'Love - Nothing'
She had it down cold, that thing that made people fawn all over you
She was all long hair, legs and breasts that stretched the front of her
little white T-shirt. Dustin eyed her lustily. He volleyed to her, hard,
and as he watched for her return, his eyes spread wide with unapologetic
desire. Her blond curls whipped fervently back and forth with every emphatic
backhand. As she bent her knees the flesh on her upper thighs tightened
like the skin on an African bongo drum and her tight, pink tennis skirt
bunched up at the waist. You could see the undulating, wave-like movement
of Dustins chest as he struggled for breath, and the hairy nape
of his thick pale neck turn crimson. I sat on the sidelines, cross-legged
on a chipped, painted-green bench, invisible to them both, itching to
be somewhere where I was noticed. Never mind that yesterday Dustin and
I had sat in his ice-cold living room, chain-smoking Marlboro Lights,
listening to Blues music while dreaming up titles to our future autobiographies:
Lox, Lithium and Love (mine), Blow Jobs, Brisket and Bar Mitzvahs (his).
Never mind that this morning we had whipped around town in my 95
Honda making pit-stops at the post office to mail rent checks and Vons
for salami and whole wheat bread so that later we could make sandwiches.
Never mind that we were supposedly best friends. Here I was a ghost.
I gazed around. On the court across from us was a triad of elderly, wizened-faced
women in shiny white gym suits that matched the color of their frosted
cloud-colored hair. I ached to join them, for here I could not escape
the feeling that I was rudely intruding. The tennis game had turned inexplicably
coital. The girl bent low again, balancing the weight of her lithe body
entirely on the balls of her feet, the scooped, crewneck of her T-shirt
fanning slightly open, revealing a braless view of two buff demi-circles.
Dustin tugged on his sweaty Adidas headband, his wavy hair bedraggled
in Paul Mitchell-scented perspiration, smiling at me with his glazed-over
eyes because only I knew the truthhe was madly in love with her.
Kayla, of course, was completely oblivious. She concentrated on bending
her knees and carrying through with her swing, connecting with the ball
on every attempt. Swing! Swoosh! Pop! She didnt notice Dustin at
all. She might as well have been swatting balls against a backboard. There
was an intended hostility to Kaylas aloofness, a calculated belligerent
energy that was set to attract. She worked at it, that was easy to see.
One doesnt ignore people accidentally. This is not something that
a person is born with. This takes nurturing, practice. I admired Kayla
for it. I envied her ability. More than her perfectly sinewy physique
and neck-snapping beauty, it was her inner strength I sought to emulate.
She had it down cold, that thing that made people fawn all over you. It
was clear to me thenbeing oblivious to other peoples affections
was really what made them love you.
"Love-fifteen!" called out Dustin, his oozing enthusiasm over
having lost the first point in the game to Kayla nauseatingly unctuous.
He didnt act so enthused when I whipped an ace past him. Never mind
the fact that Kayla was the one serving so she should have been calling
out the score. I wanted to whack Dustin on the side of the head with his
second-hand Yonex to jolt him awake him from his sycophantic state. Desperation
was an ugly thing.
It was Kaylas serve. She arched her upper body backward and reached
sky-high in a perfect vertical stretch to connect with the ball and smash
it between the chalky white lines on Dustins side. He lurched forward,
extended his racket and returned the ball with a top-sided spin. They
began a steady volley. Their heavy breathing patterns were in perfect
rhythmic sync. Dustin trotted around the court like a more youthful version
of John MacEnroe, punctuating his fluid forehands with bilious grunts.
Uhhhn! Ooooh! Ooomph! They did play well together, I had to admit, and
as they smacked that little green felt ball back and forth across the
court, I was overcome again with that same irritating sense of being somewhere
where I didnt belong.
"Game!" called Kayla. She swung victoriously around in circles,
her arms outstretched in a wide V-shape, breasts mashed up against the
flimsy, see-through cotton of her shirt. She raised her racket high up
in the air as though it were the Olympic torch. "My win!"
I was tickled by Kaylas victory. And equally mystified. How did
Kayla do it? Id never been able to play especially well with Dustin.
Granted, Id never been able to play especially well with anyone,
for I suffered paralytic stage fright on the court. My palms would get
moist and my already myopic vision would blur and I would see double and
triple of everything. The net would meld into an inscrutable network of
tightly wound lines and zigzags, its height constantly changing. Miraculously,
I did well enough during tryouts to make the team during college, but
was an absolute flop during inter-collegiate matches, leaving our tennis
coach completely baffled. I logged more bench-warming hours during my
one-year Varsity athletic career than I think any other student in the
history of Cornell University.
