WAITING FOR THE BIG ONE
by Catherine Shorr
A budding L. A. Times food critic and her gay pal Oscar deal with love, loss and natural disasters in 1980’s Los Angeles. An (almost) true story.
Runner-up of the 2018 ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Contest
“There must be a less complicated way to get fucked,” I thought, then realized I’d said it aloud. Sean’s latest lady coughed, spilling only a bit of her California chardonnay. I hate chardonnay. Her perfect tan reddened slightly. Her perfectly porcelained nails tapped the tiny table of the tiny trendy restaurant noted for its cunning little English garden and picket fence.
We had been seated outside in the middle of a heat wave and the ivy on the picket fence was wilting and ice water would not be forthcoming, because we were also in a drought. At least, I thought, I am no longer in New York City. But I should be.
“I was hoping,” she said, “we could be civil about this.”
The metallic frames of her designer sunglasses caught the light and glinted directly in my face, momentarily blinding me. My eyes watered.
“You shouldn’t take it so hard.” Any minute she was going to offer me a Xanax.
Don’t worry sister; your time is going to come. I blew my nose. “You’re absolutely right. I’ve been to worse restaurants.”
She cocked her head but gave no clue of personality behind the opaque glasses, big as saucers. I’d forgotten mine on the car seat along with the sun hat and felt exposed. In softer light, I wasn’t so bad-looking for my thirties, still good breeding stock. I got facials until I was poreless, showered until I was odorless, exercised my vagina regularly to keep it tight. It occurred to me to kill myself, but it seemed a shame to let all that good work go to waste.
I tried not to appear devastated, wondering where I’d failed this time. You don’t live with a man without uncovering a peccadillo here and there, and Sean had followed his everywhere.
He had always come home. Until now.
“What’s good here,” she wondered. “The crab cakes sound divine.”
“Oh, I think the whole body is in season now.” I scribble free-lance travel and foodie articles for the biggest and possibly most boring newspaper in America, which makes me some sort of authority.
She deferred to my expertise and ordered the soft-shell crabs. I got another glass of serious red.
Sean preferred white wine, white lies, a line of cocaine when proffered. I thought of last Christmas Eve, when he showed up four hours late, grinning sheepishly, dusted with snowy powder like an angel. In the spirit of the season, he said he’d given my present to a Salvation Army lass.
The time had come to forget the fairy tales and face facts: Sean was no angel. He was a moral leprechaun who for a while had been lucky enough to live in my enchanted wood, rather than under a toadstool where he most certainly belonged. Now he was moving to a new clump in the forest.
Her name was Shelley or Shelby, I figured I’d get it down before the salad arrived. We’d met at some occasion of social relevance, a benefit to save whales or rain forests or relationships in danger of extinction. She’d called and asked me to lunch like we were old pals. Being a pessimist, I accepted. I needed to hear what I already knew. Sean would not be coming back.
“Where’s that damn waiter? I need another drink.” I waved through the window towards the service station, where the help had flocked together, smoothing their ruffled aprons and ignoring us.
“Is anything wrong, ladies?” Our assigned server finally fluttered over and hovered above us, solicitous, a scrawny crow in a worn tuxedo.
“I was just telling my friend here how the baby crabs scream bloody murder when dropped into the boiling oil.”
The waiter scowled; I was no doubt one of those anti-vivisectionists and next I’d be on him about the frog legs. He flapped off, coattails flying, to warn the chef.
Another waiter arrived with wine refills and a plate piled high with greenery upon which were displayed a couple of deep-fried critters, their tiny pincers clinging to a nourishing dollop of seaweed. My luncheon companion nervously scuttled around the crabs, as if expecting them to fight back.
“They should be eaten with the fingers, Shelley,” I suggested.
“Shelby,” she offered, picking up a greasy little guy with a moue of distaste and gently crunching down. Her nose twitched delicately.
I felt a sudden pang of nostalgia, thinking of the pet rabbit I’d had as a kid. Fluffy had just given birth and my little sister and I watched, mesmerized, as she lovingly licked her babies clean. Then we realized she was calmly devouring them, one by one. I’d thought they only ate carrots.
Shelby fussed and fidgeted, maybe with vaginitis from too much exercise. “The food here is quite good,” she said. “Did you ever review it?”
