Archive for November, 2018

Marvin and the Cat

Monday, November 12th, 2018

guitar pegs

At dusk in late October in the far north of California, Marvin Rees, forty-two, gazes fixedly out one of the three south-facing windows in the living room of his spacious three-bedroom house, the golden brown grass of his two-acre meadow cropped low by hungry deer.

An only child raised in the suburbs of San Francisco, Marvin is a sturdy five-foot-eleven, bespectacled and clean-shaven, his wavy brown hair just beginning to turn gray. His mother was an optometrist born in Los Angeles, her parents Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, his father an accountant born in Massachusetts, a descendant of early English colonists.

Marvin’s ten-acre parcel is located on Big Salmon Road, three miles inland from the coastal town of Wakanachi. The narrow, pot-holed, asphalt road climbs steeply eastward from the small town, the first mile twisting and turning through a dense redwood forest before leveling out at five-hundred-feet elevation for a few miles and eventually becoming a dirt road that climbs ten miles further inland and vanishes near the high point of a ridge, 2374 feet above sea level, this high point called Goose Mountain by the locals, though Goose Mountain does not appear on any official map of the area.

Wild huckleberry bushes grow profusely on the fringes of Marvin’s meadow, and beyond the huckleberries is a vast forest of pines and tan oaks and spruce and firs and redwoods, only a few of these trees more than a hundred-years old, this section of the coast range clear-cut a century ago.

Marvin moved here three years ago from Mountain View where he worked for a gigantic Internet company. He lived in the same small apartment in Mountain View for sixteen years, since shortly after he graduated from college with a master’s degree in Computer Science, and for the last three of those sixteen years, he shared his apartment with his partner Irene who worked for a different gigantic Internet company. They were planning to get married, buy a house, and have a child.

Then one day, during a high-level meeting at the company he worked for, Marvin referred to the idea under discussion as shortsighted. This idea turned out to be the brainchild of the head of Marvin’s division, and two days later Marvin was fired. When Marvin refused to see a therapist about what his dismissal notice termed anger issues, Irene ended their relationship.

With the money Marvin had saved for his part of the down payment on a tiny tract house he and Irene were planning to buy on the fringes of San Jose, he bought his house and ten acres near Wakanachi outright and had several hundred thousand dollars left over. He chose Wakanachi because of his fond memories of camping at Wakanachi State Park with his mother and father when he was a boy. He loved the wild beaches of the Wakanachi coast, and he loved the forests of the Wakanachi Wilderness with their sparkling creeks and rivers.

For the first few months of living in this remote part of California, Marvin made an effort to get to know his neighbors on Big Salmon Road and to become part of the Wakanachi community. But his neighbors did not respond kindly to his overtures, and the choir he joined, the only one in town, was affiliated with a fundamentalist Christian church. Feeling uncomfortable singing songs about being a helpless sinner and needing Jesus to save him, Marvin quit the choir after three practices.

In those same first few months, he went to one or another of the two pubs in Wakanachi several times a week, played pool and darts with various men, and introduced himself to women he surmised were single, but he felt shunned in those places, so he eventually stopped going and reverted to what he had been in Mountain View, a social isolate who spent lots of time in the evenings playing his guitar, listening to music, reading books, and watching sports on his computer—the difference being that now he no longer has a partner and is often lonely at night.

During the day, though, Marvin is not lonely.

He heats his well-insulated house with two woodstoves, a large one in the living room and a smaller one in his bedroom, and the wood he burns in those stoves comes from dead and dying trees he harvests in the forest on his ten acres and on the national forest land adjoining his property.

There are thousands of dead and dying trees in the forest because after a hundred years of recovering from the clear-cut a century ago, the redwoods have regained their height supremacy over the other tree species and created a dense canopy that limits the sunlight reaching the shorter trees, thus quickly ending the lives of nascent trees and slowly killing the larger ones.

So every day, unless the rain is falling too hard or the air is too cold, Marvin goes into the woods with his log saw, axe, and sturdy two-wheeled hauling cart, cuts down dead or nearly-dead trees, saws them into sixteen-inch-long rounds, fills his cart with these rounds, and hauls them back to his woodshed where he uses a maul to split the rounds into pieces that will fit nicely into his woodstoves. He does this work without a chainsaw because he dislikes that snarly roaring sound and the danger in using such a tool, and he loves wielding a crosscut saw and axe.

When he first began his labors in the forest, he was incapable of cutting down any tree with a trunk thicker than four-inches-in-diameter, he could barely pull a load exceeding fifty pounds, and he was exhausted after fifteen minutes of work. Now, after three years of such labor, he works ceaselessly for four hours most mornings, fells tall trees with trunks up to sixteen-inches-in-diameter, and pulls loads exceeding two hundreds pounds up steep inclines.

He has also taken to riding his bike to and from Wakanachi every other day to get his mail at the post office, walk two miles on the beach south of town, shop at the food co-op, have a bowl of soup in the bakery café, and then ride the steep road home. He is now on a first-name basis with two postal clerks, three clerks at the food co-op, and several employees at the bakery café. Once in a great while he will have a brief conversation with someone in the post office or café or co-op, but he rarely says more than Hi. I’d like to send this package and Yes, I’ll have the soup, please.

The result of his new lifestyle is that for the first time since he was a soccer player in high school, he is in marvelous physical condition and his days are enjoyable and often delightful. Only at night is he lonely, sometimes achingly so.

Judging from the people he sees shopping at the food co-op and patronizing the bakery café, he is certain there are kindred spirits out there with whom he might commune if only he could meet them. He has always been shy, and since failing in his initial attempts to make friends in Wakanachi, he is shier than ever. Indeed, he has yet to strike up a conversation with anyone in town since those first few months, though he rehearses such conversations every night while watching the flames in one or another of his woodstoves.

