By: Stephen Elliott
Los Angeles 1
The cafe is on the other side of the hill, not even a far walk. The tables are wood slabs bonded in a blue steel frame. The tile is blue and white, and, contemplating the floor while drinking coffee, I realize there is no wrong way to lay the pattern; turn them any direction and they’ll match, one after another. Any way you want.
I moved here because I thought I was someone else. I wrote a script about an action hero that wants to retire. I made short movies about a taxi driver. I went to meetings and asked people for jobs. Someone suggested I could be a checker at Costco.
I asked a friend over email if she thought it was too late for me to get into advertising.
“I think I’d be good at it,” I said.
“Yes,” she replied. “You’re probably too old.”
“How is the movie business?” she asked.
“With or without me,” I replied.
We didn’t have much in common anyway.
I like to think of a television show called Television Show. It opens with a surgeon operating on a person in a round room with stadium-style seating. The patient is in real trouble. The surgeon is a good, capable man. But he’s perhaps wrong about something. There are a lot of closeups on people’s eyes.
We cut outside the operating room and there are students watching the procedure on a video feed.
Her hand snakes up his leg and he pretends not to notice. Years ago it would have been the boy pressing his palm inside the girl’s thigh, but those days are over. Maybe that’s good. Anyway, as the Polish say, “Not my circus, not my monkey.’
I don’t know if the patient lives or dies. It’s a real cliffhanger.
Yesterday I saw Gizelle and we went to a vegan restaurant for dinner. We ordered soup and spicy eggplant. I recommended lentil quesadillas and she recommended I get a therapist.
“Therapy is expensive,” I told her.
“Depends what you can afford,” she said.
We drove through all the neighborhoods north of downtown. We took three highways and lots of side streets. I ran out of things to say, so she put on music.
“How are you doing?” she asked.
She played Flight of the Conchords and we sang along as we drove south on I-5 facing the sky scrapers, the insurance buildings, and the Ritz-Carlton.
That was the end of the night. Before that, over dinner, she’d told me about voices, connections she could make, when to listen and when to turn a deaf ear. I told her I regretted everything. She asked what I meant. I said that this moment was on the horizon my entire life. I was going to regret my choices no matter what they were.
“Unpack it for me,” she said.
I told her I wished I had stayed in one place. But instead I jumped, as if from a burning building. My past was always right behind me. And it was unbearable.
“And that’s how I ended up here,” I said.
“That’s not how I see you,” she replied.
Los Angeles 2
It rained last night, something it never does here. And today the sky is full of tall white clouds but otherwise clear and blue, so it’s possible, from the East Side, to see the cumulus perched like hats above the Santa Monica mountains.
After the 7 am meeting I followed Dale Anne across the wet street to smoke. I like her. She paints her nails ten different colors and has tattoos on her knuckles and she makes me feel calm. She said she met her boyfriend in rehab.
“I tried not to,” she said. We were leaning against the Elliott Smith mural; the building felt like a block of ice. “I was engaged to my girlfriend at the time. But after I got clean I didn’t know her anymore. Then I realized I never did.”
“I had a relationship like that once,” I said, referring to her boyfriend, not her girlfriend. “We were engaged but I really wanted to marry her family.”
“You don’t get to do that,” Dale Anne said, exhaling.
I’ve been thinking about getting a gun but there is a ten-day waiting period for a gun license in California. I called a store in Nevada and they said I couldn’t buy a gun with an out-of-state license. I thought it would be quicker to get new ID. I thought by the time I got the license, I wouldn’t want a gun anymore.
“Did you get any work done?” Dale Anne asked over the phone.
“Some,” I said. “But it isn’t worth much.”
“You’re not very good at conversation,” she said.
“I’ve only lived here ten months.”
“Keep going that way, you won’t make it a year.”
We discussed getting together someday, without a meeting. Just to talk. But we didn’t make definite plans.
