Chapter 6. Into His Arms

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine


Ayla and Caleb lay in bed with the balcony doors open to the view of the north and the San Gabriel Mountains, the peaks of which were hidden behind low, thick clouds. Rain dampened the wood flooring, but neither one of them got up to close the doors, which no longer fit together properly, to the French-style mini-deck outside the bedroom.

Their lovemaking had been off-kilter, Caleb more dominating than usual. When they were ready, Ayla climbed on top of him, but he circled both of her wrists and sat up, then flipped her over--they were good at turning over--then he pinned her wrists to the pillow above her head. Avoiding the look of surprise on her face, he let go of one wrist and pressed her shoulder down. He slipped out then re-entered her in a single push, holding her down. For a moment, he seemed surprised that she did not resist his taking control, not with her eyes, not with a tightening of the muscles. He was provoking a fight, and this was her response. She came quickly.

After, their heart rates slowing to normal, he was reluctant to hand it all back to Ayla, all the power. So he lay on his back and kept quiet. And she did the same.

"What's next?" he asked finally, running a hand over his sparse chest hairs, after a period of silence during which she had studied the curves of his ears, the way his hairline partially obscured the curve of his skull, and then had turned to watch the clouds, lighted above by the moon and from below by the city, despite the rain.

"Sleep," she said, though she knew he meant the property transaction.

Their project was a small spec development, community housing, a new green model for communal living. A shared laundry facility, shared water, shared gardens. A tool shed. A community plaza, and studio space that would be used by homeschoolers. Her extended model had plans for micro-banking, a credit union. A yoga green. And green roofs. Residents would establish a board of directors, who would write their own charter (hopefully based on the model Ayla had already drafted). There were public--as well as private--kitchen and dining areas. And there were public living spaces. Each house would have a large studio space that opened onto a garden that could be enclosed or opened to the public areas beyond a five-foot fence. Meanwhile, each adult resident would own a share, children half shares. So while you were assigned a house that was yours, your ownership was in the whole. All of the elements had been done before, but she knew of no housing that combined them as she did.

They wouldn't be inexpensive when they were done. But if they worked, if people liked living in them, they would be copied, and that was the point. In the meantime, she and Caleb would make a small profit, and, hopefully, a reputation.

And what was next? After the housing was built, Ayla and Caleb would move into the community. Perhaps. If so, they would rent out the house she had inherited, where they lived now, where she had lived as a child.

"Sleep," she said again, settling her pillow so it puffed out around her ears. "When it's raining like this, all the plants outside, my vegetable garden, I can feel them growing." Caleb didn't answer. He'd gone under. Then she started to toss and turn.

Sleep did not come to her. Instead, it hovered for a while near the ceiling. It flew out of doors and joined Betschart, the usurper mayor, the would-be king. It was curious. What was Betschart really after? The trees he was dropping on the city, those were probably a good thing. But the political and bureaucratic fissures he'd filled and widened, like water in a fault line, that was something else.

She thought of the L.A. River, where cracks in the cement were exploited by cottonwood trees and trash palms. The played the long game.

There was so much to do. Investors to contact. She needed to hire a consultant for the building permits--James Williamson, if he could be talked into working with her again. And soon, she could sit down at the drafting table and draw the actual units.

Beside her, Caleb now slept with one arm above his head and one across his stomach. He had put all of his money into the project. Ayla had suggested a smaller contribution, but he had said, no, he was all in. He didn't hedge bets. He'd been firm on it. And now he was part owner. He really should talk to a lawyer.

She'd been so focused on acquiring the property, on finally getting started, that she hadn't taken the time to consider what it meant to be coupled with Caleb this way. ... No, that wasn't true. He'd always been in it with her. There was no other way to be coupled with him.

Before Ayla got her seed money--from an elderly Cuban whose family left the island before Castro's forces consolidated--she had taken her plan to any number of investors, who had patronized her, laughed at her, bored her with long stories by way of saying no, grabbed her ass, insulted her, predicted she wouldn't be able to realize a return.

