#6 – Janvier / January 2024
Winter hadn’t yet arrived. The view from Lazlo’s condo in Dana Point was made up of two sections, divided by the asphalt shingled roof of the building facing him. The top part was dominated by the cloudless sky, and partial sight of the Pacific Ocean and its calm horizon. A few ships could be seen in the distance. The other area, the bottom part of his view, was the back of a two-story vacation apartment, rented weekly to Orange County tourists. Most of the time they came from another city in California, rarely foreigners. There were four one-bedroom units, each had a balcony half the size of Lazlo’s luxurious terrace. He straightened his back. His feet pressed the ground, and he stopped rocking his new sling rocking chair. Lazlo could have focused on the top view, where seagulls dove into the ocean, jet skis disturbed the motionless surface of the water, and the ships blew their horns to warn other smaller boats in their path. But Lazlo preferred to watch the balconies in front of him, and the people who lived in this temporary place. Those were the misfortunate ones who didn’t get a room with view. They ate breakfast, hung their swimsuits on the railing, and smoked in the dark when the blue light of the TV reflected on the glass behind them. The units were fully occupied in the summer, but in the winter, many condos remained empty. Only last winter a couple had stayed long enough to establish a connection with him. If they saw him on the terrace, as they were eating brunch, they’d wave at Lazlo, who would then hide his binoculars behind his back. They had met during the last earthquake when everyone had run out into the street.
This afternoon, Lazlo, rocking in his chair, was amused by the absence of the ocean’s sultry air. He closed his eyes, and imagining the view, he gradually erased the sky, the sea and all the vacation condos, and replaced everything by a giant high-rise made of glass, a building he and Natalia were going to design. But as he planned all the complex steps necessary to organize this task, at some point, Natalia disappeared from his imagination, and before the building was done, he stopped dreaming, and it caused the ocean’s waves to rise and cover the apartments in front of him, as a seagull sat on the railing of his terrace, looking at him with a wondering stare. His mobile phone rang, waking him. It was Natalia. « I’m on my way home, » she said.
Lazlo had met Natalia at work. It was five years after he lost his house to a fire. She came from a good Ukrainian family and was physically almost the opposite of Perdita, Lazlo’s missing wife. Blonde, tall, lean, with pale skin. The shape of her nose, slightly aquiline and disproportionate to her face, was her only similarity to Perdita, but unlike Perdita, who carried this difference with pride, Natalia took it as a flaw.
« You know there is always the surgery option, » Lazlo had told her.
« Of course, but after that everyone would think that I am a shallow woman and my other body parts are improved versions of me. »
Lazlo never understood why others’ opinions mattered so much to her. Natalia was perfect.
The cold breeze from the ocean made Lazlo leave the terrace and go back behind his desk facing the ocean. The living room, decorated in Natalia’s minimalistic taste, was so different from his burned home where every object was marked by Perdita’s Victorian vision of a house. Winter is coming, he thought, turning on his laptop. He hadn’t written anything in a long time. Maybe it had to do with Natalia’s organization skills. She planned everything. She set alarms for every little task. And she knew the length of time each task could take. In her mind, she didn’t give any priority to « time to do nothing », that she called chaos. And each time a plan fell through, her anxiety gave her panic attacks, and Lazlo had to remind her to breathe.
This exercise sometimes took him back to the day his old house turned into ashes. As the wildfire moved closer to the front yard, and as the smoke quickly filled the air, he felt almost paralyzed. At the moment, he didn’t know why he couldn’t move, or why his legs wouldn’t respond to his brain telling him to leave. He only expected his whole life would pass in front of his eyes in the speed of light. That day, unmoved, at the edge of the balcony, he waited, while breathing became harder and harder.
He was rescued by two firefighters. They appeared on the balcony, out of the thick smoke, and yelled at him, grabbing his arms. They helped him climb down the ladder against the balcony rails. A third man at the bottom of the ladder scolded him. The local news had given them the title of heroes. Lazlo kept the piece of newspaper—a blurry black-and-white picture of him carried by three men in heavy firefighter suits. In the photo, he was looking back at the house with stupefaction; his feet almost dragged. Lazlo wondered if one day Perdita was going to google his name, find this small article and this fading picture, and change her mind. Seven years had passed since the day she left him. And still he remembered every detail of her imperfect body and the way she didn’t look at him when she was upset.
