“How do you do that thing?”
“What thing?” Liz wondered.
“When you were on the phone with that guy that time. When his friend had that accident. You were talking to him, doing your calm compassion thing, and crying your eyes out. I was there, I saw it. But I know the guy on the other end of the line thought you were just fine.”
“I don’t know, it just happened. Milo was my friend, too. Geez—that had to be three years ago, why do you bring it up now?”
They were lying on her bed with the two dogs between them, a Great Dane named Pedro and a Mexican hairless named Lord Quincy. Her bed was the biggest extra-king sized bed she could find, bought in anticipation of her former lover, Phillip’s, visits out West. Phillip never set foot West of Philadelphia as it turned out, but she was glad now she had the bed.
It was too big during the months she lived alone, but when Abe came to visit, along with him came the dogs, who for some reason insisted on sleeping in her bed. Abe had his own room across the hall, but the dogs didn’t ever sleep in there. The dogs had loved her from the first moment they met, when she spent the night at his house in Beverly Hills after that disastrous party. They followed her around all night, her own little canine entourage. She recognized a few people at the party, but knew no one, so it was a good thing she had some guaranteed conversation starters around.
That was three years ago, when she was on her first and only trip to Hollywood to talk to some producers about turning one of her books into the basis for a TV series. The same people produced Abe’s long-running nighttime drama, where he went from playing the hunky young legal assistant to the hunky young partner in the firm. She had to admit she didn’t quite recognize him when they first met—she didn’t watch much TV. But everybody assumed she must be a good friend of his because of the dogs. Unfortunately, his soon-to-be-ex-wife thought so, too, when she crashed the party soon after midnight, stoned out of her gourd and in an ugly mood. When Tanya-the-bitch showed up, she found Liz and Abe sitting off by themselves in a corner of the garden with Lord Quincy in Liz’s lap, and Pedro lying at her feet.
Nice-looking lady, Abe thought at first as Liz came through the door. She was wearing a simple dress, closely fitted in a pale blue color. No jewelry save for a pair of plain gold posts in her ears. Mature. 40,45. Those boobs are small enough to be real. Abe liked real, especially in this room full of silicone and saline implants. One chick, he noticed, had tits the size of basketballs. Ugh. How was that any fun in bed? Water balloons. He could hear them sloshing when she moved. He moved away from her quickly.
The lady in blue came toward him and extended her hand. “Hi, I’m Liz Benson. I’m a writer, not a TV person. But Karl sent me over because he didn’t want me to be lonely tonight. First night in L.A.”
Karl had called him earlier, to let him know she was coming—but he’d been expecting a fat old lady with a chip on her shoulder. “Hi. Abe Cohen.” He took her hand, which felt nice to hold, and held it a fraction of a second longer than necessary. He didn’t see any note of recognition in her eyes. Could it be she didn’t know who he was?
“So what do you write?”
“Novels. Chick books. Cyrus Productions wants to make one of them into a series. I don’t know, I think more miniseries, movie-of-the week, maybe. So we probably won’t be working together. One of their proposed writers is a strange lady—her hair was red!” Liz shuddered. “Like that woman’s dress over there. In a crew cut, plus serious armpit hair and BO to match. I figured we’d end up shooting each other, after she unveiled her plans to turn my main guy into a brainless little politically correct wimp so I said no.”
She looked up at him, seeing a guy who was comfortable with who he was. There wasn’t any sense of being ‘on’ about him, that she’d noticed in so many of the TV actors she’d encountered on morning talk shows the last few years. He wasn’t mentally writing lines for himself in his head before speaking, while mostly ignoring what the other person was saying.
“You don’t worry they’ll think you’re old-fashioned?” He grinned down at her. She was looking better by the minute. She’d said no to the biggest TV production company in the world.
“No sir, I do not. I like men. I’ve had the pleasure of being married to a good man for fifteen years. He died. I wouldn’t have divorced him. We—I have a daughter, who’s grown up and working for a living. Doing pretty well, too. So, Mr. Cohen, what do you do?” She’d seen him on TV somewhere, but didn’t want to guess wrong.
He stood there and grinned at her for a long five seconds before he answered. “Call me Abe. Guess you don’t watch much TV?”
She shook her head. “I hate hotel TV, and I’m all over doing talk shows and things. Lately I’ve been in a different city almost every night. So you have no idea what’s on, so I just give it up and read, or do e-mail.”
“I see.” He resisted the impulse to put a hand to her face. He wasn’t sure she’d like him touching her just yet. “I’m on Legal Eagles. Wednesday night? GBC? “
“Oh, yeah—now I know! Sorry! Guess I should know these things!” She shrugged and grinned, looking down at the big dog nudging her hand. “Ooh, a Great Dane! I love dogs. I wish I could have one, but I never stay home anymore.” She petted the big dog, and knelt to get a better look at the tiny Mexican hairless.
