“Warm and sunny,” people said when speaking of California, but I knew it as a place where fear lived.
Now we were going there. We were crossing the desert to face that fear, and I was afraid.
(from: The Lonesome Gods by Louis L’Amour)
(photo: december 2004, the rooftop of our old home in koreatown.)
I have a girlfriend who believes that romance is like a two-hour romantic comedy film. That a man must woo and bring daffodils, that he’ll error–perhaps in Las Vegas where he gets a little whacky with his bachelor buddies–she’ll find out, and he’ll lose the girl. He’ll later realize how worthless his life is without her, and that she is forever gone. He’ll chase her to oblivion–ultimately winning her forgiveness, confessing that his loins and heart belong to only her. Afterward, an engagement and a happy ending. All this in two hours and 23 minutes.It’s no wonder that she is constantly broken-hearted and disappointed when the reality of her affair slips after two months of courtship and falls into a sadistic world of his “I-don’t-know-what-I-want” and unreturned phone calls. Her confidence shattered, she blames herself for his disappearance. “What’s wrong with me?” she’ll ask. Soon, she’ll become infatuated with her spinning class; she’ll fall asleep to her Netflix rentals or the imaginary bohunk that has entertained her many lonely nights.
Perhaps this is the result of years sitting in front of the television, of being brainwashed to the point that “entertainment” is reality, and reality is just not good enough. A man is unable to commit. A woman must tell herself, “Give a little but not too much. Play the game like a man. Wear a mask and never expose the real you just in case he decides to leave. A defense mechanism. He leaves because of the face you wear and not because of you, the real you.”
Many search for that heightened sense of the first kiss, that magical moment at the end of the film when the two are reunited passionately. After all, this is what romance is supposed to feel like. Or is it?
Just a couple of months ago, the friend read me excerpts from He’s Just Not That into You by Greg Behrendt, which had become her bedside manifesto. Suddenly, the day-dreamy ideals that she developed during years of watching Jennifer Aniston movies became more far-fetched and separated from reality. She says to me, for example, “I want to find a chiseled 6’2 male who doesn’t cheat, who doesn’t look at other women, who’s a successful artist, who is rich and says ‘I will support you; I’ll pay off your debts. Please go and pursue your painting….I’ll take care of everything.’ He also cleans the bathtub, has a great sense of humor, won’t like porn, won’t care if my thighs are chunky, enjoys shopping and likes to cuddle, will buy me gifts on Valentine’s day and after two years of dating he’ll propose in Hawaii, and it will be the happiest day of my life!”
Consumed with her ideal of Mr. Wonderful, she searches for him, dates around but realizes that she’ll never be satisfied with Mr. Normal when Mr. Perfect is what she deserves. She decides to stop dating because fate will bring him to her. Yes, he will appear on her front porch randomly one evening as she’s flopped on the couch with another re-run of Seinfeld.
She’ll watch as the many nights she spent waiting for him have now passed–the last ones of her twenties. She’ll sink into a deeper loneliness. She’ll discover her strongest traits are bitterness and jealousy.
I could tell her that love isn’t the things that are locked up in her heart pendant–that the road to a healthy relationship is sometimes crooked and dysfunctional and not even close to the daily events that are conjured up in her daydream or her favorite film. But, she refuses to turn off her television and hand over Mr. Perfect.
I wonder if she’ll ever leave her self open enough to experience a partner that is not only a lover but an annoying brother, a best friend and an enemy? A partner who becomes her other half–who catches her when she stumbles but is also the culprit behind her fall.
I confess to her that in most relationships there are wars declared behind bedroom doors, and peace treaties signed over vegan lasagna and a clean kitchen. She looks at me blankly and responds, “Isn’t it tragic that Brad left Jennifer for Angelina Jolie?”
A gift for you realists and those who have found their other half:
“If we have the strength to take a relationship as far as it will go. To discard the false masks, to live through the outbursts of hatred and violence, to confront honestly our full range of feelings, we may discover and emotional capacity that is much deeper and richer than we expect. The doubts are never quieted, the struggle is never over, the confusion is never eliminated, but the imperfect love comforts and survives.”
