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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.”
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.
“Jane Dolton.”
“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.”
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.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Chapter 14--Not like Thema and Louise

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Jane has a Hollywood moment while trying to recover from killing her patient.

The next three hours are my last as a nurse. I make it out to my car just past eleven, hauling the contents of my locker. I’ve just come from a rather humiliating meeting with my boss in which she listened to the doctor and Grace, now with a concussion, give their versions of the tonight’s events.
My boss is not a night person. She hates being woken up with these kinds of problems. Her conclusion is as black and white as they come. I made a careless and stupid mistake that cost a patient’s life. I also maliciously attacked my co-worker. The psychiatrist brought in the evaluate me in the security office found I’m experiencing some kind of traumatic psychosis. I know what those words mean, but I’m not quite sure how they apply to me. I really do feel okay. Maybe a bit tired. And the Taco Bell isn’t sitting well, bad beans.
When I worked at the senior center someone died almost every day. Sometimes people die. Accidents happen. Only one of my two deaths were accidents. Leah never had to figure out how to live in this world. That’s how I justify it to myself, okay? She’s happier with Jesus in Heaven than she ever would have been living with Brandon and me, the whack-job mother.
Five years ago next month, Aunt Ruth met me in Colorado. Together we found a clinic. She gave me fourteen million different chances to get out of it. I didn’t budge. I can’t imagine having that much conviction about anything now. If I had said yes even once to my aunt’s outs, I would still have been able to return home, to get myself together and resume my marriage. The procedure made that impossible. So here I am, jobless, living a lie, pissed out of my mind because Brandon and at least one other member of the Vanguard lied to me, robbing me of the one thing I have held onto all this time as the single good act of my life.
My phone rings, Steve texting, inviting me over when I get off work for Mrs. Helston’s welcome home party. The address is in her note. I haven’t even opened it. I start up my car thinking I’ll just head over there now and say hi. I don’t have anything better to do.
First things first, I drive headlong into a cement support column. Tonight I have killed a patient and my car. I text back simplified details of my situation: off work, need a ride, hosp parking garage.
Twenty minutes later, Steve roars into the garage in a red Maserati. I jump in with my phone and my purse. I offer him his own bottle of Wild Turkey. We drive off to find a cliff like Thelma and Louise. Only problem is all the cliffs in Santa Monica have houses built onto them and aren’t readily accessible. 
Don’t think me the world’s worst person for saying this right now, but there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, more romantic than driving out of a city along the coast at night. This is why people live in California; you’ve heard wrong. It’s not the beaches, and the movie stars, or Silicon Valley, or endless days of interrupted smoggy sunshine, it’s the way the night feels as it comes in over from the continent, bringing an entire country’s worth of lives to culmination on this borderland before it drives off the sunset and leaves us with the delicious knowledge that night saves the best for last, tucking us in like the favorite youngest child.
Yes, I killed a man tonight. But think about what a terrible time he’d have had learning to function like a normal person, all that physical therapy, all that struggle. Americans suck at struggle. Correction: modern Americans. We did plenty of struggling when we had something to fight against, like tyranny from England, Native Americans who didn’t understand property values, French, Spanish, Mexicans, blacks, women, Communists. Most of that we’re still doing today in one form or another but in much smaller, marginalized battles, stories that have been here, done that, and are not nearly as sensational as congressmen getting caught bankrolling prostitutes. Probably if Andrew Jackson could have owned a smart phone he’d have sexted, too. I suck at struggle and not because I wasn’t taught the theory of Evolution until my freshmen year of college, but because it doesn’t make sense. Why struggle against something, anything, when siting back and letting life take its own course is much simpler? Anyone remember the WWJD fad? What Would Jesus Do? I had a picture book that went along with a tape, cassette tape that is.
What would Jesus do when he finds himself spewing family secrets out of every orifice?
What would Jesus do when he accidently kills someone who would already be dead except for the marvel of modern medicine? Does he have a spot in his heart for mercy killing?
What would Jesus do when he’s fired from his job?
What would Jesus do in the passenger seat of a very sexy car with the wind blowing in his hair and a Poseidon look alike oh so close beside him? 
Please don’t share where your mind just went. I don’t need to know, I didn’t mean to end up there. I like Steve a lot but not in the way he wants me to like him. It’s more of an insight I have that he might secretly be as fucked-up as I am. You’re right, he probably hasn’t killed two people. In such situations he’d probably be afraid of breaking a toenail or something. But I have this idea he’s not so far removed from a condition of chucking cell phones at people’s heads.
If I’d wanted to keep my job I would have had to agree to go on drugs and start seeing a psychiatrist every week. Where I come from psychiatrists and psychologists are sad products of the liberal education system who needed an easy degree and like leeching even sadder peoples’ money off them, when really every problem would be solved if they got in touch with God and had a conversion experience. Don’t ask if I still believe that. Either way, I’m not going to a shrink. The things I have to say I really only want to confess to one person.
He sits on the top deck of Mrs. Helston’s house staring out at the ocean. He’s been sitting there long enough that the salt spray has gotten into his hair; the breeze whips it around in a curly mess. I wish I knew less so I could look at him and feel that age old romance of a profile gazing out to sea. Instead, the first almost tears of the night prick my eyes.
“He can’t go out anymore can he?”
