I got to Meg’s house on Christmas Eve, and we ran off to Capitola Village to buy last-minute presents for the girls. In a way, I sort of enjoyed the challenge.
Maisey’s present was easy. In that way that adolescents have of embracing just about anything so long as it befuddles their parents, Maisey’s generation went all the way back to swing jazz. Maisey was deeply into it, had even signed up for a dance class. I didn’t trust those pimply-faced zoot bands on MTV, so I began a covert campaign I called The Program of the Three Louies. Her birthday had brought Louis Prima, this Christmas it would be Louis Jordan, and perhaps on Valentine’s Day I would deliver the capper, Louis Armstrong.
If Maisey’s mom tried any of this, she would be handed insincere thank yous and deadly eye-rolls. I, on the other hand, was Aunt Sandy, and anything I did was considered tremendously cool – especially when it was anything but. Teenagers may be a plague to their parents, but to bachelor aunts they are pecan pralines, the long-awaited payback for years of wedding gifts and baby showers.
At eleven, Tanner had not yet abandoned the Barbie-lovin’ girly phase. For her, I found a clamshell of pinks and whites, buffed to a pearly shine, trimmed with gold plate and fixed with a latch so it could serve as a change purse. I threw a twenty inside for good measure.
We conducted the gift exchange as early as the grownups could stand it. I received a navy blue sweater from Meg and a glittered-up musical-note necklace from Tanner. Maisey (who, thanks to a lot of babysitting, was enjoying her first self-financed Christmas) gave me a pendulum that swung in wacky, wayward patterns, thanks to movable magnets, both repellent and attracting, fixed to a metal base. An hour later, we were joined by Kathy, a nice masseuse who lived down the block. Meg fixed us omelets with curry and artichoke hearts, then we trotted down to the beach so the girls could try out some of their new toys.
The beach was dazzling and sunny; it’s no wonder the rest of the country hates us. After wearing out our bare feet on Tanner’s new soccer ball and heading for the parking lot to watch Maisey perform 360s on her new Rollerblades (an activity which had already cost her two broken bones the year before), we convinced the girls to take a long walk down the beach. A storm had kicked up smatterings of rocks, and I delighted in demonstrating my new skill at finding pieces of glass. Tanner started a decidedly goofy game of Follow the Leader, full of Broadway kicks and dizzy-making spins. We lasted a good ten minutes before the adults gave in to self-consciousness.
After dinner, the girls went downstairs to watch “Holiday Inn” (Maisey had a thing for Bing Crosby that went way beyond hip), and Kathy returned to her house to make some long-distance phone calls. Meg and I adjourned to the front balcony with mugs of coffee touched up with Bushmill’s. Meg stood at the railing, marveling at the intensity of the stars, then settled herself at the table and nailed me with a question.
“What’s going on with you, sis? You seem kinda… loose in the limbs.”
“Try going two months without working.”
“Hah! Not with my bills. But there is definitely something else. You love your job – there is no way you would stay away this long unless… Is it a guy?”
If the interrogation didn’t get me, I knew Meg’s dark eyes would melt me like butter on a sidewalk. So I ‘fessed up.
“You got me. It’s a guy.”
“Ooh! Does he have a name?”
Meg cocked her head like a curious poodle. “Are you making fun of me?”
“No, really. Frosty.”
“You’re dating a snowman.”
“No! It’s kind of a… nickname.”
“You’re an attractive, intelligent woman, sis. You don’t need to resort to these sick wintertime fantasies – lumps of coal, glowing red noses, long carrots…”
“Stop!” I cried. “No more, puh-leeze!”
I decided I was just going to have to tell her the whole friggin’ thing. About a half-hour later, she may have felt sorry for asking. But she was intrigued.
“Wow, Sandy. You’re in deep.”
“Yes I am.”
“So what happens to the career? Are you givin’ it up for this guy? Watch out, big sis. That’s how little sis got into this fix.”
“Living four blocks from the Pacific, with two adorable girls?”
“You know it’s not that simple.”
“I know. But wasn’t it worth it?”
Meg hid behind her mug and gave the question a good mulling over. “Yeah. Even though Franklin turned into such a mighty morphin’ dickweed – I sure like the kids we made.”
“Well, in any case,” I said. “I’m not leaping off any high-dives. I’m meeting with my boss Monday, and then maybe I’ll have some ideas. I’ve thought about making some sort of consulting arrangement so I could move to Oregon – telecommuting, occasional plane trips.”
“As long as those trips include visits with your nieces.”
“Always making a pitch, aren’t you?”
“We love you, and we don’t particularly enjoy it when you disappear for months at a time.”
“Well, don’t you worry. I’ll give you the full run-down Monday night. And you know Maisey and Tanner are high on my list.”
Tanner took just that moment to burst onto the balcony, singing “Boh-boh-boh-boh” in the Crosby manner, and attach herself firmly to my right shoulder (her nickname is “Barnacle,” and she rarely fails to live up to it).
