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Fiction with a friend-not-boyfriend pales next to reality at home

There's an intimacy that passes when someone drives you from the Eastside to LAX during rush hour. The act of generosity, the panic of traffic and the fact that any wrong turn can lead to a missed flight is almost romantic. Perhaps this is what leads me to tell my neighbor a story about my mom as we drive to LAX. It's the most serious conversation we've had in five months.

We are close in some ways. We've developed alter egos for ourselves. He thinks of me as Hambone, a whiskey-drinking, cigarette-wielding femme fatale. I named him Cogburn, a down-on-his-luck hard drinker.

He says Hambone once pushed him out of the door while they were driving and laughed while his face turned white with fear. That's the kind of thing Hambone does before she can be your friend, he explains.

I wouldn't mind sitting in traffic with Cogburn for the next eight hours.

He lives on my block. When I come home from work, I try to not scan the street to see where his truck is parked. I mostly resist pressing my nose against my kitchen window to check if his bedroom light is on. When we drink Coronas in his backyard, I pretend his tales of flings with wispy 20-year-old girls in Hermosa Beach aren't anything to be jealous of.

It's me that he calls every day to hang out, not them. I'm not sure what to think.

He is driving me to to LAX to catch a plane to see my 57-year-old mother, who is making regular visits to the hospital. "My dreams are ruined now," my mother says to her doctor. "I'll never be a topless dancer." She has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she's handling it much better than the rest of the family.

At my parents' house, my dad and I can't talk about her illness. Instead, I complain that Cogburn keeps flirting with me, calls me to hang out all the time and even drove me to the airport, but he won't make a move.

"You better tell him, 'Listen, buddy, when are we going out on a date?'" my dad advises.

My mom and I go on long walks, and we dissect my relationship with Cogburn.

"How did you meet him?" she asks.

"I didn't tell you? We think Yong-sun set us up." Yong-sun is the 84-year-old Korean neighbor who manages half the houses on our block in Echo Park.

One day as Yong-sun sat tending her garden, both Cogburn and I stopped to say hello. She insisted that he come over for dinner and that I join them, so at 5:30 p.m. we showed up on her doorstep.

"Let's go to Chinatown," Yong-sun said.

What? She didn't make dinner?

"I don't cook," she explained.

I said I had to leave early, but Yong-sun was not having it. She wouldn't take Cogburn out to dinner without me and stomped her foot until we all climbed into my car.

By the time I have this conversation with my mom, Cogburn and I have spent countless hours together. We go to British period films at the Vista or Los Feliz 3. I love the costumes; he watches for the cinematography. Afterward, we talk to each other in English accents and address one another as "sir" and "madam." We make messy, collaborative dinners along with the occasional morning run to Ms. Doughnuts in Echo Park. But his palm has never grazed mine. I question him about the closeness of our relationship and he shrugs. He says he is used to having female friends. According to him, this is a "standard friendship."

Three weeks after my first trip home to Sacramento, I am on my lunch break when I get another call. The cancer has spread. There will be chemo and radiation. I immediately book another ticket to go north.

When Cogburn picks me up after this visit, it's his idea to go straight to Manhattan Beach. As we cross the sand, I begin to spill. I feel like a rock that just went through a window, leaving behind a mess of shattered glass. I explain that I can still feel the tightness in my stomach from watching the chemicals being pumped into my mother. I tell him I watched her confidence grow as she walked around the house bareheaded, looking like a newly hatched bird — fragile yet spry.

His response — or lack of it — is revelatory.

Cogburn is not in love with me. He never will be. I can tell by the foot-long gap between us when we walk on the sand, the empty space an insistent reminder of his uninterest.

I am resolved. This week when I call home, I will not change the subject when my mom tells me the chemo makes her feel as if there is an angry serpent in her belly. And I promise myself that the next time my dad picks me up from the airport that I will not talk about Cogburn. I will not confess that I don't think that I was ever in love with him, after all. After my dad hugs me, I will look him in the eye and ask, "How's Mom?"

Sophia Kercher is an associate editor at Pasadena Magazine and founding member of literatureforlife.net. When the moon is full, she responds to the name Hambone. 

L.A. Affairs is a column that chronicles dating, romance and relationships in the Los Angeles area. If you have a story to tell, please send it to home@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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