Joyland

New York |

Until I See Palm Trees Again

by Ben Fama

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu


“People drawn by the dream, people running from the nightmare.”

–Norman Buckley, quoting Michael Connelly, in a tweet


He’d kept in touch with Mars the week before he left for Los Angeles, and when his plane broke the cloud line it was as if the whole nation knew something seismic was happening between them.

He’d almost forgotten how bright southern California was, pushing sunshine down your throat until you gagged. Sun over waves. Sun over glass. Sun in the wines. Sun over succulents. Sun over reruns. Sun on traffic. Sun over dramas and desperations and timid hookups and last breaths. Sun over skid row. Sunshine over rehab. Sun over cell towers. Sun on the dispensaries. Sun pouring over sun. Sunshine blasting the closed set. Sun buying drugs. January wave. Cars overheating in traffic.

On the plane he enjoyed a peppy flow of vodka and found a copy of 50 Shades of Grey the previous passenger had left deep into the seatback pocket, bookmarked on page ten and otherwise unread. In preparation for six hours of boredom, he’d downloaded “Chimes at Midnight” and “The Ghost Goes West” onto his computer, but in the context of the flight he’d lost his taste. He scrolled through the films available for purchase, and found 50 Shades of Grey. He swiped his card.

Jesse knew from chats with Arnaud and Lee that writing the film’s adaptation was one of the most coveted screenwriting jobs that had come to Hollywood in years, and Kelly Marcel, an acquaintance of Lee’s who was hired for the job, left the project disenfranchised, saying she wouldn’t return for the second film.

Like sea-glass rubbed until it’s lost its cruel edge, the film landed somewhere further from erotica and closer to an un-exemplary love tale with an unhappy ending. Jamie Dorner appears lost in his role, cast as Christian. Dakota Johnson is the girl-next-door who stopped by the costume and makeup trailer before going on camera.

50 Shades of Grey is a princess fantasy with a soft BDSM edge, fan fiction of the Twilight empire transubstantiated into another. The Grey franchise became so popular the movie adaptation would profit on merchandising even if the film wasn’t released. It was an infuriating success story for the so-called intelligentsia: Erika Mitchell published fanfiction online based on Twilight characters using the pen name “Snowqueens Icedragon.” She later developed the story of Anastasia Steele, a college student who works at a hardware store in Vancouver, and Christian Grey, a wealthy, a 27-year-old entrepreneur living in Seattle, who “fucks, hard,” and asks Anastasia, a virgin, to sign a contract making her his BDSM submissive. There really isn’t much of a plot beyond that. The movie made 600 million in theatrical release.

How did 50 Shades function at the same time as Pornhub, another aboretum of 21st century surfaces, where users dial in categorical preferences until a tailored video matrix appears, like a Netflix for masturbation? In the era where "All-American teeny August Ames needs big cock," 50 Shades provides a repressive desublimation in packaging that isn’t too embarrassing to buy. The voyeurism into Christian and Anastasia's relationship ropes consumers long enough to find out what the couple is up for, sexually, and it turns out to be not much.

The collision of the publishing world, the film industry, and the music business peak in a cardio-inducing sequence when Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” plays as Christian and Anastasia soar above Seattle in a helicopter. The music of the soul also being the music of salesmanship, the song is a diamond, a perfect creation of pop craftsman Max Martin.

It’s odd chord progression rolls out under a flippant trickling of lyrical assonance and slant rhymes, each “light” and “life” and “night” and “la-la” and “love me” popping over the huge percussive loop, expanding as it revolves around a center it finds in itself. It’s a monument to sonic texture. Ellie Goulding’s clean voice echoes Anastasia’s Steele’s ‘natural’ craving for love and pain and drama and fearful moments, hers and our own familiar boredom and class anxiety temporarily flattened and flown off in a helicopter.

End scene.

Jesse became bored and pressed the “X” icon to stop the film on the tiny screen. He stabbed the cubes of ice with the thin red straw and considered ordering another vodka seltzer, then just seltzer, then coffee, but instead scrolled through the apps on his phone. He bought the Ellie Goulding song on iTunes and added it to its own repeating playlist containing just that song. He felt rapacious and closed his eyes, thinking again of Mars.

