Chapter 3: LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA (Part 1)
The sun here rises bright yellow over the mountains and sets as a fireball into the Pacific. It should be the opposite and after more than a year I still find myself adjusting to the cycle with difficulty. I am an Eastern woman. Though I never lived near the ocean—Creek Falls, New York, and Cranbury, New Jersey, are miles from the Atlantic—I imagined the sun rising over the ocean when I lived in the East.
I’m sitting on a concrete bench, swinging my legs, breathing deeply of the Pacific, its briny fragrance rolling up the palisade, mingling with the icicle flowers blooming on the slope at my feet. I’m smiling. I am content. Freedom contents me. Richard is at work. Samantha and Emily are in school. And I have stolen away for a solitary hour to lounge among the sightseers at Point Loma in the shadow of Juan Cabrillo.
The Pacific breeze is cool, almost chilly. I am wearing a jacket. I pull it tight and shiver just a bit. Sightseers strolling around in short-sleeve shirts and shorts and sandals gawk at me. They’re thinking what I did when Richard first brought me and the girls here: She should live in New Jersey, in New York, then she’d know what cold is; wearing a jacket in this beautiful weather, the most perfect in the entire country, how the blood thins in these warm climates, how indolence alters you.
I snicker recalling the parking lot at the Safeway, pushing my cart across the blackest, cleanest unblemished pavement I’d ever seen, wearing a summer dress in April and feeling pleasant, comfortable, on vacation, adoring the sensation; and surrounded by women covered head to toe, many in jackets, a couple in parkas, parkas with hoods pulled up and over their heads! What odd people, I thought; it was like early June, warmth mixed with hints of coolness that refreshed, not winter cold that tortured you endlessly. If only they lived in New Jersey or New York.
Observing the tourists marvel at my attire is part of the enjoyment of Point Loma, and I snicker again, for at least in the respect of cold and hot I have transformed into a native.
After a while, I rise and walk down the hill along the path into the lot and to my car. I promise myself to treat us—I mean Samantha and Emily—to the Point more often, especially on those days when it is unbearably hot in Rancho Bernardo. On those murderous days I can drive to the Point, from bright, merciless sun and heat into wet fog and coolness, travel back from blazing summer to spring in a matter of miles and minutes.
I drive slowly down Memorial Drive, passing through Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, gazing over the white crosses, thousands of white crosses on both sides of me, white crosses set in lush green grounds that drift to the edges of the palisades. These thousands of crosses sit atop gun emplacements leftover from World War II, and I wonder who all these people under the white crosses were, every single one dead before his or her time, sacrificed for me and Samantha and Emily, and, grudgingly, Richard. My chest feels wet and I my eyes well. Richard introduced us to the Point, to the monument, the old lighthouse, the whale watching station, to the view of the Pacific, the city and the naval base on North Island; but he never mentioned the cemetery. The first time I passed through it with him at the wheel I welled and tears leaked down my cheeks, and Samantha saw them from the back seat, and she leaned forward; she touched my arm with her warm hand, for Samantha’s hands are always warm and soothing, conduits for the comfort she contains and, like a miniature Nightingale, shares; she asked, “Why are you crying?” I answered, “For them, for their lives, for all the sad families.” “Christ,” Richard said, “that was years ago. This was supposed to be a happy day.” I reached a hand to Samantha and with it rubbed hers, and with the same hand I wiped away the tears. “Your father’s right girls,” I said, “I’m just being a sentimental dope.” I didn’t believe it; I don’t believe it; I hoped, and hope, Samantha knows.
I am in Pacific Beach before I realize it. Often I find myself miles down the road not recalling how I arrived there, checking my rearview mirror for any carnage I may have caused. I’m drifting more these days. The girls are in school. I have hours to myself and nothing to fill them with. I sit in my house pondering how to occupy myself.
My cell chirps and I let it. Challenged by lapses, I see no reason to add to my potential for disaster by juggling a phone, steering a car, and conducting a conversation.
I’m navigating Catalina, and pull over when I feel it’s safe. I check voicemail.
“Babe,” Richard says, “something’s come up and it’s vital I talk to you. Call me on my cell.”
“Sure,” I say to the phone.
I stare at the device. Engineers invented these things for the Richards of the world, VIPs who are like birds flitting here and there building little nests of business, chirping incessantly about themselves and their work, landing and strutting about, pecking at the earth in search of the next big meal.
I thumb his number and press send. He’s on instantly, as he usually is. Richard rarely misses calls. He’s the type who can manage the phone, the wheel, and the conversation at sixty miles an hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic, a man truly possessing twenty-first century skills.
“Babe, why didn’t you answer the house phone? What’re you doing?”
“Cleaning the house,” I answer; otherwise, I’ll just foster his notion of me frittering away my days.
“Weren’t you doing that yesterday?”
