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As Lexi Steiner walked down the hallway of the federal court building in San Diego, she decided that sleeping with men you didn't care about was an acquired taste and that she had acquired it.
There were four or five of them. David Wiley, whom she was having dinner with that night in Los Angeles, would be the fifth. Or maybe the sixth. She listened to the heels of her high-heeled sandals click against the marble floor. The rubber heels were worn down to the wood. She swung her briefcase into her other hand, took the stairs down to the underground parking lot. The click echoed in the stairwell. She would be okay once she got into her car, once she got on the freeway. She would turn the radio up loud and try to forget what had happened in the courtroom upstairs. The sting would be gone by the time she got to L.A. By Monday, when she had to report to Mark, she would be better. With any luck, between now and then, closer to now, she was going to get laid.
She opened the door of her old Toyota and threw her briefcase across to the other seat, ignoring the papers that fell out of it and landed on the floor between the Styrofoam cups and empty beer cans.
"Miss Steiner. Is that you?"
She looked around. A woman with glasses was scuttling across the lot, holding out a small piece of paper. "I work in the Judge's office. I have a message for you."
Lexi reached her hand out of the car window and took the piece of paper. "Thank you. Sorry for the trouble."
"Glad I found you before it was too late." The woman walked away. The message read: Call Mark—Important. She crumpled it into a ball and flicked it over her shoulder into the back seat.
She rarely made him wait, but this time he would have to. She would stop on the freeway and call him. Maybe. No. She would, but not now. She drove up the ramp into the sunlight and lowered the visor to keep it out of her eyes. When she stopped to call Mark, she would try Nell again in New York. They had been missing each other's calls for days.
She drove north on I-5 and wondered about David Wiley's sudden interest in her. In the year she had known him, all his solicitations had been strictly professional, all could be answered on the telephone. He had called her a few days before, just as she was leaving for the trial in San Diego. He was in L.A. for the week and wanted to talk to her about Esterbrook's charges that illegal aliens had been registered to vote. They hadn't been, she had told him. There wasn't much to say. Reporters had been calling about this for two weeks and she was getting tired of denying it. Wiley was the last person she had expected to hear from on it. He didn't usually write about immigration.
"It's not an immigration story," he had said, "it's an election story. Esterbrook's running for Congress."
"But there's no story."
"Then why's Esterbrook spending so much time telling me they're being registered?"
"It's the only thing he says that anyone pays attention to."
"But how can you be sure he's wrong? Where's the evidence?"
"Ask him. He's the one trying to make the case."
"Sounds like you've been through this a few times today."
"Let's put it this way. The Center has better things to do than answer for Esterbrook."
"Things like what?"
"It would take a while."
"I've got time."
"I'm sorry. I don't right now. I'm leaving for San Diego in a few minutes and won't be back until late Friday. I'll have plenty of time to talk on Monday."
"I'm going back to New York early Saturday."
"Let's talk on the phone sometime."
"I'd rather not." The negotiations continued. Could she be back in L.A. for a late dinner on Friday? She wasn't sure what time she'd be through in San Diego. He was loose on time, he said. "I don't mind eating late—and I really want to see you." The timbre of his voice had shifted suddenly; a quiet, unexpected leap from the professional to the personal. She froze, the receiver wedged between her ear and her shoulder. After a long pause, she said, "It can be arranged." Good line. Two can play this game. Avoid personal pronouns when the stakes change. I'd love to. Don't give him that, especially when you don't know what he wants. "I'll call you when I get back to L.A. Where can I reach you?" A bit sultry, easing into the part. If he wanted information about immigration, she could give him that on the phone. But if he wanted something else—
"The Bonaventure. By the way, what are you doing in San Diego?"
"Suing the cops. They arrested some Mexican-Americans because they couldn't prove they were U.S. citizens. But you're slipping, Wiley—that should have been your first question."
He laughed. This was getting serious, Wiley laughing. In a year of talking to him, she had never heard him laugh. "Tell me more," he said.
"You blew it. I'll let you know Friday."
"And bring whatever you can-transcripts, briefs."
"You never stop being a reporter, do you?" She liked playing with him, once she could feel him bend.
"Did you ever think about getting an honest job?"
"What's wrong with reporting?"
"It's kind of sleazy. You know, knocking on people's doors, asking nosey questions."
"I think there's more to it than that." But he didn't sound sure.
"Let's talk about it Friday."
Today was Friday and she fiddled now with the knobs on the radio. Nothing was coming in clearly, except the sound of David Wiley's disembodied voice, which was the only thing about him she could recall. They had met briefly, only once. Their calls until the other day had been short, unchatty, to the point. She had decided a long time ago that he was either bored or boring, but sometimes useful, with a name, a phone number, a piece of information.
