What is it about Los Angeles that lulls one into the mistaken belief that events don't "count" as they would in real life? I'd come to Westwood for the weekend to attend a book festival but my real agenda was trouble.
On Saturday night around 11, Ray and I were zooming down Sunset Boulevard in his boyfriend's original '60s convertible Beetle. "People are throwing money at Jack for this car," he was yelling to me over the roar of the engine. "The new ones are so trendy that it made the originals hip again."
"I love Los Angeles," I said, gazing up at a billboard featuring a three-story Warren Beatty. "Nothing seems real. And I am going to say this here and now: I am looking for trouble tonight. Trouble will be my middle name. Just you wait."
Ray glanced at me. "Statements like that are frightening, coming from you. What kind of trouble?"
"I don't know," I said airily. "Danger. Intrigue. Sexual trouble. You know. Nothing serious." I glanced at him. "Oh, come on. What happens to you people when you get in these serious relationships? We used to go looking for trouble all the time, remember?"
"Ye-es," he said doubtfully. "But we're in our 30s now. Besides, aren't you seeing someone up there?"
"Pah," I waved a hand. "Anyway, not really bad, bad trouble. Just mini-trouble. Like -- you know, flirting. Maybe kissing. Possibly a grope. That's all. Nothing controversial."
"It's your party, baby." Ray braked suddenly at a red light. "Speaking of which, this party that we're going to? Lot of actors -- tiresome, I know, but it could be funny. I think there's a karaoke machine. Aren't you my friend who has a sad relationship to karaoke?"
"I'd rather you not bring that up," I said. "Karaoke, vodka and I do not mix. The problem is, like most people, I secretly harbor the belief that I'm a good singer just waiting to be discovered."
Ray snorted. We swung down a hill and he careened into a long, heavily wooded driveway. Crowds were spilling out of a low, ranch-style house, and I could hear a woman wailing "Der Kommissar" already. "Oh, boy," I said as we threaded our way toward the cocktail table, brandishing our bottle of wine as if it were a shield.
I poured myself a little dollop of vodka into a plastic cup as Ray looked around for a bottle opener. "Here," a slightly tan man said to Ray, holding out his Swiss Army knife. "Hey, didn't we work together last week? On 'One Life to Live'?"
Ray squinted. "Were you the extra in the loud pants? Man, I'm sorry about that wardrobe. What were they thinking?"
"I know," the guy said cheerfully, but his current wardrobe didn't seem to be much of an improvement. He was wearing a maroon velvet shirt and big shiny Doc Martens. "Tim," he said, extending his hand.
"Ray," said Ray. "And this is Courtney. Please keep her away from the karaoke."
I shook Tim's hand and finished my vodka. What would possess a man to wear such a brave shirt? But in spite of myself, I said, "That's a nice shirt you're wearing." He looked somewhat familiar to me, and I continued: "Are you an actor?"
He looked at me closely to see if I was joking. "No, really," I said. "You look like I've seen you before." Good God, what a line, I thought.
"I was in this soap," Tim said, pouring me some more vodka, "and three months ago I was in this off, off, off, off-Broadway play, except it wasn't anywhere near Broadway, it was in West Hollywood for quite a while, that I'm sure you didn't see --"
"Genet's 'The Balcony'?" I interrupted. "In that tiny theater with 25 seats?" I surprised even myself. It had been a supremely boring play and I'd spent most of the evening watching this Tim because of his huge nostrils that flared in a simian fashion every time he said a line.
"My God, you saw that?" Tim was incredulous.
"I did," I said, somewhat proudly. "You were the, um, um, the envoy."
"The Second Photographer," he corrected me, but happily. "I can't believe it. This is wonderful. May I get you another drink? How could you remember me?"
"Well, it's complicated." The vodka zoomed into my limbs and I realized I hadn't eaten much that day. "Um, I remember your um -- your nose. To be honest. It's very distinctive." Behind Tim, Ray shook his head in amusement and trotted away.
But instead of being piqued that I hadn't mentioned a subtle acting style or a touching inflection, Tim was entirely flattered. We chatted over the next hour, over "We Got the Beat" and "Go Your Own Way" and "The Immigrant Song" (excruciatingly enough, it was a '70s/'80s party), moving from room to room, talking with others and then reconnoitering. After two hours, and two more vodka splashes with cranberry, the floor began to dip and sway. The karaoke machine began to look more appealing. And so did Tim.
"They can't play this," I said with the self-righteousness of a drunk when the Spice Girls came on. No one was listening. I peered at Tim, who along with me, was trying to choose a song from the karaoke list. I gazed at his shirt and admired his shiny shoes. "Tim?" I asked, and I backed him in a corner. "Let's kiss." And so it was that I suddenly found myself up close and personal with that now notorious nose. Up to that point Tim had seemed like a fairly interesting if offbeat person; at least, his chit-chat was above the standard party fare. Moreover he was amusing, and got more so in direct proportion to my intoxication. After three drinks, even the shirt that began as reprehensible now seemed merely representative of that flashy Los Angeles hipness that wouldn't work in any other part of the country.
