Those are the two words I hear. Maybe there are other words around them – before or after.
Maybe there’s a context to them. I don’t know.
All I hear are those two words.
She’s telling her friend in the other room. They think I’m asleep. Because, up until a second ago, I was.
But now I’m awake, and I’ve heard those words.
–The guy behind the bulletproof window looks me over. “What kind of work you do?”
He does a poor impression of a New Yorker sketching somebody. Find out who they are, where they’re from. Maybe some idiot out-of-towner. Maybe someone who is going to be a pain in the balls.
“I’m in sales.”
“No, audio.” A pause. Too much alcohol, and my throat feels like an ashtray. The weight of my camera in my bag is weighing on my shoulder. And I’m tired.
The kind of tired you feel at 3 am. Standing in a dingy lobby of the Rodeway Inn while some guy estimates how much he can squeeze you for.
Everyone is just a mark, it seems. Even somebody like me.
“Why medical sales?” I honestly want to know. And for a minute, it’s not about who knows more about who, and the facade comes down.
“Your shirt…” he says, pulling at his own collar. I am wearing a henley. Apparently he thinks it is something like scrubs. Really? Whatever.
It’s 3 am in the dingy lobby of the Rodeway Inn.
“One twenty nine for the night.”
I tell him that’s fine. At this point, who the fuck cares. Give me the room. I’ll close my eyes when I turn on the lights, so I don’t see the roaches scatter.
Two nights in LA. Then back to New York. Back to civilization.
Two nights. And one is almost over.
I can feel myself moving. Even before I think it, it seems. I am up. I turn the light on, and I go into the living room where she’s sitting, with her friend, talking about me.
“You know what?” I say it heatedly, breathlessly. I’ve never needed to say something so badly in my life. The words seem lighter than air. They come out faster than I can think them, just as my body moves faster than I can will it.
“You know what?” I say. “Both of you can go fuck yourselves.”
Sam has a look on her face. A look like someone’s just told her it’s raining outside. A mildly inconvenienced look.
Back in the room. Belt, wallet, cameras, into my bag. Cigarettes and music in my pocket. Money in my wallet. Good.
I walk back through the living room where Matty says something. And Sam starts spewing words. Like vomit. But I don’t know what she’s saying, because I know she has nothing to say to me. Not anymore.
The last words I heard out of her mouth were “He’s ugly.”
That’s it. That’s all I need.
Might as well have cut off my ears.
Ashamed of my own stupidity, I walk outside, light up a cigarette and walk.
When I open the door, the sunlight hits me like a bag of bricks. My eyes slam shut but the pain is already inside my head. I stagger down the sidewalk to the street in front of the motel.
At the curb two guys are smoking marijuana. One of them, big and quiet, sizes me up. He’s bigger than me, and quieter too. You can’t hear him breathe. You can hear me thinking.
His associate, more gregarious, asks if I want to hit this, proffering a joint. I thank him out of genuine kindness. Hate LA, love the people.
“I get too paranoid when I smoke,” I tell him. “But I don’t judge people who partake.”
We both smile. Across the street, a young man and his girlfriend leave a dispensary clutching small white paper bags.
He talks – about what he does, why he’s there. Down from San Francisco, or something like that. The big quiet guy watches me the way I might watch a bug. Judging if it’s something worthy of life or if he should just reach out and squash it.
Eventually the talkative one asks what I do.
“Photography,” I say. “I was out here photographing this girl.”
“Daaaaamn bro, you got a ‘gram?”
I tell him I don’t. That I’m working on developing my own site. “Why make material for someone else’s platform?” I ask, earnestly, sincerely.
“Yeah but everyone got the ‘gram, man,” my hustler friend explains. He twists his torso and neck back as he says it, his chin ducking slightly, like he’s schooling a younger brother on some common sense shit. Who gives a fuck about your shitty website?
But he doesn’t say that. Maybe he has more manners or maybe he’s cooler than that. Maybe he’s just too damn high.
