In college, you found your way into film by accident when a scheduling mishap landed you in a film theory class. Almost immediately, you became transfixed by the luminous black and white films on the big screen—Bergman in particular, whose dense, analytical explorations were like the discussions you’d grown up on at your own kitchen table, sandwiched between your psychiatrist parents, who would discuss the dilemmas of their patients over dinner. One afternoon, sitting in the dark theater watching
, your professor’s hand rounded your shoulder—three hours later you were up in his apartment on Everit Street rolling around on his filthy sarouk. On the outside, your professor was like some gloomy storybook creature with greenish flesh and spiky hair and teeth like caramel corn—all the girls in his class made fun of him—and yet he needed you so desperately that he was infinitely giving and generous. Making love on his lumpy futon, you learned one of the most important lessons of your life, that there were benefits to fucking smart men who were losers in the looks department—he had dark, serious eyes and elegant manners and a very efficient penis. So grateful was he for your affection that he did whatever it took to please you and although you were not beautiful he made you feel as if you were. Over suppers of greasy pad Thai he taught you everything he knew about film and you would go to the movies together, to the art cinema, and eat buttery popcorn, your hands mingling inside the bucket. You would whisper throughout the film, critically and admiringly, and then dissect it on your way home. You didn’t know it then, but you were learning a language that would be useful to you later, and would convey the deepest aspects of your being. What you realize now is that you are still learning this language, and you are not yet fluent. You are still only dreaming about the films you want to make—dare you admit it—films that have the power to change lives. Your affair with the professor ended abruptly when you graduated, but you still think about him from time to time, one of the few men who ever truly satisfied you. Through the grapevine you have heard he’s still in New Haven, married to an art historian. Of course you know it is impossible to ever meet again. You are a Famous Hollywood Producer; you do not socialize with people from your past.
Several days later, when you return to the house on Los Feliz Boulevard, the car has been moved. Now it is parked in the driveway; perhaps it has been sold. A familiar churning grips your belly, part pain, part desire—the same sort of ache you get when you hear a pitch you like—and the car becomes something you have to have—what you fondly characterize as
a must-have item
. The Mexican woman answers the door. Perhaps it is because of what you do, your experience with images, your ability to make an instant assessment, that you understand that she is a woman who is at once magnificently beautiful and yet accustomed to being ignored. Her dark hair frames her face, her black eyes, her full lips.
“I’ve come about the car? Is it still for sale?”
She shakes her head,
“No es un buen momento,”
and gestures to the old man, who is slumped in a wheelchair in the living room, gazing out the window at the boulevard.
“Su esposa murió recientemente.”
“Let her in,” he says.
“Ella quiere información sobre el automóvil.”
The woman shakes her head again, as though she is disappointed, but lets you in, waving her dishtowel after you like a bullfighter. The house is grand and yet there is something sad and forgotten about it. For a moment you just stand there, taking it in. You guess that it was built in the twenties. The ceilings are impossibly high, painted with cherubs like the Sistine Chapel. As you stand there under a crystal chandelier you feel a sudden chill, as if someone is running their fingers through your hair.
“Please.” The woman ushers you into the living room.
The old man does not turn, only waves you near with his withered hand. The room is large, cluttered with beautiful old things. The large picture window is framed in green and yellow glass, filling the room with colored shadows. Blocks of light scatter the room as if you are inside a kaleidoscope. The corners of the window are cloudy with condensation, blurring the monstrous trees outside. The effect is like an old dream you cannot fully remember, one that supplied a revelation at the time that you could not fully grasp. The rain falls hard, you can hear it running through the gutters, and it occurs to you that the house is weeping.
“Please,” the woman shows you to the couch, a green velvet loveseat that is like the beard of an ogre, with horsehairs poking through the cushions.
The old man turns and reaches out for your hand. His is cold and thin.
“My wife,” he says, shaking his head. He takes out a handkerchief and blots his eyes.
“Maybe I should go,” you say.
The housekeeper scolds,
“¡Quizás es demasiado pronto!”
“No, it’s not too soon. Make us some tea, my dear Flora.”
Again, the man shows you his sad eyes. “She loved the car. It was a birthday present. I bought it for her fortieth birthday.”
