Mid-residency, my writing was workshopped for the first time in class. I was confident going in, but as the other writers discussed my work, and I was forced to stay silent in the corner, taking notes, I heard them discuss how my narrative voice, that is to say ME, was foolish, “naive” and unsympathetic.
The work I used for class was a blog I wrote over two years ago called “Only the Penetrated Shall Pass” and I used it because it fit within the page constraints of the assignment. I also thought it was a good piece of writing. In this particular blog entry, I described an evening out with a documentary filmmaker I respected, who also was married and hitting on me in a bar. My classmates seemed utterly confused as to why I would continue a conversation with a man whose central motivation was to fuck me . . . if I were to limit all my conversations to people who did not want to fuck me, I would be bored out of my mind.
There was one student, a woman slightly older than me, incredibly talented and attractive, who lived and worked in Paris. She was the one person who I felt understood the whole scene was about understanding infidelity. I liked her before the workshop and felt an alliance with her afterward. Even so, it was hard to hear people talk about me as if I was a character . . . I guess that is the poetic justice of a writer who greedily depicts other people you will never meet and, as a result, will never be able to defend themselves to you.
So I sat and listened, as the workshop leader suggested that Hollywood might not be so bad anymore for young women, and felt the casting couch type of culture was dated. Others felt I was willingly walking into a trap with an older man. As it turns out, most women can not relate to my impulsive behavior, even if they are writers, who also lust for experiences, stories and characters. The worst part about it all, was hearing criticisms almost verbatim to what ex-boyfriends have said with regards to my social behavior. (Of course, none of my boyfriends ever read my writing before, so perhaps it is a moot point) That aside, I was hurt.
That is not to say the criticisms didn’t come with good points. I am looking at my notes now:
-Stronger interior voice, editorialize
-No choices, no stakes = unsympathetic
-Not addressing serious themes
-Doesn’t stand alone as a story
-Balance of gender dynamics need to be fleshed out
-I have cramps and need a cigarette
-Get me out of here
-They hate me
Stumbling out into the courtyard after class, I searched for a cigarette joining David and the other fellow I met my first night out in Culver. “I just had my writing workshopped,” I said. Someone said, “You mean work-chopped?”
“For the first time?” he asked. I nodded. “Here, then you need a cigarette,” the larger man said, offering me an American Spirit and a light. I knew he didn’t like me, probably because I was vague with directions home while drunk in the backseat of his car. I also got the feeling there was some kind of highly personal conversation between him and my Buddy I may or may not have tried to join. I was drunk, big deal. He was still kind with the cigarette and the advice:
“We all go through it the first time. I know it’s rough, but its meant to help you. Were they constructive at least?”
In a daze, I nodded a bit and said, “Of course. I know its for the best, I am just questioning my character. They said things . . . I don’t know . . . I have heard before about me, not just in my writing.”
He took a drag from his cigarette. “Just take what you can from it and know we have all been there. You are in a great school, this was the worst part- it just gets easier from here.”
Looking up, I forced a smile, and then hung my head low again, sucking what was left off of my complimentary cigarette.
As the other cohorts collected from the evening before- the kind, pretty Brunette who drove me home, my Buddy who was somewhere between tolerating me and the silent treatment, David and the man who lent me the smoke- I excused myself.
When I am moody about things, I usually try to quarantine myself from people I don’t know very well. The dark clouds of doubt and self-loathing were tumbling in, and the last place I wanted it to rain was in Jeph’s condo. So I walked to the nearest gas station to buy a pack of cigarettes and call my Mother. Usually, I never call my Mother when I need to feel better, but Abe wasn’t picking up (of course), Jerry (male confidant #1) was watching some kind of game and Frank (male confidant #2) was in a poker game. SO I fucking called my Mother and told her what happened.
“Don’t let it get to you. I remember when my work was criticized in class, I hated it. Hated it! I’m sorry . . . do you think this program is really right for you? I mean, if you are in over your head, it’s still not too late to drop out. ” She was trying and I was crying. A few days earlier, she kept calling me so I walked out into the hallway at school to finally tell her everything was fine. “How is the program?”
“They are the most intelligent and talented people I have ever met. It’s kind of scary actually.”
There was a long sigh, then, “Are you sure this program is right for you?” My parents have never read my writing, so it’s not as though I really think they underestimate me with good cause, they just simply underestimate me.
