He told me to put my feet up. He said, “Take this water bottle. Drink it, but only if you are thirsty. We are in a drought.” I crossed my legs loosely, finding the gesture to be as close to relaxation as I could manage. I rested the bottle in my lap. He said, “If you wish to play your music, I will play your music.”
“Don’t worry about music,” I said. “This is a very nice car.” It had a spaceship quality, with slate-grey leather seats and a wide dashboard. The black carpeting had the clean appearance of velvet. He must have vacuumed it daily.
“We are in your living room,” he said, easing us around to the airport’s exit. “For the next forty minutes, this is your home.”
I was not sure how to reply. Silence filled the space like smoke. Now I wanted the music but did not feel I could ask for it. He reached back to offer me a small wicker basket full of pink and red Starbursts. I accepted a pink one and put it in my pocket. “What happened to the other colors?” I asked.
“If you had a choice, would you want yellow Starbursts in your home?”
“No,” I said, impressed.
“A home is where your needs are met.” He turned on his blinker and carved a place for us in the six lanes of traffic.
I wanted to drink from the water bottle, but was I thirsty? My mouth felt strange, but my mouth often felt strange. “Are you from LA?” I asked.
“I have lived for many years in Echo Park, the neighborhood of your destination. I was born in Zagreb.”
“Oh,” I said. “Do you ever go back?”
“This is my country. Los Angeles.”
“I’m going to stay with my friend Natalie and her husband. He works in Hollywood. He gets all the movies sent to him while they’re still in theaters.”
“That sounds like a pleasant vacation.”
The water bottle seal broke crisply and I took a sip, but shallow, measured, so as to be respectful of the drought. I did not want to convey the natural excesses of my small town, where we had enough snow to bury a person. In a few months the snow would melt and fill the rivers so they rushed dangerously and you would have to be careful walking along the banks.
We drove in silence and the skin on my face began to feel tight. I scratched at it, around my nose. I was going to have marks and Natalie would ask about them. I took another sip from the bottle. “Have you ever seen ‘Training Day’?” I found myself asking. “It’s the movie with Denzel Washington. They filmed part of it in Echo Park.”
“I am not familiar,” he said.
“It’s about a rookie narcotics officer’s first day on the job. A lot of people get shot.”
When Natalie gave me her address before I left Keane, I had entered it into Google Maps and perused the neighborhood electronically. She and her husband Carlos lived in a large green bungalow a few blocks from Echo Park. Someone had told me years before that they filmed the movie there. After my Google inquiry, I watched the movie again and it was true: the fountain catapulting three jets of water skyward, the flocks of pigeons, the people in paddle boats, the palm trees. You can see it all from Ethan Hawke’s point of view when he’s high on PCP.
“Is this a new movie?” my driver asked.
“No,” I said. “I saw ‘Training Day’ with Natalie when we were thirteen, and we’re thirty, now. I was practically living at her family’s house then. Her mom made a giant frittata on Sundays, with all kinds of vegetables and cheeses. Do you ever make frittatas?”
“Natalie’s dad cooked bacon in the microwave. It would make these shrunken meat gargoyles. It was like he didn’t know there was a better way to cook bacon.”
My driver laughed. The skin on my face felt less tight, and the feeling of smoke around me began to dissipate. I was telling him a story, and he was enjoying my story.
“Everyone sat around the table,” I went on, “and we ate our frittata and bacon while discussing current events. Natalie’s brother Arthur was home from college that summer, and it was his idea to rent ‘Training Day.’ Natalie wasn’t interested, but I really wanted to watch it. I thought Ethan Hawke was cute. Arthur’s bedroom had bunk beds and we watched on the top bunk, and Natalie kept climbing down for a soda or those mini Snickers bars they kept in the freezer that get stuck in your teeth.”
I unwrapped the Starburst and began to chew it. The fragrant pinkness was dizzying and I closed my eyes. With my eyes closed, I decided I could continue. I had not wanted to talk about “Training Day” with anyone, and yet here I was telling a stranger. “There’s a part in the movie where Denzel shoots a drug dealer with a shotgun. You watch the man die. In that moment I realized I didn’t want to be watching the movie anymore. Arthur must have known because he put his arm around me.”
“How old was this boy?” the driver asked.
“Nineteen,” I said.
