The L.A. psychologist now enjoys the high-profile life as Hollywood’s favorite shrink. 2,893 words. Parts One, Two, Three, Four. Part Six. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The restaurant on Culver Boulevard is not far from home — at least geographically. I roll up to the “Valet Parking $9” sign behind Myrtle’s black Escalade. On the sidewalk, a clutch of paparazzi stirs like pigeons. Even in a city not obsessed with faces and bodies like Hollywood, this crew would be a grungy lot. Pungent from catnaps in sunbaked Hondas. Fueled by junk food, stale coffee and masturbation.
Myrtle’s driver walks around to the curbside of the SUV. The windows are blacked. He opens the door as if unwrapping a gift. There! A lightning barrage of strobes hits the two women. They step down in an artful maneuver acquired through practice. All body parts move as one, lest a stray nipple or errant snatch adorn the cover of Globe Magazine. Sadie and Myrtle stride through the flash storm in a herky-jerky silent movie. The shutterbugs glide with them. Their sheer number, all grabbing virtually the same image, ensures a small payoff for the effort. They shout provocations.
“Drinking tonight, Sadie?”
“Who are you screwing?”
“Myrtle, let’s see the new tits!”
“Who said? These are the same old tired ones.”
Sadie’s stalkarazzi nemesis is there in his straw trilby hat. Crouched by the door, obsessive, getting the odd angle. Shooting in bursts as they tromp toward him. He throws her an icy, triumphant smile. The girls disappear inside and it’s night again.
As the valet approaches, I step on it. I leave public parking in my Dodger cap from the glove compartment. Hugging the facades of low-slung buildings.
Turn back, Dennis. Dinner with a client? Not smart. Granted, it’s an ethical gray area. A gray area can lead to other areas not so gray. Can’t argue. But how often do I get to hang with two hot Emmy-winning actresses? Who knows, maybe it’ll give me insight into my client’s life and help with her treatment.
Right. Get real.
OK, it was a reach. But it’s just one dinner. What’s the harm?
Do what the fuck you want, Dennis, you always do.
I amble past a line of lighted storefronts. Get to the restaurant, casual-like. Stalkerazzi camped at the curb. I dart inside.
From behind, a man’s voice: “Doc! This way!”
I don’t look back.
“Here’s the good doctor.”
“Scoot over, Myrt,” says Sadie. “Welcome, sir.”
They shift around a semicircular booth as I slide onto worn leather. I take in the room. Clatter and chatter ricochet off a tin ceiling and repurposed brick floor. Scarred pine tabletops sit on industrial iron legs. Edison bulbs hang over the bar from vintage electrical cord. It’s a one hundred-year-old tavern, at least. Except that two years ago it was all linoleum and fluorescents and called Planet Taco. And before that, a 99-cent store.
Diners check me out. Who’s the guy with the glitter girls? Eat your hearts out, rabble.
“A bit deafening,” says Myrtle.
“We can always text,” I shout.
“What?” shouts Sadie.
She’s kidding, smiles.
“Were the paparazzi there for you?” Trying to modulate my speaking level.
“I don’t see anyone else here,” says Myrtle. I look around. Not an empty seat in the place, but I get what she means.
“Might’ve been here for you, Dennis,” says Sadie. “Now that y’all are famous.” She laughs.
“Yeah, I can hardly walk out of the house,” I say. “But how do they know who’s coming?”
“The driver, I’ll bet,” says Myrtle. “Drivers, valet parkers, there’s a whole bloody network of snitches.”
A tableful of laughing women in office attire is celebrating a birthday. One of them turns and aims her iPhone our way. “So rude,” says Myrtle.
Sadie, good sport, offers a cheese. “C’mon, give her a thrill,” she says. Her friend obliges with a madwoman grin.
The fan fusses with the camera app. “Snap it already, cunt,” says Myrtle, under her breath.
I avoid the shot by lifting the menu for study. My eyes drift down the page to: A Message from Mickey Hanson.
