I don’t know how else to say it, I am powerful. My superpowers include persuading strangers to switch pants with me at house parties, even if they are not my parties, even if I wasn’t invited to the party. A boring but useful superpower I have is the ability to fall asleep anywhere in front of anyone. About this super power, I say, “I can sleep on a toothpick.” I’ve slept under cherry blossom trees on gloomy city park days, in the backseats of parked vehicles, on beach sand that is technically private property, and on so many strange beds in rooms lit by the sun in so many different ways that it is clear to me the sun is my only constant.
Don’t ask me to explain any of it, these things come naturally to me.
The superpower I’m most proud of is the one that deals with falling out of love. It is more precious to me than the beauty of falling in it. Falling in love doesn’t interest me as much. My friends and family say, “What a sight,” about my favorite superpower. “Oh my, you fall out of love so quickly. What a sight.”
There was one weekend when it felt like these skills merged and went through a reckoning. It started the night when my friend Allie had a stand-up gig at a place called Go Laugh It Off. I tagged along because I had nothing better to do, and it was more of a bar than a comedy venue in that Go Laugh It Off made most of its revenue selling cheap wine to its lineup of comedians every night than by selling tickets to an audience. Anyway, there we were, comedians and their wayward friends, drunk after the show in the lobby, some of us passing joints, others sipping warm champagne, when it was decided that instead of bar-hopping we would stay right where we were. I thought this was a fine plan. I got in trouble when I mixed my drinking establishments.
A portable karaoke machine was sent for then, and I went in search of the restroom to see if my eyeliner was spilling my secrets already. On my way to the restroom, which was behind the stage, I passed a brooding, pierced type sitting stage right in a black beanie and full-blown Technicolor sleeves of images that belong better on murals than on both his arms. He was pounding a hand drum with his palm. His face was Zen and handsome. You know him already.
I sat down and grabbed the other drum and pounded it at every downbeat. Four measures into it, he reached over wordlessly and patterned a better rhythm for me to contribute, and we remained like that for a pretty moment. I started singing a song, and that’s when we were kicked off the stage.
“You want to go back to my place?” he said, the first thing Kevin ever said to me, his voice was Australian and deep, with soft corners. As he spoke, he pulled on the brown curls blooming on his forehead beneath his cap.
The rest of the night went on like that, I’ll spare you the details. Most of it is a blur of clichés like dancing in his living room to KISS vinyls and pouring bourbon into each others’ mouths and holding each others’ cigarettes as we pretended to listen to each other read aloud beat poetry because that was all he had on his shelves. Rob Zombie movies played in the background.
He said, “Do you remember my name?” and I replied honestly, “No. Do you remember mine?”
He shook his head, and we continued dancing.
The next morning, the drums again. We used our hands on bongos, sticks on practice pads, hips on hips, lips on hips, head banging and whispering and watching the light outside grow old then reborn by streetlamps, until he decided we should do the Sunset Strip, like a couple of losers. “I always go the Rainbow Room Saturdays,” Kevin said, pulling on his boots. “My good friend works there.”
By the time we were at the Rainbow Room, I had learned the following about the green-eyed porcelain-peach Kevin: he had dropped out of high school to become a drummer, he kept his drum kit in a studio in the Valley, he owned his own screen-printing business to support two unpaid drumming gigs, and that upon emigrating to the States he had first lived in New Orleans where he was once hospitalized for weeks on end after shooting heroin cooked in vodka. At the time, it seemed like this last story was shared to explain why he didn’t have as many friends any more, because he had said, with some anguish before dropping it forever, “They were the ones that had said vodka.”
We snaked our way past the mobs through the serpentine venue, one room leading to another in such a way as to ensure a migraine. Kevin’s friend, Jakey, turned out to be some kind of bartender, by which I mean that he was mixing drinks behind the bar until he saw us, and that was the last time I saw him mixing drinks. He came over and grabbed a table in the overcrowded space. He sat across from us. I thought the whole thing was maybe a bad sign.
Jakey had an accent too. He was from Brazil. He said, “You two make such a beautiful couple, really, really, a beautiful couple. Look at her,” he said to me about me. “She looks so healthy, you could get her pregnant just by looking at her.”
After some moments of polite head nodding, I realized it was time for me to go home. I regret now that I didn’t follow through. Instead, Kevin misinterpreted what I was trying to do, saying, “Yeah, let’s go back to my place.”
Five minutes later we were zipping down the streets with the names, Jakey behind the wheel going so fast that it felt like it was raining Christmas, the lights outside were like diagonal green and red droplets evaporating on the glass. Before long we had stopped in front of a liquor store. “I’ll be right back,” Kevin said, without taking requests.
Jakey turned to me in the passenger seat where I was plucking lint off my clothes, and he asked me a question, the crux of which I can’t remember now because when I opened my mouth to answer him, he reached over and tried to pull my mouth to his own.
“Please don’t tell Kevin,” was all Jakey could say until Kevin emerged from the storefront and slipped into the backseat.
“Let’s go,” Kevin said.
“Jakey just tried to kiss me,” I said. The engine roared and Kevin’s laugh was another engine roaring.
“Why do my friends always do that?” Kevin asked himself, gleefully. “All my friends are always trying to kiss my girlfriends. I don’t get it.” After a moment, he added, “Probably because they think I won’t do anything about it.”
Jakey and I met eyes so briefly it almost didn’t happen. We wore different expressions. His was made of lines. I said, “Are you going to do anything about it?”
I should probably mention here that if Kevin were the kind of person that would do something, I wouldn’t have been there in the first place.
Everything goes back to normal.
But what is normal in the greater context here? I don’t have time to ponder such questions, because it is an hour later and Kevin is yelling at me.
