Categories
Uncategorized

6. Future Life

Near the end of Stephen Ornofsky’s performance the audience is laughing so hard, Stephen has to wait several seconds for the laughter to subside before he can say anything else, and as he waits, he is aware he has never before connected so profoundly with an audience, a kind of super joy.

A charming fellow of thirty-four, with short brown hair and wire-frame glasses, Stephen’s show of ever-changing songs and stories has been the Thursday night attraction at McCarthy’s pub in the coastal town of Melody for seven years now.

“As some of you know,” says Stephen when the laughter finally dies down, “I was in therapy for a year when I was a teenager. I was suffering from a crippling psychological disorder known as Being A Teenager.”

Stephen takes the microphone off the stand and crosses the little stage to a high stool where he sits and looks out at the audience, the pub filled to capacity.

“Fortunately I had a wonderful therapist, and what he loved more than anything was interpreting dreams. And being the kind of person I am, I very much wanted to please him. And because I didn’t think my actual dreams were all that interesting, I started making up dreams, really wild ones, and my therapist just loved them and said they were really helping us get to the bottom of my issues.”

The crowd roars with laughter.

“But then I started feeling guilty about misleading my therapist, so I said to him, ‘You know the dreams I’ve been telling you lately? I didn’t actually have those dreams. I made them up.’ And my therapist said, “It doesn’t matter. They still give us valuable information.’ And I said, ‘But they aren’t really about me.’ And he said, ‘Of course they are. Only you can make up those particular dreams, just as only you can have the dreams you actually have. And just as you made up those dreams, Stephen, you can make up your future life. You really can.’”

Stephen crosses the stage, puts the microphone back on the stand, and straps on his guitar.

“So I decided what I really wanted in my future life was a Thursday night gig at McCarthy’s where I sing songs for my friends and tell them stories I think they’ll enjoy. And my dream came true, and this song is for you.

I give to you, you give to me

We plant the seeds to keep the garden growing

You give to him, he gives to her,

she gives to me, I give to you,

we keep the spirit flowing

So now when those night winds blow

I want you to know I will always love you

I want you to know I will always love you

*

A good many people wait around after the show to give Stephen a hug or shake his hand, and one of those people is a woman in her mid-thirties visiting from Los Angeles named Nina Zubinsky. Stephen met Nina for the first time a few days ago, and when he found out she was a studio musician, a guitarist, Stephen asked her if she’d like to get together with him and play music. Thinking Stephen might be interested in her romantically, Nina made sure to tell him she was a lesbian, something Stephen never would have guessed.

Tall and slender, Nina has short curly brown hair, dark green eyes, and wears wire-frame glasses. She is dressed identically to Stephen in a black corduroy sports jacket, pale pink dress shirt, black corduroy trousers, and red running shoes.

When Nina’s father Abe, who is one of Stephen’s guitar students, finishes giving Stephen a hug, Nina shakes Stephen’s hand and says, “I am now officially in awe of you and would very much like to play music with you.”

“I’m thrilled,” says Stephen, ferociously attracted to her despite the aforementioned lesbian information. “Your father has my number.”

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” she says, seeming reluctant to let go of his hand. “You blew my mind. You really did.”

*

Stephen gets home around midnight to the lovely old house he shares with Maya Johansen, an elderly woman confined to a wheelchair and for whom Stephen is the primary caregiver. To Stephen’s surprise and delight, he finds Maya’s other caregiver, Celia Flores, a beautiful middle-aged Mexican woman, reading by the fire in the living room.

Dressed in a dark blue nightgown, Celia has loosed her long black hair from its workaday bun and removed her copious makeup, which is how Stephen prefers her. She is usually asleep when Stephen gets home from his Thursday night gig—Celia lives with Maya and Stephen from Thursday to Sunday every week—and Stephen guesses she stayed up to talk to him about Maya.

Stephen’s dogs Hortensio, a large black mutt, and Moose, a small brown Chihuahua, are in their beds by the woodstove, and they both briefly open their eyes to look at Stephen and confirm what their ears and noses told them. He’s home.

“How was your show, Esteban?” asks Celia, her Spanish accent quite strong.

“Went well,” says Stephen, flopping down on the sofa. “How was your evening?”

“Okay,” she says, putting down her book. “One day I’ll go to your show again. I’ll ask Josephine to come for a few hours so I can go. I don’t think Maya will ever go again. She so tired at night now. She wants to go to bed earlier and earlier.”

“She told me yesterday she doesn’t think she’ll live another year,” says Stephen, who has lived with Maya for nine years now.

“I don’t like to think about her going,” says Celia, looking at Stephen. “I love my days here with you and Maya.”

Stephen wants to say Then keep coming here after she’s gone, but he knows that’s not possible. This is Celia’s job and she and her husband depend on the income.

Celia smiles. “Maybe you’ll make a million dollars from a song you write and I can be your cook and housekeeper.”

“Nothing would make me happier,” says Stephen, a familiar sorrow taking hold as his performance high fades away and he feels alone in the world with no partner to share his bed and know his deepest feelings.

“Time for me to sleep,” says Celia, getting up from her armchair. “Hasta la mañana.”

“Hasta la mañana,” says Stephen, rousing his dogs and ushering them out to the garden where they pee and Stephen imagines Celia is his wife waiting for him to come to bed.

*

Nina calls the next morning while Stephen is doing the breakfast dishes and they arrange for him to come to Nina’s father’s house for some guitar playing and lunch.

Abe Zubinsky is sixty-two, a former movie sound engineer in Los Angeles who worked on dozens of Hollywood blockbusters and is now the owner of Studio Z, a small recording studio Abe built adjacent to his house overlooking the Pacific Ocean a couple miles south of Melody.

Abe moved here ten years ago with his second wife Carol, an interior designer. Six months after they arrived, Carol returned to Los Angeles and filed for divorce because, as she is fond of telling people, “I felt like we’d been exiled to Siberia and Abe thought we’d landed in heaven.”

Following a tour of Abe’s spectacular house and the surrounding meadows filled with purple and white wild iris, Stephen and Nina get situated in Abe’s state-of-the-art recording studio, and to humor her father, Nina acquiesces to Abe placing several microphones in the performance room to record the session.

“Something for me to listen to on long winter nights,” says Abe, getting his volumes set. “Two of my favorite people playing music together.”

