Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Real Reason

I knew they were talking shit about me the second I stepped onto the upstairs landing. 

I could smell it wafting down the hall in the form of Kate’s booming, nasally voice. The gray, wine-freckled carpet snagged on the heels of my black party shoes, as if trying to keep me away.

“Yeah, and did you see her face when I mentioned going to the premiere with Colin?” she scoffed. “She looked totes pissed!”

“Whatevz,” Erin replied in her signature blas√© tone. “It's 2004, right? She so needs to get over it.”

Their fizzy, intoxicated banter came to an abrupt halt as I rounded the corner. In this moment, it was as if time stopped, and suddenly our entire history flashed before my eyes. That, and the dismal regret that I had actually come back, willingly, to Cascade Apartments.

Cascade Apartments was like a glorified youth hostel built out of flesh-colored stucco with a bad case of acne. The ledges of the building were covered in a fine layer of black smog soot. “L.A. snow,” the landlord joked. Inside, it was like a roving settlement of kids trying to play grown up. Three bedroom apartments housing modern day squatters armed with credit cards, each furnished with a potpourri of ratty Craigslist purchases and any and everything that screamed IKEA. So many inhabitants shopped at IKEA to the point where some friends had matching living rooms. Scandinavian-built conformity sold in a gigantic yellow and navy blue box. Thank god it was just over the bridge in Burbank.

To make matters worse, Cascade Apartments was located in NoHo, which made it a Russian nesting doll of Fake. The very name, NoHo, short for North Hollywood, initially conjures the artsy quirkiness associated with New York City’s SoHo. This meandering area of town is separated from Hollywood proper by the 101 freeway and spills down into the dreaded Valley-Valley. But because of its connotations to the real Hollywood, it conveyed this false sense of “being there.” When people dream of going out to L.A. and making it, this is probably not what they have in mind, but this is where most of them end up. Or places like this, anyway.

Cascade Apartments sat like a four story eye sore sat at the end of a dimly lit side street off the main drag of NoHo. Everything was itchy and poorly maintained, and from the ruckuses of neighbors at all hours of the night, it clearly operated like a glorified dorm. You had to be let in by someone you knew there, then led through a labyrinth of hallways all covered in psychedelic carpet, as if it was the drug to disillusion you before you entered your disappointing apartment, which really felt more like the dorm rooms in movies and on television that are always too spacious to be realistic. Their apartments, sadly, were not made to accommodate an invisible camera crew, but rather the extreme amounts of hash pipe dreams that the collective tenants generated on a daily basis. 

Watching the sunlight pass across the vertical blinds, another day without productivity. Another day as a victim of the “Hollywood machine,” and yet they never even left their apartment. They spoke of Hollywood as if they weren’t already there, as if they were still back East, daydreaming about their future as a famous face in Tinsel Town. I was glad I did not live there. 

Kate, Erin, and Colin did not fit this description of typical Cascade Apartment residents in this sense, for they went out constantly. Only the world they entered was not the everyday struggle to survive in the entertainment business, but rather a fantasy world of their own creation, one based in reality but not within their realistic means. They were a trio of writer/actors, the flakiest of all showbiz hyphenates, and were less interested in exercising their thespian muscles or risking carpel-tunnel than they were in “playing Hollywood.” 

 As a mutual friend of the trio, I would innocently inquire as to when they found time to actually work. They explained that that was the whole point of their open schedule. It left room for call backs, they explained, and if you didn’t get one, well,

“Everything happens for a reason, right?”

This, I discovered, was the mantra of the new young Hollywood. They had no real plans, sources of income per se, just the occasional audition and the much appreciated check from Daddy. Theirs was an imaginary, fabulosity affectation that they had come West already having embraced, yet not rightfully earned. Their lives were an endless string of brunches in WeHo, shopping at Fred Segal, lunches at the Ivy, and standing in line all night at the velvet roped clubs on the Sunset Strip. This was why they were there. What did it matter if they shared a shoebox bedroom in an asbestos-filled pseudo dorm lurking on the edge of anything real or relevant? Who had to know? 

It took a certain type of person to live in that environment. I wouldn’t have stood it for a week. What’s more is I couldn’t believe that Colin could. We had become friends when we were 17 while we were both attending the North Carolina School of the Arts Summer Session, where we studied filmmaking and the performing arts. We had hit it off right away, and had maintained a close friendship ever since, visiting once or twice a year and talking on the phone often. His chubby exterior, and ability to handle both comedy and drama, led him to Hollywood to become the next Phillip Seymour Hoffman (“but gay”), or at least that’s what he liked to tell people. He could be shockingly abrasive but also warm and cuddly.

