Southern California – Martina Martinez
September 22, 2023
In the beginning, I was dust. Separate and soon joined, part sperm and part egg. I was joined together by God. I believe in one God, the Father the almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth. Of all things visible and invisible. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and The Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and forever shall be, world without end, Amen. In the beginning, when God made me, I don’t remember crying, but I remember I was jumping. Jumping in the living room. I said hello to two of my brothers who were sitting on the couch, and I was jumping, in our house in Southern California.
In the beginning, I believed that we were living in Mexico.
I’m not joking. It really felt like we were living in Mexico. The only sounds I could hear were Maria, Martín, Consuelo, and Socorro, la iglesia, La Virgen de Guadalupe en la loma de Tepeyac, Los Angeles, Sinaloa, Zacatecas, Santa Tecla, ángel de la guarda, dulce compañía, no me desampares ni de noche ni de dia. No me dejes solo, que me perdería. The television blared in a language that I could only understand but not speak, as if I couldn’t make a sound, reiterating places like Jalisco, Texas, Sacramento, Michoacán, San Francisco, El Salvador. The brown people who surrounded me, the noses and cheekbones, the golden skin of an Aztec queen, the Mayan warriors fighting in the stone cut-out that was hung up in our living room, the people who spoke those sounds – well, it really did seem to me that I was living in Mexico. Our neighbors had roosters that would wake us up early in the morning. I heard Spanish at the grocery store, at the preschool, at the gas station. It felt like a jolt when I learned where I was, like falling in a dream and I’m about to wake up.
It turns out that we don’t live in Mexico, but that California is actually a part of America.
But we didn’t have the white picket fence, the people with beautiful blue eyes and precious blonde hair. I didn’t know anyone who had an American flag hanging out on their front porch, swaying proudly in the wind. We had no seasons at all because we lived in the desert, in the land that Mexico once was, where the climate belongs to Mexico. My skin got browner and didn’t get any lighter, even in the winter. In November, the sun was still burning the top of my head. Christmas wasn’t always as satisfying as what the television commercials made it seem. My brothers and I envied New York City, and we watched from afar the lighting of Rockefeller Center, seeing them get to have their Christmas.
“Are you sure it’s December?” I asked my mom. When the news came on after we saw those beautiful Christmas lights at Rockefeller Center in New York City, Central Park was so sweetly dusted with snow. When is the snow coming here? Everyone else has gotten it, but I wonder when we will. My mind at five years old was desperate for an explanation.
“It doesn’t snow here,” my mother said, her words seeming so serious that it kind of hurt for some reason, the finality of it all, as if I should have known it already.
It’s just Southern California. But that is the Southland’s curse — time isn’t real. At least, not the way anyone else outside of here would normally think of it. The place is only on Pacific Standard Time because we have to be. It’s January when I go to sleep and I will wake up in June or July. Or it might still be January, the morning of prom, Thanksgiving again, or me at four years old hiding in my bedroom after pushing my brother off the chair, awaiting the belt from my father. You never know where you will be when you wake up in the morning in Southern California.
Anyone living in this land is cursed to time travel. It feels like going to sleep for days and feeling like a different person, waking up in another country and wondering if through your travels, you have transformed into another person, or simply so thirsty.
I have been here many times before, but each time I was never the same. The air is not heavy here, but the heat is. When the wind washes over it is refreshing, but the chill is almost so intense that I do not even want it anymore, that I want the heat back and washed over me again until I drown in it.
I am here but I have left. A long time ago. Time here is as cruel and beautiful as the Sirens’ songs. Here, distance equals time. Everything is an hour away, but never miles away. It is Pomona in the morning and engine exhaust from the 710 at noon, and ending the day south of Holt with the smell of manure following your nostrils until you fall asleep.
Technically, the name is grammatically incorrect in Spanish. It should be “El puente.” But apparently when it was a Mexican hacienda known as Rancho La Puente, it was how it was typically spelled at the time. During the 1930’s, the area was known for fruit and walnut groves. Some of those fruit trees ended up in our backyard.
We had an avocado tree and an orange tree. Every morning my grandma would squeeze fresh oranges to go with breakfast. We had a small little plastic jungle gym in our backyard, right under the avocado tree. My dad plopped me on the bottom of the slide. He shook the avocado tree until the most gargantuan fruit fell to the ground. In my mind I had pictured them as dinosaur eggs from The Land Before Time. My dad would cut an avocado, split it in half, and give half to me. I was shirtless in my diaper, a little Indian child, sweating in the heat at the bottom of the slide, devouring in ecstasy the delicious, creamy fruit of the avocado. The green covered my face. I thought I was a ferocious animal like Sarah from The Land Before Time. In the beginning, God created the day. On the third day he created the plants and the animals. I was in the Garden of Eden then. I had yet to meet the Serpent.
