At eight years old, in elementary school, I lived with my mother, father, and younger sister in a studio apartment in Pacific Beach, California. Despite the fact that we lived in a town with ‘beach’ in the name—just five miles from the unfurling face of ocean—our carved out corner of life held no traces of the natural world. This place was full of cars, bikes, concrete, tar, drunk and half-naked twenty somethings, tourists, buildings, stores, dirty roads, and alleyways with electric wires running overhead like black veins. There was only the faint tang of fish and salt in the air to remind me that somewhere—not too far away—an entire underwater world swayed.
Our apartment complex was run down but not desperate. I am from Jackson, Mississippi and our family lived there the year before moving back to California. In Jackson, I saw desperate buildings, buildings holding on for dear life with crumbling infrastructure and termite infested wooden beams, buildings making strange shapes—instead of a rectangle, a pentagon, instead of a straight and proud square, a trapezoid: a square, badly burnt in a fire. Backyards were full of large mud holes that us kids whooped over as we swung on thick, knotted ropes; porches falling to their knees as if in imitation of the drunken grandfathers who spent sweltering afternoons plucking the banjo and drinking cheap beer in the front yard.
In Pacific Beach, the buildings housing the studio apartments stood as they should, upright and structurally recognizable, functionally barren. We lived on a ground floor unit, alongside which an alleyway ran where many homeless men and women made their way with oversized bags and shopping carts with one wheel screeching stubbornly across the concrete. I was often woken by this singularly horrible noise in the morning, as if by an urban rooster. My sister and I were forbidden to enter the alley. Two years younger than me, my sister was impossibly innocent and sweet with no interest in exploring the alley, where we could get hit by a car or . . . ? We were not sure what the other concern was, but I knew it had something to do with the homeless people, who sometimes slept in trash bags in the alleyway overnight, covered in ragged-edged shields of cardboard.
All the other tenants were suspect as none were known to us. There were two men who lived together, one who often wore a pink button up shirt tucked into a silver belt buckle that read TEXAS and had shuffling, sideways crab walk; the other who had longish blonde hair and wore flip flops and jeans and aggressively avoided looking at me when our paths crossed. One night I heard shrieking, high pitched male laughter coming from their apartment, lit year round with Christmas lights, and then a deep male voice call out: “Pitch, Bitch! “ Years later I realized they were gay and living together during the time of the AIDS epidemic.
A licorice thin pre-teen with a model’s face and skittish eyes offered me a cigarette one evening. We were closer to the alley than we were allowed to be, just feet away from the mouth created by two apartments separated by the ledge we perched on, splattered in bird shit and what she called ‘ret butts.’ I told her no and watched with such sadness as she lit the cigarette that it felt as if I could reach out and enfold her in it. The orange Bic in her hand looked as foreign and unseemly as if it had been a penis. She laughed out loud, her skinny white arms like live wires, “I’m done with you!” and she left.
My mother was at home with myself and my little sister while my dad worked his Mystery Job. I never had any idea what my dad did for a living other than that it involved the following:
- Suits and ties, no matter the heat.
- One dark brown or black briefcase.
- Papers. Papers covering the small table in our studio, papers in his briefcase, papers on the floor and in the trunk of our Cadillac.
- Phone calls and phone conversations, Dad gesturing broadly with his giant hands, tucking his hand underneath a sweat soaked armpit as he leaned back in a reclining chair and listened; leaning forward, elbows on desk, as he made a particularly crucial distinction between what he could offer that the other guy could not.
- Stress in the form of anger, pounding on various objects with his fist (the car windshield, a stack of books, his own muscular thigh, the wall) shouting and slamming of doors.
