Alex, Approximately: Chapter 2


“I shut everybody out. Don’t take it personally.”

—Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect (2012)


I’d seen my dad’s new digs during our video chats, but it was strange to experience in person. Tucked away on a quiet, shady street that bordered a redwood forest, it was more cabin than house, with a stone fireplace downstairs and two small bedrooms upstairs. It used to be a vacation rental, so luckily I had my own bathroom.

The collest part about the house was the screened-in back porch, which not only had a hammock, but was also built around a redwood tree that grew in the middle of it, straight through the roof. However, it was what sat outside that porch in the driveway that jangled my nerves every time I looked at it: a bright turquoise, vintage Vespa scooter with a leopard-print seat.

Scooter.

Mine.

Me on a scooter.

Whaaa?

Its small engine and tiny whitewall tires could only get up to forty mph, but its 1960s bones had been fully restored.

“It’s your getaway vehicle,” Dad had said proudly when he brought me out back to show it to me the first time. “I knew you had to have something to get to work this summer. And you can drive yourself to school in the fall. You don’t even need a special license.”

“It’s crazy,” I’d told him. And gorgeous. But crazy. I worried I’d stand out.

“There are hundreds of these things in town,” he argued. “It was either this or a van, but since you won’t need to haul around surfboards, I thought this was better.”

“It’s very Artful Dodger,” I admitted.

“You can pretend you’re Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.”

God, he really knew how to sell me. I’d seen that movie a dozen times, and he knew it. “I do like the retro leopard-print seat.”

And matching helmet. I therefore christened the scooter Baby, as a nod to one of my all-time favorite films, Bringing Up Baby—a 1930s screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn as a mismatched pair who become entangled by a pet leopard, Baby. Once I’d decided on the name, I committed. No going back now. It was mine. Dad taught me how to use it—I rode it up and down his street a million times after dinner—and I would eventually find the nerve to ride it around town, come hell or high water or drugged-out jaywalking surfers.

Dad apologizes for having to work the next day, but I don’t mind. I spend the day unpacking and driving my scooter around between jet-lagged naps on the porch hammock. I message Alex a few times, but keeping up the illusion of what I’m doing with my summer is a lot harder than I thought it would be. Maybe it will be easier once I’ve gotten my sea legs here.

After my day of rest and a night with Dad playing The Settlers of Catan, our favorite board game, I’m forced to put my newfound independence to the test. Finding a summer job was one of my misgivings about coming out here, but Dad pulled some strings. That sounded fine enough when I was back in DC. Now that I’m here, I’m sort of regretting that I agreed to it. Too late to back out, though. “The summer tourist season waits for no one,” my father cheerfully tells me when I complain.

Dad wakes me up super early when he goes to work, but I accidentally fall back asleep. When I wake again, I’m running late, so I get dressed in a tizzy and rush out the door. One thing I didn’t expect when I moved out here is all the morning coastal fog. It clings to the redwoods like a lacy gray blanket, keeping things cool until midmorning, when the sun burns it away. Sure, the fog has a certain quiet allure, but now that I have to navigate a scooter through my dad’s wooded neighborhood, where it’s occasionally hanging low and reaching through branches like fingers, it’s not my favorite thing in the world.

Armed with a map and a knot in my stomach the size of Russia, I face the fog and drive Baby into town. Dad already showed me the way in his car, but I still repeat the directions in my head over and over at every stop sign. It isn’t even nine a.m. yet, so most of the streets are clear until I get to the dreaded Gold Avenue. Where I’m going is only a few blocks down this curvy, traffic-clogged road, but I have to drive past the boardwalk (Ferris wheel, loud music, miniature golf ), watch out for tourists crossing the road to get to the beach after blimping out at the Pancake Shack for breakfast—which smells a-m-a-z-i-n-g, by the way—and OH MY GOD, where did all these skaters come from?

Just when I’m about to die of some kind of stress-related brain strain, I see the cliffs rising up along the coast at the end of the boardwalk and a sign: THE CAVERN PALACE.

My summer job.

