Friday, July 03, 2015

the strip mall on memory lane

There is a Big Lots! around the corner from Dash’s daycare. I’d been meaning to check it out since he started daycare last week; you’d think it was a museum or something, and in a way I approached it as such (hey, you take your thrills were you can).

I hadn’t actually been to a Big Lots! before, but I grew up going to Pic ‘N’ Save, its eighties counterpart (Wikipedia tells me that Big Lots! actually bought Pic ‘N’ Save in 2002, although by then it was called MacFrugals). Pic ‘N’ Save occupied most of a down-and-out strip mall in Hermosa Beach. This was back when there were still down-and-out parts of the beach cities. My mom always speculated that the other businesses in the strip mall—an Indian restaurant and a couple of stores that kept heavy curtains drawn at all times—were fronts for something.

The price was right.
Pic ‘N’ Save was full of cheap crap that regular stores hadn’t been able to sell, but we were a family of bargain hunters. If a brand of kids’ shoes had briefly flirted with making shoes for adults, you might find the fruits of the company’s failure in a bin at Pic ‘N’ Save. There were also aisles of make-up and slightly separated nail polish, resin figurines, off-brand cookies and weird old-lady bras.

When My Little Pony attempted re-launches a few times before the Friendship is Magic era, you could find those ponies at Pic ‘N’ Save.

What do you mean you don't remember Pinkie Pie's predecessor, sorta-off-looking Pinkie Pie?
By fifth grade, brand consciousness had hit my elementary school. I knew that cooler kids shopped at Kidsmart and the coolest kids shopped at Nordstrom. By sixth grade, I started saving for a pair of red Guess jeans with zippered ankles. But in fifth grade, I hadn’t quite caught on. I had a pair of white cotton pants with pink polka dots from Pic ‘N’ Save, which I liked to wear with a teal-and-white striped shirt that had a square of splatter paint on the front, like a Jackson Pollock framed by an awkward ten-year-old.

I was wearing this outfit one day, walking up the hill from class to the school library where my mom worked, when an older girl named Carrie called out, “Hey, where do you shop?”

I assumed she was envying my look and I said with pride, “Everywhere. From Nordstrom to Pic ‘N’ Save.” I was high-low before there was high-low. But the words were barely out of my mouth when Carrie exchanged a look with her friend and I knew, instantly, that she’d been making fun of me. She would not be running to Pic ‘N’ Save to get her own stripes-and-polka-dots ensemble.

Now I can love my ten-year-old self—whose fashion icons were (and are) Pippi Longstocking and Punky Brewster—so easily it almost feels like a scene in a bad movie. The Poor But Creative Girl Gets Made Fun Of By The Rich Popular Girl. But I can just as easily transport myself to the shame of the moment, and I brought all of it with me as I entered Big Lots! on Thursday afternoon, Dash strapped to my chest.

I was one makeover shy of being a pop culture cliche.
My primary thought was, I could have saved so much money if I’d gone here for the past ten years instead of Target or Trader Joe’s, not to mention all that kombucha from Whole Foods when I was going through cancer treatment and indulged my needy, semi-anorexic self with pricey health food. 

Cereal for $2! Shampoo for $1.50! Mattresses for $249! Was I certain I didn’t need any patio furniture right now?

Oh, snap!
The orange shelf labels advertised bargains and the fact that food stamps were accepted here. Regular grocery stores never seem to advertise this fact. Just liquor stores and places that sell things like hot wings-flavored cracker sandwiches.

Food-adjacent food.
In the toy aisle, a dad was asking his daughter to promise—really promise—she would clean her room if he bought her a Frozen doll. The little girl could barely concentrate long enough to nod vigorously.

“Look at me,” he said. “Look at me. Do you promise? Are you going to keep it clean?”

Yeah yeah sure Dad gimme that Elsa.

I bought cereal, coconut water, pasta sauce, conditioner, tissue paper and a plastic bin to put AK’s records in. The clerk at checkout said of the latter, “It’s $6—is that okay? You still want it?”

I did. The clerk said hi to Dash. I commented that Dash had been sleeping: “He just woke up and is kind of looking around now like ‘Where am I?’”

“Better than waking up at the movies,” the clerk said.

I’m making a generalization here, but I have a hunch that the Venn diagram of people who take infants to the movies and people who shop at Big Lots! may have significant overlap.

