January 22, 2016

Caruso of West Hollywood

Caruso was waiting for me at a small public park in Studio City not far from his girlfriend’s house.  Ex-girlfriend’s house, to be precise.  About an hour earlier she threw him out and took away his car keys because she owned the car he had been driving.  The finality of their separation was certified by the ugly bruise on the left side of Caruso’s face.  The bruise was still spreading like a lunar eclipse when he limped to my car from one of the picnic tables near the parking area.
     “Frying pan?” I asked after he planted himself in the passenger seat.
     “Magazine,” he said.
      I took another quick look at his purple cheekbone.  “Must have been Vogue.”
     “Didn’t notice,” he sighed, “but the damn thing was thicker than a surfboard.  I really didn’t expect it.  Marina was holding it with both hands, like she was about to open it and read something.  I was in the middle of a sentence when she just swung it with a two-handed grip and whacked me in the face.”
     “And the limp?”
     “Tripped on something in the hallway.  I was in a hurry.”

As we drove up Laurel Canyon Boulevard on our way to Caruso’s elderly parents who lived in West Hollywood, he sketched for me the sordid background of his latest misadventure.  It involved Marina’s married daughter who’d had a big fight with her husband and also was mad at Marina for some real or imagined act of parental injustice.  The daughter’s idea of a double revenge was to visit Marina’s house at a time she knew her mother would be busy at work and Caruso would be sunbathing by the pool after his late morning workout at the gym.  Like many short men with time on their hands Caruso invested a great deal of it in pumping iron.      
     “She said she wanted a shoulder to cry on,” he told me mournfully. “Then she wanted to cry on my chest.  By the time she had her ear on my belly button, she didn’t want to cry anymore. I tried to explain to Marina that I was a victim here too, but she was already on her second bottle of wine and wouldn’t see it that way.”
     “Impaired judgment is one of alcohol’s regrettable effects,” I said, keeping my eyes on the winding road. 
    “You think Marina might change her mind?” Caruso asked with a flicker of hope.
     I took a deep breath.  “What I meant was if Marina weren’t too drunk, she would’ve had the presence of mind to hit you with a wine bottle instead of a magazine.”
While Caruso contemplated my counterfactual scenario, we crossed Mulholland Drive and began the long descent into Hollywood.  I caught a glimpse of the early moon behind a line of trees.  Pasty and bloated, it was peeking into the windows of houses on the canyon slope like some obese pervert on a nightly prowl through the Hollywood Hills.  
     Caruso had noticed the moon too because I heard him sing in half-voice, Ma per fortuna è una notte di luna...  The habit of blurting out snippets of operatic arias, as random comments on whatever the world happened to place before his eyes at the moment, was one of Caruso’s two most annoying qualities.  (The other was his aversion to strong language, which often made my side of the conversation burdensome.)  He felt entitled to such vocal indulgences because he still thought of himself as an opera singer, a lyric tenor, despite the fact that his formal training was cut short years earlier, when he was expelled from the Riga Conservatory for what was described in the official documents as ‘a way of life incompatible with moral and social obligations of Soviet students’.  That way of life, as it turned out, proved to be far more enduring than the once mighty Soviet Union, which soon thereafter collapsed and dissolved into nothingness along with its morally and socially demanding system of higher education. 
     Caruso’s only remaining connection to the world of opera – and the reason his friends never referred to him by his real name – was a CD with ancient, crackly recordings of the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso.  He listened to it obsessively, played it for anyone within earshot of his home or car stereo, and would launch into lengthy extolments of his idol’s ‘seamless legato phrasing’ and ‘miraculous breath control’ whenever conversations touched on anything related to music.  It didn’t take long before we all got sick of the real Caruso and began to use the poor Italian’s name – already a symbol of our collective suffering – as a nickname for our enthusiastic tormentor.
Shortly before the intersection with Sunset Boulevard Caruso decided he didn’t want to go to his parents just yet.  Instead he wanted to have a drink at Matryoshka first. 
     “I really need to cheer up a little,” he said, turning in his seat to face me.
     “You can do that later tonight by jerking off on your parents’ living room couch,” I advised him.  “Because that’s where we’re going. I’ve been packing all day, and I’m not even half way done.  And I already drove all the way to the Valley to pick you up.  The last thing I want to do now is go to a noisy Russian restaurant and wait there for you to cheer up.”
     Caruso looked at me like one of those sad-eyed Third World orphans from public service ads on late night TV.  “Why do you always have to be so negative? First, Matryoshka is not noisy, it is lively.  Second, Alex will be there as usual, you know he always goes there after work.  Just have one drink, say hi to Alex, and then you can leave.  Alex will give me a ride later, or one of the musicians there will.”
     Caruso was right.  Alex was an old friend, and it might be a while before I get a chance to see him again.  Or to have a drink at Matryoshka.
     I changed lanes and turned east on Sunset Boulevard. 

