It’s my second month in L.A., and I’ve already forgotten about pizza. New York feels like years ago, and the only thing that matters now is wood ear mushroom, pork bao, and beef noodles. They arrive plump on Chinese porcelain and slam down and slap awesome like we do on a Friday night.
“Baby,” he draws out, “I’ve missed you!” Shi flips nails to his hair, where a bob sheens and cuts black to his jaw. Swarthy skin rolls over high cheekbones, and dark eyes slide into the hills of them. Our friendship ensued the morning of first-day math when Shi rolled in late, with chopped locks and powdered-blue eyes, telling Miss Tammy he was Cleopatra. It’s something you don’t forget when you’re white as crack and draw eyebrows any shape you want ’cause you have none. I smile. The summer sets hot, and shapes swallow into the horizon.
We collect beneath suspending umbrellas and loopy lights that prop a Chinese joint, Oodle My Noodle. Hipness is totally unadulterated here. Its neon sign attracts hipsters and queens who slant in sideways and curve cool on benches that bark smooth. Bulbs swing over, where folks slurp grease, and plants make shapes with their hands. They pose against walls where trellises spiral up and over to shield us from warm open air. All kinds of haircuts walk through the door. This time of night brings nuts.
Shi eyes the wall and shakes jewels. “This place used to be ratchet,” he says, “but these noods are fire.” He slides down a noodle and flutters his lashes.
Beside me, a heart-faced brunette flows. She fashions long everything: hair, nails, eyelashes, the whole shebang. That’s Valentina, my best pal. And her roaring laugh, a close second. Her eyes bulge brown and leak thin stems of mascara to the edge of her face.
“Where is our waiter?” she moans and flings a hand. Her dramatic flail sends the three of us cackling, and we gaggle like geese over rice cakes and buns. We chomp colorful vegetables and drip orange from our teeth; nothing can touch us. Wine takes loops around my head, and we flap the feathery feel of youth. Back with my amigas, in the City of Angels, nineteen feels good.
V shares a story that causes our eyes to widen and our voices to shriek.
“Stop!” Shi cries. “You’re giving me wrinkles!” We smooth our foreheads in sync and
quack down noodles that burn guts. Our heads toss gossip, and, 30 weeks pregnant, V glows like disco.
“A dingo ate my baby!” I sham in an Aussi accent. I feign pregnancy and hold my belly next to hers, “They’re going to be best friends.” We clank cups of ducked-in Jack and swirl in pleasure.
“To kings!” Shi says and raises a glass. “We’ll outlive them all!” Dizzy with the jive, we snort and roll laughter that spills in the sky. Oil wafts over and burns the air.
A waiter leans close and lowers her eyes. “Done, hunnies?” That’s Ace. She sneaks wine to our cups when her boss peeks out. Jack and wine don’t mix hot, but it cuts the stack. Besides, we’re just looking for kicks. Brown and green sauces illuminate on the table and pool under our plates. Sometimes they mix and form new hues.
Night arrives when Ace pops the check and swipes our glasses. We scrape hoisin and soy from remaining rice cakes and pull coats to our arms. “Be good.” She waves.
The three of us platform out, and our hairs fuse in a swarm of blacks and browns. With a goodbye, we swim apart.
Shi disappears around the block, and V and I take up a hill. Biting winds prick our faces, and sharp air jabs. “We should have taken a taxi,” V says.
Looming clouds blow cans in the dark, and parting away from the main road, the street takes us.
Silence falls by the trees and V loops an arm through mine. Fixed above, streetlamps and telephone poles hum, the soundless sky drops stars that hang and wisp, and we pass through clouds of mosquitoes that nest and buzz. Slicing the dead gray air with our bodies, we slap our heels and challenge the silence. We glide up the hill where my car waits, dark and crouched, beneath a tree hanging fruit.
In between the winds, a noise shakes close, then closer, and all at once, with a gasp, a breath held, and an arm clutched, steps pull out, and I am taken by a violent hand that opens forward. It snatches my bag. “Argh!” it growls. V screams belligerent, and a hazy presence shuffles and pants loudly.
“Scram, you freak!” I howl. I jolt the bag, and neon stripes swing and glow purple. In a cloud of scuff, a shadow appears. Round and vague, it blurs the sky and forms wild and weird with the trees. V swings a foot at the moving figure and grips my arm to heed security.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” I roar. Words fire from my mouth and shoot off my breath. “Get lost!” I snarl. V and I stand strong and hold back, but a boney claw stiffs hard and locks to the bag. Boots kick, and little rainbow shapes spill down the road from V’s necklace. I slip her arm from mine and tell her to get back. She shuffles behind, drops to the ground, and searches her bag with haste. “Sweet Jesus,” I hear her mutter. Straps wind up her legs and sparkle in the dark.
I swing my body and flap the bag like a sandwich. A pink lip gloss flies out sideways and the other items rattle inside: a small leather wallet with a creased-up photo of Ma and Pa on their wedding day; a small, wrapped trinket of a dancing lady my brother brought back from a trip to the desert; a lighter; some smokes; and a stone I found on a beach in New York that looks like an eye with a red pupil. Not two bucks more to my name, the mercado bag shakes its insides about to spit up.
