The long ride has taken us far outside San Miguel, into the hills, to the farm flush with chickens and horses, bright yellow tomatoes and morning light diffused by the valley where the colors of Mexico lay hidden behind mesh tarps undiscovered.
I have traveled far enough to reach the quiet street beyond the town, the restaurants, and nightlife. It is dark here, a blackness that hangs over me like the chill of the cape on this, my last night in this place I have come to love. As I round the corner I see the reflection of the porch light in the Volkswagen abyss, and I think of my first car, same year and model, only sky blue like the color of the afternoon in this part of the world, and the expansion and freedom it gave me, and I smile at the memory.
I had said the trip up was harder on my lungs, struggling to adjust to the altitude, the pack, the ten or so extra pounds that I disparagingly refer to as the Turpin Ten, and the trip down was harder on my body, and my knees ached from the constant constraint. Before me, I could see the serpentine trail of switchbacks, first right to left and then the reverse until they disappeared somewhere in the distance farther down the mountain. The sun was three hours past crossing the meridian, three hours past high noon, what they used to call the ninth hour, 3 p.m., the hour of Mercy. The shadows, where there were shadows, were beginning to lengthen. Gone was the shade of the early morning eastern path where we could hide from the sun behind sandstone cliffs as we ascended the 2100 feet to the lookout. On our return, the unrelenting sun, still not far enough across the sky, had not paled in its intensity, the clear cloudless blue announcing there would be no unexpected shower today, no break from the heat that emanated from the smooth rock surrounding us.
Conversely, there would be no flash flood waters rushing past us like the pounding torrents we experienced yesterday as we made our way to this valley. I pull the waist belt on my pack tighter, asking my hips to bear more of the burden than my shoulders, weary of the load at this late hour, and while I have pulled long and often on the water bladder, the pack still seems as heavy as when I enthusiastically strapped it on at dawn. It is, mercifully, time for rest, for sitting in the shade of a tree, away from the radiating heat of the merciless sun.
Exiting the apex of the switchback, I zig along the straightaway before the next turn, where I zag, taking in the sculptural stone walls that surround me. Midway, down on the right, a tree clings to the side of the mountain, and a breeze is blowing up through the canyon, the leaves fluttering invitingly. The shade from the tree crosses the path on the eastern side, and there are just enough branches for me to hang my two cameras, my walking stick and my hat. Beneath it, just off the path, is a flat rock. It begs my pack to lean against it in a manner that creates the perfect backrest. The very lowest accessible branches are like a footstool, elevated just enough to provide comfort to my tired and swollen feet.
Purposefully, I approach and begin the arduous process of unraveling pole, camera, and pack straps, hanging them safely in plain view, away from the trail action and safe from oncoming disturbances like the coterie of officemates, who can't help but take up space, to quietly reveal the mundane details of their office step competitions. Slowly, I lower myself in the loamy soil and lean back against my pack, marveling at the near perfection of it all. It is then that I realize that placing the hat over my face would shield me from the sun's rays that flicker between the leaves that rustle on this gentle slope. It is the one missing ingredient, and so I pull it from its branch on the tree and settle back into place. My weary bones seem to exhale synchronously with the breath that leaves my lungs, and my heavy lids slowly slide shut. I drift from this spot in the shade, under the tree, into contentedness, happy in the company of friends, satisfied by the toil of a good day's climb, rewarded by the majestic beauty and wonder the universe has delivered on this day and comforted by the peace of the valley. Instants become seconds that become minutes, and before too long, reality sets in, and I acknowledge that without care, I could lose the last of the afternoon sun that illuminates the path and my way home, and I am inspired to rise and dress for the final push to the valley floor.
That's when I see it. Close to the rock, where my pack rests, lies a penny in the dusty sandstone soil of the path, face up. This cent, this copper currency, monetarily insignificant, an unlikely sight on this dusty trail. I never fail to pick up a penny if I happen to see one. My mother tucked lucky pennies like she did Kleenex, in lunchboxes and pockets, to be found later like armor safeguarding me against the unimaginable. The gleaming copper coin conjuring memories of penny loafers and days in that small southern women's college where ponytails, polo shirts, and add-a-bead necklaces were the uniform of choice. Boys in pink colored oxford cloth shirts and khaki pants tailored to the perfect length, wearing belts decorated with frogs and turtles, skipped classes and shuffled to and from parties where they served grain alcohol punch. A penny was first in what became a collection of lucky talismans collected from travels and friends through the years, which now resides in a small linen bag that is never far from me. These amulets imbued with belief, inanimate and influential, of protection, fortune, and safe passage on this human journey.
Before slipping it into the zippered compartment of my hiking shorts, I look for the year of its minting. Two thousand. Y2k. The new millennium. The turn of the century, and the year I moved west to California, a move of providence and luck that set in motion all the future eventualities that made me the woman I am in this place that I love, made my life.
