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I.

John doesn't mean to snoop. He's just looking for something to cheer her up.

It's been a rough couple of weeks. Which is maybe not surprising; everyone says the first few weeks are the hardest, and it's not like they're really sleeping much. He would have taken more time off, but then the Rolling Stone gig came along, and you don't say no to something like that. Charlotte agreed with him. She's pretty terrific that way.

He thought she would be fine if her mother came out to lend a hand, but he wonders now whether that was the wrong call. Her mom is ridiculously psyched about the existence of her first grandchild, but she doesn't seem to have noticed that Charlotte is unhappy.

John feels a vague unease when he wonders whether he would have noticed it himself, a few years ago. But he's changed. They've changed. When Charlotte said, "let's have a little girl," he said yes without even thinking about it. He didn't even point out that they might wind up with a boy instead. It didn't really matter to him either way.

But now every night when he gets home from shooting, Charlotte is sitting on the couch with their son sleeping on her chest, and he can tell she hasn't really moved all day. She says she's fine -- just tired, and her breasts hurt -- but he doesn't buy it. She keeps the room dark. She doesn't go outdoors. She doesn't talk much. Which is why he's in her office now, hunting aimlessly for...he's not sure what.

He wants something to make Charlotte smile. There's got to be something in one of the folders and boxes around the room that would do the trick. The painted wooden box above and to the left of her desk looks promising, so he opens it.

The box is full of postcards. None of them has more than a line or two of text on them, all written in the same unfamiliar scrawl, all signed "Bob." Who the hell is Bob?

The cards come from all over the place. New York, Chile, Venice, Montana. Some are hotel postcards, the kind that swank hotels make available for free alongside the fancy in-room stationery that no one uses anymore because everyone just sends email. Others are weird and kind of surreal: a penguin wearing a kimono, a picture of three smiling guys in red knit hats standing atop a partially-submerged submarine, a cluster of llamas nosing at a rosebush.

The one on the top of the pile says "There's always more going on than meets the eye. --Bob." It's dated two years ago, October of 2011.

John leafs further down and reads "Don't underestimate the value of warm socks. --Bob." That one's dated July 11, 2007.

The one at the very bottom of the pile -- April 17, 2003 -- says "Not much of a letter-writer. Thanks for returning my jacket, though." It's signed "Bob Harris."

John blinks. The Bob Harris?

2003: that was the year he took Charlotte to Tokyo. Come to think of it, he remembers one night at the hotel bar when she got up from their table and went over to talk to a guy who was sitting at the bar who looked a lot like Bob Harris. What if that was actually Bob Harris? Did Charlotte get friendly with the guy? How did he miss that?

It looks like these are responses to something. Letters, probably. Charlotte's always been the letter-writing type.

Before he knows it, he's sitting down at her desk and waking up her computer. He pokes around her desktop and finds the file titled "Letters," which is subdivided by year. There's a folder from 2003, full of files with names like "Bob 4-10-2003" and "Bob 5-14-2003." He doubleclicks on the oldest one.

 

Dear Bob,

I wonder whether you'll get this? Your agent is listed on the internet, even if you're not, so I figured it was worth a try.

Things have been okay since we got home from Tokyo. I think John felt weird about leaving me alone in Tokyo the rest of that week. He was extra-sweet when he got back.

I think my time in Japan changed me. You'd roll your eyes and tell me that's too dramatic to be plausible, but I really think it's true. I feel different.

A few days ago I went to the Santa Monica beach at dawn. I'm still not used to the fact that the sun sets into the ocean here, but the beach is still a beautiful place to be at sunrise. It was almost deserted, except for a guy doing yoga and a little huddle of people by the embers of a campfire who looked like they'd been smoking grass all night. I rolled up my cuffs and walked out into the ocean and stood there for a long time with the waves lapping at my calves. I like the way the water feels.

I'm still not sure what I'm here for, but I'm trying to let that go for now.

You told me to keep writing. I'm not sure I have a gift for fiction; the times I tried in college sucked. I think the only reason I got a good grade in my fiction class is that the professor wanted to sleep with me.

But I can describe things. So I thought I would pitch the LA Independent on a travel piece about Japan. I'll let you know how it goes. Or you can just keep an eye out for my byline. I plan to have one soon.

