IT WAS A SATURDAY IN OCTOBER AND SHE SOMEhow found herself at a film theater on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles. She had no idea who the director was, what the film was about or what the critics had said because she never read anything but poetry written by poets who were dead. On this particular night, Diana Barrington had not been to a movie in at least five years. She was so incredibly ignorant about the culture in general that she was almost in a state of grace.
The film proved to be European. It had subtitles. It was in black and white. Diana Barrington perceived these details as extraordinary. She felt deeply moved and somewhat disoriented.
As she walked toward her car, she was consumed by images of Europe. It is snow I need, she thought, Paris and Berlin and trees like maples and lindens. And Gothic buildings, cathedrals with spires, town squares and rivers and string quartets, cafes and realistic-looking apartments and Rilke. It would be a whole other cadence, a landscape of serious angles and deliberate architecture, religion and vegetation that was deciduous. It occurred to her that to confront the concept of Europe was to deal with the father, the patriarchy, structure, science and history. The concept of Europe took her breath away. She began gasping for air.
She felt better once she was in her car with the doors locked. "I am finished with palm trees and mango stands and mother earth," she said out loud, slamming her foot on the gas and driving as fast as she could. "I am through with the elements and cycles. It is Vienna I need, Beethoven, psychoanalysis and libraries and places where people still smoke and fall in love."
Los Angeles was a shabby little tropical village compared to Europe, with its monuments and substantiality and ornate decadence. The Los Angeles streets looked tawdry to her and pathetically second-rate, like some marginal southern fishing town where the bay gradually grew polluted and the population drifted away.
Diana Barrington realized that if she had gone to New York or London or even Calcutta after college instead of home to Los Angeles, her entire life would have been different. She would have filled her poems with traditional images containing obvious medieval associations, steeples and granite arches and recognizable gods and the colors of the Danube and Thames, grays and slates and metals. And the sorts of progressions that defined Western civilization, rather than the random cyclic mutations that were Southern California.
She was seized by the compulsion to write a poem. She parked her car near a vacant lot between two low stucco apartment buildings that featured ornaments of some sort near the carports, perhaps the remnants of sundials or coats of arms, if such a thing were possible. "I must have Europe, the Atlantic, cafes, the chill, the brutally cold gray rain falling metallic like bullets," she wrote. "Anything but this unbearable purgatory of turning 40 in solitude, in Los Angeles, in October, when azaleas erupt."
Diana Barrington glanced out of the car window. She studied the sidewalk and the thin suggestion of garden near the apartment wall, searching for vivid details. She considered herself a realist, after all. "And there are birds of paradise," she wrote, "and gladiolus and the earth is an indecency, voluptuous and insipid."
That was Los Angeles, she agreed with herself, suddenly shooting out into traffic without looking. Voluptuous and insipid. A stupid woman. Diana Barrington recognized that she should have gone from Berkeley directly east. Instead she had squandered her life beneath these horrid, dull, sun-poisoned palms where anemic black rats lived. This was the homeland of impoverished rodents. And she was finally perceiving Los Angeles stripped of illusions. It was a land of pygmies.
Diana Barrington decided not to tell her 6-year-old daughter, Annabell, that they would soon be moving to a major capital where they did not know a single person and could not speak the language. A gray spiked city where the architecture aggressively asserted a premise they could not begin to comprehend. A place where the vegetation, menus and modes of transportation were alien.
On Monday morning, after she put Annabell on the school bus, Diana drove downtown. She would tell her best friend, attorney and official blood sister, Carlotta McKay, that she had at last and definitively recognized the diminutive nature of Southern California, its garish squalor.
Diana began searching for Carlotta's black Jaguar. She drove slowly up and down the ruined side streets offering unrestricted parking in the area surrounding the court buildings. It had been months since Carlotta could afford garage parking. Now Carlotta had to leave her Jaguar unprotected in the glare of daylight while she hiked three-quarters of a mile to court in her Italian alligator stiletto heels.
Diana Barrington experienced a sudden spasm of affection for her best friend. She appreciated the statement Carlotta was making. Let the IRS garnishee her salary. Carlotta McKay was not going to lower her colors or compromise her fashion imperatives.
