Purposeful Strangers

When you decide that you want a woman, the world becomes both a marvelous and frightening place.  Nothing in this life happens until a woman says “Yes.”  That she might say “Yes” makes living a magical thing.  That she might say “No” shrinks the world like a cloudy day.  Either way existence becomes anticipatory and tentative.

That I’d decided that I wanted to be Oriana’s lover was a new and disruptive thought, but it had been percolating for some time.

It did not diminish my pining for Maribeth.  Whenever I heard the music of the Mahler’s Sixth, or the Cocteau Twins, it made me think of her.  The summer sky with clouds like bleached fossil bones strewn along the horizon made me think of far away places, and I would dream of her.  Italian chop salads with rice wine vinegar and salmon sandwiches with mayonnaise and strawberry jam brought Maribeth home to the tip of my tongue.  And each night, though desire might orchestrate evolving sexual fantasies with Oriana, my self-induced orgasms would find fruition in the memory of Maribeth’s mouth, her kiss, the taste of her skin, her embrace.

So while I desired Oriana, she was a paint-by-the-numbers recreation of what I’d felt with someone else.  Oriana was ultimately the way in which I could still give form and substance to my love of and for Maribeth, an alchemical attempt to turn dross into gold.  After all, I’d met Oriana through Maribeth, and now that I’d lost contact with her, I could still keep in touch with the object of my affections through Oriana.  Maribeth still wrote to her, though not often, but they did maintain contact.  In conversation Oriana would give me the pleasant details, to bring me down quietly.  As long as I didn’t kick and scream, she continued to provide me this meager umbilicus.  And Oriana knew it for what it was.

Somewhere deep inside me lurked the belief that through Oriana I might love Maribeth again, if only by proxy, and have the opportunity to end the relationship at my own pace, to bring the matter to closure.  Maribeth had left me fragmented, and I needed to bring the pieces back into a semblance of wholeness.

I would not have called it love.  It was an infatuation, a romantic flavoring.

And it made me feel less alone.  Despite my busy schedule, Maribeth had left an emptiness within me that mere activity could not fill.  Sometimes when thinking of her, the loss would become a physical reality, a pang in the stomach, a welling of fear through my ribcage.  Every building I would drive by, every restaurant teeming with lights and people, every theater house and shop became a world beyond my reach, outside of the ambit of my life, inaccessible, and I would wonder how I would manage to live without Maribeth.  Lately, the feeling had grown more intense, in light of my alienation from Ezer.

But Oriana’s presence and friendship helped ease the sense of abandonment, of banishment, of being alone.

Oriana’s children were not due back until the middle of September, so there was plenty of time, I felt, for me to pursue this experiment.  She’d stopped seeing the publishing house boyfriend she’d spoken of, and she was not going to be teaching again until around the time her son and daughter returned.  Like her, I’d been out on a number of tentative dates with the opposite sex, and they provided us with opportunities to mull over the nature of the dance between men and women.  We began to spend more and more time together, not only the days I had off, but quite often the evenings of the days I worked as well.

Again, as I had when seeing Maribeth, I began to neglect my friends, especially Ezer and Miel.  Ezer and I, while still gingerly walking around the landmine of our kiss, were planning to get together, but it hadn’t happened yet.  There was a somewhat superficial yet melancholic tenor to our conversations; and, of course, he was busy with his art.  And Miel not only had his music, he had Marianne.  I suppose Ezer had Christie.

Our troika hadn’t fallen apart, but it seemed to exist through inertia.  It was just yesterday that Miel and I had chaffed under Ezer’s tutelage, and had unconsciously sought stronger ways to challenge it, transform it, perhaps end it by equally distributing the power he had over us.  Now the issue was threatening to become moot, each of us moving to somewhat different drummers.  Miel was finding his equality in his music, his band.  I was increasingly finding it in my fictions.  And in Oriana.

People are funny.  We’re like the United States Supreme Court.  Each year scores of attorneys and plaintiffs fight to get their legal dilemmas heard by the highest court of the land, hoping to get a definitive ruling on their issues, their cases, their lives.  But the Supreme Court mimics the course of human nature: conservative, it doesn’t like to have to make decisions when it doesn’t have to.  The High Court will try to get rid of a case without ruling on the substantive issues, i.e., without giving a verdict, without saying yea or nay.  It will try (and most of the times succeed) to get rid of a case on procedural grounds, on untimely or incorrectly filed documents, on issues of State sovereignty, on anything colorably reasonable.  On anything that might spare it having to make the hard choices.  It’s amazing how many cases the Court gets rid of in this manner.

So now the Supreme Court of Ezer, Miel and Christian was washing its hands, finding that the issues involved were perhaps moot.  Still, we made no moves to file the divorce papers.  Although I spent time with Miel and was scheduled to go away on the camping trip with him and his friends, and though I planned to get together with Ezer soon, as a trio we seemed to be on a trial separation.

“We’ll have the lamb shwarma,” Oriana was saying, “with extra humus.  Please.  And a root beer.”

The man taking our order frowned.

