We have found the magic potion that sends them scurrying into the light. If UCSC’s mascot is the banana slug, UC Davis’ should be the cockroach. We moved about a week ago into a cinder block apartment (we have moved at least once a year for the past seven years). On a moonlit night, our new neighbor took my husband to the house next door that’s been for sale for ever, and stole the powder from the abandoned garage. In the day light, we recognize the empty house to have been one of Dylan’s professors. We had slept on the floor there, when Chan Park, esteemed P’ansori singer and professor, came to Davis to give a concert. She slept in the room next to us. Naima fell asleep in the hollow of a busted Ottoman.
Now, we live next door to this house from our memories, in a dark duplex where we find ourselves scurrying into its dark corners, stealing morsels of magic left behind.
Before we moved amongst the cinder blocks and trees, we lived behind Angie’s Beauty Salon. Naima spent many a hot afternoon in the air conditioned salon watching the ladies perform upon heads with scissors, dyes, and dryers. I chased Sora as she repeatedly escaped from the apartment to sit upon the sewage cover in the dirt road. Henceforth, the move to a less pleasant apartment with a communal backyard the size of a small park.
Right before our move, we went to Santa Barbara. Dylan had a four day graduate retreat, and we tagged along for the ride. Abuki did too but the hotel didn’t allow dogs, and so she slept in the van. During the days, I watched a professor’s daughter, a seven-year old who has been dragged to more hemispheres than most of us can imagine. She says she likes Paris, and eating Seals in the north pole. She didn’t really like walking, and preferred the pool to the beach.
I pushed all three kids through Isla Vista in a double stroller, dragging Abuki, the geriatric pit alongside. Our first day we explored the beach. The kids challenged the ocean, and I stared across its flat surface, as if searching for something coming in, counting the minutes that I imagined were passing by.
We had left our belongings in a heap to find a place to swim that was less rocky. Upon our return we saw a bent figure peeling our towels off our stuff. We ran back and by the time we arrived, he had settled down in the sand, his own bags set down between us.
That was our first day with Julio, a 57-year old homeless man who slept in the bushes in a playground at the edge of town. He apologized profusely for examining our things, to see if they had been abandoned or not. It was a fear of his too, that while he was out swimming, which he did everyday, way out past the edge of the kelp sometimes, to exhale the breath from his lungs, and pull himself by the rooted seaweed to the bottom of the sea. He opens his eyes when he sits on its floor. Once, he saw a shark. Just a small one, like the skunk that come check him out when he’s sleeping. But unlike the skunk, he said, he did not put out his hand to pet them, even though he really wanted to. Once, he said, he pet a raccoon. His eyes aren’t so good these days, especially at night, and he mistook it for a different kind of creature.
We chatted about trains, and the weather, both of us getting very excited about the trains and comparing notes on parenting. I said, it’s hard being all alone with your kids. He said yeah, I ought to know. I raised three sons on my own while working two jobs. I gave the cops a key to my house, and had them check on them at night when I was working. He said it was the hardest thing he’s ever done, but he loved every minute of it. I thought about that while pushing three kids up the hill.
That night when I ate dinner at the cafeteria with all of the graduate retreat participants, I told one of them about meeting my new friend saying it was the highlight of my day. Not watching Naima pull herself along the edge of the pool, or Sora floating on her back, but talking with Julio, red as a crab, enjoying the beach while he was still unemployed.
The next day I saw him at the beach again. I sat nursing Sora on the beach watching the girls mocking the strength of the ocean, jumping over the white wash. Julio was afraid that they’d get pulled into the sea, so he devised a game, where he’d put himself between them and the waves, and as the water came crashing down around him, he’d scream, “Save me, save me!” Then they’d pull him to safety holding tightly onto his hands. He could barely walk on his bad ankles. He said he had just applied for a job as a chef on a docking station, that would require twelve hours of standing a day. As he bent over to remove rocks and driftwood on the shore that the kids might stub their feet on, I feared that the weight of his chest would pull him over, and he’d go toppling into the sand, toothpick legs waving in the air.
We were quite a sight. Two little girls pulling on a homeless man who was screaming at them like he was insane. And the day we went out to his camp, the playground on the edge of town, bearing snacks and presents that he probably just fed to the squirrels, he was the one who had to save us.
We didn’t go to the beach that day because the kids had elected to stay at the pool. I was disappointed and lonely, but then on a brief foray to town we ran into him, heading back early to his camp with a beer. It was too hot he complained, pointing to his darkened skin. “The Mexicans already say “Hola,” to me. No one ever says “Hi.”‘ Like the Korean liquor store owner whom everyone called, “Primo,” he was fluent in Spanish from just being around. He invited us to the playground where he was heading, said maybe he’d see us there, and to call him if we did come pointing to his cell phone which his son the one who erected signs on skyscrapers got him, or was it the one who worked for Homeland Security?
He didn’t expect that we’d really come, but while we were shopping at the co-op there, Naima started picking out treats that she thought Julio would like, and I was dreading going back to the hotel and a hot pool. I really do hate pools. So we loaded up the double stroller, dragged the dog across the hot asphalt of the sidewalk-less streets, and found ourselves in a pleasant park with swings and a gazebo and a lot of old dogs roaming off leash.
He said, “It means a lot to me that you came out here. Your children have brought me so much joy. I forgot about that.”
But when it was time to return, Malay felt ill, Sora wouldn’t sit in the stroller, and Naima was still talking a mile a minute. So he pushed the stroller with the two girls in it down the middle of the street, while I carried Sora until she fell asleep. I can’t remember what we talked about. I wish I could remember. Maybe about basketball, or how the Lakers wanted a parade but it would be the taxpayers who would pay for it. Or about how his sons once played a trick on him biking along the cliffs, and then disappearing off the edge while he was watching. He said he’ll never forget that feeling of practically soiling your pants. They were just preparing him, he said, for what they would do in their futures, and as a parent how to keep it together while they were doing it. The cars slowed down as they passed. And at the hotel, he spoke Spanish to the ladies cleaning up, while swinging off one of the concrete steps above him like a young man.
His sons want him to move out with them. But he says where else can you sit on a beach with the mountains against your back. We left Isla Vista for Santa Cruz right after Dylan’s retreat ended. Naima asked if we’d see Julio at the beach there, shaking his hands at her from the waves.
We are in our new apartment now in Davis. The neighbors have two kids like us, an older dog, a Toyota Matrix. They roam across the yard in the evening, picking up toys, pruning a bush or two, their silhouettes just shadows made from porch lights. Sometimes we wave while the sky darkens, and the cockroaches come out of their corners.