I met Dana at a party in Venice Beach. She reached for a portabella mushroom sandwich while I grabbed a cheeseburger. Our arms touched and she smiled.
“You don’t smell like a beef eater,” she said.
“I’ll bite. What does a beef eater smell like?”
“Musky,” she said with a mischievous laugh.
I should’ve recognized the B-movie repartee as a harbinger of doom. But she was attractive, I was lonely and my pheromones were flowing.
“I’m Dana,” she said leaning forward for a European cheek kiss that threw me off guard. “Who do you know here?”
“The hostess,” I said. “Lynn and I used to date.”
“Wait a minute. Are you… him?”
“That makes me sound like a Stephen King character,” I said.
“Lynn and I do yoga together. She tells me everything.” She pressed her finger into my chest over my heart. My face drooped as if palsied. The breakup with Lynn was still fresh and painful.
A few partygoers launched into a backyard drum circle. Dana took my hand and led me into the group. She reached for a bongo and gave me a tabla. She had no rhythm but pounded the drum with fervor. I was smitten. Afterwards, we grabbed a beer and sat on a concrete bench in front of Bougainvillea. She said she was studying to be a psychologist. I told her I was preparing to be a patient. Our hips touched. A shudder flowed through me.
“Have you gotten over Lynn,” she asked.
“No scars,” I said showing my wrists.
“You look more like the sleeping pill type.”
The insult was an aphrodisiac. We learned we had much in common. We were both from Studio City, went to the same elementary school, I’d known her brother and our mothers carpooled together. When she was nine, her parents divorced and she moved with her father to Malibu.
“You think it would be weird if I asked you out,” I asked.
“Why would it be weird?”
“Because you and Lynn are friends.”
“She’s done with you. She told me so herself.”
The line hit like a punch in the solar plexus. I regrouped. “How’s next Saturday?”
She took a pen, grabbed my hand and scrawled her phone number into my palm. She pressed hard as if inking a tattoo. The following weekend I drove to her apartment in Van Nuys. She lived in a 1960s-style stucco building surrounded by dying palm trees. She buzzed me in and I walked through the lobby festooned with red, white and blue streamers for July 4th. I entered the courtyard and saw an obese man floating face down in the swimming pool. I waited until he came up for air.
“You okay,” I asked.
“Just practicing holding my breath,” he said.
I took the stairs to the second level. Dana lived in Unit 26. I did some quick numerology. 2 + 6 = 8; 8 equals strife. Not a good portent. I knocked on her door. “It’s open,” she said. The floor was covered in ivory shag and animal hair. A Chihuahua leaped at me and clamped down on my tennis shoe. I kicked and the dog went flying.
“Don’t do that,” Dana yelled. She sat cross-legged on a white leather couch.
“You talking to me or the dog?”
“Be nice. That’s Poopie.”
“You named your dog after feces?”
No, Poopie, as in you know, my little poopie dog. He’s my aura detector. If he doesn’t like you, I won’t like you.”
I put my hand near Poopie’s face. He growled, baring his teeth. Dana rose from the couch. “Come here, baby. Don’t be jealous.” She cradled the dog in her arms and locked it in her bedroom. “That’s one strike against you,” she said.
“He’s the one who bit me.”
“Sit next to me on the couch,” she said. I obeyed. She leaned in as if for a kiss and then reached past me for a scrapbook on the end table. “Look what I found.” She opened the scrapbook to an old photo of a children’s birthday party. She pointed to a boy with rotting teeth and a disheveled face. “Is that you,” she asked.
“That kid’s hideous.”
“Just kidding.” She laughed then pointed to another photo of a boy blowing out birthday candles.
“Is that your brother,” I asked.
“I remember him. He was short and fast.”
She turned to a photo of a naked infant seated in front of a lemon tree.
“That’s me,” she said.
