UP UP AND AWAY
Winter was cold and dry. I got on my bike and rode to The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Beck was there. Everyone in the place was pretending not to notice, but everyone knew who he was. I watched him. I stared even. I wondered what made a nerdy guy like that so cool. I decided it was confidence. Beck ordered a mocha latte, paid with cash, and drove away in his Audi. At least, I’m pretty sure it was Beck. I looked over the notes for my Elven fantasy novel. I didn’t know shit about elves. Glorks were stupid. I’d been working on it nearly a year and had nothing to show for it. I started scribbling over my notes, blacking them out. One of the baristas was clearing a table near me
“What makes Beck so cool?” I asked him. “Fuck if I know,” the guy said. “Swagger,” a woman said. I turned. It was Zoe.
“He’s got swagger,” she said. “He acts like he’s the best thing since sliced bread and he
“Is he?” I asked rhetorically.
“What are you writing?” she asked.
“Nothing. It was a novel, but it’s stupid.”
“What’s it about?” she asked, sitting down.
I chuckled. “Elves.”
“That’s funny.” She reached into her New Yorker tote bag and pulled out a manuscript.
The cover page read: Shelia, Queen of the Elves We both laughed.
“We’ve met before, right?” she asked
“I think so,” I minimized it. “Was it…”
“The vegan falafel place on Sunset,” she finished.
“Yeah, I thought you looked familiar,” I said.
“You were with that guy that looks like Leif Erikson.”
“The viking? Oh!” I laughed. “Allen. Yeah, my best friend. Well, he was.” “What happened?” she asked, concerned now.
“He moved to the Valley.”
“Oh shit. Why?” Both her expression and tone were appropriately dismayed.
“It’s a long story,” I replied.
We spent an hour talking Elves and writing and books and I told her a little about red wine. I said I’d show her how to pick a good one, if she wanted. She did. We complained about the Valley and I told her about Allen and Amy and the baby. As we talked, I got a new message on Daterr. It was from a woman named VeganLisa. She said, “Always stay happy, silly and REAL!” She had a photo of herself in one of those wide brimmed festival hats. She was wearing a black lace bra and high waisted acid wash jeans. She looked like the world belonged to her.
Me: You like red wine?
VeganLisa: Hell yeah.
Me: Let’s meet
Zoe smiled at me. We chatted a bit more, but all I could think about was VeganLisa and that lacy bra. Zoe and I exchanged numbers and I walked back to my apartment off Vermont Avenue alone. The sun was hot, but Christmas and the New Year were coming. If things went good with VeganLisa, I’d have a date for New Years Eve.
Lisa’s hair was silvery platinum. She had a watercolor tattoo of an origami crane on her arm. She was the modern equivalent of Danielle Fishel from Boy Meets World. Topanga, the girl of my dreams when I was five. She read tarot cards for fun.
“I really hate online dating, you know?” she said over shabu shabu. “I wish there was an app that told you how to meet people in real life.”
“Same,” I said. “Tell me about your tattoo.”
“It’s an origami crane. I’m 1/16 Japanese so it’s kind of like my heritage. Yeah, I found out through 23 and Me. Totally shocked. I posted my DNA results reaction to my YouTube Channel. I’ll send you the link.”
“Cool. You ever been to Japan?”
“No, but I’d love to go to Hong Kong one day.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her Hong Kong was in China. She was into me. As we shared a bowl of green tea ice cream, I received a text from Zoe. A photo of a blonde haired man in a vintage t-shirt. He was standing near the front entrance of The Mayan Theater.
Zoe: Look! It’s Beck! LOL Me: Rly?
Zoe: No, his evil twin 😉
“Let me guess, your mom?” Lisa asked, fishing me out of my dream. “A friend,” I replied.
“Oh,” she made a large O with her lips and pulled them in tight. There was a lot going on with her mouth and that Oh. We got back to my place and before she could make some excuse, I asked her to come up and have a glass of wine.
“Yeah, but just one. I’ve got yoga in the morning and there’s nothing worse than doing downward dog with a hangover.”
