It’s not like I was going to marry him; we were just shacking up. But I was surprised Benji had the kind of money where he could buy a house.
The real estate agent, Ryan, couldn’t have been much older than us, but his loafers, his aftershave, and his hair comb made him seem downright middle-aged. He said, “Up and coming,” at least four times before we got half a block down the sidewalk-lined street where the doors and the windows had bars on them. There was a chest-high chain link fence around most of them, and kids’ toys in the yards. A couple of teenage girls with backpacks, likely on their way home from school, skirted by us. I didn’t know what they were saying, but I knew they were speaking Spanish. They looked at us like the Martians we were, walking through their neighborhood.
When Benji said, “Come to LA with me,” it’s not like I had any other prospects. Plus, he was cute, and the sex was decent for most of my senior year at Oberlin, and we were getting out of Ohio, which was a good thing, right? I just wanted to get my feet somewhere else, and with a major in art, where was I gonna go? I thought maybe I could work my way up in art design or something on a movie set.
Ryan opened the chain-link gate saying, “Of course, I have a fence guy I can hook you up with, can give you a ton more privacy. A few twinkle lights, some patio furniture and some bamboo, and you won’t even know you’re on this street.”
I thought of my neighborhood growing up in Cincinnati, where the houses were only a few more feet apart than these were. I thought of block parties and sprinklers and “get off my lawn!” I wondered how you could do that with a fence where you didn’t even know you were on the street.
We climbed five stairs to a concrete porch and ducked through an arched doorway into the cutest little place I’d about ever seen. The floors were wood, the walls a minty green. Built-in cabinets separated the living room from the kitchen, with a pass-through window. There was a fireplace. Who had fires in this city? There was a tiny bedroom to the back and a smaller one next to it. Benji looked at me and pointed at each room. “Bedroom. Office.” We passed by the bathroom, done in rosy pink tile with a linoleum floor. The mirror on the medicine cabinet curved up at the top with light deco etching in the glass. The walls were a bright aqua blue. Next to the bathroom was another bedroom that was likely a converted sun porch. It overlooked the back yard and the windows along the side revealed a wall of bamboo between houses. I said, “Studio?”
He looked at it a moment, likely doing the mental math around whether or not he wanted it for an office. But Benji was lazy. He wouldn’t want to walk a hallway from work to his bed.
He put his arm around me and squeezed. “Studio.”
I made a mental note that it could be a bedroom for me once we broke up—just in case I couldn’t find a place of my own right away. I stepped into the room and looked around. The wind tussled the bamboo out the side window temptingly. I opened the closet off the studio and saw a child had put stickers all over the bottom of the door. Inside in the dark, I saw two pink plastic feet. I reached down to pull up a plastic baby doll with brown filament hair. It was wearing a Dodgers T-shirt. I heard a faint child’s laugh and popped my head up to the window to see if there was someone outside. There wasn’t.
Ryan danced on the balls of his loafers. His cologne was stifling. “So, you like? You won’t find a deal like this anywhere in LA right now, I can tell you that. And in a few years, when you have more cash, you can build up! You should see the modern places they’ve put in Venice on really tiny footprints.”
Benji said, “How soon do we have to jump?”
I left my new studio and stopped through the kitchen as they ground through details of paperwork, and Ryan managed to say, “Up and coming,” one more time.
I turned on the kitchen faucet; that ran fine. Looked in the fridge, a mid-century number actually from the mid-century. The freezer was coated in ice, a torn-off remnant of a popsicle box sticking to it. There was a takeout container on the shelf that had food still in it. It did not smell like it had gone off yet. A good cleaning on that fridge, and it would look funky and retro. I opened the dishwasher and inside found a clear sippy cup with a picture of tiny dinosaurs on it, dancing, and a mug with a photo of a little girl on it with Daddy written on the reverse side. The people who lived here must have left in a hurry.
“Why did the family leave?” And why hadn’t the broker properly cleaned the place?
Ryan paused a moment too long. “Oh, you know. This was their starter home. Probably moved up in the world.”
We stepped out to the front porch, where a teenager stood with a backpack on, nose-to-nose with Ryan. She was Mexican. Or at least Latina, I’d been told not to presume. She wore a sky-blue polo shirt and a pair of khakis, and she wasn’t going to let us pass. She said, “Asshole.”
Ryan laughed loudly, palms up trying to position his body between us and her. “Now, now, I think you’ve got the wrong guy.”
I wondered if Ryan was into high school girls, if there was some seamy history here, until she said, “You know the law says we had SIXTY DAYS. This is bullshit. You couldn’t clear us out fast enough, could you?”
