At seven o’clock, Simon pulls his Jeep into the half-moon driveway of the Argyle Hotel. He’s here to collect a woman called Kirsty, to take her out to dinner. They had a meeting late that afternoon at his office in Century City, an appointment he had to move back from earlier in the day. She couldn’t get on a flight back to Chicago this evening, so he felt obliged to make the offer. This is her first time in Los Angeles.
The valets at the Argyle wear boxy grey uniforms that look like overwashed costumes from a 30s musical. One swings open the car door, waiting for Simon to climb out, but when he says he’s just picking someone up, the valet stops smiling and closes the door again. Kirsty appears in a blur of revolving doors and clatters down the bleached stairs: her heels are higher than the ones she wore this afternoon.
She’s around 30, around his age. Today at the meeting, she wore a sombre suit, her fair hair leaking from the knot behind her head. Now she’s dressed in black pants and a gauzy blouse, her hair loose, splayed over her shoulders. She climbs into the car in a breathless rush, thanking the valet who opened the passenger door, giving Simon the quick half-smile of a stranger. He feels like a taxi driver.
Sunset Boulevard is striped red and white with car lights, and it’s several minutes before he can edge into the lanes of traffic travelling east. Simon asks her if she prefers Italian or Mexican, and Kirsty says that it’s very good of him to give up his Friday evening, the same thing she said in his office that afternoon. The light turns green and the Jeep stutters forward, too close to the car in front. Kirsty snickers, pointing up at a billboard for a tele-vision show; he’s not sure if she’s laughing at the billboard or Los Angeles or the way he drives, distracted and hesitant, as though he’s never driven a car before this evening.
Kirsty felt out of place at Simon’s office today, pale and overdressed, but at dinner, after gulping down a drink, she relaxes. Because Simon’s not wearing a jacket, he untidies the table with his phone and pager, and she teases him about this when the waiter can’t find room on the table for their appetisers. The stunted candle flickering inside a smeared Mason jar keeps puttering out: Kirsty produces a box of matches, pilfered from the Argyle’s clubby dining room, and they take turns at reviving the flame until the waiter snatches the jar away and replaces it, without speaking, with a more co-operative candle from another table.
They talk about the meeting today, Simon’s Japanese colleague, Kirsty’s irrit-able boss, her room at the Argyle. Her bed is shaped like a scallop shell, she tells him, and the room is small, and breaking into the pristine canister of cashews in the louvred closet costs $11. There’s more she could say, because the Argyle is not like other hotels she’s invaded for a night or two, with her wheelie bag and laptop, in other cities. She can’t get used to its rounded shapes, or the shadowy greyness – the headboard, the carpet, the stiff paper wrapped around the soap, even the light seeping through the taut corrugations of the net curtains. Inside the room, it’s permanently early evening, easy to feel suspended in a fading photographic still, posed on the shell-shaped bed like a starlet from another era.
After the second drink, talk shifts to childhood pets, places they’ve been on vacation, The Amazing Race. They brush the topic of partners (Simon is married; she used to be) but the conversation doesn’t settle there, hopping to a new subject like an insect drawn away by another flower’s fresh yolky face. When the check comes, they argue over whose expense account will pay, but Simon slips his credit card into the black vinyl folder. He fishes in his wallet for the valet ticket and pulls out a pass for a club in Hollywood. Kirsty says she’d love to go.
The club is in an old movie theatre that’s been stripped of its seats and screen, a dance floor looped around a giant horseshoe of a bar. The line outside is still spindly, but inside is a sloshing sea of teenagers, dancing in fluid configurations. Simon and Kirsty lean against the bar, sucking on bottles of beer, laughing over the thud of the music at the comic extremities of fashion on display: the girls are squeezed into undersized tops and skirts, while the boys swim in baggy T-shirts, pants drooping from their hipbones and puddling over bulbous sneakers. The more confident are up on stage, turned to face the crowd below. One girl, her soft midriff pouching over a stiff denim mini, stretches her arms into the air and arches her back like a novice stripper; her friends, ranged around her in a chorus line, copy each of her moves, glancing at each other for reassurance.
Simon grabs Kirsty’s hand, pulling her into the crowd. The floor is sticky with spilled drinks. They dance like the teenagers nearby, eddying around each other, avoiding eye contact. Simon hasn’t danced for a long time: he reverts to the self-conscious moves of high school, something between an amble and a shuffle, occasionally swaying into a semi-crouch as though he’s doing the limbo. Kirsty dances in tight circles, flicking her hair each time she turns. When he catches her eye, she grins at him. He feels excited, conspiratorial: although everyone around them is almost certainly under age, he and Kirsty are the interlopers. The crowd presses in, washing them towards the stairs, and he leads Kirsty through a chilly, perfumed blast of dry ice up onto the stage.
