Smog & Soothsayers: somewhere between a rock and Los Angeles
All cabs smell the same. On some base level between the fog of your driver’s bacteria clogged armpits and the new car factory smell; every single taxi has one underpinning odour. The only way to smell this smell is to sit in a taxi for long enough, to move past that initial sting of sweaty sedentary polyester until you’re no longer conscious of any odour. Until you can’t sense the scents, so to speak.
Only once your nostrils have accepted their fate, with the serenity of a cancer patient, can you detect it. Somewhere amidst the olfactory echo of a thousand vomiting nights that went wrong, you breathe it in. Hope.
Hope that this journey will be different. That the date you’re going on will somehow cure you of being you. Hope that you’ll dazzle a potential employer by stating that you thrive on challenges while omitting that you also eat whole sticks of butter straight from the fridge. Hope that when you step out of your taxi, with lungs renewed by a cool armpit-free breeze, you will finally be in the right place; somewhere over the horizon beyond the immovable dividing line between now and the future.
You can never reach that dividing line, that’s the point. The horizon will always be on, well, itself. The future is never now and you will never be the idea of what your future is. In case you were wondering, hope itself smells surprisingly like wet cardboard and mandarin peel. I smelled neither as my head rested on the cold window of a Los Angeles taxi. After a few heart-wrenching months I found myself on a plane to California, partly for work, mostly for the chance to escape myself. Unfortunately you can’t check the amount of baggage I carry.
While I felt my situation was hopeless, all around me I saw evidence of unwavering hope. Hope is an addiction in Los Angeles. Everyone is on it and it is in plentiful supply. No matter how much water they tread, they are moving on and moving up. Always with a clinically whitened Cheshire grin affixed. It felt as if just one person were to admit how futile their situation is it would break Los Angeles’ spell and the whole city would crumble.
I did my best to blink away the nauseating waves of sleeplessness as my taxi weaved through gridlock. My driver seemed to be in a peculiar rush to get stuck behind every car in front of him. Just when we were trapped behind one, he would wrench the steering wheel around and pull up behind another stationary vehicle. He continued this process for a half hour, all the while cursing Mexicans, the Toyota Prius he was driving, and Obama in continual rotation.
As we stopped at an intersection I was vaguely aware that my driver was still talking. He was explaining that the best wall to keep the Mexicans out would be a wall made of dead Mexicans, but of course, they’re too greasy to stack. He laughed like a ruptured bastard. I smiled a coward’s smile, the kind you give at a party when you don’t want to upset the host by calling their good friend a complete cunt. I turned away and tried to grip the passenger window with the corner of my forehead.
As I contemplated how cool the interior glass of the window was I noticed a weatherboard house with faded vinyl stickers in the front window that spelt “Psychic”. Next to the porch was a one-armed crumbling fiberglass statue of Frankenstein’s monster wearing a synthetic Santa beard and a pointy wizard’s hat. I can only assume it was added to lend an air of legitimacy to the supernatural shack.
On the front door of the apartment I was to be staying in was a well-written note by Michael, the owner. Judging by his penmanship he would have to be in his forties. Anyone born after the technological era of the eighties scrawled down words like a chimpanzee with palsy. I can’t even remember the last time I used a pen.
The note informed me that check in time was 3pm. Fuck. I had left Melbourne on Friday at 7am and arrived in LA on Friday at 7am. So other than my plane being a really inconvenient and expensive teleportation device, it also meant it was just after 8 in the morning.
I had an entire day to kill and I could barely keep my eyes open. For one brief moment I contemplated urinating in my pants and lying on the sidewalk like the other peaceful looking homeless people.
Deflated, I trudged slowly away from the apartment feeling like last night’s party balloon. My exhausted mind drifted back to my recent troubles with my love life and in an act of self-defence I punched myself right in the head. To be fair though, I had it coming. Plus we all know that the best self-defence was a good self-offence.
As I tried to massage some feeling back into my cheek with my fingertips I turned to see I had wandered all the way back to the Psychic I had noticed on my way into town. Franken-Merlin stood rigid, his green skin and his one remaining arm stretched out in front made him look like a rather seasick Nazi. I opened my wallet, thumbed through a small stack of foreign currency, sighed, and walked across the street and up the stairs of the weatherboard house.
