It was Sunday night, which, since childhood, was a night of painful malaise for Jon. It started in the morning this time, that tugging. Here you are, old, unwelcome friend, Jon thought. Here you are, and I’m sure you’ll stay.
The night was quiet. So quiet that the silence became loud. (He much preferred when the night was so loud it faded to silence.) He located the stereo remote and turned on whatever lay dormant inside the player, a classical album with enough string instruments to perform a blitz on his buzzing mind. Sound bled through the house. His dog Capra stared at him warily from his place on the couch. Jon walked from the front of the house to the back of the house and back again, closing the doors to each room as he went. Bathroom, bedroom, guest room. Then he opened them back up, in reverse order. Guest room, bedroom, bathroom. He needed more rooms. He needed more room.
As a child Jon would wander the halls of his parents’ home on Sunday evenings in a daze, seeking out an absolution, a reconciliation, a silencing of the grating in his chest, which originated in his head, and he imagined sounding quite like the quick, tight plucking of a poorly tuned guitar. Jon would rearrange his homework in his backpack, watch cartoons for a while, brush and then re-brush his teeth. He would order and then reorganize the books on his little white bookshelf, sorting them first by color and then alphabetically. Back then, the alphabet wasn’t a sure thing to him; the N’s and M’s were always switched and the J’s were always first, before the A’s even. His name started with a J, and therefore trumped the accepted order of the alphabet altogether. His sister used to rub his back as he sat in the TV room, his eyes glued to the television, and he’d count the beats of his heart. “Breathe,” she’d say, “Jon—remember to breathe.” When the breath still came tight, he’d lay on his brother’s floor making carpet angels to temper the anxiety. He didn’t know that word yet, though. Anxiety. Sounded like choking. And felt like it, too. Instead, he called it the Tightropes. He never vocalized the sensation out of concern that saying so would make it more true, lend it more power. When Jon grew older and fell in love with film, he’d hear Audrey Hepburn explain the feeling as “The Mean Reds” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and mutter yes under his breath to the screen. She knows.
As an adult, his home was usually empty. He lived alone, except for the odd night when his assistant crashed on his couch with a pile of scripts in her lap, refusing to sleep in the spare bedroom even when Jon demanded. Ramon Hayes—a graduate student at UCLA—was a cagey little thing. She survived off almonds and Gibraltars spat out of Jon’s nefarious Italian espresso machine. She had a steady gaze and an exacting eye, which she employed while sorting through the mess of Jon’s life: half-finished screenplays and poorly edited short films. She was caring but stoic. Miserly with personal details. He relied on her too much, and he knew it. He tried to bat her away, but she stayed with him. He tried to tell himself it was distraction, but he knew distraction. And this was something else.
Jon was invited to an art show in the Downtown Arts District on a Thursday. After noticing Ramon reading the invite strewn on his kitchen counter, Jon toyed with the thought of asking her to accompany him. Their relationship had not waxed this way before; Jon had asked to attend one of Ramon’s student screenings once, but she told him he wasn’t allowed to come—too many people would recognize him. He went anyway, sitting in the back wearing sunglasses and a hoodie. He snuck out after the last piece, walking the campus alone in the dry evening heat, imagining himself the phantom or spectre of Westwood, a shade pulled down over his notoriety. In truth, Ramon had noticed Jon, and was surprised by how pleased she was to see him there. But his pride in flying below the radar was so evident that she went on letting him believe that he had.
Looking at the invite after several days of deliberation, Jon considered how the night would likely go. He would show up wearing threadbare jeans and worn-in loafers, along with a pretentiously cryptic graphic T-shirt that no one really understood. He would drink too much at the bar, grovel with a handful of peers before realizing their conversations were all dead ends. With Ramon, however, it could be different. When stuck talking to a boring acquaintance, he could excuse himself and say, “Please forgive me, I should check on my date,” and really actually have a date that he needed to check on. He could pretend to be annoyed when she asked him to hold her purse when she went to the ladies’ room. He could order two drinks, this time not solely for himself. If he wanted to leave early, he would have a partner in crime to fabricate some elaborate excuse with. Better yet, he could Irish Goodbye with someone on his arm, stealthily sneaking away, thievish in the seedy Los Angeles night.
She accepted the invitation casually and immediately, and late on Thursday afternoon she opened the front door of his house, swinging it wide as the dark oak sung its usual creak at her arrival. She had a large bag slung over her shoulder and her hair was out of her face, pulled back and held up by some unseen force or contraption. Pronounced cheeks lightly flushed from the walk, a pair of heels dangling from the pointer and middle fingers of her left hand.
“Can I change here?” she asked, already making her way to the guest bathroom.
“Of course, sure,” Jon replied, still looking at her face and then working his gaze down to the loose, oversized shirt that clung to her exposed shoulder, angular and tan.
