My parents and I move to San Diego when I am eight years old. They have three criteria for our new neighborhood: near the beach, good public schools, not too far from my father’s new job. So they buy a condo in Del Mar, twenty minutes north of the city center, a five minute walk from the beach. I don’t know what condo means. My parents’ explanation involves something about us owning the space in our new house, but not the walls. When it comes time to hang our pictures, I start to cry, worried they’ll get arrested.
We spend a lot of time at the beach in the early days. We buy burritos from the Mexican place down the street and eat them on lifeguard tower #7 – just far enough down the beach that it’s usually empty – as the sun goes down. When the sky is clear enough, we watch for the green flash, a quick flicker the second before the sun slips beneath the horizon. On weekends and after school, I go boogie boarding, sometimes with my father, sometimes alone, until my limbs are tan and my hair is gold. At night in bed I close my eyes and feel the push-pull of the tide on my body, the tightness the salt water has left on my skin. School doesn’t start for three more months and there are no children in our neighborhood. I spend most of my time reading and going on walks with my parents.
Sometimes we walk too far down. There is the time we accidentally end up at Black’s Beach, famous for being ‘clothing optional.’ I remember a man sitting in a beach chair, his leathery legs spread open, defiantly displaying lumps I didn’t know existed on people. There is the time we come across a beached whale, surrounded by a crowd, just staring, covered in hundreds of flies. As the days go on, the smell creeps up the hill, making its way to our windows. Eventually the city has to hire a crane to take its decomposing body out to sea. This, I learn, is Del Mar.
One night I have a bad dream. I’m watching a woman with her wrists and neck bound in rope as she twists around like a bug. There is a man pressed against her, his face in hers. I do not yet know what the word rape means. I am not the woman but I can feel her fear, a blackness that smothers and suffocates.
I jolt awake. I hear a pop, like a firecracker, and then another. Not a firecracker, a gunshot. Even at nine, I am able to tell the difference. My father, a notoriously light sleeper, wakes up too. He comes to check on me, brings me a glass of water, tells me to go back to bed.
In the morning, I learn what rape means. The gunshots we heard were part of an attempt. It is all over the news. Someone attacked a woman who had gone swimming late at night, but her two friends managed to save her. The rapist fled, but is caught shortly after. He dropped his flashlight in the sand, and it has his name on it. It has his name on it because it was police-issued. It turns out this wasn’t a lone incident, but the last in a series of rapes that had occurred over the past few months up and down the coast. The woman turns out to be Charisma Carpenter, star of the future hit TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Later, after Buffy and its spin-off series Angel run their course, Carpenter becomes the host of a show on the Investigation Discovery Network called I Survived Evil.
My elementary school is at the top of a hill, at the dead-end of a street in a quiet neighborhood full of million dollar homes. The playground looks over the ocean. It is enclosed with a chain-link fence; if you go to the far side, there is a gate. If you open the gate and go down the trail, it takes you into the canyon. On the last day of fourth grade, our teachers lead us down the canyon, out to the other side, past my house, down the hill, to the ocean for a day at the beach. I’m almost not allowed to go because I’m still on antibiotics for bronchitis, but I beg and I beg and I beg and finally my mom says yes, as long as I reapply sunscreen and only go up to my knees in the water. I promise.
But first we have to sit at the small outdoor amphitheater just outside school property, and listen to a ranger tell us nature facts and nature safety. There is a thing called June Gloom, when the ocean is still cool but the air is warm, and the temperature difference creates a thick cloud cover over the coast in the early part of the summer. June Gloom isn’t around today. Today it is sunny and hot, perfect beach weather. We have to sit there and listen to him for so long, explaining which plants to suck on if we get lost and have no water, the possibility of ticks and rattlesnakes.
One of my legs is in direct sunlight. I watch as it slowly turns red and blotchy. I remember the warning on my antibiotics: KEEP OUT OF SUNLIGHT. My mother, as always, is in a rush to get out the door that morning. She instructs me to cover myself in sunscreen before we left, but I forgot my legs. As the years pass, the rash never goes away, only fades with time, eventually settling into a mottling of pale purples and pinks.
I have another bad dream. There is an earthquake, and when the shaking is over the world is in splinters. People are crying and broken. I wake up, afraid, and head to my parents’ room. I am at the foot of the stairs when the real earthquake begins. It lasts somewhere between ten and twenty seconds, a very long time for the earth to be so violent. It destroys freeways and buildings and thousands of lives, but we are 130 miles south, and so all it does for us is knock a few pictures off the wall. By now, I better understand our ownership of these walls. We can paint them, nail into them, but we can’t change their shape unless we get approval from the homeowner’s association. The earth doesn’t need that kind of permission.
In school, I start to see things that aren’t there. Shapes in the air and shapes coming out of the walls. I hear things – bells, alarms, a phone ringing. I can’t hold a normal conversation. My friends don’t want to talk to me anyway. When I try, they won’t look at me – just each other. The world becomes both very loud and very empty.
I’m out of school for two weeks after the suicide attempt. A hospital, another hospital, a few days at home. When I finally go back, they make me see the guidance counselor.
