“I ast my granddaughter out t’ dinner. She’s only three,” says the dumpy woman in the coffee shop.
“That din cost you a lot,” scoffs her equally dumpy friend.
“Did. I bought her 30 dollars worth of toys. Have to do something for the poor kid. You know, my daughter, she jus’ reads all day. Yesterday she did 250 pages. I tell her, can’t you do something? Like, clean the place up. Wash the floor or somethin’. She’ll lay there and jus kina…” The woman raises her hands in defeat. Her friend shakes her head with commiseration.
Me? I’m rooting for the unknown daughter. I wish her many wonderful books.
I’ve given book talks in Sausalito, San Bruno, and Santa Rosa, and now, with free time before the next talk in Oklahoma City, I can go where I please. And since this is Episode Thirteen, why not head down the California coast to LA, for a meeting with an ex-husband, DT.
DT and I had been married in our poor student days, when we’d stolen Brussels sprouts from the surrounding fields, but couldn’t afford the butter to put on them. Now, over forty years later, he had become a Hollywood big shot. I hadn’t seen DT since 1981, when I’d been in LA visiting my friend Nancy. DT had invited us out to dinner — he wanted to show me he could now afford the best, and that, in a restaurant frequented only by the rich and famous, everyone knew who he was. He also liked being seen with a woman on each arm, and Nancy, half Mexican, half Swedish, was gorgeous.
After dinner, we all went back to his house for a nightcap —his present lady friend was away, in Las Vegas, on business, but she’d left messages on the answering machine (this was in the days before cell phones). The first was cutsie–wootsie: ‘Hi Honey, Why can’t I reach you? Call me when you get home from work.” The fourth was edgy. The eighth was hysterical. “Where the hell are you, you shit!”
“She’s a bit possessive,” said DT with a meek grin.
The last, frankly menacing: “I’ll kill you, you lousy bastard. I know what you’re up to.
DT looked slightly embarrassed as he poured out wine for the three of us…wine that we never did get to taste. For, no sooner had we all settled, glass in hand, than we heard a wild shriek, frightening, unworldly. And before our astonished eyes, a fury hurtled into the room brandishing a large butcher knife.
Fortunately, DT was stronger than she, or we’d all have ended up as luncheon kebab.
Their romance hadn’t survived, and DT had been living in a trendy residential hotel in Hollywood for the last thirty years. Since he’d still be at work when I arrived, he’d told the doorman to let me in.
But as soon as that venerable gatekeeper catches sight of me, he’s immediately suspicious: how could a big shot like DT have been married to this creature with long grey hair, wearing a shabby winter jacket and lugging an unwieldy old backpack? Come on! He won’t even let me wait in the public area just past the front door, a nirvana-like area of palm trees and tropical plants around a swimming pool.
I don’t mind — I’m just amused and not in the mood to argue. I ask if I can leave my jacket and backpack with him while I go walk around the city. Begrudgingly, he accepts. But at just that moment, DT arrives. So I end up sitting in the courtyard, after all, sipping something unidentifiable, delicious, and head-turning, while the hotel staff comes to inspect me — goodness knows what DT has told them.
“He said you were the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen,” announces the maid, a tiny delightful Mexican woman named Maria.
“And now look at her,” say Maria and DT in unison. “She’s still beautiful.”
The doorman (obviously he can’t believe what he’s hearing) is looking only slightly less suspicious: I’m not a respectable ex-wife. He wants Yves Saint Laurent, a facelift, and diamonds, not walking boots, rumpled stretch jeans, and no make-up.
We all sit around chewing the fat for a while — it makes the reunion easier. The maid and maître d’ keep saying that they haven’t seen DT this happy in months, and we get on so well, why did we ever split up?
I could give them a few reasons, but don’t, and when the curious crowd finally departs, DT begins bragging about his life.
Once, many years ago, he’d been an investigative journalist who’d won prizes for his work, but that was before becoming a television CEO, then a writer: “I’m the best writer out here in Hollywood, and the best-paid one, too.” He names shows I’ve never heard of.
“I live in Europe, you know.”
“Sure, but you get American programs over there.”
“I don’t own a television. Never have.”
This makes him angry. “You always were a snob. Elitist. I always said that, and you haven’t changed.”
“Some things never do.”
“Anyway, I’m thinking of retiring, going down to live in Mexico or Costa Rica, spend the rest of my life fishing.”
What I’m seeing is a time-worn guy, diabetic, stiff, with a big belly. It’s clear that, despite the bragging, when he comes home from sitcom writing, he’s pretty depressed. How does he spend his evenings? Watching TV. “Shows, sometimes a few films like…” He names a few.
They mean nothing to me, but to keep the peace, I don’t mention I haven’t seen a movie in a quarter of a century.
During dinner, his talk is of wild parties long over, bad behavior in public places, being thrown out of bars with his raucous, wealthy, and famous friends, all people I’ve never heard of.
“You live down in some dark hole or something?”
No, just in a parallel world, but he shows no interest in me. I’m the one who’s supposed to be impressed; I’m the listener, the only wife he ever had, perhaps the woman he felt closest to in his life.
“I’m an old man now,” he repeats often, for having set his intellectual goals too low, he’s gone bankrupt. And he’s frightened. Suspects, perhaps, his “name is writ in water.” At least, with me listening, he is validated: I put him back in the picture.
“Enjoy the city,” says the doorman as I set out on foot the next morning, determined to see what the real world looks like. And…well…there must be people who love what’s out here, the commercial tat, the chance of seeing a star, the movie-based kitsch, but for me, it’s only roaring traffic, noise, loud music, squat buildings, and un-loveliness. I try to imagine what this area looked like long before humans arrived with their warfare, temporary alliances, rites, and destruction. When this was a marshy plain, and the many sheltered lagoons were home to birds and unfamiliar water creatures; or when wolves, mastodons, bison, mammoths, short-faced bears, horses, and camels nibbled vast grasslands. But it’s a hopeless struggle.
Everywhere is cement, rubbish, and an abysmal sky, thanks to cars, and nitrogen oxide emissions pumped out by oil refineries. Rising sea levels threaten coastal areas with flooding and erosion; the millions of people littering, spraying pesticides ontheir lawns, hosing off driveways, and cars are all contaminating run-off water; and the ocean, nearby creeks and rivers are bacteria-infested. Much of the plastic I see around me is completely unrecyclable — clamshell food packaging, black plastic trays, take-out containers, cold drink cups — and, these days, we can no longer ship it off to some faraway out-of-sight–out-of-mind exotic locale. Instead, in 2018, Los Angeles county alone sent more than half a million tons of plastic to four different landfills; another 20,000 tons of plastic went into its waste-to-energy incinerator.
“You could come back here to live,” says Maria a little sadly.“Take up where you left off. DT would be so happy if you did.”
But my bag is packed, and it’s with the springy and hasty steps of an escapee that I head for the bus station. I’m traveling east,on the lookout for the perfect place, the ideal community, the little paradise, the setting for a good story, although I know perfectly well such a place probably doesn’t exist.
On the bus, the Mexican on the seat beside mine is a dishwasher. “I’m perfecting my English,” he says in perfect English. What’s the book in his hand? Orestes?
I stare at him. “The play by Euripides?”
He laughs at my surprise. “All you need is to want to learn.”
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