The Privacy of Love, Chapter 1
An excerpt published by Quarry West in 1999, from a previous novel manuscript
In the half-light of a waning day, Bill Miner burst into his backyard all vigor, all bluster. He stormed toward the fence that separated his and Manny Flores’ lots, cursing his neighbor, his neighbor’s house, the whole squalid neighborhood. Jumping, balancing, Miner cavorted around and across an expanse of mud onto a low crossbar of his side fence, draping his arms over the fencetop to counter the bulk of his belly. The fence dipped toward Manny’s yard and swayed back toward his own once, twice, so that the disquiet of Miner’s disequilibrium remained even after the fence stood still. He considered that perhaps the man’s rage was spent, yet still he gawked at his neighbor’s dark windows, clinging to the girl’s glance from two days before, the single look she’d given him across their front yards. How could she not be alright? When Manny’s voice burst out again, Miner winced.
“Don’t, Ro-sa!” Manny bellowed, then repeated, almost pleading: “Ro-sa don’t!” Snatches of other words rang out: English, Spanish, English again. Miner couldn’t hear the girl at all. He squinted but only caught shapes drifting like ghosts inside the dark house. A wind tugged at the willow above him, which flung large drops from an earlier rain. The air smelled like wet clay.
Then there it was again; the tumult turned his stomach. Pots smacked against each other, clattered against the floor, clanging—followed by two violent, unexpected slaps. Miner grimaced. Had Manny struck the girl? He heard the unmistakable shatter of glass. Then silence, dead silence. Silence that fermented deep at the base of his skull and crept down his backbone, causing him to cringe and rub the nape of his neck. Miner strained to see the girl, but even the shapes skittering across the window had disappeared. After scanning the houses and fencetops (as if any of his neighbors would care!), he stared again at the kitchen window.
He couldn’t decide what to do.
Two days earlier he’d been at home on a weekday, stooping over the back seat of his Impala, stretching his new vinyl upholstery into a crevice. Out of the corner of his eye he’d seen the teenager shuffling to Manny’s Honda, tilting her head back to compensate for the weight she bore out front. Since he hadn’t seen the girl in months, he’d been under the impression that she’d moved out. So he was shocked to find her pregnant—hugely pregnant, as if she were going to deliver that moment. For Christ’s sake, he’d thought, Manny had been divorced only six months. And she looked so young.
Miner had stumbled out of the Impala too quickly. As he tried to stand blood rushed to his head; he almost fell. Placing his hand on his car to steady himself, he saw the girl standing across the lawn from him, grounded squarely on both feet, staring, as if she expected that he would teeter and fall at any moment, as if he deserved pity.
Yet her eyes were softer than that.
He nodded and dropped his hand from the car to convey that he was alright, that at 30 years of age he too could stand on his feet. He wanted to say something but as usual words failed him.
She simply turned back to Manny’s car, maneuvering slowly, carefully, opening the Honda’s door and swinging herself into the driver seat, one hand tugging on the frame of the windshield to support her weight, her other palm cradling her abdomen. He watched her profile—the bridge of her nose—as she backed the car into the street. Closing his eyes, steadying himself once more against his Impala, Miner saw again the girl’s embrace of her own heavy abdomen as she pulled herself into the seat. Each movement seemed sufficient, as if each act could absorb all her attention. It seemed so very female and unattainable, to be able to nourish like that, to embrace so completely.
As Miner shifted his weight on the fence, he regretted his leap from his recliner and into his backyard, a reflex that now compelled him one way or the other: toward intervention or retreat. If Manny were white, he decided, he would call the police. Or he’d knock on Manny’s front door, demand an explanation. But Miner didn’t want to confront all the stereotypes. Take the goddamned fights, for instance. Or the way Manny stood right in his face when they chatted on the front sidewalk; Miner had to keep backing away.
No, Miner decided, it wasn’t his place to intervene, not unless he saw something conclusive. He was afraid of being called a racist.
