Huntington Beach, Thursday, nine p.m. The February wind whips off the waves and slaps my leather jacket like a too-familiar drinking buddy who’s forgotten the concept of personal space. Dark palm trees rustle and wave in the cold night air. Occasionally the California shoreline smells of mold and dead seaweed and other tainted things, but not tonight. This surf smells like driftwood and salt-flavored popcorn and melted snow. The waves jump on the shore, tumbling and yarping at one another like month-old puppies.
Heather hugs her parka around her and we trace lines in the sand. Her red curls whipsaw in the wind. “Cate demanded that I bring you to see her,” says Heather. “She’s at work. At the Gulfstream. She’s waitressing, tonight.”
We pass through Heather’s apartment, which she shares with her sister. The most prominent bit of decoration in the living room is a Cramps poster: a nude, green, musclebound Frankenstein monster gleefully mounts the Bride of Frankenstein, her head thrown back in dubious ecstasy. In this bachelorette pad, if you look carefully in the corners of the unsorted bookcases, you will see ceramic dragons, dusty plastic unicorns, and five-dollar fantasy figurines. There’s a costume sketchbook by the kitchen table as well, full of half-drawn costumes, imagined by Heather for one of her acting classes.
We drive to the Gulfstream. The restaurant glistens with the smell of pan-fried seafood. Actresses beam at one another over glasses of Chardonnay. Cate is serving one particular table with a bright intensity when she notices us enter. “Oh my God,” she mouths, flipping her ponytail in an unconscious salute. She runs to me and beams. “Is it John Byrd? It is, it is! You came! You said you would come, but I didn’t believe you! There’s such a difference, such a difference between saying you’ll come, and actually coming! Oh, I would give you a hug and a kiss right now! But over my shoulder? That table? That is the owner of the restaurant! So I can’t touch you… But I give you a big mental hug and a kiss, yes! Oh, please take any table, so long as it’s in my section. Would you like some oysters? The oysters are very good tonight. And merlot? Merlot, yes!” And she rockets into the kitchen.
Heather smiles at me. “She likes you.” Cate, her eyes playing mischief and joy, brings us salads and oysters on the half shell and wide glasses of house Merlot.
I smile back. “I like Cate.”
“The acting experience I have in my class,” says Heather, knitting her eyebrows. “So. I was doing this scene? I was playing this dog. It was a scene from Sylvia. There’s this dog. And my coach said, like. That’s it. That’s where you need to be. I mean, you have it. What you have there, I can’t teach. That’s what she said. And she’s right. I don’t know. I’d like to, you know, maybe be a teacher? Maybe show people the process? If it can be shown? I don’t know. If it can be. Am I making any sense?”
“Yes,” I say, and mean it. Heather is easily parsed in person, where she can doodle abstract concepts with her expressive eyes and small hands, and form them into pictures and meanings.
The restaurant closes, and the owner of the restaurant leaves. Cate lands in my lap like a nine-year-old. “It is John Byrd! I didn’t know if you would come, but you did, in fact you did,” she shouts happily at me. She yanks off her apron, stands, and does a happy little dance before me.
I drive the Mustang downtown, two girls in tow. With Cate in one hand and Heather in the other I toddle into a noisy college bar. A few months ago, I would have told you that Eighties-style fashion was merely an ironic joke among today’s post-college set, just something the co-eds do as a goof. Word up, people: all the cool kids in the California hot spots are far more Eighties than we ever were, when we were in the actual Eighties. One chickie with crimped hair toddles by, her ribbed bustier crinkling her black teddy. Another girl, swinging O-rings on her thin wrists and hoopty-hoop earrings under her megasprayed hair, giggles in my face before Cate and Heather tug me away. Heather gasps a little as a drunken group passes us.
“What happened?” I ask.
“One of those guys just ran a hand down my back,” she says.
“Which one?” I ask.
“Don’t know,” she says. I give her some kind of look and she says, “Don’t worry. Happens all the time.”
Heather takes a shot of Jagermeister from the bar, and she brushes her hair out of her eyes. “One of my best friends, she’s this woman. We were hanging out in this bar, you know, talking. And we’re having a great time, and all of a sudden, she like leans over and kisses me on the mouth. And I’m like, what was that for? And it was one of those weird moments. Because I don’t like women. I don’t like their bodies, their softness. I like men. That’s me. And she kissed me right there, and it was intense, I didn’t know what to do. But she knew that the vibe was wrong. And later she apologized. She didn’t like to apologize. She hated to apologize. But she did. And then we were friends again.”
“You still friends?” I ask.
Something passes through her eyes; I can’t quite recognize whatever it is. “Yeah,” she says.
Heather puts a beer into my sweaty palm as the subwoofer kicks and happy college students jostle me. “Let’s dance,” says Heather.
“It’s been a while,” I say.
We dance, with Heather punching out the beat with her four-inch heels, people sweating around us, and the dance floor starts to rock, and I think, Damn, it is quite fine to dance with Heather again.
Cate comes over, toting a vast beer. She sticks her head between us. “You see that guy over there? Shaved head? His name is Dave. Dave is so hot. He’s a firefighter. Oh wow.” She nods toward a rail-shaped playa in a wife-beater T.
“What’s so hot about him?” I ask.
“Well, he has a Porsche, for one thing. And he’s always got some kind of expensive jewelry on. I don’t know what makes a guy hot. You just know,” she says, fidgeting a little. Then, swinging her arms around my neck, she screams, “John Byrd’s here! I can’t believe it!”
Cate dances with us, sheepishly at first, but I take her hand and soon she is rocking, and the three of us are howling with joy and sliding and boogying like the end of the millenium.
The lights come up, and a voice reverberates over the speakers. “And! We are now closed! Men, if you haven’t got the hook up now, it’s too damn late! Women, if you’re going to put out, now’s the time! Now get the fuck out!”
I drive Cate and Heather back to their pad, the second beer softening my reflexes a little. Cate hopped out of the Mustang and cooed in my face. “I love John Byrd! It made me so happy, so happy to be with you again! Oh my gosh!” And she plants a big girl kiss on my face.
Heather cocks her head to one side, looking at me quizzically. “You staying with us tonight?”
Cate says, “Oh, you’re staying with us tonight! With Heather and me! We’re having a sleepover! Oh yes, definitely a sleepover! We can put you on the couch… no! Not the couch! You can have my bed! Or, maybe you want Heather’s bed? It’s okay, it’s okay! I’ll sleep on the couch! I mean you came all the way down to see us! I know, maybe you think it’s weird, I mean, I know you’re married and stuff, but it’ll be all right, I promise, I can take the couch, come on, sleep over! Sleep! Over! Sleep! Over!” Cate does a little cheerleader rockstep in front of me, while Heather laughs.
I look at Cate’s twenty-two year old shining face and think: Every man should experience this adoration, at least once in his life.
I tell Cate, “Go on inside, I want to talk to your sister.”
Cate mumbles, “Sleepover…” and trails off. She heads into the apartment.
I shrug my jacket around me. “I’ve had a really great time tonight,” I say. “I’m not staying here, though.”
“Really, you’ll be fine with us,” says Heather. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll get Cate to let you sleep, I’ll leave you alone –”
“I know you would,” I say. “I know. I just hate apologizing.”
She smiles and gives me a big hug.
I drive the Mustang north along the Pacific Coast Highway, then to the 405, ninety miles per hour, Don Henley blasting on the radio, flying toward the twisted concrete arches of Los Angeles, one finger on the wheel, singing as loud as I possibly can.