This is Draft 2A of my second novel, written in 1996, after Radio Mary. I've always loved Hollywood novels. (I later wrote a version in which all of the characters are women.)

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Weekend

 by

Gary Alan Walkow

     A party.  One of a thousand.  One of the rare ones that Larry got invited to, almost by accident.  Coldwater Canyon.  The canyon scene.  Everyone acting casual, hyper-aware of everyone else.  Everyone determined to seem like more than they were, with slick raps, or with the cultivated blasé of having already arrived at a state of empyrean grace.  Larry wrote screenplays.  His last - his only - screen credit, shared, was seven years ago.  He had no ambitions to direct, not anymore, it was too late for that.  He had a constellation of deals that he could talk about, make them sound like more than they really were, less dormant and former than they had all become.  Problem was, he had to will himself into a state of belief to be able to pass that belief along to others.  That was the thirty minutes he spent in the bathroom, greeting himself in the mirror.  He hated these kind of parties.  He was desperate to go to as many of them as he possibly could.  They took their toll.

     Leslie came to the party with Larry.  She was an interior designer.  She picked furniture and fabrics, colors and textures.  She spent other people's money.  She tried to impose her better taste upon their well-financed but less refined palates.  She hated all things Southwestern.  She had few Industry clients.  She wanted more.

     Larry was surprised that there was valet parking.  That upped the already high stakes.  The trick was gambling his self-esteem on a winnable hand.

     The house was bigger and the density of guests less than Larry had imagined.  There was more color on the walls than Leslie had expected.  After Larry got their drinks, by unspoken agreement, as was their pattern, they slipped anchor and went their separate ways.  Leslie had given little signals that she was going to the party as a favor to Larry, but Larry knew that she was angling to pass out her own business cards.

     The evening went as those evenings tend to go.  Larry said hello in passing to the three people he knew, who were doing much better than he was.  He knew they'd never give him work, so fuck 'em - but with a smile, because you never know.  He met two people, neither of whom seemed promising, although he promised to send one a script of his that nothing was happening with.  It was the kind of evening that left him feeling hopeless, closer to dead than he ever thought he'd be.

     Larry was ready to leave, even though it was still early.  Otherwise he'd be forced back through the same circuit of people, and would be further diminished by staying at the party too long.  Then he saw Leslie talking with Jack Brown, waving expansively, then specifically - what must have been her decorating pitch, using the party house as a examplar of the good, the bad, and the ugly.  She had Jack's full attention.  Larry felt torn.  Didn't she know that Jack was hustling her, he had to be - damn Leslie, she refused to wear a wedding ring.  She was flirting with Jack Brown.  Larry felt shy and angry.  Shy about approaching his own wife.  As Leslie made a sweep with her hand to indicate a vase, her eyes swept across Larry - and kept sweeping past - with only the merest flicker of eye contact.  It was really too much.  Larry had no alternative.  He came over, and was kept hanging while Jack finished what he was saying.

     "...some people pick one set of furniture and keep it for fucking ever - even if they get divorced - even if they lose custody of the coffee table or the couch - they ten to one go out and buy the same goddamned thing over again.  I've got more the new car mentality, if you know what I mean, no sentimental attachments - try a new model - keep things fresh, ya know?" 

     Through, for the moment, with his peroration, Jack let his glance slide back over to Larry, whose presence he had noted and let pass when Larry first arrived at Leslie's side.  Jack assumed, by noblesse oblige, that Larry was yet another supplicant, wearing his best sport coat for the occasion.  Jack waited for Larry to speak.  Jack Brown never had to introduce himself.  Unless it was to a presidential candidate - someone of that ilk - a higher breed of supplicant.

     "Jack, this is Larry.  My husband."

     "Glad to meet ya."  Jack gave a pre-emptive nod to avoid a handshake.  Jack had a famous phobia about germs, and was known to avoid shaking hands.  If Jack Brown shook your hand, you had arrived - unless you were already there - on the mountain top with Jack.

     "Like I was saying..." Jack said, turning back to Leslie.

     Back at his desk at home, while Leslie performed her angry ablutions, Larry found it impossible to reconstruct the conversation.  His practiced hands hovered motionless above the familiar keyboard.  Not even a sentence.  Just a smile, the wave of a wineglass, a glance, a pause, the space between two faces, between three faces.  What was the important part?  The words?  Or what he felt?  Why do I feel bad?  Because of me, because of her, because of us, because of everything?  The night diffused into laziness, the impossibility of describing, of nailing his feelings with words.  Words, always words.    
    

     The invitation came later.

     Larry learned about it indirectly.

     Jack wanted to redo a guest house.  He invited Leslie to Bel Air to take a look, to talk, implying the job was hers.  Leslie told Larry about the meeting only after it had been canceled.

     Instead, Jack had invited them out to the desert.  The project had shifted, expanded beyond a guest house in Bel Air to a pool house in Palm Desert.  Leslie told Larry that Jack had hired her on instinct.  Larry had another word for it.  Several words, however many necessary.  But they hadn't talked about it.

     Road miles.

     Larry and Leslie were tense.  Nothing unusual about that.  Larry felt exposed to what he was seeing.  He was thinking about yesterday.

     In the morning he had written a good scene, a dinner party, with a nice flow to the dialogue, the subtext clear, advancing the plot.  He'd felt good about himself, good about his skills while writing that scene.

     Then it had gone dead.  He felt dry.  He only got three phone calls that day.  A call from his lawyer and a call from his agent, both returning calls that he had made to them.  The only other incoming call was from a young woman to whom he had given a free option on one of his scripts.  Their relationship was still at the stage where they talked every day.  Larry tried to present an image of unflagging optimism, to buoy her efforts to try and get the film made, but there was the memory of pain in his muscles - it would be a miracle if the film ever happened.

     The weeks paraded in no particular order, driven by the calendar.  His life was like a mountain or a river or a glacier - moving slowly, imperceptibly, grinding.

     In spite of the dead phone, this could be a big weekend.  The big weekend.  He was nervous.  There were possibilities to consider. 

     Larry looked over at Leslie.  Her eyes were on the road.  She was a careful driver.  This was a good time to talk, the last time to talk, before they got there.

     "Let's try to have a good time."

     "I plan on having a good time."

     "You know what I mean.  This is kind of like a vacation."

     "No.  This is business.  You know this isn't a real vacation."

     Even with sunglasses, the hard light hurt.  He closed his eyes, slouched.  Leslie pouted that she was doing all the driving.  Larry thought about pretending to be asleep before he finally spoke.  "I'd be glad to drive.  If you feel like switching."

     Leslie chose not to respond.

     Leslie watched the road stripes wind past.  She was waiting for the big plaster dinosaurs, somewhere up ahead on the left.  The dinosaurs were where the desert began.  The dinosaurs and then the windmills.  She was embarrassed by their Accord.  A declassé car to park in Jack Brown's driveway - no doubt about that, even having never seen Jack's driveway.

     Raw houses on the hill.  Faux mansions perched on the edge of the freeway.  Why?  For who?  They were just a valley or two away from the dinosaurs.

     "I got a job."

     "What job?"

     "A rewrite of an action comedy."

     "For who?"

     "Burt Bellamy, a producer on the Paramount lot.  It's not necessarily a studio picture, but the job's for scale."

     "Why did you wait until now to tell me?"

     "You know how these things go.  I hate to talk about them until they're real.  This one's finally real enough for them to start doing a contract.  But it's not really real until money changes hands."

     "So it's been going on for weeks."

     "Months.  But everything goes on forever, you know that."

     She looked annoyed.  Remembering other false hopes.  "You should have told me."

     "Isn't it better this way?"

     She didn't reply.  She hadn't expected the balance to shift back to him, not out of the blue, not on the road, right before the dinosaurs.  So.  He had a job again.  Finally.

     "Isn't Jack at Paramount?"

     "You would know."

     "Yes, Jack is at Paramount."

     "Small world."

     There was debris on the road.  Pipes.  A handcart.  Leslie signaled to change lanes, but the pipes were scattered across all the lanes.  It must have just happened.  She hit her brakes as they felt the jolt, the car starting to spin, something weird about stopping, until they both realized that another car was rear-ending them.  It got slow and blank and

     Leslie tried to roll down her window but her arm wouldn't work right.  There was blood everywhere.  This couldn't be right, Larry had his good points, this wasn't what Larry wanted, couldn't be. 

     There were helpful faces, ghastly faces, faces glad not to be her face, crowding near.  Poor Larry.  And I've got to tell Jack, we can't keep Jack waiting...

     Larry surfaced from his daydream about a car wreck.

     He wondered for a moment if there was something wrong in imagining his own death.  Not worse than going someplace you didn't want to go, in slim, desperate hopes of self-advancement.

dark, clear and strange, tilted and inevitable. 

     Then still and quiet, buzzing and stretching.  Leslie looked over.  Something was wrong with the other side of the car, it was crushed and she felt dizzy and she couldn't see Larry.  No, not dark and crushed, this couldn't be right, not so close to the windmills.

     Other cars were stopping. 

     When they arrived at Jack's house, following the map that Jack's assistant had faxed, a Salvadoran housekeeper answered the door.  The mini-estate was high in the foothills, past a dying date grove, hidden behind oleanders and palms.  Jack wasn't there - he was late coming in from Los Angeles.  Or he was out shopping.  It was one explanation or both or some slanted combination. 

     The house was large, impersonal, oppressively beige.  To Leslie's eye, it looked like an early seventies hotel lobby.  Badly dated designer art.  Predictable desert tones.  Clunky, over-sized furniture.

     They were shown to their room, apparently the first weekend guests to arrive, and abandoned.  The room was spacious and tacky, with sliding patio doors opening out to the pool.  Outside were mountains, palm trees, captive desert light.

     "This place is ugly."

     "Is that what you're going to tell Jack?"

     "I'd like to get his take on things first."

     "What about your standards?"

     "I service the client."

     "Service."

     "You say it like a dirty word."

     "It can be.  Service his needs.  Service my needs."  He made a pass at her, a pass as a matador would make at a bull.

     "Later.  Maybe.  Let's go for a swim."  Without pulling the drapes,  She opened her suitcase.  He flopped on the bed, took off his baseball cap, his sunglasses.  Things were scattered.  The room suddenly felt cluttered.

     Leslie started to undress.

     Larry found that basic motion required considerable conviction.  He was tired.  The desert felt strange, now that the car had stopped and the windshield was no longer shielding him, now that the desert space wrapped around his head, even in this bedroom.  Outside, sunlight refracted off the water and the windows of the pool house.  He put his sunglasses back on. 

     Leslie changed into her bikini quickly, efficiently, with no regard for Larry.  She didn't bother to invite him outside.

     On the patio the air was warmer, bigger.  Leslie looked around - palms, aloe vera, birds of paradise, flagstone, jagged brown mountains, blue sky.  She felt like she was standing on the edge of the condition of nature.  Not quite in it.  Slowly, Leslie realized that the bobbing reflection inside the pool house wasn't from the pool, but from a pair of sunglasses, a man on the phone, looking her way.  Leslie waved a little hello and stepped closer to Jack, glancing back at the bedroom to confirm her not so blushing suspicion that he had seen her changing into her bikini - but the man in the pool house wasn't Jack, it was someone a little fatter, a little balder, though still attractive.  He was talking on a cellular phone.  Faint words hammered at the closed patio door, and after a quick shrug and another wave to somehow try and convey apology for falsely recognizing the wrong man, Leslie turned back toward the pool.  She tried to act like the man on the phone didn't exist, that she was enjoying her little stroll around the pool, thank you very much, that she could care less if he was watching her.  Let him get an eyeful, she was a married woman, basically.

     Sunlight.  Too tense to swim.  The rectangle of water wasn't inviting.  Leslie strolled around the patio, examining the furniture.  The ironwork was deceptively shoddy - it only looked tacky if you really looked at it closely.  Approaching the sliding glass doors, disappointed that they weren't French doors, Leslie saw her own reflection against the reflected desert mountains, and inside, past the reflections, she saw the maid dusting an end table, a pile of screenplays on it, a bright red CAA cover the boldest color in the room.  Leslie wondered why she felt timid about going back inside - maybe because it felt strange being in Jack's desert house for the first time without Jack.  She - they - had been invited, but it was somehow invasive.  Still, Leslie couldn't help looking.  It helped her gauge her job pitch.  Coffee table books, sprays of dried flowers, examples of African art that had been all the rage in Hollywood five years ago, a Leroy Neiman silk screen. 

     Leslie thought: I wish I was hipper.  I wish I was in a hipper situation.  Is that just a function of age?  Did I used to feel hipper?  I did.  Didn't I?  Wasn't it more effortless, or am I just forgetting? 

     She tried the door - it was locked.  Glancing over her shoulder, she decided against doubling back.  It felt important to continue onward, to uphold her aloofness from whoever was in the pool house.  She rapped softly on the glass.  The maid gave a delicately calibrated dirty look and came over to unlock the door, just as more bodies joined her reflection in the window.  Leslie turned to face the mysterious Mr. Phone as he walked out of the pool house, followed by a pixieish woman/girl wearing an oversized man's white button-down shirt.

     "Hi."

     "Hi."

     "Hi."

     "I'm Harry."

     "Leslie."

     "This is Sean."

     "Hi."

     Harry came closer.  He had a beautiful face, not classically beautiful, but animated, very alive, not greedy.  Sean stepped into the pool.  She descended the steps until her shirt tails were wet.  She stood patiently on the bottom step, running her fingers through the water. 

     "You must be a friend of Jack's."

     "No, I'm a friend of Joe's."

     "Joe?"

     "Sure.  Isn't this Joe's house?"

     Harry looked puzzled.

     Leslie smiled.  "I'm just joking."

     Sean laughed without turning around.

     "It might as well be Joe's house - or Jerry's - or Jay's.  Jack's going to be late - I was just on the phone with him - something came up.  What do you do?"    

     "I run a studio."

     Harry went blank, computing, working down some inner list, trying to place her.

     "An interior design studio."

     "Interior design."

     "Interior design.  Houses, offices.  Pool houses."

     "Do you want to smoke some grass?"

     Leslie smiled, understanding his pauses now.  Not that they were acting overtly stoned, but he and Sean seemed to be someplace else.   She could join them there.  It had been a long time.  Not that there hadn't been occasional opportunities.  But the opportunities had dwindled, until it wasn't something that she thought much about anymore.  Her prayers had been answered, sort of.  She had an opportunity to be hip, sort of.

     "Sure."

     "Good.  Great.  Righteous, as they used to say."

     Leslie smiled.  Harry had a sense of humor that worked for her.  Maybe they were simpatico.  It seemed so.  They had no history together.  That always helped, at least in the beginning.

     Glancing over, Leslie saw that Sean had descended the final step, conquering the shallow end.  She wore nothing underneath the white shirt, which was still demurely buttoned.  Leslie had been wondering who Sean reminded her of, someone on the tip of her tongue, and then it came to her - Audrey Hepburn.  She had hair and eyes like Audrey Hepburn, but that had been hard to place because nothing else about her seemed at all like Hepburn.

     "It's the cocktail hour." 

     Leslie saw a gold lighter set flame to a joint.  There was a nostalgic scent in the air.  Harry got the coal burning and passed the joint to Leslie.  Their fingertips touched.  He had soft skin and chewed-down fingernails.  Relaxation / tension.  Burning / smoke.  As Leslie inhaled, she felt the heat rolling down her throat. 

     She didn't feel a thing. 

     Then she felt a lot.  The volume, the decibels of reality were dialed up.  Thoughts raced through her slowed-down brain.  Paying closer attention to everything, but in little pieces, it was easy to be distracted.

     She politely handed the joint back to Harry and exhaled, coughing as the escaping smoke snagged her unsuspecting throat.

     Harry walked over to the pool.  Sean propped her wet elbows on the tiled edge like an ingenue.  Harry held the cigarette to her lips.  "You're a love,"  she said and inhaled deeply - smiled - lifted her elbows up - and dropped under water.

     "Sean's a hoot."  Harry took another drag and brought the joint back over to Leslie. 

     She was feeling good, more intense, a pleasingly different version of herself, as she took another breath of the smoke, this one a little deeper, a little braver.  As she handed the cigarette back to Harry he embraced her hand longer than before, at least that's how it felt to Leslie.  They were standing close beside each other, as if at a party.  But the patio was empty.  After the announcement of smoke breaking through the chlorinated water, Sean surfaced, eyes closed, smiling.  Leslie glanced nervously toward her bedroom - their bedroom - wondering about dealing with Larry.  She knew him to be judgmental about dope, ever since he had recanted a couple of years ago.  Never touched the stuff.  And he had been a head.  Every day.  Said it didn't effect him.  It wouldn't be fun to face him right now.  Well, let Larry deal with Larry's attitude.  Better if he was napping.  Getting stoned reminded Leslie of so much.  It was something she had done so often, too often, in so many circumstances.  Her youth.  When did that stop?  Where was the blurred border of that?  Youth wasn't an issue, not if you were young, it was a given, it was what you were, it wasn't what you thought about.  Youth was a country you couldn't re-enter - but - but - wasn't that what was happening here - now - with Harry?

     The joint was back to her.  She was teetering on the edge of something.

     Harry was pleased with Leslie for liking him.  They were a mutual admiration society.  Maybe not deep or permanent, but here, now, relaxed.  Leslie remembered that she had forgotten about Larry.  For a little while at least.

     Leslie noticed that the sun was gone.  No more yellow light.  It was cold in the shadows.  The sky was getting poised to creep toward violet.  Dropping her eyes from the sky, she saw Harry sprawled on the patio kissing the aquatic Sean, sharing more smoke.  Larry was right, the desert was strange.

     The next question - the final question - the pertinent question - the question of the moment - was relaxing - deciding what to think - what to be - what to do - not letting anything stop that simple beautiful thing from being the thing that happened.  Yes, the grass was strong.  Very strong.  It had been so long, it was like getting stoned for the first time.

     Harry and Sean had stopped kissing.  Sean was swimming, lazily, the back stroke.  Harry was lying face up to the sky, smiling.  Leslie was standing where she had been standing for a very long time, where she had first talked to Harry.  Why?  No reason why.   And what about Jack?  What would it be like seeing Jack while she was stoned?  That made her nervous.  But a slower, clashing thought, put that to rest - Harry knew Jack - so Jack probably got high - no sweat - it might actually be easier this way - and with this new little burst of confidence - maybe even inspiration - Leslie went over to the pool and stuck her legs in - smiled at the water's cool feel.  This was a vacation.  If the work happened, it happened, but there was no work right now, there was no Jack, there was water, sky, air - elements contained and construed in Jack's desert backyard.

     Leslie was comfortable until she worried about getting uncomfortable.  That was the problem with nearly perfect moments - they called too much attention to themselves.  There could be something bad on the other side of a good moment.

     Harry got another call and wandered with his phone to the far side of he pool.  Sean got cold and climbed out of the water, dripping and shivering as she disappeared into the house.  Leslie hadn't found out very much about them, nothing really, except that they were friends of Jack, they smoked grass, they knew how to have a good time.

     Leslie went back into the bedroom feeling dreamy and battered, and a little guilty.  She remembered now what it was like on that long slow slide down from getting high, what it was like coming back to Mom and Dad after a night cruising the streets listening to Jimi.

     Larry was awake.  Larry had been watching.

     "Who were those people?"

     Had Larry seen her smoking dope?  How much had Larry seen?  How much was worth re-iterating, apologizing for, whatever?

     "Why didn't you come outside and find out?"

     "I didn't feel like it.  I was tired."

     "They're friends of Jack's.  Harry and Sean.  They're nice, fun, you know.

     The air conditioning hummed.  She couldn't hear the desert in here.  Leslie sat down on the edge of the bed, facing the glass door, watching the sky.  Larry touched her with his foot, rubbed her back with his toes.  Leslie felt her muscles tighten.  She told herself to relax.  She made herself relax.  She leaned back against Larry's foot.  Pressure felt so good right now.  She closed her eyes.  She slid off his foot, down onto the bed, a sleepy rag doll.

     "What were you talking about?"

     "Wouldn't you like to know."

     "I would."

     "I pitched him a story idea.  He liked it.  Loved it, actually."

     Larry didn't know what to say.

     "He thought I was a writer.  I went with it.  You always wanted us to write a script together.  Maybe I'll get us a deal this weekend.  Or maybe I'll just write it by myself."

     "Come on.  Really?"

     Leslie scooted up the bed, all the way on to it, slinked toward the pillow.  It felt crisp and cool under her head.  It was everything a pillow should be.

     Larry leaned over, contorted, just to kiss her on the lips.

     "You've been smoking."

     "Didn't you see us?"

     "I missed that part."

     He kissed her again.  She stayed somewhere in the middle.  Not moving.  Not admitting that she liked it.

     "Is kissing me like licking an ashtray?"

     "It's a contact high."

     Leslie turned away from him, more lazy than spiteful.

     "Are you in the mood...for anything?"

     "Maybe later."

     Leslie didn't know what Harry did, but he was more glamorous than Larry.  He must be something, someone, to be hanging out with Jack.  But it wasn't that, it wasn't a matter of status.  She decided that her fantasy life had been dead too long, not from not smoking grass, but from not doing anything romantic, unpredictable, bold, strange.  The grass reawakened that.  Some deeper stirring.  She closed her eyes to the beautiful sky.  It was just too hard to keep them open.  She felt his hands on her back, on her shoulders, drawing his body closer, bending against her, she felt him hard against her, but she was a bit too tired right now to do much about it, even if she wanted to, it was better to just to sink, to drift, to chase down that one last thought, more like a tune, a little ditty, what was the name of the song, that familiar song...

     Leslie woke up, alone.  The room was dark.  The pool glowed liquid blue.  It took her a moment to remember where she was, and why.  Her mouth tasted terrible.  When she thought about it, she still felt a little stoned.

     The bathroom was the most hotel-like room in the whole hotel-like house - clean, bright, impersonal.  Hardly the place of private functions.  Leslie thought she looked old in the mirror - older - she felt strange looking at herself.  There was a tiny tube of toothpaste with a Ritz Carlton logo among the bathroom condiments.  Leslie squeezed some paste onto her finger and brushed her teeth.  Sucking in the clean taste of mint made her feel much better.  She unwrapped a tiny bar of oatmeal soap and washed her face.  She felt restored.  Her thoughts, still slow and repetitive, dwelling on sensation (the light, the ugly texture of the marble countertop, the cheap sheen of the brass faucets) and anxieties (where was Larry, where was Jack, what had she missed, was she up to being witty) at least felt ordered. The ritual of cleaning her teeth and her face gave her the brief illusion of morning freshness.

     In the hallway she heard Larry's voice, then laughter.  Her husband was seated between Harry and Sean at a long glass-topped dining table.

     Harry was wearing a Coogi sweater and a tam o'shanter.  Sean was wearing the same oversized man's shirt, dry now, and perfectly torn jeans.  Larry was wearing a raw silk shirt and the khaki pants Leslie had bought him for Valentine's Day three years ago.  They were eating Chinese food by candlelight.  There was an extra place setting.  The flatware was clunky.  An old Elvis Costello album - was it "Get Happy!"? - came from speakers somewhere: ...everything you say now sounds like it was ghostwritten...

     Leslie worried about what she had missed - it felt like walking into a room where everyone else was deep into watching a movie, annoyed with having to fill in the plot.  Not that they didn't include her.  Had Harry and Sean gotten high in the meantime - higher?  And had Larry joined them, broken his dope celibacy?  Lots of questions bubbled underneath Leslie's smile as she traversed the closed-loop carpet and sat down in one of the comfortable but ugly off-white padded chairs.

     "We didn't want to wake you, Les.  We got you moo shu - like you like it - no eggs."

     "Thanks.  Where's Jack?"

     "Jack's on the phone," Harry said.  Sean giggled.  "Wherever he is, somewhere Jack's on the phone, I'm sure.  He called again, with more excuses and apologies.  Well, not apologies exactly.  That's not Jack's style."

     "Apparently."  Straining in the yellow candlelight, leaning forward for the shrimp fried rice, Leslie thought she saw red stains of agitated veins in what should have been the whites of Larry's eyes. 

     "In his stead, let's enjoy the banquet.  The Mojave's famous for Szechwan food."  So Larry was stoned.  The tip-off was his oddly stilted speech.

     "It's a little rude of him."  Leslie jumped in with a strong opinion.

     "Jack is beyond rude."  Harry held up a bottle of Chateau LaTour.  "Some wine?"  It seemed like an invitation to more.  Something about Harry was pleasantly insinuating.  She never expected so many secrets.  That wasn't what she anticipated as they drove down Bob Hope Drive, past Frank Sinatra Street, on the final leg of getting here.  Leslie nodded and Harry poured the wine into the inelegant glass.  Things weren't matching here - the vintage of wine clashed with the crystal - Leslie felt dissonance with every turn of her head: the accretion of unpleasant objects, all magnified by the last fizzle and pop of the cannabis in her bloodstream.

     "Harry grew up with Jack," Larry explained.

     "If we ever actually grew up."

     Looking around the table, Larry thought, if the hypothetical camera angle were an overhead shot, this would look like a reasonably conventional dinner.  Two couples.  A husband and wife.  A boyfriend/girlfriend.  Chinese take-out by candlelight.  Breaking bread.  A basic ritual.  Pleasant conversation.  Then the image began to fall apart.  He had trouble fictionalizing what would happen next, or even what was happening then, in everyone else's head.

     He wondered if Harry produced films.  More specifically, did he buy scripts?  Leslie wondered if Harry needed an interior designer.  Coming out to the desert to see Jack had put them both in a mercantile mood.  The desert was empty.  They would fill it with desire.  Not for each other, but for other things.

     Leslie told herself that she just didn't want things.  That she was more human than that.  But how much do you learn at the table?  How hard do you try?

     "Are you in the biz?" Larry asked Harry.

     "No.  Not really.  I produced a film once."

     "That's more than some people ever do.  People who are really in the biz."

     Dinner was constantly threatening to fall apart.  It could happen between bites.

     "Harry has artistic inclinations.  Or at least Harry had artistic inclinations," Sean said.  It was the first time she had spoken since Leslie had sat down.  "But that was before I met him."

     "When did you guys meet?" Larry asked.  Leslie could tell that Larry was interested in Sean, by the way he was looking at her - and she knew that he wouldn't do anything about it.  If she was sure of one thing, she was sure that she knew that much about Larry.

     "Last week."

     "I didn't even know we were coming out here.  We went to this party last night and Harry just dragged me out to the desert.  I didn't bring any clothes - just what I'm wearing."

     Larry ate his noodles carefully, daintily, not wanting to slurp.  Leslie could see that he was enthralled by Sean's limited, impromptu wardrobe, that he was jealous of Harry for being with Sean.

     Leslie filled the dead air.  "So you produced a movie?" 

     "Just an art film, with a buddy of mine.  It was fun, but it's not really a business."

     "Is that what you tell Jack?"

     "Sure."

     "And what does Jack tell you?"

     "Stick with nuts and bolts.  Literally.  My family's been manufacturing hardware since the Gold Rush.  We didn't dig for gold; we sold shovels and pans to the dreamers."  Harry seemed to cheerfully accept his destiny.

     "And what do you do?"  Leslie asked Sean.  Leslie thought she was doing a pretty good job of being easy-going.

     "You mean what's my major?"

     Looks were exchanged.  Harry and Sean and Larry seemed to simultaneously laugh.

     "I make espressos for a living.  But someday I hope to make cappuccinos."

     It was dragging on now.  Leslie didn't have much of an appetite; she stopped eating the lukewarm, congealing take-out.  She was ready to get high again.  She wished that this really was a vacation, that she could be completely satisfied with where she was, with who she was, just sit in the sun, carefree.  "So what did I miss while I was sleeping?"

     Sean looked at Harry and smiled.

     There wasn't much else to say.

     They were all sitting outside.

     Only the pool light was on.

     They all sat in the watery blue light, under the dark desert sky.

     Larry felt privileged in a way that he didn't deserve - it wasn't earned, just an invitation, an address that he'd shown up at.

     Harry lit another joint.  In Jack's absence, he was the provider of entertainment.

     Harry passed the joint to Leslie.  She gave Larry a look: guilty - then defiant - then defiantly indifferent.  Finally, she smoked.

     Harry rustled open a newspaper.  "Let's see what's playing at the local cinema."

     "Doesn't Jack have cable?"

     "And a satellite dish.  If there's entertainment out there in the universe, Jack's got the gear to receive it."

     The joint made its way to Larry.  Leslie was waiting, watching.  Their unspoken communication was complex and shifting.  He, too, was defiant - indifferent - then, after puffing, guilty.  He was playing from the same deck.  They were married.

     "I think it's more fun here."  Sean cuddled against Harry.  He took it in stride, smoking, still studying the newspaper in the wavering blue light.  She snuggled closer.  "We can smoke, make our own popcorn, take off our clothes..."

     Larry had to walk, he had to move, he had to do something.  He stood up, ready to make an excuse about bathroom but no one was paying any attention - Leslie looked at him - he didn't have to explain to her - suddenly, it was all too much and he wanted to be by himself.

     He went inside through the sliding doors, past the remnants of dinner, down the long beige hallway - it was all getting so familiar, so fast, the lay-out of the house no longer a mystery - but he still hadn't seen the master bedroom, didn't really want to.  The other rooms were at least bearable, but he knew that he would feel diminished in the master bedroom. 

     His thoughts were racing.  It pained him that he and Leslie couldn't talk, not really, that they both seemed to have unspoken, irreconcilable agendas.

     Larry went into their bedroom - their temporary bedroom.  But he didn't want to lie down.  He wanted to feel better.  He wanted to escape.  His head felt clogged.  He thought he was getting bright ideas.  That long festering story about Las Vegas - somehow - somewhere inside of him it felt more complete, more do-able.  Larry felt both confident and scared.  If he could just take out a pen and paper and scribble some notes down - there was so much to write down - but where to begin - what were the specifics, when there were so many things to say.  Larry dug into his shoulder bag, got out his notebook, uncapped the green pen that he favored, and waited.  But it just wasn't there the moment he tried to focus it down to a word, a sentence, whatever.

     Larry sat down on the beige quilted bedspread.  He felt alive.  He felt alienated.  He was exploding with old feelings.  He was trying not to give up.  He dropped backwards, settled with a bounce against the worsted fabric.  He worried about going back outside.  He felt obligated.  He sat back up.  He couldn't sit still.

     Leslie came in.  "I was wondering where you went."  She sat down, not nearby, but in the middle distance, not to touch, but to talk.  "I didn't think you were smoking."

     "I didn't think you were."

     "When in Rome."

     "When in the desert.  I wouldn't have ordinarily, but the temptation...and I wanted to see what it would be like, after all this time."

     "How long has it been?"

     "Two years.  I got stoned two years ago on my birthday."

     "So what's it like?"

     "The same.  I'm just older doing it, less accustomed.  It's a bigger high - it's harder to deal with - being out of practice."

     "I kind of like it."

     "It's okay."

     "Why do you think you used to get high so much?"

     "Why didn't you ask me that then?"

     "I'm asking you now."

     "Why?"

     "I want to know."

     "I don't know why.  How much do you ever understand about what you do?  It was fun.  It made everything more intense.  It felt like a painless way of learning things.  Does that make sense?  Why?  Why do you think you got high?"

     "Sort of the same reason.  It was fun.  It made music better.  Food better.  Sex better.  But I didn't do it nearly as often as you did."

     "I'm more obsessive."  He slid toward Leslie.  She let him hug her, but didn't move - remaining neutral, neither pro nor con. 

     They sat for a while like that, the duration stretched by the drug.  Those few seconds seemed very slow indeed.  They were married, but there were decisions to be made, moment by moment.  There was a rhythm, a momentum to staying together, but the specific minutes were a matter of negotiation, apportionment, vindication, compromise.

     Larry was thinking about sex, in an abstract way because he wasn't specifically horny.  It was more out of habitual advance and retreat than any need he might have been feeling at that exact moment.  The thing about retreating was covering his flank, defeat with honor - it bothered Larry how appallingly apt the Vietnam metaphors were.  He couldn't seem to need sex, to want it too much.  They'd been married for four years and it was still like dating - within their parameters of familiarity sex was no guarantee - and if there was sex it wasn't necessarily good.  Thinking about all this, his arm loosely around Leslie, her thoughts most likely someplace else, or, if in the same place, then resisting the same impulse, Larry felt less stoned.  Not straight, but no longer high.  This was not the kind of soaring that he craved.  Here they were, married, and high, and in bed - or at least on a bed - and sex seemed as unlikely as - as unlikely as - Jimi Hendrix bursting through the door and playing solo guitar.  Now he was remembering younger days, when the drugs were fresher, when the thing had been not to play games, but to be honest, to get beyond the bullshit.  This high was now more like a cocktail than a drug.  Leslie was still staring at the ceiling.  She didn't seem at all interested in him - but wasn't she just drifting in her thoughts like he was?  We know each other, but I don't think she's at all interested in me - is it because she's too angry to be interested - is it something we can talk about? - talking now seemed like writing had a minute or three ago - there was too much to say, a tangle of contradictory impulses - one sentence contradicting another - a tangle that reduced Larry to silence - until he felt like he was bursting with silence - there was so much to say that it threatened to just tumble out as intricate gibberish - and somewhere within the gibberish might be something that would connect with Leslie, re-connect, make it all less of a battle.  But just now he didn't have the energy to conquer that big thing.  And his arm felt twisted and uncomfortable on top of Leslie.  It just didn't feel good.  He had come in here to be by himself, and she had joined him, and now she was ignoring him - why was that?  Did she have to be near him in ways that she couldn't admit?  The room felt small and Larry felt like walking under the desert sky.  He was stoned - it wasn't too late to feel high.

     Walking in the dark, alone.  That was what he wanted, wasn't it?  Big palms silhouetted against the sky.  The air was cold.  Larry wished he had a sweater, but he wasn't turning back. 

     It was a long street.  There were no moving cars.  What did he want to think about in the darkness?  Were his steps an impulse toward something?  The night was empty out here - it didn't feel dangerous, like the city night, waiting for attack, the siege of darkness.  He wanted to walk toward, walk into a big idea, the one that pulled the lever of the giant slot machine, the jackpot.  He wanted suitable reward for all the pages he had sprayed words with.  But where was that idea, what dark palm tree was it hiding under?  His searching was distracted by - well, distracted by so many things - Leslie was the first thing that came to mind.  Exactly what he was feeling kept squirming away, but she had seemed so real to him back in the borrowed bedroom - wasn't it all a borrowed bedroom? - flesh - solid - his mate - it was so much more complicated than anything he could say to her - "I love you" had been debased into weightlessness.  It was ridiculous, their being annoyed with each other for being stoned.  Larry felt sad that instead of enjoying the soft rush of altered sensation, they were angry with each other for feeling the same thing, for having smoked - where did irony step over into tragedy?  And ultimately, in this diminished incarnation, wasn't his life too small to make any claim to tragedy?  Now that was tragic - the failure to be truly tragic.  Who should he blame?  Here he was, walking alone, it's what he said he wanted to do.  Sentiment.  It was so hard crawling back to zero.  How had they quit being friends? 

     He couldn't solve that question in the darkness, so Larry let a story play, as pure kinesthetic sensation, something he felt in his body, the Las Vegas story, which was little more than an imagined hotel room, with a view of the strip.  A woman came into that imaginary room.  She wore a black dress.  She looked like a wanton Audrey Hepburn - she looked like: Sean.  The woman and the hero (his surrogate, who looked just like him) had apocalyptic, safe sex.  Sex that healed the hero, that advanced the plot.  But where was the story going - and how did it get there?  If he sat down it would work itself out, somehow, not just the story, but his life, if he could key into the pattern, if he could reduce the night to a definable darkness.  If he could just...impossible...

