Tag Archives: regret
Weightlifting, a short story
Laurel stood in the alley beside the entrance to the Flower of India’s outdoor patio, and the stifling, smoggy Burbank sun was so hot she could feel droplets of sweat rolling down her back and her ribcage and between her breasts, soaking her nurse’s costume. She was hemmed in by a dented maroon B210, a smelly green garbage dumpster, and by the presence of her spurned lover. Jason had drawn himself erect to his full 4-foot-9-inch height (a foot shorter than Laurel herself) and was trying not to tense his neck — specifically his sternomastoid muscles — because he knew how much that pissed her off.
“Jason,” she said. “It’s not worth this. We should both calm down, O.K.?”
“I am calm,” Jason said. “I’m completely calm. I’m just confused. You’re very confusing, Laurel. Maybe you could go over it one more time?”
“I’m late for work,” she said. “I told you I only had an hour for lunch. I don’t know anything I could add to make it clearer. How many times do you want me to say I don’t want to see you anymore?”
Jason stared up at her. Without realizing it, he tensed his sternomastoids, his neck vanishing in the thick round cords. Jesus, Laurel thought, there he goes again!
He blinked his eyes. “I’ll be home tonight. Could you please call? Please?”
“Oh, God,” she said. “All right. If it helps. I’ll call.”
Jason nodded. His neck relaxed. He looked more normal, but not completely normal, never completely normal. That was one of the problems. He looked like an an eleven-year-old in an inflatable Halloween “muscle” bodysuit. People stared at him everywhere he went; and stared at Laurel when she was with him.
In the beginning, she thought she’d be able to handle it. After all, his face was beautiful, startling eyes, neat brows, and strong chin. The proportions of his body were perfect, if you viewed him from a distance. And the physical side of the relationship was fantastic. He was a perfect little doll: an expensive toy, like from the Black Licorice Whip on Santa Monica and Sunset. But she was wrong. She couldn’t handle it.
“Bye, Jason,” she said.
She started to move, edging her body through the narrow space between him and the dumpster, but she didn’t do it fast enough. Jason reached out. He wanted to embrace her, sweep her back in his arms, and carry her off like Clark Gable with Vivien Leigh. But nine times out of ten he didn’t have the leverage; he had the strength but not the right angle of lift. If he’d tried, he would have toppled Laurel into the open dumpster.
So all he could do instead was hug her. His nose rested atop the shelf of her breasts; his breath caught a little in his chest and he inhaled deeply, almost a sob, and that was his big mistake. Through her costume — today she was a bit player on a soap — through the thin white material, he smelled her perfume, the heavy frangipani oil she got at Mrs. Gooch’s in Redondo, and when he smelled that oil he couldn’t help himself.
He plunged his face into her breasts, and though he felt absurd he couldn’t stop himself; it happened and he could do nothing, not even after he remembered that this was one of the things she really hated. His face snuggled into that frangipani scent, into the soft flesh of her bosom, and his head wiggled back and forth like a rooting newborn.
Laurel stood, her chin resting on his head, tangling his straight, silky blonde hair as his head moved back and forth at her breasts. She had an urge to rise up and smash him on the crown of his head with her chin. She had read somewhere that you could kill a person with your chin, supposedly it was one of the hardest bones in the body, but, no — maybe that was the elbow. Anyway, this was all her fault.
“I’ve got to go,” she said.
He untangled himself and stepped back. His eyes were red and his face was red and his thick hair was wild.
“Goodbye,” he said. And as soon as he saw her car drive off toward the studio, he attacked the wooden fence of the restaurant’s patio with his bare fists. Then he went home, and spent an hour peroxiding his hands and pulling splinters out with an eyebrow tweezers Laurel had left at his apartment, on one of the rare occasions he had persuaded her to spend the night.
Back at work, Laurel went to the makeup room. The hair lady pulled one of the hot curler sets over and started re-rolling Laurel’s hair. Laurel closed her eyes, and let the brushing and tugging lull her.
Jason was an actor, too, and in her heart Laurel had to admit he was much more talented than she. If he’d had maybe two or three inches more in height, he could have been cast in a slew of parts. But as it was, being 4-foot-9, he was shut out. Oh, he got a few far-out costume alien roles, and the occasional little person job, but the irony was that he was actually too tall for the best of those parts. Like when they were making that Star Wars sequel and they needed people for the little fuzzy things, the Ewoks, Jason wasn’t even called to audition. Too tall. Laurel had just met him then, and she never forgot how he reacted.
He got totally bombed — must have drunk at least three six-packs of beer. Being as small as he was, relatively speaking, that was probably enough to have killed him. He showed up at Laurel’s apartment, the third-floor place in West Hollywood with the center courtyard and pool. He danced around like a maniac in the open-air hallway outside her front door. Laurel literally peed in her pants when all of a sudden he vaulted over the railing. She ran to the edge, feeling the iron grillwork vibrating from his push off, but by the time she looked down she’d heard the blessed splash. She ran down to drag him out of the water.
