AUTHOR’S NOTE: What you are about to read is a fictionalized true story. Names have been changed to protect the guilty. Any semblance to persons, living, dead, or undead is probably intentional but also probably not you. Probably.
City on the Edge of Forever
Fuck, go down !
I stood naked in my bathroom, staring into the cracked wall mirror at my throbbing erection, hovering over the toilet in cramped pain, praying for my hard-on to soften so I could pee and get on with my life.
My irises always contracted extra hard this early. As my vision cleared, my emaciated, slouching form crept into focus: the vertebrae and ribs poking out from under the skin, light peppering of fuzz down my abdomen, pasty skin dyed bronze with self-tanner, dark brown hair fine and tussled, green eyes highlighted with scarlet capillaries. The surgical steel of my piercings glimmered at my left nipple and navel, with the tiny rhinestone twinkling from within the crater. I stared into the reflection of my bloodshot eyes: I am Liquin Sonos, crypto-insurrectionist author, screenwriter, playwright, political activist and executive geek who has no looks and no money and has never finished a script. I hate my life.
As my boner relaxed and the urine flowed, I slumped towards the wall, bracing myself with an arm against the mirror. I pissed a bloody cloud into the bowl remembering the Lunesta…the sleep aid provided to me by my illustrious friend Brigham. I’d taken despite it knowing full well that I would have to awake at this ungodly hour because I needed the sleep so badly. Mild insomnia had become one of many negative expectations in my life, laying in bed for hours at a time, shifting, rolling, either too hot or too cold, praying for the insecurities in my head to stop screaming and that I might escape into the paradise of REM sleep. The Lunesta insured that I wouldn’t linger in consciousness so that I could spend every precious second possible unconscious. At my destination, I would need it.
The thought of my destination brought a smirk to my face: San Diego. Comic-Con. The four day orgy of geeks, gamers, nerds, stars, sellers, executives, celebrities, legends, has-beens, costumers, wanderers, heroes, villains and gawkers all bound together out of a decadent and obsessive fascination with the American mythology—not the lore of Lincoln or Paul Bunyan, but the psychological allegories of film, television and comic books, and more than jazz or musical theatre, the true American art form.
In a word: Heaven. The very image of the convention quashed all depression from my mind. People might have labeled me a freak anywhere else, but at Comic-Con, I embodied cool geekhood. Comic-Con wasn’t just Heaven, it was home.
I also hoped it would inspire me. I’d fancied myself a writer my entire life—from childhood I would make up plays to put on with my toys, write short stories and I even managed to win a few contests. But since graduating college and moving to Los Angeles, I hadn’t managed to finish a thing. I only seemed to find half-baked ideas, and with my sporadic work as a substitute teacher, when I actually found time to work on a script, I’d be completely onto a new idea from my last, which did not lend itself well to making headway in a writing career. Comic-Con had always cured me of a foul mood; I hoped this year it would cure me of my writer’s block.
The high-pitched beep of an alarm screamed into the room, jostling me from my brooding. Still naked, I ran back into my darkened bedroom and tripped over my Star Wars comforter as I reached for the alarm switch. Christ, it was 5:30am and I was already running late. I turned off the alarm, praying I hadn’t woken my roommate, and rushed back into the bathroom, shutting the door behind me.
I jumped into the bathtub, banging my head on the overhanging track for the shower door, screaming curses as the blood rushed to my head. I took a moment to rub the bruise, and turned on the shower full blast. The icy chill of the water which had lay dormant in the pipes overnight sent me jumping again. I plastered myself against the frigid tile, back tensing with discomfort, waiting for the stream to turn hot.
My heart pounded as I tried to calm my panic. I needed to get ready fast.
I scrubbed myself clean of the tanning solution and shaved with extra care. After all, I would pose for a good number of photographs this weekend, and the last thing I wanted was a face full of cuts or blemishes. I wasn’t all that great looking to begin with. I had to try to look less like a cadaver within the collective memory of the Con. Several of my friends and associates I only saw once a year at the convention. I needed to impress them. And then there was Adam, and his proposition…
I leapt from the shower, splattering water all over the fresh paint of my bathroom walls. I didn’t care, I needed to hurry. Slapping on my daily regimen of eye creams, sun block, moisturizer and tanning lotion, I ducked beneath the border of the steam on the mirror. Kneading gel into my hair, contorting to see myself, I tossed the last of my toiletry products into my shaving bag, along with mini-containers of my daily pill dosage of vitamins, amino acids and Claritin-D, swallowing a dose of each with metallic tap water as I packed.
