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Authors: Rebecca Serle

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Chapter Five

On our first date Hugo took me to the Tower Bar, a well-known restaurant in a well-known hotel on Sunset Boulevard. The hotel is old-school and infamous—the cozy scene of late-night celebrity diners and traveling
Vogue
editor meetings. Irina is a frequent guest. Dimitri Dimitrov was the maître d' for over a decade—there were articles published about his retirement in 2018. He knew every customer's name, favorite table, drink order. I remember thinking Hugo had to be one of his regulars.

We sat at a table outside, right at the edge of the pool. The courtyard is beautiful, with overhead lights, and on many Saturdays, a band that plays jazz, Sinatra, and Bing Crosby.

“Romantic,” I told him when we sat down. It was almost eight, and the sun was nearly fully set, the glamour of the place coming alive in the burgeoning darkness.

“This is one of my favorite spots,” Hugo told me. “I've been
coming here for a decade; it never gets old. When people say LA isn't magical like New York, I take them here.”

I considered Hugo's age, then. I tended to date men who were my age or younger—I liked their carefree spirits, the way they didn't have a fully molded mate in their mind you were constantly trying to live up to, but Hugo was at least five years older. Seven, actually, it turned out. I knew I was not the kind of woman he normally dated, and it made me feel insecure—or more generously, on edge.

“It's beautiful.” Across the pool was the Los Angeles skyline, a floating city in the clouds. Palm trees and towers and homes, side by side. That's the beauty of LA—it's sprawling, searching, a horizontal buffet of experiences. In New York, everything is happening on top of everything else—energy and expectation, stacked up like dominoes. Here, you have to hunt for what comes next.

Something always happened to me once I got the paper—I became resigned. I knew what was coming. I felt, sometimes, like I'd hacked the system. Wasn't the hardest part of heartbreak the unpredictability? How you could feel the most connected to a person in one moment—like being in a teardrop together, the world a watercolor outside—and like strangers in the next? Friends were always talking about how they did not see it coming. But I did. There was no need to dive in headfirst only to realize the proverbial pool was empty. I knew when to invest, and for how long. And when the end came it was sometimes painful, often disappointing. But I could never say I was blindsided. I could never say I didn't know.

Hugo was wearing a black Henley and dark jeans. He had on a leather necklace around which hung a pendant I would later
learn was a key to the first building he'd ever bought—a small two-story on Pico that was now a restaraunt. “It's a family-run place, and Pico was their first expansion, their second location.”

Hugo was proud of his work, it was obvious. He talked about it with rapture—almost like a child who can't quite believe his luck.

A twentysomething waiter came over.

“Calvin, what's up?” Hugo said.

“Not much, man, how you been?”

“Good, good.” Hugo smiled in my direction. “This is Daphne.”

Calvin gave me a little bow. “Pleasure.”

“Hi.”

“You guys want something to drink?”

Hugo held his hand out to me. “Ladies first.”

“A tequila soda,” I said. “With a lime, if you have.”

“You got it.”

Hugo nodded his approval. “Scotch for me, whatever you're pouring.”

Calvin left, and Hugo turned back to me. “Calvin had a bad accident a few years back. Some asshole on Mulholland. He couldn't work for about three months, and he ended up crashing with me for a few weeks.”

“At your apartment?”

“House,” Hugo said.

I saw him note my surprise.

“I'm not there that much.”

I studied him. “So, what? You're a do-gooder?”

“Gotta offset the karma somehow.” Then he shook his head. “Nah, he's a good guy.”

What I remember from that dinner is that Hugo seemed
sincere. Which was surprising, and made me feel a little foolish—like I, too, was falling for it. Like I couldn't tell the difference between an act and the real thing. I had felt so different in the parking lot, but maybe I was the same. Maybe all it took was a fancy restaurant and a story about being someone's savior.

“How's it going with the kid?” Hugo asked.

“Dionte? Good. They don't really tell me much, though. I'm on a need-to-know basis. He seems to like the class.”

“Cassandra did, too.”

“What about the brunette?”

Hugo smiled at me. “You think I'm a foregone conclusion.”

I swallowed down some tequila. “I know you are.”

He leaned forward. “Is that a challenge?”

“I don't think it can be,” I said. “I don't think you want the prize.”

Hugo sat back in his chair dramatically, as if I'd socked him. He didn't immediately say anything. A moment passed. I let it.

“I do, though,” he said finally. “At least, I think I do.”

Three months was enough time to figure it out and not get stuck underwater. I'd had only two bad breakups before, and I couldn't even say they were bad—they were just painful. Most of them ended cordially, if not friendly. It's hard to have a falling-out when one person isn't outraged. The paper made it so that nothing was personal. When Ben Hutchinson cheated on me during sophomore year of college, I wasn't even mad at him. Of course he had, it had already been four and a half months.