     Larry turned back, feeling a tug of not wanting to stray too far.  He was cold.  The walked hadn't helped.  He just felt smaller, outside in the night.

     Leslie stepped into the hallway, no shoes, just socks, feeling casual.  She was determined to be perky, not to dwell.  She had been dwelling far too much lately.  She didn't feel comfortable, but she tried to look comfortable, like she belonged.  The pool rippled and refracted in the night wind.  At the far end of the hall was an open door to a room that Leslie hadn't seen.  The house felt as tense and empty as a horror film.  The dope had made her feel both alive and oddly diminished.

     The door was open.

     Through the open door she saw Harry and Sean. 

     Fucking. 

     Leslie didn't like Larry using that word to describe love-making, but that's the word she heard herself using in her noisy brain.  She wanted to keep watching.  They both seemed so lost in it, such an unlikely couple.  She backed away, free of discovery, the image still burning as she retreated back up the hallway.  Leslie felt so left out.  And where was Larry?

     The house was quiet.  It felt like a tomb.  Larry was sure that Leslie would be angry.  Some things were constant. 

     Back inside the house he didn't feel tired.  He felt trapped.  And angry that Leslie would be angry - that was another kind of trap.  Larry was angry about even having to think about traps.  It felt weird - weird enough so that he plopped down on one of the sofas, sunk into its deep cushions, to think about things: suddenly, now that he was inside, he was angry about everything.  Why?

     Why now?

     Why not?

     Everything was an excuse.

     He was waiting for an excuse, to think of an excuse.

     There must be an easier way.

     Larry knew that he wasn't thinking clearly.  He didn't even know what he was thinking about.  He knew enough to know that - it was too large - it was his life - what he comprehended of the pattern was so dark that it made him turn back - there was no percentage in this kind of comprehension, if what he was doing could even be graced with such a word.  Comprehension.  It sounded so fucking pretentious.  What he really needed was an excuse that worked.  That helped him forget.

     Looking up from thoughts that he had had again and again, loping, looping thoughts that, in the end, went nowhere, Larry saw Sean looking at him, wearing only her white shirt, bare feet, bare legs.  Larry wondered how long had she been watching.

     "Hi."

     "Hi."

     "Where is everybody?"

     Sean smiled. "Everybody?"

     "Everybody else.  The other two."

     "Harry's sleeping."

     "Sleeping?"

     "Napping."

     "He turns in early."

     "Sex zaps him.  That and dope."

     Larry felt titillated.  They were talking in a darkened room, like conspirators.  The darkness was intimate.  Larry didn't know quite what to say next.  The longer he waited the more the silence said - or could be assumed to say.  He was startled into asking the obvious.  "Where's Leslie?"

     "Why?  Are we going to have group sex?"

     Larry felt breathless.  "That depends on the group."

     Sean laughed and slouched down on the opposite couch.

     Group sex.  Larry, Sean, and Leslie. 

     No. 

     Not with Leslie, she'd never go for it.  Larry, Sean, and Harry.  Larry had never had sex with a man.  He'd fantasized about it, abstractly, once or twice, more out of writerly obligation, or at least that's what he told himself.  He was interested in having sex with Sean, but within the limited mathematical possibilities that the current occupants of the house offered, he couldn't imagine a "group" that was conducive to his real motive.  Would it take a group to get Sean interested in him?  Was she really interested?  It could easily just be a taunt, a little flirty jest - and if Larry took it that way, then there was no danger of social awkwardness or rejection - but there was the danger that she was serious, that she was direct, and Larry was missing an opportunity that he might always regret.  He had so many regrets, but the most recent regret always had that special tang.  And even if the concept of group sex was successfully re-negotiated, down-sized to just the two of them, what about discovery?  Would he have to act cool about it, like he didn't care?  Could he overtly ask for Sean's discretion?  And if he asked for her discretion, would she laugh at him, think him hopelessly square and call the whole deal off?  Or if he did ask and she agreed, wouldn't he be fearful that she would let something slip - a word or a touch, and then Leslie would know and there would be hell to pay.  God, he wanted it.  Her.  Whoever she was.  Sean.  He didn't have the slightest idea.  But just now, it seemed like she could save him, at least in some small way, if he could just find a graceful way to negotiate the temporarily vast distance between the two couches.  How?  And how much more did he need, hadn't she broached the topic?  Larry felt an overwhelming urge to be clever, to let words help him, but he didn't know how.

     Sean smiled again, played with a button on her shirt. "What are you thinking?"

     "Why do you ask?"

     "Because your mind seems busy."

     "You can tell?"

     "I can tell."

     "Even in the dark."

     "Even in the dark," she repeated.

     "I'm impressed.  Well, to be quite honest, I was thinking about group sex."

     "What about it?"

     "How many people does it take - I mean - what's the minimum?"

     Sean laughed again.  "More than two."

     "That's what I was afraid of."

     "Is it?"

     Larry wondered what to say next, what was the right thing, the words that would work.

     "I bet that's not all you're afraid of."

     "No."

     "Why don't you tell me?"

     "Why don't you tell me?" Larry threw back - it seemed a clever thing to say - noncommittal - and then he feared what she would say - that it would be the truth - that it would be more than he cared to know about himself - that she would know too much for who she was, someone who had met him just a few hours ago - that what he was should not be so obvious - not to her - not to someone so young - not to anyone - especially not to her.

     Sean was smiling.  She enjoyed waiting.  She was looking into his face as if it was an amusing sitcom.  He was entertaining her.  In other circumstances that was okay.  More than okay.  That was great.  He hadn't picked up a woman since the early days with Leslie, when they were first living together, but were still uncommitted.  And that had only happened once, right after he had sold a script, rather, had it optioned.  He had felt omnipotent - or at least potent - there was a chance that the world was his - and in that elastic moment of surging possibility, for a magical week or two, he did everything right, he actually picked up a woman at a matinee.

     That was a lifetime ago.

     "First of all, you're afraid of getting caught."

     "I am?"  Larry's voice didn't sound quite right to him.

     "Of course you are."

     "We could take precautions.  So we wouldn't get caught."

     "Of course we could take precautions.  You're also afraid of me."

     "I am?"

     "Of course you are."

     "You're assuming a lot."

     "Not really.  You're afraid."

     "You're saying all the right things.  To make me feel great."

     "I'm sorry."

     "Are you?"

     "Sort of.  I mean, I like you."

     "Based on what?"

     "Instinct.  Intuition."

     Larry wondered if he should make a move.  And if so, then how.  The distance between them - two opposing couches, a glass coffee table - felt awkward.  Insurmountable.  But.  The moment had come.  Was he confident enough to do it?  Was it pleasure or labor?  Was he moving away from or toward something?

     "Where have you been?"  Leslie asked from the doorway, in silhouette, her voice both sleepy and accusing, rising from sleep to accuse.

     "I went for a walk."

     "Both of you?"

     "No.  I went for a walk alone."

     "Hi," Sean said.

     Leslie came in and sat down on yet another couch, the middle of three.  The semicircle was complete, encircling the dark fireplace in the desert.

     "God, I'm wasted."

     "I was thinking of going for a swim," Sean said.

     "Isn't it a too cold?"

     "The pool's heated."

     Larry looked outside.  Leslie looked outside.  They both saw steam rising in the aqua colored light.

     "Do your body a favor."

     "I'm too tired to do anything."

     "Do you want to smoke some more grass?"

     "No thanks."

     Larry felt like he was a bystander to what was going on between Leslie and Sean.  The jealousy.  Leslie was jealous that Larry found Sean attractive, no matter how much he denied it, no matter how studiously he avoided looking at Sean.  No, he couldn't remember giving Sean anything like a real look since Leslie had spoken from the darkness and come over to sit down.  So how could Leslie know?  What micro-gesture alerted her?  How much had she heard, had she watched, hidden?  Leslie was jealous of Sean - that she had youth - that she had Harry.  Larry wondered if Leslie really wanted Harry.  Why couldn't they just switch partners?  Habit.  Fear.  It kept coming back to fear.  The promise of temporary bliss - and then emptiness and terror on the other side of the weekend, shorn of Leslie, alone, in a world of diseases and decisions, driving back from the outer desert to the inner desert, the next-to-the-ocean desert.  Right now, his attention exhausted and diminished, Larry would settle for a moment of uncomplicated pleasure, where he could feel good, without having to worry about the next thing to do, or worry about what Leslie thought, just a couple of unclouded moments with no consequences.

     "Sure you won't join me?"  Sean got up from the couch, her movements blurred in the darkness, her white shirt covering the chassis of flesh underneath.

     "Go ahead, Larry, if you like."

     "Maybe."

     He felt guilty.  The way Sean was looking at him made him feel guilty.  She was saying too much, even not speaking.  They hadn't done anything, and yet he looked guilty.  And even if Leslie didn't say anything about it, she would convict and punish him for it, in unspoken ways, all the same.  Larry did his best not to watch Sean walk toward the sliding glass door.  He tried not to watch her at all.  Was it his fault that she took off her shirt before she stepped into the pool, was it his fault that she was naked?

     "You spent an awfully long time going for your walk."

     "Why, did I miss something?"

     "Did I?"

     "What do you mean?"

     "You know what I mean."

     "No.  Why are you doing this?"

     "Doing what?"

     "You know what you're doing."

     "No."

     "Accusing me."

     "It would have been nice to go to a movie or something.  I mean, we haven't done anything since we got here."

     "No one wanted to do anything!  Everyone was stoned."

     "Calm down.  I was just asking.  I think I'll go back to sleep."

     Larry was too angry to say anything.

     "Good night."

     Leslie felt pleased walking away, not pleased in the sense of pure happiness, but pleased with her effect on him, that she could deny him whatever she didn't have.  Whatever that was.  Happiness.

     Larry felt angry about having to dutifully follow Leslie into the bedroom.  He wanted to yell at her.  He wanted to explode.  He wanted to explode in proximity to her.  Give her credit, she did know how to make him angry.  It was so stupid he didn't even want to think about it.  Why did he have to think about it, why did she make him think about it?

     Larry walked down the dark hallway.  It was alien country.  It was a place to die forgotten.  But he was already forgotten, wasn't he?  Everything was alien here - the walls, the light bulb glowing faintly in its chrome home, the stainless steel door knobs, all the objects carted into the desert, organized into a house, a hallway in the desert, a room connecting empty rooms.  For a moment Larry felt like an astronaut in a spaceship.  Light glowed under the doorway of their assigned room.  Larry didn't look forward to joining Leslie.  Had things come to that?  Of course.  But why were things so much worse, so suddenly.  Was it the house?  Was it them?  Was it them in the house?

     Larry opened the door.  Leslie was in bed, on the far left side of the queen sized bed, reading a mystery novel.  Larry didn't even bother to look at the title.  The title meant nothing, the book was always the same.  Leslie didn't look up from the book, her eyes continued their ratcheting, devouring scan. 

     He stared at her: prim pink night gown, reading glasses, face scrubbed clean for sleep.  Had she been wearing her glasses in the living room?  He was annoyed with himself for not remembering that detail, that clue - had she dressed up for her visit - hoping to see Harry, or putting on a show for Sean?  How had she gotten ready for bed so quickly?  Had he been brooding that long?  And how long would he have to stare at her to get her to look up from her book at him?  Quite a long time, or so it seemed.  He was too angry to find out. Instead, abruptly, he turned to the bathroom, fumbled for the light.

     It was a very bright bathroom.  Alone with his body, he felt alive.  He felt dead.  He felt dead and alive.  He was alone with himself.  Wasn't that the permanent condition?  But what about what was waiting for him on the other side of the door?

     When he came out of the bathroom, the bedside light was off, the curtains were pulled shut, the room was dark, Leslie was turned away from him - sleep was the best excuse of all to ignore him. 

     He sighed and climbed into bed, felt the cool sheets against his skin, wondered if he should read himself to sleep, but was distracted by sadness - was there a cure for it?  His feelings had been heightened by the unexpected drug that evening - it made him realize how long he had been living with sadness, somehow the marijuana made that more obvious.  Larry felt his anger dissolving in a tender creep toward Leslie's side of the bed.  He started to cuddle against her, to bend his body into the shape of hers - when she scooted away, not saying anything, not acknowledging that she was awake.  For a long moment Larry didn't, couldn't move.  He started to say "Leslie" but didn't - waited - her movement settled, a few inches away, a safe gap of space separating their bodies. 

     Larry waited.  Nothing.  He thought he heard a splash outside. 

     He waited.  He didn't like where he was.  He was reluctant to move.  Gradually he inched back to his side of the bed.  His side.  

     Waited.  Heard Leslie's breathing slow down.  No, he didn't like where he was.  He had tried.  He climbed quietly out of bed and pulled his pants back on.  He stood on the carpet, trying to remember the layout of the room.  He fumbled quietly toward the door. 

     It opened without a creak.

     Outside, back in the hallway, Larry felt that he had escaped into an adventure.  Maybe everything that happened - if anything happened - was Leslie's fault.  No.  That wasn't the issue.  He had to get beyond that as an issue.

     Walking toward the living room, Larry felt his penis stirring, just with the possibility.  Wouldn't it be clear what he wanted when he came back to Sean?  Wouldn't it?  Larry felt nervous, empty of what he should say to Sean as he crossed the living room.

     She was in the pool - he saw her head in the clinging layer of blue steam.  He stopped, ready to turn back, afraid - he was afraid, just as she claimed.  That made him stop, but it also made him want to continue on, made the fear something to conquer - wasn't this a turning point? - the rocket escaping gravity, Mr. Spaceman stepping out of the spaceship - it was now or never to try and reclaim the adventure - no, it was stupid, he was stupid, he had been reduced to these fears by a girl - virtually a girl, by someone that young.

     He stepped outside.  

     The air was cold, colder than he remembered from his walk. 

     Well.  This was the moment to say hello.  This was the moment.

     Larry walked to the edge of the pool.  He was waiting for her to notice him.  But she didn't.  She was drifting, her eyes closed.

     "Hello."

     "Hi."  Eyes still closed, she didn't sound surprised to see him.  "Coming in?"

     "I don't have my bathing suit."

     "You've got your birthday suit."

     This is what Larry wanted.  Why was he having such trouble with what he wanted?  No more.  Not this time.  He started to undress, turning half-away from her.  She watched him - smiling - daring, or so it seemed from what little Larry saw, half turned away.  He felt embarrassed, betrayed by his erection.  Not betrayed enough to stop.  No.  He hurried down the steps and into the water.  Sean was at the other end of the pool.  He could see her through the steam.  He tried to enjoy the water.

     Larry wished that he had his notebook, that he had a pen, that he could write something down, that he could be separate from the moment, doing what he was supposed to do.  He remembered a series of sun-drenched streets, sad streets, driving, walking, waiting, wanting someone to say yes. 

     Back in the pool, this was a good moment to be a better version of himself.  

     As he treaded water, kept his limbs moving, building body heat, he thought about Leslie.  He was angry with her.  He was remembering moments with her that made him angry.  Nothing was working right.  If he could forget her totally, then couldn't he be something else, himself, again, somehow.

     "Leslie didn't feel like swimming?"

     "I guess not."

     "Well."

     "Well."

     He swam tentatively toward Sean.

     Sean swam away.

     He looked toward the dark window behind which he hoped Leslie was still sleeping.  He was determined to seem relaxed.  He felt he had a few minutes to decide what to do.  He didn't feel free.  He felt a headache growing.  What would another man do?  What would his buddy Burt do?  No, imitation meant failure - he had to decide who he was now.  He had to be brave enough to be direct.

     They were in the deep end.  Her breasts were refracted, distorted by the rippling water.  His eyes already ached with chlorine.  He rested his hand on her shoulder.

     "Your hand's on my shoulder."

     Of all the thing's she could say.

     "Does that bother you?"

     "It just makes me wonder."

     Larry felt awkward.  It had to go one way or another now.

     "Do you want me not to?"

     "Yes!"  She smiled and abruptly swam away. 

     He felt confused, abandoned.  He didn't know what signals he should be reading.  Suddenly, absolutely, he wondered: what the fuck am I doing out here?  How can I gracefully leave?

     "Hey, Larry."

     He saw Sean walking in the shallow end, her head an island in the steam.

     "Come here."

     Larry cringed at what Leslie might hear.  But he came closer.

     "Would you put your hand on my shoulder?"

     He felt an erection, involuntary, unbidden.  Could Sean see it?  Averting his eyes, he saw the darkness between her legs, a magnet, blurry, underwater.

     "You're awfully quiet.  I thought writers liked to talk."

     "Sure."

     "So talk."

     "My mind's a blank.  Pick a topic."

     "Leslie."

     "Pick another topic."

     "Do you want to touch my breast?"

     Larry felt high again, traveling a new drug to a strange place.  Stepping back in his head he saw himself in a pool, shrouded in steam, his hand on a new body - it was all so far beyond what he had imagined.  His hand dipped below the water, found the soft shape of her breast.

     "I asked if you wanted to, I didn't say to."

     Larry didn't move his hand.  "Do you like to tease?"

     "Sometimes."

     "Do you like to tease me?"

     "It's been fun so far."

     He touched her other breast.  It would be so easy.  It had never been this easy before.

     "Are you faithful to your wife?"

     "I have been."

     "I like that."

     Larry moved closer.  He was proud of his erection.  He wanted her to feel it.  He kissed her.

     "What are you doing?"

     "You have to ask?"

     "But you didn't ask permission."

     "Do I have to?"

     "Always."

     "Can I kiss you?"

     "You mean can I kiss me again?"

     "Can I kiss you again?"

     "No."

     "Why not?"

     "I don't want you to think I'm easy."

     "I don't think that."

     "Yes, you do."

     "No."

     "Don't lie."

     He felt her slip away.  He wondered about following.  He wanted to follow - but what was the protocol?  He only felt water from the neck down, and above that the cool air. 

     She climbed up the steps, into the air, until all of her was in the air.  She didn't shiver.  She didn't look back.

     "Where are you going?"

     "Inside."

     "So soon?"

     "Why not?"

     "I thought we were having a good time."

     "We were."

     "Well..."

     Sean wrapped herself in a towel.  Larry wanted to get out of the pool now, but it seemed too graceless.  What were the words he need to get Sean back in the pool?

     "What do you want?"

     "You."

     She laughed.  "You don't want me."

     "Oh, but I do."

     "You don't know what you want."

     "You don't know that."

     "But I do."

     "How?"

     She smiled at him.  Neither coming nor going.

     "We could have fun together," he tried.

     "We did have fun together."

     Larry watched her go.  He wondered what she thought of him.  He wondered if he had escaped humiliation.  Then he wondered if he had escaped detection.  He looked sharply toward their bedroom.  Safe, it seemed.

     He felt shriveled.  He began working on himself.  A step back, that much deeper into his head.  He had to tell himself that he had had an adventure.  Had to.  He had touched her breast.  Both her breasts.  Pressed himself against her.  How much more was sex than that?  Even if they had fucked, wasn't the prelude the most important thing?  Because the prelude was always different, unlike sex, which in the end, was almost always the same.  If it worked, you forget everything except exploding.  Yes, he had had an adventure.  An episode.

     And now it was safe to get out of the pool, wrinkled, shriveled, chlorinated.

     Looking down at the empty pool, the water still lapping, refracting, Larry had to wonder if Sean had ever really been there.  He hurried into the pool house and found a towel.  The bamboo bar was discolored, collapsing, covered with bird shit.  As Larry rubbed himself dry he saw the hole in the ceiling, a handful of stars peeking through the hole.  The pool house actually did need remodeling. 

     Back outside Larry picked up his clothes en route to the living room.  The air was too cold to stand outside getting dressed.

     On the other side of the glass doors, looking at the three white couches as he pulled on his underwear, he began to wonder.  Should he go to her bedroom, Sean's bedroom, Sean and Harry's bedroom, was she expecting him, were they expecting him?  He stopped to consider.  Was it a test that he had to pass to get what he wanted?  Maybe.

     Larry was annoyed that there were so many questions, when all he wanted was a simple thing - sex.  No, sex wasn't simple.  Of course not.  But the mechanics were.  Friction building to release.  Frozen here at the beginning - before the beginning, actually - he kept imagining the end, the release.  If all he wanted was release - wasn't release a prelude to sleep? - then why didn't he just go to sleep?  But he didn't feel like sleeping - couldn't sleep - that meant the bedroom with Leslie - he was sick of the bedroom with Leslie - Leslie didn't even want him in the bedroom.

     Re-dressed now, Larry felt frozen, tentative, standing in the dark living room.  Was Harry bisexual?  Was Sean pimping for Harry?  Was Sean the bait?  Larry was annoyed with himself for not understanding what was going on.  Maybe nothing was going on.  Maybe Sean was just an innocent flirt.  They'd just had an innocent kiss.  That he had initiated.  What could he blame Sean for - letting him kiss her?  The more Larry thought about it, the dumber he felt.

     What could it hurt to walk down the hallway?

     It was interesting.  It was exciting.  Larry felt like a prowler.  It was useful experience.  For a writer.

     The door at the end of the hall was closed.  Was that a test?  Should he open it?  He listened but heard only the gentle whoosh of central air. 

     Larry put his hand on the doorknob, to see what it would feel like, to take things to the next step.  The knob was cold.  He felt on the verge of something.  Something.  Opening the door would be a big step.  If the door was even unlocked.  He tried the handle.  It turned; it was unlocked.  This would require some thought. 

     Larry stepped back from the door.  He thought he could hear his heart beating.  Certainly he felt the hammering in his chest.  He couldn't remember the last time he'd been this excited.  About what?

     Forbidden fruit.

     Larry blinked, backed away.  He wanted a drink.  He felt sophisticated.  He was the last one up.  He was wrestling with something.  A beer.  Walking to the kitchen he saw a crystal decanter.  The hard stuff.  Why not.  Larry poured himself a drink.  He couldn't tell if it was scotch or bourbon, but it tasted smooth.  It burned, but it was smooth.  Larry still couldn't decide, but if he had this drink and maybe another then he might feel bold enough to open that door, see who was awake, see if she was willing.  Maybe Harry liked to watch.

     Larry belatedly realized that he was watching his own dim reflection in an antique mirror.  He marveled at having been that lost in thought.  And even if he didn't go into that bedroom tonight, he had come close, and there was tomorrow, Saturday, it wasn't like this was the last chance this weekend.  Larry finished his drink, coughed, poured himself another.

     He heard a car.

     A key.

     The front door opened.

     The room exploded with light. 

     Jack Brown had arrived.  Black bomber jacket, pressed khaki pants, ostrich skin boots.

     "Hello there."

     "Hello."

     "It's been a long day.  I can't remember your name."

     "Larry Jones."

     "Larry.  Nice to see you again."  A crisp nod of the head.  No handshake.  "Where's the gang?"

     "Asleep, I think."

     "So you found the Springbrook."

     "What?"

     Jack nodded at Larry's glass.  "The whiskey.  Finest single malt in the world.  I'm glad you could come.  Where's Leslie?"

     "Sleeping."

     "Did she have a chance to take a look at the pool house?"

     "I don't know."

     Jack nodded grumpily to himself, as if he had been failed in some basic way by either Leslie or Larry or both of them.  He poured himself a drink.  "I'm glad you drink.  Not many people do these days.  Everyone's losing track of basic pleasures."

     "She might have seen it.  Knowing her, she probably did.  We just didn't talk about it."  He felt weird.  This was a big opportunity.  Alone with Jack Brown.  But it was too sudden, in the middle of nursing this new lust for Sean.  Bonding with Jack was a lot more important, but his mind wasn't obeying.

     Jack led the way into the living room.  He clicked a remote control at the fireplace and gas flames leapt to life.  "Leslie's very talented.  You're very talented.  You're a very talented couple."

     "Thank you, Jack."

     Jack shrugged.  "Hey."

     "I didn't know you'd read any of my scripts."

     "I know your work.  I need a writer.  I mean, I always need writers.  But this week, Jesus, what a day.  Things are fucked.  How do you like the Springbrook?"

     "Great.  The best."

     "The best."

     "What's the project?"

     "What?"

     Larry wondered for a moment if Jack had forgotten, if he was always propositioning writers - was it a way at getting at Leslie - a step deal - he needed a break and here was Jack so painfully close.  Larry hated himself for being such a supplicant.  It didn't take much.  God, he was cheap.  If anyone knew.  No.  He hadn't said anything.  He hadn't said much.  "What's the project?"

     "We'll talk about it tomorrow.  I'm too beat to run it down for you.  I've got the first draft out in the car.  Pure shit.  Tomorrow.  What a fucking day."

     Larry found his way back into bed.  He was too excited to sleep, but he didn't know where else to go.

     "Where have you been?"  Leslie's voice startled him in the darkness.

     "I went over to Bob Hope's house.  Where do you think I've been?"

     "You don't have to get nasty."

     "After the way you've been acting?"

     "If I have been, can we start over?"

     "I only wish we could."

     She turned toward him.  He couldn't see her face in the darkness.  He assumed that she couldn't see his.

     "Were you swimming?"

     He didn't say anything.  He felt stranded between anger and guilt - suspended between intention and actuality.  "Don't you already know?"

     "I heard splashing."

     "Yes, I was swimming."

     "By yourself?"

     "Why are you interrogating me?"

     "I'm not interrogating you."

     Leslie had peeked out the window.  She knew the whole story.  She knew it without looking out the window.  Larry didn't know how to cheat - he didn't have the instinct, the experience, the skills.  He was too obvious.  But it would be interesting to hear what he had to say, how honest he would be.

     "With Sean."

     Well, just because he was honest - about the obvious - that didn't mean anything.

     "Jack finally showed up."

     "He did?"

     He was appalled how perkily she said he did?  "Why don't you go say hello?"

     "Is he still up?"

     "You seem to be having a second wind."

     "He's our host."

     "He's our lord of hosts.  He's our savior."

     She sat up.  "So Jack's still up?  And the others?"

     "Wander through the house, I'm sure you'll find them."

     "Larry.  I needed some sleep.  I haven't smoked grass in I don't know how long.  I'm sorry if I was grumpy."

     He turned away from her.  He felt guilty of the same things that she wanted.  New sex - fresh sex.  Sex.  To succeed.  Not to be saddled with an inadequate mate.  Like she was his problem.  And vice versa.  Maybe they could start again.  It couldn't be any worse than this.  He turned back to her, put his hands on her waist.  Waited.

     "Maybe I should go say hello.  What do you think?"

     Larry turned away.  "Jack's gone to bed.  But maybe his door's unlocked.

     "You're a bastard."

     "You're so transparent."

     "You don't know a thing about it."

     "About what?"

     "Me."

     "I know too much about you."

     "Let's not do this."

     "Okay."

     "I'm sorry.  For whatever."

     "Yeah, for whatever."

     She snuggled against him.  Larry felt himself weakening.  She still had his number.  It was pathetic.

     Leslie thought: if Larry was in a mood tomorrow, that just wouldn't do.  She didn't feel like sleeping.  The drug was still pulling at her.  Her mind felt cloudy.  She couldn't say exactly what she was thinking.  And he could be sweet.  Sometimes.  Fucking, when it didn't hurt, helped her sleep.  And Larry would be grateful.  He was always grateful.  Almost always.

     Leslie kissed his neck.  He turned toward her.  He didn't understand.  Weren't they angry with each other?  But why question a good thing, a gift?

     "Let me go to the bathroom."

     Larry didn't move.  He felt her warmth withdraw, her weight shift off the bed, saw a light thrown across the beige wall, eclipsed and extinguished as the bathroom door closed.  Solitary, contraceptive moments while Leslie lubed and loaded her diaphragm.  He didn't know if he even liked her anymore.  They felt so wrong together, if he thought about it.  Somewhere, somehow he must love her. 

     Must.  Might.  Maybe. 

     But everything felt wrong in the desert room. 

     He already knew what he was going to do - fantasize about Sean. 

     And then it occurred to him that Leslie had a similar gig - that they would have mutually surrogate sex - was this her way of keeping tonight in line with tomorrow?

     It felt too wrong.  It felt too easy.

     He felt himself drifting on the edge of sleep.  He pulled back - his eyes cracked open, then shut again.  A fantasy etched in the darkness.  Leslie was sleeping beside him.  How much had they said?  Where had the conversation gone, where had he drifted away to?  No, they hadn't made love.  They hadn't fucked.  Leslie wouldn't do that, wouldn't let him do that, not under the present conditions.  The enforced truce.

     He could only think about the bad state of things for so long, before sleep pulled at him again.  At the end of the blackness was the sun.  It was all so strange out here.  Everything was too close, too far away.  His skin felt strange.  The air was weird.  He felt alive, but in a way that he didn't want to be.  So this was the desert.  This was sleeping in the desert.

     Leslie left the room at eight-thirty, carefully made up to look like she wasn't made up.  Larry was still dead to the world.  It felt like a good time for her coming out.  She was ready to make her entrance.  Big things depended on the most minute points of courtly etiquette.  Larry just didn't get it.

     Walking down the hallway again, it didn't seem the same.  The house looked smaller.  Where was Jack?

     She followed a noise toward the kitchen.  She rubbed color into her cheeks, practiced a couple of different smiles, arrived at relaxed, expectant, glad to be here, comfortable with whatever.  The smile matched the rhythm of her steps, she felt ready, now, on, as she pushed through the swinging door.

     The housekeeper was making coffee.  There were grocery bags from Gelson's on the counter.  Leslie's smile downshifted to polite, democratic, multi-ethnic. 

     "Hola."

     "Good morning."

     "Am I the first one up?"

     "Oh, no, the last."

     Leslie was shocked.  She forgot her smile.  "The last?  Where are they?"

     The housekeeper waved vaguely toward the outer world.

     Larry woke staring at an unfamiliar ceiling.  Enough light bled through the blinds for Larry to see that he was alone.

     People just get uglier and I have no sense of time. 

     Some mornings, between a dream half-forgotten and whatever the first spoken word might be, a snatch of song would come unbidden to his inner ear, stay with him all day, repeating, echoing. 

     Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again. 

     Most mornings Leslie was gone when Larry got up.  Maybe they'd stayed together so long because their schedules were so different.

     This morning he had the worst taste in his mouth.  He didn't want to move. 

     He wondered what he was missing.  He wanted to hurry into the other room. 

     His nostrils felt dry.  He felt the desert even in this closed room.  Larry decided that today would be his last day with Leslie.  But he had decided this before.  He'd had too many unfulfilled premonitions.

     Larry sat up, lowered his feet to the floor. 

     People just get uglier. 

     Failed intuitions aside, he wouldn't defend Leslie today.  Why do you think they call it dope.  He remembered razor words in the dark, not the specific words, but the teeth behind them.  Take a look at Friday, how had things felt on Friday?  Larry felt perpetually stupid - he hadn't thought through the implications of staying in Jack's house.  Of course he'd seen them flirting at the party.  It was so blatant that he wasn't worried. 

     But now. 

     If he could think of himself as free of Leslie, then he was halfway free.  That was something to work on.

     Leslie sat on the patio, in the shade, with her coffee and an untoasted, unbuttered bagel.  Her mystery, a Patricia Highsmith novel, carefully chosen for the trip, rested on the pebbled glass end table.  She glanced at her Movado - it was after nine.  Leslie closed her eyes, practiced her deep breathing, determined to control her impatience.  Where had they gone?  When she opened her eyes again, disappointed that she had clocked less than five minutes of quiet time, it seemed that more than five minutes worth of color had drained out of Jack's aloe vera, out of the bougainvillea, out of the sinister surrounding mountains.  Thirty minutes ago the morning light had been yellow, rich, promising, and now it was washed-out.  Even the shadows were compromised half-measures.

     Leslie heard voices.  She thought about turning her head.  She thought about picking up her book.  It was important that she not seem to be waiting for them.

     "Leslie!"

     Jack stepped onto the patio, glistening with sweat, a water bottle in hand.  He was wearing an Adidas tank top, royal blue running shorts, leg weights.  A serious runner, with a runner's lean body.

     "Hi, Jack."

     He leaned over and gave her a kiss, on the lips, lingering.  Jack waited for Leslie to move away.  Leslie was in no hurry.  She pulled back, fractionally, before the kiss went on too long.  Maybe it was already too late.  Jack stayed close, leaning over, his eyes hidden behind Persol sunglasses. 

     "I'm all sweaty.  I hope I didn't drip on you."

     "Not yet."  She lightly pushed him away.  Jack laughed.  Leslie felt off her game.  He seemed to be seducing her even when she pushed him away.

     Jack took a deep pull from his water bottle.  "Let's go for a swim."

     Leslie was about to say no as an assertion of self, to show that she could be contrary.  Being contrary had heretofore served her well.

     Jack pulled off his tank top.  He wasn't waiting for an answer.  Maybe being with Larry had blunted her instincts.  Contrary was supposed to be a strategy, not a trait.  If it had become a trait, a habit, that was no good.  And anyway she wanted to swim.  She wanted to swim with Jack.

     Leslie stood up.  She unbuttoned her Anne Klein blouse with the passionflower pattern. 

     Jack smiled as he unlaced his Nikes. 

     It felt like a striptease.  What was the difference between her black bikini and her black underwear?  They covered the same number of square inches.  The underwear was a little sheerer. 

     Leslie slipped out of her sandals as she unbuttoned her white twill shorts. 

     Jack pulled off his socks.

     Leslie stepped out of her shorts. 

     Jack took off his headband, then his sunglasses.

     Leslie felt a momentum, unspoken, tit for tat, to continue.  She could be contrary to that by not doing another thing, which was the proper thing.  It wasn't even ten o'clock.  They were just going swimming.  

     "You've got a nice body."

     Leslie was at a loss.  For a moment.  "Thank you, kind sir."

     "Am I being politically incorrect?"

     "Probably."

     "I couldn't help noticing."  Said with another kind of smile, notched a level up, a transitional smile as Jack moved from shade to sunlight, from air to water.

     What had just happened, Leslie was left to wonder as she applied her Clinique sunscreen.  Jack hadn't volunteered to do that.  Rubbing on lotion, that was too routine a move.  Nothing had happened.  Not overtly.  The game was interesting, different than what she had imagined.  More direct, more complex - direct and complex at the same time.

     Jack was swimming underwater, surfacing for air at regular intervals like a tan dolphin.  He was wearing Speedo goggles. 

     Leslie stepped into the pool.  The water was a perfect temperature - cool, but not cold.  Still wearing her sunglasses, Persols, the same brand as Jack, she began swimming her own version of the backstroke.  They fell into a pattern of parallel lanes.  Jack glided to a stop, lifted off the goggles and watched Leslie swim.  She didn't feel like swimming but it felt wrong to stop too soon.

     "So how do you like the house?"

     "I love the desert."

     "Not the desert.  The house."

     "How long have you owned it?"

     "Six months."

     "It came with the furniture?"

     "Afraid to commit?"

     "Commit to what?"

     Jack laughed.  "A point of view."

     "No."

     "So?"

     "You want me to express a point of view.  That's a another matter entirely."

     Her laps had devolved into treading water.  It took too much effort to pay attention to swimming.  They finally arrived at a dynamic stasis - the pool was the medium they were standing in - like at a cocktail party - recalling the origins of their association, one long week ago.

     "What would you do?  If it were your house."

     "Gut it."

     Jack was startled blank for a single moment.  And then he laughed.  His timing was both odd and perfect.  Leslie was intrigued, unbalanced, but confident now of saying the right thing without thinking.

     "Actually I inherited the house from my dad."

     "So you've got sentimental attachments."

     "Jesus, no.  I hardly ever came out here.  This was his fuck pad."

     "Is it your fuck pad?"

     "No.  I'm politically correct."

     "I can only imagine."

     "Don't.  It's just a weekend place."

     "But you want the pool house redecorated."

