|“Why not?” she asked, and I knew it was a real question. Little Catherine. Actually she is taller than me, but there is something about age that makes them smaller, until we start to shrink.|
Starbucks has a repulsive ability to play great music that was banned in its day but has since become banal. It reminds us that few things in life are truly dangerous. Only drunk driving and the adoration of the young. All of their pastries are dry white flour and colored sugar lumps passing for fruit and we eat them without joy. The only pleasure comes from thinking about how they could taste. The young, I mean. It’s amazing how far one will go to sit in a comfortable chair.
We’re in the gay Starbucks on Santa Monica Boulevard. I’ve come to Los Angeles for money, for meetings and to find a girlfriend, but instead I found Catherine and she meets none of my requirements. She’s young. That’s out. She’s not accomplished, in fact she’s lost. She doesn’t have her own friends. She’s not busy and she’s not solvent. She’s also not cute, although strangely attractive in the way that smart lost souls with wounds that will never heal are always compelling to the terminally hopeful.
Don’t do it! I tell myself sipping the burnt coffee, passing for strong.
An hour later we’re on her mattress on the floor, fraying towels, telephone wires buzzing outside the window against the passing traffic. She has three coffee mugs but no coffee, so they’re filled with tap water. Of course she’s a great kisser and looks at me deeply and soulfully, doing what women in the know know how to do. Holding, guiding, placing, maneuvering, lifting, painting my soon to be corpse with skill. She ignores my various symptoms of use, mostly because she doesn’t recognize them for what they are. I’m silent about aches and pains, dislocations, biopsy scars, thinning, bunching, untrimmed, puckering. She individuates me within her panoply of 22-28 year-olds, and it all makes sense to her because every human being is real at some point.
This isn’t what I want a voice is whining inside my head, but it’s not my voice. It’s Jamie Robbins, Emmy-nominated but closeted, who ten years before when middle-age was some vague possibility, stood naked and gorgeous in her dank, dreary studio apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and after four hours of the best sex of her life, blew me off because I couldn’t advance her career.
In the way that abused children abuse – I had waited the entire decade to use those wasteful stinging words on some innocent, thereby transferring the poison from my own wound to the next victim. Who would then pass it on to the next. This ensures multi-generations of traumatized lesbians who are great lovers but have no power, realizing that the former simply doesn’t compensate for the latter. Giving each other meaning in private has its limits and it’s our jobs to devastate each other with this news. The gay girl version of black-on-black crime.
Apparently, I’ve learned nothing despite my years, because even while moving from the discarded to the discarder, it all still takes place in tiny hovels with no view. Later, I decided at the last minute to be grateful and not sadistic, and so noncommittally kissed goodbye to sexy but flat-affected Catherine the Younger. Relaxed and yet troubled, I drove my white third-hand Pontiac down that Silverlake Street where Jamie has lived for the past four years with Louise Rockefeller. For the past four years. Each morning that I am in Los Angeles, I drive down their street, past the house where Portia and Francesca used to live. The pool. The Mexican gardeners. The BMW in the driveway. The delivery truck unloading a piano. The caterers and their tents. The limo waiting to take Jamie and her brother to the Emmy awards as Louise stood in the doorway waving good-bye with a drink in hand.
Investigating them has been an education. The first thing I learned is that people named Rockefeller are all related. That one easily becomes a heavy hitting producer at the same studio where her Jewish grandfather started it all. Her father (Mr. Rockefeller) married the boss’s daughter because he wanted to avoid the fate of his indulgent cousins and so got his own sports channel from papa-in-law and went to work every morning, happily. In his Ferlinghetti. I mean Berlusconi. Until he traded it in for a Negamaki and started collecting grandfather clocks. That’s how big the house was.
When Louise became a lesbian, it got as far as her father. But when she showed up one morning with a tattooed butch from Milwaukee, it went directly to her grandfather. Summoned onto the studio lot, she sat quietly in a small leather chair as grandfather laid down the law.
“If you can tell me that you are going to be with that woman for the rest of your life, I will accept the tattoos. But if you can’t tell me that, the tattoos have got to go.”
Young and freshly out of a legacy BA at Brandeis, Louise sat simmering between his Emmys for Dr. Kildare, impressed by his authoritative pragmatism, and realized she wanted Emmys too. She realized that she wanted them more than she wanted a boney muscular and somewhat dirty-minded hard-working mechanic from Wisconsin. They made a deal. Louise got a career in Hollywood and began a parade of acceptable girlfriends and lived happily ever after, now with Jamie Robbins.
