Callie stood like a lightning rod next to the space shuttle near the arched entrance to the Valhalla Cemetery, North Hollywood. It was exactly 5:00 p.m. as Harley had requested. Because Callie’s mother did not like Harley, Callie had suggested the spot by the shuttle model, dedicated to the lost crews of the Columbia and Challenger.
It was early December, after the last day of Callie’s college classes. The sun had just set, leaving a fiery parfait of colors against the cumulus clouds in the sky. It reminded her of the fire on the news that morning of an apartment complex on the side of the 110 Freeway, downtown. Someone had lit fire to the seven-story wooden structure being built, and the fire was so hot, the fire melted freeway signs as well as computers in a nearby office building. The sky and the fire reminded her of a painting, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” from her art history class. The Norwegian painter had had a fear of open spaces. It reminded her of how she felt about her mother. Something was abrewing inside Callie, but Callie told herself to stay good. She was a good girl.
While this meeting spot had been her idea, cemeteries nonetheless creeped her out. It’s why she never came here despite it being near home. With her mother on a rampage lately, however, this was a good spot.
At 5:10, the sky getting darker, she glanced at her watch, wondering if her mom was trying to call her. Callie had purposely left her phone at home. Her obsessive mother watched her like a cat watches a squirrel. Even though Callie attended college at Cal State Northridge, she had to live at home and take two buses. The world didn’t bug Callie, but her mother did times ten, and her father was too quiet to say anything. A jet from the nearby Burbank Airport screamed toward her and exactly overhead. Was this perhaps a sign? Callie could use a sign and any help she could get.
She heard a strange growling behind her, and an English bulldog slobbered and gnawed into a partly deflated soccer ball. Whose dog was this? Where did he get a soccer ball? He wore no collar. She glanced around the flat park. All grave markers lay flat on the ground, and she saw no dog owners. She loved bulldogs, despite how dangerous they looked with their jutting jaws. When she was very young, she had such a dog, until Mom put him down.
“Hey, boy,” she said. “Where did you come from?”
The dog peered at her, wiggled as if she were his favorite person, then tore back into the ball with much grunting and slobber.
A battered gray Nissan pick-up truck slowly drove into the circular drive. He had passed the gaudy domed memorial near the shuttle. A solitary silhouetted young man in the pick-up stared at her.
“Keep moving unless you want trouble,” yelled Callie, pointing to the bulldog. “You want him to bite you? Get outta here!” she yelled, and the guy sped off. The dog hadn’t paused in his fight with the ball.
Callie could probably be gone for up to an hour before Mom started calling her friends.
She could not be so outgoing with her mother as Callie never talked back to her.
Right after the guy left, the bulldog ran away from her with the ball into the growing dark. “Here, boy!” she yelled, taking a few steps, truly wanting the dog, but the dog didn’t stop, and then she didn’t see it. She hoped it had a home.
Two anxious minutes later, she walked to one of the nearby benches near a brick wall of interred ashes. She sat and eyed the arched monument and its sign, “The Portal of the Folded Wings.” It was a shrine to early aviators, what with the cemetery next to the airport. A huge plaque was for Amelia Earhart, who went missing in trying to fly around the world, dying July 2, 1937. She had flown east with her navigator, Fred Noonan, starting in Oakland, landing in Miami, and making it mostly around the world until they went missing.
Callie removed her baggy jacket to reveal her tight, plunging-necked sweater over a scooped T-shirt—certainly not something her mother ever bought her. It was to remind Harley of her figure.
Harley had said he had a surprise for her. Was he stuck somewhere and trying to call her? He knew she couldn’t carry her phone because her mother’s app tracked her.
She turned when she heard the sound of a motorcycle. She hoped this was Harley because he’d been saving to buy a bike to match his name. However, it was an unshaven guy on a skinny motorbike. The only thing going for it was a BMW insignia. The guy wore an old-fashioned leather helmet with floppy straps that looked like beagle ears.
The man stopped. “Ready, Callie?” he said, pulling off his goggles. He grinned.
“Harley? Are you growing a beard?” she asked. He’d always been thin and studious-looking, but the beard made him even hotter. She loved the guy, even if he didn’t know it.
He said, “I’ve been too busy to shave.”
They last saw each other two weeks ago when they’d had sex for the first time. They’d talked almost daily since then, but she worried the sex might have pushed him away. He patted the back seat, which had a real helmet attached. “Hop on,” he said.
“A BMW? I thought you wanted a Harley.”
“Too expensive for now.”
She shook her head. “And what’s with the leather helmet? That’s not legal.”
“It’s all I could afford.”
“You had a lot more money. Where’d it go?”
She laughed and blurted, “Hope they include me.”
“Here.” In his palm was a stick-like flash drive.
She took it. “What is it?”
“My latest song. Play it when you get home.”
She’d never met someone who played guitar and piano so brilliantly. She pocketed the flash drive. “I thought the bike was the surprise.”
“I have something for you—bigger than a song or a cycle. Hop on, and I’ll show you.”
