I always pictured myself in California. After my boyfriend Aaron received job offers in Oklahoma City, Topeka, and San Diego, we decided we would head to the land of fruits and nuts.
Within a few weeks, we had loaded up our station wagon with boxes of belongings, our dog, and our four-month-old son for the cross-country trek. We were giddy with excitement.
The decision was even easier for us after the previous year spent attending Aaron’s bizarre family functions in the suburbs of Kansas City.
At Christmas, his Uncle Bill had seated his anatomically correct doll, with Pamela Anderson breasts, at the dinner table. She was wearing a Santa hat. Uncle Bill had been playing with dolls for years, long before Lars and the Real Girl came out in 2007. In Uncle Bill’s family room, there was a shelf with dozens of porcelain dolls.
“It’s kind of creepy that your Aunt Linda has so many dolls in here,” I whispered to Aaron.
“Those are Bill’s,” he said.
“If we want to raise our kid to be normal,” I said, “we need to move, pronto.”
The first friends Aaron and I meet in San Diego want us to go bike riding. It’s September, and we are invited — at 8:00 in the fricking morning — to join these folks on a ride around Mission Bay. I become nervous when I notice the spandex they wear and the enormous water bottles strapped onto their ten-speeds.
My brand-new Walmart four-speed bike, with its comfy seat cushion, might not cut it for this particular outing.
At first, the ride is tolerable. Then we come upon the looming Mission Bay Bridge, which promises serious calf-muscle injustice. After a few minutes the incline gets to me, and I am huffing and puffing, sweating and swearing. I lag embarrassingly behind and nearly vomit. When I finally catch up, I manage to snarl to Aaron through clenched teeth, “We will never hang out with these people again!”
I am from Chicago. Ten-year-olds own bikes. Adults do not. For fun, we drink Old Milwaukee from plastic cups and attend baseball games. We do not wake up early on weekends to take painful bike rides. We are sensible and embrace beer bellies.
But Aaron is slowly falling in love with San Diego. The city has turned into a beautiful blonde, much more adventurous than I am. She shows him new hobbies, like surfing, scuba diving, and kayaking. I want to put a hit out on his sleazy new ladyfriend.
I make it clear just how much I dislike San Diego. That’s why I am shocked when Aaron says that he wants to stay put. He even goes so far as to describe, in detail, the beach condo we will own when he eventually retires.
“Here? You want to stay here in San Diego?”
He has been seduced.
So, with the optimism of first-time buyers, we start our search for a home. One warm Saturday afternoon, our realtor gives us the address to a condo in Santee.
“That’s a little out there,” I say to Aaron. “Didn’t some kid go on a shooting rampage in Santee?”
He tries to remain optimistic, even after the desolate strip malls and the never-ending ride down side streets. We pull into a parking lot off a busy road and notice two shirtless little boys running around with plastic guns. I lift an eyebrow and give Aaron a look. He sighs.
Our realtor is a young guy with slicked-back hair and shiny, black leather shoes. His keys jingle in harmony with his steps. We walk slowly behind him. He comes to a door with faded paint.
“This is it!” he says with the over-enthusiasm of an unemployed actor.
Inside, the carpet is filthy, and the kitchen apparently hasn’t been updated since the early ’80s. There is a tiny boxlike living room and a rectangular dining room that could, maybe, if we are lucky, fit a card table. There is a smell resembling raw sewage ineffectively covered up with air deodorizer.
“It has three bedrooms and a community pool with a hot tub!”
Our realtor’s voice is filled with so much unnecessary pep that I want to punch him. I make my way toward the master bedroom and wonder if a queen-size bed would even fit. Sensing our disappointment, the realtor is relentless. “You can walk to the grocery store!”
I look out the window and see a barefoot kid wandering aimlessly around the sidewalk. In the distance is a rusty pool gate. Everything appears dusty.
We look at a few more places. Most of the complexes resemble inner-city projects, and all share the same brown, speckled carpeting, tiny bedrooms, and sticky-faced children whose parents are nowhere to be seen.
On the drive home, Aaron lets out a long, weary sigh. I remind him that we could buy a mansion in the Midwest for the price of one of those small condos. After seeing the sad look on his face, I can’t continue.
We decide to stop looking. Renting in East County is perfectly acceptable for now. We both agree that when our son is school-age, I will go back and get a degree. We can buy a house when I am working full-time.
By the end of that year, most of our friends in San Diego have moved away to buy affordable houses in other parts of the country. Their Christmas cards are glossy photos of them standing in front of beautiful homes with large sweeping yards. Aaron tries to reassure me with the fact that they have to wear layers of clothing and bundle their kids up in boots and snow pants. They don’t have the opportunity to go snorkeling in February.
“They’re probably getting fat,” he tells me. “People who live in the snow always get fat because there is nothing to do.”
But they probably don’t have crackheads for neighbors.
The woman who moves in next door to us in Spring Valley is unnaturally petite. I am afraid that if I bump into her she will break. In the middle of the night, there are persistent knocks at her door, shortly followed by a strange smell, best described as a combination of burnt plastic and Skittles. She always has friends over. They hang out in the stairwell. They are getting in the way of my sleeping pattern. I want to yell at them to shut the hell up, but I am afraid of these people. The guy a few doors down clues me in on the neighbor’s crack habit.