A story that exposes a hypocrisy within the pursuit of equality…
by: Alan Swyer ((Header art is by the incredibly talented Nigerian artist, Njideka Akunyili.))
“Know what I think?” Sternberg stated over lunch at a Persian restaurant one Friday. “Instead of being so caught up in your own stuff, you ought to get involved in things.”
“Such as?” Peretta asked.
“Animal rescue. Or social issues. Why not come with us to a Latino event in East LA one of these days? Or to a church group in Compton?”
“I don’t know….”
“What’s the risk? You might wind up meeting a nice female volunteer.”
“Maybe. But honestly, I’m through with women.”
“Which leaves what? Sheep? German shepherds?”
“Always, with the jokes.”
“Occupational hazard for a gag writer. But why so touchy suddenly?”
“A three-year relationship goes up in smoke, leaving me without a place to sleep, and I’m supposed to be Zen-like?”
“Why don’t you stay with us until you find a place of your own?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“We both know Connie doesn’t like me.”
“How can you say that?”
“She’s always judging.”
“Please. Connie’s the least judgmental person I know.”
“Right, and I’m the Pope.”
Despite his misgivings, Peretta chose to forgo the charms of a Comfort Inn or a Super8 Motel. He instead elected to move into the guest room at the Sternberg’s Hollywood Hills ranch house for what he hoped would be a very short stay.
The first evening there, as well as the two days that followed, were, in Peretta’s eyes, closer to Kabuki theater than to real life. Instead of being themselves, all three behaved in a way that seemed arch, exaggerated, and above all else uncomfortable, especially since Peretta and Sternberg had known each other since high school.
It wasn’t until Monday morning that Peretta got a sense of what he presumed was normalcy in Casa Sternberg. While getting dressed for an appointment, after which he intended to resume his search for an apartment, he heard screams. Concerned, he zipped his fly then dashed into the kitchen where he found Connie administering a tongue-lashing to her young housekeeper, whose name, Peretta learned, was Maria.
“Everything’s under control,” Connie assured her house guest, though that hardly seemed to be the case.
Peretta hesitated for a moment, then left without a word.
It was only when he was heading toward his dented Saab convertible that Peretta got a chance to address Maria, who was weeping near the garage.
“You okay?” he asked.
Drying her eyes, Maria had trouble hiding her embarrassment. “Lo siento,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”
“Anything I can do?”
Maria, who was clearly shy, shook her head.
“She’s not easy,” Peretta added, finally getting a good look at Maria, who turned out to be extremely cute. “But if I can help – now or whenever – please tell me.”
Professionally, Peretta spent much of his time in the company of beautiful women. Though sports photography was his principle interest, assignments in beach volleyball and boxing, plus an occasional call to shoot baseball, basketball, or track & field, left him with what turned out to be an abundance of open days, not to mention a less than satisfactory cash flow. During a singularly dry period, he was approached about shooting headshots for an actress he knew. Upon landing a co-starring role on a new cop show, she immediately credited her new photos, which led to several of her friends requesting his services as well. In no time, thanks to word of mouth, where once he had only been doing someone a favor, he had now suddenly became the go-to photographer for those desiring what was to become known in Hollywood circles as, The Peretta Look.
With his contact info passed around by agents, managers, and even stylists, there was no shortage of lookers in Peretta’s life. Yet despite a steady flow of pretty faces hoping to make it in film or TV, it was not any of those women that he thought about while searching for new housing.
Instead, the one face that kept coming to mind as he searched out neighborhoods as diverse as Larchmont, Los Feliz, Downtown LA, and Culver City, was Maria’s.
Without mentioning his love interest to his hosts, Peretta made a point of lingering around the house the next time Maria, who came on a twice-a-week basis, was scheduled to arrive. He waited until Connie went off to pilates before entering the kitchen, where Maria was cleaning the oven.
“Mejor quando la señora no está aquí?” he asked.
“Much better,” Maria replied with a chuckle.
“Seems like somebody speaks more English than she lets on. Where you from?”
“El Salvador. And you?”
“A foreign country called New Jersey. Am I disturbing you?”
“The oven, floors, and counters can wait un pocito.”
Peretta laughed, then pulled out his phone when it started to vibrate.
“Forgive me,” he said with a shrug, stepping into the hall to answer the call.
Maria was transferring a load of colored clothes from the washer to the dryer when Peretta approached a few minutes later.
“Sorry about that,” he said.
“So tell me. Once I get out of this place….”
“Can I buy you a cup of coffee? Or glass of wine? Or maybe even dinner?”
“Maybe I want to learn about El Salvador.”
“Not exactly. What I’d really like to get to know about is you.”
Maria studied Peretta for a moment, then smiled. “Vamos a ver,” Maria said. “We’ll see.”
“What do you have planned for Sunday afternoon?” Connie asked that same evening at a Vietnamese restaurant Peretta had insisted on taking his hosts to as a way of saying thanks.
“Whatcha got in mind?”
“A conference at the Plaza de Cultura y Artes downtown.”
“You’ve really got this diversity thing going.”
“We believe in it wholeheartedly. Tell him, Marvin.”
“Well for starters, I chair the Diversity Committee at the Writers Guild,” Sternberg said proudly.
“And he’s on committees in East LA and Compton,” Connie added.
“And it wouldn’t hurt for you to do some outreach as well,” Sternberg added.
“What if I tell you that in my own way, I’m already making an effort?”
“We’d say that we’re proud of you,” Connie replied.