He heard the click of the front door. Natalia entered the living room with two full grocery bags, celery, and carrots half visible at the top. A health nut, she always made him a green juice before bed to increase his immune system and didn’t let him eat too much sugar. Lazlo got up to help her, but she shook her head. « Thank you! No need, » she said, and placed the bags on the counter. He sat back at his desk, closed the laptop, and listened to her. She had the habit of talking to herself in the kitchen. She talked to her vegetables and to the stove. She encouraged the water to boil faster and the sauce to become more delicious. She wasn’t religious, but she claimed to be spiritual and believed every object, dead or alive, had a soul and needed love and support. If she could, she would have adopted twelve dogs, cats, rabbits, turtles, and even parrots. But Lazlo had set the condition of « no pets » for her moving in. « After the loss of my bird in the fire, I can’t have any pets living with me, » he told her, and she accepted it without resentment.
They ate dinner early and went for their daily walk. As the doors of the elevator opened, the next-door neighbors, a gay couple, still holding hands, stepped out and greeted them. « Lovely people, » Natalia said, pressing the elevator button. Nobody was in the lobby except the yawning guard at the entrance. The fishy smell of the ocean hit them as they left the building and took the narrow path toward the beach. She held his arm tight and synchronized her walk with his long steps. It was the only time Natalia would stop talking. Lazlo grabbed the opportunity to pull himself farther away from her, toward the past or toward the future, where she was nonexistent. As they approached the beach, more people crossed their path, on roller skates, on bikes, on skateboards, or running. They accelerated their walk, the naked skin of his legs slowly covered with sand and sweat, and his imagination altered the reality of his surroundings. Natalia’s hands grew darker, and her bones shrank. Her hair turned black, and she became a stranger. Lazlo was afraid to look at her and lose the illusion. Yet, he stroked her hair. She looked up at him and smiled. He didn’t smile back but touched the tip of her nose to wipe the few grains of sands stuck to her skin.
At the beach, they sat on a bench and watched the light of a hiding sun change colors, going from red to grayish blue. Their entangled fingers, pressed against one another, reminded Lazlo of his love for Natalia but also of his desire to let go of her, run toward the horizon, and hide in the water until there was no one on the beach. Maybe Perdita felt the same. After signing the divorce papers, sent by a local attorney, Lazlo refused to look for Perdita. From the address, a PO Box in Paris, he knew she lived in France, but that was six years ago. Where was she now?
Natalia got up. “Let’s go,” she said. “I’m cold.”
Nobody was left on the beach. Seagulls had gathered around a spot near the ocean, shrieking. Lazlo couldn’t see what the object of the birds’ distress was. He dropped Natalia’s hand and walked toward the birds. Most of them flew away, all except one. He noticed it was injured; its wing bloody. Lazlo grabbed a small piece of a dead branch on the ground and poked the bird gently. As he looked closer, he saw a rat under the seagull’s wing. He wasn’t sure which was the aggressor or the victim. The rat held the bird’s neck, and its long tail was wrapped around the bird’s torso. The bird’s injury was minimal, and the rat was only stuck under the bird’s weight. But they held onto each other, breathing hard. They could have survived if they chose to let go.
Natalia shrieked. “Oh No! Poor things,” she said, kneeling. “Let’s take them home.”
Lazlo pulled her away from the animals. “Rats bring diseases. Don’t touch them.” he thought about the possibility of a coming plague.
“We no longer live in the Middle Ages,” she said, pushing him back.
“The pandemic,” Lazlo reminded her. “Who knows the kind of world we live in?”
Natalia stopped fidgeting. “Whatever it is, it’s not a kind world.”
On the way back home, she didn’t hold his hand.
The next day was Sunday, Natalia’s special time dedicated to her family. In the morning she was going to visit her grandmother in the nursing home, and later the usual family lunch with her parents. In Natalia’s absence, Lazlo sat at his desk, his laptop open, and waited long enough that it seemed too long. In front of him, the empty balconies and absent neighbors went on with their lives, but Lazlo lingered at every instant, going back, or moving forward with the rhythm of the ocean, as if he were losing his earthy existence, to be transformed into a waterdrop that still kept its memory of being part of a wave. As if he was at risk of evaporating into the air, if no word came to him.
He started typing, one word at a time.
When Natalia opened the door and entered the living room, she found Lazlo, all sweaty, asleep in his chair. She walked toward him and noticed his subtle expression of contentment. On the screen she read a sentence: At the end of the story, no reader believed it was the ending.
So Lazloesque, she thought, walking to the kitchen to empty the bag of groceries she had bought for dinner. It had been a long day dealing with her parents’ problems, the pile of unopened mail, listening to their health issues, and the house appliances not working. Her Sunday passed leaving messages for people she didn’t know, organizing her parents’ numerous medications, paying their bills, and transferring her father’s bookkeeping notes to a spreadsheet. She peeled the potatoes and cut the steak into two pieces. She washed the lettuce and tomatoes and diced the onion as small as possible. These modified onions, she thought, didn’t make her cry anymore, and she wished they did. She set the table and shook Lazlo to wake him up.
