It was the summer of my sixteenth year and my fun-filled vacation time was fast drawing to a close. In fact, this was the very last day of the Labor Day weekend. My parents and I were enjoying our last mini vacation of the year in Santa Cruz. Ahhhh, Santa Cruz, with its wonderful, sunny California beaches, the Boardwalk, the fun rides and roller coaster, the cute boys and did I mention it was “THE” destination that made any young girl’s heart thrill to go there! I was so blessed that my parents also liked spending weekends in Santa Cruz, as a welcome break from the San Joaquin Valley heat.
My mother’s brother, Uncle Harry, had a house in Santa Cruz that had been in our family for many years. It was a towering, ancient Victorian house, four stories high, with an amazing number of rooms and many nooks and crannies to explore. Never mind that the wood was in different stages of decay and the paint was peeling; Uncle Harry’s house had the most wondrous places to sit and daydream. Small, oddly shaped secret rooms, wedged in between larger ones were just the place to let my imagination run wild. Uncle Harry loved having us come to visit because we always brought him fresh produce and my mother cooked him great meals when we stayed at his house. He was not the best housekeeper and every part of the house needed repairs, but his hospitality was so warm we never noticed those details.
To finish this Labor Day weekend, my parents told me I could walk down the Boardwalk one more time and then we needed to head for home. I took my time and dragged my feet on this last final tour. I slowly circled through the arcade at the end of the Boardwalk, pausing to draw in the damp coolness and familiar smells, inhaling enough to last me until the next summer. There was a certain point where I always made the loop in the cruise to turn around and head back. This time, as I rounded the corner, I came face to face with the most gorgeous man I had ever seen. His eyes met mine and locked in place for what seemed like hours.
Still in shock, I came to my senses and smiled at him. When you are sixteen, it is sometimes difficult to be the first to speak up to a new and attractive male person. Somehow, all the shyness went by the wayside. “Hello, my name is Susie, what’s yours?” I heard myself say.
He told me his name was Bill and after a few minutes of magic conversation, which rendered me numb and befuddled with excitement, we exchanged phone numbers and addresses. I hastily found an old post card lying on the floor, which someone had discarded from one of the machines, and searched out a pen from the arcade attendant to write with. I wasn’t letting this one slip away from me.
The time we spent talking seemed to pass by in a few seconds but my parents weren’t happy that my one last quick cruise of the Boardwalk had taken over an hour. All the way home I thought about those wonderfully intense, huge dark eyes, perfect features, smooth, tanned skin, the way his shoulders and chest tapered into a trim waist. I knew he worked out and it showed. He was definitely my dream man!
I wasted no time in writing Bill after I got home and he promptly answered my letters. My parents were not people who made long distance calls and only let me call Bill every few weeks. My mother actually had an egg timer she placed in front of me and I could only talk on the phone to him for three minutes. However, our relationship progressed and by Christmas time my parents let me know we were going to Santa Cruz for our holiday vacation. That was the best Christmas present I could ever dream of!
I let Bill know we would be coming two days before Christmas and that I would call him when we arrived. He knew exactly where Uncle Harry’s house was and said he passed by it almost daily on his way to high school. I made the call to him that we were there and nervously waited for him to arrive. Would he actually come? Was he as handsome as I remembered? Would he really like me in person?
I stood in the side doorway of Uncle Harry’s crumbling screen porch to wait. It didn’t take long for Bill to get there and I excitedly watched him come up the long steep driveway. I had no idea what he would be driving. Those were the days of unique cars to match unique personalities. Bill drove a 1952, sleek black Chevy, lowered in front with four tail pipes protruding from the jacked up rear undercarriage. Cool car! Somehow, it matched the mysterious dark man who drove it.
In person, I could quickly see that we were a complete match in every way. The magnetism was as evident face to face as it was in our months of correspondence. Our first day together, as a means of getting acquainted, we explored Uncle Harry’s house. We found every room I knew of, including one you had to go through a hidden passageway to get to on the fourth floor. Bill was as fascinated with this room as I had been. From this elevation we could see all parts of Santa Cruz, from the jagged edges of the building tops of the town to the north, all the way to the intense blue of the Pacific Ocean to the south. This special room was like being in a hidden place where, safe and secure, we could observe the rest of the world, suspended in a time bubble.
Bill and I spent every day of my Christmas vacation together, sometimes taking long drives along the ocean, parking for hours to watch the waves and fall deeply in love with one another. He was my first big love!