Dustin had a tendency to exasperate my social anxiety, both on and off
the court. He sucked every ounce of confidence from my usually smooth
forehand, and my backhand, well forget it. It wasnt anything particular
he did. Not on purpose anyway. It was just something he exuded, an all
around feeling when I was with him that I wasnt
that I wasnt
Kayla. He would talk about her incessantly, regardless of what we didplaying
tennis, going to a movie, getting drunk and we did a lot, making
me feel somehow second rate, as though I were the consolation prize for
her not loving him. "If only you would dye your hair blond,"
he repeatedly joked, only half-joking.
Why on earth then, you might ask, were Dustin and I were friends at all?
Ive often wondered the same. And if I could remember back to a time
when we werent friends, I could probably offer you an answer. Truth
is, I felt more akin to Dustin than to manythan to most of
my own blood relatives. We were soul mates, you see. Perhaps it was in
some Freudian, borderline-incestuous, familial sense, but we were soul
mates all the same. He made me laugh unlike any other. I packed his bags
whenever we went on vacation. We had shared a six-hour flight to Boston
together for Thanksgiving break, downing a battery of sedatives and Jack
and Diets until Dustin was calling the stewardess "Waitress!"
and the sour-faced wench threatened to revoke our future American Airlines
flying privileges. We once spent a night in prison (dont ask). Dustin
and I had history behind us. Which is why, despite the fact that he often
used me as a puss magnet when most of my girlfriends found his prosaic
flirting tactics socially reprehensible-"Hes an asshole,"
they would saywe remained thick as thieves. -His goal of course:
To steal Kayla away from me.
But for Kayla it was different. Guys like Dustin didnt make Kayla
nervous. Guys with flippy hair and attitude and who tried really hard
to impress the girls. Guys who wore cologne. And those bowling shirts
with the pockets embroidered with forged names like Chip and Duke that
Dustin and all the so-called "cool" kids in Hollywood were wearing,
she just couldnt stand them. She thought the whole scene detestable.
Another reason that Dustin adored her.
"He tries so hard," Kayla once commented. "Its almost
as if hes not a real person."
Kayla loathed the fact that there were people out there in the world,
people like Dustin, who fawned all over her because of the way she looked,
regardless of the fact that she paid them less attention than she would
a mail solicitation for a new credit card. For most of her waking existence,
she ignored Dustin. Why, if it werent for the fact that I had invited
Kayla to play tennis with us, she would have never deigned to privilege
Dustin with her distinguished company. It wasnt that she was a snob.
No, everybody else, they were the snobs. Kayla was the one who recognized
superficiality in the world and was (my own psychological deduction of
sorts) plagued by deep-seated feelings of guilt because she knew she was
the object, and target, of this callow shallowness.
And so, as a small but significant act of rebellion, rather than rejoice
with the Beautiful People of the World, Kayla sided instead with those
not quite so genetically blessed. She understood that in many respects
she was luckier than most, and that life would always be a little bit
easier for her. So she turned societys social standards on its collective
head. She made a choice to support and defend and befriend the individuals
upon whom positive attention was not showered. It was a game she played,
a way to get back at anybody and everybody who placed a disproportionate
importance on external attributes. Dustin, with all of his feeble attempts
to impress Kayla, with his bottles of twenty-dollar salon shampoo and
tubes of sticky hair gel, didnt understand that this was exactly
the reason why she hated him. Kayla was more likely to date the bespectacled
captain of the math team than a guy like Dustin. Even Ryan Samuels, Creative
Executive at Sony Pictures and Kaylas six-figure-a-year fianceé,
was an emaciated beanpole of a guy who ascribed to a style of nerdy chicoversized
cords, old-school sneakers, round horn-rimmed glasses. Ryan was all bones
and angles and had residual facial acne from seventh grade. If you were
a hunk you didnt have a chance in hell with Kayla. Frankly, I think
Kayla felt more akin to those gawky, clumsy souls of the universe, the
math nerds, the chemistry club members. "Im like a geek in
the body of a porn star," she once confided to me, the only time
Id ever heard her make mention of her Barbie-esque measurements.
She didnt need to. I dont think it occurred to her that her
situation was anything of which to be proud. Mostly, I think, she considered
her beauty a burden.
