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Book Lover Karen Mack Jennifer Kaufman One woman’s passion for books and search for romance lie at the heart of this touching and funny novel about literature and longing in Los Angeles.‘Women do different things when they’re depressed. Some smoke, others drink, some call their therapists, some eat…And I do what I have always done – go off on a book bender that can last for days.’Whenever she’s in crisis – her marriage ends, her career stalls, her fantasy man shows signs of human frailty – Dora (named after Eudora Welty) escapes into not one, not two, but a carefully selected stack of books, shutting the door on the outside world until she emerges from her book binge strong enough to face her problems. Books have always been her saving grace, sheltering her during a difficult childhood and arming her with lessons and epigrams that are right for nearly every situation. But life is more complicated than a-book-a-day, and people – like her ex-alcoholic mother and judgmental sister – aren’t as compliant as beloved characters in a novel…Whether she’s being seduced by a quotation-quipping Quixote, or explaining death to a child by reading from ‘Charlotte’s Web’, Dora is Every-reader, and her charming story, shot through with humour and humanity, will delight anyone who’s ever sought solace in the pages of a book. JENNIFER KAUFMAN AND KAREN MACK Book Lover A NOVEL Dedication (#ulink_6b2a288a-aa0b-5e83-bdfa-f17616e4efbc) We would like to thank our families who inspire us and Molly Friedrich, Frances Jalet-Miller, and Danielle Perez, who believed in us. Contents Cover (#ua91fdec6-aef9-5cca-ac08-c6f846852c32) Title Page (#u5e75f1d9-2531-5d62-9998-a3f70e884d06) Dedication (#u69c8d37b-ed7d-5cc8-a411-50cdab1e031f) Preface (#u7ef2fb13-ad90-5c72-92cf-a9446f696b23) Master of the Universe (#ucbb54d8e-2d7d-53ae-88a8-823096345b3b) The Stakeout (#ua160498c-e7aa-57da-83c9-51e2eb241914) Emily Post and Grand Larceny (#u77db2ab4-5c2d-56dc-a131-301ea7aef3ed) The Roust (#u3193a18b-5489-5c35-830d-d139bbef38ff) The Wasteland (#u1b32719e-74fa-5463-97c5-f4cc5a29d530) Interview with Miss Piggy (#ufd9c5035-301a-5755-8371-e923cd4b5f74) Stray Dogs and Other Companions (#u9daefddf-0242-5644-b195-eaaeab28e6ef) Ivanhoe (#litres_trial_promo) The Beauty Thing (#litres_trial_promo) Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before (#litres_trial_promo) Happy Talk (#litres_trial_promo) Of Cabbages and Kings (#litres_trial_promo) The Morning After (#litres_trial_promo) You Can Leave Your Hat On (#litres_trial_promo) House of Mirth (#litres_trial_promo) Where the Wild Things Are (#litres_trial_promo) Catch the Soap (#litres_trial_promo) What’s in a Name (#litres_trial_promo) No Reliable Sense of Propriety (#litres_trial_promo) Mother’s Day (#litres_trial_promo) The Woman with Phenomenal Tresses (#litres_trial_promo) Along Came a Spider (#litres_trial_promo) Funeral (#litres_trial_promo) Dr. Seuss Doesn’t Like Kids (#litres_trial_promo) Halfway to Fairyland (#litres_trial_promo) Lost Days and Knights (#litres_trial_promo) Dog Duty (#litres_trial_promo) A Christmas Carol (#litres_trial_promo) The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (#litres_trial_promo) Save Me! (#litres_trial_promo) Princes and Toads (#litres_trial_promo) Drop Dead. Strong Letter to Follow. (#litres_trial_promo) Border Crossings (#litres_trial_promo) Ripping Off Rudyard (#litres_trial_promo) Nightmare (#litres_trial_promo) Last Book Standing (#litres_trial_promo) Something Occurred to Me (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) Authors’ Note (#litres_trial_promo) Book List (#litres_trial_promo) About the Authors (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) Preface (#ulink_2fe99797-fc69-5a42-b64d-bf5f5d39cf29) “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” ∼ Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) ∼ When I was seven, my mother drove the family car off a thirty-foot bridge. My sister and I were in the backseat and after the dive, the sky-blue Cadillac Seville flipped over into the craggy ravine and landed on its roof. There wasn’t much water in the river below and the upside-down car sank slowly in the muck, its headlights streaming through the fog. I don’t remember being scared exactly, just too dumbfounded to speak. Then my mother said in a perfectly calm voice, “Do you think you girls can push open the doors?” It was as if she was asking us to turn down the television or put the dishes back on the shelves. She was very matter-of-fact. The radio was still playing as we tumbled over each other, somersaulting out into the shadowy gloom, and I remember thinking that this was just like the Tunnel of Love at Willow Grove’s amusement park that had recently been bulldozed and turned into a suburban shopping mall. “Okay, let’s pull ourselves together here,” my mother announced over the incongruous sounds of background music. The dark water was gurgling away, our voices echoed when we talked, and I imagined us huddled together in a little wooden rowboat, magically floating down an ersatz river on some weird joyride gone slightly amiss. “Smile,” my mother said abruptly to my sister, Virginia, when she saw her sucking on her lip. Virginia chipped one of her two front teeth in the accident but, other than that, we were both unharmed. “Wider. I can’t see.” “Do I have to? I don’t feel like smiling,” Virginia said, and stomped her foot in the gunk. “She doesn’t mean smile, like ‘BE HAPPY,’ stupid,” I scoffed. “She means open your mouth so she can see if you’re bleeding. Geez!” “Well, I’m not,” she retorted, but I could see she was now in tears, rubbing her nose and eyes with her mud-stained sweatshirt. “Does it hurt?” I asked sheepishly. “No, it doesn’t hurt, Dora. I just don’t like it here. It’s creepy and I want to go home.” She was scared, my mother was dazed, and I, as usual, was completely detached—a knack I have since perfected in order to deal with life’s crushing disappointments or precarious entanglements. “We’re okay,” I told her. (I was always telling her that.) “Anyway, Mom’s the one who should be upset. Dad is going to kill her.” “No, he’s not,” my sister replied. “Maybe we don’t even have to tell him.” “Are you kidding? Look at the car! This is the second one she’s ruined this year.” Meanwhile, my mother was standing behind our belly-up, bashed-in, virtually unrecognizable vehicle. “Oh my lord,” she suddenly exclaimed. “Your father’s new clubs are in the trunk. Now, did he tell me to take them out this morning? … I can’t remember ….” When the police finally arrived with a tow truck and an ambulance, my sister and I clambered up from the muddy riverbed and bundled into a squad car while my mother stood outside wrapping her long mohair coat around her. Her tone was shaky as she ran her hands through her matted, blood-soaked hair and I suddenly realized she had hit her head. The idea that we had been involved in a near-fatal accident never entered my mind. At the time of the crash, we were in east central Pennsylvania, ninety miles northwest of Philadelphia. It was an area known as the coal country of Schuylkill County, where rolling green pastures were blighted by deep brown scars, heaps of piled-up slag, and decaying railroad tracks. Even the billboards were battered with peeling, unintelligible messages from a bygone era. We were headed for Pottsville to visit the dilapidated childhood home of John O’Hara and I remember feeling relieved that we probably wouldn’t be touring this author’s home anytime soon. I’ve since learned that O’Hara called Pottsville a “god-awful town” and couldn’t wait to get out. My mother told the police that she was looking down at the map from the Philadelphia Historical Society, and when she looked up we were plunging into the dark, swirling waters of the Schuylkill River. I guess they believed her, because the cop pointed out that we were a few hours from the spot in Chadds Ford where Andrew Wyeth’s father, N. C. Wyeth, drove his car onto a railroad track with his four-year-old grandson in the backseat. The car was smashed to smithereens by an oncoming train and no one ever knew whether it was suicide or just a freak accident. Why he insisted on telling this story in front of us, I will never understand. But it sure cheered my mother right up, with her penchant for literary legends, and she subsequently peppered him with questions. Later that night, my father joined us at a nearby motel and her mood darkened as she argued with him about her drinking. “The girls are fine. I was just distracted.” We knew her distraction was in a neat little silver flask. She gave more of the usual denials, and my father responded with patronizing disdain and exasperation. He left home for the first time shortly afterwards. Life after that deteriorated into a series of dramatic comings and goings, yelling and screaming, doors slamming in the night, and then silence. The mornings after always felt like a hangover, my sister and I staring numbly at each other, avoiding the unmentionable. My mother stuck it out, however, always the martyr. She was part of that upper-middle-class Northeastern generation of women who believed life offered them no decent alternative to marriage, motherhood, or homemaking. In the coming tumultuous years, she and her circle of friends survived divorce, widowhood, disease, children who disappeared or disappointed them, and children like my sister and me, who chose careers and moved away. In those early days, though, this was just one of many literary tours that filled my childhood. While other kids were spending July at the shore and August at summer camp or in the Poconos, we squandered all our free time visiting the family homes and haunts of famous writers. We trekked through their gardens (they always had gardens), had drinks at their local taverns, peeked into their bedrooms, and bought souvenirs and postcards from whoever was hawking them nearby. My mother always quoted extensively from their works while my sister and I huddled bleary-eyed in the backseat and played with smuggled Barbies. Such lofty-minded trips generally culminated in long, uneventful weekends at secluded B&Bs that backed up onto cornfields or auto salvage lots. Most of the time, my sister and I were at such loose ends we’d resort to reading the dusty, yellow-paged Penguin Classics or Reader’s Digest condensed books that filled the shelves in the main living room, occasionally ripping out the pages and making paper hats, boats, or spitballs. When we did venture out, we’d generally wind up walking through deserted towns, past vacant shops and abandoned gas stations. My mother was always searching for something that would give her life weight, that would take her away from her life of desperation and domesticity. I spent years buried in books, trying to avoid a similar fate. Then, all at once, there was this flash of certainty and the fuzziness disappeared. Robert Frost said, “What you want, what you’re hanging around in the world waiting for, is for something to occur to you.” That’s what happened. All of a sudden, something occurred to me. Master of the Universe (#ulink_7f516681-6b05-5abd-b5bf-aff686ea8be4) “All the best stories in the world are but one story in reality, the story of escape. It is the only thing which interests us all and at all times, how to escape.” ∼ Arthur Christopher Benson (1862–1925) ∼ Women do different things when they’re depressed. Some smoke, others drink, some call their therapists, some eat. My mother used to go ballistic when she and my father had a fight, then she’d booze for days on end and vanish into her bedroom. My sister was more into the global chill mode; give ’em the silent treatment and, in the meantime, gorge on frozen Sara Lee banana cake. And I do what I have always done—go off on a book bender that can last for days. I fall into this state for different reasons. Sometimes it’s after an “I hate your fucking guts” fight. Other times it’s symptomatic of my state of mind, ennui up to my ears, my life gone awry, and that feeling of dread whenever I’m asked what I’m doing. How can anyone sort all this out? All things considered, I’d rather read. It’s the perfect escape. I have a whole mantra for my book binges. First of all, I open a bottle of good red wine. Then I turn off my cell phone, turn on my answering machine, and gather all the books I’ve been meaning to read or reread and haven’t. Finally, I fill up the tub with thirty-dollar bubble bath, fold a little towel at the end of the tub so it just fits in the crick of my neck, and turn on my music. I have an old powder-blue plastic Deco radio near the tub that I bought at a garage sale in Hollywood a few years ago. The oddest thing: the radio only receives one AM radio station, which plays jazz standards from the forties and fifties, and it suits me just fine. Within my bathroom walls is a self-contained field of dreams and I am in total control, the master of my own elegantly devised universe. The outside world