Altair and Apple realized their bluff, their bullshit had been called. This weekend had become something other than a Cloaked-in-Conveniently-Mystical-Eastern-Theology-Sex-Camp for bored and indulgent upper-middle-class Americans.
They just didn’t know, yet, what it had become.
“What the holy-heck,” said Apple, pacing in her Quonset’s small kitchen, “just happened out there?”
“We just lost control,” said Altair.
“You just lost control.”
Altair bobbed his head in his precise and practiced manner. Throughout Tantricity Hill’s history, when a problem arose or the campers had a twinkle of doubt, he would spout some obtuse-moronic-spiritual New Age sexual advice and the demure camper who had saved her maidenhood until her wedding night was taking numbers for sex partners like a Baskin Robbins clerk during a midsummer’s heat wave: NOW SERVING #37. The raised-on-Gospel-Baptist who considered homosexuality an abomination was like a glutton at a buffet when he realized that he was adroit and efficacious, gifted in fact, at gargling on another man’s wanky-diddle.
The steep price of admittance usually liberated the sexually stifled buffoons. They had paid; and anyone sweating the rent or groceries simply ain’t showing up. And by paying they’d assuaged or at least postponed any guilt, responsibility, blame, culpability, regress, reproach, shame or fault involved in licking, touching, or succumbing to any number of innovative and energetic dalliances with folks they’d never see again.
But this weekend was different.
Two people declined to disrobe. Those same two people wore disappointment and tragedy on their faces and they truly expected this weekend’s activities—Altair’s creation, his boyhood dream, his religion—to alleviate their pain.
Another couple (I wonder what she paid him?) is taking the “cure” and will repeatedly revel in activities they probably wouldn’t attempt with someone they loved, respected or even tolerated.
And then the final couple, oozing both celebrity and vulnerability, arrived late and she began weeping.
Altair smiled and said, “But we are actors all.”
“What,” repeated Apple, “just happened out there?”
“It is time to assert myself. William McCormick, third child of Doris and Patrick McCormick; dirt-poor Irish immigrants to San Francisco, it is time to assert myself and become a God. All deities share the trait that they believe in their power with the belief that is their power. As do I.” William, Altair, smiled and intoned, “As do I. As do I.”
“Honey?” said Apple.
“You have your head up your ass again.”
Altair waved away the undeniably true observation and, louder, continued: “Amid actors the best actor wins. And God is the actor who asserts he created the world and, He, has stuck to His story. And this, Tantricity Hill, is my world.”
There was such a strident certainty in Altair’s voice that Apple zipped-her-lip and sat still, waiting for the sermon she knew was looming.
And Altair delivered, pontificating: “Nineteen-sixty-three in San Francisco was one helluva year. On one side of the City, Beatniks had discovered hallucinogens, became Hippies, and danced in Golden Gate Park; on the other side Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard bustled, preparing ships for yet another protracted and profitable war in the Pacific.”
“History?” said Apple. “First theology now history?”
Altair waved away her objection, “The population between the Park and the Point, fresh off a scare from the Cuban Missile Crisis, applauded the Police Action in Vietnam and denigrated the dancing hippies. The blacks in the projects at Hunter’s Point had seen marches in the South, violence in the East and anticipated their turn; their time. The Giants and the Forty Niners were just talented enough to break your heart; losing to the despised Dodgers and reviled Rams. High Schoolers from Mercy, Galileo, Sacred Heart, Washington, Lincoln, and Riordan danced on Saturday nights at The Longshoreman’s Hall to folk singers, kazoo bands, and future members of the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame: they couldn’t tell one from the other nor did they care.”
“Earth to Altair?” said Apple. “Sweetie? What the hell are you talking about? Hello?”
“These ritual dances were the foreplay to foreplay. Following these ‘hops’ they’d hop into station wagons and sedans that were borrowed from parents for the night and drive to Fort Point, the Marina Green, or Lincoln Golf Course. Where they’d park. ‘Park’. What a euphemism; a linguistic fig leaf.”
“Dammit Altair— ”
“And while ‘parked’ in the large back seats of those commodious automobiles they would woo and wrestle and plead and explore and gratify. In this San Francisco of 1963 lived a boy thirteen years of age.”
“You speaking of you in the third person?” said Apple. “Your favorite subject in truly your most annoying style.”
