There was no light. The house was built into a canyon, leaving it cold in the dry heat of summer. My birthday had just passed, and the middle of August was bringing the end of the vacation I spent with my father. I know this as if seen through a portal, or my father and I were spotlit in this darkness. The black pushbutton phone rang; it vibrated on the long wood table in the dining room. I watched him as he took the news, answering, nodding, with a faraway stare in his almost-clear eyes. He was not talking to a person he knew. The phone let out a short ring when he hung up the receiver. Behind him was a small nook in the wall, made of stone and meant for wine; my father had placed candles and a framed black-and-white photo of Greta Garbo inside like a shrine. Shock had made him appear calm. He called me over, Sit here, he pulled me to his lap. Your mom is sick, she is going to be okay, she’s in the hospital now and will be out soon. I was silent, looking at my hands, I went somewhere else. This I would not feel here. I would save it, store it up to cry when I was alone, keep for myself. I couldn’t stay there with his words. I pictured an old-fashioned hospital with shiny tiled walls and windows like a Victorian greenhouse. She’s had a nervous breakdown, that’s what the doctor said, and you’re going to have to live here for a while, until she gets better. It’s going to be okay, honey. We’ll have to wait until your mom can talk to know more. She wants you to know that she will call you very soon. He ends with You’re going to go to school here now. This was what stuck. This was big. I was eleven and had thought I was close to going home.
Santa Cruz, 1980
I panic when people ask me where I grew up, my mind racing to land on one idea of home. Home wasn’t where we lived longest, it was a feeling, the safest place. It had nothing to do with time or history. Mostly I think about the fleshy-colored Victorian on Benito Street. My mother, Delilah, and I lived there alone in our first house without roommates or boyfriends. Big holes in the wood floor of the dining room went straight down to the dusty foundation. My bedroom had a black warped linoleum floor with pictures of toys and blocks, and bright teal walls with yellow trim. A bush of pink tea roses outside my window was as tall as the roof, and a huge lot with straw-colored grass lay between us and the next house. An enclosed patio with three walls made of green corrugated plastic abutted the backside of the kitchen. Inside a pale underwater-like light was cast onto an L-shaped turquoise sofa. I would lie there for hours rubbing my hands over the wooly bouclé fabric, staring up at the hanging wisteria flowers with their gnarled vines. Beyond that there were four collapsed sheds, and trellises to climb, and still farther the cab of a rusted truck with no tires and a rotted wood bed. I had whole worlds, forts, shelters. The smell of nasturtiums made a spicy taste in my mouth.
My mother didn’t have a job. You are my reason for living. The weight of her words slapped on my skin. I would make the call to my father: Have you sent the check? The thud of another brick. We were given food stamps and there were huge blocks of orange cheese glowing in our refrigerator. She lived in a red crepe skirt with a pattern of black feathers. I hid under it when I felt scared, or when too many people were around, the pink light of the outside creeping through. I would rub the skirt together, the small bumps of the fabric, back and forth between my fingers.
First grade was the first time I remember disappointing my mother. My friend Kelsey lived in the apartment complex next to school. Her mother worked and we played there alone in the afternoon. We found a pack of Kools and tried to smoke one in her bathroom. She lit it with a match and we each took a drag; the minty smoke burned inside my mouth as I held it there in the caverns of expanded cheeks. I wasn’t sure how long to hold it in. I didn’t cough, but Kelsey did and threw it into the bowl of the toilet. She told me she shaved her legs, and showed me the razor and the red-and-white can of shaving cream, striped like the sign of a barbershop. Sitting on the edge of the cold tub, I pulled the blue plastic razor just over the front part of each leg.