Well they shake their heads and they look at me as if I’ve lost my mind
I tell them there’s no hurry…
I’m just sitting here doing time
When I think about my friendship with Kim during these days, a tangled string of musical associations come to mind—and they didn’t all revolve around Pat Benatar.
Musical Kim Interlude #1
December 8, 1980. I’m coming back from another late movie at the UA6. Continental Divide. The Octagon. Another serial viewing of Stardust Memories. It could be any of them (more likely, however, the Woody Allen flick). I take my usual route home from the theater, following PCH over the bridge into Seal, down a few blocks, then dodging right at the McDonalds to bring me straight into the parking lot at Foster’s. I’m in pretty good spirits and the door bings as I saunter in.
And I stop.
Kim and two of her friends are sitting at the stools on the business side of the counter. All three of them are looking down. All three of them have pained, lost expressions on their faces.
I’m not the quickest study in the emotional intelligence department. I never have been. I’m still feeling jaunty and have every intention of spreading it around.
“Who died,” I ask. Hey, it always got a laugh on TV.
Kim looks up at me, her big, green eyes moist and glazed over. Her voice is subdued, and cracks just a bit when she speaks.
“John Lennon,” she answers.
At first my head kind of bobs in miscomprehension. Disbelief. I don’t get it.
“What,” I finally manage.
“He was shot outside his apartment earlier tonight,” one of the friends says.
“Yoko was right there,” the other one says. “The guy who did it was a fan.”
And then the radio behind the counter starts to play “Imagine,” and I feel a piece of my childhood snap away like a dry twig.
The next few days had headlines and TV and radio news stories filled with details about the assassination of John Lennon, and about the sick fanaticism of Mark David Chapman. It seemed everywhere I went there was a tangible pall over everything and every one. At Ozzie’s, Kathy barely spoke the whole next day, while KNX played tribute request after tribute request. At home, Mom said she was angry—angry that one of the great creative minds of our time had been snuffed out. She knew about mental illness. But she said she couldn’t fathom the kind of madness that would want to do something like that.
(It came out later that Chapman had approached Lennon earlier in the day for his autograph and identified himself as Lennon’s “biggest fan.” It felt creepy that only about a month earlier, I had introduced myself to Steve Martin using more or less the same words.)
A week or so before, the new Playboy had hit the stands with Lennon as the featured interview. (Barbara Bach was on the cover—and yes I admit that I bought Playboy. I was eighteen. And although you won’t believe it, I actually did read many of the articles, and almost all of the interviews. It was one of my only pretensions towards intellectualism at the time. I just didn’t get around to the reading part as quickly as the rest of the magazine.) The day after he died, I read the interview. It focused on his new life, his role as a father, his rejuvenated career (he had just released Double Fantasy with Yoko). Reading it freaked me out a little bit. In it, Lennon seemed so fulfilled, so at peace with himself and his life that it was almost as if he knew what was coming.
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope one day you’ll join us
And the world will live as one…
Musical Kim Interlude #2
Around this time, Kim moved out of her parents’ house. She had actually been talking about it for some time. And when she did I more or less expected that she would do what most folks did when moving out of parental situations. Find an apartment. Get roommates. All that Three’s Company stuff. (TV was really my only point of reference—and even with that I couldn’t have said what I would done if I moved out of 142 West 7th. The attainment of that level autonomy was, for me at that time, tantamount to sorcery.) So when Kim told me she was moving out, I hadn’t been all that surprised. I hadn’t really expected that her new abode would be a literal five minute walk from her parents’ house on Driftwood. But when I learned that her new address was also a three minute walk from Ozzie’s, I was excited. When she invited me to come over one night after my shift at Ozzie’s to see her new place, my mind bubbled with possibilities—some vague, others all too agonizingly vivid.
I got out of Ozzie’s at five each night. This night was no different. It was dark and had been for about an hour. The air was dry with a mild Santa Ana blowing in from the northeast. Rather than crossing the lot towards PCH and home like I did each night, I hung a right out of Ozzie’s and headed for the end of the strip mall. I stopped at the ice cream dispensary at the end of the row to play a quick round of Missile Command. Just to quiet my nerves. Millions more perished as my fingers made clumsy work of manipulating the track ball. The screen flashed with a great animated fireball with the big red words, “GAME OVER.”
For the record, simulated nuclear warfare does not quiet the nerves.
Earlier that day I had looked up Kim’s new address in the Thomas Brothers Guide—the spiral bound map book that was the gold standard for navigation in Southern California and almost as ubiquitous as the Yellow Pages. The map at the front of the book had a grid overlay and each pane of the grid corresponded to a page inside. I had found Seal on the grid, then the specific coordinates for Coastline Drive.
