[Image Credit: Ines Hildur “White Painting II”]
Daniel couldn’t remember why he went to Game Bar, but there he stood in the corner by the jukebox trying to avoid self-evaluation. Sometimes he tried to disappear into the city to break the routine of his life in the city. Does that make sense? This was his paradoxical relationship with Los Angeles, it being both contributor and savior to his alienation. The key was to go to places he would normally avoid: bars, coffee shops, Venice Beach, anywhere that might shatter the pattern of work, home, work, home, work, home. He didn’t think of these excursions as happy wanderings, so much as research missions or ethnographies, a kind of city exploration that might make him, thank god, forget about himself for a little bit. Often after such an outing he could wake up the next morning and start again: work, home, work, home, work, home.
This Silverlake bar was filled with people with expensive haircuts. A man with a cultivated mohawk talked with a woman with a beehive. They had pastel shopping bags clustered around their feet. Daniel played a song on the jukebox and ordered a shot of whiskey to calm his nerves. The couple who sat next to him were decked out in what looked like togas or pajamas. They had headbands and drank pink martinis. There were florescent lights and plastic wall fixtures, all of which made Daniel feel like he was in the food court of a hospital. There was a sterility to the place, and it made him want to leave. He finished his drink and began to get up when a man grabbed his arm.
“Don’t worry, I get up and abandon conversations when it’s appropriate. I burn bridges.” Tall with a beard. Disheveled. The man signaled to the bartender. “For me, evasiveness becomes a sort of comfortable ritual. Don’t worry, man, I’m cool.” Daniel nodded like he knew what the guy was talking about, wondering if he had already drunk four or five drinks compared to his one. He thought he recognized him, but no, probably not. The guy seemed nervous, smelled like pot, sweat.
“Matt.” He said with his eyes on the floor.
“Daniel.” They shook hands.
Without a segue he said, “I love Los Angeles. This city is fantastic and none of those ass holes get it.” He waved at a table of young people behind him, probably film people or mortgage brokers.
“Outsiders see only a city of cars because they are infants. They offer predictable critiques, safe assessments of “postmodern apocalypse” as if Angelenos don’t know the end is coming. Angelenos live in the end. Angelenos invented the end. You understand we are the mad academics hibernating in the sun. America’s heart breaks here because we are the limit of the country. There is Hawaii, but Hawaii is not really there.”
He spoke with his head down, not looking at Daniel. There was no question most people would quickly dismiss this guy as a lunatic because of his ramblings, the lack of eye contact, the high fluctuating volume of his speech. There was something troubling about his hand movements and his impatience. Each moment seemed desperate. It seemed he could not deal with a single moment of silence. Whenever Daniel replied to him, or tried to get a word in, the guy nodded to hurry him along so he could speak again. Daniel was a vessel of a human being, an empty bag of skin for this guy to inflate with his speech. Whatever. He had known many people like this before.
“Are you an academic?”
“Another Red Stripe please.” Matt signaled to the bartender without taking his eyes off Daniel. The question seemed to wake him up out of his rambling coma.
“Are you fellas watching the soccer game? I can turn the channel if you want.” The bartender interrupted, pointing to the screen with the remote.
“I’m Matt,” he said, extending his arm across the bar.
She turned off the television and twirled with her lower lip drawn down to show her teeth, a ridiculously seductive gesture, a rehearsed affectation. “I’m Stacy.”
She was spontaneous and happy, or this is what she wanted everybody to think, as she walked on her toes at every possible moment, her job as a bartender mostly just an extension of the movie sets that probably have rejected her.
“Deep down, she hates herself.” Matt whispered.
“What was that?” She finished pouring a Guinness. Stacy smelled like apricots.
“Like we all do?” Daniel replied, in an effort to defend her.
“Please tell me you know how beautiful you are.” Matt said desperately while getting up, putting on his jacket, suddenly a fool to be escorted off stage. He took a long drink of his beer and put fifty bucks on the bar.
“You want change?”
“Keep it.” Other people were staring at him.