“You can stay, Pops,” says Nina, tuning her father’s fine old guitar.

“I’ve got a bunch of calls to make,” says Abe, leaving the control room. “Carry on.”

Stephen and Nina are dressed identically again—black cotton T-shirts and baggy blue trousers—and Stephen says, “I assume you are aware of our uncanny tendency to dress alike, and not just alike but exactly alike?”

“I am aware and find it mildly unnerving,” she says, playing a lightning fast melodic run of notes up and down the neck of her guitar that makes Stephen’s jaw drop. “I’m what’s known in the vernacular as an L.L. Bean dyke, and you apparently shop there, too.”

“No, I get my clothes at garage sales,” says Stephen, playing an elegant chord on his small teak guitar, “though Celia recently knitted me a beautiful wool sweater.”

“Celia being?” asks Nina, searching for the elegant chord Stephen just played and quickly finding it. “Nice.”

“Celia is Maya’s other caregiver,” says Stephen, tuning his guitar. “She lives with us from Thursday evening until Sunday morning. An incarnate angel.”

“I was raised by an incarnate angel named Celia,” says Nina, figuring out four more equally elegant chords to go with Stephen’s initial elegant chord. “Celia Maria Gomez. My parents being otherwise engaged on movie sets around the globe, Pops doing sound, Moms a cinematographer, and they rarely worked on the same film.”

“Moms was not Carol,” says Stephen, having met the hyper-perky Carol a couple times before she fled Siberia and returned to Los Angeles.

“No, thank all the gods of all religions,” says Nina, playing the five elegant chords again. “Carol didn’t infiltrate my father’s life until I’d made my escape to the lesbian enclave in Echo Park where I live to this day.”

“Would you mind teaching me those chords you just played?” says Stephen, awed by Nina’s facility on the guitar.

She plays the chords again a few times and Stephen imitates her until he has them memorized.

“Best guitar lesson I’ve ever had,” he says, playing the chords again and again.

“You’re self-taught,” she observes. “Whereas I had excellent teachers from the age of eight and graduated champion hot chick guitarist from the Berklee jazz factory. Yet you’re every bit as good as I am and easily seventy jillion times more original.”

“Nonsense,’ says Stephen, playing the five chords again in a steady rhythm and singing in his smoky tenor, “These chords put me in a melancholy mood, but that don’t mean I’m sad.”

“Hey melancholy is my middle name,” sings Nina to those same five chords, “but that don’t mean I’m bad.”

“Melancholy’s my name, too,” he sings, changing the third and fifth chords, “though I’m not always blue.”

“And I am really digging this song,” she sings, “making it up with you.”

They stop playing and smile shyly at each other.

“Not what I expected,” she says, shaking her head. “Thought you’d play a song from your show and I’d noodle along. Studio work. But no.”

“Speaking of noodling,” says Stephen, thrilled by her playing, “here’s a little something I came up with you might be inclined to noodleize to.”

“Play on, Ornofsky,” she says, feeling a glimmer of something she hasn’t felt since she was fourteen—sexual attraction to a male.

Stephen swings into a Gypsy groove with a run of jazzy chords full of surprising twists and turns, and when Nina has listened to the run three times through she begins to solo with a few choice notes, playing more and more notes with each iteration of the chord sequence until her solo grows complex and majestic and at last she takes over playing the run of chords and Stephen rips off a dazzling solo that ends on the last chord Nina plays.

Mutually astounded, Nina gawks at Stephen and says, “I’m not religious but I’m praying fervently my father’s recording equipment captured that amazing thing we just played.”

“I’ll pray for that, too,” says Stephen, looking into her eyes. “But it doesn’t matter, Nina.”

“It doesn’t?” she says, terrified to be falling in love with him. “Then what does?”

“What matters is we made that together,” he says, grinning at her. “And we’ll always know we did.”

Always Love

Categories
Uncategorized

5. More Than Genetics

Stephen Ornofsky is in shock. Two hours ago he thought he was embarking on a love affair with a woman he believed might be his partner for the duration, and now she is gone, her last angry words to him, “Please don’t try to contact me.”

A charming fellow, thirty-four, with short brown hair and wire-frame glasses, Stephen is a musician and poet. He lives in a beautiful old house in the town of Melody with Maya Johansen, seventy-seven, for whom Stephen has been the primary caregiver for nine years.

Maya, small and slender, a renowned dancer and choreographer paralyzed from her waist down, sits in a high-backed wicker wheelchair on the deck of her rambling redwood house and looks down at Stephen who is lying on his back on the deck, staring up at the sky.

The June day, a Saturday, is ending, fog rolling into the little northern California coastal town where Maya has lived for thirty years and Stephen has lived for twenty. Stephen’s dogs, Hortensio, a large black water dog, and Moose, a floppy-eared brown Chihuahua, are sprawled on the deck next to Stephen, both keenly aware of Stephen’s distress. And Harpo, an enormous orange cat, lies on Stephen’s chest in the pose of The Sphinx, Harpo’s whiskers nearly touching Stephen’s chin.

“So you’re walking on the beach, ecstatic to have found each other, and everything is going wonderfully well when…?” prompts Maya, who loves Stephen beyond measure and wants more than anything for him to find a good partner.

“We were walking along the shore, holding hands and talking about her moving here, living with us,” says Stephen, aching from head to toe, “and she said, ‘That will be fine until I get pregnant and then we’ll want our own place.’ And I laughed and said, ‘Pregnant? We haven’t even slept together yet and we’re already pregnant?’ And she let go of my hand and said, ‘You do want children, don’t you?’ And I said, ‘I’ve always thought I would adopt a couple kids after Maya dies.’ And she said, ‘You don’t want kids of your own?’ And I said, ‘Well they would be my own, only I would adopt them.’ ‘Then they wouldn’t be your own,’ she said. ‘They wouldn’t have your genes.’ At which point I said something like, ‘I think love matters more than genetics,’ and she said, ‘Then this won’t work,’ and she walked away.”

“Oh dear,” says Maya, shaking her head. “How sad.”

“So I followed her back here, trying in vain to restart the conversation, she got in her car, rolled down her window and said, ‘I’m sorry I intruded on your life. Please don’t try to contact me.’ And then she drove away.”

