The Three Vaporizing Babes
It was Thursday, or maybe Monday. I was lying on the couch in my brother’s basement, working my way through a bag of dried mango and staring at this one painting on the wall I’d been staring at for weeks, losing hours a day in the thing. It looked like two seals about to have sex, but it might have been a seal and a fat brown penguin. One thing was sure: they were in love with each other.
I’d been living on that couch for four months, washed the sheets maybe twice. In that time I’d earned a total of $280 working security at one Dolce & Gabbana sample sale. But I’d just posted a bunch of five-star Yelp reviews for my newly launched private investigation business, and Jupiter, the planet of miracles and bounty, had entered my house of finances, so I had a feeling my luck was about to change.
My phone vibrated into my ass cheek. Local L.A. number. I waited a few seconds before answering. “Rocco here.”
The guy on the other end of the line sounded like he used a lot of moisturizer. “Rocco! This is Phil Sylvester from the Sylvester Media Group.”
“Never heard of you.” This was bullshit; he’d emailed me through my website, and expecting his call was my plans for the day.
“Got a job for you,” Sylvester said. “Concerns a reality TV show. One of those ones where a guy dates fifty-seven girls and tries to only sleep with a dozen.”
“I don’t approve of such things,” I said. In truth, I’d never thought about it. I just didn’t appreciate that he’d skipped the part where he was supposed to tell me which of the Yelp reviews had convinced him to hire me. I had a sense that hearing my words repeated back to me by someone else would do something for what the internet tells me is my impostor syndrome, which I have literally no reason to have.
“Regardless, the girls keep vaporizing from their hotel room.”
“You’re telling me these girls are turning into vapor?”
“Well, not actual vapor. But they’re disappearing off somewhere at night, after the cameramen go home. See, we’re not allowed to film them while they sleep, because of legal BS.”
“Then how do you know they’re going anywhere?”
“They come back different in the mornings.” Phil lowered his voice to almost a growl. “Dirty.”
Dirty women. I knew dirty women, but I didn’t want to tell Phil Sylvester about it. I could tell he’d like it too much. I have a brother—not the one whose basement I live in, but another one. He lives in the Valley and is always having these pool parties with themes, like Mardi Gras or Group Sex or IPA, even though a couple years ago at one of them a woman totally drowned. His wife’s alleged best friend, but I’m 78 percent sure my brother was fucking her. They found the woman in the pool the next morning, naked, her hair getting sucked into the filter. Skull bashing against the wall again and again and again, or that’s how I picture it.
“Can’t they just give them a shower?” I asked Phil. “If they’re so dirty, these women.”
“Well, the real problem is they come back exhausted. They keep yawning and they have these dark circles under their eyes. Makeup is all over my dick about it. And it’s too late in the season to replace them.”
“Phil,” I said—even though I already knew the answer to the question I was about to ask, which was that he needed me and only me, that I was the exact right man for the job—“Phil,” I said, “what’s it got to do with me?”
I was to sit outside their hotel room door all night long. I wasn’t allowed to go in, because of the legal BS, but I’d see the women if they tried to go off and do anything dirty. And if I could solve this, this Mystery of the Vaporizing Babes, I would get to marry the hottest, youngest one.
Kidding. I would never take that deal. I see marriage very much as a cliff whose edge you want to get as close to as possible without falling off. You want someone to want you to fall off the cliff with them. Being loved unconditionally, no matter how bad you fuck up, is imperative to being a person. I get that. It keeps you feeling like things are OK, which they obviously are not. But at the last minute you need to yank yourself back from the precipice and sip from your bottle of water. Which is why I was living in my brother’s basement at this moment in time, having left Zora the Clinically Bonkers with our art deco studio apartment and all of our succulents, which I’m sure she had killed by this point.
But Phil did promise me enough cash that I could move out of my brother’s basement, maybe order one of those kits where you build a whole house out of a shipping container. I looked up the babes on my brother’s ancient computer, which had a mouse that went on the desk with a wire. By this point, the main guy in the show—Tristan—had culled his herd to just three. First was Whitney, the blonde. Skin like milk. In the photo she was wearing a cowgirl outfit—leather chaps and a whip. He’d pick her in the end. I’d caught a few of these shows during my tenure in the basement, and the guy always went for the blandest blonde. Personally, I prefer something a little less obvious, a little more broken, when it comes to females—a jagged edge to grab on to. Goths, stunt doubles, socially awkward programmers. Before Zora, I dated a female trucker ten years my senior. Zora herself was your average girl from Fresno, but she had these wide-set eyes and this way of doing her makeup that made her look like a gray alien. It hypnotized me, right up until she started talking about us adopting a pair of hypoallergenic cats.
