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Authors: Tiffanie DeBartolo

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BOOK: God-Shaped Hole
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TWO

I got to Fred’s a few minutes early and stood outside, peering in through the slats of the wooden blinds. The place was like a time warp, with brown and yellow leather booths, caricatures of old movie stars on the walls, and vintage white toasters on every table. I’d never been to a restaurant where they let you toast your own bread. There was a jukebox in the corner, and a massive cappuccino machine behind the counter. But what really caught my eye was something on the wall. I could see it from where I was—a painting of a rocky beach with a raging sea crashing down upon it. In big letters across the front was scribed the phrase: NOT NOW.

It was a kitschy piece of shit but something about it made my heart hurt.

I was going to walk in and get a table, then I spotted Jacob. He was in the booth right under a bad likeness of Lauren Bacall. Don’t ask me how I knew he was the guy, I just did. It was a typical spring day: warm, clear, a predictable bore, with the temperature reaching the mid-seventies, but he was wearing a black, ratty, old wool coat that looked like it had been through a war. He was smaller than I’d pictured him—a little taller than me, but he looked fragile somehow, sitting alone with his head down. He hadn’t shaved that morning, I could tell because there was a hint of scruff across his delicate jaw. And his hair was brown, like he said, but a fiery brown, as if it were flecked with cinnamon. It was disheveled and still a little damp. My guess was that he’d washed it before he left his house but probably didn’t own a brush—it stuck out and around in all directions. He reminded me of a puppy from the pound.

I watched him as I entered, hoping he would spot me. He never raised his gaze. He was reading what looked like a foreign newspaper when I walked over.

“Jacob?” I said, feeling as if I were interrupting something.

Only then did he look up, and I caught sight of his eyes. They were deep–set, so much so that they almost appeared in shadow, a watery version of his hair color, like liquid leather. And they were older, wearier than his age let on. But I sensed in them a splash of irony, too; a proud acceptance of the fact that life can be a bitch sometimes, that some people feel things too deeply. I always felt like that myself, that I didn’t marry into the landscape of the human world like others did, that I was on the outside looking in. I imagine it’s much easier not to take things so seriously, to just
blend
, but I’d long ago given up trying to live in vain and I knew I had to suffer for it. I was just sick, beaten, in a city of millions, of suffering by myself. I was twenty-seven going on sixty-five. I should have received Social Security for my misery.

I’d never seen that look on another face before, had never identified it in another person. I’d met with it only in fiction. But everyone falls in love with Holden Caulfield when they’re sixteen. They read
The Catcher in the Rye
and don’t feel so alone. The problem is, they get over it. They forget that grief. Or they bury it. I never could.

So I was instantly attracted to Jacob, mainly because he had that look, like he still remembered. But the contentment on his face said he found value in it, wasn’t plagued by it like I was. As far as I was concerned, that made Jacob the smarter one between the two of us, and who couldn’t use someone who’d maybe teach them a little something about life and how to live it, the only problem I could foresee was that my attraction to him began to manifest itself as a feeling, a specific part of my body was melting, and I hoped I could sit down in case anything started to drip—I was wearing a skirt.

Jacob’s face softened and he stood up. His fingers were thin and kind, and he grasped my hand with both of his. He smelled like an exotic wood.

“Trixie,” he said. “Do you mind if I call you Trixie?”

“No, I like it.”

He asked me to sit down, and we sat in silence as he studied me, his head resting on his fist. I felt a bit uncomfortable, but was made to feel less so by the fact that Jacob seemed completely at ease, as if it were the most common thing in the world to sit and stare at someone you’d never met. I noticed his newspaper was French.

Finally, he spoke.

“You know, you’re really beautiful,” he said. “You kind of have, I don’t know, the face of a Henry James heroine.”

That might sound like the biggest line of Velveeta you’ve ever heard, but trust me, it didn’t come out like cheese at all. He wasn’t flirting—not intentionally anyway. He was simply being honest—a rare quality I would soon come to know was typical of Jacob Grace. I found his compliment embarrassingly romantic, as I had more than once thought of becoming some neo-metropolitan version of Isabel Archer; had ached to leave the city of bright lights and ill-fated dreams, drained and confused, but still headstrong enough to embark on a literal and metaphorical journey of discovering all of what life might really hold for me.

