Excerpt: Jet Set Desolate
By Andrea Lambert.
My name is Lena Cosentino, I’m 31, and I like being an alcoholic. Beats all the coke I used to do.
Today is Valentines Day. My boyfriend has shining eyes with long eyelashes, and likes to play poker with toy giraffes. We share an apartment in North Hollywood. I slice the plastic off the steaks and he turns them lightly into a pan of butter and garlic. I pour wine on top.
This is the same recipe I used to make with $1.50 wafer-thin sirloins, fried in that apartment in the Haight district where I spent the last months with Brady. But tonight, Nick and I watched Valley of the Dolls and I take my antidepressants. I cry during a scene where Neely O’Hara, the Broadway diva broken by pills, sings to her amnesiac friend in the psych ward.
A bottle of wine later, I put on my corset, and we discover that Depakote retards orgasm.
On a July night, with the fan whining, I heard Spanish opera through the window. San Francisco’s Tenderloin district sprawled outside my apartment building, full of crackheads and residence hotels, massage parlors and liquor stores that greeted the dawn with a line outside.
A bowl with three floating gardenias sat next to the wine, the bottle empty, the flowers delicious. There was something about this flower that always struck me, the waxen abundance of the white petals, the deep verdant leaves, the boutonnière cut like a full stop at the end of a sentence.
But for me there were only the sodden mattress alleys of the Tenderloin, the only neighborhood where I could afford to live alone. Emotional distance was needed to survive here. I had lived in San Francisco for four years, and after stepping over shit and bum-tents walking to work, living in neighborhoods that reeked of piss and Colt 45, I knew I just had to walk on by.
Following the dot-com bubble of 2000, when investor capitalists threw millions into internet start-ups, people were flooding into San Francisco for high-paying jobs and a part in the next big thing. The suits wanted to be the future. I just wanted a job.
Before I moved here, I perused Craigslist in the Reed College computer lab in 1999, searching for a place to move. I saw people offering their linen closets for $900 a month if you weren’t home very much. After six months of searching, I was finally able to move into a loft with two other girls, as long as the landlord, a recently-divorced, fifty year old man, who had hand-picked us very carefully and asked for pictures, was allowed full rights of entry. At all times. He liked to come over at night.
We left pretty quick.
As I wended my way through the rentalsphere, I found that it took an entry-level office-job, good credit and the hand of god to rent a room in even a bad neighborhood. Only the old-money wealthy lived in places where there weren’t bars on the windows and used condoms clogging the gutters.
San Francisco, a city of 7 by 7 miles, was an incredibly desirable place to live at a time when its economy was exploding with dreams of future profits. This meant that for those of us on the edges, trying, the young Mary Tyler Moors, Neely O’Haras, trying to get a niche in and live the life we’d always heard of, well, sacrifices had to be made. I lived in the Mission; we paid $775 each for an ant-infested basement where I was terrified to go outside at night. Then I moved to a nicer place in the Duboce Triangle with two lesbian separatists. My fondness for cock made this a problem, and I was kicked out.
Enjoying meat, dairy, alcohol, drugs, straight sex, gay sex, I found my hedonistic nature created a problem in my search for a home. Sometimes you just want to eat a steak, drink a vodka tonic, and get fucked. In many parts of the country, that’s pretty much Friday night. However, in this increasingly complex ideological paradise, where everyone could do and be and profess their own beliefs, I found I better get my name on a lease if I wanted any sort of security.
So finally I did, when I was working at the Devechio and Associates accounting firm. Put on my best dress shirt, took the bus to the Tenderloin, and signed away $850 a month plus $1600 deposit for my own studio, where no one could make me a transient. It had been long enough.
But it was lonely. The drag queens and daguerreotypes stared down from above my bed, with no answers on their gray teeth. Bars and clubs were the entirety of my social life, I didn’t know anyone who deigned to spend time in daylight. It just wasn’t an option. I worked in a conservative industry, with people I had little in common with. No lunch dates there.
My city starter-boyfriend and I broke up the month I signed the lease. I was too seduced by the other faces, other options. The people we’d been having Easter brunch and absinthe parties with for two years ended up being his friends. So I started going out. Despite the strain of late nights and long hours in the office, the thrill of meeting new and beautiful people was seductive. The lure of possibility and chance, that feeling when I got into a cab and went careening off into the night, all of that kept me involved.
