It was barely dusk with the sun lingering at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The two old friends — only approaching retirement age — stood side-by-side, looking out over the city. They were at a wall instead of pipe railings, for which Meier was famous, and they said nothing. His son-in-law had left them alone in case they did have something to ask or confess or admit. But there was nothing. Silence is sometimes eloquence.
The long plaza in front of the building had a reflection pond in it, not deep, but the water was exactly level with the travertine so that if there had been a shower, one couldn’t always tell the solid from the liquid and people walked into the water. Carefully designed benches had been strategically put along the edge to guide people away. But they didn’t want to sit. And they thought they could tell the solid from the water. At least in the architectural world.
He was a major success in Tinsel Town, making his living off preposterous assumptions that she had long ago discarded. They had parted ways after college, where they had been film buddies. Outsiders might have thought they paired off like birds in a courting context, but not. It was the Fifties and film was a revelation, even if a person weren’t enrolled in a sophisticated university. Not until Netflix was it again possible for a person with only a computer connection to watch film on that scale again. The impact on her was now quite different.
He stood gracefully, a handsome man, expensively dressed. To her older eye it was obvious that he was a gay married to a sympathetic woman. And so was the son-in-law. But she no longer defined gay in any kind of confining way — more as a center from which to act. But she was slowly realizing that he and his family thought she was also gay/lesbian and that was what had been the tie.
She was a lover of tough, competent, older cowboys — Western men capable of both ruthlessness and tenderness, even mixed and simultaneous. She saw that her friend was aesthetic and psychologically guarded. He’d been in therapy all his life. Of course, in this town, one had a therapist the way one had a good dentist — keeping things straight. To her, he seemed a shadow. She had no idea what she seemed to him now. A puzzle maybe. Maybe that’s why he had sent for her to celebrate this major award he was receiving.
In the past he’d come — with his wife — to visit her on the east slope of the Rockies but it was not a success. Her ancient primitive phone with a cat-chewed cord was not adequate and her old house was so small that the only way he could have privacy for what seemed to be intense arguments was to sit on the front stoop, which was only a cement slab. When he had insisted on taking her out to dinner, the best place for miles around had only one dusty bottle of champagne and it wasn’t chilled. He berated the waitress, who was a friend of hers and who looked at her with wounded eyes.
They had driven up to the mountains and the wife said, “Oh, how beautiful!” But neither of them was really looking and, if they had, they would not have understood it. They knew nothing about geology or weather patterns. Living on the LA delta, there was no need. So now, aware, she tried to look out over the jeweled valley below them where the lights were coming on. What did he see? “That’s Universal City over there. The studio had to sell it to make up their losses on Caesar and Cleopatra.”
When the town car chauffeur had seen her recognize her name on his placard, he smiled broadly. He’d wondered what she’d be like. They chatted on the way to the hotel which she understood later was very bad form. He was clearly trying to tempt her into telling him things that would help him curry favor. He laughed merrily when he left her at the hotel where she was rendezvousing with her host, though he wasn’t allowing her to stay there. He had arranged for her to stay with a famous editor in her “modest” house on Mulholland Drive, thinking that since she wrote, this would be a career advantage.
The desk clerk would not give her the room number or even use the house phone to call upstairs. Looking inscrutable, he made a soft-voiced call and soon the elevator had opened on her friend. It was clearly a place of assignation in a strange combination of secrecy and boasting. The lobby was furnished like a London men’s club.
She was famished but supper wasn’t until 9. They met his wife and a couple of screen writers and cinematographers for drinks. She was a very bad drinker, easily becoming confused, and consumed far too many breadsticks. He ordered her drinks — all with fancy names, evidently fashionable. The place was too dark to read faces and no one tried to include her in the gossip anyway.
So her head went off into memories of university, so long ago that women had to be checked in at the dorm by 10PM and no men could come past the entryway, unless they were relatives. It sounded almost Islamic now. But there were ways — duplicate keys to the back door, for instance — so she met her friend at a nearby all-night laundromat and they took the El into Chicago to the strange places where foreign and experimental films were shown. Sometimes they were a little sinister or in dubious parts of town, but the viewers were intense. No popcorn. She could not have gone to such places alone.
Bonds formed in such a setting were a strong entwining of emotion and rationality, subject and method, personal and universal, subjective and objective. Liminal, perhaps, on the threshold, nearly sacred and more felt than could be described, though they spent a lot of time over the days trying to figure it all out. They were so engaged in this conversation that others thought they MUST be sleeping together. But they were disembodied. No one thought of suggesting gay. They just weren’t sophisticated or experienced enough.
And now, he had — she suspected — fallen into a prescribed, expensive, political way of life while she had such a broad understanding of sexuality — dimensions, practices, accommodations — that something so binary as gay/straight was as irrelevant as male/female. Anyway, sexual desire and sexual identity had shrunk in both of their lives, crowded out by success on his side and something on her side that she called “environmentalism” but it was much more sensory than that would imply.
When he dropped her off at the editor’s house, going past the gate by using the electronic code pad like an ATM, he didn’t come in but the woman met her at the door and showed her the bedroom. It was mercifully plain except for the sheet of glass that was one wall. The view, like the one from the Getty, was out across the valley, but on that first night there had been a thunderstorm traveling through with actual lightning striking here and there, occasionally exploding something electrical (transformers?) so that sirens — faint and far away — would trail throbbing through the streets behind strobing lights of fire trucks.
The two women sat outside a little while, editor with her customary bedtime Ovaltine and guest with club soda to settle an unaccustomed sort of food. Was that pureed parsnips with caramalized cranberries? At home she fried parsnips cut into coins and liked them, but never thought of cranberries. If she had and if she’d HAD cranberries, which the local stores only carried at Thanksgiving, she’d have just thrown a handful into the pan. Maybe she’d try it. Someday.
The editor had inquired politely but guardedly about her writing, but was a bit baffled that she wrote about landscapes and natural history — not politically, either, but in her own way. “My dear, you really must develop a platform in order to sell, or no one will know what shelf is for your books or how to promote your image.” Then she saw the guest’s face and — since she was not stupid — said softly, “Of course, books are no longer put on shelves and you are a reality — not an image.”
Now, the big celebration (ordeal) over and fatigue making the friends mellow, they stood at the Getty as though on the balcony of a Mediterranean villa in some time-out-of-time, their present lives fading to make room for memory. Had they actually stood together this way on the El platform with stars barely visible through the heat-trembled air and felt merged, empowered and shaken by what they had seen? Or was that just a kind of derivative memory of the powerful films?
The son-in-law came up from behind and put an arm over each. “Ready to go?” They were. Flying back home, she decided she and her friend were related but different species who had shared an environment — all those elms and all those paths. Crocus in spring.