And if I realized that the chances were slim
How come I’m so surprised when the tide rolled in
After the buzz of the Week of Scapino, life went back to normal—sort of. Work at Ozzie’s, nights at the movies and the wee hours with Kim—who was finally getting ready to move out from her parents and live on her own for a while. She was in the market for a room to rent. Listening to her made me fervently wish I had my own act sufficiently together to offer a place that she could share with me. But, alas, I was a lowly pizza spinner, financially and hopelessly connected to the so-called family at 142 West 7th Street.
I continued, however, to spend more time with Jim, Eric and the Fuckheads. One infamous Friday night, we had the apartment to ourselves, and had managed to pimp some alcohol. Andre Cold Duck. Two bottles. Awful stuff. But, along with Eric, Jim, Matt, and the two Riches, we drank it and got a little drunk. In our playful inebriation, the antics ran rampant, and I caught much of the looniness on Super-8. (I was becoming rather adept at this.) The next morning, we walked down to the beach and filmed more craziness—including, but not limited to, the guys doing their own version of the opening of the Monkees TV show, walking lockstep to the water’s edge, running up to it, then running away, all in loony fast-motion, some more fake fight scenes and a shot of all of them rushing hungrily at the camera, like Dawn of the Dead zombies. We rounded out that morning back at the house, playing cards, me filming it all.
I was sufficiently established at Ozzie’s to have seen a few other employees come and go. A fellow named Curtis had been working with us for a while; he was an older guy—maybe about thirty—with a gray-flecked ponytail and a disposition left over from the sixties. He didn’t last long, not more than a few weeks, but I enjoyed working with him and talking about movies. While he was there, he was a receptive audience for whatever discourse my fledgling cinematic analytical skills could spin out. At any given time during the day, we would be standing at the counter, spreading cheese and various meats over Ozzie’s prefab pizza crusts, listening to the MOR sounds of KNX-FM filtering down from the stereo speakers lodged atop the walk-in cooler, deep in lively discussion of Ridley Scott’s use of red light in Alien—or something like that.
One day, Kathy and I were working a rush, standing side-by-side, loading pizzas. She told me, quietly, that she wanted me to spend more time working and less time chatting with Curtis.
“Otherwise,” she said, “I’m gonna have to fire you.”
This sent me into a mild panic. I suddenly felt as if my world had been given a severe jolt. I had done, I thought, nothing wrong. But—in a kind of dazed, bumping into walls kind of way—I complied and tried, over the ensuing days, to bring some more hustle to my work. Of course, it never occurred to me for a moment that she was just yanking my chain. In the end, my worth as an Ozzie’s employee was proven: Kathy cut Curtis loose—and kept me.
However, we still had a shortage of hands at Ozzie’s—especially during those lunch rushes, with the Romero-style hordes of hungry Rockwell International workers (one of whose facilities was only a short hop up Seal Beach Boulevard, across from the Naval Weapons Station) descending on us day after day.
“We need more help during the day,” she kept saying.
And in fairly short order, someone else came in to fill that void of need shared by Kathy and me. I came in one morning and Kathy introduced me to Kevin.
I was immediately uncomfortable: what was wrong? Was this another reflection on me? I felt again insecure in my position behind the counter.
Kevin was tall and arrogant; an avalanche of greasy black hair fell over a snaking mono-brow and his mouth twisted with a comfortable meanness, like a couple of anchovies locked in a death-struggle. I hated and feared him on sight.
“You’ll be working together,” Kathy added, as if for dramatic effect, and told me to spend the day with him, showing him the ropes.
He slowly tied his red Ozzie’s apron, the one that matched the red Ozzie’s shirts we all wore; then, as he adjusted his red Ozzie’s visor, he glared with what I instantly knew to be unbridled contempt at my Nostromo cap. Spooning sauce onto his first pizza crust, he flung the ladle down with enough force to splatter it all over me.
“Gee,” he said in a voice that dripped with irony. “Sorry.”
Kevin became my foeman, my nemesis —the thing that kept me up at night. Before that point I hadn’t realized the degree of comfort—and ownership—I had begun to feel in my position at Ozzie’s. I didn’t realize how much I valued the small degree of self-confidence it instilled in me—at home and at work. I was beginning to figure out who I was artistically with the filmmaking, I was carving out a social life for myself (albeit slowly), and I had proven my value in Ozzie’s and Kathy’s world.
