Photograph: Dimitry B.
I lived then in an adobe home with my mother and grandmother in Saguarita, Colorado. It was only us girls. There had never been any men. My mother used to say that her father died at the hands of a madman over a gold watch, but once my grandmother told me the only hands that killed him were his own. As for my father, he took my mother on one date to a drive-in theater on Alonzo Lane. “And you, my baby,” my grandmother would say years later, “is the reason nice girls don’t sit in cars with boys.”
She was a small shadowy woman, my grandmother. She kept an herb garden in the backyard, hung her laundry on metal cords, and occasionally snapped the necks of chickens with an elegant flick of the wrist. Every morning of her life she woke up exhausted. “I’m too damn old to be raising children still,” she’d say. “And I don’t mean you, Neva.” She was talking about my mother, Desiree Leticia Cordova. Throughout her life she had struggled with booze and dope and all those good-for-nothing men. In her twenties she danced in a strip club on the edge of town called Wishes. In her thirties, the small portion of them she got to live, she uprooted us to California during one of her ecstatic breaks from perpetual sadness. These breaks were infrequent but potent and gave my mother the strength of ten women who require no sleep and live for their whims.
I was twelve when she called me into her bedroom one evening before work. She stumbled around in search of a gold bikini, the radio on a doo-wop station, the air smelling of her curling iron. After pulling the bikini from a mound of wrinkled clothes on the floor, she lifted her tank top and applied makeup over her cesarean scar. The red slash eased away, and she peered at herself in the vanity’s dust-speckled mirror. “This town is a real dump,” she said. “It doesn’t offer us enough opportunities. I’m making some big plans. I’m thinking San Diego, all that sunshine.”
We left two months later. My mother convinced a white-haired cowboy who worked in oil and gas to give her a couple thousand dollars. She claimed the money meant nothing to him because he had more of it than God. My grandmother told me that was bullshit. “There are chains attached to cash,” she said. I pictured mustached men in Stetson hats rattling their linked steel arms. I didn’t want to leave home, but I knew if I stayed with my grandmother in Saguarita, my mother would have no one but those chains.
The day we left, I loaded the car as my mother handed me luggage and supplies—cookbooks, rain jackets, batteries, potato chips. Through the haze of early morning, I saw our home anchored to the earth, a short slant above sage grass, seated before the sapphire mountains. As the sun broke completely over the land, my grandmother stepped outside in a quilted apron and pink house shoes. She held a cup of tea, the waves of steam stopping just short of her jaw. She squinted at us. “It’s going to rain along the way. You pull off if it pours.”
“Of course I know that, mama,” said my mother.
My grandmother glanced at me. “Take care of her, and for Christ’s sake, Desiree, take care of yourself.”
• • •
Eula Court curved like a shark’s fin from one green gully filled with trash to another. Rows of rainbow-colored houses flickered by until my mother parked the car outside a boxy home, canary yellow with white trim. She checked her reflection in the rearview mirror, blotting her wide forehead and deep cleavage with a napkin. She applied sparkly gloss. She adjusted her spaghetti straps.
“This,” I said, pointing with my index finger, “is where we’re going to live?”
“We’re number two,” she said. “The place in back, a carriage house.”
I followed my mother to the main house, where she rang the doorbell and gently knocked. From behind her I could make out her shoulder bones, ridged, as if her skeleton had been shattered and glued hastily back together. When the door opened and we were ushered inside by a man’s high-pitched voice, my mother’s back disappeared, swallowed by indoor dimness. The house smelled of new carpets and paint and there was only a black leather sofa and a television in the front room. Then my eyes adjusted. A youngish man in flip-flops and a puka shell necklace stood before us with sloppy brown hair, done in the style girls at my old school called the lazy freshness. He introduced himself as Casey, the landlord. “Hope the drive was easy for you, ladies,” he said, his chin tilted upward. “You’re sure going to love this place.”
Casey helped us unload the car. He moved with uncoordinated enthusiasm. The carriage house, he explained, was a lot like his house, only miniature. After pointing out the gas stove, the water heater, and the vibration we may feel when the garage door beneath us either opened or closed, he patted the pockets on his cargo shorts and produced two sets of keys. “Don’t lose them. I’ll have to charge you a million bucks.”
