by Christina Simon

Content Advisory

Venice Beach, 1972
I slowed my bike to get a better look at the man and woman rolling down the small, sloping hill. It was a weekend morning along the Venice boardwalk, and the fog hung low and the air smelled salty like ocean water. Not many people were out early, so I could ride fast, letting the tassels on the handlebars of my new pink bike fly in the wind. Now that I was eight, I was allowed to ride all the way to Windward Avenue, about a mile from our house, a thrilling new freedom my parents had trusted me with. As I stopped my bike, I joined a few people. Exercisers and shopkeepers opening their stores gathered to watch as the man and woman tumbled down the grassy green slope that separated the boardwalk from the sand. It looked like the game my friends and I played on the same hill, which was sometimes littered with dog crap and smelled of sour urine. Were they trying to play that game too? Usually beer bottles were strewn around so we had to be careful where we lay down to start rolling. Maybe it was just two people who had been trying to see who could roll down the hill fastest but got tangled up together. More people gathered, forming a small crowd. Everyone was quiet, as if the frolicking people were performing a show with their clothes half off. Something was wrong, but I wasn’t sure exactly what made this situation different from the drunken beach fights I’d seen before.

Over and over the two tumbled, lurching, kicking each other until they reached the bottom of the hill, where the grass met the boardwalk. The man was on top, then the woman, then the man again, as if their bodies were stuck together. A man who had been watching the scene yelled, “Call the police!” Others were trying to pull the two people apart. The man looked like so many of the Venice drunks, reddish sunburned skin, tangled long blondish hair. The woman was dirty and crying, her underwear off and what looked like a nightgown, pushed up. In what seemed like a minute, a lot of police were there. They grabbed the man, threw him to the ground and handcuffed him. His pants were down by his ankles, his penis dangling and slick wet. The police covered the woman in a blanket and helped her into the back of a second police car as she sobbed, grass in her hair. I heard someone tell an officer, “He was raping her and she was trying to fight him off.” I turned my bike slowly toward home.

I pedaled, the pink tassels on my handlebars no longer flying. Fighting tears, I told my mom what I’d seen. A few months later, I went for a ride, alone again. This time I headed north, in the opposite direction of where I’d gone the first time.

Topanga Canyon, 1983
Our house wasn’t a cheery place where I could bring friends, even if I’d had any. You don’t invite teenage girls over when you are tasked with changing bedpans for your mom who can’t move her legs because the cancer has spread to her spine. Instead, I sat by her bed doing homework, watching All My Children and between bouts of panic pleading with her not to die.

“Mama, I need you. Please don’t die, Mama, please don’t go,” I’d start quietly talking at first, then sobbing softly, then louder, finally reaching a crescendo of uncontrollable body-shaking sobs. Once a beautiful dark-skinned African American woman with high Cherokee cheekbones, she now had the pleading, hollow eyes of a dying person. Mama never expressed her fears about dying to me. Instead, she did her best to reassure me.

“Sweetheart, you know how much I love you, more than anything in this world. That will never change. I’m going to be fine, you’ll see,” she’d say in a weakened voice. Sometimes, her back would be turned to me, after I’d shifted her position in bed to relieve pressure on an ugly, persistent bed sore. During some of our most intense conversations, we didn’t look at each other. Taking care of a dying person at home is deceptively simple. The closer they get to death, the less attention they require. When they slip into a coma, it’s as if they are sleeping. Near the end, Mama was sleeping. I finally had time to do my homework.

We both knew Mama’s words weren’t true. Still, hope was all we had. I clung to her promise, never probing more deeply to uncover the depths of my despair or what I imagined to be her own terror about what would soon befall her. She never complained about dying. I was her caretaker, but she was careful not to acknowledge herself as my patient. Our mother-daughter relationship took precedence over the grim day-to-day reality. She was my role model, my only friend, and my confidant. She wanted it that way. I clung to her, out of love and fear. To explain our situation to an outsider, even a neighbor, meant exposing secrets about the severity of her illness to someone else. Her friends had long since drifted away, after their requests to help were rebuffed. Sterling, my younger sister, went through the motions of care-taking Mama. Then she’d disappear to her boyfriend’s house, sometimes for days at a time.

A loud knock at the front door interrupted the quiet. It was late in the afternoon on a blazing hot summer day. In the kitchen I stirred ghee, a butter reduction made from the fats of whole milk, recommended for my mom by her holistic healer. My dad opened the door and stepped outside, closing the door behind him. He stood on the porch. I could hear him talking to Bridget, the friendly German mom who lived a few houses up the street.

“Do you need anything?” she asked my dad in her heavily accented English, trying to peer inside. Sterling and I used to play with her kids until we went to separate schools. “Nothing I can think of,” my dad replied.

