Two days before leaving for New York to shoot his first movie, Johnny was sitting in a dark bar in L.A. at 1 a.m. asking five friends, who ranged from acquaintances to one woman with whom he’d had a brief fling, if they’d ever had a purely sexual relationship. He happened to be facing Jane as he finished his question. “A purely sexual relationship? You mean, like, what? You don’t talk?” she asked. Johnny nodded yes. “Then, no, I haven’t,” she replied. Sandy, the aspiring actor to her right who’d recently been written up in Vogue’s “What’s Next” column, said, “See, that’s just tacky, I think, the question,” and took a swig of Johnny’s Sam Adams.
In his one-room apartment above the bar, Joel was crouched above his coffee table, looking in the mirror on which he was cutting coke. Joel avoided his own eyes, but took in his face. He was surprised to see himself. He realized he hadn’t done anything all day. “Joel,” his friend Mark said from outside the door, and rattled the doorknob. Joel let Mark in. They were best friends. Joel hated Mark but loved him too; he blamed his drug use on him, but they liked to party together.
Ten minutes later Mark and Joel took the stairs down and walked into the bar, where, mid-beeline to get a drink, their friend Roxanne grabbed Joel by the arm and introduced him to Laurent, a French filmmaker with whom she was trying to make conversation. “He’s totally Ethan Coen meets David Lynch. Don’t you get that?” she said too loudly for the guys’ comfort, and then added with a conspiratorial smile, “Let me tell you what his movie’s about. Wait. Laurent. You tell them. What’s your movie about?” She winked at Mark and Joel. Laurent smiled at her. “Eet’s a dark gomedy ... set in Takes-us,” he said. “Oh, yeah?” replied Joel. “That’s very cool.” Mark had already made his way to the bar, where he was starting in on his red wine habit. Joel set off in his wake.
Kennedy was in the far left corner and nudged her friend Lorraine, who was to her right at a small table. Lorraine was talking to a guy who she would later describe as “a geek from Central Casting.” Lorraine turned toward her. “You cannot leave me talking to Jeb for much longer,” she whispered loudly. She assumed Jeb wouldn’t hear what she was saying. “There’s a language barrier. He’s from Silicon Valley.”
The bartendress plunked a martini down on the bar, spilling a few drops that looked like jewels. “So Jason, I see you’re playing with your whole look,” said Juliet, who had just walked in and stood next to him at the counter. He turned to her and smiled. Jason had had a crush on Juliet for months and had invited her tonight but didn’t expect her to show. “Thank you, Juliet.” He looked her up and down as best he could, considering the near-pitch darkness. Juliet noticed this, and liked it despite herself. He was such a guy. “You’re looking very pretty tonight,” he added and ordered her a drink and one for himself and paid for both while having a flirtatious exchange with the woman behind the bar too. He turned back to Juliet, reached out and touched her stomach lightly. She was wearing a $200 tank top that was falling off her and skinny jeans that made her legs look like chopsticks. “When are we getting married?” he asked.
“Sorry,” Bette said to Trina. “I know you’re going to freak out. But um, he knows Meredith, from New York.” Trina turned to the guy, who reeked of Manhattan. “Oh, yeah? What’s she doing these days?” Trina asked. The guy said, “You know, she’s at William Morris, in the music division.” “Oh. She’s a marketer,” Trina replied. “I mean it’s not surprising, it’s just pathetic,” and immediately felt bad for being so harsh.
Two tables over, Dirk smoked a hand-rolled cigarette and drank a beer with Harry, one of his best friends, and Lorelei, a woman whom they were both attracted to. Natasha, Harry’s girlfriend, materialized by Harry’s side. She put her hand on his shoulder, but took it away quickly and rudely, like a four year old afraid of contracting cooties. Lorelei said to Dirk in a whiny sing-song voice, making fun of Natasha, “You lied to me! I’m not talking to you. You lied to me.”
