I had a bad feeling about dating Kelly. It wasn’t loneliness that prompted me, although that certainly played a part. I just didn’t know what else I should do with my free time. High school and college were all about structure and deadlines. There were assignments to finish and tests to prepare for. And if you needed any guidance, someone would gladly tell you what to do. But now I was in the real world, where everyone made their own schedule. When I wasn’t working I was free to do whatever I wanted. “Shouldn’t I be doing something else?” I constantly wondered, even while I was doing something I enjoyed.
That’s how I wound up taking an architectural drawing class at UCLA Extension. I didn’t have a deep interest, but it only cost $200 and it relieved me from having to make a decision. It was there that I met Kelly, who sat in the seat behind me. We made eye contact on our first day of class when I passed her the sign-in sheet. Her long brown hair was pulled up, and she chewed gum in a way that suggested she didn’t really care. I found that to be reassuring.
Other than that first interaction, we seldom spoke. None of the students really spoke to each other. It wasn’t that kind of class, although the woman I shared a table with did wink when she told me she worked at Playboy. She must’ve been in her forties. Accounting, I think she said.
The class met on Thursday evenings, in a small building at the Santa Monica Promenade. I hated that word promenade. It sounded like a cross between Prom and Lemonade, and that’s kind of what it was. Just an outdoor mall where restaurants served overpriced drinks and street performers panhandled for change. Despite the unnaturalness of it, the place really came alive at night, which only added to my unease. Wasn’t this a school night? Existential Angst is what a psychologist once told me, although to me, it felt closer to quantum mechanics. I’d been a reading a book about it, and it explained that energy could be both both a particle and a wave at the same time. Atoms were everywhere and nowhere at the same time — that is, until they were observed. Maybe that was my problem. I just needed someone to notice me.
I always parked in a garage a few blocks away, in the same spot on the fourth floor. That way I wouldn’t have to fret about finding my car after class. Giant parking structures make me worry about that. I’d rather walk ten extra minutes and be certain that I was going to the right spot, than spend five seconds panicking that my car had been stolen. It was there that I noticed Kelly getting out of her car and I pulled into my usual spot which was right next to hers. I did it without thinking and I immediately regretted it. Why couldn’t I park just a few spots down?
Now Kelly and I would have to walk to class together and it would be awkward. I suppose I could’ve followed a few feet behind her, like a stalker. But at some point, she’d inevitably turn around, recognize me, and wonder why I was so creepy. I decided that my only choice was to break the ice, and just be super-casual about the whole thing.
“Hey, what’s going on?” I said.
A blank look came to her face. She had absolutely no idea who I was. Four times in class I had turned around to hand her that sign-in sheet. Was I that insignificant? It was one of those douche-chill moments that you wished you could undo. The kind that causes permanent trauma to your DNA which gets passed down to later generations.
The awkwardness hung in the air like a piñata, waiting for one of us to hit it with a stick.
“You sit behind me in class… at UCLA Extension… where we’re both heading.”
A glimmer of recognition came to her face, and my heartbeat slowly returned to normal.
“Oh, right. Hi.”
It would’ve been nice if she had made a joke about it, blaming herself for her shoddy memory, but instead I was left to feel desperate and needy. We headed to the stairwell where we walked forty-eight steps before reaching the ground floor. I counted.
By the time we reached the Promenade, Kelly was a completely different person. Whatever discomfort she displayed in the garage had been replaced with bubbly enthusiasm — like her whole body had been carbonated. She became intimate, leaning into me to share how she saw the world.
“Look at that wank,” she said conspiratorially. “And his white leather shoes. I bet he’s dripping in cologne.” She was referring to a middle-aged man, coming out of a restaurant with his younger girlfriend. She wore high heels which made him look even shorter.
“Look how she’s standing. She hates him,” said Kelly
They were standing apart, but how did Kelly know she hated him? That’s not to say that Kelly was wrong, but how was she so certain? I admired her attitude. She didn’t seem to be struggling with the world the way I was.
“We should hang sometime,” she said as we took our seats.
A date? Sure. I didn’t really think Kelly was my type, but after the way things ended with my ex-girlfriend, I wasn’t even sure if I had a type anymore.
“Call me here,” she said, writing her number a piece of paper. There was something strange about the way she said it. It sounded almost quantum — like there were other places she’d also be at the same exact time.
“Sure. I’ll call you here.”
