The sick man in my apartment called himself an angel. He must’ve let his halo slip. He looked too exhausted to even peel his bent spine away from the couch.
I tossed my cigarette over the balcony before going inside. The smoke went rotten in my lungs when I saw him wearing my Armani blazer. My Matsuda sunglasses. My Lucchese boots. He would definitely be paying for the dry cleaning bill.
“Who do you think you are?” I asked.
“I could ask you the same thing, James.”
He might’ve been my mirror with his concave stomach and sunken cheeks. He even spoke with my voice. He wasn’t me, though. He could never be me. Least of all because the way he sneered made his face contort into an ugly smear of a picture.
“She left,” he said, twirling my vape in his gray fingers.
“Who?” I asked.
We both laughed because I didn’t really need to ask. The laughter made my bones hurt and I slumped down on the couch beside him. Our legs side by side could have been split halves. We had the same tattoos. He even curled his fingers against his thigh the same way I did.
I wanted to tell him to leave but getting angry didn’t seem worth the calories.
I’d throw him out later after I had a chance to rest.
I didn’t care that Ashley was gone. I didn’t even care that she’d left the other James in my apartment to punish me. She needed her little games to feel in control because without them she’d be nothing but platinum taste and joystick hips.
What I cared about was that she left me first.
Before Ashley there’d been all the heroin addicts from AA with their fawn eyes and bodies like line graphs of a plunging stock. Then the girl from the valley who liked to play the knife game in bed. The stripper who’d give me a chaste kiss after every date before going off to fuck her ex-boyfriend. The pregnant erotica writer in a failed marriage who couldn’t stop crying on my cock.
This city was a labyrinth of bad decisions. Nothing was meant to last here.
The other James found me on the balcony with a copy of Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem face down in front of me. He’d only been there a few days but I’d gotten used to him slinking around the apartment, eating when my back was turned, typing away on his laptop. It was easy to forget about him, like a piece of broken furniture in an unlit corner.
“I know you miss her, but you really shouldn’t be so sentimental,” he said. “It doesn’t suit you.”
“I don’t miss her.”
I hated the way he cocked his head and chuckled. I hated the way he gripped the sides of the balcony and contorted the angles of his body toward me. Every motion he made was a superficial gesture for some imagined cinematographer.
“She certainly doesn’t miss you,” he said. “There’s nothing to miss.”
I didn’t argue. Sunlight slipped away from us and I pushed my glasses up against the bridge of my nose. It’d been years since I’d seen a naked sunset. I was sure it’d sear my weak eyes.
He left. I thought that’d be the end of it but later he approached me while I was taking a bath.
“Stop fucking around. You haven’t written anything in weeks,” he said.
“I don’t feel inspired,” I said, and immediately regretted how weak I sounded.
“Are you not miserable enough?” he asked.
He stepped into the bath, still fully clothed. The water sloshed over the edge of the tub as he loomed over me.
“Everyone knows James Seward can only write when he’s suffering,” he said.
“Get a grip,” I said. “You shouldn’t believe what you hear in interviews.”
He grabbed my shoulders.
I reared up and pushed myself against the edge of the bathtub. The faucet pressed into my back, against the thin bruises on my spine.
I’d gotten so used to the constant pain that even my skeleton felt like an open wound.
“He’s the transgressive prince of L.A. The darling of the new literary wave,” he said, lingering on each word like a sore. “But despite all that success, he never quite managed to climb out of Daddy Bret’s shadow, did he?”
He left scratches on my arms. He pinched the skin on my stomach and his lip curled in disgust.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I believe in you. You can be the best at being the worst.”
It was 2 A.M. and I got another DM on Instagram from a fan. She sent me a screenshot of her holding my latest book, Vacuous Gravity, while she lay in bed wearing nothing but sheer white thigh high stockings.
She wasn’t that cute but I still masturbated to the image. Not because I wanted her. Of course not. When I closed my eyes and tilted my head back I couldn’t even remember her face.
The girl that I imagined crept between my legs with soft reverence. Her stockings rubbed against the inside of my thighs. Her long hair anointed my navel. Wherever she touched me she pulled my false skin away.
“How do you do it?” she whispered as she brought me to orgasm, her heartbeat disappearing underneath the light that poured from my cracked chest.
She could’ve meant my writing. My impeccable style. My ability to transform my image with such ease that nobody would ever believe I was just another middle class kid from Ohio.
But I knew she meant everything. To her I was everything, I was her angel, and no matter how many layers she peeled back she’d never find anything inside me she didn’t want to worship.
