July 23, 2019
By Paul Saevig
Lauren Rainworth’s life was peaceful, as a high school senior. She lived with her family high on a peninsula by the Pacific Ocean in Southern California. In October, Lauren needed to submit her college applications. At that time, she had a 4.7 Grade Point Average, 16th in her class, with AP classes in Advanced Conversational French, History of Modern Western Economics, Differential Equations, Inorganic Chemistry, Speech (Debate) and Shakespeare’s Tragedies. She was Student Body Vice President, a Co-Leader of the Drill Team, Women’s Tennis co-captain, Junior Prom Princess, and had spent last summer as a Foreign Exchange Student in Portugal. Her Pre-SAT scores were well over 1500, in the 93th percentile.
Her father convened a meeting with Lauren’s mother, Helen; her older brother Rick, her older sister Ashley and Helen’s mother Marguerite to help her to decide.
“The decision will be yours, honey, but we want to you have good information and feedback,” he told her. “Mom and I will send you wherever you decide to go.”
They all sat on their terrace overlooking the ocean and there was a glass wall they could roll up if the air got chilly and windy. Lauren resembled her mother more, with her figure, and had the Tarrow family eyes, almond shaped and gray. She was thin, of medium height with rust-colored wavy hair, and a petite nose. Most people considered her attractive and friendly.
“Well, I feel like a little kid with all you here!” she joked, and they all chuckled, too.
Her mother took a fountain pen and wrote on a legal pad. She was a sleek beauty who gave the impression of having gotten everything she wanted in life but still felt disappointed.
“What places were you thinking of? All of them. Even if you were just kind of daydreaming,” she asked Lauren.
Lauren accepted the question seriously and leaned her head back to think while the others waited.
“USC, of course,” she began. “Stanford, obviously. The Ivy Leagues. University of Virginia, maybe Duke. Even Columbia, kind of. Even Oberlin College,or Amherst. Are you writing all these down, Mom? I’ve wondered if I’d like the women’s colleges like Scripps or Mills or Stephens. As a fallback school, I thought UCLA, UCSB or UCSD, but they’re all super-selective, too. I even thought about Oxford or Cambridge, or the Sorbonne or Heidelberg, or Edinburgh.”
“You could do the work,” her father assured her with his board room manner.
“Would you really want to go so far from home?” her sister Ashley asked her. She was a USC senior.
“I was going to say — “ her brother Rick said. He was a third year medical student.
“I don’t know. The main thing is I wouldn’t want to be that far from family. Or friends, or the ocean,” Lauren admitted.
“Well, that’s a good point. I was almost done at SC and then the navy sent me to Mare Island. I was lonesome as hell for quite a while, but it turned out OK,” her father said.
“Your Aunt Eleanor graduated from Sunny Hills like the rest of us,” Lauren’s mother said, “and got it into her mind she wanted to go to Radcliffe. She was a plenty good enough student, but she never felt she fit in. As soon as she graduated she came home — “
“And married Uncle Mike from Stanford!” Ralph Rainsworth said with a smile. “She was lucky and they’ve been in Santa Barbara ever since.”
“I think we all become enraptured with names and our ideas about places,” Rick explained.”I know I was fascinated by Harvard, and even Johns Hopkins, which is in a horrible downtown neighborhood. Dad sent me on a visit with Jack Hilldahl, and that’s all it took me to see. Jack didn’t go there either.”
“You’ve never lived in snowy weather, either,” Ashley added. “None of us have.”
“Beg your pardon there, missy,” Helen corrected her. “Dad and I were in Seattle for six months before he was discharged. You can adjust to it, but it’s not easy for a Southern Californian.”
“Lauren,” Grandma Margeurite said, “why don’t you just apply to USC? You know they’ll be delighted to have you. You’ll have dozens of friends there from home, and we can see you once a month. It’s a great place. Our family has been there since 1897.”
Lauren looked into the old lady’s soft blue eyes. USC, or The University, as they called it, would be the logical plan. She could major in anything, even pre-med, join a sorority and have a blast. All five members of her family watched her.
“Stanford was kind of clannish,” Rick shrugged.
“I am considering it as one of my favorites,” Lauren defended herself. “I just want a little more time to think it over. I’m not the prettiest girl, and that would mean a lot at SC.”
“Well, for heaven’s sakes!” Marguerite declared with the irritableness of old age.
“It’s true, Mom, but you are too beautiful,” Ashley argued. “That’s not a valid reason.”
“It can be if you truly believe it, Ash,” Rick said, and nodded.
“Reasons and preferences here don’t have to be completely logical,” Ralph said. “Sometimes our best decisions are intuitive, or spur of the moment.”
“Like marrying you, Ralph!” Helen joked, and he pretended to jab her with his elbow.
“I’ll try not to be too illogical,” Lauren agreed, and pretended to pout.
“You’re hilarious, kid!” Ashley declared.
A breeze had come up and Ralph pushed a button to raise the glass patio wall. The atmosphere was quieter now, and the house seemed to float above the coast. Helen poured more coffee and helped her mother pull on a sweater.
“Take Duke, Lauren. What do you like about the idea?” Ralph asked her. He was a tanned man with silver hair and gold-rimmed spectacles. He’d been considered the most handsome man at medical school, where he was known as a dashing Navy pilot with a cavalier smile.
“Well, it’s beautiful and highly regarded. It’s famous for genteel traditions. Quite a few of their departments are world-renowned. I could ride horses, too.”
Helen made a note and asked:
“How about Columbia?”
“Well, it’s so famous and excellent. I thought it was closer to downtown Manhattan, though. Right in the center of things in the Big Apple. I’d meet people from all over the world.”
“You’ll meet them anywhere you go, nowadays,” her brother Rick said.
“I think maybe you need a college tour. You get a whole month at Christmas. Helen, could you take some of the girls? A couple of boys, too? Maybe Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Princeton. So they get feel of it?” Ralph suggested.
“If one of the other mothers will go, yes. Sure. But honey, I don’t think you’re really cut out for the East Coast, Not as an undergraduate. You can go for graduate school or medical school if you want. Mother’s intuition,” Helen said.
“Grandmother’s intuition, too,” Marguerite added.
“College is all about adjustments,” Rick started to say. “Well, so is life. But I think for college, it’s better to take it easy and give yourself every break.”
“Are you saying that because I’m a girl?” Lauren asked him.
“Good question,” he admitted. “Of course I have a big brother protective feeling about both of you, so maybe. But I still think it’s true. If I’d gone to Pomona College or Claremont, or USC, my adjustments would have been a lot easier. Does that make sense?”
“Such a big fuss,” Marguerite said. “In my day, not many girls even went past FJC.”
“You graduated magna cum laude in economics, Mother,” Helen reminded her.
The old lady shrugged. A small gust of wind blew the cardinal and gold USC Trojans baseball cap off Grandma’s head. Rick dived to catch it, and they all laughed. The old lady snapped, “Fight on!”
“Well, that’s just it, Lauren started. “With all due respect, what makes USC so special?”
“Helen?” Ralph said.
“Well, one word. Tradition,” she asserted.
“Like Tevye in ‘The Fiddler On The Roof’?” Rick wisecracked, and his mother glared at him.
