It's 2004 and you are standing on a bluff. You are half a mile north of Las Tunas. You might as well be halfway around the world.
It's 1974 and you are nine years old. Your dad hands you a long rolled cigarette in a thin kind of paper. You know it's a joint but you don't know much more. He shows you what to do. He says, "Remind me later and I'll teach you how to roll your own," and you grin because you know he's saying: you're ready. You're old enough now.
It's 1994 and your son is already old enough to look away when you try to catch his attention.
It's 1982 and your dad calls you in New York exactly once after you've left L.A. You won't come to the phone. You can hear your mom talking to him in the hallway while you're getting dressed to go out. She's already given you the speech about dropping out of school, but you've already got auditions lined up for three television gigs and a studio screening—compliments of your dad, whether he knows it or not. And she gives you that look, the one you grew up seeing on her face whenever your father came home plastered or so high he couldn't tell you what his own name was. She twists her lips and she says, "You're going to be just like your father, and I'm not going to watch it happen."
"Great," you say, "he's a great man, that's great." And she says, "That's not what I mean and you know it."
"I'm going to start hunting for an apartment," you say. "Soon as I start getting some jobs."
"You're going to get jobs, all right," she says. "You're your father's son. They'll all love you."
You say, "I don't know what you're talking about."
You're seventeen and pretty soon you'll know exactly what she's talking about.
It's 1984 and the first day you meet S.J., it's hard not to spend the whole day just looking at her, trying to figure out what it is that makes her beautiful. She's a firebomb. She is like nothing and no one you've ever seen, a star down to her toenails. She asks you out in-between takes, and when the first day of shooting wraps, you pull her into a dressing room and you put your hands around her waist. She's wearing a red tank-top that slides off between your hands and she arches into you, her long mouth open and perfect.
You kiss her, her mouth so beautiful, her hair so soft, her voice low, smooth like blown glass, and she's saying your name and you think, this is it, I'll never need a drink again after this.
It's 1991, and you're already dating Debbie before you realize that S.J. is gone.
It's 1986 and Rayce's mouth twists every time he looks at you, and you've heard all the rumors about him, all the crazy things he knows and does. You like him. He's a good guy. He'll get high with just about anything and he knows where to find the cleanest crack in Manhattan. So he's okay, and you don't mind that he sits too close. When you're high you don't mind anything. You've wrapped a day of shooting and you've dropped by his place—35th St. penthouse, and really they just let everyone have movie star privileges these days. On the roof—he's carding his fingers through your hair while you inhale, letting the crystal bright sting of the drug soak into your skull. You close your eyes.
"You wanna know something," he says, and you're surprised at how low his voice is, how close beside you.
"I know everything," you say, because it's true, just then, you do. You're still shocked a moment later when you feel the press of his cold slick lips against your skin. He's mouthing your throat, and you like it. You're so Hollywood, you think, just like every other Hollywood queer, and you tip your head back even further and you laugh.
"You're fucking gorgeous," he says, and he slips his arm around you, sliding down your waist. Just at this second you're more relaxed than you've ever been your whole life.
"Of course I am," you say. "Of course I'm fucking gorgeous."
It's 1991 and you are a god. You live in a god's house, his shoes fit you, you have memorized pages of his biographies because you are God, or at least you are a god, at least one of them. Of the many.
You are God reigning on high with Athena by your side, and she is kissing you, tugging both of your hands behind your back, and you try to focus through the alcohol and crack lining your brain, one hazy and comfortable, the other one sizzling and sharp—you are veering back and forth between one and the other—everything is sharp-smooth, lazy-frenetic.
You break off the kiss and laugh.
"What's your name?" says S.J. She frowns. "Hey. Hey. What's your name?"
"Fren-eh-tick," you say. Then you giggle. You like the sound of your own high-pitched giggle. It's a wonder anyone thinks you're straight with a laugh like that.
"What's your name, come on," she says.
You say, "Sarah Jessica Parker."
"Seven years," she says. "Seven years of this bullshit. I can't do it anymore."
And the look on her face, the way her eyebrows furrow close together, makes everything careen away from lazy and relaxed over to sharp, sharp, razor-sharp focused.
"You can do this," you say. "Yes, you—we can."
"Tell me your name," she says.
