I am serializing my collection Stories from The Last Basin currently available on Amazon. The stories are best read in the order of Table Contents:
by John Anthony, 2021
Dr. Josephine Sidwell, Director of Clinical Psychology at the University’s Institute of Mental Health, looked up from the notes she had been writing and glanced at the small clock that sat alone on the little side table next to her chair. She studied her patient for a moment and then said, “The good news is I don’t believe this to be pathological. In cases like this we consider where on the spectrum it lands. What you seem to be experiencing is more of a vivid daydream, or perhaps more accurately a state of self-hypnosis. We’ve all experienced bad dreams we’ve found difficult to wake up from; you’ve created pleasant dreams that you have no desire to awaken from.”
“So I’m not crazy?” the patient asked without emotion.
“Crazy is not a very precise term now, is it? I think, with help, you can return to a productive and fulfilling life, but I also think it will be up to you. You’re the one in control. Get some rest and tomorrow we’ll talk about finding you a totem.”
* * * * *
Jeremy Lloyd and Amelia Jenkins made the drive to Ojai from West Los Angeles, daring the perils of the freeway system by leaving late on a Saturday morning. Their destination was The Sespe Creek Bed & Breakfast in Ojai, which was not ideal given their circumstances, and the circumstances were not ideal given that they were engaged to be married and the invitations had already been sent. An overnight escape seemed a weak effort to cure their ills and to compound the malignant skepticism which naturally emanated from both sides of the car, and a late start turned an easy two hour drive up the coast into a four-hour crawl of stop and go traffic that surely would move the needle beyond skepticism to the edge of outright hostility.
Amelia had pointed out when they inched their way onto the 405 Freeway that if only Jeremy had agreed to spend two nights, they could have left Friday evening after the traffic had eased and they’d be enjoying the beauty of Ojai right now. Jeremy was disinclined to agree. One night in a potpourri-scented room was all he could tolerate, particularly in an establishment without room service or a decent bar. Amelia noted that he had spent the morning packing for a week’s stay, including two bottles of bourbon, so he was responsible for the late start. Jeremy retaliated that his fear of boredom while Amelia explored the faux-quaint shops had forced him to evaluate all potentialities and pack accordingly. And it was two different brands of bourbon, as he couldn’t predict his mood and there was, again, no bar to provide a choice. Eventually they ran out of energy and ceased all discussion. Amelia fell asleep and Jeremy bore the burden of ensuring their safe arrival at the inn, despite a growing urge to create a temporary exit from the traffic while in the middle of crossing the next convenient overpass.
* * * * *
“Wake up, Amelia, we’ve arrived at the city limits,” Jeremy said.
“I’m awake,” she said, “I’m just keeping my eyes closed because I have a headache.”
“Let me describe the scenery then. To our left is a bike path lined with oak trees. We’re in a long but narrow valley. There are some good-sized mountains to the north, the south, less so. Lots of people walking and cycling.” Amelia opened her eyes and glared at Jeremy.
“Why, after I tell you my head hurts, would you decide it was a good time to become the world’s most banal tour guide?” she asked, praying he would understand her question to be rhetorical and not answer. Her prayer would go unanswered.
“I thought we came here for the ambience. I can’t help it if the ambience is banal,” Jeremy replied and Amelia sighed and closed her eyes again.
* * * * *
It took Jeremy three trips to bring all the luggage from the car, through the reading room, past the dining room and the door to the kitchen, up the stairs, and into their country-flavored bedroom. He was sure the room’s intent was to reflect a period, but he had no idea which period that would be. Ojai was one of those unique little towns that had sprung up without a real commercial purpose. The climate was almost always pleasant, the scenery charming, the air clean, and the original settlers (excluding the indigenous peoples and Fernando Tico, who had been bequeathed the entire valley as Rancho Ojai via a Mexican land-grant in 1837 by the then Governor Juan Alvarado) were wealthy seasonal visitors from the East and Midwest. The architecture of the surrounding homes, at least those that weren’t hidden by high gates and long drives, was oddly eclectic, showing some French Provençal and Tuscan Villa continental influence, along with the obligatory Spanish ranchero-style. In point of fact, Jeremy wasn’t even sure that the bed and breakfast was converted from any prior building rather than being simply purpose-built as a bed and breakfast.
“That’s the last of it,” Jeremy said as he set down the odds and ends that constituted his final lap to the car. Amelia was lying on the bed. He sat down on his side and sunk deeply into the mattress. “The bed’s a bit soft isn’t it?’
“It will be fine for one night,” Amelia said without opening her eyes.
“Well then, what would you like to do? Go for a walk?”
