Montecito — Chapter 27 & 28: Beach Break
Take a sneak peek of Montecito by Michael Cox in this ongoing serialization of his yet-to-be-published book. This fictional story is inspired by “tales of true crime THAT HAPPENED HERE.” With Cyrus in Fiji, Hollis gets to enjoy some time with his family. Chapter 26 is available here. – MJ Staff
With Cyrus and family off to Fiji, I opened my eyes to Montecito for the first time in months. Thank God I did; it – at least temporarily – saved my sanity. The ratcheting tension with Cyrus had worn me to a nub; I was in desperate need of some mental R&R. Increasingly, I felt I could do no right in his eyes, especially when sitting in his library as he listed new demands and shook his head at my annoying questions. I had hoped that by the time the Wimbys returned from their three-week adventure, Cyrus would find me fresh faced and amenable; a return to the early days of our working together when he seemed to value my inputs and the demons of my skepticism were dormant. After all, it was summer in Montecito. If I could not rediscover a sense of joy and optimism now, it was hard to imagine where and when I might find it.
For a town always wearing its Paradise badge proudly, it was summer when Montecito’s claim seemed the most legitimate. Montecito summers were rainfall free – not even a sprinkle – from the end of May through the end of October. While the rest of the country dealt with thunderstorms, tornados, oppressive heat, and humidity, and – by the end of summer – hurricanes, the only real question in Montecito was, would there be morning fog and how long might it last.
Perhaps there was an argument that winter was Montecito’s golden season. Yes, it rained occasionally, but the grand total winter precipitation typically amounted to no more than fourteen inches. If the overnight low broke forty degrees, it would be the talk of the town with Montecito’s ladies breaking out their Moncler ski puffers. Most winter days, it would still be sunny, and in that sun, Montecitans would bask in their shared paradise, trying hard to remember what month it was. And certainly, winter was the time of year when New Yorkers and Chicagoans most gazed upon our hamlet with envy.
But for me, it was all about summer. Sunny summer afternoons brought Montecito to the beach, and perhaps the beach was where Montecito was at its most egalitarian. Aside from the Coral Casino, the beach was no one’s and everyone’s. Butterfly Beach – in front of the Four Seasons Biltmore – and Miramar Beach – in front of the brand-new, nineteen-years-in-the-making Rosewood hotel – were the main beaches with secretive Hammond’s tucked in between. At low tide, one could walk all three beaches, end-to-end. A visit to Miramar or Butterfly would find clumps of sunbathers, empty towels vacated by surfers in the water, and lots and lots of walkers often accompanied by four-legged friends who were unofficially welcomed to gallivant off leash.
Free of Cyrus, I front-loaded my workdays to join the rest of Montecito in these afternoon pilgrimages to the sand. There, Isabel would circle with a gaggle of girlfriends, Trip would boogie board and build drip sandcastles, and Cricket would swim out and back to the buoys staked two hundred yards offshore, then wander from pod to pod saying hello and catching up with friends.
With me in tow, Cricket was thrown off her game. She invited me to join her on the out and back swims. Too cold, I would say. She invited me to join her in the friendly catchups, but – who was I kidding – we both knew I was conversational deadweight. No thank you, I would say. After a few afternoons of my tagging along, I was beginning to wonder why my family let me; what a giant pain in the ass I was!
To make up for my faults, I brought a large shovel, enticing Trip and Isabel into elaborate sandcastle building. Sandcastles became dolphins, became whales, became sand igloos, became underground bunkers. By the end of the first week, muscles that I had not seen in years sprouted from my shoulders and back, and a healthy glow returned to my skin. Thanks to my continued gastrointestinal issues – diet related I was now convinced – I had lost fourteen pounds since signing on to ExOh. This was the wrong way to lose weight, but with my new shoulder muscles and slight tan, I looked as good as I was going to look. Almost passable as Cricket’s husband.
When my digging was done and my family tired of me, I would just sit, staring offshore at the oil platforms. Ah, the oil platforms; a reminder that even Eden had its apples and serpents. Below the surface of the twenty-five-mile-wide channel separating Montecito from Santa Cruz Island, lay one of the largest naturally seeping oil fields in the world. As early as the eighteenth century, mariners in the Santa Barbara Channel noted the sheen on the water and the tar balls occasionally accumulating on the sand. Offshore oil drilling began here in 1898 and thrived – despite perpetual objection from the locals – until a disastrous spill in 1969 coated thirty-five miles of Santa Barbara County beaches in oil and dead birds. Thus, the boom came to an ignominious end, and ushered in a new environmental consciousness beginning with the first Earth Day in 1970.
Nineteen offshore oil platforms remain in the Santa Barbara Channel: seven of them visible from Montecito’s beaches. During the Holiday season, the platforms were dressed as blinking red and green Christmas trees, attempting to soften their image as weapons of environmental destruction. The display was pretty but ineffective. It was an abusive father trying to win back his estranged children with birthday gifts.
To remind us that we cannot escape our nature, the tar balls still came and went at unpredictable intervals. Most locals dedicated a pair of flip flops as beach-only and kept a rag and baby oil handy as insurance. Curiously, the Montecito Chamber of Commerce did not note any of this in its brochures.