A few nights later, I pulled up to her address. It was a swanky two story Spanish Colonial in Beverly Hills with arched windows and a stuccoed courtyard lined with pink and yellow bougainvillea. Was Kelly a millionaire? The address on the curb said 129, and I compared it to the address that Kelly gave me. 129 1/2. What did the half mean? Did she leave inside of a tree like a leprechaun?
I ventured down the driveway. It was lined with Birds of Paradise and other tropical plants and it felt like at any moment, two Rottweilers would lunge out of the bushes, sending me scrambling over the neighbors fence where three Rottweilers would lunge at me, sending back to the first side. This would go on for ten minutes, like a ping-pong match, until the police finally arrived and wrestled me to the ground.
The driveway led to the backyard where a patio draped in string lights overlooked a pool. It looked like a bistro, so classy and refined. And beside it was a pool house with a number on its door. 129 1/2. So she lived in the guest house. Still, it didn’t seem right that Kelly lived on this property, given her age. I thought everyone was supposed to live like me, in a small studio apartment with bars on the windows.
I was about to knock when the door flew open and Kelly pulled me inside. “I’m so happy you made it! Did you find it alright? Was the traffic bad? Did you do the homework yet?” At first I was flattered. She was so excited to see me! But her chatter never stopped and soon my ego was forced to admit the truth. Kelly was here, but not really. She was indeed quantum.
As she gave me a tour of her one bedroom home, Kelly popped jellybeans into her mouth like they were candy. She’d pluck them out of shallow bowls that were posted about like highway signs. “Last sugar for six feet.” It was then that I realized Kelly’s bubbly demeanor wasn’t natural, it was chemically induced. She was jacked on sugar. We continued following the trail of jellybeans which surprisingly led to her bedroom, and not a unicorn’s nest. Glass jars were stationed everywhere, with sorted jellybeans inside to match whatever knick-knack was positioned beside it. A jar of purple jellybeans next to a purple candle. A jar of orange jellybeans beside an orange vase, and a jar full of red, white, and blue jellybeans next to an American flag. It was horrific.
A few days ago, I assumed Kelly had it all figured out, and now here I was sitting on her bed, questioning her decision to fill an ant farm with grey jellybeans. Shouldn’t they be white? No, don’t go down that hole with her. And in case it sounds like I’m being overly dramatic, the pillow on her comforter said, “Kelly Jelly Belly.”
Kelly popped a few more jellybeans into her mouth as she crossed to her stereo where a CD was playing. She tapped the fast-forward button a few times trying to find the right track.
“Nope, not that one…. hate that one… oooh, this song’s… nah, this song sucks too.”
“Do you ever, like, eat vegetables?” I asked.
Kelly plunged her hand deep into a fish bowl and pulled out two jellybeans. One red, the other light green. “Tomato and cucumber!”
“Tomato is actually a fruit,” I replied, but perhaps I was missing the point.
By now, I had a pretty good idea that Kelly and I weren’t headed to the altar, unless it was one where she performed human sacrifices. She threw herself next to me on the couch, and almost immediately began playing with the curls of my hair. “Whoa, this is going fast,”
“Close your eyes and open your mouth,” she said.
Uh-oh. She was going to put her tongue down my throat, wasn’t she? I shut my eyes, and was relieved to hear the rattling of a nearby jar of jellybeans. But also disappointed. What can I say about that, other than I’m a guy.
“Aren’t you worried all this sugar kinda messes with you?”
“That’s a myth,” she replied, as she seductively placed two jellybeans onto my tongue. “What does it taste like to you?” Before I could even guess, she shouted, “One’s marshmallow and the other’s chocolate. It’s Rocky Road, dummy!”
Now she was banging on a conga drum and I closed my eyes even tighter. How is Kelly still alive? Her heart must be pounding like hummingbird and I wondered if I’d catch her drinking sugar water from a bird feeder.
According to my estimation, I had now been in Kelly Jelly Belly’s home a full thirty years, but when I checked my watch, it said only eight minutes. Could that be? There was something about Kelly’s universe that made time lose all meaning. I suggested we’d better get going if we wanted to make our dinner reservation. That is, if the outside world still existed.
The car ride was equally interminable, with Kelly babbling about jellybeans, which to be fair, was at my prodding. I’m certain she mistook my morbid fascination with her diet to be genuine romantic interest.
“So you’re a writer,” she said coyly. “Maybe you’ll write about me someday.”
“I probably will.” And she blushed.
