Orson Welles said that, depending where you choose to conclude it, any story can have a happy ending.
My story began the night I met Grace Chase at Cabana in Santa Monica, California.
The sun was living out its final moments, painting the sky gold, and a Pacific breeze flowed through the open-air bar. Hours removed from my first screenplay sale, I spied a beautiful blonde through a haze of tobacco. The strings of “At Last” by Etta James swelled into a crescendo of anticipation as our eyes met and she flirtatiously exhaled a stream of cigarette smoke, compelling me to navigate the swarm of frat boys that divided us.
“Grace,” she opened.
“Dante,” I replied.
If my Hollywood story had faded to black on that moment, as the smoke cleared and I gazed into Grace’s eyes, it would indeed have had a happy ending.
Alas, shit happens, as it is wont to do, and four years, three weeks, and two days later, a naked brunette is lying in my bed, screaming, “Choke me! Choke the fucking life out of me!”
I raise my head from her neck, where I’ve spent the last few minutes planting tender kisses, and slow my thrusting.
“Don’t stop! Don’t stop! Don’t—” she pauses and sighs, “You stopped. Why did you stop?”
“You want me to choke you?”
She shrugs, “Yeah.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
“A little hurt isn’t the worst thing in the world.”
“I’m not the choking type. Can I interest you in another round of oral?”
“As tempting as that is…” she replies, guiding my hand over her breast and towards her neck. I let it rest there, feeling the throbbing of her pulse, and she bites her lower lip, teasing me with her eyes. “I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but this will be especially hot for me if you tell me what a dirty little slut I am while I’m gagging and gasping for air.”
I regard her with a side-eye and a raised eyebrow. “The whole ‘slut’ thing isn’t really my style.”
“If I wanted your respect I wouldn’t be here.” She tightens my grip around her throat. “Now choke the shit out of me and make me your fucking slut.”
I reluctantly oblige, slowly applying pressure around her neck. Her pulse quickens and her face relaxes, lips slightly parting. She likes this.
“Tighter,” she says, her voice strained.
I ignore her.
I begrudgingly tighten my grip, cutting off the flow of blood. Her arteries expand and her pulse soars, face turning red, eyes rolling back in her head as she gasps for air.
Her head sinks further into the pillow, teetering on the edge of unconsciousness. Concerned, I stop thrusting and loosen my grip.
Her eyes open. “Don’t stop,” she whispers, using her hands’ fading strength to keep mine in place.
I silently ask if she’s sure. When she doesn’t break eye contact, I resume, regaining my rhythm. Satisfied I won’t let go, she relinquishes my hand. Her body tenses and she grasps at my back, digging her nails deep into my skin as she struggles to release a muffled sigh. “Call me a slut.”
“I’m not going to call you a slut.”
“Call me a slut!”
“I don’t want to—”
“Call me a fucking—”
I cut her off, barely aware that I’m shoving her thong in her mouth with my free hand. Her eyes widen as I pin her hand to the mattress and thrust. Deeper, harder, faster. My other hand still a vise around her neck, she gags on the thong and the life drains from her face. My erection stiffens. Her body shudders, nails clawing my skin. She climaxes, the tension escapes her body, and she melts beneath me. But I don’t let go. Instead, I watch her face turn crimson and her eyes close. She starts to flail against my grip. I’m too far gone to react and, within moments, the constricted blood flow makes her limp to the touch. The more helpless she looks, the harder I am and the faster I thrust, a mounting frenzy that lasts as long as it takes to explode inside her. Only then do I release her neck and roll over to the other side of the bed, coughing from the exertion. When the coughing ends, the emotional flagellation begins.
She lies motionless, eyes shut, the panties in her mouth crowning.
“Are you okay?” I ask, carefully removing the thong.
I hover my hand above her mouth. Light, shallow breaths warm my palm.
Her eyes flutter open.
“I’m sorry about the—”
“Well, that scratched an itch,” she concludes groggily, realizing where she is. “What are you sorry about?”
“Gagging you with your thong?”
“That was fucking hot.”
“I have no idea why I did that.”
