It was exactly the right hour to pass groups of twenty-somethings leaving the bars, which was one of the comforts of 1985 in Los Angeles. The women dressed so much smarter than the men it made them look lonely, like girls too tall in sixth grade. Nancy was past thirty, but wore an army jacket with a white work shirt untucked like a boy’s and cigarette pants she was too wide for, half youth cadet, half spinster, and I said I’d drive her home from Ports because she was the city’s “designated non-driver,” one of my better tries at being witty back then, but it never stuck. When she first arrived from D.C. she actually bought a car, but she resold it to the dealer the next week, and despite the impossibility of getting around L.A. except by cab, she never wavered.
We were in the dirt lot air outside the Pan Pacific Theatre’s ruins looking for wherever my car last had been, leaving the ghostly señora who owned Port’s framed in the doorway of the bar. Nancy’s voice kept shivering though it wasn’t cold out. “Ohh, is that what sagebrush smells like?”
I grunted — showing that names of plants were charmingly out of my male reach — always wishing I could be a lug instead of a writer. And when I didn’t say more, she tried to take responsibility for missing my meaning, with a slow, catching-on laugh. I always had the benefit of the doubt with Nancy.
A legend about Nancy was that at age six, on a swing set in South Carolina, she promised never to get married or have kids, chanting NO KIDS every time the chain lurched skyward. But she could not recall a triggering event. It didn’t help to ask, because what Nancy didn’t know about herself, she didn’t know. And despite how unimportant she considered herself to be, she could shut down a topic with as little apology as a White House spokeswoman.
At the magazine where Nancy championed other people’s creativity all day, the first story I wrote was about being a boy so sheltered in the San Fernando Valley that I asked for a Buick Riviera from a Christmas charity. The piece went through a lot of less-honest drafts, and Nancy said the mortifying truth was what finally pierced her. That plus a poor-fitting pair of slacks I’d bought on Hollywood Boulevard the same day, from a touristy clothier who had shoe-polish ads in the window. I strode into his store against every pulsing neon omen, determined to believe he could make me look more substantial than L.A. Nancy asked if I wore the slacks to make girls swoon — like that, we were on my turf.
And when I realized she might have a crush, not just on my writing, my wires were as disconnected as hers. She was material for what I drank to as the legend of my twenties, about being a young writer in what people would someday agree was the most fascinating city in the world.
My dad’s generation had adulthood forced upon them, the Great Depression, a world war, then hedonism, and there was something hermetic about his car and the songbook of his life, his outstanding talent for driving more slowly than all the other lanes — I used to see all of Ronald Reagan’s deinstitutionalized phantoms stirring in their blankets when my dad drove us past them, their eyes looking for mine, but I wanted only to be glib in 1985.
Nancy said the mortifying truth was what finally pierced her. That plus a poor-fitting pair of slacks I’d bought on Hollywood Boulevard from a touristy clothier against every pulsing neon omen, determined to believe he could make me look more substantial than L.A.
Inside her upper duplex, Nancy switched on a light and opened all the windows and slid into a reclining chair that was beanbag low, making her look like the drunk one of us, and started right in channeling questions from the ceiling. “How do writers do it?” she asked at one point. “Do they all go crazy about breaking paragraphs in the perfect spot?”
At work, she’d sometimes hear Stephen Bates pounding on the walls of a typing room to get out a story — which I said made perfect sense: Didn’t he throw a Hollywood Hills party every time he finished anything? I’d been invited to one, filled with smart, sexy Stephen-groupies — magazine writers had swag in 1985 — and his quotable aside that night was, “You know how many wrong directions a first sentence can go? Infinity — I counted.”
“Wait,” Nancy pouted, stuck one beat behind. “How does someone get to be a ‘smart,’ ‘sexy’ woman?”
I volunteered Katherine Hepburn’s advice: “Use good posture and think dirty thoughts.” But that made Nancy sadder — not her style.
She went on to other riddles, playing a tragic game of footsie. Why did her best friend take a stranger into the clichéd bathroom stall to fuck? Why did Nancy’s first boyfriend laugh with her about all the lemmings from the art department lured to the gorgeous, troubled Eurasian intern, until the day he fell in bed with her himself?
