"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.