I slow Baby with a squeeze of the hand brakes and turn into the employee driveway. To the right is the main road that leads up the cliff to the guest parking lot, which is empty today. “The Cave,” as Dad tells me the locals call it, is closed for training and some sort of outdoor fumigation, which I can smell from here, because it stinks to high heaven. Tomorrow is the official start of the summer tourist season, so today is orientation for new seasonal employees. This includes me.

Dad did some accounting work for the Cave, and he knows the general manager. That’s how he got me the job. Otherwise, I doubt they would have been impressed with my limited résumé, which includes exactly one summer of babysitting and several months of after-school law paperwork filing in New Jersey.

But that’s all in the past. Because even though I’m so nervous I could upchuck all over Baby’s pretty 1960s speedometer right now, I’m actually sort of excited to work here. I like museums. A lot.

This is what I’ve learned about the Cave online: Vivian and Jay Davenport got rich during the first world war when they came down from San Francisco to purchase this property for a beach getaway and found thirteen million dollars in gold coins hidden inside a cave in the cliffs. The eccentric couple used their found fortune to build a hundred-room sprawling mansion on the beach, right over the entrance to the cave, and filled it with exotic antiques, curios, and oddities collected on trips around the world. They threw crazy booze-filled parties in the 1920s and ’30s, inviting rich people from San Francisco to mingle with Hollywood starlets. In the early 1950s, everything ended in tragedy when Vivian shot and killed Jay before committing suicide. After the mansion sat vacant for twenty years, their kids decided they could put the house to better use by opening it up to the public as a tourist attraction.

Okay, so, yeah, the house is definitely kooky and weird, and half of the so-called collection isn’t real, but there’s supposedly some Golden Age Hollywood memorabilia housed inside. And, hey, working here has got to be way better than filing court documents.

A row of hedges hides the employee lot tucked behind one of the mansion’s wings. I manage to park Baby in a space near another scooter without wrecking anything—go me!—and then pop the center stand and run a chain lock through the back tire to secure it. My helmet squeezes inside the bin under the locking seat; I’m good to go.

I didn’t know what was considered an appropriate outfit for orientation, so I’m wearing a vintage 1950s sundress with a light cardigan over it. My Lana Turner pin curls seem to have survived the ride, and my makeup’s still good. However, when I see a couple of other people walking in a side door wearing flip-flops and shorts, I feel completely overdressed. But it’s too late now, so I follow them inside.

This looks to be a back hallway with offices and a break room. A bored woman sits behind a podium inside the door. The people I followed inside are nowhere to be seen, but another girl is stopped at the podium.

“Name?” the bored woman asks.

The girl is petite, about my age, with dark brown skin and cropped black hair. She’s also overdressed like me, so I feel a little better. “Grace Achebe,” she says in the tiniest, high-pitched voice I’ve ever heard in my life. She’s got a strong English accent. Her tone is so soft, the woman behind the podium makes her repeat her name. Twice.

She finally gets checked off the list and handed a file folder of new-hire paperwork before being instructed to enter the break room. I get the same treatment when it’s my turn. Looks to be twenty or more people filling out paperwork already. Since there aren’t any empty tables, I sit at Grace’s.

She whispers, “You haven’t worked here before either?”

“No. I’m new,” I say, and then add, “in town.”

She glances at my file. “Oh. We’re the same age. Brightsea or Oakdale? Or private?”

It takes me a second to realize what she means. “I’ll start at Brightsea in the fall.”

“Twins,” she says with a big smile, pointing to the education line on her application. After another new hire passes by, she shares more information about this place. “They hire, like, twenty-five people every summer. I’ve heard it’s boring but easy. Better than cleaning up pink cotton candy puke at the boardwalk.”

Can’t argue with that. I’ve already filled out the main application online, but they’ve given us a handbook and a bunch of other weird forms to sign. Confidentiality agreements. Random drug-testing permission. Pledges not to use the museum Wi-Fi to view weird porn. Warnings about stealing uniforms.

Grace is as befuddled as I am.

“Competing business?” she murmurs, looking at something we have to sign, promising not to take a similar job within sixty miles of Coronado Cove for three months after ending employment here. “What do they consider a similar job? Is this even legal?”

