A Bike Ride Through the Past

Riding my bicycle through Meiners Oaks feels like a long, strange trip through my past. My conscious mind is present, enjoying the balmy weather, the rural route from the river bottom to Mira Monte, but on the way home, as I pass the homes of childhood friends and other places that shaped me, all sorts of molecules of memory are unleashed.

There’s The Farmer and the Cook, in the building that once housed the five and dime store where I bought my first bottle of miracle Cover Girl make-up (to make my brown skin whiter), pale pink lipsticks, bags of curlers, and endless Noxema creams, hair spray, and lotions and potions to emulate the girls on the covers of Seventeen.

Next door to The Farmer is that house where I once saw my friend’s older sister making out on the couch with her boyfriend. I didn’t know what they were doing, but my Pentecostal brain recognized that this was surely sin!

A few blocks from The Farmer comes the house of my best fifth-grade friend, Brenda, who had diabetes and was short for her age but whom I envied because she was an only child with ten pairs of sneakers in all different colors, with matching socks, and cute matching pleated skirts, shirts, and soft wool sweaters that hung all nice and neat in her very own closet. She had more clothes than I had ever dreamed possible, as well as huge stacks of True Romance  and Archie and Veronica comics that went halfway up to the ceiling. Her parents were alcoholics, but I didn’t notice that . . .

Across from Brenda’s house is the trailer park where after school I helped an old man who was a friend of my parents . . . a lonely man who smelled of Old Spice and wore a St. Christopher medallion . . . a good Catholic who paid me to sweep the oak leaves off the deck, wash his dirty dishes, and help him with his laundry. His cupboards were filled with forbidden foods like Spam and Saltines and Nabisco Vanilla Wafers and Ginger Snaps . . . there was always a bowl of red Jello in his tiny fridge, and whipping cream that you sprayed out of a can—foods not found in my mother’s health-food kitchen. After my jobs were done, we’d sit on a bench at his table and eat goodies together, until one day when I realized I should not be sitting on his lap and what he was doing was wrong. A few weeks later, my mother showed me his obituary in the paper. I can still feel the shame and guilt that washed over me. For years I couldn’t shed the feeling that my abandoning this poor, lonely old man had somehow caused his death.

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