I recently sold all of my belongings and left Los Angeles. I was flip-flopping like a fish there. Like all the scales around my neck were hardening and beginning to choke me. Too much sun. I ended my lease early – pulled the plug even though I had one of those apartments with good lighting – the kind that could change moods, and a backyard designed to host the type of dinner party that appears on a blog about how to live a mindful life. After I hit Arizona, I call my mom and put her on speaker. She asks what happened to Tommy and the film. It’s hard telling her the truth. It might have been the first time I ever did. It isn’t pleasant. It feels like swallowing grass. The thing about the truth is that it can feel traumatic when you hear it hit another person’s ears.
In Tucson, I pull over at Love’s Travel Stop. I stare at my reflection in the car window while I wait for the gas to pump. My hair looks like wheat. I could carry groceries in the bags under my eyes. I used to be long and have thin arms and legs. I blamed these changes on my marriage. The rise of social media. And my inability to adhere to any type of workout regime. I walk inside and buy a package of powdered donuts and a coffee. I mix in a splash of French vanilla from one of those instant cappuccino machines – I don’t think it’s real coffee but I like the sugar. In the checkout line a group of male truck drivers stands behind me. I count their voices. Three. Always three. They smell like crock pots full of meat and beans that have been left for too long. I hear one mumble to the other that my ass looks like a bunch of mashed potatoes. I want to turn around and yell but instead I take out my phone and scroll through my emails. Besides, I once read that truck drivers have the highest rates of STDs. Imagine all of them showering together with their red, blister covered dicks and in an unprecedented turn of events, I begin to feel sorry for them. It was then I remembered how I had always held a strange kind of sadness for men I met in gas stations and convenience stores.
Back in the car, I steer with one hand on the wheel while I allow my other hand to float through the desert air like I used to do when I was a kid. When I was ten, my friend and I wrote secrets on scraps of paper, placed them in our palms and stuck our hands out the window. We tried not to let the papers fly away. But they always did.
Outside El Paso, a troop of javelinas run across the road like fat marionettes. It’s almost 4am when I pull into my Airbnb rental – a funky container house situated on a half an acre. I grab my bag and walk up the steps. The house smells like fresh mango and cedar. The bedsheets are bone white. I fall asleep to the sound of coyotes howling somewhere under the moon.
In the morning I wander into the kitchen to make coffee. When we were first dating, Tommy and I would make coffee at midnight and stand around naked in the kitchen eating ice cream. In that life, I was unaware of normal sleeping habits. Tommy had just bought a house and we filled it with poetry books, canvases, paints, plants, floor cushions, and anything else that delighted us. We would print out pages of our favorite short stories or screenplays, sit opposite each other on the living room floor and read them aloud in different accents.
I found him, one morning, making coffee with his motorcycle helmet on. He turned around and sang:
We’re like the legend of the phoenix
Our ends with beginnings
What keep the planets spinning
The force of love beginning
I find a stainless steel French press in the stranger’s cabinets. I put on a vinyl – Johnny Cash – and call my mother. She’s worried about me. She asks about the drive. I tell her about the speeding ticket I got in El Paso.
So, when are you going to head to the theatre?
Soon. The first screening is at noon.
Tommy’s not going to be there, is he?
I’m not getting any better at telling the truth.
I put on an oversized, millennial pink t-shirt, a pair of slacks, and gold hoop earrings. I stare at my reflection in the mirror. I look glamorous – in the way of a Sundance indie bitch. I put on more ruby woo lipstick and find a road bike in the garage covered in stickers. I stuff a bag of marshmallows, Twizzlers, Snickers, and gummy peach rings into my bag and bike over to the Crowley Theatre.
The space in between Tommy and I feels like the size of a train.
Tommy sees me and walks over in that dopey way he does, his feet pointing out to the sides like he’s Donald Duck. His hair is tucked under a bowler cap and he’s wearing a Buns N Roses t-shirt with a sketched UFO on it. I can tell he is trying to fit in here. I can tell he’s broken too but he’s such a poser.
He smells bad. His face is puffy. I wonder if he’s been drinking.