Which explains some of why he is gazing so intently out his window as dusk settles over the land—his longing for contact with others having heightened his senses regarding any movement he sees out his windows. And he thinks he may have just seen someone or something, not a deer, moving through the huckleberry bushes on the edge of his meadow.

He is about to turn away from the window when a beautiful orange and white cat steps out of the bushes and walks daintily into the golden brown meadow. This cat is definitely not a bobcat or baby puma, but a house cat in the prime of her life. For some ineffable reason, Marvin feels certain the cat is female. She stops walking and looks at Marvin’s house, makes eye contact with Marvin, and after looking at him for a long moment, turns away and disappears into the bushes.

“A cat,” says Marvin, who often talks aloud to himself. “I wonder where she came from?”

His nearest neighbors are a quarter-mile away, and in his three years of living on Big Salmon Road, Marvin has never seen a house cat on his land, save for the two cats he used to have.

After supper, Marvin calls Ravi, his friend who started an app-development company the year before Marvin was fired from the gigantic Internet company where he and Ravi were colleagues and friends. Ravi tried to convince Marvin to move to Portland, Oregon and work for him there, but Marvin longed to live far from the madding crowd. So now Ravi pays Marvin a hundred-dollars-an-hour for two or three hours of work every day, work Marvin usually does in the afternoon before making his supper.

When they finish discussing the latest app Marvin is troubleshooting for Ravi, Marvin says, “A very interesting thing happened today. I saw a magnificent cat on the edge of my meadow. Orange and white. Shorthaired. Can’t imagine where she came from. Didn’t seem to be lost, but she didn’t strike me as feral.”

Ravi says, “I am not fond of cats. Lisa wants one, but I’ve convinced her to wait until Sasha is at least three and won’t poke the cat in the eye and get scratched. I was once badly bitten by a cat. Do you have a gun? Maybe you could shoot it.”

“I don’t want to shoot her,” says Marvin, laughing. “I love cats. I’ve had two since I’ve lived here, only they didn’t last long. Sushi was taken by a hawk. I know because I saw the hawk flying away with her in his talons. I don’t know what happened to Felix. Fox, coyote. Who knows? I decided not to try again. But here was this beautiful cat today, so… I don’t know.”

“You need a girlfriend, Marvin, not a cat.” Ravi sighs sympathetically. “Portland is swarming with lovely women. We’ll set you up with one of Lisa’s friends, we’ll find you a great place to live, and you can work for me thirty hours a week. I could really use you here. Things are exploding. I’ll pay you a hundred and sixty an hour if you’ll move here. Please?”

“I like it here, Ravi. I really do. I just… I’m just… isolated. You know?”

“From the pictures you’ve sent me, you’re more than isolated. You’re in the middle of nowhere.”

“This is definitely not nowhere,” says Marvin, his eyes filling with tears. “The place is not the problem. The problem is me. I’m not good at meeting people. I just… I don’t know. I’ll figure it out.”

“You’re a brilliant problem solver,” says Ravi, his voice full of sympathy. “I have faith in you, Marvin.”

The next morning after breakfast, Marvin is about to head off into the woods when he sees the orange and white cat again, this time much closer to his house. She is sitting perfectly still in the meadow, watching something on the ground a few feet in front of her.

Marvin gets his binoculars, and with a close-up view discovers the cat is watching a gopher who occasionally pokes his little head up out of his hole. After several minutes of watching the cat sitting absolutely still, Marvin puts down his binoculars, and just as he does, the cat pounces, snags the gopher with the claws of her right paw, yanks him out of his hole, grabs him in her mouth, and carries him off into the bushes.

“Well done,” says Marvin, his heart pounding from witnessing the deathly display.

And for the rest of the morning, as he dismembers a dead bull pine he felled a half-mile from his house, he thinks about the cat and what a fantastic huntress she is.

That night, as he is falling asleep, Marvin thinks he hears a cat mewing plaintively outside his bedroom window. He holds very still and listens intently until he realizes that what he thought was a cat mewing is the wind whistling through the trees.

The next day, riding his bike down his driveway on his way to town, he sees the orange and white cat just twenty feet to the east of the driveway, curled up at the base of large fir tree, napping in a pool of sunlight; and it occurs to Marvin she might be homeless, which gets him thinking about ways to entice her to become his cat.

On the steep climb back from town in the afternoon, Marvin decides that before he leaves a bowl of milk on his porch for the cat, he should check with his nearest neighbors to make sure the cat does not belong to them.

So he showers and shaves and puts on clean pants and his favorite teal blue long-sleeved shirt with a yellow sunflower embroidered on the pocket, this embroidery done by his mother a few weeks before she died five years ago. He brushes his hair, finds two bottles of red wine to bring as gifts, and drives his little white pickup a quarter-mile west to the adjoining property, the driveway marked with a small wooden sign saying WALKER.

When Marvin visited the Walkers three years ago, a woman in her fifties he assumed was Mrs. Walker answered the door, and when he said he was her new neighbor, she replied tersely, “Not mine,” and then walked away, leaving the door open and shouting to someone in the house, “There’s a man here to see you.”

Regretting his impulse to introduce himself to the Walkers, Marvin nevertheless waited a moment, and a big man in his sixties with a bushy gray beard came to the door, a man Marvin assumed was Mr. Walker. And this big bearded man growled, “Whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested.”

“I’m not selling anything,” said Marvin, flushing with embarrassment. “I’m your new neighbor and wanted to introduce myself. I’m Marvin Rees.”

The man gave Marvin a doleful look and said, “Your timing couldn’t be worse.”

“Sorry,” said Marvin, turning to go. “Very sorry. I would have called first, but I found no Walker in the phone book.”

“I’m not in the book,” said the man, shouting after him. “Once you’re listed, every jackass in the world calls you.”