“This boy thirteen years of age had heard his two older brothers, and their friends, while smoking unfiltered Camels and Lucky Strikes in the downstairs-blonde-plywood-paneled Rec Room speak of breasts and bottoms and rubbers and putting-out and prick-teases and blow-jobs and hand-jobs and coming. It was all too confusing to this earnest young lad who attended Catholic school and prayed the rosary daily and served at Mass every Sunday. Then one Sunday, sitting attentive, to the side of the altar with the other server, listening to Father Frank’s sermon IT happened. Angela di Castelli—the only girl in his seventh grade class requiring underwire support—sat in the church’s first row with mama and several black mantilla-ed aunts. Angela didn’t make eye-contact, smile, or in any way entice the man-child.”
“Wait,” asked Apple. “You were the man-child?”
“Me. Yes,” said Altair. He continued, “But Nature is nature and Nature called. Beneath his cassock the lump he was told it was dangerous and sinful to acknowledge began to swell. And this staid child tried to think it away, will it away, pray it away. Still, the burgeoning bulge would not diminish.” Altair stood, sermonizing, “This ruddy-cheeked American Boy who DID WHAT HE WAS TOLD and SAID HIS PRAYERS and DID NOT THINK UNCLEAN THOUGHTS had a raging erection in the middle of the 9:30 mass. Cassocks, the neck to floor, button-down-the-front, black robes worn while serving Mass, are as spacious as caftans and no one noticed the boy’s left hand slip inside and with a butterfly caress—once, twice, thrice—on top of his corduroys, relieve himself. It deflated like a sticky zeppelin. Most boys would have felt a combination of shame for the act and lust for the object: Angela’s ta-ta’s. But this was a humorless, solemn, obedient boy and feelings neither of lust nor shame were entertained. What he thought, crystalline and epiphaniac, as his member accordioned to normal size, was: When I Grow Up I’m Starting My Own Religion! As if in response Father Frank intoned, with the congregation, including precocious-nubile-pulchritudinous Angela, mama, and the senile aunts: GLORY BE TO YOU, O LORD!” Altair rose and said to Apple, “It is time for me to live up to my potential.”
“Holy Wow,” said Apple.
“I know,” said Altair. “Heavy, heavy stuff. Deep.”
“Not that,” said Apple.
“I like you much better when you’re stoned.”
PAJAMA PARTY POLICY
Debra and Missy huddled together in the Steinhart Aquarium.
And in this cool-and-dappled, revamped geodesic dome, Missy and Debra bonded. “I’m leaving Devon.” Debra had wiggled back into her clothes. She lay on her tummy, across a body pillow festooned with pink dolphins swimming through a starfield.
“I don’t know,” Debra shook her head. “I just don’t know, Missy.”
Missy noticed Debra wore braces (correcting a minuscule overbite that only Hollywood could consider objectionable) and her smile, which by some would have been mistaken for a haughty or maybe even a dirty-naughty smirk, was the shy smile of a freshman girl the first day of school. “Yes you do,” said Missy. “You don’t have to tell me. But you know.” Missy sat lotus-style, with her robe pooled around her.
“Why are you here?” asked Debra.
Missy said, “We’re the same age; we hit it off. You know, it’s hard not to empathize when someone collapses, bawling on your shoulder. We all need someone to talk to.”
“No. Why are you here? At Tantricity Hill.”
“Oh. Here.” Missy nibbled a thumbnail, a curse during adolescence that had resurfaced since her miscarriage. “No.” Missy shook her head firmly, “You first.”
The international film star who never waited for a cab, always flew first class, and never paid for a meal was trumped by the Universal and Unyielding Pajama Party Policy: You wanna hear, you gotta dish.
Debra lit a cigarette; Missy wondered where she could possibly have concealed the smokes and lighter while wearing skin tight short-shorts and an elastic tubetop. “We are here because Devon can’t maintain an erection. I’ve tried everything I know,” she rolled her eyes. “Everything. All to no avail. He’s tried hypnosis, pills, harmonic crystals around the bed, movies—”
“Those types of films disturb me.”
“Those types of films are cheap, ill-lighted comedies, where the punch line is a bodily fluid.” Debra smiled, exhaled, and shook her head. “Devon wanted to do it during The Sound of Music.”
“During the scene where the Von Trapps are hiding in the convent.”
“That’s just icky-creepy-weird.”
Debra nodded and looked for a place to extinguish her cigarette butt. The floor, upholstered wall-to-wall in a spongy neoprene presented no prospects so she held the cigarette until it smoldered out and stashed it beneath the stuffed-star-swimming-dolphins. “That’s why we’re here. I’m here so I can tell my manager of nine years and husband of five years, my own Svengali, that it’s over. I’m retiring. I’m running away from him and the show business scene.”
Missy plopped down on an elbow, “How come?”
Debra immediately lit another smoke. She exhaled deliberately, knowing that the Universal and Unyielding Code of The Pajama Party (where Vegas got it) was in effect: What’s said here stays here. “Something is wrong in my life,” said Debra. “Wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Missy didn’t interject. She waited patiently for Debra to explain.
Debra appreciated Missy’s calm silence. Then she continued slowly and honestly, “I have, I am, what every young little female mallrat in America longs to become. Rich, a movie star, with a celebrity husband—”
“And you are beautiful.”
“Thank you.” Debra smiled her freshman-shy smile. “But those mallrats wouldn’t believe that beauty, these days, is like losing a bet with God.”
Missy tilted her head, “What can that possibly mean?”
Debra exhaled. “My first boyfriend, Monty, he was seventeen I was fifteen; we went out for almost a year. Then I broke up with him when I started doing skin flicks.”
“Seven minute, eight-millimeter smokers? Porn. You know?”
“No. I don’t know.”
“Short sucky-sucky, fucky-fucky movies, no dialog. Smokers.”
Missy stared at Debra the way Debra had once stared at Algebra.
“Anyway,” said Debra, “there were lots of other guys, booze, drugs, parties; who needed a jealous boyfriend?”
Missy shrugged; she couldn’t possibly form a response to a question like that, in English or Russian.
“I thought I was letting him down easy, doing him a favor.”
“Sounds like it to me.”
“He killed himself.”
“Self-immolation,” and to illustrate Debra lit another cigarette. “Set himself on fire on my front lawn.”
“He was a nice guy. He wasn’t my first sex, just my first boyfriend; but he cared for me, you know? He cared about me. Ever since then I’ve had guys who I’ve kissed, just kissed goodnight after drinks or dancing, leave their wives and children.”
“Because of your accurséd beauty?”
Debra nodded. “Before Devon I’d been in love with a few guys. All nice and normal guys, usually not in the business. They’ve all been sunk by me. Ruined. They spiral into booze, cash in their retirements and sell their houses to try and win me back. My love—” Debra smoked thoughtfully and examined a sleek pink dolphin, “—no. No, not even my love, my sex, my presence has never helped a man succeed. It’s a curse. Men break down once they meet me. I thought I’d broke the jinx with Devon, but his last three projects are in turnaround and his penis is babyfood.”
Missy flopped forward and shared the pillow, their noses inches apart. She whispered, as if the words might injure Debra, “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“I’m like a piñata. Ornate but hollow. And if not totally hollow, filled with sweets that rot your teeth, cause insulin spikes, and result in obesity. I need to find something that ain’t superficial.” Debra lowered her forehead to a dolphin.
“Debra?” said Missy.
Missy cleared her throat, “Neither man nor nation can exist without a sublime idea.”
Debra smiled and rolled to her right elbow. “So you’re smart?”
Missy mirrored the position by rolling to her left elbow: Jan and Marcia Brady in their late twenties. “Smart? No. I’m capable. I’m a good teacher. Real smart people don’t make good teachers; they can’t entertain other points of view. They are right, everyone else is wrong.”
“You just described every great director I’ve ever worked with. All of them giant pains in the ass. All of them cock-swinging males.”
They both laughed soundlessly with their eyes.
Missy, knowing it was her turn to dish said, “Arnie and I were high school sweethearts. We broke up for about a year in college, but it’s pretty much been he and I.”
“I know, and I know it sounds corny but I’m happy being married to him.”
“How? Happy? What’s that like?”
“Have you ever walked into a room with someone and knew, simply understood that the person with you feels exactly the same way about the people and the situation? Whether it’s dread or whimsy or exhilaration?”