“Stephen, I’m so sorry this happened to you,” says Maya, who thinks of Stephen as her son. “She seemed like a lovely person. Wonderful energy.”

“She is wonderful,” he says, frowning at a passing cloud. “And maybe I would have eventually come around to the idea of having a child with her, but not as a prerequisite for loving each other.”

“Of course not,” says Maya, exasperated. “Daniel divorced me when I was thirty-two because I didn’t want to interrupt my career to have children, and then when I was going through menopause at fifty-two, Gerald, who was twelve years older than I, suddenly decided he had to father a child. So he divorced me, married a woman half his age, they had a darling baby, and Gerald promptly died. We’re a species of irrational out-of-control baby makers who don’t have the sense to realize there are far too many of us on the planet now and we need to do lots more adopting and lots less baby making.”

Silence falls. The air grows chilly. The sliding glass door opens and Celia Flores comes out on the deck and says, “Time to come inside, Maya. Getting cold.”

Celia is a lovely Mexican woman, fifty-four, with long black hair. She is Maya’s other caregiver and lives with Maya and Stephen from Thursday evening to Sunday morning.

“Thank you, Celia,” says Maya, looking down at Stephen. “Get up now, dear. We don’t want you catching a nasty summer cold.”

Celia brings Maya into the house, parks her in the living room, and goes back out to encourage Stephen to come inside.

“I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck,” he says, looking up at Celia. “Just throw a blanket over me.”

“No Esteban,” she says, kneeling beside him and moving Harpo off his chest. “Come in and lie on the sofa. I’ll start a fire and make supper.”

“You’re so good,” he says, needing her help to stand up. “I’m weak as a kitten.”

“She’s an idiot, that woman,” says Celia, helping Stephen into the house. “You’re the best person I know.”

*

With the fire in the woodstove roaring away, the dogs sprawled on the hearth and hoping Stephen won’t wait too much longer before taking them for their pre-supper walk, Stephen lies on the sofa and says, “Why am I so void of strength? We were only together an hour. Is she some kind of psychic vampire?”

“She’s a bruja,” says Celia, making supper in the kitchen adjoining the living room. “A witch. She put a spell on you and stole your strength. Thank God you didn’t marry her.”

“I don’t think she’s a witch,” says Maya, staring at the flames visible through the glass door of the woodstove. “I think when we give ourselves completely to another and they leave, they take part of us with them.” She looks at Stephen. “You were ready to be with her forever, weren’t you?”

“I was,” he says, nodding. “Or I was ready to be with who I thought she was, but then she turned out to be someone else, which is why she said did I want to see about being in a relationship with her, which was smart of her and why she was angry rather than demolished when we came to our great divide.”

“If she’s not a witch,” says Celia, dropping spaghetti noodles into a big pot of boiling water, “she’s an idiot.”

“What do you mean?” asks Maya, frowning at Celia.

“How could she not want to be with Esteban?” says Celia, chopping tomatoes. “She’s thirty-four and hasn’t found a partner because she wants someone special. But when she finds someone like Esteban, she won’t be with him unless he promises to give her a baby? Idiota.”

Hortensio whimpers, wanting to go on a walk so he can pee and poop, and Moose growls a little to second the motion, and Stephen feels a little surge of strength and says, “I’m gonna take the dogs for a quick walk. Fear not, I’ll bundle up.”

*

Twilight, the town cloaked in fog, Stephen bends down to bag up Hortensio’s mountainous poop and Moose’s smaller offering, and he thinks This is love, too.

And now he thinks of something he wants to share with Maya and Celia, so he tells himself the thing over and over as he walks home with the dogs, and with each telling he tries to be more succinct, so that by the time he gets home and takes off his shoes and unleashes the dogs to go have drinks of water from their bowls in the kitchen, Stephen has the thing down to a few sentences.

*

At supper—spaghetti, topped with sautéed vegetables from Stephen’s garden and a sauce rich with tomatoes and jalapeños—Stephen says, “I met Carmen at the precise moment we were both finally ready, biologically emotionally spiritually, to merge completely with another. And under the spell of that ideal moment, we imagined each other to be ideal, when, in fact, we are just two people who met, if you will, at a magical moment in our personal evolutions.”

“Sounds right to me,” says Maya, gazing across the table at Stephen. “Thirty-four is an age when many people who have not yet wed often do.”

“I got married when I was nineteen,” says Celia, who is having a rare second glass of wine. “But when I was twenty-four and already had my kids, I felt like I came to this moment you talk about, Esteban, and for the first time in my life I was ready to merge with another person, not only with my body, but with everything about me. Only I was already married and would not leave Miguel. But for some years I almost did leave because I wanted to be with someone who was also ready in their heart to be with me.”

*

Stephen wakes early the next day, as is his habit, his dogs waiting patiently in the living room for him to emerge from his bedroom and take them for their morning constitutional. He lies on his back and gazes at the ceiling of his bedroom, the gorgeous planks milled from the hearts of old growth redwoods, the house built seventy years ago when those ancient trees were still being felled as fast as the rapacious logging companies could fell them, until finally the tree huggers managed to save the last few thousand acres of the ancient ones.

*

Celia is in the kitchen, dressed for work in sweater and sweatpants, her heavy makeup applied, her long black hair in a bun, her husband Miguel due to pick her up in a few hours. She and Stephen confer about breakfast and getting Maya out of bed, and Celia tells Stephen her often-sore back is fine today and she will take care of Maya.

As for breakfast, Stephen suggests he pick up a pumpkin pie at Zeke’s, one of Melody’s two bakery cafés open early in the morning, and Celia smiles brightly and says, “I was hoping you would say something like that.”

“I so appreciate your help yesterday,” says Stephen, who loves Celia no end. “I’d still be out there on the deck if you hadn’t carried me inside.”

“You’ll find someone, Stephen,” she says softly. “But you don’t need to look for her.”

*

Stephen parks Hortensio and Moose in front of Zeke’s where another familiar dog is already parked—Abe Zubinsky’s Black Lab Tarzan—and enters the warm bakery where the smell of freshly-baked bread and pastries makes everyone happy.

He gets in line behind Abe Zubinsky, a slender guy of sixty-two with long white hair in a ponytail, Abe one of Stephen’s fourteen guitar students.

