Maya had won a housing lottery for local artists. The prize was a rent-subsidized live/work loft in a refurbished iron foundry. The building was a mile from the West Oakland BART station, on a deserted, desolate road flanked by gutted factories and barbed wire fences.
She was a paralegal at a large San Francisco law firm named Taylor, Gottlieb and Manger —They'll Get You Then Maim You, she liked to call it, because of the backbreaking hours she had to work just so she and her son Zach could afford to live in the city. It was the last place she had expected to end up. She didn't get an MFA from Bard, she often told herself, just to calcify in some beige cubicle, even if it did have panoramic views. Though the high cost of living in the Bay Area made it impossible for her to quit that job altogether, the lower monthly rent at the Oakland loft would at least allow her to cut back her hours and spend more time on art.
Her friends from Taylor were horrified that she would even consider leaving her comfortable apartment in the outer Sunset for such a dodgy area and turned their weekly happy hour into an intervention.
"Yeah, Oakland's hot," Aaron said, "but not the part you want to move to. Stick to downtown and Jack London Square. I wouldn't set foot anywhere west of MLK. And don't even get me started on Fruitvale."
"Sweetie," Jules said, taking Maya's martini-chilled hand, "a warehouse with a water view doesn't make it TriBeCa."
"And what about Zach?" Renata added. "You can't just pull him out Lowell during his junior year. Do you know how many parents would kill to get their kids into that school? Isn't that why you moved to the city in the first place? Use your head, Baby Girl!"
Renata took a swig of her vodka stinger and stared Maya down. She was the firm's most senior paralegal and had a reputation for micromanaging the private lives of her direct reports as aggressively as their cases. She was just a famous for her long string of ex-girlfriends: all cropped redheads in short baby doll dresses with the soft, smooth features of a prepubescent boy. All pale versions of Maya. Renata usually came to happy hour swaddling her latest conquest but tonight she arrived alone.
"Zach could still go to Lowell," Maya said. "All the district needs is a San Francisco address." She paused and gently rested her finger on the dimple above Renata's lips. "Care to be my co-conspirator?"#
Zach had become an expert at doctoring boxed macaroni and cheese and was ransacking the cupboard and refrigerator for any odd scraps he could toss into the bowl he was making for dinner. He settled on chopped tomatoes, a tin of corned beef, and some whole grain mustard: his riff on a Reuben.
Since his mother wasn't home yet, he plopped in front of the computer and surfed the Web while he ate. He checked tennis scores, browsed used bikes on craigslist, and read an article on the Iraq War for AP US History before logging onto cruisingforsex.com, a Web site his best friend Reese had told him about earlier that day at school. The site billed itself as "The definitive online guide to the hottest cruising grounds in the continental U.S." All members had to do was type in a zip code and click submit to launch an interactive map displaying hotspots within a one mile radius.
Zach typed in 94122 and watched a dozen red dots sprout from a map of the Sunset. Like an outbreak of zits, he thought. He was surprised that there were so many. He knew about the reservoir on 34th Avenue and the fourth floor study lounge at the UCSF library. But the bathroom at the Safeway on Noriega? The windmills at the western edge of Golden Gate Park?
He typed in 94607. The unblemished map of industrial West Oakland confirmed his suspicion that the area was a wasteland, that his life would be over if he and his mother moved.
He grabbed a can of soda from the refrigerator and typed in 94132 for the area around Lowell High School. Dot after dot popped up onscreen, mostly around Lake Merced and Fort Funston. He felt a thrill when he saw that one of the spots was right at the edge of campus, in a wooded lot abutting Stonestown Galleria. He pulled out his cell phone and called Reese.
"Did you know about Rolph Nicol Field?"
"Uh huh," Reese said. "I've been there."
"Slut. You shouldn't mess around in your own backyard. During school?"
"Yeah. With some guy who worked at the food court in the mall. His dick had a major bend to the left. Like a thirty degree angle."
"That rules out a lot of possibilities," Zach said.
"Good thing I'm versatile," Reese replied.
Zach took the congealing bowl of pasta to the kitchen, scraped it into the garbage disposal, and began cleaning up. "Did you talk to your parents about Oakland yet? I'm counting on you to poison them against the move." He was sure his mother would ask Reese's parents if she could use their address. They were her oldest friends in the city, had helped her find a job and an apartment when she finally decided to leave that leaky, one-room cabin in Ukiah so that Zach could go to Lowell.
"Yeah, don't worry, Z. They think it's a bad idea. Not the move necessarily. They're really into Oakland, think it's so hard core. But they're against lying to the district. You'd be expelled if anyone ever found out." Reese yawned. "Happy Doughnuts?"
