We Don't Belong Here

A Romantic Comedy
by
Maiah Ocando & Gabriel Torrelles

Chapter 2: The black thing between my teeth

By Gabriel Torrelles on Friday March 16th, 2018



That day we fucked Hollywood in the ass.

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Art by Maiah Ocando

It’s February 2014 and Maiah and I are flying from Chicago to Los Angeles to meet Disney-ABC’s Executive VP of Daytime & Syndicated Programming. First, we’ll stop in San Diego for a couple of days to shoot a commercial, and then a production assistant will take us to Los Angeles by car to spend the night in a hotel. The next morning, Maiah’s managers will pick us up early in the morning to go to the ABC studios in Burbank, where we will meet some people from whom all we have heard for weeks is that “they are dying to meet her.”

Before landing, I read for the 50th time the mail with the itinerary and the names of everyone involved. It’s hard for me not to feel like banging my head against the side of the plane so, in case something is damaged in there, I can punch it back into place.

It’s the same thing you do with the remote when it won’t switch to the channel you want to watch. When something’s not working properly, you hit it until it’s fixed.

Of course, I suspect something strange is going on because it seems I’m the only one who sees the gremlin chewing on the wing of the plane. I don’t say anything, but let’s admit that in the real world, things like this don’t happen. You don’t move to the U. S. from the world’s trashiest country to study English with 16-year-old boys, so a year later, out of nowhere, one of Hollywood’s most prominent executives is telling people that “she’s dying to meet you” just because she found your videos on YouTube.

They have to be shitting me.

No, such things don’t happen. But it’s happening to us, and suddenly the vacuum of the descending aircraft feels even harder in my stomach. Maiah is standing beside me looking out the window and humming whatever Beyoncé song she is listening to. As we land in California, I envy her for having the ability to remain absent-minded, as if she really didn’t care about anything.

“From the very beginning, it was nothing but a joke that went too far.”

I can’t do that. It’s my fault, I believe in things that are clearly whimsical just because I like to remain permanently mired in frustration. But Maiah, by not getting emotionally invested in anything that doesn’t sound realistic, continues to carry on fully preserving her dignity and only receiving superficial wounds from life.

She would say, if you asked her, that she prefers to walk armored waiting for whatever will happen, and that is the visible sign that her emotional intelligence is higher than mine.

Instead, I am the one who stands in front of the guy holding the knife and do him the favor of unbuttoning my shirt so that he won’t miss my heart as he stabs me.

My gut and my head are stupid, and I get sucked up, clinging to the smallest bit of chance, like a wacko with a terrible poker hand deciding to go all in, because there could always be someone with an even worse hand.

Yet here we are anyway, arriving in California, in spite of my wife’s pragmatic fatalism, because as I predicted, uploading ridiculous videos on YouTube about “how to dress according to your body type” and “how to have the perfect eyebrows” made a Hollywood executive want to meet with her.

We made it.

We overcame the fucking system.

We’re Charlie Sheen winning high in tiger blood.

Even though, from the very beginning, it was nothing but a joke that went too far.

Here’s the truth.

Neither Maiah nor I ever wanted to tell people how to dress according to their fucking body type.

If we helped you with anything, it was merely accidental.

It wasn’t like we were lying to you. We were performing an impressive conceptual work of art in which we were the subjects. We were acting out a film that nobody was filming and in which every scene happened in real life. You can’t blame us for being fantastic at it. Nobody would put Al Pacino in jail for masterfully playing a blind man.

You can’t stone us for being amazing method actors.

No, it wasn’t like we were lying to you. Amazing people from all over the world watched us every week telling bad jokes about how bad clothes make everybody looks terrible, we wrote books and sold thousands of copies around the world, we taught millions of people what clothes to wear and how, but all of that only happened because whenever we embark on something we always go big. It happened because we are perfectionists who would rather have a truck dropped on our heads than doing something poorly. It also happened because giving the middle finger to the world is fucking fun.

“If we could get America to see her on that fucking screen, I swear this country would end up loving her as I do.”

No, it didn’t happen because it was what we wanted to do.

The only thing we really wanted was to get Maiah on TV.

It’s not what you think. Honestly, Maiah doesn’t care about being famous.

There has always been a much more intricate motivation in the background, another turn of the screw, and it is not at all what you might suspect.

Maiah being on television is what we wanted because, if we made it, if we could get America to see her on that fucking screen, I swear this country would end up loving her as I do.

Call me crazy, but I know I’ve always been right about this.

“Hugs in Hollywood are different from hugs anywhere else. They are unaffectionate, and after a while, they are also ineffective.”