The lure of the wrong! in other words. The cruelty of nature. Was everyone like that? She was asking in a writerly, student-of-life way — not that it ruled out feeling wounded when the boyfriend betrayed her. And enough men at parties had left with Nancy’s sister’s phone number that Nancy essentially stopped talking to men at parties.
It was late enough or I was drunk enough to marvel at things without talking, just to slump into Nancy’s no-fault world, when she said, “Have you ever made love to a fat girl?”
So we did. To say I was honoring the sacredness of the proposition would be giving me too much credit. In 1985, I didn’t know men could say no. She leaned over me and we kissed, and the hardness of her kiss felt fresh, like it might hurt in a good way later. Almost immediately we were in the hallway, shuffling sidewise between towers of books, until she was turning on a bright papier-mâché lantern that was her night lamp. “Yes?” she asked. “We really are?”
It felt less presumptuous to unbutton her shirt than my own, I didn’t know why. She was thick and round, which I already knew, but firmer than I was worried she’d be. Velvety, figureless. When I got to me, she admired each phase of stripping away: “You’re so long!”
That got me going, well enough for her to climb on top with me inside her. But then the novelty cruelly faded. With each jolt, a ghost of faith was shaken loose, and we were both bouncing, half passed out, with me silently praying to start over. There are no atheists in a bedroom that has lost the orchestra. I never came.
“I shouldn’t have forced things,” she said. “You were being kind.”
“No,” I said. Which was true: The only ego I’d been concerned about was mine.
But I watched her take hope from the perfectly rational idea that there’d be plenty more chances in bed. “Agh!” she said, and bounced to her feet, zipping on the thin black jeans. “You’ve at least got to take some of these books off my hands.”
There are no atheists in a bedroom that has lost the orchestra.
Into a canvas bag, she slid all the right things — a couple of advance-reader galleys of novels, a paperback manual on Zen and a clip of manuscript pages by a hotshot writer named Cody Castille, who she said should meet me (although of course it was the other way around). But when she moved toward some art books, I almost insulted her. “Seriously,” I said. “I’m tone-deaf to paintings.” Painting was Nancy’s hobby. “I mean, some photography speaks to me, the way photos can make all of us look like lost souls. But with paintings?” I went further. “Do men even go to museums by choice? Why go to stare at paintings in a gallery when you can stare as long as you want to in a book?”
“Because they’re the right size?”
Her answer came out so free of malice, so like a guess, that we both burst out laughing like idiots, and that was that. Maybe none of my missteps affected how likable I was. If she was a genius about editing, why not people?
And I drove home with the book bag next to me, thinking how much better it was to have a care package from Nancy than from any of the people who raised me. It was soul food for my hungry and newly imagined self. Not that she had any special access to my dreams. For people who’d failed in bed, we weren’t that comfortable being friends, either. Though for that reason alone, our connection felt more important than just a friendship. And, after all, I hadn’t technically shut the door on a relationship.
Cody Castille was perfectly named, everyone said, like someone from a tall tale. His jaw was beautiful, his skin golden and his ears tipped back like a steer’s. He even came from New Mexico, but that was all the childhood you’d ever hear from him, even though he talked so constantly the word garrulous appeared in every news item that ever mentioned him. If Cody went missing, you’d tell police to look for somebody garrulous.
Only twenty-five, he’d dazzled everyone — New York editors, famous rappers, music journalism prize committees — but he also made it a point to offend them. Riding over, Nancy said Cody only did what most of his editors fantasized about doing — insisting his stories run verbatim or not at all, and being fine if they refused, to the point of laughing through his nose.
We sat on folding chairs at sundown in his living room, waiting for gumbo, me trying to feel I belonged and constantly tugging my pant legs to cover my socks, not convinced the dorkiness could pierce anyone but Nancy. Cody’s painter girlfriend, Dehlia, had the whole couch, and she sat tall in the center, a bright package no one had claimed. She had haunted eyes and a wavering voice that would have created tension even if she weren’t an alarming beauty in a clingy Asian dress. But her zany smile said being introduced with a handshake was about the funniest custom ever invented, and when she laughed it seemed possible she thought the dress was only campy.
“How did you two meet?” I asked Dehlia, because she looked like she was fielding questions.
A lot of playful throat-clearing from Cody, between trips to the kitchen stove.
“He overstayed his welcome,” Dehlia said, as if teaching us the words. Her laugh was as high as the front end of a sneeze.