He'd never been able to stomach Facebook, it's Scylla and Charybdis of forced cheer and aimless vitriol. Plus Bernie and Cher used it. Lee and Arnaud would never, so there it lie, a matter of distinction and taste. He preferred the cold transmissions Twitter provided, plus it was communicating with Mars. As the song throbbed and peaked up and down in his earbuds, their rendezvous seemed more pressing and urgent. He anxiously drafted a new message, asking to meet that evening, and sent it over, immediately regretting it. Was he drunk? He'd been sitting down for hours and lost track of his drink count. Flying sucked and he'd brought his standard care package of Xanax, earplugs, sunglasses and an organic neck pillow. Finally he slept.

When he woke up they were making their descent into the Angeleno sunset. Jesse had forgotten about the Calabasas fires, which had been raging for the better part of the week. A large plume of smoke hung just below the cloud line, the sky streaked melon and orange. “Love Me Like You Do,” had been playing in his headphones for hours. He’d made it home.


***


Lee and Arnaud had a last minute business dinner they’d taken as a favor and couldn’t pick Jesse up from LAX. A potential client, as they’d described him, was eating with them in their home in Echo Park, and Jesse was to call a car—they were looking forward to seeing him of course—and would cover the cost of the ride.

Sunsets in New York signified the closing of daily commercial cycle, a budget-friendly reward for a day’s work over the cold hustle of the density and muddled devastations while a million AC window units blasted all summer long. Sunsets over Southern California seemed closer to heaven, a bonnet over a sleepy province of ticking desperations.

Jesse loved seeing palm trees at night. Riding beneath them in his UberX, their grand fronds blistering above the halogen lamplight, the blood red sky muting into darkness as he switched his focus to his phone, where he watched the pill-ish blue GPS dot on the map also going for a cruise. The the meditation was interrupted by a Los Angeles Times alert saying a shallow magnitude earthquake had just occurred in Joshua Tree. He set the phone down in his lap, letting the backlight redouble in the car window. Uber, a house-hold name, was Silicon Valley’s jewel of late capitalism. The critical journalism exposing their intimidating business strategies read more as cynical praise, cynicism being an ironic compliance with power; irony being the comedic safety valve making life just bearable enough.

As with any homecoming, Jesse became filled with pathos and melancholy as he rode along the defamiliarized geography. He rubbed his fingers over his scar—an anxious habit he’d developed—as butterflies rose and fell in his chest. It was now night and traffic was moderate, he nor the driver spoke—the radio dialed in information about accidents on the freeways. The 110 was down to one lane near The Staples Center, causing a 2 mile backup; the driver took the 405 to the 10. They exited on Venice Boulevard to bypass delays from a stalled vehicle. At a light a man standing on the median approached the car. The driver rolled down the window, fumbling for change.

“Hang in there, bro,” he said, depositing a few coins into the man’s hand.

“Does Uber encourage you to do that, so I’d rate you higher?” Jesse asked, not able to resist.

“Nah, bro,” the driver said.

The residential strips on Venice patiently proffered aloe vera, blooming bougainvillea, and wild roses, while odd memories settled. A college girl he’d brought medical edibles to after he first got his license: they’d gotten too stoned, and a day later she’d desperately looked up “high forever.” How they’d never spoken since. How at twelve his father had taken him to The Grove to a movie, and Jesse went to use the restroom and simply walked out into hard sun instead, fueled by rage, defiantly running for blocks towards his mothers burial plot, eventually becoming lost in Beverly Hills, in the afternoon, when landscapers were the only people outdoors.

“The solitary life Jesse had led of late, and the melancholy subjects on he had suffered his thoughts to dwell, had rendered him at times susceptible to the ‘thick-coming fancies’ of a mind newly enervated.”

He’d been living as if in quotations, squarely in a “what does it all mean” moment, an eternal return of horrible feelings, similar to when his mother passed, strained through the corpus of a more mature and enabled self.

Arnaud and Lee built their house—which they called The Chateau—in 2005, and as Jesse pulled onto Carroll Ave past the Victorian manors and familiar fan palms, he indulged the nostalgia of the paradise he’d made of it when he was younger. The house was 4600 square feet and had plenty of space: two full living rooms with fireplaces, dining room, kitchen, hot tub, pool, private gardens and secluded terraces. It was painted soft green with white trim, ironically stately and awkward among the legacy homes that stood around it.

