Youth Hostel Days: the Secret of Angelina
Los Angeles, California, USA
Later, at the infamously jumbled Venice Beach Youth Hostel, over wickedly 99-cent bottles of wine, all of the guys agreed on one thing: “You know, it’s funny,” I began, pausing ever-so-momentarily to distill the drama demanded by the moment, adjusting my tan vintage 1975 corduroy sports jacket, ready to speak as a born leader will for the voice of the group: “When I think about it, the Norwegian girl, she’s actually – and she really is, you know? – the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.” A few thoughtful nods around the table. “Anywhere,” I added, “in movies, out of all celebrities, even super models.” He’s right, he’s right, somebody said. “What else is there to say?” I said simply, “she is the most beautiful girl in the world!”
An eavesdropper was among us: “And a bitch,” muttered a voice belonging to Ned, or Weasel Boy, who had tried to suck her toes the night before. Unsuccessfully. Ned nudged grease-crusties with his spatula, apparently a dead serious operation. He was at the stovetop making eggs for dinner. Again.
“She’s a goddess,” I reaffirmed, my back turned to Ned. The lot of them laughed. There was Southern Will at the party tonight, and now too the Danes with Same Names. Martin I, my near-albino companion these past three weeks – an eternity in traveler years – came in just in time to witness my bit about the goddess. Martin II trailed close behind.
“Martin!” I shouted a greeting to both.
“Friends!” Martin I saw me and switched suddenly to the ‘British’ accent, our running joke. He stood up from the tiny chair, his long black coat sailing around him as he hefted his gig bag, sliding out the guitar. “We shall now write a song about the Angelina.” He strummed a single E chord. The sound resounded through the kitchen area. The night’s hostel newcomers turned their heads idly from the sofa lounge as singing began. Ned navigated through us to clean and put things away in the communal fridge.
“Be witness,” I cried. “Seven males! All from varied cultural backgrounds, all born of different countries, histories, and ingrained ideals – yet each reaching agreement on so allegedly subjective a thing as Beauty.” A toast! A toast! Clinking jars.
“To the New World!” The New World! Hearty echoes of concurrment all around.
“A Toast!” Martin I proclaimed, his blue glassy eyes lasering mine, his face twisting up like a Mad Hatter: “A Toast!”
“A toast!” I echoed instantly to play the absurd – always on the brink of laughter and tears with this one – though the wine glass was empty. “To Angelina!” then quickly adding, “May her many nights be merry.” There is a final toast erupting from the gathering – an unintelligible prost, skål, cheers mate!
“The Most Beautiful Girl in the World!” I cried.
To the Most Beautiful Girl in the World! they roared. And in that moment the whole world, it seemed, was merry.
* * *
From childhood on, the world pushed her into beauty; she never chanced donning the commoner’s cloak under cover of nightfall to climb the confines of that palace. Hence her obsession is for the ugly. Look, she draws an aggressive picture in play; she drinks self-destructively; she pouts and tells you her stomach is fat, she tells you, “Look how fat I am! See!” and pinches a bare half-millimeter of smooth, tanned midriff, Oh! her ever-taut belly, Oh! her curvaceous metallic pants want to slide & slide, to slip from her hips. But I don’t want to be superficial! I don’t want to be a four-cornered gender stereotype! I don’t want to see Angelina as a glowing idolatrous sex-object from heaven!
Angelina knows how to handle it; she is always willing to have fun, even with those who want her; she gives us everything except for too much; she puts a hand on your shoulder to emphasize her point; she has learned things, she tells you; she is careful with her heart; she talks to everyone; she confides in you – she has come to accept the fact she is beautiful. But something is missing. You sense all the while she remains unaware of one thing: she wants to be ugly. She is the confusion of conflicting compulsions in violent opposition: beauty vs. horror.
She is riding through sand dunes.
In life, I seek only to understand, in order to – as my teachers taught me – move past my Male urge to objectify. Now, probably the first thing you want to know is what she’s like. I’ll leave that up to her:
“Hi! My name is Angelina. I have blond hair. I’m 5’6, 139 lbs and 22 years old. My real name is Hegé. It is not HAG. So please don’t speak at all if you can’t learn to say it.”
Angelina likes to laugh that her love life is hopeless. But how excited you must be for following your dreams, she says.
“How would you feel knowing you were about to spend the rest of your life giving little brats shots in the arm as they screamed in a thankless hospital ward, as a nurse every day for the rest of your life, putting on that plastic smile every time…” (contd.)
