Our friends talked as if we were setting out in covered wagons, venturing into Indian Country. Except, in their version of the story, we were both the pioneers and the Indians.
Thats Prop. 8 land out there, said Erick. We supposed he knew: Once a week, he taught theater at a community college in Canyon Country, which sounded like a borough in Disneyland but was apparently a land of chain stores and cheap homesand people whod voted to outlaw gay marriage just months after a state court had legalized it.
Have you seen it from the freeway? Tile roofs as far as the eye can see, said Phuong. Her use of the phraseas far as the eye can seesounded dramatic and archaic; indeed, something a pioneer might say when describing buffalo stampeding across a plain.
The four of us were eating dinner at a new restaurant we kept describing as Vietnamese fusion, although the pho and spring rolls had been fused with fries and soda. If the place had had Formica tables and Styrofoam take-out containers, we would have considered it bastardized instead of fused.
Well, if you make it back by eight, you can catch my friends show at the Tinder Box Theater, said Erick.
Of course theyll make it back by eight, said Phuong. What is there to do out there? Everyones at home watching Two-and-a-Half Men by eight p.m. sharp.
Theres a lot to do, I said. People hike andů.
My girlfriend, Mel, knew what I was up to and jumped to my defense. I heard there are a couple of little ghost towns just off the highway. You can still root through the ruins, I think. And Magic Mountain! Even you guys cant argue with the essential awesomeness of amusement park funnel cake.
Santa Clarita Valley: the vast, recently developed land north of Los Angeles, a new kind of non-farmland the term exurban had been invented to describe. I was aware my defense of it was vague and feeble. I had more or less said, Some of my best friends live in the Santa Clarita Valley. Except not one of them did.
But Mel and I were all too aware that bashing the place would wedge us more deeply into a particular category of person: the urban lesbian couple eating with friends (thespian and public health worker) at a Vietnamese fusion restaurant in a gentrifying neighborhood. It stood to reason that if we didnt want to be a type, we could not assume the residents of Santa Claritas McMansions were either.
Mel put her hand on my leg and declared, Im going with you. Itll be fun.
This was not exactly what Id wanted. Its just an afternoon thing. Itll be boring. Not because its Santa Clarita, but because its work. Are you sure?
Mels cheeks were pink with enthusiasm. She clicked her orange plastic chopsticks in the air. Im sure!
I knew that to her, we were not pioneers so much as missionariesthe modern kind, who worked with existing institutions and learned the local language.
Connor Ohanesian, the city councilman I worked for, was young and enthusiastic, and had a tendency to get caught up in the moment. It was why I liked working for him, but an unfortunate side effect was that sometimes he agreed to attend irrelevant events, which he would then farm out to his underlings. Vasquez Rocks, our destination within the Santa Clarita Valley, was not in Connors district. It wasnt even in the city of Los Angeles. He represented the east end of Hollywood, one of the few neighborhoods in the area that hadnt yet gotten a turn as an it neighborhood. We kept waiting. Meanwhile, he made friends with local business owners, one of whom was a property developer who worked mostly in Santa Clarita. Because Connor was hoping the man would build his next upscale strip mall in Hollywood, hed agreed to send Viola Fratti, a rep from his office (i.e., me), to the kickoff of a developer-sponsored educational project at Vasquez Rocks. Mel and I were running late, as we tended to do. Are you sure it wont just be distracting to have me there? she asked. We were already more than halfway there, so it wasnt out of genuine consideration for my work life. It was just a bid for reassurance, and I was too tired to deliver.
It might be, I said. Should I drop you off at a coffee shop somewhere?
Ohwell, I guess you could. I didnt bring anything to read, butů.
I was kidding, I sighed.
Vasquez Rocks is where they film a bunch of stuff, right? She flipped the lid of her coffee mug open and snapped it closed repeatedly. Mels many nervous habits were part of what had drawn me to her five years ago. Id watched her daintily chew the prongs of a plastic fork from across a park. Id been on a not-very-good second date; shed been zoning out at a friends sons birthday party. My dates unwarranted affection for me had made me overconfident about my own sex appeal, so when our date ended, I hung out in my car for a while, then got back out and marched over to the birthday party, where I handed Mel my number like some kind of gentleman.
I think they shot a couple of Star Trek episodes there, I said. Or maybe it was one of the movies.
