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In Los Angeles, it isn't who you are, it's where you're seated...
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We meet at a Barnes and Noble after I accidentally spill my mocha frappuccino on the cover of her Yale Shakespeare.
"Jesus," she says. "What kind of moron are you?"
"The kind who will buy you another book," I say. She doesn't say anything. I stare at her for what seems to me like a very long time. I know there are bones beneath her skin, but right now she looks like a ghost. When she does smile, I feel something twinge in my stomach.
She stands up to see if any frappuccino has gotten on her expensive business suit. It hasn't. "Well," she says and then makes an exaggerated look over both of her shoulders. No one is watching us. She leans forward and whispers, "You don't need to buy the book. I haven't bought it yet."
She slips her arm through mine and begins chatting me up as though we are husband and wife. "Did you pick up the kids? I think the dog has worms. I invited the Andersons over for dinner." Before I really understand what is happening, we are standing outside and she is holding the Yale Shakespeare volume, all 800 pages and $65 worth, under one arm.
"That's a pretty slick maneuver," I say. "Do you usually work alone?"
"I don't make a habit of shoplifting, if that's what you're asking." We are standing next to a convertible black Saab, and she tosses the book into the backseat. "I can certainly afford to buy a book." That much is certainly true. Her car is maybe a '91, but at one time she had to pay $35,000 for it. I take inventory: diamond earrings, Cartier watch, triple-banded gold necklace; her suit alone cost more than I put down on my car. My final cursory check of her jewelry finds no wedding ring.
"I'd love to work with you again," I say, extending my hand. "I'm Lonnie."
"Claire." Her palm is warm and soft against mine and I don't want to let go of it. I hold on.
"Do you think I could call you sometime?" I ask, holding her for just a moment longer than I should.
"No," Claire says, "you don't have my number." She gets into her car and starts the engine. I stand there and just stare at her because I can't think what else I should do. "Do you have a business card or something, Lonnie?" I fumble through my wallet and find one of my Staff Genius cards and hand it to her. She reads it for a moment. "'Account Manager,'" she says. "Color me impressed. I'll be in touch."
Claire calls on a Tuesday afternoon when Charlie and Julie are out to lunch.
"I didn't think you'd call," I say. "I thought I kind of freaked you or something."
"Because you held my hand too long or because you stared at me like I was a meal?" It feels like every wall in my office has jumped forward and the air has become thick and hot. I loosen my tie. "Either way," she says, "it was flattering."
I don't say anything again because everything is too close.
"Do you have plans tonight?" Claire asks.
"No big Staff Genius mixer?"
"There are only a few of us," I say, "and we're already familiar with each other." She laughs then, but not at me. I don't think.
"Meet me at Intermezzo around nine for dinner," she says. "Do you know where that is?"
"Yes," I lie.
"Don't valet," she says and hangs up.
I relay my story to Charlie when he gets back from lunch. He smells as if he might have had a beer with his tuna sandwich.
"Intermezzo is pretty pricey," he says. "I used to take first dates there. Lotta Hollywood types and bottled water."
"How much can I look to spend?"
Charlie looks at me like I'm a madman. "This is the nineties, bro. She made the initial call, she made the initial date, she initials the credit card receipt. Simple formula."
"I can't do it that way," I say.
"Suit yourself," Charlie says. "But it's bad precedent for the rest of us."
I have two pairs of black pants that I consider fashionable, three pairs of khaki pants that make me look like an ad for J. Crew, and several dress shirts suitable for the office but unsuitable for the Hollywood in-crowd. I try on everything I own. I mix and match. I button my dress shirts up to my collar and strike model poses.
I call my sister, Karen.
"Just don't wear a turtleneck," she says. "You'll look like a fag."
It's seven forty-five. I put on the least wrinkled, most fashionable of my two pairs of black pants and an undershirt. I drive to Charlie's apartment and pound on the door.
"Sweet Christ," Charlie says. "How about a little less cologne. You smell like a hooker."
"I need to borrow a shirt," I say. "Something cool."
"Pick whatever," Charlie says, leading me to his bedroom and opening his closet door. "Just promise to wash it when you're through."
It's eight-fifteen and I am going blind staring into a closet filled with ugly shirts.
"I need help," I say. "I've gotta be over the hill in forty-five."
Charlie pulls a purple silk shirt off a hanger and hands it to me. "This shirt is a magnet. I've worn it to Intermezzo a handful of times. Just take your undershirt off and you're straight."
When I put the shirt on, it feels soft on my chest. It feels like Claire's handshake. "I like it," I say.
"Three words for you if you get busy in it," Charlie says. "Dry. Clean. Only."