I push my bike over towards a crumbly lamppost. The crowd outside the theatre is beginning to grow and they’re all taking photos with their phones under the marquee. My chest feels like a hot air balloon.
How are you? It’s been —
Good. I stuff a Twizzler in my mouth. I’m sure he knows that I’m on the verge of an anxiety attack.
Are you surrrre? Do you need water? You look a little pale.
No, I’m fine. It was not the first time I told that lie. I walk over and sit down on a metal bleacher bench outside the theatre entrance. The sun is so goddamn hot in Texas. I dig my wooden heels into the gravel.
I beg God for mercy.
But I can feel it coming.
Pia, let me get you some water.
Nope, it’s too late. My bowels loosen and it’s over. And just like that, I shit myself – in front of a line of New Yorkers and Angelenos dressed in high-waisted denim. They all stare at me through their Warby Parker round glasses like I’m a wild animal. I imagine what it must be like to see the world, my current world, through their eyes. I meet the eyes of a young woman, who looks sufficiently West Texan perfect, with bleached blonde hair and dark brown eyebrows. Bangs. And a swan neck.
I got to get out of here.
Tommy locks up my bike and calls me an Uber.
I’ll see you at the panel?
He tries to sound comforting but I can tell he’s embarrassed by proxy.
Yeah, I’ll be back soon.
Take your time.
My hands are so sweaty that my phone slips out of my hand. The driver is concerned – she’s a geeky astrophysics PhD student with a lisp. Her haircut reminds me of Barbra Streisand and I picture her singing jazz on top of a spaceship. I think she’s afraid I’m about to vomit in her Prius. I offer her some of my Snickers bar but she waves me off, saying she’s allergic to milk. I don’t tell her there’s a steaming pile of shit between my butt cheeks but I’m certain she can smell it.
Once we get to the container house, I practically roll out of the vehicle and onto all fours. I waddle up the steps and into the bathroom, ripping off my underwear and pants. I turn on the shower and scream as loudly as I can into the streaming, cold water. My head is so far in the stratosphere and I imagine an invisible line of gravity forcing me to stay on the ground and not drift off into space. I walk around the side of the house to throw away my clothes without realizing I’m still naked. A pair of bunnies sees me and hops away.
There is a version of me who stays in the rental house and cries until the festival is over. Until the crowd has disappeared and everything quiets down. She-person orders pizza for breakfast and uses the fully equipped bar to make [very] strong cocktails, smokes weed in the bathtub, and sings old country songs out the window. She is a fucking queen. She emails the owners and asks to extend her stay for 2 more weeks. She wakes up to watch the sunrise. She sits in the hot tub and drinks in the infiniteness of the night sky. The opposite of Los Angles. She walks around topless. She micro-doses on LSD and writes a screenplay on aliens. She calls Tommy and tells him to go fuck himself.
The version of me that wins today is the one who takes an Uber back into town because she’s too full of pride to stay home. She sits in the back of the theatre sucking down Dr. Pepper and throwing candy corn into her mouth like a goblin. She waits to see what every person’s reaction is. She is testing the temperature of the room. She feels like she’s a little octopus living in a tide pool. These people are all strange humans poking at her to see when she will ink. Or show herself.
At the end of the film, Ezra, who’s a cocky piece of shit, takes the stage. I hate the way he pronounces his vowels – and that’s the problem with the majority of people in film, they’re all trying to pretend like they’re homegrown. But the manufacturing it took to create Ezra is unimaginable. He’s either a robot, alien, or another goddamn poser.
In automated mode, I walk up the stairs and sit on a barstool next to Tommy. He looks so dumb and big balancing up there. I scoot my chair away from his – worried that we would graze arms or legs.
He looks over at me and whispers.
How are you?
Shut up, Tommy.
The man with the microphone is Leon Gusto. He’s a cocky piece of shit if you ask me.
And here we have the filmmakers of One Day You’ll Invite Me to Dinner– Tommy and Pia Flowers.
I haven’t heard our names strung together like that in months. It reminds me of the night Tommy proposed on the pier. The sound in my mother’s voice when I called with the news. The way she wrote our names in chalk – intertwined in cursive letters – for my bridal shower.
