The air in Silver Lake was as fresh as a drunkard’s breath on Sunday morning. I drove until I found the place, a YMCA with a façade that had last been scrubbed during the Eisenhower administration. I parked next to a green sedan with a COEXIST sticker on the bumper. Yeah, this was the place.
Inside smelled of scorched coffee, sandalwood, and entitlement. I poured some sludge into a paper cup and made it a little happier with a slug from the bottle in my pocket. I caught a tight little brunette watching me sharply as I did this. She had a long, unhappy mouth like a smear of mustard.
“Want some?” I asked.
“It’s nine in the morning,” she snipped.
“Better get started then.” She ruffled and stamped away. Her canvas Toms shoes made slapping sounds like sarcastic applause on the tile floor.
I looked for a folding chair in the back, but no dice; they were arranged in a circle. Already most of the chairs were taken, girls in cargo pants and a few guys who looked like they were chewing on tin foil. Guys like me, I guess. Guys who’d said the wrong thing, looked the wrong way, picked the wrong bird to start plucking. “Harassment,” they called it. Well, that was jake with me, as long as my suspended license got un-suspended.
I sat next to a brunette with rimless cheaters and a HILLARY 2016 T-shirt stretched across a figure that might be interesting under the layers of organic cotton. She nodded and shifted a little away from me.
“Nice politics,” I said. She nodded again. That was all I was going to get, it seemed. I addressed myself to my coffee. It tasted like fresh pavement.
A tall brunette walked in. “This is getting monotonous,” I said to the one beside me. She pretended not to hear.
The new one walked into the center of the circle and stood there proudly like an Indian chief. She wore jeans and had her hair pulled back in a long shingle. “Good morning, all you women and sons of women, and welcome to the Ain’t I a Woman Gender and Equality Workshop. My name is Zoe, and I’m a graduate student in Gender Studies at UCLA. Can we all go around and introduce ourselves?”
So we went around and introduced ourselves. The twists were students and tattoo artists and baristas. The men were cops and tenured professors. They got to me.
“Name’s Marlowe,” I said. “I don’t do much, really. If you don’t believe me, check my wallet. Back when I had clients, I used to work as a private dick.”
One of the cops snickered. Some of the ladies reddened. One matron who didn’t look much like Boris Karloff said, “We don’t use offensive speech in this room. This is a safe space.”
“I’m sorry you’re offended,” I said. “I don’t take divorce cases, if that helps make it any safer.”
They didn’t look like it helped. Zoe gave me a stare as warm as the northern lights. “Let’s move on to some journaling,” she said.
The rest of the morning went like that. We did synchronized clapping. We did active listening. We did a role-play exercise in which I was a girl waiting for a bus and Karloff was a masher, but when I started flirting back, she didn’t like it. I got four more cups of coffee and felt brokenhearted when my bottle gave up its last drop.
At a smoke break I offered my pack to Zoe, but she waved her American Spirits at me. I was feeling frisky. “You’re about as demure as a stretch limousine,” I told her.
She blew smoke through her nostrils. “Does that really work for you?” she asked. “That macho posturing? Keeping up the ironic façade, day and night? What would happen if you let your guard down and actually had a conversation with a woman as if she were a human being?”
“That’s a lot of questions. Let’s work on some answers back at your place.”
“I have a girlfriend,” she said. “And you smell like bourbon.”
“Rye,” I said. “Maybe you and your girlfriend and I could share a bottle.” She rolled her eyes, sighed deeply, and went inside.
After that we made columns in a notebook and wrote down differences and similarities between the sexes. When I read mine aloud, I was asked to leave. That was jake with me.
I drove down to Echo Park and found a liquor store next to a greasy spoon, and I thought about things over a half-bloody burger. I thought about the women I had known, the ones I’d cared about and the ones I’d nibbled over and the ones who’d held a gun on me. Some of them were the same woman. I should make columns in a notebook. I ate my sandwich.
I saw Zoe once more after that, but it didn’t go anywhere; turned out her definition of “outreach” was different from mine. Still, I got my license back. I guess she liked me that much.