As she knelt, Abe got a clear view down her dress. They were most likely real. She might be persuaded to stay with him tonight…
After that, Eriq showed up with Noah, and then he was talking to Brian, who was making a big comeback. He lost track of the little lady who seemed more interested in the dogs than him. He looked around the room, didn’t locate her, and went outside by the buffet, which was set up poolside. There she was. Standing by the table with a plate of food in her hand, and apologizing to the dogs.
“Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you’re allowed to have, guys! But I’m starving. I had a stupid lunch at a hotshot restaurant where there was almost no food at all. I ate the damn garnish! So please excuse me, guys…”
“Nouvelle cuisine?” Abe said, behind her. Shapely, compact little ass. He could imagine picking her up and setting her on the bathroom vanity…
“Yeah,” Liz sighed. “I was ready to pay the waiter to go down to Arby’s for me. No wonder everybody in Hollywood is so thin—the damn restaurants don’t serve food—nothing but ambience!” She popped a crab ball in her mouth. “Now this is real food. Thank you, sir, for your kindness.” She was talking with her mouth full, but she kept eating. When Abe gave permission, she fed the dogs too. “You know, this is the best buffet I’ve seen lately—if you have one of everything, you’ve got a whole balanced diet for the day!”
“The whole day?” he looked at the array of food on the table. She was right.
“Yeah, the entire day. Look around—there’s some starving actors here. That’s what they do. They starve. All that surgery and lessons and junk costs money, so some of them come to these things because of the free food. Whoever planned this knew what they were doing. Is this some kind of a benefit for something? Karl didn’t say.”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“Uh, this is your house, right?”
“But you don’t know why you’re having this party?”
“So why is that?”
“Because my ex-wife planned it. Easier to just go ahead and do it. She wasn’t around to ask.”
“H’m…well, Abe, I need to find a table so I can sit down and enjoy my meal.”
“Mind if I tag along?”
“’course not—it’s your house, right?” She found a spot in the corner of the garden, away from most of the activity, but close enough to look around. “It’s kind of disorienting seeing all these people in real life,” she said. “It’s something else doing talk shows—I can sit there and pretend I’m Matt Lauer’s or Oprah’s new best friend, but the cameras are there so it still isn’t quite real. Then some guy hollers, ’you’re clear!’ and I go back to the hotel, like it never even happened.”
“Watch it later and make it real,” he suggested.
She shook her head, and swallowed before she answered. “No, I don’t watch myself. I look like a whale in a little pink suit.” She shuddered. “And I like my food too much to go anorexic. That can’t be healthy anyway.” She looked around and pointed with her fork at the chick with the basketball tits... “Now look at her. By the time she’s 50, she’ll be bent over like Quasimodo from the weight of all that salt water, or maybe—“ She covered her mouth and giggled. “Maybe by then somebody will have invented an electronic hyperlift bra. God, I’m terrible…”
Abe was laughing too. “So you’re not in favor of a little cosmetic enhancement?” So they were real after all.
“Nope. Not for regular people, anyway. Even actors—what are they going to do when the style changes? Get something else done? Pretty damn sad, if you ask me. But I’m only a writer—I don’t hafta look good. The words are what my career is based on, so maybe I don’t even know what I’m talking about. Maybe I’m just shooting off my mouth and showing my ignorance.” She shrugged, and it was obvious she didn’t care about showing her ignorance. She took a last bite of the huge roll she was munching on, and handed the rest to the big dog. “If I give you anything more, you’ll be sick, little dog,” she said by way of apology to the other one. “Never eat anything bigger than your head.”
For the first time since Tanya left, Abe was feeling something. He was letting a woman talk to him, and what was surprising; he wanted to hear what she had to say. He wanted to hold her hand and tell her everything. For a second he was lost in some kind of warmth—a comfortable feeling she was exuding.
“So these guys have names, right?”
He came out of it. “Uh, yeah…”
“I used to know a guy who had five dogs. They didn’t have names, just numbers. Dogs number one thru five.” She’d pushed her plate away and the little dog was perched on her lap. “Hey, am I boring you? You really don’t have to play the attentive host, I’m sure there are more important people to talk to.”
“God, no. I know these people-if they want me they can find me.” He reached over and patted the little dog’s head. “This one is Lord Quincy, and the big one is Pedro.“
“They seem to get along OK.”
“Yeah, I got them both as pups about the same time. They’re four years old. My ex hated them. Quince had this nasty habit of leaving a little gift in the middle of her bed whenever she was gone overnight.” He looked at her, and in his head he was hearing sloppy wet sucky sounds. He wanted this woman.
“An organic, excremental little gift?” She was close to laughing.
“Yeah.” He winked at her.