The home was something of a gay domestic haven. Too personal to be used as an income tool through popular rental apps, the well-tended grounds inflected the specific and separate character of it’s owners: Lee was kind spirited and easy going, Arnaud more serious, mean—“cunty,” he’d once overheard Lee say to a friend after they’d had a fight. Images of Anthony Andrews holding a teddy bear from Brideshead Revisited appeared next to solemn signed stills of Kathy Griffin and Regis Philben. A photo of Jesse and Lee in tuxedos at the Emmys was framed in a less-than-earnest gauche gilt frame.



After finding the house empty he located Lee and Arnaud sitting out back beneath the lamps that delineated the edge of the porch from the beginning of the deck around the pool.

Lee looked as Jesse remembered, slim and short with a petite swimmer’s frame, wearing a short-sleeved button up and white shorts. Arnaud looked trim since he’d stopped drinking—he wasn’t sober, just waiting for the bug to bite him again, he’d explain, though Jesse knew he was forbid alcohol due on doctor’s orders.

A third man was with them, soft-faced with pale skin, dressed in all black. His hair was dyed incompatibly black for his age, his youthfully messy mop swept over his head, a look complicated by thin-rimmed glasses.

Lee introduced the man as Brian. They were both drinking absinthe. Brian was in development with a French video company.

“They screened their last game at Cannes, they put Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page in front of a green screen,” he said, tilting the glass so his ice tinkled in a circle.

“We’re talking about a huge budget. They had Hans Zimmer do that soundtrack, I‘m going to do this one myself though, or maybe bring in some collaborators. That’s what all the big players are doing now.” He had a blunt pomposity, and industry over-confidence filtered through a west coast fry that couldn’t have existed in New England.

“Look, we’re talking 30 million,” he said with finality, as if that fact alone would guarantee interest, which it did. “We give them a great story, and they develop the sensible, functional game mechanics for us.”

He explained that years ago he’d developed a fantasy horror film which languished in post-production. He was repackaging it into a pliable narrative. He wanted Lee to continue developing the story and suggested Arnaud to shoot live-action scenes in his signature dream-sequence style.

“I want the ‘Arnaud Ahmadi feeling’ in the horror genre,” he said, “I want Eli Roth goes to The Beach, Michael Haneke does House of a Thousand Corpses. All mixed with a horrible theater of paranormal activities. An M. Night Shamalyan drama of uncertainty and suspense but the twist is that the world is more fucked up than we’re comfortable to admit, that horror is in reality. Reality is the scariest thing. I want to demonstrate that.”

A participatory Funny Games,” Arnaud said, looking over the glinting inflections of the pool, “which as you know I shot.” Arnaud then considered the glass of absinthe, which Jesse thought must have looked half empty in the moment, before setting it back down without taking a sip.

“For sure, no doubt, no doubt,” Brian said.

As they talked Jesse slowly realized he was speaking with Marilyn Manson. He was surprised by Lee and Arnaud’s interest in this, though Lee always took meetings out of politeness, and Arnaud followed serious money as much as aesthetic compatibility, and it seemed like here, there could be a lot. His thought was to convince them to pass him the job, or for Lee to allow him to co-write, imagining this as a launch pad to Real Hollywood.

“Dude, you were, like, shot?” Brian (who he could only be “Marilyn” now in Jesse’s head) said then, abruptly turning to Jesse, who went pale from the focused attention. Lee also paled, and Arnaud politely excused himself to attend something in the house. Jesse took the empty seat, looking over the bottle of absinthe, the pool’s sentient quivering.

“Yeah,” Jesse said, standing up and lifting his shirt. Lee recoiled as Brian examined the small slash upon his thin frame, his body otherwise coated in a thin layer of Virgin Airlines travel particulate. Then he turned around, showing him the exit wound, craning his neck to get a view himself. There was less to see on his lower back, a wartish pink polyp near his waistline. Lee’s face soured as he squinted to bring the wounds into focus.

“We should talk sometime. Actually I’d like to get your perceptions of the horror of that scenario. I was thinking this game would start in media res, you know like, you choose one of several characters whose story collides and refracts with the other.”

