RARE items from the universe
originally published in Glimmer Train
It was an El Nino summer and the streets of Laguna Beach were packed with surfers and street artists peddling paintings of sunsets and Crystal Cove. Everyone was tired from the seventies and seemed to be settling down. We rented a one-bedroom bungalow, the floors a milk-white tile. From the cramped kitchen we had a view of the water. Joanne said this was more important than having our own bedrooms. And from where we slept I could hear the crush of waves. I imagined myself with a boy I might tongue kiss until morning.
“It’s like we’re roommates,” she said as we dragged our mattress across the courtyard. I was fifteen. I started calling my mother by her first name, Joanne
The first week in Laguna we ate Thai food every night from the place across the street. In the mornings we got coffee and walked to get our bearings. When we got tired we took bath towels to lay on the beach. We watched surfers climb in and out of the water, their swim trunks clinging to the inside of their thighs. They were breathless and beaming and looked like they’d seen God.
It was 1982, and my father had left us that winter. He moved to Pensacola, Florida with his accountant Beth Anne. We didn’t say his name after that. My mother, a buttoned-up Midwestern woman, sold everything we owned, including our house. And in June, she packed us both into the station wagon to go west.
We drove in the day, and at night we slept in cheap motels with dried out pools. We ate things I was never fed in our old life, like beef jerky sticks and Pepsi. We listened to the radio loud with the windows down. The world felt endless and remarkably flat to me. I saw on my mother a certain kind of desperation so foreign to me I didn’t yet have words for it. I knew suddenly, I had been bored my entire life. We were barreling across the painful flats of Nebraska when she said to me, “Bee, it’s an adventure. A chance to start over. It’s a new life.”
“Yeah, Mom. It is an adventure,” I said.
I had my feet out the window and I wanted to hug her. I wasn’t the one in that car who needed convincing. I knew this even at fourteen.
On our first Saturday, we woke at sunrise and climbed into the station wagon in search of garage sales. We rumbled down the empty Pacific Coast Highway. Salted, wet air stung my eyes and a dense summer fog had yet to burn off. We drove in silence. I wondered if she ever missed my father like I did.
Joanne had an eye for finer things. She wove through tables and boxes of belongings all morning. But too much of it looked like what we’d owned: Pyrex, mahogany, and mauve table runners. We came to a house high in the hills. A cardboard sign at the end of the driveway read: Rare items from the universe. The front door was painted red, and a collection of wind chimes sparkled and rang in the ocean breeze.
Joanne and I ran our fingers over everything: dishes in bright blues and yellows, bamboo napkin rings, macramé plant holders, and a full-length golden gilded mirror. One by one we set these items aside. “How about these,” she asked.
“Perfect,” I said every time. She looked proud, as if we were going to be okay because these things.
A large woman with bright blonde hair and a purple velvet sleeveless dress came from the house, a black pug on her heels like a suitor. She walked toward us with her arms outstretched like she’d been expecting us. I wondered for a moment if Joanne knew her in a different part of her life. But I didn’t know anything about the different parts of her life.
“Cecile,” the woman said, introducing herself.
“Joanne. And this is Bee.”
I waved. Cecile peered at our pile and said, “The women have good taste.”
“How much for all of these?” Joanne asked.
“Everything, including the mirror, I’ll take twenty five.”
Joanne counted single bills between her thin fingers, her pink nail polish chipped away. “I only have nineteen. We could do without the mirror,” she said. I could see the embarrassment on her face. Money had never been a problem in our old life. But my father hadn’t sent a check since we’d moved.
“Then, nineteen it is,” said Cecile. She draped her wide arm over my mother’s boney shoulders. The two could not have been more different. My mother wore her bland brown hair curled, and a cashmere sweater with slacks. Her posture was stiff and her smile thin.
“How long have you been here?” Cecile asked us.
“Maybe twenty minutes,” I said.
“No, Hun, here! Here, I mean.” She threw her hands up in the air and turned in a slow circle.
