January 13, 2003

Approaching Hannah

I shut out the frantic rush of another bleary, semi-conscious morning with a quiet flip of the doorknob, and leave home quickly across the dry lawn and overgrown junipers, stepping out onto a moonscape of smoky-smelling, marine-layer fog. The three-day-old wildfires on Niguel Hill have sprinkled a soft coat of ash on everything during the night. Trees, cars, sidewalks, streetlights, signs, and cheap Halloween decorations stand silent, all looking like they need to be dusted. It’s almost peaceful, until I remember that the carbonized remains of someone’s Laguna Beach home is blanketing the family Volvo. Their house on our car.

Somewhere outside the neighborhood, faint horns honk over the distant hum of morning commuters, and as I begin making my way along the regular ten-minute walk to school I squint, confronted by the rising red sun. Across the street stands the Mendoza house in all its cream-colored, pink-trimmed glory. The only Mexican family on a street full of Anglos makes its presence known these days via their eye-popping take on modern suburban tract home style, a sort of 90210-via-Tijuana that’s refreshingly jarring on first glance, but it’s been painted this way for a year now, so I barely give it a second look.

Any contemporary fascistic Orange County homeowner’s association would have made mincemeat of such blatantly third-world tendencies in no time, but not in this corner of the universe. The neighborhood I grew up in isn’t much older than me at seventeen, but that’s still too mature to be completely baby-sat by extensive righteous taxpayer arrogance, and many homes have already gone through several re-modelings. That same quasi-gentrification process had already done its work on the dentist’s house at the end of the block; the stucco-slathered, red-tile-roofed formless cube had been re-built from the ground up, and as I pass by it looms up on the left, still lording it over the surrounding mid-seventies vintage homes.

I cross De Soto, watching for non-existent traffic, and with a dentist-mansion-free view I glimpse a girl named Hannah Haynes walking down Taxco a block away to the left. She’s making the same trek to high school, and doesn’t notice me, or maybe doesn’t want to, and I pace her until the oncoming houses hide her from sight. I get a violent, groin-powered urge to catch up to her and talk, mostly to apologize for slide-tackling her at soccer practice last night, but Hannah disappears behind a wall of homes just as I do the same.

A short walkway leads to the park ahead, and I’m suddenly closed in by six-foot fences on both sides, walls of safety that many years ago, protected my six-year-old self from the territorial wrath of a German Shepherd on one side and a Doberman on the other. The dogs would jam their noses through knotholes in the fence and howl like demons, and I refused to go that way for years until the monsters grew decrepit and harmless. I shove the ancient memories aside when the path opens up to a again, but instead of going left down the ramp I jump the wooden beams and stagger down the short hill into the park. Hannah’s still there, cruising along the edge of the park at the same distance as before.

Sea Canyon Park lies near the beginning of a mini-ravine that curves around the tract homes to eventually meet up with the larger Salt Creek Canyon, and runs to the ocean from there. The upper fourth of the park that I’m now stumbling through is a picnic area and playground that all us neighborhood kids played in while growing up. The old wooden tables are mismatched with garishly colored plastic toys, a hideous crime against nature that was perpetrated almost five years ago when we were all still in junior high. Coming home on the bus one day, we were all astounded to find the old wooden toys replaced with these hideous multicolored things, and all pubescent posturing cool had been tossed out the window as everyone charged over to break in this newfangled crap. The unconscious amazement at the proof of our aging was kept blunted by nostalgia long enough for all of us to regain the superficial posing of adolescence, but we still agreed that the new toys totally sucked before going home to what we thought were less childish things.

A car backfire brings me back to the present and I notice that Hannah still hasn’t sped up much, so I quickly thread my way through the sandbox, trying to avoid an automatic-sprinkler assault of reclaimed saturation out on the grass. The sand is fine and dry, and I think about maybe ditching fifth and sixth period later for the beach, of taking the surfers’ canyon trail out under PCH and ending up at Creek. Thanks to fire season, the summer’s been running late here in October, and the air’s unnaturally warm for eight a.m. Maybe Hannah will want to go. Maybe she will be anyway, and maybe I shouldn’t ask her at all, in case that’s true and she’ll be inaccessible behind a phalanx of elitist blonde surfers.

She’s still up ahead by about three house-lengths on Santiago as I step onto the wet lawn and hear it squelch loudly beneath my sneakers. Hannah turns around, notices me, and gives a little wave before turning back to keep going. Her family had moved into this neighborhood from somewhere else in town, and the sheer novelty of a new pretty girl around was still pretty magnetic even though I wasn’t really interested in her anymore. I always liked talking to chicks, though, and I’m not about to waste this one-on-one chance like this with anyone, let alone her.

Hannah had ended up on an alternate social plane from me in about fifth grade, thanks to the debilitatingly distracting early development of her figure—she’d had a real woman’s body at eleven, earning all kinds of lecherous attention from every slobbering boy within a mile radius. Now that we were both juniors in high school that gulf had grown a little more, but all that attention she used to bathe in was now focused on younger girls (though now that I think about it, I did hear once that she had a college boyfriend), and her personality had evolved into one of those bizarre mixes of simplistic thought balanced with limited, but explicitly detailed experience that you can only learn from the monomaniacal fixations of your elders.