She pouts and you feel sorry for her. You want to cradle and rock her and pat her black nylon lace shoulders and tell her it’s okay, it’s okay, everything will be all right.
* * *
So I finally got kicked out of the Youth Hostel.
Alas Angelina, ice queen of darkness.
The alley was crowded once again with steamy vendors and sidewalk surfers, buskers and beggars and the fresh stench of guacamole. Travelers having fun. Travelers on the run. I want to immerse my psyche in motion, I cannot rest from wanting; I want to move, move, move. To take the turning planet by storm.
I bit my grungy shoe-laced shoes across the gutter amid college kids and movie stars buying celery dip with their Starbucks. I’m a pretty hip kid in this town, mind you. The cafes are trés cher. French girls, Swedish girls, beautiful movie star girls – except when you get up close, then they turn into Americans. But we’re all mad here. We’re all the same.
4 o’clock was gold dust on the ol’ adobe sidewall when I spied my first honest-to-goodness friend in this whole goshforsaken town, that’s the dark-eyed Willy Epps, Georgia boy, he’s up in the third story window, he laughs and slaps some kid on the back. Then he’s gone. Up in the youth hostel. Yep that’s him, for sure. My best mate, I thinks, in an all-too-British accent.
The big sign YOUTH HOSTEL stuck out flapping over the crowd of bustling consumers. Fire throwers and monkeys jumping. I veered off spur of the moment. I stepped up the steps. The calliope band sound was muffled in this enclave. Here lies my moment of truth. I climb up. Each step creaks and bends in, green paint peeling. I tapped open the wooden door – they’d painted that green too, a long time ago. Old brick. Old brick. Going up. Watching the eyes watch me. Biting the baddest of vibes. Try to act natural, Boy. You’re unwanted. Act natural. Front Desk is a canine – they can sniff out your fear. When I saw the desk and I saw it was Ned’s shift – my ego wanted to slink into hiding.
Ned glared from behind his desk in the Bogartian heat. I feel like an ex-boyfriend. The heat. Metal fan from behind him in the 1940’s has a little string dangling so you know it’s really blowing. You needed that.
“Well, well, well,” said Ned, “look who decides to come back.” This guy was a cartoon weasel. (And I kept thinking of him trying to suck Angelina’s toes.)
“Hey, I just wanna see Will.”
Ned snickered. “You ain’t allowed here no more,” he says and pointed to a sticky note, penciled and scotch taped solid to the desk, “I am,” Ned paused here, “very sorry.”
PLEASE DO NOT LET THE GUY DRESSED IN THE CORDUROY SUIT BACK IN THE HOSTEL.
He sat back; Ned could apparently laugh without making a sound or moving his mouth. It was, admittedly, kind of impressive.
“They put up a note?” I said. “This just isn’t right. Do they think I’m a criminal or something?”
“You broke the rules.”
“You’re not part of the hostel community anymore. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“We were having fun. Just playing guitar, singing.”
“The Old Man didn’t like it. Besides,” he stared me down, “maybe not everyone was having fun.”
“What rule was it I broke?”
Ned emphasized syllables for me: “It–doesn’t–matter.” (There were obviously two conflicting world views at work here.)
Suddenly came Will’s distinctive laugh from around the corner; the first hopeful sound of the morning.
Will gave me the eye coming up, “Hold on Ned – this guy’s with me, man. You can put him down as my official guest.” Chill Will examined the sign-in sheet, his bare arm leaning on the desk.
Ned said, assessing him, “Guest of you, maybe. Not with us. Old Man got word he was taking showers, using dishes, not paying and sleeping in his Datsun on the beach.” I tried to stifle a grin, saying, “Hey, I was just hanging out,” but Will caught me with the corner of his eye and didn’t miss a beat.
“So he adds atmosphere to the place,” Will said. “You think half of us would stay here if it weren’t for him?”
Ned sniggered. He said, “Adds to the atmosphere alright,” before descending into sub-language grumbling.
Punky came around the corner. “Hey! You look good, Honey!” My hair was a mat. Punky was the girl from Canada who came down to be a star. She looked like Punky Brewster, that is: she had freckles and brown hair and liked to wear jean jackets with pastel scarves knotted around the arms, and lots of buttons with boybands on her boots, and she added neon flavors to her hair. Punky was a bit airy after Angelina. But hey, she’s part of the gang.
“Hi Punky,” I said.
