Her Urban Bungalow
Three references, two pay stubs, and one credit check later, Melanie signed the lease on an old Santa Monica bungalow for her first foray into single living. The front door was glossy green, and a shady umbrella plant stood next to it, welcoming guests. It was “old LA”; built for families of the fifties who moved in to work in the booming post-war aerospace industry. Looking at it felt like looking at the black-and-white photos of her grandmothers. There were two strings of identical single-story bungalows staring at each other, with crabgrass and a sidewalk dividing them. Her neighbors had lived there for years. Their peeling front porches had faded pots with flowering succulents and spiderwebs among them.
At eight hundred square feet, it was smaller than her last apartment, but the sound of her shoes on the hardwood floors gave her a sense that the space was hers. She signed her name on the dotted line and expunged, with a sigh of relief, three months’ worth of tension since her breakup with Jeff. Finally, a fresh start from her temporary backpedal through adulthood.
Melanie, a dark-haired accountant, moved to Santa Monica two years ago with Jeff, a light-haired engineer. They rented an apartment together two-and-a-half miles inland, where the wide streets got sootier and nearer the jam-packed freeway. Melanie complained that they lived just barely too far to walk to the beach. She rode the bus instead. But Jeff loved his tiny, fast car and always drove. Jeff scoffed at Melanie for taking the bus. He didn’t like the vagabonds passing their time riding back and forth through the city. They smelled horrible, he said.
Despite the drive, Melanie loved date nights on Ocean Avenue. Tourists from all over the world flocked to the pier. They brought their cameras out for pink sunsets and fresh-air selfies. Green bike lanes bordered a long, crunchy walking path at the top of muddy cliffs that led down to the beach below. After fish tacos, she and Jeff would stroll along the beach and watch the lights of the Ferris wheel go around and around until their parking meter ran out.
But two years after moving in together, the novelty of the pier wore off. Their date nights became less frequent until, one night, Jeff told Melanie he’d sworn off the pier for good. That night, walking in their best clothes on the beach path, a white van with an official symbol and black lettering blocked them from going any further. COUNTY CORONER, Melanie read on the van. She scanned her eyes from the precariously parked van to the caution tape, then to the bottom of a clump of palm trees. There in the sand, raggedy blankets piled up. A homeless, lifeless someone was underneath the blankets or already in the van, Melanie didn’t know.
She put one hand to her heart, and Jeff tugged at the other. She didn’t know how they found the body under that hoard of blankets, but they did, and Jeff had had enough. No more date nights on the beach. The homeless were everywhere but the beach is where they go to die, he said.
Well, I would too, Melanie thought but kept her mouth shut, as she was accustomed to with Jeff. She disapproved of his intolerance of the homeless and his swearing off the beach.
That night her mind floated upward to life fifteen miles inland, where living spaces were plastic tarps and ripped tents. Where blankets had holes and were also jackets. Where toilets were tall, blue plastic boxes the city slapped on a corner. Where sidewalks were neighborhoods and neighbors collected empty bottles, old shoes, and torn suitcases.
Sure, ride the bus to Santa Monica, Melanie thought. Why sit on a cramped curb or lumber around the outhouse? Life a bus ride away; to green streets and ocean bluffs, to unfamiliar languages, to air that smells of saltwater and seaweed.
She imagined what it would feel like without a home. Always sick or drugged, death constantly in your shadow. She wondered how the homeless felt when Jeff stepped in front of her on the sidewalks when he saw them. She wondered if the person under the blankets and palm trees felt their end coming and had one last curl-up against the sand.
Soon after that night the snowball of Melanie and Jeff’s relationship rolled faster downhill. It grew into a tense ball of dismissals and cheap shots. He complained about how the homeless spent their time. He complained about how Melanie spent her time. He complained about needing his time. Melanie heard it all until one night, in their apartment together, he complained about how Melanie used her body. It was the one secret she’d kept from him. She knew it would somehow determine the fate of their relationship. But it was time. She told him about the procedure she’d had early on in their relationship before they moved to Santa Monica.
Jeff spewed rage. His face twisted. Melanie didn’t want to see it. But when she did, she knew that brand of ugly had always been inside him. He could never trust her again, he said, and slammed the door behind him. Melanie didn’t know why she screamed after him to come back. She didn’t want him to.