The driver shook the back of his head. He had a penny-sized spot of scalp at the top and I watched it swivel. “My daughter is eighteen,” he said. “I made her take Krav Maga classes. It is an Israeli defense practice. Are you Jewish?”
I said I was not.
“Neither are we. But I know about teenaged boys.”
“Is Echo Park still like in ‘Training Day’?” I asked, certain it wasn’t. My friend would never buy a home in a place with gangs.
The driver made a tsk sound. “I own my house. It is worth a lot of money now.”
“Are there any restaurants you would recommend in the neighborhood?”
“I do not eat out much,” he said. “A few years ago, I lost my taste buds.”
The lanes merged, and a truck cut us off. He slammed on the brakes, and then reached back, the tops of his fingers awkwardly grazing my knee. Instinctively I pulled back. But it was not a greedy touch. It was only to make sure that I was safe.
“How did you lose your taste buds?” I asked.
“Chemotherapy,” he said. “It sandblasts them.”
The image of a cat came to me, a sandy tongue dragging across fur. My driver was not unhealthy looking. His gray hair was thick and slightly grown out, his forearms tan. He wore a white polo shirt that he filled unremarkably. He looked about sixty, but a sixty who started his day with calisthenics.
I began to nod, but I was moving my head too quickly, so I slowed down but then it seemed to be too slow, and I feared he would think I was mocking him. I sped up again, but that felt too fast. I held my jaw in my hands. The air vent in the car was blasting. “The time we watched ‘Training Day,’” I said, “when we were thirteen, that was the last time Natalie invited me over to her house for a sleepover.”
“But she has invited you across the country to spend time with her.”
“It’s because of my boyfriend, Julian, that she invited me. So I could get away. He died last year in an accident.”
“I’m sorry,” the driver said. “How do you feel?”
I considered his question. There was no true answer. “Like I lost my taste buds,” I said.
He nodded, but I could not see his face and wasn’t sure if I had offended him.
“That came out flip,” I said. “I’m sorry about your taste buds.”
He removed his right hand from the steering wheel and waved it, as though to absolve me. “And I am sorry about your boyfriend.”
The car began to feel smoky again. “We were together for a long time,” I said, “but we didn’t believe in marriage.”
“Some people do not.”
I sipped from the water bottle. The liquid didn’t have a taste, but I experienced a temperature. Could he sense cold? “It must make eating less pleasurable,” I said.
“I have lost thirty pounds,” he said.
“Only fifteen, for me.”
He turned up a steep hill, and I realized I had barely taken in the landscape, had witnessed only the occasional palm tree erect on the edge of the freeway. Now I looked. All of these steep hills were just like in the movie. In the distance I could see purple mountains dipped in snow, framed by more palm trees. Cognitive dissonance, Julian might have said grandly, as though he had invented the term.
“This is not a city for people on foot,” the driver said. “If you need someone to take you around during your stay, you can call me.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I’m Patricia. Or Patty.”
“My name is Karlo.” He eased us to a stop. “Patricia, we are at your destination.”
I counted the bills from my wallet. “You’re a good driver,” I said. “I felt very safe, even with the traffic.”
“I am glad,” he said. “I have done my job.”
* * *
The dogs were tawny, smooth creatures and they pinged off of me as I stood in the foyer. “Ping”—that was a word my boss loved to use in the office. I had taken a job as an executive assistant after I moved back in with my mother. “Ping me,” he would say, “when you’ve finished the draft.” “I pinged her, but she wasn’t responding.” “When I ping you, Patty, I need you to be ready.” “If you can’t even respond to my pings, I don’t see how this can work out.”
“How was the flight?” Natalie asked.
“The flight was quick,” I said. “But still longer than I expected. The time difference confused me. I didn’t bring food.”
“Oh, you have to bring food,” her husband Carlos said. He poured amber liquid into a glass and handed it to me. “The indignities of economy have become unsupportable.”
“That’s not the right word,” Natalie said. “You mean, ‘unbearable.’”
“Insoportable,” he said in Spanish. “I mean what I mean.”
“It’s not colloquial.” She rolled her eyes at me and laughed. “A marriage reduced to semantics.”
The liquid—Scotch? Bourbon? I could never tell, though Julian considered himself to be a connoisseur—made my eyes feel droopy.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “You must be hungry.”
Carlos and I sat down on the couch and Natalie disappeared to the kitchen.