This white-haired biddy on the first floor had screamed at her as she tried to half-carry, half-drag the semi-comatose, muttering Jason upstairs.
“Is that your son?” the crone yelled. “I’m going to report you to the welfare department. Letting a little boy jump off a third-story railing — he could have been killed. You should have been watching him better, lady!”
Laurel got him up to the apartment and put his head in the toilet and told him to throw up. Then she put him on the couch and covered him with a blanket.
The next morning, when she awoke, Jason was already gone, but there were flowers everywhere. He had gone around the corner to Lucky’s and bought their entire cut flower stock. Every pot and pan and glass she owned was stuffed, crammed, overflowing with flowers.
Laurel opened her eyes and saw Freddie standing over her, ready to touch up the makeup. She leaned her head back, he tilted the chair, and then she could feel him brushing her lids with fresh eye shadow.
Today was the fourth time in eight months she had tried to break it off with Jason. She had to make it clean, this time, otherwise it was going to take both of them right over the edge. Usually, Laurel was better at this sort of thing. With Jason, though, the relationship had lingered on her doorstep like a yowling, starving cat. She’d get to a certain point, then Jason would suck her in with his green eyes; her courage would fall away. She would backtrack; afraid she was making the wrong move. For a few weeks, she would be filled with hope. She would think, maybe Jason and I can make ourselves a place in the world.
“Open your peepers, darling,” Freddie said.
“You’ve given me eyes again! And lips. Too bad I can’t have you come over to my house every time I have a date.”
“You flatter me, honey,” Freddie said. “Nothing here that nature didn’t give you. Just me and Max Factor helping out a little.”
Laurel went off to her dressing room to look over the script. This morning she’d spoken two lines, this afternoon she had three. In this afternoon’s scene, she had to cut ski pants off the legs of the character of “Sue Roper,” after a tragic fall on the slopes. Her three lines were, “Hold her down while I remove her pants,” “There’s a lot of bleeding here,” and “We need to get this young woman to X-ray, pronto!” If the director tried to “direct” her today, with this garbage, she thought she might bite his hand off at the wrist.
After work, she went to dance class. She wasn’t with it; the teacher kept coming over and fussing with her arms, her legs, pushing her hips down, tucking her butt under. When it was her turn to do a solo, she almost forgot the routine. Snapping her head around for the turns, she nearly lost her balance.
Leaving class, she shivered as her tired rump touched the icy vinyl of the car’s upholstery. At Ralph’s, she bought one single-serving Chocolate Supreme frozen cupcake. As she opened her front door, she noticed the message light on her machine flashing. The light flashed one-two-three-four-five-six-seven. Seven calls! She hoped they weren’t all from Jason.
She kicked off her shoes and dropped her bags, pressing the Play button.
“Hi, Laurel. Oh, are you working? This is Katherine. If you want to eat, I’m meeting a bunch of people at El Coyote around eight, hope we see you?” Click. Beep.
“Uh, this is The Strand Bookstore. The book you ordered, uh, the poetry book, is in. Thanks.” Click. Beep.
“Laurel. I’m sorry about today at the restaurant. I’ve got to see you tonight. Please call.” Click. Beep.
“This is Dr. Petersen’s office, calling to confirm an appointment for Laurel Bragg on Wednesday, the eighth of December, at 3:30 p.m.” Click. Beep.
“Hi there. Remember me? I’m back from the Oregon festival, it was terrific. Give me a buzz; I’ve got a nice script sitting here with your name on it.” Click. Beep.
“Laurel. I’m sorry. I’m waiting for your call. I’ll sit by the phone all night.” Click. Beep.
“I know we can get through this. I have faith.” Click. Beep.
Faith. What a crock, Laurel thought. What did Jason have faith in? Did he look at everything in his life the way he looked at his weights? Did he think if he pushed hard enough, if he pushed enough times, that he could push them both into a happy ending?
She unwrapped the frozen cupcake. She nuked it, poured herself a glass of milk, and sat cross-legged in the middle of her living room. Three calls. She would have bet on all seven. Maybe this time, he knew. Maybe this time they’d both be smart enough to let it die with a little dignity.
She finished eating and lay down, staring out the window at the wispy gray clouds passing over the full moon. She pulled her knees up to her chest, feeling her aching spine crack. Then she heard a knock at the door.
“Who is it?” she said.
She could barely hear his voice; looked like he was in one of his whispering moods.
“It’s me,” Jason said.
She dragged herself up and looked out the peephole. The top of his head was just visible through the dirty lens.
She opened the door: he looked down at the ground, staring at his feet. He wore his leather jacket with the sheepskin collar, the one from the little boy’s dress department at Magnin’s. Wound tight around his neck was a red and black striped muffler with long black fringe, but the jacket was open all the way; he didn’t have any shirt on underneath. His lips were turning blue.
His eyes were bright, the whites clear, but the rims of his eyelids were deep red. “Can I come in?” he said.