I have a lot of lame-ass daydreams like that.

I felt my cheeks blush.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you self-conscious,” Jacob said with a gentle smile on his face.

“I just never think of myself that way.”

“I like the Victorian look: porcelain skin, raven hair, sort of refined features. It gives you a certain uniqueness here among the acres of sun-kissed blonds. It gives you depth.”

I motioned to Jacob’s newspaper. “You speak French?”

He shrugged. “
Un peu
,” he said. “I’m trying to learn.”

I nodded and we were silent again.

I got the impression Jacob was an odd person, and I mean that as the best possible compliment I could give a guy. He had the most sincere face I’d ever seen, and it seemed he put on absolutely no pretenses whatsoever. Something about being with him made me warm, like I was sitting in front of a fireplace whose embers were barely flickering, yet still giving off heat. It made me feel safe.

“Jacob, can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Your ad, you must’ve had dozens of calls. Why did you call me back?”

He squinted. “I didn’t get dozens of calls. Six maybe, but not dozens. That’s why it took me so long to call you. You were the last of them.” He paused, making little dots on the tablecloth with his fork. “The truth is, I placed the ad as sort of a joke. I was in the office one day complaining about never finding any decent women in Los Angeles, and a coworker of mine cooked up the idea.”

“Have you met all of us now?”

“Five of you. One I chose not to meet.”

“Why’s that?”

“Transvestite,” he said. “Too much make-up.”

“What were the other ones like?” I wanted to know if I had any competition.

“They ran the spectrum,” he said. “Suicidal gothic, older than my mother, on anti-depressants and loving it, and lastly, the one I was the least impressed with, a woman who thought Henry Miller was a police sitcom from the seventies. You’re the only normal one so far, normal being a relative term, of course.”

“You have no idea how relative,” I said. “I went to Catholic school for twelve years.”

That made Jacob laugh.

“I thought it would be a great idea for a story,” he said. “So if nothing else, I’ll get work out of it. I’ve never placed a personal ad before either. And I kind of figured this whole thing would turn out to be just something to write about. Well, I mean, until now, maybe.”

“You know,” I said, “I don’t even read the paper much. I just happened to pick one up that day. The ad was the first thing I saw.”

“If that isn’t fate, I don’t know what is,” Jacob said, grinning as if he’d won the lottery.

He had pointy canine teeth. Like a wolf.

We ordered cappuccinos and grilled cheese sandwiches, and told each other our life stories.

Jacob was born in Tennessee but moved to California before he was a year old. He grew up in Pasadena, the only child of a single mother who worked as a dance instructor. He described her peculiarly in the plural as “really good people.”

“What happened to your father?” I said.

“He took off a few months after they got here. He was kind enough to keep in touch for a year or two, but that was about it. We haven’t seen him since.”

“Have you ever tried to contact him?”

“No,” Jacob said. “Someday I’d like to be able to talk to him face to face though, the fucking piece of trash.”

I got the feeling his father was still a raw subject for Jacob; it was the only time I saw his smooth ride wane to minor turbulence.

Jacob was passionately obsessed with his writing. I could tell by the bonfire in his eyes when he spoke about it. It was everything to him.

“If I didn’t have my work,” he said, “I’d probably be dead by now.”

He told me about a year-long stint in a university writing program that he summed up as a complete waste of time. Not long after he quit, he wrote a short story that was published by
Esquire
magazine, and consequently optioned for a nice chunk of change by a local film studio. Jacob declined the offer to actually write the screenplay.

“That’s not my gig,” he said.

As far as he knew, the screenplay had never been written or made. But he lived off of that exploit for a few years, in the meantime writing stories here and there for various publications, as well as his work at the
Weekly
. Most recently, he said, he’d been working on a novel.

“It’s a story about a kid from Hollywood who longs for his southern roots, obsessing over rainstorms, the blues, and the crazy woman in his building who thinks she’s Scarlett O’Hara.”

“Does it have a name yet?”

“I call it
Hallelujah
,” he said, as if it were a beloved pet.

