I took a swig from one of the mini-bottles and let the familiar air blow past my skin still coated with Kansas City grime. I would hit the sea by noon the next day and wash it off. I took another swig and this woman with gold bracelets clinking like chimes walked out of the room next door. She looked like she lived there. She was probably the wife of the man who sold me the room. I chose this motel because it sat high on a hill and then I knew I made the right choice when I entered the registration office and saw a small statue of Ganesha sitting behind the desk.
A little white dog and a toddler with perfect ponytails and tinier versions of the same golden jewelry the woman had, followed, singing something made up. Her ponytails swung in rhythm to her walk as the pooch skibbled along beside her and watched with the enthusiasm of a number-one fan. I was on the ground, leaning against the door of my room so the little child and dog invaded my line of sight. The woman glanced over at me without a smile before throwing a bag she was carrying into the dumpster that stood between me and the view of Barstow that I had been staring at as a means to think of everything else I had come there to think about. My thoughts started with the sunset, then Ganesha, then San Francisco and finally, Sergio.
We had a huge fight around the time I moved in with William. He thought I was abandoning him. He knew things would change if I left and they did. Soon after I moved out, my father, fed up with Sergio’s lifestyle and quirks, gave him some money and told him he was on his own. He was kicked out. My brother, despite being twenty-eight years old, didn’t want to leave and as far as my mother was concerned, he could have stayed with them for the rest of his life. The living arrangement wasn't healthy, and for some reason, he didn't have it in him to try and make a life on his own. My mom didn't have the courage to stand up to my dad and didn't know how to help Sergio, aside from taking care of him so she just watched him leave. She has felt guilty ever since.
There were things going on that I didn't understand. There were secrets. We were a family who didn't say much about what was right in front of us and just like the families we saw on TV every night, things were always "just fine."
Growing up, when we were on our own, my brother acted like the big brother he was. He would take me to movies and buy me presents, from time to time. He imparted his "wisdom" upon me, mostly in regard to music and pop culture, and sometimes about school and teachers I had that he had a few years before. I liked this. It was strange that my mom expected me to "take care" of him, but she did. Maybe she needed him to feel like he couldn't make it in the world? One thing I do know is that my parents and Sergio were in a sort of love triangle, for a lack of a better term. Serge and my dad were on two different sides and my mom was in between them. I had no interest in taking anyone's side. I didn’t have anything to do with Sergio after our big fight and I kept my parents at arm's length for a very long time.
After many years of estrangement, Sergio contacted me. He found my website a couple years ago, before I finished art school, and sent an email to ask how I’d been. He wasn’t angry anymore, and neither was I. We decided to meet that summer in San Francisco because it was where he was living. An artist I liked was having a show at the SFMOMA and I wanted to see it, so during my visit I took a bus and a couple of trains up from my parents’ place. They lived a few hours worth of a drive down the coast from the city and I was spending my summer break with them.
SEA OTTERS AND SUITS
“Why did you put that picture on your back?" my mother asked, "You know I think you look nice but I think you should take that off.”
She tugged lightly on the paper image.
“Mom, no stop it!”
My mother walked me to the bus stop, but she didn’t know I was going to see Sergio and by this time she had given up on trying to convince me to to help him in the way she felt he needed help. In any case, he asked me not to say anything to her so I didn’t. She sent him money through Western Union on a regular basis and saw him sometimes but she kept it a secret from my father, who now spoke to my brother on the phone and only on certain occasions like birthdays and holidays.
“I like sea otters mom, and I really like this picture, I think it’s cute.”
“Yeah... it’s cute, but why do you wanna put in on your back like that? Nobody does that.”
Sea otters are the mascot of the Monterey Peninsula. They’re the image that sells to tourists. The act was my version of a silent protest to the constant suggestions my parents had; which was that I should be "normal" and that I ought to stop wasting my time and start once again earning a proper living by accurately depicting the scenery my mother left her country for, things like lighthouses, fishing boats, and sea otters.
