It freezes my heart this dark Chicago ravaged by the wind.  It clogs my soul with gray dismay.  I want to bang my head against the wall and die.  I’m beat and I can’t sleep, so I eat pretzels and drink Old Overholt staring out the window into this polar Sunday night as clear as the loneliness that is choking me, right here, right now, on the twenty-second floor of dreadful 4700 South Lake Park Avenue, this brown thing that looks like the offspring of a hotel and a prison, waiting for the first tinge of light to crawl out of the lake, hoping to be zonked enough by then that I can lay down and close my eyes and quit seeing you.  Wherever I look.

This evening, before leaving for the gig, I googled your name.  There’s no trace of you out there.  I searched for Leela Smith, Leela Brown, Leela Johnson, but the Leelas I found are too young or too old to be you.  I wonder where you are.  If you are alive.  If you have a family.  I wonder if there is a lucky someone with whom you make love the same way we did, to whom you give all there is to be had, willingly, because it pleases you.  I hope you’re happy.  I hope your life turned out to be what you expected.


Mine turned out to be a desert dotted with oases of mediocrity.  I write scores for TV ads.  The last one is not bad actually—lots of pathos—a pirogue gliding on the flat surface of a pond early in the morning.  And I still play.  I’m in The Chuck Liotta Quartet with Sheena Jackson right now, chasing a record deal.  We have a two-month Sunday gig at the Green Dolphin and do one-night stands all over town.  Are we any good?  Not really.  Sheena is a pretentious old girl who thinks she can be as hot as Billie Holiday if she just drinks enough.  Chuck’s an alto player who sees himself as the heir to Ornette Coleman but has to tone it down otherwise he gets no work at all.  The bass guy is an old journeyman like me.  The drummer is dynamite though—a kid from Memphis—if this band has any luster whatsoever it comes from him.  As far as my genius is concerned, it is apparent by now that it’s limited.  Blazing speed, that’s all my guitar has to offer.  That’s the scoop.

Vivid images.  My first day on the job, sometime in October.  A day of Santa Ana winds, vaguely surreal, when the smog is driven to the coast and the air inland is for once cool and clean, and the murky mood of Los Angeles is instantly transformed into one of unhinged exhilaration.  A brand-new mini-mall on Santa Monica Boulevard, just east of Sepulveda, a white two-story building with a blue roof.  The owner was an entrepreneur from the old country who had hired me essentially because I spoke Italian.  He was giving me the grand tour, overwhelming me with all sorts of erratic information.  As he was busy fishing some architectural plans out of the trunk of his car, the door of the hair salon swung open and you walked out, paralyzing me.  An Amazon chewing gum.  Six-foot one, a wide face with angular features, a bob of strawberry blond hair, massive breasts, the legs and arms of a serious athlete.  Not an ounce of fat where it shouldn’t be: the girlfriend of Hercules.  You had a pale blue shift on and a pair of tennis shoes of all the colors of the rainbow.  I don’t think you were gorgeous in a classic way—most men probably felt put off by your size—but you sure knocked me out cold.  You strolled along the mall’s sidewalk with the casual grace of a big cat, then felt the heat of my gaze and turned, giving me a puzzled look and popping a big bubble.  I sensed that such an intense appreciation of your presence was something you didn’t experience too often.

Trying to learn the job took most of my energy the first few days—I had to keep my distance.  But after a week or so, I walked into the mini-mart to get myself a coke and there you were, standing by the cooler choosing a juice.  You were wearing washed-out jeans this time, with a white shirt knotted at the waist and another pair of wild tennis shoes.  You turned when you heard me coming and smiled.

“Hello… I’m Luke Torelli… the new manager.”

“Yes, I know.  Leela Rowe.  Pleased to meet you,” you replied, and I discovered your southern accent.

I groped for something else to say as we were shaking hands, totally mesmerized by the lovely green of your eyes and by your delicate perfume, then I just took a leap—feeling like a trapeze artist trying a new stunt with no net.

“You’re very beautiful, you know?”

That caught you by surprise.  “Why, thank you.”

“It’s the first time… I’ve seen you alone… and I wanted to…”

“Who are you, Quick Draw McGraw?”

“Absolutely not.  I’m being a little… abrupt, I guess.”

“Just a tad.”

“I apologize.  You’re right… I don’t even know if you’re… married or… if you have a…”

“No, I’m not.  And I don’t have one.”

“Great then.”

“Is it?”

“Yes.  So you can go out with me.”

“Umm.  Do I look like an easy girl to you?”

