Start as You Mean to Go On


Jamie and I got married in February so we could go somewhere hot for our honeymoon. I don’t remember any of Jamie’s suggestions, but I was holding out for Hawaii. As a little girl I had been addicted to the televised exoticism of Hawaiian Eye and Hawaii Five O, but after visiting the islands with my parents a few years before I was completely seduced by the warm sand, the clear water, the waving palms, and the relaxed atmosphere so we booked three weeks at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach.

Our wedding was fantastic but the reception was interminable. No one wanted to go home. The band kept playing so the guests kept dancing for two hours longer than my dad had presumed people would desire to linger.  Since we weren’t leaving for Hawaii until early the next afternoon we had no excuse to leave, so we stayed and stayed.

When we finally made it to our hotel, we no longer resembled the shiny top-of-the-wedding-cake bride and groom we had been that morning. It had flurried and the dampness had made my hair curl weirdly; I had raccoon eyes. The eight-foot train of my elaborate Victorian gown had long since snapped the satin buttons meant to contain it and it crawled after me like bedraggled and recalcitrant swan as I staggered from the limousine. Jamie’s tie and cummerbund were crumpled and stuffed in his jacket pockets; his shirttails billowed behind him like a sail in the winter wind as he accepted the congratulations of the doorman. We looked exactly like what we were – exhausted newlyweds.

The desk clerk took one look at our disheveled appearance and nudged her manager. Seeing this I panicked, thinking momentarily that I hadn’t actually made the wedding night reservation; perhaps I had only imagined that I had. Oh, shit. Oh, please don’t let me have forgotten to make the reservation, I prayed silently; I just cannot face going outside to hail a taxi then driving to my parents’ house for our wedding night.

It turned out that I hadn’t forgotten, however, neither had I informed the hotel that the room was for our wedding night. The desk clerk was surprised to see us and wanted to upgrade us; the manager agreed. The nattily dressed bellman led us to the Secretary of State Suite, which took up most of one of the top floors of the hotel. It was breathtaking, decorated in muted blues and creamy beiges, and with more rooms than our Upper West Side apartment. Sinking into the plush pile of the carpet and staring through the glass wall at the view of the entire city twinkling beneath us, I rather thought I might like to honeymoon there. As lovely as the suite was, though, we didn’t get to enjoy it long past our room service breakfast, as my parents were coming to take away the formal clothes and drive us to the airport.

The flight was long but mostly uneventful; I had never flown First Class before so I wasn’t sure what to expect. There were a few more honeymooning good wishes (the crew presented us with a bottle of champagne upon disembarkation) and then we watched movies and dozed. It was early evening when we landed at the open-air Honolulu International Airport and immediately upon reaching the baggage claim felt the sultry island atmosphere.

We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel. I had chosen the historic Royal Hawaiian on Kalakaua Avenue specially because it aligned perfectly with my romantic image of Hawaiian honeymoons and it had ever since I had first seen it in From Here to Eternity. It was one of the oldest hotels on the island, a huge pink stucco structure built by Matson Lines in the Moorish style; it had acres of landscaped grounds, a garden, a pool, the Cazimero Brothers performing in the dining room, and that world famous beach just outside.

I grabbed my tote bag and scrambled out of the taxi as soon as we pulled under the porte cochere. While Jamie and the doorman handled the luggage I entered the open, airy lobby. I was so thrilled to be there I was practically vibrating. Although it was still early evening, the time change coupled with the excitement of the past twenty-four hours was making me quivery.

Jamie and I held hands in the elevator as we followed the bellman to our spacious room in the original section of the hotel. After the bellman left I snapped off the air conditioning and swung open the balcony doors, then threw myself on the king-sized bed and gazed outside. The azure waves weren’t crashing but lapping gently at the nearly-empty sand and glittering in the fading gold and pink light of the setting sun. King palms swayed gently in the slight evening breeze. Musicians were playing soft island music in the barefoot beach bar under and slightly to the left of our window. It was an abrupt change from polar New York. In minutes I was asleep.

Jamie, however, was unpacking. He has never been able to enter a hotel room, toss the suitcases on the bench and relax. Or go out. Somehow he finds it impossible to do anything except unpack. It must be some deep-seated neurosis because it is the same thing he does with the groceries when we return laden with bags from the supermarket.

He woke me when he was done. “You hungry?”

I pushed my hair from my forehead and yawned. “Yeah, sort of.”

“Do you want dinner?”

“Mmmmmm, yeah, but not a lot,” I had eaten quite a bit on the plane. I glanced out the window at the sky; it was a deep grey darkening to velvety midnight blue. “ Do you want to just get room service?”

Jamie thought for a moment. “No, but I am too tired to shower and change for the dining room. Do you want to go for a walk and see what we see?”

“Sure.” I rose from the bed and turned toward the spotless dresser in the immaculate room. There was no sign that there had ever been luggage here. “Where are my shorts?”

We exited the hotel and turned right onto Kalakaua Avenue. The stores were closing and the sidewalks weren’t as busy as they would be during the day. We wandered along the street front and past the one hundred year old banyan tree anchoring the International Market, peering into darkened shop windows and hearing snatches of music from restaurants and bars. After about a half hour the events of the week began catching up to us and we were both exhausted. Having reached the end of the byzantine Market path we turned to face each other.

“Anything in here interest you?” I asked.

Jamie shook his head. “Not really. Not for dinner, anyway. That cinnamon bun place smelled great, though, didn’t it?”

I laughed. “Yeah, but not for dinner.”

“It can’t be; it’s closed. I’ll stop by early tomorrow morning. You’ll still be asleep.” His voice sounded hopeful in the dim tiki torchlight.

I pulled his hand. “Come on. We’ll worry about that tomorrow. I want to eat something light soon or I will chew up the pillow in the middle of the night.”

We wandered back through the Market and crossed the street, then entered a small open-air shopping center near a huge fountain in front of a Borders Books. Jamie thought it might be a short cut. Everything was locked and dark except for a rectangle of light at the far end of the plaza, so we followed that. Reaching it we saw that it was a small old-fashioned coffee shop called The Princess Kauilani. We both smiled simultaneously and looked at each other.

“Here?” Jamie gestured with his left hand, the hand that was holding my right one.

“Sure. Why not?”

“You don’t want something fancier for the first dinner of our married life?”

I thought. “Technically last night was the first night of our married life and we had a pretty fancy dinner at the country club. Are you sure you don’t want something fancier on the first night of our honeymoon?”

“No. But I am not the sentimental one.”

I grimaced. “Don’t I know that?” I muttered ruefully.

“Come on,” he yanked my hand and reached for the glass door.

So we went in, chose a booth, and had BLTs for dinner on the first night of our married life. And it was perfect.

The British have a saying; ‘Start as you mean to go on.’ So we did. We have had a lot of posh vacations and an even greater number of humble dinners in the past twenty-seven years. And we are still here.

Entering the Walkstreet

IMG_3299We had been living in Beverly Hills for three years when Jamie decided that he wanted to move. I wasn’t surprised. While appearing outwardly glamorous in some ways, it is really just an overly-populated, rich people’s small town, and to us, coming from Manhattan, it was a very small town, indeed.