I had also taken to exclusively wearing two-piece polyester pantsuits like uniforms in whatever colors polyester from the past comes in. I clipped the page-sized photo out of the tourism section of the local newspaper and stitched it with thread from my mom’s sewing kit to the back of my pastel blue hounds tooth jacket. Sergio (the only other person who would appreciate my motives), and I could maybe have a laugh about it later.
“Bye Bye Livy, have a good time, and be careful.”
My mother kissed me on the cheek and I thought about how my face-skin was starting to feel more like hers.
It was very early when I caught that bus, but it was mid-morning by the time it had arrived at the train station in the Silicon Valley, which was the center of my universe for a good long time. It was also where I was born, just like the microchip. It was the center of the world it seemed, at the height of it all; the “boom” that led to my earning more money during my twenties than I ever thought I would.
On the train I saw the commuters in their suits, and I was in mine, years after I’d left them and their money. I thought about how much I still liked those men. Knowing that during their days off they most likely collected comic books and spent more time than they were supposed to at work typing messages on chat-rooms and message boards. And here they all were, right where I’d left them.
I realized then that I missed the grey, carpet-lined floating walls they lived in from nine-to-five, or nine-to-midnight, as was often the case. I never had to sit in a cubicle of my own, but I did work long hours. Thanks to popular literature I had learned to look objectively upon such environments long before the “boom” entered our lives.
The kicker was that the end of the line, where I could either exit or transfer to another train, was exactly at the entrance to the annual Semiconductor Convention I had gone to, repeatedly, years ago, as one of thousands of representatives of the Silicon Valley electronics industry. I had arrived accidentally on that day in 2006.
After I got off the train, I passed the convention center’s main entrance and walked to the café that Sergio and I agreed to meet at. On my way I walked past more people in suits; better suits than what I’d seen on the train. William was the one who dressed like them. I was labor but on paper I was the CEO. I rarely needed to play that role so I wore what I wanted. I was only formally interested in the community, in the manufacturing process, in electrons. I was personally interested in the money and the lifestyle it earned and placed me within.
I recognized him instantly.
“Sergio! How are you?”
“Livy! Look at you. I’m alright.”
He caught me by surprise. He had been walking toward me but I hadn’t noticed. I was glad to have been distracted by my thoughts because I was nervous about seeing him. After we hugged he stood back in order to get a better look at my suit and shook his head with a smile in a way that showed me he was glad to see that some things never change. He hugged me again. He smelled like metal.
“Should we go inside?” he tilted his head toward the entrance to the café.
“Man, it’s been fourteen years, Serge.” I followed him inside.
“I know,” he said.
We stood in line.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“What are you gonna have?”
“Aaaaa–cappuccino, and a biscotti.”
“I’ll have a latte. Just a latte”
“Large?” asked the young man behind the counter.
“Yeah, okay,” he said.
“We’ll have a cappuccino, his large latte, one of these Biscotti, and also–let’s split a Spumoni, you want to split a Spumoni? I read online that it’s supposed to be good here. My treat.”
Sergio opened his eyes wide, smiled, nodded and said, “Yeah, okay.”
I noticed a big mole by his left eyebrow that I’d forgotten he had.
“Okay, yes, we’ll have a Spumoni as well.”
When we sat down I used my hands to break the cookie in two and placed his half on a napkin between us. Sergio went to get silverware.
“Good, you got two spoons.
"I miss North Beach. Stuart and I used to go dancing here. Remember dad would get all mad because I came back at three in the morning? We used to go to the Palladium, I’m gonna check later to see if it’s still there.”
“It’s not there. Garry Sparks turned it into a strip club. But Tosca’s still next-door. Thanks for picking up the tab, Olive.”
“You’re welcome. Jesus, Garry Sparks. That man plagues my life, I mean, I see him all over the place and think one thing of him and then another, but I always end up feeling so gross about him. I heard him speak about politics when I first got to Kansas City.”
“What did he have to say?”
“I don’t remember specifically, but he's liberal and was really pissed off at the president, and had written a book or something detailing exactly what a joker he is or something. It was interesting to see him because he talks differently than other people who have power, you know, and I like that part of him.
