Portland's soccer scene was all white boys with blonde or brown hair cropped short, or cut in slightly shaggy Abercrombie cuts. The white girls all had long straight ponytails and strong, lean legs. There was usually a smattering of Asians from Aloha, a few Indian kids from Bethany, some Latinos from Beaverton, and a handful of mixed kids like me, but in this parking lot the ratios were flipped.
Most of the kids here were Latino. There were some Asian kids, a few Black and mixed-race kids like me and C.J., and a few white kids too, but even they looked a lot harder than the kids in Oregon. What I noticed next was that it was almost all boys. Only a handful of girls stood in clusters around bags and I thought about Nat and wished she were here. Normally, I would have ditched Mom and started walking around, talking to friends I hadn't seen since school got out, or teammates I hadn't played with since basketball or spring soccer. Now I just watched, trying to figure out who went with who and waiting on C.J. to show me the ropes.
"Come on, E," Curtis said, already providing me with a nickname. "I'll introduce you to the guys."
"So, have a good day, Erika," Auntie Laine said before I got to far away, "and I'll see you around five tonight."
"Okay," I said, pulling on the shoulder strap on my bag and ignoring how tight my chest suddenly felt. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. I followed C.J. as he walked toward three boys juggling a soccer ball.
"What up, kid?" a boy with black spiky hair asked as he gave C.J. a high five.
"Not much, not much. Hey fools, this is Erika she just moved here from Portland."
Before he even finished this introduction the ball came sailing toward me. I dropped my bag instantly and let my body respond. Right knee, left knee, right knee, head, left knee and then down to my right foot where I passed the ball to C.J. who caught it in his hands.
"Whoa, she gots better handles than you, Jose," said the taller of the boys with longish brown hair and a hint of Asian in his eyes.
"Better than your punk ass too," Jose responded as he leaned down to lace up his cleats.
The short kid with a short-cropped afro held out his hand. "I'm Manny, and that fool over there is Alan. Looks like you might have better handles than all of us."
A whistle blew and kids streamed to the shade of a tree on the edge of the field.
Throughout the morning I lost myself in the familiarity of soccer drills: dribble through cones, pass, trap, pass, trap, wall pass, throw-in, penalty kick and for that first hour I forgot everything but the ball, and the grass and the summer sun shining down. I didn't even pay attention to my competition the way Nat would have wanted.
Instead I pretended that the coaches were the ones I'd played for back home; that the boys I paired up with were Nat or Paris or Andie, girls that I'd known my whole soccer life. I let myself get lost in the only truth that felt right, the stiff leather of a soccer ball, the green grass of the field and my body's automatic responses in that world.
On the soccer field I didn't have to think about Jem, still up in Portland playing with our cousins at Uncle Kev's house, or Mom and Dad's bodies buried six feet underground. I didn't have to think about Nat meeting up with Paris because she was her new best friend and the two of them would call Jason and Derrick, the guys we'd been crushing on before I left, to see if they wanted to meet at the movies.
I played as hard as I had to in order to forget.
I'd never heard anyone call Auntie Laine Lainey before and then a little girl cracked the door open. She was tiny, about seven or eight years old and super cute with her hair in braids with little pink plastic clips on the ends. She looked like she might be shy but when she saw Auntie Laine she flung the door, "Hi Lainey!" she screamed and I couldn't believe that loud of a sound could come out of something that small. She jumped into Auntie Laine's arms and Auntie Laine carried her inside saying, "Hey, there my little butterfly. I haven't seen you in like, I don't know, three days or something. I have someone here for you to meet."
Angela looked up at me with big brown eyes and held out her little hand. "Hi, Someone."
I smiled a little and held out my hand.
"Hi," she said with an adorable grin. "I think Curtis is going to like you," and then she ran away down the hallway.
Before I could hope that Curtis would like me a woman wearing jeans and a bright orange polo shirt walked in from the kitchen. "Hey, girl," she said, reaching out to hug Auntie Laine. "And this beautiful thing must be Erika."
Mrs. Taylor looked like she was either Filipino or mixed with Asian and Mexican or something and even though Mrs. Taylor looked really friendly with her long straight, thick hair and big smile, I hated it when adults said stuff like "Oh, so beautiful," or "Isn't she adorable," because it never seemed honest. I had on soccer shorts, a baggy sweatshirt, and my curly hair (my best feature) was pulled back into a loose ponytail. I wasn't wearing a lick of make-up and my eyes had looked dull and tired ever since Mom and Dad died. If that was beautiful, then they sure didn't know pretty on tv or in the movies. I guessed that little Angela and her brother Curtis were multi-racial, like me, half-Black, half-Hapa (half-Asian). In Portland I could have counted the number of Blasians (that's what Auntie Laine said Jem and I are) on one hand, but here in LA, apparently things were different.
"Lainey has told us all about you," she said, giving me, a complete stranger, a squeeze around my shoulders. "I know you've had a rough go this summer, but we sure are glad you're down here."
I imagined what Auntie Laine might have told Mrs. Taylor. "You'll never be able replace her mother, but you'll have to learn to be a parent, Lainey; the parent of a teenager." The idea of having a new Mom sent me thinking about all that bad stuff that was still locked up in a box on a shelf in a closet somewhere and I needed to stop thinking about it because just the thought of that box made me really sad and depressed. I glanced around the house for a distraction and checked out the photos on the walls. Most were of two kids, the little girl about the same age but smaller than Jem, and a boy my age. And a mom and a dad. I had to look away from the photos just thinking about what was now missing from our family portrait.
"Curtis," Mrs. Taylor yelled, and that's when I first met Curtis or C.J. He walked out from the dark of the hallway wearing only a pair of shorts and wiping his eyes like he'd just woken up. He was tall and lean and looked strong, built like a striker. Even though he was Blasian, like me, he was much darker and his hair was dark and cut short so I couldn't tell how curly it was.
"Yes, Mother," he said and I could tell his voice had already changed but then he saw me, turned and disappeared back into the dark of the hall.
Mrs. Taylor chuckled. "I think he was wants to make himself a little more presentable."
It was pretty hilarious, when you think about it, and later C.J. and I would laugh about it but that day I thought, great, what a terrible way to start things off.
When C.J. came out a few minutes later he shook my hand. He was tall and cute and his palm was warm and dry. Something about his touch made me even more nervous. We just stood there for a few seconds while Auntie Laine and Mrs. Taylor talked about soccer camp registration and paperwork she needed to fill out if I wanted to go to school with Curtis in the fall. It was adult stuff and even though it related to me I wasn't really listening because I was avoiding looking at C.J., who had the same great grin his little sister. He nudged my shoulder though and asked if I played video games.
I shrugged, "Sure," even though I wasn't all that into them and he led me through the kitchen and into the Taylor game room.
It was a sports fan's dream room and I was pretty sure Auntie Laine hated it because it didn't go with her design aesthetic. USC, Laker and Dodger memorabilia covered the walls and Fatheads of Reggie Bush, Derrick Fischer and James Loney (I always wondered who actually bought those) flanked the big screen tv. I wasn't in Oregon, Trailblazer or Mariner country anymore. A wide, lived-in couch cluttered with Rock Band instruments and various remotes and game controls sat in the middle of the room. But it was the foosball table in the corner that made my heart hurt. Dad and I used to play at the table in the church youth center on Sundays and I could feel the tears welling up.
