Chapter 21 of Susan

Copyright 2007 by Phillip Good

 

Jennifer

 

But it did matter, and I'm glad I insisted on taking my Cherokee with its stiff suspension rather than one of their more comfortable cars. My ownership of our one and only vehicle allowed me to remain in control no matter how crazy things became.

I've gone on long trips before with mismatched company but never with two people so intent on emphasizing their differences. Basically similar--both, girl friend and wife, were friends of my father--neither would accept nor, apparently, conceive of a middle ground. They fought constantly, though each would have insisted she was basically a peaceful person who did her best to get along with others. And no, I did not act as peacemaker, not often, anyway, I knew better than that.

They couldn't even agree on which radio station to listen to. I did solve that one: "College rules. The driver gets to pick the program." But when Lynn took over the driving, Susan announced in that tiny little voice of hers that she was willing to listen to anything but Country Western.

Lynn turned the radio off with a snapping motion as if she'd have liked to rip out the entire unit, and declared we needn't listen to the radio at all. We drove for ten minutes in an angry silence, and then, unexpectedly, Lynn pulled my Cherokee over to the side of the Interstate with cars still whipping by every ten seconds, folded her arms across her chest, and announced that someone else could drive.

I took over, supervising a Chinese fire drill as we flew in and out of doors exchanging seats. As soon as everyone had settled back, I turned the radio on again. I'd hoped to listen to my jazz station, but we were already outside its broadcast range. After about ten minutes fiddling with the dial, I was able to pick up a PBS affiliate in Santa Barbara that played classical music and we listened to its soothing melodies as we left the ocean behind and reentered the urban corridor. All was calm; or was it?

"Anyone want to eat?" I asked when we stopped for gas. But no one wanted to, or so they said; we lingered far too long outside the restroom waiting for Lynn and then drove on with Susan at the wheel, still listening to classical music.

About forty-five minutes past Santa Barbara, Lynn announced she was hungry. So was I, though I'd have preferred to eat back where there had been real restaurants. Susan pulled over at a motel coffee shop, but she didn't get out right away. "I want to hear the end of this piece."

"Fuck that," said Lynn. She slammed the car door as she got out, and flounced off across the parking lot. I gave Susan a moment or so, but when I saw she really did intend to stay in the car listening to the end of Beethoven's first, I joined Lynn in the restaurant.

The meal was not a pleasant one. The restaurant was almost empty--besides Lynn and I, there were just two quarreling families and a tipsy salesman who was sobering up with coffee, and it smelled of cleaning solution and burnt grease. Our waitress was a ding-a-ling and each small mistake only made Lynn that much more infuriated. I had the meat loaf which wasn't bad even if the waitress did have to make separate trips for parsley--"I'm supposed to bring parsley with your order." and ketchup, "not everyone wants ketchup with meatloaf."

Lynn and I discussed this and agreed that everyone--except perhaps on the planet Mongo--did indeed want ketchup with their meal, particularly a meal in a restaurant like this.

I'm not sure what Lynn had, nor was she. It was supposed to be based on chicken, but the meat was stringy and tough. Several of the lumps proved to be flour that had never quite dissolved in the gravy. Lynn got angrier and angrier; finally, she started screaming at the waitress who had just complicated things by spilling iced tea on the table as she refilled our glasses.

The waitress looked at me imploringly: "What should I do?"

We both looked at Lynn who merely pursed her lips and scowled. "Just don't give her a check," I said.

"Can I do that?"

I convinced the waitress that she could just as Susan entered the restaurant, having had time, it seemed to me, to listen to not just one but all of Beethoven's symphonic repertoire. Lynn took one look at Susan, threw two one-dollar bills on the table--to cover what? the iced tea? a tip?--and stalked outside.

I told Susan I'd keep her company--we even had to argue about that for awhile, she was so determined to be put upon--and, finally, we agreed I could, providing Susan paid.

She choose the chicken stew over my objections and fairly reveled in her subsequent martyrdom. "Tell the waitress how bad it is," I urged.

"No, no" she replied in her soft voice. And so it went while she chewed and dawdled, dawdled and chewed. After fifteen minutes, I thought her aimless mastication would drive me mad.

"Was everything O.K.?" asked the young waitress. Susan merely smiled at her, not the predatory shark's smile that was Lynn's, but a Baleen whale that would swallow everything in its path, then strain the dregs through continuously-grinning teeth.