I was hoping Kelly might settle down at dinner once she got some actual food into her candy coated bloodstream. But the nutrients only made her weirdness grow stronger. She was now pitching me the film she dreamed of making. That’s not a figure of speech. She literally had a dream, and now she was looking for backers to film it. Soon the waiter came over and asked if everything was okay, but he was referring to the food, not me. I considered blinking “help” in morse code, but of course I didn’t know morse code, and it was doubtful he did either. Instead, I just requested a glass of water — something deep enough to drown in. The waiter left, and Kelly launched into the shot list of her film.
“We open on our hero, seven year old Kelly… that’s me… walking down the boardwalk. One Lover at a Time by Atlantic Starr plays in the background. Do you know that song?”
“I’ll sing it for you.”
After our meal, she pulled a small tin from her purse, tapped it on the edge, then opened it to reveal an assortment of after-diner jellybeans. She extended the tin to me with flair and sophistication, like she was Katherine Hepburn offering a cigarette. “Rum raisin?” she said. I took two, deciding I should make it a double.
As I drove her back home, Kelly began cozying up to me. She was convinced we were now boyfriend and girlfriend. I, on the other hand, was already in the divorce phase of our relationship, wondering how she’d break the news to the ant farm.
What I found most confounding about this night was how two people could experience the same exact reality, but have completely different interpretations of it. No wonder I always felt lost. Maybe there was no such thing as found. This is what I was thinking when Kelly lightly stroked my arm and said, “Are you okay, sugar?”
Of all the possible moments that could have been my breaking point, it’s ironic that this was the one to push me over the edge: a hypoglycemic calling me sugar. Being an asshole seldom pays off, but in this case I was willing to give it a try.
“Are you talking to me or your toxicology report?”
And with that, Kelly Jelly Belly’s personality soured like a gobstopper. Apparently all the subtle jabs I made throughout the evening weren’t lost on her. I took her to be vacant, but if anyone was absent it was me. And that last jab, one that I assumed would go over her head, was the straw that broke the carmel’s back. And yes, I do mean carmel. It was her second favorite flavor.
Kelly launched into a break-up speech that, to a bystander, would’ve suggested she had given me the best ten years of her life, instead of the longest two and a half hours of mine. The windows to my car were down, and I’m certain that as we idled at the traffic light, people in neighboring cars heard her unloading on me, wondering what heinous act I had committed. Despite her fury, I managed to say nothing during the remainder of the ride, muttering only to cast magic spells to make the traffic lights turn green. When I finally pulled up to her home, she stormed out of the car, slammed the door, then stomped around to my window where she glared at me.
“Are you coming in or not?”
“I can’t believe you didn’t go in!” laughed my friend Alex. We were hanging out at a coffee shop one evening after work. Alex was one of the first friends I made when I moved to LA. I met him at a barbecue that my roommate invited me to, and he was funny and down to earth, and I appreciated him being kind to me. Even though he was only in his mid-twenties, Alex was already married which added to my own insecurity. Not that I wanted to be married, because I didn’t. It just felt very grown-up of him. Almost cosmopolitan, I thought. Cosmopolitan was a word that only grown-ups would say, and considering I was still sleeping on a futon with a milk crate as a nightstand, I didn’t think it belonged in my head. “Try to find a better word,” I told myself.
“I have just the girl for you,” said Alex. “I’m gonna set you up with Leanne.”
This was a new wrinkle in Alex’s story, as he had recently gotten divorced. Despite years of pretending that he wasn’t, Alex had finally come to terms with the fact that he was gay. Selfishly, I was glad to hear that. It was reassuring to know that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know where he was. Back when he was straight, Alex never once tried to set me up. But now that he was gay, he was a matchmaker.
“I know,” he said. “I’m really diving headfirst into this gay thing.”
As he described Leanne to me in detail, I watched the people walking outside. Los Angeles is perfect for people watching because the city is so young and diverse. Hipsters, posers, crunchies,… men and women in their twenties will practically dress up in costume, signaling to the world who they think they are, and it’s endlessly entertaining. A young woman standing by a parking meter caught my eye. She was goth, dressed head to toe in heavy black clothing. Were it not for the collar around her neck with metal spikes coming out of it, she could’ve been a priest. With her heavy black lipstick and eyeshadow, her outfit screamed “get away from me” and “look at me” at the same time. “Figure out what you want,” I said under my breath.
“Leanne is laser focused on med school. So don’t take it personally if she’s gruff to you. Do you want to meet her?”
“Not even a little.”
“Well, you should. She’s hot. Unless you’re gay now, too.”