Still, I think of her.
The second one was the brunette. Kelsey. Blue eyes, beaky nose. The-hottestgirl-in-her-high-school kind of thing. She wouldn’t age well, but she could probably fuck with a Thanksgiving turkey. Tristan wouldn’t want her. She looked pleasant, like good company.
The third one was black. Barbara. She was the prize of this batch, probably, the only one with any glint to her eyeballs, but he wouldn’t want her, either. The black girls on these shows are just window dressing—Jimmy Kimmel is always going on about it. Long weave. I could tell it was a weave, and fake hair grosses me out, but it was shiny, at least. She was holding a python. It was working for me.
I undid the drawstring on my sweatpants and listened for my brother and sister-in-law above me, but they were at work or church or whatnot.
All three of the babes were giving dumb looks to the camera. Playing possum.
“Gonna get you,” I said.
That night, after the camera guys went home, I was getting myself settled outside their hotel room door in this shitty fabric chair with this ugly pattern of squares on it when the blond one came out. Whitney. She blinked at me, probably going for “seductive,” but her fake lashes unbalanced her face. She had different but related shades of makeup on and, close up, you could see they were barely blended, giving her a carved wooden look.
“We thought you might be hungry,” she said, handing me a styrofoam food container. Having all those thoughts about her face took up enough time that I didn’t say thank you, but it’s not like I owed her a thank you. I didn’t ask for the food.
The logo on the container was from this new ramen place in Silverlake. I peeled off the cover and got hit with a blast of steamy umami. Whitney didn’t give me any chopsticks, so I had to eat the ramen with my hands. Slopped it all over my jeans. Next thing I remember, there was light coming through the window and my phone was buzzing into my ass cheek and Phil’s voice was saying things about what a waste of space I am, like I haven’t heard that track enough. But it was like I was hearing his voice through a fog.
“I’m gonna give you one more chance, Rocco, and then I’m gonna fuck your name into the mud,” he said, or something like that.
“No, you won’t,” I said, I don’t know why. “You’ll give me two more chances.
To clear my head I drove out to Glendale, which is one of the few places in L.A. they have an Orange Julius. I find Orange Julii soothing. Artifacts from a simpler time. I thought about driving to the beach to drink my Orange Julius while staring at the ocean, but that seemed like a lot of effort.
Then I was back in my shitty chair, waving goodnight to the camera guys. Right on cue, Kelsey, the girl-next-door one, came out and handed me some fried chicken. Big juicy thighs really oiling up the plate. “Whitney told me you liked the ramen,” she said, blue eyes twinkling in a way I didn’t much care for. Gave me no napkins or wet wipes, of course.
“Where’d you get this?” I asked, starting to make a connection between the ramen and the brain fog.She shrugged a tiny shrug that was likely meant to be adorable. “Don’t worry about it.”
Then she went back in and I looked at the plate with trepidation. But you can’t roofie fried chicken. That doesn’t make sense on a molecular level. Although a lot of things in L.A. don’t make sense, like grown men wearing fluorescent tank tops.
Next thing, I was coming to on the shitty rug in front of my chair and a man with Phil Sylvester’s voice was standing over me, yowling, his forehead a gigantic gleaming Easter egg.
“Kill yourself!” I said to him, I don’t know why.
“Rocco, you’re supposed to be the best. I heard you were the best. Are you telling me you’re not the best?”
I wanted to ask him for a definition of “best,” and for him to use it in a sentence, and then I wanted to really think about if I was—it seemed important—but there wasn’t time.
Phil said to stick close to the babes all day and see if I could get any clues. I trailed them down to the pool. No one’s hair touched water. Then we got mani-pedied and I don’t think they passed the Bechdel test once all day. It was Tristan this and Tristan that, his swoony brown eyes and gooshy smile. I’m sorry, but I found the babes to be vapid. Living up to what they’d been told they were, that kind of thing. Like the girls in that study who took the SATs wearing bikinis and did much worse on it than the girls in jeans. So, like … change? Night fell and I was banished to my shitty chair.
Barbara, the maybe prize, came out and handed me a leg of lamb.
“Enjoy,” she said, smirking. I said thank you, because I’m nice, but she didn’t even give me a plate.
Down the hall, a guy was servicing the elevator. He was hot, or at least my friend Kaleb would have thought so. I don’t always notice when other men are hot. But sometimes I do. It’s newish. Not the noticing part—that’s been going on forever—but the part that comes after. The doing-something part. The first time, it was this waiter at Denny’s with a pierced lip. I was wasted on Evan Williams, late night, vacuuming up a tower of pancakes. Pierced Lip comped my meal. Touched my shoulder. I’d just broken up with Zora and I loved the idea of fucking something that didn’t remind me of her stupid fucking face.