“Carlos,” I said, wanting to be a good guest, “how is the Hollywood business?”
“We just got picked up for another season,” he said, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know what he did. Something with a camera. Holding it, maybe.
“That’s wonderful,” I said, hoping he would elaborate but he did not. He was dressed in a button-down shirt and bomber jacket with sunglasses, the kind sold behind glass counters, sticking out of his breast pocket. “I like the turquoise furniture,” I told him. “Your home is beautiful.”
“Mostly gifts. The aesthetic out here is very different from New Hampshire, isn’t it?”
Natalie returned from the kitchen with a grilled cheese sandwich cut diagonally on a plate and a portion of buttery brown chips that reminded me of seaside towns. We moved to the concrete patio that extended from the back door of the bungalow and then became a steep grass incline where a hammock hung between two trees. Carlos lit citronella candles that had an exotic scent, like pear and sandalwood. I had noticed how each corner of their house emitted a different subtle smell. It came from glass bottles of oil with narrow stalks that pulled and dispersed the scents. Now I sat in a wooden chair that faced the mountains, and the younger dog, Ramona, jumped into my lap. I fed her a chip.
“Oh, I wish you wouldn’t. She needs to lose some weight.” Natalie kissed the dog’s head. “The vet thinks Ramona is eating Parsley’s food.”
I laughed, and then realized she was serious. Natalie knelt down and cupped her palms over my knees. She had blue eyes, which she lined with black. I had never seen her without that makeup, even as teenagers. I was still envious of her eyes.
“What’s that on your face?” she asked. “You have a little mark.”
“Oh, just dry skin,” I said, angry at my earlier, nervous self and yet mildly satisfied to have been able to predict her behavior even after all these years.
“If you’re wiped out,” she said, “you can go to sleep. Don’t feel like you have to entertain us. You’re here to recharge.”
I nodded, chewing the last bite of the sandwich. Because I could, I focused on the flavors: the sharpness from the cheddar, the delicate yeast of the bread, the oniony oil.
“Come,” she told me. “I made up your bed.” She led me inside and pointed at the thermostat. “It gets cold at night, and I want you to be comfortable, sweetie.” I watched as she pressed the arrow up until the number read eighty-five. Eighty-five! I could not fathom such reckless luxury. My mother, with whom I had been living this past year, kept our thermostat set to fifty, even on the coldest nights. Whenever I complained she would say that I needed more iron in my diet and to put on a sweater, honey. Heat is expensive. I still had not re-acclimated to sleeping by myself.
“Heat must be cheap out here,” I said, and Natalie smiled. I remembered this untrue smile, a smile with too much tooth. “Thank you,” I added quickly. “I’m cold all the time back home.”
Then I realized I had not packed pajamas. I was so used to sleeping in the nude with Julian that even in my mother’s cold house I could never fall asleep with clothes on. But it seemed like a houseguest should wear pajamas, and I apologized again. Natalie lent me a pair of women’s sleeping boxers, cotton and soft, and a big t-shirt with her law school insignia. “Do you have a password for the wifi?” I asked.
“It’s one word: ‘BedBugsRefugeeCamp,’” she said, and laughed at her joke. “Carlos likes to have fun with the neighbors.”
I laughed, too.
“Night, Patty,” she said. “I’m glad you’re here.” She shut the guestroom door, and I climbed under the flannel sheets, warm like a present.
Did Julian ever have fun with our neighbors? Once he took a shit in a bag and left it on the neighbor’s doorstep after she called the police on him. He had locked me out of the house in a snowstorm. We were arguing about whether or not to host a dinner party. He found such things frivolous, but my friends invited us over often and I knew it was important to reciprocate. Later, Julian and I got stoned and I forgave him.
As I was in the habit of doing every night, I removed my laptop from its case and navigated to a bookmarked site. I turned the sound low but not off—the sounds were important—and rested the laptop on my chest. The video began to play: a European couple, “vanilla.” I liked her full pubic hair and his low ponytail.
During the early years, Julian and I used to watch porn as an aphrodisiac. Later on, we’d watch side-by-side in bed, touching ourselves but not each other. He had a talent for making me believe things were my idea. Since his death, I had gotten into the habit of falling asleep to our favorite videos, comforted by the background images and sounds. And yet I had no interest in sex itself, not with another man or even with myself.
