People would have stared at my father even if he had not been famous. He is just that kind of man, but it has taken me until the age of eighteen to understand that. In my younger years, when I hated Jack in fleeting spurts, I thought fame was like a suit; he could take it off for me if he wanted to. Now I know better than to have childish expectations of what my father can or can’t do for me. Life with Jack is what it is. It is enough that he showed tonight, even if he did miss nearly the entire senior class spring recital.
I carefully conceal myself in the stage curtains as I watch Jack slipping into the auditorium and fading back into his customary seat in the far left corner. I can feel him in the darkened theater though I can only make out the hazy detail of his shape with my eyes.
Any other parent making that entrance would have had no impact on the audience. It is soundless. But my father is Jackson Parker, an icon of the sixties, forever part of the music and voice of a generation, and the entire chemistry of the room instantly alters.
Rene drops her chin on my shoulder as she stares out at the audience. “So, Jack did come,” she says. She frees my fingers from the shabby velvet and tosses a harsh glare at the curtains, their age-beaten elegance a thing she finds preposterous since the private Catholic boarding school we reside at costs a small fortune in tuition each year. The shabbiness of the facility she is certain is nothing more than deliberate proletarian punishment for children of non-proletarian families. “He said he would come and actually showed. Chalk one up for team Jack. That’s more than my dad ever does. Some girls just don’t know when they are lucky. It could be worse, Chrissie. Your dad could be my dad.”
Criticism with a joke chaser: a typical Rene-ism that might have made me laugh if it didn’t remind me that even Rene didn’t fully get me at times. In fairness, I don’t always get myself. I like my dad. I really do. Everyone likes Jack, but the first emotion I always feel when I see my father is an intense desperation for him to leave.
I brush at the little balls of dust on the formerly flawless black of my dress. “I should have practiced more.”
Rene gives me the look. “Practiced more? That’s all you’ve done since your audition for Juilliard was scheduled. You couldn’t have practiced more if you tried. Besides, I don’t think it’s possible for you to disappoint Jack.”
Another nails on the chalkboard moment: Jack. I hate when my friends call my dad Jack, the easy familiarity they manage with him when my own relationship with my father has never been anything close to easy.
As I wait for the music director to introduce me, icy nerve bands tighten my stomach. It is so stupid to want the floor to swallow me whole, but for some reason since scheduling my audition for Juilliard I have worked into my mind the notion that my future would be foretold by this performance. I’ve never known what I want to do with my life and the decision to audition for Juilliard seems the first decision I’ve made about who I am and who I want to be.
“Please, help me welcome our final performance tonight, our featured soloist, Miss Christian Parker, who we hope will soon depart us for Juilliard.” I nearly miss my introduction and, after hearing it, I wish I had. It seems an impossible to fulfill expectation since I know that my talent isn’t Juilliard gifted standard.
Focus. Sit on chair. Adjust instrument. Nod. Breathe, Chrissie, breathe. I start to move the bow and my fingers in a sheltering cocoon of Hayden’s Cello Concerto No. Two in D Major.
The music finishes and the music director comes to my chair offering his hand. I bow amid the thundering applause as Jack slips quietly from the theater before the ovation dies down. In and out of my world like a shooting star. This shooting star I know where to find next. It is a familiar routine to minimize the bullshit of other parents interfering in our father-daughter time. Exit scene left, reappear next scene in the privacy of my dorm room.
Backstage I start to carefully put my instrument into the case. Out of the corner of my eye I see the school’s three most popular girls closing in on me.
Crap, not Eliza and her mob. That’s the last thing I need tonight.
Eliza has that breezy confidence and overt sexuality of a girl who comes from money and knows she is pretty. Money somehow provides her a wash that her prettiness is more than it is, that she is more than she is, that she is somehow more in the room than anyone else could ever be. I am never in the room as much as Eliza is.
These girls are all from money, and they wear it like goddesses preparing for dazzling futures. Their confident prettiness makes me feel like there is something wrong with me. I never feel I fit with them.
It is Rene I identify more with, a girl genuinely suffering in her emotional convolution, no matter what she projects on the surface, no matter what people say about her. Still, it would be nice to know once what it felt like to be Eliza.
Her red, pouting lips curl into a cat-like smile directed at me. It should piss me off. It has the opposite effect: it diminishes me.
Eliza tosses her hair back over her shoulder, a signature move. “Hey, Parker, everyone is meeting up at Peppers and we’re having a party tonight. Sort of a kick-off before we all tailgate down to Palm Springs. Why don’t you come?”
Rene gives me a sharp look as if I need to be warned what they are up to. They are messing with me, obviously out for a little human sport tonight. Pick on the weak girl; make her feel inferior before going off for their super-duper plans. I hate this game, but even knowing they are messing with me I am stupidly flattered by the invitation.
I say nothing and Tami smiles at me. “We can pick you up at your house in about an hour. You are on your way home with Jack, aren’t you?”
The mention of Jack helps me find my voice. These girls are so obvious at times. How did they manage never to appear pathetic? They are still superior even in their obviousness.
“I can’t go. Rene and I are leaving early in the morning for New York,” I say.
“Ah, that’s right. You’re not off to Palm Springs with the rest of the seniors.” Eliza smirks.
“God no, we’re not off to Palm Springs. Why would anyone want to be anywhere you are?” Rene says.
Eliza lifts a perfectly waxed brown. “Because anyone who is anyone will be there. And that doesn’t include you, Rene. I don’t recall you being invited!”
I look up at the circle of girls. I hate that phrase: anyone who is anyone. Eliza works it into every conversation. Rene calls them perfectly wretched. They are strangely seductive in their artificial charm and downright meanness. Life looks so clearly defined and easy for Eliza.
“Come on, Rene, we really need to hurry,” I say quickly, trying my best to be cutting with icy civility. “I don’t want to keep my dad waiting.”
Eliza flicks a shiny black curl over her shoulder. “Don’t run home, Parker. It’s the last Friday before break. Everyone is going to be there. It’s not like you have to run home and practice for your audition. It’s not like they’re going to turn you away. You could play chop sticks with your toes and Juilliard would accept you.”
“You know what your problem is, Eliza? You don’t take anything in life seriously if it doesn’t involve you,” Rene snaps in quick defense.
