Not in the mood to read? Here’s an “Audio-Visual” story I’m working on. Images are “placeholders”, but the story, voiceover, and effects are mine.
Behind a crumbling façade, the grand old hotel still retained a regal quality. Gilded details glimmered through the faded layers of peeling paint, providing a glimpse into the glamorous past of this faded beauty. Precariously positioned on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the vast Atlantic Ocean, the structure stood strong. A relic, with a once glorious past. The grounds around the massive property now overgrown and wild, had at one time been well-manicured gardens, thick with flora and fauna. An enormous empty swimming pool full of dried leaves, revealed patches of intricate mosaic tile work. Mossy cracked statues of cherubs stood guard. Long ago, this oasis had sparkled, surrounded by alabaster Italian fountains spouting arched streams into the crystal blue water. Remnants of a small stage stood at the far end of the pool. This was where bands would play and guests would dance, often late into the night.
Built in the late 1800s, in its early years, the Delray had been a mecca for the rich and famous. It hosted brokers, movie stars, as well as royalty from around the world. Of course, entourages and wannabes soon followed, looking to piggyback on the excesses of the times. The hotel was notorious for its glamorous and wild parties. Rumors were kept quiet, but it was common knowledge that people of a certain caliber were allowed to get away with everything and anything. The liquor ran freely during prohibition, and alongside gambling, there were plenty of beautiful girls brought in for the single men, and practically anything else imaginable could be requested for a price. It was said that if you could dream it, you could have it at the Delmar. The heady mix of money, alcohol and cocaine, alongside an “anything goes” attitude, allowed for many scenarios to unfold. Countless payoffs and favors had been done to keep most of the stories hushed, however quite a few scandals of debauchery and bad behaviour frequently slipped out into the city papers, which the masses ate up like cake.
The golden years came to a screeching halt with the crash of the stock market in 1929. Party time was over, and the guests stopped coming. The hotel, like so many of its breed, chose to accommodate long-term tenants in order to maintain the expenses of running the place. Initially, quite a few units were rented, and the hotel managed to maintain a skeleton staff along with groundskeepers. The tenants enjoyed a comfortable life at the Delray, with full service at their disposal. Gradually, as the economy worsened, most of the staff was let go, other than some maintenance workers who lived on the premises. The gardens were left unkempt and the pool drained. Finally, most of the tenants moved out, leaving only a handful of very elderly ladies and a few eccentrics.
As the years passed, the hotel continued to become more dilapidated. A series of severe storms wrecked the façade, and the gardens became unrecognizable. Ivy grew over some of the shuttered windows, and the place was rumored to be haunted. Finally, of the 200 rooms, only 4 were rented. One to a wealthy TB patient on her deathbed, quarantined to the far quarters with her 24 hour nurses, and three other suites, which belonged to a tenant named Lena, who resided at the opposite end of the property. Twice a month, an order of basic food and supplies was delivered. Other than that, the residents were left in isolation. The maintenance staff had long gone, and if anything was broken, it stayed that way.
At night, from afar, the place stood desolate, appearing vacant, except for the occasional glow of light on one end or the other.The darkened halls of the hotel creaked. Floorboards had absorbed years of humidity from the ocean air. The atmosphere was stagnant and musty, carpets mildewed and dank. The TB patient never left her room, and the only activity on that end of the hotel property was that of nurses trading shifts.
On the other end of the hotel, however, it was another story. The Cabana suites consisted of the entire southwest corner of the hotel, which was cliff side with ocean views. Back in the day, this had been the most luxurious section, and was reserved for only the most elite of guests. It had a private entrance, windows facing the Atlantic, and a courtyard view from the bedroom. Albeit, now the view was of defunct fountains, overgrown weeds, and debris.
The interior of the suite, however was immaculate. The only light which ever seemed to be on was a peach tinted lantern in the bedroom. This was where Lena spent most of her time, other than the delivery days, when she would meet the truck at the door and allow them to bring her orders into the kitchen.
In her room, she had a giant pink lace canopy bed, with silk satin sheets and scalloped shams. A white mink fur throw finished the look.
The vanity was well stocked and she would sit there for hours, carefully applying her makeup, eyelashes, and lastly selecting a wig for the occasion. There was a calendar on the table, with a special event inked in for each day. Obvious holidays and a lot of invented ones. In fact for Lena, each day was a holiday. Today was the special “Cruiseship Day”, and she dressed in an all white ruffled top with flared high-waisted pants. As she stood in front of the full-length mirror, Lena squinted to see her reflection. She scowled at herself and tied a scarf over her long blonde wig. Quickly, she picked up a pair of sunglasses and put them on as well. Reapplying her bright red lipstick, she smiled. Smiling revealed her missing tooth, so she pursed her lips together in a pout.