“Maestro,” says Abe, greeting his teacher with a hearty handshake. “Your show at McCarthy’s this week was spectacular. I thought I was gonna give myself a hernia laughing so hard.”

“I’ll suggest McCarthy put that on the marquee under my name,” says Stephen, gesturing to an imagined marquee. “Hernia-inducingly funny.”

“This is my daughter Nina,” says Abe, turning to a young woman exactly Stephen’s height with short curly brown hair wearing wire-frame glasses exactly like Stephen’s, and dressed identically to Stephen: turquoise Zeke’s Bakery sweatshirt over a white dress shirt, brown corduroy trousers, and gray hiking shoes. “Nina, Stephen.”

“I feel like I’m looking in a mirror,” she says, shaking Stephen’s hand, “and wondering why my hair lost its curl.”

“And I feel like I’m looking in a mirror,” says Stephen, enjoying her strong grip, “and noticing how good-looking I’ve become since I last looked in a mirror.”

“Be that as it may,” she says, rolling her eyes and letting go of Stephen’s hand, “I must tell you how impressed I am by my father’s guitar playing. I tried several times to teach him, with minimal success, and you’ve turned him into a veritable Segovia. Albeit the very very young Segovia, but still…”

“I’m bringing her to your show on Thursday,” says Abe, having reached the counter where he turns his attention to ordering pastries and coffee.

“Where are you visiting from?” asks Stephen, finding Nina more attractive by the moment. “And how long are you here for?”

“I live in LA,” she says, inadvertently glancing southward. “And I’m not sure how long I’m here for. Have coffee with us.”

“I would,” says Stephen, grimacing regretfully, “but I’m bringing home breakfast for two others and myself, and they’re probably gnawing the woodwork in anticipation of my return.”

“You live with termites?” she says, arching an eyebrow. “Beavers?”

“My reflection is coming up with some great lines this morning,” says Stephen, a sucker for funny women. “When are you taking Tarzan to the beach? I’ll meet you there with my dogs.”

“I’ll ask my father,” she says, giving him a long look. “I assume he has your number.”

“He does,” says Stephen, having forgotten all about Carmen. “I’ll be sitting by the phone waiting for your call.”

“You don’t carry your phone with you?” she asks, curiously.

“I… no. I don’t have that kind of phone. I got one a few years ago and I started getting terrible headaches that wouldn’t go away until I got rid of the phone.”

“Oh my God,” she says, gaping at him. “That’s exactly what happened to me. I’m the only person in LA without a cell phone.”

*

Following a most delightful breakfast of pumpkin pie and coffee, Stephen and the dogs walk through town to the beach at the mouth of Melody River and find Nina and Abe and Tarzan awaiting them.

Nina has changed into brown shorts and a blue T-shirt, as has Stephen, and while Abe flings the ball into the surf for Tarzan, Stephen and Nina move a little north of Abe so Stephen can throw a similar ball into the surf for Hortensio.

“How’s life in Los Angeles?” asks Stephen, who has never wanted to live anywhere but Melody.

“Insane,” says Nina, captivated by a line of pelicans gliding mere inches above the waves. “But my work is there so I stay.”

“Your work being?” asks Stephen, guessing she’s an actress.

“I write a television show,” she says, watching the pelicans grow small in the distance. “And I’m a studio musician. Guitar and bass.”

“That’s exciting,” says Stephen, wondering why Abe never mentioned his daughter played guitar. “A super creative life.”

Nina makes a disparaging face. “Creative? I wouldn’t call what I do creative. Television writing is formula shtick and studio work is formula sound. I’m skilled at both, but it’s not creative.”

“Oh,” says Stephen, who hasn’t watched television since he was nine. “I always imagined studio musicians were fantastically creative.”

“Some are, most are not,” she says, shaking her head.

“My illusions are shattered,” says Stephen, sensing Nina wishes she did something else for a living.

“But enough about me,” she says, forcing a smile. “What do you do besides giving my father guitar lessons and performing at McCarthy’s?”

“I’m a caregiver for a woman who can’t live on her own,” he says, picking up the ball Moose just dropped and flinging the soggy orb into the surf for Hortensio. “And I write poetry and songs and have thirteen other guitar students besides your father.”

“What different lives we lead,” she says, sounding bitter.

“Hey while you’re here,” says Stephen, seriously smitten with her, “want to get together and play some music?”

“Do you really want to play music?” she asks, glaring at him. “Or is it possible you can’t tell I’m a lesbian and you’re coming onto me?”

“I can’t tell you’re a lesbian,” says Stephen, who has several lesbian friends. “But then I’ve never been good at guessing sexual orientation. And I admit I thought playing music with you would be a fun way to see if there might be a romantic spark between us, but now that I have been disabused of that notion, I’d still like to play music with you because you’re probably fabulous and I love playing with fabulous musicians, which I don’t often get to do.”

She laughs incredulously. “You really thought I was straight?”

“I thought you… I think you’re lovely,” he says, blushing, “and we feel nicely matched intellectually verbally sense-of-humorly, and, yes, I thought you were straight. Forgive me.”

“To be continued,” she says as her father approaches. “I’ve got your phone number, but don’t wait by the phone. Okay?”

“Okay,” he says, grinning. “I won’t wait by the phone, but I hope you’ll call me.”

If You Would Call Me

Categories
Uncategorized

4. Her Makeup

Early on a sunny Saturday morning in June, Stephen Ornofsky sits in a big wooden chair on the deck of the beautiful one-story redwood house where he lives in Melody, a small town on the north coast of California. He is thirty-four, two inches shy of six-feet-tall, with short brown hair and wire-frame glasses. His dogs, Hortensio, a big black mutt, and Moose, a brown floppy-eared Chihuahua, are sitting on either side of him waiting to go for their morning walk.

Stephen lives in the beautiful old house with Maya Johansen, a former dancer and choreographer who is seventy-seven and paralyzed from the waist down. Stephen is Maya’s primary caregiver and best friend. Celia Flores, fifty-four, another of Maya’s caregivers, comes to live with Maya and Stephen every Thursday evening and leaves on Sunday morning, which means on those days Stephen is free to do as he pleases, though he always gives Maya plenty of care on those days, too, unless he goes out of town, which he rarely does.

A musician and poet and gardener and guitar teacher, Stephen was just yesterday asked to be in a movie, and he told the moviemakers he would give them his answer today.

