The L.A. therapist is pursued by his first celebrity sex partner. 3,419 words. Part Seven. Illustration by Thomas Warming
Speed west on the 10 freeway and you fast run out of land. Just in time, you whip through the rightward arc of a tunnel that shoots you out onto Pacific Coast Highway, due north. On your left: blue-green water from here to infinity. On your right: the Santa Monica Mountains, parched and immense. Dead ahead: the promontory of Point Dume. Beat lights and traffic — a long shot, at best, in your soon-to-be late-great Camry — and in twenty minutes you’ll turn onto an asphalt ribbon known as Old Malibu Road. It’s where Dennis Corbin, celebrity therapist, is heading to make a house call. A beach house call. Oh, the travails of a country doctor.
“Did I wake you?”
“Don’t worry about it. What’s wrong?”
“So agitated, I’m gonna scream.”
“Tell me what’s going on.”
“Can’t breathe. God, those crashin’ waves. They’re relentless.”
“Where are you?”
“Malibu. Housesitting. Who said the pounding surf was soothing? It’s terrifyin’. There it goes, again. The whole place shakes.”
“You’re having an anxiety attack. Put on all the lights.”
“And the TV.”
“On.” Pause. “CNN is reporting a terrorist attack.”
“Try reruns of The Brady Bunch.”
“This is why you get the big bucks.”
“First year psychology. Better?”
“A little. I found an infomercial.”
“Does the ocean always freak you out?”
“So what else is happening with you?”
“What’d you do tonight?”
“Sittin’ here, looking after the dogs, studying my lines for the show.”
“Nervous about it?”
“What’s the episode about?”
“Oh, Dennis, you’re such a therapist. All right: Missy’s freakin’ out ‘cause her mother’s coming to stay while she’s tryin’ to cater a big wedding.”
“My mother is not coming. She left after the Emmys, thank God.”
“We never actually discussed it.”
“By design. Want to hear the high point?”
“I fly her out for the awards. Buy her an expensive dress. Pay a stylist to do her hair and makeup. Take her as my date. Limo, red carpet, the whole enchilada. She’s sittin’ by my side at the Governor’s Ball. Emmy right there on the table. Stars comin’ by, congratulating me, makin’ a fuss over her… ”
“And in a quiet moment she points across the room to Juanita Abbott at another table — who’d just lost for Supportin’, by the way — and says to me, “Now there’s a real actress.”
“So, to summarize, there’s no connection between your character’s anxiety over her mother’s pending visit and the recent visit of your own mother for whom you are never good enough.”
“I hate you.”
“You’re welcome. Make yourself some chamomile tea.”
“You have a very calming voice. Are you in bed?”
“What are you wearing?”
“A sheer camisole.”
She laughs. “Go back to sleep.”
“I can stay on the phone if you’d like.”
“You’re sweet. No, I’m fine now.”
“Why don’t you come into the office tomorrow? We can talk as long as you want. It’s Saturday — I have no appointments scheduled.”
“In that case, I have a better idea.”
As usual, I’m in my beat-up cord jacket, faded black jeans, scruffy boots. See me on a street in Beverly Hills and you’d peg me as a tourist, from Winnipeg maybe, who packed the wrong clothes. What I wear in L.A. sets me apart from the crowd and, you could say, is part of my “brand.” Not a popular brand, mind you. More like a brand of flaxseed cereal. But, hey, it’s me. I’m a Jersey guy in Malibu.
I ring the bell of the Hamptons-style home. As a nod in the direction of cool, my jacket is hanging on two fingers over my shoulder, Sinatra-style — if Sinatra had dressed like an adjunct professor at a community college. The bell sets off the Hounds Of The Baskervilles as heard through an old transistor radio. Sadie throws open the door. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail. She’s barefoot, in low-rise blue jeans, tight white tank, and lots of skin between the two. A California Girl as only one from out of state can be. Wish they all could be California girls.
She uses one long leg to hold back a pair of charging Jack Russells, yapping to beat the band. “No! Stop! Shut up!” They brake at the threshold, snarling, daring me to move. She’s clutching a stem glass of white wine and steps out to greet me with a loose hug.
“Sorry, Dennis. They’re the price of admission.” I feel the chilled glass at the back of my neck.
Sadie leads me inside, brokering a peace with the tiny wolf pack. I stoop to ingratiate myself with Charles and Ray, named for the husband and wife team who created the Eames chair. “I’ll give you the ten-cent tour,” she says. “Or should I say ten-million-dollar tour?” To the mutts: “Go to your beds! Go!” They seem to understand, but blow her off.
