He told her all about being an anesthesiologist in Iraq, where he’d just spent a year with Doctors Without Borders. That he owned houses in Newport Beach and Palm Springs. “This feels incredible,” he said, stretching out on her bed.That he happened to worship at her church, Mariners. And he told her that she stopped his heart, she was so beautiful. Her last serious boyfriend had wounded her, in parting, when he said she wasn’t. She thought this was moving a little fast, but she decided to allow it. She brought John back to her penthouse, just up the block. She thought, “It’s just a mattress.” She became uncomfortable. He just didn’t want to leave, and she had to insist.She called them “approachable dreams.” They were like glossy ads in upscale lifestyle magazines — purged of kids’ toys and dirty dishes and other real-world complications. She didn’t mind his idiosyncrasies, like his habit of wearing his faded blue medical scrubs everywhere, even to a formal-dress cancer benefit she invited him to.
Soon Debra and John were quietly looking for a place together. It had to do with vigilance and quick reflexes and the will to fight.
They found a $6,500-a-month house on the boardwalk on Balboa Island in Newport Beach. “The world ends,” she would say, “and those who are fit to survive will survive.” She was as nonconfrontational as her sister Jacquelyn was assertive.
Her 24-year-old daughter, Jacquelyn, who lived there with her, made it clear she thought he looked like a loser. She said she didn’t like the way his eyes roamed around the place, among their velvet chairs and jewelry and fine art. She thought that if any of her kids would give him a chance, it was Terra, her youngest.
Or the way he seemed so curious about the contents of her safe, where she kept her collection of Birkin and Cartier bags. Jacquelyn’s reaction didn’t shock Debra, since her taste in men often exasperated her children. The family’s quietest, most docile member liked to daydream about the end of the world.
Terra discovered the truth the day before Thanksgiving, when she opened a closet and found a nursing certificate bearing John’s name. ” Terra left, badly shaken, with the sickening feeling that her mother was choosing John over her.
Her mom said she was getting his certificates framed, but Terra knew, and she did something uncharacteristic. He had an explanation for why he had a nursing degree but called himself a doctor. When Jacquelyn showed up, John asked for a private word with her. He acted like a kid himself, vulnerable and sweet, and single-mindedly besotted with her.
She thought they’d find something bad to say about anyone she dated. Debra wasn’t about to tell her kids that John would be moving in with her. At 23, Terra watched and rewatched every episode of “The Walking Dead.” She spoke of the series less as entertainment than as a primer on how to survive apocalyptic calamity.
Her friends sometimes joked about her being a “bad picker.” Where other people saw red flags, she saw a parade. She knew what they’d say — that she was moving too fast, acting with her heart, repeating old mistakes. She made careful note of why some characters lived and others perished.
She felt protective of her mom and wondered why a guy who sounded as good as John would still be single. Why had no one seen John’s houses in Newport Beach and Palm Springs?
Her skepticism only deepened when she and Jimmy drove out to Southern California and met him. As he helped Debra move into her new house, he huffed and strained and wrestled her queen mattress down the stairs single-handedly, a show of ludicrous machismo. She thought maybe they were picking up on her own unease. Why did he seem to spend all day playing “Call of Duty” on the 70-inch plasma TV her mom had bought?
heir first date was at Houston’s, a restaurant in Irvine, where he opened the door for her and put her napkin on her lap.