Fiction — 26 January 2017

smog chile

by

James Jordan

photo by Marcy Reiford

It was the first anniversary of Jake’s death. In the morning he’d been standing on his front lawn reading the L.A. Times when a Chevy Suburban jumped the curb. Jake – his head shaved, his bearing military, his athleticism at 62 (we were evenly matched in tennis), in one of his elegant suits, a contrast to the earring he wore like a pirate, he said, to instill fear in his enemies – in perfect health during the last moment of his life, had no way to know he’d drawn his last breath. He was here, and then, in a heartbeat, he wasn’t.

The day before Jake was killed, we’d filed an amicus curiae brief in the Eleventh Circuit supporting the Patient Protection Affordable Care Act, the Obama healthcare law. That evening we talked about it in my office, sitting on antique armchairs, a gift from Beatrice, my ex. Each chair was crowned with a carved cornice framing a cameo: one of the Queen, the other of her prince.

“That’s us,” Bea had said, “Victoria and Albert.”

Tempus fugit, I thought, looking through the floor-to-ceiling windows in my office that were meant to provide views of Los Angeles, white sands from Malibu to Huntington Beach, the cliffs of Palos Verdes, Santa Catalina Island, and the sun sinking beneath the Pacific with a flash across the spectrum of light reflecting on calm waters, the last breath of day heralding the falling night, but as usual, at sunset, all I could see was smog.

In one hour, in the Jacob Marley Memorial Conference Room on the floor above mine, I had a meeting to negotiate the final terms of a multi-billion dollar, multi-bank loan to finance the construction of a transnational undersea fiber-optic-cable network. I directed phone calls to voice mail and locked my office door.

I’d made a New Year’s resolution, still unfulfilled, to resume dating. There was no connection between Jake’s death and my subsequent self-imposed solitude, they were unrelated events occurring, coincidentally, with near simultaneity. To think otherwise would require psychological analysis, the words meaning literally, an examination of the soul, a province of faith, the work of theologians; for the rest of us contemplation of this sort is likely to obscure reality and very unlikely to be worthwhile.

Once, early in our relationship, after we’d received a counter to a client’s offer, Jake had said, “Georges, what do you think they really want?”

“If we question their intentions,” I’d said, “we’ll never close the deal because there are infinite possibilities.”

He settled into his chair, his elbows resting on its arm, the corresponding fingers of his right and left hands touching at their tips, forming the shape of a steeple. “How does a former graduate student of divinity,” he’d said, closing his hands with his fingers entwined, “become indifferent to allegory, immune to allusion, become a man who says he’s never met a stereotype or a cliché he didn’t like?”

His confusion escaped me. Life is short, its quality fragile, and so the imperative to seize the day should be self-evident. People who understood this invented stereotypes, people like me, people who didn’t have time to kill or a moment to lose. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel to know how to talk to a postal clerk in a bad mood or a cop who’s pulled me over. And I eschew subtext like the plague. Not only does superficiality foster efficiency, it reduces the risk of opening old wounds.

Stereotyping made me reluctant to try Internet dating. If my friends got wind of it, would they think I was unable to weather a sea change? But if I couldn’t find a woman to date, figure out how to begin a new relationship after a failed seventeen-year marriage, would they think I was unable to navigate the perfect storm of my personal life?

Jake had encouraged me to try Internet dating, and so on this auspicious day I logged on to LADating.com. I uploaded recent photos and was instructed to complete a profile, to approach the task as a labor of love, to blow my own horn, to cast my bread upon the waters.

It was right up my alley— with one caveat. As a corporate lawyer in a white-shoe firm, my stereotype served me well because my adversaries assumed they understood who I was and what I wanted, an advantage worth its weight in gold.

But I didn’t want my corporate-lawyer stereotype to lead me to the wrong kind of woman, one who didn’t share my values. So I began by writing about my politics, saying, “If you’re a neocon or a retro-con, if you’re okay with tax cuts for the super-rich, global warming, underfunding education, overturning Roe vs. Wade, or any other right-wing agenda, please don’t waste your time or mine.”

Answering the other questions was duller than dishwater – Should children be seen and not heard? Do you prefer sex with the lights on or off? I was ready to cut bait and bail but I saw the light at the end of the tunnel: only a few questions remained. I said that my son, Dante, in the twelfth grade, lived with me, that I wasn’t religious and wasn’t looking for a woman who was.

I was done. The program sent me the profiles of women that matched mine.

Thirty minutes before my meeting, I dived in.

A schoolteacher was first. She had gorgeous red hair and her similes were Homeric – “Feeling sad because my husband left me would be like crying over spilled milk. It’s water under the bridge” – her prose replete with phrases that rolled off my tongue like water off a duck’s back. We were kindred spirits. But I just didn’t like the cut of her jib.

The next woman was a lawyer, like Bea. I moved on.

Grace, an aerobics instructor, was looking for a man to make her feel weak as a kitten.

Bunny, a widow, was the C.E.O. of her family’s charitable trust. Her given name was Rachel but her grandmother had called her Bunny. She was fifty, two years younger than I, but didn’t look older than thirty-five, prompting me to wonder if she’d honored the recent-photo rule. Her face lacked symmetry of perfection, one eye drifting to the right, her nose too large, her mouth too full. In one photo she wore running shorts. I was riveted by her legs.

I brought up the next profile but couldn’t concentrate, so I went back to Bunny’s. She wasn’t like Beatrice. Bunny had wavy brunette hair; Bea had tight strawberry curls. Bunny was tan; Bea was pale. Bunny’s stature contrasted with Bea’s petite frame.

