He had never really thought about it—not really—at least not nearly enough. The truth was he didn’t have a clue. Instead of prolonging the conversation he leaned over and kissed her. He pushed his tongue deep into her mouth as if the words he needed to answer the question might be inside of it somewhere, waiting for him to fish them out.
Back in his motel room, he lay on the bed watching TV with the sound turned off, drinking warm whiskey. The bedspread was gold and shiny, with a design that reminded him of something you’d find under a microscope. It frightened him to think that bugs might crawl on him while he slept. He watched the television, the onslaught of images, one after another. On the way home from Santa Monica he’d stopped at a package store and when he’d come out he’d caught someone pissing on his car. For the next half hour, he’d driven around looking for a car wash, the smell of urine filling his nostrils, but none of the car washes were open. He’d showered, but he could still smell it. The incident had upset him. The world outside his window seemed too loud. The barking dog across the street. The crowds down on the sidewalk. Strange laughter coming from one of the rooms. He dozed off and woke to the sound of something banging against the wall in the room next door. It came to him, in his drowsy state, that his neighbors were having sex. It was a sound that you knew when you heard it, he thought. When he could no longer stand it, he left the room and went down to the street. He considered calling Ida, but thought better of it. She hadn’t invited him over after their date. Instead, he had kissed her leisurely and helped her into her car. He walked down to Hollywood Boulevard and watched the people on the sidewalks. Kids walking in groups. Sunburned girls with long straight hair, smelling of shampoo. Boys in baggy jeans, dripping chains, their underwear sticking out. Tourists; people from faraway lands, speaking languages he could not understand.
The freeway out to the airport was thick with traffic. It was only eleven o’clock, people were still going out. The night was young. He realized he was in a desperate frame of mind. He had to concentrate very hard on the road. His mouth was very dry and had the sour aftertaste of the whiskey. Drinking had been a mistake, he thought. His evening with Ida, too, had been an error of judgment, for he was in no position to be in any sort of a relationship with any woman other than his wife.
His cell phone rang. Hugh glanced at his watch. It was half past eleven, three hours later in Montclair.
“I need to know what’s going on,” his wife said.
“Marion, what are you doing up so late?”
“I can’t sleep. I want you to come home.”
He didn’t say anything.
“Look,” he said. “I can’t.”
“I don’t know how to say this—I mean—I wanted to tell you in person.”
“Tell me what?”
“Look, it’s not working out.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Us. Our marriage.”
“What are you saying, Hughie? What are you
“I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m saying.”
“It’s because of me, isn’t it? It’s because I can’t—”
“It’s not because of that,” he cut her off. “It has nothing to do with that.”
“I don’t know what to do,” she said.
“Do what you always do.” He pictured her twirling stem-tape on roses, watering all the plants in the greenhouse where she worked. Sometimes she came home with her fingertips pricked. When things were better between them, he would take her hands and kiss the tiny wounds.
“They called from work,” she said. “I told them you were sick.”
I am sick,
I’m very ill.
“Why didn’t you tell me about the promotion? They think it’s why you’re not there. They think you’re upset.”
“She was more qualified for the job,” he said. “I’ve come to terms with it.”
“But you’ve been there longer, Hughie. It wasn’t fair.”
Marion didn’t know the whole truth about why he hadn’t gotten the promotion. He’d made the mistake of making a pass at his competitor, a neatly wrapped blonde in a JCPenney suit. It had been a foolish thing to do, he understood that fully now, and yet at the time, after drinking half a dozen martinis at the annual Christmas party, he’d felt pretty certain that their interest in each other was mutual. In retrospect, putting his hand on her ass under the festering gazes of his superiors probably wasn’t a great idea. He’d forced himself on her later in the coatroom, among the guileless hunkering overcoats of his coworkers. He’d had her pressed against the wall, fragrant and ripe—and then she’d come to her senses. She’d slapped him across the face and walked out, threatening to sue him for sexual harassment. Obviously, she’d used the mishap to her advantage.
