Falafel – Ryka Aoki

     “Come home.”

     He assumed it was the usual inbox spam, until he noticed it was from his sister, using her married name.

     “Mom needs help with Dad. Call her now. Bye.”

     Robert closed his browser, closed his laptop, and pulled his keys off the nail on the wall. He walked out the door, down two flights of stairs, and into the street.

     Above him, the twilit sky sparkled like a cold beer, a bottle of Clamato and a clean icy glass.

     There are places in Los Angeles that cannot be described in any way except beautiful. One gets lost to find Our Lady of Guadalupe gracing the parking lot of a corner liquor store. Before work, the smell of fresh-baked bread dances to a radio wailing Chinese torch songs. And while everyone else in the neighborhood is sleeping, an angel places a club flyer in the front window of someone’s streetside Chevrolet. In a town where beauty is fabricated, airbrushed, and bedazzled, these places push against everything one might expect or even need LA to be. One dreams of studio tours and screenplays and footprints in concrete, yet between one attraction or expectation to the next, beneath the makeup and stage lights and pretense, these places insist that underneath and behind it all, up is still up, down is still down, love is still love, and fresh dandelions will sprout wherever the wind may blow.

     “Come home.”

     Robert kept walking. Those words didn’t mean just visit. They meant for good, or for a long time, at least, because he had promised to never leave his mother alone. He had no pictures of fiancées or even girlfriends in his apartment, and probably never would. Robert looked down at himself, saw his father’s same short legs, his same small shoes.

     And now, the old man was fading.

     Ha! Finally.

     Robert brushed something silly from his eyes. The evening, the city, seemed musical. He knew the neighborhood and he wasn’t lost. Those stars on the sidewalk?

     An ugly man like him treads upon the names of strangers every day to buy toothpaste or catch the bus. A useless weirdo knows that what makes Hollywood Boulevard sparkle is just a steamrolled layer of broken glass. To a tourist, or transplant, even the simple glory of a sunset over the beach might seem too unrehearsed and intimate. But to a loser walking nowhere from Melrose to Fairfax, the LED billboards, ten-dollar smoothies and fifty-foot signs hanging off the Paramount Studio walls are part of a city that was never yours. Instead, a jacaranda in full bloom, ranchero music and the smell of beer, a donut shop on Crenshaw that nobody knows, or a diner where pancakes are served by a Russian waitress with perfect hair—these places let you know that this city has room for you, as well.

     Robert walked past another car, a broken bottle, a picture of a motor scooter on a light post, stopping from time to time like a lover does before she leaves everything behind. As he stopped and waited at a red light, a soda bottle flew past his head. The five-speed laughter from the Range Rover was quickly lost in the rumble of traffic, and he never saw their faces, anyway.

     Robert’s mouth watered, and he followed the smell to a bright green catering truck parked across the street. Chrome polished to mirror finish, its sides displayed an array of cute anime panda bears holding plates of Asian fusion tacos. A line of shiny, pretty people waited for their shiny, pretty food to stuff in their shiny, pretty mouths heading to whatever shiny, pretty club they were going to.

     He took two steps toward the truck and stopped to check his pockets, which, of course, were empty. Robert shrugged to nobody, then headed away from Fairfax. It wasn’t for him and he wasn’t lost.

     Just a block east or west of the busy boulevard, the LED and neon lights shift to a softer, quieter mercury vapor glow. The thumping bass lines and savory taco truck aromas yield to a barking dog, honeysuckle, or the pot of beans simmering in someone’s kitchen. Even in the busiest parts of LA, one need only to walk a block or two to find a street that remembers the reality that happens off camera, where a front yard loquat tree might bear the sweetest fruit, or a little man can whip his children and know that the door would remain closed.

     “Come home.”

     He was moving back home. At his age. Not old, but not young, either. He wondered if his bed was still against the wall. He had vowed to never again sleep in that bed.

     Robert lurched to the side as a car honked and bumped against his knee. It honked again.

     “Move!” the driver yelled.