You look at her. You tell the truth. You tell the truth because you love her, because you've never loved anyone else like her. You say, "My name is Charlie Chaplin." You are telling the truth.
It's 2004 and you are standing on a bluff half a mile north of Las Tunas, on someone's private beachfront property, and you don't even know how you managed to get a bag of the stuff in your hands. You are thinking about S.J. and how she used to drag you out into the sunlight after endless mornings spent indoors coming off trips and hangovers and worse. How she used to say, "You and I are going out and you're going to help me pick out a fucking dinner table and we're going to have a real life." How you used to let her, her long nails digging into your skin like determination. And how you used to think she was almost perfect, how she was everything you had ever wanted. You think of her mouth on your body and you think about her mouth long and wide and smiling to welcome in the entire world. You think about how you threw her away.
You think of Debbie looking at you sometimes, that sideways glance that told you she'd never known what you wanted from her. How she'd never known, but she'd given you Indio anyway.
She'd given you Indio, and you'd given her migraines and legal fees, and now you give her child support.
It's 1994 and Debbie can't do this anymore.
It's 1987, and the fucking pap asks you flat out, "How much of the film is based on your own experience with drug and alcohol addiction?" and there's a moment where you want to punch him in the face.
You don't. You laugh. You say, "Well, art imitates life, I mean—just look at Warren Beatty!" And that's all it takes, all it ever takes to make the shame slide right off.
It's 2003 and Levin looks up from the production schedule and meets your gaze. It takes her all of three seconds to smile politely and go back to crew calendars. She's writing you off and you can't blame her, and it makes you laugh.
She hears you laugh. She looks up again—you've startled her.
It's 1993 and you are holding your son in your arms for the first time. He is beautiful. You are too young for this. You are too young and unprepared, and you're in love forever and this time it's real, you are never going to take another drink, never going to lose another night or week or month, never going to lie about the prescription pills in your medicine cabinet. You are never going to give him a reason to look at you the way you used to look at your father.
You call him Indio because he is the oasis in your desert.
It's 1991, or maybe it's 1997 or 2001, and you are God. You inhabit his soul. You wear his shoes. You live in his house. You have his wisdom, his addictions, his lusts. You fidget, he fidgets. You cull tragedy from dinner rolls and comedy from Holocausts.
You have no idea where you are or what your name is.
It's 1998 and your mother is there to meet you when your car pulls into the drive of the house in the Hills—the Chaplin house, the house of failed addicts and visionaries, and you used to think that just by stepping through the door you became something greater than you were.
Your mother helps you unpack. You make jokes about flying the coop, about developing an affinity for striped suits while in prison, about getting to be really good with a knife. She laughs, but it's hollow. Her disappointment in you is as stifling as the air in the ward they just let you out of.
You can still cook dinner, though, because in Hollywood 'cooking dinner' means 'keeping your private chef on salary while you're in rehab for four months.' So you have the salmon and your mother has white wine, and when you fall silent during dessert she says, out of nowhere, "My one wish for you has always been for you to be happy with who you are."
There is nothing you can say to that. You were happy playing God for about five minutes there in the 90's. You were happy letting S.J. drag you out into the sun. You're happy whenever you can get your son to look you in the eyes for longer than two seconds.
So you don't say anything.
Your mother says, "You are a great artist. Just like your father." She folds her napkin twice and sets it beside her plate. She says, "But great artists are rarely great men." She takes a drink of the wine and sets it down beside the napkin.
She says, "And I have enough great artists in my life."
