July 23, 2012
The Broken Watch Knew the Time
I nervously glanced at my watch. I wasn’t checking for the time, because my watch had stopped ticking the day she left. No, instead I was looking at it for reassurance, a sort of reminder that I still had my limbs. The suited man in front of me asked me if I was all right, if I needed water. I had no choice but to look into his eyes, as the sun was blinding me through the window, directly behind his balding head. My expression must’ve answered him, because he walked away with his tail between his legs, and the venomous sun bore black holes into my sight. Frank the sixty-nine year-old security monitor hobbled into the office.
“You need anything before I send you off, son?” he asked me, concern and pity marking his shaking voice.
“No… I don’t have anything here worth keeping, anyway,” I responded, before I remembered that I had hidden her photo in the bottom drawer of my desk, next to the opened bottle of whiskey.
After making a sorry attempt at consoling me, which I ignored as politely as I could, Frank led me past my former co-workers who watched me from the corners of their eyes, questioning their own fates. Someday this will happen to all of you, and then you’ll see… I imagined myself cursing them all. Cursing Pamela for her incessant chatter about celebrity nonsense. Cursing Doug for constantly bragging about his hunting trips. Cursing Kyle for his misogynistic and racist jokes. Cursing them all for falling into the American trap, the circle of work and no pay… then realizing that I fell for it, too. Did any of us have a choice?
“I’m too old to be walking you to the door, kid, but I’ve known you a long time. Be good,” Frank said to me at the end of the hall. I nodded and pushed open the doors, getting a tiny shock on my fingertips from the damned carpets—a friendly goodbye from the building. When the doors closed behind me, I stole a chair from the receptionist’s vacant desk—a friendly goodbye from me.
I dragged the chair behind me into the parking lot, the screeching sounds numbing my body but freeing my mind. I thought of her. She was so free. I was nothing like her. I was no good for her. She was a beautiful, ethereal spirit whose body conformed to no norms, whose smile borrowed light from the moon in plain day. Her eyes were the stars, and they could see through the black, thorned vines that were wrapped unwelcome around my heart.
Sweat dripped down the back of my neck, staining my white collar. I loosened my tie and dropped it to the ground… then my suit jacket and my leather dress shoes. It all had to go. I touched my watch and felt its lifeless core and its hemp straps, deciding that there was only one option left for me: I was going to find her.
The sign we passed read “WELCOME TO ENCINITAS” and the hair on the back of my neck electrified me. Something was telling me she was here; perhaps it was the salty taste in the air or the sweltering heat that sunk into my skin.
“Juan, would you mind pulling over here for me? Thanks so much, man, take care,” I said as I hopped out of the truck that I had hitchhiked into. Juan had found me walking along the highway just south of L.A. as he was driving a shipment to Mexico. During the two-and-a-half hour drive, I learned about Juan’s dead abuela (grandmother), her homemade tamales, his cheating wife, and a slew of Spanish curse words. It was an experience I planned on forgetting.
I made my way toward the city center, being sure to stay as close to the coast line as possible, and ended up lost in—what I can only assume was—some suburb. Houses started looking identical and having more space for front lawns. Children’s toys were strewn throughout some of the yards, adding bright colors to a very green setting. She wouldn’t have liked a place like this. That’s why she left, anyway. I wanted to cage her and clip her wings. She wanted to keep flying. I kept telling her that flying takes a lot of strength and that some day she would no longer have enough to keep going, but she refused to accept that. Work changed you, she told me. I remember her eyes how they glistened and her lips were still but so close to quivering—then, as quickly as I had met her when she entered the room that warm night eight years ago, she was gone.
As I gradually came closer and closer to the South, I tried to recall where exactly her parents had lived. They were quite different from their daughter: short, rather stout people with slightly above middle class incomes, living in a standard rectangular home. From the past, I remembered the words “Cardiff” and “Oxford.” Not being from this side of California, I had no idea what those words meant, so I asked the nearest bystander.
