Birthday Gift

by Claudia Geagan

The stale afternoon sun blazes, creating an acrid orange curtain over the windshield of my husband’s brand-new Capri gold Pontiac Catalina. I’m traveling through the southern part of Los Angeles on the Harbor Freeway when a sun-scorched Volkswagen pulls up beside me. A young black man in the passenger seat looks straight into my eyes and points the barrel of a gun through a slit of open window. My whole body comes to attention, and I floor the Catalina, heading for the bougainvillea covered safety of my parents’ Pasadena home. It’s August 11, 1965. My twenty first birthday. I’m six months pregnant.

****

The night before my birthday, my husband of four months, Bob, and I sit on metal chairs, and I stare at the world clocks on the khaki colored wall of the flight waiting room at the Alameda Naval Air Station. It’s 10:30 pm on the 10th in Alameda, 11:30 am on the 11th in Tokyo. My idle mind wonders why somebody put The International Date Line in the middle of the Pacific. I’m still young enough to feel like civilization is strictly the creation of others, of men. I can’t imagine being part of a decision like that.

             I lean against his arm while he reads Sports Illustrated. To avoid the draft, Bob joined the NROTC when he entered college. The Navy commissioned him an Ensign when he graduated two months ago. We only expected to be in Northern California a few days, but the Navy spent a month deciding what to do with him. Tonight he ships out to Tokyo and then on to the Philippines to a post on a WWII-vintage aircraft carrier, recommissioned for the Vietnam war, and currently in Subic Bay. 

              About midnight, a bored clerk ambles into the waiting room, glances at me, calls my husband “Sir” and hands him a manila envelope. The plane is ready. Bob walks out onto the tarmac with barely a peck on my cheek, embarrassed to really kiss me. Between me and the single gold bars on his collar it’s hard to say which make him blush more. I’m not worried about his safety, but I don’t want him to leave because it means I’ll live with my parents while he’s gone. My father thinks it’s unseemly for a young woman to live alone. However, living with my parents will allow us to save Bob’s check, build up some capital to invest in the car dealership he intends to start when he has completed his stint in the Navy.

              It’s raining and cold outside. I can only tell there’s a plane in the distance because of its lights. As Bob disappears into the dark, I see the slit in the back of his jacket, and then just the reflection off his hat and then he’s gone. He’s walking into a new mysterious world and before he leaves the Navy he will become a man. He will see Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, and the South China Sea. I will return to Pasadena and live with my parents, a child with child.

              I head back to the cheap mint-green motel in Berkeley where we have been staying -- where I spent my days sitting around the parking-lot pool trying to concentrate on Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Vicar of Wakefield.” It was a reading from the syllabus of the class I dropped, because I had been too exhausted and nauseated to keep up a full college schedule.

I intend to sleep for a while before leaving for home, but I’m tossing, listening to the rain splatter on the roof.

              The clock on the nightstand turns 4:00 and then 5:00. It’s thick and gray outside, but I decide to drive the seven hours back to Pasadena rather than stare at the ceiling, so I flounce a plaid maternity dress over my head, pack my turquoise Samsonite and head to the Catalina. There is no place to eat breakfast at this hour, and I don’t care about breakfast any way. I stop at the office and ask the smoke-encircled night clerk how to find 101. I have no map.

              I drive through intersections with traffic lights and gas stations. When I stop for gas, the attendant pumps it, cleans my windshield, checks the oil, takes my cash, and returns the change. I find 101 and pretty soon the sun breaks through and the landscape opens up to rolling amber hills.

             Shortly before noon I see a sign for Andersen’s Pea Soup restaurant and recall more comfortable times, like going to Andersen’s with my parents when I was in high school. Back then I had relished the fake half timbering and the kitschy Danish feel to the town. I loved the tastes-like-grandma-made-it food, but this time I don’t stop. It’s a bit out of the way and I feel too self-indulgent spending money on a restaurant lunch for just me. Besides a woman doesn’t just go to a restaurant alone, not even a wholesome place like Andersen’s.

              The Pacific Ocean suddenly shows up about Gaviota –– blue and beckoning. Relief from the beige and dull. Then it vanishes all too quickly at Santa Barbara and I keep rolling south, finding my way somehow to the Harbor Freeway. I know that the Harbor connects with the Pasadena and from there I’ll get home. Cruising over the southern part of Los Angeles I see the Bovard auditorium’s tower, and realize I’m passing the University of Southern California campus where, just three months before, I was a coed. But the baby swelling in my body means I won’t go back. Maybe some other place, some other year. I’m due in November, so I wouldn’t finish the semester and there’s no money to waste on a college education for pregnant me. The trajectory of my life is changing. Now I’ll become a wife and mother, no worse I suppose than being an English teacher.

              Southern Cal is an expensive private university. I’d attended on scholarship, one of only a handful of students to do so in my class. I’d declared International Relations as a major but the University counseling office called me in to say, “You can’t major in International Relations. The diplomatic corps only hires women to type. You can already type. Look at these A’s in English. You should teach English.” Done. I was brainwashed into thinking I couldn’t handle subjects like finance or law, that there was something magical about being male that allowed one to succeed in the rough and tumble of business. To my knowledge there was one undergraduate woman in the business school and Bob and his buddies ridiculed her “piano-legs.”