Case in point: AK and I took Dash to see Fast and Furious 7 when he was less than three months old. He was not the only baby at our local $6 theater, not by a long shot. When the school-aged kids next to us complained to their dad about the baby behind us making noise, he said amiably, “Stop whining. You guys were the same way at movies when you were that age.”

That scene where Letty had to go undercover and fight a boxer chick in a ballgown. Because Fast and Furious.
Dash’s daycare is in South Pasadena, an upper-middle-class city that borders several working class cities and neighborhoods (Alhambra, El Sereno) and a city that, at least at one point, had the nation’s highest per capita income (San Marino). After our Big Lots! adventure—one part Memory Lane trip, one part ethnographic study—we walked through San Marino. Or maybe it was the fancy part of Alhambra, I’m not sure. The streets were lined with trees and well maintained bungalows painted in cool dark colors. Rain gutters dripped into eco-friendly barrels. Or they would have if there’d been any rain. The kids playing soccer at the park had brand new equipment.

In my last post, I mentioned my economic schizophrenia. Is it me or the times? Or the place? In a city, you always butt up against the Other, meaning you are always the Other.

Fireworks are already going off, so I guess this is my Fourth of July post. I raise my $1 Mexican coconut water to you, America. 

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

burden of proof

Friday morning I was pulling into CVS to buy baby sunscreen in anticipation of the Homeboy Family Picnic. A basic errand, but compare it to the day of last year’s Homeboy Family Picnic, when I was trying to finish four grants and text with a potential birthmom who ended up dumping me later that day, all before getting on a plane to New Zealand. I mean, the New Zealand part was good, but I was appreciating this year’s hard-won simplicity.

My coworker Sierra with two-year-old Marla. Sierra claims to hate kids. Clearly.
I turned on NPR just in time to hear Barack Obama say, “…and then there are days when justice comes like a thunderbolt.”

As he continued to talk, and I sat in the same CVS parking lot where I’d once called AAA for a dead battery, I soon found myself in tears, the kind that come when a weight you didn’t even know you were carrying is finally lifted.

People say this about finalizing an adoption: Sure, you’re out of the danger zone as soon as your child’s birthmom signs her papers, but there’s nothing like a court saying that you are your child’s parent and no different from any other child’s parent in the eyes of the law. No more agency visits, no more limbo, no more wondering if the mosquito bite on your baby’s shoulder will prompt his daycare to call DCFS, which will then open a case, and how would that look to a judge?

Same-sex marriage has been legal-ish in California for years. It’s hard to keep up with the laws and court cases, but it was clear that we, and the rest of the country, were moving in the direction of LGBT acceptance. There were fits and starts, but there was It Gets Better and Laverne Cox, and Ellen DeGeneres had long ago stopped being the face of controversy and become shorthand for soccer-mom TV.

The enormity of being able.
But Friday’s ruling was nevertheless a thunderbolt: Now the burden of proof was on them, the homophobes. Now, homophobia becomes like racism in America—still pernicious and pervasive, but even the worst practitioners have to say, “It’s not that I’m homophobic/racist, it’s just that I think [something ugly and homophobic/racist].” Now, being homophobic is the cultural and legal crime, even if it’s one people will no doubt get away with for years to come.

I think I learned the phrase “burden of proof” in high school, probably when we were studying the supreme court. I use it more than the average non-lawyer. I was raised by a highly logical engineer who himself grew up being told to keep quiet and stop asking so many questions and just eat your oatmeal please by stiff English grandparents. So he thought he was doing me a favor—and he was—by letting me argue my case as much as I wanted, so long as I could make a case. It turned me into a good mini attorney and a good critical thinker, but it also instilled in me a sense that the burden of proof was always on me. Doing something or being something because it appealed to me wasn’t enough; I had to prove it was a Good, Responsible Idea.

In L.A., this house would go for somewhere in the low 400's.
Most recently I’ve been trying to explain to my dad why I don’t want to buy a house, even if he helps with the down payment. Such is the nature of my first-world problems. But still. Do I really have to make a case why I don’t want to be a homeowner? (Because I just spent years wanting something big and difficult and it’s positively glorious to exist in a place of satisfaction for a while. Because C.C. and I don’t want to spend our weekends building a deck. Because, aforementioned down payment aside, we can barely make ends meet paying for part-time daycare, and sometimes I feel completely schizophrenic economically, like the world’s poorest rich person or the world’s richest poor person.)

