TURN ON, TUNE OUT
“Can I get you something to drink,” Tom asked Angelica, who had found a safe corner for herself away from the houseful of guests.
“Thank you, Tom,” she said, relieved at being approached by someone she knew. Rosetta, with whom she had come, was dancing to electronic music with John out on the balcony, which was partially hidden by the living-room wall.
“A glass of white wine, please.”
“Be right back,” he said with a beaming smile, pleased for the chance to be with Angelica.
He brought her wine and a whiskey for himself, his third, which steadily increased the volume of his voice and his confidence. He took a seat beside her on the couch which was just large enough for three. Angelica, who was feeling lost, felt grateful to talk to him.
“Do you know many people here?” she asked.
“As few as you do. Just our hosts and Emma.”
“So many people, aren’t there?”
“Yes. I think even John and Walt are surprised. They didn’t know they had this many friends at school. Word traveled at USC.”
“I thought I might get the chance to meet your wife tonight. Did she come?”
“No. I don’t think we’ll be doing much socializing together. I found out why my wife has been so cold to me for nearly a year. Obvious when I found out; I felt so stupid not to have guessed. She told me…finally, she told me that she was…she is…having an affair with someone she met at her waitressing job. A creep in his early twenties. Nice of her to tell me after I’d asked her at least ten thousand times,” Tom said and then took a sip of his drink.
“I feel so stupid. There I was asking her mother what could be wrong. Even her mother knew but didn’t tell me. Her brother knew. Her co-workers knew. Maybe even our little ones knew. Everyone but me,” the last words he whispered. Tears glossed over his big, brown eyes.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just that I had no idea. I really believed that we’d be together ‘til death do us part. Was our marriage such a failure? Was it so boring? Was I so boring?” He took Angelica’s free hand and squeezed it.
“I don’t know,” Angelica said, taking her hand from his. “But you mustn’t look to blame. Your marriage isn’t over yet.”
“Yes, it is. Cherie wants a divorce. She’s moving out. She’s found an apartment for herself and wants to start living a free, single and disengaged life. She says I can have custody of the kids. She wants to forget our marriage and pretend it didn’t happen. She blames the mistake, as she calls it, on youth. There is no fighting it. It’s over.”
“I’m sorry, Tom.”
A guest, a woman, walked briskly and angrily away from another guest, a man. They brushed past Angelica and Tom, moving the colleagues closer together.
“Mary. Mary,” implored the man trailing behind the woman out of the house. “I didn’t mean –“
Tom said, “You can rise above the muck of living, can’t you, Angelica? As a composer, your concerns are higher than the soap opera trivia of the rest of us slobs.”
Angelica looked at him blankly. She didn’t know how to feel. Was this a compliment or was he calling her an unfeeling robot?
He said, “I’ve never told you this before, but I think that what you do is noble. I know it’s not easy to put your work before everything. God knows I couldn’t do it. But I admire you for it, Angelica. You have followed a noble calling without which the world would be gray. We need you. We need artists!”
Angelica could feel the tears coming. She tried to blink them back, but it was useless. Tom had touched her in a deep place she visited alone in the dark before dawn with her music, with Rosetta on their Sunday walks on the beach chasing the sun down and drawing their dreams around themselves, and with her mother, as a child, listening to Brahm’s “Third Symphony”.
Noble! She would never be so cheeky as to use such a lofty word to describe her life’s commitment, but Tom had spoken from his heart. He understood!
“Thank you,” she said. She put down her glass on a coffee table. Then she kissed him on the cheek.
“Thank you,” Tom said, turning scarlet from his neck up.
A sharp electronic chord pierced the room.
“I wonder what your music sounds like,” Tom said. “Do you ever play it for friends?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I will be playing a piece in a couple of weeks at Rosetta’s art exhibit.”
“May I come?”
“Yes,” she said and paused before adding, “I’d like it very much if you came.”
She dried her tears with her handkerchief. They smiled at each other. Then Emma joined them on the now cramped couch and Tom, much to Angelica’s disappointment, left the two of them.
“Hope I didn’t break up anything,” Emma said, hoping she had and would now get an earful.
“Oh no,” Angelica said. “How are you tonight? I hadn’t seen you before. Did you just get here?”
“No. I’ve been mingling. Met a few interesting people from USC. Young people with big dreams.”
“But Emma. You’re young. What are your dreams?”
“All I want is to keep working at Karl Johnsen.”
“I want to have a baby,” Emma said. “Hope I haven’t shocked you. Is it shocking that carefree, fun-loving, happy-go-lucky Emma wants a child?”
