Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Death by Leisure

A Cautionary Tale

by Chris Ayres

“With dry British wit, [Ayres] skewers American greed, L.A. life, and his own endless romantic foibles . . . Somehow, Ayres knew the fall was coming and kept going anyway. So did we.” —Time

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date January 19, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4365-5
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date February 03, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-1-5558-4915-3
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

The intrepid young author of War Reporting for Cowards (“Hilarious” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times) returns from his stint as a war correspondent only to dive headfirst into another absurd, terrifying world: the American leisure economy.

Published to rave reviews and now available in paperback, Death by Leisure is the incisive, irreverent, and savagely funny story of British journalist Chris Ayres’s attempt to infiltrate the American leisure class (and find true love) in the credit-fueled years before the economic collapse. When the bubble bursts, however, Ayres must learn to live without the billionaire balls, supermodel girlfriends, foie gras pina coladas, and caviar facials to which he’s grown accustomed. Just like the rest of us, alas.

Praise

“Gonzo-influenced volume . . . Ayres makes note of this life of excess, eco disasters and obsession with physical perfection. Producing a topsy-turvy carnival ride of a book, Ayres knows how to find the laughs and fantasy in this accomplished satire of Los Angeles.” —Publishers Weekly

“Ayres was born to write this book. . . . [He is] the perfect chronicler of this imperfect age.” —Los Angeles Times

“Were this merely a tale of a stranger in a strange land, Ayres’s hilariously self-effacing manner would make this worth reading. But what makes it more than merely clever is the way Ayres turns his own romantic insecurity and material aspiration into a stinging, if sympathetic, indictment of mindless consumption. Yes, we’re destroying the planet, he seems to say, but can we help it, given how pathetic we are? And anyone who can make us laugh at that must be a genius.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Fast and funny, Death by Leisure has the high spirits of a chick book, because its author is interested in chick-lit things: dates, celebrities, vanity, and shopping. But it is also a tale of real woe. Global climate change and the collapse of the American home market should not be conflated as easily as they are here, in a gonzo-style book with topics skittering from $1-perblackhead California facials to the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. But Mr. Ayres somehow manages to cram all these elements into his wild-eyed American adventure.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times

Excerpt

1 — Poolside at the Leisureplex

The girl next to me kept looking over.

I knew this because I was holding up my sunglasses to clean them with the cuff of my sweater. And there she was, in the dull, curved reflection: white bikini, straw hat, gold necklace. Had we met before? I surely would have remembered. Yes, this was the kind of girl you would remember.

I watched. I waited.

There, she did it again.

And again.

Jesus, what was her problem?

I shifted uncomfortably on my recliner. It was unusually hot, out there by the pool of the Park Wellington apartment complex, and there was a dry wind that kept blowing grit into my left contact lens. I couldn’t decide what was more uncomfortable: the heat, the dust, or the girl’s scrutiny. There was another discomfort, of course: that of being so close to a strange woman, an attractive woman, an American woman, who was approximately fifteen square inches of sculpted fabric away from being completely naked.

In an attempt to distract myself I looked up at the rioting mansions of the Hollywood Hills. I saw Tuscan villas, Normandy castles, adobe mud huts, mid-century pleasurepods, French medieval spires, and Saudi compounds, all of them doing their very worst to the mountain. You’ve got to wonder what it would take to send these glued and bolted palaces tobogganing down the face of the decomposing granite to the traffic lights at Sunset and La Cienega Boulevard. Not much, I would bet. A light breeze, perhaps; an afternoon’s drizzle.

“Are you going somewhere?” asked the girl, finally.

The accent was soft, southern, and infused with sleep: sleep of the warmest, of the most luxurious kind.

“Me?” I said, looking around.

“Who else?”

“Am I going somewhere?”

“That’s what I was wondering, yes.”

