This is Part 15 of the story of How I Met Superman. To get caught up, you can find the preceding chapters here.
The morning after Valentine’s Day – the day I was supposed to take a bike ride to the beach with Dawn and Syndy* – I woke up to the sound of the warm Santa Ana winds whirling outside my window.
The Santa Anas are a particularly fierce wind system that come through Southern California once or twice a year. They typically strike in the fall – the dry, warm, powerful winds often fanning flames over end-of-summer dry brush and creating terrible “fire seasons” – but sometimes they strike in the winter, too.
Raymond Chandler wrote: “It was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that, every booze party ends in a fight. … Anything can happen.”
And Joan Didion wrote: “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and unpredictability of the Santa Anas affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”
Truly, the Santa Anas seem to change things. …
On this particular morning, partly in denial that maybe I could ride my bike in those winds, I got ready, glancing out the window from time to time to see if the winds had died down. (They hadn’t.)
I pulled on my bathing suit, listened to the windows rattle, pulled on my shorts, listened to the winds blow our picnic benches over, grabbed a sweatshirt, heard a tree branch snap, and galloped down the stairs. I thought I could slip past my mom if I left early enough.
I met Dawn on the same corner we always met. She was straddling her 10-speed, her hair blowing in wild configurations, the sweatshirt she wore around her waist billowing behind her. She stood bracing her handlebars so the bike would stay upright.
As soon as we saw each other, we both started laughing.
“We’re not going to make it, are we?” she said, standing strong against another gale.
I turned my head so the wind wouldn’t blow my hair in my eyes. “No, I don’t think so.”
The dry Santa Ana river bed – the 26-mile course we needed to take to get to Newport Beach – would create a virtual wind tunnel for us. Those winds would give us an almost aerial descent while they were at our backs, but coming home for 26 miles would be unbearable. It would feel like 70 miles, if we could do it at all.
“Do you want to go to Syndy’s anyway?” she yelled through the wind.
“Sure.” I hopped back on my bike, and we did our best to pedal to Syndy’s house.
When we got there, Syndy met us on the driveway, laughing at both of us. We must’ve looked a sight, pumping our legs just to get up the street properly.
“Not gonna happen today?” she said. Her beach cruiser was already parked back in the garage.
“I guess not.” I was disappointed.
We followed her into her house and sat awkwardly in the bean-bag chairs she pointed to in the living room. I’d only been there twice before. Syndy was one of a long string of new friends I’d made at the junior high and kept into high school – friends who came from different neighborhoods, different elementary schools, who had different kinds of parents and didn’t necessarily go to CCD. Some had older step-siblings from complicated family trees, and some had only one parent. Some had parents with strange, exotic jobs, like models or flight attendants. It was all a new world to me. Dawn was my only hold-over from the standard, stay-home-mom, nuclear family of our neighborhood.
“I made us some sandwiches,” Syndy yelled over her shoulder. She disappeared into a kitchen.
Syndy was the real deal for beach bike-riding, as far as Dawn and I were concerned, and we followed whatever her lead was: She rode a real beach cruiser, wore Ocean Pacific halter tops, donned legitimate “board shorts,” and had two-tone slip-on Vans before anyone else at our school. She wore her beach-blonde hair in shaggy layers around her tanned face. She was the epitome of a surfer girl.
She brought back the sandwiches – still packed in the plastic container she would’ve strapped to the back of her cruiser – and plopped them on the living room floor.
“Laurie still doesn’t have a boyfriend,” Dawn announced, picking up one of the sandwiches.
The great thing about girlfriends was that you could just pick up a conversation where you’d left it off the day before.
“What happened?” Syndy said, pointing her question at me. “I thought he’d ask you for Valentine’s Day.”
“Just as well,” said a womanly voice behind us.
Syndy’s older sister came around the corner, jangling her car keys.
“Men are trouble,” she added for good measure.
Their mother followed, laughing in agreement. “You got that right.”
They stood in the hall off the living room, looking like sisters, hips jutted out, shuffling through their purses.
Syndy’s mom was one of those moms you kind of stare at for a long time. She had a Marlo Thomas thing going on – long hair still in a straight, 70s length; bright, airy scarves always tied at her neck; sandals on her feet. She reminded me of all the “Free to Be You and Me” songs I listened to as a girl – those songs that told girls they could be strong and independent. Syndy’s mom seemed like she could have been the album cover for that.
“You don’t need a boyfriend,” she told me, still rummaging through her hobo-bag of a purse. “It’ll just cause you headache down the line. You girls stay single as long as you can.”
Syndy caught my attention and rolled her eyes.
When her mom couldn’t find what she was looking for, she looked up, exasperated, and Syndy’s sister jangled the car keys in front of her. “Stop it, Star!” She snatched the keys and laughed, and the two of them skittered out the door in their hippie sandals, their laughter caught immediately in the wind.
“Don’t let her bug you,” Syndy said, wrapping the part of the sandwich she didn’t want to finish. “Boys are rad.” She laughed, deep and low. Her laughter always sounded like it came from a joyous place. Syndy’s life seemed to be all about fun.
“Does she not want you to have a boyfriend either?”
Syndy shook her head. “She thinks women should be independent. But boys …” She thought for a second. “They’re just rad.” Another bubbling laugh.
Dawn and Syndy and I ate the rest of the riding snacks and decided to try to take our trek again the following weekend, hoping it would still be warm, despite the fact it was February. Sometimes when the Santa Anas died down, they took the heat with them, but sometimes you got a few days of great winter beach weather. We talked about boys and school, and bands we liked, and concerts we wanted to go to (Syndy had been to real rock concerts already), and what we would bring on our ride next weekend.
But I couldn’t help but let my mind drift to Syndy’s Marlo Thomas mother, and her airy scarves and her air of freedom. It had been a message I’d been given by other moms, too — moms who hadn’t necessarily chosen this path for themselves, but now insisted that we girls not “tie ourselves down” to a boyfriend. They insisted we study for college and travel and have an independent life – have careers, and our own checking accounts. Serious boyfriends, they all contended, could wait.
I had always nodded when they said this. I sang along to “Free to Be You and Me.” I watched “That Girl.” I dreamed of traveling the world. I played “career woman” with my friends when we were 8 and 9, and we pretended we were lawyers, or maybe “Charlie’s Angels.” We were hardly ever mothers.
I gathered my belongings at Syndy’s and called my mom to tell her our ride was scrapped. Dawn decided she wanted to stay at Syndy’s for awhile, but I wanted to go home.
We said our goodbyes, and I tied my sweatshirt around my waist and pushed my windblown hair back out of my eyes.
I pedaled home as best I could.
And rode on the winds of change.
Click here for Part 16: Ask Me. …
*Names changed to protect the Don’t-Want-to-be-Googled.