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The New World
As Linda Reismann approached the city limits of Los Angeles in her late husband's laboring Mustang, the slow procession of rush-hour traffic slowed even more and then came to a dead stop. Linda leaned out the window and strained to see what was happening ahead. It was a fiercely hot June day, and all she could see were the other cars, glimmering and melting in the sunlight. In her eagerness to arrive here before dark, Linda had been driving steadily for hours. She'd had to shut off the air conditioner miles back, when the engine started to tremble and an odor like burning Teflon began to seep through the vents. Now she was sweaty and exhausted, and the pebbly pattern of the vinyl seat was embossed on the backs of her thighs, yet she told herself she didn't really mind the delay. This was the final destination of her long journey, and a personally historic occasion, one that probably required a commemorative pause.
There was a book called Turning the Bad Times into Good Times tucked into her suitcase in the trunk of the Mustang; it had been a farewell gift from a friend in Newark, and Linda was trying desperately to live by its upbeat philosophy. What else could she do? If she allowed herself to truly reflect on the recent past or to consider the immediate future, she might feel compelled to drive off a cliff into the Pacific Ocean. If she could get through the traffic. If she could find the ocean. Instead, she closed her mind to everything but this still, singular moment of arrival and said, "Robin! Guess what, we're here!"
Linda's thirteen-year-old stepdaughter, who'd been sleeping, openmouthed, on the backseat for the last sixty miles or so, was jarred awake by Linda's announcement, made in the weary but triumphant voice of an explorer discovering the New World. Robin opened her eyes and sat up, but it looked like the same crappy old world to her. No matter how many times Linda had exclaimed during the past two weeks over this sight or that—the sparkling surprise of a lake on the right, the sudden appearance of snow-capped mountains on the left—their trip was mainly a blur, in Robin's memory, of monotonous highways and cheap motels. She'd slept in the car whenever Linda shut up for a minute and let her, waking when she was hungry or thirsty or needed to go to the bathroom. "Aren't we there yet?" she had grumbled from time to time, while Linda urged her to admire the gorgeous view or to breathe the glorious air.
Robin wanted badly to be somewhere, although she couldn't have said exactly where. Certainly not back in Newark, where they'd started out, and where her father had recently died. And not in Glendale, Arizona, where her mother lived with that asshole she'd run away with. Linda had dumped Robin's father's ashes at some rest stop off the highway a few days ago, and now the two of them were as homeless as he would be for eternity. "Big deal," she muttered about Los Angeles, which lay stretched out indifferently before them, the same opinion she'd had of those boring mountains and lakes. "Turn the air on, will you," she added. "I'm frying back here."
"Now, I'm just as tired and hot as you are, Robin," Linda said, with that false note of patience Robin hated.
What Linda didn't say, but was surely thinking, was, "And I've been doing all the driving, you little brat, and I'm pregnant, besides." As if Robin had told her to get knocked up in the first place. And as if she'd asked to go along on this endless, stupid trip. The only high points had been those amusement parks and carnivals she'd made Linda stop at. The wimp never wanted to do anything that looked like fun. She kept yapping about the disgusting ingredients in hot dogs, and she wouldn't try any of the rides, except once, in the Midwest somewhere, when she made Robin go into the dumb Tunnel of Love with her. They sat in the last little car, as far apart as Robin could manage. As they jerked and glided their way into the darkness, all the regular couples began moaning and making kissing sounds. Talk about disgusting! Later Linda stood on the sidelines turning green while Robin hung upside down on the Human Fly. "We can't keep wasting our money on nonsense like this," she said when Robin staggered happily back to the Mustang, clutching a Sno-Kone. "Who died and left you boss?" Robin would have asked if she didn't already know the awful answer. Now she lay back again and shut her eyes.
If they could have spoken of such things, Robin would have discovered that Linda also yearned to be in a place where she belonged. For the past nine years, since she'd been on her own, she had moved around a lot, mostly from one furnished room to another. Those six weeks in Newark as Wright's bride had given her a rare and pleasurable sense of permanence, even if most of the furnishings in their garden apartment had been chosen by another woman who was long gone. And even if that other woman's forsaken child wasn't overjoyed to have her there.
Now Linda was on the move again, but coming out here after everything that happened had seemed as natural as the migration of birds. She was reminded of the song she'd first learned to tap-dance to, the one about leaving your worries behind you and crossing to the sunny side of the street. If California wasn't the sunny side of the street, she didn't know what was. And if her worries weren't exactly behind her, life had to get better, didn't it? In any event, she knew she would gradually get used to things and adjust. It was Robin she foolishly worried about, as if that pigheaded girl were a tender sapling whose roots had been ripped rudely from the earth and might slowly wither in this harsh light, hair by delicate hair. Yet everything was supposed to flourish in Southern California, and Robin had always acted sort of homesick, even back home. She'd made her standard pronouncement—"This place really sucks"—about every motel they'd stayed in across America, and some of them had been clean and pretty comfortable.
