Chapter 1- Newport Beach 1987
I was sitting at the bar of the Oyster Shack on the peninsula in Newport Beach. I’d just finished lunch with Jimbo and he’d left to meet a client. The front of the shack was open to the sidewalk and beach beyond. In summer and on holidays the scene was mostly tourists but this was a Tuesday in late April and it wasn’t hard to get a table but we’d opted for the bar two thirds of the way back so I could keep an eye on the door. Not that I was waiting for anyone but old habits die hard. This is one Jimbo and I shared. He had been a marine grunt and even now, decades later, neither of us can sit with our backs to the door or even the room for that matter.The lunch crowd was beginning to thin and some mature women in couples out for a lunch date began to drift in. The Oyster Shack had an exceptional bar tender and I was half way through an Old Fashioned I’d ordered just before Jimbo left when a well-dressed, shapely woman of about forty stopped on the sidewalk. I watched as she surveyed the scene: lively but not too crowded, no beach bums, a few other women at tables, no loud post-martini businessmen. She started into the room and the Mater d’ handed her a menu. She pointed to an empty table near the back, he led her past me to a table a few feet away and seated her with a three quarter view of the room. As she passed she glanced in my direction and her gait clearly missed a beat. Had she seen something in the mirror behind the bar? Perhaps she was checking her hair or make up but something clearly startled her.
The Mater d’ seated her and took her drink order. She sat for a moment lost in thought while I watched her in back-bar mirror, trying not to be too obvious. Then she took out a compact and studied the image in its mirror, deciding that her lipstick needed freshening. She was of eurasian descent, probably Vietnamese and French; Orange County, California has a large Vietnamese population owing to the refugees from the war. She was pretty, with that flawless complexion of a woman who has always lived well. And she was tall enough to dress casually in flats and not be lost in the crowd. She spent a good deal longer than necessary applying lipstick, a peach shade that I now saw matched her well manicured nails. Open toed sandals, like you see in the windows at Fashion Island, revealed the same shade on her toes. A powder blue blouse with no buttons but a zipper at the back of the neck offset a straight, white mid-thigh skirt. All in all, a very well put together outfit. I wondered who she was waiting for.
I stirred the sugar among the ice cubes off the bottom of my drink with the swizzle stick and when I looked up I could see in the mirror that she had gotten her wine, had taken a sip and in the process was looking directly at me in the mirror. The gaze was unmistakable and quickly became a stare . I had seen her before somewhere. But where? She was not a person who frequented my technical world of electronic test equipment. The women in the company I worked for were either secretaries or mules working trade shows for the advertising department, standing six-hour booth duty stints in four-inch heels then serving drinks in the hospitality suite, while the salesmen watched porn flicks. They stopped at that, leaving anything more demanding to the professionals arranged for by the sales manager.
No. She was used to being treated well. Her assertiveness, gait and demeanor spoke of upper-class sophistication that one can’t buy from Jimmy Chu. And she was now looking directly at me in stop-action, mid sip, with her wine glass just off her lips. There was just a smudge of lipstick on the glass. It seemed rude to ignore such a look from a pretty woman. So I turned around on my bar stool and returned the look. She did not avert or drop her gaze but continued to look right at me. The eyes were unmistakable. I knew them.
There was tension now that needed to resolve, like the phrase of a song resolving to the tonic. I was about to slip off my bar stool and stroll ever so nonchalant in her direction as though headed for the restroom. But I’d missed my cue and the woman, apparently used to being the conductor, abruptly stood and walked in my direction.
“You don’t remember me, do you,” she said as she approached, still holding her wine glass at the ready.
“No, I’m sorry, I don’t,” I replied, a bit embarrassed. “But you are someone I’ve met. I just can’t place you.”
“My name is Agnes and I believe you are Allen. You spent some time in Saigon if I am not mistaken.”
I felt a chill in the back of my neck. The French accented English was unmistakable. I nearly fell off the bar stool. “Miss Yen? From the 60th Signal base depot? It must be 15 years.”
“Seventeen,” she said. “You remember? You came to dinner at our villa one Sunday. You and that other soldier. I don’t remember his name.”
“Phil,” I interjected. “How could I forget. You sent a car for us. I was very impressed. But now…….. I’m more that a little embarrassed.”
“Don’t be. Really. It’s been a long time.”
“What are you doing here then?” I asked.
“I’m here to visit my daughter and take care of a little business. She’s a freshman at USC. Doing very well, I might add. Smart, like her father.”
“And Newport Beach? Why here.”
“Sailboats. We own an interest in a yacht builder here. Won’t you join me at my table?”