Frankly, I wondered why it took him so long to grow restless. After all, we had seen designer stores before. We had seen Rolls and Bentleys before. We had seen gawking tourists before. And we had seen more movie stars in New York than we ever saw in LA. I think because he spent long weekdays at work and generally returned to New York at the weekends, he had very little time to grow bored; however, when I arrived for holidays or at the end of June and we spent every moment in a town of 5.71 square miles, it didn’t take long for us to weary of it.

One night just before Christmas, Jamie announced that he intended to begin looking for a house. Since I was in New York, he viewed the available ones with a real estate broker after work. After he had seen many and narrowed the field to four, he sent me links to the Google Earth pages so I could participate in the final decision. Benedict Canyon. Hmm. Nice but I did not drive so what was I supposed to do with myself all day besides sit alone at the pool, something I had been doing in BH for years? The same for Coldwater Canyon. Venice? Great, but was that a drug rehab clinic next door?  Oh, no, no, no, not that one. The final choice, in Santa Monica, however, was different.

The late nineteenth century house in the walkstreet was charming. Judging from the photos, it had neighbors, a park, Main Street down the hill, and the ocean two blocks away. There were coffee shops, salons, clothes stores, and a branch library. It wouldn’t matter that I didn’t drive.

Jamie had put off closing on the house until late January, just before the Oscars. I was coming to LA for the long weekend’s festivities; from the gifting suites to the Academy Awards themselves, we had a lot of time already committed, but I wanted to see the house first.

I arrived on Saturday morning. We drove the short distance from LAX to Santa Monica in a wobble of anticipation. I had been to Santa Monica before but, as we had always stayed at the beach hotels, I had no clear idea of its topography.   This time we didn’t go near Loews or Shutters or the Third Street Promenade. We didn’t even get that far. Turning off Ocean Park Boulevard, Jamie pulled into a short driveway and hopped out of the car. I followed. The air was cool and salty. I liked it already.

Jamie tapped the residents’ code into the security gate’s keypad and we entered the walkstreet. I had never seen a more charming place. Two rows of historic bungalows faced each other as the sidewalk joined the postage stamp-sized front gardens. No one was about. Heads swiveling to take it all in, we trotted up the rise to our house. It was sage-green with eggshell trim. It had wide steps and a wider wooden porch with two huge glass picture windows, one in the living room and one in the dining room. Gazing from the house to the west, I could see the Pacific from the rise of the hill. We tiptoed up the steps, excitedly, and peered in the windows. Hardwood floors, open space, a new kitchen. . . I was unbelievably excited, even more than I had been when we bought our first home together.

We stayed only a few minutes. I had hair and nail appointments to begin the long process of getting ready for the big Night Before the Oscars party at the Beverly Hills Hotel. We sauntered back along the walkstreet and re-entered the car then drove back along Ocean Park to eat a quick lunch at Jamie’s favorite burger restaurant, The Counter.

Many years later, I can still feel the excitement I felt that day as, although I didn’t know it, this day was the beginning of so many things – living near my niece, Vikki, and her cat, Finn, again; meeting Debbie and Glenn, who ultimately became among our dearest friends; learning about rats and the proximity of movie star neighbors; and, finally, finding the stray kitten who became our Spencer.

It’s often said that a life’s path is determined with a single step. I think it’s true. My Santa Monica time was among the richest and happiest of my life so far. And it started with the keypad  entry on the walkstreet.

August Magic

imageAugust is for Italy; to be precise, it is for Forte dei Marmi, a lovely beach town in Tuscany that we have gone to for years, after Jamie learned about it on a marble-buying trip.

The Forte you see depends on where you go and where you look. Ours is the sleep late and laze at the beach all day Forte as opposed to the drink and dance all night at the clubs and miss the next day Forte.

We are creatures of happy habit and have always stayed at the same hotel – Hotel Augustus, Viale Morin, 169 – and done the same thing the same way. We rise at about 9 am and wander downstairs to the garden dining room for breakfast – small Italian eggs, soft-boiled with rich, creamy, saffron-colored yolks sopped up with crispy whole grain toast and washed down with foamy, creamy, caffe latte. Sitting in the pale yellow sunshine, it appears that no day could begin any better.

We spend the day on lounges in our rented cabana, reading, chatting, snacking on fresh fruit and Pellegrino, and dozing until the inevitable telephone calls from Jamie’s office begin. After a light lunch of pizza and salad we walk to the pier and back. By then the sun has begun its descent and it is time to shower and change for dinner, a little shopping, and passeggiata, the uniquely Italian custom of walking around and looking at each other’s sartorial presentation.

We dress carefully – Italians don’t wear sneakers or fanny packs, not even on their holidays – and walk the mile into town. Sometimes it’s a slim linen dress and heels for dinner at Trattoria Gatto Nero and sometimes it’s a floaty cotton skirt and flats for pizza Margherita at Al Bocconcino. Afterward it is always gelato from Caffe Principe and a couple of laps around the entire town looking at everyone else looking at us as we work our way to the newsstand for copies of British magazines.

The nights are sultry and the salty tang of the sea floats in on the gentle ocean breeze, combining with the potpourri of aromas from the restaurants. The shops are open and crowded with festive customers until long past midnight. Snatches of music or laughter burst forth periodically from hotel lobbies and dining rooms as we wander past, hand in hand.

Finally, we turn left at the go cart track and head toward the hotel. The music is cranking up in the clubs and the high-performance cars’ engines are revving as they cruise the streets hoping for a legal parking spot. As we are now in our fifties, those days are behind us. Jamie will talk on the phone to the studio for hours, returning the calls he missed all day due to the time zone difference. I will watch an old black and white movie on the iPad and fall asleep. Tomorrow it will all begin again.

Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, Cafe au Lait

DSC_0891The week after I finished graduate school, my husband, Jamie, and I went to Europe together for the first time. Excluding our honeymoon years before, this would be our first really long trip and, as my overly romantic imagination took hold, I envisioned us wandering arm in arm through moonlit Roman ruins; munching les marron glaces at Laduree’s tiny bistro tables; and elegantly sipping steaming Lapsang Souchong at Brown’s Hotel. So powerful was this vision that I completely ignored what I already knew about the reality of travelling with Jamie; specifically, I read the tour books and look at the sights while he clutches a telephone to his ear, talking to his office as he unconsciously tidies things. Years earlier we had accompanied my parents on a cruise to Bermuda. Since there were no international cell phones then, Jamie spent an entire day on the dock in Hamilton talking on a pay phone on the pier. As I skipped away for a day of shopping and eating with my mom and dad, the last thing I noticed was his saying “No, Kenny, I think if you open the bids again, you’ll find that . . . “ as he dabbed idly at a barely-visible Diet Coke spot on his khaki shorts.
I have never understood his affection for telephones or cleaning. Being rather a Luddite, I didn’t get my first cell phone until long after they’d become common. Perhaps my husband’s addiction to it put me off.
While I suspect that the telephone thing is work-based, the cleaning is something he does reflexively. Most of the time it seems harmless, quirky: sometimes it’s even been charming, like the sunny July morning my visiting childhood friend, Patti, excused herself to go to the bathroom during breakfast. By the time she returned, Jamie had cleared the table, loaded the dishwasher, and scrubbed the griddle, all with his trusty Motorola Razr pasted firmly to his left ear. “Seriously, Danny, you can’t honestly think that . . . “
The days passed, our suitcases were packed, and the morning of our departure arrived. My heart pounding, we boarded the plane to London. During the flight Jamie didn’t use the Airphone at all but he did tidy all of the newspapers on the steward’s cart. As we began navigating our carry-ons down the Jetway, however, his cell phone rang and it took repeated scowls from the Immigration officers to convince him to disconnect. It rang again as we settled into our black taxi and Jamie chatted throughout the drive from Heathrow to Mayfair. As he executed the U turn on Carlos Place in front of our hotel, the driver – no slouch on the mobile phone himself, by the way – commented wryly that he hoped I’d be okay visiting the Tower and Harrod’s on my own since my husband would no doubt be up in our room talking on the landline, having exhausted his phone’s battery.
We wandered through European capitals, Jamie and I, chatting and reading, folding and plumping. The evening before we were scheduled to leave Paris, Jamie prowled the room, hunting for errant objects with his cell scrunched under his chin. I reclined against pillows on the bed and watched the 1936 Warner Brothers classic Charge of the Light Brigade with Errol Flynn dubbed to sound like Yves Montand.
We needed to arrive at the station no later than 7:15 a.m. to retrieve our reserved tickets and make our way to the carriage of our 7:45 a.m. train. Because I am not at my most alert in the morning, I had taken the linen jacket I intended to wear and purposefully laid it across the back of a chair before I retired. The chair stood next to the door. Regardless of my level of catatonia, I would see it..
Just after our 6:00 a. m. wake up call Jamie shoved me toward the shower and called Room Service for café au lait and pastries. Despite the caffeine fortification, I dawdled and Jamie prodded me to hurry. Exiting into the misty Champs Elysees morning, I grumbled about the chill air. Jamie assured me I’d find hot coffee waiting at the station. Comforted, I promptly fell asleep in the back of the tiny taxi. By the time we’d reached the station, however, I had awakened shivering. I searched my carry-on bag for my jacket.
“Did you pack it in your bag?” I asked Jamie as the taxi drove through the crescent to the wide-open glass doors of the Eurostar terminal.
He twisted his neck to hold his phone while he spoke to me. “Hold on, Kenny. Pack what?”
“My jacket. My beige linen Moschino jacket.”
When he didn’t answer, I poked him. He shrugged and gestured to the metal object adhered to his ear. He continued talking until the taxi stopped at the doors, then disconnected and glanced at the meter.
“Where’s my jacket?” I asked.
He counted Euros. “Do you have any money?”
I emptied the front pocket of my jeans into his waiting palm. “Here. Where’s my jacket?”
“I dunno. Did you take it out of the closet?”
“It wasn’t in the closet. I threw it across the back of the blue chair by the door because I knew I wouldn’t see it otherwise. “ I could almost feel the little cartoon light bulb suddenly switch on above my head. “You hung it in the closet, didn’t you?” I cried accusingly. “Last night when you were on the phone with Kenny you tidied it away! We have to catch a train in twenty minutes and my jacket is in a closet in the hotel!”
He swung open the taxi door dragging the carry-ons behind him. “Call the hotel and tell them to send it to Jose and Diana’s house. Use my office’s Fed Ex number. I have to call Kenny back.”
After paying the driver and claiming the tickets, there was barely enough time for my errand. Fed Ex number and hotel receipt clutched in my sweaty palm, I scurried down the train steps and looked around nervously for an old-fashioned public telephone sign. Finally locating it on the outer wall of a tiny coffee bar, I trotted into the smoky room. Reaching for the handset, I ran my eyes all over the phone’s body looking for the coin slot. With a shock I realized that it didn’t accept cash, only phone cards. I turned and dashed out of the warm, dark bar and into the bright, chilly station searching for the tabac stand. There it was, against the far corner. I trotted toward it. Facing the clerk squarely, I tried to act out my request as I fumbled with my poor French. “Je suis . . . une telephone card.”
Her brown eyes widened.
“No? Um, voulez vous une telephone card?” She frowned. Apparently that wasn’t right, either.
I mimicked dialing and chatting gaily. She cocked her head like a puzzled squirrel. Nearly frantic, I lapsed into Italian, the only foreign language I know. “Per favore, vorrei comprare una carta del telefono.” She smiled and answered something like, “Vous voudriez . . . une carte de telephone” lilting at the end so I assumed it was a question. I nodded. She asked something else and the blankness of my expression must have assured her that there was no way I knew the answer to that one. She repeated it, louder. Realizing that raising one’s voice at a foreigner seemed to be a universal reaction to coping with one, I chewed my bottom lip and nodded slowly, hoping that was the correct response. She sighed, shook her head, and turned to a locked cabinet where she slid in the key and chose a green telephone card with a French cartoon character printed on it. I held out all the money I had left. She picked out the price of the card, placed in it my hand , and then smiled.
I turned and raced through the station back to the smoky bar. Yanking hard on the glass door handle, I heard a loud, metallic binnnnnnng-bonnnnnnng. It reminded me of the televised Avon Cosmetics commercials from my childhood. Nervously, I laughed aloud at the thought – Avon Ladies in Paris – and grabbed at the telephone handset. I had no idea how much time had elapsed, but connecting to the concierge, waiting for the head of Housekeeping to travel to our room and retrieve my jacket, and then verifying the Basel address and the Fed Ex number, seemed to take hours. I guessed I was safe, though; I hadn’t heard the Basel train called.
I exited the café and turned toward the track where my train was . . . no longer waiting. Disbelieving, I ran along the empty platform, dodging suitcases, strollers, and other people. I really needn’t have hurried since I could see the train’s distant lights as it turned a curve about a half-mile away. Realizing that the Avon Lady sound had probably been my train’s departure signal, I slid onto a cold wooden bench and considered my situation. A tear leaked out from under my lashes. Another one followed. I wiped them away with the backs of both hands (my tissues were in my tote bag on the train) and, feeling distinctly like Lucy Ricardo, I decided I’d better find the stationmaster.
The office was at the top of a flight of metal stairs. The stationmaster was a very kind man; after listening politely to my admittedly ludicrous tale – preoccupied husband; forgotten jacket; no phone card; no ticket or passport, either (both were with the Kleenex in my tote bag on the train), his only response was a small sigh “I am sorry to hear that, madame, however, you are in luck because there is another train in three hours’ time. We simply have to get you on it. Please sit down and allow me to assist you.” He paused and gestured to the blue plastic chair in front of his desk and pursed his lips slightly. “I know what we will do. I will radio the conductor on your train and ask him to verify that your husband and your ticket are indeed on it. The conductor will then assure your husband of your safety.” He slid a small pad of paper and a pen toward me. “Now if you will please write out for me your name, your husband’s name and the location of your seats.”
When I was done, he lifted one of the many radios that cluttered his desk and spoke rapidly to someone in French. He listened to the response then turned back to me. “The conductor says that he just passed through the carriage containing your husband and that he was talking on his mobile phone but that he had two tickets in his hand. In a few minutes, when he finishes his round, the conductor will return and ask your husband to see your passport. Then he will confirm your identity and assure your husband of your safety. Afterward, we will issue you a new ticket. Please make yourself comfortable. We have only a few minutes to wait.”
My husband was talking on the telephone. Surprise. No doubt he’d be tidying the carriage in a few minute’s time.
I stared idly through the window while we waited. When the radio crackled in garbled French, the stationmaster lifted it to his ear, listened, looked at the pad, and then smiled. “Now we will provide you with a new ticket and somewhere to wait until the next train.” He reached for a cell phone and dialed. After a few seconds he began chattering quickly. I understood almost nothing of what he said, just “Americain” and “mal place”. In another few seconds, the stationmaster disconnected the call and rose. “My assistant is coming. He will provide you with a new ticket and remain with you until your train boards. In the meantime, I must go to the train-shed. Please remain here in comfort. If you will excuse me.” He was gone.
I sat and chewed my right thumbnail pondering my own idiocy. In about ten minutes, the glass door opened and a young man entered. “Are you the lost American?” he inquired politely.  Now I had a title.
The assistant stationmaster asked me to wait while he completed a few of his duties. Since I had so much time, I took a taxi to the hotel to retrieve my jacket then met the assistant stationmaster again when he came to reclaim me. Since it was time for his midmorning break, he led me to a cool Parisian bar where he bought me a pain au chocolat and café au lait, then leaned against the scarred zinc counter and introduced me to his friends as the lost American. At the correct time, he escorted me to my train and asked the conductor to be sure that I got to my seat safely. He probably also suggested that it would be best if I didn’t leave my seat until the train stopped in Switzerland, although I can’t be sure of this because I didn’t understand their conversation held entirely in French. Regardless, I made the trip to Basel in safety and comfort, albeit without my second honeymoon groom.
In retrospect, it all worked out fine. True, I missed the romance of a train trip with Jamie but I had a Parisian adventure that I’d never have had any other way. Plus I learned a few things; I learned that I can survive with no passport, no money, and no facility for the local language. And I learned that all my years of living inside books wasn’t wasted; Tennessee Williams really was correct about the kindness of strangers.

