House of Our Dreams
The two-story adobe rose out of the earth, as regal as the sycamores and oaks rooted in the soil. Roof tiles lay scattered on the ground like fallen fruit. The brittle balcony sagged, destined to collapse with the next Santa Ana winds.
Serena wrapped her fingers around the iron gate that separated her from Caramar. Grandma's house. She remembered being young, and dangling her brown legs over the edge of that balcony while her brother Andrew threw avocados at the soles of her sandals.
She had seen the tattered house months before, but then it had been her mother’s project. With her mother gone, Caramar was now her duty.
Behind her, Ryan locked the car and popped the lid on a tube of sunscreen. "Holy shit," he said as he glimpsed the house. "It’s a teardown.”
Serena launched the keys at him. Missed. If he had slapped her, it would have hurt less than those words. She already felt a knot of anxiety and helplessness about the house. This moment, she needed encouragement. Her mother buried. Caramar was what remained.
"It's a 150-year-old Spanish adobe," Serena said. "It looks its age."
"Does it ever."
Why had she invited him along? Ryan’s sour skepticism tainted her mission. But, she needed his buy-in, his checkbook.
He scooped up the keys. She snatched them back and slid the cast iron key into the rusted gate. Resistance, stiffness like the lid on a bottle that won’t budge.
“Let me help you.” He turned the key and swung the iron gate across the driveway. Rusted hinges hissed like a cornered cat.
"We're in!" A pulse of energy ignited Serena’s heart, filling the void left by her mother’s death. Restoring Caramar had been Mama's final aspiration. She tucked her black hair under her baseball cap and reached for Ryan’s hand. “Come on. Welcome to Caramar.”
They walked up the cracked driveway. Boards had been nailed across the front door. The white wash was worn to reveal adobe bricks. The façade had long cracks, like scars. Broken windows. Weeds.
Ryan was silent. Was he tallying the house’s faults? The handiwork of a flood that had roared through the house, then two decades of neglect. But every problem would have a solution. Mama had insisted it was so. She had rattled on about earthquake retrofitting and basal erosion in the stucco walls, and the ratio of clay, sand, and straw for making adobe bricks.
“I was seven when the flood happened. Then, we stopped coming here.”
“And no one has lived here since?” Ryan said.
“Grandma was the last to live here. Until now.”
Ryan’s green eyes swerved to query hers. "Be practical. This house is beyond repair."
“I'm going to live here one day. In the bedroom with the ocean view.”
“What? We’re not living in this ancient house when we get married.” He scratched his jaw, blew air through twisted lips.
"I'm not changing my name, and we are going to live here. Those two things are non-negotiable."
She turned her back on him. Arms pumping, she followed a path that circled the house. Grapevines crept untamed on a stone wall. Grandma’s vegetable garden was now thick with weeds--wild radish and canary-yellow mustard.
As she passed the kitchen window, the savory scent of crushed cilantro and roasted almonds emerged from her memory. Grandma often wore a green-striped apron, and Serena remembered pulling on the apron strings and the swift slap of her creased hand. Now, broken glass crackled under Serena's feet when she tried to peer through the window. Other stories of the past were trapped by decay, waiting patiently for her, like the flowers that come only after wildfires.
“Don’t lean on that rotted wood.”
Don’t, don’t, don’t. A thousand warnings by Mama and Grandma had started with that contraction. Don’t play in the creek, there’s poison oak; don’t climb the oaks, you’ll fall; don’t swim past the buoys, you’ll drown.
The wind whipped around the house, carrying the swishing sound of waves careening against the cobbles of Fernald Point. Serena sprinted to the chain-link fence that separated the property from the beach. Across a patch of ice plant, the Pacific sprawled blue and bold. She breathed in moist, salt-laden air. The beach was a rocky, narrow stretch where the coastline made a sharp turn northward. At high tide, it was impassable. At low tide, it surrendered seashells. So many childhood afternoons spent with her knees deep in wet sand as her fingers pried clams and horn shells from among the boulders. Rough surf sometimes spit up glossy cowries.
“Oceanfront property,” Ryan said when he reached her. “You’ve got maybe 400 yards of beachfront.” Finally, a note of joy in his voice.
“I have so many memories on this beach.” She reached up and kissed the corner of his mouth.
“This land is worth millions.”
“My family would never sell it.”
“Your father and brother will see dollar signs. No way they will stand aside and let you play This Old House.”
“But Aunt Monica owns half the property. She won't let Dad sell it.”
“Don’t be so sure.”
“Stop it. Caramar is not an asset on a ledger. It's my heritage."
"Sweetheart, you can't recreate the past." He rubbed her back with his strong fingers. Something he had only started after her mother’s death. His gesture of comfort made her feel like a fragile child. She pulled away.
Salvaging Caramar was the one thing she could still do for Mama, she wanted to scream. But this was a lie. She needed to hang on to this link to her mother. Serena wanted the house for herself, a keepsake.