So it is with some trepidation that Marvin turns into the driveway marked WALKER and drives through pines and huckleberry bushes to a large stone and redwood house on a knoll overlooking several acres of wetlands, beyond which rises the forest.

As Marvin pulls up to the house, the front door opens and the big man, who used to have a bushy beard and now only has a bushy mustache, comes out onto the porch and waves to Marvin; and Marvin assumes the man thinks he, Marvin, is someone else. So he gets out of his truck prepared for the man to be disappointed when he realizes Marvin is not the person he was expecting, but the man does not seem the least disappointed as he comes down the four stairs, a big smile on his face.

“I’m so glad you came back,” says the man, his voice pleasantly gruff. “I’ve been meaning to come see you, but… well, here you are. Welcome to the watershed. A belated welcome. My wife was leaving me the day you came to visit and I was pretty wrecked for a couple years and… I’m sorry, man. Tell me your name again.”

“Marvin,” says Marvin, shaking the man’s hand. “Marvin Rees.”

“Miles Walker,” says the man. “But everybody calls me Silk.”

“How come?” asks Marvin, smiling curiously.

“Oh, God,” says Silk, shrugging self-consciously. “Buddy Bosford gave me that name forty years ago and it stuck.”

“Buddy Bosford?” says Marvin, startled by the name. “The guitarist?”

“Yeah,” says Silk, beaming at Marvin. “You know Buddy?”

“Well I know of him,” says Marvin, laughing. “I’ve got all his albums and I’ve watched lots of his videos and I play Freight Train exactly the way he does.”

“You play guitar,” says Silk, beaming at Marvin.

“I’m not great, but I love to play,” says Marvin, blushing as he hands Silk one of the bottles of wine he brought along. “This is for you.”

“Thank you,” says Silk, smiling at the bottle. “I love red wine. This is a very good winery.” He looks at Marvin. “Hey, come in, come in. I’ll make coffee.”

“I don’t want to intrude,” says Marvin, shaking his head. “I just…”

“Not at all,” says Silk, clapping Marvin on the back. “I’ve got two dogs. They’ll growl, but they’re just talking. They’ll be your best friends in five minutes.”

After two cups of coffee and pumpkin pie, Marvin and Silk sit by the fire in Silk’s living room playing two of Silk’s many guitars, Silk playing tasty licks to a song Marvin wrote in college, a blues with several surprising chord changes called Mimi Won’t Go There.

When they finish the song, Marvin says, “I see why Buddy Bosford named you Silk. You’re fantastic.”

“I used to be,” says Silk, gazing intently at Marvin. “You’re very good. What are you doing Wednesday night? Buddy comes over most Wednesdays and we drink wine and noodle around. He’ll love your song. You got more?”

“Buddy Bosford comes here on Wednesday nights?” says Marvin, gaping incredulously at Silk. “Here? In your living room? The Buddy Bosford?”

“I know,” says Silk, nodding. “Most people think he lives in Nashville, but he’s lived here for forty years. He bought that beautiful farm just north of town forty years ago with the money he made from Green Cadillac.”

“Wow,” says Marvin, smiling in wonder. “Who knew? I came over to ask you about a cat, and now…”

“We’re guitar buddies,” says Silk, nodding. “And I promise to be a better neighbor. You go by Marvin or Marv?”

“Either is fine,” says Marvin, hoping Silk will call him Marv—almost no one ever has. “Whichever rolls off your tongue easier.”

“Marv,” says Silk, smiling and nodding. “I like Marv. And what were you saying about a cat? I don’t have a cat. I’m a dog person.”

The ten-acre parcel adjoining Marvin’s land to the east is meadowland, four acres of which are a defunct apple orchard, only a few of the old trees still alive. The main residence is a rambling old white farmhouse with a wide front porch, and there is also a large new cottage fifty yards north of  the farmhouse, brown adobe with solar panels and a satellite dish on the roof.

When Marvin came here three years ago, the cottage was not yet built and there were two ferocious dogs who kept him trapped in his truck until a grizzled old man hobbled out of the farmhouse onto the front porch and yelled at him to get off the property or he’d call the sheriff.

The large wooden sign at the mouth of the driveway says DuPrau, and for some reason Marvin has never associated that name with the grizzled old man who told him to get off the property.

Two dogs come out to greet Marvin this time, too, but they are both smiling old Golden Retrievers with tales wagging, and when Marvin gets out of his truck, both dogs crowd close to be petted, so he gives them plenty of pets.

Now the front door opens and a white-haired woman wearing a purple paisley muumuu comes out on the porch and shields her eyes from the lowering sun. “Hey, it’s the bicycle guy,” she says with an accent born in Brooklyn. “What can I do for you?”

“Hi,” says Marvin, approaching the bottom of the stairs, bottle of wine in hand. “I’m your neighbor to the west. Marvin Rees.”

“I know,” says the woman, squinting at him. “I’m Sally DuPrau. I’ve seen you at the co-op and at the cafe and riding your bike.”

“I’ve seen you, too,” he says, nodding. “Um… I came to ask you about a cat.”

“A cat?” she says, coming down the stairs to him. “We have three. Are you trying to get rid of a cat or do you want a cat?”

“Well, no,” says Marvin, laughing, “I wanted to find out if the cat that has been visiting me lately is yours, or if she’s a stray and I might entice her to be mine.”

“You said that so well,” says Sally, grinning at him. “You want some coffee? Tea?”

Sitting at the dining table in Sally’s sunny kitchen, Marvin learns that the beautiful orange and white cat is, indeed, one of the three DuPrau cats. Her name is Cleo, she is five-years-old, and from a very early age she has been the most wide-ranging cat Sally has ever known, and Sally has known many cats.

“Somehow she avoids being eaten by hawks or foxes or coyotes or pumas,” says Marvin, sipping his tea and looking westward, his house not visible from Sally’s place, a finger of the forest delineating the border of the two properties.

