by Alan Swyer
When Kenny Lerner pondered why Allison left him – which he did far too often – each and every time he was perplexed. Over the year-and-a-half they lived together, there were occasional bumps in the relationship, plus a minor skirmish or two. But nothing at all prepared Kenny for the barrage he received on the Saturday morning in April when she announced her departure.
“You never intuit,” was Allison’s first accusation.
“Intuit what?” Kenny asked.
“What I’m thinking. What I’m feeling. What I really mean when I say something.”
“Why not say what you really mean in the first place?”
Allison responded with a shrug. “Plus you leave running shoes here, there, and everywhere.”
“Like your keys you can never find? And your phone? And that fleece you love so much?”
Allison gritted her teeth. “That’s not the point! You watch too much sports on TV.”
“As opposed to cheating on you, embarrassing you, or blowing money on cocaine?”
“What money?” griped Allison. “Would it really hurt to be more ambitious or career-oriented?” Allison paused a moment to shake her head. “Know what’s ironic?”
“Your last name’s Lerner, but you never, ever learn.”
Kenny winced. “Okay if I ask something?”
“What do you mean, why now?”
“Why today? If so much stuff’s been bugging you, why’ve you been holding it in?”
Allison frowned. “I reached a point where enough is enough. But know what bothers me most? Not your snoring, not that you put your feet on furniture, not even that half the time you seem oblivious. Want to know?”
“To that goddamn actress, Isabel What’s-her-face!”
“Isabel Lang. And it’s far from a shrine.”
“What do you call it?”
“A silly infatuation.”
“With photos galore, plus that giant poster! That’s fine if you’re fifteen.”
“You’re making too much of it,” reasoned Kenny.
“How would you feel if in bed you thought I was dreaming of Brad Pitt? Or Tom Petty? Or –”
“Tom Petty’s dead,” interjected Kenny.
“Always correcting me. Know what you are?”
Allison girded herself momentarily, then exploded. “A fanboy. An almost-thirty-year-old fanboy. And speaking of almost thirty –”
“It’s time for you to be Kenneth, or at least Ken.”
Watching Allison and her brother cart off her belongings, Kenny, whose offer to help was spurned, felt first deflated, then defeated.
Alone in an East Hollywood apartment that suddenly seemed far too empty, Kenny spent the rest of the weekend like a lost soul.
He tried to find solace in the old vinyl albums he’d scored lately at second-hand stores and swap meets, but his go-to’s – Ray Charles’ “Ingredients In A Recipe For Soul,” “Thelonious Monk’s Greatest Hits,” and “The Very Best Of Nina Simone” – provided zero solace. Nor did re-watching a favorite film from childhood called “Better Off Dead.”
Shooting baskets at a nearby playground was no help, nor was a trip to his favorite Ethiopian restaurant, where eating alone made him feel more bereft and geeky.
Even gazing at photos of Isabel Lang’s lovely face provided no relief.
At work the following week Kenny was virtually a somnambulist, to the point where a co-worker named Lily approached him with concern as he headed for the grilled cheese truck that arrived on Wednesdays. “You okay?” she asked.
“I guess. Why?”
“Yesterday, when I asked the name of the avatar in the video game you’re working on, know what you answered?”
“I give up,” said Kenny.
Lily nodded. “And this morning, when I asked if you did anything last night, you told me you prefer boxing to MMA.”
Kenny stopped. “You’re kidding.”
“Why would I make it up?”
“Truthfully,” Kenny acknowledged, “my mind’s been elsewhere.”
“Sure fooled me,” replied Lily with a sweet smile. “If you want to talk, I’m around.”
Friday evening, without the distraction provided by work, Kenny found himself sinking again into a black hole. He contemplated calling one of his poker buddies, but couldn’t summon the energy.
Then came a sleepless night in which he tossed and turned while reliving events he’d shared with Allison: visits to the zoo, a trip to Tijuana, horseback riding lessons, even the nerve-wracking days spent waiting for the results of a pregnancy test.
