The sun beats off the concrete, rests on bright green lawns and tans the delicate skin of the Southern Californian populace. Christmas trees seem out of place here, representing something that doesn’t quite exist. Perspective gets lost in the hazy Santa Ana wind rattling the palm leaves. This is a city where people stuff their problems into suitcases they only ever open in order to put more problems in. The size of the baggage is relative to economic status, but I can’t help but think that all the trauma, heartbreak and anxiety resting underneath the surface will eventually burst open.
I’m going to a holiday party at the home of a famous actor that for legal reasons I can only call John. On the Uber ride over, I reread the invitation, sent via text message from John’s wife, Emma:
You’ll be in LA for Christmas? When dear? You must come to our holiday party. It’s at the house off of San Vicente. You were here with Kitty last summer, weren’t you? You just must come. Don’t bring a gift, no matter what darl, don’t bring a gift!
I got in touch with Kitty, or Katherine as I know her, in order to get the exact address off of San Vicente Boulevard. Katherine is out of town and I didn’t bother to ask Emma or her husband since I wasn’t sure they knew it. It’s a single-story home — long, modern, lots of glass. Something in me enjoys the sight of it, the luxurious lifestyle that must come along with such a house. A valet wearing a suit gives the Honda Civic that drops me off a look of disgust. When I get out and he sees that I’m well dressed, he is visibly relieved. I even hear him sigh.
“Smart not to drive, sir. There do seem to be quite a few tasty cocktails inside.”
I order a single malt from the extravagant open bar set up in the living room and find a corner next to some Venetian blinds and a large piano. The room is full. I take in the crowd, their jewelry, tans, surgeries, their eyes all ambiguously fixed on something pretty. The men have manicures and the women wear elaborate gowns, their hair spun in all possible directions. A fat man in a tuxedo stands by the bar, a coke and two caviar blinis in his hands. The Beach Boys’ Christmas emanates from the speakers surrounding the room. The scent of perfume and cookies hangs in the air.
“So, you’re the writer who Kitty adores,” a man in a light blue blazer with a dark red pocket square who introduces himself as Rick says to me. From here on out, I realize, I will be expected to play the role of ‘writer from New York,’ as if I were a character in a Tom Wolfe novel.
“I’m Kitty’s old agent,” Rick says. “We met at that Dreamworks event in New York last fall, remember?”
“Oh yes, that’s right.”
“So tell me, what are you doing in L.A., kid? Are you finally making the move?”
“Oh stop it, Rick!,” his assistant Jone chimes in. “Always wanting to know what everyone is up to. You’re a dog, you know that. We’re at a party.”
Rick’s wife, Dianne, totters over. “Rick is a dog,” she concurs, slurring her “s.”
I ask them where Emma is. They ignore the question.
“Tell me, Gordon,” Rick asks. “What are you doing in L.A.’
“I’m here to write about the holiday season.”
“Anything in particular?”
“Not exactly sure yet, just been happy to be away from the cold.”
“Well, I’m sure it will come,” Jone assures me, a whiff of gin and paternalism in her voice.
Dianne retreats back toward the open bar. Rick keeps his gaze fixed on her movements. “Listen, son,” he says, distractedly, “get my contact before you leave. I want you to call me, alright? You’re young but you won’t be forever.’
“Unless he finds the right surgeon,” Jone says.
“That’s right,” Rick agrees, gesturing at an older woman with long gold earrings shimmying along to the music, arms akimbo. “Sherry over there, she’ll be young forever.”
I excuse myself, refill my glass and move toward a platter of gluten-free Christmas cookies that are apparently sweetened with something called stevia. “The pastry chef is diabetic,” Emma’s event planner’s assistant, Connie, tells me — without irony. “He’s brilliant. I can give you his contact for your next party.”
“Do you know where Emma is?” I ask her.
“She must be around somewhere. It’s her party, isn’t it?”
“I think so.”
“So where do you live?”
“The Valley,” I say, trying to antagonize her.
Tucked behind the mountains, the San Fernando Valley is to Hollywood what Jersey is to New York, only gaudier. It’s also where all the porn is produced.
“Oh,” she says, looking around the room before thinking of something new to say. “It’s just been crazy lately, with the fires and all. Like, is it smoke or is it clouds?”
The catering staff, laden with trays of amuse-bouches, look like they want to set the guests on fire. An hour or so of identical conversations with identical people passes. I still haven’t seen Emma or her husband.
“Actors,” an entertainment lawyer in sunglasses says to me. “They’re like broken vending machines, grabbing everything in sight.”
“I hope that you’re keeping your hands to yourself,” he says, laughing and lifting his glass to clink my fifth round, “ — what with all the sexual harassment business going around. What do you make of all that?”
“Do you know where Emma is?”
“She must be somewhere,” he says, wiping crumbs off his mouth. “It’s her party, isn’t it?”
I gaze around the room, wondering what I’m doing here.
“What is it you do again?” The entertainment lawyer asks.
“I’m a stylist,” I say, testing whether he can remember anything from the start of our conversation just moments ago when I was introduced to him as a writer.
“Oh, that’s right. You’re the stylist. Jamie, right? Tell me, what are you working on?”
“A horror movie.”
“Sounds spooky. Say, they definitely did a good job with their backyard, right?”
Fish sculptures pour water from their mouths into a bright blue swimming pool lined with palm trees, surrounded by the greenest grass I’ve ever seen. There’s a beehive being marveled at by two of the guests and a coup full of rare-breed chickens tucked off in a corner. Four evergreen conifers adorned with Christmas lights line the yard, with Transvaal daisies, anemones, columbines, and cock’s combs surrounding their trunks.
More and more guests have begun to wander amongst the foliage — the children of manifest destiny, I think to myself, at the conquered western reaches of the continent, anesthetized by the artificial beauty disguising this desert on a sea.
“I’ll have to get the name of their landscaper,” the lawyer says. “Did you hear that they don’t live together? John has two more houses up in Topanga Canyon just like this one, just to get away from his wife. They’re in between Spielberg and Christian Bale, right where that little enclave is before you meet the horse stables.”
“I’m gonna let you in on a little secret …” He leans toward me. “I forgot to work out this morning. I just did 50 pushups in the master bedroom.” He lifts his arm up to high-five me and laughs. My hand smacks his and I laugh too. Our bodies start shaking in loud, violent hysterics as tears well in our eyes.
I give in. For tonight, at least, I am one of the crowd.
Gordon Glasgow is a writer based in New York and Berlin.
Photo credit: Eric Kilby.