by Kate Axelrod
It was the fall after Erica and I graduated from college and I was sleeping with two guys who were both named Josh. They were also both allergic to cats, but otherwise they were nothing alike. Josh Leviton was extremely earnest and always wanted to “talk things out” or “process” and Josh Kaye was so incapable of having a direct conversation and sharing anything about himself, it sort of seemed like he was on the run or in the witness protection program, if that was even a thing anymore.
My therapist, Sharon, had a field day with the fact that they were both allergic to cats, because I had grown up with cats and currently had one named Sally, who was a longhaired Persian with bright blue eyes and tan fur who shed constantly. All my furniture and clothing were covered in a sheath of pale fur, so much so that I had given up ever wearing dark colors. Sometimes Josh Leviton would sleep over even though Sally’s fur was everywhere, all over the bed, and I’d hear him wheezing in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, Josh Kaye would fuck me and before he even pulled out, would start coughing and say he was starting to feel allergic. Sometimes I’d ask if he wanted to take anything—I kept a carton of CVS brand antihistamines in my medicine cabinet—and he’d just say, “Nah, thanks though.”
Sharon once asked me what it meant that I’d chosen to date two people who were “quite literally” allergic to my home. She probably wanted me to say that I was actively choosing men who couldn’t be with me and creating scenarios where there was no hope of it working, as a way of protecting myself against rejection. But all it meant to me was that way too many people were allergic to cats and maybe there should be a little more research to fund a vaccine.
Erica and I lived in an apartment south of Sunset in an L-shaped complex, with grey wall-to-wall carpeting and a terrace overlooking a small track. It was far from the beach and close to a lot of intersecting freeways and the set of a movie Erica was working on. We both wanted to work in “the biz” but for the last three months I’d been standing on street corners in Brentwood with a clipboard and a blue ballpoint pen, asking people if they had a moment to support the DNC. Most people walked right past us, some pretended to look for something in their bags, others started intently at their phones. Once, outside a shopping center on San Vicente, Meg Ryan handed me a crisp ten dollar bill.
In the afternoons, I’d go to Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and drink Vanilla Iced Blendeds and look for jobs on Craigslist. I kept copying and pasting a generic cover letter, about my major in cinema studies and my passion for the arts.
I kept both Joshes in my phone under their last names: Leviton and Kaye because I didn’t want to confuse the two in texting. Or really, it was because I didn’t want to see the name JOSH on my phone and feel a flutter of excitement, before I registered which one it was.
I resented feeling like a cliché for wanting the unavailable guy, but the fact was, I really did, truly like Josh Kaye a lot. Any time I asked him a question about his day or tried to have a conversation with him about feelings, he would respond only with his Bitmoji—a cartoon version of himself with a big head wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, his arms crossed over his chest, with the caption that said THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. But his father died when he was in high school and I had this sense that he just arming himself against future losses. Erica always rolled her eyes when I said this. She named all the other people we’d known who had lost a parent and those people were able to commit and be regular, reasonable partners. Josh Kaye was just more complicated than that, I supposed. He worked at a startup in Venice, where I imagined lacquered surfboards were fixed to the walls and people vaped continuously at their desks.
I’d met Josh Leviton on Tinder. He worked in film like everybody else and had two pictures on his profile; one was him in a darkened bar with floral wallpaper and a candle illuminating his face and the other was of him and a very little kid, sitting on a bench at the Santa Monica Pier. The kid was probably two, and Josh Leviton was holding an ice cream cone up above her head as she reached for it adoringly. She had a pink scaly ring around her mouth and snot crusted below her nostrils. The caption said, “love this girl. but not mine, niece!!” I swiped right because I thought it’d be good for me to like someone who was into kids.
It had recently been Yom Kippur and, with my family back on the east coast, I decided to go to synagogue with one of my DNC coworkers. During the service I tried to make a list of things I wanted to do better the next year. One was, talk less shit about my mom. The other was, date guys who were into me.