Kevin challenged all of that. Like a dog smelling fear—he immediately recognized the volatile status of my as-yet-unsolidified self-image, and made it his business to tear it apart. And he did it with joy: each day he sauntered into the restaurant ready with another attack.
Take this for example: one day, while finding every opportunity he could to denigrate my entire existence, during the post-Rockwell-lunch-rush-lull, Kevin was refilling the fruit punch dispenser (you know–that clear tank-like thing that for no good reason sprays the blood-red sugary drink from the top all down the sides of the its interior) and I was busy pouring pepproncinis through a sieve, the acid-hot vinegar stinging the tiny little nicks on my fingers from chopping onions or slicing beef for the ever-popular Ozzie’s Bar-B-Q Beef sandwich, and he turns to me.
“So do you have a girlfriend?”
From his tone I knew that he knew that I didn’t. He couldn’t have hit me in a more vulnerable spot. I desperately needed a comeback.
“Uhhhhh, well—yeah.” I attempted to lie.
His anchovy lips, above which had sprouted the ghostliest of mustaches, pulled back in a venomous grin.
“Oh yeah?” He replaced the top of the punch dispenser and clomped down to the slatted floor from the chair on which he stood. He tossed the empty can of concentrate from hand to hand for a moment, studying me, before he tossed the can over his shoulder. It landed squarely into the trash barrel behind him. “Do you slip it to her every night? Tell me—is she a moaner or a screamer? Or do you even know?”
Each of his words hit me like a bread-basket punch—and he knew it. I was under attack. He waited for me to respond, knowing I had none. I absolutely had to stand up to him, but the situation forced me to make bricks out of straw. My continuing and biting and senseless shame at having not yet had sex with a girl made it imperative that I produce some kind of comeback. I had a few concrete interactions with females from which to choose; I could have simply made up a story—and if I had more experience in the area (damn, I hadn’t even been laid yet!) I might have had enough ammunition for a fabrication. Kevin waited—his smirk becoming more self-satisfied by the moment.
Here was a chance for me—to prove that I was above all this. The me that I wanted to be—the one who fled Weston to “reinvent” himself would have done exactly that.
Here’s the way it should have gone:
“Is she a moaner or a screamer? Or do you even know?”
I turn to him, tossing the empty jug of pickled peppers aside.
“If you must know,” I say, “I’m spending most of my nights fucking a lingerie model who house-sits for a couple of millionaires in Huntington Harbor. And whether she moans or screams is none of your business.”
Kevin doesn’t believe me for a second, but I am ready.
“Oh yeah,” he sneers, “what’s her name? Where does she live?”
“Fuck you,” I say. “Quid pro quo. I’ve told you enough already. What about you? Who are you slipping it to?”
Kevin is suddenly silent. I am ready for this as well.
“Nobody, huh? Well, take it on the road, pal. Go get your masturbation fantasies from somebody else. Oh—what? Are you going to beat me up now? Or are you going to cry? Well I’ll be outside if you choose the former—but then I’ll know that it’s only because you’d rather do the latter.”
I then storm out, leaving him to fend off the zombie hordes of Rockwell all by his sauce-spattered lonesome.
It did not go that way.
I couldn’t even come up with a good lie. I had two options: the first one was to tell him about Kim—even though nothing ever transpired between us. I couldn’t do it—he would ask details; I would be forced to tell him how I know her, where she works… I would be unleashing a demon upon her. It was absolutely out of the question.
It went to option number two.
“You wouldn’t know her,” I started, uselessly. “She lives in San Jose.”
“What’s her name?” I knew the rat-fuck would say that.
“Susie,” I said—the only grain of truth I offered. “I met her last summer. We never told each other our last names,” I added—remembering the sexual anonymity of Last Tango in Paris.
Kevin twisted his grin. His mono-brow buckled like a train wreck. He knew I was lying just to cover myself. I knew he knew it; he knew I knew he knew it.
“You know, I was talking to Kathy,” he said as he reached into the deli case and sucked down a slice of mortadella. “She said she was going to fire you.”
I knew Kevin was full of shit about what, if anything, Kathy had said. Kevin was full of shit in general, and while I comforted myself in this knowledge, our stand-off still bugged the bejesus out of me.
On the way home that afternoon I walked down the south side of Main Street, past the Bay Theater and the pharmacy/surf shop where one of our cute neighbors worked, and down past Electric Avenue to the row of fancy and expensive boutiques geared towards tourist traffic and housewives with disposable income. I stopped when something in the window of one of the shops caught my eye.
