Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lunchtime in Seizure Village

My grandpa calls as I’m on my way to pick him up to go to lunch to ask me to please speak to the cleaning lady in Spanish and tell her to hang up his shirts to dry.

“I don’t really know how to say that, grandpa,” I squint my eyes and hold up the phone to my mouth. I’m driving, so it’s on speaker, and his English accent sounds distant.

“Well maybe you can just tell her, ok?”

I frown. “Yeah, okay.” Apparently I can do anything.

When I arrive to their apartment in Leisure Village, or what was recently disclosed to me as “Seizure Village” by the locals in Camarillo, grandpa points to the bedroom and practically yells. “What’s her name?” He’s talking about the housekeeper. How should I know?

“I don’t know, grandpa.”

“Well tell her about my shirts, eh?” He looks up at me from the couch, his large glasses struggling for footing on the edge of his nose.

I pad quietly into the bedroom where my grandparents’ short haired, slightly overweight, and surprisingly tall cleaning lady is mopping up the bathroom floor. I smile.

“Hola. Uh…” I pause, searching for the words. “Cuando tu lavas los, um,” I forget how to say ‘shirt’ and point to my purple tee. She stares down at where I’m pointing on my stomach, we both notice a grease stain, and then she looks back up at my face.

“Los caminitos?” she asks.

“Si, los caminitos.” I smile. “Cuando tu lavas los caminitos, no necesitas, um…” I’m tripped up again, and can’t remember how to say ‘dry’ in Spanish. She has no idea where this sentence is going, so I pick up a hanger from the closet and hold it up. Her eyes go from my shirt to the hanger. I smile. She smiles back. We’re getting nowhere.

She holds up her pointer finger, like, ‘I got it,’ and walks over to the phone. “Mi hermano,” she says, dialing. This word I remember; she’s calling her brother.

The phone rings a few times and then she frowns again. He didn’t pick up, and we stare blankly at each other again for a moment before deciding how to tackle the situation.

Next I hold up my pointer finger, and motion her out to the garage. We walk past my grandparents on their couches, and my grandmother eyes us suspiciously. Out in the garage I show my new friend to the washing machine. I point at the machine and then at my shirt. “Si, los caminitos.” Yes, the shirts. I then point at the dryer. “Y no necesario.” And not necessary. I point at the hanger. “Solomente esto.” Just this.

She nods her head and I sigh relief. We’ve figured this out. “Gracias,” I say, before walking out of the garage.

I pull my grandpa up off the couch, and secure my grandmother’s hat on her head.

“Grandma thinks you ignored her,” grandpa says while I pull grandma’s jacket over her shoulders.

“Huh? I did?” I quickly go back in time and watch myself enter the house, kiss my grandpa, and go find the housekeeper. I suppose I did forget about her.

“Oh, sorry, grandma.” I look down at her and smile, and she looks up at me with hurt, childlike eyes. “I love you,” she moans, almost accusatory. “I love you forever, since you were baby.” My grandmother is Greek and barely speaks a word of English, but this part I get. I feel a little guilty, and hug her small frame close to my body. “I love you too, grandma.” She nods, and we all head outside, into the too bright sun, the howling breeze, the heavy car doors—the many pieces of daily life that have become almost unbearable for these two creatures.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Driving With Laura: Part 2

At the age of seven I hated to be alone, so weekends were a real bummer. God made it so that only little boys my brother’s age came to live on our street, surely an oversight on His part, but for years this meant out cookie-cutter suburban community was filled with “No Girls Allowed” rules, most decidedly directed at me. Solitude was boring; I needed real live kids to play with. My mother took her weekends to do laundry and garden and mop up the gunk from the kitchen floor, and if I wasn’t at ballet, I’d use that excess time to lie on the ground and protest.

“Big girls learn how to play by themselves,” my mother would say, to which I’d reply with a loud scream, “I hate Saturdays!”

The wonderful thing about my tantrums was that my mom would get so sick of hearing my cries at the inhumanity of God that she’d pick out her phone book from under the kitchen counter and hand it to me to begin dialing.

“Hello, Mrs. Johnson?” I’d tangle the cord into my fingers and stare at the floor. “Can Amy come over and play at my house?”

Most of these calls were completely fruitless; who didn’t already have set plans on a Saturday morning? Families were out hiking the hills, or eating picnic lunches, or shopping for new shoes. I was alone.

The luckiest of days was when Laura was home too.

“Do you think they’ll let you come?” I’d whisper into the receiver, hold my breath, and cross my fingers, like I was waiting on a decision about a life or death sentence. Laura would often come back on the phone after a long, hurtful pause and say, “My dad said no.” I could hear her frown, and then giggle. “I’m just kidding, he’s dropping me off!”

I can only assume that Laura’s parents were as eager to get rid of her for the day as mine were to get rid of me. My mom sighed a huge relief when I said Laura was on her way. Only now could she go about her business without a seven-year-old barnacle attached to her ankles.

The phone rings, announcing Laura’s arrival at the gate; I press 9 to let her in. She’s wearing navy shorts and a flowered t-shirt, both from Limited Too, our favorite store. Her hair is a few shades darker than mine, and so is her skin, but she’s much shorter than me, a trait I haven’t really picked up on yet but one that will haunt me later in our adolescence.

We run upstairs to my room to play “Theatre,” a game where we’d write plays and act them out in my parent’s living room. This time Laura’s wandering the Prairie with nothing but a doll and a piece of beef jerky, and she’s about to die of starvation. “Not if the rattlers don’t get me first!” she cries dramatically into the blistering sun on the ceiling fan above.

