“It’s Not That Bad”

“Tomorrow’s the big day, baby,” he said, and she tingled on the other end of the phone connection.

Over the next few revolutions of the earth around the sun, whenever they were on again, she would wish that she had just fucking accepted the invitation to stay at his house in Pasadena rather than try to puppeteer the evening with a hotel downtown. Spending the night at his place had been the original plan, when she first scheduled the interview a month before. But then his mom had fallen ill and moved from her second-floor bedroom over in Hancock Park to his living room, which was on the ground floor.

“Why doesn’t she just stay in the living room of her own house?”

Audrey crumpled inside as the words left her mouth, and she pasted over her shame by admitting she was nervous that meeting his mother would disrupt her concentration for the interview.

How much she wanted that job amounted to little in comparison to how much she wanted to be wanted for it.

She tried on a couple outfits the morning of the interview, and, when she showed him the black suit she’d gotten in law school, fitted over her favorite bright pink shirt punctuated with a white collar and white cuffs, he looked at her from his recline on the bed, and said, “That’s it.”

Not half an hour later, one of the interviewers asked about the partner in Pasadena she’d mentioned in her cover letter. She painted a smile and a nod over the last three weeks prior to submitting her application, in which she had alternated between removing that sentence each time they “broke up” because he wasn’t coming to New York to visit ever, and putting it back when they spoke again and he placated her.

She still believed that one day they would go to Taxco together. One day he would formalize their engagement with a silver ring and turn her into someone special.

Maybe she shouldn’t have been so bratty with him, always demanding and rigid. Maybe she should have let him love her in his own way, not subject him to amorphous, capricious standards that he could never satisfy!!

The old tan Volvo station wagon pulled out of the hotel garage after she had completed her interview around the corner, and they turned onto a series of streets that she drives daily now that she has moved to LA. Back then these long blocks still seemed new, so full of possibility and uncertainty, welcoming and open, yet somehow better than she was, more than she deserved.

They headed over toward the 5 ~~ she isn’t sure which route they took, but probably Hill Street over to the 110, since that’s the route he directed her to years later when she happened to be in Chinatown during a phone conversation and asked, and she was nasty to him and lamented it later because he was right, it was the quickest route ~~ and then likely through the tunnels near Dodger Stadium that he once told her had been used for a scene in Rebel Without a Cause, which she never bothered to verify.

Soon enough they were heading north, down the grapevine to Bakersfield and further, all the way to her hometown in the Central Valley.

It had been a big day: she’d flown to Los Angeles and he’d actually picked her up as promised, he’d chosen a hotel that was a three-minute walk from her job interview, and he’d helped her pick out what to wear and all that. Meanwhile they’d made love and slept together and held each other and not fought and everything seemed like before.

And now they were together in the car again, propelling time over the wrinkles between them, polishing away the layers of discontent and revealing the hope they shared that things would get better.

You see the beauty of the Body, she told herself, thinking of how sex with him in Los Angeles before a job interview had tenderized her into the person she might become.

Do you wish to see also the beauty of the Soul? Then subtract the weight of the matter itself from the bodily form, the one that tethers you to him ~~ it was her body, he’d later tell her, that keeps him coming back for her ~~ and leave the rest, and soar.

Do you wish also to see the beauty of the Angelic Mind? Then take away now, please, not only the limits of place, but also the sequence of time, while keeping the composition of physicality in your relation to each other.

Do you wish finally to see the beauty of God? Then take away, in addition to everything that came before, that composite of forms in which you delight and squirm, the interplay of the two of you together, ensnared in all your dreams and interpretations that do not exist.

And what will I have left after subtracting all these qualities?

Do you think that beauty is anything else but light?

The sun in California, even through the bad air of the Central Valley, shone so bright. For the whole drive, she wore the pair of sunglasses with polarized lenses that she’d found in a Japanese second-hand designer clothing store in the East Village ~~ and he wore those same ones she’d tried on in Ixtapa three years prior.

The night he’d thrown up in her bed, she’d called her mom and cried a little into the phone, speaking quietly from the bathroom, where she crouched on the ground, in the same spot where he’d slumped against the wall an hour earlier, and where she’d knelt before him and undone his pants a couple months before.

“Audrey, do not stay with him,” her mom warned. “When he wakes up, just let him go, and don’t ever talk to him again.”

“But I’ll be alone.”

She followed her mom’s instructions for a few days. Then he texted her from a German beer hall in the neighborhood, minutes away from where she lived.

I miss you, said his text, and those three words crumbled her.

Now, a year-and-a-half later, here they were in her mom’s living room, with its high ceilings and walls of creamy white. Her mom sat on the edge of the couch for the entire conversation, except when Aureliano left to go to the bathroom, at which point she leapt into the air and pointed in the direction he’d gone and mouthed: “YES YES YES.”

Audrey would bring up those YESes for the next several years, whenever her mom said to just stay away from him.

“That was before I knew,” her mom would say.

“Oh bullshit,” she’d respond. “You knew about the night he threw up in my bed when I called you three months prior.”

Later that evening, at her father’s, she got choked up.

The ridiculously enormous house he’d moved into with his new wife was right behind where Lindsay Carpenter used to live. (Lindsay is a girl Audrey had had a crush on and walked the school halls looking for her entire sophomore year. At their 20th high school reunion, Lindsay would remind Audrey that Audrey had kissed her ~~ “I kissed you?” “Three times!!” “Really?” “Oh my God.”)

Most of it was the irony of how much she would have wanted to live behind Lindsay during high school and now she did, all this river of time later, when there was no Lindsay anymore, and look what her father had come to. The new wife had walked out on him ~~ literally just walked out of the house ~~ as he was recuperating from a neck operation and his corrupt partners had fired him for ~~ they even said so ~~ being disabled.

Some of the backyard furniture was overturned, there were spider webs in the guest room, and a layer of dust lay over the dining room table and every piece of furniture in the living room, which felt unused.

“It doesn’t seem that bad,” Aureliano said to her, as she cried a little in the car on the way to their hotel. “I don’t see why you’re so upset.”

“Then why don’t you want to stay there?”

On the way back to LA, they drove over to the ocean to take Highway 1 all the way down. They took a picture outside a restaurant made of windows in Big Sur. She was wearing one of the zip-up fleeces she’d gotten from Campmor in the junior’s section, and she tried to smile and look happy. The picture, however, captured the strain in between them.

“It’s not that bad,” he said, glancing at her phone as he steered. “I don’t see what you’re talking about.”

It was then that you may wish to choose, the moment when she wanted to let her premonitions slide, as they continued on, trapped in the fog of the coast that, with just one gust of wind, could have cleared.

*

This piece is excerpted and adapted from my book To Whom I Could Have Been: A True Love Story ~~ with subsequent installments to follow. Thank you so much for supporting my work!

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