Chapter 1: MIRA MESA BOULEVARD, SAN DIEGO (the full chapter)
Samantha and Emily stand on the concrete island, safe. They are safe, I think, safe.
My daughters watch me. Their eyes burn, intense beacons in the distance, far away, miles from me, the space separating us an infinite gulf.
They stand rigid at first; then they jump in counterpoint and gesticulate; thrust encouraging arms at me, like lifesavers.
I cannot leave them, I think; they are so little, just ten and eight. They cannot live without Alyce DeSantis; they cannot survive with Richard DeSantis. Not with Richard and his Connie, and Julie, and many nameless others, some mere geography, like the Trentonian, like Twin Rivers. Not with Richard, for he is the reason we are on Mira Mesa Boulevard.
Earlier this afternoon, we arrived in Scripps Ranch for lunch with Richard, my almost ex-husband. Lunch with him was as pleasant as it could be. Richard has had—may still be having—an affair. Her name is Connie and she works for him. I didn’t see Connie when we met Richard in the lobby. I knew she was present, though, up on the second floor somewhere, up where Richard has his office.
After lunch at an Italian restaurant Richard and his colleagues frequent, Emily insisted she needed chewing gum. She whined her breath tasted funny. I assured her the taste would pass. It was only garlic from our lunch, and garlic, in fact, was good for her. She would have none of it.
Though I dislike the idea of a gum-snapping child, I loaded Samantha and Emily into the car; and, instead of navigating onto I-15 and north to our home in Rancho Bernardo, I crossed the overpass to the shopping area along Mira Mesa. I pulled into a small strip mall on my right, parked, and climbed out of the car with my girls. We walked around the tiny center and found a liquor store, a dry cleaner, mail store, gas station, donut shop, and pizzeria, but no sundry or drugstore selling the brand of gum Emily required, bubblegum rolled and dispensed like medical adhesive tape. Then Samantha spotted a Thrifty across the way, on the other side of Mira Mesa Boulevard. It shimmered in the heat, deep in the shopping center across the way, at the end of the parking lot, a considerable distance, perhaps half a suburban block, from the intersection and traffic light.
My first week as a Californian I learned you did not cross streets like Mira Mesa, six lanes of relentless traffic, on foot; you used your car. I turned the girls back toward our car, when Emily said she wanted to walk, called walking an adventure, which it certainly was in a town where no one walked with purpose.
But I agreed and we trekked to the traffic light, where there was a walk/don’t walk signal. These always surprised me, signals for regulating pedestrians in a place devoid of them. We crossed on the green and I took some small satisfaction when the signal allowed us barely enough time to reach the other side. It’s probably not the best habit, not good for the girls, the joy I display disparaging California. My only defense is it is my outlet for expressing in the healthiest fashion I can manage my resentment at Richard for what he has put me—us—through, removing us to the farthest corner of the country, away from our families, deserting us for weeks at a time on business trips, and betraying me.
In Thrifty, Emily was the perfect picture of indecision, vacillating from grape to cherry flavor, settling finally on what she first mentioned fifteen minutes earlier, bubblegum.
I must have been oblivious, preoccupied with my anxiety over arriving late for what amounted to, in the selective and magnified vision of hindsight, a pitiful refuge, my standing hair appointment. A hand, thick, callused, crusted with grease in the pores and cuticles, a Bobby McFarlane hand, if Bobby hadn’t been three thousands miles away in Bayport, proffered the package of rolled bubblegum to Emily who, against all previous instruction regarding gifts from strangers, hesitantly accepted it. “It’s what you need,” rattled the voice belonging to the hand in a smoky whisper saturated in malevolent phlegm. It arrested my attention and I gazed into the shadowed face, expecting a particular man, but seeing almost nothing, a haze of a face, insubstantial, as if poppy, or acid, or pentazocine. Not that I saw much of his face, only his vaguely pointed chin, that, I thought, would have better suited a witch. He wore a fedora, a bizarre cover for southern California, broad-brimmed, oddly blue like the perpetual color of the sky here, and heavy too, and, by the sag of his head, uncomfortable. I looked him up and down, hat to shoes. He was entirely in blue the shade of his hat, strange and frightening, more apparition than corporal.
I snatched the gum from Emily and returned it to him. He repeated himself as I herded the girls away from him and muttered, “I don’t think so.” On the way to the exit, hurrying, as if we were thieves instead of a woman and two girls approached by a mysterious and ominous incarnation, I heard a buzz. It was low, insistent; not steady, but, rather, erratic, low then high then low, like a machine whirring in hiding, similar to the mechanics of Oz. I swiveled my head in an effort to see where it was coming from, fearing it was the blue thing charging us from behind. But he, it, the thing, was gone, vanished, and the buzz continued to assault me through the door, fading only when the girls and I rushed into the parking lot.
The three of us blinked in the bright sun of late afternoon. It hadn’t been dark in Thrifty; but the quality of the light had been different, duller than the real California article. I hurried the girls away from the store, across the vast parking lot, and to the sidewalk that like all California sidewalks was purely a prop. It wasn’t an easy journey, for Emily insisted, absolutely insisted she could not stand for another second the horrid taste lingering on her tongue; she absolutely needed her bubblegum. She demanded to know why she could not have it, why I had plucked it from her hands.
Had I been an honest mother, I would have revealed the terror gripping me from the moment we had encountered the thing in blue: fear, stark and raw, exactly like that which seizes you in the middle of the night upon waking and realizing, and accepting, you will die; you will. But it’s not the forthrightness I wished to expose my young daughter to. I left it at, “Because, we are in a hurry.” So insufficient was this I found myself obligated to repeat it nearly a dozen times across the parking lot.
Being the good mother, the cautious woman, the well-raised child, I began tugging the girls toward the intersection, toward the far-away, terribly misplaced traffic light. Emily pulled away and dashed to the curb. “We’re in a hurry,” she declared. “Let’s cross here.” I released Samantha and reached for Emily, who perched precariously on the edge of the curb. Then the first car stopped, the driver having spotted Emily, seen she wished to cross the street. The driver was a woman, older. She smiled at us and waved. I thought she was kindly; a woman who practiced politeness, and who undoubtedly believed her gesture was helpful, not the least misguided.
Emily and Samantha responded by trotting into Mira Mesa Boulevard.
The driver of the car in the next lane, a man in a bright yellow polo shirt, saw my daughters and me lagging them and stopped, and the girls flashed across the next lane and onto the island.
Here I am now in the third lane, halfway across it, watching my girls imploring me to hurry. A blue car is bearing down on me. A man is driving and amazingly—I blink to be certain my fear is not deceiving me—he is dressed in a blue that matches his car. Aside from amazement, I don’t know what else to make of the coincidence, for the only thing occupying my mind is the certainty he has no intention of stopping, and I will not make it to the concrete island from which my girls are stamping and encouraging me. I know I am seeing Samantha and Emily for the last time. I reach for them and smile, for I want them to remember me as happy, when the sky blue car hits me, scoops me up into the air, races under me, catches me up and on its hood, where I thud hard, where a deafening buzz suddenly enshrouds me, where I slide at high velocity into the windshield, cracking it so the entire length and height of it blossoms into a fine spider’s web of fissures. Oddly, I feel nothing—no pain whatsoever. However, I know I am injured badly, probably fatally.
The buzz increases intolerably and my vision dims.
In the last seconds before I sink into the void, I think: Richard, you are a bastard.