“Haven’t you ever done something you really regretted when you woke up the next morning?” Steven asked.
I didn’t want to tell him how many times.
It was still early morning, but the SoCal fog was already lifting. We’d been parked at the curb across from the upscale, west-side condominium complex for about half-an-hour, when a blue, late-model BMW 320i drove down the driveway with an attractive, young brunette behind the tinted safety-glass. She turned into the street—and without taking notice—drove past us.
From the driver’s seat of our old VW Rabbit, Shannon looked over at me.
She offered her closed fist.
I bumped knuckles with her. Both our fists popped open in a familiar, pretend explosion with brightly-colored, acrylic nails. I grabbed my purse. As I opened the door, she advised in Español, even though she wasn’t:
“Vaya con Dios.”
I took a deep breath, and with the straps of my Louis Vuitton knock-off slung over my shoulder, rang the doorbell of his condo. I’d dressed smart-casually—my off-white, Aqua blouse opened at the top two buttons with just the slightest cleavage showing, 7 For All Mankind high-waist and ankle, distressed skinny jeans (both from Bloomingdale’s online—my favorite—for 30% off) that fit my lengthy legs flawlessly, and my Puma running shoes (just in case). Come on, come on. I was about to knock, when the lock twisted and the door pulled open.
His smile quickly faded to a panicked stare.
“Jackie? Oh. I-I wasn’t expecting you. It’s just lucky—”
But before he finished his sentence, I cut him off:
“She’s gone, David.” Pause. “I missed my period.”
His eyes bugged wider and mouth dropped open.
But he only continued to stand in the doorway and stare back at me like a confused, little boy—even in flats, I was taller than he (but at five-ten, I was taller than a lot of guys, and eye-to-eye with most)—unsure of what to do next.
“Are you going to let me in or should we discuss this out here on your door step for all your neighbors to see?”
He nodded and pulled open the door.
“Of-of course. Come in.”
He looked outside before closing the door, then turned to me.
“I’m never late.” I employed my Lady Gaga Poker Face: “Never.”
He nodded again and checked his Tag Heuer Chronograph, the deal—buying the swanky watch second owner off Etsy—he’d bragged about that first night in the bar of the Green Hotel.
“Am I keeping you from your tee time?”
He wore a golf shirt with a Tiger Woods logo—like a Red Badge of Courage— untucked over beige, stretch, golf pants. But instead of answering, he asked:
“Have you taken a pregnancy test?”
“Yes, but I wanted to take another to be sure. Sometimes those things read false positives. Or negatives.”
I opened my purse and showed him the unopened First Choice test packet.
“Okay, okay. So nothing’s confirmed. Let’s not panic here.”
But he sure looked—and sounded—panicked. I guess I would be, too, if I were standing in his Top-Siders.
When our dates for the party excused themselves to use the bathroom, I took advantage of their absence and leaned closer to Cooper with his back to the wall.
“Just so we’re straight,” I said confidentially, staring into his lazy eyes, a stupid smile on his sophomoric, look-I-can-grow-a-mustache-now face. “I don’t like you.”
He seemed truly shocked by my candor. He was young, dumb, and handsome, dating my ex-girlfriend Mandy with eyes for my current girlfriend Marie.
It was a small party: mostly undergrads from the state college from which I’d recently graduated and others. The music was loud, so no one appeared to take notice of my confrontation.
“Why-why not, Mike?”
He took a slug of his apple beer—clueless.
“Because you’re a dick!” I said pointedly, but not too loudly.
I kept it small—just between us. Some of his half-drunken frat brothers from SC were there, too. Cooper I could take. But they’d pile on, too. That was their way. I pretended to smile and took a sip of my Corona.
He and my ex Mandy had made a drunken pass for Marie at a local sports bar recently while she was out with a girlfriend. She’d told me about it later.
“They wanted me to go home with them,” she said, her blue eyes staring back at me, her short hair framing her face.
“Really? Are you sure?”
“I know when someone’s trying to get me in bed, babe,” she huffed, crossing her arms under her breasts. “They were acting all giggly about it, trying to buy me shots at the bar to get me drunk.”
This was the first time we’d bumped into them again since that night, so before our dates returned, I told Coop:
“I don’t know what you think is going on here, but I happen to care about Marie. Mandy, too. She’s too good for a dick like you.”
He leaned closer, manning-up, blowing his apple beer breath at me.
“I’m just trying to get laid,” he defended. “Just like you.”
“You’re nothing like me.”
“Problem, boys?” Mandy’s voice asked coyly behind me.
I gave him a last look, then turned.
Mandy—long and lean like a waif model—smiled back at us both and sipped her wine. She was having fun with this. Admittedly, I was still dating Mandy (our relationship had never been exclusive) when I met Marie six months ago. So maybe this three-way-thing was Mandy’s idea of payback, even if it stank of Cooper’s design.
Marie—her freshly glossed lips set firmly—stood behind her, staring over at me, too. We were exclusive. And she wasn’t having fun with this.
Later on the drive back to my place, in the back seat of our Lyft, Marie spoke quietly, so the driver couldn’t hear.
“So did you say something to Cooper?”
“Yes, of course.”
I put my arm around her and held her closely.
“You know me,” I admitted.
She squeezed me tightly. The sweet smell of her perfume soothed my senses.
After we got to my place, we made love. I guess we were both excited and upset at the same time. All I know is—it was great! She was great! Yes, I was falling in love with Marie, all right. Big time!
Six months out of college and I was already questioning my occupational direction. Screenwriter? Actor? Director? Movie and television producer? What the hell was I thinking? It all seemed like a good idea in college. Fun, actually. But in the real reel world, nobody was handing me production money for a film budget. And the best role I’d been able to land so far was a non-speaking acting part—Man-Sitting-at-Counter-Between-Two-Women—on a non-union, straight-to-video, feature film. So I worked internships on other producers’ productions, trying to get a foot in Hollywood’s door.
