the art of loving

We drove to Venice Beach, and along the road were billboards.

The Hollywood-made girls had fat lips and thin noses and rich dark eyeshadow and we envied them and picked favorites to crush on.

Hollywood hadn’t made us, so we made ourselves. We had coconut curls and sunscreen faces and we dressed in bikinis and band t-shirts and oversized jeans with the pockets hanging out. May pierced her nose and Kiara wore headscarves in shades of red and purple and sometimes she’d take them out going down the highway and her black hair would be a mess for three days.

“Why’d y’all let me do that?” she’d demand. “Stupid.”

Kiara didn’t stand out in a crowd but when she smiled it was the prettiest thing you’d ever seen. Her face was smooth and round and she hated it. She wanted a thin little jaw and a thin little nose like Anya Taylor-Joy.

Later on she got a nose job and straightened it out so her eyes glittered. May said she did it for the boys, but the boys didn’t notice if she had a round nose or a straight one. They looked at her baggy jeans and bikini top and bright white smile and knew what they wanted.

Boys wanted us a lot. They drifted in and out of our lives: Angel with the spiked hair and the beach net; Hiram, who was skinny and dark and spoke in one tumbling waterfall; Case from San Diego, who May stayed with six months before she found some inland girl with brown hair and a scholarship to Pepperdine in the bed. Pepperdine girl baked May a chocolate pound cake in apology and they talked about evil, unfaithful men who didn’t deserve a dime of what they gave them, and after that Pepperdine girl— whose name we never knew— came by once a week to watch Great British Bakeoff and smoke weed on May’s back patio.

We all had Pepperdine girls. Mine was a dark-haired lifeguard who spoke Spanish. The warm syllables floated out of his mouth like summer sun. He loved banana pancakes and cheap paperbacks, and he ran fingers through my hair and called me cielo.

I told Kiara I loved him. She laughed and shook her head, and all at once I knew I didn’t.

A month later I lent my lifeguard fifty bucks for a Greyhound toward Vegas. He kissed me goodbye and left to drive taxis. I never saw him again.

It wasn’t a betrayal. It was a moving-on.

Nothing’s stationary in California. The ground shakes and the fashions come and go like wildfire and the strip malls build up and tear down again. What’s in one day goes out the next, Kiara in particular. One day she’d be in vintage jumpsuits like Rosie the Riveter— the next decked out in gold chains and baggy t-shirts— then formal, in a baby blue suit found in the back of Goodwill.

“I play to type,” she said, and she did.

May was a free spirit in her own way. Her words were wicked. She was prickly like cacti.

“Kiara looks damn fine,” I said to her once. We were in the back of her minivan, doors open, laid out on towels with the beach out in front of us and Chinese takeout on our laps.

“She’d better,” May said.

May had a way of knowing. She was half-Chinese and LA-born. I was inbred with Midwestern whiteness, a sort of malevolent-benevolence I was trying to shake, a hole where a heart should be.

“May,” I said.


“I think I love you.”

May went quiet and appraised me. She had dark eyes and oil-slick makeup and her skin was gold as the beach.

She took another bite of takeout.

“Sweetheart,” she said, “don’t put that on me.”

I couldn’t.

We went back to chewing. Down at the shore, Kiara tumbled in the surf.

Home that week was painful. Normally, when the arthritis hit, I dragged May or Kiara out and partied it back into a black hole, popping ibuprofen in the bathroom, rubbing diclofenac into my swollen hands and feet. I didn’t need to drink— I got high off my friends, the glitter in eyeshadow and the scent of shampoo in hair.

That week May got sick of me and Kiara said she was visiting her aunt in New Orleans. I sprayed perfume on my wrist and sniffed it like a socialite doing cocaine. I tried to dance but my feet rebelled against the silence, the straps, the heels. I baked a chocolate cake and threw it up into the sink. My apartment was quiet: Iowa-quiet, like the morning after. It felt cold and empty and blank.

I hadn’t been able to stand those stiff-still mornings, dew on the grass, zipping into dresses for church. I loathed the small talk and the tight shoes and most of all the whispering. My Mom whispering, the scent of her.

“Quick and quiet,” she would say. “Today’s not for you.”

I ran away from Iowa when I turned eighteen and I bought the clothes in shop windows and wore deep purple lipstick and got good at rolling my hips and doing liner so my eyes turned up instead of down. I didn’t regret a moment of it, even the ones that hurt me. They scrubbed my soul raw like a beach-tumbled stone. They made me feel like I had a name, a life, a heart, a being. Iowa made me feel like nothing at all.

