I leaned over and peeked at the big sedan’s speedometer: 70-75-80. The car floated on tired springs, body rolling when Kelly jerked between lanes. A Mercedes moved to get over and she stabbed the gas pedal.
“You don’t want to take on me, dude,” she shouted. “Your car cost 30 grand, mine cost 125 bucks. You think I give a shit?” The Mercedes snapped back into its lane and we flew past it.
“Don’t you think you should slow down a little?” I said.
“I’ll get you home, Hymes. Don’t worry,” Kelly said, and Beverly Drive continued to flash by at warp speed.
“I really don’t think you want to get pulled over right now.”
“I’m not going to get pulled over, stop worrying,” she said, and she fingered the foil packet that she’d just purchased. “I need to make one more stop, and then I’ll drop you off.”
We pulled up to a nice apartment building a couple miles south of my place. It was a distinctly Los Angeles apartment. My building was the sort of cheap stucco box that one could find anywhere in America. I envied my friends who lived in buildings with Saltillo tile and hardwood floors, plastered walls and high ceilings. “Where are we?” I asked.
“My place. This will just take a minute.” Kelly unlocked the door and walked straight to the kitchen.
Movies are littered with visual cliches that have no basis in reality. No high speed chase crashes through a fruit cart or a pane of conveniently carried glass. No buxom beach babe tosses her hair slowly while arching her back. Every grocery bag does not contain a baguette.
But every detail of the movie heroin ritual played out that night in Kelly’s kitchen. Once I accepted that my ride home from work had irreversibly devolved into a junkie errand I relaxed into it, took my spot as the owl in the eaves and watched the moment unfold. She cooked the lump of heroin in a spoon until it dissolved, sucked it into a needle, plunged it into her arm, and relaxed. “Relaxed” is an imprecise word. “Nodded” is closer, like a sleeping dog chasing rabbits. Her hands grabbed at invisible things and her jaw hung slack. Now and then her lips wrapped themselves around unspoken words. I watched her for a while with a mixture of concern and curiosity, and then I got up and checked out her living room.
I found a dusty mandolin that was more decoration than instrument. The strings were old and dead, light rust rendered them cheese slicers. I knew nothing about mandolins, so I fiddled with it until I found an open tuning that sounded kind of interesting. For the next twenty minutes I entertained myself in a near stranger’s apartment while she tried not to fall off of a kitchen chair.
I droned on and on, trying to find a song in the tired mandolin, until Kelly shouted from the kitchen: “Stop it. Jesus Christ, you’re hurting my ears.” I put the mandolin back and found a book to read. Eventually the boredom grew too much and I split.
The walk home was long but nice. Los Angeles at night felt good, the abundance of lights turning the city into a giant flashing ornament, but also drowning out the stars. I thought about the nights I spent lying by the pond near my childhood home, staring at the stars. There were so many, and now they were gone.
I stopped at Canter’s Deli on Fairfax and ate a sandwich. When I finally got home from work that night it was 11:00. I sat down at my typewriter. The fingers on my left hand were tender from the mandolin strings, but I typed anyway. We all have our rituals.