Actually, that’s not really it, and we didn’t even fuck all the way.
After that, there was one other time, on Venice Beach, this skater in these really wide shorts. This isn’t a secret. But before I met Kaleb through fantasy football and started going to bars with him, I wasn’t in the enlightened place I’m in now. And like a year ago I would have punched myself hard if I’d even considered doing anything. Now I don’t give a shit. That being said, if Kaleb or the waiter or the skater ever told anyone I went to high school with or my family, I would be fairly irate.
So I noticed this guy by the elevator was well built and had a nice man bun, which is one of the few L.A. affectations I can stand. Apparently he could smell my leg of lamb from down the hallway, because he licked his lips.
“Want some?” I asked.
He advanced upon me.
So we were gnawing at this leg of lamb from different angles while it dripped bloody juices on the rug, and I was feeling pretty good about life for no real reason, and being in such close proximity to each other’s bodies, with our teeth tearing into this dead thing, injected some particles into the air.
“Want to play?” he asked.
His directness appealed. I looked into his eyes, which were the deep blue of river rocks. Vulnerable. I liked that. I thought about my balls being in his mouth, about flossing his teeth with what grew there, trusting him with that even though I didn’t know him at all, and I said why not. Threw the lamb bone down on the shitty rug. We went into the elevator and he pressed the button to lock it.
We did that and other things. It was not unspecial. I mean, it was fine. I could feel the brain fog coming on a little, but I kissed through it and that seemed to keep it corralled. Then something strange happened. My spurt changed my brain some. After the spurt, I wasn’t thinking about the Barbara one as a prize anymore. If I’d had to have a fantasy about her right then, it would have been that she was a servant popping in to bring me and Man Bun breakfast in bed. With plates.
Man Bun and I hugged. I could smell the sweat on his neck and it nearly made me hard again, but not enough that I wanted to risk seeming needy.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Don’t operate any heavy machinery.”
I felt myself walking to the door of the babes’ room and trying the knob. The light flashed green.
So technically I wasn’t supposed to be in there, but I also knew it was the only place I was supposed to be. It came to me that Phil Sylvester probably expected me to break the rules and penetrate the fortress or whatnot. He was that guy.
Sure enough, the babes had vaporized. I looked around, but there was no glowing hole in the floor leading to Dante’s Inferno, and I checked the windows, but we were on the thirty-second floor. I was considering my options when I heard high-pitched noises coming from behind this super-ugly tapestry on the wall. Pulling it back revealed a door. Who would have thought, right? A door in the wall of a hotel, leading to an adjoining room. Mystery fucking solved.
I was about to open it when it came to me that I probably should disguise myself as a babe to go where the babes had gone. So I stripped, put on a monogrammed robe. Went into the bathroom, which was filthy, by the way, and wrapped a towel around my hair. I found these Korean face masks that looked like Silence of the Lambs and slapped one on. It covered my entire face except my eyeballs. I’m not very hairy apart from my balls, which were well hidden in the robe, so I felt my disguise to be a success.
I pulled back the tapestry and opened the door.
The three babes had the lead guy, Tristan, hog-tied on top of the king-size bed. They were all over him, but probably not in the way he’d have wanted, whipping him lightly with the ends of their long hair and the belts of their robes and their dainty gold necklaces. One of them was singing “Free Bird” kind of longingly as she did this. I found this strange, but it also made sense to me, in a revenge-porn, Take Back the Night kind of way.
Tristan’s eyes were rolled back in their sockets in rapture or from drugs. He was tangerine in color and nearly hairless, a wax figure. In no way hot. Especially not after the furred thighs and faint barnyard aroma of Man Bun. The babes were focused on their ministrations, but finally Whitney noticed me standing there in the doorway, squinted, and said, “Hillary F.? Is that you?”
“Join us, you cunt.”
I got on the bed and started scratching at Tristan’s leg with my toenails. After my pedicure, my toenails looked like shimmery golden moons, and it felt nice, scratching Tristan with my attractive nails. I enjoyed the lightness of my assault on this probably vapid dude I had nothing against, the sensation of his oiled skin against the remains of my calluses. I carved my initials into his thigh in thin white lines, watched as the curve of the R turned pink and began to swell.