The day she met her angel investor, turned out to be the day she first met Caleb. Her meeting was held in an office at the back of an apartment building Mr. Leighton-Alvarez owned. It was an old three-story Spanish-style building with a narrow entry hallway that led to a courtyard, with huge birds of paradise that reached above the second story windows, and then to a second hallway, three ground-floor apartments and the office. The windows were rounded at the top throughout the building. He listened carefully, a wooden cross on the wall above his head, wrote his good faith check right there and said more would be coming. She wanted to kiss his hand, to twirl him, to convert if it would please him. "You won't be sorry, Mr. Leighton-Alvarez."

When she got past the courtyard she ran straight through the first entry hallway. Caleb happened to be walking north on Ashton Avenue at that moment, and Ayla literally ran into his arms.

"Sorry," she said. "I wanted to hug someone. I just got some good news," starting to back away from her actions, "I get exuberant sometimes. It's a flaw."

"Don't apologize." He had a pretty face--lacy eyelashes and a long thin nose. "I like getting a hug."

She regained herself.

"Are you going this way?" He lifted his chin toward Sunset Boulevard.

She was.

"Tell me your good news."

"It wouldn't be that interesting."

They walked north on Ashton Avenue, Ayla slowing her usual pace because she didn't want to walk ahead of him.

"Not interesting. I see." He smiled slightly and nodded.

"I got some money to get a project started," she relented. "I've been trying to get people interested, and I keep hitting a wall. All they can see is that I'm young and haven't done this kind of project before, not on my own. Then finally this one man who's about ninety years old says he knows a good thing when he sees it. He gave me seed money."

"Seed money for what?" He looked sideways and down at her with a look of warmth and intelligence.

"This is my car." They stopped next to her Prius. She was proud of it, though she wished its engine packed more power. "I have to get to the bank. Wish me well."

"I wish you well."

It had the sound of a vow, a wrong note, and it broke her giddy spell. Settling in the car, she shook off the thought of him. It was time to get serious. She drove to the bank.

Two weeks later she was settling herself at an outdoor table at café Fix when a youngish man in decent jeans and plaid short-sleeved button-down shirt walked up to her table. It was the dude, the one she'd barreled into so unprofessionally near Ashton Lake. He looked a little less like a kid than she remembered. The day was bright. She shielded her eyes with her hands.

"How's the project?"

She tried to give him her professional smile, the one she had practiced on subordinates when she worked for the architecture firm, but it wasn't coming out right, because now she fully remembered running into his arms. She put two fingers on the bridge of her nose.

"I was kind of giddy that day. I almost knocked you down."

"Yeah."

"I'm just glad I didn't knock you down." She reached into her bag for her iPad, bringing it up to the table.

"You were very happy, and it was contagious. It kind of gave me a lift."

"Yes."

"Whatever you're working on, if you ever need a photographer." He reached into his back pocket, pulled out a nice looking leather wallet and from that an off-standard-sized business card and handed it to her.

"Thank you," she said, but did not offer one of her own.

"Caleb," he said, holding out his hand.

"Ayla."

She made a point of not looking in his direction as he walked to a different outdoor table at the far side of the patio. She opened her notes on the tablet, checked her phone, and she had almost forgotten Caleb when she looked up to see him sitting with two stylish-looking women, one with silver hair and a long black sun dress that fit snugly on the top, and the other young-looking with hair falling out of a bun and earrings the size of baseballs. The older woman rested a hand on Caleb's forearm.

The same forearm that he shifted now from the pillow to his side. He exhaled and groaned, a little like a whale coming up for air, then dove undersurface. Somehow, he had become crucial.


More by Jenny Burman:
Chapter 6. Into His Arms
Chapter 5. Frank
Chapter 4. The News
Chapter 3. Marisol
Chapter 2. Have We Met?
Previous Native Intelligence story: Dudamel does melodrama, National Ballet of Canada does downtown

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