Mission Ranch


            Long before I met David Roth, I had the vague desire to write a love story that took place at the Mission Ranch. If there was happy love, here was the place for it to be born, I thought. I wanted happy love to exist. And if I couldn’t find it, I would invent it.

At that time, I lived in the Midwest. Amidst the cornfields there was neither a Californian ranch, nor happy love. I didn’t have my Yoknapatawpha in America, nor my Sowesto in Canada. I wandered around the world and only knew other wanderers like myself.

Once I saw the movie Play ‘Misty’ For Me. In it, Clint Eastwood, then 40, is a young radio host who plays music on demand. The movie was shot in 1971 at Carmel, a little oceanfront town in California. I dug a bit, and found out that it was Clint’s directorial debut, shot at the time when he was living in Carmel with his first wife. It was the story of an unhappy love, caused by the maniacal state of one of the two lovers of Clint’s character—the one who asked him to play “Misty” for her.

In the movie, Carmel looked like a psychedelic place. The ocean, the cliffs, the creases in the terrain, the inhospitable beaches, the majestic green pines, their tops trimmed by clouds, interlaced with the dead pine trees that stand hammered into the ground as if there was nobody to bury them, ash-colored like the wood of the huge trunks washed ashore from the other end of the world and beaten by eternal waves. With its neglect for the elements, love for jazz, and the iconic presence of Clint, Carmel was a quintessential American settlement.

The only place where I could accidentally bump into the eighty-year-old Clint was the piano bar at the Mission Ranch, which he owns. But instead of meeting the living symbol of American machismo in the Ranch bar, I ran into David Roth. Perhaps it’s truer to say that he ran into me? Anyway, this encounter would change my writerly fate.

I arrived at the Ranch with my daughter, Bistra, late in the afternoon. After so many hours behind the wheel of my BMW, I was thirsty for a first-class bourbon. Our rooms in the Main Barn had been reserved online, so we headed straight to the restaurant.

Inside, it was bright and noisy, busy with men and women who looked like regulars—upper-class locals, most of them in advanced age. People with money and time to kill. It was early for dinner, and the customers were sitting around the two bars, some standing up with glasses in hand. The wooden paneling of the main hall was still awash in the yellow of the sun going down behind the ocean. Waiters, still in jeans, were setting the empty tables for dinner with starched tablecloths, shiny cutlery, and crystal wine glasses.

The piano, a baby grand—the Germans call it a Flügel—to the left of the entrance, was surrounded by a narrow wooden bar shaped in a semicircle, which could accommodate eight chairs. It reminded me of the French restaurant in Kyoto where I had celebrated my 65th birthday. A bon vivant with balding, neatly pressed hair and a noble goatee was combing the keys. We were lucky that two chairs around the Flügel had just been freed up, and I ordered a cappuccino for Bistra and a vodka martini for me. The main bar with the drinks and coffee machines was behind us in a half-lit niche, and to my great chagrin, I couldn’t find my favorite Wild Turkey Rare Breed bourbon among the bottles behind the fat barman in his black sleeveless shirt. Most of the clients were drinking white wine, and from time to time the barman refilled their glasses.

I took my Cannon out of its case and prepared to shoot. I hated looking like a tourist, but the atmosphere was so exciting that I couldn’t resist. To the right of my daughter, before a glass of red sat an aged lady, probably over eighty, who smiled encouragingly at me.

“Where are you from?” she asked, half-turning to Bistra who was sitting closer to her.

“I live in Palo Alto, Dad is moving to Europe,” Bistra said. “Are you from Carmel?”

“Yes,” the old lady said. “Are you going to Europe on business?” she asked, turning to me.

“No,” I said. “I’ve lived a long time in America, I’m ready to go back to the Old Continent. Would you allow me to take a picture of you? You have such impressive eyes!”

“Of course,” she said, with the charming smile of a good and long-lived person. Her eyes through the lens looked to me still transparent blue, as they had been during her youth, like the Pacific bottom on a sunny day, such unmistakably American eyes. But later on, when I saw the picture, they were actually just about to start fading, turning gray. It was her smile, which caused two pink pouches to form on her cheeks, that made them come alive, giving them back their sex appeal. While I was clicking with the camera, the old lady kept talking:

“Your daughter is lovely, you should take pictures of her.”

I didn’t reply, taken by the surprising sex appeal the old lady’s face exuded, so she turned toward Bistra:

“What does your father do? Is he a photographer?”

“No, a writer.”

“Aren’t they all the same? So many photographers have taken pictures of me during my life, but no writer has ever written about me.”

“Have you been Miss America, by any chance?” I said, testing the waters.

“Miss California only” she said. “A long time ago. Now I’m Miss Retiree. Twenty years ago I bought a house in Carmel, and since then I spend almost every night in this bar. Sometimes, that old cowboy Clint comes and sits at the keyboard. Angelica Huston once came with him. I remember Angelica’s father, an unforgettable man! Once upon a time, oh, I recall this sweetly, I auditioned for a role in his movie, I forget which one it was, but he didn’t take me. That man had sex appeal! Oh yes! A killer… But maybe it’s inappropriate to talk like this in front of a young lady sitting next to her father…” she cut herself short and opened wide her blue-eyed smile. Her teeth were flawless, though with a touch of incipient transparency.

“It’s perfectly okay,” I said. I smelled coffee, dear alcohol, and … a pipe… or a cigar … Simply the whiff of old times—I knew that the ban on smoking extended even to this bar.

“I so much wish life stayed as it was in the old times,” the lady said, as if she shared my olfactory fantasies. “Not because there were high class folks and lowlifes, no, but there was gentleness, and there was respect. People knew who was worth what. The world is so whizz bang now. I mean, I was at a grand white-tie-and-tails dinner the other night, just like before. But no, actually everybody there was on their smart phones, checking messages every five minutes.”

“And they don’t know who is worth what,” I heard a bass voice say playfully behind my back, and with the words came a sharp, bitter and very pleasant smell, a true breath of cigar.

All three of us turned abruptly. Behind the old lady’s back stood a gentleman whom I wouldn’t have thought more than seventy, with a cigar in one hand, the other already laid on her shoulder. John Huston alive! But what was going on, was this ranch some kind of star museum?

“My God, David!” she exclaimed, and he bent for her to kiss him on the cheek. “An old flame,” she said to us. “David, this is Mister …?”