I needed the Claritin to survive. My allergies often paralyzed my living, especially in the Los Angeles smog. Would that I didn’t require the allergy pills, since the federal government now took to Orwellian tactics of tracking its citizens’ drug regimens, all under the pretence of curbing methamphetamine use. As a gay man, I knew somebody in a rancid CIA cubicle poured over surveillance records waiting for the moment when they could send my crypto-revolutionary ass off to Guantanamo Bay. I know it all seems absurd, but then, I’m from the Midwest.
I finished up in the bathroom and walked naked back to the bedroom, switching on the lights and tossing my shaving bag into an open suitcase at the foot of my bed. As I slipped on my boxers, I took one final survey of the contents of my luggage. Clean boxers? Check. Sexy clothes? Check. Flight Suit? Check. X-Uniform? Check…it was all there. Most important of all, my first aid kit, complete with shrine to St. Sigs of the Weave, peeked out from under a t-shirt.
I compiled the first aid kit the year before when my indulgences finally prompted me to consolidate my substances and curb my spending. After all, mind altering chemicals are more expensive for the tourist. I mentally took stock of the contents: band aids, Vitamin C powder, aspirin, Maalox, Vicodin, Norco, Viagra, a bottle of Jagermeister, a bottle of Vodka, and some high-grade medicinal marijuana. Guarding all of this was Sigourney Weaver, St. Sigs of the Weave herself, her benevolent spirit watching over geeks—and their chemical substances—everywhere.
I pulled on a pair of designer jeans and fastened them with a leather studded belt around my waist. The belt buckle was a giant “X” emblem, denoting my alma mater of Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Or, I wished it was my alma mater. I went to some hick school in the Midwest, a relic of the WPA.
No matter—I don’t have time to think about this now, I thought.
I threw on a vintage baseball jersey with a “Blue Flames” logo on the front, the fabric clinging to my lotion-slathered skin. Don’t ask me what the Blue Flames are, I’ve not the slightest idea. I looked good in the jersey; that’s what mattered.
I checked myself in a full length mirror hanging alongside my bed. I needed something…of course! I rummaged into my dresser and pulled out a tri-belted black leather gauntlet and fastened it around my left arm. I looked like a superhero. I was ready.
I zipped my suitcase closed, slipped into my suede sneakers, and grabbed my button-covered backpack, then crept though my apartment fast as I could, as not to wake my roommate. Sneaking out the front door, I felt the cool morning air kiss my skin. The sky glowed violet in the East as the sun slunk up over the horizon. I dead bolted the door and rushed outside to the street, plopping down on the curb of Laurel Canyon Boulevard, listening to the hum of traffic on the nearby Hollywood Freeway.
Fuck, where was Kate? We had a train to catch. I looked down at the watch hanging from my belt, adjusting myself to catch some of the streetlight to read the clock face. We had to be on the subway in ten minutes. Damn, why do we always have to cut things so close?
As I waited for my ride I tried to calm myself by looking over the pins on my backpack, many of which I’d collected at Cons past: Darksied, Superman, Bela Lugosi, my gay rainbow Mickey Mouse pin, Batman and Catwoman flirting, the latter a gift from Adam and my favorite. With their cartoon designs from Batman: The Animated Series it seemed emblematic of our personalities, her smiling, eyes bright, hand to his chin, Batman stoic and statuesque, always hidden behind his mask. I wore each as a badge of my geekiness, a reminder of my fantasies that sustained me for so many years.
There was a time in my life called High School where displaying such emblems would invite only ridicule. I had enough of that at the time, I didn’t need more. But now I lived the truth: the geeks shall inherit the Earth. One week before, The Dark Knight exploded into theatres, and already breaking box office records it trumpeted the Golden Age of the comic book movie. Every man, woman and child fostered a technology addiction, from the iPod to Blu-Ray to the PC. The cult of the football and cheerleader of the High School elite had grown bald and fat. In adulthood, the church of the Geek reigned supreme.
