Sunday, August 07, 2005

Santa Ana Secrets

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December 30, 1973, Palm Springs. The California desert dawn was like a pink Polynesian pearl, filled with promise and calm, and yet my heart was suffused with grief. Dad was speaking to me, and I couldn’t believe he could be so heartless.

“We had to dissolve the partnership. It wasn’t easy, but it was something that had to be done. Otherwise it would fail and take down everyone. So, they are selling to us. It was a matter of survival.” Dad was talking about his company’s relation with Atajo Corporation, a small company that owned a number of gold properties in the mountains and foothills near Palm Springs.

We were driving to breakfast. My thighs were throbbing from the long horseback ride. The ride that would not have been so long and arduous if I had been able to control the large bay gelding they gave me. The horse sensed my insecurity and did what he wanted. We wandered around the periphery of the desert, and briefly into the canyon where a rather tricky trail took us to a series of waterfalls and an oasis. I wanted to forge ahead, past the palm trees, small willows, and flowering creosote that ringed the pool of water in the cool shadows of the arroyo.

Dratted horse. I didn’t blame him, though. It must have been fairly unbearable for the horse making his way through slippery rocks just so a restless teenager could kill a little time.

My heart sank at the thought of what was going on. Just yesterday, I had met Marcus, the 16-year-old son of the principle. Slender, with dark, longish curly hair and sensitive “teen idol” lips, I knew this would hit him hard, and, further, that his dad would be absolutely oblivious to what life upheavals did to teenagers.

I tried to picture Mr. Torrell, who would be selling his company this afternoon to Dad’s company. I knew it was what he wanted, but I could only think of the sense of loss he would feel and how adult angst almost always translated into emotional neglect or even abuse back at home.

Pushing the negative thoughts from my mind, I noted how Palm Springs’ decision to restrict signs to a small, discrete size added an element of elegance to the town.

I needed to talk to Dad. Things had been bothering me for a long time, and I needed to muster the courage to talk to him. However, as we pulled into the hotel, Dad announced that he was going to have to go to a meeting.

Before he left, he handed me a small stack of $20 bills. His tone was apologetic. “I’m not going to have much time to spend with you today. But, tomorrow we’ll go up to Big Bear Lake. Marcus will be there, too, so you’ll have someone to talk to.”

“What’s at Big Bear?” I asked. I felt my knees tremble at the thought of Marcus, but my stomach clenched at the idea of being alone this afternoon. Fighting back a surge of sudden tears, I looked at my leg, and noticed that the stirrups rubbed blisters near my ankles.

My younger brother accompanied Dad on many trips out west, primarily to Nevada, but also to other Arizona, Utah, California mining properties. In the fall, Dad would take him deer-hunting in Vermont. Filled with jealousy and feelings of rejection, I had developed a belief that something was profoundly defective about me.

Worse, things had started to happen to me, and I didn’t understand what they were or what was going on.

Did this happen to all 15-year-olds? I couldn’t ask Mother. She would just put me on a diet. I felt anxiety and something else rise up inside me. Dreadfully familiar by now, the only defense I had was to snuff them out with exercise, binge eating, or pain. I couldn’t bear these feelings. They felt like grief and loss, and something darker and infinitely more dangerous. It made no sense. I had not lost anything. Nor did I have anything to grieve about. My life was a dream. I was the embodiment of the American dream.

Nevertheless, sometimes I simply did not want to exist. Whatever it was that submerged me at unexpected times was too painful.

I was left to my own devices for the afternoon, so I walked to the Safeway store on the corner down the street from the hotel. Feeling the warm, desert sun on my bare arms and legs, I welcomed the opportunity to let my legs loosen up a bit. A stiff breeze, precursor of the Santa Ana winds, began to rustle the leaves of the grapefruit and orange trees lining the street. I stayed on the sidewalk and looked at the low palm trees whose fronds were beginning to sway.

I started to feel a bit better physically, but emotionally, I was sinking fast. In Safeway, I bought a bag of Fritos, a couple of packs of Twinkies, a can of SPAM, a couple of cans of cocktail sausages, cans of root beer-flavored diet soda. I also bought a pack of plastic silverware, a spiral notebook, a couple of Bic pens, and a comic book. I spent about $16 of the almost $200 that Dad had given me so far on the trip.

Once back in the hotel room, I dug into the disgusting array of junk food and processed meat. I craved the salt of the Fritos, the sweet sponginess of the Twinkies. I opened all the containers and laid them out in a row in front of me on the round hotel table that faced the television. I created equal portions of each by carefully cutting and slicing each item into small cubes. Each small portion contained about an eighth of a cup of volume. I made a small pile of Fritos, about a quarter of a cup. Then I neatly resealed the food packages and placed them back in the Safeway bag. I placed the big bag next to the front door. Then, I methodically began to eat each pile of food. As I did so, I made sketches in the spiral notebook – of whatever came to mind, or to my hand. After each pile of food, I took several swallows of diet root beer.

By the time I had worked through the small cubes of SPAM, the thin slices of cocktail sausages, the small cubes of Twinkies, my emotions were starting to release themselves. After eating the Fritos, tears flowed down my cheeks. I finished the food, sat staring at the sketches I had drawn. I was sobbing.

Moments passed. I got up slowly, went to the bathroom, washed my face with cool tap water, looked out on the patio. The grapefruit tree rustled in the stiff breeze. A few grapefruit had dropped to the patio.

Feeling somewhat better, I grabbed up the Safeway bag and headed to the hotel office. The desk clerk looked at me impassively.

“Hi. Got a little sun? Nice day for it.” He noticed my face and arms, sunburned the other day from my excursion with the horse.

“Yes,” I replied. I held up the bag. “My dad and I were going to go on a picnic, but he can’t. There is food and picnic stuff, if you know any kids who might like them. They’re fresh.”

Just then, a middle-aged Mexican woman wearing a housekeeper’s uniform came through the door.

“Rosario, do you think your grandkids would like picnic stuff?” asked the desk clerk. I smiled and held out the bag.

“Well, sure, they’d like that,” she said, looking a bit uncertain.

“Es que compramos mas que podemos comer, mi papa y yo. Todo esta todavia bueno; lo compre todo hoy dia,” I said, using the Spanish I learned at summer camp and in class. “It’s just that we bought more than we can eat, my dad and I. It’s all still good. I bought it today.”

“Ay, que sorpresa. Si, y muchas gracias. Eres una chica muy bonita,” she said. “My, what a surprise! Yes, and thank you very much. You’re a very pretty girl.”

“Thank you,” I said. I walked back to the room. The Santa Ana winds were picking up, and I felt grit in the air. As I walked, the tears began to flow again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The story tells me four things: a) In business, profit and survival are always more important than friendship, b) Ophelia at age 15 was a confused young girl, c) She possessed a generous heart, and d) She’s very sensitive and observant. Let us see how all of these re-emerge and connect in the next episodes. -ARR