The sliding glass door opens and Celia steps out on the deck. She is still in her blue flannel nightgown, the morning chilly. Her long black hair is down and she has yet to put on her makeup. Stephen wishes she would always go without makeup, but he knows she feels compelled to try to hide her wrinkles, so he never reveals his wish.

“Buenos dias,” she says quietly. “Como estas?”

“Bien,” he says, smiling as she comes near. “Y tu?”

“I’m okay,” she says, looking out over the town cloaked in fog. “Did you decide to be in the movie?”

“Still thinking about it,” he says, getting up. “Shall I do the morning lifting?”

“Would you?” says Celia, smiling radiantly. “My back is okay today, but if I don’t lift her this morning that would be better.”

“I’m happy to,” says Stephen, who loves making Celia smile.

*

When Maya is dressed and in her wheelchair at the kitchen table, Stephen makes coffee and Celia makes scrambled eggs and toast.

“To be in a movie or not to be in a movie,” says Maya, waxing Shakespearean. “That is the question. Can’t you decide after they write the script? What if it’s horrible?”

“They want me to help discover what the movie is about through improvising with the cast,” says Stephen, thinking of the alarmingly charming and disarming Carmen Fernandez, exactly Stephen’s age, and Joseph Ross, seventy-five, Stephen’s old friend, who are making the movie, working title Funny Love Story.

“Like Mike Leigh,” says Maya, who once danced in a Mike Leigh movie. “Only Mike is a genius. I worry Carmen and Joseph are not.”

Stephen serves Maya her coffee to which she adds sugar and cream.

“I’m torn,” says Stephen, sitting down with his coffee to which he adds nothing. “On the one hand, I like them and making a movie might be an interesting creative challenge. On the other hand, I have so many other things I like to do, why be in a movie, too?”

“I was in a movie,” says Celia, serving the eggs and toast. “When I was seventeen. Before I got married and had kids and got fat.” She laughs. “In LA.”

“You are not fat,” says Stephen, ever amazed by Celia. “You’re gorgeous.”

“I agree,” says Maya, tasting the eggs. “Rubenesque. Or is it Rubensesque? His name was Rubens after all. Oh my these eggs are cooked perfectly.”

Stephen and Celia exchange smiles—Maya having recently groused about Celia overcooking the eggs.

“What was the movie you were in?” asks Stephen, finding Celia surpassingly lovely at fifty-four and unimaginable at seventeen.

Gangster King,” says Celia, smiling self-consciously. “My cousin Veronica was dating a movie agent and he told her to find two more pretty Latinas to be the gangster king’s women. So Veronica asked me and her niece Paula and we went with her to the movie set for three days and they put us in sexy clothes, you know, and told us where to sit and lie down and walk around, but we never said anything. We were just there in the gangster king’s mansion and they paid us three hundred dollars a day.” She laughs. “We were rich!”

“Did you ever see the finished movie?” asks Maya, amazed by Celia’s story.

“Oh yes,” says Celia, nodding. “Many times. It was a big movie in LA and Texas and Mexico and South America, you know, for Latinos.” She sips her coffee. “We have a DVD. Very violent. I don’t get killed, but many people in the movie get killed and they shoot Veronica at the end when they kill the gangster king.”

 *

After breakfast, Stephen takes the dogs for a walk to the post office where in his box he finds a letter from a friend, four checks from guitar students, and the latest issue of Normal Magic, a literary quarterly to which Stephen has submitted many poems over the years, though none have been accepted for publication. However, a few years ago one of his poems did garner a personal note from the Poetry editor saying she loved his poem but didn’t feel it was quite right for Normal Magic.

Stephen wrote the editor a thank-you note for responding personally to his poem and asked if she would elaborate on what was not quite right about his poem since she loved it, and he enclosed a self-addressed stamped postcard for her reply.

She wrote “Not quite enough magical realism,” and doodled a smiling face next to the word realism.

Her reply inspired Stephen to write a song about rejection, a song that always gets big laughs when he performs it at his Thursday night gig at McCarthy’s, the largest pub in Melody. The title of the song and the last line of the chorus are Not Enough Magical Realism.

*

From the post office, Stephen continues through town with the dogs to the beach at the mouth of Melody River where he throws a rubberized tennis ball into the surf for Hortensio to retrieve while Moose runs up and down the shore yapping at Hortensio until the big dog gets back on dry land, drops the ball, and Moose can bring the soggy orb to Stephen.

*

On their way home from the beach, Stephen and the dogs stop by Murray’s Seafood, and Stephen and Murray Steinberg, a gregarious guy in his sixties, sit at a picnic table behind the fish shop and talk. Stephen holds Moose on his lap while Hortensio lies on the ground beside them exhausted from his exploits in the surf.

“Maya and Celia loved their fish & chips last night,” says Stephen, having brought home three orders of fish & chips after meeting at Murray’s Seafood with the moviemakers. Murray and Murray’s Seafood are to be in the movie, too, and Carmen and Joseph have taken to using Murray’s shop as their in-town meeting place.

“I’m glad,” says Murray, who admires Maya and was devastated when she became paralyzed and was no longer able to dance.

“Maya even went so far as to use the word genius,” says Stephen, avoiding eye contact with Murray. “A word she reserves for the likes of Van Gogh and Mendelssohn and Mike Leigh.”

“You don’t want to be in the movie, do you?” says Murray, who has known Stephen for twenty years.

“I don’t think so,” says Stephen, stating his decision out loud for the first time.

“I’m not sure I want to be in the movie either,” says Murray, who was gung ho at first about Joseph making a movie set in the fish shop. “I thought they were gonna make a short, you know, a ten-minute vignette, and now they want to make a feature film and they’re auditioning professional actors and they want to improvise scenes to guide them in writing their script, and they’re so serious about everything. And though I really like Carmen, and I like Joe, the whole thing feels very weird now. You know what I mean?”

“I think,” says Stephen, choosing his words carefully, “Joseph and Carmen are having a love affair by making this movie in lieu of actually having a love affair, and I think that’s a beautiful thing, if you’ll excuse my use of the expression a beautiful thing. However, I am not drawn to participate in their beautiful thing.”

“I hear you,” says Murray, nodding in agreement.

