Comments welcome on this first full draft of the story. -jb.
Liza does everything too fast. Right now she is careering down a tangled stretch of California's Pacific Coast Highway two miles north of Bodega Bay. She is skirting the rim of the continent in a blue 1962 Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce that she bought on impulse online with a credit card that had a zero balance once. The top is down and the heat is on high because despite the brilliant sun the air along this ledge, 200 feet above the ocean, is almost always cool, especially at 45-plus mph in a topless car.
Liza is headed to San Francisco to explain to a couple who has commissioned her to create a trompe l'oeil installation in the living area of their South of Market loft why the painting won't be finished in time for the unveiling party. She is still working on her story. The truth—she just hasn't felt like painting—can't be told. The right approach, though, will buy her time, something to the effect of, "I want to mix an orange vermillion as close to the International Orange used on the real bridge, and once I figure out the right color, I need to have enough of the right elements on hand to make enough to paint it in one try. It won't work to paint it in stages. The colors will be off." As long as they vaguely understand what she's talking about, she'll be fine. Especially if they think that the holdup is an egregious attention to detail.
Authenticity is very important to SoMa types and so is adherence to the finer points. They insist on it. One Silicon Valley CEO flew her to Vietnam to see the village where his mother grew up so she could recreate not only the look of the Marble Mountains of Da Nang, but also the feeling of living with them—in the foyer of his company's headquarters. A 30-year-old Microsoft retiree commissioned her to convert his den into a 3-D Tetris game environment. He found a composer who also played the game create music for it. The guy slept in the room with nothing but a computer, a monitor, and an electronic piano keyboard for four and a half months. Alexey Pajitnov came to the room warming party. Liza enjoyed both projects, particularly the last one, because it wasn't as literal as painting a fake window with a fake view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Telegraph Hill for someone who thinks it's the first time it's ever been done.
Those tech projects paid. She could still be living on what she made on those two gigs alone, if she had invested it and paid her day-to-day with what she made painting kilim rugs on Marin County floors. The only modest part of her indulgence in the boom was that she fell into it just 18 months before the money, good and bad, began to evaporate.
People warned her. The Marble Mountains magnate gave her the numbers of several people in San Francisco who could help her manage her money so she'd be set. But having struggled for so long, Liza preferred to taste what she had seen others enjoy. She returned to Vietnam with the security guard who worked most of the nights she had painted the mountains. She bought her car and a shitload of art supplies: not just paints and canvases, but a computer, scanner, color printer, and some art, too. She went out to dinner, flew to Europe on a whim, compiled a 2,000 CD music library and had a state of the art sound system installed in her apartment with speakers wired in the studio. Who knows what she did with the money—she enjoyed it while she had it, and unfortunately after she'd spent it, too. She had grown so accustomed to the weekly massages available at the Net startups she painted that after those gigs ended she paid for massages herself. That's something she hasn't done for a few months. She hasn't been painting, either. Liza wriggles in her seat, pushes her shoulders back, tocks her head side to side to stretch her neck.
It is 10:30 in the morning on the last day of October. No one else is on the road and Liza sees nothing but her own distress. The Holsteins calmly munching grass, here and there a suckling calf, the hand-painted sign advertising eggs for sale on a front porch, a man in mid-stride, wearing a farm hat, silhouetted against the cerulean sky on the crest of an emerald hill—all invisible.
Today this is what Liza sees: three months of taking cash advances on her credit cards in order to make the minimum payments on debt that has crept up to become more than half her gross annual income, more than the amount of money she needs to live on for a year; a crazy couple barking at her to finish their project; a profound disgust for these clients and the project, a disgust that is at odds with her deep need for the money waiting for her if she'd just fucking do it; an eviction notice from her current landlord, another client, a Zen Buddhist on retreat in Japan, whose home she's been living in for the past six months—and in the living room of which she's supposedly been painting a Japanese garden. Another story she's going to have to devise, but at least she has a few more weeks for that one. Still, Liza has about three month’s worth of work before her, with two weeks to finish it. And two other projects waiting to be started.
Liza is in trouble. She needs to find a new place to live, one that won’t require a security deposit or credit check. She might be able to ask Max and Lonnie Morgan to stay with them, tell them she wants to power through and finish their Golden Gate living room, but that could be tricky. Lonnie is a jealous motherfucker, and manipulative, too, so if she senses that Liza is desperate—actually, though, that could work. If Liza plays it like she’s covering up for wanting to be close to Max, Lonnie might agree, just so she can catch them.
