Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter 10. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one is here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novella is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together.
BROS IN ARMS
I am not at all afraid to admit that the earthquake scared the living shit out of me, even though I was born and raised here. But, dude, I was born in 2006. I barely remember even feeling Ridgecrest. Riverside, oh yeah, I felt it. So did Vince, my roomie in this really odd and interesting living situation we’ve found ourselves in in Koreatown, but we wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Of course, we’re two of the lucky ones in this art collective, because at the moment, we only have two other guys sharing the room which is designed for up to eight. I’m a painter and Vince is an actor. The other two are dancers although, like us (and kind of surprising for dancers) they’re also mostly straight. For you older people, “mostly straight” means a Kinsey 1. We’ve kind of given up on the idea of 0’s and 6’s really being a thing.
But the night after the afternoon of the quake — we’re going to remember 2:30 p.m. forever — Vince and I just cannot sleep because of the jitters. Meanwhile, the other two, Edward and Steve, are out like lights. “Rafi,” Vince whispers to me in the dark, “Want to go outside and just walk around?”
“Fuck yeah,” I reply. We use the flashlights on our phones, which haven’t died yet, to find our pants, shoes, and shirts, pull them on, then head out the door, down the stairs, and outside. Needless to say, it’s still pitch black out here — no electricity. Oh, sure, there are some battery powered lanterns up and down the streets, but all of the buildings and streetlights are dark.
And we look up and then see something absolutely amazing. Stars. A ton of stars, and even the band of the Milky Way, visible above Los Angeles, something that has never happened in our lifetimes. Hell, probably in anyone’s lifetimes in big cities since Edison stole the idea for the lightbulb.
We stop in our tracks and both just gasp in amazement. Oh, I’ve seen this view a few times when my family went out to visit abuelita in rural New Mexico, but I have no idea whether Vince has, because he’s a slice of white bread and from L.A.
“You ever seen anything like this?” I ask him.
“Yeah, but not here,” he replies. “Halfway out at three in the morning on a road trip to Dallas, sophomore year.”
“Oh, right,” I say, suddenly remembering. “Why didn’t I go on that one?”
“Because you went to Barcelona, douche.”
Did I mention that Vince and I had been roommates all through college? We were very close and had shared a lot. At one point, he even started dating my old girlfriend after I’d dumped her, but I never resented him for it. I was there, though, to comfort him after she dumped him. It was a totally wrong thing to say, and we only used it ironically as a way to make fun of the past, but right after she left him, and when we were pretty high, we both spontaneously said, “Bros before hoes” and then cracked the fuck up.
We said it quietly, though, lest anyone overhear it and not understand our irony.
Because, come on — what a dickish thing to even think, right?
The real version that we used sincerely, like a lot of the other guys, was, “Above all, the bros we chose.” Okay, not totally accurate, since freshman roommates were assigned at random, but after that, the ones who stuck together pretty much became family, which is what Vince and I did.
And so here we were, still sharing a room after graduation, and now sharing our fear and trying our best to help each other through it while discovering an absolutely amazing sky over L.A.
“So, what do we do now?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Just wander around, stay out from under things that might fall, and not die?”
“Sounds like a plan,” he replies. We walk down to Wilshire, then decide to turn to the right and head east, aimless. This part of Wilshire, being mostly office buildings and businesses, is emptier and quieter than our street, and there’s a strangely apocalyptic feel about it all. At least, by this point, our eyes have adjusted to the dark, so we have no problem navigating.
“You think there’s going to be another big one?” Vince asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I hope not.”
“Yeah, but you remember ten years ago.”
“Read about it,” I said. “But didn’t feel either,” I tell him.
“Yeah, but the ‘big one’ turned out to only be a foreshock for the actual big one.”
“I know. But wasn’t it also far enough away that L.A. wasn’t fucked up like it is right now?”
“Shit, Rafi,” Vince said. “How bad do you think the city is?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “But one thing comes to mind.”
“What’s that?” he asks.
I don’t know why I had this realization. Maybe it was from watching too many disaster movies, but the thing that had most struck me was how the darkness was broken in a few directions by a distant orange glow — meaning there were areas on fire. They were most noticeable to the south, northeast, and west.
“The city is burning,” I told Vince.
“How can you tell?” he asked.
“The glow,” I explained. “But at least we somehow managed to not have anything catch on fire up here.”
“You’re going to get a lot of paintings out of this, aren’t you?”
“Oh, you bet your ass,” I tell him. “Nightmares are the fuel that fires up all art.”
