"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."
"I'm through with women."
"Which means guys? 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, which means I don't have a place to sleep, and I'm supposed to be zen-like?"
"So 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 Roadway Inn, a Comfort Inn, or a Super8 Motel and moved 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 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 do 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 some head shots for an actress he knew. She, upon landing a co-starring role on a new cop show, 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, someone who had only been doing a favor suddenly became the Go-To guy 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 those who had boarded buses, planes, and trains in the hoping of making 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 while on a quest that took him to neighborhoods as diverse as Larchmont, Los Feliz, Downtown LA, and Culver City, was Maria's.
Without mentioning his 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. Then he waited until Connie went off to Pilates before entering the kitchen, where Maria was cleaning the oven.
"Mejor quando la senora no esta aqui?" 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 before," 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 to which Peretta had insisted on taking his hosts as a way to say 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."
"I chair the Diversity Committee at the Writers Guild," Sternberg said.
"And he's on committees in East LA and Compton," Connie added.
"And it wouldn't hurt you to do some outreach as well," said Sternberg
"What if I tell you that in my own way I'm already making an effort?"
"Then we're proud of you," Connie said.
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 PM Peretta was 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."
Though 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 mustered after he and Connie exchanged awkward looks.
"W-we love having you," Connie added.
"And don't think it's not appreciated. But comes a time."
"You sure?" asked Sternberg.
Peretta responded with a nod.
Thanks to a tip from another photographer, Peretta's housing quest 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 a couple of 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 bright, funny, and wonderfully vivacious. Not merely someone who cleaned houses, she was also studying at night to be a graphic designer, yet 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 foresworn relationships, went swiftly from interested to infatuated, and from there to 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 first at a clothing drive, then at a food bank. But when plans were discussed to do a large-scale fundraiser for the 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 brought much-needed attention, as well as additional funding.
It was close to three weeks later that Sternberg showed up at Peretta's West Hollywood studio just as an actress was getting set to leave after a 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.
"I feel like you've been ducking me," Sternberg said once they were seated, he with an expresso, 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 on Saturday, Peretta spotted the host and hostess beaming proudly in the midst of what looked like a rainbow coaltion.
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 "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.
"How in hell could you do that to us?" he demanded.
"Beg your pardon."
"Bringing our housekeeper to a gathering."
"Which means 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
Alan Swyer's novel The Beard has just been published by Harvard Square Editions. His recent boxing documentary El Boxeo is now available through Amazon Prime. He is now at work on a film about singer-songwriter Billy Vera.