University of California Press Copyright © 1996 Carolyn See
All right reserved.ISBN: 0520206738
Once, I remember, in an entirely different world, I interviewed that East Coast photographer who made a good living taking pictures of people as they jumped. He asked if he could take a picture of me, and I jumped! I put everything into it! I took a look outside of his white studio into the grimy New York streets below; I thought of how I'd jumped from a ratty house with a tired mom, past two husbands, one sad, one mad; hopscotched with kids and lovers and ended up—here? In New York! I sized up the directions of the room, tried to find east. I started out from there, ran a maximum of ten heavy steps, and jumped—not far, not far enough by a long shot—and came down hard.
The photographer winced. "Try it again," he said.
So I went back to the far corner, ran, defied gravity, jumped. This time I held up my arms, held up my chin, grinned. His camera clicked. "That's it."
"That's it? "
"You only have one jump in you," he said. (I found out later he said it to everybody.)
That wasn't fair. But maybe it was right. I began to notice—I date it from that day, not that it was new material—most of us have just one story in us; we live it and breathe it and think it and go to it and from it and dance with it; we lie down with it, love it, hate it, and that's our story.
About that time I noticed something else: There was a ratio involved here. Just as those poor woolly headed American nigras only got seven-tenths of the vote (after the Civil War, if and when they got the vote—I can't really remember), so, too, there was a basic inequality in the country I grew up in and lived in. One man, one story. For women, it generally took two or even three to make one story. So that in shopping malls you sometimes saw two fat women waddling along, casting sidelong glances at one another's fat. Or two pretty girls outprettying each other. Two femmes fatales, eyeing each other's seductions.
This is partly the story of Lorna Villanelle and me; two ladies absolutely crazed with the secret thought that they were something special. But if you think you aren't going to care about this story, hold on. It's the most important story in the Western world!
Take this for a story. It's four in the afternoon: 1950 something. A chunky thirteen-year-old walks home after school, kicking at leaves with heavy shoes, up the buckling sidewalks of Micheltorena Hill, in the parched and arid heart of Los Angeles. She dawdles, she doesn't want to get there. Her father's gone, there's no joy here, or ever, maybe. At 3:45 she drifts down through a small "Spanish" patio and into a house that perches precariously on the side of this hill—crackling with dried and golden rye grass—bangs the door, clumps down the tiled hall to the sunken living room, where she sees her mother crying. Her mother looks up, twists her tear-stained linen handkerchief, and says, with all the vindictiveness a truly heartbroken woman can muster, "Must you always be so heavy? "
The thirteen-year-old, her face flushed from the sun, the walk, and pure shame, walks on tiptoe without speaking, past her mother to the picture window, which faces diagonally west.
She doesn't think to look below, to the patio perfect for parties they'll never give, but only out , out to the horizon where, past twenty miles of miniature city, the ocean—thin strip—catches the afternoon sun, and blazes. Ah!
"Don't put your head on the window!" her mother snaps, and the girl lurches back as if the window burned, but her forehead mark, brain fingerprint, remains.
After the day of the clumsy jump I realized I wasn't built to live in New York. It was the greatest city in the world, but I couldn't get on its pretty side. I'll go further and say that after several short trips to Paris, Madrid, Rome, I realized that I'd been going in the wrong direction; the further east you got the further back in you were. By now I could look at my life as a series of sterling wrong choices: a marriage to an exquisitely handsome artist that had yielded up nothing more than a princess of a daughter, beautiful as the dawn—hence her fancy name, Aurora—and another marriage to an Australian on the make, who'd seen me as a meal ticket (poor deluded mate!), and that marriage had given me an emerald tomboy. Her dad, Dirk Langley (his name eventually to be spelled—incorrectly—on theater marquees in both hemispheres), wanted to call our baby "Denny," but I'd insisted on the sleepy and elegant French, Denise. . . . I'd majored in the wrong things in college, lived precariously in Manhattan's wrong sections. Now I wanted, so much, more than I can say, to get out.
And so, at the age of thirty-eight, I came back to L.A., I came back. I would live a gentle mimicry of my mother's story, alone with my two girls. I planned to earn my own money, and never to cry, and never to lay about with the cruel weapons of spite. I would take accounting courses. I would become a person who knew about riches, so that when people heard my name (when I became famous) they wouldn't hear "Edith Langley," who made two bad marriages and had to make her own way (or even, isn't she the heavy one who made the house shake when she came home from school?), but Edith Langley, whose name meant money, and money meant power.
