The night Jack came to California, I brought him to the Mexican restaurant where they served margaritas on fire. We walked from my apartment, taking Sunset and passing all my favorite neighborhood things: the bougainvillea bush overgrown into a loud pink cloud, the abandoned movie house, the six-story staircase leading up to a cliff where you could gaze down at the donut-shop neon and feel like some kind of queen. I couldn’t tell whether any of it impressed Jack—he seemed more fascinated by his twisty black hair, which was newly returned to the perfect length for twirling and looking bored.
Jack was only in L.A. for a night, his last stop after driving cross-country to drop his favorite niece off at college. He’d woken up in New Mexico and by dusk he was at my door, smelling like he always smelled in summer: musky and cinnamony and a little like overripe peach. When we hugged he got that smell all over me and I missed home and him but pushed the missing aside, led him upstairs and gave him a beer for the shower. Later Jack called me into the bathroom, shouting “Come talk to me,” and I sat at the tub’s edge in my new blue dress and watched him shave, finishing his beer as the steam wrecked my eyeliner. He’d used my roommate’s good shampoo and good soap and now he smelled like coconut and sandalwood, like a rich hippie on the beach.
At the restaurant we sat in a half-moon leather booth. My drink was a frozen jalapeño margarita, topped with a lemon slice soaked in booze and set on fire. I took a sip with the flame still burning, to try to look exciting, and Jack laughed at me and called me a California hotshot. He drank beer from a bottle, peeled off the label and slowly tore it into tiny pieces, like we were back at a bad party in high school and making a big show of being underwhelmed by everything. I used to feel so lucky on those nights, for getting to draw on Jack’s shoes or arms while we ignored everyone together. Now I was mostly annoyed at him for acting like L.A. was some draggy party.
But by the end of my second margarita I was warm and cold and high on hot pepper, on being in California with a boy who used to be the only boy in the world, a boy wearing work boots in August. I slid closer to him, then remembered who we were now and asked about his girlfriend as he stole carne asada off my plate. Jack answered fast and went back to talking about Route 66 in Arizona, how it was exactly like in movies where the road goes on forever and it’s all just blue and nothing. That was his favorite part of the whole trip, even better than the Grand Canyon.
After dinner we drank more and walked home. Outside the club near my apartment, we passed a band full of boys loading their gear in, all dolled up in tight black vinyl and moussed-up hair. A girl with a bleached bouffant and harsh roots watched over them, leaning on a parking meter like the girl Patti Smith loved in “Gloria.” Her coat was ratty and glittering like reused tinsel; the marquee light shined off her shoulders as she sneered at the boys and then smiled to herself.
“That girl’s cool,” I whispered to Jack. “Her coat was so tough.”
“What girl?” he asked, pulling on his hair again.
When Jack and I were younger, at bad parties or sometimes in his bed, I used to ramble on about what it would be like when we ran away to L.A. I’d dredged up every detail I could remember from a three-day trip when I was 11 (sea caves, houses built into mountainsides, the castle on Sunset Strip), and ripped off the rest from songs. I’d told him about Laurel Canyon and Topanga Canyon and Venice Beach and Zuma Beach, because Zuma was in “Some Girls” and Jack loved the Rolling Stones. It took me years to realize he had no California dream of his own: he’d just let me have mine. And the more I’d talked it up to him, the brighter L.A. lit up in my brain, until all I could do was leave.
“What should we do now?” I asked when we reached my apartment. “Want me to take you somewhere exciting? Trader Vic’s, for piña coladas?”
Jack sat on my front stoop, beneath the lightbulb that burned out months ago. “Let’s just hang out here,” he said.
“Really?” I looked around my sleepy street. “But it’s boring.”
“So what?” he said. “I like being bored with you.” He gave me a lazy smile that made me want to touch his hair, but instead I went inside to find some wine.
When I came back we drank merlot from mugs and watched the empty street, playing Led Zeppelin III on my little stereo. Jack had sweat all the rich hippie off, he smelled like his summer self again. We could have been anywhere, home, with nothing to do but think up songs to live in. When “That’s the Way” came on, with the line about the boy next door, I leaned in and gave his hair a quick pull. “Hey,” I said. “Let’s be boring together forever.”
“Well, yeah,” he said, and rolled his eyes like he’d already thought of that.
I laughed at him and he laughed too and then we shut up, to listen to the song and make it about us. In the morning Jack would leave and I’d miss him but let the missing stay awhile. I’d get a big coffee from the donut shop, and go find myself a tinsely coat for leaning against things, for feeling like a California hotshot, for reflecting all kinds of light without really trying.
About the Author: Elizabeth Barker lives in Los Angeles and co-edits the music blog StrawberryFieldsWhatever.com. Her fiction has appeared in Storychord and Ohio Edit and she's currently working on her first novel. You can find her on Twitter at @elizafishbarker.
Story Song: "Would That Not Be Nice" by Divine Fits.