Our relationship went smoothly for the next six months by correspondence, with almost daily love letters and a few weekend trips to Uncle Harry’s house before school let out for the summer. The summer of my seventeenth year, my parents agreed to let my girlfriend and me stay all summer long with Uncle Harry. He loved having us there and we girls were a lot of help to him. The summer months passed by like a speeding freight train, and Bill and I were as tight and as in love as anyone could ever hope for.
As my summer vacation screeched to an end, it was very difficult to go back home and leave Bill. We were like one person. But it was the beginning of my senior year in High School. I had to get back and get ready for the big year ahead. Somehow as autumn slipped into winter, the love letters cooled with the seasons’ change. Communication became a little less frequent between us and we grew apart, ever so slightly, although neither of us really noticed it.
Bill had mentioned there was a big holiday dance at a hall in the hills outside of Santa Cruz several months before, and I made a mental note of the date and place. He was in junior college and busy as I was. My parents sprung a surprise trip to the coast on me, and it was the weekend of the big dance he had mentioned. I tried calling Bill, but his mother told me he was working and she would give him the message.
He didn’t call me back, so I decided to have my parents drop me off at the dance, figuring Bill would show up, I could surprise him and we could be together for the evening. I had been at the dance for about an hour when I saw Bill walk in with a girl who was hanging all over him like a clinging vine. I almost fainted in shock. He saw me immediately and noticed my reaction. As he started to come toward me I felt the tears coming from deep down inside. I quickly ran from him, out the door of the dance hall, and hid in the bushes outside.
It had to have been at least an hour I sat there crying, still hidden from sight. After a time I began to get cold and when I emerged from my hiding place, a group of people a little older than I were congregating around several cars in the shadowy parking lot. When they saw me, they offered me a drink. They were already too far gone to notice my tear- stained face and emotional shakiness. Seems they were drinking Sloe Gin, beer and vodka. When I took that first swig of Sloe Gin, it erased the pain of being jilted by my true love. I drank all they offered me and I was drunk faster than any one thought possible. The oldest appearing fellow in the group asked me, “How did you get here?”
“My parents dropped me off here and I need to call them for a ride back.” I mumbled through an extremely thick tongue.
My fuzzy peripheral vision picked up the same fellow, making his way to the phone booth to kindly place the call to my folks.
They came in about half an hour, driving up in the brand new 1959 white Impala my mom and dad were so proud of. I tried to act as if I were okay, though I realized I was slurring my words, and attempted to remain silent about the evening’s events. They put me in the back seat, which was a bad mistake. The twists and turns from the hills where the hall was back to Uncle Harry’s were many and sharp. By the time we had swerved back and forth for a few miles, all the Sloe Gin, beer and vodka percolated to the surface and unceremoniously decorated my beautiful new beige mohair sweater and the white naugahyde upholstery of the much adored Impala. The horrifying belief that I was throwing up blood really frightened me, only to be equaled the next day by a colossal hangover. My mother felt sorry for me for many reasons, didn’t scold me and never mentioned it again. That was the hasty and dramatic end of Bill.
I spent the next forty years in a quest for the perfect marriage, perfect family, perfect children, perfect pets, perfect house with the perfect white picket fence, seeking always for perfection and never finding it. After so many possibilities petering out on me, I decided maybe a career would be a good idea. I could be self-sufficient that way. I worked for a pharmacy in Fresno for some years, and when it went out of business due to the ‘ ;big guys’, I lost my job of many years. “My usual luck”, I thought to myself.
With no job, I was having a tough time paying my rent. It was late autumn and I found myself constantly worrying about my unemployment running out before Thanksgiving. At the suggestion of my mother, I agreed to move over to Uncle Harry’s house in Santa Cruz and look after him. He had developed cancer the year before and was really getting up there in years.
For some reason, I had not thought about Uncle Harry much in the years since my teens. I was too busy chasing down my ideal American dream. As I made the right turn and pulled onto Soquel Street, so many memories came flooding back, as though it had been yesterday instead of forty years ago with no time passage in between. As I saw the familiar 316 Soquel on the front of the weather beaten house, I felt very much at home again. I pulled my car into Uncle Harry’s driveway and he hobbled happily out to meet me. He looked practically the same. His tall large-boned physique bent crookedly over at the waist. His ruddy complexion beamed, with its watery blue eyes, and thin wispy cloud of red hair still clinging lightly to his mostly bald head. He was so thrilled to see me I noticed his eyes tearing up.