Los Angeles, in 1980, was a different city from the one I'd left. I drove far out, to Santa Monica, found a bad motel, with two double beds and a television that worked. Then, after a day or two, I put Aurora and Denise in the back seat of the old Porsche and went house hunting.
I drove with the kids one dreadful morning into the San Fernando Valley and felt that if there had to be a nuclear war, certainly it might do some good in this area. I drove through Topanga Canyon, fifteen miles from the Valley to the coast (like Switzerland after the A-bomb, some friend of mine had said years before), hands sweating on the steering wheel as I took the curves, and had to think that maybe I wasn't ready for the Canyon; maybe I just didn't have the nerve. I braked at the Pacific, knowing that Malibu was north and no way could I afford it yet. I turned south, looking for Venice . . . and headed—like a gerbil in a cage—back downtown.
They say L.A. is large, but they lie. It's true there are a zillion places no one in his right mind would like: Lakewood, Torrance, Brea, Compton, Carson, no one real lived there, any more than real people lived in those grey asphalt boxes that line the roads between New York's airport and its island. "Real" L.A. had its thick, coiled root downtown, and on the east, little underground rootlets; obscure Mexican restaurants. Then a thin stem, the Santa Monica freeway, heading due west and putting out greenery, places in this western desert where you'd love to live—if things went right.
I headed west again: Echo Park, old houses, fine artists in them. I didn't like the neighborhood; it was too close to where I'd started. Further west and to the right, the Hollywood Hills with the sign and all, and Aldous Huxley's widow tucked in just below the H . The air was still too thick for me. Sixty miles an hour and ten minutes later, there was Westwood to look at. A pretty town, safe, and rich, and if the kids wanted to go to UCLA, perfect for them. But the rents started at $800.
Hard to please? Got it from my mom. A charmer? Well, three lone souls out of four million might agree. I wanted the beach, so bad. I got back on the stem, ever closer to the great
Pacific. So! North along the coast again, just for the ride, and something made me turn in again at steep, sparsely populated Topanga Canyon.
It was late in the day, maybe four o'clock, on an April afternoon. I'd driven through eastern sleet to get here, and "unseasonal" snow in the Rockies, and heat like a flat plate in the High Desert. But here, it was . . . perfect. April is the time for ceanothus in the Canyon and great banks of bright blue I'd find out later were lupin. There was even, if you can believe it, a waterfall, a long silver string dropping casually off a high stone abutment. The trip inland started out shallow, against low hills. After a half-dozen tricky twists and turns we hit a half-mile straightaway, starting at the bottom of what seemed (that first time) like a thousand-foot-high cliff, and climbed steadily, hugging the northwest side of the canyon wall. My hands started sweating, slick on the wheel, and Aurora, my older daughter, lay down in back. "Tell me when it's over," she whispered.
But I've thought many times that, though I'd taken those early curves at a cautious twenty-five miles an hour, I resisted even then the temptation to speed up on the straightaway between the coast and the town, that piece of bad driving that forever separates the Canyon from the city dweller.
At the top of that half-mile run (which, I found out later, had to be rebuilt every five years as the rains washed it out) the road curled into three or four really spellbinding curves: How easy, I thought even then, to keep going straight when the road turned left, to arc out into nothing for one last carnival ride.
Ten minutes later I drew up, trembling, to a small stone building. We were in mountain country, for sure. Was this what I'd been looking for as I pressed my damp head against my mother's polished picture window? Do you think—might I have seen these fragrant cliffs from there?
"I'm going to throw up," Denise, my younger one, said. "I mean it. And I'm hungry!"
We stopped at a place called the Discovery Inn (Innkeeper, Marge Dehr). The inside smelled of dried flowers and old hamburger.
"What do you want?"
"Are you the hostess?"
"What if I am?"
"Could we . . ."
I remember myself: tired, rasping voice, dirt brown hair frizzed out like that black woman's whose name I forget, my first diamonds—three-quarters of a carat (bought at what price!) jammed in my ears, eyeliner, dirt under my nails.
"We need a place to live."
"Don't you think it's a little fucking late in the day? "
"I thought . . ." I didn't know what I thought. "I just want to be sure that I get the kids back down before it gets dark . . ."
"The kids don't care! Sit down and eat. Order a Swinger. They're the best. Anyway, if you can't get down out of here, there's no point in coming up ."
I couldn't argue with this logic. We ate, then groped our way back down the mountain to our crummy motel room. I watched the girls' faces as they watched television in one double bed; it's clear, or should be, that they were dearer to me than five hundred crates of diamond earrings in five hundred solid gold pick-up trucks.