disappears and here, there is only peace and a profound sense of well-being. Most of the people in my life take a dim view of this … what would you call it? Monomania? Eccentricity? My sister is perhaps the most diplomatic. We both know that I have a tendency to lose my tether to reality when I close myself off like this. But then she’ll joke that I’m really just another boring bibliomaniac and what I really need is a little fresh air. She always was a whiz with words. She actually informed me that a book she read by Nicholas Basbanes (appropriately called Among the Gently Mad) states that the first documented use of the word bibliomania came in 1750 when the fourth earl of Chesterfield sent a letter to his illegitimate son warning him that this consuming diversion with books should be avoided like “the bubonic plague.” Ho hum. I peel off my clothes and throw them on the floor. As I’m walking to the tub, I glance at the floor-to-ceiling mirror that covers the south wall of my bathroom. Oh god. Wait a minute. You know how you look in the mirror and you look the same and you look the same and all of a sudden you look ten years older? It’s fitting that at age thirty-five I should notice this. My waist is thicker, my breasts saggier, the beginnings of—shit, is that cellulite on the backs of my thighs? Why is it that you think this age thing won’t happen to you? Oh, and look at the backs of my elbows! They look like old-lady wrinkled elbows with a sharp, bony protrusion. I’ve never been able to figure out my looks. I’ve been told I’m striking. But what does that mean? It’s something people say when they can’t give you the usual compliments, like “you’re beautiful.” It could be my height that puts them off. I’m almost five foot ten, which has only recently become fashionable. I also have enormous feet. Size 10 on a good day. When I was young, I hated my tall, too-thin, sticklike figure, which my mother described as willowy. She’d argue that my looks were special and would be appreciated when I got older. Just give yourself time, she’d say. You’ll see. You’ll outshine all those other girls with hourglass figures. I felt like Frankie in The Member of the Wedding: “a big freak … legs too long … shoulders too narrow … belonging to no club and a member of nothing in the world.” It wasn’t just my appearance. I always felt like an oddball, the exception in a world where I imagined other families were normal and happy. Virginia and I endured the secrets and shame of an absent father and an alcoholic mother, and the few friends I had, I kept at a distance, always relieved when they didn’t come over. The fact of the matter was that I was embarrassed that my mother couldn’t cope, and in some ways, she passed that on to me. I shut my eyes as I get into the tub. I have purposely made the water scalding hot and when I dip my foot in, my toes turn red and start to sting. Too hot. I add a little cold, letting the water run through my fingers as I listen to a tinny version of Coltrane blasting out “Love Supreme.” Paul Desmond once said that listening to late-night jazz is like having a very dry martini. I think he’s right. I stick my foot back in and then ease my body into the water. Still too hot. I twist the spigot with my toes, adding more cold. There. Perfect. I pick up The Transit of Venus, an obscure novel by Shirley Hazzard, whose newest book, The Great Fire, has become a favorite among book clubs. The premise is fascinating. It’s about two beautiful orphaned sisters whose lives are as predestined as the rotation of the planets. I try to concentrate. The prose is dense and complex; I have to keep rereading paragraphs. I start to daydream and lose my place. This isn’t working for me. Basically, I’m still depressed. Maybe it’s just the time of year. It’s Christmas, I’m alone, and my social prospects are nonexistent. This is the season to be somewhere else, and for the majority of my friends, that means packing up the kids and maybe a few of their best friends and migrating to second homes in Maui, Aspen, Cabo, Sun Valley, and the second tier, Palm Springs and Las Vegas. Being in West L. A. in December is like being banished to an isolated retreat or even a rehab center where parties and other forms of merriment are verboten. Not that I’m complaining. If you come from the east, the weather here in December is glorious. Right up until the El Niño rains in late January and February, the world is temperate, mild, and forgiving. Natural disasters like fires, floods, landslides, and earthquakes don’t happen in West L.A. This year I have no plans to go anywhere and I am occasionally nagged by that insidious feeling of “missing out.” When I was with Palmer, we used to go to the Four Seasons on Maui every year. We’d get the corner suite and even bribe a beachboy to reserve our lounges every day to avoid getting up at five a.m. like everyone else. (In truth, most of our friends just had their nannies do it.) Now I hear Palmer is going to St. Barts. He thinks it’s “younger, hipper, and more fun,” unlike being with me. I used to sit by the pool in the shade and read all day. The phone rings. It’s my sister, Virginia. She sounds worried. “I know you’re there, Dora. Why haven’t you returned my calls? If you don’t pick up I’m coming over …” I pick up. “I’m okay,” I say. “You don’t sound okay. Are you doing another one of your book-hermit things?” Nobody knows me like Virginia. “I’ve been a little upset.” “A little, like twenty-four hours little or a little, like three days little?” “Like three days little.” “Doesn’t sound little to me. Do you want me to come over?” I look around. My place is a shambles. “No. Really. I’m fine. I was just going out.” I convince her that I’m simply marvelous and she buys it. She just doesn’t get it. She has a husband and a baby. Who can blame her? I pick up the Hazzard book and try again. This is so depressing. I have just finished an early chapter about Ted Tice, Paul Ivory, and Caro, and I can already tell they are all eventually doomed to lives of unspeakable loss and tragedy. For one thing, Paul is gay, or at the very least bisexual, and for another—oh forget it. I get out of the tub, grab a robe, and go back to the bookshelf, leaving wet footprints in my wake. It’s not really intentional, but generally speaking I gravitate toward a certain theme for these lost weekends and, at the moment, I am set on choosing books about relationships that don’t work out. Since most of the world’s greatest classics deal with this subject, I have lots of options. Also, for some strange reason, my books are loosely organized into categories so it’s easy to make a selection based on my mood. Let’s see, do I want to steep myself in obsessive love … something like Wuthering Heights, where Heathcliff never did get it on with Cathy … unrequited love, dysfunctional love, adulterous love … Oh, here’s Dorothy Parker … the brilliant cynic with deadpan wit alternating with fits of spiteful alcoholic rage (hmmmm) and Austen, the optimist. Her love affairs always work out. Not interested. Over here are the dysfunctional family books, including my mother’s dog-eared copy of The Optimist’s Daughter, and on the shelf below, the functional family books, mostly fantasies, sci-fi, or adventure classics that I have treasured since my childhood. I finally gather up the following: Sentimental Education by Flaubert (I lent Virginia my copy of Madame Bovary, which should be right beside it, and she never returned it. You see? That’s why I don’t lend books. It fucks up my whole library.), Anna Karenina, The End of the Affair (miracles and horrid disfigurements), Wuthering Heights (all right, I feel like wallowing), and A Farewell to Arms. God, what a dreary bunch of bathmates. Perfect for my grim, listless state of mind. That’ll do for now. Oh well, I’ll throw in Parker too. What the hell, a little comic relief. I pad back into the bathroom with an armful of books and sink back into the tub. I add more hot water. Okay. I’m ready for my period of forlorn contemplation and occasional outbursts of exhilaration prompted by a particularly brilliant passage. What an insufferable lunatic I have become. Over the next few days I read and I read. Days blur into nights. I snack on anything in my cupboard that doesn’t require cooking. The Domino’s guy and I have become close friends. He thinks I have agoraphobia. My red wine runs out and I start on the dessert wine. But I don’t start before five. Even in my pathetic condition, I do have my standards. My god, it’s Wednesday afternoon already. I’ve got to get out of here. Where’s my robe? Geez, this place is a mess. Should I clean up first? No. It’ll kill the rest of the day. Maybe I’ll buy a book. My mother would be appalled to learn that none of my friends go to the library anymore. If you want a book, you just go to the bookstore that’s closest to your house and buy it. Hardcover, trade paperback, mass market, it doesn’t make any difference. People who pay twenty dollars for parking don’t quibble over the price of a book. I live four blocks from McKenzie’s, a small local bookstore on San Vicente, one of those dinosaurs that doesn’t exist anymore except in affluent neighborhoods. It’s a place where the salespeople actually read and can tell you where you can locate books by Evelyn Waugh or Michael Frayn. They’ll also give you a list of other books by the same author, quote some of their favorite passages, and then add some completely random piece of information, such as the fact that Mark Twain’s brilliant The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn went through seventeen hundred revisions, and the most recent draft was unearthed in a Hollywood attic some years ago. There isn’t a reason in the world for me to hit that damn bookstore again this week. I have four brand-new books by my bedside and two more on the kitchen counter. Then there are the three Booker Prize winners that are still in the bag in the trunk of my car and one new nonfiction literary history of Henry James in my purse, which I plan to start when I go to the hairdresser’s next week. I collect new books the way my girlfriends buy designer handbags. Sometimes, I just like to know I have them and actually reading them is beside the point. Not that I don’t eventually end up reading them one by one. I do. But the mere act of buying them makes me happy—the world is more promising, more fulfilling. It’s hard to explain, but I feel, somehow, more optimistic. The whole act just cheers me up. I pull into the parking lot, turn off the motor, and rummage through my purse for lip gloss and concealer. I flip down the mirror and take a good look at my bare, unmade-up face. Terrible, just terrible. Even worse than I thought. That’s it for me. No more book binges. My hair is nice, though. It used to be “dirty blonde,” but Franck, my brilliant Belgian hairdresser, has fixed all that. I now have that natural, sun-kissed California look that no one can get without a lot of money and a cauldron of chemicals. I smear on some Nars cherry lip gloss, decide to bag the rest of the makeup, and head in. McKenzie’s is like no other bookstore. It is a complex of three white, cottage-like buildings situated around a small tree-lined plaza with benches for customers to sit and read, nurse a cappuccino, or just hang out. There is a small café that sells newspapers and magazines, and a big sign over the cash register reads “No Cell Phones.” Other buildings house history, psychology, fiction, and nonfiction. I always start off in the fiction building, where there are long tables laden with the latest hardbacks. And occasionally, when I have time, I’ll wander briefly through the other buildings. Each one has the same basic feel of being in someone’s messy library or living room, an ambiance that appeals to someone who is obviously a bookworm or an intellectual and who compulsively owns and collects countless numbers of books. Even though there is some semblance of order, books are always stacked high in every corner, on the brick floor, on window ledges, even on the cash register table, where one has to literally shove them on the floor before making a purchase. I always feel a little put out in the beginning at the mess and disarray, but then the subliminal message takes over, that this is the place for the true book lover, a person who, naturally, is oblivious to order in the outside world. The fantasy is carried out right down to the employees and the rap they give you when you buy a book. “Are you a member of KUSC?” they ask kindly. That’s one of two classical cultural radio stations in L. A. and if you know what’s good for you, you say yes and get a 10 percent discount. The people who work here are an essential part of the whole mystique. The women all have the same “I don’t care what I look like” attitude, the kind of thing you’d see in photo essays about the seventies when Ivy League radical coeds had wild flyaway hair and wore faded bell-bottoms and no makeup. The girls at McKenzie’s look this way, with their