Still relatively new to Los Angeles, Siegel's social life ranged from minimal on good days to painfully nonexistent on others. Never much for bar scenes or clubs, the array of dinners, concerts, gallery openings, screenings, and off-Broadway plays that enriched his time in New York had given way to night after night spent alone in his Santa Monica apartment. That meant catching up on books bought but long untouched, as well as films old and new on Netflix and TCM, plus series from Denmark, France, Germany, and even Finland on a cable channel called MHz Choice.
Siegel's assumption, which during moments of loneliness seemed little more than a hope, was that through work, tennis, or a casual encounter at one of the places he'd been discovering – Amoeba Records, the cooperative health food store far funkier and friendlier than Whole Foods, or the celebrated Santa Monica stairs (which seemed to be a haven for both workouts and hook-ups) – inevitably a woman, or better yet women, would once again become part of his existence.
That seemed far preferable, and infinitely more his style, than a foray onto Match.com, eHarmony, or some other dating site.
What Siegel could not have expected was that his extended period of West Coast solitude would end abruptly due to a middle-of-the-night-call.
"Did I wake you?" a familiar-sounding voice asked at roughly 3 AM on a Friday when, having fallen asleep later than usual after finishing a novel set in Marseille by Jean-Claude Izzo, Siegel managed to grab his iPhone.
"Tina?" Siegel mumbled, not fully sure where, or even who, he was.
"I-it's me all right. Any chance I can come by?"
"Which means you're not in Brooklyn," Siegel said, rubbing drowsiness from his eyes. "You okay?"
"N-not really. Would you mind?"
"My place is yours."
Texting Tina his address, Siegel threw on some clothes, put up some Sencha tea, then waited.
It was in Washington, DC that Siegel and Tina first met. Prepping a documentary he was hoping to make about the Latinization of baseball, Siegel had come in by Amtrak from New York for meetings at several embassies, plus a place known as the Cuban Special Interests Section. While the results ranged from good to excellent, the best – better than Panama, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, or Cuba – was from a country that had produced a significantly smaller list of players, headed by Edgar Rentaria and Orlando Cabrera. At the Colombian Embassy it was not staffers who spent time with Siegel, but the Ambassador himself, who then extended an invitation to an official dinner that evening.
Among the politicians, CEOs, and luminaries from the worlds of music, theater, and literature who were present that night was a young, light-skinned black woman Siegel kept eyeing from across the room – first while cocktails were served, then during dinner.
Only when he was asked to accompany a handful of people to a local night spot did Siegel get to address the object of his attention. But their time together proved short-lived when Tina excused herself after just a brief moment and hopped a cab.
Less then twenty minutes later, Siegel was surprised to hear something ringing on a chair near where he was standing. Answering what proved to be an iPhone, he found that it was Tina calling from her hotel room, alarmed that it had somehow fallen from her purse. A breakfast was scheduled for 8:30 the next morning so that Siegel, who was staying at another hotel nearby, could hand it to her.
Munching on over-priced granola and berries, the two found themselves laughing about the ironies of their personal tastes. In a reversal of racial stereotypes, Tina's favorite all-time singer turned out to be Frank Sinatra, while Siegel's was Ray Charles. Her number one spectator sport was baseball, whereas his was basketball. And when it came to something more mundane – chicken – her favorite was the white meat, and Siegel's the dark.
Yet there were far more preferences the two of them shared. Chinese food from places like Chengdu, Shondong, and Xinjiang. Obscure ska and reggae groups. Films by John Cassavetes, Sergio Leone, and a guy called Savage Steve Holland. Chester Himes detective books featuring Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones. Thomas Pynchon's first three novels. A Danish TV series called "Borgen." Reruns of "Car 54 Where Are You," for which each could sing the theme song by heart.
There was also a commensurate common bond in what each scorned. HBO's "Vinyl," "Forrest Gump" and mumblecore movies led the list, followed by hipper-than-thou food trucks, David Brooks' columns, and people saying Hey instead of Hello or Hi. Then there was the overuse of Bro and Dude, plus, above all, self-styled connoisseurs who insisted the Stones sang the original versions of "Time Is On My Side," "Fortune Teller," and "You Better Move On," or that Janis Joplin did the first recordings of "Get It While You Can" or "Ball 'N Chain."