“You might have asked me that before you made a reservation.”
Shelby took off the designer glasses and craned her neck forward. Her sharp birdlike eyes glittered. She sucked down a deep slug of wine and I watched her wade perilously into deeper waters. “There’s no need to be hostile,” she said. “I don’t do this very often.”
Was she talking about getting sloshed or getting Sean?
“I know it’s hard to accept when a relationship is over.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m too shallow to suffer much.”
Shelby smiled thinly, showing a neat wedge of upper gum. “Sean and I would still like to be your friends.”
“Gee, I have a full quota of those at the moment, but if anyone dies I’ll let you know.”
The girl stared at me as if I were some kind of anachronism. She was probably right. I saw myself futilely rowing on the choppy waters of life, dropping oars all along the way—an assortment of careers, not all of them legal, and a mixed bag of friends and lovers. An average life. But it had felt important up until now.
“I’m glad you decided to meet me,” Shelby said, twisting her napkin into a tourniquet. “Sean was afraid—”
“So he sent you. What a guy.” I glanced at the time, checked my phone messages meaningfully. My afternoon itinerary looked as blank as her face, but I put on a busy expression.
Shelby peered at me, perhaps searching for some commonality that could have attracted Sean to either of us. Not the skin—she was brown as a sparrow and I’d been avoiding the sun since forever. Certainly not the hair. My red frizz may have had a life of its own, but her head seemed to have been blow-dried into—wait, was it the blow jobs?
No, not possible, I thought, watching her little beak of a mouth open and close. I had an urge to feed her a worm.
Instead, I stood up to leave. I’d swallowed enough and no longer felt hungry.
“But you can’t go yet,” she said. “We haven’t really talked.”
Oh, yes we had. What could she want from me that she didn’t already have? I shouldn’t have come. I shouldn’t have worn the pink parachute silk, now collapsed with sweat. My outfit looked like a shroud. She would tell him I looked terrible.
I instinctively shielded my face as I stepped out from under the umbrella into the harsh smoggy sunlight. I rarely go out in the daytime, favor heavy sunscreens and hooded capes. At times I glance in a mirror and expect to see no reflection.
“Wait, hold on.” Shelby caught up to me at valet parking.
“Sean wanted me to ask you. . .”
Ah, now comes the purpose of this dining adventure.
“It’s about the dog. Sean misses him.”
Sean had given me Little Peter for my birthday and he had never grown any larger, except for one appendage. The over-sexed Yorkshire terrier with a face like a rat was now almost three years old and still living up to his name. He was unneutered, un-housebroken, and set in his ways. I let him out every night hoping maybe an owl or a coyote would make off with the little horror and end my suffering.
“Well, I don’t know, I’m kind of attached to him.”
“If it’s a question of. . . I know he’s valuable.”
She was offering me money. I tried to figure out what a turd-with-legs might be worth and gave up.
“I suppose Little Peter would be happier in a nuclear family.”
Shelby clapped her hands and her breasts bobbled merrily. She would make a good mother. I’d always thought Sean a leg man.
My car arrived, a filthy forty-year-old Range Rover with right-hand drive, a missing back seat and an extra gas tank, bought off the gray market and still working fine except for the oily stains it dribbled about with increasing incontinence.
A new smear of unmistakable silver Mercedes paint decorated the protective front ‘roobar’, giving it a rather festive look. I over-tipped the attendant for the special attention.
Lunch had left me exhausted. I decided to hit the health club, but couldn’t get up the energy for aerobics. Instead, I sat in the sauna, a sucker for punishment, endorphin-less, loveless, leaking self-esteem.
Maybe a talk with my therapist would help. I called Dr. Grace, and got a voicemail that said, “If this in an emergency, call 911. If not, get over it.”
I clicked off, not wanting to sound desperate on a recording. If I missed a curve on a mountain road she might think it patient failure. I checked my watch, but the face had fogged over. Sometime, later on, I had a wine tasting—I’d put aside professional ethics and get plastered. Someone else would have to drive, so I opted to call my designated friend Oscar.
“Sean’s got another girl,” I said, with a snuffle.
“The only way to cure jealousy, dear, is to see it for what it is—a dissatisfaction with yourself.”