pale faces, unmanicured hands, those round-toed black canvas Mary Janes, long skirts, and bagged-out sweaters with fuzzy textures. They do, however, wear bras and obviously love a good literary conversation. They also know their authors in an impressive but smug sort of way. It doesn’t seem as if any of them are all that busy except the lean, scrawny guy in an apron who runs the café in the back. At the moment he’s making a latte as he carries on an animated conversation with a customer about an obscure poet who he says has Neruda-esque leanings. His name is Ken and he has spiky red hair, a face covered with an explosion of freckles, and a sparse iodine-red goatee. If he were a woman, the red-hair thing would probably work, but on Ken, it’s somehow geeky and unfortunate, as if he were an alien from the red planet. He has odd pinkish, translucent skin with haunting puffy, watery blue eyes, and his eyelashes and eyebrows are so pale they seem invisible. As I glance in his direction, he zones out into a calm, fogged-over gaze like a narcoleptic. And then there is Fred. He is looking me over, inspecting me. And in truth, that’s why I am here. One of the girls told me he has a degree in comparative literature and he did his thesis on heterogeneous space in postmodern literature. What does that mean? Virginia would probably say he looks like a bum, but there is something engaging about him in a disheveled kind of way. He has the stance of an aging ex-football player who’s put on a few pounds, yet he still possesses the thick strong neck and prominent Adam’s apple of a former athlete. When you look straight at him, his face is nice. But from the side, you can tell his nose has been broken a couple of times and his chin is sharp and jutting. I watch him stride around the shop with a certain air of unconscious grandeur, even though he’s too tall and bearish to be navigating the narrow straits of the place. Right now, he’s helping a woman and her friend choose the next selection for their book club. He gives them an evasive half smile and looks away, sweeping back his shaggy bangs in a distracted kind of way. Why is it women always seem to fall for men who divert their attention elsewhere and focus anywhere but on their face? They dig the absentmindedness and inattentiveness when, in fact, the pose is often calculated to make an impression. Nevertheless, Fred is appealing in an untrustworthy, Southern gentleman sort of way. He has a slight drawl, although I could be imagining that. But he does seem like the kind of guy who could sit on his veranda with his big black retriever, smoking a stogy and watching the sun set over his cotton fields. The look, however, is strictly L.A.—jeans, a faded gray Gap T-shirt under a stretched-out, old V-necked sweater, and red-rimmed eyes as if he’s been up all night doing god knows what. The overall effect is disconcerting. The energy in the air around him amps up the molecular composition of the place, compelling housewives, students, and literary losers to seek his counsel. The man knows his effect on people and uses it. I see the women close in on him. The prettier of the two is dressed in what has become the young, affluent Brentwood housewife uniform—Juicy sweats. The designer outfit consists of tight, body-hugging velour pants that sit ultra-low on the hips and matching sweatshirts that are purposely unzipped just down to the cleavage. A friend of mine read in the Jacksonville paper that the city council was about to pass a “butt crack” law, which would label this kind of attire “lewd exhibitionism.” But this is L.A., and no one seems to be complaining. It’s kind of the opposite of what sweats are all about—relaxed, comfortable, with no hint of forced sex appeal. Remember putting on sweats when you felt fat or bloated? Well, forget it. The figure has to be absolutely perfect, and if it isn’t, there’s no way to camouflage anything. So now, schlepping around in any old comfortable pair of sweats to run an errand is passé. All this runs through my mind as I watch them talk to Fred about a few options. They finally request twenty copies of Tuesdays with Morrie, and I see someone breeze past them sneering under her breath, “That figures.” Her name is Sara, a childlike Goth girl who looks like she’s in her early twenties. She has shoe-polish black hair, chewed-off fingernails, multiple piercings in her ears and left nostril, and cracked, peeling, kewpie-doll lips that glisten with a fine film of strawberry-tinged ChapStick. Her face has the plush, rounded innocence of a child and yet there is an air of intimidating self-sufficiency about her. Today she’s wearing an incredibly short miniskirt over her petite but shapely legs that are so white you know she could care less that L.A. is a beach town. The rest of her ensemble includes scuffed white leatherette sixties go-go boots with a kitten heel, a midriff-revealing crepe blouse, and a heavy, metal dragon on a long, frayed shoelace around her neck. There is an innocence about her that belies her appearance and her breathy little girl voice is punctuated with expletives like “asshole” and “fuck you.” Such a demeanor is particularly jarring in a setting like McKenzie’s, but her coworkers clearly regard her with respect, and I’ve heard she knows every female writer who has written anything of note in the last two hundred years. I can’t tell if this fetching social misfit has rebellion on her mind or she just doesn’t want to reveal how adorable she is beneath all that black smudged kohl and bare skin. This girl definitely has a past, but she giggles like a kid with a wad of Bazooka in her mouth, and it is hard not to follow her around with my eyes. If she asked my opinion, I’d tell her to comb her hair, but that would probably be it. Her hair is the only thing that bothers me, oddly enough. I guess it’s “the look,” but it’s all messy and tangled in teased, rat’s-nest clumps and soft, mushy, wadded fluff. It seems as if she has purposely gelled it to have the appearance of “I just slept in a Greyhound bus station and was attacked by a band of homeless men who clawed at my clothes and completely ruined my hair.” You couldn’t get a comb through it if you tried, and then it would be an extremely painful process. Maybe that’s the point that girls like Sara are tacitly addressing. Hair is beside the point—a time-consuming, unfulfilling way to go off on another fucking tangent, rather than getting on with your life, which leads me right back to where I am at the moment, roaming around the bookstore on a dead afternoon wondering how to approach Fred. He is now busy with a frazzled-looking businessman who asks in a tense voice where the CliffsNotes section is located. Fred points toward the rear of the store and then asks him, “Which book?” “The Scarlet Letter,” the man replies. “My kid’s hysterical. He just wrote a five-page paper and then somehow deleted it and it’s due tomorrow.” Sara gives the guy a commiserating look. “Tell your son that Thomas Carlyle gave his only copy of The French Revolution to his friend to read and the guy’s maid thought it was garbage and lit the fire with it. Carlyle had a few rotten nights, but then he wrote the thing all over again.” Fred looks at her in amusement. “Sara, I’m sure that’s going to make the kid feel much better.” Then he turns to me and smiles. “Oh, hey, how are you? What can I help you with today?” The first thing that pops into my head is that he recognizes me. The second thing is that the man who barbecued Carlyle’s manuscript was the writer and critic John Stuart Mill, and he ended up giving the book a rave review. However, instead of belaboring the point, I consider telling him I’ve just finished a 675-page historical thriller on seventeenth-century Oxford, England, by Iain Pears called An Instance of the Fingerpost and that I have been totally unsuccessful in getting anyone else in my life to read it. The book is a kind of Dickensian whodunit set in Restoration England that begins with an unexplained death in a small college town and builds up into a revelation that has to do with grand events in England and the world. It is intellectual, original, and chock-full of smoke and mirrors, but, unfortunately, has quotes by Cicero and Francis Bacon in the beginning, which definitely put off several of my less esoteric friends. It also has a cast of twenty-seven characters in the back that went on for several pages and includes names like Charles II, Christopher Wren, and John Locke. Even the name of the novel seems to be a deterrent, although I once explained to my sister that the title was a delicious part of the whole mystery. “Delicious?” she sniffed. She actually was somewhat interested until I told her that the narrator seems clear-minded and sympathetic at first, until three hundred or so pages later when you learn that he’s fucking bonkers and is writing from the seventeenth-century English version of the booby hatch. She gave me a pained look and responded, “Who has time to read books like that?” implying, of course, that I do. Fred is waiting for my response and I hesitate. I don’t usually have the desire, as so many pious, voracious readers do, to show off how inherently superior my literary tastes are, but I weigh whether I will make an exception in this case. Then I change my mind. I quickly ask if he knows of a sequel to the Pears book. He tells me that one just came out and it’s quite good. “Not as good as the earlier book but an easier read. I’ll go get it.” He returns empty-handed and says, “We must be all out.” I decide to order it (a reason to give him my name and phone number), and as I’m heading out the door, feeling pretty good about our encounter, he calls my name. “Hey, Dora,” he teases. I turn back expectantly and he says, “Do you want to pay for those or what?” I realize that I’m clutching a bunch of books that I meant to purchase along with the Iain Pears. Shit. Shit. Shit. I’m an idiot. I blurt out, “I bet you think I’m one of those screwed-up kleptomaniac housewives who steals T-shirts to get her husband’s attention.” I give him a big lip-glossy smile. He looks at me like I’m insane. Nice, Dora. The Stakeout (#ulink_3eb2c873-707f-5598-85a3-94f39d9cadfa) “It is with books as with men; a very small number play a great part.” ∼ Voltaire (1694–1778) ∼ Normally in my neighborhood it’s gridlock at this hour. There are five exclusive private schools within a four-block radius and Sunset Boulevard is jammed with Range Rovers, BMWs, Mercedeses, and Hummers, many sporting vanity license plates that say things like “US2BHIS.” In between, people in exercise clothes and leather Pumas hang out in the local Starbucks, power walk, bike along San Vicente Boulevard’s tree-lined bike path, or shop in specialized boutiques that sell hundred-dollar tie-dyed T-shirts. Palmer used to marvel at the large numbers of people who spend their days with no visible means of support. “We could be in Florida,” he said, “except nobody’s old.” I’m heading home when I get a second wind and decide to take a slight detour. It’s one of those spur-of-the-moment things that you can’t seem to explain. Especially after what can only be described as a seriously awkward moment. No. Inept would be a better word. I think about what I said to Fred and then what I should have said. Then I go over it again in a different scenario. It turns over and over in my mind like an annoying melody that I can’t get out of my head. First I say this, then he says that. Oh, this is so ludicrous I have to stop. It’s a comment on my state of mind that I’m even analyzing this at all. So, instead, here I am, sitting in my car like an undercover agent, while I wait for Palmer, my second husband, to emerge from the gated house that he and I shared for five years. This was our oasis, at least for a while. The house is one of those hybrid architectural buildings reminiscent of Old Hollywood. Part Italian villa, part Spanish hacienda. When we first moved in, I had it painted a faded terra-cotta, which is just now starting to look authentic. The driveway is lush with impatiens and lined with the requisite palm trees. I park on the narrow windy road in front of our house, my car wedged between a crisp navy van advertising Bel Air Plumbing and a battered wooden gardener’s truck. In Bel Air, you’re either a guest and you’re parked inside the gates, or you’re service personnel and you’re outside the gates, an L.A. version of Upstairs, Downstairs. Then there’s that in-between category: personal trainers, yoga instructors, dog walkers, and masseuses. These people are often privy to the codes of their clients’ alarm systems and a few end up living gratis in the guesthouse. I remember right before I moved out last year, my neighbor’s masseuse, a rather sensitive young man named Roy, was held up at gunpoint by the now-infamous Bel Air Burglar as he entered their gate. Their dog, an imported German shepherd, sat immobile on his bed as the robbery was taking place. The dog was trained in Frankfurt and only