“Oh, no.  Look… I’d just love to sit down with you for an hour, that’s all… a glass of wine, a plate of spaghetti…”

That got me a good laugh, and what a wonderful laugh it was—deep, healthy, full of spirit.  “Can’t quite tell if you’re Clark Kent or the King of Lasso.   But how can a girl refuse a plate of spaghetti?”  Then you found a business card, asked me for a pen and scribbled down your home number.

Raving years the early Eighties—Los Angeles awash in cocaine, people acting big and talking bigger, everybody trying to live their life with oomph, chasing their ambitions with a vengeance, constantly on the hunt for a way to sneak into the inner sanctuary of the few chosen ones.  Success.

And image was as important as the size of your dream.  My ride was a real head-turner, a ’52 military Jeep painted ivory with a hand brush, topless, with fat tires and bucket seats.  Top speed was 50 miles an hour, which inevitably infuriated the other drivers when I was crawling up Sepulveda to come to see you in Sherman Oaks.

You lived somewhere off Ventura, in a small two-story building surrounding a lush courtyard with a tiny swimming pool in the middle.  Your one-bedroom apartment was spotless, nicely furnished and very feminine—lots of lace, lots of pink.

You were as excited as I was when you opened the door, dressed to kill in a tight black dress and black shiny pumps that made you a good three inches taller than me.

Spaghetti was ditched in favor of shrimp fajitas and we took the short drive to the restaurant in my Jeep, with you laughing like a little girl on a carnival ride.

We hit it off magnificently.  Sipping margaritas the size of bathtubs as an old maestro in a gray suit played the Cucaracha on the harp, I learned that you were from Texas, that you had been in L.A. three years, same as I, that you were a discus champion in high school with a throw of fifty-one meters and now lifted weights at the gym four times a week, that you weighed 177 pounds—only five pounds less than I did—and ate a lot of tuna and loved perfumes and owned eight pairs of size ten custom made Vans, that you were thirty years old, same as I, and that you left Corpus Christi because your veterinary boyfriend wanted to get married and have a truckload of babies while you were sick of being a dental hygienist and wanted to become a famous stylist to the stars instead.  And you learned that I was a musician and my goal was to write movie scores, that my real name is Luca because my family immigrated to the States from Genoa when I was ten and that I grew up in Pittsburgh where my dad had a pizzeria and my mom taught piano, that I had gotten a medical discharge from the Navy in Nam in 1971 for having been caught smoking pot by an admiral on an unannounced inspection—the one unlucky soul on a ship that sailed in a cloud of marijuana—and upon coming back I had tried my luck as a light-heavy weight and ended up with three wins, three losses and two draws, the reason for my face being what it is, and that having children wasn’t in my program either.

Passion is the only thing that really counts.  Without it life doesn’t mean a thing, becomes mere survival.  But you can’t create it out of thin air.  It must happen by itself, like spontaneous combustion.  Sheena, my singer, comes to mind.  The queen of piloted love.  Squeeze me here, talk dirty, kiss me there, tell me that you love me.  I see her every now and then because sometimes you must touch somebody else’s flesh, you must go out and have a cup of coffee with another soul, you must speak, articulate thoughts.  Well, she doesn’t make love to you.  She makes love to herself through you.  Nonetheless she’s convinced she possesses the sensuality of a black panther.  And she sings with the same distant mind-set she makes love with.  She sings because it befits the exotic image she has of herself.  I play to tell a story instead.  Maybe I’m not very good at it, but you can tell that behind my music there’s some passion—there’s Little Luke trying to offer something to the world.  I’m being too harsh probably, but mankind, myself included, has not lived up to my expectations.

I’m getting sloshed on rye at this very moment and there’s the pot in Nam, but I’ve always been a two-beer kind of guy and so were you—L.A.’s drug frenzy didn’t touch us.  That’s why after two margaritas we were quite drunk.  We started going at each other on the stairs to your apartment, actually I went at you while you were fumbling for the keys, giggling.  The fireworks began the moment we shut the door.  I held you close for a long time against that door, kissing you and fondling you in the half-light—discovering thighs and buttocks as hard as rosewood.  Then you helped me take off your dress but let me fumble for a full minute with your bra, smiling mischievously, before telling me that it snapped on the front.  Your breasts were glorious.  Huge, firm, perfectly symmetrical, with tiny pink nipples.  I must have had an ecstatic expression when I was finally able to free them because you burst out laughing.  I gently eased you on the couch and knelt by your side burying my face into you, tasting your body, absorbing your fragrance.  You had a shelf covered with perfumes in your bathroom, but the one you had on right then was called Green Briar and it remains with my senses—incense, orange, pepper, wood sap—it was a heavenly match to your skin.  We made love forever, with great intensity, with me pulling back and stopping periodically to make it last as long as possible.

Eventually, at first light, done in but not spent, we ended up on your bed.  You were lying on your belly, up on your elbows, resting your chin on your hands, looking pensively outside the window with your thighs a bit spread apart.  I was sitting next to you with my legs crossed, admiring your body and caressing your curves.  Suddenly you turned, peeked down at where my longing was apparent and then looked up at me with a severe expression, but you couldn’t hold it and broke up in one of your laughs.

“You look like a mountain lion just about to pounce on the little lamb,” you said.

I raised my shoulders smiling.  “Can’t change nature.  Poor old lion’s got to eat too.  And that’s a big lamb anyway.”

That made you laugh again.  Then you paused, looking straight in my eyes, probing, dead serious.  Finally you came up on your knees with one effortless move and hugged me so hard it hurt.  You reached between my legs and squeezed me, biting me gently on the lips and whispering something in my ear that only you and I will ever know.  Then you turned and bent over, offering yourself.  And that was beautiful.

Those were busy days.  You were always working long hours and I had my music.  I was constantly composing and sending out demos.  Friday nights I played with a keyboardist in a bar in San Pedro.  Wednesdays I had a solo gig in a steakhouse in Malibu.  I was also playing in a blues band but we weren’t doing much.

The weekend was ours.  Saturday mornings you worked and I gave lessons, but at two in the afternoon the world would come to a halt and our own little planet would start rotating in its place.  I always made a stop for submarines at the deli on 2nd Street, in Santa Monica—yours was always a large chicken breast with roasted peppers, shredded lettuce and olive oil.  We made love all afternoon, later went to listen to some band, or if I was playing somewhere you came along and when we got back to your place we ate vanilla ice cream and made love some more and I would sing arias from old operas to you, softly, mindful of the neighbors, as you listened enraptured, and then we made love again till the morning.

Sunday we got up late and while you stretched and messed about with a pair of 15-pound dumbbells I made coffee and waffles and sometimes you would trim my hair.  In the afternoon you’d ride your Bug behind my Jeep and we would move to my place, a large ground floor studio at the very end of Venice Boulevard.  We would play paddle tennis or jog on the beach, occasionally we’d go to the movies.  You would always insist that I play a little while, just for you.  Then I’d make pizza from scratch or grill burgers on the hibachi and we would retire early for another night of ice cream and love.  I can’t remember us having the slightest disagreement ever.

Why did it end then?  I don’t know.  In the early spring I was fired.  I wasn’t cut for that job.  I started selling used cars, but it didn’t last long because I got a gig in Vegas.  I went for two months the first time.  When I came back we took up where we left off.  Shortly after though I signed a six-month contract and had to leave my apartment in Venice and get one there.  It was serious money and I didn’t have to do anything but play my music for it.  In the mean time you took a chair in a salon in Beverly Hills.  At some point you came to see me for a week and I came back to see you a couple of times.  But we couldn’t hold it together.  I signed another contract.  You started to see somebody—I started to see somebody.  Then one day your phone was disconnected.  Two years later I came back to L.A. and wasn’t able to find you.  Vanished.  Turn the page.

The way I see it, life flows down the river and you chase it and that’s about all you can do.  Of course there are choices to be made.  But are you really responsible for the choices you make?  Aren’t we all led by what’s inside us, and isn’t what’s inside us also the product of all that’s happened to us from the instant we came to this world?  So, is it my fault if I am who I am?  If I desire what I desire?  If I’ve never met another woman, among the multitude of women I have met, whose love could trigger mine?  And who cares whose fault it is anyway?  At some point somewhere I made a wrong choice, that’s the merciless truth, and the thought of what could have been torments me.  Devours my guts.  Rips my soul apart.  But you can’t dwell in those thoughts, you just can’t, I know it, you must keep them way deep inside your head, compressed as a whisper, even if they want to grow and become a scream, because who knows how destiny works, and if you start thinking in terms of what is and what could have been that scream will become louder and louder and louder, till you lose what little hold you have on the tiny air bubble that keeps you all together.  And the whole castle of cards comes crashing down.

The bottle’s half empty, the pretzels are gone and my head buzzes like the blackest of bumblebees.  Below me a ghostly train is noiselessly zipping along a wind-whipped Burnham Park, the frigid lake behind still dark and inert.

I have no idea where this shred of hope that’s wrapped around my heart like a minuscule octopus comes from—simple desire to go on living I guess.  Or the one in a trillion possibility that one day I turn a corner and there you are, changed only by time.  But I welcome it gratefully.  And I offer it to you, who once graced my existence with your unlimited love.

Lying languidly on that bed, staring thoughtfully out the window, your body still moist from love, the night turning pink, the city all around slowly uncoiling into its diurnal shape, you were absolutely splendid, Leela.  You were the one.