The Empty Light
by Irene French Harvey
I handed the cashier my Gelson's charge card and held my breath. I didn't have enough cash for the three-cheese white popcorn, box of tuna sushi and the jumbo carton of maxi pads, and I had rehearsed the raised eyebrow of displeasure. Look entitled, Jake would say. Try to remember that your car costs more than most people make in a year and act accordingly. Yes, but now I was sleeping in it.
I gulped down the last of my free coffee and crushed the Styrofoam cup into jagged pieces. I threw in a pack of sugarless gum at the last moment—like any distracted Pacific Palisades housewife who was picking up a few things at Gelson's, Los Angeles' carriage trade supermarket. I'd seen Steven Spielberg fondling the imported yogurts and Sally Fields staring at the five different kinds of potatoes. Everything from the canned goods to the tomatoes sat in perfect rows, a disciplined cornucopia. Central American service personnel scurried around on silent feet. A large black man in a hair net ruled over the take-out department—grilled shrimp at twenty-seven dollars a pound, Creole crab cakes at fourteen dollars. One had to take a number and it was always crowded.
The card went through. Stop letting the world push you around. Oh, I said, might I have some cash back? How much? I was torn between trying to get as much as I could and not wanting to alert Jake's accountant to my cash source. Hmm, I don't know, say, two hundred? The checkout clerk, a distracted young woman with black, shellacked bangs, looked at me as if she were thinking of something else. Twenties okay? She turned her attention back to the register. There were people behind me, but I did not look at them. I rocked my weight into the counter, pressing against the pain in my belly, and then swung back against my heels and caught myself. Certain gestures had become habits in my new solitary life, and I worried that they might give me away. In my extraordinary existence I had to remain vigilant to appear ordinary. My body suddenly felt both grotesque and unreal. I touched my hair, soft and damp from the shower at the gym. The après-gym look was acceptable, even chic, in a town where the workout was king. But I had not been working out. Not for months.
Paper or plastic? The bagger, an elderly white man, wanted to know. Plastic, I said. I seemed to need a lot of plastic bags for trash and storage. The cashier counted out ten twenties into my palm. I heard someone behind me leafing through a magazine while an instrumental version of "Feelings" wafted past us and out through the automatic doors into the late afternoon sun. A wall of plate glass windows overlooked the parking lot where my car nestled along with the other luxury vehicles among palm trees and cascades of mauve bougainvillea.
The sun sparks flying off mirrors and chrome blinded me for a moment as I emerged from the store. I cased the lot like a fugitive. When I had been married to Jake, my local Gelson's had been the one in Century City, adjacent to Beverly Hills. Now I avoided it in fear of running into old neighbors, Jake's colleagues or their wives.
I ate my sushi dinner—complimentary chopsticks and low-salt soy sauce—in the car. Later I would wash my face and brush my teeth at the library a few blocks away. Tonight it was open until nine. Afterwards I would park on one of the more modest side streets—well away from street lamps—where I would spend the night.
Atop bluffs arching over the ocean and carved out of the Santa Monica mountain range, Pacific Palisades hovered like a pastel daydream between Santa Monica and Malibu. Tourists might drive through it accidentally—Sunset Boulevard ended right there at Pacific Coast Highway in an intersection of gas stations, supermarket and fish restaurant, with the ocean as incidental backdrop—and never realize that the pineapple guava hedges fronting apparently modest homes hid the movie stars they so eagerly sought to glimpse. This is where many twenty-million-dollar-a-picture actors, Rolls Royce-driving basketball players, investment bankers, entertainment executives and CEOs lived their family lives.
During the day Guatemalan and Salvadorian nannies wandered through the town pushing strollers. Polished older couples, tethered to well-groomed dogs, strolled along the Huntington Palisades at dusk. In identical sweatshirts and clutching pooper-scoopers, they stopped to admire their neighbors' gardens, their faces shaded by fruit trees. At a small, private park, they'd pause to look down at the ocean, the way everyone does, paying a few minutes of respect to the mother of everything. I often sat there, on a cement bench, and watched for dolphins or whales and let the sea wind have its way with my hair. It was the one place I felt entitled to be even though, technically, I was trespassing.
The Pacific, hundreds of feet below me, curved like a dozing cat into the shoreline. In the winter she foamed silver and nipped playfully at the traffic on Pacific Coast Highway.
