by Rachel Sheldon
Author's note: The following piece has been adapted from a longer journal entry, which took place over the course of a day. Some details have been condensed or omitted.
There are 150 Asian kids playing foursquare in my living room. I mean, technically I don’t have a living room right now, just a gigantic courtyard, but it’s pretty much my living room. And it’s currently filled with children. Yelling. Screaming. Likely snot-nosed children.
I press myself flat to the wall and glower at them all like some 4’ 10” female version of Argus Filch. I’m afraid if I lose my cover, the kids will stampede over me like those Best Buy shoppers who trampled a lady while running to get to a half-price flat screen TV last Black Friday. Even the kids’ youth group leaders look uneasy – they kind of stand in the center of the chaos and flap their hands around, shouting stuff like, “Jacob! Don’t climb that wall!” and “Sarah! Stop punching Jacob!” and even, “Mark! You’re in Mexico! Don’t let that stranger in the door!”
Yeah, Mark, I think, giving the sheepish-looking kid the stink eye. Don’t you dare. This compound – my home for the time being – is in a poorer area of Ensenada, and there are always sketchy people trying to con their way in through the front door. Just yesterday I had to turn away a guy dressed as a clown. He wouldn’t tell me what he wanted, he just kept doing that mime-trick where you pretend to be stuck in an invisible box. I made him a sandwich and told him to leave.
The 150 screeching little dinosaurs – err, I mean, darlings – know none of this. They are the combined youth groups of four Asian churches from California. They just arrived a half hour ago to build houses for homeless families in the hills around Ensenada. We get groups in every week throughout June. I might like these kids if I didn’t have to clean their bathrooms. I might like these kids if they hadn’t just gotten off their buses and if they didn’t have the energy equivalents of squirrels hooked up to IV bags of Mountain Dew.
I start inching along the wall James Bond style, trying to make it to the safety of the staff lounge. I have a feeling my friend Alfredo is camped out in there, watching skateboarding videos on youtube. He told me we were going to sneak down to the beach and shoot off fireworks later, but he’s probably still glued to the TV. Let me tell you something: to the casual onlooker, all skateboarding videos look the same. Guys fall on their faces. Guys hit their crotches on handrails. Guys occasionally nail a cool trick. There will often be rap music in the background, but then it's more difficult to hear other sound effects, like bones breaking and people shouting, "Hey! I thought I told you not to skateboard here!"
Most of my friends like these videos because they are from the skate park out back. Alfredo lives down the road with his parents, but other guys, like my friend David, are more-or-less homeless, so they work here in exchange for room and board. The skatepark is what drew them initially.
I actually run into David on my way to the lounge. He is leaning against the dirty stucco wall. He looks serene, cradling his skateboard, watching the chaos unfold with his sleeves rolled-up so you can see the scars running up and down his forearms. He’s wearing a white button-down and taped up vans and these sleek, sleek sunglasses that are only a little bit cracked in one lens. Hell, I think. He looks like a song written by the Arctic Monkeys.
David smokes pot every single day. He thinks no one sees him when he does this, but everyone knows. Particularly when he methodically eats my entire bag of mini-marshmallows and then tells me the universe is made of glass.
He sees me now, pulls off his sunglasses, and breaks out into a smile that drags on for eternity. I check his eyes. He’s not stoned yet – he just always looks high.
“Que onda, David?”
“Raaaay-cheeel,” he says. Spanish-speakers usually have a hard time with the ch sound. David never switches to calling me Raquel, even though I told him he could. “It’s crazy here, no?”
“It’s like feeding time at the San Diego Zoo.”
“Yes,” he muses. “But it’s nice. Different…to see many people…happy.”
“Is that what you’re doing? Standing here, watching people be happy?”
“Me? No. I am waiting.”
“Waiting for what, David?”
He frowns. “I don’t know.”
His eyes are bright, like crazy bright. I mean crazy in the literal sense of the word. I mean I think someone cut open a glow stick and poured all the liquid stuff into his eyes.