How did I overlook her comments about religion? I didn’t have time to read her profile word for word. My meeting would begin in ten minutes. If I didn’t write to Bunny then, I probably never would. If what she’d said about religion had registered, I never would have contacted her, not because religious experience renders the mind shallow but because Bunny, like Bea, was Jewish. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
I waited for her at an outdoor table at a café in Brentwood. It had rained earlier, leaving the taste of the air afresh with possibility, its scent sweetened with the aroma of roses, heliotrope, and lavender displayed in front of the floral shop next door.

Walking toward me on a sidewalk along San Vicente Boulevard, leafy coral trees grown tall in the majestic median, purple blooms of Jacaranda littering side streets, Bunny stood out: confident, regal, stunning in a double-breasted red raincoat. She had the visage of an angel; her photos had been unjust.

When I rose to greet her, she said in her Germanic accent, “Let’s not talk about anything routine.”

“What’s routine?” I said.

“Oh, you know, the weather, the war on terror, work.”

Boys on skateboards, no older than Dante, zipped by.

“I see your point. When it rains, it pours; war is hell; work like a dog, sleep like a log.”

That broke the ice. She laughed. “How did you meet Beatrice?”

“She was a litigator; I was a transactional lawyer at the same firm.”

“Harold was a lawyer,” she said.

“How did you meet?”

“Don’t you think it poetic,” she said, “that a girl named Bunny landed a cocktail-waitress job at a Playboy Club? That’s where I met Harold. I was his bunny.”
Two months later I wasn’t sure where the relationship was going but it was going well. Bunny took Dante and me to see the Dodgers play the Giants at Dodger Stadium, surprising and delighting us with her fluency in baseball history. By that time, I knew she was Jewish. Jake would have scoffed at my superstition, but I wondered what he’d have said about her continuing refusal to talk about the weather, the war on terror, or work.

When I spoke to Bunny a few days after the Dodgers’ game to confirm the time I’d pick her up that evening, she said that she’d stopped dating other men. I was a single dad with a never-ending workload, so I hadn’t dated anyone else, but still, I was surprised, not so much by her decision as by her telling me about it because I’d done nothing to initiate sex and neither had she. Was she saying it was time for that to change? I quickly abandoned the thought, a textbook example of how possible subtext can lead to misunderstanding.

Then Dante called.

“What’s up, Champ?” I said.

“Mom didn’t show up at track practice,” he said. “Again. She’s not at work, not answering her cell. Dad, will you buy me a car?”

I bit the bullet and called Bunny to ask for a rain check.

“Dante can come with us to dinner,” Bunny said.

“He has final exams in a few weeks,” I said.

“It’s strange she would forget to pick up her son,” Bunny said.

“When Dante was in tenth grade – this was about a year before she left us – she didn’t show up for the science fair, where Dante’s project was in contention for first place. Dante was upset and I was furious. Later, I said to her, ‘you love your job more than anything else. More than you love us.’ She said it was true.”
Bunny insisted that our next date be dinner at her house. When I arrived, she was wearing a low-cut blouse. I was careful not to let her see me looking at her cleavage.

In the kitchen, she worked on a tiled countertop, her back to a center island with six gas burners and an array of radishes, red peppers, and spinach. Shredding cabbage, she spoke of Harold’s cancer, painting the details – the regression of a robust man into a vegetative state – with painful precision.

“The tumor crushed his brain,” she said, using a paring knife to julienne carrots, “and that was tragic because he had such a fine mind.”

An aroma of oranges and caramelized onions wafted from a saucepan. A chart titled “Fruits and Vegetables with the Highest Anti-oxidant Capacity” was taped to her refrigerator.

The countertop tiles were Navajo white with the exception of a pair of repeating distinct decorative tiles set randomly but always in tandem. The image on one was the Greek goddess Themis, holding the hilt of a sword in one hand, the scales of justice in the other. The image on the other tile was a serpent entwining the staff of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing, a kitsch touch to an otherwise exquisite décor.

“Imagine,” she said, carrying carrots to the center island, “seeing someone you love suffering metastasizing sarcoma in the parietal lobe.”

As she moved to inspect the saucepan, her breasts brushed against my back as I diced a red pepper.

“Damn it,” I said. I’d cut two fingers.

She pressed a towel against the wound. “Hold this.”

She soaked my hand in a bowl of hot soapy water, rinsed it, poured hydrogen peroxide over my cut fingers, dried them, and wrapped them in gauze. She secured the gauze with surgical tape.

“You were right there for Harold,” I said, “picking up the medical jargon.”

She looked at me, her face inscrutable, tension mounting until a pot boiled over. She turned off the gas burner.
“I didn’t learn medicine from Harold’s doctors. I’m a surgeon,” she said.

“But you said you’re the C.E.O. of your family’s eleemosynary foundation.”

“I am,” she said.

She wiped the blood-soaked peppers off the cutting board, cleaned the knife, and went to work on a new pepper.
She said, “When I began Internet dating my profile said I was a surgeon. The only men who wrote to me were other doctors and hypochondriacs.”

“What was wrong with the doctors?” I said.

“They weren’t emotionally expressive. Know what I mean?”

“What else did you expect from a doctor?” I said.

“You know, I’m a fierce advocate of healthy ingredients,” she said, the knife pointed at me, rotating slowly.

“I’ll finish the radishes,” I said.

“You’ve spilled enough blood for one night.”

“Lacking emotion isn’t bad,” I said. “I wouldn’t want someone who was emotional cutting me open.”

“Will you pour me a glass of wine?” she said.

With my bandaged fingers, I fumbled with a corkscrew.

“You can never eat enough veggies,” she said. “The trick is to steam them lightly to enhance digestion while preserving the vitamins.” She arranged steaming broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts on a platter around an oval bowl of wild rice.

As I eased the cork from the bottle, I said, “With a doctor, what you see is what you get.”

“Is that so, counselor?” she said, covering the vegetables-and-rice platter.

“Don’t get me wrong,” I said, pouring two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc. “I like them.”

“How many?” she said.