She glowed at her nickname. She started to ask me, wasn’t I going to come in? When I couldn’t answer, she turned to Ned, she caught his look of being about to explain (after all, Ned also had made a pathetic attempt to seduce Punky, but in this case found himself at the usual wall bureaucracy comes up against, commonly known as the wall of reason). Still, Ned repeated his That’s-The-Rule script.
“Whadd-ya mean?” Punky immediately reacted.
“Jimmy can’t step behind this line.” He motioned to the tattered duct tape strip across the floor.
“That’s so stupid!”
“It’s what the Old Man says.”
“So you just do what he says now?” Punky demanded. Ned said nothing. She continued, “Remember he kicked South African Judy out after she’d worked here six months just for putting her feet up on the couches? That should tell you something.” Punky had worked for rent once, too – then the Old Man decided to have her take house calls, then to change his bed sheets. Then, one day, he asked her to scrub his back.
I kind of felt bad ’cause Punky was pretty much yelling now and going off on Ned, who really – besides being a bit complacent and wimpy and unwilling to think for himself – wasn’t all that bad. “Hey Punky,” I mumbled, “it’s all right. Don’t worry about me.”
Ned spoke to her, trying to ignore the rest of us, “There’s actually nothing I can do.”
“You know, actually,” Will leaned in toward Ned’s face, “there is.”
More people came from the fringes, the sofa lounge, the bunk rooms above, a little crowd was gathered at the front desk. There were voices from the mass of them: “Why can’t he just come in?” and “What’s wrong with Jimmy?” and most tellingly, “He was just playing music and singing wasn’t he? It’s a shitty enough world. What’s wrong with a bit of fun?”
Finally Ned bowed to the pressure.
“Alright, alright. Quiet everyone!” A hush did in fact fall upon the youth hostel lobby. “All right, so Jimmy can come in to play this once. But I am going to call Old Man tonight. And he will do what he wants.” There was a scoffing sarcasm from Will, “Yeah okay,” and from the others, but they kind of dispersed as I walked in with them to the kitchen. I said: “Jump off a rooftop, Ned.” The crowd laughed with me. Such a sad thing: Ned would be an almost alright human being if he weren’t drawn by Walt Disney; if he weren’t so starved of identity to seek it in the role of authority.
“But shucks, he gave us laughs,” Will conceded. There were some nods from the group. Then I said: “It’s true people. How can we ever really hate a cartoon weasel?” They laughed horrendously. Of course, Ned was out of sight.
* * *
What perhaps Ned (and the Old Man himself) failed to realize is that the moment you make the innocent into outlaw, what you do in actuality is make them the coolest kid in school. I was up there with Robin Hood and Old Blue Eyes. I could feel it. The Youth Hostel loved me; that was the height of my empire.
Angelina and the Dream of Horses
I have come to know a thing that very few people know in this world: Angelina has a dream about horses. A recurring dream. Her horse is the color of Night, and always the same. Her world is blue and shifting from the dark shapes of rocks along the shore, as she passes. Again let me hearken her persona – she is a fashion girl. She is distracted by mirrors; she signed one of her emails, Love, the soulless shopping bitch. No one in the hostel who met her, initially, could possibly see what is so much a secret, hidden part of her. Hence the irregularity – the Opposition.
Hostellers can walk across the traffic on Pacific Avenue to Mao’s Communist Café. You can see everything from there.
Me and Will were eating rice at 8:15 pm by chance when we from inside see the Old Man stand up in the yellow glow of the 3rd story window, next he disappears, then reappears one story below, now with a briefcase, next he disappears, then the street-level door swings open and he strides away to some urgent mission, checking the time and adjusting his spirits. Where did he go? What life was all his own?
All the while we sat, conversation halted, scattered, amid untouched fortunes and the cookies crumbled, lifted from out of ourselves by a brief glimpse of a swiftly passing life. Such was the window seat at Mao’s.
That night, it’s Mad Martin’s turn. I ordered #2’s with Martin I and sat in the spot. I double checked across the street that Will was the one at Front Desk.
I, and Martin I, donned our accents and toasted with tea for a bit.
Then in the restaurant a few heads turned; Mao’s had a visitor. Angelina was buying Chinese food “just to try it.” The Martin II, holding her hand (by golly that amiable-faced, ‘normal,’ healthy-complexioned cooler-than-me Martin II had apparently won her heart). The bastard. Angelina tried one bite from the wonton plate and decided it was “horrible.” Martin II called the waitress. She pushed the plate aside and got a #4 instead. She ended up trying a bite from two more meals before deciding finally to eat half the third, paying for all, & this was just one day in America. She came back to the hostel after shopping, having walked from an Ocean Park window display, that icy-eyed Athena, the playful features, the innocence in black.