“Aunt Sandy, you wanna play some cards?”
“Oh, no. I’m not falling for that again.” I appealed to her mother. “The little buggers like to explain the rules as we go – but never until I’ve worked myself into a deep hole.”
“Oh!” Meg agreed. “They’re terrible cheats!”
“Tell ya what, Barnacle. Go pick out a board game – and not Monopoly, ‘cause I’d like to get home by New Year’s – and the four of us will play it. Aunt Sandy, however, will hold the rules in her grubby little paws, and enforce a strict code of conduct. No hurrying the other players, no moving the other players’ pieces, and especially no un-asked-for advice. You got all that?”
Tanner composed her face into an expression of utter innocence. “Okay. I’ll get Maisey!”
She ripped around the corner, and her mother lent a smile. “If you get those two little shysters all the way through a civilized board game, I will personally nominate you for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
I was really enjoying being in the city again, although it could be I was getting an inaccurate picture, the traffic nicely spread out by the holidays. It was also a pleasure to wake up at my home in Willow Glen, my orchids still alive thanks to sisterly waterings, the morning light filtering through my antique windows to nudge me awake. The sunny weather, in fact, seemed to be permanent; when I arrived in Mountain View to meet with McNeal, the mica in the sidewalks was sparkling like diamonds.
I got to the bookstore early. The café was built on a loft overlooking the store, and I thought a few minutes of people-watching would ease my mind. Apparently, I wasn’t alone.
“That’s so funny!” said McNeal, landing at my table with a shot of espresso. “I thought I was the only one who did that.” He ran a hand over his hair, one of those close-cropped Caesar cuts. Maybe it was just in comparison to his years of post-divorce haggardness, but McNeal looked really good, dressed in blue jeans and a crisp white golf shirt. Owing to a smattering of Greek blood, McNeal was blessed with aerodynamic features – sleek, long curves, not a straight line anywhere – and a big, shy smile that seemed to come out of nowhere.
“You look so healthy, McNeal! What have you been up to?”
“Tennis, mostly. I made the mistake of watching Wimbledon, and I got myself hooked. Brian Stevens – in product development? – we play every Sunday, and we’re so evenly matched we run each other bloody ragged. You look pretty great yourself, Sandy. Almost as if you had spent three months on a beach somewhere.”
“I am so relaxed it scares me.” (I was determined to be pleasantly vague; not even for my corporate savior would I lower the glass wall.) “Living in earshot of the ocean is like a round-the-clock sonic massage; the sound is a lot like breathing. God, I’m getting poetic!”
“Expected.” McNeal unleashed that shy smile then consciously erased it. I wasn’t ready for any serious pronouncements, so I kept talking.
“I did want to thank you for single-handedly saving my tuckus. And don’t even deny it, because Shanili gave me the whole scoop. I just hope they haven’t been loading too much of my work on you.”
McNeal spread his hands on the tabletop. I hadn’t realized how large they were. He gazed at them thoughtfully.
“Sandy, after all the tuckus-covering that was done on my behalf a couple years ago, I owed it to the balance of the universe to expend that same energy for someone else. To tell you the truth, it felt really damn good. Did you know, after my wife decided to become my ex-wife, that I tried to become an alcoholic?”
My boundary alarm went off. I countered with a bemused, neutralizing chuckle in McNeal’s direction. Unfortunately, he took that as a cue to go on.
“My plan was to buy a six-pack of beer every night, and drink it before I went to sleep. It seemed like the logical reaction to a guerilla divorce. But I had the wrong physiology for the job. I would fall asleep before the fourth beer, wake up three or four times a night to pee, and all that grain gave me terrible heartburn – not to mention causing me to fart non-stop. The old open-door policy was not just a matter of worker relations – it was a necessity!”
I was trying really, really hard to hold on to my façade, but how could anyone not laugh at that?
“What I realized, in the end,” he continued, “is that I possess not one addictive bone in my body. So I gave up, and that depressed me even more – because now, in addition to being a failed husband, I was a failed alcoholic!”
I tried my well-rehearsed business-laugh, used in many a staff meeting, and kept it up longer than the story deserved. I almost didn’t notice when McNeal’s expression returned to serious.
“What?” I said. “What’s the matter?”
He wiped a hand down the side of his face. “I tried real hard, Sandy, but I’m afraid it’s a lost cause.”
“You mean… me? The company?”
“It was all I could do to hold them off till after the holidays. Unless you come back full-time by January 15, they’re going to cut you loose.”
I bought myself a little time by watching a little Japanese boy outside the front door, looking up in awe at a life-size cutout of Ernest Hemingway. On the verge of being dumped yet again, I realized how much I loved that damn job, how it constantly prodded me and left my brain humming like an engine after a long drive. And here I was, all or nothing, a handsome guru silently lobbying for my vote one state to the north. The Japanese boy was gone now, and I suppose McNeal expected a response.