The next morning we drove back up—those curves almost a snap by now—loving that pure climb into the sky and the feeling that once you got up there, in those mountains north of Santa Monica, you were safe; they couldn't get to you. (And later I learned that during Prohibition outlaws from all over California vamoosed to Topanga, because all the overlapping city limits that made up Los Angeles had left one lawless hole.)
In the cool morning air, with theatrical wisps of ground fog drifting up and over the harsh mountains from the Pacific, we rendezvoused at that ratty restaurant. Marge Dehr came slouching out, introduced us to a "realtor" who whisked up in a powder blue Ferrari. He drove us around all through the day, up one dizzying unpaved road after another. On one cliff you might see great grim stretches of that modern midden the San Fernando Valley, and on another rocky outcropping you might climb, creaking, out of that guy's cramped little cockroach of a car,
walk ten steps down a dusty incline, and there see a sturdy blue world , a blue saddle shoe, light on top—that would be the sky—and on the bottom more dark blue than you could ever imagine in one place, the vast Pacific. Of course the houses with that dizzying prospect, mostly three-story, white stucco, and a million dollars apiece, were a little out of our range. But down in the strange dank hollows and washed-out deltas in the bowl of the canyon itself—an indentation of about five square miles, I'd guess, where clothing stores perched on creek banks and welfare mothers with sunny smiles watched their naked kids slushing in the mud—you could rent a trailer for thirty-five dollars a week.
As we drove, Aurora and Denise, usually impatient or droopy or long-suffering, began to get a dreamy look. The morning lengthened into hot, aromatic midday. "That's dodder, that orange stuff on the bushes," the house tout might say, and in the next breath he'd try out, "Of course a carpet like this is going to be unusual in the Canyon," or "you don't see a chandelier like this every day, up here." We even drove as far back west—down the canyon—to hit the "Gulch," a low, flat, damp place just across the highway from the ocean itself. Down in that low wash fifty people must have dumped their cars where the Topanga Creek seeped into swamp, and yards of trailing morning glories had turned each one of them into a blue mountain.
"D'rather go up ," Denise said, slapping at mosquitoes.
"I think," I said to them, "I must have been to a party here once, years ago. I'm sure of it . . ."
But the man shrugged impatiently and, zipping us back up the steep slopes back to the dead center of this ever-better world, said, "Think we'll turn left into Old Canyon this time. Some people say this is the tough part. Some people say this is the desert part. Other people like it. I couldn't say." Then, glancing at me shrewdly as his jeweled and tan hands on the wheel expertly took these curves, shrouded on either side by beige stone and nothing else, "This road we're on is always the first to go out in winter when the rains come. Have to get out by horse through here. When the fires come, they take you out by helicopter. Most people stay though. Save their houses. Take a few trash
cans, fill 'em with water, beat out the flames with rug scraps." Then, jerking his head, "Indians used to fish in the creek here. They used wild cucumber to float their nets . . ."
The house sat out on a wide raw crescent of cut and fill. That half-moon of dirt hung, just hung there in the air, over another one of those astonishing cliffs above nowhere. Across the chasm from what might be our "backyard" were stones the size of skyscrapers. Due east, a wilderness of bougainvillea and eucalyptus, sage, rosemary, mint, and a couple of blazing yellow acacias. We might have been in Australia with just a couple of aborigines for company, but instead we could hear Van Morrison, the Doors, windchimes, barking dogs. We smelled marijuana with the rosemary, and the house tout said, sizing us up, "If this section of the canyon caught fire, the city'd be high for a week. They say ." And in the next breath talked about the wonderful elementary school.
Two stories, made out of fresh new cedar slats on the outside, California white-sheeted clapboard on the inside (no fireplace, a definite minus in the Canyon, where once every decade or so it had been known to snow great flakes), and all this only forty minutes away from downtown L.A.! There was no yard yet, this was a new place, just golden dust all around. Our neighbors "next door"—a shack a hundred yards up the grade—said later that we'd be living in rattlesnake heaven, but listen! Past where the bulldozers had rousted out those fiendish vipers, the real view started!
For years I had a picture of my daughters from that time, standing by a yucca taller than they were. They both had that dreamy look, the kind that used to make people in the city say that everybody up here was on drugs, but what it meant was that they were happy.