Why I Love Manhattan

Laura Driving

Native New Yorkers view the world through the grimy lens of cynicism.  Expecting and preparing for the worst possible result from all people and situations seems to us the most sensible way to travel through this life.  And travel we do – on buses, in taxis, on ferries, and through subway tunnels, all within close proximity to our fellow citizens.  Because of these myriad public transportation options, most of us don’t have a personal relationship with the internal combustion engine; after all, if God had intended for New Yorkers to drive, He wouldn’t have provided Alfred Ely Beach the idea for an underground pneumatic railroad back in 1869.

And the subway works just fine, thank you.  More or less, anyway.  Okay, it’s sweltering in the summer, stifling in the winter, and crowded all the time, but, it’s so much easier than taxis or buses.  Relatively few things can go wrong.  It runs on tracks from point A to point B; it can be fast or slow or stuck in a tunnel, but it will never deviate from its path leaving you stranded in a strange neighborhood.  And for those occasions requiring personal transportation there’s an Avis Car Rental garage on East 43rd Street.

My grandfather owned a car in the city which he used for both his business and to drive upstate for weekends; my father had one, too.  Although I had learned to drive, I rarely saw the need to actually do so.  I had always commuted to school and work in the more traditional fashion – strolling to the subway stop, passing the firehouse, chatting with the firemen and petting the dog, picking up a newspaper and coffee, and observing the theatre of the city’s streets along the way.

Like most New Yorkers, I’ve seen pretty much everything life has to offer on those walks – from the homeless man lying on a dirty plaid sofa watching tv under the Queensboro Bridge to the bride in full white wedding regalia boarding the B train. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I’ve seen it often, and right now it’s blocking the entrance to the building where I need to go, dammit.  And no one in New York has seen more than its police officers.

In the early years of our relationship, my husband Jamie’s office was in Brooklyn Heights and we lived on the Upper West Side, just a few blocks from Engine Company 76.  Jamie’s was an inconvenient and time-consuming commute so Louis, his boss, thought a company car was in order: that’s how a blue Mercedes C class entered our family immediately enroll ing us in that subset of city dwellers whose lives are governed by the New York City Department of Transportation Alternate Side Parking calendar, downloadable in various languages including Chinese, Russian, and Haitian Creole.  (Believe me; woe of apocalyptic proportions betides the ignorant fool who leaves his car on the wrong side of the street when a Department of Sanitation street sweeper is due.)  Months passed with Jamie driving to work and my hopping on the train, each of us pleased with the arrangement. Then came the summer Saturday that we were invited to dinner with friends in Chappaqua, out of the city, one of those occasions that the car was supposed to make easier.

Around noon, Jamie wandered into the living room where I was watching a film I’d recorded.  I pushed the pause button  when he began to talk. “I have to go to meet Stu at Hudson Street at 3 o’clock so why don’t we get ready early, I’ll go to the meeting then call you when we’re through and you can meet me and we’ll head to the Damiano’s.”

I considered the suggestion, then shrugged, unimpressed with the idea. “What’ll I do while you’re with Stu?”

“Go shopping in SoHo.”

I wrinkled my nose. “No, I don’t want to do that. It’s a schlep from Hudson to any stores I like and I was going to wear the blue suit with high heels tonight and I hate walking around outside in nice shoes.”

“Take the car.”

“Yeah, and park at Hudson Street and I’ll still have to walk all the way over to West Broadway.  No, thanks.”

“No, you take the car, park on Broadway and I’ll walk over and meet you when Stu and I’re done.”

Pause.  “Me drive?”

“Yeah, you know how.”

Exhale.  “Yeah, I know I know how but I don’t parallel park real well.”

“So learn.”

He was using that tone, that ‘What’s wrong? Can’t rise to the challenge?’ tone that I hate but remain unable to resist.

Two beats, then three.  I blinked.  He blinked.  I sighed.  “Okay, fine.  I guess I’d better get in the shower now then.”

By 2:45 pm we were downtown.  Jamie exited the car in front of his friend’s mid-block office building and I slid behind the wheel.  Before slamming the door he leaned in and said, “I’ll call you when I’m through and you can tell me where you are and I’ll come find you.  Then we’ll drive to the Damiano’s.”

“Humph, I’ll probably be in traffic court.”

“Nope, you never get a court date the same day as the offense.” Grinning, he slammed the door and strolled away.

Using my walker’s geography I tried to figure out how to pilot this monstrous vehicle back toward Broadway.  I knew that avenues run north to south and streets are east to west but I am an Upper West Side baby; except for attending NYU, I had little experience with southern Manhattan and even for that I exited the subway at West Fourth Street and walked.  I knew that Hudson Street met West Broadway somewhere around Chambers Street and that it runs both north and south so I could find the stores I wanted easily enough, providing I could get to that point.  The problem was that all of this was in the direction opposite of where I was headed and I didn’t have the vaguest idea how to get back to where I wanted to be.