Anyway. Once you are your child’s parent in the eyes of the law, his adoption will still and always be part of his story, his life, his identity. But it belongs to him and to you. Maybe there will always be a part of you that feels a little less legit than women who can talk about their epidurals or say He has his father’s ears, but there will also be a part of you that feels more legit, for having fought. And while you might feel like you have to prove yourself, technically you won’t. I think there are parallels here, with all struggle.

Stephen and Pedro at brunch, the meal of our people.
On Friday afternoon, our friends Pedro and Stephen got married. They’d been engaged for a while. We’d joked about them getting giant bedazzled rings in the shape of their pit bull, Sugar. When Pedro texted us a photo of his actual ring—a simple but chunky/asymmetrical band—and said “Something happened today,” we thought the thing that happened was that they got rings. No. The thing that happened was that they both left work early and went to the courthouse and got married. Their marriage, and the burden of its upkeep, belongs to them, not to the state or country. And that is the privilege and the right. That is the unburdening.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

the cake of the culture, the crumbs of defiance

“The moment of queer pride is a refusal to be shamed by witnessing the other as being ashamed of you,” Maggie Nelson writes in The Argonauts, a book I’m consuming in grateful gulps.

Beyond the Absolut Vodka float and bronzed dancing boys in West Hollywood—beyond the bounce house at Dyke Day—this is what Pride is about. I came out slowly and anticlimactically somewhere around 2000; I’d already been following Rent around the Western United States for three years, so I thought I was plenty proud. Proud enough to roll my eyes at the commercialization of it all, proud enough to have sincere conversations about the downside of assimilation. On one level, embracing the rave-hued, raised-fist anthems of Rent was an act of defiance of my conservative (though not homophobic per se) upbringing, but it was also Broadway, and I’d never personally been harassed or shamed.

Read this book!
I didn’t come out, even to myself, until I was sure it was cool to do so. Not just not-dangerous, but  genuinely a-little-bit-extra-rad.

On some level, I needed to believe that I’d chosen to be queer because I was just so interesting and progressive, although I never would have framed it this way. I needed to believe that I could do anything straight people could, including get married and breed.

Here’s what Maggie Nelson says about the latter:

For all the years I didn’t want to be pregnant—the years I spent harshly deriding “the breeders”—I secretly felt pregnant women were...sitting on top of the cake of the culture, getting all the kudos for doing exactly what women are supposed to do, yet still they felt unsupported and discriminated against. Give me a break! Then, when I wanted to be pregnant but wasn’t, I felt that pregnant women had the cake I wanted, and were busy bitching about the flavor of the icing.

I was wrong on all counts—imprisoned, as I was and still am, by my own hopes and fears. I’m not trying to fix that wrong-ness here. I’m just trying to let it hang out.

Thank you, cakewrecks.com, for the biology lesson.
And so she begins to write about her pregnancy. When I mourned my fertility—first because it was mediocre (my body suggesting I couldn’t easily slip into the world of cake), and later because my genes made me “choose” between surgical infertility and likely eventual ovarian cancer—I couldn’t pretend anymore. Because I’d already mourned loudly and openly, I couldn’t pretend I just happened to dislike the taste of cake.

A lifetime of deferred or buried queer shame came crashing down in disguise. A big neon sign over my head was now blinking NO CAKE FOR YOU. And if you know how much I love carbs, you can imagine what that felt like.

NO CAKE FOR YOU, YOU KNOWN CAKE-LOVER.

I will leave you to make your own Rachel Dolezal joke about this cakewreck.
Although I kept wanting to be a mom, I had to rewrite the narrative of my life outside that identity, which is probably a healthy task for any parent. I had to make my Pride out of humility, words, swearwords, crumbs, irreverence, questions, screams and art. You know, the stuff queers have relied on for generations.

She didn't find her pride just by taking a queer studies class in grad school.
I can’t pretend I don’t like the taste of cake. I can’t pretend I’m a revolutionary who wants to burn down bakeries. But I also can never be satisfied with a life of rainbow-frosted cake. I want, as I always do, for there to be a third option—to have rights and relative ease in the world without being just like the world that has rejected me (accidentally or on purpose, subtly or obviously). I suppose I want to have my cake and eat it too.