He made a strange noise, before opening his eyes. “How long did I sleep?”
“Long enough to mumble words,” Natalia said. “Entering the building, I crossed Mrs. Milton on her way out.”
“The old lady with purple hair.”
“Oh yes. She lives on the first floor.”
“She warned me about the coming storm,” she said. “It’s probably going to be a drizzle.” The oil splashed onto her hand, but she ignored it. Her skin had survived worse.
Lazlo got up, approaching her; perhaps concerned about her hand. He leaned against the counter, reaching for her waist. “Do you know what I was dreaming about?” Lazlo asked, whispering in her ear. “Our high-rise! Our masterpiece was almost successfully built, with the last story half-done, but somehow, we were already celebrating. You know how dreams are.”
Lazlo let go of her waist. “In the dream, like in a movie, the camera zoomed out and slowly the whole building was visible. It wasn’t a high-rise. We weren’t in California, or even in the US. It looked like an old structure, the housing I grew up in.”
“A typical dream. They always go back to our worst times,” Natalia said. She walked to the sink and washed her hands. She hoped he’d asked her about her day, the nursing home, her grandmother’s nonsensical questions and Mama’s complaints. She placed the cast iron pot on the stove and turned it on.
It took a few minutes. Then the steaks were ready.
They sat at the table. “Thank you for this scrumptious dinner,” Lazlo said, trying to reach her hand, but she got up to get the wine and filled their glasses.
“I think this dream means we need to focus on our project,” Lazlo said. “Always better to go after what we can accomplish. Doing things that give us pleasure.”
She sipped her wine. “If you mean you don’t find pleasure in writing, just stop it,” she said.
Lazlo hadn’t touched his food, or his wine. He looked terrified. “I know,” he said. “I don’t like talking about it.”
So, it was all about his writing. Again. She started to cut her steak. Blood spread across her plate, and slowly reached her potatoes. Too raw, she thought.
“You are so perfect in everything you do.” Lazlo paused. “I’m afraid you might not understand imperfection.”
Natalia sighed and stopped eating. “Do you really know your perfect girl? Instead of spending time with my aging parents, I just wanted to be at the movies, or at the mall, or with you. Anywhere but there, in that dusty gray house, where no matter how hard I try to clean it, it still smells old. Doing all their mundane tasks, I felt trapped. I always do and there is no liberation on the horizon. They are only in their 70’s and I wonder how many more years I have to take care of their affairs.” She threw her napkin on the table. “You see, I am not perfect, just a normal person. Flawed.”
Lazlo had dropped his knife and fork. “No, no, no. You are still perfect,” He raised his glass of wine. “Let’s drink to the joys of entrapment.”
Natalia took a quick sip of her wine, still too emotional to say another word of protest. She felt hot. The wine had started its liberating effect. The night was going to fall. The view of the ocean, behind Lazlo, was blurred, overshadowed by his messy hair, and his broad shoulders. The sunset transformed his colors; shaded his face and part of the room under a bright orange hue. Natalia lifted her glass and drank the rest of the wine. “To entrapment,” she said and got up.
“Where are you going?”
“Dessert,” she said. “Your favorite. Apple pie with chocolate ice cream.”
“I’m not very hungry,” Lazlo said. He had barely touched his food.
“I’m craving sweets,” she said.
Natalia went to the kitchen, wondering what was wrong with him. She took out the ice cream and the pie and turned on the oven. She remembered when Lazlo had refused to let her take some of her favorite furniture from her apartment before she moved in. And she didn’t argue. The framed picture of her family and the blue vase Grandma had given her in her will were the only pieces he let her keep from her past. He didn’t like the giant bedroom lamp, her black bookshelf, and the pink set of chairs she had bought with her first paycheck. Even though they looked worn out, she was fond of them. They reminded her of her independence and success.
She placed the pie in the oven and looked for plates. Why couldn’t Lazlo understand the significance of objects that were important to her? He had always talked about Perdita’s obsession with objects, but she wasn’t Perdita. Was that why he kept talking about her perfection? By saying “you are perfect”, he meant to say “you are not like Perdita. You will never leave me.” She glided her index finger on the surface of the melting ice cream and sucked her finger. The sweetness spread through her body, and slowly shifted her bitterness and disappointment.
