Authors: Peter Moore Smith
Back in my living room,
Ridley Scott’s great noir science fiction thriller, played on my large-screen TV. In those days, I just let the disk rotate
endlessly in the DVD player, the volume set to inaudible, as a kind of low-level light source and most of the time the only
well of illumination in my whole apartment. I didn’t need to hear it because I had memorized all the scenes anyway. The one
that was on at the moment was from early in the movie, where Tyrell, the scientist who created the replicants, clasps his
hands behind his back and says, “Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. More human than human is our motto.”
“More human than human,” I murmured in unison.
In case you don’t know, it’s a movie about a bunch of renegade androids, or replicants, who are searching for their creator.
Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, the police detective whose job is to hunt the replicants down and kill them. Mostly, I liked
the way the film looked, the futuristic brights and shadows, the glossy blacks and vivid neons.
Right now, I stepped into my minuscule kitchen and pushed the array of psychiatric medication bottles out of the way — the
Valium, Librium, and Centrax, the Ativan and Xanax, the Inderol, Prolixin, and Navane, the Adapin, Vivactil, and Ludiomil,
as well as the Ambien and Restoril — all the drugs I had been prescribed for anxiety, depression, and social phobia, as well
as the other meds designed to counteract the side effects of the first set. Standing a little higher than the rest of the
bottles was the container of the drug I simply called Reality. This was the maintenance drug, the one that never seemed to
have an effect, except to make my mouth dry and my imagination disappear.
I set the casserole on the counter and removed the lid with one of Angela’s flowery pot holders, inhaling the scents of rosemary,
sage, and pepper. I noticed the chunks of brown, flaky meat in there, the white potatoes, and orange carrots. There were bright
green peas, too, which meant she had probably cooked them separately and placed them in at the last minute, since otherwise
they would have gone mushy and gray. I closed my eyes and lived an entire lifetime inside that aroma, and when I took the
first bite straight out of the dish, standing there on the cool kitchen tiles, I imagined my vibrantly blue-eyed, glittery-green-toed
neighbor driving over to the Vons market on Sunset to buy these ingredients — rosemary, thyme, pepper, carrots, peas, potatoes,
lamb. I pictured her gorgeous face in the severe commercial lighting, illuminated like a portrait of a medieval saint, and
wondered achingly when I would see her again.
Simultaneously, the weirdest noise was emanating from the parking lot below my kitchen window, an indefinable high-pitched
shriek that for the past several minutes I had been forcing myself to ignore.
What the hell was it? Whining, moaning, crying.
I lifted the miniblinds to see.
It was that fucking cat, a female in heat, by the way she was screaming. Somewhere between brown and gray, between calico
and tiger-stripe, she stretched on her forepaws and stood on the rusted hood of a battered white Celica, her tail curving
like a question mark.
My full name, just to get it all out of the way right now, is Angel Jean-Pierre Veronchek. My father is Milos Veronchek, and
unless you’ve been living on the dark side of the moon for the past twenty-five years, you’ve seen at least ten of his films.
Big, splashy productions crowded with flamboyant explosions, spectacular car chases, preposterous love scenes, they usually
generate the longest lines at the multiplex, not to mention the greatest profits for Universal. Dad was a director himself
until the late seventies, when he gave up any remaining pretense of artistry and began focusing entirely on the business end
of moviemaking. My earliest memories, therefore, are of on-set trailers, of sleeping on cots next to makeup tables, of countless
assistants, hairstylists, and actresses taking me into their warm, perfumed laps. They always commented on my skin, my hair,
my eyes, these girls, saying, “He’s so white,” saying, “I never knew a person could be so white.” And so I believed, no, I
that I was special, that my oddness, my very pink-and-whiteness, was somehow exceptional.
At some point, however, when Dad started sleeping with other women — he was screwing those very same assistants, hairstylists,
and actresses, not coincidentally — my mother and I didn’t visit him on set anymore. For a long time we lived in luxury hotels.