“Less than a week,” said Joanne.
“Right, of course,” said Cecile.
“Which ones are the rare items from the universe?” I asked.
“Yes,” Cecile said, and smiled at me. She went back into the house without another word.
“Maybe we should just go?” said Joanne.
“I like her,” I said.
We loaded our new things into the back of the station wagon. The sun had come up over the hills and the marine layer faded. The morning became hot and bright, the kind of day where the palms rustle and the gulls head for the water. When Cecile came back she was holding a cardboard box.
“You know there are a few things that set apart someone new from the locals,” Cecile said. She set the box down in the driveway. It was filled with sticky lemons with the stems and leaves still attached, and fat ripe avocados the size of my fist from her trees out back. On top was a pair of white sunglasses and a Moroccan-blue silk scarf.
“Give me the sweater,” Cecile said to Joanne.
Joanne hesitated, but then carefully unbuttoned and handed it over. She stood in her shite undershirt, her lace bra showing through in the sunlight. And then as if Cecile were playing with a Barbie, she tied the silk scarf into Joanne’s hair and set on her face the sunglasses, a pair of white Vuarnet frames, like a cherry on a sundae.
Everyone turned to me for approval.
“You look like a movie star,” I said. It was true. That was the first time I caught a glimpse of my mother, as Joanne.
Cecile stood as if she’d finished a painting, admiring her work. “Why don’t you come down to my shop, The Chakra Shack, and see me tomorrow, love,” she said, and hugged us both.
I was surprised by how quick this new life enveloped us. Our new habits felt like we’d always had them. Joanne worked at The Chakra Shack in the mornings while I was left to entertain myself watching tourists and flirting with surfers. In the afternoons we put on records and observed Rainbow Hour, a time when then sunlight perfectly hit the crystals hanging in our front window and sent glittered colors across every wall. Our small apartment slowly acquired furniture: a leather couch and a wicker table, a record player and a sizeable collection of vinyl. Joanne stopped wearing nylons. I found them bunched in the bathroom trashcan with a pile of bobby pins and three tubes of lipstick. She stopped curling her hair and started wearing denim.
One afternoon she came home with a 35mm Pentax camera. Cecile gave it to her as a gift for surviving an entire month on our own.
“I’m a photographer now,” she said, and took pictures of me lying on the couch while I read T.S Elliot poems.
“Act like I’m not here,” she said, “like you don’t know your picture is being taken.”
She’d bought me the shortest pair of denim shorts I’d ever owned. I was wearing them in the photographs with a striped tank top and sneakers. In one of them the book is covering my face but I can tell by the way my knees are drawn into the air that I was laughing.
El Nino was a furious thing. The waves crashed against the shore, and sent surfers over the falls in gnarled shapes. I would wake early in the morning and walk out wrapped in an afghan to watch them paddle and bob in the water between sets. The air was cold and wet in those hours and it seemed like a kind of madness to be out there.
One morning an envelope came from my father and I had to hide my excitement from Joanne. I took my letter out to the beach and lay in the sun with it. Whatever I wanted it to say, it didn’t. The whole thing was an account of how much better his life was in Florida, and what his apartment looked like with Beth Anne. He asked if I’d like to come stay with him and said he hoped California was treating us well. He was surprised by our move. Your mother never much liked the sunshine to begin with,he wrote. I read the letter several times and decided I too wanted nothing to do with him. I buried it in the sand next to my towel.
Joanne joined me in her Vuarnets and a blue crochet swimsuit. She smoked Virginia Slims now, and let me have one if I asked. The ocean breeze carried our smoke far away. I was thinking about my father and wondering if he now also looked so incredibly different than before. Joanne stared out at the ocean and sat propped up on her elbows.
“You think this is alright? You think people get second chances?” she said.
“I don’t know anything about chances,” I said.
“I suppose you don’t, really.”
“What were you like before you married dad?”
“I don’t remember,” she said.
“I don’t believe you.”