If we could get Maiah on television, if millions of people could see her, even for a few minutes, our lives would change completely. Maiah would become a star, and I could finally do whatever I wanted. Hollywood would let me write a TV show, a series about her. We’d be millionaires, with money pouring in and huge houses and cars and airplanes. No, I’m not crazy. Don’t insist on saying out loud that you think so because I won’t listen. It is the power of positive thinking. It’s just that when I believe something, there’s nothing I wouldn’t be willing to do to achieve it, even in spite of myself. Those things don’t happen, but it could be happening to us. They write books about it. They make films that are nominated for Academy Awards, TV series that touch your heart. I swear. We just need to get Maiah on TV. We are convinced of that. And I say “we” while taking a substantial poetic license because if we are completely honest, I have always been the only driving force behind this nonsense.

I’m the one who wants all of this to happen because I’m the one who came to Hollywood to write the best TV series in the world just to rub it into the people I hate and who once told me I wouldn’t achieve anything with my life.

Maiah, on the other hand, is just riding along with me, staying as sensible as she can to see how far I can go with my foolishness. Like a babysitter who knows that the kid she is taking care of is hiding under the bed, but she’s pretending she doesn’t know just because she wants to see how long the kid can hold it before giving up and running off to pee.

Some people would rather pee in their pants than give their arm to twist And there are people like Maiah, who just want to see the world burn.

Of course, Maiah is a serious and prudent woman, but that doesn’t mean that in the end, she can’t be shameless too. Anyway, by winding me up, by not stopping me, not only is she an accomplice, but she’s also the mastermind, isn’t she?

I tell her that every time she accuses me of going too far.

Who’s crazier? The madman who wants to reach the top of the mountain in a helicopter without having the slightest idea on how to fly one or the person who, despite knowing that he is insane, not only lets him fly the thing but rides along with him?

In any case, the critical thing here is the plan and not what she thinks, and the logic of our plan was and remains irrefutable. I have no doubt whatsoever. I’ll repeat it. The only thing we need for Maiah to become a superstar is to manage to get her on TV.

This would be the sequence of events. First, she’d be on TV. The executives, along with the rest of the world, would fall for her. Then, to ensure that her brilliance would not be seduced by the competition, they would offer her absolute creative freedom to create any project she wished. And that would be the climax of our Machiavellian conspiracy. Maiah would say in a meeting, slyly: “Well, now that I think about it, I might have an idea for a series.” And as soon as they, who are being careful not to upset her and trying to keep her happy, were pulling the little notebook with the names of the biggest TV writers (in my head, Hollywood executives all have a secret notebook with the phone numbers of the important people), and suggested to call Shonda Rhimes or Ryan Murphy to write it, now that they can no longer refuse anything, she would say, interlocking her fingers like a super-villain revealing her master plan: “no, no, no, no. What I want is for this series to be written by my boyfriend Gabriel… Muaha… Muahahaha… Muahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.”

The plane finally stops moving on the airstrip, but they still won’t let us out. Maiah keeps listening to Beyoncé as she gazes out the window, and I, that not only make excellent plans to conquer the world but can also hear her thoughts telepathically, I can see that she’s thinking about this and not about anything else.

I know that common sense keeps sending her messages in every possible way, warning her that there is nothing to prevent us from eventually leaving with our tails between our legs and that the anxiety about this is killing her even if she doesn’t let it show. But I also know that there’s a little bit of recklessness inside her, reminding her that, against all odds and even if it seems like a lie, we’ve just been flown from Chicago to California, and that no matter how crazy it may seem, we’ll have a meeting with the Executive VP of Disney-ABC in two days, who by the way (in case I haven’t said it enough in this story): “is dying to fucking meet her.”

 II

Downtown LA, February 2014

It is terrifying to watch the morning news in Los Angeles. There’s always an armed maniac shooting people and five police cars chasing someone around. The sun comes in through the window like it’s a beautiful day, and you want to believe it’s true, but there are a bunch of cars swallowing each other on the highway on TV, and then they cut off to two murders and a hit-and-run. Cold, hot. Cold, hot. This is definitely not the best way to start the day.

After a year living in Chicago, watching actual violence on TV has an impact. Maiah and I got used to watching news about kittens being rescued by firefighters and people lining up to taste a slice of the world’s largest pizza. The honking on the street, the sun coming in through the window, and above all, the news on TV, bring us back to Caracas, and it is tormenting to us that someone can step out of nowhere and shoot us in the head as soon as we set foot on the street.

It’s not the same thing at all, I know, but it happens to everyone who leaves Venezuela. You’re always afraid that one day you’ll wake up and realize you never left, that you stayed there with your dreams dying slowly, trying to find a whole chicken and some canned sardines until the next day or until you have to dig in the trash.

