Big Bang Noir straight out of Hollywood
This is the first part of a serialised story by British TV writer Matt Graham, who explores the idea that true love often comes from where we least expect it – because to appreciate The Good, you first need to experience The Bad
When the Fall of Rome finally came, it happened slowly and incrementally.
That’s how I met Mia. Slowly and Incrementally
Three days before meeting Mia I had a vision of my own death. I was driving, listening to a podcast about Rembrandt’s The Night Watch at the wheel of my ‘68 Cadillac Coupe de Ville.
It was raining; unusual in the City of Angels except in the stories we create here. Approaching the towers of Downtown LA, their lights blurry through a windshield streaked with rain, I felt an immense black void rushing towards me at great speed and I knew there was no hope. Someone was going to have to Save Me.
When I first met Mia, I was in absolutely no right condition for a relationship of any sort with man, woman, or beast, but you don’t choose when these things come into your life.
In fact I was in the mood to burn to the ground the corporate headquarters of HBO, Showtime, Amazon, Netflix and sundry others, create a big bonfire right in front of the Hollywood Hills – but that’s another story. I’m a TV writer, and it comes with the territory, along with constant anxiety, depression, relentless ambition, mood swings, imposter syndrome, wanting to burn down your house, having to listen to everyone around you talking about the Golden Age of TV and you thinking: why wasn’t I invited? Plus, a desire to turn your car into a turbo charged coffin on the 101 and crash it near the 110 interchange, and quit your job and Flee for the open desert that stretches away forever around Los Angeles.
She was twenty-nine going on thirty-six, had a spider tattoo on her upper right arm, a Parisian silver purse once owned by a silent movie actress, used to be a TV Writer like me and talked about a pilot she’d sold to one of the networks called NIGHT CREATURES. She had an Instagram with 5,000 followers, and had grown up between San Francisco and a commune in the Sierra Nevadas (“We’re old California money, I mean: Old, like 1849”), had a breakdown in her teens when her dad eloped with a Turkish princess from New York, and left her mother and her in a haunted, creaking Victorian in the Western Addition dodging debt collectors. She’d been to Brown on the East Coast, paid for by her mother’s new Silicon Valley boyfriend, but had a second minor breakdown there that I never got a clear sense of, transferred to Bennington. She told me she liked silent movies and kissing strange men, losing herself in foreign cities. She spoke three languages – French, Swedish, and Japanese. She wanted to go and lose herself in Scandinavia sometime, be in a city where everyone wore fur, the streets were lit up at night, but she had too many things going on here in LA. She liked Kirkegaard, Faulkner, Mishima, rambling old picture houses showing David Lean movies.
She wore a fur coat, black underwear underneath a tight black dress, smoked a cigar – she liked Havanas, wrote about them for a blog online in her spare time: Modern Women who like Cigars. To say I was absorbed wouldn’t cut it. She loved hats like some love shoes; she wore a black Fedora I couldn’t stop thinking about no matter how hard I tried.
Of her biography, I had only glimpses: she got out of Hollywood to avoid a third breakdown, went to Tokyo, Europe, then Brooklyn briefly, came back to LA and now worked for some Foundation that meant she travelled to Doha business class, occupied the space where the art business mixed with unfathomable wealth. I couldn’t figure it all out exactly, but I kind of liked that. Some things you’re not supposed to figure out all at once. Sometimes she cried by herself and tried to hide it from me. Sometimes she wore a Matrix-style long black coat despite the LA sun.
I started getting these fantasies of bouncing to Copenhagen with her, walking around the canals, going to little cafes and writing the novel I’d always planned to write. She’d be my muse. I couldn’t get her out of my mind.
“I think I’m falling for you,” she told me. We’d been maybe dating two weeks. I was on the 101, talking to her on Bluetooth, her voice coming out of the speaker, disembodied, the lights of the city blurring around me on either side below the freeway, like I was in a cocoon of just me and her that couldn’t be penetrated. As she spoke, I pictured her face, the brim of her hat, the soft lights of an apartment I’d never seen.
She read my sample script, Bay of Pigs, written eleven years ago in a surge of manic ambition that’s got me on the staff of two shows, and is still getting me meetings. In Hollywood, scripts are the way you record the passage of time, like the cairns Victorian Arctic explorers used to leave behind them in remote parts of Canada. Listening to her talk animatedly about it, I knew I was losing control.
We headed up to San Francisco for three days; met her friends from the Old Days; they were awful, obsessed with money and Wellness; we went to some terrible parties, a hipster hotel in the Tenderloin, a house made of glass in the woods near Point Reyes where everyone was on Molly, the whole thing fused us together somehow more deeply. “I’m so done with that part of my life,” she told me, as we drove the 5 back to LA in the middle of the night. She took my hand. “And I’m so glad we met, Max.”
My therapist told me: “I’ve never seen you so happy. Be careful.”
Monday we texted till three am. Tuesday we made out and she was telling me she wanted to have sex in the rain. Wednesday she ghosted me at midday. My last text was a suggestion of a meeting at the Eastside’s Chateau Marmont, Taix, for a drink and it remained hanging in cyberspace, until joined by others in a long, hopeless string of male desperation. By Friday I was frenzied. By the following Monday I was physically ill.
