The last time I left Edgecliffe for a few days, I heard that Mina—our landlord—had danced naked on the lawn until the squad cars came. Rebel calls her the whale. It took six men to get her decently covered. I was sorry I’d missed it.
I’d handed Rebel my key and taken the bus to Las Vegas for a week, to avoid the family phone calls and holiday invitations. Christmas at the casinos is just another business day: colored lights, free drinks, money changing hands with no thanks and no regrets. That’s what I like about it. I’m not the daughter my parents would have chosen of their own free will.
They wouldn’t like to imagine me at the Flamingo, running my fingers along red felt, wearing the outfit my mother sent for an interview at Universal Studios: a tweed skirt cut above the knee, a white cotton blouse with bone buttons, an open tweed vest. Rebel calls them my gal Friday duds—I wear them to blend in, like camouflage.
I didn’t get that job, but the producer did offer me some freelance work, reading scripts for fifty dollars apiece. I mope through six or seven a week, and keep my overhead low. When I’m on vacation I don’t gamble. I eat midnight breakfasts, take in the free lounge acts, sit placidly at the slots until a waitress brings me a drink.
I’d told Rebel that, for me, Las Vegas is a relief from everything unexplainable in Los Angeles, an oasis of convention. We were sitting on the steps outside Edgecliffe, and he was talking about Christmas dinner at his aunt’s in Gardena, about smoked ham and candied sweet potatoes. The streetlamps wept a soft light which glistened on our bare knees. I imagined from the way his tongue moistened his lower lip that Rebel wanted either to kiss me or invite me to Gardena. That’s when I thought of leaving town.
“Would you do me a favor,” I asked him, “and feed Sam while I’m gone?”
“Feed the cat,” Rebel said. “That’s it?” He leaned back on his elbows and stared into the street.
“I’m taking the bus first thing in the morning,” I said. “Do you want the keys now?”
“Sure,” he said, holding out his palm. “I may sleep in tomorrow.”
Rebel says Las Vegas is a bore, and that I must be easily entertained. Ordinarily, everyone in the casino looks the same to me, and I try to look like them. I appreciate that. But on this last trip, a Chinese security guard counting quarters reminded me of my father, and a fat woman at the poolside keno looked like Mina, and a gray tabby crunching chicken bones by the dumpster could’ve been my cat Sam—except that Sam doesn’t have a tail.
The guard had rolled his sleeves over his forearms. His veins ran blue as he hefted four sacks of quarters onto the pay counter. The woman who’d hit the jackpot smeared his cheeks and forehead with the print of her lips.
“I did it,” she sang, drumming her fists on his broad shoulders, which were not at all like my father’s thin-skinned bones.
Moving closer, I saw that his face seemed more Tahitian than Chinese.
He looked as unrelated to my father as I do.
My father was a librarian in Hong Kong; my mother a Calvinist missionary. The way they tell it, the story of their meeting has all the romance of a penny poker game. My mother was haggling over fish—she can’t remember now whether it was bluefish or butterfish—when a stranger intervened. He had to duck his head to enter the shop, and his eyes held my mother’s on a level she had grown unaccustomed to in China. At this point in the story they both smile. “Sparks flew,” says my mother confidentially, while my father shakes his head: “No,” he says, his eyes half-closed, remembering, “it was more like electricity.”
After some debate, my father convinced the fishmonger to knock a couple cents off the price. He offered my mother his recipe for fish-head soup, and she accepted it.
My parents are the same height; they can wear each other’s clothes. Although my mother is Scottish and my father Chinese, they look like a couple, like two children grown old together. I resemble neither of them. I am even taller, too tall to disappear comfortably in a crowd. My face lacks the clear imprint of race, and draws stares from men who like to categorize beauty. There is nothing wrong with my vision, but I wear glasses.
Rebel—that’s his given name—says I should try contact lenses instead. “If you want to be discovered,” he says, “you have to expose your cheekbones.”
“I don’t want exposure,” I told him, pushing the frames high on the bridge of my nose. “All I want are the comforts of home.”
Rebel moved to Los Angeles from somewhere in Tennessee and passed the California real estate exam on his first try. He works for an outfit in Santa Monica called Backyard Reality. They don’t just sell homes, they make them happen—or at least that’s what they claim in the yellow pages. Rebel specializes in run-down bungalows. He calls them tin-bins, pest-nests, love-hovels.
Rebel’s coffee-colored skin blackens in the sun. He wears Bermuda shorts and starched white shirts to work, rubs his calves and forearms with baby oil until they glisten. He says he’ll do almost anything to sell a house: paint, plaster, or pose. He doesn’t understand my desire to keep a low profile. I asked him once what he did with his commissions. He looked at me like I had just asked for a twenty-dollar bill.
“She-it,” he said, in his best imitation cracker. “Don’t we all have to pay the rent?”
We call it Edgecliffe, but the building doesn’t really have a name. It’s the sort of nondescript stucco fourplex with a red tile roof that clutters half the town. Rebel and the landlord live in the first-floor apartments. I have the second floor on the right—and the best view, since the windows on Prissa’s side are obscured by a poinsettia tree. I had always known poinsettias as houseplants, but here they grow to the size of dogwoods or crabapples. The four of us live on the edge of something—Rebel says its either insanity or indiscretion. “Instead of Edgecliffe,” he says, “we should call our building ‘Tottering-on-the-Brink.’ ”
Our street runs up a hill overlooking Sunset Boulevard and the hollywood sign. A couple of weeks before Christmas, all the private homeowners festooned their eaves and porches with lights. Mina never decorates our place, and it’s become a sore point in the neighborhood.
“I’m not the type,” Mina says, and I don’t doubt it. She watches television most of the day from the comfort of her king-sized waterbed. She doesn’t mow the lawn, trim the hedges, or raise a flag on the Fourth. “What I do on my property is nobody’s business,” she says.
Rebel and I take turns tending the grass, keeping up appearances, while our neighbor across the street—Mrs. Valdes—watches her grandchildren run up and down the hill to the grade school on Sunset. Her house boasts a wide front porch and a pair of driveways. Both she and her son-in-law drive white German station wagons. At night the two cars guard the house like polished idols. Just before I left for Las Vegas, I pruned the poinsettia and raked up the palm fronds which had withered and fallen by the curb. Although an hour of hazy daylight remained, Mrs. Valdes had switched on her Christmas display. She sat nodding in a wicker chair, the bulbs winking dimly around her.
I couldn’t tell if she was nodding with approval or with disdain. Even at the Flamingo, I could still feel her eyes on me. I spent the days between Christmas and New Year’s napping by the indoor pool, wrapped in a towel. The woman who reminded me of Mina wore a swimsuit stitched from some flimsy material that clung translucent to her skin. Her flesh overlapped in folds that held water long after she’d pulled herself from the pool. She dragged a lounge chair over to the keno table and reclined alongside the other players, a pencil stub behind her ear. She seemed completely unaware of the figure she cut, like a walrus in a damp housedress, and I wanted to be like her. I wanted her to win the big one, so she could go home and crow over her neighbors.