My mother laughed and swiped his shoulder, as though she was a kitten fumbling with a ball of yarn. “Must have the toughest locks in all of California on these doors.”
“Yup. But I keep mine open for the most part.”
When he asked if we needed anything else, my mother said everything was fine and thanked him. She watched as he returned to the front house. Between the homes was a small grassy courtyard, his shadowed back windows facing our sunny front ones. “I like him,” my mother said after some time. “Seems dependable.”
• • •
The carriage house was nothing like our home in Saguarita. Palm trees and hibiscus butted against the front door that opened to a small elevated stoop where cement steps and a white iron handrail led the way into Casey’s courtyard. The stove, the counters, and the tiles were avocado green. My bedroom was a tiny eggshell space, while my mother’s was large and airy with her queen-sized bed dead center beneath the ceiling fan. Her lacy thrift store dresses hung in the closet and her plastic jewelry was looped over thumbtacks in the walls. Her perfumes—vanillas and spices, florals and orientals—were displayed atop her vanity. The windows were always open, allowing in the stark light of the sun and the smells of the city—distant sea salt, car exhaust, In-N-Out Burger. “Ah, for the love of God,” my grandmother would tell me over the phone. “What a phony paradise.”
Soon it was clear my mother needed a job—there was only enough cash to cover the cost of moving and the first couple months’ rent. Because my grandmother wasn’t there to stay with me at night, my mother gave up dancing. No matter, she claimed. She was ready for change. Most days before and after school, I’d find her in our kitchen, furiously circling job-listings in the paper. She’d stand at the counter, a pen in hand and one leg kicked up behind her like a flamingo. “I think I could do this,” she’d say, pointing to an ad for a secret shopper or a dog-walker. I saw commercials on TV advertising dental assistant school and massage therapy classes. When I suggested she do something like that, my mother always laughed. “We don’t have the money for school, jita. Plus, I’m not one for studying.”
Though the prospect of her landing a decent, well-paying job seemed far-fetched, she never let on that we should worry about rent or food. Not even birthday cake.
• • •
That November I turned thirteen. “You’re my everything, mi vida,” my mother said as she pushed a cart through the grocery store. She wore a large shoulder purse and dirty platform sandals. Her coal liner was smudged around her eyes, and I worried she had been crying. That morning she gave me a shoebox. Inside was a sheet of white paper on which she had written: Once I get a job, this will be whatever you want. Love. Mama. I carried the note in my pocket as the cart rattled and whined throughout the aisles. Sixties pop music played from the ceiling speakers. My mother’s hips swayed to the sounds, only pausing when she held up various items—Milano cookies, ice cream bars, tres leches cake.
“Any of these?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“Come on, Neva. Whatever you want. It’s your day.”
“We can’t.” Beside us a blond woman in shiny sandals glared at us. I lowered my voice. “We don’t have the money, Mama.”
She waved a box of Nutter Butters in my face. “These are your favorite.”
My mother kissed my forehead, leaving a waxy shadow of peach lipstick. I turned away while she threw the cookies into the cart. She went through the aisles, tossing in more items—cupcakes, scented candles, cuts of steak, a lobster tail, orange popsicles. After some time, my mother pushed the cart behind a pyramid of canned soda. She unzipped her purse, and it swallowed everything as though it were a bottomless, hungry mouth. When she was done, the only items in the cart were the Nutter-Butters and a jar of mayonnaise. My mother smacked her gum as the clerk rang her up for $4.34. From her bra, she handed over a limp ten-dollar-bill. I looked to the floor in embarrassment, at my jelly sandals, at the grime in the grooves of the polished cement, at my mother’s pristine blue toenail polish. Then I saw flip-flops. Casey stood behind us with a basket of hummus and eggs.
“Must be a party tonight,” he said, eyeing our cookies and mayonnaise.
My mother turned, brightened her eyes with a smile. “It is a party. Neva’s turning thirteen today. We’re going to Balboa Park to celebrate.”
“Welcome to your teen years, chica.” Casey held his fingers above different chocolates along the register, said he was feeling them for vibes. He tossed a packet of M&Ms onto the black conveyor belt along with his hummus and eggs. “Happy Birthday, kid. Hope you like the kind with peanuts.”
“I’m allergic,” I lied.