     "I've been forced into it."  Leslie looked puzzled.  "Harry didn't tell you about the meteor?"

     "No."

     "A meteor the size of a tennis ball hit the pool house.  Can you believe it?  And my insurance doesn't cover it as an act of God.  If that's not an act of God, what the fuck is?  You want to see?"

     "Sure."

     Jack got out of the pool.  He offered his hand to Leslie, and even though she didn't need it, she took it. 

     He led her into another room that he owned and let go of her hand.  He had a perfect instinct of just how long to hang on.  Casual contact.  Casual contact escalating.

     Leslie marveled at the hole in the roof, the hole in the floor.  "A meteor?"

     "A meteorite, technically."

     "Where is it now?"

     "I took it to Malibu.  I've got it on the mantle."

     "Next to the Oscar?"

     "Next to the Giacometti."

     The roof tiles had been shattered.  The linoleum floor was singed black.  The bamboo bar was sagging from water damage.  Bird shit fanned in Poisson distribution below the hole in the roof.  Leslie was secretly pleased with how the meteorite had deconstructed the ugly decor.  She didn't believe in God, but it was an act of God.

     "So what would you do?"  Jack was standing in the doorway, silhouetted against the void of light, watching her.

     "How much do you want to do?"

     "That depends."

     "On what?"

     "The possibilities.  On what you talk me into."

     Leslie looked around.  She felt Jack looking at her.  The pool house was the same faceless beige as the house.  The furniture was both outdoorsy and stuffy.  Any sense of style was inadvertent.  A time capsule that no one was interested in.  Leslie could imagine some faggy decorator from Canyon Drive talking Jack's Dad into the earthy color scheme. 

     "First impressions," Jack said, stepping inside.

     "Paint everything white.  Tear out the linoleum, polish the concrete.  Lose the bar, lose the furniture."  She turned toward him.  "Do everything in primary colors."  She nodded at his wet blue running shorts.  "Blues, reds, yellows.  Put in French doors, maybe a canvas awning.  Turn this into a cabana, open it up to the pool."

     "Dump a ton of money into it."

     "Make this the place where you hang out, entertain."

     Jack smiled.  "Interesting."

     "Interesting?"  Leslie repeated, with a mocking lilt.

     "I'm intrigued."

     "Dude!"  Harry hobbled onto the patio.  "What a fucking run."  He collapsed on a chair.  "I don't feel too good."

     "You're dehydrated," Jack said.  "I told you not to overdo it."

     "Well...I did..."

     Jack looked at Leslie.  "I like your ideas.  They're good."

     "Good."  She was pleased.  She was surprised.  She expected nothing less.

     "Let's do it."

     They were baking in the sun.  They were baking safely.  Sunscreened.  Larry and Leslie were lying an arm's length apart, reclining on similar lounge chairs.

     Leslie held her mystery novel on her lap as she sketched a floor plan on the back of an envelope.  She stared at the pool house, directly across from her on the far side of the pool.  Sean was swimming, wearing a tee shirt and shorts.  Leslie was distracted by her and annoyed, but at least she was clothed.  That muted the competition.  Leslie saw her reflection in the pool house door.  She saw Larry's reflection reclining nearby, the shape of him, the outline, without details.  She looked over.  He was napping.  That summed up his life.  She was annoyed.  Because she was working.

     Jack came outside, wearing a light blue polo shirt, royal blue swim trunks and a black Spago baseball cap.  He was talking on a cordless phone.  He smiled at Leslie while he talked.  "We don't have to do that deal.  We don't have to.  Fine, we'll walk.  It's only money."  He laughed.  She found it disconcerting, she felt vaporized: she was what he was seeing, but he wasn't talking to her.  Jack threw a couple of red CAA scripts down on the empty lounge chair next to Leslie.  "Hey, I've already made two pictures this year.  I don't need it."

     Larry woke up from a light sleep, a dream of rearranging footsteps in a big white room, a couch in the sun, words, green banners, wind, a fragile dream that was gone before he tried very hard to remember it.  Hidden behind Ray-Bans, he cracked his eyes open.  He saw Leslie's profile, and behind her, Jack.  They were all joined by the sun they were sitting in.  There was a palm tree high above Jack's head.  The air was so clean he couldn't feel it.  There was no wind.  The sun was in a different place.  It felt later.  Larry slowly sat up.  Everything was hard to do.  "Wow...I zonked."

      Leslie gave him a look - quiet, but overtly hostile.

     Jack was pacing the pool.  The world was his.  He didn't care who heard what.  "You want to go to Italy?  We'll go to Italy.  No, week after next."

     "How long did I sleep?"

     "I wasn't timing you."

     Larry felt like hitting her.  He'd never hit her, but he'd felt like it before.  He felt like it now.  "Don't push it."

     "I've got a script I want you to read."

     Leslie looked toward Jack, who was now sitting next to her.  "Really?"

     "Not you - you."  Jack was looking past Leslie, to Larry.  It was hard to tell exactly where he was looking because he was wearing sunglasses.  Everyone was wearing sunglasses.

     "What for?"

     "I'd like your opinion."

     "A rewrite?"

     Leslie cringed at how obvious Larry was being.  He was blowing it before it even happened.  She could see the fractal of all his bigger failures in this little moment.  Nothing changed in Jack's face while all this was happening.  Jack leaned toward her.  His arm brushed against her stomach - it was warm and dry - as he leaned over her to hand the script to Larry.

     He opened the script to the title page.  He'd never heard of the writer.  He felt awake now.  Very awake.  He was already wondering what to say.  If this was a potential rewrite job, how much should he like it?  If he liked it too much, then he would talk himself out of a job, because what would need reworking?  If he didn't like it enough then maybe he wasn't the right person to do the rewrite.  He needed this job, if it was a job.  But should he read it right now, would that make him seem too eager?  There was a danger in that.  Larry knew that he wasn't good at this, at protocol, at the right way to do things.  Just trying to be himself, it was hard to decide what to do.  And now it was doubly hard to do the right thing.  Not just because of Jack, but because of Leslie.  Well, he was curious enough to read it right now.  He watched Sean swimming her laps, back and forth, boundless energy in a bounded pattern.  He started to read.  It was a thriller.  A thriller with sex.  A sex thriller.  It was actually erotic.  Larry felt a little horny.  And it wasn't just the sound of Sean splashing water.  The writing was good.  Very good.  He was waiting for a flaw.  He was getting depressed.  He'd never heard of the writer.  The guy was probably twenty years old.  He already had an agent at CAA.  Jack Brown and God knows who else was reading his script.  It was hopeless.  Larry felt too far behind everyone else.  It was impossible.  He would never catch up.  These thoughts distracted him from reading, but the story was so well laid out that he kept following it, turning the pages.  It was a page turner.  In his right ear he heard Jack talking on the phone, Jack talking to Leslie, but he couldn't follow their conversation, he was too depressed by this very well-written script, he had to figure out what to say about it.

     "How is it?"

     "He's not listening."

     "Then it must be pretty good.  Right, Lar?  Right, Larry?"

     Larry jumped out of his thoughts, out of the script.  What had Jack asked him?

     "Pretty good script, Lar?"

     "Have you read it?"

     "Afraid to commit?"

     Leslie laughed.  Larry didn't get it.  Some kind of inside joke.  So they already had an inside joke.

     "No, but that's been my problem.  I'm trying to correct that.  I've seen too many people get ahead by not committing."

     "Executives, D-girls.  But not writers."

     "Not writers," Larry repeated as a question.

     "You're boned, my boy."

     "It's pretty well-written."

     "So I've been told."

     "Why did you want me to read it?"

     "No reason.  We're just hangin', ya know?"

     The worst reason of all.  Larry deflated.  He felt defeated.  It was beyond his worst imagining.  He wasn't even worthy of being courted.

     "Do you want me to write up some coverage?"

     Jack looked blank and then laughed.  Leslie had seen that laugh before.  "Touché!" he said.

     "You didn't give me a script to read," she said.

     "Do you read scripts?"

     "She reads my scripts."

     Leslie gave Larry an openly peeved look.  She didn't like any help answering questions.

     "You're too busy to read a script, Leslie.  You're designing.  I guess you can sit outside and interior design."

     The phone rang.  "Hello?  Gene.  You're in the desert this weekend?  Really.  I don't know.  We'll probably end up at one of the usual places, ya know?"

     Larry turned back to the script.  He'd lost all enthusiasm for it.  He could continue to read, hoping for the third act to fall apart, hoping for some big flaw that he could pounce on.  But what was the sport in that?  And the way the script was going, there might not be anything wrong with it.  It was all such a dirty fucking trick.  A taunt.  Here, Lar, read something by someone who is really happening, see what's it like, what the good life could be like.  Fucker.  Let Leslie read the fucking thing.

     Larry closed the script.  He didn't bother to mark his place.  God damn if he'd read any more of it, waste any more of his time.  He felt rebellious.  Maybe that would get him somewhere.  Nothing else had.

     He got up. 

     He didn't look at Leslie. 

     He tried not to listen to Jack. 

     Nobody was doing anything.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  It was such a weird place - the desert, this house, Jack, Leslie, the way everyone was acting.  Sinister.  No one really lived in the desert.  It was like a people museum. People in an unnatural setting.  Under a glass bubble of blasted blue sky.  You could see people naked.  Not just imagine what they were like underneath their bathing suits, but see them.  Ugly stuff.  People just get uglier and I have no sense of time...

     And there was Sean - innocent - mobile - teasing - she wasn't ugly.  Larry felt dizzy, his mind too full now.  Maybe he had something to write down.  Leslie Bitch, have your big moment with Jack.  It was all so absolutely fucked.  He pulled the sliding glass door open and walked inside.  He was glad that he made it in one piece.

     Inside.  Outside.  They were almost the same out here.  He was inside, but he was still standing in the desert.  He felt the desert outside, pressing against the windows, the walls.  He collapsed on the couch.  But only for a moment, and then he was pacing, away from the glass, out of sight, not that anyone outside was paying attention to him.

     He paced the hallway.  At least it was air conditioned inside.  Dead air.  The air conditioned nightmare.  Two hallways.  East wing, west wing.  The floor plan a stunted X, a deformed pair of wings.  At the end of the east wing, the tourist class accommodations, was their room, disorderly, segregated: Larry left, Leslie right.  He saw the car keys on his night stand.  He thought about picking them up, getting in the car, driving without destination - or, driving home.  That was too convenient for her.  He should calm down.  Something could come of all this.

     He made an abrupt about face, the slap of his bare feet a mirror of arrhythmic impatience as he headed west.  Through an open door he saw Harry propped up in bed, surrounded by pillows, watching TV.  Larry started to step back, to avoid eye contact, but the movement caught Harry's eye.  Larry hesitated, wondering if he could step away without it being awkward, but he was caught.

     "Hey, man."

     "Hi."

     "Come on in.  I was just watching "The Three Stooges."  You like watching The Stooges?"

     "Not for a while."

     Larry came in and sat down on the only chair.  This room was a little bigger then his and Leslie's.  No discarded clothes.  Larry expected a little more in the way of carelessness from a doper.

     "Do you want to smoke some grass?"

     "No."

     "Neither do I."

     Larry laughed.  It was hard not to like Harry.  He didn't have an agenda, unlike Leslie, unlike Jack.  Unlike himself.  At least no apparent agenda.

     Harry turned off the volume.  The Three Stooges continued in silent mayhem.  Larry didn't know what to say next.  He didn't know why he was sitting there, other than to be polite.  But where else could he go?  He could be by himself.  There was that option.  Anywhere.  He just had to walk away.  You'd think that the desert would be perfect for that.

     "How long have you and Leslie been together?"

     "Five years.  We've been married for four."

     "Happily?"

     Larry wondered about answering.

     "Am I being an asshole?  Sorry.  I was curious.  Forget I asked."

     "Are you happy?" Larry asked reflexively, without thinking.

     "I suppose.  When I don't think about it.  If I start thinking too much about how I am then it sort of goes away."

     Larry nodded.  "Yeah."  He saw Harry's eyes wander briefly back to the Stooges.  "We've been happy, off and on, I guess.  I don't know."

     "What ever made me go jogging?  How do you exercise?"

     "I worry.  That burns calories."

     Harry laughed. 

     "And I do the StairMaster.  Climbing that staircase to nowhere."

     "I've got a feeling my legs are going to really feel fucked up tomorrow.  Do you like writing?"

     A question out of the blue.  Not so out of the blue.  A natural question to ask a writer.  "I do.  At times."

     "Off and on?"

     "Off and on.  There are good days and bad days.  Like anything else.  What about you?"

     "No business is a bed of roses."

     "But at least you're in a business that is a business."

     Harry nodded.  "You've got a point."

     "So do you.  I know there are assholes everywhere.  I guess I tend to lose sight of that."

     "Yes, there are assholes everywhere.  If that's any consolation."  Harry looked at his watch and rubbed his thigh.  "I took three Advil an hour ago and I still feel like shit."  He picked up a silver art deco cigarette case from the night stand and extracted a joint.  "Care to join me?" 

     Larry was tempted.  Smoking grass was a different way of escaping.  Without footsteps.  "Tempted, yes.  But I quit smoking."

     "You got high last night."

     "That was a relapse."

     "Really."

     "Yeah."

     "Sorry if I led you into temptation."

     "I was willing to be tempted."

     "Does it bother you if I smoke?"

     "No, not at all."  Larry stood up.

     "Hey, I can put it away, I don't need it.  It's just something to do."

     "No, it's not that.  Go ahead and smoke.  It's just that I'm restless."

     Larry closed the door.  There was no TV in their room.  The blinds were pulled shut.  He turned on the bedside lamp.  He picked up his clothes from the floor and stuffed them into his Sportsac.  He picked up Leslie's clothes, with no tender feeling for her lingerie.  He started to stuff her things into her overnight bag but anticipated her complaints about wrinkles and tossed her clothes into the dresser instead.  He pulled the bedspread approximately into place, tried to smooth out the bigger lumps.  Satisfied with the new sense of order, he took the gray Powerbook from his green shoulder bag.

     He turned on his computer, opened a file, a screenplay, the screenplay he was working on, and scrolled to the end of the document.  But it felt tired, dead, an unfriendly, unpaid obligation.  He was in the middle of writing the script, but he was afraid to read what he had written so far.  If the words were inadequate, or even just merely adequate, then that wouldn't do.  He suspected the worst.  He believed in his suspicions.  He trusted his worst intuitions.

     He closed the file, conjured up a blank screen.  Staring at the empty blue pixels, poised, he became suddenly aware of himself: sitting cross-legged on the bedspread, in a casual pose, casualness remembered from adolescent sitting around.  He was posed on the bed like he was in front of a campfire or at a lonely slumber party.  Sitting in the bedroom by himself, the space evoked childhood, youth - alone in his room, doing his own thing, planning his domination of the world.  But it was too late to do what Alexander The Great had done, too late to top Mozart, too late to be the youngest, the greatest that ever was.  Always too late.  Always struggling against that.  Until it got to the point of just wanting to stay even, or to catch up - not to be behind - as he kept slipping, getting older, his ambitions became more desperate.  The twill of the bedspread had warmed to the temperature of his leg, but if he moved it fractionally, the fabric felt cool.  Beyond the low hum of the central air he heard faint, erratic splashes from the pool, conjuring the image of Sean in the sunlight beyond the drapes.  He heard a muffled burst of Leslie's laughter.  He didn't visualize her smiling as much as he visualized Jack making her laugh.  It was too late.  That was the outside world.  Inside, the computer screen was the brightest thing in sight.  The beige walls were brown in this dim light.  His neck ached.  The causal posture was beginning to bug him.  There was a solitary drip from the bathroom faucet.  Larry felt himself sitting here.  It didn't have to be a screenplay.  It could be anything.  Maybe it would be a screenplay later, whatever he wrote.  Whatever he did - couldn't it add up, somehow?

     He began typing. 

     There are friends who find me intriguing. 

     Where did that come from?  Go with it, go somewhere, don't care where you're going, just go. 

     Let me refuse you small favors if I want to.  The wine is sour.  The dinner is dour.  Where do we go from here?  Is that you I hear?  Are you thinking unhealthy thoughts?  There is a bedtime story that I want to tell you, a bedtime story that will keep you from sleeping.  Do you want to be scared?  It isn't your choice.  I drugged your wine.  It doesn't matter if your eyes are closed.  You have to listen.  My words will seep inside.  You might not remember.  But you will feel different things.  You will feel different.  You will be changed.  For the worse.  Worst.  I owe you that.  For what you did to me.  For what you did.  To me.

     He started thinking about where it could go, the next step.  The pain of what next.  He thought wearily of facing the blankness, again and again, that Arctic whiteness beyond the reach of the last word that he had written. 

     There were no more words that he wanted to write.  If there was a train, it was gone.  He looked at the words on the screen.  Some of them were good.  All of them were his.  He felt fond of his personal rhythm.  It was his.  He was familiar with it.  For now, he had another fragment - to name, to store, to somehow someday join to all the other fragments, into something big.  The big thing.  That big thing.  Another muted laugh intruded.  A masculine laugh, followed immediately by another Leslie laugh.  What was the point.  There were always words.  He hit delete.  There would be other words.

     With the words gone, he felt emptier than before, the emptiest yet.  He had violated a basic rule.  He saved everything.  But not this time.  Why?  That was the question to answer.  He was proud of asking it.  No, not proud.  Tired.  He sank back onto the bed, stared up at the ceiling.  He heard the hum of his Powerbook, waiting.  There was no reason to move.  This would do nicely for the moment.

     The question was.  There was always a question.  The question was how long you stayed with a certain moment, how long you stretched it out, found new things, got inside the moment, used everything that was there.  And when did you move on, to the next thing, jump the story ahead - abruptly, pleasingly, whatever, not letting the reader get ahead of the story.  Stay or go.  He wished he had more control.  After all this time it still came down to throwing out words, sorting them out later.  Tidying up moments of inspiration, so called.  Saved or destroyed.

     He knew he should go back outside.  It was important that he go back out there.  He needed a job.  Badly.  The rewrite for Burt at Paramount was a fantasy.  Most likely it would not happen.  He regretted telling Leslie about that.  But he needed some leverage, he needed some balance.  He couldn't seem desperate with her.  He'd learned that the hard way.  And if there was no job with Burt, then he needed a job from Jack.  Who else?  He could think of a few names to call on Monday, but he'd called them all before, and nothing had come of it.  No, he needed Jack.  It was a wank.  It was fucked.  But what else was there?  Who else was there?  This room, the curtains, the bedspread.  The dead air indoors.  The impulse to move.  Why move.  He knew he had to move.

     Consider the options.  Total them up.  Decide what he wanted.  Not the great things, the best things, but survival, basic things.  He had two thousand dollars left.  He could sell stuff, but how much would his TV, his computer, his car get him?  And where would he be with that little bit more?  The rent control apartment in Ocean Park was Leslie's, he had moved in with her.  An apartment of his own would be much more expensive.  He was alone, it was time to be honest, and given the grim state of things, Leslie was an economic necessity.  They'd always kept their money scrupulously separate.  But there wasn't that much money to separate, at least on his side.  And she was such a half-assed feminist.  She expected him to take her out to dinner, to pay for vacations, she had a convenient sense of what a male's obligation was to his mate.  And beyond the money, what about her.  It had been a long time since he had lived alone.  He wasn't any great catch.  He didn't exactly have prospects.  If he could present himself as someone up and coming, hopeful.  No.  He couldn't see that working.  If things didn't work out with Leslie, he didn't see any promising alternative.  That was a bad place.  And they did have a relationship, more than a relationship, a marriage.  Wasn't that worth working on?

     No.  He felt the lie in his mouth, even without speaking.  Felt the lie in his brain.  Just the legal expense of a divorce would wipe him out.  Two thousand bucks.  Pathetic.  Leslie was a survivor.  They were probably doomed.  What did feelings have to do with that?  Feelings got in the way of seeing what was going to happen, no matter what he felt.  How could he use Leslie to get what he wanted?  Wasn't he old enough to figure that out?  This was the weekend.  This was the time.  He couldn't imagine facing another week like last week, or the week or the year before.  Pivotal.  He was feeling pivotal.  Without moving.  This silence was a good thing.  He needed it to get ready.  For whatever.

     Leslie came into the room.  Larry looked up from the slow string of glowing words.  She pulled the blinds open.  Outside it was twilight.  He hadn't looked at his watch in a while.

     "Have you been in here all day?"

     "Do you really care?"

     "Why do you think I'm asking?"

     "I don't know.  Why are you asking?"

     She looked at him.  She hadn't expected him to be so angry.  "I would have thought that you wanted to hang out with Jack."

     "And why would I want to hang out with Jack?"

     "Don't be asinine."

     "No, I'm really asking."

     "Because he might let you write a script."

     "When hell freezes over.  No.  When this fucking desert freezes over."

     "I can't deal with this now.  Have you lost your mind?"  She looked around her side of the bed.  "Where are my clothes?"

     "I put them in the dresser."

     "Why?"

     "Because the room was a goddamn mess."

     Leslie went over to the dresser, a walnut laminate.  She pulled open a drawer.  Empty.  "I thought you said-"

     "The other drawer."  Larry's legs ached but he didn't want to move.  It was important that he seem to be doing something, that he maintain his position, his posture, in her presence.  But he wasn't looking at his Powerbook.  He was looking at Leslie's backside, the shimmer of her black bikini.  He'd never understand it, how he could be so angry with her and still want to fuck her.  The sex could drain away the rage.  But not now, not tonight. 

     Leslie turned quickly, caught him looking.  "What?"

     "Nothing."

     "We're going out to dinner."

     "We?"

     "All of us.  You too.  But you don't have to come."

     "Of course I don't have to come."

     "Suit yourself."

     "Where?"

     "Some place that Jack says is great.  I forgot the name."  She went into the bathroom, closed the door. 

     He sat there, alone, replaying what they had just said, what he might have said differently, imagining different versions of the conversation, amending the outcome, balancing the past more in his favor.  But however he imagined it, the conversation was always in this room, always Leslie and Larry, and within the limits of that there wasn't much that his imagination could improve. 

     He saved the file he was working on - it was small - and turned his computer off, unbent his legs, stretched with no pleasure. 

     He walked over to the glass door.  Behind him he heard the shower hiss to life.  Outside the courtyard was empty.  It was the nicest part of the day.  Was he the only one looking?  Larry thought about stepping out into the purple light to feel the air, but he didn't want to see Jack until he had decided exactly how to explain his absence this afternoon.  He would say that he was working, but he wouldn't elaborate, wouldn't reduce the work to a high concept that Jack could either accept or reject, buy or pass on.  No use in pretending.  He wasn't a success.  Jack knew that.  There was no way around that.  The parameters were defined, no matter what he said.  But he had talent.  He still believed in his talent.  He had to convince Jack of that.  No.  That was the wrong way.  There was some other way of getting at what he wanted.  Look at Leslie.  Take a leaf from her book.  Not the flirting part, but the calculation that went behind the flirting.  It was important not to seem needy.  That much he knew.  He would have to be edgy, almost reckless, verbally snarling before he rolled over and let Jack scratch his belly.  Maybe not edgy, but something.  He would have to be fearless.  Or at least act fearless.  He would have to be something other than what he had been.  That was a big lesson.  That was the new lesson.  The desert was the right place for this.  He had to do something different.  Had to. 

     He turned away from the window.  It was time to think about changing clothes.  The room had a purple cast that he hadn't noticed before.  The end of the day.

     He unzipped his suitcase.  His olive green raw silk shirt was neatly folded on top of his black linen pants.  The shirt went with the intricately patterned Armani socks that Leslie had bought him for Christmas.  He wanted to ask her about this restaurant they were going to, and what he should wear to it, but he caught the thought and stopped.  He would have to get out of the habit of asking her opinion about social and sartorial matters. 

     He heard the shower stop.  They were in different rooms.  They were living in different rooms at exactly this moment.  As he buttoned on the clean shirt he turned toward the window.  It was getting darker outside.  Not much daylight left to enjoy.  Could they start over?  Was he being unfair?  He was jealous of Jack, he was willing to admit that, and the jealousy was coloring everything.  Leslie needed clients.  He couldn't fault her that.  Her clients were people with money.  Had to be.  That was the nature of the beast.  Even trying to feel reasonable felt like a lie.  He didn't want to be in this room.  He didn't want to step out of the room.  He was tired of the desert.  He couldn't think of anything that he wasn't tired of.  Behind the bathroom door Leslie's blow drier whined to life, sounding like a jet engine that was going nowhere.

     She stepped out of the bathroom, fully dressed.  Larry was surprised by her modesty.  It was uncharacteristic.  She was wearing a red blouse and white twill slacks.  Their clothes were on opposite sides of the color wheel, Christmas colors out of season.  He went into the bathroom without a word.

     Her black bikini was hanging on the shower door, the negative space of her erogenous zones.  The counter top was cluttered with her ointments and emollients, the hidden stagecraft of her public face.  He couldn't get away from her, even in here, alone.  He wasn't looking forward to stepping back out of the bathroom. 

     When he came back out, she was gone.  He picked up his suede jacket and followed her voice, and Jack's voice, into the living room.  He didn't bother to hoist a welcoming smile - there would be time for that later.

     "Hey, Lar."

     Jack and Leslie were waiting in the foyer.  They were both wearing black leather jackets.  Like they were going steady.  Jack was all in black - tooled goatskin boots, black jeans, black linen shirt.  A by-the-numbers outlaw.  A Rodeo Drive Cowboy.

     "Its just us three.  Harry hasn't quite recovered from our morning run."

     Larry thought this was said for Leslie's benefit, a backhanded boast, a preview of dinner.

     "And Sean feels sorry for her weekend warrior, she doesn't want to leave him behind."

     Larry was disappointed.  Sean was one thing about dinner that he was looking forward to.  And Harry too.  He was okay.  No ax to grind there.

     "We could get some take-out, or do a barbecue outside."

     "No, I want to go out.  Cabin fever."

     "Me too," Leslie said.

     Two against one.

     "And they might join us."

     A lost cause.

     "Let's go," she said, pushing the evening along.

     No turning back.

     "Yeah, I'm starving."

     Along for the ride.

     Larry sat in the back seat of Jack's black Range Rover, chivalrous and neglected. 

     "What kind of music do you like" Jack asked.

     "Anything," Leslie answered.

     "Acid rock," Larry said, a fluid, cantankerous, intuitive choice.

     Jack laughed.  "It's your lucky day, Lar."

     When had this "Lar" business taken root?  Was it too late to get him to stop the irritating reduction of his name.  Should he just start calling him "Ja" or "ck"?

     A CD clicked into place and the car was filled with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Deja Vu.  As the car descended the hill, it felt like a very long time since the journey up yesterday. 

     We have all been here before. 

     The outside world.  Inside today it hadn't seemed like an option.

     The Nest had the aura of being expensive, but Leslie thought it looked kitsch, and not even interesting kitsch - neither ironic nor over-the-top.  White trellis work, climbing vines (possibly plastic), a wall mural of the Bay of Naples in curly, pastel brush strokes, hundreds of mini-lights, white tablecloths, padded red chairs.  The lighting was low and flattering.  Leslie had expected Jack to take them someplace hipper.  But this was the desert.  And the point was who she was with, what they ate, not the interior.  She didn't do restaurants.  There was nothing to feel competitive about.  So it wasn't like walking into a house she didn't like, knowing that she could do better, seeing the house as a job that she should have, that she would have if the world were just.

     The menu that she held was bulky, calligraphy on parchment in a maroon leather binding, an outdated notion of Sophisticated Continental.  There were no prices - it was a Ladies Menu. 

     Larry's menu had the prices.  They were high.  He expected no less.  When he put down the menu, that would be the time to talk.  What would he say?  Were he and Leslie a happy couple, was she the jewel that he had, that Jack wanted?

     "What's good?" she asked.

     "Everything.  Especially the seafood."

     "How's the paella?"

     "Great."

     "It's for two."

     "I'll share it with you."

     "Really."

     "Sure."  Jack closed his menu.

     Leslie closed her menu.

     Larry felt left out. 

     He still had to decide what to eat.  Sometimes that was an agony.  Like now.  Reducing several tempting choices to one.  Only one.  And what if the choice was the wrong one.  He'd have to live with that.  Whatever he decided, he would have second thoughts.  But unlike other decisions, decisions questioned after the fact, some of them unquestionably bad decisions, the decision of what to eat he only had to live with until the next meal.  He didn't want to linger too long over this.

     "The Ironwood '82.  Is red wine okay, Les?"

     "Sure."

     Larry looked up from his menu.  Jack was already ordering wine.

     "It's a red but it'll be good with the paella.  What do ya think André?"

     "Excellent with the paella, Mr. Brown."

     Larry waited, but Jack didn't ask what him what he was ordering or if he even liked red wine.  He closed his menu.  Surely this qualified as a slight.  He didn't want to dwell on it.  He looked around.

     The Nest was filling with well-dressed people.  They had the look of Resort Town Saturday Night, vacationers in their best clothes, out for the evening.  Across the room was a Persian family of twelve, in the throes of a family vacation, looking grimly determined to have a good time.  A wizened man wearing a well-tailored blue blazer shared a red leather banquette with a young brunette, a strand of pearls set off against her black strapless gown.  Two tables over, directly in Larry's eyeline, were two thirtyish women, well-dressed and well-preserved, drinking martinis.  Girls night out.  And there were Industry Types scattered throughout.  They had the Industry Look: expensive eye wear, perfect haircuts, their body language an ideal mix of relaxation and tension, body language that said I enjoy being a shark, sharks have fun, I'm a shark with my own swimming pool.

     André came back with the bottle of wine and held it out for Jack's approval.  He nodded and André went to work on the cork.

     "Hey, Jack."

     A sandy-haired kid in a black leather jacket stood over the table.  His ethnic origin was inescapably preppy.  Jack nodded hello without shaking hands.

     "Bobby." 

     "I never thought I'd see you out here."

     "I've got a house up the road."

     "So the desert's a happening place."

     "Seems to be."

     The kid looked at Leslie and Larry, wondering if he should know who they were.  Jack made no introductions.  A blond woman, aerobic and patrician, appeared at the kid's side.

     "Hi, Jack.  Debbie Ziegler.  We've talked on the phone."

     She started to offer her hand.  The kid looked pained by what he knew was a breach of etiquette.  Jack reached instead for the glass of wine the waiter had poured.

     "You guys did good.  This is the best food in the desert."  He tried the wine.  "Fine."

     "Nice seeing you.  We'll talk Monday."

     They left.  The waiter poured wine for Leslie and Larry.

     "We'll have the paella, André.  And..."  He looked toward Larry.

     "Shrimp scampi."

     "I'll have Caesar salad to start," Jack said.

     "That sounds great.  Me too," Leslie said.

     Fucking Bobsy Twins, Larry thought.  "Caesar por moi," Larry said.  "No egg," he added.

     "We don't use egg in our Caesar," André the waiter said.  "Will there be anything else?"

     "Not for now."

     André bowed and left.

     Leslie tried her wine.  "This is great."

     "Yeah, it's okay," Jack said.

     "Who was that guy?"

     Larry was embarrassed by how hard she was trying.

     "A twerp at Warner Brothers.  Like my dad used to say, I could carve a better man from a banana."

     "No, Teddy Roosevelt said that," Larry said.

     Jack smiled but he didn't seem happy about it.  "Really.  Well, he stole from the best."

     "Slick," Larry said and tried the wine.  It tasted good enough to get drunk on.

     "Did you read any more of that script I gave you?"

     "I read the coverage."

     Jack laughed.  Encouraged, Leslie joined him.  Her laugh sounded phony to Larry.

     Larry poured himself another glass of wine.

     "How do you like the Ironwood?"

     "It'll do."

     "Fruity, don't you think?"

     "With notes of peppercorn and chocolate.  And long in the finish."

     Jack looked annoyed.  He didn't like being put on.  The game didn't work that way.

     Leslie looked annoyed.  She didn't mind Larry self-destructing.  Just not tonight - they had come out here together, it reflected badly on her.  They were, after all, sitting on the same side of the table.  And if Larry put Jack in a bad mood, anything could happen, that is, nothing could happen, she could lose the pool house job and whatever largesse might flow from it.  It was important to enforce conviviality, but in not too obvious a way.

     "I like your shirt, Jack.  Is it Italian?"

     "French."

     "Really."

     "I like your shirt.  What a nice red."

     "What do you think about this red for the couch?"

     Jack took a sip and stared at Leslie's chest.  "Let me see, let me see.  Maybe.  I'm not good at visualizing stuff like that.  I guess I'm a little too here-and-now."

     "You make movies," Larry said.  The more wine he drank, the better it tasted.  Maybe because it had time to breathe.

     "I make deals.  The mother of all movies."

     "You read scripts.  It takes imagination to read scripts."

     "It takes no imagination to read scripts.  In fact, imagination is a hindrance.  A liability."

     "You know something.  You're right.  You've just changed the whole way I look at the world."

     Leslie could see that Jack didn't know if Larry was putting him on or not.  No wonder Larry never got work.  "I think all that pot you smoked changed the way you look at the world."

     Larry frowned at his wife.  He wanted to save the frown, for something bigger than a frown, for later, but he couldn't control his expression.

     She ignored him, determined not to let her anger distract her.  Better to save the anger, use it later, when she was alone with Larry.  She kept her eyes on Jack.  "So what do you think about a red couch?"

     "There was an old Frank Zappa song about a couch.  How did it go?"  Jack sipped his wine, coaxing his memory.  "My love is a couch.  She lets me sit on her."

     Leslie blinked, then laughed.

     Larry didn't blink, didn't laugh.  He liked Zappa and it bothered him to hear Jack quote The Goateed One.

     "I didn't know you liked Zappa."

     "I don't.  Not anymore.  But I used to."

     "Why not anymore?"

     Jack shrugged.  "I changed.  I like what I like, ya know?"

     "No."

     "Well."

     "Interesting."

     The salads came.

     André brandished an enormous wooden pepper mill.  "Would you like fresh pepper, sir?"

     "Where's the men's room?" Larry asked.  He needed a moment alone.  He was agitated.  He left without excusing himself.

     "Don't mind him," Leslie said.

     "I don't."  Jack's tone was curt.

     "He gets cranky when he misses his nap."

     Jack laughed.  "He's a writer."

     "Tell me about it."

     Jack laughed.

     A pastel fresco of a vineyard wrapped around the terra cotta bathroom walls.  The toilet was a white American Standard. 

     Larry locked the door behind him and leaned against the sink.  He didn't bother looking in the mirror.  He turned on the faucet.  It reassured him to feel cold water flowing against his hands.  His fingers seemed like distant things - were they his?  Where did they come from?  How long would he own these fingers, what would he do with them?  Forever in this case, his case, meant, what, forty years or so?  He felt himself disassociating, dropping back inside of his head, to watch himself as a disembodied presence.  A fleshy robot.  He watched himself in the mirror, waiting, seeing if his reflection would stir from its reverie.  And what if it all starting fracturing, if nothing meant anything, if, say, mirror wasn't even a word, what if the contract was broken and mirror was just a sound.  Then.  What then?  What would he call that thing on the wall?  Without the word could he even understand mirror?  Did dogs understand mirrors?  At least dogs didn't have to worry about what kind of wine they were drinking.  If it got to where he couldn't understand what a mirror was, if it all stopped making sense - who would take care of him then?  Not Leslie.  He felt close to the edge.  So close.  If everything stopped meaning anything, what then?  Would it even matter, if he no longer knew?

     The rushing water felt good on his fingers.  That was something to remember - that there was a basic level of sensation that he could return to.  He saw himself as a man standing in a bathroom in the desert.  He thought of the context in which he was standing.  A biblical landscape tamed and franchised.  The assholes had inherited the earth. 