There is another girl sitting in his office already. She wears a pink polo shirt and glasses. She has shiny black hair and when she smiles at me I can see her neat white teeth. I can tell just by looking at her that every morning she wakes up with enough time to shower and blow dry her hair and sit down and eat breakfast. I haven’t even showered for two days.
I am told she is my Peer Assistant Listener, my PAL, my new friend – someone who will help me figure out my studies and the things I’ve missed. My PAL looks friendly and like she wants to help.
We walk back over the hill together, to a bench in the quad under a tree where the surfers sit at lunch, not the ones I’m friends with, but the ones with more money and better grades. As we walk, she says mindless things about Spring Break and spring flowers, and I smile and nod like I know what she’s talking about.
She asks me about the problems I’ve been having. I think maybe I should just say I’ve been really sick, but then I remember what they told me in the hospital: to be honest, because if I’m not completely and totally honest then no one can help me. I want things to be different, so I tell her everything.
She’s facing the sun, and the light reflects off her glasses in a way that makes her look like an angel or alien. It makes it easier to talk and talk. When I’m finished, I wait for her to tell me what to do, how to fix things. But instead she is quiet, acting like someone who has never had much in their life go wrong, someone who has never disappointed anyone for anything.
I switch schools, and then I switch schools again. Eventually I drop out, get my GED and a shitty job at a deli. My delinquent friends and I always hang out at the Highlands, which is the name of a glorified strip mall east of the freeway. This is how you make plans before cell phones – you all show up at the same place and wait. During the day, we sit around, smoke. Some people play cards or chess. At night, we decide on a place to go party, either at a house where somebody’s parents have gone out of town, or in the dirt lots that in a few years will become housing developments and a freeway.
But tonight there is no party. So tonight we take Ecstasy – Mitsubishis, double-stacked – and smoke weed – even better, dotted with little red hairs and sticky crystals – and sit in the parking structure for the office complex that overlooks the shopping center.
The parking structure is dark. When the pills kick in, the lights from the shopping center peek through the concrete walls, glowing so sharp it feels violent. When someone flicks a lighter – for a cigarette, for a bowl – the flame becomes an orb that remains solid in the air, long after it’s actually gone out.
So it is confusing when I see other lights, red and blue, swirling on the ceiling. It is Officer Sanchez, the cop we always deal with because there is not a whole lot else for him to do. We know the drill. We take the remaining drugs out of our pockets and tuck them where hopefully he won’t see, behind the concrete dividers, in our shoes. We leave the cigarettes in case he’s desperate to give us a ticket.
He gets out of the car, shines the flashlight bright in our faces and I feel a pull toward it like the sun but I force myself to stay perfectly still, a statue. I know my eyes are red from the pot, pupils blown from the E. I try to will myself sober.
But he passes over me. He always passes over me. The person he chooses to hassle instead is the person in the group least like the rest of us—Dopey, whose real name I don’t know, who is older, comes from somewhere else, lives out of his van, is short and fat and ugly. His ID doesn’t bear an address with the right ZIP code. He doesn’t know to call the officer “Sir.” He is not one of us, not exactly. He is just a person who hangs around and often has drugs.
Dopey goes off in the back of the police car in handcuffs, on something like an outstanding warrant. We’re not exactly sure because no one really cares. The rest of us stand up because Officer Sanchez makes us. We head back to the tables in front of the movie theater, in order to figure out where we should descend on next.
I am spending the night at Nicole’s. Her mom falls asleep early, and so we walk from her house to the Highlands. Her mom is really sick, cancer or something. She falls asleep early a lot. It is late, really late, maybe two or three in the morning. We had a bonfire off Black Mountain Road earlier in the night and once the cops broke it up there was nowhere else to go so most everyone went home. Me, Nicole, Bobby, Fletcher, this girl Becca – we are all that’s left.
I don’t know why we decide to look in the dumpster. We are back there, in the dark alley behind the Rite-Aid, because we don’t want the cops to find us and make us go home. I guess if you put a handful of teens in an alley with a dumpster and not much else, it’s inevitable they will eventually get into it.
The first thing we find are the clothes. They are lying right on top of the garbage and cardboard boxes. A fake fur jacket that fits me perfectly, some miniskirts and tube tops and sparkly dresses, expensive brands like Guess? and Bebe, all new, some still with the price tags attached. We don’t notice the blood until some of it smears on Becca’s hand. We don’t stop because it seems like a joke.
Underneath the clothes are a single pair of shoes, Nine West, with the heels worn down to stubs, and a purse. In the purse are girl things – a few tampons, some lipstick, a folding mirror. I get to keep the mirror. There is also a wallet, some receipts. A bunch of credit cards, an ID. No cash. The receipts and the ID all have addresses in Arizona.
We stand there for a while, trying to figure out what to do. We could call the cops, but then they’d know we are here, and we’d have to give everything back. We contemplate taking the credit cards to see if they still work, but decide that will probably get us in trouble. In the end, we divide up the clothes. In addition to the jacket and the mirror, I also get a skirt, some brand I’ve never heard of but real cute with the tag still on. Becca has a bunch of brothers and sisters and her parents never give her money, so she gets the purse and the nicest of the clothes. Nicole gets all the tops because she’s too tall for anything else.