“Anguelov …”

“… and Miss Anguelov, his daughter. We’re chatting, he’s a writer from the Midwest. And this is David Roth,” she pointed toward the tall gentleman. “A very famous journalist from the San Francisco Chronicle… And no less famous a Don Juan, today a respectable retiree.”

“Retired only as a journalist,” interrupted her David Roth, bursting into contagious laughter. “And this is the no less famous Sarah Hathaway,” he bowed toward the old lady. “Noblesse itself, nothing less!”

He shook hands with me and Bistra, puffed the smoke from his cigar, and went to find a chair.

“So, a writer?” he said after he returned and sat next to Sarah. “What are you drinking? O-o-o, martini on the rocks!”

“Yes, for want of a good bourbon.”

“Why? Don’t you like Jack Daniels?”      He raised his glass half filled with dry whiskey.

“I only drink Kentucky whiskey,” I said. “And I like my martini in a martini glass with a stem. But once they hear I want it on the rocks, all barmen across America think they should pour it into an old-fashioned glass. Here I even had to ask for my olive…”

“In Japan, bars like this have shelves behind the barman, where the regulars keep their personal flasks with sake or cognac or whiskey,” David Roth said by way of agreement.

“And in Spain, the counters are covered with big platters full of tapas or, if you are in The Basque country, pintxos,” I said.

“They go great with iced beer or French Rosado. Has the young lady been to Spain?” he asked Bistra with slight seated bow.

“Yes, but I prefer Italy,” said Bistra with a smile no less charming than the old lady’s. “I adore pasta and gelato. And I haven’t read Hemingway.”

“And the sun also sets,” said David Roth. “ How about continuing this topic at dinner? In two hours, say? I’ll book a table.”

We were three at dinner, since the wonderful old lady excused herself, saying she had a guest coming for dinner that night. This saddened me, as I was looking forward to hearing some inspiring love stories from her. The menu was pretentious, but the clam chowder and the boiled lobster over filet mignon had been prepared with imagination. We had a 30-year-old Sauterne with the dessert. David Roth entertained my daughter with salacious stories from his journalistic career. But he also tacitly observed me. I pretended not to be bored and observed him in turn, intrigued by the energy he radiated. My first question—how old was he—was on the tip of my tongue when he took me by surprise:

“Zlatko! Am I pronouncing your name correctly? Tell me, Zlatko, what do you write about?”

“Human dramas,” I responded. “Those dramas that are invisible from the outside.”

“Do you make good money on your books?”

“I write in a small language. The profit, measured in money, is also small.”

“And what’s another way of measuring the profit?”

“The feeling of mastering the craft is perhaps the most inimitable feeling, as far as I’m concerned; also, the personally expressed gratitude of readers, the new friendships. Words elevate but they also kill, and their usage is the highest responsibility I have taken upon myself when I chose this métier. You are from the same guild, I’m telling you nothing new. You have put your fingers into human stories, have you not? And you know something about the politics of human behavior. Have you never written fiction?”

“I was short of time.” David seemed to want to say something more, but stopped flat. “I lied to you, Zlatko,” he said unexpectedly, “I was afraid to take responsibility. Forgive me, Miss, this conversation must be boring to you. Let’s go to bed, we’ll continue another time.”

Bistra had to be back in Palo Alto by the next morning and left me car-less. My flight to London via Amsterdam was in two weeks. Every afternoon I sat at the bar, listened to jazz, and exchanged pleasantries with Sarah, the old lady, who always ordered Californian merlot. I waited for David, who mysteriously vanished after the dinner, to show up again.

On Saturday, I found a message from him on the phone in my hotel room, inviting me for dinner at the Hog. He also suggested I take my Dictaphone. Breath of Hog is a restaurant on San Carlos and Fifth, with a garden view of the mountain. It was formerly owned by Clint Eastwood. I showed up at the restaurant at seven sharp. David looked tired in spite of the shower he had just taken. In front of him, on the uncovered wooden table, there were two champagne flutes, and in the bucket full of ice next to the table, a sweating bottle of Prosecco.

“I live in the French part of Saint Martin island,” he began without any preliminaries, after he had assured himself that my Dictaphone was turned on. “Along with my fifth wife. She’s just hit fifty, there’s thirty years’ difference in our ages. Oh yes, she was just a girl of twenty-five when she married me.”

“David,” I said, “why do you think these things are of interest to me?”

“Because you writers are always looking for sex and love affairs with unexpected ends. I’ve had both in my life.”

“I believe it’s fairer if I ask the questions, and you play the role of the interviewee. Once I hear the entire story, I’ll make up my mind about what parts of it to use.”

“Fair enough. Go ahead!”

“You and I are two old workhorses who can trot their way to the manger with blindfolds on. The moments when the whip can startle us off the beaten track are rare. But no doubt you remember the time when you were a young stud. Do you regret that it’s long gone?”

“I regretted it once. It was when my daughter married. Cheers, by the way!”

We sipped from the Prosecco and refilled our glasses.

“I have four daughters, but I’m in love with the second one. I was born in Germany before the war. The usual story: my father, an engineer with “Phillips,” worked at the firm’s branch in Cairo when the brown shirts’ pogroms began, and he brought his wife with the baby to Egypt. He died from cardiac arrest when I was four. My mother is from Vienna, born into a family of musicians. Three sisters and a brother—each had made their own ways to America—created a quartet. Mother, who played the viola, and I first arrived in Cuba. We spent a whole year in Havana while our American visas were being processed. I was thirteen at the time. It was there I slept with a woman for the first time. My virginity was taken by our landlady. White, but as hot as the black people around. A widow, devout catholic. She told me she wanted to try it with someone circumcised. I remember this because it was the first time I realized I was different. Plus, I wanted to sink into the ground for shame because I came in a flash. But she was patient, and it wasn’t until the fourth time that night that I was able to hold off until she came. After that, for the entire month before our departure, she took me into her bed every night and used to tell me how big my thing was and that she would never forget me. I haven’t forgotten Havana either: a woman in menopause, molded windowsills, sterile lust, impotent grandeur amid stagnant water. I’ve never returned there. But throughout my life, I’ve had sex with other Catholics, with women of various religions. There’s no religion mightier than sexual desire. Quite the opposite, the more religious a woman, the more she craves sex. As if the chastity with which women present themselves before their God has to be redeemed by constant, repetitive sin. The America I grew up in was coy on sexual matters. I’m talking about its female half. Women positioned themselves between two watersheds: reason or faith was one, autonomy or submission to men the other. Both produced sexual conflict. My role was to set them free of it.”