"It's almost eleven."
"I still have to write that paper on deregulation for Econ," Reese yawned again, "and need some sugar."
"I'll pass tonight," Zach said. He finished washing the dishes and sat back down in front of the computer. His mother would be home any minute, and there were at least half a dozen zip codes he still wanted to look up.#
Maya got off the N at 48th and Judah and slowly walked the five blocks home. She had grown to love the outer Sunset, especially at night when the fog rolled in from the Pacific and shrouded the streets in a moody, ethereal glow. The neighborhood became almost glamorous, like a film noir set, full of shadows and silvery light, nothing like its daytime incarnation of salt-corroded row houses and concretized lawns.
She would miss living in the area, but was eager to move to the East Bay. She had been exploring Oakland on the weekends and had seen all of the signs of a city in transition. There was the Fox, a beautiful art deco theater in the middle of renovation. It would soon house Oakland's School of the Arts and anchor a new performing arts district. Loft conversions with names like Dwell, Eight Orchids, and Mutual Creamery were cropping up on every other block. The most exciting changes were on Telegraph, once the toughest street in downtown. It had morphed into a bona fide cultural hub, lined with cafes and important galleries. Maya stepped into what she had hoped was an undiscovered Korean dive only to find that half the diners were tattooed art kids carrying Timbuk2 messenger bags and chrome Pina Zangaro portfolios.
She knew most of this activity was miles from her patch of West Oakland — her friends had reminded her enough during happy hour — but that didn't matter; she had lived in rough neighborhoods before. When she was at Cooper Union, she had ignored her parents' warnings and had rented an apartment in Crown Heights. The building was once a limestone mansion, but by the time she moved in, its all of its grand rooms had been carved into a maze of SROs. The only working electrical outlets were on the first floor so that anyone who lived above had to snake extension chords down an airshaft to a row of surge protectors in the lobby. Despite the puddles of vomit and urine on the front stoop, the drug dealing neighbors, the frequent stabbings on her block, she had survived. West Oakland would be a cakewalk.
Besides, she wasn't moving to be surrounded by the hottest restaurants and galleries, to be in the middle of all the action. She was a forty year old paralegal! With a sixteen year old son! How cutting edge! Or worse, because she saw herself as some enlightened incubator leading the revitalization of a burned out district. She was moving to rededicate herself to art. She knew how ridiculous and flaky this sounded to her friends in the city; they thought she was making a reckless decision for nothing more than a hobby. But she didn't know how to explain it to them in a way that they could understand.
How could she tell them that her life had gotten smaller and smaller since she moved to San Francisco? She didn't regret leaving Ukiah. To keep Zach in a rural school system that was failing him, to continue chasing grants and fellowships that enhanced her CV but barely kept them above the poverty line, would have been unfair. But the sheer expense of living in the city had forced her to make certain choices, to set aside her ambitions and aspirations, her vision of the person she wanted to be, always thought she would be. And that had gnawed at her.
As a young artist, she had produced works that were operatic in scale. Billboards splattered with buckets of paint in a wind tunnel. A flock of seagulls suspended in polyurethane. She had ruled over gallery openings and cocktail parties where she drank and smoked too much and talked all night about Tokyo street wear and Nan Goldin. But in the last few years, she hadn't produced enough work for even one show. The only project she had been able to complete was a series of tiny paintings, each no larger than a postage stamp. She painted these obsessive compulsive little works with filaments of mink glued to the end of a toothpick, hunched at the kitchen table, squinting through a magnifying visor. Each canvas crammed with swarming microscopic insects.
But a square the size of a postage stamp couldn't contain all of her ambitions and aspirations. They had a life of their own and swarmed around her, buzzed in her ear and stung. She needed to move to preserve her sanity. Moving had begun to feel like a categorical imperative.#
She was cold and damp from walking through the fog and was glad the heater was on when she got home. She took off her coat and threw it on the couch. Zach was typing on the computer but quickly closed out of whatever he had been looking at. She smiled to herself. Did he really think she cared whether he looked at porn?
He had changed so much in the last six months, had become gangly and big footed, clumsy around doorways and tables. He wore his hair long and floppy, a deflated Mohawk that lifted jauntily each time he turned his head. Most of his baby fat was gone, and his face was becoming more and more like his father's: pleasingly asymmetrical with one eyebrow arched higher than the other, giving him a look of irony or whimsy, depending on the context. She hugged him from behind and wetly kissed the back of his neck.
"Your hands are cold and you smell like alcohol," he said.
"Well hello to you too." She didn't loosen her embrace. "It's all worked out. We're moving."
"No we aren't because Reese's parents would never let you use their address."
"Doesn't matter." She felt his body tense. "It's all right. You won't have to change schools. We can use Renata's."
He pushed her away with his elbows and stood up. "Did you have to fuck her to get it?"
She wanted to slap him but instead balled her hand into a tight fist and shoved it into her hip. She loved Zach more than anything, an intense, clutching kind of love. But recently, she had noticed a hairline fracture in that love. It wasn't hate, exactly. She could never hate him. But maybe resentment? And probably not even at him, but at being a single mother in one of the most expensive cities in the country. At earning a $60,000 a year base salary and still feeling like she needed to work at least 20 hours a week in overtime just so they could get by. At being in a job where she was fetishized, infantilized as the quirky, artsy girl who was really great with Photoshop and Powerpoint.
"That was an ugly, ugly thing to say," she said. "Apologize."
"For what?" he said. "For what?" He went to his room and slammed the door.#
Where did she want to go? Where would she take him? Zach paced his room, threw himself hard against the bed, jumped back up, then paced again, trying to sort the jumble inside his head. The thought of moving filled him with rage, made him want to cry. He hated his mother, everything about her. Her selfish, stupid ideas about what her life should be like. Because that's what the move was all about. She had probably gotten the idea that she had been too happy in San Francisco, that it was boring to be so stable, with a real job, a nice apartment, weekly trips to the mall and the grocery store, and a big circle of friends filled people with other than himself. She wasn't suffering enough. She wasn't tortured enough. She didn't have enough time for self-cultivation. Her friends didn't understand her. She was an artist with a capital A.
Where was she taking him? He had his own life in the city, a life wholly apart from the one they shared. Friends. School. Sex. He would be stuck in Oakland. They didn't own a car. And even if they did it wouldn't matter because he would never be able to drive with his bad vision. He would be completely cut off, like that summer they spent in the Utah desert when she worked on a light installation in the caves. No one to talk to but each other. Cocooned in longing and loneliness.
Where was she still trying to go? She complained that no one in the city took her seriously, that her new friends didn't have the background in art and critical theory to understand what she had accomplished. He hated the way she talked around other people, the way she tried to steer the conversation by dropping hints about her former, more glamorous life: When I was growing up in Malibu . . . While I was at Cooper Union . . . On my Fulbright year in Paris . . . During the student shows at Bard . . . Suzy Bright said . . . Naomi Klein . . . Eleanor Antin . . .
But what was so horrible about their life in the city that made her want to leave? What was still missing? Where was she taking him? He needed to get out of the house, out of the cocoon she was weaving around them again. He called Reese. "Did you go to Happy Doughnuts yet?"
"No," he said. "Come with?"
"Yeah. I'll meet you in front of our building. Don't come up."
He put on his Lowell Tennis sweatshirt and his sneakers. His mother had never left the living room. She was sitting on the couch with the lights turned off, watching the traffic speed along the Great Highway. She was still wearing her work clothes, but had taken her shoes off and had wrapped herself in an alpaca blanket. He could tell she had been crying.
Before they moved to the city, he often found her like this, blankly staring out the window. There was only one way to bring her back. Pull her gently toward him, let her lean into his arms, his body. And so he did that now. He kept a photo of his parents on his nightstand, taken in the kitchen of their Brooklyn apartment, if you could call a room without a sink or a stove, just a teak credenza with a hotplate on it, a kitchen. His mother was sitting on the credenza, heavily pregnant, looking at Brendan, his father. She was twenty-three, but still seemed like a child herself, a messy, unkempt child with dirty fingernails playing dress up in her grandmother's clothes. Zach knew his unkindness had a deep, wounding effect on her. Where did this power come from? Each time he looked in the mirror, his face seemed more and more like his father's, and he often wondered how much of Brendan she saw in his own words and gestures.
Zach held her until he heard Reese's car pull into the driveway. What else could he do? She smelled like alcohol, oily unwashed hair and cover up, and something inside him wanted to push her away violently, rid himself of her need, but he couldn't because he had hurt her and felt responsible for her.
"I'm sorry," he said. As he stood up, the apartment suddenly seemed so small, and it was as if they were back at that one-room cabin in Ukiah, where as a child he had listened to her deep breaths while she slept and had tried to make the rhythm of his own inhales and exhales match hers. He felt dizzy and sat back down.
"Are you ok?"
"I'm sorry," he said again. "But wherever it is you still have to go, could you just leave me behind this time?"#
In the car, Zach let Reese hold him until he finished crying. After Reese drove him back home, he didn't go up to the apartment. He walked to the windmills at the western edge of Golden Gate Park, and when someone pulled up and asked if he wanted a ride, he said yes, without knowing where.