A wide-brimmed leather cowboy hat—caramel brown with a chocolate brown band and suede tie-strap. When I saw it I flashed on a famous photo of Steven Spielberg, sporting similar headwear. For that reason it appealed to me immediately. I saw myself in it—fancied myself like ol’ Steve; saw myself in the same hat in the same black-and-white Time magazine pose in profile. I had to have it. After all, I was re-inventing myself, right? I had dispensed with my old Weston-era denim jacket as well as the denim cap that I as frequently wore, and threw on my old army jacket only when the nights got chilly. What was wrong with a new look—one that brought my self-image closer to that which I sought to achieve?
I suddenly recalled est’s dictum of existential responsibility: we create our own realities. Now, I wasn’t totally sold on that idea—it seemed as if most of the muck I’d been putting up with lately was imposed from outside. If I did “create” it, I had no memory of the creative act; no sense of what I was doing at all. It was creation at the level of a baby creating shit. Perhaps that was it: creating muck because I didn’t know muck from not-muck. And if I was creating my experience without knowing I was creating my experience, was I really responsible for creating it? As god of my personal universe, could I claim the insanity defense?
I decided that any god that would put Kevin in his world as anything except a failed experiment or a bad joke had to be insane—whether or not that god turned out to be me.
Movement on the other side of the shop window stirred me from my meditation. I looked up and the slender wrist of a young female reached down toward the hat that, in my mind, I had already claimed as my own. The hand placed a card next to it that read “On Sale–$75.00.”
Seventy-Five?? Damn. Three-quarters of a week’s pay. I felt the newly re-invented me slipping away again.
My gaze moved upward through the glass, following the female hand back up to its owner and I felt a jerk of recognition. Susan Garvey—older sister to Debbie—stared back at me and flashed a beautiful and perfect grin, apparently recognizing me at the same time I placed her. I didn’t know her well: a few brief meetings at Fuckhead parties or the occasional “hi” at the door of the Garvey residence down along 14th street, when picking up Debbie with Jim for the occasional movie (they still did some of that “just friends” stuff, but it was becoming less frequent and my connection with the younger Garvey sister was fading as an indirect result). Sue was stunningly beautiful—blonde, shoulder-length hair, big blue eyes, precisely proportioned body—if she had been any more perfect, it would have been actually funny. Not surprisingly, her blinding beauty terrified me.
She waved. Her grin widened and her eyes held my own. I smiled and waved back. Go in, a voice inside me urged, go in and talk to her. Here was a chance, I thought. One of those chances to force the re-invention that didn’t seem to want to come on its own. My chance to push myself through the birth canal of my fear and step into that brave new world I left New England to find. Yes! I would go in there, and strike up a conversation with Sue. It would be easy—after all, I successfully charmed her little sister, right? I would be equally charming today—a regular Don Juan. I would win her; parade her on my arm, up the main street of Seal Beach and straight into Ozzie’s and I would show Kevin to be the lowly and feeble grub that he was, and each and every Fuckhead would wonder how I did it. This was my chance. This is it. There are no hidden meanings. The truth shall set you free.
So what did I do? I turned and continued walking home, my hands in my pockets, me feeling like I wanted to shrink down and vanish into my threadbare Ozzie’s T-shirt. I would disappear into my pizza-spattered clothes until all that was left were those very clothes in a pile in front of John’s Food King, my Nostromo cap the only evidence that it was ever actually me.
The truth shall set you free. Whoever said that, a gzillion years ago, probably hit on something. Girls still scared me—that was the truth. Doubly so for stunners like Sue Garvey. At that moment I remembered Werner’s twist on it. The truth shall set you free, he said, but first it will piss you off.
Man, was he ever right.
I was hardly halfway between Main and Eighth along Central when something slapped me in the back. I didn’t even have a chance to react when Jim bounded into my line of sight over my left shoulder. He half danced, half skidded to a halt in front of me. He wore tan, flare bottom corduroys and a red and black T-shirt advertising the HBHS production of Dracula he had been in a year or so before. He couldn’t have looked much more 70’s if he had been wearing rainbow suspenders.
“How’d you know it was me,” I asked.
“I recognized your gait,” he said. It was probably the first time anyone had ever used the word “gait” in conversation with me. “Besides—who else would be wearing that Alien hat?”
Jim had a Super-8 project of his own that he was working on. It was an animation of a guy transported into a weird alternate world and going up against various stop motion foes to the tune of Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust. He wanted me to help him film the live action parts at the beginning. I welcomed the distraction.