“Thanks, but that’s too much, sweetie.”
“It’s for the twirl. Your song and dance. Now everything is transactional.”
She took the money with a smile and walked away toward the next customer.
Matt sat down again and leaned closer. “I have a PhD. I’ve been out here looking for jobs for a few years. That was my last fifty bucks.” Daniel didn’t know whether to believe him.
“Those guys,” waving at the film people, “are systemic products. In their minds, they are selling themselves constantly. The head tells the mouth to stay silent, however, because of society because of fear. It’s why nothing ever moves forward.”
His ideas were coherent enough for Daniel to think maybe he was just high. Maybe he was just high and sad. That’s all this was. He seemed to be stuck in his head too much. For Daniel, it was sort of entertaining to watch him struggle between his thoughts and the scenes of this depressing bar, such an intense guy in such a superficial social scene. By this point, Daniel had forgotten his work, home, work, home, work, home routine completely, and he settled in to listen as Matt told his story.
He got his PhD in the sociology department at NYU. He had lived in New York for eight years before moving to Los Angeles. He almost got married to an actress, he explained, a woman who was constantly exhibiting her self-delusion. Her name was Monica and they lived in Long Island City. Monica was from the Midwest, and was much younger than him. This was the main reason they were destined for catastrophe, he explained. She was young enough to be excited about New York, just being in the city was fantastic for her. This was Matt’s second time living there, and he had already experienced the disappointment that meets young New Yorkers when they realize that the city is largely indifferent to them. Monica had a deep insecurity when it came to men, a father complex, he said. At first, she wanted Matt’s approval, his love at any cost. But the age difference began to take its toll. She would want to see a band playing in Williamsburg, and he would be quick to point out the band’s cultural insignificance, how the band was perceived to be rebellious but was no real challenge to the status quo, or the cultural elite, in fact the rich needed bands like this to continue exploitation and inequality, etcetera. Monica would feel a deep disappointment at failing to impress him, and would counter that she wanted to see the band for the music not their supposed rebelliousness. A sort of silent argument would ensue. Matt was aware of his constant negativity, but he could do nothing to change his icy disposition around Monica. He thought that this is how you were supposed to act around women, indifferent, aloof. He liked her a great deal, he said, and he even felt lucky that someone so full of life would believe in him, but the problem was he did not believe in himself. Eventually, she began to go out without him. Go to auditions without telling him. She began to pursue her own life, and Matt wasn’t in it.
By the way he said all this and because he ripped apart a cardboard coaster while he talked, Matt must have loved Monica, and he obviously still did. Apparently, Monica got sick of his attitude and began to seek out others who shared her interests, rich twenty-four year olds living off their parents, the kind of Brooklynites who could afford to pursue an aimless and artistic life in New York City, go to brunch every morning and mirror her belief in the city’s possibility. It wasn’t too hard to find men who didn’t stay at home and read Bordieu in boxer shorts all day long. She left one morning, and as Matt explained, this story or this memory of her, in a sense, was all that remained of their relationship.
He said he had a period of intense, almost manic work after they broke up, and he felt a sense of accomplishment. He dismissed Monica as sucking the life out of him, saying to himself that she should have left much earlier. But as time went by, he soon got depressed and retreated inward, but worked on his dissertation. He spent a whole summer in his apartment without leaving. He started to neglect his hygiene. He slept during the day. This extreme isolation, he explained, affected his dealings with his PhD committee. He was so unaccustomed to talking with actual people that he almost sabotaged the whole endeavor, but managed to pull his dissertation together at the last minute.
Later they stood outside smoking cigarettes. Daniel realized, for Matt, going to a bar in such a mad depressive state was probably his only way of talking to people. He started to feel sympathy for the guy. How different were they? Right as Daniel was preparing to walk over to the bus stop to go home, Matt offered to give Daniel a lift to his apartment downtown. Because he seemed to be hammered inside the bar, Daniel was reluctant to get in a car with him. Matt insisted that he wasn’t drunk, as drunks tend to do. So Daniel rationalized, even imagined that sure, maybe he was an alcoholic, so what, but perhaps he was pulled by some divine force, some chronic romantic longing that would shield them from danger, and that maybe he would even overcompensate his drunkenness by driving carefully and competently. This was illogical, but Daniel finally agreed anyway, and he got into his Chevy Impala.
