Wednesday, 16 November 2022

Elizabeth by Barry Garelick, ristretto macchiato

At the end of my only date with Elizabeth we sat on the steps of my front porch and told each other things that people in their late twenties talk about when they feel they are not part of the times. The memory of that evening has stayed with me into my seventies. It has served as both a summary of and a counterbalance to what for me was an unpleasant period. It was 1978 at a time when it felt like every day someone our age was making it big as a writer, actor, musician or some kind of artist.

I knew Elizabeth from college but not too well. We had both moved to San Francisco at different times. On a bus ride to our respective jobs one day we ran into each other. Her red hair and tall figure hadn’t changed, nor had her demeanor—an arch intellectual manner which I found both unnerving and sexy.

In our catch-up conversation she disclosed that she had finished reading M.F.K. Fisher’s ‘Two Towns in Provence’. ‘I wanted to finish it before everyone discovers her and she becomes as trendy as copper colanders and eating at restaurants where the salad is served last,’ she said.

She was now reading books by Patricia Highsmith after finding out that Claude Chabrol’s film Les Biches was based on one of her novels. ‘I’d like my non-fiction to be like Fisher’s and my fiction, which I’m thinking of doing, to be like Highsmith’s,’ she said. ‘I like how she hates all her characters equally.’

I was also reading a book by Highsmith at the time, not by way of Chabrol, but via the German filmmaker, Wim Wenders. I was a fan of his films and also writing fiction—or trying to. I viewed our somewhat common interests in Highsmith and European film and her dour outlook about the world as the propinquity needed to ask her out. After a slight hesitation, she said yes.

On our date, we had drinks in the lounge of a restaurant and afterward saw the 1950s' western Shane. The restaurant was one of many in San Francisco that was run by enterprising people who would eventually be part of a group defined by the term ‘yuppie’ which hadn’t yet entered the cultural lexicon. Elizabeth hated these kind of restaurants.

‘Honestly,’ she said, ‘The people who run these restaurants probably spent two years in Europe long enough to learn some recipes but couldn’t be bothered learning how to take reservations,’ she said. ‘And there’s never enough seats to have a drink while you’re waiting to be seated, so you stand around.’

Which was in fact what we were doing.

‘Clutching a wine glass,’ she added capturing our moment quite accurately. ‘White wine of course.’

A young man who looked to be in his late twenties entered the small standing-room-only lounge and stepped up on a platform, guitar in hand.

‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘Not the up-and-coming guy who thinks he can sing.’

I appreciated Elizabeth’s irritation. I too felt the same way, though didn’t express it quite so openly. I felt distanced from the times we were living in which in 1978 included disco and singles-bars. And even though disco was slowly being displaced by punk and the new wave music scene, those milieus were every bit as alienating as the restaurant we were in.

The guitar player finished a poor rendition of a Jackson Brown song to polite applause. He then retuned one of the strings on his guitar, making small talk with the captive audience.

Elizabeth frowned. ‘I hate the cute small talk,’ she said. ‘It’s bad enough people at these so-called restaurants can’t sing, but then they put on this pretentious charm, and what’s worse is that the crowd thinks it’s just fine.’ She looked around.

‘We’re surrounded by idiots,’ she said.

 

The idiots continued to surround as at the movie theater—a revival house which drew its share of self-proclaimed experts showing off their worldliness at any opportunity. During a preview of a French comedy one of the characters exclaimed ‘Ooh la la’ which brought knowing laughter from the audience who viewed it as an aspect of French culture that defined it.

‘Oh, please,’ Elizabeth said.

As the main feature Shane began, however, our irritation with the audience gave way to a general (but guarded) camaraderie born of a shared cynicism toward a movie that showed its age. Now we felt only slightly superior to those around us.

Despite it being respected in cinematic circles, it was far easier to dismiss it for being clichéd and dated. A homesteader family in Wyoming—Joe Sterret and his wife and Joey, their son—take in the mysterious retired gunfighter Shane. Shane picks up his guns once more to help out Joe in his battle against the cattle barons. Throughout it all is an understated sexual tension at work—the wife clearly is attracted to Shane.

In one scene, Joe works with Shane to remove a tree stump. Joe’s wife thinks it’s too much for them and urges them to call it a day but Joe will have none of that. If he gives up now the stump will have defeated him, he says. As Joe and a shirtless Shane start to make significant headway in pushing the stump out of its hole, Joe says ‘Sometimes there ain’t nothin’ will do but your own sweat and muscle.’

This line was met with a roar of laughter from the audience, including Elizabeth and me. On the one hand, the defeat of the tree stump was an obvious metaphor to standing up to the cattle barons. But most of the laughter came from the other obvious theme of male bonding between Shane and Joe—a theme that had rapidly fallen out of favor over the past decade in light of current feminist views.

Feminist views in 1978 were now part of a confusing milieu of sexual outlets. The disco and the singles-bar scene was one such outlet but now fading with the rising new wave and punk music scene. Neither of these scenes were ones I felt defined me, and I wasn’t exactly at home with feminism either as became obvious after the movie when I opened the car door for Elizabeth. ‘I’m impressed that you actually opened the door for me,’ she said.