In college a creative writing teacher told me if you keep writing about something long enough, you’ll come to the end. She said every story is a love story or a story about loneliness. She said writer’s block was just another idea. She said the best poets all wrote criticism.
When I finished college, I moved to Chicago and took up heroin and dancing. That’s what I said at the meeting when it was my turn to share.
I said there was no trajectory, but when I got out of the hospital the walls of my rented room were a different yellow than when I went in.
I said the best thing about those days was how difficult it was to get a plane ticket.
Dale Anne said they got Ryan Seacrest. “We got him.”
I already knew about it but wanted to hear her explain. We must’ve been bored talking so much on the phone, pretending we were in recovery.
She said his former assistant alleged he’d grabbed her by the vagina.
“I thought he was gay,” I said.
“What does that have to do with anything?” she said.
“Fine,” I said.
There was a corroborating witness but also an independent investigation citing insufficient evidence. Already there were boycotts planned and E! was handing out talking points for the red carpet.
“We’re taking over,” Dale Anne said. She must have sensed I wanted to get off the phone because she asked if I had a few more minutes. It was already 4 pm and the sky was swelling for another downpour.
She wanted to tell me about a dream she’d had. She said she’d woken under arrest, like Joseph K. in The Trial. She worried she would never learn what the charges were.
“I had a dream too,” I said, and she murmured in a disappointed tone.
“OK,” she finally said.
“I was being chased.”
“What did you think about that?” She sounded like she was trying to teach me a lesson, or lead by example. For a moment I wished I knew how to surf. How to disappear. How to commit.
“It’s just the medication,” I told her. “It’s the meds.”
Los Angeles 3
An editor told me never to set a story in a coffee shop. “There are too many cafes,” he said. “When I enter a coffee shop in a story, I stop reading.”
At the time I rewrote the story to take place in a bagel shop, but, fifteen years later, I’m not sure it mattered.
Yesterday I met Paul at the Cafecito Organico on Hoover. I told him about a heist movie. “It’s like Point Break and Narcos,” I said. He mentioned a book he liked. I said I had a couple of TV show ideas. I was surprised by his clear complexion. He looked young, even with the bright red beard and baseball cap. You knew right away he was from somewhere like Ohio. I wanted him to save me, but I played it closer to the vest. It was strange to think that between the two of us, I was the one most likely to go to church.
Paul mentioned a website and I nodded. I wouldn’t confirm or deny. He didn’t know the things I didn’t want him to know, but how long could that be maintained? I didn’t want to think about the weather.
“I just want a job,” I said. I assured him I’d like to sell something original, even though it wasn’t true. I was trying to slip under the radar. Get inside without being noticed. Working for other people wasn’t a skill I’d cultivated, and the opening was small, but that’s what there was.
I wrote a story and I avoided mentioning any cafes. I knew a couple of women visiting from Japan and I picked them up from the Burbank Airport. At my apartment they showed me pornographic pictures they’d taken in San Francisco and spoke to each other in Japanese.
I was reminded of an old girlfriend from the time I lived in San Francisco. Her name was Jolene and she was a terrorist. When I told her I’d been accused of rape, she said there were a lot of ways to take that. I told her the truth was a choice, and she didn’t have any better grasp on it than the NRA.
Then I thought about the Russian Revolution, the second one, where the Bolsheviks slaughtered the Mensheviks. And the Iranian revolution where the Islamists slaughtered the Marxists. It’s just human nature, I thought, sleep closing in. The enemy of your enemy is rarely your friend.
I fell asleep like that, my friends watching porn and speaking Japanese, the coffee table littered with cartons of vegetables and cups of tea. Tomorrow we would all go to Disneyland. One day at a time.
Stephen Elliott is the author of eight books including the novel Happy Baby and the memoir The Adderall Diaries. He is the writer/director of the web series Driven. His article Silicon Is Just Sand is being developed for a series at A&E. His first movie, About Cherry, premiered at the Berlinale and was released by IFC in 2012. His newest movie, After Adderall, was the closing night film for the 2017 Slamdance Film Festival.