~Manuel Jimenez ~
retains all rights under the
1976 Copyright Act
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(fiction: 34,836 words)
is in its soul, a simple story about Clara Kobayoshi and Gregorio Cruz,
a young couple who fall in love and the fall kills them.
But the story is complicated by the couple's own history. Clara initially entered Greg's life when they were in high
school, just about the time Greg's brother is killed. Clara lifted Greg out of the self destructive depression that
enveloped him after his brother's death.
But like a bandage on a broken body, Greg associated Clara with
the pain that resulted from the death, not with the healing process to
which she was so crucial and he subsequently abandon's her.
Set in San Francisco and Los
Angeles, the story begins five years later when Greg accidentally
bumps into Clara as he is again in mourning, this time the recent death
of a friend. With this
chance meeting the stage is set for Clara to confront Greg, and for Greg
to confront the responsibilities he abandoned five years before, and
atone for the necessary sins of youth.
Post-Modern Blues is a story about loss, betrayal, death -
and life. It is also about
the quest for self redemption and forgiveness.
But in its soul, it's a simple love story.
The story is presented with an literary authorial flatness emphasizing the contemporary condition of nihilism, giving the text an unsentimental hard edge appropriate to the title theme. The focus of the story is Clara Kobayshi, though she is not the protagonist. The protagonist, Greg Cruz, is used to spotlight Clara. Greg's perspective is used to develop Clara as a character. Clara is the spirit of the story. Greg is the canvas onto which Clara is painted.
I am cut down and fall..."
I don't remember my father. I can't picture his face. It's blurred in my memory, coming clear only when I peer into an old family photo album. Although unable to visually recollect him, I do remember the feelings he gave me and recall a collection of actions and events, of which he was a part, that I have filed away only to be pulled out of memory in the darkness of a still night or under circumstances I cannot predict. I was a small child when my father died. I don't remember the loss. I don't remember grieving for him. Yet his absence has left a void in me that I have struggled with all my life.
When my brother died, the situation was different, the effect immediate. His death tore a hole in my heart and cast me into a year long depression that strangled me until I left for college.
But I had never seen anyone die before. The horror of the experience refused to leave me. I had lost my best friend and all I could remember about him was the shocked detachment and isolation I felt as I held him in my arms, his blood spilling onto me, coloring the sidewalk and glittering red over the broken glass. I tried to picture him in my mind. But the recollections were drowned in the image of his death.
The four of us, Zelda, Ex, August and I, looked terrible. None of us had gotten any sleep the night before. Having been witnesses to the event we now sat in Slim's, a club on Mission Street, blanketed by darkness, strung out on alcohol and exhaustion. The place was really just a bar masquerading as a club. It was Saturday night and Slim's was filled with people. We sat at one of the small tables at the edge of the dance floor. The smell of stale beer was mixed with spent cigarettes.
We talked about Paolo. Over and over the same stupid clichÈs came out, changing only with the interpretation of the speaker. August sat across the table from me, unable to remove his dark sunglasses, southern pride defending his masculinity. Exeter was seated next to him. Thin, wiry and intense, Ex usually carried himself with a combination of detachment and intellectualism which translated into an air of coldness. Paolo's death upset his facade, unbalancing his presence. Next to Ex sat Zelda, an alternative girl, with alternative hair, alternative clothes and an alternative air.
"A toast to Paolo," Ex said, unsteadily raising his glass in front of his face. He peered into the liquid inside, "The whole world shares the blame for his loss. We were so envious of him. We sharpened our frailties and bled the life out of him. He was cool. An good man in a world with no place for him."
"That he was," replied August.
"Salud." With that we downed another in a long string of drinks. Ex had a gift for stringing together words that made up grossly inefficient sentences. But we were drunk and so his toast seemed profound. The four of us were cast into an uneasy silence that lingered forever. The evening passed slowly. We sat getting drunk, suffocating in our thoughts.
I looked over at my companions. Of we four, none was a San Francisco native. We had come from various and sundry places believing we had found a home in the city. August was from the deep south, Meridian Mississippi. Tall, square-jawed and solidly built, he epitomized an idealized American manhood. He spoke with short monosyllabic sentences, deriving the effectiveness of his communication from that which he left unsaid. Ex on the other hand was from Manhattan. Columbia educated, he made conversation an art. It was a thrill to cross swords with him on any subject on which he had an opinion. He had a lot of opinions, most of them well thought out.
Where you found Ex, you found Zelda. She complimented him, as if they were a set. A writer, she wrote both poetry and prose. She created great poetry, but dysfunctional fiction. She was the door to Ex's glass closet. Everybody that knew Ex, knew also that he was perfectly queer. Those just introduced to him suspected. But with his fag hag Zelda next to him, the suspicion remained until he let them know otherwise.
I looked them again. We had nothing in common. Paolo had been the only one in our circle of friends to have been raised here. He had been the common thread that unified us.
As for myself, I adopted the city soon after completing my undergraduate studies at Berkeley, taking a degree and relocating once I'd accepted a position with a San Francisco firm. The transition was natural. Just across the bay, Berkeley feeds many of its new alumni into the city. I had lived there only a short time before becoming comfortable with my neighborhood.
I took up residence in the Haight-Ashbury district, located adjacent to the east end of Golden Gate Park, a few blocks south of the University of San Francisco. Most of the residents of the neighborhood are young, coming from a varied mix of experiences. Like myself, many are relatively recent graduates from the local colleges, attracted to the area by its low rents and circus culture. High school drop-outs and run-aways also escape to the neighborhood, their desperate, extrinsic circumstances lending the place a dramatic air. There live artists and pot heads, musicians and drunks, all of whom help define the Bohemian, sometimes surreal, flavor of the area.
Collectively, the inhabitants of the district are flamboyant and self-absorbed, intoxicated with the arrogance of youth. On display, the more fashionable women wear clothes that steal their spirit from the pretentious outfits of the late '70's, their retro attire defined by their tight tops and loose bottoms, based on thick-soled, high-heeled shoes. Some have fair, ghostly white skin, their purposefully gaudy looks punctuated with heads of unnatural jet black or dark auburn hair. The men wear their hair long, sporting goatees and side burns. They move with accentuated motions and speak in exaggerations. It was into this home I was welcomed, into a family of acquaintances, the liquid and unstructured society that makes up much of the city's youth culture.
With Paolo gone, my desire to run away from the place permeated my thoughts. His death brought to surface deep fears and insecurities that haunted my subconscious. Fears that were raw wounds at one time. "What's the use?" I silently asked in my drunken state, "What's life worth if it can be ripped away so easily? If Paolo could be torn down so easily, so could I. I'd seen it so many times before. Too many people I'd known lay down and slip away; drugs, violence, alcohol, depression or suicide. Who the fuck am I? What the fuck have I ever done? What will I do before I lay down on some street corner and let my life spill out of me?"
With his arm propped up onto the table, August rested his forehead in his hand and stared at the floor. Breaking the silence, he spoke, "I can't stomach another drink." There was a long pause as he rocked his head back and forth. He looked around the room. Then rested his head in his hands. "I'm going to be sick."
Ex turned toward him, "The celebration isn't over."
"What are we celebrating?" retorted August. Another long pause. He stood up slowly. "I'm gonna go."
"I'll go with you. We'll share a cab," said Ex. He turned to me, "Let's get the hell outta here."
I was too comfortable to leave. The darkness was soothing. I didn't want to go home. I didn't want to sit in an empty room and bounce my depression off the walls, letting it reflect back to me.
"Go ahead," I responded, "I'm going to stay awhile."
"You alright?" asked Zelda, "Can you make it home?"
"Better days," said Ex. "I'll see you then."
Ex and Zelda got up from the table. August turned to leave. Ex and Zelda followed him. They made their way toward the exit. I watched them disappear through it. I welcomed the solitude. Yet, at the same time, I'd never felt so alone. By myself and with no other distraction, I watched the people around me. I sipped my rum and coke. The usual cast of characters was assembled. Same people, different faces, sipping drinks and choking down cigarettes. People danced to the thump of the heavy base of the music. The base structured the environment, acting as a unifying force. It set the mood and defined the expressions of motion within the place. The movements on the small make-shift dance floor were filled with erotic suggestion, making up a sexual tapestry. I lusted for the women, some of whom were in various states of underdress and falling out of their clothes.
My depression was too heavy. My mood darkened. I stared at the dancing people as I sunk. It embittered me. I felt the blackness in my soul as I sipped my drink. Dazed from exhaustion and completely drunk, I moved my gaze away from the dance floor. I turned my head and looked to the exit trying to escape from something.
As I panned the distance from the dance floor toward the exit, something familiar caught my eye. I seemed to have glimpsed someone I knew. It was a recognized silhouette, a remembered figure. Whomever it may have been, they were lost in the confusion of movement. I got up from the table and walked to the dance floor searching for a person I hadn't really recognized in the mob. An irrational sense of desperation over took me. I looked over the people on the dance floor and accidentally bumped into a woman. She dismissed the jolt with disdain. I continued to search, looking over the collective mass, but at the same time focusing in on the individuals, and failed to find whomever it was I thought I saw.
I turned around.
"My God. I thought it was you," said the woman, "I thought it was you."
"Clara?" Her name passed through my lips awkwardly, "I didn't know that you moved up here." I stated, unable to hide my astonishment.
"I've just been here a few days. I'm staying with a friend. Are you alright Greg? You don't look so good."
"I'm drunk. Actually, I'm fucking wasted. I hope you don't mind."
"Don't be silly," she said, "So am I. I'm always drunk," she laughed.
"If you say so."
"This is amazing, isn't it? It's been a long time since I've seen you. I can't believe that we bumped into each other in this place, so far from home."
"It's bizarre," I replied.
My eyes wandered over her, brushing over her face. She was absolutely beautiful. She'd lost the innocence and accompanying awkwardness of her youth. Her movements were calculated and she spoke with eloquently rehearsed gestures and expressions. Her hair was short, bobbed so that it was longer in front, angling up toward the back of her neck, framing her face. She was wearing a black dress with an oval opening, showing off much of her olive skinned back. She wore elbow length gloves and on her face was delicately applied make-up, her lips washed with a mild white lipstick. Her face was also graced with a tiny stud pierced into her nose. The whole effect was that of a Gothic, jazz age flapper, something F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mary Shelley would have conjured up had they collaborated.
"How long are you staying in the Bay area?" I questioned.
"I don't know. I haven't made up my mind yet. I live like I'm walking through a fog. I only see what's right in front of me. Everything else is out of focus. How about you? I assume you've finished school."
"It has been a long time."
"Don't sound so surprised. You have absolutely no right to," she stated firmly, "It's been totally your doing."
"I know...I know. I hope you can..."
"Oh don't apologize," she interrupted antagonistically, "I don't think I could stand it." Suddenly self conscious, she tempered her tone, "Are you here by yourself?"
"No...Well I guess I am now."
"Good. Then you can dance with me. At least you owe me that."
"I could do that."
I placed my hand on the small of her back and gently guided her back to the dance floor. It felt as if I was walking with a total stranger. The situation hadn't become a reality in my mind. We arrived and I put my hands down on her hips and let them slide together until I reached around her. She put one of her arms around my back and the other on my shoulder. She then let her head rest on my shoulder.
Feeling the heat of her body as it brushed against mine warmed me. I slid my hands onto her hips and squeezed her tightly. She reacted by holding me close. I could feel her figure against my body.
At that moment reality hit me. I wanted to see Clara's face, look into the eyes of a girl I hadn't seen in years, but who I've never been without. I slowly slid my hand up her back, over the back of her neck and combed her thick hair upwards with my spread fingers and gently pulled her head back. She acquiesced, slowly cocking back her head until I could see her face. She tried to avoid making eye contact with me, but I could see that tears had begun to swell up in her eyes. She faked a smile, but it withered away quickly.
"Clara?" I whispered. I couldn't understand what was going on.
I came down and rested my forehead on hers, positioning myself, so that our noses barely touched, and looked into her eyes. A tear fell from her eye and trickled down her cheek.
She closed her eyes and slide her cheek over mine, moving her head until her lips were just below my ear. "Oh God Greg, I feel like I'm dying. Rescue me Greg. My soul is bleeding out of me."
"I'm in trouble. I've made a lot of mistakes. I've made some really bad decisions since we were together."
I didn't know what to say. I couldn't help her. Hell, I couldn't save myself. I guided her head back onto my shoulder and we continued to dance in silence, before stepping off the dance floor a short while later. I took her by the hand and led her to the steps that rose up to an offset floor where the tables and balcony were. I sat her down on the steps near the wall, out of the way of foot traffic, then sat down next to her.
"Clara? What's up? Clara?" she wouldn't look up at me, "Claire...look at me please. Hey, you know I'm on your side. What's going on?"
"Give me a moment, won't you."
She sat up straight and looked from around the place quickly. "I have to go," she said suddenly.
"Will you tell me what's wrong?"
"My friend Melissa is waiting for me," she said pointing at a black woman sitting at a table near the balcony.
"Hold on a minute. Don't go. I'd like a chance to talk with you."
"I can't talk now. I should go."
"How about tomorrow?" I asked.
"Are we going to see each other again?"
"I hope so. If you'll allow me to. I mean if you want to."
She looked up at me, "Tomorrow?"
"Yes," I paused, "Tomorrow."
"I would like that."
"So would I."
She put on a false smile, trying to hide the fact that she had been crying. We stood up and walked toward her friend.
"Are you staying with Melissa?" I asked as we started walking to the table.
"No, I'm staying with Raquel, a friend of mine. I'm just sleeping with Melissa," she replied wryly, looking up at me trying to gauge my reaction.
"Are you really?"
"Is she a dyke?"
"Do you want to sleep with her?"
"Oh, stop fantasizing."
"Does she want to sleep with you?"
She started laughing.
We were too close to the table to continue the conversation.
"Tomorrow?" I asked.
"Tomorrow. I'll be waiting with bated breath," she said facetiously, "Call me."
She introduced me to Melissa before we exchanged telephone numbers. They made their way to the exit. Clara stopped at the top of the steps. She turned and waved good-bye. I looked a her and knew that I wasn't alone. I smiled and then she disappeared.
I woke in the late afternoon to find the sky falling about me, pouring rain. I crawled out of bed, having barely slept the night before, and slipped into a hot bath. Letting myself relax into semi-consciousness, my mind wandered dreamlike, into a state of meditation.
I thought back to the time when I knew Clara in high school. My thoughts did not turn back to the school, its atmosphere, the forced regimentation of being locked up with twenty five hundred other inmates at my Alma mater, Franklin High in Los Angeles. I didn't thoughtfully reflect back to my friends, getting drunk and wasted, nor the craziness of the nights and weekends, often accompanied by recklessness. I failed to look back on my having lived on the edge with people who couldn't see past the end of the day, searching to find themselves without guidance or limitation.
Instead I drowsily reflected back to my quiet after school liaisons with Clara. I remembered meeting her in a remote corner of the campus overlooking the athletic field when most everyone else had left school. Sitting together as the warm Los Angeles sun would begin to extinguish, we talked about love, future and happiness. We talked with each other, about each other, together, forever, happily ever after. She would tell me of her dreams and desires, relaying them with a mild accent that was influenced by her native Japanese.
When the sky darkened, we explored each other, discovering each other, kissing and touching. I remember the perfumed scents and musky smells of sex that came when I let my hands roam, covering her body. Together we would become hot, the wetness of perspiration and sexual stimulation covering us.
When it got late, Clara would ask me to walk her home and we would make our way to her house in the chilled evening air. To keep our relationship secret from her parents, we stopped a distance away from her house to kiss each other good night. I would watch her travel the distance to her front door and when she disappeared I walked the forty-five minutes it took me to get home.
Occasionally, when I was particularly restless, I borrowed my friend David's convertible and would park and wait on the corner for Clara to sneak out of her house in the middle of the night. We would drive along the coast under the bright stars or up the mountains to find a view far above the city and there we stopped and gazed into our make believe futures. By two or three in the morning we would make our way back to the city, stopping in a little downtown restaurant called The Pantry. At twilight we would eat breakfast and drink coffee, but we tasted freedom, pretending to be adults.
When I had nothing else, when my brother died and I failed, falling from life, Clara was there. She stood by my side and rescued me, pulling me up from my collapse. She was the most important thing in my life and I felt a love for her that mirrored that importance. She used my affections to guide me toward proper ends, manipulating it to keep me from self-destruction. She held my hand at my brother's funeral, insisted I go to school when I started to miss class, and stopped the eruption of irrational violence that burst forth from my fractured mind. At times we talked on the telephone for hours, regardless of the fact that neither of us had anything to say, our conversations interspersed with long periods of silence.
But something went wrong. Having avoided, through Clara's help, failing myself, I ended up failing her. In March of my senior year, having been accepted to the University of California, I planned a trip to the campus and asked Clara to take the train up with me. She sat next to me and shared my adventure.
"I've been thinking Greg. Thinking about you and me."
"Thinking about what?"
"What's going to happen when you leave?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean to us. What's going to happen to us?"
"It's still going to be you and me."
"We'll be so far apart."
"When you graduate you'll go to school there too."
"That's a long time from now, over two years," she said desperately.
"It will work out. We'll work something out."
She started to get upset, "I don't understand why you don't go to school in L.A."
"I can't do that."
"You mean you won't do it."
"Clara, I want...I need to get out of there. I feel...I feel like it's a killing ground, like I'm there waiting to die. Look at my friends. Look at David and Hector, all of 'em. They're all racing each other, trying to be the first to his grave. Look at what happened to my brother. I can't live like that. I couldn't live with them coming over every day, hanging around."
Clara turned her head and looked out the train window. "Sometimes I gaze into the future and I see it colored black. I'm so scared. You're going to be so far away for so long," she turned and looked at me, "I see you...You think I don't see? Whenever you get the chance you run away. You run to places far from home. I can't help but think that you're just running again. But this time," she paused a moment, then said accusingly, "This time you're not taking me."
My expression betrayed my state of mind. She knew that I hadn't considered her as I planned for what I saw ahead of me. I romanticized the past and lived for the future, never looking at that which surrounded me. Having not taken into account the future of our relationship, it looked as though I didn't care about it.
"What about us, babe?" she questioned softly.
I obviously didn't have an answer. My thoughts raced for a few moments as I searched for a reply.
"We'll figure something out," I said lamely.
Her expression hardened, "Don't you walk away from me Gregorio. Don't you do it."
I saw the desperation in her eyes and my heart sank. "No...no. Of course not."
I knew it didn't come out convincingly. I put my arms around her and pulled her close to me. She turned her face into me and I rested my head on top of hers and looked out the train window at the passing world...
Five years later, coming out of my daydream, I realized what I had always known. My feelings for Clara had not disappeared. My affections for her had only been dormant, suppressed by my reluctance to face my life in the past, reluctance born of fear and shame.
My feelings for Clara were awakened by my nostalgic memories of the good times we had together, contrasted against the pain of Paolo's loss. Like the colloquialisms of the old neighborhood, cruising Hollywood Boulevard, taco trucks and still, hot summer days, Clara was part of me. When I talked to her, she not only understood the words, but also the feelings underlying them. Running off to school five years ago, I not only left Clara, but I left behind part of myself.
The rain had slowed to a trickle. The cab pulled up in front of the vintage, art deco apartment building where I was to meet Clara. Going to the entrance, I searched the directory for the name of the person with whom she was staying.
"Rebecca, Renee, Rachael. What the hell was that girl's name?" I asked myself, "Ah, Raquel."
