Chapter 2: RANCHO BERNARDO, CALIFORNIA (Part 4)
We are cruising north on Interstate 5 in Richard’s SUV, passing Camp Pendleton. Richard is making a big deal of it.
“Watch for explosions,” he warns.
“They won’t blow up the road?” Emily asks with a timbre intimating genuine concern, like a howitzer shell may be lurking above us in the perpetually blue sky, at apogee, and momentarily beginning its descent upon us. I’m rolling my eyes at the landscape of dunes and scrub, encouraging whatever Marines might be maneuvering in the distance to put us ersatz pilgrims to peaceful rest. But, of course, there are no Marines on the scene. It’s Saturday and they probably are already at Disneyland with their families hogging the popular rides.
“Your father’s kidding you,” I say, turning my sorry smile on the girls. Richard fires daggers at me, as if I might be a terrorist. How dare I strap a bomb to his fun day and blast it to smithereens?
The drive to Anaheim, which I’ve never taken, proves even more eventful. If we remain on 5, blow past Anaheim, we’d pass through Los Angeles, straight up the coast into Oregon, through Portland, into Seattle. It holds appeal, like a prison breakout does.
I explain the geography to the girls, except for the breakout part, and suddenly they express concern that we’ll continue north, that we’ll miss Disneyland. I assure them we won’t miss a thing.
Richard chimes in, low, for my benefit only, “Why do you say things like that?”
I glare at him, and he ignores me.
“Look girls,” he says, “over there.”
Straddling the highway is a profusion of high-tension lines. They connect to towers on both sides of 5. They originate in the San Onofre power plant set smack on the coastline, on prime real estate, and near an offshore fault line, too, though they are hard to avoid here.
“Anybody know what that is?” Richard asks, pointing toward the power plant’s containment domes, architecture straight from science fiction.
I glance back at Samantha and Emily, who are craning to take in the sight.
“It’s a nuclear power plant. Atoms working for us,” Richard intones, reminiscent of Ronald Regan and mid-twentieth century promises.
The plant electrifies me, but not in the way it does the rest of California; it sparks a chill that races up my spine. I imagine a horrid accident in progress, a fearful meltdown like in China Syndrome, and us engulfed in the radioactive aftermath. I wrap my arms around myself and shudder. Richard notices.
He rakes me up and down. He’s pitying me, maybe accusing me of whining myself into a mood that will end in spoiling the great father’s outing. His expression declares me weak, imbecilic, negative; I’m the type who imagines the glass half empty.
I respond by narrowing my eyes. I’m nothing of the sort. I’ve always been a positive person. I’ve always seen the good in people. Well, most people. Some, like Bobby McFarlane, are more bad than good. I think Richard’s like that, more bad than good, like his old high school buddy. I didn’t always think of him this way. But now I do.
I’m wrapped up in myself to the point I don’t notice we are slowing, until I see the barrier of red lights in front of us.
“Immigration checkpoint,” Richard informs.
The girls know about immigration; it’s a big topic nationwide, but bigger here in California, and controversial because of the vast farmlands blanketing the state. Illegals are like tiny portable engines, or compact machines, that harvest crops up and down the state. Farmers argue they can’t bring in crops without them. Manufacturers carp about the high cost of labor and uncompetitive pricing without them. The well off complain without them they won’t have the household help they desperately need. Some worry about them as people, people who are abused for seeking what everybody is in California for, what the state was founded upon: a better life for themselves and their families. The girls and I are sympathetic.
Passing through the checkpoint, we see three battered vans parked off to the side. Dozens of people, bedraggled men, women and children, mill around in small groups, families it appears. They slouch, weary. They are ragged and dirty and it’s clear they haven’t changed for days. We pass close enough for me to discern their faces. Fear and worry predominate, even among the children, even the youngest.
As we gain speed, Richard breathes, almost inaudibly, “Bastards.”
“What’s that?” Samantha asks. I didn’t notice she was leaning forward, to my right, near the door. I’m afraid she heard Richard, but no. She speaks softly, as if she doesn’t wish Richard to hear her. But I don’t know what looms ahead of us, so I have to ask Richard.
“Irvine,” he says.
Samantha shifts and now sticks her head between us.
“You have your seatbelt on, young lady?” Richard asks, when he realizes she is hanging over the console. He is playing the role of concerned father full bore. I know it’s the right question; nonetheless, it irritates me.
She scoots back and buckles up. “I mean the cloud,” she says.
I see it. It’s brown and hugs the ground in the near distance. Above it, I see the bright blue sky and sunlight. But halfway down on the horizon the cloud begins. It’s difficult to see through, like heavy fog, except the color of the California landscape.
“Air,” Richard answers.
“Smog,” I say.
“Eeehu,” singsong the girls in unison.
I turn. Samantha and Emily are holding their breath. I look forward and smile. If only it were that easy. In a second, I hear their whooshing.
They complain for a few minutes. Then the umbrella of brown disappears, and a palpable dimness, a patina of ochre, cloaks us.
“I can see the air,” Emily says. Both resume their shrieks of dismay over visible air. I console myself and them with, “Aren’t we lucky to live in Rancho Bernardo?”
Emily says, “Yes. I like invisible air the best.”
We pass through Irvine and the air clears up; or, probably, we have acclimated to colored air and no longer notice it.
When we see the signs for Disneyland Drive, Richard announces the obvious. Now the girls are excited. I glance back at them; they are bouncing and rocking in their car seats and squealing about Mickey Mouse and Goofy and the rest of the motley Disney cartoon crew.