Diana considered the possibility that Carlotta McKay might be the only human being besides her daughter that she had ever loved. A best friend had resonance. It was something substantial, as in the ancient times, when there were families, recognizable categories of stable and permanent attachment, like sisters-in-law and godparents. And they had become blood sisters at the right time, before the plague, when such rituals were still plausible.
Then she saw it, the black Jaguar on a chalky street of what appeared to be wooden frame boarding houses. An apparently homeless family sat on a gray blanket nearby. It was the sort of blanket issued to derelicts in shelters. It made her think of disease-infected shared syringes, and the plague on the floors, on the cots and mats and in the blood moving from vile sex practices in unsafe orifices, onto the hands and into the veins.
Diana locked her car and began walking. On the lawn, a dazed woman was nursing an infant. She looked like a photograph for a Third World relief fund. An impossibly thin man, a plague carrier, drug addict or schizophrenic, was drinking from a bottle in a paper bag. Farther down the street, a man without shoes was urinating in the gutter.
It had been years since she had been downtown. Now she remembered why. She lurched along the sidewalk, feeling overwhelming concurrent waves of pity, rage and terror. The contradictory emotions produced an acute nausea. The street did not even seem American. The buildings had broken windows with no curtains. She wondered if she was supposed to rent a room. Then it came to her. She was looking for Carlotta.
It was noon. Carlotta was bound to be near the court building. Carlotta no longer ate in her usual restaurants. No one would let her run a tab anymore. She could not get a bowl of rice in Chinatown on credit. She could not even get one alligator stiletto into the door of the Biltmore.
Diana found what appeared to be Carlotta on a bench in an accidental-seeming park two blocks from court. She wasn't sure that it was Carlotta. The woman on the bench looked bloated, awkward and hunched. Diana approached with caution. It was Carlotta, eating a bag of cheese-flavored tortilla chips. On the bench by her side was a pile of candy bars and a Pepsi. It wasn't even a Diet Pepsi.
Carlotta saw her expression and shrugged. "Sixty bucks a week for food. That's what the IRS allots me," she said with a mixture of sorrow and contempt. Carlotta McKay was bulimic. "Sixty bucks. I used to spend that on breakfast."
They considered her past breakfasts in silence. Diana sat down on the bench, on the other side of the Mars bars and bags of M&Ms.; She averted her eyes from the candy.
"I'm having a moment of clarity, " Diana began. She was aware of feeling confused. "I see Los Angeles as it truly is. It's a region of pygmies."
"These jerks need a chair to make a phone call. They're dwarfs," Carlotta McKay immediately agreed. "It's a Toulouse-Lautrec Derby. Somebody threw them all down the stairs. Their legs didn't grow."
"One's integrity demands self-exile and Europe," Diana said. Her voice was conspiratorial.
"Europe?" Carlotta McKay laughed. It was a thin, mean sound. "You think it's different there?"
Diana felt stung. "Yes. I certainly do."
"It's a century of pygmies. It's still the Middle Ages. Where have you been? Ignorance, plague, the whims of senile bureaucrats, sadism and no illumination. You think this is a New Age?" Carlotta stared at her. Carlotta had gotten her hair cut again. It was platinum and extremely short. It looked shaved. It looked obscene and somehow shocking.
"I'm in court all day. I heard some stuff this morning that makes the Crusades look good," Carlotta told her.
"What about bridges with faces carved into them? Art and intricacy? And seasonal variations?" Diana tried. She shut her eyes, hoping she could remember specific details from the film she had just seen. She couldn't.
"Seasonal variations," Carlotta repeated. Her lips curled. "Right." She put a handful of M&Ms; into her mouth.
It was clear that Carlotta had jettisoned her diet. She had a heart-shaped face, and every ounce over 125 pounds went directly to her chin. Yes, the double chin was showing. And Carlotta seemed extraordinarily pale. Diana leaned across the pile of candy to study her face. It was incredible, but Carlotta was not wearing makeup. There were several prominent black hairs along her upper lip. Perhaps Carlotta was eating junk food and also missing her electrolysis appointments. To see Carlotta in the glare of noon was to violate her.
"If you had to choose, which would it be?" Diana heard herself ask. "Berlin? Vienna? Or Prague?"
"Prague?" Carlotta repeated. "You can barely get to Santa Monica."
