When we see him on Twin Peaks: The Return, he’s not much to look at. A half-stache the Tumblrs deride as “Cheeto pubes” dusts his upper lip. He’s acting hard, sweaty and jumpy. A middle-aged man reams him out for his terrible resume. He picks up his wife in a convertible. They laugh joyfully about the money she’s extracted from her mother, get high on coke. He draws her in for a long kiss, his hand on her neck. He’s spitting mad, ready to hit, pinning her against the couch. She shoots holes in a door, furious at his betrayal. He and his lover, a fellow redhead, hide down the hall. “I liked fucking you,” he tells her in the forest, and shoots himself in the head.
I don’t want him anymore, but it moves me to see him again, after all this time.
It was cold in Manhattan, where I had come to find him. I wore a wool coat zipped up beneath my chin, a silver infinity scarf, boots tipped with gold metal. Earlier, a woman had stopped me in front of a sex toy store in Soho to photograph me for her fashion blog. I held still for her on the cobbled street and then went inside, where in one breath I explained to an employee that I required an implement with which to penetrate myself because sex had become so infrequent that my body closed up shop between encounters, meaning that when it did happen the act was more painful than pleasurable. I needed a tool to keep the machinery shipshape should usage occur.
I had told this story to many people, many times over. It was beginning to feel a little stale, a party trick I did to make them see me.
“Let me get someone,” the employee said quickly when I stopped speaking. “I’m actually helping this lady right here.” A woman beside her I hadn’t noticed stared at me, mouth ajar.
I purchased a device and got on the 6 uptown. I didn’t live in New York anymore; I lived in Los Angeles, where I had spotted the actor on the street in my neighborhood at the base of the Hollywood Hills two or three times the previous year.
My husband and I had an evening ritual. We got high and watched TV. Doing this every night created a womblike interior in which we gelled together, accompanied by our favorite delivery dinners and treats I baked between entertainments. If he was in a loving mood, my husband arranged me so that I lay against his body and felt his warmth on my back. We watched so much television that we regularly exhausted every platform: Netflix, OnDemand, Prime, our DVR, cable, broadcast, and the DVD collection fed by my husband’s habit of walking down to Amoeba when he got bored. Content was consumed as soon as it appeared in the feed. One night in January 2014, the new movie was called Byzantium and had vampires. I love vampires.
The film concerns a mother-daughter vamp pair in Brighton, England. Rather than a simple neck-bite, to become a vampire in their universe one must travel to a tropical island and hang out in a forbidden cave until a pan shot of the exterior shows the waterfalls running red. Into the two-hundred-year-old teenage girl’s life comes a limping boy who speaks in a whispery lisp later explained as “American.” His affected mannerisms suggest a space alien attempting human impersonation on the basis of a single dimly transmitted episode of Boy Meets World. This boy is dying from a blood disorder. There is a scene where he is cut, I can’t remember how, and shambles down the street, bleeding uncontrollably. The girl vamp catches him and lifts his wounded arm to her mouth. Romance. At the end of the film she brings him to the island. He goes into the cave. The water runs crimson. They will be together forever.
I squinted at the screen. The boy in the film was the young man my husband and I had seen several times on walks through our neighborhood, a violet and cerulean district of shadowed bougainvillea and mansions whose open doors revealed entirely other worlds. The actor always wore the same outfit, or nearly: maroon sweatpants, boots, a ratty black sleeveless t-shirt, a white denim jacket. There may have been an elaborate belt. I remember him carrying an empty or nearly empty plastic grocery bag. I had marked his long red hair and his translucent skin, but most of all the way he looked at us so sweetly and openly, like he wanted to be our friend. He seemed strangely familiar. But we didn’t identify him as an actor. He didn’t matter any more than any of the other beguiling strangers we saw on our walks, not until we watched Byzantium.
Something shifted that evening. The young man had been outside the world my husband and I shared, a passing visage. But that world, that airtight space, was beginning to fade me into nonexistence, and like any drifting idea, I wanted to be real. So I latched to the man on the screen, sank with him—and before I knew it I had made the first puncture in that amniotic sack, that room of couch, television, lamps, tables. Rent the veil, passed through to the other side.