“She has her MBA. Look, it’s out of my hands.” The traffic came to a sudden halt; he had to slam on his brakes. He watched the people in the car behind him take the jolt. The lights of an ambulance flared in his rearview mirror. The promotion would have meant a lot more money, a better office on a better floor. More vacation time. His own assistant. “I didn’t want it anyway,” he lied.
His wife didn’t say anything and for a moment he wondered if he’d lost her.
“Marion? Are you there?”
“I feel like I’m disappearing. You don’t see me anymore.”
“Don’t be so dramatic.”
“We used to be fine. We were fine before you left.”
We were not fine.
“Look, Marion, I have to go.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow.” He closed his phone, disconnecting the call. It wasn’t nice, he knew, to hang up on his wife. As a result, she would be up all night, and yet he didn’t care. He was glad he wasn’t with her—glad he would never return to their stilted little house with its singing Disney birds and garbage cans or to his cubicle on the thirtieth floor of the tower of immutable suffering otherwise known as the Equitable Life Insurance Company. The truth of it was he didn’t give a good goddamn about the promotion.
An ambulance reeled past. The cars inched along. Finally, he passed the accident. A car had smashed into the divider. Luckily, his was the next exit. Once off the freeway, the road was clear. He pulled into the airport and wound up to long-term parking, just as he had done earlier that afternoon. The alcohol had given him a headache, and he felt slightly disoriented as he passed through the gate. He drove over to section H. Some of the streetlights were blinking and when he put his window down he could hear the buzzing of electricity and it made him consider how small he was in the scope of things. There were people out there who controlled things—things like lights and traffic. He was just a small part of the great epic drama called humanity, he thought.
The lot seemed eerily quiet. There didn’t seem to be any planes taking off. No people around either. It was the weekend; you’d think it would be crowded, but it wasn’t crowded at all. He had decided that, this time, he was going to save her. He was going to open the trunk and get her out. But as he drove around the lot again, retracing his steps, it occurred to him that the car wasn’t there. He drove around a second time. There was no mistake. The car had moved. It was gone.
Perhaps she had actually gotten out, he thought. Perhaps, by some stroke of incredible luck, she’d freed her hands and pulled the tape off her mouth. Perhaps someone had heard her cries and been determined to save her. It had been one of her complaints with the scene—the woman screaming in a crowded parking lot without being saved—she’d said she didn’t buy it, but now that her mouth was taped there would be no crying for help. There would be no chance of anyone hearing her. And the car would be stolen by some unassuming thief. Problem solved, he thought. With a few simple modifications, he had addressed her complaints. He had to admit, she’d been right; the scene was far more convincing now.
Still, strange things happened. Everyday miracles like the ones in those supermarket newspapers.
This time he got a woman at the gate. More interested in her cell phone conversation than in his strangely brief visit to the long-term parking lot, she let him through without even looking at him. Hugh drove back to Los Feliz, foolishly challenging the speed limits, and turned onto Lomita Avenue. The street was quiet, lit with the old gas lamps. He parked at the curb across the street from her house. To his surprise, a light burned in the tall arched window. Was it
? His heart began to beat—perhaps it was true—he felt almost giddy with relief. She had survived his cruel joke—that’s what it had been—a joke—no real harm intended! The gun hadn’t even been loaded! He had only wanted to teach her a lesson. And she’d been victorious after all—miraculously, someone had heard her cries and freed her—kind soul!
And yet, as he crossed the street and approached the house, he grew increasingly uncertain. He saw a man inside her living room, his shadow looming monstrously on the wall. It was Chase’s boyfriend—the filmmaker—pacing and shouting into a cell phone. Hugh dropped back into the shadows and walked down the driveway, hearing a rattling salsa in the house next door. Through a gap in the curtains he could see the neighbor dancing with one of his lady friends in his undershorts, the woman in her bra and panties.
The boyfriend’s jeep was parked in the garage. Chase’s car was nowhere in sight.
Hugh deliberated his options. It was possible that she was there—that perhaps the car had been left somewhere. Perhaps she hadn’t been able to drive, he thought. He pictured her tucked into bed, recovering from her ordeal, a cup of tea at her side. The boyfriend on the phone with the police. And yet her bedroom was dark. It seemed unlikely that she was there.
