In early June, when our ancient clothes dryer died, I restrung the aged clothesline poles and hung out the laundry. Hiding behind a sheet and then jumping out was a given for the girls. Whichever daughter was taken by surprise, she would scream with pleasure at the game while I tried to keep the dry sheets off the ground and into the laundry basket.
Sometimes, in between the girls’ laughter and squeals, I could hear the voices of a few men coming from the patio above me. Then I remembered the remark about the “famous old queer” and wondered who he might be.
On sunny mornings, their voices, coming from the stone-edged patio, drifted down to our little cottage below. I pictured them reading various newspapers and sipping espressos.
By the end of the day, I could hear myself yelling at the girls to stop this or that, surprised by my resentment of the “golden boys” above who might be picturing me (correctly) as a beleaguered housewife.
“There I was this afternoon,” I told my husband over dinner, “finishing up the laundry while the girls darted in and out, their shouts rushing up the hillside where the men were sitting, probably having cocktails.”
“Why should you worry about disturbing them?”
“I just do and can’t explain why.”
“What the hell. Little kids make noise,” he said, lifting the checkered cloth and taking the last piece of French bread from the basket. “Besides, we’re a family and they’re definitely not.”
By mid-June, the foot traffic exploded as a steady stream of sun lovers found their way past the front yard heading for what we were now calling “our beach.”
Out in back, I noticed an older man in what looked like a leopard-print bathrobe standing at the edge of the patio. He was gray haired, slightly built, with an elegant face. He looked down and nodded as I attempted to wave back with my arms full of towels.
When my husband asked me how it started, I told him our daughter was excited to have a grown-up friend named Chris, who lived in the house above us. He had to be the man who’d nodded to me a few days before. Because she liked to ride her bike on the sidewalk in front of our garden wall, he would stop and talk to her on his way to the beach.
“You must be Chris, my daughter’s friend,” I said, standing at the front garden with the girls, making sure I was in the yard the next time he came by. I needed to meet this stranger who seemed so taken with our daughter. “I’m her mother.” Looking into his kind blue eyes, I felt my face flush.
“Yes,” he said. “She’s a delight and a great conversationalist. I hope you don’t mind our chatting.”
“Not at all. I think it’s as charming as this whole canyon. If it weren’t for the snails feasting on the flowers I’ve planted, I’d swear this was Eden.”
Soon she was escorting Chris past our yard. A few weeks later, she asked and won the right to ride with him to the end of our street. Chris addressed my concern beautifully: “She always stays on the sidewalk and comes straight home.”
My husband was surprised I allowed her to accompany a man I had only met at the sidewalk. It was true. I knew nothing about him, except his first name, where he lived, and that, in the flower-sweet air, I couldn’t find a reason not to bless their friendship. Near the end of July, I learned that her friend Chris was the famous British author, Christopher Isherwood.
One weekend, the neighbor across the street, a landscape painter who usually kept to himself, had a garage sale. I waited as my girls wandered around on his patio, finally stopping at a basket of polished agates.
“Those bring good luck, you know,” he said, waving off the two dollars I offered as each selected their favorite stone.
“Thank you,” the girls said in unison.
“How do you like gaysville?” he asked, turning to me as I lingered over a small watercolor sketch he’d done of the canyon.
“I love it here,” I said. “I just wish there were more kids around.”
“There’s nothing but old fags, rich old bags, and a couple of misfits like yours truly,” he said with a wry smile. He must have been waiting to deliver that line to someone for quite a while. “Your daughter there,” he said with a smile, “she’s friends with the best of the bunch. Christopher Isherwood is a gem of a writer and lives with a painter who’s a helluva lot better than I’ll ever be.”
I had no idea who Christopher Isherwood was until I read several articles about him at the public library when I took the girls to the weekly story hour. When I checked out Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and showed it to my husband, he wasn’t all that impressed and then admitted that he’d never read any of his work.
Having married young and set aside my dream of returning to college, I’d lost touch with any book that required much intellectual rigor. Even though I struggled with Isherwood’s stories, reading in bed while trying to stay awake, I loved knowing the author was a neighbor and my daughter’s friend.
To be continued…
Photo Credits: Clothespins – felix-prado, Latte – gabi-miranda, Beach guy – patrick-robert-doyle.