My new boyfriend, Jason, a self-described "straight edge punk rock skater vegetarian socialist," was a frequent customer at the record store where I worked. He had dreadlocks and didn't shave; at 16, three years my junior, he only had peachy facial fuzz anyway. He was a poet and political activist, and sang and played guitar in a punk band. He was tall, intelligent, charming, and a complete crack-up; but was, admittedly, a little goofy, lurching around in front of the counter telling strings of hilarious and improbable stories. His young age came as a bit of a shock to me at first, but in light of his wit and intelligence, it didn't seem like a deterrent to dating him.
His poetry focused on social injustice, hypocrisy, alienation, and abuse of power. His writing style was elegant and objective, but passionate. His political views were emotionally charged, but also seemed forged from education and deep consideration. It seemed impossible to me that he could be just 16. We spent hours together, sitting in my parked truck or one of our bedrooms -- his, only when his parents, who didn't approve of me, were away; and mine, only when I could sneak him past Grama Geri without her commenting -- talking about all of our views and ideas.
At some point I became convinced that Socialism was the only responsible kind of government, when one considered the manifold ills of capitalism, and vegetarianism was the only appropriate diet, when one considered the inhumanity and the waste of resources. These two things opened a previously unimaginable ideological chasm between Grama Geri and me. We argued constantly about politics, I wouldn't eat what she cooked anymore, and I was always out with "That Jason."
I learned the bass guitar and played in his band. I dyed my hair fuchsia. I was starting to dig thrash and hard core, kind of; my record collection became interspersed with Bad Brains, Social Distortion, Dead Kennedys, DRI and Subhumans.
I also decorated my bedroom, making it "mine" instead of Grampa Bill's. I found swaths of sparkly fabric, shredded strips of iridescent cellophane, and hung these in sheer walls and kelp-forest configurations from the ceiling. I tacked band posters, letters from friends, funny things cut out of magazines, Jason's poems, and my own drawings onto the walls. I strung multicolor strands of ribbon from corner to corner like birthday decorations. I installed black lights and bought candles and incense. I called my new creation, "The Dendrite Awareness Facility." The name was on the door, spelled out with randomized letters Xacto-Knifed from a People Magazine.
This was now my haven, where I would bring friends over and play CD's. If Grama didn't like them, the friends were snuck in and out the sliding glass door, through the back yard. As long as I was there, the bedroom door was shut and incense was lit.
Grama Geri stopped coming in altogether.
After almost a year of this, I decided I wanted to move to Santa Cruz. Jason and I had broken up and gotten back together a few times, and with greater insight into his turbulent (and often inappropriate) emotions, I no longer thought it impossible he was only 16. I had met someone else, a philosophy student at UC Santa Cruz, originally from Ojai and home for the summer. He was taking a photography class at my college, and we started hanging around after class together together, talking about literature and philosophy. I was his rapt student as he told me his insights; he laughed at my sarcastic comments. I decided to join him when he moved back to Santa Cruz that fall.
Grama was overjoyed that I was moving out. She waved merrily as I pulled away from the house, the bed of my truck brimming over with my belongings covered with blue tarp and rope.
I came back four months later, dissatisfied with Santa Cruz and the relationship. She glumly accepted me back into my old room; god knows why. My mom had moved into a small apartment and there was no place else to go. Grama had a sense of obligation, and, perhaps, a glimmer of the little girl I had once been still in her memory.
I enrolled in my third year at the junior college. Grama began asking me more and more often what my plans were after this year was up.
"I told you, I'm applying to Cal State Long Beach. You've always said you'd pay for my college, right?"
She seemed pleased, but asked me again whenever she thought of it. Had I applied yet? Had I heard from them?
In fact, after the end of that school year and well into summer classes, I still hadn't heard a word from the University about my application. Meanwhile, I was finishing all my foundation courses and was moving on to every other course of study I'd ever felt interest in, besides completing my graphic design degree and working my way through the photography and fine art programs.
I was having trouble with Fido, too. The damage to the truck from the accident two years before was making it difficult to keep it in legal operating condition, especially the headlight which pointed up and out to one side. Its socket was destroyed, and there was no reliable way to keep the bulb angled correctly. Also, the truck no longer had registration tags. While tooling down a highway toward the beach one evening, enjoying a spectacular sunset, something in the rear-view mirror caught my eye, cartwheeling down the road behind me. Only after returning home did I discover it had been the rear licence place, which had apparently been loosening.
In order to have the license place replaced, the truck had to pass certain inspections, requiring expensive repairs. It took me a while to get the money together for the repairs, and over this period the registration expired. That on top of the missing plate made old spray-painted Fido and his pink-haired operator quite the moving target there in conservative, Christian, suburban Camarillo.
