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Ohio guy loves motorcycle chick for a while

A Flip named Wanda

Image by David Clemesha

As the plane flew over Arizona, Perry studied his map of San Diego. It was sent to him by the city as part of a welcome package for potential residents and contained coupons for Sea World and other attractions, a ten-page history, a list of churches and synagogues, renters’ guide, and get-by Spanish for visits to Mexico. The map interested him most.

He found Ocean Beach, where he would be living. It was right in the path of the airport, just as his friend Bill had described it. He thought it curious that the large bay had only one bridge.

It was July 3, 1985, and Perry, 20 years and 5 days old now, was responding to a plea from his high school buddy Bill. “Come to San Diego. It’s great. I need a roommate. Be back from sea in June. Call me.” Bill, a year older than Perry, had joined the Navy in '82, just after graduating, and was now stationed on a submarine. He said he could get an apartment if he could find a roommate to be there the six or so months each year that he was at sea. Perry quit his job at the shoe department of Sears, called Bill, set a date, told his parents, and left.

The pilot's voice broke his concentration. Minutes later, Perry was standing in the Lindbergh Field terminal looking for Bill.

Bill sat nervously smoking a cigarette. He recognized Perry first. Bill changed, Perry thought; he stood a foot taller, looked pale as a ghost, and had hair so short it made his head look something like a light bulb. A casual greeting and they were off. The two of them rode to the apartment, saying little, in Bill’s new Camaro. Bill apologized for the silence and told Perry that he was preoccupied with work. At the apartment, Bill showed Perry his new room, gave him his keys, and left for the base.

Perry liked the apartment because it was on the top floor of the building, with an ocean view. Bill had decorated the place in heavy metal. Band posters covered every wall. There was a lava lamp by the sofa, Budweiser towels in the kitchen, and even a velvet Elvis painting on the inside of the front door. Perry lay down on the sofa and took a nap.

When he awoke near midnight, there was no sign that Bill had been home. Perry made some coffee and cereal and watched an old Godzilla flick on TV. Since he needed a job, he walked down to the corner where he had seen a convenience store and bought a newspaper.

For the next few days, Perry studied his map, called on all the jobs that looked promising, and finally landed one as a restaurant busboy in a place called La Jolla.

Within a month he’d settled into a livable schedule. Bill was rarely home, and when he was, he was either asleep or entertaining shipmates. On the whole, Perry disliked them. Perry made a few friends at work, but they too had their quirks. Some of them spent all their time and money on cocaine. Perry did coke every now and then but only if it was free and only on special occasions. Besides, his biggest prob-^ lem was having to take the bus everywhere. He’d brought some money with him and had managed to save a little. Bill let him slide a little on the rent until he bought a car.

One morning on his way to the bus stop, Perry noticed a motorcycle with a For Sale sign. The bike was clean and new looking but obviously a few years old. He wrote down the phone number and ran quickly to catch the bus. As he rode past the motorcycle, he gave it a quick glance. Nice bike, he thought.

Perry had never owned a motorcycle, though he knew how to ride one. A friend in school had a Harley-Davidson and had taught him to ride in exchange for some favor that he had since forgotten. This one was a Honda, and he wondered just how different they could be. The more Perry thought about it, the better the idea seemed. The weather was hot. Bill was getting ready to go to sea again and would be putting his car in storage. Bill never mentioned letting Perry .use it, and Perry didn’t ask.

The next day he called about the bike. The owner said to come over anytime before sundown and he would let him drive it. Perry ate breakfast and walked over. When he got to the house on Voltaire Street, he found four more motorcycles parked out front and he could hear one’s engine revving in the back alley. The house looked run down. It had a ramp up the front steps onto the porch. They probably rode motorcycles in the house. Maybe he should just forget it, he thought.

When he rang the doorbell, Perry heard a woman with a thick Spanish accent yell for Charlie. After a minute or so, Charlie appeared, riding in a wheelchair, wearing a tall cowboy hat to protect his completely shaven head from the sun, small John Lennon glasses, a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, cut-off blue-jean shorts over a left leg that was amputated just above the knee and a right leg that was amputated so high that it stretched Perry’s knowledge of human anatomy to conceive what might be left. Charlie was what Perry imagined every Vietnam vet to be. They greeted one another and went out to see the bike.

As Charlie explained that it was a newly rebuilt 1976 Honda CB550 Four, he took generous swigs from the Jack Daniel’s whiskey bottle that he kept in a holster at the side of the chair. Next to that hung a marijuana bong on a leather leash. A tray containing an assortment of wrenches, screwdrivers, and other tools was welded to the opposite side. When Charlie finished explaining all that he had to explain, Perry took the bike for a test ride. It worked to his satisfaction.

Charlie wanted $600. Perry said he had $450 in cash today and was willing to give him the balance in two weeks; Charlie could keep the title till then, but Perry wanted to have use of the bike in the meantime. Charlie smiled a big, broad smile, chased it off his face with some JD, threw out his hand, and said, “It’s a deal. But,” he added, “I don’t want to leave you broke, so give me $350 and use the rest to buy yourself a helmet. Promise me that you’ll buy a helmet.” They went inside, and Charlie gave him the keys and an owner’s manual.

Perry rode the bike to Mission Beach, La Jolla, and then finally back home. He loved it. Damn, he thought, this is going to be great.

The next Saturday and the Saturday after, Perry gave Charlie the balance of the money. Both times Charlie kept Perry there an hour or so, talking and checking on the bike and his handiwork. Charlie took great pleasure in explaining everything that he had done, how it all worked, and how to watch for signs of trouble. As Perry was about to leave after the second (and what Perry hoped would be the final) visit, Charlie asked him to wait a minute. He said he thought he had some extra spark plugs for him. As Chariie disappeared into the house, another bike roared down the street. The rider appeared to be either a very thin, long-haired boy or a girl. The rider turned around at the corner and came back straight at Perry, skidding to a halt right where he was standing, making him jump onto the curb to avoid being hit. The rider flung the helmet on the ground and ran into the house. It was a girl.

From inside the house, Perry could hear screams of excitement and a lot of jumping up and down. In a minute, Charlie and the girl came out. She was riding on his lap and holding the JD bottle. Charlie was laughing. As Perry stared at this girl in a manner he felt sure must be uncomfortable for her, he thought she was perhaps the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She had thick, brownish-red hair, chestnut-brown skin, and green eyes whose shape betrayed a hint of Asia in her background. She hopped off the wheelchair and gave Charlie a big kiss.

It was only then that the girl seemed to notice that Perry was there. She offered him some JD, and Perry took a big swig, as he had become used to doing when he visited the house. Charlie introduced them, commenting that Perry was from Ohio. Wanda shook his hand, then turned to Charlie and said in a very mocking tone, “O-H-l-O,” dragging out each letter. Wanda and Charlie laughed. Perry snickered nervously. He wasn’t sure he liked her.

The three talked for a few minutes, and Charlie explained that Perry was the one who had bought the old Honda. Apparently Wanda had wanted to buy it too but couldn’t.

When Charlie went inside to take a phone call, Wanda walked over to Perry’s bike and inspected it. She had one hand on the seat and played with some wires with the other. She mumbled something to herself and looked at Perry. She smiled. “I think you got a good buy. When Charlie got this thing it was a mess. He did a lot of work to it. A lot. Maybe you’ll let me ride it sometime.” Forgetting that he was ever mad at her, Perry replied that it was no problem and asked if she lived close by. She looked back at him with a smile that said you’re not going to get an answer to that question. Yet. “I’m around. You’ll see me around. I’m around.” She almost sang the last sentence. With that, Wanda hopped on her bike, started it up, and rode off down the street.

Perry stood there for a moment looking at his Honda 550F, watching people walk by, gazing off into the sky, and generally wishing that he felt better about Wanda. For Christ’s sake, he thought, nobody ever got his goat as fast as she had. He figured her for some biker slut anyway. Besides her good looks, there was no reason he would be caught dead with her. But he finally admitted after a long debate with himself that she was exceptionally exotic looking and, if it didn’t require too much effort, it might be a good idea to try to get to know her. Maybe, he thought, she might have a less flippant friend.

When Charlie returned, he looked much less jovial than usual. He changed the spark plugs on the motorcycle, then without much said, he excused himself. As he rode off, Perry thought the bike ran a lot better.

Nearly two weeks later (13 days to be exact), Perry ran into Wanda again. It was Friday and he had worked a hard night at the restaurant. Around 3:30 in the morning he found himself riding the Honda down Mission Boulevard. At Roberto's by the roller coaster he parked to get something to eat. While ordering, Perry chanced to look to his right; around the corner came Wanda, her left arm around a gigantic, hairy biker wearing a tank top and cut-off jeans. Perry understood right away why bikers seldom wore shorts. He stared at her and watched her pass, more to his discomfort than to hers. She stopped suddenly, slapped the biker on the ass, then jumped in line behind Perry as the biker ambled down the sidewalk in the manner that bikers do. She huddled up close behind him and whispered lusciously in his ear, "O-H-l-O,” just as she had done the other day.

Before he could respond, she stepped to the pickup window and embraced the wiry young Mexican behind the counter. He smiled and they conversed in what Perry guessed was perfect Spanish. He stood there taking in the scene intently but feeling very drugged. He was flat lost in Wanda. So lost, in fact, that he didn’t notice the kid calling out his order and was embarrassed to the point of collapse when Wanda brought it to him with a mock curtsey to the ambassador from O-H-l-O. Perry sat on his bike, ate his carne asada, and drank his 7-Up. He didn't understand this. He didn’t want to understand this.

Wanda finished talking to her amigo and slipped across the street to her motorcycle. Perry pretended not to notice. She emerged from the parking lot at breakneck speed but didn’t make the light. Perry watched her in the eerie glow of the street lamp as she took off her helmet, applied a coat of lip gloss, turned to him, and, in theatrically exaggerated gestures, mouthed O-HI-O, as if to say Oh ... Hi... Ohh.

That did it; he was pissed. He tossed the 7-Up he had been nursing and started his bike. The light changed, and it took him till the Sea World Drive exit to catch up with her. He motioned for her to pull over, for what reason he did not know. She ignored him. They followed a path from Sea World Drive to Pacific Coast Highway, up Washington Street, down Goldfinch and Reynard, and then into a neighborhood of very nice old homes. Perry, though tiring of the chase, held on because it seemed as if Wanda had a destination in mind. At last they came to a stop on a dead-end street, at the' edge of a canyon. Looking back at him, Wanda began to descend a concrete stairway. Perry rode his bike onto the sidewalk just in time to see her pull a wheelie at the bottom of the steps and ride to the other side of a narrow foot bridge. No fucking way, not for any girl, anywhere, ever, his common sense screamed at him as, pressing hard on the rear brake and controlling his descent with the front, he inched the motorcycle down the 12 concrete steps.

It hadn’t escaped his attention that hers was a dual-purpose 250 and his a street 550, making hers much better suited for this sort of thing. Nor had he missed the fact that he had been riding a motorcycle only three weeks. When he hit the wet wood planks of the bridge, his front tire began to slide out from under him. Had fate ordained him to crash, perhaps Wanda would have ridden off laughing at his inferiority as a biker and general incompetence because he was from O-H-l-O. But he wasn’t so incompetent. Reaching the dry part of the bridge, Perry gunned the engine and found himself atop a 350-pound motorcycle heading at a dangerous angle toward the edge of the narrow bridge and a drop of perhaps 100 feet. He gingerly leaned away from the turn. His crash bar made a hellish hissing noise and sent sparks flying off the lowest of the bridge’s wires, but neither his foot nor his foot peg caught on the horizontal struts, and he escaped a crash. In the last 50 feet, when he was sure of his safe arrival, Perry gunned the throttle just to impress her.

Wanda had to back up to let Perry by. He stopped his bike just short of the top of the sidewalk, turned around, and rolled to a stop in front of Wanda. He was acutely aware that his right foot, out of nervousness, was bouncing on the foot brake, so he shifted to the hand. She backed up farther as he rode up next to her and, once off the curb, she parked her bike. Perry followed suit. They dismounted and walked to the center of the bridge. They stood there for more than half an hour watching the occasional plane pass the mouth of the canyon on its way to Lindbergh Field. Off to the side they heard the clinking of metal as the two motorcycles cooled off in the night air. Wanda moved first. From her leather jacket she pulled a silver cigarette case and extracted a joint. She lit it and they smoked. As the marijuana took its effect, Perry felt his hands loosen on the steel cable at his navel.

For another hour they stood grinning and watching the airplanes. Wanda let her head fall on Perry’s shoulder, and he put his arm around her waist. They soon descended the path under the bridge.

When he awoke, Perry found himself under a Mexican blanket, beneath a canopy of eucalyptus trees, with Wanda's head on his chest. He peered over his cheeks and saw the foot bridge in the distance. Wanda was sleeping. Nothing disturbed the moment.

In a while Wanda awoke. She fumbled for her clothes and dressed beneath the blanket. He was surprised and dismayed. Only minutes before he had felt very close to her. Perry dressed too and followed Wanda up the path to the motorcycles. They discovered that during the night someone had drained the gas from Wanda’s tank and had tried unsuccessfully to do the same to Perry’s. Perry offered to give her a ride to a gas station. For a moment she hesitated and would not answer him. He felt ashamed for thinking that a girl of such independence would accept help. Finally, she smiled at him and said yes.

The ride to the gas station confused him more. Wanda held him tighter than was necessary and gave him an occasional kiss on the back of the neck or a lick behind the ear. At the gas station she behaved as if she did not know him. On the return trip, she held him tight again. When they reached the bikes, she thanked him rather coolly and did not answer his request for her phone number but simply rode away. Perry returned home determined not to think of her or speak to her again.

After a few hours of much-needed sleep, Perry stopped by Charlie’s house. He was not home, but Wanda was asleep on the couch. She awoke as Perry entered. Perry got two beers from the fridge, one for Wanda and one for himself. They sat on the couch and watched Jeopardy! until Charlie returned, Perry still too confused to talk and Wanda too tired to notice. Wanda ran up and kissed Charlie. Perry waved. It was all strange.

Weeks passed, and the scene in the canyon under the foot bridge was repeated many times. Though often in one another's company, playing well the roles of boyfriend and girlfriend, they did so without the exchange of biographies or talk of futures. Perry guessed the formalities of starting a relationship in Southern California were just different than they were back in Ohio. Pleasantly, the petty jealousies were absent too. He felt at once overjoyed at his good fortune and vacant from its strangeness. He was determined not to let his own role rules impair the progress of events. Basically, he would just take it easy.

Life proceeded comfortably. He and Wanda had their thing. He became proficient at work and was promoted to waiter. He even started two math classes at Mesa College.

Though determined to obtain some sort of degree, he couldn’t choose a course of study. Subtle changes were occurring in his personality. These changes he attributed to the new geography, culture, his thing with Wanda, and his new appearance. He hadn’t had a haircut since leaving Ohio; he wore his hair long, in a ponytail. He felt that it went well with the motorcycle. Until the changes leveled off, he decided, he wouldn’t make any definite plans for his future.

As autumn slipped into winter, Perry began to concentrate his efforts on discovering what he could about Wanda without asking her or any of her friends direct questions. His upbringing compelled him. He often wished he had grown up in California so he wouldn’t feel compelled about anything.

Perry wondered if Wanda knew that she had totally blown his reality. He wondered if she knew how desperately he needed her to pull him from one coast to the other, from a life not unlike Happy Days to one not unlike Nine and a Half Weeks, from the sides of many bridges to the sides of many others. He grew apprehensive thinking she would walk out of his life the same way she walked in. But he knew he handled this apprehension better than he could have before meeting her. He believed Wanda knew what effect she had on him. There would come a time, and he knew it.