“No matter how much you love them or how long they have together, no one, absolutely anyone, wants to see their partner poop.”

It must be like what people who have their legs amputated feel.

Maiah and I didn’t sleep well the night before the meeting. It’s not because of nervousness but because of disorientation. The hotel room is tiny, very artistic and very everything a hotel room should never be. What torments us the most is that they had structured it with an impressive decorative imbalance, and even worse, deliberately. It has modern pieces of furniture so recent that they won’t let you sit on them, and one of those unnecessary bathrooms with no curtains, no doors, and no sense, which also make it an aggressive, architectural, and moral nightmare.

No matter how much you love them or how long they have together, no one, absolutely anyone, wants to see their partner poop.

At 7 a. m. sharp, Maiah’s managers are waiting for us in the lobby to take us to Disney-ABC offices. The route is neither long nor short. Now that we have lived in Los Angeles for a while, we understand that distances are what they are and that you can never be too cautious to try to get there early. No one gets anywhere early in Los Angeles, but no one is worried about it. The route is the route. It’s an axiomatic displacement. We had only been in the city once before this time, for something that deserves its own history, and on that occasion, the dynamics were different, as if looking at an ugly person from afar.

On this trip, on the other hand, it’s more like walking past the ugly person, going around the block and coming back to see them up close. One is obliged to look at their scars firsthand, to understand the details of their mechanics, and to realize that if you take them home with you because you are wasted, there will be no way of getting them out of there unless you slash them to death with a hammer.

Los Angeles is a monstrous thing that eats and inhales cars that run on one another, but in the end, never interact at all. Just like people who are passionately hating each other without actually knowing each other. Wherever you look, no one’s looking back at you, but if they could, if they had the chance, they’d run their cars over you.

As we drive, Maiah responds to her managers’ indications of what the meeting was meant to be and what expectations we should have by inertia. She stares out the window, and I stare at her. When a meeting this important is about to happen, when she’s about to meet someone important, Maiah has the habit of talking to herself, like a nutcase. It’s something that only I can notice and that I’ve always found adorable, but let’s be clear, if you look at it objectively, it’s also quite frightening. You wake up in the middle of the night, and she doesn’t even notice as she is staring at the ceiling with her eyes wide open, talking to herself. There’s only a short stretch between doing that and pulling a knife from under the bed.

I don’t think that the chick watching her from the car next to us thinks she’s adorable, though. What she might think, if anything, is that Maiah’s insane. But everybody’s crazy somehow in Los Angeles. The Executive VP of Disney-ABC, who is dying to meet her; her managers, paying for our trip from Chicago to take us to that impossible meeting; and I, a man convinced that if I frown hard enough, I will be able to clearly read my girlfriend’s thoughts.

The truth is that out of the millions of people who are in this city, and out of the four people riding that car, she’s the only one who’s sane: sitting in that corner talking to herself, repeating the same phrase over and over again. Because she is the only one of us who seems to notice that we are facing a real problem: she is going to meet with an actual Hollywood executive in a few minutes, and she doesn’t have a fucking clue of how the hell she can take such a leap of faith when, the biggest truth, as big as a house, is that Maiah can’t speak English.

“Los Angeles is a monstrous thing that eats and inhales cars that run on one another, but in the end, never interact at all.”

III

Burbank is a hot place, even in February. It is a giant open space with single-story buildings scattered nearly at one per block. As you approach Disney Studios, the buildings become closer to each other creating a landscape of identical prefabricated little houses, lined up side by side behind a large row of endless white fences that protect meticulous, green gardens despite the drought and heat and sunshine.

You begin to suspect that you are immersed in the colorful sequence of a movie from the 50s, and that makes you feel a little strange, almost familiar, toward each guardhouse, tree and traffic signal as if you were watching an old movie. But at the same time, you are overwhelmed by the immediate horror of that familiarity, because if everything you see looks like a movie, everything you’re seeing, everything you’re living and everything you think is beautiful, yes, but it could be fake.

We got here early enough to get into a nearby Starbucks and grab something to eat. Everyone orders coffee except for me; I order a bagel and a bottle of water, just for the sakes of it. We got back in the car, and one of Maiah’s managers asked, jokingly, if we were ready to go and get the money for our new home in Malibu. Everyone laughs, out loud, except for Maiah, who suddenly turns pale, with her eyes wide open, digging her fingernails as she squeezes my hands.

I take it like a man, confused by her unexpected violent outburst, as she leans closer to me and says: “you motherfucker, there’s a seed between your teeth.”