Linda wasn't sure why she cared that much about Robin when her own mother obviously didn't. Miriam Reismann Hausner had her second chance at motherhood when Linda tracked her down in Glendale the other day and reintroduced her to the daughter she hadn't seen for more than twelve years. But she gave up that chance, by acting more curious about Robin than happy to see her, and she seemed almost relieved when Linda took her away again. Her very own flesh and blood! Not that Robin was easy to take. Most of the time she behaved like someone awakened too soon from a nap, someone who always got up on the wrong side of the bed. And she was especially hostile to Linda, who had taken responsibility for her after they'd come together through the merest fluke of fate. Of course, the same might be said of any two people, or even any one person, whose very being depended on a random collision of sperm and egg. Linda often pondered the mystery of accident, especially in relation to her pregnancy, that other enduring consequence of her brief marriage. There were days and nights when she could hardly remember Wright's face—they were married for such a short time—and now she was alone in an alien place with his alien child, and with another one growing inside her.
Still, Linda was determined to establish a real home for her accidental family. The trunk of the Mustang held a few reliable treasures from her old, fractured life, and as soon as they settled in someplace, she would pull them out and spread them around to create an instant lived-in atmosphere. The yellow-and-lavender double-wedding-ring quilt opened over an unknown bed, one of Wrights Sunday landscapes hung on the facing wall, that small jagged prism Linda had since childhood set on the windowsill of every strange kitchen. When she lay under the quilt's fairy weight, staring at those doglike cows grazing on what might have been Astroturf, or sat in the kitchen the next morning considering the rainbow of sunlight thrown by the prism, she'd firmly repeat the word "home" to herself and wait for the magic of transformation. It was an old trick her mother had taught her, from her years as a baby nurse in other people's houses, and it usually worked.
But in the meantime they had to find a place to spend the night. The traffic had started snaking forward again, and the usual motel signs beckoned from both sides of the road: Low rates! Waterbeds! Kitchenettes! Color TV! Linda found herself driving past them with a sudden resistance to the seductions of temporary shelter. She became determined to find living quarters this time, instead of just another rented bed, one that probably still held the contours and heat of its last occupants. Even if it took them all night.
Eventually, the traffic eased and the pink-and-turquoise sky began to darken in a spreading, smoky stain. Linda was almost ready to give up when she noticed a cluster of low, modern buildings in the near distance, and the word "Paradise" spelled out above them in an arc of violet neon light. It seemed like a mirage, but she drove resolutely toward it, and then through the wide-open wings of the wrought-iron gate, thinking "Home, home" with the last remnants of her energy and will.CHAPTER 2
A Fool's Paradise
The rental office of Paradise Apartments looked like a travel agency specializing in Club Med vacations. The walls were hung with poster-size photographs of gorgeous young men and women, most of them blond and bronzed and skimpily clad, and all of them apparently having fun. Some were playing tennis, while others cavorted around a pool or sank blissfully, in twosomes and threesomes, into a simmering hot tub. Music seeped gently into the room from hidden speakers: Jeffrey Osborne singing "On the Wings of Love." Although Linda had never played tennis or been in a hot tub, either alone or in mixed company, she couldn't help thinking, with a pang, of her own misplaced social life. After so many weeks alone with Robin, she wondered if she still remembered how to talk to someone her own age, if she could have a normal conversation with anyone at all.
The rental agent, a short-winded, overweight woman, who wore several extra pounds of gold jewelry and a gold-plated nametag identifying her merely as "Marlene," didn't seem like someone you could test your conversational skills on. "Make it snappy, I was just closing up," she said in greeting when Linda walked in. Then she tapped on her desk top with lethally long, red fingernails and looked impatiently at her watch while Linda glanced around.