I couldn’t work out what was stranger: the question itself or the fact that a girl in a white bikini was trying to make conversation with me. No one apart from Steve, the Park Wellington guard (nice bloke, quiet, a little sad in the eyes), ever tries to make conversation with me. Then again, it’s unusual to have any company at all in this place. If it wasn’t for the woman in apartment 53B, the one who fakes an orgasm at three-fifteen every morning—the acoustics of the Spanish-tiled courtyard allowing for maximum possible amplification—I would swear to God I live here alone. I like it that way. It gives me space to think, to plan.

“No,” I said, after some consideration. “I’m not.”

“Oh,” said the girl, closing her eyes. “That’s what I thought.”

Time passed.

I shifted again on my recliner.

It was hot, and getting hotter.

“Any particular reason?” I asked, unable to leave the exchange at that.

The girl’s eyes reopened, meeting mine. With a yawn, she said, “Most people don’t wear jeans to the pool, I guess.”

I looked down at my jeans. They were expensive and new and made to look as if they were cheap and old, but in a way that made it absolutely clear they were expensive and new. I looked up again and began to wonder how American girls get such perfect teeth, such perfect mouths, such perfect . . .

Don’t stare at the bikini, I thought.

“Chris, by the way,” I said, reaching over.

“Lara.”

“Nice to meet you, Lara.”

Lara smiled.

I stared at the bikini.

“You know, Chris, shoes and socks aren’t a popular choice of pool attire, either. I wasn’t going to say anything. It’s just, you look so . . . uncomfortable. Then I thought you might be going somewhere.”

“Right,” I said, nodding.

“So I had to ask.”

Now I was acutely aware of the sensation of my toes sweating. My socks were black, heavy, tight, elaborately ribbed. Come to think of it, it wasn’t just my toes that were sweating. All the other parts of my body were sweating, too.

“Is that a wool sweater?” asked Lara.

“Cotton,” I said.

“Oh, cotton.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I should change.”

So now I crash through the door of my apartment and reach for the lights. It’s a ground-floor unit, my bachelor bunker, and as such is in near permanent darkness. Blinking away patterns of ultraviolet, I thump upstairs to my bedroom, where I begin to throw clothes from a mirrored closet. I flinch as I catch my reflection. The creature in the glass isn’t meant for Southern California, that’s for sure. The creature in the glass is made for a cold and wet island, six thousand miles away.

I salvage what I can from the floor: goth-rock T-shirt, rubber-strapped Caterpillar sandals, tennis socks, Speedos.

It’s been—what?—ten months now. Ten months in LA and my wardrobe still hasn’t adapted. My anti-tan skin is largely responsible, although the memory of teenage acne has also played an undeniable part. The boils lasted until my parents finally sent me to the hospital, where I was given a jar of luminous green pills the size of tennis balls, which had truly extraordinary side effects. The treatment was experimental. There was talk of wild-eyed kids chopping up their grandparents. But I was a success story. The drugs dried up my spots along with every other gland in my body. My tear ducts welded themselves shut. My eyeballs turned to broken glass. My lips started to bleed, then disappeared entirely. But I was delighted, and I celebrated my newfound popularity with the opposite sex by taking up smoking.

But I never got over the fear of removing my shirt in public.

Another problem: I keep expecting the LA weather to turn. Every morning I awake to a cool ocean mist, fully prepared for a week of gray skies and drizzle. But it never turns out that way. By eleven o’clock the fog has always cleared to reveal an unchanging, untroubled sky. And where is this smog everyone keeps talking about? The sky shows no evidence of it—no evidence, even, of a functioning weather system. It is transparent blue, consistent in depth and tone, in all directions. Back in my hometown, back in the windy, bleating hills of the Scottish borders, you are the weather. It slaps you and it soaks you. It roughs you up and it shouts you down. All in all, it goes to an extraordinary effort to ruin your day.

Ah, yes: Wooler. Scene of my upbringing. I exited that little sheep farming town at the age of eighteen with all the speed and purpose of an intercontinental ballistic missile, stopping only for an education in sunless Humberside, then on to the bull’s-eye of London, where I got my first job as a newspaper reporter, in the financial section. And now, at the age of twenty-eight, here I am. Yes, here I am, with perhaps the least-respected job title in my chosen field.

