tWe thought that we’d moved well out of Bee’s reach, but she was impressed when she heard about our new house-sit across the bay. She said it was a great neighborhood, close to everything you’d ever want.
“You guys…you guys always just land on your feet, dontcha.” She spoke with that broad kind of noo-joy-zee accent so whatever she said sounded like an unveiled threat.
At that time, she was still living over in Oakland in a shitty little studio apartment, part of an old house in the shadow of the freeway. It was in one of those blocks off the main drag in the Forties, where drive-by shootings were an everyday occurrence, and bursts of semi-automatic machine gunfire shattered the evenings like firecrackers.
I’d agreed to help her out with her résumé, and she couldn’t wait to come over to check out our new place near Alamo Square. I was unloading the groceries from our camper-van when she rolled up in her low-slung red semi-sports gas-guzzler, music blaring and drumming the steering wheel to Michael Bolton wailing Why Can’t We Be Lovers. The apartment was on a steep hill, so when she parked she revved and see-sawed back and forth, making a production out of turning her alloy wheels to the curb in case of earthquakes.
Grinning as if we were long-lost friends, she swaggered over like a woman of the world and punched me on the arm. She was early and empty-handed.
“Hey, look at chew! How’s it going with your fancy-schmancy new apartment?”
We’d noticed that she stretched out any hug a little too long, so I kept the grocery bags in
my arms. She was always clean, as far as I could tell, but kind of frumpy – and she had allergies, so instead of scent, a metallic-zinc smell clung to her, probably some ointment for a skin condition.
She followed me into the apartment. “Youse don’t mind.” She said it like a question, but she was already stuffing the kitchen bin with an assortment of stained Styrofoam coffee cups and stale junk food wrappers from her car.
She dressed like a teenage boy, cut-off t-shirts and hoodies and acid-washed jeans and battered sneakers. Thick-set you’d call her…if you were being polite, you’d say big-boned.
She was chunky, solid. I’m not one to judge – hey, I’m no size zero – but she could have done with seriously losing a few pounds…well, a few stone to be honest. She’d committed that sin, that my mother called “let herself go.” Her clothes submitted to her shape; the rolls of dimpled flesh spilling beyond the seams, tires that oozed over her waistband. She took up a lot of space and once she’d settled, there was no moving her.
She plonked herself down at the kitchen table and surveyed the apartment. “Youse landed on your feet again, scoring this place.” As I unpacked the groceries from the brown paper bags, she name-checked every item.
“What kind of coffee…is that…mocha-java? I used to love that blend. Great, isn’t it.”
“Those peaches look really juicy. Organic? Straight off the tree.”
“Mmmmm, lemon Bundt. Wow! I haven’t had that for ages.”
And on and on and on.
She clicked her tongue. “You guys sure know how to eat.”
I stopped myself from saying yeah, try it – it’s called shopping. After arranging and re-arranging the concentrated orange juice in the freezer a couple of times, I caved.
“Could you stand a coffee?”
“Sure, I guess.” So enthusiastic, as if she hadn’t been sending hints as direct as Exocet missiles. “Hey, you don’t have some of that Bundt cake going spare?”
Naturally I didn’t. I’d bought it because it was going to be part of a dessert for a dinner party, but it seemed kind of rude to say no, with her having seen it and all. So we had coffee. And cake. Then she helped herself to seconds.
“You guys…” She stabbed at the crumbs on her plate with her pudgy index finger. “Sure know how to live.”
When I prompted her about making a start on her résumé, she sighed and pulled a battered manila folder from her fanny-pack, sending the contents scattering around her grubby sneakers. At least she had the good grace to look flustered as she futzed with her papers. “Sorry, it’s a bit of a mess.”
Understatement. Those papers were creased, covered in scribbles and stained with coffee rings and splats of grease. And, she hadn’t prepared anything that we’d talked about. She’d just come over to our place. I grimaced. “Actually…let’s leave it another day, so you can do the stuff we talked about.”
That was how we ended up drinking more corrr-fee and scanning the Chronicle. I started reading the personal ads out loud. I couldn’t help myself.
“Look at this one…I mean how do you find out that you enjoy being smacked around the testicles with a skateboard?”