The pressed orchid is one of the ones I saved from my ikebana lessons. The ones that fell off the stems just went into the trash; I couldn't stand that, so I retrieved a bunch of them when nobody was looking. By the time we got home, they'd been pressed flat in the books I brought along but never actually read. I thought you might appreciate it.

Thanks again for everything.

 

And then there's a patch of white space at the bottom of the page. She probably printed the letter and signed it with fountain pen.

Reading it feels like trespassing. John closes the file and resists the urge to read the other ones, though he does click through the file folder to see what's there. There are letters to Bob from 2003, 2004, 2005... In 2008 they start tapering off. The last one was written in September of 2011. He wonders what changed, to make Charlotte stop writing.

John puts her computer back to sleep and slides the box of postcards back into its place on the shelf. His mind is reeling.

Could Charlotte have been having an affair with the guy? He dismisses the thought almost as soon as it arises; Charlotte's not like that. John's never been unfaithful -- though he came close a few times, early in their marriage -- and he feels certain that Charlotte hasn't either. (Besides, Bob Harris? C'mon.) But Bob must have been important to her, or she wouldn't have written him so many letters for so long.

It looks like they've been out of touch for a while. Maybe hearing from Bob would make her feel better. Maybe that's what John was supposed to come into this room to figure out.

He considers opening up one of the later letters to see what address they were sent to, but decides against it. He has an agent, just like Bob does. That's the way to reach out to the guy; it shows that he's important, that he's somebody who matters. He'll have his agent call Bob's agent, see if they can't set up a time when Bob might drop by to visit Charlotte and the baby. That would cheer her up, wouldn't it?

As he leaves her office, he feels a glimmer of hope. Maybe this will make her smile again.

 

II.

Bob drives aimlessly around Silverlake for almost forty minutes before turning on his GPS and following its mellifluous directions to Charlotte's house. He doesn't have to look up the address; he wrote it on enough postcards that it's stuck with him, displacing all sorts of other, arguably more useful, information. This is the third house that Charlotte has lived in since they met.

It's another gorgeous day in southern California, which is to say, seventy-five degrees and sunny though there's a trace of haze over the hills. The top is down on his convertible, not because he especially cares about the wind blowing through his (increasingly diminished) hair but because his wife thinks it's a sign of joie de vivre. He has neither the heart nor the inclination to disabuse her of that notion.

Before leaving home, he stared at himself in the mirror for long minutes, scrutinizing the crow's-feet around his eyes and the way his face sags. He's pretty sure he looked a lot younger ten years ago.

His agent suggested Botox, but it sounds ridiculous to him. His hands look like a sixty-year-old's hands; what difference would it make if they tightened his face? It's decades since he's played the action hero or even the slightly-more-mature older guy who gets the babe in the end, but the older-guy roles are interesting. There's a melancholy to them which suits him.

He tells himself he isn't going to care if he can see a reflection of his aging in Charlotte's eyes.

It's funny; this is the kind of social visit Bob usually does everything in his power to avoid. But from the moment his agent told him about the call, he knew he would go. It immediately seemed implausible that until then he'd assumed he would go the rest of his life without seeing her again.

Charlotte and husband live not far from the reservoir, in a neighborhood of small (and not-so-small) ranch houses. Most are landscaped within an inch of their life, their small front yards xeriscaped with native flora carefully positioned to look as though it just grew there naturally. #316 is no exception. Bob pulls up in front of the house and takes a deep breath before heading up the small sidewalk to their front door, bundle of flowers in one hand and blue plush teddy-bear in the other.

A guy in his late thirties opens the door -- dark hair, kind of scruffy, wearing slim-fit jeans and a replica 1970s Electric Company t-shirt.

"Hey, man, thank you so much for coming over," the guy gushes, reaching out to shake Bob's hand. Bob proffers his right hand, which is currently full of flowers, but the guy doesn't take the flowers; he cups his hand around Bob's awkwardly and pumps it up and down too many times. The flowers make swishing sounds as they bounce through the air.

Bob puts on his best bland smile. "Well, my agent got such a nice call from your agent, I couldn't refuse."

Husband (Joe? John? something like that) grins at him, apparently delighted by this response. "Right, yeah, great!"

Bob hears the clatter of footsteps, and then a woman about his age is standing behind John. She's wearing capris and a t-shirt in bright cheery colors, and she edges John out of the way as she reaches for what Bob's holding. "Let me take those off your hands," she says officiously, and gathers the flowers, though Bob doesn't let her take the bear. "I'm Marge, Charlotte's mother."

"Of course, I should have known," Bob says, though he doesn't see any resemblance. Maybe Charlotte takes after her father.

"Won't you come in," Marge offers, stepping aside to let Bob through. "I'm a huge fan of your work," she adds, "I saw Bonanza on the Bank in theatres when it first came out--"

"You're not alone in that," Bob says, a little bit more acidly than he intended, but she doesn't seem to notice.

"It's just such a pleasure to meet you!" she trills.

"Likewise, I'm sure," Bob says drily.

"I've been shooting for Rolling Stone all week," John says, apropos of nothing. "But they didn't need me today, which is great -- I wouldn't have wanted to miss this!"

Bob follows Marge and John as far as the kitchen, where Marge bustles around looking for a vase and John just shoves his hands in his pockets and grins at Bob conspiratorially. Once the flowers are in a vase (not, Bob can't help noting, arranged in any kind of order) Marge freezes.

"Charlotte's not exactly dressed for company," Marge says, her voice rising a little bit in an unconscious parody of anxiety. "Why don't you wait here and I'll go get her ready?"

"Oh, that's really not necessary," Bob assures her. "I'm a very forgiving guy, you don't need to stand on ceremony with me."

"Let me at least find her some lipstick," Marge frets, and dashes out of the room.

John shrugs elaborately, as if to say: women! what can you do?

"This way?" Bob asks, gesturing with the bear toward one of the open doors leading out of the kitchen. It's a blind guess, but it serves its purpose, which is to get John moving.

"Nah, she's in the den, down here," John says, taking a step toward the other door, and that's all Bob needs.

The den is fashionably kitted out with kilim rugs and artifacts which either come from some pretty impressive global travel or from the nearest Pier 1 equivalent. (He'd put his money on the latter.) Charlotte is ensconced on the couch, facing away from the door. Curtains are drawn, blocking the back yard from view, and Charlotte isn't reading or watching tv or listening to an audiobook -- just staring into the dim light with a small blanket-wrapped burrito on her chest.

Bob is not the kind of man whose heart catches in his throat, so obviously that's not what this is; he's just experiencing some kind of momentary flood of emotion. Aging will do that to a man.

"Brought you a bear," he says, thrusting the bear forward. Charlotte turns, and the startled expression on her face transmutes to what he hopes he's reading right as amazement. Guess she didn't know he was coming after all.

There are dark hollows beneath her eyes, she's wearing a pale yellow bathrobe with striped pyjamas protruding from its edges, and her hair is held in a sloppy knot by a pair of mismatched chopsticks. She looks stunning.

"Where did you come from?"

"I've often asked myself that question," he says solemnly. He crosses the room and she takes the bear from him, her thumb lingering idly at the nape of its plush furry neck. "It's not really for you."

"I'll take care of it until he's old enough to gnaw on it himself," Charlotte says. She doesn't smile, but he can see her brain clicking into gear, wondering what he's doing here.

"You never told me you were friends with any movie stars," Marge says, plunking herself down on the loveseat, and Bob would have to be an idiot to miss the way Charlotte's eyes glaze over. "I brought you some lipstick, honey."

"I'm good, Mom." Charlotte's voice is curt.

"Can I get you something? Coffee, soda, beer...?" John is hovering in the margins of the room, probably trying to figure out how he can unobtrusively invite some friends over to witness this celebrity sighting in his own living room.

Selfishly, Bob doesn't want to share her with her husband and her mother. Besides, it's obvious that she doesn't want to be here in this room with them. Maybe especially her mom, who is reminding him of why he usually avoids his own fans.

He makes a snap decision. "Actually, I was thinking I would take Charlotte for a bit of a ride. I understand it's good for new mothers to get out of the house every now and then."

Marge and John probably think they're concealing their disappointment well.

"I'm not really dressed for the outside world," Charlotte protests, though it's pretty half-hearted.

"Haven't you heard? Striped pyjamas are the new black," Bob says.

"It's not like me to be trendy, " Charlotte retorts, "so let me just change. You can handle him without me for a little while, right?" she says to John, standing up carefully so as not to wake the baby.