Ah, vodka. We kissed for another minute. He put his hands on my hips and I reached up around his neck. But there was something tentative to his kissing, something gentle and kind, as if he were kissing a stuffed animal. I felt a tiny prick of annoyance when a slice of clarity, like a break in the clouds, beamed into my sodden thoughts -- it didn't matter what this kiss was like since this event was not real. Besides, the floor was moving underneath like a Tilt-a-Whirl. "This is very nice," I said, breaking away and stepping back an inch. "But I'm going to go home now because -- well, just because."
"OK," he said. He was looking at me intently. "Can I see you again?"
"Well, I guess," I wondered why I said that. I knew full well that I was booked for the entire next three days. "I'm only here for the weekend. It's going to be tough." But suddenly there was something so tender about him I didn't want to hurt his feelings.
"I'll call you tomorrow," he said, scrounging around for a pen. "We can have lunch."
"That sounds fine, maybe," I said, thinking I'd deal with it later. I had liked kissing him but knew it wasn't going to go any further. Really, he probably wouldn't call. Most likely he'd just be satisfied that he'd met this chick who made out with him, who didn't live here and wouldn't be pursuing and calling and wanting to go down the whole dating lane.
"You have a message," Ray said accusingly the next morning, holding out the phone to me so he could replay the voice mail. He'd turned off the phone so we could try to sleep off our hangovers.
"Oh." I was surprised. "Well, I guess I should call him back." I left Tim a message -- wonderful to meet you, you're very sweet, I really can't meet you again because I just don't have time, will get in touch again sometime. I felt a little flustered and began to ramble until Ray drew a line with his finger across his throat. I hastily hung up.
I thought that would be it. But later that afternoon, Tim left another message. And another that evening. Each time, after listening, Ray would calmly hand me the receiver, then punch the rewind button on the phone, with a look on his face that said, see, this is what you get.
Twice more the next evening, and twice the next day. "Please do something," Ray said. "My voice mail is going to break down. Just call him again. Just tell him you can't meet him. Anything."
"I did call him." Now I was starting to feel hostile. "For God sakes. I told him I couldn't see him again. It was a kiss, Ray, not a vow of marriage." I peeled off in the Beetle in a huff to see some friends in Malibu.
"He called again," Ray said flatly when I opened the front door that night. "I talked to him. I said, 'Listen I know she thinks you're a really nice guy. She was attracted to you. But she's incredibly busy. And it was just a fun kiss. Can't you leave it at that? She doesn't even live here.'"
"What did he say?"
"He said -- no, he sneered, 'Oh did she say that to you? How incredibly convenient for her.'"
I put my head in my hands.
"He also said," Ray continued over my groans, "that he'd try you at work in San Francisco since he doesn't have your home phone number."
"What work?" I asked. I lay on the sofa. "Maybe I am being very naive, but I do not get this. One would think this is the kind of situation many men would consider ideal. You meet a girl at a party. She finds you attractive, funny even. She kisses you -- really kisses you, even though you yourself act a little uncertain. And then, she leaves town. Certainly not the stuff that movies are made of, but then again, sometimes you take what you can get."
"Actually," Ray said, examining my scuffed sandals with some distaste, "can I interject something here? You're behaving just like a bad boy --"
"Oh, here we go," I groaned.
"You go out looking for a one night-stand, find one, use them for that night, don't want to deal with them anymore, and are uncomfortable when they look for some kind of commitment."
"It was a kiss!" I shouted. "Since when does a kiss constitute devotion? It wasn't even a grope! Or a feel-up over clothes!"
Annoyed as I was, I tried to think back to a time when I had done the same thing -- pursued someone intensely, oblivious to their lack of response. Apart from my teenage years, it hadn't happened -- and not because of a lack of interest on my part, but because after one unreturned phone call I usually backed off in a fit of insecurity. It was enviable in a way, Tim's armor of self-esteem and confidence.
Maybe that's where I'd erred. Los Angeles is such a glossy, puffed-up metropolis -- it's CandyLand to New York's Monopoly. And San Francisco ... well, that's just a small town with big buildings. Tim had seemed no more real to me than the dancing brooms in "Fantasia," which made his insistent phone calls all the more jarring. "Ray, don't you wonder about a person who would take a kiss so much to heart?"
"Maybe it was a great kiss."
"No, it wasn't," I said. "Really. I know that. I was too drunk."
"Why don't you want to go out with him?" Ray suddenly asked, as if it just occurred to him.
I thought for a moment. "Well, I can't really say." I chewed on a fingernail. "I did like him. But, different cities -- it seems way too complicated. And sometimes you just know. You just know it's not going to work. I liked kissing him, but it was not going to be." I threw up my hands. "I don't know why."
"He said you were a coward --" He stopped as the phone started to ring. We looked at it as if it were a foreign insect that had just crawled into the room and made its presence known. "You should have slept with him," Ray said severely, over the ringing. "If you'd slept with him, there wouldn't be all this urgency -- if he'd had an orgasm anywhere near you, on you, inside of you -- then this wouldn't be happening." The voice mail kicked in and Ray sat heavily on the sofa next to me. "You said you were looking for trouble." He put his feet up on the battered coffee table. "Well, you got it. Just not the kind you were expecting."
"Next time when I look for trouble, just put me on the next plane to San Francisco and send along a karaoke machine," I said. "That will suffice from now on."