Subtle Foes

Photo: © Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.

He wore a t-shirt with an image of the Virgin Mary as he attempted to break into my studio. He said, “I wanna make you mine,” as he put his hand over my mouth and pushed me back into the apartment. Of course I should not have answered the door. Nothing good ever begins with an unexpected visitor. That was my first mistake. My second mistake was grabbing my car keys and jamming them into the left side of his neck. He screamed. He asked, “Why would you do that?” as his blood poured down onto the cheap grey carpet of my foyer. I shouldn’t describe it as a foyer, it’s simply the space between my front door and my kitchen and the rest of my efficiency. I have a hot plate and a miniature refrigerator. It’s all my receptionist’s paycheck will afford. My first thought was I hope the blood won’t stain the floor so I can get my deposit back if and when I leave this place.

I kicked him and he fell back into the hallway and ran out the Exit doors.

I asked the police officer later if they could take a sample and run a DNA test to identify the guy. The man replied, “No need.”

I was not penetrated, was the implication. I was not hurt. A rape kit for what? Crossed my mind.

The building’s security cameras were, of course, out of tape that day. Just another feature of the complex that is visible but unusable. The pool downstairs is green. Some people still swim in it but I won’t. There’s only one working washing machine so most of us go to the laundromat down the street. We recognize each other, say hello. We have to move out soon. We are moving out soon. Our landlord is Edie. She’s maybe seventy years old. I once anonymously reported the mildewy standing water by the hot water heater to the city. Then Edie called me up and calmly whispered into the receiver, “I know it was you.

That was really all that happened with the Virgin Mary guy. I never heard again from the police officer. Everyone in the apartment building agreed not to prop open the Exit doors any longer. It was the least we could do, my neighbors would tell me. Not a defining moment in my life, but it did act as a sort of catalyst for what came next.

It was only a few drops of blood but the 99 Cents Only bleach would not remove them no matter how hard I scrubbed. It only turned the surrounding carpet a more attractive eggshell white. I wondered how many bottles of the bleach it would take me to do the entire studio. The word Upgrade entered my mind. I did the whole entryway for maybe two or three hours until I gave up and just ripped out the carpet entirely, rolled it up, and threw it off the balcony onto the alleyway below. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? Underneath was a linoleum, a checkered yellow and white that, while ugly, was certainly preferable to the carpet which had smelled strongly of smoke though I didn’t smoke in the apartment anymore.

Samantha came over and exclaimed, “It makes the place look a lot bigger!” I pulled down the Murphy bed so we’d have a place to sit.

“What did he look like?” Sam asked me.

“Not bad looking. Not as bad looking as you’d think.”

“Did he have an erection?” I stared at her as if this was one question too far. But I answered anyway because not to answer would mean we’d have to switch gears, change the conversation to her day. (It was too early for that.)

I used to live with Samantha in a two bedroom apartment near the lake before her boyfriend moved in and kicked me out. She’d wake up in the morning and bang loudly on our adjoining wall, jolting me awake, shouting, “It’s time to seize the day! It’s time to seize the day!” That phrase has never really resonated with me. I could seize an hour, maybe.

Samantha also always asks me, “How’s your day?” As if a day is something I own or something one can have.

Samantha was once in a movie theater when a man in a ski mask entered through the Exit and shot a potato from a potato gun at the screen, puncturing a hole into the image. She told me she hadn’t realized until that moment that a film is projected onto a screen, and doesn’t come from inside it like it does on a television. Not exactly a life changing epiphany, but an epiphany nonetheless.

She told me she still feels a sense of nervous dread whenever she enters a movie theater, checking for the nearest exits, mapping out her escape plan if anyone were to enter the theater, with something more than a potato gun, and, you know, shoot it up. She asked me if I feel the same way when I see a movie. I answered, “No. No one is going to shoot up a screening of Clouds of Sils Maria.”


Sam insists she take me to a bar to “cool off” after what happened. I agree. I could use a drink. We go to one bar but they’re closed for a film shoot. We go to the next bar and they are too. Finally we arrive at The Drawing Room, which is empty besides the bartender and a man wearing a straw sun hat. He chews the drawstring in his mouth and only removes it to sip from his Bud Light. We order whiskeys on the rocks and sit in a booth.