They washed ashore, more than a hundred pairs of shoes separated from their mate. Made from mollusks, these mother-of-pearl foot coverings were intricately decorated–adorned with red coral and phosphorescent algae. Many were shaped like ballerina slippers with seaweed ribbons that tied around the ankle. They shimmered in the morning sun and had not yet been buried in the soft beach sand. The ocean’s tongue attempted to collect such a secret back into its womb but had failed. Middle-aged women had already arrived, calling out to their husbands in a greedy panic to help in the gathering. Soon the tourists would be arriving; soon the remaining seashell shoes would be whisked back into the sea.
We happened to be there that morning. Having awakened chilled by the seaside breeze; my father suggested a morning stroll along the ocean.
He had grown closely acquainted with his solitude, offering silence instead of the lively father I once knew. Days into his visit, we found ourselves soft stepping and feeding each other courtesies. I hesitated when speaking to him openly about what had happened, and he too spoke with caution, avoiding the issue that had brought him here. Still, the stabbing disappointment reflected in his eyes, I was no longer the daughter he knew and understood.
He walked several feet ahead of me in the sand dunes while I strolled along the lapping tides. I left him to his thoughts, and walked toward the crouched ladies digging into the sand with their frantic fingers. As the distance lengthened between him and I, as the women’s voices became louder, I came across a shoe. It was the softest hue of pink like the inside of a conch shell, striped like the fin of a lionfish with the delicate green of river moss. Taking off my left sandal, I tried it on. My heel slipped into its pearly curve. A perfect fit.
Holding onto the shoe, I combed the beach floor looking for the matching pair. I became one of them, upturning the beached seaweed and pods, digging through the sand and cursing the incoming waves for reclaiming the shoes. Having spied a piece of seashell chard, I bent down upon my knees allowing the cold seawater to soak into my jeans and the wet sand to collect under my fingernails. It was another shoe; a large one with green stripes like the one I kept beside me.
It was then that I heard her heavy sobs, or was it the waves, the celebratory shouts from the women in the distance? I couldn’t tell only that it was coming from behind, in the ocean, moments after the crescendo of the breaking tide. I refused to turn around; instead, I looked for my father who had become a speck in the horizon.
Her sobbing became a string of words in what first sounded like Latin, and then she spoke, “Those are my shoes!”
Having pulled the other shoe from the sand, I rose up, pretending not to hear –avoiding the curiosity of turning around. The voice was not human. She repeated, “Those are my shoes. Please, those are mine!”
I told myself, it was probably one of the ladies who had seen me digging and thought that she was the rightful owner of such a treasure. But, she spoke again this time louder. Fierce.
“Give me back my shoes!”
The pitch of her voice was one that I’d never heard. One that danced between the audible and a sound not meant for the human ear. As I compared the two shoes, I became aware of the cold Pacific breeze; I noticed that my heart was responding with fear. The shoes matched.
I looked at the other women who were now in the parking lot; emptying armloads of shoes into their cars. For once, luck had found me. “Bravely,” I thought, “you will turn around and tell her that these shoes are yours and not hers. You will tell her you found them first.”
Instead, I returned to the sand dunes where he sat waiting. The tourists were arriving, and the rainbow umbrellas were set for a busy summer afternoon. Her voice had almost faded into the thunderous roar of the ocean, but I could still hear her. I showed him my shoes, which he examined with amazement and then asked, “Where did you find these?”
I pointed to where I found them adding that the women who were gone had taken armfuls of them. His look of disappointment deepened, “Did you tell her you were taking her shoes?”
He pointed at the ghostlike, barely recognizable image. She stood in the ocean, waist deep in the white foam, disappearing and reappearing with each passing wave.
There was no response that would please him; no excuse that could justify why I couldn’t turn around and face her.
We watched as she crawled out of the tide and beached herself–clawing through the sand with her fingers, looking to see if I had left the shoes behind. Shortly, the children in the neon swimsuits would gather to poke at her scaly black tail. The husbands would pull out cameras to document the event. Maybe, she would make the evening news.
