by Gregory Hahn
So this is a story of Los Angeles and the bright, bright sun. It's a story of crippling accidents and crippling fears. But it's mostly a story about a man called Mattieu and a woman named Elizabeth but who simply goes by B.
And like all stories, it needs a beginning. This one starts when the wheel of a heavy wheelchair skids over a pair of vintage Gucci shoes on the back porch of a trendy and packed nightclub called the Monastery, on Sunset, near the hilly and hard-to-navigate neighborhood of Echo Park.
"What the fuck," B yells, and she hops on one unsteady heel and spins around with a swirl of hair and cigarette smoke and bile.*
"You could have broke my toe," she yells over the music, looking first at the empty space where she expected to see a face, and then down to the seated man, who seems to be trying hard to cut through the crowd in his chair, or at least as hard as he can without spilling his Jack Daniels and Coke, which he holds in his right, slightly trembling, hand.
She starts to spit out "asshole" when she finally looks at his face, and is hit with such a wave of sympathy and depression that she can't finish the thought. He glances up, drunk, unfocused, and she sees in his eyes these things:
1. I don't care about you.
2. I don't care about me.
3. I'm sorry.
4. Fuck your toe, my legs don't work.
The music thumps on, and he pushes past her. A minute later, the half-inch-long ash on B's cigarette falls and singes the 40-year-old Angora sweater the old woman had sworn was worn by that blond lady in "North by* Northwest." She wipes a tear that she can't stop. It has been this kind of year.
Elizabeth Alison Wonderland Jones has always thought she had a charmed life. She got what she wanted. She'd see it and go after it. Carlton College. Harvard Law. A great job at an L.A. law firm she'd actually learned about in school.
Sure, she left Jeff in Boston, but they'd be fine. They'd been together seven years; he was in a surgical internship, would probably want to stay in the east but had never ruled out coming to California. B now had a favorite beach (Zuma), a new Audi convertible, an apartment with a view of the Hollywood sign (from the shower window, if she stood on her tiptoes), and a growing group of friends -- some of whom might take speed and E more than she likes, but they don't force it on her if she's not in the mood and they're exactly the kind of rock and roll hipsters she always wanted to know.
Jeff, though, didn't end up coming.
An hour or so after the wheelchair-Gucci incident, B steps back outside to smoke another cigarette. Post-Jeff, B switched to Camel Reds. Now they call them Kamel Reds to provide a sense of danger and pinko-ism to the whole smoking experience. And now she kills a pack a day or so.
Skinny (now more than ever).
Brown hair, falling over her shoulders, messy.
Brown eyes, crinkled at the edges. She laughs like that doesn't bother her.
Clothes: All vintage. Most from Squaresville over on Vermont Avenue. There's a giant Goodwill two blocks from there but B always says she didn't go to law school to have to rummage through junk. Squaresville pre-screens her clothing.
She's pretty, though. Tired and sad, but pretty, very pretty.
Anyway, out on that patio, B curses because she's already smoked her last C(K)amel. She looks around for a patsy -- she's bummed cigarettes her whole life, used to pride herself on the fact that she never bought any. (Another casualty of the P.J. year.) She looks around, the music still pulsing inside. It's mostly a low-slung-cords and hooded-sweatshirts crowd, but there are a few Prada-clad clubbers. B doesn't know anybody, which strange as it sounds is unusual, even in giant Los Angeles, California. People travel in packs here -- you have to, or you lose any sense of yourself. B notices the guy in the wheelchair, off by himself. He's lighting up from what looks like a pack of Camel no-filters. These are for tough guys, and don't need the "K" to make them interesting. B shudders at the burn one would cause her throat, but she's a little desperate and she sees it as a chance to reach out to the guy. Those eyes, you know?
"How about in exchange for my broken toe, you give me a cigarette?" she says, crouching down to his eye level, so she can see him and he can hear her.
"Yeah," he says. "Sure."