And she can work Max, who is a sexist motherfucker who would never turn down an option in into her pants. She’d be able to put him off by being super focused and slipping lines that let him know she needs the money so she really wants to finish the job. Then, asshole that he is, he will slip her cash early, to keep her going. She just has to keep it tight this time, and finish the work and move on, not use the advance to cover her ass to slack even more—see, this is exactly how she got here. This is the shimmy she’s been doing for three years, and it has spun her out of control.
Who is she kidding—two projects due by the end of the month, one that will pay, the other that, done or not, will leave her out of a home. Another project on the burner, but not even started, so at least three months from seeing anything beyond the deposit she's already spent—and not on paint. There is really no excuse for this. Any of this. And seemingly no way out of it, either. If only she could buy something, that would make her feel better.
Liza enjoys the immediate fulfillment of a purchase, a transaction that occurs in minutes, rather than over months. She likes the simplicity of casing a store, letting something catch her fancy, and taking it with her. She pays, she owns the object, like that. Simple. Quick. With a pleasure that is rather long lasting. Not the drawn-out labor of sketching, then painting something, the patron drifting in from time to time to ask questions or make insipid remarks about the process or the progress of the work or about Liza herself. "It's so fascinating how you work." "I could never do what you do." "You're an amazing artist." Spending so much time in those homes, those offices, Liza acquired a sense of entitlement to a lifestyle she feels she deserves more than those who were born to it, if only because she's better at expressing it. She doesn't have to hire anyone to create it for her.
Speeding is one luxury Liza has always been able to afford and it provides a similar rush to what she feels when she buys herself something nice. The faster she drives, the more she has to concentrate on where she's going, what she's doing, so the less she focuses on how dire her situation is. When she takes a curve, downshifts to pull out some power, she feels strong, skillful, in control. She leaves everything behind her and focuses on the road and the fast little car she eats it up in. But today reality is keeping pace. She is unable to ignore the fact that she's been fooling herself. Her insistent lifestyle is catching up with her, overtaking her, and just when Highway 1 wends its way inland behind the Bodega Bay peninsula and there is no wind but for the one she creates by pushing the car to 60, then 70, then 80, her thoughts begin to overcome her; the faster she goes, the larger reality looms. Liza has attained that velocity at which everything is moving so rapidly it appears to stand still. She is staring at a freeze-frame of her life and the vision scares her shitless.
Now, as she emerges through the trees onto the proscenium of land raised over the Pacific, Liza recognizes her high-speed chase as a flight. A familiar pang stabs her in the chest, and she finally realizes what that sensation is: fear. Already going too fast for these parabolic curves, she presses the gas pedal further toward the floor.
In the time it takes to downshift to second gear to muster power for the climb up the next winding incline, Liza glimpses her only exit from this cold, dismal snapshot of her life, which continues to loom ever larger and all the more dreadful the faster she drives to evade it: she must leap out of the frame.
Liza knows these hairpin switchbacks intimately and she takes it as a sign that just about half a mile away is a vista point that will serve as a perfect launch pad for her flight into the next world. She feels encouraged; she feels this is the wisest decision she has ever made. The sharp pain of dread in her chest is replaced by a warm wave of calm that radiates through her like the flush triggered by a really good kiss. She is surprised to hear herself yelp with glee. As she rounds the next lobe of land she looks across the ravine between it and the following outcrop, where the lookout point is. The dirt lot is empty of cars, and the ribbon of road is vacant as far as she can see—another indication that she is doing the right thing. She doesn’t even think to take a final inventory before checking out, to say mental goodbyes—she is done with it all. All she sees is the road and the blue beyond: her destination, the line where ocean meets sky.
Liza has been accused of being passive-melodramatic. She acknowledges there may be something to that.