She had come to like reporters and the shorthand of their trade: I think I've got a story for you. I can't go on the record with this, but I can tell you who might be able to. Are you on deadline? Another fraternity, another set of passwords, but swifter and simpler than her own. She said something on Wednesday and it was in the paper on Thursday. A touchdown. Her own work was more like a primitive military campaign. Minus the heroism anyway. Except the night Mark got very drunk at a bar in South Texas, in the next town over from where they had just argued a case, and banged his fists on the table and ranted, "Let's go kick some redneck ass," and the bartender said did he want to go out back and see whose ass would be kicked or did he just want to leave real quiet and not come back.
But as for Wiley—he would probably be easy and take her someplace nice for dinner. Reporters always had big expense accounts. So did some of the others, the ones who lived in different places around the country and came to L.A. on business, or arranged to meet her in the cities where she went on business. She saw them at conferences, courthouses, cocktail parties. And hotels. She almost forgot hotels. Assignations in expensive rooms with color televisions, brand-new faucets and deluxe shower nozzles, matching furniture and wake-up calls. So perfect it was camp, kitsch, a model room in a department store not meant for living. But there you were anyway, and quite often with a man.
It occurred to her that the best part was telling the stories to Nell. Which reminded her to stop at the next exit to call her. She negotiated her way across the five lanes of traffic just in time to take the truck-stop turn.
"Jesus, Lexi, where have you been?"
"San Diego. I've tried you seventeen times. I keep getting that fucking machine. That was me, hanging up all those times."
"You should see some of the other crap my brother's got around this place. Gadgets out the wazoo. He and Marie have this thing hooked up to the tv so they can play space games. He's thirty-two years old and he's playing games with little dots called Space Invaders, for hours at a time—what is that noise?"
"Where are you?"
"A truck stop on I-5."
"Are you serious?"
"Of course. Listen." She opened the phone-booth door and held the receiver up in the air for about ten seconds. "Did you hear that?" she shouted. They laughed wildly.
"Lexi, what are you on?"
"Nothing, except diesel fumes. Which reminds me. Boz came by the other night on his way to Mexico, and he left some dope that even he wouldn't bring into Mexico."
"Guess who I'm having dinner with in an hour," Nell said.
"You've got one guess."
"Oh no. Eric Lord."
"Was he surprised to hear from you?"
"I'd say so. It sounded like he dropped the phone. And you'll be pleased to know that he asked about you. I told him we were still as hot an item as ever, even though you made me move to California and I hate it."
"I didn't make you move. You followed me to San Francisco."
"What was I supposed to do—stay in New York by myself?"
"You're the one who moved to L.A.," Lexi said. "I followed you there."
"Yeah, but I think you still owe me one. Anyway, Eric was delighted to hear you've made something of yourself—I gave him a few highlights."
"I would have thought you'd have other things to talk about after all these years."
"You and he do have something of a past."
"I've done worse things than dance with a married man. Even if it was your man."
"Not exactly mine. And for the record, he's not married anymore."
"Don't you remember, he called me when he got divorced."
"I thought that was what's-his-name."
"He did too. Listen, do you think I should get married?"
"No, in general."
"You've been telling me for years that getting married is a lot of hokey crap."
"Are you blaming me for the fact that the institution of marriage stifles and oppresses over one half of the race in every possible way?"
"A minute ago you wanted to get married."
Lexi shouted, "Wait a second!" and waited for a truck to pass. "A minute ago you wanted to get married."
"I changed my mind. Maybe I just want to get laid."
"I thought you're going to write the definitive book in praise of single womanhood. Aren't you going to talk to that editor on Monday?"
"Yeah, but I'm getting cold feet. I've been thinking that maybe it'll have a surprise ending—just kidding, folks, they're all miserable."
"Do you think they are?"
"Of course, but if I were married I'd be really miserable."
"But don't you think it would be nice to have someone to hang out with?"
"You can hang out with me."
"Lexi, you work all the time. I haven't seen you in two weeks."
"That's because you've been in New York all week. When are you coming back?"
"Thursday. Jesus—what time is it?"
Lexi looked at her watch. "Four-thirty."
"That means it's seven-thirty. I'm about to be late for Mr. Lord. I've got to run. I may have to call you later, if this dinner is a disaster."
"I won't be home. I'm having dinner with this guy tonight."
"A new one."
"A guy named Wiley."
"Talk louder. I can't hear you."
"A guy named Wiley."
"I still can't hear you."
"There isn't a truck anywhere. Have you gone deaf?"
"The connection just got awful. Call me tomorrow. Lexi, can you hear me?"
She dropped another dime into the phone and called her office in L.A. collect. Mark wasn't in. Did she want to speak to Emma? Yes. Emma was the secretary they shared.
"Two things," Emma said. "One. Call Nell. She's called three times. Do you have the number?"