“I know,” she smiled. She turned to another photo of a naked baby in front of the same tree. “That’s me age two.” She kept turning pages. Each page revealed a new photo of herself a little older but always unclothed in front of the same tree. As she reached grade-school age, I felt squeamish.
“I’ve seen enough,” I said.
“It’s getting into Nabokov territory don’t you think?”
She scrunched up her face in anger.
“You’re like seven or eight there,” I said. “Isn’t that a little too old for naked photos?”
“My dad took these pictures every year on my birthday. He wanted to see his little girl grow up.”
“Until what age?”
I didn’t know how to respond. “Mind if I use your bathroom,” I asked. She pointed to a door near the bedroom. I trudged through the shag, entered the bathroom and splashed water on my face. I noticed several photos of a handsome guy tacked to the wall. In one photo, he and Dana were kissing.
“Who’s the guy in those photos?”
“My ex,” she said.
“How long have you been broken up?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“I would actually.”
She smiled, grabbed my hand and rose from the couch. “Let’s go eat,” she said. “I’m starving.”
We walked to my white Renault convertible parked a block away. I’d spent an hour the previous day giving it a wash but it still looked filthy. “This looks like something you’d drive,” she said.
“What does that mean?”
“You know, it’s wounded.” She laughed.
I held the passenger door open then walked to the driver side and leaped into the front seat.
“Is that your Fonzie imitation?”
“The door‘s stuck. I need to get it repaired.”
“What am I getting into?”
I’d decided on Alice’s Restaurant in Malibu, a romantic spot on the pier with waves flowing beneath the pilings. We drove north on Pacific Coast Highway. Dana looked beautiful in her dark sunglasses, the wind cutting through her hair. We parked on PCH, took off our shoes and walked across the beach. The cool surf washed over our feet while pelicans and seagulls soared overhead. For the first time in ages, I felt a sense of hope.
The hostess seated us near a window. Dana ordered iced tea while I opted for a glass of white wine. Sweat gathered on my forehead and my stomach felt queasy.
“Ever been here before,” I asked.
“Of course. I told you I lived in Malibu.”
I guzzled the wine and perused the menu. The words were a blur. Dana ordered salad, I ordered chicken fingers. The waiter took our menus and left.
“You realize chickens don’t have fingers,” she asked. “Aren’t you a little concerned about what you eat?”
“If it’s on the menu I figure it won’t kill me,” I said.
“Don’t be ignorant.”
“How long have you been a vegetarian,” I asked, hoping to change the subject.
“Is it difficult?”
“Eating dead flesh is difficult. When an animal is slaughtered it feels terror. When you eat meat, you’re eating terror.”
“I guess that makes me a terrorist,” I said.
“Vegetarians are trying to live a moral life.”
She looked at me quizzically.
“He was a vegetarian,” I said. “And David Koresh, Charles Manson, Joseph Stalin.”
She donned her sunglasses and turned away.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m being a jerk.”
“Yes you are,” she said.
“I haven’t dated since Lynn.”
“So I’m your rebound girl. How nice.”
She gazed around the restaurant, out the window, anywhere but at me. I was losing her fast. My grandfather always said the best way to get someone to like you is to ask about them.
“How come you want to be a psychologist?”
“My dad’s a psychologist,” she said. “You listen to people’s problems, give advice, they give you money. Nothing wrong with that.”
“Any specialty you’re focusing on?”
“Marriage and family counseling. My family’s so screwed up I’m kind of an expert.”
She smiled. Finally.
“My mom wanted to be a psychologist,” I said.
“What do you mean wanted to be?”
“She said if she didn’t have kids she would have pursued a psychology degree.”
“So she blamed you for her disappointment in life.”
“She came from a different era. Women married young, had kids, raised a family. They didn’t think about their careers.”
“You’re letting her off the hook,” she said. “Maybe you have a manipulative controlling mother and you’re playing the role of an enabling son.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“You ever heard of the Jocasta complex?”
“Is that a gated community in San Diego?”