When I came I folded my wings over her shoulder blades and held her close. I didn’t want to come back to reality but it seeped in anyway. She disintegrated in my arms. The sound of my fluttering feathers was replaced by the air conditioning. The other James slept on the couch and the sad walls of my apartment tightened around me.
I wanted a girl I could take my sunglasses off for. I wanted a girl that wanted to hold my reflection in the center of her eyes.
The other James came with me to therapy. Dr. Celine told me I’d have to pay the group therapy rate. She came in five minutes late swinging around her cheap Kate Spade bag. I’d been seeing her for years and probably paid her enough money for a Birkin at least. There really was no accounting for taste.
The other James and I sat on opposite sides of the couch, our arms and legs crossed.
“James, you’re looking very thin,” she said. “I mean, practically emaciated.”
“Thanks,” we said simultaneously.
Every time I walked into her office I got that same nauseous feeling I felt the first time. The cold little room with its red Rothko prints and rainbow organized library was probably supposed to seem inviting, but it just made me feel like I was at the center of a theatrical Guignol performance about my own life.
“How have you been?” she asked, her lips pursed.
I wouldn’t be surprised if she erased her memory after each one of our sessions. She had the big swollen eyes of a newborn.
How have you been? Great. Fantastic. There’s a copy of me that follows me around telling me I’m a terrible writer and despite having a bestselling novel I can’t seem to get laid. Everything I eat hurts my stomach and when I do manage to sleep for a few hours I dream of my childhood dog eating broken glass.
“There was a junkie screaming outside my window last night,” I said. “It totally threw me off my dinner.”
Dr. Celine nodded a few times, trying to encourage me to keep speaking.
“Then my favorite hair stylist quit and moved to Toronto,” I said. “You think you could get a decent haircut in this city, but no. I want a John William Waterhouse. Something classic. Timeless. But they all think they’re Picasso.”
“How have things been with Mara?” she asked.
Mara had been three women ago. I realized I’d never even bothered to tell her about Ashley.
“It was never going to work out with Mara,” I said. “She didn’t know how to pose in pictures. I can’t deal with that. I’m a public figure.”
She leaned forward like she was trying to study the space beyond my sunglasses. I never considered telling her the truth. I wasn’t even sure what that would be.
“You look stressed out,” she said. “Have you thought about taking a break?”
I tried to keep my face neutral but she made it difficult. This was the kind of brilliant insight I was paying Hermès money for.
“Why would we need a break?” the other James said. “You can’t take a break here.”
“He’s right. You can’t stop. Everyone is just hoping that you fall off,” I said.
“There’s always someone waiting to take your place.”
“Every woman in this town would stab you for an Instagram follow. You have to convince them they’ll get more clout sucking your dick or you’re done for.”
I wasn’t sure if it was me or him who was talking anymore.
Dr. Celine spoke. “There’s more to life than popularity or success.”
I sneered. “People with that kind of attitude should move to San Diego.”
The other James and I both checked our watches at the same time. We stood up.
“We have to go,” I said. “We’ve got a coffee date with Warren Beatty’s daughter. Or at least, it looked a lot like her.”
“You still have forty minutes left.”
“Next week, then?”
We headed out. The elevator was broken so we had to take the stairs, and by the time we got to the bottom I was shaking and lightheaded. Sweat wrung my forehead and soaked the back of my Allsaints jacket. I dragged my feet with each step. I didn’t know how I was going to make it back home.
I feel nothing, I told myself. I feel nothing.
Nothing felt like my stomach caving in. Nothing felt like a pinched nerve and a sky broken in half.
One Friday night James and I attended a launch party for Colette Parker’s latest book. Another Pair of Ruined Loubotins was supposed to be the “it” novel of the season and it was rumored she’d already spent her six figure advance on cocaine and a closet of vintage dresses once owned by Kanye’s half cousin. We got off the elevator at the top of the Ace Hotel and headed into the crowd in matching pinstripe Dolce & Gabbana blazers and Persol sunglasses.
We hadn’t gone out in weeks. I didn’t want to leave my apartment but I also didn’t want to be forgotten.
We ordered tonics with lime at the bar. Along the way we exchanged ‘hellos’ with the usual faces in the L.A. literary scene. Summer Priestly. Brian Asman. The Forever girls: Anika Levy and Madeline Cash. Several people carried signed hardcovers of Another Pair of Ruined Louboutins. They flashed glittering red under the dim lights.
It just reminded me how long it’d been since I’d written anything.