Yet neither did he want to withdraw. Now that he was outside, even in this weather, he was repulsed by the thought of returning to his armchair, to the worn indentation where his head and torso fit so snugly. As he shifted on the fence and rubbed his hands together against the chill, he allowed himself to think of Karen and by that means to slip into the self-loathing and doubt that sometimes kept him sleepless. He remembered the touch of Karen’s hair on his cheeks as she tossed about in bed: a rustling of dreams. Her voice returned to him as well; in the dead of night her words would slide into his sleep, inviting him by their cadence to curl beside her and press his fragile hardness against her thigh. That’s how he had drifted, finally, in the midst of velvet darkness, after three years of having frustration stamped upon his desire, and after weeks of her anticipating, her hands toying, her thighs coaxing and caressing and cradling, but never hardening him, that’s how he’d finally fallen within the voice of her surreptitious dreams to again make love, love. Love.
Miner looked up into the sky, where the weak sun, as if on a last-minute whim, cast a whisper of orange up above Santa Cruz, a ribbon that the clouds tried to churn into darkness. He looked down at his hands on the fence: white, mottled, grotesque. He tried to blot out his ruminations. Of course he could make love again.
The rhythmic beats of a Conga drum drifted just inside his awareness, annoying him. He glanced at the homes around him, some with their lights already on and curtains drawn, a few with smoke drifting up from chimneys. His neighbors seemed so driven, so resilient. Even Manny—respectable, just divorced Manny—already had a girlfriend. Only moments before, the bastard had been yelling, fighting, who knows what? Yet Miner now felt the transgressor—a laggard, a lackey, a peeping Tom. Intoxicated by his neighbor’s discord, Miner assured himself that relationships were brutal, forceful: not worth the trouble. Yet he was nagged by the possibility of forgiveness and redemption that made his own life insufficient. He wanted to jump down but dreaded the impotence of his burrow. He clung instead to the fence.
If he could just see the girl.
• • •
Cameron Reece watched Bill Miner from the alley that runs behind the lots on that Westside block. It was several years after the earthquake, the early nineties, when Santa Cruz remained hidden among the redwoods, tucked at the northern tip of Monterey Bay. Downtown was trying to sell Christmas out of tents. On the warmer days, tourists from Silicon Valley would spend magnificent afternoons at the cliff beaches, then forget to spend their money. Shop attendants with nothing to do would loiter in their own doorways, complaining about the schools, the rents, the eight-year drought.
On this day, however, a steady drizzle had begun early and then let up, teasing. Residents, jittery with the promise of rainfall on winter’s first dawn, had been cutting each other off in traffic all afternoon, then honking, waving, shouting to friends they hardly knew. The ground itself, sucking up moisture, was on the threshold of change.
Cameron was crouching in the alley behind the rear fence of Manny’s property, worried about Manny’s outbursts and still hoping to catch a glimpse of his Rosa, beautiful Rosa, Rosa Flores. Moments earlier, he’d been inside with her, holding his hand on the taught skin of her magnificent belly, feeling the intermittent kicks of his child against his open palm. As Manny came striding up the front walk, home early from work, Rosa had prodded Cameron out Manny’s back door with a hand on the small of his back and a kiss blown from her lips. Cameron had slipped into the alley through a gate in the back fence, stepping up on the milk crate that he often used to peer back over the fence into her window. At five feet eight, he had to stretch to see above the boards. Rosa would stand in her bedroom and gaze out through the glass at the top of his head poking over the fence, often with Manny right there in the room beside her. Sometimes when Manny wasn’t there she’d unbutton her blouse, flash her jet eyes and tease Cameron with flesh she wouldn’t quite show. This night, hoping she would appear, Cameron lingered, giddy from the damp smell of Rosa’s hair all around him: fresh rain on parched earth. As he gazed at the dark window little Elvis started to bulge. Not now, he thought, pressing his erection with the flat of his hand, which always only exacerbated it. How could he? Not in her condition. Cameron was pissed at his own lack of respect. Yet Elvis clung to the skin of his leg, tugged tiny tingles along his thigh, bulged and clung again, crawling. Still her room remained black, its window reflecting a spray of light from the horizon behind him. In the chill of almost dusk, a shiver shook his spine just as he heard Manny’s first sharp yell.