The Prosecco bottle was empty. But since David had ordered our dinner in advance, at that very moment, two huge New York steaks with mashed potatoes and boiled vegetables appeared on the table. The big surprise came when the waiter showed me a bottle, the label of which read in Cyrillic “Мелнишко вино.” Bulgarian mavrud in California, that was a treat!

“Tell me about your daughters,” I said, while the waiter was opening the bottle.

“Let’s first drink to your health. I found this wine in a store at Saint Martin, I wanted it to be in your honor. Well, my daughters… A lot of time went by before I turned from a lover into a father. Did I succeed in my second role at all? I very much doubt it.”

“But did you love your wives?”

David didn’t reply right away. We cut pieces of our steaks and sipped at the heavy red wine. At last, he finished chewing

and looked at me meditatively across the table.

“This is a very difficult question,” he said. “I have to think it over. Zlatko, I want somebody to write a novel based on my life. You won’t find a sympathetic character in it. I lived without thinking of the meaning of life. Forget the bullshit about the meaning of life in general. I’m talking about my life! What was its meaning? To me, it looks more like a pornographic novel. Like a bucket full of shit and honey. In order to get to the honey, you have to rummage through a lot of shit. More often than not, honey and shit are mixed together. Look at me. Don’t you find at least something attractive in the person who sits in front of you and doesn’t complain about his past? I enjoyed my life. Still do. My memory served me well. Still does. I was never convicted of any crime. I’ve made few women unhappy, but there are dozens of happy ones. Isn’t unhappiness something we can forget? Isn’t suffering a necessary experience to test the limits of our endurance? Is egoism a sin or is it the only way to express ourselves in the competition with other egoists? Women, women! Each one I fucked, I’d loved. And with none of them was I in love. You can only truly love the woman you haven’t fucked. Your daughter. Or the one who refused to fuck you—in spite of your charm, the courtship, the chase and the pressure! Perhaps I have to tell you about precisely those women to help you pinpoint the drama in my life. The drama of the unachievable.”

The night was moonlit, warm. I suggested that we get a bottle of whiskey and go down to the beach. We bought an 18-year-old Glenlivet from the half-empty bar at the Ranch and walked down the meadow. The ocean was waiting for us.

“What did you want to achieve, David?” I asked as we walked.

“Nothing. That’s why I felt so happy. Endowed with manhood and the talent to write, I spent handfuls of both. They were a secure investment; they opened doors for me everywhere. I don’t think I abused the trust either of the bosses I worked under in the papers, or of the women who spread their legs under me. I was loyal, but didn’t get attached to anyone. Loyalty is for a certain time, it’s a professional quality. Attachment is an emotion. It’s for good. But it’s mutual only in very, very rare cases. My first wife, who became attached to me, insisted on marrying me. Perhaps in some way or other I had shown her that she was a little more than a date, because with all the girls before her I had just had fun. I’d just been hired on my first job after graduation, as a reporter for a small newspaper in San Jose. I didn’t care about marrying or not, so I didn’t refuse to marry her. A daughter was born, who I didn’t care for either, and her mother decided that I didn’t care about her. Two years into the marriage, my mother suddenly died, after a concert at the Marlboro summer festival, you know, the one in Vermont; they said she was overworked. We didn’t have a family grave, so we had to bury her in a new graveyard in New Jersey, where I had to go to a lot of trouble to get a piece of land. Shortly after her, equally unexpectedly, my uncle passed away. At the funeral, an elderly man came to me, introduced himself as my uncle’s lawyer, and asked me to visit him in his office the next day. My uncle’s will—then I learned that he had also represented my mother—endowed me with a little estate in Vermont and a big house in Santa Cruz, on the West Coast. Although he seemed pedantically discreet, the lawyer nonetheless confided in me that my father, before his death, had invested a considerable amount of money in a Swiss bank—he’d registered his own patents with Phillips—and his account had been one of the first to be uncovered and reclaimed by the movement for restitution for Holocaust survivors. I then saw that my wife behaved with a sudden, previously unrevealed greed, as she couldn’t hide her satisfaction that she, too, was given leverage by the will simply for being married to me. I sent her packing immediately, together with her child.”

We sat on the sand. I uncorked the bottle and breathed in the aroma of the long-aged single malt, which added a tamed thrill to the wild smell of the ocean. I poured the liquor into the two paper cups that we had taken from the barman, and handed one to David:

“Let’s drink to the departed who don’t remember us and to the living who we have forgotten!”

“I remained a celibate for five years,” David said and sipped reluctantly, it seemed. “I dedicated myself to journalism, but without any fire; I just wanted to learn the craft. Enthusiasm is a good thing but usually produces mediocre results, especially if it’s not nurtured by ambition. My luck was that I worked under a terrific lady, who was the head of the LA Times international desk. She spotted my combination of intellect and a talent for conveying only as much information as is necessary. She was Italian, something more, even, a Venetian, Antonella Querini. She had the unmistakable sense of word economy. She used to yell at me briskly, ‘take this out,’ ‘re-write all of that,’ ‘this write-up is nonsense’ or ‘you will bore your readers to death.’ She was right more often than not. It’s rare for a woman to have so much confidence. But when she does, one can trust her much more than an equally confident man. In the course of a year, Antonella made me a top reporter and stopped reading my drafts. We had a strictly professional relationship! Although… well, she was beautiful, beautiful in that strange way, in which a woman who is not gorgeous but has brains appears more exciting than any pageant beauty. When I quit the paper, we kept writing each other—letters written with pen on paper, as you might guess. Once, I don’t know what had come over her, she sent me a short story she had written, asking for my opinion. It wasn’t bad, but it couldn’t match what she was doing as a journalist and editor—she was a partner in the company, and at the time had climbed to the position of editor-in-chief. I didn’t spare her my criticism. I didn’t care if she would think of it as a kind of revenge. I knew I was right. Our correspondence screeched to a halt. A little before her death, Antonella wrote me a very friendly letter, thanking me for my young man’s sincerity. I had saved her from a redundant ambition. You see, we were friends for almost forty years without any declarations; it was a friendship drowned in a fog of doubts, but this unaired friendship is so dear to me precisely because it was a tested one. She is dear to me even if it’s true, as you mentioned, that she’s among those who don’t remember us. As far as I’m concerned, she is alive, because I remember her.

