Fall 2008, Volume 5

Fiction by Mona Panitz


On a perfect blue sky day last July, I was jauntily walking up Westwood Boulevard catching glimpses of myself in the store windows and thinking that my new haircut and frosting made me look years younger. I was feeling smug in fitted white capris and a flowered sleeveless blouse, knowing that at fifty-seven, my legs were still shapely, despite a few spidery veins, and my upper arms didn’t flop around.

I saw him before he saw me. He was sitting alone in a window booth at Junior’s Deli, a yellow silk tie tucked into his lavender shirt, leaning forward, and holding a bagel loaded with cream cheese in both hands. I stopped and stared. My shadow fell across his table. He glanced out. Our eyes locked. His opened wider, and in that split second, I knew he recognized me. Did he nod? I couldn’t be sure because he swiftly turned his face away. I picked up my pace, and speed-walked past Junior’s front entrance, past the dry cleaners, the Chinese takeout, and the Bank of America, running by then as if I’d just pulled a heist there.

Heart hammering, I unlocked my car and with a burst of nervous energy yanked open the driver’s door that always stuck in hot weather. Inside, my old Volvo was a sauna, its cracked leather seats hot as a griddle. I turned on the motor and punched the air conditioning, its ancient mechanism knocking in complaint. I leaned my head back, and laughed until tears, sweat and mascara ran down my face. I blew my nose, and then just sat there, oblivious to the cacophony of the West L.A. traffic and the honking driver who’d pulled up near me, miming the universal gesture of raised shoulders and open palms that screamed, “When?”

I gave her the queen’s wave and pulled out, realizing minutes later that I was heading straight for Bel Aire and the Japanese Gardens hidden there, deep behind their intricate wrought iron gates. How I’d haunt that place back then when I knew him, expecting its tranquility to calm my lust, when in truth the bonsai, the tiny tea house, even the innocent koi swimming in the lake, spoke secret sexual meanings to me.

The gravel scrunched underfoot as I walked under the familiar bamboo arch. Inside, the freshly brushed path was marred by just a few footprints. I made my way over the graceful wooden bridge that spanned the teeming koi pond and followed the path that led me deeper, past the flowering magnolias, the black pines and the sculptured bonsai, to my bench half hidden in its secluded alcove. The birds called to one another, and I sat back calmer now, and breathed in the piney air. From my momentary glance, he’d looked okay. God, he must be in his late sixties at least. His long classic face looked longer and jowled now and there were dark pouches beneath his eyes and deep furrows criss-crossed his forehead

I closed my eyes, listening to the distant waterfall and pictured myself as I was back then, twenty years ago, restless and discontented and charged with a sexual energy I’d never known before. Like a lemming I felt driven to fling myself over the cliff of boredom and sameness and splash down naked into the sea of my bubbling hormones.

It was the first meeting of an eight week adult class on French Impressionism. How glad I was to get out of the house. Stanley was deep in engineer’s heaven with his new Compaq PC, and I doubt if he even heard me call goodbye when I left that night. By some miracle, parking at UCLA was easy and I got to the classroom early. While trying to make up my mind where to sit, it struck me I was looking at a sea of gray heads and age spotted hands. Had I blundered into one of those tuition-free classes for the retired elderly? Misgivings percolated through my mind, but I hesitantly sat in a seat near the door. The woman to my left, apparently read my expression and, leaning over, whispered,

“Have you taken this class before?”

“No.” I answered curtly, smoothing my hair and wondering if her ancient eyes had fooled her into thinking I was one of “them”.

“Well, you are in for a treat,” she said sweetly. “Dr. Samphora is simply mahvelous,”


”I’ve taken this class several times,” she continued, “and every once in awhile we get a nice young person like yourself.”