The never ending sunshine was halted for two weeks when I was six years old, in an unintelligible phenomenon that I later learned was El Niño. I remember because I was in kindergarten. I got out of Mrs. Casillas’s class at noon and it was already the most rain that I had ever seen in my entire short life. I got home and ran to my bedroom that I had shared with two of my brothers. I couldn’t even watch Zoom or Zoboomafoo with them because I was so entranced watching the rain. I could see the movement of it, how it slanted sideways and how it hit the concrete in a choreographed pattern, as if it was set to music that only God could hear. I could see the way the trees waved side to side, dancing ever so sweetly, as if waltzing. If I listened closely, then maybe I could be worthy enough to hear it. If I was good enough and patient, maybe I could dance with each of those parts — the trees swaying, the raindrops singing, the puddles vibrating.
My seventh birthday party was in this backyard. It was filled with so many people who were related to me, I didn’t even know it was possible for there to be so many. I remember my three beautiful cousins who looked like chola goddesses, all sisters, who possessed a feminine allure that I couldn’t grasp, that seemed too far from me to obtain as a young girl who looked like a boy. Was I going to look like them when I grew up? I had so many questions that day, wondering when my breasts would appear. I thought about whether they would sprout out of my chest like shoots of grass in the springtime, or if they would take years to make. I wondered about how big mine would be. I wondered if there were women who still ended up looking like boys like me. But I stopped thinking about it immediately, when one of my nymphal cousins took my head and smashed it against my birthday cake. The frosting burned my eyes, and I reflexively rubbed it in, making it worse. As my cousin smashed my head against the cake, her long acrylic fingernail sliced the side of my cheek. When I pulled back from the shock, I saw blood seeping into the frosting from the imprint of my face left behind on the cake. I panicked at first, and I immediately felt guilty about ruining the cake. My mom had cut around it, but when she brought it back inside, I hid myself in the kitchen, eating the bloody scraps that remained of it.
When I was four or five or so, I got my first teddy bear. I named him Johnny Ol’ Bear. He was my best friend and my most prized possession, no one could top the love I had in my heart for Johnny Ol’ Bear. I loved Johnny Ol’ Bear.
One day, I came home from school and saw that he wasn’t on my bed where I had left him. I scoured the house up and down, searching for my beloved friend. I usually tried not to bother my oldest teenage brother in his bedroom, but I was desperate. I barged into his room, and saw him at his desk, graffitiing Johnny Ol’ Bear with a sharpie.
“Are you looking for him?” He said. My brother took his sweet little arm and began twisting it. I imagined how much that must have hurt sweet Johnny Ol’ Bear, and I yelped out in pain, begging my brother to stop.
“If you keep crying,” my brother said, “he gets it.” But how could I control my cries, how could I tell him to stop without him knowing that I meant it?
The stuffing flew out in the air. Johnny Ol’ Bear’s head and his arms and his limbs grew longer with stuffing. I gathered all of it, even the stuffing that fell on the floor, and brought it to my room. I waited until the brothers that I shared a room with were outside playing, and I gathered all of the shreds of Johnny Ol’ Bear and wept. I held it all close to my chest and mourned my best friend, the first love of my life. I tried to save him from the horrors he suffered through and I failed.
The Inland Empire
It’s called that because Al Capone would hide his riches from Chicago here. At least, that’s just what Mr. Armijo, my 10th grade English teacher, told me. The area is just a long and never-ending forty-five minutes outside of Los Angeles. I guess it must have been far and unassuming enough for anyone to think that Al Capone was hiding anything of any value here. But all we got from all that are tumbleweeds, red clay hills, and miles and miles of dust, with mangled grape vines that look like skeletons crawling out of their graves. Only squat little suburban houses, the Ontario Mills Mall, the San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino, and the miles of desert dotted with thirsty shrubs. At night, from the 10 freeway, you could see the stretches of the desert speckled with burning crosses wavering in the distance.
Our new neighbors were very nice, and some of them had swimming pools — soon they would invite us over for swimming. One mom made us lemon bread after playing in the back yard with her blonde and blue-eyed son. There were no angry dogs barking into the night. No cholos walking through the block. No one else was speaking Spanish but us. I wondered if our neighbors thought we were bringing the riff-raff through their sweet little town.
When we moved to this house, I got my own bedroom. But then there was that time, when I was eight, I think, when my mom came up to me and said, “Mija, your grandma is going to live with you for a while,” and so she did. And not too long after she left, my cousin from my Tía Fufa’s house moved in. My dad said that she ran away from her house and needed a place to stay, so maybe that was a year or so. My room was always borrowed. It’s where the babies needed to sleep or for the visitors who needed to stay the night. Everyone could come and go as they pleased. My brothers took note of this too.