Uncharacteristic of me, I never brought my phone to the beach. BatSignal had been quiet since Cyrus left, and for that I was grateful. I knew that the entire business was not on vacation, and that – as the company’s CEO – I should demand to be kept in the loop, but I did not want to levy that demand. I wanted a break. I wanted to pretend that I was like much of the rest of Montecito: of working age, but hardly working. To do so, I latched onto Cyrus’s trip like a barnacle on a boat and made his three-week va-cation my own ten-day stay-cation. It wasn’t part of my non-existent employment agreement, but that did not stop me from taking it.
And, for once, I let the inconsistency slide.
As the final days of Cyrus’s vacation – and my stay-cation – wound down, our family packed up and headed south to Hermosa Beach in support of Cricket and her entry in the Dwight Crum Pier-to-Pier. With Jenny, Paul, and their children in tow, we caravanned from Montecito at sunrise, stopping first at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach – for Isabel – and then at the Battleship USS Iowa – for Trip. By the time we sat down to a pre-race pasta feast at 7 pm in Hermosa, Cricket was ready to send us all back home so she could get to bed. But once everyone settled down into our room at the Beach House Hotel, she changed her tune and thanked us all for the support.
Cricket had been training for this brutal swimming challenge for months, with an eye on breaking her personal best record in this, her 40th year on planet Earth. It was not unusual for a forty-year-old to achieve new athletic feats, but it was quite another thing when the athletic feat in question was a mark set during a year in which said forty-year-old had been an All-American collegiate swimmer. To beat her best, she would have to swim the grueling two-mile, open-ocean course in under forty-three minutes. Considering that I would barely get wet in the chilly Pacific Ocean, and that I still had not mastered a swimming pool flip turn – I lost all sense of direction the moment my feet went over my head, typically thrusting one useless leg toward the sky while the other slapped the pool deck – this feat was beyond my comprehension.
The morning of the race, us non-participants loaded up on pancakes and bagels – as if we needed more carbs – while Cricket sipped English Breakfast tea and ate four almonds and two tangerines. I could sense her excitement, but more, her nerves. Turning forty years old had morphed this athletic goal into an act of defiance against the gods. She would not go gently into that good night. As I poured more syrup on my pancakes and opened a pat of aluminum wrapped butter – my stomach enjoying a rare reprieve – I was grateful that at least one of us would be around to hold our grandchildren.
With breakfast complete, we moved to the sand and said our goodbyes and good lucks to Cricket as she made her way through the pod of silicon-capped, goggled competitors. If she achieved her goal, she would likely finish in the top ten overall. For that reason, she needed to elbow her way to the front of the line, making sure she got a clean start on the sprint from sand to water.
If anyone was more nervous than Cricket, it was Isabel who idolized her mother in a way that every girl should, but few do. Cricket was lining up with the men, many of whom looked like Michael Phelps imitators, and she was about to whip most of their asses. This knowledge swelled our Isabel with pride. It was not just any woman; it was her mother.
Trip had long ago lost any semblance of male chauvinism. He loved and respected me, for sure, but he instinctively recognized his mother as our family’s superhero. On some level this should have made me jealous or resentful, but I felt none of it. Trip and Isabel were correct. Cricket inspired me daily. I was not sure why I had the good fortune to be her partner, but I counted that gift as the greatest of my life.
Paul, Jenny, and their children joined us in the crowd of onlookers, shouting whoops and good luck wishes to all. Finally, with the crack of the starter’s pistol, Cricket’s open swimsuit division launched into a sprint, elbows flying and legs pumping. I was surprised by the brutality at the front of the pack, but Cricket was giving as good as she got, lowering her shoulders as the group approached the tide line. At only five-foot-seven, I saw a few sharp elbows whiff over her head, wondering if her position in the front lines might have been tactical brilliance. With the synchronicity of ballet dancers, she and her fellow front liners dove over an incoming wave, pierced the ocean, and took off in a sea of arms churning saltwater into foam.
The first leg of the swim was to the end of the Hermosa Beach Pier, then north to the Manhattan Beach Pier, finishing with a short run in the sand. Two miles in total. As I watched Cricket battle the men and make the turn north, I realized that my lower lip had been hanging like a limp flag and I was about to drool on my own t-shirt. A tugging on my pocket from Trip brought me back to the moment; already the rest of our crew was walking north, and I was at risk of being left behind.
As I brought up the rear – Isabel running on the sand, screaming encouragement that Cricket would never hear – my cell phone vibrated. I reached into my pocket and thumbed the ignore button. Five seconds later, it rung again. Again, I stilled the vibration. On the third call, I decided to check, assuming it was one of those annoying robo-callers that pretends to be dialing you from a number nearly identical to your own, hoping to trick you into answering out of curiosity.
It was not a robo-caller. It was Cyrus who had not spoken to me in sixteen days – since he left for his vacation home in Fiji – and had not BatSignaled me in more than a week.
“Hi, Cyrus. How is Fiji?” I said, walking the Strand, stores and restaurants to my right, sand and water to my left.