“I didn’t say I was jealous, just depressed, and when did you start reading Joan Didion?”
“I borrowed ‘Play It as It Lays’ from your dust-laden bookshelf and it kind of went from there. I can’t imagine how you finished Maupin, by the way. San Francisco is so twee.”
I told him that it would be unwise to insult the alive and well coastal intelligentsia, plus I was not a lending library and to please return everything but the paperbacks and pick me up at home, where I could feed Little Peter his last bowl of doggie chow and change into something more spiritually uplifting. Maybe the blood red jumpsuit. No, too expensive to clean.
Oscar showed up at my house promptly at six, dressed in some quaint costume of his own design. He asked if it wasn’t too outré for the local plebeians, having just returned from Rome and a successful exhibit of his sculpture at a molto prestigious gallery on the Via Margutta.
Oscar did not look like a famous sculptor. He looked like a buccaneer. His pantaloons with matching vest made me feel quite stark in my skinny black dress. My shoulders hunched defensively. I went after the red jumpsuit.
Little Peter went after Oscar’s exotic trousers, humping blissfully. Oscar howled, shaking off the dog with disgust and flinging him across the room.
I needed Peter in one piece for his new family, so I shoved him into the kitchen, where he began to whine a high-pitched tale of unrequited love.
Oscar busied himself rearranging the furniture in the living room, which he did with certain regularity, hoping a different angle might make the country kitsch more aesthetically pleasing.
My canyon house is tiny—a “starter home” as the broker put it, with barely-hidden derision. Okay, the house is a shack, but because I’m an ex-New Yorker, I’m in love with the grounds, which actually turn green when I remember to water, but since we’re in a drought I commend myself for forgetting. I even have my own tree, which will probably outlive the house. The Pine was planted in the 1930s by a famous actor to profess his undying love for a young starlet, who left him shortly thereafter.
But the tree is still here, waiting for the big one that’s going to drop us into the ocean. No one wants to be around when it happens, which is why we all have psychics.
“Darling, aren’t we supposed to be there already?” Oscar had finished redecorating. He eyed my outfit appreciatively and then frowned.
“Kate, there are holes all over your pant legs.”
“Moths don’t eat silk.”
“They look like teeth marks.”
The little hound from hell was still howling when we departed. I threw him a pair of Sean’s favorite suede moccasins that he’d left under the bed. Peter was also into leather.
I slunk down in the seat when I spotted a neighbor who hated the dog for crapping in her flower bed. She sometimes took the little hardened balls of shit and flung them at my car windows.
On the way, I surfed radio stations, stopped at Go-Country 105 because Emmy Lou Harris was singing about a quarter moon in a ten-cent town.
“You know I cannot stand country music,” Oscar muttered.
“She’s a cross-over artist,” I said, but he’d already switched over to KUSC classics.
“Nessun Dora,” he pronounced with authority. “Turandot, Puccini’s last opera.”
Oscar and Pavarotti sang a duet as we lurched along Santa Monica Boulevard in his customized maroon pick-up, ignoring the piles of auto parts, found objects, wooden pallets and other artistic debris shifting about in the back. Near the corner of North Canon Drive, he pointed out one of his pieces, for which the city of Beverly Hills had paid an exorbitant price and planted on a carefully tended lawn among cyclamen and begonias, where it stunned the senses with its ugliness. Constructed of old railroad ties and rusting metal, it guaranteed lockjaw to any jogger hapless enough to make contact.
By the time we got to the tasting the wine was just about gone. I’d begun smuggling choice bits of Brie into my purse for the mousetraps in my kitchen when Oscar interrupted.
“Look over there, yon lady appears to know you.”
“Dr. Grace!” Talk about karma, she knew where to find me. I waved gaily and headed her way, dragging Oscar.
Dr. Grace waved back, and in a swirl of vintage Laize Adzer skirts and scarves floated off on the arm of a rugged-looking fellow in a cowboy hat and palomino ponytail. I’d forgotten that she made a point of never socializing with her patients unless, of course, they were celebrities.
“Damn, she knows I can’t handle rejection.”
I grabbed the first glass on the tasting table and bolted it while the remaining tasters swirled and sniffed and quaffed around me. I made a few notes—the wine was too young and hard. Oscar said he only liked his men that way.