Read “Chapter 1: This is how she learned her mom was sick and could die”

IV

ABC Offices, Burbank, CA (February 2014)

ABC is one of the four largest television networks in the United States, along with NBC, CBS, and FOX. Television networks are at the heart of a complex media puzzle that includes film studios, theme parks, regional radio and television stations across the fifty states, not to mention smaller cable stations, sports teams, phone companies and who knows what else. It’s a money-making machine, but it’s also a dying business. You don’t watch TV, I don’t watch it either, but that still doesn’t matter. There is still a billion-dollar storm claiming that you do, even if it’s a half-truth. Nobody sits and waits week after week for a new episode of anything. But I repeat, everyone still wants to believe that this is not the case. That’s why TV stars look like that on the posters of their series.

We walked past pictures of Grey’s Anatomy, Modern Family, and Good Morning America. They all look the same. Their eyes don’t shine anymore. They are figures made of Polyethylene Terephthalate. They are smiling, but their smiles are fictional, like those of people scared to death who are forced to laugh unless they want to lose their jobs. They’re trapped. You can tell. They know what’s going on, too.

“You motherfucker, there’s a seed between your teeth.”

Jared greets us and leads us through the corridors of an office that is still deserted. Jared is the assistant of the assistant to the assistant of someone important. I swear his pants are a size 26. I also swear that I had never seen a man with such smooth skin on his face, unable to move. Despite the Botox he is able to start a casual conversation about the traffic he doesn’t want to have either and, ultimately, he leaves us in the comfortable, but tiny, room where the meeting would take place. Jared greets people and has the same conversation at least five times a day, every day. However, he can’t show what he feels, which is the urge to hang himself from a fan and die out of boredom, because it’s always likely that one of those people he greets every day will become the next TV star, someday.

Hugs in Hollywood are different from hugs anywhere else. They are unaffectionate, and after a while, they are also ineffective. They are a daily ceremony, like climbing stairs or saying good morning to a stranger. When Lisa H. receives us, however, we don’t feel that way. Hers is rather warm and particularly endearing, even though it is the first time she has ever met us. I know how to survive them, but hugs are a terrible thing for Maiah. They always result in the anxiety of not knowing what to do about them. She’s never known how long is too long in hugging. She tries, every time, but also fails every single one of them. That doesn’t stop her from trying over and over, although I’m sure that one day she will just give up.

This time her tropical self emerges, she forgets where she is, and after the hug, she even goes as far as trying the kiss on the cheek which no one in this country knows what to do about and much less in this immaculate little room. My girlfriend’s audacity turns into an embarrassing two-second moment of “wait” and “what?” with a little dance, topped off with nervous laughter and an unavoidable inevitable silence. Also, no one has noticed the seed between my teeth yet, I think.

The inventory of what we know about Lisa H. boils down to two things: she is a kind of superhero who had come to have that position starting from the very bottom and has the most fucking fit and tanned arms of the entire executive entertainment scene in Los Angeles. Lisa H. is accompanied by Tomii, a very slender young woman, second in command at ABC Daytime, who is holding a notebook and has the smile of a girl who sits in the front row on the first day of school because she wants to.

The conversation is laid back and ranges from Bar Mitzvahs to holidays in Fiji. Everything’s fine. They talk to us, and we pretend to pay attention, until my telepathic powers capture Maiah’s mind, yelling at me and telling me that she has just forgotten whatever little English she had learned. I tell her, mentally, that everything is going to be okay. And she replies, mentally as well, that she would like to have a knife hidden in her purse to stick it in my mouth every single time that I talk, and everyone can see the humongous black seed clogged between my teeth.

“Why, Gabriel?” rumbles in my head. “Why of all the days when you could have eaten a bagel that you don’t even like did you have to pick the day in which we have this meeting?” she cries out to me from her tormented mind, and then suddenly Lisa turns to Maiah and says:

“All right, Maiah, now tell me about yourself.”

V

In “Star Wars: A New Hope,” Luke Skywalker, a space farmer who happens to come across a couple of robots that have escaped from the galactic empire, with the help of a smuggler, a creature that looks like a giant dog and a monk with telepathic powers, gets to not only rescue a princess from the greatest villain in history, but also to fly on an aircraft that he has only pretended to pilot in videogames, and even though the enemy destroys his radar with a missile, and using only a strange mystical ability that everyone calls “the force,” he manages to blindly fire a missile into an impossibly tiny hole, destroying the galaxy’s most dangerous military weapon and saving the universe from the grip of the dark side.

This feat does not even compare to what Maiah did that morning at the ABC offices.

She was charming, grandiloquent and passionate, like a singer who appears drunk at her own concert, and even though she doesn’t know where she is or even remembers any lyrics when she gets on the stage, she still captures the audience, because there are people who were born to be stars even in spite of themselves.