            USC sat on the edge of an area of south-central LA called Watts, a ghetto into which blacks were redlined, an island of poverty and despair and crime. It lacked hospitals, shopping centers, parks, decent housing, and good schools. I was a student-observer in one of those elementary schools during the first semester of my junior year. I didn’t fear my second graders, but in my grade school the hallways were outfitted with security mirrors. When I glanced up and accidentally saw my own face, it gave me a start. Where did that white woman come from?

            I also tutored at night, against my parents’ wishes, in the basement of a Watts church. I worried that I wouldn’t be smart enough for a student assigned to me when I heard she would be an eighth grader needing help with math. Although she was the size of a woman she turned out to be a shy child who couldn’t multiply. After a few sessions her mother refused to bring her to tutoring. “They ‘spect me to drive her down there at night?” What was I, then a nineteen-year-old sophomore, to say? The woman-girl quit attending.

            The architecture of the University of Southern California campus is Spanish renaissance, so gracefully colonnaded that everyone knows what it looks like. They just don’t recognize it in the background of all those movies and commercials. USC is derided as the University of Spoiled Children and there may be some truth to that. I went to school with girls from wealthy and worldly backgrounds, but none of us had independent prospects, and none of us recognized the disparity between our constrained little lives and the constraints in Watts that were fomenting terror. Our vision was too sheltered. Too insular.

            On the freeway, it’s well beyond lunch time and I’m neither hungry nor out of gas. I wouldn’t stop this close to Watts anyway. I pull into the right-hand lane just to slow down and wiggle a little when the guy in the Volkswagen points the gun out of his window. As I roar away from the scene I imagine the guy laughing his ass off for scaring me. It think a blonde in a flashy car is a target for a prank, but I’m too naïve to feel in much danger. It’s instinct that causes me to put my foot down.

            The next thing I remember is feeling dizzy and woozy on the Pasadena Freeway, just over the Arroyo Seco. I’ve fainted earlier in this pregnancy and I’m terrified of passing out. I’m in the left lane and can see an exit coming up on the right. I look over my shoulder quickly and then just pray that there’s enough space for me to get over in front of the car I see there. “Please God don’t let me kill anybody.” I have no other memory until I wake up slumped over the bench seat in the Catalina, parked catawampus in the lot of a coffee shop.

            In the restaurant, there’s a mirror behind the cashier and I glance at my pale green reflection. A black pay phone hangs on an adjoining wall. I head into the ladies room and splash water on my face then knock the coins around in my change purse looking for a dime with which to call my mother.

              “I fainted. Can you come get me?”

              “You’re all right now Claudia. Just get yourself a coke and come the rest of the way home.”

              I’m miffed, but the quiet baby seems okay, so I buy the coke from the cashier.

              When I get home, I crawl into a twin bed in what was once my room but has been given over to my eight-month-old adopted baby brother who is napping in his crib. I have a younger sister, but our father needed a Boy. The Boy and I sleep till dinner. When I get up I pull a powder blue corduroy full length tent dress over my head that Mom sewed for me from an old bedspread. Nothing under it. I am finally comfortable. She serves liver and onions on the lanai. “If we’d known you were coming, we’d have had something fancier.” I don’t care. I talk about my drive, but I don’t mention the gun, because I know that if I don’t want my parents to freak out I need to keep that to myself. After dinner Mom brings out a chocolate birthday cake she has whipped up while I slept, and Dad produces a blue velvet ring box holding his late mother’s diamond dinner ring. “For when your husband takes you to dinner,” he says. The ring resembles a flower with an eighty-point center stone surrounded by petals of smaller stones. It’s pretty. “Here’s to the birthday girl,” says my Dad as he lifts his iced tea glass to mine.

              As I am going to bed that night, Watts erupts into grisly violence. When police attempted to impound the car of a drunk driver on that stifling August night a fight broke out and erupted into a full-fledged riot. Watts was ready to explode; all those rocks and Molotov cocktails and guns did not appear out of nowhere. The gun pointed at me earlier that day was at the ready.

The next day, I see the newsreels of Watts with flames licking the Southern California sky. Watts burned for a week.

 

****

              My daughter was born five weeks early on October 13, 1965. On her 21st birthday in 1986, she was a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, also a private school, perched on the edge of urban decay in west Philadelphia, but her awareness of the world around her was far more sophisticated than mine had been. I gave her the diamond dinner ring I had received from my father, but her real gift from me were the unseemly things I and other women of my generation did to help change her future. The U.S. wasn’t at war, declared or otherwise. She pursued graduate school and the career of her choice, bought her own condo, married and had children at her leisure, and has all the power she needs in her family and the world around her.

            And I have a granddaughter born October 22, 1999 who knows nothing of inconvenient pregnancy, nor the prohibitions against women in men’s career fields. She majored in International Relations and minored in Business. She speaks French. She’s witnessed plenty of racial violence although none of it first-hand. The Vietnam War is ancient history and with it, the draft. She will not only establish her own home, she will work in other cities, probably other countries, all things my father would have considered unseemly, and that pleases me to no end. My daughter may eventually turn over the ring, but it’s purpose no longer exists.

About the Author

Claudia Geagan is retired from a career in big cities and big corporations. She has aged degrees in English and Finance. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Louisville Review, The Lindenwood Review, Prometheus Dreaming, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Gyroscope Review, Riverteeth's Beautiful Things, and others. She has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize.