I SAT ON the toilet, thinking about how Mrs. Gloria Stroller, widower and president of the Wisner Stroller Arts Foundation, loved my story collection Trees. She thought it “original.” And “courageous.” She’d told me less than an hour earlier, greeting me in her tri-shaded inlaid marble hallway (oyster, mauve, and coral), next to an entryway table adorned with silver-framed photographs of major Democratic politicians—Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi—embracing her. She’d held my hands in hers, glasses on a chain around her neck, flow-y black dress. Insisted I call her by her first name. While she spoke, her face—with its nips and tucks and implants—told its own sad narrative: Welcome to my Hollywood moneyed liberal world. Here are the rules: If a woman was once beautiful, she’ll always feel the desperate need to remain so, no matter how old she gets. Just like if a man was once successful but then fails, he’ll be forever identified with his failure.
The sounds of conversation buzzed beyond the door, the staff’s workstation nearby. You might say I was hiding and gathering my strength and reclaiming my dignity (you’ll understand in a minute) while excreting solemnly in a remote mansion bathroom.
I’d won the Wisner Stroller Fiction Award for Trees. The award ceremony, a combination star-studded charity event at Gloria Stroller’s impressive Beverly Hills estate, had begun. Wisner Stroller, aspiring fiction writer, put a gun to his head at twenty-three, mimicking his railroad and oil and real estate tycoon great-great-grandfather. A quick Google search revealed that despite (or because of?) their impressive fortune, many of the Strollers had chosen to exit this life of their own volition for the uncertainty of the next. Wisner’s mother had established the award in his memory.
I wasn’t the first choice this year. The original recipient, a German realist author named Hans Slovenderk, had passed on the event; simply because of my willingness to attend, I was assured a victory, which included a financial remuneration of a thousand bucks. Now I just had to wait for my name to be called.
An arrangement of framed thank you notes adorned the seashell-patterned wallpaper on the bathroom walls, all big-name authors thanking the Strollers for their hospitality. The one closest to the flusher read: You’re a glorious ray of light. Thank you for your sweet company and the use of your home. Hugs, Norman Mailer.
Bubby, my friend and colleague in the MPW (Masters of Professional Writing) program at the private college where we teach in Los Angeles, was supposed to come with me. I would have felt more at ease. Bubby’s a well-known writer. But he’s getting old and forgetful (mid-eighties) and when I’d called to tell him I was on my way to pick him up, he’d said, “I hope you’re not planning on coming by because I have the runs.”
“I wasn’t planning on it,” I lied.
“Good,” he said, and he hung up the phone.
So I’d come alone, driving my dung-colored Volvo. I would have confused the front lawn of Gloria’s mansion for a park had I not seen the valets. There was a table manned by three people with a checklist to enter the estate. I was given a fan with the face of a famous author on it. The Joan Didions had gone the quickest, and the only ones left were the Ernest Hemingways.
I joined the other guests in the backyard, fanning themselves with their famous authors. A stage had been set up on the other side of the pool. I tried not to think about having to walk the steps to the podium to accept my award. Great cushiony lounges circled the pool, and I took my place beside three nip-tucked-and-implanted women. The chaise didn’t encourage a seated position, and in my half-lying down pose, I tried to appear nonchalant, already worrying about how to extract myself later on. But the ladies ignored me, directing their attention to the celebrities.
I’ll state the obvious: celebrities are more attractive than you and me (okay, especially me). What I didn’t know is that they also have giant heads. They were the reason people paid to come to the ceremony at all. The proceeds would benefit literacy awareness.
Gloria went to the podium and spoke into the microphone. She thanked everyone for coming and said the program would begin in about five minutes. She praised the “Hollywood elite” in attendance, saying, “Who else is going to look out for the working class?” to applause. Meanwhile, the brown-skinned staff adjusted the huge umbrellas—heavy and awkward—as the guests complained about the lack of shade.
The buffet looked awful—little dried taquitos, etc., Mexican-themed, generic rich people charity food. By the buffet stood a group of models. Tall, thin, incredible cheekbones. One stared at her plate of food as if it contained the secrets to the universe. She sniffed at the frijoles. Nothing went in her mouth.
I watched a model in spike heels do a face plant in the grass, her heels sinking in the lawn. She rebounded quickly, looking around to make sure no one had noticed, and before she saw me watching, I looked away.
I don’t like social gatherings. More than two people, appetizers, a bar, I’m in hell. The thought of “mingling” and “small talk,” the drone of music and conversation, the superficiality, I become completely and terrifyingly vulnerable, understanding that everyone will die, must die. This awareness, our shared deaths, leads to discouragement and a loss of any protective armor—a conscious throbbing terror. Half-lying on the cushioned lounge, my feelings big, sad, and comfortless, and my heart a frightened animal inside my chest, I took deep breaths and my eyes got wet.
I saw Molly Ringwald walking in my direction. A reprieve, an entryway into beauty and life. I’ve had a longtime crush on her. She was not, Bubby told me once, a CWWC: Celebrity Writer Writing about Celebrity; she thought herself to be a serious literary writer.