When Liza paints, when she is in the zone, she is both painter and painting. She is a channel through which a vision makes its way to the wall. When she’s working on a lifelike mural she will enter the world she is painting, walk down the path she has laid out, sniff the trees she has sketched. She paints without regard for time and often does not eat or drink for hours or sleep for days. This deprivation induces trances she has to paint herself out of: Finish this tree and you may have a sandwich. Lay every brick in the path and you may go pee. You're not sleeping until that sky looks so real the sun seems to have fallen behind the baseboard. The only thing Liza won't paint is people. She creates environments for people to project themselves into, not portraits staring at a room. She loses herself in her best ones—like the Marble Mountains—views the finished scene with wonder and awe, surprised, looking back, that she created it; sad to leave but pleased to have had her time with the scene, the place, to have visited awhile. She knows an installation is done when she wakes from it, as from a good dream. Then she proceeds to the next one. Or, she used to, when her projects came just one at a time, with respites in between. This is what Liza feels right now: as if she is just waking. She knows nothing but that this is the right trajectory to follow, to splay this last arc across the canvas.
Now she crosses the shoulder to the gravel-covered ochre dirt. Something tells her to close her eyes. Seeing just the white heat of the sun through her eyelids, she smiles, feels giddiness rise in her again, and pushes the pedal down. She anticipates the weightlessness of the freefall, is anxious for it. When she is half way to the edge of the cliff, she hears a voice bellow "NOOOOOO!" and instinctively honors the signal by slamming her foot on the brake, which causes the car to spin left and send dust billowing all around her. At the same moment she is questioning the conflicting messages fate is sending her today, she hears a thump on the passenger's side of the car, followed by the sound of air being knocked from a person's lungs, then a dead weight falling to the ground.
She stopped so quickly she didn't think to stamp on the clutch, and the car shutters and stalls out. She can't see anything through the dust but hears the roar of the surf below. The heater is still running and she bats it off. The ocean crescendos. The engine emits arrhythmic ticks. The sunlight slices planes through the dust cloud around her. Liza sits there, the grainy powder stinging her nostrils, the cool air raising gooseflesh on her bare arms and legs, and contemplates what just happened. A moment ago she was sure she had to die, and now she feels fantastically alive. She is firmly in the present—no longer running from past mistakes, uncompelled to hurry toward a new distraction from them. She is just right here. She is hyper aware of her own body, of the chill on her skin, the dirt on her face and in her throat, the heat of the sun on her head. She feels her heartbeat in her heaving chest and hears it thumping in her ears. Her breath surprises her: she is panting as if she just ran that last half-mile. She feels a cough rising in her throat but hears one first, coming from the vicinity of her right front wheel. She unfastens the lap belt and grabs the windshield to pull herself up from the driver's seat.
"Hello? Is someone there?"
A scraping of gravel and the muffled sputterings of a person choking on tears or anger or both emanate through the dust, then follow the distinct, decisive cursings of a person in pain.
"'Is anybody there?' you fucking moron. No, there's nobody here. Back up and try it again, shithead. Sorry to have foiled your suicide attempt, you stupid, sorry motherfucker. God! I would have let you kill yourself if it wouldn't have killed me, too."
"Hey!" Liza scrambles out of the car and scutters around to where the voice is originating, her perfectly manicured milk-pale feet slipping half out of her mules, the slick soles sliding across the pebbles and grit.
"Did you set the fucking brake, Kamikaze?" Liza leans over the passenger's side and yanks on the lever, then looks down at the crumpled dusty heap at her feet.
"I am so, so, so, so sorry. Are you OK? I mean, you seem to be pretty OK—OK enough to be angry, which is a good sign, I think. Aren't you? OK, I mean?"
Liza isn't really listening for an answer, and there isn't one to hear, anyway. She bends down to examine her interlocutor and sees that he is wearing the sienna robe of a Buddhist monk. She is struck by the roundness of his hairless head and catches a glimpse of his light brown face before he turns it away from her: it is streaked with the grime made of dust mixed with hastily wiped tears. She puts a hand on his shoulder and lets him roll his body away from her. "Look, I'm really sorry. I didn't—I didn't even see you. I looked—I was looking for cars, but I didn't see you—"
"You didn't see me, because you had your fucking eyes closed, Kamikaze. And excuse me, but I think you knew exactly what you were doing, except for the part where you hit me. You were checking out, bitch—"
"All right, OK, now that's enough. You're mad, fine, I can take that, I deserve it, but please stop it with the 'bitch' and the 'Kamikaze.' You don't even know me. I am not a bitch. And I am not suicidal."
"It sure looked like you were trying to kill one of us."