When we got off the freeway and found ourselves navigating skinny country roads that were highways in name only, I started wishing I knew more about this event. I was good at showing up for things, but bad at doing the prep work. In L.A., this usually wasnt a problem. Id arrive and skim signs and handouts and say hi to a few people and pick up the tune quickly. But these small towns seemed suddenly huge, and I believed that foreign dialects were spoken here.
We passed low-slung ranch houses with long gravel driveways. No McMansions here, I noticed with satisfaction. We passed parked cars with bumper stickers that said, Jesus is GodRead the Bible (which Id only seen in Spanish until now) and War is the Answer.
Which war? Mel wondered.
Maybe just in general, I said. Maybe its the answer to everything: Why is the sky blue? War.
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck? said Mel. War.
Why are my taxes so high? I said. War.
Well, said Mel. I guess that one would be true. There was a beat as we crossed an intersection. I bet there really are good places to hike around here, I said. We went hiking maybe twice a year, but we always felt wholesome and self-righteous when we did.
I felt the need to affirm the territory of War is the Answer. These were the confused days after the 2008 election. Wed toasted our new president, then protested the passage of Prop. 8 three nights in a row, marching and chanting, What do we want? Equal rights! until we had blisters and sore throats. Sometimes, as we walked the nighttime streets, wed pass some baffled citizenmaybe a woman whose driveway had been blocked for hours by protesters, or a kid watching the whole thing like it was a TV show from the window of a McDonalds, or a guy who hadnt voted because he wasnt here legally and had even fewer rights than we didand something inside me would flinch. I wanted them to know that, in a different situation, we could have a long conversation about those fried apple pies in their little cardboard pockets. I wanted them to know that even though I was marching for this, I cared about immigration reform too. Id pushed Connor to sign on in support of the Dream Act. Anger wasnt my style. Public policy was.
These were the days when the air crackled with hope and hostility, and Mel and I were determined to be on the side of the former. Wed recently entered our thirties, and we saw how smugness and cynicism were encroaching on our friends. We didnt want to be victims of it any more than we wanted to be victims of this new law that felt like elementary school: Today no one with red hair gets to play tetherball.
We missed the turnoff for Vasquez Rocks. We looped around a cul de sac spoked with small houses. Cacti in some yards, lawn gnomes in others, a few water-damaged election signs. I stomped the brakes when a soccer ball bounced into the street, followed by a knobby-kneed boy of seven or eight. So cute, said Mel. Ever since her sister had moved to L.A. with her kids, Mel had gone kid-crazy. I can see why people raise their kids out here. I really can. She put her empathy on display, loud and open, trying to believe it. Vasquez Rocks was not urban or exurban. It was a red slice of earth jutting up into the sky, daring film crews and athletes to tame it. It seemed clear they would fail.
Rows of folding chairs had been set up, somewhat absurdly, in an arc around a podium accessorized with a microphone and speakers. A meeting room plopped in the middle of the desert. The wind whipped cold through the canyon, blowing a cardboard sign off an easel. When a woman in a skirt suit picked it up, I saw that it said, Newhall School District Earth Science Every Day! Sponsored by SC Byrne Construction.
Mel and I slipped into chairs at the edge of the arc but close to the front. A middle-aged man whose suit and girth told me he must be Connors new friend Ron Byrne (the SC was for Santa Clarita) was clutching the podium like he wanted to shake some sense into it.
If America is going to successfully compete with countries like China and India, weve got to win the tech war, he was saying. And that means our kids have got to have a good foundation in scienceall kinds of science, not just computers. Any fool can learn to run a computer program, but the future is going to demand that we care for the earth, build innovatively and conquer space. Which is why all of us at SC Byrne couldnt be prouder to support the new science program for all the elementary schools in the Newhall School District, Earth Science Every Day! Ill turn it over to he glanced down at a note card, which, to his credit, he hadnt consulted so far, Stephanie Ramos, a second grade teacher at Serros Elementary, to tell you more about what our kids will be doing.
I clapped as if I were all for conquering space and China and India too. What the hell was I going to say, I wondered, if they called me up to the podium? Why had I not consulted with Connors assistant to confirm whether I was expected to speak?