It was a Sunday, hot, blue, early.  We were hungry but wary of ordering too much to eat, lunch having been planned for us and only three or four hours away, so we’d decided to split an order.  We carried our food outdoors and sat down to watch the crowds that already, at eleven in the morning, were clotting the Venice boardwalk.  It would get much more pleasantly impossible in about an hour or so.

The Venice boardwalk scene is an experimental combination between a Deadhead concert crowd and a Babylonian open air shopping mall.  Thousands of people walk the path of incense vendors, fast food stands, massage kiosks, reincarnation booths and desperate, street-savvy and hungry would-be artists.  Drums beat, electric fuzz guitars drone sitar-like, all to the background gregorian chant of a thousand people speaking their minds, encouraged by the sun, salt air, the mixed aromas of exotic and mundane cuisine.

Oriana and I had taken to visiting on Sundays.  We’d have our lunch, then divide our time between walking about, or sitting down to watch and break down the coloration of the local flora and fauna.  I carried a legal pad and a mechanical pencil and donned the role of Observer of Life, a writer recording the different shades of public and semi-private pleasures.  Oriana would sketch the characters her eyes would ferret out in charcoal or pencil; sometimes she would draw me as I wrote notes about her, a cannibalistic loop that increasingly gave me a warm feeling in the pit of my belly, that place that the Zen Buddhist’s say is the center of our being.  Right above the groin.

She also lived nearby, on Amoroso place, so we had a base of operations we could withdraw to and hide, less than fifteen minutes walking distance.

“Do you miss work yet?” I asked her, carefully trying to hold my crumbling section of shwarma with two hands.

“No, not at all,” she answered, her eyes hidden by the large, stylish disks of her Armani sunglasses.  “It’s great.  Kind’ve like sitting in the passenger seat while somebody else drives.  I love it.”  The flowering of the summers’ sun had brought out freckles on the olive skin of her bare arms.  “There’s so much more to see which you usually miss when you’re doing the driving.”  She was wearing cut-off jeans whose cuffs shed a few unraveling wisps of thread over the tops of her golden thighs.  Her feet — sockless in an old pair of tennis shoes — danced under the wire-mesh table, her knees bobbing up and down with the the morning’s pitch.  “It’s kind of like summer vacation when you’re in high school.  Three months of freedom and possibility.”

“Well, you are in high school,” I said.

“And this is summer vacation.”

She leaned forward and kissed me on the nose.  I grew swollen underneath the table.

“So it’s not like checking out too many books from the library?”

“Oh, I’m reading quite a bit, thank you.  I’m not quite wasting my time.  How ’bout you?  How’s your novel coming?  Any more chapters?”

“About half-way done, I think, but nothing new.”  I’d fed her three chapters the previous week.  “I’m taking a break, though, to work on that short story.”  She nodded, mouth full of lamb.  The last two chapters of the novel worked, I thought, as short pieces in and of themselves.  “I sold one of the Dish stories to Orion’s Flesh,” the British rag that had bought an earlier piece.  Oriana had done an illustration for the chapter sold, and I’d sent an inquiry letter to the magazine about using her drawing for the story.

We quietly worked our way into the day, sort of like the way people dress on Sunday mornings, slowly, lazily.  We’d planned a busy day, but saw no reason to be businesslike about it.  After the boardwalk we were going to have a late lunch at her mother’s house, which was about two miles south of Muscle Beach.  Oriana’s step-father had just returned from Indonesia and her parents wanted to show off some art pieces he’d brought back.  It was a get-together for friends and family, and of course, their guests.

Then after that, early in the evening, we were going to a concert at the Forum, a reunion of Rock `n’ Roll dinosaurs: Ronnie Spector, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis.  I’d gotten the tickets as a gift from one of the court reporting services we used through Gordon’s office.  The passes included free parking and free gourmet snacks, wine and beer.

“What are you going to do with your art, Rianna?”

“The same thing you want to do with your stories.  I’d like to have a show someday, like Ezer.  By the way, have you found out when he’s exhibiting?”

“Three or four weeks he’ll have some paintings.  Here in Venice.  Wanna go?”


Oriana’s work was pretty good but I had my doubts about its commercial viability.  She’d done drawings for three of my stories, one of which, as mentioned, I’d hope to grace the one I’d just sold.  But while she had the reputation of a good teacher of art, her work was at best cold and precise, at worst a little amateurish and unremarkable.  I was confident that a small press publication like Orion’s Flesh would actually purchase something of hers; the artwork in its pages was generally pretty skiffy and unprofessional, so she might actually shine in it.

Oriana was lazy in her discipline, and her talent was of the sort that needed time, discipline and some measure of devotion.  It couldn’t stand up on its own.  At times her enthusiasm would flare, but even then it would outshine her talent.  I didn’t think it my place nor provident to critique her too harshly.

She was excellent when following a pattern, a model, when drawing from a photograph rather than memory.  She had a number of pencil drawings of movie stars and rock icons, pieces which, if rendered in velvet, would have sold nicely at the San Diego-Tijuana border.  But when working from her own imagination, it lacked dimension and fire.  Very carefully and obliquely, I’d given her the specifications for the drawings I’d wanted done, and, compared to the work in the genre, it was quite satisfactory.  Okay, she wasn’t an Ezer Kadosh, but I was infatuated with her, and this gave her work a aura that rendered me, if not quite blind, certainly not as articulate as a critic should be.