Smoothing the hair down, she turned in the mirror, and began a conversation with an invisible man. “Darling, I do think we should have brought more champagne. Don’t you?” “What is it?” “Oh, my love, you shouldn’t have.” Lena reached down to pick up a diamond bracelet off of the dresser, and gently put it on over her white glove on the left arm. “It’s absolutely spectacular, my darling! How did you know?”
“I shall wear it to my performance this evening! But I must change because the bracelet deserves my sequins gown! Tonite is our night my love!”
With this, Lena walked to the massive walnut armoire, opening the double doors to reveal a cache of gowns, sparkling in the low light. It looked as though every color of the rainbow was inside. She extended her white-gloved hand, selecting a white crystal encrusted gown, which weighed so much, she needed to use both arms to carry it. Laying it on the shiny pink bed, she smiled. “Ah yes, this is the one. The most exquisite of all. It is our special occasion, isn’t it!” With that, she removed her gloves, laying them on the bed next to the gown. Unbuttoning the sailor pants, she let them slide to the floor, carefully stepping out of them onto the Persian carpet. She unbuttoned the blouse and threw it over a slipper chair in the corner. Now naked, she covered her breasts, with a coy smile “please my love, you must not look.”, as she leaned towards the heavy gown, lifting it to maneuver the heavy beaded fabric over her head. Catching the armhole, she slipped into it quite gracefully, and managed to zip it up along the side. It fit like a glove. She turned to look in the mirror, smiling. Adjusting the wig, she looked around the room. “Oh, there it is, my love.” She walked over and picked up a long veil from a small table. Back at the full-length mirror, she placed the veil on her head, smoothing the blonde waves down to one side. She put the long white gloves back on and smiled. “I’m ready, my pet, you can look now.” She shyly looked down at the ground. As she raised her head, she caught another glimpse of herself in the mirror under a brighter beam of light. She gasped at the sight. The delusion momentarily broken, she shrieked in horror. What she saw was an old woman, missing a tooth, bony and weathered. Her heart beat faster, and her breathing got heavier. Panic set in. She needed air. Fresh air. Lena headed for the door, and pushed it open against the powerful wind. Hurling herself outside, she fell on the ground. The rain pelted her face and her dampened veil clung to her skin. She crawled towards the cliffside. The violence of the ocean below called her name. She ripped the veil from her eyes and threw it over the ledge. Somehow, Lena gathered the strength to sit up. She unzipped the gown, pulling it over her head. It fell over in a heap next to her shivering body. She pushed the dress away from her towards the Atlantic. A sudden gust took it away. The white wedding gown flew up into the misty night air, momentarily pausing as if begging for a second chance, before vanishing into the abyss below.
Lena lay there naked, yet she felt reborn. She managed to get up and make her way back to the bedroom. Gathering the huge mink throw about her, she used a tissue to wipe the lipstick away. She put on a long cashmere robe and ran herself a bath. As the tub filled with warm water, Lena laid out her clothes for the next day. A modest skirt and sweater, along with a hat, gloves, and a wool coat. It was time. Time to move on.
Joey had been living his life as a kept man, and a gigolo on the side. It’s not something he planned on. It just sort of happened. Well, it happened the day he met Delores. She was a bawdy customer at the bar where he worked the closing shift. One night, like so many others, Delores had had one too many martinis, and, while pressing her sweating breasts over the edge of the wooden bar, she beckoned Joey over with a long red laquered talon. “Hey hon, ya think you wanna give me a ride tonite?” Joey, being the consummate professional, assumed she meant that she was too drunk to drive home the few blocks across the flat industrial town. He asked her to wait 10 minutes until the end of his shift.
Exiting the buiding, she held his strong arm, teetering on her stilettos through the parking lot. She pressed a car key into his hand, and he opened the door to her dilapidtated Cadillac. The scent of stale perfume and cigarettes permeated the interior. She told him to get into the drivers seat and take her home. As he fastened his seatbelt, she reached over and grabbed at his crotch. Joey was only 23, and Delores, well, she was definitely older than his mom, and perhaps even his gran.
The first time it happened in that Cadi, they just leant the seats back. Her excitement, triggered his ego, and he was addicted immediately. The scent of well-worn whole grain leather, White Diamonds, Benson & Hedges and Aquanet intoxicated him. This moment would remain with him for life.
