❉ An original short story for We Are Cult.
“I think of those up in their Hollywood palaces, are they rushing to put the bins out in their dressing gowns? I love this city. Only one more day and I’m stuck here with this idiot…”
We meet at the Lloyds mobile bank on a Monday afternoon in January.
‘Jade! Hey! You’re looking well. I’ve seen you a few times passing in the car. Wasn’t sure if you’d talk to me.’
I’d noticed him already, towering over the others in the queue, I’d looked at the floor. I do that with all of John’s friends.
‘I tell you what. You dodged a bullet there, Jade.’
I sure did. Jesus! I’d picked a fruit loop there.
‘You know what the bastard did to me don’t you.’ he states rather than asks, jumping from one foot to the other. Whoever cut his hair last has done a terrible job, ‘I’m with my mum, she’s in the car but I just want you to know that I always backed you Jade, even before he shit on me. Well done on taking him on. That’s what I need to do.’ He smiles in a strange way, his mouth closed, bad teeth probably.
He seems to be keeping well, his illness behind him. Hate suits him. Grant is no looker. Like a cross between Shaggy from Scooby-Doo and a sensible walker type and anyway, I am in no way ready for or wanting a relationship. Not a chance.
He asks me over a cup of tea. Tea served in in a china cup and he uses my name when he speaks to me, I like that. This festival he’s going to is at the end of April. He usually takes Pox on any trips or Stu from across the road but Pox isn’t allowed into the U.S and Stu has a girlfriend now. Grant thinks I’ll be good fun.
‘Look Jade, there’ll be no pressure, we’re grown- ups. If things don’t happen between us, then we’ll go as friends. How much fun can I have on my own? All you need is a visa.’
How can I say no? A trip to California, paid for and no pressure. It’ll take some organising what with work and Izzy, I haven’t left her for more than two days before. She’ll be fine. I need this. I order a whole new wardrobe from ASOS.
I smile at the hot, still sun. The highways snake a million directions, crammed with crawling cars. Friday afternoon is not the time to travel here. I feel like a cartoon character – a bright red dress and a blue shiny Toyota with a New Mexico plate. Concentrated like orange juice.
‘Now I’m going to need you to navigate Jade’ Grant says, ‘You okay to do that?’
I look out of the open window at the rocks.
‘I’ll do my best, I don’t like busy roads’, I roll him a fag and look at his profile. He looks different today, like he’s been pulled apart at some point during the journey and put back together all wrong. His skin is greyish pink in the L.A sunlight. He looks like he’s been underground for a long time.
‘What’s a baby mole called?’ I ask.
He shrugs, ‘Now you are looking out for signs now aren’t you?’
‘A group of moles is called a labour’, not much of that in him.
His tiny blue eyes are never still, like they’re searching, not really wanting to know. I light up a cigarette and focus on the green signs above, Pasadena North, San Pedro South. He hasn’t mentioned his hand injury yet, done up like a drumstick, I can’t be bothered to hear all the details again.
‘Wonder what he’d say if he saw us eh?’ He starts laughing, his hands off the wheel, his long legs wedged underneath it. Sweat trickles down my belly. My hair needs a wash. He seems different today.
‘There’s not much chance of that’ I say after too long. The landscape is a flat and concrete desert. Factory outlets and hardware superstores are sprinkled along the highway. Billboards advertise girls and God and weed.
‘That’s it! San Bernardino! Right lane!’
‘Well done Jade, Well done’.
The city lays in a valley overlooked by polluted misty mountains and the Oak Hills. Streets of 1950’s style bungalows are boarded up, a boy in low rise jeans eyes us from the pavement as we drive past. I imagine getting shot as we pass the lonely petrol station, leaving my Izzy motherless. We turn into East Harriman Place at 5pm. The bright décor of the hotel jolts me awake. Yellows and oranges zig-zag the carpets and chairs like vomit. The fridges beside the reception desk are stocked well with microwaveable dinners and racks of chocolate bars. Through the corridors the heavy smell of weed and unwashed feet crowd me. It’s okay though, outside, the neon sign of the In-N-Out burger joint winks at me and the palm trees promise me a good time. Another siren goes by.
I watch him unzip the navy suitcase his mum has packed for him in the mirror. He places the ironed bundles of grey cargo pants and white t-shirts onto the shelves by the telly. I smooth my hair back under its scarf. He places a pair of fleece red and navy tartan pyjamas on the back of the chair. I turn to the side and look at my waist in my new denim shorts while he looks at his hand and places an assortment of plasters in a stupid semi-circle on the bed. I need a drink. He needs a lie down. He’s fiddling with his Weed Maps app on his phone.
‘I fancy a drink. Do you want anything?’ Please don’t, ‘I’ll pop to that B. J’s across the road.’
I wake at 2am, his phone light in my face, standing like a crab in pyjamas holding a toilet plunger aloft with his pincer.
‘I’m having a terrible time here Jade. I’ve blocked the toilet,’ His blue face twitches behind his phone, ‘I got this from downstairs, I’ve been sorting it out for hours.’ He shakes the plunger and paces backwards and forwards at the bottom of the bed, stooped from years of trying to be shorter. I lie back down and face the lights through the thin red cloth at the window, working out where in the room my case is.