"Thanks," she says. She thinks he's looking at something behind her, but realizes it's just a shaky gaze. "They call me 'B.'"
His lighter trembles in his shaking hand and she jerks her head back.
"Hold still. I'm not going to burn you."
"Sorry," she says. "It's O.K. Just lost my balance a little."
"So I'm B."
"I heard you the first time. I'm a cripple, not a deaf man."
"I wasn't trying to…"
"It's O.K.," he interrupts her. "My name's Mattieu."
"Are you German or something?"
She coughs, thinks this: Holy crap are these things harsh.
"Swiss. My parents were from Switzerland. I'm New Mexican."
"New Mexican. You know, from New Mexico."
"Oh. Got it. I've skied at Taos," she says, moments before her brain tells her not to -- too I-have-working-legs-ish.
"Me, too," he says, and she's relieved. "I was a ski instructor there."
"Really? Do they have a handicapped program?"
(Oh she's so damn good at small talk.)
"I wouldn't know. Look, I've got to go."
He flicks his cigarette into the wall, spins around with a pull on his left tire, and pushes back into the crowded bar. B steadies herself on the bricks and slowly stands. At this point she's a little intrigued. Ski instructor? He's cute, really, if you forget for a second about the wheelchair bit. Nice blond hair. Chin, but not too much chin. And part of her has to admit she likes the wheelchair, but then she feels guilty because it's for all the wrong reasons. "Look," people would say. "That beautiful woman is with that man in the wheelchair. She's a better woman than I." Or "Oh, that poor, brave woman, standing by his side through all of what he must have gone through."
I'm a bad person, she thinks, followed immediately by: I wonder if everything works down there.
Like you weren't wondering the same thing.
Spotted at the Monastery dance club:
1. Karen O, lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
2. The cast of "That '70s Show."
3. Bijou Phillips and Sean Lennon.
What you don't know about Mattieu is that he had a long-suffering, beautiful, devoted girlfriend. She wanted to get married, even after the accident, but he slept with two of her friends (at the same time -- but that's another story) just to make himself feel better. It didn't work. (Well, it worked. He just didn't feel any better.)
B is starting to think after this year that all of that charmed-ness came from Jeff. That she was just catching the reflection off of his uber-charmed life. It was Jeff that always assumed the good things would keep happening. He just expected it. And in fits of anger, she thinks about his new girl -- the Replacement B -- and how she's probably getting all these things she wants for the first time in her life.
"She stole my life," B says now and again.
I'm not sure that's true, but what the hell do I know.
B's apartment is a wreck. Cigarette ashes all over the desk. Three Miller High Life cans, two half-full, on the coffee table. It smells in here, a little, she thinks. And she's right.
She's getting dressed:
Tight red T-shirt. It says "Cockle-Doodle-Doo" in fading letters.
Blue jeans (Earl brand, spendy).
She's meeting some friends for a late breakfast. It's just after noon on a Sunday, and the café will be jam-packed.
Spotted at the Sunset Café:
1. Jennifer Anniston.
3. Socialite sisters Nicky and Paris Hilton.
B knows the hostess, though, and she has a standing one-o'clock-on-Sundays reservation for four. She'll meet Jerry, Spid and Sally today. Set it up last night at the bar.
Jerry: 23, black hair, plays bass in a band called Bigfoot Cinderella. B slept with him in April, but couldn't shake the friendship.
Spid: Rhymes with "kid," though it's short for Spider, which was the nickname Gloria Tarantella's grade-school classmates gave her in Anaheim. She's Jerry's new girlfriend. Of indiscriminate age. Cagey. Tongue-pierced.
Sally: 32, like B. Blond. Also a lawyer. B's best friend.
At the café, the hostess seats them in the sun.
Spid: "Looked like you were getting lucky last night."
Jerry: "Yeah. What's up with that?"
B: "I guess so. Lost interest, though. Caught a cab home.