“Do you know how difficult it is to stare into a mermaid’s face?” I asked as the tourists began to gather, as the little ones ran to grab their parent’s hand.
J, my old roommate, had this habit of collecting abandoned pictures and handwritten paper notes from street corners and sidewalks. He has an interesting collection of photo-booth snapshots, love letters and torn journal pages–all written by nameless strangers.
On my way to the supermarket last night, I came across what looks to be a hand-written homework assignment. It was written by Tania on March 29, 2005 for English 10B. Its cursive penmanship looks like that of an older woman’s and reads like this:
1. I love my room for many reasons. My room is pink and white. I choose pink because it is my favorite color. My bed is a queen and has off white sheets with pink flowers on it. My has two windows with matching curtains to my bed sheets. I have a green leaf color dress that has a mirror on it.
2. In ten years, I want to be a teacher. I want to teach kindergarten. I want to be working to LAUSD. I plan to be married and have at least one child. I want to be in the process of owning my own home.
3. I have had some interesting experiences at LA high. At LA high I met my current boyfriend wich I have been going out with for 2 and a half years. Ive met some of my best friends and some great teachers too. Ive enjoyed my four years, most of the time. Some days are pretty boring and long.
I start to wonder is Tania’s homework a reflection of a regular American’s aspiration and expectation of life? Where is her passion? She reminds me of my coworkers. They speak Tania’s dream. Simple and bland. One coworker says, “I just want to get married.” The other responds, “I want to marry rich and have a house in Brentwood.”
I can’t even imagine what Tania looks like from her homework and her description. Does she paint her nails? Is she chunky and wears black? Is her favorite shirt a pink Mickey Mouse T-shirt? What about her boyfriend and her friends? They are as blank as the page that preceded her homework entry. Will Tania’s life be this…predictable?
I think back to my journals and the poems I wrote when I was her age. I dreamt of being the first in my family to finish college, that one day I’d publish a book of poetry, join the Peace Corps, and travel across the U.S. with Henry K.–the long haired boy I met at journalism camp. I have diary entries about how I thought Pearl Jam were genius but not as good as Nirvana. How I hated the way my French teacher mocked the way I couldn’t roll my r when saying “monsieur” (I took her class every year just so that I could read Hiroshima, Mon Amour in its original form). My high school life consisted of me breaking my parent’s overprotective barriers. Instead of rebelling, I worked hard for my independence. I wanted their approval; but I also dreamt of living the hippie way and going to my senior prom with Henry.
The last year of high school, I interviewed for a college scholarship. More than 2,000 applicants applied and only five were selected. For the final round, 12 finalists sat in front of a panel of judges who threw out unplanned questions which we’d answer in a roundtable fashion. The answers would determine the five recipients.
The final question: “If you were told you had seven hours to live and were given a million dollars to spend it how would you use the money?”
Most of my competition rattled off how they’d give it to charity or someone in need, that they’d spend their last hours with their boyfriend and family. When it came time for my response, I told them about the independent coffee house/bookstore where I bought my first copy of Dharma Bums. I told them about my side of town where people didn’t read poetry and were lucky to even graduate, that my AP English teacher didn’t know what a beatnik was. So for my last seven hours of life, I told them how I imagined flying my friends, teachers, parents and my friend’s parents to this coffee house in Steamboat Springs. There it would be a big party, everyone wearing wool berets, sipping espresso, Dizzy Gillespie howling in the background, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey and Diane Di Prima reading from their books and sharing stories about the Beat Generation. And then I would die. The ones I cared about taking part in the world I had fallen in love with.
Maybe Tania is like those who I grew up with, those who never fell asleep to a Thelonius Monk record or imagined themselves running in a field of poppies barefoot, who didn’t care to change the world or their life for that matter. Instead, they hoped for a future like that of a freshly oiled train–running smooth, on schedule, following a paved, unbroken path.
I wonder if it’s too late for Tania.
