V did not have the man in bed she wanted the next morning. Backpacks skidding down the hallway woke us. Dennis and Carol were back. The smell of coffee brewing drifted from the kitchen. I joined them at the table. Carol poured me a cup.
“Hey man, hope you don’t mind we invited friends to stop by for lunch. I think you know one of ‘em. George played scrumhalf for Cal.”
“Sure, I know him. Don’t mind at all.” I lied. George was a party animal. Not the kind of guy to make for the romance I had in mind. “We had a late night. Meeting Virginia’s friends for lunch. What time your friends coming?”
V stopped at the archway to the kitchen, confused.
“What do you mean?”
“Hi. I’m Dennis. He was asking me. We have friends coming for lunch.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought he was talking to me. I’m Virginia. Nice meeting you.”
“Carol. Nice to meet you. Have some.” Carol poured another cup.
“I was telling them we have lunch planned in Cadiz. Lucky for us they came back. If they weren’t here we might have missed it.”
“12:30.” Carol showed her phone.
“We better get ready. We have to be in Cadiz at 2.”
“We’re off to Barcelona tonight. Spur of the moment. I got Barca tickets cheap for tomorrow. You’re welcome to join us. Flight’s at 6.” Dennis flashed 4 game tickets for Camp Nou.
“Wow! We’d love to but Carnaval in Cadiz...I don’t know.” I looked to V, hoping she got the message.
She pitched in. “Momo’s bonfire is tonight.”
“Thanks for the coffee. Tell George I said, ‘hi and scrum down.’” I held V’s hand.
“We’ll be back Monday night.”
“Catch you then. Have fun.” I led her to the bedroom to change back into our costumes. We didn’t go to bed that night; we went to Momo’s bonfire.
I’m not sure why the days and nights in Cadiz went down the way they did. V and I built our friendship but the moment for making love never returned. Carnaval was a blast. After 10 days of laughs, hugs and kisses I boarded a plane to Dhahran to start the project at Saudoil.
EnterpriseTec was engaged to do a study for improving Saudoil’s security against DDoS. Saudoil’s system had been infected by a virus. A different virus, the Shamoon, eventually brought down Saudi Aramco’s ERP system a year or so after we completed our project.
The Middle East is a hotbed of IT security threats. The US has been lucky so far. DDoS(Distributed Denial of Service) can cripple a government, public organizations or private enterprise. There are hackers out there with the skills to make it happen; it’ll be a technical tsunami when it does. If Snowden had been the traitor many think he was, he would have hooked up with one and blown away USA’s cyber kingdom.
I was PM for Enterprise, Aleksy my right-hand man. Even though IT security was not Aleksy’s field, he had no problem appearing competent after taking a Warsaw workshop. Cookie-cutter consulting was Delphi’s specialty and at EnterpriseTec we copied their approach by separating Saudoil’s customer data from logistics and supply. In a security breach an unwanted virus couldn’t touch the company's oil supply.
The first phase of our project took 8 weeks. I was anxious to get back to the States and see V. I didn’t want tp lose any of the ground I gained with her in Spain. We had three weeks off before the start of the project’s second phase - plenty of time to re-kindle the flame.
The night before I was to leave Aleksy asked me, “Lester told me about La Gondola. You been there?”
“No, but he told me about the place too. Let’s do it.”
La Gondola was upscale. We could have been in a restaurant on LA’s Westside, NYC’s Mulberry Street or Rome’s Via Veneto. Our table was a booth in a white masonry grotto with a blackboard menu hung on the wall.
Aleksy dipped his ciabatta into balsamic vinegar and olive oil sprinkled with pepper. “You know they say the best thing to order in an Italian place is the veal chop.” He ordered some pasta, salads, the veal chop and a bottle of barolo. “I appreciate the irony of this project.”
“Yeah, know what you mean. Ironic that a subsidiary of a company with a Jewish CEO is doing security for an Arab oil company.”
“Not what I meant. It’s ironic to be a spy.”
“You or me?”
“Oops.” Aleksy smirked, covering his mouth.
“I’ve been wondering how and why Lester found you for this project. The cat’s outta the bag now, man. Clue me in.”
“How much do you know about Lester?”
“Not much. When I worked for Enterprise before I went to Iraq I don’t remember him. He was CEO when I came back and he recruited me from the SEALs.”
The waiter brought the pasta.
“He bought EnterpriseTec after 9/11 with family money. Fucking marvelous food! Count on Lester to know where to eat. Never heard of Linguini with Fresh Sea Urchins, Mussels Tartar & Cherry Tomatoes. You?”
“No. Lester’s family had money. Told me he’d been a SEAL”
“Ha ha ha! The closest Lester ever came to being a SEAL was Sea World.”
“I’ve seen his trident.”
