THERE WERE NO STORMS in Southern California. There were earthquakes, mud slides, fires—but no storms. When it rained, they called it a storm. “San Diego prepares for another winter storm,” the newscasters announced grimly, sending Adele into snorts of derisive laughter. The thing about a storm, a real storm, was that you could prepare. You could hunker down. You could feel cozy, waiting it out. It wasn’t at all like the fires two years ago, turning the sky yellow and raining ash on the roofs. They’d gotten a reverse 911 call to be ready to evacuate and Drew had loaded up the car with valuables; Adele had practically gone catatonic with horror. No, she’d take a blizzard, a hurricane, a nor’easter over fire any day.
It made her feel a little guilty, watching the sun wash over her kitchen, while back home, they were checking their sump pumps and hauling out their generators. She thought of Cordelia, her old best friend, and wondered—as she so often did, even after all these years—what she was doing at that moment. Her two oldest sons and Cordy’s two boys had grown up together, the two families inseparable, until 9/11 changed everything. Instinctively, Adele’s hand fluttered, a tic she had developed whenever such thoughts intruded. Brushing them away. Not now, not now.
She and Drew had just returned from three days at Sea Ranch, celebrating her friend Sylvia’s fifty-fifth birthday. Sylvia’s husband, Carl, had a cousin who owned a house there, and he’d loaned it to them for the occasion. There had been six of them. Three couples. Best friends. New best friends. California friends. The best friends from home sent e-mails, called sometimes, once every year or so came out for a visit.
Not Cordelia, though. She had curled into herself, shut everyone out, and who could blame her? The look on her face, when Adele had told her they were moving to San Diego. That look still haunted Adele. Adele, who had remained so unscathed. Who still had her whole family. Who apparently had chosen to abandon ship.
An architect by training but not profession (a sore point on blue days—Drew’s career always came first, as well it should; her job had been the children), Adele had been excited about visiting Sea Ranch. Her favorite professor in college had studied with Charles Moore, the postmodern designer who, along with the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, created the community in the mid-1960s. She had read, at the time, of the five-thousand-acre site on the windswept cliffs, the utopian ambitions of the design team. Sylvia’s invitation had stirred dormant fervor in Adele. The nights before going she’d had dreams of dew-drenched hopefulness, woken to a fresh sense of promise. It had spun her back into her youth, those days when the idea of a shared community of like-minded people seemed to be the way the world was going. Maybe this is it, she’d thought, anticipating a thrill of recognition. Maybe this will be where I’ll build my house, and the whole California diaspora will make sense. Drew had promised her, when they sold their house in Bedford, that after Noah left for college they’d buy land somewhere for her to build on. Anywhere she wanted, he’d said, except back east. He wouldn’t go back east. Though she’d always imagined her someday house being east, somewhere—Vermont? Pennsylvania?—she agreed to his terms. She had reconciled herself to a state of homelessness, taken it on as an ancient inheritance, and hoped that a new promised land would be revealed to her. That promise had kept her going for years.
But Sea Ranch—initially intended to be weekend houses, small in scale, with American vernacular post-and-beam construction and an imperative to harmonize with the environment—had been a disappointment. Three decades and the new millennium had corrupted what Adele had expected to be an oasis of architectural purity. Halprin had required the owners to live close together, to build small, to cluster the houses at the tree line in order to keep the open sweep of the meadow and the bluffs for common use, to keep the ocean views open. Carl’s cousin’s house was one of the new ones, right on the bluff, huge and overdone, with views from every room of the cobalt sea and the rugged cliffs. There were three bedrooms, a media room, and a small gym. The kitchen had a six-burner Viking stove and double dishwashing drawers. While the others oohed and aahed over the house and the views, Adele nursed her disappointment with a stern reality check: What had she expected? How naive could she be? Move on, Mrs. Gold, she told herself. You won’t be building a house in California; that’s the good news. And at least you’re not in SandyfuckingEggo. This place is entirely different: enjoy yourself.
She’d allowed herself to be lulled into a sort of infantile comfort, there, swaddling herself in a blanket on the couch in front of the fire. They’d taken long walks, prepared elaborate meals in the big open kitchen, gone antiquing in Gualala. Carl had bought Syl a beautiful old locket on a gold chain. The shop’s proprietor, whom Maggie swore she recognized as a famous poet, threw in a little beaded bag for the necklace when he heard it was Sylvia’s birthday. Adele had been cheered; she’d felt the heavy cloak of discontent lightening a bit. Driving back along the Pacific Coast Highway, she had delivered a history of the Ranch, and remarked how sad it was that it had ultimately failed.
