A pear can break a window if you throw it hard enough, which David has done, shattering the top pane of the patio door, the sound lost in the blast of our crazy loud backyard. Half the block is here for a barbecue on a blazing hot Sunday afternoon, knocking back beers from Styrofoam coolers, holding sweaty shouted conversations over the racket of Pacheco Boulevard.
The road didn’t go through when we bought the house. Two laner dead ending in a grove of orange trees, but now it’s a six lane cluster fuck tearing through the northwest San Fernando Valley straight to the 101. Non-stop traffic noise and exhaust fumes amplified by endless concrete and the glorious California sun. Orange groves destroyed. Property values ruined. Grounds for a lawsuit, my parents tell every new visitor. The city will pay.
David and I are at the far end of the yard so he can teach me how to throw a baseball. Our parents decided it. Ordered it. I throw girly, am marked at school for it. David is popular (masculine). David can teach me how to throw (be manly). But the parents have stopped paying attention, and David has stopped pretending to teach, dropping the baseball to throw pears directly at my head. Harder and harder. Shriveled little juiceless blobs, organic hand-grenades. Run, Dorothy, run (my nickname since third grade when I got caught singing the Wizard of Oz song while I skipped across the playground).
Each lands like battlefield shrapnel, and I run, reaching the patio door just as the glass shatters in front of me, ice crystals in the sun. The blame falls to me as I hold paper towels to the blood on my neck, my cheek. My catching skills are as unsuitable as my throwing.
Of course you won’t pay for it! my mother insists. He was only trying to help. We’ll cover it.
I’m ordered to tape a piece of cardboard over the hole, then sent to my room for embarrassing them (her) again.
Nightfall and they’re gone, noise amplified by the darkness. I climb out my second story window and sit on the red tile roof in the dark. Listen to the cars blasting by. The cars my parents hate. My parents, my family, the whole neighborhood, I’m the only one who loves it, the boulevard that ruined our property, the rumble of machinery, the backfiring exhausts, the snippets of thumping Banda music, the beautiful discordant evidence that people sometimes get the fuck out of here.
My sister is dating a low-rider. Metallic red Cadillac El Dorado sliding along Pacheco Boulevard like a serpent to scoop her up for the prom. Santa Maria de Guadalupe in big letters across the back window. Carlos in maroon tuxedo with purple ruffled shirt, hair slicked back. Mom freaks. My daughter’s not going out with cholo trash. Is he even in high school?
Alicia is out the door before she can be forbidden to leave the house, rips the purple add-on sleeves from her shimmering disco dress and throws them in the back seat. Sleeves sewn on by the Mormon lady on our street who makes extra money adding modesty fabric to prom dresses.
Mom yells, fine, run away then. Don’t come to me when you’re in trouble.
As the car slithers away. Did you know she was dating a criminal?
I lie and say no.
I like Carlos. Liked him ever since he and Alicia took me out to see the forbidden and horrible Nightmare on Elm Street, forbidden because I’m too old to be crawling in to bed with my parents, because I’m too old to be having my own nightmares.
You’re too sensitive. Like a little kid. Just like a little girl (mom’s favorite insult).
Why didn’t you tell me they were dating? You know she’s looking for trouble. You used to love to tattle on her.
I didn’t know, I say.
I can always tell when you’re lying. Your voice goes up an octave (mom teaches piano lessons – uses musical terms for everything), like a girl, like a shrieking little girl (again), and then I know you’re lying. You need to talk like a man. The other kids. Think what happens at school.
But he’s nice. I say.
But he is nice.
Nice enough that when I got so damn scared in the movie that when I jumped in my seat and grabbed his hand, he let me. Even squeezed it and held it for a while, held it while he also held Alicia’s. And we both leaned on his shoulders, and he just held us there, held us both. Didn’t flinch for a minute.
In the car heading home (tracing my fingers around Santa Maria) Alicia says thanks for being so cool with my brother. Family is family, Carlos says.
Mom asks me again. Why didn’t you tell me?
