Chapter 3: LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA (Part 4)
Bobby relegates Karen to the backseat with me, and for once I miss Richard, for I have no lifesaver to grip. Until this moment, I have never ridden in a car driven by Bobby McFarlane. I’ve imagined the experience as terror on rubber, but the real thing outstrips my fear. I’m strapped in, cinched tight, cut at the waist to discomfort, yet I still reel from side to side, bang into Karen when she and I are unsynchronized, and nearly crack my head on the window. Yet I alone am in abject terror. Bobby and Richard are slapping at each other and the dash to such an extent I can’t look forward, for fear I might watch us destruct in a head-on; better to not know and perish in anxious oblivion.
We careen forever, until, thankfully, the ride ends in the parking lot of the Marine Room. We emerge from the Mercedes in unison and group around Richard. They are in perfect condition, hair in place, and in Karen’s case, makeup pristine. I feel like I’ve climbed from a wreck, wrecked. When I flash on my reflection in the Mercedes’ window, I’m shocked to find I am as perfect as my companions. The turmoil and carnage is inside me.
We enter. Bobby and Karen immediately are effusive. The lobby captivates them, as it is elevated a floor above the restaurant, and even more, a large octagonal aquarium dominates its center. They circulate around the aquarium and exclaim at the various species circling in it. Bobby quips, “Hey, is dinner swimming in here, Richie?” Richard winks, and I have no idea what he means by the gesture. Karen blurts, “Ewe,” as if somehow what will be on her plate is unrelated to the cute fishes parading before her.
Finally, gratefully, we descend the stairs. Fortunately, while Bobby was Vita-Mixing us in the Mercedes, Richard phoned ahead and a table awaits us. The hostess, young, blond, in a black strapless cocktail dress, in flimsy sandal slides, bare legged, and, I suspect, without underwear, leads us to a table next to a window with a limitless view of the Pacific that seems to extend to Asia.
Trooping dutifully behind her, Bobby and Richard run eyes up and down the girl, and I sense them conjecturing about the underwear situation, whether she’s had a bikini wax, whether she is virginal. At least Richard would be weighing this last point. Richard early on in our marriage, clinging to me in bed, running his hand up and down my side, over my hip, repeatedly over my hip, revealed an attraction I held for him. I was pure, clean, spotless, he’d said, a perfect creature, unblemished. He told me of a movie he’d seem, Belle de Jour, about a housewife who fulfills her perverse desires in a brothel weekday afternoons, while her husband supposes her engaged in wifely activities. Physically, she is perfect, but not quite pure enough for a customer who detects a blemish on her body, one tiny imperfection. It enrages him. He expiates her for her sin of imperfection by beating her. Naturally, this revelation shocked me. Richard, not explicitly, but in tone, implied the man’s rage was understandable, perhaps even justified. Afterward, when Richard fell asleep, I went into the bathroom and examined myself. I was physically perfect, no moles or discolorations, or dimpled fat deposits; no creases, no visible veins, no dark hairs; nothing but clear smooth pristine skin. I remember staring at myself, sweating behind my ears and over my upper lip, thinking, “How long can I remain perfect?” Later, I even watched the movie and discovered Richard’s memory was imperfect. It was the man who was flawed, a criminal who wished to possess her.
“It’s a postcard, a big, beautiful postcard,” Karen gushes with her nose nearly on the glass, so close she fogs the window; so close I fear she might embarrass us by smudging it with her lip gloss.
Bobby drops an arm around her and pecks her cheek. “Beautiful, Doll?” he says. “The really beautiful stuff is sitting right here. Right, Ritchie?”
I would love to dive under the table and not surface until we leave. Instead, I manage a wan smile, which encourages Richard, who slithers an arm over my shoulder while spouting, “You bet.”
I am not much of a drinker; however, when the waitress appears for our order, I request a martini, the high-octane Bombay sapphire kind, straight up. It attracts their attention, and if wine was on anybody’s mind it isn’t now. Karen orders a Manhattan. Bobby and Richard ask for what I’m having. I’m tempted to urge the waitress to hurry, please, there’s an emergency at our table; but I tame my anxiety. The waitress leaves and they close around the center of the table, hunch forward toward each other, and begin chattering gaily. I turn toward the Pacific, tune them out, and focus on the descending sun and the people straggling onto the beach preparing to worship.
Our drinks arrive. We toast to friendship, though I mouth in silence. I gulp. Richard eyes me warily and says he’s sure glad I’m not driving. I respond with another weak smile.
Karen asks, “What’s happening?” She’s pointing to the beach congregants who have coalesced into a sizable mob.
I answer, “Evening vespers.”
Richard regards me askance, not angry, but perturbed, his eyes cautioning me to drop the iconoclastic wit, the real thing, not like earlier. Once he loved my humor. Quirky, weird, smart—he characterized my commentary variously then. Now it is an annoyance.
He says, “They’re here to watch the sunset. Californians can’t get enough of it.”