“Well, he was making a statement. Xolos do that. Very communicative animals they are. Damn fine animals, too. If I ever settle down enough to have a dog, this is what I’d have. I know a lady in Desert Hot Springs—she raises these dogs, and they’re almost human.”
“Just learn to read their code.”
“Yep.” She sat back in her chair. “Thanks for the nice dinner, Abe.”
Her hand was resting casually at the edge of the table, and he reached over to hold her hand, to touch her. He took her small hand with the not-too-long fingernails, polished with just a touch of clear pink. Not bitchy, long nails.
“That’s a nice- lady manicure,” he remarked, stroking the back of her wrist with his thumb.
“Is it? I just have to keep my nails short otherwise they break. I’m at the keyboard all the time when I’m not on the road. But, thank you! I do it myself.” Her smile was tentative, since she’d heard this kind of thing before and was waiting for the punchline.
There was no way she’d go for a quick fuck in the bathroom. This lady did not play around. It wasn’t the words so much as the attitude, the way they were presented. He tried another tack.
“You miss your husband, don’t you?” Honey, tell me your troubles…
She raised an eyebrow, still not entirely convinced he was genuinely interested.
“Ron was my best friend. We had our little girl together, and for a long time I was a professional wife and mother. He left us one day, but it wasn’t his fault—just the luck of the draw.” She looked around at the collection of the rich and famous assembled in his backyard, and sighed. “I made half a million dollars last year, but I’d trade it all to have him back.”
A waiter clearing the table, asking if she’d like something to drink, momentarily distracted her. She asked for iced tea, and the big dog nudged Abe’s arm—the one holding Liz’s hand. She smiled, chuckling as he let go of her hand to pet the dog. “Pedro will not be ignored,” she remarked. She leaned over to whisper in the dog’s ear, and he got another glimpse of her breasts—a scant handful each, but 100% authentic. “You’ve got the boss trained right!” she said to the dog, with a wink at Abe.
The dog responded with a lick to Liz’s neck, and Abe was jealous. She laughed in delight, and brushed Abe’s fingers on Pedro’s back as she reached to give the dog a back scratch. In her lap, Lord Quincy was in heaven as she stroked his belly with her other hand.
“Wow! I have fans,” she said.
“Not all dogs either, I bet, “ Abe said, watching his dogs fall in love with this unique woman.
She shrugged, and started to say something, but there was a commotion by the back door. Giving Liz a puzzled look, Abe shrugged and went to investigate.
People had already started to leave when they saw Tanya arrive with her new boyfriend and sensed trouble brewing. By the time she ran out of steam, after setting fire to a tablecloth, and throwing half the buffet in the pool, there was nobody left but Liz and Abe and the dogs. The new boyfriend, a minor player on a competing network, was ordered by Abe to get Tanya out of there, even if he had to pick her up and carry her out.
Abe thought he was alone after going out the front to make sure Tanya was gone. When he came back outside looking for the dogs, Liz was still there, holding a shivering Lord Quincy, frightened from all the confusion and cold from a drink Tanya had thrown. Most of the drink had landed on Liz, leaving a red stain all over her light blue dress.
“The big dog went and hid somewhere, but this little guy seems to have adopted me,” she explained.
“Damn, she wrecked your dress—I didn’t see that.” He sat down on the ground in front of her, and reached for the dog. “C’mon, Quince. Yuck, you’re all sticky.”
Pedro emerged from under some bushes, and took his place by Liz again.
“Lord Quincy’s going to need a bath, I’m afraid. Me too, if I can ever find my purse and get back to the hotel.” She went over where they’d been sitting earlier to look for her purse.
“What’s it look like?”
A search of the area turned up nothing. They were standing by the pool, trying to see around the floating food and plates, when something dropped out of Abe’s hand, into the water.
“Oh, shit,” Abe muttered.
“What’s that? Geez, your hand’s bleeding!”
The wad of cocktail napkins he’d been holding to stop the blood floated in the water, already soaked before they fell.
“We need to go inside and look at that in the light.”
“So, what—are you a doctor or something?”
“No, I’m a mom, which is even better.”
In the kitchen, she saw a deep cut straight across his palm.
“It’ll be OK, “ he insisted, with the resigned tone of somebody who’s had this problem before.
“No it won’t. That’s a deep cut, and hands are complex things. You’ve got all kinds of muscles and nerves and whatnot in there. You need a doctor, not just somebody’s mom. I can’t kiss that and make it better.”
It took some talking, but finally she convinced him to let her drive him to Cedars/Sinai hospital, where he got 21 stitches and a scrip for Vicodin. He told them he cut his hand while slicing a bagel. The doctor stitching up Abe’s hand kept glancing up at Liz, with a speculative gleam in his eye. After all, she was covered with whatever red stuff had been in the glass before it left Tanya’s hand, and probably smelled like she’d been boozing since noon.
