of Los Angeles
Sometimes I imagine my old lover is near. Say
I’m walking down the left hand side of the escalator, which is how
the omniscient overhead recording says to do it (needlessly,
everyone knows), into an underground cavern where in two minutes or
four or ten the train I want will arrive. I’ll walk, looking for
some uninhabited spot (because it’s good to always be walking in
this town, unless you can travel by limo) and suddenly he’s there
standing in profile and it’s always the same. My heart dives and
lays flat out, avoiding oncoming fire. My breath catches, and I
think is it him? Which,
let’s face it, is pure thrill, since deep down I know he doesn’t
live here anymore.
But still. Look: thick, dark hair, skin on his
cheekbones drawn taut with old fury, nose a little too aquiline,
broad shoulders and arms clasped over a fine abdomen, standing with
his pelvis jutted forward slightly, saying
I’m standing here,
come to me. The walls of
the metro curve up, gray and morose, like the ribcage of a giant
whale. Things seem more possible here than in the daylight. It’s
only close up that I know it’s not him. His eyes are too round. His
skin is olive, Middle Eastern. My lover’s was pale to the point of
It’s funny that I live in this town, now, where
he used to live after I left him/he left me but before we cut things
off for good. Before that, we lived (separately) in another town
with trains that chugged along in the old fashion way, above ground.
One day, we were sitting in a car in front of a train station where
we sometimes ate lunch. Time had got away from us. We were in a
hurry to get somewhere. It was afternoon and we were each expected.
He looked at me and said something that made me happy and that I
have kept hidden ever since. He said you can make love with a kiss.
And now I think about that kiss and I wonder,
if that was him standing by the obelisk with its orderly list of
metro stops, would I walk up to him? Or I would turn and look down
the track? Because I have learned by now that nothing is ever as
good as you think it could be.
Some time ago, I was in Los Angeles with colleagues
from a smart, optimistic consulting firm that had hired me to figure
out how to sell their services. I had no idea how to go about this,
but I was very good at first impressions, and I hoped to ride out
that burst of good will until something else to present itself. We
were in L.A.
for a conference, which was not unusual because we were always
sniffing for business in one city or another, and I didn’t think
about it at all until we landed. Someone popped open the door to our
little jet, a cheerful, sporty thing with gleaming chrome railings,
and I stepped out into that expanse of ridiculously blue sky and
discovered with a shock that my old lover’s scent hung on the place.
He’d come to L.A. after he left me and before he went to
the city where I live now. He’d called it
giddy, and I’d thought he
meant the people. I could feel that leaving part of him here, what
it must have been like claim that freedom, to see the future in a
new way, and that was the part of him I most wanted to capture.
Being here, I thought I could claim it, too. I thought I could
reclaim him through it.
“Out, out!” said Felix, poking me in the back.
We were at that stage when touching is permissible provided it’s
brief and uncomfortable. Felix was the person who designed the
services I was supposed to sell. The tarmac gave off a merciless
gleam. I stepped down onto it, into a nuclear heat, fumbling for my
sunglasses, and I felt my lover’s presence on the air. He seemed to
be watching me from some invisible perch in that sky. He seemed to
inhabit the shadows of the adobe shacks on the other side of the
fence. We stood on the tarmac and stretched ourselves in the
There was a car waiting—they were spending big
in those days—and while someone handled the baggage, I slid between
Felix and the marketing guy, and the engineer sat in the front.
“It’s a small contract, but the perks aren’t
bad,” Felix said, stretching out airily so that I had to shift to
give him room. Our hosts had chosen a hotel outside the city, The
Coronado, one they said we wouldn’t regret. It was supposed to be a
relic of the Spanish aristocracy. But if Felix or the others had
asked me just then to name the hotel or even the conference, I
wouldn’t have been able to. I was watching how the sky here could
take over the whole horizon with a blue so rich and pure as to
Where I’d known this man, the sky was almost
always gray and muddled with patchy clusters of pine. But here,
ministers to our arrival, the grand palms swayed absently overhead.
I’d hinted to my husband about moving out here. I wanted to live
where it was warm but where the people had not been rendered stupid
by the sun. I had not said, specifically,
Los Angeles. But he wanted nothing to do with
it. He held a stubborn grudge.
“They have gargoyles,” the marketing guy said.