I poured more whiskey in both our glasses, we clinked, and before I took a sip, I poured a few drops on the sand. The stars were twinkling over the firmament.

“David, if I’m hearing you right, people shouldn’t engage in activities they can’t perform on a level higher than mediocrity. But we all engage in sex, thinking that we are good at it. At least, to be sure, we wouldn’t refrain from sex, even if someone insinuated that we did it in an imperfect way. Then, is there a measure for perfection in sex and romantic love? Everyone experiences them in their own way.”

“You confuse professionalism with sex, Zlatko. If all the women I had fucked in my life lined up on this beach, they would block the ocean from view. The majority of them have forgotten about me. Even if they haven’t, they would talk about me as their conquest. I remember a few of them, and two made me suffer forever. This suffering can’t be compensated for by any eroticness. Just the contrary, it is precisely sex… the memory of sex that sharpens my suffering to the degree of physical pain. I met my second spouse at an afternoon party in Culver City. I was already working for The Chronicle in Frisco and was tacitly bidding my farewell to LA. I fell from my chair when she introduced herself: Blanche Dubois. She shot me a green glance, it was like shooting at my heart, a cry “I want you” coming from her eyes slanted upward: eyes in the impeccable shape of two almonds, painted on her olive-skinned face. I had no doubt they were the result of a French adventurer’s hot New Orleans night with a native girl. I proved to be right: she was from New Orleans and didn’t know her father. The day and the party were winding down when she took her exit. The middle furrow of her naked back, framed between the shoulder-straps of her orange dress, sank down under the fabric, and I knew it was extended to the maddening fold that divides the most intimate part of the female anatomy in two equal hemispheres. The call of this fold, always covered to arouse the imagination, was unmistakable. Dazed, I followed her. She took a seat in the open Buick, and neither of us said a word. I drove toward the beach. The city lights were rising, as if someone was dropping a curtain over the sky. I felt her huge eyes next to me. I parked the car away from the boulevard. We took off on the cooling sand. With no direction. Or rather we were heading out of town, away from the noise and from a million unfulfilled desires. When we sat on the sand, at the edge where the flat beach falls into a little slope toward the water, I got the feeling that for the first time in my life my dream desire to sleep with a woman—the terrific, wild desire, the erotic desire born out of the requirement that my body fuse with another body to transfer its corporeal love to it—was about to come true. I remember it so clearly, and even to this day, it was the most uninhibited, the most irrepressible sex I’ve had or could want to have. When I touched her back, I still wasn’t turned on but the thing that was lifting up in me, my entire insides and their outward extension, had only one name. Love. She let the straps of her dress fall. Her small breasts had magnificent large nipples. I pulled the dress down, removed my clothes feverishly, she helped me remove the other barriers, I lifted her with both hands and she sat astride on top of me. I enjoyed her eyes, completely forgetful of my fear of open-air sex, she kissed me and wanted me to kiss her nipples. My thrusts caused the sand to slip from under my bottom. I stayed in her a long time, until she came. But I had to see the fold in the middle of her back, I couldn’t bear not seeing it, and I pulled out of her and begged her to turn over. The sight of Blanche from the rear, a true cello leaned on my belly, increased my hard-on to its extreme, I took the oval of the instrument fading in my hands from below and again penetrated her, this time up to the very bottom of her cunt from behind, as if splitting her in two halves. I embraced her, holding her breasts in the cups of my hands. Her convulsion came with an indescribable cry of happiness. My orgasm was long and penetrating. When we unglued ourselves, we found that we were at the edge of the water. My lower back was all in sand and algae. She remembers the algae and the sand, she mentioned them in one of her rare letters, as part of an even rarer admission that the best sex she had had was with me. Three months later we married in San Francisco. After nine months, our daughter was born out of this sandy sex. We named her Stella.”

Before we realized it, we had been enveloped by the ocean fog. We sipped from our drinks in silence. From now on, there was no need for me to ask any questions. David had stepped into his own drama, and it flowed out by itself—like a novel that writes itself, as one famous writer put it. Blanche didn’t possess a talent for mothering, and he had to take over care for the baby. They moved into the big house at Santa Cruz. Their social life had become quite intense. So, little by little, he was falling in love with his daughter, while more and more she began to look like her mother. As if she had been made of a single set of genes. Blanche didn’t work; she spent her days as a glitzy socialite. David’s love for her grew more and more desperate while at the same time she was growing colder and more inaccessible.

“The truth is, Zlatko, women don’t need to be perfect for us to fall badly in love with them. Just the opposite, the more flaws they have, the more attached we are to them. The fact is, they cope with our flaws. And when they can’t cope, they stab us so badly that the wound from their knife never heals. What happened was a most banal story. For a whole five years after Stella’s birth I didn’t cheat on Blanche. She, however, grew increasingly reluctant to accept me in her bed, and I was too proud or presumptuous to show any interest in her dealings during the time when I was away. Once, when I returned home from a business trip, I found a note from her saying that she had gone to see her sister in Vegas for the weekend, and that she had left Stella at the baby-sitter’s. I picked up the phone and called a girl from a luxury escort service, one of those blondes unaffordable to the general public, who we only learn about when they’re the source of scandalous revelations about the behind-the-scenes life of married politicians. I don’t know if you’ve ever slept with a prostitute to see the difference between the heat of true love and its professional imitation…”

“Please, David, don’t underestimate me,” I said, feeling—due to the alcohol I’d consumed, no doubt—the need to match his masculine exploits. “A writer, if he is not curious, what kind of writer is he? I do research about anything that I believe will find its way into my stories.” My reaction was similar to what Antonella had once said: that I’m generous and take life with a sense of humor, but that I’m vain, “like any average man.”