I hauled him off to our next appointed round, one of the restaurants sprouting in the hills like porcini mushrooms. This particular newcomer offered Cusina Nuova from Tuscany.
The classic station segued from Italian arias into a bombastic barrage of guttural German. “I cannot bear Wagner,” Oscar moaned.
“Me neither, how about Enya?” I switched to 94.7 and The Wave.
“You know I loathe New Age,” said Oscar, stomping on the gas.
We made it right on time for our reservation. The owner came bustling over to greet us. He was an effusive, nattily-attired chap who could have passed for a famous producer. Maybe it was; they were all opening places these days, the film industry being somewhat unstable. I searched around for movie stars tucking into their house-made gluten-free pastas but could only see a grab bag of toned Italians most likely to be spotted in sword and sandal epics. 10
At the bar, we were offered a welcoming shot of grappa, Europe’s version of bathtub gin. I accepted a glass and tossed it back. When I attempted speech, I expected flames to shoot from my mouth.
“Oscar, I think we should detox on wine from here on.”
He could only nod mutely, his empty glass clutched in both hands.
After a forty-five minute wait, we were seated. Our first course, a delicate risotto with shaved white truffles, arrived a mere hour later. By then we’d pretty much polished off the bottle of Barolo. Oscar inhaled the aroma of the truffles with satisfaction.
“Woody, yet earthy. Piedmont region of Alba.”
I could smell nothing, my nose backed up from the red wine.
“Hard to believe these are dug up by dogs,” Oscar sniffed, sticking his face into the dish.
“At least they’ve got a job,” I said, thinking I should have claimed Little Peter as a dependent. Too late now.
I spoke to an empty chair. Oscar had spotted some like-minded souls across the room and had tablehopped over to relate tales of Roman conquests at the Piazza Navona. I wondered if there was an Italian phrase for safe sex.
Nursing my wine and bruised ego, I also wondered why everyone else in the world seemed to have significant others. Perhaps I should start wearing my underwear on the outside like the women here in bustiers and garter belts. And stop choosing men like I did lingerie: flimsy, transparent, and never meant to last longer than passion.
Maybe it was time for a sea change. Like from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
I still missed New York, though the streets were melting in the heat and getting to the Hamptons was hell and could be even more Hieronymus when one finally got there. The Soho
loft was long gone, along with my neighbors, since the landlords had decided that none of the tenants were real artists unless the check cleared, as Warhol had once said. But he was gone too.
California was supposed to be the new frontier. And now here I was, at the end of the frontier, at the end of my rope. The easy life in L.A. is but an illusion wrote Joan Didion, and those who believe the illusion live here only temporarily. Did that mean they would go home disillusioned, face reality, then come back and start a new illusion?
Oscar returned—leaving behind fantasies of fabulous sexual congress with strangers—just in time for his grilled guinea hen with sage and side of zucchini blossoms. He looked askance at my hearty dish of conigilio, hare stewed in wine. I offered him a taste, but he declined, saying he didn’t eat rodent. He scrunched up his nose, reminding me of Shelby and depressing me all over again. I ordered another bottle of Barolo.
The waiter promptly brought the wine and more pane caldo to sop up the sauce, a proper reduction of blood and macerated organs. Oscar watched with a look of mild horror as I dismembered and devoured the rabbit. “You tear at that thing like a vulture.”
“One wonders where that expression ‘eat like a bird’ comes from,” I said, chewing on a bunny bone to get the last bit. “A bird must daily consume its own weight just to survive.” I, too, consumed copious amounts daily as part of my job yet remained the same, reviled by those who subsisted on steamed roots and raw shrubbery. They would live to suffer many undressed salads while I would metabolize out and die young, like a hummingbird. The affliction had once paid off long ago with a few modeling jobs and lots of money for about twenty minutes, until the discovery of ‘B-12’ shots that had been liberally laced with methedrine.
I’d wound up in a hospital and out of work again. There was a lesson there, no doubt a destructive pattern, as Dr. Grace would say, and I’m sure she would get to it in good time, at a hundred and forty bucks per hour.
