It’s come to my attention that I may have an addictive personality. I don’t say this because I’m in the midst of smoking my twenty-third cigarette of the day, drawing its fumes into my mouth, the smoky residue blanketing my taste buds. I wouldn’t even say I’m addicted to tobacco or nicotine. Truth be told, I could take or leave them. I truly believe that. My addiction runs deeper than cigarettes.
The last of the day’s sun sinks beneath the sea, turning the sandy shores of Santa Monica Beach a golden hue. The posers and fitness freaks of Muscle Beach don’t let the fading daylight deter them from their ostentatious displays of physical prowess. Among people swinging from the rings and doing circuits with their trainers, a man lies flat on his back, his legs in the air as his girlfriend grabs each of his feet and hoists herself high above the ground into a handstand. She holds her position in excess of a minute. This spectacle is merely a prelude to my evening brood.
As I do most evenings, I listen to Coexist by The xx while following the footpath north along the beach, passing rollerbladers, surfers, tourists, and homeless as I walk beneath the Santa Monica Pier. The shameless hustle of street performers and gasps of awestruck children overhead are carried in the wind. I reach the other side of the pier in time to see the parking lot’s floodlights flicker to life.
Within minutes, I’m ascending the steps that lead to the pedestrian bridge linking the beach and Ocean Avenue. I stop in the center where dozens of padlocks hang from the chain-link fence as symbols of eternal love. Grace and I once added a padlock of our own, but it turns out that, as far as Santa Monica is concerned, eighteen months is an eternity. That’s how long it took the city to remove the padlock, clearing the way for the next wave of couples to express their “eternal” love. Beyond the padlocks, I survey the view. Traffic builds on the Pacific Coast Highway beneath the bridge while the sky, a vibrant mix of oranges and pinks, serves as a backdrop for the incoming tide and the lights of the pier. This view is everything to me. It’s Santa Monica in its purest form. It haunts me. Or maybe I haunt it, a specter with unfinished business, fated to stalk the Westside until the end of eternity. Or eighteen months. Whichever comes first.
This walk, the sights, the salt-tinged air, and smell of seafood, grilled meats, and fast-food trucks set the stage for my nightly bar hop. Allocating the time it takes to walk from my apartment to downtown Santa Monica for brooding is essential. Brooding buffers a day of working and a night of socializing. Knowing I have brooding to look forward to at the end of each day helps me get through twelve hours of blogging. It’s both my light at the end of the tunnel and the silver lining around my rain cloud. Sometimes I think time spent brooding is time wasted, but then I tell myself time I enjoy wasting is not wasted time. This invariably leads me to wonder if what I do can really be called brooding if I enjoy it so much.
This is why I’m a screenwriter. I ask the big questions.
Tonight is no different than any other from the last three and a half years. In many ways, my relationship with Santa Monica is a love affair, and like any romance, when the honeymoon ends, there is only routine in its wake. In this instance, it’s more of a ritual than a routine. I may have an addictive personality, but it’s not because I’m an unrepentant chain smoker. Cigarettes and alcohol are just another part of my ritual. The ritual is Santa Monica, and Santa Monica is my addiction. If it didn’t fulfill a thousand and one sick little fantasies brought on by hours spent watching Bogie brood over Bacall, Angel brood over Buffy, Hank brood over Karen, I may even find it boring.
My bar hop begins with a five dollar happy hour whiskey at Copa d’Oro, an intimately lit refuge from the final moments of sunlight. I wash it down with an El Mirador and leave. A homeless man vomits outside a Big Blue Bus stop and another shakes a Starbucks cup filled with coins. Without making eye contact, I tell him I don’t have change and keep walking. He says, “God bless, have a great night.” I sample a few sliders at the Craftsman a block over. The mini burgers absorb the alcohol and an acoustic cover band pays homage to Maroon 5. I walk to the end of Broadway and turn right on Ocean. Latin music pumps out of Ma’kai. Homeless people dance on the street while thirty-something professionals dance within. The two don’t mix. I enter the Hotel Shangri-La and ride alone in the claustrophobic art deco elevator. When the door slides open, I catch my reflection in a glass panel, my face obscured by shadows. I’ve arrived at Onyx, the penthouse bar, and I order another whiskey. A couple of hours into the evening and Black Label tastes like water. I worry my life is a drink away from becoming Barfly.
Standing on the rooftop of Shangri-La, I swirl a finger of whiskey around the bottom of a tumbler and watch darkness devour Santa Monica. The contrast of lights against the black sky transforms the pier into a beacon.
North of the pier, the ghostly white Clock Tower Building on Santa Monica and Third watches over the city. Built in 1929, the Clock Tower Building is one of the tallest structures around the promenade. That may not be the case for much longer. A Facebook group called “Santa Monica Cares”—whose members are as dedicated to preserving the city’s integrity as they are the city’s property values—informed me that proposed building plans seek permission to erect an equally large structure on Fourth and Arizona. The Facebook group is campaigning to block the plans, but if it happens, the floodgates will open for similar development in downtown Santa Monica, transforming the city’s skyline beyond recognition. Rumor has it, one such development would require bulldozing Cabana—the bar where I met Grace—to make way for an office building. I wish nothing ever had to change.
Sultry dream pop inspires me to light up. Two women—one blonde, the other brunette—approach and ask for a light. I oblige. They remark on the DuPont’s blue flame and we swap numbers, making polite small talk until I tell them I have to go.