“Yes, I’ll spare you the details,” David said. “All the more so because I’m craving a smoke but don’t want to interfere with the magic of this fog. On that night, I had two sessions with the escort, who, actually, wasn’t a blonde, I’m sorry to have deliberately misguided you. She was Asian. As a matter of fact, the sexual métier suits dark-haired women particularly well: they work without investing themselves and thus, give you the sense of perfection. Sex is a work of art. And you are perfect. After the second time was over, I reached to the bedside table for a cigar and lighter, and then leaned against the bed’s headboard between her legs, which were resting up on the wall above it. I was inhaling the first and sweetest smoke, when Blanche appeared at the door. You are the writer, you ask the questions. I didn’t ask myself why I’d done it, why Blanche came back by accident, why she left me right after the row. Even if I had, there were no answers. It would be like asking why my father died of a heart attack or why my youngest daughter suffered from multiple sclerosis. Yes, Blanche abandoned me, my friend. My one and only defeat, but it was enough to make me consider my whole life lost. After Blanche, I slept with women pretending that it helped me recover, but it was really about vengeance. I married three more times, I had two more daughters. I noticed that only the women who felt attached wanted to marry me. Did they do it out of stupidity? I’m not entirely sure. Was I stupid when I asked Blanche to marry me? No. I was smitten. There’s a difference, although at first glance it looks like I was getting stupid. I agreed to remain until the very end with Leticia, my current wife, because I came to the rational conclusion that it would be terribly scary to live alone come old age. She was 22, I was closing in on my sixties. My daughter had already entered puberty. A sense of loss had pervaded my soul when this wonderful young girl appeared, half-Brazilian and half-Dutch, and didn’t only join me in bed but got attached to me. A fresh college graduate, still jobless. She made me feel rejuvenated. She made me feel as if I was in love. I bought the diamond ring and realized that I was stepping into the last phase of my life. The phase no man knows the length of.”

“And all this happened in California?”

“Yes, in this great place of the West, beyond which there is no more West, if you don’t count cosmic space. My wedding with Leticia occurred up there, on the Mission Ranch,” he waved his finger up at the dark night behind us. “And Blanche’s grave… no, Blanche has no grave… Leticia accompanied me to the crematorium. She was so full of empathy that I submitted to her questioning and told her everything about Blanche. So she consented to my wish to take the urn home. This is how Blanche returned to the Santa Cruz house. And this happened to be my first but definitive defeat in life. Leticia grew aware of her victory, and from that moment on, things happened as she wished. The following year, she inherited a nice summer house at the island of Saint Martin from her father, and forced me to move there. Without Blanche! This was a double blow: she moved me far not only from my past but also from my future. Stella stayed in California.”

“Are you here because of your daughter?” I asked without the slightest desire to be intrusive. But it turned out that I had put my finger on another painful spot in David Roth’s biography.

The bottle was half empty. The fog was cold.

“Leticia is arriving in two days,” David replied and rose to his feet. He shook the sand from his pants and said: “I hope there will be time enough to enlighten you on why I’m here. I want to take you to Santa Cruz tomorrow, to show you the house before the new owners move in.”

The gravel in front of the house wheezed under the stopping tires. The doors of the Mercedes slammed one after another. David opened the heavy front door and stepped back to let me in. The furniture and mirrors were covered with white pillowcases and sheets. The stuffy smell of the long uninhabited, aristocratically furnished interior contrasted strangely with the fresh ocean air we left outside. The French windows on the second floor gave onto the ocean blue of Monterey Bay. David boiled water for tea on the gas stove and cleaned two chairs at the kitchen table. He poured the tea into Delft porcelain cups, and only after sipping from the hot liquid did he break the awkwardly long silence.

“I brought up Stella in this house,” he said. “The most pleasant moment of any drink is the first swig, except for tea. The more you drink from a fresh infusion, the thicker and more flavorful the taste in your mouth becomes. Stella was like tea. Hidden aromas that dissolve gradually. And you turn into a father gradually. She played her first Mozart sonata at the age of four. That melted the heart of old Hirsch, who at the time was teaching piano at the San Francisco conservatory, and he agreed to take her as his student. To my surprise, Blanche didn’t object to taking the child to her piano lessons four times a week. Later on, I learned that during that period, she had an affair with Hirsch’s son. Two years later, Blanche disappeared not only from my life but from Stella’s life too. She collected the alimony sanctioned by the divorce judge and didn’t care about seeing the child. Regardless, my wonderful girl was turning simultaneously into a woman and musician. Both moved me equally. Classical music is not my forte, after all, it’s more a product of European culture than American. But even with my rough ear I could tell that she was performing even the Czerny etudes quite well. And her professor gave her more and more complex music to play. For a little girl, she demonstrated astonishing diligence and discipline. Outside her musical activities, I treated her like a boy. I taught her to ride and to boat, and took her to football and baseball matches. She played tennis with me. After she turned twelve, I suddenly felt the change: the smooth and gradual rounding inside and out. The transformation was exciting. In retrospect, I realize that there was a sexual interest in my paying too much attention to her curves. I’d rather discourage you from looking for analogies with Lolita and wondering what you’re doing in this house in the company of a pervert.”

“Come on, David, I don’t think in such terms. Had you read Lolita at the time?”

“I read it later. All my life, from the moment Stella turned into a woman, into a sexual object, that is, I was in search of the right measure. To what degree is the father’s sexual interest in his daughter part of his love and care, or does the social taboo eliminate it in the bud? From Stella’s viewpoint, I was someone sleeping in the bedroom next door, a man who had dressed and undressed her, and who had observed how light caused changes in her eyes. She learned the male anatomy by seeing me walking naked to the bathroom in the morning. I have some suspicions, even, that she saw me screwing one of my lovers once, but I can’t be sure. She must have been seven or eight. She didn’t give anything away, and I was in no position to ask her. After all, she grew up in a house where a solid number of women came and went. But our relationship was defined not only by my interest in her; her unconscious sexual interest in me must also have played a role, since it had to be suppressed. Nabokov, of course, made up the Humbert Humbert story, but in order to do so, he must have seen it as plausible in his mind’s eye.”

“You’re right, David. Writers feel entitled to imagine the sexual drive’s shady side, the one other people experience but would never admit.”

