I wrote this for The Moth live storytelling. I didn't get called up to perform and this is a little long for their five-minute limit, but here it is. My story on "the dark side."
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.