The sunset is smeared with a molten drip. An angry blush—it burns for minutes, and then you can see the dry crust of the moon.
California tastes like crusty playground blood, dirt iron on your tongue. The mornings are redwood–stained and smoky and salty, like school trips to Lake Arrowhead, like family weekends in La Jolla. From everywhere, you can see the mountains heaving with purple or orange, depending on the time of day.
The hours eke by. Traffic is slow here, time is slower. Not like New York with its subways and people and analog clocks on buildings that click onward by the millisecond. No, Los Angeles sighs. There's extra gravity, an extra strength you learn to pull your hair up, the extra weight of the windshield wipers to scrape your car clean.
Squint at the gleam of the sun on the cars stacked in front on the freeway, black and glossy like beetles. Focus on how the Hyundai Sonata winks to signal a left turn. Get in the leftmost lane, take the 60 West a few miles to the 57 South. To Pomona. What is there in Pomona? Mostly the DMV, honestly. And the high school I had to take my SAT’s in because my school didn’t test AP US History. And the house that mom bought post-divorce, the more permanent one after we moved out of the two bedroom, one bathroom apartment that overlooked the Pomona bone-dry hills. Zoom out. Get off at the Diamond Bar exit.
Pass the safety-light red Korean signs, pass the blown-up bus stop murals of local realtors with skin burry from gratuitous misuse of Photoshop. No one uses the bus stops anyway, everyone owns very sensible Sudans in neutral tones. I remember my house, the dusty red and white Colonial with bamboo shoots lining the brick wall. My dad planted it, maybe post-divorce, and laughed in his throaty way, when the plant nearly pierced through our railing. The rest of the house was my mother's blueprint. For a few days, we lived in the Quality Inn across from my elementary school. I remember taking a piece toast streaked with grape jam (American breakfast!) before they shuttled me off to school.
I loved elementary school. I remember the big oak tree by the fence, the one where we used our hands to shovel a tunnel out of the school, to China, we would say. Or at least to the other side of the fence. But we never really wanted to leave, not when we could comb the grass for lady bugs or act like the fairies from our favorite books. My rotating cast of best friends: first Alexis, then Hana, and finally (and still) Michelle. We had matching rolling backpacks—small suitcases with a handle jutting out, in matching salmon and turquoise argyle—that we were small enough to ferry each other on. Remember my thighs scudding against asphalt, sun blanching the ashy honeycombs on my legs.
Jake, the boy I loved, and the way his shins were curved like commas. He and John Park—who just opened a Korean restaurant with his mom in La Mirada, good for him—used to chase me and Michelle on the fields. Our Skechers would glide on the dusty, dried up soil. Ashley, who my parents said I couldn’t play with anymore because her brother called me a chink (even though, sometimes, we would still pluck ladybugs out of the playground weeds together). Sara, who everyone knew was the prettiest girl in the fifth grade. She wore plastic glasses shaped like rectangles, so I threw out my metal wired ovals. My face would flush whenever I tried to talk to her. There was a rumor that she and Jayden had kissed behind the slide once—I tried to imagine it, their sneakers crunching on woodchips, the plasticine glow of the slide. Masterminded so that the teacher on duty wouldn't see them.
My old room, cast in the yellow of my butterfly nightlight. Baby blue walls, uneven. Handmade and childlike. The ceiling still has patches of white, which I used to dream were clouds. A mosquito net that hung over my bed like a fabricked haze. I begged for that bed, a milk-white twin sized wonder with flowers stamped on and spires on each leg. I never really slept on it—I would wake up and cower in my parents' bedroom, snug between them and shielded from spirits. (I still think my house might be a little bit haunted.) And the pool—every house in suburban, middle-class California has a pool. I told my parents that the shadows in the deep end were the ghosts of sharks and whales. My mom was always in China, working, and I thought my dad was overbearing. I scaled the big oak tree in our backyard without supervision, my only-child retaliation. I wanted a sibling, so my parents bought me a crew of stuffed animals. They all had names, and they were all my friends.
My parents paid for Chinese summer school and afterschool, where upper middle-class Chinese parents send their kids so they can work longer hours. I played handball with the other kids; the teachers stocked bandaids because of how much we bled. We pronounced Chinese syllables with profound effort, our American accents skidding across the different tones.
I stared at the fish whenever my dad took me to 99 Ranch Market. No Vons, no Pavillions, no white grocery store—instead, the dingy, crowded Asian supermarket that buzzed like a Shanghainese night market. The crabs were stacked in a pile at the bottoms of their tanks, their claws bound together. The fish heads retailed at only $.99 each, eyes glassy and accusing. There was no hope for the ones in the tanks, either. Their fins only twitched when a gloved hand dove into the tank. A sort of purgatory.