It happened while I was sitting alone in a bar on a desolate stretch of Pico Boulevard. It was raining in LA, if you can believe that. Something in the unfamiliar sound of raindrops on my roof suggested a sense of surreal possibility. It made me want to get out of my apartment, be around people, laugh, clink my glass against someone else’s. Like you do.
I called up Michael from the office. Man, I’m not getting on the road in this rain, he says. Nobody here can drive in it. Give me a call tomorrow. Ryan, a guy I went to high school with, is on honeymoon somewhere. I call up a girl I went on a date with two weekends ago, but she doesn’t pick up. Never does. There goes everyone I know in this fucking city.
I don’t know West LA. It’s not the sort of place that invites you in. It cruelly demands that you have somewhere to go, someone to go with. If you catch a glimpse of anything at all – a curious window display, a leafy alley – traffic speeds you along so fast you’d never be able to find it again. Not knowing where else to go, I settle on the Joker. I drive past it every day on my way to work . It’s squeezed between a luridly lit discount vacuum store and an abandoned Persian restaurant, and its yellowing neon sign depicts a grinning clown holding up a deck of cards. One night, the clown’s left foot was gone. Vandalism, weather, who knows. Just chance. I could have sworn the clown grinned even harder after that.
I go inside. The place reeks of cigarette smoke even though smoking has been banned here for years. A stained pool table glares silently from one corner of the room. A grizzled bartender glares silently from the other. Just my luck, to go out searching for people and to wind up in a deserted place like this. I decide to accept my fate and order a Jack and Coke. My best attempts to elicit conversation from the bartender meet grunts and nods.
Just as I’m about to leave, the door slams open, and a woman bursts in, violently shaking water from her umbrella. She throws herself vengefully on a bar stool two down from mine and orders a gin and tonic. She isn’t pretty – frizzy hair with dark roots and rust-colored ends, round coke-bottle glasses, torn navy windbreaker.
I say hi – she just stares at me. Her eyes behind her glasses are surprisingly green.
“Rainy, night, huh?” Lame fucking line. But what am I supposed to say? Still the same stare.
“You know, you think it’s winter here,” she says after five long minutes of staring into her drink. She has a thick accent I can’t place.
“Nah, the weather’s still pretty nice,” I venture. “Minus the rain.”
I start to say something equally lame but she isn’t listening. “I am from Northern Siberia. In winter there, you will learn what cold is. Coldest temperature there in winter is 60 below. Celsius. But it is dry. You do not feel frost.” She finally looks at me.
“Pretty cold,” I say, not sure what she’s getting at.
“Once, my uncle went out. Just to the store – twenty minutes. But he forget, you know, to cover his ears. He don’t feel so cold. But then he gets to the store, and he touches his ear, like this –“ she touches her earlobe – she’s wearing tiny gold earrings – “and it break off, just like that. It was frozen. Now he is missing half an ear.” She looks at me once more, drains her drink, and without a backward glance, picks up her parka and leaves.
But she’s forgotten her umbrella. I pick it up and run outside, but she’s already disappeared. Melted. Instinctively, I reach up to touch my ear. Keenly disappointed, I discover it’s still there. That’s when it really starts to pour.