Hollywood correspondent.

Actually, the official title is Los Angeles correspondent, on account of my newspaper being too serious for show biz stories. Not that we avoid show biz stories, of course. That’s where I come in. It is my job to ensure that the celebrity gossip is put into the correct sociopolitical context and recounted with the appropriate literary metaphors and allusions to Greek mythology. But it’s not all gossip. I get the cautionary tales, too: the shotgun divorces, the bathtub suicides, the cocaine bankruptcies. They love these stories back in London. They love these stories everywhere—even here in LA. It seems that as much as we all want to be like these celebrity superconsumers, we’re also relieved when it turns out their lives are largely violent and miserable. I stopped trying to make any sense of this a long time ago.

All of which, of course, is perfect cover for my real mission. Yes, I have another agenda, out here in LA. I remember outlining the plan to myself as my jumbo slammed into the tarmac at LAX in a fog of smoked rubber and jet fuel vapor. This is my last chance to make good on all those TV promises of my twentieth-century boyhood, I told myself. I am here to live a life of cars and gadgets and clifftop bachelor palaces. I am here to experience—to consume. Yes, I need to get all of this out of my system, while I still can. I need to max out; I need to go all in.

Girls, of course, are also a factor in this mission of mine. And how could they not be? The girls of LA are buffed and toned and scrubbed and shaved and moisturized and tanned and otherwise improved in every conceivable way to fit the heterosexual male’s idea of perfection. Every homecoming queen in America, every cheerleader, every popular girl in high school—they all come to LA. There’s only one problem: the men are equally perfect. And it’s not just the gay men, who have their own miniature pleasuretropolis down on Santa Monica Boulevard: Boyz Town, where even the police cars are decorated with rainbow colors. No, the straight men are just as winningly muscled and groomed. Going to a restaurant in West Hollywood, where the actors and body doubles work the tables, is like finding yourself trapped inside a shaving-product commercial. They’re charming too, the bastards, with their surfer dude smiles and unbreakable friendliness—How y’ doin’ this evening, everything workin’ out for ya over there, let me take care of that for ya. I imagine them going home at night to Ralph Lauren bedsheets and Marie Claire cover girls.

Girls like Lara, in other words.

I have any chance with her? The odds aren’t good, I’ll concede. At five-foot-ten-and-a-half, with no discernible muscle tone, no skin pigment, and teeth like the ruins of a fire-bombed village, I barely qualify to compete. Did I mention my hair? Christ, yes, my hair. It has called a retreat on both fronts, leaving behind the vast and scorched no-man’s-land formerly known as my forehead. I haven’t yet found the courage to shave the remaining orange-blond fuzz to the scalp, so I’m starting to look like an out-of-work porn actor, or pre-Captain Fantastic Elton John. No, there can be no possibility of anything happening with Lara. I have as much chance with her as I would of taking Deep Blue’s queen with an overlooked pawn.

And yet I do have one thing going for me: a steady job. Which means I can afford to live here in the Park Wellington—an apartment complex whose leisure facilities defy belief: swimming pool, tennis court, gym, and two hot tubs. I call my home the Leisureplex. Granted, it’s not a particularly fashionable address: the beige stucco and gold fixtures haven’t aged well, and the building relies on exotic plant life and a courtyard waterfall to distract from the concrete architecture.

But you can’t beat the location.

One block north is the Sunset Strip—LA’s very own interactive museum of human excess. Every night, Hummer limo convertibles guzzle down both lanes, the fist-sized pixels of the video billboards reflected in their white paintwork. The air is a hyperoctane cocktail of booze fumes, cigarette smoke, and Lamborghini emissions. The Lamborghinis themselves are positioned like art installations outside the ambitiously themed restaurants and guarded over by white-uniformed parking valets, the curators of LA’s twenty-four-hour combustion exhibition. And all the while, blacked-out coaches cruise back and forth past the Sites of Historical Consumption. Here is the Hyatt Hotel, you can hear the megaphones shout. Keith Richards once threw a TV out of the window of suite ten-fifteen! Look right, folks. John Belushi once coughed up a cheeseburger and milkshake right there in that minimall!