Stephanie Ramos was talking about monthly field trips and visits from professional scientists. So Earth Science Every Day! would actually be Earth Science Every Month! A row of girls in matching black tights and miscellaneous coats swung their legs from chairs in the front row. Out here elementary school kids were white. Not entirely, because it was still California, but more so than on any playground Id walked past in a long time.
And now Id like to welcome a special guest from Councilman Connor OHannons office in Los Angeles, said Stephanie Ramos. Viola Fratti.
She said my first name with a long I, the way my own second grade teacher had pronounced Viola Swamp, the evil substitute teacher character in Miss Nelson is Missing! I felt as unwanted as a sub. Even when youre in your home district, only a few wonks and crazies are ever excited to see a city council member, let alone a representative from his office. I always wanted to confess: I know you have better things to do than listen to me. I have better things to do than talk to you. Were all victims here.
I said that Councilman Ohanesian was very supportive of education. For all kids in L.A. County. And, well, everywhere, of course. I watched Mel chew the skin around her nails and Ron Byrne nod attentively in a way that must have gotten him far in meetings throughout his life. I saw one of the little girls in tights point at my shoes, which were cowboy boots, and suddenly I was conscious of what I looked like. What I looked like: a woman in suit pants and a button-down shirt. More than one person had described me as athletic. I was not, unless you call lifting eight-pound weights at the gym twice a week a sport, but I had square shoulders and small breasts, so athletic was a diplomatic way of saying mannish. I had hair the color of the fallow hills behind Vasquez Rocks. I had thick (but groomed, thank you) eyebrows, passed down to me by my Armenian grandmother. I wore the cowboy boots because they made me feel tough and fun at the same time, in a way that tailored pants could not.
I was wrapping up my very, very short remarks when a gust of wind came sweeping around the biggest of the Vasquez Rocks. I hadnt known wind could move that way. It yanked a baseball cap off a boys head, and it unwound Mels scarf from her neck. The scarf, which Mel called a pashmina, rode the wind like a magic carpet between the folding chairs and the podium where I stood.
Instinctively, I lunged for it, intercepting it before it hit the ground or floated toward the hills. I stood there panting and holding Mels blue scarf like a baby blanket. Some sort of statement seemed requiredI had just performed an uncharacteristically athletic stunt for the Newhall School District.
But before I could say anything, Mel shouted, My hero!
Thats my girlfriend, I explained. I didnt mean it to sound like an apology. I meant it more by way of full disclosure, as if it would be somehow disingenuous to pretend Id rescued the scarf of a stranger. The wind dictated the rest of the event. It lifted the skirts of the girls in tights who danced to a barely audible song on a boom box. After the presentation, it cleared people out so fast that whole plates of cupcakes and brownies went uneaten, a rarity.
Because Mel could not say no to free sweets, Stephanie Ramos was the only one left in the parking lot when we got to our car. She was leaning into the trunk of hers, and it occurred to me she had a nice ass. She was in her mid-twenties, I guessed, one of those happily overworked public school teachers who bought special stickers for her kids in her free time and drank too much at happy hour. Mel was an expert at teacher taxonomy. She had taught for a few years before shed started apprenticing with a tattoo artist (she was not a tattoo artist now, nor were any of her own tattoos even visible in cold weather, but she ran the shop with organization and hospitality).
The dance was cute. Were those your students? I asked Stephanie Ramos.
She stood up, nearly hitting her head on the top of her open trunk. Some of them are. Its a dance team from a private studio in Stevenson Ranch.
She was wearing a cardigan sweater and jeans, her keys on a chain around her neck. Her black hair fell in attractive if conservative layers around her face, which was a sort of innocent-looking oval. As I was noticing these things, Mel was noticing her flat tire.
Do you need some help? Mel asked, pointing. We have AAA.
So do I, Stephanie said, but I already called them twice this year and I want to save my third call for a real emergency. My husband is on his way. He can change it. Im just trying to figure out if I have all the tools he needs.
There was no reason it should have surprised me that people in their mid-twenties were married, but it always did. Was it that they had access to an institution I didnt? Mel and I had talked about getting married that summer, during the brief window in which it was legal in California. But we hadnt. Wed lived together four and a half years of the five wed been together, committing early and hard in the tradition of our people. Maybe that was why we didnt want to be obvious now, running off to get hitched the minute a panel of judges said we could. We didnt want to seem like we wanted it too much, although now that we couldnt have it, I suddenly did.
