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.
There is an elderly woman who lives above us. She is Italian and missing nearly all of her teeth. She picks the mint that grows around our patio where our dog routinely pees. One afternoon, she walks to the grocery store, forgetting to turn off her stove. I smell the smoke and hear the persistent beeping of her fire alarm. There is smoke coming out of her windows. I call the fire department. I remove all sentimental items from our apartment. I sit with baby Andrew, my dog, a box of our stuff, and our rolling filing cabinet near the pool, waiting for the fire truck. I am tired of apartment life. When Aaron gets home from work, I tell him that we could’ve died. He says I am being dramatic. I probably am.
There is a mom and her newborn baby in the apartment across from us. Her military husband is deployed. She is having an affair with the dude who lives by the pool. Things get ugly when the husband arrives home from overseas. They end up moving. I am living in the ghetto version of Melrose Place.
The people at the far end of our complex have three kids. The little ones are always knocking on my door. They spend more time at my apartment than their own. They get taken away by Child Protective Services.
There is a shooting across the street at the Blockbuster. It’s broad daylight when it happens.
“They didn’t die, they were only shot,” Aaron reassures me.
Most of our neighbors are dysfunctional. Some are crazy. It seems as if Aaron and I are unable to escape dysfunction. It has followed us from Kansas. This is not what I envisioned when we decided to move to San Diego.
A year later, after the birth of my second son, my parents come for a visit. I notice that my mom clutches her purse whenever we leave the apartment. She constantly and neurotically reminds me to lock the doors. They are from the ’burbs. The only crime they see is their neighbors breaking the homeowners’ association rule by not mowing their lawns. My mom appears to be in a perpetual state of anxiety. I would’ve found it comical if I weren’t so insulted. Before flying home, Mom sits us down and insists that we move. Now.
Eventually, we do move. We find a cute rental in El Cajon with a nice yard. It even has a swing set. Our neighbors are normal, annoyingly normal. Within a month, I am bored out of my mind. I miss my crackhead neighbor, the pyro granny, and the mistress. There is something wrong with me.
We were so anxious to escape the Midwest that we didn’t have a plan for what to do when we arrived in San Diego. Our first apartment was a Motel 6 room that overlooked a parking lot and smelled like vomit and popcorn. Remembering a 20/20 episode about semen and other nasty body fluids found on hotel comforters, I found it nearly impossible to sleep. I scoured the newspapers daily for an affordable apartment that would accept Bela, our 70-pound chocolate Lab. I envisioned living steps from the beach in a cute house with flowers and a wrap-around porch. I was dismayed to discover how much we would have to shell out to rent a dirty studio apartment within walking distance to the waves. In Kansas, we had lived in an adorable old Victorian two-bedroom apartment for $385 a month. I couldn’t imagine paying more than $500.
After a lengthy search, we ended up in our Spring Valley apartment, surrounded by run-down strip malls with 24-hour check-cashing stores. Still, I thought our apartment was charming.
“It has a pool!” I gushed like a damn realtor. I found the popcorn ceiling inside amazing. “Look, it glitters.” I had the ridiculous optimism of a true Midwesterner.
Even after three cars were stolen from our parking lot, I still believed. I was the neighborhood mom. Hordes of kids descended upon our apartment when school let out. I supplied them with endless Freezee Pops. They watched cartoons on our Toshiba and entertained my son, who was just learning how to crawl. I was lonely, my only contact to the outside world was grade-school kids. It was depressing.
I was homesick. I was having a tough time adjusting to a life thousands of miles away from my family and friends. We only had one car, which Aaron took to work, so I was homebound all day with our infant son. I called my friends, sister, and mom in tears almost daily. I knew I was miserable when I started missing Aaron’s crazy family.
Back in Kansas, Aaron’s dad was spotted routinely around town, mostly at the courthouse, wearing an adult-sized Halloween bumblebee costume, complete with antennae and stinger. He was protesting what he called an illegal sting operation that had landed him behind bars. He was continually featured in the Kansas City Star’s weird-news columns.
“Maybe we can live by my family in Chicago,” I offered.
“Your family is just as whacked,” Aaron scoffed.
My family was morbidly normal in comparison to Aaron’s. Sure, my sister had an unhealthy obsession with Ralph Lauren. My brother liked to wear plaid pants and old-man hats. My pale, Irish-brogued father was part of a Native American flute group. We were artistic, not crazy. The most bizarre thing my mom had ever done was vote for Ross Perot, and my dad had the occasional habit of walking around in European man-sandals. None of them cuddled with life-sized dolls.
