Roy lives just a few streets away from me, across the park, but after I drop him off, my headache dials down to a mellow hum, and since it’s not that late, I don’t feel like going home yet. The scenery change I was looking for when I left UCSB earlier today has already degenerated in my mind to an endurance test comprising my depressed mom and annoying little sister, so I drive down Santiago, making my way out of the old neighborhood, passing my house and others identical in form and function. Twenty years has aged some of them gracefully, but most are not flattered by the passage of time.
When I get to Caracas I go left, opposite from where Colin’s old house is when his family still lived here in SoCal. He wouldn’t recognize it now, rendered gargantuan with new additions, so I don’t bother glancing that way as I go, exposed to the intersection’s blind turn. It’s safe, but I can sense the fog filtering in as the night ferments in that unique suburban stillness.
Soundtrack (mp3): ‘Accidental Recon’ by Low Tide
The high school is only a few residential curves away from home, and it’s already enveloped in misty haze when I cruise by; the track, parking lot and all but the uppermost rows in the football stadium are shrouded deep in the ether. I hang a right on Golden Lantern and head back down the hill toward the vast black Pacific that looms large in front of me. I think about another right on Stonehill, then to Niguel and maybe zip across the empty parkways all night, but then I remember the fog and imagine it creeping through the canyons and negating visibility, so I ignore Stonehill, flying through a stoplight sandwiched by condos, and instead take the next right at Selva.
I ride up and down the road’s massive dips for a few blocks now, the ones I used to think were the curved spines of dinosaurs as my school bus negotiated them at breakneck speed, the ones that once bounded the old town here in the Twenties, the “lantern streets” on my left. Amber Lantern, Violet Lantern, Blue Lantern, and on and on, all choked with apartments in varying states of repair (summer properties usually owned by Anglos) and neglect (run-down crumbling boxes usually rented by Latinos).
Selva crests at Blue Lantern and I see hints of the oceanic void again, off to the west this time. On a clear night the lights from Avalon would flicker weakly, but tonight the fog blots them out before they travel even one of those twenty-six miles. Selva gradually falls downhill again, toward Strands, but the beach will probably be too cold so I veer left and turn onto PCH. The Civic purrs with greed as the highway lies flat for a short distance ahead before dipping back into old town/downtown Dana again.
The headlands rise up on the right and I almost make an impulsive turn onto Green Lantern, but the harbor won’t really be any warmer, or any less lonely, than the beach at this hour, so I let it go and cruise down the right fork when PCH splits in two. Despite the relatively early hour, things are just as dead and quiet here as when Roy and I came through ten minutes ago, so I hold steady down Del Prado and crest another gradual rise, where Golden Lantern comes up from the harbor. I float down to the red light at Del Obispo where, to the right, I’m surprised to see lots of cars eking their way out of the marina, which apparently wasn’t as lifeless tonight as I’d figured.
I’m still taking in the long line of cars when a backfire chases a flash of movement in my peripheral vision and I glance ahead again. A battered blue Vanagon has pulled onto PCH from Del Obispo on the left. I’ve only seen it once before, but I recognize the Arroyo family bus with a surprising jolt of interest. It’s not going very fast, so when I get my green light I drive up right behind it, following the van as it avoids the I-5 on-ramp and veers off to the right, to the Coast Highway and Capo Beach.
The haze is thicker this close to the surf, hemmed in by the crumbling cliffs on the left, but on the air is a smoky whiff from the beach campground firepits, and for a minute I’m zapped back to umpteen high school weekend beach parties before checking the van again, which brakes for a light at Palisades and moves to turn left. I slide in after it, and though the Civic is way too low I still try to get its headlights to shine through the van’s back window.
When that doesn’t work I try the high beams, and notice two people in there, two girls. The driver looks back at the light source, and I recognize Lisa’s younger sister Olivia. She doesn’t seem to know me though, and then the passenger sticks an arm out the other side and casually flips a cigarette butt onto the road. Some bizarre, nonsensical guesswork tells me it has to be Lisa in there with her. The light turns green and we both climb up the cliff road. I have a hard time watching the street signs as I follow the Arroyo van through the maze of irregularity that is Capistrano Beach, but suddenly it stops in the middle of the street and the passenger- who I can see now is indeed Lisa- jumps out of the van and darts toward a large gray house.