“Huh,” I say. “Uhm. I’m going to go make a cup of tea. Do you want some?”
His eyes light up even more. “Ooh, I love tea,” he says in that slow, warm, broken English of his. “When I was small and had no food, I…I…walk to my neighbor’s house and take his leaves. Then I make tea and drink that…to be full.”
“What the heck, David! Where were your parents?”
He smiles again. “No parents, Ray-cheel. Grandparents. Grandparents, I love so much. But they die…leave me in the house. Many years.”
“Didn’t you go to school?”
“No. Stop going. But go to my friends every day, outside of school. Say, hey, can you give me one peso? He gives me one peso. Ask another friend – hey, one peso? Gives me peso. Buy food sometimes. Live like this.”
“How old were you?”
“Ah. Don’t remember. Trece?”
“Yes. Thirteen. That is the age.”
“And when they didn’t give you pesos?”
“Skate in the street and drink tea.”
He doesn't say anything else, just looks down at me and keeps smiling his daydreamy smile. We stare into each other’s eyes, searching. All around us, the world is a whirlwind. The lights are low. Adults have joined in the foursquare game – the ball now soars impossibly high and impossibly fast, bouncing around like it's stuck in a pinball machine. Kids are jump roping, playing tag, drawing on the ground with chalk. People form circles to gossip, the din of their voices occasionally punctured by a child’s laugh.
"My tea," I say apologetically, taking a step back. "I forgot it in the microwave."
“Go get it, small Rachel.”
I run rather than walk to the kitchen. I make my tea. I am very quiet.
There’s an image in my mind. David’s clothes are clean and he doesn’t have the knife-fight scars on his arms, just the ones from skateboarding. He is holding the keys to my car, he is talking to his friends in a school parking lot, he is listening to his ipod plugged into the aux cord. He is going to the movie theater, he is putting presents under the Christmas tree, he’s calling my mom “mom” and my dad “dad”. His room looks like mine, but there are Pink Floyd posters on the walls and the bedspread is different. When he looks at you, he does so directly. He doesn’t look through you, look through the wall behind you, and disappear into space.
The vision is blinding. My hands shake. My thoughts come falling like tetris blocks:
We had so many
When I grew up
My house was big
It was like
Of empty rooms.
I press my face into my hands until the image ebbs away, leaving my head like mist dissipating in the sunlight. I drink my tea, pace around, get my penny board from my room, and go back out. David is now sitting at the table, hand on his chin, watching the crowd with that dark, far-away gaze of his.
I am 19. I am not a lawyer like my father. I am not a social worker like my sister. I am kind of nothing, honestly, nothing living on a border town in Mexico. I am here to scrub toilets and make beds and introduce myself over and over again because no one ever knows who I am. But I am this way by choice.
The sun is setting off David’s sunglasses. I blow dust off the wheels of my board. You can hear the ocean wherever you are on the base, can smell and taste the salt, can watch the breeze play red rover with the palm tree leaves and the 7pm sun make the water look like a sheet of hot glass. Summertime in Ensenada, the weather is always perfect.
“C’mon, David. Let’s go. Be wild and free,” I say. “Let’s go shoot off fireworks and run when the police chase us.”
I point across the courtyard to where Alfredo is ducking out of the staff lounge with an armful of roman candles. He is trying to sneak past all the little Asian kids. He is failing.
“C’mon,” I say again, punching David in the arm. “Ya weirdo. Come skate. Skate with us. Skate with me.”
I have this feeling David has spent enough of his life feeling sad. He doesn’t need to see it in my eyes, too.
“No pienses en nada,” I say. “Please. Don’t think. No smoke.”
David nods and steps on his board. “Okay.”
I’m thinking that everything we’ve ever done – every heavy thing – gets tied around our ankles, and we spend our whole lives dragging them around behind us. When you can’t take the weight anymore, you fall. You sit down. You don’t move. But someone – every now and then – comes along and helps you throw them off and run like hell in the opposite direction.
On clear nights in Ensenada, we don’t run.
Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.