Authors: Jonathan Tropper
5. The Cranberries:
No Need to Argue
6. Lisa Loeb:
7. Alanis Morissette:
Jagged Little Pill
8. Shawn Colvin:
9. Stevie Nicks:
10. Lisa Stansfield:
The truth is, most of the music we listen to now is the same stuff we were listening to in college. Around age twenty-six, in an effort to stave off thirty, I began embracing the new alternative angst bands, like Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Bush, Stone Temple Pilots, et cetera, but at thirty, little of that remains. At thirty, you’re back to the comforting sounds you grew up with. You have enough genuine angst of your own, you don’t need it in your music.
Once, while we were visiting Jack in LA, he took Chuck and me to a party thrown by a producer friend of his in Beverly Hills. Jack had dressed us for the occasion in dark single-breasted Hugo Boss suits, Dolce & Gabbana loafers, pale shirts and no ties, and I felt like I had “impostor” stenciled on my forehead in bold ink. We shared a joint that Jack produced in the limo which gave me a sore throat but helped me to arrive at the party feeling loose and hip. The house was a single-story ranch surrounded by dense foliage, with stucco walls that had long since been colonized by aggressive ivy. You couldn’t tell where the house stopped and the foliage began. We stepped through the front door and down three steps into a giant sunken living room that felt more like an auditorium, and everywhere you looked there seemed to be groups of tall blonde women in little black dresses. “Whoa,” Chuck said appreciatively. “Hey mister, is this heaven?”
“Next best thing,” Jack said with a smirk. “AMW’s. Hollywood’s greatest natural resource.”
“AMWs?” I asked.
“Actress/Model/Whatever,” Jack replied with a shrug.
“Amen,” Chuck intoned reverently.
Jazz was being played much too loudly on the stereo. I noticed that there were clusters of men throughout the room, and most of them were dressed similarly to me. Weaving expertly in and out of the crowd was another class of men, all well built in tight vests over short-sleeved shirts, with sculpted hair and dazzling teeth. These men carried trays with colorful hors d’oeuvres, but they seemed to be socializing as much as everyone else. I turned to ask Jack if he had an acronym for them as well, but he’d already disappeared into the crowd, so rather than assigning them the same letters as the blondes; Actor/Model/Waiter, I designated them Pretty Boys.
I looked to my left and saw Jack approaching a group of four men in suits, the fattest of whom was beckoning to him frantically, waving his cigar around as if he was trying to spell something. “There he is,” the guy yelled theatrically, and it sounded like he had pebbles bouncing around in his esophagus. He threw his arm around Jack’s shoulders. “There he is! This guy! Let me tell you about this guy!” Jack was absorbed into a cloud of smoke and suits, leaving Chuck and me to navigate on our own. We made our way over to the bar, manned by one of the Pretty Boys, and Chuck got himself two drinks and carried them over to a bored looking AMW standing against the wall. He rapped to her for a bit and although her expression never changed, she accepted the drink even while her eyes continued to patrol the room over his shoulder.
Left alone at the bar, I had two quick shots of Absolut Citron to bolster my incipient buzz and then took a glass of something fruity to occupy my hands as I strolled around the house. It had been about four months since Lindsey left. I was still an open wound, and there was something intoxicating in the notion of hooking up with one of these exotic strangers for a night of dispassionate
sex. Self-degradation as validation, or maybe some misdirected form of revenge. Sex as Novocain. Either way, thinking about it reminded me that I was horny. I walked slowly past one of the dark leather couches, where an emaciated woman with skin the color of barbecue-flavored Pringles was complaining about her latest cosmetic surgery to a guy in a black blazer with Elvis hair and a unibrow. “It was so upsetting,” she said. “I mean, he’s supposed to be the best, isn’t he? That’s what everyone says. And then I wake up with this,” here she indicated the left portion of her supernatural bosom.
“I don’t believe it,” the Elvis guy said sympathetically. “Is it really that pronounced?”
“Look,” the woman said and pulled up her brown, clinging blouse, revealing a startlingly round bare breast that seemed to almost glow against the dark backdrop of the couch. Despite her vertical posture the breast didn’t hang, but seemed to protrude independently from her chest. There was something erotic in that, and in the blasé way she unveiled it for inspection. I couldn’t discern any defects, but Elvis continued to nod sympathetically, and I became aware that I was staring at the precise instant that they did. She flashed me a disdainful look and slowly lowered her blouse. There were rules here, I realized. You could look, but you couldn’t show too much interest. Indifference was the currency, and without it you stood out as an alien, instantly exposed and summarily dismissed. Chagrined, I moved on.
There were French doors behind the couch, and the party had spilled out onto a wide patio that surrounded a kidney-shaped swimming pool. The only lights in the yard were those shining up from the pool, and in their dim glow the milling guests looked like shadows. I spotted a woman sitting alone by the side of the pool, one leg dangling lazily over the edge of her lounge chair. Cute, but not nearly as striking as most of the women at the party,
which made me feel like I had a chance. With Lindsey’s departure I had become a committed believer in the notion that a man’s reach shouldn’t exceed his grasp. I walked over and sat down on the adjacent chair. “How are you,” I said, affecting a slightly mid-western accent for no reason I could think of.
“Great,” she said guardedly. “You a friend of Ike’s?”
“Ike?” I said, realizing too late that she meant the host of the party.
“Wow,” she said sardonically. “What were the odds?”
“What do you mean?” I asked her.
“Nothing.” She took a sip of her drink. “I’m just being a bitch.”
I sipped my own drink. “It’s Ike’s house?” I asked her.