Liza coughs madly, and stands up, reaches into the car for a bottle of water. She gulps down a few mouthfuls and offers it to the monk, who refuses it at first, until she insists he take a swig. While he is drinking her phone rings and once again she folds herself over the side of the car to retrieve it from her purse, which has toppled open end first and disgorged its contents onto the floor. She walks around to the far side of the car to take the call. It is Max, the man of the couple she was supposed to meet. She tells him she's not able to make the meeting—she's had an accident, she's hit someone, she needs take care of things, then go home and rest; she will call him when she's feeling up to it. As she claps the phone shut, she realizes what this means: she is off the hook. With both her projects. Nobody's going to ask to see a hospital report, and they won't come up here to check on her. She is free.
"Was that Bachelor No. 1, or No. 2? Your main dude—or the married guy?" In answer to her incredulous gaze, the monk continues, "Come on, chick like you, ride like this, you know you've got more than one dude. Am I right?" He huffs a single, sneery "Ha!" and looks away, not expecting a reply.
"All right, listen: I don't care how much pain you're in, knock it off. I am not a 'bitch' or a 'chick.' "
"I'm right about the dudes, though, aren't I?" His eyes are steely but his cheeks still wear his tears and Liza realizes he was crying before she hit him. Or nearly hit him—she's not sure what actually happened. His lips are hard. "Come on. Admit it."
She looks away from him, then glares at his face. "Enough about me. What were you doing, standing on a highway berm? Someone drop you here?" The monk flinches, just barely, but Liza sees it and she smirks and she goes on, mocking his snide tone: "Maybe you're the kamikaze—maybe I saved you from jumping." Maybe Liza imagines it, but the monk looks to her like he's going to cry, so she lets him off. "What are you, a monk?"
He turns away from her, sets his backside on the edge of the hood of the car, digs into his robe and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. Without looking at her he says, "You born that clever, or is that what you learn in business school?"
"Business school? Business school? You think I'm a business person?" She turns away, crosses her arms over her chest, and matches his sitting posture on the trunk of the car. "You're definitely not an intuitive monk, that's for sure." They stay there, the passenger's side door between them, not talking, facing the ocean. The monk's cigarette crackles and whistles when he inhales and a soft gust blows the smoke toward Liza and the scent both arouses her and makes her sad and she starts to fidget. She uncrosses her arms, rests her hands at her sides on the car; sticks her legs out straight and crosses them at the ankles; brings one hand to her face, brushes her lips with her fingertips. The monk walks toward her, slowly, holding out the cigarette pack.
"I can intuit a smoker's itch."
"Wrong again, Icarus." She pushes off the car and walks around the back to the driver's side and gets in. He turns his back to her, sits on the open window well and finishes his cigarette.
Liza grips the steering wheel. Stares ahead, off into the blue, speaks to the sky.
"Well, what do they say: 'Before enlightenment, act like an asshole; after enlightenment, act like an asshole.'"
"I think you mean, 'Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.'"
"Same difference." Her joy has dissipated. This crabby holy man has knocked the wind out of her. And yet she doesn't want to leave him.
"So, you want a ride somewhere? I may as well drive you wherever you're going."
"I got here, didn't I? I can get back."
"Yeah. Next time you'll actually get hit." She slides the key into the ignition. "But hey, if that's what you want..."
The monk takes one last drag and flicks the butt over the cliff. He gets into the car with an ease that would make a person think he's used to riding in this vehicle. Liza does not put the car in gear. She is still staring over the edge, looking slightly toward the monk. He doesn't look at her.
"Icarus, huh?" He chuckles. "You were the one headed for the sun."
"Look. I—whatever I did just now, I'm sorry you got caught up in it. I didn't mean to scare you. Please just let me give you a ride. I owe you that much—come on, don't you believe in karma? That things happen for a reason? Let's just ride this thing all the way out. We can't leave it here on this cliff, with me driving on and you standing here. Well, maybe you can, but I can't. Don't make me do that."
He shrugs. Still doesn't look at her.
"I'm Liza, by the way."
The monk makes a slight bow toward the dashboard, but doesn't say anything. Liza leans back into her seat and huffs a sigh. Without looking at the monk, she asks him his name.
