A Hard Day’s Night – an excerpt from It’s in His Kiss by Vickie Lester

crouse-college-syracuse-university

 

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

 

 

Imagine a time before you were born. Imagine a dowdy old university town on the East Coast somewhere in the nineteen-sixties. Imagine a boy and a girl living there. These two, let’s call them Becky and Steve, spoon-fed each other fantasy. Their days were spent constructing an elaborate alternative reality full of sparkling waves and ribbons of highway and palm fronds billowing in the breeze. And so in constructing that fantasy they forged a bond that could last a lifetime. A bond that had existed long enough now to see dreams become solid, with Becky ensconced as head of a major movie studio and Steve decorating from Vail to Bahrain. They had one of the longest, and most photographed, marriages in Hollywood, and, as far as anyone knows, they never once fucked each other. You can take that any way you’d like.

Not that they didn’t try. During a particularly agonizing stretch senior year in high school, when they each were anxious to shed their virginity before college, they had tried. It amounted to a drive around the lake, a lot of gossiping, and some hugging on Becky’s front porch. When they tried to fit their bodies together they found it was lacking—like bumping up against a sibling—and, besides, the curves weren’t in the right places; the muscles didn’t correspond. It left them flat, limp, unaroused. No iris dilation, no heightened pulse. Becky thought it was like kissing a clam. Steve felt like he was holding an animated mass of raw pizza dough—all pillowy and yielding and soft. Profoundly embarrassed by this non-event, they didn’t really speak again until a few years later—the only significant break in their relationship—after both had come to terms with their sexuality and come out, she while at Harvard Law, he while at Carnegie Mellon. They came out of the closet in college and reunited; then when they decided to face Hollywood together—in 1981—they promptly went right back in.

When Becky invited Steve to accompany her on the adventure, she put it like this, “Steve, I got a gig at a big firm out in California; you wanna come?” Steve, employed at the time drafting prefab cubicle-based office interior schemes in Pittsburgh, had responded with an explosively enthusiastic, “God, yes!” Not only was this a dream fulfilled, but also he was more than a little relieved to get out of town. He had recently acquired two Louis Comfort Tiffany lighting fixtures from a soon-to-be-demolished movie theater downtown and—wait, back it up: acquired, now that’s a funny word; a more precise word would be stole; yes, he stole them. They were bewitchingly beautiful pendant fixtures, crafted in the teens, each was about the size of a toddler, their mottled glass luminously gold and cream and bronze. When he first saw the lamps in the ruins of the Rialto they tenderly hooked a portion of his heart. He had taken them home and draped them with a quilt on his bed. He slept in a careful arc with them at night. Steve loved them because of their artistry and because of the spark they struck within him. He wasn’t quite sure if they would be crushed along with the rest of the building, or if somebody else was aware of their value. He just knew, as he waded through decades of dust and dirt in the derelict picture palace, he had to save them and now, no matter what; they were his.

Destiny presented egress when Becky, a week after the lights had been introduced to their new home, phoned and not only invited him to California but mentioned in passing that the local paper was heralding the arrival of an appraiser from Sotheby’s to take a look-see in a soon-to-be razed theater. Steve suggested they leave immediately in his hand-me-down Volvo wagon. He insisted quietly, firmly, and repeatedly. Steve carefully packed their combined wardrobes around “the twins,” and when Becky inquired as to the lamps’ origin, he answered simply, “I liberated them.” After which she let the matter drop, took the wheel, and steered a course down 81 toward Route 40 and points very far west.

surfers-malibu

Now, this is where it gets a little complicated, so just hold on for the ride. In the early twentieth century wealthy East Coast families such as the Rockefellers and the Astors would send their more-than-usually dissolute ne’er-do-well offspring various distant places out West. Places like Cody, Wyoming, which is, to this day, referred to as a town of remittance men, the remittance, or funds, to run huge ranches and keep their sons pickled in booze being transferred on a regular basis from thousands of miles away.

The rich folks of the West Coast liked to keep their black sheep closer to home. So the descendants of acting dynasties and railroad barons could often be found scattered around in places on the outskirts of Los Angeles. One such mildly insalubrious locale could be found in a canyon that wound down to the ocean. There, old country club outbuildings were furnished with family heirlooms and had electricity haphazardly supplied by hundreds of feet of orange extension cord, strung in dangerous loops and swirls, and pirated from municipal power lines. The pong of marijuana hung like a mist over the neighborhood, and toddlers ran naked from house to house. Of course, these infants often had European au pairs or nannies, the money for whom was provided by concerned grandparents, but once these young people began inhabiting the canyon things became—to put it mildly—very informal.

