Back when my mother and I lived in Westwood in apartment #4 in a quad-plex, we had roommates. A Caribbean film student who argued with her boyfriend too loudly, a gay couple; one tall redhead named David and his boyfriend, a brunette with a Tom Selleck moustache (also named David). The mustachioed David argued with my mom too much, and our refrigerator was just a bunch of M’s and D’s on everything, so then we lived by ourselves but then we were robbed a lot. By a lot I mean we were robbed four times. One of the times we were home and a guy came in our room with a dull knife poised in the air like he was going to stab us. Instinctually my mom screamed, “Ted!” and at the sound of a man’s name he dropped his knife and ran out. The burglar didn’t even think about taking our jars. They were the first things I checked for. I had seventy-six cents in mine.
Later, we were able to get the fuck out of there, and we didn’t have to worry about the robberies and the burglars, and we packed our two little ceramic cookie jars that sat on the mantle. Mine was a small jar with a cork stopper that read ‘Porsche Savings Account.’ Hers was painted pink and had the words ‘Boob Job’ on it.
We moved in with my mom’s boyfriend. He had a really Irish last name, like Murphy or O’Neill. He was obsessed with everything Japanese. He wanted us to speak Japanese. He wanted me to eat Japanese. He wanted me to write Japanese. He had a two bedroom apartment and a roommate and a big black piano. I slept in his closet. I pushed his shoes aside and put blankets in the middle and made a fort. Sometimes I lined it with my toys.
Before Westwood we lived in Monterey with my grandmother and then for three months on a commune in Pacific Grove. It was all free love and hippies and one of the hippies had a waterbed and a moon roof in their cabin and I fell asleep when they were looking after me once and got confused about the water in the bed and had an accident.
I liked it there. I got up early and watched cartoons surrounded by cats and at night before bed my mom did her Jane Fonda exercises, lying on her side, making scissor legs up and down and up and down while I read my Wonder Woman comics. But we couldn’t stay there because my mom finished school and she got a new boyfriend. A Russian surfer with blonde hair that smoked Marlboros. Mark was his name. I remember because my mom was Maria and her boyfriend was Mark and when they fell in love my mom collected all the wrappers for M&M candies. My name is Marina.
There must’ve been a break-up with the Irish Japanese man because then we got our own apartment again and it was at the end of a culdesac in Palms. We were upstairs and smooshed in between lots of other units. And you could never get rid of the roaches because if you cleaned out all the cupboards and did a roach bomb and all your dishes tasted like bug poison they just went next door and came back later. I remember the worst feeling when I opened a drawer or went to the bathroom and looked at the floor and there beside my feet or in the drawer was a little brown empty cocoon. The shell of a roach egg. Tan brown shiny, empty. Each roach can carry about fifty roach babies in one egg. Each lady roach got pregnant about four times in a lifetime so like four times fifty times four times fifty times four times fifty times fucken forever fucking roaches. Beside our building was the trash bin protected by a brick wall. There was a small hole in the middle of the brick wall. A possum burrowed his way into the hole. My mom and I hated the possum. He sat and leered. He was never afraid.
Below and to the side of us were a Mexican family. My mom and I always got confused for being Mexican. My mom was Filipino. I didn’t really like being confused for other things growing up because I had a dad somewhere that was Black and it made me feel like maybe he didn’t exist anymore because nobody saw him in me. I dreamt about having a different life with this dad. A life without grocery bags full of trash, without cockroach cocoon eggs, without possums, without boyfriends that made me act more Japanese or more invisible. My mom had long thick wavy hair and little Asian eyes and she came from a place that was tropical with waterfalls and I liked her brown skin and I thought maybe it was different than the neighbors’ brown skin and when we went to bed at night she pushed our two beds together. When she first switched off the lights and it was dark in the room there were these little particles of brightness that appeared. It’s like when I shut my eyes tight and open them again. I formed them into shapes. I stayed up and traced them. In the air they formed spiders, and in the dark when it grew pitch dark after the light was bright I could make out little zoo animals like the animals from Noah’s Ark and they sometimes went traipsing up my mother’s silhouette and I stomped them out with my hands as she slept. And she let me. There was a time when she let me do anything I wanted.