     He turned off the faucet. 

     The worst moment was over. 

     He felt bad, but he knew he wasn't going crazy.  He was just thinking.  Just thinking.  Wasn't he?  He reached for the paper towels, had to dig his fingers under the polished metal lip of the dispenser to get them unjammed.  That made him smile.  Paper towels.  The will to survive.  There was an obstacle - he overcame it - he wanted the goddamned towels - and now his hands were dry.  A simple thing.  Maybe the beginning of an empire.  As soon as he decided to step out of the bathroom.  That moment was coming soon.  He was surprised, now that he thought about it, that no one had knocked.

     The first thing that he noticed on the other side of the door was the noise.  Kitchen noise from behind - dishes, pots, ceramic noise, metal noise.  It felt busy and warm behind him.  In front, in the direction of his future footsteps, there was a carpet of voices.  A mustached man in his fifties, wearing a maroon tuxedo jacket, not a strand of gray in his brown hairpiece, sat down at the black baby grand.  He began to play something familiar.  I left my heart in San Francisco.  Larry smiled at the irony as he walked back to the table.  Irony would get him through the evening.  He needed a little distance, enough to let him enjoy things, the folly and foible of human behavior, his behavior, Leslie's, Jack's.  That was a healthy attitude.  His hands were clean.  That pleased him.  He looked around the room as he walked through it.  It wasn't a bad room in which to pass a couple of hours.  The trick was thinking about it as human comedy, the trick was finding the distance to survive whatever Leslie was doing, however he felt about Jack, the trick was to transcend the table he was sitting at.  Larry felt balanced by these new dinner principles.  He didn't know where they came from.  Dinner was just another meal.  It was survivable.  If he had to, he'd go wash his hands again.  Approaching the table he saw a third person sitting there, the back of a head, her head. 

     Sean. 

     He smiled.  Finally, things were looking up.  She was wearing the oversized white button-down shirt again.

     Leslie saw her husband's face, his unguarded reaction to their unexpected table mate.  It made her angry - but didn't she want him to be in a good mood, whatever the cause of that good mood might be?  Didn't that good mood suit her larger purpose?  But she felt jealous.  She still felt attached to Larry, somehow.  She felt complicated.  She wanted to let go, she couldn't quite let go.  She felt angry about what she was feeling.  They were married.  They hadn't spoken of separation, of severance, of dissolution.  Not in a very long time.  Leslie wanted to file away her reaction to his reaction as something to figure out later, not to let it take her out of the moment, because now was the thing.  Jack was sitting in front of her now.  She had his ear.  She had to work at making dinner work.  Emotional life had its own lightening speed, between footsteps, the end of Larry's journey back from the bathroom.

     "Sean, hello."    

     "Hello." 

     His smile was unmediated and uncomplicated.  He felt like kissing her hello, the return of a long lost love.  Glancing at Leslie he suspected the danger of expressing too much emotion.  He sat back down.  Jack and Leslie had finished their salads, their bowls identical, empty.

     "Would you like some of my Caesar salad, Sean?"

     "I'd love some of your Caesar salad."

     He filled up her bread plate with some of his salad.

     "Thanks."

     "You were gone a long time," Leslie said.

     "But who's counting," he answered without looking at her.  Sean was sitting across from him.  Who would have thought.  "How's Harry?"

     "He'll live.  He didn't feel like coming out and I didn't feel like staying in.  So here I am."

     "Great."

     André returned with a menu and a wineglass for Sean.  He went around the table refilling their glasses, hastening the bottle of Ironwood to its end.

     "What are you guys having?"

     "Paella," Jack said.

     "Mmmmm."

     "Is it too late to change my order?" Larry asked.

     André hesitated, glancing quickly, almost imperceptibly toward Jack.  At this table anything was possible.

     "Would you like to have paella?  With me.  It's for two."

     "Sure."  She closed her menu, handed it to André without looking up.

     "I'll have the paella.  We'll have the paella."

     "Not the shrimp scampi?"

     "No.  Cancel the shrimp scampi."

     André held the empty wine bottle.  "Another bottle, Mr. Brown?"

     "Bring the wine list."

     André nodded and left.

     Sean took a sourdough roll from the basket and tore it in half.  "What did I miss?"

     "What did you miss," Jack repeated.  "The Sixties, the Seventies." 

     Leslie laughed.  They all laughed.  Larry was having an okay time again.  He wasn't left out. 

     "The sexual revolution," Jack added.

     "No, I didn't miss the sexual revolution."

     "I mean free love."

     "I know what you mean."

     "The era before sex safe.  Before there was even the phrase safe sex."

     "I don't feel that left out."

     "I do.  And I was there," Larry said.

     Sean smiled.

     Leslie didn't.

     "There was never any such thing as free love," Jack said.

     "Amen," Leslie said.

     "Sure.  There's always been free love.  Even today."

     "You're young."

     "So?  What's that got to do with it?"

     "Everything."

     "I'm not so sure."

     "Of course not."

     Larry liked that Jack and Sean were arguing.  He felt a kinship with her.  She was the right person for him to share paella with.

     "Isn't there some other way you can win your argument besides saying that I'm young?"

     Jack smiled at Sean.  "It's not an argument."

     "Because you're old."

     Jack blinked, then laughed.

     To Larry's ear, Jack's laugh was brittle, disturbing.

     "Let's talk about something other than sex."

     "Is that what we were talking about?"

     "Is there anything else to talk about?"

     "The weather."

     "I think the weather's sexy."

     "Which weather?"

     "This weather.  Here.  The desert weather.  The heat"

     "It's not hot now."

     "It was."

     "I agree.  This weather's sexy," Jack said, his eyes on Leslie.  He didn't seem to mind if anyone else was watching what he was watching. 

     Larry, determined to be neutral, to let go of Leslie, to keep from letting her hurt him, saw their table cinematically.  How the dialogue would flow from shot to shot.  He had prided himself on writing for the screen, writing scenes that would work on film, not just slick shit that read well on the page.  Being conscientious had probably been a handicap.  He saw Jack's dialogue playing under a shot of Leslie.  In this inner movie that Larry was playing, editing in his head, what Jack was saying was even more blatant than what he was saying here at the table.

     "So we agree on something."

     "We agree on lots of things."

     "You can only disagree with people you agree with," Larry said.

     "The writer."

     Leslie was miffed that Sean was stealing her thunder.  It didn't pay to agree too much with Jack.  You don't like weak women, you get bored so quick, and you don't like strong women 'cause they're hip to your tricks...who sang that?  Leslie looked at Sean. trying to remember.

     Sean didn't look at Leslie.  She finished the salad that Larry had given her.

     "God, I'm hungry."

     "From all that swimming."

     "How long did you swim?"

     "I don't know.  Hours."

     "At least."

     "I'm addicted to the alpha rhythms."

     "You mean the endorphins."

     "Do dolphins have endorphins?" Larry asked.

     Sean and Jack laughed.  Alliances kept shifting.  Depending on what was said.  Hard to predict wit.  Hard to predict a response.  Something rolled off the tongue.  Hard to predict what it was until it arrived.

     "You're funny," Jack said.

     "Profit by it."

     Jack seemed to be thinking.  The word profit had triggered something primal.

     André returned with the wine list.  Jack pondered the next choice, as if green lighting a movie.

     "Must you be so obvious?" Leslie whispered.

     "About what?"

     "You know."

     "No.  Spell it out.  Be obvious."

     "Stag's Leap.  How's the '86?"

     "Superb."

     "Done."  He handed the wine list back to André.  "What are you two fighting about?"

     Leslie was mortified.  She made a silent vow to never again have sex with Larry.

     "It's called an impassioned marital discussion."

     "Really."

     Leslie was impressed with Larry's comeback.  In spite of herself.

     "Have you ever been married?"

     "Not really."

     "No?"

     "Twice.  But never for more than a year.  Does that count?"

     "If you say I do then it counts."

     "I thought you had to sign a marriage certificate to make it real."

     "Looking for a loophole, Les?"

     "I don't need a loophole."

     "I do."

     "To me it was more like a deal memo."

     "Like you paid for a script but never made the movie?"

     "Something like that."

     "Sounds expensive."

     "No.  I had pre-nuptial agreements.  Do you guys?"

     "Why?"

     "Just an innocent question."

     "Nothing about you is innocent."

     Jack smiled.  "Sean's the innocent one.  Right?"

     "Very.  I'd never sign a pre-nup."

     "Ambitious."

     "No.  I think they just doom things."

     "Do you guys have one?"

     "No."

     Leslie felt herself blush.  At the unspoken thought: because we don't have that much to divide.

     Larry felt himself beginning to like Leslie again.  The modulations in her hostility were turning him on.  Embarrassment was a form of vulnerability, a counterpoint to her anger.  Even after all this time, he didn't understand his attraction to her, but still, he felt it.  Was attraction even something that could be understood?  It just was.  Maybe someone more analytical or more emotional or more emotionally analytical could understand it.  He couldn't. 

     Sitting between Sean and Leslie, he could fantasize about both, it had no consequence.  It was exciting to live without consequence, in the gap between salad and entree.  It was a new kind of freedom that he had never quite felt before.  In the presence of Jack there was a mood of moral suspension, of dissolution as a successful lifestyle choice.  Even if Jack's success was independent of any choice he made.

     There was a lull at the table.  Larry heard an animated conversation in Persian, female laughter, fragments of a golf story.

     "How long have you been married?" Jack asked Leslie.

     "Four years."

     "Four.  That's a good number."

     Leslie was amused.  "Why?"

     "It's a convenient length of time.  A presidential term is four years."

     "So is college."

     "Are you in college?"

     "I was.  I might be again."

     "Why'd you quit?"

     Sean shrugged.  "I got distracted by real life.  I'll get back to it."

     "What's your major?"

     "You mean what was my major?" Sean corrected Leslie.

     "What was your major?"

     "Boys."

     "Boys?"

     "I know you're supposed to call them men.  But they're always boys, aren't they?"  Sean looked at Larry as she said this.  It got him excited, even though the words, in and of themselves, seemed a put down of men in general.  But was it men in general if she was looking right at him?  And directing the words to him with a slight smile, taunting, teasing.  She knew the effect she was having.  Definitely.  Certain nerve endings were excited.  He felt like crossing his legs.

     "That depends."

     "Oh, no, it doesn't."

     "How so?"

     "Oh, shit.  I should've known he'd be here."  Jack got up and crossed the room.  Leslie was disappointed.  She thought she was handling Sean quite nicely, thank you, provocative and amusing.  And Jack got up.  How could he walk out in the middle of that?

     As Leslie and Larry watched, Jack shook hand with a curly haired man who looked a lot like Norman Mailer.  He was seated with two well-dressed, leggy blondes.  Leslie couldn't say exactly why, but the women seemed too sophisticated to be bimbos.

     Sean's back was to Jack.  She buttered the other half of her roll.  "What do you guys think of Jack?"

     Leslie was surprised by the directness of the question.  "He's great."

     "A real human being," Larry said.

     Sean smiled between bites.  "Don't be so sure.  Ya know?"

     "I'm not."

     André arrived with the bottle of Stag's Leap.  He glanced at Jack across the room as he uncorked the wine.

     "If he's not a human being what is he?"

     "An alien, maybe."

     "That sounds like a good movie."

     "Or a vampire."

     "Or an alien vampire."

     "An even better movie."

     Leslie was uncomfortable with their repartee, in earshot of André.  Was she a participant, was she guilty, just by sitting here?

     "He's an alien vampire film producer.  His films are really secret messages to a distant species."

     "A distant retarded species."

     "Even better."

     Leslie saw that Jack had sat down at what she now thought of as the Norman Mailer table.  Jack was talking intensely.  "Norman" was listening closely.  Jack's hands swung in a big arc, describing God knows what.

     André poured the Stag's Leap into a fresh glass and placed it in front of Jack's vacant chair.  Sean picked up the glass and handed it to Larry.  André's eyes dilated involuntarily.  Larry took a sip.  "Very good, André."

     André stood frozen in a posture of good manners.  He hesitated, delaying to the brink of insult while he made quick calculations of protocol and loyalty.  Leslie and Larry both felt the moment of André judging them.  It was debatable who was more sensitive to slights.  It was a shared trait that neither acknowledged.  Sean looked pleased with her subtle mischief.  She was shrewd enough to act like she didn't know what she was doing.  She aroused all of Leslie's suspicions.

     André gave the impression of sighing as he silently began pouring the wine.  He walked stiffly around the table as he filled their glasses, aloofly polite, and then left without a word.

     When Leslie glanced at Jack, he and everyone else at "Norman's" table was laughing.

     Larry took another sip of wine.  The room lights dimmed, hundreds of twinkle lights suddenly a notch darker, as if the voltage had dropped.  Weird, the world darkening when he drank, the dining room tied to private sensation.  He hadn't gotten drunk in years.  The idea of getting drunk was unfamiliar, untested, scarier than getting stoned.

     "Where were we?"

     "Right here."

     "Or thereabouts."

     "The alien vampire producer idea."

     "Don't tell Jack.  He might steal it."

     "I seriously doubt that,"  Leslie said, rejoining the conversation.

     "You seriously doubt everything," Larry said.

     "No, I don't."

     "What do think you're doing right now?"

     "Cool it."

     "Four more years, four more years," Sean chanted.

     Larry laughed.  Sean laughed.  Leslie acted like she was laughing.  She carried the Christ-like burden of keeping dinner pleasant.

     "Let's talk about something besides movies."

     "Okay."

     "Let's dish on Jack."

     "That's not nice."

     "Who cares about nice."

     "I suppose I do."

     "So I noticed."

     "You can be quite a cunt."

     "To thine own nature be true.  I learned that in college, Les."

     "Girls, please."

     "Ladies."

     "Ladies.  Please act lady-like."

     "Why?" they both asked.  And laughed.  Together.  They had that much in common.  Women.  Something that Larry would never understand.

     "What's so funny?"  Jack was back.

     "Us."

     "Who?"

     "You had to be here."

     "So fill me in."

     "Who were you visiting?" Leslie asked.

     "People.  The usual bullshit."  Jack tried the wine.  He seemed pleased with it but didn't say so.

     Two young men, both short, both wearing red cutaway coats, both with Mediterranean complexions, brought two stainless steel platters of paella to the table.  Jack's timing was perfect: he returned to the table, the food arrived.  A fragrant steam rose from saffron-flavored rice and seafood.

     They were all eating the same thing, but there was the question of who was sharing what with whom.  The waiters were used to couples sitting on the same side of the table.  Leslie and Larry were served from the same platter.  Events had circled around to where they were sharing dinner.  André presided over the servers, personally dishing out Jack's portion of shrimp, clams, mussels, yellowtail, salmon.  André waited for Jack to try a bite, a repeat of the wine ritual.

     "Good."

     "Very good, Mr. Brown."  André left.

     "Hard to believe."

     "What?"

     "The best seafood's in the desert.  Harry's really missing it."

     "Harry's a vegetarian," Sean said.

     "Not again.  For how long?"

     "Ever since I've known him."

     "Which is?"

     "Two weeks."

     Jack and Leslie exchanged what they thought was a private smirk.

     "He's been on this health kick."

     "Typical."

     "Of what?"

     "A doper."

     "He's not a doper.  It doesn't effect his behavior."

     "Really."

     "It's not like he's always stoned."

     "Really."

     "You guys don't seem to mind smoking his grass."

     "Hey, it's the weekend."

     "Voltaire said once is curiosity, twice is perversion."

     "The writer."  Jack offered a salute with his wine glass.

     "The producer."  Larry plucked a mussel from its shell.

     "And his wife."

     Leslie started to amend the description.

     "And...Sean?"  Jack looked for help.

     "The kidnap victim.  I'm here against my will."

     "So am I."

     "So leave, Larry."

     "I'm working up to it."  He finished his glass of wine.  If it was red wine, did it give the world a reddish cast, because the twinkle lights were glowing warmer.  One of the girls at the Girls Night Out table reached into her dress to adjust her bra strap.  Larry was charmed by the intimate, inappropriate gesture.  The world suddenly shifted.  Not exactly dizzy, but dizzy's first cousin.  The white tablecloths were beginning to float against the dark carpet.  Not a magic carpet.  Not magic.  Jack was looking sunburned.  Everyone looked like they had too much sun.  Too many years of sun.  Except Sean.  Sean was the exception.  Thinking too long between bites, Larry knew he should eat, the food would absorb the wine, but he didn't feel like eating anymore, it didn't feel good.  He felt queasy but maybe it was just a phase, getting his sea legs, the boat leaving the dock.  Jack refilled Larry's glass.  Attending to his needs.  As far as dinner went.  And after that, come Monday, back in the city, on the other end of the phone, then forget it.

     "You don't like the paella?"

     "I'm getting full."

     Leslie gave Larry a you're drinking too much look.

     He gave her a fuck off look.  Pushed along by this new anger, there was a lull in how the wine was making him feel.  Belatedly, he realized that he was staring at Sean's plate, watching her eat.  She was surprisingly methodical, sampling mussel, clam, shrimp, salmon, yellowtail in alternating bites.  She always combined the seafood with a dab of rice before she lifted the tines to her mouth.  Variety.  Pleasure.  Hidden elegance.

     Aware now of the ingestion of food as a clue to character, he saw that Jack was eating aggressively, quickly taking the pleasure from each bite and pushing on to the next, devouring what was closest to his fork, without the rotation of flavors that Sean was cycling through.

     Beside him, Leslie was barely eating.  A few polite bites.  Her mind was on other things.  Jack.  Status.  Career.  The importance of not seeming to try too hard.  She looked relaxed if you didn't look closely.  But Larry saw the lie.  He was the only person at the table who really saw her - maybe that was what she couldn't stand.  There was a lesson there, if he wanted to look closely - if he dared.

     "So what else do you do in the desert?" Sean asked Jack.

     "That depends on what you've already done."

     "Swimming.  Sunbathing."

     "That's all?"

     "Basically."

     "Doping."

     "That too."

     "You can go golfing, play tennis at the club.  You can do the nasty."

     Larry felt like a bystander.  How could Sean flirt with Jack, thinking what she seemed to think about him.  Something was going on between them.  Something was going on between everyone.  Except him.  He sipped the wine, contemplating conspiracy.  The problem was that he felt, just now, unworthy of conspiracy.

     "I can do all that stuff in L.A.," Sean said.

     "You want desert stuff?"

     "I want desert stuff."

     "We'll take a drive tomorrow, go for a hike.  What do ya think, Les?"

     "I'm easy."

     "I know a great place.  It's like being on another planet."

     "This is like being on another planet."

     "What?"

     "This.  L.A."

     "This isn't L.A."

     "That's where you're wrong."

     "Larry."

     "Leslie."

     "Planet Hollywood."

     "Planet X."

     "Planet Jack."

     "The writer."

     "More rocket fuel."

     "I suppose we do need another bottle.  André."

     André appeared with the wine list.  It was uncanny.  Larry didn't remember blinking.  He nursed what was left in his glass, hoarding the liquid for the passage of minutes until the next bottle came.

     "I know it's déclassé, but maybe we'll switch over to a white.  What do ya guys think?"

     "I'm easy."

     "You already said that."

     "Not about this."

     "Lar?"

     "Stay with the red.  It's working."

     "A bit too well."

     "I thought you were easy."

     Leslie was too mad to speak.

     "I'm easy," Sean said, her eyes shifting from Leslie to Larry.

     "No, you're not," he said.

     "Acacia, the Chard.  Do you mind, Lar?"

     "I already told you what I thought, Ja."

     "Ja?"

     "Ja."

     "Okay.  I mean, if you really mind."

     "Are you going to do what you're going to do or what?"

     "Hey, Lar, I was just asking."

     "But you weren't really asking.  That's my point."

     "Yeah."

     "Okay.  Red."

     Jack studied the wine list.  Leslie studied Jack, trying to read him for tension.  His lips were pursed in a slight smile, that might have been a tight smile.  Was he amused or vindictive?

     "The Merlot LaTour, André."

     "Excellent, Mr. Brown."

     Jack handed back the wine list without looking at André.

     "A Merlot's a delicate red."

     "Duh."

     Leslie's mouth dropped open.

     Jack smiled.

     Leslie worked back into a smile.  Would wonders never cease.  "I didn't know you were so opinionated about wine."

     "Only when I'm drinking."

     "What else are you opinionated about?"

     "Writing.  Or rather, I used to be."

     "Used to be?"

     "You've worn me down."

     "Me?"  Jack was amused.  He reached for his wine glass, then remembered that it was empty.

     "You in general."

     "That's generalizing," Leslie defended.
     "Fuckin' A."  He sipped his wine.  For the moment he had wine and Jack didn't.  "I've had experience.  I'm generalizing from experience."

     "The point of this being?"

     "That I'm easy.  I'll do whatever.  Cooperate."

     "White instead of red?"

     "Exactly."

     "Somehow I don't believe you."

     "Somehow I don't believe me."  Larry laughed.  Sean joined him.  The laughter fell between party lines.

     "You're not inspiring confidence."

     "What's confidence got to do with it?"

     "A comfort level, ya know?"

     Leslie looked appalled.  The best thing now was being a bystander.

     André returned with the Merlot.

     Larry finished the wine in his glass, pleased with his pacing.  Concentrating on each word, not looking very far beyond the next word or two that would tumble from his mouth, he no longer felt queasy.  The wine had warmed him beyond that, the reddish glow downshifting into a dull purple.  He saw the Persian pater familias talking on a cellular phone.

     "Hey, Jackster, where's your cell phone?"

     "In the car.  Do you need to make a call?"

     "No.  I just thought you'd have one at the table.  I'm surprised."

     "In general?"

     Leslie smiled again.

     "No.  Just surprised."

     "Hey, this is time off for good behavior.  I'm not working."

     Which reminded Larry that he didn't qualify as a professional acquaintance.  He was not the one being courted.  Everything about his life was right here at the table, good, bad, indifferent.  Good, bad, ugly.  It was all there.  All he had to do was look.  The wine was another way of looking, peeling back the obvious.  His eyes were starting to hurt.  He didn't like the way the light felt.  Each twinkle light panging at him.  Not quite tunnel vision, but dopplering light.  Mocking blindness.  Problem was, the more he thought about it, he wasn't sitting in the restaurant - he was sitting in his body.  His body was a car he couldn't get out of.  He couldn't open the door, step out and stretch - unless that was what the wine did - or sleep, perchance to dream.  So much shit.  Getting drunk was scary.  But he couldn't wait for the next bottle of wine.  He wished he knew why.  The piano was playing Greensleaves.  Wasn't that the music from John Wayne's Alamo?  Perfect: this was a polite massacre.  The wine high was different from last night's grass, he felt slower, clumsier, a reckless driver of the car.  His mouth felt independent of his brain.  Waiting for the wine, he took another bite of shrimp.  It was, at best, lukewarm.  Chewing slowly, the texture decayed into something unpleasant.  And how long should he chew, when would the fleshy mess reach the critical mass of no longer threatening to choke.  The more he thought about swallowing, the harder it seemed to do.  And why did he have to swallow what was left in his mouth - tasteless, of unpleasant texture, of doubtful nutrition - he had to swallow because that was the course he was on - the mouthful of masticated shrimp was his life in microcosm - if that passed for a profound thought then he was seriously fucked up.  Seriously.  He swallowed.  Sean was looking at him.  How long had she been watching?  The gap between words was weird.  And could he even describe her face, what would the sentence be that did that?  No, her features wouldn't resolve into a handful of words that would echo what he saw.  And if he wasn't a writer now, at his age, would he ever be a writer?  The key.  The key was that he had talent - he believed he had talent - and that talent was thwarted by the Jack Brown's of the world, the Elect who did not elect to transubstantiate his words into images, screenplays into movies.

     There was wine in his glass. 

     How long had he been gone?  Only Sean was still eating, with the same methodical pleasure - clam, shrimp, salmon, yellowtail - that only he seemed to notice.  Jack was in the middle of telling a story.  He had the floor.  He was telling a story to the table.  But the story was for Leslie first, Sean second, and for Larry only because he happened to be sitting there.

     "...you have to remember this was back before AIDS, back in B.C."

     "B.C.?"

     "Before Condoms."

     "There were always condoms."

     "No child, not like there are condoms now."

     Larry sipped his wine, slowly, appreciatively, as if he had been listening from the beginning of the story.

     "I'm very impressed with your conquests," Sean said dryly.

     Apparently the story was almost over.

     "It's not about conquests.  It's about mistaken identity."

     "You mean she thought you were Harry."

     "Ya got it!  She thought I was Harry."

     "And what did Harry think?"

     "Harry was sleeping."

     "Where?"

     "In the same room."

     "You're kidding."

     "Scouts honor."

     "And what did she think?  Debbie, wasn't that her name?"

     "No.  Deborah.  She was a princess, she insisted that you call her Deborah.  Debbie was drunk.  I guess she thought I was Harry.  I never asked her.  But the way she looked at Harry the next morning, man, those were bedroom eyes."

     "Ohmygod!"  Leslie laughed.  It sounded phony to Larry, because he knew her laughs so well, the entire catalog.

     "Where did this happen?  Up at the house?"

     "No, at Two Bunch Palms.  Back in the old days."

     "Is that why you're plying us with wine?  Are you hoping to repeat history?"

     "You can't force serendipity."

     "Is that kind of like you can't hurry love?"

     "Kind of."

     "Shit happens."

     "Sex happens."

     "You wish."

     "I wish."

     "We look like a foursome.  Two twosomes."  Sean was flirting with Jack again.  An omniverous habit, Larry glumly concluded.  So much for his conspiracy theory - how many glasses ago was that?

     "At this table maybe.  But I'm the odd man out tonight." 

     "Where's your girlfriend?"

     "What girlfriend?"

     "You don't have one?"

     "No."

     "Why not?"

     "You're very curious."

     "Because you're such a curious character."

     "I'm available, if you're interested."  This spoken to Sean, but Jack's eyes darting to Leslie, his eyebrows raised in ironic question marks.

     Larry, excluded in direct word and gesture from Jack's repartee, drank his wine and revised his conspiracy theory.  Jack was outclassing him, finessing with bluntness.  The directness, timed at the sluggish end of the entree, was disarming.  He was being so obvious it was subtle.

     "I'm interested, but not the way you mean interested."

     "And how do I mean?"

     "You know."

     Jack smiled.  He knew.

     The red jacketed second-string waiters appeared.  "Are you finished?"

     "Are we finished?"

     "I'm finished," Larry said.  That said it all.  If anyone was listening.  To what he said.  He finished what was left in his glass, gestured toward the bottle.  Voices were swirling in stereo, dinner voices.  If he tried to listen it hurt.  And why did he need to find out what was being said - it wasn't being said to him.  His wine glass was refilled.  A red sleeve floated through Larry's field of vision and his plate was lifted away.  All the plates were lifted away.  A lonely grain of saffron-stained rice sat on the white tablecloth in front of him.  The white tablecloth was a constellation of crumbs and minor stains.  He crushed the grain of rice with his finger, squishing it into the tablecloth.  The red coats were gone.  The wine was beginning to taste medicinal.  He was trying to remember why he was drinking like he was drinking, but the idea wouldn't conjure.  The dénouement of dinner was upon them.

     "Would you like to see the dessert menu?"  André was back.  Jack took a silent poll, waited for an answer that didn't come.  No one ate dessert in Hollywood.  Larry could have told him that.

     "No one eats dessert in Hollywood."  There, it was out.  The unspoken thought was spoken.

     "We're in the desert."

     "Who eats dessert in the desert?"

     "Be my guest."

     No one seemed interested.  Larry felt anchored to the table.  Drinking had gotten less fun.  Because he was thinking too much about it.

     "Give us a minute." 

     André nodded in complete understanding and left.

     "Should we have coffee?  Or an after dinner drink?"     "Harry might be getting lonely."  Hearing Sean's concern for Harry, Larry felt, unreasonably, like an unsuccessful suitor for Sean's hand.  A Victorian drama with no victory.  Clever phrases - vapid - meaningless - appeared like bubbles to Larry.  He could almost see the words floating in front of his face.

     "We could have coffee back at the house."

     "And dessert.  Desert dessert."  Sean threw this phrase with a smile at Larry.

     "I'm not sure what we've got."

     "I'll stop at the store on the way home."

     "André will pack something up for us.  Anything you like."

     "No.  I've got already got something in mind, " Sean said.  With a smile.  Smiles all around.  What was the secret?  Larry wanted to catch up to whatever was happening.  But he was still hunkered down for dinner, and it was ending too soon, concluding abruptly, inappropriately.  And here he had thought about sitting at this table forever.

     When the check arrived, Jack handed André a platinum card without even looking at the bill.  This was when Larry usually made polite conversation, avoiding the issue of money, accepting the largesse indirectly, thanking his host afterward, after the money had been dispensed.  The moment felt awkward to Larry.  He was very sensitive to these moments.  The wine didn't help.  He felt diminished with the ladies - he couldn't grandstand for the check.  He was the token male.  He wasn't keeping up his end of the ritual.  But when he had sat down to dinner, the whole time he was sitting here, didn't he know this was coming, the check that Jack would grab.  When would he ever learn to think things through, to see what was coming?  Like now.  What about now.  That required some thought.  Sipping wine, just a taste on his lips, feigning a thoughtful gesture to avoid watching Jack sign the credit card slip.  Looking around the restaurant, familiar faces were gone - the girl in the black dress and pearls, where was she?  And the Persian family, how had they slipped away without his noticing?  Empty chairs.  Fresh faces. 

     Turnover. 

     It was time for them to turnover.

     As the restaurant door closed behind them, the chorale of dinner voices hushed to an undertone.  The world outside was darker, blanker, easier to deal with.  Larry felt drunk but harmonious.  Nothing was hurting him.

     The valet scrambled for Jack's Range Rover, which was parked ten feet away.  Jack extended an open hand to Sean.

     "Where's your ticket?"

     "I don't have one."

     "For the car."

     "I know."  Spoken with annoyance.  "I parked it myself."  Jack looked around.  "Right over there."

     Valets opened all four doors of the Range Rover.

     "I'll ride with Sean," Larry said.

     Jack handed the valet a five dollar bill.  "Okay.  See you back at the house."

     Leslie was all smiles, climbing into the front passenger seat.  "See you."  The valets closed all four doors.

     The black car eased into traffic, its occupants abstracted to two glamorous silhouettes.  They could have been driving off into the sunset, except it was night.  Larry waved.  "Bye bye."  Sean smiled.  What would it be like if he never saw them again?

     He followed Sean across the parking lot.  She pressed a key chain like a remote control.  A car alarm yapped, defanged, and she opened the door of a large silver BMW.

     Sean drove with her seat pushed all the way forward.  Her feet barely reached the pedals.  Her fair skin glowed in the amber light of the dash.  The upholstery was black.  Larry's mood was light.  He was careful not to look at her too long.  Leslie had hammered home the bit about not seeming too needy.  The scenery outside didn't interest him.  Strip mall America.  The kind of desert that was everywhere now.

     The question was what to pay attention to.  He had gotten what he wanted.  He was alone with Sean.  For a little while.  Whose choice was that?  She shoved in a CD.  Nirvana.  In Utero.  Kurt Cobain necrophilia.

     Larry worried about false steps.  He could only be quiet so long.  The Leslie Anger was dissolving.  If he really thought about separating from Leslie, then she wasn't so dismissable.  There had been some good moments.  She was shrewd.  She was the only one he could ask for certain kinds of advice.  She was driven, in her own way.  If anyone could help him get somewhere, she could.  He could still learn things from her.  But there was more than that, there was more to let go of.  They had a history together.  That would vanish.  The more he thought about it, there was pain waiting to be felt. 

     Then his feelings reversed, the tentative tenderness evaporated, and the anger returned.  He reminded himself that he was too mad, that the way she was acting this weekend was unforgivable.

     Sean could drive him anywhere in this amber interior light.  He was with what he wanted.  This was his chance to live up to an adventure.  But the distance between their seats was enormous.  She was blank, what he knew about her.  It was possible, for the moment, to believe that some sort of absolute harmony was possible.  He could dream that sex, sex with her, could save him.  Salvation was behind the wheel, her foot on the gas.

     The wine was roiling weirdly.  The Las Vegas Story, untitled, was slipping away.  Being in the desert this weekend, tonight, should have helped.  Experientially.  After all, this was the desert, like Vegas.  But not writing for almost two days felt fatal.  He was in a mood for fatalistic pronouncements.  Now, tonight, it felt so much easier for things to die.  The work evaporating.  For what.  To watch Sean's smile.

     There was an alternative.  Just write.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  Words.  The important thing was to get going again.  Set a page quota.  Do it.  Throw out the shit.  Something good would come of it.  A fragment at least.  A sentence.  A phrase.  Maybe.

     She took a corner sharply, the tire's squeal muffled by the German steel.  The centrifical lurch pushed him against the door.  The wine swayed in tidal pull.  He realized he wasn't wearing a seat belt, but to put one on now would queer the deal - another Leslie lesson - somehow he had set her up as the lesson plan for seduction, an internal monitor and mentor.  Four years he had listened to her scheming, appreciatively, appropriately.  At least he'd grasped the mind set.

     It was naive to trust his life to Sean's driving.  He couldn't remember how much wine she had drunk.  Factor in how stoned she probably was when she got to the restaurant.  But the BMW was big.  Barring a head-on, whatever crash might happen was probably survivable.  Put it in context.  How dangerous was this, compared to driving on acid, late night highway horrors in death trap VW Microbuses, Beetles, Carmen Ghias.  Or coked-out eighties L.A. freeway odysseys.

     "You're looking grim."

     "Sorry."

     "The music?"

     "No, it's okay."

     "Your wife?"

     "No comment."

     "Perfect."

     "Why?"

     "That says it all."

     "I suppose."

     Looking out the window, working back to paying attention to the world, he saw that they had turned off of the main drag.  Outside were tired looking apartment buildings, dark heat-blasted artifacts - tract houses - an endless brick wall, the backside of a country club.  Why would anyone live out here?  Why would anyone live anywhere?  He was lost, with no sense of direction, but there was a certain delight in the spatial confusion.  He could be anywhere.  He was anywhere.  For the moment.  He felt okay, as long as he didn't throw up.  Air would help.  He was mindful of cures.  He punched at the buttons on the door.  His window whirred down.  The wind roared in his ear.  It was cold, but that was okay.  Sean's hair whipped around her head.  She smiled.  This was the time to be clever.  Words to unlock.  But wasn't getting laid as far-fetched as making a movie?  Was that a defeatist thought or a realistic one - was defeatism realistic - or was realism defeating?  And.  What was real about driving through this alien darkness with her, an alien.  A silent movie.  That words might alter.

     "So what do you think about Jack?" she asked.

     "He's my platonic ideal.  The perfect host."

     Sean smiled.  It seemed that she was in sync with his irony.  It was fresh enough not to seem compulsive.  Unless he did it too much, too soon.  He was on his best behavior.  He had to keep reminding himself of that.  He had to concentrate on presenting the best version of himself to her, for as long as possible, careful not to let sarcasm slip over into bitterness, careful to keep verbal attack from being symptomatic of weakness.

     The question was what to say now.  The hardest part was getting started.  No.  The hardest part was whatever he had to do now.  And what he had to do now was get started.  She was alien because she was young, because she was a woman.  More that she was a woman than that she was young, because he had experience in being young, but not in being a woman.  Girl was more accurate, but girl was no longer a proper word to use for girls.  The point was.  The point was he could be fun.  As long as he had something, someone to attack: Jack, Leslie, the world.

     "Why do you ask?"

     "I'm curious about your opinion."

     "What do you think of Jack?" he asked.

     "He's interesting."

     "That's an interesting word for it."

     "For what."

     "For whatever."

     "I take it you don't like him," she said.