She’d given me something I liked a lot, an oil painting, a seascape, a canvas of crashing waves under a full but cloud-wreathed moon. It was very simple, and she’d captured the ethereal sheen of moonlight on spume.  I’d hung it in my Silverlake rear-house, opposite my bed, where I might look at it and dream whenever I wanted to.

It made me think of Maribeth.

“So many wonderful strangers,” yawned Oriana, stretching with feline grace.

“So many people you’ll never meet or talk to.”

“That’s okay.  Strangers are necessary to life.  They’re the dots in Seurat’s paintings, giving color and warmth to the canvas.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, the people we know and love are important,” she said, licking humus from her fingers.  “They’re the main course.  But strangers are the garnish on the plate, the frame to hold a work of art, the white against which our colors can shine.”

“Which is it?  Strangers are color or they’re white blanks.”

“Obtuse little man,” she said smilingly, wiping a finger clean on my wrist.  “They’re both.”


“I’ve been teaching now for, oh, more years than I should tell you about.  But there was a year when I didn’t work, living on unemployment checks and savings.  I thought it would be a vacation, a holiday, and I suppose it was.  But after about three months I started feeling a little antsy.  It took me a while to realize that what I missed were those purposeful strangers which fill in the spaces in our otherwise personal lives.”

“What strangers are you talking about?”

“All those strangers you see while driving to work.  The strangers who work in your building, the people you say good morning to, see at the tables of the restaurants you go to at lunch, or see on your breaks and share a smoke and gossip with.  You know their names and a little about them, but they’re certainly not your friends.  There are too many of them.  You don’t go to movies with them.  Hell, half the time you don’t even go to lunch with them.  But despite the fact that you never really get to know them, they’re there, week after week, month after month, year after year, giving the texture of your life continuity.  You say good morning to them all year long, yet you never get to know them.”

“Don’t have the time or the desire to get to know them.”

“And that’s the point.  They just add color and noise and a sense of wholeness to your life anyway.”

“You make them sound like movie extras.”

“Well, yes, I suppose so.  But extras in a movie are important. Have you ever watched the old, original Star Trek series, with Kirk and Spock?”

“Of course, they’re great.  There’s this one episode where…”

“Compare the first season with the last season.  In the first episodes, the Enterprise was bustling with life.  All sorts of strangers were walking the corridors of the starship, and somebody was always announcing something over their intercoms.  It seemed like a real world, if you know what I mean.”


“Yeah, right.  But in the last season, when they’d lost popularity and watchers — just before the show was canceled, and the budget shrunk — the Enterprise runs on a skeleton crew.  It’s always the same bunch, Kirk, Spock, Bones…”

“Uhuru, Sulu.”

“Chekov, Scottie.  And no one else, except maybe the monster or alien of the week.  The corridors of the ship are rarely shown then, and when they are, they’re empty, no announcements being made on the PA system.  The ship seems dead.”

“I know what you mean.  Most of the ship scenes happen on the bridge.”

“Or in sickbay.”

“Or in the transporter room.”

“With the one stranger who’s going to die in that episode.”


“What’s missing are the purposeful strangers.  See?”

“But isn’t less more?” I suggested, to throw her off track.

“No.  More is more.  There’s no such thing as excess.”


“Let’s walk,” Oriana said, wiping her hands on her pants.  “Mingle with the purposeful strangers.”

“‘Scuse me, sir,” said a man coming up to our table.  “Do you think ya could help me out with a bitta change?”  He impertinently held out his hand between us.

I looked up and stared at him.  He appeared to be in his late fifties, but perhaps it was his unkempt appearance which suggested the age.  Missing a number of teeth, the ones he did have were stained and striated with a dark nicotine yellow.  His skin was sunburned and very wrinkled, the creases tattooed with dirt.  Despite having it relatively short, his hair was a funky matted nightmare.  I’d smelled him two or three breaths before I’d otherwise noticed his presence.  His clothes were ripe in aroma, and his breath carried a strong note of alcohol.  He wore a black suit that, from the way it hung from his wasted frame in threadbare sadness, had never seen better days.  With jarring incongruity, however, he spoke with a lilting British baritone.

I’d started to pull out a dollar, more to get rid of him than from thinking that he’d do anything good with it, when Oriana gently but firmly gripped my arm and scowled.

“Could you leave us alone?  Please,” she said in a voice slightly chipped by exasperation.  We’d been through this a few times before, she and I, and Oriana’s tendency was to berate these beggars, to chase them off.  I found it easier to give them some change and to send them on their way.  This was my father’s influence, and the Church.  Whatever the cause of their circumstances, I could understand the concept of hunger or need, and so many of them looked hungry and desperate.

“I don’t have many talents,” the man rushed to explain, his eye on my hand, which was still in my left pocket.  “I can’t sing, and I can’t tell jokes.”

“Can you leave?”

