The Downward Spiral Part, OR I’m One Mean Look Away from a Crack Addiction
I’m sitting on the wall that wraps around the outside of The Comedy Store waiting to sign up for the open mic. I’m about to dissolve into my computer-slash-phone, but I feel a tap on my shoulder.
I turn around. “Dude, you came back!”
It’s Fernando Sosa, a comic from Chicago who moved here around the same time I did. He had gone home for a couple weeks to see his girl and run in the Chicago marathon, but just before he left, he said something that made me feel like he might not come back. I think it was, “I might not come back.”
“How was Chicago?”
He smiles and shakes his head. “Amazing.” He pulls his phone out and shows me a picture of a street scene, decorated like a postcard with a dusting of autumn-colored leaves. It makes me miss the fall.
One of the door guys brings out the signup list for the mic. Everyone mobs around it, elbows and light shoves, but Fernando and I just watch because we know it’s the most pointless mob ever. There are only 40 lines on the sign-up sheet, and there are over 60 people there, but you don’t have to actually put your name on a line to get one of the coveted 15 spots – as long as you write it on the piece of paper, it counts. The people fighting to get a good spot are just doing it because they don’t know any better, or because they like to smell 40 different kinds of body odor all at once.
“You missed last week,” I say. “I got on the list, and I ate the biggest dick, and then the host shamed me.”
“Oh, that sucks!”
“I wish you were there. I mean, not like it would’ve helped at all, but at least I would’ve known someone.”
“I hate that they gotta be so negative.” He sighs. “So what else happened while I was gone? Tell me something good that happened to you.”
“Uhhhhhh…well…” I search my mind, reflecting on the events of the past few weeks.
“Oh God,” he says. “That bad?”
Wednesday morning, and I’m driving to the temp job. I’m thinking about him. Again.
I park my car and watch the last few minutes before 7:30 tick by. I have no idea why I bother getting here on time. I answer to no one all day long.
I take a bouncy ball out of my backpack, and I write “LK loves CP” on it with a Sharpie. I do this because I’m crazy, but also because I haven’t talked to CP in six months, I desperately want to stop thinking about him, and this is the best idea I’ve come up with.
Six fucking months.
I step out of my car and toss the ball over my shoulder, so subtle and casual. You wouldn’t have caught it if you watched me do it. There. Gone. He’s now bouncing off into the world and hopefully out of my mind.
He texts me at 8 o’clock that night, just after I get offstage at the Hollywood Hotel. He’s here. In L.A. Six months of not talking, and he’s in my town the day I decide to write his stupid initials on a bouncy ball.
So I guess this means I’m magic, and I can summon people with bouncy balls. Yeah, there’s that.
I meet up with CP, and we have fun hanging out. We always have fun hanging out. It’s when we say goodbye that things go bad, mostly because I always hate it when he leaves, and he always seems completely fine with it. It ends the same way every time, he and I sitting in a parked car, me grasping at straws to get him to stay for just a few more minutes.
“It’s just…I just…I don’t know.” I sigh.
“Nothing. Never mind.”
“Why do you always do that?” he asks.
“Because I’m not good at talking,” I say. “I’m good at writing, but not talking.”
“Well, don’t write a blog about this.”
I can feel him staring at the side of my face. “You still like me?”
“Yes.” I don’t even hesitate. “Of course I do.”
He shakes his head. “That surprises me.”
“Really? I thought it was obvious.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Wow. I must be a pretty good actor.”
A few seconds of silence pass. “Well, okay.” He puts his hand on the door handle. “I’d better get going before I try and get you to have sex with me in my hotel room.”
I see my opportunity. “Actually, I’d be down for that. We should do that.”
He draws in a breath and shakes his head. “Naw, I don’t think it’s a good idea. It’s definitely tempting, but I think I’m gonna try and do the right thing tonight.”
“Huh. You’re turning me down.” I stare out my window onto Sunset Boulevard, which is pretty dead for this time of night. “Of course you are.”
“Hey,” he says. “Look at me.”
I glance in his direction for a second before turning back to stare out the window.
“You homo.” Call it a character flaw, but he likes to say I’m gay whenever I show that I have feelings like a human being. That’s kind of his thing, the way he sidesteps dealing with my erratic emotions. “Stop being such a homo.”
I scoff. “I’m not the one turning down pussy.”
