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.
When I got home I had the feeling I had to tell her. It lasted hours, until finally right before bed, I felt like I would burst. I told my mother that I had done something bad. I smoked with Kelsey; there was a great pause. She sat down on the couch. Finally her head tilted back, and she laughed, a cigarette in her hand. I told her I didn’t like it and that we threw it away, getting more and more upset, crying now as the words tried to come out. It’s okay, just don’t do it again. I felt relieved; I could breathe. I told her that I shaved my legs, and her face changed then, stuck like stone, and she slapped me, a clap on my left cheek. I could feel the white print of her hand turning to red, the mark visible like a stain when I looked to the mirror. Now all of your blonde hair will grow in thick and black! And then we were both crying, and she was hugging me, and her words again. You are my reason for living.
That same spring we were walking through the alley to the grocery store, and she spotted the first star in the purple sky. Make a wish. I closed my eyes as tight as I could and thought my wish, the words, three times in a row. What did you wish for? she asked, and we kept walking, scuffling through the gravel, me trying to ignore the rock rolling around in my sandal. I wished that you were normal. And as I said this I watched her body slump. I wanted her to know that this was a wish for her as well, that it would be so much easier on us both if it were true. She kept walking, faster now, I’m struggling to keep up, feeling if I stopped I would lose her, the rock piercing my heel.
Noah calls Goodbye to China and me from the door on his way to the club where he deejays. That afternoon he had taken me with him to dig through Dumpsters at Forest Lawn looking for dead flowers to decorate the club with. We found a coffin that someone had dropped, light purple and dented. Noah opened it, and it was empty with one brown stain filling the pillow. You can’t take that, I told him, and he looked disappointed and I felt sick.
We wait on the porch for China’s boyfriend, Sam, to pick us up. He drives up in a white Rabbit with his friend Frank. They pass us vodka and orange juice, which they have poured into a single Big Gulp cup from 7-Eleven. We are going to the Whisky to see a band called Wild Bang, and at 15 even I can’t believe that there is a band called Wild Bang. That is the dumbest name I have ever heard.
Frank says, They are fucking great, they opened for Guns n’ Roses once. I am pretty sure that Frank deals drugs. China took me to his house once in San Gabriel; there were tons of people there doing coke in his garage. I sat in the carport and drank wine coolers and talked to a girl named Missy who was in high school and stripped on the weekends for extra cash.
We drive down Cahuenga Boulevard and make a right onto Sunset, and China and I try to down as much of the vodka as we can. Alice Chambers June 16th 1964, Alice Chambers June 16th 1964, I say over and over again, trying to remember the information on the fake ID that Noah gave me so I can get into shows. I’m a Gemini. We park on the hill behind the Whisky, and I am glad to be out of the car. Frank is creeping me out. He is wearing a sharp cologne, and once inside I sit at a table opposite him so we don’t have to talk. Wild Bang is terrible, and there is so much smoke from the smoke machine that I can’t concentrate. It seems like the smoke is getting too thick to even see the band, and Frank keeps leaning over and asking me how I am feeling. And just after I’ve said fine for the fourth time, I turn my head back toward the stage and see trails, and things onstage seem to be happening in slow motion.
Come to the bathroom with me? China follows, and in the harsh light I see my face through a prism, a sharp cubist lion. I scare myself. What’s happening?
As China starts to explain what she thinks is going on, I stop her. I don’t want to hear it said aloud because I don’t want it to be true. Just tell me, you too? And when she confirms that she too is tripping her ass off, I ask her to take me home to her house because I am scared. I can tell she’s bummed, that she wants to go to the afterparty, but when she sees my face she agrees. She goes out and she confronts Frank and Sam, who deny it. They drive us back to her place. I have not said a word to them. As we ride down Sunset, I catch a glimpse of my face in the rearview mirror, and it is still split into fractured shards and I turn away.