Inside Matryoshka we found Alex at the bar, busy telling improbable stories from his imaginary life to a laughing dark-haired woman who looked to be in her late thirties.  As a married man with two unruly teenage sons and a perpetually struggling business, Alex had long ago concluded that an imaginary life was the only life worth living.  Attractive women were a big part of that life.  He chatted them up at every opportunity, bought them drinks, took their phone numbers.  Yet although he often lied to his wife about many things – clandestine trips to Las Vegas, drunk driving arrests, even the results of his physicals – not once, in all the years I had known him, did he have a reason to lie about his marital fidelity.  When it came to women other than his wife, his longing was like that of some harried, overworked people who long for eternal rest but wisely don’t do anything that would bring it about.
     When Alex introduced us to the dark-haired woman he pretended not to notice the damage on Caruso’s face, as if he were looking at a man disfigured by an unusually large birthmark.  The woman’s name was Marta.  With two empty shot glasses on the bar next to her she was in a jovial mood and made no effort to ignore Caruso’s bruise, which by then had engulfed the corner of his left eye and looked like a botched tattoo of one of the Great Lakes. 
     “What happened to you?” she asked him, studying his face with good-natured curiosity.  
     Caruso answered with disarming honesty, “I was hit by a drunk woman.”
     Marta’s brown eyes widened.  “You poor thing,” she cooed.  “How awful! It happened to me too, a year ago.  My car was totaled, and my shoulder hurt for months.”
     Marta’s expression of sympathy was accepted without corrections. Caruso gave her a lopsided grin and said, once again truthfully, “I’ve had it worse.”  With his disheveled blond hair and the slightly bewildered look in his blue eyes he resembled an oversized mischievous puppy. 
     After a few minutes of small talk Alex asked the passing waiter to get us a table for four and a chilled bottle of Absolut.
     “For three,” I corrected him.  “Unlike you festive derelicts, I’ve spent most of the day packing.  Manual labor tends to make me tired and grumpy.  I’m going home.”
     Alex shook his head in a show of despair over my unmanly behavior, but must have sensed there was no use trying to talk me into staying.  He gave me a hug, and I turned to Marta to say goodbye.
      “You’re walking out on a chilled bottle of vodka?” she asked with playful horror.  “What kind of a Russian are you?”
     “A very bad one,” Alex chimed in, ready to vent his disappointment at my decision to leave.  “You see, Marta, he insists that when he moved to California some years ago he was completely re-born.  Not metaphorically, like many people who move here, but in a quite literal sense.  And this, shall we say, delusion has pretty much wiped out his original ethnic loyalties.  He has a low opinion of Dostoyevsky.  The music of Rachmaninov puts him to sleep.  And he refuses to accept hangovers as a fair price to pay for the joy of living.  Even his subconscious was altered.  Russians abroad are supposed to have recurring dreams of birches and onion domes.  This guy dreams about juniper trees and Spanish villas in the hills of Pacific Palisades.  Hell, I think he’d be happy to dream about shuttered storefronts and grimy utility poles in South-Central LA, if that were the only California landscape he was allowed to visit in his sleep.”
     Marta was a good sport.  She tried to look at me with a frown, but couldn’t keep from smiling.
     “Is it true?” she asked, extending her hand. 
     Her hand was as warm as her smile.
     “Every word of it, “ I said gravely.  “But he left out the worst part.  I prefer bourbon to vodka.”

