This piece was written while in Paris, November 2014.
He called her Stanley and she called him Ollie.
She was 25 and he was 32 when they met at one of those cocktail parties where everyone wonders what they are doing there. But no one goes home, so everyone drinks too much and lies about how grand it all was. They were, in fact, ricocheting through a forest of people, but finding no shade. Their paths locked in the exact center of the fruitless mob. They dodged left and right a few times, then laughed and he, on impulse, seized his tie and twiddled it at her. Instantly, smiling, she lifted her hand to pull the top of her hair into a frowsy tassel, blinking and looking as if she had been struck on the head.
“Stan!” he cried, in recognition.
“Ollie!” she exclaimed.
“Where have you been? Why don’t you help me?” he exclaimed, making wide, fat gestures.
They grabbed each other’s arms, laughing.
“I…” she said, and her face brightened even more. “I know the exact place not two miles from here, where Laurel and Hardy, in 1932, carried that piano crate up and down 131 steps.”
“Well,” he cried, “take me there darling!”
His car door slammed. Los Angeles raced by in late-afternoon sunlight. He braked where she told him to park.
“I can’t believe it,” he murmured. “Are those the steps?”
“All 131 of them.”
She climbed out of the car. “Come on, Ollie.”
“Very well, Stan,” he said.
They gazed up along the steep incline of concrete steps. Her voice was wonderfully quiet. “Go on up,” she said. “Go on. Go.”
He started up the steps, counting, and with each half-whispered count, his voice took on an extra decibel of joy. By the time he reached 57 he was lost in time.
“Hold it!” he heard her call, far away, “right there!”
He held still and turned. She had a camera in her hands. When he saw it, his right hand flew instinctively to his tie to flutter it on the evening air.
“Now, me!” she shouted, and raced up to hand him the camera. And he marched down and looked up and there she was, doing the thin shrug and wearing the puzzled and hopeless face of Stan. He clicked the shutter, wanting to stay there for a long time. She came slowly down the steps and peered into his face.
“Why,” she said, “you’re crying.” He looked at her eyes which were almost as wet as his.
“Another fine mess you’ye got us in,” he said.
“Oh, Ollie,” she said.
“Oh, Stan,” he said. He kissed her, gently. And then he said: “Are we going to know each other forever?”
“Forever,” she said.
From that broody hour on the piano stairs their days were long, and full of that amazing laughter that paces the beginning and run-along rush of any great love affair. They went to see new films and old films, but mainly Stan and Ollie. They memorized all the best scenes and shouted them back and forth as they drove around midnight Los Angeles. She let her soul flow over into him like a tipped fountain.. And during that year they went up and down those long piano steps at least once a month and had champagne picnics halfway up, and discovered an incredible thing.
“I think it’s our mouths,” he said. “Until I met you, I never knew I had a mouth. Yours is the most amazing in the world, and it makes me feel as if mine were amazing, too. Were you ever really kissed before I kissed you?”
“Nor was I. To have lived this long and not known we had mouths.”
“Dear mouth,” she said, “shut up and kiss.”
But then at the end of the first year they discovered an even more incredible thing. He worked at an advertising agency and was nailed in one place. She was employed at a travel agency and would soon be working abroad. Both were astonished they had never considered this before. They sat and looked at each other one night and she said, faintly, “Good-by.”
“What?” he asked.
“I can see Good-by coming.”
He looked at her face and it was not sad like Stan in the films, but just sad like herself.
“Stan,” he said, “you’ll never leave me.” But it was a question, not a declaration, and suddenly she moved, and he blinked at her, “what are you doing there?”
“Nut,” she said, “I’m kneeling and asking you for your hand. Marry me, Ollie. Come away with me to France. I’ll support you while you write the great American novel.”
“But…” he said. ”You’ve got your portable typewriter, a ream of paper, and me. Say it, Ollie, will you come?”
“And watch us go to hell in a year and bury us forever?”
“Are you that afraid, Ollie? Don’t you believe in me or you or anything? God, why are men such cowards? Listen. This is my one and only offer, Ollie. I’ve never proposed before, I won’t ever propose again, it’s hard on my knees. Well?”
“Have we had this conversation before?” he said.
“A dozen times in the last year, but you never listened, you were hopeless.”
“No, in love and helpless.”
“You’ve got one minute to make up your mind. Sixty seconds.” She was staring at her wristwatch.
“Get up off the floor,” he said, embarrassed.
“If I do, it’s out the door and gone,” she said.
“Stan,” he groaned.
“Thirty,” she read her watch. ”Twenty. I’ve got one knee off the floor. Ten. I’m beginning to get the other knee up. Five. One.”
And she was on her feet.
“Now,” she said, “I’m heading for the door. We are very odd people, Ollie, and I don’t think our love will ever come again in the world. But I must go. And now,” she reached out. “My hand is on the door and…”
“And,” he said, quietly.
“I’m crying,” she said.
He started to get up but she shook her head. ”No, don’t. If you touch me I’ll cave in. I’m going. But once a year I’ll show up at our flight of steps, no piano, same hour, same time as that night when we first went there, and if you’re there to meet me I’ll kidnap you, or you me.”
“Stan,” he said.
“My God,” she moaned.
“This door is heavy. I can’t move it.” She wept. “There. It’s moving. There.” She wept more. “I’m gone.”
The door shut.
He went back to the steps on October 4th every year for three years, but she wasn’t there. And then he forgot for two years, but in the sixth year he remembered and went back in the late sunlight and walked up the stairs because he saw something halfway up, and it was a bottle of good champagne with a ribbon and a note on it, delivered by someone, and the note read: “Ollie, dear Ollie. Date remembered. But in Paris. Mouth’s not the same, but happily married. Love. Stan.” And after that, he simply did not go to visit the stairs.
Traveling through France 15 years later, he was walking on the Champs Elysees at twilight one afternoon with his wife and two daughters, when he saw this handsome woman coming the other way, escorted by a very sober-looking older man and a very handsome, dark-haired boy of 12. As they passed, the same smile lit both their faces in the same instant. He twiddled his necktie at her. She tousled her hair at him. They did not stop.
But he heard her call back,”Another fine mess you’ve got us in!” And then she added the old, the familiar name by which he had gone in the years of their love.
His daughters and wife looked at him and one daughter said, “Did that lady call you Ollie?”
“What lady?” he said.
“Dad,” said the other daughter, leaning in to peer at his face. “You’re crying.”
“Yes, you are. Isn’t he, Mom?”
“Your papa,” said his wife, “as you well know, cries over telephone books.”
“No,” he said. “Just 131 steps and a piano. Remind me to show you girls, someday.” They walked on and he turned and looked back. The woman turned at that very moment. Maybe he saw her mouth the words, “so long, Ollie.” Maybe he didn’t. He felt his own mouth move, in silence: “so long, Stan.” And they walked in opposite directions in the moody light of an October sun.