“Anybody can get a trident. Don’t be naive, Cliff. I taught you better than that. He’s connected. Money can take you anywhere. Quarles are into politics, military, oil. Diversified family investments. They have a portfolio of technolgy snd energy companies. Lester's family are on the Board at Enterprise. Powerful family like the Bush’s, but smarter about the future, used their position to make Lester CEO. Lester knew about me from my work in West Papua for the UN. There’s a huge goldmine in West Papua part-owned by a mining company in Louisiana. Gold mining CEO’s tight with Quarles’ old man. Indonesian politics and American business have made West Papua’s property and human rights, business as usual - what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine too. The mining company treats the local Melanesians like savages and headhunters. They kill them if they rebel. US business enlisted Indonesia to help out for a part of the profits with no regard for Melanesian culture, history or property rights. Sound familiar? Did history repeat tself? Ask a native American. I infiltrated a West Papuan rebel group for the UN. What Lester and his miners don’t know is I was on the side of the freedom fighters not the mining company. My contribution to the UN report was that the rebels have a cause worthy of international attention. Human rights abuses, unjust incarceration of political prisoners, torture, murder. Same old shit. West Papua’s the latest edition of Cities of Salt - Minin’s novel about the hypocrisy of the West and the Arab sheiks. When oil was discovered here it became a rape of the the land, fuck the consequences, take what you can and leave a disaster behind you.”
“Where’s spying come into this?”
“Saudoil’s computers will be trojaned by our project. I am to leave Sub7 behind when we’re done. The Feds and Delphi will know everything going on here. PC Anywhere will be alive and well in Saudi Arabia.”
“What’s the point? They’re allies.”
“Knowledge is power and money if you know where the oil is.”
“Ima dumb fuck for not checking Lester out.”
The bus boy cleared the pasta plates. The pine scent of rosemary wafted to us as the waiter drizzled olive oil over the veal chops sitting in the midst of roasted baby potatoes and escarole. We lingered, swishing our wine.
Lester said, “That was excellent, if there’s a 4 star or 5 star restaurant this side of Baghdad Lester knows about it.”
I nodded in agreement. A short guy with the projectionist's face in “Cinema Paradiso” approached the table. Phillipe Noiret’s brother maybe?
“Gentlemen, Grappa or would you prefer brandy. It’s on me. I’m Vincenzo, the owner.”
“I’ll have a grappa. How about you?”
“The same with a double expresso.”
“Double expresso for me too.”
Vincenzo went back to the kitchen. A few minutes later he was trailed by our waiter pushing a dessert cart and holding an odd-shaped bottle.
“Nonino from Friuli. Our best. Signore Quarles’ favorite. When your office called I thought he might be coming. It’s his standing order.”
“Lester’s in the States. May I?” Aleksy asked for the grappa.
“The bottle looks hand-blown.” Aleksy gave the bottle back.
“It is. Wine’s the poetry of the earth but Grappa’s the soul. You know the Soldati quote, signore?” Vincenzo poured 2 glasses.
“Don’t know the quote but I know him from “The Wayward Wife” and “The River Girl” .”
“And what man wouldn’t? Lollabrigida - “The Wayward Wife,” Loren - “The River Girl.” Vincenzo stepped back and waited for us to taste. Aleksy’s curling lips said it was something special.
“Wow! Extraordinary. I had heard of Nonino but never tried it.” They looked to me for my opinion.
“It’s wonderful. Don’t know grappa, but I do know Soldati. “The Wayward Wife” was one of Italy’s best in the 50’s. What's the music that’s been playing?”
“Bill Evans and Enrico Pieranunzi. Where did you two meet if I may ask?”
“Baghdad.” Aleksy answered with a questioning look.
“I thought so. Signore Quarles told me about you guys. I’m glad you could make it. Pardon me. Please wait.”
Vincenzo rushed off. He handed Aleksy an Apple Iphone 15 minutes later.
“Signore Quarles said that when you came I should make sure you were taken care of. They will be here soon.”
Aleksy angled the phone so I could see a belly dancer video. The dancers were not the middle-aged women who danced on Westwood Blvd. These were 2 10’s under 30.
“They are from the Style Agency.”
“The Style Agency?” Aleksy beamed.
“Based in Syria. The owner hires only models.” Vincenzo winked and walked away.
“I’ve gotta a plane to catch in the morning.”
“They’re call girls. Lester’s paying. You can sleep on the plane. You can’t turn down this invitation.” Aleksy held the phone in my face.
“I don’t wanna fuck it up with V. Sorry.”
I called the waiter and asked him to get me a taxi. Less than 5 minutes had passed when the 2 girls from the video approached our table. Leopard print blouses over black flowing slacks and the scent of Catherine Deneuve bracketed us.
“I’m Aamira, this is Sana. We are prosperous and brilliant.” Their sexuality and sophistication oozed like Ingres’ erotic odalisque.
“You use that line on everyone?” Aleksy waved the waiter over.
“Aamira means prosperous, Sana brilliance.”
“Twins?” I questioned unnecessarily, given their outfits and faces.
“Yes. Fraternal.” They laughed; so did we.