"You didn't eat all this," said Susan, pointing to my bill. Of course, the meat loaf I'd eaten originally as well as the two iced teas were recorded there. I explained I'd eaten the meat loaf before she came in. "Then I shouldn't have to pay for it." I agreed she shouldn't. "Just the iced tea." Whatever. She then proceeded to argue with the waitress about her own bill, though not once did she raise any of the many complaints about the food to which I'd been forced to listen. I felt if the young waitress did not quit that very night, she would probably be stuck in that wayside restaurant, fifty-four miles north of Santa Barbara, hopelessly and forever.

When we emerged sleepy-eyed into the darkness, it was to discover that Lynn had rented a room in the motel across the way. "You can stay with me," she said, "Don't worry, I've already paid for the room." She pointed an accusing finger at Susan. "She is on her own."

At least, I won't have to share a room with both of them, I thought as I started unpacking. But soon a tiny persistent rapping began on the door; it was Susan, her eyes teary, "the motel has no more rooms," she said. We phoned the desk to ask for a rollaway and she stood about looking miserable until it arrived.

Lynn did things with her face and hair, hogging the bathroom. I was in and out in ten minutes. After both Lynn and I were in bed trying our best to shut out the noise from the parking lot, Susan proceeded to take a lengthy shower followed by the sound of her hair dryer and her footsteps as she tiptoed about in the darkness, "so as not to wake us."

I slept; I woke up; I slept again. If all the rooms in this motel were taken, then they were taken by the hour, for people proceeded to come and go all night long and the dawn merely signified it was time to warm up the diesels for another day of trucking.

The sniping between the two women continued the next morning, persisting till bedtime. Frankly, I much prefer my fiancée's, and, come to think of it, my father's openly combative style. Men are like that; they don't worry about being aggressive, or, more accurately, they don't worry that people will think of them as aggressive. They flare up, fight, then come to a compromise that goes some way to meeting everyone's needs.

Too often women skirt around the real issues, pretend to be nice and, all too frequently, end up with a solution that pleases no one.

Susan "knew her rights." If we wouldn't honor them immediately, why then she would stay unbudging till we did. During her turn to drive, we might stay parked half an hour by the highway until Lynn gave in.

With Lynn, on the other hand, it was strictly all or nothing; If we wouldn't play the game her way, then she wouldn't play at all. I ended up taking a lot of her turns behind the wheel. Curiously, she would then take my shift--she had an innate sense of fairness, while insisting I make all the navigation decisions.

We soon discovered we'd stopped for the night no more than an hour south of where Lynn said she'd spent the first night of her honeymoon. "I'd like to see the place," I said, for I liked her description of the motel and the view. Of course, Susan said, no, we hadn't time, but I was driving and we got off the freeway at Pismo Beach.

Their honeymoon hotel was indescribably beautiful; I don't mean the buildings, though they looked a quantum leap above the place we'd stayed the previous night, but the view: The motel was perched on a twenty-foot rise above the beach and every room had a window that faced the sea. Wooden stairs led down to clean gray sand that stretched for nearly half a mile northward along a great curving arc.

Lynn and I were lost in admiration, she very close to tears, when Susan returned to us grinning unpleasantly. "Your husband stayed here last night." Lynn's jaw dropped open. "Him and some red-haired bimbo or maybe it was blond. They stayed in the same room, you and he stayed in on your honeymoon. The motel manager even thought she was you."

I think Lynn might have killed Susan then if I hadn't been there. I know she wanted to kill somebody. She mumbled something, but the roar of an incoming wave drowned out her words.

We were a sad group getting back into the car, Susan, defiant, Lynn angry, and me trying to decide just what I was feeling. They sat kitty-corner across from each other, Lynn in the driver's seat where she definitely did not belong until she'd cooled down, Susan lounging in the back. Antipathy had turned to hate. Agreement, even moderate compromise was no longer possible.

Thereafter, we took the roads less traveled, and I saw parts of California I'd never seen before.

Lynn refused to get back on the Interstate but stayed on the boundary road, bumpty-bump. After five miles or so, the road left the freeway and ascended through a series of winding switchbacks into the hills. The area we drove through was beautiful; all around us the orchards were in full bloom, pink for peaches and cherries, the greenish-white of apple blossoms. But I really didn't get to gawk at the scenery; it was my car we were driving, and I had plenty to worry about. The road seemed to grow narrower and narrower as we drove along, the forest encroaching from one side, rain and mud slides having torn great gaps on the other A hundred yards from the county line, the pavement dissolved into ruts and gravel; I held my breath as we drove bumpty-bump until the next county took up the paving chores again.