The following day I was up early, morosely packing boxes for more than an hour when Caruso called shortly after eight.  He needed a ride again.
   “A ride from where?” I asked impatiently, “And why are you whispering, if this is not an obscene phone call?”
     “I’m in Marta’s condo in Hermosa Beach. She’s asleep in the bedroom...,”  Caruso paused meaningfully, “...exhausted and happy.  I don’t want to wake her up.”
      “So why don’t you wait until Marta wakes up and ask her to give you a ride then?”
      “I can’t do that.” Caruso’s voice trailed off into dejected silence.
      I waited.  Caruso said nothing.  I waited some more.  Listening to phone static was a more attractive way to spend the morning than fighting traffic on the 405. 
      Finally I heard him exhale.
      “Last night, on the way to Marta’s place, I threw up in her car.”
      The gloom in his voice surprised me.  For Russian men who grew up in the land where even the snow reeks of vodka, throwing up in public is not that big a faux pas, not even when it happens on the first date.  If anything, unburdening yourself on the first date offers an early test of the relationship’s prospects.  If the relationship ends right there and then, you know it wouldn’t have lasted anyway.
     “What’s the big deal?” I asked, rolling a cigarette. “You just told me that Marta is asleep, exhausted and happy. This, I take it, means that your little accident is already in the past, right?”
     “She doesn’t know about it,” Caruso whispered.
     I forgot about the cigarette.  
     The possibility of not noticing a barfing passenger in your car brought to mind biblical miracles and the mysteries of quantum mechanics.  Then I heard the rest of the story.
     Not far from her place Marta stopped to buy something at a 24-hour drugstore.  Caruso stayed in the car.  While Marta was inside he suddenly felt very sick. 
     “It happened so fast,” he told me, sounding detached as if describing a car accident. “I couldn’t even breathe.  My window was rolled up, and I had the seat belt on.  All I had time for was to open the glove compartment in front of me, stick my face in it and unload inside.  Then I got some tissues from the box she had on the back seat, wiped my mouth and the edges of the compartment door, put the tissues in my pocket, and that was it.  We were at her place less than five minutes later.”
     “What about the smell?” I asked, turning on the espresso machine and finally lighting the cigarette I still held in my hand.
    Caruso perked up a little. “I was lucky. It was a warm night, so Marta had the car’s top down.  There was a lot of wind.”
     I forgot about coffee.
     “You were in a convertible? With the top down? And you couldn’t just lean over the side of the car?”   
      “The windows were rolled up,” Caruso reminded me grimly. “And I told you it all happened very fast.”
     I looked at the roll of packing tape I left on the coffee table and decided I’d had enough fun for the day.
     “Listen,” I said wearily, “just get Marta’s car keys and take the car to the nearest full-service carwash.  For twenty bucks the Mexican guys will clean up everything.”
     Caruso chuckled. “I have maybe five dollars on me, that’s all.”  He didn’t need to remind me about his cancelled credit cards and empty bank account.
     I felt trapped.
      “Then get a roll of paper towels from Marta’s kitchen,” I proposed, hoping for a miracle, “and just do the job yourself.”
     “Are you insane?” Caruso’s whispering ascended to the falsetto register. “There’s a good kilo of fossilized beef stroganoff in there! And pirozhki.  And maybe some smoked sturgeon too.”
     “Beef stroganoff...,” I echoed, “pirozhki...”
     “I was very hungry,” Caruso explained defensively, “plus Alex was paying. Anyway, if I take one look at that glove compartment, I’ll throw up again. Only this time it will be all over the windshield and the dashboard because the glove compartment is already full.”
     I believed him.
     “So, you just want to leave without telling Marta anything about the car?” I asked in an attempt to prod Caruso’s moral intuitions.
     “What else can I do?” he asked back, genuinely puzzled. “I don’t like upsetting people.”
     “When Marta finds out, she’ll be upset all right.”
     “She will be,” Caruso agreed, “but not necessarily with me.  I think she often parks her car with the top down.  All I need is two-three days, and after that it’s anyone’s guess how the damn thing happened.  It’s not like Marta will get an FBI lab report telling her the stuff was beef stroganoff from a Russian restaurant.”
     The logic, admittedly feeble, was no worse than that of most operatic plots –  Caruso’s principal source of information about the world.  Like an antelope in the jaws of a crocodile I knew it was time to give up the struggle and accept the inevitable.  
     I asked for the address.

After an hour-long drive to Hermosa Beach I had to wait in the car for another half hour before the passenger door opened and Caruso eased himself carefully into the passenger seat.
     “I had to say goodbye to Marta,” he offered by way of an explanation, shifting in the seat to find a comfortable position for his injured foot in the tight confines of my sub-compact car. 
     “For an hour and a half?” I grumbled, starting the engine. “What happened to saying goodbye with a good old five-minute quickie?”                                    
     Caruso stuck out his chin.  “I wanted to leave Marta with more than a quickie to remember me by.”
     “Her glove compartment already took care of that,” I reminded him.
    Caruso gave me a wounded look. “Why do you always have to be so cynical? People remember the good things, not the bad ones.  And speaking of good things,” he brightened up, “why don’t we have breakfast in Santa Monica first?  We can take the PCH, look at the ocean and get some fresh air instead of sitting in traffic on the 405.”
     “I still have a lot of packing to do.”
     “You’ll have more energy for that after breakfast,” he assured me with the authority of a licensed nutritionist.
     I thought about the small coastal cities we would have to cross to reach Caruso’s version of the American Dream: the blueberry pancakes served at a small Santa Monica restaurant four blocks from the ocean.  A leisurely drive along the Pacific Coast Highway could give me a few more brightly-colored memories to look at during a snowstorm later in the year.