“Will it take long? I have to be back by six.”
“You’re a fuckin’ college student. Make your own schedule.”
“You know my mom.”
“At least your mother loves you.” This time he didn’t add, “Because your mom’s not doing crack and sleeping around like mine.”
Callie never knew what to say to that. “Your mom’s got a good job now, right?”
“Seven-eleven?” He sighed. “Hop on quick so I can get you back by six.” She swung her leg over the seat, strapped on the helmet, and hugged him tightly as they skimmed across the Valley toward Studio City. He smelled like cinnamon. She pretended this would last forever as a plane glided into Burbank Airport and dots of red still licked clouds in a mantra, maroon, maroon, the color of the lipstick on her childhood doll.
Holding him, she thought of their lovemaking. She’d given him the drug Ecstasy, and she’d taken it too, super-nervous. She’d never been so daring. “I trust you,” he’d said, seeming to know what it meant. He became attentive and gentle, the way she’d always hoped the first time would be, but then afterwards, he’d said, “Why does this feel so good and my soul feels so bad?”
“Your soul is helium.”
“Exactly. Floated away.”
“Didn’t you feel what I felt?” she had asked, under the sheet in her childhood bed.
“I’ve told you, I’m not built for relationships.”
“How do you know? You’re only nineteen.”
“You know me. I only like music.” At home, he had a keyboard, two guitars, a mic, and a micro Korg synthesizer, and he was recording his own music, obsessively so. That had worried her.
“We like each other,” she said.
“Yes. But that’s not a relationship.”
“You hate me?”
“No. I love you—but in my own way, so don’t be surprised.”
Yet now they were on his motorbike, he, about to show her something great. Maybe he’d changed his mind.
He’d steered them past their former high school in North Hollywood. Two miles later off Tujunga, they putted to a stop in front of a white two-story apartment building, the Woodward. A small sign said, “For Rent. One Pet Welcome. See Manager.”
“Are you moving here?” she asked as he parked the bike. “Is this where your money went?”
“Some of it.” He stood, removing his goggles, and he looked honestly at her, maybe even lovingly. It’s the look she didn’t think she’d ever see.
“You’re moving from your mom?”
“This place isn’t for me. It’s for you.” He clapped his hands and laughed. “Really, for you! I paid first and last month’s rent.”
Her insides twisted. “What? I can’t move! You know that.”
“You’ve got to take a chance, Cal. It’s why I got the smaller bike, too. Tomorrow while your mom’s at work, I’ll help you move out. To here. Meet the manager, and we’ll finalize it now.”
“Impossible. My mom wouldn’t let me. I have no money.”
“Except I went to the watch store at the mall.”
Her jaw fell. “You saw my dad?”
“I told him what I wanted to do. I said it was time for his birdy to fly the nest, and he agreed. He said he’d been thinking it himself.” Her father, a Croatian War refugee, had grown up not far from the Slovenian and Italian borders. He’d met his future wife in Los Angeles when she worked for a refugee agency. He’d always deferred to her needs. Now she worked at a movie studio, Universal, for an executive while he sold and fixed watches.
“I told him about moving you while your mother worked. He’s for it. He’ll pretend he knows nothing about this when you don’t show up tomorrow night. And he’ll pay your rent.”
“Our lives are finite, Cal. We’re like those aviators and space shuttle pilots. We will die, just like everyone in that graveyard. Like my Dad did after he zoomed off a cliff on the Angeles Crest Highway. We’ve got to have a life.”
“We?” Now her blood surged.
“You want this?” He pointed to the apartment house. “You’re approved.”
“Are we a couple?” She raised her eyebrows.
He shook his head. “Cal, after I move you in, I’m going to New York. It’s where I gotta go. It’s where the music I need to make is.” He had tried college and had dropped out after three weeks.
She felt as if she were flying down a rollercoaster hill. She had to sit back on the bike.
“You’re getting me a place and then taking off?”
“I’m driving a rich couple’s car on a rented truck across the country, and I can take my BMW with it. I’m going to live in the city. We each are on an adventure.”
She ran toward him hard and pushed him. He fell onto the grass. “My adventure’s with you!” she said.
He dusted himself off, seemingly amused. “I’m the wrong guy, and you know it.”
“Then I’m not moving.”
“You are desperate for it. Every nerve in your body cries for it. I know you.”
She stared at the apartment building. He was right. She had to do this. “I feel so lonely,” she said. She wished she had at least a dog.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. He’d taken off his leather helmet, and a wind, warm, blew like a sirocco from a desert.
Later that night, her last one at home, she listened to his song. With a great rhythm, a hammering piano and drums, his echoey voice repeated a single stanza many times: “One of these nights / without a doubt / I will take off / and I’ll be out.”
She would never own him. Even so, she knew the way his heart had beat.
He had dropped her near her house. The bulldog sat across the street as if he’d known she’d be back. He was a sign. He trotted over with the soccer ball in his mouth. The dog followed her home. She would meet her mother with him in tow.