t do ANYTHING! until I see you!” Taisha ordered me; and although my heart maintained its pace, it winced at little, subjected to her care. “Don’t sleep with him! You’re dangerously close to some stupid choices, right about now!” (She was referring to the draught of my sexuality. When I blew out the thirty candles of my birthday cake, the promiscuity that granted me some fame, was also put out, surprisingly and seemingly for good. Into that space, I started cramming wisdom.)
“I am one lucky bastard — to have you love me like you do,” I responded, singing my words halfway through the sentence.
Oh, how she fought it! My dear Tai! All business and busyness, the girl refused to slow down for sentimentality’s sake: “Oh, you, white people! Ya’ll get so mushy ‘round love. My people, back in Kenya…”
“Ah, jeez! Alright!” I interrupted, misty-eyed. “I’ll talk to you.”
Taisha would be talking, still, like “peas and carrots” in the mouths of actors. But I could hear her smile break through. Humanity still happened here, amidst perpetual exhaust and one’s exhausted dreams. Somewhere along the stretched-out, mellow land attacked by bottom-feeders and the self-diluted who knew not why exactly they made a run for here, but mostly headed West in a trajectory that had been paved by others — it happened. Some stayed, too tired or too broken of hearts. And they comprised my City.
“Everyone seems so shallow here!” the man-child (he would be from Connecticut, but of course!) was overlooking the crawling traffic, like a Hamlet in his soliloquy. And from the upstairs patio table we’d taken while splitting a bottle of ginger ale (for which I’d paid), he seemed to be in perfect lighting. The row of yellow street lights had suddenly come on above his head. The dispersed taillight red reflected on his face from the West-bound traffic. The boy was slowly sipping — on my drink.
“Big spender!” I could already hear the voice of my Kenyan Confucius. “RUN! Run while you can!”
“But YOU! You seem like you’re here by accident!” His terrorism by kindness did have one thing going for it, called lucky timing.
“I am so lonely,” I wanted to let out, right underneath the yellow light now holding conferences of moths and fruit flies. At a table nearby, a girl blogger clacked away on her snow-white Mac, while glancing at us from underneath her Bettie Page bangs. What does it feel like — to be written?
“What if I slept with him?” I thought. It’s better to have loved…
Except that: I had turned thirty. And I could no longer take for granted the ghosts of previous lovers that crowded a bedroom during a seemingly inconsequential act. A Greek Chorus of the Previously Departed. And then, the heart of one participant, at least, would wake up — with yearning or having to remember its wrong-doings or when the wrong was done to it — and things turned messy. So, sex was never simple; especially for this one, who now tipped the last drops of my ginger ale into his glass.
“You wanna drink?” Familiarity had started working on my sentences already, like cancer in my marrow. Still, IT — could have happened, still. IT would have started with a shared drink. “A beer, or something?” I tensed my body to get up.
“Nah, thanks. I’m in AA.”
I looked at him: His eyes began to droop like a basset hound’s: Just ask me — of my suffering. The frilly Urban Outfitters scarf picked up against the gust of wind. My chair scraped away from him — and from the table now mounted by issues of his angst. My entertained desire shriveled.
Yet still — I stayed!
When he and I made loops around the neighborhood, dumbfounding the drivers at each intersection with our pedestrian presence. Through windshields, I would find their eyes — like fish in an aquarium, unable to blink — and they calculated the time they had to make the light without plastering our bodies with their wheels. Preferably. The man-child let me lead the way. A winner!
And still — I stayed.
I stayed when I had climbed onto a stone fence, and now even to his height I waited for the lean-in. The boy hung back, decapitating his hands at his wrists by sticking them into his pant pockets. His words continued to pour out: His praise came up along my trachea, with bubbles of that shared ginger ale, which now tasted of rejected stomach acid.
But still. I stayed. I waited. Because sometimes, to those who wait — life grants, well, nothing. And nothing, sometimes, seemed to be the choice of greater courage.
“She never rains. The poor girl, She’s all cried out.”
Nina’s hair, unless right after the shower, shot out of her head in spirals of prayer. Of course, she hated it. A black woman’s hair: Don’t touch it, unless you’re done living altogether. The glory of it was slightly confused by auburn shades inherited from Nina’s Irish mother. And underneath that mane — sometimes set afire by the sun’s high zenith — and right below her smooth forehead, two eye, of furious green, devoured the words that she had been reading to me from headstones.
“Which one is that?” I asked and walked to her side of a burgundy granite, with jagged edges, still shiny like a mirror. It had to have been a pretty recent death.
She wrapped herself further into her own arms and chuckled, “No one, silly. I just said that. About this City.” Like an enamored shadow, I hung behind her. “This would be the perfect time for rain. Except that She — is all dried out, you see?” The furious green slid up my face. “But She — is really something, isn’t She?”
It was indeed refreshing, for a change, to be with a woman so free from posing. Of course, I’d witnessed moments of vanity on her before: When her pear-shaped backside lingered at the boudoir before she’d finally slip in between the covers and curve around me. And all the open spaces — she occupied by flooding.
I wondered if she knew the better angles of herself. Because I saw them all. When in an unlikely moment of worrying about my long-term memory’s lapse, I whipped out my phone and aimed its camera at Nina’s regal profile, she must’ve been aware that her beauty was beyond anything mundane. For I had studied many a pretty girls before, the ones with the self-esteem of those who have never been denied much. But Nina’s beauty wrote new rules, of something warm and living. It came from occupying her skin with no objections to its shape of color; from delicate sensibility and softness, like the wisp of a hair across a lover’s face. But there was also: strength. And heritage. And underneath my touch, she moved.
“My baby,” she half-whispered and molded to my shape.