One denizen of this improvised habitat had been exiled in 1969 from San Marino by his oil-rich family for preferring cabana boys to suitable young ladies. He spent his days surfing and his nights toking. By the time the eighties rolled around he was thirty-two and ripped. He was physically gorgeous, and mentally—let’s just say he had a Zenlike disposition derived from fumigating his brain. He was considered old by the other surfers, and inscrutable. His survival as one of the elders in the surfing community was based on his placid temperament and the fact that he kept his personal life closeted. However, as serene as he appeared, he was profoundly lonely.

In 1982 Steve and Becky Nelson were living in an apartment on Valleyheart Drive in Studio City. Becky worked twelve-hour days in the legal department at Warner Bros. Steve, equally driven, had recently been laid off from a design firm for sitting on a client’s Pomeranian. After a week of self-castigation, Becky insisted he take a break. He spent his days trying to recoup at the beach. At ten in the morning he would load up the clatter trap Volvo with towels, books, and sandwiches and head out to Zuma.

At sunset an offshore wind stirred and with the water backlit, Steve spotted a dolphin riding, submerged, at the heart of a perfect azure wave. The moment struck him as magical—and even more so when the dolphin emerged from the wave on a board and stood to ride it to shore. What he thought was a completely different kind of mammal turned out to be a man. The man walked straight from the Pacific to Steve. In his early twenties, Steve Nelson always responded to a strong aesthetic impulse, and the cast-off oil scion in his early thirties, Alex G., always went where the sea delivered him.

Picture this: instant recognition. Who cares if their acknowledgement consisted of hey and hi and prolonged eye contact? No disrespect to Salinger or Robbie Burns, but their meeting was more of Gin a body kiss a body—Need a body cry? After a golden hour together in which they found an easy sensual bond, they linked arms and went back to the canyon of misfits. A week later Steve dug his Tiffany lamps out of a cheap storage facility shoved under the 101 freeway in Hollywood and installed them in what would be henceforth known as the Beach House.

Becky was fine with Steve and Alex’s ardor. She, while still a relatively young woman, had come to find that her sexual desires didn’t mix well with her highly developed sense of logic or her driving ambition. Whenever she thought of sticking her tongue in some comely woman’s mouth, her judgment clouded, so she tried not to think about sex. As an adult, the ability to slip into fantasy—which had come so easily to her when she was young—seemed frivolous, a distraction; it was this focused, über-rational, all-business mindset that had served her well in the industry. Her partnership with Steve, she felt, was perfect. It coincided with her concept of a tidy, ironclad, long-term relationship, and she would never deny Steve a loving physical outlet. In the long run it seemed the most prudent course, but the future doesn’t care for prudence or calculation; it comes no matter what.

When Steve and Alex weren’t licking the sand off each other’s bodies, they would drive into town and pick Becky up and spend their evenings together at grungy old theaters, like the Beverly, where their shoes stuck to the floor and the rotting seats smelled so bad they’d wrap scarves around their noses or breath into the back of their hands to filter out the stench. It was in such theaters that they would watch old movies, projected, as big as they were meant to be and without commercial interruption.

After sitting through two showings of Taxi Driver, the usually laconic Alex said, “I could do that.”

“What? Go on a murderous rampage?” Becky teased.

“No. I could make a movie like that,” said Alex.

“If you could make a movie like that,” laughed Becky, “I’d produce it, and I’d find somebody to distribute it, and we’d all be rich and famous.”

Steve looked warily from Alex to Becky and sensed—despite Becky’s apparent playfulness and Zen Alex’s vainglory—their personal dynamic was about to get very complex. Becky had gotten wind of something—it smelled like opportunity—and Steve was well aware she was a woman who liked to draw up lists, make plans, and exploit possibilities. Alex, with his elemental nature, merely existed in the here and now.

Alex said, “I am rich. I don’t want to be famous. But making a movie would be cool.”

“Done!” Becky exclaimed.

“Okay,” Alex replied, only faintly excited.

As it turned out, Becky’s instincts were dead-on. She helped birth the indie film movement of the eighties, her first movie made with a one-time-only burst of lightning effort from Alex. Their debut project had been nightmarishly difficult and she—desperate to bring it to completion on time and on budget—had sourced the coke that fueled the crew’s sixteen-hour days, and Alex’s trustees supplied the one million dollars to make the film. Becky’s enterprise was ceaseless; the movie did well and brought her to the attention of the Hollywood establishment, personified by one man: Robert Jerome “Bob” Brown.