“Hi, Uncle Harry,” I shouted out to him. He had been very hard of hearing since I could first remember and my mother always used to come home hoarse from yelling in his ear.
His choked up reply to me was, “I am so glad to see you again. Where have you been all these years?”
We settled in nicely together, catching up on all we had been through, and got along like we always did. Uncle Harry had to have been the kindest uncle anyone could have hoped for.
As I wandered through the many memory-filled rooms in the house, savoring the musty smells, seeing the old familiar fading wallpaper, I came to the top floor secret room. I noticed two large bird cages against the wall, each with a parrot in them, a pink bird and a red one. I had always loved birds of any kind. I asked Uncle Harry where they came from. He replied, “A neighbor died and I took the girls in a few years ago. They both talk, you know. And look at their great view of the city. Gertie and Princess have been a lot of company for me.” I could see how they enjoyed the fourth floor, with its special scenic panorama.
After I settled into my routine of getting Uncle Harry’s meals and doing a bit of housework, I visited the secret room and the birds every moment I could spare. I discovered they both had large vocabularies and were also good listeners. Somehow, when I was in this room with them, all my troubles seemed to melt away, and I was safe from my worries for a short period of time. Then there was the issue of my loneliness. Living in a new city, there had been no time to get out and make any new friends. I would sit quietly with the birds and they seemed to fill my heart enough that I didn’t feel so alone in the world. Their room was always warm and sun filled. Always a happy thought for me, with my uncertain future.
Uncle Harry needed to go for chemotherapy and regular doctor’s visits. Of course I drove him where he needed to go. The clinic, the hospital the doctors……they all became a blur. I did notice he had a nice looking radiation therapy doctor, and caught a quick glimpse of him most times when I took Harry for his appointment. Of course my smiles and thoughts stopped there because most doctors I knew were already happily married.
Autumn faded into winter, I had my routines set but found yet one more thing to be depressed about as Christmas approached. I was stuck taking care of Uncle Harry now, and there was no way I could leave him, even for a day trip to Fresno. His condition was worsening slowly but I felt he wouldn’t do well if I was gone for more than a few hours at a time.
I cheered myself up a bit by digging into musty old cardboard boxes I found in his dilapidated garage. The boxes were full of ancient ornaments and tinsel my uncle had owned for many years. After the decorations were aired out and untangled, I was even inspired to go out and buy a small green tree to decorate. Actually, I bought two trees. The smaller tree I put in the bird room. I decorated theirs with popcorn and cranberry strings, placing fruit around the base of it. They both seemed to love the tree and when I plugged the strand of lights in, they watched in fascination as the bulbs twinkled on and off. When I had the bird’s tree decorated and tinsel garlands hung from the windows, it was once more a cozy and cheerful place for me to spend peaceful times. With the coming of the Christmas season, the views from the secret room were amazing. We could see all the Christmas lights of the city, right down to the Boardwalk and the scattered, twinkling colors of the homes along the beach, off to the south.
My days during the week before Christmas were spent mostly with Gertie and Princess. They would come out of their cages when I opened the doors and sit on my shoulders or perch on the window-sill to take in the view. They had become my best friends and I would talk to them about my secrets, my perceived failures in life, my troubles and my deep feelings of loneliness. I found comfort and closeness I had never imagined from those two with feathers. I knew they were in my life for a special purpose.
Christmas Eve day was very cold and foggy outside, with every potential of being extremely depressing. Mid afternoon, I went upstairs to sit with the birds, watching the lights and daydreaming. I opened the doors of their cages and only Princess seemed to want out. As I took a step backwards to sit down, I tripped over the pole used to open the hooks on the set of small windows by the ceiling. To my horror, the long heavy pole fell against the window, breaking a good size chunk out of the glass. I looked toward the birds. Gertie was still in her cage and I shut her door all the way. Princess was frozen in fear and as I turned to pick her up, she exploded into motion, madly flapping her wings. Panicked, she found her way though the broken glass hole in the window. Her wing beats were strong and frantic. She disappeared in a single second.
I felt a shock of fright go through me. We were four stories up but the busy street was not far away from us. I bolted down the stairs with swift strides, taking three at a time. I had to get into the yard as fast as I could. I had to find her. I raced down the driveway with an urgent prayer on my lips. As I reached the sidewalk, I heard a passing car slam on its brakes. My heart plunged down to my shoes.