“In a way, yes, Wise Guy. It’s our university. Better families have sent their children to USC for over a hundred years. The campus is beautiful and charming. It’s very much the way it was for Ralph and me, and our parents, and their parents. It’s an academically superior university and highly ranked. Some of the departments are among the world’s finest. We’ve always had some wonderfully distinguished professors, world famous,” Helen explained.
“It’s the best place to network and make friends for life,” Ashley said. “They say that about Harvard, and Stanford, or Duke, but no university is better than SC that way. We learn that spirit the first day a freshman arrives on campus. A lot of us legacy students know all our lives. It’s truly a family. You stay in touch with your USC friends all your lives.”
“The sports make it possible, mostly,” Rick said. “Football, most of all. From September though November, you see your old classmates every other week. And some away games, too.”
“How did you get so smart, sweetheart?” Grandma fawned over him.
“I’d say that’s true,” Ralph said in summary. “I’ve never heard of any college with such cohesive alumni. Not all my patients are from SC, but a lot of the others brag about Iowa State, or Michigan, or Caltech, you know. It never sounds even near the same.”
“Well, maybe I shouldn’t say this, but SC is in the ghetto, Dad.”
“That’s not exactly true, Lauren,” Ashley protested.
“Oh, come on. Be serious,” Rick said.
“The University of Southern California is quite safe and always has been,” Marguerite insisted with heat.
“Well, that’s always been a controversy, even when we started there,” Ralph began, and began an argument he’s used before “Most sources state the northern edge of South Los Angeles is either the Santa Monica Freeway or Adams Boulevard. Both are north of USC, so .. The famous is well-patrolled ands safe.”
“So how can I say no to that, Dad?” Lauren asked.
“Lauren? You can go anywhere you want!” Rick reminded her.
“Yeah, I guess,” Ashley mumbled.
Ralph looked at his wife and mother in law, then spoke:
“That’s true, honey. I spoke up for USC. Another father might speak up for Mills, or UCLA. They’re all worthwhile choices, although they’re not all the same,” Ralph told her.
“What attracts you about Stanford?” Rick asked.
“It’s been ranked as the number 1 US college for a while now. The campus is huge and beautiful. The students are as brilliant as you’ll find anywhere, myself excluded. They have all kind of cultural events and opportunities every day and night, Near San Francisco, near the ocean. Fabulous reputation. Great, great research. “Those are the advantages, but they’re not personal,” replied. “You know, a beautiful campus won’t make you happy, or being number 1, or having the most brilliant classmates. You what I mean? You came up to visit me. You have a good idea of the place. So?”
“Another offer I can’t afford to refuse,” Lauren said. “There’s no guarantee I’d be accepted. With you as a brother, I probably would be.”
“People loved Stanford, Lauren,” Ralph told her. “As many as love USC, or UCLA, or Arizona State ..”
“Well, I think it would be a whole different atmosphere from USC, Dad. USC is social. I’ve always heard Stanford is so competitive. I think I’d like that. Maybe I wouldn’t, though.”
“Honey, is there a reason you’d like to go away from home?” her mother asked her, in a lower tone of voice than usual.
Lauren thought a long time, and gazed out to sea. Everyone here counted on her.
“No. I don’t think so,” she said.
Her father shifted his position on his chair and leaned forward.
“There is a consideration we haven’t mentioned that,” he said.
“I know, Dad,” Lauren whispered.
“Yeah,” Rick sighed, and both his parents glanced at him.
“Wherever you go, honey, we want you to be able to protect yourself. I started to mention that last Wednesday at the range. Have you thought about that?” Ralph asked her.
“I have, Dad. Yes, of course,” she admitted.
“What do you think?” he continued.
“Well, at first I thought it would depend on what college I went to, you know? I’d have a lot of choices. I mean, I have plenty of proficiencies. But the more I thought about it — you know, Stanford, Duke, USC, Mills — it seems it doesn’t really matter.”
She took a sip of her coffee and cleared her throat.
“I’m probably most comfortable with my KAHR CW9 9mm Luger,” Lauren said. “Then my Glock 26 (9mm) might be equally effective, and it’s not quite as comfortable. Whatever I decide on for my primary weapon, I want to have my Smith & Wesson Shield 9mm, and definitely my great Sig Sauer P320. That’s such a fantastic gun. Really, though, my Ruger LC9 might be the best choice of all, at least for concealed carry, because it’s really comfortable. I hate to leave my Heckler & Koch P7 (AKA: PSP) that grandpa gave me at home, because it was my first handgun when I was 5. But it just wouldn’t be practical now. The ones I mentioned will suit me and keep me safe, Dad.”
“I agree completely, Lauren. Really, though, four might be better, but that’s up to you. You’ve always had great judgment.”
“There is one thing, though,” Helen began to say.
“I know, Mom. A carry permit. Well, I’ll be eighteen in June. It’s not as hard as it used to be.”
“True,” Ralph said. “The problem is not every college allows students to carry guns or even one them on campus. USC doesn’t, for one.”
“Isn’t there someone you can talk to, son?’ Grandma asked Ralph.
“We’re working on it, Mom. We’ve hired an agency to make the arrangements we need to permission granted. They say they might need two years.”
“Two years?” Helen asked loudly.
“Mom, have you ever seen a gunshot wound?” Rick asked her.
Ralph turned to his son and spoke softly.
“We respect your opinions, Richard. You know we do and we always have. We’re aware of your feelings on the matter. This is a serious family discussion, however, and it’s for your sister Lauren’s benefit. Do you follow me, son?”
“Guess I do, Dad. OK,” Rick admitted.
“It might be two years before Lauren could get a carry permit from USC?” Helen asked again.
“That’s what it looks like,” her husband replied.
The terrace was cooler now, and the sun had started to descend in the western sky. The little boats on the ocean, white and beige, sailed in an early fog. The Rainworth family were hungry, but wanted to finish their conversation before they went inside for dinner.
“Well, I might not have told you all, but George carries a Beretta, always has. Quite a few of his fraternity brothers do, too. I’m with him — and them — often enough to feel safe. Is that OK, Mom?” Ashley asked.
“I told you it was, Ashley. Ralph, it’s a good situation. They’re all fine young men. George has asked Ashley to marry him,” Helen assured him.
“Oh,” Ralph said, and took a while to continue. His tanned skin turned brick color in the semi-darkness.
“Well, of course, I wish you’d both told me sooner. I realize I’m busy during the week and on call. All right. No, I didn’t know, That’s good news, Ashley. I like George and he comes from a good family. His uncle Will was in my class. All right. So .. does George have a carry permit, Ash?”
“He applied for one last year, Daddy,” she told him.
“So he doesn’t. All right.”
“Can you talk to someone, Ralph? The deans?”
“Yes, I can, Mother, and I plan to, Yes, OK? I’m sorry. It’s a lot to think about, Ashley, do you have enough units to graduate in January?”
“Ralph,” Helen interrupted.
“I might, Dad. I don’t know. I don’t think so,” Ashley admitted.
“Maybe it would be a good idea if you took your remaining classes and commuted from home. That way you’d have plenty of time to get ready for your wedding. We’ll find the most beautiful place and go all out.”
“Why would she have to do that, Ralph?” his mother asked him.
“Thee are a lot of considerations here, Mom, More to the picture than meets the eye,” he told her.
