Pillow Lips: My Dinner with Gus Van Sant & Mike Pitt
He had a 5:30 reservation at an exclusive restaurant, Charles Nob Hill. We had arrived together, entering a palatial lobby where we were greeted by the staff, who all look like models from Vanity Fair. The staff of young men and women are dressed in business suits. They smile excitedly at Van Sant, who is dressed relatively casually. They tell him how thrilled they are to have him there, but as they turn to gaze at the rest of his party, their smiles slide like sweaters off hangers onto the floor.
As they take our coats, I can feel them taking inventory: Mike's jacket is an old coat from the 70s, shredded like limbs that fell into the wood-chopper in Fargo. Mike Pitt does not look like the movie/tv star he is fast becoming. Under his coat he wears the striped t-shirt his character Tommy Gnosis wore in the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which just won awards at Sundance. His t-shirt hangs in razor-blade rips and has practically no back. I look like the Punk Playmate of the Month in my gray corduroys, colorful platform sneakers, two layered t-shirts, orange tint glasses. My long day-glo blue hair is tied Jackie O headband-style with a Dolce & Gabbana pink silk scarf with colorful butterflies on it that Gus Van Sant gave me for Christmas. My roommates Speedie and Astor are with us. At least they dressed up.
The host seats us at a large round table that juts out into the small dining room. Like other posh places I've been to, this room has all the liveliness of a morgue, with its dark wood and formal paintings. We compare it to the school Gus filmed for Finding Forrester (in which Mike Pitt had a part). Moneyed older folks are seated at a table behind Mike. I catch their appalled expressions as they look at our table, and we can hear them murmur in snooty hushed tones, "Look at that shirt!" Mike doesn't notice, the way a street kid doesn't hear the comments private school kids mutter as they step over his sprawled legs. Gus orders an $85 Australian wine, and a martini. After the wine is poured, Mike sniffs the bouquet and swishes it in his glass unself-consciously while an older gentleman across from him watches him, licking his lips in whetted desire, transfixed at Mike's boyish beauty. I have a pink cosmo.
Suddenly the staff surrounds our table, one person standing behind each of us. I panic?now they will throw us out. Mike had told me when he was cast on Dawson's Creek he kept waiting for them to bust him, tell him that he didn't belong. Even though they didn't know about his past on the street, he was sure he would be sent back any moment.
The waitstaff takes a collective breath and puts heavy gold spoons in front of us for appetizers, a dish containing an oyster heavily decorated with caviar. The head waiter, a woman, boastfully tells us the origins of the oysters. Mike, not waiting till she is halfway through, bites into it, his face folding into a crumple. "This tastes like snot!" he says loudly. I bite into mine, and it does, so as the staff flees, I gag into my napkin.
Gus playfully chides Mike not to say that. While I keep my head lowered, feeling like poor white trash at the country club, Mike is oblivious to the gawking, both condemnatory and appreciative, around us. I am in awe of how Mike moves, confidently fluid, like a boy on a playing field who knows he's master of the game and so has special rights. Gus sits on the edge, aware of the comments, a victim of his guest's lack of propriety, yet simultaneously entertained.
I had first heard about Mike Pitt from Scott Macaulay (producer and editor at the magazine Filmmaker). I was sweatin' Scott to pass my book Sarah to Gus Van Sant. I had a Hollywood agent who was trying to get me to sign my book over to her and let her sell it to whomever. But my dream director was Gus Van Sant. The agent had sent it to his office and gotten a pat rejection. But one thing my mother taught me was that No can also mean Maybe. My chance came soon. When I was interviewing John Waters for Filmmaker, Scott told me Van Sant was photographing Pitt, this new hot actor who looked like a young Leonardo DiCaprio. I wanted Gus' attention, too, and felt jealous of anyone else who might be capturing it.
Well, like a dorky dream-come-true tv movie, folks I knew and even people I didn't passed Gus my book, and we eventually became good friends. He wanted to make Sarah into his next film and took me under his wing for a number of other projects.
But there was still Mike Pitt. Gus and he weren't involved, but they hung out a lot. And I know how it is on the street when the old boy is trying to get rid of the new boy. Gus gave Mike Sarah. I waited to hear how Mike was going to dis me. "You have to make this film!" Gus told me Mike urged him. Hearing that changed the rules. This isn't the street, and Mike ain't trying to keep out the new bitch, and Gus sure ain't no pimp.
So we drink and eat from a special tasting menu. Even though the dishes are preset, so you'd think they have them ready, they make us wait about 20 minutes for each small dainty taste. Meanwhile, we talk about films, like Hedwig; Mike's other film, Bully, by Kids director Larry Clark; and My Own Private Idaho, and how amazing River Phoenix was. I am startled to be privy to juicy bits of insider Hollywood gossip.
Mike moves constantly in his chair, playfully aggressive like a dog pulling on a choker collar. Gus and I sit quietly while Mike leans forward to speak with seductive command. We have come to rely on the bread attendant, with his soldierly demeanor, asking us if we care for some bread. Then, if we signify with an auction bidder's nod, his silver tongs descend and he elegantly appoints a slab to our bread plates. On one of his trips, after one bottle is gone and a second is being worked on, he makes the rounds. When he approaches Mike, he says, "Yeah," glances backwards and, as if doing a breaststroke, reaches into the tray with his hand and snags his own bread swiftly. The bread assistant is so appalled by the Mike Pitt etiquette breach Gus says he thinks the man will faint. I laugh so hard I spray wine out of my nose.
For the rest of the evening, the bread man will not return. When we request bread, a different man serves us, but stands back as if flinging food into a lion's den.