Instead, he asks for a business card. I don’t have one. Well, can I give him the URL. I tell him not to worry about it.
I know what he probably knows, but will pretend not to know, or accept – that we’re not ever going to see one another again, that none of this matters.
We’re just two people standing at the curb in Santa Monica, smoking in the noon sun.
I haven’t even gotten inside my room yet when Sam calls me. More words vomited out over the phone. Like a foreign language. Disengaged syllables that run into and out of one another. But nothing makes sense. Nothing lines up. She might as well be speaking another language. Or nothing. I don’t fucking know.
In my head, I feel around for words I want to say. I flew across the country to see you. I flew across the country to photograph you. Do you think I would do that for anyone else?
But I don’t say these things; I already feel bad for losing my cool earlier. Besides, it’s my own damn fault. How could I be so fucking stupid?
At the end of her string of words, I catch the words “and that’s all I want to say.”
Using the words “and that’s all I want to say” don’t make any sense. Hollow punctuation at the end of a stream of nothingness.
I bite back a chunk of vitriol that quivers on the tip of my tongue. If you’re trying to convince someone like me that you’re somehow not responsible for the shit that comes out of your mouth, and that really is all you want to say, just say that. And then stop fucking talking.
But I don’t say any of this.
The tiredness comes rising up from the soles of my feet. Washing up over my legs and waist, lapping at my neck and threatening to envelop me completely. My brain, so fed up with unrelenting bullshit, begins to shut down in anticipation of needed rest.
“Well, you said it.”
“What do you mean?” she asks, incredulous.
“You said what you wanted to say.”
I think she tells me goodnight. I tell her yeah. Hang up phone. Collapse onto bed.
The room around me melts into darkness.
In the airport, I order a beer and some fries. On the TV in front of me, there’s a hockey game on. I watch it without watching it, my eyes completely unfocused, a mental disconnect between what I’m seeing and what my brain is thinking. Just colors and shapes moving in front of you.
I keep checking my pockets, my wallet, my phone. I feel lighter than I should be, thinner than I should be, somehow less substantial or real. Like a part of me doesn’t exist. Like something has gone away. I find my gate and sit in a chair looking at nothing. The man next to me shovels peanuts into his mouth.
A single word keeps rolling around in my mouth, but I won’t spit it out. I roll it up against my teeth and feel it pressing into the enamel. Searching for a reflection of myself in a panel of mirrored glass. When I find it, I change my mind. I don’t want to look.
Isn’t that subjective? I reply to my own thoughts.
But it doesn’t feel so subjective right now.
You’re stupid too, I tell myself.
Stupid is a relative term, I say defensively.
Though it seems pretty unshakeable right now.
Deep, deep down inside my chest, there’s a hollow or cavity lined with lead.
I look around but can’t latch onto anything. I can’t think about anything. Just this.
Look down at the carpet. Think about this.
Scan the faces of passersby. Think about this.
Think about it, think about it.
Later on I can make a little more sense of things.
“I probably shouldn’t have let myself feel whatever I felt,” I confide in an artist friend.
But even that wasn’t it. Feel all you want – let it drive your desire to create. But keep it secret. Hide everything deep down, in that hollow lead-lined cavity and never let it out, never let them know.
Swallow the pain. Or roll it around on your tongue and push it up against your teeth. Just don’t spit it out. No one needs to know the secret. The best photos are of things or people you have fallen in love with. Are you suddenly supposed to stop loving because you’re ugly?
No, you have to double down. Love everything and everyone. Grow your soul wide and large, until it towers over the city like a behemoth kaiju. Step out with every crazy idea, laugh like it’s all about to blow sky high. Smile like an idiot. Let them ridicule you. Better that they should ridicule you then you not risk ridicule for the things you want to bring into the world. Because only a beautiful creation will transcend your ugliness.
But you’ve known this forever. So chew on the words.
Push them to the edge of your lips.
Whisper them to yourself.