“You sound like you’re talking to one of your old lady patients, Ralph. I don’t like it,” she said.
“Oh, Mom, come on. I’m sorry. You know I don’t do that, You and Dad always taught me to be respectful. It’s just that we have a lot of questions to resolve now,” he explained.
“Oh, I don’t see what the big deal is,” she muttered.
“Does that mean USC is out?” Lauren asked.
“No!” her mother said.
“Of course not, Lauren. We’ll have to see,” he explained again.
“May I ask a question?” Rick asked. “What might be your second choice, Lauren?”
She thought a moment, bit her upper lip, and said, “Maybe Scripps College. Maybe Stanford. I don’t know.”
With that the family went inside for dinner.
The school year passed quickly for Lauren and her parents. Helen and Sally Silberman’s mother took Lauren and five other classmates on a tour of Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Yale and Princeton right after the New Year, and Lauren lost her interest in all of them. Her tennis team placed seventh in the CIF Southern Section finals, and the girl Lauren lost her singles match to a Korean girl won a scholarship to play at Stanford. She improved her class position to seventh and her class spent a weekend in the island Kauai for graduation weekend. Ralph helped Lauren her a summer job in hematology at the big hospital in Torrance, so she’d learn more about the medical profession.
Toward the end of the summer, there were quite a few parties for people in Lauren’s class. When her father and his friends were unable to persuade the USC board and the city to allow guns on campus, Lauren made her decision on Southern Methodist University. She could carry without a permit there, and it was a fine university. They called themselves The Harvard of the South. Her mother cried for a week, her grandmother sulked, but Lauren became consoled with the idea.
“I’ve been sleeping better for a week,” she told a girlfriend on their way to a party.
When she arrived, there were several classmates accepted by Cal, one Caltech, one Princeton, two at Brandeis, and nine at USC, but Lauren’s status as a future SMU Mustang gave her a special status. A couple of boys who’d always been friendly now flirted openly with her. The prettiest of all the smart girls was there, accepted at Sarah Lawrence, and for the first time, treated Lauren as a close friend. They sat on a bench down from the pool and talked at length, and the other girl confessed she was worried already.
“Well, my older brother said college is all about adjustments, Justine, I believe in you,” Lauren told her.
One of the class couples strolled by, drunk already, and the girl cracked, “Justine and Lauren! The two who have everything, except only one has boobs!”
They laughed and stumbled on their way, but Lauren’s face went pale.
Justine tried to comfort her: “You can’t take those idiots seriously, Lauren! They’re sloshed! Jealous!”
Word of the insult got around although Lauren recovered quickly. When her hostess assured her no one else agreed with the drunken girl, Lauren smiled and shrugged, and meant it.
Finally the day came when her parents packed a station wagon, and drove Lauren with Ashley all the way to Dallas. Ashley would help Lauren get everything moved to her dorm room and make sure she was comfortable. Once they were alone, Lauren confessed to her sister that she’d broken out in tears twice with worry.
“You know, Mom told me she did the same thing before she left Sunny Hills for USC. I know I did, too,” Ashley trolled her, “It’s natural to feel a little fear.”
Ralph and Helen surprised their daughters with expensive Stetson hats, ten gallon. They laughed most of the way there, and Dad told his funny hospital stories for at least the tenth time. They talked about guns and shooting, the old days at the shooting range on North Spadra in Fullerton before the golf course was built, and made a long, dusty drive tolerable. Ralph used his cell phones almost every hour to discuss his patients back home and give orders.
Before they left to fly home — a driver they hired could return the station wagon — Ralph took Lauren aside and began to cry when he had to say goodbye. That made her cry, too, and Helen walked up to call them sentimental before she cried, too.
Lauren was assigned to a dormitory room with a sweet Southern girl from Shreveport. Ashley took to the girl — nicknamed Boofie — too, and the three of them spent two days before freshman orientation and registration. Then Ashley’s fiancee George flew in, unarmed before of airline regulations and federal law. He complained a little and offered Lauren his own sage advice:
“Shoot straight and shoot to kill!”
It turned out Boofie carried a Glock, too, and they all said goodbye. Boogie introduced Lauren to all the girls and boys she’d met already, and they began referring to Lauren as “The California Girl”. She found out there was a Sunny Hills High School girl on campus, a Tri-Delt who majored in Fine Arts. Lauren liked that, and her mother for the girl’s name and called her mother.
Lauren settled into her classes and found none seemed hard at all, except Topology, and she spent a little extra time with it. She joined a square dance club and also one for samba. She hesitated to pledge a sorority right now, and enjoyed the campus gun club most of all. She looked forward to a hunting trip in Louisiana, and met a boy from Lost Creek, Texas who was a member, too.
He was a good looking varsity swimmer named Roy, the son of a famous country band leader in Austin. Right away he and Lauren became close, and the only thing she didn’t like about him is he got into fistfights. He would fight at the drop of a hat, sometimes even with his friends, and never seemed to regret it. “Well, I’m a man, Lauren,” he told her. “I’m not about to back down to anybody!”
After the fourth time it happened, when Roy thought another guy bumped him intentionally in a school cafeteria, Lauren walked away while the fight was still in progress. Roy searched all over campus until he found her in her genetics lab, and with a cut eye and swollen lip, he demanded to know why she left his side.
“Because I’ms sick and tired of your macho business. You have one more chance and if you get in another fight, I’m gone!”
Roy contorted his face, his skin turned bright red, and he spluttered. A man couldn’t argue with a lady, not in public, and he stomped off.
That night, while Lauren studied in her dorm and wondered about him, he got in a fight with a German engineering student who had a black belt in judo. Before Roy got his beating, thrown hard to the floor three times, he managed to break the German’s nose and splatter blood everywhere. Someone called there campus police, and the Dallas police, because the German’s father was diplomat in Washington, D.C. Roy had his own VIP father, of course, and ultimately it was decided Roy would take a semester off to recover from his broken arm, and the German would transfer to the University of Texas, Austin. Lauren never had an opportunity to talk to Roy again, and in some circles, became a pariah. It turned out the fight started when the German asked Roy politely not to hit the vending machine outside his own dorm room.
Lauren began rising at 4:30 AM to study, intending to be tired by 9 PM and sleep. When she went downstairs for early coffee and donuts in the cafeteria, she met three students from Ghana who were pursuing master’s degrees in urban engineering. Thomas, Luke and Matthew were jolly young men who found the United States wonderful and comical, especially Texas. They all three surprised Lauren by having the wives back home in Ghana, and four children each. They showed her the pictures and coached her to remember all the names and pronounce them correctly. Somehow when she told them her parents were from Fullerton, Matthew Masane exclaimed:
“Jackson Browne! Sunny Hills High School! Rock me on the water! Oh,my Lord, it’s a flat bed Ford!”
The other two sang a fine harmony. They became good friends and even persuaded Lauren that if she became a physician, she might come to Ghana and practice for a year at least.
She also met a linguistics student from Mt. Ayr, Iowa, Ernest Walsh. He was in her Topology class, a husky boy with a blond crewcut and kind brown eyes. He said his father made him take the class and disapproved of linguistics, so far. He was self-deprecating in a way that made her laugh, especially when he deliberately spoke like a country hick about the unusual relationship between the Finnish language and Euskara, the language of the Basque region. He also played acoustic guitar and soon they went to movies together.