“It’s the incestuous sexual desire of a mother for her son.”
“That’s a little harsh.”
“It’s common for first born boys. Mother marries young, father neglects her, mother turns to son to meet her emotional needs.”
“This feels like a therapy session.”
“I won’t charge you, don’t worry.”
The waiter delivered our food. My queasiness was growing worse. Dana nibbled her salad. I reached for a breaded chicken finger with my hand then opted for a knife and fork.
“You can eat like a caveman,” Dana said. “I don’t mind.”
I knew immediately I’d said the wrong thing.
“What’d you call me,” she asked.
“I was joking.”
“Do I remind you of your mom?”
“Is that why you’re with me? Because you want to have sex with your mom and I’m a convenient replacement?”
She pointed her fork at me as if she wanted to plunge it in my face. I felt a convulsion in my abdomen. My body was rebelling, screaming from the inside out. I knew I had about 10 seconds to make it to a bathroom.
“I’ll be right back,” I said.
“Don’t run away from me.”
“I need to use a bathroom.”
“Dónde está el baño,” I asked a Latino busboy clearing a nearby table. He pointed to the far end of the restaurant, about 100 feet away. I staggered forward, clenching my butt while holding my right hand over the back of my jeans. I rounded a corner and hurried into the men’s room. I was greeted by a black bathroom attendant in a bow tie and suspenders.
“Good afternoon sir,” he said.
I stormed past him into the nearest stall. I yanked down my jeans just as my intestines let loose. Two more seconds and I would have made it. I took a deep breath and looked down to assess the damage. My underwear was a disaster. It would have to go. My jeans and tennis shoes were Jackson Pollack-esque, an abstract expressionist nightmare in ochre.
“No,” I yelled out.
“You okay in there,” the attendant asked.
“No I’m not. I shit myself.”
“Now why would you want to go ahead and do that?”
“I didn’t want to. It happened.”
The attendant sniffed the air.
“Damn, son. What you been eating?”
“I need help sir,” I pleaded. “How much to sell me your pants and shoes?”
“These jeans are fucked. I can’t go out there like this. I’m on a date.”
“How much you got?”
I reached for my wallet and eyed a bunch of 20s. “About 200 bucks.”
“Give it to me.”
I hesitated. “How do I know you’re not going to take the money and leave?”
“What choice you got?”
I opened the stall door a crack and handed over the cash. The attendant exited the bathroom leaving me alone. I cleaned myself as best I could wrapping my underwear in toilet seat covers. I exited the stall and tossed the undies in the trash. I returned to the stall and perused my jeans and shoes. I could wash them in the sink but this would require standing naked in the bathroom while customers came and went. The attendant returned.
“Today’s your lucky day,” he said.
He reached over the stall door and handed me blue swim trunks and a pair of flip flops.
“They sell these at the front counter. Hope you wear medium.”
I donned the trunks. They were a perfect fit. I transferred everything from my jeans pockets to the shorts. The attendant dangled a small bottle of cologne over the door.
“You better spray this on that ass.”
I did as directed and exited the stall. I stared at my reflection in the mirror. I was a sweaty, slimy mess.
“Wash your face,” the attendant said. “You look like you been wrestling hogs.”
I doused my face with water then tossed the jeans and tennis shoes into the trash. I scrubbed my hands as if I’d come into contact with a neurotoxin.
“Don’t worry, son. Maybe you’ll marry this girl and one day you’ll both look back on this and laugh.”
“She’s gonna eat me alive.”
I took a deep breath and exited the men’s room. I tried visualizing sports heroes to summon confidence. The only face that came to mind was Alfred E. Neuman. I trudged to the table, a dead man walking. From across the restaurant, I felt rage emanating from Dana’s eyes. I pasted an absurdist smile on my face and sat down.
“Where have you been? Where are your clothes?”
“I went to the car to change.”
“Your shorts say Alice’s Restaurant?”
