Chapter 1 Chapter 1
AUGUST 11, 2016
It’s school so it gets crowded, there’s noise. But even when it’s loud, it’s a healthy loud, people wanting to express their opinions. It’s a peaceful loud.
A young man wearing a navy blue collared shirt and khaki slacks walked north along Juniper Street. A light backpack was strapped tight to both shoulders, and he tucked a battered, much-decaled skateboard between his forearm and hip. His hair was carefully treated to form a slick vertical wave off his forehead, and he walked with a slight limp gained from a skate park crash the previous afternoon, his last of summer. He’d lost purchase on his board during that weightless instant between upward momentum and downward fall; he’d also heard a popping sound within his knee upon contact with the asphalt but thought little of it. His skin was bronzed by both his Mexican heritage and the myriad afternoons spent skating over the past June and July, and his body was lean and strong. At the corner of Juniper and 103rd Street, he tossed his board to the sidewalk pavement and jumped on in a fluid, propulsive motion. At seven thirty in the morning, the sun already blasted down at a steep slant and he quickly sweat through his shirt. The summer’s heat wave felt fixed and eternal. Gingerly, he pushed himself from his family’s current bungalow, past the bowed stucco apartment complex they used to live in and the lot where at another point they’d occupied a trailer home for a time (Tio had spent his entire life on Juniper Street). He proceeded in a stairway pattern alternately left and right, west and north, along busy Compton thoroughfares and quiet residential streets, passing the elementary school at Ninety-Second and Grape Street, then the tall electric towers standing over dense weed entanglements on Fir Avenue, the Rio Grande Market on Eighty-Eighth, the Church of God in Christ on Milner. Cars made hard right-on-red turns in front of him despite the solid white walk signs giving him the right of way. Soon he met the massive concrete anchors of the blue Metro line connecting downtown Los Angeles with Long Beach along Graham Avenue, and he made his way due north, parallel to the tracks, toward school.
Thousands of young men and women were making their way around the South LA gridwork of streets. Many, like Tio upon his skateboard, wore muted colors beneath their backpacks: navy and khaki, maroon and khaki, white and khaki. They were headed to school as well, usually moving in small groups for reasons pertaining to both companionship and safety. Others on the street wore baggy shorts and sleeveless undershirts, brightly colored baseball caps tipped at odd angles, and multiple tattoos to signify allegiances or aesthetics or both. If those guys were out this early, it meant they’d probably been out all night—working—and were on their way home to sleep, too exhausted to bother anyone. Traveling alone and by skateboard put Tio in an inherently vulnerable position in this stretch bridging the neighborhoods of Compton (where Tio lived), Lynwood, Watts, South Gate, and Florence-Graham (where Tio went to school). The in-between spaces made the dominant gang entities harder to ascertain. But he’d been getting to school this way since fifth grade, after he bought his first used board, much preferring the wobbly platform to the cramped, loud buses lumbering through Los Angeles traffic. Aside from witnessing a man take a fatal shot to the head from a car window when he was eleven (five steps away with a female friend, Tio had crouched and pushed her against the fence with his lanky fifth-grade body shielding her, relieved when the squeal of tires signaled the shooter’s flight), he’d never had any trouble beyond the occasional empty taunt. Schoolboys were mostly left alone. Even the most menacing types tended to be respectful if not admiring of the aspiration required for young people—mostly poor, mostly black or brown—to trek to school early each morning. If any sketchy person approached, Tio just said, humbly, “I don’t bang,” and kept rolling. Police had halted him now and again, as skateboarders were generally associated with drugs and truancy. Usually they would just ask if he’d seen any suspicious activity or tell him to stay in school, stay away from drugs and bad sorts, stay off the street after a certain hour: all the tired commands he’d been hearing since toddlerhood. He figured that throughout the course of his youth, ninety-nine out of one hundred transits had been uneventful, so Tio always moved casually in the context of the ninety-nine while maintaining a modest alertness for the prospect of the one.
At the Firestone Boulevard Metro station, dozens of teenagers wearing the same navy/khaki binary streamed down the steps from the elevated train stop, past a colorful mosaic wall depicting a human body in prayer. Tio pivoted through and around them across the intersection, sometimes playfully tapping the head of someone he knew. He rolled past a long row of small furniture restoration and auto repair storefronts, really just one-car garages open onto the street, facing the tracks, replete with detritus. A right on Eighty-Third Street followed by a quick left on Beach Street brought him to the front gate of the one-story, modern building that was Ánimo Pat Brown Charter High School. Students who’d already arrived kicked soccer balls or loitered in the narrow, paved space between the fence and the school’s glass door, or splayed themselves along the row of white picnic tables occupying the grassy side lot. The principal, an unflappable white man in his late thirties, gently ushered students inside with his kind, calm demeanor in advance of the shrill PA announcement indicating five minutes before first period.