It was a dry November weekend when Melanie moved in her desk, bookcase, lamps, and kitchen table. The bed-in-a-box was on its way. She swept up the cobwebs and the corners of dust that, in Santa Monica, were everywhere, left after the desert wind clashes with the ocean air. In one corner of the living room, she leaned on her broom and stared at the red-oak floor and smooth stucco walls. She’d have to get more furniture. Why she’d never thought about furniture before, she didn’t know. Probably because Jeff bought it all for their last place.
After the chaos of moving ebbed, Melanie’s routine flowed. After work she put on her flannel pajamas and cuddled up with a mug of tea. She relished the feeling of her nose up against the vapor, picturing the flowers and leaves she steeped and smelled.
Yet Melanie still wasn’t used to the blatant darkness at night, living alone. The hardwood floors creaked in the hallway to her bedroom and made her feel unsettled until she got to the light switch. One night, after a minty tea, Melanie stopped in the dark hallway. She thought she heard something but no, there was nothing. In her bedroom she got under the covers and checked her alarm.
Again, in the darkness, she heard it. A slow tap, tap, tap, like a single fingernail on glass. She sat up in bed and checked the window. A silhouette of a large bird of paradise met her eyes through the moonlight, swaying in the night’s dry wind. Melanie let out a tight breath. She listened again. She heard it, a slow, repeated tap. She thought the sink might be dripping. She’d have to get up. Her bare feet landed on the hardwood floor, and she played out the scenario in her mind as if Jeff were there. She pictured him lying in her bed, sneering. He’d laugh and say she was stupid for getting up. The dense blue hue of the room fuzzed the borders of him in her mind. He never did make her feel safe.
Tap, tap, tap.
She got up and clicked on every light switch on the way to the kitchen. The tapping got louder. Yes, a drip leak. She leaned her bedhead over the sink to see the faucet leaking right over the garbage disposal. Each drop fell sharply onto its blade. Tap, tap, tap.
Jeff would have said, “I told you so,” Melanie thought, tightening the faucet. She got back in bed and heard nothing but the light wind swirling past her window. She was glad Jeff wasn’t there.
You’re a woman now, Melanie, she told herself, head in her pillow. You face your own fears, kill your own spiders, and fix your own leaks. She added a call to her building manager to her mental to-do list and fell asleep.
A windy November folded into a chilly December, Melanie’s favorite time of year for its oversized scarves, though the long nights meant she got home from work in darkness when no palm trees towered above her, only streetlights. The early night made taking the trash out more of a task than she usually had energy for. She added extra work by separating the glass bottles to place alongside the trash bins in the alley for the homeless. She knew they came looking for them. When she woke up early for her weekend run, when the misty marine layer was fresh over the sidewalks, the homeless ambled down the alleys with lopsided shopping carts and black trash bags. They collected hidden gems from the Santa Monica trash and tossed bottles into their bags with the sound of glass clanking together, like the drop of a coin in a piggy bank.
The trash-bin alley was walled on each side with warped, wooden garage doors and crumbling asphalt. It was cold. Melanie, in a soft hoodie, loaded up her arms with a trash bag in one and empty wine bottles in the other. In the alley Melanie put her bottles down and lifted the brown lid of the bin to the wafting smell of old bananas. She held her breath and was about to toss the trash bag in when she heard an awful scream and a cascade of rolling glass.
“You gonna call the police? It’s a sidewalk! A sidewalk! You gotta let me sleep!” a woman bellowed.
Melanie heard anger, but was there also a plea hiding in the word “sleep”? It was defensive and scared, angry and desperate all at once. It was loud enough that Melanie thought she would have heard it from inside the bungalow. Surely other neighbors heard it too. And then Melanie winced with a pang of shame.
She pointed her nose away from the banana smell and tossed her trash in the bin. That poor woman, she thought. Another weary woman. Because Melanie knew that voice. Melanie used that voice too, once, that guttural scream. She pushed her straight black hair behind her ears and thought of her old neighbors two miles inland. She went back to that night in her mind when she told Jeff her secret, when he was disgusted by her and slammed the door. That night Melanie screamed after him, bellowed down the stairs of their second-story apartment. Like a toddler she screamed, pushing the air out from deep inside her belly. From the grass on the first floor, Jeff screamed back. The shame Melanie remembered, with everyone in the complex knowing “Jeff” on the second floor had a loud and needy girlfriend.
