Carol Schwalberg

INSTANT DECAF

 

By

 

Carol Schwalberg, Santa Monica, CA, USA

 

                  For seven months after Frank’s death, Annie was a two-legged hamster running from grief. Days passed in a blur of layouts, drawings, walks, workouts, editors and art directors, with lunch and dinner dates sandwiched between.                  She gave over spare minutes to fleshing out her scanty wardrobe with designer fashions, only to think of how the big man would howl if he saw them. With a start, she would recall he could no longer react, and her face would flood with tears.

                  One December Sunday, a rare empty morning yawned before her. While she listened to last night's phone messages, she peeled an orange, microwaved oatmeal and spooned instant decaf into a mug. She kept the espresso beans in the freezer; there was no sense in grinding and brewing coffee just for her.

                  As a soup pot of water heated on the stove, she arranged a lunch date with one friend and a movie with another. The water reached a rolling boil, and Annie dumped in a pound of fusilli. While it cooked, she sliced olives, julienned roasted peppers, rinsed broccoli florets and quartered marinated artichoke hearts. She drained the fusilli and tossed all the ingredients together with bottled dressing. This salad would be her offering for the afternoon's potluck, an all-class reunion of her New York City high school, or at least the graduates who migrated to Southern California.

                  Not much of a party perhaps, but almost any company was better than none and especially on the anniversary of the day she first met Frank. She remembered her mother's story about Papa carrying her out into the ocean and then dropping her into the drink, shouting "Sink or swim.” Mamma couldn't swim nor did she want to learn. As she sank to the bottom of the ocean, she saw a man's leg and grabbed it. The man took her to shore.

                  Annie learned to swim, but in the years before Frank loneliness drove her to grab at the handiest leg so many times that she might have assembled a centipede. That would never happen now; she was too old to attract anyone, even a wastrel. Besides, she would never find a replacement for Frank; there was no one so dear and kind.

                  The salad assembled, Annie peeled off her bathrobe and showered. She would wear her latest purchase, a lilac tweed jacket with pearl gray pants. She laughed. A high school reunion. Who said she didn't have any place to wear her new finery?

                  She carefully applied this year's face, keying the colors to the outfit she planned, but once she pulled herself together and surveyed the result in a full-length mirror, she decided gray and lilac looked too much like second mourning. She threw on an amber outfit. Damn! Now the colors on her face looked wrong. She scrubbed off the first makeup and applied a second.

                  She realized the color scheme didn't bother her, but going to a party with Frank dead less than a year felt like dancing on a grave. Besides, she never enjoyed soloing at parties even when she was single. She thought of staying home, but chided herself for cowardice. She drove herself and the pasta salad to Sherman Oaks.             

Cars lined both sides of the street. Annie parked two blocks away and teetered to the house on high heels. In sight of the front door, she felt a pang of shyness and almost slunk back to the car, but berated herself for terminal cowardice. Frank would have said, “Who are these people anyway? What can they do to you? More important, why do you care?”

The host's house had a large garage in front and a heavy dose of timbered trim. Probably mid-Sixties. The front door opened to the touch. Inside, she saw cottage cheese ceilings and a fieldstone fireplace. Definitely mid-Sixties. A card table near the door held blank stick-on nametags and a felt-tip pen.

The rooms seemed deserted. No one stood before the fireplace or sat on the plump gray sectional. Annie crossed the thick plush carpeting, opened the sliding doors giving on to the patio and heard clusters of people chatting. A hungry few circled the buffet table with paper plates, sampling dips, cheeses, desserts, salads, chips, pita, sourdough, wafers and assorted wines and waters. Annie cleared a spot to plunk down her offering.

                  Duty done, she admonished herself to be friendly and smiled at the people hovering over the food. Most were intent on loading their plates. She caught snippets of conversation.

                  "Do you remember the time Dr. Steigman...”

                  "...Those endless flights of stairs through the park..."

                  "I went straight from high school into second year at Juilliard."

                  Annie felt surrounded by a crowd of strangers with plenty to say to each other but not to her. If she wanted conversation, she must make the first move. Annie turned to an overstuffed woman swooping toward the cheeses. "I was in art."

                  The chubby woman looked up from the Brie. "Me, too. Doing anything with it?"

“Commercial art to keep me busy and earn a buck or two. I’m also working on portraits of women in thankless jobs, all with gilt halos. A waitress becomes Our Lady of the Greasy Spoon; a teacher is Saint Claire of the Blackboard, and so on for nurse, homemaker, telephone operator and checker in a supermarket. They look like Russian icons.”  

                 The Brie-eater nodded between bites. "Interesting. Marguerite Roberts is looking for new pieces."

                  "Roberts? That's a prestigious space. How did you hear about that?"

                  The woman looked flustered. "I--I'm a collector."

                  Annie patted her hand. "No need to feel ashamed of being rich. You must have married well."