“Who is it?” the man said from behind the door.
“I must have the wrong address,” Hugh said.
The door opened and the boyfriend stood there, taller than Hugh had anticipated, and bigger, but he did not really look like a fighter, his eyes were too kind. “Who do you want?”
“I’m looking for Hedda Chase.”
The man just stood there.
“I know it’s late. Forgive me, is this—” Hugh took an old receipt out of his pocket and glanced at it. “Thirty-one Lomita?”
“You got the right address.” The man had a slight Southern accent. “And you’re right, it’s late. Very late, in fact. What do you want?”
“She told me to stop by tonight.”
“Really? When did you speak to her?”
The man looked surprised. “You spoke to her this morning?”
“She called my hotel and left a message. We’ve been playing phone tag.”
“That’s one of Hedda’s favorite games. Who are you?”
Hugh considered giving a false name, but then thought better of it. The man looked smart, intuitive; he might sense Hugh was lying. “My name’s Hugh. Hugh Waters.” Saying it aloud felt like an accomplishment and he felt himself blushing. He extended his hand; they shook. The man looked over Hugh’s shoulder at the Mercedes across the street. “I’m from New York. We knew each other a long time ago. I’m here on business.”
“She’s never mentioned you. Not that it matters, there are lots of things she doesn’t tell me.”
“I’m only in town a few days,” Hugh said. “I was having dinner near here with some friends.” He mentioned the name of a Japanese restaurant he had passed on Vermont Avenue, one with a bold neon sign. “I was driving by and saw the lights. I figured I’d give it a shot.”
“She’s not here. I’m waiting for her myself.”
“I’m sorry I missed her.”
“I don’t know where she is.”
“Tell her I stopped by.” Hugh turned to leave.
“I was just about to have a drink if you want to join me. Maybe she’ll show up.”
“No, I don’t want to trouble you.”
“It’s no trouble.” The man opened the door wider, inviting him in. “Whiskey all right?”
It wasn’t a good idea, but Hugh said, “All right. Sure, why not?” He stepped inside.
“New York, huh? Circa when?”
“Just after college. We worked for the same company,” he said, retrieving the information he’d found on Wikipedia. For a brief period of time Chase had worked in an advertising agency. “Rollins and Beck. It was a long time ago.”
The man led him into the living room. “I seem to remember something about that. What was she like back then?”
“Popular,” Hugh said meaningfully, and smiled.
“She does have that talent for celebrity.”
Hugh nodded and tried to swallow. “You haven’t told me your name.”
“It’s Tom. Tom Foster.” He glanced at Hugh to see if he recognized it.
“Why does that sound familiar?” Hugh said, even though it didn’t.
“I make documentaries.”
“Used to be interesting. Now it’s complicated and expensive.”
Hugh was suddenly desperate for that drink.
“Hedda calls it my
phase.” He looked at Hugh to see if he understood.
“Preston Sturges,” Hugh said. “He was a genius.”
“I suppose, after three films, it’s no longer a phase.”
The liquor was set up on a little cart. While Tom fixed him a drink, Hugh began to wonder if perhaps it was a trick—he scanned the room, the dark rectangle of her bedroom doorway, but saw nothing, and when Tom turned with the whiskey he smiled at Hugh and the smile seemed genuine. Hugh tried to relax. He took the glass with his left hand, knowing that the presence of his wedding ring might suggest some aspect of normalcy and stability, when in reality it was more a symbol, at least to Hugh, of everything that was wrong in his life.
“Thanks,” Hugh said.
Hugh raised his glass in a silent toast and took a sip. The whiskey was bitter; it burned his throat.
“Have a seat.”
“Thanks.” Hugh sat down on Chase’s couch, in the same spot where she had lain the night before. It was hard not to picture her there, the way she’d looked after the pills kicked in, totally motionless, her eyes stuck on the ceiling. At one point he had touched her forehead to make sure she was warm, the way you’re supposed to be when you’re alive.