This was the year that I turned to my Mom as we walked to the laundromat on the corner street nearby, and said “Mom, I don’t like Dad.” I remember her face as she looked down at me kindly, clearly at a loss for what to say. I don’t recall what she did end up saying, only that I already felt that something must be wrong with me, a little girl who didn’t like her own dad. By the time we reached the laundromat I was happily observing the teenagers making out on the dryer and thinking for the hundredth time how beautiful my mother was, her aquiline nose, skin the color of a cream flower dusted with freckles, thick, glossy red hair. Dad played guitar for us with his beautiful, Southern burnt voice, he read poetry and stocked our bookshelves with classic and modern literature, he helped Mom with the chores and threw the wire hanging fruit bowl in anger, so that the white, undecorated wall was splattered with bright orange and yellow clots of fruit, an expressionist piece.
The studio apartment we lived in was one perfect square. In that square was a smaller square, cornered on the upper left, which was the kitchen: a refrigerator, a tiny oven, sink and shelves. In the upper right, the bathroom: linoleum, shower, and white sink. In the lower left, my parents bed, then a Japanese divider, and then my sister and I on the foldout couch shaped like a lozenge, in front of the door. David Sedaris says a studio is “a room with a kitchen in it,” and including the bathroom, this is how it was. Outside our door was a small, fenced in patio that gave us some extra breathing room, although I didn’t care about the lack of space; I cared only that my mother was happy, that I had friends in school.
We had a great lion of a cat named Hannibal. One morning I woke to my mother weeping, and I crept over to her. She was moving back and forth from the kitchen to the closet. “What’s wrong, Mommy?” She bent over and made gentle motions to show me. Hannibal sat, powerful and benevolent, one eyeball hanging out by the oiled mess of its socket spring. Someone had shot his eye out with a BB gun. The cat held one masculine paw to his good eye, as if to protect it from the same fate.
My parents took Hannibal to the vet—I don’t know how they afforded it—and he wore an eye patch like the fearsome pirate he was. I understood afterward that this was the kind of action those crazy people might take, the people I was not allowed to encounter in the alleyway, the neighbors we didn’t know, the teenagers who kept us awake at night riding their dirt bikes through the alleyway. Mom and Dad gave a serious and brief talk to my sister and I about why we must stay close to home— would we like a pirate eye, or . . . ?
My dad came home at twilight and I began to associate the sinking of the sun with an overwhelming feeling of dread. Would he enter with quick footsteps and a smile? Would he enter with forbidden Carl’s Jr. hamburger sauce staining his shirt, face tuned to some far off time, like Shel Silverstein’s poem about the TV set? I pictured my dad’s head as a television, attached to some channel from across the Pacific Ocean, while his body, angry and confused, remained here, in San Diego, in this tiny studio apartment where he couldn’t figure out how to make friends and influence people, couldn’t stop sneaking cigars and exploding into roars and violent outbursts like a lion with a thorn in his paw.
One night he berated me for lying about brushing my teeth. Sobbing, I insisted— truthfully—that I had brushed them, only enraging him further, until his roars were so fearsome I bent, hands over knees, shaking. He leaned over me; I could feel small, hot ejections of air from his words in the part of my hair. I could feel his desire to hit me as strongly as if he had announced it. He yanked me up at the armpit and shoved me in the bathroom: “Brush. Your. Teeth,” the lion roared. I brushed. He stood in the doorway, arms folded, face contorted with a fury that over the next few years convinced me that I was the most stupid, annoying, unattractive and displeasurable child anyone had ever birthed. It also convinced me that my father was a gifted child dressed in a muscle suit. I was a tiny blonde snotty dreamer; he was unable to control me or himself.
That summer the alley began to beckon me like the wardrobe from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Both of my knees were continuously scabbed, and I prided myself in my own magic, my ability to disconnect myself from the pain. I stepped on a glowing green piece of glass, sharp end pointed upward like a ship’s sail, and immediately sat to look at the bottom of my blackened foot. Perpetually barefoot, my feet were constantly in a state of first aid: salve, bandaid, spit. This was a bad cut. It gaped open like a fish mouth, and blood gushed across the splayed toes and onto the concrete. I felt the pain bloom and begin to burn, hot and frantic, across the top bones and nerves and upward to spike through the tops of my toes and pierce the hard nail, bounced back into the deepest tissues of my foot.