We stopped by his apartment on 8th to say hi to his mother and pick up the sketches Jim had made of the animations he had planned. We took the sketches back to my house and I broke out the Canon.
At first we took a few exterior shots—Jim walking down the sidewalk and up to the apartment front door. When the action moved inside we got a bit more creative. Jim wanted to have a Jack-Nicholson-Shining-moment by having him poke his head just inside the partly open door and say “Wendy—I’m home!” So we filmed that, and I had the idea of having him place his open palm against one of the partly opaque diamonds of wavy colored glass that adorned the side of the door frame. The effect was random—but creepy. Then we set the sketches on a little table in the living room and shot Jim as he sauntered up and started examining them. (We paid pretty much no attention to the fact that my mom, in her bathrobe, was puttering around the kitchen in the background of the shot.) Then I had Jim suddenly spasm into a display of intense shock and pain—then we did one of my famous hard-cut vanishings and voila—Jim disappears into another world dominated by the music of Queen.
The rest was up to Jim and his animation table. My job as second unit director was done.
So after that we fooled around a bit more to expose the rest of the three-minute reel. Our Shining riff inspired us to do a shot of Jim, from below, pounding on the inside of the bathroom door in a reenactment of Nicholson’s crazy “Go Check It Out!” moment from the Kubrick film.
This was the fun stuff. The filming made my other concerns—girls, work, family, the undefined path of my life—break up and fade into the backdrop. I had yet to put it together that I needed to find some way to take this passion of mine and scale it up if I wanted to make a go at all the lofty and artistic aspirations I still held in my head. I wasn’t even yet sure even how to scale it up, what I even needed to do to take it to the next level. I wasn’t even thinking about the next level.
But part of that next level was sitting in a battered cardboard box on the dining room floor.
It was an old Super-8 editor. It had been gathering dust in Frank’s garage for years, and he brought it over figuring that I would have more use for it than he or his ex-family did.
I had gained some experience with Super-8 editing back in Weston, working with Fred and Steve on putting Treads together. The editor looked rather like a weird, robotic sea creature when the angular arms for the feed and take up reels were extended. Its four or five inch screen gave it a cyclopian aspect. It was, at first, a bit intimidating. But in the absence of a projector, it was the only way to view what I shot.
A wet-splicer was also in the box. Treads had also been edited using a wet splicer. Wet splicing involved using a complicated little device for cutting the film mid frame and using a tiny little armature to scrape the emulsion off of one side of half a frame, so that the glue could set into the celluloid for a solid bond. It took some practice—and I was not that practiced with it yet. For that reason, I mostly left my shot reels alone—but still used the editor to watch them. I already had some of my favorite reels, even some of my favorite frames. There was a close up of Lisa from the Scapino shoot—one single frame where she was in perfect focus. I stopped on that frame more than once.
A short stretch up PCH from us, over the bridge into Long Beach and just beyond the UA6, were a couple of small proto-malls in the distinctly California mode. They were roofless and landscaped with artificial streams and waterfalls tricking throughout, much like the grounds design of many of the apartment complexes around. Most of the stores were high end boutique-y places like many of the stores along Main Street, that sold things I could never afford, and could hardly imagine myself even wanting (the occasional leather hat notwithstanding).
One night I was with a subset of the Fuckheads, after watching a movie at the UA6, and we happened into on of these malls, which just so happened to directly abut the theater. It was a warm fall night, and we sauntered around the paths through the greenery and past the expensive stores that were, on this night, not getting a lot of foot traffic.
“Isn’t this a great mall,” Jackson boomed suddenly, holding his arms up dramatically as if he owned the place.
The rest of us just kind of looked at him.
“This is a great mall,” he went on. “You know—some malls come, and some malls go, but I gotta tell you. This mall is here to stay!”
Jackson’s sense of verbal irony could, and often did, get quite theatrical.
Someone—Jim or Eric, maybe—responded with a Dawn Of The Dead reference.
“They were mauled—in the mall!”
That was it. Suddenly we we all off and running—expending our seemingly limitless supply of energy as we careened recklessly through the winding length of the plaza towards the parking lot, and crowing out classic Romero references all the way.
“The old okie-doke!”
“We got this—we got this by the ass!”
“You guys just messed up real bad!”
“It’s ours! We took it!”
