“Exiles Under the Bridge” is a novel (125,000 words) about two families: one white, one HK Chinese, in 1980s, Pasadena, CA.
The book unfolds in a setting of affluence, privilege and natural beauty where the American Dream is within grasp.
But their struggles and aspirations coincide with political conservatism, personal licentiousness, and the terrifying arrival of AIDS.
George Gilmore is an entitled scion from old money. He is also a closeted gay man, father, husband and failed screenwriter whose name, money and reputation protect him even as he self-destructs. His admirers burnish his reputation to fuel their own social climbing. His victims are his wife Edna and their two sons, Ed and Rory, all starved for love and honesty.
Dr. Vincent Yue and Norma Loh, Hong Kong natives, are best friends with the Gilmores and endure marital and familial conflict when they discover cousin Tony’s relationship with George. Teenage daughter Lesley must wrestle with her own burgeoning homosexuality to avoid her mother’s wrath. Norma is ambitious and is eager to exploit the wealth and political power of George Gilmore.
Befriending Norma, Sinophile Edna collects Chinese pottery and works as a docent in an Asian museum but is innocent in all knowledge of Chinese culture. Her marriage is a sham. And when George becomes ill with AIDS their façade of contentment collapses.
The enduring relationship between Edna and Norma is the foundation of the book.
Notables from that era, including Dominick Dunne, Jennifer Jones, Norton Simon, Farrah Fawcett, Ronald Reagan and Cary Grant make guest appearances in the novel.
White supremacy, women’s roles, bigotry, homophobia, and ethnic conflicts run through the story.
“Exiles Under the Bridge” also depicts characters who must live within the confines of traditional Chinese family mores even as they experiment with sexual freedom and nonconformity.
“Oh, Hello Mrs. Edelman. I’ve got a UPS package down here from your son in California. Yes, Ma’am I’ll keep it right next to my desk.”
McEvoy, the doorman at 1099 Fifth Avenue, hung up the phone. A ruddy, middle- aged and perpetually officious Irishman, he had worked in this luxury building for 24 years.
The house telephone rang again. ”Hello. Mrs. Edelman? Yes, its still here. The weather? Let me look outside.”
He put down the receiver and walked out onto Fifth Avenue and looked across the gray, windy expanse of Central Park.
“It don’t look too good ma’am. I’d say you’d better take an umbrella. Well, even if you’re only going to Lincoln Center. When you get out of the cab, if it’s raining, you’ll get drenched. Yes, ma’am.”
Madison Parke, the red haired, affected and pretentious nighttime doorman, arrived for the evening shift.
Mr. Fagan picked up the UPS package.
“Great son, this Ron Edelman. He lives out in LA, makes a bundle producing shit TV and he sends his mother used books.”
“She likes books. She always tells me that Ron— the great Ron— knows just what his mom wants to read. She loves mysteries. Last year she went on that sleuth weekend where you had to find the body up at Lake Mohonk. Couldn’t stop talking about it.”
“Yeah. I remember. She was all excited because the “corpse” was at the bottom of the lake.”
“Charlie, I saw her come down the other day. She was wearing the tightest spandex exercise pants youse ever seen. I mean, if I didn’t know she was 70 years old, I would go after her myself.”
“Oh, she takes great care of herself. She told me she’s on the stair master 45 minutes a day. She also lifts weights, rides horses, swims in the pool, does yoga.”
“Then she’s always running out the door to plays, concerts, restaurants. She told even told me she ended up in a dyke bar down in Tribeca last week!”
“Mrs. Edelman! At a dyke bar!”
“She said she knew women like that at Vassar, but she was always afraid to socialize with them. Now that’s its cool….well she wanted to see a lesbo bar up close.”
The elevator door opened. Out of the mahogany paneled cab stepped a petite, blond, thin lady dressed in a tan trench coat. A Burberry scarf was gallantly wrapped around her neck. Her posture was erect, her tone direct and confident.
“Good evening gentlemen!”
“Hello Mrs. Edelman”
“Can you call a cab for me Charles?”
He ran out the front door, stepped off the curb and stuck a piercing whistle in his mouth. As if on command to a deity, a line of yellow cabs came to a halt.
Mrs. Edelman stepped out . McEvoy held open the apartment door and Doorman Fagan got the cab. She smiled at these two servants who greased the wheels of elitism, on a cool October night on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
“I want two pounds of nova. Don’t slice it too thickly. Last time I came in you gave me thick slices. I almost choked.”
