I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
It was shortly after Maggie learned to drive the enormous car she bought for less than it cost to fill the tank from a Chicano on Sunset and La Ciénega that we met. I was standing at the corner of Wilshire and La Brea, waiting for a bus, and musing about what a disappointment the tar pits must be to the thousands of little kids who’ve seen the drawings in National Geographic. I bet they expect something more remote and romantic, not a little patch of pre-history in the middle of a city.
“Do you know how to drive?” she asked.
I hadn’t noticed the green monster of American optimism pulled alongside the curb. Pedestrians rarely see cars as anything but motion. And I suppose I think it’s rude to look at drivers, as if I were looking into a bedroom. It’s their car, after all, and most times, in Southern California, the windows are all sealed up tight; moving bedrooms with loud radios that emit an annoying hum of rock music mixed up with the erratic roar of piston and camshaft. But Maggie was in a convertible. Even so, I hadn’t paid any mind at all.
“Me?” I said.
“Yeah. You. Do you know how to drive?”
“Yeah, I drive.”
“I just learned.”
“Oh. That’s good.”
“Your car broken?”
“You’re at a bus stop.”
And as if conjured by her words, my bus came into view down the boulevard.
“You want to drive mine?” Maggie asked.
“Where? Drive where?”
“I don’t know yet.”
I hesitated, then just as my bus arrived I got into her car on the driver’s side and Maggie slid over and heaved a sigh.
“I’m tired of driving today. I’m Maggie.”
“He, he. Maggie and Max.”
“So where to?” I asked, pulling away from the light, from the curb, into traffic, pedestrians melting away, so many motes of immobility and softness.
Maggie tuned the AstroPhone radio, turning the heavy chrome knob. The speaker atop the dashboard crackled with tinny shatterings of song and babble and jingle. “I don’t know, ” Maggie finally said. “Wherever you like. You could drive you home. We could cruise the strip. We could get franks at Frank’s. We could drive to Alaska. I’ve got nowhere to be anytime soon.”
I was, of course, beyond hope in love already.
We wound our way around Beverly Hills and shot toward the ocean on Santa Monica Boulevard. She took the wheel on the Pacific Coast Highway and pulled off only a little shy of Malibu, at a hamburger joint filled with surfer toys and trophies and teenagers eating french fries.
I saw her walk for the first time then. I watched, devotedly, as she burst from the Imperial, swinging her arms out and into her denim jacket pockets, a sort of exaggerated shrug. She was almost inside before I had collected my heart enough to throw my weight against the heavy door and follow.
Inside, I consumed her features, tracing them thoroughly, placing them one by one in safe places of my memory: burnished pale cheekbones; full auburn almost red hair; how it never fully framed her face so full of motion, so always out to there one moment and there the next, like an aura, like what I imagine they mean by aura; her green eyes, eyes a shade of green, I only then realized, like blue eyes, clear and deep like blue eyes, but green.
“So here we are,” she said, “In the middle of nowhere.”
“Kind of nice,” I said. “No one knows where I am. No one in the world.”
“I like that too,” she said.
We must have seemed, in our easy postures, lazily chomping at burgers and grinning comfortably between guzzles of beer, we must have seemed to the waitress and owner and assorted customers who took the time to notice such things, we must have seemed like old friends, old lovers who had remained friends. And I felt that way too. I kept wondering why and wondering what this miracle of a lady across the table had done to make me feel so foolish so soon. And I wondered if she felt the least bit silly herself.
I never asked her. It seemed a moot question given the company. Before we could talk at all about what we’d just done we went and did some more. That was Maggie’s way.
We ended the evening at Maggie’s efficiency. That’s when I met Attila the Honey, her Burmese cat. As soon as we walked through the door, and Attila got a good look at me, he bounded off the Western wall, dove into a frantic circuit, a blur of brown fur, and landed all four clawed paws on my chest, where he hung for an instant, just long enough to make his point, then dropped to the carpet and sauntered away.
“Attila doesn’t take to many people,” Maggie said.
“I see,” I said.
While we fucked I had one eye out for Attila. But he never moved from the sullen corner opposite the creaking Murphy bed.