With nervous energy, he followed her. Leaning against the bathroom door for a moment, he knocked lightly and entered at her come in. She stood in front of the mirror and adjusted the printed dress she had quickly thrown on, smoothing out nonexistent wrinkles and picking at nonexistent fabric fuzz. She did not truly know what people wore to these things, but she had read enough issues of Vanity Fair and foreign Vogue to fudge her way into looking interesting. She didn’t know that her attempt wasn’t necessary; she already looked interesting when she rolled out of bed.
“I feel the need to prep you for the weirdness you will most certainly witness this evening,” Jon said in his usual soft voice.
“Shoot,” she said, not looking at him.
Jon sat on the edge of the bathtub and sighed. Her reflection in the mirror disarmed him; he felt it was unfair to be bombarded with such a beautiful image twice.
“These things start off pretentiously. People will argue over who knows the artist best and who went to his last show and who vacationed with him in Croatia last fall. Half-smile and show only the faintest interest. Those who care less are always liked more.” He laughed dryly. “It’s kind of fun to watch. Anywho. Make as little eye contact as possible. When someone tells you a story or asks a direct question, respond in a way that neither confirms nor denies that you really heard or registered what they actually said. Reply back with your own anecdote or question that hardly relates to theirs. They will do the same thing back to you. You may think you’re having a conversation, but what you’ll be doing actually has more in common with a game of air hockey than it does with true human interaction.”
Ramon laughed and her reflection met his eyes. “You’re terrible. Absolutely none of this is helpful.”
“Excuse me, the hell it isn’t. We’ll get there and you’ll see what I mean. I don’t even know why I still receive invitations to these things. I barely talk to anyone and always abuse the open bar.”
“Did you ever think that maybe they invite you to these things and offer you jobs because you’re actually genuinely interesting? And talented? Maybe if you responded to half of the invites and gigs blanketing your fucking kitchen table, you’d receive even more of them.”
She had just finished applying her mascara around her sea-blue eyes. Now she was separating each lash with the point of a safety pin, carefully pulling them apart with an efficient yet careful motion until her eyes appeared as wide as a marionette doll’s. Jon wondered where women got these skills. Who would have ever thought of using a safety pin for such a thing? He imagined a glamorous grandmother had passed on the trick to her. Or perhaps she had seen it in an old film on TCM and fallen in love with the particular appeal of it. He didn’t know that she actually picked up the practice over the years she spent as a ballet dancer. She watched the older girls use the extra safety pins from their costumes to separate each lash until their eyes opened up like tiny glass spheres of light, expressing to the audience the sheer passion of their wordless art. There were many practices, exchanged like money in the dressing room, in the wings: bobby pins between their teeth, lamb’s wool jammed between toes, hairspray sealing the knots of their pointe shoe ribbons. And safety pins, driving the space between eyelashes. Before abandoning the stage to seek a life in the shadows of studio lots, Ramon had studied these rituals.
“You look nice,” he said quietly.
She regarded him through the mirror, sharply. “Is your phone charged?” she asked. “I don’t want to lose you tonight.”
“Yes, Ramon. It’s charged,” he said. But he was lying. “I’ll be right back.” He left the bathroom in search of his charger and hoped one bar of battery was enough to last him through the night.
Halfway through the art show that evening, he wandered to the outdoor bar for a refill and found himself unable to make his way back inside. Too hot, too crowded, not enough air. He could see Ramon through the large glass windows of the gallery, talking to some tool from the Times. She made eye contact with him through the glass and pulled out her phone, still nodding politely as the man next to her droned on. Jon’s phone buzzed with a text from her. He flipped open the screen: Shall we?
Instead of responding, he looked back up at her and nodded. When he still didn’t move, she came out and retrieved him, lightly taking him by the elbow and guiding him towards the door. They grabbed a taxi on the sidewalk and headed back down Wilshire. In the dark of the car, he studied her profile. Her long eyelashes cast shadows across the ceiling. He stared at the delicate outline the whole way home.
Since he met her, he wanted to understand her. She had other ideas.
“What’s your father like?” he asked. They were sitting on his couch watching screeners before awards season. Ryan Gosling’s latest role: a degenerate, criminal father (“Improbable,” Ramon had remarked) with a penchant for alcohol and subplot.
“What kind of question is that?” she asked flatly.
“I think it’s a normal question.”
“You normally go around asking people about their fathers?”
“It’s not weird. Want me to tell you about mine?”
“Not particularly, no.”
“Okay. Forget I asked.”
She turned the movie back on. Jon hadn’t noticed she’d paused it in the first place. Tattooed Gosling jumped into action.
Minutes later, over a long period of b-roll, Jon said, “I love screeners. Don’t you love screeners?”
“Do you want me to love screeners?” she asked.
“Yes, I’d like it if you loved screeners.”
“Well. Then I love them.”