So for the last four years I have taught five extension classes at USC, two online courses at UCLA and written earnest but overly sophisticated screenplays and pilots in my simple but quiet West Hollywood apartment which was five times nicer than anything I could have afforded in New York. I bought Russian delicacies, shopped intelligently at Whole Foods, worked out at 24 Hour Fitness on the broken machines, all the while driving my leased Pontiac. I had an occasional drink at the Abbey, while watching celebrity children walk to the 8 pm AA meeting across the street. Once I went to AA myself, and all the stories reminded me of Jamie Robbins. It was like she was sitting there, emaciated, buff, microdermibrasioned and suddenly ready to tell the truth about herself. And yet, she never appeared. All along, as I drove and typed as a way of life, I knew that my primary motivation was to prove something to Jamie Robbins. To prove that she was wrong. To make it. And to make her. And to have all my dreams come true. Like in the movies. To win, to win the girl, to win the Emmy, and to be my one and only true self, the self that turns down love because it doesn’t advance your career. The self that no one else can destroy. So far, I have achieved none of these, but at least I have goals. It tells me what to do everyday.
It is easy to get waylaid in Los Angeles. In a typical week I meet for breakfast at Hugo’s with a dyke who has been spending the last five years trying to help the latest platinum Sammy Hagar look-alike find a movie that he wanted to make. Finally she stumbled on the winner. “Murder on an aircraft carrier” was sold on a one-sentence pitch. Five years of a human being’s life, devoted every day to this. She read my adaptation of Madame Bovary, called Mrs. Bovary about a modern housewife who gets her values about the world from watching the soap operas.
“Who do you think should direct it?” she asked.
Uh oh. I knew that meant she wasn’t going to help me.
“Uhm. Jane Campion?”
“I’ll try to get you her email address.” Then she introduced me to Billy Crystal’s manager.
That was Monday.
On Tuesday I met with a former underground lesbian cult star who was looking for a writer to work for free on a movie starring all the former lesbian cult stars of the 1980’s and 90’s. It would have an audience of 45,000 or so, which isn’t enough, but it would be fun and could be good.
“Now that the L Word is finally off the air we could get our own people back out there again,” that was her strategy. “Now that the economy is collapsing we can make art again.”
“Sure,” I said, paying for her burrito.
Wednesday I went to see a friend from New York in a play at the Geffen Theater. It had good New York actors, a good director, a good designer and it was awful. Something about being in LA affected everyone involved. They seemed traumatized. I had never gone to the theater in LA before. The audience was filled with women who seemed to have burned their hair, dyed it with vegetable root and applied Kabuki make-up before leaving the house. Strangely the audience clapped after every scene. It was like the crowd from New Jersey at The Nutcracker.
“Why do they clap after every scene?” I asked.
“I don’t understand why anybody in LA does anything,” my friend said. And then we didn’t have a drink because New Yorkers don’t have the skills to drive home drunk.
On Thursday a cute gay pop singer Facebook’d me.
Have you ever thought about writing a musical? Sure I wrote back. Let’s get together and talk. I’m free after 3. I’m free all day tomorrow, she answered. Okay, what about 8 am at Mani’s on Fairfax? Great.
And then it occurred to me that this girl might be gf material. After all she ran a career that required upkeep of an image that was simultaneously spacey and sharkey and tough but unassuming. She was accomplished. I called my friend in Brooklyn for advice.
“Buy a new shirt,” she said.
By the time I got home from the horror of clothes shopping in a town where parking determines experiences, she had canceled.
Dentist she Facebook’d. Are you free later?
Dinner? I asked. 8 o’clock at Hugo’s or Real Food? I have therapy in Encino at 7:30. Anything else? 11:30 at Mustard Seed in Los Felix? I asked. Nope.
And then she blew me off. This was such a typical LA experience it was funny.
Right out of LA memoirs like Hello, He Lied by Linda Obst and that sort of thing. I went home and worked on my pilot LOVE MONEY about actresses trying to make it in New York, so I could base a character on Jamie Robbins, but I couldn’t make her gay, it was for network.
The next morning I met Bill at The Casbah in Silverlake.
“This neighborhood is just like the East Village,” he said – which is what everyone says about Silverlake because it was gentrified by people with tattoos. Bill had just gotten a job on that TV show where the detective is really dead, but he doesn’t know it.
“You should get a job on a TV show,” he said. “I’d love to,” I said. “I have a great agent,” he said. “Good,” I said.
“Your friend, Gina, has her too. You should get Gina to hook you up.”
“Great idea,” I said and ordered my fizzy pink lemonade.
The weekend was coming and with it that special kind of loneliness, the one so well worn it’s a comfort. Sometimes on Friday or Saturday night I lie in bed, have a cocktail and watch one of the greatest movies ever written like Primary Colors, and cry tears of joy that someone (Elaine May) could make every second interesting and count and surprising and human and funny and still throw in the Jewish jokes. And I feel so happy, so safe, and comfortable that beauty does exist. If I wasn’t used to loneliness, I would be miserable in moments like that because I let the right one get away. But that absence is my life now, isn’t it? That absence is why I live where I live, work where I work, write what I write, why I get in the car, why I have these ridiculous conversations with people whose lives make no sense either. Because I have a goal, and that gives my life meaning. My goal is to be someone who can advance Jamie Robbins’ career, and nothing else is worth doing. So that loneliness is special, it’s part of my quest, it’s got its own clarity and I know it. It knows me. I put its name down under In case of emergency please call, please call on my loneliness. She will pick me up from the hospital, bail me out of jail, and take me to the doctor. She’s the one I really trust to be there for me.
