The first day I moved to South Central I noticed a stench that filled the air outside my door. Two days later I realized it was the body of a dog rotting in the neighbor’s backyard. The flies persisted for weeks.
I was just finishing my first semester as a graduate student at USC. I lived in the overpriced university housing north of campus. For five hundred and fifty dollars a month I could stand in the center of my apartment and nearly touch three out of four walls without moving. My refrigerator came up to my thigh. The toilet never flushed properly. The mattress had what I told myself were not blood stains on the side I flipped down to face the floor.
I had never been to California before the day I moved there. I thought it was better to live on university property until I knew the neighborhood. After a semester in student housing I struck out on my own, or as far as one could strike without a car in Los Angeles.
I found an ad for an apartment south of Exposition. I had not lived in Los Angeles long enough to know what it meant to be south of Exposition. The apartment was bigger than the one I lived in. It had hard wood floors and big Craftsman style windows. It had a porch where I pictured my flower garden. I could have a cat. It was five hundred square feet, three hundred seventy five dollars per month, and I could move in anytime.
I signed my first lease and moved within a couple of weeks.
It did not smell like dead dog the day I met the landlord and viewed the apartment. It smelled like dead dog the day I moved in. My guts bound up every time I inhaled and the flies were thick. It was not until I peered over the wrought iron fence that I discovered the source – the half rotten dog laying in the hot summer sunshine. I thought someone might dispose of him, but no one did. The smell faded after a week or maybe I just got used to it.
I had no furniture. My father had always built my furniture by hand. I never bought furniture before. I cobbled together a few pieces from newspaper ads. I found a store filled with lacquer leopards and glass top tables that sold me a bed frame on wheels, a mattress and a box spring for sixty-nine dollars including delivery. I doubted the tag that claimed it was filled with “all new materials” but at least there were no blood stains.
I spent my first day hanging blinds on all the windows and putting motion detectors on every pane. I added locks to the front and back doors. I determined which route would be best for a quick escape. In the morning I was woken by the crowing of roosters. I had not heard those since my childhood. A different kind of rooster then. I tip-toed out into my living room, relieved to find my belongings still there. Maybe this will be alright after all, I thought.
Eventually I would buy a futon, wallpaper border for each room, black and white checkered contact paper with which to line my kitchen cupboards, and call this place home.
When I moved in I dragged all the carpet out of the apartment. It was old, worn through, and not even attached to the floor. I wanted the hard wood underneath. Even damaged and stained it was better than the carpet. The carpet lay in the yard for a long time. One day I decided to drag it closer to the garbage cans. Maybe somebody would take it away. As I pulled on the rug a swarm of giant black bugs emerged from underneath. I jumped back quickly and up onto my porch.
“Oh the water bugs!” yelled my neighbor Gracie from the kitchen window of the front house. Water bugs. These were not the water bugs of Michigan that flicked across the surface of the lakes, daintily skating on the tension. These were cockroaches unafraid of sunlight, unafraid of me.
I did some of my grocery shopping at the corner store. I bought soda and sometimes a box of Nilla Wafers. I was careful to not make eye contact with the gangsters that tried to flirt with me in the parking lot. They would always call after me as I walked by, staring at my feet. I minded them less than I minded the Mexicans. It always bothered me I did not know what they were saying in Spanish. It sounded sinister and lecherous. I would walk back on the far side of my street to avoid the Dobermans and Rottweilers two houses down from me. I did not trust the chains and the old wood of the porch to hold them still.
At home I called a friend to talk. I opened the box of Nilla Wafers and mindlessly munched on them while we chatted. As I reached into the box, I felt a strange sensation on my forearm. I looked down to discover ants from my fingertips to my elbows. My arm went into convulsions, but I kept talking to my friend without missing a beat. I would not let anyone know this was how it was.