He wanted to tell Matt about himself, about his abandoned literary ambitions, about his shitty relationships with women, about his work, home, work, home, work, home life routine. He didn’t.
“The nervous breakdown is as banal in the twenty-first century as the hay fever was in the twentieth. Social convention tells us that the worst thing to happen to us is to stop functioning in a highly operable manner, to stop the routines of production. If we ourselves go on strike by allowing ourselves to breakdown, we accuse ourselves of having an outdated mindset, an antiquated thought process that we might exist outside the realm of the control society. We internalize this control, self-censorship, whatever you want to call it. When control is the only strategy of defense, you reach a breaking point and you question the whole rationale of trying to control anything, you plunder your own project, you drink, take drugs, and so on.”
Matt kept talking, even with a cigarette hanging from his lower lip. Daniel wondered to himself why he always seemed to be comfortable with semi-insane people. Was he this way himself? He imagined the usual psychoanalytic answers to this question, but he soon settled on a more probable possibility. He was dead most of the time, wandering around in his misery, hopeless to initiate his own liberation. People like Matt, depressed and manic, pursing life however blindly and incompetently, forced him into seeing the world. Daniel was less interested in the conversation than the fact that such conversations helped pinpoint his own obvious vulnerabilities that he seemed so intent on hiding.
“Take that bar. A sanctuary of neoliberal good tidings. Everybody is cool in frumpy dress. Rupture that and you will be shot. For them, rebellion begins and ends with the symbolic like that one guy’s snake tattoo. Meanwhile the days go by. The days go by. Light itself becomes tragedy. Awaking. The spectrum of human fragility, shining in our dark order, our cities and our nights together. This city has many inhabitants, and I guess I have to consider myself one now too.”
There were a few helicopters circling above, and Daniel looked at the outlines of palm trees against the sky.
“Romance is woven into the shadows of this city. The menace is not collectively spoken about because it is the collection itself. The wind seems to say this. It’s October anyway. All bodies are alive and being tracked. The movements are known, chatted about, and forgotten. I don’t know, it just seems like I should be further along, you know? Look. The headlights and the skyscrapers are brothers of illumination. Look. Hey, look. It’s 4 a.m.”
“There’s less traffic at this hour at least.” Daniel said.
“Crosstown. West side to East side motherfucker. Who said it couldn’t be done?”
Bending toward the windshield without losing focus, Daniel looked up to see the downtown lights of Los Angeles. He propped his elbow on the door to cradle his sleepy head. Matt’s speech continued to wash over him, and he suddenly felt comfortable with this confinement. It was like being read to before bed, and he tried to remember his day, how he ended up at that bar, why he continued to let this person use him to feel better. He thought about what it would be like to be Matt. He extended this emotional empathy to all the people out there who he didn’t know and would never know, corporate executives, army generals, painters, Wall Street day traders, architects, HR representatives, whoever. These people were operating with their professional personalities, with deep emotional longings that had nothing to do with their professions perhaps. He had an insane thought, what if he could grasp and hold all the policies and strategies that were ever made because of some unknown emotional longing or yearning. How many decisions were made because of some previous emotional crisis? How many genocides were started because a father left home? Neither of them saw the wreck in the dark patch of the I-10. The unavoidable man and his bloody scalp crumpled within the shattered glass. The shoes, knocked off, one on either side. A shredded car pinned into the guardrail. Matt tried to react, but they would have slammed into the guardrail as well. They heard the double thump, as the car ran over the body. In such moments, when life is most tenuous, the ultimate understanding of the frailty of it all, and then, a slow panic filled the car.
Matt accelerated. He spoke half sentences through his teeth. He was continually rising from his seat and then slamming himself back again. “I just fucking killed somebody.” He took the next exit and circled back around. He would continue to do this, try to push up out of his seat, but was restrained by his seatbelt. He screamed. He pulled his hair. He said it again, “I just fucking killed somebody.”
