There’s a hand corrupting the distance between me and my destination. It’s flown out, unexpectedly, in the middle of a song playing loudly—but not loudly enough—on my headphones. “HEY, HEY, HEY,” I hear, turning in the direction of the voice, thinking it’s going to be—I don’t know—someone I know, given the abrupt physical contact. Instead it’s someone foreign, literally and figuratively. His name is Alek and he is from the Ukraine. I know none of this ahead of time, given that he is a total stranger, but acquire it over the course of the next ten weird minutes on Bedford Avenue.
“Where were you?” he asks, accent thick, hands up demonstratively in the air, as though guiding my thoughts like air traffic control. “I waited for you for twenty minutes.” He has hair shaved close to the sides—blonde—with blue eyes and the types of features that would earn him an extra role in a Russian boxing movie, a scar added to the crest of his cheekbone for good measure, some lubricant sheen applied to his shoulders and chest to infer hard, manly work. I already hate him—because I am late, because we didn’t even make eye contact beforehand, because I never know how to get out of uncomfortable situations.
“Oh, yeah,” I mumble. “I was, just, somewhere else.”
Once, when I was living in LA and thought myself an on-the-fly humorist, I arrogantly enrolled in improv class at Upright Citizens Brigade, a sketch comedy group that produced the likes of Amy Poehler and people who write for every intelligent show worth watching on television. It was a springboard for greatness, a platform for success, a place where executives could bank on mining talent. For me, though, it quickly became a terrifying, windowless hellhole that only provided me with a punch-in-the-gut feeling every time I walked into the room, otherwise known as “absolute dread.” Out of twenty people, only two of them were girls, and everyone, with the exception of myself, had been part of a college troupe before enrolling into UCB: Intro to Improv—a school requirement that was needlessly cruel to all parties involved. The pros were bored to tears and could do all the exercises in their sleep, while I developed anxiety induced ulcers and never finished the class.
Thinking on the fly is not generally my strong suit. Today is no different, though not half as entertaining.
“Why didn’t you come back?” he continues, his improv about as creative as my own, but infinitely more relentless. This would be the point in class when fellow students, frustrated at your utter lack of ability, would look from the stage out into the dark rows of seats, face pained with suffering, longing for the moment they’ve graduated into the next level of study and didn’t have to deal with dolts like you. Give me something, anything, you dumb, incapable jerk.
The charade continues for another four horrible minutes, until Alek from the Ukraine finally introduces himself as just a normal guy living in New York for another two weeks before heading off to Los Angeles to—wait for it—TRY HIS HAND AT ACTING! “Yes, yes, yes,” he admits, “I’m going to just be another poor, struggling actor with all the others,” which is about exactly what is running through my head, though my strain comes with the additional thought that if he can’t pull off a faked sidewalk interaction with a stranger, I can’t imagine him even pulling off an audition for Bud Light. I want to tell him is making a terrible mistake, paint a picture for him that involves a $650 a month apartment in NoHo next to the 101 freeway, where the only thing you hear at night is the droning hum of passing cars and the sobs of your neighbor, a model/actress/cocktail waitress who keeps losing her big break roles to the 19-year-old daughter of the friend of a friend of a producer. Because that’s what Los Angeles is.
Irritatingly, he asks where I live, and I point in the direction I came from. “That way,” I say, as ambiguous as possible, as though “that way” could mean any number of things: the Long Island Expressway, Astoria, a goat farm in the Catskills. “Where?” he presses. And, stupidly, I tell him enough that he suggests we one day take a stroll down my local main street, which sounds about as fun eating nails with Shia LaBeouf.
“Fine. I’ll take your phone number,” I say, reaching into my bag for my phone.
“OH, NO, NO, NO,” he argues. “That’s just offensive!” Instead of taking his comically large refusal as a good juncture for my departure, I relent. “OKAY, I’ll give you mine.” There are a handful of things I absolutely hate about myself; my tendency to do things like this goes up there next to the fact I can’t let someone walk in my apartment with their shoes on without immediately Swiffering afterwards.
He pulls out his phone—a big Samsung, unsurprisingly, with a large, crystal clear display screen featuring a picture of him kissing some girl. We both look at the screen, and at each other, and his arm jams back in close to his body, covering the screen while he scrambles for an excuse. “That’s my friend,” he says, which is pretty much the most hilarious thing I’ve heard all weekend. While making active attempts to cheat on your girlfriend is normal in New York, having your cell phone’s screensaver be your best friend with his tongue in some girl’s mouth is definitely not.
“Ha! Come on! That’s you!”
“No, no, it’s my friend. It’s my friend.”
Why am I still standing here?
I hate myself.
He quickly opens the keypad of his phone and offers me the screen and because I am non-confrontational and don’t want to deal with telling this guy he’s a loser to his face, I start typing in my number and then purposefully goof on the last two, something I read in Cosmo when I was 14 years old. “There,” I say, and as I reach to add my number to the contact list with the + sign in the corner, he presses send.
“Oh, no, no, no,” I say, lurching for the phone, afraid that some innocent old woman from the San Fernando Valley is going to pick up on the other end and be dragged into this exchange like friendly fire. “I gave you the wrong number.”
“You’re making out with a girl on your phone! What do you want me to do?”
“You could tell me you just don’t want to give me your phone number.”
While it’s probably the only rational, normal thing Alek from Ukraine has said, it’s also sort of bullshit; I tried to not give him my phone number by taking his, which he wouldn’t let me do, because all the boys in this city are like a bunch of hungry, used cars salesmen slinging lemons with unfair lease agreements and no car insurance. You walk away with a piece of shit Yugo with faulty breaks and a leaking gas tank and have to pay for your medical bills when it blows up in your face two minutes after you pull it off the lot. Me giving him a fake phone number has nothing to do with the fact he has a girlfriend, or that he’s a terrible actor on a New York sidewalk who is moving in 14 days to be a terrible actor in a Los Angeles casting studio. It has everything to do with me, who should have had the balls to walk away from this thing in the first place. The fault always rests on the girl, even in the eyes of the guy who wrote everything out clearly in the small print beforehand.
I still give him my phone number.
“YOU ARE A CRUEL, CRUEL SOUL” I get in a text message ten minutes later from a 212 number I quickly block, less out of cruelty and more out of generalized fear.