                  "No, I divorced well. That's even better. You get half the money and none of the grief.” She popped the last of the Brie in her mouth and then edged away. "Sorry, there's some guacamole over there with my name on it."

                  Annie smeared pate on a wafer and filled a plastic glass with blush Zinfandel. She still had no luck connecting with anyone. Another strategy would have to come into play. Be helpful, all the magazine articles said. In the kitchen she saw a man carrying two heavy platters in his plump white hands and attempting to close the refrigerator door with his ample behind. His nametag read, Shelly Skolnick, '82.

                  Annie walked over and pressed the door shut. "Hi, I'm Annie Schneider, er, I mean I was Hannah Weisz, class of ‘72, and you're the host. Can I help you? Or your wife?"

                  "No wife," Skolnick said. "I'm gay."

                  "Then you certainly can use my help. I mean, do you want me to tote plates, pour drinks, and pick up trash? Cleanup is usually the worst part of giving a party." Skolnick gestured toward a heap of black trash bags. Annie seized one. She now had a reason to talk to people. Wouldn't they respond to the best-dressed garbage collector in all of California, no, make that the Western Hemisphere?

                  She circled the room, saying, "Trash, trash," and peering at nametags to scout out someone, anyone, from her class. She saw ‘82 and ‘92, but no one from ‘72. Damn. A young blood from ‘99 spotted her class tag and said, "Seventy-two, wow! That long ago."

                  She trotted out a smile. "I was best friends with Martha Washington."

                  Just wait till she told Frank about this obnoxious kid, but of course, she could no longer tell Frank anything. Annie wondered who was worse off: Frank for dying or herself for being left alone. She felt like weeping, but she couldn't allow herself to cry, not in front of all these strangers. She grabbed her handbag, bolted to a bathroom and turned on the taps to drown the sound of her bawling. She repaired her makeup and returned to the fray.

                  Annie kept her eyes fixed at chest level, the better to find someone from her class. At first, everyone seemed younger. Their tags read ‘85, ‘94, but no, here was someone with her class, ’72.

                  She looked up from the nametag to a heavy face framed with a thick black beard. The man combed his thinning gray hair into a ponytail and wore the latest hip uniform: black leather jacket, black T-shirt and cowboy boots. There was no name on the tag, although he did look familiar. She boomed, "Seventy-two! We were classmates. Bet you don't know who I am. Or even who I was."

                  The man looked confused and not entirely pleased. He forced his face into a smile. "You got me. Who are you?"

                  "My second husband's name is Schneider, but professionally, I'm Annie Blake. That was my first husband's name. I used to be Hannah Weisz.” She waited a beat for it all to sink in. Then she said, "What about you? Did you change your name?"

                  "No, I'm still Pierre Kaplowitz, and I do recall Hannah Weisz."

                  She remembered him sitting across the room from her in English class. Then he was slim and handsome with wavy dark hair. How much he’d changed. Don't look shocked, she warned herself. No one likes to think he's become unrecognizable. "I went into commercial art.”

"I'm a director. Just flew in from Paris."

                  "That sounds great.” Whenever she didn’t know what to say at a California party, she threw in the phrase to grease the wheels of conversation.

It didn’t work. Pierre stood mute, swiveling his head like a sea gull stalking dinner.

                  This conversation was going nowhere. Correction, this party was going nowhere. Mingling needed a light heart, and Annie’s weighed a ton. She handed Pierre her business card. "Why don't you call me? We can rehash old times." He walked off, and Annie made a few more stabs at sociability before leaving for the sanctuary of home.

                  A week later, Pierre phoned. “It was fun running into you," he said. "Why don't we get together for coffee?"

                  "Sure.” Coffee with Pierre beat staying home and feeling widowed. "Where?"

                  "The Beverly Regent coffee shop. They have the best decaf in Los Angeles. Let’s make it next Tuesday at three.”

The following Tuesday a client meeting took longer than she expected. Panting and out of breath, Annie showed up at the coffee shop ten minutes late.

Pierre was scowling over his coffee. "Why couldn't you come on time?"

                  Annie remembered the French advice to women, "Never complain, never explain," and she sat down, smiled and looked about the coffee shop, now an upscale oasis with Roman shades, mock-marble tables and verdigris chairs. She remembered the old leatherette booths and Formica-topped soda fountain.

                  Pierre signaled the waiter. "Another cup for the lady." The man scurried off. Annie yearned for dessert. Pierre, you're one big spender.

                  Pierre looked her up and down. "I can see why you're a successful artist. Judging from your clothes, I'd say you have quite an eye. That's a knockout outfit.” His eyes flicked over her wedding band. "You're married, aren't you?"

                  "I'm--" Before Annie could utter the word widow, she thought to stifle her tears by digging into her cavernous handbag and retrieving her wallet. She handed Frank's picture to Pierre. He gave it a perfunctory glance. "Looks like a warm guy."