When I first arrived in the States from Dublin, I had the insane notion to open a restaurant. (This was six restaurants ago, mind you. Lots of insanity since then!) But first, I needed to spend a year traveling this vast country and sampling its food. And so I did. Notice I say food, not cuisine. Food, I quickly learned, is what most people eat. From Bar Harbor to Biloxi, from Cajun-style to California Roll, Americans are famous for their lack of affectation. And nothing, to my mind, is more down-to-earth than the Side Dish. It’s as straightforward and American as a handshake. And so I had a dream: to create a restaurant serving only side dishes. Now, at last, it’s here. Welcome to Sides. I hope you love it as much as I do. Bon appetit. Or as Americans say: “Siddown and eat.” Enjoy.
“Only side dishes,” I say.
“Really?” Myrtle says. “I thought it referred to script pages, you know: sides.”
“No — side dishes.”
A waiter appears.
“Welcome to Sides. I’m Caleb,” says Caleb. Black muscle shirt, black pants, black man.
A chorus of “Hello Calebs.”
“Have you been here before? Know how it works?”
“We order food, you bring it, we eat it?” says Myrtle.
“Ah, so you have been here!” We laugh. “While you study the menu, can I bring some drinks?”
“Is it a full bar or just chasers?” I say.
“No,” says Caleb, picking up the cue. “That’s our other place: Chasers.”
“Brilliant,” says Myrtle, scanning the drinks card. “Hmmm. Bring me the Four Citrus Martini. Whatever that may be.”
“My favorite,” says Caleb. He turns to Sadie.
“Well, let me think,” she says. “Should I go with sparkling water or flat? Choices, choices.”
“Would you like a tasting?” says Caleb.
“We have a driver,” Myrtle says to her.
“I’m sober, remember?”
“Of course you are.”
“I can’t very well get snockered in front of Dennis now, can I?” She looks at me: “Can I?”
“I’m not here in a professional capacity,” I say. “A professional wouldn’t be here. Well, it’s kind of a gray area.”
He looks at me. I consider no alcohol in solidarity with Sadie.
“I’ll have the Tinseltown IPA,” I say.
“Back in a jif,” says Caleb, and he’s off. We go back to perusing the menu.
“Tries awfully hard, doesn’t he?” says Myrtle.
We’re silent, though who would notice in this racket. There’s bedlam, too, opposite, in the open kitchen. Two cooks are nose-to-nose, hurling imprecations en Español. A third guy in white breaks it up.
“People reserve here six weeks in advance.” Sadie says.
“You did that?” I ask.
“No, we’re famous, luv,” says Myrtle. “Just show up and be seated — that’s our superpower.”
“Must be nice,” I say.
“So tell us about yourself, Dennis,” she says.
“He won’t share personal information. He’s my therapist.”
“Not my therapist, is he?” Myrtle turns to me. “Married? Children? Prison record?”
“You don’t have to answer,” says Sadie.
“In reverse order: no, no, and not sure,” I say.
“See? We’ve uncovered a nugget there, haven’t we? Not sure you’re getting into marriage? Or not sure you’re getting out?”
“Out. Actually, she is quite sure.”
“Sorry, Dennis,” says Sadie. “Marriage is impossible.”
“You would know,” says Myrtle.
Caleb returns with drinks, passes them around.
“Cheers,” says Myrtle.
Caleb: “Are we hungry?”
“I can’t speak for you, Caleb,” says Myrtle. “But I’m famished.”
Sadie takes Myrtle’s martini and pours half into her Pellegrino. “Just for flavor,” she says, handing it back, throwing me a guilty glance.
“It’s all farm to table, locally grown, no GMOs,” says Caleb. “Any allergies?”
“Only to pretension,” says Myrtle.
“I recommend three sides each. Everything is best shared. The dishes come out as ready.”
“Splendid,” says Myrtle.
“Such a fuss about food these days,” says Sadie. “I’m fine at Hopdoddy’s.”
Myrtle looks at her. “I don’t even want to know.”
“Do y’all have any meat?” asks Sadie. “Or don’t side dishes have meat? Can’t think of any.”
“Side dishes are the healthy bits to offset the meat,” says Myrtle.
“We do have a chili cup. And spare ribs.”
“Bless your heart. I’ll have the chili… the mac and cheese… hmm… and the creamed spinach.”
“The mac and cheese is amazing,” says Caleb.