Once she suggested giving up again while I was crying, I quickly ended the conversation and sat behind the gas station, facing an alley way. Occasionally, an old Cadillac or Lincoln would pass through with an older black guy driving, and a puffy white woman in the passenger seat. I always smiled and waved back if they acknowledged me, though they looked perplexed as to why I was hanging out behind a gas station. There was just nowhere to go. Culver City is one God damn strip mall and I had no car.
My text to Frank read: “Just got my first piece of writing ripped to shreds.”
“Good. Enough of your FB buddies and blog addicts sucking you off. Myself included. Time to hear real critique and get even better. And you will. Cause you’re an awesome writer. Your peak is yet to come. Get your learning on. Stay focused!”
“I want to get drunk” is all I could write back.
I decided to walk to the nearest bar, so I picked up my bag and laptop, and headed north on the major road. Sadly, the first bars I came to were the Scarlet Lady and The Tattle Tale Room. You would think someone would be smart enough to put a bar closer to a writing school. My feet hurt, and I glided into the nearly empty bar, sucking in the cheap air freshener and cool a/c. The bartender, a girl who was probably younger than me but didn’t look it, took my order and delivered the most pathetic dirty martini of my life. I really don’t think she knew what “dirty” meant- but it sure as hell doesn’t mean four petite green olives soaking in vodka.
At the end of the bar, my Buddy and Nice, Pretty Girl (perhaps I should give her a name at this point, let’s call her Kate), were leaning into each other, deep in conversation. I was disappointed to see them, mostly because I didn’t want anyone I was just getting acquainted with to see me in this state and because I knew my Buddy wanted nothing more to do with me.
So I kept to myself, and I swallowed that whole drink with my head low wondering if I was kidding myself, these little adventures I go on and document, was I presenting them as cute when they were actually pitiful? If I knowingly put myself in uncertain circumstances to see how it plays out, if I pick the wrong guy on purpose, or walk the wrong way intentionally, does that make me seem more stupid than curious? Sure, I came out with a story, but not any credibility. Jesus, how disheartening is that?
An older gentleman, in his 60s with thick hands and a workman’s jacket, sat down next to me. With the faintest English accent, he asked if I wanted to try a Washington Apple Cocktail. I said I did, and liked it. It was fruity, had a bite, and was free. The man told me he owned the bar, and bought it a long time ago. The bartender was his daughter. Between managing the Scarlet Lady and working at the docks in Long Beach, he owned a nice home and was comfortable enough to retire soon.
He hung over the bar, flirting with a broken heart spilling all over his cocktail napkin. I asked about his wife, and he said she died of breast cancer 12 years ago. You could see in his eyes he wasn’t done crying about it. He muttered a litany of compliments; good mother, good woman, great wife . . . and for a moment, I believed again that men could fall in love.
I was singing to Otis Redding on the jukebox, he bought me a few more Washington Apples and gave me money for the juke box. I pranced over and put in my typical classic rock. When I slid back on my stool, sipping the Crown Royal through my foggy glass, he asked if I liked the Rolling Stones. My heavy eyes lit up and I told him that I had never seen them before in concert, but was going to make a point of it for the 50th Anniversary tour.
“You know, they cancelled that tour because of Keith Richards health? His health is failing. He is around my age now.”
My head sunk down again and tears brimmed, “They cancelled? But that was the last time I was going to be able to see them . . .”
His head kicked to the side, almost to see if I was actually crying over the Rolling Stones, then he said, “Can I take you out for dinner some time?”
My hand heavily fell over the face, sweeping my bangs out of my eyes, and I nodded, “Sure, but I am vegan. Just so you know.” I gave the obligatory speech about what that meant. He said, “Do they have anything for you at Sizzler?”
“Good, then its a date.” His fingers struggled to program my phone number in his iPhone- between the fatigue of a laborer’s fingers and his failing eyesight, I am fairly certain he didn’t get my name right, nor could he even remember it. All for the best. He slowly got out from underneath the bar, and trudged out the door. All that money he worked for and invested didn’t mean anything now that his wife was gone.
His friend, Jim, was sitting at a cocktail table nearby, clucking at me to make sure everyone knew that he approved of his friend hitting on me. Jim had a leather vest on over a long-sleeved button up shirt, a mustache and faded sunglasses on while inside a bar. Naturally, I asked him if he was gay. He spun his chest out like I just plucked a feather from his breast, “NO! Why would you think that?”