December brought change to the relationship at a time when Perry wanted and needed it least. He turned down his parents’ request to go back to Ohio for Christmas, even when they offered to pay for his trip. Instead, he answered an ad in the paper to spend Christmas volunteering to wash dishes at a teenage-runaway shelter. A week before Christmas, though, Wanda suddenly insisted that he spend Christmas and Christmas Eve with her at her parents' house. She had also made plans for them to spend New Year’s Eve in La Paz, Mexico. They did both. Wanda abruptly began dictating his time.

The morning of the 24th, he was nervous to the point of being sick. He felt that it was all crumbling around him. He knew he was going to get her life story shoved down him in one fell swoop. The mystery would shatter, and suddenly he and Wanda would become two ordinary human beings. He prayed desperately for an excuse not to go. He was too tense to think of one. He looked in the mirror and saw Perry Brian Schaffstall, 12 pounds heavier, with long hair and a distant look in his eyes. He saw a lost little boy playing a grownup game, in the corner taking a standing eight count. He saw Perry from O-H-l-O for the first time in seven months. He threw up.

Her parents’ house was much bigger than he had expected. They lived in Chula Vista, in the farthest corner of a housing tract that Perry guessed to be at least 50 years old. Their basic four-bedroom home had many additions, making it a six-bedroom with an enclosed patio and a den. In the back yard, a Jacuzzi shared space with a fishing boat and the carcass of an Edsel. From pictures on the wall and children still living at home, Perry guessed Wanda to be the second oldest of five children; two boys and three girls. The youngest was only 11 months old.

Wanda’s parents were to Perry an unlikely match. Her father Ivan, a retired Navy chief, was a tall, robust redhead of Swedish descent. Her mother Linda was a short, slender Filipino woman. Wanda had gotten the best of both. Ivan took an immediate liking to Perry. He guessed, however, that this man took a liking to everyone he met. By midday the whole family, including in-laws, had gathered at the house. Ivan appointed Perry to be his first mate in doing all the "manly” chores, as he called them. All this they did without Ivan ever attempting to get to know Perry in the way he had grown to expect Midwestern fathers to do. Linda, on the other hand, eyed Perry suspiciously. More than once he caught her looking at him in a strange way. Through ignorance he chalked this up as an Asian trait.

The day and evening went well. It was as traditional a dinner as California was likely to deliver. Wanda’s extended family was a hard-working, law-abiding bunch. And despite his earlier fears, Perry only learned that Wanda was the social butterfly of the family and, it seemed, a bit of an outcast. She paid meticulous attention to the baby and engaged in a lot of heart-to-heart discussions with Linda. Nevertheless, Perry couldn't deny that their relationship had changed. For the better or the worse he knew not. Perry hated change; it made him nervous.

They decided to go to La Paz on one bike, Perry’s. They took one small suitcase and a gym bag, which they tied to a sissy bar that Perry had recently purchased at a garage sale. He also purchased a windscreen at a dealership; Wanda had warned him that nights and even days in the bleak Baja deserts could get very cold. They hid cash in various compartments on the bike in order to pay mordida, if necessary, and hid extra IDs and sets of keys. Wanda said she wasn’t sure which would be worse, the elements or the often ruthless extortion tactics of the federales. The morning they left, Perry threw up again.

Cold it was. They left early and made San Ignacio by nightfall. They slept at an old but clean hotel. Because his only experience of Mexico had been Revolution Avenue in TJ, Perry was genuinely shocked to see that Mexico was a bona fide country, like the United States and Canada. In many places it seemed as if they could have been in the U.S. Wanda remarked that the border was merely a comical formality.

They left early, and La Paz was theirs by sundown on the 31st. The latitude changed both the weather and the attitude; it was still warm when they arrived and were greeted with an equally warm reception. The town was clean and attractive. The people upbeat and happy. The tourist economy was good, and the wealth seemed to be shared. Perhaps, he thought, the hand of corruption, ungloved and uncuffed everywhere else, just couldn’t penetrate here. Though stiff from the ride and hung over from lack of sleep, they dropped their spartan baggage on the red tile floor of the modest bungalow that Wanda had reserved and went to sleep.

They awoke at ten, dressed, and nearly ran to the main street where the party was already in progress. First they celebrated with some other young Americans, next with some of the locals, then with more Americans, and finally again with the locals. Of the party, Perry remembered little, except for the hypnotic revelry and the best tequila he had ever tasted. What stuck with him, though, were the events of New Year’s Day.

Perry thought he had grown accustomed to waking up in strange places in a different mood every day. This morning they awoke on a mattress on the floor of a small house under yet another of an endless succession of old Mexican blankets. Wanda didn’t stir as he brushed the hair from her face. As far as he could tell, they were in someone’s home. The room was small and cramped, with religious paraphernalia, photos of fishing boats, and charts, both economic and nautical. It was an office of some sort. An adding machine sat on a desk in the corner. Until he looked for the door, he had assumed that they were alone.

Four black-haired heads and four sets of curious brown eyes were peering at him from the door jamb. When the children saw him staring at them, they ran away shouting. He looked around the room again and then lay staring at the ceiling. Wanda stirred and he hugged her tightly. She awoke and returned the favor.

From the other room where the children ran, a young man of about 25 appeared. He said something to Wanda, and she gave him a brief reply. To Perry she said, "Get up. Let’s eat.’’ They got up, still in their clothes, found their shoes in the corner, and left the room.

At breakfast they learned how they came to be there. Apparently, they had been drunk, very drunk, and had attempted to ride the motorcycle. This man, Fernando, and his brother and cousin stopped them before the police did, put the bike in their truck, and later brought them here, where they passed out. Now it seemed that they had some plan for Perry and Wanda.

Fernando and his wife Anna left with the rest of the adults in the truck. Wanda explained to Perry that they were going to a local New Year’s ceremony at the top of a nearby mountain. She and he were to watch the children and Anna’s father until they returned. None of this struck Perry as odd until he began to contemplate what effect Wanda must have had on the family for them to trust their children with strangers, and Americans at that. Fernando had already returned the keys to the bike, which he and Perry had lowered out of the back of the truck.

Anna’s father had just beaten Perry for the third time at checkers and asked in passable English if he wouldn’t mind getting him — and Perry, if it pleased him — a glass of iced tea from the kitchen. Perry did. When he returned, the old man had taken to a reclining chair and was staring out at the sea. Perry too looked in that direction. It was beautiful. The high-noon sun beat down from a cloudless sky. Everything glowed under the unabated light. The children chased Wanda, who led them around with a long piece of silver Christmas tinsel. The boys dove in the sand attempting to catch it. Wanda kept pulling it away. Finally, she stopped and said something to the children. They all turned their backs to her and, after making a ball of it, she threw the tinsel in front of them on the sand a few yards away. The three boys took after it in a mad dash and were soon playing tag. The little girl, however, remained in place, unable to run so fast. Wanda knelt down behind her and tapped the little girl on the shoulder. When she turned around, they embraced. Perry felt his heart leap to his throat. Wanda said something to the little girl and lifted her chin with her finger. The girl gave that nod and blink that children of that age are apt to do when they understand they are being given good advice. Looking around, as if about to commit some act on the sly, Wanda removed her left and then her right earring. They were charm bracelets of little animal figures that she had picked up at a stand in Ensenada. She placed one in each of the little girl’s hands and gave her a kiss on the forehead. The little girl gave Wanda a hug and a kiss on the cheek and ran back toward the house, bolting past Perry and the old man to some secret hiding place or perhaps the house of some other little girl.

The old man settled deeper into his chair. Perry looked at him. The old man smiled, then, with his finger, pulled down the skin under his eye and pursed his lips in the direction of Wanda, and laughed.

Then he became serious and gave Perry a look that said, so what are you going to do now, boy? Perry understood.

