One reason I get to this Santa Monica Beach Club early is Marcus. He is a bit of Gilbert Roland and Roman Navarro, with spiky hair, amber eyes and deep caramel skin. He has a frisky dancer’s body like Russ Tamblyn. You are too young for this story if you don’t remember who he is.
Marcus looks so crisp in his skinny white jeans. The trim romantic smile. Three years ago, when my husband died in the Motion Picture Home, Marcus greeted me with a hug and reassurance. Marcus’ was an eager-to-see-me, not sorry-for-me hug. From what I have seen in the great southeastern L.A. murals, Marcus’ culture does not dust off elders.
The hugs, the swimming, the sea air have helped me discover what to do with the leftover’s of life.
Marcus brings warm towels when I am lying in the sun on cold days. I don’t have to say a word. He pulls a blue and white striped chaise out of the row into the corner I like. He raises the back of the lounge so my back is propped up and I can lean my yellow legal pad against my knees. Then he sets one of the small tables up next to the lounge chair for my pens and brings me Diet Coke.
I never liked routines, but now lying here writing, swimming and walking on the beach are routines I like. I also like drawing up flashbacks of people I loved (like home movies: the scenes are there, you just have to imagine them up. Go to memory file on right brain. They’re there, in order. No dusty boxes or worry about ink-cartridges or loading paper.)
We had taken a vow; “Death shall not us part.”
I was married to my English husband for thirty years. We had taken a vow; “Death shall not us part.” I can summon him up. Hear his voice. Sense his presence.
Marcus’ lively expression as he brings over my Diet Coke seems like the attention of someone who feels you might be of interest.
Driving used to be my favorite thing. Now, I’ve come to a place where I’m not ever pleased to drive. And hate to at night. These new small grey cars whisking around like ferrets in loquat trees, leap out of driveways, dash into U-turns. Fuel efficient, yes. But bi-polar. They look sane and steady, but drive with the loony aggression of Duke Waxonberg’s big Fifties convertible.
At least you’d see that convertible coming.
So it might, it occurs to me, be a fine idea, to have a driver when I go places at night. Marcus cannot be making that much money. Don’t ask. A scheme looms in my mind. He does speak some English. I know “Asta la vista,” “Buenos Noches,” and “Adios.” Not promising.
It’s crazy to live in L.A. and not speak Spanish; to love Marquez, Fuentes, Llosa and not read in Spanish. Marcus could teach me Spanish. I could teach him more English.
After this morning’s exceptional hug, I ask him, “Are you ever free in the evening, um, do you, um, like movies? Si?” I point to him. Then to myself, laughing. Then I do a driving-car-on-hands-on-wheel action. He’s smiling, laughing. I make a holding-out-money-putting-hand-on-my-chest gesture. “Si?”
“Nombre – cell phone?” I ask.
He writes his number on the Diet Coke receipt I pull out of my pocket. I put the number in my blue card carrier. Two days later I call. I’d googled how to say “Friday night” in Spanish. And “Would you like dinner?”
“Si,” he says.
The next day at the club, I give him my address, and the time. I called the restaurant near the beach with the patio, because it’s part of the real world – the real L.A., more like the South of France, where I’d go with my husband.
I dress in my neat Gap jacket and skinny 1969 boy trousers. No bow tie. Don’t look fierce or bossy. Don’t give wrong idea by looking sexy. But I put on the grey eye shadow to make the shadows of my eyes match. A bit of liner. He’s slender, not much taller than I am. Take off dark lipstick. I shouldn’t have had him pick me up. Maybe. But he wouldn’t have been working steady at the Beach Club if he wasn’t okay.
Then I remind myself of second husband. He was working for a bank when he came over the night we met. I was drinking then.
I was on speed then. I didn’t see him or the car for two weeks.
The sex was great. Around midnight, he asked to borrow my car, get his stuff so we could live together.
I was on speed then. I didn’t see him or the car for two weeks. He came back with a hundred dollars from Vegas. So we got married. He disappeared again. That’s when I cleaned up, changed all attitudes.
Marcus knows nothing of me. It will be nice to show him books I have written, the pictures I draw. He’ll know I’m not just a lonely old lady.