Guided only by rudimentary New Yorker’s geography – east are the beaches of Long Island and west is New Jersey and everywhere else until you reach Los Angeles – I nosed into the thick Saturday afternoon traffic, slowly, nervously, inching what I hoped was eastward.  So many people, so many cars, so many trucks, so many One Way signs sprang before me that in no time I was completely discombobulated.  I don’t know what I did wrong but  I found myself crushed in the middle of the New Jersey-bound Canal Street traffic jam crawling toward the open, leering mouth of the Holland Tunnel.  Damn Jamie and his bright ideas.

Even the thought  of the tunnel panicked me.  Obviously it began in lower Manhattan but I had no idea where it ended.  My mind conjured images of Lucy Ricardo’s first driving lesson when, panicked, she attempted a three-point turn in the tunnel and reportedly stopped traffic all the way to East Orange, New Jersey.  Determined not to befall the same fate, I looked nervously for someplace, anyplace, to turn out of the stream.  It wasn’t going to be easy; all of the streets seemed to be one way, feeding into the four lane bottleneck approach to the double-tube tunnel. My palms grew sweatier with each street I passed.  About a block before the actual entrance I noticed another one-way sign pointing toward Canal Street but the street itself was blocked by blue NYPD sawhorses.  Rejoicing, I switched on my right turn signal and began the laborious process of exiting to the right.  I swerved around the sawhorse and saw three New York City police officers standing by identical sawhorses at the opposite end of the street; they were waving away all traffic attempting to turn into the street.  Hearing my approaching engine, one broke from the cluster and sauntered toward my car.  He gestured for me to stop, so I did; I lowered the window and waited expectantly, hopefully.

“Lady, did you see the one-way sign?”

“Yes, but I’m lost.  I was getting forced into the tunnel traffic and I didn’t mean to go there. I don’t want to go into the tunnel.  I don’t even know where it goes.  I was trying to get over to the left to go to West Broadway but nobody would let me over.  So I turned here to go around the block and try another way.” I smiled.

His eyes narrowed slightly.  “Lady, this is a one-way street. You’re going the wrong way.”

“Yes, I know.” Hadn’t I just explained that?

He flexed his jaw.  “You’re going the wrong way on a one-way street. You have to turn around and go back”

“No, I can’t go that way. I’ll get pushed into the tunnel.” My hope was fading.

“Look, lady, either you turn around or I am going to write you a ticket for driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Now turn around.”

“No, I’ll get pushed into the tunnel.  If you have to write the ticket, then write it but  I can’t go back that way. Nobody will let me over and I’ll end up somewhere in New Jersey, I don’t even know where.” At this point all hope was gone and panic was creeping into my voice, not for the ticket, but for the possibility of getting lost in New Jersey.

He pushed his cap further back on his head as he stared at me staring at him.  He sighed. “Lady, what do you want me to do, stop the traffic for you?”

“Yes, please.”

His eyes widened.  My choosing to take his sarcasm seriously meant he was now stuck, as stuck as I was.  He sighed again.  “All right.  Turn around and follow me.”

I executed my three-point turn successfully and followed him up the sight grade.  He stepped into the first lane of traffic and held up his right palm toward it while gesturing for me to follow with his left.  He repeated the process through the lanes until all approaching cars had stopped; I followed behind him an inch at a time like a tentative but obedient dog.   After I had cut diagonally across the stopped  traffic I braked near the officer.  He lifted his left arm and pointed theatrically in the direction I needed to go, then swept his right arm across his chest, brushing past his face, then dropped his head in a dramatic courtier’s bow.  I yelled ‘thank you’ through the closed window and accelerated slightly.  As I passed him I could see the grin on his face.

Yes, we’ve seen it all here in New York.  And there are reasons why many of us choose not to drive.

Piglet out of Water, or Friday at The Chelsea Arts Club

I was standing in afishoutofwater phone booth in the lobby of the Dukes Hotel in St. James’s Place, London.  I was a twenty-one-year old, shiny new, NYU liberal arts graduate and I was scared.  I had been scared for quite a while, at least since bumping my wheelie suitcase down the stairs to the E train at 57th Street Station more than a week earlier.

I’d never been in London alone before – except for college I’d never really gone anywhere by myself and even then I only went a few stops downtown on the B train – so when my mom mentioned to her poet friend Bonnie that she had finally convinced me to leave New York to study for an advanced degree at Trinity College, Oxford for a year, Bonnie thought it would help me to know someone, and she told my mom to tell me to look up her dearest friend, Leah, who had moved to London in the wake of a collapsed marriage.  All this arranged friendship intimidated me even more than knowing no one, so I avoided calling; rather I wandered throughout the city alone, growing acclimated to being on my own. It was now my final day in London, and my apprehension about coming here was roiling, like one of those constantly-on-the-boil teakettles in Dickensian cafes.  I know it sounds like I am overly timid – my older sisters call me Piglet after Winnie the Pooh’s pink and quaking friend and wonder, often and loudly, how anyone raised in New York City could possibly be so fainthearted – but I prefer to think of myself as cautious.

Regardless, since I was leaving London for Oxford early the next morning to begin the Michaelmas term, it was my last chance to contact Leah, so I entered the phone booth next to the night porter’s chair and, chewing my left thumbnail, inserted my BT calling card.

Leah sounded pleased to hear from me.  She said that Bonnie had told her to expect my call and when she offered to take me to dinner at her club, I accepted.  I was aware that both Bonnie and my mother believed that new experiences were crucial for personal growth, a philosophy I was not entirely sure I shared.  But, like Bonnie, Leah was a published writer – a poet and a playwright – and since I wanted to be a writer, maybe she would offer me advice.  If not,  . . . well, I wasn’t thinking that far in advance.  And I’d never been to a private London club and had no idea what to expect; it sounded more exotic than the University Club where my parents took us for holiday lunches and it was bound to be better than another boxed sandwich from the Mark & Spencer food hall.

Pushing apart the split-panel glass and mahogany door of the old-fashioned telephone booth I headed for the birdcage elevator to return to my room to shower and change.  One sure thing was that dinner with Leah would force me to stop dwelling upon my own fear of change for a few hours.  And maybe Leah’s club was a famous one like the Groucho – supposedly Mick Jagger belonged there – or the renowned Chelsea Arts Club, which was reputed to be Eric Clapton’s club, and if I saw him there my sister-in-law Kelly would be really jealous.

Two pm found me standing in front of my hotel, shifting my weight in the late September sunshine.  Unsure what to wear, I had opted for a short-sleeved blue cotton dress and matching espadrilles. I didn’t think I’d need a sweater because I had read in the Timesthat this had been the hottest summer since WW II, and in the short time I’d been there, I had learned that London wasn’t air-conditioned. A tall, slim woman with curly brown hair and baggy linen pants approached me tentatively.

“Lucy?  Hi, I’m Leah, Bonnie’s friend.  How are you?”  She had a slight English accent, like she had adopted, rather than given birth to it.  She stretched out her hands to grasp mine and kissed me on both cheeks.