It would be nice to go out for a while.
I picked up the phone and dialed Audrey. Whether I was her wing-girl or she was mine, she always had coke and had excellent fashion tips. Including, telling me when I wore the same look three nights in a row (Juicy Couture jeans, black heels, a dangerously plunging neckline and eyebrows with a waxing due.) “My God, you really don’t give a shit, do you?” I suppose I needed to be kept in line, she taught me about pedicures, the wash n’ fold, and never going beyond heavy petting to keep your claim on every man in the room. I was sloppy on this mark. But she was the best friend I had.
“Hey, hon,” I said. ”Is anything going on tonight?
“I don’t know,” Audrey said. “I’m kind of into this guy Jesse that’s been staying here, but just between us,” and she moved to the bathroom, I heard echoes from tile. “I wouldn’t mind hitting the Rosetta Bar. I hear that Wetto-Stiletto is spinning, and – you remember Tyler? Mmmm, I’d like me some of that.”
Dust in the corners of my room fell through spider webs to form drooping cables on the Christmas lights.
I would really like to meet a guy. Boyfriend had been an open position in my life for about three years, the glow of a commitment was almost too distant to hope for. The candy store sex-lives of me and my cohorts ran on the factor that tonight is the night because we likely won’t be interested once the coke’s worn off. People didn’t have boyfriends here, there were too many glossy beauties to play with. We would go out every night and go home with someone new. I was 27 and I didn’t know anyone married except my parents.
“So, yeah,” Audrey said, “Why don’t you meet us there. I’ll bring Jesse, and you call Brady, he’ll know where the afterparty is, for sure.”
Brady bent his head carefully, crouched on my chair. He was 33, a gentleman in his velvet jacket with blue roses embroidered on the lapels.
He listened to me.
But for now, it was time to find a cab.
I wrenched on a pair of thrift store heels and pulled on a white trenchcoat. In the street outside, I’d prefer if no one asked if I was “working.”
The heart is alone in a small white box, beating faster and faster until it begins to bleed, and a wash of red dyes the robes of the chorus to sanguine cauliflower blush. The blush of the embryo. The blush of the unknown.
Falling through the Rosetta Bar dance floor, I stumbled into Limone. Dark with strobe, bare shoulders dashing into dusk, a rush from the turntables and I turned around. She grabbed my hand and raised it above her head, and we danced for a moment to some ephemeral disco. Brady, beside me, slithered through the bodies, grasping hands and reaching to touch my shoulder. The warmth of his hand. He passed me a drink with the other.
I tweaked my face into a “blurry yet sociable” smile. I needed glasses, but didn’t want to see the sneers my paranoia supplied. It was better to float in the warm glow of a gin and tonic. I slid back into the crowd. It was a mess of diagonal bobs in mid-toss, artfully ripped blouses with wet noses, elbows jutting, breathless embraces and always the arch and thrust of the synths. I slithered between a shirtless boy in a blazer and carefully tipped fedora, and a sweaty guy dancing next to him, until I got to the DJ booth. Tyler from Wetto-Stiletto spun away, one hand clasping the headphones to his ear, the other on the record. I stumbled on someone’s foot and fell halfway across Kris Danger, the sidekick DJ, as he danced against the wall.
“Lena in the house!” he yelled, lifting me up. Sweat fell on my face.
I rained ineffectual slaps on his shoulders, “No, no, no, shhhh…Quiet…”
“Come on, Lena-baby, come on, no one can hear me anyway, it’s loud.” He set me down. “So, what up, sugar? You still chasin’ the tail?”
“The what… well, you know, there’s just so many boys, I can’t even decide.”
“Alright! You got a bump for me?” He smiled, five feet of sweat in a shredded T-shirt, gold chains with a pendant spelling KRISSY-BABY in rhinestones. He led me to the back room.
In this tiny club on Sixth and Market, the most dangerous intersection in town, space was navigated by status, stimulants and sex. To dance near to the DJ booth was a step up. To be invited behind the turntables was another. To get into the back storeroom, to stay after last call and do lines with the bartenders and owner… I had always been brutally nerdy. This was my moment. The soft heat of the bodies around me, mine sensitized to opportunity.