When she came back to the dinner table, holding the two plates, Lazlo wasn’t in the room. She sat and waited, watching the pie get cold and the ice cream turn into running chocolate. After a few minutes, she got up and checked the bathroom. He wasn’t there, or in the bedroom. “Lazlo? Where are you?”
His voice came from outside. “Come over here,” he said.
She ran to the balcony. It was cold. The last renter had long gone, their windows closed, curtains pulled. No streetlights, only the moon and the light from their living room. The sound of the ocean echoed through the air.
Lazlo took her hand. A first drop of water fell on her face. Other drops followed. It was raining, something that rarely happens in southern California.
“Maybe Mrs. Milton was right,” Lazlo said.
“We should go back inside,” she said. “We’ll get sick.”
“Sometimes I feel sick about everything,” he said. “Still…”
“And still, I don’t do a thing about it.”
“I feel the same sometimes, when I’m with my parents,” she said, hoping he would listen.
“Not that I’m afraid of drastic changes,” he said. “When I lost my house in the fire…”
Each time he talked about his house, she thought he was thinking about his lost Perdita. The woman who left him without warning. Why couldn’t he finish his sentence?
“Only I am too old for starting all over again,” he said.
“You are not even fifty,” Natalia said. “My father was fifty when he migrated here.”
“Still,” he said.
“Yes, still,” she said, knowing he didn’t hear her, not knowing exactly what he meant. She didn’t even know why she pretended to get it, whatever it was. She just wanted to escape the rain and the way it could ruin her hair and stain her clothes.
A raindrop fell on his face, and he looked at Natalia, who shook from cold and kept rubbing her shoulders. She looked annoyed and wiped the raindrops off her face as soon as they touched her skin. Lazlo missed Perdita. He remembered how much she loved the rain and how, sometimes, she didn’t use words to communicate. She could speak so many languages, yet she mostly listened. Lazlo, like all immigrants, learned to interpret her little gestures or silences in between words. As much as Natalia’s days were planned and as much as she described in detail her every thought, Perdita remained unpredictable. She left him alone for hours when he needed to be alone to write. His writing was a mystery to her, and it suited him. Perdita used to ask him politely to read his work, but he knew even if he’d offered, she wouldn’t read it, the same way she rarely read the books he bought her in his daily routine of giving her a gift. Routines didn’t define her life. But at the end, he could have been the one who misunderstood her. She left and he never understood why. If Perdita was a poem, she would have been free verse. If she was a book, she’d have been written in an undiscovered language.
Why did she choose Paris as her escape? What was she doing in Paris? Teaching? Working as a chef? Had she fallen in love again? Had she left someone again?
Since Natalia moved in, she never left. They worked together on the same projects and stayed together at home and at night and nearly the whole weekend. Natalia read all his work and went on and on about how good his writing was. In her analysis of his characters, she misinterpreted every action and every piece of dialogue in complete contrast with what he had in mind. But Lazlo appreciated her efforts to catch a glimpse of who he truly was. Maybe one day she could share her discoveries with him.
The wind picked up. It stirred the tree branches on its path and carried dusty memories of every land it had crossed and held raindrops and pieces of ocean. The rain accelerated, and lightning broke through the sky. They stayed quiet, waiting for the thunder while the ocean began throwing a tantrum. Waves crushed against the shores, and a boat launched a prolonged blast of its horn. If he had to build a new building, Lazlo thought, it wasn’t their high-rise anymore. His work was going to integrate into nature, hidden in a jungle like a giant sequoia, or immersed in the ocean disguised as a marine garden, with flowing walls dancing in the current. After all, there was consolation in the beauty of nature.
Natalia tried to pull him inside, but he refused. She rushed to shelter in the house, leaving him alone on the terrace. The rain poured with the same tempo on the surface of homes and buildings and roofs and balconies and on his face. All his memories of the past turned into a flood and carried him back to the day he met Perdita, and in a brief moment he saw with clarity every detail of the life he had lost. Lazlo stepped forward and grabbed the rail of balcony. It was slippery. He closed his eyes. If he could, he would have erased himself from this moment, or at least he’d have become a man without memories. But remembering was easy. An image, a word, a dream. And it felt like punishment, everything converging toward this forgotten deception. Lazlo knew he couldn’t stay in this state, in between the present and the past, but the past always transformed itself into different shapes so it could remain present. He kept his eyes shut, afraid if he opened them, Perdita was going to disappear forever.
Lazlo turned toward the ocean and lifted his head, mesmerized by the ephemerality of this moment, opened his mouth and tasted the ocean on his tongue.
Aliso Viejo, December 2023