"Ive lost more girlfriends because of the way I look then Ive
gained boyfriends," she once said to me.
Yes, life for a modern day Helen of Troy was not perfect. There were loads
of social drawbacks to being beloved and coveted, but Kayla took them
all in stride. She recognized the fact that a great deal of her appeal
came from not knowingor at least not acknowledging in publichow
beautiful she actually was. She was never entitled to admit that she thought
she was pretty. "Whats great about Kayla," Dustin would
often gush, "is that she has no idea how hot she is." What he
didnt realize was that the reason Kayla had no idea how great looking
she was was because the entire world kept telling her how great looking
she was. Ironically, she would have had more confidence had there been
a person or two who called her ugly.
Kaylas confidence was never encouraged because everyone simply assumed
she had an over abundance, which was not necessarily the case. Kayla could
be hypercritical of her oft discussed and analyzed frame (which cut a
perfect figure eight), and was practically obsessed with her twice-a-month
facials (she had a tendency to break out around her chin just before and
after her period), and she hated the size of her forehead, hiding it behind
her chunky, blond bangs, which she also hated. On a deeper level, she
also bemoaned the fact that she never completely figured out what it was
she wanted to be when she grew up, and flitted aimlessly from job to job.
But despite her self-criticism, she was not allowed to complain, for the
common reaction was one of bitter resentment paired with flippant disbelief:
"Puleeease, as if you really think youre ugly." Kayla
couldnt win. She could neither express discontent nor admit to feeling
beautiful. "But you are beautiful," I would often tell her.
"Everybody thinks so." But by the way she shrugged and flicked
her delicately thin wrist, I could tell she didnt believe me. After
all, when the whole world thinks youre beautiful of what value can
its praise possibly be?
"Do you want to play again?" Dustin asked Kayla. "A rematch?
See if this time I can whip your butt?"
She ignored him.
"Do you want to play?" Kayla asked me, ever more loyal to her
girl friends than the never-ending procession of imbecilic swains eager
for her attention.
"No," I said, my voice infused with an urgency I prayed went
undetected. I did not want to fill her Adidas sneakers, to take over her
position, to be in any way compared to the guise of graceful loveliness
she cut out there on the court. Dustin didnt want me, and his expression
proved it. The minute she asked the question his mouth drooped downward
and his baby face fell slack. I didnt hold it against him. On the
contrary, this was my reaction, too. I wanted to stay clear away from
Kayla on the court. In the classroom I could handle it (I was an ace when
it came to book smarts), as well as at the dinner table (I had a certain
gift for gab, and idle chit-chat was my forté). Why, there were
even moments when judged on sheer outer beauty alone (my exotic swarthiness
to her fresh-as-air blondness) I could have snagged the prize. I hated
myself for this streak of jealousy. But how could I help it? This is what
happens when for six whole years your personal attributes are picked apart
and compared to that of your best friend. Everyone was compared to her:
"You have prettier eyes, but as a package
have a prettier face, but its her presence
have a sweeter smile, but its her breasts
Yes, Kaylas breasts were legendary. Two perfectly plump half-moons
of flesh the size of organically grown grapefruits swinging on a sinewy
frame that was disproportionalshe had a twenty-two inch waistin
all the right places. Plastic surgeons stopped Kayla on the streets begging
for her to sit for photographs and plaster of Paris moldings. Men were
so intimidated by her Venus-like pulchritude they stopped me in bars begging
me for her telephone number. Or her e-mail address. Or at least my number
so that they could harass me until such time as I finally gave way and
scored them a datedinner, drinks, anything with Kayla, Genetic
Wonder Woman, Kayla, Queen of the Beauties.
That she was engaged to marry Ryan deterred none, Dustin included. In
fact, when people discovered that she was officially off the proverbial
market (youd have to be blind to miss that three-carat diamond)
it only made her hotter property to acquiesce. Since one of Kaylas
most endearing qualities was her incorrigible timidity, she could often
not work up the courage to cut down these men directly, sending me instead
as her rejection sentinel. I remember cavalcades of drunken, sweaty fraternity
brothers that New Years Eve we all went to Cabo San Lucas. An entire
row of balding mid-life crises at the Billy Joel concert. Kaylas
old boss. It was I who was sent to turn them down. These men in turn wound
up resenting me, the bearer of bad news, as did Dustin, who blamed me,
and me alone, for Kayla not loving him. "If you and Kayla werent
such good friends, she would have given me a chance," he told me
time and time and time again.