understood commands like sitzen and attacke! I reach behind me and grab one of the six books I had thrown into the car. One thing I’m glad about: I’m never bored and I never mind waiting—anywhere. Unless, of course, I’ve forgotten my book, in which case I just run off and buy another one. I read at the DMV, in movie lines, in bank teller lines, or when the shuttle from L.A. to San Francisco is four hours late. Layovers in unfamiliar airports are a treat, as are jury notices that arrive at my home and give me license to sit around and read all day, knowing that I’m doing my civic duty. On my last jury duty, I was rejected from two trials, one because I told the judge in voir dire that I thought the defendant, a skinhead with tattoos, looked guilty, and the other because the attorneys got a load of the hostile jury pool and settled the case. That day, I actually got to finish Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. What to read now? Maybe Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women. A quote on the back talks about the dark side of womanhood. Maybe something lighter. How about Kate Braverman’s Lithium for Medea? Oh god, forget it. This is even more depressing. A woman who has a terrible relationship with her mother as well as every man in her life. I burrow through the trunk of my fifteen-year-old cobalt-blue Mercedes 280, a graduation gift from my father. It is still a lovely old coach with faulty wiring and a broken windshield wiper that I’ve been meaning to fix for the last five years. Every time it rains, which isn’t very often, I vow to take the thing in and then immediately lose interest when the sun comes out. It’s a sad commentary that I’ve been with my car longer than any man in my life. I’m not one of those people who affectionately bestows a name upon their car, but I can understand the inclination to do so. The gates to the long sloping driveway slowly begin to open and I dive behind my car as a grim-looking plumber carrying his toolbox emerges. We were always having trouble with the water system, which belched greenish-looking water no matter how many experts we called in. I used to joke that our house was West L.A.’s version of the Love Canal. I do have some sense of pleasure that this problem has not been resolved and that my replacement will have to deal with the endless stream of aeroscopic engineers, construction supervisors, and plumbers. Palmer is now living with an elegant, beautifully put-together woman named Kimberly, who he thinks will be the next domestic diva. She first came to Palmer for legal advice regarding a line of cookware she wanted to sell on the Home Shopping Network. Already the host of a cheery little show on the Food Network, she had just signed a multimedia deal that included her own magazine. She uses phrases on the air such as “Ladies, we can make our families happy without working our tushies off,” and includes tricks like turning old bed linens into junky tablecloths. Last year, the top job at Sony Pictures opened up, and in a surprise move, the Sony brass named Palmer to replace the retiring studio head. His latest string of movies has been financially successful, and now he has a house on the Vineyard, another in Cabo, and I see his name on the letterhead of a dozen charities. I’ve spent the last year trying to figure out how I feel about all this. I thought back to the times when I’d toss and turn all night worrying about something, and in the morning, when I’d wake up bleary-eyed and conflicted, he’d get that look on his face and effortlessly work it all out. There was this calm brilliance about him that had nothing to do with money. I think I loved him. I certainly admired him. But not for his success. That just seemed to get in the way. One day, shortly before the breakup, I found him arranging his neckties according to color and pattern. He used to collect Hermes ties with their endless whimsical micro patterns—sailboats, penguins, golf clubs, whales, baseball bats, hot air balloons, beach umbrellas, trotters, fox hunters, Labradors, and so on, ad nauseam. I scanned the array of expensive patterned silks that covered the entire king-size bed—a sea of ties. “You must have five hundred of these, and look at them,” I said with disdain, “they all look alike. Wait! You’re missing the one with the dollar bills all over it.” He picked up a tie and threw it at me. “How come you’re always such a downer, Dora?” That’s me, Dora the Downer. For a while, Palmer and I tried the marriage counselor route. I remember the therapist took a look at us and said, “Couples shouldn’t divorce unless one of you clearly doesn’t like the other.” It was good advice and I went with it for a while, but eventually he found solace in his work and his new girlfriend. A friend of mine says that I have deficient wiring because I’ve never been dumped. What she doesn’t realize is this: I always manage to extricate myself first, before things get too dramatic. It’s easier that way. But now I’m thinking maybe I should have tried harder. Oh god, it’s all so confusing. I do wish him well, although it wouldn’t make me unhappy if his next movie is skewered by the critics and flops at the box office. No. I don’t mean that. Emily Post and Grand Larceny (#ulink_c6ad7bd9-d338-58bc-8ce3-2d97a6f2fd52) “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” ∼ Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), The Importance of Being Earnest ∼ My first husband, Jack, was a different story. He was the classic catch in a high-school sort of way—handsome, popular, athletic, and he liked to party. That’s where I met him, by the way, at a party. For the first time in my life, he made me feel “in.” He was also the first man to tell me that I was sexy, beautiful, and desirable—how could I not love him forever? I wish I had a better reason for finding him so appealing. But I don’t. I married him because he was a hunk. That’s it. No one understood it. But the thing is, men do this all the time and no one says boo about it. Why do women have to come up with all sorts of explanations for doing the same thing? I didn’t try to impress him with my book stuff because I knew he didn’t care. To tell you the truth, it was actually liberating … and very romantic. But as Shakespeare wisely pointed out in The Tempest, romantic love is so much more complicated than that. Even though Jack set me on fire in bed, alas, it couldn’t compensate for the fact that he had no intellectual curiosity whatsoever … he read car magazines, played video games, watched NASCAR on TV, and smoked pot. When you take out the sex factor, we had nothing in common. One day it just hit me. In all my years of making stupid decisions, this was the capper. I had just graduated from Columbia and he was studying for his real estate license, the only classes he’d attended since high school. When we decided to get married, I was twenty-one years old and even as I was marching down the aisle, resplendent in Madeira lace, trying to ignore my disappointed relatives, mainly my mother, I knew I was making a mistake. I landed my job at the Los Angeles Times two weeks after my wedding. That’s when I met Darlene. I was the hot new reporter (there’s always a hot new reporter) and my world was filled with infinite possibilities. Darlene, however, was buried in Classifieds, selling twenty words to anyone with a charge card and something to offer. She was ten years older than me and married to a cop. The hierarchy at the Times was a caste system with Editorial on top and Classifieds somewhere near subzero. People treated Darlene with the same affection they reserved for their maid. They were nice but they weren’t sharing their drinks or their secrets with her. It didn’t help that she looked like a female serial killer—long straight blonde hair that she bleached herself, black roots, epic tits, too much sun, and too much booze. Of course, I found her tremendously amusing and we threw back more than a few on several occasions after work. I particularly enjoyed these evenings because it prolonged the inevitable trip home and put off the nearly nightly confrontations with Jack. He was feeling insecure about the marriage, not surprisingly. I also thought he was back seeing his old girlfriend, a wretched creature he’d lived with for a few years before dumping her for me. One night Darlene and I were at Cassidy’s, a once-lively spot wedged between two strip malls, which had spiraled downward until now the only time the place was full was on St. Patrick’s Day, when they gave away frothy mugs of green beer on tap. I had once seen the bartender, an aging thug with a long blond ponytail and a receding hairline, topping off the barrels using the hose in the back alley. His wife, a hefty Armenian girl with short hair and a mustache, waited tables and served as the bouncer when things got rowdy. It was, however, a cop hangout and Darlene’s husband, Mel, would sometimes meet us and shoot the breeze for a couple of hours. Mel, an LAPD cop, was a meaty guy with a stubbled face and a cracked, hoarse, smoker’s laugh. Every now and then he’d give me a semi-reliable tip, which once turned into a pretty big story on the front page of the Metro section. That night, I was not in the best of moods when my cell phone rang and it was Jack. He sounded uncharacteristically upbeat. “Hey, I have to show this condo tonight. The woman can’t get there until seven and then she wants to see what the view looks like at night.” I responded in mock sympathy, “Gee, that’s too bad. I guess you’re stuck late, then, huh?” “Till ten at least.” “Oh, okay. Don’t wake me when you come in, because I’m dead tired.” I must have looked relieved, because Darlene gave me a quizzical look. “You know what,” I said, “he’s full of shit. This is the third time this week. But the worst part is, I don’t care.” Darlene was sympathetic but firm. “Get rid of him. You made a mistake. Bite the bullet. Move on.” “But we just got married and I’m embarrassed. Plus, our living room is littered with all these gifts, and I need to at least write the thank-you notes before I leave him.” It’s strange when anachronisms like Emily Post pop up in your life. “God, are you nuts. Who cares about the gifts? Return them. No, wait! Give them to me. Just kidding.” Darlene never worried about what other people thought. I, on the other hand, felt guilty. No, it was worse than that. I felt like an awful person for not loving him. When I got home that night there was an angry message on the answering machine from Jack’s ex-girlfriend, berating him for being late and telling him that she “couldn’t take it anymore.” Assuming “it” was the affair they’d been having and never one for confrontations, I called Darlene and we devised a plan. Jack came home late and I pretended I was asleep. The next morning, after he left for work, I called Darlene, who had been waiting for the “all clear” sign from around the corner. She pulled up in a banged-up purple van with black flames emblazoned on the side, which she’d gotten from Rent-A-Wreck, a place down the block that looked like a salvage yard. This was Darlene’s idea of being unobtrusive. My place was on the second floor of what was jokingly called garden apartments. I guess the two dying azalea bushes were the garden part. The white stucco building had seen better days but not much better, and the open hallways left no room for privacy. Darlene parked the van right in front and came bounding up the steps with unbridled enthusiasm. For some warped reason, this whole thing really charged her up. “Dora, you can’t believe this killer van. And if I get it back to them by noon, they’ll give me a ’68 Mustang for the rest of the day.” “Darlene, we need to focus here.” And then I saw Mrs. Richter peeking through her curtains. My nosy German landlord and his wife lived down the hall, and to them, the whole world was a soap opera, which in my case happened to be the truth. She stuck her head out and said hello, which was a “tell me what’s going on” kind of hello. I swear those people installed motion detectors. I nonchalantly answered, “Oh, hi,” as I ducked back into my apartment. I heard her Tevas flapping down the hall. “What’s going on?” Since it didn’t seem fair that Mrs. Richter should know about the split before Jack, I decided to lie. “Spring cleaning,” I said. Not bad for the middle of January. I could tell the old bat didn’t believe me, but she didn’t come out again. Darlene was waiting inside, surveying the place. I was about to object as she lifted the Jack Daniel’s bottle and poured herself a large tumblerful, but what the hell, I joined her. “You shouldn’t leave all this stuff. You’re crazy.” “I don’t want it,” I replied. On this I was clear. Darlene sat down. “Well, at least take the couch. Do you know how much these things cost?” She was referring to a distressed brown leather monster I’d always hated. For someone as deliciously handsome as Jack was, he really had no taste. All the furnishings were different colors of mud with green or