 We were still in Manhattan Beach, not far from the border with El Segundo, when Caruso dozed off.  Fresh air, lack of sleep, a respectable hangover, and the substantial effort that went into making Marta feel exhausted all must have taken their toll. 
     With Caruso slumped in the passenger seat I watched the planes taking off from the airport at the northern edge of El Segundo.  The planes would rise steeply over the ocean, flaring in the morning sun like giant fireflies, then bank sharply, make a 180-degree turn, and head east toward the shimmering layer of smog hanging over the inland part of the Los Angeles Basin. 
     In the past I always felt pity for the passengers returning to their homes back East to face another long winter of shapeless parkas, frozen doorknobs, drafty restaurants, and unattractively pale women.  This time I watched the eastward-bound planes without the feeling of geographical superiority.  My remaining days in California stretched only to the end of the week.  After that I myself would become one of the pale-faced denizens of an old, crumbling East Coast city whose only redeeming features were a good art museum and a good university.  The latter’s offer of a fellowship was the reason behind my rapidly approaching geographical disgrace.

Caruso woke up just as we crossed from Marina del Rey into Venice.  He stretched as far as the space in the car allowed, slowly filled his lungs with ocean-scented air, beamed at the windshield, and began to hum, Ecco, ridente in cielo spunta la bella aurora...
     “Aurora my ass,” I interrupted him unceremoniously.  “It’s far too late in the morning for your Rossini ringtone.  You should have sung it to Marta about five hours ago.”
     Still smiling, Caruso raised an eyebrow. “What makes you think I didn’t?”
     “Because for people with your lifestyle sunrises are like angels, in that they may exist and may even be lovely to look at, but they are not something you ever expect to see with your own eyes.”
      “OK, I didn’t,” Caruso conceded with a sigh. “But why do you always have to be so pedantic?  Today I woke up in bed with a beautiful woman, and I am about to have breakfast at my favorite restaurant near the ocean. Rossini’s charming aria was a perfect way to mark the beginning of a glorious day.”
      I felt a wave of envy rush through my body, silent and powerful like the waves swelling in the daytime darkness under the Santa Monica Pier less than two miles ahead.  Here was a man whose future was as uncertain as his English, and whose present was defined by little more than a badly bruised face and an alarmingly swollen ankle.  A man who, at the age of thirty-eight, had neither a steady income nor a place of his own, and no realistic prospects for securing either any time soon.  And this man was looking forward to yet another glorious day of his life.
     “...but all I can tell you,” I heard Caruso finish some bit of inspirational wisdom whose beginning I must have missed, “is that things always work out beautifully in the end, if only you let them unfold on their own.”
      I thought about my empty-looking apartment, about boxes full of books stacked against a living room wall and rising toward the ceiling like the steps of an Aztec pyramid.
     “I hope you’re right,” was all I could say.

It was past two in the afternoon when I finally deposited Caruso in front of his parents’ apartment building in West Hollywood.
     “You should get yourself a bigger car,” he complained while getting out. “Your midgetmobile made me feel like I’ve spent the last couple of hours in a motorized wheelchair.”
     “Judging by the condition of your foot,” I noted dryly, “a wheelchair is exactly what you need.”
   Caruso laughed and started limping toward the building’s entrance.
   He never thanked me for the ride. 
   Not that I thought he would.
*      *      *

1 comment:

laybl said...

It was interesting reading your foray into the sun-drenched torpor of Raymond Chandler. The first two segments, particularly, captured the lassitude of Chandler's paean to the first drink in "The Long Goodbye."

My east coast life in Philadelphia and New York was not made for driving in convertibles. Rather than long-legged beauties, we had bedraggled Marxists with bulging briefcases. I suppose that your own had its share of emigre composers substituting Soundtracks for opera or string quartets. Before we retired to Maine's scenic glories, we had a two-family brick home in Riverdale. Around the corner and up a hill a Stalinist tower was filled with the last Bolshy inmates before perestroika. One couple, the Zolatukhins were liberated enough to become downstairs tenants. Sergei fell in love with the crowded Irish bars in the neighborhood, enough to name their newborn son, Dennis.

We joined them in celebration of the newest American, starting with champagne, then moving on to a bottle each of Stolichnaya, with beer chasers. After several toasts to our respective families, Sergei stopped me before I could start a toast, with, "MMM, Lionel, after 8th toast, is no longer necessary to use words".

For them, as for other newly liberated comrades, Paradise was found in the shopping malls of Paramus, NJ.