Ryan ignored her, telling Benji, “Let me show you to your car.”
“We don’t have anywhere to go, asshole. My dad had to set up a tent in the park.” Tears came to her eyes, but she swallowed, setting her chin into a fist. She turned to me, “I hope you’re fucking happy. Got a nice little place to start a family, huh?”
I bristled at the presumption. I was just gonna live with the guy, I wasn’t marrying him.
“How much did it cost you? Families are homeless now, because of people like you.” She couldn’t be talking about me. I just got here. The anger in her eyes was real. I thought, she has things she needs to say. Better not to answer. This isn’t about me. I wondered how this kid, who couldn’t be more than sixteen, knew exactly who she was. I wouldn’t have had this kind of confrontational strength at that age, that’s for sure.
Benji clutched at my waist with his hand and steered me, pushing me forward with his forearm. I hadn’t been shoved since I was a child, so my body resisted by stopping. Through his teeth, he said, “Bea, let’s go.”
He shoved, and I stumbled and went.
“She sees. I know she sees.” The girl looked right at me, those eyes locking on mine again. She leaned in toward me. Then she stepped and let us pass.
Down the street, Ryan rushed us into our car, saying, “I’m sorry. Our tenants don’t take it well when the owner finally sells. Who is to deny poor old Tom Burke his retirement fund? I’m happy to provide you with this new home.”
I said, “Did she mean it? They’re really homeless?”
“These people like to paint a colorful story. The tent, I mean, really. I’m sure she meant they’re between places, staying with family. They’ll find a new place soon. This is a big city.” Benji was in the driver’s seat, door open. Ryan leaned over him, talking. Men always take up space, an entire sidewalk if need be. Ryan said, “Well, look, I gotta get back to the office and type up the papers; we want to get on this tout suite! Consult with your bond company, will you?”
“We’re qualified up to 800K,” Benji said in his best grown-up voice.
I turned back for a moment to look down the street before I got in the car. There was a dog standing in front of our new house, but its head was down; it didn’t look to have an owner nearby. I lifted my sunglasses off my head to see better.
Its ears were back but pricked up when I looked at it, as if in response. It was a coyote. Its ears twitched, and it raised its nose a moment and bolted toward us. It was a full two blocks away, but it was closing ground fast. I yelped and jumped in the back seat of the car. “Close the door! Close the door!”
Benji looked at me like I was crazy, and Ryan followed my eyes and looked down the street. His eyebrows went up in recognition, and then, as the coyote headed toward him full bolt, he started laughing. It was a loud laugh, the kind you’d reserve for a supervillain.
The coyote was two seconds from Ryan when he drew his arms high like a mock ghoul and leaned forward bellowing, “GIT!” and stomped his foot on the pavement.
The coyote skittered to a stop, nearly colliding with him, and turned, running off behind the car. It slunk across the street, stopping on the opposite sidewalk where it stood for a moment, ears down. Its ears went up, it turned its head to us, and I swear it looked right through me.
Benji said, “What happened?” Blocked by the massiveness of Ryan, he hadn’t seen anything. Of course.
“Your girlfriend’s first coyote.”
Benji’s head whirled around, checking his mirrors, looking out the front. “Where?”
I said, “It was running toward us.”
“It was running.” Ryan corrected me and squinted down the street after it. “They do that. Don’t worry. You see ‘em here and there. But they’ve been beaten back as the neighborhood develops.” He leaned in closer to Benji, “Soon enough, you’ll be OG Jacaranda Park. You can say, ‘I remember when there were coyotes in that neighborhood.’” He chuckled, closed Benji’s door and whacked the roof of the car one last time, dismissing us.
The walls were made differently here, textured with plaster. Sometimes a nail sank in like the wall was made of cheese; other times, it would stop while plaster popped out around it. Benji invested in a stud finder for his flat-screen television.
My studio was sweet, with that rustling bamboo outside cantilevered windows and tinged it green. The bright deep aqua of the room made me feel like I was under the sea or at the bottom of a pool. There was a flat tin cross on one wall with a piece of tile running down the center of it painted with La Virgen Guadalupe. Benji stepped in with his hammer to pry it off, but I stopped him. I said, “This is your house, Benji, you make the decisions. But can I have this room?” Even as I said this, the you make the decisions part didn’t sit well with me.
He looked at me, puzzled. “You want to keep that thing? The girl who stayed up til two in the morning arguing against organized religion?”
