It goes block by block is what everyone said about Oakland when I told them I was moving west, and my block, just off Foothill, is six houses thick, tiny two-stories with cement front yards and patches of lawn out back. Our backyard has overgrown rosemary shrubs, blushing roses invading through the fence, and wild pea shoots, tiny and undernourished pods translucent so you can see the baby peas inside. There’s a clapboard shack with one tiny window where Fiona goes to smoke her medicinal marijuana. If she doesn’t have it she can’t sleep at night, she wakes up in pain, and she doesn’t like doing things stoned like going to work or riding BART, but what else can you do?
The Chinese neighbors on the left have two boys who won’t stop crying, and the way they watch Fiona go to the shed and back feels like an accusation. Currents blow their words into my house before anyone else is up. I wake with the Chinese family, have my coffee while they quarrel, then sleep away an afternoon. When we leave the house they’re quiet, but their eyes whisper as we traipse out the front gate and down the hill, only I make a point of looking back because there are stories I could tell about them.
In and out of our house, four queers, then three through the hot month. Heat clings close like a lover. Our skin sweats under skimpy clothes and burns pink. Fiona and Jill shut the windows to block the heat and we sit, too hot to eat or talk or sleep.
Fiona and Jill strap on cocks and fuck men for money, slap them around, and I visit the house in the remote East Bay hills with cookies I make one night, rolling and cutting dough, stamping out round O’s, making tiny chocolate sandwiches for the girls. I track flour all over the kitchen floor, into the gaps between the floorboards, the oven adding unnecessary heat in the stifling night. I bake in my tank top with the back door open and a tall boy of beer cracked and warming while I load tray after tray.
To the other side is a black family, the mother cooking at odd hours, going in and out of the kitchen, doors creaking all day long. I sit in the rocking chair on the back porch and drink beer, watch her unload the dishwasher in a tee-shirt dress. They’re not very loud, and I am thankful.
Inside we have tense conversations about money. What we would do for money. How Fiona and Jill can get new business, where they can get it. Meanwhile in the washing machine, lingerie thumps around. They would like to leave the ramshackle house in the hills and the madame’s stringent rule, but they don’t know where to go. We have an extra room, which opens onto a bathroom. We could work something out, but then there is the matter of the neighbors and guys at the door at all hours and, besides, it’s so hot.
I wake before dawn, shrug intro dirty pants, cloak myself in the night and head for the BART. Some early mornings the Hells Angels are out, sometimes it’s only me and the truckers, car windows down to keep me awake until I get to the shop. I brew coffee and watch the sky brighten to blue, the approaching pinprick of light from the morning ferry. I’m alone while the world sleeps. I roll up my sleeves and turn on the ovens.
I push through the young Mexican mothers at Mi Ranchito for my plantains, potatoes, limes. In and out of bodegas carrying tiny bags, killing the environment. The cashier switches to English for me, exaggerating each word. Thank you. Have a nice day. You speak Spanish?
They don’t say much as I walk away but I feel their eyes on la gringa, as I enter the bodega or the liquor store or walk down to the BART. Sometimes I’ll look at them with a friendly nod, some days I’ll look down, keep walking. It’s a neighborhood of schools, one down the street and three more within walking distance, and I thought at first that would make it safe, but I don’t like walking down Foothill when it’s late so I stick to the side streets, even though nothing’s happened and I wouldn’t expect it to, it is not that sort of block, the dangerous kind, it’s just that every step is a cultural barrier.
In the hottest stretch of spring it reaches ninety. At the corner, the children force open a fire hydrant, and a chubby boy holds a board over the flow to direct the water toward children and adults scampering through in tight wet clothes. None of us queers have ever been in this urban television fantasy, so we sprint, shrieking, through the arch of water. We join our neighbors on the far corner.
Small children and dogs scamper at the edges, parents lean against fences and watch, and for once everyone is silent in celebration and it’s quiet enough to hear the water hiss onto the asphalt and the smack of wet flip flops as someone takes another turn. The mist coats cars, passerby, makes our street seem to shimmer the way the buildings shimmer with the heat and haze when you get high enough up the Oakland hills to see out across the foothills and flatlands, to the city across the bay.