There is the real L.A. — smog, traffic, crime. Then there is the other L.A., pockets of life that have nothing to do with reality. Secluded pieces of the Hollywood Hills. Stretches of private beach. Gates and security codes.
I've been to mansion parties a hundred times. I get invited because I'm a high-level tennis and beach volleyball player. Billionaires build compounds with every type of court to play, then realize they have no one to play with. Well, no one good. Good players feed their egos, and they have a lot of ego.
So pro volleyball and tennis players trek to these unbelievable houses. What do we get out of it? Jet vacations or just beautiful girls in bikinis watching us play. Buffet lunch and open bar. A replica of the Playboy Mansion grotto for a soak with those bikini models. A chance to play ball with the likes of Barry Bonds and Magic Johnson. (Yes, that happened.)
She got invited because she is beautiful — so beautiful she was paid to mingle. Sound silly? It happens all the time. But the typical MAW (Model, Actress, Whatever) rarely seems like a real person. How real can you be in full makeup and 6-inch stilettos during a daytime barbecue?
After a volleyball game, covered in white crushed marble sand, I stood next to her at the bar by the court. I didn't expect to speak with her. But when I heard her tell a friend that it had been a bad week, I innocently asked, "What was so bad?"
"This isn't the place," she said.
This is exactly the place, I said, because something was obviously bothering her. Her eyes softened, and she sat on the bar stool next to me. She told me her mom had breast cancer. I skipped the next volleyball game so we could continue talking.
She didn't seem like the mannequins at the party. I suggested that we tour the property and keep talking, and the conversation continued while we played tennis, bowled in the private bowling alley and relaxed in the grotto. It was nice, but I knew how these things worked. Girls like that always had another party to hit with their friends. She was supposed to fly to Vegas that night, all expenses paid.
As I made my way to my car, she stopped me.
"What are you going to do now?" she asked.
I said I was going to this amazing Korean massage place by my home in Brentwood.
"I want to come," she said. So I gave her my number and address, and I told her to be at my place at 7.
Driving home, I was convinced that she would not show up. Yet as I got out of the shower at 6:55, the text came: "I'm here punk."
She walked in barefoot, holding her heels in her hand. "I just realized I only have the dress I'm wearing, a bikini and these heels."
I gave her my sweats, and off we went to get massages, she looking like a child in Daddy's clothes.
The usually gruff guy at the front desk smiled at me for the first time. "Very beautiful," he whispered, nodding toward my companion. She and I sat side by side in reclining chairs as the Korean employees did their foot magic. She kept saying, "This is incredible. This is heaven." I agreed.
As we drove through Santa Monica back to my place, we talked.
"Let's go to a super not-hip piano bar called Casa Escobar," I said.
She objected. "I am not going to a bar in sweats and no makeup."
I lifted one eyebrow. "Have I led you wrong so far? Trust me," I said. She did.
We walked into the 1970s Mexican piano bar, the youngest patrons by 30 years. The lounge singer was just finishing "Sweet Caroline." It was perfect.
We drank margaritas while we requested songs. I learned that she was 33 and a single mom. She had recently separated from her husband of eight years. ("I was faithful," she offered.) I was the first man she had spent time with alone since the split. She owned a business that supplied hot female bartenders for events and parties. She seemed to know every nightclub and promoter from Vegas to Orange County.
The lounge singer played the first few notes of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me," and I took her hand. "Dance with me."
She fake-protested as she got out of her seat, a party girl who didn't need a party to be happy tonight.
We went to my home and climbed into bed. No kissing, no sex. Because beyond the beauty, she was just a girl whose mom had breast cancer, whose marriage had failed, who was trying to use what God gave her to support her children. She needed a break from reality, a little rest stop on the road of life.
As I watched her sleep, I was happy to be that.
Johnson is the head tennis pro at Scholl Canyon Golf and Tennis Club in Glendale.