Joey continued seeing Delores, initially in exchange for food, and meager trinkets. Later on he was given a watch, numerous shirts, socks, underwear, and once, an incredible pair of alligator boots. She lavished him with attention and occasionally, he would find a 100 dollar bill tucked into his wallet. He had a key to her house, and he came and went as he pleased. Delores was always available, except for Wednesday nights, for those were her “service” nights. He started to notice odd items around her home. There was an alter at the entryway, filled with embers and small metallic bones. In addition, she had a few strands of ancient looking beads, and unusual amulets strewn about on doorways, and hanging in corners. Now and then, she would burn something, which left a sour note lingering in the air.
One night, as they shared the giant bathtub, full of bubbles and red rose petals, she closed her eyes, leaned her head back. Slowly she opened her eyes to meet his. Staring for a few moments, she said “ It’s time.”…”Time for what?” Joey was confused. “You’re ready. “ Delores mesmerized him with her stare, as she caressed his strong arms. He really didn’t think much of it, because he always went along with her whims. She told him to keep next Wednesday open, and have an all black outfit ready. In fact, she said, she would get him something to wear.
A few days later, he got to her house to find a pair of black pants and black button down silk shirt laid out on the bed, along with shoes to match. He dressed in the outfit, and walked downstairs to the living room where Delores sat in an extravagant black velvet gown. She smiled with approval. “Come here, come baby.” He sat next to her, inhaling the scent of her potent fragrance. She stubbed out her cigarette in the overflowing ashtray. After offering him a drink, she took his hand in hers. Delores had beautiful hands. Long fingers, decorated with cocktail rings, which sparkled in the low light. She looked him in the eyes, “listen baby, this means everything to me, and I want you to know I’m doing it for you.” He smiled a weak smile, not sure what to make of her cryptic message.
The clock in the hallway struck 7 pm, and Delores startled. “Let’s go!” she told him. “We need to be there by 7:30.” He dutifully followed, feeling a bit numb from the drink she had given him.
Somehow they arrived at the service, and shuffled in behind a line of people all dressed in black. Upon closer observation, he realized that all of the people were women! He turned to ask Delores why, but she only stared straight ahead, expressionless. He thought he heard music playing. Either it was muffled, or he was drunk. As they reached the alter, he saw a cloaked priest or priestess, holding up a flask containing a deep red liquid. Further in the distance, he noticed a platform, with a sort of ditch around it, in which there appeared to be dark water flowing. Delores pressed him forward as his body resisted. He felt all eyes on him, and the humming began ever so subtly…a soft hum which gradually became an unbearable crecendo…hands were now touching his body, and massaging his arms and back, he was being pushed forward to the alter. The women swarmed and pressed inward….
Inhaling the briny air, Sylvia extended her tan sinewy arms toward the balmy tropical skies above. As waves crashed loudly below, a thick mist of sea spray drifted upward, momentarily obscuring from vision the figures huddled together. The air cleared, and a small circle of silhouettes appeared, holding up long white chiffon scarves, which billowed through the air. In the center stood guru Sylvia. She chanted loudly against the wind “Lokah samastha sukhino bhavanthu”……others followed her lead. Their voices carried over the cliffs, onto the sea, fading far away into the distance.
Turning to the group, she bowed gently. Her fluffy blonde hair swirled into a halo around her head, and they bowed in return. The circle of ten individuals all wore white gauze ensembles, and a simple band of blue tied around their foreheads. At the end of the final prayer, she looked up, and slowly turned to meet each one, eye to eye, praising them for their attendance. First there was Gregory, a young man from Minnesota, who had left his life as a ranch hand to become a yogi. Next, Maxwell, a recovering sex addict from Toronto, who just wanted a fresh start. Then Nadine, sufferer of anger issues, looking for management with a spiritual angle. And, so it went. Lastly, she locked eyes with a shrewd looking red-head. She knew those aqua-green eyes immediately. It was Betty. Betty, her old friend. A reformed alcoholic. Betty was here to do a “life cleanse”, and was ready to reach the next level in her yogic training. She was, in fact, looking for her master. Sylvia offered up a weak smile of recognition, and moved on to the next person, Harvey, an ex-marine, looking for peace in his life. She breathed heavily, the group automatically followed her lead with a collective sigh.
The cliff side session was over. As the group dispersed, they wandered off in a daze to go to the hostel for lunch. Betty, however, waited for Sylvia. After everyone had departed, the two remained on the cliff’s edge. Betty stepped gingerly towards Sylvia, forcing an awkward smile. Sylvia laughed, breaking the ice, and Betty did too. As they hugged in the sea spray, Betty stood back staring into Sylvia’s crystal blue eyes. She apologized for her bad behaviour. She explained that she had gone through major rehab, and was now a completely different person. Sylvia was very calm, took a deep breath and smiled. Betty looked out over the vast sea, and softly said, “You see, now, that the infidelity I had with your husband was nothing. In the infinity of life, it was just a blip on the screen.” Sylvia let out a hearty laugh, and pulled Betty to hug her once more. As they embraced, she took a step forward towards the cliff’s edge, and with a gently push, Betty was falling down into the foamy surf far, far below.