“We whipped ‘em! We whipped ‘em good!” (This one had particular appeal for us due to its parallel with the song by Devo in which one had to whip the cream if it stood out too long.)
“We whipped ‘em and we got it all!!”
The few shoppers and merchants in our way gave us a wide berth as we pounded our feet, gasping and laughing back out to the car we had all arrived in.
“Let’s go play some Asteroids,” Eric suddenly said—and a loud chorus of assent ensued. We all piled into the car and pulled significant g-force as we swung northbound onto PCH.
Just up PCH about a block past East 2nd, on the west side of the street, was the other proto-mall—Marina Pacifica. It was bigger, and multi-level but still mostly open-air as I learned many SoCal shopping centers were. It was the place that Mom took me when I first arrived for my new duds. It stood up on a hill that overlooked Belmont Shore and a good part of Long Beach’s vast network of marinas. The remnants of gold Cally sunset still scattered across the sky overhead, contrasting against the silhouettes of lines of tall and slender palms, gently swaying in the off-shore breeze.
This was where our favorite video arcade was to be found.
The arcade was downstairs, hidden within the catacombs of the lower rent retail spaces that didn’t see the light of day. It hardly mattered: the place made its own light—and furious sound for that matter. We could hear the place before we even made it down the stairs—bells and buzzes and synthesized explosions. I hadn’t even stopped at the change machine yet before I knew exactly which games I was going to hit.
The place was small, and usually pretty packed, like it was tonight. Big, upright console games formed a number of islands in the middle of the space and the area around the perimeter was lined with games—and gamers. For every one player, some games had three or four others, watching, and waiting their turn. Many were engaged in multiplayer competition, but most were just watching and observing the arcade code of etiquette of resting a quarter on the side of the screen, thus saving themselves a spot in the queue. This is exactly what I did after I got myself several dollars worth of quarters and sidled up to my current favorite game: Galaxians.
Galaxians was an update on Space Invaders, which had been a brand new—almost unknown—species of game even as short as a year before when I was still in Weston. Space Invaders became so popular that the first album by the Pretenders featured an instrumental track named after it. It involved rows upon rows of animated, bug-like alien ships descending with slow, lockstep precision towards a gun array that the user controlled to blast each formation out of the sky. If they took out your gun, you had two more lives. If you cleared the screen, you were rewarded with another, faster, more aggressive formation of ships. Galaxians was essentially the same game, with better graphics and animation. And in this game the ships broke off into squadrons and dive bombed you. Like all the games in there, it took some hand-eye coordination, a lot of practice, and many, many quarters to get good.
I never usually carried enough spare change to get that good.
Eric was pounding away at Asteroids—a game that gave me motion sickness just to watch. A small triangular ship zoomed at breakneck speeds through a field of randomly drifting asteroids that moved faster the more you blasted them into tiny bits. The few quarters I ever put into that machine were generally wasted. Jim went directly to the Star Trek game and only occasionally shifted to Galaxians. When the crowds around the standard favorites were too long, we would also try out Lunar Lander, with its crazy retro-rocket controller (only slightly less crazy-making than Asteroids), or BattleZone, a tank combat game that put you right in the action by way of a viewport you put your eyes right up to, periscope-style, or Missile Command, a nuclear warfare game that required you to use a trackball to defend entire cities from annihilation. Many, many cities perished at my hand.
Many games I never touched, and new machines were moving in to replace old ones all the time. One day, walking into the place I heard an unusual sound: a kind of “wacka- wacka- wacka” that I had not heard before among the usual chorus of machine noises. Upon investigation, I saw that it was a new game that involved controlling a little yellow ball through a maze, as it ate white dots and fruit and avoided what appeared to be either multicolored octopi or ghosts. As time went on, Pac-Man—as it was called—became insanely popular, but I had yet to figure out why.
These were the days when still I spent a lot of time walking back and forth between Seal Beach and either the UA6 or the arcade. Mostly out of habit—partly out of not having that much else to do. The cinema and the arcade chewed through a substantial percentage of my meager take-home from Ozzie’s. Late nights at Foster’s with Kim were still a regular thing and I still struggled with a way to act on my feelings about her.