But Dustin was prone to absurd thought processes. He became infatuated
with Kayla nearly six years ago when they worked for a blip of a time
together at a movie trailer editing house. She was a secretary. He was
a copywriter. Their friendship consisted of staff lunches at the Koo Koo
Roo on Cahuenga and seasonal company gatherings. They had talked a few
times and discovered a common zeal for gambling. Their favorite game was
craps. One weekend Dustin asked her to Vegas. On a lark (this was pre-Ryan),
she says yes. Not two minutes alone in their comp-ed hotel room (Dustin
was a regular at Caesars Palace), Dustin tried to kiss her. That
was the beginning of the end.
From what Dustin tells me Kayla gently explained that she "wasnt
ready to risk spoiling their air-tight friendship." From what Kayla
tells me she practically barfed. Since that day Dustin has been obsessed.
And his feelings have gone forever unrequited. And rather than admit to
feeling emasculated and heartbroken and on occasion semi-delusional, he
has chosen instead to blame me. I am his scapegoat.
I am the reason Kayla doesnt love him.
Ironically enough, on some strange, girl-who-has-clearly-had-way-too-much-therapy
level, I almost understood Dustins reasoning. After all, Dustin
resented me in the same way that I sometimes (to my own shame and embarrassment)
resented Kayla for being so
socially sought after. There was no correlation,
and it was clearly not her fault. After all, Kaylas only crime was
being sexy and that every guy wanted her. It was a position that she a)
never asked for, and b) didnt even like. Quite frankly, its
no position that I would ever like either. Who would want to go through
life being judged by their exterior and their exterior alone? I was content
enough being marginally cute and charmingly troubled.
Honestly, I sometimes despised people who didnt take the time to
recognize what was hidden behind those butter-colored bobbing ringlets
and husky crescents of cream-colored flesh. But I would be lying if I
said that befriending Kayla didnt sometimes do a number on my own
self-confidence. But that was my own fault, not hers. I was playing into
the same level of superficiality that Kayla detested. And I hated myself
Kayla never played an intentional part in making me feel like the flunkey
female. She was, if not the best friend Id ever had, then certainly
one of the most dependable, most caring, most loving and most enjoyable
to be around. What people didnt know (and why I think she refused
to give most men the time of day, punishing them for their ignorance)
was that Kaylas inside was infinitely more beautiful than her outside.
She was the kind of girl who after seeing a homeless old woman on the
street would run to an ATM and withdraw twenty dollars to give to her.
She had, on more than one occasion, gone thirty miles out of her way to
give me a lift when my original ride bailed. She was always loaning me
money, buying me dinner, supporting me in my creative endeavors. Truth
be told, we made a swell pair. She was the blonde, I was the brunette.
I was the literary aficionado, she was the musical hip-hop genius. We
both dressed in vintage Seventies style jeans and zip-front sweatshirts
and flip-flops and drove two-door Honda Civics from 1995. We both loved
foreign cinema and getting stoned and maxing out our Saks Fifth Avenue
charge cards. When the world let us be, and didnt offer physical
distinctions, we were like two twin souls.
And here was Dustin, selfishly making efforts to make me feel inferior.
It was his feeble attempt at bravado, I suppose. His only grasp at that
kind of braggadocio men seek out their entire lives. This is how he thought
he could win Kaylas heart. Stupid fool, he had no idea how useless
it all was. He had no idea that Kayla held him in such little regard.
And he was working so hard to prove to himself, to her, to me, that he
was someday going to get her. The love letters addressed to both Kayla
and her fiancé. The bouquets of flowers on her birthday. The spying
he did outside of their apartment on Saturday nights when Kayla and Ryan
were no doubt ensconced naked within the folds of Egyptian cotton sheets.
"Shell leave him eventually," Dustin would naively say.
What was most disturbing was that Dustin had yet to notice just how futile
were his tactics. And impudent. Yes, Dustins insolence had taken
on a life of its own. It was sad, really. But what can you do when youve
known somebody for so long he seems like family? Recognize that his actions
stem from self-loathing and forgive him? Forgive him and walk away? There
would be a fight later, in private, of that I could be sure. I would accuse
him of making me feel left out. He would crack a joke, buy me a beer,
make it virtually impossible to stay angry. And that would be that. Wed
been doing it for years. Despite the fact that we had tried to make a
go of it romantically (a disastrously failed attempt) in the end we were
like brother and sister?no, two friends who would forever
hold having slept together high over one anothers heads.