I invented a story about a dude from Nebraska, and it’s his first week in San Francisco and he’s trying to be cool, skateboarding down Castro but he gets distracted when he sees this total hunk and his baseball cap slips and he smashes into a telegraph pole – no, a fire hydrant – that’s funnier – and he lands groin-first on his skateboard, launching a life-long addiction. Bee laughed at first, but the more I read, the quieter she became. I smirked. “And, the ones that aren’t weird are just badly written…”
To be fair, things weren’t going so well for Bee. She hated her apartment, she had diagnosed herself with chronic fatigue syndrome (which hadn’t affected her endurance one iota when it came to moaning), and her part-time admin contract at the healthcare company wasn’t being renewed. And, she’d been single a lot longer than we’d been together, so I suppose the personal ads could have been a bit close to home.
When the Bundt cake was almost gone, she struck. “I was gonna to ask you something.”
Maybe it was that New Jersey drawl. Maybe I’d watched too many gangster movies. But what could I say without seeming selfish? She knew I was only freelancing, working under the table here and there, so I couldn’t exactly be too busy. Not unless…
“When did you have in mind?” I was hoping that it would clash with our July 4 camping trip to Yosemite.
“No time like the present.” And with that, she put down her cake fork and fist-bumped me. “Fock, I can’t believe my luck…you’re totally the best. It’s like a gift – us meeting – and you’re so good with words.”
See, I never did actually say yes. The trouble was, I never actually did say no either. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
I started making notes. Slowly. “Maybe someone who really knows you well…Maybe they’d be better…”
She shook her head. “C’mon, don’t be so modest. See, I already thought about that. And then I realized, no – you can bring some objectivity to this, you know…see things that other people can’t, maximize my assets.”
I wanted to point out that I was supposed to be drafting a personal ad, not ghost-writing her whole life story. Don’t get me wrong, she was alright. I’m not saying that Bee was totally hideous or anything. Sandy hair, not brown or blonde, not curly or straight, not thick yet not quite thin, taller than she looked. Sort-of a cupid’s bow mouth. Not entirely unattractive, I suppose. Not if loud, shapeless, squat, badly dressed chipmunks were your thing. She toasted me with her empty coffee mug. “You’re like my fairy godmother, right? And I’m not asking for no favors. Fock no.”
For a moment, the relief of obligation slid off my shoulders like a lead pashmina.
She lolled over the table towards me. “No way José. I’m not talking payment by results – we’ll do a straight trade – you write for me and I’ll give you one of my photos. Straight up. A print, and then you guys can take it with you and get it framed however youse want.”
Caught off-guard, I busied myself making more coffee. When we’d first met, I thought she’d told me that she was autistic. Wrong. She had channeled her artistic talent into studying photography at some podunk college back East. Which turned out to be a semester of night-classes with a self-assessed portfolio. (She passed). But that’s another story. How do you politely tell someone that you don’t like their work? That was the problem and I couldn’t come up with an answer because Bee kept on talking.
“Going from writing to doing a personal ad…it’s not such a jump. You know all the tricks, you know all about writing.”
“Well no, it’s not really like that…”
She misread my wince, and wagged a finger at me. “C’mon, don’t go hiding your light under a bushel.”
“I mean, you’re always learning.”
“Listen, this is easy as pie for you – and you do know me – so who could be better?”
Of course. PR was exactly the same – just drop the L in public. Then, I felt mean for even thinking of bailing on her. She’s okay, she’s just lonely and going through a tough time. It could happen to anyone.
She pointed at herself. “Hey, let’s face it, this isn’t exactly working if you know what I’m saying. Thirty-nine-and-a-half – how else am I gonna meet someone nice? You, my friend, are my shot at happiness. And you’re the one who said you could make a fortune writing these ads.”
Me and my big mouth.
“C’mon…you don’t even need me to do this…you know what I’m looking for. It’s alright for you two – you’ve got each other. You’ve got someone to…do…stuff with whenever you want.”