I’m seized by a familiar, but inexplicable urge to try and talk to her, to explain myself, to find out if I’m loved or hated or forgotten. I need to know. I creep up a little ways behind the van and watch transfixed as she disappears into rippling folds of darkness between the house and its neighbor, instantly eluding pursuit. Then the van revs up again and I turn back just in time to see Olivia pull away, so I hurry to catch up; if I can’t get anything from Lisa, her sister will have to do.
The fog hasn’t made its way up the cliffs yet, so I’m able to stay right on top of the van, but it’s not long- maybe a few twisting blocks- before it swerves back onto Camino Capistrano, finds an empty section of curb, and parks. I have no idea what’s going on until Olivia explodes out of the van, striding right into the path of my headlights and forcing me to a screeching halt. She storms around the car and hammers on the window, so I roll it down and am immediately assaulted by her righteous fury.
“What the fuck are you doing here, Derek? Why are you following us tonight?” Her eyes flicker with indignation and I stammer something stupid and forgettable, which she waves away with contempt. “Chingado,” she says. “I saw you back there at the light. Come on, what gives? Have you come home from college to just to stalk my sister?”
“No, no…just…here, hang on.” I pull in behind the van and park, struggling to collect my shattered thoughts, but the strain threatens to revive my headache after only a few seconds. I’m stiff from driving all day and night, so I almost fall out of the car before turning to face Olivia.
“Look, it’s no big deal- I, I didn’t mean to or anything, okay? It just sort of happened. I didn’t just show up to…well, I didn’t want to stalk her at all- Roy and I just came down for the weekend, and I’d just dropped him off, and…” I struggle to complete a coherent sentence, kicking against the blossoming pain in my skull, trying to convince Olivia of nothing more than the simple, boring truth: I succumbed on a whim to a series of blind impulses that left me looking dumb and dangerous.
She still looks skeptical, but her face has softened perceptibly, so I try to assemble some kind of resolution. “I just wanted to know what was going on, that’s all- how she was doing, you know?” Olivia smirks at this, but isn’t unmoved. “Fine, whatever. You’re not in the thick of Crazy-Ex-Boyfriend Syndrome, and yet here we are. Do you have any idea how much shit you could have put us all in just now?”
“Lisa wasn’t supposed to be out. I was trying to get her back in there unnoticed, okay? It’s not easy to-”
I cut her off. “‘Not supposed to be out’ of where, Liv?”
“Derek, where the fuck have you been all this time? In all those months of your weird obsession with my sister, haven’t you figured anything out? Hasn’t anyone even told you?”
“Told me what? Who’s obsessive?”
She rolls her eyes. “Be stupid, then, but you better hope that no one saw us back there.”
“Don’t you get it, Derek? I was sneaking her back before they missed her. When you check into Capo-By-The-Sea you’re not allowed to leave, okay?”
“Capo by what? Liv, this isn’t making any se-”
“Lisa’s in rehab, Derek. I was sneaking my sister back into drug rehab, okay? I thought you knew. Everyone else fucking does. She’s been in there for a month now, and she freaks out and escapes every once in a while by- well, how she does it isn’t important. What matters is that she’s back in, but it won’t help her if they find out, so please, please keep it quiet. Please?”
I’m not totally stunned, but there isn’t any time to waste on fake surprise for the sake of Olivia’s feelings. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry. It’s just…well, do you think, if she gets out again- or when she gets out, I mean, just let her know I wanted to talk and, um…” My voice trails off into hopeless silence.
Olivia stares at me with incredulous frustration, but masters it in a flash with a grace that lets me down gently. “Fine. When I see her again I’ll give her your best.” I’m not finished yet, but I guess Olivia is, because she immediately turns on her heels and stomps back to the van, slamming the door with abrupt finality. I’m still standing on the side of the street like a gaping fool, my head pounding from fresh provocation, when the van jolts to life and pulls away, vanishing into the fog.