In a moment the girls are surrounding Rene all angry and superior. Jeez! Not again. Eliza shoves her face into Rene’s. “I wasn’t talking to you. You know with her connections she doesn’t have to worry about anything. It’s clear that she doesn’t get the right kind of support from you. If you were a real friend you’d back off and stop pulling her down with you!”
“You’d be a lot more popular if you dumped Rene,” Jane says intensely into my face in a way that makes me want to slap her. “She’s a very odd girl. Everyone likes you, Chrissie. They just don’t like her. Too mean. Too messed up.”
“Too ready to mess around with everyone’s boyfriend,” Tami says snidely.
That should have humiliated Rene. It is cuttingly cruel partly because it is true. I stare at Rene, hurt for her.
Rene just glares. “It’s not my fault that the guys you date all get bored with stupidity and narcissism.”
“And being a slut makes you a genius?” Tami coolly lifts a brow.
“No, the sixteen hundred on my SATs makes me a genius. The sex I do for fun. You’d know that if you had sex for fun instead of to hide your lack of intelligence.”
“I don’t have sex at all,” Tami says.
Rene gives her a nasty smile. “God, what a phony you are. Lying about it is almost as bad as using your body for power. Both are self-depreciating. That’s what makes you not a genius. You don’t screw for fun and you lie about it.”
Eliza is wide-eyed staring at me. It is clear this isn’t going the way she wants and that she doesn’t know what to do with Rene’s comment. I watch as it seems to take Eliza an excessively long time to formulate her response.
“Look, Chrissie, we can pick you up in about an hour so long as Rene doesn’t tag along,” Eliza says firmly. Then, fake sweet face in place: “Look, you have to swear not to tell Brad that I told you, but he’s going to be there. He really wants to see you. I think he wants to patch things up.”
And there is the hook. There is always a hook with girls like these.
“It’s going to be a killer party,” Jane says enthusiastically. “Eliza’s dad booked the private room at Peppers. Everyone’s going to be there. Brad got some really, really good coke for his birthday. He wants to celebrate with you.”
I realize that Eliza is watching the change of my expression and enjoying it in some sort of sick way. Stupid and cruel. I turn my focus back to packing up my stuff. “Enjoy your party.” I snap the cello case closed.
Eliza gives me an impatient frown. “God, Chrissie. Do you have to be so touchy about everything? There’s no rule that says you have to do the drugs. You won’t end up like your brother just by going to a party and having fun. Don’t you think you need to get beyond your brother, Parker? I’m sure they have parties at Juilliard. Are you going to ditch those too?”
My face burns and my stomach turns. That easily Eliza can diminish me into something small and inadequate. Get over my brother? Where does a girl get the nerve to say such a thing to someone? It is insensitive and cruel and ugly. Why didn’t it make her look ugly? She still looks Eliza perfect. I stare at her. There is a sudden, painfully heavy quiet all around me.
“Back off, Eliza!” Rene screams in a voice that shakes the rafters.
Father Morris looks up from the first row of the theater. He locks eyes on me and I lower my gaze because I know what he is thinking. Father Morris sees too much, too much of the time, though he’s kind of cool in that young priest, reformer sort of way where he tries to work the problems one-on-one with the students. I’m one of his favorite projects and I know his reaction to this. He didn’t hear Eliza. He’s thinking I shouldn’t be friends with Rene. He’s thinking he should call my father even though I’ve begged him not to. He’s thinking I lie every time I tell him I am OK and everything is just fine.
I look back up to see if Father Morris is still watching and focus back on Rene’s tirade. “…And I hope someday you get everything you deserve in life.”
Rene says that with just the perfect amount of bite. I hate that I didn’t say something to defend myself. I rush offstage and set off across campus with Rene following, praying that Father Morris doesn’t follow to the dorm room as well. I’ve told Father Morris things I haven’t told anyone. Things I haven’t told Rene. Things I doubt I’ll ever tell Jack.
I look down at the ground to hide my face, wondering how Father Morris got me to open up to him. I never talk about my issues to anyone, but somehow Father Morris got into my lockboxes. Maybe it’s a guy thing that makes it possible for him to break through my wall of protection. Or maybe it’s a priest thing. I don’t know. He just wormed right through my wall!
Father Morris is young and attractive, and when I find myself comfortable in the company of someone other than Rene they are usually male. A strange contradiction in my personality, but I feel more comfortable with guys than girls, though that isn’t saying much, and honestly Father Morris is a poor example of that theory because I know he can’t talk about what I tell him.
I never intended to talk to him, and the next thing I knew, I was telling him all kind of things. It was comfortable to tell him some of the things in my “lockboxes,” those compartments inside where I bury things about my family members that I don’t want to deal with. Father Morris was genuinely reassuring and didn’t look at me as though the things I told him were really messed up.
“Now I’ve seen everything.” Rene gives me a fleeting angry look. “You wouldn’t have gone with them, would you have, Chrissie?”
I flush and my heart rate inexplicably increases. I bite my lip, feeling guilty that, for a moment, I wanted to ditch Rene and go with Eliza’s group.
Rene looks at me startled in that way that makes me worry that she is pissed at me. But I can see that she isn’t and that she’s completely unruffled by her confrontation with Eliza—one of the things that I so admire about Rene. She is immune to the meanness of others. Rene is Rene, and she is completely comfortable in that.
Rene looks away first.
“I can’t believe that Brad used Eliza as a go-between,” she says in disgust. “Only a moron would think sending Eliza would get you to Peppers! Do you think he dumped you because you don’t party? You know a lot of guys won’t date a girl who won’t party.”
I shrug as if the issue of Brad doesn’t matter to me. “I don’t put out. That’s why he dumped me.”
“I know that.”
“Then why did you ask?”
Rene frowns at me.
“I don’t know why you let the wretched talk to you that way. They’d put up with anything to be your friend. And really, Chrissie, I think we should re-evaluate our rule pact before college. It was a good idea to create a list of rules our freshman year, but we’ve almost graduated and the rules are silly, especially since I broke all of them the first year of high school. Now I understand why you put no drugs on your part of the list. But don’t you think it’s time you take sex off the list?Really, I don’t understand why you have such a hang-up about sex. It’s just sex. It’s better to do it the first time in high school when the guys last about a half of second. It really does hurt the first time, Chrissie. I understand all your hang-ups, but not the sex. Can you please explain the sex to me…?”