Ernie was also fascinated by Lauren’s guns, her shooting prowess, and he was a fair shot himself. He had the idea of taking her to a range twenty or thirty miles out, where she could make some money outshooting the locals. She happened to mention the idea to her brother Rick on the phone when he finished laughing, he told her that would be deadly. He asked to speak to this character Ernie and they hit it off right away.
Lauren and Ernie went to the SMU football games, the Western music dances, even a big rodeo or two, and talked about maybe getting an apartment off campus together. He taught two sections of Introduction to Linguistics, and also spent long hours in the language lab. She began coming along and enjoyed studying in the utter silence. By early November, she invited him to come home to California with her, and he accepted.
In the meantime, her mother persuaded her father to put the big house up for sale because it was too big for two people, even when their children came to stay occasionally. Her idea was to move to Santa Barbara or even Montecito to be near her sister Eleanor and her husband Mike. Before long, she sold Ralph on the idea and they began looking. Grace and Mike proposed they all find neighboring homes in Montecito and make a deal for them. Mike had been an advertising agency CEO for many years and believed he could sell the idea. In particular, he know of condos with a small firing range nearby, and that’s what appealed most to Ralph. He’d sold his practice and retired, and he was ready for traveling and grandchildren. Lauren listened to these details night after night and Texas began to seem ridiculous for her, even though she’d grown to like SMU. Ernie said the school he’d most like to teach at was UCLA. California began to look like the only valid possibility.
Thomas, Luke and Matthew Masane from Ghana loved to sing to Ernie’s guitar and Lauren’s improvised drums. They all ate chocolate chip ice cream, Texas style barbecued beef ribs, dill pickles, Medjool dates from Indio, and sour cream potato chips, which the Africans found to be American delicacies. Luke admitted Texas was “a little fierce, too much like the Congo!”
Matthew disclosed he’d love to live with his family on the coast of Oregon, and they found out he collected travel videos of the place. Thomas was the most devoutly religious Baptist of the three, and longed to install his family in a home alive the Sunset Strip, where he would establish a church below. They all meant Texas to Lauren, and she’d miss them when she eventually left. The brothers spoke to their wives and children on the phone, and taught Lauren what to say to the little ones. That melted her heart, as her other grandmother used to say. Ernie took up the study of Akuapem Twi, Asante Twi and Fante, considered a single language, and within a month, he could converse with the Masane brothers, who laughed because they spoke mostly English.
In early December, though, Boofie from the dorm broke her pelvis in a motorcycle accident, riding back from Shreveport with her boyfriend. Ernie and Lauren drove down to the hospital in Tyler to see her and a week later took the Ugandans. The woman was deeply depressed and Lauren promised to be her friend and see her though it all.
That and Ernie, the brothers from Ghana, and her classes, took care of most of Lauren’s time. When Ernie came with her to California, she and Ashley wasted no time in taking him surfing. They took him to Laguna Beach for a date shake, him to a midnight Mass at the Rose Bowl, to Farmer’s Market, to a Jackson Browne concert in Bakersfield, and even to Sunny Hills High School, where her parents had told her where Jackson sang with his friends in the morning on the quad.
“You’re sick of Texas but love your new friends,” Ashley told her sister.
“Well, it’s not that bad but yeah, it’s not my place,” Lauren admitted.
She and Ernie used their last week to drive up to San Francisco and see Rick. He looked haggard from his hospital hours, and hectic, and he’d lost weight, but he was glad see them and found time to take them to Fisherman’s Wharf for dinner.
“Are you carrying?” he asked his sister when Ernie excused himself or minute.
“No. I don’t always,” she told him. “I mean in California.”
“But in Texas?”
“Not all the time either.”
“I worry about you, kid,” Rick told her. They were silent for a minute until Ernie came back.
The two left San Francis early to visit Reno, where Ernie could talk to people in the Basque community. He already knew about the Bastanchury Ranch, which made Lauren’s parents almost celebrities by association. They went to seven Basque restaurants in three days, and each time Ernie was treated as a special emissary. Lauren managed to guess roughly at a recipe for lamb stew, and they drank a hearty Basque wine.
When they got back to SNMU, their grades were online, and Lauren had gotten 97/100 in Topology, best in the class. Ernie laughed at how the true geeks in the class would be furious, not to mention the computer science majors and the physics people. There were only four women in the class and two were from the People’s Republic of China, and another from Israel. Her score entrenched Lauren all the more as an SMU student.
Ernie suggested they celebrate with an early Mexican dinner, and then he had to go to the lab. While they were there and the light on Lauren’s cell turned green, she answered and found out her father had a heart attack. He was all right, her sister said, it was relatively minor, and he’d be flown down to UCLA Medical Center in two days.
Lauren told Ernie she had to get back to the dorm to make plane reservations and pack, and he wished her well. He’d be back around 2 AM.
She stepped outside into the rain, and hurried with only her blazer and a scarf on her head. If she cut down a street bordering the campus, she might be able to catch a college tram to her dorm. The walk involved passing a long row of sycamore trees that grew over the sidewalk.
Halfway down, thunder came and with it, heavy showers that bounced hard in the cement and splattered. Her scarf was soaking wet now and wind sent strands of her hair over her face. She couldn’t breathe without inhaling rainwater and if she held her breath too long, she felt faint. She ran and the distance seemed longer than she remembered. She slipped. Without waiting, she jumped back up and tried to sprint, but now her wrists ached where she’d fallen. She jogged along with her hands in her blazer pockets, struggling to keep her balance as best.
In the din or the storm and traffic, she heard male voices yelling to her behind her, and when she wheeled around and to look, they were coming closer. She had to decide whether to fire a warning shot, but it might be too late. Instead she fired once, twice, and two of the figures fell in the flooded gutter. There was an unearthly shrill scream, that hurt her ears, and she was still in danger and crouched down behind a bus stop enclosure. Lightning crashed and she prayed for God to save her. Now she heard an eerie wavering moan, rising and falling like the famous Paris police sirens. The sound continued and pounded in her ears, and a long time seemed to pass.
Then there was a siren, and a second, and soon three more. If anything the moan got louder until Lauren screamed to rid her mind of the sound. Her eyes were shut tight, and then an intense red beam took her attention. She opened her eyes to see what looked like a military tank, a police tank, with the red beam trained on her and a SWAT team watching from under cover.
An amplified voice ordered her to drop her weapons and put her hands on the top of her head, and then to walk backwards toward them, slowly. She tore off her blazer, linked her hands as ordered, and stumbled and fell backwards, cracking the back of her head on the cement.
The pain was sharp but immediately turned numb and she remained conscious. While she gasped for breath in the rain, four officers approached her with their guns drawn.
“Turn over on your stomach, ma’am!” one of the police ordered, and she complied. The grit and filth of the sidewalk got in her mouth, mixed with rainwater, and she choked spitting it out. A police officer put her knee on Lauren’s back and sat there: it felt like a woman’s knee. Another police put her wrists in handcuffs and tied her ankles together.
“No bleeding!” the police woman yelled.