“What do you mean, ‘failed’?” Sylvia had protested. “How can you call this a failure?”
“Only in the sense,” replied Adele, “that its original intention never came to fruition. Or rather, it flourished briefly, but now it’s been compromised.”
“Money,” Drew had pronounced. “It all comes down to money.”
Back in Carlsbad, the familiar disorientation had crept back into her. This morning she’d gone out for donuts, to bring to Sylvia’s. A long line had formed, typical of a Sunday morning. The boy behind the counter had asked who was next, and the man behind Adele began to give his order. “Excuse me,” Adele had said, “I’m next.” She hadn’t been rude or confrontational, just assertive. She was a New Yorker. Lines were inviolable. The next thing she knew, the whole place was calling her a line Nazi! Snickering and exchanging glances of shared derision. She had been furious until she got in the car, when she’d burst into tears. She just didn’t get it, out here! And then she’d gone to Sylvia’s, where they were supposed to talk about building an apartment over the garage, which she was going to design, and instead there was Maggie on the couch, with Syl sobbing in her arms. Carl—pudgy, bumbling, pussy-whipped Carl—had announced, that morning before going off to play golf, that he wanted a divorce.
It didn’t make sense. There had been no clue. No red flag among the credit card bills, no late nights at the office, no souring toward Syl. Up north they’d been observed necking on the couch after the others had gone to bed, weary of Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, which still flickered on the TV screen when Adele got up for a glass of water and some Advil. She’d crawled back into bed with Drew and snuggled against him, thinking how lucky they were, how precious this inclusive friendship, how extraordinary that they had weathered such storms and all emerged, battered but whole, into the rapturous, sunny utopia of middle age. Of all the marriages she might have speculated would implode once the kids were gone, Syl and Carl’s was the last. Poor Sylvia, she thought, as she broke the eggs into a bowl. She’d sobbed like a baby. Adele had been a little shocked at her utter lack of reserve, her childlike meltdown. The woman was without defenses; she was as trusting and eager to please as an earnest little girl.
Sylvia and Carl were not the sort of people Adele would have had occasion to meet, let alone befriend, back home. She thought of them as quintessential Southern Californians: transplanted midwesterners, house-proud, vaguely Christian, not widely read or traveled. In fact, she reflected, not without a twinge of shame at her snobbishness, they were, frankly, unsophisticated and charmingly provincial. But she had grown terribly fond of them, especially Syl. She was bighearted and guileless, dependable, unintentionally comedic. Seeing her dissolved on the sectional in Maggie’s arms, Adele had had the urge to find Carl and reprimand him, demand an apology, force him to make up with his wife. Unexpected shocks and undone friends were not a new experience for Adele, but schooled as she was, she found it wrenching to witness Sylvia’s distress. As always in the face of the unimaginable, she tried to piece together something cohesive, but she was stuck on the image of Carl wrapping his arms around Sylvia from behind and squeezing her breasts while she shrieked and slapped him, delighted. This had occurred just yesterday morning, while they’d been milling around in the kitchen at Sea Ranch making coffee and toasting bagels.
Sylvia had choked and gulped her story out in typical Sylvia fashion; winding around non sequiturs and irrelevancies, distracting herself with random digressions. Adele had had to struggle with the inappropriate laughter that kept bouncing up in her as she sat next to Syl, stroking her hand, trying not to look at Maggie lest they both lose it. Had she allowed herself a peek at Maggie, she would have seen no mirth, for Maggie’s fury and sense of righteousness were galloping apace.
“Beth said we needed a sleigh bed,” Syl had stammered, “or she and Franco would have to stay at a hotel. Adele, when was she here last? More than a year, right? I told Carl you were coming over this morning to talk about the garage and he said … he said…” And here her face crumpled like an overripe camellia and she wailed unself-consciously. “Oh, you guys…” she gasped in a moment, having accepted the tissues and caresses of her friends. “What would I do without you guys?”
Recalling the moment as she diced the onion, Adele allowed herself a moment of levity. What was it Mel Brooks had said? “Comedy is when you fall into a hole and break your leg. Tragedy is when I get a hangnail”? Something like that. Syl said Carl had told her he would always love her, but that he hadn’t felt the same about her for a long time. That he loved her like a sister. That he had fallen in love with someone else. And that someone else, she had wailed, was his secretary. How humiliating was that?! His fat Russian whore of a secretary, is what she’d said, spluttering about how just last month Carl had asked her, Sylvia, to pick out a birthday present for her! And Syl had gone to Anthropologie and bought her a beautiful, expensive set of bedding! Bedding! And Carl had thanked her, and kissed her, and all the time he was thinking how he was going to screw the bitch on those beautiful sheets! (At this point Syl had pressed her face into the shiny leather couch cushion and contorted, flailing, as if she were trying to crawl inside it.) “We have to get you a lawyer,” Maggie had pronounced, but Syl said no, Carl had already secured a lawyer (the infamous barracuda of divorce lawyers, unfunnily named Mort Sahl) and that he would take care of them both, it would be a no-contest divorce, and not to worry, Carl would always take care of Sylvia. (Already gotten a lawyer? Adele marveled. So the whole time at Sea Ranch he’d been faking it?)