I sat, fat faced and freckled, foot in hand, and watched carefully the chaos of this pained place. I noted the rich color of blood, the satisfying cold touch as it ran over my toes, like a cat nose, and the tightness that began swelling the injured thing. I felt sad for this poor, broken foot. My sister came along, her long beautiful blonde hair in a ballerina bun, her tiny mouth open in surprise. “What!?” I smiled at her. “I am fine,” I told her. I willed the me that inhabited this body to move away from my foot, disassociate from the pain. I climbed upward from the ankle, through the calf, and stayed hovering around the knee, a safe distance.
Mom was upset with me when she saw the wound. “I told you to wear your shoes!” she cried, rightfully. She had told me. I didn’t mind the injury, the soreness, the pain, and so I did not understand why she did. Adults, in my opinion, worried about all the wrong things.
Injury was a wholly acceptable trade-off for adventure. I swung from the tops of second floor railings, I leapt from the concrete wall to the trampled, thin grass below that ran like a balding man’s last stake in the ground, I did somersaults down bramble-covered hills, I spied on neighbors, I coveted the alley.
The alley was a face I was forbidden to unveil, so of course I must look into the eyes; I must see the dark, glowing jewels for myself. I wanted to hang on the edges of despair and take notes.
To press against the dirty, graffitied walls as cars dug tires into rain-filled ditches in the tar, to see what bugs crawled in and out of the tufts of grass that grew where the wall met the ground, to watch the birds land and look for scraps of food. I wanted to be brave as strange men approached and unconcerned as teenagers cursed and roughhoused. I wanted to press my face against the wall and know that my family was there, on the other side, not knowing this crucial thing: where was Maggie?
Dad came out where I played on the porch one evening. I was waiting for dinner— lentil soup—to be ready, jumping rope. Dad sat me down on a chair and knelt in front of me. There we were, face to face.
I smelled his aftershave and deodorant. His hair, thick and brown, combed back to curl brightly upward at the collar of his shirt. He was, to me and I believe to everyone who met him, incredibly handsome. His almond eyes, framed underneath dense and sweeping eyebrows, were ablaze with intelligence, a library of books lining his mind. Once he told me that he had tested right out of the army’s IQ test. They couldn’t measure that high, he said. I nodded dubiously—by then, I knew better than to believe him. I believed it could be true—he remains the smartest man I’ve ever known—but I couldn’t believe him.
Dad shifted his legs, sighed. He was over six foot, a practitioner of Judo, muscular and long-legged. His voice was resounding, deep and lovely—he had been a singer in a band for years, playing guitar and harmonica. When he spoke, I thought of Southern priests, salesmen, and God. I thought he was a great man. I thought he was a beautiful man. I thought he was the scariest man I’d ever seen.
Dad had come home the night before after dark and threw his briefcase and jacket on the floor. I could smell the cigar on him. I knew that he was angry and that Mom would be angry because he had smoked cigars. I herded my sister to our corner and sat on the mattress lozenge with my homework spread out in front of me, sister playing with stuffed animals. My parents fought. They argued behind us, in the three by three foot square of linoleum that spread out from underneath the sink, refrigerator, and shelves.
Mom walked away from Dad, talking, and he leaned over the glass of water he was filling from the tap. I looked at his nice shoes, how the hem of his work pants was a little too high. In the corner of my eye I saw a motion, like a bird darting, and I looked up. The clear arc of water seemed to take its time in the air, moving in a beautiful long waterfall until it hit mom’s chest, soaking her buttoned-up cotton shirt.
Dad put a hand on my head, removed it. He spoke to me in a low, friendly tone, with open hands as if receiving my confession: Admit, daughter, that you carry the sin of hating your father while worshipping at the false idol of his intelligence, charm, good looks, and subversive power to enrapture men and women alike. But no—I loved my father also for what was real yet as fleeting as his head bent over my mother’s, his hand on the back of her neck as they read the paper together; because he was my father, because he loved my mother, because in the way he could—from an oceanic distance, from within a deep vortex—he loved my sister and I.