Jesse went inward, thinking of Mars, turning her name over in his head, “Marsy-Rose Arenas,” then thought of the hospital, the unknowable dead technician, then his late mother. When she passed he was told she went to heaven, but that thought faded like a rose. He looked over the glowing pool to the house, he saw Arnaud drinking a glass of water in the kitchen. It was the two-week anniversary of the incident, and here the industry was already absorbing the narrative, novelizing it for popular consumption, showing little of the outrage as was present when Christina Grimmie had been murdered by a similarly obsessed fan. Jesse felt naïve in his smugness that he could master the narratives in his life. Then blurted: “If you just want me to write it I will.”

Lee bowed his head and lifted his hands, suggesting he should have expected this as a byproduct of the already bizarre situation they found themselves in at the moment.

“Maybe you could co-write it,” Brian said, looking to Lee.

“Maybe,” Lee said, unconvincingly. Brian finished his drink and slowly stood up as Arnaud re-appeared. They shook hands and Arnaud saw Brian out. Jesse and Lee stood over the rippling water, the quiet of the night, the gauche bottle of absinthe the remainder of the evening.

“It’s really good to see you,” Lee said, rubbing Jesse’s shoulder. Jesse leaned in for a sort of side-hug, which they held tight for a moment.

“Do screenwriters really write screenplays for video games?” Jesse said, skeptically. Lee laughed.

“Yes, actually, it’s a huge market.” Jesse wanted badly to ask the next question, but balked. “I have so little interest in this, it’s all yours,” Lee said, to Jesse’s surprise. “But that stays between us,” he added firmly. “Write the précis, consider it practice, if it’s good,” he paused, “I’ll say we co-wrote it and pass it on.”

“Ok,” Jesse said, taking a deep breath. “I can clean this up, don’t worry about it,” he said, looking at the glasses on the table.

Lee patted him on the back again then went inside. Jesse poured himself a glass and walked to the edge of the pool.

The air smelled like fennel and chlorine. He sat with his feet in the water and looked for messages from Mars. Their meeting was eminent, as soon as tomorrow, though he’d always cowered before asking to make plans. He’d extrapolated a lot from the images available to him: she occasionally worked as a spokesperson, she had a robust modeling portfolio and healthy active lifestyle: not just relatable, but likeable, the winning type of limited liability persona people feel comfortable putting their reputation and money behind.

After the buffet of snacks he’d consumed on the plane, he did himself few favors continuing to drink. He lifted the glass and admired the emerald color, then poured it into the pool, set the glass down, and lay back looking up at the sky over Echo Park, Los Angeles, California, the only Truth of existence being a composite of cellular material, held together in a wounded body, however temporarily, in space in time, the whole of his sense of self now returned to the town of our lady, queen of the angels, splendidly, as it were.





***

Craving pizza…




Yeah, same here




Just kidding actually, well…

craving NYC pizza and LA juice



Did you make it to L.A.?


Yes, I did


L.A. bars are so annoying, I forgot


I love annoying bars


Wait, I keep forgetting you can’t get into any of them


Haha. Need to figure out which ones here don’t card


You should learn the art of drinking at lunch


I’m starving


Me too what are you gonna eat? Where do you live?


Echo Park, you?


Lincoln Heights, near my family. I’m in Highland Park now, though.


For work?


Nah


That’s cool


Yeah, don’t ask me to go to the west side unless it’s for sex or I’m being paid. A lot.

Wait how did you find a place so fast?



I’m living with my uncles, actually, for I’m-not-sure-how-long

Gonna have that awkward convo soon



I’m craving good Mexican food, no offense NYC


I saw a picture of a taco truck

in those travel catalogs in the plane

they had a feature on L.A. food


That’s embarrassing lol

Which truck?


I know urgh sorry. It’s called um Tacos Leo’s


Yeah I know that one!

actually it’s really fucking good and

I would like to go with you when you go, Jesse Shore.


Uh, yeah, sure? Like today?


ok


I guess I better figure out how to get myself out of bed


SORRY. I won’t message at 9am again :-)


HAHA. It’s ok if you are inviting me to things


Well I want to meet you. When did you get back?


Last night. Already got a writing offer actually


Look at you



***


Mars was sitting on the trunk of her Ford Focus with her feet on the bumper when Jesse arrived. A sudden flash of nerves manifested a chill upon his spine. She wore false lashes, a crop top and a tremendous engagement ring. She had huge contoured cheekbones and small mouth set beneath searching eyes.