Apparently, I was so insecure about being called gay, that I agreed to meet Leanne. She was every bit as unpleasant as promised. Maybe even more so. We met at a breakfast cafe and she sat down opposite me, never quite getting comfortable in her chair. Instead, she sat at the edge of her seat on angle with her torso facing the door, ready to leave. When our server came, she promptly ordered a smoothie… to go. I imagined her studying the menu then finally saying to the waiter, “Umm… I’ll have the Time Bomb. And if you can set it to five minutes and leave it under his seat, that would be great.”
Surprisingly, Leanne didn’t actually take her smoothie to go. Instead, she drank it at our table then spent the next twenty minutes telling me how busy her life was. She had exams and labs and more labs, and because of that, she was too busy for a relationship.
“Relationship? What the fuck are you talking about, honey?” I yelled. Actually, I only yelled it with my eyes. Aloud I said, “Do they make you take classes on bedside manner?
“Last semester. It was a waste of time.” Yes, apparently it was.
As she lectured me about the incredible hardships of almost being a doctor, my mind took a leap into the future. What would Leanne’s life look like in twenty years? She’d definitely have a successful career as a doctor, but what would her personal life look like? She wouldn’t live in an expensive house. That required too much maintenance. A doctor who couldn’t even keep a lawn alive, what kind of message does that send? No, she’d live in a condo on the west side. Her balcony would have great view, but she’d only enjoy it on Memorial Day when she forced herself to host a barbecue for her co-workers. Her second husband would be nothing like the shlub she married the first time. That guy was far too needy, requesting to have sex four times a year. Husband number two would be fifteen years years her senior, and have a busy life of his own, traveling the country on business and ordering top shelf whiskey at the hotel by the airport. He claimed to love the excitement of life on the road, but only I knew the truth.
He should just leave Leanne. So should I. We should both get up and leave Leanne. But who was I to say? I didn’t leave when my ex-girlfriend half-heartedly suggested we get back together. Two months later, we were broken up again, and even though I had chosen love over self-respect, in the end I got neither. The last I heard, she had jumped right into another serious relationship. How could she find love so fast, when here I was, struggling to make it work with the likes of Kelly Jelly Belly and Leave Me Alone Leanne.
At the end of my date with Leanne… no, date’s not the right word. It was more of a debriefing… Leanne graciously informed me that although it was a pleasure to meet me, her hectic schedule wouldn’t permit us to go on a second date. I made a mental note of her exact words so I could later throw them in Alex’s face. “So that’s the reason why there wouldn’t be a second date?” Even still, I insisted on paying for her smoothie. She had so much bad energy around her, that dropping five dollars seemed like a bargain to keep her from sending it my way. I think the goth chick with the barbell through her nose would’ve agreed.
Cynthia was a guest star on the sitcom show I was writing for. Her role was a late addition to the script after we realized that the current scene wasn’t working. So the writers stayed late to put together a new scene where the lead character was on a first date. A date that would go wrong. So that’s the first time I laid eyes on Cynthia — on a soundstage, pretending to be on a bad first date.
It was a small part, just one scene, but all the writers were excited to watch it because the character we created was so unusual. There was an innocence to her character, and Cynthia was able to capture it. With her soft, raspy voice and dark brown eyes and hair, she looked so sweet. She performed the scene with warmth, connecting with the lines so that we didn’t just hear them, we felt them. Screenwriters love actors who can do that well. Not just because they’re great on camera, but because they can make our own words surprise us.
We shot the show on Friday night, and after every taping, it was custom for the cast and crew to gather at a nearby restaurant to celebrate the small victory of putting a show on its feet, as well as the giant victory of being employed in Hollywood. Our group took over a private room, and it was common at these events for everyone to mingle… especially with the agents that magically appeared, even though they weren’t invited. They circled the party like vampires, and we happily served up our bare necks to them. One bite, and they could offer us immortality, which in Hollywood parlance, meant another three to five years of work.
I ran into Cynthia at the bar and complimented her on her performance. It was honest and funny and you could tell the audience absolutely loved her. When I mentioned this, she smiled. The approval meant a lot to her, and I saw it not just in her face, but in her eyes. It made me think of peering into a well and spotting something shiny at the bottom.
We found a quiet corner away from everyone else to talk without the noise. I felt like I was monopolizing her, but there was something about the way she spoke, or maybe it was the way she listened, that made me not want to share her. She just seemed so wise. At some point, I made an oblique reference to an ex-girlfriend who broke up with me in a way that was so cavalier and reckless, it made me doubt she ever loved me at all. It was such a dark and intimate thing to say, but I said it anyway, the way you’d confide in a stranger safely knowing that you’d never see them again.