I felt the urgent vibration of my ringing cell phone in my pocket. Thank God. Without even needing to look at it, I stood up and stared into the intensifying headlights coming up the street. I waved at my ride as the car slowed to a halt. Opening the door, I tossed my oversized suitcase onto the back seat and smiled at the driver.
“Morning, Kate my love,” I said, fastening my seatbelt and closing the door. I leaned over and hugged her. “Are we awake yet?”
Kate flashed a weary smile and stifled a yawn as she pulled the car in a u-turn. “Are you kidding?”
“We have to hurry,” I reminded her. “Don’t feel bad, I was running late too.”
“Sorry,” she answered through a yawn. “This is a bit much for me.”
“Don’t worry,” I soothed. “It’ll all be worth it very soon. You should be excited.”
“I am,” Kate replied, rubbing her index finger over her right eye. “It’s just so early!” Her hand moved down towards her iPod fiddling with the controls.
“Let the adrenaline feed you,” I advised. “I’ve been at this enough years to know that Con is as exhausting as child birth.” Kate shot me a goofy look. “Well, I’m guessing.”
“You dork,” she smiled. “Here,” she said, fiddling with the iPod, “I thought a little music might be in order. It’ll keep me awake on the drive to the train station.”
“Nice,” I said, recognizing the song instantly. I relaxed into my seat as the rhythmic sound of a bass drum pulsed though the speakers.
“It’ll set the mood for the weekend,” Kate replied, clearly proud of herself.
The nasal vocals of Billy Corrigan filled my ears, as “The Beginning is the End is the Beginning” wailed over the speakers. The week before, the trailer for the long awaited film version of Watchmen, the greatest graphic novel ever written, premiered with The Dark Knight and revived the long-forgotten Smashing Pumpkins song. Already online sales of the song had jumped into the top 100 downloads on iTunes, and the alternative rock stations in Los Angeles had started playing the song again. Ironic, considering the song and its companion “The End is the Beginning is the End” had been written ten years before for the worst comic book movie of all time: Batman and Robin.
I listened to the cries of Billy Corrigan with new ears, for the first time reflecting on the lyrics and their poetry of isolation, pain, and strangeness. Ironic that I had never heard a song that so well described the geeky condition.
2008 A.D.–Geeks reigned supreme. I sighed at the thought. Comic books had gone from pulp fiction accused of corrupting the youth to driving a billion dollar industry, with a plethora of comic book films and associated merchandise crowding the marketplace, driving the movie business, and we were about to embark on a journey into the most savage and chaotic convention the world had ever known. All eyes of the entertainment industry would turn to San Diego to behold the wonders of the coming year, and Kate and I would stand in the eye of the chaos watching it all ebb and flow. My God, it would be beautiful…
Fortunate for us, there is very little traffic at 5:30am, even in LA, so we made good time to the North Hollywood subway station. Yanking our rollaway suitcases behind us, Kate and I descended into the underground, our bags bouncing down the escalator.
I watched her struggle with the chrome plated ticket dispenser, its plasma screen covered in arrows vaguely pointing at different keys, trying to figure out what buttons to press and when to feed the dollar into the slot. I’ve always believed you learn a lot about someone when he’s a travel companion: you can always tell how sheltered and self sufficient he is. In Kate’s case I could tell she could take care of herself if she had to, but probably never had the need.
“Here,” I said, pressing the correct buttons on her machine. A coin slot opened with a loud, mechanical click, and Kate inserted her money, grumbling to herself.
Just below the ticketing platform, I heard the rumble of the train.
“Come on,” I said, rushing for the final staircase.
I glanced behind me to see Kate, fidgeting to put away her ticket and money in her purse. I grabbed her by the arm and pulled her along. We clamored down the stairs, steadying ourselves with the hand rail as our oversized suitcases threatened to trip us into a neck-breaking fall. We ran into the first car we could, heaving for breath, just as the doors closed behind us. Exchanging a quick look of relief, and trying to acknowledge the stares of the other subway riders, we took our seats and tried to catch our breaths. Heaving the stale and dirty air of the Los Angeles subway is not the ideal way to start the day…
The subway jerked and rumbled along through the dark and rank tunnels. I tried reading a copy of Newsweek to relax. Kate slumped against a window attempting to sleep. I tried not to think about, nor did I mention to her, the filth she probably got in her hair from rubbing it against the window. I had to keep her in high spirits, after all. Watching her, I pulled a travel bottle of hand sanitizer from my backpack, and spread the cool alcohol up my arms. It just seemed like a good idea at the time.