“Yet,” says Stephen, raising both index fingers skyward, “I, too, really like Carmen, as in I have a crush on her transcendent of any crush I’ve ever had, and believe me I’ve had some big ones, and I’ll always be grateful to Joseph for helping me out when I was a teenager, but I still don’t want to be in their movie, and hearing your take on things confirms my feelings.”

‘Fortunately for me,” says Murray, resignedly, “Joseph is adamant I only be Murray of Murray’s Seafood in the movie and not involved in the days of improvising prior to them writing the script.”

“Why not?” says Stephen, aghast. “You’re one of Melody Theatre Company’s finest actors. You were astounding in A Thousand Clowns.”

“Thank you,” says Murray, gazing thoughtfully at Stephen. “But for some reason just the idea of me being on equal creative footing with Joe and Carmen makes Joe furious. As in livid.”

“Yet another reason to avoid the proceedings,” says Stephen, rising to go. “Thank you, Murray. For everything.”

“The feeling is mutual,” says Murray, slapping Stephen on the back. “Say hi to Maya and Celia for me.”

*

Home again, Stephen calls Carmen, thanks her profusely for inviting him to be in their movie, and graciously declines.

And Carmen says, “May I come see you? Now?”

“To try to convince me with your beauty and charm and ineffable je ne sais quoi to be in your movie?” says Stephen, who under no circumstances wants to prolong his escape from the movie business. “No you may not come see me.”

“Not about the movie,” she says quietly. “About something else.”

“Okay,” he says, looking out the kitchen window at the wooden bench in his vegetable garden and thinking that will be the perfect place to discuss something else with Carmen.

*

A striking brunette with a Spanish father and a French mother, Carmen arrives twenty minutes later and Stephen introduces her to Maya and Celia and Hortensio and Moose before taking her out to his big vegetable garden where they sit on the wooden bench with a foot of space between them. They are both wearing shorts and T-shirts, Carmen’s long hair in a ponytail.

Carmen takes off her dark glasses and says, “So… would you like to see about being in a relationship with me?”

Heart pounding, Stephen says, “Yes.”

“Oh,” says Carmen, blushing in surprise. “You would?”

“But I still won’t be in your movie,” says Stephen, shaking his head.

“No,” she says, shaking her head, too.

They fall silent. Birds twitter. A neighbor’s dog barks. The ocean roars faintly in the distance.

“So,” says Carmen, taking a deep breath, “do you think it’s too soon to kiss?”

“Maybe a little,” says Stephen, also taking a deep breath. “I feel like I might be getting into a sticky situation with you and Joseph, and I really don’t want to do that.”

“I understand why you feel that way,” she says, nodding, “but Joe and I have decided not to make a movie together and not see each other for a while. Things were getting confusing, for him more than me, so…”

“I understand in a non-specific way,” says Stephen, feeling both relieved and sad. “You think he’ll be okay?”

“Yes,” says Carmen, inching closer. “What about hugging? Do you think it’s too soon to hug?”

“No,” says Stephen, who hasn’t had a girlfriend in seven years.

“Just so you know,” she says, hugging him, “I haven’t been in a relationship in seven years.”

“No wonder you were in such a big hurry to kiss,” says Stephen, kissing her.

In the house, watching Stephen and Carmen kiss, Maya says to Celia, “So it begins.”

“She’s so lucky,” says Celia, her tears washing away her makeup.

Procession of Desire

Categories
Uncategorized

3. Stephen Ornofsky

“Celia will be here any minute,” says Maya Johansen, small and slender and seventy-seven, confined to a wheelchair for the last fifteen years. “Go on now, Stephen. You’ll be late.”

“You know my pub show never starts promptly at eight,” says Stephen Ornofsky, Maya’s live-in caretaker for nine years now, a handsome fellow of thirty-four with short brown hair and wire-framed glasses. “You also know I’m incapable of leaving you alone at night. So just relax and enjoy my company until Celia gets here.”

The month is June, the time ten minutes after eight in the evening of a sunny day. Maya and Stephen are seated at a large rectangular wooden table on the deck of Maya’s rambling one-story redwood house in the northern California coastal town of Melody. With a few minutes of daylight left to them, they survey the remains of the delicious fish supper Stephen prepared for them and drink the last of their fine white wine.

Stephen’s two dogs, Hortensio, a big black mutt, and Moose, a small brown Chihuahua, are sprawled on the edge of the deck gazing out over Stephen’s big vegetable garden and down the hill into town, while Stephen’s enormous orange cat Harpo sits in the chair next to Stephen’s and gazes expectantly at his favorite human and hopes for one more piece of delicious cod.

Maya, who was born in Sweden and came to the United States when she was seven, a renowned dancer and choreographer before her terrible car accident, is wearing a black sweater over a blue T-shirt and baggy gray cotton trousers, her long white hair in a braid. She is belted into her old wicker wheelchair so she won’t fall out should she make any abrupt movements with the upper half of her body, movements she often makes. Being paralyzed from the waist down, she must be secured with a seatbelt or these sudden movements might topple her out of her chair.

Stephen, who was born just ten miles north of Melody in the big town of Mill City, is wearing black corduroy trousers and a matching sports jacket over a pale pink dress shirt, his usual attire for his Thursday night gig at McCarthy’s, a gig he’s had for seven years.

“Will you premiere your new song tonight?” asks Maya, who loves it when Stephen sings to her. “I hope so and I hope there’s a marvelous woman in the audience who falls madly in love with you, and you with her.”

“I may sing that song tonight,” says Stephen, smiling at Maya’s fantasy. “I was going to last week, but ran out of time.”

“Maybe start with the new song tonight,” says Maya, who every few months insists on attending Stephen’s show despite the hassle, but of late she’s been too tired in the evening to go anywhere.

“I am now habituated to opening with the raven song,” says Stephen, rising at the sound of tires crunching the gravel driveway—Celia Flores being dropped off by her husband Miguel. “After which Mabel habitually drops a ten-dollar bill in the tip jar to show the others how it’s done, dear woman. And then I’ll sing the new song.” He goes to Maya and kisses her cheek. “See you in the morning.”

“Sleep in if you want,” says Maya, who always cries a little when Stephen leaves her. “Celia can make breakfast, though lately she’s been overcooking the eggs.”

Stephen meets Celia at the front door and says, “Here you are, beautiful as ever.”