Annabelle, who had the air of a serene bird, smiled and smoothed her vintage silk sheath. In a quiet voice she intoned, “What are you talking about?” and sat down next to her boyfriend Clay. “That creative nonfiction class at Extension is impossible. You said it was going to be easy and fun,” he replied. Hearing them, Dirk asked, “Do you want my notes?” and leaned towards the semi-circular booth. Someone tapped Clay on the shoulder.
The hand belonged to Tolan, sitting on a stool at the bar. Tolan handed Clay the Maker’s and soda which Clay had requested a few minutes earlier, and turned back to the bar. There was a TV above it. A picture of O.J. leaving a courthouse flashed across the screen. Tolan looked at it, took a long drag, and said to no one in particular, “I think O.J. should kill Fred Goldman.” The woman next to him, who’d earlier that night attended a reading at Book Soup by Hélène Cixous, remarked, “Well, that’s a courageous stand to take.” She was drinking a vodka cranberry. Looked about twenty-three. Tolan smiled but glanced towards a raucous table in the back.
“I’m not saying that! I’m not saying that!” said Midler, a kid from Ohio who’d arrived off the “bus” a year ago but made his way to the crux of the party scene fast. “See, now he’s getting defensive,” said Lara-Jane with mellow delight. “This is so interesting. He’s getting really defensive.” Midler interjected manically, “I am saying that what I think is interesting is this: I told her I just wanted to fuck her and she couldn’t handle it. Now, if she had balls—” You wouldn’t want to fuck her, thought Lara-Jane. “You know what happened? I don’t think she heard what I was saying,” Midler continued. “I don’t think she got what I was talking about—”
Corey turned around and another bartender, Pedro, was giving the woman next to him a Cosmo. Pedro had been behind the bar for many years, and he gave all the pretty girls Kit Kats.
Kip turned back to his table and took a sip of his Scotch. Camille and Ben were deep in what appeared to be almost telepathic communication. Ben had been trying to get Camille into bed for months. “Hi, sweetheart,” he said. “Hi, baby,” she said. She liked him, but he was pathological. He’d lied to her for five hours the first night they’d met at the Marmont.Everything he’d said had been interesting, but did that make it alright?
Miranda scanned the room for Burke. She drew her breath in and bit the bullet—walked over to him at the long table in the middle of the room. She wasn’t sure what was going on between them, but they’d been seeing each other now for about three weeks.
“Can I get you another drink, sweetheart?” Jenny, a silver-haired waitress, asked. She must have been about forty-five. Former stripper? Down on her luck housewife? “No thanks, Jenny,” Colin replied and looked at her with the leer of a twelve year old. “You okay, tonight, Jenny?” he asked. “I’m a wreck,” she replied. “Harry, darling, another drink?” Colin told her, “I don’t think he hears you.”
Gabrielle laughed and Hal, an animator, gave the other woman next to him a tequila shot. His face looked like a drawing someone had given up on—too many lines, but what was the actual subject? The other woman downed the liquid and gave the tiny glass back to him. To the table of his friends, Paul reiterated, “I mean, he understood me but he didn’t understand me. He couldn’t just take it for what it was.”
“I feel like I’m in a Quentin Tarantino movie,” said Janie. “And the camera’s moving slowly—”
Lucy, who’d had a small part in a Spike Jonze film, drank a gimlet “up” at the bar and said, “It’s what I want to be doing. I’ve always dreamed of being a stylist and now I’m ... a stylist.”
Ava was standing next to Toby, and had been for several moments. “I didn’t know if I should come by or not,” she said. On the way over to the bar she’d worried that she might see him with another woman.
She’d also realized she might be falling in love with him. Was there room for that in their lives, this room, this place? “No, no, sit down,” he said and kissed her on the cheek. “I’m glad you joined us.”
Strawberry Saroyan is the author of Girl Walks into a Bar: A Memoir (Random House). Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, Elle, and others.