gold flecks. If I were to categorize it, I would call it stupid stud furniture, but perhaps that would be too harsh. “Do you honestly believe the two of us can carry this three-hundred-pound couch down the stairs?” She was adamant. “Let me just think a minute. What if we drove down to Westwood Boulevard, picked up a couple of those construction guys who hang out on the corner waiting for work, and offer them maybe twenty dollars each? That would work.” “You don’t understand, Darlene. I don’t want the couch,” I repeated. She shook her head in disbelief. It was a tribute to her grip on reality that she thought I was the one who was nuts. “Dora, no one leaves stuff like this.” She and I spent the next twenty minutes arguing about what I should take, while I was getting more and more nervous that Jack would unexpectedly appear. In the end, she convinced me to take at least a few of the more practical wedding gifts from my side of the family, and, indeed, I was grateful to have some pots, pans, plates, and silverware for my next place. Acting as if we were committing grand larceny, we carried out bulging black Hefty bags filled with my clothes and box after box of my books, which I had meticulously saved since I was twelve, including textbooks with water-stained covers. I must learn to travel lighter. For a long time after that, I felt guilty and liberated at the same time. I wouldn’t have to quiz him for his real estate license and pretend how difficult it was. I wouldn’t have to tune out the damn TV, or ignore the aftertaste of marijuana mixed with tobacco on his breath. Or feel like a sap every time we went to a party and I couldn’t think of a thing to say to him or his friends. He insisted that no one would ever love me as much as he did, and at the time, I believed him. His girlfriend gave me the excuse to leave, but I knew he was still in love with me. Afterwards, when the inevitable pain of the breakup hit us, we met for coffee and we both had a good cry. He was sympathetic and resigned in the beginning but then came the zinger. “I helped you become the beautiful, self-confident woman you are and you stomped all over me and left me in the dust.” The Roust (#ulink_674e29c2-ce8f-5701-a297-3354d0c4b1b8) “I divide all readers into two classes: Those who read to remember and those who read to forget.” ∼ William Lyon Phelps (1865–1943) ∼ I jump behind a bush as a silver Porsche 911 Turbo convertible races out of the driveway, driven by one of Palmer’s best friends, Hootie. Must be a new car. Like this slug would ever need to get from 0 to 60 in four seconds. His golf clubs are sticking out of the back of his car like plumes on a rooster and he’s probably headed to Bel Air Country Club for his afternoon rounds. The scion of an old Southern family, he currently spends his days golfing and his nights watching videos of himself golfing. At one time handsome, almost patrician, he is now a lush with a puffy face and a bulbous nose covered with spider veins who tells unfunny jokes with boorish sexual references. Oddly enough, Palmer is nothing like his friends. He went to Yale, and for some reason gravitated toward those guys with three last names who graduated from St. Paul’s or Exeter with a C-minus average and spent their entire undergraduate careers getting shit-faced in the same clubs where their fathers and grandfathers once held court. Talk about the original affirmative action. Not that Palmer was like that. He grew up in working-class New Jersey, went to Yale on a full scholarship, and was the first in his family to graduate from college. He is smart and ambitious, the kind of person who could hold down three jobs and still end up with a 4.0. His family owned a ma-and-pa grocery store, and Little Joey, as the Palmers called him to differentiate him from his father, Big Joey, spent every waking hour helping out in the store. He still notices the prices of food items and pays particular attention to the cost of a quart of milk, feeling that it’s a bellwether for fluctuations in the economy. Given all of Palmer’s obvious attributes, it always amazed me how impressed he was with old money. Even these clowns, the kind of people who juxtapose fancy cars with bad skin, bad breath, and slightly agape flies, were elevated in his eyes because of their once-fashionable social standing. He’s still grateful for the fact that they anointed him “Palmer” the first week of school as they ushered him into their snobby group, and he continues to find them interesting in spite of their pretentious and slightly depraved lifestyles. When I suggested that these people were just losers taking up space, he shot back that I was the real snob here, not them. Palmer loved everything that I hated, including fancy parties, corporate intrigue, business networking, and the whole Hollywood scene. I especially hated going to his Young Presidents Organization (YPO) weekend extravaganzas. This was an organization for mostly second-generation presidents of companies who liked to get together in places like Vail or Tucson to talk about interest rates and balancing their portfolios. They had boring seminars during the day and endless cocktail parties at night in dark reception rooms located in the basement level of the hotels. The wives were expected to come along, look beautiful, and spend their time participating in stupid activities like Asian flower arranging, shopping sprees at local malls, or guided tours by ancient docents of obscure museums. I went along the first time to a weekend in Monterey, but after three excruciating days of socializing with women I never would have talked to ordinarily, I told him to forget about bringing me along the next time. He went alone after that, but always came home silent, resentful, and full of accusatory pronouncements like “I was the only one who didn’t bring his wife” or “You missed a great speech by Buzz Aldrin about orbiting hotels on Mars.” But it wasn’t all Palmer’s fault. He was out in the world and I stayed home and read. Not that I let myself indulge all the time, but I’d have to admit that the book-binge thing sometimes got out of control. After all, I had plenty of time to kill. He had evolved into a workaholic and I was lost in the blissful, dreamlike otherworldness of books. Compared to reality, it was much more enticing. In retrospect, I made a mistake not going back to work. After my father died, I thought I’d take a short sabbatical. But how did it turn into five years? I just couldn’t seem to pull myself together. And Palmer was happy to have me all to himself. I should have remembered how miserable and bored my mother was just being the corporate wife. But now I’m not even the corporate wife. I’m just one of those thirtysomething women who roam around Los Angeles, speeding down the freeway with nowhere to go. I am jolted out of my reverie by Steve, the neighborhood Bel Air patrolman. He taps on the window and peers in at me. “Hey, Dora. What’s up?” He’s friendly but clearly wants to know what the hell I’m doing here. I suddenly get queasy at the prospect of him maybe calling Palmer. Do they have a restraining order against me? Not possible. I’ve never showed signs of aggression or threatening behavior that would warrant such measures. Granted, it is weird that I’m hanging out in front of Palmer’s gate. Even I don’t know why I’m here. I give Steve one of my most of-course-this-is-perfectly-normal looks and say, “Just came to pick up a few things.” Sure, that’s why I’ve been hiding in the bushes. “Guess no one’s home. I’ll try later.” He doesn’t believe it for a second. How humiliating. And I remember how I used to complain to him about all the tourists who cruised our streets and, god forbid, if anyone parked by my gate to try to get a glimpse of the actress next door. I’d call Steve all agitated and make him come right over and roust the guy to move on. I start my car and try to get out of the parking spot I had wedged myself into. Not easy. I never was very good at parallel parking. I think if you don’t grow up in L.A., you never quite get the hang of it. Finally, I angle it out. If a car could have its tail between its legs, that’s my once proud vehicle as I slowly head home. The Wasteland (#ulink_cd2fbe2d-7f11-59b3-ad1e-26e178c65a52) “I read much of the night and go south in the winter.” ∼ T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) The Waste Land, “The Burial of the Dead” ∼ I pull into my apartment building and one of four uniformed valets takes my car. The ads for this place describe it as L.A.’s only month-to-month, ultra-luxury high-rise oceanfront residence. They say it’s comparable to the finest five-star hotel, but I say it’s assisted living for the socially impaired. It’s certainly one of the first places West L.A. people think of when they get divorced and can’t figure out where to go for that sticky in-between time. I moved in a year ago, furnished it from Ikea (except for my antique iron bed), and haven’t had the energy or motivation to look for more suitable quarters. It was supposed to be temporary, like a brief vacation, but somehow inertia set in, not to mention getting seduced by the embarrassing number of amenities. Everything I hate to do is taken care of, including picking up my laundry, parking my car, carrying up the groceries, and reconnecting me to the Internet when my computer freezes up. There’s even a concierge that makes dinner reservations and arranges travel. So here I am in a place that grates on me every time I pull into the palatial circular driveway and walk through the marble entry. Oh well, maybe just a few more months. Victor the Doorman greets me, “Hey Dora, how ya doin’? Your sister’s upstairs.” My first thought is “Oh Christ, I don’t have the energy for this right now.” My sister, Virginia, drops by whenever her baby, Camille, is driving her crazy, which seems to be every other minute lately. Virginia is three years older than me and it took years of fertility treatments to have this baby. Right now there are sleep issues (like I don’t have any) and lately she’s been throwing the baby in the car, driving around, and ending up at my place. As I walk through the door, the enormous amount of paraphernalia that my sister carries around with her is strewn all over the living room and the phone is ringing. My sister ignores it while trying to comfort her screaming, overtired child. She looks even more disheveled than usual and there is a large greasy spot in the middle of her stretched-out T-shirt. Virginia and I look so different that people always react with suspicion when we tell them we’re sisters. She is five foot two with olive skin and dark, inquisitive eyes. When she smiles, you can still see that one of her front teeth is slightly chipped, the result of the accident on the bridge years ago. You’d think she would’ve at least had the tooth capped, but she’s always made a point of saying looks aren’t important. She’s let her hair go gray and when I tell her that she looks ten years older because of it, she argues that her girlfriends think her hair is a beautiful shade of silver. One should never rely on girlfriends for things like this. They tend to try to make you feel good. You should always rely on sisters, who tell you the awful truth no matter how bad it makes you feel. Then there is the issue of her weight. I wouldn’t say that she’s fat, but she’s a size 12, which in this part of town is considered politically incorrect, right up there with smoking, drinking, and eating desserts. It doesn’t help that sizes in the Beverly Hills stores start at 0 and usually end at 8. I must say that when I travel, it amazes me how much heavier everyone is. What seems normal in L.A. is anorexic anywhere else. My sister avoids the shopping problem by sticking to oversized sweats decorated with animal decals, glitter, or rhinestones. I don’t comment on her wardrobe anymore. I’ve learned it’s easier to just shut up about it. The baby’s shrieks are reaching fever pitch and the phone is still ringing. I pick her up and walk to the balcony so we can both look at the ocean. Camille releases a series of weak little staccato sighs and curls into me. I can feel her whole body relax. In the midst of all this chaos, Virginia answers the phone. It’s my mother. Perfect timing. Why can’t we be like normal families and never talk to each other? “Hi, Mom. Wait a minute. I’ll give you Dora.” I can hear my mother’s strong, stern voice still talking as Virginia gives me the phone and takes Camille. Mother is obviously annoyed. “Who’s this? Dora? Where’s Virginia? Am I disturbing you?” “No, Mom. It’s okay,” I lie. “What’s up?” “Well, the answer is ‘roast pig.’ It’s the subject of one of Charles Lamb’s most famous essays. Does it fit?” For a moment I can’t figure out what she is talking about, but then I remember I was struggling with that crossword clue for two nights and finally couldn’t stand it anymore. I usually call Virginia when I feel like cheating because she used to do the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in about an hour and then cheerfully tell me how easy it was. But lately, with Camille, she’s so frazzled it’s a waste. So I called my mom, who doesn’t have Virginia’s graduate degree in the classics, but is the most avid reader of your basic moldy classics that I know and sometimes has an answer. “Gee, Mom, that’s great. I knew you’d get it, you’re …” The baby is now howling so loud in the background that I can’t hear myself talk. “I’ll call you later, okay?” “You know, your sister doesn’t know how to deal with that child. When you kids were babies—” “Mom, I gotta go, okay? I’ll call you later.” Virginia places Camille in her Portacrib in my bedroom and shuts the door. I look at her in disbelief. “What are you doing?” “Well, she hasn’t slept a wink today and she is so strung out that I can’t stand it. Dr. Friedman says I just have to bite the bullet and let her cry it out or she’ll never get on a schedule and Andy and I will be walking zombies for the rest of our lives.” “Not that I’m an expert, but Dr. Friedman isn’t here listening to the screaming, and maybe if you just held her and rocked her she’d nod off. I can’t stand it when she wails.” We look at each other and rush into the bedroom. It always ends like this when Virginia comes over. I give her my opinion, which then gives her permission to do what she wants, which is to comfort the baby. It all seems so simple. But then I’m not there at two in the morning. Virginia rocks Camille, who eventually conks out, and we immediately hit the white wine and cheese. It’s at this point that Virginia says something sweet about her husband, Andy, a Ph.D. in psychology and an expert on aging (how depressing), who treats his wife with undying respect (she’s the one with the trust fund). It’s one of those marriages where there’s only the two of them, and, of course, now Camille. She gave up her job teaching Latin at a preppy boarding school to move out here with him and they’ve been happily married most of my adult life, something that neither my mother nor I could ever achieve. Sometimes when we’re sitting together like this, the baby asleep, the afternoon clouds closing in, I flash on our tumultuous lives as kids. Mother was always recovering from her two-martini cocktail hour, which started at three in the afternoon and ended several hours after dinner, which she often missed, and Father popped in and out of our lives in a series of long separations. I still have dreams about him that give Ginny and me a good laugh. He’s been abducted by evil aliens like Meg’s father in A Wrinkle in Time, kidnapped by terrorists, taken against his will, forced to leave us, but unlike Odysseus, he never braved the Fates to come home. Growing up, my father was intimidating and demanding, but those qualities were tempered by an irresistible charisma. At dinner parties, he dominated the conversation and charmed all the women—he was always the star. My mother tolerated his celestial aura but would frequently describe him by repeating Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s quote about her father, Teddy: “He wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding, and the baby at every christening.” My father was all that my mother wasn’t—maybe that was the attraction. And he loved to have a good time. She disapproved of the circus, the zoo, amusement parks, and even Christmas. And he relished those things. So she’d stay home while we’d all climb in his Seville and come home hours later, the car trashed with cotton candy sticks, Cracker Jacks, shriveled balloons, and the remains of whatever fast food we’d eaten. But these idyllic days were rare. When he lived with us, he was either at the office or traveling to some exotic land, chasing down the latest woven chenille or ornate Aubusson, which he produced on hundreds of looms around the world. The owner of a textile mill, he was a self-made tycoon—absent six days a week and asleep on the couch on the seventh, lulled by the constant drone of the Phillies games. His fortunes rose and fell with the price of goods, but he managed to leave us each a modest trust fund, which Virginia tells me, at the rate I’m going, I’ve got maybe five years of left. In those days, dinner was usually something the housekeeper would put in the oven at three in the afternoon and we’d take out whenever my father came home from work. During the meal, he would cover up my mother’s absences with games of twenty questions and “What in the World?” My brilliant sister would always excel in the current events category. She gobbled up every newspaper she could get her hands on, and before I could stumble onto the answer, she’d grin and throw it out in a stage whisper. But when it came to literature, I was the master. One night, I remember him asking us to quote something from a classic family saga. He was expecting something from The Swiss Family Robinson or Little Women, but the first thing that popped into my head was Lady Bracknell’s response to hearing that Jack had lost both his parents. “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”* (#ulink_11065caf-60aa-5459-9b2e-4cb99888a8d6) It was a competition of sorts, but we both basked in his sense of pride and his undivided attention. Long after the dishes were cleared, Mother would come floating downstairs, giving me a lovely smile and rummaging through the shelves for a can of Campbell’s soup or kidney beans. There were periods, however, when she was glorious. She had a long, patrician nose and dark, wavy, lustrous hair swept back with diamond-studded tortoiseshell combs and hairpins. When we were in grade school she would announce her own schedule of holidays and we would take turns skipping school. We’d go downtown to the Philadelphia Museum of Art or to a concert with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra and then to the Crystal Tea Room at Wanamaker’s department store, where we’d get cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off and rice pudding. We were her little pets for the day, and she’d buy us ribbons, hair clips, or a new pair of shoes. On weekends, we went to the library, where I’d roam around bored and restless while my mother would sink into a cubicle and hunker down for what seemed like hours. She was a masterful reader and, next to gin, it was the most important thing in her life. It was of paramount importance to her that I read too and often she’d say to me, “No matter what happens to you, Dora, you can always pick up a book,” in the way I imagined other mothers would comfort their daughters with words of endearment. Or at the very least, advise them to get off the couch and do something. Incidentally, it’s no accident that my mother named me Dora. I don’t tell many people, but Dora is short for Eudora Welty, one of my mother’s idols. It all sounds so, well, bookish, but at the time, my mother identified with Welty’s voracious literary appetites and used to proudly tell me that she and Welty had the same literary background, from Chaucer and Virgil to Yeats, Matthew Arnold, and Virginia Woolf (guess who was named after her). I think she also admired Welty’s intensely private persona and secretly envied the fact that she was an independent, eccentric woman who gloried in books and her camellia garden and was quite content to live alone. Some biographers claim that Welty’s mother was so obsessed with books that she once rushed into a burning house not to save the children, but to save a set of valuable Dickens volumes. I don’t think my mother would go to that extreme, but she certainly admired the single-mindedness of it all. Anyway, Welty was said to be genteel and straightforward and that’s the way my mother usually comes across. After my father left for good, my mother stopped doing much of anything and the locked-bedroom-door incidents grew longer. We were never quite sure if she was reading, recovering, sleeping, or drinking. During this period, Virginia became the caretaker: shopping, cooking, tidying up; while I mimicked my mother’s retreat to the only safe harbor I knew, my books. We’ve become even closer since she moved to L.A. I look at her sitting on my white wicker rocker. The sun is just about to plop into the ocean, my favorite time. She smiles at me. “Thanks for the rescue. It’s so peaceful here, I hate to leave. Plus, as soon as I walk in the door, Andy is on me to help type his Alzheimer’s speech. He’s such a pain.” This is my favorite subject and I’m rolling. “Why doesn’t he just hire someone? He can afford it. Why do husbands take their smart wives and turn them into secretaries?” Virginia laughs. “Tolstoy’s wife copied War and Peace in longhand three times.” “No offense, Virginia, but Andy isn’t Tolstoy.” “Oh well, Dora. What can I say? Do you want to come over for dinner? Andy’s probably home wondering which bridge I drove off of.” (We give each other a knowing look—and laugh.) “I can’t,” I lie. “Meeting some friends.” “Oh, who?” “Just some old friends from work.” “I know a nice guy. Friend of Andy’s.” As if that would be an asset. “No thanks.” “You know, Dora, L.A. isn’t like New York. You have to make an effort here. You can’t just walk into a bar on East Fifty-seventh Street and start talking to your neighbors. It’s not that kind of town.” “And what? You want me to join a dating service? Go on the Internet? I’d rather shoot myself. Anyway, I’m not looking” (except at the bookstore, but no need to mention that here). “I’m fine.” Even to me, I sound defensive. “You’re turning into a hermit. Even Andy says so.” “Fuck Andy. Go home. You’re late.” Virginia’s mouth curls up in a mock petulant scowl as she leans over to kiss me good-bye. “Okay, Dora, but you really should meet his friend. He’s nice and he reads.” “Big deal. No. I love you. Good-bye.” Virginia gathers all her stuff, gently picks up Camille, who is now sleeping soundly, and she’s gone. I wish people would stop trying to fix me up. It never works out and things are always strained. From the moment we say “hello” and I start listening to his life story, I’m waiting for a chance to escape. I think back to my conversation with Fred at the bookstore. He’s a flirt, no doubt about it. Not really my type. If I saw him on the street, chances are I’d walk right past him. Still, I’m definitely attracted to him. I bet right now he’s fucking some Brentwood housewife in her faux English Tudor mansion while her husband, the dermatologist, is at Men’s Week at the Golden Door. What’s the matter with me? We had a three-minute conversation. He’s probably one of those moody, dysfunctional guys who’s critical of everything and doesn’t even like the sound of the surf. I turn on my goofy garage-sale radio and grab my latest tome. I always feel best about myself when I’m engrossed in a good book. Then I don’t worry that I’m in limbo, living in a place that’s not really my home, spending my days floating around from one thing to the next. Tomorrow is a big day. I’m interviewing for a writing position at my old newspaper. I’m going to try not to think about it. So now it’s three a.m. and tonight, like so many others, I’m wide awake. I look out the window. The world is dark and deserted. All the normal, well-adjusted people are asleep. Insomnia. Why do I feel that I’m the only one that suffers from this affliction? I give up. Turning on the light and opening my book once again is generally the only alternative to this misery. Although Dorothy Parker would definitely disagree. In her philosophy, the whole institution of reading was responsible for her sleepless nights. She joked that all the best minds had been “anti-reading” for years.* (#ulink_89bf654b-cdf7-5c83-99d9-f11ec3c775bb) She even said, “I wish I’d never learned to read … then I wouldn’t have been mucking about with a lot of French authors at this hour …”* (#ulink_89bf654b-cdf7-5c83-99d9-f11ec3c775bb) That leaves the question, what to do if you don’t want to read to get yourself to sleep? Sheep are out. Dorothy Parker hated sheep. “I can tell the minute there’s one in the room. They needn’t think I’m going to lie here in the dark and count their unpleasant little faces for them.”