A chest-bursting sigh heaved out of her; she clicked her teeth together in her jaw. He looked like he was going to crumple up in a heap on her doorstep.
“Sure,” she said. “I’m just tired. I had a depressing dance class. Come in. You must be freezing.”
She sat down on the couch. He closed the door, leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Well, what’s it going to be tonight? she thought.
“Laurel,” he said. He sat down next to her. Reaching up, he pulled her head down to the center of his bare chest and held her like that, bent over, her face chilled by the leather and the cold zipper of his jacket. Her cheek was against his smooth chest — not a hair on it because he had it waxed, and she could smell the soap he used, Jesus, he was always so damned clean. Then she felt drops on her face, warmish drops, first one, then another, then drop-drop-drop-drop.
He let go and stood, pulling her to her feet; sometimes she forgot how strong he was. All he needed was the proper leverage and he could pick her up, carry her. Not the Gone With the Wind scene again, she thought — I don’t know if I can take it.
He picked her up and kissed her; his lips were pale and cold as he opened his mouth, pushing his tongue past her lips, over her teeth, moving it back and forth over their sharp edges. For a moment — as he held her without effort, as she felt his body through the thick leather and the canvas of his jeans — she imagined that things were different, that when they went out together nobody gave them funny looks, nobody gawked at her like she was a pervert or a dwarf-hag or a pedophile.
He lowered her legs and her feet touched the ground. She straightened her legs and stood. He craned his neck back to look her in the eye, and she saw that his eyes were dry, but the whites weren’t clear now, they were webbed in red, matching the inflamed edges of his eyelids.
“All I want is this, Laurel,” he said. “You don’t have to go anywhere with me. I won’t expect anything.”
She looked down at his face. “What are you saying? What have you come down to? There are ten thousand women in L.A. who would be good for you. Can’t you see it’s not worth it?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t see much of anything. I curse you all day under my breath, I bad-mouth you to my therapist, and I have a dart board with your picture on it. But at night, it’s not like that. Then, it’s like nothing bad has ever happened.”
He turned his face away and she stared at the top of his head. I can’t believe this groveling, she thought, this is really bad, sick, and pathetic. I can’t believe I have robbed another human being of so much dignity. It isn’t Jason who’s being weak here, it’s me, I’m the weak one who can’t do what has to be done.
“Jason, I’m sorry,” she said. “This isn’t any good. You don’t really want to slink in here after dark like some criminal.”
“Yes, I do,” he said.
“Well, forget it,” she said. “Believe what I am saying to you. This thing cannot work. This is the end of it.” His neck tensed, his sternomastoids swelling and rising until he looked like an alarmed turtle. There he goes again, she thought. Will he ever stop?
Jason’s eyes got shinier, water building up inside his lower eyelids, about to spill out, over the edge. Suddenly, his hand flew up; he leaned in towards her to follow through with the swing; his open palm connected with the center of her chest and her body bounced off it. The thud of the blow and the echo throbbed in her sternum, in her breasts, in her spine; her teeth snapped together and she bit her tongue, tasting blood, as her knees gave way, sending her to the floor.
“I never wanted to tell you this,” he said, “but as an actress, you stink.”
As she bucked and heaved on the rug, trying to force some air back into her lungs, he was moving out the door, slamming it as he ran; the wall of the apartment shook and the brass guard chain rattled back and forth; tick-tick, tick-tick. Jason was right — she’d chosen the wrong line of work; the wrong life. She went to sleep for the night where she had fallen, rolling atop her rumpled satchel, in her sweat-stained leotard, the remains of Freddie’s makeup job smeared over her face like the greasy ashes of a penitent, and though the next morning she couldn’t remember her dreams, she knew that they had been filled with a great heat and a great darkness, and most of all, the sensation of a relentless, unforgiving gravity.
Heavenly Dances, Heavenly Intimacies, a short story
“Isn’t there any heaven where old beautiful dances, old beautiful intimacies prolong themselves?”
Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier
How can I be “dead” to any of the men I once loved? They are not “dead” to me. Not even H. How can I be “dead” to H.? They — even H. — are each as alive as when I was with them; as alive as the first time they touched me, whether tentatively or with confidence; whether softly or roughly; whether with passion or mere lust. It is shocking and appalling how H. lurched so radically to the right after 9/11. He began that journey to the Tea-Party-Mad-Hatter-Neocon-Bill-Buckley-Wall-Street-Apologist-Fringe-Brainless-Faux-News-Right when Ronald Reagan was shot; I was with him the very night it happened. We had a short affair, right then, because we started thinking the end of the world had arrived and we decided, like the crazy college students we were, to get married to celebrate our courage in the face of chaos! I realized very early on (but still way too late!) I was embarrassed to be seen in public with him. Did you ever start seeing, and marry someone whom you later realized you were embarrassed to be seen with? Perhaps the person in question was “dorky,” “geeky,” dressed “badly,” or had questionable “taste.” H. readily admits he was a “dork” in high school. He was on the debate team; need I say more? When you can’t bear to be seen in your lover’s/spouse’s/significant other’s/partner’s company, things usually don’t work out.