                  Annie dimpled at Pierre. "You know, I've been meaning to ask about your first name. It’s French, but I seem to remember from school that you were born in Tashkent."

                  Pierre traced his hegira from Tashkent to New York via Bucharest and Paris, ending his tale, “My family wanted me to be a lawyer, but I ended up in the movie business.” He took a sip of coffee. “My uncle gave me a start.”

Annie nodded. “Have I seen any of your movies?"

                  “’Journey to Hell?’” Annie shook her head. “’Return from Atlantis?’" Annie shook her head again. "I directed those in the late Eighties. They were damn good, but the studios didn't put up a dime to promote them so they went nowhere. I couldn't get another gig as director. The best offer was associate producer. I didn't want to be like Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard so I dropped out of the industry. For fifteen years I’ve worked as a carpenter, but movies are in my blood, I got to make 'em.”

He shook his head. "It's a tough business. Have you seen ‘The Player?’" Annie nodded. "That's not even the half of it. You read ‘Deer Park?’" Annie nodded again. "Norman Mailer was right on target. Remember where the starlet goes to see the studio head and he asks her to sit on his lap?" Annie shook her head. "She sits down, and then he spreads his legs so she lands on the floor. He wants her to go down on him. When she does, he keeps on saying, `That's the ticket, that's the ticket.’”

Pierre took a sip of coffee. “Mailer couldn't have made that up. He must’ve heard it from an insider."

                  A couple sat down at the next table. The man was about Pierre's age, his white hair also drawn back into a ponytail, but where Pierre had gone to flab, this man stayed trim and lithe. His tanned companion’s slim young body was shoehorned into a snug black sheath, and her long legs were perched on five-inch heels.

Pierre took in the young girl. "A bit vulgar, perhaps, but attractive.” His eyes stayed glued to her.

                  Annie asked, "Were you in Paris making a movie?"

                  "I went to see my twins. Their mother is French so they live in Paris. But I am shopping a script. I don't know if I should tell you the idea, but why not? You're not in the industry, who're you going to tell?” He leaned forward. "Now get ready for this.” He waited a few beats. “The story is all about a man who lost his penis.” He sat back, waiting for a reaction.

Pierre could win the Vulgarity Olympics. "Wow!" Annie said. That was another handy all-purpose California remark.

                  "I knew the concept would grab you. Is that a great idea or what?"

                  "It's certainly unusual."

                  Pierre moved forward in his chair. "The best thing about the idea, it's not pornographic, not even soft-core. It's all going to be done in good taste, no frontal nudity. The final cut may even be PG."

                  The man was serious. Annie was dumfounded. She asked for more coffee, and Pierre signaled the waiter. The young girl at the next table rose and headed toward the ladies’ room. Pierre followed her with his eyes. "High ass, long legs, just the type I always went for. In the old days, I would’ve excused myself and gotten her number.” He sighed. "That was then, and this is now. I'm shopping the script, like I told you."

                  Annie tried to lighten the conversation. "Is one of the studios MGM? They're near where you live. Culver City, isn't it?"

                  Pierre nodded. "MGM isn't there now, but yeah, I live near where it used to be."

                  "A condo?"

                  "An apartment. It's over three garages so it feels separate, like a house.” He smiled. "You'll have to see it some time."

                  If a garage apartment was all he could afford, no wonder he didn't order cake. "Or you could come to my house in the high-rent district of Laurel Canyon."

                  Pierre snorted. "How high-rent can Laurel be? No one lives there anymore."

                  Annie thought to tell him just how expensive her house was, but decided it wasn't worth her while. She glanced at her watch. "The time! I have to run."

                  "Do you have to go?” Pierre grabbed her hand and scrutinized it. "What long fingers. I love long fingers."

                  A pass, she said to herself, the friendly chat she expected turned out to be a pass. Maybe she did have some life left after all. Annie extricated her hand. "All the better to wave goodbye with." She stood up. She thought of adding, “Low ass, short legs, not your type.”

                  "How are we going to get together again?” Pierre sounded plaintive.

                  Annie opened her purse, tore a sheet of paper from a note pad and handed him a ball pen. "Here, write down your number. I'll be calling one of these days.” She left.

                  The man was poor pickings, but if she felt this lonely in the days before Frank, she might have flopped into bed with a Pierre. Frank did so much to bolster her self-esteem, she now felt worthy of someone better. Maybe there would be no one at all, but she didn't have to grab at any passing leg. She could swim.

                  She also felt worthy of something better than instant decaf. She ignored the shops on Wilshire Boulevard and headed straight to Laurel Canyon. The minute she walked into her house, she rooted the espresso beans out of the freezer and brewed a perfect cup for herself alone.

 

Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal Winter 2009 Volume 6 Number 2

ISSN 1209-9392

© 2009 Women in Judaism, Inc.

 

 

 



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