My mother bumped me with her purse. “If you’re not busy, why don’t you join us?”
On the eastern edge of Balboa Park, the three of us sat on a Mexican blanket in the grass near a pond of koi fish. My mother set out the stolen food, and if Casey knew we didn’t pay, he said nothing. He lay there with his arms folded beneath his neck, his green eyes cloudy and his smile slightly crooked with his chemically whitened teeth. With my mother nestled beside him, he spoke of surfing accidents, killer earthquakes, and all-night beach bonfires. My mother told him she loved the ocean and that as a little girl she dreamed of its deep and bright creatures. As the sun lowered in the sky, a warm breeze tugged at the pond’s surface and the two of them sang happy birthday to me. I blew out a stolen candle stuffed into a stolen cupcake, worried the entire time that strangers might mistake us for a family.
• • •
Casey didn’t work. He could barely fix our drains when they clogged with ropes of black hair. Mostly he collected rent checks from the different properties his parents had given him down by the border and further inland in those neighborhoods I never saw. Each morning he cut through the low horror-movie fog of the city, running alongside the shores of the Pacific. When he returned he would shower and then knock on our door, where he flirted with my mother, leaning mostly to the left in our door frame, the sky behind him blisteringly white. By mid October he cut us a deal on rent, and by November there was no rent to pay at all.
Thanksgiving, a time when the mountains of Saguarita were bleached with snowfall, our yard in California was an eruption of fuchsia flowers and maze-like palms. I was relieved that school was out for break. Though I was friendly with a few girls who read Teen Bop and YM magazines during lunch, I kept mostly to myself. Perhaps that’s why my teacher always called me Marisa or Maria—anything but my name. When I told my grandmother about this over the phone, she groaned with irritation. “And has your mama found a job yet?” I didn’t tell her that my mother wasn’t looking for work anymore. That she wasn’t doing much besides spending time with Casey.
It was early December when I walked home from school one Friday afternoon and heard them arguing in the front house. The windows were open and the sounds of classic rock and my mother’s cries spilled into the street. You promised us a deal, she kept saying. I’ll have to go back to dancing. A group of boys from my middle school walked home across the block, toward one of the trash-filled gullies. Two boys giggled, patting the others on the shoulders, pointing for them to listen. I tossed my backpack on the sidewalk.
“Hey morons,” I shouted, “mind your own business.”
The boys turned to look at me. They blinked, scrunched their face. One of them mouthed what the—. He held up his right hand, displaying an orange Gameboy as bright as a flare. They weren’t listening to my mother and Casey; they were trying to beat a high score. With my cheeks burning red, I looped around the block three times before I went home.
When I got back, Casey stepped outside onto his porch in his usual uniform of puka shells and flip-flops. He wore sunglasses, a beach towel slung over his arm. My mother appeared behind him in the darkness of the house—her arm slithering down his chest. “Do you want to go?” she asked. “Mission Beach has a rollercoaster.” They were both obviously drunk or stoned, maybe both. My mother asked again if I’d go. She walked outside and kneeled down to me. She ran her long fingernails along my neck, sending warmth down the length of my spine. “Please come,” she said. “I’ll get you a kite. Everyone loves a kite.”
At Mission Beach, Casey bought me a funnel cake and gave me quarters to play old-timey arcade games. We went out on the pier and my mother got a kite with a plastic handle. She started it in the wind before handing it to me. It shifted up and dropped again before it got caught beneath the pier. I left it dangling in the surf. On the boardwalk we waited in line for the rollercoaster. Casey slipped his hand in my mother’s back pocket. She giggled and leaned into him. We rode the rollercoaster before the sunset. I sat behind them, marveling at the way they both jerked a little too much and a little too late as the coaster curved.
• • •
That Sunday my mother slept until the evening. While she was in bed, I read a mystery paperback on the living room floor. Children were science experiments gone wrong. They had crippled wings and x-ray vision. Their parents were mad researchers. I finished the book just before the room faded from dusk to night in several slow minutes. I tried waking up my mother then, first by shaking her and then with something to eat. On the gas stove I warmed tortillas, covered them with butter and sugar, and brought them to her side. She let out a few wet snores, turning herself over and away from me. I ate the tortillas myself before crawling beside her. When she woke up later, I asked what was wrong.