The gold foil tipped cigarette, stained with lipstick, smoldered in an overflowing ashtray. Soft blonde waves of hair cascaded across her face as she softly fell back into the burgundy velour sofa, which swiftly enveloped her small frame. Slender stocking encased legs shimmered in the candle light. One metallic sandal lay discarded on the persian rug, while the other remained partially strapped to her delicate foot. The floor vibrated with bass music from the club below, mixed with din of a crowded room, occasional loud shouts, and the intermittent sound of breaking glass. With a quiet click, a door was opened. A man slipped into the room, wearing a tuxedo, dark hair slicked into a pompadour. Cat like, he moved across the room, towards the woman on sofa. As his eyes adjusted to the candlelight, he could see that there was nobody else here. Had he locked the door? He swiftly doubled back to be sure. Carefully trying the handle, he found it secure. Taking out a pack of cigarettes and a tarnished lighter from his pocket, he lit up a smoke. The flame briefly illuminated a scowling expression on his face, and the sparkle of his green eyes flashed in the dark. Taking a long pull, he dramatically exhaled towards the ceiling. Tiny beads of sweat were starting to emerge across his tanned forehead and upper lip.
Crossing the room, he reached the sofa and stopped. He stood over the blonde who was passed out cold. Her cigarette now just a faint fading ember in the ashtray. The pale blue sequined gown had slipped off of her shoulder to reveal creamy skin glowing in the low light. He reached his hand slowly towards her, running his fingertip over her bare shoulder and up the side of her neck. She stirred. He swiftly pulled his hand away, and stood there watching her. She continued to doze. Obviously she had over indulged. It didn’t help that the heroin was back in fashion, and she had been dipping into it again on occasion. He was pretty sure she was nodding off, and not just simply drunk. He sighed to himself, shaking his head. He looked at his watch and sat down in the chair across from her. As he jabbed out the cigarette in the tray, it overflowed, ash and a few butts scattering accross the mahogany table. A few minutes passed and he checked his watch again. The sound from below started to fade and within the next hour, it became quiet. Silence came over the room, other than the soft breathing of the woman.
Now, he stood up and walked towards the sofa again. He took a look down at her with pity, gently running his hand over her soft locks, pushing the hair out of her face to expose the delicate alabaster features, dark lashes and crimson lips. He let go, and her platinum waves fell once again covering her face. He took a step back, paused to look at his watch once more, and then leaned down to the corner of the velvet sofa. He took out his lighter and held it to the loosely fraying edge by the floor. The flame started small, and eased its way up the seam, as it reached the arm of the sofa it began to smolder, but suddenly a larger flame burst forward, and then another, until it suddenly burst into an angry fire swiftly devouring the sofa…he blinked as he watched for a few moments, then turned and quickly walked towards the door, making a stealth escape. Taking a back stairwell to exit the building, he stepped out into a dark alley. It was quiet and damp outside. A gentle rain was falling. He looked up at the building to see a window flickering with firelight. Taking his cigarettes out, he lit one, taking a long pull. He exhaled. He muttered one word. Bitch. With that, he turned on his heels and headed down the dank alley into the distance until he was just another shadow in the dark.
Living in the moment is a very lovely sentiment. There’s a lot to be said for being present. However, it never hurts to plan ahead. A bit of strategic thinking is often a wise idea. Otherwise, it can easily happen that you wind up facing retirement at warp speed, without an exit plan. Visions of working at Walmart, or getting into elder porn start drifting through the mind. This usually happens due to a lack of planning, coupled with poor choices. But, of course circumstances and plain bad luck often play a huge role as well. This is a story about a woman in such a scenario, and how she handled her situation.