“I can’t do any tricks or acrobatics, and I can’t paint or draw.”  He wiped his nose on his sleeve, and slurped nasally, which filled me with nausea.  I pulled out the dollar and gave it to him, wishing him gone.

“Thank you.”

“Sure.  Thanks.  Take care.”  I turned my back on him.

He’d taken a few steps away, and Oriana whispered to me.  “Jesus, Chris, I wish you wouldn’t encourage them.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry,” said the Buckingham palace bum, coming close again.  What did he want now?  I was beginning to be afraid that we were stuck with him somehow.  Oriana’s position began to make a lot of sense, and I felt sheepish in her eyes, having allowed this.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated, “but I don’t feel comfortable just taking your money.”  With one hand he held out the dollar toward us, and with the other he began to rummage through his dirty pockets, pulling out dirty napkins and very soiled pieces of paper which he held up to apparently myopic eyes.  “Unless you allow me to give you something, I can’t take your dollar.”

         It’s only a dollar, dammit, I wanted to scream.  Leave!

Oriana had started to extend her hand to retrieve the dollar, but he pulled it back and secreted it in his pants’ pocket.  His other hand continued its search.

“No, here, please,” he said in his Queen’s English, “I want to read you a poem.”

“No, that’s okay, really.”

“I know poetry.”  He nodded and looked back and forth between Oriana and I a few times, to impress us with his earnestness.

To Oriana he said, “I’m a poet.”  To me, “I want to read a poem for you and your lady.”  He smoothed out a soiled and hideously wrinkled paper he’d finally chosen from his coat pocket.  We sullenly surrendered.  The quicker he read his peace, the sooner we’d be free of him and get a measure of our own.

“It’s called,” he said, “`History of a Night’.”  He straightened comically, running a hand over his dirty shirt, and cleared his throat.

                                                 Your name, once written, is an excuse

                                                    for a pen’s flow.

                                                    Your face, once memorized

                                                    by the heart’s pneumatic quirks,

                                                    is a reason to close my eyes.

I started out not listening too closely, expecting at best some Hallmark gibberish, hoping he’d read it fast and be on his way.  But his opening lines had piqued my curiosity, and I paid attention.

                                                    Your kiss, slowly savored,

                                                    becomes a mute syllable

                                                    netted by the longitude and latitude

                                                    of a brief lifetime’s legend.

                                                    This borderless presence, once felt,

                                                    is a village

                                                    where a stranger might rest

                                                    if only for the history of a night.

It was a short piece, and when he was done even Oriana smiled at me, both of us surprised.  It was a good poem, I thought, certainly worth more than a buck.

Oriana and I just sat quietly, savoring the bum’s words, simply staring.

“Could you read that?” Oriana finally said.  “Again?”

“Yes.”  And he did.

You wrote that?” I asked with unintended rudeness.


“You wrote that.”

“Yes sir,” he said unoffended, a proud affirmation, and bowed.  A moment ago I would have seen it as a comical bow, but after his poem there was something dignified about it, funky drunkenness and all.  “I have more,” he said, beginning a search of his pockets, only this time I didn’t try to stop him.  I was curious, and hoped that he would find another.  A good one.

“This one’s called `Nautilus’.”

Your apartment is beautiful

 even when you’re not here.

It is small and compact

like a sun and a wave-glossed seashell.

When it’s quiet enough, I become

a grammar school child again,

discovering the contours

of this wondrous and delicately

chambered nautilus.

Held to the ear with the tiniest of hands,

I can hear the constant lapping lull

of distant breakers shattering on invisible

but as yet unmemorized shores.

This shell, shaped like an attentive ear,

has heard fragments of your history:

a chord from Satie,

a pleasurable moan;

the buzz of a bee,

the ring of a phone.

 On a glass table lies a photograph,

a tattered monochrome of a long-dead father.

A handsome man, he smiles eternally,

unaware that his unborn daughter is not at home.

While I memorize his gaze of fixed delight,

I hear your car announcing your homecoming

with its gentle hum like the lapping lull

of distant breakers shattering on invisible

but increasingly familiar shores.

Oriana and I were both silent.  Stunned and pleased, and a little excited, like finding an out-of-print gem in a used book store.  So unexpected.  Oriana clapped, and our little tramp took another bow.  I thought she would give him a hug, but she hadn’t lost that much of her senses.  The beauty of his poems was real, but so was the funk that rose off of him in almost visible waves of stink.

We never got a chance to ask him his name, or where he was from, or whether he’d ever tried to get his poems into print.  We gave him a five dollar bill, and without another word, before we could ask him any questions, he smiled his jack-o-lantern smile and took a few steps back, returning into the churning swells of the crowd, a purposeful stranger given the spotlight for a few moments before being reclaimed by anonymity.

**********     *****     **********

The late morning stumbled into early afternoon, leaning backward but moving forward like Robert Crumb’s truckin’ man, and we spent the hours before lunch trolling about.  I felt like a Monty Pythonish Spanish conquistador looking for New World gold but finding funny natives who didn’t speak my language instead.  But I wasn’t talking to any one anyway, so it was cool.  Oriana looked at summer dresses and winter scarves along the boardwalk’s east side buildings.