I tune out Rene’s voice and focus on how pleasant it is to be out of the stuffy auditorium. It is my favorite kind of Santa Barbara night, fogless with a full moon, slightly cool but not enough for a sweater. There is certain predictability to the world here, constant temperature approximately seventy-four degrees and the only deviation a month of fog and occasional days of light rain. Time moves slowly here and it feels as though the world beyond can’t intrude through the natural protective barrier of mountains and ocean and affluence.
What does Rene’s father call our hometown? A transplanted New Yorker, he calls it fantasyland. You don’t live in the real world girls. You girls live in fantasyland. Happy people. Happy traffic. Even happy palm trees too stupid to know they don’t belong here. The world and its problems seem so far from here, or so Mr. Thompson always says, but they seem very real and very close to me.
One of my problems Rene is dissecting: my difficulty with intimacy that has evolved into almost a phobia about sex.
My other major life problem I find in my dorm room when I enter. I see my father standing in front of the far wall, studying the pictures I have pinned up. The second I close the door, he whirls to give me that much famous smile that has seen more glossy than a Milan runway model.
“You were spectacular, Chrissie. Your mother would be so proud of you!”
Why does he always do that? Why can’t he just tell me what he thinks? I set down the cello case and begin to pull the pins from my hair. I start to gather a change of clothes: a pair of jeans, my UGG boots and a t-shirt. “I just need to change then we can go.”
I dart into the bathroom and quickly shut the door. I should have been able to manage a better response to Jack. I didn’t even say hello or give him a hug. Just a fast retreat. Why are our connects so rough and abrupt? Why did Jack let them be? I can hear Jack conversing with Rene and their flow is easy and friendly and it hurts me.
“So you’re going to New York with Chrissie?”
“Yes, she’s stuck with me for spring break. Dad is doing a trial in DC, but he wants to have dinner one night while we’re there, if that’s OK with you.”
“Whatever Chrissie wants.”
Whatever Chrissie wants. OK, Jack, stop with the nonparenting for parents crap.
I pull my long hair into a ponytail, grab the gown from the performance and go back into the dorm room. Jack is studying the wall again and Rene gives me that look, the be nice to your dad look, and darts into the bathroom to change. There is an uncomfortable stillness in the room now that Rene is gone. Well, uncomfortable for me, but Jack seems not to notice. I drop before my suitcase to finish my packing, watching as Jack goes from picture to picture before pausing at one.
He turns from the wall and I can feel his eyes on me. “I thought you were done with Brad.”
Direct hit. Vulnerable spot in under five minutes. “I am. We move out in a month. There didn’t seem a point to taking the wall apart since we have to do it in May anyway. I don’t think I can take down his picture without ruining the rest of the wall.”
Before I can move away, Jack laughs and ruffles my hair, the golden-brown wisps that are the exact same color as his. “Come on, Chrissie. Lighten up.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy. It’s not you. I’m just uptight about everything these days.”
I can feel Jack watching me and I stare at my bag, making awkward movements to close it. I finally look up at him and Jack smiles, the one he always does when he seems to silently take stock in the similarities between us: golden hair, deep blue eyes, and the ivory-tone skin, lightly tinted apricot from the sun. It pleases him to take note of our similarities. He does it often. It has the exact opposite effect on me; it confirms for me that while genes are passed on they don’t always work out with the same success from generation to generation. What is a spectacular combination on Jack is much less spectacular on me.
Nice as my features are, I know that I am no beauty. On a good day I am willing to concede that I have a nice body and a pert face. I can’t think of another adjective that more aptly applies than pert. At five foot three, I certainly didn’t get my father’s height. Daddy is well over six feet. I didn’t get his charisma either.
Jack grins, his blue eyes twinkling. He’s done taking stock of me and he’s in a good mood. It’s a loving look. I can’t feel it. I know in his way my father loves me. I just wish he had more time for me, enough time in any one time to connect.
I stomp out that train of thought and drag my suitcase to the door. I want to have a good vacation in New York with my dad, three weeks. Next fall I’ll be in college. This could be my last chance to work through whatever is wrong between us.
“Do you want to stop for dinner on the way back to the house?” Jack asks.
My stomach knots. Jeez, I have three miserable weeks off in the spring. Couldn’t he keep those weeks free just for me? I try to contain my disquiet. “Who do you have at the house this time?”
Jack is unruffled by the question. “Just the same old gang.” He says it as though that explains everything and makes it all right. “I expected them to be long gone before this week, but here we are.” He gives me that famous smile. “Don’t be mad at me, Chrissie. Do you want to stop for dinner or not?”
“Let me ask Rene what she wants.”
Jack fixes his eyes on me. “What does Chrissie want?”
Like that really matters, mocks the pouting child inside of me. Jack could say a thousand times whatever Chrissie wants but that wouldn’t once make it real. When are things ever the way I want them? I stare at my dorm room. I never wanted this, but I’ve been here eight years.
“I don’t care. I’ll leave it up to Rene.”
I’m not hungry, so it was stupid to leave it up to Rene. Rene always wants to go out. She loves walking in to a crowded restaurant on a Friday night with Jack and getting a table without waiting. She loves how special it makes her feel to be in public with him. But then Rene doesn’t live with the awareness that perfect strangers know the most painful parts of her life.
That thought makes me angry at Rene and I don’t want to be angry with Rene. She is my best friend, and to be honest, my only friend. Rene can be irritating as hell, but Rene never lets me down and I can always depend on her. Rene is a good person no matter what people say about her. And Rene knows who she is and where she is going in life.
Rene knows exactly what she wants, having mapped out her life in microscopic detail since practically kindergarten. I pretend that I feel that way about Juilliard, but I don’t. And shouldn’t I know what I want to be by now? I bet a therapist would have a field day with me.
I tear up and stare out the car window trying to focus on the shops we’re passing. It’s nine o’clock, but even on a Friday night on State Street there isn’t much happening in Santa Barbara. Most days nothing much is happening and the streets usually roll up at eight.
I can feel Rene watching me as Jack chatters away. Does he even notice I’m nearly crying? Does he notice or does he ignore? Is it easier to pretend not to see that I am totally messed up than to ask me about it? Has he ever even noticed that the only friend I have is Rene?