I struggled with a lot of things. Walking helped—so the few miles between 7th Street and the destinations at PCH and East 2nd offered me plenty of opportunities to saunter. My so-called filmmaking eye was always looking for interesting shots or lighting effects under and around the harsh orange sodium lamps. I walked a lot in the evening, under the cobalt sky as the sodium lights were coming on, and I began to develop a liking for the pairing of orange and blue light. Those colors had been used to great effect in the carbon freezing chamber scenes in The Empire Strikes Back, and I look around frequently for ways to use the same contrast in my movie shots. Even if most of those movie shots were only in my head. All the while, my inner cinematographer bemoaned the inherent inability of my Canon to capture some of the subtleties of color, light, and shadow that my naked eye could discern.
To plagiarize Roy Schieder, I would need a bigger camera.
Sometimes on these night excursions I would script and location scout an idea for a riff on one of my favorite Stephen King stories—“Trucks”—about an apocalypse in which all the motorized vehicles of the world suddenly wised up and wiped out their makers. My version was called, derivatively enough, Dawn Of The Dead Cars, and mostly involved scenes in which I had to run away from homicidal, driverless late-model sedans in various states of disrepair. Most of the film would have featured me finding increasingly imaginative ways to get places where cars couldn’t. Occasionally my imagination would get the better of me and, by the time I was getting back home, I was happy to slip into the narrow walkway leading up to the apartment door.
I had other, better ideas. Though most of them not much better. I still tinkered with Satan’s Shadow, even though I had scrapped the idea of returning to Weston to film it. After binge-watching Apocalypse Now, I was struck with the idea of taking my monster-killer idea and turning it into a Coppola-style mediation on madness. It was lofty goal, but of course I had no idea how to construct such metaphors. Hell, I hardly knew what metaphors were. Realm Of The Crystals was still on my mind—but only as a distant objective—like a mountain range on the horizon, farther away then it seems to the eye. (I would never have even thought of that comparison in 1980—let alone been able to write it.) As a project, Realm belonged as much to Fred as it did to me, so I wasn’t sure how to think about it or what to do with the occasional ideas that drifted my way. My meditations on the story ultimately resulted in a small catalogue of drawings of characters and scenes.
Days passed, soon blending into one another. Thanksgiving came—with all the family-oriented associations that came with it. Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t that bad. The food was amazing—I stuffed myself, and slid into a food coma in front of the TV, on which Channel 5 was running a Twilight Zone marathon.
The Kevin-monster left Ozzie’s and my position at work was once again secure. I was glad to be rid of him, but I did see him one more time after that.
It was back up at the Marina Pacifica arcade. It was a weekend and I had walked up early in the day to browse around at Licorice Pizza for some new records. After poking around and not finding anything compelling enough to buy, I popped down to the arcade for some Galaxian practice. The place was mostly empty.
I had been playing for a while, plugging in quarters with no one waiting in the queue when a couple of older guys walked in. Only a few years older than me—and carrying film equipment. Sixteen millimeter, and sound equipment. As it turned out they were a couple of film students from Cal State Long Beach doing a documentary on the popularity of the new video games. They asked if I wanted to be interviewed on camera.
Sure, I said.
After a couple of minutes of set up they posed me in front of one of the machines and asked a few questions, first about my favorite games, how long I had been playing and what not. Than they asked where I would like to see the games go in the future.
I had never thought much of that question, but it didn’t take me long to think of an answer. Full immersion, I said. Flight simulator-style—something that would put you right into—say, the cockpit of an X-Wing fighter.
While I waxed rhapsodic about the potential thrills of new generations of arcade gaming, my eyes wandered to a cluster of machines in a dark corner of the room, over the shoulders of the documentarians. Kevin’s sneering mug peered around the flank of the console he was playing, lit by the blue-green glow of his game screen. He was staring right at me, wearing his usual contemptuous smirk.
I stumbled on my words. My sentence halted—but only for half a tick.
I was on camera. I was the guy the filmmakers wanted to hear from. I was the one whose nifty ideas they were listening to.
I held Kevin’s stare—and kept talking. He tried to stare me down, until a loud “wawp-wawp-wawp” noise alerted him that his inattention had just cost him his game. I saw him curse under his breath and break our eye contact as he was forced to load another quarter.
The film students asked me a few more questions and inside a few minutes, they were done. They thanked me, packed up quickly and left. When I looked back into the dark recess where Kevin had been standing—he was gone.
November turned into December. The election of Ronald Reagan was sidestepping towards the “old news” category and the status of the American hostages in Iran remained a point of tension in the news. Not that I paid much attention to the news. Watching the approach of the holiday season without the slightest hint of inclement weather—let alone anything even resembling snow—was an odd and disconcerting experience. I felt somehow like the world was in some kind of weird suspended animation as Christmas loomed closer and closer. The first time I saw a Santa Claus wearing a Hawaiian shirt and toting a surfboard I thought somewhat that my brain would explode. What was next? A tinsel-covered Baja Bug pulled along by eight tiny reindeer? Snowmen made out of beach sand?