“Fiji is as it always is, Hollis: perfect,” he said in a tone that can be best described as curt. “I need you to go to my house,” he continued.
“What’s going on?” I said, expecting that he might need me to pick up his mail or check to make sure the lights were off; you know, typical CEO-of-a-public-company tasks.
“I’ll explain when you get there,” he said.
“Well,” I said cautiously, “I’m not in Montecito at the moment. I’m in Hermosa. Cricket is–”
“This is urgent, Hollis. I’m sorry to interrupt your weekend plans, but I need you at my house ASAP.”
I was still walking north along the Strand, shaking my head, no. I was adding up the numbers, trying to figure the minimum amount of time it would take me to get home. Cricket would be swimming for another forty-plus minutes. There would be some sort of awards ceremony, right? Maybe an hour for that. Then we would all walk back to our hotel, from which we had thankfully already checked out. But the walk would take another half hour at a minimum. Then we needed to drive home. It was only one hundred miles but in Sunday traffic on the notorious parking lot known as the 405; conservatively, that would take two-and-a-half hours. Then I would need to drop everyone off and drive to Cyrus’s house. I added it up. “I can be at your place inside of five hours,” I said.
“I said ASAP, Hollis!” he hollered. “Is that phrase lost in translation? In what country is five hours considered soon?”
“I…,” I stammered, still walking north. Isabel had given up on her cheering and joined me on the Strand. Out of nowhere, she reached out to hold my hand and smiled at me in a way I had not seen in some time. “I’m sorry, Cyrus, I’m with my family in Hermosa and I cannot get back to Montecito for five hours.”
I heard a fist hit something solid. “That’s just grand,” he seethed. “In five hours, I will have the business cards of your successor printed.”
“That is not fair, Cyrus. It’s a Sunday and…,” I didn’t want to go into a full explanation of where I was and what I was doing, “… and this is important.”
“So is your job, I presume,” he said. “It’s your call.”
The line went dead and the pancakes in my stomach lurched.
“Is everything ok, dad?” Isabel asked.
I swallowed, sandwiching her hand in mine. “Yes, sweetie. Everything is fine.”
I began to walk faster, still clutching Isabel’s hand. Paul and Jenny were ahead of me, but I could see their heads bobbing. Would they help? Of course, they would help. They would understand, or at least Paul would. What choice did I have? Even without knowing that I had cashed in my retirement savings and was pretending to receive a paycheck, Paul would explain to everyone that when the boss yells jump, the only question is, how high. I was not the first to have a family weekend ruined by the demands of work, and I would not be the last. Right? Right?
As my stride increased from casual to speed walker, and Isabel lagged from beside to behind, I said these things to myself, justifying a decision that did not feel like a choice. I did not see how I could possibly walk away from ExOh at this moment. If the cost of this steadfastness disappointed my family today, I would make up for it when I sold my ExOh stock and the Crawfords stopped being Montecito’s reigning paupers.
“Paul. Jenny,” I said when I’d finally caught them.
“Isn’t this amazing?” Jenny said, smiling similarly to how Isabel had only a few moments earlier.
“Yeah, it’s fantastic,” I said distractedly. “Look, I need your help.”
Paul cocked his head but did not stop walking; he knew as well as the rest of us that Cricket would beat us to the finish line if we did not hustle. “What’s up?”
“I …,” I stammered, slightly out of breath. “I need to go in to work.”
“Now?” Jenny said, stopping cold on the Strand, her eyes wide.
I nodded yes, unable to get the word out.
“Now!” she repeated.
“Yes,” I finally said. “I’m sorry – believe me – but… but, yes.”
“Ok,” Paul said, placing a hand on my shoulder as if to keep me from falling. “Ok, what do you need us to do? Do you want us to bring everyone home? We can do that, can’t we honey?” He said, turning to Jenny.
“Uh,” she said, her eyes toward the sky like she was solving a complicated trigonometry problem. “Uh, yeah. We can put the third-row seats down and put a few bags in the footwells and – if we put all the girls in the back row – then yeah, I… I think we can.”
“You’re leaving, dad?” Isabel said, still holding my hand though I had forgotten she was there.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” I said, crouching to her level, “but I have to.”
She nodded, acknowledging my answer, but her eyes glistened, signaling that tears were in the offing.
“I can’t believe this,” Jenny said.
“I …,” I started to say then stopped. What words would have made this any better?
“Don’t worry,” Paul interjected, his hand still on my shoulder. “We’ll get everyone home, safe and sound. These things happen.”
I guessed that these things did indeed happen, but in that moment, I could not have felt more impotent. I could picture Cricket, three hundred yards from where I stood, churning the sea in the hopes of breaking through a barrier of achievement, while I – ostensible family protector – abandoned them all. “Thank you, Paul,” I said. “Thank you, Jenny.” He nodded and patted my shoulder; she just stared at me.
“Get going,” Paul said. “I have a feeling you’ll be paying a price for this for a while to come; might as well make it count.”
I nodded, kissed Isabel on the cheek, ruffled Trip’s hair and took off
at a sprint.
Tune in next week for more Montecito