“Everything stays the same,” she said. “Nothing changes. It makes me feel like I’m dead.”
“You’re just sad today, Mama. You’ll feel better tomorrow.” I hugged her and after a long silence, I said, “Tell me a story?”
“About what, Neva? You know all my stories.”
“How about me? What was it like when I was born?”
My mother moaned and adjusted herself. I reached for her hand, weaving her slender fingers, limp as lace, into mine. “It was snowing. I was so tired and Grandma was so tired. They cut you out of me because you wouldn’t come for hours.” She took her hands and gripped mine, moving them beneath the blankets and sheets, halting at her caesarian scar. “Here. This is where you came from. You cried and cried. The doctors said you cried so much you’d never need to cry again. They were right. You never cry, Neva. You’re always tough.” She paused a moment, and we both were quiet.
“Now you,” she said in a tone of rising hopefulness. “You tell me a story.”
I had no idea what to say—all my stories were her stories—but I considered the things I knew that I wanted her to know, too. Like how much I hated California, how little I knew or liked Casey. But instead, I told her this: “Did you know the palm trees in our yard and all over this neighborhood, they aren’t from San Diego? They aren’t even from California. We learned about it in school. They don’t belong here. Someone just thought they looked pretty.”
“No,” my mother said. “I didn’t know that.” She then stopped talking and fell asleep. I would have stayed there with her forever if not for the knock on our door an hour later when Casey stopped by, inviting us to dinner.
When I told my grandmother about my mother’s new boyfriend and her staying in bed until nighttime, she wanted us home immediately. She called my mother everyday to talk sense into her. It wasn’t good for me, she claimed. I needed structure and family. She said my mother should attend mass regularly, visit confession. When my mother stopped taking her calls, my grandmother sent letters addressed to Desiree Leticia in elegant, shaky script. Though she didn’t have the money for a flight and she was too old to drive any further west, my grandmother made sure we felt her presence. In one of her letters, she begged my mother to remember her father. “He let the world beat him down, break him,” she wrote. “He allowed the world to fill up on his sadness.”
• • •
A week before Christmas, Casey and my mother ate sunflower seeds and passed a bottle of whiskey between them on the beach. They took long swallows, wilting into one another, sloppy and euphoric. We were near the pier, the underside of its wooden belly bleached. Surfers in bodysuits ran beneath the stilts, their boards in hand. Faded blue tattoos winked across the backs of old men with salty hair. The ocean’s howl was wild. My mother and Casey carried on as though there were no arguments or clocks. Their lives existed moment by moment. Day by day.
“Neva,” Casey said. “It means snow, right? In Latin or something?”
I shrugged, slipping my hand beneath the cool sand.
“Sure does,” said my mother. “Her grandma picked it out. It was blizzarding when Neva was born. If we lived here, maybe we would’ve named her Sunshine or Sunny.” My mother giggled, a seed flying from her mouth.
“I like it,” Casey said. “It’s different. You like the beach, Neva?”
I told him the beach was all right.
“That’s not true,” My mother blurted out. “You love the beach.” She turned to Casey. “The first time we came here I couldn’t pry her away from the water. She kept splashing and screaming when the waves hit her little toes.”
Casey laughed. “How about for Christmas Eve we drive up the coast? There’s a beachfront motel in Solana. A buddy of mine can get us a deal on boat. I figure since you have no family here and my folks are in Florida we could go together.”
My mother fell into him, landing a kiss mostly on his mouth. “Sounds perfect, baby.”
Casey nudged me with his shoulder. “Come on, chica. It’s my treat.”
I rose from our beach blanket. I headed toward the water.
“Be careful,” my mother shouted. “It’ll be freezing.”
There was no line between ocean and sky. White gulls appeared black in the clouds’ shadows. I unzipped my jacket and rolled my jeans to my knees. Though the sand was uneven and fine and the water dim, I walked ahead until my legs were soaked. It only burned a moment before my skin went numb. In school we learned the entire Southwest desert was once underwater. Everywhere was a shallow sea. My mother sometimes told me she felt like she was drowning. She had dreams of waking up dead, dreams of sleeping forever. But what about me? I asked more than once, and she always said I was lucky. Lucky because I knew how to swim. As I moved through the waves, my mother and Casey were still on the shore, their legs entangled like four pale links in the same gate. One of the surfers bobbed past me, shouting for me to head back.
