California Gurl (Memoir Excerpt)
The street lights surrounding Pershing Square glimmered as I walked out of the City Year office in downtown Los Angeles that night. It was after 8 p.m. I wasn’t getting any overtime, but that did not matter to me. Leaving the office that late made me feel important. I was just like all the other people heading home from their downtown offices. Except instead of a briefcase, I had two file boxes of learning materials for 32 sixth graders. And also I was eighteen years old.
I performatively sighed and looked around to see if anyone heard me, but there was no one else in front of the City National Bank building. I dragged my feet on the pavement and turned the corner onto 5th Street back to my car. Even though I was soooo important, I had no assigned parking space and still had to park on the street.
I opened the side door of my van and loaded the boxes into the backseat. In my peripheral, just a few meters away, I saw someone walking towards me. I turned my head to her. She was wearing basketball shorts, a dark jacket with her hood on, and her hair was in a long ponytail.
“Hey, do you have some change for the bus?” she called out.
“Sorry,” I replied. I slid the side door shut.
“Well, can you give me a ride?”
She looked at the empty passenger seat in my van.
“I’m just down the street,” she said.
I looked at her face again. She had dark circles under her eyes and frown lines that framed her lips. But she didn’t seem at all threatening, like America Ferrera in the Disney Channel original movie Gotta Kick It Up. Her ponytail was a deep auburn, a really nice color.
“Please dude,” she begged. “I just want to get home. You’d be really helping me out.”
My dad’s voice rang in my head; whenever we went on road trips and saw someone on the side of the road, he would point at them and tell me to never pick them up.
But when I looked at her, all I could think about was me. I was having a bad time in this city and I desperately needed a miracle. Maybe if I showed some kindness and helped someone else out, I would have that energy returned to me. Good things happen to kind and honest people. That’s like, the whole point of Cinderella, right? And I myself didn’t have my van in Los Angeles for a long time, so I understood not having a car in this city was tough. Plus, she did say it was just down the street...
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll take you home.”
I unlocked the van and motioned toward the passenger door.
“Sorry about hesitating,” I said as I got into my van. “The big city does that to people.”
She laughed. It sounded forced.
“You got that right.” She slammed the door shut.
See! Take that dad! This lady gets me.
I turned the ignition key and the van sputtered to life. “So where am I taking you?”
“That way,” she said, pointing towards the freeway.
Perfect. She was just on the other side. As a new driver in Los Angeles, I did not like getting on the freeway. It scared me. It seemed like everybody driving on it was mad or in a hurry.
I clicked my seatbelt into place. She did not even reach for hers.
“So where are you from?” she asked as the van pulled away from the curb. “Because you said L.A. changes people.”
“I’m from a city at the bottom of Texas,” I said. I could hear the smile in my own voice. Talking about my hometown got me like that. “Edinburg, Texas. It’s a bordertown.”
“Wow, that’s cool. So up there, you’re going to turn right onto the freeway.”
“Oh.” I turned my blinker on.
That’s weird. She said she was just down the street. Maybe we were taking a shortcut.
I turned onto the ramp and looped around the Staples Center, merging onto the 110 freeway. She leaned forward and turned the A/C onto ‘medium’. I only let friends control the air in my car. And I didn’t even know her.
“Let me know when I should exit.”
“Yeah, yeah. Just keep going.”
The white noise of the air conditioning was the appropriate amount of conversation to me.
She broke it with her next question.
“So, do you have a girlfriend?”
My fingers tightened around the steering wheel.
“No. I’m just focusing on myself right now. I’m not interested in dating.”
“Word.” She put her hands up to the back of her head and undid her ponytail, brushing the full length of it with her fingers in front of her. The auburn hair grazed my right arm as it fell back.
“So what are you looking for?” she asked. I glanced at her. She was staring right at me.
My eyes darted back to the road.
“What are you talking about?”
“What do you want?” Her palm touched my right thigh. I flinched.
“Oh no, I’m not… I just want to drop you off.”
She pulled back and leaned against the passenger door.
Three exits later, she lifted her hand again.
“Get off here.”
The tick of my right blinker echoed in the van. The air was still on too.
We turned into a neighborhood off of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The street lights hanging above gave the dark asphalt and pale sidewalks an orange hue. There were no porch lights on. Nobody else was in the street.
“Here’s good,” she said.
I slowed the car and stopped in the middle of the street, relieved that there was a destination and that the ride was finally coming to an end. I put the car in park and unlocked the door. I waited for her to get out of the van. But she didn’t.
“So, you got any cash on you?” she asked again.
I looked around us one more time. There was no one else on the street.
“No. I don’t. I already gave you a ride.”