     "It's not that I don't like him.  It's just that he's the enemy."

     "I think he likes you."

     "Really."

     "He told me he thinks you're funny."

     "Really."  The game was shifting.  Rules kept bending. Looking out at the street lights, Larry wondered how they got lit, how the power flowed down the line, how all the pieces fit together.  It was magic, all of it, if you really thought about it.

     "What do you mean, enemy?"

     "What I've got to fight against."

     "Enemy seems a little strong."

     "I tend toward extremes."

     "Like what?"

     "Riding with strange girls."

     "Think I'm strange?"

     "One can only hope."

     "Based on what?"

     "Last night."

     "What was strange about last night?"

     "Not enough.  The lack of strangeness was strange."

     Talking was easy when the words were circling.  He was good at that.  He felt himself pulled toward the middle.  Was that his natural place?  Even without a normal job, permanently without that normalcy.  Normalcy not as the median or as the middle, but as a risk-free place.  But wasn't he risking everything by not having a normal job?  No.  There was a predictability to his lack of success.  He had evolved a strategy of getting by.  It couldn't just be the wine that had him muddled.  The wine was drawing out slow thoughts, sending out pulses of ideas with dull edges.  He had thoughts about his life, but didn't think about his life.  But being a tourist in the desert, in this car, left him stripped of the familiar, except his body, except his clothes.  He felt like he was someone else.  He was in the passenger seat.  Was it possible that there was an opportunity?  The middle was where he had been, without result.  Drunk, for the moment, he could try to be someone else.

     But when did the strangeness slip into sadness?  When did the alcohol begin boiling maudlin in his blood?  How did he pick his stories?  Did the stories pick him?  In the matrix of such harsh determinism, the desert dormant at night, why did he have to try so hard?  In a deterministic universe couldn't he just coast, or was his destiny the peculiar anguish of a screenwriter?  If it was never his choice to aspire to what he aspired to, then a new kind of freedom leaked into the night.

     Still, he felt the burden to entertain Sean.  But the calculating voice that he had internalized from Leslie told him not to try too hard.  She would want him only to the extent that he didn't seem to want her.  As he let the music fill the void of what he was thinking, he came to realize that this lesson applied to Leslie.  To Jack.  The point of the struggle was not to struggle.  The trick was remembering to act differently.  Remembering.

     Sean drove into the bright habitat of a parking lot, a Lucky supermarket.  There was an empty parking space at the front of the aisle that Sean pulled into, as if it was her birthright, the best space in the lot.  Everything came easy tonight.  As long as he was with her.

     Larry looked at her questioningly, wondering what was next.

     "Dessert, remember."

     "Right."

     It was so bright inside.  They were embarked upon a domestic ritual.  They could have gotten by without a basket but Sean wanted to ride in it.  She wove her fingers through the metal mesh and balanced her Doc Marten's on the silver tube chassis.  Larry pushed the cart.  A ritual rolling into an adventure.  Housekeeping with Sean.  Hunting and gathering just the right sugar products.  In the bright supermarket light, down the naked lunch aisles, Sean looked younger, wrinkle-free.  He wondered if he looked older.  Her white cotton shirt was pristine.   She acted careless.  How did she keep her one shirt pristine?  That was a measure of her grace.  Was her underwear unstained, her hidden skin unblemished, were there no hidden flaws? 

     He picked up a pair of $2.98 plastic shades.  The sunglasses muted the light down to a tolerable level.  Sean liked the way they looked on him.  He felt like Jack Nicholson among the Saturday night misfits, oddball shoppers. 

     Hershey's Chocolate, sugar cones, Milano cookies, Devil's Food Cake, Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream (Cherry Garcia, Rocky Road), Haagen Daz Frozen Yogurt (coffee, vanilla), Smucker's Hot Fudge, maraschino cherries.

     Sean pulled a can of Redi-Whip from the dairy case.  "Ever get high on this stuff?"

     He almost said in my youth.  "Laughing gas."

     "Don't you think the joker laughs at you?"

     He picked up two more cans of Redi-Whip.  He almost said did you ever cover your body with this stuff.  "Let's party."

     Cruising again.  The aisles were all the same.  The products were different.  The boxes seemed to silently promise immortality.  If he could just climb inside the right box, close his eyes, float on painless sweet dreams.

     "Have we forgotten anything?"

     "Hostess Twinkies."

     "Show a little refinement.  Hostess Cupcakes."

     "Let's be democratic.  Both."

     Looking at the collection of sugar that filled the bottom of their cart, he remembered without wanting to remember what every item tasted like.  He no longer liked being drunk.  It wasn't helping, it wasn't teaching him anything, it wouldn't let go.  It wouldn't let go until it was gone.

     "What about marshmallow sauce?"

     "Marshmallow sauce?"

     "You know, liquid marshmallows."

     He was losing his enthusiasm for the project.  "If you like."  The trick was keeping up.  With the cart, with appearances, with the appropriate smile.  With Sean.

     "I wonder which aisle."

     "Maybe with the ice cream."

     "Or the hot fudge.  Wasn't that somewhere else?"

     "The sugar aisle."

     "You're beginning to look green."

     "It's just the light."

     "The light's white."

     "No, fluorescent light's green on film."

     "But this isn't film."

     "Can I interest you in a pair of sunglasses."

     She laughed.  Whatever he was doing was working again.

     When they found the marshmallow syrup it looked like glutinous bleached-bright sperm.

     Coasting toward the check-out stand, in the express lane even though they were over the ten-item limit, he realized that he would be paying for it all.  In this situation he was the man.  What a waste.  Outside it was dark.  That was something to look forward to.

     "Are you purchasing those sunglasses, sir?"

     That was something to think about.

     "I don't think so."

     The check-out lady looked indeterminately young, an ageless late twenties, strong as a horse.  There was dark peach fuzz over her lip.  Punching in numbers.  What a life.  But the check-out lady made a lot more money than he did.  Leslie had told him that.  He had to keep remembering the right place to put his pity.

     "That's $33.89.  Without the sunglasses."

     "Right."  He took off the cheap sunglasses.  It was bright, the waves were rolling again.  It was dizzy time.  So bright.  He squinted and steadied his arm against the credit card machine, it just wouldn't do for Sean to see him tremble.  He opened his wallet, lifted out two twenties.  It seemed to take forever.  Time stopped for a moment.  Good-bye.

     "Let me buy them for you."

     "No."

     "Please."

     "I don't know when I'd wear them."

     "When you go shopping."

     "When I go shopping drunk."

     "Are you drunk?"

     "Maybe.  I'm still trying to decide."

     Back on the dark streets, riding in the big German car.  Cornering well.  Handling nicely.  But there was a gap in the tape - how they got in motion - a dark gap between then and now.  He couldn't remember the car starting, couldn't remember the car pulling out of the lot.  Through the gap, back in the darkness, Sean's face glowed again in amber light.  They were listening again to the dead man's music.  The dead man's music was Nirvana.  That was perfect somehow. 

     "Turn me on, dead man.  Remember that?"

     "Of course."

     "This song sort of fits.  Rape me, my friend.  Rape me again."

     Sean smiled.  "I get it.  Turn me on, dead man."

     "Yeah."

     "That's pretty hip.  I usually don't eat meat."

     Larry wondered if there was another gap of black as he puzzled out her non sequitur.

     "Dinner.  What did you think about dinner?"

     "You mean the food or the cannibals?"

     "I'm trying to stop eating meat."

     "Seafood isn't meat."

     "It's living flesh.  It was.  My sister's a vegan.  She doesn't consume any animal products.  No leather."

     "I've stopped eating leather."

     "Seriously."

     "I had a very bad experience with animal rights."

     Sean waited for the story.  He had the floor.  He hadn't rehearsed.

     "I sold this script - optioned it - to these producers, a husband and wife - the Smalls - what a perfect name - the kind of name that would be a cliché if I wrote a script and called the producers the Smalls.  It was really the wife's project.  Her pet project.  She loved it.  She said that she absolutely loved it."

     "What was the script about?"

     "It was a thriller.  About food - set in a restaurant - but that doesn't matter.  What it's actually about never really seems to matter.  Anyway, she said she just wanted me to fix up the ending a little and then we could shoot the movie.  It was low budget.  Intentionally.  Very do-able.  She said I could direct it. 

     "What followed was six months of rewriting.  Now the Smalls, their big thing in life was animals.  Protecting poor little helpless furballs.  They didn't have any kids, but they had something like twelve dogs and eighteen cats and a couple of crippled parrots and a partridge in a pear tree.  Between fucking over writers the wife went around saving gerbils and hosting dinners to protest mink coats.  They built this big house and they had bedrooms for their pets, you know, this is Spot's room and this is Boots' room, she shares it with Puff and Taffy.  I remember once we had to cancel a story meeting because a possum bit her hand.  A possum bite - that was a new one. 

     "So at the end of six hellish months of doing everything this crazy lady wanted me to do to the script - mangling what was a good script to begin with - listening attentively to these deranged suggestions and trying to make sense of it all - after all this, she read the script that she had virtually dictated to me and said that she didn't like it any more.  I wanted to kill her - and since I couldn't kill her I vowed to kill animals instead.  By eating as many as possible.  Actually, I'm not a big meat eater.  That's my story of being treated cruelly by Mr. and Mrs. Animal Rights."

     "That's pretty funny."

     "The horrible things often are."

     Telling the story had sobered Larry in a way that fifteen minutes ago he wouldn't have thought possible.  Until now he had forgotten how angry that episode had made him.  His anger surprised him, how angry he still was.  How many other buried stories were waiting, how much buried anger?  Do you eat meat?  Yes, because of these asshole producers.  Not strictly true, but close enough.  There were so many triggers.  Glib was the way to go.  Less pain.  Lighter.  And he hadn't told the story of the Smalls very well - accumulating humorous detail, building irony, factoring in Sean's response, playing to his audience.

     If she had a story to tell him, she wasn't saying.  The music filled the void: I miss the comfort in being sad. 

     I miss the comfort in being sad. 

     Why this street?  Outside the windshield's curve of tempered, tinted glass, the night looked the same.  Nights were like that. 

     "It's funny but it sounds fucked."

     "Yeah."

     "Everything's kind of fucked."

     "Yeah."

     They agreed.  It was a new kind of meeting.  Belated.

     "Is this Jack's street?"

     "I thought it was."

     "So did I.  I was looking for a familiar landmark.  Like his car.  Wouldn't his car be here?"

     "It should be."

     "That's what I thought."

     "You mean we're lost?"  There were worse things than being lost with her.

     "Potentially."

     "The mountains are in the right place."

     She laughed.  "That's a funny thing to say."

     "We'll circle the block.  We could call, but I don't know the number."

     He was sitting, for the moment, in the sheltered world of German steel and Japanese car phones.  The green lights on the back of the cellular phone reminded him of something poignant he couldn't quite place - some other green lights - the memory was sloshing with the wine - it was irritating, not being able to recall whatever it was he wanted to recall. 

     The anxiety of uneasy, incomplete forgetfulness. 

     He was about to suggest that she call information, but he didn't mind their isolation and wasn't pressing for their timely return to Casa Jack.  It was too late for them - him - to be timely - wasn't it?  He wasn't wearing a watch.  He could imagine Leslie being peeved - it wasn't much of a stretch - how long had the odyssey to Lucky taken?  The real explanation, the innocent explanation, even with the bags of sugary evidence, sounded suspicious as he tried saying it to himself.  Well.  He was fucked either way, whether they got there or not.

     "Does this look familiar?"

     "I don't know."

     "Do you like being lost?"

     "With you."

     "That's sweet."

     "This is the house.  Isn't it?"

     "Yeah."

     "He must have parked the car."

     "Mustn't let the Range Rover get damp."

     She pulled into the circular driveway and stopped the CD in the middle of a song.  He was waiting for something.  If she noticed she didn't say.  There was a moment between them that passed for a smile.  She opened her door.  The dome light came on.  One kind of privacy ended.  He couldn't, shouldn't wait too long.  They were here.  There was no sense moping.

     "Hello?"

     "Hello?"

     The house had felt empty of Leslie and Jack even before their unanswered hellos.

     "There's a note.  Where are you guys?  We waited and waited.  There's a party at one-twenty-seven San Andreas. See you there.  J & L.  Should we go?"

     "What about the dessert?"

     She gave him a look.  "Let me check on Harry."

     He was alone again.  The plastic grocery bags dug into his hands.  He looked down at the sagging brown appendages.  They had become a critical prop in maneuvering through this part of the evening.  When to have dessert - and with whom - seemed central to his tenuous scenario of sleeping with Sean.  After the grocery spree, standing here, Leslie's note a flat white square on the black lacquered vanity table, he could imagine a dismal scenario of no dessert.  Starting to fix dessert, was that presumptuous?  And what if Harry tagged along?  He frowned at the absurdity of his calculations.  What was he thinking?  How could a little flirting get him so addled?

     He went into the kitchen and fumbled for the light switch.  Fluorescents hidden behind Plexiglas illuminated the room like a phony skylight.  He put down the grocery bags and opened the freezer.  Putting away the ice cream, wouldn't that presume that they were going to the party?  He didn't want to face a sea of faces. 

     But he had no desire for sugar.  Let the ice cream melt.  The time had come to be careless. 

     Spiteful. 

     But spitefulness reversed into timidity, habitual caution, and he stowed the ice cream in Jack's freezer.  It was amazing what he did for women, without their noticing, in secret hopes.  Unnoticed secret hopes.

     He felt cold, walking through the dark rooms.  Was it the air conditioning or had his body's thermostat gone wacky?  Dining room, living room, day room, enough light spilling from the foyer to guide his footsteps.  Stopped by the sliding glass door, a transparent boundary.  His nose pressed against the cold glass.  Stepping back, he closely studied his nose print.  He thought he heard a voice and turned around but there was no one.  No one else.  Had he been abandoned again?  The night kept shrinking.

     He became aware of himself as a body standing at a door that was a window.  He thought about what cool pose to assume for Sean's return.  What had been carefree how many minutes ago had left the room with her.  Sustaining mood.  That got to the heart of screenplays.  At one time he thought he had a gift for it.  He still believed in himself for scattered minutes.  Sustaining tonight's mood - the good part of it - wasn't that the same thing?  And who said you had to even write a screenplay down?  If you weren't getting paid for it, why bother?  There was the option, occurring to him only now, that he could let a movie play in his head, for an audience of one.  If even a hundred people read a script, that was exceptional.  Reduce the audience.  That was an alternative.  Alternatives could last how long, not just a lifetime, but a week, an hour, a minute - consider a moment's relief of imagining a life without the fatigue of staring at pixels, agonizing or rhapsodizing to fill them with just the right combination of words, the words that opened the combination lock that led to nirvana.  Nirvana.  I miss the comfort in being sad.  I'm sad missing comforts.  Let me return to your womb.  Can you return someplace you've never been? 

     Somewhere on the other side of the glass was another life that he might have led.

     "Hey."

     He jumped.

     She laughed.

     He wasn't alone.

     "What are you thinking?"

     "The night is spread against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table."

     "I like that."

     "Thank T.S. Eliot."

     "Didn't he write Cats?"

     Should he judge her by what she'd read?

     She joined him beside the glass.  "I tucked Harry in for the night."

     "How's the patient?"

     "Etherized."

     She was sharp.  He couldn't, shouldn't forget that.  And she was standing within the reach of his arm, in the darkened room.  Conspiracy.  No.  Complicity.  In her willingness to stand in the darkness with him.  Was that reading too much into an innocent, an inadvertent situation?  Imagine that this was a movie that only they were watching.  Could he be suitably aggressive in that nearly private movie? 

     Remember - she had joined him at the window. 

     He stepped closer to her.  His one step to match the forty or so that she had taken.  But getting this close, that was a different thing. 

     She was watching his eyes.  She was smiling.  It was an ironic smile.  If he couldn't describe her face then he could describe her smile. 

     He kissed her lips.

     "You're getting fresh again."

     "You're standing next to me."

     "Do you kiss everyone who stands next to you?"

     "Why are you teasing me?"

     "Define teasing."

     "I'm not good at defining things."

     "He said teasingly."

     He rested his hands on her hips.  Couldn't she make a move?  A counter-move?

     "Can I kiss you?"

     "You already did."

     "Can I kiss you again?"

     "Not if you have to ask."

     "You asked me to ask last night."

     "That was last night."

     He kissed her again.  She didn't move.  But she seemed impatient.

     "Are we going to the party?"

     "We've already got a party.  We've got ice cream."

     "A party with people."

     "If you like."  His voice defeated.

     "I like."

     She walked away.

     It was his choice to follow.

     "But we don't even know how to get there."

     "They drew a map."

     Another conspiracy.

     A party.  Another L.A. party, in a suburb, in a colony, in a mansion. 

     People just get uglier. 

     The room was brown and white; the people were white and tan.  It was loud enough that they didn't have to talk unless they wanted to.  And if they wanted to, then they had to lean close, mouth to ear and vice versa, they had to point the words at their target. 

     And I have no sense of time.

     "Where do you think they are?"

     "I have no idea."

     They walked side by side, then single-file to squeeze through the gap between two adjacent clusters.  Everybody looked like someone else, someone he had seen or known in high school, college, wherever.  An elastic, inexact gene pool that he was swimming in.  Familiar faces, similar faces, all those faces he had never quite known.

     Sean was moving her shoulders in time to the music, her hands balled into locomotion fists.  No one was dancing.  The tune was infectious - metallic, urgent, angular.  Tonight's hidden Gatsby was hip, and schizophrenic, if he owned this house, because the house didn't suit the music.  It was a joke, if anyone was listening.  His natural instinct - with Sean - or Leslie - was to ask her who the band was, but he hesitated and stopped, doubled back on his instinct - doubled back on doubling back - twisting an unasked question - why this infinitesimal torment - increasingly complicated thoughts at a party he didn't want to be at looking for someone he didn't particularly want to see.  His wife.  And his wineglass was empty.  His little sips had led to this.  "Who's the band?"

     "Nine Inch Nails.  Their second album."

     I am the voice in your head, and I control you, I am the lover in your bed, and I control you.

     "It's good dance music."

     "Yeah?"  She dipped her shoulders in time to the chain saw guitar.  "Wanna dance?"

     "Only to the slow songs.  The bear hug songs."

     "Lech."

     "Lech's have feelings too."

     "Lecherous feelings."

     "Don't be judgmental."

     "But you like judgmental women."

     "Don't be so sure."

     "What about Leslie?"

     "I don't like judgmental women."

     "Oh."

     They talked back and forth, single file, up the carpeted stairs.  In movies, at movie parties, everyone looked happy, engaged in chitchat, smiling, wall to wall.  But emptiness was more intriguing - couples trapped unhappily together in eddies of shared solitude - temporary misfits, eating chips in quiet desperation.  With each step upwards the vista of faces flattened into pockets of predictable movement - by the time he reached the second floor landing the universe of the house was deterministic.  He felt good to be self-centered and short-sighted above it all.  But it was crowded here too.

     "Are we still looking for Leslie?"

     "Yes."

     "In the bedrooms?"

     He shrugged his openness to whatever.  "I've got to look."

     "Loyalty?"

     "No stone unturned."

     There was a game room.  Pool was the only game.  Guys with cigars.  Girls with cigars.  Everyone held cue sticks.  Everyone looked expert.  No one was moving.

     "Have you seen Leslie?"

     His question left them blank.  Blanker.

     Sean giggled.

     Maybe he was getting warmer.

     He almost didn't care.  He had to convince himself that he had nothing to lose.  The important thing was to try and seem reckless.  Fearless.  That seemed the only way to be.

     Continuing on their quest, heroic, anti-heroic, necessary, unnecessary, the rooms got smaller.

     The bathroom.  He could use a quiet moment alone.  Would it break the rhythm?

     "Will you excuse me?"

     "Sure." 

     With an odd look.  Was he acting odd?

     Alone with the mirror.  His face looked different.  His skin worn.  A different face from last time he had looked - but how?  Staring seemed important - learn by looking.  But.  He wasn't learning anything.

     He ran the faucet.  The towels were damp from over-use.  There were puddles and waterspots on the faux marble countertop.  A dish was filled with shell-shaped soap, the rills soggy and water-blunted.  The quiet was relative - party noise bled through the door.  He wondered if he was taking too long, if Sean was outside the door, or if she had wandered off.  Anticipation had gone south.  If only.  The best thing would be not to want anything.  Whatever came next.  On the other side of the door.

     No, she wasn't waiting. 

     Waiting had turned into something else, a conversation with a Cue Stick Boy.  Manchild in the Promised Land.  Larry felt awkward about coming over.  Her back was to him - his agony was hidden from her.  She leaned forward, she leaned back, talking, listening, with the limber body language of acceptance.  Larry could imagine her leaving with Cue Stick Boy for a different version of the night.  Left alone.  First there was Leslie, then temptation - what an odd bible-beating word - and then he was alone.  The script that didn't sell.  The one with the wrong ending.  The high concept that wasn't quite bold enough.  No one wanted to see the movie that was never made.  He was starring in that movie.  The bold thing to do in his private state of anticipatory defeat was step forward - what could be worse than what he already imagined - he was afraid but his feet were moving - her back was to him, she couldn't see how brave he could be, at times, in little ways.  Baby steps.

     "...on Poinsettia, near Crescent Heights," she was saying.

     "I'm on Hayworth!  At Romaine.  We're neighbors."

     "Hey, neighbor."

     "Howdy."

     Larry slid into Sean's line of sight with his best try at a party smile, a hi-glad-to-be-here-smile.

     Sean seemed glad to see him.  He was abnormally sensitive to these kind of moments.  He was thrilled out of all proportion to what was happening.  He knew that.  He knew that it didn't matter what he knew - he was always helpless about these kind of feelings - any feelings, actually.  They had a life of their own.  Why was he always along for the ride?

     "Rick, this is Larry."

     "Hey, man."  A laconic nod of the cue stick.  Larry sensed Rick's temperamental shift regarding Sean, available to unavailable, unless Larry could be displaced.  The gunslinger didn't expect much of a gunfight.

     "Rick and I are neighbors," Sean explained.

     Larry nodded appreciatively.  A platitude was called for.  "Great."

     "Larry and I are looking for someone."

     "Yeah?"

     "Larry's wife."

     "Yeah?"

     Rick was patient with the situation.  He had cobalt blue eyes.  The pool game wasn't going anywhere. 

     "You guys need some help?"

     Larry was waiting for Sean to invite Rick along on their search.  It was the worst thing that could happen.

     "Maybe I've seen her.  What does she look like?"

     "She's kind of hard to describe.  I'm not good at describing people.  How would you describe her?"

     "Sarcastic."

     Sean laughed.  Rick was smart enough to smile.  He was the kind of guy who knew how to get with the program.

     "Maybe I'll see you back in Hollyweird."

     "Maybe."

     "We should trade numbers."

     Sean held up her hands - search me - no purse, no pen, no paper.

     "Here, I've got a card."

     Rick drew his wallet and smoothly handed her a black embossed card.  She slipped it in her hip pocket without looking.  Larry could fall in love with her.  He was convinced of that.  Because she knew how to be casual.  Even if he didn't know her - yet - she knew how to be herself.  There was a workable solution somewhere.

     Nods good-bye.  Everyone had to be cool.  Larry had what he wanted, for the moment.  He was alone with her, for the moment.

     "Looks like you made a new friend."

     "You?"

     "Him."

     "You think he's my friend?"

     "Maybe he wants to be."  Why had he started this?

     "That isn't what he wants."

     She was waiting.  With the smile that was her natural state.  It was bait.  She wanted to play.  He was the plaything with a voice that didn't have any say.

     Until today.

     Wasn't today the day?

     Not another word between them.  Because they both understood the quest.  Didn't they?

     Next.

     A bedroom that nobody lived in.

     A bedroom that somebody lived in.  Maybe.

     A locked door.

     Another bedroom.  A guy and a girl sat on the edge of a bed.  Larry assumed that he was trying to talk her into something, into that one thing.  He wondered if Sean assumed the opposite.  The guy had the look of wanting something to happen.  The moment before the move.  The Museum of Dating.  Mating.  The Archeology of Fucking.  Man.  If escape were that easy.  If that's all there was to it.

     "Excuse us."

     "Hey, man, the door was closed."

     "Sorry."  After all, the door wasn't locked. 

     Back in the hallway.  The continuity of rooms.

     "So you think they're in a bedroom?" she said with a surly sweet smile.  One of a thousand kind of smiles. 

     "You mean do I think they're fucking?"

     "Do you?"

     "However I answer that question, I'm boned, and you know it."

     For Sean, a different kind of smile.  A different kind of knowing.  A sliding scale of smiles.  Learning them approximated intimacy.  A way of knowing her.

     People passing.  The hallway crowd.  Wandering.  Everyone looking.  Everyone looking like they weren't looking.  To see just the right person, in passing.  Sucked through dark pockets of light. 

     The hallway angled away.  Looking for that special room.  Where was the coke room?  Weren't those revved-up bloodshot eyes rolling past?  Where inside were the incrowd drugs?  Sugar glazed happiness.  Somewhere nearby.  If only his radar still worked.

     "Larry."

     A familiar face, a pretty face, looking tan, even in this windowless corner of the night.  He knew her.  But who was she?

     "Leslie said you might be here."

     "You saw Leslie?"

     "She said she was looking for you."

     "That's what she said?"

     She was amused, but who was she?  Her hair was red.  Had she liked one of his scripts?  Which one?  She was an out of context face.

     Sean was amused too.  It was an amusing situation.  But he knew what reckoning was waiting for him, deserved or not.  Leslie would not be amused.  Not when they were finally alone again.

     "Was she here with Jack?"

     "That's what she said.  I saw her downstairs.  But that was a while ago.  This is Alison."  She nodded at her companion, another woman, pretty, wearing complicated clothes - scarf, blouse, polka dots against stripes, a beaded belt - too much to take in without staring too long.  Where had all these clothes come from?  How had the desert gotten so filled with stuff?  "Leslie used to have the office across the hall from mine," the woman whose name he couldn't remember explained.

     The random place where bad things happen.

     Where names were forgotten.

     I don't want to be forgotten.

     Who remembers me, I don't remember her name.

     Sherry.  Her name was Sherry.  Maybe.  He felt almost confident enough to give that name a try.

     "We were supposed to meet her here.  It's a long story."  This said with glances and nods to include Sean.  But he felt Sean getting annoyed that she wasn't being introduced.  Or was he projecting what Leslie would have felt?  His instincts felt blunted by conditioning.  Introductions, contacts seemed more a part of Leslie's make-up than Sean's, but wasn't Sean here - in the desert - the girlfriend of - Harry - how accidental was it that her boyfriend was rich?  How clever was her apparent indifference?  All these status calculations were instantaneous - electric - it was one of those supposedly innocent moments when everything could go wrong.

     "Sherry, this is Sean."

     Sherry didn't object to being called Sherry.  The name worked.

     "How long have you been here?"

     "I don't know - a couple of hours?"  Sherry looked to Alison for confirmation.

     "I'm not wearing a watch."

     "Leslie did Meg's house," Sherry said.

     "Really?  I love that house."

     "Leslie's very gifted.  Your wife's got a real gift."

     "But where is she?  Downstairs, you think?"

     "You must be in love."  Sherry stared at his shirt as she said this.  Larry looked down - there was a grease stain where the pocket would have been if it were a more practical shirt.  Leslie had picked it out.  A stain from the paella.  A blot on the green silk.  Evidence of gracelessness.

     "Why do you say that?"

     "Because you seem so desperate to find her."

     Sean's white shirt was perfectly clean.  Untouched by dinner, unblemished, uncomplicated.

     "Maybe that's just desperation."

     Sherry laughed.  She thought she was supposed to laugh.

     "Desperate love?"

     "Just desperation."

     "Desperation," Sherry repeated, trying to turn the word into something else.

     "Maybe that's not the right word."

     "You would know."

     So he'd turned her against him.  An ally of Leslie's, encountered in suspicious circumstances.

     Sean was mute.  She was happy to watch.

     He tried to start over.  "Isn't this is a great party?"

     "Great," Alison said.  At least she didn't seem to hate him.  "Bruce always throws great parties." 

     Bruce.  Their host had acquired a name.

     "You've been to other parties here?"

     "This is our third."

     "Together?"

     "We're party girls.  Can't you tell?"

     The way she said party girls let him know that they were anything but.  Maybe.  Or should be believe what she said?  What held the most promise?

     Alison and Sherry shared a smile.  Smiles were strange things to share.  Happy until you looked too long.  Looking longer, they were things of pain. 

     "Now that you mention it, yes."

     "Don't let Larry get the wrong idea."

     "Larry's married."

     "Very married."

     "Desperately married."

     "We're not party girls every night."

     "The Cinderella syndrome."

     "My glass slippers are cracked."

     With age, he almost said.  The danger of flirting was speaking without thinking, getting caught up in the irresistible rhythm.

     "I was lying when I said I was desperate."

     "I thought so."

     "Was I that obvious?"

     "You were ironic."

     "Obviously ironic."

     Whatever was waiting for him at the end of the evening, whatever that bad thing might be, he wasn't doing too badly now.  The trick was learning to forget that was ahead - after the fun part - at the end of the night.  Leslie.  Death.  What came after fucking.  The relationship, so-called. 

     "I've got a house in La Quinta.  It was my husband's."

     Why was Alison telling him this?  Was she sending a signal?  Another alternative to consider.  Could he love a woman who owned a house in La Quinta?  This was a perfect opportunity to make Sean jealous.  An absurd notion.  But it seemed like Alison liked him.  Because she was a cipher?  Because he was a cipher?

     "I'm waiting for the market to turn around.  But until I sell it, there's always Bruce's parties."

     "He does this every week?"

     "Every weekend."

     "Why?"

     "He likes party girls."

     More smiles.  From all the girls.

     "I'd like to meet this Bruce," Sean said.

     "I haven't seen him around tonight."

     "Maybe he's with Leslie."    

     "No, Leslie was with someone else."

     "Jack."

     "Right.  Jack."

     "Bruce might be in Vegas.  That's his other home.  One of his other homes."

     "But he's just waiting for the market to turn around."

     "Very funny."

     Alison did have a thing for him.  He was beginning to be convinced.

     "You mean he throws these parties even when he's not here?" Sean asked.  He'd never seen her so impressed.

     "He likes to keep people in the habit of coming."

     "That's original."

     "Doesn't it get kind of old?"

     "Not if you don't come very often."

     "Can't be a party girl every week."

     "But you can try."

     They laughed again.  All three ladies.

     There was something other than cleverness that was eating at him.  The suspicion that he was wasting words again.  But just because he stopped saying them didn't mean that he would start writing them down.  It wasn't just words, even clever words, dialogue words, like these - it was the right structure for the words, the story that everyone wanted to hear, a journey that other people wanted to take.  The democracy of a typewriter - a computer - a guitar.  Heroic solitude.  Solitude that might prove profitable - art with the sense of commercial promise.  The problem with enjoying the moment was that he kept remembering his life, what he had to go back to tomorrow, what he didn't have to go back to.  That was something to tell them about.  If anyone was asking.

     You let me violate you, you let me penetrate you.

     The violent music was seeping at him.  The music told him he could do anything.  It was a lie he kept trying to believe.  They'd been standing in the hallway a long time.

Alison's eyes were on him.  Sean's eyes were on him.  The conversation was back to him.  "Pardon me?" 

     "I said, you don't seem in much of a hurry anymore."

     "Should I be?"

     "You said you were."

     "I lied."

     "Why?"

     "I was trying to save my marriage."

     Amazed laughter.  It was all so close to pain.  The truth was so flabbergasting.  It suited the harsh dance music. 

     I want to fuck you from the inside, my whole existence is flawed, you get me closer to god.

     If anyone was listening.  If no one was dancing, was it still dance music?  If no one was listening, was it still music?  Were they interested in any of these questions?  It seemed an uncertain way of getting kissed.  There was so much to assume, he assumed.

     "So you've given up on finding Leslie?"

     "I've been distracted."

     "Really."

     "My head's been turned."  He looked at Alison - balanced by a glance to Sean - then Sherry.  Democratic.  No exclusion.  When would the bubble burst?

     "You're a married man."

     "Some women are attracted to married men."

     "Wives."

     "Not always."

     "Dish for us."

     "I might regret it."

     "Larry regrets everything," Sean said.

     "So you know all his secrets?"

     "It isn't that secret."

     "Men are so uncomplicated."

     "Don't mind me.  I'll step aside so you ladies can talk."

     "No, Larry, this is fun."

     "How long have you two known each other?"

     "Since yesterday."

     "We're both house guests."

     "In Jack's house."

     "That sound very interesting."

     "It's one way to spend the weekend."

     He was standing with three women.  Two were romantic possibilities.  It was hopeless.  He would never kiss Alison.  He would only kiss Sean, nothing more.  When he wanted so much more than a kiss.

     "Maybe we should go."

     "I'm having a good time."

     He was exasperated.  There was no place he could go that he wanted to be.  Sean had the car keys.  It was important not to pout.

     "I'm going to get another glass of wine."

     "You do that."

     "Anyone care to join me?"

     No takers.  Why had he lost?  What had he done wrong?  He would be happy with an explanation.

     Until he had an explanation.

     Then he would want something else.

     Walking away, back down the angled hallway, decisively, for their benefit.

     Until he was alone.

     Back to his native state.

     Back at a party.  One footstep after another.  Who was watching him.  Who wasn't.  Who he was watching.  Who he wasn't.

     The crack of a pool ball.  Cigar smoke.  Reinventing the wheel.  Rick and everyone like him.  Larry's eyes locked on his destination - the staircase down - he went past the pool room door without looking at what he didn't want to see.

     Descending, he stared at the heads that would become faces.  Alone.  Self-contained.  There was no easy way to talk to anyone new.  He dreaded seeing anyone familiar, a face that knew his face.

     It was a marvel that his footsteps worked, that he could get down the staircase without gravity doing its worst.

     He had been at this party forever.  He would never leave.  In hell the wine was free.  In hell the wine was cheap.  There was no girl he wanted.  There was no girl he could get.  No one saw him.  He was dead.  Turn me on, dead man.  He was a ghost.  If he turned around, he was sure he would see Sean leaving with Rick.  He patted his pants pocket - he was without his wallet - panic slivered across his chest - neural dread - he was even less than he thought he was - no money - was his wallet stolen or forgotten - it would be a struggle to just get back to Jack's locked door.

     The crowds parted - he squeezed between who he needed to squeeze between - he felt a woman's butt against his own in passing - a nakedness unremarked - an easy path to the wine. 

     Facing the counter - not looking at anyone - hoping no one was looking at him - he drank a quick glass - the wine was warm in his throat, coating his stomach.  It wasn't courage, but it would do.  He drained one glass, poured himself another, and walked out of the kitchen, as if he had someplace to go. 

     There were faces everywhere.  He only wanted to look at the women.  He didn't look at anyone.  Any habit was a bad habit.  He wanted to sit down, but he couldn't sit down.  He had to have a place to go.

     The night.  There was nothing left but the night.

     There was a pool outside.

     There was always a pool outside.

     The French doors were open.  The swimming pool was the centerpiece of an ahistorical Greco-Roman fantasy.  Mussolini's dream of a beach house in Morocco, if the Fascists had won the war.  There were unseasonable green Christmas lights on the faux stone balustrade.  The city was stretched below.  Like a patient etherized upon a table.  More clusters of party people.  Quieter ones here.   Some couples kissing.  Other couples close to kissing.  Or wanting to.  But acting like they didn't want to.

     He walked over to the balustrade, where he could seem contemplative looking out at the night.  It was important that he gave the appearance of wanting to be alone.  He must never go to another party like this.  He must remember how this felt.  Ridiculous.  Ridiculed.