I watched the seagulls ride the thermals out to Catalina or up to Santa Barbara or any of the places I had visited with Jake, where we had smiled at each other a lot and where I had failed at being happy. At the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel, when I finally asked Jake for a divorce, he laughed. You have such a good sense of humor, he said.
But there must have been more. Somewhere, in a box in storage, there is a photo of me on a boat in pink shorts holding a fish I had caught. Jake had chartered the boat and assured me I would love fishing. A local boy took us out; the hotel supplied smoked salmon sandwiches wrapped in wax paper and tucked into a basket with long-stemmed strawberries and cappuccino brownies. We sailed out into the warm and sunny blue. I could not remember what Jake was wearing—something pressed and white—but he had chatted with the boy, always looking back at me excitedly and holding my hand until it was time to fish.
Even though I was the only one to catch one of the poor creatures, I insisted on throwing the squirming fish back and returning to the hotel. Jake simply looked down at his hands. I remembered this and I didn't. It was just a snapshot. It could have been of anyone.
At night, in my Mercedes, curled up on the palomino leather seats, dressed in my sweats and socks and wrapped in a cashmere blanket, I slept a profound sleep. Like a child I dreamed of the sea, her skittish moods and silty temper. Its waves did not overwhelm me. They held me safe.
When I was not working, which was often—I had no office and most of my former massage clients had long moved on to other body workers—I spent my days walking and sitting in various part of the city. In Venice, I stepped over bundles of homeless people near the beach. It did not occur to me that I was one of them. I slept in a car in a good neighborhood. I had a cell phone and an address at Mail Boxes in Santa Monica. And there were eight month left on my gym membership. In the early evening, around six, when it was nearly deserted by the women who were home feeding dinner to their children, I went to have my shower and shampoo. Complimentary hair dryer and body lotion.
It was not until excruciating stomach pain woke me up one night—a deeper knife of pain—and I found that the blood had soaked through my sweats and the blanket, and I had to drive myself to the St. John's emergency room in Santa Monica where they asked me for my address, and I had to write down the location of a 4 x 18-inch metal box, that I realized I had lost my foothold. As I sat waiting for three hours on an extruded orange plastic chair, contorted with spasm and aflame with fever, I knew that I had not outsmarted the world with my lady-like survival skills.
I had no insurance, but they spared me no test. They'd bill me. They also left me on a gurney in a small, too-bright room, attached to a Foley catheter, waiting for test results and for an available doctor to interpret them for me. Finally, in the wildness of pain I could no longer bear, I pretended that I was still married to Jake, that I still occupied the office of the wife of man who wields power. I had been brought up to barter meekness for survival. The evil eye would pass over me. I would be spared. Jake undertook to re-educate me: Historically, that has not been a successful strategy for our people, he said. Don't let the world push you around. I yelled at the nurse, surprised at the bitch in my voice. My polite stoicism had not impressed her, but now, five hours after I had checked in, she shot me up with potent pain medication.
Eventually another doctor came and said you need to see your own doctor. You need surgery. You are very sick. There is infection. One large tumor and some small ones, we don't know how many. Is your husband with you? The words floated around me. My eyes focused on the spot on his chin he'd missed when shaving. He was young and pale and tired. His attention was on the manila folder he was holding, my horrible expensive medical secrets. He palpated my belly. Then he was gone. The nurse unhooked the Foley. They gave me a prescription for antibiotics. I couldn't wait to go home.
I drove to the Open 24 Hours Rite-Aid drugstore nearby in order to fill my prescription. The pain medication buzz had me smiling at the sleepy pharmacist. There was no one else in the store.
"This is very strong," he said, blinking at me. He was wearing a name tag: Phil.
The fluorescent glare flattened his face into a patchy mask of veins, stubble and shadows. His scalp glowed beneath wisps of fine brown hair.
"Is it?" I said.
"Is this for you?"
"Yes," I said. Still smiling.
Whitney Houston was singing about "the greatest love of all," and even though I was not now in pain, by habit I pressed and rocked my belly against the cool edge of the counter.
"They're expensive," he said. "Do you have insurance?"
I quickly tabulated my cash reserves. How expensive? Not that I would give myself away by asking. Did he not see my Rolex, my Bottega Veneta tote, the Fila on my sweats? Perhaps Phil was new to the area and its class-branding?
"I'll pay for it," I said.
"About fifteen minutes," he said and disappeared.