In the exam room while waiting for somebody to show up with release orders, whether it was the influence of the painkillers they’d given him or what, she’d never know, but Abe started telling her his life story. He started from the very beginning, when his mother abandoned him—only hours old -in the foyer of his grandmother’s house, wrapped in a filthy blanket with a note saying that his name was Dragon. This was a detail that was never in his PR bios. It was something only the family knew, and rarely spoke of.
His grandmother raised him, changing his name to something more acceptable, in her opinion. She sent him to private schools, got him singing, dancing, and piano lessons, and made sure he was not lonely by a lot of contact with his cousins. He spent most of his summers and school holidays with one set of cousins or the other. Eventually he attended UCLA and studied acting. There had never been much ‘down time’ for him. Since high school he’d nearly always had a job, each one better than the last. He was good at what he did, and had avoided drugs, which made him dependable and not difficult to work with.
As they were pulling up in his driveway, he admitted to Liz he was getting tired of acting. “There’s something else out there,” he said, his movements slow with exhaustion as he got out of the car. “But I don’t know what.”
It was almost 5 am by then, and even though the sky was getting light, neither of them were inclined to go fishing for her keys. Liz went to sleep in one of the house’s eight bedrooms, after washing her dress out by hand.
She was awakened around 2 in the afternoon by Abe trying to be quiet, while getting the dogs out of her bed. “Hey, it’s OK,” she said yawning. “It’s not any different from sleeping with a man. Both of them snore and fart and talk in their sleep.”
Abe loved that line, and when he stopped laughing, pointed out her luggage and briefcase sitting by a chair. “We got your purse and your keys out of the pool, too. But I thought you’d want something else to wear. I don’t think that dress is salvageable. I’m really sorry she did that, get a new one and send me the bill, OK?” He neglected to mention he’d been in the bathroom and had a good look at the ruined blue dress, hanging on the shower rod next to her white lace bra, also stained with red wine. He wondered if she was wearing matching panties…
Liz shrugged. She sat up and grinned at the pajama top she was wearing—Abe’s, which was like wearing a tent. It hung almost to her knees, so he was disappointed. There wouldn’t be any accidental glimpse of white lace, as she got out of bed, and there was something stopping him from finding out for himself.
“No biggie—I didn’t like it much, anyway. Only, I don’t quite understand, am I checked out of my hotel, or what?”
“Yeah, according to Karl he thought you were going back wherever tomorrow. But if you had any meetings or anything this morning you missed out. So I thought the least I could do was just have you stay here, since it was all my fault, keeping you up all night.”
“What a sweetie! No, I didn’t really have any plans. I’d never been out here before, so I thought I’d do some touristy stuff before heading home. Which is Arizona, by the way. Not a bad drive, really, this time of year.” She looked at his bandaged hand. “So how’s the hand?”
“Hurts like a bitch. But thanks for making me go. I saw my regular doctor and he said it could have gotten infected, and that would’ve been serious. So…”
“Like you couldn’t have figured that out for yourself?” She gave him a puzzled look, as she went to set her suitcase on the bed. “Anyway, when did you do all this stuff? Don’t you sleep?”
“Not much after she—uh, lately I just…um new season coming up…” He muddled through that and she let him. She didn’t have much choice; as she opened her briefcase to take out her computer, her pager went off.
“Yikes!” she shrieked, grinning sheepishly at Abe. “I never have gotten used to that thing.” She checked the number, and said, “Wow, that’s Matt, he never pages me…”
Abe started to leave the room as she found her phone and started dialing. “Wait a second,” she said. “I’ve got a solution to your not sleeping problem. I’ve got some herbs you can try.”
Abe sat down and watched as she comforted Matt, her agent, who was calling to inform her of their friend Milo’s car accident. He was comatose and critical. Her voice was calm and steady as she reminded Matt they’d all made plans for situations like that one day after Matt’s youngest boy, now 2, was born. They’d drawn up living wills stating their wishes for medical treatment, as well as guardianship of the children. “Remember we put them on the hidden section of the website, so any of us could get to them? So, was anybody drinking, or what? Are the kids OK?”
Tears were coursing down her face during the whole conversation, though her voice didn’t reveal a trace of her grief and worry. Abe got some tissues from the bathroom and handed them to her, and she somehow managed to wipe her eyes and her nose without missing a beat.
“Don’t overdo it,” she said to Matt. “Get somebody to keep an eye on things in the office for a day or two, and don’t forget to eat—I know how you get. And watch the coffee, OK?…no, I’m alright, I’m among friends, going home later anyway…yeah, e-mail me if there’s any change…if I have to, I will, sure…sure sweetie, I love you too. Give Lana a hug for me.”
With shaking fingers, she hung up the phone, and sat on the bed for a moment, her iron control getting away from her. Abe came over and put his arms around her, and he let her cry for a long time.