Next morning, and I’m in the parking lot outside my temp job again. I’m 20 minutes early. On an impulse, I call him.
“Listen,” I say when he answers. “I want to tell you something.”
“It’s just…I just…I don’t know…”
“Here we go again.”
“No, wait a minute,” I say. “You turned me down for sex, and I think that would hurt anyone’s feelings.”
“I wanted to have sex with you. I just know that it’s gonna cause problems in our friendship.”
“Well, I don’t think it’s fair that you act like I don’t want to be your friend.”
“Hey! You stopped talking to me.”
“Yeah, but I did that for a reason. It’s hard for me to be your friend.”
“So what? You’re saying that your feelings get in the way?”
“I’m in love with you,” I blurt out. “I’ve been in love with you for a long time.”
Wow. I’ve never said that out loud to someone who I didn’t know for sure would say it back. I mean, I’ve written it. I’ve strongly implied it. I’ve even declared it on bouncy balls, but I’ve never just said it to anyone.
“Are you happy now?” I ask. “You made me say that.”
“Oh, I forced you to say that. I put a gun to your head.” He laughs. “Listen, I don’t want to say that you’re not in love with me, but I think you don’t know a lot about me. I’m not as cool as you think I am. I, uh, voraciously pass gas—”
“Look, you can say whatever you want about it, but it’s not gonna make it any less true.”
“Well maybe it’s just one of those things where you want what you can’t have.”
“I’m sure you have a lot of theories—”
“Ha, yeah, I have some theories.”
“And that’s fine with me. I just want you to know that I hate it when we don’t talk. I didn’t ever want to stop talking to you. But you just pop in and out of my life, and I never know when I’m gonna get to see you again. I really like hanging out with you.”
“Me too,” he says. “I had fun last night.”
“Yeah,” I say. “So did I. But then you leave, and I get really sad.”
I almost don’t make it to the Comedy Store on Sunday. I’m fresh off a plane ride from Dallas and a weekend spent drinking too much with my college friends. My alarm goes off at 5 p.m., and I consider skipping the mic. It’s not like it matters, anyway. I probably won’t even get on.
But then the voice inside me that’s afraid of missing one night forces me into action, and I drag my tired ass to the club, perch myself on the wall, and play with my phone while I wait for them to post the list of the chosen ones.
At 6:45, they post it. My name is there. Number 10.
The crowd’s strange that night. For one thing, there is a crowd. Normally, the open mic audience at the Store consists of 40 comics spread out around the back wall of the club and two or three people at the tables front and center, who find their way inside like stray cats and seem unaffected by the fact that they’re the only real audience members there.
Tonight, the place is booming. There’s a gay birthday party celebration going on, a bunch of loud flamey men in the front row with their required number of thick girls, dressed-up fag hags.
The guy before me kills. He has an electric guitar and inspires the crowd to sing along to his song, “Don’t get old.”
It’s my turn. Tony, one of many skinny and smarmy guys that host the open mic, introduces me.
When I grab the mic and look out at the audience, I see a strange hostility. This doesn’t happen to me a lot, but every now and then, I look out into the crowd, and I sense their genuine dislike. Larry David, one of my favorite people on the planet, used to look out at crowds like this, say, “No,” and then turn around and walk right off the stage.
It’s not the crowd’s fault they don’t like me. Maybe they hate me because I look sarcastic. Maybe they hate me because I’m dressed like an eight-year-old whose mother didn’t check her before she went off to school. Whatever reason they have for not liking me before I speak, I amplify immediately by telling a joke about my gay best friend that I should’ve known just wasn’t gonna fly. I start right in the middle of a story, and I try to wedge it into a 3-minute spot with no context around it. The joke gets a few polite chuckles. I suck them up, plow on through, and bomb with as much dignity as I can muster.
When Tony jumps back onstage and takes the mic, he says my name like I just drank my own urine in front of him. “Leah,” he spits out.
As I’m walking to the back of the room, yelling at myself in my mind and self-editing my bit to make it more accessible, Tony says. “She’s doing the type of stand-up I like to call, ‘You-had-to-be-there comedy.’”
And the crowd roars. One of the biggest laughs of the night. At my expense. Fuck all.
I hang in the back for as long as I can stomach it, but I only last a few minutes before I have to leave, shamed, unfunny, and alone.