“...And wonderful. What would you like to drink?” Aleksy quaffed the last of his grappa and motioned for another. Sana sat by me, Aamira snuggled close to Aleksy.
“Two teas. Eastern Europe and…?” Aamira looked to me.
Sana got up.
“I’ll be right back. Excuse me.” Aamira followed her. The Arabic in the foyer seemed heated. Aamira came back.
“I’m sorry my sister is not feeling well. She must leave.”
My resolve to be faithful had been tested and leaving was what I needed to hear.
“No problem. I have to catch a plane and can’t stay either. There’s a taxi coming to get me. She can ride with me.”
“That’s not necessary we have a car.”
“We don’t. They can go and we can have a drink at my place. I assume Aamira, you drink in private.” Aleksy pleased with one turn of events, had turned lecherous.
“If no one tells.” Aamira flirted, sweeping her hair from her eyes.
I got up to leave.
“I’ll tell Sana.” Aamira joined me.
When we reached the foyer, Aamira spoke in Arabic to her sister. I had the impression there was still a problem. They stopped talking; Sana turned to me.
“If you don’t mind going to your hotel first I will share the cab.”
“That’s fine. Taxi’s on me.”
“Thank you but that’s not nececssary.”
Aamira went back to the table. Aleksy waved farewell. Sana turned away from me and waited by the door.
“Are you ill?”
“I will be fine.”
When we were in the cab 5 minutes later. I told the driver the name of my hotel and tried to give Sana a fifty. The fare to my hotel was $20 with tip.
“That’s too much,” she said as if insulted.
“My fare and yours. Take it please.” I tried smiling.
“You don’t understand. I don’t like you.”
“You don’t even know me. Is this how you are with everybody? You decide about a person without even knowing them?”
“No, just Americans.”
“I’d rather not talk about it if you don’t mind.”
“Fucking uppity for a hooker.”
“What is the word uppity?”
“You think you’re better than I am.”
“OK, I’ll say this just once. My clients are usually Middle Eastern men. When Vincenzo called, my sister and I were available so they sent us. We thought you were from Saudoil. My sister and I are Iraqi. The only 2 left of 6 children thanks to your invasion. There are thousands of us in Syria and Jordan - women refugees from the war. Our mother is in a refugee camp taking care of our father who suffered a nervous breakdown over his four dead sons. Two killed by SEALs and two by ISIS. My sister and I were students before the war not ‘uppity’ hookers as you put it. My brothers were a doctor, engineers and a teacher. All dead. Eight children without fathers. Three wives without husbands. With the money we make we hope to get our parents out of the camp. You want to know more?”
I’d heard Sana’s story before but this was up close and personal. I was speechless. The death of Akram’s wife and kid came to mind. Another epiphany for you, Doc, from the man who needs more help than you can give me.
“I’m sorry. I’ve been to Baghdad. I fought there. So did my friend there, Aleksy. We met there. Yes I’d like to know more because I feel bad about what’s happened to you. Maybe I can help.”
She shook her head.
“No. No more help. That’s the American way - always make an offer to help. Really? You’ve got motives coming out your fucking assholes. Oil, politics, money and religion. Right now yours is sex.”
“You’re wrong, Sana, if that’s your real name. What I saw in Baghdad changed me. I joined the SEALs to get even with the Taliban for 9/11. Nothing more. But I saw how we quote...helped...quote and I didn’t like it. I really would like to help you and your sister get your parents out of the camp.”
She moved closer, anger flaring as she got in my face.
“Sana is my real name, just like my twin sister’s name is Aamira. Brilliance and prosperous were the names our parents gave us - Iraqi names with our parents’ hopes for our future. We had childhood hopes and dreams. You came and destroyed them. I wanted to be a journalist, Aamira a doctor. Now we’re high-class hookers owned by a Syrian who bought us at auction in the refugee camp. I’m sick and tired of your American bullshit. 9/11 and 3000 lost lives in one morning? No comparison to 10 years and hundreds of thousands lives lost. You destroyed one of the most important cities in all of history. Sadaam had his faults like others in the Middle East, but Bush, his oil buddies and the Saudis wanted Saddam out so they could control Iraq. It had nothing to do with freeing the people from a dictatorship or human rights it was business and politics. You came, put your friends in power, and fucked over whoever got in your way. I don’t need any more American help.”
She returned to her side of the car looking out the window.
“I get it, I really do. When I was in Baghdad I saw how fucked up it all was. I couldn’t change it; nobody could. The guys fighting the wars can’t change anything. Wars aren’t about ideas or freedom they’re about oppression. One side tries to oppress; the other resists. Been like that for centuries, always will be. Your leaders are the same as ours. Power corrupts. Like you said it’s about money and politics. The people at the top send us out to do their dirty work. USA is the bastard child out of England. We learned from the best when it comes to oppression. If you let me, I might be able to help you.”
The driver pulled into the hotel parking lot.
“Just go.” She waved my exit with her arm. I left the fifty on the seat.