“Yeah, yeah. Usually it’s with a female friend, but it’s happened a few times with Devon and me. It’s cool. It’s like the great scene in Romancing the Stone where Kathleen Turner and Taylor Holland go into the bar and rate the guys: Too Desperate, Too Full of Himself, Too Pretty, Too Married.”
“That’s the way,” said Missy, “that Arnie and I see the world.”
“Jesus Lord, is that possible?”
Missy smiled, “I love that little fart. He’s so funny. You wouldn’t know it because he’s quiet. And he’s kind; he’s always supported me in my career, actually I’m sort of supporting him right now because his business failed.”
“What did he do?”
He cooked garbage.”
Debra sat up and said, “Say what?”
“He developed these segmented polyethylene tents, they’re portable, they can be set up behind restaurants. All the organic garbage: coffee grounds, bread, fries, even meat goes into the tent. When a segment is filled it’s zipped shut and the garbage cooks. Arnie figures out, from your micro-climate and the type of garbage, the necessary thickness and exhaust configuration of the polyethylene, and in three months, you’ve cooked garbage from your restaurant into beautiful topsoil for your garden.”
“That’s a great idea. Ecological, practical.”
“He sold a bunch of them in Spain and France and Italy about three years ago. Then, he got an offer to erect entire farms of these tents in Indianapolis and Chicago. To handle city waste; turn it into topsoil for city parks, landfill, public use. Could you imagine Chicago giving this rich humus to everyone in the city for lawns and community gardens?”
“That’s what we thought, ‘til he signed the papers.”
“The rights were purchased by two sanitation companies who wanted to secure those rights so that these recycling farms would never be built. It would have cut into their land-fill monopoly. We hired an anti-trust lawyer, but those sanitation companies appealed and litigated until we ran out of money and bankrupted Arnie’s business.”
“Are you sure they weren’t film producers?”
“They aren’t in the movie business but they did produce a film. On everything gosh darn thing they touched.” She shook her head, “Through all this, I got pregnant, and I try not to blame the anxiety and tension of the cooked-garbage-fiasco, but I miscarried.”
“I’m sorry, Missy.”
“And since then…” Missy sat silently for a full minute. Debra didn’t interrupt until Missy resumed, “I’ve seen all the experts: psychologists, o-b-g-y-ns—you name ‘em, I’ve written them a check. And, and I’m frigid.”
Debra and Missy held hands, lightly, lingering.
“Frigid,” said Missy. “But the word doesn’t describe what happens. Arnie and I will be smooching and playing and stroking, you know,” Missy, appreciating the irony of explaining Saturday-morning-Midwestern-foreplay to a former porn-queen, blushed slightly, “and everything is fine and I want to and he wants to and when he tries, SCRINCH.”
“My muscles, down there, cramp up. They Scrinch up. I can’t control them physically. I can’t control them mentally. They gave me muscle relaxers; those were fun. I took them, waited half-an-hour, jumped in bed, Scrinched up, fell asleep; then woke up an hour later and puked.”
“If you’ve been to all the experts,” said Debra, “and you really want to be with Arnie—”
“—what do you think it is?”
Missy sat a long time.
A long time.
Then Missy said, “When I woke in the hospital—”
“How far along were you when—”
“I was seven months along when I lost her. I woke up and I just knew. Nobody needed to tell me what had happened. There were all these flowers and Arnie and my mother crying by my bed and all I could think of were these lines from Yevtushenko: When your face appeared over my crumpled life, at first I understood only the poverty of what I have. In Russian, over and over again, I repeated that line of poetry to myself; it was the only way to understand that I’d never see the face of my little girl. And to me nothing else mattered.”
Debra returned the favor and held Missy as she cried.
They fell asleep in each other’s arms and had to be awakened for lunch.
Devon and Blake spotted each other on the bench press. Devon, shirtless but still wearing his mirrored sunglasses, cranked out repetitions with 175 pounds. He sat up, stretched, belched, reclined and started cranking again. Mary Francis Mulvaney sat nearby and if she were capable of sight, would have appeared to be scrutinizing the boys. Blake, clad only in his patriotic swimsuit, took his rotation on the workout surface as Devon stood silent sentinel and spotter. Aside from the extra 15 pounds of sculpted bulk-and-muscle Blake packed onto his frame, the body-building-boys were the same height, build, and coloring.