At the beach blanket, I stood above my mother and Casey. The sun had come out, my shadow long over their faces. “You were right, Mama,” I said. “It’s freezing out there.”
• • •
“It will be a great Christmas,” my mother said as she packed four bags for our one-night stay in Solana Beach. “Probably the best Christmas we’ve ever had.” She stood at her closet, selecting summer dresses for the dead of winter. Wedge heels, corked sandals, and floppy sun hats. I lay across her bedspread, marveling at the way her back disappeared into darkness as she pushed forward into her clothes. She turned around with an armful of bathing suits. She asked me to choose one. I pointed to a bikini with red polka dots and a navy blue base. My mother changed before my eyes, sliding her panties down her legs beneath her oversized T-shirt. She pulled on the suit bottoms, secured the top’s strings, and sheepishly turned to face me, her left arm over her stomach.
“This one?” she asked. “It doesn’t make me look fat?”
“Of course not, no.”
Though her figure was tight and trim, a holdover from her years as a dancer, in nature there were no forgiving lights of the club. There was only the sun and its unrelenting shine. My mother reminded me of this as she twirled, all black hair and swinging arms. “What about my scar?”
“I’ve seen it a thousand times, Mama.”
“But Casey hasn’t. I never let him see it in the light.”
“Who cares?” I suggested.
My mother had me pick another bathing suit. In the end, she went with a one-piece, all white with scooped out hips. She then disappeared once more into her closest. She reemerged with a small wooden box. She set it before me, urging me to open it. I unlatched the lock delicately, but my mother laughed, taking my hands in hers. “No need to be gentle, baby. It’s not the box that’s special.” Inside was a charm bracelet with only three charms. A baby rattle, a chicken, a locket. My mother spun the bracelet around my wrist, stopping at the locket.
“When you were two, you came down with this bad fever,” she said. “You were so hot that I could barely touch you.” My mother opened the locket, revealing two tufts of dark hair. “Grandma said you’d die if we didn’t bring it down. I gave you cold baths. You didn’t cry at all. You just sat in the tub shivering. I prayed all night and in the morning, just like that, you were better. Calm and smiling and the right temperature. So you know what I did?”
“No,” I said, “I can’t remember.”
My mother kissed my head. “I cut off a piece of your hair. Fever-hair, I called it. I put it in this locket with a piece of my own hair. I don’t know why, but it makes me happy to have us together like that.”
Later, as I packed my bags, I felt the weight of the bracelet on my wrist. I thought of how strange it would be to touch someone so hot with fever you could barely hold them. I had never felt someone like that, and I wondered if I ever would.
• • •
That night TV snow kept playing in my mind as I tried to sleep. I imagined a different life. A better life. A life of laughing, the kind you hear walking alongside playgrounds with small children making use of every object, a stick to the fence, a foot to the ear, their telephone call home. I imagined a life where lush flowers, lemon and orange trees, and volcanic rock gardens were beautiful instead of strange to me at Christmas time. I thought of a life where Casey drove us to Solana Beach, like he said he would, whizzing past lurching shorelines and multimillion-dollar glass houses. I thought of us standing at La Jolla’s cliffs, watching barking seals lay about in mist and sun. I thought of my mother. I would nap beside her in the large motel bed with the windows open to the sea.
When Casey didn’t come for us, I wasn’t surprised. Of course my mother was. She went through stages of disbelief as she sat very still in our kitchen, drinking what little vodka she found in the freezer. Maybe he was sick? Maybe there was an accident? Maybe he needed help? She smoked a pack of Marlboro lights without bothering to open the windows. A single line emerged between her eyebrows, difficult to read beneath the resting smoke. When she eventually realized he wasn’t coming, she called him every name in the book, chaining together the insults like an endless train of cocksuckers and motherfuckers and assholes. “He’s a bad guy,” she said firmly with her final cigarette between two fingers, resting against her temple. “Just another piece of shit.”