“How many what? How many doctors do I know or how many do I like?”

She sipped the wine. “Shall we put the bottle on ice?”

“I represent medical organizations. The American College of Surgeons for instance.”

Her face softened. “That’s interesting. What do you do for the ACS?”

“Tax advice,” I said, “nonprofit compliance with IRS regulations.”

“Do you advise the ACS Political Action Committee?”

“You’ve changed the subject,” I said. “We’ve dated for two months—”

“You know,” she said, “it’s taken three-and-a-half months for us to find the time for me to make you dinner. What a shame.”

She peeked in the oven. “It’s best when the sauce is served right out of the skillet.”

She poured broth into a pan. “Don’t use butter. And please don’t consider something pedestrian like cornstarch as a thickening agent.” She sprinkled white powder into the pan. “Cassava root,” she said. She poured in other ingredients and stirred, then washed her hands. “Soup’s on.”

During dinner I said, “If I didn’t know you were a surgeon, I’d have thought you were a valedictorian of Le Cordon Bleu.”

“When we met, I didn’t think we’d have a second date if I told you I was a doctor.”

“Why not?”

“You said you were looking for someone who was the opposite of Beatrice. And you said she was a high-powered type-A personality. I wanted you to have enough time to find out that I’m low-key.”

She must have thought I was born yesterday.
I didn’t call Bunny for a few days not because I was angry but because I wanted perspective. We laughed; usually we held hands. She and Dante got along famously. She hadn’t lied overtly because she hadn’t allowed talk of work. But I couldn’t accept her explanation. Pretext is the sinister sibling of subtext. Jake would have advised me to let bygones be bygones, and that’s what I did.
Considering the possibility of after-dinner intimacy, before our next date I took 100 mg of Viagra. Why roll the dice?

I took her to one of those nouveau cuisine places that was all the rage: miniscule portions presented as works of art, exotic wines, exquisite service. But I couldn’t catch a break. Rather than talk romance, Bunny became nostalgic.

She said, “I was a bundle of nerves the day Harold took me home to meet his mother. I had this feeling that he was the one. I knew this was going to be my last chance to make a really good first impression. You know what I mean?”

“I haven’t done well with that question.”

“What question?” She tapped her fingers on the stem of her wineglass. “Harold takes me into the kitchen to meet Ruth, his mother. She’s at the stove stirring a pot of soup with a wooden spoon. Before Harold says a word she gives me a look, like she’s inspecting the merchandise.

“Well, she turns back to the stove and stirs the soup again like I wasn’t even there. I’m holding my breath, waiting for someone to say something. Finally Harold says, ‘Ma, this is Bunny.’

“Nothing. She doesn’t say a thing. Keeps stirring the soup. Then she taps the spoon on the pot, lays it on the counter, and says to Harold – in Yiddish, mind you – ‘Get this shikse out of my house.’ Then she picks up the spoon, all nonchalant, and stirs again, as if I’m already gone.”

Bunny sipped her wine.

“I’m standing there trembling, thinking of my Grandma Eppie, a holocaust survivor just like Ruth, and I remember what Eppie used to say. It was like . . .,” she finished her wine, “like it was her motto: ‘You don’t get nothin’ you don’t work for.’ In tough times, I always hear her voice, and her voice is telling me to fight for Harold, even though I want to cry and slink away.

“So I say, ‘Ikh badoyer az ir vilt zikh mit mir nosh bakunin, Froy Siegel, vayl ikh bin a sheyne Yidishe meydl.’”

“What does that mean?”

“It means: It’s too bad you don’t want to get to know me, Mrs. Siegel, because I’m a nice Jewish girl.”

She continued in a softer voice but with fiercer sentiment.

“Well— she still doesn’t say a word, just stirs and stirs the soup. So I say, ‘Harold, please take me home.’ Then, with her back still to me she says, ‘Bunny, come here and taste the soup.’ I taste the soup. ‘A little more salt,’ I say. Then she says, ‘Bunny? What kind of name is that?’”

Then Bunny said, “You say you’re not religious but you’re Jewish, right?”

“I’m not,” I said. “I’m a divinity school dropout.”

“You never mentioned that.”

“Is this a problem?”

“Not at all,” she said, slipping her hand out of mine.

When Bunny and I first spoke, I thought she was German because of her accent. After I met her I wondered if she was Italian because when she spoke her mouth and her hands moved in concert. When she asked if I were Jewish, I thought dinner was our coda.

Afterward, I was laconic but Bunny was bubbly, telling one story after another.

On her doorstep she was still talking.

“So where was I?” she said, nibbling her pinkie as if it were a standard technique to stimulate memory. “Oh, now I remember. The class I taught in bunny school: Advanced Erotica. Here,” she said, “let me show you.” She lifted my hand to her lips and sucked my forefinger into her mouth, wrapping her tongue around it. I was still catching my breath when she said, “That was lesson one.” She brushed her lips over mine, opened the door, and said, “Call me soon?”

Walking to my car, my arousal combined with astonishment, as if my erection switched on a light in my brain. I wondered why I hadn’t seen Bea not wanting sex as a sign our marriage was in trouble. I wondered if sublimating my libido had impaired my vision.

When I got home, I called Bunny.

“Georges!” she said. “Thank heaven you’re safe. I was worried about you driving after you polished off that second bottle of Perrier.”

“Actually,” I said, “I did get stopped, and my carbonation level was over the legal limit. But I knew the cop, so he let me go with a warning.”

We talked about our next date, which, because of conflicting commitments, wasn’t going to be for several weeks. But we spoke every evening.

We talked about Harold. He’d been a constitutional lawyer, argued civil rights cases before the Supreme Court, been a champion of workers, victims, and consumers. And he was active in politics, a die-hard liberal, a stalwart of the Democratic Party.

“You remind me of him,” she said.