Diana became aware of something sharp ricocheting through her. It was a sensation she found unpleasant. She was angry with Carlotta. She disliked her attitude, her arrogance and cynicism. She hadn't even had the drama of procuring a passport yet and selecting which cold, angular city to vanish into, and already the European configuration seemed antiquated and false.
She looked hard at Carlotta. "Sometimes I don't think we have a relationship. We're each other's captive audience. We don't interact. We do material. We do routines."
"Life's a routine," Carlotta replied, unscathed. "Or maybe you hadn't noticed."
Diana tried to think of something ameliorating to say. "Remember Monterey Pop? The Summer of Love?"
"I remember," Carlotta told her. "But you weren't there."
"I wasn't?" Diana was shocked by this information. She had vivid and complex memories of this event. In fact, Monterey Pop was a sacrosanct element in her personal mythology.
"You refused to go at the last minute," Carlotta revealed. "You said there'd be no place to park and the bathrooms would be dirty."
They sat in silence. There was a light wind. It occurred to Diana that it was only the going that mattered. Departures and terminals, the theaters of void. The entire world elongated, the color of a perpetual noon above a suburb between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Always we are arriving after the journey across the nothing, Diana was thinking. We stand on a balcony or a porch. We say, perhaps here. We can meet on the day when volcanoes mate and the ambience is strident with apocalypse that does not come. We stand on the damp grass beneath an indifferent sunset. And there are no lost ships, no aberrant swaying naked, enraptured, in a corrupted midnight wanton with lies. It is just us, after all, drinking too much with the radio too loud.
"I was thinking about Alex last night," Carlotta said, her voice all at once soft. She was opening a Mars Bar and throwing the wrapping paper to the ground.
Diana felt her eyes widen. It had been years since she had seen so flagrant a display of littering from anyone who had graduated from a UC campus.
"Remember Alex?" Carlotta asked unnecessarily. She was searching her face.
Diana nodded. Of course she remembered Alex.
"I was reviewing our last weekend," Carlotta began. Her voice sounded as if it were detached from her body. She was picking a candy bar apart with her fingernails and throwing pieces of chocolate at the pigeons. Literally. It was clear that Carlotta was aiming at them.
"It was the October just before I got sober," Carlotta was saying. "I kept thinking, I am falling in October, falling in October. I didn't know the streets anymore. I'd drive through West Hollywood and think it could have been Constantinople under a sultry moon in a dangerous season. I felt like I was on acid. Alex and I would tell each other lies for hours. The more extravagant the lie, the more we pretended to believe it. I was convinced he understood me. He knew I was living like a wild dog. He knew I was capable of anything. I could buy a ticket to Maui today. Or Ceylon."
"Or Europe?" Diana offered. Europe was a gray word disappearing into a grainy, unresolved magnitude. It was beginning to lose its clarity and dimension.
"Not Europe," Carlotta corrected. "Europe is too retro. Anyway, I'm picking Alex up at the airport. His plane is late. I'm drinking. Then I'm nervous that I'm loaded. So I go to the bathroom, sniff coke and put on more makeup. Then I go back to the bar. I've been doing this for five hours. When he finally shows up, he's bombed. We can't find the car. Then we go to the parking lot, sniff more coke and look for the damn car."
"I don't remember this story," Diana admitted.
"I never told you. Finally, we find the car but I don't have the keys. We tear off a chunk of rail and break the window. There's glass all over the seat. He hot-wires the car. We stop at traffic lights and kiss. The moon is full and red. The moon is absolutely russet. It looks like an ornament, like a distinct entity with a red mouth.
"I feel we've transcended our bodies, outgrown or outsurvived them. When I touch him, my fingers seem to fall through his flesh. My fingers fall through to China or a time before cloth or seasons, when there were only oceans and births and everything burned.
"My apartment is locked. Alex throws a plant through the window and we climb over the terrace. I watched him throw the potted plant and I thought, There are only implements of passion. Everything else is gratuitous. And I kept thinking I wanted to give him a talisman for a god who wouldn't change. Something that would be permanent. Something insane and drunken, like Kauai at sunset. Something without borders.
