It’s a bitch driving in Los Angeles when it rains. I’m almost at the end of the wet onramp when the car fishtails, and I flex my arms into the steering wheel, feeling gravity fuck with me. The car pulls forward to the left, its rear sliding to the right. It’s a good thing the freeway is empty. My car comes to a stop, and I’m turned backwards facing the start of the southbound 2, at the base of the foothills of the Angeles Crest. I can see the snowcapped peaks of Mt. Wilson popping through the autumn clouds, and I wonder if it’s snowing or raining up there.
I would have stayed at home if it weren’t for the prospect of figuring out how to dump my lover. My shrink, Abby, promised that we’d discuss it. Doesn’t that mean plot? Isn’t that some kind of secret code word amongst us girls? I mean it. Would I be driving to Burbank with its shitty strip mall boulevards if I weren’t finally going to be rid of that asshole?
The sheer arrogance of my lover is astounding. He doesn’t get it. It’s my decision. It’s always been mine. Not his. Whether we start or stop. As if he could have ever started anything. As if he could ever seduce me. Does he think a mediocre architect with a soft belly, a harelip, and a lisp is a catch?
I’ve been trying for weeks to break up with him, but he thinks that he can actually avoid it, as if he has any say in the matter. The coward.
For example, when I told him yesterday, “Kevin, I’ve forgotten how you smell. It’s a sign.”
He said, “No, it isn’t. It’s been awhile. We just need to see each other again.” His hissing lisp scratched me through the phone.
“No, we don’t. This is for the best. I want to have a baby.”
“You should have a baby.”
“Not with you,” I said.
“Sylvia, I know that.”
“How do you know so much?” I asked imagining his wide oily forehead protecting his Neanderthal brain.
“I honestly don’t.”
“You’re so irritating.”
“It’s not something I can help.”
“How could I have ever thought of leaving Ben for you?”
“I never asked you to.”
“Good, because I lied. I never thought about it. I would never have done it.”
“Can you hold on one second? I have another call.”
That’s just like him. Putting me on hold when I was about to hang up. Then he had to go. A client or some meeting. Maybe out to the Starbucks across the street from his office, where he’d rub the auburn moustache that hides his deformity with his bony fingers after sipping the foam from his double cappuccino. Probably wrote out his phone number and name in perfect architect penmanship on one of those natural paper napkins. Gave it to that twenty-something fat white girl with a pierced nose that serves us our coffees. He would say, 'Girl looks like she needs a friend.' And he would be right.
We all need friends. At least that’s what I’m thinking when I hear the pop. Then the steering wheel veers again, except I know the sound and the pull—a flat tire. On that damn stretch of Colorado Boulevard on the Glendale border, where they have all of those horrible bridal shops. So, I sit there waiting for Triple A while olive-skinned mannequins in pink taffeta gowns stare at me from the shop windows.
As far as marriages go, Kevin saved mine. More than once I’d imagined killing myself to run away from the anonymity that is my marriage—mostly images of taking pills or gassing myself in the garage, though I did once contemplate the messier and far more dramatic slitting of the wrists. But wrist-slitting would have involved the bathtub—less mess—and I don’t like to get all pruny. So, Ben may have been a widower if it weren’t for my lover.
Sweet unassuming Ben, who thinks that living in Los Angeles wipes the slate clean for everyone, and saying things like, “As long as they’re healthy, it doesn’t make a difference to me if we have kids that look more Asian or more Jewish,” means the rest of the world doesn’t care. As if people haven’t died over things like that. Slanty eyes. Curly black hair.
Of course, I still have thoughts about Kevin’s tongue on me, licking places that Ben doesn’t even like to pretend exist. The places that my husband only touches when the lights are completely out and he has his eyes closed. And maybe that’s where it started—not with his late nights at the office, but with Ben turning the light off. I was no longer beautiful enough for him to want to see, morphing over the years into Girl with Good Personality.
The tow truck pulls up, and a Hispanic man gets out. He’s short, and I can see a film of misty dew on his bald head. His smile splits his brown face in half, showing me gray teeth, or at least the ones he still has left.
