Liv has missed you. And I know your life has not been complete without hearing from her since–GASP!–April. So, to the latest installment of my award-winning baby manuscript:
After breakfast I went home and logged onto my computer. I didn’t know what I was searching for—just looking, I told myself—though I’d typed “Summer Henty” into four search engines and scanned all the sports photos from Santa Barbara high school’s web sites. I had to see another picture of her. Had to see her. Had to find that inlet of memory and follow it to the source.
So somehow, I clicked and navigated and Googled and clicked and a chugged a bottle of wine and ended up at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations website.
When the page loaded, the sight of it made me wince. Though half-squinted eyes, I watched the faces of “California’s Most Wanted” scroll across the screen. I forced myself to tap my cheek instead of bite my nails. They were down to nubs, anyway, the lavender polish cracked and chipped like a broken window.
The menu on the left had links: victims, visitors, offenders. I clicked on the visitor’s section, where more information spewed forth than I knew what to do with. It dawned on me that I didn’t know what prison Donna was in. How would I find her in this mess? The only thing I knew for certain was that the familiar rush of rage I always associated with Donna Henty had still not poked its head from the murky waters of my insides. Since I’d delivered my parents’ ashes, that feeling had muted? Died? Outside seagulls called atop the bay-side palms. It was Summer, not Donna I needed. I left the window open and spent another bottle of wine looking for the blonde in gingham, plus eight years. It was like she didn’t exist. Not possible. I had to find her.
My eyes, blurry with chardonnay, wandered through pages and pages, and then I found an “Identification Unit/Inmate Locator” link. Clicked. The page gave me a number to call and the information I would need to find out where Donna was held: full name and complete birth date. How would I get that? Further down it said that the phone line was only open Monday through Friday until 5:00 p.m. It was Sunday morning. Couldn’t do anything even if I wanted to. All this to find a girl. To scavenge a memory.
Still, I rifled through the pages of the Internet, learning that I would need Donna to fill out and send me a questionnaire that I would then have to complete and return before I could visit. There’s no way I could do that; I couldn’t even find what prison the woman was in. Plus, I didn’t want visit the woman. Couldn’t I just call her or something? Find out where Summer was? But she’d need to know that I wanted to call also. What if I ended up not doing anything? What if this was one of those fanciful whims that snaked its way up my sleeve, and slithered out the very next morning?
But the next morning, I called my Aunt Karen.
“Tell me about Costa Rica,” she said.
I ran through the necessary details.
“And everything went…okay? With the ashes?”
“Yeah. I freaked out a bit, but when it happened, it just worked, you know?” I sat at the kitchen table, yellow legal pad and pen ready to take notes. I drew circles, a pyramid of them in the far corner of the paper. Turtle eggs? “So I got the letter.”
“The letter. It came a couple hours after you left. Before I left.”
“Oh, gosh, Liv. That was supposed to arrive when you got home. I’m sorry. I hope you just tossed it. I would, you know, but they’re not mine to toss. Oh, sweetie, I should have waited.”
I looked up from my drawing across the room to the door, where I could see the bay. Blue, blue. “I opened it.” A boat across the bay. “I might go see her.”
“What?” Her voice cracked. I imagined her red curls splitting at their ends, her green eyes popping out her head at the thought of me visiting Donna Henty.
“Go see her. In prison.” I drew curved lines off to the side of my pyramid of circles. Waves? Drew the patchworked shell of a turtle.
“See Donna Henty?” She paused long enough for me to draw another set of turtle eggs. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”
When I had moved to San Diego six years earlier, Karen had allowed herself, for the first time, to have a life outside of me and her third grade classroom. Despite her husband and eighteen month old, Sophia, and despite the fact that I was twenty-three, Karen still channeled my mother, still spread her wings and squawked loudly when a predator circled.
“Idea? Yes. A good one? I don’t know.” I couldn’t possibly tell her about Summer. She would flip.
“It just seems like you’ve finally moved on, the ashes and Pete and all. I’d hate for you to open a new can—
“Just thinking about it. Didn’t say I was going tomorrow.”