“Like you have to tell me that,” he says. “I’ve been people watching and stealing character traits ever since we had to evacuate.”
“Well, I suppose that ‘had to’ is kind of overstating it,” I explain. “I mean, we’re still living where we were. But that lady they brought — ”
“Oh, shit, right,” he replied. “Yeah, I was being a close-minded dick. Sorry.”
“No worries, ma dude.”
We headed a few blocks up Wilshire until we reached the Wiltern, which was dark but seemed intact, then looked at each other, not sure what to do.
“South?” he suggested and I nodded, so we turned right and walked down Western for a bit. For some weird reason, this stretch seemed to be a bit more fucked up. There was a lot of pebbled glass in the street, mostly from ground-level storefronts, and the sidewalks and road seemed more buckled. The couple of bus stop kiosks we passed looked like they had been randomly twisted by angry giants, and there were more than a couple of spots where power lines and been severed and fell into the street. Luckily, there was no power in them at the moment, and at least the streets were dry.
After a couple of blocks, we turned right again to head back home. Coming back up our street, it was all familiar because we’d done it in the afternoon, although by this point most people had gone lights out, so we walked in darkness back up until we got to Madam Alice’s place, then, using our phones again, found our way back up to our room and to our snoring roommates.
“Okay,” I said. “I still don’t feel any more like sleeping now.”
“Neither do I,” Vince said. “But… look, we’ve known each other long enough, and at this point it’s all about emotional safety. If you want… I mean, if you don’t mind… I’d have no objections to sharing a bed just so that we could both feel protected… No homo?”
The second he said it, my brain said, “Oh, fuck yeah.” I mean, come on. We’d basically been protecting each other emotionally since freshman year. And it was 2029. What was a little physical security between friends, anyway?
So about two seconds after he asked, I just blurted, “Vince, fuck yeah, Homo or not. I love you, you fucking douchebag. Under the circumstances, I think that spooning the hell out of each other is the only way to feel safe.”
He just smiled, gave me a fist bump, and quietly muttered, “Bro.”
And that’s how, way into the wee hours on the morning of Wednesday, April 18, Vince and I, in our T-shirts and boxers, climbed into the bottom bunk together and held on for dear life, and it turned out that this was also the only way either one of us could have fallen asleep after the world had fallen apart and would be able to for a long time after.
Like I said, it’s about the bros you chose. And this was the moment when I realized — and I hoped that he did — that we would kill or die for each other and love each other in the most fucking platonic way possible.
And all of this came from a natural disaster. Damn. If we made it out alive on the other side, I was already thinking of how to market and sell this insight to other Gen Z guys, although I don’t know whether the older ones could quite handle it. Maybe I should just stick to painting, but I could certainly editorialize it. There’s nothing wrong with being afraid, and nothing wrong with having a buddy help you deal with that feeling.
I was out like a light once we got all wrapped up, and we didn’t wake up until the sun was blazing in the windows.
“You okay, Rafi?” Vince whispered once he sensed me stirring, and I just grunted. “Mm-hm.”
“Me, too,” he replied. “I think we’re going to get through this.”
Neither one of us rushed to get up, but we did start to talk about the most random bullshit. The weirdest thing to me, really, was feeling his voice resonate through my chest as he talked, so that it sounded like he was talking to me and speaking in another room at the same time. It was like he was here and not here simultaneously.
We continued to talk until he suddenly stopped and giggled and I asked, “What?”
“Dude,” he said, “Your voice tickles.”
“What do you mean?”
“When you talk,” he explained, “I can feel it in my chest, like a vibration, even though I can hear you with my ears. It’s… I’m not sure how I feel about — ”
“I feel it too,” I blurt out. “And, honestly, I kind of like it.”
“Yeah, well, your voice is deeper, maybe that makes the difference.”
“Or maybe because I’m behind you?” he suggests.
“Or maybe… we should just shut up and not over-analyze and keep each other safe from this disaster?”
There’s a long moment of silence, then I hear him sigh and it feels like he holds me tighter.
“You’re right, dude. I’d come up with something right now, but I’m not good at puns and poetry and shit.”
“When the Earth starts to quake,” I say, “Our job’s the other one safe make.”
“I like it,” Vince says.
“Yeah, despite the fucked up word order. I’m a painter, not a poet.”
“More of a poet than I am. Hey, it was kind of Shakespeare.”
There’s a sudden and slight but noticeable aftershock, during which we just wrap together tighter, laughing after it’s over.
“Feel safe?” he asks.
“Fuck yeah,” I reply.