I knew exactly where to go. I could have thrown a rock and hit it. I left the soft serve shop and cut between the gas station and car wash that filled out that end of the plaza lot. I took a right onto the short spur off PCH that jogged right and became Bolsa Ave. I cut across and bore left onto Silver Shoals and took an immediate right onto Coastline. I had the address written down on a slip of paper in my pocket, but I had long since already committed it to memory. I started down the street, silently counting down the numbers.
I said that I wasn’t surprised at the news that Kim had moved out. What did surprise me was what I found at the address. I did pull the paper out to confirm, just to be sure. And after a moment of uncertainty, I walked up to the door and knocked.
As I also said—I was expecting an apartment. Or something like that. Not this. This was a house that looked not unlike the one she had just moved out of. And when the door opened I was greeted through the closed screen door by an older, slightly less hip version of Kim’s mother. If such a thing was possible.
She looked like an Eisenhower-era Republican librarian. And she gave me the stink-eye right through the screen.
“Uh…” I said, “I’m looking for Kim?”
The woman peered at me for a few moments—sizing me up for what, I didn’t know. I was suddenly seized with the sense that this was a mistake. That I should run. That I should—
“Sure,” she grumbled as the latch clicked and the screen door opened. “C’mon in.”
I stepped in and she ushered me in with a curt wave down the front hall. My feet crunched quietly under the clear plastic runners that protected the bile-colored wall-to-wall. I looked into the living room. Doilies and frilly wallpaper. Dolls and old china in hutches. I suppressed a shiver. Every sense I had gave me the almost canine certainty that I was on alien ground. The place even smelled unwelcoming.
“Not that way,” she ordered. She was waving me to a bend in the hall. “Down here.”
I briefly wondered if I was about to be part of one of those stories in which someone is never seen again. But I followed her. I made sure to stay on the plastic runner. I had a cold and sudden conviction that I would pay dearly if I stepped off it.
She pointed to a closed door in an unlit alcove off the hall.
“She’s in there,” she said. Then she turned around and returned to whatever business she had been about before I interrupted her.
I stood there, in the shadows, unsure for a moment what I should do. In my nervousness, I almost bolted. In my head I saw myself careening back down down the hallway, heedless of the narrow plastic runway under me, crashing through the screen door and back out into the unconstricting night air.
But I didn’t. I brought my hand up, willed it into a loose upturned fist, and gently knocked on the door. Nothing. I knocked again—slightly harder.
“Wha—“ I heard quietly from the inside. “Hello? Come in.”
I opened the door and was again caught off guard.
It was completely dark inside—I mean pitch black.
“Hello,” she repeated, and heard her yawn loudly. I finally realized what was happening. She was sleeping.
“It’s Chris,” I said. I had the right day, didn’t I? She knew I was coming, right? “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you. I can come back later.”
I heard movement, the rustling of sheets and blankets.
“No,” she said from the shadows. “It’s okay. Just give me a few minutes. Can you close the door please?”
So I did. And I waited there, like an attendant, afraid to move lest I invoke the wrath of she whose name I didn’t know and whose house I had invaded.
It occurred to me, while I was waiting there, that I had never actually seen Kim during the light of day. In my nervous, fevered thoughts I wondered crazily if she were a vampire. I quickly discarded the possibility however—not because there was no such thing as vampires, but because I figured that if she were, I would have known about it by now, what with all the nighttime hours we spent together and all.
Besides, I had seen her drink soda and coffee at the donut shop, and according to most versions of the vampire legend, they weren’t into human beverages.
It didn’t change the fact that I was still a little scared of her.
Suddenly the door swung open and there she stood backlit by the ceiling light. Her eyes were still bleary with sleep. Her long, thick mane of brown hair was pulled back in a frizzy pony tail. Her T-shirt advertised Jack’s Surf Shop in downtown Huntington.
“Hi,” she said a little breathlessly. “I’m so sorry I overslept.”
She invited me in and closed the door behind me.
Kim’s room looked not unlike the way I imagined her room at her parents’ looking like—though I had never seen that one. A convertible sofa lined one wall, its cushions barely concealing the bedding; she had put the bed away in a rush. A flower pattern wing chair sat adjacent, across from what I took to be her nightstand. The walls had the same pastel flower wallpaper as did the rest of the house, and the pictures on the walls did not strike me as hers. Books lined a small shelf in the corner. I couldn’t see the titles.