Jack turns the car into a parking lot and I turn in my seat to look at him. “Really, Daddy, do we have to go here tonight? Can’t we just go through a drive thru or something? We never get fast food. That would be a treat after dorm food. Or we could just eat at home. I’m sure Maria has something for us to eat at home!”
Jack smiles. “You know how I am, Chrissie. Buy local. I’m not going to Burger King or a Taco Bell just to save a few minutes.”
“Burger King and Taco Bell are franchises privately owned so it would be buying local,” I insist.
Jack shakes his head. “It would still be feeding the corporate menace.”
“Record companies are corporations, why are they OK?” Rene asks innocently. “Don’t you own a label?”
A smile starts to tug on my lips. We’re not little girls any more, Jack. Rene isn’t the least bit intimidated by you.
Jack stares as if deeply offended. “For the same reason Dukakis is OK and Bush isn’t though they are both politicians.”
“I voted for Bush,” I inform my dad and the expression on his face goes through several rapid changes.
I bite my lip to keep from smiling. I’m not just messing with Jack. It is the truth. I turned eighteen before Election Day and my first vote was for a Republican. I felt an almost rebellious sense of glee when shoving the ballot into the box. I can’t say that I was enthusiastic about Bush. But I did like Reagan, the feeling of having everyone’s granddad in the White House watching out for us all, and he just seems like such a nice man. I don’t know if Reagan’s policies were good or bad. I’m not political and Jack is political enough for any one family. But I liked the quiet certainty the world seemed to hold when Reagan was President and Bush was his Vice President, so I voted for Bush.
“Enough!” Jack makes a comical gesture as though a dagger has just gone through his heart and I know he is only half joking. “Next you’re going to tell me that you don’t want Juilliard. You want law school!”
I make an exaggeratedly sheepish face and Jack freezes in mid-step. “Really?”
I climb from the car.
“It’s your fault, you know, that she is the way she is,” Rene says. “It’s every parent’s fault. We are all destined to be the opposite of our parents! So don’t blame Chrissie for voting for Bush. It’s your own fault!”
The look on Jack’s face is priceless. I laugh.
I loop my arm through my dad’s. “No, Daddy. I definitely don’t see law school in my future.”
A smile teases at the corner of Jack’s lips. “You can be anything that you want, baby girl. I was only teasing. Anything you want so long as you’re happy.”
He means it, but for some reason comments like that from Jack always piss me off. It makes me feel like there isn’t anyone guiding me through life. If I said I wanted to be a ditch digger, Jack would probably only say The world needs ditch diggers too. How are you supposed to make major life decisions with parenting like that?
Jack opens the heavy wood door, Rene darts ahead of me, and with a hand on the small of my back Jack guides me before him into the packed, dimly lit entrance. The restaurant Jack selected is a Santa Barbara landmark, dark with red carpet and red leather booths, dated in décor and known for its Italian food and generous drinks. The walls are lined with pictures, pictures of the famous, the political and the historic. There is a picture of Jack here with the owners, and one of my mother.
As I drop into our booth I notice in the center of a cluster of celebrity photos above Jack’s head there is a picture of President Reagan on his ranch in riding gear. I laugh. I stare at it until Jack turns to look. Jack frowns. I give him a smile. The frown lowers and he turns the photo so poor Reagan can no longer stare at the back of his head.
I laugh and I’m in a good mood again. Nothing in my life is certain, I’m still a mess, I don’t know why I feel the way I feel most of the time, and I don’t know where I’m going, but I do know that I am not my father’s daughter. And that’s OK.
I feel sick, like I want to vomit.
“What do you mean you are not going to New York?”
Jack leans back in the booth and stares at me. I must have said that too loudly. Even Rene looks uncomfortable. I don’t check to see if people are listening. People are always listening. I start to play with the paper from my straw.
My cheeks redden. “You promised,” I snap irritably since no one says anything.
Jack sighs. He leans ever so slightly forward with his elbows on the table. “I’ve had this thing going on,” he says quietly and I feel that rapid flash flood of emotion in me again. Thing. I hate when Jack blames “thing.” It could be anything. It could be nothing. But it is an old excuse, his things that ruin our time together, his schedule, things that take precedence, things I know nothing about, things he will never share with me. “…it can’t be helped, Chrissie.” That famous smile flashes at me again. “Besides, you girls are eighteen. I thought you would prefer New York without me. Who wants their dad along on spring break?”
I feel again that strange pressure of time running out. It is an odd thing to feel when you are only eighteen. All my desperate hopes for New York are that easily demolished. He doesn’t want to spend time with me. It is not my imagination. For some reason, he doesn’t want to get close to me. I dash a hand across my eyes. If I cry I’ll feel even more stupid than I do right now.
Silence descends at the table and I know it is my fault. We were having such a lovely dinner and I ruined it. Even knowing that, I am angry at Jack because I hate the silence. Jack says nothing when he thinks there is nothing to say that will help. I would prefer if he just said anything, got angry with me, said something pointless. That would suggest an effort, a note of caring, a note of something, a clue that we are father-daughter, irrevocably and undeniably connected in a way that neither of us can ignore.
From the corner of my eye, I see the cocktail waitress closing in on us again. Her shirt is cut too low, she has that pretty girl sort of obviousness that looks so pretty even when she is obviously flirting with my dad in that irritatingly phony way. She probably never thought she’d end up working here. Oh no, she was supposed to work somewhere better than slinging drinks in a locals’ haunt, she was supposed to end on a happy bed of stars like Eliza. I fix my eyes carefully on my father’s glass, the discreetly disguised mineral water filling the cocktail glass.
More drinks. Where does she think she’s going to put them? An endless stream of Jack Daniels has arrived since we sank into our booth, forgotten, cluttering the table to the point it was hard to fit our dinner plates on it. The waitress must be new since she thought it perfectly normal to interrupt our meal continually with bits and pieces of paper asking if Jack would autograph them and bringing every drink sent by a fan.
“Jeez, enough with the drinks already! Can’t you see he doesn’t want them? He’s been sober for ten years. I would have thought you were the type to at least read a tabloid!”
Oh god! Did I say that out loud? The sudden shock of Jack’s expression tells me I did. And darn, the waitress looks like she’s about to cry.