“Makes me feel important. You know?”
“You’re in the Academy, Jon. You are important.”
“Being in the Academy doesn’t make you inherently important. There are a lot of assholes in the Academy. I might be one of them.”
“You’re not one of them.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“I just know that you’re not.”
“And you’d tell me if I were?”
“I wouldn’t work for you if you were.”
“Okay, Hayes. Good to know.”
“You’re so chatty tonight. Jesus.”
Jon slid further into the deep seat of the couch and shook his head.
Ramon came from a forgettable town in central California—coastal nowhere vast enough to hold all her resentment. She never saw any beauty in that place. Not in the pelicans that dove violently into the churning waves, not in the ice plant that tenaciously gripped the landscape, forever poised over the sea. But for some sick reason upon snaking through the graffitied underpasses of West Hollywood, the horizon a relic of the old Fox Sky, the narrow span of the canyon’s well, and the bleached signs of Greater Los Angeles, she felt something that weighed the same as hope.
When she drove Laurel Canyon Boulevard and cut over to Sunset, driving the Strip past all the iconic places—the Chateau, Book Soup, The Viper Room—she felt she’d just stumbled into a movie set and, now there, might as well milk her fifteen minutes of fame. She never complained about traffic. Not once. She sat there, letting it move or not move. The streets of Los Feliz, the hike up to Griffith Observatory made her romantic. She was not a romantic person. She did not cry at sunsets, over breakups, or when her mother left, but she did cry when she watched Chinatown, On the Waterfront, Indiana Jones. All that conflict, all that adventure. She remembered films with the clarity and attachment that normal people remember their childhood. Sometimes on nights when Jon was in bad shape, she’d sit on the patio with him as the city sung its strangled, misshapen symphony, throwing darts at the pock-marked dartboard in his side yard.
They took turns.
“1954?” Jon would ask.
“From Here to Eternity,” she’d answer.
“Easy,” she’d say. “The Deer Hunter. 1935?”
“It Happened One Night. Don’t insult me. Would you at least give me a hard one already?”
They knew Hollywood better than they knew anyone in their own lives. They never spoke the truth of it out loud.
He rarely ever slept. Since hiring Ramon he often kept her around, wordlessly asking her to work late, to which she always obliged. She busied herself organizing old scripts or bartering with colleagues overseas (“I’m terrible on the phone. I won’t be able to negotiate anything!” Jon said when she demanded he answer his ever-dying cell). As she worked into the night, Jon moved from room to room, humming or tapping a rhythm on door frames. He often tried to write and usually failed. He often poured a drink, took a few sips, and then left it in some corner of the house for Ramon to find later, rings forming on most furniture and surfaces, tallies of sleeplessness, notches of anxiety. Jon worried that Ramon might pick up on his oddities sooner than she picked up on his strengths. Sometimes the way she looked at him, the unyielding blue of her eyes, he swore she could hear the frantic pitch of his heartbeat.
His house was perpetually messy and disorderly. Stacks of papers piled high, bottles and glasses dispersed across every surface. Plastic-wrapped dry-cleaning hanging from the refrigerator door. Canvases and sculptures and photographs littered about, propped against walls as opposed to hanging sturdily and permanently on nails. And books. Books everywhere, on every table, every chair, piles lining the hallways and doorways. Piles so high they crawled up the walls like ivy. Titles on titles, languages upon languages. Contradicting genres, writing styles, time periods, and beliefs. Dog-eared books, books with curling pages, books he had never read and never would read, but whose presence brought him a semblance of peace nonetheless.
Sifting through his belongings, one could deduce that Jon was an intelligent man, a capable artist. But this did not mean that the Tightropes, the Mean Reds, Anxiety, had left him in his adulthood. Sometimes, he thought, with all the living he’d done, the Tightropes had actually been drawn tighter. The Mean Reds meaner, redder. The Anxiety a walking, talking, strangle-holding tenant that he had to coexist with once a month or so, the way a werewolf has to suffer the effects of a looming full moon.
On a winter night after awards season, Ramon threw a pile of scripts onto the coffee table with an abrupt thud and said to Jon, “If tonight is one of your bad nights, you can just ask me to stay instead of inventing things for me to do.”
She did not say it unkindly.
“How did you know?” he asked her, too relieved to be embarrassed.
“You’re tapping your foot so badly I’m afraid you’ll tear an ACL.”
Jon looked down at his quivering leg, unblinking. Ramon smiled a half smile. He couldn’t bring himself to look her in the eyes.