The realization that he was going to have to make a big decision hit Perry hard and square in the face. He loved Wanda, and he often fantasized about spending the rest of his life with her. She was grace and beauty. She had an independence that would never be challenging but would be an asset to both of them. Inexplicably, he trusted her, though her past was still a mystery. At times he felt those around him knew much more about what was going on, much more about her. Perhaps a greater commitment, an engagement, would alleviate his fears; or, if his fears were well founded, it would teach him what he didn’t know. He would act. He would act soon.

They rode back to San Diego in near silence. Perry even neglected to point out interesting spots in the countryside. He made no comments about the beauty of the mountains. Wanda drew closer to him on the bike with every passing mile. Perry felt a rush of energy between them that he never felt before. Again they stopped in San Ignacio. This night was very cold, When they reached the hotel, they were close to freezing. Neither said a word as they entered the room. Neither said a word as they made love for hours. Neither said a word as they left in the morning. They didn’t speak again until they were at the border crossing. Along the way, whenever Perry looked at Wanda, she had a look in her eyes that seemed to beg him to say what was on his mind. She seemed to be allowing him the chance to reveal his deepest thoughts to her. But Perry simply did not know what his deepest thoughts were. He felt shallow and empty.

He finally decided not to say anything specific to her. He hoped that somehow the message would be understood. Perhaps she would be able to tell him what he was thinking, and he would simply nod in agreement because then it would be perfectly clear to him. And s he said nothing unusual; he just didn't talk too much.

By he end of January, when nothing had been said to his or her satisfaction, they became desperate that their conversations resembled a bad detective movie scene. In an effort to save the relationship, Wanda did what had been impossible. She invited Perry to visit the house where she lived. Her previous reluctance to do so Perry simply had chalked up to a California thing.

The timing probably could not have been better. Bill was back from sea, and he and Perry did not care much for each other’s company.

The house was located between Hillcrest and downtown, with a commanding view of Balboa Park. It was a three-story Victorian, converted to rental units, that still bore the scars of the '50s, '60s, and 70s. The balconies were painted with flowers and peace symbols. Wanda had a room on the third floor. The other residents were two small-time drug dealers named Mitch and Dana, a law student named Debbie, an ex-professional wrestler named Truck, and, in the guest house, two lesbians named Cindy and Marty.

Wanda’s room was filled with pictures of herself, her family, and her friends. To Perry’s surprise, Wanda was once a cheerleader, a Girl Scout. He felt he would be surprised to learn that she was at one time a virgin. Would the discovering ever stop? Would he ever know what there was to know about her? Did he want to?

For now he was content to just sit and be in this house. This house was her in a lot of ways. It was old but it looked young. It was out of place in this neighborhood.

January became February became March. On the first of March, Wanda lost her job. That night she told him that when things or people are subjected to extreme conditions, their basic properties become manifest. The next day, he would know what she meant.

Perry had awakened early. He was lying on the couch pretending to read a book. In fact he was watching with some curiosity the morning dance of Cindy and Marty, who had devised a symbiotic morning routine in which they used every moment to its fullest and minimized the amount of time that it took to prepare breakfast and get ready for work. While Cindy cooked breakfast, Marty brushed Cindy’s hair. While Marty ate, Cindy would brush Marty’s hair. Cindy didn’t eat breakfast, so it worked out very well. While one did the dishes, the other picked out what they would wear. It was while Marty was eating that the police broke down the door and stormed the house.

The small-time drug dealers had gone big time. Mitch had taken home two kilos of cocaine to hold for the night for a big dealer. No one knew how, but the cops got wind of it and arrested both Mitch and Dana. In the flurry of the bust, Wanda fell on the stairs and broke her leg.

Wanda was now helpless and dependent upon Perry to care for her. The cast was hip high. In fact Wanda was overbearingly reliant upon Perry for everything. He didn’t mind much at the beginning, and for the first time he felt like a provider. The relationship was like his father and mother’s, except that he and Wanda were not yet husband and wife. Perry thought back to the time at the bridge when he offered to give Wanda a ride to the gas station and how reluctant she was to accept his help. He wondered what had changed. Him? Her? Both? Did it matter? The situation was now reversed. Perry was the one who had wanderlust and lonerlust. Wanda wanted to settle down and get serious. He felt trapped.

One day at the house in Hillcrest, they got a call from Charlie’s friend Lupe. She said that Charlie was very sick and had become irrational. They rushed over to the house on Perry's bike. He held her broken leg in his left hand. He managed to shift without the clutch and run every stop light and stop sign to get there without stalling.

Charlie was in the garage, drunk and stoned, sanding the paint off a motorcycle frame. Wanda burst into tears. Perry could not tell whether they were tears of pain or of joy. What Charlie was doing looked innocent enough. He had never seen the shop look so organized or clean. On one side, Charlie had carefully placed the frame and wheels of the motorcycle. On the other side he had put the engine.

They tried talking to Charlie, but he didn’t answer. He just kept sanding the frame. Wanda and Lupe went back inside the house and began talking solemnly in Spanish.

Perry figured, So what? Charlie finally drank and doped himself into la-la land. He might come back and he might not. Perry hoped he wouldn't. He didn’t like Charlie's relationship with Wanda. Either way, Charlie had only himself to blame. When Wanda emerged from the room, she said, "Let’s stay tonight," and without argument or discussion, they did.

They stayed the whole week and half of the next, hoping Charlie would come back to reality or at least acknowledge their existence. He never did. To make it worse, Wanda kept feeding him amphetamines so he could continue working on the bike. After the third day, Perry stopped going into the garage. The sickening feeling he experienced made Perry’s whole body feel as if it was made of plaster. He started drinking JD straight from the bottle just like Charlie.

One day Wanda came outside to the porch where Perry was reading a book and asked him to talk with her. She told him that Charlie had very complicated medical problems. His amputation was deteriorating. Soon they were going to have to operate again. Afterwards, he might be bedridden. He might even die. He had saved one motorcycle, a 1952 BMW, as his masterpiece. He planned that it look even better and run even faster than when it came off the showroom floor. Now things began to make more sense.

Then one day, when Charlie had polished the last part on the bike, he rolled his wheelchair into his bedroom, took a deep breath, and swallowed a bullet.

Perry’s confusion over Wanda’s relationship with Charlie finally peaked when he discovered, though Wanda tried her best to prevent it, that she and Lupe had inherited all of Charlie’s property and insurance. Two thirds went to Wanda and one third to Lupe.

A month after Charlie was buried, Perry rode over to Wanda's house only to discover she was gone. She had moved, telling Cindy and Marty that she was moving to San Francisco. Her aunt had gotten her a good job at a book company. It must be true, Perry thought. Wanda had never lied to him or anyone. The worst she had done was to withhold the truth.

Perry felt pretty sick that day. He didn’t feel like riding. He went to the zoo and looked at the animals and envied them. Then he went home.

When Perry got home, Bill was in his bedroom talking to one of his shipmates.

“Yeah, I think he's still seeing that half-breed Flip bitch."

“I think she's cute. What the hell do you have against her, Bill?’’

“The landlady used to work with her mom down at the disabled veterans’ association. That’s where she met this bike mechanic guy. It seems she had a passion for getting stoned and a weak spot for hard-luck stories."

“I still don’t get it."

“She started hanging out with this guy, and he practically gives her a motorcycle. For what? The little slut slept with him. She even had his kid.”

“Does Perry know?”

“Negative. He thinks it's her little sister. Personally, I don’t know what her game is. I don’t know what she sees in him, and I don't know what he sees in her. It’s fucking weird.”

Perry didn’t sleep that night. In the morning, he decided to go for a ride. His bike was gone. Like waking from a dream, it had vanished. She too had vanished. His reason for staying in San Diego, fragile as it was, was gone also. He went back to his room, packed his clothes, and called a cab. Before going to the airport, he asked the cab driver to take him to the foot bridge. Perry felt nothing there. His feelings dissipated to some place he couldn’t find anymore.

He never returned to San Diego. He never returned to California. He didn’t like the state.