“I’m so sorry.”
He nods appreciatively. “She was spectacular.” He hands you a photograph. “I saw her once; that was all it took. I knew.”
You study the photograph of the man’s wife. “She was very beautiful.”
“Have you ever had that feeling?”
“When you are completely certain about something. It’s like you have finally been roused from sleep.”
“I don’t know,” you admit. “Yes, I think so.” If you are certain about anything, it is your own inability to find love—true love—and the idea that there is a person out there who might recognize something in you that he finds undeniably essential seems like a ridiculous dream.
“We are all sleeping,” the man says. “Sleeping through life.”
“I know. You’re right, it’s true.”
“And then we die.” He looks at you and nods. “And there’s nothing left.”
you think. You sit for a moment listening to the rain. Flora brings the tea on a tray, the cups trembling on their saucers. She sets the tray down on a coffee table. To be polite, you drink the tea, but really what you’d like is a glass of vodka. The tea is sweet. It tastes of lavender honey.
The old man sips his tea then asks what you do for a living.
“I’m in the film business. I’m a producer.”
“Ah,” he laughs. “That’s a good profession.”
“It’s a good car for you, then.”
“I thought it might be.”
“People will be impressed.”
“I’m not trying to impress anyone.”
You shake your head. “I don’t care what people think.”
The man looks at you curiously. “Are you sure?”
“I just like old cars.”
“But this isn’t really true, what you say about not caring. I can see many qualities in you and apathy is not one of them. I know about making impressions on people. I was in a similar profession.”
“What was it?”
He digs around in his pockets and produces two fat little parakeets, one in each hand. He lets them go and they fly around the room.
“A magician,” you say, laughing.
“Yes. But do you want to know the trouble with magic? It is its own worst enemy. And since we are both in the business of making illusions, we can understand each other, yes? An illusion makes the impossible, possible. And yet it is the worst kind of trickery.” He smiles as if this is obvious, showing his imperfect teeth. “For example, I could not save my wife with it.”
You nod with sympathy, understanding.
“I can make people believe, because it makes them happy to believe. The possibility that there is something else, something larger than ourselves. Something beyond what we can imagine. Something inexplicable.”
“Like God,” you say.
“Or heaven,” he says. “Do you believe in heaven?”
You think about it for a moment. “Yes,” you say finally. “Because it’s better than dirt and worms.”
He reaches out for your hand. “Let me hold your hand a moment.”
“All right.” You give him your hand.
“You are very warm,” he says, giving it back. “You have good circulation.”
“You see, there is an explanation behind every phenomenon.” He smiles meaningfully.
“Ella no quiere escuchar un sermón, viejo,”
“A ella le gusta el automóvil, déjala manejarlo.”
“Pero ella se ve muy triste,”
he says to the woman.
“Sí, sí, el auto la va a hacer feliz.”
You don’t know what they’re talking about and you don’t mind not knowing. It’s pleasant to be sitting in such a grand room, drinking tea, and you like the sound of the Spanish, a beautiful language. Tea in the afternoon is nice, you think, resenting the fact that you have become an American fool, always rushing from one insipid activity to another. Your life, you conclude, is a series of neurotic solutions to the inevitability of death. Your diets and remedies, your trainers, your amino acids and vitamins, your ineffectual therapist, your personal masseuse.
“Flora says I’m lecturing you. I should let you drive the car. You don’t have all day to be sitting around with me. You are busy, an important person.”
“Not so important.” You suddenly don’t like the adjective. It is true that, in the context of your life, you are important; you make enormous decisions; you control millions of dollars; people wait for your calls. But thinking about it now, in relation to your conversation with the old man, you are not so sure. What good have you really done? Who have you helped? How deeply have you felt about anything? Maybe everything you’ve accomplished is meaningless. “I’m in no hurry.”
“Do you want to drive it?”
“Maybe not today, with the rain.”
“You’re hesitant. I can see it in your eyes. You’re thinking it wasn’t smart to come here. You don’t usually do things like this.”
“Buy things from strangers.”
“That’s true, but this is different.”
“I am not a stranger, yes?”
You smile at him. “I don’t want to trouble you. I’m sorry about your wife.”