At China’s, I run up her stairs, and her mother’s small white dog is jumping at my legs and I can’t stand it. I kick it, maybe a little too hard, into the hallway and close her door. Peg yells at us to be quiet. In bed with the lights off, I ask China if it’s ever going to stop. She’s done it before and she says, Yes I promise, just not for a few hours, by morning.
The light in her fish tank is on and I can’t stop staring at it. It becomes awful, the murk of the green algae, the dark and depth of it, like space. Don’t look at it I tell her. And she tells me to close my eyes, and I do, trying to will sleep to come, but all I can see is pastel cartoon figures made out of new wave shapes, triangles and squiggles, and it seems like I try to open my eyes for hours before I finally can. When I do, it feels like I have torn myself away from another world, and I am so scared at the realization that I don’t have control over my own thoughts. To try to subdue the panic, I start to think of it as a movie, try to enjoy the moving pictures. In the trees outside her windows I see shadows that turn into silhouettes, Joey Ramone, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, Angelyne. When I close my eyes the shapes are back, and I hate the way they look, the colors. I never wanted to do acid. At some point I fall asleep.
The next afternoon I have to baby-sit for Noah’s friend. This tiny little baby, who I usually adore, will not stop crying. It is raining outside a little, and I can’t fathom how I am going to get through the next two hours. As I rock this small doughy body back and forth, I cry with him. I am exhausted.
San Francisco, 1992
I lived in San Francisco for a year after high school. Lyle walked out and Kate walked in; that’s how I look at it. Lyle was the end of true love, and I left L.A. and moved to San Francisco, away from both parents. I met Kate at the punk rock shoe store, where I convinced girls to buy flowered Dr. Martens boots and baby-doll dresses. It turned out she had gone to high school with Lyle. I had heard her name many times and when her boyfriend Mark introduced us, I knew she was the same Kate. Mark made a latte for me every morning at the cafe next door. Oh, you’re the girl he just broke up with, the young one, I heard about you. She bought a swirly red-and-black dress that I thought was ugly. Her face looked pained. Kate was beautiful in a way that was new to me. She had a way of looking at me, with her nose scrunched up and her eyes squinted, as if she smelled something awful or couldn’t quite see clearly. Freckled nose, golden eyes and the downy fuzz on her cheeks. Kate’s face took getting used to.
A week later she invited me to see the remake of Cape Fear at the Kabuki Theater on Geary Street. At one point I was so scared that I reached for her hand and she laughed; it endeared me to her in some way. Later she would say You cry at every movie, remarking on how I was inconsolable while watching the end of The Dead Zone one afternoon on television. Brooke Adams says, “I love you,” to Christopher Walken, and then he dies without saying it back. This killed me.
Kate didn’t cry like that. Her strength made her seem hard, an admirable toughness. If we were younger, I would be the prissy kid and she the tomboy. I was in a blue period, still heartbroken over Lyle, and Kate on the verge of getting dumped. We really got close when it was finally over with her and Mark. She was devastated. She collected everything he ever gave her and put it in a giant-sized Glad bag underneath the television. Each day she would add more to the bag, I would ask for the teakettle and she would say, It’s in the bag, which meant it was off limits. Books, records, clothes, underwear, pots, shampoo and cat toys were all thrown in. She told me that she was going to take the bag over to his house when he was at work and dump the contents on his bed. She would write on the wall above All I have from you is this bag and one dead baby, in reference to the abortion she had two years before. The desire I could relate to, but I would never go through with something like this. I admired her for it.
The second time we hung out she invited me over to her house to watch 90210. She lived in a two-bedroom apartment south of Market and we bought dinner at the Shell gas station, the only store around. We ate frozen Pizza Bites and she told me the story of coming home after work to find her roommate on mescaline kneeling on the floor before a shrine of J.D. Salinger books, shaving bald patches into his black hair. Each of the books was still there in their own Ziploc bag and nailed to the wall. There were snow dome collections of things that were never in snow, like flamingos or underwater creatures. She loved robots because it was a dated idea of futurism, something old people might talk about.