I was pulled over constantly, and ticketed most of the time for being unregistered and having no back plate.
Now, paying the tickets was taking even more money which I didn't have to pay for repairs to start with. I rationalized that I couldn't stop driving it, since I was working part-time and going to school five days a week. One of the registration tickets went unpaid, and unbeknownst to me, a warrant was issued for my arrest. This is a town where there are no other criminals to speak of, and failing to properly register your beat-up, spraypainted pickup truck is cause for great consternation.
One evening, Grama and I were watching TV together in the family room. She sat up on her sofa, putting her hair up in curlers. I was recovering from a mild case of walking pneumonia, for which I was on strong antibiotics, and was lying comfortably on the other couch, having already finished my homework.
The phone rang, and I answered it.
"Is this Susan Johnson?" the male voice asked.
"No," I corrected him, "this is Susan Jennings."
"Okay," he replied. "Sorry to bother you."
I hung up and went back to the couch.
An hour later, the doorbell rang. I answered it. There stood two young men in jeans and black t-shirts.
"You Susan Jennings?"
I squinted. They didn't look at all familiar. "Yeah?"
"We have a warrant for your arrest, ma'am."
"What?" I shouted. They must be joking. They didn't have on uniforms.
"No joke, ma'am. Outstanding ticket for automobile registration." They held out badges.
"And they arrest people for that? That's crazy! What about thieves and rapists and drug dealers?"
"We need to read you your rights, ma'am."
Grama came to the door, and they repeated the information to her.
"Well can't I just pay bail? You can't take her to jail, that's crazy."
"You can pay bail down at the station, ma'am. We have to arrest her and take her to the county jail in Ventura. If you wish to post bail you'll have to come do that afterwards."
I looked at her apologetically, but I could see she was furious at them, not at me.
"This is ridiculous," she frowned.
"But you'll come pay bail?" I asked anxiously. I was starting to freak out a little.
"You bet I will. I'll be right behind you." Her determination was comforting.
When I stepped onto the porch, they read my my rights and handcuffed me. I was overwhelmed with humiliation at being handcuffed; I wasn't exactly dangerous, just a regular, harmless pink-haired junior college student.
At the county jail, I was searched and my scuffed thrift store boots were taken away, but nothing else. I was fingerprinted and put into a holding cell with five or six Latinas inside. They were all chatting, recounting the exciting story of the chase leading to their arrest, which involved back yards and chain link fences. I sat down on a bench to wait for my Grama.
The girls finished talking and turned their attention to me.
"What are you in for?" one of them asked.
"Not paying my car registration," I answered sheepishly but with some anger.
"Wow!" They all said in unison. They looked amazed.
"They lock you up for that shit?" another girl asked.
"In Camarillo, they do," I said, making a face.
"Wow," she repeated, more quietly. It was like, in this particular jail, being arrested for a stupid reason was the way to earn respect, or at least sympathy. "Man, that sucks."
I began to relax a little. The cell was clean and brightly lit, and apparently I wasn't going to be beaten up. I started looking around, wishing Grama would show up.
Grama paid bail and the ticket, so that was the end of it. I don't remember the drive home... I just remember feeling overjoyed to return to my own room, and get into my own bed. And feeling grateful to Grama for keeping her cool and being there for me, just like with the earthquake.
Autumn came and no word from the University. I couldn't believe they wouldn't have accepted me; my grades were exemplary, and I'd be transferring as a junior, with foundation completed and lots of extra units. I enrolled for another superfluous semester at Ventura College. I had become teacher's pet in several of my art classes and my photography class, partly due to familiarity. I admit, the longer I stayed, the harder it was to leave.
But I finally did have to call the university and find out what was going on. I spent half a day on hold, transferred from office to office and person to person. Finally I got an admissions worker who knew who I was and had seen my application.
"Susan Jennings. Graphic Design program, transfer from junior college, right?"
"That's me," I said hopefully.
"You were accepted last fall. You were accepted but there are no records that you replied to your acceptance letter."
"What acceptance letter?" I had seen no such thing, and believe me, I was looking.
"We sent you an acceptance letter last Summer. Why didn't your reply?"
"I never got an acceptance letter! If I had gotten an acceptance letter I would have gone!" I was getting very annoyed.
"Well," she said, helpfully, "We sent you one."
So that was that year, wasted waiting for the acceptance letter that was lost in the mail. I was angry at myself for not calling sooner, but I hate dealing with bureaucracy. I just wanted the damn letter to come so I could pack and and move down to Long Beach.