I'm not saying it was easy! God forbid. Do you think it's easy for a single mother who has "financial consultant" printed on her business cards to get credit in the greater Los Angeles area? My husbands found out I was back and put in some mean-spirited phone calls, the more so because I suggested they might like to kick in a little child support. And sweet spring rapidly turned
into a summer so outrageously fucking hot that by some paradox it turned the inside of our new house a luminous black. We'd already found that the lady in the restaurant owned this rickety house and paid Mr. Slicko in his ill-gotten car something like a thirty percent commission to get it off her hands.
There came a day in early September, down in the old market at the Center of the Canyon, where, barefoot, I stood in line, holding my brown rice and hamburger, dreaming New York dreams, thinking, Oh, God, another wrong turn? I'd already gained maybe thirty pounds from smoking the days away with those guys next door and then putting together vast casseroles liberally seasoned with all that indigenous fragrant stuff. I stood in the dark store, sweating, fretting as always, that half my life was over but really, all my life was over, I'd had it, when over by the antique gumball machine that stood by the rusting screen door—pushed out over many years by how many heedless customers—I heard and saw two filthy little boys scrambling against each other on the sticky cement floor. "It's mine, assbite motherfucker, I saw it first!" "Shit if it is, stupid shithead, I had it first and then I dropped it!"
Stolid and benumbed, I stood in line with other sweltering residents as the two kids gouged each other's noses and eyes, pulled hair, for what I sadly supposed would be a gumball. They dove together, under the machine, and each came up with one end of a very distressed snake, who, until that moment had probably thought of himself as no more than three feet long. For an eternal moment they hauled in some frantic tug-of-war with the snake, who said a silent snake-awk ! Until the man behind the register said, "Get out of here with that, willya?" and they disappeared out into the 120-degree heat. A sigh from behind me. It came from an artist with a national reputation, wearing shoulder-length hair left over from the sixties, bald pate slick with sweat. "Kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it?"
Only two months later, when November turned the air crisp, I was down in that same center, thin again, in a restaurant this time, drinking champagne for breakfast, picking at chicken livers and sour cream, when in this crowded, jovial, cozy place we
heard a sound like a siren. A few of us went outside to see what was up, and there, in front of that same ratty grocery store, was a young man dressed all in white, doing a morning mantra. "Oooh," he sang, all on one note, "hooww beautiful is the Canyon in the morning!" He'd picked a note that made some of the parking-lot dogs crazy. One in particular danced about the guy, trying to put his paws around the singer's neck, howling happily on the same note. The singer had a girlfriend, or a devotée, who, since the singer definitely wasn't going either to stop or change his tune, undertook gently to shoo the dog back with a leafy breach. For minutes we stood out there, that Sunday morning, the breath coming in steam from our smiling mouths, watching boy, girl, and dog, hearing that song. The went back in to finish breakfast.
If you think finding the right place just happens, you've got another think.
I bought an answering machine and a ream of business stationery. And in a few weeks—after we'd settled in—I took another long L.A. drive. What I noticed—as they used to say on this coast—what I noticed , was that there were very few regular what you'd call businesses . No raincoat makers. No soup manufacturers. Yes, there were sweatshops in downtown L.A. and I remember a ceramics factory out in Glendale, but they soon went out of business. What was really out here was the intangible . When you drove you saw buildings, often windowless. They were either television stations or movie studios (or ingenious, semisuccessful combinations of the two) or death factories where they made missiles, or think tanks where they thought them up, or ingenious combinations of those two. Who was I to give any of the people behind those walls financial advice? I, who was thirty-eight years old and divorced (twice!)? I ended up doing something, it seems to me now, everyone in Los Angeles did then: I made myself up half hour by hour. I rented myself out to silicone chip places. I got myself a weekly financial column at the city's "second" paper, which got me to parties, which got me to cute guys, which got me to some financial meetings of small busi-
nesses, and little by little I was able to build up a fairly decent portfolio.
I changed my hairstyle, wore it straight to my shoulders, frosted blond. I bought a new silk shirt a week. I knew grey flannel was for New York only, but wouldn't raw silk pass as the flannel of the desert? I began to buy, once every month or so, another $500 suit, boxy tailored jacket, soft skirt. I began to switch from pumps to expensive sandals. Some spring days I'd wear one bright hibiscus in my hair.
But mostly, when I'd go out with some man who owned yachts in the marina, or a cute ARCO executive, or that lowest of the low out here, an "independent producer," he thinking he'd get a little free help in his wine futures, I'd say, right up front, "Hey! you want advice? Don't think your dick is going to pay me for it! I'll take semiprecious stones. Or gold would be better!" Usually they were good sports about it. I got some nice amethysts I still wear (and I mean now ) and pearls, of course, and finally those one carat don't-fuck-me-over flawless diamonds that I stuck in my ears and never took out—you'll notice, I still wear them. My girls each kept one of that flawed but brave first pair.
