I moved to Los Angeles when I was twenty-nine years old because I was funny. Everyone said so. It was simply a matter of being in the right place before Johnny Carson called me over to the couch on “The Tonight Show.”
I rented an apartment, situated a street below the dead-still center of the world, the corner of Sunset and La Brea in Hollywood.
For years stretching beyond transitional, I lived in a tiny studio, whose previous tenant had nailed the windows shut. I painted the walls forest green, to compliment my room’s darkly stained hardwood floor, comforting and silent in summer, cold and squeaking in winter. During the dreamy summer weeks after my arrival in the City of Angels, I watched a provocative selection of movies on the Z Channel, “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” “The Stunt Man” and “Myra Breckinridge,” mixed in with reruns of the 60s television series “Peyton Place” on the USA Network. In the evenings, I hit the happy hour at the judiciously named I Don’t Know Bar, nestled in a strip mall above Sunset, drinking until I felt like I was floating above the stage of my poignant, yet hilarious, one-man show. On the nights I returned home from the bar alone, I sank into an iron claw-foot tub, before pulling the Murphy bed out of the wall.
I placed my neatly folded jeans on the bed’s footboard, then dozed on and off in white jockey shorts, while a rusted metal fan silently moved hot air over me. The helicopters of the Los Angeles Police Department sliced through the black and blue sky above Hollywood, their whirling blades interrupting my sleep, their spotlights dumping a harsh white glow on the fleeing neighborhood prostitutes and drunk patrons of the strip club a block away on La Brea, across the street from A and M Records, housed on what was once the Charlie Chaplin Studios, built by the Little Tramp in 1917, his twinkling eyes never imagining the punishing light which nightly assaulted the Angels. The Santa Ana winds blew until dawn, joining with the helicopters in keeping me awake, the winds drying out my skin and hair, plunging me into the refuge of the tub’s silky white foam. The itch on my skin forced me to pry the long thin nails out of the window frames, opening up my tiny room to a narrow courtyard, whose thick green succulents moistened the air, as they burst out along the brick walkway and hung down from cracked terra-cotta pots lashed to overhead beams. The clear light of the City of Angels held me in its arms, caressing me, as it whispered into my ear the truth about all I saw in front of me, speaking to me as no man had ever done.
In the fall, my green walls moved in on me, demanding to know when was I going to stand up. To quell the rebellion in my gut against my happy hour dinners of peanuts and tortilla chips, I got a nursing job at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. I was assigned to the VIP Unit, where my patients reclined on beds whose linens were changed twice daily, their fingers wielded sterling silverware, to cut into steaks served on Mikasa plates, they drank wine out of Baccarat glasses, they bathed in bathrooms twice the size of my studio apartment. I was certain these people, whom I had studied on my black and white television screen that summer, would immediately recognize how funny I was.
A year into my run at Cedars, I entered a patient’s room and spotted the nurse from “The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.,” Thordis Brandt, her snow white uniform still unwrinkled fifteen years after her guest-shot on my favorite teenage television program.
“Wow,” I whispered. “You were one of the Ziegfeld Girls in ‘Funny Girl.’”
“That was long-ago, the Sixties,” Thordis said, nodding her head toward her sleeping patient. “I do private duty now, darling.”
The softness of Thordis’ voice, the concentrated focus of her green eyes into mine, and the relaxed manner with which she took my arm and walked me into the hall were not like her Germanic, empty-eyed Ziegfeld Girl, whose hourglass curves prompted Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice to stuff a pillow under her wedding dress in the “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” number, understanding, as I did, that the only time a man would notice either of us was when we made them laugh.
“I just saw you again…on the Z channel in ‘Myra Breckinridge.’ You were whipping John Houston.”
“That one was ahead of its time. Can you do me a favor? This is Cedars, let’s say I’m Swedish.”
As Thordis had drawn blood from John Houston, I kept her secret. I had one of my own. What would happen if my patients discovered that their nurse’s first comedy gig was as the MC of a male strip show at the I Don’t Know Bar?