Maggie, as you might have imagined, was a delicious lover, a laugher.
The next morning Maggie drove me home. She was smiling. She talked about the small town in Oregon where she was born and the problems of a little girl with big breasts. She told the story of how her father had asked her, quite politely, to run away. He had given her bus fare and a small brown fake alligator grip.
“Maggie and Max, Max and Maggie.”
She sang our names, accompanied by the scratching AstroPhone.
“Thanks,” she said, as we pulled up to the stuccoed front of my complex.
“For what?” I asked.
“Driving around with me.”
“It was nice,” I said, wondering if that was all she was going to say, and not being the least bit surprised when it was, when she waved a little and drove away.
Maggie didn’t say when we would pile again into the Imperial and tool along the boulevard and talk aimlessly.
I have one of the best jobs in California. I work in the bookstore off the lobby of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. For eight hours, five days a week, I stand behind a counter, raised slightly above my customers, and read. I’m not the manager and I’m not the stock boy. I am unusual in the store. I’m not pausing in this job on my way to stardom or management or critical acclaim. And I’m not humbly thankful or angrily bitter for the job’s taking me out of the Barrios. It is just a job, a real job.
I watch the guests of the hotel scurrying to their engagements, the odd class of workless workers that comprises so much of Los Angeles: agents, actors, screenwriters. They always look so busy and dedicated, but they are only obsessed.
I told Maggie where I worked and what hours. I’m not sure she heard me. I had hoped she would stop in. I had imagined the smiles and remarks and envy of my coworkers. She is, as I said, very beautiful.
I didn’t read as much as usual. My concentration never held. I found myself fingering the same page, the same paragraph, until a thumb print impression dented and smeared the hard type into a token of my distraction. I waited, with more than half of my being, for Maggie to saunter lovingly into the store, to surprise me.
I had so thoroughly imagined Maggie’s arrival that had she in fact walked in I might not have noticed her at all.
I waited for the bus each day at the same hour as our first meeting. The first day I got on the first bus that came, hurrying home, hoping for a call. After a couple of days with no messages, no word, I began waiting longer for the bus, letting first one, then two, then several come and go before I boarded. Friday I was determined to take the next bus, I was, when I saw the green Imperial turn onto Wilshire. Since meeting Maggie I had started watching cars, even, sometimes, counting convertibles.
I thought for a moment I should turn away, pretend I hadn’t seen her; that’s what the movie hero would have done. But that’s not how I felt about Maggie. I looked straight at her and waved excitedly as she changed lanes and veered toward the bus stop.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey back,” I said, and a week’s worth of waiting vanished, replaced by such a simple pleasure.
“Want a ride?”
“Where to?” she asked as I opened the monstrous sheet metal door and plopped onto the heavy vinyl and plastic weave upholstery.
“I don’t know yet,” I said.
“I know where that is,” she said.
She steered back onto the boulevard with one hand, patting my thigh with the other and we were off again, driving.
Curled on the back seat, head nestled in a lumberjack woolen shirt, was Attila the Honey. I was surprised. I’d never known a cat that could be trusted in a convertible. As I watched, Attila’s yellow eyes opened and blinked once and stared. He unwound, stretched, stood, arched his back, stretching again, then bounded into the front seat and nuzzled down into Maggie’s lap.
We drove past the Hollywood Bowl, over the mountains, into Burbank. Billboards, the size of movie screens, of coming attractions and current TV favorites, bore down on us as we sped past bunker like studio buildings.
“I called you,” I said
“You never called back,” I said.
“Was I supposed to?”
Maggie was craning her head to get a better look into the front gate of Warner Brothers.
“I thought maybe I wouldn’t see you again.”
“Here I am,” Maggie said, turning back.
“I’m glad of that.”
“Where should we go?” she asked.
“You are a mystery, aren’t you?”
“I never thought about it.”
Talking to Maggie was a lot like talking to a very smart three-year old. She seemed not to recall the last thing you said, already moved on to her own private next thought. It could be infuriating. Yet there was a purity in her lack of logic, an immediacy of response, responding as she did only to this instant, and this, that was disarming. I wanted, always, to know more than she would tell me, and so I was willing to follow her anywhere.
