Larissa was an astute businesswoman and she understood the industry. After I had finished a second draft of the script, she informed me that she was bringing in a director to work with me on subsequent drafts. Naturally I objected, but she held firm and the director she brought in, Vic Echevarria, had made a movie I liked and proved helpful. He was a paranoid little man with an alert, fox-like face and a bald spot, always worrying about the money, about when we would start principal photography, about whether the Russian mafia was involved. But he had good ideas and together we gradually beat the script into shape. The contracts, which Larissa herself drew up, were generous and precise, and the actors she suggested for various parts, a mix of older A-list people and new talent, were suited to the roles and approachable. Yet for all her business acumen, she was, to my way of thinking, utterly irrational in every other area of her life.
Her grandmother--her sole living relative, her father having succumbed to a peculiarly Russian fate involving a mysterious boating accident and poor hospital care--still lived in Moscow and each month sent Larissa a package of videotapes. Some tapes consisted of nothing but swirling masses of color and New Age music. Larissa swore they had healing properties. Others were shows hosted by psychics who made prophecies regarding aliens. Second Comings and subterranean civilizations that outstripped those of the wildest tabloids. From these she derived much of her information about America. She was convinced, for example, that a gigantic serpent lay coiled about an egg in a cavern far below the Smithsonian Institution, and that the hatching of the egg would bring about the end of days. She believed anything that supported the existence of magic. When Misha returned from Russia with his latest Korean girlfriend and his bodyguards, stopping by the Topanga house on the way to his place in Malibu, she pulled me aside and asked, “What is it about Korean women that men find so attractive? Do they have special sexual techniques?”
“Beats me,” I said. “Most Korean women I know work in convenience stores.”
She looked disappointed.
“But I’ve heard some of them can change into animals during sex,” I said.
“Is it true?”
“That’s what I hear.”
She appeared to file this information away. “Must be smelly animal,” she said. “This one wears too much perfume.”
That day marked a shift in our relationship, though I wasn’t altogether sure why. Misha spoke to Larissa alone, while the Korean girl paced the deck and the bodyguards sprawled on the white sofas, watching soccer on the big screen TV. I hovered at the edge of the living room, betwixt and between. After fifteen minutes Misha came out of the room that Larissa used for an office, unbuckling himself from a bulletproof vest.
He grinned at me and said, “You believe it? All the time I’m in Russia, I’m cursing this vest. I can’t wait to take it off. But when I get back to the States, I forget I’m wearing it.”
For want of anything better to say, I opined that these were dangerous days in Moscow.”
“Cowboys and Indians, man!” He fanned the hammer of an imaginary six-gun. “So you are writer, huh? You going to make me big movie?”
He noticed Larissa, who had followed him out of the office, and went to her, arms outspread. “Russian women!” he said and gave her a smooch for my benefit. “They are too beautiful!”
She pushed him away, a gesture that was not entirely playful and enlisted my hostility toward Misha.
“So beautiful, your heart breaks to see them!” He adopted a clownishly tragic face and clutched his chest. The expression lapsed, and he spoke in his native tongue to the bodyguards, who stood and solemnly adjusted the hang of their jackets. “Okay, I am going,” he said, starting for the door, giving me a wave. “So long, Mister Writer!”
“Paul,” I said sternly.
He shot me a blank look.
“My name’s Paul.”
“Paul. Paul?” He repeated the name several more times in different tones of voice. “Okay,” he said, smiling. “See you later, Mister Paul.” He went toward the door, then swung around and made a pistol with his thumb and forefinger. “Paul, right?” He laughed. “I remember next time.”
Once he was out of earshot, I remarked that he came off like a serious asshole.
“He is Russian man,” she said flatly, as if that were explanation enough. “Come on. I show you something.”
On the computer screen in her office was the record of a money transfer in the amount of fifteen million dollars to the account of Cannibal Films, our production company.
“I thought you were only going to ask for ten,” I said.
“Ten, fifteen…It’s same for Misha. With fifteen, we can shoot period scenes. They are still in the script, right?”
“I was planning to cut them, but yeah…” Delighted by how easily the project had come together, I made a clumsy move to hug her. She kissed me lightly on the mouth and eased out of the embrace.
“Get to work,” she said.
We both got to work. Vic Echevarria and I banged and kneaded and argued over the script, and Larissa initiated the casting process, arranged for camera rentals and such. Her goal, to start principal photography in three to four months, seemed unreasonable, but she put in fourteen-hour days, cut her social life to the bone, and it began to seem do-able. Despite this, we spent more time together than we had. We held frequent conferences and fell into the habit of taking our morning coffee on the deck, dallying for an hour or two before getting into the day, talking about this or that, anything except the business at hand. Larissa, never a morning person, came to these breakfasts sleepy-eyed and rumpled, dressed in a short silk robe, loosely belted, that offered me the occasional view of a breast or her inner thigh (she wore no panties). I recalled what she had said about loving to flirt, but rejected the idea that she was flirting with me and chose to believe that her immodesty was due to sleepiness or that she was naturally immodest. My frustration grew and, since I didn’t feel secure enough in my position to bring a woman to the house, I became increasingly fixated on Larissa. I thought about asking her to cover up, but I didn’t want to offend or to deprive myself of the meager gratification afforded by these intermittent glimpses.