He asks, “Miss, you call for me?”
“You got flat.”
”Yeah, that’s right. Here are the keys to the trunk. The spare’s in there,” I say.
He takes the keys and asks, “You China?”
A geography lesson. “No, I’m Korean.”
“Ah. Yes. Korea,” he says and moves towards his truck as if that explains everything.
“You Guatemala?” I ask.
“You! Guatemala? Colombia? Nicaragua? El Salvador? Honduras? Peru? Argentina? Mexico? Puerto Rico? Uruguay?”
“Miss, you have problem,” he says, walking back to my trunk to begin his work. He shakes his head and whispers as if I can’t hear him, “Puta.”
When I get to Abby’s office there’s a wait. I’m an hour late, meaning that she’s already started in on another appointment, but her receptionist tells me that she can fit me in afterwards. I flip through last month’s issue of Town and Country, one that I’d already read the week before at the gym. I’m drawn to the pages where they chronicle society parties. I see the photographs from the winter benefit at the Getty, and between all of the pictures of blond and blue-eyed guests, there are two faces, familiar yet not so. Asian faces. To be more precise, Korean faces. Mr. and Mrs. Steven Kim. Someone that looks like my high school sweetheart and his mail-order bride. They stare at me, wondering what I’m doing in a shrink’s office in Burbank, listening to a sound machine grind out white noise into the sterile waiting room.
But it’s not really my high school sweetheart. His name is James Kwok and he’s a cardiologist in Simi Valley. He once told me when we were sixteen that I was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. Not the most beautiful Asian girl. Not the most beautiful Korean girl. But just girl. I cried for eight hours straight the night he dumped me over the phone a month into our first year in college, telling me that upon further consideration, he didn’t think there was much that was very special about me.
James and his wife have three sons, beautiful full-blooded babies who speak Korean, English, and Japanese, since they’re now offering Japanese language classes after Bible study at the Oriental Mission Church on Western Avenue. His wife wears only Chanel, has two maids, and drives a Mercedes. At least that’s what my mother tells me. She sometimes says that James’ mother still asks for me.
“She want know how you doing.”
“So what do you tell her?” I ask.
“That you married to nice lawyer. You live in La Cañada in big house. You drive BMW.”
“Do you tell her that the nice lawyer is Jewish with a big American nose and smelly American body odor?”
“Sylvia. Don’t hurt you mother.”
“Truth hurts, Mom,” I say, but my words cut me instead. My mother would never say the truths that we both know—how Ben now asks for a fork when we have dinner at my parents’ house, instead of trying to use the silver chopsticks like when we were dating. Or that he called my choice of serving pickled vegetables as a side dish for last year’s Thanksgiving irreverent. ‘I don’t think the Pilgrims had kimchi with turkey,’ he informed me, winking as if disclosing an ancient secret. ‘Festively derivative,’ he said. Like he’s one to know.
But then, my husband’s fascination with me had to wear out eventually. Yellow fever is like any other. It breaks with time.
“Time can be relative,” Abby informs me, when I tell her it’s been a week since Ben and I had dinner together. A week of his negotiating late-night deals and my loneliness-fueled depression. “You’re feeling like it’s been a long time, but in the grand scheme of things…”
“A week may not seem like a long time to you but… it’s just… my whole life is on pause. I can’t stand it,” I say. “I just want it to start moving again.”
“Well, what makes it feel like it’s on pause?”
“Everything just is. Nothing’s happening. Nothing interesting. A week goes by. A year. What’s the difference? You just said that.”
“And how about Kevin?”
“I’m dumping him.”
“If that’s what feels right, then I support it. But you’ve talked about it before and nothing has changed.”
“Well, if he’d meet me in person, I would have already done it! I’ve even offered sex. You know, a nice fuck, and then ‘Goodbye. Good luck.’ But he pretends like we weren’t even lovers for the last year,” I say. “He’s too busy to see me or even take my calls. Like some dumb project he’s working on can’t free him up for a twenty-minute fuck. I know men like to fuck, Abby. It’s so obvious that he’s just getting it from someone else. That he’s probably getting his pathetic missionary-only wife to finally let him back inside her dusty fat body. Why can’t he just tell me that he doesn’t want to fuck me anymore?”