“Probably not,” I whisper back, thinking of Nate LLC constantly spouting off legal advice to my mom, like she wasn’t a lawyer herself.

“We-e-ell, this is not legally my signature,” she says in her pretty English accent, making a vague, wavy scribble on the form as she waggles her brows at me. “And if they don’t give me enough hours, I am heading straight to the nearest cave mansion within sixty miles.”

I don’t mean to laugh so loud, and everyone looks up, so I quickly quash the giggles and we both finish our paperwork. After we hand it in, we’re both assigned a locker and given the ugliest vests I’ve ever seen in my life. They’re the color of rotting jack-o’-lanterns. We don’t have to wear them for orientation, but we do have to wear HELLO, MY NAME IS . . . stickers. And when everyone is done slapping them onto their chests, we’re herded down the employee hall, through a steel door (with a sign reminding us to smile), and into the main lobby.

It’s huge, and our footfalls bounce around the rock walls as we all crane our necks, looking around. The entrance to the cave is at the back of the lobby, and all the stalagmites and -tites are lit with orange lights, which only ups the creep factor. We’re led across the expansive lobby past a circular information desk, a gift shop that looks like it was transported from 1890s London, and a sunken lounge area filled with couches that might have been stolen from the set of The Brady Bunch . . . all of which are the exact color of our ugly vests. I’m sensing a theme.

“Good morning, seasonal new hires,” a middle-aged man says. He, too, is wearing a pumpkin vest with a tie that has the Cavern Palace art deco logo printed all over it. I wonder if that’s mandated for the male employees, or if he bought it from the gift shop with his employee discount. “I’m Mr. Cavadini, the museum floor supervisor. Though all of you will be assigned team supervisors, those supervisors report to me. I’m the one who makes the schedules, and the person who approves your time cards. So you may think of me as the person you most want to impress for the next three months.”

He says this with all the excitement of a funeral director and manages to frown the entire time he’s speaking, but that might be because his dark blond hairline seems unnaturally low—like his forehead is half the size it should be.

“What a woeful twat,” Grace says in her tiny voice near my shoulder.

Wow. Sweet little Grace has a filthy mouth. But she’s not wrong. And as Mr. Cavadini begins lecturing us on the Cave’s history and how it attracts half a million visitors every year, I find myself looking around the lobby and scoping out the places I could be assigned—information desk, guided tours, lost and found, gift shop . . . I wonder which position would allow me to deal with as few disgruntled guests as possible. On my application, I checked off the boxes for “behind-the-scenes” and “working alone” preferences.

Café tables sit around an open balcony on the second floor, and I’m seriously hoping I don’t get stuck working in food service. Then again, if I worked in the café, I would get to stare at not only a life-size reproduction of a pirate ship suspended from the ceiling, but also a skeletal sea monster attacking said ship. File that in the “not genuine” part of the Davenports’ collection of oddities.

Movement catches my eyes. On a set of floating slate-rock stairs that curve around the pirate ship, two museum security guards in generic black uniforms are descending. I squint, not believing my eyes. How small is this town, anyway? Because one of those guards is the dark-haired dude from yesterday who was pulling his drugged-up friend off the road. Yep, that’s definitely him: the hot surfer boy with the Frankenstein scars on his arm.

My panic meter twitches.

“And now,” Mr. Cavadini says, “you’ll split up into two teams and tour the museum with a member of our security. This side, please follow our senior security officer, Jerry Pangborn, who has worked for Cavern Palace since it opened to the public forty years ago.”

He points the left side of the group toward a frail wisp of an old man whose white hair sticks up like he just exploded a beaker of chemicals in a science lab. He’s super friendly and sweet, and though he probably couldn’t stop a ten-year-old ruffian from stealing a piece of candy out of the gift shop, he eagerly steers his team of recruits to the left side of the lobby, toward a large archway marked VIVIAN’S WING.

Mr. Cavadini motions the surfer boy forward toward our group. “And this is Porter Roth. He’s worked with us for the last year or so. Some of you might have heard of his family,” he says in a bone-dry, unimpressed voice that makes me think he doesn’t think too highly of them. “His grandfather was surfing legend Bill ‘Pennywise’ Roth.”