All of which meant I still had my job at the bar to feed myself and pay bills. I worked weekend nights regularly—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, which allowed me to audition or interview daily—and filled in for the other bartenders when they needed to take off a day or night.
Doheny Beach, California, July 9, 2012—Just got out of the ocean. One year ago last summer, I was in an isolation unit at City of Hope getting a stem cell transplant to wipe-out the cancer that had broken my L-5 vertebrae and threatened my life. Five-months-and-one-week after back-fusion surgery—three titanium rods secured with screws by world-class neurosurgeon Dr. Rahul Jandial—I strapped my surfboard to the roof racks on my truck and drove down anxiously. (I was supposed to wait six months but I’d been working-out vigorously, swimming laps so I wouldn’t drown, and it was over 100 degrees in Pasadena!)
I paddled-out, but never really knew for sure if I’d be able to surf again, a sport which I’d taken up as a teenager and had continued all of my adult life until my back broke from the cancer 2½ years ago. A small, south swell was running—perfect, little waves for my liquid re-hab. I caught three, small waves—muscle-memory took over as soon as I rode each—then paddled-in. Didn’t want to overdo it on my first day back.
Rock-danced the shallows to the sandy shoreline.
Tomorrow, I’ll return and ride six, small waves.
Sitting on the warm sand under a clear, baby-blue sky, staring out at kindred surfers bobbing like multi-colored corks on the blue-green ocean, I pounded my chest, thanking all—All—who had helped return me to this pantheistic altar, at peace with the majestic world around me, a small part of something much bigger.
Cowabunga, Brah! There is life after cancer; and it is good! Really good!
. . . It was all happening even faster than I’d imagined in my wildest dreams! We signed the contract for Solo’s exclusive representation with Mack Samuel’s the next day. A week later, Solo’s dog treats commercial went national. And the checks started rolling in! I paid my tuition for the fall semester, donated my old piece-of-crap SUV to a local charity, and with Solo on leash, we walked into the high-ceilinged showroom of the Porsche dealership on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. A salesman in a dress shirt, tie, and pressed-slacks with coiffed hair approached quickly.
“Hey, guy. You can’t bring that dog in here.” He stood between us and the gleaming sports cars on display.
“That’s too bad,” I said. Solo sat next to me with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. “It’s his money.” I smiled and from my pocket handed him one of our newly-printed, gold-embossed business cards with both our names (Solo got top billing).
He stared at it, then back at us. “Give me a second, please.” He walked over to the glass office with the already-opened door and handed our card to the man at the desk. They spoke and looked over. He got up and walked back over to us with the salesman. His hair was gelled stiffly in place and he wore a large, gold pinkie ring with a black onyx stone and diamonds, and a custom-tailored dress shirt open at the neck. He shook my hand, introducing himself as the sales manager.
“I’ve seen his commercial,” he said, referring to Solo of course. “What can we do for you, gentlemen?”
We put down a crap-load of cash—plastic really—for a brand new, gleaming white (they didn’t have a spotted one) Porsche 911S convertible, cruised onto the 210 freeway with the top down, and got ticketed for doing 85 in a 65 (I was barely touching the gas pedal!), even though the CHP recognized Solo from his YouTube and TV work. “Have a nice day,” he advised us as he tore off my summons. But even with the ticket (I figured I’d go to traffic school and get it expunged from my DMV record), I was having a great day! Sure, I’d just spent our entire signing bonus and first royalty check from the commercial, but we were getting paid monthly now as long as it ran. And Solo had a shoot next week with the Mack Samuel’s people, an audition for a commercial with a crayon company, and a possible audition for a feature film. Solo was a child/puppy star now and as such, we needed to play that part when we cruised around town together or pulled up to a shoot.
Downtown, the late afternoon traffic wasn’t as heavy as he’d remembered. A late-model sedan splashed through a puddle from an early spring rain as it hurried to make the yellow light at the intersection. Another car honked, announcing it was rush hour nonetheless. People who still had jobs still wanted to get home from work. A half-filled city bus spewed blackish exhaust as it pulled away from the red-painted curb and an empty bus bench with peeling green paint.
On the sidewalk, his new running shoes pounded the gray pavement and carved around the few pedestrians who walked the once-bustling blocks of the city’s shopping area, now pock-marked with closed-down store fronts. The bearded runner had an athletic build. He wore running shorts, a sleeveless T-shirt, a new, logo-less cap backwards over his long hair, and wrap-around sunglasses to shield his eyes, the outside corners of which now sported the fine lines of age and exposure—still a young man but thirty lurked around a nearby corner.
Through the hard time, he had remained strong. Weights in the yard. Push-ups. Crunches. Running in place. Always in place. Self-preservation really. But it was nothing like the freedom of the streets. Under new soles, the hard, level surface of the concrete felt good, as if already rehabilitating his quads, hamstrings, and calf muscles, too-long mired in captivity. He dodged a car in the crosswalk, hopped the curb, then ran around the corner of a building where a “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS SALE” sign hung crookedly in the front window.
He continued to run down an alley into the older section of the city, known as Old Town, where all the businesses were closed down, trash cluttered the streets, and unemployed street people in tattered, dirty clothes hung-out in its corners.
A homeless man in a ragged, stained suit with one pant leg partially missing sat hunched-over on a bus bench—no longer on any bus route—drinking from a bottle in a brown paper bag. “Ah-h-h-ra-ga-toh-h-h!” he slurred at the runner who ran past without looking back. A wrong turn here; a dead end there. The runner saw himself reflected in the cracked glass of a closed-down storefront. He needed a shave all right. And a hair-cut, too. But not just yet.