“Hm? Oh, Dan? Not since the…he lost interest.”
I forgot, we’re pretending we never had that conversation.
Mrs. Helston lives in a house shaped like a hexagon sliced in half with the sliced side facing the road and the half-hex facing the water with three staircases connecting two decks and a screened sun porch before landing on the sand.
On the beach a bonfire illuminates people who are pros at kicking back and having a good time. An impromptu game of football sends several groping couples looking for new shadows as tackles collide and dive. To my surprise I recognize Mrs. Helston roasting a marshmallow flanked by several with the same outdoorsy look, trademarked by rawhide skin.
“Mrs. Helston, what are you doing?” I gasp. She wears a bikini top with her surgical bandage covering as much as a third breast cup.
She limps over and wraps me up in her arms. “So glad you could join us early, dearie. Steve, get her a chair. Damn woman, you look like you’ve been through the wringer. Steve, she needs a drink, too!”
“Your heart needs to rest,” I murmur.
“I’m fine. No fruitie tooties for me, cross my heart. I feel super fine except for this rhino.” She taps the hip of her cast. “What I never knew is how useful it would be for getting men to pick me up.”
“Haha.” I force a smile and put clinical worries behind me. “I’m not a nurse anymore so you don’t have to worry about me telling on you.”
“Not a nurse! Darling, I just met you three days ago!”
“A lot’s happened since then. Actually tonight—I threw my phone at someone.”
She pauses to stare at me. Whatever my face says she can’t quite read it in the dark. She starts laughing. I laugh, too. It does sound ridiculous.
“Whatever happened, I’m glad you came. I hope you’ll be staying around for a bit. I already told Steve you’re more than welcome to sleep over.”
Second almost tearful burn of the night. “Are you sure? I don’t want to be an inconvenience, but if you have a room for me.”
“Room?” she asks. “Not with Steve?” She tilts her head to one side, puzzled.
“No, not with Steve.”
“With Steve what?” The man himself plops a lawn chair into the sand and hands me a drink.
“I was asking if she’s going out with you in the morning. Or if she’ll be beached like me.”
“Stop moping, you had your fun. You almost killed yourself twice in less than twelve hours.” He pats her on the head, a strange gesture for the god hero. I’ve never seen this before so it takes me a minute to realize it’s not so strange for platonic opposite sex friends to do. A relationship between parent and child that has grown into the friendship of two adults. I’ve heard of such things. Colleen talks all the time about wanting to be friends with Shayla instead of always laying down the law and playing the mother role.
“I don’t know anything about surfing,” I say. “It sounds dangerous.”
They laugh like this is a joke but in the midst of it, Mrs. Helston looks up and squints to locate her younger son on the deck above. “I think I’ll go see how my angel is doing.” She hugs me again, squeezing me tighter this time and whispering that there’s an extra bed in her room on the ground floor.
She summons one of her fellow marshmallow roasters, a swarthy tank of muscle rivaling Arnold Schwarzenegger. He scoops her into his arms and carries her up the stairs. She’ll warn Daniel I’m here. Hopefully he’s okay with that.
The good thing is I don’t have much time to feel bad about coming because Steve wants to show me off to his friends who have all heard about the nurse who saved his mom. I’m surprised they’re almost all Hollywood types, or people ‘in the industry.’ Why this surprises me, I’m not sure. Probably because I’ve been wandering around for the past few days treating the Helstons as normal people, so I expected their friends to be normal people, or beach combers at least. There are a few of those, some are even professional surfers, meaning they make money surfing, not that they look like professional anything, and the storm coming from Alaska has been on their radar for weeks. Of course they look cooler than me because they’re not wearing scrubs. None of the women are wearing anything more than the bare minimum…except me. I would be less out of place stripped down to my undies.
I feel like I’ve met everybody and their dog to the point that my shaking hand is going a little numb when a woman in a wetsuit walks up from behind and makes me jump when she says, “So this is the Battery Park girl.”
“I thought you went with the crew down to Puerto Escondido.
“Did that already. You’re behind.”
“She’s not the Battery Park girl.”
“Sure she is, aren’t you?” She holds out her hand to shake. “I’m Talia. Most people call me Riley, I guess you can, too. But if you’re sticking around you stay away from him.”
“Riley….” Steve isn’t trying very hard. This woman looks like she’s about ready to take a bite off of my head and eat it for dinner and he’s standing there like he’s just as afraid she’ll eat him.
“I heard he took a shot at you.” She squints at Steve’s face. “I was hoping for a bruise but you must have fallen over, huh?”
She points her finger and jabs it in my face. “You stay away from him. I think everyone agrees you’ve fucked up his life enough.” She picks up her surf board and heads for the stairs. Her arms are the size of my thighs. 
Steve grins with forced admiration. “Now you’ve met Riley. She’s not as bad as she looks.”
“Uh huh. I thought we were pretending none of that New York stuff happened.”
“We are. That deal is definitely still on. But Riley knows everything Mom knows.”
Another good reason not to spend the night. I sink into the lawn chair. Neither the fire nor the houselights reach far enough to see beyond the edge of the dry sand to the water. I hear the waves but I can’t see them. They don’t feel real, more like a soundtrack requisite to such a party like the Beach Boys were in the sixties. Yes, Wally gave me an education on the Beach Boys, too.