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.
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.”
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?
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.”