When those memories led to even more chagrin, Kenny tried another tactic, conjuring positives resulting from Allison’s departure. With her gone, he could watch sports with impunity. And listen at full blast to Slim Harpo, Cyndi Lauper, or even the used Stan Freberg albums he’d recently found at a Salvation Army store. Plus, he no longer had to turn off lights left on by her. Or worry about pots and pans forgotten on the stove with the burner on. Nor would he have to feign delight at memes she sent him that he’d received from others three days before. Or risk falling into his soup when Allison, for reasons he never understood, spoke in a whisper.
Despite all his tricks, ploys, and efforts, the sleep Kenny longed for was not forthcoming.
Saturday morning was even more depressing. If he’d been a drinker, Kenny might have hit a liquor store. A stoner, a run to Erba. A gambler, a jaunt to a casino in Carson or Inglewood, or even a drive to Vegas. But Kenny was none of those things. Nor was he someone who patronized escort services, or flew on a whim to Paris, where he lived once-upon-a-time.
Instead, Kenny thought long and hard about what could provide a desperately needed distraction. Knowing that someone had written WASH ME on his dust-covered Volvo, all he could come up with was grabbing something to read, then heading to a car wash.
Upon reaching the head of the line there, Kenny climbed out of his car and strolled over to where people waited on plastic chairs.
In contrast to those listening to music through ear buds or checking messages on their iPhones, Kenny had just opened the novel he brought when he heard someone approach. “What’re you reading?” inquired a strangely familiar voice.
“A b-book,” Ken stunned to see none other than Isabel Lang herself.
“Not a fish? Or a turnip?” Isabel teased playfully. “What’s it called?”
Fumbling, Ken displayed the cover, which said “LE FEU FOLLET.”
“You read French?”
“You from France?”
“New Jersey, actually. I was there for a junior-year-abroad.”
Isabel smiled. “What’s the title mean?”
“The movie made from it was called ‘The Fire Within’.”
“It’s not like I’m a critic or anything.”
“No false modesty,” urged Isabel.
“It was amazing.”
“A terrific actor named Maurice Ronet.”
“Don’t know him,” admitted Isabel.
“Plus Jeanne Moreau in a minor role.”
“How come I only meet guys who watch ‘Fast & Furious 47’ instead of smarties like you?”
Before Ken could respond, a series of honks caught Isabel’s attention. “Guess my car’s ready. Nice talking to you.”
Wishing he could come up with something scintillating or humorous, Kenny instead sat frozen as Isabel strode toward her newly-washed Tesla.
Disconsolate, Kenny reopened his book and tried to immerse himself in it, all the while dwelling on all that he would have loved to have said to the woman of his dreams.
To his amazement, he was granted a second chance when once more Isabel was heard. “Okay if I ask a question?” she asked, approaching again.
“This may sound forward –”
“I just broke up with my boyfriend,” she began. “And –”
“You won’t think I’m nuts?”
“I’m invited to a dinner party tonight.”
“And I’d feel dorky showing up alone.”
“Mind being my date?”
Though he was tempted to jump up and down, scream, and do cartwheels, Kenny managed some semblance of cool. “I’d be flattered.”
“Gimme your address, and I’ll pick you up at 8.”
Driving home in his much cleaner Volvo, Kenny’s inclination was to call a bunch of friends and report the news. But then he reconsidered. What if he bragged to Vinnie, and Weinstein, and Marquis, and Duffy, then got stood up?
He’d look not just like a fool, but worse, a sucker.
By the time Kenny got back to his apartment, he had half-convinced himself that what he experienced was a ruse.
Was he losing his mind? he wondered.
Nervously, Kenny approached what Allison referred to as a shrine. There he gazed at the photos of Isabel Lang, wondering if his longstanding fantasy was nothing more than an hallucination.
Accustomed to dressing in t-shirts and blue jeans, Kenny found himself entering uncharted terrain: his closet. As he hadn’t done since prepping for a date with a cheerleader named Candy Crawford while in high school, he searched for proper attire for a show-biz dinner party.