It was midnight by the time the profiteroles and decaf Cappuccino arrived. Oscar thought I went too far when I asked for decaffeinated beans in my Sambuca, but I certainly had no intention of being up all night.
On the way home, Oscar got pulled over on Sunset Boulevard for “making an unsafe lane change.” He told me to relax; he’d handle it. I wasn’t in a condition to argue.
It was three in the morning before I raised bail to get Oscar out of the slammer. On a computer, his unpaid parking tickets came to a grand total of two thousand, three hundred and forty-nine dollars.
He was too hysterical to drive, so I took him to his studio in Venice and tucked him into bed with a few drops of my emergency supply of Dr. Bach’s Homeopathic Rescue Remedy. The stuff is guaranteed to soothe the soul, heal the sick, raise the dead. Oscar fell into a trance.
I called a cab. The foreign-sounding dispatcher needed directions and all my bank information before she would send someone, who apparently was also coming from another country, since it took over an hour for the car to show up.
Dawn would soon be breaking over Mulholland as my disgruntled Israeli driver climbed the winding mountain road, slowing at every turn. “How you live in such a place?” he asked. “So difficult.” He wondered if I’d like some company tonight and I wondered if he kept an Uzi under the driver’s seat.
“I live with a karate instructor and two pit bulls and am never, ever lonely,” I assured him.
We got to my house in jig time after that. He screeched to a very unprofessional halt, almost clipping the shiny red Corvette convertible in the driveway. Oh, shit. Sean.
The front door opened and there he stood, pushing his hair back from his forehead in that way I had always loved.
“Where the hell were you all night? I almost called the police,” he complained.
I stared at him. “You might actually have reached me there.”
The cabby gunned his car and roared off before the pit bulls made an appearance.
“Why didn’t you just take the damn dog and leave the key?”
“I thought we should talk.”
“At five in the morning?”
“I’ve been waiting since eleven.” He followed me into the house. Little Peter looked up at me, reproachful. Big Sean looked down at me, ditto.
I headed for the Arrowhead water cooler.
Sean headed for the fridge and helped himself to leftover take-out from Twin Dragon. He rummaged in the drawer for his lacquered chopsticks, realized he’d already taken them, and then dug into the Kung Pao chicken with a fork.
He opened cupboards with a proprietary air, and then raised his eyebrows. The usually sparse shelves were bursting. After the last earthquake prediction, I’d made a run to Whole Foods. The apocalypse hadn’t materialized and now I was stuck with industrial-sized bags of dehydrated delicacies and cans of lead-free organic fruits and vegetables.
Sean silently closed the cupboard and stared at me. I stared down at the floor. Moccasin bits lay scattered at my feet.
“So, what are your plans?” He said.
“I’m going to bed.”
“I mean with the house. I mean. . .” He faltered. “We bought it together and the real estate market is crazy right now. And, maybe you don’t want to live up here by yourself.”
He watched my reaction carefully.
“Gosh, I don’t know, Sean, I’m thinking about taking in boarders because I plan to be away quite a bit. I’ve decided it’s time to write that book I’ve been talking about. I’m calling it ‘Last Meals’. Catchy, huh?”
He looked at me blankly.
“It’s sort of a cookbook,” I explained. “Each chapter spotlights a different convict on death row—his trials and tribulations, his hopes and dreams, and last but not least, his favorite food. It could be an important reference book. They’re always saying you are what you eat. Remember the Twinkie defense?”
Sean shook his head vaguely.
“I’ll research past executions, collect recipes from the wardens and, of course, any moms still around. Then I’ll move on to the guys and gals on appeal and plan their last supper. What do you think?”
“It will mean a lot of travel,” I continued. “San Quentin, Sing-Sing, Folsom.”
Sean smiled crookedly. Maybe he was having trouble digesting the Kung Pao chicken, but that had been his favorite.
It was hard to tell what he was thinking now, and once I thought I’d known him so well. He used to regale me with funny stories about all his old girlfriends, none of whom lasted more than two years. I, of course, would be the exception. 15
I smiled back, feeling exceptionally stupid: I had been reduced to a statistic by a stereotype. I started to laugh.
Sean looked relieved. “What’s so funny?”
“I’ve probably spent as much time trying to forget the men in my life as you have remembering the women in yours.”