Despite his repeated promises to himself that he would stop making late night raids on the banana swirl gelato he had stashed in the Sternbergs’ freezer, at 11 at night, Peretta found himself walking quietly toward the kitchen when suddenly he heard a familiar voice.
“How much longer?” Connie asked her husband.
“Please,” Sternberg replied in what was little more than a whisper. “He might hear you.”
“He’s only been here a few days.”
“That’s already too long.”
“Promise you’ll talk to him.”
“Okay,” said Sternberg. “I’ll talk to him.”
Although tempted to barge into the kitchen, Peretta instead tiptoed silently back to the guest room. There, instead of trying to fall asleep, he made a decision.
At 7:45 the next morning, armed with his suitcase and duffel bag, Peretta stepped into the kitchen where Connie and Sternberg were nibbling on granola while sipping soy lattes.
“Time for yours truly to stop imposing.”
“Y-you’re not imposing,” Sternberg managed after he and Connie exchanged awkward looks.
“W-we love having you,” Connie added.
“And don’t think it’s not appreciated. But there comes a time.”
“You sure?” asked Sternberg.
Peretta responded with a nod.
Thanks to a tip from another photographer, Peretta’s housing dilemma was eased due to a four-month sublet on a cozy furnished cottage halfway up Beachwood Canyon.
Though moving in enabled him to focus once again on work, he nonetheless found himself uncharacteristically nervous when, after several failed attempts, plans were made to meet Maria for a drink.
Driving to the wine bar where they were to rendezvous, Peretta started working himself into a tizzy. What if, he found himself wondering, his interest in Maria was nothing more than a fantasy? What if he was merely projecting, with no sense whatsoever of who she was? And, worst of all, what if he was somehow setting up not just himself, but her as well, to be disappointed and disillusioned?
To Peretta’s great relief, his fears proved to be unfounded. Away from the constraints of the Sternbergs’ house, Maria proved to be not only cuter than he recalled, but also as bright, funny, and wonderfully vivacious as he had imagined. Far more than someone who simply cleaned houses, she was studying at night to be a graphic designer, and also somehow made time to do volunteer work with children at a homeless shelter in Boyle Heights.
In the days, then weeks, that followed, Peretta, who claimed to have forsworn relationships, went swiftly from interested to infatuated, and from there quickly into totally involved.
Beyond making him feel good again about both himself and life, it was Maria, not his erstwhile hosts, who got Peretta involved in causes. Initially it was as a volunteer at a clothing drive, then at a food bank. But when plans were discussed to do a large-scale fundraiser for the local homeless shelter, it was none other than Peretta who stepped up to shoot the moving photos of the residents that subsequently graced the event’s brochure. That, fortuitously, led to a short film that Peretta, with Maria’s assistance, made about the facility, which when aired on PBS stations and brought much-needed attention to the homeless problem in LA, as well as additional funding for the facility.
It was close to three weeks later that Sternberg showed up at Peretta’s West Hollywood studio just as he was finishing up another actress shoot.
“Got time for a coffee?” Sternberg asked.
“Let me turn these lights off first.”
Sternberg watched Peretta shut things down, then the two of them went down the stairs in silence and strolled toward a decidedly non-Starbucks type of place nearby.
“I feel like you’ve been ducking me,” Sternberg said once they were seated, he with an espresso, Peretta with some Sencha tea.
“Why would I do that?”
“I can’t help but think that your departure from our place was a little abrupt…”
“And might have been caused by stuff Connie said.”
“See the Clipper game last night?”
“Somebody’s changing the subject.”
“I just want to make sure we’re good.”
“Sure, we’re good.”
“Then how’s this?” Sternberg asked. “We’re having a barbeque Saturday afternoon – a multicultural thing with people from the Black, Asian, and Latino communities. Want to pop by?”
“Okay if I bring somebody?”
“That mean you’re seeing someone?”
“Guess you could say that.”
“No wonder you’ve been off the radar,” said Sternberg with a grin.
As he opened the gate to the Sternberg’s backyard mid-afternoon that Saturday, Peretta spotted the host and hostess beaming proudly in the midst of what looked like a rainbow coalition.
It was Sternberg who first noticed the new arrivals, smiling at the sight of Peretta, then wincing ever so slightly at the realization of who was accompanying him.
Connie, however, was nowhere near as restrained. Letting out a resounding “Jesus Christ!,” she bounded into the house.
While others wondered what in the world had transpired, Peretta simply turned to Maria. “We can go now,” he said softly.
Monday morning, Peretta was just unlocking the door to his studio when Sternberg approached him.
“How in hell could you do that to us?” he demanded.
“Beg your pardon.”
“Bringing our housekeeper to a gathering.”
“This is interesting. It appears that your beloved diversity has its bounds.”
“That’s not the point. There’s such a thing as appropriate behavior.”
“Which also means not just picking your moments.”
“Then I guess we’re finished,” Sternberg stated glumly.
“What’s that mean?”
“Maria is now your ex-housekeeper.”
“She’s firing us?”
“And everybody else she works for.”
“What in hell is that supposed to mean?”
“She’s moving in with me, so she’ll be able to go to school full-time.”
What Peretta chose not to add was that it was also highly unlikely that the Sternbergs would be invited to the party thrown to celebrate that event.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, and boxing. His stories have appeared in England, Ireland, Germany, and India, as well is in many American journals. His novel, The Beard, will be published by Harvard Square Editions in April.