When I was growing up in the San Fernando Valley, it seemed like every house in our neighborhood had kids. During the summer, my two brothers and I spent most of our days outdoors. We hardly ever wore shoes, and we’d take off on our bikes and be gone all day, exploring and playing. We would ditch our bikes on front lawns and build forts in backyards and just hang out.
Looking back, it seems like we had way too much freedom for little kids, and maybe we did. But we always knew that if we crossed a line, and if our dad found out, we’d be in big trouble. Our mom was easier. Nicer.
I know she never told our dad about the time we started a fire in our “way backyard.” A concrete wall separated our regular backyard, with its healthy lawn, big shade tree and little patio area, from the smaller yard beyond. The way backyard was dry and held a Jurassic-sized pointed plant that you could sort-of step into.
We didn’t play in the way backyard too often, but once when we did we had some matches, probably stolen from our mom, and started a little fire. I’m sure we must have put it out right away since I don’t remember it becoming a big deal. I guess one of us was wearing shoes that day. Anyway, somehow our mom found out about it. Maybe she saw smoke coming up over the wall. I don’t know.
We had been curious about fire, I think, after hearing about the new boy across the street whose family had to move because he burned down their house. We begged our mom not tell our dad, and she didn’t. But we had to promise not to play with matches again, and we didn’t.
For a while the most popular outdoor game on our block was kick-the-can, which we often played at night. I can’t remember if we used an actual can or where we placed it, but I think it might have been in the middle of the street. Kick-the-can could be both fun and frightening. There were a lot of dark places to hide in our neighborhood, and I remember the anticipation of waiting in the shadows, and then the thrill of running for the can before I was caught. We knew it was time to go home for the night when we heard our dad’s distinctive whistle. I think other dads used their own whistle calls, too.
I remember one summer day my brothers and I barefooted our way to Ralph’s grocery store for our mom. She gave us (well, probably our older brother, Tim) a dollar to buy a loaf of white bread and I think a bottle of milk. The store was close by, just down the alley and across Kingsbury Street.
Once our feet met the scalding blacktop on the parking lot it was every kid for himself. We shouted and screamed as we zigzagged our way from one shade patch to the next, until we finally landed inside the air-conditioned store, our feet practically hissing with relief.
Once we got the goods (including some left-over change), and started to make our way back through the parking lot, I remember coming to a sudden halt in the shade of a particular car. The driver’s door was open, and there was a man sitting in the seat with his legs hanging outside the car. His pants were open and he was touching himself and watching me. I don’t remember how long I stood there, but the look in that man’s eyes stayed with me for a while.
When I was around eight I found out that I had a reputation as the neighborhood bully. Quite a feat for a young girl, I guess. I didn’t do it intentionally, and I was hurt to find out that a girl on our block wasn’t allowed to play with me. I knew I fought a lot, but as it turned out that wasn’t the only thing I did. It seemed that I also had an unusual curiosity about sex. I wasn’t really aware of this, only that I felt uncomfortable around older boys and especially men. But what did I know? It turns out I knew a lot more than an eight-year-old should about such things, and was deeply ashamed when a friend’s father called me a nasty little girl.
My nights were sometimes filled with terrifying images. In the shadows of my bedroom I would sense eyes watching me and ghostly figures moving around. I would pull the covers up over my head, too petrified to move. If I was able to work up the courage, I would take a deep breath, jump out of bed and run to my brothers’ room. Once there, I would climb into Tim’s twin bed with him, where I would eventually stop shaking long enough to fall asleep. I don’t remember if Tim ever woke up, but I always knew that even if he did, he would never kick me out.