If Linda had any doubts after examining the photographs that Paradise was a singles complex, they would have been dispelled by the sign on the wall behind the agent's desk that said PLEASURE, PRIVACY, PARADISE! in commanding letters, and underneath, in smaller print, ABSOLUTELY NO CHILDREN OR PETS. As if they were the same thing! Linda was afraid to ask what the cutoff age for childhood was, and she was much too tired and dispirited to consider getting back on the road. So when she asked if there was a vacancy, she simply failed to mention Robin, who was asleep again in the back of the Mustang; it was a deliberate oversight on her part, rather than a direct lie. Besides, this was just a place to crash for a while until they got their bearings. That's why she signed up for a "tastefully furnished efficiency suite," at the weekly rate, without even asking to look at it. The security deposit was steep—four weeks' rent—but Marlene said it would be fully refunded whenever she moved out. Linda selected an apartment model from floor plans you couldn't read without a magnifying glass, and she made her other choices—a conventional king-sized bed, rather than a round or heart-shaped one, and a view of the pool, as opposed to a view of a maintenance building—by thumbing hastily through an illustrated brochure. The latter choice soon proved to be a wise one. When she drove past the maintenance building on the way to Building C, with a copy of the lease, a map of the complex, and her apartment keys piled in her lap, Linda heard a weird humming, like the sound in science-fiction movies when the Martian spaceship is approaching Earth. It was probably only a generator or something, but it gave her the creeps, and she imagined that the softer, more congenial noises near the pool, of laughter and playful splashing, would be a lot easier to take on a daily basis.
The efficiency suite in Building C turned out to be a smallish square room with a pullman kitchen on one side and a tiny bathroom on the other. There was hardly anything efficient about the place, except that the refrigerator was tucked neatly under the counter, and you weren't likely to lose your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. The king-sized bed, with its cascade of fringed and flowered pillows, monopolized the room, crowding the few other pieces of furniture into the corners. Still, the bed, too, seemed like a good choice once Linda woke Robin and smuggled her inside. The girl groggily claimed the side she'd sleep on, her usual tactic, and then threw herself onto it without any complaints or questions. God knows what confusion a round or heart-shaped bed might have caused. Linda emptied the trunk of the Mustang by herself, making several trips back and forth to the parking lot. Even though they wouldn't be here very long, she draped the double-wedding-ring quilt over Robin's inert body, placed the prism on a windowsill that might get the morning light, and propped one of Wright's paintings against the vase of artificial flowers on the bureau. The place still didn't seem very homey, though. And when Linda lay down next to Robin, pulling an edge of the quilt over her own chest, she didn't have the conviction or the strength to start reciting her mantra.
It turned out that Robin was five years shy of the minimum age required at Paradise. Linda had to keep her under wraps, prepared to say, if necessary, that she was her eighteen-year-old sister visiting from the East to look at colleges. An unlikely story, given Robin's mouthful of braces and her careless grammar. Robin wanted more than anything else to use the pool, which was, of course, out of the question. And she was dying to start working on her tan, the only point, in her opinion, to being in Southern California. Given her extreme fairness, she would have only burned to a crisp in that brutal sunlight, but it was an argument she'd have strongly rejected, as she rejected any other sane advice Linda offered her. Linda, too, would have liked to swim and sun herself, but she knew it would be blatantly unfair to go out while Robin was forced to stay indoors. So they hid out together in the darkened, air-conditioned chill of their room, where Robin mostly lay on the unmade bed, sipping Cokes and watching television, while Linda stood at the window, peering through the blinds at the boisterous singles gathered around the pool, the ones unencumbered by children or pets. An interchangeable cast of men and women sprawled sweating on the chaises, rubbing one another so vigorously with baby oil it seemed they would ignite from all that friction and be incinerated before Linda's eyes. No one had touched her for ages, even by accident. Sometimes she would rub the goose bumps on her own arms and think, with an exceptional absence of charity, that every one of them would probably be dead within a year of skin cancer or some sexually transmitted disease. She tried to dismiss such loathsome thoughts by engaging Robin in conversation, but after a few moments Robin, whose eyes had never left the flickering screen, would say something like "Okay, be quiet now, this is the good part."
Some nights they snuck out and amused themselves by driving around and gawking at all the other people driving around. To indulge Robin and to save money, they stuck to a fast-food diet: burgers and tacos and pizza and fries. But Linda kept a supply of milk and cheese and other nourishing snacks alongside Robin's cache of Coke in the little refrigerator; she had to think of the baby, who was still pretty much of an abstraction. Only someone who'd known Linda for a while would have noticed the subtle new changes in her body. If she really showed, she would never have gotten this apartment, as awful as it was, and she certainly wouldn't get a job at the Whittier branch of the Fred Astaire Dance Studios. She had a letter of recommendation to the manager there from Simonetti, the manager of the Newark studio. She'd been one of his best and most popular instructors, and even though she'd resisted his repulsive advances, he had said positive things about her in his letter. She'd steamed the sealed envelope open before they headed west, to make sure. "Good smile, good dancer, great build," Simonetti had written. But if she didn't look for a job before the abstraction started to become an obvious reality, she'd be out of luck.
Excerpted from Tunnel of Love by Hilma Wolitzer. Copyright © 1994 Hilma Wolitzer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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