This evening, management posted notices on every apartment door about a forum they had attended concerning general neighborhood issues. According to the notice, the Los Angeles Police Department had requested neighborhood help in ending car robberies and burglaries in our area. Additionally, the following requests were being made by the LAPD:
1. Notify the authorities when you witness suspicious activities such as a stranger running through private property, someone looking into the windows of homes and cars, screaming and shouting for help, or when witnessing a drug transaction.
2. Vending Trucks–these vendors are illegally set up for business. Much of their produce and dairy products are spoiled. These vendors are also known to be involved in criminal activity and are a front for bigger crimes.
The posting continued to read in bold letters–DO NOT SUPPORT THESE VENDORS. STOP BUYING ANY AND ALL PRODUCTS FROM VENDING TRUCKS.
Christina owns a vending truck several feet from the Wendover. Every day from 9am to 10pm, she sits in her truck surrounded by produce, bags of potato chips, candy, soda, water and laundry soap.
For almost a year, we have frequented her truck especially when there wasn’t enough tomatoes to finish the pasta sauce or when ripe avocados were needed to complete a meal. She greets us with sincerity though sometimes her cheerfulness reveals a darker mood–that business is slow or that she’d like to go home to her family. But she prevails, every day she is there, in that truck, waiting to make a dollar or two. After all, this is her livelihood, her bread and butter.
When the weather is nice, she teaches Jimmy a few Spanish words. She waves when I walk by. Every now and then she’ll throw in an extra orange and tomato for free.
Appalled by such a notice, I am reminded of the many times seeing Christina dig through her tomatoes for the freshest ones or when she refused to sell me an avocado because hers were not ripe. I see the neighborhood kids race to her truck to spend their quarter allowances on apple-flavored lollipops dipped in caramel. She’s a part of the Hobart Blvd. I admire most– her, the Filipino karaoke singers and the smoggy, fluorescent view of the city from the rooftop.
So is Christina really involved in a ring of criminal activity? This Hispanic woman with her tired eyes, her reddish-dyed hair and gray roots, her dry hands and chipped nail polish?
I highly doubt it.
Why didn’t the notice mention the 16 rounds of gunfire shot in front of our complex two weeks ago? Why didn’t they tell us what happened to the kid who was shot several weeks ago a block away? Why is it that all the more prevalent issues are kept disguised while people like Christina and other vendors must pay the price for such carpet sweeping?
I simply can’t believe it, that this notice was on my door, that Christina and car burglaries are considered a more serious threat than the weekly gunfire and the gang graffiti that decorates our street.
She is an oxymoron with her blue-black hair and stylish bob cut just below the chin. A mink stole wrapped around her shoulders as she sits among the other patrons who dig into their take out containers with plastic forks. She eats in a dignified manner, alone, in the dining area of the Whole Foods supermarket.
Her visage is unique–a prominent nose, painted red lips and a strong, masculine facial structure. She could be mistaken for a man in drag. But, she’s a woman past her prime–one who in her younger years shined as a glittering celebrity. After all, this is Hollywood, and it’s not unlikely that a movie star from the golden years is next in line at the checkout line in front of a budding television actor.
Someone once said you can always tell a woman’s age by her hands. In Los Angeles, I found the hands especially useful in distinguishing the real personae of the reconstructed, cat-like appearances of most Beverly Hill’s wives. The ability to point out who has been botoxed, stretched, lifted, implanted and rhino-corrected becomes easy. Most look the same–wearing an insecurity so obvious it’s frightening.
What is it about some women who feel the need to over compensate physically? Is it the competition of younger women? Is it the years of neglect by the men they love? Or, is it simply because they’ve stopped growing mentally, and physical beauty is the only compensation for their worth?
Then, there’s the older woman who has failed to see the physical changes. She looks into the mirror and refuses to notice how time has softened her facial features. Instead, she sees the reflection of herself at 22.
I walk by the woman in mink to see her, investigate her hands and how she has applied her rouge. I want to share a table with her, strike up a conversation about the weather and even say something witty, which will break her frown lines into a smile.
Insecurity, society’s boundaries, second guessing–they keep us from doing the things we should.
She eats carefully, slowly, breaking the meat away from the drumstick with knife and fork. I notice her shoes. She is wearing canary yellow Reebok high-tops like the ones coveted back in 1985. Hers are exhausted with wear, the ends of the laces are ratted and brown.