We never got to the wine. It wasn’t long before she was taking off my pants and I was pulling down her acid wash jeans, moving her panties out of the way and mounting her. I’d forgotten how much I liked casual sex. I didn’t even know her last name. It went for a long time. Longer than I’d expected. At least half an hour. We were like animals. She wouldn’t look me in the eyes after, but I could tell she liked me. I watched her straighten out her platinum hair and pull her bra down over her sweet little breasts.
“You ever been to The Dresden?” I asked her. “The hotel?” she asked, looking for her purse. “The bar. On Vermont.”
“No, I don’t come out here that often.” “Where do you live?”
“Echo Park,” she said.
“Yeah. Do you wanna hang out or whatever tomorrow?” she asked.
“Cool. I’ll text you.”
After Lisa left I took a shower. I got out, dried off, and checked my phone. I had two new texts. One from Lisa that said, “Got home safe :kissy face:” and one from Zoe. It was another photo of a guy who looked vaguely like Beck. I laughed. The next day on my way to the liquor store for goat cheese and cigarettes, I walked passed a guy with scraggly blonde hair wearing a vintage Space Jam t-shirt. I covertly snapped a photo of him and sent it to Zoe with the text, “Beck is everywhere.” It went on for weeks. In between dates with Lisa, I would go out of my way to find guys that looked like Beck. Even if they didn’t. One time I saw a guy with a bald head and texted, “Not Beck.” It was stupid and hilarious. Meanwhile, Lisa became my girlfriend. It wasn’t planned. She just came around all the time and insinuated herself into my life. We went out, binged episodes on Netflix, shopped for groceries. It was all very normal.
“Hang on,” I said to her as we walked to the gas station.
I’d seen a guy who looked like Beck. To my actual surprise, a lot of guys in Los Feliz looked like Beck.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“See that guy?” I pointed to the man. “It’s Beck.”
“That’s not Beck. I saw Beck at The Hollywood Bowl a few years ago.”
“But it looks like him. I literally have to take a picture.”
Lisa sat on a palm tree stump and looked through Instagram while I essentially stalked this man just to get a decent shot. He turned around once and looked at me. I snapped the photo, ran for it, and left Lisa bewildered. I hid in the 76 Gas Station. Eventually, she found me.
“What the actual fuck just happened?” she asked. “Sorry, I had to take that guy’s picture.”
“’cause he looks like Beck.”
“Not even a little,” Lisa smirked.
Lisa bought a chai flavored vape cartridge and two aloe vera juices. I bought a pack of Parliaments. We stood on the street smoking and watching the cars go by. Actually, she watched her phone. I looked for guys who looked like Beck.
“Here,” she handed me her phone, open to the camera app. “Since you like taking photos,” she said posing.
Without a word, I obeyed. I snapped a photo of her casually looking over her shoulder, making love to the camera with her eyes, standing on the palm stump looking coy. After each shot, she checked to make sure she looked OK. Twenty-five images before we got to one she approved of. We walked back to my place where we vaped and fucked the rest of the afternoon. My throat was raw. Zoe and I continued our Beck photo exchange for months. One day, she texted me: My friend’s band is playing Grand Star in Chinatown.
I replied: Yes
When Lisa asked to come over, I lied and told her I wanted to work on my book. I met Zoe in Chinatown underneath the Central Plaza archway and red lanterns swaying in the breeze. She had on a white men’s t-shirt, denim shorts, and black platform heels. “Here a Beck, there a Beck, everywhere a Beck Beck!” she greeted me. Zoe was too funny for me. Too cute. She grabbed my hand as though we’d done it a million times. When we got to the door, I paid for both of us to get in. I bought her a whiskey sour and I got a PBR. The band was called Blue Blue Blue, an indie band amongst a million LA indie bands. They were good. Some of their songs were catchy. Zoe cheered and danced and I instantly realized I loved her. I was having an out of body experience. I was emotionally cheating on my girlfriend. As the band started their fourth song, Zoe leaned in and kissed my cheek. She touched my hand softly.