“Easy as she goes!” a policemen’s voice cried and they carried Lauren into a police ambulance. The attendants fastened her in place and the ambulance moved forward. Lauren passed out from shock.
When Lauren woke up in a hospital bed, she didn’t know what time it was. Her head ached where it touched her pillow and when she reached to feel the bandage, she found her hands were tied to the bed.
“What happened? What happened?” she yelled.
An older back nurse in the hallway heard her and came inside. She touched Lauren’s forehead and smoothed her cheek.
“You bumped your head pretty good. Don’t you remember anything else?” the woman asked.
“No! What? Please help me!”
“All right, sugar. You’re safe now. If you can just wait a minute, I’ll get a doctor. Can you do that? Just a little while?”
The nurse held Lauren’s hand and the younger woman said she would, she’d be OK.
Ten minutes later, a young dark skinned doctor entered the room. He kept a small dog-eared book, several folded papers, and several ballpoint pens in his white coat breast pocket, and he looked exhausted.
When he said, “Hello,” and Lauren saw him, she knew he was from India, or Pakistan, or Bangladesh. His skin was darker than most American black people, and his eyes were deep brown with azure highlights. He wore a precise mustache of short, black hairs along his upper lip, and otherwise he was clean shaven. He looked at her chart and back at her several times. His badge said Dr. Aasir Menon MD and he looked about thirty years old.
“How do you feel?” he asked her and took her pulse.
“I’m pretty confused. I was attacked. I had to shoot at the attackers. They fell down. Did I kill them?”
Dr. Menon looked at her in what she thought was a kindly way. He surely regretted the situation, it seemed.
“Yes, Miss Rainworth. Do you feel well enough to answer questions?” he said, and then whispered, “You can wait.”
She said she could, and Dr. Menon patted her arm. Then he left the room and she heard him talking to other men outside.
“Please,” his voice seemed to say. “There is no necessity .. Not tonight .. vulnerable .. I beg of you .. go ahead then.”
She heard footsteps approaching and two police detectives came in her room, a young Mexican-American man with a weightlifter’s physique and an older Caucasian woman in a large blonde wig. They seemed neither comfortable nor uncomfortable, neither interested or uninterested, and exasperated. The man chewed gum and the lady chewed Tic Tacs. She spoke first.
“My name is Detective Jenkins. My partner is Detective Cortez, Dallas Police. Your name is Lauren Michelle Rainworth? Right?”
“Yes,” Lauren said.
“Do you know what you’re here?”
“I hit my head pretty hard.”
“What else happened?”
“I’m not sure.”
“What do you remember?”
“I found out my dad had a heart attack. I was walking back to my form.”
“Anyone with you?”
“No. I was alone.”
“Do you walk alone at night often?”
“Never. This was an emergency.”
“Do you own any firearms, Miss Rainworth?”
“Yes, quite a few.”
The detectives asked her to name each one and tell them where each one was.
“Can you please tell me what happened?” Lauren insisted.
“There was a killing last night,” Detective Cortez said in a flat, toneless voice. “Do you know anything about that?”
“Are you sure about that, Miss Rainworth?” Cortez pressed her.
“Yes, I am sure. Could you please tell me why I’m here and what happened before I was brought here? I asked you twice already,” Lauren insisted.
“Just calm down, young lady. Now you’ve got an attitude. We’re investigating two murders. You’re talking to police detectives. Cool your jets. What can you tell us?” Detective Jenkins asked.
“That’s it. I want an attorney,” Lauren said.
“You haven’t been charged with anything, ma’am,” Cortez told her with a snide smile.
“I know it and I’m in a hospital bed with a lump in back of my head and I don’t know why I was brought here or what happened. Take down this name — “
She dictated the name and home phone number of her father’s attorney in Century City.
“Tell him, please, that Lauren Rainworth of Rancho Palos Verdes is here in this hospital with a head injury.”
The detectives looked at her a minute with no expression at all on their faces. Then Cortez said, without looking away, “She’s got a mouth on her, Jenkins.”
Detective Jenkins flipped the notepad she carried shut and turned to the door. She said, “We’ll be back,” she left, with Cortez following.
Right away, the nurse came back inside and told Lauren the doctors wanted an MRI.
“Have you ever had one? It’s nothing. You just lie there, honey. You can even doze off. All right? They’ll be here in a minute.”
Lauren said she’d wait. After another twenty minutes, orderlies came to take her to Imaging, in another wing in the basement. Lauren had the skill of being able to stop worrying if she absolutely had to. That’s what she did now, and dozed on the way.
The MRI technicians and orderlies seemed interested in getting her ready. She wondered if they’d listened to the news radio. She’d only protected herself against attackers.
They placed her inside the machine and gave her final instructions. Then they went into the control booth and the machine made loud whirring noises. After only a few seconds, Lauren fell asleep.
Early morning in the city the hospital was quiet. Most of the rooms were dimly lit, and people in the nursing stations spoke softly. Their computer screens glowed green and white, and residents smoked cigarettes on the fire escape. The clerks and aides ate meals from Tupperware boxes, and the attending doctors on duty wrote reports standing up and with mournful faces. Whenever a new patient was wheeled in, all but the doctors looked up with the casual glance of people on a city bus stop bench. Dr. Menon returned from his own office, the one he shared with four other residents, and decided to make rounds.
For Lauren, the noise in the MRI stopped with s grating shudder. She heard someone unlocking the door and suddenly bright light shone on her, Lauren from Southern California. She blinked and tried to figure out where she was, and then she remembered partly. An aide who helped her inside now helped get out, with an urgency he hadn’t used before.
A doctor she hadn’t met stood in a Western style suit and bolo tie, and smiled at her. He said, “You’re free to go now, Lauren. We won’t need your MRI after all. Thanks for stoppin’ by to see us!”
Lauren saw a fashionable young woman at the door, and the woman beckoned to her.
“Lauren? It’s a pleasure to meet you. My name’s Betty Lu Torrence and I work for a friend of your dad’s. We’re going to send you home. May I lead you out, please?”
While Lauren was still flustered, she gladly agreed, and discovered Miss Torrence had a good pair of slacks that fit her, and a pretty sweater and blouse, and even a pair of good boots and socks. There was a changing room at the end of the hallway, and in her new borrowed clothes, Lauren walked to the elevator with Miss Torrence. Dr. Menon with his jam-packed breast pocket stood to smile and say goodbye, and does the hall Lauren saw the kindly nurse and threw her a kiss.
Miss Torrence had a driver who took them to an elite hotel in Dallas. The woman chatted about Texas and Miss Torrence revealed she’d been Miss Waco before law school. Lauren told her that was fabulous and admired her clothes.
“What would you like for dinner?” the attorney asked Lauren. “Or maybe it’s lunch or breakfast for you?”
“How about some oatmeal and orange juice? And toast? Whole wheat!”
Miss Torrence said that would be perfect.
Once Lauren had a chance to eat and change into pajamas at the hotel, she started to call Ernie. He came on the line just as there was a knock on the door, and Miss Torrence answered.
“Lauren!” he said. “You had me worried to death.
Where are you? There’s been a terrible accident!”
She heard the panic on his voice and said, “I’m fine. What are you talking about, Ernie?”
“Thomas and Luke got shot! They’re dead! Matthew’
s already in a plane back to Uganda! It’s crazy!”