“Until she doesn’t,” says Sally, nodding sagely. “They get older and lose a step and death is there to snag them.” She smiles sweetly. “Snags us all eventually.”

“Yeah,” says Marvin, thinking of his mother who died five years ago, his father who died when he was twelve.

“So you fix computers?” says Sally, nodding hopefully. “I’m a techno idiot, but I’d sure love my pad thing to work better than it does.”

“I wouldn’t say I fix them, though I can,” says Marvin, nodding. “I do know quite a bit about computers. What kind of trouble are you having?”

“It’s just so slow,” says Sally, grimacing. “And it keeps freezing up. Not that I use it very much. I just do a little email every once in a while. But Meredith, my daughter, is going insane trying to get her web site to do whatever it is she wants it to do. She moved back here from New York just a couple months after you moved in, and she’s been pretty happy here except for the slow Internet and whatever’s going wrong with her web site.”

“I might be able to help you,” says Marvin, imagining Sally has an out-of-date device and an ancient operating system. “And possibly Meredith, too. I’d be happy to take a look.”

“How much do you charge?” asks Sally, matter-of-factly. “You open to doing trades? I do Reiki massage.”

“Oh I wouldn’t charge you anything,” says Marvin, shaking his head. “Glad to help.”

“Hold that thought,” says Sally, jumping up. “I’m gonna go get Meredith.”

Marvin looks around the sunny kitchen, marveling at how completely his life has changed in the last few hours.

Now Sally returns in the company of her daughter Meredith, fortyish, attractive, with shoulder-length brown hair wearing blue jeans and a black V-neck T-shirt with the words vee shall see written in red lower-case letters just below the V.

Marvin rises to meet her and says, “Hello. I’ve seen you in town.”

“Hi,” says Meredith, shaking Marvin’s hand. “I’ve seen you, too. Welcome to the neighborhood. Three years after you got here.”

“Thanks,” he says, blushing at her touch. “Very nice to meet you. I… I love your shirt.”

“Oh,” she says, looking down to see which shirt she’s wearing. “Do you go by Marvin or Marv or…?”

“Either is fine,” he says, shrugging pleasantly.

“I like Marv,” she says, blushing a little, too.

“When Marv came to say hello three years ago,” says Sally, sitting down, “I was in New York helping you get disentangled and Fritz was here with his pit bulls and scared Marv away.”

“As he was supposed to,” says Meredith, sitting opposite Marvin.

“True,” says Sally, nodding. “I told him to protect the place, and if Fritz is anything, he’s a literalist.”

Meredith smiles shyly at Marvin and says, “You’re kind of my hero, you know.”

I’m kind of your hero?” says Marvin, pointing at himself. “How so?”

“Well,” says Meredith, glancing at Sally, “when I got back from New York I was…” She takes a deep breath to allay her tears. “I’ll just say it. I was extremely depressed and feeling like… what’s the point? I had a very successful first novel and then three terrible flops, all of which coincided with a disastrous marriage and an even more disastrous divorce so… I didn’t have much hope of things getting any better.”

Marvin nods, knowing very well about the low tide of hope.

“And every day,” says Meredith, looking at Sally again, “my dear mother would take me into town for coffee and a muffin at the bakery, and a walk on the beach. And then we’d visit her friends, just so I’d be in life, you know, and many times on our way home we would see you coming back from town on your bicycle. Except in the beginning, you weren’t on your bicycle, you were pushing it up the hill and going so slowly I imagined it took you hours to get home.”

“In the beginning it did,” says Marvin, remembering those first months of pitting himself against that steep and curvy mile, how on several occasions he wept as he trudged up the seemingly endless road through the dark forest.

“But then one day we passed you and you were jogging up the hill with your bike.” Meredith’s eyes sparkle as she remembers. “And when we got a little bit ahead of you, I looked in the side-view mirror and saw you smiling, and I smiled, too.”

“And then,” says Sally, getting up to put a kettle on for more tea, “you were riding most of the way, going not much faster than you could walk, but you were riding.”

“I remember the first time I rode all the way home,” says Marvin, delighting in the memory. “I was high as a kite for days.”

“So was I,” says Meredith, nodding. “The day we saw you reach the top of the climb and you were standing up on the pedals, pumping hard, I felt exultant. A contact high.”

“I’m glad to know this,” says Marvin, feeling shy about making eye contact with Meredith. “I thought only the nature spirits had witnessed my transformation.”

“Oh, no,” says Sally, coming back to the table. “I’m sure lots of people on this road have been inspired by you.”

At which moment, Cleo comes through the cat door into the kitchen and freezes at the sight of Marvin sitting at the table with Sally and Meredith.

“There she is,” says Marvin, smiling at the magnificent orange and white cat. “Hello Cleo.”

And Cleo, intuiting that Marvin is a friend of the people who feed her, leaps up onto Marvin’s lap and allows him to scratch the top of her head and run his hand down her spine, eliciting a most eloquent purr from her.

“That’s a first,” says Meredith, arching her eyebrow. “Cool Cleo so quickly wooed.”

“I think they must have known each other in a former life,” says Sally, winking at Marvin.

“I’m sure of it,” says Marvin, entranced by Cleo’s purring.

“And by the way,” says Sally, bouncing her eyebrows at Meredith, “Marv is a wizard with computers, too.”

fin

Lila’s Crisis

Monday, November 5th, 2018

Lila's Crisis

On a warm September day in Los Angeles, Lila and Desiree are having salads and smoothies for lunch at Boffo, a hip eatery on Sunset Boulevard. Lila is thirty-three, Desiree twenty-nine. Lila’s mother is descended from Wisconsin Swedes, her father a Chicagoan descended from Greeks. Desiree’s father is an African American from Atlanta, her mother a Latina from Dallas. Both Lila and Desiree are waiters at Elusive, a restaurant in Beverly Hills known for super-elegant ambience, fabulous food, exquisite waiters, and a clientele from the high end of show biz.