Kate became my other half that year, I remember naming her my best friend long before she would call me that. I earned the title later. We would go to North Beach and treat ourselves to dinner at Viva, double orders of garlic bread and sweet syrupy Cokes. We would walk around in the night, buy post cards, and look at magazines. She would stand on corners and yell Fuck Fuck Fuck into the icy wind while we waited for the light to change. I don’t remember noticing other people around us.
For her birthday, I made her a book of drawings I had done of ugly dogs, some with big crying eyes. I included some descriptive paragraphs I had copied out of reference books. I drew pictures of all the bad boys we knew, like Lyle, and anyone who had ever broken her heart or not returned a crush. I wrote a paragraph about each boy and placed their pictures between the canines. One hundred ugly dogs in all.
I meet China at Girls’ Club. She makes fun of my sweater, and instantly I like her. It’s itchy acrylic, knit by my grandmother, the card boasting that it’s a copy of one Princess Diana owns. I never wear it again. China is in head-to-toe Esprit — it all matches, small and large patterns, pastel colors like sherbet. She has braces and a headgear that she has to wear most of the time. There are cracked sores in the corners of her mouth.
We are picked up each day from school in a van and taken here until our parents get off of work. We go to different schools. We bring tapes and work out dance routines to “Like a Virgin,” in which we imitate the video, rolling on the floor as if in a gondola, and to “Somebody” by Depeche Mode. Because this song is a ballad, we do improvised ballet, which makes us fall down laughing.
I go to Immaculate Heart Middle School because it is the only school near Noah’s house (besides the public junior high, where there have been two fatal shootings in the last year). It is a girl’s school and I enjoy wearing my uniform, knowing already that it’s perverse in a good way. I roll up my skirt to make it shorter and leave my shirttails out. I wear white socks with saddle shoes. China gives me one of her bras at Girls’ Club because I can’t bear to ask Noah to buy me one. I am in seventh grade.
I tell China about Noah being gay before I ask her to come over. I ask her not to tell anyone. She doesn’t seem to care. I saw them holding hands, she says about Noah and Lee. I don’t talk about my mother, and it is rare that anyone asks. I make friends with some skater boys who live on my street. They are all cute: Franco, Lance, Duncan. China and her mother move into my neighborhood. We get suspended from Girls’ Club for carving the boys’ names into the gym floor with safety pins. We have been doing it for weeks before they catch on. China’s mother, Peg, is furious. China has to wash the walls in their new apartment. Noah’s punishment is that I have to find my own way home, which means a two-mile walk. I discover that Franco’s bus stop is on my way home. Most days I wait for him there. We go to Alex Donut and order chocolate buttermilks before we start our climb into the hills.
I hang out at his house on my way home. His older sister Nadine goes to my school. Sometimes she is home when we get there. She is a ballerina. The dark of her eyes is emphasized by heavy black eyeliner. I want to be like her. She smokes and gives us cigarettes every now and then. In the bathroom I smell her tea rose perfume and Noxzema while I pee. When Franco and I are alone, I let him kiss me. He has the same dark skin as his sister, the same brown eyes. This is clearly about practice, I think but do not say. We don’t tell China or the other boys. I take off his red Bones Brigade T-shirt one day when we are on his couch, and he unbuttons my blue oxford and takes off my borrowed bra. His skin is soft and warm, like a baby’s. We eat pink guavas from a tree in their backyard, and I head home, farther up the hill. I pass a house where a man in his fifties lives alone. He has airbrushed the entire front of his Spanish-style stucco home in rainbow pastels. There are three huge dogs in his yard, opera is blasting. The garage door is open and it is a complete dingy cluttered mess of a life inside. It is getting dark.