Beach was a relatively quiet street, residential on the east side with single-story stucco bungalows on small plots sporting citrus trees, laundry lines, and the occasional fuselage of a decades-old car resting dormant. On the west side, where the school occupied the southern corner, stood a row of tall warehouses guarded by bent gates. A collarless Jack Russell wandered in and out of the driveways. The train tracks heading to and from downtown Los Angeles, four miles north, cut a graveled swath a few meters behind the school grounds.
Tio kicked up his board and limped inside. Ahead, he recognized a thicket of hair resembling an unmade bed atop a tall, wide, shambling frame. He yelled, “Yo, Luis, you got fleas in that thing, bro!”
Luis turned around, gave him the finger, and replied, “You know that because you can hear them talking?” This dig was in reference to Tio’s large, protruding ears. He had heard variations of the same joke since elementary school, including from elementary school teachers, and found them uncreative. He didn’t even bother with a rejoinder.
“Why you limping, bro?” Luis asked with more humor than concern.
“Ah, I fucked up my knee. Like maybe I severed some nerves or something? It’s fine.”
“People get surgery for that.”
“Nah, nah, I’m good.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Carlos whispered to Tio in AP Calculus class later that morning.
“I’m sorry, man. I just can’t handle that it’s August eleventh,” Tio replied, exasperated. “They can’t even say school starts in mid-August anymore. This is early August.” He shook his head in unaffected grief, big ears rotating side to side. “I’m just not down with this.”
Two hours into the year, they’d all gained a foreknowledge that the novelty of new classes and teachers would stale by the end of the week, and thirty-five more weeks would follow, and Tio could not help but express his dismay—his exhaustion with being seventeen—vocally. (Tio knew this wasn’t a charming quality of his.)
“Just chill,” Carlos said. He was slight in stature, five foot four with narrow shoulders. The growth spurts that had elevated Tio and Luis and so many others toward six feet and beyond since ninth grade had passed him over, and presumably wouldn’t loop back around since he was already taller than his father. His voice was slight as well, though he deployed it with authority: “Pay attention.”
“You’re just as depressed as me, admit it.”
Carlos paused before saying, a little mournfully, “Yeah, I am.”
Tio kept muttering jokes under his breath, trying to make proximate kids laugh; Carlos knew that this was what Tio did when the material or something else caused him stress. He elbowed Tio gently and told him to shut up, again.
“But we’re talking about rate of volume change in a can of soda—what does that have to do with anything in life?”
“That’s a good point.”
“But you still gotta quit fucking around.”
“What would you do without me fucking around?” Tio asked. “You’d be so neglected and sad.”
“And I would have finished this problem set fifteen minutes ago.”
A week earlier, Carlos had been walking around the familiar streets of his Compton neighborhood with his older brother, Jose. They were wearing street clothes, eating fast food, in no rush to be anywhere or do anything, lamenting the end of summer while talking about girls and music, the school year ahead and the things each needed to organize in order to be semiprepared. His brother’s company had always had a grounding effect on him, and so in their light talk he could harbor a sense of confident equanimity with the moment he inhabited, this quite lazy and aimless moment on the precipice of the most consequential stretch of school—and hence life—thus far. He had a premonition that elements would align over the course of the year, and high school would pass him over to a college that suited him in a very simple progression. In odd moments, usually alone, a small pressure lanced his chest as he wondered if all the potential he’d amassed during his first eleven years of school would prove illusory in the end for a kid who, from the perspective of any ignorant person driving past on Central Avenue, might well be dismissed as “just another Mexican without a real job.”
Such a person wouldn’t know, for instance, that he’d just spent three weeks at a Brown University academic camp taking college-level instruction, sleeping in his own room, meeting bright kids his age from all over the world. The time hadn’t necessarily changed his life—it was just more school, far away—but it had proffered a glimpse into the human reach of the planet beyond South Los Angeles. He’d befriended a boy of Chinese descent who, having grown up in Alabama, spoke with the deepest of Southern drawls. He’d met white people who seemed genuinely interested in knowing him better, and were genuinely interesting once he came to know them better. He marveled at peers discussing immigration policy in lengthy detail who didn’t seem to know who Cesar Chavez was. He’d turned in work to professors famous in their various, highly specific fields. He’d won a $30 bet that a preppy classmate would not only buy a bag of crushed kale posing as marijuana, but would smoke it and fail to notice the difference. And he had come home from Rhode Island with a long-distance girlfriend, his first.