I never felt anticipation like I did the night my plane descended into LAX. V was picking me up. Thank God, for cell phones. Finding someone at LAX without a cell phone is a new level of Dante’s inferno. Time to go back and revise his 9 Circles. Circle 5 would still be Anger but the River Styx is now an airport. No struggle with rushing river water, today’s sinner would be sent to LAX without a cell phone running back and forth from a pay phone to curbside-pickup looking for a ride. No Circle 5 for me, I had my cell phone. At the gate, I called V. She told me she was in the waiting area near the airport.
My Nissan pulled up in 5 minutes. How could you miss a top-down 300Z driven by a flamenca with a Rottie in the back?
“What the fuck?”
“Surprise. Mindy’s compliments. She’s traveling.” V leaned over for a kiss; I tried to oblige but Mangan had other ideas. He climbed into the front seat. We kissed (Mangan and me) then struggled a few minutes before I got him into the back.
“I wondered which car you’d be driving.” I had given V a set of my keys when I left Cadiz so she’d have a car when she returned to LA. We sandwiched a kiss around Mangan’s snout.
“The Z always. I love the t-top having the dog in the back. Everybody rubbernecks us on the 405.”
“Beauty and the beast.”
“You are so full of shit. Hungry?”
“It’s been 2 months . Burger, burger, Father’s Office Burger.”
“Can’t do Santa Monica with the dog.”
“Culver City’s fine by me. We can sit outside, tie Mangan to the railing.”
Culver City was my plan all along. It was after 10PM; I didn’t want to drive to Coronado so I had booked a room at the Culver Hotel. Lester encouraged going first-class and if V wanted to stay with me at the Culver all the better. I hadn’t counted on Mangan.
The traffic on Sepulveda after 10PM was a breeze. V found a parking spot near Father’s Office in the old Helms Bakery. We shared an Office Burger and sweet potato fries. The overhead heaters on the porch cut the chill while Mangan begged. I gave him a little meat, V some fries. Mistake. Like all dogs he wanted more. When it’s a rottie you try to please. The waitress gave him some treats in a bowl with water and he was somewhat appeased.
“No bacon, onions and blue cheese like this in Dhahran. Where’s Mindy?”
“Seattle, I think she said. She’ll be back on Friday night. Wants the dog on Saturday. You can have him until then.”
Three days running the beach with Mangan would shake off some of the rust from 2 months without working out.
“I have a room tonight at the Culver Hotel. Didn’t want to drive to Coronado. I was hoping you’d stay with me. Guess not.”
“I have an early class tomorrow. You can get Mangan in the morning. My roommate’ll be there. Maybe you’ll get the room John Wayne used to stay in at the Culver.”
“John Wayne? What the fuck?”
“Actually owned it for a while. There’s a story he won it from Charlie Chaplin in a card game.”
“Holy shit, “The Quiet Man” meets “The Great DIctator.” They never mentioned that in film class.”
A French bulldog yapped. Mangan’s disdain vanished when the Frenchie wanted to play. The two guys walking the Frenchie looked at us questioningly.
“It’s OK. He’s friendly and likes high-class playmates. Look at this collar.” V touched the Frenchie’s sparkling studded necklace. The dogs sniffed each other. I held Mangan’s leash so he wouldn’t maim the Frenchie.
“Three thousand for the caesarean when we bought her. Rhinestones will have to do. No diamonds for Moreau.” The guy yanked Moreau’s leash and led her away.
“Great name for a Frenchie.” I paid the bill. “Only in Tinseltown.”
“You belong here even with the short hair. You knew who she’s named after; most don’t.”
Disappointed to spend the night alone, I dropped them off in Westwood. On the way back to the Culver, I turned onto Venice Boulevard to Oldfield’s Liquor Room - my favorite LA bar. They specialize in what they call sustainable cocktails with mixers from the Culver City Farmer’s Market - fresh juices, condiments and homemade infusions. I was introduced to Oldfield’s by Jaki’s friend who worked at Sony. Her husband was a real estate guy who had some listings Jaki was investigating. I ordered a Hemingway - rye, liquer made from marasca cherries from Croacia, grapefruit and lime juice. Oldfield’s wasn’t busy.
“Long time no see.”
A hand touched my shoulder. I couldn’t remember her name. I rose from my stool and tried to smile not sure about a hug. “Yeah...”. My ignorance showed.
“Cliff? Come on.” She puckered her lips for a kiss. I gave her a peck on the cheek.
“Give me a minute.”
“You don’t remember. I love it when guys like you get flustered...Monique.”
“Oh, I remember you Monique. Your husband sells real estate. Brain farting I guess. Just got back from Saudi Arabia. I’m a little jet-lagged.”
“Ex-husband. I’ll forgive the fart if you buy me a drink.”
“What are you drinking?”
I ordered 2 Kentucky Cures not knowing what to expect. The bartender put the drinks in front of us.
“What are we drinking?”