Let’s flash back to the beginning. Desiree came to LA at the tender age of nineteen. Typical story. She had been homecoming queen back in a small Iowa town, and she came to LA to become a movie star, model, or at least a tv sensation. Well, fast forward 10 years. 29 being a magic number in a mysogynistic place like LA. No longer young enough to play the “ingenue”, but she still looked good enough to continue getting roles as the ‘sexy’ so and so. Finally, Desiree landed a recurring role on a soap opera as a lonely housewife, where she was constantly getting entangled with hot young neighbors, and other women’s husbands. They say that life imitates art, or is it vice versa? I forget. Anyhow, jump ahead 5 years, and Desiree, now 34 is starting to wonder if she was ever going to find Mr. Right, amongst the string of Mr. Right Nows. Low and behold, on a commercial for vacuums, there he stood. The man of her dreams. Love at first sight. They chatted on set, he wooed her for weeks, and she knew, this was it. He was a director. Wealthy, a bit older and established. She had hit the jackpot. Not only was it love, but she, being an opportunistic gal, knew that he would be able to connect her and help her career. She was being strategic.
They married and honeymooned in Tahiti, her dream vacation. Champagne and caviar. She moved into his home in the Pacific Palisades and got so comfortable, she stopped working altogether, and focused on trying to have a baby. It seemed to be the next thing to do. Her husband, Dean, was a workaholic, but an excellent provider. He had a bit of a reputation as a ladies man, but Desiree knew that she held the keys to his heart, credit cards and castle. The following year, she had a baby boy. They named him Devon. Dean, Desiree and Devon lived their “perfect” life for many years. He lavished her with cash, gifts and cars. In return she tolerated his rumored infidelities. She had nannies and housekeepers. With more time on her hands than she knew what to do with, she felt she had achieved the life a princess would only dream of. Shopping, being pretty and well provided for. A blonde haired princess from Iowa. Just like her parents had always told her.
Fast forward 10 years. Desiree turned 39. Her years on tanning beds were beginning to surface. She looked in the mirror and noticed things she didn’t like. She began to get beauty “treatments” done by a famous Beverly Hills plastic surgeons. Just small tweaks here and there. The credit card had a high limit, and she just told her husband she needed a mole or two removed. Precancerous things, you know. Dean was oblivious, and told her to do whatever she needed to do. Their son was now in private school, and the nanny took him to his after school programs for hours. The only time they were together as a family was occasionally for a half hour or so at bedtime. Often, Dean would stay “on location”. Needless to say, Desiree started to get very lonely.
She started to go take yoga at a small private gym. This is where she met Mack. Yes, the personal trainer. So cliche, I know. Trust me, this is a scenario that plays out over and over and over again. She started to “train” daily. Her body felt better than ever, and she was glowing. One night when her husband came home, he commented on how great she looked. He made sexual advances in the kitchen, something he hadn’t done in a very long time. As he pressed her up against the counter, her cell phone received a text and then another. Her phone happened to be on the counter directly in his line of vision. Desiree wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, and she had neglected to set her phone on private. Dean leaned closer to her, stroking her neck, while staring over her shoulder to view the incoming messages. Desiree squirmed, trying to get his attention. The stream of texts continued. Dean’s breathing got heavier. He pushed Desiree in front of him, grabbing her by her arms shaking her violently. He asked her what was going on. Who the hell was Mack? She started to shake and cry. She told him how sorry she was, but she had been so lonely. She cried a lot, but he just pushed her aside and stormed out, down the hall, into his office and slammed the door shut. Desiree sank down onto the kitchen floor, head in hands. She reached up to grab the cell phone and read the messages that Dean had viewed. They were completely incriminating. Explicitly sexual, and solid evidence of an affair. She turned off her phone and sat there bawling on the kitchen floor until she could drag herself to the plush white leather sofa where she fell asleep.
The next morning, Desiree woke up to her husband standing over her. He gave a weak smile and told her he understood. He confessed that he too had been having an affair, and in a way this was all kind of a relief. He had met an actress on set, and it had gotten quite serious. He was planning on telling her, but he just hadn’t had the opportune moment. Desiree felt her heart sink. She went numb. Sure, she had been having an affair, but it was just sex and she had never had the intention of getting more serious with Mack. However, her husband was telling her a different scenario. He told her that he would be going to his lawyer during the following week to file the divorce papers. He said that he was going for full custody of their son, with visitation rights for Desiree. He claimed that she was an unfit mother, focused on her plastic surgery more than on her son’s needs. He warned her not to contest it. He reminded her that he was a powerful man, with powerful connections. She was shocked and defeated. Her heart hurt. He told her she should start getting ready to move out. Devise an exit plan, he told her. Finally, he told her she would be able to have the BMW, and he would give her a sort of “severance” deal, but because she had racked up so much on his credit cards, she was lucky to get anything at all. She gasped, taking it all in.
During the next few weeks, she spent her time going through her clothes, and jewelry, bagging it up for consignment shops. She sold what she could, stashing the cash for emergencies. She started to look at apartments, and living situations, but they were all so expensive. She would only be able to survive for a few months on her finances. She had no concrete job skills, and no connections left. At this point, the idea of going out on auditions, facing rejection, seemed terrifying.
