Letters to Jake

Mood Assessment

Hey Jake

Guess what. I went to Nevada with the barista, an actual woman, and yes, we stayed in motels, and yes, we gambled. I didn’t win any money. I tried. But you don’t care about that. You know I’m employable. I could get a job if gambling crushed me. So gambling can’t crush me. So what you want to know is if I had sex with her. We’ve got two things to care about in this world, Jake: sex and money. And right now, you’d take the former over the latter.

Jake, having sex with a woman’s a complex endeavor. It takes skill. It takes patience. It takes a clean bill of health. Luckily for you, I have all three of those, if not always at the same time. Unluckily for you, sometimes having sex takes more than the sum of good parts: you need that special something. I thought I could find that special something in Nevada. I thought that special something was part and parcel to the sand below my feet, the unobstructed horizon before my eyes, the critical elements that I inhabit here in East Hollywood but that have been obscured, underneath pavement, between houses, behind the cloak of auto emissions. I thought I knew where to go. I thought I had to follow the rising sun to its origins in the hot sand. I thought that there, my clean bill of health, patience, and skill would finally combine to make me a dynamo.

Jake, I thought that in the Nevada desert, there’d be nothing better for me and the barista to do than strip down and reveal ourselves, especially since, as I detailed in my last letter, the barista lists integrity as her number one interest. But Jake, if you can remember life before you were married, you’ll remember that sometimes there’s always something better to do than strip down to total revelation, even when the landscape you’re in features neither the shade of trees nor drops of rain.

We got in the car. Things were looking up. I drove. I drive a truck with a massive bench seat. The seat was as wide as it ever was. We looked out the windows. Recall, Jake, that I’ve gotten to know this barista over the last nine months, while making small talk at the coffee shop down the street from me in East Hollywood. Recall that small talk is a limited form of speech. Recall that, when she heard me and JR talking at her counter last week, we weren’t making small talk—we were speaking to each other with integrity. And recall that the sound of integrity is exactly what seduced her.

So I figured that all I needed was absolute honesty. Honesty plus desert equals true love. That’s what I figured. It all seemed so simple.

“So what’s going to happen out there,” I said, as we turned off Hollywood Boulevard onto the traffic-choked 101.

“Well, I do have a boyfriend,” she said, “And a girlfriend,” she continued, “both of whom I love deeply and have been with for a very long time and have no intention of parting ways with. There’s this state park on the way that’s supposed to have poppies, though, California’s state flower, so that might be a fun activity.”

We got to the bottom of the onramp. We were pointed north. I planned to get us on the 14 through Lancaster and Palmdale up to Mojave where the airplane graveyard is. Then we’d cross the sand in a meandering way, as if I didn’t have a massive V8 under my hood, as if we had behind us only the wind. We got to the bottom of the onramp. There was a snarl of traffic of epic proportions. I didn’t know what to do. There was no way around it. This is how freeways work. I know you might not know this because you walk and use the subway because you believe in doing your part. But Jake, I believe in honesty. I believe in showing my cards before I’ve crossed the state line. I believe in going all-in before the cards have been dealt, in states where gambling is still forbidden.

“So we’re neither going to have sex with each other nor fall into true love,” I said.

“I didn’t say that,” she said. “One never knows. You are free to try to read my mood and make an advance if you think my mood seems right. Then, you’re free to make another advance if my mood continues to encourage you. Meaning: should we be kissing and should I seem sufficiently ‘into it,’ then you’d be free to reach for my breast. Then, after that, again, I’d ask you to assess my mood. But don’t ask for my help. If there’s one thing that’ll destroy your progress on the stairs of this endless escalator, it’s asking me to assess my mood for you. That, you can’t do. You must assess for yourself, and then you must gamble, and then you must let it ride, and let it ride again, and at the end of the day, you’ll either be rich or you’ll be broke, but you won’t be in-between. In-between is a California thing. That’s small talk. That’s Los Angeles. But broke or rich—that’s love, that’s Nevada, the place where not even shadows obscure your prospects.”

“Thank you for clarifying our metaphor.”

“You’re welcome, and good luck.”

Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.