I didn't really want to go—I thought it would be more romantic to sit in my houseboat on Richardson Bay in Sausalito and do what loving, engaged couples do. You know, a quiet dinner, a suitable wine and a few hours of, "sweet nothin's."
But no, it wasn't meant to be. I could see right away by the way the stars were aligned that if I wanted any peace at all I'd quietly go along with Ciara to the annual Valentine's dance at her family's winery in Napa Valley.
She was from one of the old time Italian families that had been making fine wines near Calistoga for over a hundred years. It wasn't one of the larger families that are known throughout the country. But it was known among the wine aficionados as one of the consistently best producers of top quality Cabernets year in and year out.
One of the family scandals was that Ciara's mom, Angela, had married a non-Italian. Not too much was said though, since Gill Kibby brought to the marriage the largest liquor distributorship in Kansas plus owning award winning delis in St. Helena and Manhattan.
The annual Valentine's party and dance was Gill's idea. He invited the top twenty-five retailers and the top twenty-five restaurant owners based on sales volume of their Bella Vista brand. The party caught on quickly and it became one of the cachets that the rich seem to hunger after to show that they are special.
And a party it was! The finest foods, the best dance bands, a well known, but aging crooner from San Francisco and a parting gift of a magnum of one of the better Cabs from the wine library. But I wasn't rich or famous and I didn't want to go. I did love Ciara and bickering was an anathema to me ... so I went.
My fiancée had to be there all day to help with the preparations and to greet the guests as they pulled up in the daisy chain of limos. So with mixed emotions and some trepidation I put on the monkey suit Ciara had given me two years ago when I attended the Valentine's party for the first time. This part I didn't mind too much. I was average in height, a bit too slender, with thick, wavy black hair and even I had to admit I looked pretty good in a tux.
Once I arrived at the winery I felt somewhat better. I knew the food would be great and I never complained about having a chance to drink some wines that I would never be able to afford on my own. Ciara sometimes accused me of loving the wine more than I loved her.
"You just want to marry the winery, not me!"
I wasn't sure if she was joking or not but there was some truth there ... not that I'd ever admit it.
For the party they used the large wine cellar on the ground floor of the large stone building. It was lined along the sides with three thousand gallon redwood wine tanks. These were as old as the winery was and were part of the tradition at Bella Vista. Normally the center was filled with stacks of barrels but for the party these were moved to the warehouse next door with forklifts.
Ciara was, of course, also in charge of decorating the place. I had to give her credit—the place looked fantastic. The aroma from the wine aging in the large barrels always entranced me and she had taken the Valentine's theme to the max. The tables alternated with white and red tablecloths, with red roses on the white tables and pink roses on the red tables. The placemats were large glass hearts with the wineries logo and the person's name engraved. These were keepsakes for guests to take home as a memento of a luscious fest of food, wine and dance.
I caught up with my significant other talking with a too handsome man in the entryway to the cellar.
"Hi, Honey," she said as she gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. "This is Dante Loggia. He owns La Trattoria in Tribeca. Dante, this is Edward Imhoff, my fiancé."
"Eddie, why don't you go on in—our table is in the middle towards the left. I need a few minutes with Dante to work on a promotion."
Okay, I guessed I could live with that. I found the table and helped myself to a glass of '73 Vintner's Select Cab—now showing it's best at twenty years. At three hundred a bottle this was a special treat. I sipped, slowly, and enjoyed the wine as people were filtering in to the soothing rhythms of a jazz quartet. I'd finished my second glass and was debating with myself on the wisdom of a third when Ciara finally came in—with a rosy flush on her cheeks that belied the cool air typical of a large wine cellar.
I let her buss my cheek again as she patted my arm and turned to the woman next to her and started a conversation about wine sales in Oklahoma. I poured the third glass and morosely studied it as I figured out the cost: three hundred divided by four ... hmmm, seventy-five a glass. I started trying to figure out the cost per sip but said the hell with it and just drank it.
