We moved to a motel in Pacific Beach, up against the alley that snaked grey and sad with homeless. I was in the 5th grade, my sister two years behind me. We were white headed girls plucked like cotton from Jackson, Mississippi and set to wilt in the briny aired community, stuffed into the single room with our parents and two cats. In Jackson, I had been one of a few white kids in my school, the only one in my class and on my block. I had to earn love- but it was there for the earning. I had skipped rope and roughed up my white freckled arms with black skinny arms for the right to skip rope with the neighborhood girls. Abject poverty lived next door, the difference between us and them only that we had the money for maintenance, whereas Loralee next door couldn't afford to fix her molding ceilings, cracked tubs and crazy sideways porch. When I arrived at our home for a year in Pacific Beach, I felt some kind of alternate universe descend over me, like a great bowl turned upside down. This was a different kind of poor.
The teenager who roamed the complex's center was more ghost than girl, eyes spinning in vacancy, her tiny waist tucked into leggings and tanks. We ate lentil soup more nights than not, but I wondered if she ate at all. Wanna one? she slurred at me, smoking her fat Marlboro Reds. I nodded no, slunk away. I was less afraid of the crazy man in the alley way than I was of her. She was too close to my kind of pain. The homeless man in the alley had a long, white beard stained with tobacco and food. I snaked down the cement path to the alley and lay on my stomach, watching him. I wasn't allowed, but I was fascinated with him. He lived in a box. He never changed his clothes. He talked to himself. Until he saw me. My wife was a pig, he screamed. I ate her for Thanksgiving dinner! I moved so quickly away my arms were bloody from scraping the pavement.
Each person in the motel gave away their suffering differently. The single mom upstairs had one daughter and a rotation of dates. She wore thick purple eyeliner and red lipstick underneath which her face sagged and complained. She played Neil Young on Friday nights and slept all day Sunday. The two men living together directly across from us were obviously gay but called themselves roomates or pals. I didn't know the word gay but I knew the way the one with the glasses put his hand in the tall one's pocket wasn't palling around. I watched them at the laundrymat down the street, where I went to get candy from the vending machines. They always came out of their apartment separately and arrived home the same. I thought the way they laughed and leaned together was sweet. I heard them complaining that they couldn't go to the community Christmas drive together at the tall one's work. I wondered what it meant when two men loved each other. I wondered what it meant when they had to call the one they loved a pal and couldn't go to the community drive together.
My mother was beautiful with red red hair and a mysterious smile, and I kept a particular eye on the one I thought of as Mr. Chinese because of his constant take out from Chopsticks. He wore oversized suits that puffed femininely at the shoulders. His hair was glossy with gel and he smelled like cheap chewing gum. I hated the way I could see his socks when he moved and the false turn of his mouth when he smiled. I hated the way he looked at my mother. Mr. Chinese never had a woman over that I could see, and he often knocked at our door to deliver some useless piece of helpful information or drop off a newspaper no one had asked for. At night when I prayed, I prayed hardest for him, because I was stricken with guilt over my suspicions and his lonliness. I imagined him making coffee in his badly lit kitchen with the pale yellow backsplash and it was so sad and horrible a feeling I cried.
Our motel was colder on cold days and more forlorn in February. Everything hard harder, everyone weeping heard for miles. I felt the lack of nature more keenly than the lack of children. I longed hourly for the wet trees and fierce soils of Mississippi, the forest beyond the grass of my Grandmother's backyard, the long swinging ropes hanging from trees. The tick of beetles replaced with the buzzing of cars, the pushing of wind against shrub and flowers was now the pushing of wind against rain pipes, tile roofs, scattered pieces of paper on concrete. I hid behind the bush next to our motel room, scraping my face in the tangle. I imagined I was a wild thing, surviving on berries and leaves until I could find my home. Orange carpet. Linoleum. Crumble topped ceiling. Yellowing paint. Every play structure was built against a backdrop of sprawl, and every tree underfed and looking stark naked in the middle of a block of sidewalk and business.
Everywhere I turned there was a hollowness and an illness of silence, the kind of silence that arrived far away from peace, that arrives from poverty of the soul. This was the final tide that dragged me deeply inside myself. I began to create a world that could keep me alive until something broke it open.