She reminds me of the ladies at Goodwill on Saturday mornings. There is the one who tried on the red jacket and stared longingly into the mirrored reflection a tad too long. Or the other lady, who I secretly admire. “If things don’t change soon, I’m going to turn out just like her.” She comes into the store with a black turban, a diamond broach at its center just above her forehead. She’s layered in black—long skirt, black tights and lace scarves wrapped around her neck and shoulders. She’s what I call the shabby chic of elegance. Looking divine even though the shades of black do not match and the shoes are painfully out of season.
The camaraderie of women. The physical and mental changes that occur. Some try to mask it—dunking their heads into a magical fountain of youth; while others entertain themselves and make do with what they have. The latter women I’m beginning to admire, no longer fighting with their big thighs, their gray hairs, their perfect makeup, the younger woman, the wandering eye of their significant other. There’s no one left to impress and are free to dress however they feel.
I wanted to ask the woman in mink if she’d like to meet up with me and my eccentric lady friends at Goodwill one Saturday morning.
After all, we’re the ones who can appreciate the pairing of yellow shoes with fur.
I have no idea what it looks, tastes or smells like. But, I imagine myself in long Willie Nelson braids and faux fur boots walking through snow and pitch blackness in the middle of the day. I hear it is lovely–a nature buff’s refuge and commune. There are towns untouched by greedy corporations, and a small population continues to live off the land–farmers, fishermen, herders. Once during a desert hike through the Superstition Mountains, a friend spoke of a time in the seascape city of Sitka, Alaska and a woman we’ll call her Mary.
The beautiful Mary had abandoned her cosmopolitan, bougie life in San Francisco and moved to Sitka where she married her husband and birthed a colony of sheep and geese. She and her husband were farmers and lived in a rat-tat house of wood and steel. For income, she set sail as the cook on a fisherman’s ship. There’s a picture of Mary and her pet pig–her long blonde/gray hair in pigtail braids, her pants rolled up and revealing bright green rubber boots. I asked if she was happy trading her old life for something more….rural. The response was yes.
But, that wasn’t the whole story according to the photograph and the look in her eyes. Was it regret that forced the contrived smile? No. She wore her green boots and hugged the pig proudly. The answer was in the background–in the small house with the firewood cut and waiting by the front door. Her eyes revealed a claustrophobic feeling, the cramped living conditions she shared with her husband in that little wooden shed. Mary didn’t enjoy the marriage part–being landlocked and responsible, silenced and cooperative. After all, she discovered her love was the sea. It was a betrayal sleeping next to her husband, but longing for that watery mass. She drifted away remembering how she had fallen asleep to the music of the ocean’s current; had mixed her tears and sickness with salt water; and threw away wishes into the celestial curtain of the Northern Lights. Mary, you conquered the fear of being swallowed by something larger, a Moby Dick, a black sea. Mary, you uncovered the secret that paradise exists in the whale’s dark belly.
I wonder about her today and the many bearded fisherman hanging around the Gulf of Alaska. What will happen to them now that the Senate voted to permit oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? Surely big business will move in, tourist attractions and strip malls will appear. Fast food everywhere! Satellite televisions to compensate for the 24 hour blackness!
Mary, Mary where will you run when all these streetlights and traffic replace the sun?
Why must “they” ruin everything? Jack Kerouac in Gap Commercials and on the movie screen. Republicans inciting George Orwell’s 1984 doctrine. Vintage Indian wrap skirts from the 1960s now in Vogue, as well as big sunglasses and turquoise. Hippy communes crumbling to dust.
Mr. Eisenhower, you set aside this plot of land for protection in 1960. You must have had something optimistic and tranquil in mind. Tell us around the campfire. Your secret wishes that you had planned. Your dreams, they have come to a close.
Mine have ended too.
“….The GOP argued that the refuge eventually would produce one million barrels a day and help ease America’s growing dependence on foreign oil. Democrats said that the measure would despoil one of the most pristine areas in the hemisphere and that conservation and use of alternative fuels would do a better job of easing the U.S. reliance on fossil fuels.”