     Gatsby's green light.  The one on the dock.  That was the light he had been trying to remember, earlier.  Their absent host, did he have similar romantic aspirations?  He touched one of the green bulbs.  Warm but not hot.  A glass nipple between his fingers.  The light was burning into his eyes.  He was seeing red spots, after-images.  He was feeling strained.

     Looking out at the desert lights he was bored out of his mind.  It was a sight that he didn't want to see again.  If he had real discipline, if he had been granted a different state of selfhood, then he would do something other than what he was doing, hanging around, hanging on.

     Then he felt two hands on his back, startling him, stereo sensation.

     "Hi."  Not Sean's voice.

     Alison.

     "I was looking all over for you."

     "Yeah?"

     "We don't have much time."

     "For what?"

     "I saw the way you were looking at me."  She stepped closer.  There was no denying it.  There was no denying anything.  If only he was relaxed.  It was such a problem, getting what you wanted.

     They kissed.  It always surprised him, how warm lips could be.  What about Leslie?  What about Sean?  What about witnesses?

     "Do you do this often?"

     "Never.  What about you?"

     "Never."

     "Don't tell."

     "There's a garden down those steps."

     Steps that he had never seen before.  Alison swayed against him.  She wasn't shy.  About anything.  It was the surprise he had always been waiting for.  She was smiling yes in the green twinkle lights.

     More dreams.  Daydreams at night He'd had enough dreams.  He needed one that worked.  He opened his eyes.  The spinning slowed but didn't stop.  He pressed his erection against the balustrade.  The pressure felt okay, better than nothing. 

     Ten feet away, a woman leaned against the balustrade looking down at the valley.  She was close enough to speak to.  Was she waiting for him to speak?  He didn't know what to say.  The small talk had been going so well this weekend.  Where had it gone?  He glanced at her.  Long red hair.  Prettier than Alison.  The longer he waited the worse he felt.

     "Hey, Larry."

     Sean.  Really Sean.

     The redhead turned to meet his eyes.  He was real now that another woman was interested.  It put him on the map.

     "I've been looking for you."

     Hear what the phantom had to say.  Ghost talk.

     "I'm ready to go home."

     "Home?"

     "Back to Jack's.  Are you?"

     Walking through the night, one careless step after another, walking thoughtlessly, outside, following Sean to the BMW, it occurred to him that he hadn't said good-bye to Alison, that he would probably never see her again.  But the party was behind him, another typical aberration.  Sean was quiet.  It was only dead air space if he thought of it as dead.  She was walking ahead of him.  Her hips were swaying.  In what was left of his field of vision, she held the immaterial, irrational, pathetic promise of eternal life.  He kept having the same thought, one thought, a circular disorganized thought.  And if he died, between footsteps, between heartbeats, between blinks, what then?  He was lost.  No, the patient wasn't etherized upon the table.  The Waste Land was what he was after, the desert after dark.  Not the bit about the hollow men, but an emptiness that wasn't empty.  Sean led him down the street, the curbs lined with cars of all colors and nations, a melting pot of cold metal.  He felt dreadful.  He wanted to analyze the dread, to try and understand what he was feeling, but that one disorganized thought, the big thought, kept slipping away.

     "You're very quiet," she said.

     "So are you."

     "That's no answer."

     "What do you want me to say?"

     "What you're feeling.  What are you feeling?"

     "Fucked up," he said.

     "You're not fucked up."

     "You can tell?"

     "You just think you're fucked up."

     "If you think you're fucked up then you are fucked up."

     "But all you have to do is stop thinking."

     He laughed.  He had to laugh.  "Yeah.  That's all you have to do."

     The air was cold.  The car was waiting.  Sean was just the girl to drive him home.  She believed in simple solutions.  At least she said that she believed in simple solutions.

     Dread, thy name is Leslie.  She was easy to blame.  She wasn't there.

     Driving home, Sean didn't play any music.  He found the shoulder harness unbearably irritating.  He thought that he smelled perfume, but he couldn't be sure.  His feet felt cramped inside his shoes; he wiggled his toes.  He dug his fingernails into the leather seat - it felt good to scratch something other than himself.  Outside his window were houses, cars, rocks, mountains, dark sky, palm trees.  Outside was a plotless desert movie.  He was watching a movie that was accidental scenery.  His whole life was street corners, driveways, sidewalks, places without drama, unpeopled spaces.  If he thought of one thing, from anytime in his life, it was this same kind of accidental scenery.  The one big thought, his one big thought, the disorganized thought, was that it was all the same, that the oneness of the particular universe that he had chosen was not pantheistic but claustrophobic, trapping him in both space and time, a movie that was a loop, variations on the same scenery always rolling past, writing different screenplays that were all variations on the same screenplay, poetic phrases that never broke through into poetry, dialogue that was never spoken.  It was almost too dignified to call it the waste land.  His marriage was the same sort of ghost movie, a relationship that was accidental scenery, tension without resolution, holding on without touching, afraid to let go, binary stars in spastic orbit, victims of gravity.  It was inconceivable that things could go on in this indeterminate, inconclusive way, indefinitely.  But they could.  And they had.  The streets went on forever.  This time the tires led back to Jack's house.  He could get out of the car.  He could always get out of the car.  He had to remember that was an option.  Reinvent the wheel.

     The BMW glided to a stop.  This time Jack's black Range Rover was parked in the driveway.

     Sean killed the engine.  The amber dash lights were extinguished.  They sat in the car.  Larry didn't feel like moving.  Leslie would be unhappy - not simply unhappy, but unhappy with him.  Sean didn't move either.  He looked at her.  She looked back.  He decided that she looked ironic, with a half-smile that lived a half-life upon her lips.  If she was waiting for him to kiss her, it wasn't working - he'd had enough of kissing, the promise of things that were not to come.  He'd seen that movie before.  He waited for her to ask what are you waiting for.  But she didn't ask.  Their silence might be construed as conspiracy, complicity, if someone, or something, such as a movie camera or a surveillance video, was watching them.  But this silence was something else.  This silence was nothing.  It was everything that he wanted but couldn't have.  Humans were such strange creatures.  She wasn't beautiful - she was odd - because they were all odd.

     Getting out of the car was a struggle to regain lost footing.

     Sean had a key, which surprised him, until he thought about it.  Why wouldn't she have a key?  The obvious was all around him.  He didn't feel sharp, but that wasn't because of the wine.  What he felt was another kind of dullness. 

     He stood outside in the dark.  The sun was a long way off.  Visiting the desert was all about avoiding the sun. 

     Really, there was no point standing outside.  He didn't enjoy being outside.

     In the foyer.  Where you say goodnight or move on to the next thing, whatever you decide to do if you don't say goodnight.

     "Well."

     "Dessert?"

     "It's too late."

     "Yeah."

     The dessert items, all that sugar purchased but never consumed, felt like part of another night, a long time ago.  He remembered feeling hopeful back then.    

     "I had a nice time.  As those times go."

     "As those times go."  He had gotten in the habit of repeating the last thing that she said, the she being Sean, or in other circumstances, Leslie.  Repeating the words but shifting the tone to something else, something that he could lay claim to, a tone of distance, ironic distance.

     "Well."

     So they were back to that.

     "I should go check on Harry."

     "I should go check on Leslie."  It sounded wrong the second he said it - Leslie didn't need any checking on.  He was hanging on.  Nothing was happening.  He was inured to nothing happening, but with Sean, standing here, there was tension to the stasis, dynamic tension.  With another person, of the opposite sex, there was always the possibility that something might happen.  Like a movie might happen, all the right people might say yes and he might finally be on his way.  Was this a conclusion of a date?  When was the moment to kiss her?  Was there that moment?  All the eras of his life were jumbled in this instant where he had to decide what to do now. 

     "See you in the morning."

     "See you tomorrow."

     "Yeah."    

     It was too late to do anything.  It was always too late.  It had been too late for a very long time.  Too long.

     Leslie had to be faced.  Please let her be asleep.  Dessert wouldn't help.  Nothing would help.  Sean would have helped.  But she hadn't helped.  His legs were starting to ache from standing still.  There was an ivory Buddha on the lacquered teak table.  Above the table was a mirror, but from where he was standing he couldn't see his reflection.  He always seemed to be standing in the wrong place.

     The torchiers in the living room were dimmed to a yellow glow.  Enough light to be inviting.  With Sean gone there was the stillness of nothing happening.  Three empty white couches.  How late was it?  He remembered a deco clock on the white brick mantle.  It was too dark to read the numbers from where he stood.  He had never felt more alone.  The blue pool lights flickered over a dark shape.  A human form, exaggerated, two shapes together as one shape.  Before he knew what he was seeing he knew what he was seeing: the crescent of Leslie's face, eclipsed by Jack's head, a statuesque kiss, and not in a secluded corner. 

     The assault of the image left him breathless.  His heart beat chaotically, blood loud in his ears. 

     Leslie and Jack were kissing. 

     He was watching them kiss. 

     It was what he expected.  But he was outraged.  Primitive things were beating at him.  He felt perversely grateful for the drama.  It filled him with something other than emptiness.  If someone else desired his wife, if a desirable man desired his wife, then at least she was desirable, at least he hadn't made a mistake about that.  But what good was feeling bad?

     Here was an opportunity to act outraged.  But he was afraid.  Of the consequences of confrontation.  He was afraid to be where he was standing.  He didn't want them to see him until he had decided that to do with this new, secret knowledge.  It was more potential conflict than he could handle at the moment.  He didn't like being left out.  Jack had everything else, why not his wife?  Problem was, Larry felt so ambivalent about Leslie.  Maybe the moment of freedom was near, maybe without her he could finally become something else, a successful version of himself.  Maybe without her he could be what she wanted him to be, prove that she had been the impediment all along. 

     This would require some thought.  What were the consequences of the moment of discovery?

     He stepped back from the window. 

     What what what?

     And factor in Sean - hadn't he wanted her, kissed her?  He was willing to compromise himself with her - if she had let him.  But she hadn't.  He didn't want to compromise himself with her, he wanted to fuck her - weren't those two different things?  He wanted sex - wasn't desire always compromised, either the act or the emotional architecture surrounding it? 

     Suddenly, he had an alternate way of telling the story of tonight - a conspiracy - a pitiable low-concept Oliver Stone film: that Sean had conspired with Jack - been paid - somehow - to keep him occupied, separated from Leslie.  Larry had done his part.  His desires were both predictable and thwarted.  But: could he do something unexpected?

     The endless kiss ended.

     The kiss became a hug.

     That would become something else.

     Something was always becoming something else.

     Leslie rested her head against Jack's shoulder. 

     And looked at Larry.

     He felt caught.  That he was trespassing.  She was challenging him with her stare.  Did he dare?  The point was what she was doing.  Wasn't that the point?

     Then he had the eerie sensation that he wasn't there, that she wasn't seeing him, that she was just taking a breather between kisses.  If he wanted to be seen, then he would have to step forward.  Maybe she didn't see him.  Even if she didn't, he felt her contempt, in what she was doing, without him.

     Leslie lifted her head, ready for another kiss, and her face slipped behind Jack's, like a moon behind clouds.

     Larry stepped backwards, bumped into the coffee table.  The carpet surged to his face, tickled his nose.  He was standing and then he was on the floor and there was no discernible moment between.  His brain was receiving no signals of pain from the outposts of fingers and toes.  Everything seemed in order except that he was standing in the wrong place, namely, he wasn't standing.  As he stood back up, there was a stripe of pain across his left shin where he had collided with the thick glass table.  He was feeling a thousand things and he was feeling nothing.  He felt trapped and released.  There was nothing he wanted to watch.  But what he imagined was worse.  There was nothing he wanted to imagine.  Any surprise was a bad surprise.  He wanted to find a place to live, other than his head, a new place besides, outside, of his head.  How drunk could he get?  On the goddamned Springbrook.  Would that be drunk enough?  It didn't matter where he went now, what he did.  If he went outside, that wasn't big enough.

     Without thinking, he was walking, retreating, the walls surging past him in vacant browns.  Without sound, in a world of reduced sensation.

     Back to the bedroom.

     Larry breathed and stared, breathed and stared, sat on the edge of the beige bedspread, stood back up.  The room was too small, the world was too small, right now there was nothing new that he wanted to do.  He saw his green shoulder bag on the floor next to Leslie's black overnight bag.  He was too angry to do anything.  He was too angry to sit still.  They and their luggage would go their separate ways.  On the dresser sat his computer, dormant.  Maybe he would write down what he was feeling bad about.  If he could only move.

     "Where have you been?" she said.  Even before hello.  Instead of hello.

     "Where have you been?"

     "I went to the party."

     "Ditto."

     "I guess we missed each other," she said.

     "Did you miss me?"

     "Don't do this."

     "What?"

     "You know."

     "No, I don't.  I really don't."

     "I'm too tired to play games."  She took off her earrings, bronze with a maze pattern, the ones he had given her for her birthday, after she'd asked for them by Neiman's catalog number.

     "Funny, you don't seem tired."

     "I'm tired.  Okay?"

     She opened one of the dresser drawers, closed it in annoyance, tried another drawer.  "I don't appreciate you unpacking my things."

     "I don't appreciate having to look at all your crap."

     She pulled her nightgown out of the drawer.

     "So where did you go with Sean?"

     "I told you, we went to the party."

     "I mean where did you go after the restaurant?"

     "We went to the store and got stuff for dessert."

     Leslie looked like she didn't believe him.

     "Go in the kitchen, see for yourself."

     "I believe you," she said disbelievingly.

     He admired the way she so skillfully shifted blame to him.  "What about you?  What's your excuse?"

     "My excuse for what?"

     "You know what."

     She took a step toward the bathroom, stopped, started unbuttoning her blouse.  Her urge for privacy was replaced by a need to show her indifference.

     "I told you I'm too tired to play games."

     "I didn't see you when I got home."

     "I was here."

     Now it was getting delicate.  This was the challenge.

     "You could have looked for me."

     Had she been watching him?  He could say that he saw her with Jack, but he wanted her to confess, or, barring confession, to add a new lie to her recent deceit.  He wanted her cooperation in lowering his opinion of her.

     "I looked for you at the party."

     "So you say."

     She unbuttoned her blouse.  She wasn't wearing a bra.  Hadn't she worn a bra in the restaurant?  He was no longer sure.  He hadn't paid enough attention to her breasts this evening to be sure.  Her nakedness, however temporary, was tempting.  He tried not to think about it.

     "Where were you?"

     "Out by the pool."  She pulled on her nightgown.  It was a demure white, lacy but not frilly.  It was the most old-fashioned thing that she owned.  It made her look like a reluctant virgin.  He didn't want to desire her anymore - desire was too confusing.

     Had she seen him?  Had she had she had she?   "Yeah?"

     "I was talking to Jack."

     Her answer was a victory only if he took the trouble to define victory in some favorable manner.  But isn't that what victors did?  He had an opportunity now to be king of this borrowed bedroom.

     "I like talking to Jack.  He knows how to listen."

     "That's what he's famous for."

     "Don't you ever get tired of being sarcastic?"

     "I get tired of everything.  I am tired of everything."

     "Let's not do this tonight."

     She unbuttoned and unzipped her slacks.  As she pulled down her pants, her nightgown dropped like a curtain to keep him from seeing what she didn't want him to see.

     "Do what?"

     "Don't play innocent.  You know what you're doing."

     "So you had a nice night?"

     "Very nice.  Until now."

     She got under the covers.  From where he sat on the bed, he could no longer see her, but he felt the pull of the bedspread underneath him.  Her bedside lamp clicked on.

     "Let's start again."

     "Some other time.  I'm tired."

     "We could talk.  We could go out by the pool and talk."

     "I've already done that."

     "You could do it again.  You could do it with me."

     She picked up her thick murder mystery from the nightstand.  She opened the book; she preferred looking at the book to looking at him.  "We can talk right here."

     "It's not the same thing."

     "But you don't really want to talk.  You just want to torment me."

     "I studied with the master."

     She looked up from her book.  "Do you have something you want to say?"

     "Lots."

     She waited.

     His strategy of concealment was unraveling.  Why wait?  He had seen her kissing Jack.  She had lied about kissing Jack.  He was impatient to do something with the pain.  He scooted back on the bedspread, leaned against the headboard, side by side with Leslie.  She was under the covers; he wasn't.  He was married to her, but it didn't feel accurate to call her his wife.

     "I saw you."

     She waited.

     "I said I saw you."

     "You saw me where?"

     "I saw you by the pool."

     "Fuck you.  I'm tired of playing games."

     "You lied.  I saw you with Jack."

     She put her book down.  "We kissed.  Big deal.  We were drunk and we kissed.  We didn't fuck."

     "Kissing is a prelude to fucking."

     "You've done your share of kissing this weekend."

     He was caught.  Or was she guessing?  "What's that supposed to mean?"

     "Sean told Jack."

     Leslie could be lying.  Again.  What was the point?  Conspiracy theory.  Was he the victim of court intrigue?  Did Jack want Leslie that badly?  Or was it simply that Jack always had to win?

     "What?"

     "It's so annoying, the way that you always ask what."

     "Sean told Jack what?"

     "That you were kissing her.  Would you like to sleep in another bedroom?  With someone else?"

     "That's an absurd question."  Sean was sleeping with Harry - wasn't she?  And even if she wasn't sleeping with Harry, that didn't mean she'd sleep with him.  "Are you looking for permission?  To sleep with Jack?"

     "I don't need permission for anything.  You're getting me angry."

     Absurdly, insanely, she'd won again. 

     It was typical. 

     It was hopeless.

     She'd smoothly moved to the next level of manipulation.  He was aware of that much.  How had she done it?  At what point had it started going wrong?  If his life depended on it, he couldn't reconstruct this conversation.

     "What I'd like to do is read my book.  Before I go to sleep."  She picked it up again.  He turned away from her and stared at the brown wall.  There was an abstract painting that he hadn't noticed before.  Because it wasn't worth noticing - bands of bland color.  If he was brain dead, he might find it soothing.  He heard Leslie turn a page.  He was feeling dead.  Maybe she had an easier time of it, maybe feeling dead came naturally to her.  Were they supposed to put on appearances, when everyone knew everything, when he seemed to be the sole victim of secrets?  There was no chance of going to sleep.  His muscles were taut with the drama of their silence.  She was only on the soundtrack of the blank movie screen that was the bedroom wall.  Motionless, waiting to hear her turn the next page, he was a thousand miles from sleep.

     He woke, a bad taste in his mouth - stale garlic - paella breath.  Still wearing his silk shirt and slacks, he felt sleep-twisted and confined.  He pulled his shirt out of his pants.  Every motion cost something.  In this dark hour, with no table clock to define where he was in the night, his body was an unfriendly host.  He reached across the bed to verify Leslie's absence by touch.  He slipped a hand under the sheets - they were cold - no trace of her body heat. 

     He stumbled until he found the light switch and squinted at the bathroom light's painful flare on mirrors, tiles, polished metal.  His hands fumbled with the familiar task of toothpaste, toothbrush, faucet.  As he brushed - it had to be done - he looked at himself in the mirror. 

     Small, smaller, shrinking, shrunk. 

     His eyes were asking a question he couldn't answer. 

     He rinsed the toothpaste out his mouth.  The cold tap water hurt his teeth.  Everything hurt. 

     It was bright again.

     Daylight.

     He blinked.

     A bird twittered absurdly in the happier outdoors.

     She was back.  Her back was to him.  She was sleeping.  Deeply.  It seemed.  She might not be sleeping at all.

     From his pillow the world felt tilted.

     He wanted to scream.

     He knew that he would not scream.  He knew that much about himself.

     Jack, Harry, and Sean sat on the patio at a frosted glass table with oxidized green metal legs.  There were boxes of cereal, a carafe of coffee, lox, bagels, cream cheese, a glass pitcher of orange juice, bananas, apples, oranges, southwestern-themed Dansk on turquoise place mats, with matching napkins.  The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times were spread across the table.

     "Good morning, Larry."

     "Morning Larry."

     Hellos from both the guys.  Sean smiled, but didn't speak.  She was wearing the white shirt again, the only thing she ever wore.  Wasn't she speaking to him this morning?

     "Everyone's up early."

     "Not everyone," Jack said. 

     Meaning Leslie.  Larry wanted to hit him in the face.  But he'd never hit anyone in the face.  In his experience it wasn't something someone did at breakfast.  He would get through the day somehow and then his life would be something else.  It was finally time for his life to be something else.  He'd made that promise before.  Maybe this time he meant it.  He poured himself some coffee. 

     "The coffee's not decaf."

     "Thanks for the warning."

     Lox and bagels to begin with.  He was surprised that he had an appetite.
     "How did you sleep?" Sean asked.

     So she was speaking to him.  "I had a nightmare."

     "I love nightmares.  Tell me."

     "I dreamed I was sleeping in a house in the desert.  I woke up and I was all alone.  And then the nightmare ended."  Sean was waiting for more.  Harry was reading the business section.  Jack was smiling - complexly - deceptively, it seemed.

     "I don't get it," Sean said.

     "Don't get what?" Leslie asked, as she stepped onto the patio.

     "Larry had a nightmare."  Jack smiled hello.

     "Larry's always having nightmares."  Leslie smiled back. 

     They were all smiles for each other.  It was pathetic if you knew what was going on.  Maybe everyone did know what was going on.  Leslie was wearing a sheer white blouse and jeans, a dressier version of Sean.  The blouse draped down in twin tents from her nipples.  It bothered him that she looked so good.  He felt like the odd man out.  Breakfast in hell. 

     "I hate being the last one up."

     "Hey, it's a vacation.  All things are permitted."

     Leslie sat down in the last vacant chair, beside Larry.  They didn't look at each other.  He wondered what would be in her eyes when he did.  He was afraid to feel things.  He knew that he was afraid to feel certain things.

     "So."

     "Here we all are."

     "What a day."

     "Perfect weather."

     "Perfect."

     The day was a big thing.  Seen from this early hour, it might last forever.

     Leslie had a plain bagel.  Sean slathered cream cheese on to hers.  Youthful metabolism was on her side - it was a competition.  Every bite Leslie took irritated Larry - polite, mincing, crumbless.  It was obscene, the way that she sustained herself.

     Jack was feudal, germ-free, self-assured.  "Did you sleep well?" he asked.

     "Too well," Leslie answered.  "I don't like sleeping this late."

     "If you eat fast, you can catch up."

     "Catch up to what?"

     "Everyone who got up early."

     "It's not a race."

     "No, that's where you're wrong.  Everything is a race, ya know?"

     "But you're the one who said it's a vacation."

     "A vacation's a race against time.  Hurry up and have fun, ya know?"  Jack laughed.  He was teasing Leslie.

     Larry felt angry and foggy.  The coffee wasn't doing any good.  It was too bright.  He should have brought his sunglasses to breakfast.  He felt stoned - not the giddy good part, but the long draggy afterwards - he hadn't smoked yesterday - but the day before - Friday night - a long time ago - he had felt more married back then.  He kept drinking coffee - the fogginess was changing into edgy caffeine anger.  He wasn't speaking, but no one seemed to notice.

     Harry put down the Los Angeles Times business section, looking pleased by something he'd read.  Maybe he'd made more money in his sleep.  "I feel like taking a nap."  Harry yawned and picked up the New York Times business section.

     "Already?"  Sean hooked her arm through Harry's.  Her cuddliness panged at Larry.

     "I slept too much yesterday.  It makes me tired the next day, whenever I do that."

     "Drink some more coffee."

     "Coffee doesn't affect me." 

     Larry didn't want to hear any more about his breakfast-mates.  Yes, he supposed, facts could help him as a writer, he could store them away and use them somewhere, somehow, in some future work.  But he was tired of storing facts, moments, details - the archive felt useless - and he was burdened with the anxiety of always working, being attuned to what was around him so that he could possibly transmute that observed experience into something else.  Everything wasn't about writing.  In fact, very little was.  The point was: what was the point?

     The clear sunlight reflected in diamond echoes off the pool.  Certain flickers were pleasing, others not.  As soon as Larry saw a reflection he liked, it was gone.  The water was not inviting.

     "Are we still going for a desert drive?" Leslie asked.

     "Sure, if you like."

     "I like," Leslie said.

     "I love the desert," Sean said.

     "I feel so lazy," Harry said.

     "You don't have to drive."

     "Lazy?"  Sean cuddled closer, leaning over her chair, into Harry's.

     "Isn't this the desert?" Larry asked.

     "Yes, but it's not the wilderness.  Where we're going there's nothing."

     "Where?"

     "Past Mecca.  About an hour away."

     "Mecca?"

     "Mecca.  Mecca, California." 

     "Far out."
     "We have to drive an hour to get to nothing?" Harry asked.

     "You don't have to come."

     Surveying the breakfast tableaux from the head of the table, Jack had a proprietary smile.

     Larry prepared another bagel, generous with the cream cheese and lox.  Leslie looked unhappy with his indulgence.  He smiled at her.  He almost looked like a loving husband.  "You're not too tired to go out to the desert - I mean, the wilderness?" he asked her.

     "No."  He was pleased by how annoyed she was.  "Why would I be tired?"

     "It was a busy night.  Very busy."

     "It wasn't that busy."  She glared at him.  Could only he see that she was glaring?  Was such observation a matter of training? 

     "Oh, but it was."

     Leslie leaned close to Larry, mimicking intimacy.  "What's your problem?" she hissed.

     He looked in her eyes.  He felt cold and hot.  He lost track of what the temperature was.  He felt numb but it hurt.  "Do you really want to know?"

     She thought about it.  "No." 

     She got up from the table.  "I'm going to go get ready."

     "What's the rush?"

     "No rush, I just want to get ready."

     Jack watched Leslie go. 

     Larry watched Jack watch Leslie go. 

     She looked good.  That was the sick part.  No.  The sick part was how civilized this fucking breakfast was.  When in the march of human evolution or his particular socialization had he been weaned of violent response because Jack really did deserve to die.

     Jack started reading the New York Times Magazine.  Sean sipped orange juice and watched Larry.  She smiled, knowingly, but what did she know?  He felt an erection - surprising, unbidden.  It was all so fucking hopeless.  He picked up the New York Times Entertainment Section.  Skipping the lead article on the new staging of Woyzzeck, he opened the section and was assaulted by a half-page ad for a new film of Dostoevsky's "The Idiot," produced by the Smalls, the idiotic animal-rights producers.  Should he read more ads, gather more information on those doing better than he was?  He didn't have his name in an ad in the Sunday Times - he had lox and bagel at an asshole's house in the desert.  Was there such a thing as The Last Breakfast?  Would Judas pass the Rice Krispies?

     "I think we should go, before it gets too late.  Before it gets too hot."

     "It already is too late.  Let's not go."

     "No.  It's time to go."

     Where had he heard that before, Larry wondered.

     "You're just being lazy.  Come on."

     "Okay, okay."

     Jack stood up and surveyed his ranch-style realm.  "It's time to go." 

     Hurry up, please.  It's time to go.  Of course.  The Waste Land.

     "Hurry up, please.  It's time to go," Larry repeated.  Jack looked puzzled. "It's from a poem."

     "What poem?"

     "It's public domain, so I'd rather not say."  Jack looked worried that he was missing out on something - not poetry, but a commercial prospect.  The effect was pleasing.

     Breakfast was over. 

     He had survived another meal.

     Larry stepped into the sunlight, the shuffling first step of the journey, the black driveway hot beneath his Nikes.  The black Range Rover looked ungainly and sinister to him.

     The seating arrangements in the car were supposedly casual, but they followed a social Darwinism that had to be on someone's mind. 

     Jack got in the driver's seat.  It was his car, there was no question of that.

     Shotgun had been trickier.  Leslie wanted to be in the front seat, it would pair her with Jack, but somehow that was too obvious.  The queen was reluctant to claim her black leather throne in this blatant daylight.  Harry, the best friend, with the equality of wealth, was the logical candidate to occupy the shotgun seat.

     But Larry grabbed the opportunity, the kind of grabbing that he should have been doing for a very long time.  Not that he had any desire to sit next to Jack, much less talk to him.  But he wanted to be away from Leslie, and he didn't want her sitting next to Jack.  He imagined Leslie's peeved eyes boring at him, but let her bore, the more boring the better.  If he could be nothing else, he could be as much trouble as possible.

     Sitting in the car sitting in the driveway, he had aspirations to be an insect, to accept a limited life span.  The sun was the great leveler - clear and endless - they were all under it.  His seat secure, the black leather hot against the skin not protected by his khaki shorts - let the back seat sort itself out - Leslie behind Jack, Sean in the middle, Harry behind Larry.  He didn't want to be in the car, but by the virtue of whatever momentum, he was in the car, somehow that was what he had decided to do.  Still, he could keep from getting sucked under.  If the people were fucked up, there was still the world outside the window.

     Driving again.  A new destination.

     "I do some of my best thinking out here, ya know?  I'm taking you to my secret spot."  Jack adjusted his rearview mirror to look at Harry.  "Can't you wait?"

     "Of course I can wait, but as long as I'm sitting here I might as well roll a couple."

     "Don't get any seeds in the carpet.  I could get busted for seeds."

     "Relax, Captain Jack, this is sinsemilla.  Believe it or not," Harry said to the car in general, "but there was time, a long time ago, when Jack was actually cool."

     "I am cool, ya know?"

     "If you're really cool you don't worry about being cool."

     "I'm not worried about it."

     "Just checking."

     "What are friends for."

     The car window was cold to the touch, with the surface chill of AC.  Holding his finger to the tinted glass, Larry felt warmth from the air outside.  Larry looked out the window at the road movie that he was in. 

     A sign glided past - Entering Thermal - old stucco buildings with a funky texture that he found appealing in passing, scruffy brown children, dented trailers - the town was gone - replaced by orderly rows of date palms, strobing as he looked at them - unreal, all of it, on the other side of the glass, a movie that was this second of his life, and Leslie, the living flashback, somewhere behind his head, out of sight, unreal. 

     He stared out the side window at the world.

     There was a sign for Mecca with a left-pointing arrow.

     Larry nearly missed it.  The town was out the other window - a convenience store, a patch of grass, a dozen or so cinder block homes, fields of grapes, then walls of orange trees, hiding the horizon. 

     "Who would ever live out here?"

     "People who work out here."

     "Man."

     All of it under the sun, going by fast.

     The car shot up an overpass and a concrete aqueduct passed below them, a long channel of water seen in a blink.  When the Range Rover bumped down on the other side, everything was brown - tan - chocolate - yellow - earth tones - dry.  The mineral kingdom.

     "Wow."

     They sped past a couple of rusting station wagons and trailers that didn't look like they would ever move again.  A man sat sleeping under a tattered blue plastic awning.

     "Squatters," Jack explained.  He turned onto a side road and accelerated.  Through his window Larry saw austere, unearthly foothills.

     "How did you find this place?" Leslie asked.

     "Scouting for a science fiction movie."

     "Which movie?"

     "It never got made.  The writer wanted to direct and it wasn't going to work."

     "That's too bad."

     "Nah.  I got my fee and I found out about some great places.  Everyone buckled up?"

     "Cool it, Jack."

     This was supposed to be the good part. 

     Wasn't it? 

     But there was no poetry left.  It didn't matter what he saw. 

     Jack veered off the road, bumping brutally, following a dry creek bed.

     "Whoa!"

     "Jack."

     "I went to driving school."

     "Go again."

     "This is child's play.  I'm taking it easy today."

     "Jack."

     Larry grabbed the overhead strap and glanced back at the back seat. 

     "Jack!"

     "Don't be a ninny, Harry."

     "Don't be a jackass.  Slow down."

     Sean was smiling, digging it.  Leslie was tightlipped.  There were stunted scrubs, no cactus, nothing that Larry recognized, other than dirt and sky.  There was a purity, even though he was in Jack's movie.  Details.  In his mirror he saw the cloud of dust behind them.  Ahead, a frightened jack rabbit fled.

     "This is what it's all about."

     "What's that?"

     "Survival.  Primacy of the species."

     Range Rover philosophy.

     "You're driving like a jerk."

     "If you go too slow you get stuck in the sand.  Do a number.  Relax."

     Harry muttered.

     The car slowed as it followed the curves of the creek bed.

     "Beautiful," Leslie said.  It paid for her to love wherever Jack took her.

     Larry heard the click of a lighter and soon he smelled toxic sweetness, intoxicating fumes.  Harry's hand came into view, holding a smoking joint.  He was tempted - that was one way to go - but today was already too strange - the thought of looking at his estranged wife through a drug haze qualified as a bad trip - for the moment he wanted to keep whatever wits he had left intact.  "No, thanks."  The hand withdrew.  His mood was gliding over the bumps - his mood was the bumps, softened by the car's expensive suspension.

     "What if we get lost?" Sean asked.

     "We won't get lost."

     "I wouldn't mind getting lost, for a little while."

     There were streaks in the hills up ahead - red - maroon - purple - his mood was soaring - he felt fragments of dozens of things - each thought was a universe that appeared, disappeared, radiated and was forgotten - he was on a spaceship, he was in a car, he was in the future, he was in a western, if didn't matter where he went, he was nowhere, he was nothing, he was forgotten, he was god, he could kill everyone, he could get killed.  The broken rhythm of tires over rocks suited the fragments of what he was, second by second.  Was Leslie getting stoned?  What was her mood - why did he even still care about her mood?

     The car came to a stop.  The dust cloud caught up with the car.  The stillness felt strange.

     "See, all in one piece."

     "I never doubted."

     "I'll let that pass."

     Larry got out of the car.  The warm air felt good.  It was so quiet.  The softest wind.  No birds.  He stepped away from the black car.  He heard the pings of the cooling metal, the trailing voices of his temporary companions.  He was free to walk away, to break the invisible tethers.  He turned around, to see what was tethering him.

     Harry was looking his way, stretching, smoking.

     Sean climbed out after him, took the joint from his fingers, took her own deep pull, handed back the joint, and holding in the smoke, walked over the rise.  Untethered.

     Leslie was chatting with Jack, in a low voice that didn't carry.  Were they saying words that meant something big, words that he should hear?  He had to let go of what was gone, think ahead to what was next.  Sean was gone.

     He climbed up the rise.  At the crest, a bowl-like canyon stretched out before him.  The ground was gray, gnarled, crumbly.  Foothills rose behind, like sedentary waves, a rainbow of receding earth colors.  It looked like either the beginning or the end of the world.  It seemed vast.  Until he saw Sean.  She wasn't that far away.  It occurred to him that there was no sense of scale. 

     Standing here, he could go wherever he wanted.  Into the desert.  Really into the desert.  The wind was all he could hear.  It was so quiet he could hear himself.  Loudly, like a throbbing radio that would not stop.

     Turning around, he saw Harry climb a neighboring hill, close, but not next to him.  He thought about going over to Harry to ask for a hit, but he didn't want to make that big a point of it - he was afraid to ask - shy about seeking out some smoke.

     He walked away from Harry, away from everything, along the lip of hills that defined one side of the canyon.  Now it was hot.  The air conditioning had worn off.  He was sweating.  He wondered how he was different from the earth - he was in motion - this was his moment to move, his moment of release from being dirt.  That felt profound - nostalgic - trite.  He had to think something worthwhile.  He needed something to hang on to. 

     What? 

     The Vegas Story. 

     Yes, he could work, even here, be inspired - Vegas was the desert - this was the desert - the elements transposed - this was the proper place to solve what needed to be solved. 

     A hotel room. 

     A woman. 

     A naked woman. 

     A situation of jeopardy. 