* (#ulink_89bf654b-cdf7-5c83-99d9-f11ec3c775bb) I can make lists of things I need to do. No, that would only stress me out. I could get up and make a glass of warm milk. I could organize my closet. Or my desk. I could call the 1–800 number for the Bank of America and check my balance. No, that’s another stomach-churning exercise. People don’t realize how serious a problem this is. There was a case last year in the Valley where a man with insomnia would go into his garage in the middle of the night and use his power saw. His woodworking was the only thing that gave him solace. And the neighbors were suing. This doesn’t help me. I grab a book on my bedside table that my sister gave me a few weeks ago. How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton. It says here it’s a “self-help manual for the intelligent person.” I could use some help right now. * (#ulink_60bbfa42-f538-5b6c-b496-26fe7e1c63d6) Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest. * (#ulink_7bd49593-b3ab-5a1e-8634-216fbccf66a1) “The Little Hours,” The Portable Dorothy Parker, Penguin Books. Interview with Miss Piggy (#ulink_d862dc87-9e88-5eff-94d8-7ce8a62fef68) “The best effect of any book is that it excites the reader to self activity.” ∼ Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) ∼ Getting dressed is a lot trickier than I imagined. What an ordeal. All these things I used to take for granted, like putting on an outfit and rushing out the door without worrying what I looked like, are so much more difficult now. Plus, it’s been a long time since I wore “work clothes,” whatever that means. I have already put on and taken off a couple of Gucci suits, thinking they were too trendy, one Banana Republic outfit, thinking it was too suburban, and a sweater and shortish pleated skirt that gave me that “trying to look too young” look. By the end of it all, I’m sweating, harassed, late, and thoroughly discouraged. I finally settle on a simple black suit I purchased three years ago at Bloomingdale’s for the funeral of my brother-in-law’s mother, who died of dementia and everyone said it was a blessing. Okay, I’m ready. I hate the way I look. Ordinary. I get in the car and head downtown. Here’s the thing: I do not drive on the freeway. That’s not something I admit to anyone except my closest friends, because in this city it’s like having a debilitating disease or being bipolar. When I first moved here, the intricate network of concrete and steel was daunting, to say the least. Anybody’s vision of automotive hell, right down to the banshee-screaming sirens and thunderous din that assault your consciousness as you brave the elements, strapped to your seat. Like a fighter pilot. Driving in this town is certainly not for the fainthearted. When you factor in road rage and all those zoned-out bizarros and angry people who are just on the edge of insanity, it’s even more frightening. Nevertheless, I always managed to motor up and down the ramps like any other normal commuter on the 101 or the 10 and to dutifully yield to the zooming traffic that was muscling down on top of me. Then one night, I lost my nerve. I was driving to USC on assignment to interview a seventeen-year-old freshman who had just sold a screenplay for a million dollars when my car stalled in the fast lane of the Santa Monica freeway. It was black-dark, impossible to see anything but a blaze of out-of-focus exploding nebulas that enveloped my car. Semis blasted their horns as they swerved to avoid hitting me. And I remember praying that I would wake up from this nightmare and the burning, white-coal core of panic would subside. I was shivering and drenched in sweat as I kept turning on the ignition only to hear weak clicks and then silence. Just as a truck pulled up behind me and stopped (maybe a good Samaritan, maybe Ted Bundy’s brother), I turned the key and the car miraculously started. I had enough power to creep along at five miles an hour across four lanes of traffic to the nearest off-ramp. I coasted down to a gas station in the middle of Watts, where an unflappable Korean attendant called a cab and waited with me until it arrived. Remember that old saying, “When you fall off a horse you should get right back on”? Well, I didn’t. I kept avoiding the freeway and now, every time I even consider it, my palms sweat and my vision blurs, and I feel like I’m going to hyperventilate so I go home and have a glass of wine. I heard about a therapist who specializes in freeway disorders but I was afraid of all the other stuff she might dig up, so I never went to see her. So now, in a city where there is no public transportation, I am relegated to only those areas of L.A. served by Sepulveda and Olympic. I pull into the Times building after an hour and a half—a trip that should have taken thirty minutes. It’s a little disorienting going back to a place where I once worked. My instinct is to pull into the same parking space, but instead I take a parking ticket that needs to be validated and pull into the visitor’s lot. Trying to act like I belong, I ask the burly security guy where Al is, the kindly, bespectacled guard I used to bring lattes to from the corner café, which isn’t there anymore. He informs me curtly that Al retired four years ago. “Check your purse, ma’am?” The newsroom is the same, thank god, with rows of reporter cubicles outfitted with computers and bulletin boards overflowing with cartoons, irreverent slogans, daily assignments, and bizarre photos of attack dogs, creepy over-the-hill actresses, and bloody crime scenes. The same thirtysomething, greasy-haired reporters hunch over their telephones and laptops, blotting out everything around them and pounding away at one story or another. No one looks up when people pass by. No one registers any reaction. That’s the way I used to be, completely absorbed in whatever assignment I was working on, jaws clenched in concentration. I wonder if I can even do that anymore. I approach the assistant Metro editor’s office and knock. God, is she ever young. She can’t be more than twenty-five and she seems vaguely distracted. Her only redeeming feature is that she’s fat. She greets me the way you would greet a bad blind date, trying to be polite but keeping it as short as possible. I give her my résumé. She barely glances at it. Her office is a pretty good size but the air is close and stuffy, the window firmly shut. There’s a half-eaten piece of pastry smeared on a napkin by the phone, a couple of empty, dirty coffee cups with lipstick stains on the rims, and picked-through copies of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal strewn in a messy pile on the floor. Well, she’s an editor. I’m always amazed when people describe this job as glamorous. It’s not. It’s a job in an office. You eat, you talk on the phone, you read, you make decisions. You rarely meet anybody except for other editors and reporters. And you don’t even get to go to fun events. There are rewards, naturally. But they are mostly internal and abstract. Like in any art, I suppose. And the pace is relentless—a constant struggle to stay hot and new and on top of everything all the time. The whole process can drive you nuts if you let it. I guess that’s why this woman’s here. She seems all business and boy, is she a grump. She looks at me skeptically and scowls. “So, you worked here. When? Seven years ago?” The scourge of irrelevance clings to me like flakes of dandruff. “Well, almost.” Might as well be twenty. She’s waiting for more. What to say? Do I tell her the truth? That the Times was my dream job. That I’d just had an enormous run of luck—a few breaking stories had attracted attention, one of which culminated in the resignation of some key figures in the mayor’s office. That the senior editor had called me in and given me a plum beat. That I felt privileged, part of the inner circle. And that when my father became ill, I left abruptly and then failed to return. My mother proved incapable of caring for him. Just changing a dressing or giving him his medication on time was more than she could handle. She’d disappear for hours at a time and when she returned, drifting in, a cloud of cashmere, her cheeks flushed with the cold and the booze, she’d attempt a conversation, a few inquiries into his health. Then she’d fall asleep on the living room sofa, the lights blazing, her reading glasses halfway down her nose and a book perched precariously on her lap. My sister was newly married and Andy had just accepted a position at UCLA. My father would’ve never asked Virginia to leave her husband to care for him. But I was single, my job was expendable, and he didn’t protest when I told him I was moving home to help. Regardless, I wanted to be with him. Palmer was very understanding. We hadn’t been dating that long. I drove my father to his office every day until he was too sick to continue. Then I cared for him until the end. He never asked me about my job or if I missed it, and I never brought it up. After he died, months later, when my sister and I were cleaning out his old mahogany desk, I found a blue file folder labeled “Dora.” It was filled with every article I’d ever written, neatly cut out with the date printed in blue ink on top. As far as I knew, he didn’t even have a subscription to the Times. He must have bought it at the newsstand near his office, which sold out-of-state papers and magazines. When I close my eyes, I can still see him in his prime, roaring into the living room, fresh from the office, wearing his dark pin-striped suit despite the September heat, regaling us with his adventures in the fabric trade, making the intricacies of his business sound as intriguing as national security. And then I see him frail, giving me a soft smile as I helped him into his office building. I feel tears welling up inside of me and I want him back, robust, handsome, looking at me expectantly, waiting for my answers. “So, the reasons you left?” I look at this girl who is impatiently fidgeting with the papers on her desk, spraying her glasses with a pocket-size bottle of Optimetrix lens cleaner and swiping them with a miniature chamois. Her cell phone rings and she holds up her finger like “this will just be a minute” and then proceeds to have a five-minute conversation while I am sitting immobile staring at her. She hangs up. “Sorry, what were you saying?” “I had some opportunities in Philadelphia, so I moved back for a year,” I answer. Now she’s meticulously cleaning her keyboard with a small paintbrush. How rude. Wouldn’t it be great if some disgruntled employee burst through the door with a gun and blew her head off? Pow! What a satisfying vision. The only one who would be disappointed would be her twin sister, the hunchback. And when she asks what I’ve been doing since then, a fine film of perspiration collects on my upper lip. What have I been doing for the past five years, that’s a good question. I had rehearsed what I thought was a reasonable answer, but it now sounds lame and unprofessional, nothing that a twenty-five-year-old hotshot would understand. Telling her I got married was my first mistake, the nagging banality of becoming just another housewife in a ho-hum marriage. It went downhill from there. It was all blah, blah, blah, I did volunteer work, yadda, yadda, yadda, I set up my husband’s office, blah, blah, blah. Just as I’m about to roll into what made me such a good reporter, she looks at her watch and says, “Well, I’ll get back to you soon.” I want to bolt but I compose myself, acting as though it’s been a thoroughly pleasant meeting, and make my way to the elevator. What would make her want to hire me? Anything? Okay, let’s be fair about this. I screwed up. I should have told her right away about my journalistic awards. I should have offered to freelance, I should have taken it upon myself to tell her about some of my more interesting angles on a run-of-the-mill news story. My forte was finding an unusual slant and running with it. The editors I worked with liked that. She might have liked that too, if I had bothered to tell her. Which I didn’t. I got nervous and went on too long about stupid stuff, which she clearly had no interest in. This just confirms my theory that things usually wind up worse than you expect them to be. I decide to see if my old friend Brooke is still working in Style. She was an assistant editor when I left and even though we haven’t kept in touch, I know she’ll be happy to see me. The Style section has an entirely different feel than downstairs. Still the cubicles and concentrated energy, but there are metal racks of designer samples blocking the aisles, boxes of shoes and bags stacked along the hallways, artsy fashion black-and-white blowups covering the walls. I find Brooke on the phone arguing with an editor. She’s beginning to get that overworked, harried look that creeps up on you if you don’t watch it. She slams down the receiver. “What a jerk!” she mutters, then sees me and smiles. “Hey! What are you doing here, girl? God, you look so elegant. How are you? Let’s go outside for a smoke.” We walk around to the back of the building and Brooke lights up. I’d forgotten about the smoking. It’s been years since I’ve been around people that smoked. In West L.A. you’re considered a pariah if you smoke. People look at you like you’re killing them and there’s this immediate hostile reaction that’s akin to road rage. But like most people under thirty, Brooke is oblivious to all this, and I sit there inhaling her smoke while I tell her my story. “I’m trying to maybe go back to work because I’m separated and I’m kind of at odds, but not really.” “God, Dora, I’m sorry to hear that, but why would you want to come back here?” she says with obvious reference to that phone call. “Honestly, I know it sounds strange but I think I get more and more antisocial every year. I’m even beginning to dread interviewing people about their problems,” she confessed, adding