“Seth is going to meet us.” Seth always meets us. Once I hadn’t seen Sam in months and we agreed to meet in Venice to catch up and talk. I was surprised when I arrived and saw both Sam and Seth at the bar. Seth later asked if I knew he was coming and I lied and said I did.

The Rio Olympics are on the televisions above the bar and Sam and I lazily watch as we wait for Seth to arrive. Sam and Seth are having problems, Sam tells me as an Olympian takes a nosedive. “He’s not my ideal man, obviously, but at least he is a man.” I don’t know what she means by this and I don’t ask. Maybe it’s a dig at my current man-less state. I haven’t dated since Paul took off for New York. Yes, he cheated on me, but, no, that is not why we ended things. We ended because he is now in New York and I am always here in Los Angeles. Simple as a math equation or an empty tank of gas.

“I’m so sorry for what happened to you,” Seth says when he sits down with three shots of whiskey.

“It’s fine,” I say, “Nothing really happened.”

“So he didn’t get it in?” Seth asks.

It’s then I realize a lot, too much, can happen in a day if you wake up early enough. Never answer the door. I recall the police officer didn’t call it a sexual assault, only an assault. I suppose I can understand the distinction.

“Are you shaken or stirred?” Seth asks, a cheap joke but not bad. Nothing a drink won’t handle.

None of us really have jobs. The yoga studio where I work is closed because a truck ran right through it and escaped, literally, through the other end. It’s closed indefinitely until the owners raise the funds to fix it. They still don’t know who did it. Their security cameras were out of tape. Sam is an actress. Seth is an actor. Seth was in a Pepsi commercial during the Super Bowl and Sam was in a Coca Cola commercial during that same Super Bowl. They bring that up a lot.


Sam and I went to program once. We lasted two whole weeks. We didn’t feel particularly accomplished until some woman told us that even a day is something to be proud of. Sam still keeps her “Keep Coming Back” pin on her keychain. Who wants to live with that constant reminder of weakness and failure? Not me. After every meeting Sam and I would be bombarded by a different guy—or sometimes the same guy—asking to be our sponsor. “Do you have a sponsor? Can I be your sponsor? Sometimes the opposite gender sponsor can be a force for good.” A force for good. None of the women asked to be our sponsors. During one birthday a woman with 17 years passed slices of cake out one by one to each person, except the two of us. She knew we were intruders. We didn’t belong. And why on Earth would we want to? Nothing stuck except for phrases. In these rooms. There but for the grace of God go I. For alcohol is a subtle foe. I never understood why every meeting ended with only half of the serenity prayer, and not even the interesting half. The end of the meeting was always the part of the hour I dreaded most, clutching a stranger’s cold and clammy hand.

“Was he black?” Sam asks.


“How old was he?”

“Maybe 30.”

“Could he have been cute?”

“If what?”

“If you had met him some place else?”

“I don’t know.”

We go on like this for a few minutes until I get up to get another round of drinks. Seth insists the drinks are on him but he doesn’t give me his credit card or any cash. He looks at me and says nothing so I ignore him and go to the bar. The man in the straw hat takes the drawstring from his mouth and says to me, “You ever think you coulda been an Olympian?” and nods to the TV screen.

“Maybe if I had practiced.”

“Practiced what? You a pole vaulter?”

“The piano,” I reply, and he bites his drawstring and turns away. Sometimes it’s best to play dumb. But other times I think it might be better to actually be dumb.


I return to the booth with three shots and we down them. Under the table, Seth pats my thigh and rubs his hand up my leg. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

“Thanks!” I say because what else could I. Sam gets up to go to the restroom and Seth says, “Sam and I are having problems.”

“I heard. What’s going on?”

“Oh, it’s private. I can’t talk about it.” We sit in silence as he continues to rub my thigh, back and forth. He reiterates, “I’m really very sorry that happened to you. That shouldn’t happen here in Los Feliz.”

Men can get away with a lot of things if they show an ounce of compassion. I remember a boy once jammed my head into a sandbox, filling my long hair with sand and scratching my face for what must have been minutes. My mother later told me, “It’s because he likes you.” As a teenager I believed a boy wanted to marry me if he did so much as look in my direction. As an adult I try not to think about them too much. I imagine my life as a real life Bechdel test. Sometimes at the end of a day I ask myself, “Did I pass?” Some days it’s not pass or fail if I don’t speak to anyone at all.