“You’re a racist!” he shouts. By now, he has taken his share of the coke that Jakey had brought, and my share as well, because I hate drugs. I would love to love drugs, but they make me feel exactly like myself, which is to say terrible. It is like paying for a luxury vacation you end up spending on your living room couch, a premium on top of the high rent that is being alive and dealing with yourself constantly.
“A racist,” he repeats, kind of choking on his spit.
From the couch, Jakey speaks for both of us when at last he says, “Hold up, what? How, again? Sorry.” He waves his hands in front of his face to show that he is very out of it.
Kevin is too wired to trace our discursive steps. He can’t remember how he was arguing that political correctness had gone too far. “You can’t say anything these days.” That was when I had stopped listening. I had lain on the floor and closed my eyes.
It was only when Kevin said to the air in the room, “I know what oppression is. The American government is making me pay thousands in immigration lawyer fees and I might not get to stay,” that I couldn’t help myself. I had said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
That’s what got us into this mess.
“It’s people like this,” he is now saying to Jakey. “They always make it about them and their people.” He turns to me. “Your love of your people blinds you. You’re a reverse racist. You’re the supremacist.”
And here is where I employ my favorite super power, the least glamorous, but the most useful: I employed the ability to allow things to just be. The lovely capacity to leave things alone. From afar it looks like falling out of love, but in fact I lied about that, about everything. I’m probably still in love with everything I’ve ever loved. Everything about me is parlor trickery. I am the wizard behind the curtain. I am the Hulk waiting to die in hibernation.
Kevin is vibrating with resentment and dopamine too much to notice that I’m hunting for the jewelry I have left scattered all over his apartment. He is very busy explaining how difficult it is to have conversations with people like me. He’s maybe not wrong. Inside, I’m writhing with everything I want to say. If I open my mouth, currently winding like a Jack-in-the-Box, the culmination would be a colorful litany of responses to every single time I’ve smiled politely when I shouldn’t have.
I move slowly, avoiding Kevin’s gaze as I slip ring after ring on each finger, affecting composure. But underneath I am roiling with sentences like: ‘Not everyone comes to America to get famous.’ ‘Not all violence is self-inflicted.’ And, ‘If you knew real oppression, you would recognize the songs you’re singing as oppression songs.’ In a way, leaving things alone is the exact opposite of what I’ve been selling, it is anti-hero mode, it costs a lot, and it is my constant state.
“Wait, you’re leaving?” Kevin says when he sees me putting on my shoes. “Hold on a second,” he says, frantic out of nowhere. “Wait, wait. Come on. Please. Don’t go.”
Jakey moves to the other room.
“If you leave, I know I’ll never see you again. I just know it.” His voice is not pleading anymore, it is angry, but somehow I find Kevin kneeling in front of me.
There is a silence then, and suddenly it feels like I am on a stage. The wooden floor underneath my feet becomes wood that is under my feet. There are words that are waiting in the rafters, moving lines waiting in the wings, with a beautiful clarity and the potential to forever matter to an audience. I can’t stop staring at the lacquer on the knotted, wooden planks of the floor. How to speak well, how to speak at all, without diminishing someone in pain while also not diminishing myself, also in pain? That’s not something I yet know.
It is then that I think of the time when my work-friend, Jenny, and I were supposed to go to her house after we’d had happy hour margaritas at the dive bar next to the Big Lots where we handled Customer Service. Jenny was the one driving us home, but after a few blocks, she made a left turn, then another left turn, and then we were headed completely away from her house and to the other side of town. I was too buzzed and too silly with springtime feelings to protest, because those were the days when I had all the time in the world to follow whatever path opened because I didn’t care where I ended up, and she could have driven us off a cliff and it would have been all right. Before long we were parked in a church parking lot in West Hollywood. People milled about in groups, listening intently to each other, inhaling deeply their cigarettes, or staring at the few stars overhead, all of this in some communal worship. I followed Jenny into the church basement. I asked no questions, because churches have too many of them already.
The basement was full of people of various shapes and moods. There was only one speaking. He stood at the head of the room, he was a bald man with policeman posture and sad eyes and tribal tattoos. I looked around the packed room, people in chairs, all listening, listening.
Then before I knew it Jenny was standing where he had been standing. She said, “Hi, I’m an addict, and my name is Jenny.” That is when that stage feeling swooped in. It sat on my head. The whole room was at once audience and agent. We were alive people standing and sitting next to very alive people. The blood that pumped through our veins talked to each other across the borders that were our skins. I stared wide-eyed at my shoes, listening to Jenny’s voice, it was lilting and expansive and teary then grave then buoyant, like a perfect symphony, only I hadn’t ever considered she’d had one inside. She had never told me. And it made me think of other noises that a voice could carry, about other items in the zippered pockets of a mind. I had never seen a person turn her pockets inside out, just like that, no warning.
There was a Costco sheet-cake after that. Someone handed me a small plate with a funfetti slice on it, and I wanted to cup my hands over their hands, bring my forehead close, and say something, anything at all. But I didn’t speak. Not on the car ride to Jenny’s house. Not when we found her mother watching TV in the living room, fighting sleep on the couch. A broken shopping cart was her footstool. There were soda cans and newspapers and plastic bags full of junk mail everywhere. And when Jenny pulled down her mattress from her twin sized bed so that she could sleep on the box spring and I could sleep comfortably on the floor, she said good night, and instead of echoing it back, I closed my eyes, a curtain call on a stage full of people not speaking to each other anymore.
Kevin doesn’t look at me when the car arrives. I open the door. “Take care,” I say to him. “I’ll let you be.”