I watched Maggie drive. She was gaining confidence. I admired her hands. She wore a white dress shirt, several sizes too large, a man’s hand-me-down, buttoned left over right. As she moved the folds of shirt shifted, the seams between buttons flexed and opened offering glimpses of her lovely white flesh, brief suggestions of her bosom.
Maggie parked the car and gathered Attila in her arms. She gave him a squeeze then poured him onto the back seat.
“Don’t make me break out the little cat handcuffs,” she said.
Attila cowered a little and lay down, not going anywhere I was certain.
Studying her Arugula and Endive salad, Maggie became serious. I was having soup, I think.
“Is love possible?” she asked.
“What a question,” I said with a slightly false chuckle.
‘Love’ sounded well on her tongue. She was comfortable with the word, the way a philosopher can say ‘ineluctable’ and not be laughed at, or a sailor say ‘aft’ and be understood. Not everybody can say anything and be believed. The word issued from Maggie unencumbered, uncolored, the clear tone of emotion, free of cynicism or self-deception. That’s what startled me most.
“Is it, do you think? Really possible?”
“Of course it is,” I said.
“There’s no of course about it in my mind at all.”
“Well,” I began, containing my racing infatuation as best I could, and hoping to sound smart, “There are all kinds of love—”
“No there aren’t,” she interrupted, leaving me slightly gape-mouthed and more in love than ever. “I mean, I know what you’re going to say: there’s mother-love and god-love and body-love and falling in love and being in love and simply loving someone after all the rest is said and done. But I think, don’t you, really? That they’re all the same and all basically about hunger.”
“Hunger?” I asked, feebly, needing a pause, and genuinely puzzled. Her words flattened me. My eyes pulsed. I ached a little.
“Hunger. Wanting desperately to be everything in the world. To eat the universe. To have and hold everybody at once and be the center of things. That’s what we really want when we want love.”
“Not me,” I managed.
“No? Really?” She leaned a little closer, challenging and interested.
“No,” I said, “I don’t think I want to eat the world.” I fell silent, not knowing the least bit about what I was saying, not at all certain her image of love wasn’t dead on genius, and not caring a tinker’s dam because I was where I was, across a table from Maggie, her eyes focused, clear and green and wide, on me.
“What do you want then?”
“To love you.”
Maggie laughed, not cruelly, with what seemed affection. She reached for my forehead and placed a single finger between my full, furrowed, heavy-lidded eyes.
“Bingo,” she said.
Maggie drove me home after dinner. Attila followed us, stalking through the ferns and philodendron and spike lubilia that lined the inner courtyard. He hesitated when we started up the stairs to the second story gallery. When I opened my apartment door Attila became adamant. He clearly would not enter, and I must say I was relieved.
Inside, Maggie studied, as we all do, the furniture and arrangement and wall hangings and books.
“It looks like you,” she said.
“Does it?” I asked, prideful, knowing it did.
“Yeah. A little cluttered but very comfortable.”
I poured a couple of cognacs and followed Maggie into the bedroom. She lay there, arms outstretched, welcoming me to my own bed.
We fucked furiously, urgency soaking our locked bodies, breeze chilling exposed damp flesh, now stomach, now thigh, now neck, as we shifted our embrace in fruitless pursuit of complete covering and holding and comfort.
She tightened her body on mine and we lay still. I wanted never to move again. We exchanged pulses, we memorized sensations of smooth and twitch and open and hard and knead.
Then outbursts of shiver and anger would rattle the room with laughter and screams. Violence touched my grasp, a rage of powerlessness at the possibility this was the last time I would have her. I wanted to fuck all of her, every way discoverable, an infinity of passion, because I feared she would vanish in an hour, tomorrow, never to be found, lost to me. Perhaps if I could move her enough she would stay.
Please stay, I love you. Please stay, I won’t hurt you. Please stay, I can hurt you. Please stay, you have me now, don’t you, in such a grip, I allow, I welcome such a grip. Please stay, this is only ours and cannot, even by us, be duplicated. Say this is right, good, enough, a beginning, and stay with me forever and finally and world without any kind of end that matters to lovers like us.