“Who knows? Maybe you have European writers in mind. In America, puritanism doesn’t allow writers to freely express the human sexual essence. Behind this puritanism lies a blind impersonal brutality. But look at you now, Zlatko, you’re listening to me, and I can see that you believe me. You don’t judge me, although you’re already fully aware that, with regard to women, I was a base, selfish man. Here is precisely my problem. My daughter is also a woman. Could I escape my nature and behave differently with her? I was the only masculine role model to her. But I didn’t guide her. At the moment I felt this transformation of hers was occurring, I withdrew from her. I hid my warmth. At the same time, I fell more and more in love with her. As I told you, the prohibition or the impossibility of sleeping with a woman turns that woman into what poets call an eternal love. It so happened, though, that I was able to establish an important difference. In one of my inter-marital periods, I had become close with a fitness trainer who worked in a spa. We went out several times; it was evident that she liked me, the tension was growing, I imagined her naked, I almost had feelings for her, but she refused to sleep with me, even once. She flatly refused, period. Up until today, I have the best feelings for her, as if the infatuation that is not consumed—or, should I say, a woman that is unconquered—weren’t spoiled by the disillusionments our personalities cause in the aftermath of even the most beautiful love. My love for Stella was sacrosanct. I didn’t disclose it to anybody, and I didn’t show it to her either. Moreover, I pretended not to notice how ill-at-ease she was in my presence. Her teenage years were full of music, and I only showed interest in her playing. She didn’t tell me about her first menstruation, she didn’t disclose whether she had started having sex and with whom. I didn’t ask. I didn’t have problems in this respect, so I didn’t feel she needed anyone to sympathize with her. I had assured her materially; the rest, I thought, had to come from her. She lacked a mother for a role model. I couldn’t provide her with the sense of family, because I had no interest in family. I’d decided that friendship would be the best form of relationship between her and me. If she considered me a friend, she would confide in me.”

The teacups were empty, the afternoon heat was winding down. David and I were two men in a town full of women. These women caused us trouble. Or it looked like that, at least. In this very moment, I couldn’t help but ask David the most obvious question:

“Did you and she become friends, truly?” I couldn’t have assumed that this question would be so full of irony.

David stared out the window. His eyes got misty. He rose to his feet and showed me into the big living room. He sat on the piano stool and flung open the keyboard lid. I remained standing up behind him. He lifted the lid, on the inside of which Steinway & Sons was written with golden letters.” David caressed the keys producing minor-key arpeggios.

“Stella was admitted in the conservatory when she was only sixteen. Hirsch promised a great future for her. She began giving concerts in San Francisco. We rarely saw one another at home: I was constantly traveling, and she preferred rehearsing at school, though I had bought this baby-grand for her. She never brought in a boyfriend. I didn’t ask. Such things are simply not asked about. She invited me to her recitals, introduced me to some rich women who were fans of classical music and who supported her by opening their homes for house concerts. She won a grant to visit the school for young talent in Banff, Canada, gave a few concerts with the symphony orchestras of Hamburg and Berlin. And then … a couple of days before her graduation concert, she was hit by a car. I received a call from the police that she was in the emergency room, in critical but not life-threatening condition. I spent several terrible nights next to her hospital bed; her right leg and both arms were plastered. Finally, they moved her in the orthopedic ward. The car’s tires had broken her wrists and fingers; the small bones were broken to pieces and some of the ligaments were torn. They operated upon her several times but were unable to recover full function in her hands. Can you imagine having a brain that can perfectly direct you to play the most complex music and to have lost your fingers? They were there, esthetically she was fine, but they couldn’t serve her. I want to forget her depression in the days she returned home from the hospital. It was then that I realized for the first time in my life that my child’s happiness was more important than my own well-being. But it was too late. She fled from me. One night, I came back from a business trip to Atlanta and she was gone. I didn’t panic, I waited a few days before declaring her missing. There were no mobile phones at the time, and I had no idea where I should search for her. It was perhaps a week later when I received a letter from Stella saying that she was doing fine and was planning to study psychology, I shouldn’t be upset. She gave me her phone number, warning me that I could ring only in emergencies. In midlife, my dear friend from Europe, I lost the woman who meant the most to me. I don’t know what meaning you see in this, whether you’ve experienced it or imagined it or described it. To me it was a failure. And I could live through such a failure only by taking revenge on other women, innocent with respect to what fell upon me, but by fate guilty of male unhappiness. They stuck to me, I used them and then threw them out, like paper tissues. Years passed, during which I only received a phone call from my daughter at Christmas. At least I knew that she lived in Boston, and was dating somebody. In my middle age I was still obsessed with myself, and didn’t think more deeply about why the two women I had loved with all the strength I was capable of had abandoned me. Then something unexpected happened, something that caused a feeling until that moment unknown to me, the feeling of guilt. Perhaps five or six years after our separation, Stella, in a spell of tenderness, due perhaps to the Christmas holiday, informed me that the person she was living with was a woman. She said it the way one says that today the weather is cold. I was able to contain myself and wished her happiness. I wrote Blanche, lacking the courage to tell her the news about our daughter’s sexual orientation over the phone or to tolerate her drunken accusations. It turned out that she knew. She didn’t see the fact in tragic colors. ‘At the end of the day, David,’ she wrote in reply, ‘you have to rejoice in the fact that your daughter can manage her life free of dependency on a despicable macho like yourself.’ I had manufactured feminists in my own house, damn it. I hated all social prejudices. What could they have in common with love, passion, and lust! How could they determine the feeling of friendship between father and daughter?”

David turned toward me, as if expecting a response. But I kept silent. I was dying for an icy martini. I didn’t want to break the flow of recollections, and besides, judging by the clock on the wall, it was barely three in the afternoon. David Roth, an octogenarian I would have trouble calling an old man, was sitting with his back erect at the Steinway baby grand. I was standing on the parquet between the French windows opening to the back yard and the black oval of the baby grand, and didn’t let him know what I was thinking. Not that he was seeking sympathy. It was clear to me that he had been thinking over all these things for a long time, and that his soliloquies were well rehearsed. David had no choice but to keep talking:

“At the time Stella fled from home, she looked so much like Blanche, they were like two drops of water. Or so it seemed to me. When I met with her almost fifteen years later, she looked even more beautiful than Blanche. She was young and blossoming in love. No, she wasn’t in love with me,” he smiled mockingly, as if he sensed my blink of surprise, though he wasn’t looking me in the eyes. “Be patient and you will understand. Now I’m clear about everything. But then, I still hadn’t focused on the emotions that made Stella leave me, nor had I thought deeply about my own love for her. Today, with the distance of time, I’m sure of one thing: from the moment Blanche abandoned me, my heart began growing cold for her. When she died, I pitied her the same way we pity everyone who has moved to the other world. On the contrary, when Stella fled, her place in my heart began to grow warmer and fuller with melancholia. I loved my daughter more and more, because she was far away. And at the same time, my concern about her happiness was growing. The pain from my being left out of it increased with the months and years. I also felt that the horror of the calamity that broke her musical career was gaining strength over time. And all of this happened in my mind without my knowing anything about her daily life. Zlatko, I’m sure that if there is an ideal love, that was it. But why am I saying ‘was’? My love is! I will certainly die before I can get an answer to the puzzle that has preoccupied me all this time: had I declared my love to her, wouldn’t I have turned it into some trivial emotion open to judgment?”