As quickly as the pang about the decisions came, it left with this; his seeing a part of me, remembering us. I said, “I argued against organized religion, not belief systems.” I got up and moved toward him and took his wrist, moving his hammer arm to the side and sliding my hands around his waist. I hugged him, and he felt good. He wasn’t a gym rat, but his mountain climbing gave him just the right kind of bulk. Maybe I could stop his hammering for a spell.
There is lovemaking, and I had done that my sophomore year of college with Jason, who I was really into. His junior year abroad was the only thing that broke us up. I met Benji just before Christmas exams senior year. We fit in bed, but our sex was more calisthenic, fun, wrestling for pleasure. He had some wackadoo philosophy about longevity and mountain climbing, but he only had to ‘splain it once. The evidence was truly satisfactory. As I hadn’t looked to him for love, more for this friendship with benefits, there were no disappointments.
In his house, here in Los Angeles, it was no different. But after, when I’d gone back to my studio to start unpacking my boxes, I felt a little empty for the first time since we’d been together. Maybe it was playing house that brought out this feeling. Maybe it was that I had moved here into his life and his house without really loving him. It made me pensive enough to blast some retro eighties music to kill yourself by, turn on the wall lamp as the bamboo sucked the evening light from the room and start pushing paint around on a canvas.
I paint mostly abstracts, and when I do paint figures, they are usually human. But what came to me now was long ears, a bowed head, a dark nose large with its closeness to the viewer, and a shaggy tail. The eyes would be the hardest part. I was deep into Depeche Mode’s “Somebody” when I heard someone sobbing. At first, I thought it was the background noise from the song itself, the noise of the bar, but it was distinct enough for me to pause the music.
It was coming from the closet.
The problem was, I’d put three of my boxes in front of the closet, and the door was ajar only a few inches behind them. Maybe I just didn’t want to think about that plastic doll. That girl on the front stoop. That tent was where her family supposedly lived.
Maybe I wanted to listen to the soul of the house itself.
I moved quietly toward the sobbing, leaving my earbuds in as if to convince…who? I don’t know. As if to appear normal. I stood up and peered into the gap behind the boxes, but couldn’t see anything. Maybe someone had gotten stuck in there when we moved in. I didn’t see anyone, but it was such a kerfuffle, with the movers and Benji barking about where to put things.
The sobs had turned into sniffles.
“Hello?” I moved to slide the boxes in their pile, but my art books were on the bottom, and with a box of paints and clay and all of my other art supplies on top, they weren’t budging. I lifted the top box.
“Hold on a minute. I can’t get to you…” I called over my shoulder as I moved the top box onto the day bed I’d put in there. “Benji? A hand?”
There was no response as I moved my second box.
“Mama.” The wail sounded like a three or four-year-old.
I shrieked, “Benji, can I get a fucking hand in here!”
“Hold on, honey. I’m getting to you.”
The third box slid now, with my foot. Benji, likely plugged into his death metal, which he loved to work with, hadn’t heard me.
When I opened the door, I turned on my phone’s flashlight. A little girl in footie jammies was curled up in the corner. Her brown hair was mussed, and tears streaked her face.
“Oh, honey, come here. I’m so sorry.” When had she gotten in? Why hadn’t we noticed? How long had she been trapped?
I crouched, inching toward her, my arm outright. She smelled of damp crying and fruit juice. She had backed herself into a corner behind my clothes that now hung on a rack. Her brown eyes were wide with fear. I inched sideways, but she shrank away.
The smell is what changed abruptly. It was all kid, her presence, then it was a dog, three days in the rain dog, unwashed dog, and a rush of fur as it crashed into me, thudding me to my back. The wind was knocked out of me, and I tried desperately to breathe again, but its paws were a full weight on my chest. I was pinned, its hot feral breath in my face. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew that it was the same coyote from earlier.
“Benji???” it came out a whimper.
The coyote’s cold nose sniffed my neck, then too close to my ear. It was dominating. If I knew anything about dogs, it was to let them take their role. It straightened again and looked me in the eyes. Its eyes were amber and carried worlds. I relaxed my body as it stood; its heaviness on my chest increased like a punch as it bolted over me and was off and running. I scrambled to my feet, hollering for Benji as it bolted down the hall, nails skittering on the hardwood floors. By the time I got to the front door, it had pushed out the screen and was off down the porch, onto the sidewalk and down the street. Only when it was out of sight, did I begin to cry.
I get weird when I don’t eat. And I hadn’t eaten, and I likely hallucinated the girl. Maybe the coyote had gotten in in all the commotion. Benji found me on the floor of the living room, crying my eyes out. He saw the torn screen and said, “What the fuck?”