"Wanna play?" Curtis asked probably because he noticed I was staring at the table.
"Um," I tried to stop myself from crying in front of this cute guy I'd just met but I couldn't say anything.
"It's okay if you don't want to." He walked over to the couch and landed with a thud.
I didn't want to be a downer and tried to think of something to say. "You a big Laker fan?"
"Yeah, well, my dad is. You can't even talk to the guy when they're in the playoffs. I hope they win this year because he's still depressed about last season."
I sat on the stool in front of the Rock Band drums and tapped a little rhythm. When I looked up Curtis was looking at me. "What?"
"Well, I know you just moved in up the street and, well, your aunt told us about," he stopped then and I waited wondering how much he knew. "Well, you don't have to talk about it or anything, but I just wanted you to know that I already know, so, you know, I'll understand if you don't feel so great all the time."
I looked into Curtis' eyes because he was still looking right at me. He was sitting
here on the couch with his weight leaning forward on his elbows and suddenly I didn't feel like crying anymore. "My dad used to love foosball," I said and I held C.J.'s gaze.
"Do you think he'd want you to play?"
I smiled. "Yeah, probably."
For some reason, I didn't feel scared, though. After the last night at our old house everyone kept expecting Jem and I to freak out, be nervous or jumpy, but I never was especially once I arrived in LA far away from anyone who knew Dad or his mistress. In Portland we always had to worry about running into someone Dad had prosecuted as a DA, but in LA no one knew my family, our history, or me.
I dried off with a thick white bath towel and wrapped it around me. When I opened the door to walk across the hall to my bedroom Auntie Lane was there.
"Morning, Honey. Find everything okay?"
"Um, yeah," I responded, my wet hair dripping down my back.
"Well, we're heading over to the Taylor's place in about half an hour. You should probably pack your soccer stuff too. Do you eat breakfast?"
"Um, sometimes," I lied again. I somehow couldn't stop myself. Mom always made us eat breakfast even if it was just a yogurt and a sports bar.
"Okay, well, there's some cereal on the counter and milk and juice in the fridge."
I closed the door behind me and shook my head. It wasn't a trick question or anything.
She just wanted to know about breakfast. What was my problem?
I skipped breakfast because all of the cereal was the super healthy kind and looked gross. Auntie Laine did have a stash of sports bars though so I grabbed a couple of those and threw them in my soccer bag which was packed with everything I needed to survive this first day: long soccer socks, cleats, shinguards, two bottles of Gatorade, headphones and my iPod loaded with my thinking mix (The Shins, Seawolf, Helio Sequence) and my hyper mix (Black Eyed Peas, Missy Elliot, Beyonce). I was wearing my short soccer shorts instead of the baggy ones, and an extra t-shirt in case I wanted to change. I had a sweatshirt on over my tank top and Auntie Laine told me I probably wouldn't need it but I decided to wear it anyway.
"Okay, so the Taylor's live just a couple of blocks," Auntie Lane said as she backed out of the driveway. "Audrey, or Mrs. Taylor, hired me last year to convert their garage into an office and she has a son about your age."
We passed by houses heading south on Harvard and then turned left on Redondo. The cul-de-sac we pulled into had five houses and the Taylor's house was one of them. It was painted a bright yellow except for the garage that Auntie Laine had helped them remodel. It was painted olive green and blended in with the trees and grass so that it almost disappeared. There was a black SUV parked in the driveway and I was suddenly nervous and hoped, maybe even prayed even that I'd get along will this Taylor kid. Maybe he'd even but hot.
She held out the bowl of popcorn and motioned for me to sit on the couch. The room was still spotless and there were a bunch of pillows on the couch. I sunk into the leather and I had a sweatshirt on even though it was still hot outside because Auntie Laine liked to keep the air conditioner cranking all night. I pulled my legs up beneath me and soon Auntie Laine was pointing the remote at the tv, "Did your parents let you watch this crazy reality stuff?"
I recognized The Amazing Race and nodded. It was the first time Auntie Laine had really mentioned Mom and Dad. "Yeah, they let us watch this, but not The Bachelor or the reality shows on BET or MTV."
"Oh, yeah, huh. Well, I guess we'll keep that same policy going here." She grabbed a handful of popcorn. "Are there any other little rules your mom and dad had that I should know about?"
I thought about Mom and Dad's no computers in our bedrooms rule even though I'd already broken that one and checked my email on my laptop earlier. But what Auntie Laine didn't know about that one it wouldn't kill her. Mom and Dad had tons of rules, about meeting friends' parent before we could hang out with them and no tv during the week but I didn't want to tell Auntie Laine about any of those rules. Mom and Dad were way too strict anyway.
And there was no way I would be able to tell Auntie Laine how Mom and I had stopped getting along after sixth grade, how we hardly talked anymore, how the house had been dominated by silence, how I'd cried at the funeral but no one knew the real reason because I felt too awful about it. What kind of daughter feels relief when her mom is gone?
But that night I had to think of at least a few things I could tell Auntie Laine so I thought about my phone. "Well, I can't go over my minute limit and I only have 500 texts a month. I'm not allowed to download ring tones or movies or anything like that." I stopped. I didn't think she needed to know that they checked my phone every week to see who I had in my contacts or who I was calling the most. Besides, I was pretty much a good kid so she didn't need to be all up in my business like Mom had been. Besides, living in LA now, I didn't know anyone to call.
"Okay, phone rules. And what about boys? Any rules about dating or makeup?"
I hadn't really gotten into make-up but yes, there were rules Mom and Dad had about boys. I could go out with groups of people but never anywhere with just one boy. And again, they had to meet his parents. I definitely didn't want Auntie Laine to know any of that so I just shook my head and pretended to watch the people on tv getting ready to climb part of the Great Wall of China. "I guess I'm not all that into that stuff yet," I lied even though I sometimes messed around with make-up at Sephora with Nat and I had my first real kiss this past year.
As I sat there pretending to watch tv, words from my mom echoed through my mind. "Erika, there's nothing I hate more than a liar." Maybe that's why I'd felt relief when Mom was gone. I knew I'd let Mom down, that she hated the girl was becoming. But how was I supposed to know how things would end?
"I'm heading to bed," I told Auntie Laine before the end of the show and in my room I buried my head in the foreign smelling sheets of my new bed. Tonight I was a liar and as I lay there, face down on the bed I hated myself. I used to lash out at Mom, had told her more than once that I hated her but now she was gone and there was no one to hate but myself.
"Well, there's a surf camp or junior lifeguard classes at the beach. There is a beach volleyball camp or an all-day sports camp where I guess you can play a bunch of different sports."
I picked at the chips served with my burrito at The Burnt Tortilla.
"Then there is this arts and crafts center where you could hang out,"
I shook my head at the sound of that.
"And then there's a soccer camp."