“I couldn’t fill his shoes.”

“Not to worry,” she said.

I told Bunny about Jake, our work, our passion for tennis, our last evening together. Following a twenty-year career in the navy, he’d joined the firm right out of law school and worked under my supervision until he made partner.

“So you were his mentor?”

We’d mentored each other, he’d become like an older brother, especially after my father developed Alzheimer’s.
Bunny spoke of Eppie, who’d lived by the code Arbeit macht frei: the Nazi slogan written in the crown of the arched entry gates to the concentration camps – Work shall set you free. In Birkenau she sewed Stars of David on prisoner uniforms.

Bunny’s father brought Eppie with him to America when he was selected as a post doc in theoretical physics by John Archibald Wheeler at Princeton. When Bunny was two, her parents were killed in a train crash. Raised by Eppie, Bunny grew up poor. When she entered first grade, she spoke only Yiddish.

Missing her, I wondered if the cure for loneliness was passage through greater loneliness.
When we finally saw each other next, we went to see Romeo and Juliet at the Kodak Theatre. On our way, she pointed out her synagogue on Hollywood Boulevard.

“It’s Friday night,” I said. “Am I keeping you from Shabbat services?”

“Since Harold died I hardly go. Maybe I should have checked ‘not very religious,’ too.”

During intermission she leaned against a column in the orchestra-level lobby. Wearing stiletto heels and décolletage, she was a latter-day Aphrodite.

“Would you like something to drink?” I said.

“Red wine?” she said. Then she took hold of my sport coat and pulled me close, caressing my inner thigh with her knee. She whispered, “After the show will you be ready for lesson two?”

“We can leave now,” I said.

“But I want to find out how it ends.”

“You won’t like it,” I said. “It’s not happy.”

“You devil! You’ve seen it before. Don’t tell me what happens.”

I took the escalator to the wine bar on the mezzanine level. On my way back I imagined Bunny standing in front of me, blonde hair spilling over bare shoulders, the back of her dress unzipped, candlelight and the majesty of Beethoven’s Eroica enhancing the moment. She lowered her dress to her waist, lingering before unhooking her bra and letting it fall.

Before it hit the floor, I was startled by a young man wearing a full-length fur coat who screamed, “Get the fuck out of my life!” He shrugged under an arm draped over his shoulder, lurching into my path, splattering wine on my white shirt.

His companion, an older man, steel-gray hair hanging over his collar, wearing a blue blazer and red ascot, tried to mitigate the damage. “I’m ’tho ’thorry,” he said, patting his handkerchief against my chest, creating a Rorschach inkblot in red and white.

Classic personification of archetype. I had to love them.

“Oh for Christ’s sake!” It was a new voice, shrill, belonging to a mousy woman, also wearing fur. “What’s going on?” She put her arm around the older man.

The younger man looked at the floor, his bravado dissolved, his voice a simpering wisp. “Look what Daddy did,” he said. “He made that man spill wine on my mink.”

“It-it’s chi-chin-Chinchilla,” the father stammered. “How many t-t-times do I have to t-tell you that, son?”

“One day,” the woman said to her son, “you will regret the way you treated us with disrespect.”

The father offered to pay for the cleaning, but I had more pressing matters in mind.

When I stepped off the escalator, Bunny was waiting. She kissed me, then took the wine.

“What happened?”

“Don’t ask,” I said.

She sipped the wine. “This is awful,” she said, dropping it into the trash.
After the show we inched our way up Hollywood Boulevard bumper to bumper. Bunny stroked my thigh.

“Will you come to a fundraiser I’m hosting next Saturday?” she said.

“Sure. What’s the cause?”

She kicked off her heels, extended her tongue, curling it until it touched her upper lip. Her short dress made me imagine what was concealed above the hem. Her eyes followed mine. She shifted in her seat, moving her thighs farther apart. “Abolishing Medicare—”

“You’re joking?” I said.

“ . . . as we know it.” She rolled her wrist and extended her index finger as if she were royalty, pointing to the cars in the next lane. “The light’s green.”

I was thinking furiously, at a loss for words, pulling into the intersection, when Bunny said with alarm, pointing, “That’s Abe.”

Near the flowerbeds on the grounds of the Fifth Church of Christ Science, a cop holding a baton was jawboning three white punks dressed, coiffed, and pierced to personify their rebellion against conformity: multi-hued Mohawk haircuts, lip studs, and nose rings. The cop stood between the punks and a slender young black man wearing a dark suit, white shirt and a thin, dark tie.

I took my camera out of the center console and handed it to Bunny. “Do you know how to use this?” I said. She had already turned on the camera, switched the mode to live view and had depressed the red video record button.

“Which one is Abe?” I said. “The one wearing a suit?”

“His father was killed a few months ago, hit and run.” She pointed to her synagogue, a half mile up the street. “He must be walking home from services.”

“He’s Jewish?”

“Yes,” she said, “he’s Jewish— and black.”

I pulled the Jeep to the curb and heard the cop say, “I said, ‘disperse.'”

Abe yelled, “Racist pigs!”

The cop, perhaps unaware of how close he was to Abe, but perhaps not, whirled. The butt of his baton struck Abe’s forehead, opening a gash above his eye. He collapsed. The punks cheered.

I got out of the Jeep and said to the cop, “Call an ambulance.”

The cop said to me, “Get back in your car.” His voice was calm, but he was slapping the baton against an open hand. The veins on his biceps bulged. He looked as if he spent half his time lifting weights and the other half taking steroids. His name tag said Vasquez. I didn’t get the impression the Constitution was on his mind. If anything, he was thinking excessive force was a virtue.

“Don’t swing that club again,” Bunny yelled. She was standing on the sidewalk in her stocking feet, pointing my camera at Vasquez; the recording light blinked.

“Abe?” she yelled. He didn’t stir. “Are you okay?”