Sally: "Another haircut? I thought you gave that up."
B: "Yeah. It's a hard habit to break."
Spid: "What do you mean, haircut?"
Sally: "This is funny."
B: "Don't take this the wrong way, Jerry."
Jerry: "Take what?"
Sally: "B's been dating guys for their haircuts."
Spid: "Various haircuts?"
Sally: "No. All the same one. Like Jerry's -- the rock-n-roll do. Shaggy. Over the ears."
Jerry: "No way."
B: "You were the first."
Sally: "No. Get over it."
B: "But it took a nasty turn south last month."
Spid: "How so?"
Sally: "This fucking kills me."
B: "Yeah it's a laugh riot. Basically, this one guy's haircut was removable."
B: "A wig. A cool, rock-n-roll wig. But a wig nonetheless."
Spid: "He was bald? Was he old?"
Sally: "No. Better. He was like 22."
B: "He had alopecia. It makes you lose your hair. He didn't even have eyebrows, as it turned out."
Spid: "You didn't notice?"
Sally: "Oh, you don't even know the best part yet."
Jerry: "So he's a hairless freak, then what?"
Sally: "Watch it Jerry. Don't think B and I don't talk about everything."
Spid (to Sally): "We'll talk later."
Sally: "He didn't have a hand!"
Jerry and Spid, together: "What?"
B: "He had lost his hand."
Jerry: "From the alo-whatever?"
B: "No, from an unrelated car accident."
Sally: "And she didn't even notice for like three dates!"
Spid: "What? Did you sleep with him?"
B: "Yes. But only after I found all this out. I had to."
B: "You can't dump a guy right after you find out he's bald and one-handed."
Sally: "You have to wait a week."
Interesting, isn't it? It's all Romeo and Juliet, except it's like Juliet doesn't really kill herself after all that hoo-ha at the end, and Romeo isn't dead either, but instead is off screwing somebody else -- maybe that chick who dresses like a man in Twelfth Night. And Juliet later on meets Mercutio, who was always the best character anyway, and he doesn't really get killed by Juliet's brother or cousin or whoever and is just hurt real bad. His spine is cut, and he can't walk. And they have wheelchairs and Zoloft in old Verona.
The Tuesday after that Sunday, B runs into Mattieu at a Starbucks.
"Hey Mattieu, remember me?"
The look is blank.
"We met at the Monastery. You ran over my foot. I bummed a cigarette outside."
"Oh yeah. I'm sorry, I can't remember your name."
"It's B, just B. Like the letter."
"Right. What's that all about?"
"Short for Beth, short for Elizabeth, short for Elizabeth Alison Wonderland Jones."
She rarely told boys all of this.
"Yeah. I think my mom was stoned."
"When she was pregnant, or right after?"
"After, I hope. Though sometimes I wonder."
"Here," he says. "Sit down."
"I've got to get back to work soon, but I've got some time."
So she skips out on work, but you saw that coming.
It's a combustible mix:
1 part: Double-shot lattes with Crème de Cocoa syrup.
1 part: Sexual attraction.
5 parts: Depression.
But they don't get all that far. Though B learns a lot more about Mattieu. He's 29 -- a bad year for guys, she'd been around long enough to learn that. Almost made the U.S. Ski Team in the slalom. Broke his back at the end of a long spring day ten years ago. Not even in a race or tearing through the trees or blowing down a field of moguls -- he just lost control for a split second on the flat, easy trail that returns the skiers from the back of the mountain to the lodge. Slipped slowly off the side, under the rope, and hit the only rock within sight.
"I just wasn't paying attention," he tells her. "And that's the worst part. If I had crashed in a competition at least I would know I was trying."
One thing we'll learn about Mattieu is that he still has issues with trying.
He was in school in Boulder, Colorado, when he crashed. He was studying to be a mechanical engineer. He's been living on his disability check ever since.
