It seems so simple.
Here I am on Saturday night, dateless even though I’m dating someone. That’s because she’s up in Wrightwood, painting her house. I might have offered to help, but I don’t know her quite well enough; it seems presumptuous to be slathering her bedroom with Sherwin-Williams. (And besides, it sounds like work.) So I’m stuck in Orange County, with only myself to blame, pining for this paint-splattered woman, whom I’ll call Dulcinea. That’s the name of the woman idealized by Don
Quixote, though my Dulcinea couldn’t give a crap about tilting at windmills.
I decide to phone Fiona instead.
Fiona is someone I met doing Laughter Yoga on Laguna’s Main Beach. We’re not romantic, but we got drenched together on the Catalina Flyer one Sunday, hanging over the windscreen on the top-level sundeck during a thunderstorm, and since then we’ve become fast friends. Currently she’s unemployed, staying with her divorced brother-in-law in San Clemente. I figure she could use a night on the town.
I ask her to dinner and she says yes. Simple, like I said.
But there’s a problem.
They say each of us has a first, best destiny. This has been suggested in many places, including “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” In that film, James Kirk loses his admiralty to become again what he was always meant to be: a starship captain. My destiny is less grandiose—I’m looking to kill a Saturday—but I wonder if I haven’t made Kirk’s same mistake, choosing a false course, one that invites the Gods of Circumstance to somehow act against me.
“Should have painted that house,” they seem to say.
“Get stuffed,” I say back.
I hit the I-5 south, allowing 30 minutes to get to San Clemente from my place in Mission Viejo. More than enough time. Outside it’s damp and misty, in a state of not-quite-rain. The radio is playing “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes. I’m feeling good about things.
But then brake lights brighten ahead. Traffic slows. I wonder if I should get off the freeway, taking the ramp at Junipero Serra. I decide not to. As soon as the ramp goes by—I swear, within 100 yards—there’s a Caltrans sign that warns “All lanes closed at Christianitos.”
Not some lanes. All of them.
And here’s something that puzzles me. I figure—follow me here—that if all lanes are closed, this might be a good time to exit the freeway. Conditions will not improve. But most of the drivers don’t do that. Seriously, what do they expect to happen?
I get in the right lane and inch forward, finally exiting on Ortega Highway. Traffic is moving at a pace snails would envy, but it’s moving, which is more than those hapless I-5ers can claim. I’ll be a little late getting to Fiona’s place, but it still seems doable—right up until smoke wafts from under the hood of my car.
At first, I figure I’ll keep driving and things will be fine. Perhaps it’ll go away. How bad can it be, really, the car still is running and I’m already late but … oh hell. I pull over and open the hood, because the damn thing’s not going to fix itself.
A cloudbank emerges from the radiator.
Now, I’m no mechanic, but I can’t help thinking that if Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers were here, they’d suggest I not drive the friggin’ thing until it at least cools down.
I call Fiona and tell her I’m stuck in San Juan. She offers to come get me. I warn her about the traffic, but she’s undeterred, because of the natural optimism that’s always been her biggest character flaw. I leave my car and meet her at Sarducci’s, where we set off for San Clemente, fighting all the traffic sidetracked from I-5.
PCH is a parking lot, as you might expect, but Fiona knows the area and veers off on a shortcut, banking and twisting, crosshatching South County like a rat (albeit a sweet one) in a giant, asphalt maze. Fog descends like a theater curtain, obscuring street signs. Fiona’s GPS barks out instructions, taking us over the freeway and then back again, leapfrogging the sardine-packed drivers who still don’t know, apparently, that you can’t go anywhere with all the lanes closed.
Just when it looks like we’ll make it, Fiona’s GPS announces that the “signal has been lost.”
“It’s OK,” she says. “We’re almost there.”
I’ve begun to doubt that we’ll ever make it, thinking of that “Twilight Zone” episode where Jack Klugman and his astronaut crew are trapped forever in space, with no hope of seeing Earth again. It seems a miracle when we pull up in front of a swank house on a steeply sloping drive, and Fiona announces, “We’re here.”
She takes me into a house Robin Leach would envy, with a split-level atrium and a balcony facing the canyon. She introduces her brother-in-law, a jolly man with a robust handshake, and invites me into the kitchen for takeout from Pedro’s Tacos.
We made it, I’m thinking. Maybe tonight isn’t cursed after all.
And here’s where you need to take a leap of faith. I’m a writer; I make things up. You may be thinking I made this up, especially the next part, because it’s exactly the sort of thing that a storyteller would invent for dramatic purposes. But I swear to God it happened.
I sit down, and the chair collapses beneath me. It’s like a vaudeville routine: “Why, thanks—WAAUUGGH!”
So I’m sitting there in a pile of wood and splinters, looking up at Fiona, who’s saying, “Oh my God, Terry! Are you all right?” And all I can think is that maybe, in retrospect, I really should have painted that house in Wrightwood, after all. I could have avoided the traffic, the car trouble, the stuttering GPS, and the final collision between my butt and the floor tile—all for a few brushstrokes in Dulcinea’s living room. I should have been tilting at her windmill.
Wonder if that Wrightwood place could use a touchup?
Illustration by Pushart
This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue.