Natalie Portman

Fiction
Aaron Hanscom


I.

“Hi, Lisa?” I begin in my most tragic of voices. “Can you talk?”

She says, “Leo, please don’t be silly. You know that I am always here for you.”

Lisa has one of those cheerful voices that never seems contrived. Yet these voices can deceive one just as easily as those of some spurious politicians who affect a tone of humility with the hope of touching each constituent in an intimate way. You might insist that only gullible people are unable to recognize fraudulence; but how many of you, upon walking out of your house on a misty morning, swear that the chorus coming from the trees overhead is intended solely for you, to herald the grandeur of your life and the unlimited possibilities of the day ahead?

Nevertheless, Lisa is as close to a sure thing as you can get. I really think she’s in love with me. It is probably because of her weight that I don’t mind her living on the other side of the country. I get everything I need out of the friendship from our phone calls. She never demands, criticizes, or complains. In fact, she is the only one who really listens to me.

The conversation that transpires is really no different from any other that we’ve ever had. After incessantly spilling my guts for about an hour, I’m given the usual exhortation: “They’re not all like that, I promise. Leo, you are such a wonderful guy. You just have to be able to realize that.”

I finally do realize—how wonderful I am—and then promptly but politely get off the phone. This proves to be good timing for just as I click Lisa away, Chris walks into my room.

“Hey, what’s up,” he says rather indifferently.

“Who let you in?”

“Your mom. She was walking out as I pulled up. Said she was in a hurry.

Something about meeting Jerry for some premiere. She’s still seeing that putz?”

Chris flicks back the blond bangs stubbornly falling onto his forehead. His damp hair is evidence of his earlier fashionable intentions. After showering he had initially slicked back his hair passionately while looking in the mirror with puckered lips. He had maybe even pointed a finger at his reflection and told it, “You’re the man.” In any event, he was unwilling to shape this cool style with gel or mouse, opting instead to let his hair fall any which way it might throughout the night. It is a lie that self-reflection’s primary benefit is to yield negative images that can be changed; no, we look inside ourselves because we know we will see who we want to be.

I answer Chris, “Yep, they’re still dating. They’re going to that movie he worked on in Spain. Was she dressed really slutty?”

He nods; I sigh. Lately my Mom has started to dress more and more like my sister who has been faithfully following the fashion of Brittany Spears for the past two years. Tight black pants and a variety of colorful halter-tops are essential items in all three of their wardrobes.

Chris is here to discuss tonight’s plans. We are going to meet his two friends from Yale Law School, who have taken their maiden voyage to the City of Angels. “They want to go to the bar where River Phoenix died. ”

“The Viper Room?”

“Yeah. They’re also huge fans of the Counting Crows and they heard that Adam Duritz sometimes bartends there to get in touch with real people. Anyway, does that sound good to you?”

“Sure,” I tell him, forcing a smile. I’d prefer to just stay home and watch Saturday Night Live, but there are no girls at home.

II.

The aquarium is built into the wall directly behind the front desk. Brightly lit, it provides a sharp relief from the rest of the dark and gothic lobby. Void of any rocks, verdure, or even water this huge aquarium only contains its one inhabitant, who from our vantage point on two cushioned footstools (all the chairs are taken), appears to be fast asleep and oblivious of all the humans outside the glass. The majority of these people don’t seem to be as interested in this marvel as I am. I stare intently as though I’m in third grade, and this girl in her underwear is a science project. I’m waiting for her to sprout.

“It’s like she doesn’t even know we are out here,” I say to Chris.

“You’ve never been here before?”

“No.”

“Oh, well a guy will take over for her later. He’ll be in his underwear, too.”

There’s nothing I’d rather do than watch this girl all night, but our visitors suddenly show up and make this impossible.

“Here they are,” Chris says, rising from his stool.

Ben-and-Matt or Matt-and-Ben (they are interchangeable) see Chris and head towards us. Both of them have their very black hair slicked back and in their equally black overcoats they resemble Johnny Depp and his clone. The slightly shorter one yells out “My man, Chris!” from halfway across the lobby.

“My boys! What up, fools!” It’s obvious from his response that I’ve already lost the real Chris for tonight. His friends’ presence seems to instantaneously change his vernacular.

“It’s great to see you guys. Glad to have you in my home town.”

Manly half-hugs complete, Chris introduces us in a very unhelpful manner. “Matt, Ben this is Leo. Leo this is Matt and Ben.”

“Nice to meet you,” I say.