Eventually, we returned to the Interstate; all roads do. Now, Lynn wanted to go straight up the 101 with no stops till we were in Santa Rosa. Susan balked, of course, and twenty minutes later, after we'd changed drivers several times and Lynn had noisily rearranged herself in the backseat, we were off on County Road S8 which, so the guide book told me, once had been the Old Stage Road.

Old Stage led us through irrigated fields of onions and broccoli, all at ground level, not merely to be viewed, but inhaled as we jounced past them. It curved around a hill to reveal a series of unparalleled vistas, valleys filled with wild flowers and not a sign of man. On the hillsides above us a dozen or more moo cows contentedly munched the grass. We parked half on and half off the shoulder. While Susan scurried about looking for a concealed place in which to pee--and why this urge for concealment, our automobile was the only man-made object to be seen for miles--one cow and I went eye to eye in an unblinking stare until, at last, I had to look away.

Real tourist attractions never quite live up to their promises; the unheralded bring more than one could ever ask for. We couldn't find the winery listed in the guidebook, so we dined under the ancient pepper trees at the side of the San Juan Batista Mission on lunch meat and rolls purchased from a nearby grocery store. Each woman had her own selection of meats and cheeses; I shared with each and provided the desert--Twinkies, for both. Everything tasted delicious, but then we'd had only stale rolls and crackers for breakfast.

One thing I became convinced of on this four-day excursion was that my father would never achieve his dream--not that it was a particularly worthy one. He'd shared it with me, over my objections, during the year we'd lived together, my senior year in high school. I'd caught him, for the umpteenth time, talking on the phone with Mary, when he was supposed to be committed to Faith. Or so I'd heard him tell Faith, and tell Marlene before that. He always seemed to have two and sometimes three regulars. Not one-night stands, but women who would come for one night, a Tuesday, say, and then would be put back on their shelf or their stall or their condo until it was time for him to play with them again.

"What you're doing is not real Dad; it's not the way things are supposed to be." Sage advice from my sixteen-year old self.

"My dream," he said, "is to live with two women, each one catering to my needs. Their problem is they just won't do things that way. They're content enough to see me separately, providing I lie about it, but they won't pair with me openly. Do you really think Sharon believes I'm not sleeping with anyone else Wednesday through Monday, that my work keeps me so incredibly busy I can only see her on Tuesdays and the occasional Thursday. No, of course not; but she wants me to lie, because she thinks, soon it will be Tuesday, or Thursday, or Saturday, and then finally, I'll be seeing only her."

He gave me a puzzled look and said, "Frankly, I hope that's not the sort of relationship you had in mind."

"No, I expect to find one man who will love only me and will never want anyone else. And that's not you Dad."

From San Juan Bautista we zigzagged back to Gilroy, then north to San Jose, up the East Bay to Berkeley and back across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, absolutely the least direct route from anywhere to anyplace.

After the debacle south of Pismo Beach, the two women could never agree on when to eat, so we never had another real sit-down meal. We ate well in San Francisco only because one can buy crab Louis and clam chowder at an outdoor stand on Fisherman's wharf, and get freshly made crepes while listening to music in Ghirardelli square. Lynn was willing to admit that occasionally, just, she might be having a good time; Susan would not stop sniveling. I began to feel sorry for her, not because of the calamities that had befallen her, but because of her inability to enjoy the positive part of life. I was never sorry enough to want to help her, to be on her side against Lynn; Lynn was my choice, my father's wife, and however my father might behave, I would remain true to his marriage vows.

In San Francisco, both women did demonstrate a human side, if only at brief intervals. Lynn stared out the window like a wide-eyed child as we plummeted down California toward the water; she saw only the facade at Fisherman's wharf and not the gritty reality of tourism replacing commerce. Looking across the bay toward Alcatraz, Susan confided she'd always felt she belonged in San Francisco, that her being in Southern California was a complete mistake: "I took the job, then didn't know how to leave it." And her granny outfits which had made little sense in LA now seemed to blend with the rest of the hippies in Battery park.

The sun disappeared for an instant as the mist or fog which clothed the Golden Gate Bridge began to move onshore. Men started to roll down their shirt sleeves, women to unfurl their sweaters. I rubbed my own arms, shivering, wanting to head back for the safety of the car.

A slim light-skinned black wove his way across the grass toward us, palm outstretched. Lynn and I merely looked at each other. Susan reached for her purse.

"You hungry?" I said to the man, trying to head him off, "we could get you some food."

"I ain't hungry," he said, "I needs money."

"Buy yourself a drink, no doubt." Lynn snapped.

"Cocaine." He gave us a big toothless grin, at the same time reaching out with a grimy hand toward Lynn who shrank back automatically.

Before we could stop her, Susan had handed him a five-dollar bill.