One by one, outfits were rejected as too old, frayed, corny, or pretentious, until Kenny settled on a black turtleneck, black jeans, and a sport jacket. He then considered a beret his friend Weinstein had given him as a joke, but decided it was de trop.
Standing outside his building on a street lined with old Toyotas, Hondas, and junkers, Kenny waited, waited, and waited, growing ever more self-conscious until at last a Tesla came into view.
“Hello, stranger,” said Isabel, looking ravishing in a low-cut gown as Kenny climbed into the passenger seat.
“H-hope I’m not underdressed,”
“You look cute.”
To Kenny’s surprise, Isabel floored the gas pedal, then started toward the Hollywood Hills as though training for the Grand Prix circuit. Corners were taken on two wheels; cars, trucks, and buses were passed legally and not so legally; traffic lights and stop signs were heeded barely if that.
All the while Isabel chattered, and chattered, and chattered. “Let me tell you about my last creep of a boyfriend,” she began, trashing an Italian named Massimo. Then came a diatribe against a director named Brett something-or-other, who failed to hire her when she was starting out. Followed by a verbal assault on her soon-to-be ex-manager, Tiffany.
Uncomfortable with Isabel’s driving, Kenny was even more rattled by her incessant gabbing, which he tried to justify as nervousness.
Higher and higher the Tesla climbed up windy roads toward Mulholland Drive before swinging west and reaching a house with a spectacular view of the San Fernando Valley.
“I’m happy you’re with me,” Isabel told Kenny. “Sorry I was venting so much.”
His spirits buoyed somewhat, Kenny’s hand was taken by Isabel, who led him toward the front door.
Feeling like he had infiltrated an alternate universe where everyone, thanks to appearances on TV, seemed as familiar as a distant cousin, Kenny wandered around inconspicuously as cocktails were served.
Little effort was made to include him in conversations, which, though mildly unsettling, provided him with a reprieve from Isabel’s relentless chatter during the drive.
Once seated, however, it was clear to Kenny that Isabel, having graced movie screens, was the ranking member of those assembled. Which, he gleaned, entitled her to hold court.
And hold court she did, issuing verdicts on films, judgments on directors, assessments of actors, and critiques of restaurants, plus opinions on anything and everything that entered her mind.
His fantasies having gone up in smoke, Kenny’s mind drifted to Allison’s description of him as a fanboy, which in turn made him want to kick himself.
Wondering how he could have been so foolish, Kenny began wishing he’d had the presence of mind to take his own car instead of being driven by the still-gabbing Isabel.
While his thoughts wandered toward other things – the Lakers, the rare Solomon Burke album he hoped would one day turn up at a swap meet, even the laundry awaiting his attention – Kenny picked up bits and pieces of Isabel’s evaluations of Harold Pinter, Adele, and a Netflix series called “Money Heist,” which he clearly enjoyed more than she did.
Suddenly, to his dismay, Isabel stopped talking and tapped him on the arm. “You must think I’m awful,” she stated.
“C’mon –” Kenny forced himself to mutter.
“And you’d be 100% right,” Isabel proclaimed. “All I’ve done so far is talk, talk, and talk about myself. I hope you’ll please accept my apology.”
“Of course,” said Kenny.
“So tell me,” Isabel began, “what did you think of my most recent film?”
With each and every second seeming like an hour, Kenny waited for an appropriate moment, then whispered to Isabel that he was heading to the bathroom.
Once there, he pulled out his phone and requested an Uber.
On tiptoes, Kenny made his way toward the front door, just as a black Toyota Corolla approached. Into the passenger seat he climbed, then off they drove.
The next Saturday, when his friend Lily from work came over to Kenny’s apartment for an evening of takeout Sichuan food plus the director’s cut of Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon A Time In America,” the photos or posters of Isabel Lang were no longer anywhere to be found.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera, plus a new one called “When Houston Had The Blues.” In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel “The Beard” was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.
Alan’s most recent feature for us was Q & A.