I met Jesse and Chelsea at Io, half pub, half club, a few streets away from my neighborhood. It was in a newly vivified area of town, between a late-night cinema and an art gallery. Jess and Chels were dressed to dance but I'd only come to have a few drinks. Dancing was not my trip.
Jesse handed around our cocktails.
"Here's to our delightful sense of the aesthetic ideal," he proclaimed. We clinked glasses.
"Here's to our vim and vigor!" Chelsea added. Clink.
"Here's to making it as artists!" I finished. Clink, sip.
My drink was sweet, the alcohol completely cloaked, the way I liked it. Its orange hue matched Chelsea's top, some kind of sparkly handkerchief. I could not be sure how it was held up but I suspected adhesive was involved.
"I hope that guy's here tonight," Chelsea said.
"Which one?" asked Jesse.
"The one I danced with last week. You remember, the guy with the cowboy boots that were painted. Really square jaw?"
"Did you get a name?"
"Of course not," she snapped good-naturedly. "He was hot, though. And tactful with his hands." She took another sip and turned her brown eyes to me. "Found a good E yet?"
Jesse frowned. "Please tell me you're not popping ecstasy."
"Clearly not. We're talking wood type, you ass," she informed him. "For one of our projects. Chloe's been combing vintage stores and eBay for great specimens. In fact you'd love the Q we found last week."
"Yes," I agreed. "It's great. It cracked down the middle, but whoever owned it glued it back together. And there are all these nicks in the wood itself. It's probably about four inches tall, I'd say."
His eyes glazed over and he finished his drink. "Yo, I want to do a flaming shot. Who's in?"
Chelsea raised her hand but I just rolled my eyes. In the process thereof I noticed several men at the bar who were staring openly at me. As soon as I saw them they turned away casually. This was probably why I didn't like dancing as much as my friends. The long blonde hair was a magnet for stares and unwarranted compliments. It was never my eyes, my lips, my long fingers men praised. It was the hair, always the hair. And to be honest, I loved my hair. It was naturally peroxide blonde and fell to the middle of my back. It was a weapon, a boon, a lure.
After a moment spent inspecting the men who'd been staring at me, I realized one of them was wearing blue cowboy boots with some sort of design on them. "Chelsea," I nudged her, "is that one yours?"
She followed my sightline and gasped happily. "He's here! Oh, look how dashing he is tonight. Are those his friends? Maybe they'll come join us. No, maybe I shouldn't try to talk to him. Would that be weird? He's probably staying to dance, I can just find him again in the club..."
I raised an eyebrow.
Jesse huffed a sigh. "Just swagger your pretty ass over to the bar. You're a big girl and you look hot tonight," he encouraged. "No man can resist your charms. You are fierce! You are Amazonian! You are a tigress and your sex-o-meter is breaking the glass. You're—"
"Oh my God, Chels, just go over there before we have to hear more of this," I pleaded.
She finished her drink, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and glided to the bar under the pretense of ordering another cocktail. Jesse and I watched as she feigned surprise at meeting Cowboy Boots, who recognized her after a few moments. He introduced his friends, then Chelsea said something and they all turned their heads to our table. Boots's eyes caught mine and he nodded at whatever Chelsea was saying.
Jesse and I crammed into the corner of the booth to make room for Chelsea and the three young men who followed.
"Good evening," Boots said smoothly. His hair was sculptural, like Prince's, a burgeoning cornucopia of curls. He was quite dashing, Chelsea had been right.
"This is Shane," Chelsea introduced him. "And his friends Robby and Vince." Nods all around. "And this is Chloe and Jesse." More nods and crooked smiles.
"You all live around here?" Robby asked. He looked Pacific Islander, or perhaps Hapa.
"Yeah," Jesse replied. "I grew up in Washington but I came as quick as I could." He'd used that one before. Robby half-laughed appreciatively.
"I grew up here," I offered. "I went to art school but I came back."
"You surf much?" Shane guessed with a grin.
I shook my head. I could tell he and Robby were imagining me in a bikini riding the waves. Sometimes men were so easy to read and that took the fun out of things. Vince, however, was staring quietly at the blue oxen painted on the ceiling. He had broad shoulders and bland eyes.
Chelsea said something I couldn't hear, and then she and Shane were talking exclusively to each other. I asked Robby if he was a student someplace, and he said he was a business major at a local community college, and then he and Jesse began talking about recent news from the financial sector, something about the state budget deficit, a topic to which I had nothing to offer. Vince and I took turns staring at the ceiling, or the bar, or the napkins on the table. Finally he couldn't stand it.