“No, really. I’ve been trying to remember. I was only nineteen when I got pregnant with you and married him. I don’t think I was anyone yet.”
“Weird,” I said.
That afternoon we went for a drive up into the canyon to collect bundles of sage to wrap with red string and sell in The Chakra Shack. We rolled all the car windows down and smoked and sang Carly Simon because she was on the radio a lot that summer. On the way back we stopped at a café. We sat in the sun and rested our feet on the empty chairs at the table. The parking lot was dirt and the waitress was wearing a red bandana around her neck, a style I very much liked.
When the waitress came to the table we were laughing about something and she said, “The two of you passing through or you locals?”
“Locals,” I said.
Joanne said, “My sister here and I came from Minnesota just a few weeks ago.” And she eyed me from behind her sunglasses.
“I wish I had a sister,” the waitress said. She pulled out her pad of paper and then a pen from her bun.
Joanne smiled. “Yeah, it’s great.”
I was excited to be in on the ruse and thrilled I came off old enough to be considered her peer.
“We will both have the veggie sandwich and Pacificos,” Joanne said. She set down her menu triumphantly and relaxed back into her plastic patio chair. We sat there for a long time, drinking our beer slow and ordering another. Our sandwiches were the size of half my face, stuffed with creamy avocados, sprouts, and homemade hummus.
“Cecile said the full moon tonight should bring us something new, a new phase she said.” Joanne was watching strangers while she spoke.
I was watching Joanne that afternoon, how she held her beer, and how she slouched. There was all this new territory of her being exposed through every movement. And I was equally fascinated as I was uneasy.
On the way home we came around a bend in the canyon. And I do not know if I saw him first or if she did, but we both went silent at the same time.
“No,” I said.
“Because picking up a hitchhiker is the start of every horror movie ever.”
“Things like that don’t happen in places like this,” she said.
She turned on her blinker, slowed the car to the side of the road, and leaned over me toward the window to say hi.
Luke was tall and twenty-three. He wore yellow board shorts and a black t-shirt. I sat wedged between him and Joanne on the bench seat. His strong thighs rested in the sun as we drove. His limbs were long and sinewy, as if the ocean had stretched him since birth. He constantly brushed his long hair to the side with his right hand. His surfboard stuck out the back window and filled the car with the sweet thick smell of surf wax.
“It’s better down here,” he said. “I hear it’s catching some crazy southern swell from Mexico. We aren’t getting it up north.”
I liked the way he spoke. I liked the way he kept his face in the wind like a dog. When our arms brushed one another, I liked this as well.
“You can just take me as far as you’re going,” he said.
“We’re going all the way to the ocean,” I said.
“Right on,” he said.
“Right on,” said Joanne.
“Where’d you come from?” I asked.
“I’ve been hitching down the coast. Started up in Half Moon and been hitting all the good breaks along the way. I’m meeting some friends here, and then Mexico.”
Joanne said he looked hungry, and she insisted he stay with us until his other friends got to town. He could sleep on the couch. He could teach me to surf.
“Might be nice to have a man around the house for a little bit,” she said. When she smiled at him she lit up in a way I hadn’t seen. The three of us rumbled along toward the sea. Joanne turned up the radio, and everything changed after that.
There were two halves to the summer of ’82, the divider being Luke on the side of that road. Luke’s arrival and presence brought a constant and rotating cast of characters to our little house – surfers and musicians, beautiful young men who glittered in the sun and taught me how to roll joints and the importance of listening to the lyrics in a Bob Dylan song. The women were friends of my mothers, women who frequented or worked at The Chakra Shack and gave tarot readings and drew your aura with crayons. Cecile served as mother hen to the misshapen family, always taking care of us. It never occurred to me to make my own friends. I am not even sure where I would have found them.