I tried to stop her as she barreled down the cement steps, heading toward the front house. She was going to destroy something, herself or otherwise. I watched in awe as she slipped into rage as easily as she had slipped into her bathing suit. She pounded with her fists on his windows and tossed rocks at his mailbox. She threw mud across his door. When she finished, her fingernails broken and lined with dirt, there wasn’t much to do but sit on the stoop and watch as one by one Christmas lights flickered along our block. After some time, my mother began to cry, quietly at first until she heaved uncontrollably, her back to me, her shoulder blades quivering in their jagged way. I kneeled down to her, holding her face to mine with both hands. We were matted together in her tears.
“Will you nap with me, baby?” she asked.
I pulled her from the ground. I told her yes.
She lay beside me in bed. It was warm, though the windows were open and the ceiling fan was on high. I pushed the bedspread onto the floor when my mother’s back grew sticky with sweat. Her eyelids then squeezed, her lashes fluttered. “I think we’re done here, Neva. I think it’s best we go home.”
At four in the morning, a low vibration shook the bed. It was the garage door opening. Casey was back. My mother woke up, making a sound like she was catching her breath. She ran to him in the courtyard. I watched them argue through the front windows. Something about a flat tire, a friend’s flat tire, difficult properties down on the border. My mother’s hair flew around her face, covering her eyes. Her nightgown was transparent. She was naked beneath the thin fabric. I got back into bed after she held her hands over her belly. Their voices calmed as the sun rose. My mother then came inside to grab face wash from our bathroom. She stood in the doorframe of her bedroom. We looked at one another straight.
“Don’t worry,” she said, breathless. “I’m not upset anymore.”
She turned and stepped into the hallway, locking the door of the carriage house before she left for Casey’s.
* * *
On Christmas morning I woke up from a dream of snow. In reality, everything was the same. When we lived in Saguarita, I would have run to the living room to hug my mother, kiss my grandmother, and open my stocking filled with practical gifts. The kind no one wants but everyone needs—socks, underwear, floss, chapstick. But I didn’t rush into the living room. I walked through my mother’s bedroom and opened her closet. I fell into her jackets and blouses, dresses and skirts. My face was against her things. Cheek to sleeve, lips to collar, nose to cotton. I breathed in, smelling a thousand different spices, all of them sweet.
Outside the fog had rolled in, low to the earth, seeping into the asphalt and grass. I found my mother loading the car, hunched down in a long white dress and straw hat, two braids falling behind each ear. She waved to me as I stepped barefoot over the cement path from Casey’s house to the street. The sky was all clouds with a single prominent streak, an airplane’s tail sailing east. Everything smelled of rain and dust and blooming jasmine. My mother slammed the trunk before turning to me on the sidewalk. Her eyes were large black pools, wetly shining deep in her cheeks. Her face was dewy and young, just as it was the day we arrived in California. “Hurry now,” she said. “Grab your bags.”
“Where are we going?” I asked. “Home?”
My mother clicked her tongue, stifling a laugh. “We’re going to the beach with Casey. Remember?” I looked at her face for a long while hoping to catch a hint of sarcasm, an eyebrow raised stiff as a frightened cat, an upper lip curled. But my mother only smiled with faintly blue lips, tossing her fingers into the air, edging me on with her once-beautiful nails. Behind me Casey walked outside in sunglasses, briefly lifting them from his face as he pulled my mother in for a kiss. With closed eyes they knocked against the car door. My mother’s hat flew from her head, exposing her wide forehead before swirling into the sky and landing swiftly at my toes. I picked up the hat, bringing it to my mother who took it gently from my hands, the noble arc of her thumbs mirroring my own. The air went still between us as I grazed her skin, so cool and strange, nearly dead.
Casey asked, “You don’t feel well, chica?”
I told him I was fine.
“Then hurry,” said my mother.
Her stance was wobbly and unrefined, as though she had given someone else permission to wear her skin. That’s when I knew she was forever caught in her own undercurrent, bouncing from one deep swell to the next. She would never lift me out of that sea. She would never pause to fill her lungs with air. Soon the world would yank her chain of sadness against every shore, every rock, every glass-filled beach, leaving nothing but the broken hull of a drowned woman. I turned away from my mother then, heading toward the carriage house, whispering no so many times that I sounded like a cooing dove. My mother asked more than once for me to stop. The farther I walked the further her voice moved from giddy to shrill, rising above the hibiscus and palms trees, booming off the front house and carriage house doors. I didn’t turn around.