Alex, coming off the “harsh” high of moviemaking, returned to his reclusive ways. Becky went from legal to low-end producer to studio brass. She sojourned frequently with the boss and the “old boys” at Musso’s, where she ordered the same drinks as her peers (although she never touched a drop) and several bottles of Perrier for the table. Back home with Steve and Alex, however, she referred to that favored industry watering hole as “a cesspool of gin and tonic” and wondered, miffed, why she hadn’t spent the time, instead, at The Grill on the Alley. By 1996 she was one step away from being a studio head and she had, by her own calculation, consumed some three hundred homemade chicken pot pies, probably the same Thursday-night special since the restaurant’s inception in 1919.

Steve spent his time shuttling between the calm of Alex and the climbing of Becky. In the meantime he started his own firm—work was the only place he felt autonomous.

Twenty-five years into their threesome, Alex lost his short-term memory and he began to wander. Becky explained to the trustees of his fortune that Alex G. had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, and Steve bought a compound on acreage in Malibu. Alex’s hippie hollow was rebuilt on the property; no detail was overlooked, not the orange extension cords, nor the Tiffany lamps, and Alex, as far as he could comprehend, was home.

It’s in His Kiss by Vickie Lester

19 comments

    • Ms. Cindy! That’s the crux of the whole self-publishing delight/dilemma. You get your book out there, and then what? Marketing. Visibility. Reaching your audience. I haven’t figured it out, I think it’s going to be a long process. We’ll keep each other posted.

  1. This is one of my favorite parts of the book. And it breaks my heart to read it again. You are one brilliant and moving writer Miss Lester! So when is the next book coming out? You let us read half of it a while back and I am dying to find out how it ends!!!

  2. Heather in Arles

    This is riveting. Whenever I read your writing, I am always left begging you “more please” – you know it is true! Especially as you take us along so easily down these complicated paths that it isn’t until we are well into the bramble patch of Hollywood that we feel the thorns…I love that none of these characters are simple, they all have a secret but each handles theirs and lives with it in such different ways. There are so many surprises – not least of which that I found myself rooting for characters that I thought I would not like!

  3. George Kaplan

    The passages from your novel are so familiar to me but they never lose their Spark or Verve and in this case Emotional Punch, Vickie L. To snaffle the name of a W.C. Field’s comedy: It’s A Gift.
    I particularly enjoy your ability – alluded to by Our Lady (No Longer) In Arles above – to take characters who are dislikeable or annoying in some ways, and excavate their Humanity. Wonderful!
    I hope you are taking it easy, enjoying relaxation and attentive friendship, and that your recovery is proceeding at a steady pace. Much Love, G.K.

  4. George Kaplan

    Hi, Lanier! Long time no speak. I am okay (further information REDACTED due to the possibility that you might pass out from boredom!), I hope you are well. Vickie told me that you had been taking care of a friend, may the World be treating you lightly and brightly.
    Yes, Ms Vickie’s opus is a Wonder!

  5. Dearest V
    You know, or should do, so I won’t hesitate to tell you, that this passage is divine.
    Such economy of telling, such lightness of touch, such elegance; yet you stint on neither the sly humour nor the true emotional charge. Moment of sadness, tenderness are forever peeking out between the wisecracks and snippets of insider gossip, like sad clown faces at the endless children’s party for grown ups that Hollywood seems to those of us who observe it from afar.
    A reminder, as though any were needed, of how much I enjoyed this splendid read.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    • Do you know, the other day someone came to visit and made me tea and read to me from the collected works of John Betjeman, and at a certain point I teared up? Because I realized that when someone reads to me I feel love, and when I read your comments I hear the same.
      Yours,
      Vickie

      • Dearest V
        A very British blush, that no doubt could be viewed from your East Coast, so bright is it!
        How strange you should mention Betjeman. I was eating Italian food with friends straight off the train from Paris just Saturday at St Pancras, the station he loved so much he saved it from the wrecker’s ball almost single-handed. And there in the midst of all that free style high-falutin’ Gothic in tribute our most popular of Poet Laureate’s is the man himself immortalised in bronze all chaotic and slightly camp movement.
        Yours ever
        The Perfumed Dandy

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