Slowly, I descend the treacherous zigzags of the steep terrain, step after step, navigating the sharp turns and loose gravel of the path. I have only recently discovered that switchbacks are indigenous to the west, deeply rooted in the mountains and valleys of this part of the world. The switchback is an ascent of pace, patterning as it does the steep inclines of the titanic west, so different from the east, where the horizontal hand over hand climes affect the discipline and efficiency of my Puritan ancestors. This ethic, this frugality, reverberated deeply within me, rewarding speed and destination over the journey. I no longer feel this way; my beloved California broke me of this type of productivity. Like I said, Providence and luck.
Switchbacks have taught me much about conquering the peaks and hollows of my own life. I prefer steady steps at a comfortable pace with companions of similar sensibility, taking frequent breaks along the way when the path is straightforward and shaded, reveling in the natural beauty borne of some more magnificent design. I am meant to wander these canyons and narrows and relish the majestic grandeur of each moment along the trail, rather than merely see it as a means to an end.
I tugged at the door again as the doorman slowly and politely pushed the adjacent side open, and the sounds of the dinner rush swallowed me. I heard faint music, the rustle of clothes swiping at floor length white tablecloths, menus shuffling from one set of hands to another, and paper on paper. The scene that was playing out was all too familiar to me from my years of being a regular in the location down the street from where we lived in Dallas. I had been to so many dinners from that first introduction from Mark and Steve, but I have never been to this one, the first one in New York. I asked myself, "What was it we ate, creatures of habit that we were?" Are! A warmth comes over me, and I know you would have thought the same thing at precisely the same time. Was it the chicken paillard? Or maybe it was the branzino? No, it was definitely the paillard. You never really did care for Branzino the way I do. I used to order it at business dinners back in the day, especially in Italy, but not you, even when it was prepared with that thick white crust of salt. Yes, it was definitely the paillard. How many dinners like this had I been to throughout my career? I'd been to many, too many to count, and only now, in hindsight, do I wish I had taken the time to somehow record them in some way, the bottles of wine, the main course, the companions. Funny, that the only one that has really stayed with me is the one in Sicily, at a farm during a factory visit, not remotely one of the world-class restaurants of the star-rated kind. No, this was on a farm, and it was extraordinary, but you weren't with me, so it doesn't resonate with the same nostalgia that this evening does. You would have loved it, though, the mother making everything from scratch and all the ingredients coming from the fields just outside her kitchen door, that sweltering kitchen, with the wood-fired oven baking fresh bread in the heat of the late spring afternoon while pasta dried on racks placed carefully on every open surface. My mind is racing with all these thoughts as the lovely young woman walks us to our table. I am comforted by these remembrances of us, of you, this restaurant, and nights of quiet conversation, especially at this dinner of command performance when suddenly reality invades and reminds me that my presence at this moment is required, so I put my memories aside.
Conversation flows smoothly on this, our first, dinner together. My dining companion and I frequently share near misses through the years, and the happenstance of that becomes the foundation of the evening's dialogue. Each sentence beginning with questions of 'did you know,' or 'where were you when' as glasses of rosé flow from the bottle in the ice bucket tucked neatly behind the bar, despite my pleas to the Russian waitress to please stop topping my glass. The pale pink liquid was inducing an intimacy in the discussion, not borne of trust and time, and I am cautious of being too familiar with this person of whom I know so little. But it is lovely, and this place is so comfortable, and I am relaxed and freer than I would be otherwise.
That's when I see her sitting across the restaurant, tucked in the corner just to the left of the entrance. I ask myself rhetorically if she was there when I fumbled my way through the front door, acknowledging that she has represented for me fashion and elegance for as long as I can remember. Her, with the precision haircut that seems always to be the same length, never too short or too long, and I wonder how this could be achieved. I stood there with my mess of curls that seemed in one night to go from perfect to a bush of white, unruly and unkempt. She wore the dark glasses so characteristic of her, the meme, the iconic look. I was transfixed and lost my place in the conversation between her visage and the bottomless glass of rosé.
I could not remember a time when she wasn't on my horizon, in my peripheral vision, a consideration. Anna Wintour became the editor of Vogue Magazine in 1988, just as I was launching my life in NY and a fashion career, and here she was on this auspicious night having dinner across the room from me. Safe from notice, I stared at her small and elegant frame and her perfectly coiffed hair, her impeccable dress with the commanding statement necklace, and those shades, blacker than black.
I fantasized as the waitress placed the branzino in front of me and filled my glass with wine from the second bottle of rosé. I wondered whether or not Ms. Wintour would welcome my humble outpouring of respect and my acknowledgment of the contributions she made to my life from her perch in that pristine office. I thought of how I anticipated March and September, and especially September, when the issues hit the newsstands. I also pondered the time Tom Florio came to visit me in my tiny office to pitch me on advertising and bait me with promises of meeting her. Here she was, a mere 30 feet from where I was sitting.
