Love in L.A.
Dagoberto Gilb (b. 1950) was born in Los Angeles to a Mexican mother and an Anglo father from East Los Angeles. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Santa Barbara, and currently teaches in the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program at Southwest Texas State University. Gilb’s first published work was Winners on the Pass Line (1985), but The Magic of Blood (1993) established his reputation. Hailed as a classic of the American Southwest, it won the 1994 PEN/Hemingway Award. There followed The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña (1994), Woodcuts of Women (2001), and Gritos (2003), a collection of essays. Subtly layered irony and satire come together in “Love in L.A.,” appropriately set in a city where reality, fantasy, and image vie for prominence.
Jake slouched in a clot of near motionless traffic, in the peculiar gray of concrete, smog, and early morning beneath the overpass of the Hollywood Freeway on Alvarado Street. He didn’t really mind because he knew how much worse it could be trying to make a left onto the onramp. He certainly didn’t do that every day of his life, and he’d assure anyone who’d ask that he never would either. A steady occupation had its advantages and he couldn’t deny thinking about that too. He needed an FM radio in something better than this ’58 Buick he drove. It would have crushed velvet interior with electric controls for the L.A. summer, a nice warm heater and defroster for the winter drives at the beach, a cruise control for those longer trips, mellow speakers front and rear of course, windows that hum closed, snuffing out that nasty exterior noise of freeways. The fact was that he’d probably have to change his whole style. Exotic colognes, plush, dark nightclubs, maitais and daiquiris, necklaced ladies in satin gowns, misty and sexy like in a tequila ad. Jake could imagine lots of possibilities when he let himself, but none that ended up with him pressed onto a stalled freeway.
Jake was thinking about this freedom of his so much that when he glimpsed its green light he just went ahead and stared bye bye to the steadily employed. When he turned his head the same direction his windshield faced, it was maybe one second too late. He pounced the brake pedal and steered the front wheels away from the tiny brakelights but the smack was unavoidable. Just one second sooner and it would only have been close. One second more and he’d be crawling up the Toyota’s trunk. As it was, it seemed like only a harmless smack, much less solid than the one against his back bumper.
Jake considered driving past the Toyota but was afraid the traffic ahead would make it too difficult. As he pulled up against the curb a few carlengths ahead, it occurred to him that the traffic might have helped him get away too. He slammed the car door twice to make sure it was closed fully and to give himself another second more, then toured front and rear of his Buick for damage on or near the bumpers. Not an impressionable scratch even in the chrome. He perked up. Though the car’s beauty was secondary to its ability to start and move, the body and paint were clean except for a few minor dings. This stood out as one of his few clearcut accomplishments over the years.
Before he spoke to the driver of the Toyota, whose looks he could see might present him with an added complication, he signaled to the driver of the car that hit him, still in his car and stopped behind the Toyota, and waved his hands and shook his head to let the man know there was no problem as far as he was concerned. The driver waved back and started his engine.
“It didn’t even scratch my paint,” Jake told her in that way of his. “So how you doin? Any damage to the car? I’m kinda hoping so, just so it takes a little more time and we can talk some. Or else you can give me your phone number now and I won’t have to lay my regular b.s. on you to get it later.”
He took her smile as a good sign and relaxed. He inhaled her scent like it was clean air and straightened out his less than new but not unhip clothes.
“You’ve got Florida plates. You look like you must be Cuban.”
“My parents are from Venezuela.”
“My name’s Jake.” He held out his hand.
They shook hands like she’d never done it before in her life.
“I really am sorry about hitting you like that.” He sounded genuine. He fondled the wide dimple near the cracked taillight. “It’s amazing how easy it is to put a dent in these new cars. They’re so soft they might replace waterbeds soon.” Jake was confused about how to proceed with this. So much seemed so unlikely, but there was always possibility. “So maybe we should go out to breakfast somewhere and talk it over.”
“I don’t eat breakfast.”
“Some coffee then.”
“Thanks, but I really can’t.”
“You’re not married, are you? Not that that would matter that much to me. I’m an openminded kinda guy.”
She was smiling. “I have to get to work.”
“That sounds boring.”
“I better get your driver’s license,” she said.
Jake nodded, disappointed. “One little problem,” he said. “I didn’t bring it. I just forgot it this morning. I’m a musician,” he exaggerated greatly, “and, well, I dunno, I left my wallet in the pants I was wearing last night. If you have some paper and a pen I’ll give you my address and all that.”
He followed her to the glove compartment side of her car.
“What if we don’t report it to the insurance companies? I’ll just get it fixed for you.”
“I don’t think my dad would let me do that.”
“Your dad? It’s not your car?”
“He bought it for me. And I live at home.”
“Right.” She was slipping away from him. He went back around to the back of her new Toyota and looked over the damage again. There was the trunk lid, the bumper, a rear panel, a taillight.
“You do have insurance?” she asked, suspicious, as she came around the back of the car.
“Oh yeah,” he lied.
“I guess you better write the name of that down too.”
He made up a last name and address and wrote down the name of an insurance company an old girlfriend once belonged to. He considered giving a real phone number but went against that idea and made one up.
“I act too,” he lied to enhance the effect more. “Been in a couple of movies.”
She smiled like a fan.
“So how about your phone number?” He was rebounding maturely.
She gave it to him.
“Mariana, you are beautiful,” he said in his most sincere voice.
“Call me,” she said timidly.
Jake beamed. “We’ll see you, Mariana,” he said holding out his hand. Her hand felt so warm and soft he felt like he’d been kissed.
Back in his car he took a moment or two to feel both proud and sad about his performance. Then he watched the rear view mirror as Mariana pulled up behind him. She was writing down the license plate numbers on his Buick, ones that he’d taken off a junk because the ones that belonged to his had expired so long ago. He turned the ignition key and revved the big engine and clicked into drive. His sense of freedom swelled as he drove into the now moving street traffic, though he couldn’t stop the thought about that FM stereo radio and crushed velvet interior and the new car smell that would even make it better.
Exploring the Text – These questions are for you to answer for yourself.
1. Based on what you know about Los Angeles from movies, television, or personal experience, how does the setting affect your interpretation of events in the story?
2. How does the syntax of the first sentence of the second paragraph, “Jake was thinking about this freedom of his so much that when he glimpsed its green light he just went ahead and stared bye bye to the steadily employed,” reflect the picture of life in Los Angeles that the author is portraying? Does the sound of this sentence resonate with its sense? How?
3. In what ways does Jake show himself to be an “actor”—not literally, perhaps, but in assuming different roles or performances during this encounter?
4. The saying goes that America has a love affair with the automobile, the freedom of the road being yet another inalienable right. How does this idea find its way into “Love in L.A.”? What do the kinds of cars the characters drive—or daydream about driving—lead you to infer about their attitudes toward relationships?
5. Consider the exchange between Mariana and Jake in light of the fact that she copied down his license plate number. What does this suggest about her character? Do you think she gave Jake her real phone number or even her real name? Whom should the reader believe here? Who won this round, Jake or Mariana?
6. What conclusions do you think Dagoberto Gilb intended readers to draw concerning the nature of love in L.A.? Is he suggesting that Jake and Mariana might be kindred spirits in the world depicted in the story? Is he being cynical, playful, or realistic about love and relationships?