If this had been a concert, Maiah would have crawled around the floor like an iguana, she would have spat fire, and she would have made the whole arena sing along from the beginning to the very end. She would have smashed the guitar on stage and thrown herself in the front row to surf the crowd on her back, sweaty and with her eyes closed. But it’s not a concert, it’s a fucking meeting with the Executive Vice President of Disney-ABC, who won’t stop staring at her while Tomii keeps writing things down in the notebook, and I examine everyone’s faces looking for a suspicious grin, something, anything that warns us that they’ve noticed, that we’ve gone too far, that we have to run away from there before they get security to throw us out for wasting their time.

Someone should have noticed, but no one did.

“There are people who were born to be stars even in spite of themselves.”

Maiah stopped talking, and everyone remains silent. Her managers look at each other, Lisa and Tomii look at each other, and Maiah and I stare at them, holding our breath, like when you try to convince the police that you’ve never done anything wrong before in your life. Maiah gently moves her hand to touch mine, and when Lisa gets ready to talk, she digs her fingernails into my hands again.

“This is what’s going to happen,” says Lisa H. “What’s going to happen is that we’re going to offer you a contract with us to host ABC’s most important project next year. We have loved you since we saw you on a videotape they sent us, but I needed to meet you in person to be sure, and I see that I was not mistaken. You’re just what we need, and you have just what we’re looking for. Don’t worry about the English. We’ll get you classes with a private tutor to work on your accent, as well as with other tutors who will prepare you to be in front of millions of people every day. We will bring you back as soon as we can reveal more about the show. We’re going to take care of all the paperwork, and while you learn, we’re also going to pay you a salary until the show airs. When can you move to Los Angeles?”

My hand hurts.

“Are you serious?”, Maiah asks.

“Absolutely, honey. We love you,” says Lisa, with a warm smile.

Maiah and I talk about anything all the time. Sometimes we talk about the news, sometimes about what happened to me when I was standing in line at the supermarket, sometimes about the crazy things she thinks when I fall asleep on the couch with my face on her buttocks. We talk about the movies we want to watch, and we haven’t found the time for, the bills we have to pay, we talk about how she now likes mid-century décor, or how much I want to buy a new bike with a chain that doesn’t slip. However, we don’t talk about what happened that day. At least not like we used to. Not anymore.

She knows that my hands were trembling and my eyes were watery as Lisa spoke to us. I know that at least for a second her heart stopped. She didn’t tell me, I just know. I told you, it’s a crazy telepathic thing we share.

When they told her that they were going to make her the biggest TV star in America, she really wasn’t paying attention. Maiah was off to buy her mother the biggest house available. Somewhere in her head, she was getting carried away by the possibility of a different life. She was signing autographs on the street, smiling on the front pages of tabloids sold at the supermarket, interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel, walking on red carpets in Paris and New York; and she wanted to stay there longer, squeezing out every drop of that imaginary future which was beginning then, with the offer they were making, but I still had that seed between my teeth and it was fucking hard to stop thinking about it.

On our way out, we took a picture at the entrance, as if somehow, we had to tell the whole world what had just happened to us, although Lisa had reminded us a thousand times before the meeting ended that we couldn’t say anything until ABC announced it first. Our managers took our picture with their cell phones. They had to drop on the floor like kids trying to get everything in the frame.

I uploaded the photo to Instagram with an Eminem quote that read: “Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted. One moment. Would you capture it or just let it slip?”

That afternoon we went back to Chicago.

Maiah and I barely talked to each other on our way to the airport. When we got there, we bought some magazines to read during the trip, and we waited for the call to board. We started to move, and she grabbed my hand and kept staring out the window. When the plane took off, she suddenly clenched my hand very tightly, I think stronger than she ever had, like holding on to something you never want to forget. This time, she didn’t stick her fingernails in me. Maybe it was because I’d already gotten the seed out of my teeth.


We Don’t Belong Here is a book, it’s a series, and it’s also neither of those two things. Everything I will tell in each episode really happened. Sometimes they will be stories of how we managed to fuck the world even when we believed all was lost, other times they will be things that we never wanted to share until now. I think that if many people read it and comment it and share it, we can make it become a real book, or maybe, if I cross my fingers hard enough and still dream of impossibles, a TV series. For now, we just want to be honest in times when everything on the Internet is a big fat lie. These are our failures, our ups and downs, and also some of our victories. This is our recount that we have had a lot of bad times. And that despite everything, here we are, never giving ourselves up, and in my case, writing the story of my favorite person and the love of my life.

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