"Why are you so obsessed with who I am, what I am? My name is immaterial. For the purposes of this trip, let's just say I'm another person made to suffer the consequences of your actions, a disaster you will twist around to your advantage, to serve you."
The sun flares on a patch of water and Liza is momentarily blind. She squeezes her eyes shut and grips the wheel so tightly her fingernails dig into her palms. She considers telling the monk to get out of her car, but something tells her not to be a baby, not to give him the satisfaction of thinking he's right.
"Look, I heard you on the phone with that guy. You are going to use this as an excuse to break up with him."
"Ha! Wrong yet again! I was not breaking up with him, I was breaking an appointment with him."
"Breaking an appointment today, perhaps, but you're definitely breaking it off. I see it in your clothes, I hear it in your voice, it is so obvious: You're a quitter."
The car is still parked and Liza is still staring out into the water, her hands on the wheel. She bobs up and down in her seat.
"I am definitely NOT a quitter. You don't even know me. If you did you'd know that when life gives me lemons I make—"
"You make clichés. You are a cliché. You probably paint clichés. This is exactly what I'm talking about."
"You know what I mean."
"And, more importantly, you know what I mean. That's why you keep changing the subject. Now, first of all, you said 'I have to call someone,' not 'I have to call my husband' or 'my boyfriend. But it's OK, because I'm sure you're not married."
"For your information, that guy is a client, and I am not involved with him, and I most definitely do not want to be involved with him, and for your further information, I am not involved with anyone at this particular moment, and that is as much by choice as by circumstance, thank you very much. Where do you come up with all this? And why would you assume I'm not married?"
"Because women like you wear wedding rings."
"What do you mean, 'women like me?'"
"Women who drive sports cars because of how they look. I should say, not how the car looks—or not only how the car looks—but how you look in the car. You don't even know how to drive this car. You simply drive it fast—and not because you enjoy driving fast. You're trying to get somewhere you'll never reach because you're going to fast to be aware of where you're going. Speed is a byproduct, not a goal for you. You never would have hit me if you enjoyed driving this car, if you really savored the feeling of driving it. No, you use this car just like you use people. You had your eyes closed. If you loved this car and loved driving this car and loved driving these roads in this car, you would not have driven it over a cliff with your eyes closed. You would have had the courage to stare your fate in the face. You're a coward. That car is the fiercest thing about you."
Liza heaves a quick, hard exhale through pursed lips. "Were you born this mean or is that what they teach you in Zen school?"
"Start where you are, baby, that's what they teach you. And you know what? When someone tries to run my ass off a cliff, angry is where I am. You're the one who begged to give me a ride, didn't want me to just walk away."
"Don't they also say, 'Leap and the net will appear'?"
For that the monk has no retort.
Liza begins to think about all the leaping she's done in the last three years, all the nets that have appeared—and not—to catch her. This monk talks like Steven, her monk friend in Japan, though with a crassness Liza's never heard Steven express. It's like Max Morgan's mouth with Steven's body and mind. Steven would not berate her. Will not. But she's got to tell him the truth about where his tea garden is. She's got to show him more than a few rocks and a stone lantern.
She hears him say, "Just stop. Stop struggling. It only takes one to struggle. Just give up. Don't fight the water; find a wave and let it take you to shore."
His words resonate, though not in the way he meant them. Liza realizes what the Morgan mural is missing: waves. Movement. The bay is in the background, Alcatraz, the Marin Headlands, and that's what it all looks like: a backdrop. Lifeless. Liza sees that the mural is not that far from done, not at all. The bridge is painted, and quite realistic; that wasn't the problem with the painting. She just hates it. She has the right colors. She has the whole thing. She just needs to add some life to it. She just needs to care. A little.
And the house she's living in, its Japanese garden: moss, a koi pond, a plum tree in bloom. Not that difficult, really. She's painted it in miniature several times, has the sketches on the wall, she has the paint, she has the picture—just like the other one, she has it in her. She needed inspiration, impetus. The monk has helped her with that.
Start where you are.
Here she is then on the bluff, at a dead stop. The green-gray sea and azure sky slowly materialize as the ochre clouds dissipate. She looks up when she hears the door slam, but no one is there. The chimera dissolves. Liza shivers when a light breeze swirls around her. She turns her face back forward to the ocean, shimmering in what she'd have to call a mystical sun, and watches Icarus vanish under the curl of a wave.