In the late seventies there was still a lot of personal chaos around: I don't mean "love," I don't mean drugs. I mean, when you got up in the morning it was hard to know what style of underwear to put on, what style of breakfast to eat. (Really!) Should it be "nutritious" the way that poor Adele Davis used to say? If so, why did she die so horribly of bone cancer, and why did it hurt so much? Should it be quesadillas ? (A recent study had said coffee and cheese caused cancer.) Should it be fruit? (What about insecticide?)
When you went out with men in those days, young or old, married, single or divorced, there was a terrible helplessness in them: What next , was in their every gesture, their every remark. Do we get married, or see a movie, or just have sex, or do errands? Are we supposed to be friends, or what is this intimate stuff they're talking about? Am I supposed to be cool? Do you want some cocaine? Do you like hockey? Do you want to meet my kids?
So you can see boxy jackets with loose skirts like the lady in the Story of O , and a forthright request for jewelry was a definite godsend for some of them.
I began to take my own advice. I diversified my investments. I took a couple more extension courses at the great universities, and even then I began to see that, since the country itself was running at such a huge deficit, a single woman might easily make her mark in the world by staying out of debt and building up a pound or so of rubies or a small safe deposit box of those sweet little gold ounce ingots from Macao, stamped with the sign of the bat—bad luck over here, but over there it meant long life and prosperity.
Wealth! To me it began to seem like the only constant. Husbands and lovers came and went, and God love them! And sure, Aurora and Denise were my real wealth, but on the great conveyor belt of life, my children were sliding past me and away. Once I pushed rocks in my ears they were there forever. No one offered courses with that belief system at UCLA: no stand firm , keep the house in case of a divorce, avoid credit cards like the plague, hold that money close to your vest and buy stones . Finally, after about six months out here in this fairyland, my hometown, I took what seemed to me the quintessential L.A. step and began offering my own seminars. I took my jeweler's glass, or "diamond loupe," my briefcase, and two dozen good stones to an extension lady's home—out of UCLA, of course—and spoke to a class of affluent matrons. Ah, I loved it. I had a twentieth, a thirtieth, a fiftieth of what their husbands owned, my flimsy house in the Canyon was at the whim of any hot breeze or carelessly struck match. They lived in brick and stucco palaces cheek by jowl in the overwatered lawns above Sunset. Their marigolds were worth more than my poor rubies! But I could hold my wealth in my hand or in the tasteful burgundy briefcase under my arm. When I drove up in my ten-year-old Porsche, the ton of metal was in my name and my name alone.
Picture this then: Ms. Langley drives up, stamps up the brick pathway, 11:30 A.M., to a Beverly Hills mansion. Knocks on the door, smiles, waits, is ushered by a servant into the "den."
Folds her hands in her lap, talking to the lady of the house. In an extension course, if the class doesn't fill on the first morning, it's goodbye Charlie and come back next semester. But usually a dozen ladies show, between the ages of twenty-seven and sixty. They've taken absolutely every other course: the American and British contemporary novel; interior decorating to avoid allergies, and interior decorating if you don't have allergies; conversational French and Spanish, and even the History of Ideas. Let's be straight about it, they all, each and every manicured matron, have a hundred times better education than I. But they have nothing to do, so they show for the class, "because a woman is teaching it," they say.
We sit and chat and, after a few preliminary remarks about American fiscal policy in general, how it is in AT&T's interest to make you believe those pieces of paper they called "stock" are valuable—all the while they're looking at me pityingly, because I have to work for a living and they don't—after, as I say, the first twenty minutes, I take a tiny yellow envelope from my decent black purse and shake a half-dozen stones out on the table.
Consternation and more pity. Poor working woman with her pitiable red and green and yellow rocks! (Because, remember, this is Beverly Hills, and these ladies, even on a Wednesday morning, are apt to be decked out like—as my sainted mother used to say—Astor's pet horse.)
But then I screw my loupe in my eye and talk about each stone: the opals the Australian surfer gave me, and how opals exist on art and personal taste alone—in the same category as those pieces of sweet paper AT&T tried to make you believe were money, while they kept the money. More glances from the ladies. Don't their husbands have successful investments? And don't they have husbands?