“Wait, wait, wait,” says Desiree, her accent southern. “Who’s Lorenzo?”

“Our new sous chef,” says Lila, surprised Desiree doesn’t know. “Lorenzo Balotelli. Don’t you just love that name? Balotelli. And don’t you just love his voice? That deep baritone with a subtle British accent, yet he’s so obviously Italian. And he’s so cheerful. The kitchen has been so happy since he started.” She sighs. “Two weeks and three days ago. But who’s counting?”

Desiree squints at Lila. “You have a crush on him? The fat guy?”

“You think he’s fat?” says Lila, mimicking Desiree’s squint. “Not just husky?”

Desiree gapes at Lila. “You crazy, girl? That man is carrying twenty pounds he most definitely does not need.” Her squint returns. “What about Cameron? I thought you were engaged. He was swarming all over you three weeks ago, and you were lovin’ it, yeah?”

“Well… I did give him a tentative Yes,” says Lila, wincing. “But he’s not exactly… intellectually…”

“What?” says Desiree, aghast at this heretofore hidden side of Lila. “He’s handsome and rich and he’s got two big movies about to open and another three coming fast behind. No offense, honey, but you’re not gettin’ any younger. You don’t want to blow this. Trust me.”

“I know, but…” Lila pauses portentously. “The more I get to know Cameron, the less I find we have in common.”

Desiree grimaces. “That’s not what you said when you got back from Puerto Vallarta. You said you were wild about him. You said the sex was stupendous. Didn’t you?”

“That was three months ago,” says Lila, looking at Desiree and thinking I wonder if she would still be my friend if she thought I was carrying twenty extra pounds. “We were so stoned the whole time, I’m not even sure we left LA. And he gave me that incredible diamond bracelet and swamped me in luxury.”

“I’m not seein’ the problem here.” Desiree frowns gravely. “A life of luxury with a hot movie producer, plenty of good weed and good sex? What’s not to like?”

“It’s just that… there isn’t much there, if you know what I mean.” Lila shrugs. “He’s not… deep. Not even a little bit.”

“Let me ask you this,” says Desiree, swirling her wine. “You ever known a really rich guy who was deep?”

Lila reviews the rich guys she’s been involved with over the last seven years and shakes her head. “No.”

“I rest my case,” says Desiree, smiling smugly. “This is the game, baby. And you’re about to win. So I suggest you stick with the program, close the deal with Cameron, and get that deep stuff with your girlfriends. You know? That’s my plan once I land somebody like Cameron.”

Home to her sweet little apartment in Hollywood, Lila is tempted to call her mother in Sunnyvale and tell her about Lorenzo, but instead of calling, she sits down with pen and paper and starts writing a letter. During her first three years in college, Lila wrote hundreds of letters to her mother and sister and best friend Carlotta, and dozens of letters to her father, too, but none since college.

Dear Mom,

I know. A letter. What’s gotten into me?

That’s all she writes because she knows what’s gotten into her. She wants to date Lorenzo, though she knows if Cameron finds out, he’ll be furious and break up with her and…

“Unless,” says Lila, speaking to her cat Witti, short for Wittgenstein, “we call the first date with Lorenzo a business meeting since I am aiming to be a restaurant manager and he’s worked in several famous restaurants.”

The large gray cat drowsing on the sunny windowsill blinks at Lila as if to say Sounds like a plausible fib.

A few days later, Cameron goes to New York for a week of high-level hob-knobbing, and Lila has her first date with Lorenzo, lunch at Gunga, a Brazilian Indian restaurant in Santa Monica owned by Lorenzo’s friends Kabir and Eloa.

Midway through their scrumptious meal, in answer to Lila’s question about how he became a chef, Lorenzo says, “So there I was in Paris, twenty-five-years-old, doing research at the Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne for my doctoral thesis on the influence of Neostoicism on the philosophy of Montesquieu, specifically regarding the necessity of separation of powers in government, when it occurred to me, after several embarrassing and frustrating experiences in cafés and restaurants, that I did not know enough practical French to order a nourishing meal, which realization had the effect of a timely slap from a Zen master. So I gave up my academic pursuits, went to England and took lodgings in the garret of a friend studying Anthropology at Oxford, got a job busing tables in a pub, the cook there was something of a genius with fish, and I was thereafter, forgive me, hooked on cooking.”

“What a bizarre coincidence,” says Lila, clearing her throat. “I have a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. My senior thesis was… now don’t laugh… Kafka and the Existentialists.”

Lorenzo laughs uproariously. “I’m sorry,” he says, red-faced with mirth. “My senior thesis was… wait for it… The Trouble With Sartre.”

Lila laughs harder than she’s laughed in ages and says, “There should be a law against twenty-two-year-olds writing about Existentialism.”

“Yes,” says Lorenzo, still laughing. “Speaking of the necessity of separation of powers.”

And now, quite unexpectedly, Lila bursts into tears and cries for a long time, her unbridled sorrow causing Lorenzo to cry, too.

That night at Elusive, the last diners served, Lorenzo intercepts Lila in the kitchen and hands her an envelope. “I had a wonderful time with you at lunch today. Wrote a little something for you.”

Lila looks at the envelope and nearly gives it back for fear that further intimacy with Lorenzo will either create an uncomfortable situation for her at the restaurant or make it impossible for her to continue her involvement with Cameron; and though she doesn’t love Cameron, he is a rising star, handsome and wealthy, and he brings her into contact with other such men and women, and this is the game Lila has been playing in earnest for seven years now, so…

“Thank you,” she says, putting the envelope in her pocket. “Gotta run.”

Dear Lila,

I am fairly certain your tears today were not the result of my laughing at the title of your senior treatise, mine being equally youthful; and I comfort myself with the knowledge that crying is good for us, especially if we haven’t had a good cry in a long time.