There was no doorbell and the door itself was made of fly screen so I couldn’t knock. I peered through the flimsy mesh. Ikea furniture. Dying houseplants. Not really what I had expected from the interior dwelling of someone in tune with the cosmos, but almost exactly what I expected from a house that had a Halloween monster dressed like a jazzy Santa. I could hear a television set playing somewhere towards the back of the house. I opened my mouth to say hello, but before I could I heard a woman yell, “Just come in already”.
I hesitated, then pushed open the fly screen door and walked inside. The woman’s voice came from up the hallway of the house, she told me she’d be ready in a second and to head into the kitchen and grab a seat at the table – unless there was a cat in there. I walked gingerly into what I thought was the kitchen. The stove confirmed my suspicions and after checking for signs of a cat, I pulled a plastic chair away from the table and sat down.
A few moments later a woman with a stain smeared apron and an abundance of curls walked into the kitchen. Clutched to her left breast was a baby slurping at her nipple like a chubby pool vacuum. “Don’t worry, it’s not mine” was all she said.
She caught site of herself in a small mirror on the wall and groaned, “Great, I look like Richard Simmons with sad tits”. She flicked a kettle on and slumped into the chair opposite me. Then she deftly flicked open a pack of cigarettes and pulled one out with her teeth. “Mournful tits” she muttered fumbling from one pocket to the next. Then she clicked her fingers, reached into the babies diaper and fished out a lighter.
She lit her cigarette, studying me intensely over the crackle of ignited tobacco. She told me her name was Delorean and she stared me down as if daring me to comment. There was an unnerving pause while she pulled the virgin smoke into her lungs. I asked how this all works. “Well, you’ll die.” Another drag of her smoke, “I’ll try to find you the best route”.
“Shouldn’t you have a fancy title like Mistress Delorean?” I enquired. Some ash from her cigarette fell on the baby’s head, but neither the baby nor Delorean seemed to care. “I’m not here to put pegs on your balls and tell you you’re a filthy queer, so Delorean will have to do” she said.
Delorean breathed out an impatient huff of smoke “You going to ask?” I chewed the wall of my mouth, “So can you really see the future?” I asked. “Most of them” she replied with a smirk. “Them?” I asked. “Of course, all your futures are going to happen, well, they are happening and have already happened, but they’re going to happen too.” Delorean nodded to herself and took a deep drag of her cigarette. The bright orange cherry at the tip left a fading trail of yellow light as she moved her hand through the air. “Forget your future, I’ll give you something better – purpose”.
I shifted back uncomfortably in my chair. Normally the word “purpose” is followed by the words “savior” and “eternal damnation”. Delorean seemed to see exactly what I was thinking. “Relax, I haven’t molested enough boys to be able to give religious direction” she chuckled “not to mention it’s all bullshit anyway”.
“Enough shit chat, let’s get you the tea”. She stubbed her cigarette out on the tabletop, pushed her chair back and walked across to the kitchen counter. While she fiddled with crockery my mind immediately turned to sad thoughts about my love life. The dull ache in my cheek reminded me not to go there and I snapped out of my interior monologue to find a small polka dot mug in front of me.
Delorean gestured towards the steaming beverage and I grasped the handle and brought the hot porcelain towards my lips. “So you divine my possible futures by reading tea leaves?” I asked. I couldn’t help but hear how disappointed I sounded and my tone wasn’t lost on Delorean. She gently caressed the head of the guzzling baby while grinning, “You were expecting a crystal ball?”
I made a polite half-laugh and took a sip. It tasted odd. Not bad, sweeter than tea usually tastes. A thick honey sweet taste like yoghurt on the day after its expiry date. I remarked that it tasted weird and asked if she had put sugar in it. Delorean replied “Nope. No sugar or artificial sweetener, but I did make it myself” as she said the last few words she cupped her baby-free breast and winked. It suddenly occurred to me that there was milk in the tea, but I hadn’t seen Delorean open the fridge.
Three things happened simultaneously. Firstly, my eyes widened further than they had ever done before, so wide I managed to sprain my eyelids. Secondly, the juice from Delorean’s mammary sprayed from my mouth with a gagging hiss across the table. Thirdly, I learned that you could sprain your eyelids.