Sam returns with another round and by now I’m feeling a buzz. When Sam and I lived together we promised each other we would not have so much as a single drink weekdays. But if there was a show on we both liked or if someone was coming over we’d break our rule and have just a bottle or two.


Sam had an audition this morning for a part she did not get. “It was a reoccurring role, too! For the chambermaid!” She’s talking about a show about a British family and their servants that is very popular. The show shows the problems of both the wealthy and the poor, but usually their only problem is love or lack of it.

“It’s just bad luck.” Seth says, and I’m unsure if he’s talking about me or Sam. Either way, I don’t believe in luck unless it’s bad.


There used to be more people in my life. Now there’s just Samantha and Seth, the yoga people, and George at the Cap ’N Cork. Occasionally new and different people enter but they don’t stick around for long. “They’re going places,” Sam said to me once after a person I particularly liked disappeared. “You’re going places too,” she said. “You’re going to the mall.” Her piercing laugh echoed in my apartment.


“Do you know Trump has never read a book?” Seth asks. Yes, I read that, too. By now it’s later and more people have entered the bar. It’s the men’s swimming team, the men’s soccer team, the men’s racing team, the men’s whatever team.

I used to walk past this bar at 8am on my way to work and there’d be a group of guys outside smoking. I always thought, “The Drawing Room sure has a lot of film shoots!” Then I realized The Drawing Room opened at 6am and these were real live alcoholics.

Another time I walked over and they were closed for a shoot. I screamed loudly and to no one, “No more movies! There are enough already!”

I’d been doing that a lot lately. Last week I drove past a bunch of Occidental students and yelled, “Bernie or bust!”

“Why would you say that?” Sam asks me. I shrug my shoulders.

“I was joking.”

“Yeah, but they don’t know that. They hear you say that and they’ll believe it and they won’t go to the polls and they won’t vote and then what,” Seth adds.

And therein is where my stupid little joke lies. A 30 year old woman, with a rat nest of hair screaming from her smoking Subaru, influencing popular opinion.

The truth is perhaps the things I said and did used to be funnier. Now so much of what I say seems to loom over me like a death gong.


Seth is explaining the election. What’s going to happen. Next up the rules of whatever Olympic sport is on the TV. Then Sam gets up again to go the jukebox, and Seth leans in close and says, “All right, I’ll tell you.”

“Tell me what?” I ask.

“What’s going on between me and Samantha.”

“It’s fine,” I say. “No need.”

“She cheated on me.”

I already know this so I remain silent. And even if I didn’t already know silent is still what I’d be. It’s better that way. Gets the revelation over with sooner.

Sam went to Joshua Tree for a show at Pappy’s which Seth was supposed to go to but he had to remain in LA because a friend of his had clumsily fallen off a rooftop and died. These things happen. Sam met a guy in the band that night and they ended up fucking near the horse trough. Nobody had seen it. They were very discreet. Sam didn’t have to tell Seth and no one would have known but of course she told him. What would be the point of fucking the guy if she didn’t?

“So Sam and I have an agreement. Tit for tat. One for one. I get to cheat on her too, just once. So we’re even.”

“Uh huh,” I say. “But do you think that is so wise?”

“I knew you’d be sympathetic. You get it. She really hurt me.”

Sam isn’t as bad as she may seem. She’s an actress.

We notice her propping herself up at the jukebox, her hair falling in front of her face, nodding off.

We ignore her.

“So I was thinking,” Seth says, “that maybe…” His hand moves further up my thigh and between my legs. Sure, I’ve been letting him do it all night but it’s only then I stand up, kick him hard in the shin, and crack my beer bottle over the top of his head.

Everyone at the bar turns to stare. Confused, Seth brings his hand to his head. More blood today. He stutters, “Wh—wh—why would you do that?”

Sam returns and she starts screaming, “What is the matter with you? This is it. This is the last time. You’re drunk. We’re done. What’s wrong with you? Why would you do that?”

No easy answer. Nothing to say. Right or wrong. Good or bad.

Dumb thing life is.


by Nedjelko Spaich


Nedjelko Spaich.jpg


Nedjelko Spaich is a writer living in Highland Park, Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, LAist (RIP), LA Weekly (RIP), The Huffington Post, Reflex Magazine, Jimmy the Zine, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of Bennington College.




About the Artwork

The accompanying artwork is by contributor Stefan Hengst.


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