“Something happened years ago when I first moved to L.A., before I went to Kansas City.” I took a spoon and took a bite of spumoni. “I was in Beverly Hills, on the way to this opening and I drove far from the gallery in order to find a parking spot that wouldn’t cost anything. At the time I had a sick determination to find free spots without taking into consideration the amount of money I was actually spending in gas, you know, driving in circles looking for a space without a meter, but that’s beside the point. I parked far away and on my trek over to the gallery I happened to cross paths with Mr. Sparks.”
“Yes. It happened in such a strange, slow motion way. It felt other-worldly. There was no one around, no one on the road, and I saw this limousine pass me and then stop, just ahead of where I was, and the license plate said, Sex Mag.”
“Did you know it was him?”
“No, but I was obviously curious as to who it was, so I slowed my pace. Anyway, as I walked closer I noticed the driver pull out this golden wheelchair from the trunk, and then he opened the door and helped Garry Sparks into it, onto the sidewalk.”
“I've never seen a golden wheelchair before.”
“Me neither, and while that was happening, this restaurant I didn't even realize that I’m heading toward rolls out a red carpet for him to roll onto, and still, no one is around, except the driver, me, the Maitre’ d who stood at the door while another guy rolled out the carpet, and of course, Garry Sparks who is being pushed across the red rug, and I am like, stopped. Because I can’t cross this red carpet you know, it feels like it would be rude.”
“So what happened?”
“He just wheeled past me, into the restaurant, in his golden chair. He glanced at me on the way, because I was like, standing there. The staff gave me the "go-ahead" to walk over the rug once he was inside so I kept walking toward the gallery. The opening was fun too– giant photographs. They served strawberries dipped in chocolate.”
“So that is what made you go see him speak in Kansas City? Were you hoping he’d recognize you or something?”
“Ha! No, I’m just saying, after that I had Garry Sparks on the brain and his name started to appear everywhere. I was shopping on Melrose one day at this store that sold clothes that goth-kids wear, plastic and stuff. I saw his picture on a tag for underwear. Stripper clothes.”
“His picture on the tag of women’s underwear? I can’t see how that would be good for sales. He looks like Jabba the Hutt.”
“I know right? But that’s when I found out he sold clothes and things. It got my attention and seeing as how he and I had this new connection, haha, I took a look and he had this whole spiel written on the other side of his image, on the tag, about doing things your own way and living life fully, yadda yadda. It was really quite positive and I connected with it. I remember thinking it was something a young woman considering working in porn might read and take from it that she should not actually conform to the sexual expectations of the likes of a Garry Sparks, you know? It was odd. After that I went to his shop on The Sunset Strip, on a walk one night. It was new.”
“Yeah, I read about his stores. It’s just like you’d expect it to be, right?”
“Yes, It was pretty much a let down, if I was expecting anything. But when you entered you had to pass through this giant bookrack filled with his propaganda. I don’t know, I guess I think it’s just interesting when people are different and manage to achieve a lot.”
“Well a lot of people, specifically women, play a part in his success. I mean, they are the reason he’s got all that he does. Them and the people who buy what he’s selling.”
“That's true, and now I find out he took the Palladium away from me! What a jerk. Golden wheelchair, sex empire, whatever–"
“So how’ve you been, Olive?”
I told him about school, the midwest, Los Angeles, and a little bit about William and how I’d given up everything when I left him.
“That’s right, you were with that guy, and you had that business. I never met him. I saw his car a couple of times, through the window, before you moved in with him. Mom said he was real bad news but didn’t tell me much.”
“Yes, he was some pretty bad news.”
“Well I’m glad you left him then.”
He took a sip of his latte.
Sergio proceeded to tell me about his life in San Francisco, about how he had some hard times but found some good friends, a community, and how he felt like he was finally getting things together. He spoke about the similarity between us, how we were both experiencing new beginnings, later on in life. He acted like an older brother, the way he used to, much different than the way our mother spoke to me about his life, and I was glad for this. I was glad to no longer wonder about his whereabouts, or his ability to live on his own. I still carried the weight of my mother's perception that I was born lucky and he wasn't, therefore I should feel obligated to "take care" of him, and he might have, as well. Once we finished catching up, I asked if he wanted to go to the museum with me.
