“He’s ugly.”

Those are the two words I hear.  Maybe there are other words around them – before or after.  

Maybe there’s a context to them.  I don’t know.  

All I hear are those two words.  

She’s telling her friend in the other room.  They think I’m asleep. Because, up until a second ago, I was.  

 

But now I’m awake, and I’ve heard those words. 

–The guy behind the bulletproof window looks me over.  “What kind of work you do?”

He does a poor impression of a New Yorker sketching somebody.  Find out who they are, where they’re from. Maybe some idiot out-of-towner.  Maybe someone who is going to be a pain in the balls.  

“I’m in sales.”  

“Medical supplies?”

“No, audio.”  A pause. Too much alcohol, and my throat feels like an ashtray.  The weight of my camera in my bag is weighing on my shoulder. And I’m tired.  

The kind of tired you feel at 3 am.  Standing in a dingy lobby of the Rodeway Inn while some guy estimates how much he can squeeze you for.  

Everyone is just a mark, it seems.  Even somebody like me.  

“Why medical sales?”  I honestly want to know.  And for a minute, it’s not about who knows more about who, and the facade comes down.  

“Your shirt…” he says, pulling at his own collar.  I am wearing a henley. Apparently he thinks it is something like scrubs.  Really? Whatever. 

It’s 3 am in the dingy lobby of the Rodeway Inn.  

“One twenty nine for the night.”

I tell him that’s fine.  At this point, who the fuck cares.  Give me the room. I’ll close my eyes when I turn on the lights, so I don’t see the roaches scatter.  

Two nights in LA.  Then back to New York.  Back to civilization. 

 

Two nights.  And one is almost over.  

 

I can feel myself moving.  Even before I think it, it seems.  I am up. I turn the light on, and I go into the living room where she’s sitting, with her friend, talking about me.  

“You know what?”  I say it heatedly, breathlessly.  I’ve never needed to say something so badly in my life.  The words seem lighter than air. They come out faster than I can think them, just as my body moves faster than I can will it.  

“You know what?” I say.  “Both of you can go fuck yourselves.”

Sam has a look on her face.  A look like someone’s just told her it’s raining outside.  A mildly inconvenienced look.  

Back in the room.  Belt, wallet, cameras, into my bag.  Cigarettes and music in my pocket. Money in my wallet.  Good.  

 

I walk back through the living room where Matty says something.  And Sam starts spewing words. Like vomit. But I don’t know what she’s saying, because I know she has nothing to say to me.  Not anymore.  

The last words I heard out of her mouth were “He’s ugly.”

That’s it.  That’s all I need.  

Might as well have cut off my ears.  

 

Ashamed of my own stupidity, I walk outside, light up a cigarette and walk. 

When I open the door, the sunlight hits me like a bag of bricks.  My eyes slam shut but the pain is already inside my head. I stagger down the sidewalk to the street in front of the motel.  

At the curb two guys are smoking grass.  One of them, big and quiet, sizes me up. He’s bigger than me, and quieter too.  You can’t hear him breathe. You can hear me thinking.  

His associate, more gregarious, asks if I want to hit this, profering a joint.  I thank him out of genuine kindness. As much as I hate LA, there are still some great people out there.  Many of them smoking joints at curbs, offering it to the haggard out-of-towner who just slept on the world’s worst mattress at the Rodeway Inn.  

“I get too paranoid when I smoke,” I tell him.  “But I don’t judge people who partake.”  

We both smile.  Across the street, a young man and his girlfriend leave a dispensary clutching small white paper bags.  

He talks, about what he does, why he’s there.  Down from San Francisco, or something like that.  The big quiet guy watches me the way I might watch a bug.  Judging if it’s something living or if it’s too much trouble to reach out and squish it.  

Eventually the talkative one asks what I do.  

“Photography,” I say.  “I was out here photographing this girl.”  

“Daaaaamn bro, you got a ‘gram?”  

I tell him I don’t.  That I’m working on developing my own site.  “Why make material for someone else’s platform?” I ask, earnestly, sincerely.  

“Yeah but everyone got the ‘gram, man,” my hustler friend explains. He twists his torso and neck back as he says it, his chin ducking slightly, like he’s schooling a younger brother on some common sense shit.  Who gives a fuck about your shitty website?  

But he doesn’t say that.  This is a marijuana-smoking curbside-gentleman in LA.  He has more manners than that – especially for some out-of-towner loser from New York.  

Instead, he asks for a business card.  I don’t have one. Well, can I give him the URL.  I tell him not to worry about it.  

I know what he probably knows, but will pretend not to know, or accept – that we’re not ever going to see one another again, that none of this matters.  

 

We’re just two people standing at the curb in Santa Monica, smoking in the noon sun.  

I haven’t even gotten inside my room yet when Sam calls me.  More word vomit over the phone. Like a foreign language. Disengaged syllables that run into and out of one another.  But nothing makes sense. Nothing lines up. She might as well be speaking French. Or nothing. I don’t fucking know.  