“What’s up?” they respond in chorus.

Chris takes over from here. “All right, guys. I’ve got my car right out front. Let’s get out of here!”

“Sounds good.”

We walk out of the lobby, past the martini-sipping guests, and down the stairs to the valet circle. Forgetting for a moment the name of this bizarre hotel on Sunset, I peer up at the sign for a reminder. It is upside down but legible: The Standard.

In theory, it should only take us around 10 minutes to go the several blocks west on Sunset Boulevard to get to the bar. However, reality in Los Angeles is quite different than anywhere else. Turning left from the hotel onto Sunset proves impossible because of the stalled eastbound traffic directly in front of us. Even merging into this muddle takes time.

“I can’t believe none of these jerks will let you in.”

The “jerks” that Ben or Matt is referring to are the teenage cruisers who are too young to be part of the action on the Strip, but still like to be as close to the scene as possible. A big enough gap emerges for us to enter only when a black BMW convertible brakes suddenly to allow one of its young male passengers to scream at a group of girls walking into The Standard: “Hey, girls! Where’s the party tonight?” These girls smile, but don’t respond.

Chris turns South at the first light and says, “I’m gonna take us down to Santa Monica Boulevard and through gay-central. Then we’ll shoot back up to Sunset.”

“Sounds good, man,” is the answer from the back.

Suddenly feeling like a pioneer of my city, I decide to say something. “First time in Los Angeles for you guys?”

“Yeah, first time. We’re loving it. Bitches are hot here.” Then the other one: “Will there be a lot of girls at this bar?”

“Gentleman, there are hot women at every bar in Hollywood,” Chris yells out.

“Sounds good.”

“What are you going to be, Chris? Producer, writer, actor?”

Chris laughs and then asks, “You guys got your whole act all ready planned out?”

“We’re going with the Hollywood theme. Up and coming actors.”

At this moment I realize that Ben and Matt will have success tonight and I won’t. They’ve got their roles down and are intent on auditioning co-stars.

“God bless you guys,” Chris laughs. Then, acting like a Hollywood tour guide, he directs our attention to the sights of West Hollywood. “Well, welcome to my favorite part of town,” he lisps.

Laughter precedes absolute silence from the back of the car. There are crowds of men pressed tightly together in front of the many clubs that line Santa Monica Boulevard. Some kiss, others hold hands. All seem to be having a great time and to be completely unaware of our eyes gazing from behind the glass windows.

III.

The burly bouncer leans against the blanched wall. He waits just until we get up to the door to propel himself forward and ask for our IDs. His rashness comes as no surprise; anyone whose profession involves discerning the true identities of other people sometimes forgets his own.

Chris, Ben, and Matt are let in pretty quickly and painlessly; the bouncer doesn’t even perform any double takes. I’m the one he’s had his eyes on since we crossed the street and headed his way. I can almost swear that he licks his lips as he grabs the license from my hand.

“Name?” he shouts out.

“Leonardo Burns,” I shout back.

He glances at me for a split second before proceeding. “Date of birth?”

A slight hesitation from me provides this enormous man ample opportunity to interrogate me further. My lack of facial hair and baby-face only add to my vulnerability.

“Tough question?” he shouts out even louder.

“No. November 5, 1975,” I state. I can feel my face reddening: to have one’s identity questioned is one of the most degrading experiences someone can undergo. With nothing to hide, however, I am quickly emboldened. “4041 Sepulveda Boulevard. 160 pounds. Brown hair and eyes. A8501832.” The bouncer can only wave me through.

After paying the twenty-dollar cover charge and peering into the one empty room on the first floor, we make our way up the stairs in an orderly Indian Style fashion; Ben and Matt acting as our chiefs even though they are in foreign territory. The packed house is already grooving to the 70’s band on stage whose lead singer, running his fingers through his Afro Wig, is singing “Staying Alive.”

The four of us migrate over to the bar without any consultation on the matter.

“What’ll you boys have?” Ben asks us.

“How about shots all around to start out,” Chris says.

We all agree. I’ll drink anything at this moment. All the confidence that I might have had earlier in the evening is dissipating faster than the smoke being shot out from the smoke machine by the stage. It covers up the dancers for a split second before fading away forever.

After gulping down the vodka we order our individual drinks. I ask for a Long Island Iced Tea-step one in my plan to get drunk as soon as possible. Chris copies me, while Ben and Matt opt for Rum and Cokes. Armed with our necessary cocktails we proceed to an open space closer to the stage. It is a prime spot not only because it affords us an excellent view of the band, but also because we are right next to a group of very attractive girls. They seem to be enthralled with the lead singer. He is now introducing the next song and seems to have convinced himself that he is really black.