There it was: pure and undiluted. PCS. Perfect Couple Syndrome, when your unhappily single friends project all their Pollyanna fantasies onto your relationship – which, by the way, is always perfect as far as they’re concerned. So you can’t really understand their pain – because it’s like you’ve never been single or been stuck in a crap couple before. And in this PCS relationship, nothing ever annoys you about each other, and you’ve never had an argument, or had to compromise or make any effort at all…because it’s all so perfect. And the way you met and got together, that took no effort either – it was all down to good old fate and good luck. Then before you know it, you’re eating Turkish Delight forever after. In bed. Together.
“What about your résumé?” I asked.
“Nah, I’m not in the mood now. I’d rather do my ad.” Her freckled chipmunk cheeks were pulled into a grin, but she said it with a new-found, stubborn determination. Fine. Except that it was me who had to write it…And, I didn’t really know Bee and what I did know, I didn’t like so much. Whiny, needy and low energy, she emitted a cheerful helplessness about her life and circumstances. Fine in small doses, but an afternoon in her company could drain you dry as the Mojave in May – and that was just when she paid a social visit.
Trouble was, she was a friend – well an acquaintance – of a friend who’d taken us under his wing and he’d done us a few favors – gave us a roof over our heads when we’d first landed, and helped us to pick up some freelance work. He’d even helped us to find this house-sit near Alamo Square and Bee had latched on. So, what can you do? Now she was cashing in on his goodwill.
“C’mon, it’s not like you have to lie or anything.” She punched me on the arm with her chunky fist, and left me to it, with a threat to drop by and check out her ad soon. And that was it. Unanimous. With one exception.
The next night, I sat down with a glass of fruity Napa syrah and tried to get on with the job. You know when you meet someone whose life is so mediocre, that yours seems positively exciting? That was Bee. Ditchwater dull. I had to fight to banish the image of a wire wastebasket filled with screwed up balls of paper. I knew Bee, and I wouldn’t want to go out with her, and I didn’t want to be responsible for someone else ending up with her. It felt like false advertising. And, if the ad failed…if we thought that Bee was miserable now…I didn’t want to have to pick up the pieces either. People liked her in a general safe-distance kind of way, but there was an undercurrent of pity in their tolerance. People fell into that lame dog thing, you know, inviting her round to eat, to join them on outings, trying to fix her up with dates. There’s plenty of ways you can rescue someone.
I seriously considered handing her back a piece of blank paper, and telling her to write her own personal ad, but that felt like admitting defeat. I just needed to bite the bullet, get it done and shut her up.
Sure enough, she showed up a day later – unannounced. Just passing and she saw our camper-van parked outside. Right.
“So…” Her grin oozed confidence. “You told me you was good with words. Let’s have a little look-see.”
She read the draft a couple of times – with her lips moving – her chubby cheeks glowed rosy pink. Truth be told, I’d struggled and juggled and edited and re-written, and still that ad didn’t work. I couldn’t wait to get rid of the damn thing.
When she’d finished, she slapped me on the back. “Hey, good job. You’re real fockin’ good with words. You’ve got a knack, in fact…I sound so good now, I might even have to date myself.”
I didn’t have the heart to point out that she’d already been doing exactly that for about the last five years. With one nail-bitten finger following the words, she nodded as she recited them.
“Unique. So many qualities, so hard to put into words. Hungry for life. In career transition – yeah, I like that, I like that a lot. And special. Knows her own mind. Yeah, yeah. A lot to share. Unforgettable.” With her watery blue eyes tearing up, she waved the ad at me. “This here, this is genius. I just get really lonely and this…fock, this is like moy little piece of Kismet. You know…you’ve really got me, right here, in these words.”
She fossicked about in her backpack for a tissue, and knocked her mug of black coffee all over the beige carpet. I silently deducted fifty per cent off our deposit with the landlord. We never did manage to get that stain out completely. Sniffing and bleary-eyed, she handed me a large, grimy manila envelope. “Here, take this.”
I shook my head. “Really, there’s no need…”
“C’mon. I told youse no favors, and my word is my bond. Open it.”
I did as I was told. I recognized it straight away – a big black and white self-portrait that used to hang in her apartment. She’d shot her own reflection in the mirror of the dressing table, as she lay naked and contorted on a messed up bed. She snatched the picture from me, pulled a nail and hammer from her rucksack and she hung it on the wall. Then, she stood back and admired her handiwork. I kissed our deposit goodbye, and began writing an apology to our landlord. Words failed me. And she was so pleased with my ad that she decided that one picture was not enough payment; she insisted on doing our portrait as a special thank you.