“Bourbon, Branca Menta, creme de mure, lemon juice, blackberries and mint. Only make them around Derby time and the Triple Crown.”
“What’s creme de mure?”
“I can answer that.” Monique took my hand; the bartender left us. “French blackberry liquer and Branca Menta is Italian mint liquer.”
“Not something I’d mix but these guys know their stuff. You do too, I guess.”
“Growing up in France you get a different perspective. How long’s it been?” Monique turned to me with an unlit cigarette in one hand and a lighter in the other. I took the lighter.
“Almost 2 years, I guess.”
“You surprised a lot of people, me included. Nobody ever dumped Jaki.”
Seduction lurked in the stream of smoke. I remembered the eyes feeling like Elton John; it was hard to see their color in the dark. I took a Galoise from the pack.
“I wished I had walked away with a little more class. I was pretty fucked up at the time.”
“And now?” She squeezed my hand.
“What happened to the hair? You look like another person. Doing penance for your disservice to the queen?”
“I cut it for business. Long-haired hippies are not welcome in Saudi Arabia unless you’re lookin’ to go to jail.” I thought about the Culver Hotel and playing “elle m'a aime, elle ne me aime pas” with Monique .
“If I wasn’t in the middle of something at work I’d love to hear more about your trip. I have to be back at it in the morning. Call me.” She handed me a card. The goodbye kiss was more than perfunctory: she slid her tongue in my mouth and mussed my hair.
I beckoned to Zach for the check as she left.
“Win some, lose some. You can’t hit on her. She hits.” He handed me the check.
Thirty-six bucks for 3 drinks and confusion. Monique’s wake left a maelstrom.
A butter croissant, egg, ham and cheese, coffee and fresh-squeezed OJ at the Argentine bakery was more than welcome after 2 months of yogurt every morning in Dhahran. A quick drive through Tehrangeles and a GQ model answered the door of V’s condo.
“I’m Cliff, here for the dog.”
“Carlos. Vicky said you were coming. I’ll get him.” Carlos, Joaquin Cortes’ doppelganger, was a man to swoon over. A laptop and open textbooks covered the kitchen table.
The dog’s bowl and leash were on the floor by the door. Mangan almost knocked me down when he saw me.
“You need obedience class. Good to see you too. Nice meeting you, Carlos. We’re on our way.”
I leashed him and left. I wasn’t steamed over the traffic on the 405, I was steamed over Carlos. I imagined the black-haired, bare-chested beast in skin-tight black leather pants, holding V in a flamenco pose. She was cheating on me. It didn’t take me much to lose trust in a woman, dogs I’ve always trusted.
I exited the freeway at Huntingdon Beach where dogs run free on the beach. Mangan did his version of body surfing, running into the waves and chesting them while other dogs watched. One or two tried it and gave up. Mangan shook the water from his body like Mike Tyson after the Michael Spinks KO I watched on my 9th birthday. We ran a couple of miles before heading home.
I unpacked, showered, set up space for Mangan on the deck and got on the computer. An email from V said she planned to come down to San Diego for the weekend. I answered, “OK”. I figured the trip was her “Adios.” To make her feel extra bad about dumping me I booked her in Business Class of the Pacific Surfliner.
I took the next couple of days off from work to hang out with Mangan, work out, answer emails, and send a project status report to Lester. An email from Aleksy worried me. He wanted a secure personal email address for a my-eyes-only message. I sent him an old att.net address. The next day there was an encrypted message at the address with a file attached. The file contained an email address and password for the GROM website with a message to check my mail everyday.
V took the first train after her classes on Friday. I saw her walking through the Santa Fe Depot portico. “That’s the best train ride I’ve ever been on. Goes along the ocean from San Juan Capistrano to Solana Beach. You ever done it?” She seemed happy. I didn’t smile; I wanted to get this over with.
“No. I did San Francisco to LA. Oakland actually. I’ll take that.” Her suitcase was vintage straw without wheels.
“I read about this depot on the train. Gives Union Station a run for the money. They said the benches here are 100 years old and the beams are redwoods.” She looked up at the ceiling.
I couldn’t see the point in playing her game.
“Carlos’s pretty hunky. You meet him at UCLA?”
“No. He’s one of my uncle’s students. He lives in New York. He’s here for summer school. I told you it’s my uncle’s girlfriend’s place. I live there rent free. Lesley moved in with him for the summer. Kind of a trial live-in.”
“And you and Carlos are on trial too?” I faked a laugh she didn’t care for.
“You’re more of a gypsy than you let on to be. Possessive and jealous. After Spain I was looking forward to hanging out with you. Two months I waited for this? Welcome home, asshole. Thanks for the ticket.” She grabbed her suitcase.
I followed her to the ticket counter. Her anger was like one of your therapy sessions. Things became clear. She was right. I was an asshole. An asshole with no trust. She rooted through her bag, but she didn’t have enough money for the ticket back.
