Exotic Living

Kristen Leigh Schwarz

August 15, 2023

You split the bison tacos at El Coyote. Then you drive up to El Compadre for Flaming Margaritas, teetering on the elbow of Sunset, dangerously close to falling into the Strip. Then back across town along Sunset, crossing La Brea and looking instinctively into the strip mall for the Thai food place that’s been closed for decades now, then trying to catch sight of the Mashti Malone’s sign (“The Heaven Zone”) north toward Hollywood. Over the freeway, which is slowing down on its southerly approach toward Vermont, where at all hours it inexplicably comes to a stand-still. Past Kaiser Hospital and its parasite, the Scientology Center across the street, down to where Hollywood and Sunset merge at the doorstep of the Vista Theater, then through something that used to be Sunset Junction, on and on, to Taix, where you slide into one of a legion of rolling chairs in the carpeted bar and lounge, one of the only rooms in the city where people can drink and hear each other.

If you name the places, maybe you get to keep them.

It’s what they told you at Kaiser, anyway, that it would help. Name them, keep picking the pins off the floor and re-pinning them onto the mushy board of your mind. Keep rolling your tongue over the words as they delaminate from their subjects.

The lounge at Taix is the closest place you can imagine to the afterlife. There are no windows in here, no indication of the city collapsing just outside. This room is everywhere, with its somewhat French food and its mystifying set of happy hour cocktails—Arctic Cosmo?—and it is also nowhere. It is like the DMV: everyone ends up here. The mayor’s chief of staff unofficially holds the table in the corner. This, for some reason, you remember. Actors can find a quiet weeknight refuge to chat with old friends. Dodgers fans shut out of the stadium—there are clearly a few of them here now—can roll down the hill and expect to find the game on the TV over the fireplace. Workers, writers, young people, old. People with lots of ideas, people in the early or late stages of burnout, rolling around in these rolling chairs on baroque old carpet, seeking collision. People—souls—who want to talk, and drink, and rest.  

The forgetting could have started before the pandemic, the doctors had casually offered. Their interest does not seem to align, like yours does, with identifying the final moment when your mind was still firm enough to hold onto things. They are here to see about your future, after all. But, regardless, the pandemic must have accelerated the process, the slippage. You avoided COVID itself, but the shut-down and the quarantine denuded your life of context. You stayed at home, your world shrank, the synaptic pruning hastened. Must have.

Taix is the place you are drawn to after quarantine, to feel a part of—but also apart from, dark and quiet and hermetic as it is—the new and unreadable hereness of the city. It’s the closest you’ve come to figuring out a way back into a city that should be yours. When you drive around now, even driving down Sunset, calling out to your sister Jeanie the names of streets and Mexican bakeries and that one great jazz place and the CNN building (saying, “Jeanie, this is,” because hers is another name you have to keep pinning back in place), it feels like those old movies where there is clearly a screen outside the window of the car, playing the passage of streetlights as the actors feign potholes in Park. The buildings, the lights, the people move by outside your Camry, familiar and not, but all of it is on a reel. You understand rationally that all of it exists, but you cannot feel any of it.

This was something the therapist said to you, later, after the doctors, meeting with you in a different room at Kaiser full of framed photographs of wheat—too many photographs, the wheat brushed at different angles and it bothered you. He said you will have to contend with the increased disparity between what is and what you perceive. He said that you will become your own forensic investigator. He said that you will have to lean even harder on other people’s assessments of the world, and not trust your own senses to tell you the truth.

But the people that actually got COVID in the pandemic have their own neurological issues. You’ve read about them. Sensory stuff, but also memory in some cases. You’re now living within a populace where, taken individually, most people are missing some faculty, some context.

Which means reality has become—always was, you suppose—a consensus-building exercise.

* * *

Jeanie has ordered the snails. Has she done this before? Is this what she usually gets? Have you been to Taix with her before? Does she even live in the city? Do you?

When the snails arrive, a man joins your table. Perhaps you are already dead, and this is another fresh soul popping in. He looks familiar, a feeling you’d get often, before the pandemic and the brain stuff, when you worked in Studio City, which was closer to your hometown and full of character actors and extras. Everyone you passed on the sidewalk along Ventura either went to high school with you or imprinted on you from their place just over the lead’s shoulder, impossible to say which. Impossible to know who to smile and wave to while waiting for the engine of recognition to turn over, so you avoided eye contact with everyone, mastered looking at your phone while walking, receded from being present.

But soon the present is all that will remain.

“Every moment is a gift,” you say to the man, “that’s why it’s called the present.”

Jeanie looks at you, startled.

“Do you remember who used to say that?” she asks.

The man stabs a buttery knob of snail with a fork.

“God I’ve missed dining out,” he says.

Echo Park Lake is only one long block away, so after you settle up, you and Jeanie and the man you are pretending to know decide to walk around it to work off your snails and beer. There is evidence of crisis in the chain link fences that have been thrown up around the perimeter of the park, the cops on horses circling, letting some people in, keeping other people out. The fences remind you of deer fences, and it occurs to you that you haven’t always lived in this city, even this state.

The lotuses are open, and other lake flowers are blooming, and little black coots honk feather-softly as they navigate through the knots of plants, shoppers in a crowded store. The statue of the Lady of the Lake has her back to you from where you’re standing, and beyond her, a handful of children are running and screaming on the playground, the breeze carrying their voices to you across the water. You lean forward to look for turtles as a helicopter flies over. The breeze shifts and you can hear Jeanie speaking to the man, back up the path.

“They both went in the same night, and it’s just been like this ever since.”

Jeanie was always good at telling stories, so good that many of them have stuck with you, every detail, through all the other loss. But you don’t remember one like this.

The man says goodbye to you and Jeanie at the boathouse. His car is parked just up on the street. “It was good to see you!” you try.

After he leaves, you drum up the courage to ask Jeanie who he was.

Her jaw drops and she snatches at your hand.

“I thought you knew him!” she says.

There is nothing to do but laugh—and check your pockets. You find your phone, and there is still money in your wallet, along with a photo of an older couple. They look happy, and kind, you think. Just intrinsically kind. You smile and slip the photo back in next to your money.

Maybe it’s enough, the knowledge that you knew kind people. Maybe this is all the understanding anyone gets to take with them from one chapter, one life, to the next.

“Wurstküche downtown has rattlesnake sausages,” you tell Jeanie. “Can you hang?”

“What are you doing to me,” she says, but she slips her arm through yours and holds on for dear life.

About Kristen Leigh Schwarz

Kristen grew up in Newhall, California, then moved 26 miles south to Los Angeles. She holds an MFA from UC Irvine, where she received the MacDonald Harris Award for Fiction and the International Center for Writing and Translation award to work in Mexico. Her stories have appeared in One Story, the Santa Monica Review, and Collateral, among others.

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