Santa Cruz, 1978
There is always music, a constant accompaniment to memory. The year I was born, my father took me to see the Rolling Stones; he had been their obsessed fan since he was in high school. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars had come out the year before, and Bowie remained my father’s idol well into my twenties, when my father laid off the rock ’n’ roll and turned his obsessive nature toward bird watching. She’s going to look just like Nico, his friends would say in front of me, before my hair turned dark. You could be a model if you just lost some weight, Noah would say. I would stare at the cover of Chelsea Girls. Was this me? I didn’t think so. I have a photo of Noah applying eyeliner in front of a tinsel trimmed mirror by candlelight, his long dark wavy hair brushing his shoulders. This was in Arcata, just before they had me. How did my mother not know he was gay? Maybe she didn’t care; their lifestyle was free and easy, fluid like their sexuality. Or maybe my mother was so relieved to have escaped from her abusive alcoholic home that an anything-goes attitude was the only way she could approach the world. She claims to have never loved anyone as much as my father, but the story she tells is that she left him, wanting to be an independent woman with her new child. She had been his first love and after that he turned to men. She had encouraged his early exploration, inviting a fellow art student of his over for dinner one night, where she prepared a vegetarian meal complete with homemade bread. But the baby and doting wife were too much for the guest to handle, and he left early.
My mother took me to Mexico with a group of friends when she left Noah. They wanted to see the ruins; it was a spiritual quest. The trip was supposed to last six months, but we lasted just three. I was two, and sick, so she took her remaining twenty-five dollars and bought us a bus ticket back to the States after eight weeks. The story goes that first she woke in the middle of the night just before a brown tarantula stepped onto my white blonde head, I was swept away by a massive undercurrent, and the final straw was a bout with dysentery that wouldn’t leave and almost wiped me out. My eyebrows and eyelashes were infested with lice when we left. Santa Cruz was another town for hippies, still close to the ocean, but warmer than Arcata and away from my father, so that’s where we landed. She signed up for welfare and rented us a room in a house on Market Street, where people like us came and went on a regular basis.
My first memory of a live concert is Patti Smith. My point of view is from my father’s shoulders, looking out over a sea of heads at a thin woman whose green, pointed hat and belted shirt reminded me of Peter Pan. My mother played Horses more than any other record. “Kimberly” was the song that reminded her of being pregnant. She always sang loudly and off key — little sister the sky is falling, I don’t mind, I don’t mind — with so much emotion that it was embarrassing. She loved Motown. The Supremes’ Love Child was my first record. The cover was a photo of Diana, Florence and Mary on the steps of a tenement wearing yellow sweatshirts. Diana’s sweatshirt read Love Child across the chest in black hand-painted letters. I would listen to that record and The Shangri-La’s on a red, white and blue plastic Mickey Mouse turntable that was set up on my top bunk. I cried at “You Can Never Go Home Anymore,” about a runaway who couldn’t face returning home to her mother’s sadness, and her mother dies alone broken-hearted. And that’s called sad.
Trinidad, California, 1970
At fifteen, my mom had run away from her home in Massachusetts, with a boyfriend who lived in a milk truck. They ended up in Buffalo, which was far away from her parents who at that point were living in a motel room with her two younger sisters. When she got there, she dumped the boyfriend and stayed three and a half years working as a hostess in a department-store cafeteria and part time at a natural-foods bakery.
At this time, Noah is an art student in his second year. He has seen her around, awed by the group she hangs out with; he has watched them walk together in a pack, two or three dogs with them at all times, barefoot, in long capes, wild stringy hair. My mother is the only one in her house who isn’t a fruitarian. Everyone in town knows who they are. My mother has noticed my father; his aquamarine eyes shoot electric glitter beams, and she knows she can hook him. Everything is stars and velvet. She looks like Charlotte Rampling with pre-Raphaelite skin. One evening at dusk, she is snapping peas at the kitchen sink and he walks by, Hey, hey you, she yells, blue eyes, and he stops walking and looks up into her kitchen window. You want some dinner? And he comes in, and he stays. He moves in. My mother has a beagle named Willow and they get a German shepherd puppy and name her Coco. My father spray paints everything in the bathroom silver: the walls, the bathtub, the sink, the ceiling and floor. He wants it to look like Andy Warhol’s factory. It is tacky to the touch. It never dries.
