Authors: Marisa de los Santos
Tags: #Romance, #Adult, #Chick-Lit, #Contemporary
For David Teague
You’re the Nile
You’re the Tower of Pisa
life—my real life—started when a man walked into it, a handsome stranger in a perfectly cut suit, and, yes, I know how that sounds. My friend Linny would snort and convey the kind of multi-pronged disgust I rely on her to convey. One prong of feminist disgust at the whole idea of a man changing a woman’s life, even though, as things turned out, the man himself was more the harbinger of change than the change itself. Another prong of disgust for the inaccuracy of saying my life began after thirty-one years of living it. And the final prong being a kind of general disgust for the way people turn moments in their lives into movie moments.
I do this more than I should, I’ll give her that, but there
something backlit and sudden about his walking through the door of the café I managed. If the floor had been bare and not covered with tables, chairs, people, and dogs, the autumnal late-morning sun would have slung his narrow shadow dramatically across the floor in a real Orson Welles shot. But Linny can jab me with her three-pronged disgust fork all she wants, and I’d still say that my life started on that October morning when a man walked through the door.
It was an ordinary day—palpably ordinary, if that makes any sense, like it was asserting its smooth usualness. A Saturday, loud, smoke already piling up and hovering like weather over me and the customers in Café Dora. I sat where I always sat when I wasn’t waiting on someone—on a high stool behind the counter—and I watched Hayes and Jose play chess. Everyone said they were good players. They themselves said they were. “Not prodigy good,” said Hayes. “Not Russian, Deep-freakin’-Blue-playing good. But hell.” Hayes was from Texas and wrote the wine column for the
. He liked to swear in offbeat ways, liked to walk in, turn a chair around backward with a bang, and straddle it.
As I watched, Jose lifted his shaggy head, gave Hayes a liquid-eyed, sorrowful look, and moved a chess piece from one square to another. I don’t know the game well, but whatever Jose had done, it must have been something, because Hayes tossed back his head and hooted, “Hot damn, boy! You pulled that one
out of your ass!” Hayes looked at me with a wry smile and a genial cowboy twinkle in his eye, and I lifted one corner of my mouth in a kind of rueful facial shrug. “What can you do?” my face said.
But don’t get attached to Hayes. As he was already in the room, he’s obviously not the man who walked into it bearing the new life on his shoulders, and he doesn’t finally figure into this story much. Not sure why I started with Hayes, except that in lots of ways he’s a neat little embodiment of the old life: a self-invented, smartish, semialluring wine snob disguised as a cowboy, not un-nice, with fairly amusing comments tripping off his tongue and probably a real person under there somewhere, but possibly not. In college, I read
in which this man Will goes on a journey and runs into characters like Holy Church and Gluttony. Think of Hayes as a character like that: Typical-Denizen-of-Cornelia’s-Old-Life. I’ve always found allegories kind of comforting. When you encounter people named Liar and Abstinence, you might not be crazy about them, but you know exactly what you’re getting into.
Another regular, Phaedra, made her entrance, all blowsy auburn curls, leather pants, and nursing-mother breasts, and tugging a giant black pram behind her—one of those English nanny prams with high, white rubber tires. Five people jumped up and nearly cracked one another’s skulls trying to hold the door open for her. Phaedra directed a beseeching look at the couple sitting at the table nearest the door, a look that turned out to be unnecessary. The man and woman were already hustling up their cappuccinos, jackets, camera bags, and backpacks on metal frames, not minding a bit.
“Cornelia!” Phaedra sang at me across the room in just the sort of musical voice you’d expect to come out of her mouth. “Could you? Café au lait? Loads of sugar? And something sinful!” We don’t have table service. Phaedra made a helpless, sighing gesture with her shoulders and her long hands, indicating her child, her exhaustion, the whole ancient weight of motherhood. Phaedra was a pain. But Allegra was a different story. Bearing the coffee and a croissant, I came out from behind my counter and made my zigzag way around tables and dogs for the sake of Phaedra’s baby, Allegra.
