IT WAS A SATURDAY IN OCTOBER AND SHE SOMEhow found herself at a film theater on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles. She had no idea who the director was, what the film was about or what the critics had said because she never read anything but poetry written by poets who were dead. On this particular night, Diana Barrington had not been to a movie in at least five years. She was so incredibly ignorant about the culture in general that she was almost in a state of grace.
The film proved to be European. It had subtitles. It was in black and white. Diana Barrington perceived these details as extraordinary. She felt deeply moved and somewhat disoriented.
As she walked toward her car, she was consumed by images of Europe. It is snow I need, she thought, Paris and Berlin and trees like maples and lindens. And Gothic buildings, cathedrals with spires, town squares and rivers and string quartets, cafes and realistic-looking apartments and Rilke. It would be a whole other cadence, a landscape of serious angles and deliberate architecture, religion and vegetation that was deciduous. It occurred to her that to confront the concept of Europe was to deal with the father, the patriarchy, structure, science and history. The concept of Europe took her breath away. She began gasping for air.
She felt better once she was in her car with the doors locked. "I am finished with palm trees and mango stands and mother earth," she said out loud, slamming her foot on the gas and driving as fast as she could. "I am through with the elements and cycles. It is Vienna I need, Beethoven, psychoanalysis and libraries and places where people still smoke and fall in love."
Los Angeles was a shabby little tropical village compared to Europe, with its monuments and substantiality and ornate decadence. The Los Angeles streets looked tawdry to her and pathetically second-rate, like some marginal southern fishing town where the bay gradually grew polluted and the population drifted away.
Diana Barrington realized that if she had gone to New York or London or even Calcutta after college instead of home to Los Angeles, her entire life would have been different. She would have filled her poems with traditional images containing obvious medieval associations, steeples and granite arches and recognizable gods and the colors of the Danube and Thames, grays and slates and metals. And the sorts of progressions that defined Western civilization, rather than the random cyclic mutations that were Southern California.
She was seized by the compulsion to write a poem. She parked her car near a vacant lot between two low stucco apartment buildings that featured ornaments of some sort near the carports, perhaps the remnants of sundials or coats of arms, if such a thing were possible. "I must have Europe, the Atlantic, cafes, the chill, the brutally cold gray rain falling metallic like bullets," she wrote. "Anything but this unbearable purgatory of turning 40 in solitude, in Los Angeles, in October, when azaleas erupt."
Diana Barrington glanced out of the car window. She studied the sidewalk and the thin suggestion of garden near the apartment wall, searching for vivid details. She considered herself a realist, after all. "And there are birds of paradise," she wrote, "and gladiolus and the earth is an indecency, voluptuous and insipid."
That was Los Angeles, she agreed with herself, suddenly shooting out into traffic without looking. Voluptuous and insipid. A stupid woman. Diana Barrington recognized that she should have gone from Berkeley directly east. Instead she had squandered her life beneath these horrid, dull, sun-poisoned palms where anemic black rats lived. This was the homeland of impoverished rodents. And she was finally perceiving Los Angeles stripped of illusions. It was a land of pygmies.
Diana Barrington decided not to tell her 6-year-old daughter, Annabell, that they would soon be moving to a major capital where they did not know a single person and could not speak the language. A gray spiked city where the architecture aggressively asserted a premise they could not begin to comprehend. A place where the vegetation, menus and modes of transportation were alien.
On Monday morning, after she put Annabell on the school bus, Diana drove downtown. She would tell her best friend, attorney and official blood sister, Carlotta McKay, that she had at last and definitively recognized the diminutive nature of Southern California, its garish squalor.
Diana began searching for Carlotta's black Jaguar. She drove slowly up and down the ruined side streets offering unrestricted parking in the area surrounding the court buildings. It had been months since Carlotta could afford garage parking. Now Carlotta had to leave her Jaguar unprotected in the glare of daylight while she hiked three-quarters of a mile to court in her Italian alligator stiletto heels.