When Josh Leviton and I matched on Tinder, I had already been seeing Josh Kaye for about six weeks. We’d met at a bar in Culver City where Erica was going for a coworker’s birthday. They were all dancing in the back and Josh Kaye and I were lingering at this old school jukebox filled with pages and pages of CDs. I made a comment about how I hated dancing and was so relieved there was something else to do.
“Same,” Josh Kaye said. “Actually, I used to be the best dancer but, you know, old age, broke my hip last year.”
This was the beginning of Josh Kaye saying things I didn’t really understand. We went back to my house and he went down on me for like twenty minutes and it felt really good in moments but also really boring. My mind kept drifting to things I needed to do, like pay my loans for the month or buy that new lavender scented litter I kept seeing at the supermarket.
I tried to guide his head away from my crotch. At one point I even said, “I really want to fuck you now,” but he didn’t seem to care. It was almost like he had made a bet and was determined to make me come so he wouldn’t lose fifty bucks. Eventually, so that it would end, I started moaning and clenching the muscles around my thighs.
I was slightly in awe of myself whenever I faked orgasms. I knew some people thought it was just another tool of the patriarchy, giving men the satisfaction of thinking that they had gotten you off, but to me it was the opposite: I felt powerful and secretive, guarding a tiny part of myself, like a sparkling jewel at the end of a video game that’s nearly impossible to capture.
Josh Kaye looked at me triumphantly and then we slapped five. Afterward, we lay in bed and talked about how sad it was that there were no seasons in Los Angeles. Josh Kaye was also from the East Coast—outside of Philly.
“It’s so annoying that you’re supposed to be happy all the time just because it’s always nice out,” I said.
“I know,” Josh Kaye said. “Like, those days back home where it’s cold and grey outside and the perfect excuse to ‘curl up with a good book on the couch.’ You cannot do that shit here.”
I felt something unfurling inside my chest—but then Josh Kaye started sneezing and pretty quickly put on his jeans and his plaid shirt—just like his Bitmoji—and ordered himself an Uber.
After that first time Josh Kaye never reached out once. Whenever I texted to see if he wanted to hang out he always wrote back right away and said “ya” or gave the thumbs up emoji. If I just gave him a concrete, specific plan, he’d meet up with me wherever. But then every date was like the first date again. It was like going to the gynecologist at student health; it felt so intimate but then when I went back a couple months later, the doctor stared at me blankly, with no indication at all that she remembered my last appointment
One Tuesday night in October I had a date with Josh Leviton. We were watching Season 3 of The Americans. A couple weeks earlier he’d asked if I’d wanted to start it with him. The intimacy of committing to a TV show with him seemed totally premature, requiring a level of trust and sacrifice that I was not ready for. But I was also extremely attracted to Keri Russell’s ferocity and I got hooked quickly. We had a pretty nice night together, but after we had sex, I felt an inexplicable need for him to leave. I went to the bathroom and then tried to gently nudge Sally into my room so that maybe he would get wheezy and then I could encourage him to leave. But he just leaned over, took a packet of Claritin from his backpack and placed it on the night table. “Just in case,” he said, and kissed the side of my face.
That I was expected to like him just because he was a nice guy who took his niece to get ice cream and wanted to spend the night after we fucked, filled me what a peculiar kind of rage. I pretended to fall asleep and then got up to smoke a joint out the living room window. Erica was passed out on the couch. Friends was playing on Netflix and Joey was dressed up in all of Chandler’s clothes. I laughed and coughed at the same time, smoke spilled out of my mouth. Erica squirmed and when I kissed the top of her head, her eyelids fluttered open. Then Sally walked in circles between my legs, her tail brushing against my thighs. I put the joint out and picked her up. “Do you know how much I love you?” I asked her. She blinked at me several times.
On Wednesday I got a response from Billy—a “writer/producer” looking for an assistant. He said he was in the early stages of a production that was half Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and half Look Who’s Talking. I drove to his place the next morning. He lived on the edge of Koreatown in a peach-colored apartment complex. The intercom was a tangle of wires spilling out from the wall. I stood, trying to figure out what to do, but then he threw a single sock out the window. “The key’s inside,” he said.