An hour before I stood up for the first time at the mic stand, I had found refuge from the motionless heat of the City of Angels in the air-conditioned backroom of the I Don’t Know Bar, where I attended to the strippers I would soon be introducing to a crowd hungry for what my voice and body could not feed them. The Phenobarbital from my pillbox had denied me the simplest comfort, leaving my insides rumbling for sustenance, desperate for something solid to soak up the frenzied hydrochloric acid swirling amidst the years of fear I held in my gut. A round muscular butt stood two feet from my tongue, the whiteness of its Speedo outline blanching against the tanned body of Cowboy Carl.
“You’re gonna rock,” Cowboy said. “You’re frigging hilarious.”
My numb fingertips rubbed Johnson’s Baby Oil into the precisely defined abs and curiously oversized pecs of Derek, the show’s opening act.
“Ice them up, do it, guy,” Derek pleaded through clenched teeth.
My dead fingers could not feel the coldness of the ice cubes I held against Derek’s nipples, the tightness in my muscles refusing to give my body the faintest hint of the masculine definition surrounding me, all doing push-ups, sit-ups, squats and chin-ups, their thickly veined hands throwing the leaky bottle of Johnson’s around the room, laughing as my slippery fingers made their musculature shine.
“Pinch ’em. Lick ’em. Make those babies hard,” Derek chanted.
“You’re on in ten minutes,” Cowboy said to me. “Get your boots on.”
My eyes looked at one of the many mirrors in the room, seeing a tan-deprived dark-haired nurse to the stars, the only man in the room whose nipples were not interested in ice. After moving his bone-white feet out of blue Zorrie sandals, the nurse stood stiffly in red satin shorts and a blue and black striped Fioricci tank top. The nurse pulled tight the red laces of his army boots, as he knelt a few feet from Rocco, the Italian Stallion, who sat next to Derek on the yellow couch. Rocco’s pink tongue, as hot as the afternoon’s air, circled Derek’s chest for a few teasing seconds before biting into his tiny cold nipples. The nurse knew his jokes, which, having worked their way up out of his throbbing throat, waited patiently to escape from his dry lips. Trashing Linda Evans and Joan Collins was easy. Simpler still was explaining how Jewish Michele Lee could never live in harmony on a cul-de-sac with Joan Van Ark and Donna Mills, the Aryan blondes of “Knots Landing.” Rating out Cowboy as a whimpering bottom would be the real challenge of the afternoon.
“I hit the Nautilus machines this morning,” Cowboy said.
My fingertips made Cowboy’s lats glisten.
As my body moved closer to the couch the strippers sat on, the Phenobarbital I had taken an hour earlier, at last, let my feet float above the ground, their need to flee stronger than the call of my muscles for alcohol.
“What’s wrong?” Disco Danny asked me. “So quiet on your big day.”
I found my apathetic left hand holding a black plastic tray, as my right placed Fire Island Ices Teas in front of the shining muscles, as they languidly covered themselves with the uniforms of a fireman, a cowpoke, a stockbroker, and a policeman. Disco got served first, as he was the low-maintenance stripper, the hair on his chest and arms precluding him from my baby oil treatment.
“He’s scared,” Cowboy said.
“Are you going to puke?” Stallion asked.
My hands could not feel the heaviness of the Tea I lifted to my chapped lips, my muscles yearning for the cold alcohol to break through the numbness which had infected my body from the moment I stepped onto the sticky red carpet in the bar’s backroom, whose moldy black walls I had covered with Fourth of July themed paper tablecloths and a stained American flag, in anticipation of the strippers’ arrival. My backstage nerves as tattered as Blanche DuBois’s on an outing to the Moon Lake Casino, I had hung Chinese paper lanterns over the hostile naked bulbs, which swung from thick black cables erupting out of the room’s ceiling.
“No, no, no little man,” Disco said.
Disco took the cold glass out of my hand.
“Check it out,” Derek said. “If you perform high your first time out you’ll never do it any other way.”
“Do it straight if you want to be in the game,” Stallion said.
My fingertips could not instinctively tap my keys, money, wallet or pillbox, all of which I had placed in a brown paper bag and hid behind the cases of Cutty Sark next to the ripped up yellow couch. The clear plastic oval, in the center of the square face of the digital chrome watch my father had given me on my bar mitzvah, was all I could touch, the white numbers on the black plastic dials tapped into my wrist, as they lined up to spell out 3 PM.
Cowboy’s hands held his boxer shorts over my head, my eyes seeing white clouds, as they sought out a friendly palm tree to find refuge under, my nose breathing in the scent of Tide detergent mixed with Clorox.