“You are dressed like one of the Village People.”
Ok, shall I take a moment here to explain what I was doing in a bar, in the afternoon, provoking a stranger when I was upset about class? One of my favorite movies is “Victor/Victoria”, and there is a scene where James Garner is upset with how difficult it is dating a woman pretending to be a man, pretending to be a woman. He is masculine, sexy and prestigious- most importantly, he doesn’t want anyone to think he is gay, but he must keep up the rouse to ensure his lover’s career as a performing cross dresser. It’s all very amusing, I assure you. Anyway, one night, pissed at the whole situation, he goes into the most rough n’ tumble, busy and brutish bar he can find then orders a glass of milk. Then he waits. The first person to confront him gets a punch in the jaw.
Sometimes you need a fight to work it out inside of you. That was the whole reason I was there.
“I am as straight as they come.”
I laughed, “Then you better work on the get-up.”
“I get plenty of women wearing this, they don’t seem to mind.”
“Oh” I said, sipping another free beverage, “Do you get lucky often in here?” I looked around, there were a few girls with boys playing pool in back. That was about it.
He leaned back, “Well, not in here, necessarily. Actually, I haven’t been able to get lucky since 1968, because of an injury in Vietnam.”
“You aren’t able to have intercourse?” I was suddenly ashamed of myself.
He shook his head, occasionally licking the underside of his mustache. He was proud, that was certain, and he wouldn’t let me knock him down. “Nope, but that’s ok. My women are always satisfied.”
“But you’re not. I mean, that is half of the experience. You can’t orgasm at all?”
He shook his head, popping up his head like a chicken, “That’s fine. I get all I need. As long as the women are happy, I am happy. And they are!”
“I am sorry that happened to you . . .”
He shrugged his shoulders and then quickly changed the subject, “Hey, did you know I was a DJ in New York in the 60s. I saw Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, oh yeah . . . I saw all of them.” He knew that would get me excited, and I jumped into the conversation asking for details.
It was somewhere around here that I knew I was very drunk. Whatever drink was put in front of me, was consumed in entirety before I moved on to my next victim; a middle-aged mechanic slumped over his drink at the bar next to me. He once worked on Michael Mann’s car, some kind of vintage sports car. Obviously, this was the highpoint of his career, because he told me the story a million different ways, once where he was given a large bonus, once when he was promised another job, again where he was promised a movie based on his life. My venom towards the world was sagging into solace.
Ripping through my new pack of cigarettes, I was occasionally texting Abe and Huck. I am sure I was texting Huck and asking him to meet me, though I knew it was a terrible idea. Comforting me in my low points is not a great first date.
Abe, however, owed me a visit. So I called, and got voicemail. Then he would call and get my voicemail. This went back and forth a few times before I just gave up entirely. The little game with Abe is I have to pick up when he calls, and he never picks up when I call. Its really fucking irritating, especially when you are drunk, loathing yourself and alone in a bar.
Outside, the mechanic said, “Did I tell you I would have gotten that Michael Mann job if I didn’t have to go to prison? Yeah, if I didn’t shoot that guy, I would have my own movie by now.”
“Why did you go to prison?” I took a drag.
“It was stupid really, I knew all the cops in Santa Monica. They knew me, but there I was in Santa Monica getting in a fight with this guy when he pulled out a box cutter. So I took out my revolver and shot him, it was in self defense of course.” He was a big guy, still suited up in his grey, soiled coveralls. I watched the oil on his fingers kiss his mouth with each drag. “I got him in the gut, I didn’t mean to kill him, but then he said, ‘Go ahead. Shoot me again!’ So I unloaded my whole revolver into his stomach and he died . . . I wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t tell me too.”
“Yeah . . . well …” (What do you say to that?) “You probably shouldn’t have done that.”
“The worst part of it all is, during the 8 /2 years I spent in prison my dog-” his voice cracked and that dirty hand wiped roughly at his eyes, “My um- dog died. And I never got to say goodbye.”
“Aww, I am sorry. I know that’s hard.”
