[Image: “Crossing the Ohio Louisville” by Danny Lyon]
Riding in the passenger seat of Dana’s cherry-red 1988 BMW 325i Cabrio, speeding down Pacific Coast Highway from the house in Topanga, on the way to meet my girlfriend Anina at the rented house in Laurel Canyon, I read an article on my phone about how every New Yorker has sat next to Jake Gyllenhaal on the subway at some point of living in the city. Which of course isn’t true.
“Is Jake Gyllenhaal washed up or just filming something in NY, I saw him in Canal St. train station looking mad scruffy with fear pack 4s on,” someone writes in the comments section of the same article.
I never sat next to him on the subway when I lived in New York, but I saw him on the Q train once as the doors closed, severing the space between us. He looked up and met my eye and I wondered if he’d seen my pilot air on ABC Family the month before. Then he dropped his bagel on the salt-stained subway floor, picked it up, and kept on eating. This incident was also well-publicized. A few years later I asked Leslie, my publicist, what it all meant.
“It was premeditated,” she told me. “It was a calculated move. By both riding the subway and then picking up the bagel and eating it, Jake is showing the world he’s a dirty boy with major sex appeal. He’ll fucking do anything. It was promo for Prince of Persia, and maybe even Love and Other Drugs.” This was a few months before my second major television show, Taavi from Arcadia bombed and was subsequently cancelled from Nickelodeon, at which point Leslie asked me to fake my own kidnapping to revive my career, which brings us to present, and which is why Dana and I are driving to the house in Laurel Canyon. It’s where I’m supposed to stay for four days while the media thinks I’m being held captive in Medellin, where I was kidnapped during a location scout for an as-yet untitled Oliver Stone film which is also rumored to star Benicio Del Toro and Elle Fanning. It doesn’t matter if Oliver Stone or Benicio or Elle deny any knowledge of involvement, Leslie told me. It might even be better that way.
After I saw Jake in the subway I spent hours watching paparazzi videos of him on Youtube, in an apartment in Gowanus where I was dog-sitting. In one clip, he leaves the Beresford, the palatial apartment building on Central Park West that Jerry Seinfeld lived in at the time, in a dark baseball hat and a shearling jacket.
“Were you coming from the party at Seinfeld’s?” the paparazzo asks.
“Have a good night, buddy,” Jake says cooly, and, like an apparition, descends yes, into the subway from whence he came.
I look at images of the apartment building on Google Earth, and on the 3D rendering it’s day not night, and of course Jake is nowhere to be found. A woman walks down the sidewalk with a carriage in front of her, but the satellite feed is jilted and she appears in uneven blocks, a square infinitesimal blip in the pulsing green radar.
As we speed down Pacific Coast Highway doing 85, Dana tells me he thinks Anina will probably break up with me soon, and I’m not that surprised he says this but I still ask him why.
“Because you’re not that famous,” he says slowly, carefully unpacking the reasons. “And you’re kind of poor now. And you’ve become so weird.”
I imagine a scenario in which a heartbroken Anina cries in her mother’s lap over our breakup, a Ralph Lauren blanket draped around her head and shoulders, deep cover.
“All he ever cared about was that stupid dog!” she sobs, almost hysterical. I don’t have a dog, but for certain purposes it works. And it’s also a Lexipro commercial.
“I don’t know,” I say to Dana. “I hope not.”
We make a brief pitstop in Santa Monica and steal some of Dennis Quaid’s mail, and when we get back to the car Dana puts on an episode of This American Life which somehow seems wrong.
“Man Dives Into 1500 Gallons Of Coca-Cola, Adds Mentos And Flies A Drone Into It” a link on my Facebook reads, but I don’t click it.
For a moment, Dana and I imagine that big, ominous house in Calabasas completely empty except for the film crew. The furniture is gone, Kendall is gone, Kris is gone, a tripod and DSLR camera film the empty space where Kylie’s bedroom used to be. There are still tire marks in the driveway from Scott Disick’s white Lamborghini peeling out after a fight with Kourtney. The security feed conveys a grayscale cluster of grapes abandoned in the empty yard. The grass looks like it was mowed recently. If you try hard enough, past the overwhelming scent of the California sycamore, you can still make out the faint smell of nail polish remover on the breeze.
I used to tell people I fell in love with Anina the moment I saw her. That was never true, but I liked the way it made me seem naive to whomever I was talking to. I first saw her in a trailer in West Hollywood, as she applied an iodine-based ointment to the grisled face of a barely post-Fools Gold Matthew McConaughey, who was my drug dealer at the time. I’d texted him for some of his weak Venice Beach mids, but he told me he was in make-up for four hours and didn’t have enough on him, but begged me to come hang out because he was so bored.
“You wouldn’t think it from looking at a cute little thing like her,” he’d drawled, “but she puts me through hell and back every day. She’s basically a black belt in make up.” Or something stupid like that.