Such a person also wouldn’t know that his older brother walking beside him was about to begin his sophomore year at Yale.
Now his last high school summer had ended, and Jose had left again for New Haven, and Carlos finished his first, light homework assignments at the kitchen table in the compact backyard shack his family had been renting for ten years. Textbook notes for government, a sheet of equations for calculus, a chapter summary for English, reading about the structure of matter for chemistry, all of it basically interesting and conceptually simple for him, beginning-of-the-year stuff. Throughout, his phone dinged with Facebook direct messages and group chats, friends either asking for help on math or else transmitting inane, usually vulgar memes.
Then he opened a folder that contained form I-821D and its dense thicket of accompanying documents, which his school advisers had been helping him compile. In addition to a photocopy of his Washington State driver’s license (Washington had a much more lenient ID process than California, so he and his brother had been licensed there: a sixteen-hour drive each way upon their respective sixteenth birthdays), most of the documents were school attendance records exhumed from the file cabinets of his elementary, middle, and high schools. He’d also gathered what records he could of doctor appointments, national exams, awards that he’d won, proof of extracurriculars like mock trial, Students Run LA, Minds Matter—essentially any official piece of paper bearing his name and a date in order to prove his continuous presence and schooling in the United States. Even though his parents had been as meticulous as they were capable of in keeping track of paper over the years, the gathering process had been arduous and basically a full-time job over the summer.
His sister, a seventh-grader, deferred her own homework by watching TV in the adjacent living room and fussing incessantly with her eyebrows—always her eyebrows, plucking, combing, lining. His father, having just gotten home from his job driving a delivery truck around the mammoth Chutes and Ladders board that was Los Angeles, tended to a pot of ravioli. His mother was working her three p.m.–to–eleven p.m. shift as a dispatcher for a different delivery company. Their home was somewhat removed from the street and its invasive noises. Even so, the firecrackers that blew up four or five times each night felt like they’d been set off right in their yard; Carlos had never understood the fondness Latino men maintained for their recreational explosives. All his life, they’d interrupted his homework on a nightly basis. Tonight was no different as he neared completion of his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals application, about the size and weight of a standard college packet. The stack of documents held such promises as the ability to work for wages and apply for federal college financial aid and to no longer endure the good-natured yet really-fucking-irritating jokes his friends made constantly about his status. Yet DACA also meant formally declaring his illegality while sharing with federal authorities the home address and places of employment of his parents. Deportation efforts were supposedly focused on the criminally inclined, but they’d been applied to people he knew: expulsion without warning, sometimes in the middle of the night, neighbors who had children in school and paid taxes, like his family.
His older brother had received his Dreamer status last year so that he could work at a data analytics company over the summer rather than manual-labor jobs in area warehouses as he’d always done before. Jose’s application had been processed within two months, and no one dressed in black, bearing holstered firearms, had come to their door. So Carlos and his parents, after much recent dinner discussion, had decided that the potential benefits outweighed the risks. He’d communicated the decision to the school faculty, and they’d supported him through the technical process. Once submitted later this month, the mysterious standby period would settle in. All of his fellow seniors would spend much of this year waiting for colleges and universities to inform them as to their deemed worth or lack thereof. In Carlos’s case, these universities would be among the most prestigious in the world. But because he’d been brought to the country a few months after he was born instead of a few months before, and thus was still here illegally seventeen years later, he would also be waiting for the United States government to inform him as to whether or not he could be called an American—well, not quite “American,” but something adjacent, something temporarily legal. He hoped that this particular wait would not be a long one.
The windows were open and a nocturnal breeze had mercifully kicked up, but the residual heat from the day caused sweat to fall from his brow onto the papers that he filled out methodically, checking and rechecking each entry, as Carlos did in all things.
A tall, lanky, pale-skinned teenager lurked near the portal to the swimming pool, wearing a Speedo swimsuit and nothing else. A water polo game was in play, the first of the fall season. At a certain point, with the ball live on the far side of the twenty-five-meter pool, this kid crept across the beige deck tiles and then paused a moment on the pool’s edge, the way comedians sometimes do before delivering a punch line. He jumped into the water sideways and upside down. He was capable of swimming skillfully, but he chose to doggie-paddle around in a circle. The spectators—fourteen or fifteen parents in the stands—didn’t seem to notice as they alternately watched their children and intently tapped cell phones. He did some splashing for the benefit of the camera: a friend was filming this stunt. He spit water in a weak arc like a fountain statue. He back-floated. Then an intercepted pass led to a thrashing of swimmers in his direction. Now people began to see him and he felt their eyes. The time had come to exit the pool, and he did. His longish sandy-blond hair was matted down over his face, and his body shivered slightly as a coach stalked toward him.