Although I would have loved ferociously any children I birthed, some of my Pride resides in the fact that we ultimately adopted. Because Pride has always been about the chosen family (not that Dash got a choice, but his birthmom did). Because Pride is about not passing. Because Pride is about doing things differently. Pride is saying I have fewer girl parts than most butches, but I’m still a femme and a parent. Pride is the hard-won victory, the victory with bad-ass scars, the victory with loss, the victory that interrogates the idea of victory.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

graduation season

1. have faith in the blue lady

There’s a band called Rainer Maria (so you know they’re not one of those groups that considers lyrics an afterthought) and they have a song called “Ears Ring.” The chorus goes: Yoooouuu aaalreeeaady looooove her. B and I saw them play at the Troubadour years ago, and I swear the sexy lead singer was looking right at B and me when she sang.

Wikipedia says they're an emo band. That's okay. I'm kind of emo, I guess.
I did already love B. I had a lot of bad habits in the girlfriend department, like being passive aggressive and playing the victim, but a lack of love was not one of them. B didn’t believe it, though, and we broke up eventually.

But I still think of that song and its beautiful, easy fatalism sometimes.

2. avoiding the checklist

When Dash was born, one of my dad’s first questions was about his Apgar score, which is a number doctors assign at birth. According to the ever-calming Dr. Sears, it’s more of a directive for medical staff—like, if your baby has jaundice, get him a heat lamp or whatever it is they use for jaundice—and not an assessment of your baby’s overall health, but most people understand it as the latter. If I hadn’t been so blissed out, I would have been annoyed with my dad. Leave it to him to reduce the miracle of life to a judgey number.

A few weeks later, my sister asked if Dash was meeting all his developmental milestones.

“I’m trying not to know what those are except for in the vaguest sense,” I said. “If his pediatrician thinks he’s fine, he’s fine.”

“Isn’t there a checklist you can look at?” she said.

Welcome to my family. Somehow my parents managed to provide unconditional love and remain completely open-minded when I wanted to get an MFA in creative writing and or date people of the same sex, while instilling a simmering anxiety that I was never good enough, fast enough. Or maybe they just felt that way themselves and modeled for me. Or maybe (my therapist’s theory), as the older child in the family, I knew I wasn’t going to win any hearts by being small and needy, so I’d better be independent and a high achiever.

This child is a genius, but his/her parent uses Comic Sans.
My therapist refers to this as my need to “graduate early.” At times it has served me well. It’s made me unsentimental about the past, which is good if you don’t have a lot of storage space in your house. I’ve already donated bags of Dash’s smallest clothes. But it also produces a perpetual dissatisfaction with the present. So you accomplished your goal? That’s nice, now onto the next thing.

3. tig notaro fans will know what i mean by tumping

If I could be ninety percent like my parents, Dash would be in excellent shape. But this is one way I want to do things differently. I want to rip that imaginary checklist in my head—and the very real ones that are readily available on the internet and in baby books—into shreds. I want to practice Dash-centered parenting, where I measure him only against himself. Where I delight in the thing he’s doing at this moment instead of worrying about the thing he might or might not do in the future.

And yet, when AK took him for his four-month check-up a couple of weeks ago and the doctor told her we could start him on rice cereal, and the rice cereal package said it was for babies who were “supported sitters,” I exclaimed proudly: “Dash must be a supported sitter already!” And he is, kind of, although he tumps to one side without much provocation.

This baby is all, "I can sit supported only by this model's face."
“She didn’t mean start him on cereal this minute,” AK said offhandedly. “She just said sometime between now and his next appointment. We might not see her again till July.”

My inner Tiger Mom deflated a bit.

But Tiger Mom isn’t quite the right description. It’s not that I want Dash to be a genius or prodigy. Honestly, I’m still invested in my own genius—I’d rather write a brilliant novel than hover over Dash at swim practice, or whatever. I just want some kind of assurance that he won’t not make it in life. And I know there’s no such assurance, not really. Sprinkle in a little medical anxiety, and suddenly I’m hoping he’ll start crawling at four months just so I don’t have to worry about him not crawling at ten months.

But then I remember: I already love him.

The beautiful, easy fatalism.

What if he didn’t crawl at ten months? What if he never learned to walk? What if his skin turned into one giant toenail? (I have watched too many random YouTube modern-day freak shows late at night.) What would I do, return him? No, I would love him.

I would be sad, because life for the toenail-skinned is bound to be challenging. And I would try to find ways to help him. But I would never view him as someone in need of fixing. And once I realize that, some of my anxiety falls away. There is no difficult decision to be made, not in the grand scheme of things.