Yes, everything has worked out perfectly.

I can hardly believe my luck.

On my way back to the pool I stop for a moment in the living room, where the TV is lighting up the walls like an aquarium. The news is on. “GREENSPAN LOWERS RATE TO FORTY-SIX-YEAR LOW OF ONE PERCENT,” reads the caption. “SAYS MOVE WILL ENCOURAGE ‘SUSTAINABLE GROWTH.’” Now we see the man himself, or rather we see a pair of giant black-rimmed spectacles, behind which are a pair of tiny, cryptic eyeballs. Yes, that’s him all right: Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve. The screen now cuts to a correspondent. He’s out in the desert, interviewing a home owner. The home owner says he has just cashed out his equity at a new low-interest rate and bought himself a sixty-inch TV and a Lexus convertible. “Can cheap money save the economy?” asks the correspondent, nodding seriously at the camera. Then back to the newsroom, where the anchor starts talking about the drought and the heat wave. I reach for the off switch and head for the door. As it closes behind me I wonder how I can get ahold of some cheap money, too.

“Wow, Chris, your life must be so exciting,” said Lara, smiling. “I can hardly believe it. It’s like a movie or a novel or something.”

“Yeah, well, I suppose it sounds pretty cool,” I chuckled. “But, y’know, it’s just a job really, when it’s all said and done.”

So it went well by the pool—in spite of my outfit, which we needn’t ever mention again—and Lara accepted my invitation to dinner. Until recently, of course, this kind of thing would have never happened to me. When you arrive in a new city, you are an observer; a ghost in the machine. It takes time to grow some flesh, to become visible to your fellow human beings. Take the Russian matriarch in my local coffee shop: she remembered me for the first time only two weeks ago. And now every morning we nod, we mumble.

Still, I can hardly believe it. I can hardly believe I asked Lara out.

“So when’s your next assignment, Chris?”

“You never know in advance. They just call you and tell you to get on a plane.”

“No way.”

Before I recount any more of this, I should come clean. I have this . . . I have this habit. It’s silly, really; embarrassing.

I exaggerate. I oversell.

I should make clear that this is a private habit, not a professional one (a result of a few hard lessons, early on in my career). But my tendency to overegg does come bundled with a few other vices, such as tendencies to overestimate and to overpromise. It’s fair to say I have general aversion to reality in most of its popular forms. Yes, LA is in many ways the perfect place for me.

Too perfect, I sometimes think.

So I overegged my job a bit. I might have given Lara the impression that what I do for a living is a bit more . . . interesting than it really is. But I wouldn’t have done it if the date had been going well. I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t failed to remember the rules of LA, the first and most important of which is this: a man never shows up to a date in a taxi. Especially not a minivan taxi, driven by an Armenian who plays techno music at the volume of artillery fire. In LA your car is your chariot, your castle, your piece of real estate in Gridlock City. I broke the rule largely because I intended to manage my nerves with vodka. Which brings me to the other rules of LA: drinking rarely gets in the way of driving; and if you’re going to admit to taking a taxi because of your need to drink, you might as well go all the way and declare yourself a registered sex offender. This is why celebrities spend their lives dodging drunk-driving convictions when they could afford to hire their own fleet of chauffeured Bugattis. It’s a control issue, a vanity issue, a credibility issue.

