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Kim Ponders

Conquistadors 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 translucence.

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 paradisiacal air.

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 obliterate doubt.

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 physical force.

“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.

 “They’re under the kitchen.”

“Well,” the engineer said. “I guess we’ll eat out.”

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 playing Wagner.”

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 was conjecture.

“At any moment,” I said, “a Valkerie will leap out of the rafters.”

 And 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.”

Giving 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 weakly.

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 that afternoon.

“It’s just a little further,” I said. “Through here.”

But 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 back.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “A salamander.”

He said, “You’re quite beautiful, you know.”

 Why 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 said.

“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 said.

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 all connections.

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.

City of 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.

Kim Ponders has published 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.

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