I pushed the buzzer and waited in the little enclosure sheltering the front door. Through the glass I saw Clara come down the curved staircase that led into the far end of the lobby. She was wearing a straight, off white dress with a hint of color in it, giving it a pastel peach color. The dress showed off her back and shoulders and came down to the top of her knees. From the bottom of the dress was a pattern with tiny strands of white roped silk that hung down from the hem and spiraled up to the top of the outfit. Every time she took a step the strands would bounce back and forth in unison. Around her neck hung a long string of white beads, tied in the middle, the knot resting between her breasts. Decorating her head was a dark cloche hat.
When she saw me she beamed a smile and strutted across the lobby. Every step was a purposeful exaggeration, her sexy gait punctuated by her swinging hips. Of her qualities, the most subtle, yet most trained was her sexuality. She opened the lobby door, far enough to fit through her hat, and stuck out her head.
"My goodness," she said playfully, "Don't you look elegant tonight? I feel dreadfully underdressed. I don't think I should be seen in public with you. I'm not known to keep such exquisite company."
"Don't be silly," I said, "You look stunning. Won't you come out and play little girl?"
"Little girl?" she said with feigned surprise. "Well, I haven't been a little girl in five years."
Her statement was a deliberate jab at me. It actually unsettled me. Not wanting to look as though I had lost my bearing, I requested of her again.
"Ms. Kobayashi, you would do me an undeserved honor if you would accompany me tonight. Won't you join me?"
"Well, Mr. Cruz, because you asked so graciously, I will allow you to escort me around the city. It's so nice of you to call on me."
She opened the door and stepped out. The day had withered and darkness colored the sky as we set off to do no good.
"The Restaurant Lulu at 4th and Folsom," I said to the cab driver and we were off.
"Tell me what happened to your friend. Tell me all about it," she demanded.
"I still can't believe it. And I was there."
"Who killed him?"
The question was unwelcome. I'd come to her to escape reality. Yet, she'd invited the unthinkable into what I'd hoped to be a pleasant evening. I answered the question none the less.
"I don't know. Somebody shot him out of a passing car."
She scooted closer to me, "What'd it look like?"
Realizing that she wouldn't take short replies as answers, I decided to explain what I knew and hoped we could move on.
"It was a mess. A car flew by us. Bursts of light came from the back window. 'POP POP POP.' I dropped to the ground. I saw the bastard's face. I can still see it as clearly as if it were my own. When Paolo realized what was happening, I could see him...I could see him as he tried to turn and run. But, he didn't make it. He got shot in the back. He went down hard, falling into a store window. The glass exploded, falling forward and splashing onto him, then scattered onto the sidewalk. The blood poured out of him. It was like someone knocking over a full glass. The blood came out so fast."
"That's terrible," Clara said softly, "I'm so sorry."
We were both quiet for several moments. She turned away from me and looked out her window.
"I remembered when your brother died," she said, barely audible, as if she was talking to herself. She gazed down to the floor of the car like she was witnessing some distant tragedy.
"Yeah. That was a bad time," I replied.
She looked up at me quickly, "Something like that makes people do stupid things, doesn't it?"
"I guess it does. Things that you regret later."
"Things other people regret sooner than later."
We were silent for a few moments.
"I can't get the picture out of my mind. The whole thing is killing me. Sometimes I feel like I can't breathe. It happened so fast. It's almost funny. My friend Ex was so confused when it happened. I can still see the stupid look on his face. He didn't know what the hell was going on. He just stood there in shock. I'm surprised he didn't get shot."
"Maybe they weren't shooting at him," she stated abruptly.
"You make it sound like they were shooting at Paolo. You don't think that. Do you?"
I hadn't even considered the possibility. The thought offended me. I hadn't even let it cross my mind that there was a purpose for the attack. Having grown up in Los Angeles, I had become desensitized by stories of random violence, like drive by shootings and random slashings.
"No," I stated firmly, "I don't think that."
Several minutes of silence passed before Clara spoke again, "It doesn't rain enough in Los Angeles, does it Greg?" she said looking at the drizzle, "I love the rain. I can see myself moving up here. I can see why you stayed. It's so beautiful."
"Don't let the city fool you Clara. San Francisco is a bitter old whore. She asks for your heart, but takes your soul. It's not home, not to me anyway."
"Home wasn't home to you Greg. If you go off in search of home, you'll never find it. Home is where you go after you stop searching."
"Let's go home Greg."
"Come back with me to Los Angeles."
"I can't leave."
"I can't leave Paolo to rot while the fuck that shot him runs free."
"Paolo's dead, he doesn't care anymore."
"I care," I said firmly.
Arriving at the restaurant the taxi slowed to a stop. We got out and I paid the driver. Clara and I walked out of the chilly outside into the restaurant. The warmth inside of the restaurant contrasted with the cool outside air. It felt good walking in.
The room was dim. I looked the place over. People were huddled together at their tables. The place catered to post-modern hipsters in a setting of 1980's excess. The oriental decor was crowned with large ceiling lamps, from which the light was filtered through red-orange, triangular shades, shedding light that didn't quite make it to the black mahogany panelled walls. We were seated in a table and ordered a round of drinks, a martini for her, and I had a scotch strait-up.
"This place is wonderful," she stated, "Come here often?" she inquired looking around the place.
"I'm afraid not. I couldn't afford to."
She focused back on me, "You look well Greg."
"So do you. What have you been up to?"
"Let's not talk about me," she hesitated.
"I insist. What have you been doing?"
"I haven't been doing anything. Just trying to have a good time, that's all," she said trying to quickly get off the subject.
"Did you ever go off to school? I expected to see you at Berkeley."
"I didn't even manage to finish high school."
"I never went back after my sophomore year." She looked at me apologetically.
"But you were a brilliant student."
"Like you said, it was a bad time. I had this terrible fight with my father after you left. I walked away. I walked away from home, school, everything."
"A fight about what?"
"I don't remember. It was silly, really, looking back."
"Are you getting along now?"
"Splendidly. I haven't seen my parents since then."
"How the hell did you manage that?"
"Please don't looked so shocked. I survived like anybody else. I got a job and went to work. I stay with friends when they'll have me," she started to get flustered, "It's not like I was on the streets or anything. This is stupid and boring. I told you I didn't want to talk about this now."
"I'm sorry. We'll talk about something else." She was quiet. "What should we do after dinner?" I asked.
"I don't know," she replied.
"There's a little club south of Market. They play a lot of Latin music there."
"It's still early. I know its silly, but I want you to give me a tour of the city. I want to see Chinatown and ride a cable car, go to Fisherman's Wharf."
"Fisherman's Wharf is a tourist trap, like any other."
"Oh, stop being pretentious. I am a tourist. I don't care if it is a tourist trap. I want to go anyway."
"Alright," I said, "I will give you a tour of the city tonight. When we're done you will say, 'Oh, how quaint. What a beautiful city,' or 'San Francisco is so civilized.' What you won't see is all the misery in the city, the weak who are chewed up in the city's charms, like Paolo. It seems like everybody here is contrary for the sake of being contrarian. All the sane people are shipped in, they work from nine to five, at which point they all leave. It's all window dressing Clara. San Francisco is a false hope. It's a lie."
"I won't see what you see. I won't see it with self serving contempt."
"You could be happy anywhere. That's you problem."
"So could you. You are a young man in a world made for young men. The world is yours, you can have anything. What is it you want? I don't think you even know."
"Can I have anything?"
"Anything at all?"
"Yes. Name it and it's yours."
"Can I have you then?"
"You've already had me. I didn't make you happy."
"Yes you did. You made me very happy. I hope you believe that."
"Let's not talk about the past. I want to live now. I don't want to relive anything. Let's live just for this moment, shall we?"
Sitting with her, I saw in Clara what I never could find in myself, an enthusiasm for life. She lived every moment as if it were precious, as if it were her last. Whereas I abandoned life for dreams of the future. I reached over to take her hand. She surrendered it, pretending not to notice. She rested her head in her other hand and looked at me suspiciously. I massaged her hand, starting with each finger and then moved up to the palm. She closed her eyes and we didn't speak.
When it was time, we ordered and dined with what I can only describe as solemn happiness, a kind of silent contentment. For the moment it was as if we had never been apart. When the meal was over we sat close together and let our conversation meander as the drinks kept coming.
We started to get drunk. Looking into Clara's eyes I saw that they looked glassy. In them I saw a reflection of myself.
"Let's get out of here," I said.
"How can we be done? We don't even have the check yet. Finish your drink."
"We should leave now."
She looked confused but complied, gathering her hat and handbag. After paying the bill we staggered out together and I flagged down a cab. Getting in I instructed the driver to drive around the city.
"What's going on?" she asked
"What do you mean?"
"You're acting strange. When we left the restaurant..."
"I'm sorry. I'm just twisted up inside right now. When I looked into your eyes..."
"You looked like...I don't know, like I often feel. Like you were numbing yourself, self medicating with alcohol."
"I don't understand."
"I'm sorry. I can't explain it any better, not now anyway."
For the better part of an hour we toured the city, driving through Chinatown, the Mission, Nob Hill and North Beach. I had the driver leave us at Fisherman's Wharf. We walked the streets lined with concession stands and street performers, eventually coming to the cable car line heading east. We caught a car and sat at the head of it facing outward. As we traveled it started to rain lightly. I put my arm around Clara's waist and, for much of the time, we took the ride in silence.
Towards the end of the trip Clara turned toward me, "You have your own place?"
"A third story flat in an old Victorian house."
"Does it have a fire place?"
"That sounds nice."
I pulled her closer to me so that I could feel the warmth of her body. I wanted to let my hands ride up her body, but I thought better of it. Instead I pulled on her mid-section until I could feel her behind pressing against me.
"Do you remember the night we made love?" I asked.
"Don't be silly, of course I remember. It was my first time."
She leaned over and rested her back against my chest and I put my arms around her waist and stomach.
"It was my first time too."
"You didn't know then."
"Of course I did. You told me it wasn't, but I knew. You were terrible. It took you five minutes just to find where to put it in, and when you did you thrust it in so fast...I was in so much pain."
"It happened so quickly. I felt awkward."
"I wouldn't have had it any other way. I took your innocence and made you a man. I wanted it to happen as badly as you did. I'll cherish that experience for the rest of my life."
I leaned forward and rested my head on top of hers and smelled her hair. I started to let my hands slowly slide up her body, but she stopped them, "Be good," she whispered, "Where are we going?"
"Anywhere you want to," I replied.
"Dancing?" she asked
"If you want."
"I don't want to go dancing."
"It's chilly out, isn't it?"
"It doesn't seem too bad."
"Greg, I insist, it's very cold outside."
Realizing what she was insinuating I responded. "It is cold. Why don't we go back to my place. We can sit in front of the fire place?"
"That's a splendid idea. You're so clever. Why don't we do that?"
We reached the end of the line at Powell and Market streets and boarded the 'N' Judah street car heading toward Golden Gate park. Getting off at the Stanyon Street stop we walked through the streets lined with Victorian row houses for the several blocks to my home. I let us in the building and we climbed the two flights of stairs to my flat. I flipped on the light and exposed my living space.
"Oh, this is cozy," she said walking in, "What a cute little fireplace. You even have stacked firewood."
"I steal it from the park. They're always cutting down trees over there."
She went over and squatted down in front of the fireplace, putting in a piece of wood and crumpling up newspaper for kindling.
"This is wonderful. I love it," she said as she turned her head and looked up to me. She stopped what she was doing, looking past me, and stared at the wall. "Is that a picture of me on the wall?" she asked.
"It's the one we took at the prom."
"I remember it. I still have that dress somewhere," she covered her mouth with her hand and started laughing, "I bled all over that dress."
She was laughing loudly, "Are you going to let me take off my clothes this time?"
I smiled at her but didn't say anything. We started the fire and sat together on the sofa. She rested against me and I put my hands around her. I was not going to make love to her. The phrase 'making love' is a misleading euphemism implying some subtle indulgence, such as one would pursue after going to Sunday services, one eye toward pleasure, the other toward God. Instead, what was going to happen would not be subtle, or innocent, or for that matter civilized.
Clara adjusted herself, turning her body into me. I gently put my hand on her thigh, and slowly moved my finger tips up her leg.
"You're going too fast," she said.
I raised my hands up to her face and combed back her thick, black hair. Moving close to her, I recognized her mild, sweet scent as her breath gently caressed my face. She closed her eyes as I leaned toward her, letting my lips brush against hers. She came forward and we kissed each other. I gently bit her lip and tasted her lipstick. A smile came to her face as she embraced me.
I could feel the blood rushing through me. With the excitement was lost any pretension of apprehension. Moving my hands down, I placed them on her hips and felt her body. I let them slide up towards her arms, feeling the curvature of her body as they moved over her hips to her waist, and then up. Clara tugged at my shirt and untucked it, then touched my skin, moving the tips of her fingers slowly up and down my back. Our lips touched. The kiss became intense. Clara let her finger nails dig into my back. I gently slid over, allowing Clara, who had been resting against me, to lean backwards so that I could approach her from above.
"Please turn off the light," she requested.
I got up and flicked it off. She sat up and unzipped her dress as I came back to her. I sat down, putting my hands on her shoulders and slid the sleeves of her dress down. The dress came off her shoulders and dropped to her waist. She sat motionless, staring into my eyes. The light of the flames danced over her figure. Standing up in front of me, her dress fell to the ground. She unclasped the front of her bra and exposed her breasts before rejoining me on the sofa.
"Let's go to the bedroom," I said.
"No. Let's stay here. I like the fire," she said distantly.
I got up to retrieve a blanket from the bedroom. When I returned, I opened the blinds on the bay window and looked over the surrounding buildings to the distant trees of the park. The night had past and twilight now separated the coming clarity of day with the magic and mystery of night. I stood in front of the window, not caring that some chance, early morning passerby might witness my nakedness.
"Let's go home."
"It's been so long since I've been home."
I left home after high school, as soon as I got the chance. I not only left physically, but mentally and spiritually as well. I ran from the place I had known all my life. I didn't run to anything in particular, but ran to escape the blackness that had enveloped me after my brother's death.
My brother, Arturo, was a fighter, like our father before him. Standing better than six feet tall, he purposefully slouched his posture so that he looked like a coiled snake ready to spring forward. In hot weather he would take off his shirt, showing off the tattoos and "badges" that littered his body, exposing his brown skin to the sun. He wore black, baggy trousers which tended to slip below the waistband of his boxers when he walked. Moving with a mild, slow strut, he demonstrated an overly masculine disposition that commanded respect from those intimidated by the subtle, symbolic violence in his motions.
Violence was part of his character, manifest from his cultural sense of identity. As I grew up behind him, it started to become part of my identity as well, taking root in my psyche and forming my perception of the outside world. But this developing identity, unlike that of my brother, was a result of precepts not circumstance, example not necessity. Violence was a necessary evil my brother carried with him, but for me it was just a romanticized passage into manhood.
Arturo was nine years older than I and lived in a world far removed from my own. He had seen people get shot and killed. He had stabbed people and he himself had been stabbed. In my youth I had seen him in fights, watching the expression of violence alluded to in his presence. I remember the incidences, but I didn't know the man. The man I knew was a good man, a compassionate, gentle man who would dominate a room with his charity and social graces. he was a man who attracted women easily with his masculine good looks, and made them love him because of his humanity.
In a very real sense, my bother was my father, in function if not biology. Like our father before him he died a young, violent death. From that point onward, without his guidance, I failed to develop the temperance that restricts the use of violence. The complicated choreography of cultural interaction that defined the rules for Arturo were too far removed for me to comprehend in the abstract. Whereas circumstances and experience had dictated his violent displays, I saw only the aggression, blind to the circumstances which so often made it necessary.
With his death I sank into despair. Perpetually stoned and drunk, I stopped eating. I lay down for days sleeping or inactively awake, staring at the walls, trying to find a reason to lift myself out of bed. The room was filthy, the blankets smelled, I hadn't bathed in days. I ached from the inactivity, my muscles hurt, my head hurt and my spirits withered. In the overwhelming silence of my room, malnourished, intoxicated and wasted, I grew hateful and started hallucinating. It was in this state of mind that I finally crawled out of bed. I stood up to face the world quite desperately and violently insane.
Without provocation, my friends and I leveled onto our community a barrage of destruction and brutality that to this day I don't fully comprehend or acknowledge. For that time in my life I lived without limitation. I was beholden to no one, had no attachments, nothing to lose, believed in nothing, respected nobody and was willing to die for it all.
Only from this perspective can one fully understand the importance of Clara's intervention in my life. And only from this perspective can one understand the gravity of the crime I committed against her. As the priest spoke at Arturo's funeral, she took my hand, lifted me up, and took the trip with me.
But like a bandage on a broken body, I associated Clara with my wounds, not with the healing process to which she was so crucial. She represented to me my failures because she had helped me out of them. I reached out to her as does an infant reach out to suckle from its mother's breast, drawing nourishment and strength. But the infant, by any measure, is much weaker than his mother. Only when he is no longer dependant on his mother, by in fact renouncing her, throwing off the vestiges of childhood, can he grow truly strong. When I ran away from Arturo's death, I did so by abandoning Clara. I had left her and found myself.
Now a man, I prepared to face Clara, and the debt I owed her. It was time to repent for the necessary sins of youth. But sin is not a zero sum affair, an action causing an equal and opposite reaction. The harm done was greater than the sum of it's parts with my breaches of responsibility causing damage exponentially out of proportion to my intentions, fracturing the infrastructure of our relationship.
Lying next to Clara as she slept, my arms around her waist and my hands holding her womb, I felt the warmth of her body. I sensed that she had changed. Something had died within her. Her polished mannerisms and elegant style covered over a deep wound that was crippling her. She didn't have to say anything, I knew she still loved me and that she had always loved me. But love is an addiction, a suicidal tendency, and for the last five years Clara had been killing herself.
It was a beautiful day. A day where the winter sky opened up and blossomed with unseasonable sunshine. A day where Paolo would have shined if he were alive.
"I wish it would rain," said Ex, "Life is more depressing well lit."
Ex, August, Clara and I were immaculately dressed, clad in black. We burdened ourselves with the somber disposition appropriate to the occasion as we stood in Paolo's new home. The ceremony was brief and meaningless and, as it was being performed, I found myself wishing that I were more religious. When the event was over we all gathered together on the unnaturally green grass of the cemetery and exchanged anecdotes and stories. The conversation began innocuously enough as we discussed abstract ideas and simple truths, soothing our frayed souls, until Ex interjected a sobering but unwelcome thought.
"Word around town is that the shooting had something to do with drugs."
"What are you talking about?" I questioned.
"Paolo's death was drug related. The police blew through his crib yesterday. They found cocaine, my friend. A lot of it."
"That's what I heard," interjected August.
The thought was practically obscene, especially after just having attended the man's funeral. It seemed an attempt to allay the horror of the event by somehow blaming the victim. What was worse is that it was Ex and August doing the honors.
"That's ridiculous," I stated plainly.
"Think about it," said Ex, "He always had money. How the hell did he live? Did you ever see the guy work?"
"Did you ever see him sell drugs?" I retorted.
"Dude...that's just what I heard."
I knew that Paolo used them. Hell everybody did. It was part of the company he kept. He was a social junky. If he provided people with drugs it was just a social grace, like letting someone bum a cigarette. But the thought of him hitting the big time...
"It's slanderous," I stated.
Paolo was cool. I mean cool, like slick man. He knew people and people knew him. He was like a local legend, except that legends never die. If you hung with him, you went places and met people, cool people, beautiful people, and had a good time. He knew how to have a good time. He knew how to show a good time. We had good times. The good times were over now, and Ex and August were polluting the memory.