Before I lost my nerve, I lumbered from my chaise, pulling myself from its pillow-y depths. I wiped the wetness from my eyes.
With all my nerve, I approached Molly Ringwald. Completely out of character, I asked her to sign the back of my Ernest Hemingway fan. “I’m Gabriel Mason,” I said, my face hot. “I’m a writer too.”
“Humpf,” she said, reaching for my pen and fan. She turned from me and before she signed her name, she paused to talk to a blond who must have been another celebrity. Then she forgot me. I stood shading my eyes from the sun, my bald spot getting scorched, while they conversed. It felt like kittens played inside my stomach—swatting their little paws at each other.
I left my pen and Hemingway fan with Molly and made my way to the bathroom to unload the kittens. Consoled myself thinking about Gloria’s admiration (“bold” and “courageous” and “original,” she’d said of Trees), and Molly’s shame when I’d stand to accept my award at the podium. I’d give a speech about writers being ignored. Molly would approach me afterward and ask for my forgiveness. She’d try to make it up to me. Hold my hand. Smile. Ignore her husband, a handsome Greek with a full head of hair.
Wiped and having flushed, I examined my face in the bathroom mirror while washing my hands with a fragrant lavender sudsy liquid soap. I’m not the first man to be sensitive about going bald. I used to be able to camouflage with a unique combing method, which worked for years, except in windy environments; but now there’s no recourse besides hats.
In a further act of stalling, I reached for a silver tube of hand lotion. L’Occitaine, the label read, lavende de haute provence. Curious, I tried to squirt some into my hand. Nothing came out. A virgin, the seal on the opening hadn’t been broken, so I took the pointy end of the cap and pierced it. A coil of lotion emerged and I rubbed my hands with it.
When I tried to exit, the fancy metal door-handle—looking very French and antique—wobbled, slippery and uncooperative. I panicked, beginning to sweat, shaking the doorknob.
With a towel-covered hand, the knob finally decided to turn in my grip, but it also decided to come off and land on my foot.
I thumped on the door. Nothing, the staff gone, probably rearranging those huge cumbersome patio umbrellas in accordance to the sun’s uncooperative sky shifting. Just in case, I called out—“Hello? Help! Hello? Anyone? Anyone? I’m stuck!”
After ten minutes or so of trying to force the door open, I calmed myself with deep breathing and stretches. Two dark splotches emerged on the material of my shirt from my armpits.
I pulled my cell from my khakis and speed dialed Bubby.
“What is it?” he answered.
“Bubby,” I said, “I’m stuck in a bathroom at this awards thing.” I explained about the handle. How I’d tried to reinsert it. I’d stuck my fingers in the dark little space, pushed and pulled. I’d found tweezers in a drawer, fiddled. I didn’t have anyone’s number at the party. Besides, I’d be too embarrassed to call.
“What should I do?” I asked.
A long silence.
“You there, Bubby?”
“So what?” he said.
“I’m supposed to accept an award. What should I do?”
“You claustrophobic?” he asked.
I shook my head and then remembered that Bubby couldn’t see me. “Nah,” I said.
“You got something to read?”
“Sure,” I said. I’d downloaded Patti Smith’s Just Kids onto my iPhone awhile back.
“Either call the cops,” he said, “or wait it out. Someone’ll find you eventually. Someone’ll have to take a crap.”
“The bathroom’s kinda far away,” I said, explaining how I’d chosen the remote locale near the staff’s workstation.
“One of the servant’s will find you,” he amended.
“Thanks, Bubby,” I said.
He hung up.
Hunched on the commode, I pulled up Patti Smith’s prose, randomly scrolling. I stopped to read:
One just does their work for the people, and the more people you can touch the more wonderful it is. You don’t do your work and say, “I just want the cool people to read it.” You want everyone to be transported and inspired by it.
When I was young and really struggling William Burroughs gave me this advice, “Build a good name. Keep your name clean, don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful, be concerned with doing good work and making the right choices, and protect your work.”
Easy for you to say, Patti, I said aloud to no one. Was that before or after Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his second wife? Then I closed my eyes and wept.
As Bubby promised, about an hour and a half later, a Latina opened the door and stepped back with a startled “¡Dios mío!” and a hand to her chest, and I said, “Sorry, sorry,” and moved past her.
I made my way through a side-door down the park-like front lawn to the valet service.
“Most everyone’s left,” said the valet, a young pretty black woman. “Only a few key chains left.”
“No tips,” she said, when I tried to hand her a wadded five-dollar bill. “It’s the rule.” She smiled. “I heard the guy who won the award left before they could give it to him.”
She was entreating me for information, as she probably had her other customers. When I didn’t say anything, she added, “They say he was making some kind of statement.”
“Beats me,” she said, “but it’s kind of bad ass.”
Before she closed my door, she said, “Did you have fun?”
“A blast,” I said, still reveling in my bad ass-ness.
“I’m glad,” she answered, and the door whacked shut.