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Three poems for August by Dorothy Parker

With an acidic wit and keen eye for flawed humanity
Image by David Clemesha

As the plane flew over Arizona, Perry studied his map of San Diego. It was sent to him by the city as part of a welcome package for potential residents and contained coupons for Sea World and other attractions, a ten-page history, a list of churches and synagogues, renters’ guide, and get-by Spanish for visits to Mexico. The map interested him most.

He found Ocean Beach, where he would be living. It was right in the path of the airport, just as his friend Bill had described it. He thought it curious that the large bay had only one bridge.

It was July 3, 1985, and Perry, 20 years and 5 days old now, was responding to a plea from his high school buddy Bill. “Come to San Diego. It’s great. I need a roommate. Be back from sea in June. Call me.” Bill, a year older than Perry, had joined the Navy in '82, just after graduating, and was now stationed on a submarine. He said he could get an apartment if he could find a roommate to be there the six or so months each year that he was at sea. Perry quit his job at the shoe department of Sears, called Bill, set a date, told his parents, and left.

The pilot's voice broke his concentration. Minutes later, Perry was standing in the Lindbergh Field terminal looking for Bill.

Bill sat nervously smoking a cigarette. He recognized Perry first. Bill changed, Perry thought; he stood a foot taller, looked pale as a ghost, and had hair so short it made his head look something like a light bulb. A casual greeting and they were off. The two of them rode to the apartment, saying little, in Bill’s new Camaro. Bill apologized for the silence and told Perry that he was preoccupied with work. At the apartment, Bill showed Perry his new room, gave him his keys, and left for the base.

Perry liked the apartment because it was on the top floor of the building, with an ocean view. Bill had decorated the place in heavy metal. Band posters covered every wall. There was a lava lamp by the sofa, Budweiser towels in the kitchen, and even a velvet Elvis painting on the inside of the front door. Perry lay down on the sofa and took a nap.

When he awoke near midnight, there was no sign that Bill had been home. Perry made some coffee and cereal and watched an old Godzilla flick on TV. Since he needed a job, he walked down to the corner where he had seen a convenience store and bought a newspaper.

For the next few days, Perry studied his map, called on all the jobs that looked promising, and finally landed one as a restaurant busboy in a place called La Jolla.

Within a month he’d settled into a livable schedule. Bill was rarely home, and when he was, he was either asleep or entertaining shipmates. On the whole, Perry disliked them. Perry made a few friends at work, but they too had their quirks. Some of them spent all their time and money on cocaine. Perry did coke every now and then but only if it was free and only on special occasions. Besides, his biggest prob-^ lem was having to take the bus everywhere. He’d brought some money with him and had managed to save a little. Bill let him slide a little on the rent until he bought a car.

One morning on his way to the bus stop, Perry noticed a motorcycle with a For Sale sign. The bike was clean and new looking but obviously a few years old. He wrote down the phone number and ran quickly to catch the bus. As he rode past the motorcycle, he gave it a quick glance. Nice bike, he thought.

Perry had never owned a motorcycle, though he knew how to ride one. A friend in school had a Harley-Davidson and had taught him to ride in exchange for some favor that he had since forgotten. This one was a Honda, and he wondered just how different they could be. The more Perry thought about it, the better the idea seemed. The weather was hot. Bill was getting ready to go to sea again and would be putting his car in storage. Bill never mentioned letting Perry .use it, and Perry didn’t ask.

The next day he called about the bike. The owner said to come over anytime before sundown and he would let him drive it. Perry ate breakfast and walked over. When he got to the house on Voltaire Street, he found four more motorcycles parked out front and he could hear one’s engine revving in the back alley. The house looked run down. It had a ramp up the front steps onto the porch. They probably rode motorcycles in the house. Maybe he should just forget it, he thought.

When he rang the doorbell, Perry heard a woman with a thick Spanish accent yell for Charlie. After a minute or so, Charlie appeared, riding in a wheelchair, wearing a tall cowboy hat to protect his completely shaven head from the sun, small John Lennon glasses, a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, cut-off blue-jean shorts over a left leg that was amputated just above the knee and a right leg that was amputated so high that it stretched Perry’s knowledge of human anatomy to conceive what might be left. Charlie was what Perry imagined every Vietnam vet to be. They greeted one another and went out to see the bike.

As Charlie explained that it was a newly rebuilt 1976 Honda CB550 Four, he took generous swigs from the Jack Daniel’s whiskey bottle that he kept in a holster at the side of the chair. Next to that hung a marijuana bong on a leather leash. A tray containing an assortment of wrenches, screwdrivers, and other tools was welded to the opposite side. When Charlie finished explaining all that he had to explain, Perry took the bike for a test ride. It worked to his satisfaction.

Charlie wanted $600. Perry said he had $450 in cash today and was willing to give him the balance in two weeks; Charlie could keep the title till then, but Perry wanted to have use of the bike in the meantime. Charlie smiled a big, broad smile, chased it off his face with some JD, threw out his hand, and said, “It’s a deal. But,” he added, “I don’t want to leave you broke, so give me $350 and use the rest to buy yourself a helmet. Promise me that you’ll buy a helmet.” They went inside, and Charlie gave him the keys and an owner’s manual.

Perry rode the bike to Mission Beach, La Jolla, and then finally back home. He loved it. Damn, he thought, this is going to be great.

The next Saturday and the Saturday after, Perry gave Charlie the balance of the money. Both times Charlie kept Perry there an hour or so, talking and checking on the bike and his handiwork. Charlie took great pleasure in explaining everything that he had done, how it all worked, and how to watch for signs of trouble. As Perry was about to leave after the second (and what Perry hoped would be the final) visit, Charlie asked him to wait a minute. He said he thought he had some extra spark plugs for him. As Chariie disappeared into the house, another bike roared down the street. The rider appeared to be either a very thin, long-haired boy or a girl. The rider turned around at the corner and came back straight at Perry, skidding to a halt right where he was standing, making him jump onto the curb to avoid being hit. The rider flung the helmet on the ground and ran into the house. It was a girl.

From inside the house, Perry could hear screams of excitement and a lot of jumping up and down. In a minute, Charlie and the girl came out. She was riding on his lap and holding the JD bottle. Charlie was laughing. As Perry stared at this girl in a manner he felt sure must be uncomfortable for her, he thought she was perhaps the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She had thick, brownish-red hair, chestnut-brown skin, and green eyes whose shape betrayed a hint of Asia in her background. She hopped off the wheelchair and gave Charlie a big kiss.

It was only then that the girl seemed to notice that Perry was there. She offered him some JD, and Perry took a big swig, as he had become used to doing when he visited the house. Charlie introduced them, commenting that Perry was from Ohio. Wanda shook his hand, then turned to Charlie and said in a very mocking tone, “O-H-l-O,” dragging out each letter. Wanda and Charlie laughed. Perry snickered nervously. He wasn’t sure he liked her.

The three talked for a few minutes, and Charlie explained that Perry was the one who had bought the old Honda. Apparently Wanda had wanted to buy it too but couldn’t.

When Charlie went inside to take a phone call, Wanda walked over to Perry’s bike and inspected it. She had one hand on the seat and played with some wires with the other. She mumbled something to herself and looked at Perry. She smiled. “I think you got a good buy. When Charlie got this thing it was a mess. He did a lot of work to it. A lot. Maybe you’ll let me ride it sometime.” Forgetting that he was ever mad at her, Perry replied that it was no problem and asked if she lived close by. She looked back at him with a smile that said you’re not going to get an answer to that question. Yet. “I’m around. You’ll see me around. I’m around.” She almost sang the last sentence. With that, Wanda hopped on her bike, started it up, and rode off down the street.

Perry stood there for a moment looking at his Honda 550F, watching people walk by, gazing off into the sky, and generally wishing that he felt better about Wanda. For Christ’s sake, he thought, nobody ever got his goat as fast as she had. He figured her for some biker slut anyway. Besides her good looks, there was no reason he would be caught dead with her. But he finally admitted after a long debate with himself that she was exceptionally exotic looking and, if it didn’t require too much effort, it might be a good idea to try to get to know her. Maybe, he thought, she might have a less flippant friend.