I imagine myself a stranger walking down a dirt road in a country town, people watching me from their front porch rocking chairs, commenting to each other, “Now that poor girl looks like she don’t have a friend in the world.”
“You have to stay here,” Jonathan says. He’s sitting across from me at the table in a Fatburger. We’re between mics at the Hollywood Hotel.
Jonathan Rowell is one of my new favorite people. Even though he grew up in L.A., he’s always right on the verge of homelessness, which never stops being funny to me. I met him a couple months ago when I was drunk and high, and I declared that he was going to be my best friend.
I suppose in any other world, we’d be unlikely friends, mostly because he’s ten years younger than me. But he’s also the guy that I sit with in coffee shops or burger joints for hours, just talking about standup. I had that in Oklahoma, people always willing to talk comedy with me, but here, it’s often marred by some unwelcome sexual tension or negativity or bitterness or selfishness. Perhaps because Jonathan’s young, he doesn’t have any of those problems. He’s just a weirdo.
“I want to stay,” I say. “Believe me. I just need a job. And a place to live. And some money.”
“Oh my God!” He looks up at me, his eyes huge.
“Shit, are you okay? What is it?”
“I just dripped grease on my lap, and it looks like I came in my pants. Now I’m gonna walk around and people are gonna think I came in my pants.” He has a very severe look on his face, much more dismal than when we were discussing my problems. “Oh my God, I’m so embarrassed.”
I look underneath the table, and sure enough, it looks exactly like a cum spot.
“Ew,” I say. “Yep, you’re right.”
“Oh God, and I have to go onstage.”
I laugh. “Dude, it’ll be cool. Just own it. Be like, ‘Fuck yeah, I jizzed in my pants, you got a problem with it?’”
“Oh my God! Now I’m thinking people are gonna look at it and think it’s pee like I peed a little and then stopped, and that’s even worse. Do you know what I mean?” he says. “Like if I peed just a little bit it’d be way creepier because men aren’t supposed to be able to stop peeing.” He cocks his head to the side. “Can you do that? Can you stop while you’re peeing?”
I stare at him for a few seconds, take in his young face, which looks like he’s on the verge of panic, and I crack up laughing. I laugh harder than I have since I’ve moved here.
I’m sitting outside the Bliss Café on a Thursday night being all stoned and talking to Lawrence Epstein, the host of The Jester Room. I pull a large bouncy ball and a pen out of my bag, and while I listen to Lawrence tell me about his day, I write part of my favorite quote around the side of the ball, the final line of Italo Calvino’s book, Invisible Cities:
“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live everyday, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
I’ve loved this quote for years, but I just now understand what it really means.
I do a quick set at the Bliss, but I’ve got two more mics to hit up, so I shake Lawrence’s hand, then I amble off into the night, bouncing my ball while I walk, looking for the right place to send it out in the world.
I give up on trying to come up with a positive thing to tell Fernando. “I don’t know, man. I’m pretty sure something good happened, I just can’t think of anything right now. But, you know, I’m fine.”
It’s true. I am fine, but nothing’s changed. I still don’t have a permanent job. I don’t have any money. I don’t have a permanent address. I don’t have anyone who isn’t crazy or creepy or annoying that will put his penis in me on a regular basis. Nothing’s changed. I just feel better about the state of my life. Somewhere in the last few weeks, I realized that at the end of the day, despite the shittiness, even when I wanted to stay in bed and stare at the wall and wonder why my life has gone bad, I got up and did open mics and worked on my act. No matter what.
If I know anything about comedy from watching five years of mics, I know this: anybody can make people laugh. It’s how you react when you’re not funny that matters.
“Man,” Fernando says. “I want to hear something positive. I feel like I’m surrounded by negative things.”
“Ooh, I know what we can do,” I say. I unzip my backpack and pull out two bouncy balls. I toss one over my shoulder and into traffic on Sunset Boulevard. “There. That’ll put good karma out there.”
He stares at me. “Why?”
“Just humor me.” I write his initials, FS, on the side of the second bouncy ball, and I hand it to him.
“Uh, so what do I do with this?”
“Whatever you want. You can keep it, or you can drop it somewhere out in the world.”
He smiles. He looks like Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez from the movie The Sandlot. “Well, I’ll take whatever I can get right now.”
When the mob clears, I sign up on the mic list and then talk comedy with Fernando to pass the time while we wait. They post the lineup at 6:45.
I’m number 14.