I came home one afternoon during Rainbow Hour and Joanne was posed topless on the leather couch. A painter I’d seen on the boardwalk had his brush between his teeth and head tilted as he worked. She wore a pair of white linen pants, her hair wet, and her round pink nipples soft in the hot sun. It was not her nakedness that bothered me. Luke was in the kitchen smoking a spliff with a girl I’d never seen before. She leaned against the counter with her long tan leg bent so their kneecaps touched. I was hungry and the smoke went to my head. I’d been in the sun all day and wanted to take a nap but there was someone already doing so in my bed.
“Hey kid,” Luke said to me. He rubbed the back of my head, but not in the way I wanted to be touched by him. I’d recently walked into the bathroom and saw him naked. I lay awake at night and rehearsed every detail afraid I would ever forget. The casualness in his voice made me feel like a stranger in my house.
“Mom, there’s no food.” The refrigerator had been empty for a week, nothing but wine and condiments, some cilantro and chilled gel facemasks.
“I was going to run to the store today.”
“Okay. Well I’m hungry.”
“Okay well, then feed yourself,” she said.
I just stared at her. My mother would never have an empty refrigerator or speak to me like she was the teenager. But Joanne would. And this was the first time I recognized its weight on me. And it was too much of a good thing. I had a sudden and overwhelming urge to chuck the painting in the ocean. I wanted my mother but I couldn’t ask for her because she was high and naked and we were never alone.
Cecile, who was sitting at the kitchen table sorting through seashells and sand dollars, interjected, as Cecile often did, sweeping everyone along to keep us in order.
“Why don’t we run to the store, darling,” she said. Her hand rested on my sunburnt shoulders. “My car is out front.” She edged me out of the apartment. I could feel everyone looking at me. And this only upset me further, my neck hot and my eyes full of tears.
Cecile drove an old Cadillac, a big boat of a car. It suited her. When we got to the store I opened a jar of green olives and ate from that, my fingers oily and salted. I rubbed them on my jean shorts and followed Cecile. She put basic survival things in the cart that I could make on my own. I ate a lot of eggs for every meal, hardboiled and cut up on toast.
“It wasn’t like this before,” I said to Cecile.
“No I don’t imagine it was,” she said.
“I’m not being mean about it, but jeez, sometimes I need her to be my mom and not my roommate and put some fucking clothes on.”
“But, you have to know it’s all a very big deal for your mother.”
“To be on her own. To be a woman on your own is a big deal. And to be your mother at the same time. She’ll figure it out.” She was checking the eggs in the carton one by one as she spoke to me.
When we got home the house was emptied and Joanne was putting things away into their nooks and proper places, records into their sleeves. Her air felt apologetic though she didn’t say it out loud. She took the groceries from my hand and said, “You want something. I’ll make breakfast for dinner. How about pancakes?”
“We didn’t get pancake stuff,” I said.
“Oh, then ok, something else.”
Cecile said, “I’m going to head home, must feed the dogs.” She left us standing alone in our house and not sure how to talk to each other.
Joanne put away the groceries one at a time. She’d been drunk or high earlier and I could tell in the slow way she moved her limbs. In this act though, there were flittering moments of my mother in our old house, cupboards open and organizing cans and boxes of cereal. And I could understand a little of what Cecile meant. I could see in my mother a frantic oscillation in and out of her two selves, like a Venn diagram of a person. And I was at odds with which one I liked and which one I needed, angry when she was one or the other.
The first time I tongue kissed a boy was just a few days later. Luke took me surfing in San Clemente. The waves had mellowed out and the beach was perfect for beginners, small larfy sets that couldn’t hurt me. He drove our station wagon and we drank Pacifico in the parking lot. He told me stories about living in Brazil one summer and how everyone down there smoked, and how days passed by, and how pretty all the women were.
“It was like a totally different lifetime down there,” he said. “We get a few of those you know, some more than others.”
I was sitting on the tail of the car and he was rubbing sunscreen into his chest and face.
He continued, “Like this here with you and your mother. It’s a whole lifetime. And soon I’ll go somewhere else and I’ll talk about you the way I talk about Brazil.”