My task is laid out so simply: love Dash. That is one of the beauties of parenthood, at least for hand-wringers and over-thinkers like me. You can’t beat the clarity of purpose.

I recounted this epiphany to my therapist, and he said, “Well, yes. But you do want him to walk eventually.”

I want him to walk, but I don’t need him to walk.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

duct tape

A year and a half ago, I invited some friends to guest blog about a day in their lives. I’m always curious about the nitty-gritty of how people make things work. My mantra lately has been Everyone’s life is secretly held together with duct tape. Since today was my first official day as a full-time working mom,* I am currently interested in how I’m going to make things work. Specifically, when will I write? My options seem to be 5:30 am, lunchtime or 8:30 pm. None of these slots is ideal, but today I’m trying out the latter. And I’m easing into it with a Blog As You Are post of my own because that’s all. I. Can. Manage.

6:05 am: Wake up with pan dulce hangover from yesterday’s mini shindig in our backyard. Vow that this time I really, really will take care of my body. Wonder not for the first time if there is a 12-step group for people who eat well seven days out of eight but then really, really fuck shit up on the eighth day.

Feed cats.

Feed baby.

Feed self.

8:10 am: Congratulate self for running a little bit early. Discover poopy diaper and cease to run early.

Change Dash. Drop him off at Mary’s house.

8:55 am: Stop at 7-Eleven for coffee.

Their French Vanilla flavor is neither French nor particularly vanilla-y.
9:10 am: Walk from car to Homeboy, along the old cobblestones lining Bruno Street. Feel incredibly grateful for all this—the job I don’t mind returning to, the baby I can’t wait to return to, the esposa, the city.

10 am: Work on proposal to Boeing Foundation. When things flow, grant-writing can be fun.

Banh mi and jeggings.
12:30 pm: Comb the indoor swap meet nestled between Spring and Broadway in Chinatown in search of leggings. Find only jeggings and a lot of fabric that seems highly flammable.

Eat salad (salad!) on bench in Chungking Plaza. Start reading Dr. Mutter’s Marvels. It’s both a guilty pleasure and a well researched nonfiction book. Think about the library book I’ve been reading forever without returning. Wonder when library will send me to collections.

My mid-day fix.
1:15 pm: Stop in Homegirl Café for coffee.

2 pm: Take stock of work to-do list. It’s not that bad. I can totally do this!

It’s pretty daunting. I can’t do this!

Drink coffee. I can do this.

2:30 pm: Work on report to the Sawchuk Family Foundation.

Work on proposal to the Sawchuk Family Foundation.

Feel inspired to maximize productivity at work because otherwise I’m away from Dash for no reason at all.

4 pm: Witness minor controversy involving which trainees get to see Galaxy play. Vaguely recall that Galaxy is soccer.

5 pm: Leave work feeling a little self-conscious about not staying later.

5:40 pm: Greet Mary and Dashaboo outside her house. He adores her. He laughs and laughs. Feel so, so grateful and just a teensy bit jealous.

Dash's mommy is no Idina Menzel.
6 pm: Dash and Mommy Time. I read somewhere that four-month-olds are trying out their voices and it’s good to hear their parents sing, even if their parents happen to be horrible singers. Pull up Wicked on iTunes. Sing along with “Popular” and “For Good.” Dash seems to prefer being lifted in the air while I sing “Dashman” to the tune of the Batman theme song.

7 pm: Talk to sister on the phone while putting jammies on Dash. She’s worried about her cat. Dash starts to cry. Tell her I’ll call her back.

7:10 pm: Try a bunch of different positions for possible rocking/swaying. Dash is grouchy. Eventually nestle him between legs on floor, petting his head while he watches his mechanical, musical ocean mobile, a.k.a. Baby TV. Wonder if this is okay parenting because aren’t you supposed to be developing a short but consistent bedtime routine? The mobile hasn’t been part of my routine until this minute.

7:30 pm: Put sleepy Dash in swing. Think about article that said never let a baby sleep in a swing. Or a bouncer. Or a car seat. According to this article, naps are not for resting yourself or getting things done. Naps are for watching your baby carefully to make sure he’s not getting strangled by a strap designed to keep him safe.

7:35 pm: Call back sister. Say insufficiently comforting things. The intricacies of family anxiety dynamics are…intricate.

Fold baby laundry.

8 pm: Make smoothie in living room so as not to wake up Dash. Apologize to cats, because it’s not like they like the blender either. Put smoothie in fridge for tomorrow. Consider this “cooking.”