“Ro–sa!” Manny bellowed, railroading the “R” and slipping past the “s” as if there would never be enough time for the vowels of her name.
Shit! Cameron remembered the jacket he’d left on the arm of Manny’s couch.
Goddamnit, Cameron thought, don’t do this, Manny. Not tonight. Again he thought of her condition, and his whole body clenched up, waiting for her clamor, which arrived soon enough: pots, pans, silverware. Anything she could get her hands on in the kitchen. The uproar rang into the neighborhood, a sickening, slamming sound that tore Cameron up. But it silenced her brother, at least for awhile. He knew Manny had never struck her, but in the quiet that followed Cameron wrestled over going back inside, the consequences be damned.
That’s when Miner busted like an outlaw into his own backyard, to the right of where Cameron stood. As Miner stumbled toward the side fence that ran between the lots, Cameron ducked his head behind the rear fence, stooping on the milk crate, hiding like a criminal in an alley of weeds. Indignant about being precluded by her family from seeing his love, Cameron trembled in his shirtsleeves, helpless. How could this happen? In the 20th century! He wallowed for a moment in the omnipotence of fate, then admitted suddenly that he was at fault; otherwise why would he have ducked behind the fence? He had ducked out of shame, he knew, a deep sense of undying shame. It wasn’t just that he was embarrassed to have caused this row between Rosa and her brother, or to be caught peering into windows. It was worse than that. He was ashamed to have been aroused at all as he stood on the milk crate looking back over the fence. How could he, with her in that condition? He was ashamed, he decided, to have ever been aroused, to have ever caused pain to Rosa, his Rosa, beautiful Rosa. He reminded himself that passion should serve devotion, not the reverse. Yet despite himself he was brazenly male in his confidence: he felt responsible for just about everything. Call him naïve; he was young and the world lay before him. He was light with love. Not that he considered any of this before he ducked. His instinct was simply to duck, and once a man’s done that he finds it almost impossible to lift his head above board.
He heard Miner curse Manny—“goddamned asshole”—and Manny’s house: “goddamned remodeled piece of shit.” As Miner hoisted himself onto the side fence, Cameron jumped down behind the rear fence, sending the milk crate rolling over once, twice, into the middle of the alley. Through a hole in the rear fence he could see that Miner hadn’t noticed; Miner was standing uncomfortably, his arms thrown over the fencetop, wincing with each of Manny’s yells.
Rosa’s clamor rang out a second time, and Cameron was reeling again, gritting his teeth, pressing his back up against the hard flatness of the fence. He heard a glass shatter. Then nothing. In the moist air Cameron caught the chant of the Conga drum—thun thun bah, thun thun bah—as his housemates celebrated winter solstice. Along the alley he heard car tires crunch across gravel. He swung his head to his right and saw the widely spaced headlights of the Chevy he knew all too well, coming straight toward him. His testes shriveled into goat cheese.
• • •
From where Bill Miner stood on the side fence—about ten feet from his rear fence—he could see almost straight down the alley that cut behind his and Manny Flores’ houses. When he saw a car pull into the alley from the far street, half a block away, its headlights facing right toward him, Miner flinched, dipped lower on the fence. He stood back up when he realized how slowly the car was going; the driver was too far away to see him. He heard the beat of a Conga drum, which carried over his own roof from the damn students across Mercy Street. They were always finding new ways to get under his skin.
Miner watched a cat flit across the dirt alleyway and stop briskly in front of a milk crate, which lay upended in the middle of the alley. He could hear the car’s tires crunch across gravel. From the height of its headlights, he guessed it was a low-rider, westsiders probably, a Chevy. Santa Cruz was changing, he decided—though he knew that Latinos had always lived there. They were simply more visible now: all the kids had the baggy look. And that was fine with him, no offense intended. He just didn’t want any run-ins with a pack of teenagers. He decided he would be back inside his house before the kids stopped to move the milk crate out of their way. Miner looked down at his yard for an even place to land, but darkness had obscured where the mud stopped and the crabgrass started.
