Matt Potter proposed a micro-published volume of my writings; Pure Slush would be the editor and publisher. Hard, containing twenty-seven texts, was published in 2013 under my pen name Dusty-Anne Rhodes. An early mentor, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tim Page, praised it as having “the gift of making the ‘ordinary’ extraordinary. Her vignettes explode and when they are done, our familiar furniture is not in the same place.”
Triggering the Imagination
“You’re a stupid bitch!” A disembodied woman’s voice spoke with a gentle laughing lilt.
I craned my neck to see around my friend: two women were just sitting down at a neighboring outdoor table.
“You’re a stupid bitch!” she said. There was no anger in her voice. I looked at her – she was speaking into her phone. Then I got it. She wasn’t ‘saying’ the sentence, she was quoting it.
“‘You’re a stupid bitch!’” she said again, with a smile. Maybe she’d finally mustered the nerve just hours earlier to tell someone off, someone who’d been plaguing her? Maybe she was following her resolve not to harbor feelings of hostility until they festered but to simply let loose immediately? Maybe she and her friend had a tradition of calling each other names, using the phrases their unpleasant joint ex-boyfriend had been known to utter?
We’d woken up in Berlin 23.5 hours earlier, but one does need a bite to eat and to at least make an attempt to arrive in a new time zone. So we’re sitting outside at an Italian place in Los Angeles, plastic chairs and tables but ironed tablecloths. View of the Pacific if we sit a bit sideways, sun going down this month much earlier than back home. I’m alternately zoning out and relating fragments of conversation I pick up around us to my husband.
A lovely let’s say 27-year old sits down, dark shiny long hair, vaguely south American, wearing an exquisite blue silk blouse that nicely sets off her hair. Ten minutes later a second woman shows up, also probably lovely (prominent cheekbones, perfect teeth in a large smile) but more in slumming-it mode, with a casual white see-through t-shirt and holey jeans. I note:
These two don’t particularly like each other: it’s not friendship bringing them together tonight. The second woman is more successful (explaining why she turned up later). Her words may say she’s in the same business as Woman 1, but her facial gestures are tight. Her voice (the first thing to clue me in that they are actresses) is deep, resonant, sexy, an ear-catcher. And then she drops phrases: “it’s like a one-woman show, so I was like ...”; “yeah, there’s a touch of ‘reality’ in it ...”; “it’s the fifth season so they’re leaving me out of the loop for a few things ...”
Woman 1 was looking for contacts, advice. Woman 2 was asking herself whether Woman 1 could be useful, as an understudy or to give jobs she didn’t want herself. But mostly she just wanted to show her: I know the biz, it’s a tough biz but I’m tough enough to be successful. Your auditions and phone calls and attempts are just a pale imitation of the real thing.
The encounter took place in The Hague: seat of the Dutch government, home of the queen, federal ministries, foreign embassies. Beautifully situated on a long beach, including a boardwalk with many restaurants six months a year. Sedate, manageable, never exciting. A distant great-aunt to wild Amsterdam.
I went out to dinner at an elegant restaurant with a man I hardly knew. I had taken out an ad: readers of the Dutch business newspaper drawn to the ad were to write me a letter in English. I might then agree to a date. I received seventeen letters, and met six of the letter-writers.
Already when walking along the beach at sunset, we ran out of things to talk about. Not knowing how to say, “I think we really don’t have a chance; I wish you all the best;” unable to find the right words, I asked him … whether he might like to go out to dinner, because I knew a nice place to eat.
Ten years older than I was, going gray, a psychoanalyst by training (when I read that in his letter I’d thought—believe it or not—I might be able to learn something from him), employed by the state. Shy, bad English. Hesitantly, he told me how he loved horses. Hesitantly, I tried not to let on how very indifferent I am to horses.
Then he asked: “Do you want children?”
I almost choked on the fine wine. “Yes but, you have to, I mean, a man and a woman first have to, I mean, the wish to do so arises from a love between two people, if at all …ˮ
His face fell: “Aha, so you don’t want children. And I so much want to find a woman with whom I could start a family …”
I got to the café shortly before the time we’d agreed by e-mail. I wasn’t familiar with the place, and I wanted to get my orientation.
Discretion was important to him, he wrote. Also that he was unhappily married. Actually he chose an even more dramatic phrase: was it “tragically”? “So unhappily I want to die”?
And what was important to me? A spontaneous, primordial electric tension between us. I wanted to feel something, I wanted to intuit a rush from the very first moment.
We didn’t write much about how we looked. I was sure that I would recognize him from the expectant way he looked around. And I would look just as eager, curious, excited. That’s how we would find each other.
I think I know where David was sitting, how far away he was from me, how he alternately read the newspaper and looked for me. Probably he found me quickly; it was quite clear to him which 39-year old woman was looking around so hopefully. And he said to himself immediately: “No!ˮ
Or at least that’s the story I later concocted: “A woman like that could never be my secret love! I don’t want anything from her. I don’t find her attractive. I’ll just ignore her. At some point she’ll go away of her own accord.”
Half an hour after the time we were to meet I left the café.
“Don’t do it! For God’s sake!” Stage-whispering to her two friends, Laurie has eyes only for the couple interacting on the sofa across the room. The scene: a comfy Berlin bar furnished with shabby old couches and armchairs thrown together.
Out of the corner of their eyes, Laurie’s friends have also noticed the couple in their twenties, Spanish and Italian their native languages, German their shared tongue. Both speak emphatically, emphasizing words on the wrong syllables. She puts on her hat and dances towards him.
Laurie can’t let it go: “Just don’t embark on a sexual relationship when it’s a second language for both of you. You’ll never understand each other!”