One day, while getting the mail, she saw a paper leaflet on the ground at the end of the gravel driveway. She picked it up. On the front was a photo of a handsome long haired man. “Divine Heights, A New Lifestyle” was printed in bold purple script. She opened the pamphlet and read inside. It described a permanent “retreat”, in the countryside, where it cost nothing, but you were provided with everything. A healthy cooperative community. Welcoming to all, no matter what financial status. There was a phone number at the bottom, underneath a photo of a group of laughing people in a tent. She went back inside, glanced around the huge luxurious white living room, walked over the the giant fur chair, plopped down and dialed the number.
A woman’s voice answered. Hello, Divine Heights, Althena speaking. Desiree paused. Then she started to ask questions. Where was this community, what was the lifestyle, and what was the cost to become a part of it. The woman explained that it was a healthy community in the hills of a remote town in central california. They welcomed all. Depending on budget, there was a nominal “buy-in”, but once in, the only cost was labor and participating in events. The founder, known as Chino, was a leader and a man of many talents. They practiced daily meditation, along with coop gardening, and cooking.
Desiree decided to take the “tour”. She drove her BMW up the coast and headed inland towards the dry desolate looking mountains. It seemed like a very long drive, hours and hours. Finally, down a long dirt road, she saw ahead, a compound. Looking like an old military camp, she noted people milling about, doing repairs. She parked at the end of the drive and got out of her car. A tall dark haired familiar looking man looked in her direction, waving her over. She walked towards him. As she got nearer, she noticed that this was the man on the cover of the pamphlet. The man introduced himself as Chino, reaching out his hand to hers. He gently pulled her in for a hug, whispering “welcome”, softly into her ear. She smiled. She told him she was there to take a look at the Lifestyle. He invited her into the building where there was a simple set up of rustic furnishings. He guided her to a small wicker couch and sat down right next to her. He was wore jeans and a loose fitting shirt. His scent was masculine and deep. He pressed his knee against hers. She felt chemistry. He was a powerful man. She liked him. He put his arm around her, holding her close. He told her he knew she was searching. He knew she needed shelter and love. She had to look no further. She smiled, and felt his lips kiss her neck. She pulled away. He looked her in the eyes, and told her she was welcome here. There would be no charge for her. She thought to herself, this was it. He got up and took her hand. He lead her down a long hall towards a small room. Through the tiny window, enough natural light streamed in to see a clean and simple setup. A single bed, sink and toilet. He told her this would be her personal quarters. The rest of the place was shared. He told her he felt the connection too. She smiled. It was her moment. A culmination of her life’s choices. This was it. She had her exit plan.
Christmas 2015. Another holiday season in full swing. This year I found myself alone in LA on a shoestring budget. A recent catastrophic breakup had left me in a bad way, both emotionally & financially. Operating on autopilot, I felt I had hit an all time low. A last minute call to cater a private party on Christmas Day came in, and of course I had to accept the job. At least I would leave with cash in pocket, and what better distraction is there than to busy yourself with work.
Driving up the curving streets, into the hills above Hollywood, the homes got bigger and the streets narrowed. Finally in front of the location, I glanced up to see the multi-tiered home looming precariously above. Heading up the steps to the door, I adjusted my black ruffled shirt and smoothed my hair back. After what seemed like an eternity, I stood before the massive entrance. Taking a deep breath, I rang the bell. I had arrived 30 minutes early as requested, and the host answered the door promptly. He was an older gentleman, wearing a tuxedo, and an expression of disdain. He swiftly ushered me in, and pointed to the closet where I was to put my personal belongings. A bearded man passed by covering his mouth to muffle a nasty cough. I turned my head to avoid contamination. “Oh, that’s my son George, he has a terrific flu.” I just feigned a weak smile. I followed him down the hallway towards the heart of the residence, adjusting my apron along the way.
He turned and barked at me in a stressed staccato tone, “Where is the other server? I need to go over the menu. Are you the lead?” Actually, I had never catered a private party before, so I just told him that I was to meet the lead server, and that as soon as he got there, we could go over the menu together. He opened a swinging door into the brightly lit, steamy kitchen. This room needed a serious remodel. The drop ceilings with fluorescent panels, and cabinets were definitely circa 1986. It was painted a color that I recall being all the rage during the Reagan years. The smell of cooking overwhelmed me, and I saw a large blonde woman stirring a pot of rice on the stove at the center island. She had wild curly hair, and her crimson flushed face glistened with beads of perspiration. He introduced me to his daughter, and informed me that she had been a professional chef and would be preparing the food for the party. She rudely interrupted him to let me know that she had made a drastic career change over the past two years, and was now a renowned psychic to the stars. She was a medium and could channel spirits. Interesting.