“To be more accurate, I did what she was wishing I’d do. I was interviewing her, what, six months before her Robert Johnson exhibit, before anyone knew her, and I thought, She’s alone? Not anymore!”
“Exactly, Cody. That’s exactly how you thought.”
“You mean it was my job to leave? Why would I leave?”
“Yes, Cody. Why would you leave?” Her smile widened to an incredulous Sheeesh that was so dazzling it scared me into looking down.
“This was in Albuquerque,” Nancy said, for my benefit.
I asked how Dehlia discovered the famous blues man.
“From me!” Cody yelled from the kitchen. “I stole her from her rich girl life!”
“You can say that again!” Dehlia zinged.
I got up from my chair — so nervous among real urban artists that the border between sitting and standing had actually been erased — and roamed with my beer to the kitchen to offer help. But Cody was already heading back. So I paused, studying their belongings, catching my breath. Taking voyeuristic notes. Their kitchen had posters of whiskery authors; my childhood was wallpapered with skeleton-key themes. Through a window, the first evening lights stretched down Virgil Avenue south of Sunset, brocading a district of auto shops and warehouses, all so pretty and indifferent, still linked up by pastel flags from the ’84 Olympics.
Of course, there were real families out there, too, Mexicans whose kids went to school with last year’s backpacks, a destiny I felt worrisomely connected to, without knowing why. I lacked the self-belief of either a rich son or a poor one. But a few beers could open up a third narrative, in which all the oddness on your family tree would be vindicated, celebrated, and you’d be allowed to skip all the grades you’d never passed in the school of life.
I’d chugged the rest of one beer and opened another and was back to the living room springing along as Cody was putting on a record — enacting a very ceremonial silence, for someone garrulous. The needle touched down and we heard long-distance silence, steel guitar, trembling strings.
“This is the Ry Cooder!” Nancy said. “The one Cody’s writing his novel to.”
Was I supposed to give my reaction to the manuscript? I’d barely started reading it. Nancy went another direction. “What about Elvis Wilson’s profile of Cooder last week? Did you guys read it? I’m not sure I even liked it.”
“You didn’t,” Cody assured her, and then he smiled. “Seriously, Elvis may be the most self-referential earthling in Los Angeles.”
“Tell them about that party,” said Dehlia.
“Jesus! The party,” Cody said, passing around this bit of contraband. “Dehlia had got there late, from visiting her high school friend who had lymphoma, and Elvis — I’m not making this up — said, ‘Oh, this is eerie, I was interviewing Governor Deukmejian last week and I used that very word, lymphoma, as a metaphor.’ For real. Just Elvis being Elvis.”
Through a window, the first evening lights stretched down Virgil Avenue south of Sunset, brocading a district of auto shops and warehouses, all so pretty and indifferent, still linked up by pastel flags from the ’84 Olympics.
“Maybe that figures,” Nancy said. “His interview kind of went after Ry Cooder for no reason. You know what I think, Cody? You should publish your novel’s prologue as a profile. And never mention Cooder by name! I told my boss that. I printed it for Alan, by the way.”
Cody looked pleased to hear it, but only in a supportive way, as if acknowledging some good news for Alan. “Who’s editing your Valley column?” he asked me — and when I told him, he pronounced me lucky not to have so-and-so — someone who’d recently “poured rum all over himself” in an essay about the role of a Novelist. Then he looked at his watch. “I’m putting the gumbo on simmer and skateboarding to the liquor store,” he said and zipped a hoodie over his T-shirt, uncapping the last Corona. “Smokes, anyone? You need a pack of Vantages, Alan?”
“No, that’s all right, thanks. Unless — I mean, if you’re —”
“Smokes for Alan,” he chuckled.
Dehlia’s voice was tentative but urgent: “Cody, you can’t. No skating with a beer.”
“Au contraire. That lawyer said it’s legal if it’s covered.”
“Which it isn’t.”
“The police literally stopped him last month.” Even annoyed, there was a thrill in Dehlia’s eyes.
“An open-container warning,” Cody said. “She makes it sound like drunk driving.”
“Ach!” Much of her humor involved saying things in a loopy, Germanic head voice. “Would I care if you skateboarded into a bus? I just don’t want another $60 ticket.”
But he’d conceded. He set the bottle beside the stereo and was gone down the stairs. We heard the clack of his wheels along the sidewalk.