We decided to leave early. The now darkened red lanterns dreamed of festivals and paper dragons. Zoe and I walked through the dilapidated Chinese arches of Central Plaza and stood at the curb as she watched the Lyft app.
“I had a really nice time,” I said.
“There’s an old diner in Downtown. Raymond Chandler used to hang out there. It’s too far to walk,” she said.
“How far is too far?” I asked.
“5th Street,” she said.
I took her phone and cancelled the Lyft.
“Lead the way,” I said and gesturing out.
Zoe and I walked through the somber streets of Chinatown south on Broadway. The cool night air and the sodium lights, the metal security gates over Chinese junk shops. I checked the time on my phone. I’d received a text from Lisa. Three hearts, a puppy dog, and a hearts-for- eyes smiley. I turned my phone off.
“It’s after midnight. Is this place even open?” I asked Zoe.
“It’s open,” Zoe said.
She looked and me and smiled in the dark. The damp streets felt like an old noir film.
Chinatown, I guess.
“Danger is around every corner,” I said in a theatrical voice.
“And dog poop,” she replied.
She stepped around it and held onto my arm. I liked the way her body felt close to mine. She smelled like warmed vanilla on the cool evening breeze.
“I’ve never really walked through Downtown at night. I was always afraid I’d get stabbed,” she said.
“I’ll protect you,” I said.
As we walked I could see City Hall in the distance like some enormous comic book headquarters. The lights were blue for some reason. I asked Zoe about where she grew up. She told me stories of teachers and Summer camps, divorced parents, and a vague attempt at veganism in the 9th grade. She traced her hand across the leaves of a potted bamboo tree in front of a shuttered ginseng and herb store. I told her about my writing, the time my Dad took me to Disneyland when I was six and I puked after riding Star Tours. I reached up and dragged my hand across a row of paper lanterns hanging from a canopy. We talked about my grandmother’s funeral. Zoe peeked in through the windows of The Cathay Bank. We wondered about God and the purpose of the universe. A golden dragon slithered above and across Broadway marking the end or beginning of Chinatown. The Metro bell clanged. A few scattered souls walked alone. The night felt secret, like a child sneaking into his parent’s room digging through the bedside drawer. I could hear chickens clucking somewhere. We talked about college and classes and fleeting romances. Passed Wing Hing Co., KBC Bakery and the smell of sweet crust buns and red bean paste. She’d gotten her degree in literature and was working as a copy editor at a small magazine for teens with social disabilities. Passed Ming Chung Jewelry and the darkened Buddhist Temple. I entertained her with tales of app-based food delivery jobs. “It’s only temporary,” I told her. I admitted I sometimes snuck a bite of the customer’s food. She laughed as I hoped she would.
Broadway was quiet and still. A steep incline towards the theater district. We stopped in front of an empty lot. Long abandoned, it had grown trees and tall bushes, pretty as any park, but fenced off and lonesome.
“I picked the wrong night to wear platforms,” she said.
I crouched down. “Hop on,” I said, feeling gallant.
“It’s at least another half mile,” she said slipping off her heels. “But thank you.” “You don’t think I can do it?”
“It’s not that…”
“I can’t let you walk barefoot through downtown. You’ll catch botulism,” I said, only
I kicked off my New Balance and gestured to them. She put them on. I carried her heels for her and we made our way, me in my socks and her in floppy men’s shoes. She looked adorable. When we got to the 101 Freeway overpass, she stopped again, leaned against the railing, and looked down at the slow traffic heading into and out of Hollywood. The red and white lights looked like a lazy river. The wind ruffled her hair. I leaned with her and we watched a while. I couldn’t think of anything poetic to say. The traffic was both ugly and beautiful. She looked beautiful. I didn’t know how to say it. She started walking again. Just at the edge of the overpass were at least a dozen filthy tents lined in a row. A homeless man sat outside one of them watching Rogue One on his phone.
“Good evening, sir,” Zoe said to him.
The man didn’t reply. I held my breath and held her hand.
