Thursday, August 6, 2009

(Post)Modern Love: Scarlett and the Underwear Kids


Things had been feeling somewhat grey lately, what with my girlfriend back east for a six-month stint at a cousin company, and the doldrums that usually nabbed me in the winter months. My own work as a tax attorney had become grueling – long days and longer nights that promised no end until well after April 15. Whenever I slipped into the office at 10:30am, the head lawyer didn’t bother to look up from her coffee and computer screens – she had a string of emails from the night before that I had sent between midnight and 3am. A few times she asked me if I had slept in my clothes. The truth is that I had no energy for laundry and other up-keep, so I found myself hoping yesterday’s pants would un-wrinkle in the steam from my morning shower. Or, I would dig out slacks and a shirt that had been stuffed in the back of my closet for far too many years. All in all, life was drab and dragging.

Then I got the email reminding me of Scarlett’s opening.

My friend Scarlett was a painter. We had met in a café in Paris a few summers earlier. I was on a dinner date with a French-Mexican jewelry designer who, after we had polished off our crème caramel and espressos, invited me to meet her friends for a drink. We stumbled upon a gaggle of ex-pats and locals on the art prowl in the back room of a gallery in the 13th. The beers, kir royales, and shot glasses of absinthe cluttered the two tiny tables we crowded around. Half-way between midnight and dawn, we found a secret after-hours club, and Scarlett led the charge as we cross-pollinated with the other night crawlers. My date Morgana said, “she’s wonderful in a crowd, but silence bothers her.”

The next morning, the remnants of our group quietly sipped noisettes and shared crusty bread at a corner café before parting ways for a morning of napping or bloodshot work. Morgana rested her head on my shoulder between tiny gulps of her espresso with the slightest drop of cream.

“Looks like you two hit it off,” Scarlett said suddenly. “First date and you spent the night together.”

“Oh, darling,” said Morgana. “It doesn’t count if it’s with you and everyone else. You know me, I share too easily.”

“True. It’s why we love you. But if you’re not careful, someone might slip your sweetmeat into their pocket while you're looking for the lipstick in your purse.”

“I won’t fit in a pocket,” I said, speaking up for myself.

“Well, I don’t wear pockets,” replied Scarlett. “But I have friends who sew in extra ones. Just in case.” She giggled. Morgana raised her cup as if to make a toast.

“Sweethearts, I have to run, but maybe we can do a dance party tonight? My friend Fido has an amazing farm outside the city and he’s dying to inaugurate it for August’s long goodbye.”

I don’t know if the dance party at Fido’s farm happened or not. I only saw Scarlett a couple of times en masse for the remainder of my three-week vacation.

Meanwhile, Morgana and I enjoyed each other’s company the way you do when you’ve found your sweetheart on the ten-day family cruise your parents booked. The night before I left Paris, Morgana and I said our gentle farewells. The next morning on the plane, I wondered when I might see Scarlett again.

Every time I ran into her, and she got around – Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, Paris, Rio – Scarlett always had a new haircut to frame her angular features and shocking blue eyes. Her razor straight reddish hair made the shock all the more sharp. Our post-Paris reunion happened by email. “Hear you’re living in LA! Come to my place for a BLT party tomorrow night!” When I showed up, her small apartment was crowded with hipsters, acupuncturists, and an additional lawyer or two. Her friend Mitchell, a junior exec at Universal with a hankering for the kitchen, had made the BLTs: farmers’ market yellow tomatoes, watercress, rye or sourdough bread from the bakery a block away, and organic bacon, or veggie-strips for the non-meat-eaters.

“Mitchell’s my husband,” Scarlett announced to me as I took my first bite into my first BLT.

“Oh, honey, don’t you wish!” he retorted, giving her a playful spank on the backside of her cropped riding pants.

When I headed home after the evening with Scarlett and her friends, I was totally hooked. This was the most fun girl I had ever met and not dated. I began to wonder whether not dating her made our relationship all the more exciting. I never knew who Scarlett would have at one of her gatherings – and it didn’t threaten me because I could not make proprietary claims over her. I couldn’t find her outfits over-the-top (glittery pink wigs, fishnet biker shorts?) or too sexy (off the shoulder sheer tank dress) because… because she looked fantastic and set the tone for the evening – fabulous fresh times all night long.

Scarlett was the best barometer for potential girlfriends – they either hated her or loved her, were jealous or eager to make her their own friend. She was kind to me about my poorer choices (“she has such great eyes!”) and asked me tough questions when I didn’t necessarily want to hear them (“why do you think she didn’t mention her ex-husband earlier?”).

My current girlfriend, Sandie, adored Scarlett and indulged her antics with various explanations: artists have abundant seed to sew, she's too smart not to be naughty, carpe diem by the hour. "She'll settle down one day," Sandie would remind us all. When I told her that I was going to Scarlett’s opening on Saturday night, she said, “I wish I could make it for the weekend! It’ll be a night to remember, if Scarlett has anything to do with it. Enjoy yourself, you’ve been working way too hard.”

Sandie was right. When was the last time I had spent an evening hanging out, having a drink or two, not looking at the clock or pacing until the beep on my phone indicated a new email from my boss?

I showed up at the gallery about half an hour into the opening. Scarlett’s pieces – photographs of rotting fruit in market stalls around the world, portraits of children in hospitals, anatomical drawings made sensual despite being headless – allured and challenged her viewers. I heard a few debates in hushed gallery voices and noticed fervent eyes fixed on the work. Her pieces would not be everyone’s cup of tea, but her technical flair was unquestionable – and she had a spirit to her work, a certain oomph that grabbed you in the gut.

A few minutes after I had arrived, I felt an arm around my waist and a whisper in my ear. “Do you think Sandie would mind if I borrowed you for the night? Gianni flew in from Milan and he’s threatening to throw a fit if I don’t spend the rest of the weekend with him. I need you to be my fiancé.” Scarlett’s breath was hot against my ear. “Please,” she repeated, though only saying the word for the first time.

I looked at Scarlett, as if to communicate the weight of what she was asking. Her eyes glittered back saying that she knew I loved her enough to do it and that it would be a fun night all the more. “Sandie won’t mind,” she told me as she squeezed my hand. “Should we call her to ask?”

I thought it over for less than a second.

“No,” I said to Scarlett. “But will anyone really believe us? Where is your engagement ring?”

“Oh, I’ll tell them you’re building me a house instead – on the coast of Florianopolis with a view of the surfers. I’ll have private lessons with Marco for a whole year!”

“Sounds pretty good,” I admitted as I filed away a question or two for later, maybe for the next morning's conversation with Sandie when she was bound to call me from her apartment-hotel back east: “What are friends for? Is honesty the best policy?”

I’m not sure I would have had much to tell Sandie if she had pressed for details from the night. Gianni and I ended up sharing a half-bottle of Johnny Walker blue while talking about politics and our mothers. Scarlett left the after-after-party with Julia and Shane, underwear models featured on one of Hollywood’s biggest billboards.

***Damian Scotts lives in Los Angeles with his wife and twin sons. He's working on a collection of short stories.

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