"We totally can," John promises, and takes his son gingerly but reverently into his arms. The baby makes a tiny snuffling sound but stays asleep.

Bob remembers when his own son was that size. How overwhelming everything seemed. How absurd that the hospital had let them bring the baby home: didn't anyone know that they didn't know what they were doing?

It was a while before he figured out that no one knew what they were doing.

"So, Mr. Harris," Marge says, leaning forward. "How did you and our Charlotte cross paths?"

If he were the praying type, he'd be praying that her change of clothes doesn't take very long. "On an elevator," he says, and gives Marge his most insincere smile. "It's where all the cool kids meet." She beams back, apparently immune to irony altogether.

 

III.

Charlotte brushes her hair, yanks on a pair of maternity jeans (her old ones don't fit yet) and a shirt that isn't yet stained with milk, and rummages in her purse for lipstick -- her own, which her mother thinks is too pale but she really doesn't give a damn. This all feels unreal. Is Bob Harris really sitting in their den, making polite chit-chat with John and her mother? Her heart is thumping doubletime when she emerges.

"You look great, hon," John enthuses, and then turns his attention back to the baby.

"Have a nice time," her mother says, standing up and shifting her weight as though she's about to rush Charlotte and hug her. Or maybe she's planning to rush Bob. There's no telling. Charlotte turns away quickly before either one can happen.

"Shall we?" Bob says, inclining his head in an ironic-courtly fashion, and Charlotte follows him out the door.

The sunlight is blinding. Charlotte puts on sunglasses.

"Why am I not surprised you drive a convertible?" His car -- at least she assumes it's his car -- is parked at the edge of their lawn. It's a dark green jaguar with tan leather interior and the top is down.

"I have to live up to my public image," Bob says, mock-seriously, as they both climb into the car.

It feels surprisingly good to be out of the house. In the open air. And Charlotte keeps stealing glances to her left, because it's just too bizarre that Bob Harris is driving her out of her neighborhood and toward wherever it is that they're going.

She feels a little bit sheepish now, remembering all of the letters she wrote to him after they first met. Long rambling discourses on life and travel and marriage and loneliness. She was so...twenty-two. He must have thought she was ridiculous.

When she stopped writing to him a few years ago, he stopped sending postcards, and she figured that was that. She wondered sometimes whether he ever read her columns -- she's become one of the LA Times' top cultural critics; but maybe he was one of those actors who assiduously avoided reviews? -- but she hadn't imagined that she would ever see him again.

"I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but how did this happen?" She gestures vaguely between them.

"Your husband's agent called my agent," Bob says. She's about to call him on the obvious ridiculousness of that response when she realizes it's probably true.

"Seriously?"

Bob gives an elegant one-shoulder shrug.

"I didn't think he..." She fumbles for how to finish the sentence. Knew about us? Somehow that made it sound like there was more between them than there was.

Actually, she's not sure whether she's more annoyed with John for snooping -- which he must have done, to have figured out that she and Bob had any kind of relationship at all -- or grateful to him for orchestrating this visit, which feels like a weird kind of miracle.

"He was worried about you," Bob says gently.

"Yeah, I know." She's been feeling bad about that, but that alone hasn't been enough to shake the malaise.

Bob doesn't seem inclined to make small talk, so Charlotte closes her eyes and lets the wind play across her face and stops thinking for a little while. The radio clicks on: a wall of sound with soft-spoken lyrics over the top. The woman's voice is high and the whole track has a fuzzy quality to it. "Tiptoe down to the holy places," she sings. "Where you going now, don't turn around..."

"That was 'Loomer' by My Bloody Valentine off their 1991 masterpiece Loveless," the dj says after a while. "Next up..." Charlotte's attention is drifting. When the car stops she looks around and realizes they're in Little Tokyo. They wind up at a shabu-shabu place in Weller Court. Neither one of them is hungry, so Charlotte orders a bubble tea and Bob orders a Hermes Violet.

"What on earth is that?" Charlotte asks, after the waitress is gone.

"A Japanese aperitif. Bright purple."

"Really?" Well, if anyone were going to make a purple liqueur, she supposes, it's not all that surprising that it would come from Japan.

"You should try it," Bob says. "Good for what ails ya."

"The little-known cure for postpartum depression is purple booze? I should have known."