I headed toward the pool. Colette’s buckled Versace dress lay on the concrete. It wasn’t even 10 p.m. but she was already drunk and swimming around naked. Her eyes shone like ring lights as she lifted a martini above her head and laughed.
I had no idea how she could stand the water. I couldn’t stop shivering. The other James shivered too. He looked like he could barely hold his glass of tonic with his stiff fingers.
Instantly I regretted coming. Each diamond surface melted. The glitter and the lights and the laughter that moved through padded shoulder blades and chandelier earrings couldn’t take away the cold.
And nobody seemed interested in talking to me. The light of the smiling faces around me always seemed to die before it touched my eyes.
I was about to head back down into the elevator, but then I heard the words I always needed to hear.
“Are you James Seward?”
I turned around. A young ingénue with blonde Bardot curls stood in front of me, arms clasped to her chest, leaning forward so that her heels rocked off the ground.
“As long as you’re the one asking.”
She giggled in that way girls away did when anything you said was funny. She even bit her lip. Jesus. It’d been so long since anyone looked at me like that.
The other James was nowhere to be seen.
“I loved your short story collection,” she said. “Lies From A Vicious Heart.”
“Nobody reads that book.”
“Well, I haven’t read all of it,” she said, still smiling.
She slipped her hand into the crook of my arm and I felt my heart pumping again.
“Keep me company,” she said. “Everyone else is so boring. All they want to talk about is their crypto investments and, like, how they’re getting old and need to freeze their eggs.”
She wasn’t real. I knew she wasn’t real, and at any moment her careful presentation of a fantasy would slip away, as it always did, as illusory as any girl that only existed in my dreams.
Still, I liked the smell of her bergamot perfume, and how her tennis bracelet rubbed against my back, and the way she made me warm.
We headed back toward the bar. She ordered a double Grey Goose over ice and I played with the curls on the nape of her neck.
“I bet your eyes are beautiful,” she said, and reached for my sunglasses.
I grabbed her hand. I didn’t care how beautiful she was or how lonely I was. She wasn’t touching my glasses.
“Be careful,” I said, trying to make my smile playful. “If you saw my eyes, you’d fall in love with me.”
She downed the rest of her drink and tapped me on the nose. “I’ll be right back.”
I must’ve waited for her at the bar for half an hour before I realized she wasn’t coming back.
I drank a glass of water and the ice flushed straight to my spine. It formed a cold spot in the shape of the wings I didn’t have anymore.
I wandered back into the pool area. A writer in a red flapper dress was on the stage reading a story about how she took Xanax and passed out on a couch behind a dumpster. Colette Parker was signing the tits of a woman in La Perla lingerie with a pink feathery pen. I kept scanning the crowd.
That’s when I caught sight of the girl with Bardot curls on one of the couches beside the pool. She was with Brian Asman, curled into the center of his chest.
Her lips enmeshed with his. She gave him her warmth.
I didn’t remember leaving, but I found myself outside on the street with the other James. Our coats whipped the dark and he had his phone out to order a Lyft. I felt sick. Twisted inside. I wondered if he was crying underneath his sunglasses too.
“She doesn’t deserve us,” he said.
“No,” I said.
“I wish they at least knew that,” I said, sucking my teeth in. “I wish they gave us the respect they owed us.”
James and I lay in our walk-in closet, underneath the blue lights, surrounded by shopping bags. Buying expensive things was one of the last highs I had, but when we got home from Rodeo I didn’t have the strength left to unwrap anything. My head buzzed and my limbs went numb and when I looked over at the other James I couldn’t tell where he began and I ended.
“I wish they took me seriously,” I murmured. “It doesn’t matter how many books I sell. They’ll only ever see that edgy little boy who wrote an edgy little story.”
“They’re morons. What the fuck do they know about literature?”
Rows of boots lined the bottom shelves. I’d bought my first pair when I signed my first major book deal. I’d stopped wearing them a few weeks later when a girl said they were tacky.
I reached out and touched the black leather, fresh and unworn. They didn’t look tacky at all.
“Nothing. They don’t know anything at all,” I said. “We both know they only pretend to care so they get invited to parties.”
“Their biggest ambition is snorting cocaine off a Pulitzer Prize winner’s dick.”
The other James curled his fingers against his chest. Against the same place where I always felt the clench of my body trying to curl into the vacuum where a soul should have been.
“We would never do something like that, would we?” he asked.
He grew quiet. He rolled over onto his side toward me. For a long moment we stared into each other’s dark lenses, into that black and undisturbed place between us.
“Spit in the face of an angel,” he said.
Then he took his sunglasses off.