The last time I’d seen Hannah on a regular basis was in eighth-grade art class, the great leveler that threw “gifted and talented” kids like me into the crush of the remaining student population, the ones who seemed to hate school and everything it stood for. I didn’t mind it though—close proximity to beauty hotter than the sun will do that—because she would always talk to me, as if the tidal waves of social-emotional change hadn’t washed away something in her that maybe thought I was safer, or more innocent, or cute, or whatever. If I was older, smarter, and meaner back then, I'd say I was slumming, but since I had no idea what that meant anyway, I simply went to art class and listened to Hannah and all her bad-girl flunkies talk to each other about foreign exotic things like dates, breaking curfew, sex, smoking, drinking, and drugs. Naturally, I passed the class with flying colors.

Since then I’d seen her exactly once, in a weird and unlikely situation: with her parents and younger brother at Capo Beach. Catching Hannah in that context, away from all the cool independence of friends and boyfriends, submitting to her parents’ willpower and a family day at the beach, was like a stolen revelation, and the reality we both knew each other under was inverted. That day at Capo I was the independent one, stalking in the whitewash with my little brother and his friends, and the urge to show off was irresistible, to rub it in that I knew this fantastically gorgeous girl, so I waved and said hey. Hannah burst that thin bubble, though; she was so startled to see me that she was stunned into horrified silence, like I’d seen her naked or something. I remembered that I thought it was good to see that her parents weren’t the same old rich Nazis that every other girl seemed to have in tow, and that I thought it was nice to know she wouldn’t be tooling around in a brand-new Cabriolet or Altima from Daddy on her sixteenth birthday.

Recalling Hannah’s look of shock from back then speeds me up some more, to the point where I’m close enough to pick out her tanned shoulders peeking out of an oversized, hand-me-down lavender sweater. Her lank, sandy-brown hair sways with each step, but the blonde streaks have no sun to glitter beneath in this ash-strewn atmosphere. My eyes move down to her thighs, a little thicker than they used to be, and clad in black, ankle-length spandex. She’s not chunky, just well-proportioned for her short stature. The top of her head might just about fit under my chin.

She’s hardly walking like an athlete, though; both small, Converse-clad feet splay away with each step, and it makes me wonder how she could have caught up with me to steal the ball last night at practice. For a brief second I get a vision of Hannah on her knees, covered in mud after I tackled her to retake the ball and we both ended up going down. Both our teams had been running drills for weeks, bashing out fundamental skills instead of each other, but occasionally we'd scrimmage. Our coach always said we were "looking for any excuse to bump up against soft female bodies" instead of working on basic stuff, which was of course the absolute truth. Hannah played for the girls' school team last year, which was about the only organized extra-curricular thing she did, but with that stride I couldn't imagine how she did it.

The ash is thinning as we continue down Santiago, but I know the school day will still be strange. Last night’s news said the gym and the mall at school would still be filled with people from Laguna who’d lost their homes to the fire. It was a weird, uncomfortable inconvenience to get around all day yesterday; the press of the buzzing crowd on their way to first period was thick and chaotic, a result of the overnight conversion for the building’s lower floor into a makeshift shelter. The students were confined before class to the upper floor and balcony, from which they peered over butcher-paper activity posters, staring down at the newly-homeless souls below, trying to stay sane among the many white cots strewn with clothing and sleeping children. I doubt it will be much different today; somehow the high school is supposed to throw together a Homecoming football game tonight, and a dance tomorrow, and I’m glad it’s not my problem to be involved in any way.

I check for cars before crossing a blind corner on Caracas. Hannah has already turned the corner ahead onto Acapulco, and again slips momentarily out of sight. No one else is out and about; the neighborhood is quiet enough for me to remember that we were late for class, and that all the other kids had already passed this way. Good thing too—it suddenly occurs to me that people might think I’m stalking Hannah instead of just following her, or maybe it’s just me who thinks that, when I turn onto Acapulco and see Hannah Haynes in a real woman’s body ambling uphill toward the school’s parking lot. I’m close enough now to have a reasonable conversation with her, or even just call her name, but I don’t do that. A guilty paralysis has clamped onto my brain, disabling all motor functions except the simple one that keeps me walking behind her.

The sun is getting insistent and I start to sweat, thinking about how impossible it will be to explain to Hannah, or anyone on the receiving end of my freakish behavior, that my intentions aren’t remotely devious, obsessive, or psychotic. I decide to just catch up now, but quietly. My legs ache below the knees, but Hannah doesn’t notice; she wades through the shiny, expensive cars in the student lot as the sunlight bounces off a windshield and right into my eyes, and I lose sight of her again briefly. She soon reappears, though, behind another ash-sprinkled, garishly bright plastic toy on wheels. Another house on another car. I squeeze between two parked cars for the last, muscle-ripping homestretch, and my soft body bumps against a rearview mirror. I call it a fucking bastard and dart away from the cars, a foot behind her when she looks back into the cursing maelstrom that is me.

"Wow, you walk fast." Her big brown eyes look at me sidelong, but she’s smiling.

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