All my sympathy for career women like Nancy came later in life. In 1985, in L.A., work and play were still balled up together like bodies in a water ballet.
At our first story meeting, we’d crossed Santa Monica Boulevard from a glass mid-rise office building to a ferny bistro where it seemed like every woman had a yellow bikini strap under her dress. Nancy seemed to feel lucky to work in a bubble where fun was the point, or she was too idealistic to notice it wasn’t.
I was focused instead on the hypnotic Dehlia. “I should have told him to get a dessert!” she shouted, rummaging the freezer with chill air roaring out. Her fingers were coarse and hard for someone so fragile. Like a dowry of strength she might never know she had. They were fingers that could need you to stroke them, drag a bowstring across the tendons of her sorrow.
“I absolutely don’t need dessert,” Nancy said with a happy sigh. “I don’t need anything at all.”
Nancy asked Dehlia to update us on her recent series of “white paintings” (was this an inside joke? polar bears in the snow?) — and, given the floor, Dehlia turned ridiculously self-serious, launching into a quavering dissertation on the content and context of white painting. Her eyes looked like she was waving a flashlight across a haunted cornfield toward safety.
Then she led us out the kitchen door downstairs to the garage, where a dozen white canvases stood, bearing just the palest silver scribbles. One painting, Dehlia said, was of a snow angel; another was a neighbor child’s knee prints in cement.
There were also some non-white paintings, stacked five- or ten-deep like loaves. Spindly skeletons, fuzzy dice, African masks and one of Robert Johnson as the “Cat in the Hat.” That kind of thing was getting mainstream already, but Nancy said Dehlia got there first, only to be out-hustled by artists with braggadocio.
Tying her black hair into insane artist mode, Dehlia jerked a chain to an overhead bulb — she might have been unveiling a show car, albeit half expecting the light bulb to explode — and leaping into sight from the back wall was a seven-foot canvas that after all of two minutes studying art you’d have recognized was a Dehlia.
It was an aggrieved pink so blatant you almost had to look sideways to see its subject — cowled, tarot-like: The Madonna? A vagina? The grim reaper, in taffeta?
Nancy was still studying the snow angels, broaching some earnest formulation. “Oh, Dehlia, you have to announce a white show — don’t you think?” Which made Dehlia step backward, like a widow seeing a cat burglar. “Yes — well. I might give myself a deadline for spring.” Spring was eight months away.
Her fingers were coarse and hard for someone so fragile. Like a dowry of strength she might never know she had.
“See?” Cody was back, following our voices downstairs. “See what I’m up against? She hasn’t done a show since New Mexico.”
I had stepped close to the pink painting’s card, which actually read Pink Painting. “I’d seriously like to buy this one,” I announced.
Nancy froze in questioning approval.
“Dude!” Cody congratulated.
With a suddenly empowered but gracious, off-the-record smile, Dehlia said, “I charge $900 for paintings that size” — ringing up a sale to a friend wasn’t charity.
I just said, “It’s so fucking good,” and covered my mouth to pretend I was sorry about letting fuck slip out. But that was as far as I had the nerve to let that kind of thing go.
I might even have respected the painting. At least the part of me that yearned to be adventurous and artistic enough to house a painting this disturbing.
The point was, Dehlia was floating now, businesslike, a Cinderella seamstress-shopgirl. “We’ll figure out a day that’s good for you,” she said, both prolonging the good news and pivoting from it. “If you want, I’ll deliver it in my hatchback.”
“Did you decide to drink and skateboard?” Nancy sighed to Cody as we all tromped to the kitchen.
“I wanted to! But I had a six pack in each arm.”
“You must be getting old!” said Dehlia, merry.
“With that face?” Nancy said. “He’ll be dead before those Lucky Strikes stain his teeth.”
“He barely inhales.”
Cody puffed at us.
“It’s his white-boy version of selling his soul to the devil,” Dehlia said. “A cigarette.”
He lifted the gumbo off the stove as we assigned ourselves back to the folding chairs. It was the first I realized they didn’t actually have a table.
“For the record,” Cody said, “Robert Johnson wasn’t thinking so much about souls or devils. It was the actual meaning of a crossroads. As in, being willing to jump the next train. You should always know exactly how many steps you’ve drifted from the courage of the crossroads.”
Nancy made a finicky face. “That feels like more over-serious criticism.”