"I wanted to be on top, to be able to look down into his face. He was my possession. I wanted him underneath me, on his back, beneath gardenias and fuchsias and all the delicate rarities and expensive intoxications. I looked in the mirror and I was startled. The candles. The red moon. And some crazy glare coming off us. We were in some red zone. It was singular. It was the district I was born for. And my lips were raw from his teeth. I thought, You are why I crossed the ocean, why I stood on the pier and the deserted wharf in rain, wounded.
"We run out of booze around midnight. Alex hot-wires the car. We drive to the liquor store and buy one of everything on my credit card. Brandy. Gin. Tequila. Scotch. Vodka. Kahlua. We went to the beach. I remember how cold it was. We were in the waves, running and puking and drinking. And he asked me to marry him. I said yes.
"The sun comes up. He's set up an easel in my living room. He's working on a still life. I have to be precise. It was two apples in a white bowl and a lavender rose in a water glass. Bach was on the radio. Alex saw me and smiled. And the air was a rare clarity, as if it was shorn of betrayal, recurrencies and the tarnished places. I was thinking, Painters are right. It is all simply a matter of light and the evolution of sun on petals and flesh. Then he told me he'd met someone else.
"Apparently she had bought a painting from him. She was important in the art scene. He kept repeating that phrase, important in the art scene. It was like he thought he was making an appropriate career move and expected me to appreciate and support that. He said she was gorgeous. He kept saying that, gorgeous. It's not a word you hear much of these days. Then he mentioned that she had a house in the Colony. And a silver Maserati. In her name.
"Her name was Rachel. He would say her name, evoke her name, really, as he listed her many attributes. Rachel of the Peruvian cocaine. Rachel of the French champagne. Rachel of the Russian vodka. Rachel of the Afghanistan hash. It sounded like she had her own private U.N., right there in Malibu.
"I grabbed something. A scissors. I rushed him. And I got him. I cut his shoulder. Blood was spurting out. He's yelling, 'You killed me, you crazy bitch. You killed me.' We embrace. Somebody's called the cops. They show up with an ambulance. We're in each other's arms on the floor. There's glass everywhere from the terrace window we broke to get in. And we're kissing in the ambulance.
"Later, I see him sneaking off to the phone booth. I figure he's calling Rachel. There's no way I'm going to leave. I've got to see her. I may get arrested, but I'm not leaving voluntarily. Finally, she shows up. She's dressed for tragedy. She's thrown a Fendi sable over her aerobic pants. She's got the Jourdan pink satin pumps. She's got the blond hair down to her ass in a shade of ash you cannot even buy in Los Angeles.
"And I'm still a lunatic. I'm following them out to the parking lot. I've paid to see the last card. I'm calling. I don't care what it costs. I've got to see if she's got the silver Maserati. I'm tracking them by her perfume. It smells like genetically engineered mangoes and money and what you imagine a concubine leaves on the sheets." Carlotta leaned against the bench and smiled.
"Did she have it?" Diana wanted to know.
"What do you think?" Carlotta was still smiling.
Diana would like to tell Carlotta what she thinks. But she cannot even begin to formulate a concept of where to begin.
"You know what I think?" Carlotta asks instead. Diana does not reply immediately. She watches Carlotta stand up. Carlotta is lopsided because of the way her heels have worn down. She can barely balance her body. Diana is struck by Carlotta's ease with savage juxtaposition, how she continues to hike downtown without a credit card or garage parking, refusing to lower her standards or admit defeat.
"What do you think?" Diana asks reluctantly. She senses she doesn't want to know.
"It was the best weekend of my life," Carlotta replies.
Then Carlotta is walking out of the park, hobbling on her broken shoes. The IRS has somehow stripped her of her symmetry, but not her dignity. Diana is touched by this.
Diana walks to her car. As she drives west, she thinks of the population with their tiny bodies and monumental, confused appetites. Everywhere, they are having grotesque love affairs and awakening to unprovoked and irrevocable betrayals. They are limping in the skins of endangered reptiles. They are giving each other marriage proposals as conversational filler. In between, they demand acts of consequence and gestures you don't return from.
