Patricia Q. Bidar
The only job I could get after college was a temp gig at an oil firm in Century City, which looked the way most people picture Los Angeles. Sharp edges. White sky. Manicured palms.
I was an anomaly, with my anthropology degree and dangly Peruvian earrings. My first day, I tuned in to Anita Hill’s testimony on KCRW. My cubicle-mate opined that Hill was lying to get attention. The receptionist answered that it was a “black-on-black” issue. We’d never know the truth. “We do good work!” proclaimed a drooping banner in the break room. A leftover from a Chamber of Commerce ribbon-cutting when the firm moved in.
My boss, Jean, occupied a corner office. She had a stunning view across Santa Monica Boulevard: the emerald expanse of Los Angeles Country Club. I’m not sure what Jean did at the firm. She always referred to herself as a top executive. She wore reading glasses on a beaded chain around her neck. Sometimes she’d arrive at work with bits of scrambled egg or bagel on the small shelf her hanging glasses made. I’d tip her off with a raised eyebrow and inclined head. I soon learned she was the founder’s sister.
Every month, Jean used her expense account to treat us both to dinner at a swanky restaurant. We’d talk about basketball and get shitfaced on the house red. Jean had terrible eyesight, so I had to read her the menu. Her rudeness to the waiters was clearly her imitation of top executive behavior.
The founder drove Jean to and from work each day. But on the nights of these expensive dinners, I’d get her home. My own apartment was a ground-floor studio in Culver City. All night long, shopping carts rattled past my bedroom window. On my block, an old man lived in the ivy beside the elementary school fence. His hair and flowing beard were the color of the sidewalk. His eyes stared out from behind the bank of ivy like something from a fairy tale. Blue, sunken pools.
On my lunch hour, I’d escape the heat in the hushed lobby of the Beverly Hilton or in Robinsons-May, where I once saw John Travolta buying socks. But most days, I’d take my solitary lunch to the fancy outdoor mall splashed with giant yellow umbrellas. To reach it, you crossed over a concrete bridge over Avenue of the Stars.
The all-male committee concluded their hearing. Anita Hill’s testimony had fallen on deaf— no, contemptuous ears. Minds that couldn’t conceive of blocking a Supreme Court appointee because of the way he’d treated a mere woman. From my desk, I heard applause from the conference room.
All I wanted to do was go home to my bed. But it was time for one of those fancy dinners with my boss.
Jean favored the kind of place with obsequious waiters who pulled out our chairs and used a crumb scraper after we laid waste to the bread. Before we ordered, Jean delivered the news: she was getting a radical mastectomy. I knew she’d been out a lot, but this was the first I’d heard of any of this. In the solipsism of youth, I simply hadn’t noticed.
Jean’s face was illumined by the small table lamp. She looked wan and almost pretty. That night instead of wine, we ordered apple martinis. I wanted to bring up the topic of Clarence Thomas—surely not everyone at work thought Anita Hill was lying— but what was the point? If Jean agreed with the rest of them, I’d feel more alone than ever. Her watery eyes were taking in the dessert cart.
Outside in the cold, I realized I was seriously drunk. On the way to Jean’s, I careened around corners, twice scraping my bumper. I stopped for gas and nearly drove away with the gas spigot still jammed into the tank. Under the eye-smarting light, Jean was asleep, her mouth slightly open. Unguarded. I saw how she must have looked as a child. How she would look as an elderly woman. If she were allowed that.
Jean lived in an old house off Mulholland, atop a winding hill. In front, a streetlight flickered. A coyote howled. Jean roused herself to say it got pretty loud out there sometimes. She made no move to leave. It was getting late. I still had the drive home. I mumbled something about being sorry about her cancer and to let me know if there was anything I could do.
“Well. I’m not a young woman, and of course, not married. Still, it would be nice if someone said goodbye.”
That was when she did it. Pulled up her sweater, her blouse. Her bra went with them under her soft chin.
I leaned forward and placed my cheek against her breast. I set my palm against the other. Her body was the same temperature as the inside of my car. She smelled lightly of baby powder.
We sat there for some moments. Jean swallowed once, but that was it. Then she straightened her clothing, exited the car, and started uncertainly up the walk.
I remember nothing about the drive back home to Culver City. But I recall how it felt to awaken hours later with my apartment lights blazing, door ajar. My car keys dangling from the lock. My phone jangled. It was my temp office, calling to inform me my gig at the oil firm was over. Later, I’d find Jean’s shoes on the passenger side floor of my car. I kept them there for months.
I sometimes think of Jean in her house on the top of that dark hill off Mulholland Drive. Surrounded by slinking coyotes. Below, the mushrooming ranks of people whose belongings fit into a shopping cart, if they are lucky enough to have one. The celebrities and top executives and young people trying on the adult life.
I don’t live in L.A. anymore, but I sometimes travel there. The descent into LAX tips toward a vast golden grid of light splayed out below. Closer, backyard pools gaze heavenward, sightless as martyred saints.
Patricia Q. Bidar hails from the Port of Los Angeles region; she currently lives with her husband in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Little Patuxent Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Sou’wester, Wigleaf, and Jellyfish Review. She is a 2020 Pushcart Prize nominee and three-time Best Small Fictions 2020 nominee. Apart from fiction, Patricia ghostwrites for progressive nonprofits. She tweets at @patriciabidar.