“How about there’s just a chemical truth to how someone gets that good at guitar. Not just technically good — transcendent. You see why a jealous husband might have shot him.”
“Cody would rather die than be the other guy in that equation,” Dehlia said, crossing her legs like an analyst.
“Exactly wrong!” Cody said passing around the bowls. “I don’t ever want to die!” He had two women heckling him, and he was enjoying it. “Why did Jerry West want the last shot with a basketball game on the line? He was scared of some teammate deciding his fate. Being scared is what confirms you’re unafraid — I think I just proved that!” He dragged a chair in for himself and straddled it.
“The head spins,” Dehlia said, kneading her temples. “Maybe I should tell them the story of your knife fight.”
“No one’s stopping you.” He rubbed out his cigarette, half smoked. “It’s a bigger deal to you than me.”
“Never believe a man who says that,” said Nancy.
“Hope to die!” he added, making everyone groan. “I’ll just correct her when she attaches a bogus moral.”
“What bogus moral, exactly?” Dehlia said.
“Aren’t you planning to say all wars are fought because men are little boys?”
As part of the happy audience for a war story, I worried I was pushing my luck. The memories that came up were of my dad, a ship’s doctor who never saw battle in World War II, and whose street-brawling past, my mom had liked telling me, consisted of telling a rival through her sorority-house door, “I can talk to you fine from right here.”
“It’s his white-boy version of selling his soul to the devil,” Dehlia said. “A cigarette.”
“How do I start?” Dehlia asked. “I was drying the dishes in Albuquerque when Cody bounded up the stairs roaring drunk with our neighbor —”
“I hadn’t forgotten: Miguel. And Cody was screaming, Give me the chopping knife! There’s these guys!”
“These guys!” Nancy guffawed, like a judge who’d now heard it all.
“They hijacked the parking space I kept for guests,” Cody explained. “And they were walking over toward the Rialto Theatre.”
“Art movie bullies?” asked Nancy.
“I know!” said Dehlia. “Not to mention, they’d gone their way. But Miguel — who Cody worships, because he never does anything but get drunk restocking beer for another party the next day — Miguel explains that Cody had threatened to slash the other guys’ tires, and that they promised they’d find him if he did.”
“And suddenly I’m reasoning on his level! I’m saying, ‘Cody, sweetheart, you know I would never deny you a sharp implement the moment you asked, but —”
“Were you guys laughing?” I asked.
“Well, Cody was. But he also could have been about to cry. He downed a beer and started searching through the knife drawer and then he and Miguel went tearing down the stairs and you could hear … voices. And possibly giggling, as they’re possibly gutting a tire. But there are hanging branches blocking my view and it’s a very dark night. Then Miguel says, very concerned, in a stage whisper: ‘I don’t know — I think their car was gray!’”
“Oh, no,” Nancy said.
“The guys came back with a bag from the liquor store — apparently they weren’t going to the movie at all — laughing so hard they were practically peeing, because Cody slashed the wrong car’s tires.”
Cody said amiably, “Now is the good part.”
“I think it was Cody who charged one of them, and all I know is I’ve got to call 911, because that’s what a grown-up does —” She socked Cody on the knee. “But I even hesitated, worrying he’s the one who’ll get arrested.”
“Oh,” Cody said, “I remember Miguel’s moment now. He looked like he’d suddenly forgotten to be drunk, and he shouted, ‘I’ll get Arnulfo! — wait, Arnulfo’s in prison.’”
Dehlia seemed unanxious to say more.
“Tell what happened to the other guys,” Cody said.
“You’re so proud. Yes, this is the epilogue Cody hopes you’ll remember. He chased them off three times from getting their car until the police finally helped them.”
“Cody didn’t get arrested?” I asked. “Even after slashing the tire?”
“Guess whose car it was,” Dehlia said, devoid of joy. Nancy and I were speechless. “I made him buy me four new tires.”
“The moral is don’t fuck with me,” Cody said.
“That’s the moral. Not that it cost you four new tires.” A pause. “You’re not going to correct me?”
“Why? You got off more than I did, afterwards.”
“OOOOh Cody,” she pretended, and kissed him sloppily on the neck.
“Don’t make fun if you’re making fun of yourself!” He banged a drum solo on his knees.
“You’re drunk again,” was all she could say.
Cody curtsied and Dehlia’s face composed itself like the face of a boxer who is taking the count. Now Cody seemed sympathetic. He touched the back of her hair, and at first I thought he might have been pushing, downward, with pressure. But when I looked closer, he was stroking her neck. “I go too far. She’s right. Why do you get into it with me? I go too far, and I’m sorry.” He gathered a couple of empty bowls. “Notice who does the cooking and the dishes?”
Nancy asked if I had a near-death story, too. It fell to her to moderate the conversation, and the obviousness of doing it made her look phony when she was only trying to help.
I’d finally thought of one. I was afraid it was going to end more like a poem than an adventure — but I tried. Once, my friend Scott and I took a speedboat around the perimeter of Lake Powell, 2,000 miles of continuous shoreline. After an hour, somewhere shaded by cliffs, we cut the motor and drifted with the current all the way up into a kind of winding fractal with canyon walls that rose straight up. As far in as there was, we reveled in the hear-your-own-heartbeat pool of our arrival. Half hideaway, half dungeon. Then, with dusk falling, Scott couldn’t restart the motor. We exhausted ourselves failing to row our way out, then blowing our emergency whistles till our faces ached and the temperature dropped like lead. Eventually, inexplicably, we got the motor to start.
That was all. I tried to stretch the story out with jokes about cannibalism (“Who really wins?”). But what I wished I could have pondered out loud, preferably alone with Nancy, was how the prospect of death felt more like an absence than a presence. How the sky looked exactly as inviting as ever but farther away, because you’d done something unforgivable and it was no longer yours. There Scott and I had sat, like both of our lovers had left us. With the whole smarter, happier world on the other side of its sandstone partition.
I also could have admitted to Nancy how dependent I’d been on Scott, who was no survivalist himself, but by comparison I’d felt as useful as a prow sculpture. Seriously: Why did we survive? It was like we’d been chosen for life, but not in a flattering way. Of course, there are no explanations for good fortune or bad, none that we’ll ever understand, as God told Job. Although even there, the Bible was obliged to add an explanation in the form of a backstory: a bet with the devil, from which the Lord could not back down. Gambler, knife-fighter that he was. A veritable genius on guitar.
Much later in life I have come to learn that the instinct to survive proves strangely familiar when we find ourselves finally in need of it. Had Scott and I not restarted the boat’s motor, I would have paddled, then anchored for a time to gather strength, then paddled 10 feet more, and so on, until we were in whistle range. But this kind of faith had not been summoned at 19. So the way Scott and I got out was by luck, by entitlement — I rode on the back of Scott’s certainty that the lake was ours. He piloted us back to the docks by moonlight, soaring over whitecaps.
The real reason I’m writing about Nancy, all these years later, is I have a twenty-three-year-old son who asks me to. He has not yet experienced the joys of a young adulthood for himself, despite running away from hospitalization one summer to demand the universe give him one, that time winding up on the streets. He also has the idea, which I may have encouraged, that the music and art scene of L.A. in the 1980s was special, more egalitarian and open to underdog souls than today, and that Nancy was the image of those times. Maybe it’s more soothing for him, after all, to blame society for his alienation instead of God.
He even got to meet Nancy — once at Farmer’s Market when he was three years old, and then again at eighteen, at her apartment, when he was starting to become diagnosably ill. She turned him on to a CD by Gang of Four, and he sank back on one of her chairs, feeling the same no-fault ease I had felt there years before. She was in her sixties then, heavy as ever, and when we left, he volunteered that he thought she was cute.
Sometimes I think that, all along, when I was clinging so instinctively to the self-aware moments of feeling young and alive in the 1980s, I was trying to filch them for this future son.
House-sitting in what was starting to be Koreatown, I lay around like a Zen master with my flip-flops beneath a wood-frame bed. Through some white steel security screens, you could see vines and dirt, practically taste the beauty of neglect.
San Francisco on a rare hot day. At Golden Gate beach, the twenty- and thirty-somethings would emerge from hibernation with their ice chests. The water would be cold enough to bend bones, and the men wore plaid swimming trunks in homage to their fathers, embracing the capitalism they would never outrun.
Most of these comforts were lies, “Mad Men” ads — when so much violence and hardship, both here and abroad, was going on, too. But when you’re young, and death is just a topic swirled in a glass, ignorance makes an almost moral argument for itself. Why not savor all the selfishness that you can?