We walked side by side, occasionally touching shoulder to arm or bumping hip to belly, but never holding hands.  I wanted to, but the adolescent simplicity of it still seemed beyond us.

“Do you mind,” she asked for the fourth or fifth time, “if I go into this store here for a bit?”  She already knew better than to invite me inside with her.

“No, that’s okay.  I’m going to watch that guy over there,” I said, pointing to a guitarist equipped with his own little amplifier, playing to a special tuning, songs reminiscent of Stanley Jordan’s more free form pieces.

“You’re a doll.  I’ll be right here.”

I’ve never seen anything original on the Venice Boardwalk, except perhaps for the famous guitarist on skates — a tall lanky fellow over-wrapped like a desert Bedouin, his tiny but quite effective guitar amplifier carried on his back — and his fame, if you ask me, is rather dubious to begin with.  You do something long enough, and people just remember it, so the skating guitarist was famous because he’d been around so long, not because he did anything valuable or new.

So the guitarist I elbowed through the crowd to watch was pleasant, but nothing dynamic.  His music was ear-friendly, the notes filtered through his speakers to sound like something jazzy and new age, and it was calmingly beautiful, the way a waterfall can be, but who would ever give a Grammy award to a waterfall?

After about five minutes, which by boardwalk standards is a lifetime, I began to grow restless and a little anxious.  I’d been occasionally peering backward over my shoulder to keep tabs on Oriana, but the last two times I’d looked I couldn’t find her.

Crowds make me a little nervous.  If I’m alone, the nervousness is minimized, because to become lost (which is why crowds give me anxiety) you have to be with someone from whom you get separated.  When you’re alone, you can’t get lost.

There are feelings we experience every day, good ones and bad ones, and sometimes we can easily discern what is pleasant or unpleasant about them without any Freudian reference to primal scenes or buried experiences.  Eating good pizza is satisfying and has nothing to do, if you ask me, with whether you were breast-fed enough.  A double scoop cone of pistachio ice cream is complimentary to the tongue not because of a submerged desire to perform fellatio, but because ice cream is a treat, and pistachio a cool flavor.

But other times there are inarticulate reasons, free-floating anxieties hard to give a name to, events buried under years of living and accumulated sediment of psychology, dust which settles year after year, creating the shell and eventual mountain that buries who we are — or the reasons for being who we are — like lost, ancient cities.  We try to dig, sometimes, to rediscover what is underground, but that takes discipline and calling.  More often than not we simply build a new city on the old one, and get further and further removed from our pasts, our history, or beginnings.

So I had an idea about my fear of crowds, but it only made partial sense, even to me.  As a child, before my sister had been born, I had gone with my parents to a yearly Seventh Day Adventist conference in the city of Lynwood.  It was an all day affair that brought together all the Spanish-speaking churches in the area of Greater Los Angeles, with numerous programs and seminars scheduled, along with a massive outdoor lunch.  I was with my mom and dad when my father detached himself to talk to another smaller group that had clotted out of the larger, antlike crowd that swirled like the Magellan Straits.  My hand in my mother’s hand, she pulled off to speak to someone she recognized, and some how I became detached from her.  Sitting on the stonework surrounding an elm tree, I got hypnotized by the eddies and dust devils of bodies stopping here and there between torrents of movement.  It was a show that got old quickly, but when I sought to reattach myself to my mother, she was nowhere to be seen.  I scoped out the crowds with increasing dread, but couldn’t find her.  I made a few tentative attempts, coming up behind a few women who turned out not to be my mother.  The large bird within my ribcage expanded its wings, and I sat down on the ground and began to cry shamelessly.

Five minutes later — an eternity of fear for a lost six year old — my mother found me, hugged me, comforted me, and gently chided me for thinking that she’d abandoned me.  “I could never lose you, papi, never.  I’d find you in a field of pinto beans, mi pedacito de cielo.”  I hiccupped tearily for a long time.

I remembered that.  I’d dissected the memory and identified it, classified it, tagged it, and it became one piece of evidence toward explaining my insecurities as an adult.  But with time, seeing that my knowledge of this event did nothing to dissipate my fear of being abandoned in a crowd, I began to suspect that the memory in question was already a new city erected on an older, buried city of memories which, to date, I’d been unable to excavate.  Getting lost once, at the age of six, didn’t quite explain my continued present day disproportionate reactions.

But I couldn’t help myself.  My throat felt fluttery and I went to the store Oriana had said she’d be in.  I combed the mazelike gauntlet of clothing aisles, but no, she wasn’t there.  I checked the stores adjoining on either side, and still nothing.  I stood near the boardwalk path, and surveyed the bobbing sea of faces, but she was nowhere to be seen.  I sighed heavily.

Where is she?  I thought desperately.  How can she be so careless, and of all places, here?  Ten minutes had gone by, and I began to think that maybe she’d grown bored with me, decided to walk home.  Maybe she had abandoned me, for reasons I could only guess at.  Something inside me collapsed; I felt like crying.

“Honey?”  A hand touched me from behind and I turned to see Oriana, smiling.  My anxiety flooded into relief, and everything I’d feared became nothing, unreasoning emotional ash that flaked away, and I smiled.  There must have been a trace of my fading panic, because her smile colored quizzically.