Do you want a cupcake while you wait? Mel asked. I took an extra. Im a sugar fiend.
Stephanie laughed distractedly. Oh, why not, she sighed. Wow, this is a lot of frosting!
Thats the best part, Mel said. We can wait with you till your husband gets here if you want. I mean, I dont know if there are any outlaws hiding in these hills or anything, butů.
Oh, no, Ill be fine, Stephanie said in a voice accustomed to reassuring kids whose parents were late picking them up.
I was not a shy person, but when given the option to engage or not engage with new people, I usually chose the latter. Give me some policy to pore over. Give me some statistics to crunch. I was an office girl. Mels office was a tattoo parlor full of drunks. Soon she was asking Stephanie about teaching and sharing her own stories, including a couple Id heard a million times. I knew what Mel was up toshe wasnt flirting the way I might have if I werent so tired and cold; she was mothering. Her strategy: Keep Stephanie company until her husband arrives, even if she refuses it.
Were your kids excited about the election? Mel asked.
They were, Stephanie said. Carefully? Or was that my imagination? I try not to talk about politics, but we talked about how there are three branches of government, and the president is the most powerful.
I dont think thats how the founding fathers intended it, I said before I could stop myself.
Oh, I know, said Stephanie, but I didnt really get into historical stuff either. They can get the authority of one guy. Its like Barack Obama is a dad or a teacher. They sort of understand that its a big deal to elect an African American president. But theyre pretty innocent about race at that age. They notice it, but theyre not afraid of it. Theyre just like, Oh, youre this color, and Im this color. But every once in a while Ill hear one of them repeat something their parents said, about Mexicans taking jobs or something, and Im like, Here it comes.
Stephanie licked chocolate frosting from her fingers nonchalantly. I thought that she was probably a good teacher, balancing relaxation and capability. Mel claimed shed never been able to, not even with eighth graders.
How do you like living out here? I asked. Mel and I were tag-teaming now, a pair of friendly journalists. I could do itbe outgoingwith her as my wingman. I looked at her and felt a surge of affection. Shed pulled her pashmina tight around her shoulders and was doing a little warmth dance with her feet. I loved her windblown hair, her cold-reddened nose. I loved the bluebird that hovered over her left breast even when no one was looking.
Out here? said Stephanie, and I realized that I had said the local version of the Middle East, a thing that sounded innocent and common but assumed a starting point, a center that was not Vasquez Rocks or anywhere in the Newhall School District.
In the Santa Clarita Valley, I said.
I love the desert, Stephanie said. I grew up in Arizona, so I cant get enough of the heat.
I liked that she didnt talk about housing prices or public schools. Even in L.A., people were talking about those things more than ever. It felt suffocating sometimes, all these structures we were creating to torture ourselves. When Id said this to Mel once, shed furrowed her eyebrows: Since when are you so back-to-the-land? I thought you loved structure.
I had begun studying political science my freshman year of college, when it had seemed like a matter of learning ancient truths and plugging myself into them. It was before I knew that the grownups who ran the world were as baffled and flawed as I was. Some of that faith had hung on, though, and when I wrote policy at work, a part of me believed I was like a biblical scholar, writing the exegesis that would create an orderly world out of a beautiful but messy text.
Is it true, I asked Stephanie, that outthat in the Santa Clarita Valley you dont actually buy property, you get a 99-year lease from Newhall Land? Here I was, bringing up property in spite of myself.
Its true! said Stephanie. Newhall Land owns all of this. Well, not Vasquez RocksI think its protected or somethingbut all the houses and the commercial stuff. My husband and I joked about that bumper sticker you see sometimesyou know the one that says, Were not inheriting the earth from our parents, were borrowing it from our children? We decided we should have one that says, Were borrowing it from Newhall Land.
Mel and I laughed, and I could hear what girls we were, indulgent even beyond our genuine amusement.
People seem cool out here, Mel said. Everyone at the ceremony today was pretty friendly.