It is 1998, or maybe 1985, or maybe 2030, and you are shooting up straight and easy into the long ready vein of your left arm. You're sweating just from the anticipation of having it, having the buzz ringing through your arms and legs. Once you swear you grew extra limbs like a spider and climbed the walls and hung upside down like Spiderman, and when you were crashing down, realizing you couldn't shoot webbing from between your fingers, you burst into tears and cried for hours. You wonder what the high will do to you when you're coming down this time. You wonder if it will make you hate yourself enough to quit. It curls through you—the crack, the Sterno, the rope, the freebase, snowball, speedball, ecstasy, whatever it is this time. It's 1993 and Sean is forcing you into his car, driving you the long white hot highway down to Sierra Tucson. It's 1996 and you're flipping off reporters outside Exodus. It's 2002 and you're begging Joel to let you do this picture, begging Mel to insure you for just one more chance, because if you can just be in front of the camera again you won't need anything else—nothing else but the camera and the audience and yourself, and you'll pour out for them like water, mold yourself into whatever shape they need you to be, and it will be enough. It's 1993 and Sean's barely kissed you goodbye and you figure eighteen hours is long enough to wait, just as a courtesy, for a friend trying to do you a favor, before you check yourself out again and go looking for a hit. It's 1999 and Joe is saying "I don't know if I can get you out this time," and you joke about the bright bright red jumpsuits, and the drug burns through your body and everyone loves you, everyone wants you to get through this, everyone knows you're a great artist, they all love you, they all believe in you, you can feel the waves of their unerring unending belief wafting over your skin, and your nerves spike with energy, the white-hot fizz just how you like it, and you settle back and close your eyes and float straight up into the air, into a place where you aren't anyone or anything at all.
It's 2002 and you are begging Joel to give you this, let you have this chance, how many times has it been, he believes in you, you know he believes in you; and Joel looks at you, big wide smile, eyes like supernovas, bursting with love and wisdom and some sort of twinkle—like how you'd imagine Father Christmas would look, if he were a quarter-ton Jewish Hollywood mogul.
Joel looks at you with his big mythical stuff-dreams-are-made-of smile and says, "I keep half your salary until you finish shooting," and you say, "Done," so fast it startles both of you.
And for a moment, for half a goddamn moment, there's something you want worse than the drug.
It's 2004 and you are standing on a bluff. You are half a mile north of Las Tunas. You might as well be halfway around the world. You are thirty-nine, and there's a giant beautiful ocean thirty yards away from you. You could step into it, just walk straight in and see if you sink. It's 2004 and if you walked into the Pacific Ocean a few miles north of Santa Monica, nothing would be left of you except a beautiful, brilliant son who never looks you in the eyes.
It's 1991, or maybe it's 1993, or maybe you have no idea what fucking year it is, but Marisa's mouth is sharp and her kisses are just about the only thing holding you together. She was before Deborah, or maybe after, or maybe she was before or after or in-between S.J., you can't remember; but you remember her eyes on fire. You remember her saying, "Look at me." And when you do, in your memory, when you look down at her, her long swift body flowing beneath the sheets like lava, she says, "I can do anything in the world. And so can you. You know that?"
You say, "It's like we're Alice down the rabbit hole and we've run out of bottles that say 'Drink Me.' "
She says, "Then it sounds like it's time for Alice to start making her own damn moonshine," and she laughs her smart, brittle laugh.
You say, "Well, hello, Wonderland," as you bend to kiss her.
It's 2003 and Susan Levin is looking at you. It's 2003 and Susan Levin is looking at you.
It's 2004 and you are standing on a bluff half a mile north of Las Tunas with a stash of crack you don't even remember getting. Susan is saying, "This doesn't happen again. Because I won't do it. I won't even start." She's saying it, in your head, the way she said it last night. The way you knew she meant it. It's 2004 and you are standing on a bluff, halfway around the world.
It's 1992 and a beautiful 400-pound woman named Marsala is filling your house with gospel. She is singing to sweep away the faint straggling whisps of Sarah Jessica Parker. She makes you feel like raising your arms to heaven, or at least to the ceiling. It is 1992 and you are holding Deborah close, your arm around her waist, your lips firm against her forehead. Your life sparkles, suddenly feels rich and vibrant with possibility.
Marsala sings in her giant unwavering alto voice. She sings, "Create in me a clean heart," and Deborah looks up at you with faith written all over her face.
It's 2004, and you are throwing ten thousand dollars worth of cocaine over a cliff into the Pacific Ocean, because you are Robert Downey, Jr., and you are God.
"Things have been zeroed out; it's the beginning of something. ...if the cosmos is a loving, healing thing that also spins real fast and erupts and does violent stuff, and if there really is some kind of order to the whole thing, then everything that's led up to this moment has to be part of it, or the math doesn't work. But in this transition phase, I really am trying to live as much like a lizard as I can. Hot, rock, sun, fly, tongue."
- The Man Who Wasn't There."
Note: the 2000s timeline has been slightly fuzzied up for drama.
thanks to _fx and glitterati for pre-reads/comments; alestar for (unwittingly, muahaha) donating the title. <3