He drove back through the wreck much slower this time. It must have just happened. No ambulances or police were there. He pulled over to the side, and they could see the man being continually battered by the Los Angeles highway traffic. The body would flip into the air after being hit. Cars would immediately break after running him over, some swerved to miss, some pulled over after hitting him, but most of them just accelerated irresponsibly, people escaping what they didn’t want to know, which was they were part of this horror.
“I just fucking killed somebody.” Matt repeated, quieter this time. And again, “I just fucking killed somebody.” His breaths began to increase. He began to wheeze. He turned to Daniel, his face contorted, boy like. He thought about opening the car door himself and leaving Matt to deal with all this. He just met him. He didn’t have any responsibility with this guy, with what happened. He realized that he didn’t know him or want to know him. He managed to get him to stop screaming and they sat there, neither of them able to look away from the body in the middle of the road. Daniel could see the man’s dark jeans, his oversized sweatshirt. He was black. He was probably dead.
Eventually the ambulance and police showed up. They were interrogated by two cops, a Latino woman and an older white man. Matt and Daniel sat in the back of the cruiser. They said that if Matt would agree to take a breathalyzer, he would be clear of any responsibility. The cops said over and over that accidents like this happen all the time. Before they can block off the road, victims who end up in the street, get hit again and again. Matt was in a state of shock, a state of compliance, and he agreed to walk the line outside the car. He did this successfully, but he failed the breathalyzer test immediately. Even still, the policewoman assured him that he was a victim in this accident, but that they would have to take him in for driving under the influence. While she said this, an ambulance finally took the body away.
Matt was cuffed and put in a cruiser, and Daniel was driven home by another policeman who had arrived. When he was dropped off at his apartment, he was told they would contact him as he was an accessory, but for whatever reason, he never heard from them again. He never found out what happened to Matt, if he was charged with a DUI, or if the man on the highway was officially dead.
Eventually, Daniel forgot about this accident, even as he told people about it. It became a kind of unbelievable story he mentioned during social gatherings, coming up in conversations about Los Angeles or about the police or about driving, yet he hardly thought about it or reflected on the randomness and absurdity of it all. He had compartmentalized this tragedy, as he also had resigned himself to his compartmental life of work, home, work, home, work, home.
One night, a year or so after the accident, he attended a literary reading at the Hammer Museum, and Daniel was surprised to see Matt, the guy from the accident. He was cleaned up, wearing all black, looking like one of those faceless, professional people who guard culture with a stern emotionless disposition. He was there to introduce the readers and talk about future programs and exhibitions at the museum. It was part of a program series about ambience and what ambience had to do with urban spaces, so Daniel guessed Matt was contributing as a sociologist in some way. Was this success for him? Daniel sat in the audience and watched the reading. The first author was accompanied by a musician who interrupted the reader with long sustained notes played on a synthesizer. It was a kind of call and response between the author and the musician. Daniel didn’t think much of the author, but he loved the music portion of the performance. It was eerie and peaceful. From his seat, he could see Matt in profile. His face remained unchanged throughout the reading. But Daniel imagined his story, as if there was some cinematic extension. He cleaned up, went to AA, probably got married to someone he met at a meeting. He would feel mixed about this, slighted by something lost, unnameable. He gave up a career in academia. He freelanced now in something else. Spent time in coffee shops. He blocked out the accident, but it would never go away, the man who died. Ever since, Daniel imagined, youth had become something to forget.
Benjamin Lawrance Miller teaches composition and creative writing at Queensborough Community College (CUNY). He has a MFA in Writing from the School of Critical Studies at CalArts. His essay “Failing Thoreau in the Year 2000,” a reflective piece about living in the woods of West Virginia, appears in BLYNKT, and he is the author of “Exhibitions of Temporal Ideology,” a critical essay about New York City urban development that is published in a recent issue of Forward, a design journal of the American Institute of Architects.