Mrs. Edelman was pushing her way through the competitively edible chaos of the Fairway. Even at midnight, the store was bustling. Shoppers aimed their carts like assassins with automatic weapons. A ridiculously opulent place, she thought. Stuffed with non-essentials like English creams, organic Greek olives, hand cut oatmeal, German black bread, Swiss preserves, French mustards, Japanese fish eggs and butter from Manitoba.
It was a ritual for her, the Saturday night trip to the Upper West Side for Sunday brunch. The dying and reborn rituals of Jewish cooking, family togetherness and religious symbolism joined hands with the secular machine of supermarket retailing.
She had done this when Harry was alive. He insisted on the best of everything. He simply could not eat a piece of Lox unless it had been purchased at Fairway. He was as biased in favor of the culture and food of this neighborhood. But as a successful shoe manufacturer and designer, he insisted on the stylish elegance of the Upper East Side. His January 1969 quote in Esquire: “The West side is for eating, the East side for living.”
He was a self-made and often arrogant man. But he inspired her love. There was not a day when some street, some store- front didn’t remind her of Harry Edelman. A walk past the Plaza brought back the moment he had proposed to her in the Oak Bar, a young man of 27, already selling shoes to Bergdorf under the Edelman label. His shoes were the pinnacle of stylishness, and when a woman wore $50 Edelman crocodile pumps, she had attained an important and inarguably affluent state of being.
Truman Capote had once written an unpublished short story for her called “Little Mister Shoe”. It was a wickedly cruel satire of a Brooklyn born titan who rose to the top of his profession by preying on the insecurities of rich Manhattan matrons. He would walk up Madison Avenue, find wealthy ladies and ask, “Are those Weinsteins you’re wearing?” The women, startled and surprised by this shoe interrogator, would usually say, “No they’re not.” And this questioner, would remark, “Well, they are so beautiful, I just assumed they were Weinsteins!”
That’s what Harry had done. He got Slim Hayward, Babe Paley and even Doris Day to wear his shoes. He walked up to them at parties or in restaurants and pretended to not understand why they were not wearing Edelmans.
On the day Harry Edelman died, his wife was walking home in blinding rainstorm, unable to hail a cab. Her shoes were soaking, the leather ruined. All she could think of was how he would kill her when she got home. When she reached 1099, an ambulance was outside, lights flashing crimson in the dark pounding rain. Two men were carrying him out on a gurney. As the doorman grabbed her beneath the arms, she fainted away.
Ron had been the apple of their eye. The only son. With his blue eyes, light brown hair, tall and athletic frame, he turned heads everywhere. He seemed destined for acting, or perhaps news casting. He had a deep and abiding loyalty to his parents, and especially was concerned about their health and safety.
At Yale, he surprised his parents when he switched his major from acting to business management. It was practical, he explained, the eighties were about making money, and he didn’t know any rich actors, only struggling ones.
He came home, to Manhattan, during vacations and long weekends. Always to see shows. He was passionate about dramas: Pinter, Albee, Shakespeare. Once they saw “Othello” out of doors in the park, when it was playing at the Delacorte. At the moment that the great martyred queen Desdemona dies, at the hand of her distrusting husband, Ron let out a mournful cry. It startled his mother, to see her son so moved by something so ethereal and artful.
Ron had one weakness that seemed to bother her immensely. He was picked up, bossed around and controlled by domineering women. There was Annette Hoffman, the chubby thespian who had dated him at Dalton in junior and senior years. She openly smoked, wore heavy make up and dressed like a shlep. She lived on Riverside Drive, and seemed openly contemptuous of Ron’s parents and their tony, aspiring life on Fifth.
To his mother’s gratification, Ron broke off with Annette. But again he was cornered at college by the needy, self- pitying and obnoxious Rosanne Harmon, a Connecticut WASP. Ron was taken with Rosanne’s blond hair and soccer toned thighs, but seemed to ignore her more destructive tendencies. When he brought her home for Thanksgiving, and Rosanne sarcastically remarked about the good taste of his parents, Harry took her comment to sound almost anti-Semitic, as if Jews just wouldn’t know good taste, and simply had to purchase the outward manifestation of it.