"Two. Someone from Channel Seven invited Mark to do a news show on Sunday afternoon, but he's got to go to New York. He wanted me to find out if you were going to be in town."
That was Mark's shorthand: if you were in town, you were automatically available. And if you weren't, you made yourself. "Yes," Lexi said, "I'll be in town. What's the show about?"
"The election—what else? It'll be a ten-minute debate between you and Esterbrook."
"I'm afraid so."
"I think I'm going to move to Orange County just so I can vote for whoever's running against him." She twirled the phone cord around her forefinger. "If you leave the information on my desk, I'll pick it up Sunday morning."
"Good. How'd the trial go?"
"I think the bad guys won. Again." She noticed she was tapping her foot against the floor of the phone booth, in time to the clattering of her nerves. She stopped. "One of our clients had a little too much to drink at lunch. The U.S. Attorney made him look like a fool. But do me a favor. Let me tell Mark about it."
"Sure. I haven't heard a thing. Did I tell you Nell called?"
"Yes. Anything else?"
"Take the rest of the day off."
"I plan to. See you Monday."
Back in the car, she tossed her shoes into the back seat, rolled a joint of Boz's dope and headed out the serpentine road to the freeway. She slipped into the second lane from the shoulder. She thought about having dinner with David Wiley. She wondered if she would have anything to tell Nell when it was over. She wondered if men confided in each other the way they did. Or did men only confide in each other about the liaisons that pulled at their heart strings? If Lexi and Nell waited for those, they would have nothing to talk about.
Lexi had taken only a few of them, the four or five in this series of men she didn't care about, to her house in Venice Beach, at the edge of Santa Monica. It was rundown, cluttered with books, Mexican rugs, photographs of friends, a freeway sign that said, TURN AROUND YOU ARE GOING THE WRONG WAY. Leaky faucets. No television. A collection of small cacti Nell had given her because she could never remember to water anything. And let's face it, Nell had said, you're never fucking home. Sometimes when she returned from a trip, Nell had flowers sent to the house, "You are my everything" scribbled in the florist's hand on the small card stuck in between the chrysanthemums.
The men Lexi slept with these days were older, distinguished, smooth. They fit better in hotels than in her house. Serious practitioners of law. Dedicated purveyors of seduction. The first one so taken with himself that he had barely noticed how green she had been on their first date, just out of law school and starting her job at the L.A. Immigrant Service Center. She had been hungry then for grownup sanction—though what she usually ended up getting was a pat on the ass. Now, three years later, there was really no excuse for being such a groupie. Fucking for the disadvantaged and the undocumented: her clients, the clients of the men she slept with, sometimes their mutual clients.
What bothered her now wasn't that she had slept with them but that it had mattered so much at the time, until she learned to be cool about it, like they were. Water off a duck's back. Call it Sex and Adventure, not Love and Ambition.
Love and Ambition was what she and Nell had agreed in college kept them going. It was Nell who introduced the phrase into their vocabulary, Nell who assigned small worries grand titles: Love and Ambition, The Conservation of Misery in the Universe, an Extreme Case of the Human Condition. Or a flight of metaphysics: "What, say, is the point of a green light that's not green long enough for you to cross the street?"
It was Nell's theatrics that had first impressed Lexi when they met at the beginning of their senior year in college, in the campus apartment overlooking Broadway that they were assigned to share. Lexi was suspicious at first, thought Nell was just playful and cute, not seriously interested in either Lexi or herself. Nell wasn't going to be boring, or dull, but she might be terminally flip. Lexi wasn't sure and she couldn't tell from looking. Nell was tall and blonde and full, blue-eyed, dimpled, more in the mode of the Vermont Maid than Marilyn Monroe. All sturdy, country innocence, always in overalls and hiking boots. She talked about climbing mountains in the Northwest. She talked about getting laid.
"Let's see if I've got this straight," Nell said a few days into the semester, standing at the kitchen counter in their apartment. "You left this guy after living with him for a year because you were bored." Nell broke three eggs into a clear glass bowl. Lexi watched her. Maybe Nell wanted that—not to be sized up, but to be the center of things. "But now he's getting it on with someone else and you're miserable." She nodded. "I've got one of those too." Nell poured the eggs into an oiled pan. "But the person he's getting it on with is his wife." The eggs sizzled. "You want some of this omelet?"
"What's that smell?"
"Feta cheese. Or maybe it's the dead mouse under the refrigerator. God, this place is a dump. Did I tell you I might have VD?" Lexi started. "I'm not kidding. I met this guy when I was taking the train across Canada on my way here, a few weeks before school started. He called me yesterday and said I should go to a doctor."
Excerpted from Slow Dancing by Elizabeth Benedict. Copyright © 1985 Elizabeth Benedict. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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