“Maybe in a bit. I just took some aspirin.”
“I hope it helps. Do we need to make dinner reservations?”
“Jeremy, I told you they serve dinner here; it’s a package. It isn’t simply breakfast service. One of the owners attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. The food here is supposed to be fabulous. That’s why we chose it, remember?” Jeremy didn’t remember having a choice, but he tried to save himself.
“I thought maybe they needed a headcount or something.”
“I’m going to rest,” Amelia said. “Why don’t you take your camera and go for a walk. You’ll feel better after being cooped up in that car for hours.”
“Okay,” he said. He felt it was useless to argue; that continuing to hack out their separate paths through this pre-nuptial jungle of rapacious and territorial undergrowth that had unexpectedly entangled them was not the point of this little getaway. He leaned over and kissed her cheek. Picking up his camera bag, he said, “I’ll see you in a bit.”
* * * * *
Jeremy left the bedroom, walked down the stairs, past the dining room, and into the reading room. Believing the room to be empty, he decided to sit and collect his thoughts. The whole day had been hellish, the culmination of what he thought had been a hellish month, but he realized it had merely been a warm up for what was to come. He and Amelia had been in love, had lived together for the past three years, and things had been wonderful. Together, they decided that they would marry; after all, wasn’t that the ultimate point? However, from the moment they had announced their intent to the blessings of their parents and heartfelt congratulations from siblings and friends, something had faltered. At first it was like a wristwatch with a single faulty tooth on a minuscule gear: Hardly noticeable, but never quite right. Not a good analogy he thought. This was more like the St. Francis Dam collapse, which devastated the Santa Clara River Valley, on the other side of the mountains south of where he currently sat, just about sixty years earlier. The dam had been built as designed, but William Mulholland wasn’t quite satisfied. He wanted more, so he added this and that, raising the capacity of the reservoir; bigger was better for the common good of Los Angeles. Some seepage was expected and it appeared on schedule, but it could be addressed and in the end all would be fine. Jeremy hated the idea that he was comparing Amelia’s efforts to expand their wedding plans as a tonic for a fundamentally flawed idea compared to Mulholland’s tragic hubris, but the plots aligned and the only difference was after all the warning signs had been ignored or argued away, the dam gave way in the middle of a moonless night, and hard working men and women and their innocent children were crushed and drowned, and swept into the cold Pacific, some bodies lost forever, some families broken forever. It was a significant difference, but Jeremy felt in his heart that Amelia believed the failure of a dam and the failure of a wedding plan held an equivalent power of devastation and could both be avoided with just a little more effort.
Jeremy had been lost in his reverie and on the edge of falling asleep, when he had an odd feeling he was being watched. He looked up but saw no one. He leaned back in the chair and he noticed the large mirror hanging high on the wall across from him. He was startled to see a young woman staring back at him. She immediately broke off eye contact and stared at the book lying in her lap. He realized she was sitting in a high-backed chair turned away from him that hid her but was facing the mirror as he was. Since she had looked away, Jeremy took the opportunity to study her, though it wasn’t as effective as being directly in her presence: Dark, almost black hair, slender, pretty, maybe beautiful, casual in jeans and a light-colored blouse. She turned a page and then, unexpectedly, leaned to her right and looked back at him. Jeremy, frozen for a moment, saw the back of her head, and her shoulder length hair swing around and fall perpendicular to floor. He thought how heavy and full it must be. He lowered his eyes from the mirror to the woman’s face now looking directly at him.
“We are guests together at a bed and breakfast inn. Is not it the custom to introduce ourselves?”
“I don’t know. This is my first time at a place like this.”
“I hope you enjoy your stay. It appears you have moved in.”
“Ah! My English. And I thought I spoke it well. I watched you carry in many pieces of luggage, or is it suitcases?”
“Either,” Jeremy said. “You could say bags or baggage as well. Lots of baggage and just for the night.”
“English is much like a . . . hoarder? It adds words but throws nothing out.”
“That may be. I had never thought about it.”
“Me ignore,” she said with an unfamiliar pronunciation.
“In Spanish that would be the imperative, ignorame.”
“Well, I would never demand that you ignore me,” she said with a smile and Jeremy decided she was definitely beautiful.
“May I join you?” he asked. “Just so you don’t have to appear so uncomfortable leaning over the arm of your chair?”
“You may. Today — here — we are família,” she said, again with an odd inflection. Jeremy took a seat across from her. Unexpectedly strange sensations suffused throughout his body, making him feel somehow diminished in her presence. He checked to ensure his feet still touched the floor.