Harry’s dislike for Rosanne brought a chill to the relationship between father and son. Rosanne started to push for Ron to break away from his parents. Talk started about moving West, where the sun shined always, and the limestone structured rules and regulations melted in the heat of a perpetual Dionysian youth.
Ron and Rosanne drew closer to graduation. Los Angeles, with its insipid and empty promises of sunshine, fame and fortune posed a poisonously seductive charm to the graduates. Rosanne nagged him. ”Let’s get out of the East Coast. The weather sucks. We will always have your parents to deal with, and I just want to see whether we can make it in LA”
“I don’t know, Ro.” Ron would answer, “ I just think it’s awful out there. You need a car. The people are so dumb. Besides, I might want to work with my father. He needs a business mind. “
“That is just gross! You want to spend your twenties stuck on 7th Avenue? The humidity…. pushing carts and boxes on the sidewalk…… and working in the shoe business! You always wanted to act. Why don’t you live your dreams?”
When she spoke it made sense. Los Angeles would be their city. They could always come home. They could even become bi-coastal, with a home in both cities! Los Angeles didn’t have lots of things—Central Park, Broadway, Wall Street, the Brooklyn Bridge, Sardis, the Guggenheim. But so what! Angelinos had swimming pools, nice cars, and beautiful weather. That was enough! If they didn’t like it out West, they would come back to New York.
At Fairway, she grabbed the Nova Scotia. Then it was two pumpernickel bagels, two raisins, two sesame. A red onion, Jersey tomatoes, capers, and a half pound of Sumatra.
Tomorrow she was having an eclectic group over: Ingrid, a retired book editor at Knopf and her husband Arnie, who was a violinist with the Philharmonic. The guest list included portrait painter Edward Reese Hubbard, and his companion Maynard Forbes, an investment banker.
At the checkout line, the clerk remarked. “Look at that lightening. It’s gonna pour. Do you need any help with your packages ma’am?.”
“No! Not at all. I’ve got it all under control.”
The seventy- year old lady with the 26- inch waist, bountiful brain and the beating heart, carried two heavy paper bags full of provisions for a Sunday party full of witty, intelligent and urbane sophisticates. Independent, opinionated and free of encumbering alliances with husbands, lovers and even her own son, she stepped out unaware of the precipice ahead.
The cab crossed under the flooded park roads. When they got to Fifth Avenue, the rain was pounding heavily. It sounded like the steel roof of the cab was being hit by a thousand speeding nails maliciously tossed by the hands of an angry God.
At 1099, the doorman opened her door. Instead of helping Mrs. Edelman out of the cab, he instead grabbed the two bags of groceries and hustled them inside to dryness. She fumbled for her wallet, and took out $10 and paid the cabbie. She put her hand on the door of the cab and lifted herself onto the curb. But her right foot hit the gutter and suddenly twisted. A cracking bone and the instant signal of injury rushed through her entire body. She screamed loudly, and fell forward onto the sidewalk. The cab driver, recognizing her injury but fearing a lawsuit, pulled away suddenly with the door ajar. She lay helpless on the sidewalk, awaiting rescue.
“You’ve broken your ankle, Mrs. Edelman.”
The doctor at Lenox Hill spoke clearly and without empathy. “Look at the X-Ray”.
He continued, “‘The white solid area is your ankle bone, dislocated by about 5cm or so from the end of the broken tibia. The jagged ends of broken bones can be clearly seen.”
She was in a wheelchair. At her side was Edward Reese and Maynard.
Edward said, “Doctor, Mrs. Edelman lives alone. She is in an apartment and can’t get around without help. How is she going to take care of herself?”
“Do you have any children Mrs. Edelman?”
“My son lives in Agoura. That’s in California.”
“He’s been telling me for years that I have to move there. But I hate it out there. I’m not going to leave New York. That’s final.”
“Mother, it’s Ron. How are you feeling?”
“Well. I have pain and tenderness. My leg is swelling. I can’t move around and when I try to move it hurts even more. How is Rosanne?” ”Never mind Rosanne. She’s fine. Let’s just talk about you. That’s my concern.”
“Well I’m just asking, because I haven’t heard from her. I just wondered if she’s all right.”
“What else did the doctor say?”
“He took a Doppler study.”
“To see about my pulse. Sometimes they get concerned because the injury can cut off your pulse and then you might have an amputation.”
“An amputation! Mother that does it. I’m coming home.” ”What about your show? How can you leave Rosanne?”
