Chapter 2: RANCHO BERNARDO, CALIFORNIA (Parts 1 to 3)
I miss Cranbury, New Jersey.
What bothers me most about our house here is that I have no place to curl up with tea in my Limoges, on my favorite sofa, and gaze over an expansive lawn and across a decent street into a neighborhood. Too, there is the weather. Never any real cold and, consequently, never snow and a glistening frosting of ice. Nor any colorful leaves. Nor even an overcast day to reflect my downcast moods. Worse, no Richard.
Richard has a presence in our Rancho Bernardo house, physically, but not in spirit. His body is usually present when I expect it to be. He guides it through the routines and motions I’m familiar with, and the intimacies that Richard so poignantly terms his duties. But Richard himself, the boy I grew to love in Creek Falls, the man I loved for most of our life in Cranbury, this Richard is missing a hundred percent of the time.
I’m not alone in noticing. Shortly after moving into our new San Diego house, Samantha and Emily observed the change in their father. He treated them coolly, had little time for them, and missed events important to them—Samantha’s first performance as a violinist in her school orchestra and Emily’s swimming lessons at the Rancho Bernardo pool, her first day of kindergarten, and others.
We have a pleasant patio, and it is a small consolation. When Richard and I were searching for a house, we discovered people here treat their backyards as rooms, like second family rooms. Yards are not large here, mere postage stamps compared to what we were used to in Creek Falls and Cranbury. But here people invest huge, really unseemly, sums and effort landscaping their tiny yards. Everything is wrought into form, cultivated and irrigated, something like the architected gardens of pre-Revolutionary French aristocrats, but a patch in those gardens, of course. There is little, nothing truly, natural in Rancho Bernardo; natural would be hard baked earth riddled with rocks.
Richard raved about the yard of the house we own when we first saw it and for the week afterwards; we bought the place based on the fabulous yard. I believe he has spent perhaps a total of a day—increments of ten minutes here and there—in the yard he professed to adore.
I am in the yard, stretched out on a chaise under the shade of an umbrella. In our mythic yard, we have no shade but for the adjustable umbrella, and the house itself when the sun sets. I am casting my eyes over our fabulous yard, over the miniature plot of grass, bright green, painter’s green, a surreal color, framed by icicle plants, low growth that flower in the wet season, early spring. It is summer, hot and arid, and the plants are a waxy green. A stucco wall, pale beige, the most popular absence of color in Rancho Bernardo, demarks the end of our yard. Beyond, far in the distance, rise rugged, primeval hills, erupted peaks of rock, dirt, and brush, the whole lot looking like it was recently dumped from a celestial pail. Above the hills and hanging over me is an inert, cloudless blue sky. The sun, an intense bright yellow, occupies most of it. I can’t look up at the sky or beyond to the hills without discomfort.
I find myself as I always do: between things. Samantha and Emily are spending a month of their summer vacation at a horse ranch. They are attending with friends from school, which means the other mothers and I are carpooling. I am grateful as the ranch is up in the northwest corner of San Diego County, in Ramona. It’s pleasant there, cooler, greener, more like home; but it’s a long drive. That means whoever is carpool queen for the day has to hang around for the four hours of camp, unless she is mad about driving; none of us are. Ramona has a few places to pass time; my choice is the small café on the main street.
But today is Kathy’s turn to chauffeur our budding equestrians, allowing me to enjoy a quiet morning with my tea before attending to chores neglected in favor of ferrying the girls, and to my mounting general depression over what I have allowed to happen to my life; or, more properly, have permitted Richard to do to my life.
Rarely do important situations spring up whole overnight. Mine has been building for years, certainly since Cranbury and the birth of Samantha. Year after year, I became less attractive to Richard. By the time we arrived in Rancho Bernardo, he was going through the motions, and not even doing a respectable job of that.
Samantha and Emily noticed.
It was Samantha who confronted him with their concern. Richard had wandered in late on a Saturday night. Emily was in bed; Samantha was watching television in the family room, a new Disney movie she just had to see, though we both knew it would be repeated dozens of times over the coming weeks. He stopped in the kitchen for a beer. He’d not been much for beer, wine, or any liquor, until Rancho Bernardo.
He entered the family room and stopped cold, not expecting Samantha. She was usually in bed when he made his appearance.
“Hiya,” he said, in a single agglutinated word. It was an unctuous greeting, slithering everywhere and nowhere, to me sprawled on the sectional and Samantha reclining on giant throw pillows directly in front of the television, and to the television itself.
I grunted, “Hello,” not from impoliteness or discontent; I was nodding off every minute or two and groggy.
“Hi, Daddy,” Samantha said, eyes peeled to the television.
Richard dropped into a chair.
“Daddy,” she lobbed casually, focused on the television, “why don’t you love Mommy anymore?”
Over the years, Richard has transformed into a slippery man. I have contemplated his metamorphosis often. In my imagination I see him as a greased pig: wily, hard to catch; oily, hard to hold onto if caught. Sometimes I castigate myself: My characterization is unfair. But more often I smile and tell myself it is justified; I’m only reporting what I observe.
He answered Samantha by advancing to me, seizing me by the arms, and hoisting me off the sectional. “I’ve been bad,” he declared. He kissed me, hard, a showy, loud kiss. With an arm around me, he said to Samantha, “Daddy loves Mommy and Mommy loves Daddy.” He squeezed my arm, hurting me a little.
I took his performance to mean he still cared, maybe not as much for me, but about the opinion of his daughters.
I smiled. It was weak, reflecting how I felt, for I said, absolving myself with the rationalization it was indeed for the good of the girls, “Of course Daddy loves Mommy and Mommy loves Daddy. It’s just been hectic. The move.” I lied and I wondered if she realized it.
“And work,” he added. “Daddy has to work a lot harder.”
We are having dinner together and the girls chatter on about their horses, and riding, and caring for the animals, each striving to outdo the other. It is the usual on nights when Richard makes it home for dinner: The girls vie for his attention.
Richard is more animated than usual, hard at it reinforcing the myth the DeSantises are a happy family. When the horse stories conclude, he says, “I’ve been thinking. We need some together time. Some real family time. How about we drive up to Anaheim this weekend?”
Anaheim means nothing to Samantha and Emily. I clarify, “You mean Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm?”
“Exactly,” he says. “I was just about to say Disneyland.” His tone is mildly peevish, as if I am attempting to tarnish his luster. “Let’s have a big weekend of rides and fun.”
Samantha and Emily leap from their chairs and dance around Richard. They engulf him with tiny arms and peck him with kisses, excited little girl expressions of gratitude, unrestrained delirium, and love for him. I smile wanly, good form, but hollow. No, that isn’t entirely true. I do feel. It is resentment. How easy for Richard, and maybe any man, who makes appearances in a marriage and family like a bit player. The girls miss him and hold his absences against him. Then he makes a grand gesture. Suddenly, whatever animosity festering in them scabs, they are in mad love with him again.