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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Chapter 17-Arachnaphobia

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The entire back of the chair is wet by the time I sob myself hoarse. I feel the way I did when I cried over Kevin Knelling after I found out he was moving to Ohio. I had a crush on him in sixth grade and had this crazy idea we were meant for each other. After the abortion I had a couple good cries but those came out of the blue. And then there was the Bible study meltdown. So I guess this is only the fifth or sixth time I’ve cried so hard I wrecked my throat and gave myself a headache at the same time.
Daniel sits outside in a lawn chair waiting for me to finish, weird, embarrassing; I thought I was alone. When I roll down the window he hands me a prescription bottle and a glass of water.
“How long have you been sitting there?”
“A while.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I found it surprisingly satisfying.”
Because he hates me. He’s hated me all this time because I’m associated with the guys who ruined his life. Just in case I’m wrong I look to see if he’s joking. He’s not. Right now, it’s difficult to imagine Daniel Helston cracking a joke. Deadly serious is the right description. Deadly as in one false move and he’ll shoot me down with a laser beam from his eyeballs. He doesn’t trust me. This is not at all how I imagined things would go if we ever met again.
“Take two of those, then I’m taking you up to bed. It’s late.”
“But these are your prescriptions.”
He glares at me like I’m the one who has become the prize idiot. Anti-anxiety meds, maybe the exact ones I’d have ended up on if I’d agreed to do the therapy in order to keep my job. Two of these and I’ll be unconscious in ten minutes flat. Actually that sounds like a good idea.
Reaching through the window he unlocks the door and opens it. He scoops me up no problem, and off we go to the stairs that lead up to the main floor of the house. I duck my head down as far as I can so he won’t see my face burning with embarrassment. This is not a Jane Austen heroic rescue of some rain-drenched heroine. I could not feel like more of an inconvenience if he told me out right.
But remember that ulterior woman with the language I don’t understand? This is exactly what she wants, her world weary self is tucked into his arms, feeling him breathe, the warmth of his skin, the shape of his arms, even the hitch in his left side making his gait uneven arouses her to heat. More embarrassment, burning red now, and I’m getting wet.
Without turning on the lights, he navigates his bedroom, past the first bed where Mrs. Helston’s rhino cast is easy to make out propped up on a pillow, to the second. He deposits me gently but firmly, as though he half expects I’ll jump up and run back to the car. I don’t have enough energy for that.
He removes my shoes and my earrings. Has he done this before? The necklace he leaves alone as though he knows who gave it to me and what that means.
“Can you sleep?”
“Maybe.”
“This is a safe place. Your husband won’t find you here.”
I’m surprised he uses those particular words, the same ones I instructed Steve to use during Daniel’s seizure.
The pillow smells like his clothes but more potent with that lavender shampoo scent. What man uses lavender shampoo? This is my last thought before I’m off, happily, graciously dead to the world and unable to think about anything for the next thirteen hours.

The clothes Mrs. Helston has left for me aren’t any I’d ever consider buying, a spaghetti strap shirt with shelf bra and shorts that barely make it past my butt cheeks. At first pass, I’m horrified, then I remember this is the first day of my new life. I have no job. Someone broke into my condo which means two possible things and only one likely thing. My brain is functioning much better and that one likely thing blares warning like the flashing red light on the top of a police cruiser. They know where I am.
First things first: food. There’s no one in the kitchen. Trying not to snoop too much I grab the first thing I find, banana, and wander the house looking for signs of habitation. To the west, dark clouds crowd the horizon and everything in between. Wind whips the not quite secured hot tub cover. I step out to fix it and am instantly freezing, coated in a thin wet mist, almost unable to keep my eyes open against the wind.
“Jane dearie, we’re up here,” calls Mrs. Helston from the deck above.
I hesitate. How can she be so enthusiastic with Daniel standing less than two feet away? Plus I haven’t shaved my legs past my knees since…ever and there is a lot of exposed thigh with these shorts. Okay, the whole thigh. But wait, the plot thickens, there’s a child running around up there with them. One, two, three, here I come. I hope he can handle this.
Never mind all that worrying, I am the least of Daniel’s concerns at the moment. He stands at the railing looking up the coast through binoculars, his omnipresent water bottle pinched under one arm. “Those waves get any higher he’s not going to be able to paddle them.”
“Riley will get him out in time,” says Mrs. Helston.