“Fuck you, bitch,” one of the punks hooted.

“Nigger lover,” another one hollered.

“Charming,” Bunny said.

Vasquez gave the punks a menacing look; still jeering, they sauntered off.

Bunny hurried toward Abe; before she reached him, the cop blocked her path.

Bunny said, “I’m a doctor—”

A siren blast drowned out the rest of her words. A police car – lights flashing – pulled up to the curb behind the Jeep. The cop riding shotgun swung his car door open and got out, pointing a gun at Bunny. A metallic voice resonated from a speaker on the roof of the squad car, “Drop your weapon; raise your hands.”

Bunny dropped my camera on the lawn and raised her hands, which were steady, her body language bespeaking far greater calm than I could summon.

The cop who’d been driving got out of the car and briskly walked toward Vasquez and me. Did I know a sergeant with a salt-and-pepper mustache? I almost expected him to say, How ya doin’, Georges? But he didn’t. He walked past me as if I weren’t there.

The sergeant’s partner put away his gun and got a first-aid kit.

Bunny knelt beside Abe.

Abe groaned, “Prium non nocere.

Prium non nocere illico,” she said.

The sergeant was pointing at my camera.

Vásquez said, “Ninguna manera que jode.

I walked up to them.

“Have we met?” I said to the sergeant. He avoided eye contact. “I’m Georges Bohem, counsel for the Police League Pension Fund.” I offered him my hand; he ignored it. “My work for the league is pro bono,” I added.

“Not your man,” he said, still not looking at me.

“A lawyer,” Vasquez said. “What’d I tell you?”

The sergeant seemed to consider this. Then he looked at me, addressing me in the third person. “But he doesn’t sue cops.”

“That’s right,” I said.

My answer was followed by a palpable silence as the sergeant looked at his partner helping Bunny with Abe, then at my camera. He stepped very close, finally offering me his hand. “Frank Artaza. Appreciate your work for the League,” he said, adding, “Pro bono.”

Nodding toward Bunny and Abe, the sergeant said, “What language was that?”

“Latin. He said, ‘Do no harm.’ She said, ‘Do no immediate harm.’”

He looked at me with incomprehension.

“It’s the Hippocratic Oath,” I said. I still couldn’t detect a reaction. “He was joking,” I said. “He told Dr. Siegel not to make his injuries worse.”

“She’s a doctor?” the sergeant said. “Thought she was a celebrity in that outfit.”

Vasquez got Abe’s driver’s license. “Abebe Demeke,” he said. “No record, no warrants. She says he’s a medical student at UCLA.”

As I walked away from the cops, the sergeant said, “They were just driving by?”

“I didn’t ask. Maybe they were stalking him.”

Bunny and Abe were sitting on the lawn, quietly arguing when I came over to introduce myself. Abe was holding a blood-stained towel to his forehead.

Bunny said to me, “May I use your phone? Mine’s in the car.”

I handed it to her and she punched in a number.

I held out my hand to Abe. “Georges Bohem.”

Abe held out his hand, tried to get up, but fell back into a sitting position on the lawn.

Still holding the phone to her ear, Bunny said in a querulous tone, “Abe!”

Abe’s hand was still extended. I took it and we shook.

“Abe Demeke,” he said, softly, deferentially. “Pleased to meet you. Wish the circumstances were otherwise.”

Still holding my phone, Bunny said, “I couldn’t reach Ras. I left voice mail, asked him to call me.”

“Ras?” I said, sitting on the lawn beside them.

“My brother,” Abe said. “A doctor.” He gave Bunny a mischievous smile. “There’re too many doctors in our family.”

“We’re not going to get into that tonight. We’re going to get a specialist who’s not in the family to take a look at you,” Bunny said. She made another call.

Abe said, “Bunny, I’m okay.”

Bunny was having none of it. “You need a few stitches,” she said. She’d spoken to a friend, a neurologist in the emergency department at UCLA hospital. Abe was going there. Bunny’s neurologist friend would call her and Ras after he’d examined Abe.

Still protesting, Abe left in an ambulance. As it drove away, Bunny put her arms around me, pressing her chest against mine, shivering. I felt her heartbeat.

“I’m a mess,” she said.

“I’ve never seen anyone more beautiful.”

The words were still on my lips when she kissed them, long and passionately.
Traffic was a stop-and-go echo – abolish Medicare, abolish Medicare.

I took Vine to Sunset; the congestion was worse, but that frustration was trifling compared to the resentment smoldering within me like a fire in the hold of a ship, unseen on the main deck but dangerous nonetheless.

“I don’t understand,” I said, “abolishing Medicare. We’ve reformed healthcare.”

“We didn’t get it right,” she said.

“That’s a Tea Party slogan!” I said.

She said calmly, “Let’s not do this.”

“It’s code to camouflage right-wing agendas.”

“I don’t talk code. You know what I mean?” she said, her voice silky. “So if I say the government has to respect the Constitution, that’s exactly what I mean, no more, no less.”

“More code,” I said.

She folded her hands in her lap. A light rain fell.

When we arrived at her home, she surprised me, saying, “C’mon in for a nightcap.”

“I can’t drink. I have to drive.”

“Not tonight you don’t,” she said, opening her car door, looking at me seductively as if a harsh word hadn’t been spoken.

She put on a Mozart symphony, dimmed the living room lights.

“‘Abolish Medicare as we know it’ sounds familiar,” I said, pacing.

“I’m prescribing an extra-dry martini.” She returned from the kitchen with two freezer-chilled martini glasses, vodka, vermouth, a cocktail shaker, and a bucket of ice.

“Is it like Clinton’s welfare reform: six years and you’re out? Are you talking vouchers?” I said.