I looked up. "Yeah, soccer camp." I'd just finished up camp in Portland and loved the idea of another couple weeks of soccer.
"Okay, so I'm going to take tomorrow morning off so I can introduce you to the family where you'll hang out while I'm at work. Then we'll get you signed up for soccer and I'll head off to work."
"Okay," I said and thought about how different this soccer camp would be. Every summer since second grade I'd gone to camp and known every girl and every boy, knew who the best strikers and defenders were, knew which club teams everyone played for and where they went to school. My best friend, Natalie (Nat for short) and I had played together since first grade. Her dad was a coach at University of Portland and we used to go to games together and dream of playing in the soccer final four, winning an NCAA championship together. We both still had that dream even though I now lived a thousand miles away and when I got home from dinner I called her to tell her about camp.
"That's awesome," Nat said.
"I wish you could come with me. I'm not going to know anyone. Who knows who my partner will be or if any of them will be any good." Nat and I had a high standard for soccer and I wondered if the girls here in LA would be as good as we were.
"Well, you'll get the chance to scout out the competition that will end probably end up at UCLA."
"True that, " I said and then it was quite for a second.
"So, how are things with your aunt? Is she cool?"
"Yeah, I mean it's all right. She's okay. She wants me to talk all the time and hang out and she seems a little like she isn't sure what she's doing. She's never had kids or anything so, whatever. I have to wait and see how things go. Have you seen Derrick or Jason?"
"Uh, no. Paris and I went to the mall and the movies yesterday but we didn't see anyone."
I imagined Nat and Paris going on with their lives without me and suddenly felt every single mile that separated us. "Oh well. Maybe you should call him and then they could meet you guys instead of trying to guess where they'll be."
"Oh, yeah, I guess I could do that."
I shook my head at my best friend because I knew she just liked the drama of possibility, possibly seeing her crush or possibly bumping into her enemies.
"Okay, well, I better go," I said, thinking I should see what Auntie Laine was up to before I went to bed and as I hung up the phone I knew more that just soccer camp was going to be completely different. I was leaving Portland, Oregon, the only world I'd known before far, far behind and entering something completely unknown.
I nodded even though she wasn't looking at me and I wasn't looking at her. I peered out the window and try to guess which street we would to take, which turn off of Redondo Beach Boulevard would take me to this new place called home. I tried to let the mellow grove play like a soundtrack for a my life, of a happy moment, to forget what had brought me here.
A sign welcomed us to Gardena but I didn't see any gardens. All I saw was concrete, asphalt, anemic palm trees rising up from sidewalks and a few trees planted in mini-mall parking lots.
We passed by a Starbucks and an In 'N Out burger and my stomach rumbled again but rather than stopping for lunch we turned right on Harvard Avenue and pulled into the driveway of the house that would be my new home.
The house looked different than the others on the block and I figured it was because she was an interior designer. Most of the homes were older, one story ranch homes, or two story duplexes and they all looked like it they were built in the late seventies. The paint on these homes had faded from day after day of sunshine and the trim was peeling around the edges. Most of the lawns were cut and maintained and had these plants called Birds of Paradise with red flowers pointed like a beak planted around the edges. Auntie Laine's house was once one of those one story ranches, but in a recent remodel the pitched roof became straight and the windows wide with neat white trim. The rest of the house was painted a dark gray and her lawn was perfectly maintained and trimmed with succulents and pointy desert plants. I figured she must hire a gardener because I couldn't imagine her actually mowing this lawn or pulling weeds around the desert plants.
She pulled into the garage and pulled up the parking brake. "Welcome home, Kiddo," and I remembered how Grandpa used to always call me kiddo and both Mom and Auntie Laine must have gotten that from him.
We grabbed my bags and the room grew dark as the garage door slid down behind us. Auntie Laine opened a side door that opened to the kitchen and the first thing I noticed was how clean the house was. I wondered if Auntie Laine had cleaned up for me or if she always kept it so neat. I learned later that the house was always clean on the weekends and during the week dishes might pile up in the sink and mail would fill the woven basket on the kitchen counter but that was as messy as her house got until Friday night when out of habit or some sort of ritual Auntie Laine would clean like crazy until order was restored, the floors shone, dishwasher was loaded and everything placed back where it ought to be.
She glided down the hardwood floors, past the living room where there was a huge tv flanked by two paintings with browns and greens bubbles of color. A mini-grand piano in a deep chocolate color sat in the corner of the room and an acoustic guitar gleamed from a stand next to that. Across from the TV there was a big leather couch a couple of chairs that matched but didn't match perfectly. I followed her down the hall lined with black and white family photographs and recognized one from Mom and Dad's wedding with Auntie Laine as the maid of honor.
"This will be Jem's room when he gets here," Auntie Laine said pointing to a room off to the right, "And this is you," she said as she plopped my bag onto a bed with an icy blue comforter and pillows with big white flowers on them. I hate flowers, but how could she have known that.
"Thanks," I said and my voice sounded quiet even in the completely silent house. I walked around the room and noticed that it was bigger than my room back home. Everything in the room looked new and I hoped Auntie Laine hadn't bought all of this just for me. The walls looked like they'd just been painted a light brown and the trim a clean white. There was a little desk in the corner that had that perfectly distressed look and there was a pile of books on each bedside table. A wide window was covered by a white sheer curtain and there was a full length mirror with a fancy scalloped trim. I was way too tomboy for that room. I was about to sit down on the bed when Auntie Lane asked, "You hungry?"
"Okay, well, take a minute to get settled and then we'll go grab a burger or something."
I thought she was going to leave then but she stopped at the door. All I wanted was to be alone for a minute but she turned and looked back at me. "You're so quiet, Erika, and I understand. This is all so completely crazy, but you can talk to me. Really, you can."
I could tell she wanted me to say something. "Sorry, Auntie Laine. I'm just..." and that was when my voice faded away again and I didn't know what I could say to her. Not yet. I knew I wanted to talk to her but I didn't know what to say. Not yet; not then.
Auntie Laine parked the car and plugged the meter with a few quarters. Then she took me by the hand and said, "Come on, my favorite niece," (I'm her only niece) and I walked with her down the sidewalk toward the beach. All I really wanted to do was see where I was going to be living for, for, who knows how long, but instead I followed her down a steep sidewalk toward the beach.
Auntie Laine was wearing flip flops, a tank top, and a little skirt that flounced with every step. She belonged here in this world. It had been cloudy and rainy when I'd left Portland so I was wearing jeans, a t-shirt from my soccer league and grey Converse low tops. The sun shining off the ocean looked like glitter scattered across a crinkled of piece of blue construction paper and I couldn't look at it without squinting. I was getting sweaty and wished I had sunglasses.
We reached the sand and Auntie Laine waited for me as I slid off my shoes and socks. Beads of sweat started to drip one by one down my back and the sand was hot on the soles of my feet but Auntie Laine seemed determined to get to a shoreline crowded with sunbathers and kids splashing in the break. The temperature dropped as we got to the water. I stopped and sat on the sand to roll up my jeans so I could dip my toes in the water.