“Lo siento Esteban,” says Celia, a Mexican woman in her fifties dressed in white sweater and black slacks, her long black hair in a bun. “The car wouldn’t start and we had to get a jump from our neighbor. Forgive me.”

“Nothing to forgive,” he says, finding Celia adorable. “Maya would love a bath tonight. She’ll say don’t bother, but I know she’d love one and would especially love for you to wash her hair. Every time you do, she waxes euphoric.”

“Of course,” says Celia, nodding anxiously. “You better go now. I’m so sorry we make you late for your show.”

“Not to worry,” says Stephen, picking up his guitar case. “I’ll see you in the morning if you aren’t up when I get home.”

*

The coastal fog, having withdrawn a mile offshore for the day, returns to blanket the town for the night as Stephen walks the long three blocks from Maya’s house to downtown Melody where the crowd at McCarthy’s awaits him, many in that crowd having known Stephen since he was a teenager and played his guitar and sang his songs on the corner in front of the post office.

Stephen loves this three-block walk, loves the fog filling in the spaces between the houses, loves being alive.

A quiet child and exceedingly bright, Stephen needed glasses at five, started playing guitar when he was six, and did well in school until his second year of high school when his home life became untenable and he took to staying with friends whose parents would allow him to sleep on their sofas.

When he was sixteen, he bought an old Volkswagen van, dropped out of school, and for eighteen months lived in his van on his friend Lisa’s driveway a mile inland from Melody. A few months after he moved to Lisa’s driveway, Stephen fell into a deep depression and Lisa’s father Joseph paid for Stephen to go to a therapist. After a year of therapy, no longer depressed, Stephen moved into the town of Melody, and after another year of living in his van was able to rent a house with two friends and start giving guitar lessons to go with his gardening work. 

“And here I am,” says Stephen, arriving at McCarthy’s, Melody’s largest performance venue not counting the Presbyterian church.

A little pod of his fans who smoke are standing in front of the pub having a few last puffs before the show.

Malcolm Hawkins, a big hulking fellow in a long black coat says, “You’re late, Stevie. I’m going into withdrawals. Quick. Sing something.”

“You are the sunshine of my life,” sings Stephen, crooning a little Stevie Wonder. “See you inside.”

“Saved,” says Tommy, dropping his cigarette and snuffing it out with his shoe as he follows Stephen into the pub.

*

The place is full, standing room only, and people applaud when they see Stephen come in, which is McCarthy’s cue to go up on the little stage and give a brief introduction.

McCarthy, sixty-nine, short and muscular, his bald pate reflecting the stage lights, taps the microphone to hear the amplified pop and says, “And now embarking on his eighth year of performing here we give you the one and only Stephen Ornofsky.”

Having shed his jacket and strapped on his small teak guitar, Stephen takes the stage to loud applause, starts to strum, and when he’s happy with his sound, moves close to the microphone and sings Obadiah, Obadiah, Obadiah my love, I watched you write love poems in the blue sky above. I watched you write words with your ink black wings, and put them to music for something to sing.

Now he nods to the audience and dozens of people sing along as he repeats the verse, some people singing harmonies they’ve figured out over the years of singing along with Stephen, some singing the melody, the pub transformed into a church of beer-drinking revelers.

At song’s end, Stephen steps back from the microphone and Mabel Lundquist, who always sits up front with her partner Suse Malone, makes a pretty show of dropping a ten-dollar bill into the white shoebox with TIPS writ large on the side.

“Merci Mabel,” says Stephen, bowing to her. “Thank you all for coming tonight. I want to follow Obadiah with a brand new song that…” Stephen freezes at the sight of someone in the audience. “Oh my God. Joseph. Haven’t seen you in forever. And this new song… the one I’m about to sing… I wrote for you.” He shakes his head in wonder. “What are the odds?”

A hush falls over the room.

“Not to put you on the spot, Joseph,” says Stephen, playing an eloquent chord, “but how are you?”

“I’m good,” says Joseph, who is seventy-five and sharing a table with a beautiful young woman. “Only now I’m nervous about this song you’re gonna sing.”

The audience laughs appreciatively.

“I believe in everything now,” says Stephen, playing the eloquent chord again and launching into a swingin’ tune, the verses of which comprise a fantastical version of Stephen’s autobiography, the chorus:

Joe Joe Joseph Joe, he may not know it,

but he saved my soul, yes he saved my soul

and he saved my life, Joseph fantastico Joe.

*

 Stephen goes to Joseph’s table between sets and he and Joseph embrace.

“I finally write a song for you after all these years,” says Stephen, stepping back from Joseph to look at him, “and you show up the first time I sing it. And they say there’s no such thing as cosmic synchronicity. Ha!”

“Stephen this is Carmen,” says Joseph, gesturing to the lovely woman at his table. “Carmen, Stephen.”

“A pleasure,” says Stephen, gazing at the beautiful brunette. “I’ve never seen you before, so I’m guessing you either just moved here or you’re visiting from elsewhere, Hollywood perhaps.”

“Santa Rosa,” says Carmen, giving Stephen an adoring look. “I love your music and you’re very funny.”

“What brings you to Melody?” asks Stephen, enthralled by her. “Permanent residency we hope.”

“Joe and I are making a movie together,” she says, acknowledging Stephen’s hope with an arching of her eyebrow, “and we’re planning to shoot it here on the coast, so I’ve been coming over now and then to work with him. I’d love to live here, but… all in good time.”

“A movie. How wonderful,” says Stephen, nodding his thanks to the waitress for bringing him a beer. “If you need any music, keep me in mind. I play piano, too. Kind of metaphysical ambient jazz.”

“We will keep you in mind,” says Joseph, winking at Carmen. “You grew up, Stephen. I had you frozen in time. I’m so glad you’re doing well.”

“Thank you, Joseph,” says Stephen, nodding gratefully. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Listen,” says Joseph, clearing his throat. “I want to apologize for…”

“No need,” says Stephen, gently interrupting. “You were going through a very rough time and I was ready to go. I have nothing but gratitude for what you did for me.” He looks at Carmen. “He allowed me to live at his place and paid for me to get some therapy when I really needed it.”

“He told me,” says Carmen, looking from Stephen to Joseph and back to Stephen.