“She better do it now. They’ve both been out there way too long to be pulling shit like this.”
“I wanna see. Let me see.”
The girl squeezes between Daniel and the railing and climbs up to balance on the rung.
“Tell me who’s wearing blue and who’s wearing orange,” he says.
Mrs. Helston pulls me in for a hug while I stare at the girl. “That’s Poppy. She’s Steve and Riley’s daughter. You have a good sleep? Feel ready to start everything fresh?”
“I feel like I missed a lot.”
“Just the best waves of the year. They’ve been out since sunrise but the storm’s getting closer. We’re getting into daredevil territory, which means I’d be running like a bat outta hell to make that surf if I could.” She laughs. “But we’re worried Steve can’t handle it.”
“Mom’s in blue and Dad’s in Orange.”
“Good job. Now off you go before you fall.” Daniel lifts Poppy with one arm around her belly, she crouches and swings until he shakes her and she drops her feet for a landing. “Nice one. Will you run down and grab me a sweatshirt?” This is Daniel with someone he doesn’t hate. He’s gentle, even a little playful, but every movement feels calculated. He waits until the door downstairs closes. “They’re not coming in.” He hands the binoculars to Mrs. Helston.
“He said he wanted to do this.”
“Some of those waves are fifteen feet high. They’re draining the water right out of the shoal, if he falls there will be no movie in Hawaii next week.”
“I don’t see them.”
“What?” He takes back the binoculars. “Fucking idiot.” He slams his fist into the railing.
“Do I need to call rescue?”
Poppy returns with the sweatshirt.
“Give it to your dad’s friend,” says Daniel.
She turns to me and shyly holds out the sweatshirt. “My name’s Poppy, what’s yours?”
“Jane.”
“I’m not seeing either of them,” says Daniel.
“Jim is going to be so upset if he comes home and finds his board wrecked.”
“Just hope that’s the worst news you’ll be giving him—wait, she’s got him up.”
“I wanna see!”
“Let Grandma see first.”
“I’m going to drive down and pick them up. You get ready.”
“Ready for what?” asks Poppy.
“I think it’s time to play princess in the tower,” says Mrs. Helston. “You go get set up. I’ll join you.”
Poppy disappears into the single room on the third floor. The brief glimpse I catch of inside looks like the perfect place do just about anything. Pillows of every shape and color cover the floor, the sunken center, and the window seats that ring three sides.
“Nice up here isn’t it?” says Mrs. Helston.
“Why did he bring me a sweatshirt?”
“You were cold.” She shrugs. “So, Steve is unconscious or worse. Riley just dragged him out of the water. I can’t promise what condition you’ll find him in, but Daniel hates calling in an ambulance unless it’s absolutely necessary. He’ll call if he’s going to the hospital instead of coming home.” She hands me her phone. “The first aid kit is in the cabinet under the kitchen sink. Here’s hoping that’s all you’ll need. Poppy and I will be up here stranded so if he’s going to the hospital please come let us know.”
I’m not very fast on the wet stairs. Steve is injured and my skills are needed. Talk about a family prone to accidents, good grief, but I’m mostly squishing myself around in the sweatshirt marveling at this unexpected gift of attention. It hangs halfway to my knees so it’s like wearing a baggy dress or a blanket. I think I may never take it off.
This what I’m thinking about when I open the cabinet under the sink and fail to notice the spider sitting just inside until it pops out. Probably it wasn’t aiming for me, but the thing ricochets off my knee before it comes to rest on the floor. I scream, leaping up onto the sink counter. I have to find something to hang onto because I’m shaking so badly I might just shake myself right back onto the floor which is now killer spider territory.
If you remember Mr. Fuzzy Black of the Lost in Space variety, the thing that just touched my freakin’ knee could have swallowed Mr. Fuzzy Black whole. It’s a kind of mute grey brown with a body shaped like a butterfly’s but twice as thick, with a leg circumference bigger than my hand.