I follow Sadie through airy sunlit rooms of leafy vegetation, bleached furniture and linen upholstery. Never knew there were so many shades of white. We are trailed by the wary Eameses.
She tells me the house belongs to Ned Hale, production designer on the last three Nancy Meyers films. He and his husband, celebrity biographer Mark Buckland — you can pre-order his Belinda Carlisle book on Amazon — are “Octobering” on the Cote d’Azur. Mark, she says, calls the décor “Anthropologie on steroids” and “Shabby Sheik.”
As we circle back to our starting point I say, “So, where shall we have our session?”
“What’s your pleasure? Eat-in kitchen? Deck? Solarium? Media Center? Here, in the Great Room?”
“Here is fine.”
“Care for a beverage?” I smile at the Jet Blue-ism.
“Water would be nice.”
Sadie returns from the kitchen with a pitcher and two glasses on a small tray. She sets it down on the aircraft carrier of a coffee table and pours.
“To house calls,” she says.
“To breakthroughs,” I say.
We clink and sip.
She plops onto the couch, slip-covered in loose white cotton, and tucks one foot under the other leg. I sit opposite, on the matching lounge chair. The furniture is sized to fit the spectacular dimensions of the room, but not those of the human form. I’m The Incredible Shrinking Man. I sit back in the chair and my feet rise off the floor. Sit forward and my lumbar aches. She laughs.
“You look so comfortable.”
“I should travel with my recliner.”
I set the timer on my phone and move to place it on the table. She juts out her lower lip in a child’s pout.
I look at her.
“All right,” I say. “Just want you to get your money’s worth.” I turn off the phone and pocket it.
“Let’s have a conversation,” she says. Challenging.
“Don’t we always?”
“Usually kinda one-sided, dontcha think? I run off at the mouth while y’all sit there, stone-faced, scribblin’.”
“Yes, they call it therapy.”
She reaches over the mountain of a sofa arm and sets her water glass down on the end table. Retrieves a red plastic lighter and a joint. “D’ya mind?”
“So glad we conquered that substance problem.”
She shrugs. “This doesn’t count, it’s prescription.” She thumb-flicks the spark wheel. Lights up and inhales.
“Who wrote it for you?”
“Ned’s prescription,” she says with smoky words. “Told me to help myself.”
“Oh. Well then that’s fine.”
“So what’s happening with that marriage of yours?” she asks, taking another hit, holding it in. Holding, holding.
“Kaput,” I say, barreling through a boundary made of a paper streamer.
She exhales a cloud. “Why? You’re a good guy. Smart, funny…” Raises an eyebrow: “Stylish dresser.”
“GQ’s Man Of The Month. Twice.”
She holds out the joint to me.
I look at it. Look at her. Look at it again. This, my friend, is what they call the decisive moment – el momento de la verdad.
Or, as a great man once said: When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
I take it. I sit back down in my grown-up’s chair and inhale long and deeply. Haven’t done this in forever. Let the smoke seep out, slow. The coughing jag doesn’t earn me cool points.
“The truth? I was a lousy husband. An inadequate provider, recalcitrant, uncommunicative, and never as good as my word.”
“Not to mention self-flagellating.”
Feeling it already. Once more I suck on the — do they still say doobie? Reefer? Blunt? Always hated the stupid jargon. I prefer my ganja in a joint.
“What do they feed these banana palms?” I say. “So green.” I pop up, helium-headed, hand the joint back over the table.
“Come sit over here. It’ll be easier,” Sadie says. She folds both legs up under her and leans against the sofa back. She pats the cushion in front.
“The passing back and forth of fired-up cannabis,” she says, filling her lungs in a gulp.
I start to come around, stop.
“What are we doing, Sadie?”
“Smokin’ dope, talkin’ ‘bout your life.”
I study her hand. It hangs there, over the table, weightless. “Dennis. Take the doob.”
“Oh.” I do, and another long draw. “You’ve got it a little backwards, don’t you?”
“Heck, I’m always doin’ the talkin’. Relax. I bet even Freud needed a friendly schmooze now and then.”
I consider it. “Maybe.”
“Or maybe we could talk about the elephant in the room,” she says.
“Seeing elephants, are you? Almost there — a couple more hits.”
“Don’t play dumb.” She giggles. “Don’t play Dumbo.” She reaches through smoke swirls and takes the joint.
“OK, I’ll play. Name that pachyderm.”
“Well, correct me if I’m wrong…” she says.
“Don’t’cha think there’s always been somethin’… unsaid… between us?”
“Oh, yes — there’s lots you don’t say.” I take another hit. Hey, when did Mr. Doob come back to me?
“You know what I mean.”
“Like what?” A silky plume snakes up and pokes me in the eye. I wipe a tear.