I wasn’t sure how she meant it, so my response was terse. ‘I’ll have you open it yourself then from now on,’ I said.

‘I just meant I never see guys do that,’ she said. ‘Somebody taught you some manners, obviously.’ I drove, not quite knowing where I wanted to go, though I had a vague idea about a café. After a few minutes of a driving in an uncomfortable silence, Elizabeth asked where we were going.  

‘I’m not sure,’ I said.

‘You’re not sure?’

‘I thought we could get coffee somewhere.’

‘I don’t want coffee,’ she said.

         ‘Well then, I’m not sure.’

‘Actually I’d like to see where you live. But I’m not going inside,’ she said.

‘OK, I can take you by there. Actually it has a front porch, so we can sit out there and talk if you’d like.’ She brightened at this.

‘Your apartment has a front porch?’

‘Yeah, it’s an old house that was turned into apartment units. Sometimes neighborhood teenagers hang out there and talk which I don’t really like. But I don’t own the building, so there’s not much I can do about it.’

 

My apartment was on Sanchez Street at a cross street called Day. ‘I like this street—it’s quiet,’ she said as we went by the house. ‘Is that it?’ she asked, pointing to the only house on the block that had a front porch.

‘That’s it,’ I said. ‘I hope we can get there before the teenagers get to it.’ As I parked the car, I said ‘If you change your mind about going inside, let me know.’

‘I’m happy to sit on the porch,’ she said. 

 ‘It kind of reminds me of the log cabin in Shane.’

‘I can’t possibly see how.’ She was about to say something else when I found a parking space. ‘I doubt seriously that you can fit into that space.’

‘Watch me,’ I said, and she did. I was fairly good at parallel parking and she seemed disappointed when I did it.

I had parked by a street lamp that gave our faces a strange hue. The street grew progressively darker as we approached the house. We sat on the step of the porch. Her arms were on her knees and her face was supported by her hands. She looked like she was thinking about something.

Sitting in silence with someone can be nice when you know someone well, but it struck me more than ever that neither of us knew the other beyond what we remembered from when we were in school and the little we had found out about each other that evening. I was about to say something when she broke the silence.

‘Why did you say what you did when I asked you about opening the car door for me?’

I realized then that my response earlier had been blunter than called for. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I’m a bit confused about how I’m supposed to act these days. A few weeks ago a girl didn’t want me paying for a meal, and another time a girl let me have it because I asked about splitting the check.’

‘I can see that the aggressive patriarchy thing can get a bit tedious,’ she said.

‘Well, OK, how about this?’ I said, suddenly energized by her empathy. ‘The time where my date didn’t want me to pay, we were walking outside and the moon was in that stage where you can see a thin crescent of moon, and the faint shadowy outline of the rest of the moon.  I told her it’s called ‘the new moon in old moon’s arms’. To which she responded ‘Bullshit!’ ‘

Elizabeth laughed. ‘Must have hit a nerve somehow.’

‘Right. Some know-it-all guy, I suppose.’

‘What happened? Have you seen her since?’

‘No. Well, yes. I saw her on a bus one time. She made it obvious that she was ignoring me.’

‘I think there’s an art to making it look like you’re not really ignoring someone while you’re ignoring them,’ she said.

‘She had a ways to go on that front.’

She laughed, and with the laugh she looked younger—almost unrecognizable.

‘So what did you think of the movie?’ I asked.

 ‘I’m not sure what I think about Shane,’ she said.  ‘It was well made, and after a while you could ignore the obvious clichés. I liked the character of Shane, and all his unresolved problems. I liked Joey at the end calling ‘Shane, come back!’ How can you not like that?’ She paused for a moment, thinking. ‘Overall, though, I found it lacking in verisimilitude.’

On an impulse, I responded in kind. ‘I found the movie hermaphroditic in some respects,’ I said.

She laughed again. ‘Did you read some article with a list of words that included ‘hermaphroditic’ that they said to use in a sentence?’

‘I like the word. It lends an air of mystery, instead of saying ‘dual nature’. And I wanted to match your use of ‘verisimilitude’.’

‘What aspects of the movie did you think were hermaphroditic?’ she said, stretching her legs out, sitting back against the top step and resting her elbows on the porch. ‘If you don’t mind my asking.’

I struggled to remember what my thinking was. ‘Give me a minute, it’ll come to me.’

‘I can wait. I want to see how you get out of this.’ She had the same look as when I parked the car.

‘OK. I got it. On the one hand you have a movie about a bygone era set in the wild west of the 1800’s.  But it also reflects the artifacts of the early 1950’s thinking and film styles. How am I doing?’

‘Not bad. Keep going,’ she said. ‘Actually, that’s pretty interesting.’

‘Good to know.’

‘In a way,’ she added.