And I say it again, and this time my voice stays low, steady.
I didn’t know.
Mom stares me down thinking she has some mental superpowers that will force confession, harrumphs and walks toward the kitchen where my dad is scrambling eggs for supper. Don’t be so rough on him. He’s not the one we should be worried about. Leave him out of it. His voice is quiet. Calmer than my mother’s.
Fine. You’re the one waiting up then.
She stomps upstairs, each footfall rattling the wrought iron bannister, to let us know she’s mad.
Dad calls. Eggs if you want. Toast too. Come on.
I walk to the kitchen, sit down at the table, traffic lights reflected in the windows. I hope they fall in crazy love. I hope they run away. I hope they rob a bank and run away and make the fucking news.
All through dinner my phone buzzes, lights blinking through my pocket. Alicia. She’s texted me every day since she started grad school at Berkeley. Snaps of gray stone buildings. The Oakland Hills covered in eucalyptus leaves so green they’re almost blue. Coffee shops. Women’s rights rallies. The last independent record store in California.
Her last message is a selfie, Alicia on sparkling blue bay, San Francisco skyline behind her. Congratulations! Can’t wait for fall! Get your ass here now!
Dad says congratulations and hugs me for the first time in a year (two? three?). Mom pretends to be having a change of heart (It’s a great school!) but then asks how soon I’ll be hearing from other colleges. You applied to Northridge, right? (She knows I did. She and my counselor are new best friends.) Mom’s hard line (their hard line) since day one has been stay here where you know how things work, where things are good. Berkeley is huge. Competitive. You’ll get overwhelmed. Bay Area politics are aggressive (she’s never been there – Angeleno snobbery), and believe it or not, Northridge has a better music program. Stick with your classmates, keep your piano teacher (Miss Harris — Eccentric and serious — Juilliard trained but home to take care of her mother).
I pull the letter from my back pocket as I walk upstairs to my room. All I have to do is log on to calberkeley.edu and click “enroll.” I’ll figure it out. Get a job. Crash with Alicia until I find a place.
I toss my backpack on the bed under the Cal Bears banner, a bright blue slash between Rihanna and the Velvet Underground. Alicia sent it to me when I applied (not a college banner kind of guy, but it serves its purpose, pushes me).
I hear them downstairs.
He’ll flunk out by Spring Semester (Mom). And anyway, I’m not paying a dime to have my son converted to Marxism by a bunch of out-of-touch hippies.
The hippies are all retired or dead now. The capitalists won. Get a new story (Dad).
You know what I mean. What if he can’t handle it?
He mumbles something, and the room goes quiet.
I’m looking at my trig homework when she taps on my door.
Did you talk to your counselor?
I don’t want to go to Northridge.
But it’s really the best choice.
You just think Alicia and I are going to get into trouble in Berkeley. You think I’m going to join a commune or something.
She steps further into the room. I know you think I’m being mean, killing your dreams, big evil mom. But I’m not. I’m not the villain here.
Then let me go.
You think it will be so wonderfully different, a place that embraces everything you are, don’t you?
I’m silent. We haven’t talked about “everything you are” before.
But people can be cruel everywhere. This magical place in your head doesn’t exist.
Well it’s still better than this place.
I’ve watched over you your whole life. Tried to help you so they’d stop teasing you, stop bullying.
You made me play with boys who hated me.
So they didn’t kill you.
She stands at the foot of the bed now. Her voice is quieter, has lost its edge.
If you go I can’t protect you.
I don’t need protecting.
We all do, honey. Even the strongest.
I bury my face in the pillow, my signal that the conversation is over (it wasn’t over).
She shuts the door.
The evening traffic on Pacheco Boulevard has slowed to a crawl as cars line up to enter the Hollywood Freeway. The smoke and dust of exhaust, factory waste, and dead lawns swirls up in the evening heat and shrouds the Hollywood Hills.
My whisper of thanks is silenced by the blast of horns, the revving of engines. But I mean it.