“Stilly, you can’t expect people to always have the same work ethic. To always agree with you. You can’t expect people to keep up with your manic, crazy pace. You have to learn to slow down, or you’ll crash.”
“Lee, I’m tired of sitting around waiting for the rest of my life to start. When do we get to run around the world telling our story? When do we get to be the perfect versions of ourselves that led us this far? We are stuck on your family farm in Arkansas in a town with the ironic name of Blytheville.”
I’m thinking of the leads in my pilot. Star-crossed musicians who are trying to find a way to be friends, lovers, and bandmates. Its two people who probably shouldn’t be together, but at the end of the pilot they get a record deal and have to make it work. One of the lovers is pretty introverted, the other is a bipolar extrovert. They’re both benign narcissists, but one of them skews much more chaotic. The other is more about order and controlling the narrative.
But, walking into the Equinox I see something jarring. The police have subdued a guy. He’s barefoot, shoeless, standing outside a luxury apartment building. I park my car, hurrying back out front. I want a photograph. I walk up all casual and when I’m close I drop to my knees and try to get a great angle. I do! One of the cops says, hey you didn’t get my best side. Do you have a better side, I ask? He laughs. The handcuffed man looks wild-eyed, exhausted, but clean of foot, with buffed nails. I surmise he lives in the luxury building. I take one more photo and hold eye contact with the shirtless man.
“Stay calm, Brother.” I say. It’s the only thing I can think to say. I got what I wanted – my photo. It will be part of a series of photos about Los Angeles. I feel guilty, somehow, like a louse.
Or, like a DJ. Co-opting someone else’s story and framing it how I like. Okay, fine, but DJs collage artists, or music video makers don’t usually go around snapping photos of people at low points, in order to turn it into internet art.
So, I feel crummy. Wait.
They wrote Ms. Saigon based off of one photo. Now I feel better.
Wait, no I don’t.
I feel like someone who takes a small slice of a moment, and exaggerates all the badness he can find, just to get attention. Like some sort of snot-nosed young critc, or something. I don’t like it when I feel this way about myself. It’s okay, though. I have learned to move through it. I breathe. I let the bad thought pass through me. I open the door to my air-conditioned luxury gym. I’m okay. I’m a nice guy who helps foster kids part time, and does freelance writing projects. I earned this 40 minutes at the gym.
At the front desk a cute, fair-skinned auburn-haired woman, probably mid twenties smiles at me. What are the cops doing out there, I ask. Do you live in the Gilmore? No, I just saw the cops cuffing someone who looks like he lives there. Oh, that’s Ray. She’s pretty nonchalant, and tells me he’s off his meds and the cops have to come by once a week almost, now. That’s sad, I say, and then tell a dumb story about 2013, when I had a nine month bout of hypomania – before I understood what it was, and how to reign it in. The auburn woman smiles and nods, and eventually helps me with the Wifi. I can’t seem to get it unless I’m at the perimeter of the gym. It’s strange. The deeper you go into the Equinox the more it feels like you’re in some sort of cocoon.
Jesus, I think. Wouldn’t that be nice? Wrap yourself in silk and emerge an evolved being? I suppose that’s the metaphor of drag, when it’s not being overtly misogynist. Sometimes it’s not, these days. But, remember the 90’s?
Woof. I sure do, I think to myself.
I remember everything. It’s kind of a gift/curse. I make memory castles for myself. Totems from experiences. I keep them on display, and if I pick one up, I am transported to the memory. You have to be careful about using your memory castle though. Every time you use a totem, the memory gets a little weaker. Your mind does this work. It polishes the bent edges of things. Shines up murky, moldy, or soap filmed lenses. Smooths out jagged edges until your totems are nothing more than beach glass, or a smooth pebble at the bottom of a brook. You might start with an intact fossil, but find out later, after going back and visiting that memory for years, that is was nothing more than a knuckle from a neanderthal, and not the bonafide cro-magnon you thought it once was. Your mind will do this over the years, if you don’t write things down, if you don’t make memory castles, if you don’t save totems. The scary thing is, your mind will do these things, even if you do write things down. Life, to some extent, is a race against a ticking clock, and the person who learns to enjoy the race can win it.
But, truly living is when you stand still, and it’s rare we allow ourselves that.
I take a swim. There’s a tense middle-aged man, a white guy, being trained by a lovely young man with dark, inky hair and eyes of warm, earthy tree bark. The younger paces back and forth as the middle-aged swims. The younger says encouraging, challenging aphorisms to the older man. The older man looks annoyed. I switch lanes, as soon as someone leaves. For a while I have a lane to myself. I really open up. I can get a mile done in 28 minutes if I hurry. I don’t get a mile done.