I lurched to my feet, knocking the cheap Ikea chair over in the process. Delorean quickly held her hands over the table. “Don’t touch it, this is perfect!” she squealed. She sat transfixed by the translucent puddle sprawled across the tabletop. She tilted her head, staring intently at the spray of regurgitated tea as though she were reading a feature in the New York Times. Even her lips moved.
Without looking up from the table she stated in a matter of fact tone “So… two women, huh?” I immediately unclenched and the anger drained from my body leaving a sad shrunken prune of a man. “I didn’t know” I swallowed back the swollen clot of anguish blocking my throat “I don’t know which one to choose.” Delorean guffawed “You already chose the moment you let yourself feel for two women”.
She dragged another cigarette out of her pack with her lips and spoke through her teeth as she lit it. “You chose to lose both. That kind of emotional duality can’t exist. There’s a reason Archie never got Betty and Veronica and it’s not because they don’t live in Utah”.
“It’s cool” Delorean remarked, “You’re simply choosing to fulfill your purpose”. The silence between us was broken only by the rhythmic gurgle of the baby leeching her bosom dry. “My purpose is to be alone?” I asked shakily. “No, no, your purpose is to break hearts”. She grinned, “Being alone is just the side effect”.
Delorean exhaled a plume of smoke up over her head. “Listen, breaking hearts is your purpose. That’s what you are here to do. To destroy one woman after another, crushing their dreams, leveling their spirits and completely gutting them. Leaving them chained to their doubts, constantly agonizing over what they did wrong, wondering if something is broken inside them”.
I felt tears ballooning from my aching eyelids. “You see, you provide a valuable function because you force them to be better people. They have to be to survive your fickle cowardice. Not that you’re evil, that’s the trick. If you were actually a bad person it wouldn’t hurt. It needs to hurt so they have the right motivation to turn their lives around and become real women, clever, resourceful, bright, and most importantly – tough”.
Delorean flicked a neat cylinder of ash from her cigarette directly into the cold puddle of tea that dripped from the table. “Think about all the women who have loved you, what are they doing now?” My eyes looked upwards into my skull for an answer and her words rang true.
Every single one had been directionless when they first met me, but after we broke up they had a burst of empowerment. I had watched them go from welfare cheques to certified veterinarians, from habitual pot smokers to magazine editors. Two had become lesbians who recently moved to New York to marry each other and my second long-term girlfriend had become a lawyer who only represented women in divorce cases. In legal circles she had earned the nickname “the silk hatchet”.
“Think of your personality as a forest fire. You have to burn away everything so that it grows back stronger and more vibrant than ever” said Delorean. I couldn’t speak. I had been kicked in the testicles by a pair of spiritual stilettos and I was trying my best not to cry.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’ve created a handful of women who have done more to better this world than any charity you could have donated to. Your pathetic neuroses about ending up married to the wrong person have instilled a resilience in them that can’t be broken”.
Delorean stretched her hand out in an effort to console me. “Look, it may not seem like much of a silver lining, but as far as rock bottoms go, you’re a much more attractive prospect than heroin or a job in telemarketing”.
“Fuck” was all I could manage to say as I collapsed into a sitting position on the cold linoleum floor of the kitchen. Delorean leaned over the table to look down at me, knocking a small torrent of lactated tea on to my outstretched feet. I sat there, trembling, and wondering how I had been so ignorant.
“So tell me” I gulped “Will I ever end up with someone?” I asked, my voice quavering as I forced the words out of my face. Delorean cocked one eyebrow and shrugged “How the hell should I know?”
I paid Delorean with a handful of paper money. I didn’t have the energy to pick out the right bills and trusted her to sort through the pile of notes in my hand and take what she was owed. As I turned to leave Delorean smiled sympathetically “Hang on a sec”. She flitted over to the sink plucking a few mandarins from a bowl of fruit before neatly dropping them into a brown paper bag. “Here, take these. You look like you could use it” she told me.
I trudged down the stairs of her front porch, one leaden foot at a time. Delorean watched my descent from behind the fly screen door. Small puffs of smoke wafting through the mesh. “Hey” She called out to me. I couldn’t bring myself to turn around. “That’s the funny thing about purpose. It’s not written in stone. It changes as you do. Oh, and welcome to LA”.
Tears trickled down my cheeks and on to the paper bag… I smiled, and breathed in deeply. I could smell something, something old and familiar. Something I hadn’t smelled in a long time.