“Big house,” I say. “Messy family. Retentive disposition.” It’s an answer in multiple-choice format; he can pick anyone he likes.
He laughs, as if I am joking, and I have to yank the phone away or risk a busted eardrum.
“Well, sit down, Babe, because I’ve got a surprise that’ll knock you down.”
Not necessary, I think. “Okay, I’m sitting.” And as I utter this truth a nearly empty San Diego transit bus rumbles by me.
“What was that?” Richard shouts.
“I didn’t hear anything,” I say. “Maybe it’s the cell. Here let me move.” I weave in my seat, which constitutes moving and keeps everything on the level.
“Oh, better. You know I’m at the medical meeting downtown and I’ve got half a dozen of my people with me. We’re got our exhibit set up and we’re working the meeting like madmen. I’m doing a tour in the booth. I’ve told you about the booth. Doctors wear plastic badges. When they want information about a product, we swipe the badge on a machine that collects the doctor’s name, address, phone number, e-mail, and specialty. Then we chat them up about our meds.”
I’m nodding vigorously as if he is in the car with me and I am urging him to get to the point. Most times he jumps directly to his meaning without consideration for the person receiving it. Other times, such as now, he meanders along, under the delusion he is building interest, peaking curiosity, intensifying the point he is trying to make, when he’s merely putting the listener into a distant reverie. For my part, I’m back on the Cabrillo bench.
“You listening?” he checks.
“Yes. You’re talking about sales leads.”
“Good. I’ve been at it since the meeting opened and I’m a little beat. So I guess I wasn’t paying the closest attention when I grab a badge and swipe it, you know, just another badge. I hand it back to the guy and start my spiel. But I stop mid sentence. I guess my mouth dropped open, too. He just grinned at me. Just grinned without a word. Can you guess who it was?”
“No,” I say. I just want to get moving. Emily’s release time is approaching and I have a long drive.
“Bobby,” he exclaims. “Bobby McFarlane. Can you believe it? Bobby at the meeting. Bobby, a doctor.”
I am paralyzed, not figuratively but literally. Bobby, a doctor, a physician, a healer, a boy—man now—who had excelled in college, advanced to medical school, withstood the rigors of internship. Bobby McFarlane, who could barely sign his name, subsisted on a diet of auto and girly magazines, was a slovenly mess every second of his miserable life; whose hands were caked with sludge and grease and permanently stained black around the knuckles, hands so disgustingly callused they rent canvas if drawn over the fabric; whose fingernails where chipped and split and caked forever with the grime of his gutter life; who could befriend nothing more than animals as mangy as himself, and Richard—this Bobby McFarlane is a doctor? I could not make my mouth work, but no matter as there was absolutely nothing I could say in the face of Richard’s revelation.
“Babe, you there?”
“Uh,” I grunt.
“Can you believe it? Old Bobby a doctor. Hey, and not just any doctor, not just any two-bit internist. Bobby’s a … hey, guess, guess what he is.”
“I can’t,” I say. Truly, truly, I cannot.
“Bobby’s a heart surgeon. A heart surgeon. And a top gun, too.”
I lean back and examine the car’s ceiling, concentrating on the material, hoping if I focus hard enough I wouldn’t picture Bobby as a surgeon. But to no avail, for there he is hulking over some poor patient, a woman, her chest cracked, cranked open wide for all the world to view the mechanicals that keep her alive. His hands are poised over the gaping red cavity in which pulsates the woman’s heart; and those hands are bare and black with grime. And the poor woman about to receive Bobby’s hands isn’t in an OR, not in a hospital; Bobby is operating on her in a garage crammed with tools, compressors, cans, reeking of oil and gasoline, and she’s splayed over the hood of his Belair.
“Are you listening to me, Babe? What are you doing?”
“I hear you,” I say. “It’s … well it’s … are you sure it’s Bobby?”
Richard roars with a robust laugh. “I know. I nearly didn’t believe it myself. Christ, Babe, he hardly even looks like old Bobby. I don’t know how to put it. Damn, but he looks expensive. That’s it. He’s got the polished face, that high sheen buffed look of success. You know the look.”
I nod, “Yes.” The look is all over San Diego, in La Jolla and up the coast in Del Mar and farther north, and in Rancho Bernardo, too.
“I asked him to join me for drinks after the conference shuts down. He said he’d like nothing more, and he wanted to know how you are, if we have kids. I said, ‘You bet. I’m an old family man.’ He winked. Old Bobby, he remembers you, he understands. Then he really surprised me, not that running into him at a medical conference and him a famous heart surgeon wasn’t enough. He’s married. Bobby’s got a wife.”
Lately, I haven’t agreed much with Richard, but I have to agree on this: I could more readily believe Bobby was a surgeon than he’d found a woman willing to marry him. I say, “It’s a shocker.”