“Kill the people,” Cowboy whispered into my ear.
The spotlight summoned me to the stage, the pumping of muscles and rhythmic sit-ups stopped. Freed from the blinding boxers, I walked to the mic stand, my feet trying to determine the last time the gooey parquet floor beneath them had been cleaned. I thought my friend the wind was touching my back, but it was the air-conditioning pummeling me from a vent above the stage, making me shiver in the seconds before the heat beating off of the packed house devoured me. I stood at the mic, my fingertips seeking the warmth of the bodies I had oiled up. My eyes looked over the heads of the audience to the bar’s front door, as it slowly closed, a sliver of the City of Angels’ clear light made me squint, before growing thinner and disappearing for the day. I looked down into the eyes of the audience waiting in front of me, the men whom my words wanted to touch, to kiss, to lie next to. The men sat in circles in the dark, on mismatched chairs surrounding tiny round tables overwhelmed with tall sweating glasses of orange and red cocktails and long-necked bottles of beer. The faces of the audience moved in closer, their shoulders hunched in my direction, their wet lips motionless, as their eyes pitched the first ball and waited for me to hit it with my bat, the smoothness of whose polished wood never once felt like it belonged in my hands.
The blood beat in my throat, but no words came out.
The eyes of the audience threw the second ball. My shoulders flinched and my hands reached out for the mic as if it was a fresh Tequila Sunrise. I looked out to the field of clear-skinned faces, hair turned wet and shining from the heat of the room, eyes gleaming under long thick lashes, tight tee shirts and white wife beaters twisting in anticipation, fingers wrapped defiantly around cold glass, hard forearms and defined biceps drawn taut to catch the ball I could not hit.
My lips could not form the words.
The audience’s silence hit me hard, but my cheekbones lacked the sculpted edges Thordis’ possessed, sharp enough to keep at bay the eyes staring at me, the eyes which wanted me to make them laugh loud and deep, freeing them to fly above the cramped sweaty room we found ourselves in. I stood frozen at the mic stand, the spotlight hammering at my face and pulling on my balls, its bright fists burning into my eyes the threats of a different kind of laughter, whose menace bounced off of the ceramic walls of my junior high school bathroom, where the boys, who every morning kicked me to the floor, had left me on the wet green tiles alone, like the men who lit out of my tiny studio, after I had fallen asleep in their arms.
The moment the third pitch left the audience’s eyes, I swung my bat, hitting a foul ball into the flood of words that my muscles knew would be shouted out at me so forcefully that my mother back home on Long Island could hear them, as she sipped from a glass of Canadian Club and read “The Hotel New Hampshire,” lying on her chaise lounge, unaware that her son, who was always the last to be picked for any team, had somehow been chosen to lead off a Sunday afternoon of musclebound worship. Everyone everywhere would hear the words punched into the flesh of the first batter up.
Queen, pretty boy, fageleh, girly boy.
With the words would come the questions, which no man waiting to see a cowpoke strip off his chaps wants to answer.
“Why do you talk like a girl?”
“Why do you act like a girl?”
Before the eyes in front of me could aim their words and questions at me, I spoke, “Give an I Don’t Know Bar welcome to our first dancer, Derek.”
Ignoring the heat of the room pleading with me to make it laugh, I headed back to the dugout. I could have done it, it was right there, my fingertips touched it. All I had to do was step into the light, surrender to the blood pounding in my veins and sing out the words which hid in my aching muscles and twisted gut. I would fly with my audience above this dank room, the smiles and laughs demanding that I tell more stories. I would not have to touch my keys, money, wallet and pillbox to make the jokes sing.
“You’re still the man,” Derek said, pinching my nipple before making his way to the light waiting for him.
I watched Derek stare the audience down to silence so deep that only the neon lights humming behind the bar could be heard, the audience forgetting about my strikeout, as they roared rapturously when Derek touched his crotch. The words throbbed in my blood, embedding themselves into the tips of my fingers, but the fluttering of my hands was all that the men saw when I stood before them.
I could not say the words. Not ever.
I bit into Cowboy’s body with a fierceness that frightened both of us, the ice of my lips making the muscles beneath his smooth skin harder, his eyes questioning mine before submitting to the strokes of my tongue against the thick blue veins of his feet. The fan in the corner of my apartment moved silently back and forth, laughing as it alternated between blowing hot air on us and teasing open my curtains to the dim yellow light of the courtyard.