Kris Danger easily slid open the lock on the back room, and we stood among the cardboard flats of Grey Goose and Makers Mark while I put a key-bump to his nose.
“Oh, yeah, doll. You got it.”
“No problem, ma cheri.”
I took a hit myself, and the racing adrenalin slammed my nerves. This was an easy ritual of greeting by now, like a cup of coffee on the beginning of a long night. I looked down at the key, the white dust caught on the inscriptions of catholic saints. I licked it. Another thrum of pleasure.
“So wait, wait, what did you do before? I mean, I see you every night and I don’t know you.” I asked.
“Oh – you know. I used to work in investment banking. It was crazy. It was fucking harsh, but they kept promoting me, you know, it’s like, the charisma, bada-bing. And I liked the Armani suits. Face it, I like clothes. But finally I couldn’t deal, and Tyler and I were starting to DJ around, and I figured, fuck it. I started working at the Diesel store in Union Square and found I could sell this shit no problem, it was so much more fun, and, yeah, so now I’m here every Saturday, and we do gigs here and there, and yeah, it’s the shit. I love it.”
“Can I have another? Pretty lady?”
Someone pounded on the door. Black dust fell across the lintel.
“Goddamn coke-whores!” Kris said.
“It’s me, Brady, relax. I’ve got party favors.”
Kris slid the door open to admit Brady, Audrey, and a man I assumed was Jesse. Sunglasses at night. Pinched white cheekbones. Wiry muscles tensed through a black dress shirt, rolled up at the elbows to show purple veins. Ratty black hair slid diagonally into a rocker shag. I couldn’t see his eyes. But I could smell him.
We stood there awkwardly for a moment.
Audrey flicked her long eyelashes. “Hey, boys. Lena.” She was from Atlanta, so masterful at coquetry that watching her piss in a driveway yielded raves from the men around. Her eyelids, streaked with red and yellow, pranced over a mouth alternately sneering, sniffing, or jeering with laughter. She darted over to Kris.
“Baby,” he said, “You won the Hipster of the Year last month, where were you?”
“Oh, what? I was in Europe. We barely saw the light of day.”
“You missed your Imitation of ‘Imitation of Christ’ T-shirt.”
“I don’t wear knock-offs, darling.”
I looked at her arm candy. While Brady passed bumps around, we got acquainted.
“Hey, where’re you from?” I said.
“Vegas! My mom did room service for Circus Circus. Back in the day she met all kinds of Frank Sinatra-y badasses, coming to their door all sexy with a plate of steaks.”
“That’s cool.” I said impassively. “What are you up to here?”
He smirked, creasing his stubble. “Well, since I got into town, I’ve just been crashing with Audrey here. She’s alright…hot body, but her face is too fat, not quite my scene. Then I’ve been boosting.
“You mean stealing?”
“Yeah, got me some great Gucci slacks and resold them to Saks, they love a good story about buying them for your girlfriend and whatnot. I’ve got it down.”
I darted a glance at Audrey. She was whispering into Kris’s ear, her breasts falling soft around his shoulder. I could feel the bitter drain of the coke in the back of my throat. Brady looked at me, brown eyes, pinprick iris. I could feel him urging me away.
“And play Camel Toe, next time, darling!” Audrey said, pulling away from the DJ and reaching for us. “Babies, let’s go back to my place and partake, I really am not feeling this anymore. These people, really, yuppies and thugs. We should start going out on Tuesdays. Saturdays are so gauche.”
Swaying in front of her, I sang, “Working nine to five, what a way to make a living.” Weekdays my alarm went off at six am. Audrey was a receptionist at a hair salon.
“Suck it up. Your dealer delivers, you have no excuse not to be out here with me. It’s a job.” She pouted, her rosebud mouth a Fragonard.
We picked carefully across the glass shards from the shattered French doors, peering through the Audrey’s room. Her flat was in an old Victorian in the Haight district, with black gouges in the hardwood floors and bay windows opening on to a tiny courtyard of neglected vines.
“Oh, Lordy Lordy!” Audrey flicked a switch, and the small chandelier came on, blue light fragmenting across the floor. She took off her stolen Marc Jacobs overcoat and threw it on the floor
Jesse raised a coy eyebrow under sunglasses. Plucking a Nico CD from the stack, he tapped the bag on it to form a pile of white powder. Swiping the ends of both lines over to the side with a library card, he made them into a third. Making a slight bow, he passed the rolled dollar to me. I shivered as the chemical exploded through my body, tingling like cellophane in strobe. I leaned back on my knees.