“I really loved him, I did the best I could for him. He was staying with a friend who spoiled him rotten, so I know he was happy. He was old, you know, 12 years-old. I just wish he woulda hung on a little longer so I coulda held him when he died.” Another rough brush against the eyes and he stopped himself. “Anyway, yeah, so, when the police came to arrest me they knew me by my first name and didn’t even handcuff me. They knew it wasn’t my fault, but they couldn’t testify in the trial for me. Politics and all that bullshit. So I served my time. You know … I still have a voicemail from Michael Mann saved on my machine from a long time ago.”
The weight of everyone’s sorrow was heavier than the tar accruing on my lungs. I popped back inside to play pool against the one black guy there, also middle-aged, very skinny with bags under his eyes. He was very good and I asked to pay for a game with him. He agreed.
After the second turn, he wiped the whole table clean. He went back to the bar for a drink, and I cleaned up nicely then went back to the bar myself.
Facing another game, he rubbed the chalk on the tip of his stick and I said, “Did you see how I cleaned up at the end though? That should get some respect, right?”
He coldly rolled his head over to me, “Excuse me, ma’am. I am in the middle of a game.”
I stopped, “I just wanted to know if you saw it, that’s all.”
“Excuse me, ma’am, I am in the middle of a game.”
I froze with my mouth open, my eyes wide, “Wow. You don’t have to be so cold about it.”
“May I play now?”
I slowly walked away. Its not that I expect every guy at a bar to bat their eyelashes at me, but I usually earn a little respect with pool players, no matter who they are. After one or two shots, in the middle of the game, the man just packed up his stick and left. I don’t know why. He made me feel bad, I was sulking again, nursing a drink and running through the words “naive” and “unsympathetic” until they stopped stinging.
Shortly thereafter, a square faced white guy came in to set up Karaoke. The bar only had a few people left in it now that it was past 9, so the person who sang the most was the Karaoke guy. He asked me to come up and help with “Gimme Shelter”- which I said I would if I could just stick to the female accompaniment. It was easy to go up and sing every other song. He and I alternated and I was able to fit in almost every song I could ever want to sing, “She’s So Cold”, “Ball and Chain” and one of my best performances yet, “When the Music’s Over” where I ended up on the ground, writhing against the dirty carpet, by the end.
There were a couple young hick types, one in particular eye fucking any girl that walked in only to help himself to a handful of ass when a male friend leaned in to say goodbye. The group of them went on for a country song or two- while somewhere in there I managed to dirty dance with a black lesbian named Chicago.
Outside, we all smoked together. The “Hands On” Redneck was making moves on a plump white girl wearing too much make-up. She was a little older than him and had beautiful eyes, beautiful but stupid. They smiled at me politely, and complimented my Grace Slick. I sat down and said that I wouldn’t disturb “whatever you two are doing.”
“I am trying to work on her,” he said, moving his hands around the White Girl, who thought it was cute even if he was just a scumbag, at least he made her feel pretty. “Well, I already have my opinions on you,” I said, leaning back. Maybe I found my fight.
The Girl walked over to sit next to me, and eagerly leaned in, “Oh what’s that?”
“Yeah, I would like to know, too,” he said.
“No you wouldn’t. Especially right now,” I rolled my eyes and watched the smoke blow up with the lights around the sign for the Scarlet Lady. I hadn’t even thought about tomorrow.
“No, I really would.”
“Trust me, no you don’t.”
“Yes, I really would.”
“Are you sure?”
“Go for it.”
“Ok, fine. I saw you eye fuck some girls in there like you were posturing and then I saw you cup your guy’s ass on the way out. So . . . naturally, I think you are a homosexual.” The White Girl broke out in a flighty chuckle.
“No, I playfully slapped his ass. Its a thing we do,” he said. The Bartender chimed in, “Yeah, I saw it. It was a slap.”
“I know a slap, and that wasn’t a slap,” I said.
His friend was smoking at the edge of the parking lot, looked back and said, “I think he is gay, too. Thats ok. I will accept you anyway.”
“Shut the fuck up,” the Redneck said.
“Um, well, I think you are a homosexual, but that is just perspective,” finishing my smoke and looking over to Jim, who was on his way out.
“Well, you are onto something there. When I was 9 and when I was 15 . . .” the Redneck sat down next to me and leaned down, between his legs. He had a baseball jersey on and a matching hat. I always wondered how these assholes keep their whites so white.
“Thats ok. You can stop,” I said.
“Just kidding. No seriously, let’s talk later. When no one else is around. Especially her.” He motioned to the White Girl.