     With the right idea he could defeat Jack, all the Jacks of the world.  The pen is mightier than.  Whatever.  He didn't even need a pen.  He could work out the idea, match it to the rhythm of his trudging feet, feet over sand, sweating uphill, in the wilderness, he was living the metaphor, it was in his head ready to be pulled into a story.  He remembered how good writing could feel - for a few scattered moments - until he re-read what he had done - and then it was either bad and he felt betrayed by his own stupidity, by the hard evidence of his lack of genius - or it was good and then he feared that he could not sustain whatever was good about what he had done, it was an accident, a product of a fickle muse - and the more he thought the more tangled he became in trying to imitate what was good, losing the unconscious, unforced rhythms of good writing.  He was trapped in the Vegas Story. 

The story wouldn't go anywhere.  Why why why?

     Start with a hotel room.

     Stop with a hotel room.

     Don't expect anything to happen.

     It was drifting away.  Nothing was happening in the hotel room that he was imagining.  Here he was, in the sun - without sun block - he had forgotten - a few burning hours, would that kill him?  There was no story - he was alone - he felt angry - about what wasn't there - about Leslie. 

     He saw sand, dirt, earth. 

     He felt very tired. 

     Everything was a long way off. 

     He stopped climbing and stood on the incline - where had Sean gone? 

     There was no one.  Just the earth, the heat, hotter than his blood. 

     It was very empty. 

     Everything was clear.  Nothing was hidden.  The sky was too blue.  When had it gotten so clear, somewhere between the car and here, but where? 

     He sat down.  The earth crumbled beneath him, the dirt underneath lighter than the dark crust on top.  Sand trickled into his shorts.  As long as he didn't move, it didn't bother him. 

     He heard a jet.  He looked up, but didn't see anything except empty blue sky, no clouds.  He didn't want to think about Leslie - Jack and Leslie - he forbid himself to think about them - but - he imagined them fucking, he couldn't stop from imagining them fucking. 

     The Vegas Story.  All those dead stories - supposed to be movies, but never movies.  The story wasn't in a hotel room in his mind, the story was in a bedroom or two back in Palm Desert.  A horror story.  The details were beyond him.  He was impatient.  It was getting worse.  Looking closer, the ground nearby was alive with ants.  Something larger than a bee buzzed erratically nearby.  An orange and black insect with more than one stinger - two insects mating?  Would the bug's erratic path lead to him, to a sting?  He felt under siege.  The wind had died.  Breathing was hard work.  He was so empty he couldn't even scream.  That was too much work. 

     He stood up, shook the sand out of his shorts.  A big black ant scrambled up his leg.  Panicked, he flicked it off, feeling violated.  He went back down the hill in sloppy skidding steps, leaving tracks in the soft dirt, filling his shoes with sand, skiing down the hill, enjoying the drop down to the gray bottom of the canyon.  It was probably time to think about what to do next.  He found a rock to sit down on, untied his shoes and poured out a surprising amount of sand.

     "Hey, Larry."  Jack's voice, from above.  "Larry, up here."

     He looked up and saw the producer above him, waving for him to come up.

     "I want to show you something."

     He wasn't rescued, but he was no longer alone.

     He had another chance to play the game.

     It was simply a matter of climbing back up the hill.      After he put his shoes back on.

     And what would happen back at the top?  He was breathing hard - breathless in the hot dead air.  He imagined, without looking up, that Jack was watching him, that he was on display, that he shouldn't look tired.  Glancing up to check his upward progress he saw that Jack had stepped out of sight.  He slowed, he panted, he trudged, he sweated, he was thirsty, what were the odds of expiring, what would he do at the top? 

     Jack was waiting on top, binoculars around his neck, wearing a fanny pack with dual high-impact water bottles, an REI version of two six-guns.  Well-equipped, he looked both superior and absurd.

     Jack surveyed the moonscape with a possessive smile.  "This is what it's all about, ya know?"

     "What?"

     "Nature."

     Nature?  What about emptiness, a hostile environment, death?  Larry was thirsty.  He had never been thirstier. 

Jack turned a circle, looking down at the world.  He volunteered no water.  Was he just waiting for Larry to ask?  Did his survival depend upon asking?

     "This is drama."  Jack waved expansively.  "All you need is a story.  The right story." 

     On the other side of the hill was a sheer drop.  They were standing on the edge of a cliff.

     Larry felt that he had lost it, whatever it was that he had ever had.

     Each word deserved consideration.  There were so few words, when you came down to it.

     I'm trying to get started, he thought.  I'm still trying to get started.

     Jack's skin looked too good to be true.

     The landscape was poetic.  Why bother to say something, anything about a poetic landscape?

     Jack unvelcroed a water bottle and took a sip.  "It's very important to stay hydrated out here."  Larry waited for him to offer him some water.  But he didn't.

     There was a lot left to describe.  There was a world to describe.  He didn't have the energy to describe anything anymore.  The world was fine by itself, it didn't need him to re-describe what was already there.

     None of the small things had ever added up to something big.

     "Could I please have some water?"

     "Of course."

     Larry reached for the water bottle in Jack's hand, but Jack withdrew it, and unsnapped the water bottle still mounted on his waist.  "One for me, one for my guests."  Jack handed Larry the second bottle.  The transfer was made without their fingers touching.  So Jack's phobia about shaking hands survived in the wilderness.  Personality structure resisted the heat.

     The water was tepid.  But water had never tasted so good.  He could now enjoy where he was standing, the couple of level feet at the top of their little brown mountain.  Well.  He was on the mountain top with Jack, for a moment or two.

     "You've got a thing about germs, don't you?"

     Jack was surprised by the question.  It was an aspect of common knowledge that was not commented upon, out of courtesy.  Given the circumstance, two men in the wilderness, Jack smiled back with forgiveness.  "Germs have a thing about me."

     "About you?"

     "About everyone, actually.  We live in a dangerous era."

     "So you avoid contact?"

     "I haven't had a cold or a flu in six years."

     "What about sex?  That's contact isn't it?"

     "Not really.  Not with condoms."

     "What about kissing?"

     "That's not sex."

     "But what about kissing?  You do kiss women don't you?  Maybe you don't think it's sex, but you do do it, don't you?"

     "Larry, your instincts for conversation are lacking."

     A weird, gut punch that.  Standing still, the sun burned hotter.  The cocktail party syndrome.  Standing and talking.  There was a tropical smell - coconut - Jack was undoubtedly properly slathered with sun block - he had all the tools of survival.  The ridge was short and crumbly.  The options were either climbing back down the alluvial slope - or falling down the steep side.

     "A lot of guys would kill for the opportunity to get me alone.  No phones, no next meeting, a captive audience.  I don't get you."

     Larry was getting angry.  He didn't want to tremble with anger, but that was a possibility.  "You don't get what?"

     "Why haven't you pitched me a story idea?  You're a writer.  I know for a fact that you pitch stories all the time."

     "How do you know that?"

     "Leslie told me."

     How much had she told Jack?  Everything?

     "Why are you holding back?  Haven't you got a story to tell me?"

     He suspected that Jack was looking for the final humiliation.  One step beyond the circumstantial evidence, the circumstantial humiliation that Jack had slept with his wife last night.  If Larry presented an idea, an idea that he believed in, and Jack rejected it, then he had asserted a more complete mastery.  Larry drank some more water.  He was thinking.  Nothing was simple with Jack. 

     "Come on.  You never know.  Give the wheel a spin."

     The world tilted.  Between blinks.  He was standing in the same place, but he was standing someplace else.

     "Okay.  But this is a dangerous idea.  Think you can handle a dangerous idea?"

     "I can handle anything."  Jack parked his water bottle back in his fanny pack.  As long as he avoided germs, he thought he would live forever.

     Absurdly, it was a Hollywood pitch meeting, complete with designer water.  Maybe.  Larry took another sip.  "Is this Evian?"

     Jack was pleased.  "You can taste the difference, can't you?  Okay, Lar, I'm impressed, lay it on me."

     "Okay.  One morning our hero wakes up.  Things are pretty much the same.  But they're not."

     "What's the guys name?"

     "That's not important."

     "Bad salesmanship.  Always give the hero a name.  It makes the story easier to visualize."

     "Okay.  The hero's name is Larry."

     "Very funny," Jack said flatly.

     "Larry wakes up one morning, and something's different, the whole world is different.  It's no longer the world, it's the afterlife.  He's living in hell, everyone is living in hell, but only he knows it, so he walks around trying to convince everyone else - that they are all in hell."

     "It's high concept, but I don't like it."

     "I'm not surprised."

     "Then why did you tell it to me?"

     "I don't know.  Why did I tell it to you?"

     "I mean, Lar, you couldn't come up with some better story to tell me?  You probably don't even know why I don't like your story."

     "Why don't you tell me."

     "Because even if it is hell, who wants to know?  You got an okay concept, but you got shit for a plot.  There's no rooting interest.  By your age, you should know the basics."

     "But what if it's true?"

     "What if what's true?"

     "What if this really is hell?"

     "Who gives a shit?"

     "Isn't that worse than germs, Jack?  I mean, what if you're living in hell?"

     "Then I'd have to say that hell isn't half-bad."

     "Ignorance is bliss?"

     "You got a problem, Lar.  You make everything too complicated."  Jack took his personal water bottle back out.  He turned away from Larry to survey his new domain.  "Carpe Diem.  Enjoy the scenery."

     Apparently, the pitch meeting was over.  With a little Latin, no less.  Of course, the only Latin that Jack knew was from a Disney film.  Larry was furious that he had been goaded into giving up an important idea.  Maybe this was hell.  If hell was other people.  So if you got rid of the other people, would it no longer be hell?  There was one way to find out.  Larry looked around, turned his own full circle - the others were someplace else, out of sight.  It was a big desert.  At the end of his revolution, there was Jack's back, solid, arrogant.  There would never be a more perfect moment.  Unless he could see the expression on Jack's face.  But there was a danger in that - Jack might defend himself - no, it didn't pay to get greedy with pleasure, he should settle for what he had. 

     He had to do it before he thought too much about it.

     He pushed Jack, in the small of the back, a hard push, following through, for once without half-measures.

     "Uh-"

     Jack went neatly over the edge.  Larry stepped back.  He heard the impact.  It sounded bad.  He didn't want to look.  He was breathing hard.  His heart was wondering.  It was like a drug.  He saw Jack's water bottle, the germ-free one, lying on it's side, the sunlight refracting through it, water dribbling into the sand.  It felt good.  The next story he would tell would be the most important story of his career, about the terrible accident.  It would probably make the front page of Variety.

     That was one way to rid himself of his most immediate tormentor.  A daydream, in harsh daylight.

     "Any more stories?" Jack asked.

     "How about a Hollywood story."

     "That could be good."

     "It's sort of like The Player."

     "Okay."

     "Only this time the writer kills the producer."  Larry stepped closer.  Did Jack get the point, the immediate danger?

     "No, thanks.  No one cares about writers."

     Apparently not. 

     "Why am I even talking to you?" Larry asked.  The question leapt unexamined from his lips.

     Jack was shocked.  No one had ever asked him that.  It was always the other way around.  "You've got problems."

     "You're my problem."

     "No."

     "Not just you, but you in general.  Everyone like you." 

     No, there would be no murder.  But he didn't want to stand here any longer.

     If he walked away first, wouldn't that be surrendering the high ground to Jack?  That on top of Jack having fucked his fucked-up wife.

     "I know what you're up to," Larry said.

     "Which is what?"

     "Why should I tell you?"

     "Then why did you even mention it?"

     "I don't know.  To get you worried."

     "I'm not worried."

     "You look worried."

     "I'm not."

     "Then fuck it.  Right?  It's not over till it's over."

     Now Jack looked worried.

     Finally.

     Larry trudged down the hill, away from what hadn't happened.  He didn't think of his moment with Jack as a story, but as only part of a story.  Larry was a collagist at heart, not a true strategist of screenplays - plotting character arcs, nimbly foreshadowing, folding subplots neatly within master plots.  But collagists didn't go very far.  There wasn't any money it in.

     Imagine: Jack & Leslie fucking - did she moan with him, did she try and make it seem better than it was?  Did enthusiastic acting, in and of itself, improve the act?  Undoubtedly.  Immeasurably.  Jack expected performance.  Girls would act for him.  Larry felt doomed.  Again.  It all pointed to the mildest form of doom.

     There was the memory of other moans.  Honeymoon moans.  And before.  How many years, how many fucks ago.  Remember enough of that shit and maybe he could forget the sun he was standing under.

     If he closed his eyes, could he forget what the world looked like?  He tried.  It was dully blood red underneath his eyelids.  He remembered sand.  Forget it.  Forget about forgetting.

     He was wandering in the sand, alone.  No one had talked about going anywhere.  No one had talked.  Maybe they would consider him lost, leave him behind, think of an excuse.  It didn't take much of an excuse.  It didn't take much.  Whatever it took he didn't have.

     The skin on his arm looked weird.  The flesh seemed speckled in a way that it never had before.  What was he allergic to?  Something new?  Something that he was thinking?

     Then there was pain - piercing, specific.  Followed by a buzz.  He yelped and jumped, twisted his arm to see what hurt like hell on the far side of his biceps.  He found a blistering red spot.  What had bitten him?  Why?  All for taking the wrong step where, when?  The bite hurt - how toxic was it? 

     Fuck fuck fuck

     Would it spread, would he die, why did he feel dizzy? 

     He sat down. 

     He stood up.  He wanted to walk it off.  He wanted it to go away.  He touched the pimple of pain.  Yow, fuck, leave it alone.  There was no ice.  There was no water.  There was no one else.  Why didn't the wasp or whatever sting Jack?

     And then the welt seemed to be subsiding.  He remembered that welt meant world in German - it was one of the few German words that he remembered from school.  Was there really all that much to the pain?  He would survive.  Again.  Who would he tell?  There was no one who would be sympathetic, appropriately sympathetic.  He was nowhere.  It didn't matter where he stood.  Did it?

     He didn't have to take footsteps.  He never had to take another footstep.  No one was telling him to.   

     Wasn't this a movie that he was walking through - the etching sunlight, the arroyo he was walking in - aimlessly - hoping to get lost, searching for a more dramatic predicament than talking with a man who owned a Range Rover.  He tried to make sense out of what he could see: sand - dirt - crumbly rocks - a scraggly bush that he didn't know the name of.  Did it matter what the names of things were?  Was he a man who truly trafficked in names? 

     No. 

     His inner state was what he most wanted to describe - but wasn't that a bore: non-lethal pain - self-induced sadness - the struggle to make movies, to give people fantasies.  And who wanted his fantasies, what was happy about his fantasies?  Maybe he wasn't even trying to tell a story to someone else - maybe he was trying to tell a story to himself - but he wouldn't listen.

     He heard chirping, more insect than bird-like.  It reminded him of the bite on his arm.  Remembering, the hurt returned.

     Walking - a history of footsteps - his history - blazing a path in the sand, this sand, the sand in his shoes.

     Now, trudging, alternate versions of the conversation with Jack crowded into his head.  Maybe he should have really tried to sell a story to him.  A real story.  There were so many things he could have done.  Other than what he did do. 

     The arroyo came to an end.  It was time for a minor climb, up to the little ridge, either that or turn around, retrace his steps, follow the crumples that he just made in the sand.

     He climbed, one footstep after another.  No shade.  Anywhere.  If it wasn't so hot, if there was someplace comfortable, then he would lie down and sleep, forever, maybe.  He squinted, closed his eyes to slits, and still it was too bright.  He was so exhausted.  He plodded uphill, as if in a nightmare, closed his eyes for a moment, challenging gravity to do its worst, opened them again, open, close, constant course corrections, his eyelids a bright red, so bright. 

     At the top of the soft ridge the foothills were to his right.  The geography was so specific that it was hard to get lost - he didn't even have that excuse.  Excuse - that was a familiar word - maybe he should make a list of familiar words - those words that he kept saying to himself - or writing - the nucleus of his vocabulary - no - that would be depressing - analysis only confirmed limitations better left unexplored.  Why was he walking back?  Define back.  As in back to.  Back to what?  Leslie?

     "Larry."

     Sean's voice came to him, intimate, as if across a living room.  In this world of dirt and convolutions of crumbling earth, the direction of her voice was not obvious.

     "Larry."

     He felt foolish, turning to look for her, his eyes unsuccessfully scanning the scorched earth.

     "Over here."  Now he sensed amusement in her voice at his predicament, the searching man.

     "Here."

     He saw her now, tucked between two tiny hillocks, reclining, as if upon an earthen chaise lounge.  She was naked, the white shirt spread beneath her, her jeans rolled into a petite pillow.  That was why she had been so hard to see, because from this distance her skin blended with the earth.

     He felt self-conscious walking down to her.  Was her voice an invitation?

     "Where are the others?" he asked.

     "I don't know.  Why do you care?"

     "I don't know.  You're right.  I don't care."

     He saw her body, in passing, in glancing.  Naked in the sun was very different from naked in the night.  He saw her differently.  He saw her.  Was he expected to act like it was just part of the scenery?  Sean was smiling.  Was she smiling at his discomfort?

     He stood awkwardly.  He had to sit down.  Not too near, not to far.  Maintaining the attitude of casualness.  He smiled.  She had his number.  With nothing being said.

     "You care."

     "Then why are you asking me?"

     "You amuse me."

     "I'm tired of being amusing."

     "Don't be.  There's nothing wrong with being charming."

     "I've always been misinterpreted."

     "Explain."

     She was naked.  What do you explain to someone who is naked?  Maybe he would explain the concept of clothes.  He had no control over his voice, over what he said.  How did he decide what he said?  Where was that premeditated, how deep in his brain?  And why was he even thinking about brains when he had her body to stare at, as long as he stared subtly.  But she seemed not to care what he was doing, how long he was looking.  He looked around, nervous that they were not alone.  Who was looking at him?  Was the conspiracy still in force?  Was he spiraling down to the next level of passive victimization?  Had they calculated how pliable he was to distraction, enough time for Jack and Leslie to tear off a quick desert fuck? 

     Looking, that was okay, but touching, that was a different dimension, that was crossing a boundary.

Her breasts, seen in this absolute light were small, nearly perfect.  She was still too young for gravity's flaws.  Her pubic hair was sparse, tightly curled.  He grabbed pieces of description in quick, raiding glances, careful not to stare too long - even though her eyes were closed again.  Her skin glistened with ointment.  Sweat beaded on her forearms, her belly.  She lacked tan lines.  She was an entire creature, undivided by earlier bouts with the sun.  Posed, poised, there was no mystery, except to wonder how she would feel if he were inside her - would she be hard or soft or both?  Her lips curled slightly upward, as if she had found paradise in this heat.  As if his hell was her heaven.  Or was her lip curled in ironic amusement at his predicament?  Yes, she was shrewd enough to imagine his squirming dilemma while she enjoyed the sun.  Is that why she had called him over?  Did the conspiracy begin and end with her?  Or was she only one of several off-hand plots against him?  Looking at her lips, he was annoyed that he wasn't spending more time dwelling upon the more traditionally forbidden aspects of her body that were now available for extended study.  But he had to wonder about those writers - novelists - and painting critics - who always seemed to have so much to say about how someone smiled - they could take an image and spin out a riff that explained someone's whole life, almost.  Something he could never do.  Like: her smile was slight, bounded by the high regard that she held for herself, with a trace of disdain for the man that she had come to respect less the more time that she spent with him, her lips thin, but sensuous, not quite relaxed, but settled into a habitual position of self-possession, she was young, but it was the kind of smile she might spend the rest of her life wearing, already, at her age, she had arrived at the smile that best suited herself.  He was good at that kind of nonsense riff as long as he began with the idea that whatever he said meant nothing, really.  Once he tried to mean something, the gears began to freeze, and he was faced instead with a blank truth that he could not elaborate.

     "Explain," she repeated.

     He was as surprised as if a statue had spoken to him.  Or the earth.

     "Explain what?"  He had forgotten the question, if there had even been a question.

     "About being misinterpreted."

     "Well...if I could explain that, then I wouldn't be misinterpreted."

     "You talk about the strangest stuff."

     "And you're normal?"

     "I don't really think about normal."  She smiled in another way, eyes open to see him again.  "Is that normal?"

     "I'm not the right one to talk about normal."

     "Sure.  You're very conventional."

     "Hardly."

     "You're married."

     "Hardly."

     "You work."

     "Sort of.  I'm self-employed, so to speak.  I'm a dreamer."

     "You've got goals.  You're part of the race."

     "And you're not?"

     "Why are we even talking about this?"

     "What should we talk about?"

     "Why even talk?"

     Should he brave a braver question?  "Why did you call me over?"

     "I was glad to see you."

     "Okay."

     Desire was still abstract.  The sun had flattened everything out.  He had denied himself certain thoughts.  He felt twisted, static, somber.  In the dead blue sky above he imagined a constellation of Jacks.

     "How glad?" he had to ask.

     "It's too bad you're married."

     "You're right.  It is.  I've been meaning to do something about that."  Dangerous words to say to her, words that might be repeated.  But what did that matter?  Wasn't he on the other side of the lie?  It wouldn't be that long before they were all dead - how many moments did they get to crawl around in the sun, anyway?  Leslie was unseen, but of course it was hard to forget her.  When he looked back over at Sean, she had closed her eyes again.  Tanning her eyelids evenly, no doubt.

     "Don't you want to sunbathe?" she asked from behind closed lids, with an ironic lilt.

     "I already am."

     "You know what I mean."

     "You mean do I want to get naked."

     "Sort of."

     "But you don't mean anything by it."

     "That remains to be seen."

     "I've seen enough."

     Desire was the one thing he knew better than to talk about.  Of course, there was nothing left to talk about, other than the absurdity of a normal conversation in this abnormal context.  She was naked in the desert.  He was with her and she was naked in the desert.  He could pretend that they were alone.  He could imagine they were alone if he didn't try to imagine anything else.

     He couldn't take another step just now.  Sitting silently he felt the strangest percolations.  There was something implied in the silence.  It made the moment pregnant to pounce.  Wasn't he supposed to be the desert man, the soul man, the manly man, the breeding man in this situation?  It was so primal.  Wasn't fucking the only pertinent option?  Considering that he couldn't walk away.  He had to talk.  Talking required a topic.

     "Tell me about your job.  You've never told me anything about that.  You haven't told me anything about anything really."

     "I didn't know you were so curious."

     "Sure."

     "I guess writer's are.  I answer the phones."

     "For who?"

     "Someone who owns a phone."

     Annoyance didn't seem to lessen his desire.  He was glad that her eyes were closed again.  It made it easier to watch her.  His eyes would drift to nature in it's state of dry decay and then wander back to her.  Her flesh, so impervious, was much more exciting to watch.

     "My last job was more interesting."

     So.  She had volunteered something.

     "I was going to carry this guy's baby."

     Yes, she could still shock him.  He had to remember to stay open to that.

     "How did that come about?"

     "I saw an ad.  He lived up in Santa Cruz.  He had a lot of money, but he'd been a druggie and he was kind of impotent."

     "What about artificial insemination?"

     "His wife was pretty holistic.  She wanted natural conception."

     "Weren't you worried about..."

     "Disease?  He'd been tested.  And he wasn't exactly active.  It was safe.  That wasn't the problem.  He just couldn't get it up.  They paid me real well for the weekend, considering that not much happened."

     He was wondering what new parameters this set on what she was.  A whore, in some sense of the word.  Like he was a wannabe whore in another sense of that same word - because he was willing to sell part of himself, the part that was supposed to be his best part, the writing part.  He wanted to sell, but no one was buying.

     "So what do you think?"

     "The normal things."

     "For Mr. Abnormal."

     "Exactly."

     "So what do you think?" she repeated.

     "I want you to bear my child."

     Her explosive laugh echoed off the canyon wall.  "We could try."

     He was tantalized by the possibility of sudden movement.  Could he have what he wanted, just by asking?

     "Could we?"

     The odds of getting caught seemed extreme.

     "Hey ho!" Harry called from up on the ridge.

     They both looked up at him but didn't answer.  He felt guilty just sitting next to her.

     "Do you want to try?" she asked.

     "When?" he breathed.  He was watching Harry descend, puffs of sand at his plowing feet, puffs of smoke from his narcotized mouth, the descent of the smoking man, dropping down the heated gradient, to them, to those in repose.  Sitting beside her, seeing only her ankle now in his demure, revised point of view, it occurred to him how little our bodies tell us about who we are.  I am my finger, I am my hand, who am I?

     "Now?" she giggled.  She taunted him with the impossible.

     It didn't deserve an answer.  Or did it?

     "Now?"

     "Make your move," she giggled.

     "I saw a hawk." Harry said breathlessly upon arriving.  He was sweating, smiling, smoking.  He sat down in the dirt, thumping a bottle of Evian into the sand, just part of the picnic.  He looked up at the sky.  Larry followed his gaze.  It was empty.  Harry smiled.  "You should have seen it."

     That Sean was naked seemed an unremarkable fact to Harry - he paid her neither more nor less attention than under more clothed circumstances.  Larry felt caught, weirdly compromised by her teasing, flirting words, as inconsequential as those words were.  Harry offered Larry the joint.

     He was tempted.  But things were already on the wrong side of strange.  Because out here in the sun, at this shadowless hour of the day, everything was revealed.  And still he didn't quite know what was revealed.  It just was.  Wasn't it?

     "No...thanks."

     Harry passed the joint to Sean.

     They smoked, smiled.  Everyone was staring at the desolate, dramatic earth.

     The Naked City popped into Larry's head.  All he saw was Sean's leg.  Maybe her body had triggered it, but he was thinking of something else.  He was thinking of the same old thing - sex.  In the emptiness what else was there to think?  I live in a land where nothing happens.  I have lived in that land a long time.  Longer than I ever thought possible.  A world of phone calls and mild praise and the distant possibility that something might happen, someday.

     Harry took off his shirt.  He was in good shape for a doper.  But he wasn't a doper.  This was his vacation, remember, supposedly.  Larry never had a vacation, not from his head, not from the absurd thing that he was trying to do, wasn't he a screenwriter twenty-four hours a day?  There was no escape from the identity that he had failed to capitalize on.  He was always sitting where he didn't want to sit.  He was always sitting inside of his body.  Static, seated, he was always aware of where he wasn't.  The best part was always somewhere else, on the other side of the ridge.  Leslie.  Jack.  He couldn't help remembering.

     "I think I'll take a hike."

     "Yeah."

     "Good idea."

     They were still smoking.  He had no sense of who they were.  Strangers who were sitting with him.  Once the idea was in the air it was everyone's idea.  Was he truly superior to those who were stoned?  Was he the leader of the voluntary disabled?

     Sean put her socks and shoes back on.

     "Maybe I should get a house in the desert," Harry said.

     "Wherever we go, you always say maybe you should get a house there."

     "Well?"

     "It's cute."

     "Don't you wonder about living different places?"

     "We are living different places.  You don't need a house to do it."

     "Chalk it up my homesteading instinct.  What do you think, Larry?  Could you get into living in the desert?"

     "I think I'd go insane."

     "L.A.'s the desert."

     "We've talked about that before."

     "Maybe that's why L.A. drives me crazy."

     "Everything looks so close."

     "Because you're stoned."

     "No, it's not just the grass.  It looked close before.  You know what I mean."

     Larry stood up.  He was impatient with stasis.  If in no other way, at least on his feet he could move, he could pace the sand, the washes, he could assert himself with motion.

     Harry heaved himself erect.  Standing up was more work than he remembered.

     Sean rose and stretched with limber grace, wearing only her sneakers and white ankle socks.  She shook out the shirt and tied it around her waist, her public triangle outlined by the dangling white arms.  She held the rolled up blue jeans in her hand and smiled a good camper smile.

     "Which way?"

     "Wherever."

     "Who's the leader?"

     "Larry?"

     The blind leading the blind.  "Sure."

     They set off.  This was not his idea of being alone.

     "Maybe you could write a desert story."

     He was unenthusiastic, but it couldn't hurt to troll for a new idea.  "About what?"  

     "How about a treasure story?  Everyone loves a treasure story."

     The disadvantage of leading was that he saw nothing but the desert ahead.  At least he could choose the path, along the floor of the canyon, across the soft rills of an alluvial fan, the clay-like sand giving slightly under his feet.  He imagined Sean, a Botticelli in Adidas behind him.  His imagination was so much more than he was, so much more than he did.  Treasure stories didn't appeal to him, but who was he to say.  "I never really thought about a treasure story.  Buried treasure?"  It was hard to think of a fresh take on that.  It was hard to think of anything, actually.

     "Or gold.  People still hunt for gold.  You'd be surprised."

     "I like that," Sean said.  "Maybe we could hunt for gold sometime."

     "Sure.  See, Sean, likes the idea."

     "But what's the story?"

     "Well, let's see, let's come up with a story.  How do you do that?  You're the professional.  But you can't go wrong with greed"

     "I'm blank."  Maybe it was the scenery.  He stopped.  It was time for a choice between forking paths.  He turned around.  Sean surprised him, her eyes riveted to his, as if she was trying to remind him of some secret he had forgotten.  He felt caught, as if she knew that he wanted to look at her, that he wanted more, she had to know that, but still he was surprised.  The white shirt tied around her waist set off her tan.  She looked erotic, yet well-placed in the landscape.  Harry's mind was somewhere else.

     "I say we climb.  It's a nothing hill.  You won't believe what I found."

     "When?"

     "During my wanders."

     She hugged Harry's arm, amused by his enthusiasm, by the promise of a surprise.  It didn't matter what, or so it seemed.

     Larry was uncertain whether or not he was supposed to still lead the way to where he had never been but Harry had.  Well, he was tired of leading nowhere.  It wasn't as if he was surrendering.  If he fell behind, then he could look at Sean, he could torture himself with what he saw of her.  Maybe she would lag behind with him.  Maybe she would lean against him.  Maybe she would want him.  Maybe Harry would forget them in the press of his own private adventure.  He could hope for that, depending on how stoned Harry was.  But they weren't acting stoned in a place where everything felt stoned. 

     "Lead on."

     Harry led the little climb.  Larry gallantly waved Sean on ahead.  He thought he caught suspicion in her sunglassed eyes.  Following, undaunted by that mild reproach,  he was eroticized by her unencumbered back.  Or maybe it was the sway on the white shirt tied around her waist.

     It wasn't far to the top of the hill.  By now Larry thought he deduced a thousand shades of yellow and brown, the whole chroma of the earth.  He had been suspended in this desert long enough for some subtleties to become apparent.  He was beginning to feel like an observer of parts of nature for which he had no name.

     "You can't go wrong with greed," Harry repeated from a long time ago.  Taking up the rear, Larry heard the echo of Harry's words from far ahead.  "All you need is a group of modern prospectors, weekend prospectors, it could even be a little group like us, out on a weekend lark.  If they found some gold, that's enough to start a murder story."

     "Yeah."

     "So what more do we need?" Harry asked.

     Larry was surprised by his persistence.  Actually, it was a good question, the best question.

     "We need characters.  Personalities to people the story."

     "What about us?  We're characters." 

     "True enough."

     "Well?"

     "But it's not simple."

     "Why not?"

     "Well..."  Why wasn't it that simple?  Because you had to hunt for what was not obvious?  "Actually, maybe."

     He couldn't see her face, but he felt sure that Sean was smiling.  At his indecision.  He didn't know anymore.  He just didn't know.  He was willing to admit that.  To himself.

     "Can I be in the movie, Harry?"

     "Naked?"

     "I'm not naked.  I'm wearing a shirt."

     "Around your waist."

     "Are you going to make another movie?"

     "Why?  Do you want to audition?" Harry laughed.

     Sean laughed.

     Too bad it wasn't serious.  He felt duped.  Seduced.  He would never learn.  The absurd agony of plodding footsteps in the desert.  He felt the heat through the soles of his Stan Smith shoes.  Why couldn't he just enjoy Sunday afternoon like everyone else?

     Sean was pressing close behind Harry.  Was she acting romantic just as a taunt?  Was he the real audience for her display of affection?  It didn't pay to look.  Mindless was the best bet, not thinking, not.

     Trying not to look at what was ahead of him, he passed through crumbling gray canyon walls, a maze-like path that lead toward the base of the mountain.  Everything looked temporary, ready to fall apart, like the paper maché set of a cheap desert movie.  This world of sculpted dirt might only be an inch thick - he felt tempted to punch his fist through to the emptiness on the other side of the illusion of depth.  Trudging behind, following the twisted path that his temporary companions had chosen, he momentarily lost sight of Harry and Sean up ahead.  They came in and out of view.  He could pretend that he was alone.  Again.  How much pretending did that take?  He felt the heat everywhere.  Nothing felt good.  What did he really feel?  That was a noisy thing to think about.

     Without noticing, he was with them again.  He was getting closer to Sean, closing the distance.  She was wearing her shirt again, but not her pants.  What he saw of her backside was demure enough, if he weren't so recently acquainted with her underlying nakedness.  Maybe he wouldn't slow down, maybe he would collide with her - even if she knew the collision wasn't innocent, it would be interesting to see how that felt in this heat, if anything could feel worse than what he felt now.  There was so much that he didn't feel, that he didn't want to feel. 

     "Here's the treasure cave."

     Up ahead was the mountainside, it's surface a lattice of cracks that blurred toward the sky.  Everything looked thirsty.  There was a dark opening at base of the hill, vaginal in shape, an ellipsoid of black, the first evidence of shade, a black hole.  But weren't all caves vaginal?

     Harry took Sean's hand and led her close to the opening.  "It feels great.  Natural air conditioning."

     Larry stepped closer, rubbing shoulders with Sean.  He heard a steady whoosh, low and dull, and felt cool air against his face.  He looked into the pure darkness and felt refreshed.

     "There must be a crack on the other side of this hill, some kind of fissure.  The air cools as it flows out.  Air cools when it expands.  That's the basic principle of refrigeration."

     "Thank you, Mr. Science."

     "Your welcome, Miss Muffit."

     "Maybe you could work this into the treasure story."

     Just when he'd decided when there was nothing new under this sun.

     Sean stepped away from Larry and climbed into the darkness.

     "Aren't you worried...about snakes?"

     She didn't say a thing.

     Harry unscrewed the top of his Evian bottle and offered it to Larry.  The water was warm, almost hot.  Harry gave Larry a smile, his only comment on Sean's fearless disappearance.

     If there were snakes in the cave then they would either bite Sean or be scared away.  Larry swallowed a mouthful of water and climbed in after her.

     It was like walking into an air conditioned house.  It gave him an immediate taste of a better life.  "It's very cozy in here," he heard her say even before he could see her.  He kept his back to the light.  His eyes began to adapt.  She was sitting on a ledge of dirt.

     "I could live here.  If I had a man to protect me."

     "Why do you need a man?"

     "You never know.  There are strange folks in the desert."

     "So you could live out here?"

     "Yes, I love it."

     There was no easy way to sit beside her.  Could he have a secret kiss?  A secret kiss with Harry outside?  The closeness was titillating.  The air felt forbidden.  But the darkness was closing in, he imagined the mountain collapsing, the womb sealing, and he felt dizzy, a sinister spinning, a downward spiral.  What would his last words be?  Would something memorable finally come to his lips?

     "Would you live out here with me?" he asked.

     Sean smiled.  Was it fair to call her smile tempting?  Not fair, not accurate.  And what about a fair smile?  The darkness almost seemed normal now.  He wanted a moment alone with her.  He felt stoned - tranced - but he wasn't stoned - and that felt deranged - was the derangement permanent?

     "What about your wife?"

     "Without her."

     "Think you can swing it?"

     Taunting.  Impossible.  Impossible to tell.

     "You guys lost in there?"

     "Looking for treasure," Larry said.  He accepted the trance.  He blamed the trance.  He did not want a kiss.  That was an old priority. 

     He reached forward, slowly, in a gesture that Sean could stop, and ran his hand between her legs until he felt her vagina.  He slid his middle finger inside of her and looked into her eyes.  He wanted to know what she would say. 

     She was waiting. 