“Are you okay?”

Without thinking I hugged her and kissed the top of her head.

“Yeah.  Let’s walk.”

**********     *****     **********

The streets were filling with lengthening shadows as we made our way to Oriana’s small Venice house.  We dodged the exodus of cars leaving the summer beach kingdom and trying to purchase a bargain with time by taking the lesser known side street tributaries.  I was carrying two grocery paper bags in plastic, a bounty of fruits and vegetables Oriana’s mother had given us, the harvest from another home in the Napa valley.  Oriana was carrying one bag with three loaves of bread, two bottles of wine, and a meteorite of gouda cheese.  My arms were getting tired.

We had arrived at the late luncheon at Oriana’s mother’s house a little after three.  Already handfuls of people were wandering and combing the large beachfront living room, afternoon light threaded with cool Pacific winds casually mingling in through large windows and the open patio door facing the sea.

It’s always a revelatory pleasure to meet the family of our friends for the first time.  The things we find so unique and special about our friends is invariably mirrored in greater or lesser degree in their kin.  I remember meeting Ezer’s father for the first time, and being amazed and amused at the similarity not only in their looks, but in temperament as well.  A highly opinionated man, Jacob Kadosh monopolized the spotlight with his easy conversation, salient and astute observations, and unconventional way of looking at the world.  His age and experience made his atheism, unlike Ezer’s, offhand and funny, less threatening.  They even had the same way of laughing, father and son: harshly, engagingly, colorfully.

I could trace the blueprint to Oriana’s singularity in Ana Marie Mandello’s movements, the way she smiled grandly and toothily, the tongue darting over the front teeth when concentrating on listening to you, the eyes becoming liquescent with mirth, then dulling with some opinionated disapproval.  Even the way the two women gesticulated with their hands seemed orchestrated by the same choreographer, the head tilting to the left when piqued, the shoulders coming up when meditative.  And they both expressed themselves in similar turns of phrasing, imagery, quirkiness, their voices mellifluous and deep.

There’s something about parents that makes us smaller than we are.  I had glimpsed the child within Oriana and had been charmed, enchanted.  The pictures of her strewn throughout the house spoke of a sensual child, bushy tailed and bright eyed.  Most of us don’t have the face we will have until our early teens.  I remember seeing photos of the surrealist movement leader Andre Breton in his late teens, and like so many other famous people, his face still hadn’t settled into the features that the world would recognize as him.  But at six Oriana already possessed the face of whom she would be.  The six-year-old mouth, tipped by eyes that seemed too large for her face, made her look a little like those kitschy paintings in the sixties of sad, doe-eyed children, too sweet by half.  Already you could see the map of her future in those eyes, the children she would have, the husbands she would leave, the stripped sense of sentimentality and stark romanticism which she would further develop to counterbalance the extremity of a face which dripped with a Rossetti fatality.  I tried to find my own fate and desire charted in those eyes, eyes which I realized for the first time were very much like Maribeth’s.  I wished I’d known her then, but of course, up until she turned fourteen I hadn’t even existed.

When we left we were both a little silly, having spent so many hours in the sun and abetted by the numerous margarita slushes concocted by the maid which we’d quaffed thirstily.  It was nearing seven in the post meridian, and I was wildly happy.  Sun, sea, meeting Oriana’s parents, the tequila in my blood, and a whole day with a beautiful woman, all to myself, and the day far from over at that.  I serenaded Oriana, singing lines from an old Caetano Veloso song he’d written while in exile from his home country.

“Those bags aren’t heavy, are they?” queried Oriana.

“No,” I lied, my arms already aching lightly. “It’s okay.”

“Because if they’re too heavy, we can take a rest.”

“No, I’m fine.”

“Try not to think about how heavy they are.  About how sore your shoulders and arms are feeling.”

“I won’t.”

“Here, let me sing you a song to take the burning out of your shoulders, and make you forget the burden you’re carrying and….”

My laughter cut her off, instantly setting her off on a giggling outburst.  We laughed from the belly, effortlessly, deliciously, I sparked by the sudden dawning of her twisty jocularity, she because we were in sync, silent shorthand understandings and communications blooming between us.  It was a laughter that warmed me to my toes and filled me with light and affection, desire and expectation.

**********     *****     **********

It was nearly eleven at night, past my bedtime, and I was working on my third Cuba Libre.  Monday was a little over an hour away, and Monday was a workday for me, but I didn’t care.

I’d been a bit surprised when, driving away from the concert and making a beeline down Slauson, Oriana asked me if I wanted to go out dancing.

“The night is young,” she said, “and I want to play.”

There would be hell to pay the next morning, I knew, for burning the candle at both ends has never been my strength, even when I was younger, and I almost said as much, but bit my tongue.  She might have yielded to the rationality of my concern and have called it a night, but that was not what I wanted.  I was punchy and happy from the concert, as well as the three beers and two tequila shots I’d had, and when we left we held hands, ostensibly so that we wouldn’t get lost or separated in the masses that had exited the Forum with us.  But whatever the reason that made it happen, it had happened, and I felt as committed and excited as a high schooler making serious points with the object of his desire.