‘And our opinions of it are an artifact of 1978 values,’ I said. In the spirit of making it up as I went along, I thought it might be interesting to add that our views might change with time, but Elizabeth’s next comment made me think otherwise. ‘This is a wonderful porch,’ she said.

She stood up and looked around, at the street, the eaves above us, and the porch itself. ‘I thought you might like it,’ I said.

‘You can even see the stars from here,’ she said, pointing at the sky.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I can always find the Orion constellation.  Right there.’ I pointed. ‘There’s the belt, and there’s the sword.’

‘Bullshit!’ she said, hiding a smile behind her hand.

‘I should never have told you about that.’

‘Too late now!’ We continued talking, our conversation meandering in various ways. I’ve lost track of who said what after that and how we got back to Shane. It may have been me. I recall saying ‘Did you know?’

‘Did I know what?’

‘Did you know that Brandon De Wilde who played Joey, also played the teenager who idolized Paul Newman’s character in Hud?

One of us, I have forgotten who, said that Paul Newman’s Hud was a different type of Shane. I am certain, however, that Elizabeth said that Hud was a timeless character.

‘What about Shane?’ I asked.

‘Not as much.’

‘Why?’

‘He’s more clichéd than he is timeless.’

‘What if Paul Newman had played Shane?’

She thought for a moment.

‘Yeah, that probably would have made a difference.’ She thought some more.

 ‘Actually, I think hate is a big factor in making something timeless,’ she said. ‘In movies and fiction, anyway.’

‘What about love?’

‘I suppose. But it’s usually clichéd and maudlin in movies’ she said. ‘Hate is stronger. It feels more realistic.’

We were both quiet. I thought then about photographs of soldiers in World War Two. Even though they grew up to be our parents and the people in charge of our lives, they looked like boys in their twenties. It didn’t matter what time they belonged to. Maybe being part of a time is timeless by itself, I remember thinking, and as soon as I thought it wondered what sense that made.

‘It’s getting late,’ she said.

‘It’s only ten-thirty.’

 ‘That’s late. Besides, I have to go to the bathroom.’

‘You can use mine.’

‘No, thanks,’ she said.  ‘I’m afraid of strange plumbing.’ 

‘You’re very funny,’ I said, laughing.

‘So I’ve been told,’ she said. ‘I’m also not feeling particularly hermaphroditic right now.’

‘Meaning what, exactly?’ I asked.

‘It means what you think it means,’ she said and we started walking to the car.

We were once again bathed in the light of the street lamp which I found oddly comforting, though I’m not sure why. I wasn’t sure whether to hold the car door open for her, but I did.

Neither of us said anything as we drove to her apartment. When we got there she turned to me before getting out and said ‘I really did have a good time.’

‘So did I,’ I said.

‘I have to tell you something.’

‘You just did. I think.’

‘Well, something else then. I probably won’t be very friendly in the future, just so you know. It’s just the way I am. With guys, I mean. I might be friendly some days, but probably not.’  She sighed. ‘I don’t know. I wish I didn’t have so much hate inside me,’ she said.

Such statements usually inspire consolation. The best I could come up with was ‘I have a pretty fair amount myself.’

She didn’t respond, and fumbled to find her keys in her purse. She found a tissue and dabbed her eyes, and then left the car. I watched her walk to the apartment door. It was an old building with a well-lit lobby. She stopped to open her mailbox from the bank of boxes in the lobby, and then disappeared up the staircase.

 

A few days later I called her. I tried to make conversation but it was clear she didn’t want to talk. I told her I had finished reading Highsmith’s A Dog’s Ransom. ‘It left me depressed,’ I said.

‘Read another book,’ she said curtly. There wasn’t much left of the conversation after that. That was the last time I called her. Over the next few years I saw her a few times on the street. We would exchange a few words about what we were up to in a somewhat friendly manner.

Eventually I married and moved from San Francisco to various places, eventually settling in California once more. I am now retired. I am in contact with various people I’ve known, lost contact with others, and still others have died. I don’t know if Elizabeth is still alive. I did hear from a college friend who knew her. He mentioned he and his wife had visited her in 1987 when he was doing his medical residency in Oakland. She was living in San Francisco. They all met at a restaurant and in the course of the conversation she mentioned she was gay. ‘It seemed like it was important for her to tell us that,’ my friend said.

I asked him if she seemed happy. ‘It’s hard to know if anyone’s happy,’ he said. ‘She did seem to have less of an edge, though.’

That’s the last I’ve heard of her. I sometimes wish that I'd kissed her that night. I think she would have let me. In that one never-to-be-repeated moment, I imagine it wouldn’t have mattered who we were, where we belonged or what time we were or were not a part of. 

 About the auhtor

Barry Garelick has written non-fiction pieces that have been published in The Atlantic, and Education Next. His fiction has appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Paragraph Magazine and Fiction on the Web. He lives in Morro Bay, California with his wife. 

 

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2 comments:

  1. The quintessential Elizabeth for those who know/knew her

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    Replies
    1. Was Elizabeth someone at Woodward Clyde that I would have known?

      Patrick Ritter

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