“To my willfully ill-tuned ear, it sounds as though you are from . . . Spain?” Jeremy asked hesitantly.
“Meu Deus, no!” she said laughing. “I am from Brasil.”
“So you speak Portuguese.”
“As an American speaks the Queen’s English,” she scoffed. “Brasil broke from Portugal in 1821. As I understand it, you were still inviting England to ransack your Capitol less than a decade earlier.”
“It wasn’t a formal invitation,” Jeremy protested. “But I get your point.”
“My name is Janaína,” she said.
“Zha-nigh-aín-a,” Jeremy repeated, and Janaína laughed.
“Close! Call me Jana.”
“Very good. Your first lesson in Brasileiro Português. And you? Your name is?”
“Jeremy. It’s nice to meet you.”
“The same for me,” Jana said.
“Did you drive up from Los Angeles?”
“No. I drove down from Monterey. Just a few days of warmth. It is so cold and wet there!”
“Do you live there?”
“I go to school there, at the Presidio. You know, the Defense Language Institute, as your military calls it.”
“Seriously? Where they train spies?” Jeremy asked, which came out naïvely, a child’s question, and if he could have he would have kicked himself.
“Spies?” Jana said smiling. “Perhaps. Many people need to know different languages to pursue their careers. I’m an economist. My government would like me to be able to forecast soybean and pork demand in China, so I am learning Mandarin.”
“Yes, wow. And here you thought the difference between Português and Español was hard!”
“You’re so,” and Jeremy had to pause to find the right word but failed badly. “Attractive. Stunningly so. I only asked you about Los Angeles because I imagined you as an actress or model . . . an economist . . .?” he trailed off, feeling a little smaller still.
“That I do not take as a compliment and you are not a good detective.”
“Detective? I never pretended to be . . .”
“But I am. Amateur, of course. I will show you. What is your wife’s name?”
“I’m not married.”
“The woman you arrived with? You definitely did not act as though you were lovers.” Jeremy remembered she said she had watched him carry in the luggage. She’d been watching him . . . them.
“That assertion is a bit presumptuous, don’t you think?” Jeremy said, although he knew she wasn’t wrong.
“I believe I am merely using my power of analysis,” she said, holding up the book she had been reading so Jeremy could see the title: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Jeremy laughed.
“So the game is on,” he said. “Not my wife and not my lover. Go ahead. Let’s see how good you are!”
“But it is too easy. The luggage was matching and just a bit worn, so you have lived together for a time. She did not help carry the bags to your room, so she is upset that you packed so much stuff when all you really needed were each other. Perhaps she feels you were actually being passive-aggressive, passively accepting this romantic getaway while aggressively signaling you expected it to fail. And it does appear to be failing. Just look! You are sitting here with me while she remains in your room.”
“That’s Amelia,” Jeremy said. “But you missed one thing.”
“That she is your fiancé?”
“How . . .?”
“You said she was not your wife, but she wore a ring on her left hand. I did not see it clearly, but now I can deduce it was given for your engagement,” she said, then added with a light laugh, “It is all so elementary!”
“You’re very clever,” Jeremy said and entirely too charming he thought. This made him uncomfortable, and that sense of diminishment continued. It caused him to feel as though he were in a Lewis Carroll dreamland. Was he really that transparent? “I don’t think I’m passive-aggressive. I just didn’t want to be bored.”
“Of course! This was only a nonsense game. Are you bored?” Jana asked.
“Not at all.”
“Then I can deduce one further thing. Amelia is both your fiancé and your future ex-wife.” Jeremy sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. She was probably right, he thought: I was being passive-aggressive. I was planning to be bored. I wasn’t optimistic of my chances with Amelia. Nothing about Jana bored me, she excited me. But he couldn’t simply admit she was right. Even if this was a so-called “nonsense game” Jana was chipping away at his ego as though she were a trained psychoanalyst. But diminishment alone? Disintegration without reintegration? He glanced at the end table next to where she sat. It held a small clock. He knew the clock was important. The clock ticked and the minute hand moved a notch. Another D: Dissociation.
* * * *
“How long have I been seeing you?” he asked.
“Not long. Was it the totem that re-established your connection?”
“I guess. I’m a little confused.”
“That’s what we’re trying to fix.”
“How long will I see you?”
“For as long as it takes.”
“Takes? For what to take?”
“Until you’re well enough to return to Amelia,” she said, glancing at the clock. “Tell me more about Jana.”
“She was just a woman I met once while getting coffee at a B&B. She told me she was in the States to study language at the Monterey Presidio. We probably talked for two minutes. I’m sure she never gave me a second thought, but I think about her all the time.”
“Is that all? Just think about her?”