Six months later, I wept for the entirety of a red-eye flight to the east coast.
“You seem like you’re ready to die,” my husband said, not looking at me, as we began our final descent.
See him. His peaches and cream complexion. Flume of auburn hair. Freckles. Long hands. Rosebud mouth so round it suggests a repaired harelip. Big haunted pale eyes. Funny clothes that don’t matter, that could fall right off.
I enjoy looking at men the way men look at women, or maybe the way that I look is nothing like that. Maybe I say I’m like a man because I like to own, because I understand that to look in a certain way is to acquire. That’s the only way I’ve ever wanted to look. Both ways. Like I could walk off the lot with you, or you with me. Never driven. Brand new.
Once I looked at this man a lot. Not in person, not when I had the chance. Then, I didn’t even know who he was. But after I figured it out—I spent some time looking, then.
Once this man was a window out of my burning house, and let me tell you, I ran for that window. I leapt.
His name was Caleb Landry Jones. He seemed feral and unwashed. He seemed like he needed to be led until the moment when he would lead. I was too old to mistake an actor for his roles, but I was sure he was just like the young men he played. Twitchy, and compelling, lizard-focused and insect-quick, struggling with and also committed to his feminine beauty, alive alive alive with an orange flame in his chest and dry weird hair that would feel great to turn my fingers in, I who had wanted so long to turn my fingers in someone’s hair, and didn’t I deserve any pleasure in this life?
The next day, alone, I watched and rewatched the scene of the girl vampire feeding from the wound in the bend of the boy’s elbow until I embarrassed myself, and then I watched it some more.
Caleb Landry Jones also starred in Antiviral, the 2012 directorial debut of David Cronenberg’s son Brandon. In this deeply Canadian work of oedipal doggerel Jones plays Syd March, a salesman obsessed with an actress dying of a mysterious illness. He hawks star germs—for a fee his customers can catch the same cold recently suffered by their favorite celebrity—and is a true believer in his product, a sort of dystopian Hazel Motes. Throughout the film he is visited by a dream or vision of his moribund beloved’s deathbed in a room full of flowers. He enters wearing white latex gloves, his long hair tied back. The camera zooms on his gloved hands nearing her bleeding mouth.
Those scenes, too, I watched over and over, so stoned I felt like I was in the room with them.
FROM MY NOTEBOOK, FEBRUARY 19, 2014: I became fixated on the actor as I always do, convinced his way of being in the film was the way that he just was. Then, as always happens, in the days after I saw the film I sought other knowledge of him, I tracked him down and considered him. And as always happens I saw that no matter how unstudied or imprecise his performance in the film I loved had been, it was in fact a performance, a made thing, unnatural. And this reminded me of the layers of artifice in the worlds of art and media; and it reminded me of the reality of my own body and my own life and their unsuitability for meeting with the actor; and in seeing himself as he was I saw myself as I was, a lonely woman with an unmet need lusting after a fantasy. And I was hurt to recognize my fantasy but glad, as ever, of knowledge.
I look up the plot synopsis of Byzantium and see that I have forgotten things. For example: the teenage girl vampire writes the unlikely story of her life and discards the manuscript. The dying boy finds it and, reading, falls in love with her.
Liking him felt like smoke, dust, night in a hot car. It was a sensory immersion I could be, and was, yanked out of at any time—what was not a reminder that I was a nearly-thirty year old PhD candidate using my semantic training to avoid defining my marriage as “failing”?—but also one that could be blessedly reentered. Reality might wrench me, but then I could drop right back in.
SYDNEY PROSSER TO ROD ROSENFELD, FROM THE SCRIPT TO AMERICAN HUSTLE BY ERIC WARREN SINGER AND DAVID O. RUSSELL: You played it safe so there was always a danger you were going to end up with Rosalyn in the dead space, floating on some dead spaceship with the furniture and the curtains. And I was your life line out and you were mine and that was ok.
But I wasn’t ready to die. I wanted to live.