8:30 pm: Microwave leftover beans and eat with salsa.

8:40 pm: Read thread on Longest Shortest Time Mamas FB group about how to unwind without wine. Feel suspicious of moms who say they do yoga and meditate at the end of a long day.

9:10 pm: Finally start this post.


*That word still sounds so loaded to me. Like, who am I to crown myself? Or it sounds like the beginning of some obnoxious identity-politics statement: “As a mom, I [care about the Earth/want to outlaw soda/think queers shouldn’t get married, etc.].” But I’ll keep trying it on.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

that not-so-fresca feeling

Well, I gave Kathy’s prompt (“Fresca”) a try, and I almost liked what I wrote. I read up on Fresca soda online and learned that it was sweetened with cyclamates, which were banned in 1969, because studies in rats suggested that a human who consumed 350 cans of Fresca a day might have an increased risk of bladder cancer.

Corinthians 1 restaurant knows how to party.
I had this idea for a story about someone who’d grown up with a birth defect because her mother had been addicted to Fresca while pregnant. But because a Fresca addiction is so absurd, she tells everyone she’s a thalidomide baby. Then she meets a real thalidomide baby and gets in trouble.

I’m still sort of into that idea, but I didn’t like my story enough to post it. The tone has to be just right in a story like that. For a while now I’ve been interested in the idea of genuine tragedy that is the result of an absurd event. Like, what if you lost someone you loved because an actual anvil fell on them? What would you tell people? How would you process your real grief while acknowledging that you lived in a cartoon? I think this is part of a larger motif in my thinking, where I’m always weighing my own dumb animal emotions against my awareness of my place in some (imagined?) narrative.

D'oh!
So that’s the story I didn’t quite write. This is my last week of part-time maternity leave. Our amazing friend Mary is watching Dash three days a week; they chill out in her garden, Mary’s Boston terrier licks Dash’s toes, and last week Mary made cookies for us. In June, Dash will start daycare at a place I feel good about, although I doubt they’ll make us cookies.

I’m going to miss having so many daylight hours with Dash, for sure. I’m a little worried about just how exhausted I might be once I start working twice as much, given how exhausted I already am.

Will I ever write again? That right there is my insecurity shifting, from worrying that the identity of “mom” is beyond my grasp to worrying that “writer” is. The difference is that I have all this weird pathology about the former, and with the latter, I just have the very mundane problem that nearly all writers have, which is a lack of time to write and submit work. I’ll get through it. Probably.

I’m looking forward to having a routine. Our daily baby relay, in which Dash is the baton, is maddening at times. I’m proud of myself for becoming someone who can more or less roll with the punches, but I still long to not get punched for a while.

I’m looking forward to seeing my Homeboy coworkers more regularly. I’m looking forward to spending less time in clothes spotted with half-digested formula—although that’s a clichĂ© I take a strange pride in. In a cautious way, I’m looking forward to simply enjoying the day-to-day of a life I’ve worked my ass off to inhabit (while acknowledging that working my ass off was just a small piece of the puzzle).

Here’s to the next phase. Picture me raising a can of Fresca.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

still lucky

The audience-participation component of my Ask Me a Question/Give Me a Prompt series hasn’t totally panned out (although it’s not too late, Breadketeers!), so today I borrowed one from Brian Kiteley’s The 4 a.m. Breakthrough. In my case, it’s more like the 5 a.m. Just Write Something.

Write a short piece of fiction that depends on a character’s precise perception of or reaction to the color red.

We pulled our van up to the white-curbed loading zone, that sacred space, at noon. Gomez was driving and being a dick. He was usually a pretty kick-back guy, but something about Sunset Boulevard and all its valets darting into lanes like deer brought out the worst in him. He’d been shouting at the windshield since La Cienega.

“You think you can haul the carpet up all these stairs, Shannon?” We all called each other by our last names, and Shannon was mine, but when Gomez said it, it sounded like a first name. A girl’s name. And that’s fine, I am a girl, but he made it sound like a bad thing.

“Did the traffic make you extra sexist?” I said.

“What, I’m looking out for you.”

Gomez was from New York. One of the boroughs, I don’t know which. I was from Bakersfield. If you’re not from L.A., you might think Bakersfield was the equivalent of a borough, but the mountain range between the cities makes all the difference in the world. When you drive over the Grapevine, praying your brakes don’t fail, and you see the city below like a handful of fairy dust in God’s cupped palm, you think anything is possible. It’s not like that going in the other direction.