Just then a light popped on in Manny’s bedroom, freezing Miner on the fence. He watched Manny stomp across the room and yank down the covers. Miner’s shoulders tensed as he turned to see the car, whose steady approach spooked the alley cat into leaping behind a bramble of blackberries. He thought again of jumping down, but instead his fingers grabbed the fence tighter. He even tried to grow indignant: let the headlights splash on his face, he was watching out for his neighbors. What the hell had Manny done to her, after all? How close was she to term?
Miner could feel his heart race. Or was it the Conga pricking at his senses? He watched Manny plop onto the bed and drop his head into his hands. The guy looked crestfallen; his shoulders were slouched and Miner could see a bald spot on his head. Miner let the image sink in—how many times had he seen his father sit like that?—before he looked away, ashamed to be peeping.
His embarrassment did not last. He looked away from Manny just in time to spot a young man flash by—running—in the alley. Miner was too startled to duck. He twisted, saw the back of the man’s head bob along the fence line, then disappear around the corner of the alley. He heard the car engine rev before he turned to see gravel fly from the back tires. The car picked up speed, fishtailed a little. It struck the milk crate with the left side of its front fender, smacked it—bang!—against Manny’s rear fence, sending vibrations along the boards beneath Miner’s hands. Miner ducked instinctively, then straightened and twisted to watch the car’s taillights flash red and then vanish around the turn where the man had disappeared.
After a moment Miner heard the car screech onto the pavement of Mercy Street. He leaned forward and peered along the length of the fence, between his and Manny’s houses, toward Mercy, expecting to see the car shoot along the road. But he saw nothing; it must have turned the other way. Or maybe the kids had caught the guy in the street. What if the young man had seen him—the peeping Tom—on the fence? Miner decided to go inside, immediately. He glanced at Manny’s house and saw his neighbor staring straight out the window toward the alley.
Miner gasped and ducked, his fingers grasping the tops of the boards, his feet still on the crossbar. He was disgusted with himself. Why the hell was he always evading? Why couldn’t he simply knock on Manny’s front door, ask to see the girl? Did he want to get caught? Exhaust hung in the air and made his nostrils twitch. Squeezing his eyes shut, Miner tried to focus on drawing in steady draughts of air, exhaling slowly. He was certain he could feel his heart sputter. It was time to retreat.
He peeked just once more. And there she stood before the window, swaying back and forth to music he could just now hear. Miner pulled himself together. He checked if the girl was crying or hurt in any way, but she seemed alright. Her eyes were flung open. Her black hair swung heavily behind her as she swayed. She looked young. Way too young.
All at once she squeezed her eyes shut. As she clenched her teeth it was Miner who opened his eyes wide. She bent forward, stretching her hands out sideways on the sill. She opened her mouth, sucked in air through her teeth. She slowed her swaying, then stopped altogether, so that her only motion was in breathing. Bill Miner watched as the girl kept pulling in air and blowing it out, until her face gradually relaxed: a full minute of the deep, desperate breathing of labor. The force of it riveted and transformed him, so that for the first time in a long while, he escaped from the saturation of his own solitude.
When Manny walked into the room, Miner was pleased to see that the girl controlled him. Manny offered her a tray of food that she rejected with a turn of her wrist. After placing the tray on the bed, Manny began to rub her back and Miner longed to be the one massaging her; he wanted to stand behind his Karen, reach around her warm ribs and hold her swollen belly between his open palms. Large drops of winter rain began to strike the ground around him, the willow protecting him with its branches.
Miner watched the girl pull her blinds closed. Then he stared for awhile up through the willow branches at the unsteady sky. He recalled the way Karen’s smile made her dimples pierce her cheeks, the way her forehead spread out wide and honest above her thin brows.