     Robert rubbed his knee and stared over the headlight.

     “Move! What are you, stupid?”

     The old man had been smoking for years, and his voice sounded like it. He revved his engine and inched the car forward, but Robert didn’t move.

     “What is wrong with you, stupid!”

The old man got out of his car, and slammed the door. He moved like he had been strong once, and his hands were still large, as thought they had held something heavy. He approached Robert, and his look was hard and disgusted.

“What’s the matter, can’t speak English? Huh?”

     The old man pushed him back, and raised his arm, and Robert smelled the loquat tree. He felt chewing gum squish under his shoe, smelled dog shit on the curb and saw a stretch of vomit along the sidewalk. He thought of a dog being whipped and kicked and whipped again. He thought of his bed, at home, and the wall and sheets that smelled like urine.

     Once upon a time, the old man would hit him and he wouldn’t move. Time upon a time, the old man would hit him, and he wouldn’t move. Instead, he would freeze, and the blows would push him into the corners between what he was and what he dreamed, and all the hopes of going surfing or eating pizza or opening Christmas presents were gone. The thoughts of having a house or kitchen, or someone with whom he could spend an evening in his best clothes looking for a hot dog truck on a Friday night, gone.

     Once upon a time, the old man would hit him, and he wouldn’t move. He would see him in the parking lot of the Chinese market, behind a desk at the bank, taking his kid to a Dodger game, cutting bait at the Venice Pier. And he would be gone.

     But tonight, as the old man raised his fist, Robert screamed. All he was and all he could be, everything he learned in between crying and retreating, in waiting for the bus and coming home to an apartment where the only letters that ever came were bills and junk mail. Where his own sister didn’t ask how he was doing. All that he learned channeled into Kim’s Karate yellow belt combination #3: back fist/spinning back fist.

     Once Grandmaster Kim had assured his mother that these moves were 2000 years old and made the Korean freedom fighters invincible, but Robert knew they were worthless. Every time the old man decided he needed a whipping, he knew.

     This time, though, the blows connected. And the old man finally, finally, went down.

     “Not stupid!” Robert said.

     He felt the blood flow back into his body and the warmth felt like the beach in the summer of 2002 when he wanted so much to go, and there were some boys he liked who were going, but he stayed home because he thought of getting sunburned, and that they’d laugh because he couldn’t swim.

     “I’m not stupid!”

     But the old man still had that look, like he wasn’t good enough, even after all these years. That he’d never be part of the club cars going by, or buy a fusion taco. That the boys who passed by every day were boys he could never speak to, let alone share a word or ask out for coffee.

     Robert kicked him in the head, two, three times, and he felt the old man quiver. So Robert kicked him again. And it was 2002, but this time he had sunscreen, knew the bus routes and he didn’t care how the old man looked, and he sure as hell didn’t give a damn about swimming.

     And he knew he was hungry.

     “Wallet.”

     The old man looked up.

     “What? You stupid?”

     The old man didn’t move.

     “I said, you stupid?”

     He raised his leg.

     “Here—please…” The old man shuddered as Robert took his wallet.

     He riffled through its contents, snatched the bills and was about to toss it back, when he stopped. He smiled and put it into his pocket.

     “Nice wallet.”

     “You’re a fucking punk, you know that!”

     Robert pushed his foot on the old man’s neck. Slowly, he added just enough pressure to feel a trachea bend beneath the sole of his shoe. The old man stopped moving, and his eyelids fluttered like honeysuckles.

     “No. I am not. I am not a punk. You are. You are.”

     He said the last words so quietly, even the sidewalk could not hear them.

     But the old man heard. Finally, he heard.

     Robert walked back to Fairfax. Now with some money, he could think about dinner. Because down the street, there was an Ethiopian café he had never been to, and off to his left, Canters Kosher Style Deli was serving bowls of soup with giant matzo balls.

     Robert sensed the sirens approaching, but he kept walking. He walked past the Green Taco truck, the yogurt shop, all that was open, and all the places he could go. He felt calm and peaceful, and he realized that in Los Angeles, even the lights themselves had safety, for here was a place that was too well lit for beatings and locked bedroom doors.