“Making a perfect martini isn’t simplistic. You have to chill the vodka without letting it get watery. The lazy woman’s solution is to keep a bottle in the freezer but that makes premium vodka syrupy and masks its aroma.” She waved the open bottle close to her nose and inhaled, as if judging a fine wine. “Subtlety is the dividing line between the sublime and the banal. You know what I mean?” She swirled two drops of vermouth in each glass and emptied them, filled the cocktail shaker with ice, then vodka, shook it briskly, then strained the drinks through the ice. She added a twist of lemon.

“Only a philistine would eat an olive with a martini.” She shuddered. “Like pouring salt into a glass of Dom Pérignon.”

She sat on the sofa, patted the cushion beside her. “Try it.”

I sat in an armchair beside the sofa, sipped the cocktail.

“How does the government infringe your constitutional rights?”

“Come over here and cuddle.”

“Look,” I said, “if we have sex—”

“Did I suggest sex?” she said.

“You’re not?”

“Why be hasty?” She took my hand, pulling me gently toward her. “Okay. I’ll talk Medicare and the Constitution; maybe that’ll put us in the mood.”

I sat beside her. She unbuttoned my shirt. In a soothing voice, between interrogatives such as “How does that feel?” and “Is that better?” and sipping our drinks, she massaged my back and told me that she and her partners were aggrieved by the inefficiencies of Medicare.

“Doctors, hospitals, and taxpayers shoulder the burden while the pharmaceutical and health-insurance companies make money like slot machines. They don’t break laws; they make them.”

I was succumbing to the melody of her voice, its cadence, my suspicions allayed, my muscles relaxed, the vodka having its effect, ready to move on.

But when the back massage ended; her oratory intensified. As she spoke, her hands moved in syncopation incessantly, indefatigability, inexorably— rhythmically punctuating each point with a downward thrust or a wagging finger as if delivering a sermon, a call for justice, a call to arms but misguided nonetheless.

“Whoa, let’s take a breather,” I said, interrupting her rush of words. “Explain it later, your plan to reform—”

“Abolish and replace.”

“— Medicare by raising money for the Tea Party.”

“Ideologies are irrelevant, you know? Ideas matter, action matters, the Constitution matters.”

“How does this work, promoting a liberal cause by donating to a right-wing movement?”

“What’s liberal?” she said.

“Containing medical costs altruistically.”

“Altruism,” she said, “like privacy, is fiction.”

She hurried on. Her partnership had the financial means to publicize its views with TV and radio ads. So they hired a campaign-finance attorney, who advised them to form a non-profit political action committee. “The attorney said we’d have to ask the F.E.C. for advisory opinions to avoid the risk of criminal prosecution. We need government permission to exercise our right of free speech.”

“It levels the playing field,” I said.

She stood. “Good intention is no defense to censorship.”

“You’re proposing—” I said.

“Georges, don’t tell me what I’m proposing. You say you’re liberal. Liberal means open-minded, but what you really say is you’re unwilling to consider change. That’s intolerance.”

“It’s not intolerance. It’s principle.”

“Your problem is you can’t tell the difference— my problem is you can’t respect our differences.” She opened a journal, thumbed through pages.

“Citizens United is letting the oligarchy buy elections,” I said. “Your free speech talk is naïve.”

She slammed the journal on the end table. “I won’t be patronized!”

At her front door she said, “And I thought you were a mensch.”

I walked through the rain from the portico to her driveway, following granite steps that meandered past pristine koi ponds and formal English gardens. In the Jeep, I looked at Bunny’s Bel Air home, really seeing it for the first time. I should have known, a Tea Party house.

A second-floor room filled with light. Bunny, naked to the waist, led me in. Through the window, I saw myself in the Jeep, a corked bottle bobbing on roiling seas.

Bunny slipped her arms around me, pressed her breasts against my naked back.

Her silhouette moved behind drawn shades.

I’d meant to give her the memory card from my camera. I decided to give it to Abe myself.
At the hospital, a nurse in the emergency room observation ward told me where I’d find Abe.

He was slipping into his suit jacket when I found him. His head was bandaged. “Hi, Georges,” he said. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”

I said, “Trying to be funny is probably a good sign for your prognosis.”

“What’s up?” he said, adjusting his necktie.

“Respectful of you to wear a suit and tie for me.”

“May I trouble you for a ride home?”

“You hungry?”

“Famished,” he said.
We drove to Dolores’s, the last of the all-night diners in West Los Angeles. The DJ on the radio announced that storms were stacked up off the coast like planes in holding patterns.

On the way I told Abe about the recording of the cop hitting him, told him he could use it as evidence.

“A lawyer with a camcorder in his car,” he said with a little laugh.

I laughed too, just as I always did when hearing a lawyer joke, imagining most lawyers did the same to soften the sting of the slur. “That’s a good one,” I said. “My son’s on the track team at his high school. There was a meet yesterday. I left the camera in the car.”

“Hey, it’s okay, Georges, everybody’s got to make a buck,” he said.

My voice wavered. “I’m not an ambulance chaser. My firm doesn’t even handle accident cases.”

“You’re all tense,” he said. “I’m the one who got beat up tonight.”
We made it to Dolores’s before the rain became a downpour. Kitaru, a short, wiry man, who’d served me late-night meals at Dolores’s for years, showed us to a booth upholstered in orange vinyl adjoining a large window framed by gray-and-pink curtains with a ruffled valance. A green cone-shaped pendant lantern hung above each table. Glistening waves of raindrops scrolled across the glass. Shivering, I took off my jacket. Goosebumps covered my arms. I rubbed my hands together and blew on them, trying to get warm.

After Kitaru brought our meal, I said, “Bunny told me about your father. I’m sorry.”

I wanted to say something about Jake, that like Abe’s father, he’d been killed in his prime by an errant driver. But there was no way to compare our losses, and it wasn’t the right time to talk about the twin cruelties of death: the passing of the lives of those we loved and the passing of our own life.

