Published in A Year in Ink, San Diego Writers, Ink Anthology, Volume 13, 2020
We had a view of the Pacific from the living room of our upstairs apartment. The building was a half-block from the oceanfront boardwalk, as close as Liz and I could afford in San Diego’s South Mission Beach neighborhood, a peninsula wedged between bay and ocean, where beach bums abutted millionaires and prestige was measured by proximity to the water. Our friends Paula and Chris lived next door, and the large downstairs unit housed four Marine Corps officers. Liz furnished our living room with her Chinese red chair, cobalt blue rug, and a Picasso cubist print that repeated both hues. I found the primary colors and angular shapes jarring and often retreated to my bedroom where my quiet and less sophisticated tastes were confined. For Christmas Liz gave me an oil painting by a local artist, a 9×12-inch still life of pearl-white, ocher, and rust-colored mums in a bronze pot, that echoed the colors of my bedspread. My preferences have altered, but the painting remains one of my oldest possessions.
Over the decades Liz crosses my mind, a benign and passive presence when I gaze at the painting, which I’ve had hanging everywhere I’ve lived. When I recently moved it from the bathroom to my study—where it’s now propped in front of a mirror—the physical act of handling it triggers vivid memories. And, because memory works this way, each recollection elicits another and another.
The year before we became housemates Liz and I had been neighbors in North Mission, the less desirable side of the community. The tenants of our shabby-chic (rattan and rundown) building were single twenty-somethings who worked all week and partied on weekends. I was twenty-one, drinking legally at last, and working for a firm of La Jolla stock brokers. Liz was several years older, a loan officer at a downtown bank. She seemed more mature, more together than the others. I was drawn to her and flattered that the interest was mutual, a friendship born. When our leases were up, we decided to pool our resources on a bigger, nicer place at the south end. “Enough of this dump,” we agreed.
Liz bore a likeness to the young Isabella Rossellini. The same statuesque demeanor, height and solidity combined in an imposing figure. The same high cheekbones and arresting jawline, the same broad smile and wavy brown hair. Liz had a resonant voice to complement her bearing and with which she made definitive declarations. Even when she was wrong you admired her dogged certainty. Once she drove us miles out of our way and made us an hour late to a dinner party because she didn’t trust the directions. “I know it’s east of the university,” she said. When she finally turned around and doubled back to the clearly-marked exit, she blamed the written directions: “They had it backwards.” She could never have been a Betty, Betsy or Beth—softer diminutives of Elizabeth—she was Liz.
She came from sturdy northern European stock rooted for generations in the Midwest; an adventurous spirit brought her to San Diego after college. She was nominally, loosely, mysteriously engaged to a guy she called Prince. I never met him and don’t recall hearing his real name, so his off-stage presence in her life didn’t seem quite real. He was, she said, Polish royalty several-times-removed, scion of a moneyed family—friends of Roosevelts and Rockefellers—in upstate New York. His position in the family empire kept him from coming to California, so Liz made trips east to see him, fewer and fewer over time. She didn’t act like a woman in love. She rarely talked about Prince, shrugged off my questions.
“Aren’t you seeing Prince over the holidays?” I asked.
“Oh, Alice, don’t worry,” she replied, laughing. “Everything’s fine.”
Liz’s engagement—substantiated by a diamond ring on her charm bracelet rather than on her finger—didn’t interfere with her social life. She enjoyed talking and flirting with guys at the Beachcomber and the Pennant, neighborhood hangouts, and the happy hour spots where we gathered on Fridays after work. Near-nightly drinking was part of the beach singles milieu, an integral part of our lives at the time but never a serious concern. Liz had an impulsive streak, intensified by a few vodka martinis. Once she invited several people at a bar back to our place. I was home, making meat loaf and mashed potatoes, anticipating a quiet evening of comfort food and solitude, leftovers for the next day’s sandwiches. Liz burst in, her guests bubbling behind. They brought chips and dips, more booze, and appetites. “Something smells good,” someone said, and before long they’d decimated my meat loaf. Another time Liz agreed to go out with a man she’d met at happy hour. “It’s not really a date,” she told me, without elaborating on what it actually was. On the scheduled Friday night, she didn’t show up after work. She called me from some noisy spot to say she could barely remember what this guy looked like, didn’t want to go out with him, what had she been thinking, would I make excuses for her. He arrived promptly, and instead of making some excuse at the door I invited him in, saying “I’m sure she’s on her way—rush hour traffic and all.” A little later, “She must have been held up at work.” When it was clear he’d been stood up he asked if I’d have dinner with him. I was eager to be rid of him, told him I had plans. Liz got home late, tipsy, unapologetic. She laughed at my sputtering indignation:
“Oh Alice, I knew you’d handle it.”