I was in the sofa lounge playing the pianola the time she first saw me. She came in with her boy (who looked somehow a bit worn out). Contrary to expectation, she was whispering to him that the guy singing “Build Me Up Buttercup” in corduroy resembled…someone she knew.
She quickly dominated the room. As she spoke with such fresh intelligence I caught an undercurrent of hilarity that might develop into cynicism if unresolved. Then emerged that first fantastical inkling. I know the image I saw: a vision from above, a glimpse of another life years hence – an old, hardened alcoholic, her eyes still magnetically compelling at the same time chilling. And always wanting. All this, I saw in her eyes, as she spoke of unrelated things, above her social dance about the lounge, I saw it. I heard it in the metallic echo behind her voice, a dissonance there, somewhere, I could feel it. How and why such darkness amid such light? Why in beauty must there always be pain? But for the present it was bright eyes and good humored assaults and rapid-fire quips. One-liners. Unending stream-of-consciousness complaints on everything from hair to society.
“So what is the secret to life?” I asked her. It was only she and I. It was the first thing I said to her. She was affected, I caught a change, subtle, in her eyes, though she remained good natured, light, very direct and friendly for real. She spoke to me, only for one instant slipping into the pattern she’d had with the ex-boyfriend who she had said I closely resembled. (At which point I resisted a stammer of “You date people like me?”) She dwelled on our similarity saying even my movements were like this lad in Norway. Only his energy was opposite, or else a void since he sat all day with Pot and Nintendo or Sega maybe, she told me.) And why didn’t she like him? Wasn’t she being harsh?
“He beat me,” she said with satisfaction in slamming me off my pedestal, “of course, I threw a multitude of sharp objects at him first.”
‘Good Lord,’ I might have said. She didn’t seem the ‘type’ to be beaten but then I suppose it was my ignorance showing through or something. Poor girl.
“So what were you studying to be?” I said.
She was going to be a nurse. How boring, I secretly thought. (Though part of me did try to see and cherish the life and enjoyment and wildness of that.)
Soon I realized, in slight disbelief, despite her vast and terrible beauty I felt only platonic affection toward her, however mad that might have been.
So she moved a tightly clad swimmers calf toward me, touching my knee, so I flinched away, because poor amiable Martin II sat sadly just across from us on the couch; I identified all-too-closely in his plight. Here was the one who had taken her out and kissed her and courted her all week from the start, on nightly excursions from the hostel home base, all intentions culminating to some anticipated final moment – and for me to tear this from his grasp? I am not one so easily to fall into the pattern, much less a spider’s web. Angelina was startled – considerably so – when I slid away from her. She gave a near gasp of innocence, in fact, or surprise it seemed; she quickly regained control. “Are you afraid of me?” she asked. (So much drama on one little sofa!)
“No, it’s not that,’ I said to her. I looked and motioned at poor Martin II. She no longer saw him; it was that time of night when people are ready for last resorts; she recovered from the unexpected and lunged closer, managing to maintain a pout face at the peak of aggression.
“I don’t bite,” in her light accent it avoided cliché (plus it was probably not true!) amid an unending stream of witticisms and words, even to evoke inexplicable sympathy in me – because she spoke in earnest, perhaps, because she had sweet somehow formed chin nose or cheekbone structure. (How does one define the reality of angels?)
The sparkle – that’s what caught me off guard. And I speak not of the mere glitter fairy-dust atop the entrance to her ample bosom, locked away in a black nylon cradle: I speak also of the wildness, the inner, hidden, secret anarchy of the eyes, beneath the frozen blue ice of Europa, the sparkle, the real hydrothermal vent communities, REAL glitter = anti-glamour of the soul, for it was there, The Truth, and I found it hiding, or at least felt waves and traces of its somewhere presence, echoes of its passage, in her speech, through her expression, beneath an irony hid a passion very real.
Her habit was to circumvent; but, by an awkward series of conversational twists, I unveiled the heart. She told me of Blizzard (the name of that dream-horse; a childhood name she had chosen before her knowledge of what the word meant). I finally caught a glimmer of sky, dark blue sky, the sacred wreath-like forms, the shoreline and her freedom – she let me glimpse it – in some small secret window of the heart.