The homeless woman’s desperate scream echoed in her ears as she arranged the wine bottles in front of the bin. The woman had probably found a place to sleep in what she thought would be peace, away from the police. For, at sunset in the beach city, Melanie saw police cars roaming the streets, scouting for homeless, talking to them, kicking them out to somewhere else, some other place. Kicking the problem down the curb, Melanie thought. Someone in the neighborhood must have called the police on this woman. She wished her neighbors would let her be, with it being so cold. But if she knew anything about the neighborhood, she’d hear police sirens.
Melanie left the alley and walked back to the bungalow. She sat down with a mug of tea, Vanilla Orchid, and turned on her electric space heater. It was a glowing fireplace that warmed her feet on the ottoman. She slurped at her tea. She’d come a long way since Jeff, she thought. Thank goodness she held down her job through the breakup.
Then she heard sirens. Worried, Melanie got up and cracked the front door open to listen to the street’s sounds. Her nose tingled with the draft. No more screams. She hoped that woman found a place to sleep, away from prying eyes.
Melanie sat back down on her dark-green couch and put her feet on the ottoman, tired, when it started. A raucous, rattling, booming earthquake!
Melanie felt the deep jerking of the earth. It wasn’t a roll or a wave and it terrified her. It was a sharp up-and-down jolting. Plates, bowls, and cups flung out of their cupboards and crashed to the floor. She stood up but lost her balance in the jerking. As the TV fell off its stand, Melanie flung herself under the coffee table. The earth seesawed her apartment and, crouched on the floor with her hand over the back of her neck, she begged to nobody, No, no, no, not when I’m alone.
As the jolting continued, the screaming woman’s voice came back louder into her head. Melanie’s voice screamed with it under the wooden coffee table. The ground pushed against her knees like a great hammer pounded up from below. She squeezed her eyes shut and screamed with the homeless woman. Then she began to hear Jeff’s hoarse scream too. The ground shook harder. Furniture pounded against the walls. Melanie heard all three of them screaming together.
Jeff’s ugly face flashed into her mind. Like fire, he raged after she told him about the abortion. It was early on, she said. She’d just started studying for her CPA exams.
“Does my life mean nothing to you?”
“I will never trust you ever again!”
“Let me sleep!”
The dinner plates and wine glasses rattled on the floor until the pounding faded. It came back in twitches, like the earth’s dying breath, until it was over.
Melanie didn’t take her hand away from the back of her neck. She sat there, crouched on top of her knees.
This time she knew the screams weren’t only in her head. She heard her neighbors’ muffled screams. She heard sirens blasting past. It was dark. The power was out. She got up. She reached the front door. Her neighbors were out of their bungalows and on the lawn, looking dazed and shaken. Some clung to robes, some held blankets across their shoulders. Nobody had jackets. Few had shoes. They were to wait for the building manager before entering, in case of a gas leak.
Through red and blue flashes and sirens, Melanie stood on the dewy grass in her flannel pajamas and hoodie with her confused neighbors. There were cracks in the exterior walls, and the sidewalk buckled in places. They’d be outside for the night, the building manager told them. He had a checklist to get through. Melanie thought about calling Jeff, but no. She’d have to make herself feel safe. She could do that. But not her neighbors, it seemed. They were screaming at useless phones and demanding answers from the building manager. Why? Melanie thought. He couldn’t possibly have any answers. They were on their own, all of them on that cold grass. They were on their own without a home for the night.
© Elise Swanson Ochoa
Elise Swanson Ochoa’s work has been featured or is forthcoming in Los Angeles Poets for Justice, The Opiate, Packingtown Review, Potato Soup Journal, and Wrath-Bearing Tree. She holds a BA in Spanish and linguistics from UCLA and a Doctor of Optometry degree from Southern California College of Optometry. Elise is an optometrist for a multi-specialty clinic serving the farmworkers of rural Ventura County. She currently attends Creative Writing courses through UCLA Extension.