"Anyway," interjected Ex, "You're going back to Los Angeles?"
"Yeah, that's right," I said, "Haven't been back for awhile."
"How long will you be gone?" asked August.
"I don't know. I took a month off from work. I hope I have a job when I get back."
"We really didn't plan this out," Clara stated.
"Spur of the moment," I said.
"I'm thinking of getting out of here myself," said August.
"I'll be around," stated Ex, "Let me know when you're coming back. Drop a dime. We'll get together and have a few drinks."
We said our 'good-byes' and Clara and I left the two of them. As we walked back to the car we toured the funeral grounds, reading the headstones and grave plaques. We each pointed out headstones that seemed interesting, with strange names, particularly old graves or graves containing people whose lives ended in some interesting year.
Clara found a grave that contained the remains of two children, a girl, five, and a boy, three, who both died in December of 1899. She sat down against the headstone and looked up to the sky before turning to me.
"How do you think they died?" she questioned.
"I don't know, accident or disease or something."
"Molly Teresa and Jonathan Anthony Wilson. Those are pretty names, don't you think so?" she paused, "They just missed the twentieth century. What did they miss? The Great War, The Charleston, bathtub gin, the Depression. It's sad, don't you think so?"
"You missed all those things too."
"Do you ever think about it Greg, think about death and dying, nothingness? What's it like I wonder? Maybe you and I will go together. Maybe we'll stall on some train tracks and get hit by a train. Maybe they'll put us together, bury us in the same grave. That would be romantic, don't you think?"
"That's a lot of 'maybees.' I wouldn't think about it if I were you. I don't think about it."
"Not even in the dead of night, when you're suffocated by the darkness? Don't your thoughts twist? Don't they wander to strange places until you don't know what's real anymore? I do. I have such terrible thoughts sometimes, such terrible dreams."
"Dreams about what?"
"I don't know. Dreams never make any sense. They're like deja vu, it's so real until the feeling passes." She paused, then looked at me inquisitively. "Why don't you think about it? Are you afraid to die?"
"If you think about it, realize it's inevitable, natural, you shouldn't fear it. You won't care once your life is spent."
"You don't understand. I'm not speaking of death. I'm talking about dying. I've seen dying. It's terrible, Clara. It's like a horrid dream...a nightmare that won't go away."
"Not everybody dies violently. Sometimes people are dying and you wouldn't know it even if they were right in front of you."
"Is it better that way?"
"No. It's worse. Much worse. Nobody shares your burden because they don't see it, and so you walk alone."
The concrete jungle that makes up the City of Los Angeles lacks any of the aesthetic charms of the Bay area. Much of the city is vulgar and ugly. Unlike San Francisco, Los Angeles is not confined to the tip of a peninsula and thus, when it formed, it sprawled out in every direction, cementing over everything too slow to move out of the way. Yet, Los Angeles has an appeal quite its own. Whereas San Francisco is burdened with a romantic vision of its own history, Los Angeles constantly destroys its past, or is at least ignorant of it. It is continuously reinventing itself, facilitating a vitality you don't find in the Bay area.
Driving into the city, I was overwhelmed with the contrast between San Francisco and Los Angeles, a place I hadn't seen in five years. The long drive was tiring. We left the Bay area mid-morning and arrived in southern California in the evening. Tired and hungry, we stopped at our old early morning hang-out, The Pantry, a little restaurant peculiar to the city where we had shared so many of our intimate thoughts in the past.
Located at the corner of 9th Street and Figueroa in downtown, the restaurant exudes an atmosphere which alludes to an earlier time. Having waited in line, and once seated, we were served by an all male staff of waiters uniformed in white shirts, black trousers, each being wrapped in an apron and topped off with a bow tie. The dimly lit establishment had, as I knew it, catered to a predominantly working class crowd coming from the surrounding communities. But the clientele had changed within the last several years as the skyscrapers approached and began surrounding the place. In my absence, the patronage has shifted decidedly upscale, lured by the charm of the municipal landmark with its long history and nostalgic air.
Sitting in the place we traded memories. Clara filled me in on some of the more mundane happenings that took place during my absence, appearing to glide over anything that directly related to her own experiences.
With her hair tangled atop her head, held together with two chop-sticks stuck through it, and wearing a grossly oversized shirt, she carried herself with a purposefully common air, elegantly demonstrating a simplicity of form unnatural to her.
"Welcome home," she said.
"Is it? I don't know if it is home anymore."
"Did you miss it while away?"
"Sometimes. Sometimes it felt so distant and unattainable. Can you imagine that?"
"I think so," said Clara. She let her head tilt forward and slowly looked down to the table. Her face took on an air of sadness.
"What is it?" I questioned.
A moment passed before she looked up at me. "Can I ask you something Greg?" She paused.
"You know you can."
She looked at me with flavor of resolve, "Greg...You never called after you left."
Her statement was unexpected. I immediately became self conscious. I broke off eye contact, finding it difficult to look at her. When I first saw her at Slim's, I expected a confrontation about our past, and my conduct towards her. However, as time passed without any mention regarding the conclusion of our relationship, I comforted myself with the thought that I had been silently forgiven.
"Why?" she asked, "You owe me an answer," she said coldly, "You didn't even give me your address."
"I asked myself the same question when we stumbled into each other in the club. I thought about you. I thought about you all the time."
"Isn't it pretty to think so?" she said with an edge to her voice, "But I don't believe it. Even if I did, it's not good enough. You owe me an explanation."
"I don't have one. I'm sorry."
"I mean...I understand why you left, but I don't know why you abandoned me."
"I didn't abandon you Clara. I abandoned me. Look at me. Who am I? I'm not the kid I was five years ago. I was so weak. You remember me. Don't you? I don't think I could have gotten out of bed in the morning without your help. How could you have respected for me? I couldn't respect myself."
"I loved you," she said. She paused, then turned away from me.
My answer ended her inquiry for the time being. But with her question, and my inadequate answer, I knew that the subject would come up again sometime in the future. I also realized, from past experience, that every word I spoke would be mentally recorded by her, to be used as reference in future discussions and arguments. I remained silent, waiting for her to decide the direction of our conversation.
"I missed you," she said softly, "When you left it hurt so bad. I cried so often...it became passÈ. Then I had that fight with my parents and I sank even further."
"What was the fight about?"
"Why did you take off like you did? What was that about?"
"What do you think it was about? It was about you silly."
"About me? I didn't think they knew about me."
"Let's just say that they found out."
A silent moment passed before I spoke, "Remember Arturo's funeral?"
"Remember what I said?"
"Greg don't," she said coldly.
"Do you remember?"
She looked away from me, contemplating the past, "I remember," she said softly.
"I loved you so much Clara."
"Please Greg. Please stop. You're going to make me cry. I'll embarrass myself in front of all these people."
"Do you still love me Clara?"
"Stop it," she demanded firmly. We settled into an uneasy silence. I had pressed her as far as I dared. I needed an answer but she refused to give me one. I wanted to know her feelings about me, one way or the other. If she wanted me, I could start investing in our relationship again. If she didn't, I would set out to win her affections. The situation was frustrating. I had no control of my future. I had nothing to base my decisions on. It was like being young and having a girlfriend who asks you to hold off and wait for her until she is ready for sex. When will she be ready? Tomorrow? Never? The ambiguity resulting from such a situation means that she takes control. If she were to sleep with you, or reject you flat out, you could react appropriately. But the possibility of satisfaction sometime in the future, but at sometime only known to her, means that she passively acquires all power regarding that aspect of the relationship.
It was this feeling of weakness that I had to overcome. In the past, when I could not control my environment, I would simply change environments. But I had no intentions of doing that now. I wanted her. To run from her would have been suicide. I knew that I could only sit back and wait.
We left the restaurant and headed for an apartment belonging to a friend of Clara's with whom she was temporarily living and where we planned to stay for our visit. The night was warm and humid, so we rolled down the windows of the car as we drove away from downtown toward East Los Angeles. The warm air felt good as it rushed into the car, bathing us and cleansing our spirits. We drove down 7th street, bordered on both sides by old warehouses and broken down manufacturing plants belonging to better times. The area through which 7th street runs, East of downtown, is home to many of the city's homeless, making up a subculture of disparity. The population is a composition of Latinos, many of whom are recent immigrants coming from all over Latin America, and of blacks. The mostly male bastion hosts a population of prostitutes, women and transgendered people who sell themselves to passing traffic out of sin ridden bars and dilapidated hotels.
Somewhere in the heart of this enclave of poverty and depravity, between downtown and East Los Angeles, exists a community of artists where Clara and her friend lived. The apartment was really a third story loft in a converted old warehouse. The place was permeated with the smell of acrylic paint and marijuana. From each end of the room the outside world crashed in through huge windows that nearly filled the walls. Exposed beams held up the vaulted ceiling from which the light drizzled down, interrupted by several large canvasses scattered about, each decorated by various painted images in different states of completion. The canvasses must have measured six feet high and were a couple of feet wider. The voids left by the deflected light were filled with shadows of creepy darkness.
At the opposite end of the room I could see the flickering blue light of a silent, unattended television. I was filled with a sense of anxiety, almost horror, as we entered the place, like we would find a dead body in there. The atmosphere inside suggested a disjointed reality, a kind of Through The Looking Glass irrationality.
Clara took a few steps in and called out into the apparently uninhabited space, "Ana? Ana?...Analiza?" A moment passed when a small black kitten scampered across the floor. Clara called out again.
In the far corner, hidden by the darkness, someone rustled about, roused by Clara's calls. We both stepped in further. Clara called out again, "Ana? Are you awake?"
A drowsy voice responded, "Um, yeah...yeah...I'm awake. Clara?"
"Yes, it's me. I told you I was coming back. Me and Greg. I told you we were coming."
A curvaceous figure, silhouetted against the window, stood up. Although unable to make out her features in the poor light, I could tell that the woman was undressed.
"I told you I was coming," repeated Clara confidently, taking a few more steps in.
"I must have forgotten. Don't let him in here. Let me put something on."
The woman wrapped herself in a sheet and turned on another set of lights, brightening the room considerably.
"I'm pissed Claire," said Ana.
"I know. I'm sorry."
"I was worried. You should let me know before you take off and disappear. I called the police six times trying to find out what happened to you."
"I'm so sorry. Everything happened too fast. The trip was really unexpected."
"You left in the dead of night. A lot of people were really worried about you."
"My God. It was an innocent excursion."
Ana turned her attention to me, peering accusingly as if filled with hatred, then invited me in and motioned for me to sit. She picked up a glass that had been sitting out, filled with what looked like brandy, and took a sip.
"Have your friend sit down Claire. Have a drink."
Clara and I moved closer toward Ana. I sat down on the edge of a large futon.
"Do you mind if I shower?" requested Clara.
"When have I ever minded?" responded Ana.
"I feel disgusting after the long trip. Entertain Greg, will you?"
I felt alienated, separate from the situation, as if I were just an observer to the happenings around me, an unwelcome observer at that. Clara sat on the edge of the bed and stripped to her underwear before making her way into the bathroom. She shut the door, and I was left with Ana, who obviously, for whatever reason, didn't care for me.
Ana was a tallish woman and rather plain except for her bright red hair and green eyes. But she was attractive just the same. Her composure and mannerisms connoted a sense of self assuredness that bordered on self righteousness and arrogance. Her vanity drew me toward her. Her speech was filled with melodramatic inflections that seemed to emphasize her every word. Exposed from beneath the sheet I could make out a tattoo on her breast and another on the calf of her leg.
"Greg?" she questioned, "From Berkeley?"
"I've heard of you. I've heard quite a bit. Do you drink?"
Clara turned on the shower as I answered, "I'll have one."
Ana reached over awkwardly, trying to remain wrapped in her sheet, and poured me a shot of brandy. I went over to take it from her. As I approached her I nearly stepped on a pile of paper scattered on the floor next to the bed. The collection of paper was filled with editing marks and comments. Ana saw that I noticed the pages and spoke, "This book was once a can of white paint. Do you believe that?"
"You speak in riddles."
"Verse," she responded contemptuously.
"My apologies," I said falsely.
We downed our drinks and she poured us another. A couple minutes of uneasy silence passed before she spoke again.
"Do you want to know what I've heard?"
I waited a moment, trying to gain some bearing as to what she was asking, "About me you mean?"
She looked away from me and was silent, as if contemplating my question before continuing without looking at me, "I've heard a woman's heart shatter," she turned back and faced me, "Know what it's like to watch a person fall, watch her disintegrate, cry forever? I don't expect you would. I think you're a bastard and whatever you did to ingratiate yourself back into her sympathies...I don't know."
I swallowed my drink. The brandy went down hard.
"She lost a lot because of you," she continued.
"I've already heard," I said defensively.
"She lost more than you think," she interrupted peremptorily, without elaborating, "But she's a tough broad and I respect her." Ana finished her drink and poured herself another before continuing. The tone of her voice softened, "To tell the truth, I envy you. You've seen a part of her that I never have. We were lovers once. Does that shock you? We were never intimate like lovers though."
"The truth is," I said, hardening myself, "You don't know anything about me. You don't know, you don't care, and you never will."
"Maybe," she said, "You think I should judge you by your stride, rather than your stumble. But fuck it, I haven't seen you walk yet." She looked down to her drink, as if contemplating whether or not to take another sip. She was still for a long time. "I'm sorry about your friend," she said.
"Clara told you?"
"I'm sorry too."
"She's worried about you. I just don't want to see her hurt. She's been hurt enough. I don't want you dragging her into your problems. She has her own problems."
The sleepiness was wearing off of her and she seemed to come alive. I looked away from her, not from any sense of apprehension, but because the place was filled with colors and structures that captured one's imagination. The walls were splattered with paint and hanging on them were pieces of original art work and mounted prints. Scattered about the room, with no particular logic, were pieces of glazed pottery and clay sculptures. The room was artsy without being pretentious.
"You paint?" I questioned passingly.
"Sometimes. But they're not mine. The paintings I mean. They belong to the guy that owns this place. I just live here as a kept woman."
"I don't understand why people paint. I never developed a passion for it, never developed an 'art for art's sake' attitude."
"Fuck 'art for art's sake.' Art for people's sake! Art has no intrinsic value. It's all sensory stimulation like music and poetry, or television for that matter. It plays with the emotions, or it doesn't, that's the difference between good art and bad art."
She seemed to lighten up as we strayed away from the subject of Clara. Several minutes into our conversation, the door of the bathroom opened and Clara came out with towels wrapped around her body and hair. She looked over at me and Ana who, by this time were sitting close together, getting drunk.
"Keep your distance Greg, Ana loves men. She devours lots of them."
"She apparently loves women too," I responded.
"Analiza?" questioned Clara with a tone of unwelcome surprise, "You didn't say anything, did you?"
Ana raised her glass into the air and responded, "I like to drink and fuck. I don't care who knows it." She erupted into laughter.
Clara came over to the bed and poured herself a drink. We sat around, drinking and talking as the night waned. It was obvious by the conversation that the two of them were close. I could imagine them as lovers. I romanticized the thought, then sexualized it, before it passed out of my mind. I watched them interact, easily, naturally, without the baggage of pretense. Ana seemed to accept me, bastard that I was, and she spoke freely, sometimes dramatically about her world, into which I was privileged to be invited. When the night was at its darkest, she turned off the main overhead lights and the place sank back into the dimness that greeted Clara's and my entrance. She wrestled around for a few moments, retrieving a bag and introduced us to "Ms. Mary Jane Green Leaf," her herbal friend. We burned Mary and drifted into altered states of perception. The night turned hazy, the colors from the paintings and the walls whirled around, moving effortlessly. The most trivial of comments took on philosophical meaning as our conversation started to loose its structure.
"Time is like math," Ana said, "It's definitional. No. No. Really. There is no such thing as time, its just an abstract idea. Think about it. If we redefine time, we'll never grow old, never die. Let's live forever."
The next day we awoke late. At Ana's suggestion we decided to venture down to the beach and throw ourselves onto the sand in the unseasonably hot weather. Clara, Ana, Ana's friend Bo, and I squeezed into Ana's Fiat Spider. We drove down Mulholland Drive, taking the long, scenic route to the ocean. Clara and I sat in the tiny back seats, which were too small to sit in properly, so we tangled our legs together and sweated in the oppressive heat of the Los Angeles basin to which I, especially, was not acclimated. We were going to make a day of it and brought with us three bottles of red wine, two loaves of good French bread and a basket of delicacies.
Ana drove with a reckless disregard for the safety of herself or her passengers, or for that matter, any other poor soul who happened to occupy the road. But as we left the Los Angeles basin, making our way into the Santa Monica mountains toward Malibu, she seemed to lighten up and slow down and we collectively admired the natural scenery bordering the road. This was not the most direct route to the ocean, but it was the best route and I had suggested it out of romantic sentiment.
We drove to the end of Mulholland Drive, above Malibu, and headed north on Pacific Coast Highway. Driving up the coast, our intention was to find a vacant beach someplace where we could lie out and excuse ourselves from the company of the faceless urban masses. To that extent we were successful, finding a secluded sight, twenty-five minutes up the coast, located at the bottom of a rather treacherous cliff which took a good deal of skill to navigate down. The beach was locked in by cliffs which extended quite far into the ocean, making a lagoon-like body of water that was semi-protected from the surf by rocks.
Being the first one to make it down to the beach, I took off my shoes and let the sand wash over and between my toes. The sand was very fine, but damn hot and I nearly dropped the basket of food we had brought. Bo came down next, then Ana and Clara last. Once we were all together we made our way to the end of the short beach and spread out our blanket near the water, and put up the beach umbrella we had brought. Bo and I both stripped down to our bathing trunks and Clara and Ana took off their summer dresses, showing off the bikinis they were wearing underneath. Clara then took off her top, exposing her breasts and then put on a wide brimmed hat, with a blue ribbon around it, and walked toward the water. Ana then took off her top, then Bo took off his trunks. I was the only one in the group, I'm sure, to feel awkward about the displays of nature which seemed to take on sudden popularity with my companions.
Ana and Bo sat down on the blanket cross legged and opened a bottle of wine, pouring themselves a glass. I looked over at Clara standing ankle deep in the water with her naked back toward me. I walked up behind her, feeling the cool, wet sand beneath my feet, and put my arms around her. Resting my head on her shoulder, I looked out onto the blue water toward the rocks. She turned toward me and kissed me.
"Let's have a drink," she said.
She took my hand and we made our way back to the blanket and sat down. We poured ourselves a glass of wine.
"Something interesting happen to me the other day," said Ana.
"What was that?" Bo said half-heartedly.
I looked over at him. Tall and blond with a Roman nose and distinctive brown eyes, he was awkward but amusing. His voice was low and it was accentuated by a slight rasp that made him hypnotic to listen to. He took a sip from his glass as Ana continued.
"I read a friend's manuscript recently. Claire, you know him, Emory? I wouldn't call him a friend, really, an acquaintance I guess. Anyway, it was a terrible bore."
A period of silence followed her statement as if she had stopped in the middle of an incomplete thought. Several seconds past before Bo interjected, "I'm missing the point?"
"That's it. His writing was a bore. How is that interesting?" Bo questioned.
"Just that I'm a better writer. I relished his literary weakness. Every poorly composed thought was wickedly refreshing," she stated melodramatically.
"Don't be too charitable," I interjected sarcastically.
"Charity?" Ana responded whimsically, smiling at me, "That's why there's no real criticism in this world."
"You're a critic?"