I have come to learn that the instinct to survive proves strangely familiar when we find ourselves finally in need of it.
To still see ignorant comfort as an open night sky instead of just a canvas one — maybe that’s a stage of evolution that Americans have now seen pass. Or I could be projecting my stage of life on the culture at large. Indeed, in another part of the world, people today might feel the way that one used to feel living here. In either case, my son and I sometimes bond over this idea, and my past feels almost more alive for his not having it.
The only way Nancy was going to tell a near-death story was to share something too confounding to have fully worked through, and then invite all the rest of us in to help ponder the riddle. And she looked suddenly, piercingly beautiful apologizing for that helplessness. Which I know sounds like I was in love with her — I wasn’t. But right then and there, I wanted her terribly. I wanted one more shot at her in bed.
She was looking straight at Dehlia, woman to woman, disqualifying herself from telling a story while already telling it somehow. I felt a sense of deferred doom, realizing that buying Dehlia’s painting entailed hanging it up in my home.
A girl in Japan, Nancy said, had gone high-diving on the army base without a cap. Either the girl’s onyx hair got inhaled by the suction of the pool’s drain, or its weight jerked back on entry, snapping her neck. Whichever version Nancy really told means I must have made the other one up. In fact, I don’t remember whether Nancy saw the tragedy firsthand. Clearly she remembered the girl, because she envied the hair so miserably. (“It swirled even when dry,” Nancy said.) And the fact that the girl was so exotic had made her exist almost entirely to be brooded over by Nancy’s unanswerable questions. Is gorgeousness a talent? Are bodies intelligent, like brains? How do divers know exactly where to turn in midair? Do bodies have brains of their own?
Incredibly, though, she could not recall a scrap of evidence to confirm whether the long-haired diver had died! Blood? Blue lips? CPR? “She was exactly your type of gorgeous!” Nancy told Dehlia, as if this observation might connect her to the original event. As that awful comparison settled in, though, she shook her head. “No! I’d remember if she died!”
She steadied her hand against Dehlia’s arm, as though promising not to burst out laughing. “I’m sure of it now. She only got her neck broken!”
Dehlia’s eyes looked like she might run off and cry, but that could have been suppressed laughter — soon Nancy was laughing, helplessly. “All I’ve ever wanted was to be gorgeous like you,” she assured Dehlia, reaching for some meritorious pain.
At home, I wrote a humor piece inspired by the concept of time-sharing another man’s girlfriend. It was in the voice of an ethical beggar who’d anticipated a little pushback and had thought through the questions, negotiating for stolen moments at the head of the couple’s bed, a few prolonged thigh-level hugs goodbye. It was funny. It got printed.
No one brought up the sale of the painting right away, and it would have been embarrassing for Dehlia to pressure me. But Nancy and I soon brought her with us to a show at Club Lingerie while Cody was on deadline; afterward I drove Nancy home first. Both hands gripping the steering wheel with the motor running, I offered to walk her up — she declined. From how polite I must have seemed to Dehlia, and making a monastic show of not drinking, I think one could see what was shaping up.
“I can walk you up,” I said to Dehlia as well, turning the ignition off as we rolled slowly to her curb. Jasmine all around.
“Don’t be silly,” she said, and we performed one of her hilarious handshakes. “I’d have you up but Cody’s turned off the lights.”
“Well, Nancy has really nice friends,” I said, a close-up of tragic respect.
With each one’s neediness locating the other’s, like pilgrims to an ancestral monument, it was delivery day for the canvas. I played assistant and Dehlia worked, unroping the hatchback of her car while I credibly inspected the knots. In my unit, I almost got annoyed at her for not helping arrange where the painting should go; she only leaned it somewhere stable, and acted overly absorbed in that act, maybe to drown out thinking: Here we are.
As I leaned in to kiss her, she gave a nervous, questioning giggle but never moved.
Making out was an opera of mmms and ahhs, siblings eating sundaes, pulling away to look — you look worried — are you okay — then realizing it was less awkward to kiss some more than to screw things up by talking. I did not want to go further yet than kissing. I was panicked; I hadn’t planned this far ahead. So I whispered, “again, soon,” and we got to walk to her car in a memorable stupor.