In the corner sat a small stereo—a self contained turntable unit and a couple of battered speakers. She turned it on to KLOS.
“Darlene doesn’t like me playing the music too loud,” she said. So that was her name. Figures. “But without it I think she listens in.”
That was unsettling. But it didn’t even occur to me to ask why the hell had she moved two hundred and fifty feet away from her old—and rent-free—bedroom to pay for another bedroom in a place like this? Who the hell was this Darlene anyway?
But all these questions never quite reached the level of conscious thought. All other priorities, as the line from Alien went, were rescinded.
I was in Kim’s inner sanctum. That was all that mattered.
I sat in the wing chair and she flopped down onto the couch, her long legs stretching out, her ankles crossing on top of the armrest.
“I’m usually up by now,” she said, stretching. “I don’t know why I slept so late.”
I apologized again.
“No—I’m glad you came by,” she argued. “I might have just kept on sleeping, and I like to have a little bit of time to myself before I have to go to work.”
I stared at her pink toes and calloused soles, and struggled for something—anything—to say, to keep a pulse going in my end of the conversation. (Why was I so nervous?)
“What do you like to do?”
She shrugged. “Well I gotta have some breakfast—or well, you know. Dinner. Whatever.”
“I should have brought something from work,” I offered.
She waved it off. “I can manage.” Then her eyes got big and she broke out in a mischievous smirk. She hopped up and perched on the edge of the couch.
“You wanna get high,” she asked in a conspiratorial whisper.
She didn’t even wait for me to answer. She jumped up and opened the window, grabbed a towel from a wall hook, rolled it up and lined it across the gap at the bottom of the door.
“Darlene would freak if she knew,” she said as she returned to the couch and retrieved a small wooden box from under the side. She popped it open and withdrew a plastic baggy with contents that were instantly recognizable. “I like to catch a buzz before going into work.”
Kim’s thin and nimble fingers quickly and expertly rolled a slender joint. When she was done she slid a Bic lighter from her jeans pocket, lit the end of the joint and I watched her take a deep, luxurious hit. She parted her lips slightly and I watched, hypnotized, as the little cloud of smoke hovering just inside her mouth vanished as she inhaled. Then, as she held her breath, she reached out and offered me the next hit—the universal gesture of stoner solidarity and etiquette.
This was it. This was my chance. Kim had invited me into her home—but now she was going even farther. She was beckoning for me to join her in alterment! To travel with her down the easy, carefree, time-distorted world of the marijuana high.
I hadn’t gotten stoned in months. Not since that crazy night in Weston when Steve, Doug and Gretchen had snuck into my house to party, knowing that my dad wasn’t home. I had resisted imbibing since coming out west—mostly because I didn’t want to do anything that in any way aligned me with Paul.
But this was different. Kim’s hand hovered in the air between us, the joint pinched delicately between the tips of her thumb and forefinger. The tip glowed orange and small tendrils of smoke rose and caught the breeze and danced in lazy circles towards the window. The sweet, familiar scent caught my nose.
Kim kept holding her breath—she was clearly practiced at it. She raised her eyebrows in a mute question.
Hadn’t it been long enough? Didn’t I deserve a nice buzz after a hard day’s work? And really—wasn’t Kim, my native Seal Beacher friend, the perfect witness to the end of my extended and self-imposed abstinence?
“No thanks,” I said. “Not tonight. You go ahead though.”
What in the mother-grabbing hell was I doing?
Kim let her breath out in a long slow exhale that had almost no visible smoke left. She kept her extended hand outstretched.
Come on, you idiot.
“I’m not really in the mood. But really—you go ahead.”
She held her eyes on mine for a moment and I realized I had absolutely no idea what she was thinking. None at all.
She shrugged. “Okay,” she said and helped herself to another toke.
Was I stupid? What the hell was I thinking with this baseless propriety? Was I trying to impress her? Was I trying to use reverse psychology to seem more cool—like I was above it all?
Or was I just scared? Kim didn’t give me enough time to consider it.
“Let’s put on some music!”
She jumped up an started rifling through her modest vinyl collection. As she flipped through the LP’s my eye caught a glimpse of the distinctive checkerboard cover of My Aim Is True.
“Elvis,” I called out.
She stopped flipping and pulled it out, holding it like she was checking its weight.
“I don’t know,” she said, her tone pensive. “I’m not really crazy about this album.”
But then she looked at the back cover and her eyes lit up.
“Except for this song!” She slid the record out and loaded it on the turntable. The needle made its signature pop as it sunk into the groove, and Kim adjusted the volume. Then she jumped up, her whole body tense with readiness.