“I’m a big fresser,” she says. He smiles blankly. “It’s Texas slang. Now a restaurant called Main Courses — that’s more my style. Three entrees, no sharin’.”
“One too many jokes on the restaurant, luv,” says Myrtle. To Caleb: “Bring me the cole slaw, the grilled Brussels sprouts, and the mashed potatoes. It’s the order of a crazy person.”
“I’ll have the quinoa and black beans, the spaghetti squash, and the Spanish rice,” I say.
“Excellent choice,” says Caleb.
“Ever say ‘lousy choice’?”
“Not if I want to keep my job. Shall I bring you another IPA?”
“Not just yet,” I say.
“Go for it, Dennis,” says Myrtle. “You’re our guest.”
I give Caleb a what-can-I-do shrug.
“And,” says Myrtle. She rocks her empty glass.
Caleb looks at Sadie. “Another Pellegrino?”
“No, sweetie, I’m drivin’.”
He nods and hurries off.
“Happy to pay my way,” I say. Happier I don’t have to.
“I’m here for meetings, it’s deductible,” she says.
“You can say you dined with a writer. Twice tonight I was mistaken for one.”
“Now that’s insulting,” says Myrtle.
“You’re too good lookin’ for a writer, Dennis,” says Sadie, patting my hand. “I’d say… documentarian.”
“Like Michael Moore?”
“No, God, no,” she says. “More PBS. Ken Burns. But younger.”
“And with a better haircut,” says Myrtle.
Drinks arrive, along with the first wave of dishes — one for Myrtle, none for Sadie, two for me.
“That was fast,” says Myrtle. “Obviously made to order.”
Sadie pours half the new martini into her empty glass, doesn’t look at me this time, hands it back to Myrtle. Tops it off with Pellegrino.
“Do we just eat the potatoes straight off?” says Myrtle. She pushes the dish to the center. “It’s all for sharing, remember.”
“Dig into these,” I say, sliding the squash and beans forward.
“After dinner let’s go for dinner,” says Sadie.
A rheumy-eyed fellow in baggy pants and a loose-fitting Guayabera shirt is standing at our booth. Swaying like a palm. “Watch your back,” says a waitress with plates, rushing past. He reels, grabs hold of the table.
“Can we help you?” I say.
“You…” He aims a fat paw at me, “…with them?” He gestures, a beat behind his words, at the women. “You must be loaded.”
“No, he just has a big dick,” says Sadie, throwing me a wink.
“I think you’re the one that’s loaded,” I say.
“Hello, Lucas,” says Myrtle. “Working the room?”
She knows this lush?
“Ladies.” He executes a low bow from which he struggles to emerge.
“You’ve met Sadie,” says Myrtle. “And this is Dr. Corbin. Dennis, this is Lucas Kidd.”
No. Really? How much weight has this guy put on? Can’t locate his parameters under the billowy getup.
“Hello,” I say.
They must wire his mouth shut six months before the start of filming. Lucas Kidd, star of sorcerer movies, dead empire movies, and Westerns with insufficient lighting. One of many Australians — or is he a New Zealander? — now wealthy for having mastered a flat Midwestern accent. He offers me a fleshy mitt. Not sure if it’s in friendship or to keep from falling over. I take it. He doesn’t let go, and I’m obliged to stand.
“Dr. Corbin,” he smiles. “And how do you know these charmers?”
“Oh… picked them up hitchhiking.” Lame. I smile like an idiot and try to withdraw my hand. But he’s squeezing it. Hard. Glaring. I squeeze back.
Myrtle interjects, nodding toward the table spread.
“You could use some food in you, Lucas. Have an artisanal side dish.”
Yeah, put some more weight on, why don’t you. He leans in to whisper in my ear, but forgets to whisper: “You know — fuck you — fuck you up the ass, Corbin.”
I recoil from the sound blast and boozy breath. Funny — I can still see him with the beard as General Grant in Shiloh. Now it’s as if Grant is saying, Fuck you up the ass. Then again, Grant was a drunk too, so maybe he did say it. Fuck you up the ass, Lincoln. I’ll attack when I damn well please.
