Prunes and Prism

RULES FOR YOUNG LADIES: Some arch advice on snagging a husband. Exercising the mouth into a pretty shape through repetition of certain words seems to have been an indoor sport for young nineteenth-century girls; in Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens' overly bred girl repeats, "papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism." (

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

(In which I go West, and live to tale the tell.)

I spent last week in California, the place a stogie-smoking ex-coworker of an ex-coworker used to call "the land of fruits and nuts." There's been so much rain this year in northern and central California that yesterday Governor Schwarzenegger declared a second state of emergency. I'm just glad we got out before the levees broke. (Not to mention our relationship.)

The Comrade grew up in a city apartment block and got a driver's license only a few years ago, after he moved to this country. I don't mean to undermine his macho credentials here (he rolled under tanks in the Soviet army!), but I just don't trust drivers who learned as adults. Like gymnastics or French, driving is something you need to pick up early or it's never going to feel natural. Sure, you can learn any of those three skills at age 30, but your joints will always pop, you will always sound like a foreigner when you try to hawk out the r's in "crème fraîche," and you will always, always break a sweat when merging into freeway traffic.

I'm not going to bore you with the details, friends: Suffice it to say that the roads in California are not clearly marked; that when one is uncertain about which way to go, it is best just to pick one, for God's sake, rather than veering right down the middle; that, even though I understand one must be able to parallel park in order to pass the New York State driving test, there were times when we got out of the car and had to hitchhike back to the curb.

I'd say things came to a head at the rainy, dreary Glen Ellen intersection where I screamed, "What the FUCK are you doing!" and the Comrade stopped the car and screamed back, "Say you're sorry!"

But they also came to a head in a Sonoma picnic ground, at the intersection of Haight and Stanyan streets, and in the parking lot of the SFO Marriott on our last night. Drinking later in our room, we decided that maybe this wasn't the best kind of vacation for us. Not only was it driving-intensive, there was a lot of planning and negotiating to be done, and I found myself doing most of it, which engendered so much resentment I poured our leftover shiraz into a VitaminWater bottle for the plane trip home and swilled it along with big fistfuls of sourdough bread.

This isn't the Comrade's fault: he can't help it that English isn't his first language, and when one doesn't even know the difference between valet parking and self-parking, it's hard to form a coherent question about which one happens where, and even harder to get any kind of meaningful answer. Also -- and it hadn't occurred to me until this trip -- being a foreigner in New York isn't like being a foreigner elsewhere in this country; New Yorkers are used to foreign accents and pride themselves on being surly and disdainful toward everyone, compatriot or no*. But this time I noticed people would do a little double-take whenever the Comrade opened his mouth, and at the Glen Ellen Market (a place where they give out free samples of French vanilla granola), I even caught the sensitive New Age checkout guy giving him a look that, while I wouldn't necessarily call it dirty, was somewhere between suspicious and perplexed. I know I'm not making this up because the next day, a propos of nothing, the Comrade said, "Why was that guy in the market looking at me like that?"

Then there was the snack bar in Guerneville where he asked for coffee and the well-meaning proprietress handed him two paper cups of water with lots of ice. "Your 'coffee' and your 'water' don't sound the same to me," I assured him as we drank it on the freezing veranda. I know I should have gone back in and ordered him a cup of coffee, but frankly, by that point I'd had all the human interaction I could take. Sometimes one does long for the golden age of automats.

Lest you think there were no best of times, let me mention:

_ City Lights bookstore (There is NONE COMPARABLE. I don't know how they get everything you want, plus hundreds of things you never knew you wanted, in a fairly small space and arranged in unconventional categories that make perfect sense and are exactly the way you'd group a bunch of books if you only thought of it -- but they do.)

_ Lemon Pellegrino. I can only imagine how much better this would get coupled with a hot day and gin.

_ The Crepe House. We ate there four times in three days.