“No seriously, we don’t have to talk.”
“Ha ha, just kidding. (silence) Let’s talk later.”
I skipped over to the Tattle Tale Room and met another much older man, who smoked a cigar outside with me while I relayed the afternoon, the workshop, the self doubt. Old men are great listeners, or is it just that I was repeating myself to a new man every hour. Huh.
“You are great, don’t worry about it. You seem like you might be a talented writer, I don’t know because I have never read anything, but you could be,” smoke billowed out of his mouth, “Do you want to hear something I see that’s great about you?”
I eagerly nodded like a stupid kid following directions for a piece of candy. “You are very attractive.” He leaned back like this was some kind of revelation.
“Well, that’s nice, but I would like to think there are other more substantial things that are good about me.”
He waved his cigar in my face, “You want to hear another one?” I nodded. “You have high cheek bones.” He leaned back, proud of himself, taking another long drag.
I retreated back to the Scarlet Lady, disappointed. The Bartender no longer trusted me because I was able to get about six free drinks off her father only to prove that I took free drinks off anyone that offered.
The Cigar Man followed me in and sat down at the bar. The Bartender asked if he wanted the usual and he nodded. I guess the patrons regularly flip flop between both bars. It was last call, and I asked to close out my bill. When I got my card back from the tab I opened at 4pm, it was $6.95. Man, can I stretch a dollar.
Cigar said, “I have to tell you something.” He leaned into me over the bar, and while signing my receipt, I collected my bags and smiled at him. “You are having a bad hair day.” My smile disappeared and I smoothed out those bangs and froze my face. “Gee, thanks” I said standing up.
“I just wanted to be honest with you.” He leaned back, realizing he royally fucked up his chances with me, not that he ever really had one. I slowly moved outside to smoke another cigarette and try to figure out how I was going to get back to Jeph’s at 2am. The buses weren’t running anymore.
Outside, the Redneck was necking with the White Girl, his friend loyally smoking nearby and they all giggled upon my return.
“I am not a homosexual.” He said, pushing the Girl off his lap but keeping one steady hand on her so she wouldn’t walk off.
His friend barked down at me, “No seriously. I fucking hate blacks, Jews and homosexuals. Well, homosexuals are ok as long as they don’t try to convert me. I have a real problem with N***ers! BLACKS! FUCK YOU!”
I had found my fight, but this kind of fight was out of my league. In that moment, I felt very, very alone.
“Wow, I am really uncomfortable right now,” I said.
The Redneck wiggled around like a big kid, “Come on” he said, motioning to the Girl hanging off his lap, “even she doesn’t like blacks.” She giggled a “No comment.”
“Um . . . I was a black lesbian in a previous life, so I am really uncomfortable,” I said, frozen in expression, still pissed off at the Bad Hair Day remark.
There was silence. There was some real . . . fucking . . . silence. Were they really trying to figure out if I was a black lesbian in my previous life?
“Come on! You are a white girl,” the Redneck said.
“No . . . I am not!”
Even more silence.
“I will give you a ride home,” his friend offered, finishing a cigarette and probably thinking he would get lucky.
“I would rather not be raped and burned at the cross, so I will call a taxi.”
“See? You scared her off . . . ” the White Girl said.
And I was.
I got up and walked towards a taxi in the lot, shouting back, “Yup! You sure did!”
The taxi driver was a skinny, dark skinned fellow. I am not sure where he was from, somewhere between India and the Middle East. I was fairly plastered at this point, and slurred my version of the whole exchange that just happened outside the Scarlet Lady- what they said and how blindsided I felt by the whole thing. Maybe I am a little naive after all.
“Do you want to smoke, you can smoke in my cab. Go ahead, it’s ok. Forget those people. Forget what they say. They won’t bother you anymore. There will always be hate, just try to walk away from it.” I couldn’t place his accent, and was at Jeph’s before I knew it.
He parked and I paid him the $10 and change I owed for the few miles he had driven me, when he said, “Can I get a hug?”
My polite response, “I would but we have these big seats between us.” I handed him my receipt and put my hand on his shoulder to shake it as a consolation.
“I will get out.” He stopped the taxi, got out and walked over to me. “All right,” I said dryly, but wanted to say, “What the fuck?”
He hugged me, “Maybe I will see you again sometime. You are a good person.”
Well, there was my validation for the evening. GOOD NIGHT!