By Betty Underground © 2008
I can't remember how we became friends. We worked for the same company. He had a crush on my best friend at the time. Still, our paths were not even parallel. I think the friendship came at a time when I had become a relationship guru. Avoiding my own shortcomings and turning my efforts to advising others.
Michael was an oddly skinny man. Probably the same age as me but not covering the grey as insistently as I was. He had a full case of it, and it was boofy. Making his head look awkwardly large on his narrow shoulders and slight frame. Not unattractive, but just not enough of him to have me frothing at the gash. I like men with a little meat on his bones and I certainly don't want to outweigh them.
He wore glasses. An intellectual nerdy type who had been trying to break into acting his whole life. He had some luck with voice overs, but he couldn't find a niche for his unique "character" look. So, he worked in technology to pay the bills.
And, he smoked. In his car. With the windows rolled up. In his house, with the windows closed. I imagined his curtains stained yellow. I had never been inside. Dropped him off a few times. His cat sitting in the window, desperate for a gasp of fresh air. He smoked so much, his skin smelled like an ashtray. Even when we would meet for morning coffee. Fresh out of the shower, his skin still smelled. A cloud followed him, so all our interactions took place outside. We would sit for hours and drink coffee and chat. Good conversation and he was kind enough to not smoke when I was trying to quit. But the smell. It was in his pores. The phlegmy cough triggered my gag reflex. He would spit into his empty ice coffee cup. The clear ones.
He had come off a rough break-up with a long time live-in girlfriend. He had over extended himself getting a two bedroom place and helping her finish law school. She worked part time. Selling subscriptions over the phone. So it would be safe to say he supplemented more than the rent. One day, out of the blue, she left him. High and dry. Ran off. Couldn't take it anymore and was out. Never knew why. Something got to the boiling point and she high-tailed it out. Leaving him with the lease.
He was bitter. I don't know if it was justified because I only heard his half. Of course, it was all her fault. But, he was also desperate to love. Wanted that companionship so bad. He was a great guy. Smart. Creative. Making good money at his tech job. Waiting to be discovered. He had potential. He even had social skills. He could easily "woo" a gal. Maybe easier if he quit smoking but I have a thing about smells. Not everyone does.
One day, we were doing our coffee talk thing, and he busted it out. He had met someone. Head. Over. Heels. Came out of left field. He had been waiting until he was sure. Until she confirmed she was there as well. On the same page.
So he started from the beginning. He had meet her at her work. Had gone in one night for a drink and a light nibble. He was drawn to her. Magnetic as he described it. When she got off work, she sat with him. They talked for hours. He felt inspired. They came from the same struggles. She had come from Arizona with a guitar and a dream. She was going to make it big in Hollywood. Still thought she might, but like him, her dreams were hard to bring to reality.
A producer took advantage of her. Took her cash with the promise of a demo tape and head shots. She had nothing. Except her looks and rent 15 days past due.
Down near LAX was a strip of joints full of girls just like her. She started just serving drinks but the draw of the money she could make on stage was too great. A few months and she could build a nest egg. Get ahead on her rent. New head shots and a real demo tape. It would only be for a few months. Then she would quit and put her all back into her music. Give Hollywood another chance.
That was seven years before he met her. The money was addicting even if the work turned her stomach inside out. She set her goals higher. Further from reach. Further from her dream. It turned into stuff. Getting stuff. A house. A BMW. Shopping on Rodeo Dr. without a care. Things. These things that would make her complete.
Her dreams of stardom, crushed beneath lucite stilettos.
He told me he wanted to pull her back into the sunlight. Her spirit was strong and he trusted her talent was too. He fell hard and fast that first night. His eyes enveloped her as he watched her dance. Her breath impressed on his heart when she sat, for hours, just talking. Together, they would put their dreams back on course. All this, in the first night. The night he met her at the strip club where she worked. A stripper. Talking to him after work. Wanting nothing from him.
Why did I have trouble wrapping my head around it? In typical fashion I was skeptical. He wasn't shelling out cash for her. Except when she was on stage. He visited her every night she worked. Her protector. Sitting in the dark corner.
She didn't need his money. She appeared to enjoy his time. They saw each other a few times outside of work. Dated. Nothing physical. She even told him her real name. Susie. That is something. Right? Still, there was something that smelled fowl.
I caught a strong whiff when he told me she lost her lease. Because she declined advances from the apartment manager. I know those Hollywood scum-bag types. It was likely completely true. She didn't feel right staying and needed a place to stay. ASAP. Michael offered his apartment. He had two bedrooms and could really use the help with the rent. A financially responsible decision. It would help them both out. Strictly platonic but he hoped if they played house, something more might come of it.
He made a key for her. She moved in while he was at work and when he got home, a full spread on the living room floor. A picnic of home cooked food to say thank you. She did this most every night for him. Made him a hot meal and if their paths didn't cross before she headed out to the club, she left it in the microwave for him. With heating instructions.
I was ready to stand corrected. Hell, I was even liking her.
Then, I met her.
Just for coffee on a Sunday. Our place was in the heart of the parade of beautiful people in Hollywood. I loved it there. The people watching unparalleled. He and I would guess what theirs lives were like when they passed by. Judged. It was a game. An equation. The number of gaudy designer labels divisible by their debt-to-income ratio and you could peg them with in a digit of their zip code. We summed up everyone. As we did, jealousy bubbled in her. Rage, suppressed. Quivering each time he turned his head to look. Gazelle like women with super model looks. If one glanced back and him, she latched to him. Tighter. It was uncomfortable to sit across from.
He headed off to an acting class and I avoided the awkwardness of remaining behind with her by offering up the excuse of needing to get to the market. She smiled. Hugged me. As I turned away from her I noticed her eyes. They had gone black. Cold and empty. Glazed over. Freaked me out.
Men, she controlled. Their wanton desire in her hands. Eating out of them. They gave her money to feel whole. With women, she competed for that money. Competed for the desire of men. In her job. But she could not separate it from life outside the dark, twinkle-lit stage, of the strip joint. Lining the street to LAX. The road to escape.
I couldn't get her face out of my head. Blank and full of jealousy. Not directed at me, but me as part of the female species. As a representative of the sex that threatened her the most.
That was the last time I spoke to Michael. I left town shortly after and wondered, for a little while, about what might have become of them both. Then something told me, I didn't want to know. Los Angeles can be unkind to the weak hearted. The devil lives in those streets. Grabbing at the ankles of the impressionable. Leading them to the rewards of temptation.
I knew a few strippers in the years I was there. The level headed kind. It was a job and pleasure was never mixed in. They were clean. No drugs. No booze and houses in the Hollywood Hills. Dare, I say, they were respected. Had great stories. Like Vegas Pit-Bosses. Stories of temptation and poor judgment. Stupidity and loss. You couldn't help but laugh at how gullible men were. And sad ones. Stories of girls that the devil swallowed and spit out. Black hearted and covered in distrust. Girls that might have had a chance if someone hadn't taken advantage of them. Stories about girls like Susie.
Betty Underground is a writer from Northern California.