“I’m glad we left early,” Oriana said.

“Even then it was bad,” I pointed out, referring to the crowds that had left just as Jerry Lee Lewis, the headliner of the night, was ending the first song of his set.

We’d enjoyed the first two acts of the evening: Bo Didley and Ronnie Spector.  They performed nothing new, not really, but although I knew of Bo Didley, most of his act was unfamiliar and new for me anyway, and Spector’s songs were, for me, like pizza, best enjoyed when cold.  Little Richard was fun but a little wearing and thin with his always-on routine, and he seemed a little tired, like an office secretary one hour before ya-buh-da-buh-do time.  But for sheer lameness and disinterestedness, nobody could beat Jerry Lee Lewis.  A serious and obviously large portion of the audience began pouring out halfway through “Great Balls Of Fire.”  Early as we’d left the concert hall, it still took us nearly twenty minutes to leave the huge parking lot.

Moose McGillicuty’s was a pleasant dive in the Marina.  I’d been here before, but tonight it looked different in much the same way a woman will look one way when you’re just conversing with her, and another way while you’re making love to her.  Two distinct faces, two different people.

I was slurring my speech a little, but it was no accident; the alcohol wasn’t creeping up on me: I’d invited it in to have a seat with us.  Oriana was alternating her margaritas with glasses of iced water, but I wasn’t punctuating my Bacardi and Cokes with anything other than dancing and people watching.

“Slow down, honey,” said Oriana.  “You’re much more valuable to me awake.”  She leaned forward and kissed me lightly on the mouth.

“Oh, I’m awake.  I’m watching some of these people.  It’s so…curious.  Interesting.  The faces, the expressions.”

She punched me lightly on the arm and smiled.  “You’re supposed to be watching me, honey.  Not other people.”

“Oh I am, believe me, I am.”

She sipped at her third margarita.  “I know what you mean though.”

“It makes me feel a little sad.  The desperate dance.”

“The mating dance.”


“People can be so odd,” she said, “can’t they?”

“I was thinking about Ezer.  Even Miel.”

“People can seem so complex and locked, like computer viruses.  But really, it all comes down to a few seemingly immutable human motivations.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look at that couple over there.”

I turned to see where Oriana had nodded toward.  A very pretty girl with long, lustrously dark hair and deep, close-set eyes sat at a table with a young man with short, moussed-back black hair and a light dusting of acne across the bridge of his nose.  She affected a coy expression, but there was something inviting in her posture; his face and expression, on the other hand, bespoke of a sweaty, swaggering confidence, but his body language seemed tangled, tentative, pleading.  He was talking up a storm and his eyes had the wild, fulgid light of a drunken, religious fanatic.  Moses, I thought, must have looked that way, looking over the valleys into the Promised Land.  I think this young man felt about his date the way Moses felt about Canaan, the land of milk and honey.  He wasn’t sure he would ever enter it.

“Sad,” said Oriana, “yes.  This place is filled with sad, darling meat puppets.  He’ll be lucky,” she said of the man we watched, “if she gives him a hand job, which is looking more and more doubtful by the minute.”

I’ve always denied the prude within me; yet Oriana’s words jolted me.  No doubt her assessment was accurate, but there seemed to be an element of glib cruelty in the observation.  I gazed at her with drink-slowed eyes, realizing that there were things about this exquisite women that I did not know.

In high school, we’d all been in love with an exchange student from France, a girl named Geri Ormond.  She was a slightly corpulent but exquisitely beautiful blond with slightly yellowed teeth from the Galoise she smoked, and she was as haughty as she was foreign, mysterious and gorgeous.  Although we were never lovers, we became very close friends.  She was gentle and kind to me, and when I wasn’t with Ezer and Miel, I was with her.  She disliked a lot of people, and was in turn disliked by many on campus because of her supercilious ways.  Many of my friends and acquaintances spoke derisively of her to me, and really, there was not much I could say, for I’d seen how snippity and cruel she could be.  With me, however, she’d always been sensitive, open, humorous and giving.  So while I could not and did not contradict what I’d heard, I could never say anything bad about her.  She was my friend.

Oriana had begun to remind me of Geri.  She could sometimes be impatient and lightly intolerant, as haughty and as caustic in her own way as Geri could be.  As Ezer could be.

Thinking of Ezer caused a thrill of panicky regret to course my heart.

Oriana grasped my arm below the elbow and ran her hand all the way to my wrist, lightly squeezing it.  It occurred to me that my jacket was gone, and that somewhere along the night I’d rolled my shirt sleeves up.  This was less important than the fact that I absolutely could not remember doing any of this.

Part of me was proud and possessive over Oriana’s naturalness in letting her mask slide away in my presence, in her being herself.  Another part, almost subliminal, was worried and a mite surprised about what it saw when that mask came down.  But in the final analysis, it didn’t make any difference, since, like snooty Geri, Oriana had reserved her affection and intelligence for me.  Her aristocratic nose upturned around others.