Romeo was restless he was ready to kill
He jumped out the window cause he couldn’t sit still
Juliet was waiting’ with a safety net
She said “don’t bury me cause I’m not dead yet.”
And as the chorus of “Mystery Dance” erupted from the speakers, Kim exploded into movement. Weaving, bobbing, spinning and gyrating all around the middle of the room. She was a whirl of hair and long pale arms and I couldn’t remember the last time I saw anything so breathtaking.
Of course, there was only one appropriate response. She was giving me another chance—she was inviting me past another veiled layer, closer to the mysterious, quiet heart of her.
There was only one right thing to do. And that was to get up. And dance. With her. And to a song that euphemized sexual discovery as dance itself, no less.
I knew how to do that. Halloween at Shannon’s party had proved it. If I wanted to I could have danced the living shit out of that song.
So what did I do?
Nothing. Nothing! I sat there like I was nailed into the wing chair, effectless, powerless. Motionless as a quadriplegic—just watching her. Right through that song and into the free-associative string of others she threw on after that.
Sitting there and watching Kim dance, I heard the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” for the first time.
Get me to the limo
Get me to the show
Hurry hurry hurry
Before I go loco
I can’t control my fingers
I can’t control my toes
Oh, oh oh oh—oh OOOOH…
I can still see her spinning like a top every time I hear it.
Later, on the way home, I thought I felt some residual second hand high from Kim’s smoking. But more likely I was just buzzing from her attention. Main Street was decked out in Christmas lights and the night had a bit of a carnival feel to it. Christmas in California still felt weird to me. It felt like some kind of inherent disconnection.
One of these things is not like the other…
When I got home, I learned that Jim and Eric and a couple of the Fuckheads were getting ready to go see David Lynch’s new film, The Elephant Man up at the UA6. I went along.
I didn’t go to Fosters that night. However, in the days that followed, I did start to make more frequent appearances at Darlene’s door during Kim’s off hours (after I had figured out her sleep schedule). She was always happy to see me. It seemed she held no grudge against my lack of dance initiative. There were times when others were there—some friends of hers who I had previously met at Fosters, others I was meeting for the first time. It was always very mellow, there was usually music—anything from Led Zeppelin to The Stooges. And there was always pot.
And time and time again, I declined to partake. I didn’t know what Kim’s friends thought of me—the straitlaced kid in the Ozzie’s shirt and the Nostromo hat. Although they were always completely accepting—in true stoner fashion. And I did enjoy myself. I was pretty sure I was catching residual buzzes from the smoke—or at least tapping into the group euphoria.
Still—something was amiss. As I grasped for a sense of belonging that this crowd—especially Kim—would hardly begrudge me, I fought against an insistent hunch that I wasn’t cut from the same cloth as they were. Coming home from those occasional gatherings, I sometimes felt a flush of relief in getting back out into the cool ocean air.
Part of my discomfort also came, I suspected, from actually seeing Kim interacting with others in a conventional setting—in a real world from which the fish bowl of Fosters had effectively shielded our initial friendship. I wasn’t jealous of her friends—nor did I feel any pretensions of possessiveness towards her.
But I was intimidated by them, by their easy sense of community, by Kim’s intrinsic membership in a group that I, in comparison, was kind of artificially latching onto, like a remora on the belly of a shark. I was an outsider—but I didn’t have a strong enough sense of myself to turn that into an asset. I couldn’t assimilate if my life depended on it, nor could I have ever pulled off the cool, detached mysterious persona of the aloof loner, the rebel, the expat.
Mostly just seeing Kim interact with other boys—even at a platonic level—gave me the sinking feeling that I just wasn’t her type.
And that might have been the case. Or I could have just been making that shit up. Either way, during those weeks leading up to the holidays, I began to sense a familiar mood sinking in. A particular assessment of my life circumstance.
I didn’t belong.
With Kim’s stoner friends, with Eric and the Fuckheads, with the larger social circles at Ozzie’s—even in the forced “togetherness” of my ersatz nuclear family. A sense of alienation I had not felt so strongly since that night I had stormed out of the house on Nantucket returned in force. And with it came the weight of profound dread.
Nothing was changing. Coming to California was supposed to fix me. It was supposed to hit the reset button on my social and emotional awkwardness. It was supposed to give me a fresh start. But it wasn’t. I felt as isolated as I ever had in Weston—maybe even more so. In the words of Graham Parker,
The movie might be new but it’s the same—sound—tra—a—ack…
Of course, it was a case of “no matter where you go, there you are.” This should have been an epiphanic moment—this should have been the lightning bolt that made me realize that I couldn’t run away from my problems. This should have been the hard-learned lesson that whatever it was about my life that I wanted to change had to start from the inside. I should have recalled the punch line of my est graduation—“the truth shall set you free but first it will piss you off.”