“Oh, hi.  I’m fine,” I waved a hand in front of my face nervously.  “A little hot.  I always thought it rained all the time in England and that would make it cool.”

“It does usually, but we’ve been having a record summer. And rain doesn’t always make it cool here, just wet. Wait’ll autumn strikes Oxford.  I hope you packed a mac because you are really going to need it.” She cocked her head and studied me. “You know, Bonnie never told me how cute you are.”

I didn’t know how to answer that so I didn’t and we stared at each other for a moment.  Then, “Bonnie says you’re a writer.”

“Um, yeah, well . . . um, I’m trying to be. . . I’m not a real writer like Bonnie or you. . . I have published a few things.  I won a haiku contest. . . I, uh . . . I’m just starting.  I think they call it ‘emerging’ but I hate that term; it makes me sound like a caterpillar breaking out of a cocoon about to be a . . . a moth or . . .or something . . . ” my voice trailed off.  Blushing, I turned to admire the lush floral baskets clustered within wrought iron trim of the hotel.

I felt a tug at my arm.  “Come on, caterpillar.  Let’s go for a walk and you can see London.”  Leah turned her face toward the sun. “It’s such a beautiful day I want to enjoy it.  I must pop into Boots, and then we can go to my flat in Morpeth Terrace for a bit. It’s in Westminster so it’s not far, right near Victoria Station; do you know where that is?  It’s the closest stop to Buckingham Palace, in case you ever want to go there. Oh, it’s such lovely day to walk; we rarely get weather like this.”  She almost skipped.  She must really like the sunshine.  “I want you to see where I live so you can tell Bonnie.  Do you know she has never visited me?  It’s a lower ground floor flat – what we’d call the basement in America – so you can only see people’s feet and there’s a long wall with a gate that goes across the building’s entire ground floor, but it looks across to Westminster Cathedral.  Do you know it?  It’s the one John Betjeman wrote about.”

I would have said I had heard of the historic cathedral, but I couldn’t slip a word in.

”Then after our visit we’ll go to the Club for an early dinner.” She began striding toward St. James’s Street, leaving me bobbing in her wake.  “On the way, we’ll call for my friend Graham at his flat.  He lives near me in a lovely neighborhood, right between the Station and the Cathedral. He leases a room in a massive and very elegant mansion flat in Carlisle Mansions.  Wait until you see it. It’s astounding – an entire floor!  The London Arts Council used to meet there.  Jessica . . . she owns the leasehold . . . has a dining table with 60 chairs; can you believe it?  And an amazing antique chandelier is suspended above it; it has these very grand angels hanging from it.  We’ll meet him then go for a meal.  Is there a Boots in Piccadilly, do you know?  I need to pop in for a few things.”

There was a Boots the Chemist in Piccadilly; I had noticed it on my way to the Green Park tube stop and had picked up a few useful items there myself over the past few days, however it was in the opposite direction of where Leah was pointed and she was chattering so quickly that it was hard to find an opening. “Yes, yes, there is a Boots, but it’s opposite the Ritz.  Isn’t that the other way?”  I gestured over my shoulder feebly.  Leah stared wide-eyed. “You have learned some things about London since you’ve been here, haven’t you, caterpillar?”

“Well, I learned where to buy toothpaste.”

Leah threw her head back and laughted. I blushed again. We set off toward the Ritz Hotel.

Over the next fifteen or so minutes, I trailed Leah through Boots as she collected her toiletries in a metal basket, then I sat and waited with her while the pharmacist filled a prescription for her second husband.

“How do you like London?” she asked once we were back outside, waiting to cross Piccadilly to cut through Green Park.

“Well . . . I like it more than I thought I would.”  I replied.

“More than you thought you would? Did you expect to not like it?”

I twisted a lock of hair around my right index finger.  “Oh, I don’t know.  I mean, I grew up in New York – my family has been there for generations – so New York is my template. Especially our neighborhood.  My grandparents – my mom’s parents – live really close to us and my dad’s parents live a couple of blocks away.”

Leah nodded. “So, like the slogan, you love New York.”

“Yeah, I guess.  My only criticism of Manhattan is that it is constantly destroying its past by knocking down beautiful old buildings and putting up steel and glass monstrosities.  It’s never the same from year to year. I hate that.”

Leah smiled. “You’re right about New York.  I think it purges itself every ten years of its people and its way of life and just starts over like a snake sloughing off its skin.”

“But London has . . . continuity; gorgeous old buildings are everywhere, and more survived the Blitz than I had thought. I love that . . . that constancy.”

“Developers knock down buildings here, too, you know.”

“Oh, I know, but there are so many great buildings and they transcend eras. The old Roman wall is still there in the City; I saw it when I visited the Tower, which is also still there.  And the V & A has one façade that shows bomb damage from WW II; no one has plastered over it.  And there is that Congregational church in Stepney that was bombed during the War that has only one wall remaining but that wall is still up.”

Leah stared. “You went all the way to Stepney?” she asked.

“Lord, no. I don’t even know where Stepney is, except in it’s in a Rolling Stones song.  My dad is a WW II historian and he talks a lot about the Blitz.”

We’d reached Leah’s building so conversation ceased as she began fussing with keys for gate locks, door locks, and mailbox locks.  Westminster was like New York in that respect, at least. As we entered, I gazed around at the building’s façade and hallways and mentally compared it to my family’s apartment building on the Upper West Side.  Morpeth Mansions was a big building but the halls seemed narrower and the windows, although larger, were fewer. When we entered Leah’s apartment, I realized that it was much smaller than my family’s on 86th Street.  Despite the front-facing windows it was dimmer, and even though she had less furniture, the space felt crowded.  The kitchen withits mismatched cabinets wasn’t separate, either; it took up more than half of the main room.  A small washing machine was located under the kitchen counter where I had expected a dishwasher to be, although I didn’t see a matching dryer.

I pulled out one of the two chairs tucked under the small, wooden dining table and sat and stared at the passing parade of shoes out the window, only half listening to Leah chatter as she pulled her damp sheets from the teeny washer while waiting for the electric kettle to boil for tea. I couldn’t imagine having such a small and inconveniently placed machine; it would take forever to complete a family’s weekly wash. I thought of the well-lighted and airy laundry room in our building at home containing nine regular-sized washers, three double-sized washers, and twelve enormous dryers.

Just after Leah had placed a glass pint bottle of milk on the table, she pulled open a narrow door to what I presumed was a pantry.  Inside was a series of pipes.  She began laying her laundry over them.

“What is that?” I asked.

“It’s an airing cupboard,” Leah replied as she slipped the sheets over the metal rails.

“What do you mean by ‘airing’?”

Leah stood on tiptoes and continued stretching and smoothing.  “This flat is too small for a tumble dryer so we lay the washing across these rails to dry.  They are heated by sourcing directly to the water heater. Over there, see?”  She pointed to a large, wall-mounted, metal cylinder. “Lots of older flats have them. It’s very energy-efficient.”

And peculiar, I thought, remembering how when I was little my mother would pull her sheets from the giant dryer, toss them in her wheeled basket, plop me on top, and push everything upstairs.  I mentally crossed my fingers that Trinity was in the current century laundry-wise.