One morning she did not come to breakfast and, after she hadn’t put in appearance all day, I went to her suite of rooms in late afternoon and knocked. Receiving no response, I poked my head in and called to her. No answer. I went along the corridor and found her sitting cross-legged on her bed, naked to the waist, wearing a pair of slacks. The drapes were drawn, permitting a seam of light to penetrate, casting the remainder of the room in shadow. An open bottle of vodka rested on the night table. She had an empty glass in her hand. It looked as though she had decided to go on a bender in the midst of getting dressed. I asked if she was all right and she said, “Oh, Paul! I cannot talk now.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked, thinking it must have to do with the movie.
She stared at me bleakly, then lowered her head and shook it slowly back and forth, her hair curtaining her face. I turned to go and she said, “Wait!” She held out the glass. “Bring me some ice. Please!”
When I returned from the kitchen with her ice, she was still sitting on the bed, struggling to put on a blouse, unable to fit her arm into the sleeve. “Shit!” she said, and crumpled the blouse, tossed it to the floor. I handed her the glass and she slopped vodka into it.
“You want drink? Come! You must drink with me.” She pointed to a tray of glasses atop a coffee table that fronted a sofa. “We drink to the movies.”
A band-aid on the inside of her elbow had come partly unstuck—I asked if she had cut herself.
“I am giving blood each month.” She tried to make the band-aid stick, gave up and pulled it off; she looked down at her arm, which was no longer bleeding, and giggled. “Is rare charitable impulse.”
I sat on the foot of the bed. With a drunken show of painstaking care, she plucked out an ice cube and plinked it into my glass. I had trouble keeping my eyes off her chest.
“To our little movie,” she said, and we drank.
“It’s still on? The movie?”
“Yes, of course. Why not?”
“Then tell me what’s wrong.”
“Is too depressing. The bank has failed. My grandmother has lose all her money.”
Relieved that it wasn’t our bank, I asked what had happened, but she may not have registered the question.
“The bank president,” she said mournfully. “He has kill himself.”
“Jesus. That’s too bad.”
She waved in exaggerated fashion, as though hailing a cab. “No, no! Is okay. They make him kill himself.”
I tried to imagine what Moscow must be like and suggested she wire money to her grandmother. She told me she had taken care of that, but said that her grandmother was anxious and needed someone to help her through this time.
“Why don’t you fly home? We can spare you for a week or so,” I said.
“Movie is not keeping me here. Is Misha. Fucking son-of-a-bitch Russian bastard. He say if I go, no movie. Always he wishes to control me.”
I didn’t know what could be done about Misha. She poured us both another vodka and we drank in silence.
“Anyway,” she said glumly, “air on plane is not fit to breathe.”
She heaved a mighty sigh that set her breasts to wobbling and stared at them as if she had just noticed they were there. “I can do magic,” she said brightly, glancing up at me. “Want me to show you?”
“You don’t believe. I know. You’re too busy looking at my tits.” She cupped her hands beneath her breasts and wigwagged them. “But while you look, I can disappear. Poof.”
I was annoyed with her for teasing me, but I let it slide. “Like the nomads,” I said.
“Exactly! Is the same trick.”
Energy drained from her. She slumped and hung her head again and then began to wrestle with the top button of her slacks, but couldn’t get it undone. I was startled to see tears in her eyes.
“Help me, please,” she said. “I want to sleep.”
I helped her off with the slacks, touching her skin no more than was necessary. As I moved to pull the sheet over her, she hooked her arms behind my neck and gave me a grave, assessing look that I recognized for an invitation, or at least as the prelude to one. I let the moment slip by. She rolled onto her side, drew her knees up into the fetal position, and passed out.
The next morning I was on the deck, gazing across the fogbound canyon, listening to drips and plops, the remnants of an early morning drizzle, when Larissa walked up and pressed herself against me in a sisterly embrace.
“You’re a nice guy,” she said, her face buried in my shoulder. “I’m sorry for what I did.”
I unpeeled from her and said venomously, “I’m not a nice guy, okay? I could have raped you last night. And you know what? I think I could have lived with myself. That’s the only reason I didn’t fuck you--because I don’t want to know that about myself. I’m not prepared to go there just yet.”
“Rape? What are you talking about?”
“That’s what it would have been. You were totally out of it. You run around here half-naked, like I’m some kind of fucking eunuch, and…” I gestured in frustration. “Forget it!”
She folded her arms and, with a puzzled look, said, “You can fuck me if you want.”
It was as if she were saying, Didn’t you know that? What’s wrong with you? I had no idea how to respond.
“I fuck guys,” she went on. “Girls, too. I cannot manage emotional response, but I like you, Paul. If this is a problem between us, you can fuck me.”
At that moment the gap between us seemed wider than could be explained by a cultural or a gender divide.
“What is the big deal? This…” She indicated her body. “It’s nothing. You think I’m so beautiful, maybe with me it’s better? Maybe you hear music and feel things you don’t feel with other women? For me, it’s only sex. Sometimes it’s currency. Sometimes it’s for pleasure, sometimes for friendship. I can’t help if for you it’s more.”
A grinding sound arose from the fog, sputtered and died; then it started up again.
“Maybe I’m being naïve,” I said.
“Yes, I think,” she said after a considerable pause. “But you’re a nice guy. Believe it.”