I remember gray marble lobbies, white-carpeted suites, underlit blue pools where I was allowed to swim at night by special
permission of the management, places where even the most insignificant meal was a production. Imagine macaroni and cheese
wheeled in by a white-jacketed waiter and presented on a silver tray. Picture Kool-Aid in a wine decanter.
Later, as Dad rose through the studio ranks, Mom and I settled into our house in Beverly Hills, a colonnaded villa on North
Rexford Drive with adobe walls and terra-cotta-tiled floors. My mother took up a life of shopping and cosmetic self-destruction,
visiting her plastic surgeon every couple of years until she was a bizarre impersonation of Hollywood youth. I spent semesters
in freezing Montreal, at the inappropriately named Vancouver School, and summers in the cool darkness of my parents’ basement.
Still believing I was special, still regarding myself as oddly, even preternaturally exceptional, I was a junior scientist,
an adolescent microscope visionary, a chemistry set prodigy. Those summer mornings, after consuming an anemic breakfast of
grapefruit and black coffee prepared by my anemic French-Swiss mom, I allowed myself to become psychologically consumed, enraptured
by a kind of ersatz intellectual reverie; I had developed a full-scale preoccupation with the costume of science, if not the
Anyway, when my parents divorced, as all Hollywood couples are scripted to do, I was almost finished with high school. My
cosmetically altered mom kept the house and a generous, ongoing settlement. My ever more successful father continued screwing
those assistants, hairstylists, and actresses. Eventually, though I’m getting ahead of my story by about five years, Dad married
Melanie, a doe-eyed young producer belonging more to my generation than to his. A year or so after that, they adopted a baby,
an African American boy they named Gabriel, and built a Deconstructivist abortion of glass and steel overlooking the glassy,
steely Pacific. I graduated from the Vancouver School and enrolled at UCLA. I had wanted to go to college back east but because
of Mom had felt obligated to stay here. My intention was to study physics and, ultimately, if things went well, to specialize
in the science of light.
My physical condition, as you can probably guess, has been the cause of a greater-than-average sensitivity to brightness,
and has for this very same reason inspired a kind of perverse fascination. Believe me, there is no one with a greater instinct
for the behavior and properties of light than Angel Jean-Pierre Veronchek. It is written into my genetic code; it is inextricably
braided into the threads of my DNA and lasered across my overly sensitive, blood-red retinas. I have become obsessed over
the years with the poetry of Los Angeles light, how it glimmers off the morning traffic and glows through the smog, how it
ignites the fires that periodically burn entire sections of our city to their asphalt foundations. And in those days, I also
yearned to understand its scientific underpinnings, to comprehend polarization, reflection, refraction, diffraction, electromagnetic
radiation, and, deeper still, to grasp its theoretical roots, Einstein’s universal constant, Schrödinger’s thought experiments,
the fundamental basis of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the very building blocks of our universe, of reality itself.
I was intellectually impassioned, as consumed as ever by the ambitious dream of science, if not entirely prepared to face
its philosophical implications.
But things didn’t go so well at UCLA. It turned out, not surprisingly, that I am not exceptional, preternaturally or otherwise.
Even though I studied the concepts I was expected to study, even though I read the textbooks I was supposed to read, I failed
my exams, I choked on essays, I couldn’t speak up in class. I was fascinated by the material, even obsessed with it, yet when
it came time to express myself, I froze, paralyzed, rigid with fear. I had always been timid, but in college, my pathological
shyness developed into a full-scale social phobia.
I was no longer oddly special, it turned out —
I was just odd.
Then, one afternoon during the second semester of my sophomore year, I found myself squinting up into the fluorescent ceiling
fixtures of the UCLA hospital psychiatric ward, where it was concluded that things might go better for all concerned if I
left the university, at least for a while, that perhaps this was all a hair too stressful for someone so delicate, so physically
unusual, as me. I was remanded to the care of my lifelong psychiatrist, the distinguished Dr. Nathan Silowicz, then brought
to a precarious mental balance with the assistance of his strict regimen of Freudian analysis and psychoactive meds.