Kate, by contrast, was a walking artificial sweetener. She was so aggressively friendly from the get-go that she nearly gave you a tooth ache yet she always left behind a strange, unsettling after taste. Physically, she was an Amazonian but without the sex appeal. While toned, she gave off a vibe more of like a professional lady rugby player rather than a girly, boarding school brat. She was like a gentle giant that wasn’t so gentle, the kind depicted in Warner Brothers cartoons who love on their pets so aggressively that they kill them.

Erin, by contrast, was scrappy and reptilian. She was short, blonde, rail thin and wiry, with a quick wit and a sharp tongue, only she lacked the charm such gifts could have aided in her success as an actress. Her roots as a Southern military brat had given her the gift for gab, but somehow the necessary sweetness needed to tolerate her sass had evaded her.

Together, Kate and Erin worked like a cumbersome, nouveau riche bathroom faucet: sterling silver but with plastic handles; one running hot, the other cold. Kate would be so insistently warm that you wouldn’t realize until you were completely scalded that you’d been burned; Erin, on the other hand, ran so cold that she numbed you into not realizing how frigid the situation had become. The combination of these girls did not make for lukewarm friendship, but rather generated a feeling of trying to get the temperature right, bouncing from one to another, trying to avoid the other’s uncomfortable effect.

It was “love at first snark,” as they liked to say, the day they met in their dorm suite winter semester of sophomore year. Kate came from money. Erin did not. Kate had a big mouth but no backbone. Erin had the backbone and the mouth of a stegosaurus, but lacked the gentility and funding that so often smoothes over such social inadequacies in polite society. It was clear they needed each other. Unfortunately, for everyone else, their combination was a toxic one, and the hybrid they generated was like a flaky, warped, pop culture stitched Bride of Frankenstein. They brought out the worst out in each other. Erin made Kate feel popular and naughty, while Erin found the perfect victim to latch onto and play alpha female over, all to the sound of pulsating gangsta rap, bubblegum pop music, and nasally gossip.

When talking about them with other people, one always spoke of them as a duo. It was always “Kate and Erin this, Kate and Erin that.” One on one, they were tolerable, but together they were a nightmare. They operated on this codependent immature level that was cute for only so long. They were the reigning queens of Cascade Apartments, and liked to play games.

I knew Colin the best, and I put up with Kate and Erin’s presence in order to spend time with my old friend. Yet every time it felt like a mistake. 

* * * * * * * * * * *

I stood on the landing, pondering my next move. This wasn’t the first time I had been placed in this sort of scenario in Cascade Apartments. Uncomfortable situations occurred there more often than traffic was backed up on the 405 freeway. At this moment, traffic congestion seemed more appealing than dealing with middle school girl bullshit at the age of 25. Thankfully, I’d been raised by a mother who had taught me to stick up for myself and to recognize wolves in sheep-skin Uggs.

Just a few weeks earlier, on an unseasonably drippy night, I had begrudgingly accepted an invitation to hang out at their apartment. I hadn’t seen Colin in weeks, and even though I didn’t like Kate and Erin, I knew that they had become friends and I optimistically hoped that they would be more genuine on their own turf and not the phony, wannabe celebutantes I had met over expensive cocktails in the past. An embarrassing eagerness for already established history and friendship, a bond. They wanted that, but their living spaces reflected the opposite mentality, as if that was impermanent. The rate at which they were insinuating themselves into being better friends with Colin than I was came off as more than obvious. His other older friends expressed a mutual distaste for Kate and Erin’s aggressive pursuit of Colin. Somehow they had latched onto his indie-hipster-pseudo-Hollywood-insider projections. Now, wherever you found Colin, you found those girls. Kate was worse than Erin. The fact that she referred to him as her “soul mate” seemed excessive, and we were certain it was just a phase, that it would get old, and that he would eventually tire of her sycophantic pursuits. What I didn’t realize was that Colin, always an addictive personality, had found a new habit that he could not kick.

