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I pulled up to the curb and parked across from the market and watched the owner come out and stand on the sidewalk and light a cigarette. He looked up and down the street and then his eyes fixed on me as he continued to smoke, very slowly and deliberately. Some boys were kicking a soccer ball around in the street. It was hard to imagine what this street had looked like in 1912. Everything seemed to have changed. Yet down the way I could see one large house, a lone three-story Victorian with turrets covered in scallops and ornate woodwork, and a deep wraparound porch with carved pillars. Once this street had been lined with grand houses, similar to the house I could still see—a house that must once have been very beautiful but now looked like a decaying relic, ruined grandeur. Had the Lloyds’ house looked anything like that?
For a while after he arrived in L.A., Chandler lived with Warren and Alma Lloyd and their two children. Fourteen-year-old Estelle had a crush on Chandler. Later there would even be talk of Estelle perhaps marrying him, when he’d returned from World War I and Estelle had become a young lady. For now she was simply part of a vibrant household, presided over by artistic parents who attracted like-minded people to their weekly Friday night musical and literary soirees, a bohemian set that Warren Lloyd had dubbed The Optimists, of which Chandler soon became a part.
The Optimists. I could not imagine a more inappropriate label for Chandler. It seemed equivalent to calling Philip Marlowe sunny. But maybe the term wasn’t so inappropriate for the young Chandler, the pre-Marlowe Chandler, the handsome, elegant, and well-dressed young man with the public school accent and polished manners who fit so easily into life on Bonnie Brae and the Lloyds’ Friday night parties.
Los Angeles, c. 1917. Photo: Ashley Van Haeften, Flickr.
It was at one of these soirees that Chandler met Cissy and Julian Pascal. Julian Pascal was a pianist and composer, born in the West Indies as Goodridge Bowen. He had taught music in London and then moved to New York, where he met Cissy Hurlburt, whom he had married in 1907. Like so many people, Julian Pascal had been drawn to L.A. for its climate—his health was poor and he was hoping for a cure—and also by the burgeoning music life in the city. When the Pascals first moved to L.A., Cissy seems to have had theatrical aspirations, which she soon gave up for the role of housewife: she also played the piano—not as well as her husband but well enough to have for a while considered a career as a pianist. Both Julian and Cissy entertained at the Lloyds’ musical evenings. The men often played chess early in the evening. There were poetry recitations, and sometimes they read aloud the poetry that Warren and Alma and Chandler had collaborated on. Often Warren presided over sessions at the Ouija board where, with guests gathered around him, he would consult the spirits.
The man who owned the Cuscatlan market finished his cigarette and went back inside. For a while there was nothing but the sound of the wind in the palms and the kids playing in the street.
I took out my notebook and looked at some notes I had made under the heading of “Chandler, Personality. Excerpts from letters.”
My wife tells me I have a beautiful character. Have you a little liar in your home? I am one of those people who have to be known exactly the right amount to be liked. I am standoffish with strangers, a form of shyness which whiskey cured when I was still able to take it in the requisite quantities. I am terribly blunt, having been raised in that English tradition which permits a gentleman to be almost infinitely rude if he keeps his voice down.
I’m strictly the background type, and my character is an unbecoming mixture of outer diffidence and inward arrogance.
At times I am extremely caustic and pugnacious; at other times very sentimental. I am not a good mixer because I am very easily bored, and to me the average never seems good enough, in people or anything else . . . I am not only literate but intellectual, much as I dislike the term.
I was looking for the voice of the young Chandler . . . but I didn’t find it there in those passages. The letters in which I might have discovered that voice had all been destroyed—if they ever existed at all. This was the older Chandler, the world-weary, introspective, nothing-to-lose-by-being-honest Chandler. And yet it was just this bluntness, this honesty and ability to look at things squarely that was part of what had drawn me to him in the first place. Chandler, who existed largely apart from the world, had not cultivated the desire to be liked and instead found it better to be frank.
Honesty had become a critical part of Marlowe’s character as well: “Are you honest?” a woman asks him at one point. “Painfully,” he answers. “I heard you leveled with customers,” says another client. “ That’s why I stay poor,” Marlowe replies.
It may also have been why Chandler stayed rather friendless for much of his life. I wondered if his bluntness had been there from the beginning. I suspected it had. Yet in the early photographs of him, taken when he was in his twenties, he’s usually smiling and his boyish good looks lend him an air of appealing lightness. In a photograph taken in southern Germany in 1907, during the year of his grand tour, five years before he arrived in L.A., his gaze is direct and almost disarmingly natural. He looks not at the camera but at some distant point to the left: he sits in a chair and holds an open book in his hands, and his mouth is drawn into the most subtle and winning little smile, like a little masculine replica of the Mona Lisa.
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