We get to the National Orange Center around 11am. Dust patches and grass lawns are surrounded by fences dotted with trees. It’s 22 degrees already, my dark hair is hot to touch. A lagoon with three fountains tempts dippers, there are no takers yet. A morning yoga class has started but I stay next to him looking at the bright yellow lion from Zion sitting at the edge of the V.I.P area. Multi-coloured revellers glide past on plumes of cannabis smoke and the D.J is warming things up with mixes of Marley classics I know. The whole Marley family is going to be here, Skip, Julian, Stephen, I can’t remember all of them. There are many stalls set up already, CBD products, straw hats and rough, bright blankets. I’m new to this scene- education before recreation, music and everyone’s favourite green plant. Everyone nods in agreement with closed eyes.
I walk in time with reggae riffs and look down at the balding grass, my hot sandal-ed feet moving forward between the flaps of my orange skirt. A plane passes over a cottonwood tree. I shield my eyes from the sun’s rays broken into three and throw off my sandals to sit in the shade. I squidge my toes into blades of cooling grass and apply my sun-tan lotion. Grant won’t, he’s going to burn.
‘Where do you want to go first?’ Grant asks me, rolling a joint.
‘Oh! can we have a look at the VIP bit up there and then the stalls?’
Grant leads the way, he knows the way better than me of course.
‘Raw chocolate CBD. I should try this when I’m anxious driving.’ I say.
‘It doesn’t make you stoned you know.’
Yeah. I know. My hand hangs open as we walk, and we stop on a patch clear of festival goers. He turns and looks down at me.
I smile, wanting to want him and look over his shoulder. There’s a stall there with a Dr Jenny from some American T.V show, a beautiful small woman with coffee bean barrel curls and an airbrushed complexion. Grant’s straight on the couch opting for some vitamin injection for energy. I pose for a picture for her website, Grant does too, I thought he was against social media.
I look at everyone else while I eat goat curry, they don’t sell wine, just expensive beer which means never ending queues for filthy toilets. Couples lie in their own cocoons and pretty men lean against trees. This invisible white man in his fifties suddenly stands out and I move away from him. Ziggy Marley is on the stage and the irresistible ‘Sun is Shining’ intro starts, his voice, a raspy dream amongst greasy hair and dirty T-shirts. Fat spliffs light up and I whirl round through the thick air. How many days have I been here? My arms stretch above my head, my dark hair even hotter to touch. I’ll be seeing my girl again soon. Blurred glimpses of feet and faces follow me as I turn. I’m dizzy and out of breath when the song comes to an end. Everyone seems to be asleep.
Grant wakes up to the cooler night and decides it’s time to go. -Twelve hours is enough for anyone and we head back to the hotel wrapped in blankets with talk of heading to Beverley Hills for some luxury tomorrow. That’s what I need.
‘Do you wanna get in the weed industry?’ the radio asks, ‘Now’s the time! Join us downtown at the Sportsman’s Lodge..’
I flick stations and look back at the huge bed. I’ve never been in such a luxurious room, the minibar is packed with everything from hangover cures to M &M’s in posh jars and the bathroom has a rainforest shower, whatever that is. He looks smaller laid out on the bright white feather duvet and a hundred pillows as soft as fresh bread. His nails need cutting, I can’t stand men with long nails. I get up and pull the complimentary white robe tighter and walk across the thick cream rug. The room smells of lemon and vanilla and everything shines like a new car. We’re six floors up, to the back of the hotel and there’s hardly a breeze when I open the terrace doors. Parkway trees comfort the flat rooftops and obese air conditioning units on pink and grey homes. A bassline of traffic hums from somewhere else. It’s so peaceful apart from a few show-off birds keen to entertain me. Below our room is a Jewish Academy school, no children there today, just a proud caretaker in a kippah sweeping the pavement outside the entrance. If I hold on to the railing and lean over, I can see a psychic shop at the bottom of the street painted purple and gold and straight ahead to the hills is that iconic sign. Dolls’ houses tossed into the air and landing wherever, so different from the gridded streets down below. I flick through the hotel information book again, a page lists room service options for dogs. I need to shave my legs. I take a few selfies for Facebook, it will look like I’m on holiday alone. I wish I was.
‘We should get some food downstairs in a bit. And a wine. Or a cocktail, do you think?’ I ask the sun.
I stretch out a sigh and step up onto the marshmallow bed holding one of his woolly socks. He doesn’t move. I stick it over the smoke detector, so I can light up and I smile, flicking my cheek, making smoke rings to the hills. I pour myself another red wine.
A bin lorry backs up the street, beautiful bin men wearing olive green uniforms are dancing their routine of work. Their golden arms and gloved hands removing rubbish of the rich. I think of those up in their Hollywood palaces, are they rushing to put the bins out in their dressing gowns? I love this city. Only one more day and I’m stuck here with this idiot, another one I must be grateful to. I just want to drink whisky with a guy in a crummy bar or dine at The Stinking Rose with one of those bin men, but I’ve been paid for. I watch the lorry disappear into the next street and neck the rest of my wine. I put on my white sundress and cowboy boots and stare at my reflection for a long time.
I grab my biker jacket and handbag from the back of the dressing table chair and stuff the notepad with the hotel logo into my bag on the way out. The door edges closed with a click. I run down the plush carpeted corridor, brushing my fingertips across the grey gloss walls and delicate silver drapes and laugh. I look back and feel for my passport through my bag. I step into the lemon scented, polished lift and press ‘G’.
❉ Helen Green is a 40-something writer, pole artist, and post-punk Jewish princess. Passionate about everything for about three weeks.
❉ Image credits: https://pixabay.com/en/photos/ Free for commercial use, released under CC0 – no copyrights apply. Header image: Jonas Svidras/Pixabay.