When Charlie returned, he looked much less jovial than usual. He changed the spark plugs on the motorcycle, then without much said, he excused himself. As he rode off, Perry thought the bike ran a lot better.

Nearly two weeks later (13 days to be exact), Perry ran into Wanda again. It was Friday and he had worked a hard night at the restaurant. Around 3:30 in the morning he found himself riding the Honda down Mission Boulevard. At Roberto's by the roller coaster he parked to get something to eat. While ordering, Perry chanced to look to his right; around the corner came Wanda, her left arm around a gigantic, hairy biker wearing a tank top and cut-off jeans. Perry understood right away why bikers seldom wore shorts. He stared at her and watched her pass, more to his discomfort than to hers. She stopped suddenly, slapped the biker on the ass, then jumped in line behind Perry as the biker ambled down the sidewalk in the manner that bikers do. She huddled up close behind him and whispered lusciously in his ear, "O-H-l-O,” just as she had done the other day.

Before he could respond, she stepped to the pickup window and embraced the wiry young Mexican behind the counter. He smiled and they conversed in what Perry guessed was perfect Spanish. He stood there taking in the scene intently but feeling very drugged. He was flat lost in Wanda. So lost, in fact, that he didn’t notice the kid calling out his order and was embarrassed to the point of collapse when Wanda brought it to him with a mock curtsey to the ambassador from O-H-l-O. Perry sat on his bike, ate his carne asada, and drank his 7-Up. He didn't understand this. He didn’t want to understand this.

Wanda finished talking to her amigo and slipped across the street to her motorcycle. Perry pretended not to notice. She emerged from the parking lot at breakneck speed but didn’t make the light. Perry watched her in the eerie glow of the street lamp as she took off her helmet, applied a coat of lip gloss, turned to him, and, in theatrically exaggerated gestures, mouthed O-HI-O, as if to say Oh ... Hi... Ohh.

That did it; he was pissed. He tossed the 7-Up he had been nursing and started his bike. The light changed, and it took him till the Sea World Drive exit to catch up with her. He motioned for her to pull over, for what reason he did not know. She ignored him. They followed a path from Sea World Drive to Pacific Coast Highway, up Washington Street, down Goldfinch and Reynard, and then into a neighborhood of very nice old homes. Perry, though tiring of the chase, held on because it seemed as if Wanda had a destination in mind. At last they came to a stop on a dead-end street, at the' edge of a canyon. Looking back at him, Wanda began to descend a concrete stairway. Perry rode his bike onto the sidewalk just in time to see her pull a wheelie at the bottom of the steps and ride to the other side of a narrow foot bridge. No fucking way, not for any girl, anywhere, ever, his common sense screamed at him as, pressing hard on the rear brake and controlling his descent with the front, he inched the motorcycle down the 12 concrete steps.

It hadn’t escaped his attention that hers was a dual-purpose 250 and his a street 550, making hers much better suited for this sort of thing. Nor had he missed the fact that he had been riding a motorcycle only three weeks. When he hit the wet wood planks of the bridge, his front tire began to slide out from under him. Had fate ordained him to crash, perhaps Wanda would have ridden off laughing at his inferiority as a biker and general incompetence because he was from O-H-l-O. But he wasn’t so incompetent. Reaching the dry part of the bridge, Perry gunned the engine and found himself atop a 350-pound motorcycle heading at a dangerous angle toward the edge of the narrow bridge and a drop of perhaps 100 feet. He gingerly leaned away from the turn. His crash bar made a hellish hissing noise and sent sparks flying off the lowest of the bridge’s wires, but neither his foot nor his foot peg caught on the horizontal struts, and he escaped a crash. In the last 50 feet, when he was sure of his safe arrival, Perry gunned the throttle just to impress her.

Wanda had to back up to let Perry by. He stopped his bike just short of the top of the sidewalk, turned around, and rolled to a stop in front of Wanda. He was acutely aware that his right foot, out of nervousness, was bouncing on the foot brake, so he shifted to the hand. She backed up farther as he rode up next to her and, once off the curb, she parked her bike. Perry followed suit. They dismounted and walked to the center of the bridge. They stood there for more than half an hour watching the occasional plane pass the mouth of the canyon on its way to Lindbergh Field. Off to the side they heard the clinking of metal as the two motorcycles cooled off in the night air. Wanda moved first. From her leather jacket she pulled a silver cigarette case and extracted a joint. She lit it and they smoked. As the marijuana took its effect, Perry felt his hands loosen on the steel cable at his navel.

For another hour they stood grinning and watching the airplanes. Wanda let her head fall on Perry’s shoulder, and he put his arm around her waist. They soon descended the path under the bridge.

When he awoke, Perry found himself under a Mexican blanket, beneath a canopy of eucalyptus trees, with Wanda's head on his chest. He peered over his cheeks and saw the foot bridge in the distance. Wanda was sleeping. Nothing disturbed the moment.

In a while Wanda awoke. She fumbled for her clothes and dressed beneath the blanket. He was surprised and dismayed. Only minutes before he had felt very close to her. Perry dressed too and followed Wanda up the path to the motorcycles. They discovered that during the night someone had drained the gas from Wanda’s tank and had tried unsuccessfully to do the same to Perry’s. Perry offered to give her a ride to a gas station. For a moment she hesitated and would not answer him. He felt ashamed for thinking that a girl of such independence would accept help. Finally, she smiled at him and said yes.

The ride to the gas station confused him more. Wanda held him tighter than was necessary and gave him an occasional kiss on the back of the neck or a lick behind the ear. At the gas station she behaved as if she did not know him. On the return trip, she held him tight again. When they reached the bikes, she thanked him rather coolly and did not answer his request for her phone number but simply rode away. Perry returned home determined not to think of her or speak to her again.

After a few hours of much-needed sleep, Perry stopped by Charlie’s house. He was not home, but Wanda was asleep on the couch. She awoke as Perry entered. Perry got two beers from the fridge, one for Wanda and one for himself. They sat on the couch and watched Jeopardy! until Charlie returned, Perry still too confused to talk and Wanda too tired to notice. Wanda ran up and kissed Charlie. Perry waved. It was all strange.

Weeks passed, and the scene in the canyon under the foot bridge was repeated many times. Though often in one another's company, playing well the roles of boyfriend and girlfriend, they did so without the exchange of biographies or talk of futures. Perry guessed the formalities of starting a relationship in Southern California were just different than they were back in Ohio. Pleasantly, the petty jealousies were absent too. He felt at once overjoyed at his good fortune and vacant from its strangeness. He was determined not to let his own role rules impair the progress of events. Basically, he would just take it easy.

Life proceeded comfortably. He and Wanda had their thing. He became proficient at work and was promoted to waiter. He even started two math classes at Mesa College.

Though determined to obtain some sort of degree, he couldn’t choose a course of study. Subtle changes were occurring in his personality. These changes he attributed to the new geography, culture, his thing with Wanda, and his new appearance. He hadn’t had a haircut since leaving Ohio; he wore his hair long, in a ponytail. He felt that it went well with the motorcycle. Until the changes leveled off, he decided, he wouldn’t make any definite plans for his future.

As autumn slipped into winter, Perry began to concentrate his efforts on discovering what he could about Wanda without asking her or any of her friends direct questions. His upbringing compelled him. He often wished he had grown up in California so he wouldn’t feel compelled about anything.

Perry wondered if Wanda knew that she had totally blown his reality. He wondered if she knew how desperately he needed her to pull him from one coast to the other, from a life not unlike Happy Days to one not unlike Nine and a Half Weeks, from the sides of many bridges to the sides of many others. He grew apprehensive thinking she would walk out of his life the same way she walked in. But he knew he handled this apprehension better than he could have before meeting her. He believed Wanda knew what effect she had on him. There would come a time, and he knew it.