Embarrassed by my ageist thoughts I lamely smiled at her, realizing that graceful escape was no longer possible. Looking around, I saw familiar art posters and felt a wash of satisfaction that we had the same copies of the Matisse and Monet hanging in our dining room. In fact, Stanley had made attractive wooden frames for them in his garage workshop. Stanley, my tall, lanky engineer husband, with his brush of unmanageable hair that defied all the gel in the world. The eight by ten on our bedroom dresser showed two virgins from Duluth, Minnesota, both twenty four, holding hands and dutifully smiling at the camera. Me, a brunette in an upsweep, with hazel eyes in a round, open Minnesota face and fuchsia lipstick. I wore my sister’s gauzy, blue flowered dress and enhanced my bust with a pair of rolled up white socks. Stanley with his shock of red hair and crooked grin looked like a teenager in a new plaid jacket that hung on his skinny frame. Like his dad, Stanley was kind, steady and reliable, embodying all the virtues of a boy scout. He could repair a leaky roof, rewire a house and typical of most engineers, was intimately familiar with every aspect of the internal combustion engine... except mine.

I stayed busy, taking a few classes every semester, with the vague goal of getting my teaching credential. This idea was permanently knocked out of me, when I subbed for weeks at a time at a junior high school where teachers regularly went through very long nervous breakdowns.

During the first few years, we tried to have a baby. We’d go at it for weeks until I got my period and then start all over again. Once, after reading an article in Reader’s Digest, I suggested that we only try in months that had an “R” in them. Stanley readily agreed, but that didn’t work either. By then we were resigned and not really unhappy. I stayed busy volunteering, decorating, baking, cooking, sewing kitchen curtains and plaid short sleeved shirts. I had no reason to peek over the fence of my comfortable life, until a great stirring of libido began churning inside me, pulsating and insistent.

He strode in on the dot of seven, picked up the chalk and wrote:

Dr. Nathan Samphora

Then turned to us, rubbing the chalk dust from long graceful fingers and said, “Good evening and welcome to a brief eight week taste of French Impressionism, the movement that created an earthquake in the art world that reverberates to this day.”

His voice was low and woven through with threads of an urbane European accent. Tall and commanding in a cream colored suit, royal blue dress shirt and a “Monet Gardens” silk tie. The riot of colors blending with his sun tanned olive skin was in itself a work of art. I could hardly sit still in my seat and said a quick prayer of thanks for the lack of competition. He had a big head, with a carpet of close cropped black hair and a long face that reminded me of a spirited horse. The crinkly lines at the corners of his eyes made me imagine that he’d laughed or squinted a lot in his life. His full lower lip gave him a pouty French look, exotic, distant and aloof.

I lived for Tuesday evenings and tried never to wear the same thing twice. The bathroom counter was cluttered with expensive non-returnable lotions, lipsticks and makeup. I was forever striving for that ‘natural look’ that I could have had by just washing my face. But one night all that primping paid off. While waiting for the oldsters to leave, I lingered near his desk, pretending to look through my notebook when he placed a hand on my arm and said in his melted chocolate voice, “Mrs. Stevenson, I’m aching for a coffee and wondered, would you care to join me?”

Boom, bang, went my heart. “Cafeteria?” I asked, striving for nonchalance.

He shook his head, “No, I cannot stand what passes for coffee there. I brew my own,” he smiled, “on a cunning little electric espresso machine.”

‘Cunning’ I thought, now there’s a word you don’t hear everyday. I kept quiet about preferring decaf. So plebian. I’d toss and turn all night. But who cared?

A few minutes later I was actually sipping a cunning espresso with Dr. Nathan Samphora, who, by the end of that little visit called me Millie and asked me to call him Nathan. On subsequent office tête-à-têtes, I revealed that we had no children and managed to let drop that Stanley loved the mountains and would be hiking in Yosemite late in June.

“And your family?” I asked, peering over the tiny cup of black sludge.

“Ah,” he said his lower lip in a full pout. “Like you we have no children, and for many years now, she and I live separate lives… She in Paris, and me,” he paused and shrugged, “in Westwood.”

His office, the size of a walk-in closet, to my star struck eyes appeared cozy and intimate. It was lit by a Tiffany knockoff whose dim light projected little rainbows of color on the walls that were decorated with multiple diplomas and awards all framed in black. The cunning espresso machine atop the filing cabinet puff, puffed away, always ending with a startlingly human gurgling sound. He perched on the edge of his desk, one Bally loafered foot resting on the floor, while I sat in his chair eye level with his crotch. Later, I’d bring biscotti, and we’d sip and dip. He took his espresso with a twist of lemon peel, mine was laced with sugar. He’d expound about Monet, Manet, Picasso, and Pissarro. I’d gaze up at him like a love struck groupie watching his mouth and hardly listening; all the while frantically planning and scheming.