Some knock-down-drag-out thirst trap in a red speedo struts up to my lane and I’m immediately out of workout mode. He gets in with me and asks to share. Obviously. Yes. Please. He’s so lovely. I feel so lucky. He’s probably mid twenties, himself. Absolutely knows he is gorgeous. Doesn’t apologize for it, either. Rare find, anywhere else, but pretty common in SoCal.
He starts doing breast stroke. It’s ruined.
For those of you who don’t know, when you’re splitting lanes instead of swimming in a circle – it’s pretty rude to do butterfly or breaststroke. It’s the swimming equivalent of having a Hummer or some huge Escalade in a crowded urban environment. It’s a statement that yes, I understand there’s a limited amount of space, but I simply deserve more of it than you do. It’s an immediate turn off for me.
She’s going to do breaststroke all day, I say to nobody.
I get out of the pool and take a dip in the hot tub. The speedo guy switches to freestyle. Subterfuge!
I get in the tub too quickly and say to an older couple, yikes, it’s hot. Yes, it’s hot, the man says to me. No worries, I say to him, making eye contact with his friend. I’ll regulate. She rolls her eyes at me, and continues talking at him.
I’ve seen these two a few times, and they’re fascinating. In my head they’ve known each other a long time, always maybe 3rd or 2nd tier friends, but they always thought, hey maybe… Like, they probably had a weird elevator makeout once, at an event, 15 years ago, and never brought it up again. Now she’s asking for some favor from him, and they both know he’s going to grant it, but he’s being a stubborn, attention starved, possibly horny old man and making her really work on it.
It’s just a story. It’s how we all get through life. We tell ourselves stories all day long in order to live in this tepid, privileged colony of Europa.
I get out.
Back in the locker-room, I see the grumpy porter. Ugh. The grumpy asshole porter. The porters are all Mexican, the auburn haired woman at the front desk told me once. They run a little mob between the Equinox and the parking structure of the Gilmore. The porters are nice guys, for the most part, and even though it’s part of the business model, I’ve always felt like the Equinox could be a little better about how they encourage people to use fifteen towels a day, or throw things on the ground for someone to pick up. I’m aware of about three tiny wastebaskets in my gym.
I go pee. There’s a cubby for cell phones at the urinal, and someone has left a band-aid in the corner. Gross, I say to nobody, why would you put your band-aid here? Someone says, I know, I thought the same thing when I was peeing. He’s tall and blond and athletic. Like, really tall, like basketball tall. Young. Maybe 19. I mean I get it, I say, there’s privilege and then there’s privilege. Does your 200 some odd dollars a month make you too good to throw away your used band-aids? The kid laughs and shrugs and so do I, but I’m kind of annoyed.
I doubt he’s the one paying 200 a month.
Neither of us picks up the band-aid.
The grumpy porter is sullen. Usually he’s fine, but he will glare at me if too many gay men are in the steam room at once, or if I’m acting openly gay in the locker room, or if I put on lotion fully naked, instead of in a towel. He’s the shame police of the Equinox, and I really don’t like him at all. Gunmetal-grey hair and severe black eyebrows on a face like a topographical map of Nevada. Edward James Almost, I say, under my breath. He is eating a banana. I’ve been thinking of ways to complain about him, because I think he’s homophobic. You get a sense about people and over time, your sense gets sharper and sharper; I’ve decided he is homophobic. He always glares at me when I drop feathers in the Equinox, and nobody has time for any of that shit. I don’t understand it. The other porters are really cool. He hates his life, I think to myself. It’s not about me.
I file away the banana thing for later. If he is a snarling imp toward me again I’ll complain he was eating in the locker room. This is what I’ve become. Tit for tat. I guess that’s how we live now?
In the steam I meditate. I’m doing a meditative practice where I take 15 minutes or more a day to think about the word Love. Usually in the steam, but also in the car, or on the side of mountains, or at the beach. Anywhere you can sit and regulate your breathing and clear your mind. It helps. I’ve been thinking about the word Love this year. Last year it was Family. So far, my only conclusion this year is that Love is God.
(Much more on that later.)
I finish my meditation and do some naked yoga stretching, near the cloudy cube shape basket of rocks the steam comes from. I try to stand away from the guys as far as I can, because I don’t want to make people uncomfortable with my nudity. Neither, however, will I compromise my right to be naked in a locker-room. It’s a strange thing that I only notice in America. How tense we are about keeping our towels on. That’s not me. I don’t play by that rule. But I don’t provoke straight people either. I just respond to whatever energy is present, and usually only wise old naked men, or other gays approach.