“C’mon, Dennis. Somethin’… beyond… the professional?”
“You mean… chemistry?”
She makes a “give it here” motion with her hand. I pass it over.
“Yes. Chemistry. And I don’t have chemistry with most people, not by a long shot. But I have it with you. Don’t you have it with me?”
“Yes,” I say. She returns it quickly, setting an example.
“See? S’like pulling teeth! Nothin’ wrong with chemistry, is there?”
I mull it over.
“Chemistry also makes bombs explode.”
She half-laughs, and pats the sofa cushion again. “Sit.”
I walk around the table, hand her the weed. She sucks it in: Ssssssssshh. The air between us is gauzy, my brain in a haze.
“Not sure this is the best idea, Sadie.”
I sit anyway.
She inches toward me on her knees and sticks the joint between my lips.
“Forget it, Jake, it’s Malibu.”
“I love sweaty sex!” Sadie squeals.
Her arms are upstretched, fingers extended. Knees hugging my hips as she looks down. She bends her face to mine, her long hair falling around my head like a curtain.
“That was so nice,” she says, or more precisely, “That was so nahs.” A kiss on the lips puts a period on the event, and she rolls off.
A wicker fan spins overhead. A moth flits about the whitewashed boards of the sloped ceiling. Outside the bedroom door, the Eameses snuffle and pace. She leans on an elbow, facing me. “Now it’s my turn to ask,” she says. I turn to her.
“How does that make you feel?”
She smirks. I give my best impression of a laugh.
“I am completely fucked.”
“Yes you were,” she says.
“This can never happen again.”
“Okay. It won’t.”
“Ever. I’m serious.”
“The best part of making love to you is the pillow talk after.”
“I hate to sound immodest, but there are some who—”
“I know. You’re beautiful, incredible.”
“But I have violated every principle.”
“That’s not all you violated.” Gives me the Groucho eyebrows.
“I’m not kidding. I could lose my license, everything.”
“No one’ll hear it from me, Dennis. Promise.” She puts a hand on my chest, draws a circle with her forefinger. “Besides, I lured you here,” she says.
“And I was irresistible.”
“You were. Very.”
“You’re going through a bad divorce… your defenses were down … you were smoking weed…”
“This will sound great before the California Board of Psychology. A flawless defense.” I press the heel of my palm into my forehead. “You know… if your lawyer and my new TV boss Barry finds out, he’ll have to report it to the court.”
“No one will find out,” she says. “Anyway, you’re always saying I should see guys who are interested in the real me.”
She shrugs. “Who knows me better than you?”
“What did Myrtle mean when she said you would know about marriage?”
“Busted. Thought you missed that, it was so noisy.”
“I’m a trained listener.”
“He was a drummer. Three months. ‘Nuff said.”
“Nuff Said — a title for your memoir. Odd that in all our sessions you never mentioned it.”
“Not somethin’ I think about much.”
“Nevertheless, a salient fact.”
“A youthful indiscretion.”
“You’re twenty-six. Guess what: this is another one.”
She slides from bed and heads for the bathroom. I flash on those marble goddesses down the road at the Getty Villa.
-Dr. Corbin, explain to the Board your exact relationship with Ms. Cowen.
-I’ll tell you the truth…
-She’s my client…
-All right. She’s my lover…
-She’s my client …
-My lover, my client…
-We want the truth.
-She’s my client AND my lover!
From my perch on the second-story deck, I watch a small boat bronc-riding the swells. I’m in Mark’s tropical green shorts, sitting on a — what else? — white cushioned wicker chair, my feet on a giant inkblot of a redwood table. A warming sun, a glorious day, has put a new slant on things. Feeling… peaceful. Plenty of time later for self-rebuke. I mean, if you look at it through a narrow lens — very narrow — this isn’t so bad, right? Growing up back in prosaic Passaic, wasn’t this the dream? El Lay? Actresses?
And here’s the celebrated lady now, sliding open the glass door, stepping out. She’s in a green two-piece so meager it doesn’t qualify as attire. More like garnish. Holding two tall perspiring glasses, red as nail polish.
“Is it me,” she says, “or are you lookin’ pleased with yourself?”
“Top of the world, ma.”
“A Cheshire cat grin, all right. Made peace with it?”
“Living in the now.”
“Now is just the best, isn’t it?”
I stand, duck under the rim of her big floppy hat. “There’s enough shade under here for two,” I say, kissing her.
“A girl has to watch her face.”
She kisses me. Sadie Cowen.
I drag a chair over next to mine. She hands me an icy drink and I grip it with a cocktail napkin. We sit.
“Hold this a sec,” she says, handing me hers. She reaches behind her neck, unties her top and tosses it aside. Takes back her drink.