Miss Torrence walked into Lauren’s line of vision and raised her eyebrows for the other woman’s attention.
“Call you right back, Ernie!” Lauren told him, and hung up.
“Lauren, this gentleman has a paper we’d like you to sign. We drew it up this morning while we talked to your dad. It’s a release,” the older woman explained.
She handed Lauren a ballpoint pen who signed and handed the pen back. The gentleman handed Miss Torrence a copy and said, “Goodnight, and thank you!” and left.
“All settled. Hey, I hear someone got all A’s on her report card!” Miss Torrence told Lauren, who blushed and thanked her.
“May I have a minute,please?” Lauren asked her, and Miss Torrence said, “Of course! I’ll be here with you and fly back.”
Lauren went into a bathroom, locked the door and ran the water faucet in the sink, as she’d seen spies do in movies. She called Ernie and he answered immediately.
“I’m sorry,” she told him.
“Are you sure you’re OK, Lauren? This whole thing has been chaotic.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Thomas and Luke, first, and Matthew going home suddenly. Somebody shot those two guys dead. We had a blackout on campus and lightning knocked down a couple of trees. I was stuck in the lab and the doors automatically locked. Pitch black in there, no running water. I didn't find out about those guys for ninety minutes. Where were you?”
Lauren took a deep breath and let the air escape slowly through her nose.
“Well, actually, I had cramps pretty bad, and just made it back the dorm. My dad called and told me there was a double murder at SMU. My sister heard it on the news. I couldn’t believe it. He was spitting nails mad, Ernie. He ordered me to get on a plane and come home immediately. Her is recovering from a heart attack and he’s going crazy with anxiety.”
“Where are you now?” Ernie asked her.
“We’re taxiing for takeoff. Dad chartered a private plane. I have to go, Ernie. Can I call you back tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow?” he said, and she cut the connection.
The hotel doctor left her some mild tranquilizers and she fell asleep within minutes. When she awakened at 6 AM, Miss Torrence was already dressed and asked her to get up.
“Our plane departs in an hour, Lauren.”
In the shower, Lauren let the water run so hot it scalded her skin, and then turned the handle to cold as far as it would go. When she got out she dried herself and stepped right into her clothes from earlier. Her makeup could come later, and she ate half a cinnamon roll in the limo to the airport. She washed it down with apple juice that turned her stomach sour.
They boarded the plane where they’d fly in first class, and Miss Torrence opened her attache case and began to work. Lauren had the bottle of tranquilizers in her purse and shook four tablets into her hand. She swallowed them with water and settled back to sleep all the way to Los Angeles.
Lauren expected both her parents to meet her at the airport, but only her mother was there, dressed severely in a blue Versace jacket and beige pants, with large sunglasses she did not take off. She hugged Lauren and held on for a long time, then pushed her away enough to look in her face.
“Thank God you’re all right. You don’t know how worried I was,” she told Lauren.
“Thanks, Mom, But where’s Dad?”
Helen took Lauren by the arm and led her into the captain’s club lounge to sit in a corner where no one could hear them. She sat knee to knee with her daughter and spoke into her ear for a long time. When Lauren interrupted, Helen shook her head to stop her. Lauren sat stiffly for quite a while before she relaxed her shoulders and body. She nodded and Helen spoke and spoke again, and Lauren kept nodding. At last the two of them stood and picked up their carry bags to leave. Helen walked first and Lauren followed her.
She held her hand in her coat pocket where she ordinarily held one of her guns, sometimes in her hand, in ready position. She and Helen walked together through the door outside where limo waited. The noise was so loud no one would have noticed a single gun shot through a coat at close range.
When they arrived at home, she went to her room to rest a while. First Helen told her:
“You learned SMU didn’t plan to offer all the upper division courses you planned to take for your degree. Several were cancelled, and one professor died. That was that, and there was no reason to continue. You loved SMU, though. You had a good time there, too.
From her room, Lauren watched the ocean again, as far out as she could sea. She smoked cigarettes and let the ashes fall on the carpet. She waited until the sun went down. No one came to get her.
Christmas vacation at college wouldn’t start for another two weeks, and Lauren rode her horse every morning and played a set or two of tennis at the club. She and her mother went into the city to shop, where Lauren could never keep up with her. Sometimes they went to the movies, and twice a week to lunch. Lauren stopped reading as much as usual, and slept twelve hours a night.
She decided not to call Ernie after all because it would be easier for him. He could hate her and that would be better for him. She missed him and that was just too bad.
One day her high friend Justine Buell called, and she was home from Sarah Lawrence. The two decided to meet at an espresso shop, and Justine was much more sophisticated than four months before.
“Well, that’s it,” Justine said.”I’m not going back.”
The two talked a while and then Justine said:
“I’ll tell you the truth, in confidence, of course. I got myself knocked up. I was an idiot to let it happen. He was an Israeli, a sabra, and I fell in love with his cynicism and his damned curly black hair. He told me what it was like to patrol the Gaza Strip and fire his machine gun, and when he lived with the other soldiers in the Negev Desert. But he cultivated his accent, and never did of that, I found out. He claimed to be an International Relations doctoral student, and that was a lie, too. He was actually from a Reform Jewish family in the Bronx, and had a big imagination. It turned out a woman in my yoga class had a sister who went with him, too — with Jonathan Bar Levi — and surprise, surprise, she was pregnant, too. I went to his apartment and slapped his face as hard as I could, and he had a girl with him, too. He was scared as a rabbit, my Israeli commando. Before I could decide what I wanted to do, the next week I miscarried. That was my terrific career at Sarah Lawrence.”
“You did the right thing,” Lauren told her with conviction.
Justine would enroll at Stanford next September. The two woman started meeting several times a week to talk and compare notes. They heard quite a bit of gossip about their friends, but Lauren said nothing.
Her parents sold their home right away and they decided to buy a home in Montecito where he could recuperate, instead of a facility. Her father had his own firing range in the basement, and made new friends who came over to shoot. Helen used her USC connections to invite old friends over. Soon 719 Los Vinedos Road became lively.
Justine’s family planned to spend Christmas at home, and Lauren invited her to come up to Montecito. They drove up in Justine’s Mercedes-Benz convertible and arrived windblown, without makeup, in high spirits.
Helen greeted Justine with a hug and allowed the two women to take a while to freshen up. When Lauren came back first, her mother pulled her aside and said, “I forgot how Jewish she looked. She needs professional makeup, including someone to pluck her upper lip. Conditioning and especially moisturizing. She was prettier in grade school. Is she nice?”
“Very nice. Very smart, Mom. She plans on studying medicine,” Lauren told her.
“Well, that figures,” Helen said, as her own type of witticism.
When Justine came back with subtle makeup and wearing a Victorian tunic in Chinese red, Helen held her arm for a home tour. Lauren knew her friend’s father was a billionaire, but said nothing.
“Stunning,” Justine said. “Exquisite, Mrs. Rainworth. Your home is a true showplace.”
“Oh, call me Helen, honey. You’re so sweet.”
In the wine cellar, they heard muffled gunshots despite the firing range soundproofing, and Justine’s eyes grew wide.
“My dad’s firing range,” Lauren explained.
