The shriek of the metal vent for the stove was the soloist against the backup of frenetic wind chimes and the violent roar of wind. The Santa Anas were at it again. Emma looked at her clock. 3:03 a.m. She listened and worried about fires, and then, without realizing it, Emma had fallen back asleep because it was abruptly morning and all was quiet.
Stepping outside, she directly saw that her patio umbrella was gone, but bizarrely, another patio umbrella, not hers, had been blown into her garden. Hers had been new, expensive, a subdued beige with UV protection and a crank to raise it up and down; this other was garishly multicolored and really just a large beach umbrella, torn and old.
The logistics of her yard and the slope of the properties made it likely that this unfamiliar umbrella came from the neighbors east of her, and that hers was probably with the neighbors on the west whose back yard was lower than Emma’s, giving her a magnificent view of mountains.
Great, she grumbled to herself. Even though there was still some wind, she climbed to the roof to look into her neighbors’ yards in search of her umbrella. Her neighbor to the west was a felon who collected other people’s packages from their porches and put them in his son’s stroller when they took a walk. He certainly wouldn’t return property that Providence saw fit to blow into his yard.
Once on the roof, she felt further proof that the multicolored umbrella belonged to the eastern neighbors as their patio table had a hole in the middle and no umbrella. Looking to the west, she could not see her umbrella. Damn, he already took it inside. She berated herself for not having cut off the label; he might be able to return it to the store for cash.
Last year she had lost an umbrella to the Santa Anas and finally broke down and replaced it in the spring, and here she was without one again. She couldn’t sit outside and look at her view of the mountains without an umbrella, so after receiving an email about a sale at a local home improvement store, she bought this second one.
Emile was coming this weekend, and she wanted to tell him about the umbrella, but she was worried he would say, “I will buy you a new one; it will be your Christmas present.” She didn’t want an umbrella for a Christmas present; she didn’t want a utilitarian, replacement Christmas present from her lover.
Not getting along with her neighbors to the east, Emma decided she would let Emile ask them if the multicolored umbrella was theirs, and then he could bring it over to them. Despite living with a wife and four daughters, the patriarch to the east had no respect for women, and Emma wanted nothing to do with him.
He wouldn’t be a jerk to Emile who, ripped from working out every day, was 6’2”, of ambiguous ethnicity, and had a space between his front teeth that could make him look a bit insane when he smiled broadly. Furthermore, she wanted this neighbor to know she had a man around, so Emile’s bringing over the umbrella would be a way of pissing on his lawn, marking territory, letting him know she had someone to speak for her.
This seemingly anti-feminist perspective was merely pragmatic. She was not going to be able to reorient the misogynistic attitudes of this schmuck to the east any more than she could rehabilitate the felon to the west, so she would protect herself as best she could in a way that he understood.
Emile was much calmer than Emma and didn’t share the angst she exerted over other people. He expected the best from everyone; whereas, Emma often feared the worst, especially since she had already had run-ins with both these neighbors.
“How do you know he is a felon?” Emile asked.
“Uh, let’s see,” Emma began. “Perhaps because six cops surrounded his house with drawn weapons, and he was in jail for nine months?”
“Well, maybe he learned his lesson.”
“That was before he started selling meth. My gardener found used hypodermic needles in my lemon trees and tossed them back into his driveway. He was in jail about a year that time.”
“But you think this umbrella belongs to the other neighbor.”
Emma proceeded to relate a series of tales of run-ins with the patriarch of the family to the east who repeatedly damaged her property—broken fences, destroyed hedges, ruined plants—with his home improvement projects, as well as putting his little dog on her front lawn to do its business in order to spare his grass from the stains of canine urine acidity. Any attempts Emma had made to address these issues were met with brusque comments that he didn’t do it on purpose and that she was too sensitive, but he never compensated her for or repaired anything, and she couldn’t bear the idea of taking him to small claims court. Once she had brought over a shoe that belonged to one of his daughters that she found in her tomato patch, and he said only, “Why didn’t you bring this over sooner? We were looking for it.”
“I would really appreciate it if you would handle this for me,” Emma told Emile.
“Of course,” he said, kissing her on the forehead, “but he’s probably not as bad as you think.”
Intellectually, she could see Emile’s positive outlook was better, but she felt his good nature was secretly somewhat forced, that he knew you couldn’t trust everyone but that he wanted it to be so. Maybe she was imposing her worldview onto his, but her BS detector was usually pretty good, and she didn’t entirely buy his avowed eternal optimism.
Because she was more acerbic and cynical, she found she censored herself around Emile. He didn’t like what he called gossip and what she called observation. They were both proclaimed, enthusiastic people watchers, but Emile said he wanted to see the beauty in everyone while Emma wanted to analyze and hypothesize. She agreed in theory with the concept that we are all one and that when we hurt one another we are only hurting ourselves, but she didn’t feel this philosophy precluded her penchant for finding the absurd in humans at the expense of someone, even if it were herself.