Grama, who had mostly kept her patience up to now, was starting to crack. She became constantly irritable, and it became clear to me that she wanted her boyfriend Fifty Dollar Bill to move in, into my room. This was understandable, but there was only so much I could do. I would have to reapply to the university, and it was too late for spring semester. I'd be out of there by fall at the earliest.
We clashed frequently. She hated my clothes, and most of all, hated my hair, which was purple now. Every now and again, she'd look at me long and hard, with a look on her face like she'd just smelled a fart. Sometimes she'd even take a strand of purple hair up for a minute and examine it, dropping it in disgust.
"Why do you...?" she'd begin to ask slowly. I'd smile at her. "Oh... never mind," she'd turn away, exasperated for the millionth time. I don't know why she even brought it up anymore.
By now, whatever had been my gripes about living with my mom had been forgotten. I couldn't imagine that life with her could have been any worse than life with Grama. Whatever was the problem, it certainly wasn't me.
Moving out of my mom's house had done great things for our relationship. She invited me to stay at her apartment some weekends, and we'd stay up late watching movies, then lay in bed together talking about stuff.
One night we rented The Color Purple, which left us both sobbing into Kleenexes. We washed our faces, hugged and kissed goodnight, and went to bed. Somehow we started talking about our relationship, and Mom started crying.
"Do you think I was a bad mother?"
"No! No, Mom. You did the best you could." My heart was breaking at the thought that she could blame herself for any of my troubles as a teenager... depression, nihilism, low self esteem. Maybe if Dad hadn't left? Who knows.
"I hope I wasn't a bad mother," she said again, swallowing tears.
"You were the best mother in the world," I said.
Summer was upon us again, and although I had reapplied to Long Beach State, again I had not heard back from them. This time I did not hesitate before calling; I still had my notes from last time and even asked for the Admissions lady by name.
"We sent your acceptance letter two months ago, says here."
"What!" I could not believe this could happen twice.
"Are you coming?" she asked.
"Yes! Yes, for crying out loud, I'm coming. Can I accept over the phone?"
"No, I'll have to send you another acceptance letter. There's a form for you to send back, but do it right away."
"Yeah," I said sarcastically. "If you could actually send it to me, I promise I'll actually fill it out and send it back." She was utterly unfazed.
The news was received with great joy by Grama Geri. And sure enough, the second acceptance letter came, which was received with whoops of joy by all.
This left me less than four weeks to find an apartment in Long Beach, move, and get my classes. Most students had already chosen their classes, so it was going to be slim pickins for me. After two reconnaissance trips to Long Beach and several phone calls, I scored a second-floor studio apartment in a cute beachside neighborhood. I packed up the Dendrite Awareness Facility once again, this time for good.
I looked around at the room, now emptied of all my things and containing only the mirrored dresser and chair that had been there when I came. After my three year tenancy, Grampa's tidy, serene room was very changed. The walls were scratched and covered with tack and nail holes, and the areas around where the edges of where posters had been were dirty and discolored. The ceiling was brown from candle smoke in one area. Grampa's stereo, which I had been using, had both speakers blown. The grout in the shower was stained pink. Threads I couldn't reach, or hadn't bothered to, hung here and there from the cottage cheese ceiling.
I looked out at the lovely olive tree, still there outside the sliding glass door, just like when I came. Grama and I had no idea what was in store for us that day she showed me to my room. Our relationship had changed -- deepened, but soured. We had adored each other as grandmother and granddaughter; but as two adults, we were so different from each other that there seemed to be no compromise, only outburst and silence.
I hated her bigotry and self-righteousness. Even her stylish clothes, her strappy high-heeled sandals, and her sparkly princess jewelry seemed stupid and trashy to me now. I had switched to a more flowing gothic look, and standing there in my black lace and silk skirt, gauzy tank top, and blue Doc Marten's, I couldn't imagine myself ever being anything like her. Though, she had given me a black rabbit fur-collar jacket of hers from the '50's, and a bunch of silver rings which I wore all the time.
I grabbed my backpack and headed out. Grama was in the kitchen.
"Are you going?"
"Well, you take care, Sweetheart," she said. "I love you. Call if you need anything."
"Okay," I said, hugging her. I can't remember if I thanked her for letting me live there for three years. Even then, after everything we'd been through, I still felt comforted by the smell of her perfume when we hugged; and she still called me Sweetheart.
I jumped into the blue Chevy Citation my dad had given me to replace Fido, which I'd sold for fifty bucks.
Camarillo, with its stupid police force, perfect lawns, and closed minds, and Grama Geri, soon disappeared behind me.