Auntie Laine neared the water. She hadn't noticed I'd stopped following and walked straight into the surf. She must have felt my eyes on her though because she turned and waved for me to join her, ankle deep in the water. I stood up and walked toward her, a feeling rising up as I neared her silhouette against the shimmering wall of water. Maybe it was because she reminded me of mom, standing there in the water, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, reaching back for me.
For a second I wanted to cry but then a breeze blew past and I took a deep breathe of salty, ocean air. I closed my eyes and walked toward my auntie, my mom's sister who was so much like Mom and still completely different. For a minute I stopped worrying about being dressed all wrong for the beach, or that I was thirsty and really wanted a pop with lots of ice or that my stomach was growling. I forgot that I was stuck living here for good, that this wasn't just a summer vacation.
For a second I felt happy and I let the happiness wash over me like the waves rushing across my feet. I let the water pull at some of the heavy weight that I had carried down with me and let it wash out to sea.
Here is an excerpt for my new NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) work in progress. It's a YA book but it doesn't have anything on the novels my students are writing. If you don't know anything about NaNoWriMo... here's a link. http://www.nanowrimo.org/
LA is nothing like they show in the movies but I didn't know that as I was flying into LAX last summer. Now I know, reality isn't something you watch on tv and celebrities never make their way to Gardena, the suburb I moved to a year ago.
Sure, there are palm trees, sunshine all year round, and the beach is just a few miles away, but Hollywood (even though it's just a few freeway miles to the north) is a completely different LA than the one I moved to.
My Auntie Laine picked me up from the airport that afternoon and for once she wasn't late. Well, she wasn't early either, but she pulled up there at the curb in her little white Audi just as I walked out of the terminal.
She looked nervous. She glanced around the airport like a little squirrel, gave me a quick, rough hug and then grabbed one of my two bags. Her keys jangled as she popped open the truck and as I watched her fumble with my luggage it occurred to me that even though I'd spent every Christmas with my mom's sister, even though she'd come to visit us every summer, I'd never seen her look uncomfortable or uneasy.
Usually, she flew into Portland all tan and golden. She wore jeans and traveled light and always seemed so much younger and hipper than Mom ever did. It was hard to believe Auntie Laine was two years older than Mom, but they were two extremely different people.
First off, Mom had me and my brother Jem. She married Dad right out of college and stayed home to take care of us. Auntie Laine is single. She works out every morning, drinks wine with dinner and watches more tv in one night than we watched in a whole week at our house.
But when Auntie Laine picked me up, and I buckled my seat belt in the passenger seat, I wasn't all that worried about her. I was worried about me. Even though it had been almost a month, I couldn't talk about it, couldn't make the words come out my mouth about what happened to Mom and Dad. I could talk about them no problem, but I still can't talk about that night, what I saw or what I heard once I closed my eyes.
Grandma, she's a psychotherapist, and she says that's okay. When something terrible happens you can put it in a box and lock it up, shove it on a shelf in a closet far away from everyday life. It's called coping and I don't know how I'm coping and when people ask I don't think they really want to know about it so I tell them I'm okay.
It was warm in LA, way warmer than it was in Portland, but it wasn't too hot and Auntie Laine had her sunroof open even with the air conditioning on. The combination made it cool in the car but I could still feel the dry air of LA and smell the exhaust from all the traffic as Auntie Laine pulled away from the curb.
I wasn't in the room when Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle Kev and Auntie Laine talked about where Jem and I should go. All I know is that it wasn't really up to me or Jem. Who knows what Mom and Dad would have wanted for us under these circumstances. I tried to listen from the tv room where I was watching the Wimbledon final while the adults discussed my fate. Venus and Serena were playing and I didn't know who to root for. I wasn't really watching the match anyway. I was trying to eaves drop on the conversation that would determine where Jem and I would land for the rest of our lives.
Uncle Kev kept saying, "They'd want them together," and Auntie Laine agreed but they also knew that I couldn't stay in town, not after what I'd seen, which was already boxed away and on a shelf in a closet far away so I didn't have to think about it.
I don't know how it was finally decided but I ended up on a plane and the plan was for Jem to come down in a few weeks later, right before school started.
Auntie Laine drove fast and I felt like I had to hold on but didn't because I didn't want her to know she was scaring me to death. The sky above me was perfectly blue and that definitely didn't fit my mood.
"Well, welcome to LA," she said and as I looked over Auntie Laine steered us out of traffic. She put her hand on mine and gave it a squeeze. "We're taking the scenic route home," she said with a smile, but I could tell she was still freaking out. Just like my life had changed completely, so was hers and I didn't how she was feeling about it.
I did know she was missing her sister, maybe as much as I missed my mom, so at least we had that in common.
She turned left and the ocean appeared before us, reflecting sunlight and stretching all the way to the horizon. The palm trees, the sand, sea and sky all made me want to cry just like so many things did lately. But I didn't cry so I wouldn't have to explain that I didn't know why I was crying so I fought back the tears and wondered how Auntie Laine was coping. Did she have a box stored away on a shelf in a closet somewhere or was she handling this differently? I thought about asking her but she seemed preoccupied by driving and finding a parking spot so I figured we'd have time to talk about it some other time. In fact, we had the rest of our lives.
The unintentional disguise I don is the mask of racial ambiguity.
Particularly if you don't hear my name, pronounced with the proper Japanese inflection (Noriko Nakada desu. Hajimemashite) then the chances of correctly identifying my half-Japanese ancestry diminish drastically.
See me walk down the street here in LA and you might assume I'm Latina; speak to me in Espanol. Or maybe you'll read my name, assume my identity, then meet me in person and struggle to reconcile the name and the face.
But it isn't only strangers who ask, "What are you?" Growing up multiracial I struggled with my own identity issues. Born and raised in small-town, Oregon, the only half-Japanese family in town, we were accepted as one of their own, just another rural, middle-class white family. The closer we were to the Kah Nee Tah reservation the more likely people were to assume we were Native American but for the most part people ignored our foreign look, name and culture.
I couldn't shed my subtle Asian features even though I shortened my name to Nori, spelled like seaweed (Nodi) but pronounced Nori, like Lori but with an N. I pretended I was like everyone else even though my "exotic" look set me apart.
In the summer we'd drive to Los Angeles to visit family. We'd go to Disneyland or eat sushi with Dad's side and around my full Japanese cousins with their shiny, black, straight hair woven into thick braids I hated my fine brown hair and honey-colored eyes. With Mom's side of the family we'd drive from the valley to Zuma Beach and in that world of sand and sea, blonde hair and blue eyes I couldn't believe I was related to them at all.
A few years after moving away from that small town I traveled to Hawaii for the first time. You know how every year there is one Halloween costume everyone wears, the year everyone is a pirate, or a princess, a vampire or a witch. In Hawaii, my disguise was just like everyone else's. Instead of my identity setting me apart, being Hapa meant I belonged.
"Howzit?" a local asked as I browsed through ukeles and plastic leis. "You playing one tourist today?"
I looked at the woman behind the display of puka shell necklaces and paused. If I kept quiet I could stay in costume, just a local girl stopping by the gift shop. Open my mouth, release my mainland accent without a hint of pidgin and my real identity would be revealed.