I knew from the second I saw Lara’s face that the taxi had been a mistake. “Chris,” she protested, neck tight, arms folded, “how are we going to get home?” With absolute confidence, I told her we would get another cab. Then came my next mistake: the restaurant. I chose it because it was on a rooftop, with a view over Hollywood. In fact, it was the only restaurant I could find in the online guide with any kind of view. I didn’t realize that the rooftop in question was that of the Hollywood and Highland shopping mall, a place where coachloads of Midwestern tourists and Korean schoolgirls disembark every minute to admire a giant fake elephant. The food was billed as “fusion tapas.” This meant that the portions were extremely small, thus forcing you to order a lot of them. And yet the size of the portions was in no way reflected in the pricing of them, thus turning the dining experience into a kind of consensual mugging. My eyes watered as I signed the bill, charged to the American Express Optima card for which I recently qualified. Still, I didn’t mind so much. That’s the thing with an AmEx card: it makes you feel like it’s okay to pay over the odds. It makes you feel like you can afford it—like you’re a player.

Over the miniature portions of dinner I discovered that Lara is from Louisiana, that her father is a shrimp fisherman and part-time alligator trapper, that she has two sisters, and that she sells advertising for a living. With that accent and that body, she could sell anyone pretty much anything. Lara doesn’t actually live at the Leisureplex: she’s the friend of a friend of someone who lives there, and the security guard, Steve, lets her in to use the swimming pool.

It was after we left the restaurant that the date threatened to become a genuine disaster. By eleven o’clock we were waiting for a nonexistent cab on the Walk of Fame, amid a hot spandex riptide of celebrity impersonators. Why do they have celebrity impersonators in Hollywood? Aren’t there enough real celebrities? It seems to me like having a fake canal in Venice; a replica Eiffel Tower in Paris.

We watched in silence as a Jewish Elvis fought over his turf with an elderly Marilyn Monroe. Meanwhile, on a nearby curb, an exhausted Spider-Man sat with the Los Angeles Times crossword, eating a Whopper. I’ve read about these fake superheroes: they charge people a dollar to have their photograph taken with them—as a result, they’re vicious about defending their territory. They’re forever brawling, taking out restraining orders, getting sent to jail.

I noticed Spider-Man look up from his newspaper to admire Lara’s legs, which glistened with expensive oils beneath a denim miniskirt. And then, perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes later, I felt something thick and hairy fall over my shoulders. I turned, and there in front of me was a small, perspiring Hispanic face, encased by a Chewbacca costume.

“Hey, amigo, that’s a beautiful lady,” said Chewbacca, with genuine concern. “Don’t you have a car or something?”

“We’re taking a taxi.”

“You should buy a car,” he said, helpfully.

Eventually, a cab pulled over. It was another minivan, this time converted for wheelchair access, so we slid around on a bench at the back as our second Armenian driver of the evening loudly scolded his phone. Not that we could really hear him over the techno music. Lara, being a good sport, let me kiss her good night. Or rather, she failed to react fast enough when I made my booze-induced farewell lunge.

Still, it was a kiss.

My chances of stealing another? Not good, I fear.

And now, after an early afternoon hot tub session, I hike up Alta Loma Road to the Sunset Strip—a lone sunburned pedestrian in a sweltering concrete universe. As I reach the crest of the hill I’m almost knocked off my feet in a blur of spokes and a clatter of gears. I yelp with fright and punch the air as a cyclist passes. I’ve seen this lunatic before. In purple leggings and scuffed body armor, he laps the block at Tour de France speed, oblivious to traffic. As he rides, he rants and curses about the end of the world. I sometimes wonder if he ever stops, or if he just keeps going all night, powered on by some supernatural, apocalyptic force.

You see a lot of them around nowadays: the babbling doomsday merchants, hawking their theories about the shitstorm to come. Perhaps they’re the same people who go around blowing up Hummers and setting fire to luxury condo developments, leaving behind only the graffitied initials of the Earth Liberation Front—a so-called eco-terror group that doesn’t officially exist.