When I got up the stairs, the door was ajar and Billy was reclining on a corduroy arm chair. He had shoulder-length grey hair and was wearing cargo shorts and a Hawaiian tee-shirt. He opened his mouth and placed a green Listerine sheet on the surface of his tongue.
“Sit down,” he said.
I was wearing a two-toned dress from Nordstrom Rack that looked like a it was a skirt and a shirt. I had my resume printed out in my lap, but it didn’t say much. I’d done a summer program in high school at RISD, where I smoked cigarettes for the first time and watched a lot of Godard films. And I had a 3.8 major in Cinema Studies but I’d never had a job in the “industry.”
He said my name very slowly, with a vague smile across his face. Maybe he was high or maybe I just hadn’t gotten used to the West Coast yet. “I just finished this great script and I’m looking for someone to help me with pitching. I need help calling agents and backers and stuff like that. We’re pretty much looking for everyone: the actors, producers, PAs, everything.”
“That’s really exciting,” I said. I told him how my experiences working for the DNC and my job in college making phone calls for the alumni office made me an excellent candidate. I was good at pitching, I felt comfortable asking people for money.
Then Billy led me down a short, carpeted hallway and into his office which was actually his bedroom. There was a chrome desk against the far wall, and several topless photos of Drew Barrymore—neatly hung and autographed—above it. Billy sat on a frameless king-sized bed, draped in paisley sheets. He gently patted the blanket beside him and asked me to have a seat. I declined, so he brought out a plastic fold out chair and positioned it beside the mattress.
“So, look,” he said, “why don’t we role-play you pitching my screenplay to an agent. Here’s a summary of the plot, you can look at it briefly and then try it on your own.”
I took the summary from Billy but when I tried to read it the text was blurred together. I was shaking a little and my mouth was suddenly extremely dry, like I had just smoked an enormous joint.
“Are you ok?” he asked. “You seem really nervous. Do you need anything? I can heat you up a frozen dinner if you’d like.”
It was 10:15 in the morning. I felt a swell of nausea. I figured that if I read the pitch for even a second, Billy would remove a flaccid penis from his cargo shorts, and begin to touch himself. I tried to focus on Drew Barrymore’s lovely smile, but I kept seeing Billy’s pubic hair in my head, wiry and silver. I imagined his hand as he worked furiously toward an erection that would probably never materialize.
“You know what? I totally spaced and I realized I forgot to put money in the meter downstairs.”
“I’ll be back in two minutes,” I said, reaching for my car keys. I held them up to him. A handful of keys was attached to a miniature yellow Converse high-top.
I got in the car. It was an old Volvo that smelled like rotten licorice. I drove two blocks, made a right on Western and pulled over onto a small side street. It was sunny and I lowered the windows with the old-school manual crank. I let the heat pour in and the light sting my face. I felt incredibly relaxed, almost gleeful. I pumped the lever beside my seat so that I was lying all the way back, basically horizontal.
I called Erica. She didn’t pick up and then texted a minute later and said, “Who died or got engaged? Why are you calling? Text me like a regular person pls. Love you.”
Then I called my mom, who was always delighted to hear from me. “Sweetie?” she said, and I hung up immediately. Then I texted her, “sorry, think i butt dialed you!!”
I would be two hours late for my DNC job, but it didn’t really matter. Jessie and Tim—whom I shared my shift with—would understand. Everyone was coming and going for auditions all the time anyway. I thought about texting one of the Joshes and telling him what had happened. Josh Kaye would probably send me his bitmoji, confirming that the struggle was, in fact, real. Josh Leviton would likely respond with a forced intimacy and offer to meet me right there in Koreatown for a cup of tea. But actually what I wanted was to be just like Keri Russell on The Americans; always guarding her private self, and swiftly and dispassionately destroying those who got in her way.
I slipped my shoes off and rested my toes on the steering wheel. When I closed my eyes it was easy to pretend I was at the beach and I felt momentarily grateful for that Los Angeles weather; for the beauty that was everywhere, even when things were terrible.
Kate Axelrod‘s writing has appeared in Joyland, Literary Hub and various other publications. Her first novel, The Law of Loving Others, was published by Penguin in 2015. She is a social worker in Brooklyn.