We ate in silence, and I thought about my father, the man he’d been. Now his memory loss was so great that he couldn’t even remember his grandson. He’d already suffered a death of sorts. I thought about the seasons of life, that it was too early a season in Abe’s father’s life for him to have passed, that Abe’s father must have been my age. I wondered what it would be like for Dante if I were to die in middle age. Before I would know where the months had gone, Dante would be gone, living at college. Rowdy teens breezed into Dolores’s, opening the doors to the chilled winds and torrents of rain.

I tried to escape the morbid feelings by intellectualizing, remembering Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Arthur Koestler’s Dialogue with Death, Sigmund Freud’s theories about the nostalgia for death, and Homer’s timé and kleos. What was I doing? Relapsing into philosophical conjecture to ameliorate despair? I knew better, so, wanting to assuage my melancholia, to return to the present, to the safety of what I could see and touch, I said to Abe, “Your accent is lyrical. Where were you born?”

“Ethiopia,” he said, and then after a pause, “There was a pogrom.” Fifty-five thousand Ethiopian Jews had been forced from their homes in Gondar, becoming refugees in the deserts of the Sudan where forty thousand of them had perished. As a toddler, he was among the rescued refugees who were brought to Israel. In the absorption shelters in Jerusalem, his mother was diagnosed with promyelocytic leukemia. Bunny and Harold brought the family to Los Angeles. The chemo prolonged Mother’s life. If it hadn’t, I never would have known her.”

Abe’s phone rang, he took the call. While he spoke, I grappled with the contradictions – Bunny the humanitarian, Bunny the advocate of Abolishing Medicare, Bunny the Tea Party fund raiser. The phrase “Abolish Medicare as We Know It” began playing in my mind like one of those obnoxious Christmas jingles you can’t get out of your head, and I realized I’d heard that actual phrase before, somewhere. Using my smart phone, I logged onto the American College of Surgeons website, entered my passcode, and then entered Bunny’s name in the search feature.

A page titled “Rachel Siegel, M.D., F.A.C.S” appeared. It listed her college and medical school, the hospitals where she was on staff, and medical books and articles she had authored or coauthored. There was also a list of her articles in popular magazines. I selected one published about eighteen months before: “Abolish Medicare as We Know It.”

Using sophisticated economic models, the article proposed that the government directly run hospital and clinics for Medicare patients much as it successfully dispensed healthcare to active-duty servicemen and women, as it had once efficiently provided healthcare to our veterans, thereby cutting out health-insurance profit centers. It proposed that the government, like health-insurance companies, negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies. Bunny also proposed that the government pay medical school tuition and expenses for all medical students. In exchange and to keep their licenses active, doctors would have to work one week without pay every year in Medicare hospitals or clinics, a plan that would be anathema to Ayn Rand, to Rand Paul, to Paul Ryan.

I felt as if the prophet Nathan had revealed my sins and forecast my punishments. How many more nightmares would I have to endure?

Abe pocketed his phone and said to me, “I left the hospital against medical advice.”

He held up his espresso cup and said to Kitaru. “May I have another?”

“I dunno,” Kitaru said. “You driving?”

“I am,” I said.

“All right, then,” Kitaru said, heading for the espresso machine.

“Actually,” Abe said, “I won’t need a ride. That was Bunny. She’s on her way over. The CT scan was negative but she can’t reach my brother, so she wants me to spend the night at her place.”

Dolores’s was bustling. I heard snippets of conversation about the storm.

“So how are things going with you and Bunny?” Abe said.

“It’s over,” I said.

“Why?”

“She invited me to a Tea Party fund raiser.”

“Not possible,” he said. “She believes that members of political parties are lapdogs. It means she’s crazy about you.”

“Hardly,” I said.

“When they talked politics, Bunny often provoked Harold. Then she’d become intransigent and Harold would say something like, ‘How can a girl with your roots lack empathy?’”

“She doesn’t lack empathy,” I said.

“Harold also said that Bunny made him the happiest man on the planet. When he died, Bunny donated one hundred thousand dollars to the ACLU in his name. They sent her a lifetime-membership card; she sent it back.”

“That’s rich,” I said. “She just gave me a law school-lecture on the first amendment.”

I put my credit card on the check.

“Thanks,” Abe said.
In the parking lot, slogging through a flood, ruining my shoes, I was defenseless against the silver needles of rain. The streets were rapids, the storm drains overwhelmed.

Bunny’s BMW turned into the lot and rolled to a stop beside me.

“It’s raining dogs and cats,” she said. “Get in.”

Her car was warm, the leather seats supple and heated. A neon sign on the diner blinked. It said: the best of yesterday brought to you today.

“I won’t tolerate intolerance,” she said. “What would you say if the shoe was on the other foot?”

I thought of saying, to forgive is divine. But I couldn’t because within every woman, man, and child the well from which forgiveness springs is sui generis.

Instead I said, “If we were on Noah’s Ark would it matter who had the shoe?”

Author Bio

James After earning his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and Juris Doctor degree from UCLA, James studied creative writing at the University of Southern California, where he was awarded a Master of Professional Writing degree. He is the author of six other stories published in literary journals. Five of those stories as well as “As Fate Would Have It” were later revised and adapted as chapters in his forthcoming novel The Speed of Life, that is now represented by his literary agent par excellence: the prolific, profound, and award-winning novelist Madison Smartt Bell.

From his legal experience representing individuals in high-stakes civil and criminal cases and multi-national corporations in high-risk transactions and litigation, James came to see contemporary uncertainties about love, tolerance, and justice. It is from this in-the-trenches perspective that he approaches fiction with the hope and the goal of writing what is true.

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Chris Miller

(19) Readers Comments

  1. Bunny: is she a set of contradictions? I would argue that she is not. Instead she is an amalgamation of her thoughts and experiences. Georges finally sees this in the end.