"Are you sure you dont want to play?" Kayla asked again.
"We could play together." She swung her racket playfully over
her head and grabbed the strung face of it with her other arm, so that
her elbows jutted out in two perfect triangles. I noticed a perfectly
concentric pinkish scab on the underside of her upper arm.
I looked over at Dustin. His eyes welled over with a thin patina of desperation
and discomfit. There was something impish and pathetic about the way his
mouth slung downward. I almost felt a bit sorry for him. Deep down, he
knew that he had lost not only the tennis game, but Kayla as well. Hed
known it for a long time, but something inside himmasculine pride,
debilitating hubrisrefused to give up the fight. I wont say
that Dustin was psychotic and only one time did I accuse him of being
so, but come to think of it, he never outright denied it.
But who was I to accuse anyone of being psychotic? For the truth was,
I identified with Dustin. I knew first hand what it was like to pursue
someone in a Sisyphusian sort of way. Maybe not in a romantic way, but
I was forever struggling to make Dustin validate my existence, to make
him idolize me in the same way he idolized Kayla. I wanted to be romanticized.
I wanted Dustin to know, without me having to wave my hands repeatedly
over my head like I was crying S.O.S, that I was there.
Dustin reminded me a little bit of myself, so naturally I was narcissistically
nuts about him. Of course, it got me nowhere. But, like Dustin, I was
incorrigible. Perhaps Kayla had pinned it down best when she once said,
"The way Dustin feels about me is the same way you feel about Dustin."
I wasnt in full agreementat least I could say that Dustin
and I had fuckedbut I would concede that both Dustin and I shared
a habit of living in a potentially destructive dream world. And I loved
Dustin. I did. There were times when I loved him so much that my heart
warmed over and my loins thumped so wildly it sounded like a bomb was
going off in my body. Id get a contact buzz just being around him,
almost as if the Jack and Diets he consumed like they were glasses of
Perrier seeped through his skin and into the air that I breathed. I loved
him so much I sometimes even hated him.
" I said, waiting for Dustin to pipe in, almost hoping
hed intercede Kaylas efforts to switch playing partners. But
he said nothing. Finally his lips stretched into a thin, despondent smile.
I smiled back. And for a scant few seconds it became not about his futile
quest for Kayla, but about us, about me and him. We both knew that we
were heading towards a dramatic shift in our friendship. There was just
no way for it to continue on its current path. Changes would have to be
made. Dustin resented me for being friends with Kayla. He resented me
for Kayla not loving him. He resented me for being so goddamn empathetic,
for giving him all the Pavlovian reassurance that he required, for telling
him again and again that he would find new love with someone else. But
what Dustin resented the most was not that Kayla didnt love him
but that Kayla loved me. And I was sick of being resented. I had been
caught in the middle of Dustins fruitless crusade to make Kayla
love him for far too long. This futile love triangle was driving the both
of us a bit batty.
It was time to get out.
I had two choices. I could play tennis with Kayla, as we did often, two
or three days a week (I was working up my courage to perform before a
crowd), or I could grant Dustin one final farewell match before Kayla
went off and married Ryan. It wasnt a hard decision. I had lost
my desire to play anyway. And Dustin needed this more than I did.
"No," I finally said, hopping up from the bench. "You two
keep playing. Im going for a little run."
"Are you sure?" asked Kayla.
Dustin looked at me again.
"Uh huh," I said. "Im sure."
I didnt look to see Dustins reaction. I was brokenhearted
enough as it was. Not about Dustin. Just about
Oh, I dont know.
Im not convinced it takes anyone or anything to make a person feel
empty. Emptiness lurks within us, and sometimes it needs no prompting
at all. Sometimes its just there. And I knew that to escape that
nagging void in the pit of my heart there was only one thing that I could
do. I could physically leave the court and let Dustin and Kayla play.
And so I got up off that bench. And I jogged briskly across the courts,
out the gate, and began my jogging route around the recreational park.
As I set out, the three old women with their iridescent jogging suits
turned to me and waved with floppy bejeweled wrists. I waved back. Kayla
and Dustin had begun their next game. As I rounded the periphery of the
courts I peeked through the mesh fencing and watched the ball being volleyed
evenly back and forth. Then Kayla slammed it hard and it dropped with
an energetic bounce on Dustins side.
"Love, nothing!" called out Kayla.
Again she had scored the first point.
Or, Honeymoon for One
a week alone
all rights reserved