“No, no,” Angelica lied politely. Emma’s dream clashed with how she saw Emma. Neither Angelica nor anyone else she knew talked about having children. Tom was the only person she knew in her daily life who had a family.
“I’ve always wanted to have a child. Two years ago, Rennie and I decided to have one. We’ve known each other ten years and been going out with each other off and on, mostly on, all that time. Neither one of us wants to get married, but I do want a child and Rennie is backing me up on this. I think he’ll be a wonderful father teaching our child science, and I’ll teach it literature.
“So, we’ve been trying to get pregnant for two years. We can’t afford fertility doctors. You know our health insurance from work covers strictly life and death illnesses. We’ve read every book available on fertility. We’ve read about sperm motility and testicle temperature – Rennie’s wearing boxer shorts now – the effect of alcohol on prolactin – I’ve stopped drinking. I’ve also cut way back on cigarettes. I used to smoke a pack a day. Now I smoke no more than two cigarettes a day.
“We both keep tabs on when I ovulate. We’ve done everything but draw a road map for Rennie’s sperm to my egg, a Thomas Guide to my egg.
“It gets depressing, especially when I get my period. I’m not depressed now. I couldn’t talk about it if I were. I’d be sputtering all over the place. I believe that we will get pregnant. It’s just a matter of time, which I still think I have though every book I pick up says I might as well hang it up if I’m past thirty-five and been trying this long. What I wouldn’t give for a purple cervix!
“I never thought getting pregnant would be such a trial. Once I stopped using my diaphragm, I thought everything would take care of itself and maybe take six months, maybe a year. Boy, was I wrong!
“Almost everyday, I visit a chat room for older woman trying to get pregnant. Some of us have become so close that we have started to ovulate at the same time. I’m hearing success stories. It’ll happen for me, too.
“What about you, Angelica? Do you want children?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh,” she said, hurt. She felt that Angelica was dismissing her.
“No, really, Emma. I don’t know. I suppose much of it depends on whether I find someone I want to be with.”
“So, if you were with that person, you would want to have a child?”
“I don’t know, Emma. I can’t say that I have maternal urges, but I think that, one day, if all the right factors are present, I might want to have a child.”
“Have you been hurt, Angelica?”
Angelica broke down and told her about Samuel and how he had stirred up maternal feelings in her. But he and they had gone away, and she was cautious about evoking them without having someone in her life, without the possibility of having a family. They talked about motherhood.
“I’m barely able to take care of myself now. My life would have to change dramatically for me to have a child. I’m working most hours of the day. I have to. How could I take care of a child living the way I do? I try not to think about it, Emma. It scares me.”
“Who knows what the future holds for you?”
“Yes, it’s what I don’t know that I cling to. I hope your dream comes true soon.”
Just then, Tom returned with a glass of wine, a ginger ale and another whiskey for himself.
“You two looked thirsty,” he said.
“That was awfully sweet, Tom,” Emma said.
“Thank you,” Angelica said. “Although I think this will be my last. I drove us here.”
“What is the name of your friend? I haven’t met her yet,” Emma said.
“Rosetta. She’s been out on the balcony with John. Maybe I should check on her.”
“Oh, I don’t think she needs rescuing, Angelica,” said Tom, who was even more relaxed. He was drunk.
“I went out there a little while ago, and it looked as though she and John were getting along very well. I don’t think they want to be disturbed.”
“All right, Tom. I get the idea,” she said, peeved at Rosetta for becoming involved so impulsively with one of her co-workers. It might be a fling to her, but Angelica had to work with these people.
“Come on, Angelica,” Tom said. “It’s love. You wouldn’t stand in the way of love, would you?”
A large moon shone in through the balcony door, further illuminating the faces of all three.
“Love is so rare, it would be a crime to break it up. If two people are lucky enough to stumble onto one another, who are we to separate them,” the whiskey said.
“There is nothing as beautiful as love, is there, Angelica?” he said. “It’s what we live for, hope for, pray for. It doesn’t always happen at the right time when we’re ready for it and our lives have a place for it. It’s not always neat. When we fall in love, we fall in love. There’s nothing we can do to change it.”
Angelica played with her hair. Was he talking about him or her?
She sat up straight, proper and untouchable. Two hours ago, she had seen him as a married man. Emma simply watched and listened. She knew that she was in the middle of something and savored every moment of it.
“There is no escaping Cupid’s arrow,” he jabbed. “Not unless you hold a shield over your heart. And why would you want to do that? Why would you want to forego the greatest gift from the heavens, one that might not ever be given to you again?”
Angelica stopped touching her hair. “Because it’s not the right time. If it is love, it will keep.”