Ezra must not have gotten the memo that Tommy and I are no longer legally married. I sent him a Facebook chat about it yesterday and this morning.
So guys, this movie has gotten a ton of buzz. It’s being screened at Sundance, Cannes, and did I hear that it won at Berlin?
Wow, that’s incredible. Thanks for joining us out here in Marfa. It’s an honor – really guys.
Ezra keeps spitting bullshit. He asks us questions about our creative process. The film schedule. The equipment. The crew. How we found the actors. Financed the movie. Chose the filming locations. Everyone likes a story of rising above the circumstances to produce a work of art. Tommy and I are experts at selling ourselves. We have a good story. The audience eats out of our hands. We pose for photos. Sell some merchandise. We answer questions from aspiring filmmakers and convince them that they, too, can chase their dreams.
As I walk out of the theatre, a high school student with milk duds caught in his teeth and the beginnings of a mustache grabs my elbow.
Hey, um… where did you shoot that scene where the girl rides the elephant?
Oh, that was in India – a place called Pondicherry. The temple is called… let me pull it up. Okay, Google says the name is Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar. That’s hard to pronounce! Anyway, if you go, you can be blessed by an elephant – she is very gentle. Her name is Lakshmi.
What does that name mean?
He’s holding a voice recorder in one hand.
Well, she’s a Hindu goddess. I don’t know what the name means but they say that people who worship her are blessed with fortune and success.
I pop more chocolate in my mouth and look around the lobby. Tommy is talking to a woman wearing strappy heels and an effortlessly off-the-shoulder top. She’s holding a crocodile skin clutch. I imagine her lounging under a palm tree watching the sunset. Holding onto Tommy’s arm while he turns his head and kisses her bare shoulder. I start walking out and Tommy yells after me.
Hey I wanted to talk to you about something.
I have nothing to talk to you about.
C’mon. Please…it’s important.
He looks like a puff of smoke from a past life.
What is it?
One drink. Can we grab one drink and I’ll tell you? Besides, we should celebrate all of this.
He smiles, puffing out his chest and gesturing around the lobby.
I acquiesce because sometimes my spine can go as soft as my bowel muscles. And because I can still find him intriguing. And because I view life as one big research project.
We bike two minutes to Planet Marfa. It’s a hipster venue with tattooed angels and PBR specials. There’s something romantic about this spot – maybe it’s the way it’s painted in a shade of coral. Maybe it’s the wooden beams holding up the roof. Or maybe it’s Tommy.
He orders a couple of Pacificos and a plate of nachos. We sit in the back and watch a girl who looks like Gramercy Park embodied wearing a crop top, silver skirt, and black cowboy boots play ping pong against a guy who looks like a cheap Johnny Depp. They stop every now and then to take Instagram photos or smoke American Spirit cigarettes.
I hate being physically close to Tommy and not saying anything. It used to bring me comfort. I used to feel proud that our relationship was so real that we didn’t have to engage in the physical – we could be together in the same space but operating on different frequencies. Yoko Ono and John Lennon. Stanley and Christiane Kubrick. Ella and Scott Fitzgerald. Frida and Diego. But now the silence and space unsettles me.
So what is it? I want to get home soon.
I finger the fringe of my bag.
Tommy takes a deep breath and adjusts his hat. I’ve been talking to Mercury Studios. They want us to adapt a screenplay for Honey Girl.
Shut the fuck up.
I’m not kidding.
When did you talk to them?
Two days ago.
Well, what did you tell them?
I said I’d ask you.
Why? I wrap a fruit roll up around my finger and suck on it.
Because they want us both on the project.
Sorry, I can’t. I shake my head like it’s covered in fleas.
I can’t work with you.
C’mon, Pia. This is Mercury we’re talking about. Do you have any idea what this would mean for our careers? This is it! Tommy raises up onto his tiptoes. I used to love when he did that in our living room during our late-night writing sessions. It meant his mind was really thinking. It meant he was on the brink of something great.