To cut a long story short, it was all I thought about while I should have been preparing for the studio meeting that was going to make or break my career. The meeting I’d been on course to ace before meeting her – selling the show I’d spent two years developing – but that’s another story: this is about Mia.
Conflicted as I clearly was, it didn’t go well. They liked my British accent, but that was about it. When I reached my car in the studio lot, I decided I was going to embark on my Third Relapse.
My manager called me as I was tearing up my visitors’ ID, and I gave it to him straight: “They didn’t go for it. Said they had something like it already. Call them to find out how it went, yeah, but it’s a formality. I’ve got to make a stop.”
“Slow down,” he said to me, but I couldn’t. I just wanted it all to be over as soon as possible.
Leaving the studio, in my haste I almost rear ended David Benioff. I pulled over at a liquor store at Sunset and Normandie and bought five bottles of Ketel One Vodka, two of High West Bourbon, thirty-six beers and three packs of cigarettes, Advil – tried to avoid thinking about my dwindling career prospects. You can’t afford to blow too many big chances at forty-two out here on the Wild West Coast. I shut my phone off and drove all the way home to the Avenidas of Glassell Park, the bottles clanking beside me on the passenger seat of my broken down old Cadillac, reminding me of what I had in store: nothing. At an intersection somewhere in East Hollywood, a guy with a sign reading: HELP begged for change, and I tried to avoid looking at him. I knew how he must feel.
I’d bombed in the room and it was all her fault. I pulled into my house overlooking Mt Washington, bathed in a beautiful crimson Southern California sunset; the kind that could make anyone die of sorrow, went out onto the deck, posted an IG image of it with #livingyourbestlife and commenced to open the first of the vodka bottles I’d bought to sustain me during that long three day night.
Maybe I’d get lucky and an asteroid would crash into Earth and end all human life before I resurfaced.
That was the end of the first phase of Mia.
I tried to find her of course, for weeks afterwards, social media, any clue that I had, but I exhausted it all. Her instagram gave nothing away. I didn’t even know where she lived. I never got so much as a hint of the scent.
This one time I thought I saw her getting into an Uber on Sunset but it was night, and I couldn’t be sure it was her. It didn’t stop me running into the street in front of Izakaya Ozen like a madman, until the red tail lights of her Uber were lost among a twinkling forest of others like them, all heading for Vermont.
The exact reason why she’d rejected me – I’d never get an answer to. Maybe she just hadn’t been able to figure out how to say goodbye. Either way, I’d never get any resolution, so it didn’t matter.
Andrew and I had been on Iran-Contra for Showtime together (Michael Chiklis as Oliver North), before it was cancelled, and we’d stayed friends while he got married and I plunged into the Abyss. He summed it up over a drink at this underground bar in Koreatown – me back on the Cokes at this point: “You’ll never know why she did it. The one thing you can be sure of though, Max, is that you probably dodged a bullet. Actually, make that an atomic bomb.”
Though it was hard to accept – he was probably right; in any case, he was celebrating having sold a show to Starz about people terraforming the moons of Saturn, but simultaneously dealing with the aftermath of his second divorce. It’s LA; everyone’s broken hearted here. Two months later a fire in Malibu would destroy his home.
Acceptance is tough for me. Soon after, I “accidently” ran into one of those friends of hers from San Francisco at the Drawing Room, the dive bar with no windows that still holds out against gentrification. We recognised each other at the same time; long blonde hair tumbling out from under a Prada flat cap and a vest, like something out of Peaky Blinders, a silk cravat. She worked for Big Tech, wrote stuff on Twitter I couldn’t understand, posted a lot of Activist stuff on SM, briefly confessed to me at that glass house in Point Reyes that she thought she might’ve hit a homeless person in her Tesla on Market Street in 2017. “I gave 2k to Black Lives Matter last year so I think I’m good,” she confided. I was willing to bet it was her leased Maserati Ghilbi in the strip mall parking lot outside the bar. Ten years ago, a car like that would’ve been stripped to the wheels in this neighbourhood.
“My work’s paying for me to do a corporate seminar on Abundance down here. Everyone’s moving from San Francisco to LA anyway,” she was telling me, drinking a martini, flirting even though I was asking about Mia – like I said, these people were awful:
“Max, I hate to tell you this, but Mia’s left LA. But more importantly in regards to you, I think, she’s with someone.”
“How do you know?
“Mia cut most of her old crew off, you know how she is – but … I ran into her a few weeks ago in New York. Into ‘Them.’ Sad Face.”
I would have said: can you send her a message for me, but I still had some dignity.
Instead, we went back to her three hundred dollar room at The Standard DTLA, took MDMA and hatefucked all night. I hid her car keys under the bed when I left, put in an appearance at my Men’s Only AA Group, Fight Club, in Los Feliz the next day, and confessed it all.
The truth is, I never really stopped looking for Mia. I mean, I did, and I didn’t; when you can’t find someone, at some point you need to move on. In the wake left by her, I decided to turn The Sadness into something good; staring out at Mt Washington, listening to the distant traffic on Division, I decided to write.