I have never been much of a star chaser. I remember that lunch years ago when Deb went gaga over Heather Dubrow from the Housewives of Orange County, who was sitting outside on the patio having coffee with her plastic surgeon husband. I had no problem walking up to her and introducing myself and Deb, who barely spoke two words, but Anna Wintour was something altogether different. I realized I would never approach her. I would just sit there and stare, transfixed, mesmerized. She was so small, demure, for the warrior I imagined her to be. She was swallowed by the bay window and the table full of people, almost like being one of the caged animals at the zoo. Whether by design or otherwise, I was not the only person who had taken notice, when it suddenly dawned on me that her dress was like camouflage, a uniform, maybe an armor of sorts, refined and polished over 30 years to shield her opinions, her judgments. Those dark glasses protected eyes that have seen it all and done it all, and this led me to thoughts of Fashion Fatigue, the post-traumatic stress syndrome of the style-obsessed, and I smiled at my cleverness.
Not for one moment did it dilute my thrill, for in seeing her across the crowded restaurant, I was transported to the younger me, green and naive, attempting to bite the ruby red deliciousness of this city that called me as it was calling her. Our paths were different, but I'd like to think they were no more or less extraordinary, just different. While she was a significant influencer along my journey, the final destination suited me. I couldn't live in armor, wouldn't want to, and so I return to my branzino, and when I am done, she is gone.
I have been thinking about our nights together in Los Angeles and our regular-irregular sleepaway camp. The radius of our downtown destinations, the haunts we have frequented since you adopted this commuter life, fill me with an even more profound love of Los Angeles.
Our lives are so different from the photographs you have piled in the drawer of your desk on the 30th floor—the ones that go back to those early days in Ohio, the ones we invariably share before dinner. I stare at your picture, then look at your face, and back again, and wonder: how could we ever have been that young? There is no doubt we look better today than we did then, and I ask myself whether this selfie generation, so conscious of white teeth and perfect poses, will understand the journey of getting better with time. They started from a place so far ahead of where we did, with YouTube tutorials and eyebrow guidance. Absent for them is the hit-and-miss approach of our youth, navigating between the style decisions of mothers, friends, and older sisters. It doesn't matter though, because I liked us then, and I like us now—where we are in our lives, and, more importantly, who we are in our lives.
And I love our downtime downtown.
I arrive early and drop my overnight bag in the guest room and stop to look out the window at the skyline of Los Angeles. The light is hitting just the right way to create arches across the transom and the illusion of the viaducts just south of Union Station. The drapes diffuse the blinding sunshine and cast a glow across the pale colors of the older buildings in this part of town as it continues to sprout skyscrapers.
I grab my camera and head out. First to the right, up the street towards FIDM where the semester is ending, and preparations are underway for the party that will celebrate the end of the academic year. The finality of this school year conjures memories of my years in school, considerations of your daughter who has just returned from her first year of college, and the question of whether I would trade places. I ask and answer with an emphatic "no" as I focus my camera on a student with pink and green hair, studying on the commons, the grassy park, just outside the front doors amidst the chaos of these last days. For me, a chapter read is a chapter closed, which makes it all the more comforting that we find ourselves so connected and such good friends all these years later. We have Cheryl to thank for that. We lost one another for a few years, the distance measured in miles and experience, until that summer in Tahoe.
I round the corner to Faith and Flower, the sight of one of our first LA nights together, free of husbands and children. The photo is still in my catalog and looks everything like a celebration gone wildly wrong. A martini tempts me in remembrance of that night, but the restaurant isn't open yet, so I continue my walkabout. I'm a bit saddened by this, and so later, I am thrilled when you suggest we head out for an after-dinner cocktail. We are those women rolling into the final hours of the night in soft focus and warm friendship, having traveled the distance between this instance and all the moments that happened since we were last together. These days, there is arguably too much to share, so we grasp at these moments of kinship more intensely.
In the morning, I will walk left, down that beautiful terrazzo sidewalk I love so much toward Il Caffe in the lobby of the Eastern Building, an Art Deco masterpiece of aqua and gold in the theatre district. It calls to me as if to worship, my DTLA Mecca of sorts. Il Caffe is the perfect blend of coffee and company at hours dark and not so much. The chatter, local, and friendly serves to reinforce my love of Los Angeles and its proper place in this state. I love so much, California.
I walk further until I am in the fashion district facing the mart, and I begin the math in my head of the hours spent wandering showrooms in this big square, unremarkable building in this city of remarkable buildings. But this spot, this magical spot, is so notable for the gifts of friends who are now family and those first tender days with CF. It is the perfect end to my downtown downtime.
Be still life! Let me relax in this moment of you across the table from me. May my mind wander its recesses for all the memories of the lunches and dinners past, stacks of images layered one on top of each other blurring and blending into this montage of moments that make our life. Be still life. I want to linger here in this place with you.