“Yeah.” She leaned back in her chair and stretched. I could see a small strip of smooth, white skin below her naval as her shirt rode up. “I’m his sister,” she said. “What’s your excuse?”
“I’m just here with Jack,” I said.
“Jack Shaw?” she said, instantly perking up.
I hadn’t deliberately dropped Jack’s name, at least I didn’t think I had, but I still wondered if it had gotten me anywhere. I sat back quietly, waiting to see what would happen next. It didn’t take very long. “Could you introduce me to him?” she finally asked.
“Sure,” I said. We got up and were headed inside when a technicality occurred to me. “I don’t know your name,” I said.
“Oh, right. It’s Valerie.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said. She didn’t ask for my name.
We walked into the living room where I found Chuck drunk on the couch, building a large pyramid out of about twenty used shot glasses. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “They weren’t all mine.”
“What’s going on?” I said.
“This party sucks,” he complained, carefully adding another glass. “These girls are all seven feet tall and they won’t talk to you unless you’re like, Steven Spielberg or something.”
“This is Valerie,” I said.
He looked up. “You found the only short one,” he said with a sigh. I looked to see if Valerie was insulted, but she was too busy scanning the room for Jack. “Have you seen Jack?” I asked.
“Downstairs,” he said.
Leaving Valerie with Chuck, I found my way into the kitchen, where the Pretty Boys were fussing over some burners for the fondue, and I located a door that led to the basement. I followed the stairs down into a dimly lit, finished basement, which had a couch and some easy chairs all facing the biggest television I’d ever seen. The sound was off, and on the screen Bruce Lee was silently kicking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s face in. The noise from upstairs was now muted, and I savored the quiet as my eyes adjusted to the dark. There didn’t appear to be anyone down there, so I turned to head back upstairs when I noticed a door to the left of the television. Feeling suddenly like an intruder, I approached the door and pushed it open tentatively. At first I saw only darkness, but then, as what little light there was poured in from the doorway, I was able to make out bookshelves and a desk at the far end of the room. Jack was leaning against the far wall, his head tilted back as if he’d fallen asleep standing up. I was about to call out to him when I noticed that he seemed to be swaying slightly, forward and back; and as my eyes strained in the semidarkness, I was able to make out the form of someone else, a woman, kneeling between his legs, her bent form undulating as her head bobbed in and out of his groin. I let the door swing shut quietly and just stood there for a moment, slightly dizzy, my fingers resting lightly on the wooden door. Then I turned and went back
upstairs, woozy from the pot and alcohol, which weren’t sitting well together, and conflicted over what I’d just seen.
Chuck and Valerie were still on the couch, and the pyramid of shot glasses had now spread across the entire coffee table, six and seven cups high. I noticed one of the Pretty Boys giving Chuck a dirty look from over by the bar. “Did you find him?” Valerie asked.
“He’s a little busy right now,” I said. “We’ll catch him later.” I looked around the room, which suddenly felt too hot and crowded. “I’m going back outside.”
“I’ll join you,” Valerie said, getting up from the couch.
“Go on, go ahead,” Chuck said drunkenly, waving grandly at us. “You two kids enjoy yourselves.” He always became a benevolent grandfather when he was wasted. He indicated the wall of shot glasses. “I’ll be right here if you need me. Building my fortress of solitude.”
We walked around to the side of the house, where Valerie showed me a small enclosure of high bushes that housed a Jacuzzi and two wooden benches. We sat down on one of the benches and for the first time since we’d arrived at the party I felt myself relaxing. I leaned back and breathed in deeply, inhaling the clean scent of chlorine and Valerie’s light perfume. Eventually, we began making out, necking and petting like a couple of high school kids. It was actually kind of nice, but then she began groping at my belt, and something in the utilitarian way she worked on my buckle made me suddenly depressed. I grabbed her wrist just as she was lowering my zipper, feeling myself grow cold against her heat. “Stop,” I said. I couldn’t shake the picture of Jack in that dark room, his eyes closed as the anonymous woman serviced him.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, both of our hands still poised over my crotch.
“Nothing,” I said, releasing her hand and moving away from
her on the bench. I was disgusted with myself, with Jack, with Los Angeles. I felt a yearning for Lindsey so overpowering that it stopped my breath in my throat.
“Well,” Valerie said sarcastically after an awkward silence. “This is something new.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, fixing my pants.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I think I’ll go back inside now.”
She walked off, tucking in her blouse and looking slightly irked. I was irked at myself, too. Jack, of all people, getting head in the basement shouldn’t have disturbed me, but it did. Somehow the image of him leaning against the wall like that had brought crashing home to me with stunning clarity that his immersion into this foreign society was complete, and had been for some time. That he’d taken a large and irrevocable step away from the rest of us. We were no longer best friends, we were simply old friends. Lindsey was gone, Jack was gone. It felt like I was slowly disappearing, bit by bit, and that soon there would be none of me left.
I needed to be around people. I felt a moment’s regret over cutting short my encounter with Valerie, and headed back inside to join Chuck. As I stepped through the front doors, I saw Jack come through the kitchen doors across the room. He caught my eye, smiled and began moving through the crowd toward to me. He was almost there when I heard a shriek, followed by the shrill cacophony of breaking glass, as Chuck’s shot glasses came crashing down on the coffee table. All conversation stopped, as everyone in the room turned to look at the couch. Chuck waved his hand weakly, as if acknowledging polite applause then looked at Jack and me, flashing a besotted smile. “I’m ready to go home now,” he announced, then fell back on the couch and passed out.