"Yes. A social commentator. Aren't we all? I just do it honestly. Anyway, he doesn't need my charity. He managed to publish the damn thing. It gives me hope."
"How's your writing coming?" questioned Bo.
"I've been done for a while now. I'm just putting the finishing touches on the editing."
"Clara commented that your work is kind of a sordid, erotic, autobiographical story," said Bo.
"It's all about sex. I guess its sordid and erotic. But its well written and structurally sound. I mean it's not pornographic, contrary to my poorly scripted life. So it's not autobiographical. When I'm done you can read it."
"I would like to."
"It's about this girl Ana..." she started when Bo interupted her.
"Ana? You named the protagonist after yourself? That's not autobiographical?"
"I've named all the characters with names of people I know. It's my new theory of writing. I call it Literary Nominatim Attribution, or By Name Attribution. All the characters are people I know. So after I've structured my story, I can begin writing without having to create characters. Character development becomes an adaptation of my borrowed personalities into the plot line. That is so say, I just attribute the characteristics of people I know into my characters, and therefore into my story. The story is the art of the work. The characters are tools for developing the art, but are not art themselves, like paint brushes. After I'm done, I change all the names into fictional names."
"So basically your stealing people's identities for your work," retorted Bo.
"Wrong. Just using my perceptions of their personalities is not stealing. I use my perception of how I think they would behave in a scenario that they will never experience, because I've created it. That's not stealing an identity. Anyway, don't worry about it. You don't have to read it. I don't think you'll get a thrill out of it. I'm sure Greg here is better situated to appreciate it, being more conventionally slanted than you."
"You're a Republican, Greg?" Bo asked facesciously.
"He sticks it to girls instead of boys," answered Ana.
"This conversation has taken a downward turn," I said.
"It's just starting to get good," interjected Clara.
"I don't mind doing it to girls," interjected Bo, "They're just too selfish to give as good as they get. Anyway, you never know what you will find in there."
"Whatever," said Clara.
"My old man used to tell me that when he was in Vietnam, he once saw a bar dancer put a snake into her thing. It just slithered on in. Can you imagine that? Kind of a primitive vibrator," said Bo.
"It sounds Biblical," said Clara.
"Your father fought over there?" I questioned.
"No. He was over there but he never saw action and he didn't fight," responded Bo.
"Mine did. He didn't make it out to tell any stories though."
The conversation stopped with a sudden pause that built up to an awkward silence. I became conscious that my tone conveyed my anger. The silence continued until Bo interjected, "That's too bad."
I was disappointed to see that my comment seemed to damp the spirit of the conversation. We sat around for a few moments silently drinking before Bo challenged me to swim out to the rocks sitting idly at the edge of our little lagoon.
"The water must be twenty degrees," said Clara.
"You're not put off by a little ice water, are you Greg?" Bo said theatrically.
"What about sharks?" retorted Clara.
I accepted his challenge, though put off by the prospect of swimming in frigid water and unassured by Clara's mention of sharks. Bo jumped up in his naked state and sprinted to the water. I got up and ran after him. Taking a few steps into the water, Bo dove in and started swimming. Before I did the same, I looked back to see Clara and Ana, who were running after us. I dove into the water and started to swim hard. The water was terribly cold.
Bo had a head start and he was a stronger swimmer than I. I was losing ground, so to speak, as we competed. The rock must have been thirty or so meters from the shore, but it felt like a much greater distance as I began to weaken from the exertion, finally touching it before turning back. Nearly back to the shore, I could hear Clara and Ana yelling, "Shark! Shark!"
I swam hard, exhausting myself until I could stagger onto the beach where Clara and Ana were bouncing up and down with excitement.
"Did we scare you?" laughed Clara, "That was exciting."
Bo and I sat down on the beach at the edge of the water. He reached over and grabbed me by the shoulder and shook me a couple of times, "That was outstanding. You would have won if I hadn't cheated."
"You're insane," I said, wishing he would remove his hand from my shoulder, but not wanting to appear unkind, "I'm lucky I didn't drown."
Clara came behind and straddled me, putting her arms around my body and pulled herself tightly against my back. Ana waded into the water and started swimming about.
"The water is great," she yelled dishonestly, "Come on in."
"Come on Greg," said Clara, "Let's go."
"You're out of your mind," I responded, "The water is plenty cold."
"Oh, come on. Live a little."
"Take off your bikini bottom and I'll go in."
"Oh, you're a lech. You take off your trunks and I'll take off my bikini. And then you have to go in."
"Okay," I said.
We stripped and left our modesty on the beach next to Clara's hat and went into the water. Bo followed us in and we waded out, then treaded water to the center of the lagoon and clustered together. Clara dunked her head under water and her bobbed hair flattened. She opened her eyes with a look of surprise. Her skin glowed with a copper blush, shining from the wetness. We chatted awhile until the novelty of the water wore off and the cold started to overwhelm us.
"Now that I'm out here I could use a drink," said Ana.
"Me too," agreed Clara.
"You know," I said, "I'm beginning to think that we're a bunch of alcoholics."
"Oh well," said Clara.
"I don't think it's too cool to be a drunk these days," I said.
"Screw the Victorian morals," said Ana, "You can't drink, you can't smoke, you can't eat anything anymore without feeling guilty. Everybody wants to live forever. We're lucky they don't outlaw sex. Before you know it these fuckers are going to be burning books and tattooing numbers onto our arms."
I dunked my head underwater and flipped over to swim to the sandy ocean floor. When I reached the bottom I opened my eyes and looked around at the blurry scenery. I looked up and could make out my companions who appeared as shimmering dark blots against the lighted surface. Pushing off from the sandy bottom, I swam back up.
"How deep is it?" questioned Bo.
"Maybe nine or ten feet."
My eyes started to sting from the salt water.
"Should we go have a drink?" I questioned.
We swam back to the shore and dried off. Clara and I proned our naked selves on the beach, each with a glass of wine. Bo and Ana sat on the blanket under the umbrella.
"I propose a toast," said Bo.
"Hear, hear," replied Clara.
"These are the best of times," Bo started.
"These are the worst of times," Clara interuped.
Bo continued, "Young and beautiful and free, let's mellow like this wine, not looking back on today nostalgically as the fruition of our essence with only decay in our futures. When our bodies have spoiled and our minds have slowed, when our hearts beat their last rhythm, let's look back and know that every moment, from cradle to grave, was well spent, and in good company."
"It's a pleasant thought," I said.
We finished our drinks and had another round.
"I have a friend in Venice," said Bo, "You guys interested in heading over there? I don't feel like going home."
"I'm in," said Ana, "Any objections?"
"Sounds good," agreed Clara.
We stayed on the beach and ate and drank and sun-bathed until the sun waned and the oppressive heat was replaced by a dull chill that came in from the ocean. With the fading day we picked up our things and struggled up the cliff to the car and all felt sad that our moment of paradise was fleeting. At the top of the cliff I looked over our beach and knew that it had been a magical day and the feeling in my heart was content and sad and I knew that, it fact, these were the best of times.
We brushed the sand off ourselves and each other before squeezing into the car. Clara and I tangled up together in the back seat and I held her, smelling the salty ocean in her hair and loved her. God I loved her. With the sun disappearing, we drove south down Pacific Coast Highway on the edge of the world, America to our left, and the Pacific Ocean to our right. The darkened sky blackened the ocean, which looked lonely and ominous, like it was an inexplicable void and something to be feared - paradise lost.
We drove through Malibu and into Santa Monica and then to Venice Beach where we stopped in to see Bo's friend, Mick, who greeted us warmly. He invited us in and then invited us out, taking us to dinner at a restaurant overlooking the beach, with sidewalk tables. In the distance, we could hear the surf crashing. The clientele were elegant, the women beautiful, the men pretty and the food good. Warding off the crisp evening air were outdoor space heaters that dulled my mood and relaxed us all. Everyone in our little group, with the exception of Mick, was tattered from our day in the sun and we spread out easily around our table and sipped coffee and shared our thoughts, sprinkled with giddy sexual innuendo and other vulgarities, until our thoughts deepened and became reflective.
"It's almost Christmas," declared Clara, "Can you believe it?"
"What's today? The twenty-first?" questioned Bo.
"Three days until the big day," answered Mick.
"So what are you all getting me this year?" I questioned sarcastically.
"A leash," responded Clara.
"It doesn't feel like Christmas, does it?" I questioned, "We should go out a buy a tree."
"We should go out and build a tree," stated Ana, "with sticks and twigs and glue and paper and paint and nails. Oh, and pine scented air freshener."
"It doesn't feel like Christmas," confirmed Clara, "I hate Christmas. Every year I have the same clichÈ holiday season blues. I've always hated Christmas, and I hate it this year more than ever."
"Don't hate it," I said, "For me, don't hate it. Let's have a good one this year."
"Okay. But only because you asked so nicely."
"You're sweet like chocolate syrup poured over strawberries that were dipped in powdered sugar."
"Too sweet," interjected Ana.
"We'll have a splendid Christmas," said Clara, "All we need is someplace to spend it, and someone to spend in with."
"You don't have family here?" questioned Mick, who I could tell was attracted to Clara and was taking an increasing interest in her.
"No," I said, "Unfortunately, a plague has visited both our houses."
"My family is all dead and Clara is a fugitive from her's."
"Well, you're welcome to spend it with me. I'm just going to have some friends over. It's kinda informal. It should be scandalous. You're coming, right Bo?"
"I'll be there."
It was a good end to a fine day and reality seemed a distant evil to be ignored and forgotten. For all intents and purposes, it was.
The sun blazed hot into the loft, waking me in the late morning. I felt terrible, having suffered through another sleepless night. I was still tired. Looking around the place I found it empty. Clara and Ana had gotten up and left without disturbing me. I turned over and tried to go back to sleep. I stayed motionless for a few moments as my thoughts wandered, until boredom prompted me to rise out of bed.
I got out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom and turned on the faucet. I splashed water onto my face and looked into the mirror, studying my exhausted, sun-baked features. I then climbed into the shower and let the cool water run down my body. With no enthusiasm I got dressed before proceeding to the little dining area, looking for something to eat. On the table I found an elegantly handwritten note:
Ana and I took your car to move the rest of my things. Don't be mad. I didn't think you wanted to go so don't be mad at me.
Clara (dipped in chocolate)
Picking up the note, it seemed to me more important than it's message. I decided to keep it, for whatever reason I don't know why. I put it into my pocket before going over to the windowed side of the building overlooking the alley where I had left my car. I found that the car wasn't there, not that I had expected it would be.
Left to my own devises I became restless and bored. In a fit of nostalgia, I decided it would be fun to look around the city. I telephoned for a cab, an expensive luxury in Los Angeles. When it arrived I ambled down the stairs and got in, pointing the driver in the direction of Northeast Los Angeles. We drove through Chinatown on Figueroa until it ended in the 110 freeway, at which point the driver headed onto the freeway towards Pasadena. We passed under Elysian Park through the four tunnels separating the downtown basin of the city from it's northeast corner, and arrived at a place that lives in my mind, sculpted from embellished memories and nostalgic imagination. This was the Los Angeles I knew, the hot, balmy, mean streets of Highland Park, with its Latin flavor so very familiar to me.
I had the driver leave me off at the corner of Avenue 50 and Figueroa. Having dismissed the driver, I started to aimlessly wander the streets. Onto this canvas my early life had been painted. I entered my own home, a spectator, looking for the familiarities, but finding the changes, each one an unwelcome intrusion. Every street I walked down was distinctive from the next. I recognized the neighborhood not only as streets and places, but as experiences. The brown faces that looked back at me accepted me as one of their own, and I knew them as my people.
I walked up Avenue 50 and turned right onto Monte Vista, walking a few blocks to Avenue 54 and turned left, walking a couple of blocks until I could see the familiar foot bridge crossing over the road. The word "Panthers" was painted across it, indicating my return to Franklin High School. The bridge spanned the street, leading from the gymnasium and athletic field of the west side, to the class rooms on the other side of the street.
The school was an ugly place that blackened the neighborhood with its obtrusive stature. The main building of the campus was an unpainted four story concrete structure that looked more like a prison than a school, dominating the skyline of residential homes that surrounded it. The very sight of the school saddened me, the feeling of depression was overwhelming. Being that it was Christmas vacation, the school was closed. The empty school and it's accompanying silence was disturbing. It seemed so very cold.
It was five long years ago that I had escaped this place. The passage of time did not make my return the nostalgic homecoming I had envisioned. Blurred memories crept into my head, slowly becoming clear visions. My thoughts began to wander, slipping from the present tense, to faded memories tattered from neglect. My hopeful return became a nightmarish descent to truth as the images from the past cleared and my thoughts spiraled out of control. A flood of unwelcome recollections, suppressed for so long, came rushing back, revealing to me, with terrible clarity, the excesses of the past. I recalled the recklessness, the instability and the insanity of my stay at Franklin high school. One frame after another popped into my mind, small extracts of past events. There was no structure to the recollections, just jumbled images. But none of the images were happy, bright or sentimental.
I crossed the street and I peered through the chain link fence, over the athletic field, to the bleachers. I struggled up and over the fence and made my way towards the place where Clara and I used to sit and talk. How many times had I sat in this very place, retreating here to put up a last stand, and always with Clara. She would sit next to me and spill her heart and I would watch her as she expressed herself, as might a silent film actress, with her dramatic eyes. It was her eyes that were, and are, her most striking feature. Through her eyes she expressed her emotions so profoundly that she often defined the context of our interactions, making all other influences and circumstances unimportant. She could make herself wickedly sexual with heavy eye lids and a distant seductive gaze, brilliantly show shock and surprise without moralizing, and subtly relay anger without losing control. Everything about her was stunning, yet it was her eyes that transcended her appearance and defined her, communicating her essence.
I realized that I had Clara's note. I reached into my pocket, pulled it out and reread it. She had signed it "Love, Clara." I focused in on the word love. Not since I had left her five years ago had she said she loved me. And yet, I needed her to love me. I don't know why. I clung to the note as if it was a signed contract, a legal document binding her to me.
I reread the note. My mind slowed. I relaxed and was overcome with exhaustion. I lay down on the bleachers. Within a few moments I drifted off to sleep. It was a light sleep and I could subconsciously hear the sounds of the neighborhood, passing cars and distant voices. I napped for a long time, eventually waking to a dulled sky. I felt terribly alone.
I wanted to return to Ana's place, but I knew that they wouldn't be home yet. Not wanting to be alone, I searched my mind for a place to be around people. I realized that my friend Hector used to live within walking distance from the school. I set off to see if he was still living in the neighborhood. It was a little bit of a distance to his house, taking me about fifteen minutes to walk to his place. When I arrived, I went up to the front door of the stucco house, with its barred windows, and knocked on the steel screen. A few moments passed before the door was opened by Hector's sister, Laurena, her hair tangled into a wretched bun atop her head. She was fifteen years old when I saw her last and now she was grown up, having aged quickly beyond her years. Her face took on a look of shock at the sight of me and there was a short period of silence before she spoke.
"Greg?" she paused a moment, "Come it. Come in. Hector is here. Come in, let me go get him."
I entered and Laurena rushed off, yelling out Hector's name. I recognized Hector's mother at the other end of the immaculately clean living room, sitting at a table. Having forgotten her name, I just smiled at her. She glared over at me with a disapproving look.
"Making trouble, Gregorio?" she questioned.
"No...not much of a trouble maker lately."
"Is that right?" she sneered. She picked herself up and walked out of the room. Just within ear shot I could hear her speaking to Laurena. "I don't want him in my house."
"Shhhh..." replied Laurena, "He's going to hear you."
"Good. I hope so," she raised her voice. "I don't want him in my house. How many people did he hurt? Look at the trouble he did to Hector."
A few moments passed before Hector came in, wearing coveralls. He looked over at me with a surprised, sarcastic grin.
"Damn, where have you been?" he said, "Come on back. I'm working on my car. Can I offer you a beer?"
Hector been the closest thing I had to a best friend five years ago. To stupid to care, we led violent lives, each helping the other to self destruct as we crashed into other people's lives, strangers and acquaintances, and tore them apart. Hector, short and brown skinned with a wide grin had been convicted of stabbing a man at a party and was sentenced to time in prison. The last I knew of him, he had been in prison for a little over a year before being released and apparently coming back to Highland Park.
I followed Hector to the back of the house. Beer in hand we walked to a makeshift car port where Hector had the hood of his car up and tools scattered about.
"Damn. It's been a long time," he said.
"It's been a long time."
"You know I tried to reach you last year, tried to get you down for David's funeral. No one knew where the hell you were. Even that Chinese girl, what's her name? Clara? She didn't even know. I thought you were dead."
"Funeral? What happened?"
"You know him. He was always drunk. He rolled his car. I saw the car after the accident. It was pretty bad."
"Christ. I can't believe it."
"A lotta shit's been going down since you been gone. Everybody's got kids and married, moved off, dead. Highland Park casualties, you know. But, I'm still here. Same as I ever was."
"Fuck, he's dead. I can't believe it."
"Where've you been?" he asked.
"You know, going to school."
"It's been a long time since you've been back."
"I got nobody down here anymore."
He paused a moment and looked me over, "You look sharp. That school put some brains in you. You were always smart in school, just crazy. Stupid-crazy."
"What'ya been doing?" I asked, trying o change the subject.
"I'm middle aged now. Got a job and a lady, you remember Regina. When I got work, you know, it's go to work, come home, go to work, come home. Fucking construction man, always working with the times. Feast or famine. Times are good, it's good. Times are bad, it's bad. Fucking times, they're not too good right now. I just stay at home and harass Regina and my mother."
"Fuck, I can't believe David's dead. I just buried a friend up north. Everybody around me is dying."
"You want to live forever?"
I sat back with my beer and settled in as we talked about the past and laughed at ourselves getting old. He hadn't changed. I kind of envied the fact that he was still the same as I remembered him. He was hard. Yet, he had grown up, unlike so many other people I knew who where incapable of adulthood, destroyed by the inevitability of time.
As we talked I began to wonder whether his destiny was supposed to be mine as well. I felt at home in his environment. I felt at ease. Was this my environment? Did I still belong here?
After about an hour I realized that the day was withering away. I invited myself to leave. Hector asked if I needed a ride. I declined. He put up his hand and I grabbed it. He reached over and embraced me as if I were never coming back.
I left the house and made my way back toward the school with no destination in mind. My mind cleared and I realized that I should get back to Ana's. I searched for a telephone. Recalling that there was a phone in the school, I climbed over the fence bordering the east side of the campus and made my way across the quad area to the telephone outside the men's restroom. I dialed Ana's number and she picked up the phone. I asked to speak with Clara, who followed on the telephone a few moments later.
"Clara, what'ya doing?"
"Where are you?"
"Franklin High School. Can you come pick me up?"
"What are you doing there?"
"Never mind. Come get me please. I'll be in front."
"I'm coming. Sit tight."
She hung-up. I went to the gate and climbed back over, then sat down on the sidewalk, leaned against the fence and waited for her. It was dusk when she pulled up. I was relieved and happy to see her. My spirits were lifted as I opened the passenger side door and got in.
"What are you are you doing here?" she asked.
"Just thinking. Remembering."
"Look," I said pulling out her note.
Your note, you signed it 'Love Clara'.
"What are you saying?"
"Do I what?"
She looked at me, seemingly irritated with my question. She stared at me for a moment, then turned away and looked outside through the car window and remained silent. Her silence hurt. I was disappointed when she didn't answer. She put the car in gear and drove slowly up the street. She didn't look at me and didn't say anything. I could feel that she was upset.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"Yes," she said.
"Are you mad?"
