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ESSAY

Home is Where the Heart Aches

She Thought She Had Left Behind the Hurt of Being Different. Then She Returned to the Town of Her Childhood and Found That Some Things Hadn't Changed.

September 15, 2002|DOMINIQUE DIBBELL | Dominique Dibbell is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

I graduated from high school and lit out for the East Coast, sure that I would never return to the Inland Empire. Twenty years later I am back in my mother's house in my sleepy hometown on the easternmost edge of L.A. County. I am overwhelmed by a creepy feeling that although so much time has passed, not a thing has changed. And yet this is not my life, I swear! I am a semi-famous lesbian theater artist from New York City! But the whole package--career, sophistication, accomplishments--seems to have vanished without a trace, evaporated in the dry Southern California air.

I have come home because my mother is gravely sick. When I first arrive, she has one foot in the next world, and I am thrust into the role of primary caretaker. I brush up on all the death literature and try to prepare. But my mother defies the odds and gets better. I am happy for that, yet now I find myself in a limbo world: She is recovering, but is still too ill to be left alone.

My girlfriend looks at me with doleful eyes: When can we move out and begin our new lives in glittery Los Angeles? I cannot answer her unspoken plea. I am locked in a paralysis born of duty and the lull of my hometown's charms--the crazy-pink bougainvillea; the drive-in on Mission Boulevard that abuts the strawberry field; the backyard San Gabriels; even the smell of manure on the hot Chino winds. I'm never cold and I don't have to pay rent.

But we chafe at the provincialism and strain under the weight of our nursing duties. If I can't bring myself to move, let's at least get out of the house. We sift through the local paper. "My Fair Lady" is playing at the local college. I become flushed with nostalgia. When I was a teenager I went to movies twice a week presented by the college film societies. I saw "Knife in the Water," "Nights of Cabiria," "Holiday" and "High Noon," and had my little world cracked open. I convince my girlfriend that the screening will be ecstasy, and off we go.

Once in the drafty lecture hall, I am confronted with the sweetening effect of memory: The seats are like pews, the movie print is scratchy, and Audrey Hepburn sounds as if she has a bad cold. But the event is not without its charms. Old folks are here, as well as moms and dads with their teenage kids. Coffee is sold for cheap out of plug-in urns, and pink and white animal cookies (my favorites!) are offered for free. The trapped feeling is lifting.

After the movie we feel too good to go home. I know that it's after 9. I don't care! I'm feeling wild! We drive to a restaurant in La Verne--a rockin' establishment that's open till 2 on weekends. The sign out front says "a family restaurant." I ponder it. What do they mean by "family"? Is that like "family values," a code we have come to understand as meaning, among other things, "no queers"? For a second, the sign strikes me as a kind of sexual orientation version of "whites only." I chuckle at my gallows humor and amble on in, humming Lerner and Loewe.

The place is nearly empty--just a cop and couple who looked to be refugees from a 12-step group. We are greeted by a sulking young waitress who appears to be 16. Without exactly looking at us, she grabs two menus and seats us in the booth next to the cop. She mumbles something. I make out the word "drink." "Yes, I'll have a decaf, please." I am not bothered by her attitude. I have compassion for her, even admiration. She has obviously spent a great deal of time on her hairdo. Her healthy-looking dark brown locks are held snug by a velvety black scrunchie. Her long bangs burst from her forehead in a perky explosion courtesy of curling iron and gel.

I feel a subtle wave of awe. I could never achieve that just-so look so many of our young women master and innovate. I was a tomboy, and though my family accepted me, others, especially girls like her, made my life hell. Tonight, sitting in this old haunt, I feel grateful for the years that have passed. I know who I am today; my confidence is hard won. I can gaze upon this girl with detachment. After all, she may want to cut off that pretty hair someday.

She scrawls our drink orders on her pad and looks at us for the first time. Her eyes widen and she looks back and forth, from my lover to me, me to my lover. Her features freeze in an expression of terror mixed with disgust and alarm. It is the look--the one I have seen a million times. Somehow it takes me by surprise. I am aware that we stand out a little here, but I think we look pretty good. My hair is even longish after years of buzz cuts. My girlfriend is tall and strapping, but she wears her hair in a chic, gamine style, and small gold hoops hang from her lobes. Nonetheless, the waitress cannot at once discern our gender, and that has disturbed her greatly. She flees, and I sigh, disappointed.

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