It is a horrible moment, that kind of earth-quieting, horrible moment that will only get more horrible rapidly. The owner of the restaurant is closing in our table. He must have heard. Be honest with yourself, Chrissie, everyone heard. In the commotion around me I start to grow smaller and smaller and more inadequate. I started this and I can’t get a word out of my mouth, not even to apologize to the poor cocktail girl who is shaking with mortification. Tom, the owner, is flustered and apologetic. Jack is charming and reassuring. Rene is fascinated and watching with a sharply arched brow. Fascinated by what? Oh, the poor pretty waitress. How pretty she looks now that she is crying.
“I’m sorry, Jack. Truly, my apologies. She’s new…” those are the only words I catch in the ensuing drama. The owner apologizing for the waitress. No one apologizes for me, and I was the bully here, a dreadful Eliza wannabe hurting people I think insignificant. I stare at the waitress. There are no words from my mouth, but I hear them in my head: It’s me! I’m the awful one! I didn’t mean to be mean. I’m just pissed off. It’s been a really trying day!
I can’t take any more. I say nothing, not even to Rene who is still absorbed in watching and I slip from the booth. Getting out of the restaurant is more of a hassle than getting into it had been. Someone must have put the word out that Jack is here. The sidewalk is packed with retro throwback sixties types, all waiting patiently their turn to see him, the voice of a generation. They would be happy if they only got to see him. I brush at my face and realize I’m crying and it doesn’t matter because I’m not with Jack so no one notices me.
I push through the bodies feeling small and inadequate and—unfortunately—mean. I’m used to working free of the crowds that sometimes spring around Jack unexpectedly like a flash fire and I am an expert at disappearing. Though not tonight. I was not invisible tonight. They’ll talk about tonight at Harry’s for a while. Perfectly wretched. I was perfectly wretched.
I lean against the car to wait and realize I am hyperventilating. I can’t feel my limbs, and I know that the car I lean against is damp but I can’t feel that either. Everything looks so strange, the near empty streets, the cluster of people outside the restaurant in the all-but-vacant strip mall, and the way the world looks beneath the bleak fluorescent light of the parking lot. I probably look strange, too.
I sink to the ground, angry with myself for the senseless drama I created tonight. I am not a dramatic girl. Everyone always says I’m sensible. I am not a mean girl. Everyone always says I’m good. But tonight I went postal over a cocktail.
I really hate that I’m crying. Time loses the feel of realness when you cry. Seconds can feel like minutes, minutes can feel like seconds, and it is hard to tell which because it is the cry that determines that. Sometimes after I cry I check my watch and I’m always surprised. Sometimes it’s only a few minutes, but it was a really bad cry that feels like forever. And other times its half a day, and it felt like nothing at all, like a dripping faucet, an irritating sound punctuating otherwise normal sound. An irritation, no more significant than that.
Jack and Rene step off the sidewalk and into the parking lot. I take a deep, steadying breath and stand up. How long have I been waiting? It feels like they’ve left me out here an eternity.
I watch them cross the parking lot to me. They don’t look strange in the bleak fluorescent light of the parking lot. Jack looks like Jack, perfectly normal, and Rene has that glow about her as if she’s just left the best party and is thoroughly pleased with the world. I curse Rene in my mind for forcing me through the fiasco of dinner, but then, it really wasn’t her fault, and no one is more surprised than I am, that I went postal over a cocktail.
Postal over a cocktail. It is all very stupid, especially now that I put it that way. They both smile at me as if everything is normal. No one says anything and we climb into the car to make our way home. I am committed to my silence during the car ride to the house and no one disturbs that, and I am grateful that they don’t, though I wish Jack would.
It is a short drive home, and five minutes later we are on Marina Drive making our way down the dimly lit narrow road into Hope Ranch, the neighborhood I’ve called home since birth. The familiar sights make some of my gloomy mood wane. I love the neighborhood I live in. It is private and quiet and wooded and protected. It is home.
Marina Drive is lush with woods: sycamore, oak and eucalyptus trees flourish among the richly green vegetation. On one side of the road are the cliffs above the beach. With the windows down and the music off you can hear the crashing surf as you drive, and I love that sound, sounds of home. On the other side is low rising hills with stunning homes upon them. Wayward, paved arteries flow through the thicket, private pockets of modest ranch homes and massive estates.
My father’s house has been in the family for two generations. It is a rustic, chicly humble Spanish style single story stucco and red tile structure. There is a main wing with two wings jutting off that gives it the shape of a not fully completed square. It sits on a cliff above the ocean, the modestly landscaped five acres left as close to natural as possible, and is only partially enclosed for privacy so as not to intrude on the equestrian trails that cut through Jack’s land.
No one owns the land or the beach, Chrissie. We are only caretakers. I was five when Jack said that, I was sitting in the yard watching as he pulled down the fencing with his own hands that my grandfather had put in place with his own hands. The house had transferred to my dad when grandpa had gone into the nursing home, but the fence had stayed until after Jack Senior passed away. We didn’t live here full time until I was five. It was the year Mom got sick.
Now I feel teary because I’ve thought of Mom. There are more emotional punches inside, but in the driveway tonight the first emotional punch is Mom.
Jack climbs from the car. “You girls are going to have to share your room, Chrissie. There is not a spare room in the house, I’m afraid. And stay away from the pool house. Its current occupant doesn’t need you bothering him.”
That’s it? That’s what he has to say to me after I created that enormous scene? I nod and focus on pulling my cello case from the trunk.
Rene smiles and takes her bag from Jack. “Maybe I’m exactly what your pool house guest needs!”
I start to laugh. That comment I didn’t expect, but it effortlessly lifts the mood. Even Jack seems to be unbending, I notice, which is strange, because before the unbending I didn’t even notice he was tense. Rene probably saw it and I didn’t. Too close to the problem is what she always tells me. Perhaps she is right.
Jack’s smile this time is pleasant. He ruffles Rene’s dark hair. “Not on your life. I want you somewhere I can keep an eye on you!”
I watch and follow them into the house. Jack’s relationship with Rene is more father-daughter normal than it is with me.
The house smells good, Maria cooked dinner tonight, and for about the hundredth time I wish we hadn’t gone out to dinner and had just come home. It smells like enchiladas and I love enchiladas made at home.