“He said forget the drinks. Let’s get together. His wife’s with him, and wouldn’t it be fun for the wives to meet each other, and for us, me, you and him, to catch up on old times? I told him it was a great idea. Then it occurred to me. Why just drinks? Hell, why a restaurant? Let’s have Bobby and his wife over. I invited them over tonight. I figure I’d stop by the Safeway, pick up a few steaks, grill. You do some sides. I grab beer, some premium stuff. From the looks of Bobby, he’s into premium. We’ll find out what the hell happened.”
I admit I certainly would like to know how Bobby went from grease monkey to heart surgeon in the space of a few short years. I mull over the time. Samantha was turning eight. Bobby was still wallowing in the grease when Richard and I married. Oh, we had the argument of arguments about Bobby. No way would I allow him at the wedding. I won, but I know Richard was angry with me for a long time, possibly years.
“Sure,” I say, “it’ll be interesting seeing him and meeting his wife.” As a further concession to Richard, perhaps also as amends for depriving him of his friendship with the mysteriously world-renowned heart surgeon, I volunteer to pick up everything at the Safeway.
“But I’m grilling,” he says, his tone lighter than it has been in a while.
“Sure,” I agree with a lilt, as if I am happy.
I hang up, stash the phone in my bag, and pull back onto Catalina. Traffic is heavy all the way down Interstate 8 and up 15 to home, but I manage to arrive at Emily’s preschool with five minutes to spare. I pick her up at the front door. Until a week ago, I had been going into her little classroom to meet her; but for a reason she has yet to reveal, she decided she would prefer I meet her outside. I think it is emerging independence. Samantha’s separation didn’t begin until she was farther along, the second grade. Emily is a different person. Her appearance is different. She doesn’t look like me or Richard, and sometimes at night when I tuck her in—she still needs and demands tucking—I stare at her and wonder where she came from. Who is she, this different little girl? I admire her difference.
“How about an adventure?” I say, taking her hand and leading her to the car.
“How about we go to the Safeway before heading home?”
She scrunches her nose to indicate she doesn’t regard visiting the Safeway much of an adventure. Samantha would like it, but Emily prefers real adventure, a trip to the zoo or the animal park.
“Okay,” she says after a while. She’s decided she wants something. Emily is crafty; I won’t know what it is until we are trolling the aisles, and I’m feeling rushed and tired, craving an end to the shopping trip and susceptible to outlandish requests I normally reject out of hand.
She isn’t old or tall enough to ride in the front seat. To talk to her, I either look back, always dangerous, or glimpse her in the rearview mirror.
“Learn anything interesting today?”
She shakes her head and stares at the passing scenery.
I drive and try to construct new ways to ask, “What did you learn in school today?” I’ve been working on this since Samantha entered school, frustrating myself really.
The Safeway is in the heart of Rancho Bernardo, which, while part of San Diego, is a planned community onto itself. We Rbers could secede from the city and be perfectly happy and self-sufficient.
I’m not marketing for the week, so Emily and I zip through the supermarket, filling our cart with thick steaks, and burgers for the girls as they can’t abide food requiring inordinate chewing, greens for salads, a large apple pie, vanilla ice cream, and two brands of premium beer in case one isn’t sufficiently premium for Richard. Not that I can believe Bobby would care. I remember him swilling Gilt Edge from the Grand Union, and lurching around like a raging maniac after drowning himself in a six-pack.
At the checkout, Emily tosses two packs of bubble gum tape onto our pile of groceries. I reach for them, reminding her, “Chewing gum’s a no-no. It’s bad for your teeth, and you want to keep your teeth beautiful, don’t you?” We—I mean I—restrict the girls’ sweets intake. Though chewing gum is no worse than most confections, I personally abhor it. I don’t want the girls to grow into teenage gum snappers. I don’t think I could endure years of amplified mastication and popping.
Emily opens wide to display her teeth. She points into her pink maw. “They’re baby teeth. Who cares?”
She’s a smart girl. “Maybe,” I retort, “but along the way you’ll establish bad eating habits that will hurt your permanent teeth.”
She’s quiet and I think I have won, when I notice she is staring at our stuff jerking down the conveyor. They’re fastened on the pie and ice cream. She rolls her eyes for emphasis.
“Okay, but this is the last time.”
She smiles coyly. She knows the truth.
We arrive home and meet Samantha at the bus stop. Driving the half block to the house, the girls in the back nattering, I reflect that lately my life has been hectic. I don’t know why it should be for I live a well ordered life, everything in its place at home, every task accomplished much the same each days. I am not a person shackled to her routine, but I admit to deriving enormous solace from unvarying, predictable day. I believe people desire constancy in their lives, for it holds the ultimate randomness of living at bay, no matter how assiduously TV, radio, social media, and newspapers assault our protective walls of order and purpose with senseless murder, street crime, boiled over husbands and wives and lovers who insist on killing each other, and all sorts of political nonsense. I think it’s the very reason I’ve survived with Richard.