How much did taste factor in to the appreciation of sex? I wondered whether I could become aroused with someone much older. Would I need to watch pornography? Would he enjoy my young body?
The door to the guest bedroom nudged ajar. I closed the laptop.
In the crack of light, a black nose appeared, then a second above it, and then the dogs were bounding into the room. The door swung shut behind them, and they jumped onto the bed and draped themselves over my legs so I couldn’t move even if I wanted to. My mind loosened and I opened the laptop. The European woman seemed to be experiencing pleasure, but soon, in a minute or two, I knew her face would go slack. You would see that this was her real life.
Soon, I would sleep. The sweet dogs would not judge me.
* * *
Natalie and Carlos had a vigorous routine of exercise, healthful food, and recreation. My life with Julian had involved a lot of packaged noodles and party-sized bags of chips because he decided money from our food budget could be used for weed, which he said sustained the soul. I’m not saying I didn’t smoke it, too, only that it’s ridiculous to have a food budget if you use it in such a manner.
Natalie and Carlos had two coffee makers: a French press and a fancy machine that shot boiling water through plastic capsules. I had seen an acupuncturist after Julian died because my mother thought it would help me. The acupuncturist had warned me about heating things up in plastic. She told me that one of her patients had been microwaving her daughter’s food in a plastic dish since she was born. The girl was six now and had grown armpit hair. I had liked the soft touches of this woman’s needles but could not afford more than one session.
“Coffee, love?” Natalie asked.
I had three cups that morning from the endocrine-disrupting machine, which made me feel like my fingers were twitching and my hair was growing extra fast. Natalie never left my side except for when she went to a spinning class. She offered to bring me as her guest but I was not interested. Julian was always telling me I was too thin and should gain some weight. He said my face needed fullness to be beautiful, and I was already down fifteen pounds.
When she returned, I was reading in the backyard, enjoying how the sun heated my collarbone. She decided we should go hiking—a gentle hike, not even requiring of a sports bra—so the dogs could stretch their legs.
“I would like that,” I said, though I was quite comfortable where I was.
It took us an hour to get to the trailhead because of the traffic. I sat in the back seat, petting the dogs, keeping them calm. They smelled so good, even as they demolished the green, rawhide bones that stained my jeans.
The trailhead was dusty and full of armored plants that were thriving despite the lack of rain. There was a sign prohibiting dogs on the trail, warning they might disturb the natural flora and fauna.
“Isn’t a dog a ‘natural fauna’?” Natalie demanded.
I offered to run ahead and check for park rangers, and she agreed. I was already sweating despite the gentle temperature, and I adjusted my underwire bra, which had begun to moisten around its edges. “All clear!” I called. There was no one around, except for two young women with bellybutton rings and slender stomachs recording themselves on a cell phone.
Natalie rushed to me with the dogs on their leashes. As kids, we liked to wander in the woods behind her house and watch small animals, chipmunks and rabbits, scurrying through the underbrush. We would name them and assign them backstories. It felt good to be outdoors with her again.
“How’s your mom?” she asked as we climbed.
“She’s been painting the kitchen and the bathroom, stenciling designs on the walls. I help sometimes. It’s a good project for us.”
“I loved coming over to your house when we were little,” she said. “Did you know that?”
“I didn’t know that,” I said. We rarely spent the night at my house, and it touched me to hear Natalie speak that way.
“Your mom would bring us a cut-up green apple after dinner.”
“And she left the skin on because of the vitamins.”
“She made sure we went to bed at a reasonable hour.”
A young couple with gray sweatshirts tied around their waists came over the ridge. The man was holding the leash of a dog the same breed as Ramona and Parsley.
“There’s a ranger up there,” the man warned as the dogs sniffed each other. “You’ll get a fine.”
Natalie thanked him, and they chatted for a moment about the unfairness of these new rules. The man and the woman held hands the whole time, even when their dog lunged at a beetle. We all headed down the mountain.
In the evening, Carlos grilled fish and vegetables and we sat at the dining room table, where he had lit the long, tapered beeswax candles that sat in engraved silver holders. The placemats all matched and the cloth napkins were expertly folded.