I looked down and noticed the Alice’s logo over the right pocket.
“Uh, I bought them. I thought we’d go for a swim afterwards.”
“A swim? What am I supposed to wear?
“Are you mental?”
The answer of course was yes. But this was no time for honesty.
“Want to go for a drive,” I asked.
“I’ve been sitting here alone for 15 minutes and now you want to go for a drive? Take me home.”
“It’s a beautiful day. I have a convertible.”
“This date is over.”
She stormed out of the restaurant. I paid the bill and hurried after her. Outside, the sun was setting and a breeze was blowing in from the sea. Dana was already on PCH striding to the car. I hurried through the parking lot when I noticed the bathroom attendant next to a Toyota pickup truck. He was washing my tennis shoes with a bottle of Aquafina. We drove south on PCH. Dana gave me the silent treatment. I stopped at a Union 76 station near Pepperdine University. I pumped gas and stared at her reflection in the side view mirror. She gazed at her fingernails, her face betraying sadness. It hit me that maybe she was as lonely as me. She caught me staring and looked away. I climbed into the car.
“Hey,” I said. “I’m sorry. I really screwed things up. I wanted us to have a good time.”
I reached down and clasped her hand. She met my eyes.
“Want to see where I grew up,” she asked.
We drove up Malibu Canyon Road, past high-end homes and towering palm trees. We navigated several tight turns and she directed me to stop beneath a large terracotta roofed house on a hill. The reflection of the ocean was visible in the large windows.
“That’s it,” she said.
“He’s probably making dinner right now.”
“He still lives there?”
“You want to go say hi?”
She shook her head no. “We don’t talk anymore. Ever since he threw his career away.”
“What do you mean?”
“He slept with his 18-year-old client. She sued him and he lost his license. He married her to stay out of jail.”
“I guess she took my place,” Dana said.
We sat in silence as the sun set over the Pacific. At one point a shadowy figure walked past the living room window. Dana was rapt, unable to take her eyes off the house.
“Yeah,” she said.
I started the car.
“You ever seen Lake Malibu,” she asked.
“There’s a lake around here?”
She guided me through the hills to a thin road adjacent to a wooded area. The scent of night blooming jasmine was strong. We turned onto a dirt road and drove past eucalyptus and pine trees. A clearing appeared and a small lake came into view.
“How long has this been here?”
“As long as I’ve been alive,” she said. “It’s private, but all the locals know about it. Drive over there.”
She pointed to a concrete slipway where boats launched into the lake. I drove slowly down the ramp to the edge of the water. Houselights were visible in the distance.
“You can drive across,” Dana said.
“No thank you.”
“It’s shallow if you stay to the left”
“I’m not driving into the lake.”
“Don’t be chicken.”
“I don’t want to get stuck.”
“I’ve done it dozens of times. Trust me.”
“Are you sure,” I asked.
Everything told me not to listen to her. But I felt obligated to obey to make up for our terrible date.
“Be brave,” she said with a laugh.
I took my foot off the brake and eased the car into the lake. We rolled forward, water sloshing beneath us. I looked over the side and was surprised the water only rose halfway up the tires. We moved slowly, about five mph.
“Told you,” she said proudly. “Keep going.”
I pressed lightly on the accelerator. When we were about 40 feet from shore, the tires lost traction. I pressed harder. The car fishtailed. I panicked and thrust into reverse. We backed up a few feet then the car stalled. I tried starting it again. Nothing. We were stuck. I stared at Dana, furious.
“Look what you did.”
“It’s not my fault,” she said. “You should have floored it.”
I tried starting the car several times but it was dead. I grabbed my phone but we were out of cell range.
“Damn it. We have to go for help.”
“I’m not walking through that lake,” Dana said.
“You can’t stay here.”
“Why not? It’s dry.”