Then I started getting sleepy. Did not want to pass out on that bed, have my balls discovered, and be likewise set upon just for being a man, like this was feminist Twitter. So I ran out, de-masked, put on a little toner, and got back to my chair just in time to—
I told Phil I needed more time. Time for what? I just didn’t want to tell him what I’d seen until I understood it better. Let’s face it: Phil is gross. A sweaty, balding suit. And I felt weirdly sympathetic to the babes, even though they had drugged my ass thrice with takeout and didn’t deserve my sympathy. But pretending to be one of them had given me a window into their inner bitterness. And I saw chopped-off bits of myself floating around in their inner bitterness, like flies in soup.
Still, I needed Phil’s cash, so I was conflicted. My brother and his boring wife had been dropping hints about other things they could be doing with their basement, like turning it into something called Macramé Central.
The next day, Tristan had a spelunking date with Barbara, so it was just me and Whitney and Kelsey. I couldn’t tell if they knew about my covert mission. Maybe? They kept stealing glances at me from above their journals and around their mimosas, between their tiny pieces of dark chocolate. But that might just have been because my skin was really glowing.
Then I was back in my chair. Whitney came out with a cream envelope on a silver tray, an inscrutable look on her toy-soldier face. Inside the envelope was a card that read, “If you choose to forgo your shitty chair, please use this keycard to join us for a night you’ll never forget.”
My first reaction was disappointment. I was supposed to solve the mystery. She wasn’t supposed to hand me the solution on a literal silver tray. I gave her my stoic face until she shrugged and went back in. Then I sat there feeling irritated and bored.
Also, I’m superstitious, and I had my own thoughts about what had made my investigation the previous evening a triumph: i.e., the sex energy I got from Man Bun. Who I’d found myself thinking about once or twice. And OK, yeah, I was a little bit hoping I’d have to use that same method again, channeling his sex energy, cloaking myself in it, using it to gain entry. Or maybe it was more us sharing the drugged food, the communion of that or whatever, that had freed me from brain addlement. It occurred to me that maybe this whole thing was really about me, to teach me a lesson about opening myself up to love.
I waited a while to see if Man Bun would show. He didn’t. I used the key.
Behind the secret door, orange Tristan was again hog-tied on the bed while the babes lounged and spanked. But this time, I wasn’t a babe. I was a man. My reaction was automatic. I drew my weapon, a slim Beretta. Aimed it between Whitney’s glittery eyes.
“We thought you were chiller than this,” she said, letting her non-spanking hand float into the air, as though bidding on something at a charity auction.
“Yeah,” said Barbara, continuing to tweak Tristan’s nose hairs. “We heard you were totally not straight.”
This froze me to my core. Man Bun had been talking about me.
Or, Man Bun had been talking about me.
I kept the gun trained on Whitney’s forehead. “That’s not your concern. Spill.”
“Not until you put that thing away.”
I of course refused. So they kept spanking and tweaking. “What if I point it at your knee instead?” I suggested. Actually, I was pretty proud of this one. Babes are always holding forth about how the police should shoot to wound instead of shooting to kill. They conferred, but it was a no-go. After a while we came to a compromise where I stuck the barrel of my pistol into my jeans pocket, so it was still easily accessible but it was also pointing at my junk.
“OK,” Kelsey said, “it’s like this. We needed to finish the show in the top three to lock down endorsement deals for organic snowboarding gear, but none of us actually wants to get stuck marrying this.”
She flicked Tristan’s worm-colored upper lip.
“What’s it got to do with me?”
“Well, we thought you might want to come along, see what we’ve got cooked up. We thought you might appreciate it.”
I stared at her.
“Because we thought you were a cool, woke dude?”
I shrugged. Maybe I was or maybe I wasn’t. They shook their heads, clucked their tongues. Then they hoisted Tristan, propped him up like in that old movie Weekend at Bernie’s, dragged him to the door. Not the hidden, adjoining door. Another door, a front door.
“I’m calling Phil Sylvester,” I said, I don’t know why. I wouldn’t really have called Phil that late—he gets up super early for squash.
Whitney just raised her pencil-thin eyebrows.
Man Bun was waiting for us by the elevator. Was not expecting that. He barely acknowledged my presence.
“Did you tell them we messed around?” I whispered to him as the doors closed.
He gave me the tiniest upturned head nod.
“Why not? You ashamed of me?” He said it in an I know you’re not because I’m super hot voice, which annoyed me.
He shrugged, too.
We went down and down and down, to a kind of sub-basement, and then the elevator opened into a giant room filled with all these silver and gold and jewelencrusted trees. In the middle of the fake forest was a pitcher’s mound on which was set a weathered watering can, some jars of honey, a bushel of apples, two live doves, a scarecrow, and a tiny violin.
