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SUNDAY READING

A Certain Kind of Accident : Clara Sturak Always Believed That What She Gave to Others Would One Day Be Returned

September 21, 1986|CAROLYN SEE | Carolyn See is a Los Angeles writer and the mother of Clara Sturak

"Is that you under there, Clara?" Dr. Grant said, because by that time the only part of her face that was visible to him was a crushed red mouth and a circle of green surgical paper. "You've sure got some good manners under there." She thanked him for his attention, and though she went clammy with pain, she didn't change the rhythm of her breathing as the doctor examined her foot and exchanged information with her mother on what young Matt was doing now--taking a crash course in French this summer at Berkeley? Clara was afraid of scars and frightened about the operation to put her foot back together. Dr. Grant put things in proper perspective: "Yes, all this is trying, but you want to know some really bad news? Wilshire Car Wash is going to be torn down soon."

"No!" said her mom, who was holding her daughter's hand so hard during the stitches in her lip that Clara's knuckles cracked.

"No!" said her older sister who had driven in minutes down Pacific Coast Highway from her Palisades home and stood, swaying a little, so pale her freckles stood out like tiny specks of blood, "The car wash is closing?"

"Pretty bad," a nurse agreed solemnly, and a mugging victim in the next cubicle, dressed in nothing but Levis and a tuxedo tie, joined sociably in the small talk: "Uuh-hunh!" Clara lived in a certain way, and so she wasn't even surprised that when she woke up from the surgery the next day (her mother, her sister Lisa, her boyfriend Chris, her dad, her little brother Michael, and Gretchen and Erin, her two best friends, all hanging around and about), that Bill Hoffman, technical director for the juggling Mums, had already brought her a potted plant and strung his own big, heavy, man's watch over the metal rungs around her bed--so that she'd always know what time it was. She wasn't surprised that Ron Kittlesrud, her prop master, had gone to the tow yard and taken Polaroid snapshots of the smashed car while every dent was still fresh. That her friend Keith had retrieved all of her cassette tapes from the front seat floor of the car, even as the windshield fell in on him.

As soon as her eyes were fairly open, her father was there with a smoothie. An old schoolmate, Sharon Rosen, took over her job as producer and kept Clara supplied with cups of daiquiri ice from 31 Flavors.

She'd had a brush with Death. The woman next to her was very ill, perhaps dying, but her sons were with her night and day, and women friends came and sat quietly--their arched feet in very high heels primly crossed at the ankles--speaking softly in Spanish. Yes, Death was everywhere, and would win, maybe, in the end. But there was a coziness to all of it.

One Mum, Albee Selznick, said to her on the phone, "Santa Monica Hospital? I got my stitches there!" And their director let it be known he knew a good plastic surgeon. And Tori Horowitz, daughter of David "Fight Back" Horowitz, came by with a discreet selection of X-rated comic books and a drugstore tabloid that revealed a Baboon Boy had been found in a thicket of bamboo. The Saltzmans sent Mylar balloons, so did their daughter. So did the Kriegers, so did their daughter.

So first there was the pain. But then there was the love, expressed in so many ways. Her face had been bruised so badly that her two missing teeth were just black pieces, so to say, in a grisly blue and red jigsaw puzzle.

But just about the time she was able to get out of bed and look at her face in the hospital mirror, a dour young man who some people maintained was the very finest chef called up and said with great tenderness, "You know what you look like with your teeth missing like that, Clara? You look like a little kid who got banged up during recess."

And Chris Chandler, her boyfriend--from Chicago, so he hadn't quite gotten around to learning to drive--took an hourlong bus ride every night after work and cajoled the nurses so that he could stay late and remind her of her beauty.

Coupled with the ancient teaching that if you cast your bread upon the water you shall receive it again a hundredfold, was the whole sense of a life out here, balanced teeteringly on a fulcrum of pure chance. On the one hand, Death; the quake, the bomb, the car crash: "Oh my god," her insurance man blurted, seeing pictures of her Nissan, shredded as if by a cosmic Cuisinart, "It's a miracle you're alive!" On the other hand, there was the unrepentant, unregenerate sense of being alive in California, now. At a dinner party her sister gave during that first week after the crash, a writer--a famous one--said, drinking Chardonnay and watching the sun set over the Pacific, "Some day people are going to write about this place, all of this, and how we lived now. Paris in the '20s will pale beside us." (At that same party, the dour chef, David Barber, sent along a container of cantaloupe ice for Clara. His girlfriend sent art supplies, and her mother sent flowers and "holy cards" of the various saints.)

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