"Oh, I just visiting," I said trying to mimic the rhythm of the locals.
"Ha! I thought you one local," the woman said with a smile. "Shua look like one."
After years spent wishing I could shed my disguise, in Hawaii I saw another possibility. If I'd lived in the islands since small kid time I could fit in here, fo' shua, no act, local style, brah. I suddenly saw how banana I was, yellow on the outside, but white inside the peel.
It's taken years, a few more trips to Hawaii, countless questions, explanations, and looks I've learned to ignore in order for me to figure it out: I'm not Latina or Native American or Alaskan Eskimo. I'm not white, not Japanese, and not Hapa from Hawaii.
I don't fit neatly into one of those boxes used to make sense of a complicated world.
The disguise isn't about me. It's about how you perceive me because this is no disguise. This is me and I have no choice but to keep the world guessing.
We take our seats high in the reserve level, finish up our hot dogs and garlic fries as the sun sets behind us sending streaks of red and purple across the darkening sky and shake our heads as the Padres score four runs in the top of the first.
Our disappointment is familiar. The Dodgers have been struggling at the plate and it seems unlikely that our boys in blue will be able to make up the deficit.
But as we crack into our bag of peanuts, the Dodgers chip away at the Padre lead and by the end of the fourth the scoreboard shines from the dark sky: Padres 4, Dodgers 4.
The pitchers for both teams settle for several innings but in the top of the eighth, the Padres score two. It's nearly 9:00 and I'm tired. I've had a long day at work and wonder if just this once David would be willing to leave early. But the Dodgers need this win to stay at the top of the division so I don't even ask. The Dodgers get one run back in the bottom but in the ninth the Padres score another three.
"Bye, bye Dodger fans," David says as fair-weather-fans stream out of Dodger Stadium.
The Dodgers come up in the bottom of the ninth trailing 9-5, and even when Jeff Kent sends a homer out to center, I cheer, but don't get too excited. We're still down three.
JD Drew comes up next and when he homers, David and I stand and cheer. After all, back-to-back homeruns are rare, but it's still a two-run game.
Russell Martin steps to the plate and the instant we hear the crack of the bat, our cheers explode into the night. Back-to-back-to-back homeruns? No way.
But the Dodgers are still losing. It would be crazy to hope for another homerun, but Marlon Anderson grants the wish none of us could imagine tying the score.
David and I sit back down, in awe, but the Dodgers make consecutive outs to end the inning and we're going into extras.
It would be a shame to lose a game like this, but the Padres aren't done. They score a go-ahead run in the tenth forcing the Dodgers to perform again.
I look up at the line-up on the scoreboard. Lofton and then Garciaparra. Garciaparra. If Lofton could just get on, Garciaparra might be able to do it just like he has so many times this season. A little hope sneaks in and I pray the Dodgers won't let me down.
Lofton does his job with a walk and Garciaparra walks toward home plate. David and I stand shoulder-to-shoulder and hope. For all the games we'd seen this season, last season and the season before that, we hope.
"Come on, Nomar," I whisper beneath my breath as Nomar fidgets with his batting gloves, and taps his toes in the batter's box. He leans back, there’s the pitch and the swing.
I leap with that ball as it flies off his bat and into the night and we jump up and down just like Nomar does out of the box.
The Dodgers win. The crowd, or what's left, of it goes wild and the Dodger players welcome Nomar at home plate.
Tonight, being there was everything. And tonight, even though it was just for one Dodger night, believing didn't break my heart.
I've avoided the dark side my entire life. I come from stock that, for generations, has avoided the shadowy aspects of life. In fact, my parents were both born and raised in Los Angeles but chose to leave behind any dark side elements this city or their families might present: memories of poverty, alcohol, abuse, war-time internment. So instead of growing up in LA, I was raised in beautiful Bend, Oregon.
If you've ever been to that part of the country it really is gorgeous. The Deschutes river flows through the middle of town, the Cascade Range's snow-topped peaks gleam in the west and it's sunny and clear just about every day. Bothersome urban problems like pollution, gangs, homelessness, or racial diversity don't exist in Bend providing the perfect façade for a family like mine.
And if the sky isn't clear, if the sun isn't gleaming through ponderosa pine and juniper trees then the town is buried beneath several inches of pristine white snow. Snow: the antithesis of the dark side, a light, fluffy, glittering blanket burying all that is dead or ugly or dark.
But I pledged to be different. I didn't inherit that bright-shiny, passive-aggressive Asian thing. I wouldn't walk around pretending the outside world didn't exist. No, I would embrace the dark side and confront issues head-on.
So, I went to college on the dark side of Oregon where it rained every single day and under those gray and soggy days I explored my shadow. I became despondent, listened to Morrissey and Counting Crows all night; drank a little too much. But I kept it real. I wasn't one of those hippies you see around U of O pretending that life is all sunshine and flowers.
Then I moved to LA. Urban grit? Loved it. Tagging? Got it. Pollution? Awesome. I embraced the poverty of the city so much I started teaching for LAUSD. I loved LA and I couldn't understand why my parents left. I failed to notice that I'd managed to follow my parents' pattern. I left my family and all of its deeply buried baggage far behind.
I fed off of LA's blue skies even if they were a little smoggy. I fell in love with a guy from another anti-dark-side family, and we got married.
We bought a condo and then a house and in living out that American dream the house we bought put me back in touch with the dark side.
It was a small house in Highland Park, in the heart of Avenues gang turf and it was old. Those walls held history, but fortunately I had lots of practice ignoring the past, ignoring any problems that might impact my future, that ARM mortgage that could have us teetering on the brink of financial ruin, those strange phone calls my husbands kept getting late at night, I was the master of avoiding these problems. Even though my family lived a thousand miles away they had taught me exactly what to do.
We got the keys to our new house but before we moved in we wanted to clean and paint, to start fresh and new. I was mopping on our first night in the house when I saw a cockroach skitter across floor. I stomped on that big, fat, crunchy roach so fast and then convinced myself that the previous owners must have left that roach behind. We wouldn't have a roach problem.
I cleaned those hardwood floors over and over and over to remove all the possibility of dirt, or grime, or roach tracks. We painted and repainted every wall and every bit of trim. We white-washed that house so even though the roof had a leak and the windows weren't properly framed, from the outside it looked all right. And our marriage didn't look too bad from the outside either.
But, every so often I'd spot another cockroach scurrying across a counter or I'd find a dead one lying on it's back in the living room. Those cockroaches started to freak me out. If David was home I'd scream and make him find it and kill it. If I was home alone my heart would race. It was me or it was the cockroach and there was no way they would win. I learned how to hunt down and kill roaches with the intensity of an assassin.
We talked to a friend who was an exterminator and he told us these particular roaches actually live outside so you can never get rid of them. Apparently Highland Park isn't just gang-turf, it's roach-infested gang turf and no matter how clean I kept the house, no matter how air-tight we made the door jambs, roaches snuck in.