It takes me ten minutes to find a parking place on Melrose. When I walk into the restaurant Claire is sitting at a table drinking wine.
"Sorry I'm late," I say.
"You didn't valet, did you?"
"No." Claire smiles. This is something she does often, I think. Her teeth are perfect symmetry. She reaches across the table and touches my hand.
"Why are you shaking?"
"I didn't know I was," I say. She is still touching my hand when the waiter comes by and asks if I'd like something to drink. "Just water," I start to say, but Claire cuts me off.
"Bring us a bottle of merlot," she says, then takes the wrist of the waiter into her free hand. "And make it your best." She holds him for a moment, and I'm just an accessory. The waiter looks at Claire's hand on his wrist. I see color rise in his cheeks. She is touching him because he is there. "Thank you," Claire says, and the waiter is gone.
"You look very nice, Claire," I say.
"Don't say my name!"
"Don't call me Claire," she whispers.
I'm confused, anxious. I feel as if all the conversations in the restaurant have been turned up a thousand decibels.
"She couldn't have said that," a woman says.
"Word for word," another woman says.
I want to put my hands over my ears to drown out the sound, to stop the conversations from running over me, but I see Claire is leaning forward. She touches my hand again.
"You didn't think I was going to pay for this," Claire says, throwing herself against the air with laughter. "Did you?"
"No," I say. I understand now. This is not a date. She is touching me because she touches everyone. She stretches herself out and touches the waiter. She touches her silverware. Her glass. She is part of a scene. I am a bit player.
"Now," Claire says quietly. "Choose a name. We need to make this real."
"Right," I say.
"And no true stories, nothing anyone can overhear that will matter."
"Of course," I say, remembering our conversation inside Barnes and Noble. We are working together again.
"The flight in was horrible," Claire says loudly. "Five hours of screaming children and an overbooked first class. I wasn't about to take coach."
"I know what that's like." I pause for a moment, seeing that the couple next to us is listening. "That's why I bought the Gulf Stream," I say. "Hell, I'd rather drop a couple hundred grand into a plane than deal with that kind of noise."
This is not my skin.
These are not my words.
I feel electric.
Claire lifts the wine glass to her lips and drinks. I pour her more expensive wine.
I order grilled salmon, covered in shallots on a bed of garlic spinach. Price: $63. Claire orders the broiled lamb salad, served warm, and escargot. Price: $80.
"An excellent choice," our waiter says. He is model handsome. Claire lets her eyes linger over his body.
Former teen idol Rick Springfield is having a glass of iced tea and a small dinner salad. Robert Urich is waiting at the bar for a table. Jennifer Love Hewitt is drinking Evian water.
Claire motions for a busboy. "More wine," she says to him. We've already finished two bottles, at a hundred bucks a pop.
"You need to go shopping," Claire says. "That shirt should be thrown out."
"There isn't a Gucci shop in Houston," I say. "And I like to be comfortable when I'm piloting the jet. So I just dug this out of the closet."
Claire lets a smile dart around the edges of her mouth.
We drink another two hundred dollars' worth of wine and then order dessert. Claire gets the chef's specialty, tiramisu. I order the crème brûlée. After dessert, but before we order our complimentary coffee, Claire goes to the bathroom to call a cab. The restaurant is packed. There are a hundred people eating dinner, another forty in the bar, and maybe another twenty-five waiting outside because they don't know anyone.
Our waiter drops off the check. He looks disappointed that Claire is away from the table.
"Great service," I say.
"It was my pleasure."
I pick up the check. $727.95.
The balance of my checking account is $521.13. I haven't paid my Visa bill in two months.
Twenty minutes later, the bill stuffed into Claire's purse, we walk out of the restaurant. Claire sticks her head into the kitchen and thanks the chef on the way out. "Brilliant again," she says.
We slide through the tight mob out front and find our cab parked in the red zone. The cabdriver takes us to our cars. I pay him twenty dollars.
"I'll call you," Claire says and is gone.
For three days, I wait by the phone. I'm not paranoid, but I like to think people say what they mean.
On day four, Claire calls me at eight in the morning.
"I hope I didn't wake you," she says.
"Not at all," I say. "I was just sitting here waiting for the phone to ring."
"I've been really busy," she says.
"Me too," I lie.
"Cremation is nothing compared to the week I've had," Claire says. I don't respond. It's like she is talking to someone else.
"Do you want to see me again?" Claire asks. Her voice is low now, something near a purr, and it makes me press the phone closer to my ear.
"I do," I say, before I even know I have said it.
"Not a couples thing," she says. "Just you and me."
Copyright © 2000 by Tod Goldberg