I remember the day I got my first sports bra. My mom already touched my mosquito bite breast. My dad didn’t want to know what was going on. I rushed to my room from Target, where my mom wouldn’t shut up about what a woman I was. I was shaking while I did my best trying to control my tears as I took my shirt off. I was once a boy, but only for a little while, if not for my private parts. And now this moment proved otherwise.
But then my brothers burst through my bedroom door that I couldn’t lock. The door that wouldn’t let me be alone from the world. They jumped on my bed and chanted “it’s her first braaaaa! It’s her first braaaa!” I scrambled to my closet to hide in the heat of my tears.
This room saw me in such torment. It saw me standing here just hours before my quinceañera started, disgusted with how fat I looked in my ridiculous dress, or at seventeen, closing my eyes and hoping that when I opened them that enough time has magically passed so that I could be old enough to live my life without rules. And then I did, and I still ended up back here, standing in my room, wondering if these four walls are disappointed that I’m back in the same place all over again, as if time had never passed at all. I’m going to have to do something about this.
When I got to Alta Loma High School, I met Mark Bailey. He was so handsome and I had a big crush on him. When my girlfriend found out about it, she cornered me with him after school, and thrusted me into a hug with him. The hug told me that he was gay, and he wouldn’t come out for another year after that moment. Throughout high school, Mark worked at the Mimi’s Cafe near the Terra Vista Village off Foothill Blvd. Visiting him to eat there felt so adult, even though my best friend’s mom dropped us off and picked us up, using her mom’s debit card to pay for our modest choices, attempting to not take advantage of her reluctant kindness. It was exciting to see his Snapchat the night he quit to start his first semester at college. “Last shift ever at Mimi’s WEEEE” with his face bursting with excitement matching the flash from his iPhone, as he sat in Bentley, his 1996 Toyota Camry that he bought with Mimi’s money.
I drove out to Fontana to see him. It had been quite a few years, and quite a chase to get a hold of him, since his last night at Mimi’s Cafe. He would text and I wouldn’t respond — probably because I was in the middle of having sex. I would text a few months later and he wouldn’t respond — probably because he was in the middle of doing drugs. And on and on it went. Until we were both twenty years old, and finally our texting rhythms caught up with each other, and I let him know I was back in my childhood bedroom that wasn’t mine, living with my mom and dad again.
When I walked into his huge house, I met several people he had shared it with. There was a couple sharing a bong together on the couch. They didn’t seem to have the energy to say hi. Mark had started chain-smoking incessantly. As he lit another cigarette and held it in his mouth, he turned through pages of his composition notebook, filled with scribbles and incoherent gibberish. He let me read a couple pages, but I just couldn’t understand them. It’s my manifesto, he said, and it was about time that he could be who he really was in the world, and share his joy with others as a traveling jester. He put the sunflowers that I bought for him into his four foot tall bong.
How vividly I remember his Snapchat on his last day at Mimi’s cafe, taken in the driver’s seat of his car, when I heard the news of his sudden death. On the 210 freeway, on his way to his boyfriend’s, in San Dimas. His body was thrown through the windshield. He was flat against the concrete, glass dotted his frame like stars in the night, twinkling in the light of the blue and red. When my best friend called me to tell me of the news, she recalled when he responded to her in a comment on Facebook, about ten years prior. He wrote, “I WISH FOR A HORRIBLE DEATH!!!!”
In the film Chinatown, Jack Nicholson gets a phone call. The voice on the other line tells him to go to 846 ½ West Kensington Road. I don’t know why he says West Kensington Road. When the camera pans down the street, capturing the regal Victorian houses dressed up to look like the 1930s, you can see 846 ½, which is East Kensington Road, where I would pass by every day on my walks to Elysian Park. And in the distance in that scene, you can see 792 ½ East Kensington Road, the apartment of the man who was my high school teacher, who had relations with me.
One night, we were watching Battleship Potemkin at his apartment. He reeked of vodka. He started putting his hand on my thigh and moved it up my dress. It made me get up and go to the bathroom. He insisted on pausing the movie so that I wouldn’t miss anything, even though I thought it was terribly boring. I hid in the bathroom for a while. When I came out, his demeanor changed, and he became terrifying. He already spoke in a low, bass voice, so when he spoke from this point on, it reverberated through my skin and made me shake.
“I looked through your phone.”