I know. But I just can’t. I’m sorry.
Listen, I know you hate me.
I look over at cheap Johnny Depp. When I was younger I thought marriage was the sort of nightmare that could be avoided by staying half-mad.
I’m sorry. I don’t think I can say or do anything that will ever make you forgive me.
Nope. I’m leaving.
Wait… please wait. I found this guy who can erase memories – like relationship type stuff.
I don’t know. He has some… method. He lives here in town.
So what? You want to erase our memories of each other so we can make this film?
I knew the answer before I asked the question. Tommy nodded his head and sucked his lips into his mouth.
This film was a small indie film. Sure, we got a lot of buzz around town. We even got a nod at Cannes but the major film companies were a different beast entirely.
When we first started dating, Tommy worked in sales at the local Verizon store. His ability to manipulate and convince always amazed me. And that’s what you need in Hollywood. You have to be able to schmooze. I hated that part of the job. He was always better at it than me. While I was getting drunk at the after party talking about scripts, Tommy was locking in producers. I imagine it was similar to the way he locked down women.
We reach Dr. Mirkarimi’s office just before sunset. It’s a red-brick warehouse and the windows are all boarded up. A tiny sign hangs above the front door. It’s hand-painted with the phrase, “Chose to be naïve.” My stomach starts to gurgle and I stuff another Twizzler in my mouth.
Are you sure this is it?
Tommy looks down at his phone and then back up at me.
Yep, this is it.
We walk in and Dr. Mirkarimi is playing a game of checkers with his assistant. He is handsome in a way, but I notice that his eyes are an inch too far apart from each other – making him look like an Indian fish. His stomach bubbles over his belt. He has a wooden cross hanging from his neck.
Dr. Mirkarimi, thank you for meeting with us.
You can call me Kaushik. Please… sit down. He motions to two Plexiglas chairs in the shape of swans.
So, we’re here because –
I know why you’re here. Dr. Mirkarimi smiles in a way that makes him look either fourteen- years-old or like he’s a man with nothing to lose. Both terrify me.
Let me walk you through our services and then we can talk about what seems the best for your situation?
Okay, that sounds good. I can feel my stomach cramping. I notice the rows and rows of mason jars lining the warehouse.
Dr. Mirkarimi tells us about Memory Worms. How he uses a machine called The Goulash to extract the memories of our relationship – of each other – and suck them out through a tube and into jars of milky water.
Your memories will look like swollen tapeworms. When I pull them out they will be contracting and whipping around. He says as he looks over at me and lowers his gaze. Let me warn you, it can be terrifying to watch. You can sit in the other room if you’d like.
No it’s okay, I want to watch. Is that okay?
Fine with me.
Does it hurt?
No, not more than a bee sting. We will apply local anesthesia to the wrist. It takes about fifteen minutes from start to finish.
He goes on to explain that we won’t remember anything about each other. Tommy and I sign all of the waivers and write notes to each other. Dr. Mirkarimi tells us to explain in the letter a bit of what happened and why we’re here, but not enough to make the connection that we were married. He tells us to write down the emails of all of our family and friends. His assistant will notify them of the procedure and the steps for aftercare.
Ok, Tommy I’m going to put this blindfold on your eyes during the extraction. Because I don’t want you to see Pia when you wake up. I want to kiss him or hug him before he forgets me but I just look down at my hands.
The Goulash is a tiny machine – the size of a fruit bat. Dr. Mirkarimi threads a needle and tube under Tommy’s skin. The first and second Memory Worms are hard to retrieve but after a minute, they are flying. 4,000 worms extracted. Most of Tommy’s are pigeon grey and forest green. 1,000 or so are a turquoise blue. Dr. Mirkarimi’s assistant, Debbie, uses a pair of tongs to separate the worms into different jars. She begins labeling them with masking tape and sharpie but I can’t see what she’s writing. Tommy remains stoic throughout the whole procedure. When it’s over another two assistants take him into a back room to rest.
Dr. Mirkarimi asks me to sit down in the same leather chair. He holds my arm in his hands and inserts the needle. I fill up nine jars with 6,800 worms. They are mostly all dark purple but a few are a wild watermelon color.