"Your name is Chloe?" he asked. His voice was surprisingly soft. His hair was slicked back and he wore a white undershirt beneath a leather jacket, certainly rockabilly material.
"Yes," I answered.
"Is that Chloe or Chloé?"
"Chloé, according to my birth certificate."
He nodded thoughtfully. "Lucky you weren't named Balenciaga instead. Might have been a mouthful."
I was so surprised at his wit that I laughed. "Yes, it was a close call in the hospital room. And you are Vince, short for Vincent?"
"No doubt," he answered.
"Are you in the mob?"
"Why do you ask?"
I shrugged. "Vince, it's a Mafia sort of name. Are you?"
He deliberated. "I'd tell you, but then you'd have to dance with me."
I smiled, again out of shock.
He smiled back, then explained further, "I'm not trying to be charming. Dancing with me is actually really dangerous. I'm banned from New Mexico."
"Well," I replied, "I don't dance anyway, on principle."
"Do you dance on linoleum?"
Vince amused me immensely. "No," I answered, "linoleum is so bourgeois."
He smiled at me again. "It's too bad neither of us dance," he said wistfully after a pause. "It could have been fun."
I looked at Chelsea and Shane, who were flirting outrageously, and then at Jesse and Robby, who had moved on to baseball statistics. My eyes met Vince's again. "What about walking?" I asked. "Do we walk?"
"Will you deign to set foot on concrete?" I could sense that he was glad to be invited out of the bar.
"I'll risk it."
We left some money with our friends, who were astounded yet pleased to see us leaving together. I knew Chelsea would call me in the morning. Vince held the door for me and we descended onto the sidewalk. The night air smelled like the ocean. Drawn by its fragrance we fell into step headed in its direction.
"Is it safe around here at night?" he asked me.
"Fairly," I replied. "Where do you live?"
"Chicago, actually. I'm visiting my brother for the week."
"And what do you do?"
He sighed. "Can you ask me instead what I like to do?"
"Do you not do what you like to do?"
He took out a cigarette and offered one to me before lighting it. "You know what I mean," he said. "'What do you do,' you mean how do I make money. It's a loaded question, don't you agree?"
"Perhaps," I said. "But is it not a basic fact about someone? How can I approach you if I don't know what you do for the majority of the week?"
He took a drag, then watched the smoke drift in the light of a streetlamp. "I'm an investment manager," he said finally.
"And what do you like to do?"
Smiling, he replied, "I like to act."
I repressed the urge to laugh. Sometimes I forgot that clichés existed. I guessed he was actually crashing here with his brother in order to audition for something up in LA. "Stage or screen?"
"Stage, of course." This was more respectable. "And you, what do you like to do?"
We had strolled into the residential area close to the beach. It was well-lit with orange-tinted street lights. An old man was walking his dog across the street.
"I like to make books," I answered simply. A breeze blew across Vince to me and carried with it a tinge of his cologne, or maybe it was his shampoo or deodorant. I looked at his profile in the near-dark and found that I was enjoying talking with him and felt secure in his company. Briefly I worried how this encounter would end, but it couldn't be badly.
"You write books?"
"Sometimes, yes. But more often, I make them. I'm a bookbinder by night," I admitted. "And by day I'm a printer's apprentice."
"A — an apprentice?" He sounded bemused. "Do you belong to a guild, too? Does the king commission your work?"
"Of course not," I said sharply, and paused long enough to make him turn to look uncertainly at me and wonder if he'd offended me. "A king would never commission the work of an apprentice."
He laughed satisfactorily and tossed his cigarette into the gutter. I hated when people did that but did not tell him so. "So," he said after a long post-smoke sigh, "where are we headed?"
To my surprise, we found ourselves in front of my landlady's house. Behind that was my own little dwelling, but he didn't know that. I looked into Vince's face and found it friendly and ready for anything, from a farewell to a welcome in. I didn't want either so instead I pointed further down the street. "The Vault."
"You'll see." I sped up a bit with purpose in my instep. It only took us a few minutes to reach it. The houses on either side of it were aglow inside but the Vault was dark as always. We could see the moon's reflection on the surface of the ocean through its windows. "This is the Vault," I said to Vince. "It's been abandoned for years."
He looked really surprised. His voice returned to him after a moment. "Abandoned? I didn't know abandoned houses existed in Santa Veronica."
"They usually don't," I mused. "And won't for much longer. I think the property owners are reclaiming it, or something."
"How do you know?"
I told him about the man my mother had seen at the bank, but not about the envelope in the mailbox. "It's too bad," I said. "I've always wanted to explore the house but probably won't get a chance."