Dinner was boring but hopefully things would pick up with the dancing. Every time I tried to start a conversation with my beloved, someone would stop by and grab her attention. She must have caught my darkening mood—hell, she knew I didn't want to be there to start with—and assured me all of her dances would be mine.
After the too rich chocolate confection that passed for dessert along with the all too tasty glass of port were both disposed with, and the last of the dishes cleared off and the last of the ladies returned from the rest room in various sized clumps ... after all this, the dance band started playing.
It was a nice sized swing band playing all the old favorites from groups like Glenn Miller, The Dorsey Brothers, Artie Shaw, and Harry James. They had a female vocalist reminiscent of Edie Adams singing, "I Must Love You" with Guy Lombardo's orchestra—this was before she became an actress and married Ernie Kovacs. She was assisted with the vocals by an aging crooner sounding a little scratchy from the vast quantities of wine he had been quaffing.
The dance floor wasn't very wide—no more that fifteen feet or so, but it ran the length of the cellar. I grabbed Ciara as the band started with "In the Mood." I had always been proud of my dancing and was more than holding my own. The next song was "Let's Jump," the old Count Basie favorite. Finally they played a slower one, one that I had always liked, "You Made Me Love You," a Harry James standard.
I pulled my girl closer and she put her head on my shoulder. I was feeling the music and feeling the love between us—maybe all was right with the world—when I felt a light tap on my shoulder. Of course it was that too pretty Dante, asking too politely for the dance. I tried to shrug him off but Ciara pulled back with a helpless shrug and opened her arms to Dante. I swear he gave me a smirk!
Dante grabbed her just as I had, and held her even closer. I stood there for a moment figuring I could take her back in my arms for the next dance but Dante was one step ahead of me and whirled her through the crowd away from me. I realized I was standing alone in the middle of the dance floor, probably looking like a fool—felt like one too. I went back to our table and flagged the waiter for another bottle of wine. He filled my glass and I swirled it around, not drinking it but wondering at the meanings of the different patterns the swirling caused in the wine. I took a few small sips as I looked around for my fiancée.
The band played four or five more numbers but no Ciara. They stopped for a break and I started to get up and look for her when her dad sat down next to me.
"How is your writing going?"
Well, hell, I knew what this was about. He felt that his daughter could do a lot better than marry a man that wrote Romance novels for a living. He knew damn well how my writing was going. I came across my writing skills legitimately—a Master's degree from Stanford—and had written several serious books focusing on different facets of the settling of the American west. These received top-notch reviews but the sales wouldn't even cover the payments on my houseboat.
During my senior year I took a directed studies writing class. The woman that taught it was a published author of general fiction and gave me various assignments that she would review and discuss with me. After the Christmas break, she sat down with me for a heart-to-heart.
"Eddie, your writing is great—and you know it. Technically it's first rate, you have a feel for characterization and are very imaginative with plots. But your writing seems too dry—not enough passion. I want you to try something with more feelings in it."
She gave me an assignment of writing a romance short story.
"And, Eddie, make me cry!"
I was a little pissed off about having to do this; hell, I was a serious writer. I treated it as a joke and wrote an over-the-top story of love gone bad but resolved with a teary ending.
Long story made short, she gave the story to her agent to look at and I wound up with a contract to make the story into a novel. Now I was pumping out about one every few months and living well. Not great, but enough for a nice car, my houseboat and a comfortable lifestyle. But I would never be flying in my own Lear like Ciara's dad.
So when he asked about my writing I knew he wasn't talking about the new book I was working on that analyzed the impact that the battles of Bloody Valverde and Glorieta Pass had on the South's attempt at taking over the West during the Civil War. He was laughing at me for having a real job like writing Romance novels.
Before I could break away from Gill the band had started again. I got up and pushed through the crowd; it had been almost an hour since I had seen Ciara last. I remembered that one of the places she liked best was in back of the main level; there was a large balcony that overlooked the vineyards. I decided to give it a shot and walked up the stairs and to the door at the end of the balcony.
