Authors: Gregg Hurwitz
Callie's sketch of Frank hangs boldly in my living room, over a crumbled stretch of drywall. I'd like to think it looks over me, but I know that's not the case. As I recently learned, people are eager to live with stars in their eyes. The problem is, they block out reality. No wonder we want to hide from reality. It's ugly. Brutal. But it can also be graceful, and it offers comforts I'm still acquainting myself with. There are surprises there, not all of them unpleasant.
I thought I had a simple life before. But I didn't. Simple is going for walks and not checking behind you. Simple is strolling past security cameras and not bothering to turn your head. Entering a restaurant and not scouting the exits. Passing a dark sedan and not having your palms sweat. I'm not saying I'm able to do these things all the time, but I know what they feel like now. It's a start. A fresh one. Day after day.
I pulled in to Induma's driveway and sat with the radio on, trying to figure out how I could possibly convey my gratitude to her.
Through the open blinds, I could see her flashing back and forth in the kitchen, cooking herself into a frenzy. I got out but left the truck running. She was not cooking for me, and I didn't want to intrude.
The Jag rolled in behind me. Alejandro. He jogged over and gave me a hug. He smelled musky, some Rodeo Drive cologne Induma had no doubt selected.
I said, "I'm glad you guys made up."
"We have a do-over of our anniversary this weekend. But I give her the gift now because I can't wait." Proudly he tugged a Tiffany blue gift case from his waistband and opened it. A silver charm necklace. He studied my face. "What?"
I said, "She can't wear sterling. Gets a rash."
The case closed with a snap. He turned away, cursed in Spanish.
I said, "Hold on."
Back in my glove compartment, the small red jewelry box remained where I'd shoved it weeks ago. The engine hummed, the radio played. I sat and looked at those sapphire-chip earrings. Then I brought the box to Alejandro.
He opened it and whistled. "The sapphire look amazing."
"Yes," I said, "and it's her birthstone."
"Damn, Nick. You the Casanova."
I folded his hands over the box. He hopped, excited like a little kid, then hugged me tightly and started for the door.
I said, "Capra or Howard Hawks."
I said, "Her favorites. Check out the revival theaters. She loves late matinees. For dinner take her to Inn of the Seventh Ray, up Topanga. It's all
organic, and they have plenty of vegetarian stuff. Get a table close to the creek and you can hear the frogs, maybe even see a coyote. Then go to Shutters for hot chocolate. It's the best in town, and they serve it in giant mugs. There are great sofas. The pier's right there. Go for a walk after. It gets cold, so buy her gloves before to surprise her with."
A few faint lines appeared in that smooth brow. "But you take her all these places already."
"No," I said. "I never did."
Relief. That broad smile. Then it faded. An understanding of sorts passed between us. He nodded and headed inside.
I stood on the concrete of the driveway. From my truck's radio, the Stones were telling me I can't always get what I want, though I didn't require the reminder just now.
Alejandro appeared in the kitchen window. Hugged Induma from behind. She spun, surprised at the jewelry box. Opened it. Delight. The flash of those gorgeous white teeth. She kissed him, held up the earrings, put them on. Even from this distance, they looked just as I imagined against her dark skin.
But if you try sometimes . . .
I got into my truck and drove off.
I pull up to the big white house and park right in front, in plain view. In the passenger seat, a brown paper bag from Whole Foods, crammed with groceries. I don't get out just yet. It's eight o'clock and dark out. I take a deep breath, tug at the door handle.
Steve answers, and we shake hands and make awkward small talk. And then Callie appears, bustling and excited at his shoulder. "Oh, my, and look what you brought." Her face gleams with almost aggressive pleasure.
Two glasses of red wine wait on the butcher block of the kitchen island, and Steve pours another. Emily sits at the table, reading the dictionary, running her hand, buried in a sleeve, down the rows of words. She glares at us from beneath her hood and stomps upstairs before I can say hello.
Steve curses. Callie starts unpacking the bags, feigning more interest in each item than seems plausible. Steve leans against the refrigerator and sips his wine, staring off at nothing.
Passing, Callie squeezes his arm. "She's okay."
Steve says, "I should go up."
I say, "Why don't I?"
Steve looks at me, and I cannot read his face. He shrugs. "Okay."
I climb the stairs, followed by the sounds of Callie chattering below. She seems happy, giving off that first-date glow. How easy it all seems if you're willing.
Emily has pried some of the Scrabble letters off her door so it reads just EM. I can see the hardened globs of glue from the vanquished three letters. I think, This is good.
"Go away, Dad."
"What do you want?"
"To come in, for starters."
She'll allow it, but she'll be unhappy about it.
I enter. She sits on the bed, back to the wall, knees drawn to her chin. She holds an open book down at her shins. I do not know how she can see the book from that angle, but she is intently focused on it. Her hood has fallen away to reveal her face. The maroon and blond streaks are growing out, and her face is so pale it's pasty. She looks much younger than her thirteen years. The TV is on, and two joysticks are plugged in, Space Invaders doing their mechanical march across the screen.
Her eyes don't leave the book. She says, slowly, "The only thing I liked about you was that you didn't like them."
I nod, which is stupid because she's not looking at me. I stand there, lost in the quagmire that is a teenager's mood. The Space Invaders do not seem to pick up on the high-stakes drama.
I wonder how Frank would handle this. I take another step toward the TV, sit heavily, and pick up the remote. Emily watches me from above her knees. I click Two-Player Game and do my best, but I always sucked at Space Invaders. The dot
matrix jellyfish chug across the sky, their laser blasts eating away at the bases until my ship fizzles and dies. The second player is up now, but I don't say anything, don't turn my head, don't offer the other remote. It just sits there on the carpet beside me. Emily stares at the screen as the lasers cascade and take out her ship. I play again, wait out her untaken turn, and finish the game, even though she never rises from the bed. When the game is over, I start a new one. I do pretty well this time, clearing a few stages before dying under an alien barrage. The screen flashes Second Player Ready.
I remember Frank knocking on my door the night we moved into his house. How he came in and regarded me, his mouth pulled to the side. Before I can think, I am speaking his words: "What do you want me to not do?"
Her gaze lowers again to the page. The silence stretches out so long that I am certain she won't answer, but I force myself to sit still, to wait, to
take it on her time.
Finally she clears her throat. "Don't be all weird
and brotherly when you're around. No siding with them against me. And don't talk down to me like I'm some kid." Her eyes are moist. She will not look up.
I turn back to the flashing screen. I say, "I can manage that."
Emily puts down her book, crosses the room, and sits next to me.
She picks up the joystick.