“We’re fighting the government’s agenda at every turn,” Natalie said, tenting her fingers over the table. “Every leaked memo, every executive order, we have to be ready. Our clients depend on it.” I could see how her lined eyes would inspire confidence. They were passionate, yet contained. As she spoke, I took inventory of the items on the shelf behind her: a mint green, self-heating fondue pot; a rose-gold tea set; a set of brandy snifters; a set of cordial glasses; an azure KitchenAid mixer. Every object felt like an indictment of my behavior, like she had wanted me to sit in this particular seat so that I could observe the splendor of their gift registry.
“I should have come to your wedding,” I said, interrupting her. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, honey,” Natalie said. “Everything with Julian—please, don’t worry.”
My stomach cramped. “No, I should have at least sent a gift. Something that you could look at or use and think of me and my love for you guys. There’s no excuse.”
She stood and walked to the other side of the table and hugged me. “You came out for a visit,” she said. “You’re here. No one ever comes to visit.”
Ramona was barking at something on the street.
Carlos refilled Natalie’s wine glass. “It’s true, none of Nata’s friends visit us. Except for Lauren and Dave, right? And Sarah and Mike? And Elena. And Charlotte.”
The dog’s cries grew louder, and then Parsley was barking too.
“All right,” she said. “Take it easy.” She got up to let the dogs out. Carlos did not refill my glass.
“Patty, when exactly was Julian’s accident?” he asked me. “I’m fuzzy on the timeline.”
“Three months after your wedding,” I said, stacking our dirty plates and carrying them to the kitchen.
* * *
“We are in your living room,” Karlo said. I thanked him and accepted a red Starburst. I resolved not to open the water bottle.
“Do you ever get famous people in the cab?” I asked. We were going west on the freeway toward the beach.
“Let me tell you a story,” he said. “A few weeks ago, a business man from Abu Dhabi arrived at LAX on a private plane. He had meetings and wanted his wife, son, and daughter to enjoy themselves. He gave me a thousand dollars to take them wherever they wanted. His wife wanted to buy clothes, so I dropped her off on Rodeo Drive. The daughter—a Muslim girl—wanted to wear her tiny bikini on a beach, to feel the sun on her skin, so I dropped her at the Santa Monica Pier with sunscreen and a large clean t-shirt. The son gave me $400 and asked me to buy him California marijuana. I bought him $20 worth because I am a father, not just a businessman. When I returned the change to him, he said, ‘Keep it.’ I meet many people in my work. They each desire something specific. Most are inherently generous and kind. When they are not, you can see they have not had an easy time in life. Their desires have evaded them. I do not need to keep working. Like I have told you, I have paid off my mortgage. My daughter is grown and self-sufficient. I have $54,000 in my bank account. But my work gives me purpose. Look—that is the downtown. The Oscars are held in this theater. To your right is the Hollywood sign. These are big attractions.”
The physical discomfort I had experienced before was returning, the pressure to speak, to confess, the tightness in my skin. “I was with Julian for seven years,” I said.
Karlo swerved out of the way of a pickup truck drifting into our lane. I gripped the seat. “Do you feel like a window?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said. But the more I thought about it the more beautiful the question seemed. I did feel like a window, like everyone could see me clearly, yet there was an impenetrable surface blocking me from being reached. Or had he said ‘widow’? That made more sense.
“I will wait in the car,” Karlo said, taking a parking spot beside the beach. “Enjoy the ocean. It is too cold to swim but the sand will be warm. Please knock on the glass when you return.”
I took off my sneakers and cuffed my pants. The sand did not look especially clean, but I felt that being in California I should at least try to do things that Californians do, and there were many Californians with cuffed pants, barefoot on the beach. I expected the salt air to transform me. I waited. I called my mother. She would be enjoying her morning tea and fiber bread with honey. She was turning seventy this year, an age that seemed jarringly incongruous with the mother I knew.
“I’m at the beach,” I said.
“In January? Goodness.”
“Miss you,” she said. “Are you getting some relief?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“His mother called me,” she said.
“Just to talk. I didn’t know what to say. Can you imagine what she’s going through?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Oh, sweets. Losing a child is like nothing else.”
“How do you know?”
“I can imagine.”
We’d had this conversation many times, in one form or another. I hung up. It did not feel good to hang up on my seventy-year-old mother. I called her back, pretending my phone had dropped the call. “What have you been doing?”
“We got five inches of snow yesterday and Kyle came by with his plow and did the driveway. He didn’t even charge me.”
“Are you by yourself? Or did Natalie take off work?”