“Wait, wait,” I hold up my notebook in a motion to “call cut.” “Let’s change this part; I don’t like how it sounds.”

Laura sighs and crosses her arms. “You can’t just change things around like that. We’re already doing it this way.”

Laura was always big on following the rules, whereas I was frequently pushing the envelope, and her nerves. When hitting a wall like this one, where we both obviously disagreed, more often than not we’d tire of each other and change the game altogether.

“Do you want to keep playing this?” Laura asks. What she means to say is, ‘This game is stupid. Let’s play something else.’

“How about we set up your Barbie tent, and we play camping?”

I roll my eyes hugely. Camping Barbies is just about the last thing on the planet I feel like playing. First of all the tent is in a huge box at the top of my closet shelf, and secondly it takes a million years to put the thing together.
“We can’t play that game,” I say sinisterly.

Laura doesn’t buy it. “Why not? Isn’t it just at the top of your shelf?” she peers into the dark void above our heads, and I watch her, willing the box to disappear into the shadows.

“No, no! We really can’t because I don’t know where it is.” I’m lying.
Laura walks towards my bedroom door. “So what’s the big deal? Just ask your mom.” Leave it to her to be so damn clever. I’ll have to come up with something, quick.

“Okay,” I say quietly, “I’m going to tell you something, but you can’t tell anyone, ok?”

The thought of a secret has Laura intrigued. She tilts her head. “What is it?” Ok, I’ve got her. Don’t mess this one up.

“We can’t go looking for the tent because my dad has a gun hidden somewhere in the house.” I pause, waiting for Laura to catch on. “If we look for it, and we find the gun instead, we’ll be in huge trouble. It might even go off, and we might even kill ourselves.”

Laura’s eyes have grown two sizes bigger, and her lips are pressing together in a downward curl.

“But you can’t cry or anything,” I warn, noting her upset expression. “And you can’t say anything about it to my mom, because she doesn’t know about it either.”

Laura does cry, and she does go downstairs to get my mother.
Mom climbs the stairs to my room, where I’m sitting in the middle of the carpet picking out an outfit for my Barbie.

“You two are fighting already?” she asks, exasperated. Laura stands behind her, hiding in the doorway. Mom reaches up into the closet and pulls down the Barbie tent, setting down the box on the floor in front of me. “Tell Laura you’re sorry for lying to her.” My mother isn’t often angry, but she looks angry now, so I answer quickly. “Sorry, Laura.”

Mom assesses the treaty and walks out my door and back downstairs, calling as she goes, “If I hear you’re fighting again, Laura’s going home!”

Solitude is worse than Camping Barbie, so I open up the box to play.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Driving With Laura: Part 1

I’m in the back of my best friend Laura’s white Mitsubishi SUV, and we’re driving back from a day at the L.A. Zoo. Her mom, Barbara, is up front behind the wheel, and Laura’s in the passenger seat. Her little sister, Julia, sits next to me in her booster chair sucking on a pink blanket.

“You can sit up front when we’re in your car,” Laura says.

She’s very deliberate with this sentence, trying to pacify me because she can tell I’m angry. But Laura and I both know I’m not allowed to sit in the front seat of my car when I have company over. And best friend or not, Laura’s always considered company.

“But this is my car,” she says, emphasis on the my.

Laura’s mother frowns, but keeps her eyes on the road. “Girls, no fighting,” she warns. Her hands are evenly placed at 10 and 2, and her back’s as straight as a board, the seat pulled forward and up at a 90-degree angle to the floor. I notice she’s wearing her mismatching shoes again. One brown, leather flat, and one black high heel.

“That’s mom’s driving shoe,” Laura said when I asked her about it once. Barbara had come to the door of my house to pick Laura up after school, and when I told my mom about it I couldn’t stop laughing.

Where does she keep the other shoe? I wondered. Maybe she throws it away? Maybe it’s still in its cardboard box, pristine and lonely.

Suddenly Laura’s sister looks at me from her chair. Her cheeks are puffy and pink, and her nostrils are caked with dried mucus. Gross. She emits a low gurgling noise, and pulls the pink blanket from her lips. While looking over at her in disgust, I think, here it comes.

Julia spits up all over herself. White cream runs from her chin and down the seats. She screams and cries, and I stare back, horrified.

Laura reaches into the canvas bag at her feet and hands me a spit-up blanket. If we were in my car, I think, we wouldn’t have to deal with this. I have a big brother who doesn’t cry all the time. If we were in my car, maybe I’d be up front. It is my car, after all.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Night Falls Into the Sky

Over the bridge hold flecks of light,
Connected to ground and grass,
Buildings with flashing bulbs,

Air chills,
Feet quicken,
A plane flies overhead,
Leaving whirling dust in its wake.

A dead cabbie sings in my ear,
“The embers float on the ground…”

A rotting tree,
Stretches its creaking limbs into the night,
And I look for the Cheshire Cat.
Surely he waits for me there.

At the corner I hold onto the pole,
And look up.
This man-made thing.
This God-made being.
Are the mice asleep in their stoplight?

Elders dine on French cuisine,
And a BMW drives slowly, shakily by.
Who is the man inside?

The temple is being rebuilt,
And this morning I’m asked for patience.
Like the farmer who waits for precious fruit,
I wait for healing.
And I repent,
That refreshment may come.

My balcony is warm,
Candles flicker brightly.
Lanterns shine overhead,
And the bougainvillea clings to the white embers,
And the night falls into the sky.