We talked Star Wars for a bit. We both agreed that Jar Jar was a mistake. We strolled past a construction site heralding brand new condo live/work spaces and finally out of Chinatown. We arrived at the steps of Grand Park with City Hall across the street. Zoe rested for a while. She lit a cigarette and leaned back on her elbow while I zig zagged up and down the steps like Fred Astaire trying to impress her with my dexterity. She didn’t notice.
“Why are the lights blue?” I asked about City Hall.
“A cop got killed last week,” Zoe replied nonchalantly.
“Oh. I thought it might be for the Dodgers.”
A man in a heavy coat walked toward us, kept his head down and continued on. Zoe mimed stabbing me like Norman Bates and I laughed. She pointed to the abandoned LA Times building and said, “Bukowski worked there for a minute.” I wanted to kiss her. The Broadway Theater district at night with its crumbling 19th Century architecture, buildings turned condo, more shuttered junk shops, barren and dry like a future dystopia that had come too soon. The neon lights of renovated theaters up ahead, like a classic big city dream.
“I love this,” she said, almost to herself.
“Feels like New York, doesn’t it?” I echoed my own thoughts. “Yeah,” she said.
There was a moment near La Catedral De Los Angeles Wedding Chapel that I wished it were open and we could walk right in.
“I’d marry you,” she said.
I snapped into reality.
“Yeah, right now. I’d marry you,” she said looking through the windows now. There was a gaudy wedding dress store across the street. A single fluorescent light shone down on a puffy white dress with marshmallow fringe and meringue sleeves. “And that would be my dress,” she laughed pointing.
“Well, I don’t know. We just met,” I tried to be charming, but she had this intense look on her face.
“And we’d have lots of kids and live on a ranch and pray to Jesus every day thanking him for our bounty,” she said. She looked at me and waited.
My hand had a mind of its own and started to tremble. I said nothing, overcome with a sudden and mortal fear.
“Yeah,” she went on. “…and how do you feel about having more than one wife?” She continued to stare at me. My eyes must have doubled in size.
“I uh…” I stammered. That’s about when it hit me. She was fucking with me. “OK.
Let’s do it,” I called her bluff. “What are we talking here, Mormons? Fundamentalists? Sister wives? How many wives we talking? I can maybe afford three wives on Postmates,” I kept a straight face the whole time.
“Two to start,” she chuckled. “I know a ranch in Montana we can live on, if you don’t mind living in a trailer.”
“Not at all. I’ve always wanted to live in a trailer. I assume you’ll be first wife.” “Yep. Numero Uno, the big cheese, the head honcho.”
“You’re dumb, you know that?” I said affectionately.
“I might have heard that once or twice before,” she smiled.
“And by dumb, I mean… kinda the best person I know.”
“In that case, I think you’re dumb too.”
We were walking again and I hadn’t noticed. She stopped in front of the Million Dollar Theater. Under the gorgeous archway made of wedding cake icing stonework, she read the upcoming schedule.
“Goonies next month,” she said.
“Rat,” I said.
“Huh?” Zoe spun around, saw the rat, and screamed. Her voice caught the cool breeze and it ricocheted off the buildings. The rat scurried into the drainage and we both laughed. Zoe tried to peek through the grand wooden doors of the theater, but couldn’t see anything inside. “I’ve never been inside. You?” she asked.
“We should come see Goonies next month,” she said. “It’s a date,” I replied.
There were people walking by, a cruising Impala blasted hip hop and the city seemed to have a case of insomnia. The car stopped at a red light.
“Hey!” she shouted at them. “Turn that shit up!”
The boys cranked it. Zoe started throwing down, reciting a rap song I’d never heard before. She knew all the words. She looked at me looking at her and laughed through rapid fire rhymes. She was like a cute little thug in denim shorts and my New Balance, laughing at herself and at me for not quite getting it. An old man walking by looked at her and smiled. The guys in the car were cheering her on until the light changed and the car behind them honked.
“Ta’Est. I saw him at Brokechella last year,” she said. “You know what you are?” I asked her.
“Manic pixie dream girl?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said, surprised she knew.
“Yeah, I know. I work really hard at it,” she joked. “I take it I’m not the first to notice?”
“No, but I like it. If it’s true.”
