I probably should've thought twice before sending that text, but we've all had our share of those. It was a picture of myself and my four best friends (all men in our early 30's) sitting on my couch with pore-cleansing mud masks drying on our deadpan faces -- afternoon sun bleeding through the bamboo shades behind us.
"what r u doing?" she texted.
"Ladies Lunch," was the caption on my photo.
My ex-girlfriend would probably call that text the "beginning of the end," if I could sit through another awkward post-breakup "coffee" and remind her of it. I'm sure she would describe it as one my red flags. She had received the text at work, and was likely wondering -- as I now realize she often did -- what exactly I meant when I said I was "home writing." My answer was not, "just sold an article," or "working on a new book." It was that I was exfoliating and eating beet salad with goat cheese with the semi-employed friends I was still trying to convince her were all solid guys with talent and ambition. Her response was a lack of response.
Mark, a documentary filmmaker, was the one who came up with the term, Ladies' Lunch. It started out as a response to the recession; instead of going to the gourmet café down the street where we dined so often we'd taken to calling it "The Cafeteria," we would cook shared meals for our group of five single male friends sharing an historic address known as the Villa Carlotta. And we did save a little money, but that was more or less the excuse we'd all settled on to attempt a much broader salvation: the hopes of our parents and the dreams of our younger selves.
We were a gang of would-be's; the men behind the album with no record deal, the unpublished novel, and the film financed with waiter's tips. Meeting for bi- or tri-weekly two-hour lunches in the middle of afternoon. Part symposium, part potluck, all pre-mid-life crisis. And my apartment was always the setting.
I've been living in the Villa Carlotta for ten years. If you know Hollywood, you probably know this apartment building. It's a four-story neo-Mediterranean on Franklin Avenue with sweeping views of the Hollywood sign from its roof deck, a courtyard with a Koi pond, and a beautifully run-down lobby with a grand piano, fireplace, and marble-topped reception desk. William Randolph Hearst spared no expense building it in 1927, but no one has gone to any expense maintaining it ever since. It is nearly impossible to get into; I got my top-floor corner unit through a suicide. In my decade here, I have earned the trust of the manager and have stocked the place with no less than 8 of my closest male friends. The number leveled off at 5, after one was lost to career advancement and the other two to marriage and children. All of us who remain here share a metaphorical connection to the building itself: it's learned how to skate by on bohemian charm, it's very attractive to women when dimly lit, and it would be perfect if it had a parking spot.
I had started seriously dating D. after what I thought was my last hurrah of bachelorhood -- a period of two morally unaccountable years that culminated with a month-long apartment swap in Paris, wherein I tried (unsuccessfully) to relive my junior year abroad. I had sowed all my wild oats, then sowed a few more for good measure, and was ready to settle down. Here came this beautiful woman who had the same idea. She had just ended a relationship with an older, extremely successful writer and in the beginning, saw me as the younger version. But I was also a struggling version, and not so young anymore. And the path between struggling and succeeding as a writer was long and hard and frankly, wouldn't be traversed in a French Clay mud mask. She privately came to the conclusion that I wasn't the racehorse to put money on, especially when money, in this case, meant the last few years of her twenties. After nearly a year together, we didn't even have a conversation about the breakup. I just came home after a journalism assignment and she didn't pick me up at the airport. And that was that. So when I lost my lady, I settled for Ladies' Lunch.
Excessive condiments were appreciated, dessert was optional, and women were strictly forbidden. We would each bring some random item from our kitchens: Pellegrino, beets, buffalo mozzarella, turkey, an egg, basil grown on the roof, an overripe pear -- and all would be turned into something exquisite thanks to a Panini press that could make anything taste amazing as long as bread and cheese were involved. And then one of us would start off the conversation with an anecdote about our frustrated love lives: there was Brian's date that ended abruptly when a young woman opened his kitchen (kitchen!) trashcan to throw out her gum and found a discarded condom; the "dream girl" Mark fell in love with and took for a ride on the back of his motorcycle who showed up at the restaurant where he worked a few days later and he had to wait on her and her date; or my endless railing against my ex for not having faith in me -- with bitterness fueled by the fact that I had lost a good deal of faith in myself.
"If you were the woman of your dreams and you met yourself right now, what would you think?" I opened up with one day, after dipping a smoked turkey, brie and roasted pepper Panini in a ramekin of Sriracha.
"That guy's cool, but I wanna wait and see how he turns out," said Brian, the musician among us. Everyone nodded in agreement. Then Yaniv, auteur director and ever the critic, laughed, "This is how we turned out."
"Is love something that happens when you find the right person?" he continued, "Or is it something you do when you're young and you don't know any better?" That one stumped us more than any other, we kept going back to it and changing our answers daily.
The food evolved into several course meals, sometimes with wine pairings -- a result of a decade of service industry side-jobs was inadvertent culinary and wine education. We even started working on a Ladies' Lunch TV pilot to try to make something out of what we had come to realize was a very unique dynamic.
Last New Year's Day, I watched the sunrise with the Ladies' Lunch crew from the roof of the Villa Carlotta, swigging grappa from the bottle. Taking slugs of warm grappa can only be done after staying up all night and drinking so long that you've literally cevichéed your tongue into a total lack of sensation. But it wasn't just our tongues that we had numbed that past year, it was our younger selves: men who stayed in relationships long enough to fight for them, and then did, because we still believed in compromise; men who had moved to Los Angeles to bear the torch of Tennessee Williams, Bob Dylan and Fellini, because we still believed we could be our heroes. We had become cynical burnt-out real-life Hurlyburly characters -- minus the success.
In the months that followed, Ladies' Lunch ended with a whimper. We saw much less of each other, and we stopped talking about the aborted Ladies' Lunch pilot. Without ever acknowledging it out loud, we had realized that Ladies' Lunch was a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that you can't find love and success when you're busy talking about how you can't find love and success. As Ladies' Lunch faded away, our careers actually started picking up, and one-by-one, we fell in love again.
It's been a year since that grappa sunrise. And these days, when I tell my new girlfriend that I am "home writing," it's actually true. Whether Ladies' Lunch was the Algonquin round table we envisioned, or just five men born too late and spinning their wheels, we got each other through a rough patch and learned how to make a damn good beet salad. I may still do a mud mask in the afternoon from time to time, but one thing's for sure -- there will be no pictures.