I have never been cured; it goes without saying that a person is never cured of these things, but after a subsequent period
of readjustment, Dr. Silowicz and I decided I might be better off living on my own, that my mother’s influence was psychologically
… what’s the word he used?
Which is when I relocated to my lightless cave on San Raphael Crescent, a one-bedroom in a small building on an unpopular
cul-de-sac off Hollywood Boulevard — a building peopled with the castoffs of the movie industry, the might-have-beens and
the almost-weres, screenwriters who work in bookstores, actors who tend bar, directors who manage all-night pharmacies. I
moved in thinking I would use my newfound independence to do something important, something artistic. I’ve always had a gift
for description, so I planned to write the ultimate screenplay of Los Angeles, the definitive insider’s story of glitter-town
disillusionment. If I had to be alone, I imagined romantically, I’d become a reclusive writer, an enigmatic genius, a seeker
of ten-foot-tall, all-caps, neon-lit TRUTH.
But as anyone who has tried it knows, writing is hard, and the truth is elusive.
Was it that look on her face, the flash of kindness? Or that low, slurry voice that always seemed to imply she was sharing
some breathtaking secret? Could it have been those eyes, so blue when I first met her, that later on changed colors? It’s
hard to say what caused my initial fascination, and I think it’s safe to conclude that, in large part, and in view of the
fact that the simplest explanation is usually the right one, it was because she was beautiful, friendly, available…
And it was because I was lonely.
Whatever caused it, from the moment I saw that first transformation in her face, that fluid expression of apprehension-to-understanding
— she had looked past the colorlessness of my skin instantly, I had seen it happen, had watched it in the clear water of her
emotionally transparent face — I was obsessed, distracted with thoughts of her, and could think of nothing, of no one, else.
Therefore, three days after the lamb stew introduction, I followed two tabs of Inderol antisocial phobia medication with an
even more courage-enhancing mug full of Jack Daniel’s, slipped out of the old charcoal robe and into some normal clothes,
grabbed Angela’s now empty and well-scrubbed casserole dish, and stepped into the fluorescent hallway. I had heard her coming
home every night around three-thirty, the
of her strappy heels on the polished concrete steps outside my door.
I let a few minutes pass, plenty of time for her to settle in, I thought, then approached her door and knocked, using three
carefully rehearsed taps.
“Angel?” After a few moments, Angela peered around the threshold, the door open just a crack.
I tried a warm smile, always an awkward expression for me, always an aberration on my face. “It was just the way I remember
it,” I said.
There was a note of surprise in her whispery voice. “The way you remember what?”
“The way my mother used to make it.” This was only partially true: Monique’s attempts at cooking were almost always failures,
and her lamb stew, as I recalled, lacked a certain… well, it was terrible.
But Angela didn’t react. It occurred to me that she was on something. Those eyes, which in this bright hallway light I couldn’t
quite get the color of, were deeply dilated, a pair of empty holes. She just stood there, reluctant, for some reason, to take
the dish out of my hands.
“Do you want me to bring it back later?” I asked after a moment.
I held it forward. “The dish?”
“No, no,” she said, coming to. “Thank you, Angel. Thank you.” She looked away now, suddenly bashful. “You really liked it?
I nodded. “It was fantastic.”
Her face filled with generosity again, that look of understanding. “Sorry, I —,” she started. Even from here I could smell
the combination of too-sweet perfume and the night of sweat beneath it. “I’m just tired, you know, and kind of —” She had
something sparkly on her skin. She was flushed, luminous, a source of light herself.
“You don’t have to explain,” I said.
She took the casserole dish, finally, and when Angela and I exchanged the pot holders this time, our fingers touched.
My heart was crashing around inside my chest like a predator in its cage.
She moved away from the door to place the dish somewhere inside her apartment.
“I’m sorry to be bothering you so late, and I’d make you something in return,” I offered, speaking up, “but all I really know
how to make are Stouffer’s microwave dinner entrées. I mean, I’m not much of a —”
one.” She came back to the threshold, eyes wide.