Diana stops at an intersection. In the street and on the sidewalks are aliens, schizophrenics, drug addicts, criminals and their attorneys, students, housewives, shoppers, borderlines and tourists. They are the divorced, the abandoned, the broken and disappointed. They are the overstimulated. Some are driving $80,000 automobiles. Grandmothers deliver packages to hoodlums for cash. Children are being gunned down, infants and pregnant women. Plague victims ride in the medical building elevators. We are supposed to pretend we don't notice. We are supposed to remember our manners. They are counting on this. And it occurs to Diana Barrington that this is a cadence she knows with tenderest intimacy. She doesn't need subtitles. This is a dialect in which she is absolutely fluent.
As she drives down Beverly Boulevard, she is aware of all the women and men standing at windows, on balconies and terraces. Their mouths are small illuminations. Their mouths are wells of death. They are saying, I am your autumn. I am the reason you collect thunder. Paint my body with perfume. Pour rum on me.
Everywhere, from vacant lots and alleys, she can hear the dialogue rising. They are saying, I am your opium and the way you sleep. I am the edges of rooms and landscapes, the harbor lights amber in autumn and all the virescent things. I am the ambiguous plaza and the whispered prayers. You need not cross an ocean. I am Bali and Barcelona and all the boulevards embossed by green assertions and the wind that seduces. I am your ravens, your bronzes, your cared for where night opens soft.
Diana Barrington is breathless with affection. We are all pygmies now, she realizes. We are what is left after the world shrinks. In Berlin and Paris and Los Angeles. She can decipher the words this late afternoon autumn air speaks. Everywhere women stare at men with eyes the size of fall. These men are standing across a room, balancing jackets on one shoulder like gangsters. Night is a violet danger.
Carlotta is right. It might as well be the 13th Century. Communication is an abstraction. The city is walled and the bricks are falling. We are besieged by charlatans and thieves. We trade rumors. We practice voodoo. We keep plates of chalk and salt near us, for protection. We hang strands of garlic and recite mantras. We are intimate with the details of possession. We wear cowrie shells, crosses, crescents of moon. We dip satin in cologne to please deities from Africa. We wear rocks and crystals. We carry tiny Buddhas. We carry condoms. We carry cash and concealed weapons. We carry affirmations and emergency telephone numbers. We carry passports. We carry the Hazelden meditation series. We keep altars with objects that fascinate and repel us.
It is still the Dark Ages. And we are too small for our lives. Spider monkeys and langurs are doing better. At least they live in troops. They protect infants and share food. They groom each other. We stay home, by ourselves, locked in our apartments. We do calisthenics until we sprain our ankles. We eat $60 breakfasts and deliberately throw them up. We rent 12 videos and buy a box of chocolate-chip cookies and go home alone. We cannot remember living differently. We can barely remember morning. It's the tedium, the brain damage, the blackouts, the stress, the acid flashbacks, the armed robberies and earthquakes. And there are no nervous breakdowns anymore. No one gets to go to bed for six months anymore. The best you can get is an episode. They expect you up on your feet after a weekend. You go until you drop. Now it's the risk factor. We tremble at the thought of who and what is out there. We are afraid to look out our windows. We are motionless in our beds. We can remember when we caught bass and halibut from the Santa Monica pier.
Now we don't even watch television anymore. Some of us have stopped dieting and going to our electrolysis appointments. We deliberately litter. We make a conscious decision to start smoking again. We starve and binge and purge. We gambol. Our teeth are falling out. The porcelain is peeling off. And in the street, there is a sense of the limitless dark scented with lemons, oranges, adobe and sagebrush. The air is ancient, sharp and malicious. It was here first.
It's been the Day of the Dead for 1,000 consecutive years. We know this and we are paralyzed. In between, we want too much. There is the inevitable detox. And disappointment that feels like a gash inside the eyes or a nest of trapped birds, depraved, wild with malaria. Why not? It's almost the millennium and malaria is making a comeback. And we are depraved, wild with emotional malaria. It's the drugs, of course, though we suspect it is worse. We are searching for signs of the death rash on our lunch break. We have always suspected we were flawed, not really human, somehow terminal and monstrous. Now this.
Diana Barrington parks in her carport in the savaged flats of Hollywood. She is waiting for the school bus to bring Annabell home. Annabell is in the first grade. She is learning cursive writing, French, computer, spelling, soccer and the principles of nutrition. Europe as a destination has vanished. Los Angeles is a ruined fishing village. Los Angeles is a resort outpost in the Dark Ages. There are only lateral movements. It's a tropical nightmare. There is the torn green of the palms and eventually, the monotony of the carbon cycle.