There’s a sweet, naked, middle-aged man sitting on the top tier of the marble. I’m catty-corner to him. Someone gets up, and I shift seats, next to him. There’s a jock trying for the same spot but I point at it and he says, go for it. He sits next to another jock and they start low talking. Usually there’s no talking in the sauna at all but if they’re gonna low talk, so am I.
Life is most often a mirror. You get the behavior you exhibit.
I strike up a conversation with the middle aged, smooth skinned, small framed man. Did you get a good workout in? No, just a short one. Oh, I got a full one in. Stairmaster. Oh, no, I think I’m just going to have this pancake ass forever, I should have started when I was younger, if I wanted more butt. We laugh and he’s nice and his smile is outstanding. I mention it and postulate that smile has opened doors for him in life. He’s playing with his penis. He is uncircumcised. I adjust my posture so anyone walking in can not see what he is doing. The jocks are still low talking. Now he’s full on tugging at himself. I maintain eye contact. I am mostly impotent in the steam-room, but I don’t mind this situation, somehow. I’m talking about xenophobia, the border, how I want to get to Europe and apply for citizenship. I want out of this mess. He smiles at me more. I’m horny, he says under his breath. Yes, I can tell you are, I say to him. I keep his eye contact and let him have at himself. He’s working himself up into a lather. I’m talking about capitalism and how the price tag is too high on the human spirit, how we must move to a socialist model or become a third world country eventually, he is tugging and puffing. He pinches his nipple. I zero in on him, eyes locked. Now is the time. He is close and I have him locked in my eyes. I put my hand on his shoulder. His pupils dilate and he shudders. Always be kind to your family. I whisper. Always be kind to your brothers. Always be kind, I say.
He puts his towel back on his lap. I take my hand off his shoulder. I take condensation off the side of the wall with my right index finger. I touch the water to his forehead.
Bless you, I say.
He leaves. The jocks keep low talking. They’re talking about shoes. I leave.
On the way out, the grumpy porter hits the side of my foot with a squeegee he uses to herd water around the floor all day. I gasp a little. He makes eye contact, and gives me stank face. I smile, and make eye contact.
“How was lunch?” I ask, all ginger and clove.
“Lunch. I saw you eating a banana.”
“Oh. Yes. I had banana.”
“Yes. It’s good,” I say, slapping my belly, and smiling. “We all have to nourish ourselves.”
I don’t even have time to play our passive aggressive, mutually cunty game today.
On the way out of the Equinox I’m back to improvising dialogue with myself.
“Stilly, you, vapid, vapor of a man. You quintessential water sign. Always flowing, always moving right in as soon as there’s space. Always either too hot, too cold, tepid, or in the air as a cloud.”
“Don’t forget ice, snowflake.”
“Stilly,” I say, pulling out of the Gilmore. “You made me feel fat when you said food was good and you slapped your tummy.”
“When’s that Lee?”
“Just now, in the locker room.”
“Was that you, eating the banana?”
“No, yes. Maybe.”
“Well, food is good. I didn’t know how much English you spoke”
“Well, you made me feel fat.”
“It’s okay. I forgive you.”
“I want to remind you that we are responsible for our own feelings.”
“You always say that, but only when you hurt mine.”
Okay, but you’re not fat. I know, I said you made me feel fat. Okay, but that’s the same as you saying you’re fat. No, don’t you know about feelings? No, tell me about feelings? Feelings are something that pass through you. They’re not even yours. They belong to the Universe. You’re just somewhere at some point in time, and a feeling is passing through. This is too much metaphor for me. Can I sleep soon? Yes. Soon.
We’ll be in Jackson soon. Sleep, Stilly. I know you don’t like Mississippi. Bad things happen in the bayou. That was a long time ago. We will play in Jackson, then Louisville, then we’ll go to Tennessee. Nothing bad ever happens in Tennessee. That’s right, Stilly. It’s just two shows. You can do it. What if I fall apart. Then you fall apart. But what if I fall apart again. Bad. Like before. What if you do? Then we’ll start a new band. Or become jewel thieves, or learn magic.
You’re not going to leave me, are you? No. I’m not going to leave. I don’t want you to leave me. You’re my brother. I know. Say it. No, I don’t say things like that. Please just say it? Please go to sleep. I think of you as a brother. I know. I think of you as family. Say we’re brothers. We’re brothers.
Okay. Goodnight then.