So B and Mattieu start hanging out. He's got lots of free time after all, and she, as it turns out, was desperate for intelligent conversation. That preconceived notion you hold of Los Angeles is certainly true.
And so is this one:
"So we should write a screenplay," B says one day, as the two meander along the bike path at Venice Beach (they go for the kitsch).
"What about?" Mattieu asks.
"Your accident. A promising athletic career dashed on cold, hard granite, and the long road to recovery and sanity."
She thinks he's OK with talking about it. She's wrong, of course. Though at first he tries.
"What makes you think I've made it to sanity?"
But he doesn't try very hard.
"No really. Is it the drinking? The lack of a job or any direction? The pills?"
"Look, I'm sorry. I just thought…"
"Why don't we write one about you?"
"O.K., but what? I'm boring."
She's glad he changed the subject. That won't last.
"Here's the high concept," he says in his best fake Hollywood voice. "Aging spinster screws over handless man and then comforts her guilt with the next cripple she comes across."
"Hey that's not fair."
"It's like "Snow White" meets "Born on the Fourth of July."
"I don't even know what the hell that means," she says.
Mattieu pivots his chair around and wheels back to his van.
The anger doesn't last. They're talking again before they even get back to the car. Mattieu even lets B push him up a short hill.
In the movie of their lives, this scene is followed by a montage:
B and Mattieu at the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art (a Warhol retrospective).
B and Mattieu drinking mojitos on the funky roof-top bar at The Standard Hotel. They dance -- Mattieu spinning his chair with one hand and holding B's slender fingers in the other.
B and Mattieu swimming just past the breakers at Zuma Beach (movies never show the hard part -- getting three guys to come over and help carry him to the water, and three more to get him back to his chair).
B and Mattieu in bed. The light is amber. The music Dean Martin. There are candles. His arms are strong. The camera rests briefly on the curve of her breast.
Fade to black.
Over the next six months, B and Mattieu are learning a lot.
1. He can be happy.
2. That happiness can't always overcome years of depression.
3. Cutting long-ways, down the vein, doesn't work all the time.
1. There is life after Jeff.
2. Yes, it does work down there.
3. Dawn detergent on wet spots and a putty knife on dry ones are the best ways to remove blood from the cross-weave fabric in the seat of a wheelchair.
Now we're in the hospital room.
"It's not you," Mattieu says. He looks away from B and she's glad. She still can't take his eyes.
"This has been going on a long time," he says. "Long before we met. I can't explain it."
B stares at the white wall. There's just nothing in here to look at. The television sits dark in the corner, and the Los Angeles sky burns blue through the window. She's so relieved he lived through it, mostly because she had let her mind wonder what life would be like if he hadn't.
"But I'm sorry," he says.
B is trying to understand, but she never will.
"Why didn't you ever tell me?" she asks.
Now it's Mattieu's turn to sit quietly. Maybe he thought he had.
"I could have helped," she says.
"I don't think you can," he says. "I'm not even sure if I want you to."
Spotted under suicide watch at the USC University Hospital:
1. Various Hemingways.
Mattieu is moving back home to Taos. He tells her about it at the Starbucks.
"Mom's rigging the room beside the garage," he says. "It's all very Greg Brady."
"Are you sure it's what you want to do?" B asks.
"Beats the alternative."
"No. Being here without you."
B wipes another tear out of her eye. But she doesn't say anything. This time she understands. Mattieu smiles, sips his double latte.
"I called your old ski coach. He says you can sit on a wide ski and you have two crutch-like things with little skis on them. He says it's easy. He shows people how to do it all the time."
That's what B wants to say. But instead she just stands there in silence.
A few hours later the sun is dropping. A fire in the hills over Malibu makes the sunset burn crimson over the city. Elizabeth Alison Wonderland Jones steps into her shower and lets the water rain down her face.
B stands on her tiptoes to wipe the steam off the window. The Hollywood sign glows in the gloaming.