"Greg, please," she replied shortly, trying to conceal that she was angry.
"Nothing. Okay? My God."
"No Claire. It's not okay."
"Greg," she paused, "I've had a long day. I don't feel like talking right now. Please understand."
"If you're mad at me, tell me why."
"Please pull the car over."
"I'm not mad Greg."
"Pull the fucking car over," I said firmly.
She pulled over and slammed to a stop.
"Don't talk to me like that," she screamed.
"Don't even fucking talk to me like that."
"What are we talking about here Clara?"
"You have no right to treat me like a bitch. What the hell's going on?"
"I didn't say that." I had no idea what set this off, but knew it was more complicated than a reaction to the immediate circumstances.
"Don't treat me like some whore. Don't come back here and expect me to pick up where we left off five years ago? You have no right to expect me...Christ," she paused, "Never mind."
I reached over, putting my hand up to her and brushed her face with my finger tips. She let me approach her and I gently kissed her, "Don't be mad. I love you, I hope you know that. Nothing in the world will take that away as long as you want it."
"I don't know if I want it. I don't know what I want anymore. I'm so stupid."
"That's Ana talking."
"All my friends tell me so."
"I promise you."
She started up the car and was about to put it in gear when she stopped and turned to me.
"Will you drive?"
We traded seats and I drove. I slowly turned south onto Monte Vista, driving conservatively. I turned on Avenue 50, and then right onto North Figeuroa. The streets I followed were taken unconsciously, followed as if the path of least resistance, yet the destination was subconsciously deliberate. As we approached the dead end ally up which my old home was located I turned to Clara.
"Would you mind if we take a look at the old place?"
Clara turned her head, looking up the alley, "No, of course not. I don't mind," she said.
The alley led off Figueroa towards a set of train tracks, then angled right, parallel to them. I drove up the alley and stopped in front of the old house, then turned off the engine. Clara and I stepped out of the car and looked at the old place.
It was that time of day when it wasn't yet dark, but everything was dim and fading away. I went over and sat on the curb in front of the house. It was dark inside, like it had died with the rest of my family. I felt like an outsider looking in to my own home.
"God Clara, this was a good place, you know, a magical place." She looked at me and remained silent. "In summer, when I was young, I would hang around my brother and his friends when the sun was setting. He'd tell me about my old man, how when he was a kid my father would come home every so often. He would be dressed in his uniform, surprising my mother and he. It was only through Arturo that I knew my father at all, through him and the pictures."
"I know," she whispered.
"I idolized my brother."
"When he died...when he died I went crazy. That's how I feel now, you know? Fucking Paolo dying, it's killing me. Everything seems meaningless, dark...so fucking dark."
There was a long pause. She came over and sat next to me.
"Clara, can I ask you something?"
"When we were together in school...I took so much from you...just kept taking and taking. What did you get? You asked me something the other night, it's stuck in my head. 'What is it you want?' you said. Clara, what did you want?"
"You gave me exactly what I wanted, a lover, someone to sport on my arm, talk to. You were like a beautiful crystal covered in dust," she put her hand up to my face, "When the dust was cleaned off and you were put up to the light, oh how you shined. You had passion. You were alive. You kept me excited. When we were together, everyday was an eternity. There was no other place I would have rather been than with you. You had a lot of hard times, I know. I saw them. I know you're going through a bad time now. But you never backed down. You always came out swinging."
"There's nothing to fight for anymore."
"You're just not living for tomorrow. Welcome home Greg. Welcome to reality."
"Reality? It's a depressing prison. Imagination is drowned by reality, hope strangled."
"Greg, the best we can do is walk blindly into tomorrow with no regrets about the past. Live now. That's the only thing I've learned these last few years. There's no better time. Tomorrow your lover might leave you forever, run off to some ivy covered brothel. Listen to me. Look what's happened. You keep running, leaving yourself behind. You sit outside your old home trying to find out who you are, where you've been. You don't know because you're always one step ahead of yourself. You never stop and look around."
"I know, and it scares the hell out of me, Claire. I feel like I've been cast in a play, but have forgotten my lines. What am I doing? What have I done? When I'm too weak to fight anymore, when my life is ripped away from me, will I have left anything worth remembering? Tomorrow I might be gone, like my brother, like so many fucking people I've known."
"You're only twenty three years old. You have your whole life ahead of you. What happened to Arturo isn't going to happen to you. What happened to him was different; he was different. He never had the chance that you have."
"Paolo was no different than me. It could've been me that went down."
"But you didn't. It sounds selfish, I know. You're here, and that makes all the difference in the world."
I became reflective and was silent. I looked to the house again, then back to Clara. She smiled a sad smile. I took her hand then stood up, and she followed. We got back into the car and drove back to Ana's loft in silence.
Upon our arrival we discovered that no one was home. We entered the place and I looked around at Clara's few newly moved belongings which were neatly piled off to the side of the room. Clara strolled across the room toward the bed. She turned around, straightening her posture so that she stood erect, "Ana probably won't be back tonight," she said burlesquely.
I looked to her as she peered at me from across the room, an echo separating us. Her words seemed a caustic invitation. My gaze met her's. Her eyes were seductive, inviting me to surrender. But my mind hesitated. My imagination was whitewashed with visions of Paolo and Arturo and David...and my father, when they were alive. I looked at Clara and became disturbed. Her gaze seemed wicked, destructive. I looked deep into those eyes. Her expression changed, weakened.
I started toward her. As I moved, the images in my mind changed. My mind was blackened with images of death. I pulled my shirt over my head and threw it to the floor. Clara looked at me suspiciously as I made my way to her. She took a step backwards toward the bed.
When I came to her I lifted off her sweatshirt and kissed her hard, letting my hands feel her body. I forcibly picked her up and carried her to the bed. I pulled off her clothes and quickly, but awkwardly, undressed, then ran my hands over her, feeling her nakedness. Without thinking of her, I entered her. She breathed heavily, moaning as if I was hurting her, until I unceremoniously finished. I lay on top of her for a moment and felt terribly guilty.
"I'm sorry," I whispered weakly.
"Wake up," I said softly. I nudged Clara who was curled up to me. A peaceful look graced her as she slept, "Clara, wake up."
"What's going on?" she mumbled still asleep.
"Greg? What's wrong? Are you okay?" she questioned drowsily.
"Are you awake?"
"What time is it?"
"Eight-thirty? My God, what is it?"
"Keep me company."
"Keep you company?"
"You woke me because you're bored? My God. Greg, what's wrong with you?"
"Talk to me."
"You're crazy. Go back to sleep. I'm mad at you."
She sat up, giving me an irritated look and got out of bed. Wearing only panties, she muddled her way to the bathroom, walking with heavy, sleepy steps. She left the door open as she pissed. I heard her wipe before she spoke.
"Sometimes Greg...Sometimes I don't know what," her voice echoed from the bathroom.
"Come over here and talk to me. Keep me company."
She flushed the toilet and came out of the bathroom.
"I need a drink," she said.
"It's too early to drink."
She clanked a bottle against a glass as she poured a drink, then came back to the bed and pulled the covers over herself.
"I can't believe you."
"I'm sorry." I smiled at her, "I wanted to here your voice."
"You're all wet."
"I'm hot. It's warm in here."
"Did you have a nightmare?" she asked.
"You kept me awake all night twisting and turning."
"I'm going to keep you awake all morning too."
"Go back to sleep silly boy."
"It's Christmas eve you know."
"It's Christmas eve morning," she replied, "It's sad, isn't it?"
"You think so?"
"We don't even have a Christmas tree," she sighed, "How can this be our best Christmas together if we don't have a tree?"
"We should get one."
"Can we? I don't think anyone's selling them this late."
"I'm sure we can find one. Anyway, we should go shopping. Think the malls are open?"
She sat up against the head board of the bed and took a sip of her drink, then crossed her arms over her naked breasts.
"What are you getting me for Christmas?" she questioned.
"I don't know. What would you like?"
"Something outrageously expensive, frivolous, terribly impractical."
"Can I ask you something?" I questioned.
She took another sip of her drink, "You know you can. Anything at all."
"Did you really sleep with Ana?"
"How was it? I mean what was it like?"
"I don't know. I was really nervous. We made it a game."
"What do you mean?"
"It was like theater, play acting. We set up a scene and she told me what to do."
Someone opened the outside door as we spoke and we could hear foot steps coming up the stairs.
"Did you kiss her down there?"
"What was it like?"
"Salty. Let's talk about something else. I'm sensitive about that. I wish she hadn't told you."
"Would you have?"
"I was afraid to," she paused, "It sounds like Analiza's back."
The front door opened and Ana came in quietly, creeping across the room until she saw us awake, at which point she livened up.
"We were just speaking of you. You're back early," said Clara.
"I haven't slept yet."
"He was that good?"
"We spent the night talking."
"You didn't sleep with him?" questioned Clara.
"Not in any sense of the word."
"My God. We should leave and let you sleep, in the literal sense of the word."
"Where are you going?" questioned Ana.
"To buy a Christmas tree."
"May I come?"
"In what sense of the word?"
"As in come with you to buy a Christmas tree, you slut."
"Okay. It's alright, isn't it Greg?"
"Was he any good?" Ana asked Clara, making reference to me.
"A virtuoso playing a Stadivarius," I interrupted, "You should have heard her sing."
"Is she a screamer?"
"Don't you know?"
"Stop it," interrupted Clara, "Both of you, please. It's getting vulgar."
Clara got up and looked around for her bra. Upon finding it she put it on as Ana made her way to the bed and sat at the end of it.
"Whose drink is this?" Ana asked.
"Mine," responded Clara.
"May I finish it?"
Ana swallowed the drink and Clara went over to her suit-cases and opened one up, looking for clean underwear. She sat awkwardly on the floor, digging through her clothes.
"Well," Ana said to me, "Get up. You can't very well get a tree lying naked in bed."
"What makes you think I'm naked?"
"I don't imagine you pleased a lady clothed."
"There's more than one way to please a lady."
"I know, but you can't afford the alternatives."
I got out of bed, covered in a sheet, and went into the bathroom to shower. Clara followed in the shower after me and, when she had finished, we got ready as Ana bathed. Clara poured herself another drink.
"I wish you wouldn't," I said.
"Do you want one?"
"It's nine in the morning. You're turning yourself into a lush."
"I am a lush, and so are you. Stop pretending you're not," she took a sip of her drink and paused, "Are you sure you wouldn't like one?"
I remained silent. She finished the drink. A few moments later she clutched at her stomach, as if in pain, and grimaced, standing motionless waiting for the sensation to pass.
"I don't know. I have an ulcer or something," she said with her teeth clenched, "It will pass."
"It's the fucking alcohol."
"At least I don't smoke," she said half apologetically.
"I wish you would stop the fucking drinking."
The door of the bathroom opened and Ana came out, ending Clara's and my exchange.
"Are you two fighting?" she questioned.
"No," I responded.
"Yes," said Clara, "Greg's yelling at me."
"No I'm not."
"Yes you are."
"I am not."
"You two sound ridiculous," said Ana.
She proceeded to dress behind the wall of silence separating Clara and myself. When she was ready, Clara and I managed to remain civil enough to confer with each other as to where we would breakfast. We collectively decided to go to Philippe's, a restaurant near Chinatown that serves coffee for a dime.
It was late morning as we stepped out of the overcast weather and into the place, walking to the counter and ordering. The businessmen had already evacuated, leaving behind the people who had been in the area forever, remnants from the waves of cultural immigrants, Italians, Irish, Chinese and Chicanos, who had washed over the area as it had changed demographics. They sat quietly, often alone and sipped coffee.
Loud and obnoxious, we three sauntered over the sawdust floors and interrupted the atmosphere. We sat down and satisfied our caffeine addictions. Clara, who had been drinking steadily all morning, sat next to me, tipsy. Ana, suffering from sleep deprivation, came off similarly, intoxicated from exhaustion. We settled in to eat as Clara decided that she wasn't hungry.
"Please eat something Claire," I requested.
"I'm really not hungry."
"You'll make yourself sick."
"I can't. Anyway, the food here couldn't be more poisonous."
"Eat. You've been drinking all morning on an empty stomach."
"Eat or I'll force you."
"No. I won't do it."
I cut off a piece from the egg on her plate and held it up to her mouth. She opened up and took it. I did it again, then spent the next half hour hand feeding her as I tried to eat.
"I don't want you to drink anymore before breakfast," I said.
"Stop it," she replied, "I already know I shouldn't. You think I don't know it?"
I reached over with a napkin and wiped her mouth. It was like she wanted me to baby her, she having regressed into childhood.
"Good girl," I said, "Now what is Santa Claus going to put under the tree for you this Christmas?"
"God," interjected Ana, "It's been so long since I've had a Christmas tree. I'm sure it's been...It's been years."
"I haven't had one since I moved out of my parents' place," Clara said, "How about you?" she asked me.
"I don't know. It's been awhile. Seems kind of dumb getting one now."
"Oh, don't be mean," said Clara, "I'm happy we're getting one."
"We have nothing to decorate it with," I said.
"I thought we were going shopping," replied Clara.
"That settles it then. Be happy or be quiet. We can get a really big one," she said stretching out her arms, "It will fit in our place. How about a redwood?" she questioned facetiously.
"A little bit of old growth will look nice. Maybe a few spotted owls to decorate it with."
"Let's ignore Greg, Ana. He's being condescending."
"It was a joke."
"You're either with us or against us."
"My God. You make it sound like a revolution. It's just a damn tree."
"It's not a damned tree."
"Okay then. I'm with you."
"You'd better be, especially after waking me this morning. You know how much I want this."
"Actually, I didn't until this moment. I'm sorry. I see it's important to you."
"Let's get out of this joint and go do it," said Clara.
We left and drove aimlessly for awhile, keeping an eye out for Christmas tree lots. I remembered a place located on York boulevard that, in the past had sold trees. We headed in that direction and upon arriving, found the lot open. We disembarked and wandered through the few remaining trees that were left. It was a little forest in our urban jungle with the pine scent bringing back sweet remembrances of holidays past. Clara led us through the place, examining every tree with microscopic particularity as Ana and I followed and listened to her describe the good and bad qualities of each tree examined. We toured for awhile until Clara settled in on a tree.
"I like this one," she said excitedly, "What do you two think? I hope you like it to."
"What do you think?" I asked Ana.
"I think she likes that one."
It was a monstrous Douglas fir, symmetrical and well proportioned, though some of the lower branches drooped a bit. We paid the attendant. He helped me put it onto the roof of the car and tie it down with twine as Clara shouted out handling instructions. It was noon by the time we managed to get the thing into the loft.
"I love it. I love it. I love it," said Clara as she pranced around it, looking at it from all angles, "Oh, I do love it. Do you like it as much as I do? Please say you do."
"Nobody loves anything as much as you do that tree," said Ana.
"We need to decorate it," responded Clara, "We should go shopping. Greg, would you mind if just me and Ana go by ourselves? I think you and me should buy our gifts separately. Don't you think so?"
"Why? It seems like more trouble, rather than going together."
"I want tomorrow to be a surprise for both of us. Do you mind?"
"I hope you're not still mad about this morning," I replied.
"Mad about this morning? Oh, you mean about you yelling at me? I'm not mad, though I should be. I just want this Christmas to be special, that's all."
"I didn't yell."
"Yes you did. You shouted at me. Anyway, let's not talk about that."
"Ana, did you hear me shouting?" I questioned.
"I said let's not talk about that," said Clara.
Her suggestion of shopping separately was, of course, reasonable. But my suspicion was that my constant company was wearing on her. Her company was straining me as well, evidenced by our argument this morning. Each of us was an intruder into the other's sense of normalcy.
Relieved when they left, I set off towards downtown in search of a gift for Clara. I drove into the diamond district of the area, so named because housed in many of the old buildings around Ninth street and Hill are wholesalers that sell unset precious stones. Most of the proprietors seem to be of Jewish or Middle Eastern extraction and are artful in embellishing their products with the wild kudos of the hard sell. The atmosphere is like that of a bazaar with throngs of people shopping through the myriad of vendors.
I casually walked around, trying to pick-up the rhythm of the setting, quietly observing transactions before eventually going up to a counter where stood a heavy-set young woman with dark features.
"I need a gift," I said, "What do you recommend?"
"Tell me about the girl," she said with an accent I didn't recognize, "What does she look like?"
"Asian. Browned, olive skin. Dark hair."
"Five-six, seven. Tallish I guess."
"Ah, good. If she had been petit I would have recommended earnings. But she's a tall girl. I think a solitaire pendant necklace is appropriate, very elegant. It will give men an excuse to break eye contact and look down."
She brought out a metal case with plastic drawers. In the drawers were hundreds of stones of all colors and shapes. She opened a drawer with green stones and pulled out a few, scattering them on a piece of white cloth.
"She must be very beautiful to have such a devoted lover. I suggest an emerald, it will look dazzling on her. She will make a room sparkle with this against her exotic skin. For lighter women I would recommend a ruby, not with her skin though. It should be an emerald," she said.
I looked down at the stones as she manipulated them around, picking them up one at a time. She held one up to the light, "This one will make a beautiful pendant." I peered at the square cut stone, into it's deep, rich luminescence, "I don't know."
"I could have it set. I suggest a gold setting. Better yet Platnium. The light metal won't detract from the stone," she said.
"I really don't know."
"She'll love it."
"Greg?" whispered Clara, "Are you awake?"
I pretended not to be. I knew why she wondered if I was sleeping. She sat up very slowly and gently crawled out of bed, trying not to disturb me. With my face partially hidden by blankets, I watched her, clothed in a large tee-shirt used as a nightgown, as she made her way toward the lighted tree, flickering in the darkness. Half way to the tree she turned and looked at the bed.
"Are you awake?"
She stood motionless for a few seconds. Reassured by the silence, she continued. She arrived and squatted down at the base of the tree, looking innocent. One at a time, she picked up the wrapped gifts under the tree, examining each one, looking for her name. I cleared my throat and adjusted myself as if I was still asleep, taking in a deep breath and exhaling obviously. She froze, again waiting for several moments and continued. The light of the tree decorated her face and front of her body, with her back shaded by the darkness.
She found the several gifts meant for her, one from Analiza, others dropped off by friends, and the one from me. She picked up the small box containing the necklace and solitaire emerald pendant. She looked at the small package for a couple moments, reading the label, signed "Love, Santa Claus." Holding it up to her ear, she shook it gently several times and studied the wrapping again. Admiringly, I looked her over as she squatted, her bare feet apart, her body balanced awkwardly. She pulled back her bangs, sweeping her hair behind her ear. The expression on her face conveyed a sense of desperation, as if she was looking for something lost, knowing it could never be found, yet not admitting the futility of the search.
I shifted myself again. Clara froze, then quietly came back to bed and crawled under the covers. I put my arm over her waist and she turned toward me. I felt her breathing against me as I pulled her to me.
"You're awake?" she questioned softly.
"Has he been here yet?"
"Yes, he was here."
"What are you doing awake?"
"I don't know."
"Go to sleep."
"I'm too exited."
She sighed and turned over onto her side, facing way from me.
"I wish it was morning," she whispered.
"It will be soon."
"It smells like Christmas, doesn't it? I mean with the pine scent filling the room."
"It is Christmas."
"Is it? Oh. It doesn't feel like it, does it? I remember it being different," she said with a broken voice.
Clara was quiet for several seconds, then shifted violently a couple of times, adjusting her position from one side of the bed, away from me, to the other, curled up next to me. Again she was still for a few moments when she started to sob weakly.
"Are you alright?" I questioned.