Hands move over the plastic, and I think about my brother Boe running around the Teotihuacan pyramids, sweltering, the month before he died, and the lady selling bags who looked like she was melting. I feel my chest well and return to the instant where a strong blow ricochets my elbow and forces me to meet its pull.
It yanks the bag hard. “Gimme!” it grunts.
Drawing up from the sleeve of a floating hoodie, a streetlight hits to show life around the rims of two eyes that peer into mine. A dark face wades. Soft features shape smoothly around the edges of a gray mask, and pieces of dark hair curl from a hood. Sounds and movements obfuscate in the dark, and bodies seem to loom in and out of each other. I learn there are two. The second hoodie hovers behind, larger, and casting a shadow that bends and blows with the quiet branches. It lingers back by a car sitting low to the ground that has moving shapes inside. A car that will eventually slice traffic in two and skid black to the pavement. I clock the possibility of a cloaked weapon and think of the knife I left on the bathroom counter with a carving on the side: There is an old illusion, it is called good and evil. It makes me chuckle.
This bum’s going down.
Limbs and legs flash and mismatch; skin flails. We dance diabolical and words pull violently off my tongue. V becomes my peripheral and, continuing to rough her bag, she pulls out a phone. “Calling the cops!” she taunts and slides around her acrylics. Faking a dial, she pretends with her fingers, talons that don’t even work in real life. Amused by the theater of it all, I smirk and send eyes.
A big yank from the hoodie sends fire up my throat. “You freak!” I yell. A cloud moves over to watch, and the street sits unbothered. In a moment of pause, I am suddenly aware of my vessels and bones and the intricate shapes they might form underneath. A grand pull of the bag burns my fingers, and I look to my hands. They open.
Like a ghost in a grave, the body floats back and thuds to the ground.
“That’s a 30-cent mercado bag, ya cheap nut,” I yell. “Take it!” I can’t help but laugh.
He crabs away on four and jerks like a sick rat holding the bag.
“Yo, V!” I cry out, but before the words reach her, the hoodie swings up, draws a can
from his pouch, and shoots a hand forward. He mists pepper to his own face, and it contorts like electricity. Water forms in his eyes. He spits furiously. V and I stare agog, mouths open.
“This ain’t real!” I shout.
We blow wild like bulls and spasm with laughter. Our bellies crack as we observe the figure worming away, disoriented. It swings up, pivots, and bashes face-into a pole.
Dropping cold to the ground, a stillness sets in the air.
“Freakin’ klutz!” I yell. I punch the sky and my sleeve shines gold. The whole thing is neat. I slide close and peer into the hood where a face flats and leaks small words.
“Please,” it whimpers.
I smooth back a hair. V hums a tune and I chime in.
“When you’re strange…” I bop, “…no one remembers your name… ” We toss grins and swing hips.
Suddenly, a sound blasts from the car and it guns off, disappearing in the length of the road. The hoodie rips away, and I chase the flailing blob. My boots slide over beads, and I grab a fist of his fabric.
“Let me go!” he barks.
I yank the purse and tear it from his hands. Tossing it to the side, I feel my eyes twist. “No friends now, princess.”
I palm his body and draw him close. Chin to chin, my voice changes, “You’re gonna lick my boot, kid.”
“Kill him!” V shouts from behind.
The hood drops to reveal a young face and eyes that bulge. My pits melt like crayons and groove waves down my sides.
“Watch this,” I say to the face. My foot moves up, and in a grand swing, I shoot a boot through his belly. The body splats and lies quiet with the night.
I move to see red in his teeth. “Please,” he wails.
A hand rises, and I crack it with my boot. Nothing moves. Red swells in the pavement and lines the curb. The red looks cool in the way it grows, and the silence feels nice. I wipe sweat from my lip and turn to V. Her eyes expose and show the moon. “Gimme one,” I say. V throws a cigarette, and I catch with my right. I pull a light to my face and take a suck. “I love reds.”
I let off of the body and glance down the vacant roads. “Where you wanna go?” I say. She holds her belly and gleams, “Maya wants a shake.”
“Call Shi,” I say, “tell him to meet us at our spot.”
I drag the lump off the sidewalk, and one swift kick sends it rolling into the mouth of a ravine that eats hot trash for dinner. My stomach cramps. I’m probably hungry too.
Wet-lipped and beat, we swoop up to our car, head south, and pull up tight to the diner on Third. An orange rides the back wiper the whole way there.
Black coffee, a chocolate shake, and a piece of cherry pie. They slide across the table, and we gobble like goons.
“The best!” I raise a fork. “Swear to God.” The walls glow turquoise and bounce light off the table.
A waitress tosses napkins, and winks. “Enjoy, kids.”
Midbite, Shi busts through the door and slides down the aisle. He mops the floor with his pants, and a thin silhouette can be made out beneath his flowing linens. “What’d I miss?” he shouts.
I shove red in my mouth. “Good ol’ American cherry pie, baby,” I gargle “nothing rides better.” V clacks her nails and plays with her straw. “Just your mom,” she snorts. The waiter rolls her eyes and mutters something. Some people are just kooks.
The cherry is tart and pangs the back of my jaw.
Back with my Amigos in the City of Angels, I can’t help but rumble.