“Have you ever taken zinc oxide tablets?”
“Oh yeah,” I say. “I take them.”
“But are you still smoking?”
“Not as much.”
“Your father promised me he’s going to quit,” Cheryl says, spooning yogurt into her mouth.
“Does Graham smoke?”
“Yeah. A pipe too.”
“Not a pipe,” Cheryl says, horrified.
“Sometimes. It depends.”
“On whether he would rather use rolling papers,” I say and then, when this comment is returned with an uncomprehending took, I offer, “Or if he’s lost his bong.”
“Do you want to join up for that aerobics class I’m taking over at the plaza?”
“You say that word like you’ve never heard it before.”
“I’m just tired,” I say. “I think I want to go.”
“This is kiwi tofu,” she says. “I know it sounds totally crazy but it’s good. Don’t make fun, okay?”
“I’m really sorry.
Later, in the new Jaguar my father bought her, Cheryl asks, “Do you like me?”
“I think so.” I pause. “I don’t know.”
“That’s not good enough, honey.”
“But that’s all I can tell you.”
The train arrives in L.A. at dusk. The city seems deserted.
In the distance are Pasadena hills and canyons and the small blue rectangles of lit pools. The train passes dried-up reservoirs and vast, empty parking lots, running parallel to the freeway then past a seemingly endless row of vacant warehouses, gangs of young boys standing against palm trees or huddling in groups in alleyways or around cars with headlights on, drinking beer, the Motels playing. The train moves slowly as it eases toward Union Station, as if it’s hesitating, passing Mexican churches and bars and strip joints, a drive-in where a horror movie is playing with subtitles. Palm trees are highlighted against a shifting orange-purple mass, a sky the color of Popsicles, a woman passes my door, mumbling loudly to someone, maybe herself, “This ain’t no Silver Streak,” and out the window a young Mexican boy in a red Chevrolet truck sings along with the radio and I’m close enough to reach out and touch his blank, grave face, staring straight ahead.
I’m in a phone booth in Union Station. It’s hot, even for December and night. Three black boys break-dance next to the phone booth. Sitting down, I pull out my phone book and dial my mother’s number carefully, using my father’s credit card number. I hang the phone up quickly and watch the break-dancers. I light a cigarette, finish it, then redial the number. It rings thirteen times.
“Hello?” my mother finally answers.
“Hi … It’s me.”
“Oh.” My mother sounds flustered in slow motion, her voice disembodied, a monotone.
After a while I have to repeat what I just said.
“Where are you?” she asks tentatively.
“Were you asleep?”
“What time is … it?”
“Seven,” and then, “at night.”
“Not really,” she says, dazed.
“I’m in L.A. right now.”
“Um …” My mother pauses, confused. “Why?”
“Because. I took a train.”
“How was … the train?” my mother asks after a long time.
“I … liked it.”
“Why on earth didn’t you take MGM?” my mother asks tiredly.
The boy from Venezuela walks by, sees me and smiles, but when he sees that I’m crying he gets scared and moves quickly away. Outside, a limousine waits, idling at the curb. A driver holds up a sign with my name on it.
“Well, it’s nice you’re back … hmm,” my mother says. “Um, yes.” Pause. “This is for Christmas, right?”
“Have you spoken to Dad?” I finally ask.
“Why … would I speak to … him?” she asks.
“So you don’t know?”
“No. I don’t know.”
I sit down in the lounge area as the train begins to pull out of L.A. I have a drink, look through Vanity Fair, take a Valium. A couple of surfers come into the lounge and drink beer with the two college girls who were talking about Las Vegas. An elderly woman sits next to me, tired, tan.
“You heading up north?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say.