We find Maria in the kitchen busily tidying the mess created from feeding a house of guests. She has been with us forever, a refugee from Somoza, whom we all pretend is legal, but isn’t.
Maria carefully rinses a used paper towel. Everything has value to her. Nothing is ever thrown away after a single use. We have adjusted to living with her—the used paper towels, the giant balls of foil, and the wrapped half-finished meals in the refrigerator.
I watch her flatten the Brawny across the twenty-thousand dollar marble counter.
Maria’s round, matronly face softens when she sees me. “Chica! You are home! I have missed my beautiful girl. Cómo es mi niña?”
The feel of Maria’s embrace is familiar and warm, but I slowly grow agitated because it lasts longer than I am ever comfortable with, and the perfume on her flesh is slightly smothering.
I disengage and step back quickly. “Is Daddy being good to you? You tell me if he’s not!”
Maria looks aghast. Jack laughs. I stare at the used paper towel spread neatly on the marble.
“Señor Jack, he is no trouble. Never. It is good when there are people in the house. Señor Jack’s band is like family. I don’t mind the extra work. It is never work for family. And the new one, the young one, he is like a ghost. A sad ghost. Four months he’s been here and so sad and no trouble! It is good he is here with Señor Jack.”
She crosses herself in silent pray for her sad ghost and I struggle not to laugh because I am really a very bad Catholic and Jack is an atheist and no one prays at the drop of the hat faster than Maria. And whoever Jack has tucked away in the pool house is most likely not sad, most likely an atheist, and most likely just a burned out musician in need of a crash pad.
Rene sticks her finger into the guacamole, loudly sucks it off the tip, and makes a popping sound as she pulls her nail through her lips. “A sad ghost in the pool house. I am intrigued!”
Jack squeezes Rene’s shoulder. “Be intrigued some other time. I mean it, little girl. Stay away from the pool house. Now go away!”
Chiding, parental and smoothly charming. Jack can be so multifunctional with Rene.
“Before you disappear, go out on the patio and say hello to the guys,” Jack says to me. “Just a smile and a hello, Chrissie. Then you two can run off and do whatever you two do.”
Just a smile and a hello. I feel her again, the small child in me. I didn’t talk from 1975 until 1977. One morning, I just lost my words and they all stopped. Mom was alive when this phase of me started, and the way each of my parents handled it was so very different.
It was mom who forced me to play the cello, to take the lessons that would force me into public recitals and get comfortable speaking before people and hopefully end my silence. I remember my first recital. I was five. I had to give my name and the piece I selected to play. I didn’t want to talk. The words were painful in my throat and made me sick in my stomach. I had to force them out which didn’t feel good and I hated that people were watching me. When the performance was over, I ran to my seat beside my father, promptly threw up and cried in his lap. Jack was a good dad that day. He said nothing, let me cry, and I remember those gentle fingers stroking my hair even though Mom was humiliated by me.
Jack’s solution was to pretend I had no problem. He would take me with him to those places in town he could go comfortably, he would hold my hand, and before we entered a store or restaurant he would say: Smile and say hello, Chrissie. It makes people happy when you smile and say hello. And he would smile his stunning smile and I would want to make him happy so I would force myself to smile and say hello to each stranger we met.
I still smile and say hello to every stranger I meet. I can’t seem to stop myself, and sometimes I have these really long, involved conversations that are more comfortable and significant because I don’t know these people. It is just easier to let out the words when the people are not people active in my life. It really annoys Rene, because while I can’t manage a reasonable conversation with the kids at school, I can talk thirty minutes with the gas station attendant.
I don’t want to please Jack tonight so there will be no smile and hello from Chrissie! I lean across the marble breakfast bar and grab Jack’s keys. “I can’t get my car out of the driveway. Do you mind if I take yours?”
Jack lifts a golden brow. “You just got home, Chrissie. Where do you want to go?”
It’s not a reprimand and not words that precisely express that I can’t leave, just a query I can do what I want with. There is a hint of disappointment in Jack’s voice, that is all, but it is not enough to make me stay. I feel a familiar desperation to get out of the house.
“I want to go sit at the beach and have some dessert. We won’t be late,” I say, smiling.
I can tell Jack doesn’t want me to leave, but he won’t say it. “You have an early plane in the morning. Drive carefully. There isn’t any fog now, but it’s been rolling in every night so be careful!”
“Let’s go, Rene.” I drop a fast kiss on my father’s cheek, push away from the kitchen counter, and go quickly to the front door without bothering to look if Rene is following. I know she will eventually.
I wait in Jack’s car a handful of minutes before Rene comes bouncing out front. She sinks in a disgruntled way into the seat next to me.
I turn on the ignition and put the car in gear. “What took you so long?”
“Since you’re dragging me away, I wanted to at least be sociable and say hello to everyone. Are we really going to get dessert? I can’t eat another bite!”
“No, I just wanted to go to the beach for a while. Get some air.”
“You’re pissed off about dinner aren’t you?”
“I’m not pissed off about anything.”
“Then why are we at Hendry’s Beach hiding from Jack?”
“I’m not hiding from anyone.”
Rene stares at me speculatively, but I ignore her, pretending to focus on the short drive to the beach. I pull into the empty beach lot and park in a space close to the walkway to the sand. I quickly climb from the car.
Please, just let her let this go. My trusty lockboxes feel all shaky at present, I don’t want Rene to probe and for some reason I am afraid for them to open. I just went postal over a cocktail. I don’t want to know how I will feel, what I will do if a lockbox is opened. Not tonight.
I make a hasty retreat toward the beach. I am sitting on the bottom of the narrow, short flight of steps from parking lot to sand, pulling off my UGGs, when Rene sinks beside me in her loose limb way. The beach is nearly deserted: a couple walking, a man with a dog, and us, spoiled brats from the Ranch as the public school kids like to call us.
We leave our shoes by the steps and Rene takes my hand, dragging me across the sand to put distance between us and the restaurant on the rocks.
“Why didn’t your father come tonight?” I ask.