_ Stumbling on Alamo Square Park and the damned Full House houses, which I felt I really shouldn't leave San Francisco for the second time without seeing, but couldn't remember where they were and so led us on a wild goose chase through Pacific Heights, all the while thinking fondly of Michael Keaton with a chainsaw. We have a picture of me jumping up and down in front of them with my arms in the air, drunk with victory.

_ The farmland of northern California, which has perfectly round green hills dotted with perfect storybook cows. When the sun comes out (which it did, for at least half an hour), the clouds make huge shadows that float over the landscape.

_ The Napa Valley Wine Train. Easily the most bourgeois thing I've ever done, if not in fact the nexus of the bourgeois universe. It's pretty empty this time of year, so the Comrade and I had the little outdoor platform on the back mostly to ourselves. If anybody else came out we'd just get a little handsy so they'd get uncomfortable and leave. Handsy with each other, that is, not the other passengers. Though we might have tried that if we'd stopped first at the $5 tasting car.

_ The Napa Target. While there I recognized some of our fellow wine train passengers, which means I wasn't the only drunk woman who bellowed "TARGET!"and made her man stop so she could ogle Isaac Mizrahi throw pillows. They have a full wine selection, incidentally. Do northern Californians in recovery just have to move down the coast to L.A.? Because there is booze EVERYWHERE, even at ...

_ Taylor's Refresher, one of those picnic-bench roadside hamburger places with a notable espresso milkshake. And a wine list. Which means that it's actually not as much a roadside hamburger place as it is a bougie simulacrum of a roadside hamburger place! Northern California seems to be full of that kind of thing.

_ Repeatedly asking each other, "So, why are you so into pinot?" and knowing we had likely been the 80,000th and 80,oo1st people to make that joke in the Napa Valley since 2004.

_ Boozy, intense conversations about Russian cat names versus English ones ("Fluffy" = "Pushok"), the Pepsi Challenge, and the virtues of Alice Munro (I guess these last two were less conversations than lectures, from me, as I sat in the Jacuzzi with a gallon jug of Bull's Blood).

_ The Polish waiter who, in a show of Slavic solidarity, brought the Comrade a free orange brandy, which I promptly slurped, and some free caramelly ice cream, which I slurped also. You have to move fast, here in the free market.

So, dear readers, the upshot of it is that we had a few spats so bitter that I looked at an especially cute photo of the Comrade at the Golden Gate Bridge and told him he could use it for his profile after he broke up with me.

Yet I think we are, oddly, the better for it, or at the very least no worse. While I was on the trip I read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she writes that at times she and her beloved late husband wouldn't speak in any meaningful way for two days in a row, and that even at a point that would prove to be relatively late in their lives together, he wondered aloud why they weren't having more "fun." And on the plane home both the Comrade and I became engrossed in the Vanity Fair article about the mysterious disappearance of honeymooner George Allen Smith IV from a cruise ship in the Mediterranean. The night before Smith either fell or was pushed from the balcony of his stateroom, he and his new wife, Jennifer, had a brouhaha in the ship's disco about whether she had or had not been making googly eyes at a studly South African croupier. According to eyewitnesses she'd had too much absinthe and kicked her new husband in the groin. I guess every relationship has its attendant challenges.

*Once I believed this gross stereotype. Then I moved here and rejected it. Now that I've lived here ten years, I'm back to believing it again.


Anonymous Madeleine Elster said...

Welcome back from the "nexus of the bourgeois universe," sweet Frostine! (I have such fond memories of City Lights where I would go after foaming milk at Caffe Barberini and deflecting marriage proposals from Sal the owner who never ashed his cigarettes.) I'm so relieved you and the Comrade lived to tell the tale. And I hope you'll post the Bull's Blood-fueled lecture on Alice Munro. Love, Madeleine

9:28 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Welcome backs, sounds like you had loads of adventures!

The Boyfriend and I went to London on our "first" trip" together. 7 days a foreign country....I totally feel you!

4:20 PM  

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