How are you feeling?
Dr. Mirkarimi asks me. His forehead is sweating.
I don’t know how I feel.
Debbie walks me to the back and hands me a letter. I recognize the handwriting but I’m not sure how. All it says is, once a palm reader asked me if I play piano because I have perfect pianist hands.
A man walks in and smiles at me. He is quirky and kind of good-looking. He is holding a note in his hand and he introduces himself confidently.
Nice to meet you.
Dr. Mirkarimi stands in the doorway – his eyes as big as frozen sausage patties. The sweat pooling in the scoop of neck underneath his throat.
There is a version of me that runs to Tommy because my affinity for him is simply ingrained in my psyche. No worm doctor will be able to solve this. She believes they’re soulmates. She falls back in love with the way Tommy turns red when he has to order food in a restaurant and how he giggles to himself while reading Tom Robbins’ books in the middle of the night. She moves into his house and they start a tomato garden on the back porch. They host dinner parties with their friends, rub each other’s feet at night, and buy each other sunflowers and bars of dark chocolate on their birthdays. She is grateful to have found such a delightful, artistic, and supportive partner. She turns a blind eye to the loneliness. To all the pretty girls. To the weekends away. To the lies.
There is a version of me that knows this is all a big pile of bullshit. She knows who Tommy is and she knows what they were together. The extraction didn’t work and Dr. Mirkarimi is a poser. She wonders what they actually pulled out of her. She plays dumb. She works with Tommy as his creative partner and together, they win an Academy Award for their next film. She becomes a millionaire and goes on to produce, direct, and write dozens of other films. She uses Tommy.
Standing there, looking at his dopey face, I decide the latter is the version I want to be. I wonder if Tommy also has a choice or if the extraction worked on him. Dr. Mirkarimi interviews us separately. He asks me if I know who Tommy is. If I remember seeing him before today. I lie. I always said it was hard telling the truth.
Lauren Villa grew up in Pinetop, Arizona. She received her BA in Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University. She enjoys exploring realms of magic and surrealism in her work. She is the co-founder of the One Million Wild Hearts interview project and she is currently working on her first documentary. Lauren is based in San Diego, California.
Five Questions with Lauren Villa:
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
LV: My brother called me one day. We don’t talk a lot but when we do it feels special. Like I’m invited to a party going on inside his world. I usually walk my dog when he calls. I like to feel like I’m doing something productive while we talk. It lets my brain focus on what he’s saying when I have something else to do. I asked him his plans for Christmas and he told me he was going to Marfa, Texas. I thought he said “Martha” but after a few minutes of back and forth it was clarified that he was talking about a town. I remember him saying, “there are a lot of hipsters there, I think you would love it.” Ha! I start asking him all about Marfa and he told me that the observatory there is amazing – Marfa is located in one of the dark spots where people can really see all the stars. He said that the XX recorded their last album there. That there are all these smart PhD students riding around on road bikes and working at the observatory’s gift shop or the wine bar. And that it’s this haven where New York City and Los Angeles come together. Super posh. I guess I sort of became obsessed with the idea of Marfa. I did a lot of online research about the town and something popped up on Google about there being a film festival there. I also make film. I started with imagining a character is sort of forced to go to Marfa. For most people, the town is completely out of the way. So I started the story with her leaving Los Angeles and going on this road trip and the story sort of took shape from there. I started the story with her leaving LA and going on this road trip and the story sort of took shape from there.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
LV: Ottessa Moshfegh, Valeria Luiselli, and Yuri Herrera
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
LV: My bedroom – because I have access to endless amounts of coffee and tea and I can sit by my dog. Also, I like to open my window and eavesdrop on my rowdy, downstairs neighbors. They often serve as inspiration for getting a story started or moving dialogue if I get stuck.
TD: Favorite word?
TD: Do you have a favorite reading ritual?
LV: When I was young, someone told me that the best thing you can do is read before bed. I try to read at least one page of written work every night before bed. I have very intense, lucid dreams and it might be because I eat beautiful words before I go to sleep.