I’d told Greg—my previous boyfriend—that I was an orphan because, from the start, I could never foresee the relationship going anywhere and I didn’t want to have to introduce him to my mother. It became a real pain in the ass. I had to talk like an idiot when I answered the phone and Mom was on the other end. Holidays were a problem as well. The guy I dated before Greg, I told him my parents were South African expatriates, and that we didn’t speak any longer because they’d supported apartheid. But for some reason, when Jacob asked, I couldn’t bring myself to lie. On the contrary, I had the very atypical impulse to tell him everything.

“I grew up in the Hollywood Hills. I have two brothers and a set of parents that I have virtually nothing in common with. My philandering father left my mother nine years ago and I haven’t spoken to him since. My mother, who now lives in Santa Barbara, means well but is criminally materialistic. I studied fine art in college, and I design jewelry for a living. That’s me in a nutshell.”

“Somehow I doubt that,” Jacob said, his eyes shining. “But it’s a good start. Tell me about the jewelry you make.”

“It’s the kind of stuff that looks fairly inexpensive, but sometimes costs a whole paycheck. I like to mix precious stones and gems with crude, organic materials. So things look a bit off.”

I told him about a piece I’d sold the week before. It was one of my all-time favorites—an exquisite little Burmese ruby that, instead of placing on an ordinary chain, I secured to a piece of brown twine wrapped around heavy-duty wire, then encircled it in tiny pearls. It was extraordinary looking, completely unrefined and beautiful. The woman who bought it paid quite a bit, even after I tried to talk her out of it.

“Why did you try and talk her out of it?” Jacob said.

“Because the horrible smell of department store cologne oozed from her pores. And she called the necklace ‘cute.’ I knew she was going to wear it once to show her friends how cool she thought she was, then stuff it in a drawer and never put it on again.”

I could tell by the look on Jacob’s face that he found me amusing. I kept talking. “I told her the necklace was fragile. And that it didn’t match her skin tone. She just wouldn’t give up. I guess you could say I get a little sentimental about my pieces. And truthfully, I never thought this whole business would take off, but people here will buy anything, thank God; it’s one of the only things in life that makes me happy. So far, I’ve only discovered four things that make life worth living for me. My work is one of them.”

“What are the other three?” Jacob wanted to know.

“Music, books, and sex,” I said. “Not necessarily in that order.”

His eyebrows rose an inch and he smirked. “What else do you need?”

Jacob said he could tell I was an artist by the way I held my spoon. I didn’t quite understand what he meant, but I liked that he was paying attention. He asked me if I would give him something I made, that he could wear around his neck.

“I’ll make something for you.”

We talked for a while longer, then we wandered down the street and stopped at a used record shop. We walked in and began pointing out the music we liked and didn’t like, assessing all the vinyl we thought life wasn’t complete without owning. We both concurred that anyone not in possession of
Blood On The Tracks
,
Exile On Main Street
, and anything by U2 didn’t know diddley about rock ‘n’ roll. We were also together on the fact that any band, song, or solo work that a guy named Paul Weller had been even remotely connected to was cool, even though 98 percent of the world’s population outside of Britain has never heard of him. The one thing we did disagree on was the genius of Prince. Jacob liked him; I put him in the over-rated, egomaniacal-freak category. But I scored an extra point with Jacob by being a Fugazi fan, even correcting him on the pronunciation of the singer’s last name.

“MacKaye. I’m told it rhymes with pie, not pay.”

“How the hell do you know so much about music?” Jacob said.

I explained to him that, as with most things in my life, it was because of and despite my mother. Growing up, she constantly nagged me that if I knew my homework as well as I knew the words to every song on the radio, I’d be a genius. She wouldn’t let me watch MTV while I ate breakfast, and forbade me to turn on my stereo anytime after dinner.

“Beatrice, I’m afraid you’re going to turn into a pothead. Then everyone will think I was a bad mother.”

That’s what she used to say to me. Lucky for her, my nose is too acute for pot. Nothing that smells like a burning piece of vegetarian shit goes anywhere near my nasal passages.

BOOK: God-Shaped Hole
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