“How can you be sure that your love was unrequited?”

“It wasn’t unrequited, it was untold. Put behind bars. She knows it’s an impossible love. Father and daughter aren’t free to act on the love they feel for each other. And I have material proof of that. You must hear about it to understand my story down to its very bottom. It’s like a Greek tragedy, only I know that I wanted to sleep with my daughter but didn’t do it. My tragedy is due to knowledge and hesitation—not to the innocent violation of a natural taboo. And the consequences are that I keep living after I sinned, because I was born in a rational world and have no strength to punish myself. I lied to you about meeting Stella 15 years later. Once, it was springtime, she showed up quite unexpectedly at home, without warning. We took a seat here, on this sofa, I was spellbound. She rose to her feet and took a walk around the house, then she went to the kitchen and made two strong espressos. She brought them in and asked me to play something for her. What came to my fingers was ‘Misty,’ that classic Errol Garner hit. When I stopped, she rose to her feet, hugged me from behind and kissed me on the neck. I felt a jerk in my cock, so well known and unmistakable. Stella said, ‘David, I’ve decided to have a child.” I’ll never forget how those words burned my neck, just like her kiss. We moved to the sofa, she snuggled on my lap, the way she used to do when she was a little girl, and she told me about the gradual awakening of the maternal feeling in her. Thank God, she said, my girlfriend is OK with this and agreed that I “would bear the child.” She didn’t expect my approval, she just wanted me to be informed. That’s why I didn’t say anything, I only kissed her on the forehead and lifted her chin. Her lips were an inch away from mine. She leaned forward and, with that unmistakable move of sexual desire that rules of conduct interpret as love, she drew them to mine. The kiss was genuine. Neither she nor I, however, dared make a move with our hands to extend it into an act we would be ashamed of all our lives. She opened her eyes full of admiration and desire, got up, stretched her shirt over her jeans, and told me to show her out. When I closed the door after her, I went to the bathroom, and, like an adolescent boy, took myself in hand and at a fierce pace, with unsuspected, professional skill, I jolted out the unbearable pressure in a fountain. But instead of ecstasy, the sweetness plunged me into a depressing revulsion. It is not true, my friend, that sex can be a lonesome experience of pleasure and joy, as they’ve been trying to make us believe since the sexual revolution. Sex has always been and will always be a deep manifestation of our craving—realized or suppressed—to procreate.”

Deep down David was absolutely right, I have to admit. But I didn’t tell him that. I couldn’t bear any more that day. I needed time to digest and internalize without judgment all I had heard. Life paraded before me without its hideouts, horrible and sadistic, the way I’ve always believed it to be. And at the same time, it was softened with tenderness and empathy. It appeared as if we don’t aspire for happiness but strain to rescue ourselves from unhappiness.

Over the next few days we met at the Ranch bar in the afternoon. David was drinking a lot, and out of the blue, he began mentioning a certain cassette. During this compressed period of time, David was visibly re-living again and again his tragedy, and he turned yellow, lost his ironic pitch, and looked older beyond belief. He behaved as if he were the bearer of some secret, which prevented him from being a savior: both for his daughter or himself.

Leticia arrived, David introduced me to her and stressed that she had come to shop in San Francisco. She was a former beauty turned heavy-bodied, who no doubt liked to indulge herself in good food, but covered it up with assertive makeup and flamboyant dress. She patronized her husband. He introduced me as the writer who wanted to use his life to put together a novel, but that didn’t impress her at all. Evidently, matrimonial convenience had replaced her initial attachment. This was no small achievement: Leticia was the only woman able to step on the neck of this man, spoiled by women looking him in the eyes and submitting to him.

I heard the end of his story on the night before his departure. The next day he would land on his island, accompanied by his wife, and two days later I would fly back to Europe. We stayed after dinner in the Main Barn’s lobby to finish our wine. Leticia said that she wasn’t interested in our conversation and went to bed. Such lobbies late in the night, in thousands of hotels around the earth, are the most neutral places I know. All people here are travelers and nobody belongs to anybody. My Dictaphone was always on me, and that makes it easy now to select the most important parts of David’s recording. I’m transcribing them below without my interjections.

“Stella found herself a husband,” David said slowly at some point, out of context. “As a matter of fact, she never introduced me to her girlfriend. But one summer, about two years after our encounter, she called me out of the blue and invited me to her wedding. I had just retired from my journalistic career, and spent most of the year on Saint Martin. But colleagues from the crime desk of the newspaper kept asking me to consult on cases, in which either the perpetrator hadn’t yet been identified or there was some serious drama involved, the clue to which remained elusive. I was listening to a cassette when the telephone rang. On the cassette, a woman with a strong foreign accent, who had committed suicide, was narrating the story of her life. The woman’s body had been found in her apartment on Lake Street, close to Sixth Avenue, in an advanced stage of decay.

Stella was perceptibly in high spirits. ‘Dad,’ she started, and I broke down in tears. She hadn’t said this word since she fled from me; she had called me David. ‘Are you sitting down? If not, please do, otherwise you’ll fall down. I have something important to tell you… I’m pregnant. You’re going to have a grandchild.’ More tears clogged my throat. She left me speechless. ‘Dad? Are you there? Because that’s not all. Irene and I split up. I’m going to marry the father of the child I’m carrying.’ She said all this in one breath, as if she had rehearsed it. And I’ve remembered it. I needed a long pause to pull myself together, then congratulated her, but she felt I wasn’t sincere. Her future husband lived in Fairfax, Marine County, but they had decided to sign the papers at the city hall of Sausalito and to have a modest lunch with only the witnesses and me in Angelino, a restaurant on the seaside lane. ‘We’ll be looking forward to seeing you, Dad,’ she said, ending the call, and I promised to be available. You see, even now, in front of you, I cannot hold back my tears. This ‘Dad’ of hers restored my link to the happiest moments of her childhood, like a detonator wire that had suddenly been lit, the fire reaching the explosive. But I didn’t let it detonate. I returned to the cassette player and listened to the very end of the cassette. That foreign misery was preferable to my own suffering.