He blinked. “I didn’t want to hurt you, Kate. We’ll talk about the house tomorrow.” He picked up Little Peter and edged toward the door. Little Pecker and Peckerhead.
I followed them out, feeling a painful tug within my belly. God, I still wanted him. I once met a philosopher in a bar who said that people can’t belong to each other, they are only on short-term loan. And don’t forget the high interest rates.
The Corvette roared to life. It needed a tune-up, as usual.
The man who had driven me mad for the past two years was driving out of my life.
Down the road, the lights of the car began to sway. I began to sway. I grabbed my tree. I clung to it, feeling its stalwart bulk, watching the sap pulsate through its veins. Could this possibly be an acid flashback, or, God forbid, a real earthquake!?
The ground rushed up to me, heaving as if giving birth. My house, along with everything else in sight, rocked and rolled and generally behaved in a very irresponsible manner. In the distance, Sean’s little car skidded across the road and soundlessly vanished over the cliff edge.
This seemed like a good time to go back inside and get my Rescue Remedy. But the house was making noises that were not encouraging. I decided to remain outdoors.
“What are you doing out here? It’s freezing!”
I jumped, stunned to see Sean back in my driveway when I’d just killed him off so creatively. He revved his car’s engine before shutting it off, then got out and slammed the door.
“I’m back.” He grinned boyishly, and I felt instantly guilty for conjuring up his untimely end. He put his arm around me and guided me toward our cozy house. It had all been a bad dream, or an episode of Twilight Zone. Little Peter barked soundlessly from behind the closed windows of the car, his tiny manicured paws splayed across the window in supplication. I wondered how long the air supply lasted in a Corvette.
“I can’t leave you like this,” he said.
“Did you think I would stick my head in the oven?” I asked. “It’s electric, remember?”
“I remember lots of things, Kate. Seeing you brings it all back. Damn, this sounds dumb.”
I had to agree. But then he kissed me like old times. I kissed him back.
“I want to stay,” he whispered. “Let’s see if we can work this out.”
“Will Shelby understand, or will you want me to have lunch with her and explain?”
He smiled, sort of, and drew me toward the bed. Our bed. “She knows I still love you.”
I believed him. I wanted to. I was still lovable, wasn’t I? I would change. I’d be less sarcastic, more understanding, less needy, more assertive. I’d get breast implants.
I excused myself and went to the bathroom to discuss matters with my higher being. She said I was giving my power away again. At least I thought it was her talking.
But no, the low whispering voice was coming from the bedroom. Sean was on the phone. I leaned closer to the door.
“Honey, I’ve got to stay. I’m afraid she’ll do something crazy. She’s totally drunk, unstable. . .”
I quietly gathered together a few toiletries, grabbed my ever-ready all-purpose earthquake bag and silently closed the door behind me. According to Ms. Didion, you have to pick the place you don’t walk away from. She didn’t say anything about driving.
I let Little Peter out of the Corvette and pushed in the emergency brake. I watched him chase the car as it rolled down the steep driveway, yapping and snapping at a tire. It seemed he was into rubber as well. I thought of Sean—how similar they were in basic personality, chasing tires, chasing tail, chasing rainbows.
I saw the stupid dog stick his head too close to the wheel, and the tire squashed him flat as a flounder.
Sean’s Corvette picked up speed and sailed off into the land of unpaid insurance premiums. I flung my immediate possessions into the Range Rover, backed out of the driveway and flipped on Classic Rock KLOS.
I was maneuvering down Kirkwood listening to Emmy Lou sing ‘you really got me this time’, when from the passenger seat came the unmistakable sounds of mastication. Startled, I glanced over and was stunned to see—when I’d just killed him off so creatively—noxious Little Peter, chewing his way out of my canvas carryall.
I sighed and switched the station to NPR, his favorite. Joan Didion was being interviewed about the process of writing. In the gospel according to St. Joan, you aren’t sure if you’re making the right decision about anything. Ever.
She was wrong this time. I called my real estate broker from the cell phone and left a message to put the house on the market, furnished. I’d get the clothes later.
In the distance, I could hear the early rush hour traffic gearing up. I closed my eyes and for a moment it sounded like the ocean, coming in to wash me clean.