Audrey pulled forth a Scrabble board, giggling, “Come on guys, board game time!”
Jesse sighed and smoothed a rough finger over the dust, rubbing it on his gums.
“I’ll sit this one out, thanks.”
“Okay, Lena, you and me, let’s do it,” Audrey said, spreading out the board. She tossed me some letters and we faced off on the hardwood. “You first.”
“ZED,” I intoned. “26.”
“That’s not a word.”
“Yes it is, it’s British for ‘Z’.”
“What are you, some sorority sister?” asked Jesse.
“That’s not Greek, The Greek ‘Z’ is omega.”
“Whatever, okay, my word is ‘ME’,” Audrey said, laying down the tile. “That’s two.”
“QED,” I said, laying them out on the D. “33.”
“That is so not a word.”
“Yes it is, it’s a logical conclusion. And then ME again, crosswise, so 35.”
“Okay, no more scrabble, fuck this, I’m not going to play with you, cheater!” Audrey ran both hands across the board, spraying the tiles in random piles.
Jesse laughed, “Come over here, Lena, I think you just earned yourself another line.” He dotted down a small daub and began to grind it up. Audrey shoved the board under a mass of gauzy wardrobe and sulked down to take hers. I smirked and watched the man’s delicate fingers as they offered the bill, the lacing of scars I didn’t want to see. I moved closer, smelling the nicotine, the drugs’ metallic gasoline, his body’s smell of cloves.
I began to consider my maneuvers.
His eyes kept slipping to mine in a way I knew too well, while Audrey jabbered on about something forgettable. When she was high she liked to talk about her job as the receptionist at Architects and Heroes, “truly the most elite salon, I might be able to get you in as a hair model if you buy me a bag.”
I liked this sort of reckless hooligan, Jesse. His foxy-uselessness of long hands and shoulders, slinky under a leather jacket and black jeans. He mixed the Iggy with the Ramones, or other 1970s New York proto-punk clichés as they ran madcap around my mind. I had spent half my 20s in punk, and the lusciousness of the sultry unemployable made me wet. He probably had some tasty sewing-needle prison tattoos on that lanky body, and the scabies to match. Still, a man who could make me a ramen omelet and didn’t think bondage was for latex pervs would be an admirable catch right now. His eyes were hammered to mine when Audrey stopped mid-sentence.
“Am I missing something?” she said.
“No. Everything’s cool,” I answered.
“Well then, I think I’m getting pretty useless. Why don’t you two go take a nice long walk and fuck in a doorway somewhere, because I’m tired of not being listened to!” She rose and pointed us to the shattered door, the whole apartment leaning apocalyptic from too much Audrey on too many drunken nights.
I curled inwards. Our friendship relied upon a tacit complicity of our own petty bitchiness and similar vices. Unsaid dynamics were common when we hung out, but she rarely called me on my shit, nor me on hers. I had a good dealer. He delivered. I knew she’d call me in a couple days when she’d found another disposable boy to flatter her gutter-pissing routine with her cocaine still fresh on his nostrils.
Jesse casually pulled up his coat. He tossed a pair of keys to the floor, tucked the tiny ziplock in his pants, and grabbed my shoulder.
“Come on, Baby Pigeon, I bet you’ve got a nice place to show me.”
Baby Pigeon? Sure…
I followed him out the door and down the long stair case to the street The moon was still pockmarked.
The black lacquer gate closed behind us as we swerved into the elevator cage at the Alhambra building. Built in the 1920s, the place was a rickety palace of minarets and pigeon shit, the elevator spinning its gold tracery over mesh-studded concrete. Jesse stared at the red panels and mirrors spanning the pointed height, as they lurched upwards from the flash of ignition. I clicked my lips together, satisfied. I always took my toys up through the cage first.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrea Lambert is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. She has lived in San Francisco, Portland, and San Diego. She holds an MFA in Critical Studies from CalArts, and a BA from Reed College.
Jet Set Desolate is published by Future Fiction in October 2009.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 12th, 2009.