by: Samantha Barron
“The city never cared that I struggled. And so I left it behind, time and again, in search of something familiar…”
Stanley’s is closed and Kirk is dead. That’s why we’re all assembled here in Encino for a memorial party for a coworker who died too young, generations of loyal employees who used who used to work at Stanley’s, spread out among picnic tables overlooking the duck pond where I used to play as a girl. We huddle over trays of skewered chicken and tuna poke crackers to pay our condolences – and to say goodbye to our old circumstances, and our old states of mind.
I clutch my plastic party glass of wine as I make my rounds. It’s been five years since I hung up my apron, but it could have been last week that I sidled up to the marble-top bar to sweet-talk the bartender into pouring a few thumbs of Bailey’s into my coffee. But now, Stanley’s has been shuttered for months now – sold for a pretty sum of five million to some celebrity’s investment group. And Kirk, beloved bartender since the restaurant’s inception thirty some years ago, died in hospice care.
I loved Kirk, but I am here at the memorial with ulterior motives. As glad as I am to be telling stories about our zany old friend with my old compatriots, I look past them, over their shoulders, and scan the crowd for Scott.
I grew up in Sherman Oaks, within a mile and a half of Stanley’s, which came into the world before I did, in a house on Magnolia Street with a garage, a garden and a swimming pool. I lived in a white house with brown trim, lined-up in a row with numerous other earth-toned one-stories with garages, gardens, and swimming pools. But if Sherman Oaks was suburbia, it was also a Garden of Eden. In the Spring, the spindly, leafless trees that lined our neighborhood streets erupted with fleshy pink blooms. In the front yard, my mother grew lemons and grapefruits. In the back, we had pomegranates, figs, oranges, and kumquats. They grew from small patches of dirt along the borders of our concrete yard.
I was nineteen when I took a job at Stanley’s. I was home from college in New York for summer break – pasty and tired and far too sophisticated for suburbia. I secured the job over dinner – my mother’s friend knew the owner – and started a few days later. I stayed working at Stanley’s on and off, for six years.
Before its closure, Stanley’s served canned Californian cuisine to a loyal crowd of regulars – middle-aged men and women who, as the legends have it, had waited behind velvet ropes in the ‘80s to sniff coke off of the bar and have casual hookups in the two-stall bathroom. By the time I’d arrived, Stanley’s drew an earlier crowd and shilled more chardonnay than shots of vodka. Popular menu items included chicken coated in an unidentifiable lemon sauce and crisp romaine tossed in gelatinous garlic dressing. Walk by the bar during Happy Hour and you’d shoot the shit with leather-skinned men with dyed black hair over complimentary crudite who’d complain that the portions were getting smaller. Or you’d overhear Norm the ophthalmologist and Larry the car collector reminisce about the “good ol’ days.”
All of the old gang’s showed up for Kirk’s memorial. Will is here and he pulls me aside to pontificate on the latest Illuminati references he’s picked up on in Top 40 rap lyrics. Connie pounds white wine, and by the end of the night, as she leans toward me in her chair to emphasize a point, she pitches forward and face plants into the dirt. Ramin is here too, in his beige Kangol hat. He criticizes the new potatoes with smoked salmon floating around on trays. If this were his affair, he would have sprung for crème fraîche and caviar. I flirt with some dentist who used to be a regular at the bar, trying to resurrect my old charms.
“I live in Echo Park now,” I tell anyone who will listen.
I bounced back and forth between Stanley’s and New York City throughout my early twenties. Every time I left my home in the Valley, I swore that I would never go back. But then I’d spend another winter slipping on black ice, and another year of nights shrieking as rats peaked their ugly heads from garbage bags piled up on Broadway. The city never cared that I struggled. And so I left it behind, time and again, in search of something familiar.
And that’s what I’m seeking tonight, too: something warm and predictable to reinforce who I am.
When Scott walks past my picnic table I rush him.
“Scottie!” I exclaim, as if I’m surprised to see him, as if my old crush weren’t the real reason I came here in the first place.
He is wearing a navy blue vest and a lighter blue scarf. He is not exactly the Don Draper of my memories, but his eyes still twinkled when he smiles and they focus on me like spotlights as I approach.
When I was nineteen, still a student and brand new to real life, I worked up the nerve to creep over to the bar at Stanley’s at the end of my shift and sit beside my coworkers. They laughed about their bad tips and the vegetarian idiots at Table 5 who didn’t realize that the Chinese Chicken Salad had chicken in it. I sat silently for a while, and then chimed in with a story about the rowdy Russian family on the patio who got sniffy when I told them I couldn’t drink Long Island Iced Tea’s with them because my section was too busy. My new friends tilted toward me so that they could hear.
I leaned over the bar. “A glass of the house chardonnay,” I told Scott.
“I’ll give you the good stuff,” he winked at me, and filled a goblet with a buttery white from a bottle that read La Crema.
Tonight, Scott hands me a glass of shiraz and puts his other hand on my thigh under the table at a bar called Fab’s in Sherman Oaks. We left the memorial together and we are going to leave this bar together soon as well. We are going to his place.
In his car, I blush a little before I say it.
“You know, I always had a huge crush on you.”
In my head, Scott grins and slides his hand on top of mine on the center console.
“I did too,” he says.
But instead my voice catches in my throat and comes out sounding broken.
“Oh,” he answers.
I lived only fifteen minutes away, but I didn’t venture into Los Angeles proper much when I was growing up. The city meant traffic, difficulty parking, and perhaps getting lost. Even after we learned to drive, my friends and I preferred to stay local, get high and watch American Idol as if we were two thousand miles, and not twenty minutes away, from the Kodak Theater where it was being filmed. It was better not to venture beyond our grid.
I spent an inordinate chunk of my childhood playing handball in my driveway. I clasped my hands together as if in prayer and slammed a rubber ball against the flimsy wood of my garage door. I challenged anyone who came over to a game. I won every time. At the age of seven I defeated my mother and father, twenty-something male cousins, my aunts and uncles, and their friends. It never once occurred to me that they may have been letting me win.
Because that’s what the Valley was for me. I had access to all of the fruits of paradise with none of its snakes. If it was limited, it was also sweet and safe.
“Girl, you better bag that soon,” my ex-co-worker Jacqui used to say to me when I told her about my crush on Scott. “He’s fine now, but pretty soon, he’ll be bald.”
He’s not entirely bald yet, but the back of his head boasts a patch of shiny white – a clearing that wasn’t there five years ago. I run my hands along his hair. It’s soft and downy and temporary-feeling, like lint clinging to a sweater.
Scott lives in a studio apartment somewhere in Burbank. Blood red walls. Every inch of the kitchen counter space – including the top of the refrigerator – crammed to suffocation with supplements. Glutamate, creatine, fish oil extract, green tea extract, amino acids, something called L-carnitine.
“So what are you doing these days, anyway?” I ask him.
“Oh, this and that. I’m in a sort of restructuring period,” he says.
The next morning he drops me off at my car in Encino. I give him a peck goodbye and step into Monday. At first I think that the lonely feeling trickling in is just acceptance that I will probably never see him again.
I sit in my car for a few minutes and review work emails on my phone. About one hundred yards away, Scott idles in his old Mercedes, ostensibly doing the same thing. When I pull out, I watch his car in my rearview mirror. I keep my eyes on it until I turn onto the 101 South, back to my place in Echo Park, and I leave it all behind.