“Lisa, I don’t think anyone other than the CIA uses the internet the way you do,” my friend Ben says. I’m no hacker, but I find what I want. The publicity and modeling photos and the production stills and the Tumblrs devoted to his every movement and the phone number of the gallerist involved with his rise and the album he recorded with his high school band back in Dallas. I listened to the album morning and night and I tracked him as best I could, across the US and Canada and Europe, I triangulated sources, I followed other fans. I saw that he was currently shooting a film in New York.
Both Antiviral and Byzantium feature scenes of a human mouth lustily drinking from the vein in the crook of the elbow. When I was an epileptic child, this was the vein the nurses penetrated at my fortnightly hospital visits, taking several vials of warm maroon blood to check for beta carotene. I remember how hot the vials were, after; how they filled so neatly.
The thought-image of him drew my attention like pain in the mouth, a sore tooth or torn gum, as pleasurable to touch with my mind as mouth-pain is to touch with the tongue.
I was happy to thrill at a new picture of him, eyes akimbo, or a rose clutched in his teeth, or sporting a turquoise bolo tie—a bolo tie. To experience that lost sensation of meeting the image of the beloved with mystery and wonder. Sometimes he visited me in dreams. We had a good time.
How long did I stand on that street corner, knowing I wouldn’t see him, expecting to see him?
I didn’t think I would. But I thought anything could happen.
It had happened to a girl on the internet.
What did I want in my life that I hadn’t gotten, one way or another?
How long did I stay, freezing cold, before I gave up and left?
People walking by, going any place. Celebrating. It was Saint Patrick’s Day.
I’ve never told anyone I did this, before now.
Six weeks or so after that day, I was at an artist’s residency in northern California, a place that put salt under my tongue. Getting ready for dinner on my final night there, I felt wolfish, running on nervous energy, hotwired. I had been too busy to sleep the night before. I put on an oversized denim buttondown and a long necklace like a bolo tie, smeared my lips with red oil, and ducked into the bathroom, fairly certain I wouldn’t like what I saw. But the mirror surprised me—I looked like him. Like Caleb Landry Jones. The leaping eyes in the peaked face above the buttoned-up collar. Off I went into the night, so pleased. Everything would change now.
Ten years ago I stood outside a brownstone in the West Village, speaking to a man I had known since I was a child and now wanted to have sex with. We were going somewhere else together, and there were many people in front of the building, and one of them was a woman who recognized him. She was older than me by at least a decade, and her face had that look many women’s take on in New York City, an exhaustion that has inspired its wearer not to rest but to soldier onwards. She had done her best to paint a brighter face on top of the real one. Older women inspired fear and jealousy in me all the time in that city, where I lived for the last years of my teens and the first of my twenties. I enjoyed her hostility.
She and the man I wanted to sleep with knew each other somehow—he worked at a museum, maybe it was from that. Maybe she worked at a gallery. She wasn’t one of the sylphs who oversaw the thimbles of cheap white at the front of deep white rooms on Friday nights; she would have had to have been more, or less, important. Once she spotted the man I wanted to sleep with, she stood in front of him to edge me out of the conversation, which I found ridiculous—he had introduced her to me just moments before, and we were clearly there together. Her frantic desire to monopolize him amused me.
I felt my power, the only real power I would ever have with him, because he would never even kiss me. She kept trying to convince and impress this man, and he kept genially bringing me into the conversation—he was always above all genial to me—and finally she turned to me and said in exasperation, “Well, and who are you?” When she pivoted briefly from him to deign to speak to me, my never-date flagged a taxi, and when she turned back to him he smiled, said goodbye, took my arm, and pulled me into the backseat.
Her face as we pulled away: it’s a story I wish I could tell myself then, as I am now.
Lisa Locascio is the editor of 7x7LA and Golden State 2017: New Writing from California (Outpost19) and co-publisher of Joyland. Her work has appeared in n+1, The Believer, Bookforum, and many other publications. She teaches writing at Wesleyan University. Her debut novel, Open Me, will be published next year by Grove Atlantic. She gratefully acknowledges the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference for supporting the writing of this essay.