I’m beginning to think my life is in stuck in a perverse time warp, in some bizarre existential experiment where the control group is off getting massages and facials while I’m marooned once again with Roy, stuck inside a tiny metal box hurtling down Interstate 5 through Downey and La Mirada and Santa Fe Springs. It’s sometime after seven at night and we’re driving into Orange County for the ten millionth time, hurrying to get to Olivia’s birthday party in Capo Beach before its inevitable karmic murder by either A) over-eager, sting-happy cops, or B) excessively enthusiastic underage alcoholism.
Willful participation in such a risk-rich environment is anomalous at best and sheer insanity at worst, even with the indestructible constitution of Roy Reed in tow, because we both need to be back in Santa Barbara at a reasonable hour tomorrow-him for a midterm and me for my own reasons. So no, we shouldn’t be doing this at all, except that if all goes well, I might get to iron some things out with Lisa, the detective will get what he wants, and Roy will be able to safely skate off the thin ice he’s currently on with his Russian-gymnast girlfriend.
The other two reasons are probably more important, but Roy’s making a hell of an effort to drown them out in favor of his own melodramatic odyssey with Nadia. He’s been rabbiting on about her for the whole drive-better than getting sick all over the Civic again, but still an endurance test in itself-and my patience is finally beginning to chafe at his endless anxious fixations.
“…and I’m telling you man, I have no idea what’s wrong with her. I mean, she’s always been a little cool, or distant, or whatever-and really, I’ve always been okay with that, cause that lets me do my own thing at school-but lately she’s been, like, super-jealous and ultra-paranoid about, um, me cheating on her? Or even, like, other shit about not coming home enough on weekends, or not calling her or even…”
His neuroses flow in and out of my ears so much that by the time we pass through Santa Ana I’m used to the steady burbling of noise, and nod my head or interject a “yeah” or “totally” as if I were talking to a girl in confession mode. Roy’s really not that bad, though, and at least the guy’s sober this time. Besides, my life could be much worse right now. In fact, it’s downright pleasant compared to the vast swath of alternating boredom and periodic craziness that I’ve recently endured at school. The last ten days have been the longest of my life, and as I hit the accelerator and blast by Irvine I realize that I’ve been unconsciously speeding in order to get to the party and achieve some sort of result, some validating closure for my psychic penance of recent days.
Time had slouched by; I’d been able to remove the bandages from my nose, but it had only exposed the ugliness of the newly-crooked conk, and my ribs had ached harshly whenever I lay down. Classes had been dull, soccer had been painful to watch (my injuries prevented me from helping my hapless team lose any less), and I’d had to endure another round of mind-numbing frustration at the hands of the university bureaucracy when the register-by-phone system had glitched itself into dropping me from all of next quarter’s classes.
Worst of all, Colin and Ben were still off with their band on an ever-expanding tour of Southern California’s sketchiest dive bars, and our Isla Vista apartment had suddenly seemed like a lifeless void, especially in comparison to the place next door, which had thrown at least two more loud, raucous parties for the Indus Club. I’d thought about going, especially after Neena showed up looking for Colin, but for a little while it was easier to just stay home. Waiting to hear from Kelley had put me on edge, and it had only got worse once some psychotic asshole began phone-pranking me. It had been vile and relentless and the memory of it is still so irritatingly powerful that I wrench my eyes from the road and interrupt Roy in mid-flow.
“Hell, you think Nadia’s being lame?” I shout over his voice, as Jeff Buckley yowls out of the stereo. “Listen to this, dude.” I thought Roy might get a little bent about the interruption, so it’s a nice surprise when he doesn’t protest and gives me his undivided attention.
“The first few calls had, like, only happened after dark, but it was weird, cause the shithead seemed to have known exactly how much it would piss me off, you know?”
“Well, on top of that, the phone itself is like this old, push-button bakelite mutant thing-you’ve seen it, right? It’s like some old sixties office artefact, and loud as hell.” I could still hear the bell’s shrill whine, which had been an eardrum-blistering endurance test every time it rang.
“I’d pick up, after two, five, ten, fifty rings-I’d lost count at some point-only to hear this weird, eerie silence. Not with any horror-film heavy breathing-just dead air, like whoever it was had dialed my number and then simply walked away.” This had happened for the first three or four days, and eventually I’d had enough, leaving the wretched thing off the hook for another whole day.
“That sucks, dude.” Roy shakes his head in sympathy. “We used to get that at my house all the time. My stepdad’s patients would call at, like, all hours. Not necessarily pranks, but not really normal calls either.”