Below, a yellow lab breaks from the surf mouthing a tennis ball. Shakes the water off and chases up the beach after a woman in a lemon sundress. I sip. As the Bloody Mary ripples down, there’s a burst of heat from the alcohol and Tabasco.
“This is perfect.”
“Been making them since I was eight,” she says. “My daddy thought it was funny to have me tend bar at parties.”
“How’d that work out for you?”
“Two arrests, one conviction.”
“Well, don’t make it a full count.”
We nurse our drinks and watch as the sand loses to tide. A wave crashes into the pillars beneath us and you feel the jolt.
“Love that late afternoon sun,” she says.
“Staying out here long?”
“The boys won’t be back till Election Day.”
“I can come out some weeknight. We’ll grill steaks. I’ll bring two extra for the wolverines.”
“My, but I’m impressed with the new you.”
“No law against barbecuing.”
A gull glides by studying the froth below.
By the door I see a brass telescope on splayed wooden legs.
“Does that thing work?”
She shrugs. “It must. Ned sees whales here all the time.”
I get up and approach the apparatus. Not sure how to move it. I circle, then grasp it at its tapered waist and foxtrot it over to the railing.
“Heavier than you’d think,” I say. “Let’s give it a try.”
“You have to ask?”
She laughs. I loosen a screw to adjust the height of the scope.
“They like plankton,” I say.
“Check the fridge, behind the tomato juice.”
I tighten it again. Tilt it downward, aiming below the horizon. I lean in, my left eye to the eyepiece. Swing the device side to side, up and down. Step back.
“Can’t see a damn thing,” I say.
She stands, looks it over.
“I’m no astronomer,” she says. “But I’m guessin’ it’d work better without the lens cap.”
“Smartass.” I remove the brass cap. It swings off the end on a chain.
“This time a year, they might be headin’ south. Not that I know a blessed thing about whales.”
“I’ll try focusing on one of those boats first. Get my bearings.”
There’s one anchored, straight out, bobbing — a pilothouse boat, maybe 25 feet long, with an outboard. I line her up, putting my eye back to it. Can’t get the jittery image to settle.
“It’s very sensitive… the slightest movement… “
“What do you see?”
“A circular view of choppy water.”
Some minutes go by and I rub my cramping neck. She takes over and massages it for me. “Feels good,” I say. Her hand works its way up into my hair.
“You make it tough to concentrate.” I step away from the scope and embrace her.
“Still holdin’ your interest?”
“Let’s go inside and I’ll show you.”
“What happened to never again?”
“Never again after today.”
We kiss. She turns and leans on the railing, her naked breasts seaward.
“Find us a whale,” she says.
“Call me Ishmael.”
Is there one moment in a man’s life when everything comes together? When all loose ends are tied, all the planets align? I think maybe it happens once… and then it’s over in a heartbeat. The varied elements succumb to gravitational forces and spin away. But for an instant, the universe is in balance.
I put my eye to the scope again. I swivel it, left to right, a slow one-eighty pan. Water… water… water… water…
“This is really designed for further-away stuff.”
“Damn, just sped by a thing. The image is so magnified … the field of view’s very narrow.”
“Maybe if you back up…”
“Yeah, like, to Bakersfield.”
Holding the instrument still, I work my way back, gently tapping the far side of it.
Tap, tap. Micro-inches. Tap, tap. I twist the focus ring.
AHA. “Got something.”
Tap. MAHA Tap. YAMAHA. “I can read the lettering on the outboard.”
Using her hand as a visor, she peers out. “Now look for whales.”
“One second. I’m curious.” Tap. Tap. “I see an arm.”
“On a boat, there’ll be a Coors at the end of it.”
“You can almost count the hairs.”
“Wait,” she says, “I think there’s a dolphin out there.”
“It is! See the fin? Farther out! To the right!”
I look up and glimpse the arcing dive of a Bottlenose. Go back to the scope.
“Hold on. Trying to get a fix on this.” The boat heaves and sways.
“There’s another!” She’s jumping up and down on the deck.
“You’re shaking the telescope.”
The backlit form on the boat rises and falls, in and out of the eyepiece. Hold still, dammit. A mirror flares, bouncing the sun back at me. My eye shuts in reflex.
“And another. You’re missing it!”
I open it again. As the boat settles, it looks to be a signal lamp, flashing code.
“I think it’s a whole pod!”
“Just one minute.” No, wait — it’s a lens, reflecting.
“Now they’re headin’ out to sea. You missed it.”
A telephoto lens.
“That was so thrilling.”
Aimed this way.
And above it… a man’s hat.
A straw trilby hat.