Justine could not quite keep the disapproval off her face. Helen had turned away for an instant, but Lauren noticed it. She took Justine out to the gardens, and the subject didn’t come up.
Lauren felt in her coat pocket for her tranquilizers, and found there were only six left. She’d had a prescription in Santa Barbara but no way to renew it for several days. In her other pocket, her Luger felt cool and sleek in her hand. Montecito or otherwise, she was at home.
Her parents had USC friends over dinner tonight, a retired throat surgeon and his wife from Ojai. They were a hearty couple who played competitive tennis and traveled the world for months at a time. Bob Cromer had was a hick, and Millie reminded Lauren of Doris Day in the old movies with Rock Hudson.
They both assumed Lauren and Justine went to USC, and Ralph was diplomatic in correcting him.
“I knew a girl at Marlborough who went to SMU,” Millie said. “Our best midfielder, Cindy Drummond. She married into the Hunt family somehow. I see her at reunions!”
“I’ll bet she enjoyed SMU,” Helen put in.
“Oh, my yes! She was there to snag a husband, but Cindy knew how to have fun!” Millie agreed and laughed.
“I’m trying to remember her, Mil,” Bob said. “The gal who always wore orange?”
“You’re thinking of Dorothy Smedd, Bob, of the South Pasadena Smedds. San Rafael. Poor thing, she was color blind as a polecat! No, Cindy was the one who wore sun dresses unless there was a blizzard. She liked to show off her shape.”
“I remember!” Bob smiled.
Lauren watched Justine follow the conversation with what appeared to be tolerant interest. Her father looked as absorbed as always. These dinners could be drawn out, and Helen was rapt.
“Sarah Lawrence is in New York, as I remember. Justine, did you meet any Mellon children, or Auchincloss, Potter, Van Allen? I read W Magazine, and a lot of those kids go there,” Millie asked. “That would he kind of fun!”
“Oh, I wouldn’t know, Mrs. Cromer,” Justine replied, “I was only there four months, and kept my nose to the grindstone. There may be.”
“How come you’re changing to Stanford?” Millie asked her.
“I realized I was a West Coast person. My brother David’s a senior, and they have everything I want. I don’t know why I went to Sarah Lawrence anyway. Just to be different, I guess.”
“But what about SC, dear?” Millie pressed her. “The social life and all the fun.”
“I guess I’m too much of a bookworm, Mrs. Cromer. I like it up there, and it’s just the right distance away from home,” she said firmly, and took a long sip of wine
“I think what Justine is saying is that Stanford is a good fit for her. It’s such a fine university, and she’ll enjoy it there. After all, not everyone likes USC? My sister Louise went to Redlands and had the time of her life,” Ralph said, as he looked around at his guests.
“I suppose,” Millie admitted. “My internist was a Stanford grad. Milton Goldfleisch, MD. He couldn't be a sweeter man. A genius! His father owned a shoe factory in Oakland. Dr. Goldfleisch always wore beautiful shoes, and he had little tiny feet. He danced with Hedy Lamarr once at a USO club in Hollywood. He was a resident and had to ship out early, to serve on an aircraft carrier.”
“Do you know when you’ll begin at Stanford?” Helen asked Justine, who shrugged and said, “Around the 22nd.”
The conversation went flat. Helen served albacore.
“Well, did you make it to Africa last summer, Bob?” Ralph asked his old friend.
“Nope. Too much red tape. First we tried Botwana, and then Gambia. This was going to be my last safari, my sons and I. We would have had to pay off the government and a couple of warlords, probably more. Phooey on that. We went to Uruguay instead, and it was fabulous.”
“What did you hunt?” Justine asked him with a soft voice.
“Oh, cougars, water buffalo, peccaries, big horn sheep, feral boar — great country! Have you been?”
“My great grandfather owned a ranch there,” she answered. “Before I was born.”
“There’s nothing wrong with hunting!” Lauren blurted. “These animal populations need to be thinned, or they’ll starve! I’ve hundred myself since I was six years old!”
“That’s fascinating,” Ralph said quickly. “We visited in 1985. We loved the pampas.”
Lauren gripped her water glass as if she wanted to throw it across the room. Justine looked down at her plate as if nothing happened, although her pursed lips gave her away.
“It was a breathtaking country,” Helen agreed, and began to describe whet they saw there and where they stayed.
Justine looked around as if she wanted to leave.
“I only meant that a lot of people hunt,” Lauren told her. “It’s not as cruel and savage as it’s made out to be.”
“I know,” Justine said softly, and nodded toward her own plate.
Lauren stood up without excusing herself and stepped out on a terrace to light a cigarette. She held it in her mouth and hugged herself as if she were freezing.
“Well, everybody goes there, but for me, you just can’t beat Hawaii,” Millie announced. “The Royal Hawaiian will always be good enough for me. My dad took us the first time in 1952, and I’ve never enjoyed anyplace more!”
“You like the Hawaiian beach boys, that’s what you like!” Bob teased her and she pretended to hit him with her elbow, as was their custom.
“You’d like a cruise up the Los Angeles River, as long as you could eat three huge steaks a day!” Millie told him, and he pretended to be aghast, while Helen chuckled and Ralph watched Lauren standing outside. She’d turned around and seemed to be watching Justine.
He gave Helen a “Is she all right?” look, and she shrugged. He started to frown at her and caught himself. He brought his napkin from his lap and placed it on the table. Then he leaned back with his shoulders relaxed to watch the others. Helen gave him a “Be part of the conversation!” look and he didn’t react at all.
A moment later, Justine excused herself and stepped out to be with Lauren.
“I didn’t mean to offend you or anyone else,” she said. “Hunting just isn’t my thing.”
“Well, you’re opposed to it, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but that’s just my opinion. I don’t go around telling people what to do, Lauren.”
Lauren said nothing for a while, and then allowed, “I jumped to a conclusion. These old friend conversations get on my nerves, when they talk about the same old things. They’re all cliches.”
“I think your dad is a real darling,” Justine said. ”He’s a peacemaker, and he makes sure everyone is comfortable. He’s kind.”
“What about my mom?”
“Well, I’ve only met her a few times, but I think she’s worried about something tonight. Don’t you think she seems nervous? I feel guilty for being a guest. You’d rather be with your family, alone.”
“No. No, I wouldn’t. You’re right about Mom, though. Maybe it’s an Empty Nest thing,” Lauren said.
“May I ask you a question, Lauren?”
“Well, it’s not any of my business. What happened at SMU? You came back so soon.”
Lauren dropped her cigarette on the ground, stubbed it out with her toes, and lighted another one.
“I’d say it was variation on what happened to you at Sarah Lawrence. I never warmed up to the place, first. The people were nice, but they were from a different way of life, it seemed. Rodeos, parties at the river. They all said I talked too fast, which is ridiculous. The guys resented how I was a good shot. I am, you know? I just had good instructors and I’ve practiced all along. So I never felt at home there at all. I kind of felt like I was staying at a long-term motel.”
“Well, we were, actually,” Justine agreed. “I heard what your mother said about me when we first came in. I was looking for the bathroom and didn’t talk very far, and her voice carried.”
“Oh, God! I’m so sorry, Justine! Really, I am. I can’t believe it. That’s horrible! I apologize,” Lauren pleaded.