Shaken, I crossed Sunset and kept bearing east to the Saddle Ranch, a bar made to look like a fake wooden barn, complete with fake wooden balconies, fake Wild West figures, and a fake coach and horses hanging over the entrance. The big attraction is a mechanical bull in the dining area, operated by an embittered waiter. I rode on the bull once and had to sit on a cushion for the next three days. The waiter found the whole thing enormously amusing. Everything in the Ranch is oversized: the Long Island Iced Teas come in “carafes” the size of flower pots and the steaks arrive on chain-sawed logs, with machetes instead of knives. The Ranch isn’t so much a bar as an alcoholics’ theme park.

Waiting for me in the coral outside was Jeff Rayner, a friend, expat Brit, and news photographer.

“I can’t believe you did it,” he said, as I approached.

“Did what?”

“You know.”

“No, I don’t know.”

“I can’t believe you told that poor girl you’re a war correspondent.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “That.”

Jeff never meant to end up in LA.

His real ambition was to work for National Geographic. In fact, he used to work in a wildlife park in England until the day he forgot to close the gate on his way home, resulting in a pack of wild Argentine pigs running free. Over the following twelve hours, the pigs went on a rampage, head-butting traffic, castrating pit bulls, and generally making, well, pigs of themselves until they were captured (four dead, one injured) by the authorities. Fortunately, Jeff came from an enterprising family, so he cut a hole in the gate of the pen and blamed it on animal rights activists, a claim that resulted in Jeff’s emotional appearance that night on the national evening news. “I can’t believe they did it,” he sobbed, shaking his head at the gently nodding anchorman. “These animal rights people, they don’t love animals.”

This flicker of the media limelight was enough to inspire Jeff to reply to an ad in the Press Gazette seeking “LA-based photojournalists.” He got the job, boarded the next flight to LAX, and within twenty-four hours was sitting outside an address in Bel Air with a seven-foot lens. The wannabe safari photographer had somehow become a paparazzo. But those were the old days. Jeff has gone legit. Now he does “proper” stories, for serious publications. He even takes portraits for magazines, sometimes of the same people he once hunted like game.

We pushed through the Saddle Ranch’s swinging doors, passing the enclosure with the mechanical bull

“It wasn’t a complete lie,” I protested.

“Ayres, it was a whopper. You told her you’re ‘resting’ between combat assignments. The nearest you’ve come to a combat assignment recently is having Brad Pitt’s publicist fax you a press release.”

“It was George Clooney’s publicist.”

“Whatever.”

Jeff was being slightly unfair.

The real story, briefly, is this. A few weeks after I first moved out to LA there was a mix-up in London. Wires were crossed. Messages got lost. And somehow, for reasons best not further explored, I ended up on a press list at the Pentagon. Now if there’s one thing you never want to get on before the invasion of a Middle Eastern country, it’s a press list at the Pentagon. And yet that’s precisely what happened. By the time I realized what was happening it was too late to stop it, and so I was promptly flown halfway around the world, handed a fluorescent blue-and-white flak jacket, and embedded with a forward reconnaissance unit of the United States Marines. I had never wanted to be a war correspondent. And now I can say with some confidence, some firsthand experience, that if there’s one thing that can make someone who doesn’t want to be a war correspondent feel even less enthusiastic about being a war correspondent, it is being a war correspondent. My stint on the front lines was brief, violent, and eventful in the worst possible way. It’s a miracle I’m still alive. The only good thing to have come out of it is that no sane editor will ever send me into battle again. At the end of it all I was returned to Hollywood, possibly for good.

The war changed me, of course. I read once about Vietnam veterans, bored at home, who used to try to simulate the adrenaline of combat by driving on the wrong side of the road. I too have felt a certain swagger, a certain recklessness, since my return. I look in only one direction at pedestrian crossings now; I bowl along at thirty in the twenty-five-mile-per-hour zone. I’ve even started to talk to strangers by the pool, and invite them out to dinner.

Speaking of which: It’s slightly disappointing, don’t you think, just how well the war correspondent line worked on Lara? I’ve always believed that what women really want, what they really absolutely long for, is the very opposite of a war correspondent—a sensitive man; a man who prefers, say, home improvement to armed combat; a man who reads The Nanny Diaries for pleasure. But girls, they really want it both ways. They want the poet and the fighter.

