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A magazine of poetry and related arts straight from L.A.

 

Fascination


 

 

 

Paul Mandelbaum

 

 

from The Art Lovers

Toti O'Brien, Una mas love letter

 

Visualize seduction. And self-confidence. Gravitas, too, but especially seduction. So many people in L.A. seem to get what they want. Is this how they start? By assuming it’s already theirs?

Picture your own allure and drive toward it. Hey, that’s not bad: toward the idea of your own irresistible allure you’re now driving, albeit around and around the same block. Don’t be scared. What’s the worst that can happen? She says no—again. But this time you’re bringing something special to the table. Something guaranteed to set you apart.

There’s a parking spot next to that bright red Ferrari. He’s a little over the line, so you have to squeeze in slowly. Slowly. Ferraris back in Minnesota, should they even exist, don’t park in front of strip-malls. You ogle the muscular car, empty and topless, keys dangling from its ignition. Who forgets their keys in a quarter-million dollar car? How loaded must someone be to afford such carelessness?

Don’t lose focus. Visualize success. Keep up the irresistible allure. Gravitas and confidence. Damn, he’s taking up even more of your space than you reckoned, Mr. Ferrari is; there’s barely room to open your door and climb out. Why can’t everyone color within the lines?

On the sidewalk now, breathing the balmy November air, you lock your new car, remotely, magically—electronic chirp, sweet as birdsong. True, your initial plan to buy a Civic would have been more prudent, but the salesman pointed out, quite forcefully, here in L.A. everybody leases. “With the Acura, you’re getting more for less,” he argued. “And the ladies can’t help but respond.”

Sure, technically the car isn’t “yours,” but you’ll gladly take any mating advantage you can get in this new land. With the electronic key fob, you relock the doors one more time before striding with great purpose into Prestige Frame.

A high-school kid in a cashmere hoodie leans against the customer side of the counter, watching a dance-crew competition on his iPhone, amusing himself for however long it will take to get served.

Where’s Claudia? Very easily this whole plan could fall apart. You just assumed she’d be here, but now what? Leave and call ahead first? No, no, get a grip and visualize her. Visualize the lank brown hair, side-parted and prone to dip across her eyes. Visualize the Gallic nose, slightly out of true and possibly, at some bygone point in time, broken.

And like magic, within seconds, she appears. How about that! Or, more accurately, you appear. The large mirror she’s hefting replaces any view of her with a beveled reflection of your own hope-racked face. All you can see of Claudia are her hands: short-nailed, paintless, and semi-sheathed in a pair of woolen, fingerless gloves.

Now the kid takes hold of his frame on either side, allowing Claudia—it is Claudia—to step back, and here’s the face you visualized, the face you often picture in the defiant hours before sleep. Her eyebrows lush and animate, they rank among her most expressive features. Other women might have them thinned and shaped, but she seems to feel no need. Seeing you now, she tenses her semi-naked fingers into a subtle wave of recognition. Very rascally, those sawed-off gloves. Hand lingerie, but functional, too, for grasping panes of glass.

“Fantastic,” says the kid, gazing at the mirror in its ornately chiseled frame. He’s got long dark lashes, which he bats at himself.

“Shall I wrap ’er up?” asks Claudia, in the husky voice that sounds as though she’s always getting over a cold.

“Not yet.” He continues to admire his reflection. Could be a college freshman. Sophomore tops. A good-looking guy, jut-jawed with cinematic teeth, and taller than you, so you’re pleased Claudia’s all business, offering none of the personal attention she showed you several weeks earlier.

Quietly you browse the frame corners hung across the wall like rows of boomerangs and find the one she proposed back then for your magazine clipping. Your first professional byline. Actually, a byline would have been nice—a byline would have been great!—but still: your first professional clip. Just a small thing, a single column on the “Cufflink Renaissance.” How odd it seemed she should hand you this baroque, goldleaf sample priced at $80 a linear foot. She studied you, waiting for your reaction, with a penetrating gaze that poked your heart. No girl ever looked at you with such focus. Can she truly want me to pick this extravagant frame? you wondered. But when you insisted on a narrow black border, nearly Amish in its simplicity, she seemed to nod with approval. So maybe it was just a test. A cunning test of your vanity. Which apparently you passed, so why won’t she go out with you?

“Can I wrap this now?” she asks again, ringing up her customer’s balance.

“Not yet.” Propping his purchase on the counter with one hand, he fishes some cash out of his pocket, hundred-dollar bills, judging from their fewness, and what looks to be a pair of tickets. “This Saturday,” he says. “No Doubt reunion concert. Floor seats. Tenth row. I’m taking you.”

Claudia laughs, but gently. She’s not rude. “I can’t. But thank you. I’m flattered.”

“That’s my ride.” He points out the front window. “The same car Vin Diesel drove in Throttler. Got his fingerprints on it still. My dad exec’d.”