“She’s going to be all right. I’m coming into LaGuardia on Friday.”
On Sunday afternoon, Ingrid and Arnie were sitting in the yellow walled living room. The park windows were open. It was a sunny Autumn day, when the warm winds carry faint scents of burning wood and fallen leaves. The dimming sun perpetuated a lie: that this fair weather would never end.
“I don’t see how she’s going to be able to stay here.” remarked Ingrid.
“A nurse? Don’t they have nurses who can stay with her?” asked Arnie.
“Around the clock! She can’t afford that.”
“She’s not exactly poor.”
“This is what kills old people. When the medical bills start piling up, they have to get people to take care of them all day. Emptying bed- pans, going to the grocery store, paying the bills. Who do you think is going to do all that?”
From the bedroom, the weary voice of the patient called out.
“Ingrid. Can you come in here please?”
Her leg was elevated on pillows. Wrapped in a cast, it stood on top of a goose down comforter like some misplaced sculpture from the Museum of Modern Art. It covered a right leg that had been one half of a vigorous and seldom still pair of legs. The legs that had once danced at the Waldorf and skated around the ice at Wohlman Rink. Those legs had climbed the Statue of Liberty and ran around the Reservoir in Central Park.
“I’m sorry to bother you. Could you get me a Tylenol? These compound fractures. I think I ‘d rather just have them cut off!”
Ingrid handed her a glass of water and a pill.
“Don’t talk that way! In a couple of months, you’ll be out of this mess and back to your old self.”
“Old self. That’s what I am. Old. Look at how I ruined everyone’s brunch today.”
“You didn’t ruin anything! You had an accident. Ron will be coming home, and then you’ll have something to look forward to. Maybe with the winter coming you’ll want to spend time in California. Listen, it’s not bad sitting around the pool in the sunshine.”
The phone rang. It was Maynard.
“Hello, dear. How are you?”
“As well as can be expected. Where are you calling from?” ”Oh, we just left the ballet. It was marvelous. I usually hate modern dance, but this one was choreographed magnificently. The way they move on stage. Lucinda Capelli bounces like a kitten and she is so beautiful.”
“Oh, Lucinda. Remember when she performed Balanchine’s piece? I forget the name. See, I’m losing my mind.”
“Don’t say that. You’re going to be up and about in a matter of days. Edward was saying that he should paint you in bed. That would cheer you up.! He could hide your cast under some pillows and immortalize you for the ages! What do you think of that?”
“I think I’m tired. I have to go. Good-bye”
She hung up the phone and stared at the ceiling. Ingrid took her hand and tried to tell her she was not alone.
Ingrid and Arnie. Maynard and Edward. The doorman and the maid. The nurse from Blue Cross. All made appearances. They fed and bathed and emptied the bedpan. They listened as she cried and got angry. They fed her pills to relax her, pills to kill the pain.
Friday: The day that Ron came home. Only six days elapsed between her injury and his impending arrival. Every 24 hours felt monumentally long and physically and psychologically taxing. She wondered if he was really coming. She feared his plane would crash. Eating, bathing, thinking, all were actions of immense athletic exertion.
At last, 11.30pm on Friday, November 1st, Ron Edelman walked into his mother’s room and hugged her tightly. She was so relieved to see him. The anointed son and savior had come home at last.
He was sleeping soundly along side her, when she awoke at 7am. Once he had been an infant boy, and here he was today– a man, a tall, graying still handsome man in a fetal position sleeping next to Mom.
She couldn’t get up and make him breakfast, or even coffee. She reminisced about those years when Saturday morning meant Harry and Ron watching cartoons, laughing on the living room, eating the bagels and getting the crumbs on the floor. It had made her angry, the mess they caused on her good carpets. How stupid she had been! If she only knew then how briefly that interval of togetherness and laughter would last.
Now, she had to lay in her bed, helpless, as her infant child had once been. She was dependent and reliant on others. Once, she had figured out that most of the human race was selfish and self-serving, and she had acted accordingly, grabbing the richest man for herself, and taking advantage of all that Manhattan and the glittering crowd had to offer. Now she had to eat what was cooked, listen to the trivial patter of servants, and ask her son if he would leave his life, his wife, his job and home and spend time with his mother. How could she ask [and receive] all of that?
“There’s just so much to do here in the city, mom! God, I can’t believe that they’re doing another revival of “The Producers”. And look at the jazz festival on the pier at South Street.”