“I’ll put it on my card. You don’t have to pay me back. I am an asshole. Can we talk a little?” I reached for her suitcase.
She stepped up to the ticket counter. “When’s the next train to LA?”
“About an hour. You can use the machine with his credit card.” A privacy invasion from an Amtrak ticket agent wasn’t what I needed at the moment.
V gave me the suitcase and strode to a bench. I noticed the set of her jaw and waited for permission to speak. She looked at me as though whatever I said would only add to her anger. I went ahead.
“I’ve been working on trust with Doc Morse. I feel alone most of the time. No mom, no dad, fighting a war that shouldn’t have been. It’s not you, it’s me. I forgot the condo belongs to your uncle.” I lied. “We made no promises. When I saw Carlos I figured you had someone else and were coming here to say goodbye. I’m afraid of losing you.” I took my grandmother’s pendant from my pocket and reached for her hand.
“No way.” She brushed my hand away.
“Stay here tonight. We can talk. I’ll bring you back to LA tomorrow.”
“OK, but it’s only because I don’t have the money for the ticket.”
We talked until dawn. I was honest about myself. Told her my hopes, my fears, my anger, my self-doubt. My way of giving her my trust was to let her know who I was. I had a problem though; I didn’t know who I was. I could only tell her about the man I wanted to be; the man we talked about in therapy, Doc.
“I’m little boy blue. Wake me and I cry. As long as I’m sleeping and dreaming I’m happy, but when I’m awake my life is a nightmare. No mom, no dad, Iraq turned out to be a lie, and my job’s a fucking lie.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re spies. The software we’re installing will allow the government to know what’s goin’ on in Saudoil.”
“You knew this when we were in Cadiz?”
“No. I found out when I got to Dhahran.”
“Are you quitting?”
“I don’t know.” Quitting was not an option I had considered given my financial condition. I was spending every cent.
Saturday we walked the beach. Mangan didn’t like sharing his space with more than one of us, so I ran with him. When I came back V was sitting outside the Coronado Sands.
“You realize how fucked up this is? You want me to take your Grandmother’s pendant then go back to Saudi as a spy.”
“You defining a condition? If I don’t go back you’ll take the pendant?”
Mangan ran into the surf.
“So it’s over then?” A tear trickled down my cheek.
V brushed it away. “I didn’t say that.”
“Take the pendant. Either we split and you give it back to me or when you’re ready to keep it we make love.”
“Right now, I don't love you. I thought I might when I came down here but you’re a piece of work. You don’t trust me and you can’t be trusted. Shame on me for not staying away from you after the Bowl. You’re like an addiction, maybe it’s that pendant. No promises either way.” She took the pendant. Mangan came back and licked our feet.
I grilled on the weekend - fish and steaks. V did salads. We watched movies. Jennifer Lawrence played Agnes in The Poker House. Talk about being born to be an actress. Hard to believe she never took acting lessons. The credits rolled and said it was the true story of how Lori Petty grew up. That girl’s life was really fucked up..
Monday morning I put V on the train to LA and went to the office. Lester and I discussed the project. He was pleased everything was going well. I didn’t let on that I knew about the trojan we were leaving behind. Friday we met for lunch at Sally’s.
“You like shellfish?” Lester hadn’t opened his menu.
“Perfect after Dhahran.”
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. Cocktails?” The waiter stood, pen and pad in hand.
Lester looked at me questioningly. I shook my head.
“We’ll have the Seafood Selection and a bottle of the Frank Family Chardonnay.”
“Very good. Hungry? It’s enough for 4.” The waiter was in chat mode.
“He’s been on a yogurt diet. We’ll manage.” Lester nodded my way. The waiter left us. “You and Aleksy get along in Dhahran?”
“Sure. We knew each other in Iraq, but you know that.”
The waiter returned and showed the bottle; Lester nodded.
“Not too many people know this wine,” the waiter said as he poured a taste.
Lester swirled the glass and drank. “I know the winery owner. He worked at Disney all his life until he bought Hanns Kornell’s old winery. Wouldn’t mind doin’ that myself some day.” Lester passed the glass to me. “Like it?”
“Tastes a little like a creamsicle - orange with a little vanilla.”
The waiter left the table.
“You know Kornell’s champagne?”
“First methode champenoise wine of California. Kornell was released from a concentration camp by the Germans and had to leave in 48 hours. Went to England. Took a boat to the USA. Was torpeoded and rescued. Went to wine country with no money and worked his ass off so he could buy a winery. Went broke. We’re drinking from his winery. The old school version of the American dream, heh?”
“My grandmother was born at Auschwitz.”
“I didn’t know you were Jewish. I guess you weren’t too hyped to go to Dhahran. But the good news is we aren’t helping the Saudis. Aleksy tell you why you were there?”
“Yeah, he did. My grandmother’s gypsy not a Jew. She was raised by a Jewish family who got out of Germany. Thought she was Jewish until they told her she was Rom at her bat mitzvah. She’s been trying to find out more about where she came from all her life.”