     They sirens came closer, and now he could see the flashing lights reflecting in the windows turn from red to blue to white. He gave a couple of bucks to a guy who played harmonica. He looked into a candlelit café, wondering what it would be like to have a caramel latte with an extra shot of syrup.

     The sirens got louder and louder, and just when he was trying to remember whether it was bourbon or scotch that went into a Manhattan, they zoomed past, three of LAPD’s finest ignoring him as he was so used to being ignored, like all things less than beautiful, like all things in-between.

     Robert peeked inside a pita store. There were only a few people inside, but the boy taking orders was pretty, and he wanted to speak to someone pretty. Not shiny pretty, just pretty. And the place served falafel.

     “I have never had a falafel,” Robert would say.

     “Oh, well you have come to the right place!” the pretty boy would reply.

     All he needed to do was step inside.

     Robert used to marvel at how the TV police caught their criminals. His father had been addicted to crime shows, and Robert wondered how they would always figure out who was guilty and who was not. He wondered how they knew who needed to be rescued and why they never came for him.

     The pretty boy brought his falafel, and he said thank you, and he laughed—and as he laughed, it occurred to him that those police shows were written by and for the same people who walked this boulevard in Los Angeles, people who lived and depended upon its surface features and faces, its mirrors and its finish. As for the real police? He was invisible to them, as much now as he had been beneath his father’s roof.

     He looked at the pretty boy, then out at Fairfax, and noticed now how everyone seemed to be a little in-between. Even if they were hiding it, he knew that if he looked hard enough, he could tell that no one quite belonged, and this not-belonging was like all the bits of broken glass that made Hollywood Boulevard sparkle when the only people upon it were the cleaners, the homeless, and those who came looking for something or someone to love.

     The falafel was wonderful. The balls were crispy and crunchy, the pita, fresh and warm. He sipped his Diet Pepsi and realized that he would not move home. He would buy a car. It didn’t have to be shiny or new, just pretty in its own way. And then, even if his mom needed him for while, or forever, he could visit her and still return.

     Besides, near his mother was the Wal-Mart, the liquor store, a Vietnamese restaurant, and a taco stand, and each had people stories between them. And who knows, maybe one day he could ask her what made her stay with the old man for so long, and how she kept smiling every day. Where did she go when the old man had come home drunk and noisy? How did she sparkle, and to where did she go when she wanted to smell loquats, or honeysuckles beneath the evening sky?

     He put his falafel down, wiped his mouth and took out his phone.

     “Mom? Yeah… It’s me.”

 

Ryka Aoki is the author of Seasonal Velocities, He Mele a Hilo (A Hilo Song) and the forthcoming Why Dust Shall Never Settle upon this Soul. She has been honored by the California State Senate for her “extraordinary commitment to free speech and artistic expression, as well as the visibility and well-being of Transgender people.” She was on the first Trans 100 list of most prominent and influential trans people in the United States, and was named as one to 11 Tran Artists of Color you should know by the Huffington Post.

Ryka was the inaugural performer for San Francisco’s first ever Transgender Stage at San Francisco Pride 2005, and has performed in venues including the San Francisco Pride Main Stage, the Columbus National Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival, the National Queer Arts Festival, Ladyfest South, Atlanta Pride, UCLA’s OutCRY, Santa Cruz Pride, and Emory University’s Pride Week. 

Ryka also appears in the recent documentaries “Diagnosing Difference” and “Riot Acts” she has MFA in Creative Writing from Cornell University is the recipient of a University Award from the Academy of American Poets. In 2012, Ryka was named an Outstanding Volunteer by the LA Gay Lesbian Center’s Child, Youth, and Family Services. Ryka is the founder of the International Transgender Martial Arts Alliance, and is a professor of English at Santa Monica College and of Queer Studies at Antioch University. She also really likes donuts and peas, though not at the same time. www.rykaryka.com