Rendezvous in Santa Barbara
Three Vignettes / Three Points of View / One Story
We back out of the driveway, and I'm suddenly worried that I was too abrupt. I can hear myself saying it's time to get moving, like we're on a schedule that must be adhered to. I hate myself when I get too invested in times and lists and abide by them like they're some sort of mandate that I must adhere to.
Ryan's eyes follow us as we back away, and I wave goodbye to both my boys. There's something about Ryan's face that haunts me, but I'm distracted by a wail from Sophie and I turn to soothe her.
Sophie turns down the volume of her protests, but continues to fuss, while I talk to her and Sandy throws in a CD from Grease. I'm not sure if it's my comforting, or the car's movement, or Sandy's singing, or some combination of all three, but Sophie finally drifts back to sleep.
Thirty miles have passed before Ryan's expression edges back into my memory and really registers. My wave reminded him of Dawn.
"Sandy, turn around!"
He looks at me, eyes wide, "What's wrong, honey?"
"I need to see Ryan," I say, realizing as soon as the words are out how foolish I must sound.
"You'll see him in about two hours," Sandy points out carefully. "Is there something you need to see him about before then?"
"I didn't tell him how much I love him," I say helplessly.
"He knows that you love him," Sandy says, shaking his head as though he's trying to make some sense of my sudden anxiety.
"But I waved," I groan. "I waved and left him standing there."
Sandy says nothing for a full minute while the CD assures me that "Grease is the word."
At last Sandy hits the 'off' button on the stereo, "You're not Dawn."
He's right, but I think how close I came – how I nearly lost the same son she abandoned, and tears well up. I'm hormonal, I think, but I can't help how I'm feeling.
"I know," I manage to say, "…but that's not good enough."
"Why don't you call him?" Sandy suggests more reasonably.
I pull out my cell-phone, and hit his speed-dial.
I hear him answer, "Kirsten?" His voice is laced with concern.
"Hi, honey," I say, realizing I've scared him.
"What's wrong?" he asks quickly.
"Nothing's wrong. I just want to make sure you're okay."
His concern is unabated as he answers yet again, "I'm fine. Are you sure everything's okay?"
"Can't a mother check up on her son?" I venture, trying to keep my voice breezy.
Silence is the only response I get.
His voice is husky when he speaks, "I'm just leaving. See you guys in Santa Barbara, okay?"
"I'll be watching for you, sweetheart. Drive safe, okay?"
When I hear silence again I wonder if he's disconnected – he and Seth often end their calls without goodbyes – but then he speaks once more.
"Kirsten?" the voice is soft, so that I have to listen closely.
"You can check up on me anytime."
Kirsten's anxious to be on the way, cutting Sandy's final instructions to me short. I'm kind of glad because I fear Sandy will find some excuse to hang around, and I really want to be alone.
Seth is… Seth. Weird as he is, I love the guy. He's become the brother he claims to be. Someday I'll tell him that, but not now. I'm not ready to face what that confession would engender. Especially not when he just made such a thing out of hugging him goodbye.
There are times I think the guy regresses – that I'm dealing with a perpetual nine year old, instead of someone nineteen. For all his comfort with words, it's like he's still not comfortable with himself. He reminds me of a colt, all gangly legs and untapped potential, with a lot of growing and filling out left to do. But he's a thoroughbred, and I don't mind waiting for this brother to mature.
Maybe one day he'll notice I've grown up, too. That I don't really punch people anymore. That I'm not the convict or the criminal he gets off on imagining me to be.
His taxi pulls away, marking yet another separation. It's okay – we've survived way worse. This time, neither of us is running away from anything. We're moving toward a future that seems… maybe not quite real but somehow maybe possible.
I'm finally alone – standing in front of the stucco structure that houses most of my best memories, hesitant to go inside. It hurts to think of it standing there, broken and condemned. Another victim of forces stronger than itself.
At last I summon the strength to go inside. To face not just memories, but him.
I enter the pool house, turning around inside the covered walls. He's there, just like I knew he would be.
He's so impressed with what he sees. The glass encased room, so much bigger and more beautiful than any space he's ever occupied, all at his disposal. He's terrified and alone and hurting and so damned grateful for this space. He knows it's just for the night – that tomorrow he has to figure out what he's going to do – but he's tired and his body aches and he's safe for this one night.
Beaten, abandoned, literally shoved onto the streets. Having no one to turn to… no where to go. Knowing he's screwed up completely this time… wondering if he can ever find redemption for his actions.
I open the door, and look out over the Pacific, and he's there, too.
He's seeing it for the first time, that morning when he arises from the first night's sleep he's had in ages without worrying about what AJ might have in store for him when he wakes up. He squints into the sun, and feels the warm slate under his feet, and notices how the infinity pool seems to blend into the ocean.
As frightened as he is, he's overwhelmed by what he sees. It's so far removed from anything he's ever known, he's never dreamed a place like this existed.
I glance away from him, looking at the same point on the horizon where he's focused, and I'm still awestruck with the view.
I cross the patio, and move into the space that used to be the Cohen den, and he's there again, with his choker and his wrist cuff.