But then I would pick up a great square-cut garnet and talk about polishing, and depth of color, and begin a little rap about what it must have meant to the first caveman when he came upon a stone that glistened, and how, no matter what happened , that stone would always glisten. And how that must have been
the beginning of "love" as we know it—whatever a woman did to get that first great oaf to give her the stone and then to get him to take pride in having given it to her! And the women, one or two of them, might blush or cover a gold bracelet set with diamonds with their deeply tanned hands.
Then, of course, the loupe went around the room, and I always had a couple of extra ones. I saved two loose diamonds for the last—talking that first day about color; how, generally speaking, people said that white, bright white, the excruciatingly lovely absence of color (which was, of course, the beginning of color) was "best," but that "cut," of course, mattered too. If you loved the stone, it mattered, and flaws mattered. And the prettier of the two diamonds I passed around had some love attached to it—don't ask me how, it was that way when it came to me—and it had flaws in it. The second diamond that just lay there pokerfaced, the second one anybody might pick up, was flawless. Then I'd show them my earrings. They were ruly something , and that meant a lot of getting up and going back and forth, because of course I wouldn't take them out, and by that time we'd all be laughing. And I'd tell them that usually the best stones were used for engagement rings and the flawed stones for the ears. Because men had a vested interest.
And someone would ask, or say, helpfully, "You should have some of these other stones set , they're so beautiful!" Because by that time they'd be really looking. And I'd say "No ! I use these to buy and sell and trade. They're not ornaments, they're wealth!"
And I'd stop and smile, to see if they'd get it. But they wouldn't, yet. There'd almost always be somebody who'd say, "But wouldn't your husband let . . ."
"Ah," I'd say, "these stones are mine." And then I'd change the subject quickly so as not to hurt their feelings, because they were almost always good women. I'd talk about buying fine stones for their girl children—how they might start with marcasite and coral, real things for them to value and keep but not so valuable that the kids would get scared and lose them, and as I'd talk, or during the break, I'd see, out of the corner of my eye, a sweet lady take my loupe and sneak a look at her engagement ring,
her bracelet, any of her ordinary daytime jewelry. Other matrons around her would look into the middle distance, and a "girl-friend," because no one ever came to these things alone, would nudge her and ask for a look, and they'd gaze at each other and shrug and exchange disbelieving smiles. "That . . . why that, well, he must not have known." Or sometimes, "That bastard! " And even laugh about it.
And we'd spend that first day checking out the jewelry of very wealthy women. Often the flashier it was the more flawed the stones, the more carelessly cut; dirty chips put together in a coruscating mélange that kept you from knowing anything about the piece. And always there'd be a woman with one really good stone, and she'd try not to be awful about it. And that would be when I'd reach over into my briefcase and pull out my ten-power microscope that folded up like a spyglass and say, very respectfully, "Do you mind if I take a look at it with this? I'm extremely interested in its density."
I'd fix the stone in the microscope, and give her the first look. Sometimes it was what it appeared to be, but other times that sucker would be as full of holes as a bad Swiss cheese.
"You can't always know," I'd say. "And the people who buy them for you can't always know either."
And there was, of course, the truly gorgeous day when a lady's emerald necklace proved to be pure paste, just as in Dynasty , the television show. Watching the divorce proceedings that unfolded on the six o'clock news over a period of months on that one, I had the unaccustomed but altogether pleasant sense of having been an active participant in our popular culture.
Mostly, though, the class was for getting those women to pay attention. At the end of twelve weeks, we would have talked of credit and clothes and houses and joint ownership of things , and what things made you rich. If I'd made them think, I was happy. If when I left the class at the end, eight out of twelve of those ladies had their own safe deposit boxes and were stacking up, out of "pin" money, those magic little ingots from Macao, if they had bought their daughters second and third strings of fresh water pearls, I had fairly earned the money they paid me.
My "love life," as it was called then, was another story, but I appeared to be as successful in that as in all my endeavors in those years. I did time on yachts, I sat in dress circles, I got and gave pleasure with dutiful enthusiasm.
But there was a refrain in me that said, Let's get serious . I had finally learned, somehow, that I was never again going to have to stand around and girlishly accept a single rose or a badly written poem just because somebody had a cute moustache. I couldn't endure to have something explained to me ever again , unless it was something I wanted to know.
Now, there were those, and I asked it of myself even then, who might say, what's the big deal , lady? Was the lining of your twat made out of Belgian lace, that you could be so picky?
The answer, no . But once you start looking for flaws and decide to hoard your wealth rather than squander it, your standards change.