If you saw my eyes, you’d fall in love with me. That’d been a tired line I kept using because it seemed to work about half the time. But they really were quite beautiful. A deep and penetrating blue. The kind of eyes that should be kept hidden.
Someone knocked on the door of my apartment. I didn’t know who it could be. I wasn’t expecting another package at least until next week. Even when I opened the door and saw Ashley standing there it took me several seconds to place her. I’d never even considered the idea of her coming back.
She wore a camel Burberry trench coat and thigh high boots. Her sad, expectant eyes peered out from underneath a fresh set of curled extensions. She’d even worn pink lipgloss.
“Can I come in?” she asked.
I wanted to be too proud to take her back. I wanted to see her beg and cry hard enough that it ruined her mascara. But I opened the door wide and let her in. I even poured her a glass of Chardonnay from the bottle she’d left in my fridge.
She sat at the little bartop, ringing her finger around the glass. The other James sat beside her, cradling his head in his hand.
“I made a mistake, James,” she said.
I could’ve soaked in those words like they were sunlight.
“Yes,” the other James said, inhaling vape smoke. “You certainly did. I’m glad you finally admitted it.”
“Oh, please don’t rub it in,” she said, sighing dramatically. “I’ll make it up to you. I’ll-”
-I moved to kiss her. She tilted her head back and parted her mouth and our lips touched and when the tears streamed down her face in a perfect, glittering pairing of emotion I tried to make it all mean more than it did.
The other James stood up and took her hand. We both guided her into the bedroom.
“I’ve missed you,” she said as she sat on the edge of the bed.
The trembling enunciation was just a little too perfect. The way she arched her back and pouted at me was a little too self aware. This, like everything else, was a performance.
Fine. We could perform. Maybe a good show was all we could hope for.
Ashley took off her trench coat, revealing the lingerie underneath. The three of us lay down together, her in the center.
I put my hand on one of her hips. Since I’d last seen her she’d put on fifteen pounds at least. She’d lost that golden, sunkissed glow of a good spray tan and her pale skin revealed all the little flaws on her body.
The other James unclasped her bra. Her breasts weren’t as perfect as I remembered. One was a little bigger than the other, and a hair sprouted from one of her dark areolas. Her absence smoothed away all her flaws in my memory.
The other James must have been thinking the same thing, because he suddenly got up and turned the lights off.
I tried to get hard by touching her, but soon I wasn’t even thinking about her. I thought about the clench in my chest and the ache in the back of my spine. I thought about the sad theater we all willingly participated in as we held each other and kissed and made all the right noises, and how there’s only so many times you could pretend that you’re enjoying yourself before the shine wore away. I smelled the bubblegum of her lip gloss on the back of my hand and it made me want to wipe the lips off her face.
More than that, I wanted to disappear.
“James,” she said in a breathless voice, arching her hips.
I couldn’t see her anymore, thank God, but even her voice made me go soft.
I didn’t know who James Seward was, but he wasn’t me anymore. At some point the hand that signed the book contracts, the same hand right now trying to arouse any good feeling with a woman I didn’t even like, had become a phantom belonging to a brand that belonged to a dream I’d never really believed in.
I had already disappeared.
Then the other James reached for me. Our fingers clasped together and a spark moved through the frozen part of me.
We moved closer toward each other. Ashley, writhing on the bed in her cheap lingerie, might as well not have existed. I touched his anemic chest. His arms brushed my spine.
The gap between us closed. We became split in all directions. We were a mirror that reflected from every angle, an infinite geometry of slender limbs.
I saw it then. Heaven came down. A halo expanded over our heads. It was brighter than any star, illuminated us better than any flashbulb. The bedsheets shirred underneath us like softened wings.
At some point Ashley noticed we weren’t paying attention to her anymore.
“James?” she said, and then her annoyance leaked in. “What are you doing?”
“Go away,” I murmured, cradling my face in my hands. And even those sparse words felt like a mercy she didn’t deserve.
She dressed and left. When she slammed the door behind her we both laughed. For several moments we held each other, laughing until the tension broke inside of us.
I never thought anything could replace that vacuum inside of me. I’d gotten so used to the emptiness that the emptiness had just become a fact of life. I thought I’d spent the rest of my life running down the hallways and streets of this city, from one party to another, chasing the light of promise as it kept moving out of reach.
“James,” we both said at once, and it was the first time anyone spoke my name like I wanted them to.
My name cradled in a delicate and splendid praise. The kind of reverence I should’ve always had.
I sank into those blue eyes. They were as numerous and resplendent as the eyes of an angel.