“That’s it,” I told her suddenly. “That’s what I wanted to know.” She was listening to me, the impressions of my words impressing her pliable face; she was not afraid. Although she’d committed physically (I deduced) to the Danish Martin II, that stronger, larger version of me, Angelina leaned in close to me, “Promise to email. You should take my email but only if you do promise – so many times again and again people promise and they travel and promise but never write. Promise to email,” she implored.
“…uh, sure,” I stammered.
She showed abrupt satisfaction; she lunged in and wrote on my knee. And that was the closest I came to heaven.
She left; I felt for Martin II. He understood the look I gave him as he sat, unmoving sadly, resigned to the couch. He lifted his face to me after she left and started to speak, “Perhaps I said something wrong,” he said.
“No, no, no,” I assured him, “she still likes you. She’ll be with you tonight – not me,” I said after everyone else had gone. He seemed still rather crestfallen, so I added: “Believe me,” in a convincingly even voice. Perhaps it cheered him up. I hoped so. I was right in any case. Angelina was with him that night. But, whereas the Martin II had her body, so I tried to convince myself, only I had her mind.
A strange thing had occurred between myself and her, this surreal blond of Nordic lands, this queen destined for darkness. She is perhaps too bright a flame to burn long in this world. Indeed, I doubt many of us (we boys and men of the hostel, discussing as I said over 99-cent bottles of wine) had seen ever one so truly beautiful, or would ever again.
* * *
The Old Man came in and saw me and he said he’d call the police if I didn’t leave. I could tell it was for real, because the walls of my empire were rumbling in the distance.
The Old Man came in and for the first time ever, he spoke to me. His eyes deducted behind square-ish glasses. He was a shrewd figure in real estate, if not fashion. “My staff have told me things,” he said, fairly looming over the couch.
“Oh? Your staff. Who was that in particular?” I wanted to know. I didn’t expect an answer. “Actually I’m the Official Guest of Everyone. And I only take showers on the beach – well, only once in the hostel itself (but that was in a friend’s room) and all I use in the kitchen is five seconds of the water supply to wash a dish, and 5 minutes of 200 watts to cook an egg. I could give you 75 cents to make up for it? Even though I already do make up for it, with entertainment, with conversation.”
“You can tell that to the LAPD,” Ned gloated from behind his superior officer, feeling good about the snappy one-liner in his head that he finally got to use.
Will said something then to Ned, dark eyed, he could see through pretense, so intense and casual all at once, he appeared to be shrugging it off, though in fact I knew better; we all did by now.
Ned and the Old Man had nothing left now. They retreated back into their office world. Will and I made an unspoken resolution then to hang out together as on any other night, amid the same back alley couches. I looked at him more carefully for the first time. He was staring into the ancient coffee table. No one else was around. Maybe his mind’s eye could see the police cars, maybe he heard the sirens, they were coming ’round the corner down Pacific Ave, getting closer, I’m sure. We saw the Old Man dial.
“You know, Will,” I said to him. “You don’t have to stay here, to stand by me like this,” I was a little broken up, adrenaline gets the emotion going I suppose.
“Hey,” he looked at me, dark-eyed Will, and in that look was a reminder of the secret past we shared. “I’d do it again anytime.” Two years ago we had both gone through a bad thing. It made both of us more reasonable.
Just then Punky came in and asked, “Hey, guys, what’s wrong?”
“The police are coming,” Will said, as if he’d told her a good place to get a haircut. Punky had her reaction; it eventually died down; she left. And finally I had a chance to say to Will what I had really wanted to: “You’ll get fired here tonight. What a stupid thing to get fired for. I’d rather see you still living here, keeping our golden era alive.”
He smiled. There was a long moment of silence. He would never tell me to leave. “Maybe we can all meet up later,” he said at last, “You, me, the Martins, Mao’s Cafe, maybe it can all still stay the same.”
So I left. I didn’t have a bag or any possessions. I walked down the beat, wooden steps in my corduroy suit and into the night. Maybe I walked through the fine gray sand and into the surf.
Had I waited for the police, I would have been arrested for criminal trespass in California, perhaps. I would have maintained my innocence in conscience; but, by the book, I was guilty. As Ned says: “It-doesn’t-matter.” Rules save busy people from thinking too much.
Much later. It was a quieter time. It was a public library internet computer – long after the fall of the Youth Hostel Days. Lifting a rumpled, pencil-written email address to the keyboard, I typed out: Hold onto your horses Angelina, don’t forget the words you have spoken and the heart from where they cometh.