I sat down in the little waiting area and found myself across from a full-length mirror. I stared at this reflected being for a moment with genuine pity. My reflection confronted me with a snaggy, bedraggled woman, like the ones who haunted the alleys of Beverly Hills. These women, familiar to all the residents, scored upscale merchandise in the alley dumpsters. They tended to wear their treasures in eccentric layers. I'd once spotted one in my neighborhood wearing my discarded (and slightly torn) Donna Karan ivory silk nightgown over her clothes. She had been, like me, blond and small.
Slowly, I approached the mirror, as if stalking a mirage. My hair was matted and pink with blood. I touched the swelling on my head and remembered that in my eagerness to escape the gurney, I'd smashed into a standing lamp. My lips were white. And when I'd changed into a new pair of sweats in the dark parking lot, I'd put the top on inside out. The Fila label was considerably less impressive this way. Fortunately I was stoned on pain meds and Phil was my only witness.
In the Rite-Aid bathroom I washed the blood out of my hair. I pressed on lipstick and blush to simulate the healthy throb of blood just beneath the surface. I was calm. After all, I was not pushing a grimy shopping cart down Rodeo Drive. I was not filthy and stinking, muttering edgy soliloquies. I was not sleeping on one of the benches in the little park facing Santa Monica Boulevard. The skin on my face was not peeling off in wounded layers. I used SPF30 and stayed out of the sun. And although I could not sell the car because it was not yet in my name, I could sell this Rolex any time. Today, if I wanted to. And I had jewelry. And an entire storage locker in Culver City filled with stuff. I did not have to hide my valuables under bushes as I had seen the homeless women do. I paid the rent on a storage locker. There was money in my checking account. Soon I would have enough for first, last and security deposit on a nice apartment. And soon Jake would return from his globe-trotting with Melissa and honor our divorce agreement and sign the car over to me. This was temporary. I'd taken care of myself before I met Jake, and I would do it again.
"That's a hundred and seventy-five dollars. Sign here, please," said Phil without looking up.
I counted out the cash. I'd have to hit Gelson's again soon, but I had enough.
Now in possession of the antibiotics, I felt absurdly confident.
"Thank you. Hope these do the trick," I said, approximating jaunty with my tone.
Phil's face registered surprise. Had he noticed the change in my appearance?
"I'd take them with crackers," he said and turned away.
I did not remember Phil's suggestion until I had to bolt the car a few hours later and vomit into the street. I'll have to be ashamed, my mother had predicted a long time ago, when I was a teenager.
Parked in one of my favorite afternoon spots on an out of the way street in Brentwood, I had fallen asleep. There was never any foot traffic here. A few joggers, now and then. No one on this picturesque block seemed to ever be home. The Mexican gardeners came and went without noticing me. My car sat in the shade of a huge eucalyptus tree, and I had been dreaming of being home, but the home in my dream was not a place I recognized.
The miraculous drug had worn off—pain was returning—but at least no one had seen me. After washing my face with bottled water, I got back in the car and drove away. But I got only as far as around the corner before I understood that I had nowhere to go. The antibiotics wouldn't stay down. The emergency room bill would wipe out my savings account, and I was too sick to work now. Whatever I could get for the Rolex—a few hundred dollars—wouldn't begin to pay for the surgery.
I curled up in the back seat and sobbed into my Neiman-Marcus shopping bags until the pain again took precedence. Then I pulled myself together, drove to Gelson's, brushed my teeth in their bathroom, bought crackers, Motrin and more maxi-pads and got another two hundred dollars in cash back. You're cruising the wrong universe, I could hear my therapist saying. Why can't you ask for help?
Before I could change my mind, I dialed her number. Her answering machine announced that she was traveling in Kenya. I hung up, relieved. She would be so disappointed in me.
With the crackers, the antibiotic horse pills stayed down. The Motrin blurred the pain and cooled me. I sat in the car, drowsily watching shoppers drive in, cruise for the closest spot, return with filled carts or with a bagger to load the car for them, and then drive away. They were going home. How secure they looked. As if they were starring in a movie with a happy ending. Their cars were shiny and clean; their children photogenic; their pedicures fresh. The men were often velcroed to their cell phones, affirming their presence elsewhere. Everyone, including the shopping cart-herding Hispanic Gelson employees wearing orange vests imprinted with the phrase How can I help you? in white letters, seemed to float in a nimbus of sunshine.
Copyright©2003 Irene French Harvey