Next, I met Anna. Apparently, Anna had been the housekeeper for 35 years, and it showed. This lady looked ancient as she stood over the sink, washing dishes. Naively, I offered her the rubber gloves I had brought along, but she just laughed and told me in broken English, that she couldn’t work with gloved hands. Her expression spoke volumes. For a fleeting moment I had the urge to whisk her away so she could relax, but then again, I wasn’t that far behind in the current scheme of things.
Finally, at 5, the doorbell rang and it was the other server. The host brought him into the kitchen, where I stood pretending to study the menu. I quickly placed the menu on the counter, and readjusted the ruffles on my apron once more. I had dressed as nice as possible within the confines of the catering uniform, because it was the holiday after all. My outfit was as flattering as possible, and my makeup and hair was perfect. At least the fake diamond earrings coupled with the ruffled apron made me feel a little more “french maid”, rather than just a “server”.
He quickly introduced himself with a proper accent, “Shawn”, and turned right away to the host. “Sir, let’s go over the menu if you are ready sir.” Something didn’t correlate to me, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint anything. Shawn wore the standard white button down shirt, tie and black pants of a caterer. I noticed the shirt seemed just slightly dingy around the edges. As we reviewed the menu with the host, he nodded and threw in a “yes, sir, okay sir, how would you like the items plated, sir?” “first or last, sir…etc…” It all seemed a bit over the top, but I figured maybe this was to be expected. Again, this was all new to me, so I just went along with it. The dinner was a sit down, French style service. We were to bring in the dishes in order, and above all, remain discreet. The table had been set already, and at each place sat a tiny box wrapped in tiffany blue and tied with a silver bow. First thing would be champagne, while the 10 guests opened their gift. It was, apparently, a Tiffany silver spoon. We were advised to promptly remove the wrappings, after the guests were done with the ceremony. Following this, we would need to keep on time with the dish removal, and setting up for each next course. We were also expected to keep the wine flowing throughout the entire evening.
As we stood in the kitchen waiting to begin the service, the host went out to the bar area to round us his guests. Shawn, Anna and I waited in awkward silence. Finally, they were all corralled into the dining room, which was through a swinging door from the kitchen. Shawn looked at me and rolled his eyes. “Merry Fucking Christmas” he said, with a heavy Boston accent. I laughed. Gone was the proper waiter with the “yes sir, okay sir.” He swiftly turned on his heel and walked away, disappearing out the back exit. He returned a few minutes later, smelling of cigarette smoke. He asked me if I had worked for this company before, and I let him know it was really my first time doing private catering. He told me not to worry, I simply had to follow his lead. I felt a slight sense of relief.
As we stood there, he looked at me for a moment and started to tell me the story of his recent break up. I shared that I had gone through the same thing around the same time. We laughed and sort of bonded over that fact. Then he told me that the reason he was late was that his motorcycle had been stolen, and he had taxied over. In addition, he wasn’t able to get to the bank to get cash to pay me at the end of the shift. The lead caterer was responsible to handle the payout. How convenient, I thought to myself. Of course, I offered to take him to the bank on the way out, because I would be damned if I didn’t get my money after all of this!
The host came into the kitchen, and silently motioned to us that it was time to pick up the wrapping paper and begin the service. So it went. We moved in and out of the kitchen, passing plates, picking up, pouring wine, giving Anna more dirty dishes and so on. The host’s son with the violent cold kept coughing and covering his face with a cloth napkin. I tried my best to avoid his plates, and let Shawn deal with it. Getting sick was not what I had signed up for.
Anyhow, the night went by smoothly and the host was very pleased. At the end of the affair, he met with us in the kitchen to give Shawn a check and to tip us for our labors. I assumed, since it was Christmas, and since the host was raving about our service, well, I assumed we would be generously tipped. The guests each got a Tiffany spoon. Well, we each got an envelope with 60 dollars. Merry Christmas indeed.