He’s obviously too young for her. Then again, maybe she thinks the same of you. She’s probably in her late twenties, closer to your brother’s age. And does “exec’d” mean produced? There’s a whole regional lingo you need to learn if you’re going to succeed out here.

“It’s beautiful,” Claudia says of the car, barely glancing at it. “But I can’t.”

“You’re beautiful,” he says. “You can.”

Why couldn’t you have driven here faster? The dating pool is so competitive, more even than you imagined.

“Sorry.” She sets his receipt and change on the counter. “I’m not available.”

Ignoring the money, he points to her wooly knuckles. “I don’t see any ring.”

“No,” she admits.

“You with anyone? Like, seriously.”

“Not exactly.” She frowns with a consternation that seems directed less at him than aimed inward, as though she’s trying to resolve some issue in her own mind. Most striking about all this: her reluctance to lie. She could make life a lot easier for herself if she’d simply invent some excuse but, for whatever reason, that doesn’t seem to be her way.

“Then what the hell, girl?”

“I’m just not available. Spiritually.” Admitting this, she sounds slightly embarrassed, and you can’t help but wonder if some of the effort she’s put in to this nuanced explanation is for your benefit.

“How ’bout I just take your body?”

This gets a bleak laugh out of her, and you envy the macho cleverness of his line. Then again, you don’t want just her body. Whatever she means by her “spirit” you want as well.

“How ’bout I wrap that mirror,” she responds, “so you can be on your way.”

He sighs, feigning heartbreak, then abruptly grabs her wrist.

“C’mon,” he urges. “Don’t be like that.”

His tightens his grip, making her lean across the counter. And though her face betrays no concern, you start to feel it for her.

“You’re going to have to let me go now,” she says calmly.

“Not yet.”

“Excuse me,” you hear yourself call out from the far side of the shop. Louder than you meant. Glancing toward you, his presence looms closer, though his feet haven’t moved.

“Yeah?”

He may be even taller than you first registered. Heavier, too. Stronger all around and possibly meaner. At least he’s unhanded Claudia. Now what?

“Is that your Ferrari?”

“So?” he demands.

“The keys are in the ignition.” What’s that rattling under your ribs? It feels like you’re driving over a rocky road.

“So?” he asks again. This time he can’t help squinting past the window toward the sunny parking lot.

“Just that there’s a guy, I noticed. Suspicious-looking. Checking it out.”

“Suspicious.”

“Yes.” You just want to give him a face-saving way to leave.

His lip curls. “Mind your own business, asshole.”

“I’m just saying. If that car were mine, I’d go make sure it was okay.”

He scoots the large mirror, still unwrapped, closer to the counter’s edge. It’s perched at such an angle that you happen once again to see yourself reflected, and now, it’s fair to say, you look a little queasy.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” warns Claudia.

“Shut up,” says the guy, even though you think she might have been talking to you. That he assumed otherwise suggests he probably does have something stupid in the works. On a scale of one to ten, how consoling would he find it to hoist that leaded glass and smash it over your head? “And I’m not stupid,” he finds it necessary to declare.

“We’re not saying that,” you assure him, though something—possibly that incongruous we—makes him squint with contempt. Cornered by his own injured pride, he looks anxious now to inflict some serious damage. He shifts his grip on his mirror, and you think maybe he does plan to weaponize it. But instead of hoisting the thing, he simply lets it go.

For a second, it stands upright, then barely leans forward. Suddenly you feel trapped in a dream about falling, but since you’re already awake, there’s nothing to stop the whole deal from toppling toward the ground. Just before it hits, Claudia crouches behind the counter. The bang, when it comes, scares the daylights out of you. In the time it takes to blink, angles of shattered glass have made themselves at home across much of the floor. One rests against your shoe, even though you’re at least five yards from ground zero. Could any of these shards be used as a knife, if you absolutely had to?

Flashing a grin, your rival seems happy to have made you flinch.

“Fine then, I’m calling the cops.” Reaching for the wall phone, Claudia yanks it from its cradle. It’s an old model, with a tangled yellow cord about ten feet long.

“Better hope they’re ‘available.’” Grabbing his concert tickets, but content to leave his change behind, he strides out the door with a terse, “Later.”

In no time he’s fired up his rocket ship. Claudia continues to grip the phone, even though she doesn’t seem connected to anyone. You’re not even sure the old thing works.

Only after he’s screeched out of the parking lot and disappeared down the street does she hang up.

Glaring at the money and receipt as though they’re part of the damage, she demands, “Was there really a suspicious character checking out his car?”

“That depends.” Your pulse is still revved.

“On what?”

You wipe the sweat from your brow. “How suspicious I look to you?”

She leans both elbows on the counter and rests her head in her hands. Her face hidden, it’s impossible to guess what she’s thinking, though that subtle slouch to her spine suggests the incident has not left her unscathed. Does she blame you?