“He’s in DC on a case. Remember?” I flush. I know that, but in my desperation to make any conversation, rather than conversation of why we are here at the beach, I foolishly blunder into sensitive territory. Rene is studying me. Then she shrugs. “He’s going to be gone four weeks. Remember?” Then making a face: “One week trial. Four weeks screwing young law associate. Maybe you’ll get to meet his fembot thirty-seven at dinner!”
Fembot: Rene’s term for her father’s pretty young girlfriends. They are pretty. They are young. I loop my arm around her shoulders and sing: “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child...” and because we are alone I sing louder, letting my voice flow from that place deep inside of me that makes it bluesy and throaty and pure like Jack’s.
Rene instantly laughs and when I am done I can hear someone somewhere clapping. We collapse into each other, laughing harder as Rene pulls me farther away from my secret admirer.
“Why don’t you ever sing? You have a beautiful voice.”
“Too close to home. I prefer the cello.”
“That’s close to home, too. Only it’s your mother not Jack, that’s why you prefer orchestra!” She says it in that knowing way, as best friends do.
We lie back against the sand. Above us the moon is a hazy blur and the sand feels good. A light fog is rolling in; the air is slightly damp and heavy with the mist, and the white bed beneath me is inviting, moist and slightly chilled. Behind me is the sound of the restaurant, to the left a dog barks from the sandy stretch beyond the slew where dogs are permitted to run unleashed, and in front of me there is only the sound of waves. The sounds are familiar and calming.
Rene pulls from her pocket a pack of Marlboros and pops one into her mouth in a careless way as she rummages in her pocket for a lighter. I watch the smoke swirl around Rene’s face.
I turn on my side to face Rene. “Why do we call this beach Hendry’s? The sign says Arroyo Burro, but I’ve never heard anyone call it that. It’s always been Hendry’s.”
“I don’t know. Why does it matter?”
“Why don’t we just stay here? Let’s not go off to college, Rene. It all seems so pointless. Does it seem pointless to you?”
Rene seems to give it thought. Then, “You know what our problem is, Chrissie? Why everything seems so pointless? We are the generation of nothing. There is no war. There is no grand social struggle. There is no political wrong to right. There is nothing. We have everything we want and nothing we need. Even the music isn’t good. We live in empty houses. We have too much time to think only of ourselves. It would be better for there to be a little strife than to be a generation with too much time to think only of ourselves.”
And just like that out of nowhere Rene can say something profound and tap into exactly what I’m feeling. How does she do it? That comment is the first thing that has made sense to me today. ‘We are the generation of nothing.’ And of course, nothing is pointless. Whatever I do it will be pointless. It’s the times we live in so I should just surrender like Rene.
I watch her, thankful she is my friend. The silence iscomfortable and I lie there watching Rene smoke.
She hands me the cigarette. I focus on the cherry-flame. “Where did you get these?”
“They were on the table on the patio. I snaked them. What is it about Catholic girls sneaking cigarettes to sneak a smoke? It’s so cliché.”
I take a puff. I don’t like to smoke, but tonight I want to be me more like Rene, less like myself than ever before.
Rene sits up and pulls from another pocket a small bottle of scotch. She takes a long swallow and then says, “I wish my dad was like Jack.”
“I wish my dad was more like your dad. I wish once Jack would just yell at me like your dad does. But he never yells. He never just says You screwed up, Chrissie. I’m disappointed in you! He never tells me what he really thinks.”
Rene takes another drink, longer, more. “Then come to my house and next time my dad starts yelling, stay in the living room instead of running off and hiding. Why would it be better if Jack yelled?”
“Then I would know what he thinks. What he expects! That he cares. He never says I’m disappointed in you. He never says he’s proud. Sam was always his favorite. It feels more like he’s just stuck with me and doesn’t know what to do about that!”
Oh crap, one of my lockboxes is opening. No, Chrissie, not tonight. Don’t let yourself dwell on your brother tonight. Don’t think about how Jack was after he died. Don’t think about how Sam looked laying blue and cold in his bedroom. Don’t think of how his flesh felt. Don’t think about how everyone loved Sammy, how much he screwed up, and how remarkable he was. Don’t think of Jack’s months of drunkenness. Jack’s rage. The days of being forgotten by Jack. All the bad days. So many bad days. Before those days of boarding school, Jack’s recovery and second run at sobriety.
I lift my cheek from the sand to find Rene staring at me.
“Jack said he was proud of you tonight.”
“Oh, no he didn’t! He said, ‘Your mother would be so proud of you,’ but not a word about what he thinks. Never a word about what he thinks!”
“At least Jack tries, Chrissie. I’m not saying he’s perfect. I’m not saying he’s even good at it. I’m saying he tries. Cut him some slack if he’s not doing it right!”
“He’s not doing it at all. We are going through life tiptoeing around each other.”
Rene takes another drink. “Jack tries.”
Jack did try, but somehow it makes it all the more awful.
Rene springs to her feet and begins to brush the sand from her legs. “We should go back.”
“You just want to party on the patio with the rock geriatric ward!”
Rene laughs. “That is a terrible thing to call your dad’s band. Jesus, your dad is young and hot. You just can’t see it because he’s your dad. And why not hang with the rock geriatric ward since we won’t be at Peppers with the rest of the seniors?” Rene closes the scotch bottle, almost puts it back in her pocket, and then buries it the sand. “We’ll leave something for the bums instead of tossing it. I am sure Jack would disapprove of that since I took it from his bar.”
I stand up, brushing the sand from my backside. Rene loops her arm around my neck and we walk toward the car. I can smell the scotch on her breath, and I like the smell, though I should hate it, just as I hate the endless glasses always sent to our restaurant table.
“I have a rule pact for New York,” Rene announces out of nowhere.
I start to laugh. “When did you come up with it?”
“Just now. I make your rules. You make mine. And Doctor Rene thinks what Chrissie needs is to do one crazy thing a day until we are back at school.”
I laugh harder. Only Rene could float between profound and ridiculous in an hour. “And how will I know if it’s something crazy to do? Do I ask you?”
“Oh, you’ll know. Did you think what you did to that poor waitress was crazy? Well, you’re right. It was crazy. But it was a good thing to do. I loved watching you do it, Chrissie. You let some of it out for once. When the voice insides you says no, just do it. Be bad. Be young. Be wrong. Lose your virginity. It’s OK.”
Rene takes my cheeks in her hands and does a fast friendship kiss on my lips and suddenly this isn’t silly but deadly serious to her.