I know you have a fellow, as my mum calls boyfriends, but I hope that won’t preclude our socializing in the future. I appreciate so many things about you and I am keen to know more. How about a picnic lunch at the beach tomorrow, a stone’s throw from my hovel in Venice?

Warmly,

            Lorenzo

The next morning at nine, in a large windowless room with hardwood floors and gigantic mirrors covering the walls, Lila and twelve other women are sweating profusely as they perform a grueling dance and exercise routine accompanied by a relentless hip hop rhythm track, the routine featuring dozens of squats and kicks and leg lifts and all manner of jazzy moves—the name of the hour-long class A-List Booty.

“You’re dragging, Mary,” shouts Chita, the draconian instructor who is simultaneously executing the punishing routine and haranguing her disciples. “You call that a kick, Leslie? Hit the fuckin’ roof, girl. Move it, ladies. That window of perfection started closing when you were eighteen, and the only way to keep it open is to work your butts off. Those men don’t want you for your brains, girls, they want your booty. Now kick it, Angela. Faster Lila. Faster, girl. Stay on the beat.”

Driving home from the gym, Lila gets a call from Cameron in New York, his somewhat nasal voice coming through a speaker in the ceiling of her Audi. “What’s happening, cute stuff?”

“I just finished working out,” she says, never comfortable talking on the phone while driving. “Now I’m on my way home.”

“Miss me?” he asks, his tone implying she must.

And though she knows she is expected to say, “You know I do, babe. Can’t wait to see you again,” she cannot bear to answer him, and so she touches her phone and terminates their connection; and when he calls back, she doesn’t answer.

An hour later, as she is about to leave for Lorenzo’s place in Venice, Lila calls Cameron on her landline phone and says, “Sorry about that. My phone just suddenly died, and there I was yacking away in a traffic jam when I realized you weren’t there. Sorry.”

“Why didn’t you call me immediately when you got home?” he asks, sounding deeply aggrieved.

“I did. I am. I went to Trader Joe’s and the farmers market, and now I’m home.”

“You should always have a second phone with you,” he says sternly. “I don’t appreciate being cut off like that.”

“Well I don’t appreciate your tone of voice,” she says, trembling with indignation. “I didn’t do anything terribly wrong and I don’t deserve to be chastised. It’s not a big deal. Just let it go. Okay?”

“No, I won’t let it go, because it’s not okay. What’s the matter with you? How dare you talk to me like that?”

“Jesus, Cameron,” she says, fighting her impulse to hang up. “You think I’m ten-years-old? You should hear yourself. You sound like a pompous idiot.”

“Take that back,” he growls. “Or it’s over between us.”

“Are you serious?” she says, shivering at the thought of how close she came to marrying this man.

“Apologize, Lila! Now!”

“Not a chance,” she says, hanging up.

Now she waits a moment before leaving her apartment, hoping Cameron won’t call back, but he does; and to her horror, he leaves a message apologizing for being so insensitive, and blaming his behavior on the terrible stress of vying for the movie rights to the red hot Young Adult novel Teen Vampire Zombie Detective—his apology ending with a tearful marriage proposal.

On the Venice beach, sitting side-by-side on a large green towel, Lila and Lorenzo dine on goat cheese and avocados and tomatoes and black olives and sour dough French bread, their beverage a delicious cabernet they drink from flat-bottomed coffee mugs unlikely to topple over on the sand.

“I love this parade,” says Lorenzo, gesturing at the ceaseless passersby on the beach, some fully clothed, some wearing next to nothing. “Aren’t we a most amazing species?”

“We are,” says Lila, grateful for the soothing effect of the wine—Cameron’s tearful proposal still ringing in her ears.

“So how did you make the leap from Philosophy to waiting tables at Elusive?” Lorenzo smiles admiringly at her. “You are, you know, one of the very finest waiters I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. You are never in a hurry, you are gracious and strong, never fawning, never diffident, and always beautifully poised, like a jujutsu master calmly prepared for any possibility.”

“How kind of you to say so,” says Lila, ripping off a chunk of French bread and handing it to him. “If only I could live my life that way.”

“Well, that is the trick, isn’t it?” he says, taking the bread from her and dipping it into his wine. “We meditate, if we do, so we can eventually carry that calm state into our everyday lives.”

“Do you meditate?” asks Lila, who goes on binges of meditating and then inevitably falls off the wagon, so to speak, only to climb back on when the world becomes too much for her.

“I do,” says Lorenzo, sucking the wine from the bread. “Most days. I try to sit for fifteen or twenty minutes in the hour before I go to work, and on Sundays I like to start my day with a cup of green tea and a good long sit. But enough about me. There you were, Philosophy degree in hand, twenty-two, and…” He arches an expectant eyebrow.

“There’s a back story,” she says, sinking her bare feet into the sand. “Lila at twenty-two was very different than Lila at twenty-one and all the years before.”

“I love back stories,” he says, shifting his position to face her and not be distracted by the parade. “And I love your voice. You would make a splendid narrator of books.”

“Thank you,” she says, blushing. “So would you.”

“Sorry,” he says, blushing at her blushing. “I keep interrupting. Go on.”

“Well you may not believe this, but…” She frowns, searching for the right words. “I’m having something of a… I wouldn’t call this a breakdown, but a cataclysmic shift. Right now. This minute. Even as we speak.” She looks into his eyes. “Meeting you has precipitated a crisis in my life, and by crisis I mean a moment of decision, only the decision is less about what I’m going to do than who I choose to be.”

“I understand,” he says quietly.

She has a drink of wine and says, “So the back story begins when I was a little girl. A little… “ She pauses for a long moment, her eyes drawn to the waves breaking on the shore. “Chubby girl.”