“And now I must take the stage again,” says Stephen, bowing to Joseph. “Wonderful seeing you again.”

*

The next morning, Stephen wakes early and takes his dogs for a walk through the foggy town to the post office where he finds in his box two letters from faraway friends and the latest issue of Galapagos, a literary quarterly that published two of Stephen’s poems a few years ago, the only two poems he’s ever had published.

When he gets back to the house, he finds Celia making coffee in the kitchen, still in her nightgown, her hair down, no makeup on yet, which is how Stephen prefers her.

“She wants you to make the eggs today,” says Celia, giving Stephen a sleepy smile. “You want me to get her out of bed and you make the eggs?”

“You never overcook the eggs,” says Stephen, feeling marvelous. “How’s your back this morning?”

“A little sore,” she says, shrugging. “I put her in the bath last night, wash her hair, get her out of the bath, dress her, into her chair, then out of her chair into bed. But I can do this morning.”

“Why not straight to bed from the bath?” he asks, which is what Maya always wants when Stephen bathes her at night.

“She want to wait up for you,” says Celia, nodding. “But then she gets too tired.”

“I’ll get her out of bed this morning,” says Stephen, wanting to caress Celia, but not daring to. “And if you will chop up strawberries and bananas, I’ll make pancakes for breakfast.”

*

Fridays and Saturdays and Tuesdays are technically Stephen’s days off from caring for Maya, but because he lives with her and they eat most of their meals together and they are devoted to each other, the lines blur on those days. Celia is there from Thursday evening through Sunday late morning, and Josephine comes on Monday evening and stays until Tuesday evening, so Stephen feels much freer on those days to do as he pleases.

*

Pancakes devoured, Celia goes to take a shower and dress for the day, and Stephen does the dishes and tells Maya about the amazing coincidence of Joseph being in the audience for the unveiling of Joseph Fantastico Joe.

“I’ve never told you,” says Maya, gazing out the kitchen window, “that Joe asked me to marry him.”

“When?” asks Stephen, shocked she withheld this from him until now.

“The year before my accident,” she says, vividly remembering those last months of being able to walk. “After Irene left him we kept bumping into each other around town and having wonderful conversations, and I’d been single for three years, so we went out for supper and went to a couple movies and plays, and then we took a trip together, motel hopping up the coast from here to Astoria and back, and when we got home he asked me to marry him.”

“And?” asks Stephen, expectantly.

“I said ‘Why get married? Why not just be friends and lovers?’ And he said, ‘No. I need to know we’re committed to each other.’ And I said, ‘Isn’t loving each other enough?’ And he got very angry and said, ‘Saying you love someone isn’t the same as proving you love them. And marriage is proof.’ I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. I said, “I’ve been married twice, you’ve been married three times. What did getting married prove? Nothing as far as I can see.’ And that was that. He didn’t speak to me again until a couple months after the accident when he called to ask if he could help, and I said, ‘I’ll let you know,’ but I never wanted anything from him.”

*

Stephen is in the vegetable garden weeding the broccoli when Celia comes out on the deck with the carry-around phone. “For you Esteban. Should I take a message?”

“No, I’ll come,” he says, climbing the five stairs to the deck and taking the phone from her. “Hello?”

“Stephen, it’s Carmen. We met at the pub last night. I was with Joe.” She waits for him to reply, and when he doesn’t, she says, “I think you’re the only person in the world who calls him Joseph.”

“Oh Carmen,” he says, remembering her now. “Beautiful name and not easy to rhyme.”

“Charmin’?” she suggests. “Alarmin’. Disarmin.”

 “Of course. Silly me. Hadn’t thought to excise the g. I’ll get to work on that song right away.”

“Oh good,” she says, laughing. “I’m calling because Joe and I are wondering if you’d be interested in being in our movie.” Again she waits for Stephen to reply, and again he says nothing. “There will be an initial two or three days of the cast improvising scenes, after which Joe and I will write the script, and then there will be two weeks of filming in and around Melody. September-ish. We can pay you four thousand dollars.”

“Who else is in the cast?” asks Stephen, who until now has never even thought about being in a movie.

“Joseph and I, a wonderful actress named Patricia, Murray of Murray’s Seafood, and you. Would you like to meet for coffee and talk about this?”

“Sure,” says Stephen, more interested in seeing Carmen again than being in a movie. “Where and when?”

Murray’s Seafood in an hour. We’ll treat you to lunch if you haven’t eaten already.”

*

Stephen informs Celia and Maya he’s going to meet Joseph and Carmen for lunch at Murray’s Seafood, which prompts a powwow about supper resulting in the decision that he bring home three orders of fish & chips.

He shaves, puts on his green Murray’s Seafood sweatshirt over his black McCarthy’s T-shirt, decides to wear jeans instead of shorts, and heads downtown. On his way, he imagines being in a movie with Carmen, and in every scene they tumble into bed.

*

Joseph and Carmen sit side-by-side facing Stephen across the table.

Carmen looks darling in a billowy white blouse, her dark brown hair in a braid coiled on top of her head.

Joseph looks exhausted, his blue Hawaiian shirt faded and wrinkled.

“So…” says Joseph, smiling a tired smile, “what more can we tell you?”

“Well,” says Stephen, who is now vastly more interested in Carmen than being in their movie, “I understand you have yet to write the script, but the cast you’ve assembled suggests you have an inkling of what the movie might be about. Yes?”

“The quest for a meaningful life,” says Carmen, matter-of-factly, “and possibly meeting a soul mate or two along the way.”

Stephen considers this and smiles wistfully. “I think you will find I’m not much of an actor. Maya and I have a play-reading group and I’m renowned for sounding pretty much the same no matter what part I’m reading.”

“That’s true of most movie actors,” says Joseph, who has directed several big-budget movies. “Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers were the exceptions not the rule.”

“We want you to be you,” says Carmen, nodding in agreement with Joseph. “Only you won’t be Stephen. You’ll be someone else. Patricia might be your mother or your lover, or you might be Joseph’s son or his nephew or his neighbor, or you might be my brother or… but whoever you are, you’ll still be you.”

“Like being in a dream?” says Stephen, trying to understand. “I’m still me, though the dream is nothing like my waking reality?”

“Exactly,” says Carmen, crazy about him. “We will be in a dream together and film the dream.”

Mystery Sweet