Jesse had on a gray pocket t-shirt and jeans he’d had custom made at the atelier.

The truck was stationed at the edge of a parking lot, and they stood in line making small talk over topics they’d already discussed over text: which neighborhoods they lived in, how their travel back to L.A. had been, how long they’d been back. Jesse wanted to avoid talking about weather, an unsexy conversation. Southern California had been in a drought, and a storm was finally passing through the region. The sky was growing overcast, filling with silver puffs, backlit by the supernal power of the sun. Jesse ordered three tacos al pastor, and Mars did the same. They walked back to her car, using the lid of her dirty car trunk as a tabletop.

“Did you know they’re blowing molecules into the clouds?”

“Why?” Jesse asked, self-consciously tilting his head for a bite of taco.

“The drought. It’s called cloud-seeding, they time it with the storms to make it rain more.”

“Studio magic.”

“Post-production, for sure.”

Jesse nervously stabbed pork out of his tacos with a fork. Mars took a few wolfish bites then seemingly forgot about the meal altogether. A fit couple with a dog dressed to go hiking ate sat beside them in the open back of an SUV. The woman—headband, high pony tail—asked if she recognized Mars from a recent story on TMZ. Mars spoke candidly, in a friendly tone, as if she were a celebrity being sighted, and in a sense, she was. She asked if Mars and Jesse were a couple as the dog towed her partner away by tugging the leash, studying squirrels.

“Amor fati,” Mars said ambiguously. She flashed her eyes at Jesse, batting her lashes a few times. He looked at her ring finger again, feeling the complicated pride that she would want to claim him publicly as a lover.

“Oh, it’s like the Hunger Games,” the woman said, glaring down her freckled nose.

“Is that Ryan Morgan Hart?” Mars asked, accusingly, about her partner. She turned back to Jesse, saying just loudly enough, “he’s a personal trainer, you know, the kind who goes for in-home appointments in Calabasas and the hills. Rumor is he sold pictures of Kristen Stewart for a ton of cash.”

The woman turned away in disgust.

And guess who got fired, the Latino gardeners,” she called after them. Ryan confirmed his identity by raising a middle finger over his shoulder, not looking back.

“What just happened?” Jesse said.

“Forget it,” Mars said, checking her phone and taking and sipping of her tall bottle of Jarrito. Jesse felt a paranoid wave that the shooting and subsequent attention hadn’t been the confluence of a deranged fanatic and a PR disaster, but instead a Faustian deal Mars had made to become famous by way of the incident, himself and the dead production assistant collateral damage of her career path.

“Want some?” Mars asked, sliding the bottle over to Jesse. He did.

There was lipstick on the straw and he tentatively took a few sips, relaxing into the day, his new environment, and a nascent relationship, whose conception he understood so little about and felt so helplessly pulled into.

“My uncles work as gardeners, they’re the most expendable lowest class citizens, fools like him know that.” Mars was unfolding her sunglasses and checking herself in their reflection. Jesse meditated at her small shoulders and lavender nails, her slight torso and full brown hair. She then looked up coyly at Jesse, inspecting him for the first time. He watched her looking back at him, their eyes crossing paths, locking in and out. What she saw, she didn’t comment on.

“What do you want to do now?” she asked.

Jesse had no idea, but whatever it was she wanted, he was going to do it. He looked at her engagement ring again, though decided against asking about it, fearing the obvious, and the subsequent tremor of abrupt heartbreak from the silly crush he’d been holding on to.

“I do need to go by a dispensary,” he said, then becoming embarrassed that she would judge him. “Actually I need to go to a weed doctor that takes walk-ins.”

“Yeah, we can do that,” she said emphatically.

“Do you have a marijuana card?”

“For sure,” she said. “Actually I hadn’t been using it much until…” She pulled her shirt off her shoulder, turning her back to Jesse. There was fresh pink scar, a violent streak of stubbed baby skin raised delicately on her shoulder.

“I’ve been reading a lot of scar-healing testimonials. I’m starting treatment next week actually. I’ve been meaning to do it, for my face, you know, at my age you need it, so they roll a bunch of tiny needles over scars or old skin to create little holes and collagen builds back in there. It’s like creating new flesh, or something.”