“I don’t know what happened,” I said to Cowboy. “I knew what I was going to say.”
Neither of us could smell the Tide or Clorox, our noses inhaling our sweat, his head lay on my chest, my fingers untangling a knot in his hair.
“That hurts, pal,” Cowboy said.
“You like it.”
I could have told Cowboy that the dull pain I carried in my gut had become a friend who opened the doors to the words and questions pitched at me in every room I entered.
“Do your act like you had it in your head,” Cowboy said.
“OK…I came out and the AC made me shake and the audience laughs…which of course they didn’t, but I should have done an exaggerated shiver…and then hold my hands out like I’m falling from the ceiling onto the yellow couch backstage…”
“You don’t have to do anything, pal. You walk out and it’s yours. Just talk.”
I could not speak.
“Stand in front of me and do your act… do it the way you licked me.”
I looked down at Cowboy, his downturned thumbs circling his recently devoured nipples, his grey eyes staring at me as I pulled my red satin shorts up, my eyes wanting to make him laugh in the silence of the room. The words did not come out of my mouth.
Cowboy moved up off of the bed and stood behind me, his pink palms covered my eyes, until all I could see was the white clouds of his boxers.
“Open your eyes. Talk to a spot on the wall. Come on, do it, pal.”
Cowboy pulled my shorts off and kicked them across the room.
“Who did I piss off? Backstage, I oiled up the Gods you’ll soon see, but my fingers were so numb with stage fright I couldn’t feel a thing…not a bulging bicep…not a melon shaped butt…nothing. Who did I mess with in a previous lifetime?”
“Finally…you made it into the room, now move a little.”
“Why do Polish people make bad pharmacists?” I asked.
I walked into the audience, stopping in front of a crew-cut, apple-cheeked young man. “You better answer cutie or I won’t bring out a single dancer.”
“They can’t read?” his frightened voice answered.
“Disco Danny can’t read, but when you have a forty-inch chest and a twenty-eight-inch waist do we really care if he can’t do ‘The New York Times’ crossword puzzle?”
I focused in on an overweight man whose underarms were damper than mine.
“OK, Princess, why do Polish people make bad pharmacists?”
“Karma for Auschwitz?”
“I like that, baby. I’m seeing a free sleepover with the gorgeously goyish Italian Stallion in your future.”
“My gay brothers, my straight sisters out for an afternoon with gay…I mean bisexual….I mean straight muscle men…the reason Polish people make bad pharmacists is…”
I sat on a body builders’s lap and licked his ear.
“The reason is because they break too many bottles in the typewriter.”
Cowboy laughed and pulled me onto the bed, covering us with a sheet damp from our sweat.
“Why didn’t you guys let me have a drink?” I asked. “I might have done better.”
“You didn’t need it. Talk like that onstage, don’t waste it on me. I know what you can do.”
I licked Cowboy’s enticing bicep vein, starting from where it rose above the deltoid muscle of his right shoulder, hesitating for a moment at the point where it broke into two paths above his inner elbow, my tongue obediently following the blood pulsing beneath the tanned skin of his forearm, its salty sweat tasting better than any Margarita I had ever drunk.
“What makes you so sad?” Cowboy asked. “I think you’re the saddest boy I ever met.”
My lips were moist from the sweat they had drunk from Cowboy’s body, but I could not speak, not even to say “Thank you” for his kindness. It was simply a matter of being in the right place. When I made it to Johnny’s couch, I would tell him about being locked in a room with the words and questions. I kissed the pale blonde hairs on Cowboy’s hands as he fell asleep, the veins of his finger beat quietly in my mouth as I lay awake for another hour, or maybe two. The breeze from the fan washed over us, I stared at my forest green walls, hoping that Cowboy would leave before I woke up.
Jake Epstine is a Queer writer and monologist, his work has been published in “34th Parallel Magazine” and “The Seattle Examiner.” Jake’s monologue, “I Was Saved By The Ladies Of The Night,” was featured in “Coping: An Evening of LGBTQ Shorts” at Georgia State University. An exiled Hollywood denizen, Jake lives in the desert, a barren place in every sense of the word. Plus, it’s hot…he sits in front of the fan and writes.