A short story
The guard waved and opened the gate for her. Christina smiled and raised one hand in recognition as she swung around the delivery truck waiting to be signed in. She knew it was a violation of the rules. Every visitor was to be given a guest pass and the address to be visited duly noted in some log to be studied later if necessary. But the guard must have remembered her from all those afternoons she came to the Humphries to pick up Ethan after school. She felt a little chagrined, sneaking into one of the leafy, old money developments in Newport Beach, a little worried that the guard might get in trouble if his lapse were discovered. But she pushed the thought away. None of that would happen. They had nothing to fear from her; just another toned, chipper woman in her forties, tooling around in an oversized vehicle wearing jeans designed to be worn by a 14-year-old. She pursed her lips and smiled at the self image formed in her mind.
She moved slowly along the main road, bracing herself for the speedbumps. She counted the streets she passed, still unable to remember or distinguish any of the individual street names even after years of visits. The names seemed to be plucked randomly from a French dictionary, with no connection to the actual physical location they labeled. After five streets she made a right into the circular street. She pulled to the curb, one house down and across the street from her target. She cracked the window against the October heat and turned off the ignition. The house was quiet in the late afternoon. Halloween decorations were already up. Cutouts of skinny, stylized black cats skittered across the windows. Amused ghosts peered out from behind the bushes. The black front door looked freshly painted, nestled into the front alcove, against the mossy green of the rest of the house. It all was so fresh, so new, warm and welcoming. She remembered flipping through the book of allowed paint combinations with Shelley last spring, paying detailed attention to almost imperceptible variations of green and taupe. It looked like Shelley had finally gone with her initial selection and had ignored Christina’s input. Not a surprise. More fallout from a friendship gone inexplicably awry.
Christina looked down at her hands in her lap, congratulating herself for not biting her cuticles in several days. Before even the first tear rose over the edge of her eye, she had the car in gear, making a sweeping U-turn, on her way home before Shelley or anyone else saw her on their way home from late afternoon sports practices.
On Saturday morning, after a long, thoughtful session awake in her bed and then in a verbena bath, she drove into Shady Canyon. She still had a transponder that opened the heavy wooden gates. In the confusion of the property settlement no one had thought to demand that she return it. First she drove to the street where they had all lived together. Even though it had only been three months since she’d been here the street was almost unrecognizable. More of the houses had completed landscaping and dozens of spindly trees competed for space along the side of the road. Two little boys in purple soccer uniforms raced out into the street from a driveway and swarmed back up onto the lawn of the house next door. The house, her house as she still thought of it, had a for sale sign in front. There were a few others down the long block. It was an abysmal time to sell. The sign was enough of an announcement of failure to eliminate any need for discussion with neighbors. Only the financially or maritally fallen needed to face the market right now. She wondered if anyone was really looking after the house, making sure that the blinds were closed at the right angle to keep the chestnut colored floors from fading, making sure the pittosforum in the rear garden looked properly lacy and inviting. It really still was her business to know the status of the house. She would call Carl and ask him about it.
She knew she should want the house to sell. Until it was disposed of, she was tied to Carl, and tied only financially, the least of the ways she could fathom remaining linked to him. But she felt an inexplicable lift every week the house remained uncommitted. Until then, she would stay in her rental, getting quieter every week as the summer crowds at the beach continued to diminish. And that morning, as she felt the first grey wisps of winter fog trail across her in bed through the open windows, she thought it wouldn’t be too distasteful to be in the apartment all winter, to be able to experience all those Pacific storms firsthand, one of the diehard people on the beach waiting for the gusts to reach land.
The garage at the house next door started to open and Christina quickly drove to the end of the street and hovered in the cul de sac until the neighbor’s car was out of sight. She drove to the other end of the development, the area with yet another coded gate, where the view lots and eight figure pricetags clustered together. She knew the gate code here from a school fundraiser she’d been invited to last year. She’d noted it in her phone and scrolled now to the family’s name to find the code. Ah, yes. 1A. Perhaps the most predictable two character combination that could be imagined. It was strange that the people in this inner most sanctum of privilege and privacy had allowed such a mundane code to be used.