But I didn’t—and I learned none of these things. As Christmas drew closer by the day, I felt myself sliding down an increasingly muddy slope of despair and self-loathing.
It didn’t help that things at home were getting more dysfunctional by the minute. Mom and Frank were pretty reliable for having good shouting matches on a regular basis, but lately they were coming more and more frequently—and they were real barn-burners. I probably should have, as a member of said dysfunctional home, been at least a little bit concerned, or even curious, about what might have been happening, or might eventually come about, as a result of the sounds of screaming and throwing things issuing from the other side of the closed master bedroom door.
The truth was I didn’t want to know. I absolutely no-goddamn-way did not want to know. My day to day experience was going sufficiently sour—I didn’t have room in my head to deal with the implications of the domestic discord at home. My mother’s capacity for rage was practically superhuman, and when it was at full steam, I generally wanted to be in a different star system. On top of that, I didn’t know if Frank’s ability to match her decibel for decibel, dish for flung and broken dish, was impressive or just plain terrifying.
“Denial” was another term I had yet to learn at that time. If I had known the concept, I would have signed up to be its poster child.
Merry Fucking Christmas.
It was a day or two before Christmas Eve 1980, and things at 142 West 7th were shaping up to make the holiday everything I dreaded. No tree—just some lights and tinsel thrown on a fake potted bamboo that had been in each of Mom’s California apartments since she lived in Downey.
I was home from work before everyone else and I was wrapping presents in the living room, sitting on the floor next to the stereo, music playing. Heart, Greatest Hits Live, “Crazy On You.”
I had no gift wrapping skills to speak of. Even still, wrapping the flat squares of the LPs was no challenge. A book or two—not much harder.
But then came Debbie Garvey’s extravagant impulse gift—the stuffed Muppet in the irregular shaped box. I ruined about six yards of gift wrap trying to get the thing covered and taped so that it didn’t look like it had been done by a hundred one-armed monkeys.
The final result was almost passable—only fifty one-armed monkeys.
I took the small pile of packages and stacked them near the plastic bamboo tree, hoping that the addition of the gifts would add a bit more cheer.
It didn’t. Instead I felt the ground begin to give way underneath me. Underneath was a seemingly bottomless reservoir of black and oily grief.
I threw myself back against the rough wood paneling and sank into a hunched ball, my throat clenched like I had just tried to swallow a grapefruit, and my ears popped so that practically all I could hear was rush of the blood in my own veins. My head between my knees and eyes burning and welling and dripping uncontrollably to the orange shag.
And just as I sat there, trying like hell not to burst into violent sobs—at just that moment, there was a knock at the door.
Hell. I looked up. Even through my glazed-over eyes and through the wavy colored glass of the front door I could tell immediately who was knocking.
It was Jim.
“What,” I croaked.
The door cracked open half a foot and he stuck his head in.
“Hey, what’s—“ and he stopped when he saw me. “What’s going on,” he asked more urgently.
I didn’t know how the hell to respond to that one. How could I express all the isolation and disappointment and alienation I had felt building for so long? What could I tell Jim that would make it make sense to him?
“Nobody likes me,” I said.
Wow—that was pathetic, even by my own standards.
“What,” he asked, coming in and shutting the door. He dropped to the floor in front of me. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I feel like the damn Elephant Man. I’m a reject.”
“That’s bullshit,” Jim countered—and then repeated, “what the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m a reject,” I said, underscoring my previous claims to make sure he understood me completely. “Nobody likes me.”
“You said that. It’s not true.”
“Me,” he answered. “I like you.”
“I know that,” I said, “you don’t count.”
“Okay—so now I’m wondering if I do like you.”
“You know what I mean. Girls.”
“Oh—that. Well, welcome to the club. Debbie dumped me. I can’t tell if I want to keep trying to get her back or go join a monastery. But you don’t see me crying in my beer.”
I wiped my eyes and brought my head up to face him.
“You have beer?”
“It’s just a figure of speech, dumbass. My point is—that you’re liked. Trust me. Even if you can’t see it, I can. You just have to let yourself see it too.” He sat there, legs crossed looking across at me. My eyes were drying and I could see more clearly. His words may have been acerbic to try and knock me out of my funk—but looking at him I could see that he knew exactly what was eating me. And he related.