“She couldn’t. She’s working on a pro bono immigration case. But I’m fine. I found a nice cab driver to take me around.”
My mom exhaled. “Don’t give him the wrong idea.”
“Why do you assume it’s a man driving the cab?”
“Yes. He asked me if I felt like a widow.”
“I’m not sure.”
I stood and brushed the sand off my jeans. What a skill Karlo had: to present the world in layers. The same encounter might evolve with time and take on a new meaning depending on my willingness to accept it. What else had I misheard?
“I told you that we didn’t believe in marriage,” I said, as I slid into the backseat. “But really, Julian didn’t, and I didn’t see the point in pushing it.”
Karlo nodded. We were still in the parking lot, and the day was hazy. Did he want to hear more? I wanted to tell him more. I explained that Julian and I had been living in Manchester, New Hampshire. I was teaching English as a second language and Julian worked as a landscaper. Even though I had grown up in New Hampshire and gone to college in Vermont, I did not like to ski. But it was Julian’s passion. For a few years I went with him, but one of the tradeoffs I made in my head was that if he was never going to marry me, then I was not obliged to go skiing. We didn’t talk about having children. I don’t mean we never talked about it, but it was something I brought up early on in the relationship and he said that overpopulation would be the great disaster of our time, and that it was selfish to procreate for reasons of vanity, and I was never good at the counterargument. We were still so young. But I was far more traditional than I realized and I felt hurt just below the surface all the time.
I asked, “What’s the name for the fat below the surface?”
“Subcutaneous,” Karlo said.
“That’s right. My hurt was subcutaneous but I was a modern woman and I did not feel I had the grounds to demand marriage or children.”
“And your Julian died in a skiing accent,” Karlo said.
“Yes. You’re a good listener. We’d had an ice storm the night before and the slopes were lousy, but it was his day off and he insisted on going out anyway. He hit a tree going fast. I moved back home with my mom after it happened.”
“That is a terrible thing.”
“I don’t feel like a widow. I’m not even sure that he was a good person.”
Karlo made eye contact with me in the rearview mirror. “Do you feel that if you were his wife, even if he were a bad person, you could allow yourself this particular set of emotions?”
I sat with this idea, turning it over in my mind. “Is that ridiculous?”
“Certainly, it is not.”
We drove the rest of the way in a silence, but the smoke was gone. Soon my surroundings became familiar—the grocery store with the funny name, the gas station with the giant milkshake sign.
“Tell me about your daughter,” I said.
“She rides a motorcycle,” Karlo said. “She is a very small woman, not even five feet tall. When cars cut her off on the freeway, she punches out their taillight with an extendable baton.”
“She sounds like a warrior,” I said. I caught his smile in the rearview mirror, and I felt so good to have pleased him. “What about her mother?” I asked.
“Towards the end of our marriage Colleen became abusive to me. You see? I give it a label. ‘Abuse.’ She used to come back to our house and tell me that she wanted to be with other men. She would destroy personal items in our home. Photographs of our daughter. She burned a letter that was very important to me, from my mother. This was during the chemo and I was very tired and could not defend myself. I told you that I lost my taste buds from the chemicals. But—” He opened his right palm as though holding something made of iron— “I cannot say for certain. Sometimes I blame my ex-wife.” Then he pointed to a small house behind a corrugated wall. “My home,” he said. Bright pink bougainvillea slipped over the wall. The shutters were painted pumpkin. The front garden looked well-tended, a sea of emerald arms reaching tall despite the drought.
“Lovely,” I told him.
He pulled to the side of the road. “Patricia, you have told me many personal things,” he said. His hands loosened against the wheel. “But I have not been honest with you.”
I tried to anticipate his words. I noticed the doors were locked and my breath quickened. I could see that the skin on his knuckles was dry and a lighter color than the rest of his body.
“Do you know what a lie of omission is?” he asked.
I nodded. I held my jaw in my hands. I felt cold. When I looked down my toenails were a row of purple shells.
“You have shared much of yourself with me,” he said, “and I have withheld. I do not want to mislead you. The truth is I do not want more chemotherapy, and the doctors do not think it would help. I will greatly enjoy this final year, and perhaps the one after that. I am greatly enjoying this moment with you.”
I began to cry, from relief, from sadness for him.