After a year, my father gets busted in the dead of winter for selling pot to locals. His friend Michael brings it out from California and they are making good money. He spends a week in jail. My grandparents find him a lawyer who is able to get him a deal, but he must never set foot in Erie County again, and he must continue going to school. The only place that will accept him is Humboldt State. He flies out with Willow, and my mother hitchhikes across country in the spring with Coco after he is settled. They rent a ranch house just outside of town in Fieldbrook for $85 a month.
In the wedding photos Noah is wearing a white button-down shirt and brown corduroy pants, which are both covered by a brown felt cape, loosely fastened at his neck with a brooch he made himself. My mother has on a thin white Victorian underskirt and blouse, wedgie sandals with socks, and a green Guatemalan shawl. Both have hair down to their waists, and each has a bouquet of gladiolas and wildflowers. There are only about ten people present; dogs and children run in and out of the frame. On a picnic table there is homemade carob cake with nasturtiums on top and plastic jugs of mysterious juice. The ocean is gray below the cliffs of Trinidad, northwest of Arcata. Large rocks dot its shoreline and there are redwoods as far as the eye can see. An old rusted-out brown Chevy in the distance. And I always thought this is what it should be like.
In ninth grade I am back with my mother. I think about hiding under the deck and grabbing her ankles as she arrives home, hearing the weight of her fall above me, her head cracking against the sharp corner of the splintery wood. Saskia and I write songs for the band we want to start. We write lyrics about killing our mothers because it is punk, because we think we really feel it, because neither of us can sing or play an instrument. I hide behind doors and jump out at her, startling her, keeping her on edge, her scream satisfying. One night I tell her I hate you, and she grabs an empty bottle of Koala brand soda — You little cunt — and she runs with the bottle raised high above her head and I have to slam each door behind me, locking it, until I collapse onto my bed in tears, screaming, Leave me alone, do not come in here, I don’t want to be near you. This very rage will take me back to my father’s the next year because I am afraid that we may hurt each other.
I am in love with a boy named Greg Pierson, and he is six feet tall with bleached white hair that hangs over one of his pale blue eyes. I wear bright red lipstick, a black cardigan and a short Catholic schoolgirl skirt in red plaid and he never bothers to talk to me more than answer my hello and awkward questions. Saskia and I discover that he is enrolled in a class at Wayne’s College of Beauty downtown. On weekends we take the 71 and alternate having our hair trimmed, wrapped in cellophane and highlighted in an attempt to get him interested in me. He never makes a move.
After school I ride the bus home and I sit in the back with a boy named Matt who is in eighth grade and still at the junior high, where the big yellow Laidlaw picks them up first before coming to the high school. Matt and I start talking one day because he is wearing a Specials T-shirt and every day after he saves me a seat on the green bench, three up from the last row. Soon Matt joins Saskia and me on the weekends. Ouija boards, cigarettes, free coffee refills, black nail polish, photo booths, the beach at night. Matt is having a hard time too. He talks about a darkness he can feel closing in around him. He feels he can’t stop it. The darkness isn’t something that gives him character, it actually takes it away, takes him away, and for the first time I see the difference.
One weekend we steal a bag of weed from Saskia’s mom, who had stopped in for a weekend visit. We pack a bowl into a wooden pipe that we had bought at Pipeline downtown for seven bucks. Although I have smoked before, this is different. There are red hairs that weave their way through the dense green buds. I keep smoking, egging Saskia on to take more, and I am dancing in her room, looking at my reflection in her sliding glass door. I spin my head around to see if she is taking a hit and it doesn’t stop. It goes all the way around, I mean it feels it does, and then it goes again. And I try to tell her what’s happening as I collapse onto her bed, a single mattress on the floor, and she says Lie down, just relax, and I feel my head going through the pillow. I roll over onto my side to face her and it feels like I keep rolling over, and she says to me, It happened again, it happened again. And I try to ask her, to make it clear, did she say it twice or just once and I heard it twice, and it’s becoming a mess. It has a name, or did I call it that? And all I can see when this confusion is happening around me is mini Revlon lipsticks in white plastic cases, tester size in all different shades of pink and red. Thousands of them.