Zlatko, I’m so glad that I met you and that I can tell you things from my life that I haven’t told anyone. I came back to the Ranch because of you. I’m not young enough any more to expect something new to happen to me. I know about almost everything, and even if something that I didn’t know came up, the framework of my existence is filled to the brim. I can neither repair anything in it nor ask for forgiveness, and even less experience things I could make decisions about that would be different from the previous ones and thus make me seem more moral to myself and others. My life is instructive enough as is.

But when my daughter, the only woman alive who I can call mine and whom I love at once passionately and fatherly, made the decision to change the course of her life so dramatically, I began to realize—albeit very slowly, with great pains—my accountability. Her life was influenced by mine. Irretrievably. I would depart, but she would remember me. I was selfish to the extent that I felt relieved and unthreatened, when she let me know that she lived with a woman. Thank God, she couldn’t know about that. But the moment I knew she was in love with a man—another man—I was possessed by jealousy. Now, I’m describing these feelings as if they were clear to me from the very beginning. The truth is, they came to me vaguely, in tides, like a fog that blurred my view of my heart. And when I showed up on a mind-bogglingly sunny day at the Sausalito city hall… Well, most days in the Bay area are sunny until the ocean fog shuts the sun out… Yes, on that mind-bogglingly sunny day, my heart was sinking out of fear that Stella would notice my jealousy of this unknown man, my soon-to-be son-in-law, who turned out to be an immigrant from Eastern Europe. He was as tall as myself, well-built, with a wrinkle-less face; his black hair was combed smoothly behind, and he wore a tux with a black bow tie. Stella was shockingly beautiful in her white dress, like a princess from a fairy-tale. One couldn’t tell she was pregnant. Everything went as per the ritual—champagne and so on. A nice lunch, California wine, cigars after the dessert. Stella had the look of a sexually gratified woman. The groom, for whom this was a second marriage, treated her with extreme kindness, and it was obvious that he was about to feel the attachment. As far as I’m concerned, this was a sure sign that he was in love. He wasn’t at all stupid. I understood that he had a well-paid job with a big computer corporation. One concern less for me, I thought, they’re going to have money. Actually, what else was there to be concerned about? Up until that moment I’d been worried exclusively about myself; now I was obsessed with worries about Stella. Was it possible that another man, this unknown man come from afar, could make her happy? It occurred to me that I had deluded myself that I would change, would meet her again, would ask her to forgive me, and would redeem my guilt for the suffering I had caused her. I had behaved as if I would live forever. I had thought of suffering, and now, suddenly, seeing her next to me, I thought of happiness. So, if it was true that suffering made us unhappy, was its absence happiness? But why was I so sure that she suffered and was unhappy? Was she perhaps happy? You see, Zlatko, for the first time I was thinking of my daughter’s life as separate from mine. And I had to admit that I was carrying a great guilt. Guilt, for which there is no forgiveness. The irredeemable guilt that I had robbed her of a mother. That guilt was much bigger than the moral sin of my sexual longing for her. Moreover, the most plausible explanation for her lesbianism was that she wanted to set herself free of her attachment to me, which made her feel dependent. That wasn’t her natural sexual orientation. Finally, I had presumed that my neutrality, my refusal to interfere, was the best form of friendship. It turned out that she never considered me her friend. It was too late to make amends. But perhaps it was still not too late to protect her from her illusions of happiness.

As I speak now, Zlatko, I know more than I can tell you and more than Stella knows about herself. Even at that lunch in Sausalito, I knew more about Vladimir Panoff than Stella. As I observed Mr. Panoff, who had already become the father of my grandchild, I was thinking that this man with an unknown past, a man from a totally different culture, would be a part of my family. I, who didn’t believe in the family as a matter of principle, now wanted my daughter to have a family. A happy family! The stress is on happy. But what I had discovered from the dead woman’s cassette kept me in the pessimist camp. This camp looked to me like a prison.

Zlatko, I would like you to write the story of my daughter as a happy story. That’s the reason I won’t give you the cassette now. I haven’t given it to her for the same reason. When I read your story, I’ll most likely disclose the cassette’s contents to you and will introduce you to Stella and her husband. By the way, they live nearby, down on Cabrillo Highway.”

I appreciated David’s sense of drama and didn’t insist on receiving the cassette. We exchanged email addresses and David promised me that he would keep in touch and would give my address to Leticia, just in case. We parted after midnight.

Bistra arrived the next day to join me for my last two days at the Ranch. I told her in rapture that I had a story of a happy love that took place here, at this very Mission Ranch near Carmel. My short-term plan was to settle in London, write the story over the course of several days, and add it to the collection of novellas already under contract with Ciela.

Death modified that plan. A week after my arrival in London, I received an email from Leticia, announcing David’s sudden death from a heart attack. I listened to his voice on the recording in disbelief. It was such an absurdity that he would never be able to read the story I was planning to write. I’d been confident that I could write a happy story: the story of his daughter, who he wanted to see happy in her real life. And after that, maybe I would write something much bigger, a novel perhaps, about him and his unrealized fatherhood.

And yet, my knowledge of the cassette was nagging me. If I wrote a happy story, wouldn’t I violate the truth about life? But  there was something more than my sheer curiosity about life, which by default appears more surprising than literature. Every literary plot—the Americans have found the right name for it, fiction—is like an iceberg. The published text is the tip of the iceberg; underneath lie the complex strata of the conception. If only one element of the conception is there by accident—I’m not talking about an element being artificial or false, but accidental—the tip loses its beauty and breaks apart, ceasing to reflect the deep layers that lifted it above the water. Those deep layers are me, the writer who should have seen through the complicated logic of the characters to make a flawless narrative. In this particular case, the conception wasn’t even mine, it came from David. How could I be certain that he, with his insecure and fickle memory, had given me the complete logic—or illogic—of his drama?

For all these reasons, I decided to go back to the Mission Ranch and try to find the clue to the true story, which, in spite of my strong reluctance, I had to invent, regardless of the cost.

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