Oh crap, why tonight? Another of Rene’s sneak attacks on all my little issues.
I fumble in the dimly lit parking lot to unlock the car door. “Fine. One crazy thing each day. But here’s your rule pact, Rene. You can do anything you want and I won’t tell, but you have to spend one day with your dad and be nice to him even if he’s with fembot thirty-seven.”
That was a really bitchy thing to say. She leans with her arms on the roof of the car. Then she points at me. “You stay sweet.”
Now I want to cry again. “You stay cute!”
It is our ritual, how we prop each other up or how we say hello and goodbye to each other as we pass on campus on our way to class. I can’t remember how I became sweet and Rene became cute, but it is how it is, how it has always been.
I pull the car from the parking lot and I am there at the intersection to Cliff Drive. I feel all shaky and loose inside again. If I go left I drive into the fog and back home. And right—where will right take me?
I turn right toward the city and away from home and Jack.
* * *
The parking lot is packed and thumping with the sounds of a live band. We are on State Street on a Friday night about to enter a club at midnight. I know this is not a good idea, but this is where the car has taken me: To Peppers and Eliza’s private party and Brad. For some reason I feel pissed off enough to come here and do…do what?
I unbuckle my seatbelt and climb from the car. I look at my modest t-shirt and worn jeans. Jeez, I’m wearing UGG boots. Not exactly club gear. I haven’t any makeup on and my hair is a ponytail. Rene is waiting, staring at me from the other side of the car.
“We are not actually going to crash Eliza’s party, are we?”
“We’re not going to crash the party,” I say quickly.
I stare at the giant tote Rene hauls everywhere with her. “What do you have in your bag? You must have something cuter than this t-shirt. I look like a lost school girl in UGGs.”
Rene makes a face. “That’s because you are a lost school girl in UGGs. If you’re going to go postal again tonight, warn me in advance.” She dumps the contents of her bag onto the passenger seat as I come around the car.
Rene’s giant tote is a very, very odd thing. She carries everything she might need, I mean everything, absolutely everywhere she goes. It used to worry me. I used to call it the ‘everything I need to book bag.’ And I was afraid Rene was just going to take off and disappear one day. Then I wouldn’t have anyone. A selfish thought, but it used to worry me because without Rene I wouldn’t have anyone.
“Well, do you have anything I can change into in there?” I ask.
Rene rummages through her junk. “No shoes, but this should be cute even with the UGGs.”
She pulls out a gold blouse and a jean mini-skirt. She tosses them to me. They still have Saks Fifth Avenue tags on them. They are slightly wrinkled, but they’ll work better than what I have on.
I change in the parking lot behind the car door. The blouse is too tight, Rene isn’t busty, but the skirt works even though I have to roll it once to make it short.
Rene has eyeliner, mascara and lip gloss in hand.
“You should let me do your makeup more often,” Rene says. “I like it better when I do your eyes.”
“You use too much mascara. The lashes fall out in the morning.”
“It looks better!” She is putting the lip gloss on my lips. She reaches for a brush. “Toss your hair over.”
The brush goes through my hair in a couple of hard jerks. She sprays it with hair spray. I toss my hair back. She sprays again.
“I love your hair. It just sort of floats back into an ‘I’ve just been fucked’ kind of look.”
I touch it. It feels stiff to me.
Rene looks up as she shoves her junk back into her bag. “So now what?”
We walk from the parking lot onto the sidewalk.
Rene stops and throws her everything bag onto the concrete. “Well, this is a bust! We’ll never get in. Not tonight. It’s packed. What the heck is going on here?”
There is a line down the street, turning the corner to the club entrance. It is the first Friday of spring break, so of course there is a line. I grab Rene’s hand and pull her along with me past all the pretty girls staring. The line is flush with rich, pretty girls and I can feel the stare, the stare that screams from their impeccably made-up faces that they think we are not the kind of girls who can line jump.
For once, getting into a downtown club on Friday will be my problem. We won’t even have to drop Jack’s name, which is part of a bigger secret I haven’t shared with Rene. I spent a lot of time in this club in December during our winter break. Had a lot of my “gas station attendant” moments with the staff.
I shake my head, not wanting to think of winter break. Jack was gone almost the entire month, one of his things, and Rene was in the Cayman’s with her mother. I hated being in the house alone with no one to hang out with. It made the hours drag painfully slow with no one to hang out with. So in the evenings I would pretend to Maria I was off on some super, Eliza-type plans and just come to Peppers alone.
Nightclubs are good places to be alone. Always new people. Always laughter and music and other people alone so you don’t feel so pitiful that you are alone.
At the front of the rope line, I am relieved. I know the bouncer. “Randy!” I shout over the blaring music from within to get his attention.
Randy looks, does a thorough security type scan of the crowd, sees me, smiles, and the rope is pulled back. Rene and I are pulled quickly into the courtyard in front of the door. The front of the line is pissed.
I can feel Rene watching me as if she wants this explained, but I ignore her. Randy keeps his eyes on the front of the line, but leans in to hear me.
“It’s really packed!”
“Some group from Seattle is booked tonight. It’s crazy inside, Chris. Crazy. Not cool at all. Not the usual scene.” He starts pushing back against the line. “Hey, behind the line or I boot you to the end!” He’s stressed. The crowd is enormous and I can feel the pulse in the air that this is a happening. I didn’t know there was a special event tonight, but I bet Eliza did and that’s why she had Daddy book her a private room.
Randy grabs my arm. “Are you packing? I can’t let you in if you’re not packing. ABC has been a real pain in the ass lately.”
I pull from my purse the fake ID Rene appropriated for me. She takes them from her father’s fembots under the pretense she has a right to check their age. There is an entire shoe box of stolen IDs in our dorm room. Rene is the go-to girl for ID, but I think the box means something else to her, though she hasn’t told me.
I hold the New York license beneath Randy’s nose. He checks it, then Rene’s. “Any trouble, Chris, and you run out the back,” he whispers in a low, fierce tone. “A fight. Police. Anything. You run. You get caught in here tonight it’ll make the papers and we’ll lose our liquor license. That fucking whore with the band will make sure it makes press.”
My entire face col
© Copyright 2016 Susan Ward. All rights reserved.