That first morning, running into Seth sitting in the floor playing video games. He stops short, not sure how he's supposed to react. He thinks about turning around and heading back out to the pool house, even though he's hungry.
And then it happens so unexpectedly. Seth asks him if he wants to play. And instead of retreating like he was ready to do, he stays. He thinks Seth is a little strange, but the kid is obviously lonely and he's amazingly accepting and inclusive, and the Chino-boy decides the kid's okay, and is grateful once again.
I watch scenes continue to play out, one after another as I walk from room to room.
The child from Chino eying Kirsten as he follows her out the door, trying to hide the anxiety he feels at the thought of applying for Harbor admission. His instinct to protect overriding fear and common sense as he faces down Julie Cooper in the kitchen. The boy shouldering a limping Luke into the den after a fight, unsure of his reception – quick to point out for once he hasn't caused the damage – grateful when there's no retribution.
I see his shy smile when he hangs a stocking by the fireplace. His fledgling hope that the good memories the Cohens speak of are possible – that they'll create some balance for all the pain.
I turn once more into the kitchen, where I hear his heart thumping as he sits on a bar stool terrified that his mistakes will mean eviction from the family and from this place. He's fighting to keep it together, but underneath he's young and cold and scared, disappointed in himself and those around him.
I watch him, transfixed, until it dawns on me that my heart is pounding, too. I'm shivering in the midst of summer heat.
My cell phone rings, and I pull it out of my pocket. I immediately wonder what's happened when I see it's Kirsten calling.
Our conversation is brief, but it chases away my chills.
I look back at my younger self, now sitting at the table, fascinated by the Cohen's repartee, wanting to take part and yet uncertain of how he'll be received.
I realize how different I am from that child, even though I own his past.
I'm not frightened of the same things anymore – I know I'm not alone.
There are people who believe in me.
What's more, I'm beginning to believe in myself.
I kneel down, and untie the laces to my boots. Removing the heavy shoes, I stack them neatly by the back door.
Like the choker and the wrist-cuff, the boots belong to him.
I make my way through the house, careful not to disturb the images that haunt this place.
Leaving the boy I used to be inside, where he will learn and grow and get hurt and make mistakes and be loved anyway.
Where the broken things inside him will start to heal.
I feel lighter as I leave the house. As I pull on tennis shoes from my duffle bag, and climb into my Wrangler.
It's time for me to get on the road.
My family will be waiting for me.
We're headed home.
We sit by the window of our designated rest stop, still trying to wrap our heads around all that's happening. Kirsten is whispering softly to Sophie, the daughter I never thought I'd have.
We're headed back to where we began, where Kirsten and I started our journey. Where Seth was born. Where to our utter amazement Sophie was born as well. To a home we own again because of Ryan.
It seems fitting that our past has somehow become our future.
I'm more than willing to sacrifice an ocean view for exposed beams and oak floors and a wooded setting that pays homage to nature in all its richness.
I keep imagining how we'll wake up each tomorrow in the one house I really loved. How we'll sink our roots deep into a community with real people and an environment that doesn't need a perfect morning when the sun is shining bright and the waves are just right to make me love it.
Looking across at my wife, I think I've never seen her more lovely than she's been these last few months. It's internal, the glow she wears so simply. She's happy, and it shows.
But when she looks up at me, I'm reminded that with Sophie's arrival, my wife has drifted into 'Mom' overdrive. It's not Sophie who's on her mind right now. Sophie's snuggled in her arms, sleeping peacefully. It's not Seth – he called from the airport, just before he boarded his plane. She's made her peace with his departure.
It's our middle child that occupies her thoughts. The one we left to go through the shell of our Newport home alone. The one she thinks is overdue.
"He should be here by now," Kirsten says, looking anxiously out the window. "I think we should call him again, and make sure he's okay."
I think of Ryan's face as we backed away this morning, and wish we'd stayed outside until he had bid his farewells. Still, I know my son, and I'm sure he didn't want us there.
I dig my cell out of my pocket, about to press speed-dial when Kirsten stops me, gesturing toward our son's Jeep as it pulls into the parking lot.
She breathes a sigh of relief, and nods toward the door.
"Go get him, Sandy."
I kiss her lightly on the hair, already on my feet.
I find him still sitting in the Wrangler, a thoughtful expression on his face. He doesn't see me until I speak.
"Hey, kid! Everything okay?"
He looks up, surprised. "Uh, yeah, fine. Just thinking about stuff."
I approach the Jeep, "A lot of memories back there, for all of us."
He opens the door, and slides out. He looks at me, pressing his lips together before he answers.
"I'll miss it. The house I mean."
I wrap one arm around his shoulder, "So will I – not the house, exactly, but everything it represents."
He turns his head toward me, "Yeah."
We walk silently together toward the restaurant, but he stops just short of the door and speaks again.
"It was like I saw my own ghost back there..."
"How did it make you feel?" I ask, hoping I know the answer.
He smiles ruefully, "I don't know… I guess like… maybe it's time to live the life you've given me, and leave the ghosts behind."
I squeeze his shoulder and he smiles. When he looks at me I say, "The lives we've given one another, Ryan."
He snorts softly, like he's embarrassed, but his smile deepens. He makes no move to duck out from under my arm as we make our way to Kirsten.