What is a story? What makes it fiction? If you change the names? If you mix things up? What if all the characters in the stories are really you, and your friends, with different names? If you use your real name is it still fiction? If you use your real name, and maybe a few other real names, let’s say the name of someone you love who is dead, does that make the stories non-fiction? Is a true, non-fiction story ever truly true and not fiction?
Fred was his real name.
He rode down the dirt drive to meet us on his black stallion Kashmir. He wore a cowboy hat and boots with his long-legged jeans and thermal undershirt. His eyes were filled with desert skies. Clouds drifted through them, stars, birds.
“Great to meet you, sweetie,” he said, taking my hand in his two rough ones, looking into my eyes. His voice cracked a little and he smelled like tobacco, coffee and cake. I found out later that he used vanilla oil on his skin.
In front of the long, low, sand-colored adobe there were Buddha statues, Ankhs, crosses and angels with broken wings among the cactus and creosote. Fred’s whole house was a studio with a sleeping loft, a kitchen and a small sitting area where we drank coffee and listened to his latest project. He wrote and produced it, played all the instruments and sang It was as if he’d invited the desert into his home to record. There were tribal drums and melodic keyboards and strange windy sounds. His voice was so sad.
It made Toby’s eyes fill with tears.
“I’m trying to get this sort of light windy thing going on, mixed with the angsty thing.” Fred moved his fingers in the air. “I’m not sure it’s working, yet.”
“It’s so beautiful, man.”
Fred grinned, ear to ear, as they say. I finally understood the expression. His ears were large and perfectly shaped. He had lips like kisses.
“What about you? Doing any music?”
Toby shook his head.
Toby's platinum hair had grown out to its original dirty blond when we got together. His skin looked pale in the brighter café light and his small goatee blurred the graceful line of his jaw. He was wearing a cracked black leather jacket that was like the skin of some pre-historic beast.
I was different, too. I wasn’t a girl but I wasn’t really grown up, either. My hair was it’s natural brown again, and long. Very long, twisting to my waist. But it wasn’t really mine; I’d had extensions put in for the reading. I had gained weight, mostly muscle, from running and dancing, swimming and yoga and I liked to show off my body more now. The night of my reading I wore a short pink velvet dress with fake roses around the low neckline. I had even had a chemical peel to erase the old acne scars from my cheeks. I’d won that award for my writing, even had one story published, which was probably the thing that changed me most of all.
I mean changed me in a good way. The deaths of my parents had changed me, too. It was harder to love now. That made things safer, in a way; I just didn’t go as far anymore.
My heart didn’t stop doing its work when I saw him sitting there. In my aqua blue suede round-toed platform shoes I was taller than he was. He had to look up at me.
I’d obsessed about him for so long, tossing in bed, sweating through the sheets to the mattress, thinking about the veins in his arms and hands and the way his eyes gazed. His eyes were the same, only sadder.
Why do wishes come true too late? He asked me if I would go with him to the desert to see his friend, Fred. A few years ago this would have been the thing that sucked all the pain out of my body like a kiss.
Fred used to be in the band. He left his apartment next to the freeway in Hollywood and moved to Joshua Tree to open a recording studio. Toby and I drove out there in my black Jeep Cherokee. He didn’t have a car anymore. Now he walked all over Hollywood, on streets where no one but homeless people walked.
That night in the desert Fred barbecued fish and vegetables on skewers for us in the pit outside. A band that was recording with him came by. A guy with dreads, a dark-haired woman wearing thigh-high engineer boots and a sequined gauze tunic, a plump, pale guy with glasses and a tie-dye T-shirt and another guy with a shaved head and Aztec tattoos. We all drank Fred’s coffee and watched the moon come up over the house. I could hear coyotes in the distance. The desert spread around us. It would have felt ominous, being out here so far from everything, as if we had landed alone on another planet, but Fred made everything feel warm and bright. The fire, the strings of chili pepper lights. Sage sticks, coffee, the sound of his guitar. Actually, we looked like a bunch of strange animals that had crept up out of the wild and into Fred’s circle of light.
It was so warm that Toby and I slept outside in Fred’s sleeping bags. I felt someone touch my arm.
“Are you awake?”
I took off my clothes while Toby watched me. It used to always be me, watching him. Then I slid into the redwood tub. The water was still warm from the sun. I thought, a few years ago this would have made me weep with happiness. Instead I was calm, aware of Toby’s eyes watching my body moving under the water and the way the moon shone on me.
Toby said, “You know, Fred’s HIV positive.”
All of a sudden I was alone in the middle of a desert, an alien landed on a hostile planet. The water was cold and even Toby’s eyes didn’t warm me.
“He’s my best friend,” Toby said.
Whatever magic he had possessed for me when I first saw him singing in one of those dark nightclubs, when my hair was platinum like his, and my friends were dying and L.A. was killing me and I had no voice, all that had changed. He was a lonely man without music, whose friend was sick. I wanted to hold him now, but in a different way, for a different reason.
We made love on the redwood deck of the hot tub under the moon. It would have seemed like a dream, a few years ago. I would have screamed so loud I woke everyone up, even the sleeping flowers, even the sleeping sun. Now I was quiet. Except for the tears. We cried together.
On the way back to L.A. the next night we saw something bright, like a mirage, along the highway. It was a traveling carnival.