She was crying as I waited for the light to change at the intersection of 8th and Hobart Blvd. Sensing the awkwardness of her wanting to lift her eyeglasses and wipe her face dry, I remained with my back to her, pretending not to notice. Pushing the walk sign button, hoping that the light would change quickly so that she could return to the thoughts of herself and an empty street, cars driving by with no faces or hands gripping the steering wheel.
It took awhile for the light to change. She remained seated on the doorstep of a Korean bookstore, underneath the green awning, several feet away from the glass entrance with its sun-faded posters of the alphabet and illustrations of monkeys and horses arranged in a numerical chart. She still hadn’t removed her glasses or wiped her tear-stricken face; instead, she clung to her knees as she did when I strolled past and noticed her tears. She was a sore thumb in this part of the neighborhood–an innocent Korean girl barely sixteen with her pink hoodie zipped to the base of her neck and her backpack still attached to her shoulders. Could this have been the source of her fear, her tears–this shadier part of town where the Hispanic men blow whistles and catcalls as you cross the street? Where the ice cream truck rings its bells at 8pm and the children remain awake, riding their scooters through the puddles of water? Even I was apprehensive when I first moved in.
Articles about a Koreatown rapist surfaced as I unpacked my record player and LPs. One Saturday night waiting for the elevator to do some laundry, a drunken tenant fanatically explained that the basement, which is now the laundry room, was haunted by a ghost/person who had been murdered down there. The other evening, a cop’s micro-phoned voice screamed “drop the weapon!” which echoed throughout the neighborhood All of this is part of the courtyard crescendo –the helicopter spotlight shining into the apartment, the domestic argument becoming heated and inflamed, the Pilipino karaoke singers crooning an out-of-tune song.
The longer you live here, the more numb to it you become. Poverty hangs like a loose tree limb down on Hobart Blvd. At Ralph’s supermarket, they fill their shopping carts with two 12-packs of Coca-Cola, frozen pizzas, Snickers bars, ice cream and Doritos. They walk through the halls with bags of McDonald’s and Chinese carry-out. Like little children playing grown up. Then there is a darker reality–the men who garbage dig, picking out the recyclable water bottles and soda cans. A pamphlet left on my apartment door reads, “ Fair Share for Koreatown….one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles…nearly 50 percent of families here are living under the federal poverty line.” It comes as no surprise then that a one-bedroom apartment would house an entire family of five or six. Across the hallway, a preteen boy named Jesus sits on the fire escape with a soccer ball, bored already with his spring break vacation. Voyeurism is depressing–not like spying into the 6th Street mansions where the lawns are manicured and the families dine at kitchen tables instead of huddled around a small eight-inch television.
Still, I love this neighborhood. I walk its broken sidewalks and its trash-ridden streets, even on nights when there’s only a half moon and a weak streetlamp to light the way. It’s authentic–more real than the shoddy facades I came across in Hollywood.
As I crossed the street, I watched from a distance as she inched back into reality. Approaching her was the playful gait of two young girls and their father leaving a restuarant. Would she regain her composure and walk away before the young girls could see her? I stood and waited for the interaction.
If she didn’t wipe her tears perhaps I would bring her a mandarin orange and sit with her.
I thought, “My eyes too have produced a lot of tears lately.”
But why was she crying? Did her father forget to pick her up from her Monday youth group meeting? Did she see her boy crush walk into the Rosen karaoke bar with some emaciated girl with big shoes and long hair?
I kept note as the two girls and their stoic-faced father reached the crosswalk. As she lifted her glasses and quickly dried her face with the sleeve of the pink hoodie, the father grabbed both of his daughter’s hands. The eldest one, already too curious, stood and watched as the girl wiped her nose and straightened her pink sweatshirt.
The moment was over, and I continued my walk to the Korean market with a list of tomatoes, pineapple, mint leaves, cashews racing through my head.
Yes, it was pointless to buy oranges.
She would be gone by the time I made it back to the intersection of 8th and Hobart Blvd.