Unlike the girls posturing in the footlights, Kirsty seems reluctant to be an exhibitionist. Simon follows her, half-walking, half-dancing, towards the back of the stage. Here the kids move in a trance, receding from one group and forming new couples and trios, grinding in slow-motion. Two short, heavy-set boys sandwich a girl, obscuring all but her pony-tailed head. Other girls inch together, dragging hands over each -other’s arms and hips, their gestures a dumb show for the circling boys. In the wings, hidden from the dance floor below the stage by a barricade of speakers, several couples writhe in unison, faces grimacing in concentration – they’re a little too close, dancing a little too slowly. Simon brushes Kirsty’s soft sleeve, tilting her towards the darkened recesses of the stage, and soon, like him, she’s just pretending to dance, watching the kids retreat into the wings, observing their joyless coupling, the way they drift back onto the stage to be swallowed by the crowd.
Back at the Argyle, Simon leaves his car keys with the valet and walks with Kirsty through the lobby and into the elevator. They don’t kiss until they’re in her room, standing on the fingernail of carpet between the curving bed and grey wall of closets, grinding together like the kids in the club. Kirsty tugs him onto the bed, but it doesn’t seem big enough for two people, or long enough for someone as tall as Simon: he manoeuvres Kirsty around as though she’s the needle of a compass, trying to find a position that works. Twists of sheet ensnare Simon’s legs; his fingers catch in Kirsty’s hair. He tries to emulate the kids in the club, their expressionless determination, their absorption in the mechanics of the act. By the time he falls asleep, his mouth feels dusty and scoured. His whole body aches with the effort of staying coiled next to another person in such an awkward space.
Kirsty is awakened by the drone of the dehumidifier above the sink. She lies still with her eyes closed, listening to Simon click open the bathroom door and scrabble around the bed for his clothes. When he scoops up his cellphone from the bedside table, she pretends to stir. He leans over her, whispering that he has to go, brushing a dry kiss on her forehead. His skin looks as grey as the carpet.
After Simon leaves, Kirsty dangles a foot off the scalloped edge of the bed. Her face tingles, irritated by his stubble, and she can still taste the sourness of his tongue. She gets up to bolt the door and drops back into bed, drifting in and out of sleep until the reproachful squeak of the maid’s cart in the hallway reminds her of the time. The hotel is expecting her to go: her bill is already printed, pushed underneath the door of the room. A new shift of valets will be milling around outside. When Kirsty emerges through the revolving doors, one will have her rental car waiting: he’ll hold the door open, run around the back of the car to lift her bag into the trunk, his hand ready to receive the tip.
She runs herself a bath, stroking the water to sting her fingertips awake. She wishes she was home already: Los Angeles feels like a stage set surrounded by sprawling, untidy back lots, with every-one – the hotel staff, the teenagers humping each other in the wings last night, the valets – playing a part. It’ll be late afternoon before she arrives in Chicago, already dark, a frigid wind gusting off the lake. When she was married, her husband used to return from business trips complaining about how tired he was, how drained, how grubby. He would shove his clothes into the washing machine and then pad into the bathroom, standing for almost half an hour under the shower’s sharp jets, before climbing into bed. Kirsty used to think all the complaints were a pretence, that he enjoyed the escape of his trips away. She knew he often stayed away longer than necessary; she knew he was sleeping with strangers. But now she understands how he felt when he got home. She longs to rinse herself clean, to sleep in her own square bed again. Now she understands why, after the intrusions of all those foreign places, all those strange bodies and mouths, her husband wanted to be alone.
Simon turns off Sunset towards the freeway. He’s taken this route, driving home through the city’s mottled canyons, thousands of times. The hills are parched and colourless in the weak early morning light. It won’t take him long to get back to the house in the Valley. His wife might be sleeping on the sofa, draped in a -crocheted blanket, one hand still curled around the tele-vision remote. She might be sitting at the kitchen table, reading the paper and waiting for the sound of the Jeep braking on the driveway: she’ll shuffle the sections together then, push the paper away, so it looks like she’s doing nothing all night but staring up at the clock. When he opens the door, they’ll look into each other’s drained faces and the only sounds will be the click of the closing door, the metallic splash of his keys on the kitchen counter. She’ll be waiting for him to say something. She’ll be waiting for him to explain himself, to announce something, to apologise. But he doesn’t have anything to say. All the way home, he wonders if maybe this time will be different, if maybe this time he’s done enough. Maybe he’ll arrive home this morning and find she’s already gone.