December brought change to the relationship at a time when Perry wanted and needed it least. He turned down his parents’ request to go back to Ohio for Christmas, even when they offered to pay for his trip. Instead, he answered an ad in the paper to spend Christmas volunteering to wash dishes at a teenage-runaway shelter. A week before Christmas, though, Wanda suddenly insisted that he spend Christmas and Christmas Eve with her at her parents' house. She had also made plans for them to spend New Year’s Eve in La Paz, Mexico. They did both. Wanda abruptly began dictating his time.

The morning of the 24th, he was nervous to the point of being sick. He felt that it was all crumbling around him. He knew he was going to get her life story shoved down him in one fell swoop. The mystery would shatter, and suddenly he and Wanda would become two ordinary human beings. He prayed desperately for an excuse not to go. He was too tense to think of one. He looked in the mirror and saw Perry Brian Schaffstall, 12 pounds heavier, with long hair and a distant look in his eyes. He saw a lost little boy playing a grownup game, in the corner taking a standing eight count. He saw Perry from O-H-l-O for the first time in seven months. He threw up.

Her parents’ house was much bigger than he had expected. They lived in Chula Vista, in the farthest corner of a housing tract that Perry guessed to be at least 50 years old. Their basic four-bedroom home had many additions, making it a six-bedroom with an enclosed patio and a den. In the back yard, a Jacuzzi shared space with a fishing boat and the carcass of an Edsel. From pictures on the wall and children still living at home, Perry guessed Wanda to be the second oldest of five children; two boys and three girls. The youngest was only 11 months old.

Wanda’s parents were to Perry an unlikely match. Her father Ivan, a retired Navy chief, was a tall, robust redhead of Swedish descent. Her mother Linda was a short, slender Filipino woman. Wanda had gotten the best of both. Ivan took an immediate liking to Perry. He guessed, however, that this man took a liking to everyone he met. By midday the whole family, including in-laws, had gathered at the house. Ivan appointed Perry to be his first mate in doing all the "manly” chores, as he called them. All this they did without Ivan ever attempting to get to know Perry in the way he had grown to expect Midwestern fathers to do. Linda, on the other hand, eyed Perry suspiciously. More than once he caught her looking at him in a strange way. Through ignorance he chalked this up as an Asian trait.

The day and evening went well. It was as traditional a dinner as California was likely to deliver. Wanda’s extended family was a hard-working, law-abiding bunch. And despite his earlier fears, Perry only learned that Wanda was the social butterfly of the family and, it seemed, a bit of an outcast. She paid meticulous attention to the baby and engaged in a lot of heart-to-heart discussions with Linda. Nevertheless, Perry couldn't deny that their relationship had changed. For the better or the worse he knew not. Perry hated change; it made him nervous.

They decided to go to La Paz on one bike, Perry’s. They took one small suitcase and a gym bag, which they tied to a sissy bar that Perry had recently purchased at a garage sale. He also purchased a windscreen at a dealership; Wanda had warned him that nights and even days in the bleak Baja deserts could get very cold. They hid cash in various compartments on the bike in order to pay mordida, if necessary, and hid extra IDs and sets of keys. Wanda said she wasn’t sure which would be worse, the elements or the often ruthless extortion tactics of the federales. The morning they left, Perry threw up again.

Cold it was. They left early and made San Ignacio by nightfall. They slept at an old but clean hotel. Because his only experience of Mexico had been Revolution Avenue in TJ, Perry was genuinely shocked to see that Mexico was a bona fide country, like the United States and Canada. In many places it seemed as if they could have been in the U.S. Wanda remarked that the border was merely a comical formality.

They left early, and La Paz was theirs by sundown on the 31st. The latitude changed both the weather and the attitude; it was still warm when they arrived and were greeted with an equally warm reception. The town was clean and attractive. The people upbeat and happy. The tourist economy was good, and the wealth seemed to be shared. Perhaps, he thought, the hand of corruption, ungloved and uncuffed everywhere else, just couldn’t penetrate here. Though stiff from the ride and hung over from lack of sleep, they dropped their spartan baggage on the red tile floor of the modest bungalow that Wanda had reserved and went to sleep.

They awoke at ten, dressed, and nearly ran to the main street where the party was already in progress. First they celebrated with some other young Americans, next with some of the locals, then with more Americans, and finally again with the locals. Of the party, Perry remembered little, except for the hypnotic revelry and the best tequila he had ever tasted. What stuck with him, though, were the events of New Year’s Day.

Perry thought he had grown accustomed to waking up in strange places in a different mood every day. This morning they awoke on a mattress on the floor of a small house under yet another of an endless succession of old Mexican blankets. Wanda didn’t stir as he brushed the hair from her face. As far as he could tell, they were in someone’s home. The room was small and cramped, with religious paraphernalia, photos of fishing boats, and charts, both economic and nautical. It was an office of some sort. An adding machine sat on a desk in the corner. Until he looked for the door, he had assumed that they were alone.

Four black-haired heads and four sets of curious brown eyes were peering at him from the door jamb. When the children saw him staring at them, they ran away shouting. He looked around the room again and then lay staring at the ceiling. Wanda stirred and he hugged her tightly. She awoke and returned the favor.

From the other room where the children ran, a young man of about 25 appeared. He said something to Wanda, and she gave him a brief reply. To Perry she said, "Get up. Let’s eat.’’ They got up, still in their clothes, found their shoes in the corner, and left the room.

At breakfast they learned how they came to be there. Apparently, they had been drunk, very drunk, and had attempted to ride the motorcycle. This man, Fernando, and his brother and cousin stopped them before the police did, put the bike in their truck, and later brought them here, where they passed out. Now it seemed that they had some plan for Perry and Wanda.

Fernando and his wife Anna left with the rest of the adults in the truck. Wanda explained to Perry that they were going to a local New Year’s ceremony at the top of a nearby mountain. She and he were to watch the children and Anna’s father until they returned. None of this struck Perry as odd until he began to contemplate what effect Wanda must have had on the family for them to trust their children with strangers, and Americans at that. Fernando had already returned the keys to the bike, which he and Perry had lowered out of the back of the truck.

Anna’s father had just beaten Perry for the third time at checkers and asked in passable English if he wouldn’t mind getting him — and Perry, if it pleased him — a glass of iced tea from the kitchen. Perry did. When he returned, the old man had taken to a reclining chair and was staring out at the sea. Perry too looked in that direction. It was beautiful. The high-noon sun beat down from a cloudless sky. Everything glowed under the unabated light. The children chased Wanda, who led them around with a long piece of silver Christmas tinsel. The boys dove in the sand attempting to catch it. Wanda kept pulling it away. Finally, she stopped and said something to the children. They all turned their backs to her and, after making a ball of it, she threw the tinsel in front of them on the sand a few yards away. The three boys took after it in a mad dash and were soon playing tag. The little girl, however, remained in place, unable to run so fast. Wanda knelt down behind her and tapped the little girl on the shoulder. When she turned around, they embraced. Perry felt his heart leap to his throat. Wanda said something to the little girl and lifted her chin with her finger. The girl gave that nod and blink that children of that age are apt to do when they understand they are being given good advice. Looking around, as if about to commit some act on the sly, Wanda removed her left and then her right earring. They were charm bracelets of little animal figures that she had picked up at a stand in Ensenada. She placed one in each of the little girl’s hands and gave her a kiss on the forehead. The little girl gave Wanda a hug and a kiss on the cheek and ran back toward the house, bolting past Perry and the old man to some secret hiding place or perhaps the house of some other little girl.

The old man settled deeper into his chair. Perry looked at him. The old man smiled, then, with his finger, pulled down the skin under his eye and pursed his lips in the direction of Wanda, and laughed.

Then he became serious and gave Perry a look that said, so what are you going to do now, boy? Perry understood.