     He was momentarily fearless.  He was off the map.  Was she waiting for him to move forward, or waiting for him to retreat?  They were connected, suspended.  His aggression was ebbing.  It was hard to say if he really wanted her.  What would her flesh feel like now if they kissed?  She seemed so completely alien - everything was alien - outside the boundary of his skin.  It no longer seemed dark in the cave.  Was her smile saying what are you waiting for?

     What was he waiting for?

     What did he want?

     Hadn't he done enough?

     "Well?"

     "You tell me."

     "You're strange."

     "So are you."

     "Is there room for me in there?"

     Larry's hand shot back, moist, startled.  His head scraped against the membrane of dirt above.

     Harry poked his head in.  His eyes looked unfocused.  The darkness was still new to him.  There wasn't room for anyone else.  The cave had become too popular.  Turning back around, Larry saw Sean smile - a victory smile - but hadn't he possessed her most private place, had a finger hold there?  Didn't that say something?  Wasn't that something to look back on?

     But.  If that was a high-water mark, then wasn't he fucked.  Truly fucked.  Without having gotten fucked.

     "What are guys doing in here anyway?"

     "Getting acquainted."

     "Cooling off."

     "Telling secrets."

     "What secrets?"

     "Larry touched me."

     Harry didn't seem to care.  "Christ, this air feels good."

     The world was closing in.  They were quiet in the darkness.  Magical.  Then bored. 

     Harry withdrew into the light.  Larry followed him out, without looking back.  He'd had enough. 

     The daylight was familiar, something that would never go away.  The light was permanent, the sun frozen in the sky.  The heat felt good for the few seconds that his skin was still cool.  It was all downhill from here - was he really thinking that - could he think in anything other than cliché - and who had convinced him that he was special - where had that misshapen lesson come from?

     Leslie.

     She echoed in his mind like a trashy pop melody.

     What was the way back to the car?  Was the way back to the car the way back home? 

     The canyon was littered with rocks that looked ready to crumble apart.  Not real rocks but the shape of rocks, the idea of rocks.  It was like this was someone's idea of a desert, and the idea had been discarded.  He was beginning to feel at home.

     "It's so bright."

     "You really notice it now."

     They stood in the cul-de-sac.  It was the patio of the cave.  It was where they would barbecue breakfast if they lived out here.  There was only turning back.  Sean's shoulders were bobbing slowly.  She hummed a song that Larry didn't recognize.

     "What now?"

     "We could climb."

     The mountain looked too steep.

     "We could smoke grass."

     "We've already done that."

     "Larry hasn't."

     "Just say no."

     "We could smoke some more grass.

     "Larry wants to marry me."

     Harry laughed.  "What do you want?"

     "I want to go swimming."

     Larry raised his middle finger to his nose.  He smelled salt, something more.  Sean was watching him, but she didn't seem to notice.

     Nothing would happen.

     But hadn't something happened?

     Hadn't there been darkness in the middle of the day?

     Harry relit the joint.  In the sunlight Larry couldn't even see the flame.  No one else was interested.

     Sean walked away.

     There was only turning back.

     Single file.

     Leslie Leslie Leslie.  You had to wonder.  He had to wonder.  Words were what he said to himself.  That was the first thing that words were.

     He was tempted to get stoned.  To turn back the clock.  But the clock had already stopped.  Stoned, would he have dared with his finger?  No.  Dope just put him that much more inside his head.  And he was already there.  There was already too much there there.  He smelled the naughty finger again - now that no one was watching - just the hypothetical camera that he imagined up on the ridge, watching three insects trek toward two other insects (were those other insects mating?) he smelled only salt - with his tongue he tasted the reservoir of sweat on the top of his lip.

     The car was the tomb they could not enter.  They were excluded from the dead world inside.  It was hard to imagine the car ever moving again.  It just didn't seem possible.

     Heat radiated off the black metal.  If he wanted to burn his hand he only had to touch it.  Why did he feel tempted?  The only shade was under the car.

     "Where are they?"

     "I wonder."

     "Looking for us maybe." 

     Was Harry really innocent, or was it just a role he was playing?

     "I'm ready to go home."

     "I wish we could."

     "I want to go swimming."

     "We will."

     Sean didn't answer.  She looked petulant.  When she deigned to look Larry's way her lips were sarcastic.  Why, exactly why, that was the question he was too heat-fried to answer just now.  He would have to look too long at her lips, at her crooked smile, to figure that out, and he didn't want to look at her that long.  Staring at the brown earth, the dry ugly brown earth, he imagined Sean as melting flesh.

     They stood around the car.  There was the whole world that they could wander off into, but they stood loosely together, accepting the wisdom that there was nowhere else to go.  They all wanted back into that black car.

     "I'm going to answer the call of nature."  Harry wandered off behind a scrawny screen of branches to take a leak.  Sean paced along the dry creek bed, kicking at pebbles.

     Then Larry heard Leslie's laugh - a polite dinner table laugh - a mocking mockingbird - directionless in the dry air.  He glanced around - no one else seemed to hear - only he was attuned to the sound of the subspecies.

     Two silhouettes crested the hill.  His and hers.  They looked like they were holding hands, but he couldn't be sure. Jack was the conquering hero of casual chic, keys in hand, the metal jingling in high transients.  Leslie looked relaxed, like she belonged with him.  Until she saw Larry looking at her.

     "There you are."

     It was time for excuses.  Everyone had excuses.

     "We were looking for you."

     "I was looking for you."

     "The desert's a big place."

     "No harm done."

     "We were in the next canyon over.  Just spacing, you know."

     Leslie's face was flush, her cheeks crimson - from more than the sun, Larry surmised.  The third button of her blouse was undone.  She looked defiant.  She looked so defiant he knew she was guilty, because she was going to such lengths to prove otherwise.

     Jack lifted his key chain.  The car yelped.

     "Ow, fuck."  The door handle was hot when Jack opened the door and released hot air into hot air.  Then he unstrapped his personal water bottle and drank slowly, as if sampling a Pinot Noir.  He offered the bottle to Leslie.

     "So you guys had an adventure?"

     "We had a nice walk."

     "You call it a walk?"

     Everyone knew what he meant.  And in this blinding/dark moment he wondered - he more than wondered, he knew - that he was as bad as Leslie, and though he hadn't done what she had done, it was only because he had been unsuccessful in lust.

     "And where did you go?"

     "We saw a cave."

     "A cave?"

     "Harry found this cave."

     Larry grabbed the water bottle from Leslie.  She was surprised.  He took a sip, swallowed, took another sip, spit it out on the ground.  That's how he'd seen it done in Westerns - he always wondered why - he still wondered - but it felt good.  He coughed into his hand, working hard to conjure up germs, then handed the bottle to Jack, enjoying the squeamish turn of Jack's mouth.

     "I've kissed Leslie," Larry said.

     "Huh?"

     "A kiss is a kiss is a kiss."

     Leslie didn't even say Larry.

     "It's hot as fuck."

     If there was a gun, if they were less socialized, if they were more drunk, if they were south of the border, then somebody would die. 

     Maybe.

     They all sat in the same seats driving back.  It was the same world as the trip out, going by in the opposite direction.   

     You can't swim in the same river twice.

     They were riding in the same car, but the condition of nature no longer united them.  They were wilted, damp, congealed.

     The air conditioning chilled what was left of Larry's brain.  He pointed the vent at his face.  He felt a pain in his forehead like eating a popsickle too fast.  It was too cold to smell anything; it was too cold to smell sex.  As the sweat dried on his face, his skin tightened.  Without looking in the mirror he imagined that he was shriveling into something ghastly.  His thigh stuck to the black seat leather.  The bite on his arm hurt him again.  He wanted aspirin, but he would not ask for aspirin.  He would not ask for anything.  A fly buzzed against the window: another insect was along for the ride.  Outside he saw sprinklers in a low field of green - he didn't recognize the plant - something to eat, someday, somewhere - the atomized water refracted in the sunlight, brilliantly - it surprised him that something could still be beautiful, something seem from this car.  Jack pushed a CD into the slot - Tony Bennett - nightclub music in the scorching light - a torch song from whenever - no one had to say anything - no one had to think - at least he didn't have to think.  He was expecting someone to say something, but no one said anything.     

     Now, Leslie.  How could he hurt Leslie?  What was left to hurt?

     The car phone rang.  Jack looked pleased by the attention, annoyed by the interruption.

     The car phone rang again.

     "That was great."

     "Thanks for driving."

     "I'm wasted."

     They abandoned the car.  Everyone looked smaller, distilled, red-faced, wounded.  The warm air lasted the distance from the car to the front door.  The desert was what came between spurts of cold air.  Everything was clear, but it was nothing he could explain.  He wasn't thinking straight.  He couldn't even say that he was thinking.  His arm hurt like hell.

     Larry had forgotten what the house looked like.  Until he was back inside.  Then he remembered everything.  If Proust had the smell of madelaines, he had central air conditioning.

     Sean walked straight through the house and out the sliding glass doors to the pool.

     Splash.

     "I'm changing into my suit."

     "Me, too."

     As the others dispersed into bedrooms, Larry went into the kitchen.  It was as white and empty as the room at the end of "2001."  Life was outside the window, in the Bird of Paradise, in the manicured palm fronds swaying in the unfelt breeze.  The freezer was filled with last night's absurd sugar purchases.  Last night was a long time ago.  Was that really only last night?  He took out a carton of Haagen-Daz coffee ice cream and a tray of ice cubes.

     The welt had grown into a hard crater, a fiery point of red at its center, a souvenir of what Jack had called the real desert.  He wrapped an ice cube in a pastel dish towel and held it to his wound.  With his free hand he forced a spoon into the rock-hard ice cream.  The carton slid along the white Formica countertop until he finally pinioned it against the splash guard.  Finally, after more work than he had ever expected, he had his first bite of ice cream.

     What was he doing here?

     In Jack's house.  It was contemptuous.  Leslie had identified the right emotion, for the wrong reason.

     At least he had bought the ice cream.  He wasn't putting Jack's food in his body.  And the air, that wasn't Jack's, Jack didn't own the air.

     He removed the melting ice cube and contorted to look at the welt - still there, but numbed.  He stabbed the spoon into the ice cream and left the carton on the counter to melt.

     As he walked out of the kitchen he said a silent good-bye, kitchen.  It was one of the rooms he never wanted to see again.

     His goal was to get from here to there without any unwanted eye contact.  He wanted no eye contact.

     Good-bye, hallway.

     Good-bye, doorknob.

     Of course, he imagined a dramatic departure that benefited his wounds.

     It was no longer the Vegas Story.

     It was no longer a hotel room he imagined.

     It was the guest room that he was heading toward, that was the indelible setting for turgid, unresolved psychodrama.

     Then, for the moment, he felt the surge of release, lying to himself, a lie that gave him pleasure: he was no longer a screenwriter.  He would take his marbles and go home.  The addiction was over.

     Trudging thoughts, as he walked down the hallway, the next to the last time.  The last time, that would be his exit, bags in hand.  Really, in the grand scheme of atoms and molecules, carpet wasn't much different from sand.

     The bedroom was as he remembered it.  As he would never forget it.  It gave emptiness a new name, took it to the next level.

     Good-bye, bedroom.

     He sat down on the bedspread.  It was uncomfortably lumpy underneath - the bed wasn't made - it only looked made - the illusion of order that his butt gave lie to.  But what was comfortable?  Not his body.  Not anything he saw.  Not anyplace here.  Not anyplace he was returning to.

     And leaving, the closer he got to that, was no simple matter.

     Splash.

     Would he call Leslie aside to talk to her?  Wouldn't he need some privacy for what he had to say?  But what was private between them?  And what would he say?

     Words of outrage.  But.  No sentence would form.

     The best thing - the easiest - would be to sneak out of the house - drive away from the whole mess.

     He needed to pack.  It would take five minutes.  It was more than he had the stamina for.

     Splash.

     Pool life beckoned from beyond the blinds.

     He knew that he preferred the cowardly exit.  It hurt that he knew this.  That was something to examine, to think about.  Maybe honesty would come to his defense.  Maybe maybe maybe

     Then there was the matter of throwing Leslie into Jack's arms.  Not that much throwing had to be done.  But why give them another excuse?  Or did they even think in terms of excuses?  He didn't know.  He would never know.  What revelations could he expect in an empty bedroom?

     Empty except for furniture.

     Empty except for him.

     Did he count?

     Splash.

     When he looked toward the sound, the slats of light that leaked through the blinds were blinding.  He fell back on the bed and felt the archipelagos of percale lumps underneath him.  Ghostly spears, afterimages of the retinal burn, hung against the ceiling.  It was so gloomy he could tease along the idea that he was going blind.

     Wasn't he moping?  If anyone was wondering about him, isn't that what they would wonder? 

     He had a headache now.  Maybe this was the headache that would never go away.  Maybe he would have this headache for the rest of his life.

     What would happen next?  What would happen if he closed his eyes?  Did he have anything to do with what happened next?

     He was faltering.  He knew he was faltering.  He didn't know what to think.

     He didn't want to move.  But he would have to move.  He couldn't stay in this room forever.  He couldn't stay in this room for another minute.  Walls.  And what was beyond the walls.  His brain was freezing.  There was no other idea to seize upon.  What he had done.  What he had not done.  Dragging his tired body to and fro.  It didn't add up.  Nothing.  From here to there.  There was no torrent of words that could save him from what he had failed to become.

     Somehow he found himself standing.  He did not understand the impulse of muscles that had gotten him back to his feet.  He threw his clothes into his overnight bag.  He didn't care about wrinkles.

     Splash.

     He went into the bathroom and plucked his toothbrush, razor, deodorant, aspirin, from the surfeit of Leslie's unguents and emoluments.  Intimacy, as it attached to objects, was severed: their toothbrushes were no longer cohabiting.

     He picked up the dead weight of his Powerbook and shoved it into his green canvas carrying case.

     Now he was packed.

     Now he felt like he was going somewhere.

     But, for the moment he would leave his bags behind, he would not announce his purpose.

     First, he had to step out of the bedroom.

     Good-bye, bedroom.

     Not quite.
 

     As Larry walked across the living room, conflicted, determined but uncertain, he saw that the others were all in the pool.  The momentum of his footsteps carried him toward them.  He was a reluctant participant to the motion of his own body.  It was bathing suit time, except for Sean, who swam without her white shirt, a child of nature, a child of Sunday afternoon.  If he was the camera, if this were one of his unfilmed movies, then he would have to say that the swimmers' body language was that of two couples: Harry/Sean and Jack/Leslie.

     As Larry stepped from the shade into the sunlight he felt the snapshot clarity of their reaction to him. 

     Jack looked pleased.  He had won, no matter what happened next.  He didn't even have to think about winning - it was the way things were.  Things were fine. 

     Harry was smiling, stoned, maybe shrewd, maybe not. 

     Sean swam laps, not paying any attention to Larry. 

     Leslie looked guarded, expecting the worst, but pleased to be in the pool, on the winning side. 

     Larry stood outside of their watery alliance.  Was everyone really against him, or was it just how he felt, and if was how he felt, wasn't that enough truth for here, pool side? 

     There was no easy way to do what he had to do.

     "Aren't you coming in?"

     "I don't think so."

     "It feels great."

     "Leslie, can I talk to you?"

     "In a while."

     "Now."

     "I'm swimming."

     "The pool's not going anywhere."

     "I said in a while, okay?"

     "No."

     He felt drained of the drama that he had intended to provoke.  He was embarrassed to openly pronounce what he thought the truth to be.  Why couldn't he too just enjoy the pleasure of the blue water? 

     He was trembling.  So there was truth to the cliché, trembling with anger.  He wanted to shout.  He felt absurd.  There was no graceful option.  The awkwardness was exponential, increasing the longer he waited.  There was nothing he could say to Leslie that could convince her of anything.  If his years of screenwriting had taught him anything, it was the futility of language, because who had he ever convinced, despite hard work, good intentions, careful choice of words, sentence by sentence, across thousands of unsold pages. 

     Sunlight dazzled on the water.  Once again, he was standing in exactly the wrong place - he caught the full force of the sun's reflection.  Once again, he was ill-prepared for life's great moment - he had left his sunglasses back in the bedroom, with everything else.  This was his chance to deliver his great pool side oration.  But he didn't want to speak, didn't want to give them the opportunity for rejection.  He didn't want an audience for what he had to say to Leslie.

     "You're just frazzled from the heat.  Come on in, Lar.  It'll make all the difference."

     He didn't speak.  He was embarrassed, shamed, and still he felt contempt.  If could walk away, didn't that make him superior, in some small way, at least?

     Not that it mattered.

     Not that any of it mattered.

     He couldn't think straight.  Had he ever been able to think straight?

     He turned around and began the long march back to the glass doors.

     "Larry."

     "Lar."

     He felt their eyes upon him.  It had been a brave thing, hadn't it, coming outside?  Wasn't he excused now?  Hadn't he tried?

     As he walked back through the house, deflated but exhilarated, he felt the pulse of the insect bite on his arm and the dizziness of darkness in the chill indoors.

     In the bedroom he picked up his shoulder bag and his computer.  He didn't look around to see if he had left anything behind.  He felt uncollected but at least he was leaving.  Space got so strange in memory - how would he remember this room?  Not at all, that would be the best way.  But.  It annoyed him to no end, knowing that he would always remember it.

     He walked down the hallway and into the foyer with averted eyes.  Once again, he imagined that everyone was looking at him.  He was always imagining the worst thing: a car wreck on the drive home, a heart attack alone in the car, a bad man with a gun at the first stoplight back in the city.

     As he stepped out of the house his heart palpitated with the mixed feelings of great escape.  What now?  Another life waited on the other side of this driveway.  Or so he hoped.  If only it was different, then that might be enough. 

     He walked past the dusty black Range Rover, past the silver BMW, to his Honda.  He felt his pockets for the car key, and feeling nothing, panicked that he would after all have to go back into the house.  He rooted through his shoulder bag and finally found his key.  His joy was intense, momentary, ultimately matter-of-fact - finding the key wasn't a good thing, it was the absence of something bad, a double negative.  He unlocked the hatchback and stowed his bags.  He winced at the heat as he got into his car and started the engine.  He turned the AC to max and removed the sun shade from the window.  After a weekend of luxury cars, he felt like he was returning to an old friend, someone who knew who he was, who was used to him, who liked him.  He had never before felt sentimental about his car.  But he was already lonely.  Was he really leaving Leslie behind?

     "Larry," she said in a peeved voice.  She wore a white shirt over her black bikini.  Was it Sean's white shirt?  Or was it one of Jack's?  Water stains darkened the fabric in the shape of her bikini top.  She dripped water that quickly evaporated from the black pavement.

     "Larry."

     He was looking.  He was deciding.  He was always deciding.  The easiest thing was to argue.  Wasn't that the easiest way of letting go?

     "Why are you doing this?"

     But she knew why.  She had to know why.

     "I'm not staying out here."

     "You were just going to leave?"

     "I tried to talk to you."

     "That wasn't trying."

     "Whatever."

     She was very angry.  He was pleased with the effect.  But why did her pain please him so?  That made him wonder.  That diminished the perverse pleasure.  Was it just the lowest common denominator of their marriage?  Somehow he had expected to feel more self-righteous. 

     "Look, we can go home after I go swimming.  What's a couple of hours?"

     He felt disadvantaged talking up to her as he sat in the car.  He put the clutch in neutral and left the car idling so the air conditioning could continue to run, and stood up, back in the sun.

     "I can't stay here, not another minute, not after what's happened."

     She glared - calculated - schemed - hardened.  Her mood was quick, fickle, resolute.  He could almost enjoy the lightning way she thought and felt - if it weren't directed against him.  Even though he was sure that she had arrived at a new strategy, he had no idea what that strategy would be.  "You practically threw us together," she finally said.

     His chest tickled with the first compressions of panic.  He was speaking with an alien creature.  An alien creature who knew his name, who knew which buttons to push.  He was alone in the world.  "What do you mean?"

     "Last night.  The way you disappeared with Sean."

     "We were getting stuff for dessert."

     "Right."

     "It's in the kitchen.  Go see for yourself."

     "I'm tired of arguing."

     "What about today?"

     "You were the one who wandered away."

     He didn't have an answer.  She had bottled him up again.  It was hopeless.  "Well, I'm not staying."

     "You're not so innocent."

     "I know.  I'm horrible, okay?"

     She stared at him, calculating.  The sun was beating down.  Once again, he was standing in the wrong place.  The sun was to her back, it was beating harder at him.  Everything was empty around them.  It was just them.  Deciding what to do.  "Can't you understand how I feel?"

     He had the opportunity to say something, something that would change her mind.  He'd felt these moments before.  Or, rather, looking back, he could see moments like these that had come and gone.  But it seemed that she merely wanted to acquit herself well, to say the right things, the expected things, and get back into the pool.  Was that really so satisfying, he wanted to ask her.  Did the world really just come down to surfaces?  Was that what he had never understood, never been able to live by?  He looked at her face for something he recognized.  He felt guilty that he wasn't thinking about her.  But who was she, really?

     "You're being a jerk," she said.

     "Not this time."

     She clip-clopped, flip-flopped back into the house on borrowed thongs.  He closed his car door.  Who left who, that depended on your point of view.

     Well.

     He was driving.

     He saw his hands on the steering wheel.

     Did his hands really look that old?

     The radio was a pathetic companion.  He kept switching channels, impatient with each fragment of sound.  He cycled through the pre-selects, then digitally notched up and down the dial.

     Traffic was heavy, the Sunday race back into the city.

     Leslie.

     He forgot what he was doing. 

     He was driving. 

     He drove past the plaster dinosaurs.  Outside the windshield, climbing through the San Grigornio Pass, the earth looked so big, it frightened him.  The wind buffeted his car.  Today, the windmills were turning.  He was fighting against the wind to get back to where he did not particularly want to go.  He could go anywhere, that was the secret that he had lost.  No, he did not have to travel back to the door with the lock that he had a key to.  There was the whole world outside that apartment. 

     Look at the world.  Look at the world closely, that was the best way to forget about today.  The light was brown, the ugliest brown that he had ever seen, feathering into gray.  Rude, bare mountains climbed off to his left.  Hostile rocks were the home of the windmills to his right.

     The canopy of smog blowing in from the city was mysterious and toxic.  The daylight was a tunnel filled with cars.  Sometimes sunlight penetrated the gray air, sometimes not.  It was a mysterious, premature, swollen twilight. 

     The lanes were crowded with vicious cars, hurrying, hurtling back to Los Angeles.  There were vans decorated with ugly air-brushed murals of hobbits and babes, towing motorboats in their wake.  Boats coming in from the desert.  Where from?  The Colorado River, Lake Havasu, the London Bridge?  It was weird enough to sidetrack him from the agenda of suffering that he had set for himself.  But he was free, wasn't he?  When, if ever, would Leslie stumble home?  Or leave a message?  The most logical devolution of their marriage was into a phone relationship.

     The big cars, the big rigs, the pickups with big wheels, were an absurd parade that dwarfed his little hunk of Japanese metal.  He was rattled.  It was hard work staying in his lane.  Everyone was in a hurry.

     He was upset.  Or maybe not.  Maybe not.  Not tragically moping.  This was called denial - wasn't it?  It was hard to pay attention to the road.  But what was left of himself, truly left, that was his, undiminished by disappointment, anger, a sense of unfairness, a varnish of unhappiness?  What was there about himself that was still undaunted, that he truly liked?  He was projecting his body in space even as all he saw of his body were his hands on the steering wheel.  And what kept him within the bounds of the lanes, what kept the thousands of other cars driving correctly - instinct? training?  Getting from point A to point B, wasn't that a miracle? 

     He had felt alone with Leslie.  Now he felt alone with himself.  Wasn't that an improvement, wasn't that a more honest appreciation of his true condition?

     He kept visualizing the set of rooms that he was going back to.  The apartment.  Their apartment.  But it had been hers first.  Where else could he go?  Every freeway exit seemed dangerous, offering an alternate life, unexplored.  If he thought about it at all it was too much to think about.

     He felt the bumps of the lane markers and re-awakened to where he was, drifting dangerously out of his lane.

     This would be the flashback part of the movie.  Or the life-flashing-in-front-of-his-eyes part.  He tasted dried sweat on his lip.  Maybe he should have hung on to Leslie, jumped in the pool, cleaned up for the trip back.

     There were dormant factories, anemic Eucalyptus trees, cars, all kinds of cars, beaters, the shapes of dark heads seen through rear windows, he was traveling in the river of the world, maybe it was a Hindu freeway.  It was so fucking symbolic it was fucked.

     He saw a sign for the La Brea exit.  Somehow he was back on a familiar stretch of freeway.  He felt rattled and blitzed.  He felt buzzed and fuzzy trying to conclude something about himself.  He didn't know what to think about.  A BMW cut sharply in front of him.

     "You fucking motherfucker!"

     The beamer shot across another lane and was gone before he could honk his bleating horn.  Back on the home turf.

     The sun was low enough to hurt his eyes, a sickly orange ball, dimmed by the marine layer, muted by the dense air.

     The road was gray.  The sky was gray.  But overhead blue was breaking through, hinting at a natural world up above that was obscured down here.  Stretching beyond the freeway was the dusty green of West L.A.  It was so ugly it suited his mood.

     He was on auto-pilot.

     He was home.

     More or less.

     The apartment was empty, and it was as he remembered.

     He dropped his overnight bag by the door.  On second thought, it didn't make any sense that he had even carried it up from the car.

     The air was stuffy.  Dead.  He slid open a window but kept the blinds closed.

     As he lazily inventoried the room, mindful of their impending separation, he realized that Leslie owned all the major furniture. 

     Was he seeing the room for the last time?  Was he seeing it with naked eyes? 

     The walls were off-white, the carpet was straw brown, the couch was ash, the chairs were intricate wicker.  It was a muted room, whites and browns, with subtle color accents.  Everything was so fucking subtle.  She had a knack for making cheap furniture look less so.  It was all designer accents, but accenting what? 

     He sat down in an angular Phillippe Starke chair, Leslie's kick-back from a furniture company for an office remodel job in Century City.  The chair dug into his back.  And there wasn't a comfortable place to sit in the whole apartment.  In his new place, however small, however derelict, he vowed that there would be a comfortable chair.

     He saw the blinking green light of the answering machine.  A single blink, a single call.  Leslie.  He was so tempted to listen.  But it could wait.  Let her wait.

     He didn't want to sit here.

     He thought about going out to eat.  It was something to do.

     But he didn't want to walk, he didn't want to drive.

     The green light pulsed in secret code, repeating, repeating, tempting him.

     What would she say?  What if she said something horrible, made him feel even worse.  Did he feel bad or scared?  It was a new life stretching beyond Sunday evening.  It would be a different kind of Monday.

     He stood up.  He told himself that he was going out to dinner, but he went over to the answering machine and hit the message button.  It was no big deal.  He was on his way out the door.

     "This is Officer Garcia, California Highway Patrol.  Please give me a call at..." 

     He dialed the number and was connected to the voice of Officer Garcia.

     There had been an accident.

     He was stunned, his chest swollen with fear, as if his life were threatened.

     There was a world outside the apartment, on the other side of the blinds, at the end of the telephone line.  He picked up the phone and dialed.

     Officer Garcia described an auto accident.

     It was absurd.

     But what accident wasn't? 

     A black Range Rover belonging to Jack Brown had rear-ended a propane truck.  On Interstate 10, at Cabazon.  There had been a fire on the desert highway.  Both passengers were dead.  They had Leslie's drivers license.

     He was invited to the morgue to identify her body.

     He declined.

     Respectfully.

     It wasn't a mystery that needed solving.

     He hung up the phone.

     The green message light still blinked.  It would blink forever, or until he rewound the tape.

     He had walked, what, ten feet to the phone.  He had heard, what, fifty, a hundred words, from a man he would never talk to again.  Words had changed his life - there was something to be said for words.

     Well, wasn't this the movie he had chosen?

     Now, if it were a courtroom drama, an existential courtroom drama, what had he done?  What had she done?  What had they done to each other?  What was the evidence?

     He had seen a stolen kiss, pool side.  Later, he had felt her empty side of the bed.  How much evidence was that?  Was that enough to convict her?  Then there was the gap in time, the desert hours, where had Leslie been when he had gone into the cave with Sean?

     Consider all this, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, against the backdrop of fucked-up selfhood.

     He had felt certain of her guilt in the driveway; there was nothing else he could do but leave.  And she could have left with him.  It had been clear then, he had felt a certain moment of certainty, hadn't he?  Certainly he had felt bad.  She had been a big part of his feeling bad.  But how much could he trust of what he remembered?

     No one wants to see another unhappy relationship movie.

     He hadn't killed her, but had he wrongly set the chain of events in motion?

     The unhappy relationship movie was getting cross-wired with the what if what if what if movie.

     He had acted decisively.

     He had left.

     He had not expected this.

     Even if he was just grandstanding.

     Larry sat back down in the uncomfortable Starke chair.  He couldn't think beyond a single sentence.  The room felt smaller, the white walls closer.  Now he was glad that the vicious looking black French chair hurt his back.  He wanted things to hurt, at least a little bit, that was some kind of atonement for being alive while she wasn't.

     He hadn't expected to feel bad.  Not at all.  Not at something that had been Leslie's fault.  And Jack's.  Jack and Leslie's fault.

     But.

     It was his decision to ride home alone.  He could have waited.  He had not waited.  It was her decision not to ride with him.  It hurt to think about what was, what had been, what never was, what he had done, the chain of events he had set in motion, the tire treads leading here, wasn't he finally alone, now, weren't these his walls, without her, his furniture?  He had inherited her furniture as the meek should have inherited the earth and he would live in the museum of Leslie's taste, a memorial to a moment in time that was gone and yet would last forever.  Had it all been his fault?  All his anger.  Her anger.  Their anger.  But.  She wasn't the worst thing - she had been on his side hadn't she?  They had slept on the same side of the door, in the same bed.  An abstract thought was what he couldn't see, it was the clear thing distorting the air.  His eyes weren't focusing right, he felt either fatigue or clogged tears.  Whatever.  He felt bad.  This was something more than a fight.  She wasn't there to fight with.  Anymore.

     Let's try it again.

     Just one more time.

     Don't die. 

     He watched the green light blink.  It could be the rhythm of a song.

     He was hypnotized.

     Leslie was dead.

     Now was what came after.

     He felt was emptier than he had ever expected.  Who said that things could not change.  He was sitting in the same room.  It wasn't the same.  Would the smell of her shampoo still be on her pillow?  And the funeral, what about the funeral?  Someone, anyone, who would ask why had he come home first, why weren't they together?  What would he say?  He felt the spin of absurd calculations.  His stomach hurt.

     There was a faint red beyond the blinds.  Outside it was probably sunset.  His legs felt cramped.  He would not move them.  Another penance.  He anticipated a very long list of penances.  And the bite on his arm, the insect that had been alive when Leslie was alive, the insect that maybe had survived her life span.  He reached with his right hand to touch the bite of his left bicep.  The pressure hurt, then felt good, then hurt even more.  The bite felt more alive than his mind.  And what was he thinking, other then seeing the blinds, the monkey grass on the drop-leaf oak table, the aloe vera in its terra cotta planter.  Had his mind left his head to reside in the room - could he walk out of this room and leave his consciousness behind?  He couldn't remember just now exactly who he was, other than someone who had driven home alone, impatient, petulant.     

     Beyond the blinds it was blue, twilight over the unseen ocean.  He crawled onto the floor.  Wouldn't somebody call?  He wanted a phone call to ignore, he wanted to hear a voice on the machine.

     He heard the faint strum of a television.  A car alarm chirped to attention.  A plane hummed, presumably in the sky.  If he listened closely, there was city life on the other side of the walls.  He had done one thing.  Now he didn't want to do anything.  Ever again.  He felt melodramatic.  The years were gone.  So was the day.  This day.  The ache of minutes.  Could he die of boredom?  Would he die of boredom even before he died of starvation? 

     Blinking, he reminded himself that his eyes were open.  Had he been sleeping?  His back ached.  Strangely, absurdly, lightly, lucidly he was enjoying his penance, his mild bed of nails.

     He heard the scrape of metal from somewhere either in back of or in front of his dream - what was the dream - what was that thing that had slipped away?  There was light on the ceiling.  There was a shadow on the ceiling, in the center of the light.  This occurred to him slowly as he pieced together what he was looking at.

     The front door closed.  Darkness, then more light.

     "What are you doing on the floor?"

     Leslie was home.  He looked at her stupidly.  Confused.  She looked like she had gotten too much sun.

     "What's wrong with you?" she asked.

     He sat up.  "You're okay?"

     She frowned without answering and went into the bedroom with her suitcase.

     The green light on the answering machine was not blinking.

     He felt trapped in a different way.  He tasted sleep in his mouth.  He heard the bathroom door squeak closed.  He needed to pee, fiercely.  He was alive again with calculations and needs.  He stood up.  Would they sleep in the same bed?  What would they talk about?  Would he apologize?  Would he ever know what had happened with Jack?  Moment by moment he would construct a new version of the truth.  Who was mad at who?  Would he have to talk to her in passing to get into the bathroom?  If he could just pee then it would be easier to think.  If he just felt a little better about standing inside his body.  It would be better in a hotel room.  The Vegas Story.  That would be a better place to be.  Maybe that would be the story that wrote itself.  It was like going into battle going into the other room.  They were back in the apartment.  Together.  Together again.  Certainly there must be a polite way to speak.  The night was survivable.  All he had to do was go into the other room.

     He did not have to imagine any more disasters.

     He would imagine no more disasters.

     He promised himself that.

     What was that promise, the other promise, the one that was always slipping away?

     All he had to do was go into the other room.

     He walked the bold dozen or so steps.  Into the bedroom.  Their bedroom.  Dark now.

     He sat down on the white coverlet, on his side of the bed, obeying the territorial rules, and leaned against the Shaker bed frame, exhausted.  He saw his stack of books on his night stand.  He wondered what her mood would be when she came out of the bathroom.  It was a blessing in a way.  Whatever happened was a gift.  

     She was already in her night gown when she stepped back into the bedroom.  She looked grumpy.  He expected no less. 

     "Are you glad you came home early?" she asked.

     "Are you?"  He felt the old pattern leaping into place.

     "You made a fool of yourself."

     "Do you want me to apologize?"

     "Do you have to ask?"

     He didn't think he was expected to answer.  Answering, however he answered, would just make things worse.

     "Of course you have to ask.  But don't you know, that ruins everything?"

     "Let go."

     "What do you mean, let go?"

     "I don't know."  He needed to pee, but now wasn't the time to move.  It would ruin everything - what was left to be ruined.  What was left?  That was worth asking, if there was some successful way to phrase that question.

     She got under the coverlet.  He didn't turn to face her.  He looked at the dresser.  He saw her black purse on top, its mouth open, poised to disperse or receive personal objects.  She had put her purse on the dresser.  The purse had been placed there by Leslie, a body moving in space.  She had parked the purse for the night, then parked herself.

     In their bedroom.

     He was looking at the wall.  He was thinking about her.  Was she looking at him?  Could he solve the mystery by turning around? 

     "I'm glad you're home."

     She didn't say anything.  Was he speaking to the wall?  Was he speaking to her?

     "I said I'm glad you're home."

     "I heard you."

     "Well?"

     "Can we talk about it tomorrow?"

     "That's all?"

     "I really need some quiet time."

     He wanted to say something.  He could feel that something licking at his tongue.  Some words that would pull it all together, the perfect words, he felt them inside of his mouth, waiting to be born.  He felt safe as long as he did not move.  He felt better imagining her face than seeing it.  He heard a low sibilant and felt the shift of pressure as her foot moved under the covers, away from him.  He heard a book open, the turn of unseen pages.  There were no shadows on the wall he was watching.

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