Sheree La Puma
It is 1972 and “M.A.S.H.” debuts on TV. “The Godfather” wins three Oscars, and Time Inc. transmits “HBO,” the first pay cable network. Scandals/Anti War Demonstrations/Assassination Attempts/Watergate: conflicts loom both here and abroad. It is the year the U.S. Supreme Court rules the death penalty unconstitutional. The year Terrorists massacre 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.
All this is but a petal in my life. My flower is yet to bloom. I am ten years old. My bike is red, a Schwinn Stingray. My shoes are blue, Keds. I am peddling, crying, trying to get back home. Youth and longing ineffective, I can’t break through the sandpaper line. It whips me back and stings my eyes. This is all I remember of 1972.
I grew up in Huntington Harbour. A man-made appendage of HB. Marshlands molded into islands, miniature replicas of the real thing. Yet, the houses are not miniature. They are so overbuilt that the “islands” seem to disappear, but it’s not about land. It’s about water. Murky green/blue channels leading out to the ocean/freedom. For my parents, even this, the Pacific, is not enough. We spend weekends in Palm Springs, at our 2nd home. My parents sip martinis and listen to Andy Williams on the phonograph. Outside, I explore the sand dunes. Life is a perfect oval. I expect nothing more. I have dirt under my fingernails and tumbleweeds in my hair.
In 1972, I began to collect: rocks, golf balls, crickets, people, experiences. At five, I stand on the Bermuda lawn and call out to my best friend Chris, who is riding his bent frame bike. He doesn't care about stuff. “Can I come too?” I shout.
Chris is smart, funny, a fair-skinned kid in town that idolizes bronzed bodies. He makes me smile. That morning, when I am five, I hop around like a lunatic, barefoot, with red ants nipping at my toes. I hate red ants. I don’t need a response. He lets me tag along. Our favorite past time is capturing crickets with a coffee can. I catch dozens. They chirp frantically, try to escape by launching themselves against the plastic lid. They remind me of Mexican jumping beans. I giggle and bring them to my parents. Not amused, they shoo me out. It won't be the last time I'm kicked out of a home. The oval cracks slightly.
I learn about freedom and sorrow in the desert. It is the place my cat, Midnight, dies. The place my dog, Shaggy Maggie, gives birth to five puppies, a place of wonder and contradictions. It is also the place Chris dies, at the age of eleven, from diabetes. I’d never heard that word before. I put it on a list. My mom says his parents thought, “he had the flu.” I remember thinking how could anyone so smart have parents that dumb. I am mad! I throw my Bible in the trash and say, “If there’s a God, you take this bible out of the trash.” No one ever does, and I know from that day on that there is no God, just life, death and the desert.
Everything about the landscape soothes me. I lie on a chair and bake in the sun, listen to the birds, the sounds of sprinklers clicking ‘round and ‘round. I am never afraid, never, not even when the earthquake sloshes water out of my neighbor’s pool. Nothing can crush me here.
I am eight when I make this list, a list of good things in the desert.
These are the things I hate.
We have that one home my entire childhood; it is the one constant in my life, a stabilizing influence. When I turn 18, my parents no longer feel the need to escape. Soon, a new family inhabits the old familiar space.
I drive by the house every few years. It is shabby and old now; nothing like I remember as a child, and I realize that I am trying to hold on to something that never belonged to me in the first place. The desert is constantly evolving, tearing down, erasing memories. Then out of the dust, it births something new. You see it in the blooms rising up and out of the barren landscape.
About the Author: Sheree La Puma is an award-winning writer whose personal essays, fiction and poetry appeared in such publications as the Burningword Literary Journal, I-70 Review, Mad Swirl, and Ginosko Literary Review, among others. She received an MFA in Writing from California Institute of the Arts and attended workshops with poet Louise Mathias and writer Lidia Yuknavitch. She has taught poetry to former gang members and theater to teen runaways. Born in Los Angeles, she now resides in Valencia, CA with her rescues, Bello cat and Jack, the dog.