He tightens his vice grip, compressing my fingers. Blood ceases to flow. Tears well. I’ve got no leverage to squeeze back.
“Big fan of your films,” I try. “Not of your handshake.”
“Who … the fuck … do you think you are?” he asks.
“Quite enough, Lucas,” says Myrtle.
“Let him go, Lucas, you’re shit-faced.” says Sadie.
He gives them a courtly nod.
“Have a seat, Corbin,” he says. He flings me like Astaire’s cane, and I sail into the banquette. My head continues on its flight plan to the cement wall.
Jump cut. I’m lying against the seatback, facing up. No Lucas.
Caleb looks down at me with motherly concern. “The house would like to buy you all a round of drinks,” he says.
I hear a commotion toward the front. Sadie spills ice from a glass into a linen napkin, ties it closed. She holds it to the back of my head.
“Congratulations, Dennis — your first celebrity brawl.”
Myrtle says, “It’s what you get for hanging with the wrong sort.”
The digital clock in our guest room reads 3:47 AM. Light from a passing car angles across the ceiling and dissolves. I run two fingers over the swelling on my head.
Doctor, it hurts when I do that. What a night. Yet, strangely, fun. I’m being disrespected in better circles. Hollywood circles. Plus: hanging with two famously desirable women who actually seem to like me.
Yeah, but they’re actresses, and actresses act.
And — they haven’t lived with you for fifteen years.
They don’t know the Real Dennis. Have no concept.
All right, enough. Who asked?
It was a sweet change from the running Cold War with Caroline. Not that I blame her. She is, after all, the Caroline I created. Now all she wants is to be rid of the guy who ruined her marriage, and is now ruining her divorce. All she wants is to put Real Dennis in the rearview and gun it toward the rest of her life. I’d like to give her that. Give her the thing she wants most: the absence of me.
As I probe hidden corners of the fridge for something dinner-ish, she struts in. Full makeup and a forty-dollar blow dry. New outfit? Must be a date. No grass growing under her Kate Spades. Caroline never could cut it in four-inch heels, I have to say. Lacks the Inner hooker. Too much the book nerd, the smartest girl in class. But she looks good. And the blatant contempt she’s throwing my way is kind of a turn-on. I bet I know the guy.
Her car’s in the shop, I’ve come to pick her up at work. We’re staying downtown for dinner. Date night. Trying it. I step out of the elevator and into a maze of desks. She’s standing by the window, in high spirits. Absorbed in lively banter. He’s a professorial dude. Glasses. Facial scruff. What, no pipe? She finds him charming. I recall that look. Time to break it up. I march forward. Hi, Dennis! Too perky. He steps back, straightens. Dennis, Peter, Peter, Dennis.
“You look nice,” I say.
Nada. She disconnects her phone from the charger, checks her texts. Tosses it into her purse.
“Caroline, can we talk?” A switch.
I follow her to the front door. She stops, checks her purse again.
“I want to buy the house from you,” I say. She looks up.
“The usual: legal tender.”
“Not something I associate with you.”
I wince, mime pulling an arrow from my chest.
“Save the charm routine,” she says.
“What if I repay everything I owe you, plus fair market for your share?”
“What, another stock tip?”
“Hey, those weren’t all tips. I came up with many losses on my own.”
“You actually want to live here?”
“I do. I love it.”
“Nice to see you’re capable of the emotion.”
“Look, I’m sorry that—”
“It’s just that I’m comfortable, my office is here, it’s an up-and-coming neighborhood.”
“Yes, it always has been.”
“My clients’ neuroses are in fragile balance. Any change could set them off.” The small explosion I make with my hands elicits a disapproving look.
“For me, it’s stigmatized.”
“Like the Manson house, or Nicole Simpson’s condo.”
“Whew. I guess you won’t be taking the photo album.”
“I’ll give you thirty days,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s back on the market and I’ll take my lumps. Gotta go.”
She bends to pick up an overnight bag. Hadn’t noticed it. And she’s out.
I turn and open the door again. She’s slamming the hatchback shut.
She walks around to the driver’s side.
“When are you coming back?” I shout.
“When I get tired of fucking.”
She climbs into the Subaru and shuts the door. Backs out.
Totally uncalled for.