Carla stares at the computer screen. Her face is like a little girl’s.
“That they’d come all this way,” she says, “just for my birthday. I can’t believe it.”
I’m reading the email over her shoulder. It’s from my English pal Geoff (not his real name, don’t want to impose on the poor boy), a friend from back in the hitchhiking days. Asia. Middle East. Always kept in touch. Carla’s gotten to know and love him through years of emailing, the kind of intimacy that sometimes pops up online. Now Geoff and his lady — let’s call her, uh, Debby — are flying in from London, England.
“Oh, Ed,” Carla says. “You’ve got to make enough money so we can entertain them properly. Show them California. Not be ashamed…”
This all started when we were talking about a problem we have every December: Carla’s birthday. It comes just five days after Christmas, when everybody’s exhausted and broke and trying to gather their wits together to finance New Year’s. And my record hasn’t been that great in making it an occasion for Carla. Half the time, like last year, we’ve agreed silently to forget about it. Sounds bad, I know. But honestly, it’s a tough time to get anyone aroused.
So, this year we decided to make up for past transgressions. Have a party. Not expensive, but, yes, we’d do it in Carla’s beloved Coronado, at Costa Azul, and for maybe a couple dozen of her closest buddies. Why Costa Azul? ’Cause when we called all over the place, they gave us the best deal on a per-head basis, $16.
That’s when Carla zipped off the email to Geoff. “Come on over,” she wrote, “to a real Californian par-tay! Get out of the snow! Stop shivering! Don’t be English and reserved! Make your reservation!” ’Course we never expected they’d actually want to do it, right after Christmas and all. And it’s not as if we embody the American Dream. Not with my chronic finances.
So, the first thought was, how fantastic that they’d send themselves and not just an online greeting. We felt awestruck, if you want to know the truth.
The second thought was: “How long will they be here?”
“Ten days,” Carla says.
“Ten days? Jeez…wait, no, that’s great. It’ll give us time to show them around.”
“You get the money, honey, we’ve got the time,” Carla says. “But, darling, how can you stop working for ten whole days? And do you realize what they’ll want to see? Do you know how much it will cost? Disneyland, Hollywood, Wild Animal Park, the ‘World-Famous’ San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld? Whale watching, Universal Studios, Scripps Aquarium, Viejas Casino…That’s good for $1000 right there. Each. Plus we’ve got to first get through Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid, Kwanzaa, and then — have we forgotten — my birthday?”
Carla is brooding now. “We’d better email them back right away,” she says. “Nip it in the bud. I love Geoff, and it’s the most beautiful gesture, but we’d be stripped naked for all to see. All those lyrical emails about glamorous California…we’d have to deliver…”
“Look, sweetheart,” I say. “We’ll just show them everyday California, not California theme parks. We’ve got the real thing right outside. The desert, the beaches, the border, Big Bear, Balboa Park.”
But the big question thumped in my brain: How do we show off California without busting the bank?
∗ ∗ ∗
Cut to ten days later, December 28. We drive the rental to the commuter terminal at Lindbergh Field. The Bedfords, driving? Yeah. We figured it was the one thing we really needed to invest in. A rental car. Put $450 down for a week.
It’s around 8:00 p.m. Geoff and Debby missed the connection at LAX because their flight was delayed in London. Security, after the Christmas scare. Geoff almost canceled. He’s a nervous flier.
I drop Carla at the terminal to watch for flight UA 6342, while I go looking for a place to park. I swear, when you’re not doing this every day — like when you depend on stretch limos (okay, buses) to get around — it’s real easy to get lost. After three circles, I finally find the commuter parking, then sit waiting for the ticket guy to notice me. He’s in the booth, on the phone, looking at a computer screen. Five minutes, and I’m about to get out and show him what I’m made of. I back up, so I can open the door…and notice the ticket-issuing machine. D’aagh, oh, right. I feel a bit like Rip.
Van Winkle, that is.
Upshot is, by the time I get to the luggage area, they’re there. “Bedford, you’d lose your head if it wasn’t screwed on,” Carla says. She’s holding Debby by the arm. Haven’t met Debby before. Cute. Reddish-brown curly hair, green eyes, black-and-white driving jacket over a fluffy pink sweater, with a big woolly black and white scarf wrapped ’round her neck. Tired as she must be, she has quick, lively movements and a ready laugh. Standing next to her is this suave-looking guy with a longish, English-style hairdo, oversized glasses, greeny-gray turtleneck sweater, and English tweed jacket. Neat. Makes you think of Clark Kent before he goes into the telephone booth. Or Bond, James Bond. Whatever, a real country gent, toff, veddy veddy English. Only thing missing is leather-patched elbows on his jacket.
He takes too long a moment to recognize me. Well, the last time we saw each other was in, what, 1982? We were in a drunken haze in some bar on Patpong in Bangkok. Or was it quaffing soft drinks in the Doha Club in Qatar? Whatever, we got around then. Sigh. What a difference a year or 20 makes.
“I’m afraid I just about pooped in my pants the whole way over,” Geoff says, “looking for people removing their shoes.”
Guess he’s thinking shoe-bomber.
“But you made it,” I say. “You’re here. Fun starts now. Let’s go.”