    A lesson for us all, perhaps.

    Thanks for publishing this. I enjoyed it immensely. Complex, literary, and thought provoking. Looking forward to reading more by Mr. Jordan.

    • Thank you, Hassan R. I appreciate your comment. I agree with you. Just as doctors or anyone else cannot be stereotyped with any accuracy, I would say, Bunny is sui generis. 🙂 James

  2. I was impressed by the descriptive and character detail and nuance, and legal knowledge. Interesting to see cliche used as a literary device in such an original work. Very engaging. Definitely a Pushcart nom.

    • Thank you, Chris. Are you suggesting that SPR might nominate “Fate” for a Pushcart? That would be so awesome, a potential career changer. But truly, the thought counts quit a bit.
      Best, James

      • Sure. Wouldn’t be the first time. Definitely worthy. I’ve been told webzines aren’t given equal consideration by the committee, so it’s probably a shot. If it won, it’d be great for you and SPR. Otherwise, it’s a pretty small blurb (I’ve had a couple) if you can somehow work it into your CV. “Nominations are accepted between October 1 – December 1 (postmarked) for next year’s Pushcart edition.” Shoot me a reminder.

        • Thank you, Chris. it’s on my calendar. Best wishes, James

  3. I really enjoyed the story; definitely made me think. We all are very quick to label ourselves and others. Sometimes we need to take a step back.

    • Marla L. Thank you for the thoughtful comment. Best, James

  4. Beautifully written story with compelling characters and believable plot.
    I would love to read more!
    Is the title based on Aristotle’s notion that character is fate and fate is character?
    Thanks for the very enjoyable read.

    • Andrea Z. Yes, that was my thought when selecting the title, a cliche that fit the story, perhaps even a meta cliche. My thought about the end was: would Georges moving beyond cliche (character arc) improve his chances with Bunny. As for reading more, that would be up to the editors of the SPR. I did send another story to the fiction editor, Chris Miller, and we’ve discussed it in email exchanges. I’m not sure if he likes it but I’m not sure if he doesn’t.

      Thanks for taking the time to send your kind comments. Are you a regular reader of SPR and in particular its fiction?
      Best wishes, James

      • I was not a regular reader of SPL but will definitely look for more stories of interest. I discovered “As Fate Would Have it” through a Facebook link. I shared the link on my page because I think the story is relevant and thoughtful as well as elegantly written.

  5. Stipulated: I love me some well written legal fiction. THIS is that and more. To say Jordan’s word work is both intelligent and witty is a vast understatement. While some writers use lyrical descriptors for color and sense of place and time, it is the very best who can use character, dialogue and action to take you “there”. James Jordan is one of the very best modern writers at this. Not to say that his prose is without poetry. There are plenty of fine lyrical passages that just sing. But, Jordan’s writing is so well paced and so un-selfconscious you will ride along on the story long before you have time to think, “Wow!” (I read it twice. Once to hear a great story teller tell a timely and interesting story, and a second time to fully appreciate the fine construction of language. Both times I said, WOW! I was lucky enough to be given an ARC of Jordan’s first novel some time ago so I’m already a fan. Both works are crackling with wisdom and brimming with skill. I shall be on the look-out for everything he cranks out forevermore.

    • Corie, thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts. James
      Full disclosure, Corie was a beta reader for The Speed of Life.

      • James, I was privileged to be a beta* for The Speed of Life. But if you feel indebted, please just make sure I remain on your special* list. Your work knocks me out.

        ,

  6. Clever and entertaining. I thoroughly enjoyed this modern romance. It was on its face uncomplicated but I could not help but feel that there was an allegory looming beneath the quick paced plot. Don’t mix sex with politics? I suffered for poor Georges. Makes me glad I’m married!

    • LOL. The part about glad to be married. me too.

  7. Jordan is clearly an intellectual omnivore who can laugh at himself and others with kindness, dismember sacred cows and put ’em back together again, if you please. This read was a speedy romantic roller-coaster ride with jerks, swells and a soft landing. I knew I was “in until the end” when I laughed out loud at “…the Jacob Marley Memorial Conference Room…..”

    I look forward to more. Keep me in the loop.

    K.C. Soll

    • Thank you, K.C. You are the first person to tell me that s/he caught the reference to Dickens. 🙂 It’s nice to know that very bright, well-educated people read the fiction on this site. James

  8. Dear James,

    “As Fate Would Have It” is more of a moral compass than a story to me, not just because I’m twenty-something and have recently discovered that I know little about life.

    I can’t stop debating: how can we summarize ourselves when human nature seems infinite, yet, constrained by the mundane: “photo-traps” of dating sites, and lifelong lineups to the grave?

    More so, how can we aspire to be understood (much less – forgiven)?

    In a world of paradoxes and unlimited frustrations – of 7 billion subjective truths – it is comforting to find a story of acceptance and moral integrity. I am fond of Georges and can sense his inner conflict. I was touched by his acceptance of Bunny as a free-thinking individual with the right to her views and misconceptions. To me, this is love – the essence of unity.

    Georges loves humanity through Bunny, and makes a conscious effort to restore their bond. It is the triumph of compassion by the virtue of Free Will. I can agree that altruism doesn’t exist in our world. But Georges is a humanist (I’m sorry if I am mistaken – like Bunny, I have misconceptions). Frankly, it’s the best love story I’ve read in a while.

    Also, I couldn’t help noticing: the countertop tiles in Bunny’s kitchen, alternating the image of Themis and Asclepius. Was that a metaphor for justice (hopefully, truth) followed by healing? That’s something our world sorely needs.

    I remember the language of SOL and enjoyed your versatility in “As Fate Would Have It.” I look forward to reading your future works too – both short and longer!

    Per aspera ad astra! 😉

    Anastasia V. Goroshkova.

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