I glanced down at my watch again. We weren’t out of the woods yet. Once we arrived at Union Station, we’d have only ten minutes to board our train.
The subway carried us all the way into the heart of Los Angeles—downtown—though Los Angeles in no way is a city with a heart. Downtown resembles what would in any other city be the main districts of commerce and upscale living. In Los Angeles everyone tries to get as far away from anything resembling reality as possible.
Almost a hundred years ago, Los Angeles had resembled a more traditional city, and one of the few functioning relics of that era is Union Station. With its streamline architecture, brown tile and ceilings molded and varnished like fine cabinets, I always felt like I stepped back in time, to an era of fedoras and cigarettes, intrigue and technological optimism.
I sat back in my rocking seat, opened up my backpack and pulled out my plain composition notebook I’d procured at Target for all of ninety-seven cents. I flipped through the folded pages of musings, brainstorms and random notes to a clean page, took out a pen, an stared at the blank void before me. I tapped my pen to my incisors like flint against stone, trying to ignite some idea. Sensing defeat, I managed to write one line on the page:
Fuck my life.
Not bad for an opening line, but I couldn’t muster anything else. I stared and stared until I felt queasy from motion sickness. Defeated, I put away my notebook and watched the subway tunnel walls flutter by, trying to steady myself. By the time I had, we’d arrived at Union Station.
The subway dropped us deep in the bowels of the station, and as Kate and I emerged into the main hall, rushing for the Amtrak kiosks, Kate snapped from her sleepy daze.
“Wow,” she breathed, eyes darting to the ornate ceiling with its great art-deco chandeliers dangling overhead. “It’s like something…”
“Out of a movie?” I interjected. “Indeed. They shot Blade Runner here, North by Northwest…”
“This is so cool!” she said as we collected our tickets.
“Finally waking up?” I smiled. Kate nodded. “Well then, as the great Dr. Hunter S. Thompson said, ‘buy the ticket, take the ride!’” I looked at my watch again. “If we can make the train! Come on!”
I handed her a train ticket and we flew down a long hall toward the boarding platform, kicking the suitcases we dragged behind us. Amtrak ran a train several times a day called the Surfliner, and as the name implies, the train follows the coast all the way into San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, just next door to the Convention Center. Taking the train, we’d avoid the industry traffic taking I-5 all the way to San Diego. Every year I heard horror stories about friends stuck on the freeway for four, five or even six hours. The Surfliner would bypass that congestion, and leave us with a whole day to enjoy the Con, if we could get aboard on time.
Running up the ramp to the platform, blood pounding in my ears, a conductor waved us aboard with the same kind of frenzy we’d experienced all morning.
“Just made it,” he said, escorting us to some empty seats. I collapsed into mine before I realized I had left my suitcase sitting out in the aisle. I hoisted it up to the luggage rack, my face turning with stress, then helped Kate do the same. I sat back down, wondering if I might drop dead before we even reached the convention.
“This is so cute!” Kate squealed. “It’s expensive, but…”
“Thirty-six bucks is not expensive,” I interrupted. “Not if it means we don’t have to drive, pay for parking, or deal with traffic. Besides, we’ll get there in three hours. That’s much faster than if we drove.”
“Whatever Liquin,” she said, flashing me her toothy smile. “I’m finally excited.”
I sat back and watched her face, feeling the joy and satisfaction a parent must feel taking a child on her first vacation. Kate relied on me to make the weekend run smoothly, and I’ll admit, I relished the responsibility. I liked feeling useful, and as I watched her tomboy looks—the freckled face, pale blue eyes, short brown hair, curvaceous body concealed beneath a Robin t-shirt and jeans—quake with anticipation, I felt an overwhelming satisfaction. I had waited a long time for this.
The train lunged out of the station into the morning light. Out our window we could see the Los Angeles skyline silhouetted in the smog. What a relief to take a vacation. Neither of us could sleep now, so instead we sat and admired the beauty of the ride from Los Angeles to San Diego via Surfliner. The tracks pass right along the coast, snuggled between a line of cliff-side beach condos and the crashing surf. Living in LA I often forgot the beauty of undeveloped areas.