We don’t talk about the things in the dumpster. Instead, we just look at each other with secret smiles when we wear the clothes. Whenever people compliment me on the coat, I just say thank you, but in my head, I add “I got it from a dead woman.” I try to feel bad about it, to feel guilty, complicit in my part of a crime, but it never works out. It’s my favorite coat.
I’ve worked at this wine store for almost three years. Actually, technically it is a grocery store, but the food selection is limited and the wine selection is extensive. Plus ‘wine store’ sounds more glamorous than grocery, so that is what I call it.
The Persian owner, Abraham, likes me. Almost immediately he lets me pour at the wine tastings, which are in the back every Saturday. It’s boring sometimes, just standing there while a bunch of yuppies try to impress each other with their knowledge of wine, using that strange vocabulary of legs and tannins and mouth feel. But mostly I like it – a reason to wear something other than t-shirts, a break from the monotony of the cash register. I like imitating the grace required to serve rich people, the tilt and then flick of my wrist as I noiselessly pour wine into the glasses, just enough for two good-sized sips.
One weekend, the wine store sponsors some charity event for the hospital. Abraham wants me to go and pour. I’d get my hourly wage plus a hundred bucks. I’d be stupid to not say yes.
The event is on the rooftop of a shopping center in the most coastal part of town, one level above a previous job I held in an actual grocery store, with both an extensive food selection as well as an extensive wine selection. The type of grocery store that has a whole aisle worth of oil, truffle and almond and avocado, olive oil imported directly from Italy that costs sixty dollars for a tiny bottle.
The roof overlooks the resort across the street, and after that, the ocean. The day is bright and clear, the ocean sapphire blue with pure white caps of foam, as though it’s trying to look its prettiest for the occasion. I am wearing a dress, one of my nicest, floral and full-skirted and from the sixties. I had thought it was perfect, until the guests began to arrive. Suddenly I become very aware of the odd tea-shaded stain on the shoulder, the unraveling of thread on the sash. Suddenly I wish I’d known to put on a simple black sheath.
I’ve been around rich people plenty, but as I stand there, fidgeting with the bottles to make sure they are lined up perfectly, it occurs to me I’ve never been around this many people who were all this rich. You can tell by their clothes, which only have the designer brand names on the scarves and handbags, and are all crisp and boring, cotton and linen and suede in non-offensive earth tones. But mostly you can tell by the non-removable parts. The breasts are high and firm. The noses thin and pointed, but just ever so slightly. Golden and even tans.
A man comes up who Nicole might describe as a “silver fox”: graying hair at the temples, but pretty blue eyes and a face cut like a Ken doll. He asks for a Pinot Grigio. There is a silk handkerchief sticking out of the pocket of his sports jacket. I pour and then hand him the wine. Our fingers touch as he takes the glass from me. He smiles, asks my name. I don’t hear him at first because I am distracted by his teeth, as white and sharp-looking as the Big Bad Wolf. They are all perfectly even, no gaps, almost all of them the exact same size. Veneers. He asks me for my name again. I lie. He asks what I’m doing later. I lie. He slides a 20 across the tablecloth, even though there is a small sign that says in delicate script No tips. I smile at him, laugh a little, not because I want to, but because the smile is something he’s purchased and I am obliged to supply.
I leave Del Mar. I come back. I get sick. I get well again. I get sick again. I get well. I leave. I get sober. I get on the proper combination of medication. I get sick again anyway. After several years of living in another state, I am back again. I move back into my childhood home.
Because I don’t yet have a job, don’t yet know what to do with myself, I start this weird public journaling thing. A few days into it, I begin to go down to the beach at night to take pictures.
The beach at night is terrifying. It has an odd feel to it, a heaviness to the air. I figure it’s simply because on a dark beach at night, you only hear the sounds of another person when they’re right next to you because the surf is so loud. The odd way the lights from the cars on the 101 glint off the waves. But one night on a path that nobody knows about unless you’ve lived in the neighborhood for years, I see a man. He is coming from the other direction. He is carrying something. It looks like an ax. I tell myself to not be afraid, it surely isn’t an ax, it’s surely just another person like me, someone who likes the beach at night.
As we pass each other, I say hi. He says hi back, in a tight pinched voice like I’ve scared him. I can’t make out his face, but I can see he is indeed carrying an ax.
I get well again, this time, I hope, for good. I leave, this time, I hope, for good. Instead of oceans, the new place I live has mountains.
One day, a friend from home sends me an email. It consists of “Have you seen this?” and then a link. The link is to a recent news article. It discusses the suicide of a man. The man committed suicide because he was charged with some crimes. The crimes were decades ago – two murders, six years apart, especially terrible. Both teen girls, both strangled, beat up, raped with something rough enough to cause lacerations. Sand stuffed in their mouths, their nipples cut off. The more recent murder was on my second birthday. Their bodies were discovered at two separate lifeguard towers – numbers five and seven, the two closest to my house. The lifeguard towers where we once ate burrito picnics as a family.