I look at appropriate older men when I go to the Beach Club – grown up men to look after me, dance with, go on drives. I have more than enough conversations, exchanges, or stories. I have made my body well and strong. But these guys my age talk to young girls. I see arrangements being made.
I could turn that around. Make my own arrangements. I look at my watch. He may not find my place. Or will change his mind.
Marcus will not like the movies I like. Why? I love movies in languages I don’t know. They make me reach harder, learn new languages.
I hear footsteps coming up to the patio.
He comes in. “You look so cute,” he looks at me. “I like your style.”
I’m bashful. Feel girlish. Not fond of this feeling. I used to drink to beef myself up, to feel not just cute, but more like the tough writers I wanted to be. I’d jack myself up with speed to handle the fear, the vulnerability. How to explain any of this to Marcus? I wrote an article called, “I Hate Sex,” about the fear of being seductive: locked in, trapped, held down, and capable of alarming behavior if turned on – all of which “Womanly” implied in that era.
It took my last husband’s knowing passion to restore my interest after second husband disappeared.
I am a caricature of myself.
The simmering terrors, which have kept their place for decades, come bubbling over as I check my bag before we leave for dinner. Can’t find credit card case. I look everywhere. It’s not in the pocket of the morning jeans. Yes, I put it in the don’t-forget-it box. Not there. I’m looking under papers, drawings, lifting books. I loaned the other card to my bookkeeper. She gave it back and I put it….where?
“I’m so sorry,” I go into faux Española, which is so humiliating for me; must be hideous for him. I am a caricature of myself. Shake head, “Nada. Cannot find cards!”
He laughs, “Is all right!”
I call the restaurant, “We’ll be late.”
The cards are not in other wooden box; eyeglass case; the pocket of denim jacket. I have become myself in the 60s; my mind is off its carefully constructed scaffold. I don’t have enough cash.
Then, “I have an idea. We’ll to the market up the street.” I hold my check book. “They know me. Will give me cash.” I rub my thumb and fingers together to show I’m speaking of money. How to explain I’m taking him to dinner because I want to know him? Not because I think he doesn’t have enough money. And I’m not making dinner because? That would feel too close.
“Would you like to drive? My car?” I say. His black car sits sleek in front. My car is older. But the drive will use up gas. I don’t want this to cost him anything. How can I say any of this without coming off racist? Before we leave, he goes to his car, changes his work sneakers for nice white moccasins to go with his white jeans.
Bristol Farms cashes my check. We laugh in the car. He drives so well.
“You are nervous,” he says.
“Well,” I laugh, “yes.”
During dinner I ask simple questions. The character Tengo in Haruki Murakami’s novel IQ84 is always making himself simple meals. I used his meals as examples when I was figuring out what to eat when living alone. The simple meals do not take reflection or imagination.
Regard two or three substances you have.
Prepare each one.
Place on plate.
Taste first bite.
Next bite, consider.
When done, fold napkin.
Return to writing table.
I will ask the questions like that.
“How old are you?”
“Forty-seven.” He is younger than my children. Older than he seems.
“Do you like to read?”
He shrugs, “Not much.”
“Do you have family?”
“A son.” A father. He lives downtown with his sister.
“What do you like to do?”
“I like Vegas, and quiet.”
“Not an easy mix,” I say.
“And I like to drive,” he says. A fine coincidence.
I think: Go for it, as the Youngers say.
“How much does Beach Club pay?” I ask.
“Eight dollars an hour.”
“That’s not minimum wage,” I shake my head. I can do better. And throw in English lessons.
And he could teach me Spanish.
He orders white wine.
“I don’t drink.” I make that very clear. “Just Diet Coke now.”
“How much rent you pay?” he asks me. Well. I did ask him how much he makes.
“I don’t tell that,” I say. I hate that I’m concerned that maybe I’m only a ticket to somewhere. But I’m thinking the same way about him. A ticket to company. “I have some money.”
“Do you have manager?” he asks.
“Si,” I say. “Very tough.”