It touched me, it touched me, it touched me. I need a shower. My skin crawls a mile a minute. I don’t look, then I look. It’d be worse if it ran away and I’d have to be in the house knowing it was somewhere lying in wait. It stands completely still. Maybe it thinks it can blend into the floor so I can’t see it. I’ll be seeing it the rest of my life every time I lay down to try to sleep, no doubt about that. I’ve never seen a spider this size that wasn’t in a zoo.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Chapter 16--The Helstons

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Daniel drives a Prius. He doesn’t talk to me, not even to ask for directions. The more he doesn’t talk the more I feel like I should find something to say. But what to say to the man you just found out was held prisoner by your husband? That’s not a usual problem someone can plan for. And its old news to everyone except me so it feels wrong bringing it up because he’s probably moved on and doesn’t think about it whereas every minute my brain zooms back to it like a bee to some poisonous flower.
All the while there’s this morbid other part of me who is able to forget everything that happened after Battery Park. This woman is excited. Yes, you know the way I mean. She looks for ways to touch him. I remember the girls at the senior center joking about a television show that demonstrated the way a man fondles a woman without her knowing. He stops the car suddenly as though to avoid hitting something and reaches across to keep her from pitching forward. But what does a woman do? It’s not so much an overt sex appeal thing as this strange culmination of years of…ugh, I guess I have to say it…fantasies. My body screams at me in a language I don’t really understand. It’s actually a little scary how realistic its becoming to unbuckle and climb into his lap. I just want to be close, skin touching close, and feel that he’s real.
We’ve arrived at my condo tower. The parking lot is filled with the sensory shattering lights of two cop cars. Daniel doesn’t even pull in. He stops in the street gripping the steering wheel like he’s preparing to drag race down the main as soon as I get out of the car.
“Thanks for the ride.”
“Yep.”
He zooms off just in time for me to clear the door. Now I’m alone. My ulterior motive body calms down and retreats back to its usual repressed cave. And I am able to return to playing the game of chance. What are the chances that someone would break into my condo on the fifth floor? Slim to none unless the intruder knows me and knows I live there. I search the front line of onlookers being held in check by caution tape.
“I live here,” I tell the first officer who tries to stop me.
“Name?”
“Jane Dolton.”
“Unit?”
“5C.”
“Miss we’ve been trying to reach you for over an hour. Someone forced entry into your home this evening.”
Now I’m searching not only the crowd but the shadows around the parking lot, looking through car windows, wondering who is watching. My skin scrawls with the scales of unseen eyes.
“I broke my phone at work. Did you catch anyone?”
“No. And nothing appears to be missing, though you’ll need to go up and confirm.”
“That’s okay. I’m sure it’s all there.” I back away.
“Miss, you need to come upstairs with me.”
“I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Miss!”
I sprint out of the parking lot down the sidewalk. What’s the best plan? Surround myself with people? Look for a quite isolated place where I won’t be found? They could be anywhere. I don’t even know who yet. Would Brandon come himself or would he have someone in the city come get me? Grace showed Tommy my picture. If she did it out of spite tonight from work, it was probably someone from the local network who broke in. How many supporters could the Vanguard have in LA?
But if she showed him three days ago when she took the picture…don’t ask why, but I can see Grace as the kind of girl who likes to show off her friends. Tommy told Brandon and Jason. Maybe all three of them are here, somewhere in the darkness, in a car, along the wall of a building. They’re watching me right now, waiting for their chance.
No phone, no car, my home compromised. I catch my breath beside the door of the In-N-Out. It’s just past midnight so the kids are still hanging out revving their cars and smoking. Once I pass the burger place the rest of the block is desolate and silent. If I can make it three blocks there’s a Super Eight but if I’m being watched they’ll trap me there. The bus station is three miles north. I can walk that, but again, if they’re watching, waiting for me to be isolated enough to swoop in and pick me up….
A car skids into the parking lot. I brace myself thinking, this is it. They’ve spotted me and I have nowhere to go. The car is a Prius. Daniel leans over and opens the passenger door. I make it three feet and collapse into the seat. The Prius squeals out of the parking lot and speeds down the main to the 405 and out of LA as fast as someone can drive without adding to the risk of being pulled over. I watch the passenger side mirror. After several miles we’re the only car on the road; I begin to breathe again.
In the roundabout that marks the turn for the road to Mrs. Helston’s house, Daniel pulls to a stop. He kills the headlights and checks the mirrors. No car appears to have followed us from the expressway. The neighborhood is quiet. I can even hear the ocean waves.
“What just happened?”
I shake my head. He sounds like he’s accusing me of something.
“I’m not letting you into my mother’s house until I know what’s going on.”
“Someone broke into my apartment.”
“Why didn’t you stay and talk to the police?”