I chewed my thumbnail again.  “Uh, Leah?”


“Did you find it weird when you first came here?”

Leah looked over her shoulder from the airing cupboard.  “Weird how?”

I considered.  “Well, weird in that it’s different from New York.”

“It’s not that different; they speak English.”

“No, that’s not it.  I mean . . . like moving from your old apartment to here.”

Leah laughed.  “After Harry and I divorced, I moved into an unrestored five-storey walkup in the Village. There was no shower, no laundry facilities, and precious little heat, plus the only view was of an airshaft. Comparatively, this is a palace.”

“But weren’t you born in New York?  Hadn’t you first been published in New York?  Wasn’t your . . . life . . . in New York?”

“Yes to all three but there are publishers here.  New York isn’t the center of the artistic world, Lucy; it just thinks it is. And my parents are dead and I have no siblings, so after my divorce I had no real reason to stay.  And besides,” Leah closed the airing cupboard door and turned her attention to the kettle.  “There is a vibrant artistic community here, a real value of the written and spoken word that I never felt in New York, even when I did readings or met with my publisher.  It’s why I joined the Club.  Everyone just gets together and sustains one another in their latest endeavors.” She poured tea into porcelain mugs then placed the traditional English Brown Betty teapot on the table.

“You mean like a writers’ support group,” I ventured spooning sugar into my mug.

“Yes, and no.  A support group says ‘yeah, yeah, that’s great, it reminds me of . . . ‘ blah blah blah.  I mean a place where all artists, not just writers, express and stretch and celebrate just being artists together.  Not valuing who just got accepted by Grantamore than who is still scribbling away in a Shakespearean garret, but appreciating all. Just a great love for art itself.”

I thought about those concepts – camaraderie and acceptance.  My experience had been that writing was hard, solitary work and fraught with rejection of one kind or another, from professors, from classmates, from editors. Leah’s artistic London sounded as unreal as Oz.

Leah’s telephone rang, breaking the silence with that sharp European brrrring-brrrrring sound.

“Three one double six four.  Graham, darling!  Hello!  How funny that you are ringing now . . . we are actually about to head out. Are you ready?  We’ll be . . . What?  Now? Ohhhh, I am so disappointed!  You won’t get to meet Lucy, then, because she’s leaving in the morning . . . No, no apology!  I understand.  No, no, you absolutely need to do this.  You have worked too hard for too long.  Well, ring me tomorrow then, darling, and we’ll catch up.”  Leah replaced the receiver.  “Graham can’t join us, after all.  He has had a play in workshop for the longest time and the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse wants to discuss the possibility of staging it. He is thrilled because although he has been writing for years, he has never had a production.  This is a brilliant opportunity for him.”

“Wow, that’s impressive.”  I didn’t know much about the Donmar except it was a respected professional theatre created out of old warehouse space in Covent Garden, the former fruit and vegetable market on the fringes of the West End.  I felt a pang of envy; imagine having a play you wrote be performed.

“Well, caterpillar, I think it’s just you and me for dinner then. Let me tidy up a bit and we’ll be off. ”

Once Leah had brushed her hair and written a note telling her husband the approximate time she would return, she was ready to leave and we began the walk to her club.  She chatted the entire time but, immersed in my own thoughts, I barely heard her.  I was considering what she’d implied about New York’s being artistically inhospitable.  I could see how it might be true, although I still thought it was mostly representative of a writer’s friendless existence, not necessarily something exclusive to New York; that said, there must be some kind of artistic community in London if a friend of hers could workshop a play into the Donmar.  He didn’t workshop alone; there had to be other playwrights and actors to workshop with.

After about twenty minutes we reached Chelsea and I guessed our destination – One Hundred Forty-three Old Church Street, the Chelsea Arts Club. You could see it from two blocks away; it was a Victorian terrace with each section painted alternately prune-whip purple, Mediterranean coral, and Creamsicle orange, with unfinished-looking blotches of lemon yellow and cobalt blue.  On top of the colors were representations of all kinds of people, including a fat lady in a polka-dot bikini; a tall, thin toff wearing tails and a top hat; a tennis player with four legs; and an approximation of King Kong, a hairy brown ape balancing a recumbent woman on his right front paw like a cocktail tray.

“Here we are,” Leah said brightly a minute later.  “It’s not always painted like this.  We change it pretty often to suit the mood of the city.”  She extended a hand and fondly patted an outer wall, firm and solid, its regularity broken only by the somewhat uneven placement of large-paned windows covered with old-fashioned lace curtains somewhat at odds with the design of the mural.  My gaze drifted upward to the slate roof dotted with chimney pots. I wondered what mood the city had been in when they painted this.

It was a pretty audacious structure, miles away from the Italianate, palazzo-like University Club, although, architecturally-speaking – without the mural – the building itself was typical Victorian working class construction, stucco over brick and wavy glass panes in wooden frames.  It boasted no elaborately carved lintels or outré bas-relief patterns – but it didn’t need to; the paint job said it all, telling the world that this club, the urban home of London’s most talented and Bohemian artists, had stood fast since the reign of England’s longest-serving monarch and didn’t care what anyone thought.

We reached the door and Leah grasped the brass knob.  Inside, the light was dim and, despite the early hour, the bar was packed with people, their voices reverberating off walls covered with colorful Modern paintings so closely hung that I couldn’t discern the wallpaper pattern beneath. Strings of twinkling fairy lights entwined the upper reaches of gleaming bottles, casting dainty shadows on the bartenders’ faces.  There was no fire but people clustered around the stone fireplace, anyway, sprawled on well-stuffed furniture, talking, laughing, and clinking glasses. French doors were open to catch a hoped-for evening breeze and I could see lots of people gathered under market umbrellas, lazing in wicker chairs, or stretched on steamer lounges on the stone patio, talking animatedly.  Further away, on the exhausted-looking patch of lawn, striped canvas sling chairs were scattered.  There were no clubby leather armchairs here, no Persian rugs, and certainly no ambiently lit paintings of bewhiskered founders hanging above the bar.  Its very eccentricity delighted me.

Leah grabbed my arm and steered me from group to group to spread the news about Graham’s good fortune.  She seemed to know everyone in the room and all of them, from a BAFTA-winning playwright to an unemployed fabric painter, raised a glass in Graham’s honor and insisted that Leah convey their congratulations to him.  Eventually she got around to introducing me as an emerging writer and the response was pretty much the same, albeit more muted.  People asked about my writing: some offered suggestions for classes I might take or publishers I might approach while others merely smiled and wished me good luck.  A fat, balding man with glittering eyes and weaselly teeth professed especial interest in my professional progress.  Sidling next to me, he slid his arm around my shoulders and squeezed me under his sweaty armpit; he whispered drunkenly that I should feel free to call on him any time for anything.  He would make a valuable ally, he confided, as he had twice been long-listed for the Booker Prize. He reminded me of the Monk from The Canterbury Tales.  Nodding, I rotated my shoulder muscles and popped from his grasp. Leah caught my right wrist and we pushed into the crowd toward another cluster of friends.  Everyone we spoke to was warm and approachable and nearly everyone got in a round.

