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CHAPTER TWO:  THE VALENTINE'S DAY CONCERT

It’s sunny and hot and I’m driving down Ocean Avenue to pick up my good friend, Sierra Kay. Tonight is my writing group, I have new pages, and I can’t stop thinking about the email – the Barry Manilow fan club email!

They made the announcement that Barry Manilow was doing a whole stint of concerts in Las Vegas starting on Valentine’s Day, and I had to be there for the first show!

I kept thinking about who I would go with and what it would be like.

This was it: the Barry Manilow concert on Valentine’s Day was a dream come true, A DREAM!

I turn left onto California Street and Sierra Kay is waiting outside for me. I pull over and wave. “Get in, wild one!”

She walks to the door and notices it is still scratched up and snubs her nose in the air. “I thought you were getting that fixed?” 

“I just picked up the car from the shop! Oil change, new brakes! Cost me two grand! Couldn’t afford the cosmetic stuff. Does it look really bad?”

“Yep.”

I drive away. I won’t let anything ruin my enthusiasm. “Thanks for coming with me, you got my email, right? BM – VALENTINE’S DAY!”

“Yeah… can’t go.”

“What do you mean?!”

“My dad has his surgery that day and who’s going to take him to the hospital?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Sierra Kay, I will pray for him.”

Sierra Kay is in her forties and lives with her parents. She’s on the frumpy side but has this long, beautiful blonde hair that she never cuts. She wears khaki beige pants that are too big for her, loafers, and a flowing blue blouse. She never goes out and doesn’t have many friends. She has a small side job walking somebody’s dog in the neighborhood and often sends me photos of the dog. She knows I like cats. I try to act excited when I get the dog photos, but I am not. We met at a phobia workshop and didn’t see much of each other during the quarantine, but today she was going to help me drive.  On the highway.

“So are they really sending you downtown for another temp assignment?” she asks.

“I don’t know. They may. That’s why I want to be prepared. I appreciate you doing this for me Sierra Kay…it’s so… embarrassing.”

“I get it. How do you think I feel when I make another psych trip to the ward because I saw a spider and broke down?”

“Oh no, I get it. Have you seen one?”

I turn to see her face.

We are stopped at a red light ready to head down the California incline. She looks pained. I can tell she doesn’t want to talk about it. She probably saw one. “Don’t worry about it!” I say, trying to make light of the situation.

“We all have our issues,” she agrees, solemnly.

I remember the woman who referred me to this phobia workshop. We were working at a big financial firm downtown and one day she happened to ask me how my commute was home.

I told her it was dark and I was in the middle lane and I couldn’t change lanes to exit the highway. She thought I was using it as an excuse to get the earlier work shift. It wasn’t an excuse; I needed the earlier shift because not only was I afraid to drive on the highways, it was way worse in the dark.

She opens up and tells me how she has this debilitating phobia against vacuums.

I said, “What do you mean, vacuums?”

She tells me that at night, she has this fear that the vacuum is going to turn itself on and come out of the closet and vacuum her alive. She says she has to go to these phobia workshops because her husband caught her trying to throw another vacuum cleaner away, and if she didn’t get help stat, he was going to divorce her.

She had a coupon for a free workshop and said she could bring a friend, so she roped me in. I talked about my fears of driving and that’s where I met Sierra Kay.

She helps me by giving me these lessons. We do laps on Pacific Coast Highway for about an hour. Mostly, I think Sierra Kay is just lonely and likes hanging out with me.

I veer onto PCH and Sierra Kay checks the other side for traffic to make sure nobody is running the red light on the other side.

My heart races, but Sierra Kay remains calm and this keeps me calm. “You got this?” she asks.

I nod because once we are on the highway I can’t really talk and drive at the same time.

We go up and down PCH for about an hour. Sierra Kay stares out the window like a dog does when they are in the car. Her window is open and her hair is blowing in the wind. I had closed the sunroof in case we spin out and flip.

It’s a smooth ride and when we hit some traffic, I realize I won’t have time to take her home and make it to my writing group on time, so I ask her if she will come.

She agrees. 

* * *

 

We pull into the Pacific Palisades church parking lot and Paulie is walking in. He’s an LA has-been producer/scam artist in his mid-fifties who doesn’t write, he just goes to the group to pick up girls. He’s short with long, blonde straggly hair and looks like Robert Plant. He recognizes my car and waves and Sierra Kay waves back.

I’m hoping she won’t be the next victim of his seduction moves but I doubt it, I don’t think Sierra Kay is an easy pick-up.

We get out of the car, I reach for my manuscript in the backseat, and we make our way inside.

I see Martha Levitz, the leader of the group, as I walk in with Sierra Kay.

She has two long pigtails and always wears gypsy clothes and gives me dirty looks, even more so now that Stu Stuber has come and sat beside me, but I just ignore her.

Stu Stuber is one of the original members of the writing group and because he is friends with Paulie, they allow Paulie to stay.

Sierra Kay and I sit down in the two empty chair beside Stu, and Martha comes over.

She looks at Sierra Kay with angst. “Uh, Jolette, who’s your friend, will she be joining us tonight because you’re supposed to notify me in advance?”

There is an air of snobbishness in her voice and I don’t want trouble so I remain calm. “Oh, hi, Martha, I didn’t know. Yes, this is my friend, Sierra Kay. There seems to always be plenty of extra seats so I don’t think it’s going to be a problem.”

“Since we’ve resumed after the quarantine, there aren’t always available seats! Follow my rules!”

She turns to Stu Stuber with a look on her face that says: “See?! See all the trouble I have put up with as leader of this group?!”

Stu blankly stares ahead. He is known to never say much. He just has that blank poker face.