“Well you go. You only have a few days here. I don’t want you to sit in the apartment and watch TV. You need to take it in before you go back to that……..place.”
“Mom. Why do you hate LA so much? Isn’t it silly to waste so much time hating a city? It can’t be so bad if people keep moving there.”
“Well, I guess I should stop hating it. They say you don’t need to walk much out there, and that fits right in with my new disability.”
“I was talking to Rosanne……”
“I was talking to Rosanne and she thinks, she agrees, that it would be fine if you stayed with us in Agoura.”
“And what do I do with this place?”
“Sell it. What do you need it for anyway? You can make a killing. Didn’t you and Dad buy this for like eighty five grand or something?”
“It was a hundred and twenty six thousand. A lot of money in 1967. “
“If you come to Agoura, you can have your own room on the ground floor. Remember when you visited two years ago? Rosanne painted the bedroom Martha Stewart brown and it has new French doors that open right out onto the pool. Isn’t that nice?”
As cold and gracious December roared in, the streets were full of white lights and snow flakes. The city was aglow with the yuletide spirit, and the windows of the stores carried their eternal wares of sweaters, candles, mittens, ribbons, lights, Santa Claus and reindeer. At the intersection of 57th and 5th, an electric white star hung spider-like above the traffic.
Tiffanys. Trump Tower. The St. Regis. Edward and Maynard pushed Mrs. Edelman down Fifth Avenue in the wheelchair. Then they passed the stone steps of St. Patricks and stopped.
“Please guys. Can we go in for a minute? I want to see St. Pats.”
“Shall we try and lift her up the steps ?” Maynard asked.
Edward frowned at Maynard. The lady in the chair caught the angry gleam of his eye.
Edward spoke: “ We cannot lift this chair up those steps! How about we take you across the street and watch the skaters at Rockefeller Center?”
“OK. That would be fine.”
At the edge of the skating rink, under the statue of Prometheus, a trio of singers sang “Silent Night.” The jagged rock of the Art Deco skyscraper, perhaps the same age as Mrs. Edelman, was lit up like a Christmas candle in the Manhattan night. Laughing children skated around the rink. Young lovers kissed, their lips warmed by the tender breath of passion.
She sat amidst the laughing crowds and a season of festive lights.
“Oh, fellas! How can I leave all this behind!”
The blinding sun lit up the concrete backyard of 29991 Avenida del Morte in Agoura Hills, CA. She stared at the blue pool water, its contents warmed by radiant doses of the ominpotent sun, germs hygienically annihilated in chlorine. Two lone backyard palm trees, bereft of shade or fragrance, stood against the backdrop of deserted mountains and endless clone like homes.
Ron had gone to work, and Rosanne went to the gym. There wasn’t a sound in the air, as the entire neighborhood had their windows shut and the air conditioning on. Only the hum of the cooling machines could be heard.
Under the awning, she wheeled her chair into place to escape the burning rays. She began to write a letter to Ingrid:
Dear Ingrid: I have now lived here for two months. Ron is very good to me. We go to physical therapy every other day. The doctors tell me that I have to practice a range of motion exercises including flexion (bending of the joint) extensions, rotations, abductions, etc. I am gradually feeling better.
I read the NY Times everyday. Ron subscribes to it (of course)! Rosanne busies herself with exercise. She is very fit, and tries to eat well, and talks about how she intends to never be helpless, even in her old age. (Let’s just wait and see about that one.) She still has no interest in children, or culture, or work. She seems to only want to work out and get manicures and tans. But I think she has developed other qualities that Ron admires. When I find out what they are, I will certainly tell you.
Maynard told me that he went to a new Picasso exhibit and that he bumped into the still preserved Contessa Di Mario. She was always so elegant. Harry said that when the Contessa wore his shoes to an opening, the next day, every society woman on Park Avenue went into Bergdorfs asking for the same shoes! Oh, how I miss New York!
Anyway, I think………..
The writer stopped there. She put her pen down, left the letter open, and wheeled herself away from the table. On or about 12.30pm, on Monday, January 15th at the height of the mid day sun, while much of LA was swimming, tanning, driving, talking on the cell phone, eating, making deals………..a little lady of aristocratic bearing who had once been celebrated , loved and envied by much of Gotham….. wheeled herself to the edge of the deep end of the pool and threw herself to the bottom where she drowned.