“And for the record,” he asserted, “you are nothing at all like the Elephant Man.” Jim had really latched onto the David Lynch film and had been educating himself about the real-life John Merrick.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “How so?”
“Well, for one thing Merrick was more popular with the ladies than me and you combined.”
“And that’s supposed to make me feel better?”
Jim shrugged. “If he could do it, we can do it. Stop trying so hard. You’re cool. Just be yourself.”
“Easy for you to say. You theater types all excel at that.”
“On the contrary—most of us are consumed with underconfidence and self-doubt.”
“Oh—well, that explains all the jumping around and the look at me, look at me, look at me vibe.”
“Well, think about it. Your self esteem’s in the tank—what’s more validating than standing in the spotlight to a theater full of raucous applause?”
I was beginning to relax a bit. The grapefruit inside my throat was rapidly disintegrating.
“The Wilson sisters,” I offered, “pulling up in a cherry red Mustang and wanting my company on a wild ride up the coast highway. That would be pretty validating.”
I sat back, my head reclining against the unfinished paneling. I pointed to the decorated fake bamboo tree.
“Is it just me,” I asked, “or is that the lamest thing ever?”
Jim studied it for a moment, then frowned thoughtfully. “I don’t know. At least it’s more original than what Mom and I have at home—an electric porcelain tree on the coffee table.”
“That does suck,” I said. “Hey, your present’s over there.”
He looked at the stack of flat gifts. “One of the albums?”
“I hope we didn’t get each other the same thing.” His eyes fell on the big crinkly wrapped box. “That Animal?”
I nodded again.
“That one’s inspired—Debbie’s gonna love it. You want me to deliver it for you?”
I looked at him sideways.
“Okay, maybe not—but she’ll like yours a lot than she’ll like mine.”
“What did you get her?”
He told me. He was right. Mine was definitely better.
Later that night I threw on the old green and paint spattered army jacket I inherited from Carl Grunbaum and headed out into what passed in Seal Beach for a chilly December night. I walked without much thought, but the muscle memory in my feet would not be denied. They were walking me towards Fosters.
I owed it to Jim for talking me off of my emotional ledge, but my alienation and discontent had only been set aside—not dismissed. And after another evening of tension and disengagement with the family, those feelings were creeping right back in—this time with a mordant, bitter undertaste.
I hadn’t seen Kim in several days. I should have been happy to see her. But I was in a black mood by the time I slunk into the shop. The door binged. I knew how to open it so that it didn’t, and frequently I liked to mess with her that way. Tonight I didn’t care. She poked her head from around the partition behind the counter and her whole face lit up.
“Where have you been,” she asked. But then she looked closer at me and her eyes narrowed. “Are you okay?”
“No,” I said without much conviction. “Not really.”
I pulled a stool up to the glass counter and sat, hunched over as if the army jacket was weighing me down. Kim quietly came out from behind the counter, grabbed another stool, slid it right up to mine and sat, her shoulders pulled in tight and her hands braced firm against her knees. She looked right at me.
“What is it,” she said. It wasn’t a question. It was a command.
I wanted to unload my whole heart before her—just dump it onto the counter there between us. Unburden myself of all my unspoken aches and anxieties to one of the few people I knew on the west coast whom I trusted completely. But so much of what had sent me on this gradual but treacherous emotional slide had started with her. With my perceptions about her lack of interest in me. With her sitting so close and peering at me so intently, I didn’t think it a good time to bring that up, and had no idea how I would have gone about it if I did.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, perspective depending) I had a lot more than just my apparently unrequited desire for Kim eating at me. I had plenty—so I had at it. It was quite a litany. Family was cracking at the foundations, most of my friends were second-hand, I was slinging pizza for money—and I had nothing good to do with it except go to the movies. Things were supposed to be happening and they weren’t.
At first Kim remained silent, just sitting with me and listening. And for that, she was doing me a huge favor. If I was called upon to listen to the catalogue of complaints coming out of my mouth, I’m not sure I would have been so patient.
And she was patient—to a point.
After I had run off my head of steam and we were just sharing a bit of silence, she offered a suggestion.
I shook my head and explained with perfect clarity why her idea wouldn’t work.
Undaunted, she made another, which I also dismissed. After an additional series of identical exchanges, Kim stopped. She pulled herself up straight on the stool, held her head high, and cast her eyes slowly across the nicked and dappled drop ceiling panels over our heads.
“You know what,” she said finally, bringing her gaze back to me. “I think you’re stuck where you are ‘cause you want to be.”