“More studio magic?”

“Sci-fi makeup trailer, for sure.”

“Let me see,” she said, using her hand to call forth his actions, like a conductor. He straightened his posture and raised his shirt. He’d been eating less, a PTSD diet, though he wouldn’t yet recognize it in those terms.

His scars were as unattractive and garish as Mars’. She opened her handbag and removed several wound maturation products: Maderma, ScarGuard, Tea Tree oil, Garlic Oil.

“I didn’t even know there was a market for scar healing,” Jesse said, feeling self-consciously pull back.

“Yeah, there’s a market for everything,” Mars said, still digging for something she couldn’t find in her bag.

She squirted Baby Formula Aquaphor Moisturizer into her hand, then added a few drops of Vitamin E. She turned and stood in front of him as he sat on the trunk of her car, his legs dangling towards the gravel. He raised his t-shirt again and she applied the balm gently to his abdomen, their first touch, in the shelter of live oaks, as a light rain began to fall in a Walgreens parking lot that also serviced customers of Lassen’s Natural Food’s and a Little Caesar’s. A stream of convertibles zipped down Sunset. Followed by an empty TMZ bus. She rubbed the excess lotion onto her shoulder before dumping the cosmetics back into her handbag.

“That’s Megan Fox,” she said. “You see that white car?”

“No?”

“Right there at the end.” Mars nodded her head.

Jesse saw a woman sitting in a BMW X3, a compact SUV, a natural choice for someone trying to comfortably lower their profile. A woman Jesse’s age, likely her assistant, was carrying a green juice and a clear plstic container full of greens toward the car. If it was Megan Fox he wouldn’t have known it on his own. Megan was reading something, flipping through pages, and Jesse imagined she was reading a script, then thought of all the work he needed to do on stories he’d not yet thought of.

“Gotta love her in those Transformers movies, right? A family film where father and son are imagining banging her.”

“Totally,” Jesse scoffed. They watched the women balance the juice as she opened the door, handing the beverage into the car before sitting down in the driver’s seat. “God, the last movie I watched with my dad was, um,” he stared into the gray sky above the strip and waiting for the truth to come to mind. “One of the Spiderman films.”

“Tobey McGuire or Andrew Garfield?”

“Definitely Tobey McGuire. I dumped my dad before the reboot.”

“Why?”

Jesse thought about this, never having to explain it to a stranger before, not soberly.

“It’s emotional, I don’t know. Can a son ever square with his father?”

“I hate my dad.” Mars said.

“Ok, so, why?” Jesse asked, eager for an answer. Mars squirmed a moment, scratching at her shoulder.

“He’s an asshole,” she said. “A handsome jock who became an intellectual and never knocked the chip off his own shoulder about the things he could do in life, staying small on paper, and he took it out on his kids there on out.”

The thought hung in the air between them.

“Let’s take a picture,” Mars then said. She seemed above taking a picture of Megan Fox in workout clothes in a parking lot surrounded by bus stops, but when Mars lifted her phone, she turned the camera on herself and Jesse.

Jesse slid down from Mars’ Focus and she lifted her phone up, changing angles and arm position until they had good light and a decent background. She turned toward Jesse and pushed her lips out, he stood as close to her as decorum would allow. They took a few pictures and Mars swiped through to review them.

“This is a good one of you, I’m going to post this,” she said, shoving the phone near Jesse’s face. In the photo his face was radiating towards the lens. Mars looked great, her face blank in the suggestive style of the zeitgeist. They looked cute. A drop of water hit the screen.

“I love it when it rains here,” Mars said.

“I was actually looking forward to some stability,” Jesse said. Mars turned to him. smiling.

The wind picked up and water dripped onto them from the shaking branches.

“Ok, let’s find you a doctor,” Mars said. “I think there is a strip mall somewhere up here on Sunset, there’s some guy there. What are you gonna tell them?”

“What do you mean?”

“Your condition? Why lie, if you don’t have to: chronic pain, anorexia, anxiety, migraines, I smoke weed for the same reason I learned to properly apply makeup, to blunt the cruel edges of a world constantly brutalizing me. Why not just tell the doctor that you have posttraumatic stress disorder from getting shot?”

Excerpted from the manuscript "Until I See Palm Trees Again"