“I’ve got some things to do, but hey, you should come over later, for a little bit. My new roommate is really cool, Leslie, she’s a pretty popular drag performer, deejays parties, was on the cover of the weekly, last week.”
“Cool, yeah, I’d like to come over.”
“Perfect! See you then.”
He gave me his address and then we hugged goodbye. I decided to walk to the exhibit. I generally knew my way around but it had been years since I traveled on foot through any of those streets so I got lost. The sun was out. It was summer and so it wouldn’t set early, and I was glad for that. I had a place reserved for me at a hostel in Union Square, but I didn’t want to go to it until I was ready to sleep. My legs began aching but walking those streets felt good. I noticed deftly drawn signatures made from paint dripped on the sidewalk and I wondered about shifts in graffiti style trends. My thoughts shifted when I looked up and saw there was a sign that reminded me of the one I made my for atelier, made of wood and hung from hooks. This one said, Ganesha. It was for a shop not unlike what you’d expect from the well-known hippy kingdom, but something else seemed to pull me in, so I entered.
Nag Champa smoke and dyed fabrics from eastern countries. Hematite rings were ninety-nine cents. I read somewhere that the stone holds human stress, so I bought two, one for me and one for my mother who also liked that sort of thing. We wore the same ring size. I was sniffing small vials of Frankincense and Cinnamon oils, when an old Asian woman came out from somewhere in the back to speak to me.
“You want some toasted Barley tea?” she asked and I said yes. I was the only customer there. “You’ll take some watermelon, too, I’ll go get you the tea. You stay.”
“Thanks!” I said and paid, what I presumed was the old woman’s daughter, for the two reings. After that I helped myself to watermelon that was sliced and on a tray, on top of the same glass-case counter I passed my money over. The young woman bagged my items while I ate the offered fruit, less because I wanted it and more because it felt like an act of sacrament.
“Tea,” the old woman said as she handed me a warm paper cup.
“I have a friend and she cuts hair up there, around the corner. “I like to go there and chat. She has a shop, we talk to the people who come in, it’s nice, you know?”
“Yeah, I imagine it’s good to have a shop in places like this where your friends can come by and visit. I had a shop once,” I said.
She continued, “The other day I came in and a man was having his hair cut and I saw him. We talked, but you know he was a young man, nice looks, and I’m an old lady! He paid when his haircut was done and he left. My friend and I, the lady, we always look at and talk to all the people from all kinds of places coming to see San Francisco and so I didn’t notice that the man, but he left his wallet! So I took it and very quickly went out to find him. And I did. I said, ‘Here sir, you left you wallet at my friend’s shop.’ And do you know what he said? He said he could not believe that I did not keep his money, and he thanked me. He said, thank you so much!”
“That was good of you, I said.”
“In this world, we are in a crazy place. We are in a crazy place, you hear me, and sometimes people they are bad. Sometimes they go around and they are bad. Do you know what I am saying? They do bad things and run around all over the place.”
“In this world, we must help each other. Yes.” She nodded. “In this world. We must help each other.”
She held my hands together inside of hers and I felt her bones underneath dry, silky, warm skin, all wrinkled up. She looked me in the eyes and she grinned.
Back in Barstow, I moved back inside of my motel room because it was starting to get dark. I opened another mini-bottle of red wine. I sat with my laptop and turned on the TV. Free cable. After four years I was done with school. I was on my way back to Los Angeles to restart my life. Stuart had become very successful, had settled in the Hollywood hills and I was going to stay with him until I found a place of my own. I was going to put up a show at a small gallery in Culver City, first thing. Stuart had a few connections, and he helped me but said that the gallery did not choose to represent my work because of him. Either way, I was thrilled. It was a good way to start.
I didn’t tell Stuart or anyone that William’s recent girlfriend, Denise had been trying to contact me, nor had I told anyone that I had received a call from a lawyer on William’s behalf. Something had happened, and I was going to go back to Santa Cruz for a few days, after I moved into the room Stuart had for me in L.A.