“No. I’ll tell you why, Angelica. Fear.”
The word bellowed in her ears. It seemed he must have shouted it, but he hadn’t. It was its truth that shook her. It was too real, too bold, too soon.
“I think I’ll go and check on Rosetta,” she said and got up to leave.
“Ange – lica.”
He spoke the last two syllables of her name softly when John and Rosetta, both with reddened eyes, appeared in the balcony door arm in arm. The sides of Rosetta’s mouth were turned up in a mischievous smile; John looked blank.
“Hiya, guys,” Rosetta blubbered. “What’s going on? Haven’t you been dancing? We’ve been dancing.
“We’ve been dancing and drinking and - ,” she kissed John on the mouth.
What began as a small illustration turned into a full-blown performance, the actors restricted only by their clothes. Angelica sat down in a slump.
Emma said, “They’ve got to come up for air sometime.”
The entire party was staring at them. Angelica blushed. Rosetta was acting like a slag and, by association, she didn’t look too good, either.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into Rosetta,” she said in a face-saving measure. “I’ve never seen her like this before.” But then, she’d never seen her with anyone but herself and Liam.
“Love,” Tom said. “Love is what’s gotten into her. Can’t you feel it? There’s something electric in the air. It must be the moon tonight. Look at it.”
Angelica breathed a sigh of relief as she looked away from the evening’s entertainment. The full moon over Rosetta and John enveloped them in its light and seemed to shut out the rest of the world. Maybe they were in love, Angelica thought. Emma wished that she hadn’t been imagining the twinges in her breasts and hoped that she was pregnant. Tom hoped he wouldn’t get sick. They shared a hushed silence. Then, Walt seemed to materialize from another galaxy.
“How’s it going,” he said. “What a terrible host I am. Sorry I haven’t seen you until now. Seems I’ve been spending all my time answering the door. Can I get you something to drink?”
“No thanks, Walt,” Emma said. “It’s getting late. I ought to be going. It’s been a wonderful party. Thank you so much for asking me.”
Angelica wished that she could follow up Emma’s parting words with her own. Suddenly, the kissers broke apart.
“Walt,” John said. “Do you need help with anything?”
“Everything under control on my end. How about yours?” Walt said and then turned to Emma without waiting for an answer. His girlfriend, Maki, had not come to the party. With John’s hands tied up, Walt was acting as sole host.
“I’m glad you had a good time.”
“We’ll have to be going, too,” Angelica said. “We’ve got a long drive ahead of us.”
“No, no. You can’t go yet,” Tom said. “You’ll stand in the way of love. You’ll be an enemy of love.”
Rosetta hovered near Angelica when she heard that her ride was about to leave. Like a puppy, John followed Rosetta. He, Walt and Tom walked the three women through the house to the front door.
“When will I see you again?” John said to Rosetta.
“I’ll give you my phone number.”
“All right,” he said, pulling his phone out of his trousers’ pocket.
To the departing guests, Walt said: “Thank you for coming.”
Emma, Angelica and Tom walked out.
“I’ll catch up with you,” Rosetta said to Angelica before beginning a passionate farewell to John.
They reached Emma’s car first, half a block away. She pulled away waving. Angelica kept looking back for Rosetta. She and Tom walked to her car. They rested their backs against it and examined their hands, their feet, the ground. Still, no sign of Rosetta. Surely Rosetta would appear in the next five minutes. Or the next five. Or the next...”
“I don’t believe her,” Angelica said, pacing. “How can she be so inconsiderate?”
“Do you think that maybe you’re being a little inconsiderate?” Tom said, his head swiveling from side to side as he followed her. “She’s found love.”
“Jesus wept, Tom, this isn’t love. And even if it were, it’s one o’clock in the morning. It’s late. Other people are leaving.” She pointed toward the house and a steady flow of departing guests.
Tom didn’t say anything else. He didn’t want to antagonize Angelica. Again, they rested their backs against the car and waited. And waited. And waited.
Thirty minutes after Angelica left the party, Rosetta and John came tottering down the pavement.
“You ready?” Rosetta asked.
Angelica glared at her and got into the car. Rosetta reached for the car door handle.
Tom said, “Aren’t you going to say goodbye to John?”
Angelica started the engine. Rosetta gave John a quick kiss on the lips, opened the door and jumped in as the car pulled off.
“What is wrong with you, Rose? I’ve been waiting a long time for you to come out.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t get away.”
“You weren’t finished with your show?”
“Not now, Angel. I’m tired, and I’m drunk.”
“I’m tired, too. Now where is the freeway entrance? We’re heading to L.A., where we can pick up the 7. Do you see it?” Angelica said and glanced at Rosetta whose eyes were closing.