Her words stung me like a slap. But she didn’t stop there—she was going to let me have it.
“I just gave you a bunch of ideas,” she pressed on, “and it sounds to me like you don’t even want to try. What do you want from me—pity?”
She was harsh—but she was not being dismissive. I could tell she cared. She radiated it. She was really trying to help.
“No,” I finally managed. “Pity’s about the last thing I want.” And pity from Kim in particular would go about a half dozen additional notches below that. I’d never be able to look her in the eye again.
“Then do something,” she urged. “You don’t like the way things are going —change something! Stop thinking about everything that’s bumming you out and think about all the bitchin’ stuff instead. What do you really want?”
What I really wanted was to kiss her right then and there. But it didn’t feel right to mix my own desire with the pity I had so very nearly invoked in her.
That—and I was still scared. Of her. Of how she might react. Of my own feelings too.
“Like what,” I asked weakly.
“What about your movie?”
“Which one,” I asked. I had so many ideas floating around in my head, half-realized. I had forgotten which ones I had even mentioned to her.
“Your documentary,” she said. “The play at Huntington High.”
“Oh,” I said. “Scapino!”
“Yeah—what’s happening with that? Didn’t you say that you had all this editing to do? And that you wanted to put it to music? How’s that going?”
I hadn’t given any of my super-8 material much thought lately. I hadn’t even so much as picked up the Canon in weeks.
“Ummm—it’s not really.”
I had nothing to that one. I shrugged.
“Do you still want to do it?”
“Yeah, of course I do.”
“And you have fun doing that kind of thing, right?”
“Yeah.” More fun than almost everything else if I was to tell the truth.
“Then what’s the problem?”
When she put it that way it seemed like the simplest thing in the world. Do something you like—feel better. Kim’s math was beautifully uncomplicated. Still my mind started throwing up objection after objection. Where to do it. How to set up the operation. Would I need string and clothespins like when we did Treads? More troubling to me, and perhaps at the heart of my resistance—was I skilled enough to do it?
Kim looked me straight in the eye.
“I think you should finish your movie.”
She had run me clean out of excuses. She smiled. I could only smile back.
Christmas Eve came—and I was feeling a little bit better about things. Ozzie closed up shop early and would reopen on the twenty-sixth. We had our little crew party in the back dining room, under the ceiling trellis of fake grape vines and chianti bottles. Everyone got a chuckle out of my gag gift to Robyn and she looked at me and said, “But I love cats!” I thought she got the joke. I hoped he did.
Later, as I went around the neighborhood dropping off my little gifts to those who lived nearby, I even started to feel a slight flush of holiday cheer. I dropped off Jim’s present (he had forgotten to take it on his previous visit), then I walked all the way down to 14th Street to drop off my present for Debbie. She wasn’t home, so I handed it off to a sibling I didn’t know (the Garvey clan had many) and went on my way.
I had one more drop off to make. I turned down Electric and cut across Old Town to Main Street to avoid the rush hour chaos of PCH. At Main I swung right and sauntered up past the Bay Theater and across PCH on more familiar territory (the same crosswalk I took to and from work twice a day). The streetlights, festooned with Christmas lights and the ridiculously anachronistic trappings of Santa’s north pole, no longer seemed outright offensive to me. For the first time it simply struck me as humorous—and suddenly I wondered if that had always been the point.
Santas on surfboards—how could it have been anything but?
I chuckled to myself, finally getting the joke.
I passed the shopping center, passed the row of stores where Ozzie’s had closed early for the holiday, and kept going up to Silver Shoals and then the quick right onto Coastline. I slowed my pace as I approached Darlene’s front door.
I didn’t know who would be home—but I figured that Kim would most likely be around the corner at her parents’ house tonight. I didn’t want to intrude, so there I stood on Darlene’s stoop instead.
I didn’t get Kim a present. Ultimately I just couldn’t figure out the right thing to get her. I had ideas, but they either seemed to me too fraught with meaning, or not meaningful enough.
I withdrew an envelope from the big side pocket of my army jacket. Inside was a card—one that showed a cartoonish Christmas mantle scene, in something of a rip off of Pat Nagel’s splashy, graphic style.
Earlier in the day I had sat down with the card and a pen and wrote a long note to Kim—one that overflowed onto the adjacent flap (I had never written that much on a greeting card before). I wrote about how much her friendship had meant to me in the months since moving to Seal, how happy I was at the accidents that had brought us into contact, and how important it was to me that she was the first friend I had made here entirely without intermediaries. I thanked her for including me in her own circle, wished her a happy Christmas, and all that other mishmash that people say when signing off. I read it a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t being too sappy, then signed it and sealed it. I wrote just her first name on the outside.