I had accused Mel of living by the Friendliness Manifesto. The highest praise she could give someone was that he or she was friendly. Unfriendliness was paramount to being a thief or a liar; arguably, a friendliness deficiency was at the root of thievery and lies. In some ways, it sounded silly: Werent there deeper values to cherish than being able to make enthusiastic small talk at a party, or in a parking lot in the desert? But friendliness as Mel saw itand, I had to admit, as I had come to see itwas the synthesis of many values that were plenty deep: open-mindedness, community-mindedness, faith in humanity, lust for life. I knew what she was thinking now, that Stephanie was friendly, which made something in her blossom and accept the provincial valley Stephanie lived in.
God, its freezing. You guys have been so nice, but really, you can go, Stephanie said. I should wait in my car.
Our eyes wandered to Stephanies hobbled car, and I noticed for the first time that there was an empty child seat in the back. Mel noticed too. You have a baby?
Stephanie smiled, the hurry leaving her face. A little girl. Shes eleven months. My sister-in-law is watching her today.
Im still getting used to thinking of kids in months, Mel said. Its like theres this whole other language to learn when you have kids.
It was as if a light bulb had flickered above Stephanies head, casting a shadow across her face for a fraction of a second. You have kids?
No, said Mel, butů. Her words hung there as we both wondered, but what? But we want to? But we could? But kids are the ultimate practitioners of friendliness? A lot of our friends do.
Gay friends? Stephanies head was cocked.
Mostly straight, said Mel, but we do have some friends, Polly and Jen, who just got pregnant. Jens carrying the baby.
Yeah? Stephanie nodded, processing. Her keys were still in her hand, car key pointed outward, the way they tell women to hold it when walking to their cars alone. It was hard to imagine fighting off an attacker with a two-inch piece of dull metal, but I always held my key that way too.
Yeah, said Mel. And we she looked at me, were talking about it. Thinking about it.
The former was not exactly true. The latter, I realized, had recently become true.
Well, said Stephanie, good luck. Theyre a handful even under the best of circumstances. She smiled when she said it, but the implication was that our circumstances would be different.
From somewhere beyond the rocks and brush, there came a flurry of yips. I thought simultaneously of dogs and squirrels. What was that? I asked.
Coyotes, said Stephanie. There are a bunch of them out here. They got my sister-in-laws cat.
No way, Mel said, springing up on her toes and searching the dimming horizon. We have them in our area too, or at least thats what I keep hearing. But Ive never actually seen one. Can you see them?
Stephanie and I were both shaking our heads when two coyotes appeared at the top of the high, slanted rock, the one I thought of as the Vasquez Rock, the rock that had virtually upstaged the dancing girls. They were thin, ragged things, swinging their heads and, I assumed, looking for prey. Soon a third one joined them, which was enough to make me think of packs, of headlines about dog maulings.
We should probably all get in our cars, I said, trying not to sound nervous.
Oh, they dont attack people, Stephanie assured me.
Mel was already trotting toward the rock. She did not have the fears I did. Interesting things were magnets for her. But she was a magnet for me, and so I found myself shuffling up behind her, saying, Come on, Mel.
Im not going to chase them, she said.
Stephanie joined us. You could now fit a half dozen coyotes nose-to-tail between us and our cars. Did you know, she said, that people are actually good for coyotes? Back in the day, they used to be found only in Arizona and New Mexico and Southern California, but now theyre all over the West and even Canada.
I could see she enjoyed a good piece of triviafacts as friendly souvenirs collected from trips to cyberspace. I could imagine her sharing coyote tidbits with her second graders.
Development doesnt destroy their habitat? Mel asked.
I guess it would if it got really dense, Stephanie said. I mean, you wouldnt find them in Downtown L.A. But the thing is, theyre really adaptable. Theyll eat almost anything.
We climbed atop a small boulder. There were four coyotes in all: three full-size and one smaller. They were the color of the walls in our bedroom, a color Id worried was too boring, but which Mel had found complex and mature. The paint had, ambitiously and abstractly, called itself New World.
Nature is amazing, Mel breathed, then laughed at herself. Well, thats stating the obvious, isnt it?
Oh, shit, Stephanie said. Theres Jims car.
A black sports car was coming down the road, dust hazing the red glow of its taillights.
Well, thats good, right? I said. I was confused by her oh shit. Concern for the coyotes?
Stephanie scrambled down from the rock. Yeah, yeah. Well, it was great meeting you. Mel, Viola. She still said my name with a long I, reminding me that we hadnt gotten to know each other all that well after all. Thanks again for waiting with me. I would have been a little nervous confronting four coyotes on my own.