I nodded and watched as she dipped a finger in a paint dish of vaseline and slicked back her own shoulder length hair, which had been falling in front of her face as she toiled over the oafish actor. She inspected me while Matthew was in the bathroom. She’d seen my pilot. She told me I needed to thicken my eyebrows with castor oil and I told her I already had a regimen.
We pull into the drive and Dana hands me my bag. The house isn’t big, but its Mission Revival trappings are comforting and familiar. Inside, Anina greets me warmly, not like she’s going to break up with me, and chats with Dana about the new Game of Thrones episode while I put my stuff in the bedroom.
An alameda bed with floating rails sits in the center of the room, two adobe chairs beside, a faux gazelle skin pelt beneath a 65 inch HDTV. A sun-bleached longhorn skull hangs next to a framed Danny Lyon print of some motorcycles above the rustic pine dresser, and the red heartbeat of a surveillance camera flickers as it looks out onto a small balcony.
Later that night, after dinner, after three glasses of vinho verde, after Dana has left, Anina and I make love on the alameda bed as I watch the surveillance camera swivel in its ball and piston mount, it’s small glass eye facing us like the dot of an exclamation point, and I wonder who is on the other side. If a time-stamped sex tape gets leaked it would obliterate my kidnapping narrative. On the other hand, sex tapes have helped spark so many beautiful careers. Behind us, on the flat screen, Frozen is on. The “Let it Go” song is being sung.
it’s funny how some distance
makes everything seem small
and the fears that once controlled me
can’t get to me at all
“Fuck me to Frozen,” Anina whispers again and again. “Fuck me to Frozen,” and the alliterative power of the words brings to mind William Blake’s “The Tyger.” In one scenario, I turn to the surveillance camera, and begin to recite the poem, in freakish percussive beats. Perez Hilton tweets about it and has a nervous breakdown. In another, I fall asleep while Anina smokes hash and reads TMZ with her laptop propped up on a pile of Aziz Ansari Modern Romance galleys. In the morning, the news of my kidnapping has spread.
Months later I sleep fitfully, with my window open, inviting in the eerie rustle of leaves from the poplar trees our landscaper planted, and the fleshy smell of gardenias. My dreams are strangled up with old territories, stuff from my past life, an intelligence that’s private and close to me but if you asked, I couldn’t say specifically what exactly it was.
When I wake up it’s evening, the television is on and playing the TNT James Bond marathon, a Coqui Coqui candle from Tulum burns on the nightstand, a police siren whines somewhere down the mountain, and I have voicemails that I barely register. Anina is in the other room, and the nascent smell of an autumn dinner — squash, something with basil — reminds me of the early iterations of the same scenario. Cold western Massachusetts nights in Sara’s small $500-a-month apartment, making dinner together after an architecture lecture we showed up stoned to, and pretended to care about.
“Is there anything I can help with,” I ask, walking into the kitchen, wrapping my arms around her from behind. She smells faintly of sweat and Le Labo’s Santal 33.
She smiles and turns, kissing me. “No, sleepyhead,” she says. She curls her fingers into a pistol and mimes shooting me. She once told me she’d kept a silver 35 Magnum, a cowboy gun, in the drawer next to her bed when she lived in Encino.
“It was a one bedroom in one of those shitty apartment complexes,” she had said, “one of the ones you stay in when you first come to LA and decide to be an actor.”
“I never stayed somewhere like that,” I lied.
My past failures weren’t an issue, I guess. She had bankrolled my life for weeks when I awaited callbacks following the kidnapping, when everyday I insisted on eating at Tamara’s Tamales on Washington Boulevard, when it was unclear what my future would be.
My circadian rhythm had changed, ecdysis, the old skin gone for gleaming scales. My very own green blip had reappeared in the radar’s pulsing bullseye: I’d signed on to two major projects that had already wrapped, the money was good, and the acting unimportant. I’d sleep most of the day, and rise ceremoniously to devote my evenings to Anina. We’d cook together, watch HBO, mercilessly decorate our house with expensive antique furniture. At Anina’s behest I’d joined her bookclub, in which the troglodytes next door complained about Salman Rushdie, and so on. After dinner, if Anina was tired, Dana and I would meet at a bar called The Marlin, and drink to excess, and then ride around looking for something to do. We’d both bought motorcycles.
Anina serves dinner, butternut squash, salad, and pork loin rubbed aggressively with rosemary, on a pair of pastel orange sherbet and robin’s egg blue handcrafted plates fit for Tony Montana that she’d bought from a street vendor during a recent trip to Spain. When we finish eating we watch an episode of The Wire, and Anina says that she’s tired. She tells me to wake her up when I go to bed and I tell her that I will.