The days turned into months. Summer ended and darkness fell early. I acquiesced to Mama’s constant need for me without the typical teenage rebellion. “What are you doing tonight,” she’d ask me. “Staying home,” came my reply. I’m her best friend, I’d tell myself. She needs me. I would have done anything she wanted, if only she’d try harder to live. Now, as a mother, I go back and forth between wishing an adult had called child protective services, to save Sterling and me from the traumatic scene that dominated our lives, and imagining the anguish she must have felt, knowing she was dying. Of course, there was no reason I couldn’t have called the authorities, except if I had I would have betrayed her. She truly believed non-Western medicine would heal her. Who was I to dispute her truth?

Why my mom became a hippie in the 1960s is a bit of a mystery. Why she refused medical treatment for the cancer that killed her is still a mystery. And here I am, a few years older than she was when she died, not even a part-time hippie. Nothing mysterious about that.

Coldwater Canyon, (N. of Mulholland Highway), 2003
“If I lived in a place like this I’d never try to kill myself,” the cop said, looking around my 38-year-old sister’s wood and glass hillside home in Coldwater Canyon, lingering on the framed Harvard Law School diploma. My sister lit a Marlboro Light. “This has been a misunderstanding,” she said. “You can leave now.” 

It’s been nearly 20 years since my sister overdosed on pills in her house with the view. She was my only sibling and I still struggle to answer the question, “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

There are two words that never flow smoothly from my lips. They hesitate, stumble, swirling around on my tongue as if they don’t belong together. Like boxers circling each other in the ring, dancing, punching, jabbing until the fatal blow: Sisterless sister.

Coldwater Canyon, (S. of Mulholland Highway), 2017
On a Sunday morning, I saw a woman in her early 20s waiting outside my neighbor’s gate. Bill Maher, the liberal host of HBO’s Real Time, lives directly across the small hillside lane, which is barely wide enough for two cars to pass and lacks sidewalks. His home is hidden behind tall gates and camouflaged by towering palm trees. It’s only when I see him pulling out of his driveway in a black Mercedes or when his house manager leaves a letter in the mailbox saying Bill will be doing construction or having a party, that I remember he lives there. Through his tinted car windows, I’ve glimpsed his pale, waxy face with small, focused eyes, a prominent nose, and slicked back hair. He’s not the kind of neighbor I’d turn toward with a friendly wave. He’s never looked at me.

The woman waiting for Maher had dark skin and long black hair cascading down her back in loose curls. Her bright pink sequined minidress shimmered in the sunlight. Her stiletto heels and full face of makeup seemed overdone for daytime. Then I remembered reading media reports about how Maher likes Black women. Apparently, he’s been known to pay for sex. She scrolled her phone, waiting for entry as I scooped up the newspaper. I closed my door. She was still waiting.

Maher drew national outrage a few years ago when a guest on his show, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, asked him, “Would you like to come work in the fields with us?” Maher responded, “Work in the fields? Senator, I am a house nigger.”

I yelled at Barry, my husband, who is white, “How dare he use the N-word! Who the hell does he think he is?” Even worse, he’s acting like “house niggers” were so well treated. I was reeling from Maher’s cruel reference to slavery.

“He gives me the creeps,” Barry said, walking into the kitchen. “A racist hiding behind liberal politics.”

I thought about putting a sign on our driveway, facing his house: “No Bill, I’m a house nigga.”

I decided against it. The sign would have been my tough-self talking, the one who blasts Kendrick Lamar rapping the word nigga with my two teenagers in the car, all of us unfazed. Instead, Maher’s words slashed through my fragile-self, like the blade of a serrated knife, temporarily destroying my sense of belonging to the home where I’ve lived for ten years.

Hancock Park, 2018
In Los Angeles, silence is the city’s conversation. On the rare occasion when a stranger speaks to me, I always glance around to see who they’re talking to. I grew up in this big, sprawling place, so the city’s odd cultural ways are familiar, yet uncomfortable. It’s not that I like this state of being. After so many years, I just don’t know any other way.

My Los Angeles is impenetrable, opaque. I live by my own interpretation of its unspoken rules: be aloof, don’t make eye contact or smile, and definitely don’t talk to anyone I don’t know. If I see a celebrity, look away. Waving to my neighbors is optional. Greeting someone’s dog is fine, but ignore the owner. When I overhear two people talking, it will most likely be about the entertainment business, so I’ll have nothing to add, even if I am welcome to join in, which I am not. Once in a while, talk to someone I don’t know. The conversation will always surprise me.

“Are you laughing at my story about how my brother married our second cousin?”

My 16-year-old daughter and I looked at each other. We were at the hair salon, getting our hair cut and blow-dried. We’d been caught eavesdropping on a woman’s discussion with her hairdresser, even though our chairs in the West Hollywood salon were practically touching, three in row, facing the mirror.

“Actually, we were. It’s quite a story,” I responded, unsure of what the woman would say. With her hair covered in tinfoil highlight treatment, she looked like Lady Gaga in costume, but with a friendly face, about my age.