Karlo reached into the cup holder and broke the seal of the water bottle. He passed it to me. “Please,” he said, “drink the whole thing.”
* * *
On Friday night, Natalie and Carlos threw a fondue party in my honor. We diced Gruyere into cubes and melted them in the pot with chardonnay and garlic. We even had colored spears for dipping the green apple and baguette. As people arrived, I kept myself busy by petting the dogs until Natalie’s friend Lucy came over and squatted down beside me. People were always squatting down beside me, like I was a child, like I was unable to rise to their level even if prompted. I knew Lucy had spent the past year traveling the world with her husband Mark. They were writers and dressed in the chic, eclectic way of people who had spent time in hostels in Thailand and Djibouti, with loose linen pants and lots of bracelets made from colored string.
“How was your trip?” I asked. “How many countries was it?”
“Twenty-seven,” she said and drained her cocktail. I expected her to be smug about it but instead her face crumpled and she whispered, “It was hard to be with Mark every minute of every day. I’m amazed we made it. Now we have no money and no jobs. We’re already in credit card debt. I’m sure we’ll look back on this like it was some great adventure. But right now, I’m tired.”
“Of course,” I said. “You need distance. You need stability.” I reached my hand out to touch her in some way, and my hand rested on her hip. It was the wrong gesture. We were still in a squatting position and she nearly toppled over.
“God, listen to me, complaining,” she said, backing away. “I’m sorry about Julian. What a freak accident.”
“You know, my friend wrote a personal essay for a blog about her boyfriend dying. I’ll send it to you.”
I was not especially interested in reading a stranger’s blog post but I didn’t want to be rude after Lucy had confessed her unhappiness. I thanked her.
She excused herself for some mulled wine, and, as if choreographed, her husband approached me. I stood up to shake his hand, but he wrapped his arms around me. Maybe hugging was part of his new ethos. We had met once before, I remembered, when Natalie still lived in Boston.
“Twenty-seven countries,” I said. “That’s a lot.”
“It was amazing, Patty,” he said.
“I bet it was very inspiring for your work.”
He was nodding, quickly, and then slowly, and I wondered whether he had the same concerns about nodding as I did.
“What was your favorite country?”
“Indonesia,” he said. “A place unlike any other. We met a group of university students there and we’ve been sponsoring them.”
“That’s a good thing to do.”
“Lucy feels like it’s too unofficial, that they could be using that money for anything.”
“But even if they’re going out to dinner with it, or buying beer, it’s still nice of you.”
“That’s what I said!” He touched my arm. “I have to tell you, the trip was amazing. But it was a lot of pressure, to make each day unique and exciting. Sometimes you just want to exist. You know? Every day felt like a new opportunity to disappoint her.”
“That sounds unsupportable,” I said.
“It was,” he said, and he squeezed my hand. I went to find the dogs.
After the guests had left, and we’d done the dishes, Natalie took a shower, and Carlos went to bed. He liked to wake up early to exercise.
When she got out of the shower, her face was clean. Her eyes were so pale, the skin around them a faint lavender. She looked tired and young.
We sat on the couch to watch an advanced copy of some drama I could not follow and I began to feel itchy.
“Do you and Carlos ever watch pornography together?” I asked, for something to say.
“No,” she said. “I think Carlos watches it when I’m not home. But, honestly, I find it exploitive of women. It’s hard to get turned on by that.”
“I think for some people that’s the turn-on,” I said, staring at the TV.
She tucked her knees under her body on the couch, and Parsley jumped into her lap. “Have you talked to a therapist?” she asked.
“I can’t really afford it.”
“Was there life insurance? Savings? Were you on his health plan?”
I covered myself with a cashmere blanket. “No, we were bohemian about that stuff.”
“I always admired that about you.”
I looked around the room at all of their beautiful items, proof of their community’s love. “But it’s worked out much better for you, hasn’t it?”
“Honey, we could hear you the other night with your computer. I know you’re going through a lot but it makes Carlos uncomfortable.”
I swallowed and looked hard at Parsley and Ramona. I hated their human eyes. “Please apologize to him,” I said. “I’m very tired. I think I’ll go to sleep now.”
“Don’t be like that,” she said, grabbing my arm. She was always grabbing me—I had forgotten that about her. “You brought it up,” she said. “I thought that’s why you brought it up. To see if we can hear you, and we can. I’m just telling you. Don’t get defensive.”