Three friends of Noah’s have died this year. Harvey used to baby-sit me when I would visit my father on vacations, Larry was from Humboldt County and had been at my parents’ wedding, and Arthur painted signs with Noah when he moved to Los Angeles.
It is Saturday, early evening, and China is at my house when her mother, Peg, leaves a frantic message on the answering machine, her voice wavering, becoming stronger at the end, I’m coming right away. We go out onto the porch to meet her, the sun going down and the entire tile rust-colored and warm beneath us. Peg is crying when she reaches the top of the stairs and she says, The test is positive, and I realize what this means. Her ex-boyfriend was diagnosed with HIV three weeks ago, Peg finding out that he had led some sort of double life when they were together. China and I piece together the puzzle over the next few weeks, realizing he was doing drugs when we all went to the mountains, and that his late hours as a film editor didn’t add up in the end. None of us knows how to feel what this means. None of us knows that the ex-boyfriend will die within a month, and that today Peg is alive and well, just a little thin. And they are hugging and China is crying, and I go and get Noah inside where it is dark, no lamps on yet, Lee on the floor watching television. The sound from the TV seems much louder now. Noah comes outside with me. He hugs Peg, and I can hear Lee laughing at the TV and I hate him for it.
The back and forth gave me the permanent status of new kid. I passed through two junior highs and five high schools. Most of the time it was my decision to leave one parent and go to the other, or to try a new kind of school. I remember sixth grade at Cheremoya Elementary, the first year I moved in with Noah, showing up in new sneakers and dark jeans with pink pin stripes, and seeing all new faces staring back at me. The classroom was full of still, hot air. In Santa Cruz I had been present, engaged, concerned with my progress and attentive to my teachers. It was at Cheremoya that I began to check out, daydream out the window, because I felt it was temporary, I was waiting to return to my mother’s. My teacher, Mrs. Chung, warned me that I may get a low grade because of my penmanship, and I was shocked. My handwriting had been perfect ever since I learned cursive with Mrs. Baker at Branciforte Elementary; her praises had given me a sense of pride. Mrs. Chung pulled out several examples of my sloppy and unpredictable marks on the page. It looked as if someone else had written them. I began to take my studies a little more seriously, but it was never quite the same after that; it took more effort to stay focused. I became fascinated with a boy from Laos whose parents had escaped; I befriended three Korean girls who had scented erasers and Hello Kitty lunch boxes and a boy named Mario whose father was in the Doors or the Eagles. It took some time for this, and still I never played with them after school, was never invited to any of their houses. This is how it was throughout high school as well; I was somewhat accepted, but my home life remained secret, and I kept to myself, the tall girl. The homes of my classmates were a mystery, a black screen to project my ideals onto. They involved pets, dinner waiting at six, maybe someone to help them with schoolwork.
Santa Monica, 1990
Noah says in the kitchen that he doesn’t think it’s a good idea. You can’t stop me, I am going to do it anyway. You don’t know. I don’t think he deserves to have any control over my life now that he’s clean. He’s acting like a father. Too little, too late is how it feels. I am moving in with Lyle, switching to Samo High in his district so I don’t drop out, is how I put it to Noah. I cut classes at least once a week. It is my senior year, and I leave for a month in January to go on tour with Lyle’s band. I don’t ask for permission.
We live in a studio apartment in a 1970s rent-controlled building. I can walk to the beach, and suddenly L.A. doesn’t close me in, it is no longer dark all the time. When Lyle is on tour, I feel like a sad character in a film, ?the camera close on my face, then pulling back slowly, but farther and farther, emphasizing the smallness of me and the largeness of the world.