“That is just not okay,” Maggie had said. “You need your own lawyer.” But no, Sylvia insisted, “Carl said there’s no sense giving all our money to the lawyers, that I just have to trust him.”
Adele had called Drew, who was a doctor, and left a message on his cell for him to procure a supply of Xanax; she would explain later. Maggie had gone online and started making a list of lawyers to call, pointedly ignoring Syl’s protestations. Adele had manipulated the little ball of Day-Glo-orange Play-Doh that she carried around to keep her encroachingly arthritic right hand from hardening into a claw like her mother’s had. She’d formed it into a little man with a potbelly and a droopy little penis and placed him on the coffee table. “Let’s get pins,” she’d suggested. “Syl, do you have a pin box? I made a little voodoo Carl.”
It was interesting, Adele mused, blowing her nose and wiping away onion tears, how adamant Sylvia had been about trusting Carl, even as he betrayed her. She’d actually snapped at Maggie to stop talking about how she should protect herself. Said she wasn’t going to “go there,” that she was going to “support Carl’s decision.” First the grief, then the rage, Adele thought. How we all scamper into predictable human behavior when the ground collapses under us. And then, like a person hearing about someone else’s cancer diagnosis, Adele watched her own thoughts leap onto the hamster’s wheel: Could it happen to me?
But of course that was silly. Carl was silly. There was something buffoonish about him, despite his success in business. He always made a big deal about adoring Sylvia, in public. As they had no reason to doubt his sincerity, that had endeared him to Sylvia’s friends. Why should it come as such a shock that he was duplicitous? Why should that have anything to do with Drew?
Around and around the wheel she went, her thoughts careening between fragmented memories of shock and betrayal, of pleasure and connection. Her marriage had always been easy. She and Drew were pals. More than pals: soul mates. Lovers, of course, though that had dwindled, naturally—but mostly pals. She couldn’t remember a time when she’d thought of herself as separate from him. This kugel she was making, for example. At the grocery, earlier, she’d had the inspiration to make it for Drew; it was a favorite of his, and she hadn’t made one for a while. No sooner had she put the groceries away in the kitchen than the phone rang and Drew asked about dinner. When she told him what she was making he was amazed, saying that was exactly what he’d been hungry for. That kind of thing happened often, between them. She’d assumed, naively, she realized, that all good marriages were like that. Apparently not, she mused, marveling at Carl’s ability to be so doting, so positively uxorious, so Mr. Jolly Host of a lovey-dovey weekend, all the while preparing the wrecking ball. She wondered, as she poured the kugel into a loaf pan, if Drew had known about Carl’s affair. Admonished herself for the fleeting suspicion: Drew would have told her. Of course he would have. They didn’t have secrets between them. Drew would be as shocked as she was. She experienced a little frisson of excitement in anticipation of sharing the gossip, and was instantly ashamed. This was terrible news. Sickening news, really, and with that thought, something leaden stirred within her, some slouching beast she had thought was finally slumbering. “No more,” she said, aloud. “No more. Leave us alone.”
The snow had started in New York. A bundled-up newsgirl stood on Central Park West, talking into the mike about how here it was: the first of the season. Adele squinted at the screen—she was on Sixty-ninth Street, it looked like. When the image dissolved and was replaced by dancing sponges, Adele felt a tug of regret. She could have stood there all night and watched the snow fall on Central Park. Outside, the sun slipped into the Pacific Ocean and the sky turned rosy. She closed the sliders and turned on the lamps in the living area. Not really a room; the condo had what was called an open floor plan. She slid the pan into the oven, poured herself a glass of the Shiraz they had bought at the winery near Sea Ranch, settled onto the couch, and waited for her husband to come home. On the end table was a snow globe, a going-away present from a friend when she’d left New York. Inside the globe was a tiny compression of Manhattan: the Empire State Building, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. Even a wee little yellow taxi. She wound it up, and its music box tinkled out “New York, New York.” She shook the globe, and it swirled with glittering flakes as the music slowed, then spluttered into silence.
Copyright © 2012 by Teresa Link