“This next tune goes out to all the ladies in the house tonight.”

The whole place goes crazy as he sings the first lines of “Good Times”. By crazy I mean that they all start to dance. My feet, however, remain glued to the floor. Doing my best to appear engaged I sip at my drink and survey the crowd. Even Chris, who has no rhythm at all, is conquering his fear and hopping to some mysterious beat in his head. Meanwhile, Ben and Matt have spotted their prey and are planning the attack. The girls that were next to us have made their way even closer to the stage and Chris’ friends eye their every move.

“Anyone else need another drink?” I ask eagerly. All of them shake their heads.

“Well, I’ll be back in a sec.”

“All right, but get back out here. We are all going to get lucky tonight. Look at all these bitches,” Matt says, shaking his way towards the girls before being eaten up by the smoke.

I’m already starting to spin, so I just order a Corona from the beautiful bartender in tight black pants. I’m more comfortable in the corner than in the midst of all the action.

Ten minutes pass until Chris, his blue shirt drenched in sweat, comes up to me.

“You’ll never guess who is sitting over there in the booth,” he says, pointing in the direction of the bathroom.

“Who?”

“Who is your dream girl? The hottest girl in Hollywood.”

“Julia Roberts?”

“No, come on! Who do you always obsess over? You’d marry her, you always say.”

The first smile of the night comes to my lips. “Natalie?”

Chris nods, “Natalie Portman, my friend. Ben pointed her out to me.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure. She definitely looks good enough. Go look for yourself. She is in the far booth with a bunch of girls.”

“All right, I’ll be right back.” I’m skeptical as I weave my way through the dancing throng in the direction of Natalie. A part of me doesn’t believe that this ideal personification of beauty can really exist. That button nose and those deep brown eyes seem like products of my imagination now.

I immediately recognize who Chris is talking about and just as quickly I realize that it is not Natalie Portman. First of all, her hair is too short and light. Also, it hits me that she wouldn’t really be in Los Angeles since she goes to school back east. I read that in an article in People. But there is something about her…I slip into the long line for the bathroom to observe further.

Every time she smiles I can place her in that scene from “Beautiful Girls”. The one where she smiles at Timothy Hutton while playing in the snow… But she was 14 then—she shouldn’t look that young now. All of a sudden the strobe light that has been directed at her table all this time is shut off as the band takes a break. Without the artificial light her blondish hair turns brown. I remember that it is summer and that I also go to film school back east. It really could be her after all. A puff of smoke is exhaled from the machine, blurring her out of sight. I go into the bathroom. When I return she is no longer sitting at the table.

IV.

We are without Matt on the drive home.

“She was hot. Didn’t you see her? The one with the big tits. She was wearing a black skirt.” Ben’s explanation proves adequate.

“Oh yeah. That lucky bastard,” Chris says.

“Any numbers for you, Leo?” Ben asks me.

“Nothing, and you?” I fire back.

“Yeah, I got a number. She seemed cool. I might call her tomorrow, but we’re only gonna be here for a week. I’ll see.”

We drop him off at The Standard.

“Thanks guys. Chris, I’ll call you tomorrow.”

We watch Ben Affleck walk through the automatic doors and out of sight. It strikes me as the perfect hotel for him to spend the night.

The drive to my house is silent. Chris and I are both very tired. He drops me off at my driveway. Not only is my Mom’s SUV already there, which surprises me, but the light in the living room is on. I press my nose to the window and look in on her.

Pressing an open book tightly against her heart, as if ready to give an oath, my Mom lies asleep on the sofa. The serene smile on her face reveals that she has just had some profound reading experience. I turn my head so I can read the upside down title clearly: The Evolving Self. She looks so peaceful that I don’t even consider waking her up when I walk inside. I just cover her up with a blanket and go to my room.

I have too many thoughts in my mind to even think about sleeping. I look at the clock: 1 in the morning. I’ve done it before. She won’t be mad. Taking a deep breath, I pick up the phone.

“Lisa? Can you talk?”
pencil

Aaron (ahanscom[at]hotmail.com) teaches elementary school in South Central Los Angeles. Although he graduated from UC San Diego with a degree in economics, he spent most of his time on the seventh floor of the library reading literary critiques and writing stories.