I could see a couple towards the middle of the balcony leaning against the railing, standing close together. The full moon shining through a fine mist made a lovely, romantic glow around them. I quietly opened the door and stepped out. It was about forty feet to where they were standing and I recognized the dress Ciara was wearing. They were murmuring softly but I couldn't tell what they were saying.
I watched for a few minutes thinking of our love for each other and what it meant. They turned and began a passionate kiss. I couldn't believe my eyes! I felt a sudden overwhelming sense of ... relief. That confused the hell out of me. I should be mad and yelling and kicking ass and ... but I wasn't. I was just standing there with this strange sense being lucky at not being caught for having done something wrong.
The last time I had that feeling was a few years earlier while driving down to Santa Barbara on 101. In the long, lonely stretch between King City and Paso Robles, the traffic tends to pick up speed. Everyone was humming along about seventy-five to eighty. To go slower would likely cause an accident. Of course they had a trap set with an overhead plane timing how long it took to get from one mark to the next. Around a long bend there were three or four highway patrol cars.
Since everyone was speeding they flagged over about thirty cars. I was towards the back. After about twenty minutes of sitting and fuming a guy came back and starting with the car in front of me and to the end of the line told us to take off. I had the most delectable sense of having cheated and gotten away with it.
And that was how I felt now. I shrugged and walked around the building and out into the vineyards. This was one of my favorite things to do—walk between the rows of vines regardless of the weather. Vineyards, like golf courses, have a special beauty that I found very relaxing. Knowing I shouldn't drive yet I walked up and down the rows for the better part of an hour trying to get a handle on how I felt. Not how I should feel but how I really felt.
And, damn it all, I felt good. Walking in the gradually increasing mist I sobered up enough to drive home. On the lonely ride to Sausalito, I tried really hard to work up a good mad. I guess I was somewhat angry but I think my pride was mad, not my heart. Some Valentine's Day!
There were two things that defined me: my writing and my running. I'd been running all my life and had some success as a half-miler and miler at Stanford. I wasn't at heart a competitor. I didn't like to run for time—I ran for the sheer enjoyment of it. For the ten years since I'd graduated I'd been running the Dipsea and Double Dipsea races.
The basic race was from Mill Valley, up these god-awful stairs (676 stairs in three flights) onto Mt. Tamalpais and over the mountain to Stinson beach. The Double Dipsea was to Stinson Beach and back. The whole thing was fourteen miles with 4,400 feet of up and down.
I belonged to a running club and we regularly went on long runs throughout Marin County. One of my favorite runs was across the Golden Gate Bridge and down around to Fort Point and back to my houseboat. I ran it at all times of day or night and in all weather. It was usually on one of these runs that I came up with the ideas for my novels. It was also a great catharsis for the stress of living in California ... and of being engaged.
I slipped on my running gear and a light windbreaker and drove up to the parking lot at the view point on the west end of the bridge. I rarely made this run from this starting point but it was late and I'd eaten much more than normal. I was just looking for some relaxation—to kind of clear my mind. (Years later they would close the bridge to pedestrians at night due to the security flap and I wasn't able to make that run anymore.)
I started running up the slope of the bridge with an easy stride, feeling better. One of the things I always did on this run was stop for a minute and look at the view. It was such a spectacular sight that I didn't really need to even have my eyes open to see the view from the top of the bridge in all of its manifestations. My favorite times were on sunny weekends when the boats were out and the wind brisk. Seeing those long sailboats heeling over and beating into the wind always brought shivers down my spine.
Other favorite times were on those windy, foggy summer days that always evoked that famous quote of Mark Twain's: "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." Some days the fog would be so thick that I could barely see the rail. Even on days like those, a sudden vagary in the wind could blow a hole through the fog giving an unexpected glance of Angel Island or Alcatraz.