“I didn’t sign up with you to be a spy, man. I don’t wanna go back.”
“Once a SEAL always a SEAL. You’re a brother and we are helping our country. Same with Aleksy, once a Grom always a Grom. The info we get from Saudoil goes to the Feds.”
The conversation was not going the way I wanted. V had made clear going back was not an option. Lester was a con man through and through. He bluffed with his SEAL card but 2 can play that game.
“When you put it that way I can’t argue. We are bonded by the trident, but there’s something else. My grandmother’s in Stage 4 of lung cancer and she doesn’t have anyone but me.”
“How long does she have?”
“Median death rate is 8 months and she was diagnosed 6 months ago. Chemo isn’t doing much good and she wants to stop.”
“That sucks. Aleksy can’t take over, he’s not an IT guy. How about if you go back for 2 weeks and I find a PM.”
“I’d rather not. We can walk Aleksy through by conference call and email.”
“I’ll talk to the client and find somebody to take over. You go over there for a week and show the new guy around.”
I told V what happened, but didn’t tell her I lied to Lester.
“When are you gonna quit?”
“I may have gypsy blood but I’m not crazy. This place, the cars - I owe Enterprise and Lester big-time. Now I have time to get out of there on my terms.”
Surprise, surprise, the happiest night of my life was about to begin. I dozed while V took a shower. When I awakened the scent of vanilla wafted from between her legs as she straddled my thighs sliding a towel under us.
“I have something for you.” She reached for a bottle on the night table. “Un poco oil of cinammon can do wonders. It's a secret my mother told me.” She poured ‘un poco’ in her hand and stroked me. I was very hard. "Be gentle, please." I took over kissing and touching all her secret places before penetrating.
“That was nice, remember tonight until you come back. The next time will be better. Is it Friday night or Saturday?”
“Leave Friday arrive Saturday.”
She lay facing me. “You still want me to keep the pendant?”
“Yeah, now more than ever.” I stroked her face with gentleness I didn’t know I had.
“Always. My grandmother said that once you take it, you can’t give it back. It’s powerful. An amulet that goes back to the Middle Ages. I’m the only man you’ll ever have and you’re the only woman I’ll ever love.”
“I hope you grandmother’s right. I’d like to meet her.”
… … …
But promises are made to be broken. The next week I was in Dhahran for the project farewell. I didn’t like the guy Lester found to replace me. David and Lester were inseparable, attending every meeting, adding nothing. I was pissed; Friday was my last day and we still hadn’t met with the client to tell them David was taking over. Late Thursday afternoon I said, “I leave tomorrow. When are we meeting with management to tell them I’m handing off to David?”
“David, Cliff and I need privacy.”
“Sure.” David left the office.
“You lied to me, Cliff. Your grandmother’s in Germany and she doesn’t have cancer. We’re not telling Saudoul anything. You’re staying. David and I are leaving tomorrow.”
“You can’t do this to me, Lester. I promised Virginia I’d be back.”
“So this is all about pussy? I wondered why you lied. I guess we’re going to find out what’s really important to you. Go ahead leave tomorrow and you don’t have a job. The cars and the house will be owned by the bank at the end of the month. I have that kind of power.”
“How did you find out about my grandmother?”
“I was trying to help you and your grandmother learn more about your ancestors, after you told me she was dying. I know people at Disney. Art Babbitt has worked off-and-on there for years. He married a woman who painted portraits of gypsies for the Angel of Death at Auschwitz. She’s been trying to get her paintings out but they won’t give them to her even though her family was executed by Mengele. Dina and Art Babbitt bought Jerry Garcia’s old place near Lompico. I called them. Your grandmother and Dina connected through the Auschwitz survivor network. Dina told me your grandmother was alive, well and cancer-free.”
Lester tried to help me out? Bad fucking luck for me. There was nothing I could do unless I wanted to lose everything.
“I promised Virginia I’d get off the project so I lied to you, Lester. We’re really in love.”
“A woman can make a man do some crazy shit. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. You’re gonna be without her for a while. Got it?”
Friday night I called V before I remembered she was in Long Beach rehearsing for the weekend at Cafe Sevilla . I left a message that I wouldn’t be back and promised to call her Saturday morning. It was still Friday morning in LA. I stayed away from Skype and the computer so she couldn’t reach me.
Aleksy stopped at my place late in the afternoon.
“I can drive you to the airport, I’m going to miss you.”
“I’m not leaving.”
“I thought you promised.”
“I did. Lester found out I lied about my grandmother’s cancer. He threatened to fire me.”
Aleksy put his hand on my shoulder. “Might be the best thing that ever happened to you.”
I drew away. “That’s what V would say. You’re both probably right but I’ll be homeless by the end of the month if I’m not working for Enterprise. Lester’s got me by the balls. I gotta stay until this is finished.”
“You have anything to drink?”
I poured 2 Glenmorangies.
