I made you a promise and I’m going to keep it. I told you I was going to the Nevada desert. I told you that going there guaranteed I’d have something to tell you. I told you in my last letter that I was blind to the punches in the face happening right over my shoulder, so intent was I on forging a something out of the nothing that resides in my chest. I told you that if I went to the Nevada desert I wouldn’t be blind to stories that end in punches in the face anymore. I told you it would all change. I didn’t tell you something else though. I withheld information. I didn’t want to jinx myself. I didn’t tell you that my excursion to the Nevada desert was an actual date, with an actual woman, a date that would involve both motels and gambling.
And that, Jake, is what’s called a recipe for a story. So forget the years’ worth of letters I wrote you about my devolution from business casual. Forget the letters I sent you about home décor. And most of all, forget Sarah Wolf Larsen, because when I’m in the desert with an actual woman, the last thing I need is a woman I’ve never met.
Jake, I appreciated it when you said you’d set me up with Sarah Wolf Larsen, the successful writer and successful musician with an excellent Instagram feed. I thought it was a generous idea. The internet made her out to be a fine person. But here’s what I didn’t appreciate. I didn’t appreciate that you’d set her up with Zeke too. And I definitely didn’t appreciate that you’d set her up with JR. I didn’t appreciate that you goaded me into loving a woman that I’d never met, and that you goaded our two other friends too. That’s not fair to any of us, Jake. Zeke cried red tears out of the scar below his eye on his cheek, and JR kept it relatively cool, but I’m sure underneath his stoned brand of charm, he was ailing too.
Jake, Zeke and I have yet to recover from the falling out you facilitated for the two of us. You told me he was upset that I’d fallen in love with Ms. Larsen. I told you to tell him that love knew no bounds. He told you to tell me that we weren’t friends anymore. I told you to tell him that he was directing a movie in Texas and ought to be able to wield his success for his romantic gain in ways that don’t mess with me. He stopped answering your calls. The two of you had a falling out too. After you and Zeke had a falling out, you and I didn’t have a falling out, but you became wary of falling outs so our interactions became uncharacteristically fraught, and so, absent the option to call you, I called JR to ask him if he wanted to hang out one-on-one.
Jake, I’d never called JR to ask him if he wanted to hang out one-on-one before. It was an unusual moment. But with every friendship I have in this city turning to shit all around me on account of a woman who looms large on the internet, I had to change my tactics. So, I called JR. It felt like I was asking him out on a date. This was an important feeling. It’s what’s called a table setter. Because I asked a man out on a date, and the next thing I knew, I was on my way to the Nevada desert with an actual woman.
JR and I met at Birds, the bar where they read your name off your credit card and call you by it for the rest of the night, a ritual that turns Toms into Thomases and Zekes into Ezekiels and JRs into Jameses and… Jakes… well, Jakes into Jakes, as far as I can tell, unless you have a name that I don’t know about.
The usual crowd was in attendance. The usual crowd there has Hollywood dreams but they’re all funny people so those dreams come out the right way. Dreams spoken in earnestness can be a problem. But when spoken by comics, the most wracked of all peoples, a tribe that makes writers of letters out to be bastions of stability, dreams come out sounding nice, and you’re glad they have them, and you’re glad you have some of your own.
I called JR and we took a table. He propped down his elbows. He had his trademark seven-day stubble. As always, someone leaned over to ask if he was the musician Ben Lee. As always, JR said no but maneuvered the conversation to a point where he might get the chance to talk about his own talents, talents that have landed him roles schilling both French Dips and DiGiornos. JR, I’ll note, does an excellent job of maneuvering. He has a glow. He is an actor. He emanates a specialness the rest of us reserve for our own private thoughts of ourselves. And while I was glad to bask in his glow, I was a little unsettled that, lacking professional training and experience under the lights of any stage or set, I was unequipped to glow back. I said as much to him. I said, “You, JR, are a radiant man.” And he said to me, “You, Tom—or, given the exchange you had with the bartender, Thomas—you might not be radiant, but you might have other talents. Aren’t you still writing Jake letters? What do you tell him?”
I told him I’d been writing to you on account of a woman he’d told me about. I told JR that you’d told Zeke about the same lady. JR asked for her name. I said it was Sarah Wolf Larsen. The people leaned over and wanted to know something about Ben Lee again. But JR wouldn’t have it. He’d turned his radiance off. Radiance now, at a time like this, wasn’t appropriate, because he’d realized that, no, this was no triangle—this was a full-blown square.
Jake, squares don’t work. Triangles work. That’s what stories are built on—three sides that rise together to a glorious peak. But a square? Four sides? That never rise together and become one? That’s a shape for the good people who wear business casual. But that’s no shape for me.
“JR,” I said, “I’m glad to spend time with you one-on-one, and I think it’s time I extricate myself from this square. You, Sarah, and Zeke can have your triangle now. I promise that, when you recount all this later, after your prospective dalliance with Sarah fails, three will serve you better than four.”
“That, Thomas,” JR said, “is a bleak attitude, so I recommend we take a night off from alcohol and go next door to the coffee shop.”
The rest, Jake, is what we call history. We went next door to the coffee shop. Neither of us were exactly glowing, but we didn’t need to glow—we’d been restored to our inborn integrity. I spoke at least fifty honest sentences to JR that night. He spoke at least fifty back. We talked about his father, my brother, the range of calamities that drove us from the safety of our homes out here to Hollywood where we’re free to screech and crow until the right bird sticks a worm in our open mouths. And nobody thought JR was Ben Lee anymore. He didn’t have to tell anyone about the French Dip. And I didn’t have to explain away the last remnants of my business casual. Because even though I’ve been in t-shirts and jeans for over five years now, sometimes I think that business casual’s still there underneath me, lurking. But not tonight, Jake. JR and I spoke truly and honestly, and the barista wanted to know what we were talking about. And so I told her. I told her we were talking about integrity. I said, “At times like these, when I feel a good dose of truth, I want to turn east and outrun the pavement and leave it behind and give myself up to the sand, the true shiftiness that’s underneath us, the true risk of scorch, the true risk of dehydration, the true risk of exposure, the essence of things that aren’t watered down.”
And she said to me, “You’ve been coming here for over nine months now. We’ve had our share of small talk. We’ve had more than small talk on a handful of occasions, after my shift, when you were sitting at the counter and not so immersed in your letters as to be unable to talk. And over these last nine months, I’ve suspected that you had integrity somewhere inside that chest of yours, but I didn’t know it. Now I know, though, so I’d like to invite myself to this desert, this race against the eastward march of LA’s pavement. I realize this is an unusual date. I realize we could go to a restaurant. But I’m not very hungry, Thomas. Not for the kind of food they serve here.”
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.