I didn’t want to think of that though, so I switched on the Television. I watched the end of a romantic comedy and was pleased to see that the idea of filmic romance had changed since the last time I last slept with anyone, or had access to cable Television. The message didn’t seem so hopeful anymore and I was glad. I switched the T.V. off after it was done, but couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about William, Ganesha and that time in San Francisco, that last time I saw my brother.
Sergio asked me when I was eleven years old, what I wanted for my birthday. He was working at his first job so at the time, he could afford to buy me a present. I said I wanted Donna Summer’s album, She Works Hard for the Money. He got me Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation.
“Trust me,” he said. “You will thank me when you are older.”
I did end up going to Sergio’s place that night, after I had gone to the museum. I never expected what happened to happen though.
“Liv, come in, did you like the show?”
The apartment smelled musty and a little like incense. I could see into the kitchen and dishes had been stacked in the sink for what must have been a day or two. It was highly decorated though. That was Leslie’s doing.
“I did. I’m so glad I happened to be here for it. It’s one of those things you see written about in the future and you are glad you can say, ‘I saw it then,’ you know?”
“Well that’s good. Here, put your coat down. Come sit down. You want a drink? Do you drink? Leslie has a bottle of wine she said we could share. She’ll be out in a minute. She’s in her room getting ready with her friend and some guy. They’re heading out later.”
“Yes, I’d love some wine, thank you.”
I sat on a sofa made of fabric. It reminded me of the one I had in my apartment, that came with the apartment, in Kansas City. I could tell that Sergio’s position in the apartment was not yet secure. We should have bonded over the fact that both of us were in a similar position. Both of us were older and living as though we weren’t. Both of us felt a little awkward in our own lives. The difference was that it was a new feeling for me. For him, this had been what life was like since he left our parents’ home.
“So you’ve been staying with mom, is she as good as she says she is? I don’t see her too often. Mostly we talk on the phone.”
“Yeah, she’s alright, but it’s so strange to see what’s happening to her neck,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
He laughed and I did too.
“I mean, she must have gone through an age spurt or something, when I wasn’t looking, or maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but her neck just looks suddenly so old and wrinkled.”
Sergio laughed some more. “Yeah, I think I know what you’re talking about.” He rubbed the top of his hand under his own chin.
“But do not tell her that I said that Sergio, she’d be so upset, you know her.”
“No, I wont. I’m glad you’re visiting though, she misses you.”
“Sergio, is this your baby sister?”
Leslie came out of her room in full makeup, which made her look glamorous and masculine at the same time. She closed the door behind her, went to grab a bag of chips from the kitchen counter and then sat on the loveseat next to Sergio. She put her arm around him and leaned her head against my brother’s shoulder.
“Leslie, this is Olive.”
Sergio pointed his whole hand in my direction, with his palm up, as if to present me.
“Really? I love it! I love a classic martini.”
“Very nice to meet you,” I said, and shook her hand. She smiled and I did as well.
Leslie was biologically a man, and lived not necessarily as a woman, but more as a combination of the two genders. Her style was sophisticated in that way, and I was proud to find that Sergio was friends or romantically linked with someone who chose a life that must have taken courage. Leslie was Leslie at all hours of the day and night. That night she wore a man’s undershirt with a denim mini-skirt and a big red belt made of plastic –red fishnet stockings with holes in them. Her blonde hair was short, styled into a pompadour. Her face had dramatic makeup on it. Aside from the clothes and makeup she didn’t do anything to hide the fact that she had a man’s body, and I loved that. Both Serge and Leslie referred to Leslie as, she, and so that is what I did.
“Ugh, Denise, our other roommate, brought over this creepy guy she’s been seeing. They’re in my room doing God knows what, I swear he’s been flirting with me. He’s absolutely disgusting,” Leslie leaned in toward us and whispered, “but he’s loaded. Takes us out all the time. That’s why she likes him, and bitch can do whatever she wants you know, she’s a big girl. I told her to watch out but what can you do, kids gotta live and learn. You straight girls... you’re straight right?”
Leslie giggled and got up to move toward the refrigerator that was located directly in front of where we sat. She took out a plate of cauliflower, carrots and snow-peas covered in saran wrap and brought it to the coffee table. This time she sat in a chair that was once a part of a dining room set, across from me.