Opening the door quickly when Tina arrived at his apartment just a few blocks from the beach, Siegel was shocked to find that in place of the exuberant woman on-the-rise he knew well was someone who looked like a frightened young girl.
After a hug, he took Tina's suitcase and garment bag, then ushered her in. "It's not exactly palatial," Siegel said apologetically.
"Then Beverly Hills Hotel, here I come," Tina replied in a failed attempt at playfulness. "Thanks."
"Being a friend."
"So what can I get you?"
"Want to talk?"
"Maybe at some point. Mind if I take a hot shower then crawl into bed?"
"Anything you want. And if it'll make things easier –"
"I can sleep on the couch."
"Is that a yes?"
"Anything but," Tina said with her first semblance of a smile. "Then what would I do if I felt a need to cuddle?"
Tiptoeing into the bedroom a short while later with Tina seemingly asleep, Siegel climbed carefully under the covers, then was surprised when she spoke. "About that cuddle –"
As she rolled towards him, Siegel put one arm around her, then lightly stroked her head with his free hand.
"This is what I needed," Tina said softly.
"Want a neck rub? A back rub?"
"I just want you to hold me."
"Anything you say."
"You won't be unhappy –" Tina said a moment later.
"What do you mean?"
"If we don't... you know –"
"Nothing in the world could make me unhappy."
Tina kissed him. Moments later, she was off to dreamland.
But not Siegel, who couldn't stop thinking about the strange path that led to such a night.
At the time of their first encounter, each of them had recently made a significant career jump. For Siegel, it was a transition from screenwriter-for-hire to fledgling director. For Tina, having succeeded at passing the bar exam, it was a job in the Diversity department of a TV network, where her primary task was to travel to functions her boss wished not to attend.
Tentatively at first, then with ever-increasing frequency, the two new friends embarked on adventure after adventure. First to the Bronx zoo. Then a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. Next a Yankee game. After that a circus. Plus a double-bill of Claude Sautet's "Cesar Et Rosalie" and "Mado" at a revival house.
Each excursion allowed them to indulge their shared obsession with ethnic food. Though delis and soul food joints were hardly shunned, mostly they gravitated toward Third World holes-in-the-wall for Ethiopian, Uygher, Peruvian, Nigerian, or Senegalese fare.
Surprisingly, at a time when casual couplings were available even through apps, their relationship stayed quaintly chaste, with both avoiding the subject until one evening, over couscous at a storefront Moroccan spot, it came out that neither of them had ever seen Niagara Falls.
"Want to go sometime?" Tina asked.
"Sometime sometime? Or sometime soon?"
"How about next weekend?" Tina replied, taking Siegel's hand.
With the Santa Monica sun signaling the dawn of a new day, Siegel was in the kitchen when Tina entered wearing his robe. "Granola like in DC once upon a time?" he asked. "Or eggs... yogurt... fish lips... squirrel snouts?"
"No eel elbows?" Tina replied.
"Only on Sundays. Anything you want to do today?"
"You don't have to babysit."
"It just so happens that other than a maybe workout at some point, I've got zero scheduled for this weekend. I mean nada. Zip. So if you want to grab lunch at a Oaxacan place I've been hearing about – or Langer's, which has pastrami that puts New York away – or Koreatown –"
"I probably won't be good company –"
"Le me be the judge of that."
Silence reigned first at Siegel's apartment, then at a tiny Korean place near Western Avenue where they lunched on a dish called samgyetang. Despite mild protests from Tina, they then proceeded to a brightly lit dessert place for a bowl of green tea shaved ice mixed with red beans.
After several spoonfuls, Tina faced Siegel. "In case you're worried, I didn't kill anybody."
"Or rob a bank."
"And I'm sorry I didn't let you know I was coming this way."
"No harm, no foul."
"Know what? In case nobody's told you lately, you're one of the very few nice guys."
"Only with you. Otherwise I'm a total stink bomb."
The rest of Saturday was peaceful, with takeout from Pollo A La Brasa serving as dinner, followed by some cuddling while watching the first two hours of an Italian miniseries called "The Best Of Youth."