He was a figure clouded in mystery to the rest of their world, though to Ramon his problems jumped out at her rather starkly. She took the job because she needed the money. She stayed with the job because she enjoyed the work, and because he needed her. He was too old for anyone to refer to him as a prodigy any longer; he was too young to be fully written off. She knew he had at least one more in him, if he could just finish a fucking script. Maybe it wouldn’t be the magnum opus. Just a little opus—surely he could do that. Just bang out a few more little opuses, Jon. I’ll help you do it, she thought. Sometimes she thought she could get him to do anything. In LA there were all these people around, people who made the decision to have sex more casually than they made the decision to order french fries. There were nights she could almost convince herself she was this type of person. But most nights, she sat on Jon’s couch while he sat in his chair, and they watched movies in silence.
Good days, and then another Sunday night. The house creaked and spoke to Jon, devoid of good things and so full of devils that he could hardly move. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Ramon Hayes had been missing from it for the better part of three days, having been up in San Francisco for a conference with her professor, not returning to LA until late that night. Earlier that day, Ramon had sent Jon a photo of an old movie marquee displaying The Philadelphia Story in large black letters. The accompanying message: No one would see it with me.
Jon started to reply that he would have, and come back, I’ll pay any theater in town to show any old movie you want, even the Rialto, even though it’s closed—I’ll reopen it—even though I don’t have that kind of money. Then he deleted this senseless string of desperate promises and typed something else. When she didn’t respond, he left his phone on the sill of the enormous living room window, which looked out upon his sleepy neighborhood—an under-celebrated sliver of Los Angeles that bestride the line between Beverly Hills and Westwood, this perfect patch of hilly green. Humphrey Bogart once lived around the corner. Jon could see the chimney of Barbara Stanwyck’s old home from the balcony of his bedroom. The red brick was still pristine; nobody needed a fireplace in LA.
Jon mulled this thought over as he mindlessly tapped the glass window. It responded in a rapping, irritated tenor. Ramon couldn’t stand Humphrey Bogart. His mind wandered. He wished Clark Gable had once lived down the street instead.
He sat down at the piano and littered his fingers across the keys. Rachmaninoff? No, too angry. Tchaikovsky? Too much work. Debussy might calm him. Yes, Debussy. Ramon loved when he played Debussy.
It sounded a bit out of tune, he thought. He plunked the keys harder, then gentler. He lifted the top of the baby grand and stuck his head inside. It looked normal. It looked the same.
Jon walked into the kitchen and tried to make a cup of coffee. But that espresso machine was a monstrosity only mastered by Ramon, so he turned on the tea kettle and felt rather like an old man, so he turned it off and poured a glass of Irish whiskey, then felt even older. The reds got meaner. He could not hear any living soul in the neighborhood as he let Capra out the backdoor, into the lush green yard. One of the largest cities in the world, and he couldn’t hear anything. He walked back inside, Capra falling in step at his heels while Jon’s slippers shuffled across the wood of the hallway, then the tile of the kitchen, then the rug of the den. He sorted through the wild territory that was his movie collection, found The Philadelphia Story and stuck it in the player. As he drank the whiskey, before deserting it on the pine table next to the piano, he started imitating Katherine Hepburn’s transatlantic accent out loud, and wondered how she ever learned to talk like that. He muttered things into the silent house like, “Not natural, Hep,” and “Did it ever get exhausting, doll?” and then after a moment, “Jimmy Stewart. My man, Jimmy Stewart.” And in fact, there was an old photograph of Jimmy Stewart hanging above the bar cart in Jon’s house, which he took as an omen to forget the watered-down whiskey and spring for cognac. He was at the part of the film where Jimmy Stewart is wearing a bathrobe by the pool at midnight when the lock of Jon’s front door started jangling and, a moment later, Ramon crept quietly through with a bag on her shoulder, breathing heavily, puffy-eyed. She took in the scene: Jon still awake. Glass of cognac in his hand. Jimmy Stewart a bit drunk inside the television.
“Hayes,” he said.
“I tried to call first,” she said. “I got into a fight with my roommates. When I got back from the airport. You didn’t answer.”
He’d never even heard her mention roommates and then felt guilty for never having asked about them. “My phone is dead. I can’t find my charger.”
She smiled, and Jon felt the light come in. Ramon shook her head, wondering how someone could be so adept at the impossible, yet so clueless to everyday functions. “There are three in the piano bench.”
“I’m glad you’re here.”
“I hate my roommates.”
As she said this, there was a slight quiver in her face, an internal collapsing. Jon caught it like a foothold. Something about her demeanor tonight was urgent; her timidity washed off. Her hands lingered delicately at her sides, palms slightly facing toward him. Her feet angled in his direction, her shoulders fully squared to him.
He almost said, so move out. And move in here. Instead he settled for, “Please. Stay as long as you want.”
Which to Ramon, meant only two nights. She did not sleep in the guest bedroom. But she also did not sleep on the couch.
The Tightropes went slack.
is a writer and editor based in Northern California. Currently an MFA candidate at the University of San Francisco, she serves as nonfiction editor of Invisible City. Read more at isabella-welch.com.