It is October and we are falling, Diana Barrington thinks. We are falling in and out of love without warning. We are asking strangers to marry us. The rain is falling like green bullets or the accelerating glass we have been watching for, the glass bullets of bombs and earthquakes. We are falling to the ground, through the earth itself, into debt and disaster. We are small and defective and the walls of our cities are falling. Our satellites are falling, chunks of metal fall from the lesions of the sky, from our illusionary channels of communication. We have nothing to say and the metal is a kind of rain. And we are falling off the wagon. We are falling down drunk. We are falling down stunned. We are falling from grace. We are falling in October and they can't catch us all. We are falling because there is no more gravity. The laws of the universe no longer apply to us. We are like leaves, only smaller. It is our season to come apart.
In the unpunctuated dark we are trembling violently. People without homes or food sleep on our lawns, in our cars. Many have lost their minds. They don't have shoes. Their feet are black. Has tar congealed on them? Is it gangrene? They don't look American. We step over them. We suspect everything is contagious at this point, and they are not telling us.
We are alone. We even have our babies alone, like contaminated animals. We barely manage not to eat them. Baboons seem sophisticated. Compared to the complexity of primate social interactions with their behaviors of affection and tolerance, we are primitive. We possess a grief so encompassing that to admit it would require immediate suicide. We raise these infants alone. We teach them to love with their teeth. We teach them to make Molotov cocktails and face the tanks. You can put that one in the bank.
In between, we make terrifying promises to one another. He says, abandon yourself to the possibilities. She removes her skin.
In between, we stand in the new lover's bathroom. His necessities are displayed. The beast cannot possibly be this nasty or need this many products to contain it. We become nauseous. We learn more about him by opening cabinets than he will ever tell us.
We live by the revelations of objects and what they imply. He needs toothpaste, dental floss, plaque remover, mouthwash, shaving lotion, after-shave, razors, antacid tablets, fiber laxatives, deep-heating lotion, hemorrhoidal ointment, throat spray, antibiotic spray, athlete's foot powder, cold-sore gel, hot wrap, cold compress, germicide salve, shoe deodorant, enzymatic lens cleaners, saline solution, sterile pads, dandruff shampoo, hair dye, acne cream, baby lotion. There are more shelves but we have seen enough. We are dizzy. There is absolutely no way that we are going to buy into this.
Six months later we test negative. We celebrate by going to hotels and meeting in lofts in delirious combinations in afternoons without edges. We know it is forbidden. But we can't help ourselves. We are enacting Haitian rituals and reciting Tibetan prayers. Some of us are sober. We are going to AA. We are carrying lucky charms and stilettos. We are desperate. We are keeping candles lit because we are becoming afraid of the dark.
In between, we sin, we transgress. We always thought there should be a punishment for what we do with our bodies. We always thought we should be put to death for this. Now some of us are. And we can't believe we have done it again. After we promised. And we don't know if we can stop on a consistent basis. We grew up in the '60s. There was nothing penicillin couldn't cure.
In between, we are calling the paramedics. We are having convulsions and heart attacks. We are putting fantastic mixtures of powders and potions into our noses and lungs and veins. We are staging garish infidelities where we sweat and moan and heave and pant and silently count to 10,000 and no one gets off. We just don't want to be taken alive.
In between, we are walking out of motels, closing the door behind us, saying that never happened. We are waking up in a cold sweat, wondering if last Saturday night is actually going to kill us. We are saying it's just a bit of indigestion, locking the bathroom door and rocking back and forth on the cold tiles, shaking. We have to wait six months for the next blood test. We spend it at home, alone, with the door locked. We have to keep ourselves in.
Then we are racing to airports and throwing bricks through windows. We are getting into limos and company jets, river rafts and horse-drawn cabs. We are kissing in the broken glass. We are taking the psychiatric medication. We are taking the 12-foot waves. We are stepping over the dispossessed to get into private clubs where we pogo, throwing off our shoes and pulling out splinters without missing a beat. The moon is russet. The air is red. We are rushing each other with scissors and knives. We are having the time of our life.