“V doesn’t know I lied to Lester. She thinks I had the balls to tell him I won’t be his spy. She’s gonna split when I tell her I’m staying.”
“It won’t be the first time work got in the way of love. If she really loves you she’ll hang around.”
“You don’t know her. I’ve lied to her before.”
“I was going to tell you on the way to the airport I’ve fallen for Aamira.”
“Sana told me what happened to their family and why they do what they do. She really hates me ‘cause I’m American.”
“Don’t be so sure. I have to go. Aamira’s waiting in the car. I’ll call you tomorrow. I want to hear how things go.”
I didn’t sleep well and woke at 9 the next morning There’s an 11 hour time difference between LA and Dhahran. It was 10 at night in LA. V would be home between 2 and 3. The longer I waited the more anxious I became. I waited until 2 in the afternoon, 3AM in LA.
“Hello.” V answered on the first ring.
“Hi! You’re not sleeping?”
“Of course not.” She sat in front of a mirror wiping off makeup.
“You got my message?”
“Yes. Why weren’t you on Skype all day. I wanted to find out what’s going on.”
“When are you coming?”
“Lester threatened to fire me if I left. We have problems on the project.”
She put down the cleansing pad and began pacing. “You didn’t talk about them before you went over there?”
“We thought the new guy could handle it, but he can’t. I have to…”
“Quit.” She stopped pacing and pointed at the camera in her tablet.
There was a moment of silence then the screensaver was staring at me. V and I were smiling on Coronado beach with Mangan at our feet. I called her 3 times. She didn’t answer.
Now I began pacing back and forth, back and forth. Finally I stopped and stood at the window pouring scotch. Aleksy and V were right. It was time to start marching to a different drumbeat. Getting fired was the best thing. My brain was swinging like a pendulum. At one end I could tell Lester to go fuck himself at the other I could do his bidding with my tail between my legs. I knew this was the defining moment. To keep V there was no choice. Lester be damned; I had to get on the next plane to LA.
I didn’t catch the next flight, I stayed at the hotel and called her. She didn’t answer. My plan was to go to the airport after we talked. We never talked. She sent an email...NO MAS! NO MAS! NO MAS!
Aleksy called when I was on my 3rd Glenmorangie.
“What did she say?”
“What I thought she would...quit. I’m gettin’ drunk.”
“Meet us at the mall. We need to talk.”
The Dhahran Mall - America’s gift to the Middle East - was across the street from my hotel. Spotlights flashed across a one-story sprawl whose blue ceiling was sprinkled with white clouds - a reminder of Heaven to all local Muslims with everything hellishly overpriced. Most of the mall’s shoppers were the adolescent mall chicks seen around the world, but in Saudi Arabia they walked the mall with Momma wearing abayas and jihabs. One group gaggled over an issue of Vogue as they window shopped. The women were not the average Saudi, they were the wives and children of Saudoil's executives.
Aleksy and Aamira sat at the Starbuck’s across from Dairy Queen.
“We did some grocery shopping at HyperPanda. I’m trying to convince Aamira to buy Rihan Al Aoud from ASQ but she won’t go for it...doesn’t want to give $200 for perfume to a King Abdullah supporter.” Aleksy hugged me, Aamira nodded.
“Hello.” Was that a smile on Sana’s face? “Want a coffee?”
“No thanks. I’ve been drinking. Coffee and alcohol don’t mix well.”
“Come on, Aamira. If I can’t convince you to buy from ASQ than we’ll go to Sephora. You guys can stay here and get re-acquainted.” Aleksy got up. Mindful of etiquette, he didn’t take Aamira’s hand even though her face was uncovered.
Sana’s jet black hair framed a symmetrical face of unblemished olive skin. A mystic’s eyes gazed at me like Nefertiti. She was a work of art. I remembered Hussong’s and thought of another.
“You went home. Why come back?”
“My job. I didn’t want to return but I had no choice.”
“You always have a choice.” A woman smart-assing me; I didn’t need that.
“My girlfriend said the same thing. Now I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“So you drink during the day.”
“You must be psychic.”
“You’ve forgotten my profession. I get paid to know how men behave. You look awful.”
“Was that a hint that I need servicing?”
“No. You’ve been drinking. It’s early in the day. You have a problem. ”
“My girlfriend just said ‘good-bye’ this afternoon.”
“From what I’ve heard from my clients girlfriends are a dime a dozen...maybe a little more expensive.”
“Not permitted in America?”
“We are the land of the free and the home of brave. No room for cynics.”
“The loss of three brothers and a broken father breeds cynicism. I wanted to talk to you because you wanted to help us.”
“Aleksy told us what you did in Baghdad. How you helped get the pizza guy out of Baghdad with his son. I was hard on you the night at La Gondola, maybe too hard. I told Aamira about your offer. She said we should give you a chance.”
“We can talk about it later. After I fix things with my girlfriend.”
But like Humpty Dumpty, at that time all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put V and me together again.
Published by Bill Snyder