“That’s not for you to say,” Cynthia corrected me. “That’s her journey. It’s just as hard for her as anyone else.” She said it with such certainty that it completely caught me by surprise. I guess I was hoping she would take my side. Blind allegiance. But instead she reacted with empathy for someone she had never met. That was a quality that I rarely saw in people, including myself, and it seemed so generous of her. To me, empathy felt like energy going out. It was giving instead of getting and I didn’t think I could afford to give anything away. Me, Alex, Leanne, even Kelly Jelly Belly… we were all trying to exist somewhere else. But Cynthia was different. She was here. “I should be like her,” I thought.
A week later, I was picking her up for dinner. She lived in a dicey part of Hollywood, although to be fair, the crackheads and gang members didn’t seem to mind. But that’s not why I was afraid as I climbed the stairs to her apartment. I was afraid that an intimate look at her home would disappoint me. A sad addiction to corn syrup maybe.
It was an unusual staircase in that there was no landing at the halfway point. No place to pause and catch your breath. Just one unbroken climb, all the way up. It seemed like a long way to go everyday, just to be at home.
I knocked on her door and when she greeted me, she smiled. But not a polite smile. This was deeper. It felt genuine.
“Come on in,” she said, and she disappeared into her bedroom to find a coat.
My eyes quickly scanned her living room, looking for clues about her. We both lived in comparable one bedroom apartments. Dingy and run down. But hers was so strikingly different. Mine was filled with the cheapest furniture IKEA had to offer. The same soulless pieces that everyone buys just because we think it looks right someplace else. Cynthia’s home, on the other hand, was sparse but warm. I walked to her bookshelf, hoping to get a handle on her by judging the books she kept. But she only had a few. And on her refrigerator, where so many people slap old photos of friends and family, there were none.
“Where’s her past?” I wondered.
I couldn’t have possibly known this at the time, but Cynthia was sitting on a secret. One that I would learn much later when things between us got serious. She shared it only with the people she loved, and even then it took everything inside her to say it. Once or twice she almost told me, but then just as quickly, she backed away like it was a door that might unleash something horrible. Those were the times when the smile deep in her eyes just disappeared and it always made me worry.
“You’ll tell me when you’re ready,” I reassured her.
That moment came a few weeks later when I heard her crying in my bedroom. I ran in, thinking she had injured herself. Instead, I found her sobbing on my bed.
“I want to tell you,” she said. “But I’m scared you’ll look at me differently.” But this time I didn’t allow her to back away. This time I insisted, taking her hand so that maybe some of her fear would leave her body and flow into mine.
I sat quietly as she told me her story. I learned how she grew up poor, the only child of a single mother. I learned that her mother struggled with alcoholism, and would send her to the grocery story with the welfare check to buy a jug of wine. And I learned about the man who lived in her building. He looked out for her when no one else could. Or at least that’s what he told people. She was only seven years old. He gave her attention, and took her places, and bought her things, and all of that made her feel good. But the abuse didn’t. And that part lasted five years. She told me about the court trial she attended when he was finally caught, and how she and her best friend waited to testify, along with all the other girls whose childhoods he had taken away. And she told me how he eventually died in prison, by his own hand.
The years of suffering had left its mark. For almost her entire life, it made her feel ugly, and ashamed, and unworthy of feeling any kind of joy. But now she was determined to save the rest of her life. And she was going to do it by staying in the present — grateful for the things she did have.
“Just please,” she cried. “Don’t look at me differently.”
But of course, I didn’t yet know any of this as I stood in her apartment for the first time, trying to size up her life. How could I?
What I saw was a tattered blue couch that had been rescued from the flea market. With a few throw pillows resting against the arms, the couch almost looked grateful for the second chance. In the corner stood an antique lamp, with a scarf over the torn shade to hide its scars. There was an old dining room table, with four mismatched chairs that deserved some love too. On the stove was a chipped red pot, and a pan with a wobbly handle. This was a life that Cynthia had reclaimed. She pieced it together little by little, hanging on to things that brought her joy, and letting go of things that didn’t. I lingered, wondering how she had figured it all out.
“Ready,” she said, and I turned to see her standing just beyond the darkness of the hallway. How absolutely beautiful she was. As we headed out the door, I gave one final look at all the imperfect little things she had saved.
Maybe she could save me too.