Finally, we were dismissed, and Shawn and I walked out the front door into the night air onto the landing. From the top of the stairs we paused for a few moments to look out at the view. Under a clear starry sky, the sparkling lights of Los Angeles extended for miles below. As we walked down the steps together, I felt a strong kinship between us. At the bottom of the stairs I pointed across to my car. Shawn wanted to smoke a cigarette, so we walked around the corner, and up the side street as he got his nicotine fix. It was dark and we both laughed about the night. We commiserated about the shitty tip, and he asked me what I was going to do the rest of the night. I told him I would probably go home and drink wine. He said he was going to do the same thing, so if I wanted to I was welcome to go over to his place and we could hang out. He said he was still so upset about his ex, and he didn’t intend anything other than hanging out. I said okay, and we headed back to my car. Driving across town, we stopped at the bank so he could get my payout. Then we headed over towards his place. He told me it was a huge apartment and in a great location. We stopped at a 7-11 on the way. Christmas night, 7-11, Venice Beach. Need I say more? A few homeless people lingered in the lot as we pulled up. I expected it to be empty, but the place was buzzing with action. The store was full of random characters, including us. We were still in our catering garb, although mine was now disheveled, and the hair was out from the bun. I hadn’t touched up my makeup, so it was likely smeared around the eyes, and there was a high probability of a lingering outline around my lips. Shawn perked up, saying hello to everyone, and shouting out ”Merry Christmas!” He grabbed a case of beer and some chips. I picked out a bottle of wine. I told him I wanted to get us Christmas gifts, and bought a few lotto tickets and some scratchers, along with the wine. It was that kind of a night.
Back in my car, we headed further west. He guided me towards a large modern, but somewhat desolate looking building, and I drove down a ramp into the lower level of a vast parking lot. We took an elevator up and walked down a maze like hallway. At this point, I was so tired I just followed along, looking forward to a glass of wine. As he unlocked the door, I had a moment of trepidation, because now I realized, I was basically with a perfect stranger. A false sense of familiarity had been established, via our catering bond. In reality, I had no idea who this man was. And, now I was entering into his apartment. “What an idiot. I watch Forensic Files”, I thought to myself.
He switched on the lights, and immediately, I noticed a giant bare mattress to the right of the door. He saw me looking at it, and quickly told me that his neighbor had died, and he inherited some of her items, including the mattress. I didn’t really know what to say. There was a brand new surf board leaning on the wall wrapped in a giant red bow. He pointed to it, telling me it was a Christmas gift for his girlfriend. He still planned to give it to her. There was a photo of a female silhouette over the fireplace, as well as a few photos of the same girl sprinkled around the room. Otherwise, the place was a kind of messy, average one-bedroom apartment. He told me to check the rest of it out and I followed him through the small hallway. He switched on a light, and I looked into the bedroom to see a pile of camofluage clothes, and a military backpack in a heap on the floor. On the bed laid a rifle. He said “I was just cleaning my rifle earlier, gotta put it away.” Then he explained to me that he was an Army Veteran. He started rambling on about how he was on disability, and that is how he was able to afford this apartment in the luxury highrise. Back in the living room, he switched on the tv , and shuffled into the kitchenette to open the wine. I heard him tear open a bag of chips and pour them into a bowl. As soon as I sat down on the sofa, a scruffy cat came over and jumped up onto my lap. Shawn laid out a spread of tortilla chips, beer and wine, along with some dubious looking premade salsa. He then grabbed a giant bong, lit it, and proceeded to get stoned. I sipped on my wine, declining the bong hits. He flipped channels incessantly. Finally landing on the burning log channel, which featured holiday songs with the lyrics superimposed. At that point I was getting tipsy and we started to sing Christmas songs. This continued for what seemed like hours. Soon I was drunk, and I needed to lie down. He got up, bong in hand, and told me I could sleep on the mattress, pointing to it, as he walked towards his room, and shut the door. I placed my coat down and kept my clothes on, lying on the mattress. Sleeping with one eye open, I tried to get some rest. I did doze off, and woke to a breeze blowing through the open sliding door. The smell of stale smoke permeated the room. A cat was sitting on my chest. I sat up and Shawn stumbled out of his room. He offered me some instant coffee. I sat in the dead woman’s bed, and sipped on the bitter brew. He was acting odd, and started putting on different shirts and telling me how he got them from someone who left him a bag of clothes. He paraded around in various “looks”. Suddenly, I felt the urgency to leave, and told him I needed to be somewhere. As we walked down the matrix towards an elevator, he told me he was happy I came over and that if I hadn’t, he might have really lost it. I said the same went for me. I got in my car, and exited the parking garage into the bright morning light. Looking into the rear view mirror, I half expected to see a different person. But all I saw were my smudgy eyes, looking somewhat bleary and sad. My coat was covered in cat hair, and I could smell the smoke that had infiltrated my hair and clothing. I got home, threw all of the clothes into the laundry basket, and took a long hot shower.
Lying down on my bed, a text came in. I looked at the phone. It said “Merry Fucking Christmas”. I responded in kind.