"Are you sure?" She didn't respond. "Clara, what's going on?" I said softly.
"I don't feel well, that's all."
"Is it serious? Are you going to be alright?"
"I don't think so."
"You don't think so?"
"I don't think I'm going to be alright," she paused, "Something is wrong with me."
"What is it?"
"Greg, I don't think straight anymore. My thoughts aren't right."
"I don't understand what you're saying."
"Sometimes...I can't explain it. Sometimes I get so scared. I do crazy things. It's only upon reflection that I realize it. I don't see how irrational my behavior is until it's too late."
"Like what things?"
"Like leaving here, going to San Francisco." Her voice weakened, "I started walking. No money. No destination. Can you believe that? I just packed my clothes and started walking."
"You're telling me you walked to San Francisco?"
"I got scared and left. I didn't know where I was going. Some guy came along and picked me up in the middle of night."
"What about your friend? Renee?"
"She isn't my friend, not really. I barely know her. I met her before I ran into you. She let me stay with her for a few nights, that's all."
"How about the woman in the bar? The one you left with."
"It's funny, I don't remember her name."
"Claire, what the hell is going on?"
"I don't know," she said, breathing deeply. She turned over to face me, "Greg, please help me. Sometimes I'm not myself. I have terrible dreams. Not dreams really, they're part of my reality. They're tangible. I base decisions and act upon them. But they're lies, reflections of truth, distorted by my imagination. Like going to San Francisco. I believed...I don't know what. I was like a child locked in a dark room. I had an apocalyptic vision and panicked. It's all so blurry now. It wasn't until I was on my way that I realized that it was crazy...I was crazy."
"You're not crazy."
"I am crazy."
"Go to sleep, baby. You're tired, things will look brighter in the morning."
She closed her eyes and wept gently. I felt her tears on my cheek. The weeping slowly faded and she was quiet for a long time until the silence was broken by the heavy rhythmic breathing of her sleeping. Yet her unconscious mind was filled with unwelcome dreams, evidenced by her twisting and turning and perspiring and her calling out to nobody in the night.
The night weighed heavy on my consciousness as I found it hard to sleep. Clara's admission of instability troubled me. She had been the rock onto which I built my church. Having made her my religion, I gave her the keys to my heart. The realization of her frailties forced me to confront the fact that I did not know her anymore. I had been dealing with her as I had known her in the past. I wasn't dealing with her at all.
Who was she? I couldn't construct even the simplest of premises on which to base an answer. No longer did she confide in me about her dreams or ambitions as she had in the past, when all we had were each other and the future. What had she been doing for the last five years? I hadn't the slightest idea.
As the sky outside became a hue of morning blue, I knew only two things for sure, that Clara loved me and that I loved her. But without any foundation, love is such a tenuous thread on which to pursue a relationship.
Looking over to the Christmas tree, all lit up, it looked an ugly aberration as the darkness filtered out from the room. "I should get up and turn the damned thing off," I thought to myself. I turned over to rest and finally drifted off to sleep, only to find myself awakened a short time later.
"Greg, wake up. It's late. Get up."
"Already? For Christ's sake."
"Get up. My God. We've been waiting forever for you to wake."
"Ana and me. Who do you think? Look, we made you a cup of coffee."
Clara was already dressed in a cream colored mini dress and wearing oversized Doc Martens. Ana was covered in a blanket, sitting at the table drinking a cup of coffee and looking as if she had been unwillingly dragged from her bed. "Get up dear," said Ana sarcastically, "The children are very excited." I sat up in bed and sipped the coffee as Clara went under the tree and started reading the labels on the gifts.
"Analiza, this one is for you. It looks to be from Greg. Greg, this one is from me. Ana, this is the one I got you. I hope you like it. This one is for you also. I don't know who it's from. Oh, it's from Megan."
Clara eventually stood up and approached the bed with a gift in her hand. Handing it to me, she lay down on her stomach, her elbows on the bed propping up her chin. "Merry Christmas," she said, "I hope you like it. I thought about it very hard. Go ahead and open it."
I took the package and shook it, "What could it be? I can't imagine."
"You don't have to imagine. Open it. Go ahead. Open it."
"Stop teasing her," said Ana.
I opened up the package, tearing off the wrapping, slipping open the box and digging through the tissue paper to find a suit of plaid, flannel pajamas.
"Don't you love them?" laughed Clara, "Look at the bottoms. Look, they have feet built in."
"Pajamas with built in feet."
"You sound disappointed."
"No," I responded hastily, "I like them."
"Put them on."
I slipped into the suit.
"Doesn't he look cute Ana? I think he looks cute. I think they're adorable. I would have bought them for me if I had been shopping for myself."
"Now it's your turn," I said to her.
"Which should I open first?"
"I don't care. Open the one from me last."
"Aren't you going to open your gifts?" Clara questioned Ana.
"Not right now. Later. Go on," she responded continuing to sip her coffee.
Clara proceeded to open her gifts with all the civil graces inherent in her mannerisms. She was careful not to rip the wrapping, slowly disassembling it by peeling back the tape and unfolding the paper in one piece. She seemed to delight in the technical difficulty of her task, which I thought painful to watch, although it did add a bit of suspense to the exercise. Each opened gift was accompanied by the proper etiquette of surprise and 'thank you's.'
"Ana, it's beautiful. I've needed a watch for such a terribly long time. It's perfect. May I wear it now?" And later, "Look Ana, Greg, look what Megan game me," she said holding up a peach colored cashmere sweater, "Don't you love the color? It's a lovely sweater."
When she got around to the small box containing the pendant, I sat up straight. She noticed that I became attentive.
"I need a drink," she said, "Would you mind?" she asked me, "It being Christmas and all. You wouldn't mind if I had a Christmas brandy, would you?"
"Not at all," I responded dishonestly.
She put down the box and poured a drink. "Would anyone like one?" she questioned from the bar. Both Ana and I declined. Clara picked up the box, before coming over to the bed, and sat down. She carefully opened the gift and gently pulled out the necklace.
"Merry Christmas," I said.
"Oh, Greg," she breathed slowly.
"It's beautiful," said Ana from the table.
"I hope you like it," I said.
"I love it. Here, help me put it on," she said turning her back to me. She lifted her hair and I brought the opened necklace around her front and delicately clasped it at the back of her neck. I let my hands slide down her neck to her shoulders. She stood up and modeled it for both Ana and me. It sparkled on her as she twisted around. She genuinely looked happy.
"Come over here little girl," I said, "Come sit on my lap."
She came over and sat on my lap, facing me with her legs together, bending her knees so that her legs angled back toward the foot of the bed. She put her hands on my face and let them run over my features as her eyes darted from one point on my face to another.
"What is it sweetie?" she asked, "What do you want of me?"
"You want me?"
"All of you."
"To have me?" she asked as her eyes shifted inquisitively. She moved her hand up to my eyebrow and let her ring finger caress it.
"No," I said, "Not to have, to own."
"To own?" she questioned with feigned, innocent surprise.
"Body and soul."
"Make decisions about me in spite of my wishes?"
"You want to control me."
"That's what I want."
"Silly, silly boy."
"Are you happy?"
"Isn't it obvious?"
"You didn't sleep very well last night," I said.
"I had a rough night. I have so many. You haven't noticed?"
"Did you dream?"
"Lot's of things. Some remembered, others forgotten."
"What do you remember?"
"I dreamed of my mother," she paused a moment, "I want to go see her."
"You miss her?"
"Do you want to go see her today?"
"No. No, not now," she responded quickly, as if she regretted having mentioned the desire.
"I don't know."
She reached down and took my wrist and guided my hand to her neck where the pendant rested. Taking the back of my hand, she moved it so that my finger tips gently brushed over the pendant. She then took my fingers into her hand and kissed my hand as might a Victorian gentleman greet a lady.
Ana stood up, noticing that our interaction was getting intimate, and abandoned the room.
"Kiss me," said Clara.
I did so, kissing her gently.
"You taste of brandy," I said.
"I am brandy. I'm a shot of brandy trying to get you drunk."
"I am drunk."
"Do I warm your insides?"
"Yes, like a stiff drink."
She was already drunk and we hadn't even left the loft yet. Struggling to get dressed, she fumbled with her clothes until, out of frustration and anger, I helped her put them on, finishing the exercise by tying her shoes.
"You're mad," she said weakly.
"I don't think we should go. Ana already left. She got tired of waiting."
"I want to go," she replied.
"I don't think..."
"Damn it. I told you..."
"Don't be mad."
I shut-up, purposefully keeping silent as if to some how punish her. I moved around the room, getting dressed, thumping this and slamming that.
"Stop it," she yelled out, "Stop it this instant. You're trying to intimidate me. I find it vulgar."
"For Christ's sake, I wish you would stop saying 'vulgar.' It bothers the hell out of me."
"Vulgar vulgar vulgar vulgar..."
"I'll tell you what's vulgar."
"Don't bother. I don't want to know. Just get dressed and escort me to Mick's party and try to be nice. It's still Christmas you know. You have no right to be ugly on Christmas."
Feeling a little guilty, I turned my attention to getting dressed, ignoring for the time being, our argument. Clara kept quiet in an effort to let the fire burn out from neglect. Several minutes later I was nearly ready and had cooled down to where I could speak in a civil tone.
"Are you ready?" I questioned.
"I think so."
"I'm not quite done. Would you mind calling a cab?"
"Why don't we drive?"
"I may want to have a couple drinks."
"Yes, of course."
I went into the bathroom and brushed my teeth. I could hear Clara slurring the arrangements over the phone.
"The taxi will be here in fifteen minutes," she yelled into the bathroom, "I want you to behave at Mick's. Please don't go there and sulk. Pretend you like me."
"I'll try," I responded, "I don't know why you want to go anyway."
In the cab we remained silent with her looking out her window and I looking out mine. I sneaked a peek at her with my peripheral vision. I couldn't see her face, but could see none the less that she felt wounded and abandoned. When we arrived I took her hand and smiled. She lightened up a little, but remained distant. We went into Mick's place, ambling our way through the crowd of Venice eclectics. Clara seemed familiar with many of the people there, greeting them with obligatory questions of their personal lives and states of being.
Mick, a well off bachelor and attorney, resided in an elegant house in Venice. He had apparently spent a great deal of money composing the place and it was well presented.
He welcomed us once he noticed our presence, really once he saw Clara. He looked rather disappointed upon realizing that she was escorted. Bo was in attendance, as was Ana, who having left the loft just before Clara and me, greeted us warmly, surprised to see us and demonstrating an unusual enthusiasm appropriate to someone receiving an old dear friend. She was relieved, I'm sure, to find a friendly face.
The place was filled with people, talking, drinking, and smoking, people Mick liked to surround himself with, the uninspired ambitious and self defined 'smart set' who fancied themselves intellectuals, in spite of their pretensions and mediocre intellects. They milled around the large frosted Christmas tree illuminating the room. Clara and I sauntered over to the bar and got ourselves drinks.
"Clara?" called out a woman who came careening across the room, "You know Mick's been asking about you."
"Megan," said Clara. She leaned over and hugged the woman, "How are you? Have you met Greg?"
Megan turned to me with a fake smile and shook my hand, "A recent fling?"
"No. It has a lot of history, actually," responded Clara, "Who's here?"
"Everybody. Jeremy, Robert..."
"I saw Robert," interjected Clara.
"Bobbie's here, Mary, Louise...Who else? Brook is here. Can you believe it? She's living in New York and flew in just for the party. She never did like L.A."
Clara finished her drink and got another as we left Megan to mingle. A few drinks and a few meaningless conversations later, I lost Clara and found Ana who was kind enough to introduce me to a few people including Brook, a twig of a woman who worked as a dancer in New York. We struck up a conversation once I established to her my relationship with Clara, whom she knew and apparently liked.
"Claire is an angel of a girl. Everybody loves her, really," she reassured me as if I didn't believe her, "You're lucky to have caught her." She took a sip of her drink, "Where is she?"
"You must get her for me. Tell her I'm here. Tell her I flew in just to see her."
I excused myself in search of Clara, wandering around inebriated. Bumping into Ana, I asked of Clara's whereabouts.
"I don't know. I haven't seen her."
"If you see her, tell her I'm looking for her."
I continued on for fifteen minutes before becoming concerned. I began asking people at random if they had seen her. Of those that knew her, none had, until finally someone overheard my request and interjected, "What does she look like?"
"Cute, drunk, Asian girl with a pierced nose."
"Outside," he said, "getting sick I think."
I ducked through the crowd, making my way outside where some of the party had spilled out onto the lawn. I looked over the people and found Clara off to the side, bent over and throwing up into the bushes. Mick was close to her with his arm on her back. She stood up and Mick handed her a napkin. Clara wiped her mouth. He then handed her a drink and she took a sip and spit it out. I could see that her eyes were moistened.
Clara started laughing, I guess from the embarrassment of having gotten sick, and said something to Mick. He approached her, putting his hand on her cheek. I stood and watched them as my insides sank.
Such a feeling of cold filled me that I became numb. All of her charms, her elegant mannerisms, seductive glances and feminine sexuality, the subtle nuances of her being that endeared her to me, flashed through my mind. These same charms, which I had long thought so pleasing, conspired to let the blade dig deep into my back. As I witnessed the situation, the anger in me kept building as the interaction intensified. The two of them became blurred in my vision as thoughts of fury raced through my body. Then everything became clear when Mick leaned over, taking her in his arms and kissed her. She accepted his advance, shattering my heart, and kissed him back.
Clara must have felt my gaze on her. As she kissed him, she unconsciously opened her eyes, letting them come to rest on me awkwardly. Her eyes focused, then widened. Instinctively she pushed Mick away, straightened herself up and started toward me.
I turned around and walked inside, losing myself from her sight in the crowd. She came to the door, entering it before I lost sight of her. I made my way outside, walked over the lawn to the sidewalk and started away from Mick's place.
"Greg," I heard her yell.
I didn't look back as I continued.
I turned around to see Clara running toward me with Ana following and Mick in tow. Clara came up and stood in front of me. She reached out to touch me. I jerked away. She came close to me and I pulled back.
"Don't touch me," I said with all the malice I could deliver.
By this time Ana and Mick were gathered around.
"What's going on?" questioned Ana.
Both Clara's and Ana's voices became tangled together.
"Greg look at me."
"Don't do this."
Finally Mick, who was obviously drunk, interjected himself, "Chill man," he said, "Cool down. No need to get hyped over something that was perfectly innocent. You're acting like an idiot."
He spoke with such a tone of condescension that it was more than I could stand. I squared off on him and threw a punch. It felt good as the adrenaline built up, and I threw another, followed by a left, right combination in quick succession. Drunk and unsteady, he went down. Ana jumped between us.
"Stop it," Ana screamed. Mick wiped his mouth and climbed up to his knee. Clara, frightened by the display, broke down with tears flooding down her face. Ana turned away from me and reached down to help up Mick. She turned her head and glared at me, "Go away," she screamed, "Get outta here."
I walked away. Clara followed me, trying to communicate, but I ignored her. As I walked I searched for a main street where I might catch a cab. Clara shadowed me, mostly silent, but every now and again she spoke my name inquisitively, "Greg?"
Not only couldn't I find a cab, we were lost and couldn't find a busy street. Adding to my frustration, I felt as though Clara was secretly enjoying the situation, as if she was silently laughing, mocking me behind my back. Eventually, she moved up next to me and we walked side by side, in silence. We strayed onto Lincoln Boulevard where I managed to flag down a taxi.
When the cab stopped, I opened the door, allowing Clara to enter, then followed. The cab started up and I looked out my window, trying my damnedest to ignore her. The ride was cold and lonesome. I could feel her looking at me and wanted to turn around and touch her, making everything alright. I was scared of losing her. But my fear was mixed with the anger of what I perceived to be her betrayal.
The silence continued until Clara spoke, "You acted like a child."
"Only because you acted like a whore," I stated, not bothering to look at her.
She suddenly lunged toward me. I quickly turned to face her. As I turned, she slapped me hard. My face jolted from the blow.
I yelled at the driver to stop the car. He did so and I opened the door and stepped out, walking over to the driver's door. I took out what money I had, the better part of sixty dollars, and threw it at him with instructions to take Clara home.
I looked over at Clara who sat against her door, her hands up on her face, crying bitterly. She turned toward the door, opening it, and jumped out of the car. I looked over to her, then leaned down to the driver, "Go."
The cab left and Clara walked over to me and took my hand. We walked down the road in silence, having no idea of where we were or where we were going. It was unusually cold and Clara let go of my hand and crossed her arms to keep warm as she shuffled along, still tipsy.
"I'm sorry I hit you," she said, her voice broken with short, sharp, hiccup like breaths. A tear trickled down her cheek. She put her hand up to her eye and wiped the wetness away. I looked over at her and she looked away.
"But I'm not a whore," she continued.
"It's just that until you came back I've had a lot of freedom that I don't have anymore. I mean, I'm glad I don't have it because I have you, but sometimes I forget how to behave," she paused, "I had too much to drink," she said, then added with self contempt, "But why am I telling you? You know that."
"I'm sorry, Claire. I'm sorry for the both of us."
"I want to see my mother."
She started weeping hard, "Yes. Now," she took a couple of deep breaths to try and keep her nose from running.
"Don't cry. We'll go."
"I miss her terribly."
Clara an I wandered aimlessly in the middle of the night until we managed to flag down a taxi, for which Clara paid, and had the driver take us to Highland Park. As we made our way toward her parents' home, Clara became noticeably jittery.
"I don't know," she said.
"You don't know what?"
"Let's go home. It's late."
"I think we should do what we came here for. Anyway, I've never met your parents."
"Okay. I guess," she paused, "God, I've lived my whole life in this city. I'm so sick of it. That's why I left to San Francisco. It's no different up there, you know. Too many people. It would be nice to live in a small town somewhere, or on a farm, don't you think so?"
I couldn't imagine Clara on a farm, she being to urban, really too sophisticated to endure such a place for any length of time. But I didn't want to disturb her fantasy.
"With rabbits?" I asked.
"Who ever heard of a farm with rabbits?" she said dismissively, "I mean with cows and things. Buffalos."
"A farm with buffalos?"
"Yes, and pigs. I think pigs are cute."
"A farm with cute pigs?"
"Wouldn't it be nice if we were provincials?" she paused, "Instead of living in this cement cesspool?"
"I think you're nervous about seeing your parents."
"Your right. I am nervous," she confessed.
I was nervous as well. I didn't know what to expect of the ensuing situation. She hadn't had any contact with them for five years and her repatriation was sure to be difficult. But hell, it was Christmas, at least for a little while longer.
Stopped in front of her parents' home, we exited the cab. It seemed a difficult chore. My heartbeat quickened and my legs seemed weak. Clara looked over at me, seeking assurance. I smiled and moved to her, taking her hand firmly.
"It'll be all right," I said.
With only a few cosmetic changes, the place looked as it did back when it housed Clara. I thought back to the time when this house was out of my reach, forbidden me by the conservative views Clara's parents held about her dating, especially dating out of race. I had often passed the place, looking at it and knowing that inside its borders was all that I desired.
The house was dark except for the reflection of the moon on the small window of the front door. We made our way up the walk way. I reached over and placed my arm around Clara. She gently nudged me away and rang the door bell. No one seemed to stir in the house. She did it again with the same result. I reached up and knocked on the door as she rang the bell again. Finally a light flicked on and we could hear someone shuffling about the place. Several minutes later the outside light turned on and a muffled voice called out, "Who is it?" said a woman from the other side of the door. Clara put herself in front of the peep-hole and yelled out, "It's me Clara," she paused for a moment uneasily, "I'm home."