that she spends her weekends meditating with a yogi and staying away from crowds. “I just realized one day that I could care less what sources have to tell me for these stories and when they call me back to elaborate or give me more quotes I find it so annoying. Pretty grim, hey, for someone in the news business.” I feel better talking to her. The old misery-loves-company axiom, but I still know that, in my heart, I would trade places with her in a minute. She can tell I’m discouraged. “Listen, Dora, if you really want to come back, I’ll talk to Eddie, who still has a lot of clout around here, and I know he always liked you. In fact, why didn’t you go to see him?” I tell her that his office had sent me to that editor in Metro who couldn’t wait to get rid of me. “You mean Miss Piggy? Everyone hates her. She’s so rude. Don’t worry about it. Maybe it’s the air in her office. It’s suffocating. Do you still have a copy of your résumé? I’ll make some calls, okay?” As I walk out, I remember how I used to feel a combination of pity and disdain when older writers tried to make a comeback. Being in your thirties is not that old, but in the news business it might as well be. And now here I am trying to do something with my life and ending up exactly where I thought I would end up, which is why I dreaded doing this in the first place. Stray Dogs and Other Companions (#ulink_b0d90a64-5999-5e5b-a493-a0cab6a3b03c) “Classic. A book which people praise and don’t read.” ∼ Mark Twain (1835–1910) ∼ I drive back to Brentwood in a brooding funk. For the first few miles or so, I work myself into a hyped-up, articulate rant in which my imaginary retorts to Miss Piggy are so blunt and uncomplimentary that I end up getting into terrible trouble. Daggers start flying across her office and, well, you get the picture. Some things are better left unsaid. Then again, some things aren’t. Why IS it that I always think of the perfect thing to say when it’s too late? Like with Fred. There I go again. I’ve got to stop massaging to death that pathetic scenario in the bookstore. I cruise down the street just beyond Chinatown and turn on the radio. It’s daylight but the streets have a deserted, menacing quality about them that prompts me to lock my doors. If I could navigate the freeways, this wouldn’t be an issue. When I was a reporter, I’d drive around the neighborhood with a brazen, no-problem attitude, filing stories in an urban sprawl where whites, Latinos, blacks, Middle Easterners, and Asians all live in separate neighborhoods. The melting pot doesn’t exist in this town—people stay in their cars, shielded by metal and tinted glass. I decide to call Darlene. I don’t feel like going home and dwelling on my failures. Or, for that matter, having to give Virginia an upbeat, bullshit report. Darlene is happy to hear from me, the way she always is, and my mood starts to brighten. “Hey, you,” she croons. “Where are you?” “I’m in our old stomping grounds, near the Times.” “Oh god. Don’t remind me. How did the interview go?” “Terrific. You want to have lunch?” “I’d love to. I knew you’d do great. You’re so amazing. Good for you.” “Great.” Darlene doesn’t fit in with my other friends, nor would she want to. They think she’s low-rent and bonkers and she thinks they’re shallow and spoiled. They’re both right. My time with her is a welcome respite from the insular life in West Los Angeles. She is the only one of my friends who doesn’t have any credit cards and still doesn’t own a cell phone. Also, Darlene rarely buys books. She goes to the Malibu library to check out her trashy sci-fi fantasies and romances, which she’s always trying to get me to read. We normally spend most of our time discussing her newest failed romance or her latest harebrained scheme to make money. This afternoon, it’s a do-it-yourself prefab “Charming Swiss Chalet” kit, which she’s ordered sight unseen from a catalog and which she’s going to build in Big Bear, a mountain resort ninety miles from L.A.—the white trash version of Arrowhead. Darlene has vacationed in Big Bear for as long as I can remember, and the first and last time I accompanied her there we stayed in her friend’s ramshackle, dingy A-frame house by the lake. It was dark and dank, furnished in early kitsch mountain resort with seventies fake wood paneling, a thick, mustard-yellow multicolored shag rug that smelled faintly of mildew, and enough water damage to lead me to believe this was not a good place to be in a rainstorm. The walls were covered with homey sayings in needlepoint, like “There’s no place like fucking home” and “Hello, where’s the beer?” and there was a cramped, cluttered kitchen with ancient windows that spewed shards of paint flakes when you tried to open them. The house was located in the kind of bedraggled mountain neighborhood where there were no sidewalks and people’s lawns were cluttered with rusted swing sets, mattresses with springs poking through, Big Wheels, firewood, tires, and other junk that usually is hidden away in garages. Her next-door neighbor had an enormous RV parked on the lawn that was painted an alarming shade of teal and had blotches of seascapes and seals camouflaging a fading paint job. Our morning walks along weed-lined streets ended up on the main drag where we’d get breakfast at a diner connected to a Gas-and-Shop and watch the kids in the back make gray slushy snowballs. The area had its share of beer-bellied bikers and scuzzy, scratch-assed locals who were still lit at nine a.m. when we’d order our eggs and juice. There is something depressing about a place where life just doesn’t shape up. I meet her on the beach outside her apartment building, which is advertised as ocean view, but can only be called ocean view if you stand in a corner and look over her neighbor’s garage. Her unit is a one bedroom that faces the street, and whenever I duck in there to use the bathroom, it’s always cluttered with catalogs and paraphernalia from her latest project. Right now the apartment contains sample light fixtures and synthetic rug swatches, not to mention undecipherable blueprints that apparently came with the chalet-building kit. Last year, Darlene supposedly made a bundle selling porno vampire-themed movie posters over the Internet. She mentioned it a few times, but I always changed the subject. Too weird. In addition, there’s her dog, Brawley, an overweight Rottweiler, who always rushes me for attention or a walk. Darlene only walks him at dawn or at dusk because the dog regularly pees on people instead of the usual lampposts or hydrants. A few years ago, Darlene underwent a life crisis. Her husband, Mel, got hit by the proverbial lightning bolt one day at the precinct when he first spotted Detective Maria Gonzales, a member of the Bicycle Co-ordination Unit (BCU) of the Venice Beach Patrol. She was raven-haired, perky, and ambitious, with killer calves. She had an AA degree from Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, north of L.A., and was in line for a promotion to the central bureau. She had her eye on Mel from the moment she met him as he was racing down the stairs to assist her with a homeless drunk perp who was feeling her up as she was taking him down. She was sweet and bubbly to Mel and a bitch to everyone else. Mel and Darlene were about to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary when he announced he’d fallen for someone else. “I felt as if my body was taking a punch,” she told me. She begged him to stay, told him she’d change. All to no avail. There was a period of emotional wrangling, but he was out of there by Christmas. Darlene went into a funk, which lasted six months. Classifieds gave her too much empty time to think, so she quit her job at the Times and through a friend of a friend got into the Teamsters, where she is now a driver for the studios. During this period, she met me for a drink a couple of times a week and cried in her beer. The Teamster job is great for her. She went from “Please come back” to “Drop dead.” The pay is terrific and she gets to drive the stars around. But both of us know that, deep down, she’d return it all to have Mel back again. On her last job, she drove a famous male action star, and Darlene was flattered instead of insulted when he greeted her every morning with “nice tits.” She’s one of the few people who knows My Big Freeway Secret. Sometimes when I’m desperate and she’s not working, she’ll offer to be my driver. She’s given me several freeway lessons, which have all ended disastrously. The last one we just said “Fuck it,” and ended up in some bar off the 405 swilling beer and laughing uproariously. That’s the thing about Darlene. She thinks the best of everyone. In fact, I’ve never heard her say a bad word about anyone. She’s still best friends with Mel and I hear that Detective Gonzales is long gone—maybe at some point she and Mel will get back together. At the moment, she likes cute, young guys she meets at Hollywood clubs who are totally inappropriate for her. I’m hoping it’s a passing phase, because inevitably she gets jilted, not to mention the danger factor. Currently, she’s still mooning over her latest disaster. “He was so gorgeous and awesome Saturday night. He loved my outfit—you know, that yellow miniskirt. But he hasn’t called since he left Sunday morning. I just can’t believe he hasn’t called me.” “You pick him up in a bar. You bring him home. He hasn’t called? You’re lucky you’re alive.” “Oh, Dora. You don’t understand. He really liked me.” I always try to be kind when we get to this point in the conversation, and there is just no good way to say it. She’s almost forty. They’re twenty-five. They like her in the nightclub lights and they come to their senses in the morning. But why bother trying to tell her this. “Darlene, maybe he has a girlfriend and thought better of it the next day. Why can’t you just give someone your own age a chance?” “You know I don’t like older men, Dora. I don’t find them attractive. They’re so uncool. I’d rather just have moments with someone I’m into than a long, drawn-out relationship with someone who leaves me cold. Anyway, I don’t need a man to support me. I’m just fine the way I am.” “That’s not the point. It’s nice to have someone to come home to.” “I could say the same thing to you, Dora.” “Okay. Forget it.” We decide to drive back into town, stopping by McKenzie’s first because Darlene wants to get another one of her dumb fantasies that the library doesn’t carry. I debate whether to tell her anything about Fred. She’d be too enthusiastic, too encouraging, the exact opposite of everyone else in my life. So I say nothing. Really, there is nothing to say anyway. As soon as we walk into the place, Darlene starts bitching about how expensive all the books are and that anyone knows you can go to Costco and get the same books a lot cheaper. I immediately look around to see if Fred is nearby and if anyone has overheard. Fred is, in fact, across the room helping a flirtatious woman with a book club selection. Frankly, I’m not a huge fan of this whole phenomenon of book clubs, although the concept is appealing—deep and incisive conversations on the merits of a certain turn of a phrase or an unexpected plot twist. But nobody I know reads the same books I do. They read self-helps and thrillers and bios of movie stars. There’s no end to the crap that’s around. This same crap is made into movies and pretty soon they won’t even read the crap anymore. So joining one of my friends’ book clubs is out. I have this fantasy book club in my mind where other people feel as passionately as I do about reading. As if it were a really good kiss. The sheer pleasure and intimacy of having a relationship with a novelist and all the characters is transcendent—even sensual. Certain passages keep resonating in my head long after I’ve closed the book, and I often can’t wait to get back to the story, as if it were a secret lover. When I tell Virginia this, she thinks it’s all too extreme. She reads, she tells me, to find out what happens. And she doesn’t get half as caught up with the language and the stories behind the stories. But for me, reading is so much more. Books teach you how other people think, and what they’re feeling, and how they change from ordinary beings to extraordinary ones. Often they are so appealing and intelligent, you’d rather spend time reading about them than doing anything else. And unlike life, if you don’t like what you’re reading, you can slam the book shut and then … peace. That friendly, cajoling voice is cut off until you decide to open the book again. Which is why I may not be the best candidate for book clubs. I like to read on my own terms, in my own time. And the same goes for in-depth discussions. I’m just too opinionated and outspoken. I’d alienate everyone in the room. No one would like me. They’d kick me out. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/jennifer-kaufman/book-lover/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.
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