“What are you doing?” the coach asked.
“I’m on the team,” the boy replied.
“No you’re not.”
“I’m on the JV,” he amended.
“I’m the JV coach!”
A moment passed while the coach simmered. Then this prankster, Owen, cocked his head slightly to the side and extended his forearms palms-upward in a sign of low-level contrition. “Okay, look, I played freshman year.”
“But you’re not on the team.”
“So… what were you doing in the pool during a varsity game?”
“I just had to do this.”
“I’m sorry, I just had to.”
The words didn’t make sense to the adult, who maybe even half-smiled at the inexplicable nonsense of children. He jabbed a thumb toward the bleachers. “Just get off the deck.”
As he walked away, Owen received a thumbs-up from his friend, indicating that the video was saved and Instagrammable. Still wearing the Speedo and now a towel over his shoulders, Owen ascended into the bleachers and sat apart from the crowd, on a wet bench in a growing puddle of water. He parted his hair from over his eyes and put his glasses on and watched the coaches shout and point while the players splashed around seriously, and he remembered his own brief, unhappy water polo career, which had begun and ended during his freshman year three years ago—a lot of treading water interspersed with typically fruitless bursts of effort and the occasional fingernail gash across his shoulder or knee jab to the crotch. He didn’t know why he’d ever played in the first place. Freshman year, he’d wanted to join a bunch of things before realizing that joining things for the sake of joining had little value when it came to passage through high school—though obviously much value when it came to college admissions. He was aware that today’s shenanigans had no value at all to anything.
He’d entered his last year of high school with the goal of creating a “senioresque” experience. The goal was not couched in grandiose terms; he didn’t want to become part of Beverly Hills High School lore by any stretch and didn’t care if future seniors mentioned his name breathlessly two or three years from now: “Remember when Owen…?” “Wasn’t that Owen who…?” He didn’t even care about having vivid stories to tell at future reunions that he might or might not attend. He simply had realized that this was the final segment of a certain fleeting time of life, and he was compelled to create a few loony memories now—ones that might somehow stand out from the malaise of classes and the indistinguishable afternoons in basements with friends—rather than grow older retrospectively picking apart scenarios in which he could have created them, could have done something interesting or funny, but didn’t. Doggie-paddling in the middle of a water polo game was not something he would have conceived of doing any other year. The exercise was pointless and a little bratty, self-consciously clownish, disrespectful to players and coaches. He might not remember it anyway. Then again, he might, during some odd moment in the life ahead, flash upon that minute spent in the pool, summon the video from a computer drive, and smile. The prospect of such a moment felt worth the effort and embarrassment.
“What are you doing?” Another incredibly assertive and gravelly male voice, clearly directed at him.
Owen turned around. He assumed the voice belonged to some parent irked by his violation of the game’s sanctity, but behind him was the athletic director, wearing his usual reflective sunglasses and suit beneath crew-cut silver hair. “I’m watching the water polo game,” Owen replied.
“You can’t do that!”
“I have no other obligations right now.” Though Owen didn’t surf, he had a surf bum’s cadence, with drawn-out vowels and accented syllables that meandered up and down in half octaves.
The AD crossed his thick forearms. “You’re not wearing a shirt.”
“Why’s your shirt off?”
“It just is. I’m wet.”
“You can’t have your shirt off here.”
“But this is a pool. We’re watching a water polo game.” He kept his voice, as best he could, earnestly observational, not overtly smug, as he gestured toward the team benches below, where twenty teenaged boys leaned forward on their knees with towels draped on shoulders, all of them shirtless and pale, just like Owen. And just like Owen, the AD seemed to have realized that this dialogue had drawn on far longer than its content merited.
“Just get a shirt on or get out,” he said, and walked away.
Jon was still in school as dusk fell. Something about being at school hours after others had left was empowering to him. The hallways felt wider and taller, the classrooms with their bulletin boards of student work somehow more solemn. Even the posters on the walls advertising school spirit in ubiquitous, brightly colored phrases seemed to hold more power than they did during the crowded, frenetic days. Though Jon was familiar with all the various sectors of the school from having spent nearly six hundred days of his life there, the place still felt explorable when it was empty.
He wasn’t the only one here, of course. Maintenance staff vacuumed and mopped, the security guard made slow periodic sweeps, teachers and administrators worked late, athletes remained out on the lit football field and inside the gymnasium. And the Beverly Hills High Academic Decathlon team secluded themselves on the second floor of the science center.