“I still don’t know about this,” Kate sighed.
“What?” I asked
“This,” she said, waving her palms as if wiping the air. “I don’t know if I’m that big of a geek.” I rolled my head against the headrest, fluttering my eyelids.
“You like superheroes, right?” I questioned with cynical condescension.
“And you love movies and TV and all things geek related?”
“Yeah, but I’m nothing like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.”
“So?” I rebutted with a tiny shriek in my voice. “Not all geeks are fucked up freaks. Some of us are…”
“Holy crap!” Kate exploded, jolting me from my lecture. Her eyes fixated out the window, and it took only a moment to see why: outside the interstate paralleled our course, and lines of stagnant cars stretched in every southbound lane for miles in both directions in the biggest clusterfuck I’d ever seen. Moreover, the northbound lanes were as vacant as the southbound lanes were crowded.
“That’s the five freeway,” I whispered.
Kate and I exchanged a look. By now, other travelers had begun to crowd the aisles, looking outside at the frozen traffic. We all stood in awe as the miles ticked by. Some fifteen minutes later, we spotted the cause: Two refrigerated semi trucks lay crumpled together across both sides of the freeway, blocking traffic in both directions. Emergency vehicles and law enforcement swarmed the wreck. Aboard our train, jaws dropped and eyes widened as we saw northbound traffic petrified in the lanes.
“Thank heaven we’re not driving,” Kate said, her eyes still lit with incredulity. She dropped back into her seat, looking at me.
“No kidding,” I agreed. I looked out at the paralyzed traffic, wondering what effect it would have on Con attendance. The past few years’ attendance exploded at the convention, jumping by fifteen thousand attendees every year. People had to line up for hours to see their favorite panels. Fascist hall monitors in red polo shirts directed traffic in a single direction down the hallways. Navigating the Gaslamp Quarter by automobile proved almost impossible. Hotel prices skyrocketed.
I turned to Kate, wearing my best cocky smile. “My dear,” I said, sitting tall in my chair, “you’re lucky to be attending with a trained professional. And this is why we don’t drive.”
Kate smiled. “I do love you, Liquin, dear.”
I rested my head back against the seat, feeling good about myself—something I did only on rare occasion. So often I spent my days drowning in angst over finances or getting older and not having a career in the film business, my dream since childhood. The excitement of Comic-Con matched my vision of the joy of filmmaking as I envisioned it: colorful, wild and full of crazy people.
We chatted the rest of the journey over an overpriced cup of tea purchased from the snack car. The water burned both our tongues, and the car was out of sweetener. Still, the caffeine burst helped carry our excitement all the way to Santa Fe station. We stepped off the train directly onto the tracks. San Diego has a fine public transportation system anchored by a trolley line. Still, it’s a California city, so it’s not like the urban planners could be totally competent.
The trolley tracks intersect with those of the heavy rail weaving into a pretzel of steel, nearly impossible to walk over, but at Santa Fe station, passengers arriving on the Surfliner had to do just that. Kate and I, backpacks over our shoulders, hauled our suitcases over the bumpy tracks to the stationhouse. A Spanish friar would feel at home: unlike the streamline moderne styles of Union Station, Santa Fe depot resembles a catholic mission, with a tile roof, mosaic floor and broad open-air archways leading into the building.
Overhead, the sky had grown dark and cloudy. A cool western breeze fluttered at our t-shirts as we walked over the Spanish tile flooring to the cabstand on the street. I glanced over at Kate. She seemed just as impressed here as she had at Union Station. I stopped, smiling at her wonder. She glanced back at me, catching herself in a daze.
“You lead,” she said, jogging up alongside me. Weaving through the other tourists, many of whom looked to attend the convention themselves, we stepped outside the station to the line of taxis tracing the street. Abruptly I stopped, tilting my head to the sky. Kate stopped next to me, perplexed.
“What is it?”
“These clouds,” I said, “will not do at all.”
Then, as if I were Storm of the X-Men herself, the clouds parted, showering us with golden sunlight. Both of us squinted in the light, reaching for our sunglasses.
“Best at what I do,” I said, digging into my backpack for my shades.
“You are indeed,” Kate said, shaking her head. Though I couldn’t see through her mirrored lenses, I was sure she rolled her eyes.
I flagged a taxi, grinning with contentment. Once more unto the geeky breach.
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