Karma is just a nice way of saying
the universe holds a grudge.
I've got the worst karma of anyone I know and it's completely undeserved. I'm a nice person. I never get in the express line with more than ten items and pretend I didn't see the sign. I use my turn indicator. Whenever a charity sends me address labels, I always send them a check. Not a huge check, but still. I put one of my own stamps on the return envelope.
So maybe I wasn't such a nice person in my previous life. I don't see why the current me should be held accountable. I wasn't even born at the time.
According to some, karma isn't about rewards and punishment, it's about learning. Life is a school, and we keep coming back until the universe thinks we've learned enough to graduate. If that's the case, I may need some tutoring 'cause I don't think I'm getting it. Maybe God needs to revise the curriculum. I hope She at least has the decency to grade on a curve.
Not that I've thrown in the towel. I keep trying to improve myself. Just recently for example, I was going to quit smoking. I'd picked the day after Thanksgiving as D day and planned to retreat inside my apartment and go cold turkey. Cut off all contact with the outside world until my nicotine withdrawals and subsequent homicidal urges were under control. I'd devised this plan months earlier. I usually work two or three Saturdays a month because as a freelance photographer, weddings are my bread and butter. I'm kind of in demand, as a photographer anyway, and I needed to give myself enough lag time to make sure I could keep my Thanksgiving weekend free.
Once the smoking thing was handled, I'd tackle some of the other issues in my life. Like making it work.
I was serious this time. Really motivated, something I try to experience at least once a year to keep on my toes. It so happened I'd had a rare moment of clarity on my last birthday. As I lit my after-dinner cigarette, it came to me that I'd been smoking for twenty years. Ever since my best friend and I snuck that pack out of my mother's dresser and spent the afternoon smoking in the park. She went home sick as a dog and never had another cigarette again. I went home, had a bite to eat, excused myself, and hung my head out the bathroom window for my first after-dinner smoke. I was fourteen and a confirmed cigarette addict for life. And now, unbelievably, I was thirty-four and I'd been a smoker longer than I'd been a nonsmoker. Where does the time go?
The night before Thanksgiving I went to bed filled with a deep sense of self-satisfaction. In thirty-six hours I'd be taking the first step toward getting my act together. It gave me something to look forward to.
The next morning, the phone rang. I didn't know it at the time but that phone call was going to ruin my beautiful plan and a few months of my life. I never know anything at the time. What little I do know I've figured out later when it can't do me any good.
"Hey, Sam," I heard, "it's Greg."
"Greg?" I asked groggily.
Not the brightest question in the world, I admit. Like he's going to check his driver's license to make sure: Did I call myself Greg? I'm sorry, it's Ralph. I don't know what I was thinking. But I'd been asleep when the phone rang and it takes me a while to regain consciousness. Some days, the transformation is never complete.
"Were you asleep? Sorry, Sam. I'll call you back."
"No, that's okay. I'm awake. Kind of. What's up?"
"How late is your family thing going today?"
"Not real late. We usually tip the excitement meter over the pumpkin pie around five, launch into our heart-pounding Yahtzee games, and then start winding down around eight, before it gets out of hand and one of the neighbors calls the cops."
"Could you meet me at Bogart's around nine?" Greg asked.
"Uh, sure. Is everything okay?"
"Everything's great. There's just something I wanted to talk to you about."
"Give me a hint."
"No. You won't rest with a hint."
"Yes I will."
"Okay, okay. I can meet you at nine. I can be there at six. Give me a good enough cover story, and I can be there all day. Please. You'd be doing me a favor."
He laughed, a real laugh-out-loud kind of laugh, which really woke me up. Greg isn't a laughing-out-loud kind of guy. Imagine the funniest joke you've ever heard by your favorite comedian. On a good day, the joke might get a quick chuckle out of Greg.
"See you at nine, Sam. Have a drumstick for me."
He laughed again and hung up. I sat there and smoked a cigarette, wondering what this phone call from Greg and desire to see me on a national holiday meant exactly in terms of the current dynamics of our evolving relationship. I've read way too many self-help books.
I probably could have mastered the theory of relativity with all the time I've spent trying to figure out my relationship with Greg, but I prefer to keep the workings of the universe a strange and wondrous mystery. Like my brain.
With the exception of my family -- and they were thrust on me when I was too young to know any better -- I'd known Greg longer than anyone else on the planet.
Looking at the neighborhood I grew up in, the small tract homes in Orange County, California, it might seem hard to believe that anything much ever happened there. But it did: families lived there. There were secrets to hide, problems to pretend didn't exist, neuroses to develop and nurture along to adulthood. Life in suburbia wasn't all just lawn mowing.
Greg's family, the Irvingtons, already lived in the neighborhood when my family moved in. For us, it was a huge step up. Out of an apartment and into a real house. Our own mailbox and a garage and a front yard. It took my parents years to save up for the down payment. I was six and what my aunt Marnie liked to call a surprise package because I came along right about the time, after years of trying to have a baby, that my parents had started looking into adoption. My mother was thirty-two when I was born. It was a difficult birth -- maybe I'd had a premonition of what lay in store for me outside the womb -- and she wasn't able to have another child.
Mr. and Mrs. Irvington didn't consider our neighborhood a real home. For them, it was just a temporary stop on the road to success. Unlike my father, Mr. Irvington had big plans. He'd started out in construction, but he could see the future coming. He saved every penny and invested in small land deals, and then bigger ones. Mr. Irvington helped make Orange County what it is today, and may God have mercy on his soul.
My mother and father didn't know any of this. To them, a neighbor was a neighbor. You go over and introduce yourself. We were too busy unpacking on the weekend we moved in to go out visiting, though a couple of families came over to say hello. But not the Irvingtons, who lived right next door.