On the day of my last class, Stanley and his hiking buddies broke the quiet of dawn on our street, racketing away in our old International with their pile of gear tied to the roof. Shivering and smiling I waved them goodbye from the front step, until they were out of sight, then ran back into the warm house, kicked off my slippers and did a tango singing ”Strangers in the Night.” In the middle of my merriment, a heretofore chloroformed conscience chose to wake up.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Miss Conscience screamed.

I stopped in my tracks, searching for an answer. “Listen,” I said calmly, “It’s just dinner. An innocent dinner.”

“And what about Stanley?”

I bit my lower lip and thought a while. “This has nothing to do with Stanley.”

“You’re planning big trouble.” Miss Conscience said.

“No way! I’m going to cook dinner and he and I will discuss art. Nothing more.”

“Really?” she said, her tone dripping with Bette Davis sarcasm.

“Oh shut up and don’t ruin everything!” I yelled, running upstairs to get dressed.

That evening with shaking hands I surreptitiously slipped a small white envelope inside the black leather folder he kept on his desk and fled. The card inside, was a reproduction of a Monet. On the reverse I’d written, “You are invited to dinner, tomorrow evening at 7PM,” followed by our phone number and our address in Santa Monica. I thought of adding, “Clothing Optional,” but held myself back.

That night with the strength of a demon, I scrubbed, polished and vacuumed, rearranged the furniture and collected all the cluttering chotchkies and hid them in the laundry room. I stumbled around in the dark of our garden, cutting roses for small bouquets that I placed along with low candles around the room. My final decorating coup was the dozen multicolored pillows I bought on sale from Pier One. These I tossed onto the rug near the fireplace and across our white couches. I stood back, and voila! I’d created a bower of bliss. At one am, I fell into bed and slept like a baby.

By eight the next morning, I was playfully flirting with the butcher at Gelson's while he wrapped up a lobster tail, shrimp, mussels and freshly made chorizo.

Dinner would begin with champagne and caviar on toast points, then after an interval of more champagne and sparkling conversation, I’d modestly suggest that we try the pièce de résistance, lobster paella over saffron rice. We’d have warm, crusty French bread with extra-virgin Spanish olive oil for dipping. And of course, wines. White Rijoa, Vinho Verde, and a smooth Syrah. Dessert would be a light but luscious mango sherbet with sugar cookies. Food for the gods.

By four that afternoon, I was cooking, stirring and tasting, calming my manic mood with sips from a tumbler of ice cold vodka. We’d sit side by side on the low white couch and eat from the living room coffee table. The bold colors of the food would stand out against my white Mikasa plates.

Sheer blouses were in that year, and I wore a white one over a lace camisole and a long black wrap-around skirt, that coyly opened when I crossed my legs. I lit the fireplace. June evenings were cool in Santa Monica...

The kitchen cuckoo clock sang out seven times. I reached up and pushed the noisy bird back inside his little house and hooked his door shut. Seven o’clock. I checked on the paella, and put on Frankie’s “Songs for Young Lovers.”

Was he lost? What if he wasn’t coming? Impossible, he would have called. My feet were cold in my sandals. Then like Banquo’s ghost, Miss C sat down next to me on the couch.

“You’re getting yourself into deep do-do.” She said.

“For God’s sake, get lost.” I yelled, “I’m worried enough.”

The many small swallows of vodka that kept me cooking and humming, were now coalescing in my brain. Was that three soft knocks at the front door? I sat bold upright. It was him! I opened my eyes wide and took in a deep breath, then concentrated on walking a straight line, to the front door.

There he stood, all of him, in a crisp blue button-down and Docker khakis, holding one perfect red rose and a bottle of champagne. I smiled. He smiled back, and with a little bow, handed me the rose. Nice touch, I thought.

“I had some difficulty finding your house.” He said, walking past me chin raised, and sniffing the air like a forest animal.

“Cul de sacs can be tricky,” I offered.

“Did you know,” he said, turning to face me, “that cul de sac” literally translated from the French, is “bottom of the bag?”

