CHAPTER 2: OLIVIA
By eight o’clock in the morning, the sidewalk outside my converted condo is bustling with glistening joggers, sleepy dog walkers, young moms with strollers and surfers loping to their cars after a morning taming the waves. I breathe the saltwater breeze tangled with seaweed, hunch my shoulders against the brisk morning air and pull the hood of my sweatshirt up and over my leather jacket. Three years of waking up and walking down to this scene and I still can’t believe that it is all mine and all within a ten-minute walk to Santa Monica Beach.
The early morning fog is painting the beach in dusky gray watercolors. Later, the fog will lift to reveal a cloudless sky as flat and perfectly blue as a Martha Stewart paint swatch and it will feel without fail like summer.
I mouth “hello” to the yoga instructor leading her svelte group of mostly young women into Child’s Pose as I walk by the grassy area where the group meets every morning. By mid-afternoon, the yogis will be replaced by some kind of boot camp for stay-at-home moms, led by a stay-at-home mom who lives three doors down from me.
I gaze up toward the palm trees lining the walkway, their feathery branches against the early morning sky inspiring a familiar sensation of freedom and promise. From the minute I’d laid eyes on LA’s pastel streaked skyscape, I’d known this city held my future. My heart squeezes for a moment as my memory plays a reel from my senior year of college: Grandfather handing me two, one-way plane tickets from Nebraska City to Los Angeles--my name and my best friend Audrey’s names on top--dated for three months after graduation; My little angel in the city of angels, he’d said, with a wink. I swallow the lump that wants to crawl further up my throat.
Up ahead, the neon Surf’s Café sign glows through the fog and I am only feet from the door when my phone buzzes. At this hour of the morning, it could only be one person. I step toward the side of the café as a family of five wearing identical, lime-green Gardner Family Vacation t-shirts exit the cafe. Tourists, I think scornfully with the pride of someone who claims to belong. God bless them.
“Hi grandma,” I say cheerfully, waving at Audrey through the café’s large windows. I grin as my friend rolls her eyes at me, points to her watch. I shrug, mouth, “Therese” and point to my phone.
This information has the desired effect. Audrey motions with her hand to take my time. She knows how worried I’ve been about Therese, especially lately.
“I’d call every morning to receive a greeting like that.”
I pull the phone away from my ear and check the caller ID. It was the diner’s phone number alright. “Sam?” I can imagine Sam’s white mustache twitching into a smile.
“How are you, sweetheart?”
“I’m good. About to meet with Audrey for our weekly work date.” I frown. “Is everything okay? Is Therese there with you?”
I can hear Sam weighing his next words. “That’s why I’m calling sweetheart. Your grandmother hasn’t been at the diner in over a week.”
My heart lurches. “Have you…”
“Yes, drove by the place just this morning. She was sipping her coffee on the front porch.” He pauses, and I can hear pots and pans clanging in the diner’s kitchen, Brenda Golder’s voice rising above the din to order, “one bacon and cheese omelet and a blueberry muffin.”
The image of my grandmother sipping coffee from delicately hand-painted china, adding a cube of sugar every few sips dispels the paralyzing worry that has lately accompanied all unexpected calls from Tomahawk Hill. “Did she say why she hasn’t been going in? How did she seem to you when you saw her?”
I’d tried coaxing my grandmother into visiting me and Audrey in LA with promises of dinners at all of her favorite restaurants, backstage tapings of Audrey’s entertainment show, people watching and sipping cocktails at Chateau Marmont—yet, nothing had worked. That this month marked nine months of life without my grandfather and Therese had improved so little...
And then everything makes sense. I frown into the phone. If only I would have remembered a few days ago. “Sam, it would have been their 42ndwedding anniversary today and grandfather would have been turning sixty this week.”
“Ah.” I can hear Sam exhale deeply on the other end. “That explains a lot. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself.” He chuckles softly. “Your grandfather would be talking about his anniversary surprises for Therese two to three weeks in advance while your grandmother spent the same amount of time planning his birthday party. Everybody knew what was going on except for them…living in willful ignorance--unwilling to spoil each other’s plans.”
“He would have called to remind me, too,” I say, willing myself not to cry. “I’d have to congratulate her on ‘being the luckiest girl in the world’.” Silence lingers between us for a moment as we both remember.
A solution in hand, Sam is ready for action. “I’ll fill young Eli in on what’s going on. He says your grandmother missed another shareholders’ meeting this morning and hasn’t been putting orders in at the diner.”
I find this information less alarming now, knowing the cause. “It’s okay Sam, I’ll call him,” I say, referring to Therese’s young assistant. “I have some questions for Eli anyway. In the meantime, would you…”
“I’ll drop by with a bouquet of Dahlias by lunchtime and we’ll plan a special dinner for her tonight here, at the diner.”
“Even if she says she doesn’t want company…”
“We won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
I pocket my phone, chew the bottom of my lip. Maybe the half-baked plan Audrey had talked me into pursuing a couple of weeks ago hadn’t been such a bad idea after all. Maybe what my grandmother needed was not a vacation from Tomahawk Hill, but work—meaningful work that would consume and guide her days. Work, that would give her the sense of being wrapped in my grandfather’s embrace once more.