“Those are two very different statements,” I said.

He looked at me. When he spoke, it felt like a confession. “I know.”

We ordered—steak for me and grilled salmon for him. Another round of drinks, french fries, and sautéed spinach. Hugo ate with careful bites, slicing off small bits of salmon and spinach, laying them on the back of his fork with care.

“How do you consume all of that?” Hugo asked me, gesturing to my plate. “You're thin.”

“Good metabolism,” I said. Conversations around weight bored me. There were so many more interesting things to talk about than the particular shape of someone's body.

Hugo could sense that he'd lost me.

“Can I just say I find you very enjoyable?” he said after a moment.

I picked up a fry, dunked it into the ketchup. “I'm flattered.”

“I don't think you are,” he said. “But regardless, it's true, I do.”

I uncrossed and recrossed my feet at the ankles. “Thank you.” What I felt was:
Uh-oh.

When I was twenty-four I briefly lived in San Francisco. I moved for an internship with an app that went belly-up six months after I got there. San Francisco was a weird city—all the conformity of DC with the lush, green hills of a freethinking Pacific Northwest. And still in California!

I met a man there named Noah who was getting a doctorate in meteorology. I knew from our first date that he was going to be trouble, and when the paper came it said:
five weeks
. I remember thinking:
That's too long.

By which I meant:
It isn't enough time.

He was from Texas, with a slow drawl and just the right amount of facial hair and blue eyes that when he looked at you felt like they were missiles. Noah showed me the Golden Gate at
sunrise and the Haight in September and the best Indian place in the whole damn city. When five weeks were up, I didn't want it to end, but then he got the call: a grant in Iceland. That was a Friday. He left the following Tuesday.

I can't say I was surprised. There are some experiences you just have to have.

When Hugo and I were finished with dinner, Hugo got up from the table and went over to the guitarist.

I watched him negotiate, slide a bill into the man's hand, and return to our table. I gave him a questioning look; he just shrugged.

And then a song began to play. The first dangling notes of “Ribbons in the Sky” by Stevie Wonder: “ ‘
Oh, so long for this night I prayed that a star would guide you my way
…' ”

Hugo was looking at the guitarist intently. And then his gaze turned to me. “Too much?”

I wanted to say,
Yes, of course, ridiculous
[eye roll].
Who does this work on?

But instead I shook my head.

“I'd ask you to dance, but that seems embarrassing.”

“Try me.”

Hugo pushed back his chair and stood up, offering me his hand. I took it.

I was wearing a black dress, fitted at the top, flowy to the ankles. He placed his hand right along the seam of my back.

From the corner of my eye I saw people at neighboring tables watching us. I felt an unfamiliar sense of anticipation, the stirrings of something unexpected.

“I like the way you smell,” Hugo said.

I liked the way he smelled, too. The cologne had transformed. I wanted to bury my nose in the crook of his neck.

His fingers played down my back.

“What do you think?” he whispered. “Should we give it a whirl?”

I pulled back to look at him. His face was lit up in a smile.

“OK,” I said. “Why not?”

He lifted my arm, and spun me.

Chapter Six

I drop Hugo at his house—a Spanish-style three-bedroom on a rose-lined street called Ashcroft smack in the middle of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. By the time we leave, it's been over an hour since I've had anything to drink, and I feel dead sober, the reality of tonight sits upright like another passenger.

Hugo lives about eight minutes from me, but his house is in another world. It's classic, charming, with just a hint of history—and perfectly maintained. Bright green moss grows over one exterior wall and ivy on the other. The greenery offsets the big, glass windows.

“Do you want to come in for a drink?” he asks.

“School night,” I say. All of a sudden I feel exhausted. “And I have to get back to Murph.”

Hugo's car sits in the driveway, underneath an ivy-covered archway. There's a bike parked to the side, Hugo's helmet dangles from the handlebars. Evidence of a life, however pristine, in motion.

But there is something strange about Hugo's house I've never exactly been able to put my finger on. It's beautiful, and inside, impeccably decorated—it has much more personality than I ever expected it to have the first time I came here. I remember thinking I'd find lots of glass and chrome, but instead I was met with oversize velvet chairs, textured antique fabrics, and a blue-painted kitchen. It looked warm and welcoming, but it still gave me the feeling of emptiness somehow. Like if I opened any given drawer in the kitchen I'd be met with blank space. Once, when Hugo was in the shower, I went to his bookshelf and cracked the spine of a copy of
Underland
by Robert Macfarlane, just to make sure the pages weren't blank. Not only were they not blank, but they were etched with blue ink—Hugo's notes and markings.