I frowned, what the hell did that mean?

“Ah, but used colloquially” he said with a provocative half smile, “it means... no escape.”

I half-smiled back, longing to get past him and into the kitchen for a bigger swallow of vodka. I watched his eyes darting around the living room and trying to peer down the darkened hallway beyond.

“And your mountaineer?” He asked, walking into the kitchen.

For a second I was puzzled, but then brightened, and said, “My mountaineer set off for the mountains at dawn yesterday.”

“Excellent,” he nodded, folding back his starched cuffs before untwisting the champagne’s metal cage.

A small pop. I held out two flutes and he poured. I glanced at the label and my eyebrows went up. ‘Bollinger’s Brut Cuvee’, I’d seen it that morning at the wine shop, fifty bucks.

We touched glasses. I felt surges of excitement and unease. Fifty bucks, what was he expecting? An orgy? For heaven’s sake, Stanley was the only man I’d ever slept with, and we only did one position.

He breathed in, “Ah, I believe I smell paella with lobster?” he said, crinkling his eyes.

I nodded and drank.

“May I take a look?”

I handed him an oven mitt and side by side we stared into the bubbling pan, our faces turning red from the heat. It struck me that I was quite pickled.

“It’s not ready,” I said.

After clearing half dozen pillows we sat side by side on the couch, sipping the Bollinger’s, while I concentrated on the movement of his strong jaws crunching the toast and caviar. He kept topping off my glass. I could see a narrow fringe of tight black and gray hair peeking from his open necked shirt. I was extremely inebriated.

“You look most appealing,” he said, reaching up and caressing my face.

“The paella!” I said trying to get up. He placed his arms under mine and held me, until I steadied on my feet.

The paella pan sat on trivets between us. He took up the serving spoon and dipped in, arranging the food on my plate so as to create a small work of art. I realized I was starving. We ate, biting the tails from the shrimp, dislodging the succulent mussels from their shells and sliding the lobster from its sheath, intermittently licking our lips and wiping our greasy hands on the pink linen napkins. I remember glancing at the Bollinger’s, empty now as was the Syrah and the most of the White Rijoa... We never got to dessert.

I leaned back against a pillow and closed my eyes. The room spun. He reached over and kissed the crease between my breasts while gently tugging my blouse from the band of my skirt. I opened my eyes and sat up blinking. Then like a bird attracted to shiny objects, my hand, unbidden, reached toward his belt buckle and grazed the tumescence in his crotch. The candles must have burned out because the room was darker now and very quiet. The music ended. I leaned down closer and could smell the leather of his belt and the starch in his shirt. He gently held my head with both his hands.

The room was too hot. I could hear the hiss of the gas fireplace. A night bird sang out three notes and from somewhere there came a strange gurgle that reminded me of his espresso machine. Then another, louder now. It was coming from me. From deep down inside, bubbling and burning its way up, up through my chest, my throat and out of my mouth and my nose. A hot magma of lobster, shrimp, mussels, chorizo and fifty dollar Bollinger’s spurted out of me like a Yellowstone geyser and smack into his spotless Docker khaki lap.

He jumped up, pushing me off. For a second I lay back against a pillow and then struggled to stand, holding my skirt out like a big black bowl, running for the bathroom down the hall and trailing vomit all the way.

He called through the door, “Millie?”

“Yeah?” I answered, between dry surges.

“I believe I will be going.”

“Sure, I said, my voice a toilet bowl baritone. “Sorry about your pants, and your shirt, and probably your underwear too.”

“Goodnight!” he bellowed.

The front door slammed. Eventually I got to my feet, stripped and stood under a warm shower for a long, long time...

Later, sober, clean and snug in bed, Miss C appeared, and righteously declared, “I think God saved you.”

“Maybe yes, maybe no,” I said, turning on my stomach.

“I got rid of a whole lot of food... but not one damn hormone.”

BIO:  Mona Panitz, having spent her early years in Brooklyn, New York, is a retired executive and psychotherapist living in Long Beach with her husband, Ed. A winner of the Drury Award, she credits her growth as a writer of short fiction to the excellent faculty of the Long Beach City College Creative Writing Program.