"Hollywood looks a lot like this place, you know," she called from the darkened shadows of the bed, "I've been there. I've actually seen it."
He cast a sighing glance back at her as he tread his way down the narrow hallway of the subterranean apartment.
In the morning he would be packing up his guitar and moving to LA... alone. Tonight he was here with her.
Set in the basement of an old commercial building, the cinder-block walls of the apartment echoed the padding of his bare feet on the cool tile floor. At the end of the hallway, he opened the bathroom door. As he flipped on the switch, a blinding light poured into his eyes. He turned back toward the bedroom at the opposite end of the hall, only to find her bed plunged into darkness.
"Hollywood is not some glamorous place" came her sweet voice from out of the darkness, "the buildings are all old and run-down just like they are here, and the people are unhappy, just like here."
He closed the door, and was enveloped in the sterile fluorescent light and its gentle 60-cycle hum.
Perhaps what she was saying was true. Perhaps the general architecture of Hollywood, California and Terre Haute, Indiana did share a common look of fading unreinforced brick buildings — of once grand hotels now crumbling into the earth.
Terre Haute had once been a vacation capital for the glamorous Chicago gangsters of the 30s. And Hollywood, well Hollywood had once been the most glamorous place on earth. So perhaps it was true that both cities now looked equally used-up and alone. He wouldn't know. He had never even been out of the state except for a vacation to Mammoth Cave when he had been eight years old.
But of course whether she was speaking the truth was as beside the point as it was possible to be beside the point. The architecture of the buildings in Hollywood really had nothing to do with her present speech on the architecture of the buildings in Hollywood. She didn't really give a damn about that.
She was in love with him.
That was the problem.
"You say you can't stand it here," she continued solemnly when he opened the bathroom door and killed the midnight sun, "You just want to pick up your guitar and move across the country. You talk like this place is about to drive you out of your skin. And I know how you feel — God knows I know how you feel. But just wait ‘till you get there," she said, rolling the word "there" with a mouthful of distaste, "This place that you're moving to is not some heaven on earth — just another run-down city. Not glamorous towering glass and steel, but run-down, tired brick and mortar."
He shook his head as his eyes began to readjust to the darkness. Her soft, naked outline was barely visible on the bed as a soft pink silhouette, a fragile outline brought out of the darkness by the glow of a small nightlight plugged into the far wall.
He knew what was happening here. So did she. She just wouldn't admit it. They both knew that this was not just a general discussion on moving to LA.
"My God," she said, her eyes buried in the blanket, "you're buying into the whole movie version of the place, where everything in Los Angeles is modern. Everything's beautiful. And everybody heads out to the beach to play volleyball at lunchtime. In the movies they make it look like LA is some kinda paradise. But it's not," she said, "I've been there. I know."
The only part of her body to catch the direct illumination of the nightlight was her toes. They seemed to peek out like a band of small scouts surveying new terrain. She had great toes. His eyes wandered up from her toes to the outline of her shins. She had great shins. His attention shifted up to her thighs. She had great thighs. His gaze followed its present trajectory up — up hills and over curves, gliding up the landscape of her body to meet her eyes.
God, she was beautiful.
"It's not even on the ocean you know," she stated matter-of-factly, "You see all the movies and you think that Hollywood's on the ocean. It's not! It's not even close! You've gotta drive through half a dozen cities to even get to the stupid ocean."
Of course he hadn't ended up with her because she was attractive, actually to his way of thinking that was more of a liability. When the guys in the office would nudge him in the ribs and say things for which their mothers — had they been present — would have slapped their sons silly, he would generally shrug and turn away.
It was vulgar, disgusting behavior that was just so typical when coming from a guy. He never wanted to be a "guy." He wanted to somehow rise above all that — move on to another plane.
And there was no way on earth that he would have ended up with someone as blatantly attractive as this woman — no way on earth — if she hadn't pursued him.
But she had pursued him.
What an amazing thing that seemed whenever he thought about it. No one had ever pursued him before. Yet here was this beautiful woman who practically all men in all walks of life would find extremely desirable, and she had chosen him.
"At least half a dozen cities to get to the ocean. Each one is Los Angeles, yet none of them are Los Angeles," she said, "except of course Los Angeles. Which is really a screwed-up way to run a municipality."
He looked down at his own naked body. He had never done more than kiss a girl before he had met her. He had always taken the attitude that it would happen when it would happen. He was in no hurry. And now he had been deflowered by her, and wasn't that strange that she had been the one?
But she had wanted him. Oh, what to think of it all...of her?
She was even an older woman. She was twenty five. Twenty five for cryin' out loud.
"The traffic is awful. It takes you forever to get anywhere. It's so bad that they even have these constant reminders on the radio, telling you just how bad it is. I'm serious, they have these radio reports like every ten minutes. It's unreal. The sky is polluted. You can literally see the air in LA. See the air! Is that any kind of place for a human being to live? Someplace where you can see the air? And to top it all off, people just like you end up living on the streets." She paused — concern crossed her face. "Tell me, what would you do if you ended up alone and on the streets?" she said. She shivered as a vision of him on a desolate street corner in Los Angeles loomed before her eyes.
He had never left the state, so he didn't know whether she was exaggerating the facts. He did know however, that truth or not, she was just saying things to frighten him.
The only one she was frightening was herself.
"Oh God, what if you do end up on the streets?" she pleaded. "What would you do?"
Stunned...actually "stunned" would be an incredibly understated way of describing how he had felt when she had expressed an interest in him. She was so beautiful and he was... well, he had never had a lot of confidence in that area. He believed in himself as a human being. He believed in himself as a thinker. He believed in himself as a musician. But not as a love interest.