Lyle doesn’t like me to have friends over when he is not there. Our home is private. The carpet is dark blue; we ash our cigarettes onto the floor and rub it in with our shoes. We never vacuum. The drain in the bathtub is always clogged with hair and sand from the beach. When I want privacy, I lock the door and sit on the toilet, sometimes I drag the phone in with me.
The Phone Call, 1999
There were warning signs, firecracker-sized explosions, before Kate overdosed. My mother was recovering from a surgery and a divorce. Noah loaned her two thousand dollars to get herself an apartment, and there we were. It was night and we were inside the wood-paneled one-bedroom watching a film about an orphaned boy in Brazil. Painted landscape shots of desert and forest; I wanted to cry for him on his bus ride.
The phone rings, interrupts the attachment of me to the film. And she, my mother, is above me, robe and arm extending the blue receiver. I don’t know how to tell you this, Noah starts, and pauses for just a second, then blurts, Kate’s dead. And then he is crying and I have to drop the phone. I am lying down on the sofa, and still I feel I may faint. The receiver bounces off the carpet. What? My mother is saying. I pick it back up, and he is still crying, and he is talking about himself, his experience with Kate, and I have to go, get off the phone, not talk about his feelings. I am collapsing inside, folding in on myself. She did it on purpose, I know this. Still folding. Falling while I call my voicemail to find messages from her family, from friends, and I do not want to be angry with my mother for needing me. Trying not to be angry with myself for helping my mother and not being with Kate. I haven’t returned Kate’s phone calls or e-mails for the last week. I could have stopped this.
Santa Monica, 1994
It was winter break. I was home from school in New York, dividing my time between Kate and staying with Noah in his new apartment, right after he left Lee. The big earthquake had just happened. It had thrown Kate and me out of bed in the middle of the night. It was a rushing jolt, instead of the low rumble I was used to. There were aftershocks everyday. I was a nervous wreck, scared that the earth was going to open up and let us all fall in.
It had been a couple of years since I’d seen Lyle, and Kate had been talking to him again, he had introduced us. We stopped by the studio where Lyle was recording. He was surprised to see me, but he was wrapping up for the day so the three of us just sat around talking for a while. The whole time, I knew that I would go home with him. At one point, while he was talking to the engineer, I asked Kate if she would pick me up from his house the next day when I called her. I didn’t have a car.
We drove to the beach that night in his black van. We took Sunset all the way, then cut over on Burlingame to San Vicente. There is a beautiful row of strange trees on that road. They were a gift from Africa, and their shapes made eerie shadows in the night. He was renting a house — a big step up from the way we lived in our apartment. He had a dog.
Lyle turned the lights out before we got into bed. He undressed in the dark, leaving his underwear on. Black briefs. I took off my jeans and removed my bra through the sleeve of my T-shirt. I was wearing white boys’ underwear. I thought they were sexy, but suddenly I became self-conscious because he didn’t say anything. Even when his hands started moving over them. His mouth felt safe, he was a great kisser. He took my shirt off. And then the underwear. His mouth moved down my body, over my stomach, and I held his head in my hands feeling his tongue against me. He was good at this. I remembered his words on the phone when we broke up. I don’t think you’ll be the woman I see in you for a long time. And I wondered if I was her yet, if she was closer to the surface. I pulled him up to kiss him, and he was about to put his cock inside me and I asked if he had a condom, and he said no, and I couldn’t fucking believe it. He got up to look and couldn’t find one. He came back, and I sucked him off, still shocked by the fact that he didn’t even think about it, and me still needing to prove myself to him sexually. I put my underwear back on. We fell asleep and were woken up by a strong aftershock. I was so scared; he was too. He held me for a long time, and all I could think was What if I die here? Like this.
Excerpted from California, forthcoming from Suspect Thoughts Press.