It’s past noon and I haven’t eaten anything. I pull into the first In ‘n’ Out Burger I come to, order something at the drive through window, barely seeing what it is. Back on the freeway, north on the 405, west on the 10, then PCH up the coast. For the first time I notice what a gorgeous day it is. On my left the blue Pacific, dotted with whitecaps, replicates the blue sky with scattered wispy clouds. The whole scene could be turned upside down and you wouldn’t know, like those pictures in children’s books. On my right the earth toned bluffs of Malibu still blaze with color—scarlet bougainvillea, orange and yellow nasturtiums, purple lantana scrambling over yucca and dry scrub. Everything looks exactly the same as always unless you know where to look along the road for the piles of rock that are always breaking off and sliding down the face.
As I drive and stuff French fries in my mouth, I keep sneaking looks at other drivers. Why do they all look like they know where they’re going and what to do when they get there?
Memories of blissfully empty summer days urge me into the turn lane for Zuma Beach. As I pull into the nearly empty lot, I see a black Mercedes and my breath catches. David? Wrong model, wrong license plate. What would he be doing here anyway? The sedan drives slowly past me, a red-haired woman at the wheel.
I stare at the glassy curls of the breakers while The Supremes wonder, Where Did Our Love Go? and I wonder when. Okay. Lately, there haven’t been a lot of those television commercial moments of tenderness or laughter or even shared objectives. But does that mean it’s over? The first bite of cheeseburger hits my stomach like a rock in an empty swimming pool. I stuff the rest of it into the bag with the cold fries.
Out of the car, slip off my pumps, slither out of my pantyhose. Walk across the sun-warmed asphalt into the cold, wet sand, hugging my jacket around me. Empty life guard stations huddled together forlornly are the surest sign of fall in Southern California. Sometimes the only sign. Down the beach, a yellow lab dances in the froth while his well-trained owner throws sticks. Scattered surfers in black wetsuits bob on their boards, waiting for a good ride. A gray-haired man and woman in matching warm-ups walk by, holding hands. Other than that, it’s just me. An icy wavelet slaps my feet and I stand still, sinking up to my ankles. If I don’t start walking I’ll lose my balance.
The salty wind whips my hair across my face, makes my eyes water. I walk north, stepping over strands of seaweed, broken shells, half of a crab swarming with flies. I’ve read that when you become aware of your own impending death, your first reaction is likely to be, “I can’t die. I have tickets to the opera next week.” Why is that? When we’re face to face with the unthinkable, why do we try to defend ourselves with trivia? When my mother came to get me out of class to tell me my father had died, my very first thought, before I got hysterical, was, “So we can’t go to Tahoe this summer?”
Now as my toes curl and cramp, try to get traction in the sand, all I can think of is how disappointed my mother will be. She always adored David.
In her version of the story, he was the Handsome Prince who rescued me—not from a dragon, but from something even worse—a boring existence as a high school teacher who rarely dated, and who spent vacations going on trips with other single women. He installed me in a house in Hancock Park, gave me a red sportscar, beautiful clothes, expensive jewelry. All I had to do was to look good, give clever parties, make the right friends, be available sexually when he wanted me, and not embarrass him. It wasn’t a lot to ask.
Okay, it’s true that I hated teaching. It’s difficult to illuminate the glories of literature to kids whose reading skills hover around fifth grade level. Most of them were only doing time in my classes while they waited for the surf to be up or their period to start or the three ten bell to ring so they could cruise Bob’s Big Boy.
It’s also true that my social life revolved mostly around my women friends—CM and Sandy and Liz. Wine tastings, ethnic restaurants, French films, art exhibits—all the standard diversions of single women. This is not to say that I didn’t date. My mother certainly doesn’t know everything.
In my reasonably extensive experience, a man’s good qualities—like warmth, honesty, generosity—are inversely proportional to his physical attractiveness. This leads me to the conclusion that great looking guys are the biggest jerks of all, since they’ve been spoiled by every female they’ve interacted with, beginning with their mothers.
In spite of this fact, or maybe because of it, I am drawn to tall, blonde, good looking men like the proverbial moth to the flame. This, as my best friend CM is quick to point out, may be due to the fact that my father, whom I adored and who died when I was seventeen, was the tallest, blondest, fairest of them all. But he was also the last of the good guys.
It’s been almost fifteen years since he died, but I can still walk into the den at my mother’s house and expect to see him sitting in his leather chair, the paper open on his lap, a Manhattan in a sweating glass on the side table. He liked them dry with a twist of lemon. My mother had a fit when he taught me how to make them.
He taught me everything. To love books. To ride a horse English, when all my friends rode western. He bought me a car with a stick shift when all my friends had automatic. He taught me to watch the Tahoe skies on still August nights, to look for the shooting stars to make wishes. How to tie a square knot, how to hit a backhand volley. How to strike a match one handed. How to breathe when I swim. He taught me not to be afraid to open my eyes under water. Or above it.