Back upstairs, the painting’s glare filled the room like an illness. Looking for an offhand view, trying to catch my home in the act of being a home, I turned on the TV — truthfully my usual reason for turning on the TV. Why hadn’t she talked me out of this? Art involved danger, but did that mean a customer should build his one-room life around it? She might as well have left me a newborn.
But to give back the painting implied I could never be her equal, or Cody’s. I resolved that I would reframe the painting’s horror as adventure, be made brave by it, and this plan got me as far as the next afternoon, when I gave up.
The phone call went fine. We would swap the picture out for one of her African ones. Nor did she judge me the way I judged myself. In fact, she sounded giddy, far along — she’d entered Joshing Dehlia mode, quick with that high, Germanic laugh that said you were just kids, playacting romance.
That Christmas, we went to her mom and stepdad’s ranch house in Escondido. The country scene could have been one of the comforts of 1985, except for the mother, whose every offstage question to Dehlia, sotto voiced and clinical, sounded like both Dehlia’s beauty and her prospects might fade within the week. By then I’d learned that her biological father was a suicide, that the best canvas she’d ever almost finished (a Louis Armstrong) she subsequently blackened by overpainting, one fevered starless night. The stepfather sat Lincolnian in a recliner, while her mom busied herself in that sentence-serving way of second wives; she was a PSA for ignoring one siren call of death to answer another. She’d landed in picturesque safety, determined to pull Dehlia aboard, but she could not make her lifeboat look like life.
I whispered, “again, soon,” and we got to walk to her car in a memorable stupor.
Maybe I was a symbol of hope to those parents. Just well-raised enough in my polo shirt and jeans. Because they’d seen Cody bully Dehlia in their driveway — not with fists, but scaring her that he might, shoving her along once free of the car when she was jammed between staying or going.
During his late innings with Dehlia, Cody had taken me on jaunts to record stores, trading in review CDs for old jazz finds, several of which he’d toss to me, as a sign of his largesse. After their final quarrel, he came over and paced my bedroom floor (African painting and all) as if in perpetual mid-conversation. Had he no male friends? To say the least, I saw both sides.
But I’d always known, like a journalist, to keep comments like that to myself. Finding his handheld tape recorder smashed to pieces, Cody said, he’d confronted Dehlia in calm disbelief: “Did you do this?” — one of those small, obvious questions that makes clear it means the world. And only my agreeing that the outcome made no sense at all (Dehlia denied all wrongdoing) could console him. Something in my blood had always dreamed, maybe known, that my brooding and envying nature could also be my strength. Although I also sensed I might never be the kind of winner whose win comes first.
I don’t condemn or excuse Cody. I think of him brandishing that tape recorder, and I think of Dehlia’s pride and cowering shame at having done it, and what I see is their raw desperation for each other. That was great love. It gave Dehlia and me its long, parental shadow, like the legend of an earlier generation.
The day after dinner at Cody’s, when Nancy called to ask how I’d enjoyed it, I broke into a sweat and avoided all that was true. Nor did she act hurt when I started seeing Dehlia. Except in whatever way she’d always seemed hurt, and wanting to explore whatever the mystery was of being young and hurting. I’m not even saying Nancy wasn’t a little uncaring, letting me blunder into an explosive relationship with Dehlia. She sent me tapes of songs, and letters in her chunky cursive, and still I almost never thought of Nancy, except on the occasions when I’d write for her.
* * *
Alan Rifkin’s new book, Burdens by Water: An Unintended Memoir (Brown Paper Press), takes readers on a series of strangely resilient personal adventures — often beginning with breakups — in which every place from a glacier in the Alps to a condo in Van Nuys becomes an epicenter of what the author calls “invincible longing.” Rifkin is a former Details and L.A. Weekly contributing editor who has also written for Premiere, Los Angeles Magazine, Black Clock and The Quarterly. Of his short story collection, Signal Hill (City Lights), the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Hauntingly beautiful, the work of a gifted storyteller with a sharp eye but a tender heart,” and Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Rifkin is what might have happened had Nathanael West lived on and been even more talented … Exquisite.” A finalist for both the PEN Center-USA Award in Journalism and the Southern California Booksellers Award in Fiction, Rifkin has led writing workshops at Santa Monica College, Chapman University, California State University, Long Beach and UCLA Extension. He is active in the homeless ministry at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Long Beach, and is the father of three children. Find him at www.alanrifkin.com.
Image: “astral danes” | Untitled 2, Julie Loen via Pinterest