On this night of misty rain the moon cast an ethereal glow over the cold water of the bay and the lights of The City and the various East Bay cities flickered like millions of fireflies flitting around in their glory of life. I took a deep breath and let Ciara and all thoughts associated with her float away like a wisp of fog and resumed my run at a faster but still easy pace. As I ran by the tollbooths I waved to Dave. That's all I knew him by. He always worked nights and was usually towards the bay side of the bridge. There wasn't any traffic and he gave me a big smile and a thumbs up.
I came off the bridge picking up the pace now and made the left turn down the hill towards Fort Point. The long straightaway along the bay was one of my favorite parts. It was maybe a half-mile stretch that I always finished with a heart-pumping kick. The water was at high tide and the surf was booming against the large rocks—washing me with gushes of icy seawater lending impetus to my finish.
I had always loved Fort Point and had visited it many times over the years. It was a beautiful brick building hiding under the approach arch of the bridge. I walked over to the water listening to the thunder of the surf and the haunting siren sound of the foghorns, calling to the lost and lonely.
I stood there, stretching and musing for the better part of ten minutes, and finally, with a deep sigh, turned and started the run back. I was running easily, close to the middle of the bridge, when I saw a girl standing there. I gave her a nod and kept running. When we see the unusual in an usual situation we sometimes accept it without thinking.
About twenty yards past the girl it hit me and I stopped and turned back. There really shouldn't be a young girl here, this late at night. As I started back towards her she was trying to get her leg over the rail but the dampness made it keep slipping off. I walked slowly—I didn't want to startle her. When I was about ten feet away I loudly cleared my throat.
In a conversational voice, I said, "This is my favorite view in the world, right here. You must like it too, to be here at this time at night."
She looked at me like I had two noses and three ears.
I tried again. "Look, Miss. Are you okay?" I knew she wasn't. How could anyone trying to jump into the murky depths of the bay be okay?
With a heavily Latin accented, but fluent, voice—accent familiar, San Juan? ... a dim memory, maybe Puerto Rican—she replied, "Yes, I ... no, I'm just walking."
Maybe the irony was lost but I had to try it. "Right! It's such a beautiful evening." By now the mist had graduated to a real rain and she was starting to shiver. She didn't have a coat, only a pathetically thin sweater.
Now wrapping her arms around herself, she tried again, "Well, yes, a nice, no, not a nice..."
Yes, the irony was clearly lost. I took off my windbreaker and wrapped it around her.
"Do you have a name? I'm Eddie, Eddie Dawson."
Amazingly she put her hand out to shake mine, and responded, "Eddie, I'm Dayanara. Everyone calls me Nara."
Well, at least she was raised well.
"Nara, let me help you back to the tollbooth—they can call the police."
With some violence, she spat back, "No, no policía!"
Okay, that was a non-starter.
By this time I was starting to get cold. "Do you have some family I can call?"
A scared look now.
"No, no family."
Exasperated now, "Well, I can't ... I'm not going to leave you alone here. Miss ... Nara, we have to do something."
"You! Are you a good man?"
What the hell kind of question was that?
"Well, yeah, I guess. I don't kick dogs or anything. I guess I'm good."
I wonder if Ciara would agree with that right now.
"You take me. You take me, Eddie!"
Ah ... I don't think she meant it that way.
"Uh, take you where, Nara?"
"Take me home, Eddie. Take me to your home. I trust you. You are a good man." She said that like she wasn't all that sure, but was trying to convince herself.
I didn't say anything. I was about to the point that even I might jump off the bridge. I took her arm, and rushing her in the ever-increasing rain, led her back the viewpoint and my car.
I opened the door for her to get in, but she stood there with a funny look on her face.
"I trust you, Eddie. I trust you, okay?"
With a deep, half-frozen sigh, I muttered, "Sure, Eddie is a good boy. Just ask Ciara what a good boy I am."
I quickly drove the short distance to my parking spot and hustled her into my houseboat. I was icy cold now and needed a hot shower. I got her a robe, a nice heavy terrycloth one that Ciara used when she stayed over.
"I have to get in the shower right away. Put this robe on and I'll put your clothes in the dryer when I finish."