I nodded, but she had stripped away the protective coating we depended on. “I didn’t go to your wedding because I didn’t want to see your brother,” I said, and when she didn’t reply, I added, “Do you know you live in Echo Park?”
“Of course I know,” she said. “What?”
“The same Echo Park that’s in ‘Training Day’?”
Natalie shooed the dog out of her lap and took a drink from her wine glass. “Patty, what are you talking about?”
“We were watching that movie.”
“When your brother molested me!”
“Molested you?” She leaned back into the couch and closed her eyes. “Patty, you seduced him.”
“I was thirteen. He took my clothes off and touched me.”
“Don’t act like this is something he did to you. I heard the sounds you were making. I went to get candy and then you were naked with my brother. What was I supposed to do?”
Parsley started barking and Natalie yelled at her to shut up. I could hear rustling from the bedroom but the door remained closed.
“It made my parents go insane,” she said, quietly. “They thought your mom was going to sue us.”
“They thought they were going to lose the house.”
“But you were my family.”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry about what happened to Julian.”
The itching around my face became too much and when I started to scratch it, she grabbed my hand and held on to it. I allowed this for a while. We finished the movie in silence, and then I went to bed.
* * *
Around four in the morning I woke up. The streets were blue, and I passed orange trees and avocado trees as I walked. There was a freeway underpass that separated me from Karlo’s house and I felt nervous to walk through it, frightened both of the traffic and the people who took shelter there.
I approached the underpass and looked straight ahead. A woman was sleeping in a shopping cart. The rest of the people were huddled under blankets. I began to run and passed them without breathing, without eye contact. When I was a safe distance away, I felt angry at myself. Who was I to judge them?
I paused for a moment outside of Karlo’s house. The succulent garden had beach glass tiles around the aloe plants, welcoming me.
“Would you like to watch ‘Training Day’?” I asked Karlo once we were settled. I could tell I had woken him, though he had not seemed shocked to find me at his door. “We could probably find it online.”
“I would rather not,” he said. “I will make you a cup of tea.” He boiled water in a small pot on the stove. When it bubbled, he wrapped the handle in a dishcloth and poured it into two mugs. He offered me a choice of ginger or chamomile.
I felt suddenly shy around him without the separation of the backseat. “Ginger, please.”
He asked me to sit down. The mug was very hot.
“Why do you want to watch that movie?” he asked. He crossed his legs, and I felt moved by his sweatpants and the sight of his bare feet. He had hair on his big toes but the skin looked smooth.
“There’s a scene towards the end where Denzel Washington’s secret lover Eva Mendes is naked.”
“She’s very beautiful.”
“It was like Arthur got confused, or I wanted him to get confused. Like in that moment I was Eva Mendes.”
“You were a young girl,” Karlo said.
“I was not welcome at Natalie’s house after that. I was no longer invited to Sunday frittata.”
“That must have been a great loss for you.”
“I would like to ask something of you,” he said. He reached out and held my hand. It was dry and wrinkled, but sturdy. “You are here in my home in the middle of the night. What can I, Karlo, give to you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. He was still holding my hand, and though I realized now that I had been prepared to give myself to him sexually, I could tell from his gentle touch that it would not be necessary. That despite everything I had learned about the world, this man wanted only to offer me comfort.
“I must go to sleep now,” he said, “but I want you to think about it. I would like to help you with more than just safe passage. It would make me feel useful in my final year. It is not a good idea for you to walk back to your friend’s at this hour. Please, have the couch. I will give you blankets. Tomorrow morning, we will discuss this.”
I finished my tea and then lay down on the couch. The blankets were light but warm, just the right weight. I could not sleep without my videos, but I lay there comfortably, thinking about his request. After an hour or so, I got up and walked around his kitchen. I opened the fridge. The top two shelves were occupied by orange bottles of pills, of syringes in plastic bags, of tubes that snaked into other tubes. I closed the fridge. On the stove sat an espresso pot. I touched its cold metal. He had a fern in the window by the sink, green-yellow fronds tumbling over the faucet.
I examined the framed photograph of his daughter, her bangs sticking out under a baseball cap. I imagined the conversation she and I might have after his passing. I would offer her a cup of tea, ginger or chamomile. Together we would sit, in the home I shared with her father. Together, we would remember the final months of his life.