“Were you spying on me the whole time? I thought you couldn’t wait to get rid of me.”
“In that part of town it’s wise to make sure a woman makes it inside.”
“Thank you.”
“Answer the question.”
“I ran out on my husband a while ago. He probably found me and broke in tonight thinking I’d be there.”
“This doesn’t have anything to do with your terrorist friends?”
“They’re not—”
“Answer me.”
“No.” Technically I’m not lying. This is a family problem and they’re not terrorists.
He waits to see if I’m going to say anything else. When I don’t, he starts the car up and drives us to the house. The garage is set into a sand dune beneath the sun porch. It stretches the length of the entire house with space for four cars, a jet ski trailer, and racks of surfboards. I sit crunched up in my seat listening to the door roll shut behind the car.
It feels safe, this garage under the sand with warm lighting and locked doors but I can’t stop shaking. No one knows you’re here. Would Grace be stupid enough to tell Tommy about the Helstons? She would lose her job if anyone could prove she’d actually done it. But this house has to be a pretty big secret. Someone like Steve Helston wouldn’t have his mother’s house listed in her name. Fans would be all over it.
Daniel opens my door and looks down at me like he’s just brought in a stray animal against his better judgment. “Can you walk?”
What kind of question is that? Of course I can walk, I sprinted a block to the In-N-Out. But that was twenty minutes ago and I’ve been cramped up in this position not moving since then. Yeah, the legs aren’t working. The shock is also starting to wear off so I’m returning to the rising emotional explosion that was threatening over an hour ago.
“Do you mind if I just sit here for a little while?” I pull the door shut and lock it before he responds. Now there are two layers of locked doors between me and outside. How determined will Brandon be to find me? All these years and I’ve never heard from him except for one holiday when I called Tommy and he snatched the phone away and started yelling. That was only a few years ago and he certainly sounded like he hadn’t moved on.
I climb over into the driver’s side seat and mash my nose into the seat fabric. It smells just like Daniel’s room but absent the heaviness of wood that permeates the entire house. Its sunshine and ocean spray and lavender shampoo. I’m going to stay in this car forever. No one can stop me. There isn’t anyone who cares enough to stop me.
Ah ha, there it is, the last hurdle of self-restraint blows over and the tears slip out two by two, faster and faster until I’m crying so loudly I echo off the garage walls. There’s nothing left. I’m not really sure what I had in the first place, just silly things like a job I enjoyed and a boss who thought I was the best she’d ever seen, and my own place to call home, friends. Grace was my friend.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Chapter 15--Pizza Dives and Rolls

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A continuation of Jane at the Helston's beach party.

By the time I’m tired of sitting, I’ve lost track of Steve. I climb the stairs looking for a way into the house and find him by accident in the hot tub on the first deck with some girl who has lost her top. He’s a little embarrassed but not too much. I think he wants to make me jealous, or something, I’m not quite sure how all that works in his mind.
I wave them back to whatever it was they were doing and go inside.
The sun porch is actually the dining room with a half wall separating it from the kitchen. Mrs. Helston and Arnold of Austria share a late-night snack, pizza rolls. From Heart Surgery to Pizza Rolls—a story of wise restraint. I’m beginning to wonder how this woman is still alive.
She points me towards a door recessed in an alcove between the kitchen and dining room. “While I’m the queen gimp I’ve taken over the gimp’s room. And I found you some PJ’s.”
Because my brain still isn’t functioning I don’t make the obvious connection you all have already made that I am walking into Daniel’s room. Stupid brain lagging about ten seconds behind you. It recognizes the smell before I take five steps. I’m not an expert on smell. I know it affects taste and that’s about it. I’ve heard of people without the ability to smell and I feel sorry for them. But how the brain connects the memory of smell isn’t something I can explain to you at this exact moment. I just know before I flip on the lights that this is his room because it smells like him, salty, like something that cohabitates with water.
Imagine you went on lots of wonderful family vacations as a kid. On these vacations you always stayed in a hotel with a pool, the pool was the best part. Now as an adult when you smell chlorine, not really a great smell in itself, you associate it with the excitement of family vacations, anticipating swimming with your siblings after a long day cooped up in the car.
