Originally published in the 22nd edition of Susurrus
“There’s that pole where those kids died.” I said to him as we passed a telephone pole that stood like a column for the fallen. Adorned with candles of Saint Lawrence and dried flowers in old vases, that’s all it was to me. The pole where those kids died.
“What?” he asked. I know I’ve told him this story before. In fact, I’ve told it so many times he once said, “Yeah you tell me this story all the time.”
“You know,” I said, “they’re the kids with their jerseys hanging in the school gym.” He nodded. I knew if I linked it with something involving sports, he would remember. God I love him.
This is the first time that Sean would be meeting my family. I just wished it was for a less depressing reason. A week ago, I was sick. So sick, I had to stay home from work. I remember the sickness because with it came a tremendous sadness.
“Mom, what’s up?” I said into the phone with a voice that sounded like plague.
“It’s Papa Lilliana…” she said. That was my grandfather. His name wasn’t Lilliana; I don’t even know what kind of name that is. We just called him that because when Cousin Howard was little, he couldn’t say, Papa William. So he called him, “Papa Lilliana” and from that day on, that was his name.
“What about…” I put the phone down without finishing. Papa Lilliana had this problem.
When I was five or six, I was watching TV and Papa Lilliana was watching me watch TV. That was his favorite activity. It didn’t matter what I was watching, whether it was “That’s So Raven” or one of the hundreds of silent movies Cousin Howard would force me to watch, Papa Lilliana loved looking at his granddaughter.
“What movie is this?” Papa Lilliana asked Cousin Howard.
“Birth of a Nation, Papa,” answered Cousin Howard. A scene came up of men in white robes and masks on horses riding past.
“What movie is this?” asked Papa Lilliana again.
“I told you, Pop,” said Cousin Howard in annoyance, “The Birth of a Nation.”
“This doesn’t seem appropriate for Camille, Howard.”
“If we don’t expose her to true cinema, Camille will just become part of the brain dead populous,” Cousin Howard explained back. I smiled because Cousin Howard always said stuff like that.
Papa Lilliana didn’t say anything for a while until he asked again, “What movie is this?”
“The Birth of a…” Cousin Howard stopped before continuing. “The Birth of a Nation,” he finished.
“This doesn’t seem appropriate for Camille, Howard.” Cousin Howard nodded and stopped the movie.
“You’re right Pop,” he said, as he took the DVD out. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He walked out the door and I put on “That’s So Raven.”
That’s how life was for Papa Lilliana since that day, when I’d come back for holidays from school — and later, life — a part of him would always be missing. First he would forget who I was.
“She looks a lot like you, Wendy,” he’d say to my mother. And she would nod. Then he needed help eating. Two years ago he said, “Where’s Renee?” my grandmother who had died four years prior. Last year during Christmas he looked at me and said, “Christmas hasn’t been the same since Camille left. She needs to visit once in a while.”
“I know,” I said.
“It is Christmas after all,” he said, “Everyone should be with their family during Christmas.” Fourteen months later, he was gone.
“How’s Travis doing?” Sean asked. I looked into the back seat and saw Travis curled in a ball sleeping and snoring. His jowls would vibrate every time air would exit his body, making him look even more comic than usual.
“He’s still sleeping,” I said.
Sean smirked and shook his head, “Lazy ass dog.”
For my degree, I had to take a Russian philosophy course. I don’t know why this course existed as oppose to Greek or Ethiopian philosophy or any other national philosophy for that matter. But the one thing I got out of it was Sean. I hate being one of those people that have this story about a hot guy looking back at them and asking to barrow a pencil resulting in love at first sight. Unfortunately, I am one of those people. The only difference is that he tapped me on the shoulder, and he asked if he could barrow a few bucks for lunch and that he’d promise to pay me back (he never did).
After Pepperdine, Sean and I moved in together to the protest of both our fathers and Cousin Howard.
“You guys can’t even put down the deposit,” he’d say, “so why even be together?”
“Because we love each other.”
“You guys are gross.” Cousin Howard ended up loaning us the money for the deposit after I begged and promised to pay him back (we never did).
When we crossed the bridge over the dry riverbed, I knew I was home. Well… more like
I knew I was back in Lompoc. We drove down what used to be the main drag past the closed down mini-malls and that building that alternates between being a Panda Express and a Carrow’s until we turned right on College Avenue.
Then we drove by my past. Lompoc cared about two things: The Old Town area, (an area that no one ever goes to because all there is are expensive antique stores and a sushi bar) and high school football. We passed by the center of town. That’s not a metaphor. Lompoc High School was literally in the center of town and I suppose adolescent life. The ‘50s era buildings surrounded by overgrown junipers made the school look like a rundown motel of the same era. Student murals of space travel and children watching rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base didn’t help either. Yet when I looked at the school, it was like seeing an old friend at your grocery store. There was a warmth to the encounter, but to approach was never appropriate.
Next to the school was the football stadium that looked like it hadn’t been updated since they replaced the wooden bleachers when I was a junior. I remember going to the games with Cousin Howard and his friends. They never actually watched the game, they didn’t really care. It was just a reason to be together with each other. The marching band would play their tribute to Queen during halftime and I would look at my cousin, a lover of the arts in his own right, and see him cringe with pure anger and disappointment.
I laughed once when he stood up in the stands and yelled, “The percussion should never be louder than the winds!” No one did anything because they knew he was right. “Freddie Mercury’s rolling in his grave right now!” he said.
“Because Freddie Mercury has the time to care about a small town marching band,” said one of the drummers’ moms in the stands below us.
“Freddie Mercury is dead,” yelled Cousin Howard, “He has all the time in the world to care about a small town marching band!”
A geek in cargo shorts arguing with a middle-age woman about what a famous dead guy cares about. Those were the days.
We passed through town and found ourselves at the gates of The Family House. Not my family house. The Family House. I call it that because that was our clan’s gathering place during holidays, graduations and because we didn’t see each other since last Wednesday. This ranch style house with a five decade old loquat tree next to the newer olive tree was the place where we decided to have Thanksgiving Dinner in the middle of September because we were bored. It also happened to be the house my family lived in. Someone had to live in it.
We parked on the curb across the street because that was the closest we would be able to get with all the cars right in front of it. I saw the younger cousins (now teenagers) playing football in the front yard. They reminded me of my generation of boy cousins who would always do the same.
“So this is where you were emotionally damaged,” Sean joked as he tried to push Travis out of the car. “Travis, come on,” he said.
Travis moaned back, “No.” I’m not a scientist, but I will claim right now that Travis is the only dog that not only knows what the word “no” means, but also how to properly use it.
Sean finally got him out of the car and on his leash. Travis stretched and quickly slammed himself onto the ground before once again falling into slumber.
“Move him under the loquat tree,” I told Sean.
“I just got him out of the car, what makes you think I can take him across the…” He didn’t finish because my nieces spotted the dog to which he quickly woke up and began to beg for their attention.
“Can we take him under the tree?” one of the nieces asked Sean.
“Sure,” he answered back with a smile.
As I watched my nieces – who didn’t even say hi to me, but that’s beside point – lead my two boys under the same tree that I played under, it finally hit me. Not only was the family that I built under the tree, but so was the family I would always have. Today was the day that I was able to combine the two.