And there she was, wrapped in a leopard-print blanket, just waking up. A blue-eyed, translucent, bewitching witch of a baby, fresh as new bread in that smoky room. Allegra resembled Phaedra, same white skin, same glorious Carole Lombard forehead, but with carrot-orange hair that flew out in all directions. I waited for the pang; the pang came. I never saw Allegra without wanting to touch her, specifically to sleep with her in the crook of my right arm. I put the croissant and the coffee in front of Phaedra, then cradled my elbows with my hands. Allegra was asleep and making nursing motions with her mouth because what else would babies dream about?
“Face it. You want one,” said Phaedra. With effort, I shifted my gaze from gorgeous child to gorgeous pain-in-the-ass mother. “See that?” said Phaedra. “You had to literally drag your eyes away from her.” Ouch, I thought, and then sat down to talk for a minute, Phaedra’s misuse of the word “literally” having created a warm spot in my heart, tiny but large enough to prompt a five-minute conversation.
“How’s business?” I asked. Phaedra was a jewelry designer.
“Not good. I’m starting to think people just don’t
it,” said Phaedra. Her signature pieces, or what would be her signature pieces if anyone bought and wore them, were made out of sea glass and platinum, a juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary, Phaedra claimed, that forced one to rethink one’s perceptions of “value” and “preciousness.” Maybe people didn’t get it. Or maybe they got it but didn’t feel sufficiently moved to shell out eight hundred dollars for a bracelet made of old Heineken bottles.
Phaedra lifted her coffee to her lips, eyeing me brightly through the steam. “Cornelia, what if you wore some of the pieces in the café, just to generate in-ter-est?” Her tone suggested the idea had just popped into her head. In fact, this was the third time she’d asked.
“I can’t wear jewelry at work,” I said, not elaborating but rolling my eyes in a way I hoped suggested some unseen powers-that-be who hovered over me, forbidding jewelry. The truth was that I never wore jewelry anywhere, ever. I’m five feet tall and built like a preteen, eighty-five pounds soaking wet, as my father says, and my fear is that, given my smallness, jewelry will make me look like a geegaw or doodad, a spangly ornament to hang on a tree. It’s a shame, too, because I adore it. Not so much Phaedra’s kind—cool, angular objects—but serious jewels: diamonds, cuffs and chokers, brooches like shooting stars, tiaras. Jean Harlow jewels, Irene Dunne on the ship in
Allegra stirred in her leopard-print nest, yawned, and shot out a fist. Phaedra lifted her onto her lap, instantly dipping her swan neck, dropping her face into the orange hair, breathing in her child’s scent. An authentic gesture, automatic, unstudied. I felt prickles shoot down my arms. I touched a finger to Allegra’s hand, and she gripped it hard and hung on.
have one, you know,” said Phaedra, harping, and this instantly got my hackles up, until I saw her face, which was something like kind. Phaedra was always a better person with Allegra in her arms. So I just trilled a little laugh and said, breezily, “Me with a baby. Can you imagine?”
“Of course, I can. Perfectly,” said Phaedra. “And so can you.”
While I resented her smug smile, and while I’d have died before admitting it to her, I had to admit to myself that she was at least partly right: I couldn’t imagine it
, but I could imagine it. Had imagined it, in fact, more than once. But, every time, what brought me to my senses was my conviction that before a person dropped a new life into this world, she should probably get a real one herself.
The truth was, I was treading water and had been for some time. If you’re wondering why a thirty-something woman who had gone to all the trouble of attending a university and slogging through medieval allegorical texts had risen no higher on the career food chain than café manager, I don’t blame you. I wondered myself. And the best answer I’d come up with was that I hadn’t figured out anything better—not yet. If I were to ever have a full-fledged vocation, as opposed to a half-assed avocation, I needed to love it and, in my experience, it isn’t always easy to figure out what you love. You’d think it would be, but it isn’t. Also, if you stay in it for any length of time, like anyplace else, a café becomes a world.
I felt suddenly weary, looking at Phaedra and Allegra and the shining black pram. And if a woman weighing less than ninety pounds can be said to heave herself, I heaved myself out of my seat and lugged myself back to my spot behind the bar.