I climbed out of the car, frustrated and angry. The water level was about a foot but the mud was like quicksand. I slogged forward, feeling the roots and rocks beneath my flip flops. I made it to shore and walked toward the distant houses where I planned to knock on someone’s door. Two bars appeared on the cell. I dialed 911 and explained the situation to the operator. She asked me to repeat myself then snickered.
“Please don’t laugh,” I said. “This is serious.”
“Of course, sir. We’ll have someone there as soon as possible.”
I returned to the boat landing and yelled to Dana. “The auto club is coming.”
“I can’t hear you,” she yelled.
I plodded through the mud and made it back to the Renault. I opened the trunk, grabbed a blanket and climbed into the car. We put the seats back and laid under the blanket waiting for the cavalry to arrive. The night was clear and cool with stars visible overhead. Coyotes wailed in the distance. I tried relaxing but I was simmering with anger.
“Isn’t this romantic,” Dana said.
“Not really,” I said.
“I love that cologne you’re wearing. It’s sexy.”
She snuggled against my shoulder. I pulled away in disgust. An hour passed when we heard a loud horn. I saw a large tow truck backing toward the boat landing. I jumped out of the Renault and hurried to shore. The driver stepped out of the truck. He was a Middle-Eastern man with a thick mustache and unruly eyebrows.
“Thank God you found us,” I said. “Thank you, thank you.”
I pointed to the car. “We’re stuck.”
“You drove into the lake?”
There was nothing I could say to properly explain the events leading to this moment.
“It was stupid,” I said.
“Can you get us out?”
He released the hydraulic winch on the truck and unspooled about 50 feet of cable. He rolled up his trousers, grabbed the winch hook and slogged through the lake to the car. I followed. He reached underneath the car and hooked the winch onto an axle. He leaned over the driver side and shifted the car into neutral.
“You should get out of the car,” he told Dana.
“I’m staying here,” she said.
“Your choice,” he replied.
I followed him to shore. He turned on the hydraulic winch and the cable became taut causing the car to jerk backwards. A large spout of water splashed on Dana. She screamed.
“Can you do that again,” I asked.
He ignored me and hauled the car to shore. He tried opening the driver side door.
“It’s stuck,” I told him.
He climbed into the front seat and turned the ignition. The car still wouldn’t start.
“Maybe there’s water in the intake valve. We’ll need to tow it,” he said.
I was ready for this nightmare to be over. I gave him the address to Dana’s apartment. I’d worry about getting myself home later. The driver hooked up the Renault and we all got into the truck cab. The drive to the valley was awkward and silent. I tried making conversation to lighten the mood.
“What country are you from,” I asked the driver.
“I come from a country where people do not drive into lakes.”
That made Dana laugh. We took the freeway back to her apartment. The driver maneuvered the Renault to the curb. I thanked him and apologized for not having money for a tip. He grunted and drove away.
“Well, it’s been interesting,” I said to Dana.
“How are you going to get home?”
“I’ll call a friend.”
“You want to come up,” she asked.
It had been a long time since a woman asked me that question. Despite everything that happened, I said yes. We walked upstairs. As she searched for her keys, I heard Poopie barking behind the door. I wondered how he’d gotten out of the bedroom. The door opened and the handsome guy from the bathroom photos stood in the doorway holding Poopie.
“There you are,” he said.
Dana’s face betrayed surprise.
“I thought you were out of town until next week,” she said.
“The meeting was cancelled.” He looked me up and down. “Who’s this?”
I dropped my gaze.
“This is my friend,” Dana said. “He took me dinner, no big deal.”
“Yeah right,” the guy said.
Dana grabbed Poopie and walked past Mr. Handsome. “See you later,” she said to me as she disappeared into the apartment. Her boyfriend perused me with scorn.
“You can go now,” he said closing the door in my face. I heard him yell behind the door, “What the hell, Dana?” I walked toward the stairwell. I looked over the railing and saw the obese man from earlier grilling burgers near the pool. He waved. I waved back. I took a deep breath and exited the building. I had a long night ahead.