Whiteness was a dead thing floating in water.

It stole so much of me.

I think maybe I was born without a soul and spent my whole life trying to find it. I found my way to California where there were Chinese immigrants and Afro-Latinas and I tried to fill myself up with them, my colorful people, the way they laughed and danced and made the air glow. I felt like the way things were, nothing ever really went away. Plantations were alive in prison cells. Sometimes I was holding the whip. It was a whirlwind of blame and predation and trying to be good, answering the unanswerable.

I tried to atone for a past piled with bodies whose bones still lie in apartment buildings and sewer drains. Apologies fell on dead air ‘cause dead don’t answer.

I dug my fingernails into friends and fed off them.

I was sick of feeding.

Dressed in my worst wool-knit sweater, I stepped out of the apartment and hobbled my way towards the church.

“Stupid,” Kiara would say. “What’s there for you?”

I wasn’t sure.

I still went to service when I felt down. I didn’t go for the preachings or the wine or the body of Christ. I went for the anonymity of a woman in church.

I went for the stained glass windows.

I walked down the pavement and kept my eyes on the gum on the sidewalk.

Halfway down the road I saw a girl smoking outside an apartment building and realized it was Kiara, and I ducked behind a dumpster to clutch my knees to my chest like I was five years old. A few minutes later she came walking past me and May came after her and they both stopped at the light and laughed and teased and kissed just like that. It wasn’t a big kiss, all romantic-type. It was the way people kiss to get going. The light turned and they stepped out in the crosswalk— Kiara’s dress shining, May’s long hair down behind her— and swerved to the left and were gone.

I stayed behind that dumpster until my knees ached. When the cold got bad I got up and went to the bar and drank too much and played the virgin and batted my eyes at the frat boys down the way, hooking up until I couldn’t feel a thing besides hands on mine, lips on lips, heat and sweat and the way the light shone off the windowpane.

That night I dreamed about my mom. She was putting lipstick on in the mirror. She never wore lipstick.

There’s something I try to hide: I’m a bad woman. I love my mom to death. I spent my whole childhood trying to get some speck of warmth out of her.

The night before I left Iowa my mom took me shopping for the first time.

“A girl isn’t anything unless she’s pretty,’ she’d said. “Not anything, these days.”

We stood in Macy’s and perused the rows and rows of blouses and dyed jeans. Mom had a scowl on her face and a drab gray sweater on her shoulder. I looked at lace bras and thought about girls on camera.

Mom eyed me, and I turned my head away.

“You listen to me,” she said. “I was pretty once.”

I was desperate to do something. I wanted to scream, yell, cut my hair off. I wanted shots and edibles and cocaine and a man in the back room.

“Then,” Mom said, “I had you.”

Had me: yes, she’d had me. She’d wrapped herself around, possessed my body for twenty-two years. It was her way of loving.

Later I’d get tattoos on my hip, my breast, my thigh; the biggest was a snake winding ‘round my crotch, its head resting on my stomach. To me, it always had my mother’s name.

She was my original sin— the source of it. Every man I found was her. Every touch of fingernails was her hand on my hair. She’d ruined me.

Kiara found out and her face wrapped up in sympathy.

“That’s fucked,” she said. “You know that, right?”

I did. I didn’t.

It was what I knew of love.

I opened my eyes the morning after. I’d drank until I blacked out. I felt makeup on my face, the pounding of a hangover, the slick of a hookup.

“Headache?” a voice asked.

I opened my eyes and blinked. The face next to mine slid into focus. It was May.

She pushed something at me and I took it: a glass of water.

“Alka-Seltzer,” May said, leaning back on the pillows. Sheets shifted against skin, and her long hair tangled in the curves of rumpled bedding.

I took a sip. It was cool.

We sat in silence for a moment, May’s stare heavy on my shoulders.

She spoke before I did.

“You called us last night,” she said.

I looked down at the sheets.

May sighed and sunk down further, wrapping her legs in the white cloth. “You were going on about going home.”

I opened my mouth and shut it again.

May closed her eyes. I curled into myself, waiting.

“You belong here,” she continued. “Maybe not forever. Maybe just another day.”

I knew then we weren’t in love and never would be.

The birds sang outside the window, soft, lilting.

“You’re an idiot,” May said.

I leaned my head against her shoulder. Down below I heard the door open. It was Kiara with the morning groceries, coming home.

After I ran away from Iowa, everyone told me how sorry they were. They spoke my mother’s name in hisses. May took me out to lunch and hugged me at the end. I buried my secret deep.

The secret was I loved her— the secret was I’d liked it.

The secret was I take what love I can get.