A little o-oh ripples through the crowd as Mr. Cavadini hushes us with one hand and grumpily tells us all to meet him back here in two hours for our scheduling assignments. One side of my brain is screaming, Two hours? And the other side is trying to remember if I’ve ever heard of this Pennywise Roth guy. Is he a real celebrity, or just some local who once got fifteen minutes of fame? Because the sign on that Pancake Shack down the road proclaims its almond pancakes to be world-famous, but come on.

Mr. Cavadini heads back to employee hall, leaving us alone with Porter, who takes his sweet time strolling around the group to look us over. He’s got a stack of printouts that he’s rolled up into a tube, which he whaps against his leg as he walks. And I didn’t notice it yesterday, but he’s got a little light brown facial scruff going on—the kind of scruff that pretends to be bad-boy and sexy and rebellious, but is too well groomed to be casual. Then he’s got all these wild, loose curls of sun-streaked brown hair, which might be fine for Surfer Boy, but seem way too long and irreverent for Security Guard.

He’s getting closer, and the evader in me is not happy about this situation. I try to be cool and hide behind Grace. But she’s easily half a foot shorter than me—and I’m only five five—so I instead just find myself staring over her cropped hair directly into Porter’s face.

He stops right in front of us and briefly holds the rolled-up papers to his eye like a telescope.

“Well, all right,” he says with a lazy California drawl and grins slowly. “Guess I lucked out and got the good-looking group. Hello, Gracie.”

“Hey, Porter,” Grace answers with a coy smile.

Okay, so they know each other. I wonder if Porter’s the person who told her this job was “boring but easy.” I don’t know why I even care. I guess I’m mostly concerned that he’ll remember me from the car yesterday. Fingers crossed that he didn’t hear that cowardly squeal I belted out.

“Who’s ready for a private tour?” he asks.

No one answers.

“Don’t everyone speak up at once.” He peels one of the papers off his rolled-up tube—I see EMPLOYEE MAP at the top of the sheet—and hands it to me while glancing down at my legs. Is he checking me out? I’m not sure how I feel about that. Now I wish I’d worn pants.

When I try to accept the map, he hangs on to it, and I’m forced to snatch it out of his fingers. The corner rips off. Juvenile, much? I give him a dirty look, but he just smiles and leans closer. “Now, now,” he says. “You aren’t going to scream like you did yesterday, are you?”

LUMIÈRE FILM FANATICS COMMUNITY PRIVATE MESSAGES>ALEX>ARCHIVED

@alex: Do you ever feel like a fraud?

@mink: What do you mean?

@alex: Like you’re expected to act like one person at school, and another person in front of your family, and someone else around your friends. I get so tired of living up to other people’s expectations, and sometimes I try to remember who the real me is, and I don’t even know.

@mink: That happens to me every day. I don’t deal with people very well.

@alex: You don’t? That surprises me.

@mink: I’m not shy or anything. It’s just that . . . okay, this is going to sound weird, but I don’t like being put on the spot. Because if someone is talking to me, talk talk talk, it’s all fine until they ask me my opinion, like “What do you think about chocolate chip cookies?” And I hate CCCs.

@alex: You do?

@mink: Not everyone likes them, you know. (I like sugar cookies, just in case you were wondering.) ANYWAY, if someone asks me, when I’m put on the spot, I blank out and try to read their face to see what they expect me to say, and I just say that. Which means I end up saying I like CCCs, when I really don’t. And then I feel like a fraud, and I think, why did I just do that?

@alex: I DO THAT ALL THE TIME. But it’s even worse, because after it’s all over, I’m not even sure whether I like chocolate chip cookies or not.

@mink: Well, do you?

@alex: I love them. I’m a fan of all cookies except oatmeal.

@mink: See? That was easy. If you ever need to figure out who you really are, just ask me. I’ll be your reality check. No pressure or expectations.

@alex: Deal. For you, I will be my 100 percent real, oatmeal-hating self.


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