My childhood battle was already set in motion: to resist the vortex. To not go where he was trapped. To not trade his love for my life. He was engaging, asking me why we couldn’t be closer, telling me he loved me, he cherished me, his first-born daughter. I felt that I loved him and hated him. I knew even then in some animal way that these parallels, these Siamese twins joined at the seven chakras, would never part each other, and never leave me alone for the rest of my life.
One blistering day, I went out to play in my unicorn tee shirt and shorts, immediately tugging off the shoes that Mom made me wear. I squinted into the sun as I climbed the walkway that led to the alley, five feet above the ground. I was determined to find out what lay in that mysterious stretch of tar, trash, oil, and rainwater. I walked slowly and pleasurably, pressing my soles into the hot, bumpy concrete until each bump seared its impression. I listened to the honking of traffic, heard a baby crying sharp and high above the thick heat, saw roly-poly bugs and one sour-smelling dead pigeon. At the alleyway, I dipped down and leapt off the wall.
There I was. The alley stretched only twenty feet until it hit the mess of cars on Juniper Street, but inside the alley, there was quiet. Trash blew across the asphalt. Like a mime in a box, I pressed my hands to the brick wall behind me.
Across the way, an old man with a long, grey beard squatted with a cart pulled close up to him. He rubbed his hands repeatedly over his knees and talked to himself in a disjointed way, like sentences diagrammed incorrectly. He looked to the side and saw me.
In Mississippi I had many times watched my Grandma and Grandpa’s cats hunting rabbits in the bushes and rim of forest that pressed against the horizon of their backyard grass, how the rabbits held their necks aloft and the little velvet pads of their forefeet out, standing on hind legs, and sniffed.
I stood perfectly still as he rose, perfectly still as he grabbed his shopping cart, perfectly still as he began pushing that shopping cart with one sideways, shrieking wheel. His face was mottled with dark lakes of blood and burst veins, his hands stuck out from a men’s overcoat two sizes to big, and as he closed in on me, I saw that his features had the quality of a shrinky dink, being wizened and redacted of humanity. He waved at me. I felt my fingers uncurl, then make a fist. The cart, and the wheel, stopped in front of me. I was a trapped by a rectangle inside a rectangle against a flat line. He spoke to me from his end of the cart, one fist gripping the metal, the other gesturing in spirals outward to the clouds, “I saw her! I saw her!”
I recalled the rabbit eyes, round and shining like a quarter underwater, swimming with fear. Looking right, looking left, no safety. No defense. I am small; he is big. I am stupid; he is crazy. I am just born; he is old as time.
“My wife—but it couldn’t have been her, no! She was a bitch. She was a big, fat bitch and I took her and stuffed her in the oven and cooked her guts and ate her for Thanksgiving!”
As he spoke, his voice rose in a fever pitch. My body trembled from hair to toe in a tsunami of cortisol and adrenaline that electrified my senses and sent fissures through the delicate connective tissues of hormone balance. And then I left. I moved from the center place, the heart and gut place where I was afraid, where I was trapped in this alley in this box in this body with this man, and I moved upward and out the top of my head and gently encouraged my body to move. I convulsed from behind the cart where he had me pressed against sex graffiti, leapt onto the wall as fast as a jackrabbit, and ran in enormous leaps thereafter, all the way home. At home, I stopped shy of the door, panting. Standing in the protection of our patio, I felt nauseous with re-entry.
What am I waiting for, I asked myself, hands clasped together. The square of our patio shifted, I had put the chairs in the open space where people were to walk in; constructing safety the way I could. I looked at my hands, the chewed and disabled nails. At eight, I understood the predicament of my childhood. I did not know why I stood outside, but I also did not move. Inside the apartment, I heard my mom’s laughter, my sister’s voice. They were happy. It was four in the afternoon. My dad was not home yet.