Now I stood on the stoop, under the glare of Darlene’s porch light, holding the sealed envelope in one hand and tapping it slightly against the other in a quiet, nervous rhythm. I stared at the black metal flip-top mailbox, fixed to the shingles just the the left of the screen door.
I was hesitating. Recent experience told me what usually happened when I hesitated—when I gave myself any time to think about whether to act or not to act.
This time I was ahead of myself.
Without giving myself a moment to reconsider, I reached out, flipped up the mailbox lid and dropped the card inside.
By the time I got home the rest of the family—as screwed up as they were—were all there and Christmas Eve was essentially drama-free. Almost pleasant I dare say. More wrapped presents got piled under the plastic bamboo and general sense of goodwill presided.
After dinner, Brigid showed up and Eric took off with her. Paul went upstairs to fire up a yule-bong to the tuneage of Led Zep, and Mom and Frank went to bed.
It was just me.
The lights were mostly out—except for the string of tiny winking bulbs around the plastic tree. In the dark, lit up like that, it almost looked good. I sat on the leopard patterned daybed that served as a couch and lingered there for a while, just staring, without really seeing, at the tree, the dark wood paneling, the cheap prints of winterscapes and owls on the walls.
I meditated on my life, such as it was, with all its discontents and anxieties. I reflected on Kim and Jim and Debbie and work and the Fuckheads and Realm and the whole essential stasis I had been so ineffectually struggling with the last few months.
I had another one of those moments—the ones I’d started to recognize. In these moments I feel an urge or an impulse—and at some deep neurological level I feel myself getting ready to act—to do the thing in my mind. But then I stop. It feels automatic—this stopping. Like a switch gets flipped and my initiative gets shut off—no thought, no internal debate. No inner voice telling me why either—just a maddening silence in my head that’s impossible to argue with.
My life was punctuated by these moments. I began to wonder if in some way these moments defined me. They kept me from getting up to dance with Kim. They almost kept me from delivering her card.
They didn’t always stop me. But they were powerful—and sneaky enough to stop me on many occasions without me even realizing it.
It was stopping me now. Keeping me reclined on the daybed, my head against the wall. And staying right there would have been so very, very easy.
I pulled myself forward. I planted my feet on the shag and slowly stood.
And I didn’t turn to dust.
In the relative darkness of the eat-in living room, I pulled out the cardboard box with my super-8 reels and the movie editor. I set the editor on the dining table and plugged it in, its little screen casting one more light in the dark. I popped a take-up reel on the right hand appendage of the editor and pulled out the small pile of 50-foot reels and set them on the table. I found the first reel that I shot that first day Jim and I had stumbled into the backstage at HBHS and found Eric and Todd singing “I Love You Baby.”
I loaded that reel—and took out the splicer and laid it down in front of me and got to work.
Christmas arrived with its usual frenzied exchange of swag. Mom and Frank got me another influx of oP shirts, all slashed with horizontal stripes and suggestions of beaches and palm trees. Eric wasted little time in getting his gift from me, the new Police album, onto the stereo. I also accumulated more vinyl. Jim got me the new Vapors album, featuring the novelty hit “Turning Japanese.” I also received Autoamerican by Blondie and Making Movies by Dire Straits. It wasn’t a bacchanalian orgy of materialism, but it worked out okay for me.
A few days later, on the occasion of a Fuckhead outing, Debbie Garvey practically ran me over in her determination to thank me for her stuffed Muppet.
“I love Animal,” she squealed as she clamped her arms around my neck tight enough to restrict my breath. It may have been the best present I got that Christmas.
But on that night, on Christmas night, I returned to the dining room table, where I had left my editing equipment set up. While the life of the house went on around me, I put on my new LPs and continued to comb through the reels of Scapino footage for shots I wanted to string together. The Dire Straits album, with its title, Making Movies, seemed especially appropriate for the activity, but I worked my way through Autoamerican as well, before playing them both all the way through again. Debbie Harry crooned “The Tide Is High” and belted out “Rapture.” Mark Knopfler alternately rocked out to “Expresso Love” and waxed melancholy in “Romeo and Juliet.” All the while my fingers got more and more practiced at wet splicing, and cascade after cascade of frames displaying stop motion zaniness played across the editor’s dim little screen.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had been this immersed in the creative process—so lost in it that I didn’t want to come back. And I remembered something about myself that I had recently forgotten.
Coming Next: (Dawning Of A) New Era!