We eat simple meals. He has steak and fries, which is what I’d rather have. But I order the salmon and asparagus, to remind myself I am not falling out of control. That I am leading my simple new life. The life of wise elder. Will the talking be easier if I check out the credit card scene before worrying about the bow-tie, lipstick and whether the watch I’m packing looks too macho? As the dinner goes on, I am only thinking how to handle the bill when it comes.
Stay in the moment. I smile at him. “Ice cream? Café?” I try to do the math in my head. Can’t.
“No?” he smiles.
“May I have the check?” I ask the waiter. I don’t have enough money by far.
Smart young man feeling – what? I don’t know enough of him to know how he feels. Okay. See it like this: If I was an old guy and took out a young dish to show her a good time. And then I didn’t have a credit card.
I feel like Charlie Chaplin with this cheesy smile as I tell the waiter I need to see the maître D. He brings over the Restaurant Manager who looks us over. He’s amused. “Just give me what you have. You can bring the rest tomorrow.” He smiles, touches my shoulder. He hands Marcus the validated parking ticket. When we leave Marcus hands the valet driver a tip.
See. A clue. He has been sweet with me for three years. Most of my love affairs and marriages have gone like this:
I see the guy. Cast the movie. The guy does not have chance. Neither does the reality I’ve worked out according to mid-fifties romantic mythology. Don’t you see? I think of him as a young artist. I will help him discover what he’d love to be. In turn he will keep me safe. I love South American mythology. We will travel to see Mayan and Aztec ruins. Already I’m reaching for old programs. What would a young Mexican girl feel if an old guy said, let’s go to Cancun? She’d maybe prefer Paris. And I wouldn’t want a nice man to take me to Israel. Right now I’d prefer a house in Malibu.
We are back at my place. “Can I use bathroom?” he asks. He has a long drive downtown, and has to be back at the club at 5:30 am. He comes up the stairs with me.
While he is in the guest bath, I see the edge of one card on my desk under the pink book where my bookkeeper left it. Then other card is wrapped in CVS receipt on desk where I’d left it this morning. I put them in the case, which is safe in the kitchen remember-it’s-here drawer. Marcus comes out of restroom. His skin glows. He reaches out to hug me goodbye.
He rubs his neck. “You like massages?” Marcus says. Something in me shuts, like a padlock.
Something in me shuts, like a padlock.
“Not much.” I shake my head. I stand looking at where I live now. It looks like my mother’s beamed art studio. Writers gather here. The walls have pictures of people I’ve loved. Mugs of colored pencils and paint brushes. Books line the stairs. There are bright pillows. Shawls lie easy on chairs. This is my place. Just mine. I have a life I love and manage with a smart team of writers and professionals. I’ve seen myself say, “This is my home,” in places I’d plan to live forever, with my son and daughter.
Then, Shazam! I’d run into a guy and collapse my children’s lives, my writing life.
My heart is beating. Don’t do this. It’s like that instant where you know you can pass the car ahead of you before that car on the other lane comes. You can make the U-turn. Or you arrive at the party. You say, I’ll just have one drink.
“I’m sorry, Marcus,” I say. “It’s gone so crazy.”
“Fun!” He pulls me close. Very close. “You are beautiful,” he says. Oh, my God. This is a story. Marcus wants me. The trailer starts up in my head: the handful of popcorn, the slug of Diet Coke as you sit – or, well, lie – down, all salted for adventure. But I’ve done that story.
He smiles at me, tilts his head, lifts me up in the air. I push myself down to land.
“You are strong,” he says.
“Yes. I am.”
“You need sex!” Men never used to say that. He is saying it in the way of his time: sex is no longer the inevitable start to a boozy black out. Nor is it the scary prize of ceremonial preludes, as complex as e-mail requests for political contributions.
Stop thinking his body is news to you. You’ve felt safe and comforted by this hug for three years.
He’s studying my expression, as I am studying what mine might be.
“Not. Not now. Not yet.” I am Professor Higgins, Rex Harrison; he is Audrey Hepburn. (We should both live so long.)
Inside I am saying, Not ever. I have done sex.
But there is such a charm to his smile. Even if we were fluent in each other’s speech, no words can explain that I speak the language of my history – I have lived enough stories, fallen for so much charm; seen Before and After portraits. Written first, last chapters, and the mountain climber’s saga of recovery from the nosedive.