“I would guess then,” I said, “that this doesn’t leave me much in the way of negotiating?”
“You mean consulting? Share-timing? Telecommuting?”
“Yes. Consulting, actually.”
McNeal put a hand over his mouth, figuring, blue eyes shifting back and forth. “Is this just… pardon me for asking, but is this more in the mode of additional… recovery time, or is there something else going on?”
Oh, man. I was going to have to show my cards, and honesty right now was about as appealing as sleeping in a dumpster. Oh. McNeal just said something.
“I’m sorry. What was that?”
“Oh. I said, please don’t take this as self-righteousness, but the company is bound to be more forgiving of someone going through a messy divorce than someone breaking up with a long-time boyfriend. There’s just, you know, there’s more on paper.”
“Sure,” I said. I was just going to have to spill it.
“McNeal, this is going to sound odd, but…”
“Personally, I’d prefer it if you just quit.”
“Better yet, just hold out until they work up the nerve to fire you.”
What the holy everliving fuck was he talking about? McNeal leaned over the table and let loose that big, shy smile.
“Sandy, can you keep a secret?”
That’s how I found myself at McNeal’s house in Los Altos Hills, a sprawling Frank Lloyd Wright number with slate walkways, foyer fountain and a Chinese gong for a doorbell. It sat in horsey country, right next to Interstate 280, and served as a kind of Home for Wayward Executives – another recent divorcee lived there too, plus an engineer too geeky to get married in the first place (like I should talk). We climbed a set of wide hardwood steps to a surprisingly modest bedroom. McNeal booted up his computer while I gave the place a cursory scan: a blue and gray Navajo rug over the bed, a gorgeous metal sculpture on the dresser (two bars rising to a cluster of spikes), and a picture of him and a compadre on mountain bikes, covered head to toe in mud.
“Okay, here it is. Check this out.”
I sat before the monitor, which displayed – in a letterbox image – the wide front lawn of Stanford University.
“It’s a 360-degree image,” said McNeal. “Just click the mouse on either end to scan.”
I clicked to the right and coasted to the front entrance, rough sandstone buildings with a set of steps rising to a plaza. McNeal took the mouse and shifted us back to the parking lot.
“Just wanted to show you my car,” he said. “Right over there, next to the blue pickup. Now, shift back to the front steps and move around till the arrow turns into a set of red crosshairs.”
I aimed at the steps and the mark appeared.
“Okay, now double-click on that.”
My click conjured a brand-new photo, taken from the front steps. Going one direction I could look back at the lawn; going the other I could see the triple arches marking the passage to the courtyard. Under the center arch I found another set of crosshairs and clicked.
Now I was in the courtyard, just in front of Memorial Church, surrounded on all sides by Richardsonian Romanesque archways. Cruising to the right I found a jovial-looking Asian man and his college-age son, both of them peering into the son’s shopping bag. I got the magnifier from the on-screen toolbox and tried to zoom in on the bag, but before I got close the image pixeled out to a four-square of white and gray blocks.
“Sorry,” said McNeal. “It’s not especially high-definition right now. But you get the idea, right? It’s a search engine for the physical world.”
“So, for instance,” I said. “Potential students could take a tour of Stanford without even leaving their rooms.”
“You know, that’s funny,” said McNeal. “I’ve been so obsessed with the technical side that I hadn’t even thought of that. Yes! That’s a natural. But even more, Sandy. Our plan is to photographically document every square inch of a particular region, then to sell the service, on a subscription, per-use, or advertising-supported basis, to companies or individuals that could make use of it. Think of real estate. An out-of-town buyer could check out an available house, then take a walk around the neighborhood, check out the local schools, see where the 7-11 is. Or a travel agency. Considering a trip to New Orleans? Jump on this and check out the French Quarter for yourself!”
“You could hot-link it to a map engine,” I said. “That way, they could download street directions, then go to your site for visual landmarks.”
“Exactly! This is why I need you, Sandy. I’m leaving the company in two months to start this up. I’ve got a tech team and $10 million worth of investors. All I need is to put together a prospectus, and you are the perfect person to do it. And then, to head up the marketing department. I’ve got three photographers on a pilot program, which should be ready in two months. It’s a great opportunity, Sandy. What do you think?”
I was feeling a little… flooded. “I… I don’t know… I’m so…”
“No, listen. I don’t want to rush you. You’ve got other… stuff going on. But why not just do the prospectus? It would be a month, two tops, and afterwards you’d have a better idea about the marketing job. Don’t even give me an answer just now. Tell you what, let’s go eat. I know a great Cajun place in Palo Alto.”
The phone rang in the dining room. McNeal shot down the stairs to answer it. I went back to the computer and tried to figure out what that Asian kid had in his bag.
Photo by MJV