“We’ve just come from there!”
“Oh really?” I ask, exhaling a thin stream of smoke through my nostrils. I may sound surprised. I’m not. Bar hopping in Santa Monica is an incestuous, transitory experience that involves the same people visiting the same watering holes repeatedly and often, albeit in differing configurations, lest things get stale.
“You meeting friends?” they ask.
I pause, consider my answer, settle on, “Something like that,” and throw the butt of my cigarette into a fire pit. “It’s been a pleasure.”
“Thank you for the light,” the blonde offers.
“You’re welcome,” I reply. “I’ll see you around.” My saying that is sick. Not because it’s a lie cushioned in an empty pleasantry, but because it’s a truth cushioned in an empty pleasantry. Not only am I extremely likely to see them around, I’m pretty sure I sat a few stools along from them in Chloe only last week.
A busker’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” hangs over the promenade as I walk to Cabana. Fairy lights wrap the trees lining the walkway, complementing the dazzling storefronts of True Religion, Diesel, Sunglass Hut, and their ilk. The route is indirect, adding a couple of blocks onto what would otherwise be a one-block pilgrimage. My evenings are as much about the journey as they are the destination.
The boho beach anthems of Cabana’s playlist—everything from the Beach Boys to The Who—greet me before I even reach the entrance. A group of kids, no older than twenty-two—fresh out of college, living the dream with mommy and daddy’s money—hover in the entrance as the doorman checks their IDs. One of the guys in the group rests his hand on the small of his girlfriend’s back, she says something cute, and they kiss, oblivious to the fact the rest of their group has entered. The doorman asks for their IDs, yanking them back to reality, and they oblige. Their speed, or lack thereof, is the only thing standing between me and my next Black Label. Certainly not the doorman, who clocks me with familiarity, nods, and lets me through without so much as a second glance.
I walk through the open-air venue, passing a sign that reads, closed for private gathering, hanging from the entrance of the indoor lounge, before taking a seat at the bar.
Glasses filled with citrus line the bar and a boogie board hangs from the ceiling above Kat, the bartender. She serves a couple of Old Fashioneds to a group of suit-wearing B-school grads at the far end. They attempt small talk with Kat, telling her about the business deals that brought them to town, the apps they want to invest in, and the millions they plan to make. Beneath her polite smile and friendly demeanor, she couldn’t be less interested in their Silicon Beach bullshit. She catches me in the corner of her eye, offering a smile before excusing herself from the conversation.
“I’ve never been more glad to see you!” she offers, casually leaning on the bar.
“You looked like you needed an exit strategy.”
“You’re literally a life-saver.”
“Dying from boredom is totally a thing, right?”
“I often think so but the medical community has yet to recognize it.”
“They’re always playing catch-up.” Her smile widens and she takes a moment, her eyes searching mine. I reciprocate the smile but sever eye contact.
“You even have to ask?”
“No,” she answers, producing a half-filled glass of Black Label from a shelf beneath the bar.
I pull out my wallet.
“On the house.”
“You’re good to me.”
“You tip well,” she replies, shrugging off the gesture. “You’re good to me, I’m good to you.”
Taking a sip from the glass, the Black Label flows over my taste buds, setting them alight in its wake. Gesturing to the access-restricted indoor lounge, I inquire, “What’s the occasion?”
“Private party,” she tells me. “And you’re invited.”
I shoot her a quizzical look.
“That’s all I know. Dante Lee. Only name on the guest list.”
I study her eyes. She’s serious. Before I can even begin to guess why I would be on the list, “At Last” by Etta James fills Cabana. A chill runs down my spine and time stands still, the ambient noise of the bar dims and the song is all I hear. I down the last of my drink, place the glass on top of a ten dollar tip, and slide off my barstool. Walking in slow motion, I make my way to the lounge where a security guard steps to one side, letting me through.
The lounge is barren, populated only by faux-log cabin furnishings. The haunting vocals of Etta James spark memories that are never far from my mind. Memories of a simpler time, one that predates the nightly ritual of bars, alcohol, and tobacco. A time that, truth be told, gave birth to the ritual—a golden age that laid the groundwork upon which many a nostalgia-filled night has been built.
I walk through the room towards the backdoor. Heat radiates from the other side. Opening the door reveals a fire pit and beyond the flames stands a woman, her back to me, blonde hair flowing below her bare shoulders, cigarette smoke rising above her head. She wears a white top that doesn’t quite meet the waist of her long white skirt. A vertical slit exposes the length of her right leg.
I choke back my disbelief, fearing the woman before me is nothing more than an apparition, and utter, “Grace?”
Her decorated fingers lower the cigarette from her mouth and she slowly turns her head to face me. She hasn’t aged a day since we broke up. Her ivory skin as smooth as ever, her beauty remains untouched by the unforgiving Californian sun and a smoking habit developed in her teens. The only difference in her appearance is a slight sadness and an aura of world-weariness that didn’t exist in the Grace I once knew.
She offers a small smile as her eyes meet mine. I don’t know what to say, so I settle on nothing. A moment lingers between us, shock on my part and a reticence on hers.
I wonder why she’s here, now, after all these years. I need not wonder for long. Her lips part and she speaks the four words that tell me all I need to know.
“I need your help.”