“Why is that important to you?” Abby asks.
“Because.” I begin to cry. I imagine Abby spending the rest of our session saying things like how I need to find ways to feel more secure about my place in the world, that it was clear in our joint therapy sessions that Ben cares for me, that Kevin isn’t trying to avoid me, that the affair was my doing all along and so I need to feel at peace with simply walking away, that the Mexican mechanic meant nothing when he asked if I was Chinese.
But instead she says, “O.K.,” then takes off her glasses and sets them on the table next to her. She waits for me to break the silence.
Back in the car, I plan my course of action—drive to Kevin’s office, make him squirm in front of his colleagues, take him to Starbuck’s, slap him when he tries to console me. It’s on my way home, and I have courage.
When I get to his office, I tell the receptionist, “I’m here to see Kevin. I’m Sylvia.” I walk away from her desk, acting as if I will not eavesdrop. I look out the windows at the expanse of the San Fernando Valley shrouded with fog.
She says, “A Sylvia? Asian.” Then she calls out to me, “Kevin’s at a client meeting in Van Nuys. He won’t be back today.”
“Sure he is,” I say. “Can you just tell him that I’m waiting? It won’t take very long.”
She stares at me with her blue eyes rimmed by thick blond lashes and cheap blue eyeliner. She looks more like a cocktail waitress at the Rusty Pelican than an office girl.
“Like I said, he’s not here. I can leave him a message for you, if you like,” she says.
“No, that’s fine,” I say and walk out.
I’m almost home when it happens. The car pulling to the side again. But it stopped raining hours ago. The streets are no longer wet. It sounds and feels like I’m driving on logs—thump, thump, thump. The taillights on the cars in front of me go on simultaneously, as if orchestrated. Then hazard lights. I don’t know what’s going on, but I know enough to slow down, stop, and turn the ignition off.
A man emerges from the station wagon in front and starts walking towards my car. I check to see that the doors are locked. He’s tall and lean, dressed in a navy suit, a blue shirt and purple tie. Dark hair and caramel-colored skin, maybe Arabic or maybe Indian. He taps on my window with the back of his left hand, and I stare at his gold wedding band making contact with the glass.
“Are you all right?” he asks.
I roll down the window and answer. “Fine. And you?”
“A little shaken. Oh, that’s pretty cliché, isn’t it?”
“We had an earthquake. Didn’t you feel it? I’m just going to check the next couple of cars. You should turn on your radio. Glad to know you’re all right,” he says and walks off.
I turn the radio on, and they’re saying it was 6.0 on the Richter scale, centered somewhere near Whittier. The announcer of the easy-listening station is crying while asking listeners to remain calm.
I watch the man in the suit through the rearview mirror, making his rounds to the cars lined up behind mine. He’s stopped at the second car, and his head is cocked to one side, nodding as if he’s standing at an ill patient’s bedside. He places his hand on the driver’s arm, a brown hand on a red flannel sleeve. After a few moments, he turns around and heads back toward me.
He stops when he reaches my window and says, “I suppose we need a wake up call sometimes. From Allah. Just reminding us He’s there.”
“It’s a hell of a reminder,” I say. “Sorry. It’s nice that you’re checking on everyone.”
“Sometimes don’t we just need to be reminded of the overall purpose? Life is not about keeping score, but keeping happiness. We can choose happiness as company.”
I think about this man’s wife, and how lucky she must be. To live a parallel life to mine, but not mine—a life without worrying when her husband will fall out of love with her, whether people know for sure if she’s Indian or Arab, if her lover dumped her or she dumped him.
Then I see it flash through my head like a movie reel with the pause button released—a clear image of Ben, in the aftermath of the earthquake, looking up and out from his desk on the forty-eighth floor of the Arco Tower, looking for his East, looking for me. And without a thought to the stranger standing outside my window, I wave to my left, to my West.
“Everything still all right?” the man asks.
“Yes. It’s all right,” I say, starting up the car. “I’m just on my way home.”