All of which is meant to demonstrate the ordinariness of the day and how the ordinariness was even taking on shades of dreariness and futility. Because you have to understand what my life was like in the “before” in order to see just how much it changed in the “after.” Ordinary, ordinary. Except that—and I honestly believe this, Linny’s pooh-poohing of movie moments notwithstanding—just before, a minute before the café door opened one more time, the ordinary day turned itself up a notch, in preparation.
The light falling through the high, arched windows went from mellow to brilliant, turning the old copper of the espresso machine to pure gold. And the music—Sarah Vaughan, whom I worship, singing George and Ira, whom I worship—was suddenly floating and dipping like some kind of bird in the clear space above the cigarette smoke and chitchat. The coffee smelled sublime, the flowers I’d bought that morning pierced the air with their blueness, the coffee cups lost their chips and glowed eggshell-thin, and standing in my red sweater and vintage suede skirt, my boots solidly on the floor, I felt almost tall.
The door of Café Dora opened, and Cary Grant walked in.
you haven’t seen
The Philadelphia Story,
stop what you are doing, rent it, and watch it. It’s probably overstating the point to say that until you watch it, you will have been living a partial and colorless life. However, it is definitely on the list of perfect things. You know what I mean, the list that includes the starry sky over the desert, grilled cheese sandwiches,
The Great Gatsby,
the Chrysler building, Ella Fitzgerald singing “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If You Ain’t Got That Swing),” white peonies, and those little sketches of hands by Leonardo da Vinci.
If you have seen it, then you know there’s a moment when Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord steps from a poolside cabana. She’s got a straight white dream of a dress hanging from her tiny collarbones, a dress fluted and precise as a Greek column but light and full of the motion of smoke. A paradox of a dress, a marriage of opposites that just makes your teeth hurt it’s so exactly right.
I was fourteen when I first saw it. It was three days before Christmas, which in my family’s house meant, means, and will always mean, Yuletide sensory overload: every room stuffed to the gills with garland and holly, the whole place booming with Johnny Mathis, and a monstrosity of a tree towering in the living room, weighed down with ornaments of every description, including dozens defying description that my brothers, sister, and I had made in school over the years.
Fourteen was not a good year for me. I was the latest of late bloomers, of course, about two feet high and scrawny as a cat, still shopping in the children’s department, profoundly allergic to every member of my family, and convinced that nothing could make me happy.
But then my grouchy channel-surfing landed me in the middle of a black-and-white heaven: Tracy, the dress.
I was so struck, I forgot how to swallow and began to truly asphyxiate on a sip of 7-Up. And when, a little later, Tracy unfastened the belt from her willow waist and slipped her faultlessly formed self out of that faultlessly formed garment, I stood up and yelled, “Holy shit, that’s her
bathing suit cover-up
!” which my father, who was sitting on the floor fastening—no joke—jingle bells to the collars of our cats, did not appreciate.
I turned every atom of myself over to the rest of the movie. People must’ve gone tearing through the room, because people always did go tearing through rooms, especially my brothers Cam and Toby, who were eight and nine at the time. But a volcano could have begun spewing molten rock inches away from me, and I would not have noticed. I sat. I watched. If a girl could sling a poem over her swimwear as though it were an old T-shirt, what else might be possible?
I slid my fingers over my face, feeling for Tracy’s winged cheekbones. And when Dexter (Cary Grant) took Tracy to task, saying, “You’ll never be a first-rate woman or a first-rate human being until you have some regard for human frailty,” I recognized it as wisdom and wondered whether I had it, that kind of regard, and just how to get it if I didn’t.
In college, I took a film studies class subtitled something like “Turning the Formula on Its Head” in which the professor talked about the trick
The Philadelphia Story
pulls off. It should never have worked: creating a fantastic love scene between two characters whom you know are not in love with each other, getting you somehow to root for them wholeheartedly during the scene, but then to feel completely satisfied when they end up with other people.
Before you get the wrong impression, you should know that I’m not and never was one of those film people, the kind who argue into the wee hours about the auteur theory and whether Spielberg is the new Capra, or whether John Huston impacts, in unseen ways, every second of American life. I don’t know from camera angles, and I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of pre–World War II German cinema, but I fell a little in love with the film professor when he looked upon us with shining eyes and proclaimed, “No, it should not work. But work it does!” because he was so passionate and right.