He dropped to his knees and put his arms around me, and it was very nice to be comforted, but no amount of talking was going to make what just happened okay.
The wood fence went up around the property the next day when I found two bruises on my chest. I didn’t want to bring it up with Benji. Anyway, I thought of describing the girl, the coyote, which sounded nuts. About the bruises, I told him a box had fallen on me funny.
We were in a good place now, and I didn’t want him thinking I was crazy.
I heard the workers all day talking in Spanish and English, and it was the first time I heard the word, “gentrifence.” I peeked out the window to the kitchen to see the guy who had said it. The man he was talking to laughed and pointed to the waist-high chain link fence next door. He said, “gentefence.”
By the time I stepped outside to survey the finished product, we no longer had a view of the street. Benji was proud that it claimed to be coyote-proof. It was a six-foot wood fence that went laterally, with some horizontal boards at the top for some extra height. Stepping into our front yard was more like stepping into a barn with the fresh wood smell and cherry stain. Without a view of the sky, the yard was small, closed in and strange. My studio, surrounded by backyard bamboo, close to the neighbor’s house, unblocked by a fence, was the only part of the house that retained its original feel.
Benji crowed about the stain job and the wood of it and must’ve said “ugly chain link” four times, and it started getting on my nerves, so I gave him a kiss on his cheek, put in my earbuds, and went into my studio. Whatever had happened, at least I could get the coyote’s eyes the right color, amber.
Saturday morning, we went to the Unicycle café, one that Benji’s friend Alan had gone on about. Turns out, it was down the street. It was the first time I’d been out of the house all week, and I wondered, looking back on my time spent painting, futzing, napping, binge-watching, if I wasn’t depressed. I hadn’t even begun figuring out where to look for a job.
Benji held my hand as we walked, which was nice. The sycamore trees rustled in the wind, which was strangely hot. It started, stopped, started again. I looked around at the different houses, wondering who lived inside. A little girl played out front on a plastic table with a pot of water, looking up as we passed, mouth gaped, wary. As we rounded a corner of a smaller street headed out to York, the main boulevard where the stores and shops were, Benji tugged on my hand.
We passed by a memorial on a street corner, fresh flowers, burning candles, a teddy bear. A laminated picture of a smiling little girl looked out from the post where it was painted. I stopped, “What happened here?” She looked like the girl from the closet, only…she couldn’t be because her face, smiling, comfortable, that wasn’t the same person.
Benji said, “Hey. Look.” I looked across the street and saw nothing but another row of houses. I looked at him. He was smiling, pleased, doing that hippie nod that had drawn me to him in the first place.
He grabbed my shoulders and turned me to face the street, pointing his arm into my line of site. Another cherry-stained tall wood fence surrounded a house in the middle of the block. Cheerful patio lights twinkled, draped in long ropes across the space between the fence and the house. He said, “Ryan was right. Up and coming. Soon enough, it’ll be the hippest part of the city.”
I started to look back to the memorial behind me, but he tugged my hand. “C’mon, starting to get a coffee headache.”
We passed three empty, boarded-up stores, one with empanadas painted on its exterior. I said, “Damn, that place must have been good.”
Benji shrugged, “Maybe they’ll put in some decent pizza.” And held the door open on a large exterior with an English-style pub sign hanging out front. A picture of a unicycle drawn in 19th-century English etching style waggled in the wind.
We stepped inside. The place was big and clean and open, with big windows facing the street, and the AC was up so high it felt like stepping into a completely different climate. That pricking in my nose from the dry winds abated some, and the gluten-free section of the bakery looked promising.
Benji hippie nodded to every bro who came in the door. Again, the thing I loved him for, but now it started annoying me. There was this bro familiarity, this, “I see you, dude.” The folks who came in were around our age, all of them white, which is fine in Ohio, but from what we’d seen of this neighborhood, it was mostly Latino. Some were talking on their phones, earphones dangling. Others wore expensive workout gear, and every one of them was definitely employed in some way or another. Men who all looked somehow like Benji sat at computers throughout the store. When I went back to the bathrooms, I counted five out of six were working on screenplays. Lala Land. Well, this is where I was. I wanted to meet the art people, though. Where were they? Did this city have them? I had done some reading before on the Arts District and made up my mind to get there somehow later this week. These were Benji’s people. I’d find mine. I sipped my triple matcha latte and turned back to my phone.
On the way back home, there was a woman crouched at the memorial, her hand on the bear. As we approached, I heard sniffling. She was clearly having a moment. Benji quickened his pace just as I slowed. I let go of his hand. His walk turned into a jog, and he ran across the street, away from me. He hollered, “C’mon,” over his shoulder.
