Liz Swain 4:24 p.m., May 24
When J and Quinn moved in together late in the summer of 1990, my time on Ward Road was over, but I chose (for reasons chain-bound to my barely functional, first-love induced, emotional retardation) to stay in San Diego for the time being. I had no real intention of remaining in Normal Heights specifically, nor was the neighborhood working very hard to keep me. The dicey crime stats, for one, had become my reality when my car had been broken into the week before I moved out. The idiot thieves had apparently been incapable of realizing, by whatever combination of genetic disposition and blood alcohol level, that breaking into a comically beat-up Sentra, clearly full of nothing more valuable than empty Double-Double wrappers (my Motorola two-way from the courier days was long gone), was a waste of crowbar and screwdriver time. Not surprisingly, they left completely empty-handed. They didn’t even bother to steal the car stereo, for which I had to grudgingly give them credit, the brand name a staple of K-Mart and Pic-N-Save. A fence would’ve laughed at them, and no one else would’ve paid a nickel for it. These criminal masterminds did, however, leave me with a bashed-in driver’s side window and several hours of work cleaning up thousands of glass pieces from the seat and floor. It was an impossible task, even vacuums have their limits. A few days later, a shard of glass stabbed me in the ass.
Still, despite the neighborhood’s cons (pun intended), my grossly underweight wallet was a much more powerful pro and it made the decision for me. I answered a “roommate wanted” ad for a $250 per month room ($12.50 cheaper than Ward Road!) in a house in Normal Heights, on 32nd Street just north of Meade. It was a stone’s throw from I-805, the noxious waterfall of rushing traffic a constant background noise and scent. The house was a small, three-bedroom, 1920s Spanish colonial revival, its white stucco stained by freeway dust, its red roof tile tinted with the same. The stucco itself was much newer than the house, probably from the 80s, chunkier and less authentic, a spray job – the kind that scrapes you raw on contact. (There are still far too many spray jobs on these old beauties in Normal Heights. Give me the hand and the trowel, the strokes of the artist, and the vintage finish they leave.) The house was owned by Ponce Sr., he of the venerable Ponce’s Restaurant in Kensington, where more than once I paid our rent and picked up a machaca plate to go.
Even more deliciously, however, the place was inhabited by – and my new roommates would soon be – a friendly pair of 20-something sisters, Sandra and Heidi. Strangely, I don’t remember Karen making a fuss about it (or was it so ugly a fuss that I’ve blocked it out entirely?), but it’s hardly a whiff of genius to suggest she was less than thrilled when I started living with two pretty, fun, intelligent women. Heidi was the eldest, a UCSD medical school student, soon to move to New York City for her residency. Sandra, a few years younger, was in her first year of teaching elementary school at Martin Luther King down in Southeast San Diego, a school much like the one I’d worked at, probably a little tougher since it wasn’t a magnet as Encanto was. Their father was German, their mother Mexican, and their daughters definitely looked like their madre. Both had long, thick, wavy black hair, deep brown eyes, and they had a skin tone that their relatives back in Germany could never achieve without chemical assistance or being roasted on a spit.
They were cool chicks, Heidi the more bubbly of the two, Sandra the more serious. Needless to say, I had crushes on both right away, even if it was tinged with a guilt that lingered from my freaky night with Cat a few months earlier. But Sandra had a boyfriend, to whom she was engaged it turned out, and Heidi was far too busy with med school to breathe regularly much less play. And she wasn’t quite my type anyway – her carbonation was more like a mild nuttiness. I’ll elaborate: one day she was at her brother’s office in Mission Valley and called to say she needed me to bring her some papers she’d left at home. I drove the papers down there, looked for her outside of the building where she said she’d be waiting, but I could not find her. After twenty minutes I gave up and returned home (ah life before cellular technology!). It turned out she’d been sitting up on a branch in one of the trees outside the building, reading a neurology text, and she hadn’t seen me (or heard me either, since I called out to her a few times). Heidi was always up in that tree, in some fashion or another.
Still, sans my amorous and basket-case delusions, there were other “advantages” to living with them as a 23 year-old male. Heidi told me right away, for instance, when I paid my deposit and rent, that they knew it was hard with three people and only one bathroom, especially when one of the people has (physically if not symbolically) male reproductive parts.