Jim stepped out of his car, a man of beefy wholesomeness, or wholesome beefiness. He wore a short-sleeved plaid shirt and long denim shorts. His haircut could have been military or just convenient. He glanced over at Mel and memaking our way toward the parking lot more slowlyand said something to Stephanie.
From where we stood, they performed a very short silent movie. Stephanies hands went up, her palms open toward him, as if she were cautioning him about a subject that was not new between them. Then she put her hand on his big neck and stood on her toes to kiss his cheek. I imagined how they must act aloneshe becoming small-voiced, him chuckling gently. I reached for Mels hand and squeezed it.
Thanks again! Stephanie called to us, waving. Her wave told us that this was not the part where we introduced ourselves to Jim and made small talk about the coyotes. We waved back, following the script. As we drove off, Mel twisted around in her seat, looking at the coyotes for as long as she could. When she turned back around, she was quiet for a long time, as if Stephanie and Jim were still in earshot.
That got weird, didnt it? she said.
Im glad you noticed too. I never know if Im crazy.
We would debate and analyze. Eventually we would give ourselves permission to turn Stephanie into a harmless sort of enemysomeone we could feel sorry for from the safety of our house in the part of town where coyotes were primarily legend. The Friendliness Manifesto, it seemed, had its limits. Like any declaration or treaty, it could be violated, and fighting would ensue. Or, in our case, gossip disguised as sociology. Then we got quiet, as if wed used up all the air in the car.
When we reached a strip mall near the freeway entrance, Mel gestured to a Carls Jr. and said, Can you pull in there? Im starving. After I did, she pouted that it was not an In-N-Out. I just want to go home. Im so tired.
Lets go home then, I snapped. Youre the one who wanted to stop.
I know. I didnt say I wasnt.
The sun sank behind the mountains and the freeway turned into a river of moving lights. I rubbed the steering wheel with my thumbs and resented Connor Ohanesian and the fact that, if he had been the one to drive out here, he probably wouldnt have come away wounded and uneasy. Connor knew how to shake hands and ask sensitive questions without being vulnerable. He could make you care about him without caring about you. He wasnt a slimy politician; he was a good one, who could survive in a world of hidden jagged edges.
Distracted and tired, I missed the better of the two exits for our neighborhood. So we were stuck with Figueroa, a long street that wound through parks and hills and a corridor of small businesses.
Youre taking Figueroa? Mel said, sounding disappointed.
Where were you when I missed York?
We were at the intersection of Figueroa and Colorado; home still felt far away. But as the car pulled through weedy hills spotted with humble old houses, we saw him: a coyote, our fifth of the night.
He was moving quick-pawed along the sidewalk, and if I hadnt just gotten a crash course in coyotes, I would have assumed he was a stray dog. But he didnt move like a dog. He was coming towards us, here, not in broad daylight but at an hour when a steady flow of shoppers was still emerging from the corner grocery store.
Mel, I whispered, as if we might scare him away with our voices instead of our car.
I pointed, driving at a crawl. A car pulled up behind me and then quickly around me, all passive aggression. I didnt care. This time, I could see the coyotes eyes: close-set, nervous, intelligent. He paused, keeping one front foot lifted.
He seems curious, Mel said.
I wonder if were the newcomers or he is, I said.
Deep, said Mel, but her voice was warm now. Things larger than us had intervened in the us of us today, and now things larger than us would make them right again. The coyote was thinner than any comparably-sized dog. His mouth opened and his tongue darted out, and it was easy to picture a cartoon tricksternot the one whose legs windmill over canyons, but a cartoon not quite written yet. He would wear a top hat. He would eat garbage, yes, but he would laugh about it.
The thing was, Stephanie subscribed to the Friendliness Manifesto too. It was an anti-manifesto in some ways, because it required her to bendto Jims concerns about teaching homosexuality in schools but also to the company of two dykes she met in a parking lot in the desert. War was not the answer. Love was not always possible. But perhaps the world was rubbery and shifting, and no one would be harmed too badly. Humans and coyotes, side by side. Shed thrown her body between Jim and us like the mother she was, offering herself up to be torn apart by sharp teeth. And because of this, this weakness that was strength, we all lived.
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