“I’m really sorry about all the mess.” You offer to sweep up.

“No, that’s my job,” she says, though she remains propped against the counter, still talking into her hands. “Thanks, I guess, for trying to help.”

“I wish it had played out a little better.”

“Could have gone a lot worse.” She straightens up and asks, “What’s this visit about, amigo?”

Too bad your timing has turned out to be so miserable. “Maybe I should stop by later.”

“Just out with it already,” she says. “Please.”

“Okay then.” As you step forward, unable to avoid crunching the carpet of glass, your heart pounds even harder than it did at the prospect of getting your skull cracked.

“I’m also here about Saturday night.”

Unfolding your date bait, you hand it over and search for any glimmer of interest. Not like last time, you pray, when you couldn’t remotely tempt her to that opera about the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Or the time before, when a socialite’s book party inspired only a brief, mysterious chuckle. Or that time you managed to score the magazine’s Laker tickets—within spitting distance of Jack Nicholson—which earned you points for persistence but still no date. A Putney Museum gala, however, seems special.

Classy, like her. And she used to work there, she mentioned, so you figure the place might still hold some interest ….

She squints at the elegant invitation. “How’d you get this?”

“My boss gave me his,” you admit. “I may have to report on it, for Clime.”

Climb?” She sounds skeptical. “Climb as in stairs?”

Clime with an e. The magazine I work for.”

“Ah. So, you don’t just write about cufflinks and cummerbunds.” That trace of sarcasm sounds like she blames you a little after all.

“I’ve done real journalism,” you tell her, “in college.” If she won’t go out with you, at least she should know you’re not a joke. What a shame that tiny cufflinks piece formed the basis of her first impression, because you’re not that frivolous; in fact, you’re very serious. You mention “Hockey-gate,” the scandalous collusion you uncovered between your school’s Registrar and athletics department, a story that got picked up by two wire services and The Daily Beast. “I’m hoping to gear toward public-affairs reporting, issues pieces. Meaningful, long-form journalism. There’s such a need for better environmental coverage out here,” you propose, just as a for instance. “And I want to do something on rising homelessness. And stalled immigration reform. Also port security.” Okay, now you’re just listing any important topic that comes to mind, but even if you haven’t yet found a way to raise these ideas at work, saying them out loud to Claudia stokes your resolve to make it happen. “And I know L.A. might be about the worst place to expand print journalism right now, and Clime’s mostly into lifestyle fluff. But I’m hoping to sneak in a serious piece now and then. Gradually effect some good. That’s my plan. Get under their skin without them realizing it.”

During your soliloquy, Claudia’s studies the creamy page as though it’s an artifact of great personal significance. So enthralled is she that watching her feels almost like spying. When she registers you’ve stopped talking, she looks up from the invitation and blinks, then smoothes the paper on the countertop between you.

Gradually her expression warms into a smile. “It’s been almost two months since you moved here, right? Haven’t you found a girlfriend yet?”

Whether it’s the tenderness in her voice or the adrenaline racing through your body, you take heart in that remark. At least she can picture you with a girlfriend. But the hopefulness of the moment is short-lived.

“If I go to this thing,” she says, “will you promise not to think of it as a date? It’s a work night, you said.”

Her bargain catches you off-guard. Refusal you were prepared for, but not compromise. Somehow compromise seems worse. Possibly dangerous. You glance down at the floor, only to find fragments of yourself shining back.

“Sort of,” you allow, groping toward an answer. “It’s partly a work night.” After all, you start to think, why squander what could be your only chance to woo her? Maybe she’ll come to view the evening as a date in hindsight, you hope, unaware at this relatively calm moment in life how little profit hindsight holds in your account. “I guess we can call it a work night.”

She pauses to scoop up the kid’s left-behind cash. After counting it out—a little more than sixty dollars—she balls it up as though considering her pocket, then stuffs it into the register.

“All right then.” She wipes her hands on her jeans. “In that case, I consent.”

Her terms having been met, she scribbles an address on the back of the invitation and hands it over, then smiles once more and fixes you with that penetrating gaze of hers. It’s a drug, this look, and you’ve been craving another dose ever since you first experienced it. This look that feels like a touch.

“I may even prove of some use,” she adds. “After all, I know a thing or two about that creepy place.”

 

      

  Paul Mandelbaum teaches the literature of Los Angeles at Emerson College’s L.A. Center. The above excerpt comes from his fifth book, a novel-in-progress about a museum trustee accused of stealing art from an institution he continues to support, and the young journalist driven to prove it. Mandelbaum's most recent book is Adriane on the Edge: a Novel. He can be reached at www.paulmandelbaum.com.
 

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Speechless Spring 2011
Copyright © 2011 Published by
Tebot Bach