“Cute as the devil, I’ll bet,” says Lorenzo, nodding encouragingly.

“So said my mom and dad and grandparents, but the key word here is chubby, which I took to mean ugly.”

“Who said that word to you?”

“People. Kids at school. Just… everybody.”

“But not your parents.”

“No, never. But everybody else.”

Lorenzo nods. “Go on.”

“So I grew from chubby little girl to chubby big girl, and being chubby after Sixth Grade, my non-chubby girlfriends dumped me, the beautiful ones, so I buried myself in books and writing and studying and hanging out with other chubby not-beautiful girls. And boys didn’t like us or even see us, and it didn’t matter that I got good grades and played tennis and acted in plays, nor did it matter that I dieted until I thought I’d die. The best I could do was stocky. And then I went to Stanford and majored in Philosophy and Psychology, and I assumed I’d remain in academia forever, where being chubby is not ideal, but it’s not the end of the world.”

Lorenzo nods again, listening intently.

“And then a very strange thing happened to me at the end of my junior year.” She smiles wistfully at her memory of that incredible moment. “I had just turned twenty-one and I was taking a very demanding jazz hip hop dance class, and at the end of one of those classes, Sara, this gorgeous woman with a perfect body, approached me and said, ‘Hey, you wanna go clubbing with me on Saturday?’ And I thought she was joking or talking to someone else, but she was talking to me. So I looked at my body in the mirror on the wall, something I studiously avoided because I hated the sight of my chubby self, only my chubby self wasn’t there anymore, and in her place was a woman with my face and a body not unlike Sara’s, and I could see why she wanted to go clubbing with me.”

“You had no inkling of this change until that moment?” asks Lorenzo, frowning. “No whistles or catcalls as you strolled across the campus?”

“There might have been,” she says, shrugging, “but I never would have thought they were whistling at me. I was blind to my body, thinking only that I was ugly. An ugly virgin.”

“When all the while you were beautifully you,” he says, holding up the bottle of wine. “Another splash?”

“Yes, please,” she says, proffering her mug.

“So you went clubbing and…”

“The men liked me,” she says, nodding. “Even the handsome ones who had always been oblivious to me, and I could hardly believe what was happening because nothing in my life had prepared me to be attractive to anyone other than my mother and father and sister and my best friend Carlotta who was always telling me I was beautiful, though I never believed her.”

Lorenzo waits for Lila to continue, and when she doesn’t, he asks, “So how long did it take you to accept your new identity?”

“That’s a very interesting question,” she says, looking up at the sky and laughing a little. “Because for quite a long time, at least two years, I didn’t really have a new identity to accept. I only knew myself as chubby, regardless of the woman who appeared before me when I looked in the mirror, so for the rest of my time at Stanford I just fumbled around in the dark, so to speak, having awful sex with clumsy young men and trying to finish my youthful dissertations in Philosophy and Psychology, after which I decided not to go to graduate school, but to move to Los Angeles, the apex of the cultural obsession with so-called beauty. To see what would happen to me here.”

“So what happened?” asks Lorenzo, transfixed by Lila’s story.

“I entered the Great Game,” she says, smiling painfully. “Not the one Kipling writes about in Kim, but the game in which women gain social and economic power by aligning themselves with wealthy ambitious men until they reach the utmost heights they can before their youthful beauty fades, at which point a woman must marry the ultimate man she has conquered with her physical appeal and sexual prowess.”

A silence falls between them—waves lapping the shore and people talking and boom boxes sounding in the near distance.

Lorenzo wants to say something, but decides not to.

“And just three weeks ago,” she says, taking a deep breath, “I was literally moments away from agreeing to marry a very successful movie producer with buckets of money and a mansion in Beverly Hills, when you came into the kitchen for the first time, wandered around in a trance of delight and said, ‘Has there ever been a more Hegelian kitchen than this? Absolutely ideal.’ And I couldn’t resist answering, ‘I suppose if you need a non-personal substitute for the concept of God, this kitchen will do as well as anything.’ And you rushed over to me and cried, ‘Schopenhauer,’ and I said ‘Gesundheit,’ and you clapped your hands and said, ‘Heaven.’ After which, my crisis began.”

“You woke up,” says Lorenzo, his eyes wide with delight.

“Aroused by a rebel prince,” she says, smiling shyly. “And with her dormant intellect awakened after years of slumber, she finds herself on the edge of a precipice.”

“Or is it a precipice?” he asks, taking up the tale. “No. As the fog clears, she sees there is no cliff, but rather a fork in the road of her personal evolution, one fork continuing as the broad highway known as the Great Game.”

“And the other fork?” she asks, holding her breath.

“The other fork is a dirt track disappearing into a wilderness of uncertainty, the faded sign nailed to a tree saying Spirit Path; and her challenge, should she take that less-traveled path, is to fall in love with uncertainty and trust she will find everything she needs along her way.”

“Is that the path you’ve taken?” she asks, holding out her hand to him. “Falling in love with uncertainty?”

“I’m trying,” he says, taking her hand. “Sometimes I step off the path without knowing I have, but as I get older, I’m thirty-seven now, I seem to be getting better at finding the path again and getting back on.”

“Will you teach me?” she asks, playfully.

“No, Lila,” he says, laughing. “But I’ll learn with you. What else are friends for?”

On their fourth lunch date, Lorenzo’s first time at Lila’s apartment, they have delectable take-out Chinese and Lorenzo asks about the people in the photographs affixed to Lila’s refrigerator.

“That’s my dad in his vegetable garden in Sunnyvale,” says Lila, pointing to a slender fellow in his sixties, holding a basket of red and yellow tomatoes. “And this is my mom in the kitchen making salsa from those very tomatoes.”

“I like your mom and dad,” says Lorenzo, pointing to a photo next to the one of Lila’s mother. “And this must be your sister.”