Aca Deca comprised nine teenagers from all four grades who had committed to staying after school every day throughout the year, sometimes for five or six hours, in order to study—not for standardized tests or AP exams, but to gain comprehensive knowledge of a randomly generated subject each year. Jon’s freshman year, the subject had been World War I. Sophomore year it was new alternatives in energy. Junior year, India. This year they were immersing themselves in the art, literature, music, economics, and even mathematics of World War II. George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” played while the teammates quizzed one another on the nuclear physics that determined the war’s Pacific front. To Jon, Aca Deca was a kind of celebration of nerddom, undertaken for no extra credit or tangible benefit except for a modest addition to one’s college application. It was also an insulated venue in which to commune with like-minded peers, procrastinate, and be somewhere other than home. A great deal of giggling emanated from that room—high-pitched, staccato giggling, the kind most often heard from very young children caught up in some fresh delight, the kind that was easily ridiculed in a wider school setting but cherished here with this core group of outliers.
His father was waiting in his Hyundai outside at eight fifteen that evening; Jon usually rode the bus home but his father picked him up when he could. The sky above Moreno Drive was a deep, dark blue. The traffic lines on the nearby thoroughfares of Santa Monica Boulevard, Olympic Boulevard, and Century Park East sounded their many horns, fiercely protesting the basic reality of a city with too many cars and not enough lanes. But the plot of land occupied by the high school, with its curved sidewalks and clock tower and adjacent stadium lights, felt generally calm—incubated, somehow, from the surrounding madness of tens of thousands of people trying to get from one place to another at exactly the same time.
Jon and his father talked about baseball for most of the short ride home, using a residential street to evade the worst of the traffic, stopping and starting at the signs every block for a mile along with other in-the-know or Waze-influenced drivers. They crossed La Cienega Boulevard and passed La Cienega Park, composed of three baseball diamonds where, years ago, Jon’s father had taught him to throw and catch. Naturally, the ball play had been accompanied by visions of accomplishing great feats of skill at the plate and in the field, leading future teams to many dominant victories. Now, in the last year of his playing career, he remained primarily on the JV team (technically, he was varsity, but his loaded afternoon schedule for the most part precluded practicing with them; he went to varsity games when he could) and lacked the size, speed, and fast-twitch muscle fibers to ever be better than a bit below average; baseball was yet another thing that Jon participated in, was okay at, and loved. And the game was an easy channel of conversation with his father—one of the few they seemed able to carry with constancy year by year. Baseball was one of the easiest subjects in the world to talk about, so it was mostly what they talked about together on this particular commute, and on any commute. They turned left on Gale Drive and parked in the lot beneath the wide, blockish condominium complex where Jon had grown up. The building stood on the very last, easternmost city block within the Beverly Hills school district, which was the reason Jon’s parents had first placed a down payment on the compact two-bedroom on the third floor just before Jon started elementary school. Like thousands of local families, his had chosen to spend much of their income on a modest unit (that they were still paying off) within one of the most expensive zip codes in the country, giving up space and disposable cash for the guarantee of a good, free primary education. Jon was reminded of this sacrifice constantly and from all angles. Its resulting claustrophobia had in some ways defined his youth.
His mother was on the couch watching news on Chinese television while simultaneously texting with friends and relations in the motherland. An aromatic stir-fry dinner was still warm in the pan. Jon began unpacking books onto his desk in the corner of what was designed to be a small dining room but was used by his family as a multipurpose office and music room. While his father (a low-key, nonpracticing Jew) began watching YouTube clips of classic rock concerts, his mother detached from her phone in order to make Jon a plate and then, while he was a captive eater, intensively interview him.
In Chinese, she asked rapid-fire questions that, as ever, revolved around academics: math, physics, English, statistics. The year was too young for specific numbers to be raised, such as test scores and his GPA, but those would soon enough become the focus of her inquiry. For now, she desired to know precisely what he was learning and how well he was learning it. Jon was well aware that, like many Asian parents, she was highly concerned about his grades. He also knew that, beyond grades, she viewed school as the sole conduit through which she could relate to her son and show sincere interest in his life (she had only a minimal understanding of baseball and zero appreciation of rock music). Still, he had little stamina to rehash the day that had just unremarkably unfolded, and he gave mostly one-word answers until the dialogue naturally trailed off. The act of explaining—and justifying—his existence was a fundamental rhythm of life that most teenagers shared, he figured, but he also figured that few were obliged to do so with the acute constancy that he was. Caught in the complicated rubric of trying to ward off her interest without seeming to condescend, he simply wished that he were back in school.