By this time I reached the street, there were a dozen cars stopped in the middle of Soquel Drive. I feared the very worst!
A tall, nice looking man came toward me, an object obviously wrapped up in his jacket. I just knew it was going to be a little lifeless body. I started to cry.
A vaguely familiar voice said to me, “Is this your bird?” uncovering her enough for me to see her head.
I screamed out, “Yes, that is my Princess! Is she alive?”
“She flew right in front of my car and I slammed on my brakes to avoid hitting her”, he explained, “When she landed, she didn’t take off again, so I just got out of my car and picked her up in my jacket.”
My tears of fear turned to tears of relief and happiness as he gently handed her trembling little bird body to me. I held her close and said a quick prayer of thankfulness.
I suddenly recognized the familiar voice as Uncle Harry’s physician. “I know you!” I cried out. “You are Uncle Harry’s doctor.”
He smiled as he answered, “You are right; my patients call me Dr. Bill.”
The soft-spoken gentleman looked up toward the house he saw me come out of as he turned to go back to his car. “Many years ago, I spent a lot of happy hours in that house.” He paused, and then hesitantly mentioned, “It has a secret room on the fourth floor. Do you know that?”
By this time the traffic jam on the street was worsening and horns were blowing. Dr. Bill got into his car, a wistful expression in his eyes. “The girl I loved the most in the whole world used to visit her Uncle Harry here, but I haven’t seen her in forty years. I go by this house every day on my way to and from work because it brings back so many sweet memories.”
Dr. Bill’s mention of the secret room, his voice….suddenly all the clues were adding up. I felt my heart stop. Ignoring the traffic, I leaned into the window, looking intently at Dr. Bill’s face and looked into his eyes. They were the same beautiful eyes I had gazed into with so much love all those years ago! A few seconds later, I came to my senses and suggested, “Why don’t you pull your car in the driveway and come on inside?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” was his eager reply.
I tucked little Princess bird tightly inside my sweater and Dr. Bill followed me into Uncle Harry’s house. “Hasn’t changed a bit inside, has it?” he commented warmly then said, “Would you mind…Could we go up to the secret room?”
“That’s where the birds live,” I answered back over my shoulder, leading the way up the steep, narrow old flights of stairs, with walls of peeling, haphazardly patterned wallpaper.
Once we had Princess tucked safely away in her cage, Dr. Bill turned to me and with a very serious tone of voice said, “I want to apologize to you for what happened at that dance all those years ago. She was a girl who went to my mother’s church and my mother really liked her a lot. My mother also felt our relationship was doomed because of the long distance and was trying to get me interested in someone closer to home. I never had the chance to tell you, you left so suddenly. I’ve thought about it so many times over the years, and wondered what might have happened if…”The words hung in mid-air. “Will you accept my apology please?”
There was such a unique atmosphere and incredible feeling that existed in the secret room. To me, the secret room represented a safe harbour, and a cozy place, where all things seemed good and right. Here, I could believe that anything and everything was possible. I caught a glimpse of the birds, outlined by the garlands and twinkling lights over Dr. Bill’s shoulder. They seemed to be twinkling at me, too, through eyes brimming with tears of happiness. Looking him squarely in the eyes I replied, “You are forgiven, dear Bill.”
The magic of the secret room was all around us, wrapping me in a warmth and security that was echoed by Dr. Bill’s arms about me. The lonely present seemed to fade as a whole new world of possibilities lay before us and together we might be able to take a step into a safe place we thought had been forever lost to us.
As I sit here this New Year’s Eve in Uncle Harry’s huge living room, filled with mismatched old comfy sofas and chairs, a happily crackling fire burns in the fireplace once again, tended by Dr. Bill himself. He and Uncle Harry are reminiscing about the earlier days of Santa Cruz. The warm glow of the fire highlights their silhouettes and fills my heart with the same warmth. My future holds every good thing I ever wished for and more. Dr. Bill tells me it is time for him to retire or at least cut back on his workload. It seems Dr. Bill has a very nice, large sailboat docked in Monterey Bay and he loves to sail. This spring he wants to take me sailing with him across the Pacific, to visit the Solomon Islands and see where Eclectus parrots come from! Dr. Bill says he has been looking for an excuse to take his boat on a nice long trip. I just called my mom and dad to come stay with Uncle Harry for three months, starting in March……