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Book Review : Cold Hugs for Strangers, Friends and Lovers, Too

May 03, 1985|MALCOLM BOYD | Boyd is president of the Los Angeles Center of PEN and writer-priest-in-residence at St. Augustine-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church. and

Slow Dancing by Elizabeth Benedict (Knopf: $15.95)

"You haven't said anything yet about getting married."

"It seems like we always do this: talk about our lives as if it's a business proposition . . . like your moving to L.A. or living together or getting married. We don't talk about feelings, we talk about situations."

"All right. Let's talk about feelings."

"You go first."

"I love you."

"What does that mean?"

"Why don't you stop thinking about what things mean for a minute?"

Lexi and David are talking. Lexi is Lexi Steiner, hard-driving in perpetual motion, close to 30, ex-New Yorker, activist immigration lawyer in Los Angeles, smokes joints a lot, drinks too much, decides sleeping with men one doesn't care about is an acquired taste and that she's acquired it, thinks now "it might be nice to have someone around, someone who would take note, have expectations, think she was complicated."

David is David Wiley, who always placed his journalistic career ahead of everything else, including marriage, is divorced, has a teen-age daughter who lives with her mother. David doesn't live anywhere; he stays with friends.

Lexi lives in a run-down, cluttered house in Venice but finds that the men she's slept with lately "fit better in hotels than in her house." She can't remember when she began "to crave loud music, bad movies, cruel men." Her life is marked by "mystique and notoriety."

It's Lexi's close friend, Nell, who coined the word fugitives to describe the life style they've shared as college roommates and afterward as companions-in-transit, only a phone call away. Their long-distance phone bills might pay for a presidential inauguration. Talk-talk-talk about everything, coast-to-coast, collect from pay phones on highway stops or city stores, midnight or noon. Once Lexi confided to Nell: "I wanted to be in love. I wanted to be in love the way Madame Bovary wanted to be in love. Thunder, lightning, lots of velvet."

The two women always fueled each other's fugitive sense, appeared so close that David first thought they were lesbians. Finally, Nell tires of rootlessness also and finds a man whom she loves.

"Slow Dancing" is about wanting to belong and simply belonging; about sex without and with hugging; about strangers who have sex; friends and lovers--how they show love. What to make of commitment?

Elizabeth Benedict, one of whose stories was selected for the 1983 O. Henry Short Story collection, writes a stunning first novel, and her insights into character are poetic.

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