“That’s what makes it hot.” She pulls herself out of bed and begins getting dressed. “Apologizing, on the other hand? Not so much.”
She shoots me a look. “No one likes an apologist.”
“You’re welcome to stay.”
She glances over her shoulder and laughs again. “I’ve got work in the a.m.”
“I never asked what you do.”
“What do you do?”
“That is such a Westside question.”
“I’m a Westside kinda guy in an Eastside kinda world.”
She pulls on a jacket.
“What do you do?”
“Let’s not ruin a perfectly torrid Cabana hook-up with small talk.”
“It’s not small talk if I genuinely want to know.”
“If you genuinely wanted to know, you’d ask my name first.”
I bow my head in surrender. “I didn’t want to ruin a perfectly torrid Cabana hook-up.”
“Do I get bonus points for not apologizing?”
“Nothing to apologize for. I don’t know your name either.”
I walk her out and she kisses me goodnight. For a while there, I was afraid all the asphyxiation would cut into valuable brooding time.
I take an ice cold shower and return to the bedroom, settling in for a night of fun, mentally healthy introspection. Lying atop the bed in my underwear, I stream an entertainment news broadcast and cough my lungs out as I light up. Moonlight filters through the Venetian blinds, illuminating lingering strands of smoke.
There’s a very real possibility Grace fucked me up. Break ups will do that to a person, but losing Grace was something else. And it’s all because of the night we met. There was a kismetthat bordered on pre-destination in the air. From the setting sun to the music to the locale, the mise en scènecould not have been more perfect. It didn’t hurt that the conversation flowed like a Sorkin-penned walk-and-talk. It was a verbal battle of wits. I said one thing, she said another. She mocked me, I mocked her. She spoke like a fictional character, which was more than just a huge turn on, it was everything.
Plot to dialogue, it couldn’t have been better written if I’d penned it myself. Which is why I’ve never tried to recreate that ideal in the three and a half years since we broke up. Sequels are seldom as good as the original, so why try?
Fortunately, romantic comedies aren’t the only genre to which Los Angeles lends itself. There are many. In lieu of Grace, I embraced one of them with open arms, toeing the line between farce and tragedy, so far gone it’s hard to tell where the tropes end and the existential angst begins.
One break up and a Turner Classic Movies film noir marathon later, I found myself over-identifying with an archetype. It started small: sitting in the dark with a Black Label of an evening. Next thing I know, I’ve developed a nicotine habit, my iPhone is filled with Angelo Badalamenti score, and I’m driving to The Shade Store on Montana to buy Venetian blinds.
Unfortunately, one man does not a neo noir make and after three and a half years of brooding in isolation, a dark shadow under SoCal’s sunny skies, the rest of Los Angeles is finally on my level. “Tinseltown continues to leak like a sieve,” reports Close-Up editor-in-chief Ruby Maine. Her abrasive tones fight to be heard over my phlegmy coughs. “Following the unauthorized release of development slates, wage information, and private emails procured during a series of hacks, the North Korean cyber-attack that’s been dismantling Global Studio Media took a sexy turn this morning.”
I clutch my chest, take a puff from my inhaler, and ride out the asthma attack before resuming my cigarette.
“The Internet was shocked to wake up to leaked nude photos of Mandy McIntyre and Lucy Landau, stars of upcoming controversial movie Conquering Korea,” Ruby continues.
I unconsciously stub the cigarette out in an ashtray on the bedside table. The Close-Up Live stream is now a split screen. One half is dominated by the cutthroat Ruby Maine wearing a blood-red blouse that matches her hair and lipstick. The other displays headshots of Mandy McIntyre and Lucy Landau, two talented young starlets who recently transitioned from television to the more lucrative world of major motion pictures. In the headshots, Mandy and Lucy’s eyes are wide, filled with hope and a youthful naïveté that could never have foreseen a time when their private photos would be a source of scrutiny and titillation for the unwashed masses.
“Close-Up will continue to follow the fallout of ‘The Fappening, Part Two’ but, in the meantime, we can’t help but wonder: Are those boobs real?” she signs off, relishing the schadenfreude. Ruby Maine feeds off secrets and paranoia and Los Angeles is currently an all-you-can-eat buffet.
I pull myself out of bed, heavy lungs threatening another coughing fit, and write, Nude photos leaked, on a Post-it, sticking it beneath the headshots of Mandy and Lucy that are pinned to the Global Studio Media hacks obsession wall above my desk. Balancing a fresh cigarette in my mouth, I pour a Black Label and carry my MacBook out to the adjoining balcony. My blog’s dashboard loads while I light the cigarette with the searing blue flame of my DuPont.
Strands of smoke drift towards the Santa Monica Pier, where the fluctuating rainbow lights of the Ferris wheel twinkle in the distance. The crash of waves provides a soundtrack as I pen my latest op/ed, CLOSE-UP, STOLEN INFORMATION AND ACCOUNTABILITY IN JOURNALISM.
When feared and revered entertainment industry journalist Nikki Finke accepted a lucrative non-compete settlement and terminated her Hollywood career, she left a vacuum in her wake. If there’s one thing Hollywood abhors, it’s a vacuum. Two people rushed to fill it. The first was Ruby Maine with Close-Up, a multi-platform amalgamation of industry news and celebrity gossip. The other was me. Fade Out began as a flight of fancy, birthed in a moment of professional ennui. Following an exposé on vote tampering during the 2014 award season, the blog’s hits skyrocketed, becoming an industry must-read.
Fade Out’s USP is my moral rigidity and it’s those scruples that inform my latest article. In four hundred words, I vent everything that’s preying on my mind, from my disgust that those viewing Mandy and Lucy’s stolen photos are essentially violating the actresses themselves, to my disappointment in Ruby and her ilk for capitalizing on the hacks for the sake of clickbait.
Then I sign off:
There are rumblings that the cyber-attacks may evolve into a full-blown terrorist attack when Conquering Korea premieres in a week and a half at the behest of the POTUS and Global Studio Media president Ted Gourd, who see the threats as challenging the First Amendment. Sources tell me that from publicists to FBI, Hollywood is on high alert. If the worst happens, Ruby Maine, the staff of Close-Up, and every journalist who allows themselves to be manipulated by hackers into trafficking stolen information will have as much blood on their hands as the terrorists.
I suck in the last of the poison from my cigarette and author the article under “Sasha McLean,” a name that sends chills down the spine of every power player, publicist, and lawyer in town. Sasha McLean is a figment. She doesn’t exist, but Hollywood believes she does, and that’s all that matters. I may be a jaded screenwriter, but I’m not a suicidal one.
Lighting another cigarette, I breathe in the view until a notification appears in the corner of my screen. It’s an email from an unknown Korean address with an embedded video.
Hitting play, footage rolls from inside a private sauna. For anyone living in a cave the last few months, it looks like gay porn recorded on a smartphone. Just one naked man pile-driving another while the cameraman goads him on. For everyone else—namely anyone with a Twitter account—it’s much more. This video is proof that Global Studio Media employees Mike Leibowitz and Nathan Harris sexually assaulted struggling actor and career barista Blaine Colby.
It’s not unusual for anonymous sources to email me big-ticket exclusives, but the ticket is seldom this big. I run the email, written in Korean, through a translator. It reads, We enjoyed your article and thought you might be interested in this video. We hope you do the right thing.
The right thing would be to report the content of the video—the stolenvideo—and expose the defendants in a lengthy civil suit as the rapists they’re accused of being. The right thing would also make me a hypocrite.
This dilemma isn’t going to help my insomnia, which began in earnest on the fourth anniversary of the night I met Grace. Not that I slept particularly well before then. I should really move on, take the Venetian blinds down, hang some curtains. I’m trying but I’m not there yet. For now I drink the last sip of Black Label, extinguish my cigarette, stream Raiders of the Lost Ark, and slip into bed.
The gruff voice of Harrison Ford and rousing John Williams score combine to create a soothing soundscape that harks back to a childhood spent in multiplexes. My inner-optimist hopes the familiarity will carry me to a state of serenity that’ll send me to sleep. My not-so-inner-realist knows the moment I close my eyes, coughing will take hold and I’ll be awake, gagging and gasping for air.