Gomez popped the doors and there were the rolls of carpet. They reminded me of those little scrolls of paper they used to sell at the supermarket checkout counter when I was a kid. I always asked my mom for one, because they looked like maps to tiny treasures, and she always told me to stop messing around and let her concentrate on her coupons and which credit card to use.

A woman in tight pants and a black blazer in some kind of nice fabric clacked our way. Who would wear heels during this part of the event? I was kind of envious, though. I was wearing my old Pumas. She had a clipboard and a headset and acted like you’d expect.

“Start up there by the doors, and hurry, because E! just said they want some shots of set-up.”

“Hear that, Shannon, this is gonna be your big break,” Gomez said.

I’d made the mistake of telling him I came here to be an actress. We’d had drinks after work one day. I told him how for a while I’d spelled my name Hayleigh instead of Haley. He tried to grind his crotch into the side of my leg when he hopped down off the bar stool. I made him drive me home in the company van, and I lay awake that night wondering if he’d get a DUI as he headed back over the hill.

The headset woman wrinkled her nose at me. I’d seen that look enough times to know what it meant: that she wasn’t expecting to see an almost-pretty white female on this side of things. The set-up side. But also that she didn’t really want to see anyone at all on the set-up side. Anyone who had to be here before 5 pm was a tax on her eyeballs.

Gomez and I are almost the exact same height—he’s short for a guy and I’m average for a girl—so we’re a good team in that way. We each took an end of the first roll and jogged up the shallow stairs to the doors of the auditorium. The velvet ropes were already set up, so we had lines to color between.

“Gary, let’s get a shot of them rolling out the red carpet,” said a reporter, maybe the person from E! She super skinny, like she’d tried to diet away the shape of her face, and she wore a strapless red gown that didn’t allow her to take big steps.

In my Pumas and leggings and hoodie, I could have done cartwheels. All of a sudden, I felt free. When I was a kid I did cartwheels every chance I got. The park, the mall when it wasn’t crowded. I’d seen a TV movie about a girl who got discovered as a gymnast in Communist Romania, and I was always hoping that the coach who’d whip me into shape was just chilling outside Wet Seal.

Almost like we’d choreographed it, Gomez and I squatted down and gave the roll a shove to get it started. It’s heavy stuff, rubberized at the bottom, so you have to push it the whole way. Red is a terrible color for carpet, but so is every other color, if you think about it. Can you picture “green-carpet glamour”? Black carpet? Blue? And white would get filthy.

It was starting to get hot already. I guess that’s why award season was winter. Anything later in the year and people’s makeup would melt off. I unzipped my hoodie and flung it over a velvet rope.

On the radio the day before, I’d heard a thing about an opening at the Costume Institute in New York, for an exhibit about Chinese something-or-other. Costumes, I guess. A lot of the invitees wore red. For luck. Rihanna wore canary yellow. I wondered if Chinese people still thought of red as a lucky color, since it was also the color of communism, and that didn’t seem to be working out so well.

As we headed back to the van for the second roll, Gomez chattered at me about the strip club he went to last night. For some reason he thought I liked to hear that shit. At least he wasn’t star-struck like some of the people at our company. He liked tits and he didn’t care who they belonged to.

I tuned him out and let myself daydream, just for a second, about what I’d wear. Not black—too boring. Not red, because of possible clashing with the carpet. I’m a blonde, so I couldn’t pull off yellow. White is too bridal. Maybe blue-green. Something with a little sparkle but nothing too showy.

“This one Mexican chick with these, like, retro kind of tattoos, I could tell she had a thing for me,” Gomez was saying.

“Keep telling yourself that,” I said.

“And she had those straight-across bangs and fishnets,” Gomez said. “Man, I fucking love that look.”

“China is still communist, right?” I asked.

“In name only,” he said. I could tell he’d heard that somewhere and was repeating it.

“So it’s kind of like a compromise,” I said, “between communism and…freedom, or whatever.”

We reached the van and hauled out the second roll. They get soft when they’re warm, and it drooped now when we carried it. It would probably take five or six rolls to reach from the auditorium to the sidewalk. We’d come back tomorrow and roll it all back up. There would be oily footprints and gum, and it would be hot, and tourists would look at us and be glad they didn’t have our jobs. It’s okay. I probably wouldn’t want their jobs either.