“Look at that guy over there,” I said, playing the game that Oriana and I so often played at the Venice boardwalk: watching people and ascribing histories to them, stories, colors and texture.  “That purposeful stranger, there.  Yeah.”

She turned and we watched this fellow, half-hidden in the strobing shadows, by himself.  He sipped at something frothy.  His face was that of a Greek mask, composed, smooth and abstruse.  His eyes, however, slithered about like tiny fish in a not-so-small fishbowl.  “He looks like an adventurer — doesn’t he? — just come home from a very long sojourn.  He’s trying to act calm, but you can tell: he’s surprised at just how much home has changed.”

Oriana’s face became a mask of internal abstraction, the muscles about her eyes quivering.  She removed the hand propping up her chin, turned and smiled but did not laugh.  She stared at me for a while, then her gaze moved again, settling randomly on the crowd as if she hadn’t heard me.

“See that couple over there?” she said.  “Right, that guy caressing the woman’s arm, the woman with the purple turtleneck.  Yeah.  What’s wrong with that picture?”

“She doesn’t look too interested.”

“No, she doesn’t, does she?  But look at what time it is.  It’s after one in the morning, and she’s here with him.”

Jesus, I thought, impulsively finishing up my drink.  One in the morning already?

“Mmmm.  A love affair?”

“In its deaththroes.  Right?”

Oriana shrugged.  “Maybe.  Or maybe its something very, very new.  He’s a married man.  Look at the body language: boldly shy, supplicant yet expectant.  A married man trying to hold onto something that pleases him, very much.”

“Oh, of course.  She’s keeping him out late, which is her way of punishing him for a situation she once thought she could handle — after all, it was her idea, she started it — but of which she’s slowly lost control of.”  Oriana turned to engage my eyes, licking salt off the rim of her glass.  “He’s going to have some serious explaining to do when he gets home.”  Her eyes seemed to fill up with an informed amusement.

“No,” I said, “I think you’re wrong.  “She’s the married one.  She’s an airline stewardess from, from Florida.  Yeah.  Coral Gables, Florida.  Look at him: he’s older than she is.  He’s forty, forty one or two or three, and life is passing him by.  I mean, look at that mafia hairdo, Scarface revisited, open shirt collar, the gold chains.  He screams of desperation.  She’s in her early twenties, deeply in love with a very handsome and charming husband on the rise who cheats on her since she’s away for, oh, what, days at a time.  She’s punishing her husband by being here.  And no, they’re not lovers.  Lovers touch each other in a much more knowing but casual fashion.  Even when they’re falling apart.”

“Especially when they’re falling apart.”

“You can tell he doesn’t know her, not in the Biblical sense.  They’re just two somewhat drunk desperadoes living lives they have no idea how they acquired, and with no idea how they’ll get out of or improve.  Groping blindly.  He’s the guy you were talking about earlier, lucky to get a handjob before the night is through.  And she’s just the type to give nothing but handjobs.”

Oriana giggled and clapped quietly, appraising me with new eyes.

“And what,” I asked her, “do you think people see when they look at us?”

“Oooo,” she cooed with mock coquettishness, a smile soaking into her face like red wine spilled onto a white tablecloth.  “That is a loaded question.” Rhetorical, no doubt, because she didn’t answer.  She took a sip of her margarita and offered me the rest, which I quaffed down.

“One more dance,” she said, standing up and giving me her hand, “for the road.  It’s late.”

We elbowed our way onto the dance floor, which was still manically active.  Something reggae was playing.  I’m a quick study, and I followed Oriana’s lead, imitating her moves without trying to be mechanical about it.  She was right, dancing was fun.

The song which had been playing ended and another began, and Oriana squealed.  “Oh, I love this song.”  She was beautiful, I thought, under the pointillist flare of swirling neon.  A school of white dots travelled her face, and then she was bathed in blacklight.  She reached out for me, and we clasped hands, gently alternating tugging rhythms, shoulders swaying, hips twisting, heels doing quick one-two time, toes slipping across the floor.  I let go of one hand, tugged on the other, and ran her through a twirl.  I was a dancer reliving a previous lifetime, I was convinced of it.  Facing me again, she closed her eyes and leaned her head back, bathed in pink, mouthing words about humbling ourselves in righteousness, and how our love for the city would make us weep and moan.

Oriana opened her eyes, I couldn’t hear if she were trying to talk to me, or was still singing, or both, and she smiled wildly, lasciviously, invitingly, happily lost in the music, then closing her eyes again.  There was enough alcohol singing through me that I contemplated what I would not have, given a more sober circumstance, but not so much that a slap would have surprised me.  I put aside all thought regarding consequence, which was not hard, with the music, with my .08 blood alcohol content, with warm, soft curves scented of musk, sweat and Calyx yielding to my touch; and I did it.  I pulled her to me and kissed her deeply.  There was, apparently, enough of whatever it takes in her system too.  We stood toe to toe, and she caressed the back of my head, her tongue searching out mine.  Little invisible white flags of surrender fluttered in a libidinal breeze, and we were like that for a while, our hands in the air and ready to be arrested.  In the background, the music molded itself to the moment, like goldleaf tattooed on the face of a shapeless desire.