Another one people have told me about is cigarette smoke. If you went to Disney or Universal or any kind of theme park with any frequency as a child you might have an associated smell with cigarette smoke, particularly the way it smells outside in big airy places where smells shift by location and you sometimes have to back up to recognize what it is you’re smelling. Remember that wedding I went to with a bunch of intoxicated Catholics? The nurse who got married has this theme park association with cigarette smoke. She gets all warm and fuzzy and giggly when she smells it.
So let’s see what I’m feeling. It certainly falls under another phase of my shock and awe forty-eight hours. I think at this point it’s been longer than that. No idea where my phone is so I can’t tell you how long exactly. I gave the guy a panic attack, probably not one of his favorite things, and now I’m in his room; I’m preparing to sleep in his room. This breaks one of my mother’s cardinal rules. Jane is not supposed to go into boy’s rooms even if she’s invited, and under absolutely no circumstances are boys allowed into mine. It didn’t last long in college but those were dorms, this is an entirely different story, and I feel a twinge of residual guilt.
It’s a funny-shaped room, long and narrow, like an extra hallway tacked onto the side of the house as an afterthought. A nightstand separates two double beds overshadowed by a surfboard mounted on the wall, with some weight lifting equipment set up at the far end, and a well-used desk shoved up into the corner. Under one of the beds is a double cubby shelf filled with movies, every soundtrack he recommended to me has a representative DVD present. Framed in four bits of driftwood is a quote presumably by one of those famous people everyone knows but me, or maybe a surfer who only surfers know.
“I need the sea because it teaches me. Pablo Neruda.”
Immediately to my right is a sea salt shingled dresser, a mirror, and the jackpot: pictures, arranged in frames on the dresser in two graded waves that come to a point in the center where the largest picture rests. A family of four in wetsuits their surfboards sticking up behind them never looked happier. I try and estimate the date. Steve looks like he could be early high school. Daniel wears glasses and hasn’t hit his growth spurt yet.
Most of the pictures involve some kind of water, there’s a wide variety of the miniscule surfer on giant wave theme, there are fishing trip pictures, and lounging beach pictures, and a picture of the view through a glass-bottom boat. The few that don’t involve water stand out, Steve at an award show. Daniel and Steve dressed up with Riley for what must have been prom.
“I don’t go anywhere without my pictures,” says Mrs. Helston, coming in. “Did you find the bathroom down the way?”
“I got distracted. That’s your husband?” I point to the center picture.
“Jim. He’s out with a diving crew in the gulf right now.”
I hesitantly replace the prom picture. “Riley really seems like she hates me.”
“What? Oh no dearie. Riley doesn’t hate anyone, she’s just very forceful. We know you weren’t involved in what happened. You shouldn’t be thinking about that tonight. It’s in the past.”
“It doesn’t feel very in the past.” I suddenly realize I need to sit down or I’m going to fall over. I reach a compromise and stumble-sit onto the bed. “I didn’t know about the—I never thought after I left him….”
I need to go home. One of those embarrassing emotional explosions is coming and I want to be alone when it hits.
“You’ve had a long day. You need to sleep so your brain can rest.” The pizza roll eater is giving me health advice. “You can stay here as long as you’d like. Don’t let Daniel intimidate you.”
“I give him seizures.”
“It happened once. He’ll be fine.”
“I just need a ride.”
She looks so disappointed I reach to squeeze her hand. “I’ll see you sometime though. It seems like I’ll have lots of time.”
“You’ll find another job just like that. Don’t worry. You need to think about you, dearie. An entirely new life is going to start tomorrow and you have no idea where it’s going to take you.”
“I threw a phone at my—”
“You told me. You may think you have nothing left right now. But tomorrow that nothing becomes the possibility of everything. Nothing will hold you back.”
“You shouldn’t be eating pizza rolls.”
“It’s difficult to cook with one leg.”
We fix a date for cooking dinner together on Saturday. Mrs. Helston makes a big deal out of having to wait two days. I want to ask why she’s so anxious to have me around. I’m sure she has plenty of friends. But how does one ask such a question without sounding snarky? I’m plenty tired to have snark accidently pour forth without warning.
“I’ll call Daniel to drive you home.”
“Steve can’t?”
“I think he’s retired for the evening.” She winks.
I don’t want Daniel driving me home. What about that crazy girl, Riley? I want to ask, but Mrs. Helston is on the phone calling up to the third floor. He’ll be forced to talk to me, exactly what I didn’t want. But I do want it, don’t I? I want to know if I’ve been as important to him as he’s been to me.