Lemon Trees and Vodka Water

I am sitting on my front stoop on a bright Los Angeles afternoon. The sky presses up blue and flat against the orange stucco walls that surround me. Everyone’s coming home. The brown kids hustle up the street with their backpacks on and earbuds in, while the white kids park their SmartCars and scurry inside gently decaying duplexes. A 30-something Korean couple, smartly dressed in matching athletic gear, walk briskly around the same block three times. A chihuahua in a head cone bustles up the street, tail wagging, blithely unattached to any owner I can see.

As I sit, a man comes up to me, slow and stepping careful, like a cat. Dodgers cap, dark sunglasses, wispy mustache. I think maybe he wants to smoke a joint, but naw, naw –he’s sipping vodka from a Vitamin Water bottle. “Good trick,” I think.

“Can I?” He motions to the steps where I’ve parked my injured leg, stuck out at all sorts of weird angles, my iPad blaring country music beside me.

It’s the last thing I want. It’s been a long day. He’s one of the guys who loiter around the street all day, drinking tallboys out of paper bags, sing-shouting ballads in Spanish. I guess I don’t want to be rude, though, probably not to this guy, so I blurt: “oh yeah that’s fine I’m just sitting here listening to dumb country music I just get so tired sometimes and people never stop talking and sometimes you just can’t get away, you know? And then –” I gesture to next door: a bunch of dudes drunk at 5 in the afternoon. There’s an empty Bud Light can sticking out of the cactus plant next to our steps.

“Naw,” he says. “They won’t bother you, yah? Naw, they respect me.” His accent is thick. His name is Carlos, he’s 32, and he’s from Cancun, he says, but he’s been here twenty years. I ask him if he likes LA, and I see a flicker in his eyes behind the dark glasses, and he kinda shrugs. “I’m in a gang, you know?” I don’t know what to say back, because normally men tell me they’re graphic designers or “writers” or, like, litigation associates for some BigLaw firm but they “really want to go in-house, because it’s less of a grind, better work-life balance”. I don’t get a lot of gang members, but then again I guess he doesn’t get a lot of crippled white girls smoking post-work joints and people-watching on a Ktown stoop.

A few months back, a man blew off his own head in that building next door. He’d killed his wife some weeks before, just shot her down in the street one night, and a SWAT team had him cornered. Our street was locked down all day, K-9 units, bomb-sniffing-robots, the whole deal. They had him on the phone, trying to talk him down, talk him out, but I guess the desperation got to him. The next morning, there were only a few “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS” ribbons blowing around the porch.

“I knew the guy,” he says. I nod. Maybe his glasses are there to block out the light, the light that presses everything into two dimensions around us, or maybe it’s because his eyes keep closing against something too hard to see.

The night it happened, I couldn’t get back into my place for hours. I was still on crutches and pissed as all hell that I was hobbling around the neighborhood at night by myself, pissed enough to cry and curse out the police cars blocking my lot. A real testament to how much LA cops do not give a shit about a spoiled white girl in a Honda yelling at them. They let me back in near midnight, after they cleaned up the guy who blew off his head cause he shot his wife and he didn’t want to get caught and she had a daughter but it didn’t matter because I still got to sleep in my own bed that night..

Two women walk by pushing a stroller. I wink at the baby as he waves at me, little fat hands reaching out to me as they pass. “I want a daughter, you know?” Carlos says. “Girls are the best!” I smile. “First you need a wife.” A hugely fat woman walks out from next door, yells something at him in Spanish, but he just waves her away. “You’re very beautiful,” he says, twice, and then a third time.

“Yeah, a little daughter,” he says.

“Your princess,” I say.

“Yeah. Yeah. My princess.”

I cup my stomach and shake my head at him. “I think I’m done. Nothing’s ever gonna grow in here. I’m 35, and….” Something gets lost in the translation.

The sound of somebody practicing scales on a trombone wafts into the air around us. That damn kid again. He’s getting better, though. Every day. It sounds funny, incongruous in the middle of this trash-filled, busy urban street. Bom-bom-bom-bomp-BOMMMMMM, over and over.

Carlos lets me sip some vodka from his bottle and I shake his hand. “I’m just so tired, I have to go,” I tell him. “And the cats need to be fed.” I point at the two whisker-faced boys peeking out at us from the window. It’s an excuse, but it works.

He reaches over and picks a lemon from the tree that shades our building. “You can have it,” I say, but “naw. Naw, that’s for you. We got you now, don’t worry. We got you.”

I go inside and lie down very softly, hearing the wind rustle past the birds perched in the lemon tree, my heart beating, quiet but alive, beautiful but barren.