I honestly did not know what to think.
That said—I did have some expendable income. And for the first time in my life I was able to go out and buy presents for people, and that felt pretty darned cool. I began plotting the ideal gifts for the various people around me, buying them and squirreling them away until the third week in December.
I picked out carefully selected LP’s for a few people—Zenyatta Mondatta for Eric, for example. Records also for Jim, and a special, impulsive extravagance for Debbie Garvey. For her I picked out a stuffed, fully articulated character from The Muppet Show—the shaggy and frenetic drummer named Animal. I don’t know why—I wanted to buy it and it seemed that she had to have it. I also made sure not to forget Fred and Sarah back east. I got Fred a promotional Alien press kit, and Sarah got her own Nostromo ball cap, like like the one I still wore to Ozzie’s every day. And speaking of Ozzie’s, we had drawn names for gift buddies for a crew Christmas party to happen shortly before the 25th. I drew the name of one of our newest members—a sweet and soft spoken girl named Robyn. She was a very light-skinned blond with pale blue eyes, almost my height and built like a healthy Nordic farm girl. She was not of the slender proportions my eye tended to gravitate towards, but I did occasionally entertain fantasies of trying to out-wrastle her. I didn’t know much about her except that she was very into cats. So I got her a joke gift: a book of cartoons by Kliban called 101 Things To Do With a Dead Cat. I wasn’t sure how it would go over but I was proud of my admittedly unsubtle use of irony.
And that left Kim. I wasn’t sure what to get for Kim. I wasn’t sure at all.
My friendship with Kim was beginning to creep beyond the confines of the donut shop. I had been to visit her a few times at her parents’ house up on Driftwood Drive. Driftwood was on the other side of PCH from Old Town, where we lived, about a five minute walk from Ozzie’s. Her mother seemed a bit uptight, and I got the impression that her family was more than a little religious. Suddenly her history of references to teaching Sunday school on the weekends started to make sense.
I agonized over Kim. Her responsiveness to me made me buzzy and euphoric every time I though about her. Being with her, I felt my least self-conscious and afterwards I would feel like I was floating as I walked home.
I just didn’t know what the hell to do about it.
I actually worked up the gumption to ask her out on a date at one point. I looked her home number up in the local White Pages, wrote the number down. Memorized it. Rehearsed dialing the number and speaking the words. I lingered by the phone and waited for the “right moment.” By “right moment,” I mean the moment I was least likely to regurgitate my lungs out of sheer terror.
My hands were sweaty—and I realized that the “right moment” would never come.
I picked up the phone and dialed.
“Uh… hi,” I said. “Is Kim there?”
Pause. Rattle of receiver hitting table. Pause.
“Hello?” Her voice was like music.
“Oh, hi!” Her surprise and pleasure seemed completely unfeigned.
“How are you?”
“I’m good, thanks—how are you?”
And—pause. Come on, I thought. You’ve got her on the phone—she’s waiting to find out why. I felt my lungs begin to coil for an upward leap. It was either speak or hurl. One of the two was about to happen.
“I was wondering,” I said, forcing the words out, “if you felt like coming to see Rocky Horror with me this Saturday.”
I had no other good ideas for what people did on dates. The only other time I had tried this was when I worked up the nerve to ask Sarah out the previous fall. This was months before she got together with Fred. I called her, and after I asked, she countered if she could bring Ann and Denise along. It wasn’t quite what I had in mind.
I felt like an idiot. Rocky Horror? Could I really not have come up with a better idea?
Truth be told—I really couldn’t. I was an abject novice at this game. A piker. Absent the day they taught this stuff at school. I sold myself on the idea of asking her to a midnight movie on the assumption that it would agree with her circadian rhythms, given her graveyard job at Foster’s and all.
“Well, gee,” she said—somewhat more carefully than I was comfortable with. “That’s so nice of you to ask.”
“Or,” I jumped in, trying not to sound frantic, “we could go to another movie. You know—a regular movie. If you’d rather do that, I mean.”
“It’s not that,” Kim said, and edge of regret in her voice. “It’s just that Saturday night’s not great for me.”
Question mark? Why not Saturday night? It hadn’t occurred to me that Kim’s night job did not include weekends.
