Being a Valley Girl
Creative Nonfiction Essay
first appeared in Weave Magazine, Issue 8, www.weavemagazine.net
The first day you move to the San Fernando Valley, you are 11 years old and it’s 98 degrees in the shade. The Beatles are touring California and you and your sister are obsessed with catching a glimpse of them even though the closest they get to your house is the Hollywood Bowl, which might as well be the moon. Notice that your new house has a swimming pool.
It will not matter that your swimsuit hasn’t arrived in the moving truck, since it is a one-piece. Now you live at the western edge of Los Angeles, and it is 1966. Learn from your new next-door neighbor that everyone wears bikinis. You must buy a bikini immediately, like yesterday.
For the time being, plunge into the rectangular, aquamarine pool. Savor a delirium of total bliss. When a stranger arrives, calling “Yoo-hoo,” from the other side of the six-foot-high wooden fence, you and your sisters and your mom are swimming in what your grandmother would call your unmentionables. Get used to surprises. This is the 1960s, California-style.
This stranger is your milkman. He introduces himself from the far side of the fence and offers your mom an ice-cold quart of chocolate milk as a “welcome to the neighborhood” gift. Your mom—who wraps a plaid Pendleton blanket around her wet, underwear-clad torso—places her first order. The milkman promises twice-a-week deliveries. It will become your chore to leave the empty glass bottles on the back porch every night after washing the dinner dishes.
Discover that your milkman is not an ordinary guy. His son is a rock’n roll and TV star, and the milkman brings you and your sisters autographed record albums. Be polite, but aloof. Say thank you. Wonder about whether his son looks groovier in person than he does on the Monkees TV show.
Stop drinking chocolate milk when you turn thirteen, because it causes zits.
You want to listen to the Beatles and the Beach Boys and the Stones on your transistor radio but your mom hates the noise. She likes Nancy Sinatra. Your dad is rarely home and when he is, he thinks the Beatles are what you’re afraid of in the back yard. Your youngest sister runs around the house shrieking beetles beetles beetles we want the beetles. She’s only five but you appreciate her being on your side just this once.
When you really like something, say it is groovy, or trippy, or far out. Do not use the word bitchin’ because boys and lowrider chicks use that word. Your mom says that bitch is a female dog, and bitchin’ is vulgar. Whatever, you hate that word, so you just say: cool. When something is uncool, you say messed up, or totally out there.
Become a teenager almost overnight, although it actually takes a few years.
When you turn 15, practice for your driver’s license. In the meantime, be friends with someone who has one, so you can get rides to the beach, the movies, miniature golf or the shopping mall. Whatever, wherever. Actually, it’s groovy if you hate the mall, which you probably will. Pretend you like it so you will not be considered a Freak of Nature.
Start a diary. Hide it well. Turn down a hit of acid at the school dance. Sneak outside the gym with friends and smoke a cigarette just to be cool. It tastes like barf. Make friends with the family from Czechoslovakia who lives next door. Wonder what communism is, and why it’s so evil. Listen to more and more news about the war in Vietnam and be glad you’re a girl so you will never get drafted.
When it rains that winter, zillions of tiny green frogs arrive in your swimming pool. Use the aquamarine pool net to splash them out, so they won’t get sucked into the filter system. Wonder where the frogs survive during the 99 percent of the time when it doesn’t rain. Listen to the way the primitive creatures sing and croak all night long. Let it remind you of Woodstock, what you saw on TV, where thousands of people were gathered together in rain and mud to be naked and make music.
Listen to epic tales about Van Nuys Boulevard, ten miles from your house, where the so-called popular kids cruise on Thursday and Friday nights in an assortment of VW bugs, vans, Harleys, hotrods, or lowriders. You will never be given permission to go there, with anyone, under any circumstances.
Learn how to lie. Say you are going to a movie but go with your best friend, Laura, to the free clinic on a side street just off Van Nuys Blvd. Translation: The free clinic is the place you go if you’re a drug addict or afraid of being pregnant. The way you hint about this is to say in trouble. But it’s not you, it’s your best friend, who whispers, I should never have fucked him.
Cross your fingers that nobody sees you in the free clinic. You want to be at Bob’s Big Boy where the cool crowd hangs. You do not want to be seen at the Free Clinic.
However, someone you know is there when you walk in. Wonder why your junior high math teacher sits in the waiting room. Worry he might remember you or Laura from algebra three years ago. Notice that he is reading a tattered copy of Time Magazine with war jets and Nixon’s face on the cover. Imagine all the reasons why such a straight looking old dude might be at the free clinic. Pretend you don’t see him.
Hold your friend and let her cry when her test is positive. Translation: she is pregnant, or as your grandmother whispers: expecting. As your parents would translate: in deep shit trouble. Keep her secret. Don’t judge your friend for the choices she makes during the next two weeks.
If the boy you like from the baseball team asks you out, be glad that he is really busy with spring practice; he does not want to cruise Van Nuys Boulevard. Your memory of that place will always remain gnarly, in the bad way, like a wave that crushed you with grit and fear.
If you luck out, the tall guy you thought you would never like, but then change your mind about will drive you to Malibu, or Zuma, to surf. Even though you are tempted to give in to primitive mating urges, and are absolutely crazy in a zillion directions whenever you are near him, don’t be in a hurry to go all the way. Since he lives five towns over and goes to a different school, you don’t get to see each other that often. Become addicted to a feeling of longing and unexplained situation of being existentially and eternally lonely. Even though you feel lonely, going to the mall where crowds of people are only makes it worse. So, stay home a lot and work on your tan in a contest with the sisters next door. Be happy when your friend drives out and spends one entire Saturday hanging out in the pool, impressing your friends with his double flip dives.
Try not to trip out too badly when he moves back to Hawaii to live with his dad, and you never see him again. Restrain yourself from slugging your younger sister when she grins and says in a weirdly jealous way: bummer. Bummer in the summer. Be glad that at least you won’t end up at the Free Clinic waiting for test results.
Your once-best-friend Laura wouldn’t be there for you either, since she graduated already and moved away to college.
Find a way to survive that last year of high school. Try to understand when your tennis partner talks on and on in a dreamy voice about letters she gets from her fiancée who is deployed in Nam. Bury yourself in school, because you want to go away to college, not end up working in the local KFC like another former best friend is happy to do. According to what you learn in biology, some creatures do fail to adapt to their habitat. These individuals either evolve, migrate onward, or die. Your classmates will begin to distinguish themselves as adapters, wanderers, or fatalities.
Try to understand the motivation of a perfectly beautiful guy named Brad, who, after school one day, suffocates while getting high from an unidentified aerosol substance. History might describe Brad’s life as either struggle to adapt, desire to wander—as in: head-trip—or as a tragic fatality. Because he did drugs.
Each afternoon after school, suspend your ordinary pedestrian life and plunge into a place where all the rules are different, beyond groovy. Float, immersed in chlorinated, crystal clear pool water. Become a strong swimmer. Imagine how to escape the asphalt, suburban, mall-infested universe. Underwater you hear only bubbles, the pounding of a heartbeat that you think may be connected to others from your lost and wandering tribe. Wonder about where the freeways end; dream about what path you will take to leave The Valley.