Our yard was mostly concrete and sand. The landlord tried to seed some grass at one point, but it never took. The family in front watered the dirt for months in desperation, in commitment to the possibility of something better. I planted my pots of flowers and lined my porch. The old lady upstairs said I could use her portion of the patio, too. I must have had twenty pots of every type of flower that could withstand the sunshine and lack of rain. The neighbor’s feral cats peed in my pots and napped on my plants, mashing down the leaves.
One night in winter, during the rare rainstorm, I awoke to a banging in my kitchen. It was as if someone was slamming my cupboards shut repeatedly. I heard the howl of cats too loudly. I went into my kitchen and discovered my cat staring at the cupboards. The feral cats, motivated by the rain, had busted in through the crawlspace and were in my kitchen cupboards trying to reach the heat inside my home. I kicked the cupboard doors, but it only quieted them for a second. I was grateful I had put the childproof latches on all my cupboards doors because the years of paint layers had them never quite shut right. The banging continued. I wondered if I could sleep through this when in a flash one of the doors burst open. A black cat flew into the room and then right back out. My cat disappeared after it. I screamed and ran into the yard in the pouring rain. I begged for half an hour for him to reappear before I found him curled up behind the apartment, afraid of a world with no ceiling and water from the sky.
In the drier times I learned to dodge the Black Widow webs. She would sit on the spigot where I got the water for my plants. She would taunt me there. Like the cockroaches she was not supposed to like the sunshine, but she did. She and her mate wove their ill-planned web every day across my porch. I did not know the lack of symmetry was a sign of the Black Widow web. I learned the night I walked right into it and felt something hit my head. Gracie screamed from her kitchen window and I fluttered around the yard smacking my head until I was sure it was gone. Forever after I swung objects in front of me and ducked as I walked up my steps at night.
The Black Widow’s husband appeared in my closet one evening. I emptied half a can of poison on his segmented alien body and left him to sit there in the puddle for days.
I got used to spraying the baseboards and my closets and my tub. The bugs and ants crept in whenever I turned my back. I could see through the floorboards to the crawlspace below, the wood slats shrunken, the house settled unevenly, leaving openings for nature to crawl in. Eventually I made a nightly habit of stripping all the linens off my bed and putting them back on again before going to sleep. This was the harshest lesson of my time in South Central.
It was summer and I had no air conditioning. The heat gave me nightmares. It always has, since I was a child. Summers were hot, sleepless times for me, but I learned to take the nightmares with a grain of salt as I aged. That summer in South Central, I dreamt of eating bugs. I dreamt they crawled into my mouth and I swallowed them.
During the day I found strange translucent bits of something scattered about the apartment. At first I thought my cats were shedding their nails. Then I found them in my bed. I pulled back the sheet and I could not see the surface of the mattress through the layer of circling termites. These visitors in my dream were not a dream. These bugs I had eaten, they covered my bed, every inch, a constant thick movement. I kicked the bed away from the wall, the casters spinning across the wood. There was a hole in the wall where the termites flowed like oil. Their little wings were piled on the floor where my bed had been.
I slept on my futon for days until they kicked us out to tent the building. I drown my mattress in bug spray and flipped that side down toward the floor. From then on, every night I pulled off all the bedding to examine the mattress before remaking my bed and going to sleep.
After they tented the building I did not see another creature for nine months. No ants in my tub, no spiders in my closet, no termites in my bed or in the walls. They were a blessing in disguise, those hot summer dreams, those wicked little bugs.
One afternoon, as I lay on my futon peering out through the half inch of daylight between the wooden window frame of my front door and fabric of its curtain, I saw the hummingbirds. They were there to visit my flowers. I thought they would only last a second, but they let me watch them for a time. They were like floating Faberge eggs. They seemed unreal. Their movement disjointed; their appearance illogical. Their wings vibrated, an aura around their bulbous bodies preventing me from discerning their edges. They were of a slightly different dimension. Little jewels, alit upon my world for just a moment.