“I picked out none of it,” Hugo once told me, but as time went on I became less and less convinced that was true. Now, I know it isn't. Hugo loves aesthetics. I've been with him to the Saks on Wilshire to pick out new suits. He has a personal shopper at Brioni, a tailor who calls him with the latest Prada styles. The man likes to look good, and he likes everything around him to look good, too.

Hugo leans across the front seat and gives me a quick hug. “Later, babe. And happy for you.”

“Thanks. I'll talk to you tomorrow.”

I watch him close the car door and walk up the front steps. The sensor picks up movement, and the lights flick on, illuminating his wood-and-brass door, the white stucco of the house.

I wave and back away.

It takes me seven minutes to drive home, but by the time I get
in, it's twelve minutes past midnight. My dog, Murphy, doesn't bother to get up when I come in, just moves a little to let me know his sleep has been disturbed. I took him for a walk earlier, so he'll be good until the morning.

I got Murphy for my twenty-sixth birthday at Bark n' Bitches on Fairfax, a place that has sadly since closed. He's a terrier mix but there's something else in there, too. He's bigger than most terriers, with a softer coat.

Murphy was never interested in anything canine. It is my genuine belief that he is a 1940s banker who was once cursed by a witch to live in a dog's body. He sniffs almost nothing and is appalled by the game of fetch.
You want me to catch a ball? With my mouth
? I imagine him saying.
How uncivilized.

“Hi, buddy,” I say. I go over and scratch his ears. He gives me a cordial nod before going back to sleep. I kick off my heels and stretch my toes onto the wood floor. It's cold underneath me—Los Angeles buildings have absolutely no insulation, and it's freezing at night, especially in the winter months. I really need a carpet. And a space heater, maybe.

I live in a small apartment building on North Gardner two blocks off Sunset. There are five units and a shared courtyard between them. Each apartment has its own entrance—mine just happens to be street-facing.

The apartment is big—bigger than it should be for what I'm paying. Mike hasn't raised my rent in nearly four years, which is unheard of in this part of town. There's an open living room, a roomy kitchen—although the marble is dated, and the cabinets are peeling—and a back bedroom with a walk-in closet. When I first moved in, I painted the hallway and living room in a sage
green. The place is decorated haphazardly—in prints, neutrals, wood, linen, some vintage orange Bakelite lamps I picked up at the Rose Bowl Flea Market. And curtains from Pottery Barn. I have too much stuff.

I drop down onto the couch. I know I should just stay in motion—teeth, pajamas, bed. Keep going until I can lie down. But even the bathroom feels too far right now. I tuck my freezing feet underneath me.

On my coffee table is a copy of
For the Love of Shakespeare
, a gift from Irina that was representative of an inside joke I now can't quite remember. I love it unironically, though.

“Her passions are made of nothing but the finest part of pure love.”

Here's the truth: I do want love. In some ways, I've been looking for it forever. Real love, the kind that makes you want to grow old together, makes you not just unafraid of all that time with one person but electrified by it.

I assumed at some point, maybe, the papers would stop. But I wasn't looking forward to that day, at least not exactly. There was something in me that wanted to keep moving. If you never stop long enough to sink into something, then it can't destroy you. It's easier to climb out of a pool than a well, is the thing.

None of this is particularly unique, or revelatory. We live in an age of romance where you can pick from thousands of strangers on the internet. Pretty much everyone fears buyer's remorse. And yet—

I hoist myself off the couch, driven by dehydration, and pour a glass of cloudy tap water from the sink. You're supposed to drink only filtered in Los Angeles, but I stopped refilling my Brita
about a week after I purchased it. There is no way that thing was clearing out anything, anyway. The only change I could see was the addition of black dots to the container—which did not seem like much of an improvement.

I do miss the thing I don't have. It's strange to feel that, to want something that you've never even known before. But that's love, isn't it? The belief in something you cannot see or touch or even explain. Like the heart itself, we just know it's there.

I walk over to the back door and look out over the courtyard. It's empty and silent. Overhead, the sky is heavy with midnight clouds.

I wonder if I'll miss it, I think. The feeling of openness. The understanding, even buried down deep, that anything could happen. That I could bump into someone at an airport or in line at the pharmacy. That the man three stools over at the bar could be taking me home tonight. That the next great adventure was just a slip of paper away.

Being single is like playing the lottery. Most of the time all you're left with from that trip to the convenience store is a bag of chips and a six-pack. But then there's always the chance. There's always the chance, however slim, that with one piece of paper you could win it all.

BOOK: Expiration Dates: A Novel
8.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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