That night when I arrived at Cascade Apartments, I was immediately escorted to the soggy balcony on the second floor of their apartment, where everyone squeezed together on ratty brown couches covered with floral sheets and thermal blankets. The sliding glass door remained ajar as people passed back and forth, ashing their Marlboro Reds into a sticky coffee cup and spilling their drinks onto the smeared glass top table. Everyone talked over one another, doing impressions, putting on voices, giving big smooch kisses to each other, singing at the top of their lungs to the Top 40 music piping in from the boom box that teetered at the edge of Erin’s clothes-strewn bed. It was a nest of egos. The second Colin stole the limelight, Erin would aggressively try to reclaim it, and Kate just laughed and robotically told everyone how fabulous and amazing they were.

I tried to contribute, and kept my spirits up relishing the fact that I had most of Colin's attention. I tried to speak their language, get into character, as it were, but I knew that this manic threesome had its own rules, and everyone but Colin acted like I should be lucky to be there. Colin ignored their cattiness. He went on and on about how awesome I was, how close we were, revealed how he’d had a crush on me before he had come out, and how he was so glad we were friends. Then he’d follow it with a big smooch on the cheek, a squeeze, and then asked for someone to get him a beer. At one point, the topic of conversation became about sexuality, and we teased Colin about this close relationship with his friend Andy. Both men were gay and out, we joked at how they should get together, because they already fought like a couple. Not to be outdone, Kate revealed her flair for making out with girlfriends to impress boys.

“I mean, I’m not gay or anything,” she insisted, “But I know what gets guys off.” 

 Suddenly, in front of everyone, Kate leaned over me, placing her hands beside the sides of my face, her arm separating Colin and me like a goose pimpled barrier. I took notice that her hot purple tank top was slightly gaping. 

In an obnoxious, naughty voice, she asked,

“Duncan, are you a lesbian?”

I clearly saw this for what it was. Kate was trying to play alpha female over me because Erin had left the room. Looking her straight in the eye and not missing a beat, I grabbed her right breast, gave it a hearty squeeze, and said very matter of factly,

“Why, whatever do you mean?”

This retaliation against her bitchiness caught Kate off guard and she recoiled, embarrassed to face Colin’s fits of laughter. I sat back, proud that I had not let this immature game play itself out. From that moment on, the only thing Kate kissed was my ass.

While I left that social experience triumphant, it did discourage me from going back to Cascade Apartments voluntarily. And yet there I was, this time waiting for the demonic duo to get ready for a party, thanks to Colin having invited them along during my drive over.
* * * * * * * * * * * 

“Y’all ready to go?” I asked, doing my best oblivious impression. “Paul said to show up earlier than later because of the parking sitch at his house.”

I held my composure as their inebriation caused them to not so subtly pinch each other behind the back and try not to laugh. They thought I hadn’t heard them.

“Where’s Colin?” I continued.

Kate took a swig from her "boarding school forty," a two liter bottle of Diet 7Up mixed with cheap vodka.

“He’s in the downstairs bathroom,” she replied. “Let’s go bang on the door and piss his fat ass off!”

I followed Kate downstairs and decided not to partake in her drunken lavatory harassment. By the time Colin started banging back and laughing, I noticed that Erin was still upstairs. 

Without thinking, I turned on my heel and went back upstairs to their bedroom.

Their bedroom was like a shoe box reserved for letters you wrote in middle school, decorated with pink and purple glitter pens and stickers and promises to be "BFF 4 EVER" but which also contained a heinous bitchiness that only cliquish, middle school girls can generate. It did not look like an adult’s room at all: two twin beds covered in colorful trendy clothing, water-stained US Weekly and People magazines, crunched plastic Forever 21 bags, stale cardboard cups from Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, empty bottles of pills, sticky wine glasses with cocktail straws still stuck to the rim. On the walls hung posters of movies they wished they’d starred in (Amelie, Lost in Translation, Mean Girls), while collages of college friends adorned their headboards, everyone posing with their cheeks touching, trying to offer up their best impression of “sisterhood.” It was as if they stayed eternally thirteen years old in this room. I entered the bedroom and saw Erin standing at her desk, her back to me, mindlessly humming a Kelly Clarkson song. I itched to leave but held my ground. 

“Hey Erin,” I said.

“Yeah, what up?” she flippantly replied, rummaging through her messy desk.

I approached her calmly. 

”I just want you to know that I heard you and Kate talking about me when we walked in,” I said. 

Erin turned around, her stringy hair falling front of her smudged, blood shot eyes. She looked at me with an almost amusingly defiant flippancy.

“Look," I added. "I don’t want there to be any issues between us. You know, we have mutual friends, and I’d like very much to have everything out in the open. You mentioned something about Colin, and I want to make it clear that I don’t fight over guys, much less gay guys, and I seriously have no issues with you or Kate. I’d like us to be friends.”