“You see,” she went on, “I have Sunday school in the morning. I really can’t stay out that late on Saturday.”
“Oh.” Really? Night Owl Kim? This was a surprise.
“Maybe another time,” she said brightly. “It was really nice of you to ask!”
“Sure,” I answered, thankful for the return of her pleasant tone. “Some other time.”
“Okay—well, talk to you later?”
“At the shop?”
“Right,” she said and I could sense her smile over the phone line. “The usual time.”
And she hung up. I hit the button on the Trimline’s receiver, sitting in the chrome and leather next to the kitchen counter. Stared blankly at the pile of take out menus and pieces of mail that weren’t for me and old pulp-paper copies of The Pennysaver. And I felt a huge wave of relief at having the conversation over. It was only a few seconds later that the disappointment and self recriminations began to set in.
I couldn’t have figured out a better time while I had her on the phone? I couldn’t have thought of that?
Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe I was afraid to confirm that she really wasn’t interested in me the same way I was in her. Maybe I was okay with just knowing that, on this night, the timing didn’t work. I put the Trimline down on its cradle. I stood up and made my way out the front door, down the walk and onto the street. I walked down 7th towards the water, feeling the cool off-shore breeze counteracting the intense flush in my face.
I crossed Ocean Avenue and went down the short alley that connected the street to the beach, stopping at the stand of palm trees where the sand began to kick off my flip flops. From there I padded barefoot across the wide whitish beach towards the water. The sand was still hot from absorbing the day’s sun, but now, as the evening was setting in, it felt cool and comforting under the soles of my feet. As I came closer to the water the sand became colder, firmer, and I stopped just at the edge of the wave wash and let my feet sink into the wet sand—just a little bit.
My mind swirled with song fragments from Crimes of Passion—which had kind of become my private soundtrack to the fantasies I entertained about Kim.
Movin’ together, comin’ apart
You’re what I need, I’m what you want
Never could refuse you from the start
I wanted that to be the case—that the feeling I had for her was secretly shared by her. Another lyric spoke to the almost embarrassing level of projection I applied when thinking about how Kim might have felt about me:
I’m gonna follow you, ’till I wear you down
I’m gonna follow you, ’cause this here’s my town
You don’t know these streets the way that I do
Of course I imagined that she would be singing these words to me. It had yet to occur to me at the time what a dark and stalkerish song “I’m Gonna Follow You” actually was. But Crimes of Passion was a pretty dark album anyway, even if it lacked much of the hard-edged sonic grittiness of Benatar’s debut album, In The Heat Of The Night. “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” the single then screaming up the charts, mixed metaphors of boxing and domestic violence and was quickly becoming an anthem for the battle of the sexes.
The “message” track off that album was “Hell Is For Children,” a self-consciously edgy power ballad about child abuse. One night at Foster’s Kim and I had been talking about the album and she described her reaction to that track. She had been immediately put off by the title—but then surprised and impressed by the song’s content and message, and Kim became more of a Pat Benatar fan as a result. My brother Eric, on the other hand, had the polar opposite response. He was intrigued by the title but then was bitterly—and vocally—disappointed, and Benatar slipped a half a dozen notches or more in his estimation, when he learned the song’s actual content. And in case you were looking for a nifty little snapshot of the personality differences between Kim and my brother—well, there you have it. (Okay, yes—I listened to a lot of Pat Benatar back then. It was 1980 for cripes sake.)
A gentle surge of beach-break washed up over my feet and back out to the water. I looked out to the blue-gray outline of Catalina, like some great twin-humped beast, and the oil platforms, with their lights just coming on for the night shift. I took a deep sniff of moist salt air.
Okay, I told myself, it could have gone a lot worse. She could have laughed—she didn’t. She could have said she wouldn’t date me if I were the Omega Man—she didn’t. She could have pointed and screamed like Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein. Though I wasn’t sure how I would have known if she had actually lifted her arm and pointed since it happened over the phone. But I’m pretty sure she didn’t do that either. At any rate, she didn’t scream.
My hopes hadn’t been completely dashed—and I had crossed an important threshold. At least I had done something. Taken some action. But I had also tipped my hand. Kim now had to realize that I saw her as something more—or at least potentially more—than just a friend.
And of course I did have a date with her. The same one we had been keeping for months. The same standing date I would keep again—the following Monday night during her graveyard shift at Foster’s.
Coming Soon: I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down!
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