They strutted slowly to the slag heap of dumbbells and performed their individual routines: Devon isolating his triceps, Blake concentrating on his forearms. The first words spoken between them since Devon had said, “Spot me on the bench?” were Blake’s casual, “Why’d you become an actor?”
Devon had answered that question for The Tonight Show and The L.A. Times. But he had never told the truth.
As girlie-girl pajama parties are governed by unwritten but stringent rules of disclosure and confidentiality, so are testosterone permeated all-male gyms and locker rooms. These sporty sanctuaries are today’s necessary equivalent of yesteryear’s initiation rites and sweat lodges.
The addition of females to a gym is like adding a cop to a reunion of mafia Dons: What you say may be used against you in a court of law. Most women don’t realize that men do talk; it’s just that the workout needs to be completed, the best shortstop in the majors decided, the NBA playoffs handicapped, and the six-pack emptied beforehand. All this nontoxic, semi-confrontational but detached, sports-and-alcohol based emotional foreplay is crucial to the development and flowering of the male psyche.
“It was right after a dope deal had gone down, mahn. I was like eighteen and had driven over the Rockies to Denver to score. This guy, Mark, led me through the side-door of a house a freaking hog wouldn’t live in. Ramshackle boards, assorted street signs, and foundation forms were tacked over holes to keep the wind out. Aboot two weeks worth of dirty dishes were piled in the sink. Cockroaches clicked across yellow linoleum counters. A blue extension cord snaked in through a broken window; they were stealing electricity from a neighbor.”
Devon now sat on the bench performing bicep curls. Blake still bombed his forearms with wrist curls. The boys’ lifting had slowed in time, like metronomes, to Devon’s rich, practiced baritone and the languid pace of his tale, “We followed that extension cord down the hall, past a skanky bathroom. The only clean things in that house were the brand new, big-time locks on his bedroom door. He took aboot a minute to unlatch all the security. Then we went in fired up some hash, exchanged some cash, and I left with my stash. He wanted to finish the pipe, I wanted out of that stink of a sty, so I followed that blue snake back down the hall to the kitchen, mahn.
“But right there, seated on the linoleum counter, playing with the extension cord is this dirty, barefoot child. Her red hair was obviously homecut, with bangs at a forty-five across her forehead. The poor little kid’s longer, stray hairs were plastered to her cheek with snot and sweat. Her filthy feet dangled. I smiled at her. Then this chilled me, Blake.”
“What?” Blake stopped exercising.
“She smiled back. Comfortable. Friendly even. She was used to people like me. Dealers; maybe even worse. Probably worse. She had moth-yellow teeth and blistered gums. And she had these impossibly proud and pristine brown eyes.”
“Holy shit.” Blake dropped both dumbbells into the dirt. He squatted forward with his hands on his knees. He dripped sweat and listened.
“And that little kid could have been me.” Devon hopped up onto the benchpress and stood on tiptoe, balancing, stretching his calves. “Should have been me.”
Blake stood and heard Devon’s almost whisper, “I was an orphan. I am an orphan, like that little girl, raised in piece-of-shit houses. Ignored, left to fend for myself. But the way you are raised is the way you are raised. I didn’t mind any of that shit when it was happening to me, but when I’d grown older and I saw someone else in that….” Devon hopped down from the bench, “I can’t explain it, mahn. But I was somehow shamed into my acting success by that filthy, skittery, brown-eyed child. She had no future. No possibilities. Her life was already over; it just hadn’t begun to end.” Devon faltered, his voice faded further, not from actor’s technique, but undeniable emotion. He continued, “There’s so much fucking failure and pain in the world; I couldn’t let myself fail, Blake. I determined right there, looking at that poor little girl that I’d do anything to escape the ranks of the ruined. Like that sad little child; the ruined. And I have.”
“Yeah you have.”
“You can’t screw your way to the top, but you can at least screw your way to the middle where your talents might be noticed. And from there, with hard work, larceny, a good agent and the ability to use people like Kleenex, anyone can make it. What are you doing here?”
“I’m an escort.”
“Yeah, it’s a job, and humping fifteen, twenty rich old broads a year is better than waiting tables, right?”
“If you’re really serious about fucking people for a living, you should move to Hollywood.” Devon slapped Blake across the shoulder.
“Awesome career advice.”
“Yes,” said Devon. “It is.”
“Let’s score some lunch,” said Blake. “It smells freaking devastating.”