Karen’s eyes light up. “I just love sunsets. They’re so romantic. Bobby loves sunsets.”
Bobby grins, though on him it’s more a smirk. “I love sunsets,” he intones. “I love them so much they cost me a million bucks.”
I realize he’s attempting playful sarcasm, but he can’t disguise the meanness; it’s woven in his genes, bootstrap doctor, or not.
“Karen said you live on Long Island. Near the ocean?”
“It’s our backyard in Bayport,” chimes Karen, merrily.
“Yeah,” says Bobby, “we’ve got sharks for neighbors.”
“He’s kidding. Our neighbors are wonderful people.”
“Stock brokers, investment bankers, and a goddamn car dealer. Very nice human beings.”
“Well, I don’t know,” Karen says. “Vic got you exactly the Mercedes you wanted.”
“Charged me two freakin’ surgeries for it, too.”
Richard howls and Bobby joins in. Karen rolls her eyes at me, her commiserating signal that boys will be boys.
I’m not much interested in their house, but I care even less to listen to Bobby and Richard carp about money and shysters, and the like, which is the new direction of the conversation.
I ask, “What’s your house like?”
As the meal progresses; orders for steaks and fish are placed, delivered, and consumed; dessert fussed about, ordered, and appreciated; Karen rattles on and on about the house and Bobby fills in snidely. It is large. It contains many rooms, each professionally decorated. It is electronically state of the art—television, sound, and, naturally, home protection system to guard all the house contains. Everything impresses Richard, who avows we will need the same in our house, we will have the same, and by God we will have a larger house because we deserve it. The only thing that impresses me is that their backyard is the Atlantic Ocean. To have the Pacific as ours, a place in Solana Beach or Delmar, or up the coast in Laguna, now that is a dream; when Richard catches my eyes sparkling at the idea of ocean property, he cringes, and I feel a rush of pleasure that he is feeling himself inadequate.
By the time the conversation about their house and view end, each of us, except maybe me who has drunk at only half their pace, is tilting on the brink; and the bill sits on the table, tactfully located exactly between us. Richard and Bobby grab for the leatherette folder.
“Mine,” says Richard, “you’re my guest.”
“Hell we are,” retorts Bobby, “you’re my guest.”
“Can’t? Why not?”
“You’re in my town.”
“Oh,” moans Bobby, as if there can be no legitimate counter.
“It’s your turn when we’re in Bayport,” says Richard, having the last word.
Richard slips a platinum credit card in the folder. He vibrates with triumph.
After the waitress scoops up the folder, Karen cries, “It can’t be over. We’re having too much fun.” Her words fall over each other and for a second I can’t comprehend her. Her face is florid, her eyes glazed, and her manner willowy, as if she has misplaced her muscles.
Bobby snickers. “Doll never wants the good times to end. Right, Doll?”
She leans against him, slides her head up his arm, nuzzles the side of his face, and kisses him. It’s sloppy and noisy, their style.
“Let’s have a party,” she says brightly, pushing away from Bobby. “Let’s go back to your place and have a party. We can do it all night. Just party and have a good time.”
“Well,” I say, “we have to pick up the girls, and they have school tomorrow.”
“We’ll be quiet like little church mouses, church mice.”
“I don’t think it’s such a good idea,” I say.
Richard’s contradiction follows hard on my sensible refusal. “Great idea,” he says.
“Richard,” I say, evenly, though he is infuriating me, “of course it would be nice, and I know you haven’t seen Bobby in a long time, but I don’t think a party on a school night with the girls at home is the best idea.”
Bobby chimes, “Come on, this won’t be a noisy party.”
Karen titters and nudges Bobby.
“Okay,” he says, with smarmy hilarity, “Karen’s a bit of a screamer. But, you know, we can always gag her. Sometimes I have to gag her at home to keep the sharks from calling the cops.”
Karen elbows him. “You’re such a fibber.” To me, “He’s such a fibber. Maybe I squeal a teensy bit, but no screaming.”
Bobby rolls his eyes in such extravagant circles he risks them popping from their sockets. She elbows him again.
Richard now is snickering, low, like a boy contemplating or remembering something bad but fun. He says, “Babe’s the quiet type, usually, but you never know.”
And then I comprehend and I reel. My vision blurs and all around me turns blue. The windows aren’t windows. They are slabs of blue, impenetrable, confining, and I feel imprisoned. My chest constricts and I struggle for breath, each a painful, desperate gasp. My ears buzz, not with their voices bearing hints of horrid intention; they buzz with sounds familiar yet unidentifiable: an incessant whoosh of air, a rhythmic hissing, as if somebody in the restaurant is working a pump; squeaks, like rubber on tile; and metallic pings, like tools rolling up into a carry case. I am cold, a pillar who, like Lot’s wife, has cast an eye and ear on the forbidden, and suffering for it. But I must be a toppling pillar for I feel Richard pressing against me, quizzing, “You with us, Babe?” Richard’s arm encompasses me, pulling me close; he puts his lips to my ear, shaking, whispering, “Come on, you’re embarrassing me in front of Bobby.”