“Let’s go,” Toby said. His voice sounded different, alive, charming, like when he was on stage.
We clasped hands and ran through the crowds of inland empire teenagers eating pink cotton candy. There was the smell of pot and beer. My eyes were a blur of colored lights and my ears rang with the demonic laughter of electronic clowns, pinball machines, penny arcades. The cotton candy disintegrated like sugar cobwebs in my mouth, coating it with a film of sticky sweetness.
Toby. stopped at the Ferris wheel line. I watched the kids swinging in their little buckets way up at the top. Their faces looked surreal, mouths stretched wide and eyes blinking on and off like lights.
“Touch the moon,” Toby said.
I had that sensation again, of being from another planet, looking down on the strange dark terrain with just that small bright space where the carnival flashed. I had a dipping feeling in my chest. Deja-vu they call it. Or maybe it was the height.
But when I got back to Los Angeles, I was looking through an old journal from college. It was filled with dreams about Orpheus. That was what I called Toby then. He was with me almost every single night. Reclining on his side pelting me with flower petals. Biting my neck like a vampire. Chasing me through a storm of blue glitter that cut my skin.
And one dream: “Orpheus and I are riding a Ferris wheel. He is wearing a Fedora and I can feel his heart beating through his thin shirt. We seem to be so high we could graze the moon but I see the darkness everywhere below us.”
Fred wasn’t in the dream because I hadn’t met him yet. Except maybe he was in the dream. He was the moon.
Toby and I visited Fred whenever we could. He took us into the monument and showed us the biggest Joshua tree that took a whole rock band to circle, the rocks that looked like skulls and the best view. Once we ate mushrooms washed down with milk and spent a night out there after a rainstorm. It was like being on the moon. The ground was full of craters and the light was pulsing white and silver.
We drove Fred to the doctor in Palm Springs and then we took him out for pancakes. I mopped his floor and did his laundry and Toby made coffee and they sat and shared a joint by the hot tub. At night we made dinner together, usually pasta or rice and beans or vegi burgers on the outdoor grill. Then Fred kissed me goodnight, patted Toby on the shoulder and went inside to sleep in his tiny bed with his cat. If it was warm we slept by the hot tub or one the roof where Fred had laid out futons and sleeping bags for his many visitors or we slept inside in a loft above the recording studio.
Sometimes Fred played drums and I danced. Toby made a video of me wearing torn jeans, a see-through white gauze shirt covered with gold sequins, a straw hat swathed in white chiffon and my desert boots, swinging my fake hair around while Fred beat his hand drum. Or he and I would just sit outside and talk. I loved to hear the crackly, soft sound of his voice. It was warm like good coffee. And his face was always so gentle. He called me angel but he really was one. His blond hair shone and his eyes, his whole body.
I told Fred about the book I was writing and I read him “Orpheus,” the story about Toby.
He said, “I have a story for you.”
Then he told me about how when he was a teenager he had this girlfriend, Vivi. They were going to get engaged. But then Fred realized he was gay. He told her they would be friends forever, that the love wouldn’t really change.
“Maybe you could write a book with a whole lot of stories,” he said. “You can use that one if you want to.”
I ended up telling him about my mom dying when I was little and then my dad last year.
“I feel like an orphan,” I said. “But I’m too old to be an orphan.”
“You’re not too old to feel that way, sweetie. You’re just a kid. But you have me and old Toby over there. We’ll be your family. That can be in your book, too.
Death happens like this: just another paragraph. Sudden. Arbitrary.
At Fred’s funeral I felt distant, at first, as if I were watching the whole thing. A movie.
The sky was streaked with soft rose colors. There was a warm wind sweeping through the desert. Fred’s horse stood in his corral, swishing flies away with his tail. I was afraid to look into his eyes and see my friend. Fred’s mother was tall and thin and her eyes were the same as her son’s. His father carried Fred’s desert boots up to an altar everyone had made. There were all kinds of talismans from the people who had recorded their albums with him—glass beads, votive candles, scrawled poetry, pressed flowers, shells, rocks. Fred’s father set the boots on the altar. That was when I wasn’t watching it anymore. I was hearing the recording of Fred’s voice and seeing his father, who had survived three heart attacks and was now surviving this, bend to put the boots on the altar. And Fred’s beautiful mother sitting there looking just like her son.
Toby looked even thinner and paler now. His chin was covered with stubble and his hair smelled like pot. He had been at Fred’s bedside when he went. He had held his hand. I was jealous of Toby but at the time I’d been afraid.
Toby was crying and I put my arms around his shoulders. He was broken and I thought I could fix him like a doll.
We drove up to Mulholland. There we were, up above again, a vista below us, as if this might obliterate the memory of how we had met underground. I was thinking about the kids I knew who had died in cars on that street. I touched my head and it felt so small and bare now that the extensions were out. I’d had to remove them because they got so tangled that I was afraid they’d ruin my real hair. .
Fred's voice was singing on the car cassette. I could see his eyes, so green there wasn't a word to describe them. Toby was singing with him;he'd started again. His voice was the same as the one that had put me under its spell years ago.
I looked at him, trying to imagine him on stage, wrapped in tulle and Christmas lights.
"He loved you," he said.
"He loved you."
Then Toby kissed me.
He was kissing his best friend.
So was I.