On the winter solstice, on the first night of the rains, Bill Miner swore that he would find Karen. He really would. He’d saved enough money for a down payment; he would go to her with that. He jumped down from the fence and landed poorly on his right foot. His left shoe stuck in the mud and came all the way off. Stumbling, he rolled onto his back in his own wet weeds. He thought he’d sprained his right ankle. Breathing deeply through the pain, he felt his own tension falling away. As fat raindrops struck his cheeks, he started laughing and moaning in long, indelible guffaws. The drought was over and he was wallowing like a pig in his backyard.
• • •
Before Cameron was hit, before he sprinted along the grim alleyway, as he still squatted against the rickety fence behind Manny’s house, he was aware vaguely of the Conga’s beat and the sudden appearance and disappearance of a tomcat near the milk crate. But he was much more attentive to the rumble of the Chevy’s engine and the crack of gravel beneath its tires. He knew full well who was in the car and he sensed in a split second that it wouldn’t make any difference if he reached the house or not—no matter how many students he could count on. The men in the car had whatever it would take—orders, weapons, experience—to get inside the house, hold everybody at bay, and knock the shit out of him, Cameron Reece, the obsessed lover who (he admitted freely) deserved whatever they gave him since (he told himself time and again) he had gotten Rosa into this. He refused in spite of all to give her up, wanted only what Rosa herself wanted. He jumped up and ran down the alley right in front of Miner because it was better than sitting and waiting. And because it helped him feel like a martyr.
It wasn’t until he was sprinting that he saw the escape the trickster cat had offered him. He could have pushed through Manny’s back gate, hidden inside the fence, swallowed his pride, and motioned for silence from Miner, who surely would have seen him. Sometimes Cameron felt hopelessly white, a cowboy stepping on twigs.
As he flew around a corner in the alley the streetlight on Mercy Street beckoned to him. Hearing the Chevy veer around the corner behind him, he couldn’t help glancing back to where he saw a baseball bat sticking out the car window. As he turned back toward the street a ballad rushed over him, a song of loss so disconcerting that in a strange way it spirited him forward: after he weathers her family’s ire for nine months, after he remains beside her against all odds, holding her through the birth, after they go through with the adoption and give the child away—after all of that, in the end Rosa will have to lay her love for him aside. How could she not? What could possibly hold them together?
Up against fate, what?
Cameron Reece heard the crunch of tires beside him just as he was about to break into the glow of the streetlight. At that moment he knew that he’d get the better of the bastards after all, in the simplest way imaginable: by ducking. If he could only sense the Zen of the timing, they’d miss him with the damn bat, he’d turn at the sidewalk and dash to his house, where he could at least get some witnesses.
He didn’t make it to the sidewalk.
The man sitting in the driver’s seat didn’t even swing the bat, just pushed it forward, like a bunt, dipping it lower when the kid ducked. His partner was trying to steer from the passenger seat; they almost clipped the corner of a fence before they stopped, the left front tire sticking over the curb, their shiny front fender an inch away from an old Toyota. Both of them twisted around in their seats and saw that the kid was still down.
Then the driver glared at his partner.
“What?” the passenger said. “You fucking try to steer from this side in an alley right next to a kid runs like a fucking rabbit.”
The driver flung the bat into the backseat and screeched down Mercy Street, poking his partner in the ribs, laughing hard as the raindrops started to pop like bugs on the glass. As they turned on West Cliff and drove along the wide open Pacific they grew quiet, however, listening to the swish, click, swish of the wipers and watching the huge night swells rise up and break against the cliffs, blowing sea foam up over the street, onto their pristine Chevy.
“Fucking salt,” the driver said.
“He was just a stupid lovebird,” his partner said.
The driver turned to him. “It’s not like we didn’t warn him.”
“There he was like a fucking idiot. Right in the goddamned alley behind her house, on our first round.”
“I hardly hit him,” the driver said. “Just a love tap.”
“He went down fast.”
“He’ll be fine.”
Before driving back over the hill to San Jose, they ate clam chowder on the wharf and stopped at a do-it-yourself place—even in the rain—to spray the salt off the paint job and wipe the hairs or whatever off the baseball bat.