I know nothing about our arrangements; Richard has handled everything. I know why. I’m sorry for my feeling, but I can’t help myself: he is the ultimate good guy, the supreme dad. At least, he probably assumes the girls view him this way. Every neglect will evaporate in their minds, replaced by the mighty event: Daddy took us to Disneyland. And Mommy, well, she never does fun things. It’s spiteful, offensive recrimination; Richard has calculated the whole affair for the lucre of praise and his plan is proving successful.
Off 5, instead of following the Disney route, he turns up South Harbor Boulevard, then onto Ball Road heading west, and into the lot of the Sheraton Anaheim Hotel. He parks under the porte-cochere.
“Nice, huh?” he gloats, to the windshield, as none of us are listening. The girls’ gape in distress. I read their minds: “Where’s Mickey, and the rest of the goofballs? Where’s the Magic Kingdom and Cinderella’s Castle?” Actually, it’s directly to our left, and if I had any residual of kind regard for Richard at the moment I would guide the girls’ eyes across the street with a finger. But he deserves the disappointed faces.
Richard is like a cat, a Cheshire, insincere but extraordinarily fleet. “It’s right over there,” he says, waving at it like he would to an old friend.
Now Samantha and Emily are gleeful, merry and loud, and unbearable—unbearable because I wish them older or wiser, able to penetrate the smokescreen Richard is laying down for their benefit.
“Let’s go now,” they squeak as one.
If it were up to Richard, we would drive right over and leave our bags to bake in the cargo bed. In fact, a glance at him tells me he is on the verge of suggesting just this. He forces me to be bad mom.
“We’ll go as soon as we check in.”
They, Richard loudest, moan.
“Don’t you want to see our beautiful room? After all, Daddy went to lots of trouble finding a nice hotel for us.” Attributing virtue to his maneuvers is akin to plunging a dagger into my own heart and twisting the damn thing a couple of times for good measure.
“Yes,” they say. “Sorry, Daddy.”
He smiles in appreciation, and a bit of it drifts my way; by intent or accident, I can’t tell. Our animosity is low-level, like background radiation, not enough to kill us, to murder our marriage outright, but uncomfortable, accumulative, and threatening. At any moment for any reason it could flare and ramp up to a deadly concentrated level. Not today, though. Today it lingers in the background, registering, but barely. I find myself thankful but bitter.
Richard fetches a service cart. We load our bags onto it, but Samantha and Emily insist on maintaining possession of their wheelie bags. Both are overpriced junk, and they worship them. Samantha’s depicts her hero Kim Possible in various acts of bravery usually reserved for boys. Emily’s has Mickey and Minnie Mouse pictured as a blissful couple. It hurts me to look too long at Mickey and Minnie. Sometimes, like now, I envision Minnie armed with a rolling pin beating Mickey’s tiny brains out through his eyeballs. It disturbs me, this pent up, inexpressible rage consuming me.
Our room proves pleasant, with a view of the rear end of Disneyland that delights the girls. It contains two double beds, which draw an immediate frown from me. I’m use to a queen that affords me a little private space, a cushion of separating air. Richard will be practically on top of me for two days. I glance at him. He’s beaming, not at anything in particular, just beaming in a general, distracted way. Even my faint scowl does nothing to diminish the inner warmth I envy in him. Superdad surveying his kingdom. All the master possesses laying at his feet. My face aches.
We quickly unpack. That is, I unpack as Richard and the girls mill anxiously. I feel like saying, “Sorry for holding you up. Just forget about me and get on with the fun. I’m a drag, anyway.” I know Richard thinks exactly that.
They explode out the door when I announce I’m done. What about bathrooms? Water? Anybody hungry? I’m right behind them, mum. It’s Richard’s show; the hell with him. Though, of course, I’m guilty, another normal state for me.
We taxi to the main gate. We’re in roaming the park before I can adjust to the idea. After a couple of minutes of life in Disneyland, I believe I have been imprisoned in this world of noise and action and façade of perfection my entire life. I crave salvation from the interminable amusement rides that do not amuse me; from the unrelenting politeness of characters that to me feels like drowning in syrup; from the mob of my fellow guests of all hues exhibiting many styles of ill manners in a riot of dress, much offensive. It is interminable. Richard is unrelenting. Samantha and Emily are insatiable. When dark attempts to envelope the park, Disney counters with an assault of powerful lighting. Finally, I am prepared to drop to my knees and plead for mercy. Then, suddenly, we are again in the cab returning to the hotel.
Spying the Sheraton sign from my hunkered position in the rear seat of the cab sandwiched between Samantha and Emily, who insisted they just had to see everything, fills me with hope. I envision the girls in bed; Richard tucked in, too. I am in the bathroom in a warm tub. And the best is, apart from the occasional susurration of the bath water, that silence envelops me. But I see, like everything in Disneyland and associated with the fairyland, it is a mirage.
Everybody it seems has departed Disneyland at exactly the same time; and they are lodging with us at the Sheraton, for all I know in our room, too. We creep in the driveway, and remain a tantalizing distance from the porte-cochere, until Richard can’t stand it any longer and springs us from the car; we trudge the rest of the way. Richard carries Samantha and I Emily, whose batteries have been drained completely.
After we put them to bed and Richard climbs in, I find I am barely able to wash my face. The bath strikes me as more work than the modicum of pleasure it will yield is worth and I crawl into bed beside him. I balance on the edge to avoid him. I am angry with him, and irrationally so, which compounds my animosity. He has been a considerate and attentive husband the entire day. He has played along with the girls, ridden every ride, ate every outrageous concoction they have. He has been the ideal mate and Superdad.
His calculated duplicity infuriates me.
Between Richard’s presence and the air conditioning unit in the wall switching on and off the entire night, I sleep fitfully, awake, asleep, hours of it, until it is morning.