I proceeded with caution, caught off guard by her openness. She seemed nice, but I didn’t want to seem like a lurker.

“How old is your daughter?” the woman asked, catching my eyes in the mirror.

“Turning 16 next week,” I replied. I was seated between her and my daughter.

“She’s beautiful.”

“Thank you!” My daughter and I both smiled at her. “Back to my brother,” the woman announced. “It’s a total nightmare. I don’t understand why anybody cares that they’re related. It’s split the family.”

“It is a bit unusual, but if they’re in love, then I think their relationship should be accepted and celebrated.” I offered my opinion, choosing my words carefully. I’d never thought much about cousins who marry. As far as I knew, it was something done mostly by royal families to preserve their lineage. I looked to my left. My daughter was smirking, busy texting her friend about the cousins who married each other.

After several more minutes spent violating the privacy of her brother and his cousin-wife, Lara, as I’d come to know her, said, “Well, my brother’s not exactly a catch. This is his third marriage and he’s ten years old than her. At least they didn’t grow up together.”

I burst out laughing. A real, deep laugh, the kind that only happens when there is genuine connection. With that, we kept talking like old friends. When our blow-outs were finished, my daughter and I said goodbye to Lara, her foil tips still being twisted onto a few pieces of hair at a time. She’ll be here for a while, I thought. We gathered our handbags, took off our salon robes and left, our smooth, straightened hair bouncing and swinging.

In another city, we might have exchanged numbers. In Los Angeles, we are strangers who pierced the loneliness of each other’s day.

Franklin Canyon, 2019 
On a hot, cloudless day, I go for a hike in Franklin Canyon off Mulholland Highway. The parking lot at noon is nearly empty. Sycamore trees, with their star-shaped, velvety leaves, offer little shade. The trail here is flat, making it an easy starting point. Rounding the corner, I come upon the duck pond, a serene, moss-green lake filled with a dozen ducks swimming lazily and sunning themselves on big rocks. The pond reeks of algae, a mild sulfur scent. It is so quiet I realize only the ducks would hear me if I screamed.

In Los Angeles, there’s nothing unusual about dead bodies. Every night on the local news there are reports of bodies being found in trashcans, alleys and even a headless torso in Runyon Canyon up in the Hollywood Hills.

The trail narrows, sloping downhill. Majestic old oak trees are tall and thick. Their dense leaves hang low over the path like a canopy, blocking the light. Stagnant puddles of water attract bugs, creating a buzz. My feet crunch dry leaves. I listen for other hikers. Not a single voice fills the silence. I quicken my pace. Small stones and jagged rocks cause me to stumble and slip as the terrain steepens. It feels like something is chasing me. Maybe it’s a coyote, mangy and thin, looking for food. Or a mountain lion, like the one that jumped the nine-foot fence at the Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park, killing a koala. Or maybe it’s something deep within me. Ahead, the sun pierces the darkness; a safe light beckons. Birds chirp happily, as if there is nothing to fear. I start running back to my car. My past from long ago is chasing me, trying to kill me.

Coldwater Canyon, 2021
Waze guides cars onto my street at rush hour. When the front windows are wide open, the sounds of other people’s lives flow into my house. Cardi B.’s “Up” is on blast, the rap lyrics a tongue-twister so coiled I can’t sing along. Salsa music has me dancing with an imaginary partner, stepping to the quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, slow, rhythm of the music that dares people to stand still. A teenager calls her mom on speaker to ask if she can stop at a friend’s house. Spanish language radio makes me want to speak the beautiful romance language, fast, with emotion and Elvis Presley blasts from speakers, imploring us not to step on his blue suede shoes. For a few minutes, the strangers in their cars idle just long enough to let me into their worlds. Then they drive away, leaving me alone in silence. A few minutes later, the light at the end of the street turns red, bringing a new group of cars to a stop. I listen, yearning for the sounds of Los Angeles.

“Why my mom became a hippie in the 1960s is a bit of a mystery. ”After Dinty Moore’s “Danny Boy.”

Headshot of Christina Simon.

Christina Simon is the former nonfiction editor for Angels Flight Literary West. Her essays are forthcoming in Cleaver Magazine and have been published in Salon, The Offing, Columbia Journal (winner of the 2020 Black History Month Contest for Nonfiction), Another Chicago Magazine, The Citron Review, PANK Magazine’s Health and Healing Folio, Cutbank Literary Journal’s Weekly Flash Prose, (Mac)ro(Mic), The Santa Ana River Review and Barren Magazine. Christina received her B.A. from U.C. Berkeley and her M.A. in Urban Planning from UCLA. Christina lives with her husband and rescue pit bull in Los Angeles. She misses her son and daughter who are away at college. www.csimonla.com

SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 8 • November 2022
Header image by Eric Haake.