Somewhere in the very early eighties, about a year after I'd come home, I found myself down at a wedding at the yacht club in the marina, looking out of tinted picture windows at boats packed together in a nautical tract, bored with my date and wanting to go home, when I heard someone call my name. Howard "Skip" Chandler had sat in at a meeting a few months before where I'd offered a few commonsense ideas for saving a purse company. Shyly he asked me if I liked my work, and then if I was here alone; if I had children, if I was married. Relentlessly perky, friendly and businesslike, I asked him the same. He was tall, in his sixties, well built, somber, with hazel eyes and black hair just beginning to go grey. His children, he said, lived with their mother in Argentina. He was up here visiting a medical specialist. We went upstairs to the bar, where he tossed back several manhattans, and, gazing at the candle between us as the sun went down behind a zillion sailboats, he talked about wealth, and doom. His wife had insisted on the move south in 1962, during or just after the Cuban crisis. They had dismantled their house—he described this with quiet humor, and somehow I got
the impression that he didn't tell this as a "story" very often—and moved, with the children, eight thousand miles south.
After they'd deplaned in Buenos Aires and he'd deposited his frantic wife and tired kids in a suite in the best hotel in town, Skip said he'd gone out for a stroll, to see where it was, exactly, they'd be making their new life.
"I fell in love with the tango," Skip Chandler told me. "Isn't that foolish? I loved the way they sang their songs."
I'd been drinking too, and I knew myself well enough to consider that about now I ought to be excusing myself to call the kids, to say I'd be coming home late.
"As a city, B. A. is very ugly," said Skip. "There's nothing but dirt and car exhaust there, you see. My wife hated it, but she was—I suppose we all were, I shouldn't put it just on her—cautious about coming back. You don't move a family eight thousand miles for nothing."
"So, why are you here then?"
I had heard by now, of course, every—what we used to call line —devised by man, including one from a huffy and overweight divorce lawyer who had announced very indignantly, "You've gone to bed with everyone else we both know, why not me?"
"You've got to draw the line somewhere," I answered, "and I'm drawing it with you!"
So I listened to Mr. Chandler, trying to keep my loupe in my eye. I heard a story of a life of duty and rectitude, of girls—Charlene and Juanita—grown up and married now to Argentine businessmen; of Deeky, his bachelor son; of a wife ruled by fear, who read the papers each day to see if the human race was still viable for another twenty-four hours, who—during those short wars like the Yom Kippur fracas, had simply gone to bed, because her knees wouldn't hold her up, and turned her face to the wall.
"She's a good woman, the best. She's not a coward, she's brave. She's let herself know, you see, what the rest of us just—don't look at. Every day is a victory for her."
And Skip—what a spunky name for such a somber guy—finding, in some elegant Argentine doctor's office, that he had a dark shadow on his kidney, had elected to come up here for a
while. He was involved in international finance, he told me; he was putting together a bank, perhaps for Blacks or Hispanics or—his long lashes lowered as he gazed steadily at the candle in the red glass between us—women, perhaps. Something independent, out of the larger scheme of California finance, with ready money for quick investments.
"Your wife? Does she . . .?"
"No , she doesn't 'know,' and no , I'm not going to tell her. Because . . . It's not that I'm afraid of what it will do to her. It's . . ."
"Just don't go to UCLA," I blurted. "It's a butcher shop."
Was he telling the truth? Who could tell? We were all great storytellers, even in those days. His suit—a tenebrous grey, was of a conservative cut. His hands were large and angular. I didn't see depression in him, exactly, but he looked as if he'd been hexed. You might see his handsome face and tall frame, feet backwards, strolling along dirt roads at night; a zombie, but a nice one.
"So what's that stuff about the tango?"
"They have nothing down there but music was what I meant to say. They live in apartments on the thirty-fifth story of a building that faces another apartment in another building. But they go out , you see, and down into the streets, to try to find the tango."
"Listen," I said, "would you like to come home and meet my daughters?"
"Let me make arrangements."
He stood up and bowed and moved toward the door of the bar. A tall blonde in her twenties, lovely in a cream-colored blouse, came up to him. Win a few, lose a few, I thought, and tried my best to be cool and honest, staring straight at that handsome couple, then turning in my chair to look out at the marina, which—cluttered and unattractive as it was in the day—turned to a field of blindingly beautiful lights by night.
I felt his hand on my waist. "I'll follow you in my car."
We went out into the parking lot. He smiled so sadly at my Porsche, and what it meant, that the feeling I'd had from the
moment I'd seen him clicked further into focus; not "love"—far from it, as I think of it now—but a fateful heavy feeling, once again, of coming down in one piece, in one place.
