To some it would be a distinctive scent, picked up on the breeze of a stranger. To others it would be a familiar smile, the crinkle of a nose, the slope of a peculiar walk. To Amanda Cruz, née McHenry, Encino mother of two (the Valley, yes -- however, significantly, 2.5 blocks south of the boulevard), it was all about sound.
This hazy evening, with air heavy as an old woman's drapes, the deafening and insistent drumbeat of a Ninja 2X900 motorcycle shifting into first gear caused Amanda to drop an entire tray of stuffed Cornish game hens, rush outside to the curb, past the newly planted pink and violet hydrangeas and the (hideous) sandstone Labrador retriever, and back indoors, charging into the sanctuary of her separate bath to relieve herself in the cool waters of her recently installed imported brass-and-Italian-marble bidet.
Which, in turn, sent her little one, Tildy, yawling in terror at the sudden noise, to the stringy, Nautilized arms of her daddy; which sent her husband, James Cruz, rushing into gibberished explanation in front of the dinner party, teeming with various yet entirely similar corporate attorneys and their spouses.
Only Maddie -- Madison, her son, her brother's son -- did not get upset, taking in his adoptive mother's antics and his stepfather's overreaction with a bemused and exotic eye. Even at ten he'd lived too much to overreact to anything, except maybe death or the loss of a stolen skateboard with narrow glow-in-the-dark racing wheels.
Amanda sat in her bidet -- yes, sat (she had no shame at the moment) -- and lit a Marlboro cigarette, the real, no-bullshit, take-no-prisoners kind, the ones she kept hidden in the linen closet or behind the toilet or underneath the shiny brass sink.
She sucked in the shame-laced tobacco, exhaled its smoke slowly, and watched her reflection, covering her face in the gilt-framed antique mirror secured on the peach-colored, sponge-textured wall in front of her, her mind tearing away the days, like the images of a flip book, into her past.
As James banged on the bathroom door, yelling through gritted teeth, embarrassed and frantic over his loss of standing before his befuddled guests, who were well finished by now (it was eight-thirty, for crissakes) with their crabmeat rolls and feta cheese canapés, Amanda exhaled. The air came out of her like a death rattle, she thought ruefully. She took a moment to smile at her juvenile behavior.
And then she remembered. And the water rushed over her.
She took another puff, inhaling as deeply as she could -- as deeply as her pink, overaerobicized lungs would allow (this sometimes takes a minute) -- and leaned her head back against her peach-colored sponged wall. She closed her eyes.
"Amanda -- you can't do this to me!"
Unfortunately, she could not close her ears as well.
"I'll be out in a sec, honey!" she yelled back at him, as though dropping twelve tiny corn-bread-and-mushroom-stuffed birds and running off like her heels were on fire were normal, everyday behavior.
"We lost the game hens! Jerry loves game hens!" James's voice was getting higher, more hysterical.
"We have cereal," Amanda replied, and then jumped as James threw his fist against the door to her bath. Amanda could tell he hurt his hand (she heard him swallow his yelp) and could feel him dancing about the bathroom in a rage he could not voice adequately in front of his illustrious guests.
Amanda almost felt bad for him. James could not shake the chip from his shoulder. Though he had wrestled down the American dream, though he drove a Lexus (just as good as a BMW, he told his aging frat-boy friends, without the sticker shock) and his wife an entirely too large SUV, though she shopped for his clothes at Neiman Marcus and no longer at JCPenney, though they had the house with the pool and cabana, he was still, in his heart of hearts, the poor immigrant boy who would never stop having to prove himself to the establishment. Even if it meant voting Republican.
And then she remembered why she was here in the first place, sitting in this bidet, in this home, in this tract, in this valley.
And Amanda shuddered.
"I was just wondering what would have happened," she said to James in hushed, secretive tones, "if we hadn't killed my brother."
James paused, sucked in his breath. "Okay. This is not funny. You know you are never to bring that up. Never!" he hissed.
"Would I be sitting in this million-dollar prison...fretting away my days, sweating over the correct canapés to serve pompous, forever-dieting Century City lawyers?"
"You're acting nuts -- you crazy bitch!"
Amanda stifled her laugh. When Jimmy was this angry, his Latin accent would come out in full force. He sounded like Ricky Ricardo on diet pills.
"Okay, okay. Any woman would trade places with you. There's a million women, good-looking women -- "
"Please, Jimmy, invite them over. I'll have a little girls' luncheon, nothing fancy, serve my famous Louisiana crab cakes, the mini ones, you know, with the pepper flakes."
"You'd better come out right now!"
Amanda turned the bidet on higher.
"Amanda? What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Amanda reached over to the toilet paper roll and proceeded to stuff her ears with quilted triple-ply, no dyes, no scent.
And she allowed herself to drift.
She pictured herself sitting in an old porcelain sink with a cold gray metal faucet in an early 1920s dank two-story house in what used to be one of the finer neighborhoods in Los Angeles, when the city was new, when movie stars did not consider east of La Brea to be the real estate equivalent of contracting an embarrassing disease, a cold sore on an upper lip. Someone with a strong, sure hand is bathing her in lukewarm water in the old cracked sink. She is not a child. She is a woman of twenty-three, old enough to enjoy a good cleaning. She grabs the hand, covered in soap suds, and looks at it, stares for a good long time. This, she thinks, belongs to a man who would not force her to be someone she was not; this belongs to a man who has pride in her solely because of who, not what, she is; this hand belongs to a man who would not slam doors in her face when she did not feel well enough to attend a business function, or pull her arm into a party crowded with people who never remembered her name.
She has never been happier and will never be this happy again.
Amanda brings herself back. Her smile drops. And she asks herself the inevitable: Will she go with him when he does ride up, his 2X900 purring, cutting into her heart like a new razor? Will she be that brave? Because she knows -- as well as she knows the words to Tildy's favorite Raffi song, or Madison's fifth-grade girlfriend's last name, or where to find James's lost black Calvin Klein cashmere sock on the morning of a very important meeting -- she knows he will come for her eventually.
Copyright © 2000 by Gigi Levangie Grazer