The layout of the houseboat was basically one large room with a kitchen cum dining room at one end and at the other from left to right were a closet, a larger bathroom and a small laundry room. The rest was mostly a combination living room and bedroom with a small space set aside for my writing.
It was actually quite nice. The flooring and walls were old heart redwood that had aged to a beautiful patina. There wasn't much furniture but what I had there was high quality. It was attractive and looked bigger than it was.
I showered quickly and put on jeans and an old sweater. I waved Nara into the bathroom and put some coffee on. The shower was running, the coffeepot was perking, the Miles Davis CD was adding a little mood music ... but I was still able to hear the faint scratch of the key in the door.
It could only be Ciara, though I really wasn't expecting her. She threw the door open, her face more stormy than the rain outside.
"What the hell do you mean, running off and leaving me alone at the dance?"
Before I could point out to her that she hadn't been alone when I left, she spotted Nara's wet clothes neatly folded and piled on the floor in front of the bathroom door.
"What's this? These aren't my clothes!"
Of course, at that moment the shower was turned off—a noise not noted until its absence.
"Who's taking a shower? What's going on here, Eddie?"
I hadn't said a word as yet. And I really wasn't sure exactly what was going on. The door to the bathroom opened, the steam roiling out in soft clouds, and Nara stood there in Ciara's robe drying her hair with a towel.
My fiancée looked at Nara, at me, at Nara and exploded, "God damn it, Eddie, this is too much. You bastard!"
With that Ciara tugged her engagement ring off and threw it at me with an angry glance. Running to the door she threw it open and cast a venomous glance back at Nara ... and slammed the door with no small amount of violence.
I stared at the door, then at Nara. The entire crazy episode had happened without Nara or I saying a single word. I had this vision of Dante and my (ex?) fiancée kissing on the balcony in the misty moonlight.
I picked the ring up off the floor—it really was quite nice ... and way more than I could afford—and looking at Nara I asked, "Hey, Nara, do you want a ring?"
She looked at me, by turns horrified and astounded. We stood there for a long minute and suddenly I started laughing. Well, at first it was more of a choked giggle but soon I was rolling on the floor and Nara was standing there looking confused and lost. It wasn't that funny, but sometimes, well, I guess I was just stressed out.
I finally quieted down and showed Nara how to run the small washer with the equally small dryer stacked on top. While her clothes were washing I poured us each a mug of coffee with a healthy dollop of brandy in it. As I gave it to her, I realized I hadn't really looked closely at her.
She was basically really small. She couldn't have been more than five-two. Any taller than that and she probably would have made it over the railing and I'd be talking to the police now. Her damp hair was straggling down her back but looked rich and thick. Her eyebrows were a bit heavy and obviously had never been plucked. She looked to be barely sixteen and I started wondering what kind of trouble I'd got myself into.
Hesitantly, I tried, "Nara, you're just a kid. I'd better call the police."
With more anger than I expected, she replied, "I'm not a kid! I'm a woman." At once, near tears, and belying the woman part, she pleaded, "Don't call the police. Please, my family..."
"What about your family?"
She got up to put her clothes in the dryer.
When she came back, I got a better look at her. She was startlingly pretty, with her skin a slightly dusky color to go along with her dark brown hair. Her eyes were medium brown with a few tawny streaks thrown in. She looked like a fashion model that had forgotten to grow up.
She looked at me, her eyes round and large, doe eyes, and started silently crying. I didn't know what to do. I finally gave up and figured it would be better to sleep on it. I fixed the small sofa up for her to sleep on. It wasn't very long and there was no way was I going to stay awake all night trying to sleep on the sofa when it fit her perfectly.
I put my pajamas on in the bathroom—I hadn't slept in them for years and was somewhat surprised that I still had them. I started to turn the light off when Nara asked, "Eddie, please, por favor, leave the light in the bathroom on?"
Poor kid. She must be scared to death.
In the middle of the night I could hear Nara softly crying. My heart went out to her but I didn't know what to do about it. I thought about trying to comfort her but I was concerned about making her more scared than she was now.