Still, I put in ten dutiful years, trying to make amends for my mistake in marrying H. The second he started making the big bucks, he dumped me. He left me for my best friend! I guess I deserved it, not taking control of my own life & filing for divorce two weeks after we married. And I guess I deserved how my ex-best-friend S. ruined me, as she subsequently did. She was in charge of the whole group we had socialized with: dictating how everyone in our “circle” should think, speak, act, or react. H. was dead wrong about most everything, but, to his credit, he was dead right about her. At the time I thought him merely woman-hating, but I see now, even though he did hate women, there was something more than simply being a “woman” he hated about her. He was covering up the fact he loved her by pretending to hate her. Now, I have no desire to see her, not ever again. She is definitely “dead” to me. Yes, I understand intellectually, a living death (call it shunning) can happen to anyone.
The upshot of all this boring history? I’ve been waiting for something a long time. I can’t blame anyone but myself for my unhappiness, not anymore. There is something dispirited inside me, something empty, drained, and beaten — something sick, something tired, something that has surrendered. I gave up, when? When my first ex-husband arbitrarily said no to children, breaking his solemn vow. When I realized I couldn’t find happiness outside myself — not with an old love, not with a new love, not with any of my subsequent husbands, my friends, my eventual children, or my family. Yes, to casual acquaintances and virtual strangers I am “happy, happier than I’ve ever been.” And it’s true! I’ve never been this happy, this contented, in my life. Yes, there are still problems. My oldest son is still half the world away, fighting an endless war on behalf of my “country.” My youngest son still has an ignorant, racist, rabidly conservative father. I am getting old. My face is melting. My neck is turning into a wattle. I am drooping.
Still, I cannot imagine any of them, the men I have loved or made love to, being dead to me the way my former best friend, S., is dead to me. Yet that is how they must feel about me, the way I feel about her. Wanting her removed from my memories. Wanting never to have met her. Not missing anything about her. She wants to see me, I heard from a mutual friend I still speak to. I don’t want to see her, or even see the mutual friend. I don’t even want to get as close as that! Because of reasons. Top secret, NSA, DOD, CIA, FBI, SEC, IRS, FDLE, GPD, ACSO reasons! No further comment!
Possessing My Daughter, section one of a short story
I think the human race somehow needs to evolve beyond children. Beyond parenthood. I certainly didn’t want to be a mama. I resented it and I still do. Even from the land of the dead, I still begrudge her all my time and effort. She took so much, so much from me. She was never grateful, never. That’s why I’m making her write this now.
I almost had an abortion, but her father talked me out of it. He could talk a dog off a meat wagon. He carried me off across the desert to Las Vegas to get married. My own father was so angry when he found out. There I was, suddenly, on my own at 19, out of my father’s house. My new husband and I took a small apartment in Venice Beach.
David had this asinine idea of being an artist. He had this notion that my father should pay the bills indefinitely. I had dropped out of college halfway through sophomore year. I was seeing a psychiatrist. It was 1959 – need I say more? Freud was God. My doctor said I hadn’t resolved my Electra complex. That, he said, was what was making me so tired. I slept more than 12 hours a day. When I wasn’t sleeping, I shopped and went to parties. The only bad part was knowing that eventually I’d have to make a decision and do something with the rest of my life. It appeared that being deb of the year in my hometown wasn’t going to cut it much longer.
The first boy I loved broke my heart. I vowed that it would never happen again. So I did nothing to repair that broken heart. I let it stay broken. It was the only way I could think of to protect myself. It’s been so long….
Since I’m already dead, I suppose you’re wondering what the point of all this is. The point is this: I don’t want anyone else to suffer what I suffered while I was alive, and especially not what I’m suffering now that I’m dead. Passing from life to death was supposed to bring me some sort of enlightenment, wasn’t that the fairytale? I was supposed to experience an end to all my worldly cares – joy, peace, rest, or just plain oblivion. Well, I didn’t get any of those things. I’m not surprised: why should my death be any different from my life? I got the exact opposite of oblivion. I got awareness and clarity of vision, a vision so merciless and sharp it would make my head hurt, if I still had a head. Yes, I see everything clearly, for the first time, and let me tell you, I’d settle for oblivion any day of the week. All I want to do with my death is shake all of you by the scruff of the nectk until you get clarity of vision, too. Then maybe, since you people are still lucky enough to be alive, you’ll do something with that vision while you still can. Maybe you won’t end up like me.
My poor daughter, even after I died I wouldn’t let her alone. I visited her over and over again in her dreams until she couldn’t stop thinking about me. I took control of her heart and her mind – actually, now I see I did that the day she was born – and I never let go. Now I can see how I really wanted her to tell my story all along – that’s why I raised her the way I did, to give her the necessary skills. It was like heating iron in a forge and pounding it into a useful shape. She’s writing it all down, every last bit. I won’t let her stop until she’s done, and I’m satisfied.