Perhaps that’s what Lara thought she was getting.

I should probably try harder to maintain this illusion. After all, I need all the help I can get when it comes to the opposite sex. Take my first-ever girlfriend: a German exchange student named Velma. It took me six months to kiss her, by which time she was in the airport, waiting for the final call to be made for her flight back to D’sseldorf. And I say kiss, but it was really more of a random chewing motion, directed at her face. Ah, yes, Velma. She had blonde hair that came down to her waist, green eyes, and she owned one of those close-fitting girls’ denim jackets, which she wore with flared jeans and a long, knitted scarf. She looked like a teenage Brigitte Bardot. After she left, we composed melodramatic air mail letters to each other while secretly finding other people to practice kissing on. We reunited the following year—I took an excruciating forty-eight-hour bus trip to Germany—before realizing the impossible logistics of our bilateral relationship. Since Velma, my record with the opposite sex has been, well, patchy—to the point where there’s actually very little data to analyze. In college, I once took a girl out for a curry, which seemed absurdly glamorous at the time. I paid for it with my first credit card. The girl in question seemed to enjoy the experience, although she dumped me the following week for her ex-boyfriend. “Sebastian and I had a reunion” were her precise words, spoken in posh schoolgirl and accompanied with the kind of face that you make when you stroke a terminally-ill puppy.

Then nothing, for years. Just heavy drinking, bad nightclubs, questionable wardrobe choices. Finally, on my first assignment to America—in New York, for the financial section—I met someone. It was a mismatch, but for a while it made me happy. The relationship struggled on for about two years until my ignoble return from combat, and in my postwar funk I ended it.

“I need a follow-up date with Lara,” I announced when we reached the bar. “This time, no taxis, no elephants, no Chewbaccas.”

“You’re the show biz correspondent,” said Jeff. “Take her to a Hollywood party.”

“Los Angeles correspondent,” I corrected. “And I don’t get invited to Hollywood parties.”

“That’s because you don’t ask.”

“Yeah, well,” I said. “Maybe.”

A bartender appeared and we ordered.

On the whole, Jeff is better at living in LA than I am. He knows how to dress, for a start. Tonight’s outfit was a pair of expertly faded jeans with a flare below the knee and an untucked white shirt with a rainbow pattern down one side. The ensemble was completed with a pair of white sneakers and a spiked “hoxton fin” hairdo. Jeff is my age, but on nights like this he looks about a decade younger. If you had to guess, you’d say he was a member of a boy band.

“So did you hear about Jacko’s birthday party?” he asked, casually.

He meant Michael Jackson.

Everyone’s talking about Michael Jackson, as I’m sure you’ve heard. They showed that documentary about him the other night, the one made by the British journalist Martin Bashir. In the film, Jackson cheerfully admits to sharing his bed with other people’s children and recommends that Bashir do that same. Not a good move, this, on Jackson’s part. Or maybe it wouldn’t have sounded so bad if Jackson hadn’t looked as though he had recently relocated from Neverland to hell, what with his acid bath face and helium balloon voice. There are now rumors that the district attorney in Santa Barbara is going to try to put him away for good on child abuse charges, having failed with that other case ten years ago.

“What party?” I said, only vaguely interested in the answer.

“He’s selling two hundred golden tickets for five grand a pair. It’s like Willy Wonka all over again. We should gatecrash. We should do a story, Ayres. Why don’t we find some scalpers on eBay?”

“And pay five grand?”

“Think of the story, Ayres.”

“Jeff, if I filed a five-grand expenses claim for getting into a party, the editor would fly over in person to fire me.”

“Suit yourself,” said Jeff, sighing and looking over at a tanned girl in a bra top and miniskirt who had just straddled the mechanical bull.

I studied the wedge of lime in my drink and began to think about Lara, in her straw hat and her white bikini.