The crying woman’s brown hair obscured her face. I squinted at the color photo of the smiling girl in the picture. Mama. It was the girl from the closet. The woman stood up and turned to face me. She was woman-sized, but it was the angry teen from our first viewing of the house. Her eyes were tear-stained, a moment of recognition passed, and she scowled at me.
I said, “Please. Excuse me. Please, tell me what happened?”
Her voice was thick with tears, “You. You’re what happened.” That stopped me. She was angry, I shouldn’t have asked.
“I don’t understand.”
She looked back over her shoulder at the Unicycle Café. “I didn’t expect you to.”
“I want to understand.”
She cleared her throat, centering herself. The tears had stopped now. She said, steadily, carefully as if I were hard of hearing. “You moved into our house. We moved into a tent. My sister died.”
My recently shuttered college brain kicked into an unreasonable dance through tautologies and fallacies. But, died. I said, “I’m so sorry. How did she die?”
Her chin crumpled and tears threatened, but she was, with all her strength, refusing to succumb. “I got there too late, I missed my bus. I always pick her up, but she’d already left. School. She’s six; why did they let her go? She forgot for a moment and walked home.” She looked up at the sky and wiped her eyes. “I always called her shorty, to remind her she’s too small for cars to see. Every time we walk, I call her shorty. But someone blew the light.”
“I’m so, so sorry.” This was horrible. I felt culpable, but I wasn’t really, was I? Benji’s the one who bought the house. I just live there. Ryan didn’t tell us he’d rushed anyone out. He said they made it up about the tent.
She stared right at me, her eyes going quiet. Just stared.
My arms were crossed on my front, and I realized that might be confrontational. I let them fall to my side. I put them on my hips, dropped them. What do we do with our arms anyway?
She still stared. One of us was going to have to leave. “I. is there anything I can do to help you or your family?” I reached into my back pocket, where I knew I had a twenty. “Here, it’s not much, but here.”
She looked at my extended hand with such disdain I immediately regretted my choice. “Jesus Christ.” She turned and walked away. I stood, looking at the flickering of the candles amongst the flowers.
I heard someone shout from across the street. When it repeated, I realized it was Benji hollering, “Bea!”
When I told him of my encounter with the girl, I was looking for some, “Damn, that’s weird,” or, “what do you think we should do?” But what Benji said, was, “Shit’s hard all over, babe. You start getting bogged down in other people’s troubles, you’ll never make it in this world.” He finished his beer, put it on the table instead of taking it to the kitchen or recycling it, put it on the table where he assumed it would get picked up, and said, “I’m off to bed. See you in there.” He didn’t even kiss me or touch me before he left.
I went into my studio, back to my eyeless coyote. I had to get it just right. I put some black and brown on the palate, white in the corner. I sat cross-legged on the floor across from the canvas and looked at this giant furry face. Coyotes are not large, but the presence on this one filled the space. I started dabbing at the canvas with some underlying black when the closet door creaked.
She crept out cautiously, still in her little school uniform, her hair done in pigtails with tiny plastic balls on them. She wasn’t crying now; her expression was somber, her mood quiet. She came around and stood behind me, looking at the canvas. She climbed under my arm and plopped her butt right in my lap with a bit too much thud. Her head rested against my chest bone, her arms in her lap. She looked at the canvas with me.
Her hair smelled of sticky kid with an undertone of juice. Her body was warm in the cooling evening. She leaned forward to my paint box and pulled out the orange and the yellow ochre, and squeezed them on my palate. Now we could begin.
Tomorrow I’d leave a note on the memorial. Tomorrow I’d call around to storage spaces and find a place for my shit while I looked for a place. In the meantime, Marlene had a guest house. And she said any time.
I got the last box into the car while Benji was still at work. The girl walked out and down the front steps to watch me. When had packed the last thing packed away, I looked back at where she sat on the front stoop tracing shapes with a stick.
She said, “I can’t see out anymore.” Referring to the gentrifence.
I said, “I’m sorry.”
She said, “You have someplace to go?”
I nodded. I said, “You?”
She said, “I will.” She hugged me. A brief, firm hug with the kind of real squeeze only a kid can give.
She took her coyote form and ran down the street. I knew I wouldn’t see her again.
I got into the car and started it up when I saw the coyote come back, dragging a stick that was glowing at the end and smoking. It took me a moment to process that the stick was on fire. She went up the stairs and into the house, and I started my car and drove away.