We go back to the Midwest to get married. There is no way I am exchanging vows under palm trees surrounded by bikinis and board shorts. Instead, we opt for an outdoor wedding in the Henry Lake Forest Preserves outside of Chicago.
On another trip to Kansas to visit Aaron’s family, Uncle Bill tells us that we have to check out the anatomically correct doll factory, Realdoll, located in San Marcos, California.
“It’s amazing.” His face lights up.
Uncle Bill takes it upon himself to share pictures from his recent trip. There are no beach photos, no quintessential palm-tree shot, only Uncle Bill posing with slutty-looking silicone dolls and creepy tourgoers.
Still, I leave Kansas feeling less than thrilled to be returning to Southern California. I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Every morning I can expect the same thing: clear skies and mild weather. I start cursing the sun and its perfect rays. I want some variety, a little bit of the unexpected. Where, San Diego, is the mystery? The city is becoming a boring boyfriend who has wanted me to meet his parents ever since the first date. I am looking for something a little more reckless.
I will never forget the first time I witnessed rain in Southern California. Groups of people cowered under the shabby awning of my local grocery store. They were holding newspapers over their heads and making mad, frantic dashes to their cars.
“I think I’ll wait it out,” exclaimed a woman standing next to me.
It was drizzling. It was the most hilarious thing I have ever seen. Did these people think that this was acid rain? Were they afraid they would melt? I was starting to learn that people in San Diego were opposed to variety.
The thing that bothered me most was the lack of trees. Where were the forest preserves and sweeping prairie grass? I hated palm trees. With their anorexic trunks, they were an insult to arborists everywhere. Palm trees can’t even provide adequate shade from the sun that is always shining.
The truth was that Aaron never wanted to leave San Diego, and I had not yet loosened my grip on my Chicago roots. I wanted a Christmas-card landscape, with a sturdy house looming in the background.
But slowly, I came around to Aaron’s way of thinking. Slowly, I turned my back on the Midwest.
Now, people no longer crack up over my nasal drawl. I accept the cardboard pizza. I’ve learned how to surf and even have a tanning-salon membership. I get a sick sense of satisfaction when my Midwestern friends tell me how California I am.
When I visit Chicago, I complain about the bitter cold and can barely tolerate the wind. The thought of waking up early to scrape snow off my car windows and having to keep track of miscellaneous gloves and mittens is just too much. If that means giving up my dream of owning a home, I gladly will.
We are still renting. We are the ugly stain on our block, the only family on a pristine street who hasn’t forked over more than half a million dollars to buy our own place. We have taken over someone else’s.
When our new neighbors bought their houses, they were greeted with freshly baked cookies and invites to barbeques. When we moved in, we got dirty looks and were told all about how the last tenants hosted loud parties. We were reminded that this is a “quiet neighborhood.”
I always envisioned myself owning a house by the time I was 30. It was going to be pale blue with flowers neatly planted in rows. I would have a huge yard with teak patio furniture and a master bedroom with a walk-in closet. I saw this all in the fantastic brightness of my future.
I turned 30 in January.
Our three-bedroom rental house in Tierrasanta barely holds our family of five. Our neighbor is an elderly man who picks through the bottles in our recycling and reprimands us when our kids leave their toys outside. Our dog has dug up the patch of grass we call a yard.
I have started taking classes at the community college nearby. I attend in the mornings, while my kids are at school. I am usually the oldest one in the class, with the exception of an elderly woman with a cane (in anthropology) and an obnoxious Marine (in history). There is a boy in English composition who owns a shirt that says, “Your mom goes to college.” I hate that kid.
My son’s soccer coach recognizes me one morning on my way to class.
“I didn’t know you taught here.”
“I don’t, I take classes.”
“Oh,” she says, not bothering to hide the shock in her voice.
I see the future looming like a disaster waiting to happen. Aaron reminds me about the house we will buy when I finally have a job. He is the optimist and so cheerful when he says this. I am starting to feel the pressure. I am terrified that I too will end up with a crazy career. Maybe not sex-doll construction, but something far more remedial. What if I wind up an aging waitress with saggy skin and exposed cleavage, a grocery-store bagger, or worse, a Walmart greeter? I try to come up with an inventory of my skills. I have none. I start to panic.