I'd come home from work and scan the floors and counter-tops for roaches. I'd step out of bed with the fear of something crunching beneath my bare feet. All of the energy that should have been looking my real life problems, my husband and I were hardly seeing or touching one another this point, all of my energy was focused on hiding our roach problem from myself and from our family and friends. They didn't know our marriage was in trouble and there was no way they could find out the roaches.
After a while though, I managed to keep most of the roaches at bay. I'd see one or two a month but it seemed bearable.
Until the night the power went out. LA was in the middle of a heat wave so the AC was cranked up and David was out of town. The Dodger game was on and I was reading a book in the living room when everything went dark. In inky darkness I lit a few candles, grabbed a flashlight and moved to the bedroom with my book.
When I was ready for bed I blew out the candles and grabbed the flashlight for one last trip to the bathroom. I slid my feet into my flip-flops and then, in one flashlight's sweep I saw the floor move.
Cockroaches. Everywhere. I felt them all over me even though when I brushed my shoulders and hair there was nothing there. I shone the light across the floor again and a straggler scuttled across the floor and into the darkness. I grabbed a magazine and it was on. I would kill. I would kill them all.
With the flashlight in one hand, a magazine in the other, and a roll of paper towels under my arm I started in the bedroom and made my way through the darkness shining the light and slamming the magazine on floor with each step. Smack, smack, smack. Then I swiped away the disgusting, crunchy cockroach bodies and guts. It was frantic. I'd shine the light and there were more. Slam, Slam, Slam. I killed and cleaned in the darkness with sweat pouring down my body.
It was so hot and dark and I couldn't see my way out. I made my way through the house shining my beam of light into a darkness that was alive and creeping and unstoppable. It was worse than any horror movie I'd ever seen. Alone in a black out, surrounded by cockroaches hiding just outside the flashlight's beam.
And then the lights came back on and the ac kicked in. I could see the hardwoods and the walls. I made one more trip through the house to make sure the roaches had retreated into the night, washed my hands, tried to cleanse my body of the cockroach evil and climbed back into bed. I tried to sleep but every time I closed my eyes I saw roaches everywhere.
David came home the next day and I told him how I'd survived my darkest night. We talked about selling the house and three months later we did. We also agreed that there were problems in that house besides the cockroaches, and the commute and drive-by shootings. There were problems that we couldn't ignore anymore if we were going to survive.
Maybe I should be grateful to those cockroaches. They saved my marriage. Because no matter how hard I tried to keep them out, no matter how much I wanted to pretend they weren't a problem, those roaches didn't quit.
My husband and I are in a new place now and it's taken a long time for me to stop scanning the floor for roaches. Even though there aren't any roaches in our new place, I know about my tendency to white-wash life, to bury my problems under a layer of cold, brilliant snow. But the dark side is there. It survives and it thrives. And the more time I spend with it the less I have to fear.
A former student of mine just moved away for college and the other day on Facebook she posted this plea: "Please send mail." She's been sharing her excitement about leaving for school all summer: purchasing a new computer, getting her dorm assignment, buying books, packing, but it was this last call for mail that took me back to my first year at University of Oregon.
I watched my high school classmates depart for schools on semester schedules, leaving me behind in post-high-school-limbo as they started their new lives. Over a month later it was finally my turn and I unpacked my life into a tiny dorm room with its own key and phone number and address.
Walking over to the dining hall at University Inn, meal card and keys in hand, I passed by the mailboxes before every meal. The box-fronts were made of clear plastic so from about ten feet away I could tell if anything waited inside. Those few seconds of anxious excitement almost made my hands shake as I fiddled with my little key to open the box that wasn't attached to anyone's name but my own. That mail wasn't Mom or Dad's or my siblings. It was my own and although most mornings and afternoons the box was empty, I savored the sporadic letters from high school friends at other schools, siblings in distant cities, or packages of cookies from Mom on my birthday or Valentine's Day.
I've since learned not to get too excited about the mail. Most of the time it's junk or bills. The only mail room excitement now comes from a wedding or shower invitation. Magazine subscriptions and wine clubs help a little, but really I should write more letters. I should use those note cards sitting in the box on my desk, put pen to paper, pour out my thoughts and slide that paper into an envelope. I should write the address by hand, apply the stamp and seal it. I should walk the dog to the post office and stick those letters in the mail. Then maybe I'll feel a hint of what I used to feel with that little key at University Inn in the fall of 1992.
But if you should write me first, I promise to write back and then you can look for me in the mail.
If any of you are friends with David on Facebook you already know that this is summer I've made several batches of fresh peach cobbler. Here are some pics of my latest pie plate of deliciousness and the recipe (which I stole from somewhere on that world wide web but I can't find it again so if this is your recipe let me know and I'll credit you.) Anyway. You can experiment with the amount of milk you put in the topping depending on how biscuity/cakey you like your cobbler. Yum.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a pie plate or other smallish baking dish mix together 4 cups sliced peaches, 1/3 cup brown sugar, 1 tablespoon flour, fresh grated nutmeg, and a pinch of salt.
In a bowl mix 1 cup flour, ¼ cup sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder, and a pinch of salt. Cut in 3 tablespoons cold butter cut into small pieces. Beat 1 egg with 3-6 tablespoons of milk (depending on how you want your topping to turn out) and combine with your dry ingredients.
Bake for 30 minutes or until the topping is golden and the peach are hot and bubbly.
Serve warm with ice cream and because it's made with fresh fruit it's healthy and you can eat the rest for breakfast tomorrow morning. Yummy deliciousness.
The last time I was pregnant we hadn't been trying. It was an accident in a moment when I demanded passion and spontaneity from of a marriage that was falling to pieces. I hadn't been tracking fertility cycles or taking pre-natal vitamins and I continued to drink. It wasn't until after the Thanksgiving Katrina was dating the wine-maker and the Christmas party of White Russians that I realized I'd missed a period.
I took a pregnancy test on New Year's Eve and stopped drinking immediately. I started taking the prenatals and scheduled an appointment with my doctor. I told her I drank before I realized I was pregnant. She told me, "Don't beat yourself up about it. There isn't anything you can do about it now."
But just before my first appointment with my ob-gyn I cramped. I bled. I drove with my husband and roommate to the immediate care center downtown and made tasteless dead baby jokes. We waited until the ultrasound tech confirmed the miscarriage, "I can't find anything, no heartbeat. Are you sure you were pregnant?" The doctor's paperwork said something about a threatened abortion.
I kept my appointment with the ob-gyn: she could schedule the DNC or I could just let my body take care of it naturally. I decided to let it happen. The cramping had been uncomfortable but not unbearable. It took almost three months of nausea and spotting before my levels evened out and I didn't have to have blood drawn every week to ensure that my body had shed my failure.
I learned quickly that miscarriages happen all the time. 20% of recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. My sister who also miscarried told me, "It's not your fault. There's no way of knowing why we miscarry." Women at work mentioned their own miscarriages: their mother or sister or friend who miscarried. But people don't like to talk about it and my mind swung back and forth between blaming myself and giving thanks that we weren't getting ready for a baby because although I thought we were ready, I know we weren't.
