We were sitting in the backroom of a karaoke bar with a pregnant woman, a man wearing cat-eye sunglasses, and another man in a baseball cap that said HORROR: WRITE YOUR GUTS OUT.
“I don’t really write horror anymore,” the man in the baseball hat was saying.
The pregnant woman sat between the two men, clenching her teeth and speaking almost not at all, except to excuse herself to the bathroom every few minutes. The man in sunglasses was a mystery. When I asked him why he was wearing sunglasses in a dark karaoke bar, he said, “I like the mystery of it.”
Or maybe he said, “My mother told me never to stop seeing the world through a rose-colored lens, so I never did.”
“Direct light hurts his eyes,” mustered the pregnant woman through a mouth that might as well have been wired shut.
Cat Eyes took off his glasses and turned to me. “In all honesty, my eyes are too piercing.”
It was true, his eyes were shocking. Two electric blue beads set deep into a small, cup-shaped face. Bright holes holding cold water. I scanned the rest of his face, taking him in for the first time. His nose was aquiline, pinched on the sides, and his smooth cheeks puckered into a bulbous node on his chin. The caramel sheen of a recent fake tan stopped at an abrupt edge right above his collarbone, as if he’d gone in fully clothed. I tried to maintain eye contact but couldn’t.
“See. It would scare people away,” he said, winking and slipping the sunglasses back on.
The pregnant woman got up to pee again and I wanted whatever these people were on.
All month Connie had been trying to get me to write her a love letter. Pls write me a luv letter, she’d text me at random hours, or leave scrawled on Post-It notes for me to find when I woke up. That morning it was spring in Los Angeles and the air smelled like lavender. We sipped coffee and read the news on our phones in bed, quizzing each other on the names of new storm systems, cities under siege in Eastern Europe, fluctuations in gas price. Work had slowed down for me and picked up for her. I tried not to pry but could see her typing a long text to someone. She caught me and without looking up asked, “Where’s that love letter you’re writing me?”
I had tried in earnest to write her one on the plane home a few weeks before, but kept getting distracted by the bickering between a flight attendant and a petulant passenger who refused to keep her mask above her nose.
“Mike!” The woman shouted at several intervals throughout the six hour flight, beckoning from a dozen rows away the poor flight attendant whose name she demanded to know after he first asked her to keep her mask on properly. “I see you taking a sip from that water bottle without your mask on!”
Every now and then a pimply Hasidic teen plopped down in the empty aisle seat next to me and asked if he could sit there. He had a big, wondrous grin like a door-to-door salesman.
“It’s assigned seating,” I told him for the fourth or fifth time.
We were traveling back in time as we slipped through the night of the vast, weary country 30,000 feet below us. The clock ticked back for us, but we weren’t getting any younger. The plane jostled over the Grand Canyon. I wasn’t in the mood to write a love letter.
The way we’d come to be at a karaoke bar in Koreatown with a group of people we barely knew was like this: earlier we had all been at a poetry reading in a gentrified pocket of Glassell Park. Poorly attended, nicely lit. String lights stretched between tree branches and the mauve sunset hung like a stage prop background, too perfect to be real. The ring of hills was cast in shadow, cradling us like a cocoon. We listened halfheartedly to each reader, applauded politely at the appropriate times, scanned the scant audience for familiar faces, checked our phones.
The pregnant woman, whose name was something seasonal, read a series of loosely connected poems about her lover and their tortured romance. In her timid, jaw-tight, slightly seductive voice it was hard to make out most of what she said, except for the poem’s description of the lover: tall and thin, demure, clothed all in black and always accessorized with a designer stud belt and ornate sunglasses.
After the reading, I noticed Winter talking to a man who bore a striking resemblance to the man from the poems. I went up to introduce myself and asked if they were a couple. The question seemed to them spoken in a foreign language.
“You must be the lover from her poems,” I plodded on, nodding to his attire.
He wore sunglasses like someone’s grandmother in Boca Raton. His belt was the exact same designer she had made explicit reference to just moments before. They looked at each other and back at me with faces like ancient stone.
“Not at all,” Summer said. “I live in Texas with my husband.”
“And I live here, amongst the smog and angels,” Sunglasses added, stretching his hand out dramatically towards the ambiguous heavens.
“Sorry,” I backtracked. “It’s just your belt, and the sunglasses. I thought maybe you were the figure in the poems.”
“I don’t see the resemblance at all,” said Spring.
I looked down sheepishly. Her belly was basketball-mounded and wrapped in a tight black bodycon dress. A slit ran down the side, exposing her left leg.
I’d only smoked a hit of weed but was starting to feel delirious and a little aroused. I ducked out to splash some water on my face and plot an exit. When I came back, Connie was standing in a small circle of nervous laughter. She turned to me, her big green eyes bounding in the string lights and plum sky, and said, “These guys want to get a drink in Ktown and sing some karaoke. Wanna give us a ride?”
Someone was singing a wildly off pitch rendition of “How Deep is Your Love” by the Bee Gees. Connie had gone to get another drink or smoke another cigarette, so it was just me and Cat Eyes on the leather couch sticky with spilt liquor.