We boom through Mission Viejo and I decide to not tell him about the call I kept waiting to come from the detective, even though that was the reason I’d held out for so long before disconnecting the phone. That one glorious day of silence didn’t last much longer than twelve hours, but in that case it had been because noise began barging in from the party next door. It was a handy cover for my lie of omission, though, and so Roy won’t know about how freaked Kelley was when I finally reconnected the phone and the call I was waiting for came through at last.
The detective had been freaked; he’d thought-shit, I dunno what he’d thought-but it seemed from his agitated tone that he’d expected me to have been kidnapped, or beat up, or missing in action somehow. That hadn’t exactly allayed my escalating paranoia, but there was no need to burden Roy with it; most of the conversation with Kelley had been rote memorization and repetition of the shit he needs me to do once we get to the party.
“So,” I continue, “I figured with the noise from next door, how much worse would any more prank calls be?” Roy chuckles ruefully at this, but says nothing. Guess he can be a perceptive guy sometimes after all.
“Yeah,” I say, “so when they start up again, I’m fuckin’ ready, you know? When there’s more dead air, I fill it up. Abhorrent natural vacuums and all that shit.” I told him about how I’d unleashed a foul torrent of the nastiest, most brutal language I could dredge up from the depths of my vengeful soul, and how that had actually kept the prank calls away for another whole day.
“But then there was this call the day after that…” I trail off, but then hit the gas again and tell Roy about the weird phenomenon-I’d picked up the receiver, said “Hello?” and was at long last answered by another voice, only it was a chick.
“Some girl was on the line, and she was cursing me out. She was so bent that I couldn’t get in a word edgewise, or explain that I hadn’t called her.”
It had been very strange. She’d sounded scared and angry, and kept repeating variations of “Chris? Chris, is that you? Please, stop calling me. It’s over!” I’d tried to placate her, to say she had the wrong number. “Wait, wait-” I’d stammered, but she was relentless: “No, I’m sick of your shit, Chris. We’re done!”
To my surprise, Roy began laughing uncontrollably. “Oh dude, that’s a classic conference-call prank.”
I pondered that for a bit. “Now that you mention it, yeah. I just hadn’t thought of that at the time.” Then my heart sank. “Oh shit, I bet it was Addison. Doesn’t Christian usually go by Chris?”
“I dunno. Wasn’t he the guy that beat you up, like, two weeks ago?”
“Yeah. Fucking bastard and his two asshole brothers, too.” We flew under the Ortega Highway bridge. “Just because I was going out with their cousin.”
“Girls, man, fuckin’ tell me about it,” says Roy, and then he’s off on another verbal bender about Nadia. “She doesn’t trust me anymore, Derek. Hell, it was like pulling teeth to try and find out where the fuck we’re supposed to show up tonight.”
I merged toward the PCH off-ramp. “Yeah, why hold out over a goddamn underage kegger at the Doubletree? I’ll be surprised if it’s still going when we get there.”
“What?” Roy sounds slightly shocked. “No no, it was moved.”
“What was moved?”
“The party, the venue, dude. I got it from Nadia, who had it from Liv-new locale is, like, a huge fuck-off suite at the Holiday Inn on Coast Highway.”
My blood seems to stop flowing, and I almost drive us right off the exit ramp. “A wha…? A fuckin’… penthouse? They-they have those there?” I wrack my brain stupidly as a new, dangerous reality threatens to crash the immediate future. I should pull over. I should fucking pull over right now, and call 911 or something, but I don’t. I’m too frozen and absolutely unable to improvise, so I just keep driving, on up PCH in the completely opposite direction from the Doubletree. Away from Kelley. Away from the plan. Away from security and knowledge and safety into something unknown and unreliable.
“Yeah,” nods Roy. “I guess Liv had found out her brother the cop had picked up on it, so they decided to just move the thing instead of calling it off. I mean, Lisa bought all that liquor, and who was gonna help them drink it? I can’t do it all myself, dude.” He smiles as we get to Del Obispo, and soon I can see the new hotel, the ugly thing looming up out of the night like Norman Bates’ favorite rest stop.
I take advantage of the red light to close my eyes, breathe deep, and try not to panic. Maybe I’m overreacting. I’ve been able to just roll with things before, to calmly and coolly deal with many irregular and weird situations that the world had thrown at me. How hard can it be this time?
The light changes and I realize that I don’t care, I’m not worried. I might lose my cool, but it won’t matter. Whatever happens tonight, I know I can deal with it. I know I can handle those coke-addled Addison motherfuckers.