“Rose!” she shouted.
“What…what…oh,” she said, struggling to keep her eyes open and focused.
Angelica found the freeway. She wanted to strangle Rosetta, but she couldn’t even refuse to talk to her. Her friend’s snores kept her awake until they were halfway home. Then Angelica turned on the radio to a soft volume and hummed a popular old tune. Hers was the only car on the road, a high in itself. Her car vibrated at its top speed. Angelica attained that Zen state of driving – being at one with the car and the freeway. She forgot that Rosetta was in the car.
When she cut the engine in front of the house, the radio seemed to blare. Quickly, she turned it off.
“Where are we?” Rosetta mumbled from her dream.
“Already?” she said, fighting to gain complete consciousness.
“Yes, already. Can you get out all right?” Angelica said, softening toward her friend.
“Yes,” Rosetta said. “Of course, I can. I’ve got a pounding headache though, and I can’t say I’ll remember much of what happened tonight.”
“Let’s get a good night’s rest, Rose,” Angelica said as they climbed out of the car and started toward their apartments.
A police van rolled up their street and parked not far from Angelica. Two officers got out and went to J.T’s bungalow next door. J.T. was a burly man in his thirties who lived alone and mostly drank his time away. A gardener, he said he had been fired from his last job. Big as he was, he was a gentle man protective as a mother bear. Before Angelica moved to Refugio Avenue, he had answered the screams of her downstairs neighbor, Sheila, whose sailor boyfriend was renewing acquaintance in his own way. J.T. had thrown out the visitor on leave.
“What do the police want with J.T.? Angelica asked herself aloud.
“He’s always outside gardening in the daytime and on the porch drinking and listening to jazz in the evening. No time for screen-watching.”
“You mean to tell me that the police thought J.T., a sweet and concerned individual, to be such a danger to the community that they put surveillance on him?”
“I’ve told you, Angel. The Stop, Look and Listen law is serious business in California.”
“Yes, you have.”
“Good night, Angel.”
“Good night, Rose.”
Though the prospect of J.T. getting arrested disturbed Angelica, she succumbed to physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. Both she and Rosetta slept into late morning, worked for a few hours and, then, met up in the afternoon for their walk on the beach.
“What was last night about? Who was that woman? Your evil twin?”
“Well, not evil, but not you. You were out of control, Rose.”
“I don’t remember much of last night, Angel. The first drink I had got me drunk, and I kept drinking. Last night isn’t even a blur. It didn’t exist.”
“But Rose, it did exist. And even if you can’t remember it, other people involved – like myself and John – remember.”
“How do you know John remembers? He was just as soused as I was.”
“Oh, so you do remember that.”
“Yeah, I remember John. I met him as soon as we got there.”
“Do you remember driving to Las Vegas, getting married and then driving back?”
Rosetta’s face paled for a moment and then she laughed.
“We wouldn’t have had time to get back the next morning. What are you trying to do? Give me a heart attack?
“No. I’m trying to talk some sense into you. You’ve got to take responsibility for your actions.”
“You and John were all over each other at the party. Before we left, the two of you put on a show for anyone who cared to watch. You acted like a young girl who has just discovered sex. It was embarrassing.”
“Are all you Brits so uptight about sex?”
“Walt, Emma and most of the guests there and I were embarrassed. And what about John? He may really like you. What’s he going to do when he finds out that your passion for him was really the vodka?”
“Maybe John really likes me, and I really like John.”
“John? How would you know? Did you keep your hands off each other long enough to hold a conversation?”
“Yes, we did. We’ll probably see each other before then, but I invited him to my opening before I began drinking.”
“I don’t remember much of last night, but I do remember the feeling I had when I was with John. I felt desired, Angel. It’s been a long time since I felt that.”
She plopped down on the beach, scooped up sand and let it sift through her fingers.
“I’m getting older. I no longer stop conversation when I enter a room. Two years ago, I did. I’m at this juncture in my life where everything I am, including my work, isn’t wanted. Last night was nothing more than one of those desperate lunges at intimacy so common in this part of the world, where sex is easy and loneliness rampant.”
“I’m sorry, Rose,” Angelica said, sitting beside her.
They looked out at the ocean, calmed by the steady, hypnotic crashing of the waves on the beach.
“Liam is attracted to you. You could have your way with him.”
“Liam’s like our little brother. You must be joking,” she said, laughing. She got to her feet and threw a fistful of sand at her friend who got up and returned another. They carried their sand fight to the water, racing across the shoreline toward home with their arms outstretched, the sun now disappearing behind them.