“Have you ever written a love letter?” I half-shouted in his ear over the croon and scratchy speakers.
He was staring straight ahead, past whoever was on stage singing, past the heap of people swaying by the bar, past the rafters and wires, and up into the white heat of the strobe lights, where the mysteries of the universe pulsed in a Morse code I didn’t understand. I wasn’t sure he’d heard me until I saw a faint, coy smile carve itself in his clean-shaven face. Eternity passed between us.
“A love letter is just a series of words scrawled on a scrap of paper,” he offered, not breaking his daydream stare.
I was beginning to think this man’s whole vocabulary was lifted from self-help books and fortune cookies. I wanted to be polite so I nodded at what he said and made a thoughtful sound like hm!
But I thought about what he said and tried to find the hidden meaning in it. I pictured soggy letters in a bowl of alphabet soup, cryptic vanity license plates, Lithuanian sign language interpreters. I thought about the colorful alphabet refrigerator magnets we had at home that were always being rearranged to form sexual innuendos. I thought about the Language Poets and Gertrude Stein and kids in daycare speaking prophetic gibberish.
In my head the fridge rearranged the letters to ask, LUV LETR?
“Everything turns into writing,” wrote Ted Berrigan. “I strain to gather my absurdities into a symbol.”
Cuz we’re living in a world of fools, breaking us down when they all should let us be, sang the karaoke machine.
I sipped my beer to the warm dregs and took leave of my cat-eyed sage to find the others.
Outside it was the middle of Koreatown on a Friday night. There were cars stopping and starting in traffic, a few people scurrying across the wide intersections. The silhouettes of buildings on Wilshire jutted out all in a row like the CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER screen in a video game—Art Deco concert hall, midcentury bank building, Byzantine Revival synagogue, postmodern pavilion. The world felt like something awful impending. June gloom had set in early; Mercury was back in retrograde. Everyone was jittery, uncertain, a little gun shy. We were recalibrating and wanting to let go.
The only person outside was the ex-horror writer. His name was Rob and he was dressed like a roadie for Twisted Sister. Rob was standing by himself smoking a Marlboro 100 and had a vacant stare just like Cat Eyes. He seemed kind and soft spoken.
“What’s up, Rob?” I said, walking over and pulling out a smoke of my own.
“Oh hey, man. Nothing going, just watching the moon rise.”
In LA, everyone speaks like they’re in a Raymond Chandler story.
“Having a good night?” I asked the heavy metal Philip Marlowe.
“You know,” he said, though I didn’t really, and looked at him to elaborate.
He pulled on the cigarette long and how a monk might, but didn’t say anything more. His tone now was at odds with his earlier demeanor—something had shifted for him, too. Something more than just the position of the moon. All night he had been cheery and smiling, a pleasant guy along for the ride. I didn’t know him well enough to interpret any deep meaning to this shift, but it seemed like something was troubling him. Maybe it was the same thing we all had on our minds, just didn’t know how to articulate.
We didn’t talk much more than that, just smoked our cigarettes and looked out at the street.
Eventually a man came up to us out of the shadows and asked for a smoke. I offered one from my pack and helped him light it.
“Listen, youngin’,” he started as my hands cupped the cigarette for him to catch the flame. “You got a lady?”
I nodded, gesturing off towards nothing specific, and took out another smoke for myself. “You treat her alright? You be sure to treat her right, you hear me?”
I nodded some more but was short on words. He was calm and unbothered and I could tell he had more to say so I listened while he told us about love and loss.
“Be sure to tell her you love her plenty, ok? And write her, too. Write her all you want to say but don’t know how.” He was looking right at me. “Writing’s something you can hold onto.”
Our eyes met. They were bright green, like Connie’s, like lily pads, like radioactive moss. I was a deer in headlights, not making sense of things quickly enough to avoid the oncoming crash of his words. I looked at Rob to see if he made anything of it, and then back at the man, but he was already gone, hopscotching off into the night like an apparition in some Shakespeare I only half remembered.
Rob went back inside and I was alone on the street then. I waited a while but no one else came out. There was alcohol in my blood and a faint buzzing in my ears, the melody of a song stuck in my head. I felt like walking. After a few blocks, all the cars and noise faded away, and the tall buildings thinned into long stretches of office and apartment complexes, and further on into a patchwork of tree-lined residential streets that led me home.
It was quiet enough now that I should have been able to make out every small sound around me. But I couldn’t hear a thing; not car alarms in the distance, not branches rustling in the wind, not even the sound of my feet shuffling against the empty sidewalk. All I heard was a mess of words rattling around in my head, a flood of syllables and half-participles, misremembered song lyrics, pull quotes, unsolicited advice, unanswered prayers, all ricocheting like pinballs in the mud of brain between my ears. If I had a pen my hand wouldn’t have been quick enough to string together anything meaningful. If I had a penny I would have given it away.
Tomorrow it would still be spring in Los Angeles, and soon the long, stifled summer where everything changed. Walking home with a kidney stone in my throat, I felt like a child stammering out a simple sentence through a stutter. Fragments of things said and unsaid. Promises that begin with I and end with you. But the words in between kept escaping me.