I didn’t like the idea of Luke leaving. He served as a nice distraction between Joanne and I, and made everything feel like an adventure. I told myself that by the time he left maybe he’d want to take me with him. I imagined us driving all the way down to Baja, where we’d rent a small room. He’d surf and I’d sell beaded necklaces to tourists and learn how to fish. And he’d call me sweet things like honey and babe and whatever else people say when they take their clothes off at night.
The water was so warm we didn’t need to wear wet suits. There was nothing between our bare skin and the salty Pacific, the currents brushing silky strands of seaweed against my thighs. Now and then Luke’s hands would find my waist in the water. He’d pull me into position to catch the next wave. I’d fall and get pushed and pulled beneath the surface, and sent tumbling to shore.
I caught a wave and understood for that instant the kind of madness that drove the surfers into the water on those cold mornings. It was this glittered feeling where everything else I knew stopped. I added it to the box in my head of rare items from the universe, alone with Luke, the sunglasses, and the taste of avocados. Luke swam to the shore with a broad smile. He picked me up like a baby and swung me around, his wet hair dripping on stomach. I imagined the other people on the beach saying to each other, what a cute couple.
On the drive home I sat in the center of the bench seat and leaned against Luke as he steered the wagon, my limbs drained and my skin tight from the salt. Luke set his hand on my knee and I wondered what kind of woman he might want.
We stopped for burgers and ate them in the car. We smelled like onions and relish and the sauce dripped down my forearms. Luke was dipping his French fries into a milkshake. We drank Jack Daniels from the flask Joanne kept in the glove box. We watched a couple of teenage boys try kick flips in the parking lot.
“How old are you? Really?” he asked me. It had been a running joke all summer, Joanne and I always changing our answers.
“I’ll be fifteen next week,” I said.
“No shit,” he said. “I feel like a perv.”
“Don’t,” I said. The last thing I wanted was to be other than whatever he was.
“You’re so much older than I was at your age,” he said.
“Age is relative,” I said. I’d heard Joanne give this line to people before.
“You know it’s true. You really get it,” he said. He was looking at me the way I’d seen him look at other girls, the way he looked at the girl in the kitchen when their kneecaps touched. “What do you want for your birthday?”
“You know I’ve never really kissed anyone,” I said. It was an invitation, not a testimony.
He set his milkshake on the dashboard.
I was sitting in the passenger seat and he moved from the drivers into the middle of the bench.
“Come on then,” he said, “come here.”
There was a long moment where I didn’t move. The skateboards clattered outside the car against the asphalt. He grabbed me by the waist like he had in the ocean and set me on top of him, our faces inches apart, our still damp swimsuits pressed against each other.
“If you’ve done it once you’ve done it a hundred times,” he said.
“Make it a good one then.”
I closed my eyes. He slid one arm around my waist and the other up my spine. His hand cradled the back of my head, and he kissed me. He tasted like pickles and sweet vanilla. Electrical currents ran between his body and mine and I became something primal. I was starving for something I’d never even had. His hands found their way around my body, his tongue in my mouth. I pressed myself into him and felt him get hard. We were breathless and beaming. And finally he pulled away. He said, “Shit. Ya, I think you’ll be just fine.”
He set me back in my seat. He took a deep breath and smoothed his hair. I wanted more but didn’t yet have the language to ask for it.
“It’s one of the greatest things in this life,” he said, “kissing. Teaches you things talking never could.” He got back in the driver’s seat and started the car.
Everyone made a big deal about my birthday. It fell on a full moon with a new planetary alignment. Cecile insisted we throw a party. Joanne had been in a mothering phase, taking me to the cinema and making fajitas two nights in a row. She loved the idea.
We spent the entire day getting ready. Cecile chopped apples and mixed sangria in our tiny kitchen. It was my job to fold paper flowers to hang in the doorways. We strung lights between palms in the courtyard. Luke spent the day rolling joints, and Joanne made lentil soup. I’d been trying to flirt with Luke ever since the kiss in the car. And sometimes he’d let me but only if Joanne wasn’t in the room.
