The door read 19. The numbers were old and rusty, bearing no resemblance to the newly remodeled brick exterior that Emily talked about so much. It had been six months and she still could not get over how “elegant” the building was, slumped between Santa Monica and Wilshire in an “up and coming” West L.A. neighborhood. I had brought chicken noodle soup, microwaved at my own shitty apartment. The steam teemed from the cup, making it seem colder outside. I was shivering between layers of clothing and misplaced excitement. I knocked on the door and waited. I knocked again.
Emily had graduated with a B.A. in American Literature, maintaining a beautiful vocabulary and a deep appreciation for Virginia Woolf. In high school, we would laugh about living in New York together, working for avant-garde literary magazines and running in some kind of circle – any kind of circle. But we were stupid and drank too much and laughed too much and by the time we graduated, had reserved our dreams to jokes. Through our rants on 1960s pop art and old “Sex and the City” episodes we bore some resemblance to the people we wanted to be. Emily once said it was like getting a B+ having studied for an A-. I asked about the A-, always wondering why it wasn’t an A. She laughed and then I did. We forgot about the question entirely, about the issue entirely.
After college she moved to Los Angeles, into a one-bedroom that her father pays for to this day. On one of those irregularly hot Southern California days, we moved in her overpriced, Pottery Barn white-canvassed loveseat with a matching chase lounge, collapsing into the cushions. She called her father back in Texas and seductively, silently explained that she was “working on some things,” while pouring herself a vodka-cranberry, pouring me one with too much cranberry. She frequently tells me that I have a drinking problem.
After she hung up, we attempted to assemble her brand new TV, laughing when we figured out we had the wrong instruction manual, already tipsy as we stumbled out of her apartment and towards Best Buy. The sun was bright overhead, the sky perfectly endless, eerily infinite amongst the smog that I frequently call “marine layer.” But instead of going to Best Buy, we drove around west L.A. in my car, too new and too shiny, looking at people on the street, buying clothes from foreign boutiques and eating at restaurants with names like Toast or Waffle or Aroma – always better in theory. We finally made it back to her apartment as the vast, empty sun made its way into the ocean, swallowing Santa Monica in a methodical blaze. The windows were big and beautiful and we watched the darkness come – the loveseat and chase the only things in the living room, the TV still not working. Emily slid over to me on the couch, fingering the small hole in my jeans. She whispered even though it was just us.
“I love this city. I love being young in this city.” I know what she means but do not at the same time, turning to face the cityscape instead of her big, beautiful eyes – icy blue, always open yet never really looking. Later that night, driving home, I stopped at a red light and began to cry, thinking to myself, “I hate this city. I hate this big, beautiful city,” The light turned green and I kept going.
I opened the door to my much smaller, much colder apartment. My parents had given me several old pieces of their forgotten furniture. I thought of them sitting on the couch at home, laughing in their comfort and ease of old age. Emily described the place as rustic, manly yet put together. I turned on the heater and crawled into bed, feeling the wonderful, naked warmth of Robert. His back faced me, broad and bronzed. His hair was thin and his eyes brown, dark and deep. My hand touched his side, reaching over to feel the hair under his navel. It rested there for what seemed like hours. He finally rolled over and with his eyes closed he touched my face, his hands rough and inviting.
“How was Emily?” He whispered, barely moving his lips.
But instead of answering him, I pushed my hand further down into his woven boxers, finding what I wanted and kissing him hard on the mouth. He slipped off my own boxers and we no longer whispered, unafraid.
Emily came to the door. I had been knocking for five minutes, the soup still in my hand, the thought of my car and if I had fed the meter in my head. She wore a crème colored dress with a bright, thin red belt. Her hair was perfectly placed and her smooth body smelled of expensive perfume. I was there when she bought the Chanel #5 back in high school (it certainly smelled like Chanel #5). The sales attendant had asked if I was her boyfriend and we both laughed, never telling her no. It felt like another inside joke and we loved it – something unspoken, something secret.
Emily’s eyes looked bigger than ever. Every time I left her, I forgot how beautiful she was. Her legs were forever smooth and touchable. One time I asked if I could run my hand up the left one and she simply nodded, looking at me the whole time I did it. Her waist was trim but never malnourished, always a healthy weight. My mother said she had a way of being skinny but never presumptuous, as if she was trying to be skinny. In fact, it didn’t seem as though Emily tried at anything. Her breasts protruded from her delicate dress (size two), full bodied beings without a mind of their own. She was in control.
My eyes rested on her face, finally smiling, asking why I was late, even though I wasn’t. I walked in and set the soup on the tiny kitchen table.
“I thought you were sick. You told me you couldn’t make it to lunch. That you couldn’t even get out of bed.”
“I’m sorry bear. I was but now I feel so much better. I’m going to dinner with Cameron, just drinks actually.” She stared at me, as if asking for my approval. I immediately thought of Robert naked in our bed, touching himself, asking me why I didn’t love him any more. The bed began to shake, the sheets soiled with his tears, and he materialized into its cold confines, blending in with Emily’s stark walls. Once again, Emily stood in front of me, but this time it was her that was crying.
“He hit me you know? He was drunk and we were at this club on Sunset but still. He hit me.” She looked out her big, beautiful windows, as if searching for something, as if in the smog-infested hills she was going to find our adolescent dreams, our New York, our inner circle, but most important – the perfect she she could possibly be. There would be no A-, only an A and the promise of perfection.
“Why do you still see him? It’s not like he’s your boyfriend.” I said as I fidgeted in my stance, trying not to follow her gaze and look out the window myself. But she didn’t answer me. Instead she grabbed her clutch and rifled through it to produce a compact. She blotted the area around her eyes, careful not to make it look overdone. I knew that she would finish her make-up and explain to me that Cameron wasn’t actually that bad of a guy. She would look at me with those vast, empty eyes that could do no wrong and reason that she was simply “going through a rough patch.” She would grab her sleek and simple purse and ask me to drive her to the Ivy or the Bennington where she was to eat, or just have drinks, with Cameron. I’d tell her okay and we would listen to inspiring yet melancholy ballads the whole way there, laughing at an awkward pedestrian or a silly girl pulled over for doing seventy-five on Sunset in her three series. Finally, I would watch her and her crème-colored dress and her feigned simplicity and ease walk into the restaurant, where she will sit quietly and listen to Cameron talk about his movie deals that will never happen. They will make love in his car or one-bedroom apartment in Studio City and she will treasure it briefly, but continue to cry, continue to look out the big, beautiful windows and think how she’s just working on some things.
Emily waited for my answer. But instead of giving her one, I took her face in my smooth hands and kissed her equally smooth lips. It did not matter that she had some place to go or that Robert was making pesto pasta for us at home. It did not matter that I loved boys and she respected no one but Virginia Woolf. We fell into one another, desperate to please, touching and tainting. Her sheets were warm and used, reminiscent of the humid, Texas nights when we would lay on the pavement and look up at the endless sky and make endless promises to one another. Our breath smelled of whiskey and hope, visible even in the summer heat.
After it was over we laid on her living room floor, the carpet white and immaculate. The windows and sky were bigger than ever, beautiful and bright even amidst the LA glow of teamsters and moviegoers and soccer moms. I checked the clock and pulled myself to my feet, knowing Robert would be waiting, the table set and the pasta hot.