Call it the wisdom of hindsight but on reflection, her chosen location – a famous cemetery – was probably a clue. Especially when she said she wanted to get shots of us in autumn. There was me, thinking she meant the trees. We agreed, because she said we’d be helping her build her portrait portfolio for yet another photography course – and because when she wanted something, she could be like a coyote tugging at a carcass. We talked about it. “Don’t you think it’s a little bit…creepy.”
I got a shrug for an answer. “It’s a pretty generous offer and I thought that ad you did for her was really good. It’ll be something different – that cemetery is designed by the same guy who did Central Park. Anyhow, maybe she’ll pick up some paid work from it.”
That was the sum total response to my reservations, so I went along with it. What did I have to lose? Then, Bee says we can choose which shots she can use in her portfolio and her publicity. Publicity. Now I’m going to be a poster girl for romance. In a cemetery. And this is all well before Twilight fever took hold. Cemeteries weren’t even trendy then.
Writing that ad had made me feel like I needed a long hot shower afterwards, but it was hard not to feel some pride in the way Bee’s confidence grew. You know, she started acting as if she really was quite attractive and amusing – or VGL, GSOH as we’d say in the trade.
So one Saturday morning, we headed for the hills of Oakland in the camper-van. Bee was really excited, and kept going on and on like a travelogue about Mountain View Cemetery in Piedmont being one of the finest memorial parks you’d ever find on the West Coast. Apparently, it was a wonderful example of early American culture.
“Over one hundred focking years old,” she burbled, like that was ancient. “There’s stately avenues and winding roadways and beautiful trees – native California live oaks and imported Lebanese cedars, Italian cypresses and stone pines. They got some great statues and sculptures too – everything from simple columbarium to elaborate mausoleums. We’ll try out a range of locations around the cemetery. I’ll know where we’ll shoot when I see it. You guys…I can’t believe my luck.” And on she went, getting more and more excited.
Yadda, yadda, yadda.
But my grandmother was big on showing respect, and I didn’t think she’d like me posing all over the dead, especially not for a student portfolio. And, none of us mentioned the elephant in the camper. For all the shoot was my payment for writing, I never did find out how many responses the ad generated and Bee didn’t seem that bothered about it anymore.
When we finally got there, it was like a beautiful park; ornate bronze gates, turquoise with verdigris, tree-lined arbors with giant palms and the elegant gingko biloba burning with fall colors ready to shed their fan-shaped leaves. It wasn’t a bad place to finish up. Some avenues even had views right out across the sparkling bay, although the famous Crocker Vault reminded me of a large stone nipple. Bee had brought a map of the park, one with all these contours like looping circuits that make you feel dizzy if you look at them too long. I really hoped that she knew what she was doing, because I so didn’t want to spend my whole weekend trailing over two hundred and twenty-six acres of graveyard looking for the right spot. After three hours of posing on damp stone, I could really empathize with the Crocker’s melancholy angel statue. I was wishing that I had agreed to payment by results. I’d had more than a lifetime’s worth of shrouds and wings and wreaths and lions and crosses and urns and haloes. Not to mention all the angels, sleeping, weeping, in repose, looking out to an uncertain future.
As it turned out, Bee’s choice of location was dramatic – and prophetic too. We got to pick from a range of romantic shots on Millionaire’s Row, featuring us draped around a crypt and a faux Greek temple, leaning seductively against a deep-grooved Doric column and generally being fascinated by fallen leaves and marble cherubim.
I found one of her photos the other day, packed away with some old stuff. The pictures turned out okay I guess, although it’s pretty hard to look romantic when you’re standing on a dead person. Years ago, I gave her self-portrait away to a charity for kids with autism.
When I was out and about, I almost bumped into her once or twice after that.
Once, she was alone, sprawled outside a café down by Pier 39. Next time I spotted her, she was at the same place, having an early brunch, holding hands across the table with my ex. Both times, I crossed the street before she noticed me. I didn’t want to see her, and I didn’t know what to say.
I heard she went into wedding photography.