On Monday, after I got home from my new school, Mom said we were going to introduce ourselves to some of the neighbors. She'd baked some of her "famous" oatmeal raisin cookies, and put them in festive little packages. Individually wrapped, with tags that read: From the Kitchen of Theresa Stone. My parents were raised in Ohio, where this kind of behavior is considered perfectly normal.
Off we went, and most people were pretty nice. Until we got to the Irvingtons. Not that Mrs. Irvington was out-and-out rude. Just patronizing. How sweet. Homemade cookies. But she was on a diet, and it was better not to have sweets in the house. Too much of a temptation, and she had to be able to fit into her evening clothes. She and her husband had so many social engagements. His business was booming, and, as they say, more deals are made over martinis than in the office.
Yes, she did have children about my age -- Michael four and Gregory six -- but she didn't like them having too many goodies. And they were so busy with all their various lessons and activities that they had very little time to play. It's so important to make sure children have a well-rounded education, don't you agree? Although between her children's activities and her husband's social obligations, Mrs. Irvington sometimes felt like she didn't have a minute to herself. That's why she didn't care for people dropping by unannounced. You understand.
When we left, I told my mother I thought Mrs. Irvington was a mean lady. My mother, being my mother, told me no, Mrs. Irvington was very nice, only busy, and it was wrong for me to call anyone mean. And parents wonder why their children stop telling them anything.
But one thing even Mrs. Irvington couldn't control was the power of the vacant lot. Today you probably won't find any left in Orange County, but back then it seemed like every neighborhood had at least one, drawing in all the kids like a magnet no matter what the adults said about it.
The first day I showed up, there was a game of softball going on, but I was too shy to ask if I could play. So I stood on the sidelines watching. Someone hit a fly ball, and it came right at me. Without really thinking about it, I caught it. All hell broke loose.
The outfielders thought it should count as an out; the team at bat most definitely did not, especially since I was just a stupid girl. I stood there holding the ball, waiting for the world to swallow me up. Then the kid who hit the ball walked over to me, and everyone stopped shouting. He said the catch would count but only if I could be on their team.
A few of his team members muttered a little, but no one argued with him. Kids always have a pack leader, and on that field, it was him. He radiated total confidence and authority, two character traits I still haven't mastered. He was the coolest kid I'd ever seen. The coolest anyone I'd ever seen.
"Can you play outfield?" he asked.
I nodded my head, even though I'd never played softball before in my life.
"You need a glove," he pointed out. I nodded again, intending to demand my mother buy me one as soon as I got home. "I've got an extra one you can use. Come on."
I handed him the ball.
"I'm Greg," he told me as we walked toward the game.
"My name's Sam."
"That's a boy's name."
"It's my nickname. From my dad. My real name is Samantha."
"That's a better name."
"I like Sam better."
"But it's a boy's name."
"It's a girl's name, too. Like on Bewitched. Darrin calls Samantha 'Sam' lots of times."
That stopped him in his tracks for a minute.
"Yeah," he said finally, "but that's kind of a dumb show. Except for the old lady witch. She's funny."
"You mean Endora?"
"Yeah. She's a crack-up. I hate that Darrin guy."
I didn't have the words for it, but for the first time in my life I was talking to someone that saw life the way I did. The first someone I'd met who understood that Endora was right on, and Darrin was a boob, and why in the world would Samantha have given up a glamorous, jet-set witch life for a dumb, boring life with dumb, boring Darrin?
It wasn't until we walked home, his brother Michael tagging along behind, that I realized he lived next door with the mean lady. I never could think of her as his mother.
Four years later, almost to the day, the Irvingtons had enough investments and deals simmering to make the first of their moves, moves that would eventually lead them to a custom-built house in Laguna Hills and entrance into the ranks of Orange County society. Such as it is.
The day Greg moved was awful. I didn't want to go over and say good-bye because that would mean it was really happening. And I didn't understand how he could be so excited about this most terrible thing that had ever happened to anybody. Namely me.
"Can Sam come and spend the night some time, Mom?" Greg asked. "So I can show her all my new stuff?"
"We'll see, Gregory," Mrs. Irvington answered.
"Can she come over to swim, too? We have a pool, Sam. A huge one," he told me, spreading his arms wide.
"Gregory, you and your brother have a lot going on this summer, as I'm sure Samantha does. And Newport is a long drive from here. We'll see, but I don't want you to count on it."
"Maybe her mom could drive her over."
And my mom, bless her heart, who'd brought me over to say good-bye in spite of the fact that Mrs. Irvington intimidated the hell out of her, spoke right up.
"I'd be more than happy to do that. Or to come and get Greg and bring him back here to play with his old friends. And Michael, too, if he wanted to come."
"Oh, Theresa, that is so sweet. And isn't it lovely that you have that kind of time. But honestly, we're just going to be so busy this summer."
"But Mom -- "
"No more buts, young man. We have a lot to get done today. Why don't you say good-bye to Samantha now."
"Now? But it's only morning. You said it would take all day for them to load up the van. You said -- "
"Gregory, I don't want to have to tell you again."
And then Mom, bless her heart doubly, asked if we could have their new phone number so I could call in a few days to say hello.
Mrs. Irvington told her that they didn't have the phone installed yet, but she'd give us a call when it was in. Mrs. Irvington said she didn't think the move was going to be very hard on Gregory, once he saw how much nicer his new house was. Once he got to swim in his own pool and go to the beach all the time because it was so close. Mrs. Irvington said it was time now to say good-bye.
I didn't see or hear from Greg for eight years.
Copyright © 2003 by Diane Stingley