She punched it in and felt a click of satisfaction as the gate started its lurch open. She drove up the hill, past the houses that had been built first, now with mature fruit trees and full driveways, up past the side streets where the houses were under construction or just stakes outlined on the ground. She made a left and climbed up higher, past a taco truck with a dozen workers clustered around it. There were fewer cars now. A red hawk wheeled to her left, dancing on a current right at the edge of the canyon. Carl’s new house was near the top, almost the only house built up here. She pulled up higher on the hill and turned around so she could get a full view of the property. She felt an odd calm of appreciation as she studied the cool grey-blue stone that she had suggested, the elongated curve of the windows, the beginnings of the grove of olive and lemon trees that she had envisioned. She opened the window and heard the tink, tink, tink of a worker chipping apart pieces of slate, fitting them into the walkway from the house to the grove. The hawk glided over the man’s head. She wondered if she could go walk through the house, see what Carl had decided to keep of her ideas and which had been erased. She hesitated, forming the conversation she would have with the workman with the chisel, and then let the idea float away. It was too much, too invasive. She didn’t want to think of herself that way.
Later that night she thought about Ethan’s friend, Matthew. His parents had divorced in kindergarten and all the time Ethan and Matthew had been friends he had lived with his mother and two little sisters in a narrow house not far from the school. She remembered wondering how they all fit in the house, even though she knew there were three bedrooms, and speculating how Matthew’s father had ended up with the big spread of a house in south county while the mother and the children compromised here. At first she hadn’t been excited about Ethan’s friendship with Matthew and had looked for signs of instability or poor parenting in Matthew. But he was a sunny, bright boy with an even temperament and a bubbly sense of humor. He always bounded happily out of the car when she dropped him home and when she saw his mother at school events she too had an aura of calm about her that both invited and dispelled comment.
She wondered where Matthew was now. In the haze of last spring she had paid little attention to the diaspora of graduating eighth graders. Her frozen horror at finally agreeing, after months of Carl’s insistence, that Ethan could, indeed should, go away to school this year had robbed her of any ability to find any joy or sadness in the achievements of the other kids.
On Tuesday, she went to the grocery store near Ethan’s old school to get the Italian truffle cheese that she loved. She would put a tablespoon in an omelette for dinner and would feel on top of the world when the richness filled her mouth. As she left, unbidden, she drove to Matthew’s neighborhood. She remembered the gate code here too. 1492#. She smiled as she pulled up to the keypad and tried to guess who the unrelenting Christopher Columbus fan was who had been in a position to select the code.
She pulled through the gates and made the series of turns to Matthew’s house. A leering six foot transparent pumpkin was on the lawn and two toddler girls tumbled on the grass in front. They weren’t Matthew’s little sisters. A new Land Rover sat in the driveway. She couldn’t picture Matthew’s precise, self-contained mother driving that. They must have moved. She should ask Ethan when she next spoke to him.
Her phone rang. It was the cleaning service for her apartment needing to arrange a different day. When the call ended she sat with her phone heavy in her hand. In a rush, she thought of all the little boys Ethan had been friends with in his nine years at the school. She saw a parade of blond, freckled boys in navy sweatshirts with the sailboat logo over their embroidered names. Now, only four months after they left the school, they were spread to the winds, her own son and Matthew among them. She scrolled through her address book, looking for one after another of Ethan’s friends, as if the listing of a mother’s name or a phone number would lend them permanence. In each entry she had included some information to help her keep everyone straight. Siblings’ names, father’s occupation, address of stepparents for weekend playdates. But in most entries one consistent entry. The gate code.
As she studied them, one after another, she started to laugh. She had never noticed before but now she understood why she had rarely had to look them up. Each neighborhood was linked in her mind with some fact of history triggered by the gate code. 1066 – the code for St. Michel, peopled in her mind by tall, Norman-featured men; 1865 – always expecting to find a Civil War battle reenactment underway; 1963 – imaging the narrow, booted figures of the Beatles getting ready to appear on the Ed Sullivan show; 1620 – the smell of turkey almost palpable in the air. She put down the phone and pushed her head back hard against the seat. She laughed as if it were a forgotten practice, experiencing the physical release as if for the first time.
She wondered if there were one lucky person at some central management company in an office near the Irvine Spectrum whose job it was to select these numbers; something he had turned into a special perq as he created one more layer of artifice for all of the unsuspecting residents. She wanted to meet the person and congratulate him on his work. And to get his advice. If she ever got her money from the house, she wanted to live in a place with a gate code to her liking. Maybe she would even be able to talk him into letting her choose it. Her mind flitted through possible dates, considering and rejecting the birth years of her favorite historical women – Elizabeth I, Coco Chanel, Katherine Hepburn. All too precious, too predictable. She wanted something removed from herself, in no way self-reflective, and yet also amusing, so that each time she gave it to a visitor she would smile. Nothing came to her but she enjoyed the anticipation of coming up with the perfect combination. Now she would go home, make her omelette and maybe have a glass of good Chablis from that case Carl had left with her. She would have her dinner and continue thinking about her plan. For tonight, she was set.
© 2020 Kathleen O’Hanlon