“It’s a quality place.” He held up claw-like hands and pulled back
his lips. His name was Mace, and he smelled slightly of coconut. In
the front, the engineer had his head back with his eyes closed.
They’d all come out the previous year, just after I’d come “aboard.”
We tended to refer to our little company in nautical terms,
struggling to “stay afloat” through “rough waters.” New employees
came “onboard,” and unwanted ones were “let go,” sent forth like
dinghies into the oceanic world of commerce. It gave us the sense of
driving something strong and tangible, something responsive to
“Quality,” Felix said, “and quantity. Birth,
death, murder, enslavement. That place has seen it all. I was so
impressed last year, I went out and bought a book about it.”
“That’s really going overboard,” the engineer
said. “Buying a book.”
Felix ignored him and turned to me with soft
brown eyes that could droop like willows at dusk “Did you know, for
instance, that Coronado
spent his entire life hunting for the so-called seven cities of
gold? He was already rich. He’d married into royalty.”
“Maybe it wasn’t about the gold,” I said.
“It’s always about the gold,” Mace said.
That morning, my husband had told me, “Don’t
send back any postcards. I don’t want to know what you’re doing.”
My old lover had long since left L.A. I knew only because I
tracked his passage now and again on the internet. He’d gone to Washington and then Baltimore
and then Denver.
What was he doing in those places, shelving books in libraries?
Following women? I imagined that I wanted to know, but in truth I
didn’t want to know at all. I wanted him only the way he was before
he’d fled to Los Angeles, in that particular way he had of
clinging to me and pushing me back, with all of us suspended inside
the possibility of what would come next.
Since then, I’d come up in the world. If he’d
seen me now, he would not have known me. But that’s not what I
imagined as we rode in the car. I imagined that I had followed him
here, as he sometimes asked, and that we had lived in one of these
cramped adobe houses on a busy road, and he was stepping out through
the patio door in his shorts and sandals while I was still inside
sliding back into my clothes, and it was the middle of the
afternoon. We would have jobs with odd hours so that we could make
love in the afternoon with the windows open.
“They’ve even got catacombs,” said Mace.
“Really?” I asked. Los Angeles seemed too flat to hold onto its
own history. It seemed like a place you came to reinvent yourself.
under the kitchen.”
“Well,” the engineer said. “I guess we’ll eat
What a strange place it was! Full of twisting
stairways and dark halls that arrived in granite courtyards overrun
with pots of hibiscus and tear-stained statuettes. A chapel façade
protruded with a narrow, tomblike entrance, as thought it had been
carved out of the stone and not the reverse, that the stone had
formed the chapel. Imagine a whole life spent here! I kept winding
up in the kitchen and being escorted out by a sweaty cook wielding a
cleaver. There was literature to be had at the front desk, but it
was no help, a bland summary of conquests and Spanish-sounding names
that left out the imminent mystery: what had happened to the women
who lived here? Not in these plush, shady rooms overlooking the palm
trees weeping dry-eyed over the pool, no, I mean the women who knew
the bones of this place.
Because it is the women who live
in a place. The men
always claim their victories elsewhere.
Our main meetings had been relegated to one of
the lower chambers with “galley sessions” in smaller, darker rooms
off to the side. A few windows sailed above us at the sidewalk
level, and heavy wooden chandeliers hung from the ceilings. The room
was called the music room. We sat at long, white-clothed tables
facing a wall of organ pipes—I could never locate the organ itself.
Our little ship sank many imaginary foes in that room. Felix leaned
forward during one inspirational speech and said, “Someone should be
He was making those willow eyes. There was a
kind of heaviness in his look that smothered what it meant to
ignite. At the basic level of the pheromone, Felix could not begin
to approach my old lover. He resembled him slightly if I squinted
and didn’t study the slope of his forehead or his slight, prudish
nose but gathered all my attention on the dark crop of stubble
forming at the ridge of his jaw and in his fingers, claylike in
their thickness and rounded at the joints as though the sculptor had
got up without finishing. His hands sported dark tufts of hair at
the wrist that disappeared into the chalky columns of his suit
sleeves. Anything inside that collection of navy folds and buttons
“At any moment,” I said, “a Valkerie will leap
out of the rafters.”
then I turned away and pretended to be occupied with my notes. I
didn’t want to be reminded of my old lover, not here in this crypt,
and not with the willow-eyed Felix. After he’d gone away, this man I
loved, I’d had to call my husband. I had nowhere else to go.
What makes you think of one thing and not
another? I did not think of my husband, who had taken my call that
morning and arrived sometime later with a pint of orange juice and a
look of disgust and shame on his face, as though we had both been
guilty. I thought of a man I had known briefly, who had left his
breath on this city and then disappeared. My husband would never
agree to come here—that was pure fantasy. There had been promises,
reconciliations, retractions. When he asked me why I refused to
change our phone number, I’d actually said, “Giving him up is like
giving up my right arm.”
up my right arm. And still my husband didn’t leave me. What had
led me to say such a thing? I didn’t want him back, this man. Not
really. I wanted a piece of whatever he’d left here, the way one
travels to a city that’s been leveled by storm in order to pocket a
chunk of stone.
Felix contrived to sit next to me at dinner. We
ate in the main courtyard of the hotel, which turned out to offer
something of a French-Spanish fusion amid dusky, pastel lights
tucked here and there among the foliage. We had agreed not to
discuss work at dinner, so we exchanged stories about—what else?—our
spouses. Our litany of discontent seemed so profound, so
to-scale among the palm
fronds and hibiscus. There were five of us at the table, but mine
was the wine glass Felix tended to, and it was to me he offered a
taste of his risotto con
morels. I tried to go along with it, and when the effort and
inevitability of it all became too exhausting, I ordered more wine.
I hoped to confuse one thing with another. When we finally paid the
bill and rose, I had to hold onto the back of my chair.
Felix had risen also and he was holding his
hand out as though to offer it, but I turned and began to make my
way across the courtyard, between the tables where groups of
salesmen and marketing people where still eating loudly. The waiters
were crossing busily and I had to step back to avoid a large tray
coming at a clip from the kitchen. My heel got stuck in one of the
cobblestones and I stumbled and clutched onto a nearby chair.
“I’m sorry,” I said. The waiter halted,
guarding his tray protectively. Felix grasped my elbow and was
leading me out.
“Clashes in the night,” he said. I smiled
The other three were headed into the bar. Mace
said, “Come on, Ginny, I can see the door and there are no waiters
in the way.”
“I think I’ll drift up to my room,” I said. I
was not as drunk as I’d thought, but I let them believe what they
wanted. The moratorium on shoptalk was over, and I didn’t want to
hear anymore about the world-class quality of our little company—we
were using a business model no longer in vogue but whose usefulness
had not quite reached bottom, and we were in it for the ride.
Felix said he wouldn’t mind a walk. He hadn’t
seen the chapel, and did I know where to find it. My lover was
somewhere above us now, perching amid the gargoyles, staring
remonstratively down. Well, he could go to hell.
I did know where the chapel was, or so I
thought. It was up a set of steps that twisted through a tower and
then out onto a makeshift ramp where some structural flaw had been
hastily adjusted, and just around the corner—but this turned out to
reveal a verandah facing the distant lights of the city. The lights
lay scattered in the valley, like bits of shattered, gleaming glass.
I felt strangely foolish, as though I’d led Felix to believe I’d
mastered the layout of the place even though we’d both arrived just
“It’s just a little further,” I said. “Through
through here only led to another corridor. I was lost. It
occurred to me that there was a second set of twisting steps on the
opposite side of the hotel, and we would have to wind through the
corridors and down and up stairs in pursuit of the chapel, which I
began to think was not at all spectacular, especially at night when
the doors would be locked. Still, I felt ridiculous, as though I’d
made a promise I couldn’t keep.
“I’m sorry,” I confessed when we reached
another patio, this one overlooking the courtyard restaurant. “I
don’t know where it is.”
Felix shrugged pleasantly. “Let’s stop here,”
he said. We stood watching the people eating below. Another group
was sitting at our table, deep into their meal. The salesmen had
left, and been replaced by a mellower crowd. The waiters glided
through the velvety light.
I was leaning on the balustrade. I felt for the
key card to make sure it was still tucked in my dress. I could not
imagine finding my room. I was thinking how I would have to go back
down to the lobby and start from scratch when I felt something light
and cool tickle my fingertips. A brown salamander brushed over them
and disappeared in the leaves of some orange honeysuckle. I jumped
“What is it?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “A salamander.”
He said, “You’re quite beautiful, you know.”
does it always come to this, to go forward or not, as though we were
shifting a car gear? I tried to muster an answer. The unpredictable
thrill of affairs: my lover had taken that with him, too.
“Maybe you should bring your wife here,” I
“I can’t imagine it,” he said. He had
complained at dinner that his wife wanted him home more, not to be
with him but to take a bigger share of the child-rearing duties. “My
wife only needs me,” he
I had told my lover he’d hate Los Angeles. All that
sunshine on his pale skin! We fought about it. I told him I would
never go even though I had only been there once, as a child, and had
only a fleeting idea of the place. But it turned out that he liked
it very much. Now I could understand why—how could you not fall in
love with the breath that came off the ocean at night? I imagined
that next year, we might all return in an aura of wholesome
giddiness with our spouses, but as it turned out, our little company
folded during the winter slump, and we all went to the winds.
“I don’t know why they call this place The
Coronado,” Felix said. “He never even made it this far.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t as nice before the hotel.”
“He fell off a horse and died in his forties.
His wife became a beata,
a woman in mourning.” He took my hand, his fingers were very soft,
more delicate than mine. We stood at the wall, looking out over a
vast desert of diamonds.
“Did he ever find any cities of gold?”
“They didn’t exist.”
“They couldn’t have existed, or else they
wouldn’t have.” I
thought, maybe it’s not my old lover I feel here. Maybe it’s the
cries of all those women waiting for their men to come home.
When, at last, Felix led me down the stone
staircase, my feet were aching in their sandals. We stood by the
pool under the backlit palm trees in a way that is supposed to
suggest that you are taking the moment seriously.
“Well, here is where it ends,” I said.
“What?” he asked. “Have the crickets stopped
singing?” He put his lips to mine and kissed me very lightly, and
perhaps to recover from that, I tried to make it friendly by
pressing him into a hug. His lips were as soft as a woman’s, and I
felt the shudder of his loneliness pass through me.
Why did I stop there? Because history rushes
over us to pose, pretending to be something new. When my lover first
moved to L.A.,
he would call me from payphones. He couldn’t call me from home, of
course. There was no reason for him to call the place where he’d cut
He put his mouth on my ear and his breath went
straight through me. I used to close my eyes and listen, and I could
believe he was lying with me. I could smell the warmth of him. I
could feel the blood under his skin. God knows how he managed this
is a phone booth. Sometimes he called from a place down the street
from their house, and I hoped she would walk out the door and see
him across the road with his back to her, half in shadow, leaning
into the receiver, and know that precisely nothing had changed. Of
course she never did, and in a way I was glad for that, too. When
the minutes on his calling card were about to expire, he would give
me the number so that I could call him back. Later, I would find
these numbers dotting the corners of napkins, electric bills,
magazines, little mementos of our non-life.
And then he ran away again.
Or maybe I ran away. No, just the opposite. I
stood stock still, like forest prey, and refused to be found.
So now, here, by the palm fronds and the pool—where
the sea meets the moon-blanched land—I couldn’t muster the
courage to pretend, even if that was all that was required, and it
had nothing at all to do with the things that are supposed to matter
at such times.
I said goodnight and turned down the open air
corridor to my room. The stone had worn unevenly into hollows and
pitches. Halfway across, I reached down to unclasp my sandals.
Probably, a large moon was drooping over the pool below. There’s a
freedom in giving up the things you once needed. I let myself into
my room and got under the covers.
I once loved that man.
Or maybe I didn’t.
I had been ready to do many things to stay with
him, but in the end, I hadn’t done any of them. Felix asked me that
night if I would have suffered the risk of capture and torture and
enslavement, like so many of those men did, if I’d believed there
was such thing as a city of gold.
Gold. How marvelous it sounds. I think I
would, yes. That’s what I told him before he kissed me.
But hadn’t I done it already? And what did I
discover—that the heart is a mine, darker the deeper you go, and
there is no crawling up out of it.
two novels, The Art of
Uncontrolled Flight and
The Last Blue Mile, both
with HarperCollins. She has also had stories and reviews published
in Story Quarterly, the Chattahoochee Review, and
The Washington Post.