Dating a rich boy is a challenging thing. Recently, the guy I’m dating gave my small and narrow balcony a condescending glance and said I should place planters on the ledge and grow beautiful flowers so that my place looks distinct from all the other apartments in the building and, for that matter, the rest of the apartments on the block. Well, this is a good idea, of course, but I don’t have time for flowers on balconies. They would last maybe a few days before they died of neglect or, worse, the planters managed to fall off the ledge and land directly on someone’s head (nice lawsuit). Besides, I work three jobs and take classes online toward a paralegal certificate, which leaves little time to cultivate flowers. I know he made this suggestion because he was carjacked recently with a gun pointed at his head and everything, but this happened in Beverly Hills, outside a fancy restaurant, not Van Nuys. Even so, he’s now projecting his mistrust and fear onto me and my balcony, suddenly hyperaware of the low-rent area (where I suppose he figures the robbery should have taken place) and thinking a floral arrangement would distract him from the surrounding blight and danger.
When I first noticed him, I had no idea he came from a rich family. He had just been hired as a piano player at one of the restaurants where I work. I assumed he was a starving-artist type, dressed as he was in a rumpled white dress shirt and black slacks a bit too short for his long legs. On that first night I was stationed behind the buffet counter near the front entrance but in full view of the piano bar at the back. Now and then, our eyes met as I slung potato salad or coleslaw onto someone’s plate and he played anything from a ragtime tune with sprightly runs to something more melancholy with long stretched-out chords. Later that evening, on a break from playing, he appeared suddenly at the buffet with plate in hand and asked “So, what do you recommend?” Of course, I said, “Me.”
After my shift was over, I sat alone at a table at the back of the bar and listened to him play. I found it strange that of the handful of people still hanging out, not a single one clapped after he had finished a song. His playing, obviously skillful, certainly deserved recognition, and yet he didn’t seem to mind the lack of attention. He just went on to the next song and the next. I remember feeling sorry for him that night: no general applause, no tips (just a clear glass vase on the tile floor in front of the piano with a crumpled five dollar bill inside that I later learned he had put there himself). How did this poor guy manage to support himself, I wondered?
Afterward he joined me at the table, and we talked and had a few beers on the house (part of his payment). I learned pretty quickly that he didn’t need to earn a living. His grandmother had died last year and left him an inheritance, enough to allow him to pursue his music career, at least for a while. And he still lived at home, which, he was quick to explain, gave him the flexibility to tour, which was his goal. He and his parents lived in the Hollywood Hills overlooking the rest of us slaving away below (at least, that’s how I looked at it). Anyway, I understood right away that he didn’t have the workaday worries some of the rest of us have (meaning me), but I couldn’t find it in myself to hold it against him that night. When he said, “I’m so glad I got up the nerve to talk to you,” and his green eyes blazed amber from the overall red glow of the bar, I set aside my objections.
And I continued to set them aside after that. I try to be open minded, you see, even when it comes to the wealthy, so in the beginning, I made a conscious effort to keep such biases to myself. For example, when he took me to meet his parents a few weeks later, as we drove up the mountain, I was determined to see his home as nothing extraordinary: it might be large and extravagant (just like all the houses flitting by) but it was still a home, one that Evan and his parents had lived in for years. But when we passed through the gates of a high stone wall beyond which loomed a Spanish Revival mansion surrounded by immaculately tended grounds, complete with a wraparound driveway and a small Versailles-style fountain in front, I was both in awe and distressed. And even though his elderly parents were extremely kind and welcoming as they ushered me into their cathedral-like home, aglow with chandelier lighting, my head was spinning with questions too embarrassing to give voice to concerning their right to live so lavishly.
We ate at the end of a glossy wood table long enough to accommodate at least 20 people and still allow elbow room for everyone. I ladled soup from a tureen for the first time in my life and used gleaming silver tongs to put salad onto my plate. His parents, real estate investors of some sort, spoke about a recent vacation to Santorini. “How clear the water was,” his father said, “almost like a swimming pool.” “And how beautiful to walk among the white-washed houses, dripping with bougainvillea,” his mother exclaimed. I didn’t know what to add to the conversation, so I listened and occasionally said, “Wow.” To say I was uncomfortable would be an understatement. But most of all, I was conflicted, wishing for the meal, the entire evening, to be over with so I could return to the comfort of my small, humble apartment. Alone.
But as days went by, and I saw Evan at work, at his piano, in my bed, I distanced myself from that evening. Well, I thought, at least I’m no gold digger. I could never see myself living in such a waste of space, with my entire being devoted to a life of conspicuous consumption. Good for Evan for distancing himself as best he can from such a life, I kept thinking (even if his family, donors to USC, did enable him to attend the school and get his music degree from there).
But this morning, something in my thinking has shifted. As I stand on my balcony, sipping from a strong cup of coffee, readying myself for a day of work at the all-you-can-eat deli in Century City and the hordes who demand ever-polite service, I think it’s time to reassess the situation. I listen to the birds huddled inside the cypresses on either side of the balcony, their constant chirping reminding me not of joy today but of their sweet ignorance of class division. I watch a homeless man, hunched over his cartful of soda cans, heading for the encampment a few blocks away, and I can no longer set aside my inner convictions. I cannot ignore the differences between Evan and me. Just the other day as I was in the midst of taking a challenging quiz on my computer, he said, “Why don’t you aim for something bigger? Why do you just want to be a paralegal?” I had no ready answer to give him, nor do I have a convincing reason now. If I tell him my mother was raised in a one-room adobe shack with a dirt floor who worked her whole adult life with nothing to show for it or my father was a machinist in South Central until the company moved operations overseas or my brother, not entirely homeless, is a drunken casualty of multiple stints in a war of endless greed, how could this poor rich boy understand any of that? I barely do.
So I now see the end to this affair. Maybe it will be at the place where we are both still working. (Although I heard the other day that the owner is thinking quite seriously of replacing the piano with multiple TV screens.) Or maybe we’ll take a break and meet again at some other restaurant where the owner will get the crazy idea of hiring a piano player (instead of installing TVs). Whichever scenario it will be, I imagine Evan will suddenly launch into one of my favorite songs—maybe even “What’s New?”—just as I’m taking an order at a table. Perhaps the customer will see my eyes grow distant as I’m writing down his selection and realize my thoughts are far away. Maybe he’ll even be sensitive enough to ask, “Is something wrong?” but I’ll just smile and say, “I love this song, is all.”