Noise erupts from me. I shrug from Richard’s clutches and spring from my chair. I run through the restaurant, up the stairs, and out the door into the coastal night, black, low, and shrouded in moist haze. I dash up the parking lot, up the hill, onto the street, and along it, churning my legs as fast as I can, my thighs rebelling painfully against the food and alcohol, my breathing thick, labored, hot, cutting as it begins failing me. The pavement glistens, reflecting the yellow glow of the sodium lamps lining the street. My senses intensify. I suck in air tinged with salt and the faint odor of fish. My feet, clad in heeled sandals, click. I’m desperate, but I sound silly, a silly woman clickity-clacking along. I’m running without a destination.
I round a corner and the La Jolla Tennis Club appears on my right. It’s awash in blinding floods of vapor light. Perfect green clay courts shimmer as if in sunlight. They’re empty. The clubhouse is dark. The club recedes behind me.
The street is eerie. It is empty. That there are no people on the sidewalks isn’t strange; rarely are people walking around anywhere in San Diego or anyplace in Southern California. It’s the street that’s weird; that puts me on edge; that portends impending danger; that hews my sense of fear and demise to the fineness of a needle. There are no cars. There are always cars on the streets in Southern California. But here, now, there are none. The absence of cars is surreal.
I’m exhausted and I hurt. I stop. Winded, I crouch and breathe deeply. Then I hear it, the missing sound. It is the low whining of a car engine. It’s behind me. Its pitch is high and its volume is increasing, audibly speeding up as it closes on me.
I am spent and can’t stand up, but I must see it. I pivot around in my crouch. The headlights, bright white xenon, blind me and force me to raise a hand to shield my eyes.
In the sodium lights, it’s hard to read true color, but I can’t mistake the color of the car bearing down on me. It is ceil blue, already strange on a high-prized rental, and now bizarre in the prism of the street lamps.
I stagger to my feet, hand over eyes that are peeled on the car. It’s a Mercedes, and it can only be Bobby’s special rental. Surely when he sees and recognizes me, he’ll slow and swerve to miss me. Seconds pass and I watch. Then through the glare, in strange clarity, I see Bobby’s face in the windshield and Richard’s next to him, both sporting toothy smiles. Karen, who I treated pleasantly, who I tried, feeble as the attempt was, to like, leans forward from the backseat between them. Her smile as big and fat as theirs is unnatural, as if frozen; she is inanimate, I realize, bobbing in synchronization with the car: up, down, right, left, like a pornographic inflatable doll. My body burns, my gut churns, my bowels are steaming stew of roiling pressure burbling for release. My brain blazes, because in it is birthing the horrid understanding that the man I have been living with, who is the father of Samantha and Emily, this man is a killer, and he is aiming to kill me, with the assistance of his friend, the doctor who is a butcher, who I now in a burst remember was a doctor who murdered his own wife, my friend Angie, my friend who I had forgotten, who I had obsessed about.
I lurch left, fall, and roll, until the curb breaks my momentum. I shake off my shoes. I’m wet and dirty and aching, and wheezing air like an asthmatic, as I rise and plant my feet. I wobble and swing in the direction the car had been moving, expecting, at best, to see red taillights vanishing around a corner. But the situation is otherwise. As I focus on the car, Bobby cuts the wheel sharply. The Mercedes turns violently, the rear tracing a mad, lightening arc, tires squealing and smoking. For the blink of an eye, a cloud of gray acrid smoke hides the Mercedes; and when the blink ends, the car bursts through, straight at me.
My mouth is open wide and my throat is vibrating and raspy and pierced with pain, and I know I am howling, and I hope I’m yelling for help, and I pray, unconsciously that every conscious faculty concentrates on getting my enfeebled carcass moving.
I lunge away from the car, up onto the sidewalk, praying the curb will serve as an impediment—slow Bobby and Richard and Karen, flatten a tire, something.
It does do something. It trips me. I am on the ground again, on green, and I am scurrying on hands and knees, like a squirrel but without its speed or agility. I’m well onto the grass as the Mercedes hits the curb, filling the air with the sharp thunder of renting metal. I look back to see the car lift and fall, strike the ground hard on blown tires, burrowing like a missile. The tip of the hood scoops under me, lifts me up, bounces and smashes me against the windshield, where the three watch me with open delight, all three transformed somehow I cannot fathom, except it involves that strange celestial blue. Up, up I go and skim the roof and roll down the rear window and land on the ground, a soft cushion of damp earth.
I’m screaming, “I am alive.” I’m yelling in complete surprise for I believe I should be dead, that anybody in normal circumstances should be dead. I’m on my back. I roll and right myself and look at the Mercedes. It’s trembling, vibrating, alive. Brake lights flash and change to back-up lights and grass and dirt fly and when it smashes into me, I explode.