Oh, she’s so much like her father. What a mistake I made. I’ve told so many lies since then that I’m not really sure what happened between us. I think he could sniff out the complications I carried and wanted nothing to do with them. He didn’t want to hear about how I’d suffered during my parents’ divorce and their custody battle over me. He didn’t want to hear how I’d stopped eating after the judge sent me to live with my father. He didn’t want to hear how much I’d hated boarding school. But I do remember wanting to have sex with him and him turning me down. He was too fastidious to have sex with a girl he thought would make for a Problem Breakup. That would only make the problems more problematic. The excuse he used was that he still had a lot of schooling to get through – a year or two of college, then law school – and he couldn’t afford to get serious with anyone. Not, he said, that I wasn’t beautiful and desirable. The issue was I was too beautiful, too desirable, and getting serious with me was apt to derail his train, headed for success. He’d lose sight of his goal, and so we had to stop seeing each other.
A Collection of Matchbooks, a short story
1952, the Wayland Manor Hotel, Providence, Rhode Island.
The day is warm and humid, the yellow roses in the park across the street are in full bloom. Eva tugs at the sleeves of her powder-blue silk suit. She’s meeting Neal, the young lawyer she met at a Republican fundraiser last week. Though Eva’s handsome, prep-schooled husband played tennis for Yale and still buys her wonderful presents, she’s lost her passion for him after five children. Neal doesn’t have a dime, but he has smoldering dark eyes and soft, manicured hands. He’s a good talker, very charming, the way he lights her cigarette seems so Continental. Ever since the night Eva ran that girl over with her car after too many glasses of White Star, she’s been looking for a way out. She knows her husband will never let her take the children, that’s what bothers her most.
1953, the Ambassador Hotel, Chicago.
Eva sits in the lobby waiting for Neal. On the train back East from Los Angeles, Neal didn’t sleep more than two hours a night. He’s frantic to make this business deal. Eva’s money can only go so far, and though her mother contributes what she can, Neal’s ego is suffering. Maybe if he didn’t spend so much time playing gin at the Club, he’d do better. His wife really stung him in the divorce, he paid her a lump sum he could ill afford, but he felt so guilty. He was only the second person in his family to divorce, the first was his older sister Nina. She married the guy because her father told her to, so when he started getting weird in the head, she bolted. Has her own dressmaking business back in Providence. She dates the young boarder she took in.
1955, the Roosevelt Hotel, New Orleans.
Neal and Eva are stopping over for the night on their way to Savannah. This trip was Eva’s idea, she wanted to revisit her childhood home, show him the house that survived the ’26 hurricane. Her mother grew up there, raised by an aunt. Eva remembers the switchings her nurse gave her for crossing the road by herself. Lilly Mae had a gold tooth in front and wore the most outrageous wigs, red, blonde, honey chestnut. Her bosom was soft, like feather pillows. Eva is disappointed when the hotel can’t give them the Honeymoon Suite. Neal shakes his head, smiles at Eva, pinches her fanny in the elevator on the way up to their room.
1956, annual convention of the California Polled Hereford Association, Berkeley, California.
Neal dances with his daughter, and Eva snipes at how clumsy the girl is. Truth is, she’s gorgeous, and Eva’s feeling old. They got both of Neal’s kids to live with them, Neal’s idea, Eva only wanted sweet little Patrick, not this sullen teenaged girl. She misses her own children dreadfully. Her ex-husband lets them visit in the summer. Still, Eva manages to be kind to Neal’s daughter, she pays for Liza’s boarding school, the very best in the state. Neal had this idea to raise prize Herefords, Eva’s mother thought it was a great idea, so they bought the ranch in Ojai. The cattle women all look the same — brown cheeks, pale orange lipstick. Eva doesn’t fit in, but she doesn’t care. She orders another chilled vodka, downs it in three swallows. Her throat burns, it feels cleansed.
1956, Diamond Jim Moran’s, New Orleans.
Liza’s in the ladies’ room, helping Eva to vomit. Liza wipes Eva’s forehead with a damp towel. The attendant turns away, afraid she’ll start laughing. Eva’s hair flops over her forehead and Liza takes the comb and smoothes it back into her thick French twist. Eva and Neal are on their way home after taking Liza and Patrick to visit their mother in Jacksonville. It was the least Neal could do, considering his ex-wife’s frame of mind. When the children left her, she lost 40 pounds in a month. Liza misses her mother, but doesn’t want to move home. Next summer, she’ll be a debutante.
1959, the Palace Hotel, San Francisco.
Liza’s on break from Mills College, meeting a boy, Ted, for drinks in the lobby. She wanted to go to UCLA, but her father wanted her at a girls’ school. It won’t help. She’ll be pregnant within the year. Ted, the baby’s father, fancies himself a Beatnik. He grew a tiny goatee, sparse but bright red. Liza is getting tired of the same old thing. She sees a woman without legs being pushed in a wheelchair across the lobby. Ted’s right behind, and Liza knows they’ll have sex in the car later. She wonders what it would be like to have no legs to get in the way.
1959, the Luau, Beverly Hills.
Neal’s throwing a reception for Liza after she eloped to Las Vegas. He put a good face on it, announced the wedding in the local paper, but he tried to talk her into an abortion. Liza refused, and Neal thought about having her committed, but Ted talked him out of it. Ted swears he’ll do the right thing, but Neal has a sick feeling. The kid has dollar signs in his eyes, just like Neal at that age. Neal should have listened to his heart, not Ted. He envisions his daughter in a roach-infested apartment on Venice Beach, wearing nothing but black leotards, her enormous belly heaving as she dances to jazz records. He wants to kill someone.
1960, Arnaud’s Restaurant, New Orleans.
Eva and her mother are on their way back out West after a shopping trip to New York. Her mother bought a hat covered with white peacock feathers, and Eva hates it. She wants to strangle her mother, wants her to hurry up and die so Eva can inherit the family money. Eva’s ancestors made their money in shipping, sailing goods up and down the Eastern seaboard, and she is absolutely certain none of them owned slaves. Eva’s mother is a spiritual nut, always falling for some Asian philosophy or another. Next, she’ll run off with the little Mexican gardener, and Eva will have to concoct a suitable cover story. They’ve never been close, not since her mother left for Mexico when Eva was two.
1961, the Redwood Room, Clift Hotel, San Francisco.
Ted and Liza are filing for divorce. Neal is listening to his daughter sob. She thinks Ted needs her, but Neal knows there’s nothing wrong with the kid that a good bank account won’t cure. He had that illness himself. Ted’s refused to work, has taken only art classes instead of working for his MBA like Neal wanted. The baby lives on fried chicken and Pepsi. Still, the little thing is cute — ten months and she walks, no, runs, already. She’s got more of Neal in her than anyone else. Ted’s parents pleaded with Neal not to interfere, but he can’t stand by and watch his daughter worry where her next meal is coming from.
1963, the Seven Seas Restaurant, Miami.
Neal sent the baby to live with his ex-wife, and sent Liza back to school. Liza chose secretarial training, and works in a bank by day, looks for men at night. Liza gets jealous sometimes at how happy her mother is with the baby, but Liza’s not very maternal to begin with. This man she’s involved with is a sailor. She’s never dated someone who didn’t go to college. Even his hands are different.
Down in Florida
From the age of nine months, Ella grew up in Fort Lauderdale. Her mother divorced her father up in Michigan and quickly ran south and east, to get far away from the gossipy and condemning former in-laws, and almost as quickly remarried an old college sweetheart, a Coast Guard man. Ella was tall and fair with red hair and freckles. She was a daydreamer and a romantic who was dying to take bold action to change her life completely, but kept her true self a tight secret: everyone else thought she was practical and down-to-earth and would never have the guts to do anything to shock anybody. She lived on the water and went to high school, and for fun on weekends, even though she was underage, she and her friends usually went out to discos, mostly to one called Mr. Pip’s which was just down the highway from her house.
The city of Fort Lauderdale was full of transients and drunks and drug dealers and well-off retired people from up north. Bars and discos and private social clubs lined every main drag. People drove expensive sports cars imported from Germany, Italy and England. The good houses were on the water and the bad houses weren’t. The deep-water port was always busy with cargo and passenger ships, and the marina alongside was always full of long, sleek private yachts stopping on their way either back up north or down farther south, to the islands of the Caribbean.
A main road called A-1-A ran along the public beachfront, between the strand and the big hotels. From Ella’s back door you could see one of the hundreds of canals woven through the city that led into the Intracoastal Waterway and from there to the harbor and the jumbled rock jetties where the tide rushed by and the Atlantic. The ocean was always beautiful, warm and flat, with a gradual change of color from green to blue to deep indigo along the horizon. The breezes always blew, the air like a caress on the bare skin, and the tropical flowers always bloomed big and moist like open throbbing hearts. From her back door Ella could see across the canal to U.S. 1, the oldest main highway lined with gourmet groceries and liquor stores and scuba diving shops and the endless procession of traffic to the beach. Sometimes all the tourists on the beach looked the same — white and puffy and greedy for the sun’s warmth.
One typical Friday night, Ella and her best friend Tami first went downtown to Lester’s Bar, where the mugs were heavy and frosted, the beer was icy-cold, and the hors d’oeuvres were free. Then they went over to Yesterday’s, on the Intracoastal. Tami and a guy named Peanut hung around together the whole time, and Ella felt weird sitting at the bar all by herself. Finally, Ella met someone named Jerry, who turned out to be a captain at Yesterday’s and she talked to him for a while. At Jerry’s invitation, all four of them went to the Brickyard, a private club just west of U.S. 1. Not once the entire evening had the underage girls been asked for I.D.s. Over margaritas at the Brickyard, Ella told Jerry how old she really was — seventeen — and he flipped.
He went off by himself but when Ella and Tami were getting ready to leave he came over to say goodbye. He asked Ella to please come home with him. She said she wasn’t ready for that. Then he walked Ella out to the parking lot, and they stood there and he gave her a tiny little kiss. Your lipstick tastes good, he said, too good. And he asked Ella, again, to please come home with him, but she said she was too scared. She asked him, would he still be friends with her, and he said sure. Then Ella said goodbye and got into Tami’s car, only she forgot she still had Jerry’s cigarettes. She got out to give them back, and asked him again, would he still be friends with her. He said, why are you so worried about that, and she said she didn’t know. Ella wondered if he really liked her or just wanted a piece of ass.
Then, on another Friday night, she and Tami went to a place called My Second Home to play pool. They ordered pitchers of beer and Ella teetered on her high heels and fussed over her lipstick between shots and got a little bit drunk. A youngish man named Jeff, with the deep tan and scruffy sun-bleached hair of a true beach bum, invited them over to swim at his apartment complex nearby. Tami said no, she’d rather play pool, but Ella went along with him — Tami just shook her head in amusement. Once they got to Jeff’s house, Ella didn’t feel much like swimming anymore. Jeff gave her a pair of cutoff shorts to wear and she went into the bathroom to change. When she came out, Jeff was waiting for her and he kissed her slowly and gently and his lips were soft, but his hands were hard and rough and insistent.
Somehow, they ended up in Jeff’s bedroom on his bed, and over a period of time he got most of his own and then Ella’s clothes off, and he climbed on top of her again and again, but each time she kicked him off with her legs. I don’t want to get pregnant, she said, which was true, but the real reason she didn’t want to have sex with him is she could feel he wasn’t the right person for her. You won’t get pregnant, he said. You’ll get your period at the end of the month just like you always do, he said. She kept her legs together and put her feet against his chest and pushed him away from her over and over. It happened so many times she lost count but the word rape never even entered her mind until the next day. He never did get it in. Finally he gave up and drove her back to the bar and in the parking lot sitting in his car with the engine running he leaned over and said to Ella, at least let me teach you how to kiss. Then he showed her how to leave off kissing a man delicately, with some transition, not to pull her lips away from his like one would somewhat abruptly pull the petals off a daisy while chanting, he loves me, he loves me not.
Then Charlie was at Mr. Pip’s one Saturday night. He had been done with college for a few years but still lived with his parents because he was more comfortable in his old room than he’d be in some affordable apartment. His mother and father were elegant, wealthy people and believed Charlie was the smartest boy they’d ever seen. Charlie had curly black hair styled in a small Afro and prominent brown eyes, and Ella noticed the way he had of staring right at the other girls and then her like his glasses were secret X-ray goggles from the back of a comic book. She liked his eyes because they were so very curious besides seeming a little bit dangerous but she never imagined she’d end up dancing with him or going out on dates with him.
Even though his eyes cut into her in a way that made her feel attractive and desirable, Ella didn’t like Charlie very much at first. She didn’t like the way he asked all those other girls to dance before he asked her. She didn’t like how he laughed at her when she initially refused to dance with him, though she liked how he didn’t take no for an answer. She hated herself for how she knocked his glasses off on the dance floor with her elbow while he twirled her around like a doll. She hated how his parents acted like she wasn’t good enough when he brought her home to meet them. But she liked how he stared at her, hungry and curious and patient. Staring back at him for any length of time made her feel funny, dizzy and small, like she imagined being hypnotized would feel.
All the time after she met him Ella wondered if Charlie would fall in love with her. He seemed too jaded for that. He talked about his college days and the hundreds of lovers he’d already had and Ella’s non-Jewishness and how his mother disliked Ella but his father liked her a lot. On their dates, he took her to good restaurants and gave her too much wine to drink, and stared at her with his hungry eyes, but he didn’t seem to be in love with her. He eventually got a job selling stereos, which his father said was a waste of his talents. Ella would go out with him every weekend, and stay out too late, and then her mother and her stepfather would make snippy remarks about her the next day as if she wasn’t even in the room. Ella decided she wanted to sleep with Charlie even if he hadn’t fallen in love with her.
She wondered if Charlie would ask her to get married after they slept together. If he didn’t ask her to get married, she decided that would mean he probably had never loved her. One week Charlie’s parents went to Italy on vacation, so Charlie invited her over for dinner at his house. He cooked heavily spiced Indian dishes, and served French white wine. The kitchen was full of gleaming copper pots and the countertops were polished slabs of green stone. They sat at a long, low oak table that Charlie said came from a nunnery in Spain. He unbuttoned her blouse while she sat eating some ground lamb and rice. She was starving but she didn’t take more than what he served her because she didn’t want to eat like a pig in front of him. She sat and spooned the food into her mouth like she was dreaming. He held her left hand and never stopped rubbing the back of it with his thumb. He had a blurry, bloodshot look like he’d been drinking before she got there.