“Yep, that’s dear Gina,” says Lila, nodding. “She’s two years older than I am, but I think she looks much younger than me.”

“I wouldn’t say so,” says Lorenzo, shaking his head.

“No?” she says, feeling she might cry.

“No,” he says, moving the picture of Gina a little to reveal the photo mostly hidden behind her. “Who are these two beautiful young ladies?”

The somewhat faded photo is of two teenaged women in summery dresses, their arms around each other as they smile at the camera.

“Oh my God,” says Lila, tears springing to her eyes. “I didn’t think I still had that one. That’s me with my best friend Carlotta our senior year in high school.” She shrugs painfully. “Used to be my best friend.”

Lorenzo looks at Lila and says, “But I thought you said you were chubby in high school. You’re a svelte goddess in this picture.”

“Am I?” says Lila, frowning at the photo and seeing a teenaged Lila who isn’t chubby at all, nor is Carlotta, though in those days they both believed they were fat.

“Have you got a photo album with pictures of you when you were a baby and a girl?” asks Lorenzo, putting his arm around her. “I love seeing childhood pictures of my friends. Next time you come to my place, I’ll show you me as a cowboy when we lived in Texas when I was five. I was impossibly cute but had no idea I was until twenty years later.”

Lila finds two big photo albums on a high shelf in her closet, the volumes so dusty she has to clean them before they look at the pictures.

She and Lorenzo sit close together on the sofa, the first of the albums open on their conjoined laps, and she steels herself for the ordeal of seeing her roly-poly self next to her skinny sister and skinny father and trim and sturdy mother—the first several pictures of her as a baby and a little girl confirming her memory of being chubby.

But the picture of her blowing out eight candles on her birthday cake is of someone neither fat nor thin, but very much like the other girls arrayed around the dining table helping her blow out the candles.

On the next page is a marvelous picture of Lila and her sister Gina standing on a boulder beside a sparkling river. Gina is twelve, Lila ten. They are wearing shorts and T-shirts and baseball caps, and they might be twins—skinny twins.

Lorenzo hums approvingly and turns the page, and here is a photo of twelve-year old Lila on Halloween dressed as a hideous witch; and Lila is about to blurt, “See how fat I am?” when she catches herself, looks closely at the picture and says, “I got boobs before most of the other girls in my class and I was so embarrassed I started wearing baggy clothes so people wouldn’t notice.”

“I wonder why?” says Lorenzo, turning the page. “I thought girls longed to have boobs.”

The last few pages of Volume One are full of pictures of cats and dogs and grandparents, and when Lorenzo reaches for Volume Two, Lila says, “Oh God, this is gonna be yucky junior high and high school pictures. I don’t think I can handle this.”

“Do you mind if I look?” asks Lorenzo, waiting for her approval.

“You can if you want to,” she says, getting up. “Coffee?”

“Love some,” he says, opening the album.

Lila starts the coffee brewing and goes out onto her little balcony with a view of the narrow street crowded with cars parked in front of old apartment buildings, the air warm, the sky hazy; and she thinks of Carlotta and how a large part of her happiness until she was twenty-one came from her bond with Carlotta. And now I only know she’s alive because I know my mother would tell me if Carlotta died.

She goes back inside and finds Lorenzo pouring their coffee. He looks at her and says, “Sometimes you take cream, sometimes you don’t, whereas I never do. But today I’m having a spot of the white stuff, as my mum likes to say, just because. How about you?”

“Yeah, I’ll have a spot of the white stuff,” she says, watching his face. “What did you think of the pictures?”

“I loved them,” he says, adding cream to their coffees. “Every single one of them.”

“Did you think I was fat?” she asks, clenching her teeth.

“No, I thought you were lovely.” He hands her a mug. “And I loved seeing you with Carlotta, seeing how much you loved each other.”

“It was us against the world,” says Lila, her eyes filling with tears.

“Yeah,” says Lorenzo, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I could see that, though your parents were there, too, and your sister, loving you.”

Three weeks later, on their ninth date, the first time they’ve gotten together at night, their physical intimacy having progressed to long embraces and sweet kisses, Lorenzo and Lila are having supper in Lila’s apartment: minestrone soup and rye bread and salad and red wine.

“This soup is fabulous,” says Lorenzo, frowning at his bowl. “She’s brilliant, lovely, learned and witty, and she can cook?”

“My mother’s recipe,” says Lila, happier than she’s been in a long long time. “Those Wisconsin Swedes, you know. Masters of Italian cuisine.”

“You got the oregano just right,” he says, beaming at her. “I’m madly in love with you, Lila. That did it. Getting the oregano right.”

She sits down opposite him at her little table, gathers her courage, and says, “What shall we do about it? Being in love with each other?”

“Well… I suppose we could go on being in love and see what happens. Yes?”

“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” she says, nodding. “But I’m wondering about…” She gives him a long look. “Sex.”

“I love sex,” says Lorenzo, nodding with her. “One of my most favorite things. But…”

“But what?” she asks quietly.

“Well… as insanely attracted as I am to you, and I don’t use the word insanely lightly, I would like us to know each other better before we… lose our minds together that way.”

“Why?” she asks, never having known a man to resist her sexually when she is so obviously desirous of sex with him. “You know me better than any man ever has, except maybe my dad.”

“I feel like I’m just getting to know you,” he says, setting down his spoon. “And you’re just getting to know me. Not that I don’t want to make love with you. I do, but… I am so enthralled by how we’re both opening and changing, as if our relationship has set in motion a kind of dual metamorphosis, and something tells me it would be wise to let this continue until…”

“We emerge from our chrysalises?” she says, trying not to laugh. “And see what kind of butterflies we’ve become?”

“Something like that,” he says, giggling.

“Okay, my love,” she says, laughing with him. “I’ll wait as long as I can, but just so you know, I’m ready whenever you are.”

fin