“Well, actually, you get kind of used to it. The part about my hair, makeup and upper lip, she was right. She was surprised to see a Jewish woman in her own home. I don’t think she had any malice or meanness. It just feels kind of bad to be reminded,” Justine confessed.
“Oh, I’m sure it is. She doesn’t, either. Or I don’t think so. You should meet my grandmother. They’re both old fashioned debutantes. I guess it’s more important to be refined to them, I mean that and not be bigoted,” Lauren struggled to say.
“It just wanted to mention it, Lauren. That helps me let it go, you know? We don’t need to discuss it. Your mom is sweet. Funny, even. She was a beauty when she was young. I can see it. Like you are now.”
Lauren took her friend’s hand in gratitude. There was a heat lamp outside and she turned it on.
They stepped to the end of the terrace where they could see a sliver of the ocean, flat like black lacquer in the moonlight.
“So about SMU. I started to say. I met a guy too, but not at all like the guy you met. My friend was very naive and innocent, almost, He was kind of a hick, really, but in a likable, fresh way. He wasn’t a bumpkin, but he’d lived in a small city all his life, and hardly went anywhere else. It gave him a pleasant viewpoint on things. Non-violent, so to speak. He was studying linguistics, and told great stories about it. He could speak seven, eight languages? I‘m not sure. He was alway fun to be with, and very entertaining.”
They both noticed the fine mist in the air. Somehow it made what they said more meaningful to them.
“Well, he got really wrapped up in me. I liked him so much, but I wasn’t attracted to him. We had sex three or four times, because he wanted to. I could see what was coming. I just couldn’t stand to tell him the truth.”
Justine said, “Mmm-hmm,” like a psychotherapist.
“Well, I heard through he grapevine he bought me a ring. An engagement ring. He invited me to come to his parent’s house for Christmas, and I could see he had his hearts set on it. He was getting to be like a puppy dog, following me around, Everyone in our dorm knew. Well, you probably knew I’m not very experienced, I mean with men. I went on a lot of group dates in high school, but only dated three guys. Only one was serious, and then he broke up with me. I knew he would, so it wasn’t too bad. So with my friend at SMU — Ernest — I had no idea how to handle the situation. I mean, he was about to ask me to marry him, in front of his mom and dad. I tried to cool it off by studying for my finals, but we’d been studying together, so that was strange. Awkward. I didn’t want to really lie to him. Then, my dad had a heart attack, and since I’d just finished with my exams, I decided to fly right back and see him. It all happened fast, and I made reservations for the next morning. I copped out on the whole thing when he called me to ask where I’d been, and I said I was just then leaving. I was even afraid he’d come over to try to catch me and see I was still there. Or drive to the airport himself. I guess he believed me, though. I did leave that morning. I’ve felt bad about it ever since, I mean pretty bad.”
Justine waited as if she wanted to know from Lauren if she should say anything.
“A whole week went by, too,” Lauren continued. “He called, and I just let him go.”
She seemed to be done, and Justine said, “Yeah.”
Lauren gestured for her to stroll with her down to the lawn and over to the side where they’d see bioluminescent waves break bright blue on the sand.
“I love it when this happens,” Justine exclaimed.
There was a gazebo covered with camellias where they could stand and not get wet from the mist. They were next to a row of tall bushes, and the acoustics were dead silent.
“My depth perception is off in the dark,” Justine told her, and stepped back.
As their eyes adjusted, they enjoyed the view of bright blue surf. The gazebo gave them both a sense of being enclosed.
A while later, Lauren heard what sounded like a hiss behind her and about twenty feet back. She reached for her gun, just as Justine turned suddenly and gasped.
The bushes were still and black, and then
something darted sideways inside them. Lauren aimed her gun, lifted her other arm high as she could and yelled “HAW!” loud as she could.
They heard something bound through the brush away from them, and they waited. After a minute, there was no more sound.
Lauren held her gun at her side while Justine caught her own breath.
“Mountain lion, maybe, possibly coyote, opossum, even somebody’s cat. With development moving higher up the hills, there’s less for them to eat, so they come down farther,” she said.
“I though I was a goner,” Justine admitted.
“What? The gun? I’m not going to fire it,” Lauren assured her.
“I know. I just feel uncomfortable when I see one, I’m all right,” Justine said.
“But why? I know how to handle it,” Lauren insisted.
“Because they’re so dangerous and deadly.”
“Not in expert hands,” Lauren replied.
Justine asked her for a cigarette and they both smoked. By now the mist had thickened into fog, and dampened their hair. Lauren took a step toward the house and looked over her shoulder at Justine, who turned also and seemed eager to leave.
“Are you staying the whole weekend?” Justine asked Lauren.
“I’m not sure. I’d like to get out and maybe do something. Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, yes, but ..”
In the damp air they trotted back inside, and Lauren made a decision.
“You don’t have to stay,” she told Justine. “You have things to do.”
“It didn’t quite work out, did it?” Justine agreed.
She slept in a guest room and left at 7 to get a good start, when the fog cleared, after Helen hugged her and touched her face.
Lauren knew place where she could see Justine again when she reached Highway 101 south, a knoll with birch trees and bougainvillea. She went to wait with her cigarettes, and when Justine finally drove past, she drove very fast. Lauren waited a while and walked back to her parents house, where they were starting for the golf course. She changed and went with them, shot a decent score.
She told herself over and over she was home.
On Monday, she drove home to Ashley’s house and spent $140 in a Brentwood bookstore, mostly Western novels and biographies of Teddy Roosevelt and Linus Pauling. She would have plenty of good novels for when she started in her new dormitory, and a new roommate, too, not assigned yet. This time she’d be reserved and quiet, and choose her friends with great care.
In her last three weeks, she saw no one from home. She went to the movies every day, and walked from Santa Monica to the end of Venice on the Boardwalk and back. She wanted to stop smoking. Maybe she’d get an apartment off campus soon, maybe after a month of two. In Westwood Village, she ran into Joanne Crawley from high school, who looked at her strangely. Joanne mentioned a party where two of their classmates announced their engagement. Another girl had been selected from the waiting list from the US Naval Academy. Lauren listened and knew Justine would be at Stanford now, well adjusted and happy. When Joanne left, she promised to call Lauren, who said, “Of course!”
On Saturday morning, Lauren was ready at 9 AM to drive to USC. She refused Ashley’s offer of help. There would be friends there who could help.
When she finished loading her car, she came in one last time.
“You got a letter,” Ashley told her, and gave her an envelope with foreign stamps and colored postmarks.
She took it and saw the return address from Uganda. The paper was international air mail thin and weightless in her hands. Sh store it open and read. There was Matthew Masane’s elegant Palmer Method penmanship written with a fountain pen.
Dearest Lauren, my friend,
Why? Why? Why must Fate be the way it is?
Thomas and Luke have been gone three months now. They are buried with our mother and father. Life is never the same.
How they loved you, Lauren. You were our kindest American friend. I shall never forget.
Please remember your Ugandan friends, Lauren.
In lasting friendship, Matthew Masane
Lauren folded the letter into a book and carried her last suitcase out to her car. She need to leave now, immediately.
She carried her Glock in her purse, her Sig Sauer in the glovebox, and the others in her luggage. Maybe she would stop at the range in Thousand Oaks on her way there.