I fell into a deep sleep and when I woke up Nara was sitting at the small table next to the kitchen. She was dressed in the now clean and dry clothes she had on the night before. She had found the orange juice and was drinking some from a tall glass
She saw me looking at her and blushed a little bit and turned her face away. I got up and took my clothes in the bathroom and dressed. When I got back to the kitchen I put some coffee on. While it was perking we didn't talk to each other more than a spare hello.
When the coffee was ready I held a cup up towards Nara and she nodded her okay. With coffee in place I sat down and looked at her, making her turn her head away again.
"Nara, look at me," I said softly, "You can't just hide from life. You didn't really want to end everything last night, did you?"
Looking at me now, with her big round eyes, she whispered, "No, I didn't."
"Well, Nara, I think you have three choices. I can call the police, you can call your family or you can talk to me. I'm sure you don't want the police and I suspect that your family is part of the problem so I suggest you tell me your problems and I'll see if there is anything we can work out. Do you agree?"
She nodded her acquiescence.
"Why don't we have some breakfast first and then we can talk?"
I took her to a good breakfast place two blocks away. I went there at least once a week for either breakfast or lunch. I liked to cook my own dinners. I became good friends with the owner, Kendra Allen. She was in her late fifties and when her husband had retired from the San Francisco Police Department she had bought the small restaurant to give her something to do.
Her husband, Mike, had retired as an Inspector III—essentially a senior detective. Besides frequently attending retirement parties and playing golf with his buddies from the SFPD, he was off hunting and fishing all the time. The restaurant was only open for breakfast and lunch—from six in the morning until two in the afternoon.
I thought it would make her more at ease to be around people and have a chance to get to know me better. I did introduce her to Kendra as a "friend." Kendra looked at me kind of funny since she knew I was engaged and had eaten breakfast there a couple of times with Ciara when she had stayed over.
As we ate I told her about the party, going into a lot of details. I told her about seeing Ciara with that Dante guy. I tried to make it sound funny to try to cheer her up a little.
"I thought I'd be more upset than I was. I was angry about the way she behaved but driving home I felt relieved more than anything. I never felt close to her family—and I don't get along with her dad at all. Then when she came barging in later last night I was a bit stunned at first. She thought that you, well we ... anyway I never got a chance to explain. I was thinking I would have to tell her the engagement was over, and why, but that would have been messy."
We went back to the houseboat and I poured myself some more coffee and showed her where the tea was. She was sitting on the small sofa and I took one of the kitchen chairs.
"Nara, are you ready to talk to me?"
"Yes ... Eddie."
"I'll start with some questions and we can take it from there. What is your full name?
"I'm Dayanara Vegerano, Nara, like I said."
"And you are from San Juan?"
"How did you know? Well, not San Juan, but Mayagüez. That's a university city on the west coast of Puerto Rico. But, how did you know?"
"I was in San Juan last year with Ciara for two weeks at the Condado Plaza—I have a good ear for accents and yours sounded familiar. Do you have family there?"
"No ... no, Eddie. My dad died several years ago ... and my mom, mom ... she died last month."
Nora was crying a little now so I gave her a few minutes, refilled my coffee mug.
"Do you have anyone else?" I quietly continued.
"No, there is no one there. We had a business in a bad part of town. It was a small place that was kind of famous in Mayagüez. We made sangria and sold it only in gallon jugs or people could bring their own bottles. We got some protection because we brought a lot of tourists into the neighborhood and they ate at the local restaurants and bought stuff in the small stores.
"When my mom died a man came by and told me I would have to start paying money each month or I wouldn't be safe. My mom knew a man in the police department that had been helping us but I never knew who he was. When mom died a neighbor offered to buy our store so I sold it for twelve thousand dollars."
"What about family here? Do you have anyone in San Francisco?" I was guessing where she lived. I knew she had walked to the bridge.
"Yes, I have a ... brother."
She looked scared when she said this and started crying again. I finally had her go in and take a shower, hoping it would settle her down. Later, I finally heard her story.