Her politics leaned far, far right. While our peers were reading Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey, Liz read Ayn Rand. I was apolitical and impressionable, ripe for conversion. She gave me a copy of Atlas Shrugged, her favorite book.
“It’s brilliant,” she said. “You have to read it.”
It was a new hardback, but she had gone page by page and highlighted key passages. I found it long and tedious, the characters overblown, the narrative pure propaganda. I was both appalled and amused. Not one for confrontation, I told Liz it was food for thought. I don’t remember anything about it except the sensationalist promotional slogan: “Who is John Galt?”
Liz met a John of her own, a Navy doctor. After a brief but intense courtship, he left on an overseas tour. Letters winged back and forth during his six-month absence, and I always knew from her bouncy mood when she’d heard from him. This was love, she said, the real thing. She stopped seeing other guys, but Prince remained in the background like last year’s raincoat in the rear of the closet. Just in case. When John told Liz he was bringing a charm from Japan for her bracelet, she panicked. “I can’t let him see Prince’s engagement charm,” she said. Terry, one of the officers from downstairs and now my steady boyfriend, became her co-conspirator. As she hovered over his shoulder at our kitchen table, he surgically excised it with needle-nose pliers. After John got back and Liz was convinced her future with him was secure, she broke her engagement with Prince. Their split, she told me, was amicable and mutual.
One evening that summer Liz and I prepared an elegant, intimate dinner for John and Terry. We roasted Cornish game hens in Cointreau, served over wine-laced wild rice, every course steeped in liquor, with pre-prandial cocktails, a couple of bottles of wine, Cognac and port-soaked berries over ice cream for dessert. Details of the evening were blurred the next day, but we declared it an unqualified success. I have a photo of our foursome on the landing outside our apartment. Liz and I are dressed up, as women still did then, in linen sheaths and heels, full make-up, stiffly sprayed up-dos. The guys wear slacks and dress shirts. Liz and John make a striking couple, his stern Prussian-soldier/bulldog chin jutting forward, her regal posture commanding center stage. They tower over Terry and me.
They were married the next spring; Terry and I followed in October. Liz and I weren’t able to attend each other’s weddings, as hers was held at her parents’ Wisconsin home, after which they reported directly to an east coast posting. A year later they were transferred to Alaska, and a year after that her son and my daughter were born two days apart. After John left the Navy, they settled in a small town on the Oregon coast, where John had a moderately successful surgical practice and grew prize-winning orchids. Liz took up painting, exhibited and sold her work in local galleries. We stayed in touch by mail and didn’t see each other again until several years later, when I visited them. I was divorced and still working, while Liz hadn’t been employed outside the home since she’d married. She was well-off, living in what to me was a mansion; I survived from paycheck to paycheck. Her politics hadn’t changed, but I’d become firmly liberal. Her surroundings were classical and subdued, while my tastes had graduated to contemporary design and bold color. We didn’t have much in common anymore, and I wondered if we ever had. Our bond may have been grounded more on proximity than commonality, but our shared past and mutual fondness were enough to sustain an abiding interest in each other’s lives. When I remarried, she sent one of her watercolors, a white orchid on a dark blue field.
We were in touch intermittently for more than thirty years before communication ebbed and died. The paintings, her own and the still life, were dim reminders of a distant past. Then last year I started to see ads featuring Isabella Rossellini. In the ‘80s she had been the face of Lancôme cosmetics, and now, in her mid-60s, they’d brought her back to showcase their products for older women. She was glamorous and elegant, the way I still imagined Liz, with her broad smile and rich voice, her eccentricity, her generous spirit. Curious, I searched online and found a recent picture of Liz at a garden club event, graceful and distinguished looking with the same imperious carriage, still unmistakably Liz. I also found John’s obituary; he died in 2009.
Now another year has passed, and resituating the painting has brought her and those days to the fore. I think about reaching out but question my motivation in pursuing an uncharacteristic stream of nostalgia. Is my interest in Liz herself, or in the caprices of memory, or is it a writer’s enthusiasm for newly excavated material? I could write to her; say I still think about her and the times we shared. Or I can let the past resettle itself, the memories fade, as memories do when left untended. Or I can collect my scattered recollections into a portrait in words.