"Who?" yelled the voice as the door swung in. The opened door exposed a young white woman, gracing an irritated expression. She was draped in an untied robe, held closed.
"Excuse me," she said angrily, "It's nearly midnight."
Confused, I looked to Clara who stood in total shock at the sight of this unexpected intruder standing in her inner sanctum.
"Who are you?" questioned Clara timidly.
"Who are you?" retorted the woman.
Clara composed herself, though seemingly still unclear about the situation, and asked of the woman, "Don't the Kobayashi's live here?"
The woman looked puzzled, "No. You have the wrong address."
"No. No I haven't."
"I'm sorry," the woman responded, "They don't live here."
Realizing the situation, Clara started to shed tears as she continued, "This is my parents' house. My parents live here."
The woman changed her combative manner, seeing Clara's condition, and responded, "Honey, I've lived here for nearly a year and a half now."
"Oh my God," said Clara as she broke down, "Do you know where they moved?" she asked, her question filtered through heavy emotion.
"No honey? I'm sorry, I don't even know who they are."
Clara stepped back from the door and walked away dazed.
"I'm sorry," I said to the woman, then turned around and took Clara's hand. We walked to the edge of the yard as the door closed behind us and the light turned off. Coming to the street, Clara sat down on the curb and cried.
"I guess you won't be meeting them tonight," she wept bitterly. "I hate them," she screamed with a horrid, distorted voice. The outburst took the breath out of her and she didn't inhale for several seconds. The pause seemed an eternity. "Breathe," I thought to myself, "Breathe God damn it." Finally she gasped a deep breath. She turned away from me, clutching her womb. Her face was flushed red and glistening from the tears, "Do you know why I left? Do you have any idea why I ran away from this place?" she asked accusingly, knowing I had no idea.
She sobbed and turned to face me, "My father went crazy when he found out I was pregnant."
Her eyes whispered incriminations. Her dress hung wretchedly on her figure. Tragedy decorated the night, painting over us. It was all so surreal.
"I was pregnant with your child."
"Pregnant," she said scornfully, "That's what happens when you fuck a fourteen year old girl."
I sank. Her moral superiority grew from my ignorance, ignorance I allowed by leaving her. I had run away from her and into a nightmare of my own creation.
"You were my everybody, my everything. When you left I had no one. I was pregnant and frightened, so I went to my mother. She got scared and told my father," Clara doubled over as if she had been stabbed in the stomach, "He beat the child out of me."
"Oh, Claire," I said weakly.
"I was so humiliated," she continued distantly. She put her hand up to her eye and wiped away the wetness. "Black and blue, I wouldn't go outside, just hid in my room. I could feel the baby dead inside me," she paused, "Our baby was born into a toilet," she said barely managing to get the words out.
She looked straight into my eyes and the strength spilled out of me, "I needed you," she said, "I needed you to stand by my side and claim the baby, to stand up like a man, stand up to my father." She rocked back and forth, clutching her womb. "Now that you are a man it's too late," she added disdainfully.
I couldn't speak, unable even to muster an apology. I had delivered this burden and, as I sat silently, watched her bear it, unable to do anything to help.
She looked down at her new watch. "It's not Christmas anymore," she said, "It started out well, didn't it?"
When I was a child, I witnessed an event that has ever since defined my perception of motherhood. It is a definition that I've never been able to put into words, rather the feeling rests in the recesses of my mind and, for me, symbolizes the bond created between a mother and child.
Once upon a time, my family arrived home one evening under a light drizzle. From where we returned I can't recall. It was after my father had died. I do recall that my mother was the first to start the decent down the long concrete staircase that led to our front door. In carried in her arms my baby sister, Deborah. Deborah had just been born some weeks earlier, and several weeks after my father's death.
The night was dark and the stairs were wet. The stairs were made of cinder blocks and concrete, slapped together by some home improvement amateur. Each step was different from the next. They were all uneven, one step higher than the one after it, and shorter than the previous one.
My mother started the decent down those wet, crooked, stairs. I had just begun to follow her when she stumbled. Falling on the stair underfoot, she tumbled the length of the long stair case. The sight of the fall was brutal. The violence of the event shocked me, so that I stood dazed and confused, until Arturo pushed me aside from behind and ran down the stairs to help my mother.
She came to rest on the landing of the front door, and struggled to her feet, panicked, screaming a woeful wail of fear that Deborah, who had taken the fall with her, might be maimed. She couldn't look at the child who was held so closely to her body. Arturo took the child from her arms and my mother turned away and collapsed, unable to witness what turned out to be my unharmed sister. My mother had defended her from the ravages of the fall by clutching her to her body, shielding her with her arms, holding her close.
This incident, above all other memories, makes tangible my relationship with my mother, a relationship which differs form all others, and contrasts with that of my father.
A father may be ephemeral, missing for all of your life, and have such a tenuous connection with his own children that they themselves, in their own minds, must create him. He is, at times, only a symbol, a ghost, an inspiration, a tattered and faded image to be deified. The fact that he is gone does not define the relationship, that he left in the first place symbolizes his station. As it was with my father, so it was with me.
Had she given me any chance to persuade her otherwise, I would not leave. But she didn't. She asked me to pick up my things and move. I had been vanquished with nowhere to go but from where I had come, so I prepared to go back to San Francisco.
It seemed like such a magical affair now that it was over. I would miss her. I already missed her. I had grown accustomed to her constant presence and now, reacquainted with her charms, it seemed a cruel turn of fate that she should let me go.
It was the twenty-eighth, three days since Christmas, and I saw no improvement in her disposition. She woke late everyday, not bothering to get dressed, and drank, saying nothing. My attempts to interact with her were dismissed with complaints of illness and the need to be alone, sometimes punctuated with outright hostility.
When she decided that I was to leave, she employed Ana to deliver the message. Ana, who had already abandoned friendly relations with me since my assault on Mick, relayed the message forthrightly and then rejected my requests for an explanation.
I gathered my things, carrying them down to the car, and went back up to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything. I would miss the loft as well. No where else, but in its walls had I ever had such a feeling of security. I often looked forward to returning to it when, from some other place, I turned my eyes homeward.
When I was sure I was ready, I looked over to Clara, dressed only in her underwear, with her back to me, and debated whether or not to say 'good-bye.' She sipped her drink, looking out the window to the downtown skyline. I stood for a few moments, choosing to spare myself the humiliation of another attempted interaction. I made my way for the stairs, saying nothing. As I prepared to descend, Clara spoke, "Good-bye Greg," she said with her back to me.
I stopped for a moment, pondering a response. I was angry, having been frustrated in my failed attempts to talk with her, and decided to leave without saying anything. I descended the stairs, opening the outside door.
"Greg," she said from the top of the staircase.
"Don't look at her," I thought to myself, "Just walk away." But I looked up at her anyway, hoping to find any excuse to try and salvage our relationship. She stood there with a distant look, peering down at me as if some unattainable Goddess.
"Where will you go?" she questioned.
"Home," I responded.
I looked away from her to the outside world. The world without her appeared dark and hollow. I paused for a few moments.
"Are you coming back?"
I pondered the situation, realizing that it had been I who was asked to leave, that it was my destiny being decided in spite of my wishes. From that perspective I answered, "I don't think so."
"Then don't go back. Stay close. This is home, Greg."
"I need to be alone for awhile, that's all. Don't go away mad. Stay close so that I can see you sometime."
"I don't know."
"No. I won't live like that, not without some idea of what tomorrow holds."
"What would it take for you to do what I ask?"
I stopped for a moment and thought about her question, the very minimum I could live with for the immediate future.
"I need an understanding with you that I'm the only one. I need some idea of what our lives will be like when you finally want to see me again."
"I don't understand."
"I mean...What I'm saying is that I want a defined relationship with all the rules of a relationship. If that's what you want from me, okay. But if you just want someone to talk to, then I'm going to go."
"You haven't asked me for a defined relationship, you just assumed that we had one. Now you're demanding that I live as though you had asked me."
"That's what I want."
"Of course you're the only one. Don't think that I want another. I want you to be close."
"I don't have anywhere to stay."
"Ana talked to Bo who says you can stay with him for awhile. You mustn't go. I still want you. You're my friend, my lover. Definitive enough for you?"
"You'll go to Bo's then?"
"I'm going up north for a few days. I have to think for a while."
"You're coming back?"
"Alright then. Don't think I don't love you Greg."
She smiled at me, standing with one arm across her chest, the other arm's elbow resting on the first and holding her drink close to her mouth. She just stood there, in slinky repose, and dispensed with all my anger and worries of just a few moments past. Her smile swept away my insecurities. With that little upward turn of the mouth, an unconscious repositioning of the lips, I had reason to live again.
I took advantage of the situation and requested a kiss from her. Seeing it as a down payment for my cooperation, I'm sure, she accepted my proposition and I went up to her, placed my hand on her cheek, and barely touched her lips with mine. Her lips were soft and sweet and I wanted to kiss her again, but instead I backed away from her, turned around and left, on my way to San Francisco.
I drove north through the San Joaquin Valley of central California. The terrain flew by and presented a pleasant back drop to my thoughts. Farm land and small rest-stop towns, places I did not know, and probably would never know, occupied a void between the places I knew so intimately. At times the smell of onion fields, or alfalfa, or more offensive perfumes, would interrupt my thoughts, rescuing me from my otherwise detached disposition and bringing me down to earth.
I arrived in San Francisco late. I was tired. Yet, my soul was restless and I did not go home. Instead I went to and entered the east end of Golden Gate Park. I traveled its length as the fog rolled in over the heavy foliage through which my dark, lonely road traversed. I slowly cruised to the west end of the park where it ended near the ocean. I parked my car and walked up to the wall that separated a walkway from the beach. The walkway was old, built in the 1920's. I leaned up against the art-deco wall and looked out over the dark surf as it crashed, to a black horizon.
I watched the sky and took stock of my life. It seemed to be fragmenting. Everything was confused. "What the hell am I doing?" I asked myself. The question seemed profound in my sleepy state, though there came to mind no answers to this question for which answers used to come so easily. Or was it that I had never asked the question before, having never deemed it relevant? I went down and sat on the beach, pondering my situation until the first rays of sunlight broke the crest of the horizon.
I gathered my resolve and drove home. Opening the door to my flat, it looked just as I had left it, with the evidence of Clara's and my liaison scattered about. The ashes were still in the fire place and the blankets still crumpled on the floor. Exhausted, I crawled into bed and immediately fell asleep.
I later woke in the early afternoon. I got up and looked out the window, down to Haight street. Throngs of people were wandering up and down the street, as was usual on fair weekends. I turned away and got dressed, readying myself to go out.
I decided to go to the local coffee house where I could think in the company of other people, thereby preventing myself from forming the dark thoughts so often cultivated by loneliness. I was certainly lonely, having become dependant upon Clara's company. The loss of her consortium was harder than I had imagined.
Before I left I decided to call Exeter. Failing to reach him, I left a message for him to join me if he could. I then left and made my way to the coffee house. The walk was pleasant and I felt some of the affinity for the city that had escaped me after Paolo's death. For company, I brought with me a copy of Hemmingway's The Garden of Eden. Upon my arrival, I set down my book on a table near the window. I went to the counter and ordered a latte, then sat down and peered out the window, looking at the passing people before opening my book.
Time passed quickly as I wandered through The Garden of Eden, tripping over the awkward assembly of Hemmingway's unfinished work. I finally looked up from the book to find Exeter sitting down at the table. He brought with him a cup of coffee which he held from the bottom, as if it were a shot glass. I peered past him to a darkened sky.
"You're back," he stated enthusiastically.
"I am," I retorted.
"The cops are looking for you."
"They caught the guy that shot Paolo. I've got a telephone number for you to call when you get the chance. Apparently, they need you to identify him. You're the only one who saw him. He's only sixteen years old. Can you believe it?"
"Anyway, welcome home. Where is your lady friend?"
"Your sabbatical was shorter than you had suggested," he said. He leaned back in his chair and crossed one leg over the other. With his hand, he massaged his ear lobe. His waist length hair was loose about his shoulders and he wore small hoop earrings in each ear, appearing almost feminine sitting across the table from me. He looked at me with an air of inquiry.
"Tell me of your affair. You're still seeing her?" he questioned.
"How's it going."
"Alright. Until recently anyway. It's kind of up in the air now."
"You like her?"
"She tells me she does."
"To where ever the hell he came from."
"To Mississippi I think. He didn't belong out here anyway. He was a perfect, wasn't he?"
"If you're into that sort of thing."
"Take it from me Greg, forget love. Love is a wicked lie. It doesn't exist. It's a conspiracy, conjured up as a marketing ploy to sell condoms and trashy novels."
Ex and I talked for a short while before he excused himself on some pretense and left. Shortly after he departed, I went home and called the telephone number he had given me. I left a message on an answering service. It was a number to a Deputy District Attorney, Portia Cheyenne, whom was handling the prosecution of the suspected killer. Early the next morning I received a return call from her requesting that I make an appointment to come down and identify the kid "as soon as possible." I told her I could make it later on that day and scheduled an appointment for eleven o'clock. She seemed relieved.
"Confidentially," she said, "as I told your friend Exeter, there is no case without a positive I.D. We only went forward because we thought we could find you. This guy will walk if you can't identify him. Do you to understand that?"
I told her I understood and we talked about what happened on the night in question. I told her what little I knew and she pulled me through the story with questions, trying to elicit the important facts from me. The conversation lasted about thirty minutes before we hung-up.
Shortly after the conversation, Ex called and invited me to take a walk with him to Castro Street where he was to meet a friend. I accepted the invitation and we strolled down Haight Street toward Castro.
"Do you mind if I tag along with you to the police station?" he asked as we walked.
"Of course not," I responded.
"Do you think about him?" he questioned.
"I do," he said.
"I don't know. He's fading from my mind. All I remember about him is the way he died, I remember that like it was yesterday."
Upon our arrival to Castro and Market streets, we made our way to the Cafe San Marcos where we met Ex's friend, Darrik, who had just finished breakfast. The three of us proceeded to tour south on Castro, the epicenter of gay activism in the city. It's an unspectacular part of the city, but its alternative bent gives this otherwise banal street a radical flavor. The street is lined with shops and gay bars. Visible everywhere are the rainbow colored gay flags hanging in windows and on buildings. The more obvious standard bearers in the area are hyper-masculinized, with bushy mustaches and cropped hair, or they're pretty, wearing well coordinated outfits. Leather seems to be a staple fashion in the area, everywhere making a presentation. For the most part I found the area full of queer clichÈs.
We walked for several blocks to Darrik's place, where we sat around lazily in his living room as Ex and Darrik talked. Each of them made an attempt to include me in the conversation, which primarily consisted of topics of interest to gay men. I smiled occasionally, giving courtesy laughs when appropriate, but mostly kept to the sidelines.
I knew a lot of gay people, but tended to distance myself from getting too acquainted with their intimate affairs. My friendship with Ex was as close as I had ever been to a homosexual, and even with him I really didn't know about his personal life. And so I was polite and tried to be sociable, only failing because the company was foreign and the conversation, if not shocking, was of little interest. After a little while I came to the conclusion that the two of them were overplaying their roles in an effort to unsettle me. Whatever their motivations, whether innocent or conspitorial, the situation ended when time demanded I leave and make my way to my appointment.
Ex and I left Darrik and took the train towards downtown, to the county building. Upon our arrival, half an hour later, we walked into the building, through the metal detectors, and spoke with a young lady sitting behind a window of bullet proof glass. I told her of my appointment. She gave me directions to the District Attorney's office on the twelfth floor. We took the elevator up and arrived for my appointment where we were greeted by a large black woman sitting behind a receptionist's desk. She told me that Ms. Cheyenne had stepped out for a few moments, but would return shortly. We were invited to sit down.
The room was an antiseptic shade of white and decorated with dated furniture. The office was divided up by cubicals, the walls of which were colored with a jagged pattern of brown, orange and yellow. Ex and I seated ourselves in the well worn cushioned chairs in the front of the office. The woman at the desk smiled at us, "She should only be a moment," she said encouragingly.
"Strange, isn't it?" Ex quietly asked me.
"It's real now, isn't it? Paolo's death, there's nothing surprising about it. There's no shock value."
"He was just a dream," I said as I looked away from him, "He never existed, just a reflection of who we were, more than anything else. Like my brother. Kind of like Clara."
"She's not dead."
"Yes, she is. I look at her, but can't see her. I don't understand her. All I see a reflection of her, and who I was when I knew her five years ago. I'm in love with a stranger."
A woman entered the office and breezed past us. She spoke briefly with the receptionist who pointed to Ex and me. The woman turned and introduced herself as Portia Cheyenne. We exchanged pleasantries. She was youngish, in her early thirties, and dressed in a conservative skirted suit.
"Thank you for coming," she stated mechanically, "I've arranged a trip to the holding facility where we can do a lineup." She lead us out of the office. Ex and I accompanied her to her car as she explained the procedure that was to follow once we arrived at our destination. She described the tenuous nature of the case and talked a little about other aspects of the case.
"We want to have him tried as an adult," she said.
"What does that mean," I questioned.
"If we were to try him as a juvenile, the case would go to family court. At age twenty-five he could be back on the streets. If we try him as an adult, we can put him away for a long time, maybe forever. Because this is a capital case, we might even seek the death penalty."
"The death penalty?" questioned Ex.
"You're going to execute a sixteen year old kid?" Ex looked incredulously at her.
She looked at him as if the question was inappropriate. Her eyes conveyed a sense of simple minded self-righteousness.
"Your friend was no random victim," she stated.
"Why was he shot?" I questioned.
"It looks like it was a drug deal gone bad. I do know that Paolo received three kilos of cocaine, for which he was to pay $25,000. Both the cocaine and the money were in his apartment. But the cocaine wasn't pure. It was cut with something. That is to say it was mixed with something. We have a confidential informant that says that Paolo refused to pay for the product. The gentleman that I hope you pick out of the line-up was a debt collector. In the drug business, when someone feels cheated, they don't call a debt collector or go to court. They hire a hitman. Your friend's dead because he made a business decision. A good business decision, but with wrong people. Bad people."
We made our way through the city toward the jail. A light mist had come in and it started to rain. We arrived at the jail and were met by a police detective Eric Roberts, a bear of a man, who was expecting us. He greeted Portia by name and led us to a small theater like room. We waited for several minutes as Portia and he conferred about something, out of my earshot.
"This is just like the movies," said Ex.
A few minutes later a uniformed officer entered the room and told Roberts that everything was ready. Portia and he came over to me and Ex, admonishing me to look carefully.
"If you see the person you saw that night, identify him if you can. But only if you're positive. No maybe's. Got it?" she questioned.
I said that I understood. A few moments later detective Roberts gave the go ahead and six young men, all Latinos walked in and were lead onto the stage at the front of the room. They turned and faced us. Portia looked them over quickly and turned to me inquisitively. I saw him, second from the left. His face was burned in my mind. It was a face I could never forget.
"Do you recognize him?" questioned Portia.
"Did I recognize him?" I thought to myself. He was standing not thirty feet way from me. The kid who shot down Paolo was standing but a few paces away. Did I recognize him? Yes, I recognized him. Like standing in front of a mirror, the face that looked back at me was my own. He was nobody, nothing, had done nothing, came from nowhere, and would end up nowhere. If his ambitions where inspired, then his inspirations not ambitious. His life was a fleeting moment to be extinguished and forgotten.