“We are all strangers to each other.” He smiles.
“Flora, dale las llaves del auto.”
Flora disappears for a few minutes and when she returns you hear the tinkling sound of the keys and see them now in Flora’s hand. To your surprise there is a rabbit’s foot on the keychain. It is a white rabbit’s foot and when you hold it in your hand you can feel the tiny bones beneath the fur. The bony foot makes your hand sweat.
Flora smiles regretfully, as if she feels badly about whatever she has been saying to the old man and you can tell she’s decided to like you.
“We can all use a little luck,” the old man says.
“Luck is good,” you say.
“Take it for a spin, see what you think.”
“Are you sure?”
“You want to try it, don’t you? That’s why you’re here?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Jackie O. drove that car, did you know that?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Hers was green.”
“It’s a beautiful car,” you say.
Flora walks you to the door.
“Le gusta usted,”
she says, gesturing to the old man.
“No como los demás.”
You shrug, you don’t understand.
“The others.” She shakes her head. “He don’t like.
He like you.”
Now you nod and smile.
“Usted puede conducir alrededor del vecindario.”
With her hand, she draws a circle in the air to explain, then hands you the keys. “Take your time.”
The rain has stopped, but the sky has a greenish tint and you know it will rain some more. The wind is strong. It gusts at your skirt, your hair, deconstructing the image you so carefully assembled this morning and that has now become completely irrelevant. You yank out your shirt, loosen your collar. You’d like to remove your stockings and heels and just be barefoot, but you suppose it’s not a good idea under the circumstances. The car waits for you in the driveway. There is a gust of wind and a splattering of rain and then something strange happens—the sun beams through the clouds, so bright that for several seconds you are blinded by it—and then just as abruptly it vanishes, leaving you cold. Another gust of wind sweeps the For Sale sign off the windshield and into the air. You watch the piece of paper sail through the air to the ground, rest a moment, then resume its flight down the grassy incline, into the road where it is swiftly trampled by a passing car.
The car is not locked. You climb into it, laughing a little, feeling like a movie star. For a moment you just sit there, smelling the old leather, the faintest scent of roses. Inside the glove compartment—what a strange old term it is—
—you find a pair of gloves. They are white calf and luxurious. You try them on, but they are too small. You do not have thin, elegant hands like the magician’s dead wife. Your hands are square, simply manicured, the nails cut short. You examine the paperwork. The old man’s wife was named Inez. In the photo he’d shown you she was wearing heavy beads and a white blouse and long dangling earrings with stones. You say her name aloud,
. You put the key into the ignition and the engine fires up. You laugh out loud like a child. As Flora suggested, you drive around the neighborhood, passing large elegant homes with empty yards. You never see people outside. It’s the strangest thing about L.A.—beautiful lawns with no one on them. It makes you feel as though you are the last woman on earth after some apocalypse. It is one of the reasons you took the house in your neighborhood; you like the street, the crooked sidewalks, the eclectic collection of neighbors. It reminds you of where you grew up, in the “poor” section of Short Hills, near Millburn Village. At night, from your bedroom window overlooking the backyard, you’d watch the trains fly past full of sleepy commuters on their way home from the city. The modified ranch had a separate section where your parents saw their patients, totally removed from the rest of the house. On your days off from school, you’d see them—the patients—pulling up in their cars, trying not to look conspicuous, walking up the short driveway and slipping through the side entrance, a door with a small rectangular window of shaded glass. As a kid, your parents’ profession embarrassed you. You rarely had friends over after school; if you did, you’d spy on the patients and make fun of them, but you never really thought it was funny. In high school, a brilliant student, you retreated into your studies. The other kids despised you. You had one or two friends, both nerds. Sometimes you’d go to their houses, large, immaculate homes full of breakable things. It would occur to you much later, after you’d finished at the conservatory and entered the work force in Hollywood, that the gatekeepers of the film industry were, for the most part, a collection of neurotics and social incompetents just like you. Unlike the high school cheerleaders and handsome football stars who populated their films, they had been gloomy, brainy misfits—now they were the arbiters of the cultural landscape, constructing dreamy fake-realities that had precious little to do with any of them.