After about two hours, I pulled myself away from the cacophony and flomped unsteadily on an old brocade sofa alone.  I gazed happily around me at the affable chaos of the room, tipsy from too many Buck’s Fizzes and no food.  Maybe Leah had been right about New York’s not being the center of the creative universe; she had certainly been right about the coziness and vitality of this place, created by artists for artists.

Slouching there, I wondered how I could join.  After all, Leah had said that there was no distinction drawn between those who published in Granta and those who scribbled away in attics.  I had no idea what the requirements were for membership and suddenly I needed to know.  It probably cost a lot; certainly my dad said that the University Club did. But, it was worth it; I could take the train down from Oxford on weekends.  Coming here would further my education; the rooms were full of painters, sculptors, poets, lyricists. Hoisting myself up and out of the enormous cushions somewhat queasily, I looked around for Leah but didn’t see her.  I remembered vaguely that we had passed a Club Secretary’s office on the way in so I pushed through the crowd to the tiny room immediately to the left of the front door.  It was empty. Damn.  I felt a little dizzy and leaned against the cool plaster wall.

Hearing Leah’s laugh from somewhere near the French windows I turned my head back toward the bar to see whether I could find her in the scrum. The room really was stuffed with people and she was easier heard than seen, so I pointed myself in her general direction and began creeping, crablike, through the Friday night revelers. Eventually I made my way to where Leah stood surrounded by friends, her chestnut curls dancing in the approaching evening breeze.  I leaned toward her.  “Leah!”  She couldn’t hear me over the group’s laughing at the BAFTA winner’s joke.

“Leah!”  I jiggled her arm.

She turned her head and bent toward me.  “What is it, caterpillar?”

“You were right.  It’s amazing here.  How can I join?”

“Through committee acceptance of your body of work.”

I blinked.  “That’s not what you said!”

“I can hardly hear you; let’s go out into the garden.”  She handed her glass to the BAFTA winner’s staring girlfriend with a muttered excuse and led me into the evening air.  It was a little cooler now and the last vestiges of sunlight shone through the leafy trees.  We found two empty sling chairs, scruffy and nearly threadbare, and sat.

“What’s the matter, Lucy?” Leah asked.

“What do you mean by ‘committee acceptance of body of work?’ “ I asked.

She shrugged.  “After you apply for membership you need to be vetted by the professionals in your field who sit on the Board. For a writer, it means gaining their favorable impressions on what you have published in your career, so favorable that they think you will make a good addition to the Club.”

“But what if you haven’t published much?”

“You can’t become a member.”

“Not at all?”

“No, not at all.”

“What about expressing and stretching and celebrating?  What about not caring who gets accepted by Granta and who . . . writes on tube station walls?”

Leah cocked her head. “Perhaps I was a little cavalier.  What I meant was that England is a very class-conscious country and there is no status line drawn at the Club due to one’s background.  Everyone is welcome.  The only thing that matters is talent.”

“Published talent.”

Leah raised one eyebrow and answered she in a slightly defensive tone.  “All right, yes; published talent.  To be nominated for membership you must be a professional in your artistic field, and for a writer that means publication in reputable places.”

Minutes passed.

“So, I can’t come here,” I said finally.

“Well . . . no, not yet; at least, not as a member.  But you can come with me, Lucy.  And once you have published enough, I‘ll be happy to nominate you. Graham will second you.  I’m sure you’ll be accepted.”  She hesitated.  “Although there is a three-year waiting list.”

A three-year wait after I have been determined acceptable? I sighed and gazed into the weedy garden.

After another few minutes, Leah reached across the patch of tired grass and patted my knee, then rose and walked slowly toward the French doors.

I remained in that sling chair for a long time.  Well, that was that, at least for today, but like my mother always said, tomorrow is another day, Scarlett, and early tomorrow morning I would board the train for Trinity.

I stared at the dirt, wondering what time it was and whether I should try to find Leah so we could eat. Lacking a tissue, I wiped my nose across the back of my hand. Feeling a mosquito tickle the back of my neck. I reached over my head and slapped it, surprised to find that it was sturdy and hairy.  My head shot up. The lecherous two-time Booker long-lister’s hand was resting on the back of my head.

“Oh! Sorry. I thought it was a mosquito.”

Undiscouraged, he continued to caress me. I jerked my neck hoping to dislodge him. “What are you doing?”

“I’m just keeping you company.  You were sitting her all alone like an abandoned pussycat.” He began to entwine his fingers in my hair. “Is there anything I can do for you, pussycat?” he cooed.

I stumbled up and of the chair, knocking his hand and causing him to sway backward, spilling some single malt on his pale blue cotton shirt.  Lucky the glass was so full.  “No, not a thing. I’m fine. Really”

“Not even help you join the Club?  I could have sworn I heard you and Leah discussing it.” His eyes glittered.

“Well . . . sure I would like to, but I realize that it isn’t an option for me right now. After all, I am leaving for Oxford tomorrow morning and . . . ” I could hear myself beginning to babble as I backed away.

“We could get you an Overseas Associate membership.”

“What’s that?” I asked suspiciously.

“It’s a lesser membership for artists living abroad.”

“Why didn’t Leah mention it?”

He shrugged and took a step behind me.  “Perhaps she was merely forgetful.  She has been quite . . . merry tonight.”

Taking my skepticism for an invitation, he continued working his way around me and said, “It’s true that there are comparatively few memberships of that type but I have been a member here for over a quarter of a century and if anyone could be said to have influence over the selection of candidates eligible for such things, I must be among the first to spring to mind.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I really wanted this opportunity but if it were truly a viable option, wouldn’t Leah have mentioned it, regardless of her level of . . . merriment?

With my peripheral vision I could see him lean down and gently place his glass on a tile mosaic table. Bending close to my neck he whispered in my ear, “Let’s get out of here.  We can stop at the Membership Office for an application on our way back to my flat.”

“Your flat?  Why do we need to go there?  We can complete the paperwork here, right now, can’t we?”

He chuckled drunkenly.  “There is a certain level of quid pro quo in most negotiations, my dear.” His eyes wandered downward toward my breasts.

I understood.  No wonder my sisters thought I was naïve; they would have seen this coming long ago.  Taking a step backward, I dipped and lifted his glass from the little table,

“Thanks, anyway.  I think I will just wait for Leah to propose me for membership.”

His eyes glittered lasciviously in the dim light as he shrugged slightly.  “Your choice, my dear, and your loss.”

“Yes, my choice and my loss.”  With a sharp upward thrust I tossed the dregs of the Scotch in his face.

After a quick glance over my shoulder to assure myself that he wasn’t following, I threaded my way through the milling throng toward the bar.  I really needed a glass of ice water – my mouth tasted like a small animal had crawled in it and died – and I desperately wanted something to eat to absorb all the alcohol threatening to impair my judgment even further than it had already.

Leah was nowhere to be seen, but directly in front of me Eric Clapton stood, glass in hand, lounging against the bar’s scarred teak surface, surveying the room.

I wondered fleetingly what time it was, but that early morning train to Oxford had already chugged away in my mind. I continued walking toward the bar even though it no longer mattered whether my sister-in-law ever knew.