“I’m just me. I just do what makes me happy, but you know, I’m not like a perfect dream-girl or anything. Just wait till you get to know me. My last boyfriend called me ‘deeply flawed.’”
“That guy was an asshole.”
There were tourists navigating around the night dwellers, the shadow people. Night- shift workers waited for night buses, night buses carried them to distant parts of the city.
“I’d like to live in this building,” she said. “It’s probably beautiful inside,” she said looking up a blackened building with more intricate details, forgotten by time, probably still a sweat-shop.
“Beautiful with asbestos,” I said.
“Ooh. Good point,” she replied. “We’ll clean it out first.”
We walked on and on until we got to 5th Street and the Rite-Aid with its bright lights and aisles of products inside. “Which way?” I asked.
“I dunno,” she said pulling out her phone. She pointed and I followed. I would have followed her anywhere.
We arrived at Max’s, a hole in the wall hold-out from the Depression. A survivor in a city of victims. It was good timing. The bars were still open and the place was empty for now. Zoe and I took a booth in the back. We drank coffee, ate grilled cheese sandwiches.
“I’m sorry I freaked you out about the wedding stuff,” she said, wiping her mouth. “I wasn’t freaked out,” I lied.
“You looked triggered,” she said. “I guess you’re not the marrying type?”
“No, I’ll get married someday, just you know, gotta figure out the adult stuff first.” “Same.”
King Krule played on an old CD player above the register near the pie display. King’s gruff and sultry voice made a grainy motion picture out of the scene, a philosophical Indie film about life and love and cigarettes, grilled cheese sandwiches and girls with pretty brown hair who read good books.
“I’ll get married when the right person comes along,” she said, avoiding my eyes.
I wanted to tell her the right person was sitting across from her. Me. The right person was me. I wanted to tell her.
By the time we finished our food, the people from the bars had started streaming in and the place was alive with conversation. Zoe called a Lyft and handed me her phone to enter my address, her way of saying she wanted to go home with me. She looked at me and smiled. I should have kissed her in front of the Mexican wedding chapel or on the overpass or a dozen times from the ginseng shop to the Million Dollar Theater. We had two minutes until the Lyft arrived. She looked down at her phone. One minute to go. She waved and the car pulled over. She opened the door. She took my hand to get in. I stalled. Stopped. Couldn’t move.
“I have a girlfriend,” I blurted.
Her face became a sad landscape on a gloomy foggy night. I waited for her to say something. Her fists wound into tense balls and she folded her arms. In that moment I hated Lisa and her stupid platinum hair and lacy bras. Who was Lisa anyway? Just a girl I met online. I never promised her anything. I didn’t even like her. I wanted Zoe, but I could tell it was already too late. She just stared at me.
“Aren’t you gonna say anything?” I asked her.
When Zoe got into the Lyft, away from me, I knew I’d never see her again. She’d even taken my New Balance, which wasn’t the point and I didn’t care. I tried calling her, but she didn’t answer. I even left a voicemail. I never left voicemails. I was sure I’d never see her again, but I saw her everywhere. Turned out she lived a block away from me. She never saw me, but I saw her at The Dresden, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Vons, the Lassens on Hillhurst, everywhere. Sometimes she was alone, sometimes she was with a friend, once with a guy who looked like more than a friend. I liked to imagine she missed me as much as I missed her. I had more than a thousand urges to send her photos of guys who looked like Beck. I never did.
And then I saw her at the Venice Boardwalk. I was there with Lisa and her mom. Lisa’s mom was like an older version of Lisa. She wanted me to call her Debs. She’s what Lisa would look like in thirty years. Same skin tone, same eyes, same clothes, same botox injected face incapable of true emotion. Debs looked like an aging hipster, desperately living vicariously through her daughter.
Debs told me about how she was going to Coachella with her new boyfriend and as she said this, I looked up. Just ahead, walking toward me, she had on that same tribal skirt. The ocean wind whipped it behind her like a flag.
I saw Zoe. Zoe saw me too. I’m an asshole.
Kristen Simental is a Latinx author from East Los Angeles. She is currently pursuing a degree in English and Journalism.