On the scorching summer night when she and Emile first met in person, he had flown down from Redwood City, and she had been caught in brutal traffic getting to the airport, when her check engine light came on and the air conditioner died. By the time she got to him, over an hour late, she was a nervous, sweaty wreck. Part of their date involved buying and replenishing motor oil. He later told her that he had found her attractive but thought she was a little bit nuts. Driving him to his hotel after their date, she white knuckled the steering wheel, trying to make out the freeway signs in the dark. They had given up on conversation in the car because it was too noisy with the windows down. At one point she turned to him and saw that he had scooched tightly against the window by the passenger seat and was staring at her with hyperbolic concern. She burst out laughing, aware of how crazy she must seem.
However, on their second date the next night, he rented a car and came to her home and she was more herself, and they found that they liked each other very much. Emile’s knowledgeable calm had a pacifying effect on Emma, and he had been besotted with her ever since they had met online.
Living in two different parts of the state, they saw each other about twice a month. Their get-togethers were intense weekends of hedonistic excess that gave them no real understanding of what life might be like for them on a more day-to-day basis. Putting off serious conversations until the next time was all too easy to do. Not that Emile wanted serious conversations, but Emma had qualms big and small that she pushed aside. Whenever she did broach an issue, he was often evasive, extending his mantra, “It’s all good.”
Two days after the windstorm, coming back from a walk, Emile stopped at the neighbors to the east while Emma continued on to her house, eager to be out of the way. There by her front door lay her umbrella. Stunned and delighted, she stood taking it in, waiting for Emile. He came up the driveway and confirmed the ownership of the multicolored umbrella.
“Look,” Emma said, pointing at her umbrella.
“It’s back!” he exclaimed.
“Just when you asked them about their umbrella, mine came back.”
“See. It’s all good.”
Emile carried the umbrella to the back yard and laid it against the side of the house. Emma didn’t want him to put it back yet because more wind was expected.
That evening, while cooking a vegan curry, they got into a small argument. He had gone away without her on a weekend that she had thought they would spend together.
“I didn’t know you were expecting to spend it with me,” he told her.
“I told you multiple times that I would have a four-day weekend then. That almost never happens.”
“I don’t want to plan. I like to live in the present,” he said.
“But we live too far apart not to plan. It’s so hard doing this long distance, and then you don’t take into account my work schedule. Where did you go?”
“It’s in the past,” he said.
This was another one of his mantras.
“That may be, but the pain of it is in my present,” she said, “and you won’t even tell me where you went.”
He said that he was not with another woman, that he went alone, so there was nothing for her to know.
“Then why be so evasive about it?” she asked.
“There is nothing to tell.”
The wind chimes started to tinkle madly as the wind picked up outside.
“Watch out,” he said, “that curry is going to burn,” and he reached over and turned off the stove.
His aversion to giving details she attributed to an assertive mother with whom he had lived until her death a year before. Decades of parrying questions, “Where are you going? Who are you going with? When will you get back?” may have caused him to duck any question no matter how prosaic. Questions that she would ask anyone as a matter of routine or even feigned interest were met with evasion, causing her to doubt him, not to trust him entirely as she would have liked to do.
The next day the Santa Anas were calm, so Emma and Emile took a hike up to a nearby waterfall. It was cool by the stream where fallen tree branches and rocks created makeshift paths over which they had to crisscross multiple times to follow the trail. Twice she slipped and almost fell in, but he caught her both times, and they agreed that she needed to go back to yoga. When they got to the waterfall, she took out their snacks of fruit and nuts and water. Emile liked to take photographs, so he had her stand in front of the roaring waterfall that flowed over rock that soared eighty feet in the air. She took some of him, too, on her phone and his. He took more pictures of her while they rested. “You are so beautiful,” he said, putting down his phone and raising the sleeve of her shirt, so he could meticulously kiss every freckle on her arm, even though other hikers were nearby. “Has anyone kissed you as much as I have?” he whispered in her ear.
When they returned from their hike, Emma took a bath while Emile made a salad. Later, Emile put the umbrella back in the patio table only to find it wouldn’t go up. He pulled it out again and examined it. Two of the bones of the umbrella were broken. No wonder the felon returned it. Stealing it wasn’t worth the bother. Using duct tape, Emile straightened out the metal and wrapped it up tightly. He placed the umbrella back in its hole and Emma tried cranking it up; it worked!
“You had better store it for the winter,” he suggested, and they decided on the garage. Moving towards the garage’s back door, she felt the wind on her face and thought about how she got the umbrella back after all. It had been lost, but recovered, broken but repaired. But it was fragile now, and she wouldn’t know until spring whether it would last.
Gwyn Drischell grew up in NYC and graduated with an BFA from N.Y.U. She moved to L.A. and studied creative writing with Michelle Huneven and Rowland Barber at UCLA. For the past thirty years she has been a self-employed writing and English tutor to students of all ages.