Every second of the drive to California for summer vacation feels heavy, weighted down just like our car, packed tight with the six of us, suitcases stretching at their zippers, and the big cooler stuffed full of snacks. Dad drives the station wagon along cool mountain passes, past Lake Shasta, and into a desert valley where the sky is clear and the hot sun pounds through the windows. There is nothing to see except hills that look like blankets thrown over sleeping giants. I watch for something to change, but nothing has looked different for hours.
We play games to keep busy. We look for license plates from all 50 states and have 36 so far; even Hawaii and Alaska, the ones we thought would be the toughest. We play the alphabet game so many times we don’t want to play anymore. Mom made us stop playing slug bug when we were still in Oregon.
Mitch sleeps in the way back, and Chet, Laura, and I sit in the backseat trying not to touch one another’s sticky, sweaty bodies. I’m hungry but Mitch ate all the Ritz crackers.
Chet keeps farting and laughing. Laura rolls down the window, to get rid of the smell, and sticks her pillowcase in the window for shade.
When we start climbing the Grapevine, Dad has to turn off the air conditioning. I try not to think about the heat and picture those California Raisins singing “I heard it through the grapevine,” but I think this grapevine is supposed to be an actual grapevine and not a bunch of people telling stories that get messed up like when you play telephone.
The sun falls behind the hills, and cars speed across eight freeway lanes. I’ve never seen so many cars, and I can’t check all of the license plates to see which states they’re from. We pass Magic Mountain’s huge roller coasters reaching into the blue sky, and Chet asks if we can go on those rides, but Mom says we’re too close to Aunt Bev’s to stop now. We’re too close, and the car sags with the weight.
We change freeways and exit in Chatsworth where we’ll stay with Aunt Bev, Mom’s older sister. We pull up to her house and park next to several cars already there on the lawn. I step out of the car, my legs unsteady from sitting for so long. I stretch and stumble toward the front door where Aunt Bev waits to hug us. The sun has set, but the air is heavy and hot.
Our cousins Marc, Scott, and Traci wait inside where it smells like cigarettes and animals. All of the doors and windows are flung open begging a breeze to pull in off the ocean and cool things down for the evening. Craigor, who used to live with us, watches the Dodger game in the dark of the living room.
Chet and Mitch join Marc, Scott, and Craigor in the glow of the TV. Marc tells Traci to get him a soda from the fridge. I follow Traci into the kitchen, and then we go outside with Laura to play with the dogs. Traci talks about her horses up at the ranch, and I dream of riding with her someday.
The next day, Aunt Bobbie and Aunt Patty come over and the weather gets even hotter. Aunt Patty brings her two kids, Sean, who looks like a surfer, and Michelle, who looks like a real valley girl. Sometimes Mom calls me Patti because Aunt Patti is her baby sister and I’m the baby in our family.
Stories bounce and rattle around the living room, and I can’t tell Mom’s voice from her sisters’. They talk about Grandpa’s health, Grandma’s heart; the new apartment in Encino. I struggle to match names to faces like I can on Dad’s side of the family, but we don’t see Mom’s side every year like we do with the Nakadas. On Mom’s side of the family it’s Aunt Bev, Aunt Patty, Aunt Bobbie and never Auntie Grace or Auntie Jo or Auntie Ginny like on Dad’s side. But that’s not the only difference.
Mom and Dad let us do things at Aunt Bev’s that they never let us do at home. We stay up late, drink soda, and watch rated R movies. In California the rules from home are gone. In this house anything goes.
Marc’s girlfriend comes over to watch movies, and she has long blonde hair just like you’d think a girl from California would. All my cousins look like that, blonde hair and tan, even in the winter. Chet and our cousins laugh at the jokes in Repo Man that I don’t get, and Laura glares at the screen, so I figure the jokes must be dirty.
I have no idea what’s happening in the movie, so I go to the bathroom. I sit on the padded toilet seat, wash my hands with the little pink soap, and then gaze into the mirror. I run my fingers through my long brown hair, lighter from long summer days and hours in the pool, but there’s not a streak of blonde. I smile and catch a glimpse of my mother, maybe Aunt Patty or Traci in the reflection. Someone knocks on the door and Traci pushes the door open and washes her hands at the sink. In the mirror Traci’s straight blonde hair turns mine even darker, and any resemblance I’d imagined a moment ago fades away. I sneak past Traci out of the bright light of the bathroom and disappear into the dark family room.
Aunt Bev drinks beer and smokes. Mom and Dad never drink or smoke. Never. Never a glass of wine at dinner. Never a beer with pizza. Mom and Dad don’t smoke. Not cigarettes like Aunt Bev, Grandma and Grandpa. Not cloves like Marc. Dad used to be an alcoholic and Mom told him if he got drunk again she’d leave him. Dad never drank again. Mom used to smoke, but when Dad refused to buy her another pack, she quit cold turkey.
We go to the beach the next day, and I walk with Laura and Traci to the playground. They play on the only two swings, and their laughter floats on the salty air. They talk with one another and ignore me, so I decide to head back.
I look for the green umbrella where Mom, Dad, and the rest of the family are, but all of the people blend together. The hot sand burns my feet as I search the crowded beach, but I can’t find them. I start to cry, and I’m not sure if it’s because my sister didn’t care that I left, or because I’m lost. I start planning to walk back to Oregon even though I can’t remember all of the freeways. I’ll walk up the coast and then head east.
A woman in a purple bathing suit sees me crying. She takes me to a lifeguard, and I climb up the tower to look for my family. I still don’t see them. The lifeguard makes some calls, and I sit on the edge of the lifeguard stand waiting. My legs dangle above the crowd, the sand, and the sea.
Mom picks me up. She has to drive because I walked so far. Laura and Traci get in trouble for letting me wander off by myself, but I don’t care. At least I won’t have to walk all the way to Oregon.
Marc and Scott take us to Disneyland. It’s hot. The lines are long and my legs are tired from all that walking at the beach. We stand in line at The Haunted Mansion, Matterhorn and Space Mountain, and I don’t even see Small World. That’s the only ride I remember from my last trip to Disneyland.
On our last night in California, Aunt Bobbie and Uncle Lyle, Aunt Patty and Uncle Lynn, Grandma and Grandpa, Great Uncle Al and Great Aunt Marian come over, and then, because we don’t have time to drive into the city, Uncle Steve and Auntie Jo, Uncle Yosh and Auntie Suma, Uncle Sat and Auntie Grace come over too. The cigarettes and beer cans of Mom’s family collide with the Hawaiian shortbread cookies and senbei crackers of Dad’s family.
Uncle Sat and Uncle Yosh play poker with Grandpa and Uncle Al. My aunties take over Aunt Bev’s kitchen just like they do when they come to our house, but instead of being annoyed like Mom gets, Aunt Bev seems grateful. The boys watch the Dodger game and play wiffle ball in the backyard while Traci and Laura flip through magazines with pictures of Ricky Schroeder and Menudo.
A collision of white and brown, blonde and black flows from the house onto metal folding chairs and plastic lawn furniture on the patio. Chet, Laura, Mitch, and I occupy a strange space somewhere in the middle. We play with the dogs, watch TV, and move in and out of conversations between Mom and Dad’s two worlds.
The heat wave breaks sending a cool breeze through the valley. I watch games played at portable card tables and listen to tales from both families of jobs and layoffs, sports and movies, but never a word about politics or religion. I remember from that first Christmas Dad’s family came, when we still lived in the house on Shepard Road, that we don’t talk about differences. No one mentions that Mitch is adopted, that Chet, Laura, and I are neither white nor Asian, but something in between, or that none of Mom’s sisters went to college and all of Dad’s brothers did. No one says anything about Mom being ten years younger than Dad, so that during World War II, while Dad’s brothers fought overseas and the rest of the family withered away in interments camp, Mom and her sisters played hopscotch. In this backyard, there are too many differences to mention.
I lie on a plastic lounge chair in the backyard and look up at the night sky. I watch for falling stars, but they hide behind the bright lights of the city. Every so often I hear Mom’s laugh or Dad’s deep chuckle weaving between the voices of their families.
I used to wonder why Mom and Dad moved away from LA, away from both of their families to a distant place where the stars don’t hide in the lights of a city. I didn’t know why they would want to start over in a mountain town where no one knew them or their two very different worlds. On a summer evening, deep in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, I begin to understand my parents’ decision.
Tomorrow we’ll get in the car and drive away from the weight of this city, leaving behind the heat and brown skies. We’ll pull away from this house; pass by forests, mountains and lakes until we reach the thin, light air of Central Oregon.
In Bend, Mom and Dad found a place where they could create their own family. In Bend, we know who we are.
Noriko Nakada writes, blogs, tweets, parents, and teaches middle school in Los Angeles. She is committed to writing thought-provoking creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. Publications include the Through Eyes Like Mine memoir series. Excerpts, essays, and poetry have been published in Kartika, Catapult, Meridian, Compose, Hippocampus, and Linden Avenue.