A few weeks after the miscarriage we took Scout, our chocolate lab, to be spayed. I walked her gingerly after the surgery and cried over the stitches along her belly. I watched the wound and waited for her to heal. Maybe when her belly was smooth again I would feel healed too. But Scout never had the belly of a puppy again and I could relate to her empty insides.
I started going to therapy. We worked on our marriage. And two years later we have healed. We are ready, really ready, to try; to track fertility cycles and take prenatal vitamins and stop drinking alcohol and caffeine.
We get to work on baby making and now we wait.
I did it on purpose. I sat in the street with other teachers to protest class size increases and the district's decision to balance the budget at school sites rather than eliminate superfluous waste at this high rise in downtown Los Angeles. A noble cause, I think.
It's best to travel light when you know you're about to be arrested. No jewelry. No cash. No cards. No cell phone. No keys. Just ID in your pocket and the number of a lawyer written in Sharpie on your arm. But even though I traveled light I still spent ten hours in custody and I felt the heavy power of The State.
They took my ID, my glasses and my shoelaces and in the heat of that afternoon, time moved slowly. It moved strangely as we were cuffed, transported, processed, transported again, held, booked and then finally released.
A former student of mine was one of the arresting officers. When you've taught long enough you never know who you'll run into. By the time I was released he'd already friend-requested me on Facebook.
The LA Times ran a picture of six of us sitting in the street with the police surrounding us so I heard from friends all weekend as I tried to recover physically from my day without food or water or going to the bathroom. I ate Goldfish crackers and drank Gatorade until I could hold down more. Then I slept.
Monday at school colleagues thanked me or teased me, "Where's your ankle alarm, Nakada?" Students with records felt we had something in common and my best-behaved students looked at me with disappointment. "You, Ms. Nakada? You got arrested?"
I tried to place my actions in the context of others like Ghandi, Dr. King, Cesar Chavez but what I did was so small in comparison to freedom fighters who stood up before me, often alone, enduring days, months, or years in jail. They risked being beaten or killed and all I did was spend 10 hours in custody.
At the end of the day when the teacher next door asked me how I was doing I wept. Even though I knew I'd done the right thing it weighed heavily on my heart because my actions changed nothing in terms of the big picture. But it had changed me.
I experienced a little bit of what so many of my students of color must feel when the police stop them, cite them, or arrest them. I knew a little about the pressure, the heavy weight of this system designed to break you. I understood the power of the police state and all that you can lose when you break the law.
I don't know what I expected that Friday morning as I drove through the quiet LA streets to be arrested. Nothing can really prepare you for that kind of experience but I'll never be able to travel like I did that morning with no jewelry, cash or cards, no cell phone or keys. Teachers were still laid off and hundreds of district administrators continue to walk in and out of the high rise where I protested far away from the students I teach everyday.
Now, I carry a new weight with me, no matter how lightly I try to travel.
Sure, they take our temperature with a laser to the forehead before letting anyone off the plane, but with our health declaration signed, our entrance forms and visas completed, they stamp our passports and welcome David and me to China.
And at the Beijing hotel just across the street from the red-light district (just imagine our concern as the cab slowed in this area) they take our temperature again, this time with a thermometer to the ear, and photocopy our passports and visas.
Then, when we arrive the next day at my sister's house in an ex-pat enclave outside Dalian, we have to register with local police and I think, well, they really want to keep track of us while we're in town.
We can't access certain internet sites, Facebook and Twitter. Other sites are blocked (hint, spell Tiananmen Square wrong on Google in China for a sampling of blocked images) and my sister reminds me that "they" could read anything I send by email. In other words, "Be careful, Little Sister."
But Big Brother pretty much leaves us alone as long as we allow every hotel to photocopy our passports and visas each time we check in; as long as we don't cause any trouble.
On the hot, humid summer afternoon when we visit The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, however, Big Brother is watching and he wants us to know.
His signs warn us NO STOPPING, NO BURNING as we walk toward Mao's portrait. Along with thousands of Chinese we pass beneath Mao as he stares out at Tiananmen Square. We walk beside soldiers standing at guard every ten feet, but not all guards are in uniform. These soldiers stand at attention but are dressed like tourists. Big Brother wants us to know that there are soldiers among us.
They check our bags before we enter the square and as David and I mill around watching families snapping photographs with Mao or in front of the Chinese flag, we also watch men watching us, men not in uniform but taller than the average Chinese man, walking slowly, saying nothing; watching.
There are cameras on each of the light standards all over the square. Cameras watch, soldiers watch, civilians watch, and thousands of people move in and around this open space.
Scarred tiles cover the square and I imagine fires burning, blood shed; the echo of bullets raining down on peaceful protesters. I picture tanks lining this space where families and tour groups walk and imagine these same civilians hurling rocks at soldiers who fire back with live ammunition on these same streets where buses, taxis and bicycles rush past us on this Wednesday afternoon.
There in this peaceful crowd, I begin to understand the significance of the student and civilian protests staged here in Tiananmen where Mao is memorialized and government buildings flank the square and why there hasn't been significant protest since. Even though, according to the documentary "The Tank Man," 1 in 10 of Beijing's citizens took to the streets to protest government corruption and limits to free speech that May and June, this well-behaved crowd here in Tiananmen Square understands the consequences of acting out.
No one in China acknowledges the violence from the crack-down in 1989 publicly. University students filmed for a 2004 documentary feign ignorance of Tank Man's image. But if twenty years ago 1 in 10 of these same citizens flooded the streets to keep the military from entering their city, if they watched as soldiers opened fire on students, friends, brothers and sisters; if they saw citizens arrested, tried, imprisoned, and disappeared after the events in Tiananmen Square, they know the cost of protest. They understand the price and because this growing middle class risks losing so much they teach their children what has happened and understand what could happen again.
Even though the 20-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre passed peaceably nearly two months ago, I imagine conversations around kitchen tables all over China, in hushed voices from living rooms and dorms, conversations posted in code on proxy servers because Big Brother is watching. He is watching so The People can never forget.
David loves taking pictures and loves a cheesy post even more so on our visit to China this summer we sang out qie ze and struck one of several popular poses all over that crazy country.
Hello there, Blank Page. How are you today?
I am not sure what I'm doing here. I've been visiting with old pages lately and they are just nothing like you. They are so problematic and have so much baggage. I realize much of that is what I bring to them, but still, there is something about you, Blank Page.
There is something so fresh, optimistic and, sometimes frightening about you. But, really, I should come by more often. You usually make me feel better and you don't scream your problems to me like those other pages do. Those novels, stories, poems, even notes just don't listen like you. You are the best. You sit there and you take and take and take. So thank you, Blank Page. Thanks for always being there, for always being willing to accept whoever I might be on any given day. You rock, Blank Page. You rock!
Okay, I realize it's nice to be here, but it is also complicated. I can't see you all the time. If I want to go anywhere, I have to see those other pages. I have to revise and rework, and think about the problems those other pages have. You have your limits. You can't be my all-the-time-page. You are a little too, you know, blank.
But I will visit more often; for all the energy you provide, I'll be back. When I'm ready or when I need you and I know you'll be there. You'll be there.
