I was living in a dingy apartment on the 4th floor of the Asbury, a crumbling art deco masterpiece in a once tony, now seedy neighborhood, across the street from a historic old hotel, a tamale shop, and the art college where I was attending my third and final year. The Asbury had, for a short time, been home to Raymond Chandler, who occupied the circular penthouse on the thirteenth floor, until he was kicked out for not paying his bills. My room was also circular, well, more of an octagon really. It overlooked the college, and nearby MacArthur Park and its infamous lake, known to be a favorite repository for dead bodies.
I knew nothing yet of the building’s illustrious past when I moved in, only that it was a steal, and spitting distance from school. On my first day there, as I turned the corner and pulled up the street to my new address, I passed a row of men being handcuffed, and that night was spent in terror at what sounded like constant gunfire. As the first rays of sun lit up my naked windows, I noticed the tempo of the “shots” increasing, along with the volume of the traffic. Mounting the creaky, old-fashioned elevator, I recognized a few fellow students, as hollow-eyed and frazzled looking as I felt. We were all equally sheepish upon realizing that what we had imagined to be guns going off all night long was really the sound of occasional cars driving over a metal plate that some construction workers had left in the middle of the street.
The building itself was a gem. Built in 1924, it had the classical and voluptuous, excitingly chunky yet graceful style that I love about L.A. architecture from that period. Downstairs, outside a disused, glass-walled sitting room housing an ancient, mouldering piano and two threadbare, though still grand velvet chairs, was a fairytale courtyard, where a magnificent stone fountain, long dry, sat amid lush greenery. Almost no one else ever went out there, so I usually had the place to myself, to sit on an old stone bench and read or daydream in the shade of overgrown foliage.
My apartment consisted of a large main room facing the street; a huge closet, which I converted into a studio area; a small closet that had a hidden safe; and a surprisingly large kitchen, with beautiful molded, glass-paned cabinets, an old-fashioned stove, handcrafted tile sink, and deep cupboards. Everywhere there were little nooks and crannies, secret places for ghosts to hide. Best of all, between the main room and the bathroom, there was a tiny dressing room – a real boudoir. It had a closet, a low dressing table with a mirror, and was lit by a single overhead bulb. In its dim glow, I stepped out of time to star in my own private film noir.
Those were not happy times, I’m afraid. I was attending school as a matter of duty, sleeping as much as possible, managing only to produce enough work to keep from getting kicked out. Much like my building’s famous tenant at the time he lived there, I was in great emotional disrepair, and had likewise taken to drowning my sorrows. It was in that room that I read my first Philip Marlowe story and recognized myself.
My favorite watering hole in those days was a friendly speakeasy called Avignone’s. I had a couple of drinking buddies, and together we would escape life by going out several nights a week to play pool and darts, flirt, smoke, and drink good, strong drinks. Everyone there had a name, like Popeye, Big Dave or Stumpy; I was Spike and my buddies were Hank and Clyde. The regulars took good care of us, treating us with gruff respect, occasionally buying us drinks, and protecting us from random creeps. Eventually, we were invited to the inner sanctum, and would stay after hours to help clean up and gossip. Alternatively, after the bar closed we would go as a group to someone’s house nearby and stay up talking and smoking until the sun came up. This world of warmth and community was a stark contrast to the loneliness I felt when I returned to my dusty futon surrounded by peeling walls, and the long, windowless corridors of the college.
One night, Hank and I had just finished a game of eight-ball and were laughing together at the bar, when I felt a gentle breeze, and a stranger, slight and slender and smelling of leaves that are about to change color, skimmed into the room and sat down on the stool next to me. I was surprised when the bartender greeted him as if he were an old friend. He ordered a beer and then, leaning a skinny, freckled arm on the bar, nodded at Hank and said, “You look like a mushroom.”
Neither of my friends was impressed, but I found the newcomer to be fascinating. There was something of a jester, a changeling about him. It was impossible to tell how old he was. As he told stories that kept me in stitches, he appeared both youthful and world-worn. He had a way of describing regular things as if he had never seen them before and was totally amazed, and I would become amazed at them too. We started spending a lot of time together. We went swimming and rode the bus to the park, and he taught me how to use a juggling stick. It was as if the sun had come out for the first time in years.
Hank thought he was kind of funny, but Clyde couldn’t stand him. The first time he ever came over to my apartment, Clyde came along too. She disapproved of us running around wearing nothing but sarongs, and showed her disdain by going to sleep in my bed, so we hid in the kitchen and I giggled when he whispered to me that I was beautiful, and I believed him.
I started to suspect that he was an alien after he moved in. It was never discussed, it just happened. One night he stayed over, and in the morning I went to school, and when I came home he was still there. I didn’t mind. I liked him. But he was… odd. Most of the time he looked and talked like a slightly burned out hippie stoner dude, waxing poetic about things like the orange chicken at the one-dollar Chinese place, and trying to make pipes out of various objects. But at times he would become very intense and speak with incredible intelligence. He talked wistfully of the sky and the stars, and dreamed of going to Moab, Utah. I got used to coming home after class to find him sitting naked in the dark with a blanket over his head, watching Star Trek on a tiny TV that I had thought for sure was broken. He would talk to me while I worked, and we made weird alien love. I can’t really describe the details and anyway this isn’t that sort of story. But he seemed to levitate, and well… it was just different. His body was different. He looked less like a human than like another life form imitating a human, the way an insect might resemble a leaf. His fingers, for instance, were all the same length, and his toes too, giving his hands and feet an odd block-like quality, although he was quite graceful. Both of his palms had only three lines, which formed upside down triangles and the line on top of each was a simian crease – an extreme rarity. I had a small cat named Radamacue, who used to jump on people and bite them. Everyone else complained, but he would grab the cat and stuff him inside his shirt, and the cat would instantly calm down.
After we had been together for a number of weeks, my alien boyfriend suddenly disappeared. I was mildly upset that he hadn’t called or left me a note, but in addition to school I had been working as a waitress on the graveyard shift, and was too tired to think about it much. He was gone for a while – I don’t know how many weeks – and I guessed he was gone. Then one day he showed up, in high spirits. I was irritated, as I had been about to accept a date, but he said he had an explanation, so I cancelled my plans and told him this had better be good.
He had been in jail! I was terribly angry, but he was unperturbed. He said he had been picked up for having too many parking tickets. He then proceeded to tell me the story of his time in jail, somehow managing to make it sound like it had been an adventure at an amusement park. I felt my anger melting away. Once again I had been treated to a new perspective. He gave me his identification bracelet as a souvenir, which Radamacue immediately pounced on and carried around in a proprietary manner before joining us in snuggling up for a nap in a nest that smelled like leaves when they are about to change color.
The relationship ended not unlike the seasons changing. My friend went away to Utah to look at the stars and maybe catch a ride home. Life continued in its complicated way and I finally graduated, vacating, with relief and regret, the lovely and sorrowful Asbury.