“So if you really have to go when one of us is in the bath or the shower,” said Heidi, “then please, just walk on in and take care of it. No need for organ damage just because of modesty.”
Hmm. Interesting. “Hopefully it’ll never happen,” I lied. “But good to know.” The shower in the clawfoot tub I’d already seen, and I’d taken note of its transparent vinyl curtain, which only surrounded about two-thirds of the area, the exposed third open to clear view.
“And you said you were a theatre major in college anyway, didn’t you?” Heidi added, and I nodded in affirmation. “So you’re used to that kinda thing.”
She was right, she must have hung out with some drama fags back in her undergrad days. Indeed, having acted in several plays and worked crew on others (not to mention the top notch faculty-student dalliance program), it was a nudist colony backstage. Doors to the dressing rooms were often to usually open, everyone’s bits and pieces hanging out for all to see at some point. If you had a real peppy cast, watch out, you were likely to see more living flesh than you could anywhere else on campus while actually in the process of earning two university credits. And if one were fortunate enough (or unfortunate enough, dramatis personae dependent) to work on a production of a play like Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” or, say, on a porn-movie interpretation of one of the Greeks that a nutcase graduate directing student attempts to foist on the public, if one works on these kinds of shows, well, it is generally accepted that at some point an actual orgy will break out during the run, in the green room, on the proscenium at the afterparty, wherever, but it was on.
I jest. Ever so slightly. But then, and this is the ugly truth, one of the actors would have an attack of Roberto’s gas, and the entire stage would reek. It would seep into the front rows of the audience causing sour looks among the patrons. It was much like the fog machine spew during “The Prince of Homburg” prologue I’d been a part of at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, when you knew your cue to take the stage was when you heard the old folks start coughing and wheezing down front. It’s just not as glamorous under those lights as it looks. But backstage…it’s all Roman. This bathroom thing with the sisters was old hat, or toga.
I can honestly say I never attempted to cheat the bathroom walk-in agreement with Heidi and Sandra – to simply walk in, let’s say, and only pretend to pee when one of them was bare and drenched. Heidi, of course, once had to go badly when I was in the shower. She knocked on the bathroom door, sounded like she was in agony, and I told her to come in and take care of business. As I tried to keep my boyhood out of sight, and as she sat on the can, she tried to make small talk. It didn’t work for me at all, I could hardly put a sentence together or move. (I liked her up in the tree better.)
And lest I thought Sandra felt differently about such exposed matters, a few weeks later Karen dropped me off after a night out together, and I realized I’d forgotten my keys in the house when we’d left earlier. It was after midnight, the house was dark and I was wary of waking anyone, but Karen had already driven away, so I had to get in. I rang the bell, knocked hard a few times, then through the beveled glass of the heavy and original door I could see Sandra emerge in the darkness from her bedroom. And I quickly took notice of something else about her. She was naked as a jaybird. Not wearing so much as a sock or even an earring, or an ounce of concern either. She opened the door for me groggily, all of her womanhood in the light of the porch for a brief moment, but she didn’t even flinch. She merely offered a half-asleep “Hey,” then she turned her bare ass to me and walked back into her bedroom. I could’ve done worse, I thought, answering a “roommate wanted” ad. Much worse, and I had.
My room on 32nd Street was small and white, and I never hung a picture in the six months I was there. There was one window. It was a tiny asylum. Karen, understandably, never spent a single night there. Except for my mattress and my desk, the space remained bare – the same desk, it occurs to me, that my childhood-torching first stepfather had bought me when I was ten (no twisted psychology at work in keeping that thing, of course not). Adding the two pieces of furniture to my indispensable word processor and meager wardrobe amounted to the sum total of my possessions.
I’d moved the mattress and desk with the aid of Sandra’s boyfriend, Chris, utilizing her old VW Thing. We drove slowly west on Meade, the mattress at risk of falling out, the bouncing desk cracking and splintering with every bump in the street – and it was Normal Heights, where, to this day, the large population of bumps and cracks are free to live in peace, to be fruitful and multiply, those pesky city repairmen busy in the nicer parts of town. As it should be. Normal Heights is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the entire nation, why should these poor downtrodden potholes and crevices (or any other huddled messes) not also be more welcomed there? As a result, the desk required surgery when the move was complete, and her legs were never the same. Poor old gal. Always women with me.