No ending I can foresee will please me as much as the solitude I say I hate. But then I wonder about his family. He has a son. A father. A sister.
Years ago I’d worried when I kissed – does he know girls have periods? Will he be upset that my waist cincher is hard to take off? What if I get pregnant? Do we have to go all the way?
There was that time when you could fold your arms around each other or climb into a car to neck, the backseat always smelling of someone else’s cigarettes.
Now the question is, does he know that even though I am lean and strong my skin shimmers loose around my body like a chiffon negligee, and that there are the scars across my gut and midriff? And the big question, that would be impossible to ask? AIDS. How do you ask that? It is not in the Miss Manners Book. Did I ever write that one for Cosmo?
There was that time when you could fold your arms around each other or climb into a car to neck, the backseat always smelling of someone else’s cigarettes.
There is confusion. He’s hurt. It’s me, my problem. It hits me in the chest.
“I will call you,” I say. It won’t be until I see him Monday. He does not work weekends.
I have not been smart. Have not imagined the fantasy beyond its frisson. I did not dare think he would want this. Yes, driving. Yes, learning his language. But not this.
When he leaves I am hurt for him. He is proud of his style and charm. I embarrassed him by making the money thing so obvious. I was careless not to have found my cards before he arrived. I could have put them in my case and in my shoulder bag by the door before I got dressed. I had stayed up late, the night before.
Editing, working instead of making a list of everything. This is a curious step. I suppose I should have thought it through. But still, it has been a refreshing charge – being wanted. Even though I was scared and invented a story that maybe I really had humiliated him. I had rejected his very manhood (which I guessed he may have encouraged in the bathroom, asking himself, “She likes me – she wants me to love her back. What could this be?”)
He could be really furious and decide to come back. I checked my door, piled books behind it, and rolled an old heavy toy train across the hall to my bedroom, so I’d hear him trip if he came back. Then I felt ashamed. Why do I only see the negative?
When I woke up the next morning, I felt I had crossed a bridge. I felt grateful that I had kept my life simple. I have suspected life is not a line. It is a circle with bridges like gun sites.
The good thing about writing at my age is that you may forget a lot about yesterday, and what you need to do today. But you do remember every flavor, touch, sound and smell from long ago.
When I was a child, I sat in the olive tree at home, writing. Or in the small attic in my mother’s studio where I could draw or write my stories.
Those were the years before sex where I loved to just look at beautiful men, to imagine dancing with them and to see one looking down at me, in profile, loving even my narrow sharp greenish eyes. He’d hold me in his arms like Gable and carry me up the stairs for a nap with kisses. Rustling his hand though my taffeta skirts, to where even your own hands are never meant to go.
I say now I am post-sexual. But sex has not gone. Time, curiosity and strength have taught me that the ingredients of physical and emotional release have switched. Nothing tumbles me into thrill better than having my pen in my hand, the Music of The Night on the iPad Mini and a fresh word hitting the line out of the park.
Nothing gets my mind more gleeful than overtaking the guy in the next lane with his flippers and headgear.
Ecstasy is surprise: physical, deep gut nerves, spirit in flight, and all senses on go.
I get that when a new writer comes in with a scene that has us crying, laughing arms up, or shaking our heads, bewildered by magic’s arrival when we thought we’d seen, written, heard and felt it all.
But these bridges in the circle of life are like the exit gates in parking lots.
Do not reverse. Will cause serious damage.
I feel a new sense of wonder. I have crossed the bridge to a realm where wisdom is the thrill. Its gift includes new ways of listening. Serenity and acceptance.
I know the fun of attraction. I love being wanted. But I remember too well the hurdles. I am not an easy bit of fun for a neat nice guy.
But then again – he said he loves to dance. To drive.
I have succeeded through this period of my life by following the philosophy of living in the day, the moment. Remembering a great line when you’re stressed, “Do the opposite of what you feel like.”
My life is not about yesterday. And, the stories I write best are when I have no idea exactly how to begin and know nothing about where they might wind up. This is an empty page. Let it be.