After more waiting, they bring out some amazing combo of science and culinary arts. But it is too small, and we are too hungry. Speedie, in her thick Cockney, dares Mike to lick his plate?a challenge he gleefully accepts. Gus humorously hangs his head. Mike smiles mischievously at me. I feel my face heat up.
Earlier that evening, when we picked Mike and Gus up, I had sat in the back of the car, next to Mike. Gus and Mike each gave me a gift. Gus gave me a book, neatly wrapped. Mike gave me a bundle enclosed in newsprint. It contained a sexy little white baby doll with green piping and matching panties, an honor bar-size bottle of gin, and a single squashed red rose. I gave Mike a Scottish necklace called a Glasgow Rose. And I gave Gus Fairy Stones that figure in my next book, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. Mike kissed me thanks; his lips were soft, like the cliched overstuffed pillows. We drove them around San Francisco (Mike had never been). We drove to the top of Twin Peaks. But all I could think about was our thighs touching and him looking at me all the way to the restaurant.
I escape into the women's bathroom and put on glossy maroon lipstick. When I come back, everyone comments on how pretty I look. I can only look down after I catch Mike staring at me with his blue-eyed dead stare and it makes me feel like the inside of a Gummi bear. I am unnerved and spill my creamed lobster soup, and scream out of surprise. Trying to right my bowl, I almost knock Gus' wine on him. Staff surrounds me with long white napkins. I catch a woman, wearing an elaborate bun so tightly pulled back that the ends of her eyes have a vaguely Asian cast, tsking. Again, I am reminded I am an interloper. Gus gives me a warm, reassuring smile. He is the bridge to this world and the soother when soup is spilled, soiling expensive linen.
Mike flees out to smoke and I follow. As we are exiting, he grabs one of the graceful porcelain candles at the host's station to light his cigarette. The staff members stationed there gasp and lunge for the candle. "It's cool, just getting a light, man," Mike assures them, like James Dean with the lit cig hanging from his puffy bottom lip.
We run out laughing, feeling released by the wind, the cold freedom of outside, The Street. I had sent Mike a raccoon penis bone (the talisman that is featured prominently in Sarah), and Gus took a picture of him modeling it for my website ([www.jtleroy.com](http://www.jtleroy.com)). Mike and I bonded over many conference calls with Gus, or just me and him, hanging out talking. I had been nervous to meet Mike, but he knew me from all our conversations. The night before we met, he had said to me in his New York-New Jersey tough accent, like on The Sopranos, that when used in its protective tones feels like the safest place in the world to exist inside of, "Don't worry, I know, you're delicate, I know."
We stand by the bushes, where he lights me with his cigarette. It's chilly, so we move closer. Speedie comes out to join us. She's carrying Gus' camera and asks us to snuggle up. Mike puts his arm around me and pulls me in close. She asks Mike to kiss me so she can take pictures of it. Mike leans over, his lips a dizzying mix of smoke and wine. He kisses me, sweetly and tenderly. Afterward, I can't make eye contact. "You okay?" he leans over to me as we head back in. I nod small. He gives me a playful push and we stumble up the stairs, gulping final drags under the disapproving headmaster gaze of the keeper of the restaurant gates.
After four hours, the meal was finally over. Mike announces loudly he wants to get burritos. But everyone else says they are full. Gus gets the bill and it is $940 with the tip. Everyone except Gus gasps. Mike eyes the pretty candle I kept reaching out to unconsciously. Speedie keeps batting my hand away, knowing my draw to fire, things that burn, till finally she extinguishes it. Mike holds my gaze and, as only someone with much practice can, smoothly disappears the candle up his sleeve. "Gus bought this too, $940! Man, we should've got burritos!"
We leave showered with thanks from the staff, our coats in their respective states held out for us. On the street, Mike searches his pockets for a cigarette. Realizing he has none, he calls out to two young dotcom-looking guys walking past, "Yo, got a cigarette?" He asks with the rights of one who has been on the street and knows certain personal property is communal.
They stop and grudgingly hand him one. "Got a light?" They don't answer; they are the types that would never stop for a beggar, and here they are serving one that offered no groveling gratitude. They were tricked into it by the command, the camaraderie offered in Mike's tone. Mike perceives their indisposition and bristles, "What?!" The body language is fast and unconscious, it is boys at war. Mike steps forward and the dotcoms retreat rapidly out of self-preservation. These are not boys used to street challenges. But once they are a safe two body lengths away, they half turn back with fiery expressions, an attempt to reclaim their manhood lost in this skirmish. But Mike has turned from them already and is greedily smoking up their cigarette, with a light from Speedie. Shaking his head he tells me, "I always give anyone a cigarette." It is an unwritten rule, a rare kindness of the street, and to break it is inexcusable. The disturbance it has caused in Mike is indicative of how much the street is still with him.
The valet brings us our car and we pile in. In the back, Mike turns to me and lets the bulge from his sleeve slide out like a snake regurgitating. "Here, this is for you," offering the purloined candle. For the first time, he notices the cigarette burns on my hands and wrists. "I have those too." He smiles and places his hands on my lap and looks at me as something passes between us?I have scars too.
Days later, after he has returned to the L.A. set of a Sandra Bullock film he is making and I think I am long forgotten, he calls to read to me from his notebook. He has been writing about me: "Blue hair and hard eyes and warm thighs in gray corduroys resting against mine in the backseat of this car."
"I like your scars, Mike," I tell him.
J.T. LeRoy's second novel, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, will be published by Bloomsbury in June.
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