My mature confrontation had clearly caught Erin off-guard. She stood there, mouth agape, unable to escape. She then busied herself packing her shoulder bag and avoiding eye contact with me.

“I don’t know dude,” she sighed, “It’s just that you always act like you have some beef with me.”

“Beef?” I asked.

“Yeah, beef," she replied, her cinnamon gum smacking in agreement. “Issues. A problem. With me.”

I rolled my eyes. 

“Erin,” I said, “I haven’t known you long enough to develop any particular feelings towards you, other than that I know you’re hard to get to know, and we honestly don’t know each other well enough yet to be friends or enemies. But I’d like to try.”

“Cool, so would I,” she replied, almost sincerely.

I made sure my tone was authoritative but honest.

“Seriously, Erin,” I said. “If I’ve reacted towards you in any negative way in the past, it was probably in response to some way you were acting towards me.”

“That’s probably true,” she concurred.

She turned towards me, and for an instant I saw the real Erin. Her slit, reptilian eyes, I now discovered, were actually a deep baby blue, and in the right light, she could almost pass for human.

“Cool, okay,” she continued. “Then why don’t we just start over, here and now. Clean slate.”

“Sounds good to me,” I replied.

We shook on it in somewhat awkwardly and descended the stairs to the ground floor where Kate and Colin were waiting for us. As we filed out of the apartment, Erin pulled Kate back inside and closed the door. Behind it, I could hear their muffled giggles and whispers. Erin was filling Kate in on the recent impromptu peace talks that had occurred upstairs.

I had agreed to drive separately, and Colin wanted to ride with me. Fine by me, I could tell him all about my talk with Erin, while she and Kate got all of their pent up Duncan gossip out of their system. It would probably take at least twenty minutes to find Paul’s house, located deep within the Valley. When I filled Colin in, he sighed in exasperation, as if I were delivering a custom-made buzz kill.

“I just don’t want any drama,” he insisted.

“Neither do I,” I replied. “Which is why I decided to nip it in the bud and be the adult in the situation.”

A silence passed between us as the neon skyline of NoHo spilled over the windshield like an imitation Pollock. That was the thing about NoHo, it was always imitating, pretending, just like everyone that lived there.

“Kate’s sweet,” Colin added, “But Erin can be a bit much.”

He absent-mindedly wrote his name on the misty passenger side window.

“Besides,” he added, “I only put up with her to be around Kate.”

“Honestly, I prefer Erin,” I confessed. “At least she’s real.”

“Yeah,” he snorted, “Real effing crazy, you mean.”

“That may be true,” I said. “But somehow I knew she’d be real with me, if pressed.”

Colin rested his vodka-soaked, tobogganed head on my shoulder.

“I just want us all to be friends,” he languidly whined as he drew a heart around his own name. Our cars followed one another deeper into the labyrinth of cookie cutter Valley subdivisions.

And that was the last we spoke of it.

I took this as a good sign. 

* * * * * * * * * * *

About a month later, I received an email from Colin. In his email, he declared that his New Year’s resolution was to not to surround himself with negative influences… 

…like me.

I realized then that Colin did not like me in his current life, that he preferred me to be a pleasant ghost from his past, one whose genuineness and sincerity he could reflect upon in a frame by his bed. But as for seeing me regularly, or for mixing with what he clearly considered to be his new lifestyle, I was uninvited. 

He ended his message by reducing our friendship to "pen-pal status," referring to me as "just some friend from camp."

I deleted the email, stood up, and stepped away from the computer. I walked across the creaky wooden slats beneath my Melrose Flea Market rug, and stopped by the window of my apartment. My home, situated on the sixth floor of a 1920’s art deco-inspired building, was one that did not exist in any official Los Angeles neighborhood or lifestyle. It was one that I had worked hard to obtain, and had most certainly earned. 

I gazed out the window and without batting an eye, gave the cliched, celebutante peace sign in the direction of NoHo, which lurked just over the distant hills. Somewhere down there, my former friend of eight years was probably basking his own version of hobo chic self righteous personal destruction, flanked by two young, misguided women drunk on pop culture stereotypes. Hopefully someday, they would wise up to his performance. I kept my peace sign sharp, then slowly lowered my pointer finger, let the middle finger remain, and pointed it firmly toward the dimming valley.

Oh well, I thought. Everything happens for a reason, right?

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