The next Monday I drove to a boring café on Cuhengua to meet with a lesbian who works in independent packaging at the new William Morris/Endeavor merged monster. I wanted to talk to her about my movie, The Lady Hamlet, a 1920’s backstage comedy about two great actresses competing to play the role of Hamlet on Broadway. She’s heard of Hamlet but doesn’t think there would be any interest. So we start to gossip. There are lesbians all over Hollywood. There is the costume designer at that HBO show and the assistant to the producer at that same show and the head of talent at that agency and that film agent and her TV producer girlfriend. They are all there, but they don’t work together. They have no Apparatus. So the moment always gets wasted. Sometimes I see them sitting at the corner table with Sandra Bernhard as I drive by the Ivy – three hundred dollar haircuts and eyeglasses that are Belgian design. “Are you single?” she asked benevolently. Trying to help.
“Yeah,” I say, suddenly remembering the beauty of Catherine’s chest tightening and releasing and I realize why I had been avoiding the gay Starbucks. “Do you know someone who would be right?”
“Let’s see,” she says assessing me across the table of Diet Cokes and bad salads. “You’re looking for....a butch professor.”
“No and no,” I say. I am a butch professor. Has it come to this? Am I so inconceivable that I now look like the type that I crave?
“I know,” the WM/E girl says, suddenly lighting up with happiness. We all want each other to fall in love. We really do. And we all do everything we can to help. “What about Louise Rockefeller? She’s a really lovely person.”
“But she’s with Jamie Robbins,” I say – robotically, because some kind of information has entered my consciousness that I have no ability to accept.
“Who’s Jamie Robbins,” WM/E asks.
“She had an Emmy nomination for the Charlie Brown Hanukah special. She played Lucy.”
“I never saw it.”
I was offended. How could someone so in the know that she didn’t get fired in the WM/E merger have never have heard of Jamie Robbins. The great. The great great actress. The one I love.
“Well, they’re together,” I denied.
“No,” the girl answered, looking at her Blackberry to see the time. “Louise has been single for two years. She’s lonely. She said she had a partner but the girl was too selfish.”
Two years. “Sure, I’d go out with her. We both dated the same woman at different times, but I’ll meet anyone.” “Yeah, she said the girl was too selfish.”
“Well,” I realized hopefully. “Maybe Louise would want to talk.” Why not? I thought. Why not just have the conversation. “Sure, I’ll meet her,” I said. It can only illuminate. But I knew it was absurd. Most people don’t do things like that. They don’t just let it happen.
All night I cried. I cried more than when my father died and more than when my mother died. The loss was greater. For two years I had been driving past a mansion where there was no Jamie. I was dreaming, thinking, aspiring to a success that she could not keep a grip on. I wanted the girlfriend that she had failed to be, I wanted the success she had not become. My heart was full with a Jamie that poor Jamie couldn’t have either. I was stark, in my crappy nothing life. And even more, the lesbian grapevine had failed me for two entire years. Now that was devastating. I started thinking about Jamie, not by the pool but on the subway. Borrowing money from her crazy father, and selling off her piano and flat screen TV. She became someone very very near to me. Instead of a frolicking piece of gauze, it was so close I could smell her earwax and I could see her pores. Just like I was once able to do for real. And then I realized that this delayed news of her failure, weirdly, brought Jamie and I closer together than ever. We had both failed at being her. But I’m not her, and she is. So she failed more. It was so LA. It was so stupid. Why can’t people just love their sexy, smart, talented devoted lovers instead of dumping them for the elusive? Why can’t they realize years later that they made a mistake, chosen falsity over substance and pick up the phone and apologize? Why couldn’t we get back together?
I drove down Santa Monica and actually found a parking place in front of Starbucks. Maybe because it was 6:30 in the morning. I knew Catherine would be there because she worked there. She was a barrista.
“Hi,” she smiled, flatly, sexily, intelligently with promise but confusion and that young person’s entrancing directionless lack of hope. She was happy to see me. “What’s new?”
“I’m leaving,” I told her, forgetting everything I ever knew. “I’m going back to New York.”
“Why not?” she said. And then she poured me a grande latte in a venti cup and smiled. She didn’t make me pay. It was her gift.
Sarah Schulman's most recent books are the novel THE MERE FUTURE (Arsenal Pulp Press), and two nonfiction books THE GENTRIFICATION OF THE MIND: Witness to a Lost Imagination (U of California Press) and TIES THAT BIND: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences (The New Press). She is co-founder with Jim Hubbard of the ACT UP Oral History Project and co-producer of his film UNITED IN ANGER: A History of ACT UP.