“Cardiff and Oxford? Oh, honey, you’re in Cardiff! Oxford is on the other side of that road,” she drawled, “You a tourist?”
I stared at her in wonder at her platinum blonde hair piled high on her head, despite the heat, and her overly inflamed Corvette red lips. She waited for my response, which I did not give, then scoffed at me. “Freak,” she said.
The whole house was painted grey with white linings and stuck out from the rest of the homes. The other homes had much flatter roofs, while this one looked like it came out of an “America Weekly” ad. I was surprised there wasn’t an American flag planted on the highest point, but then I saw that it was actually hanging next to the front door. Convenient. I rang the doorbell and heard the chime on the other side. Flip flops clattered inside.
“Patrick! Who is it?” Wilma hollered.
“I don’t know,” he said, then louder so that I might hear, “but it better not be one of those advertisers, because I ain’t buying any-!”
He opened the door and stared into my hazel eyes with his mouth about knee-high. “Robbie?” he stammered finally.
“Hi Patrick, how ya been,” I responded, and reached out my hand to shake his. Instead, he grabbed me into a bear hug, and I felt his wife’s eyes beside us.
“What are you doing here, Robbie,” she said through gritted teeth, screening her anger. Wilma never liked me. She blamed me for her daughter’s outburst of rebellion, though I was as white collar as she was. Patrick, however, considered me the son he never had and used to take me fishing on holidays.
“Oh Wilma, could you can it for just a minute?” Patrick retorted to his wife. She turned on her heel and steamed off to her room, slamming the door. “Buddy boy, what are you doing here!” he asked me as we walked toward the kitchen.
“You know, Bree left me,” I started, realizing I should’ve planned this speech before arriving. He nodded sadly. I continued, “Then I got fired just today, actually, and I realized I’ve been crazy living without her these past few months. I need to find her.”
“Well I could tell something was wrong by the way you’re dressed. You look like hell, boy!” he responded, somehow avoiding the topic of Bree.
“Do you know where she is, Pat?”
“Common, now, let’s get you a beer!” He grabbed two Coronas from the fridge and slid one over to my side of the table. “Reminds me of my days in the army. Did I ever tell you that time when I was at the bar with my buddies Doug and Chris…”
As Patrick droned on about a Vietnamese woman that changed his life, I noticed a small, framed photo of Bree hanging above the kitchen sink. The picture must’ve been taken before I knew her, because it showed her having braces and frizzy, strawberry-blonde hair. The photo was cropped around her face, and she seemed happy—her smile was sincere and almost blinding, and she was looking at the person behind the camera, not at the camera itself. I wondered who took the photo. The last time I saw Bree, her hair was long and deep red, contrasting with her emerald green eyes. She used to refer to her hair color as “Bloody Rage,” saying it represented her anger toward corporations and her defense of the dying poor. Bree was a girl with opinions, with morals; she was extreme with good reason. She managed to teach me more about the world during those eight years than I had learned in all the twenty-five before it.
“Robbie, boy, you wouldn’t believe this woman. I’ll tell you, me and my buddies were so shocked we had our jaws to the floor!” Patrick exclaimed. I looked at him seriously, examining his glossy blue eyes and his tired wrinkles. His expression softened and he said, “I thought that woman—Mai Ly—was the one. When I came back home, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t stop thinking about her… what was she doing, who was she with, would I ever see her again… I never did see her again. But that was okay, you know why? Because I met Wilma, and she brightened up my world, and then I had beautiful children, my own house—”
“Patrick! Just stop it! That’s fine if you don’t want me to see her again. I get it. But that isn’t your choice to make. Bree and I are adults, and she can make her own decision once she sees me,” I responded, my heart beating out of my chest. “I can’t live without her, don’t you understand? I gotta try, I gotta…”
I looked at him desperately, searching his face for an answer, begging him to just tell me where I could find her. His eyes remained on the floor, his shoulders hunched, his arms crossed over his chest. After what felt like an eternity of stillness, he reached into his right pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of white paper and put it on the table in front of me, then walked out of the room.
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