I couldn’t have Mia, so I’d recreate her. I packed the Cadillac with everything I’d need, put my gun in the safe, left Glassell before dawn, drove down to San Diego, across the Border, through Tijuana, past the military checkpoint at Maneadero, then fifteen hours South on the little winding two lane highway till I got to San Ignacio, the spire of the Mission piercing the dusk as I arrived at a little ranch I knew you could stay at outside town for ten bucks a night. It was a writer’s fantasy, walking around the Saguaros, under the crazy rock formations out there, churning out pages, drinking Jarritos by the gallon – like old F Scott Fitzgerald, drinking Cokes by the crate while working at MGM back in 1940, desperately trying to stay sober, the sunset bleeding out across the Mexican desert sky.
It was a nightmare being all alone out there with my demons. I lasted ten days and headed back to LA. I gave myself some help: cigarettes, speed, single origin coffee, Adderall, Randy’s Donuts, Lexapro, coke, whatever uppers I could get my hands on, but I won’t go into that here because it’s technically another relapse. It took me three days at Wi Spa to dry out.
Three weeks later I showed what I had to my manager and he told me it was my best work in years. “I can sell this, I can sell this,” he kept repeating, like a Buddhist mantra, talking to me from the gun range in Tujunga.
The Pilot: fifty-nine pages. The story; a series about a girl who ghosts men.
My manager got me a meeting at the same studio where I’d bombed because of Mia a year ago. “You’re too hard on yourself. They loved you Max, they just wanted to find something to work with you on. And you’re a straight white male, so this is a fucking miracle.”
Things get better. I’ve still got that constant anxiety that only an addict can understand, when time seems to rush forward around you, always leaving you in danger of being left behind, the game of musical chairs always just about to end – you’re desperate to be the first to hear the music stop so you can jump on a seat. Even sober we’re truly fucked up.
There’s hope again though, that elusive, magical quantity that all writers out here in Hollywood have to subsist on.
They bought it in the room, paired me with a big showrunner, attached Dana De Lorenzo, even put an article in Deadline with my picture, grinning like one of those assholes who brag on Twitter all day. But in the end I couldn’t really enjoy any of this, because of a phone call I’d had: from the same wretched friend of Mia’s:
“I’m coming down to look at a condo with my parents. They’re at the Four Seasons. I’m staying at the Culver. Repeat performance?”
“No thanks,” I said.
“Mia’s in town, and I can tell you where she’s going to be. And I found my keys, asshole.”
I ended up at the Culver Hotel around midnight. Finally I got it out of her. “She’s at the London in West Hollywood. Tonight she’s at a party, but my friend says she’s still there, so you’ll be able to catch her coming back if you leave now. She clearly doesn’t want to see you, so I get a kick out of all of this. Let’s do this again.”
I drove over there, parked on San Vicente in front of the entrance. It was around two am and I settled in to wait. After a while, I started to get looks from hotel security. Then an LAPD Black and White pulled up. The cops asked to see my ID. I told them I was waiting for a friend. “I”m a screenwriter,” I said, by way of explanation. The cops looked at me with pity, got a radio call, and headed off.
Sitting in the car, outside the hotel in the middle of the night, I find myself thinking about everything that had happened to me since I took a flight from Heathrow that grey day in my early twenties; all the agony and the ecstasy and the heartbreak out here in America all thrown into one tiny moment, condensed like all the matter in the universe in that split second before The Big Bang.
I caught my reflection in the mirror, tired, frenzied. The whole time I’m thinking: the only reason I’m going through any of this is because I have to know why a girl I dated for three weeks a year ago stopped returning my calls.
At three seventeen she arrived.
The Second Phase of Mia was about to begin.
And now for Part Two
What’s so good about this?
For TOPIA Season 01, we asked you to interpret our first theme: THE BIG BANG. Atom to atom, dust to dust, story to story. We left the format up to you but just asked that – whether it’s a fiery fiction, an intimate personal essay, bone-cutting poem, genre-busting animation or autofiction that blends reality and the imaginary – it taps into the thrill of being alive. After all, we are creating A World of Good.
Love often comes from suffering – as Romeo and Juliet can testify. Night Creatures is the first part of a serialised flash-fiction style story about a relationship between two people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Think Brief Encounter meets 500 Days of Summer or Californiication.
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Meet the writer
Matt Graham is a TV writer, originally from London, now based in Los Angeles. He’s the writer of the hit series Oliver Stone’s: The Untold History of the United States, a great many TV scripts for Hollywood, short fiction and a novel, The Night Driver. He’s the survivor of a plane crash in Panama and a roadside mock execution in Nigeria, and has worked as a crime reporter in South America, as well as a ranch manager in Colorado. He’s lived all over the world, and his great unifying passion in life is the search for the sleaziest bars imaginable. Sometimes he wakes up wondering whether or not it’s all just been a strange dream – the kind that jolts you from REM at 3am and leaves you staring at the ceiling. Follow @muzurphulus.