Certainly not as a lover.
"There are people in LA who just live on the streets," she continued, "can't you understand that? They may start off as normal people just like you. And then they get some bad break and that's it. They're out on the streets. And they lose life out on the streets. They turn into shells. They walk around talking to buildings."
The two of them worked in the same office — the office on the main floor of the very building that they were now in. The small cinderblock suite in the basement had become her abode. All the men in the office flirted with her.
Except for him.
He thought it was repulsive that men seemed to think that just because a woman was beautiful that gave men some sort of free license to slobber all over them; as if they believed that beautiful women were public property to be ogled at and possessed by all. He hated that posture — felt that it resulted from the workings of a Neanderthal brain.
She told him later that it was actually that attitude — that noticeable respect — which was part of what had attracted her to him.
What were the other parts? She had said that he was cute too.
Cute? He had turned red as a fire engine.
"God, I thought I could handle this," she said as she crumpled the blanket in her fist. She looked up at the ceiling, as if the ceiling held some kind of answer... a message from God or something. Anything that might point the way to some kind of understanding of why he wanted to move to LA alone. Understanding wasn't something that she usually had trouble with. But now she was in love and it hurt.
"I don't know how I'm gonna let you go," she said.
This wasn't right.
This just wasn't right... From the time that she had inserted herself into his life he had felt that she was strong; had known that she was strong. She knew her mind. She knew what she wanted. She knew how to get it.
But now she was acting... acting like this. He really didn't understand. She had known even before she had introduced herself to him that he was only at the job for the summer. He was working there while he finished up his degree — a degree that he had never really wanted; a degree which he had been completing merely to keep from breaking his mother's heart. After the summer was over and he had wrapped up his degree, he was moving to California. She knew that. She knew that from the beginning... from before the beginning that he was moving to California.
And yet here they were.
"I'm sorry," she said as she gripped a handful of the blanket in her quivering hand. "You're standing over there looking at me like I'm crazy. And you're probably right. I probably am crazy." She smiled — a thin little smile that barely held the surface intact. "You've always wanted out of here, so you're leaving. Just because I think that it's a nice place, I shouldn't feel like you should stay... I'll just say that I'm gonna miss ya' and we'll leave it at that. I'm sorry if I've ruined the evening."
She hadn't asked him to stay. She wouldn't do that.
At least he didn't think she would do that. He couldn't be absolutely positive anymore.
She knew that he had been planning his westward move since he started college. The only reason that he hadn't gone to California directly from high school was because his mother had begged him to go to college first. So instead of Hollywood, California he had ended up in Terre Haute, Indiana working on a degree that he really didn't want. And now here he was with a woman who had said that she could just let go, but who now didn't seem able.
He picked up a glass from the dresser and walked over to the refrigerator in the corner of the apartment. He clinked ice in the bottom of a glass, pulled out a bottle of cola and contemplated its cool soothing fizz. Closing the refrigerator door, he noticed the photograph which was adhered to the metallic surface by a pink and green magnet shaped like a watermelon. The world in the photograph was an amusement park. The people in the background were all smiling. The two people in the foreground appeared to be in love.
At least half of them were.
"I'll remember that day for as long as I live," she said, "I know I'll remember that day."
She was making him feel guilty — and that wasn't fair. They had made an agreement. They had a deal. It had all been out in the open. They both had known the score going in but now she had changed her mind. And because he hadn't, he felt guilty.
It wasn't fair.
He wasn't made of stone. He wasn't some big cold thing floating in space, never to care, never to feel, never to love. He could love. He just didn't love her. He liked being with her, but he didn't love her. Was that his fault? No. If anything, it seemed as though it should be her fault. She was the one who had set the terms, and now she was the one in love with him. She broke the deal.
She broke the deal.
"Come over here," she said. "If I have to let you go at least I should say good-bye the right way."
He slowly made his way over to the bed.
"We have to make Todd proud, you know," she said jokingly as a trace of a smile pushed its way up through her melancholy, "If nothing else, we've gotta do Todd proud."
Todd was a jerk. Todd was one of the men at the office who hooked their eyeballs into her dress and let their lust pull them down the hallway like a team of sled dogs. These men were an interesting club, made up of middle-age men who fantasized of the day when the hot little number in the corner cubicle would breathlessly plead, "take me."
Todd would interpret any little sign from her as some discreet signal that she wanted him — if she called his extension it was to set up a discreet rendezvous, if she happened to smile within a 10 foot radius of Todd it was because she was hungry for his manly flesh.
The only way to deal with Todd was to emasculate him at every available opportunity. To absolutely crush his manliness. Of course, for her that was as easy as melting ice cream. She was quite a bit smarter than he was. She could make Todd look like the horse's ass that he was with one sentence.
Naturally, when Todd found out that she had wanted the college boy who was there for the summer, the reasoning of jealousy had prevailed. Since then, things at the office had suddenly become much more difficult for the young man. His tasks became more menial. His workload became much heavier. And he was asked to forfeit his parking spot.
Apparently, the sexually less fortunate tended to band together.
"I'm sorry," she said as she clutched his hands tightly. "I'm sorry."
This was it, he thought. This was where he would find out if she would let him go or if she would try to pull him to her forever. Could she love him once more and then let go, or would she break to pieces?
She pulled him close.
Her intimate touch was one of the greatest feelings of his short life, yet he knew that it had to end.
"Just one more time to remember you by," she murmured, "Please."
As she pulled him close, he hoped that this would be the last time that he would make love to her.
~ • ~