Did I recognize him? Yes, it was Arturo on the stage, and David, and my father and Paolo. The death penalty? Destroy another young man? For what? No more death. No more dying. Did I recognize him?
"No, I don't see him. I don't recognize any of them."
"Greg, pick-up the phone...are you there. Greg? Call me back as soon as you get in. It's an emergency. Call the second you get in," demanded the message from Ana on my answering machine. There were five more like it. Each time Ana sounded more panicked. "Something's wrong with Claire. Please call back," and later, "Where the fuck are you? Jesus...Greg, call me." I picked up the phone and dialed Ana's place. She answered on the first ring.
"Ana? Greg. What the hell is going on?"
"Greg, fuck," she said with her voice trembling, "There's something wrong with Clara."
"What's wrong...Is she hurt? Let me speak with her."
"I don't know where she is. She left here a couple of hours ago. She's flipped. I think she's going to hurt somebody."
"I've never seen her like this. I mean, you know her, you know what she's like. She's unstable...but not like this. She has a knife."
"What did she say?"
"She's incoherent. I don't know if she is high or what. I've called the police. Maybe it would be better if you came..."
"It'll take me some time to get there, at least six hours."
"I'm on my way. But it's going to take awhile..."
"What is she doing with a knife?"
"I don't know. Just hurry. I can't believe I'm saying this, but she needs you now." She hung-up on me.
I put down the receiver gently. I was in shock. I slowly looked around the room. At first I didn't know what I was looking for. I got inspired and searched for my keys. I found them and thought about packing a bag. "Fuck it," I thought to myself and jumped into my car. I drove south as it got dark. The night became a dreadful shade of black, with only the bland, hypnotic pavement of the highway to keep me company. As I drove, my mind raced until my head ached. Every moment of the trip was tortuous.
The news of Clara's behavior, although unsettling, was not surprising. She had admitted that she was unstable. Yet, I had concealed the fact from my rational side, though in my heart I knew it was true. Ever since we collided in San Francisco, I hadn't recognized her. I desired the idea of Clara as I remembered her in the past, but instead I had fallen in love with her as she was, illogical, irrational, broken. If she hadn't already done something crazy, I could be sure that it was in the mail.
At ten o'clock at night I pulled up to Ana's place. I got out of the car and banged on the door so hard that I could hear the noise echoing in the loft. Ana came down. She looked terrible.
"She isn't back," she stated with a frustrated tone, "The police came by. Useless bastards."
"I don't know. She disappeared last night. You know, like she does sometimes. She came back today totally irrational. I think she's nuts."
"Do you have any idea of where she could be?"
"I have no idea. I'm scared. I can't stay here," she said desperately, "I'm afraid to go to sleep."
"Okay. It's alright," I said.
"Drive me to Bo's, will you?"
"Yes. Of course."
She climbed into the car. We drove as Ana explained that Clara had further deteriorated since I had left. She could no longer sleep through an entire night. When she did manage to sleep she would have terrible nightmares. After awhile Clara had become uncommunicative and withdrawn.
Ana didn't know how to deal with her, she having been frustrated in trying to get her help. I asked her why she hadn't called me sooner. She said that she suspected that I was responsible for Clara's condition. She only now turned to me because she had run out of options.
I escorted her to Bo's apartment and walked her to his front door. "Maybe you ought stay here," she suggested, "I don't think going back is a good idea."
"I want to be there if she comes back."
"Be careful," she warned, "Call me if she comes back."
I left Ana and went back to the loft. I pulled up in the back of the darkened building, then walked around to the front. The front door was ajar. I couldn't remember if Ana and I had accidently left it open or not. There were no lights on in the place. I slowly pushed the door open, quietly looking into the blackness. I crept up the stair case, trying to be silent. I came to the top of the stairs and looked around at the dark. I reached out, feeling for the light.
"You're back?" questioned Clara in a low, monotone voice.
There was a pause. "I can't see you," I continued. I couldn't find the light switch and fumbled around for it. My eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. I could make out her figure across the room, sitting at the edge of the bed.
"Don't turn on the light," she said.
"Are you alright?"
"She's worried about you. She called me down from San Francisco. Where have you been?"
"Come over and sit by me, please," she requested.
I hesitated a moment, then made my way toward her. I sat down next to her and looked at her shadowed face.
"Are you alright?" I asked.
"If I was, you wouldn't be here, would you?"
"Where were you tonight?"
"I went home."
Her answer confused me. "Where's home?" I questioned.
"Where my parents are."
"You found them?"
"It's funny, they're listed."
"Claire, tell me what happened."
"Greg," she said, then hesitated, "I think I killed my father." She stated the fact quite plainly, without emotion or regret.
"Clara..." My expression betrayed my horror. Clara reacted to my shock by softening her features. "He called me a whore. It was as if I was fourteen years old again." She moved close to me and put her hands in my lap. I took them into my own.
"I tore the old man down. He fell like a tree, an ancient redwood crashing in the forest. After I did it I looked up and saw the sun shining. It was so nice Greg. I wish you had been there. It's been so dark, for so long, don't you think so?"
I looked at her. I didn't know her. Maybe I'd never known her. It was like my friendship with Paolo. I didn't know anything about him until after he was dead. I spent my life running away from myself, and away from anybody that got too close.
Now it was over. I couldn't have her. She had made sure of that. She was all I wanted, to touch, feel, talk to, walk with, laugh with, dream with, and she was gone. They would take her away, and sentence me to live without her. I felt as if I were drowning, flailing about and trying to stay alive.
"Clara, we have to get out of here."
"Where to Greg? There's nowhere to go. Nowhere to run."
"Anywhere. They'll come for you. They're coming for you now. We have to leave."
"It's late," she said.
"Now Clara," I yelled, "Let's go."
I saw the face of her watch light up. "The new year is almost here," she reflected for a moment, "I know where we can go. Someplace where they won't find us. Not tonight anyway."
"Anywhere Clara, anywhere. Let's go."
I stood up and held out my hand. She took it and started to pick her self up off the bed when, through the opened down stairs door, we heard a car pull up. I quickly made my way over to the window and looked over the alley. My heart froze. A black and white police cruiser had pulled up. The engine shut off. I quickly moved over to Clara and grabbed her arm hard, then moved to the other side of the bed and forced her onto the floor. Someone knocked on the opened door.
"Police," he yelled out.
We remained silent. Clara fumbled with her purse. Two sets of foot steps could be heard coming up the stairs. I looked across the bottom of the bed and saw the dancing illumination of a flashlight. The officer called out again. Clara was making noise searching through her purse. I put my hand on top of her wrist to stop her. I could see two sets of shoes from under the bed.
"It looks empty," said one of the voices, "Nobody here."
I could feel my heart beating in my ears. I hoped that they couldn't hear it to. The flashlight scanned the room.
"The door was open. Looks like she came back," said the other voice, "She must have been here and left in a hurry."
The two of them made their way back down the stairs. I heard their voices as they discussed something just outside. The conversation lasted several minutes before I heard both doors of the car shut. There was a long period of silence before the car started up and slowly drove away. I was covered in a cold sweat. I looked over at Clara.
"What the hell were you doing with your purse?"
She pulled her hand out of her it. She was holding a knife, glinting silver.
"What the fuck are you thinking?" I yelled. I slapped the knife out of her hand. The blade caught the back of my hand and sliced it open. The knife careened across the floor and came to a rest. My hand started bleeding.
"You're hurting me," she yelled out.
"Fuck," I grabbed the back of my hand. "What were you going to do? Stick a cop?"
I put the back of my hand up to my mouth and sucked the blood, trying to stop the bleeding.
I got up off the ground and helped Clara up. "Stay here," I commanded. I went outside to ensure that the area was clear of police. It was a moment away from Clara that I would come to regret. I came back a few moments later and we left the place. Once outside, under the moon lit sky, I could see Clara clearly. She was wearing a black sweater, and baggy blue-jeans, patent leather shoes with buckles, on one side of her head she had a barrette, holding back her hair. She looked like a little girl dressed for school. It was hard to believe that she could hurt anyone.
We climbed into the car and drove off. Clara directed me as we drove through the back alleys and dingy streets of the area. "Turn here...No, left." I turned onto the street. The road was in disrepair and the car bounced up and down as I drove down its length. On our left was an open lot with a raised roadway passing through it, and on our right were darkened buildings. I spotted a man standing on the corner where the road ended into another.
"Stop over there," Clara said, pointing to the man.
I drove down to the man and stopped. He was dressed in a long coat and looked to be in his early twenties. He peered suspiciously through the windshield at the two of us. Clara rolled down her window.
"What's going on?" I questioned.
"Shhh," she replied.
The man leaned down toward Clara and spoke, giving her an address and directions. She rolled up the window and told me to drive. Confused, I put the car in gear. We drove for a few blocks and turned down another dark street, where there were cars parked everywhere. We parked with the rest of them, in the middle of nowhere, a nondescript area of urban decay. There were no residential houses around, just blocks of warehouses and broken down old buildings.
"How much money do you have?" she asked.
"I don't know." I dug through my pockets as she searched her purse.
"Twenty-two dollars," I said.
"Good enough. We have it."
I listened. I could hear the faint, heavy base of acid-house music echoing through the buildings.
Clara and I walked up a long driveway, switching back and forth, ending in a parking lot on top of the old brick building we were climbing. The top of the driveway, and part of the parking lot, were covered by a suspended tarp, attempting to camouflage the activity underneath from the prying eyes of the omni-present police helicopters. We reached the top of the building, coming to a line of tables blocking our path. Music thumped in the background, emanating from inside of the building.
Clara took our money and gave it to a man sitting behind a table. He stamped our hands and we slithered into the building. We entered the structure through a door, into an aqua colored area, and continued through another door which led to an old rickety wooden staircase. From the top of the stairs was a panoramic view of the inside of the building. It was an abandoned warehouse that had been illegally requisitioned.
I looked down over the edge of the staircase, three stories down, at the clutter of people, glowing under the black light. Tucked in one corner of the place was an air-tent in the shape of a big clown head. I could see people jumping up and down inside of it. Centered against the north wall was the D.J., elevated eight or ten feet above the floor. Suspended from the ceiling were painted set-like placards that beautifully reflected the black light with neon yellows, pinks and greens. There was a warped clock, the ghostly smile of the Cheshire cat and a big tea pot, amongst others. Alice, of wonderland, made a towering appearance against the far wall, opposite the Mad-Hatter. She appeared to gaze over the crowd with a rather disturbing expression.
Clara tapped me on the shoulder and led me down the three flights of stairs. We descended into this den of hopelessness, where it seemed everybody was celebrating the coming of the apocalypse. The place smelled of stale beer, sweat, cigarettes and marijuana. Yet the overbearing odor in the room was that of clove cigarettes. Their smoke filled the room, choking me as I made my way down. We arrived at the bottom, into the hundreds of people covering the floor. People were dancing to the hypnotic bass, twisting and bending, contorting their bodies, boy with girl, boy with boy, girl with girl. They spanned the spectrum, some conventional, others fitted in bazaar costumes. There was a man dressed as a clown, a woman in a wedding dress, another not dressed at all. I glimpsed people as I looked around, and they would disappear, swallowed up by the crowd.
The heat was oppressive. We managed to fight our way over to the crudely constructed bar, the only concession being beer. I took one and drank it quickly, then had another. Clara started dancing and I joined her. She shimmied in front of me, shaking her body provocatively. She put her thigh between my legs and rubbed it against me. She grabbed my waist and drew me to her like a girl looking to score. She was concentrating hard on what she was doing. This was not play, but instead work, like sex. I put my leg between hers and she rubbed herself up and down, side to side, moving her hips. I grabbed her from behind and pulled her to me. We grinded against each other, keeping the cadence. She pouted her lips and closed her eyes, then turned her head to the side. She pushed me away and we were free of each other. We continued like this until both of us, like the others, were covered in perspiration. I looked around. The Queen of Hearts caught my eye and then disappeared from my consciousness.
We seemed to dance for a long time. My mind was free of worry. I made everything disappear from my mind, everything except Clara. She seemed to fit perfectly into the atmosphere. This was her element, a kind of decadent anarchy. I looked at her face. She displayed no emotion. She was meditating, or in a trance induced by motion.
At ten minutes to midnight, the D.J. announced the time. The excitement began to build as the crowd anticipated the beginning of the New Year. People raced around, pairing up, or desperately searching for someone with which to hook-up. A man skipped through the crowd, dispensing pills. He handed a few to Clara and she offered them to me. I declined. "What are they?" I asked. "I don't know. Ecstasy, I think" she replied. She swallowed the pills. It didn't matter anymore. It was all meaningless now. We had nothing to lose.
The music started up again and the crowd lit up. Clara and I continued to dance, close to each other, but lost in our own thoughts. At five minutes to twelve, the D.J. again announced the time. Clara moved closer to me and we danced together. After a few minutes, she stopped and put her arms around my waist. I raised my hand to the back of her neck and held her close. We stood in the middle of the insanity. I felt her crying. She pulled on my waist and I held her hard. I wanted to say something, but I had no words to offer. We stood for what seemed a long time. Clara raised her head and looked at me. Her eyes were wet, but she managed to smile.
"I've made a lot of mistakes since we were kids, huh?" she said.
I stood motionless. She held me tight, "I wish," she started, "Oh, I don't know what."
The collective count-down began, "10, 9, 8..." At midnight I kissed Clara. It was a tragic kiss. I continued to hold her. After a little while I took her hand and together we escaped from the place. We walked down the long driveway on towards the car. When we arrived, she sat down on the hood and put her face in her hands.
"Look at us," she said, "broken people with nothing... except each other."
"We're not broken," I said. She smiled as I continued, "We just pursue life with a vigorous disregard for convention."
"A reckless disregard for our self-interests."
"Unconventional doesn't mean self-destructive."
"I don't want to be unconventional anymore. I've been unconventional for too long. I want to live. It's our turn. Don't you think so?"
"I'm so tired. I'm tired of having nothing. I want something."
"I want so much. Maybe a home, you know? A family...A little baby. Just a little one. I just want one. Can we have that Greg? Just say yes."
Under the circumstances it was an impossible question. But it was her fantasy and time was running out. It was time to live for the moment and escape from the future. The future, as it had always been, was a distant evil to be forgotten and ignored.
"Yes," I answered dishonestly.
We drove back to San Francisco.
I started up the fire. Clara sat on the floor in front of it, undressed and wrapped up in a blanket. I went to the kitchen area and turned the heat on under a pot of water. When the water boiled I made hot chocolate and spiked it with peppermint liqueur. I handed a cup to Clara. She smiled weakly and took it in both hands, sipping from the cup and looking deep into the fire. I sat down next to her. She opened the blanket and wrapped me in it. The smell of charred pine dulled my mind. I listened to the wood crack and pop. My gaze followed the sparkes as they escaped up the chimney. Clara and I were silent for a long time.
She finished her chocolate and put the cup on the floor. I asked her if she wanted another. She didn't. She reached around and held me. The room warmed up. Clara took off the blanket and lay down on it. I kissed her, then put my head down on a pillow, next to her's, and looked into her eyes.
"Are you mad at me?" she questioned.
"I could never be mad at you," I said.
"I wish I hadn't done it."
"So do I."
"But I had to," she said defensively.
"My father was evil. I hope you believe that. He wouldn't let me sleep. He invaded my dreams, kept me from living. Can you understand?"
"I think I understand. Kind of how I feel about Paolo dying."
"It was a pyrrhic victory, wasn't it?"
"If you say so."
"It would have been wonderful, me and you, huh?"
"We're good together."
"Did you want kids?"
"That's too many," she smiled, "How about just one?"
"You're not going to be disappointed with only one, are you?"
I reached around her and pulled her to me.
"Do you want to make one now?" she asked.
I gently brushed her naked waist with the tips of my fingers. Her body was an erotic feast to the senses. Touching her made me hungry. Tasting her made me famished. A delicate rose in bloom, she spread her pedals. She poured out honey as I licked her up.
Yet, the moment was essenced with a hint of sorrow. Clara was a rose who's stem had been cut, only to blossom and wither. But for the moment, she was a rose in God'both hands, sipping from the cup and looking deep into the fire. I sat down next to her. She opened the blanket and wrapped me in it. The smell of charred pine dulled my mind. I listened to the wood crack and pop. My gaze followed the sparkes as they escaped up the chimney. Clara and I were silent for a long time.
She finished her chocolate and put the cup on the floor. I asked her ew Roman">"Already?"
"Boy or girl?" I asked.
"I don't care," she responded.
"What shall we name it?"
"Oh, I don't think it matters, does it?"
"We could name it Paolo. I mean if you wanted to."
I was silent. Her words caught me by surprise and struck me hard. The thought behind them was profound. With just their suggestion my eyes began to tear. A peace fell over me, a peace so deep as to reach down to my tattered soul and settle it, a peace I hadn't felt since before Paolo had died.
The underlying melancholy that had painted my world black, and seasoned it bitter, began to dissipate. It had been so dark, for so long. Memories of Paolo came rushing into my mind. Not only had he died, but he had lived. From inside of Clara's womb, he was reborn.
I looked to Clara. She smiled at me. "Are you alright?" she asked empathetically. She held me and understood. From this perspective I now understood her. She was no longer the broken girl she had been for so long. She had freed herself from that, and now she freed me. I now understood why she had stabbed her father. She had no alternative. He had been an overwhelming shadow, lurking in the recesses of her being. She had torn the old man down so that she might stand in the light. It had been so dark, for so long.
"We're not going to make it, are we?" she whispered.
"No, I don't think so."
"Like when were kids, huh?" she smiled, "I can't come with you, can I?" she said. A tear rolled down her face. "They're going to take me way."
Clara. Not this time. This time I'm coming with you.
We'll take the trip together.”
smiled at me. Her lips
parted slightly. I could
feel her breathing. Her
breath was a gentle rhythm, inviting me to fall asleep.
woke a short time later when I subconsciously felt Clara moving about. I opened my eyes, still sleepy.
Clara was seated on the blanket with her purse next to her as
she searched through it.
going on?” I asked.
back to sleep,” she whispered.
drifted off. It was a
shallow sleep, sweetened with the spiritual spice Clara had delivered
to me. I was content, no
longer living in the future, I was living for the moment.
Moments were all we had left.
felt Clara reach around and hold me.
She lay still and whispered in my ear, “I love you Greg.
I love you with all my heart.”
body was warm against mine. I
could feel her warmth around me, spilling onto me, spilling all over
me. We lay like this for a long time, until Clara no longer held
me tight, until she was no longer warm.
woke and found the bed soaked and stained a crimson red.
I sat up quickly. Frantically
I called out Clara's name, trying to rouse her.
Clara didn't stir. Her
eyes were closed as she slept. It
was a deep sleep, a sleep that would last forever.
Behind her I found the knife I’d seen her with earlier, the
knife with which she had cut down her father.
It looked like a cross onto which Clara had been nailed. I picked it up and looked at it.
The blade was still wet, but unquenched.
people are dying and you wouldn't know it,” Clara had said. The words had meaning beyond their content.
She seemed to quote her own destruction.
turned down to see Clara. I
lay down in front of her. I
reached up and brushed back her bangs with my hand and let my finger
tips run down her face to her cheek.
I studied her face, looking at her eyes, nose, and lips.
I looked up at the little stud in her nose.
My eyes fell down to her neck, where I found the pendant I had
given her. I held it in my
one arm over Clara's waist, and the other's hand under her neck, I
pulled her towards me and held her tight.
I kissed her lips gently, as might a young boy do on his first
date, delicately touching her lips and trying not to offend her.
With my lips close to her ear, I whispered to her, “Good-bye