I ride my 1964 Triumph Tiger — the same model Dylan crashed in ’66 — down the driveway to the gate and look back at our home, twinkling with golden light, and so landlocked by the sloping ivy, and fenced in like a bunker. Then I ride down the mountain to The Marlin, where I meet Dana, whose bike is already parked beneath the glowing awning when I arrive.
There is something pious about the place, past all irony, something in the way the men sitting at the bar bow their heads. We drink mescal and Dana shows me blueprints of a museum, and tells me about how the architect designed secret passages that lead to a subterranean, temperature-controlled gallery that anyone can access if they know the way. Dana tells me he paid over a grand for the blueprints (or the equivalent in bitcoin), which aren’t available anywhere but the hallowed staircases of the deep web.
“The rumors on the message boards say that the artwork rotates between highly mythologized pieces. Paintings thought to have been lost or stolen, or destroyed.” He speaks like it’s a recitation. “And stuff you never even knew existed. Rembrandt, Van Gogh. Sacred work.”
He tells me he’s booked a flight to France the following month to try to find the passage. He points his finger at the blueprint, and says “It’s right here. It has to be.” I look and see an indistinguishable mess of blue lines that look like nothing much at all.
“It sounds like a hoax,” I tell him.
“Maybe,” he sighs, signaling another round with a graceful swoop of his index and middle fingers. “But I doubt it. My friend is a docent, and she tipped me off.” I ask him who and he says I don’t know her.
Later the same night, when we leave The Marlin and drive out towards the canyon, we are witness to a gas station robbery. We park the bikes outside a Mobil station, dark save for the longing in the big glass windows, quiet as hell except for the few crickets in the vegetation past the parking lot. Dana wants a pack of cigarettes, lotto tickets, a slushy, a pack of chewing gum, a can of beer, a Reese’s Pieces, some beef jerky, some condoms, a bottle of Fiji water, and a bar of soap, he tells me.
We walk in wearing our distressed leather jackets, a switchblade tucked into the seat of Dana’s pants, my hair greasy with a beeswax pomade Anina bought for me in a boutique in Echo Park, like we’re the criminals.
The gas station appears empty when we walk in, but soon I feel the cold steel of a gun pressing into the back of my neck, and I can smell the sweating wool of a ski mask, and I look over and another gunman, bigger than mine, tufts of blonde surfer hair poking through the eyeholes, has Dana in a headlock with a gun cocked and pushing into Dana’s crotch.
“Shut the fuck up,” the first gunman, mine, says, although nobody has said anything.
“Okay,” I tell him calmly, though I can feel my underarms wetting. The thought of pissing in my pants occurs to me, feels comforting, like kindergarten, someone to change me.
“I thought I told you to shut the fuck up, Nickelodeon,” he says, and Dana laughs, then coughs as the second gunman presses the Glock harder against Dana’s dick.
They push us up against the far wall, where, behind the counter, a group of three people have been shoddily but aggressively bound in chicken wire, no doubt taken from the camping section of the gas station (we are near the trailheads of Topanga Canyon). A youngish-looking asian man, who I take to be the clerk, judging from his blue name-tagged vest, has a broken nose, below which blood has pooled and dried, almost the color of maple syrup.
The gunmen must have run out of chicken wire, I can hear them bickering behind us about the order of operations. One suggests locking the door, then finding something to tie us up with.
“But then how the hell are we going to get out,” the big blonde one says. His voice is wooden, with a decidedly Orange County bend.
“We just unlock the door and leave,” the first one says sternly. He’s cooler, an east coaster maybe.
The blonde one seems concerned about the lock. “What if it jams,” he asks worriedly.
“I have an idea,” Dana says to them. He sounds okay, but I can tell he’s terrified.
“No one asked you, retard,” the first gunman says.
“How about this,” Dana continues, voice wavering slightly. “You shut the lights. That way the store looks closed. Anyone passing by won’t even think twice. You leave the door unlocked. Then you tie us up. Then you finish stealing the money and leave.”
Silence, and then I can hear the two men whispering.
“Fuck you,” the first gunman says to Dana. “Don’t fuckin move.”
The second gunman moves around behind us. Pretty soon the lights go out, they tie us up with extension cords, finish emptying the cash box, and leave.
I look over and can see how scared the three other people are. It’s only just occurred to me that they’re still there. Not one of them has said a word since Dana and I arrived. The clerk looks out of it, maybe concussed, and a middle-aged lady starts sobbing. Her wet blanket boyfriend just stares at us, doing nothing to comfort the woman. He opens his mouth, then closes it, then says angrily “What the hell were you thinking? You could’ve gotten us all killed by talking to them like that.” His eyes widen and wait for a response.
“It’s okay, everyone,” I say eventually. “I’ve been kidnapped before.”
Jonah Simonak has studied Comparative Literature and Creative Writing at Hampshire College, where he graduated in May of 2014. In 2015, he was awarded the Henriette Reiss Award for his writing.