I sat on the floor as the women propped Tristan up on the mound and slapped his face a bunch. Man Bun sat next to me and said, “I seriously am sorry.”
It would have been a good time for him and me to get to know each other better, but I couldn’t think of any questions to ask. About his life, his family? That’s so played out. Instead, we watched Kelsey make Tristan slurp from a flat white until he sputtered and choked.
Whitney got all up in Tristan’s face. “Propose!” she said, giving him what I think she thought looked like a gang sign but really looked more like jazz hands.
“Propose to me now.”
“But—” Tristan glanced from girl to girl to girl. “I don’t know who I’m picking yet. We haven’t even all fucked all the way.”
“You’re going to propose to all of us, OK? We’ll tape it. And then we’re going to decide, among ourselves, our way, which one of us gets stuck with your pathetic ass.”
It occurs to me that you may want to know what the babes were wearing when this went down. Barbara’s dress was tight and yellow and too long; she could barely walk. Whitney’s was poofy and pink like a Barbie prom dress. Kelsey’s was blue and relatively inoffensive, but cheap looking, like it came from Dressbarn. They had more gunk on their faces than ever. But then Barbara turned on this giant floodlight, and the makeup started to make sense. Floodlit, they looked incandescent. Like princesses. The kind you might want to marry.
Tristan glared at Barbara. “Don’t touch that,” he said. “You’re not qualified. Only a grip can touch the lights on a set.”
She didn’t seem to hear him.
Man Bun began readying the camera. I came around behind him, considered touching his waist. “I didn’t know you knew how to do that,” I said, which was idiotic, considering that I knew nothing about him. He patted my hand.
They deposited Tristan on the proposal mound and handed him a set of note cards. Then they filmed him giving the exact same proposal three times: “The first time I looked into your eyes I could see my mother … When I think of my future with you I can almost forget about my fear of heights,” etc. Then Whitney gave Tristan a bowl of matzo ball soup and he conked out again.
“Now we decide,” Barbara said.
Many things were on the table. Rock, paper, scissors? Duck, duck, goose? Spin the bottle? Truth or dare? At one point, Whitney looked at me and said, “Why don’t you just decide who gets stuck with him?”
A warm feeling spread through my chest. I was about to shout out a name—any name, the first babe name I remembered—but then Man Bun said, “You want to give all your power over to a man again?”
I wanted to tell him to stop being so politically correct, that it was OK to give me power, because I was probably queer, and maybe even woke, even though whether I was or not was nobody’s business, but then Barbara was like, “Totally, you’re right,” and Kelsey was like, “You didn’t have to say that—I was going to say that. This decision not to let him make the decision isn’t because of you, Man Bun,” and they drew names out of a hat.
If you care, Kelsey lost.
I could have called Phil Sylvester and told him everything. I didn’t only because the babes called him themselves. They had Phil over a barrel, because the show had already started airing and they were total fan faves. So the producers aired the Kelsey proposal. But if it had mattered, I think I would have told Phil everything, because I’ve thought about it a bunch and I do think I am the best. And people who
are the best do what they say they’ll do, even if they feel queasy about it. Plus, it’s one thing to be in favor of babes going rogue and sticking it to the man or what have you, and I will say I am more in favor of that now than I was before all this. (Not that I was against it before. I just didn’t care.) But when you get down to it, I have to
be about number one, and if you actually knew anything about me, you might understand why.
Man Bun came over to watch the proposal episode, but he barely ate any popcorn and left as soon as it was over. I don’t think he appreciated the fine ambience of the basement. He probably would have liked the house I built out of a shipping container. Good riddance. Maybe I should have gone for Barbara instead. I feel like there was this one time by the pool when she might have checked out my ass, which is probably my best feature. Most days now, I sleep in the basement till noon, and every time I wake up another piece of furniture is gone. First it was the Barcalounger, and then the coffee table, and then the wicker chair, and then my brother’s computer table, and then the computer and its vintage mouse. I had to start relying exclusively on my cracked phone to conduct business, which is a handicap to my forward progress. Then the entertainment center disappeared, and then the end tables, and then the TV, so I have nothing to do with my spare time, and then the couch—I had to start sleeping on the rug—and finally the painting of the two seals or the seal and penguin about to get it on, even though I asked my brother specifically if he would leave it for me so I’d have some vestige of love in my life. He didn’t listen. He doesn’t care. And now the basement is empty except for me and the macramé, so much macramé, humping up into mountains, taking over the room, crowding me out, macramé. Just. Everywhere.