"Why not?" He glanced slyly at me. "It's abandoned, right? You can't sneak inside?"
"Well, there's a lock," I said.
Bemused, he breathed, "Is that all that's stopping you?"
He hopped the fence and motioned in the near-darkness for me to follow. With some difficulty I swung my legs over the hip-high enclosure and joined him at the door, where he was jiggling with the doorhandle.
"I always carry a Swiss army knife on my keychain," he said by way of explanation. Something clicked and he pushed the door open. He slipped his keys back in his pocket and I saw his teeth grinning in the black. "After you."
I took out my cell phone and used it as a dim flashlight. My heartbeat sped up and I couldn't repress a wide smile. The house smelled damp inside and my footsteps were mute on the hardwood floors. The entry room was, of course, empty. The walls were a mildewed white.
"I must say, I'm impressed," said Vince, taking out his cell phone as well. "You're pretty brave."
"How do you mean?"
"Walking into a dark abandoned house, with a man you met only hours ago." His face appraised mine in the bluish light, waiting for a response.
I licked my lips. "I wouldn't pass up a chance to enter the Vault."
"What if I were a crazy guy?"
"You're not," I said simply and passed into the next room. I was puzzled to see a couple of wooden chairs in the corner; I'd thought the house was totally empty. The chairs were Amish style. A few of the wooden dowels that formed the backs of the chairs had been broken. Dust coated the chairs the same as the floor. Suddenly I gasped — a footprint was clearly visible in the grime. But then I realized Vince had surpassed me to go into the kitchen. His silhouette examined the cabinets and opened one.
"Look," he said, pointing. An old carton of cereal was inside. Judging by its design, it couldn't have been more than ten or fifteen years old. "Any idea who used to live here?"
I shook my head and turned to inspect the sink. Some sort of nest was tucked into the drain but I didn't see any living creatures. "I lived more inland when I was young," I said. "I've only been living on this street for the past, oh, eight months. I asked my landlady about it but she's only been here for five years. And it was abandoned then, too."
He ran a finger along the counter and showed me the resulting clump of dust. "Repulsive," he muttered.
There was nothing else on the ground floor that piqued my interest. All of the other rooms and closets were empty, and the bathroom door was wedged shut. Vince mutely made a motion with his head toward the staircase, and after a brief hesitation, I mounted the staircase. The stairs were still covered in carpet but it had been worn down to a nubby fibrous moss. I was sure plenty of bugs were scurrying around our feet.
There were only two rooms upstairs. One faced the street and was empty except for a sole wire coat hanger on the floor. The other faced the ocean and was wallpapered in a cracked and peeling floral pattern. The French windows looked like they had once opened onto a small balcony, but the balcony was gone. The narrow glass doors instead opened into the air.
I turned to see Vince staring at me. I couldn't tell what he was thinking but he was thinking hard. "What is it?" I asked, beginning to grow wary. Though it was a profound pleasure to finally enter the Vault and see what I'd been wondering about for months, perhaps my feeble instincts had been right. Trespassing with a near stranger was not something I would have advised anyone else to do.
"It's — nothing," he said. "I thought I heard something."
I raised my cell phone to see the closet, but realized the light was a different color. "Oh, I have a text message," I said. "It probably beeped." It was from Chelsea. She wanted to know where I was. It was impressive that she could think of my safety when she was most likely plastered. I replied and said I was still out walking with Vince.
"It's not bad in here," he murmured. "I thought the floor would be littered with dead opossums and that the stairs would give way under our combined weight."
"So letting me go upstairs first wasn't actually polite, it was quite callous of you."
"Perhaps I was behind you to catch you if you fell."
"Liar," I teased.
He took a step closer to me and looked out at the ocean. The Vault did have a gorgeous view. Even with a half moon, the night was very dark. The ocean disappeared into the sky and I had a curious sensation of staring into a black hole.
I felt Vince's hand upon my lower back and I stiffened slightly.
"Are you all right?" he said softly.
"A bit chilly," I answered. His arm responded by pulling me closer to his warm body. This only made the chills stronger. I hadn't been this close to a guy in a long time and it felt nice. He smelled like smoke.
"It's been an interesting night," he observed, peering at my face.
I nodded but stared stiffly out to the ocean. "I'm glad for your lock-picking skills."
He smiled. "My pleasure."
His hand lifted from my shoulder to stroke my hair but suddenly a loud clatter from downstairs made us both jump. We heard the front door creak open. My fearful eyes met Vince's, and in the foyer downstairs, footsteps padded softly in the dust.