I drove carefully, Van Morrison blaring his "Tupelo Honey" and other repetitive hits, out of the maze of the marina and into Venice, up along the Palisades of Santa Monica, trying to remember what I knew about Buenos Aires.
His morose Mercedes followed my car up the Coast Highway away from lights and we turned into the black canyon. I drove past where the Indians used to fish and drove the last ten miles in a moonless night, until we turned around in a cul-de-sac and looked up at my house.
The kids, as usual, had every light in the place turned on. Usually I would slam into the kitchen with indignation—turning off lights and delivering admonitions as I went, but tonight I made the turn, churned the engine, paused half a second to see that the place looked charmed , with golden light pouring from every window like a just-landed space ship. Gunning that heavy grey metal, I drove for all it was worth at about 125 an hour up my steep driveway and slammed on the brakes. The Mercedes drew in smoothly beside me. I looked over at him before he looked over at me.
It was close to eleven at night: The kids watched a black-and-white movie on Channel 5. Slices of takeout pizza littered the coffee table; Aurora was on the phone, Denise snipped scraps of her hair into a Styrofoam cup. The dynamic between the two of them was: Denise pushed and Aurora held firm. That had been going on for ten years—why should it stop tonight?
"You will ."
"You can't make me."
"Shut up and give me that!"
I went upstairs to change my clothes. Skip sat cautiously on the couch and leaned into the chalk light of the set.
He could have been one of those nattily dressed men in the black-and-white film we were watching. I gave him a beer and pulled up my knees beside him. The girls paid him the compli-
ment of simply going on with their ageless game. By one-thirty or two we'd finished off a six-pack, the kids had gone to bed, and bit by finicky bit we'd finished off the last of the pizza, so that by subtraction the living room looked almost clean. I looked over at Skip, ready to tell him that although we hadn't had a "magic evening," at least it had been a wonderful night , and saw that he'd gone to sleep sitting up. I pushed him sideways. Still wearing his suit and looking dignified as a cadaver who'd had his mouth sewn shut, he straightened out on the couch. I found a quilt to cover him, turned out the lights, and went upstairs.
Next morning, feeling stiff and nervous, I went down to tell him he'd have to leave—the girls would never buy a story about him sleeping on the couch, and they were morally opposed to anything that looked vaguely like a one-night stand—only to find him and his Mercedes gone.
I walked out onto the dusty crescent that was our backyard: that view from here into infinity. But here on the still-new fill where I stood, it was just a matter of getting some petunias I'd planted to grow. I watered them and began to think large thoughts of rosemary and mint in terraces down into the abyss as soon as I could afford the Mexican help, when I heard a smooth motor in the very still morning. I wiped off my hands, turned off the hose, and was there at the top of the driveway when Skip got out of the car.
"You were out of milk and eggs," he said. "And mightn't the girls like some coffee cake?"
He didn't look as good as he had the night before by a long shot. His eyeballs had a bright yellow cast; his face was grey. He was a sick man, no doubt about it. But he came in and had breakfast with us and then excused himself to make some phone calls. He said he'd be out for lunch and the rest of the afternoon. Then in the most courteous possible way, he asked the girls if he might come up again that evening.
"I miss my own family, very much," he told them. "I saw again last night what a delight it is to be in a real home. I wonder if I might return tonight and fix you an Argentine dish, to repay you for last night's hospitality."
So that was it ! Within a month he'd be living downstairs in what was to have been my office, a ticker tape clicking away in there and an extra bank of phones ringing. And in six months I was a member of the board of what was going to be L.A.'s Third Women's Bank, if Skip's boys could get it off the ground.
Don't ask me how it happened—how a man came north (from where his family had gone to escape death) in order to die but instead grounded himself in a living room where the sight of two (ordinary, then, except for how much we loved them) sweet girls at least put into question whether he was going to keel over immediately or put it off for as much as a year.
Under Skip's tutelage, and staked by him at first, I learned how to invest—something I'd always resisted. Now, I had money out there working for me.
But money was only the metaphor. Looking at my stones, sometimes in the afternoons, with the sun pouring in and the leaves outside gently blowing about and Skip closeted with his clicking tape, I'd touch those smooth, cool, bright, hard, valuable surfaces and think—if I could be like you ! Because nothing can harm you! And looking at my low and sullen silver Porsche with the engine that could kill by noise alone, if I could be like you !
Stasis was what I craved and what I got, thinking it was safety. If anyone had mentioned politely that I might be dead at the center I would have answered, "So? " That was what I was aiming at. I was a stone; I was a rock; I had come down hard.