I sign up for an Olympic-distance triathlon that weekend: 1500 meter swim, 40 K bike, 10 K run. I stand in queue before the swim start with women in the 35-39 age group. I compare my body to theirs, how my waist, arms, and legs squeeze into this neoprene wetsuit and try to guess their stories, mother of three? Lawyer? Personal trainer? They surround me, all the lives I might have if I'd chosen to live differently, married, not married, life in the city or the country, run a little more, not finished that whole tub of ice cream the other night.
We count down to the start together and then plunge into the water, thrashing about until the strong swimmers stretch ahead and those of us who spend only a couple days a week in the pool lag behind. I am in the back half and struggle to find breath, struggle to keep going toward the buoys that look so far away. I breathe and pull and try to imagine I'm in a heated pool instead of this cold lake with no lanes or edges. I swim; pull, breath, pull, breath, stretch and make myself slippery through the water. Forty minutes later I emerge on the shore and jog up the boat ramp to the transition.
The bike leg starts with a short, steep hill and it's there, climbing up that slow grade that the ages of my competitors are revealed to me. I'm not sure why this has become part of triathlon culture but not only is your race number drawn onto your arms and legs in permanent marker before the start, but your age is as well, on your left calf, so as you pass people or as they pass you, you can see this number, this age.
I smile to myself as I pass the 27-year-old. I don't feel too bad when the 31-year-old flies by on her bike. Hey, who knows what she'll be able to do in four years. At the top of the hill a 54-year-old charges past and I hope to I'll be able to do that someday, but honestly, probably not. I can't even do it at 35.
I fly through the rolling hills of the 26 mile out and back bike course and pass more bikes than pass me and in my completely unscientific calculations, I'm doing great for my age.
After the ride it's time for the long slog of a 6-mile run. I continue to check the legs of my competitors, study the numbers and the bodies of the walkers and runners all around me. My legs feel heavy. Maybe it's from pushing too hard on the bike or maybe I just didn't train hard enough for the run, or maybe I'm just getting old.
A 38-year-old passes me, her long, lean legs strong up the path and she disappears around the corner. I curse my legs for not following her, for not carrying all of my five-foot-one frame up another hill, but my muscles have nothing left. I convince myself that surely that 38-year-old woman doesn't eat ice cream. She isn't still carrying the weight of a miscarriage. She is so much taller than me. That's why I can't keep up.
I pump my arms; urge my legs on. I pass a few walkers, (32 and 28), but come on, age is just a number. I've been telling myself that for years. I still get carded sometimes. I look way younger than my 35-years.
But age does matter. I've been paying attention to the numbers on my leg and on the legs of my competitors my whole life. When that number was still in single digits I watched gymnasts and figure skaters in the Olympics and thought, it's not too late for me. I could do that with my life. I could become an Olympian. When it was too late for my Olympic dreams, when I was too old to become the next Mary Lou Retton, I blamed my parents. If they had put me in gymnastics, or tennis or made me keep swimming my life would be so different. If I didn't have Olympians to measure up to I compared my accomplishments to the barometer of my older brothers and sister. What had they done by my age? Was I ahead of their curve or behind?
I pick up my pace at the 5 mile mark and pass a 37-year-old woman. No one else will pass me, well, no one older than me will. But a 41-year-old flies by and there is nothing I can do but keep pressing on, at my pace.
I cruise down a last, long hill to the finish line 3 hours and 35 minutes after I started. The comparisons of the day fade away as I walk toward my friends and family, 35-years-old, carrying a bit too much around the waist and hips on this course, but still, 3:35 feels like a good time for me.
I am fairly certain I learn more than I teach at the middle school where I work in Los Angeles. I don't think I'm a bad teacher necessarily, it's more that my students don't really want to learn what I'm supposed to teach them whereas I find their lives fascinating.
This year I teach about one hundred students, and my school serves teenagers from all over the city so I have a little microcosm of LA experiences: recent immigrants, Los Angeles natives, UCLA professor's kids and aspiring gang members. But my classes are the "regular" kids, not the honors or advanced classes, so the percentage of aspiring cholos to scholars is a little off. The funny thing about my students though, is that they are middle schoolers. So even if they look like punks, and often act like punks, they are at the same time just nice kids trying to make sense of the world and find a space where they might fit.
This year my students participate in the Doodle 4 Google competition that the Google people sponsor where they ask kids to redesign the Google logo.
I explain the contest to my students and then let them get creative. In these days of high-stakes testing and strict instructional pacing plans, I don't do this very often and students react to this freedom in a variety of ways. Some just want to color, others draft and redraft striving for perfection. Some scrawl quickly and then chat about how they will spend the $15,000 prize. Ten of my students enter the school competition. I take the entries to the computer lab where the technology coordinator, several other teachers and I are meeting to choose winners.
I set my students' artwork on the table and take in the competition. One entry, "Helping Hands" transforms each letter into a good deed. Nice. Another depicts an environmental utopia with doves flying artfully above the Google landscape. A third shows the first three Google letters as monsters, then the last three an economic utopia. All are rendered carefully, but one of my own student's pieces can definitely hang. Stephanie has drawn a group of environmental activist penguins holding signs that say "Go green" using the Go from Google. I can imagine any one of these four Doodles winning in the regional competition.
But Google allows us to send six entries so we get to pick another couple for competition. We select another one of my student's renderings of a good v. evil city sprouting from the letters and growing from light to dark.
With one more to choose, four drawings remain in the running. Two are my students' work, and both carry the careful styling of graffiti artists. I want one of them to win. I think of the winners from last year: blue-prints for castles, rainbows, flowers, and animals. None of those designs capture the urban landscape where so many of my students grow up.
Several teachers are uncomfortable sending up a "tag," glorifying this illicit activity that is one aspect of gang involvement. I see their point but I really want one of these two boys to win. I have to stop and think about why it is important that Google receive an entry from my school, an urban LAUSD public school that captures a different reality, a reality that isn't about classic art or architecture. This is the art that holds power in my students' lives and maybe it isn't beautiful to everyone, but what art is? And maybe it's more than a rendering of their urban existence because it's art they understand, art that reminds them of the tough and beautiful place where they're from or where their cousin or brother or uncle is from.
"I want one of these two to go," I say pointing to my graffiti artists.
While we discuss these last two entries, the artistic style is not in question but whether or not we are comfortable promoting gang-related illegal activity.
We don't choose Daniel's melting Google tag partly because the "l" looks like a melting penis but also because he didn't check the citizenship box for his immigration status on the Google application.
In the end the committee leaves the decision to me and I choose to send on Brian's drawing of a brick wall with a Google tag and the sidewalk littered with images from local gangs. I know he won't win but I'm proud that I can advocate for him and his art.
I draw my own Google with my students this year. The G is an ear, the "oo" a boom box, the "le" a microphone and cord. My wish for the world is that everyone would have a voice and that those with power would listen.
As I look at all of the student Google winners displayed in the hallway, "Our Economy," "Go Green," "Helping One Another in Friendship," "Stop Graffiti," and "Beautiful World" I'm proud of the voices from Emerson expressing not only our students' wishes for the world, but the realities of the world we wish we could ignore.