“Help yourself you guys. This is IT for my hostessing tonight, I’m sorry. I might have a cherry tomato or two–”
“No, this is fine, thank you. I love cauliflower,” I said.
Sergio looked simultaneously out of place, and exactly where he should be, as he sat next to Leslie on the sofa. He kept his coat on. It was practical, like something that was bought out of a mail order catalog a while back. It was mustard yellow and old. He looked so much older than how I had remembered him. I thought that maybe he could have felt at home if the apartment were his. I thought Leslie was most likely a kind person. I got the sense she really liked my brother and I was glad for that. She was about my age.
Before we could start a conversation, the door to Leslie’s room started to open. She twisted her head around to see. It was Denise and William. My William.
My heart fell down beyond my stomach, it hit the sofa where I sat and continued onto the floor. I looked up at him, but I didn’t say anything. My brother moved from the loveseat to the sofa where I was and he put his hand on my back.
“Hey,” I said.
“Is that the Olive?” Denise asked.
William walked over to where I was. It looked like he expected me to stand and give him a hug.
“William, this is my brother, Sergio, Sergio this is William.”
“This is your brother?”
“Yes,” I said and stayed seated where I was.
“Hi, I’m Denise.”
I must have looked the way I felt.
Leslie stood up, moved in-between William and I and made small talk about coincidences.
Denise was a young woman, probably twenty, and blonde; too thin and very pretty. She was dressed for a night out. A bustier and tight pants not unlike something I’d dress Superstar Barbie in when I was a kid.
“I’ve heard so much about you,” she said.
“Oh well, that’s so weird!” I said and laughed. “Good to meet you.”
I was nervous and growing flustered. William took the hint Leslie had given him and moved away from me, and so I started to stand up.
“Well thank you guys, Leslie. I have to go now.”
“Olive wait, let me walk you out,” Sergio said, and followed me toward the door.
“Sorry, and thanks for the wine and snacks,” I said to Leslie as I passed her. She sat on the floor and looked up.
“You’re welcome hon, it was lovely to meet you.”
Once we were outside and on the sidewalk I took a deep breath into my mouth. Sergio stood in front of me and looked uncomfortable, but stayed anyway.
“So that’s him.”
“Jesus Liv. Are you okay, I didn’t know. I’m really sorry. I barely know these guys.”
My eyes started to tear but I didn’t want them to.
“No, Sergio, I know. Semicon’s happening this week so that’s probably why– I’m fine, it’s fine. It’s just weird. I want to get to my hostel before it gets too late, so I can meet the other women I’m sharing a room with.”
“Do you want me to walk with you? It’s dark. I don’t want you to leave like this.”
The street was busy with cars. I wondered if William was watching us from the apartment window.
“No, I think I need to be alone. I have to get up early tomorrow to get back. Just make sure he doesn’t know where I’m staying, okay? Make sure he doesn’t see me leave.” I looked up at the window. “I mean, I’m sure it’s fine, I’ve been by myself and around for years now and he hasn’t tried anything.”
“Are you sure, Liv?
“Yeah. That guy is seriously fucked up though Serge, be careful and tell your friends.”
“What did he do to you, Livy?”
I gave my brother a hug and dried my eyes on the collar of his yellow jacket.
“I’m so glad we’re friends again, Sergio. I’m really glad to have seen you after all this time. Let’s keep in touch from now on, okay?”
“Okay. And hey, I changed my mind. Tell mom that you ran into me, unexpectedly. I love you Olive.”
“Alright, I will. She’ll be glad. I love you too.”
And with that I left. I looked back and saw my brother standing on the stoop, watching me until I turned the corner.
In the morning, back in Barstow, I gathered the few things I brought into the room. I threw away my two empty mini-bottles and left two full ones there because it tasted pretty shitty.
It had been about a year since my visit with Sergio. We exchanged emails during my final semesters at school but I was hesitant to tell him very much about my life after that. I knew it wasn’t his fault William was there that night; it was just a coincidence and also a situation I wasn’t ready to handle. I figured after I graduated we could work on clearing up our lines of communication.