In my head, I feel words I want to say.  I flew across the country to see you.  I flew across the country to photograph you.  Do you think I would do that for anyone else?

But it’s my own damn fault.  How could I be so fucking stupid?

At the end of her string of words, I catch the words “and that’s all I want to say.”  

Using the words “and that’s all I want to say” don’t make any sense.  They don’t even have a right or a need to exist. If you have a sentence that ends with the words “and that’s all I want to say” it would mean the SAME THING even if you had NEVER SAID THEM AT ALL.  

For example, if you’re trying to convince someone like me that you’re somehow not responsible for the shit that comes out of your mouth, and that really is all you want to say, JUST SAY THAT.  Then stop fucking talking. Don’t throw on a bunch of extra words that don’t serve any other purpose than to make it sound like the point you’re making is so complex that it needs to be somehow clarified.  

But I don’t say any of this.  

The tiredness comes rising up from the soles of my feet.  Washing up over my legs and waist, lapping at my neck and threatening to envelop me completely.  My brain, so fed up with LA’s unrelenting bullshit, begins to shut down in anticipation of needed rest.  

“Well, you said it.”  

“What do you mean?” she asks, incredulous.  

“You said what you wanted to say.”  

I think she tells me goodnight.  I tell her yeah. Hang up phone. Collapse onto bed.  

 

Fade to black.  

In the airport, I have a beer and some fries.  On the TV in front of me, there’s a hockey game on.  I watch it without watching it, my eyes completely unfocused, a mental disconnect between what I’m seeing and what my brain is thinking.  Just colors and shapes moving in front of you.  

A learning experience, I tell myself, finding the words almost too easily.  

Some money spent, some time wasted, but a lesson learned.  I keep checking my pockets, my wallet, my phone.  

I feel lighter than I should be, thinner than I should be, somehow less substantial or real.  Like a part of me doesn’t exist. Like something has gone away.  

I find my gate and sit in a chair looking at nothing.  The man next to me shovels peanuts into his mouth.  

You guess you’re getting older.  You’re learning your lessons, finally.  The part of you that felt so sure – that part of you seems to be gradually grinding away to nothing. 

It’s all turning to chaos.  Slowly, inexorably. With each passing second. 

For the first time in your life, you seriously re-evaluate the things you have always chased, always held up.  Whatever has been left unexplained, whatever retains even a veneer of mystery…even that feels like it’s slowly becoming rotten or co-opted. 

And you don’t know whether you’re unhinged or naive.  And in some ways, the outcome feels the same, regardless. 

In the end, you’re alone with those crazy ideas.  And those things you see. Shapes and colors, light and dark, contrast and grain.  

Despite the things that would break you down, inside you’re just getting crazier, and more obsessed with creating the image you already see.  

Deep, deep down inside my chest, there’s a hollow or cavity.  And there was a thing nestled there for a very long time. And now it means nothing, or so much less that it effectively feels like nothing. 

I knew Sam for a span of eight years. We didn’t always speak regularly doing those eight years, but I thought about her often during that time.  

Perhaps “love” is too strong a word to use, or in its broadest sense, perhaps it’s too weak. There was an affection and an interest, but now these seem misguided and foolish. 

For a long time after that episode, I felt a sense of deep, overwhelming shame. I regretted ever thinking someone like her could be attracted to a person like me.  Now it was clear: there was nothing there. I was stupid for thinking something might have ever been there.  And it was a known thing, something I couldn’t just pretend away, something I couldn’t deny, least of all to her.  My anger in the moment had given away how I felt about everything. 

I wonder if other people have made this mistake.  Is it a mistake?  It must be.  

I wonder if other people just take the damn photograph, and leave it at that.  

I get sucked in. Maybe I’m weak for that. But I get sucked in. I lose my footing. I follow the lines and I get blinded by the light. I get stuck on the contrast. I worship a look. And all of this is only possible because of the subject.  And maybe it starts there – there’s always this sense of appreciation for anyone who is simply willing to be photographed, to take a half-second out of their limited time on earth to get trapped in a frame for a fraction of a second, forever.

And some people are just different. They’re more interesting, more intriguing, and over time, you find yourself thinking of them more and more, and when you see that image, it speaks a different kind of language. One you cannot hear, but still know.  

My best subjects are the ones I have fallen in love with.  

Hills and mountains, wires, garbage, buildings, flowers, drugs, death, self-destructive pathways, friends and romantic interests. And women.  Always, always women.  

But how can anyone create anything without feeling?  Without feeling something

Now I know.  

I regret loving her, if that’s what it was.  Or still is. Because I still think of her now.  

I chew on her words and roll them around on my tongue. When I see a photograph of myself or when I look closely into a mirror, I can hear them again. 

“He’s ugly.”