“Well, let me just repay you for giving me a ride.”
I feigned a polite laugh. “You really don’t have to --”
“No no, let me just get my homeboy -- ”
She leaned over to me and pushed my car horn. A deep honk cut through the silent street. She pushed the horn again. I had been willing to overlook her touching my A/C, but this… this was different. I wanted to believe that she was good. But she had pressed my horn. Who does that? And she was calling someone else to come to the car.
I couldn’t ignore the signs anymore.
I could be in danger.
Okay dad, you were right!
My eyes darted from house to house.
Which one was her accomplice going to bust out of?
Was there more than one person?
Were they going to hurt me?
“Please,” I stammered. “Get out of my car.”
“Come on,” she chuckled. “I know you can help. I need stuff for my baby. Diapers cost a lot.”
“I said I don’t have anything.”
“I know you got something in here.” She clicked the glove compartment. It popped open.
I slammed it back shut. “Get out!!!”
She tore through the side pocket of the van and the center aisle between us. Instinct kicked in and my body pushed itself back into action. I threw myself over her, pulled on the handle of the passenger door, and nudged it open. She pushed me off and slammed the door shut.
Something silver glistened in her hand. Was that a pocket knife?
She jutted the silver object towards me.
I slapped her hand away.
“Back up!” she yelled.
She opened the glove compartment again, her eyes and knife still pointed at me. She pulled out 2 five dollar bills, my cash stash for parking lot fees.
I cursed myself internally. I had taken kung fu lessons up until the sixth grade but now when I really needed it, I froze. I didn’t know how to protect myself. I never even got my black belt. I stopped at brown. Her focus shifted as she rummaged through the mess of my glove compartment. Thank God I never cleaned it out.
This was my chance.
I lunged for her left hand and tried to pry the pocket knife out of it. I decided I was not going to get stabbed that night. I was still a virgin. I hadn’t even had my first kiss yet!
I continued to wrestle with her right hand, but looked up. I realized No one else had come out yet. If she wasn’t going to get out, I at least had to get out of there.
With my left hand, I shifted the car back into drive. I slammed my right foot to the pedal. But before my foot made full contact, she threw the van back into ‘park’. The van roared helplessly in place and the tires burned the asphalt.
I moved quickly. I leaned over her once more, flung the passenger door back open, picked up my legs, leaned against my door, landed my feet against her left arm, and pushed with all the strength in my legs. Her hands grabbed at my legs as I pushed her out. I kicked them away. As soon as she fell out of the car and onto the street, I threw the van back into drive. I slammed on the acceleration. The van kicked forward and the passenger door ricocheted shut. I sped away.
I panted as I drove down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Was I supposed to pull over? Should I call the police? What the fuck was I even going to say?
Hi officer, I would like to report a crime. Someone mugged me in my van. Well… is it mugging if it’s just $10? No, she didn’t force herself in. I let her in. Because I was giving her a ride. No, I did not know her. I don’t think she was a prostitute, no. Because she was wearing basketball shorts. Why was I giving her a ride? Well you see, I’m new here. I’m from Texas... Yes, I’ll hold.
I drove back towards Boyle Heights. I felt defeated. But I was still alive. The high-rise buildings of downtown Los Angeles looked down at me. When Lizzie McGuire gets on the back of a scooter with a stranger, she gets to pretend to be an international pop sensation and performs at The Coliseum in Rome. But when I let a stranger in my car, I get attacked just minutes away from The Coliseum in South Central?
I was clearly not cut out for this city. Maybe I should just go home. I didn’t belong here. As I drove down the highway, I imagined what it’d be like if I really did go back to my hometown. I could just bike everywhere. I knew all the roads. I could have dinner every night with friends that understood and loved me. I could move back in with my parents. I would never have to sleep in a bunk bed. I probably would not even have to work. And I would have never been bamboozled by an ill-meaning drifter—my dad would have been there to tell me to not pick her up!
The idea of going home felt easy. It was predictable. It was safe. It would also mean giving up. Moving back to Texas felt like admitting defeat. My dream to be more independent, to carve out a space for myself in this world, to be all of myself, would stay a dream. I’d have to learn to accept that when things got too rough, I chose to run. And was I really willing to do that?
If I was going to stay in Los Angeles, I had to drive faster. I had to keep up. And if I could fight off a knife-wielding possible prostitute in basketball shorts, I could handle the freeway. I wasn’t going to take any more shit. I wanted to change.
Los Angeles does that to people.
I had a long road ahead, but if I could fight off a knife-wielding possible prostitute in basketball shorts, then maybe I did have it in me to keep up with this city. I flicked my left blinker on and pushed my foot hard on the gas pedal.