I never know what he is thinking and I don’t really care, but that hardly bodes true for the other women in the room who are always making a play for the guy.

“Okay,” I say, and Martha returns to her chair across the room.

We all sit in a circle and there’s about eighteen writers who come weekly.

Sierra Kay whispers in my ear, “What was that about?”

“Nevermind,” I sigh, and the group gets started.

Martha makes her announcements and then Lisa, a forty year old woman who reads stuff about her recipes and her cooking, begins.

I try to focus, but I’m having a hard time. I think about my trading account and pull out my phone to check futures. They’re up and I’m still holding this volatility ETN, and I realize I’m going to lose more money tomorrow. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in a temp job working for pennies an hour when you are literally losing thousands of dollars in your trading account on a daily basis.

Things needed to turn around. I start worrying about why I haven’t sold any of my writing. Everything is beginning to make me nervous and I feel Sierra Kay getting restless in her chair.

I turn to Stu and he’s as still as a rock, listening. It always astonishes me how well of a listener Stu Stuber is. He’s is in his late forties and for the longest time, years and years, he sat across from me. I always sat facing the door because I like to watch people coming in and out and Stu was always in my line of vision. 

I would notice the way the light hit his cheekbones. He has high cheekbones and a very handsome face. He looks like Elvis Presley and his hair is thick and brown and his eyes are big and green, maybe blue. It’s hard to tell because he’s always squinting as if he’s angry or something. He rarely speaks and he doesn’t read much either. W hen he does speak, he has this weird surfer language going on. He’d say, ‘It was awesome, man, like so rad. Wow, it was surreal. Narly! Narly! Narly!’

Half the time, I couldn’t understand him.

He doesn’t look like a surfer so I never understood why he spoke this way. He looks like the male version of my sister, Deana, actually. She’s named after James Dean and she’s beautiful but she doesn’t know how beautiful she is. And I don’t think Stu Stuber knows how good looking he really is, because he, like my sister, doesn’t walk into a room with that vibe like – hey, look at me, I’m a stud.

Also, Stu is an incredible, gifted writer. We read his book when Martha instructed us to read the authors’ books who got published during Covid.

I couldn’t believe it after I finished. Stu’s book was deep and wild and brilliant and he was the coolest guy. On the planet. He wasn’t cocky; he had all these experiences and he was a big actor in movies and to get out of LA and away from the love of his life, he traveled the world with his friend, surfing. 

The descriptions of the surfing were incredible. Oh, and he slept with a lot of women too. His book was aptly titled, SURF SLUT.

The way he wrote sex… was nothing short of incredible. I had never seen a male author write sex that way.

I didn’t think that was in Stu. He always seemed kind of shy.

When I watched him for years sitting across from him, I never thought twice about him. He had this depressed energy, like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. But after I read his book, I understood. I understood him better. His girlfriend, the love of his life, died from a heroin overdose, and he found his best friend with a bullet in his head. So then, I got him. And I loved the way he looked at the world.

He took life like a wave, whatever came his way, he would choose it or not choose it, and if he didn’t, he would just take the next wave.

Suddenly Martha calls out Stu’s name and it’s his turn to read.

He fumbles with his papers and begins. He is so soft spoken, you can barely hear him. I listen and am riveted. When he finishes, he looks up.

The women in the group are moved, emotional.

Martha ooohs and ahhhs with passion, “Wow, Stu. So deep. Just incredible.”

Stuart turns to me, and I smile. I love the way he writes.

Supposedly, Stu Stuber has this ladies man reputation. But outside of his book, I just don’t see it. He never hit on me; I just assumed he didn’t like me. I’m probably too plain Jane for him.

I look up at the clock, and hope there’s enough time for me read, but it doesn’t look like it.

The meeting ends, and the women get up and throw themselves at Stuart. Most have fake breasts, fake lips, and lots of money. I think they invite him over to their houses after the meeting. They probably let him bang their brains out. The same way he does in his book.

I’ve stayed away from Stu Stuber.

That’s when Sierra Kay whispers my ear, “Why don’t you ask that guy,” and she points to Stu, “to take you to the Barry Manilow concert.”

There’s no way a guy like Stu Stuber would ever take me to Barry Manilow!  Ever!

“No, that won’t happen,” I tell her.

I take one last look at him. He’s busy talking to all the other women. They are throwing themselves at him.  Paulie joins in to take Stu’s leftovers.

I turn to Sierra Kay. “Let’s go.”

* * *

 

On the way home, Sierra Kay badgers me. “Why won’t you ask Stu Stuber to take you to Barry Manilow, Jolette? You have to put yourself out there.”

“Sierra Kay, Stu Stuber has slept with more women in one week than I slept with men in my whole life! You should read his book, SURF SLUT. Plus, he’s weird. He never talks. I never know what he’s thinking.”

“It could be he likes you.”

“I doubt it. I’ve known him forever. There’s nothing there.”

“You know what you do?”

“What?” I ask.

“You blackmail him!” she announces.

“What?!”

I’m driving on the back roads since its dark outside and I want to be able to talk to Sierra Kay. I feel safer away with her in the car, and it’s good to be able to talk.

“Blackmail him!” she repeats.

“Why!?”

“So he takes you to the Barry Manilow concert! You want to go, right?! It’s the dream?!” she asks, making fun of me, and using “air quotes.”

“It is, yes,” I agree. “But guys like Stu Stuber aren’t Barry Manilow fans. Come on, they are the antithesis of.”

“You never know,” Sierra Kay wagers.

I pull up to her apartment building. She gets out of the car, then turns back to me. “Just do it!”

I grin, and as I drive off, all I can think is…

Blackmail him…?

CLICK HERE TO READ CHAPTER THREE OF THE VALENTINE'S DAY CONCERT

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