The realization that he was going to have to make a big decision hit Perry hard and square in the face. He loved Wanda, and he often fantasized about spending the rest of his life with her. She was grace and beauty. She had an independence that would never be challenging but would be an asset to both of them. Inexplicably, he trusted her, though her past was still a mystery. At times he felt those around him knew much more about what was going on, much more about her. Perhaps a greater commitment, an engagement, would alleviate his fears; or, if his fears were well founded, it would teach him what he didn’t know. He would act. He would act soon.

They rode back to San Diego in near silence. Perry even neglected to point out interesting spots in the countryside. He made no comments about the beauty of the mountains. Wanda drew closer to him on the bike with every passing mile. Perry felt a rush of energy between them that he never felt before. Again they stopped in San Ignacio. This night was very cold, When they reached the hotel, they were close to freezing. Neither said a word as they entered the room. Neither said a word as they made love for hours. Neither said a word as they left in the morning. They didn’t speak again until they were at the border crossing. Along the way, whenever Perry looked at Wanda, she had a look in her eyes that seemed to beg him to say what was on his mind. She seemed to be allowing him the chance to reveal his deepest thoughts to her. But Perry simply did not know what his deepest thoughts were. He felt shallow and empty.

He finally decided not to say anything specific to her. He hoped that somehow the message would be understood. Perhaps she would be able to tell him what he was thinking, and he would simply nod in agreement because then it would be perfectly clear to him. And s he said nothing unusual; he just didn't talk too much.

By he end of January, when nothing had been said to his or her satisfaction, they became desperate that their conversations resembled a bad detective movie scene. In an effort to save the relationship, Wanda did what had been impossible. She invited Perry to visit the house where she lived. Her previous reluctance to do so Perry simply had chalked up to a California thing.

The timing probably could not have been better. Bill was back from sea, and he and Perry did not care much for each other’s company.

The house was located between Hillcrest and downtown, with a commanding view of Balboa Park. It was a three-story Victorian, converted to rental units, that still bore the scars of the '50s, '60s, and 70s. The balconies were painted with flowers and peace symbols. Wanda had a room on the third floor. The other residents were two small-time drug dealers named Mitch and Dana, a law student named Debbie, an ex-professional wrestler named Truck, and, in the guest house, two lesbians named Cindy and Marty.

Wanda’s room was filled with pictures of herself, her family, and her friends. To Perry’s surprise, Wanda was once a cheerleader, a Girl Scout. He felt he would be surprised to learn that she was at one time a virgin. Would the discovering ever stop? Would he ever know what there was to know about her? Did he want to?

For now he was content to just sit and be in this house. This house was her in a lot of ways. It was old but it looked young. It was out of place in this neighborhood.

January became February became March. On the first of March, Wanda lost her job. That night she told him that when things or people are subjected to extreme conditions, their basic properties become manifest. The next day, he would know what she meant.

Perry had awakened early. He was lying on the couch pretending to read a book. In fact he was watching with some curiosity the morning dance of Cindy and Marty, who had devised a symbiotic morning routine in which they used every moment to its fullest and minimized the amount of time that it took to prepare breakfast and get ready for work. While Cindy cooked breakfast, Marty brushed Cindy’s hair. While Marty ate, Cindy would brush Marty’s hair. Cindy didn’t eat breakfast, so it worked out very well. While one did the dishes, the other picked out what they would wear. It was while Marty was eating that the police broke down the door and stormed the house.

The small-time drug dealers had gone big time. Mitch had taken home two kilos of cocaine to hold for the night for a big dealer. No one knew how, but the cops got wind of it and arrested both Mitch and Dana. In the flurry of the bust, Wanda fell on the stairs and broke her leg.

Wanda was now helpless and dependent upon Perry to care for her. The cast was hip high. In fact Wanda was overbearingly reliant upon Perry for everything. He didn’t mind much at the beginning, and for the first time he felt like a provider. The relationship was like his father and mother’s, except that he and Wanda were not yet husband and wife. Perry thought back to the time at the bridge when he offered to give Wanda a ride to the gas station and how reluctant she was to accept his help. He wondered what had changed. Him? Her? Both? Did it matter? The situation was now reversed. Perry was the one who had wanderlust and lonerlust. Wanda wanted to settle down and get serious. He felt trapped.

One day at the house in Hillcrest, they got a call from Charlie’s friend Lupe. She said that Charlie was very sick and had become irrational. They rushed over to the house on Perry's bike. He held her broken leg in his left hand. He managed to shift without the clutch and run every stop light and stop sign to get there without stalling.

Charlie was in the garage, drunk and stoned, sanding the paint off a motorcycle frame. Wanda burst into tears. Perry could not tell whether they were tears of pain or of joy. What Charlie was doing looked innocent enough. He had never seen the shop look so organized or clean. On one side, Charlie had carefully placed the frame and wheels of the motorcycle. On the other side he had put the engine.

They tried talking to Charlie, but he didn’t answer. He just kept sanding the frame. Wanda and Lupe went back inside the house and began talking solemnly in Spanish.

Perry figured, So what? Charlie finally drank and doped himself into la-la land. He might come back and he might not. Perry hoped he wouldn't. He didn’t like Charlie's relationship with Wanda. Either way, Charlie had only himself to blame. When Wanda emerged from the room, she said, "Let’s stay tonight," and without argument or discussion, they did.

They stayed the whole week and half of the next, hoping Charlie would come back to reality or at least acknowledge their existence. He never did. To make it worse, Wanda kept feeding him amphetamines so he could continue working on the bike. After the third day, Perry stopped going into the garage. The sickening feeling he experienced made Perry’s whole body feel as if it was made of plaster. He started drinking JD straight from the bottle just like Charlie.

One day Wanda came outside to the porch where Perry was reading a book and asked him to talk with her. She told him that Charlie had very complicated medical problems. His amputation was deteriorating. Soon they were going to have to operate again. Afterwards, he might be bedridden. He might even die. He had saved one motorcycle, a 1952 BMW, as his masterpiece. He planned that it look even better and run even faster than when it came off the showroom floor. Now things began to make more sense.

Then one day, when Charlie had polished the last part on the bike, he rolled his wheelchair into his bedroom, took a deep breath, and swallowed a bullet.

Perry’s confusion over Wanda’s relationship with Charlie finally peaked when he discovered, though Wanda tried her best to prevent it, that she and Lupe had inherited all of Charlie’s property and insurance. Two thirds went to Wanda and one third to Lupe.

A month after Charlie was buried, Perry rode over to Wanda's house only to discover she was gone. She had moved, telling Cindy and Marty that she was moving to San Francisco. Her aunt had gotten her a good job at a book company. It must be true, Perry thought. Wanda had never lied to him or anyone. The worst she had done was to withhold the truth.

Perry felt pretty sick that day. He didn’t feel like riding. He went to the zoo and looked at the animals and envied them. Then he went home.

When Perry got home, Bill was in his bedroom talking to one of his shipmates.

“Yeah, I think he's still seeing that half-breed Flip bitch."

“I think she's cute. What the hell do you have against her, Bill?’’

“The landlady used to work with her mom down at the disabled veterans’ association. That’s where she met this bike mechanic guy. It seems she had a passion for getting stoned and a weak spot for hard-luck stories."

“I still don’t get it."

“She started hanging out with this guy, and he practically gives her a motorcycle. For what? The little slut slept with him. She even had his kid.”

“Does Perry know?”

“Negative. He thinks it's her little sister. Personally, I don’t know what her game is. I don’t know what she sees in him, and I don't know what he sees in her. It’s fucking weird.”

Perry didn’t sleep that night. In the morning, he decided to go for a ride. His bike was gone. Like waking from a dream, it had vanished. She too had vanished. His reason for staying in San Diego, fragile as it was, was gone also. He went back to his room, packed his clothes, and called a cab. Before going to the airport, he asked the cab driver to take him to the foot bridge. Perry felt nothing there. His feelings dissipated to some place he couldn’t find anymore.

He never returned to San Diego. He never returned to California. He didn’t like the state.

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