The waitress returns with their drinks and with an assortment of odd Japanese sweets. Sure enough, Bob's -- which comes in a small sculpted glass bottle with a Suntory logo on it -- is a vivid, somewhat alarming, shade of violet.

"You're okay," Bob says, after a while. Charlotte looks up from the gelatinous striped thing she's been examining, surprised, but she finds herself nodding.

"I am," she agrees. "Or I will be."

"I did warn you that life as you knew it would be over," Bob points out.

"I wasn't sure you remembered that." If Charlotte closes her eyes, she can remember the whole conversation: the way it felt to be lying with him on that bed, her feet almost tucked under his knee, the way his voice had changed when he talked about children.

"You're...memorable," Bob says, and it sounds as though the admission pains him. She looks up at him; his eyes are sad but his mouth is smiling. "Anyway, your family is freaking out. You need to tell them you're all right."

"I just --" Charlotte gropes for words, which is clearly a sign of sleep-deprivation. "I thought all along it was going to be a girl. I know what to do with a girl. I know how to raise a girl who can survive being different, even in this ridiculous city." She thinks, but doesn't say, that she knows these things because she's had to learn them for herself.

"Ah," Bob says, as though that made everything clear. "If LA isn't home, then where is?"

"I don't know," Charlotte admits. "It wasn't Danbury, that's for sure." She's not sure anywhere has ever really been home. College, maybe. Tokyo, in a funny way, once she was seeing it with Bob. He'd made her feel less alone.

"The thing you don't know," Bob says, taking a swig of his violet drink, "is that you lucked out."

"Hm?" Charlotte sucks balls of black tapioca through her enormous orange straw.

"If you'd gotten a girl, you would have imagined that you knew her already. But you don't. We never know who our kids are. They're always strangers. This way at least you're going into it knowing that he's someone you have to work to get to know."

Something about the way he says that makes her wonder. "So how are your kids?"

"Fine," he says breezily, but she's not buying it.

"You have a daughter and a son, right?"

She's not imagining things: a shadow passes across his eyes.

She takes a stab in the dark. "What's up with your son?" Charlotte asks quietly.

"I couldn't actually tell you," Bob says, and downs another gulp of violet.

"How long has it been since you've spoken?"

Bob gives a theatrical shrug. "Eighteen months? Two years? It's hard to say."

"You've got a lot of nerve giving me childrearing advice," Charlotte sputters.

"What's the point of being older and wiser if I can't lord it over you from time to time?"

Charlotte rolls her eyes. "Don't you think you owe it to him to reach out?"

"He thinks I'm a phony."

"So what? He's still your son."

The silence stretches a little bit too long. Charlotte drinks more bubble tea, Bob pours and tosses back another long swig of purple. It's midafternoon, so the place is mostly empty, but there's one other table with customers near them: a couple dipping slices of raw meat into boiling broth.

"This feels like old times, huh?" Charlotte's pretty sure they're both remembering that awful last meal they had together in Tokyo. She'd been so angry at him. Sleeping with the lounge singer had felt like a betrayal, though of what exactly she couldn't say. It wasn't as though she had any claim on him. But she'd wanted him to be better than that. More romanticism she's embarrassed to remember, now.

He barely cracks a smile when he says, "Nah, this isn't anywhere near that bad."

"We could try to make it worse," she offers, and she's smiling a little bit now.

"I think I'd rather just hold on to that memory," he says gravely.

"If you insist," Charlotte says. Against all odds, she feels...lighter. And then reluctantly she says, "you should take me home; my son's going to need to eat."

"You have to eat at least one of these pastries before we hit the road," Bob says, and pushes the plate toward her.

"I'm not sure pastries is the right word," Charlotte objects, but she pokes through the plate and selects a round white one. It turns out to be filled with sweet bean paste.

Bob waves his hand to flag down the waitress. "Check, please."

"You have to eat one too," Charlotte says impulsively.

"This little jaunt isn't about cheering me up," Bob argues.

"Are you sure about that?"

Bob holds her stare for one beat, two, then smiles wryly. "Yeah, all right. I'll eat one. You choose it for me."

She hands him a green square one with a ribbon of white running through it.

"Thanks," Bob says, and pops the whole thing into his mouth.

"Anytime," Charlotte says, and reaches for his highball glass and drinks one long purple swig before she pushes her chair back and rises to go.

END