Spend part of every day at the beach. I sent Jeff’s phone a picture of the line for cotton candy on the Santa Monica pier, all tourists from the size of them. He texted back: why don’t you photograph people who aren’t white? That Pacific blue-I used to run to the end of the pier and taste it. Jeff would have known what made the Atlantic greener.
My hotel was in Century City, with a mall attached. I could get from my room to Saks Fifth Avenue without my shoulders getting sun. The saleswoman said I looked lovely in a one-piece with a waist cincher built-in. Her nametag said she was Susan Murakami. I decided on a two-piece with steel rings at the hip and shoulder. I said I was back on vacation. So why not, said Susan Murakami. I thought of asking to take her picture, but I knew what Jeff wanted wasn’t photos.
In the mornings I drove downtown to the conference my company had flown me from Atlanta to attend. Bobby, our head of sales, had hired two twenty-year olds to smile in front of our booth. Deirdre and Evelyn, from Yorba Linda. I asked if they minded me taking their picture. Bobby gave them brochures to offer the kind of people who say, Sure, they’ll take a brochure. Afterward we could tell Evelyn’s brochures by their creases. She held the same smile no matter who leered or ignored her. We threw out Deirdre’s brochures, too. Bobby said what mattered were my numbers. I’d had the best numbers three years running, but I always felt he meant they weren’t enough. Deirdre wondered how to break into sales. Selling what, I said. What d’ya got, she said. I said, stay in school. Sooner or later it’s best to be honest; the trick is knowing when.
Of course I called Cameron. When I lived in L.A. he’d traveled too frequently, Scotland, Israel, Chile, foreign seasons and beaches. Nothing stranger than landing in a new season in the same time zone. For a long time I thought he was gay, then I decided I expected too little of straight men in regard to style. Now he was done with fashion and mentioned subjects like Echelon over drinks. Best sushi in L.A., he said, his treat; Wednesday. I forget when I am with people that they might have been other people before meeting me. I may have been different, too. I knew Cameron years before I met Jeff but Jeff was who I knew in Atlanta, from a party we both would have preferred to skip. Two nights later over Bordeaux, my choice, we’d argued North and South. We finished two bottles. Three, said the bartender. No way, Jeff said, am I three bottles’ drunk. You sure? I said. We got a room in the CNN Center hotel and woke to the morning news. South wins, I said. Jeff was the first guy I’d gone on old-fashioned dates with, pick-you-up-at-seven. Cameron would have thought Jeff’s PhD a waste of his thirties, but didn’t ask who I was seeing. You don’t write theses to be read, Jeff had said. I liked the droop of his face, but couldn’t ask him twice.
I drove back to Century City alone, sunburned. I have a convertible for this memory, though Bobby had rented me a Cavalier. How many Americans can define cavalier? Cameron said. If you want to make time in L.A., don’t take the freeway. I found this good advice. I could have happily waited for every red light down Wilshire, as long as Hollywood was in the distance.
Tuesday. Bobby took Evelyn and Deirdre and me out to dinner. I suggested Cameron’s sushi joint. You know that stuff is raw, Bobby said. It was a strip mall, West Hollywood. Jeff would have said how land availability corresponded to waste. I said L.A. looked better as lights. Cameron would have agreed, or made my comment first. Bobby said next year interactive commercials would be the thing. I bought him two of the hot sakes Cameron had said to try. When Bobby was in the men’s room I folded my hands on the table. So, I said. Deirdre said I didn’t seem like other salespeople. Associates, I said. I made like I was checking messages and deleted the photo of the booth. I told them Jeff was getting his PhD in Critical Theory. What does he criticize, said Evelyn. What does he theorize, Deirdre said. I said Proust, and the Dreyfus Affair. He had an affair? said Evelyn. Bobby came back from the men’s room settling his belt into place. My ladies, he said.
Wednesday. I invited Evelyn and Deidre out with Cameron. We didn’t mention Tuesday. Jeff texted that we had to talk. I texted, will there still be trouble in two hours? No trouble, he texted. We do this and it’s always me who ends up feeling bad. Cameron took us for champagne at the Mondrian Hotel, white curtained, blowing torchlight. I was still sober. Deidre and Evelyn got us a mattress by the farthest pool on the balcony. Deidre said there was a parking lot if you looked down. Don’t look, I said. Cameron said my accent was reverting. Another week and I could be from anywhere.
The agent was at the bar. Melinda? I said. I remembered being proud that Cameron hadn’t known her. She’d said to keep her information. Her interest was talent; it was needed more in boardrooms than onscreen. Her face had thinned since she’d kissed me, two years before the song that made it cool if we didn’t mean it. Did you, I wanted to have said, but instead I said: Scientology. Atlanta, she said, what the hell? I supposed growing up there had made it home. Is it? she said. Not if she knew of anyone looking. Was I serious? She sounded serious and years left me and I was, too. So much wanting I hadn’t done. She said I couldn’t expect to step right back. I said I didn’t. Are you really so busy, Jeff had texted. I said three time zones made more difference than he would think.
Thursday I wore the two-piece and drove up to a steep beach below the sand cliffs. I left my keys in my shoes and kept my phone. Two surfers yelled to watch the undertow. On my way to clients, friends, parties, I’d often thought I should stop there. I have someone for you, Melinda telephoned. She may have said I would have to start right away. I said I could do Monday. What about home? she said. I said it must be noisy with all the waves on the line. Cameron called. Sorry, I said. Clients. But definitely dinner before I go. I called Jeff’s phone. He was there. You sound different, he said. I was standing in the Pacific. No, he said-your accent. I said I was going to stay. Like that? he said. Listen, I said, when men make snap decisions it’s decisive. Well, he said. What he’d wanted to tell me, why he’d wanted me to call, was that he was leaving graduate school. He was going to read submissions for a magazine. And, I said. He said he could figure that out anywhere. Rich people, I said. I said I had to think. I’d stopped picturing him as a beginning.
Bobby called on my drive back: Dinner? I said I needed to stay in. I missed Wilshire while we were talking. I had sandy bare feet, and the Cavalier, filled with Pacific light. I made a left onto loud cement and poorly banked turns of the 1930s. Not a road I knew. A miracle.
Here is something about me: I thought I might not pass a supermarket before the hotel, so I pulled into a convenience mart that couldn’t possibly have what I wanted. My plan was Guinness on the balcony. Ten million air conditioners in the L.A. basin, and no Guinness or nut-brown ale. I bought the two darkest bottles I saw. I’d forgotten: my balcony had no chairs. Ten stories down, a woman with strong opinions was carrying groceries from a Subaru. A boy followed, kicking the dry pine shadows. She carried one bag; he carried two, and spat, a skinny seven or eight years old. She couldn’t have been older than me. I called Jeff. All right, I told his voice mail. All right.
Sarah Malone‘s fiction has recently appeared in Open City and wigleaf. She edits Route 9, the MFA journal of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
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