It might have been any evening that summer, but it wasn’t. People were warm and full of love and kissing me on the forehead. Neighbors came with hash and bottles of Sambuca. Blonde on Blonde played in the courtyard. The stars hung low and I was buzzed and felt like I really belonged. I was having a smoke and listening to people make plans for the end summer.
I could see into the apartment, through our open window and into the kitchen. Everyone was glowing, lit by candles and strung paper lanterns. Joanne was serving someone soup, giving them kisses on the cheek. She’d cut her hair that afternoon just before the party. She came out of the bathroom holding the kitchen scissors. Her long soft hair had been chopped off into a rough uneven bob, and it made her slim face appear even more so. I hardly recognized her. Luke said, “I didn’t know it was possible for you to look more beautiful.” And everyone agreed. I wished it was me.
All the noise of the evening became one humming sound: the music and the voices, and the waves somewhere near. Joanne moved through the house, sliding between crowds of people like water. Everything about her seemed new that night. She’d perfected this new gait. It was in her posture, how she stood with a slope in her spine and one hand on her hip, the other balancing a Virginia Slim between unpainted fingernails. I was mesmerized by her and how familiar and foreign she could be at the same time.
Joanne gravitated toward Luke; I saw their bodies being drawn together, invisible threads tied to all of us. He was smoking a joint; passing it around the circle of people, shot-gunning it. Everyone pressed lips to lips as thick smoke passed between their open mouths. She nestled comfortably into his side like I had on the way home from surfing. Men like him are a built to have a woman on them. He draped a hand around her waist and played with white gauzy fabric of her dress between his fingers as he spoke. She looked small and childish. They laughed together. I was high and the whole room looked like film.
When a train of smoke curled and rushed between Joanne and Luke’s lips, I held my breath. I knew already the kind of currents he was capable of sharing. There was only the space of a sheet of paper separating them. She was holding a glass of Sambuca. Her knit shawl fell from her thin shoulders to the floor and pooled around her feet. Her bra strap hung off her shoulder. When Luke kissed her the coffee beans in her glass swirled in the bottom – her tongue and his tongue. For a quick moment I wanted to both be her and be rid of her at the same time. She drew her face away from his and blew smoke from her mouth and she laughed so loud and so freely, her head tilted back and her chest rising, that the whole room turned to look.
I could have been angry but I was too relieved to do so. And me now is impressed by the clarity and composure I had at fifteen. I saw my mother as Joanne, entirely and wholly, for the very first time as herself and separate from me. And it calmed me and lessened the burden of blame. We were both going to keep on being people and figuring it out. And being my mother only made up a fraction of the woman she was.
In the morning Luke woke me up at sunrise. I was sleeping nestled into Joanne’s back and Cecile took up the rest of the bed. He pressed his fingers to his chapped lips to hush me. He wrapped me in a blanket and I followed him out of the apartment. It was a cold early morning. The air, wet and lonely, was coming off the water and chilled me to the bone. Luke kept me close to him.
When we got to the sand I was speechless. The shoreline in both directions as far as I could see was an electric red, covered in tiny dead crabs. It looked like a red blanket had been laid across the beach.
“They’re normally down in Baja. It’s really rare to see them like this,” Luke said. “It’s the warm water, El Nino, it brought them.”
I dropped the blanket and started collecting the crabs in my hands. They were no bigger than my fingers and most of them already dead, flipped onto their backs, pinchers stretched out. I tried tossing them back into the water.
“They’re too close to the shore, they can’t swim back out against the current. There’s nothing you can do. But it’s kind of beautiful.”
Luke and I sat on the beach, wrapped in the blanket as the sun moved up. He watched the water, looking for a good set to come in. But the waves were gone.
“Last night,” he said.
I rested my head on his shoulder.
“You know your mother needs you more than you might need her, I think.”
“Joanne’s going to be just fine,” I said. “You’re leaving aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Mexico.”
In this much I was wrong: I didn’t wish for Luke to take me with him.