Of course I wanted to say that what he saw was nothing, but it’s never been in me to lie. Lying for me is a dead giveaway — there is a smirk, an eyebrow raise, a look away. To lie about this was impossible, because there was no way that I could hide behind any of those gestures.
“It’s true,” I said. “It’s because we aren’t together.”
“But we are,” he said.
“I know, but you said you never wanted to be together.”
He punched through the wall. He went to the freezer and took out the bottle of Stolichnaya. He drank it like he was hydrating himself.
“I’m going to go home,” I said. But as I attempted to leave the apartment, he yanked my arm and pulled me to him. He pushed me onto the bed. He held me down with his hand pressing down on my chest. “You’re not going anywhere,” he said.
“Let me go, let me go,” I gasped and gulped air through spastic, torrential sobs. He pressed me down onto the bed and wouldn’t let go, until I relented, got exhausted, and fell asleep.
I woke up the next morning around 9 am. He wasn’t in the apartment, but he left me a text — “Meet me at Taix at 1:30 today.”
It was sometime in September. I only remember it then because I felt the weather switch — the heat wave was at its height at 107 degrees the day before, and then the Santa Anas kicked in the following morning, blustering clumsily throughout the crevices of the streets, making the cars feel wobbly and whistling between buildings. The desert became alive with the Santa Anas.
He didn’t know that the bar room was open early. When I got there he was already drinking a dirty vodka martini. I knew he had to get to rehearsal by 4:30 on Tuesdays, so he had to make it out of there sober enough. When he saw me walk in, he ordered a dirty vodka martini for me.
“Why don’t we do a shot?” He said.
I said ok because I wanted to be tough.
So we took a shot.
“I love you so much. You know that?”
I couldn’t respond to that. What came out of my mouth felt empty, vapid, as if I wasn’t the one saying it, as if I was miming the words with no voice.
He stared at me. He drank his martini in one gulp and ordered another round for both of us.
And then he went on about everything he has done for me. How ungrateful I was for everything he’s done for me. How he would even cover this bill and I would still be ungrateful. That he taught me everything he knew about art and I still wouldn’t thank him enough.
The waiter came and asked if everything was alright, and he responded with such a sharp yes and a seething smile that it made the waiter recoil and walk away. I tried to drink my martini like water, the way he did.
I left Taix with my brain sloshing about with alcohol. I remember he attempted a passionate kiss, but it was wet and sloppy with too much saliva over his large lips, trying to make it sexy so that I wouldn’t forget him. He sped off to work, and it was time for me to leave, I just didn’t know where. I got into my old car that I loved so much, my 2001 Saturn. I drove off, throwing myself forward at 70 miles an hour in a 40 mph zone down Sunset Boulevard, right as it started pouring rain. The lights were all green for go, and I was so utterly invincible. But then the cars in front of me were halted, and my car screeched into a sudden stop. In the distance was a traffic sign that said “Sobriety Checkpoint — Don’t Drink and Drive!”
“Hello officer, how are you doing today?” I said as sweetly as a lovely little kiss on the cheek, batting my lashes and holding my smile like it was an audition for a million-dollar movie. One officer flashed a flashlight into my eyes.
“Did you have anything to drink today?” He asked me.
“Nope, just a mimosa at brunch, but that was a long time ago now,” I lied with the power of booze, feeling my mouth work hard to make my words sound unlacquered with liquor. I saw an eyelash right under his eyelid. It took me everything in my power to not reach for his face, take the eyelash, and ask him to make a wish. I had wanted to do it so badly, but what was even worse was that I didn’t have to, because the police officer said that I was free to go, and to have a nice day.
I turned right on Douglas. I ran through three stop signs. On the fourth one I realized what I had done, and then did a full stop at the last one right before Bellevue, for a full five minutes until the car behind me honked at me. I made a left onto the freeway, but did not calculate how steep the turn would be. There was a terrible sound and sparks flying out of the side of my car. I turned my wheel but I turned too far. I kept turning and turning, again and again.
And then I hit the center divider of the 101. There was no sound, nothing at all. There was just glass all over my hair, something warm and wet falling from my face and from my arms, staining my blouse and my jeans. I tried to make my way out. I felt bound. I couldn’t move. I was strapped in by my seatbelt, but my body was lifted, somehow, and I was floating, the glass snowing from my hair as I was levitating over the 101 freeway. Then I felt all the time at once. I was twenty, but then became 18, then 15, staring at myself in my quinceañera dress, pinching the fat and wishing I could remove it from my torso, and then I was ten, and then I was five, when I learned that it doesn’t snow in Southern California, and then I was three, when I was jumping in the living room, and then the lights went out, as if I was in the time before I was ever born, before I was even conceived, before I was even a thought, before I was loved by God.