Then suddenly she wanted me to call her ‘Ma’am.’ It was ‘Yes, Ma’am.” And “No, Ma’am.” And “May I be excused?” and curtsey, and please, and I answered the phone like the secretary and if she met a guy she liked sometimes I said I was her sister. There were lots of rules in those days. There were a lot of times in all the places when I came home to nobody there. I spent a lot of time alone trying to find a way to make me and my mom rich. I wanted to save lots of lives so I thought maybe I could be a neurosurgeon. I heard they were the best-paid ones. I heard it was like taking off the skin of a grape in one piece without injuring the meat of the grape and then sewing it back together. I sat many hours with a big pile of grapes. One by one unpeeling them. If I made a mistake I put one down and started over again. I eventually gave up. Mark taught me how to smoke cigarettes. I did that instead. Marlboro Reds.
And now as a pre-teen how was I supposed to make enough money to get rich and get out of here? My mom loved me so much that she loved me too much sometimes and she liked to wrap her legs around me in our shoved together beds and I could feel her snatch against my butt and I didn’t like it one bit and I needed to get out of there. I was never allowed to have dogs and I started to be a vegetarian and we only lived near Burger King so really I didn’t fit in that apartment anymore. I was too glamorous and my mom only shopped at Ross Dress for Less and she didn't ever have the money we needed. Sometimes we had no electricity and we only had an old cheap kind of television with rabbit ears where you had to stand in the right place to get reception and you put a hanger on top and you extended the ears so far that they almost touched the ceiling and if you walked too close to the TV and didn’t pay attention you knocked down the rabbit ears and that sucked because it all turned to fuzz.
When I got home from school I sat out on the balcony and smoked Marlboro Reds and listened to my mom’s records, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and I made coffee, the International Delights kind in a can. I sat with my coffee and listened and smoked cigarettes, then I showered and brushed my teeth and hid everything. But even if I wasn’t doing anything bad, even if I was just sitting there and watching TV or doing homework or staring off into space when I heard the key in the lock I jumped up and started cleaning.
Before the social worker took me away I spent a lot of hours alone in that apartment trying to figure out what I could do to make things different. I liked it the best to be alone. It made me feel like maybe I was different. I used to wish my mom would die sometimes and never come back. She broke up my rhythm. It just seemed like every time she came home shit came undone. It was all a fucking mess.
Even though my mom was a big fucking mess, I mean really she was out of her tree, and sometimes she was totally narcissistic she told me how fucking beautiful she was, how she was the best dancer, she gloated in a way that beamed right up and over her little round Asian apple face, and you would cringe because it looked so goddamn inappropriate. It looked like maybe she was eight but she had big boobs and that was just strange. Or sometimes she came home and her night was a bust so she shook me awake in the middle of the night and demanded that I clean the whole house. She demanded that I wash the dishes or she raked her hand across my dresser, dropped everything to the ground, and demand that I pick them up. She always managed to land a guy and as I got older they got to be a little dorkier. The last one was a doctor and she really liked that. If I was ever sick she would ask him to bring me over some Burger King.
Sometimes after my mom had a night out I woke up with her perched on the corner of my bed.
“How would you like to have Bob for a dad?”
“I think he’s a dork.”
Eventually she went to her own bed. They fought so much on the phone that my mom cried in her bed a lot of the time. She was sad that they couldn’t stay together because she was planning on marrying him. She stopped going to work one week when they broke up. She just moped around the house in a large T-shirt that said Coca Cola on it. Then I think she really lost it because she switched it out for a white T-shirt that said, “Painters do it with longer strokes.” And I don’t think she’d ever done it with a painter. After her week in bed she spent a lot of nights out and I still prayed that she wouldn’t come back. I whispered to my boyfriend on the phone and continued to pray that she wouldn’t return.
She never got me anything that I really loved but she struggled so hard just so we could get by. That’s not true she got me a little wooden piano once when I was five. But I think my grandmother bought it. I loved it a lot. I was still just a young teenager. Thirteen. I came home with all sorts of things. I came home with fresh new clothes and a bike and she never asked any questions. I had a secret job at Penguins but still she never wondered where I got money. The truth was that I stole most things. Money wasn’t ever anything we could keep between the two of us. I don’t think I ever got more than two dollars in my Porsche savings jar.
On the day that I was moved out of that apartment, I didn’t know it was going to be the last time I was going to see those neighboring Mexicans in the building. I was packed like a runaway with just a week’s worth of clothing in my backpack. There was a little round-faced drooling baby girl in the window below us. She had dark brown hair and big pearl boba eyes and I flicked her off because I was trying to teach her how to do that when no one was looking.
My mom was at work wearing one of her George Washington suits and typing away on the top of a hill somewhere. She had no idea what was happening.
She had no idea that she was going to return home that day without a daughter. Without her poo poo. Without her sister. Without her secretary. Without her maid. Without her confidant. Without her toast chaser.