I awoke. The room was dark and I knew I was alone. I rushed into the living room. There, in only the light cast by the gallery lamps through the single, half-draped picture window, sat Maggie and Attila, his dark form stark against her pale, shadowed nudity. She smiled contentedly. Attila lay on her stomach, his busy pussy-footing paws pushing into her breasts and chest and armpit and collarbone.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” Maggie said very softly, placing her hand on Attila’s back and breaking my heart ever so subtly and slowly and thoroughly.
I went back to bed and waited for Maggie. I lay there thinking of her skin against me. Soon, sooner than I expected, she padded into the bedroom and snuggled down into my neck. Together we fell back asleep.
What is it, Maggie?
I’m in pain, Max.
What kind of pain?
I can’t say. I hurt. Just hurt. All over. Hurt. Make it leave me.
Make the hurt stop. Stop.
I cannot Maggie. I wish I could. I would.
But, Max, all you have to do is say so. Just say so. Just say so and
it will. It will stop. For me.
Maggie was lying on a brown bed made of raked leaves and I held a glass globe from which came a dull blue glow.
I awoke and the dream lingered long enough for me to note those words, those two images. There were many more of both, words and images, but only these could I tack onto memory before sliding back into an unquiet sleep.
The next morning, while Maggie showered, I went to make friends with Attila. I brought a saucer of milk. He wasn’t in the living room. He wasn’t on the landing. I scanned the empty courtyard. I tried to conjure him with kissing noises and calls of “Here-kitty-kitty.” He didn’t show. I placed the saucer next to the welcome mat and turned back inside.
Maggie was sitting naked in my kitchen, her hair pressed to her brow like a sculpted curve of Chinese lacquer.
“Morning,” I said.
Her wide eyes opened on the day, moist and tinged with red from rubbing away sleep. I wanted to touch her eyes.
“Attila’s not around.”
“He’s gone hunting.”
“You’re not worried?”
“Maybe he’s in the car,” I said.
“Could be,” Maggie said.
“I’ll go check.”
“Don’t take the trouble. He’ll be back. He always comes back.” I watched her yawn. I watched her slurping coffee. I wondered then how many days would begin so, begin with Maggie in my kitchen, our kitchen, any kitchen.
We sat in silence, spooning dollops of ripe melon, and after a time I asked, softly, what she wanted from love.
“Not sure. Love. I want it to be love, that’s all.”
“But what should it do? What shape should it take?”
“I don’t know what you’re asking.”
“I thought you might have an image in mind is all.”
“No, no image in mind at all,” she said.
How was it she had no image or expectation of love? Hadn’t she seen the same movies, read romances, had parents who managed lives to be lived up to or down?
“So. I have a question,” Maggie said.
“What’s the heart look like?”
I smiled and wondered what she meant.
“I mean there are two hearts. There’s the muscle, the bloody lump of pulsing stuff you see in high school biology movies, looking like a spastic football or something. And then there’s the nice, clean, sort of symmetrical shape with Cupid’s arrow through it. That’s the heart I’m wondering about. What’s that heart look like? And who the hell decided it should look like the little doodle we think it looks like? That Valentine’s heart’s got nothing to do with the heart heart. What’s the heart of heartache really look like, I wonder?”
“I think it’s blue,” I said, “Crystal clear blue.”
“Blue’s a good color,” Maggie said.
I looked at Maggie, realizing then that I had come to see her skin as my own, to taste my self on her lips, to feed upon her feeding and grow with her, groan with and laugh with and move as if we were connected by forces stronger than my singular desire.
Attila hunkered down into Maggie’s shirt, her smell, on the back seat of the green monster car. He looked up at us, bored. Maggie reached down and tugged on one of his ears.
“Hey, Cat,” Maggie said, “Wanna go for a ride?”
Attila didn’t answer. We drove North. I drove.
“Maggie and Max,” Maggie said, almost to herself.
The Imperial barrelled along, heading into the mountains, heading neither of us knew where, heading, it seemed, toward a life filled with desires confronted and satisfied without fear as best they might be, a life of time passing, a life of time, all the time, just time and desire and innocence of history.
Guy Gallo teaches screenwriting at Columbia and is working on a novel called Quarter Romance.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee