The Suburbs of Babylon Chapter 16 Part 1

Happy Friday, internet vagabond. My name’s Seven, and this is my blog. On the last day of the work week, I like to post something that harkens back–frows back, if you will–to a time in my life before Thailand (TBT for short, copyright BKK7), especially those events that contributed to my moving here. Below is part one of chapter 16 of my–what’s the opposite of prolific?–my mundane self-published semi-autobiographical novel, titled “The Suburbs of Babylon.”

“Chapter Sixteen

As I bounce along the open road, I’m outnumbered and alone.—Embrace


            On this particular trip I departed after subbing on a Friday afternoon, estimating that if I drove about 95 the whole way I might make San Luis Obispo by sundown.

I was wrong.

Bumper to bumper traffic kept me below 50 most of the way between the Valley and Santa Barbara, so I was forced to stop in Santa Maria, a one-street town about 40 minutes north of Buelton.  This city rubbed me the wrong way.  First of all, it smelled like manure, and I know it’s a rural town, and that’s to be expected, and I suppose where I live the pollution can’t smell good to anyone who’s not used to it, but I don’t know.  I just couldn’t take it.

Santa Maria is a drab little burg without much to do.  I checked in to a run-down motel just after sundown.  The room was dank, and decorated with a 1970’s motif that rekindled some faint and far-off memory.  I had dinner at Red Lobster, which was surprisingly tasty, I suppose because being a few miles from the ocean the fish was fresh.  I had lobster and crab legs, and the meal was greatly improved by a nice Central Coast Pinot Bianco, which I brought with me.  Afterwards I went trolling for something to do, and was about to give up and go back to my coffin of a motel room, when I stumbled upon, of all tings, a strip joint.

The place was small.  On entering I realized I was going to stand out.  There were three other guys sitting by the runway—working class men, farmers.  They weren’t tipping the dancers, probably because it cost a whopping 20 bucks to get in.  Trying to be inconspicuous, I found the farthest corner of the room and sat down.  I had a pad and pen with me so that I could record every detail without relying on my memory (now beginning to sag under the weight of a constant stream of alcohol), which got everyone buzzing.  Similar to my visit to the Palomino in Vegas.  It took about 30 seconds for a sweet young lass in a red g-string to slide over next to me and lay in with the questions.

“You’re not from around here, are you?”  No, I’m up from L.A.  “What are you writing?  Are you a writer?”  Yes, I’m researching for a screenplay.  “We don’t get many guys like you in here.  How old are you, twenty-four?  Twenty-five?”  Twenty-six.

She went on like that for about twenty minutes, then sauntered off to tell the other girls, who were waiting apprehensively in the back.  In that time I managed to glean a little info about the girl as well.  She’d just turned eighteen, started stripping to earn money to get away from her dad, had not yet become calloused enough to hate men.  She even made the mistake of telling me her real name, before correcting herself with her stage name, which was Kylie.

Kylie was short and slight, with pale skin and blood-red hair with black tips.  Her eyes, from what I could tell in the half-light of the club, were pale blue-gray—or maybe green.  Her nails were bitten down and unpolished, her face almost without makeup—only a little mascara and clear lipstick.  She sat ankles crossed next to me and was comfortable enough to put her hand on my arm as she talked.  When she got up to talk to the other girls, I noticed she had trouble walking in heels.  She was too pure for this place.

She returned momentarily, mentioning off-hand that if she weren’t sitting here I’d be swarmed by the other strippers.  I asked why.  “Because you’re cute, and you look like you have money.”  I was pleased that I’d fooled them into thinking I had more than ten bucks in my wallet, but I began to resent her for warding them off.  She was pretty enough, but there was one incredible goddess strutting around that I would’ve killed to talk to—a perfect brunette with caramel skin and deep, sultry eyes.  But such is my life.

Kylie said it was good to have someone to talk to, that most of the men who came in were “scummy” and she tried her best to avoid them most of the time.  I said it must be hard to make money with that attitude, and she said it was true, that she didn’t make much, but that she’d rather be broke than have to touch a man that smelled.

Kylie got up to smoke a cigarette, leaving me to my thoughts.  A waitress with big fake breasts and tired eyes shuffled by and I ordered a coke.  When she returned, she asked what I was writing (if anything, the note pad is a great conversation piece).  I told her it was a porno script.  As she walked away, I looked up and saw the caramel brunette eyeing me from across the room.  I almost dared to think she’d walk over, and then chased the thought away.  Then she did come over, and I felt my mouth go dry.  She took Kylie’s seat, pulled her hair behind her ear, crossed her legs, and said, “You’re causing quite a stir.”  I assumed she meant because of the notebook.  She told me her fake name:  Siren.  I said it fit her perfectly.  She asked if there were a chance I’d write something about her in my little note pad.  I said there was a very good chance indeed.  She said if I liked, she could take me to a private booth in the back and really give me something to write about.  But before I could answer, Kylie came back.  “Oh, are you sitting here?” asked Siren.  Kylie nodded, a not-too-friendly flash in her eyes.  Then Siren made a hasty exit, much to my chagrin.  But in a clutch, the company of Kylie the red-headed wonder child was very agreeable.  She had a sense of humor about herself, which I found endearing, and a smile that seemed to glow in the darkness of the room.

Three young knuckleheads stumbled in and sat down next to the stage, but weren’t tipping the dancers.  That seemed to be a running theme.  Kylie was disgusted.  She mentioned off-hand how she wished she hadn’t worked tonight, how she wished she could take off now and go do something fun.  At that, she glanced at me from the corner of her eye.  I told her I’d probably be leaving soon.  She asked where.  I said I didn’t know.  Then she excused herself and went to the back.  A minute later she returned, putting on her coat, and asked if I’d drop her off at home, which was close by.  I said I would.

As we drove down the main street of Santa Maria, I asked her what she wanted out of life.  She replied instantly in the way that all eighteen year olds seem to be able to do when asked such a question.  “I want to get away from my dad, first of all,” she said.  “I want to have my own place, have friends, be happy.”  I wanted to ask her how she proposed to be happy, but thought twice.  It would be unfair to confront her with that now, while she still thought it was out there to find.  I asked where she lived.  She asked if we could go to my motel.

Back in that awful room with fake wood walls and brown bed cover, she slipped out of her stripper clothes and into one of my shirts.  We’d stopped at a liquor store and brought back a pint of Dewar’s (her choice), which she served to me in a plastic cup from the bathroom.  We flipped through the channels on the TV, discussed the antique worth of the lime-green lamp on the nightstand, and drifted into a haze of scotch.  At some point I closed my eyes.

After an indeterminable amount of time (maybe ten minutes maybe thirty seconds), I awoke to her gently shaking and a soft, “Hey.”  Somewhere in my sleepy mind I expected her to tell me she needed to get home, that she was late, that her dad would be angry.  But I opened my eyes to find her standing before me, stark naked.  I sat up and put my feet on the floor.  She put one knee on either side of me and sat in my lap, facing me, putting her hands under my ears.  I looked into her eyes, pale blue, just like I thought.  She had a curious smile on her face.

“Why haven’t you tried to have sex with me?” she asked.  “I know,” she continued, not waiting for my answer.  “It’s because you didn’t want to take advantage of me, right?”

“Something like that,” I replied.  She pulled my face to hers and looked in my eyes, and I got the feeling she was waiting for me to kiss her.  I put my hands on her waist and gently lowered her to the bed.  I sat beside her, lightly stroking her back and hip with the backs of my fingers.  She reached up and grabbed my arm, trying to pull me down to her.  But at that moment I had a very clear picture of Jane, and a time when I had stroked her back in the exact same way.  We had been on vacation in Santa Barbara for my birthday, had just made love as the sun set through the door of our balcony over the Pacific.  We sat together in a chair on that balcony, sipping Mourvedre and talking about our future.  She had put her arm over my shoulders and a hand under my shirt, feeling my heartbeat.  In that moment, I knew I wanted my life to stay exactly as it was, for us to grow old together, and never be apart.  But that was a lost moment in time, and I was in Santa Maria with a stranger who wanted me to fill a void that I had no place in.  I suddenly felt alone and empty, and knew that if I slept with the girl beside me, I would not only find no relief, I would end up even more alone, even more brokenhearted.  I told her I couldn’t sleep with her, and got up and left the room.

Outside, I sat on the stairs, listened to the cars passing by and watching the clouds float past the moon.  After some time, Kylie came out and sat with me.  I knew she knew I was sad, and I knew she wanted to ask me about it, but she didn’t.  We talked a little, about her life here, the good things about it, few though they might be, and about what she would do if she ever got to Los Angeles.  I told her not to get her hopes up, that I’d lived there all my life and never found anything magical about it.  She said there probably wasn’t, but that just the act of picking up and moving there might be the thing she needed.  I told her she might be onto something.

An hour later, I took her home.  She lived in a cramped little house in a not-too-nice part of town.  All the lights were off; it looked like a mausoleum.  She turned and kissed me before getting out of the car.  We didn’t say anything, I guess because there was nothing left to say.  I sat there for a moment after she disappeared into the dark house, not wanting to leave her there but knowing there wasn’t anything else I could do.  So finally, reluctantly, I drove off, back to the motel to lay in bed and watch TV. An hour later the sun came up.  I went and had breakfast at Denny’s, thinking I’d get an early start and make Frisco by noon.  But instead, I bought a bottle of Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir, drove out to the coast, drank the whole thing, and fell asleep.  I don’t know why, but I was feeling pitiful and depressed.  I woke up around 2:00 and got on the road, but only went about twenty miles.

Half an hour later I stopped in Pismo Beach, an even smaller town than Santa Maria, set against rolling green hills that look right out at the Pacific.  There’s some good surfing there, and most of the young people from San Luis and Santa Maria go there to shop, eat, and play pool.  Though it’s mostly populated by retirees.

It’s a quaint enough place.  Everyone is friendly and helpful—not at all what I’m used to—and more willing to have a conversation.  I’d intended to blow right through, but something swayed me.  It was peaceful and safe, and time seemed to stand still there.  I found a small hotel near the pier, and put yet another room onto my crowded credit card.  The accommodations were adequate enough—nothing fancy, but with a great view of the beach from my bathroom window.

After checking in I went and walked on the beach for an hour, returned, showered, and went to the pier.  There were a surprising number of people milling about, many obviously having stopped on their way north or south of here.  The pier was crowded and there were plenty of surfers to keep them entertained.  Not to mention the view—the beach disappearing into the mist, out of which rose the dark spine of the coastal mountains, golden late-afternoon rays slicing through the clouds in beams that made bright pools of light on the surface of the ocean.  There wasn’t a hint of wind, even out at the end of the pier.  The water was smooth as glass.  It was quite a stunning day.

All around me, young couples walked arm in arm, stopping to look at the view and exchange a kiss.  One pair of lovebirds asked me to take a picture of them.  I thought about cutting their heads off in the shot, but didn’t.  Not wanting to think about what the pier would be like with a woman at my side, I left the beach and found a dark pool hall by the hotel.  It was virtually empty.  I got a pitcher of Pyramid Hefeweizen and played a few games of 9-ball.  When I stumbled out of the place it was dark.  I found myself torn between going back to the hotel to pass out and going back down to the beach, and gave in to the beckoning rhythm of the crashing waves.

Staggering out onto the pier, I was briefly reminded of my imprisonment on the peninsula, and for an instant could smell the perfume and taste the unkissed lips of the beautiful goddesses that inhabit that paradise.  And then the memory dissolved, and I was back on the pier in Pismo, under a still black sky littered with stars and a moon casting its luminous reflection over a sleeping sea.

I was alone at the end of the pier, leaning out over the rail, watching the ocean swell and shrink around the support posts.  The sound of the waves has always had a message in it, it seems to me.  It’s a lonely and hopeful sound simultaneously.  There’s an eternal quality to it, of course—the undeniability that the die was cast eons before me, and will still be there for millennia after.  But the beach is also a starting point—a place to launch into oblivion, to sail to unseen ports and pursue adventure.  To escape.  To renew.

I suddenly felt sleepy.  Maybe the thought of venturing off to parts unknown exhausted me, or maybe it was all the beer, but either way I wanted a bed, so I turned to leave.  As I walked toward shore, I lifted my eyes to the hills above the highway, green and rolling, lonesome and silent as my thoughts, noting how the beauty of this coastal journey punctuated my feeling of aloneness.  The meaning, the significance of this geography, like a memory and a promise rolled into one, only served to add color and shape to my idea of hopelessness.  This scenery, if shared with someone, would be a flashpoint of meaning and love.  But alone, it was the beginning of every nightmare.    I hurried to the hotel, thankful for the comfort of four undecorated walls.”

One of the few things I miss about California is PCH between Santa Barbara and San Francisco. If I ever have to move back, I’ll definitely be picking a spot somewhere along that coastal stretch–maybe Frisco, maybe Carmel. But seeing as how Americans are currently running the state–and the country at large–into the ground, it’s unlikely I’ll ever set foot in either of those places again. So thank God for Thailand.