After a while he led her by the hand into his parents’ bedroom, through their bathroom and into their sauna. His parents’ bedroom furniture was carved and gilded French, and the carpet was a primarily pale beige Aubusson and the bedspread was pale beige silk with a woven floral design, and all Ella kept thinking was how any little spot at all was going to stick right out and be totally noticeable. He undressed her in a room full of mirrors then took his own clothes off. She wasn’t relaxed in the sauna at all. When she saw him naked she felt afraid but also excited. His muscles were large and well-defined from lifting weights and he had a patch of fine curly black hair in the middle of his chest and a thicker, coarser patch of hair below. They sat in the sauna for a while then took a cool shower together, and he did most of the touching.
He led her up the stairs to his bedroom, both of them naked, and from the stairwell across his parents’ wide living room, through the huge glass doors leading out to the terrace and the Intracoastal beyond, she could see the lights of boats like glimmering fairy jewels — red and green and white, doubled by their reflection off the water, every ripple of water caused by the outgoing tide sparkling, too. The carpet of the stairs was soft underfoot and so thick her toes sank into the pile and caused her to wade up the stairs, struggling against the nap of the rug like gooey caramel. His room had dark green walls and dark green sheets and there was a huge cabinet filled with stereo equipment against one wall. He stopped to put on a record, some soothing instrumental jazz — slithery clarinet and round fat saxophone punctuated by the rasp of a brush across a drumhead. She stood in the light from the hallway and let him take her to the bed.
They rolled together in the bed, the smooth fine sheets and the cool pillows. His hair brushed her all over as he worked and she lay there thinking of nothing except what it was going to feel like. She could hardly concentrate on what he was doing and she had no clear idea of what it was she was supposed to be doing. He placed her hands on himself in various locations and told her to imagine she was touching herself. He padded to his bathroom and came out with a box of Trojans. He put one on and knelt over her, resting his weight on his knees and his elbows and with his glasses off his eyes were huge and dark and poring over her face like searchlights. She felt part of herself tear loose and dematerialize and go up and into his eyes as though they were portals to outer space and though she hadn’t planned on it and certainly had no intention of saying it out loud she thought to herself with a bit of a shock, this is the right time and the right place and the right man.
There was a warm feeling all over her body and in her thighs and her belly there were occasional jabs of what was almost but not quite like pain, delicate lightning bolts along the nerves that felt like silent music. She willed herself open to him, mind, body and soul but her body remained uncooperative. He moved confidently and gracefully between her legs but all that happened for what seemed to her like hours was a dull ache centered around a point of resistance as if she were being prodded with a dry stick. She blamed herself for being dry and closed up and she was ashamed of it and thought she probably looked ugly to him. He didn’t seem to lose any of his enthusiasm for the task but kept right on fiddling around trying to get it in. Finally it slipped past some sort of barrier and it still hurt but now there was a liquid feel, a dark slow movement inside her, a curious hungry swallowing up of something. It still hurt but it seemed to be going the way it was designed to go.
Afterward she felt lassitude in all her limbs, a leaden weight that could not be defeated and she lay on Charlie’s bed looking out the window toward the water and every now and then she heard the horn of a boat waiting for the bridge to rise, waiting to get into the open passage to the sea. The bed was soft and warm and sweet, and Charlie slept beside her breathing shallowly like a child and his arm rested against her hip and her throat was full and the room seemed to pulse in and out, in and out like when she had a fever but she knew she had no fever now. She lay there for a time listening to Charlie breathe and when she turned to get out of bed his arm reached for her and he sighed and his eyes fluttered open. Where are you going? he said. I have to go home, she said, my parents. You’re kidding, he said. No, I have to go, she said, and she got out of his bed and went down the stairs alone through his parents’ room and put on her clothes.
Between her legs was a soreness impossible to ignore and through her panties the seam of her slacks rubbed against her and instead of fabric felt like the bark of a tree. Charlie was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, barefoot and shirtless but wearing a pair of trousers. He had his glasses on and he was looking at her face with his usual patient hunger but his eyes were at the same time distant, trying to look past her, as if he too was feeling something he had not been expecting to feel. He put his arm around her shoulder and they walked to her car. Please stay, he said after she got in the car and closed the door and rolled down the window.
I can’t, she said.
Call me when you get home, he said.
Okay, she said.
She drove off and in the rearview mirror she watched him standing in the driveway until she rounded a corner and could no longer see his house. There was a slight chill and the vinyl upholstery of the car felt cold and damp. It was late and there were few cars on the road and as she drove along the streets which were nearly deserted but still lit up and gaudy with neon, she was astonished by the strange new rawness inside her. She had not expected to feel so much; she had not expected to love him. She had not really known what she was giving up nor what she was receiving: that place within her which always before seemed complete, that place which she now thought of as wonderfully empty, waiting for the next time it would be filled by her lover.