As they climbed into bed that night, Tina kissed Siegel. She snuggled under the covers as he reached to turn off the lamp on the headboard, then surprised him by sitting up.
"Remember I told you my dad took off when I was little?" she said tentatively.
"Well guess who tracked him down."
"We started getting to know each other by phone... email... Skype –"
"We decided I'd spend a week of my vacation time to visit in Burbank, where he's been living. The first couple of days? Amazing."
Suddenly Tina began to tremble.
Siegel put an arm around her. "You don't have to go on."
"I need to tell somebody. The third night – the night I showed up here – he insisted we celebrate with a bottle of Chateau Margaux."
"Then aged Cognac. Then weed. Seeing him start to get loaded, I excused myself and trundled off to bed."
"Sometime after I fell asleep, he crawled in beside me."
Siegel tried his best to keep from gasping, then struggled in vain for something to say.
"Soon as I realized what was happening," Tina continued after a moment, "I screamed, then locked myself in the bathroom. Only when I was 100 percent sure he'd passed out did I grab my stuff, run outside, and call you."
"I'm really glad you did."
A few minutes later, Tina fell asleep in Siegel's arms. But Siegel had no such luck, his mind racing as he tried to understand the shock, pain, and sorrow that Tina experienced that night, and must be going through still.
Sunday started quietly, with a hike to a place called Wexler's for bagels and lox, followed by a stroll along the path overlooking the Pacific.
"Okay if we do something different this evening?" Tina surprised Siegel by asking when they got back to his place.
"If that's what'll please you. Whatcha got in mind?"
"Any good music around?"
"Sure you up to and for it?"
"I've got to start living again at some point," Tina said with a shrug. "Or at least try..."
Leaving early that evening in case of traffic, off they went to Hollywood to catch a trumpet player named Roy Hargrove. Avoiding valet parkers, who generally treated his aged Volvo with disdain, Siegel found a space on a side street. But as he and Tina ambled toward the club, they drew the attention of two black winos sharing a bottle in a brown paper bag.
"Yo, sista!" the older one shouted, which Tina ignored.
"C'mon, pretty momma," insisted the other, to which Tina still paid no attention.
"Goddammit, girl," snarled the first one. "What's that white mothafucka got that we ain't got."
"Brains," answered Tina as she took Siegel's hand.
Virtually the entire town of Santa Monica seemed to be fast asleep by the time the two of them got back to Siegel's apartment.
"Late night snack?" he asked as they stepped in.
"I've got other things on my mind," Tina said as she threw her arms around him.
"Sure you're okay with it?"
"Unless you're not."
Siegel offered no resistance as Tina led the way to the bedroom, then undressed him.
In the morning, Tina was sitting up in bed with a smile on her face when Siegel awakened.
"Know what you need?" she asked.
"I give up."
"Isn't this a funny time to –"
"I don't mean me, silly. I'm 3,000 miles away most of the time, and besides –"
"I mean a real girlfriend, not just a friend who happens to think you're sexy."
"Do I find one at the girlfriends store? Or on Amazon?"
"I've got a friend named Natasha who's moving out here in a couple of weeks."
"She's bright, fun –"
"And light on her feet for someone 300 pounds?"
"Far from it. She's a dancer, and extremely cute."
"You don't find this to be slightly surreal?"
"You mean with the two of us naked and likely to do it again? Let's just say I'd love to be a bridesmaid."
"Not the maid of honor?"
"Natasha's got a twin sister," Tina explained, then she kissed him.
Though Natasha proved to be delightful, Tina's match-making was torpedoed when instead of romance the result was an enjoyable but short-lived fling.
It was only when Siegel got authorization to go forward with a dream project that his life began to change in a significant way. Gaining access to a women's prison that was home to a program in which selected inmates were taught to train service dogs, he prudently selected an almost entirely female crew.
True to his longstanding credo of never mixing business with pleasure – one that became even more important after come-ons from a couple of pretty prisoners – Siegel fought off his attraction toward the blonde who was his line producer.
But that his co-worker was off limits did not mean the same was true of her roommate, a striking red-headed actress with a recurring role on a soap opera.
As days turned to weeks, then weeks to months, it was clear that no longer were Siegel's nights often spent alone.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, and boxing. In the field of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel 'The Beard' was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.
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