“I know how hard all this is for you, sweetie, and you just got back from Costa Rica…”
She’d started calling me “sweetie” ever since she’d been pregnant. Usually, I could handle it. Today it made me want to throw the phone at her. “It’s different now.” My voice clipped. More waves on the page and now a dorsal fin peeking out. I cleared my throat, softened my voice. “It’s something I have to do.” I didn’t mention the picture, the dream. The scrap of memory. She wouldn’t understand. It wasn’t worth trying to explain.
The next day I sat down to write a letter to Donna Henty.
Could you send me a visitor’s application form? I’d like to ask you a few questions.
I folded and stuffed the sixth draft into an envelope. Walked it down to the blue mailbox, stood with the dark mouth open, let the letter fall in as I squeezed my eyes shut. Two steps away from the mailbox, I spun around. Shit! No taking it back, I realized, peering into the dark hole. The lid clanged shut. Palm trees swayed “no” in the August breeze. Life caterwauled on around me.
Nine days later I pulled out the familiar white envelope, two different kinds of handwriting on the outside. In addition to my forwarding address, Karen’s pen had scribbled: Call me!
Of course I’ll answer any questions you have. It’s the least I can do. It would mean so much to me if I could apologize in person after all these years. Here is the visitor’s form. I hope to see you soon. I understand if you can’t make it.
Enclosed was a questionnaire, complete with full name, social security number, driver’s license number and a litany of questions that implied I might be a convict too. I filled it out late one night after a half bottle of an ’01 Chianti. Drummed my fingers on my cheeks and fiddled with the glass vial around my neck. Ran it to the mailbox after downing the final splash of blood red liquid courage. I hated that I had to go through this circus to get to Summer, but I’d called the attorney who had prosecuted the case, and he said the only way to find out about the “other girl” was to go through Donna. “And that’s not the kind of information people give out very willingly, you ought to know.” He acted like I was trying to revive my parents. Just a memory, I almost shouted into my cell; just looking for a god damn ounce of memory, you bastard. Acting like he couldn’t spare a second to answer my questions.
A month later, in early September, I received approval from the warden of California Institution for Women to visit Donna Henty, inmate number 16744578. Visiting hours were on Saturdays and Sundays, and I read through the long list of rules regarding what could be brought in: ten photos, ten diapers, one unopened box of tissues, one transparent pacifier.
I let the approval sit around for several weeks taped to my fridge.
“So, you’re really going?” Pete asked, grabbing a Pacifico from the fridge. Dirt was still under his nails from work. He had just finished telling me about the deck he built for a house out in Rancho Santa Fe. Not the kind of small job he normally did, but the money was good, and future jobs promised. “Nor Cal redwood all the way around,” he grinned, revealing his chipped tooth.
I could picture him out in the September sun, a glint of sweat along his forehead, his shoulders, his back.
But argh! Those fingers. “Your nails are so gross. Don’t you wash those things?” I teased. I snagged a swig of his Pacifico. “Maybe. Maybe I’m going. And hey,” I brought my hand to his face, “don’t get so much work that you don’t have time to work on our boat.”
“I like to think Boati’s ours.” I winked up at his almond shaped and colored eyes.
“I’ll go with you if you want.”
“Where? To the prison? Not with those nasty hands, you won’t. I won’t be caught in public with you and those dirty nails.”
“Seriously. I’m going on Saturday and you have that big house to finish.”
“Saturday? You’re going this Saturday? Don’t you have to teach?”
I shook my head. The new session of rowing classes had begun at Mission Bay Aquatic Center, but I’d rescheduled one of the classes. Grabbed his beer again. It was news to me too.
“Well, you know what Pema Chodron says, right?”
“No, Pete, I don’t know what Pema Chodron says? And who is he anyway?” Pete’s ability to pluck a quote from thin air always amazed me.
“She. She is a Buddhist nun and she says ‘The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes.”
“How long have you had that rattling around up there,” I touseled his hair, “just waiting to use it on some poor, damaged girl?”
His crooked smile showed his chipped front tooth. “Forever. Just make sure you look in her eyes.”